The twist. It’s what keeps us reading. And for horror stories, it’s what keeps us awake. Fans of M. Night Shyamalan’s early work (aka pre-artistic shambles) and Reddit’s r/NoSleep subgenre, as well as the true-crime addicts over at our mystery community sister site The Lineup, feed off eerie tales with sinister twists.
So, genre fans, this one’s for you. In this tasty little short by Simon R. Green, taken from his book Tales of the Hidden World, we follow a hapless journalist whose latest exclusive has him in clearly over his head. See if you can guess what he has gotten himself into before the big reveal.
“Food of the Gods”
We are what we eat. No. Wait. That’s not quite right.
I wake up, and I don’t know where I am. Red room, red room, dark shadows all around and a single, bare red bulb, swinging back and forth, coating the room with bloody light. I’m sitting on the floor with my back pressed against the wall, and I can’t seem to remember how I got here. And set on the floor before me, like a gift or an offering, on a plain white china plate, is a severed human head.
I’m sure I know the face, but I can’t put a name to it.
I can’t think clearly. Something’s wrong. Something has happened, something important, but I can’t think what. And the severed head stares at me accusingly, as though this is all my fault. I can’t seem to look away from the head, but there isn’t much else to look at. Bare walls, bare floorboards, a single closed door just to my left. And the blood-red light rising and falling as the bulb swings slowly back and forth. I don’t want to be here. This is a bad place. How did I end up in a place like this?
The name’s James Eddow. Reporter. Investigative reporter, for one of the dailies. Feeding the public appetite for all the things it’s not supposed to know. I went looking for a story, and I think I found one. Yes, I remember. There were rumors of a man who ate only the finest food, prepared in the finest ways. A man who wouldn’t lower himself to eat the kind of things other people eat. The Epicure. He lived in the shadows, avoiding all publicity, but everyone who mattered had heard of him, and it was said . . . that if you could find him, and if you could convince him you were worthy, he would make you the greatest meal of your life. Food to die for.
It had been a long time since I’d handed in a really good story. My editor was getting impatient. I needed something new, something now, something really tasty. So I went looking for the Epicure.
I went walking through the night side of the city, buying drinks for familiar faces in bars and clubs and members-only establishments, talking casually with people in the know, dropping a little folding money here and there, and finally found myself a native guide. Mr. Fetch. There’s always someone like him, in every scene. The facilitator, always happy to put like-minded souls together, at entirely reasonable rates. He can lay his hands on anything, or knows someone who can, and he knew the Epicure, oh yes, though he gave me the strangest look when I said I just had to meet him. Actually had the nerve to turn up his nose and tell me to run along home. That I didn’t know what I was getting into. But money talks, in a loud and persuasive voice, and Mr. Fetch put aside his scruples, just for me.
Why can’t I move? I don’t feel drugged, or paralyzed. But I just sit here, with my hands folded neatly in my lap, while the face on the severed head stares sadly back at me. I know that face. I’m sure I do. Why am I not shocked, or horrified? Why can’t I look away? I know that face. The name’s on the tip of my tongue.
Mr. Fetch took me to a faded hole-in-the-wall restaurant, in the shabbier end of the city. No one looked at us as we marched through the dining area. The diners concentrated on their meals, while the waiters stared into space. A door at the back led through into an entirely ordinary kitchen, and there, sitting at an empty table, was the Epicure. Not much to look at. Average size, average face, fever bright eyes. His presence seemed to fill the whole kitchen. He smiled on me and gestured for me to sit down opposite him. Mr. Fetch couldn’t wait to get his money and depart at speed. He wouldn’t even look at the Epicure.
The great man looked me over, nodded slowly, and immediately identified me as a journalist. I just nodded. This wasn’t the kind of man you could lie to. He laughed, briefly, and then started talking, before I’d even got my tape recorder set up. As though he’d been waiting for someone he could tell his story to. Someone who’d appreciate it.
I can smell the hunger on you, he said in his soft rich voice.
Tell me, I said. Tell me everything.
I eat only the finest food, said the Epicure, made from the finest ingredients. The food of the gods. I have a meal waiting, already prepared. Would you care to join me?
Of course, I said. I’d be honored.
It was excellent. Delicious. Good beyond words. I asked him what was in it, and he smiled a slow satisfied smile.
The last journalist who came looking for me.
I was too angry, too disappointed, to be shocked. I laughed, right in his face.
That’s it? That’s your great secret? You claim you’re a cannibal?
Oh no, he said. There’s far more to it than that.
Still sitting in the red room. Still staring at the neatly severed head. There’s a sense of threat in the room now, a feeling of menace and imminent danger. I’ve got to get out of here, before something bad happens. But still I don’t move, or rather, it’s more that somehow I don’t want to move. Something bad, something really bad, has already happened. Have I . . . done something bad?
Memories surge through me, jumbled, flaring up in bright splashes of good times and bad, a rushing kaleidoscope of my past, my life.
I remember being young, and small, and rolling down endless grassy slopes, with the smell of grass and earth and trees almost unbearably rich in my head. The sun was so bright, the air so warm on my bare arms and legs, comforting as a mother’s arms. I remember walking along a sandy beach, with Emily’s arm thrust possessively through mine, both of us smiling and laughing and telling each other things we’d never told anyone before. To be young and in love, happiness building and building inside me till I thought I’d explode through sheer joy. And then . . .
I remembered Emily walking away from me, her shoulders hunched against the cold night air, and the pleas I was yelling after her. I’d tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t listen, her reasons just excuses to justify a decision she’d already made. I remembered standing at my parents’ grave, after the car accident, and feeling a cold empty numbness that was worse than tears.
And the worst memory of all, realizing long before my editor told me, that I just wasn’t good enough to be the kind of reporter I wanted to be.
Memories, memories, good and bad and everything in between, things I hadn’t let myself think of in years, rushing by me faster and faster, sharp and vivid and yet somehow strangely distant.
The Epicure continued eating as he lectured me on traditional cannibal beliefs. How certain ancient peoples believed that eating a brave man’s heart would give you courage, or eating a big man’s muscles would make you strong. How recent medical science had both proved and extended these beliefs. Take a planarian worm and teach it to run a maze. Then chop up the worm and feed it to other planarian worms. And they will run the maze perfectly, even though they’ve never seen it before. Meat is memory. Eat a man’s mind, and you can gain access to all his most precious memories. For a while.
He laughed then, as the drug he’d put in my food finally took effect, and I lost consciousness.
I finally recognize the face on the severed head. Of course I know that face. It’s mine. Because I’m not who I think I am. I’m somebody else, remembering me. The Epicure doesn’t care about the meat, he eats minds so he can savor the memories. All my most precious moments, all my triumphs and despairs, all the things that made me who I am . . . reduced to a meal, to satisfying another man’s appetite. I want to cry at what I’ve lost, at what has been taken from me, but they aren’t my eyes. Already my memories are fading, my thoughts are fading, as he comes rising up inside me, like a great shark in some bloody sea, eating up what’s left of me so he can be himself again.
There’s a rich, happy, satisfied smile on my lips.
You are who you eat. But not for long.
A wonderful example of You’re not reading the story you think you’re reading—one in which the big reveal comes right at the very end and makes you see everything in a completely new light. I once wrote a story where the big surprise was in the very last word of the very last sentence; and I was unbearably smug for days.