The October Country: Oct. 24th: “When the Clock Strikes” by Tanith Lee

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 24:

When the Clock Strikes by Tanith Lee

Found In:

Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural (edited by Marvin Kaye)

Opening Line:

“Yes, the great ballroom is filled only with dust now.”

There’s something about retellings of fairy tales. So many of us grew up on the Disney rendition only, and getting a different (especially a darker) view is a distinct pleasure. I think for man Americans, perhaps more than in other countries, the first introduction to the work of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson is a real eye-opener.

But this dark little gem is quite a few shades blacker than even those fabled collectors of unpleasant folk tales.

Lee begins with a description of a castle and a ballroom, some two hundred years after the decline of the great city in which they reside. This once-thriving city was, in years past, overseen by a grand Duke, who it was rumored had attained his power and wealth by stealthily murdering all who stood before him and the throne.

“He had accomplished the task slyly, hiring assassins talented with poisons and daggers. but rumor also declared that the Duke had not been sufficiently thorough. For though he had meant to rid himself of all that rival house, a single descendant remained, so obscure he had not traced her–for it was a woman.”

Unfortunately for the Duke, not just any woman. No, this gal was a Satan-worshiping witch. And a clever witch at that. She practiced her dark arts carefully, and she hid herself well, marrying a rather dimwitted but successful merchant. Together, they had a child, which the woman raised to follow in her footsteps.

For fourteen years, the merchant never suspects a thing. But, as was bound to happen sooner or later, one night he comes home and stumbled upon his wife and daughter spinning some spooky spells up in the high tower of the house. Like any decent husband, he immediately runs for the authorities and comes back with a torch-hoisting mob.

“Listen to me, my daughter,” she cried, “and listen carefully, for the minutes are short. If you do as I tell you, you can escape their wrath and only I need die. And if you live I am satisfied, for you can carry on my labor after me. My vengeance I shall leave you, and my witchcraft to exact it by.”

Which is more or less how it goes. The wife stabs herself in the heart, and the girl pretends to have been in a trance. She is readily believed, and ever afterward, she pretends to be in penance for her transgression (trance or not). She robes herself in rags and stumbles throughout the streets of town year after year like a beggar, wiping ash and grime all over herself to mask her beauty. And slowly, the city forgets about her.

The merchant remarries. Enter step-mother and step-sisters. Who, unlike the Disney version you remember so well, are kind and decent and try their damnedest to get their new step-sister to stop rolling around in the streets and put on some nice clothes.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the Duke bites the dust. Not a natural death.

“Then, one night, the Duke screamed out in his bed. Servants came running with candles. The Duke moaned that a sword was transfixing his heart, an inch at a time. The prince hurried into the chamber, but in that instant the Duke spasmed horribly and died. No mark was on his body. There had never been a mark to show what ailed him.”

Two guesses, but you’ll only need one.

About that prince, though.

“The prince was nineteen, able, intelligent, and of noble bearing. He was of that rather swarthy type of looks one finds here in the north, but tall and slim and clear-eyed. There is an ancient square where you may see a statue of him, but much eroded by two centuries, and the elements. After the city was sacked, no care was lavished upon it.”

The prince mourns his fathers death, while the young witch who engineered the Duke’s death through Black Magic continues to plot her revenge. For she is not satisfied with only the death of the Duke.

The prince’s name day comes round, and he determines to hold a grand royal ball. All the fine ladies from the realm will be invited. I imagine you’ve heard this part of the story before, so you know how it goes.

All the ladies come. Including the young witch, who pretends to have no interest, but, after her step-sisters have left the house, conjures some black bibbity-bobbity-boo and makes herself up as the hottest chick in town. She attends the ball, and lo and behold, the prince is enamored with her and only her.

But as the clock strikes the final tones of the evening, she reveals her true self:

“At the eighth and the ninth strokes, the strength of the malediction seemed to curdle his blood. He shivered and his brain writhed. At the tenth stroke, he saw a change in the loveliness before him. She grew thinner, taller. At the eleventh stroke, he beheld a thing in a ragged black cowl and robe. It grinned at him. It was all grin below a triangle of sockets of nose and eyes. At the twelfth stroke, the prince saw Death and knew him.”

And then–poof–the young witch vanishes, leaving behind (you guessed it) a single glass slipper.

The prince, obsessed now in spite of his vision of death, roams the countryside forcing every woman in the land to try on the glass slipper. Of course, it fits no one. And in his obsession, he fails to properly manage his kingdom, which is always a poor choice. For his betrayers eventually catch up to him, setting a trap and murdering him on the road.

And the witch’s vengeance is complete.

Cue Disney music. Curtain.


More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 


In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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