07 Jan The Magic of Television
“The Magic of Television”Written by The Vesper's Bell Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
My grandpa Chuck is a Baby Boomer, and without a doubt, the most quintessentially Boomer thing my grandpa does is maintain a ‘display room.’ It’s basically a second living room, except instead of IKEA, it’s filled with artisanal, luxury European furnishings, which no one is allowed to lay a finger on. There are china cabinets, filled with multiple sets of fine china, that have never once been used. All manner of collectibles decorate every surface, and the only time they’ve ever been moved since they’ve been in that room is when my grandpa cleans the place. There’s even an antique piano, even though he couldn’t play chopsticks if his life depended on it.
It’s just a whole room filled with the most expensive things my grandfather could afford, treated as sacred cows of consumerism, none of which he dares to get any practical use out of. It’s not that weird, not for a Boomer anyway, but what is weird is that he keeps a television in there too. No one’s supposed to be in that room, and I always thought that putting a television in there would just encourage people to use it. It’s not a big TV either, and as far as I know, the only thing that really makes TVs expensive is their size. I did ask my grandpa about it once, about why it deserved a place in his display room, and all he would say was that ‘they don’t make ‘em like that, anymore.’
Late last year, before vaccines were available here, grandpa caught COVID and was in the hospital for a little while, and asked if I could housesit for him. He was slowly dying of coronavirus, and his number one concern was that his stuff was okay. Pure Boomer energy there. Regardless of what I thought of his priorities, I agreed so that he wouldn’t be worried and could focus on getting better. He wrote down a rather extensive list of rules for what to do and what not to do, some of which were exasperatingly neurotic but not really out of the ordinary.
..that is, until it came to the television in the display room. Here’s what he wrote for it.
- When cleaning the display room, do not touch the television set, except for any of the reasons listed below.
- If the cabinet doors are open, close them immediately.
- When the television is off, do not look at your reflection on the screen.
- Don’t sit too close to the television, on or off.
- If the television is on, turn it off immediately, and remember that TV isn’t real.
- When it’s on, be careful not to bring your hand close enough to feel static on the screen.
- If it doesn’t turn off, leave the house immediately, and call me. Don’t try to unplug it.
- Never change the channel.
- If you fail to follow these rules and there’s an incident with the television, do not destroy it. He doesn’t make them like that anymore.
I honestly wasn’t all that concerned by this. My grandpa knew I was curious about his mysterious old television set, and I figured he was just messing with me. I had been in his house lots of times before, and I had no reason to believe that the television was dangerous or supernatural in any way.
I settled into my grandpa’s house and went straight to work attending to his lengthy list of instructions. It was mostly yard work, even though there was no garden, just a large crop of homogenous grass under the vigilant gaze of ceramic gnomes and plastic flamingos, all of which he was inordinately proud of. Any weed or wildflower that dared to rear its nonconforming head was living on borrowed time, and if any of his neighbor’s creeping ivy got onto his side of the fence on my watch, there’d be hell to pay.
Being busy and outdoors most of the day, it wasn’t until I was eating my dinner that evening that I noticed it; the sound of electric static. I didn’t notice it all at once. It was more of a gradual awareness that I was hearing a very faint white noise that I couldn’t account for. I silenced every appliance or electronic that I could to listen for it, and I realized that it was television static.
I followed the sound into the hallway, and in the gap between the display room’s door and the floor, I could see the flickering light of a television set.
I was momentarily unsettled by this revelation, since it was an old clunker of a television that shouldn’t have been able to turn itself on. I quickly dismissed the thought as irrational, though. My grandpa must have left it on before he went into the hospital, either by accident or on purpose, just to mess with me, and both the sound and the light had been too faint for me to notice before.
Remembering his list of rules regarding that television and fully aware there might be some kind of a prank waiting for me inside, I cautiously opened the door and stepped into the cherished room of expensive and useless junk.
It was as immaculate as I remembered it, seemingly not a single item having been moved since the last time I was there. The entire room was bathed in nothing but the monochromatic flickering from the staticky television, which made everything seem about ten times creepier than it did in the light of day.
The only lamp in the room wasn’t plugged into the correct socket for the light switch to work, so I didn’t bother trying to turn it on. I figured I would turn off the TV, and then use the light on my phone to see my way out. Since I saw no evidence of any booby traps that my grandpa might have laid for me, I headed towards the television, diligently watching my step as I did so.
The cabinet doors were wide open, which was weird in and of itself, as my grandfather always kept them shut. I was supposed to shut them too, after turning the TV off, but I couldn’t help but take a moment to examine it while I had the chance.
It looked like a classic 1950’s television set, with a wooden box frame, bulging glass screen, and knobs for control. But right below the screen, in shiny brass letters, were the words ‘In Glorious Retrovision™.’ This was confusing to me since that implied it was a recreation. I saw that there was a framed letter hanging on the inside of the cabinet door, and while it was hard to read in the dim and inconsistent light, I was able to make out that it was a Letter of Certification.
It stated that the television in question was a genuine In Glorious Retrovision™, made by an individual called Volodya Dragovic, followed by some nonsense about it using special crystals for transceiving waves in the Panpsychic Aether.
So that’s what made it special, then? It was a joke? Some sort of uncharacteristic meta-commentary on the room itself by my grandfather? I shook my head in confusion and reached down to turn the television off.
I jolted my hand back when I saw a face in the static staring back at me.
“Hey there, ducky!” the face grinned. It looked like a young woman’s face, her dark hair worn in girlish bunches, her smile equal parts sweet and sinister.
I shrieked at the sight of her, stepping backward and slamming the cabinet doors shut as I did so. I was left in almost complete darkness at that point, the only light being whatever flickering static managed to seep through the cracks in the cabinet door.
“Now, that wasn’t very nice,” the girl chastised me, pouting a little as she did so. “I just wanted to say hi. Is this your first time using an In Glorious Retrovision™? I’ve never seen you on here before.”
“You, you can see me through the television?” I stammered. I hadn’t noticed any sort of camera built-in or connected to the television set.
“Of course, ducky. It’s like a telescreen from Nineteen Eight-Four,” the girl replied. “My name’s Mary, by the way. Mary Darling. What’s yours?”
“Ah…Chris,” I answered, hoping that that would be sufficient.
“Hello Chris, a pleasure to meet you,” she said sweetly. “Would you mind opening the cabinet doors so that I can see you? My brother’s out, and I’m sooo bored. I just want to talk to somebody.”
I froze, unsure of what I should do. My grandfather’s list made it very clear that I should shut the television off immediately. But this girl, if that’s even what she was, had taken notice of me, and I was getting an extremely strong vibe that she was not someone I wanted to offend.
“Ah…yeah, sure. No problem. Sorry I slammed them shut on you like that. You startled me, is all,” I said unconvincingly as I slowly pulled open the cabinet doors to reveal her smirking, staticky face.
“Yeah, I tend to startle people a lot,” she said, playfully twirling her right pigtail. “This is Chuck’s Retrovision™, right? How do you know him?”
“Ah, he’s my grandpa, actually,” I blurted, immediately regretting it. “You’re friends with him, I take it?”
“No, not exactly. He usually tunes out the instant he sees I’ve tuned in,” she admitted. “But I manage to catch him off guard every now and then, though.”
I swallowed nervously, wondering what it was about this strange girl that had made my grandfather so diligently avoid her. I glanced down at the television set, looking for the power button.
“I wouldn’t do that, ducky,” she said, except this time, her voice came from behind me and was free of any static distortion. I spun around and saw her sitting on the couch, lit by the glow from the accursed television. Her hair was pitch black, her eyes baby blue, and her silk bathrobe, lipstick, and nail polish were all bright red. She held a cherry-garnished martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and tucked into the sash of her robe were several gleaming kitchen knives which became orders of magnitude more frightening just through association with her.
I couldn’t process how she had gotten there. It seemed impossible, but since she wasn’t acting hostile at the moment, I was more dumbfounded than terrified, though I was still plenty terrified.
“How, how did you, how did you get here?” I stammered.
“Mmmm. I’m not. This is just a projection. You’re perfectly safe, ducky,” she said as she took a sip of her martini. “No, I never leave my playroom without my brother James. A woman’s place is in the home, especially when that home is an extradimensional pocket of spacetime that she can bend to her every whim. James goes out on his own when we need new playthings or other supplies, and he enjoys the challenges working within this reality poses. Me, though, I prefer being perpetually drunk on the sense of god-like, nigh-omnipotence I get from ruling our playroom. I get bored when he’s out, though, like I said, so I play around with the Retrovision™, see who’s watching. Come, sit beside me, and I’ll show you how this thing works!”
I couldn’t smell her cigarette at all, which seemed to corroborate her claim that she wasn’t really there. That meant that I was safe for the moment, it seemed. It also meant that I could run away, but that seemed likely to upset her and might end up biting me in the ass down the line. Humoring her seemed like the least risky thing to do, so I politely sat beside her.
“Ah, you said that you just being a projection meant I was safe. Why wouldn’t I be safe if you were really here?” I asked. “You don’t look that dangerous.”
“Well, that’s kind of the point. If I was a grotesque monster instead of a pretty girl, you’d probably have done the smart thing and ran out of here as fast as you could,” she grinned at me. “But, since you asked, I’m actually a cannibalistic serial killer, as cliché as that sounds.”
I chuckled as affably as I could, only for her to take a drag from her cigarette as she glared at me in disdain.
“I’m not joking,” she said coldly. “Between us, my brother and I kill at least dozens of people every year, and I haven’t gone a day without eating human flesh since I was a kid. I’ve always got bits of someone else in my intestines since I use it in all my cooking. When I was young, I even served it to my parents. I told them I got the meat from Home Economics class, and when I killed my parents, I served some of them to my Home Economics class and told them I got the meat from home! And it’s not just fun; it’s healthy too! A human body has everything the human body needs. You just have to avoid the brain because of the prions. And my cannibalism is purely culinary, by the way. I have no respect for survival cannibalism. I don’t abandon my principles when things get rough. I’m sorry, I can see you’re sick of me shoving my lifestyle down your throat. It’s a shame I’m not really here because then I could literally shove my cooking down your throat! Oh well. Let’s see what’s on TV.”
She set down her martini and pulled out an old-fashioned remote from her robe.
“Ah, my grandpa said not to change the channel,” I protested weakly, knowing it would be useless.
“Oh, he left you some rules for this, did he?” she asked as she threw her head back in laughter. “Yeah, I’m not big on rules.”
With a click of a button, the static-filled screen changed into a monochromatic scene of what looked like an occult office or study. There were gothic bookshelves, a big and ornate desk with a leather chair, and a multitude of antique chests stacked around the room.
“Be very quiet,” she whispered to me with a mischievous smile. “Since I’m using your Retrovision™, he won’t know it’s me right away.”
“The hell I won’t, Darling! You think I can’t recognize that eldritch aura of yours on a different frequency?” a cantankerous old man shouted from somewhere off-screen. “Stay off my psi waves, or so help me, I will personally see to it that you end up crammed into the same floating box as your Uncle Larry!”
A dark form briefly moved in front of the screen before it went back to static.
“Hmm. Alright, I guess that’s not going to work,” she said, disappointed but not upset. “That’s okay, though. There are things besides other Retrovisions™ putting out strong enough signals that this can pick up.”
She started flipping through the channels rapidly, most of them containing nothing but more static. A few of them contained semi-coherent images and half-audible sounds, but she never stayed on those long enough for me to get a good grasp of what they actually were. It wasn’t until she found her first clear image that something seemed to grab her attention.
There on the screen was a hooded, hunchback figure perched atop some stone ruins like a gargoyle, leaning on a strange shepherd’s crook. Its head looked vaguely like the skull of an elephant or a mammoth, with a singular, cyclopean orifice in the front. The orifice held a small glowing light deep with its abyssal darkness, but I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a mouth, an airway, a sensory organ, or all three.
Beneath the orifice was a pair of long, tentacle-like appendages that fell to nearly the creature’s waist. Pairs of spiracles and wispy tendrils ran all along their tapering length until they each ended in a sharp, hooked talon. The creature’s fingers, clawed and twice as long as they would be on a human, numbered exactly seven; four on the right hand and three on the left, the slender extra digit appearing to be a specialized and possibly vestigial appendage. Its feet were digitigrade, almost velociraptor-like, and it seemed like there was at least one more tentacle, or possibly a tail, hiding under its robes. But other than that, it was humanoid.
Despite that, something about it was deeply unsettling. Deeply aberrant. Deeply wrong.
“Finally, something good!” Mary squeed in delight.
“Is that thing real?” I asked her, still unsure of how the RetrovisionTM was supposed to work.
“Well, he’s not from this reality, so arguably no,” she smiled. “He’s a wanderer, a planeswalker; he’s from another level of existence altogether. I can tell from his aura.”
“You mean it’s an alien?” I asked skeptically.
“An extradimensional alien, yes, but I’ve never seen his kind before,” she nodded. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Well, I mean, what makes you think it’s not just a guy in a suit, or an animatronic, or CGI?” I asked. “It wouldn’t exactly look out of place on the set of a sci-fi movie.”
“I told you, I can tell from his aura that he’s not from this plane,” she insisted. “But, if for some reason the word of a cannibalistic serial killer isn’t good enough for you, why don’t you go in for a closer look? These screens have surprisingly good resolution.”
Her tone made it clear that her suggestion was actually an order, so I obediently got up and cautiously approached the television. Up close, I could see that the creature wore a leather vambrace on its left arm, with three glowing, hemispherical dials on it, along with various other clockwork accouterments. A belt around its waist bore a similar design, and its robes had been spun from a strange sort of silk with angular fractals embroidered into them.
Such fine, if odd, garments upon so monstrous a creature were part of what made it so unsettling. Its inhuman – no, unearthly – anatomy marked it as something utterly alien, but it had clad itself in what I could recognize as the trappings of both civilization and erudition.
It stood oddly still, silently peering out into the night around it, like an ambush predator waiting in silence for prey to walk by. I couldn’t see much other than the creature itself, but from what I could tell, it was alone, and no one else had noticed it yet. I studied its skin closely, trying to discern if it was a silicone or digital illusion, but as far as I could tell, it looked like living cephalopod skin to me. I peered in closer and closer, bringing my face so close to the screen that I could feel its strong static field on my nose.
That’s when the creature jolted its head towards me, the glowing dot in its orifice darting around like the lure of an angler fish.
I pulled back from the screen so quickly that I toppled backward, landing halfway on the couch, where Mary was laughing hysterically.
“Oh, my god! Did it see me? Did it see me?” I screamed. Before she could answer, there was a tapping at the window. We both turned to see the creature standing outside, drumming at the glass with one of its clawed tentacles.
I bolted for the door, but when I threw it open, the creature had translocated again and was blocking my path, this time with both its mouth tentacles arched upwards like two cobras poised to strike. Even with its hunched posture, it was just barely shorter than the doorframe, and I had no chance of muscling past it. My only way to escape was breaking through the window, but what good would that do against a being that could teleport? I didn’t dare to fight it either, so instead, I just fell flat on my ass and begged for my life.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I wasn’t looking for you! I don’t even know what you are! I wouldn’t know how to find you again if I had to! She was the one who did it! If you’re worried about being found again, take her, please! I’m no threat to you!”
“I love it when they beg,” Mary chortled as she ate the cherry from her martini. “Almost as much as I love a good snuff film. Strangle him with those snake arms of yours and gut him like a fish!”
At that moment, I had no reason to believe that the creature could understand either of us. It looked down at me, then up at Mary, and then over to the old television set. It tapped a claw to the device on its wrist, and the channel changed to show Mary sitting in her living room, her gleefully sadistic expression instantly turning to one of dismay.
“Ah…oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” she cursed as she fumbled with the remote. The projection of her vanished immediately, but she seemed to be having some trouble turning her own Retrovision off. The strange creature looked down at me one last time, its orifice and tentacles somehow forming an expression that I read as a kindly smile.
“It’s outrageous what they allow on TV these days,” it remarked in an echoey, dead-pan voice, which may have just been in my head.
The creature teleported again, this time reappearing on the television with Mary. She shouted and pulled out her knives, but the creature dodged her blows and grabbed her arms in its tentacles. The walls of the room they were in began to melt, and then…
I turned off the TV. It was pitch black in the room, but in the screen’s dull afterglow, I could just make out my reflection. Deciding I should follow at least one of my grandpa’s rules, I slammed the cabinet doors shut before the image could register in my brain, and I got the hell out of there.
I don’t know what happened between Mary and that creature, and so long as I never see either of them again, I don’t care. I called my grandfather, told him what had happened, and that I couldn’t stay in that house anymore. Fortunately, he was understanding, but not exactly forthcoming on anything he knew about what I had been through.
When he got out of the hospital, the first thing he did was check on his display room. Nothing was broken or missing or even out of place, with one exception; a kitchen knife was embedded into the couch, exactly where I had been sitting. It looked like it had been thrown straight from the television; or, as impossible as it sounds, through it.
Mary had tried to kill me at some point, it seems, even from the other side of the screen. She had missed her shot and I, mesmerized by what I saw on the TV screen, failed to notice.
Small wonder then that my grandfather always keeps the TV cabinet doors closed.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableThe Vesper's Bell Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A