Hands Up Who Wants To Die by Sonya Vatomsky

I didn’t think anything of it when the mail arrived. Or rather I thought about the mail arriving, about the spoils of my latest shopping spree. I had, you see, a moderately popular YouTube channel and was in a perpetual state of buying and receiving perfume — samples usually, tiny vials always turning up under sofa cushions and between the pages of magazines. Mail, much like my life, could be exciting but was under no circumstances unusual. X led to y without dilly dallying; events brushed the crumbs of chance off their no-nonsense cardigans. My flat smelled of vetiver and old habits.

This particular haul contained four samples from a perfume shop based in Wales. There was a classic floral with a top-note twist; the inevitable smells-like-something-on-fire, in this case a haunted sauna in the middle of a boreal forest; a gourmand I picked only because those always landed with my viewers; and a scent with a Mariana Trench drydown — briny and dark and dotted with spindly, bioluminescent creatures. A weird yet wearable sea-smell was my white whale, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, and I was looking forward to doing an unboxing video in the evening, followed by an in-depth review.

Now, though, was Rightmove time. I liked to spend my lunch breaks either thinking up new YouTube content or looking at houses I couldn’t afford — today it was the latter. Inhaling a sip of milky tea, I scrolled past a four-bed detached house on a ‘highly-regarded road’ and a seven-bed terrace with a divine conservatory but, appallingly, not a single tub in any of the three bathrooms. That was when I saw it.

Julian Ward’s house.

Not the Liverpool sporting director but the other Julian Ward — shock of dark hair, rail-thin, screamed about love and death and the devil to waifs with ankh tattoos. He had peaked in the 80s and 90s, though you wouldn’t know it by the crowds that gathered at his live shows, everyone still in all black but now with receding hairlines and reasonable jobs. And, after dating his way through an impressive list of singers and models, he too had settled down and eventually married a sculptor. That was how I recognised the house — from the Instagram account of the sculptor.

There was the lounge with its stacks of books and quirky mismatched side tables. There the blood-red bathroom that topped countless listicles in edgy interior design magazines. There the wunderkammer containing, among other things, three human skulls rumoured to have belonged to various occult figures, though it was unclear in which capacity. At a university party years ago, Julian’s track ‘Orphic Orphan’ blasting on the stereo, a boy in a SWANS t-shirt had bumped against my shoulder. He smelled of beer and arrogance.

‘Maaate,’ he slurred. ‘Did you know Julian owns Aleister Crowley’s skull?’ He paused for dramatic effect and then burped. ‘I heard he totally drinks out of it when he needs inspiration.’

‘Crowley was cremated,’ I replied, drunk and uncharitable. ‘His ashes are in New Jersey.’ Then I walked off to get a lukewarm beer.

My interest in the occult had waned a little after graduation, though I suppose the same could be said for my interest in things generally. Still, I quite enjoyed reading dark fiction about conspiracies and secret societies — especially when I could put my rusty Latin to good use and most especially when I caught translation mistakes the author made. I had been, once or twice, to every oddities shop in the Greater Manchester area. And I always took guests, though I rarely had them, to the audit room of Chetham’s Library where astronomer and alchemist John Dee had summoned the devil, and showed them the ‘hoofprint’ burned into the oak refectory table.

So I supposed it would be cool indeed to tour Julian’s house and gawk at his collection of rare books, revisit my youth a little. Possibly I could even manage a sly photograph of Durtal, the Fender Mustang upon which Julian had composed his most famous songs — named, of course, after French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans’ self-insert in Là-Bas. I hovered the finger over the contact button and pressed down as if possessed. I was looking at a house with a carpeted bathroom when my phone rang.

‘When can you come?’ The voice on the other line was brisk, irritable.

‘Excuse me?’

‘The house on Victoria Street. I’ll arrange a viewing. Can you come at two?’

It was almost one, the end of my lunch break, but I didn’t have much work left. It was doable. I found myself agreeing. It wasn’t until the line disconnected that I realised the agent would immediately grok I didn’t have the million pounds the house was listed for. I didn’t even have a hundred thousand pounds. I had, truth be told, around three hundred, and would have even less after the Uber, because I couldn’t show up to a million-pound house on a bus, could I? I could not.

I booked the Uber and waited downstairs. I had no idea what I was hoping for — it’s not like Julian would be there and I could ask for an autograph. It would just be me and the agent and the house and Durtal the guitar and it would be ridiculous, assuming I was even allowed inside. Likely she’d suss me out, scold me for wasting her time. She had a voice meant for scolding. I was imagining the precise words she would use when the Uber arrived.

Victoria Street straddled the border of Stretford and Chorlton-cum-Hardy, maybe thirty minutes south of Manchester. A smartly dressed woman, presumably the estate agent, stood by a short red brick fence with a heavy iron gate; beyond it, a stone driveway surrounded by artfully planted greenery snaked towards Julian Ward’s house.

‘Welcome,’ the estate agent said as we walked up the driveway. She stuck out her hand and we exchanged a firm handshake; she smelled of tonka bean and balsam fir. ‘This is the house. As you can see it is a period property. 1800 square feet, three floors, et cetera. You read the listing.’ She opened the door and beckoned me in. ‘And this is the hallway.’

‘Stunning original features,’ I said, hoping I sounded wealthy. ‘I love the architraves.’ I had googled architraves in the Uber.

‘Yes,’ the agent replied, leading me onwards.

To my right was a handsome oxblood sofa, the leather quite worn: I was in the lounge. Side tables, none of them belonging to the same decorating style, were placed here and there like little hillocks. On these tables and on the floor lay stacks of books, many reaching a precarious height, and the bookcases lining the walls were interrupted only by an out-of-use fireplace filled with large white candles in various life stages. A stick of incense was lit somewhere and I could pick up heady notes of white frankincense, iris, and birch.

‘So why is…’ I picked the words carefully, not wanting to give myself away. ‘…the current owner moving?’

‘Ah,’ the agent said. ‘Also on this floor is the dining room.’

I tried a different approach. ‘Do you mind if I use the loo?’ I did my best to look normal.

‘The bathroom is upstairs,’ the agent said firmly. ‘On this floor is the dining room.’

‘I’ll be quick,’ I insisted. 

The agent tutted. ‘Fine. It’s on the left.’ She motioned upwards with her arm.

I went upstairs, opened the door on the left, and walked into what was definitely a bedroom. Had she said the door on the right? No matter. I didn’t actually need the bathroom, just a moment of privacy to appreciate my circumstances. And now I was in Julian Ward’s bedroom! It was just as gorgeous as it was on Instagram: emerald walls and every furnishing draped in sumptuous velvets, dark florals, and cheeky leopard print. Beside the bed was a row of antique medicine cabinets filled with toiletries, candles, and stacks of moleskine journals. Leafy plants in oxidised silver pots trailed onto the floor.

An entire cabinet was dedicated to perfume and I drifted towards it, recognising some from my own collection and others I had only read about online. Did these belong to Julian or to the sculptor? I marvelled at the intricate bottles, picking a few up and sniffing them in quick succession. One was set apart from the rest: sleek and minimalist with a crown shaped like an inverted pyramid. It was a long-discontinued fragrance I’d hunted for years, going so far as to set up alerts on eBay and other auction sites. I held the bottle up to smell but shoved it in my bag instead.

‘The dining room,’ the agent said. She had opened the door and was standing behind me, a strange look on her face.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I have to go. There’s an emergency. I’m an emergency.’ I walked quickly down the stairs, nearly slipping, and broke into a weird little run once outside. Only after I was several streets away did I stop and call an Uber. My heart pounded against my teeth.

At home, I brewed tea and tried to relax. I took the perfume out of my bag and stared at it. I put the perfume in the back of my wardrobe and piled jumpers on top. I drank more tea. I puttered around the flat holding the perfume, waiting for a call from the agent or a knock from the police or a dozen other possible scenarios that would see me jailed, let go from my job, let go from my job and then jailed, and so on. But the call never came. Not that day nor the next. By then I was wearing the perfume on my wrists and behind my ears, subtle little spritzes.

The scent was fresh yet smoky, with notes I couldn’t place; wearing it imbued me with a youthful confidence. This reaction to a perfume was, in itself, not too peculiar — one of my most-viewed YouTube videos was about how scent played with mood and memory. I had spent hours researching it, learning that scientists were split on whether our response to specific smells was physiological or emotional. Whether lavender was innately calming or merely conjured up a gentle childhood, bubbles in our bath, lotion on our mother’s soft hands. Perhaps scent-memory was memetic, viral, passed person to person until it became an archetype. All I knew for sure was that I felt a little brave and totally unstoppable. It was a dangerous combination.

My unboxing video had gone well and I was an hour into editing the footage when a song lyric I’d heard a thousand times tickled at my brain. I usually edited with music playing, and the events of the week had inspired me to look my favourite Julian Ward album up on Spotify.

A Victorian house on Victoria Street
The end of the world!
The end of the world!
That’s where you and I will meet
The end of the world!
The end of the world!

How strange. The song was written years before Julian had moved onto Victoria Street. Was it a coincidence? I googled ‘julian ward victoria street meaning’ and ended up on a fan site that looked like it hadn’t had a significant design update since Y2K. What it did have was a forum.

tombombdotcombadil on March 12, 2013:
this was the same year he did that NME interview. journo asked what his plan was and J says I’m going to release 23 albums and then destroy the world lmao. I had that issue but my parents threw it out when I was at uni. 🙁 plenty of streets with that name in england tho, doubt it means anything.  

_MarquisDeSad_ on March 12, 2013:
yep april 1994 NME

SchieleTakeABow on March 13, 2013:
Marquis, I’ve got that one and Julian’s not in it. Must be a Mandela Effect thing, loads of people talking about the interview but nobody has a photo or literally anything to prove it exists?? Not even on the Wayback Machine? My uncle worked at NME in the 90s and he says it deffo didn’t happen.

ancientanchovies on September 22, 2022:
Guys wasn’t Ouroboring album 23? Should we be worried???

It was true — Ouroboring, Julian Ward’s most recent album, was indeed his twenty-third. I vaguely remembered the NME interview, apocryphal or otherwise, but hadn’t kept up with his newer releases. To be honest, it had never been totally clear to me whether Julian’s answers to interview questions, not to mention his albums upon albums of esoteric lyrics and symbolic cover art, were supposed to be taken seriously. Was it kayfabe, or was he a true believer?

Personally, I’d always been more Scully than Mulder. I loved the occult the way I loved horror movies and shoegaze music — wholeheartedly, sure, but as a thing I consumed, treasured, spent too many nights debating the finer points of online. Not as a philosophy. And certainly not as a how-to manual. Which isn’t to say I didn’t want to believe. More than anything I wished to turn a corner and enter another world, to have faith that future events could, to paraphrase Crowley, be bent to my will through magic. But I was nearing forty and the real world was, as far as I could tell, the only world. The perfume rose off my wrists suggestively.

I debated going back to Victoria Street, having a wee look around. Didn’t the listing say something about an open house? I hadn’t had dinner and there might be snacks, prosecco even. I pictured myself sitting on Julian’s leather sofa with a caviar-topped canape and a champagne flute; it wasn’t the worst way to spend a Friday night. Maybe if I had more friends, someone would have talked me out of it. But I was alone, my life a dreary loop of admin tasks punctuated by YouTube videos, and immersing myself in a world of song lyrics and conspiracies had been a delightful shock to the system. I felt buoyed up by an uncharacteristic energy. As if to reassure myself that I was still capable of restraint, I didn’t call an Uber. Instead I took the bus.

I couldn’t see anyone through the windows as I approached but the lights were on, which seemed auspicious. I reached for the doorknob and found the door already unlocked. Music was playing inside, something lush and atmospheric. Cocteau Twins? I tried to think of what I’d say to the server as they handed me my drink. But when I entered, the hallway was empty.

‘Hello,’ I called. Waiting for someone to come greet me, I skimmed the bookshelves lining the walls. There were countless volumes of poetry and prose, larger books stacked horizontally so they’d fit. The eclectic mix appeared organised by subject rather than genre — I spotted Huysmans’ novel by a nonfiction book called The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, Le Grimoire de Parfum next to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Moby Dick nestled between two seafood cookbooks.

Le Grimoire de Parfum took me back to my teenage years. I had never seen an actual copy (and had, truth be told, been rather doubtful of its existence) but knew it from countless interviews and as the inspiration for Julian Ward’s fifth album Bawdy Horror. I always imagined that Le Grimoire, along with its 18th century French author who used scent-magic to manipulate reality, was like the Necronomicon — a literary invention. Perhaps someone had created the book when the album went gold? I could see Julian appreciating a thoughtful gift like that. Peckish, and with no server materialising, I tried my luck with the lounge.

It too was empty, though ornate lamps glowed from each corner and the thick, waxy candles in the fireplace were lit. I craned my ear — it was the Cocteau Twins. ‘Bluebeard’, not one of my favourites. The sound seemed to be coming from below, though there wasn’t a basement on the floor plan. My eyes wandered, alighting briefly on various objets d’art interspersed with the books: some kind of specimen in a glass jar, an oil painting of a lover’s eye, what looked to be the articulated bones of a human finger. The heady smell of incense filled my nostrils. I felt young and terrible and full of purpose.

Not immune to the call of the Internet during life’s more idle moments, I checked my phone to see if I had any missed texts or notifications (I did not). I checked my bank balance (£217.39). I scrolled through a few more posts on the fan forum.

wardfan85 on December 12, 2018:
anyone else read martyrdom of gilles de rais?? always thought that guy was a serial killer but apparently he was framed by the catholic church lol yikes

patrickbatman on December 12, 2018:
Actually Gilles de Rais was the origin of the Bluebeard myth

UmbertoEcoAndTheBunnymen on December 13, 2018:
Just finished it! Totally OBSESSED & now thinking about the lyrics to Joan Dark: “drink up, Joan / go find your way / through the starless night / and the framed Gilles de Rais”

Thoughts?! #justiceforgilles

watergate_salad on December 13, 2018:
lmao its really not that deep 

I slipped the phone back into a pocket and looked around. Where was that server? A familiar painting sparkled from an alcove in one of the bookcases: a man leaning against a battle-axe, Éloi Firmin Féron’s 1835 portrait of Gilles de Rais. The only surviving likeness of him. I traced the thick gold frame, engraved with dozens of fleurs de lys. The framed Gilles de Rais, I thought. Ha-ha. I looked at his proud face, his dark eyes. His dark eyes looked at me. Suddenly, the bookcase slid back to reveal a poorly lit stairway. A basement! I heard music and the swell of conversation as I descended. There were people down there, many by the sound of it.

‘Are you here for the ritual?’

A goth girl holding a clipboard was at the bottom of the stairs, perched on a stool like a bored gargoyle. She wore a black shirt that said END OF THE WORLD and stared at me like I was stupid.

Was I here for the ritual? I supposed I was. I nodded.

The girl leaned forward and — how do I say this? She sniffed me. A deep inhale.

‘Hmm,’ she said, writing something on her clipboard. ‘OK.’

I stepped past her and into a cavernous room, the walls made of stone and the ceiling painted to look like the night sky. A flute of prosecco was thrust into my hands. Finally. But it tasted strange, dank and earthy and effervescent. I thought of worms wriggling in the ground. Someone in a cloak walked past me and I realised I was the only one not draped in black velvet. Everyone else had gotten the memo: long sleeves and billowing hoods. It looked like a ringwraith party.

‘The cloaks are by the door!’ the goth girl hissed. Sure enough, there was a neatly folded pile on a small table. When in Rome, I thought, and put one on. I sipped the prosecco and shuffled towards the others.

‘Isn’t this cool?’ said a cloaked figure to my left. ‘The world is gonna end tonight.’

I took another sip as my mind swam little circles inside my skull. Was this… a death cult? Yes, I thought, or perhaps said out loud. This was totally a death cult. I had finally left the house on a Friday night only to join a death cult in an ageing rocker’s basement and nobody knew where I was and I was definitely going to die, because that was what you did in a death cult, it was right there in the name. Uh ohhhh, I said, my voice sing-songy and strange. I took a giant gulp of prosecco and hoped it wasn’t spiked with cyanide.

‘Are you a plus one?’ someone on my right asked. ‘The Kickstarter only had five spots in the apocalypse tier but there are, like, at least fifty people here.’ The cultist made a shrug-like gesture that was hard to interpret with the cloak. ‘To be fair, this is way awesome,’ they added. ‘But I just thought it would be more, I dunno, exclusive?’

He emerged from the crowd then. Julian Ward. 

‘Thank you all for coming,’ he said. His eyes glittered. ‘Thank you all for coming to the end of the world!’

Everyone cheered. I craned my neck — he was holding something. A book? Le Grimoire. Panic built in my throat as he flipped through the pages and began reading, his voice deep and hypnotic. I wiped sweaty palms on my cloak, trying to methodically examine every decision that had led me here. Thirty-eight years of life suddenly seemed like not long at all. I thought of my little flat with my recording nook and my perfume collection and my TBR pile and the dark academia book I’d just gotten a shipping notification for. I cursed dark academia. I cursed Umberto Eco and Robert Anton Wilson and Donna Tartt. Midnight conversations! Hidden messages! Magic! I saw now that it could all only end in death.

But I had never believed in any of it, my inner voice said plaintively. I had researched it, obsessed over it, maybe wished for it. But I had never believed in magic. In a moment of delirium I wondered if Julian Ward was a tulpa, if all of this was somehow the grotesque result of my teenage capital-W Will, an insane poltergeist of want and energy and mystery and desire. What should I do?

‘You have all been gathered here,’ Julian intoned, ‘as individual notes of a glorious perfume.’

The Kickstarter cultist whooped. Julian Ward was going to tear open reality, I thought. Le Grimoire was real and Julian Ward was going to tear open reality and destroy the world. I brought a wrist to my nose in a nervous gesture before remembering I was wearing the stolen perfume. Its scent mixed with the cultists’ fragrances. I breathed in and out, slightly light-headed. 

I smelled coffee and clove cigarettes: sleepless nights in front of a CRT monitor, ICQ open, corresponding with online friends who weren’t even remotely age appropriate. I smelled pickled peppers and whiskey: university years, part-time work at a deli, learning that I was too weird and too loud and too anxious and too too. I smelled my teenage crush and celebrating my A-levels and the hallway of my first flat and spending my last birthday alone and waking up alone and my lonely future unspooling before me. Don’t end yet, I whimpered at the world.

My memories swirled around, lifted me, compressed me, pummelled me, stretched me towards a breaking point. They filled my nose and ears and mouth. I saw blackness, heard nothing but static. Strange lights travelled across my open eyes. My limbs tingled. My heart pumped a drumbeat through electric veins. I stared into the void, the neverending. It was terrifying. I was terrified. I vowed to change everything.

Slowly a voice broke through.

A guitar started playing.


Manchester, England — July 1, 2023 — Rat King Rat Records is excited to announce the release of a new album by legendary British musician Julian Ward, available on 10” vinyl and streaming services on July 31, 2023. Last night Julian Ward premiered the lead single ‘Psychopomp (Let Me Be Ur)’ at an invite-only event for his Kickstarter backers and leading UK music journalists.

Psychopomp is Julian Ward’s twenty-fourth studio album, following 2019’s critically acclaimed Ouroboring. It will be sold individually and as a set with Julian Ward’s first perfume. Created in collaboration with a ‘renowned parfumier’ the artist refuses to name, Psychopomp EdeP has notes of narcissus flower, resin, and graveyard dirt; a limited-edition bottle designed by Julian Ward will be available at Selfridges.

Sonya Vatomsky is the author of SALT IS FOR CURING and the chapbooks MY HEART IN ASPIC and AND THE WHALE, which won the 2019 Vella Chapbook Contest. Their short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ANMLY and Nocturne Magazine, and their bylines as a journalist include The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Smithsonian Magazine. Sonya was born in the former USSR, lives in Manchester, England, and haunts at @coolniceghost.