An Unnatural History

Short Story | Horror | 3,500 words

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The Horniman Museum and Gardens, Forest Hill, London.

I wrote this story a few years ago around hallowe’en. It takes a critical look at the colonialist history and dodgy science of cherished British institutions.

I love the Horniman Museum and want to stress that I do not share all of the views presented in this short story! In real life the Horniman does a great job of decolonialising its exhibits. Check out their website here.

Content Warning for horror, suspense, and gore. The Horniman Museum is partly an ethnographical institution, and this story portrays a cavalier attitude to indigenous artefacts in order to critique that attitude.

When I first moved down to London, I did so fully expecting to find work at the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. Like many evolutionary biologists before me, that hallowed building sparked off an insatiable passion in my young self—a desire to totally comprehend the natural world and its mysteries. Unlike the Victorian scholars who set up that palace of learning, I have never carried the inclination to catalogue and quantify. My leaning was more towards a holistic understanding on Nature—an understanding that allows for unknown and un-knowable factors. I wanted—and still want—to grasp the essence and spirit of the savage wilds, not to tame them, but to revel in their spiritual freedom.

It was with a heavy heart and a light wallet that I applied for work at several lesser institutions than that in Kensington. Economic pressures on twenty-somethings are singularly severe, and the price of living in the city can be extortionate. So it was that I found myself trudging up an unexpected hill somewhere in South London towards the outlandishly eclectic buildings of the H— Museum (here redacted for fear of reprisals). The weather was unseasonably cold, even for late October. I had on my long black coat and lumberjack hat, all covering an ensemble which was carefully designed to be just formal enough for a job interview and just fashionable enough to show I knew what it was to be young in London. The trees had lost their joyful autumn oranges and now stood wet and yellow, with half of their foliage festering on the sodden floor. At the top of the hill the trees cleared to reveal what on most days would have been a tremendous view. Today the not-so-distant tower blocks were cut off by a blanket of clouds, and whatever lay beyond them was totally smothered.

In the modern, glass-fronted entrance I was relieved to find somebody waiting for me. She was short and contained, with black thick-rimmed glasses and long dark hair, which she clearly wrestled with on a regular basis. Today it was clipped up in an uneasy bind—a shaky truce which could give way at any second. She introduced herself as Dr. Imogen Saraswati, Evolutionary Biology Lead at the Museum. The time was just after four, the sun was beginning to fail already, and the staff were preparing to close. Despite being a school holiday, the weather had kept away the hordes of kids, and Dr. Saraswati offered to give me a guided tour before my interview with the Director.

I nodded obligingly as we observed the ethnographical exhibits—musical instruments and icons from innumerable tribes across several continents. My forced attention was beginning to wane when Dr. Saraswati’s tone took an unexpected turn.

“It is, of course, horrendous,’ she said, with a surprising edge in her voice, “ripping these artefacts from their rightful homes and displaying them here like a cabinet of oddities.” She was breathing more heavily than before, which was my only visual clue that she was passionate about this subject, as her general demeanour had not changed. “It’s almost as if they want you to analyse and catalogue these tribespeople the same way we analyse and catalogue sub-species of animals.”

I wasn’t sure what to think. It may have been a test, in which case it would be better to argue against her. Although if these really were her private thoughts of the topic, I had better agree or risk the rage I sensed under her controlled exterior. She imperceptibly lifted herself back into professional formality.

“Speaking of sub-species, let’s view the Animal Hall.”

~

She seemed glad I appreciated her humour. Neither of us smiled.

One could barely hope for a more prestigious place of work. Shaped similarly to the main hall at the Kensington museum, the Animal Hall was far less grand, but well-appointed. Banks of exhibits sat like pews along the sides, and above them a gallery ran around the circumference of the room. Here stood a clock the size of a small church organ, which played out a Biblical scene when it rang the hour. A staircase wound its way around the clock, connecting the upper and lower levels. Above was the vaulted ceiling, shadowy in the low light. We walked around the room, observing eccentricities in the collection, which consisted mostly of poorly taxidermied animals. Dr. Saraswati remained mostly impassive, but was slightly more aflame when we broached her favourite topic of the museum’s ethical dilemma. All of the text accompanying the disturbing displays was geared towards placing them in a historical context which divorced them from ‘true scientific endeavour’.

“I inherited this room from my predecessor with signage based on biological teaching.” She paused, expecting a reaction which was not forthcoming. “Imagine it! Using these awful taxidermied specimens as academic examples!”

She was not wrong in her assessment of some of the species. The best were just bone, where nothing could have been messed with by Victorian aesthetes. The worst were stuffed macaques, parrots, and other exotica which bore only a passing resemblance to their genus. Flamingos stood unnaturally straight and fixed rigidly to the ground. The grotesque faces of various primates seemed a parody of their living selves. At the centre of the hall stood a macabre giant—a grossly inflated walrus with a pock-marked hide and a glassy expression. Like a mummified pharaoh he surveyed his realm from the vantage point of a cheap plastic iceberg.

“They call him Wally, but I prefer ‘Ben.’” She didn’t take her eyes off the over-stuffed creature.

“Odobenus rosmarus,” I offered. She seemed glad I appreciated her humour. Neither of us smiled.

Just then, the great clock began its chime for six. We looked up to watch John the Baptist’s head appear from under the tureen of a veiled lady.

“Alright, tour’s over,” Dr. Saraswati was very abrupt, but I was used to that by now, “it’s time for your interview.”

~

The inscrutable Doctor led me out of the Animal Hall and through several corridors until we reached a passageway inaccessible to the general public. I tried to maintain my sense of direction, but may well have failed due to the building’s irregularity and multiplicity of architectural styles. When we stopped in front of a heavy door marked ‘Director’, I could have sworn we were about to enter the oddly shaped tower of the museum complex. Dr. Saraswati knocked and waited attentively. A few seconds later came a frail voice answering in the affirmative, and she pushed the door open, gesturing me through.

The room was comfortable, decorated to the taste of an old-fashioned English gentleman. There were trophies—biological and ethnographical—hanging on the walls, and hundreds of books in dark wooden cases. Several volumes lay open across the various desks and end-tables, cluttering the workspace along with scientific and ritual objects. Lighting was provided only by red wax candles, standing on brass holders. Judging from the build up of waxy run-off, these candle-holders had seen decades of use. The room was stiflingly hot, perhaps to preserve the tropical wood of the collected tribal icons, but more likely to preserve the old man behind the bureau. He may well have been the single oldest thing in the room. His wispy hair seemed to be a phantom, and his ear-lobes hung low like an Eastern Buddha. The skin on his brow had become so furrowed and heavy that it sagged down, forcing his eyes to remain practically closed. He was dressed in many layers of brown tweed despite the roaring heat of the office.

“Thank you, Imogen,” he said, simply. She looked me direct in the eye for the first time since our meeting, and left wordlessly. The silence which followed seemed interminable, especially as once again I was trying to judge how to play my job-interview tactics. Something told me this man would not go for brazen, American-style overtures. After a while he started to rummage about on the bureau, finally placing his vein-laden hands on a Manila folder, which I presumed was a print-out of the CV I had emailed him.

“Durham, was it?” He seemed to be rationing his words, every syllable of which added an extra wrinkle to his brow.

“Yes, sir,” I replied, taking care to speak slowly without appearing to speak slowly, “three-year BSc in Biomedical Sciences, Castle College…” I paused whilst considering the net piece of information: “First class.”

He chewed the air a little, and turned his face to the unopened Manila folder. “Dissertation project?”

“The Evolution Of Mammalian Endothermy, using phylogenetic comparative methods.”

If there was a reaction, I could not sense it. When I announce my essay title to most people they have some sort of respect for the unknown. They may have recognised one or two words, but they wouldn’t understand how they worked together. However with this old man, I couldn’t help but feel that I had let him down with every new piece of information I offered. The essay title to him was just another undergrad drabble. I wondered briefly as to his own qualifications for his lofty post. Whatever process was going on inside him had finished, and he creaked to his feet. He took the Manila folder and a lit candle made of crimson wax, and he shuffled round to me. Pausing once more, he looked up into my eyes, opening his wide enough with great effort. I resisted the urge to stoop to help this diminutive man see me better.

“Take this, please.” He offered me the nondescript folder. I took it, trying to work out why he would be handing me my own CV. I was reasonably devastated at the thought this could be my rejection. He crept to the door, opening it with a shaky hand. “Excuse me.” He left and closed the door behind him.

~

I stood there for about five minutes, which is an eternity in silence and stillness, before checking my phone. If he had gone on a personal break this was the upper limit of how long it should have taken. I wondered whether I should go in search of him—what if he had fallen? On the other hand, he wouldn’t want me checking up on him in the bathroom. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to find a bathroom in this maze of a building. I decided to wait a little longer.

The dancing amber light made the animal and animist trophies menacing, glaring at me from the walls with exaggerated features.

With one candle less, the room seemed oppressively dark. The dancing amber light made the animal and animist trophies menacing, glaring at me from the walls with exaggerated features. I began to check my phone for the time at more frequent intervals. If he had meant to dismiss me by handing me my CV, why had the old fellow closed the door behind him? If he wanted me to stay, then why had he not returned? What reason could have to keep me trapped here? It occurred to me that this could be one of those Oxbridge interview tests (or, rather, pranks) to test my non-verbal reasoning or some other nonsense. I scoured the room for clues. Which books had he left open? I could see no rhyme or reason to the collection of archaeological texts and hand-drawn collections of British wildlife. One of the books seemed out of place, being a pulp novel of the 1920s, although this turned out to contain a tree-ful of pressed leaves.

I was struck with panic when I realised I hadn’t checked to see if the door was locked. That old wretch, what if he’d locked the door silently behind him? I left the leaf press-book and my folder on the bureau and dashed for the door. The handle was heavy and seemed to be unwilling to turn, but when I pulled the door opened slowly but obligingly. I sight relief and glanced down the dark corridor. There wasn’t a sound, nor a hint of the Director’s candlelight. Just then I heard a clatter behind me which nearly sent me out of my mind. Spinning around, I saw that it was just the press-book and my folder which had fallen from their precarious perch on the bureau, bringing a candle with them. Mercifully the candle had been snuffed out on hitting the wooden floor, but the contents of the manila folder had been scattered along with dozens of crisp, yellow-and-white leaves.

If I’d had a chance at the position before, I was sure I had blown it now. I crouched down to assemble the discarded leaves and pages. The room was far too dark now with only one candle left alight, and the floor was shrouded in shadow. I unlocked my phone so the camera light could give me some visibility. I placed the pulp novel on the Director’s bureau, and made a small pyre of dried leaves upon it, signalling my mistake. When I bent to collect my CV, however, the harsh phone light showed that the folder contained pictures as well as text, some type-written, some word-processed. I gathered up the contents and set them right in the folder. The Director had given me this and then disappeared into the night. Did he mean for me to read it? I scuttled over to the one remaining candle to examine what seemed to be a dossier. The text was a print-out of an anonymous tell-all article on the moral failings of the H— Museum. The low-quality photos embedded in the text were of the ghoulish macaques, and their mummified emperor, the walrus ‘Ben’. Accompanying this article was another text, this one type-written, entitled ‘Post-colonial Evolutionary Biology as Resistance: An Unnatural History’. The work was unattributed, but the other contents of the folder left no doubt in my mind as to the author. The half a dozen accompanying Polaroids were all of Doctor Imogen Saraswati.

~

Looking back, I see that if I had any sense I would have ran, screaming or otherwise, from the museum. Perhaps I wouldn’t have made it out of the building, perhaps I could have found an exit and fled. My peculiar kind of insanity was the desire to remain, or to seem, entirely sane. What would a sane person do?—that was my first thought. In my distorted mind, a sane person would react calmly to this extraordinary situation. A sane person would stay perfectly still, perhaps for twenty minutes, pondering the significance of the papers and of the Director’s disappearance. A sane person would rationalise logically that the Director wanted to tell him that he was being persecuted by his underling. In my inability to distinguish rational and irrational though, I dismissed the unsettlingly candid photos of a female staff member going about her daily tasks, one entering a taxi, one with her keys in the lock of what must be her front door. My task had been set by the enigmatic Director—to solve the mystery and save him from whatever would come next.

It had, of course, taken me far too long to work this out. The Director had been gone for nearly and hour now. He had probably intended for my curiosity to get the better of me sooner, and to leaf through the manila folder. My attention now turned to the open door leading to the darkened corridor. I would have to venture out to find the old man.

Shunning the candle as too temperamental, I set my phone to remain illuminated. I took the folder with me and left the stuffy office, passing the phone beam left and right. To my left the corridor reached a dead end with a round window which showed the night sky, dusky orange with urban light pollution, framed by autumnal trees. I followed the passage to the right and round a corner. By the double doors at the far end I saw a dark stain on the stone floor. I hurried up to it, an empty feeling in my gut. To my relief the crimson substance had solidified to wax—this was the run-off from the Director’s candle. I had a reliable clue, and could follow a trail of candle wax to find his whereabouts.

Beyond the double doors was the Ethnographical Hall, where the primitive statues of forgotten gods lay sleeping. The darkness was pervasive, except for my phone light and an eerie green LED glow which came from the exhibit stands at foot level. I cast my beam around the floor, trying to find a trace of the Director. Coming across a display case dedicated to the Pacific North-West, it was clear that this exhibit had been tampered with. Several lesser artefacts lay strewn on the floor, and were mixed in with ritual masks of the Haida people, the central one of which was missing. Two possibilities presented themselves to me, either the Director had noticed the absence and had stopped to check, or he had stopped here and struggled to get hold of the large mask, scattering bone tools and candle wax.

With quickening pace, I reconnoitred every door leading out of the hall in turn. The old man seemed to struggle with double doors, and would have undoubtedly left more wax at his chosen exit. I found with a shudder a large pool of still-melted wax at the grand portal between this room and the Animal Hall. I paused to steel myself. The manila folder was warped and wet from my sweaty grip. I leaned against the door and pushed my way inside.

These glorified carcasses seemed unearthly at this time of crisis, and I felt as if they were warning me away.

The Animal Hall was more forbidding than the previous room. It had far fewer lights, and was lit only by my phone and the nightmarishly green fire exit signs. The beady glass eyes of the exhibits danced malevolently. These glorified carcasses seemed unearthly at this time of crisis, and I felt as if they were warning me away. The pools of red wax were becoming more frequent, so I knew I was drawing close to my quarry. What disturbed me greatly was that I heard no evidence of human presence in the hall, other than my own. The wax trail veered off to the left—could the Director have been staggering? It led me down one of the pew-like aisles to the shrieking macaques, annotated by Dr. Saraswati as being ‘monstrous’ and ‘inhuman’. There was something on the glass front which I raised my phone to see. The Director had left a hand-print in red wax on the glass—but how? Why? I peered closer and tried the imprint with my own finger. The crimson residue was far too thin to be candle wax.

I recoiled in horror and crouched instinctively. My senses were heightened like an animal’s. I realised the mortal danger the Director was in, if he was indeed still alive, and my chest clenched against the thought that my own life might now also be forfeit. I brandished my phone as a weapon in front of me, and followed the red trail which shimmered in my unnatural light. I was led to the staircase which wraps its way around the Biblical clock. The rail was covered in red handprints. Turning the corner at the top of the stairs, I found a sight which made me wretch.

The railing of the gallery was stained in such a way that made me rush to the edge—it seemed as if a bloodied mass had been heaved over it. Casting my phone beam down, I could just pick out a wet pool underneath the railing. Breathing shallowly, I rushed back down the stairs, slipping on what I had thought was wax and cascading down to the bottom. I was now covered in congealed blood, the horror of which I have not lost to this day. At the landing point beneath the gallery there was no body, instead a thick swipe left its implication of where the cadaver had been dragged around. Hellishly, this drag mark led to the hall’s centrepiece—the ghastly preserved corpse of the walrus. Still there was no body to be found, but reader—I must admit it gives me no pleasure to relate: There beneath the animal’s proud chest was a mangled head—that of Dr. Saraswati.

This may well have been the moment I took absolute leave of my senses. I cast my phone beam up to the maniacal walrus specimen’s face. Its eyes were monstrously lit up green, and appeared to be bleeding. Blood too was dripping from its considerable tusks, and the creature had sustained wounds to its face and shoulders. I screamed an unearthly scream and fled.

~

Even though it is now two weeks after the events described above, I have not slept, nor have I been able to chase the animalistic butchery of the museum from my mind. The reasons I must set this down on paper, dear reader, are two-fold. Firstly, I must see it all in one narrative, rather than the lucid but fractured hallucinations which currently haunt me. Secondly, I received this letter in the morning post, type-written upon thick paper and dated one day after my ordeal:

Dear Mr. C—,

It is with great pleasure that I can offer you the position of Evolutionary Biology Lead at the H— Museum. This is due to a scheduled departure from the staff. Despite your relative lack of experience, your suitability for the role, and your discretion, are assumed to be beyond reproach. Please report to the Director of the museum on Monday 19th November at 9 a.m.

Regards,

Prof. R— G—, Director of the H— Museum.

Reader—I must leave you now. It is my first day of work.

2 thoughts on “An Unnatural History”

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