AMBIENT MORGUE MUSIC
by Richard Howard
copyright © 2009 / May not be reproduced without permission
(from Weird Tales #354, Fall 2009)
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The best thing about being a reviewer is that you often receive music in the old fashioned way, via a CD through your letterbox. Anyone jaded with this century’s downloading obsession and its associated esoterica of bit rates, compressions and conversions will no doubt be turning snot-coloured with envy at this point. [Oh, the quaint and glamorous life you lead… Ed.] Yes, I actually receive music through the post with handwritten covers, illustrations, bribes, pleas, death threats… and on top of that, the music is good.
Yes, it seems that only now in the 2030s is the true character of this millennium’s sound finally being heard. It’s early days yet but, for my money, the best stuff is being made right here, in Dublin. I know that looking at most mags these days you wouldn’t know it, but most of this music is being made far away from the hubris of the mainstream music business, by the disenfranchised, who can barely afford to eat, never mind pay a publicity agent. My favourite music of the last six months has, for the most part, arrived unexpectedly in my hallway like a burglar, a begging letter, a Halloween firework.
Ambient Morgue Music is one I look forward to in particular. There have been four volumes so far, arriving monthly, each accompanied with a black-and-white photograph of a corpse and a handful of soil. The track names, listed on the back, speak of bloody revolution, disease and, for reasons that will become clear later on, zoo animals. The music itself is an eerie type of lo-fi ambient; at times it’s hard to make out the music from the microphone hiss, but I presume that that’s part of the aesthetic, the sound of the room putting you right where they want you. It’s beautifully hypnotic, filled with dread and, as I found out this week, truly revolutionary.
The only contact information provided is a mobile phone number and it changes with every dispatch. Since the first Ambient Morgue’s arrival I’ve been trying desperately to contact the artist or artists, but each time the phone has either been disconnected or I get the generic answering machine drone. Last week I finally made a connection.
“Hello.” —A thick Dublin accent.
“Hello, you sent me some CDs. I really think they’re great; would I be able to meet you and have a chat? I’d like to do a piece on them.”
“Yeah de CD, ye like it yeah?”
“I think it’s some of the best music being made at the moment.”
“Okay, which one are you? Whereabouts are ye?”
“I’m living on North Circular Road.”
“Ah sure, yer only five minutes up the road. Sure come up now if ye like. Ye know where the Phoenix is. Just gis a shout when yer at the monument.”
My brain froze for a second. “Um… yeah, okay. I’ll give you a ring when I get there.”
Why had I never been to the Phoenix Park before? I’ve lived on North Circular Road for almost ten years, but I had never turned right upon leaving my house, always left towards Phibsboro. Sometimes if I was walking into the city I’d cross the road and follow the picturesque houses of Oxmantown road, before turning left and strolling through Stoneybatter, towards the River Liffey. Why had I never chosen to take my walk in one of the largest city parks in the world? Come to think of it, why does nobody I know ever talk about it, let alone go there? My head swam with these, and many other questions, as I threw on my winter coat. Leaving the house I turned right, feeling slightly askew.
It was twilight as I made my way up the road. I looked around for something to keep me grounded in what I had come to believe was reality; I fixed on the trees, trying to ignore the colossal monument coming into view. Surely I’d have noticed something of that size at the end of the road I lived on.
I entered the park and followed the winding path to the monument. I took out my phone, but there was no need. He found me. An ordinary-looking young man, smartly dressed but slightly disheveled.
“Story bud?” The easy, familiar colloquialism took the edge off the uneasy, illusory feeling that had grown inside me since leaving my house.
“Hello, pleased to meet you.” I offered my hand and we shook solidly.
He introduced himself as Dessy and then walked away, gesturing that I should follow him.
Reader, in my youth I enjoyed reading the fiction of the fantastical. Future dystopian nightmares, journeys to the stars and magickal conspiracies, I devoured them all. Bearing this in mind, I would have thought that what I’m about to explain would have been that much easier to comprehend. But, for all the reading in my youth of the classics of imaginative fiction, I was still left with nothing to compare with what unfolded over the next hour or so, beginning with the sight that startled me as we stood on top of that hill. On the area around the monument in the Phoenix Park I saw what I can only describe as a shantytown.
My stomach turned in giddy dread. I was so taken aback that Dessy had to let me stand for a while to take it in, my brain processing and reprocessing, programming and reprogramming. It was mind-blowing enough to be standing in a colossal green area in the middle of the city that had been completely erased from my consciousness like an early morning dream, but this threatened to smother my wits altogether. Rows and rows of dilapidated huts as far as I could see were broken here and there by mud tracks. Campfires burned. I could see people, too, going about their business as if following a daily routine. The atmosphere was one that my mind had never experienced, but that my body recalled, something primal and buried. How could this place, situated right in Dublin City, remain unremarked on by society?
I hadn’t much time to entertain such a question, as Dessy beckoned me to follow him and we started down the hill towards the town. I trailed behind him, my head a swarm of ideas. As we got closer I realized that the scene I’d been viewing from the hill was less rustic than I’d first assumed. Everyone appeared reasonably well-groomed and fed; the men, women and children all wore modern clothing; and the children played with toys, handheld games and bikes that placed them firmly in the center of the twenty-first century. The huts themselves, on the other hand, were made from the kind of materials I would imagine have been employed for such purposes for over a hundred years: corrugated iron, tin, loose wood, plastic sheeting, cardboard and old furniture all converged to create the bric-a-brac village we stepped through. I saw a deer being roasted over an upturned shopping trolley and then remembered reading about the deer of Phoenix Park when I was young—a realization both nostalgic and grisly given the circumstances.
Seeing the flames licking around that beast’s carcass served me well in one way, though, as I began to come to my senses somewhat and my journalistic instincts began to kick in. How did these people get here? Why had nobody ever heard of them? Where was the music made? As we walked further these turned into questions about self-preservation. What did they intend to do with me? Was the music just a ruse to kidnap a member of the press?
We stopped at another campfire. Thankfully this one didn’t contain any recently deceased wildlife, just a handful of men and women warming themselves against the intense cold. Dessy took me to the far side of the fire and introduced me to a man called Sean, who signaled for me to sit down on a cushion by the fire. Dessy disappeared.
“Now, what would you like to know?” said Sean, scratching his ample beard and staring right into my eyes.
“Um,” I stuttered, taking a second to switch fully back into journalist mode, apparent cosmonaut that I’d become. “Well, how did you get here?”
The light from a fire has a way of changing one’s appearance at every moment but, at a guess, I’d say Sean was in his mid-forties. I studied his jovial, friendly face as he mulled over the question.
“The government,” he said finally.
“That’s it? The government?”
“The Olympics,” he said, and I fidgeted on my cushion, seriously considering walking away. He must have noticed the germ of my impatience, and he began shaking his head apologetically.
“I’m sorry,”’ he said. “After all, we are the ones who have always known. You are the ones who have never known.”
I settled back down as he continued.
“You do remember the Olympics, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Twenty years ago that bloody thing came to our city. Thousands of people forcibly removed from their homes to make way for the Olympic village, the new stadium, twelve-story car parks.” He spat into the fire at the memory. “We were promised houses out in the suburbs — well, they call them suburbs — might as well be outer space.”
“So you sought refuge here?”
“Some of us sought refuge, others were chased here. We fought pitched battles with the police all the way up North Circular Road. Caused quite a stir at the time. At one point it looked like St. Peter’s Church was going to go up in flames. Don’t know how I would have explained that one to him at the Pearly Gates. Hopefully the pigs found a way to erase it from that document, too. Haha.” His laugh turned into a cough and he spat again. The fire sizzled. “Of course some of us were already here, but the numbers were small so nobody really took any notice. Forced removal had been going on since the late nineteen hundreds and those that didn’t want to go usually came here. That caused a bit of resentment at first, because since the newcomers, everybody’s trapped here.”
“Yes. From what we can gather, it’s some kind of gravity field. If we try to leave it just propels us back. There are only three people in the whole camp that it doesn’t affect. Dessy is one of them. The rest of us can’t even pass the monument.”
“It was the Olympic Games. Every major technological country in the world had an interest in the games running smoothly. The amount of technology Ireland would have had at its disposal would have been unprecedented.”
“But what about everyone else… outside…”
He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “But sure, isn’t it the music you came here for? Come on.”
We walked until the huts began to thin out, and I got a twitch of recall as in the distance I saw a naggingly familiar sign: DUBLIN ZOO.
“I haven’t been here in…” I let the sentence trail off, giving in to what now appeared to be a full-scale hallucination. Deciding to jump onto surer ground, I began questioning him about the music as we pushed through the gates.
“So how did you make the music?”
I shook off his obvious flippancy and persisted with my questioning, “How do you record it?”
“My only inheritance was a suitcase full of microphones. My Dad used to record bands years and years ago. He was always buying microphones. He loved sound, god bless him and not much else… I just use them and an old computer…”
I had followed him into what used to be the reptile house.
“Don’t worry,” he said, switching on a light, “most of the animals are long dead. At the height of the battle we released a lot of them and charged the cops. The rhinos and hippos caused the most mayhem, not to mention the big cats. They were all gunned down in the end, of course. I feel terrible about that, but we made the choice. We did what we thought we had to do. Anyway, do you like it? My home studio.”
I looked around the former reptile house with the same awe that visited me atop that hill. Memories started to awaken, doors unlocked in my brain that someone evidently wanted closed forever. At that point I remembered this place, reader, even if you do not. I remembered the crocodile, the iguana and the snakes but they were gone. Each case had been turned into a recording booth, with microphones hanging from the ceiling; the largest case contained a mixing desk and a computer. Even stranger, though, was when I came in for a closer look at the booths and saw the dead body lying on a slab in each one. Sean saw the look on my face and laughed a maniac’s laugh.
“My instruments,” he said.
I couldn’t comprehend what I was feeling, hearing, seeing. Silence seemed the only option that wouldn’t further submerge my flailing sanity. My companion simply smiled and continued.
“Some of us did consider moving in here when we arrived. But then we thought that it would be better used as a kind of mausoleum. Less chance of disease spreading if we keep the dead over here. Then I had the idea of putting my studio in here, and the two ideas kind of eventually meshed together.”
My continued silence told him I still didn’t understand.
“Dead bodies fart. Anybody who works in a morgue will tell you that. All those pipes and organs and valves finally getting to relax after all those years tensed up.” He stuck out his tongue and blew a chilling raspberry, letting it echo for a second, before continuing. “The music you’re hearing is basically my recordings of gas being released from corpses. I manipulate the sounds somewhat of course . . . mostly layering them on top of each other. The last CD we sent you was a new experiment I was working on where I’m actually playing the body. I’ve developed a kind of stopper so I can restrict the flow of air from the body, while applying pressure to certain points. It’s early days yet… I don’t think I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of the potential here… I don’t think I’m far off a rudimentary scale, though.”
I still couldn’t talk.
“Oh, before I forget—” He produced a CD from his coat and put it in my hand. I was in so much shock that I nearly dropped it. He actually had to close my hand around it.
“The giraffe died last week… marvelous, elongated movements… this is just a rough demo of the stuff I’ve done with it… let me know what you think.”
Evidently I was too stunned to ask any more questions, so we both made for the exit in silence. We cut through the shantytown and, at the bottom of the hill where it all began, he bade me farewell.
“Don’t forget why we do this,” he said. “Be sure and let everyone know about us.”
I managed to force out a ‘yes,’ and scaled the hill, feeling the force of an electric current through my hair as I passed the monument. Only when I was back on North Circular Road did I begin to feel anything like myself again. I was stunned, jaded, but also excited; my hands clutched the CD so hard it hurt, gripping to the only evidence of the strange things I’d seen that night.
I ran the short distance back to my house and slammed the door behind me. Taking the CD from its cover I placed it in the stereo and sat back in my favourite chair. As the beautiful dread of what will probably become Ambient Morgue Volume Five swelled and drifted through the room, I took out the photograph. It was the first one Sean had appeared in himself. He looks like some strange kind of wizard as he works away at the giraffe, like he’s trying to give it back its life — reanimate it. In a way I suppose he is. It looks primitive and futuristic all at once. Slowly the magnitude of this thing started to hit me. I thought of how inspiring and revolutionary the music I was hearing was. The fact that I now knew the circumstances and conditions under which it was recorded made it all the more fantastic. After the music finished I pressed PLAY again and put it on repeat. I sat at the computer and began typing this article. What started out as a simple opinion piece about underground music gradually turned into the pocket odyssey you’ve just read. At this point I couldn’t care less if my sanity is in question; just please, track down this morbidly angry music for yourself. It’s simply some of the best sound you will hear this decade, lovingly crafted by someone that the world chose to forget, whose time to appear from the shadows seems to have arrived.
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Richard Howard is a speculative fiction writer from Dublin, Ireland. To date he has had stories published in Electric Velocipede, M-Brane and Loki’s Journal. In 2008 he won the Weird Tales Spam Fiction contest for his story “Let Yourself Look Spiny.” He currently resides in Dublin 7 where he writes, studies English, and meditates on the exact moment the humdrum becomes the fantastic.