I don’t know shit about art, but I know what I like. I didn’t like Pick’s art in the least. I’m not talking about his day-to-day photography—man could shoot a soup can or naked girl as well as any New York pro—I’m talking about his digital “fine” art… and, yeah, the Ghoul Girl. I’ll get to her.
Pick’s stuff made my skin crawl, and I’m as much a horror head as you can get. But fans of the sick stuff dug it, so I’d buy it, use it for cover art.
Pick’s style falls somewhere between Michael Garlington and Joel-Peter Witkin. Twisted portraits with the intimacy of Arbus and Cameron, and freaky people too, but Photoshopped to a monstrous degree. He was way creepier than Alfrey or Potter, and something in his unflinching eye just made your guts churn. Really played up his family name, Pickman, affecting a Lovecraftian demeanor, though at close to three hundred pounds and bearded, Pick looked more like a leather bear than the Old Man of Providence. Personally, I never much cared for Lovecraft—though I could watch Re-Animator over and over—between his purple prose, his racism, and his utter terror of tuna fish sandwiches, the Old Man leaves me cold, but there’s always an audience for tentacles and terror. Pick was willing to exploit that. And, as you can tell from the stuff I publish, so was I.
Smilin’ Necrophile Press was doing okay, not Stephen King numbers, mind you, but decent enough sales to keep me in cigarettes and bourbon. Bill Roth’s Doctor Tallow had gone three printings—Cripes! The cover on that one gives me the willies—and the Mathis collection had grabbed a star in PW. But then the big book crash happened. Boom! Man cannot drink himself into a stupor on direct sales alone, so I decided to diversify and produce something unabashedly commercial: smut. With a horror twist. I put together Organ Grinder, a glossy spank book for gorehounds. Pick and I planned out the first three issues over fried pickles, sliders, and beer at the local Hooters, where he was a regular. I ran the numbers as he ogled and flirted with the waitress, a cute little dark-haired thing named Aimee he always encouraged me to overtip. A month or so later, when it came time to shoot the pictorials, I brought in a bunch of Porn Valley girls, Vivianne Vid regulars, to dress up as victims and final girls, corpse-kissers and necro witches, and I hired Pick—and a couple other photographers—to shoot them.
The first three issues sold out in preorders, and I felt like I’d come up with a license to print money, but the third issue stalled for three months because the printer freaked out over a shoot Pick did with the Siamese twins—Cass and Hell—and Big Bobby Blaque wearing a Baphomet goat-head mask. Racist prick. I pulled the files and found a different place to print the book, but while I was wheel-spinning and tearing out my hair over that, the yawning Rue Murder review of the second issue hit. Which got me thinking. I needed something new for the fourth issue. Something completely different. So I hit up Pick one night when I was out at his warehouse studio by the old cemetery.
And that’s when Pick showed me the Ghoul Girl.
She was…. Where do I start? She was emaciated, like one of those Jewish girls in that book of war atrocities Benny Finkman used to charge the neighborhood kids a quarter to peek at. Ashen, with long, broken fingernails. Her mouth was…. You’ve seen the pictures. Pulled-back, cleft-palate lips exposing sharp and canine teeth. Breck Girl black hair, throwing it all into contrast. And those eyes, looking accusingly into the camera lens like she was looking into your soul. She was chained, spiked dog collar around her neck, to a bare-mattressed metal bedframe. A yellow plastic bucket sat nearby on the floor.
I felt like throwing up as Pick flipped through the high-definition pictures on his tablet. The Ghoul Girl sprawled spread-eagle on the bed, the Ghoul Girl gnawing gristle on a bone, the Ghoul Girl working the barren bone between her legs…
“Jesus, fuck,” I remember choking. “This is some serious serial killer shit.”
Pick grinned. “Photoshop and magic dust. She’s CG. Totally virtual. Designed her with the help of a couple of freaks I know in Croatia. Gives you the kind of hard-on you want to hit with a hammer, right?”
I nodded at this, a little numb, the taste of bile in my mouth. Pick quickly flipped through the pictures, fingering his way through one abhorrent image after another. He turned the tablet back to me. The picture was of the Ghoul Girl straddling a giant inflatable pickle, a cowboy hat in her raised hand. “This one’s my favorite,” said Pick.
I felt like laughing. And retching. Then nearly jumped put of my skin as a scurrying, scratching sound moved across the room.
“Rats. In the walls,” chuckled Pick. He handed me the tablet, clambered out of his chair. “Excuse me a sec.”
I looked through the pictures until Pick came back, maybe ten minutes later. There was a distant crash and some thumping, then Pick stepped back into the room. He had a dishrag wrapped around his left hand. “Little bitch bit me,” he said, miming a strangulation with his right. “But I showed her. Fucking rats.”
“Jesus! You need me to run you to the hospital? Damn thing might have had rabies.”
“Naw. I put some hydrogen peroxide on it. I’ll be fine. What do you think of my Ghoul Girl? I can make her do whatever I want. Will the gorehounds like her?”
They did. They fucking loved the Ghoul Girl. The next three issues—the last three issues—all featured the Ghoul Girl prominently. Issue four featured the best of the pics Pick showed me in the warehouse—the bed and bucket photos, what Pick called the “Rape Room” set. Issue five was a girl/girl set with the Ghoul Girl going down on—and ultimately eating—Brittany Blaze. I watched Pick shoot Brittany’s session; her partner had been Carlotta Cream in a green Morphsuit. Standard Karo Syrup and food coloring special effects. The rest was, as Pick put it, Photoshop and magic dust.
I put the Ghoul Girl on the cover of issue six. The pictorial was a cemetery scene, the Ghoul Girl unearthing a grave, gnawing the flesh off some young stud’s face. It’s the issue that just came out, the one that got the cops involved, because of the kid’s resemblance to that college basketball player who’d croaked on the court a few weeks back. The cops started threatening lawsuits and exhumations, so I called Pick—this was last Wednesday—and told him we needed to hold a press conference, reveal that the Ghoul Girl and her victim were just visual trickery, virtual puppets. He agreed with me, said I should come over in the morning.
Thursday morning I got the phone call. Pick was dead. Coward’s way out. Shot himself in the front seat of his VW in the goddamn Hooters parking lot. Left a note apologizing to me. “For everything.” I spent three hours at the cop station, answering questions, making statements, drinking shitty coffee. They asked me about scratches on Pick’s face, about blood on his clothes that wasn’t his. I told them I didn’t know anything. They let me go at noon, so I headed down to Pick’s place, figured I’d beat the cops inside, check his computers, gather the evidence I needed to prove the Ghoul Girl was just a fucked-up cluster of zeroes and ones.
I got in easy. I have a key. Pick’s computers lay smashed around the warehouse. He’d gone to town on the works with a Louisville Slugger, which protruded from the face of Pick’s smashed monitor. I swore, sat down in my usual chair. Shortly, I noticed Pick’s tablet, a deep scratch across its face but otherwise undamaged, on the floor nearby. I picked it up, turned it on.
The photo on the screen showed the Ghoul Girl, chained to the bed in the Rape Room, looking angrily into the camera. Unlike the first pics, there was now a greenscreen in view, and green-painted boxes lay scattered around. On the floor was the young man’s half-eaten body. As I wondered why there would be greenscreen props in a virtual shoot, I heard the ratscrabble scraping sounds again. Different. Louder. I set down Pick’s tablet. Got up. Followed the noise.
In Pick’s dirty kitchen, the smell hit me. Ever leave a package of ham in the back of your refrigerator for a few months? It was that, but worse. Rot and soil and chemicals and….
The sound came again. Louder. I looked in its direction. The pantry door hung open, slightly.
I opened it. I’m not sure why I opened it. I’m not sure why I didn’t just leave.
It wasn’t a pantry cabinet. It was a door. Rough wooden stairs led down into darkness. The sound came again. Metal on concrete, a dry gasp accompanying it.
I felt the wall, found a switch. Flipped it on.
The twisty-bulb, like a barren, inverted ice-cream cone, stuttered into life.
Something rasped. I heard again the sound of metal on concrete, metal on metal.
I descended, wishing I’d grabbed the ballbat.
Rats. In the walls.
I reached the bottom stair. The light spilling from the stairwell failing to illuminate the room below. Except for something just barely emerging from the corner of the darkness. Something rounded… and green.
A pickle? The pickle from Pick’s favorite photo?
“Hello?” I called, but silence answered. I stepped out of the too-small protective circle of light, feeling the wall for a light switch.
Finding one, I tripped it, throwing the room into bright, high-definition relief.
There was the greenscreen. The props. The bed. The rotting, partially-eaten body.
The Ghoul Girl at the center of the room. She bared her teeth at me. She screamed.
I stepped back, tripping over that ridiculous fucking pickle. Smashed my head against the concrete floor. I blacked out for a second, then scurried back, crab-crawling to the wall beneath the light switch. The Ghoul Girl, chain taut between her collar and the metal bed frame, reached out her hands, straining against her restraint. The bedframe screeched as she pulled it forward an inch. Another inch. She worked her ruined mouth, drooling, gasping, as she pulled.
Rats in the walls. My ass.
I did what any sane man would do. I called the fucking cops. Then I gave her my coat.
Her nakedness covered, the girl dropped to the floor, shielded her face with her claw-like hands, weeping.
“I’m sorry,” I said, over and over. “I’m sorry.” Until the sirens grew loud. Until the wooden stairs resounded with the sounds of heavy boots and barking German Shepherds.
You know what happened next. The seventy-two hours of revelations. The identification, the diagnosis, the quarantines. The previously-unseen and virulent strain of porphyria. The drugs: ecstasy, scopolamine, and krokodil, in doses that could turn anybody into a ravenous sex zombie. The Croatian connection; the worldwide arrests. The nineteen-year-old Hooters girl who’d been missing for eight months, poor little lost Aimee.
The press started calling Pick the “Ghoulmaster.” Pondering my complicity in the case. The death threats came next. I’m shuttering Smilin’ Necrophile. I’m not sure I’ll ever smile again.
For nearly a decade, I’ve published extreme horror. Monsters, murders, and mayhem. I’ve always rationalized it, saying that horror was cathartic, a necessary release. A societal safety valve. That there are no real monsters.
But there are. Oh God, are there.
And sometimes we look them in the eye, and they lie to us, telling us exactly what we want to hear.
Ross E. Lockhart is an author, anthologist, editor, and publisher. A lifelong fan of supernatural, fantastic, speculative, and weird fiction, Lockhart is a veteran of small-press publishing, having edited scores of well-regarded novels of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
Lockhart edited the anthologies The Book of Cthulhu I and II, Tales of Jack the Ripper, and The Children of Old Leech (with Justin Steele). He is the author of Chick Bassist. Lockhart lives in an old church in Petaluma, California, with his wife Jennifer, hundreds of books, and Elinor Phantom, a Shih Tzu moonlighting as his editorial assistant.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.