by Joe Turner
My first contact with Margaret Clarke (known here-on as ‘the Patient’) came in the form of a letter through my surgery door in November of last year. She requested my presence at her home, and offered to pay me double my asking rate for only an hour of my time. It is rare in the psychology community for sessions to take place outside of a therapist’s purposely-crafted residence, but any doubts I had regarding the authenticity of the note were cast aside when I discovered she had already attached my fee in full. Truth be told, regardless of payment, I was intrigued by the wistful nature of The Patient’s prose throughout her correspondence, and the unnecessary fragments of bleak wisdom she had inserted between paragraphs. In the middle of her explanation as to why she had requested my presence in particular, she had written; ‘I often use the stars to put the insignificance of man into perspective,’ without any justification or context. At the bottom of the letter, below her signature, she had signed off with; ‘when life’s inescapable certainties claim us, we will be no more than forgotten names, destined to fade from memory and stone.’ These unnecessary additions suggested a damaged but repairable psyche; likely suffering an absence of identity. Several days later, I obliged the Patient’s request, and found myself travelling several miles out of my regular jurisdiction to meet with her.
At this point, I will admit to being coaxed by personal intrigue; perhaps seduced by a rare opportunity to explore the thoughts and dreams of what I believed to be a pure misanthrope. Some would call it unprofessionalism, but I thought of it as more of an opportunity. As you know, the inner workings of the unconscious mind is what drives my being, and I would go to extreme lengths to further humanity’s knowledge on the subject. My clientele as of late has become somewhat tedious; cheating spouses racked with guilt; teenagers starved of attention. My craving for intellectual discovery is rendered dormant when my time is wasted on such frivolous issues. In fact, during a recent session with a young man – barely old enough to dress himself – claiming depression and the urge to end his life, I jokingly suggested that I would bring a litre of bleach to next week’s meeting to truly assess his capacity for suicide.
Several things stood out to me upon arriving at the Patient’s residence. Firstly, her front door was left unlocked; a trait more akin to the naïve or juvenile. I found many old photographs arranged in new frames, and new photographs pinned chaotically, yet with artistic intent, to several walls. I had profiled the woman as a possible schizophrenic, perhaps a sufferer of the rare Cotard Delusion, yet this was not the case judging from her living arrangements. A voice called out to me, which I followed without question. I considered using the situation to establish authority by refusing to adhere to her request, however, I know now that this would not have been possible even if I had tried.
I discovered the Patient sitting alone in an upstairs room. A room stripped of its livelihood, steeped in solemn blackness from boarded up windows. Yet, this wasn’t the first thing my attention was drawn to, nor was it the scent of petrichor seeping through waning floorboards. My immediate concern was with the thick pieces of wire sprouting from each of the Patient’s limbs. Her wrists, neck, thighs, feet, and elbows all connected to the ceiling by individual lengths of silvery rope, suspending sections of The Patient’s torso in mid-air like a sideshow attraction to be gazed upon and gleefully repulsed by. Suicide attempt immediately crossed my mind, but refrained from reacting due to the lack of any signs of distress. I moved towards her and held my hand out to greet her, but was unable to avert my eyes from the unnatural sight of the Patient’s anatomy long enough to realise she could not return my gesture. Her body possessed the rigidity of a wooden structure. What little fluidity her condition allowed mimicked the mechanical grace of a Victorian automaton; moving only inches before returning to her static position as though she were a museum curiosity to be left undisturbed.
The Patient had transformed herself into a living puppet.
Debates regarding the authenticity of a ‘Messiah complex’ have occurred for many years in my field of medical care. Very little is known about the condition’s root causes, only that it is stemmed from grandiose self-worth and an extreme sense of entitlement. Theories suggest that if one’s mental state can progress to such a point that he or she believe they are the incarnation of Jesus, then there is nothing stopping the conscious mind succumbing to the belief that they are any living or non-living entity. This also suggests that an extreme reversal of this phenomenon could occur, forcing a devolution of the conscious mind to the state of an inanimate object; perhaps via a combination of grandiose delusions, personification and object-anthropomorphism.
I sat opposite the Patient and began our session. She spoke to me in a manner akin to a serial murderer confessing their crimes from the sanctuary of a confessional booth, with myself playing the part of the anonymous cleric who must suffer the knowledge in secret. She spoke softly and without hesitation, suggesting her words were rehearsed like lines from a theatre performance. The Patient began her story at her previous workplace – a geographical survey company – where she had worked for eleven years. She described her initial symptoms as ‘a gradual separation of consciousness and physical self’, following on to explain how she eventually became detached from her actions, as if watching her own life from afar. Hallucinations became commonplace, visualing puppet strings above people’s heads. It is useful to note that her senses did not become void as they often do in such psychological states. The Patient remarked that she could taste the coffee she drank and felt the burn of tobacco inhalation, yet was powerless to stop herself performing these actions.
A word the Patient frequently used was relief, as though being in control of one’s own actions were a burden to be shed. The Patient continued in this state for a number of weeks, watching her life play out as though a segment of a scripted performance had been isolated and repeated ad infinitum. When I questioned the Patient on why this bizarre state of mind might have suddenly manifested, her response was not unexpected. Sufferers of such delusions are often mentally ill-equipped to confront the reality of their condition; in brief, that their existence has become devoid of meaning. The Patient simply responded; ‘the Puppet King.’
I asked her to elaborate. The Patient told me that her work had led her to a nameless town in the depths of the rural countryside. A town absent of human life. ‘A place where doors exist only as decorations; graffiti tagged walls are conveniently placed to give the illusion of human intervention; street litter is moulded to the concrete so it can never scatter in the wind; bookshop windows display hollowed-out hardbacks with illegible titles.’
The Patient claims to have discovered a town devoid of the living. A town motionless and without civilization, ‘paying silent tribute to the futility of life.’
‘All that exist there are puppets. They are lined up on shelves in shop windows and nailed to walls. Some are life-sized effigies posed with baby carriages cradling miniature versions of themselves. One leant idly against a streetlamp while another hanged silhouetted against its orange glow in mock suicide.’
When I questioned the Patient on the identity of the aforementioned ‘Puppet King’, she informed me that she did not know who he was, or why he was the only living person present in this strange town.
‘Of all the shops, only one had a sign which wasn’t an indecipherable mass of swirls and hieroglyphs; a shop called The Puppet King. There was a light on inside, and I saw there what you see now.
Inside, the Patient claims to have seen a man strapped to a chair as though awaiting his execution. This visual forced the Patient to flee the town without hesitation. Her symptoms began several days afterwards.
There is a classic trope in literature which addresses the idea of witnessing something so unfathomable that the only logical recourse is madness. I believe a similar condition has occurred within the Patient, albeit with no supernatural elements to speak of. Such surreal trauma has forced the Patient into a state of disbelief. Her conscious mind is unable to perceive a reality as abstract as the one witnessed. The Patient claims that since her visit to this bizarre town she is unable to distinguish between memory and dream and reality, although she assured me the event was genuine.
My time with the Patient came to an end, although I left her residence with more questions than answers. Professionalism dictated that I alert medical authorities to the Patient’s whereabouts as she was surely suffering physical distress, however, she would likely end up under the watchful eye of asylum authorities, beyond my reach. Looking back, I cannot say why I did it. Maybe I was simply verifying the Patient’s claims, or perhaps I wanted to taste sweet madness for myself before I handed the Patient over to more cultivated minds than my own. I knew that I needed to find the town she spoke of. She had given me vague directions, and that evening I drove southbound until nightfall, scrutinizing every solitary signpost and questioning the very few pedestrians I could find en-route, all of whom denied the existence of any such town. Their reluctance projected me further down the country, discovering villages and sheltered communities frozen in a previous era, but no towns made up of inanimate objects.
In the early hours, perhaps motivated by dreariness, I decided to give up my search and head back to the Patient’s residence. It was nearing waking hours by the time I arrived at her door, so I entered as I did the previous day. At first I blamed my fatigue on not recognizing the layout of the Patient’s home. The photographs and neglected home décor were nowhere to be seen. Had someone been in and stolen them? The door indeed could have been unlocked all night. I moved upstairs and felt the familiar swathe of blackness as I had before. I called out but received no response. I pushed open the door to our previous meeting room, unsure of what reasoning I could give as to why I had returned, but I was greeted only with an empty chair. The Patient was nowhere to be seen.
I searched her residence and returned nothing. I thought back to her letter. She had requested my presence because she could sense my obsession with intellectual advancement; with discovering something which could make sense of a senseless existence. Her puppet strings still swayed from the roof of her sick-room, the ends still warm from her touch. I believe she has returned to that place, but I am by no means certain of it.
I still see her. My dreams are haunted by a living puppet whose confessions I desperately yearn to be real. I hope this letter explains the circumstances regarding my own disappearance. To be driven to madness by simple knowledge would be preferable than suffering the affliction of stagnant routine for the remainder of my days. Please accept this note as confirmation of my resignation from the Board of Psychologists. You will hear no more from me, and I will likely be impossible to contact. I will spend the time I have left seeking this strange place which might not even exist. I will wander forgotten streets and towns without names, wondering who the Puppet King really is. I know now how the classic trope ends – chasing madness until death intervenes.
Joe Turner is a writer of horror, crime and mystery. He resides in the United Kingdom. His inspiration comes from the weird, the bizarre and the unexplainable. He is a criminal psychology graduate and a Lovecraft obsessive. He can be reached at the following locations: