Can’t Stop the Signal

📅 Published on May 31, 2022

“Can’t Stop the Signal”

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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“So… you’re trying to cash in on this whole ‘analog horror’ fad?  Is that it?” the eccentrically dressed yet curmudgeonly old shopkeeper asked as he disinterestedly pawed through the jumbled collection of off-brand VHS tapes I had brought for him.

I couldn’t say that I blamed Mr. Orville Bucklesby one bit for his lack of enthusiasm.  If you believed even half of the stories about him, he had fought Nazi occultists in World War II, traveled the multiverse with a supernatural circus, and regularly rubbed shoulders with the plethora of paranormal beings that allegedly haunted and visited Harrowick County.  His oddity shop was stocked with a myriad of bizarre items, some of them of questionable authenticity, to be sure, but all of them were more interesting than a few humble VHS cartridges.

“Analog horror?  No, it’s nothing like that, sir.  I was just thinking that there might be people out there who could get better use out of these than I could, and that you would know how to get in touch with those people,” I said with a nonchalant shrug.  He eyed me suspiciously as he started reading over the labels on the tapes.

“What’s with the cryptic titles then?” he asked.  “This one’s called ‘And We All Fall Down.’ They’re all like that.  You’ve got ‘Crying Girl In The Woods,’ ‘It’s Already Too Late,’ ‘Why Won’t She Forgive Me,’ et cetera.  This one here just says, ‘Pity Us.’  What’s supposed to be on these things?”

“Well, Mr. Bucklesby, I’ve been given to understand that you’re familiar with a type of device referred to as an ‘In Glorious Retrovision.’  Is that correct?” I asked hesitantly.  Part of me was hoping that he would say no, that he would scoff at the very question, and I could go home and shove the videotapes back in the basement and forget about them.

But he didn’t.  Instead, his expression changed from annoyed to serious, and he eyed the tapes with a renewed sense of cautious interest.

“You own a Retrovision then, do you, son?” he asked, avoiding eye contact with me.

“No, but my uncle did,” I replied.  “He tinkered around with it and was able to hook up a VCR. Throughout the eighties and nineties, he recorded various signals he picked up on it right up until his death.  With practically his dying breath, he told me to unhook the VCR and hide it with the tape collection, and I did.  Not even a day later, the Retrovision was gone, but the tapes were left untouched.  I don’t know who took it or how they knew about my uncle’s death so quickly, but I can only assume they didn’t know about the tapes.  I was terrified that they’d find out about the modifications and come back for the tapes, but they never did, and they’ve been in my possession ever since.

“My uncle told me never to watch the tapes alone, and I was too scared to ever tell anyone else about them, so I’ve never watched them.  I don’t know what’s on them, but I know the kind of things you can see on a Retrovision, so I figured they might be worth something to the right buyer.”

“Your uncle’s been dead twenty years or so, then?  Why are you only selling them now?” Orville asked, arching his eyebrow skeptically.

“Well, I was pretty much still a kid when he died, and by the time I was old enough to start looking into my uncle’s occult connections, I had largely forgotten about the tapes,” I explained. “I just recently started poking around on to see if I could find anything that might have had anything to do with my uncle, and that’s how I found out about this place.”

“You don’t say?  Heh, maybe I ought to take out an ad on that site,” he mused.  “You didn’t happen to notice if Eve across the street was running any ads there, did you?”

“I didn’t notice any ads at all while I was there, actually,” I answered.  “There’s a short forum thread about her, though.  The prevailing opinion seemed to be that she’s not much more than an Instagram psychic.”

“Hah!  I have no idea what that means, but I love it!” he cackled.  “Anywho, back to business. You’re saying that these tapes are recordings from a Retrovision that your uncle made, but other than that, you have no idea what’s on them?”

“That’s correct, sir, yes,” I nodded dutifully.  He let out a slight grunt as he pensively weighed the videocassette in his hands.

“Listen, kid, before I make you an offer, I am going to have to check at least a few of these to make sure they’re legit,” he said, nodding to the thirteen-inch TV/VCR combo he already had waiting on his desk.  “You okay with me popping this in?”

I hesitated for a moment.  I knew before I came in that he would need to watch the videos, and I had been looking forward to finally seeing what was on the tapes myself.  But after so many years of avoiding the tapes, I was perhaps understandably wary of what would happen when I finally unlocked their secrets.

“If you think it’s safe…then yes, go ahead,” I said with a reluctant nod.

“No need to be so melodramatic.  We’re still talking about twenty-to-forty-year-old VHS recordings,” Orville said as he popped the tape that said ‘Pity Us’ into the VCR and pressed play.

After a few seconds of static, a grainy and desaturated image of a man in a chair appeared onscreen.  The chair was cast from rusted steel and starkly utilitarian in design, while the room he was sitting in was bare concrete as far as we could see.

The man was completely bald with a drawn and haggard face.  His eyes were a jaundiced yellow, and his skin was browned like aged paper and hung loosely off his face as if he had recently lost an enormous amount of weight.  His clothes were ragged and woven from some coarse and faded fabric, and I wondered if he was a political prisoner of some kind.  He certainly gave off the impression of being an innocent man who had suffered greatly and unjustly, his eyes begging the viewer for pity.

He held his gaze on the camera for a few seconds, looked down at a scrap of paper in his hands, and then cleared his throat.

“It wasn’t our fault,” he spoke in a hoarse voice that just barely managed to be louder than a whisper.  “They demanded sacrifice.  They demanded obedience.  We could not resist.  All of our strength, of mind and of will and of flesh, was sacrificed in their name, and we had become too weak to resist.  The need to feed the engines of war has left our world nearly bereft of life, and yet it was an industry that left us starved and impoverished, beaten and maimed, wasted from disease.  That is what was demanded of us, that we feed all the world to the signal until there was nothing left and never dare to take so much as an extra serving of gruel for ourselves.  All that was created went to the cause.  We sacrificed so much, and we have nothing left to sacrifice anymore.  We couldn’t have defied them even if we had wanted to, and all we wanted was respite from our ordeal.  What else could anyone be expected to want?  When we were finally no longer of any use, when we had no more to give, they said that it was finally time for us to be rewarded, and that our reward was to be one of transcendence.  They said that the signal would help us achieve enlightenment, to help us understand that the ruined world was our reward, that it was better this way, quieter, but it didn’t work.  The signal twisted them, and now it’s twisting us, and we can’t stop.  We hear it now, always, no matter what, and it will take all it can from us until we are nothing but wretched and forlorn, and even then, it will not be sated.  The signal will not be stopped, cannot be stopped.

“Can you hear it yet?”

Sure enough, I did.  I hadn’t noticed it before, but there was some sort of signal playing over the man’s speech.  It was subtle, easy enough to think nothing of at first, but now that my attention had been drawn to it, I found it a very unsettling sort of sound.  Like a theremin, but not quite, fluctuating between high and low tones so rapidly it seemed almost random, but some cadence of a pattern was undeniably present.  It wasn’t music, though; more like morse code, like it was trying to desperately communicate some sort of message that it couldn’t risk falling into the wrong hands.

“Oh no.  No, no no no no no no!” Orville mumbled as he desperately began pressing stop, pause and eject on the VCR.  When the tape continued to play, he knocked the TV to the ground. Before I could ask what the hell had come over him, he picked up his hickory cane and swung it towards the TV to smash it.

He never made contact, though.  The TV was gone.  His shop was gone.  Our world was gone. Instead, it was just he and I in a desolate, abandoned city.  The buildings and infrastructure were all starkly utilitarian in their design, all grey and hard and cold, just like the chair and room the man had been sitting in.  Other than Orville and myself, there wasn’t a speck of color or living thing in sight.  There was no ambient noise at all; the air was still and yet smelt of an oncoming storm, and the lumpy clouds overhead were so motionless I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn I was looking at a painted ceiling.

“Son of a bitch!” Orville screamed in frustration as he dropped to his knees, striking at the empty space where the TV had been.

I, on the other hand, just stood there in stupefied silence.  I had never been translocated before, and my brain was struggling to comprehend what had just happened.

“Of course, that’s what ‘Pity Us’ meant.  So stupid!” Orville cursed himself.

“Orville, what are you talking about?  What’s happening?  Where are we?” I managed to ask.  He let out a long sigh before turning to look at me with a dismal expression.

“The Realm Of The Forlorn,” he replied grimly.  “It’s a world ravaged by years and decades of escalating psychotronic warfare until there was nobody left to fight.  That was a psychotronic signal you heard, and once it was deep enough into our brains, it pulled us into this reality.  Your uncle must have come across it on the Retrovision like someone stepping on an old landmine.”

I stared at him incredulously for a moment, trying to decide whether or not I believed him.

The otherworldly hue of the grey light falling on the empty, brutalist buildings all around us pushed me towards the former.

“You really have visited other realities before, haven’t you?” I murmured softly as I tried to remember all the crazy stories I had read about him.

“Let’s just say I’ve had some on-the-job experience in a few exotic locales,” he said as he pushed himself back onto his feet.  “Listen up; the most important thing right now is for you to stay calm and do exactly what I tell you.  The psychotronic weapons the governments of this world used to torture their enemies and subjugate their own citizens penetrated deeper and deeper until the very fabric of their reality started to unravel.  That’s why the signal can leak out into other realities, it’s how we got pulled in, and it’s also how we can get back.  We need to find the weak spot we fell through and use it to cross back over before we’re no longer…compatible with our own reality.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I demanded.

“It’s not a productive area of conversation at the moment, is what it means,” Orville snapped back.  “Give me your phone.  Now.”

Exasperated, I reached into my pocket and grabbed it, checking the signal strength before handing it to him.

“I’ve got no bars, no Wi-Fi, nothing,” I explained.

“That won’t matter to who I’m calling,” he said, snatching it out of my hand.  I swear the number he punched into it was just the number seven eleven times over, but despite that and the absence of anything resembling a cellular network, I heard the phone start to ring.  “Come on, Gary, don’t put me on hold.  Oh, and kid, keep quiet.  We don’t want to attract any attention to ourselves.”

“Me?  You’re the one who cursed bloody murder and assaulted the ground the instant we got here!” I reminded him.  For a second, he looked like he was going to backtalk me, but then I saw his face twist into a terrified grimace as he realized I was right.

“Oh no,” he murmured as he began darting his head around in every direction.  I didn’t know what he was looking for, but I started looking around too, thinking that whatever it was, I’d probably know it when I saw it.

Sure enough, I did.

Another person had appeared in the distance and was slowly making their way towards us.  If I was judging the distance right, the person looked to be around seven-feet tall.  They were covered head-to-toe in a coarse, gray fabric without any exposed skin at all, their face and head covered by a veil and pointed hood.  Their gait was shuffling, and their head was hung low, and I wasn’t even sure they were aware of us.

“Orville, do you see –” I started whispering.

“Cheese it!” he shouted, sprinting off towards one of the nearby buildings.

There was a mortal fear and desperate urgency in his voice that strongly suggested that I should obey without question, but instead, my gaze was drawn back to the being slowly making its way toward me.  The body language and the way it was moving made it seem like it might be hurt or otherwise be in need of assistance, generating just enough pity in me to stave off my sense of self-preservation for the moment.

“Ah, hello!  Hello!  Are you alright?” I called out cautiously, slowly raising my hand in greeting. The being tossed back their head and let out an ear-splitting wail.  It wasn’t an aggressive or predatory call but a forlorn and heart-wrenching sob of abject misery.  I reflexively slammed my hands over my ears, but as much as the wail pained and terrified me, I still couldn’t will myself to abandon this creature.  I almost felt like I was looking at the survivor of a nuclear bomb or something; they weren’t a monster but instead had been disfigured by something monstrous.  I even began to weep; I felt such genuine empathy for this person who had once surely not been so very different from me.

But then their wails were joined by a chorus of equally tortured howls from all around us, and more of the strange beings began slowly shambling towards me.  That, thankfully, was enough to finally get my fight-or-flight response into full gear, and I dashed into the building Orville had disappeared into it.

“Orville!” I shouted, desperately searching for any sign of him.  He didn’t reply, but he had left a clear path in the dust and debris that littered the floor of the long-abandoned and deteriorating building.  I raced towards the stairwell he had used, but the wailing around me became so intense I stumbled to the ground and clutched my head out of sheer agony.

They were in the building now, the Forlorn, and their wretched voices echoed off the hard concrete and seemed to be amplified a hundred-fold.  Worse than the volume, though, was that I could now make out whispered voices amidst the wailing.

“Can you hear it?  The signal in the noise?  It calls to all.  It is subtle, but it is relentless.  It must be heard, and bit by bit, it remakes the world until it is omnipresent and unignorable.  It took every sense but sound from us.  It’s in our ears and in our heads, in our voices and in our footsteps, in the rustling of our rags and the creaking of our bones!  It is our very heartbeat.  It is every sound we hear and every sound we make.  It is everything to us now.  It cannot be ignored or denied!  It demands service, it demands sacrifice, and we have sacrificed everything that could not be of service to it.  We have sacrificed so much, suffered so much, and yet the signal will never be sated.  So long as we can serve it, we must suffer.  It will never release us.  It is louder than us now.  Can you even hear us?  If you can, then please, please; pity us.”

I forced myself to look up and saw several of them standing before me, scuttling towards me as quickly as they could manage.  One of them screamed louder than the others, the silhouette of a gaunt and gaping face faintly visible beneath its veil.  I watched as it slowly outstretched a trembling arm towards me.

It was begging for help.  They all were.  I was sure of it.  They had been suffering in this place for so long and were so desperate they just gravitated toward any possible hope of salvation.  How could they not?

How could I deny them that?

Slowly, reluctantly, and almost forcibly, I reached out toward the creature.

The instant before our hands touched, I heard a hoarse battle cry ring out from behind me and saw a wooden cane strike the creature across the skull, knocking it to the floor.

Orville had come back for me.

“‘Cheese it’ means move, kid!” he shouted, grabbing my arm and pulling me up the stairwell. The Forlorn plodded up the stairs after us, but their clumsy gaits were unable to match our speed.  I imagine that wasn’t of much concern to them, though.  Where were we supposed to go, after all?

I was just about to voice that concern when I saw that the doorway Orville was pulling me towards was filled with a softly glowing white fog.

“What is –”

“No time!” Orville cut me off before I could even finish asking.

Now, I obviously didn’t have a lot of time to analyze the situation in any real detail, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can safely say that at that moment, letting Orville drag me through what I could only presume was a portal to God knows where was a slightly less risky option than remaining in the Realm of the Forlorn.  But only slightly.

I didn’t resist or try to escape, but I did scream as I was pulled through the doorway.  Once we were over the threshold, the fog seemed to block all of the noise coming from the other side. There was music, though, I think.  Cheerful music that definitely wasn’t coming from the Realm of the Forlorn, but it didn’t last long enough for me to tell what it was.

Orville and I came running out the other side, and the white light had been so bright that all I could see were spots at first.  I crashed into a wall, but I heard Orville slam a door shut and shout something into my phone.  By the time my vision cleared enough to see again, I realized we were back in Orville’s shop.  Orville was sitting with his back up against a door, but there was no longer any sign of glowing white fog on the other side.  Orville looked exhausted but relieved.

“What did, how did…?” I stammered.

“Called in a favor from an old friend,” he said, holding up my phone.  I heard a man on the other end say something unintelligible, and Orville raised the phone to his ear.  “What was – No, I don’t owe you a favor, I called in a favor.  You guys still owed me from last April.  No, she didn’t pay me for those, Gary!  Scrip isn’t real money!  No, if I can’t pay my taxes with it, it’s not real money.  Well, now you’re just opening up a whole can of worms about how all value is ultimately arbitrary.  We’ll talk about this later.  Goodbye…and, thank you.”

He pressed ‘end call’ and deleted the call from my phone’s history before handing it back to me.

“I’m only going to say three more words about what just happened; don’t pity them,” he said gruffly as he rose to his feet and ambled back to his desk.  The TV/VCR combo was still face-up on the floor, but the VHS tape was sticking out of it.  Orville bent down and disdainfully pulled it out and tossed it back in the box with the others.  “So, what will you take for the whole kit and caboodle?”

I got out of there immediately, leaving my box of VHS tapes with Orville without taking so much as a cent from him.  He mailed me a check, though, oddly enough, but I haven’t opened it.  I’m just glad to be rid of those tapes after what happened.  I wonder how my uncle was able to avoid getting pulled into the Realm of the Forlorn, or if he didn’t, how he got back.  He did tell me never to watch the tapes alone, so maybe he had a partner or something in case something like that happened.  Maybe the answers are on more of the tapes, but if they are, I’m not brave enough to find them.  One near-fatal reality slip is enough for me, thank you very much.

As terrifying as the entire ordeal was, I don’t blame the Forlorn one bit.  Whether they actually thought I could help them or if they were just obeying the signal, I don’t blame them.  I was only under the influence of the signal for less than twenty minutes, and I still nearly gave into it.  If it hadn’t been for Orville, just the sheer good fortune of having watched that tape with someone who knew how to get back home, the fate of the Forlorn would have been mine, as well.  They’re innocent victims of the signal, and there’s no way for me or anyone else to help them.

Despite the fact, they tried to trap me there with them, and despite what Orville said, I do pity them.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: The Vesper's Bell

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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