"At the Sign of the Black Dove" was, technically, the first short story I ever had commissioned. It wasn't the first I'd written, but it was certainly the first time anyone had ever asked me to come up with something to a brief.
Inspired by the paintings of John Martin, they said.
Apocalypse, they said.
Sure, I said.
And then I went and hid under my desk and rocked backwards and forwards for a bit, chewing on my fist, because… apocalypse, y'know? Where the hell do you start?
You start with a pub. Obviously.
I live in Brighton, at the bottom of Kemp Town. And on the corner of St James's Street there is a pub which has no name. I'm reliably informed that it used to actually be called "The Pub With No Name"… which is kind of cheating, because if that's what it's called then it does actually have a name. But, umm, yes. Moving on.
What it does have is a logo on the wall: a black dove. And if you stand outside and look down the road, you're looking straight at the sea. You can't see the pier - which is harder than you might think at this end of Brighton - or the big wheel which now sits on the front… just the sea and the sky and the fuzzy grey bit where they meet, which frankly could be either of the two.
A pub that looks like it could be at the end of the world. Now there's an idea. What if it was - literally?
Going back to John Martin, as well as being a painter and engraver, he was fascinated by London's potable water and sewage problems: contaminated drinking water was still a huge problem at the time, so the idea of drinking something seemed to fit with the spirit of the Apocalypse brief, as well as the pub setting. Add in the falling star by the name of Wormwood from the Book of Revelations… and you get absinthe. (Well. I do, anyway. Stop judging.) And that's the key ingredient in those cocktails our heroes in the Black Dove are knocking back.
The last piece of the puzzle came, again, from Martin. I spent a fair amount of time looking at his paintings while I was working on the story, and while I'm a big fan of the full bombast setting (a phrase I have shamelessly stolen from this Solomon Kane review, because it's basically too good not to), the one I find the most appealing is much quieter. It's the Bridge Over Chaos - one of his illustrations for Paradise Lost. And while it's not as overwhelming or as… bombastic as, say, The Great Day of His Wrath, there's something about it. It's sad - but more than anything, it's lonely.
"At the Sign of the Black Dove" is about the end of the world. It's about friends losing themselves and each other as everything they know crumbles about them. (It sounds, if you're interested, not unlike this.) But it's also about the man who oversees it: the angel of the apocalypse, if you like. The Barman. We don't know his name. We don't know much about him, actually - except that he used to work somewhere called the Seven Stars (which, in a super-geek double-whammy is both the name of another Brighton pub and another of the "mysteries" of Revelations. There's a few of those hiding out in the story if you're inclined to look for them). And we know that he's lonely. You would be, wouldn't you? To be the only one at the end of the world. To be a tiny figure in the vastness of the dark.
Maybe he's tired.
Maybe he's just looking for someone to share a drink with.
Maybe it's you.
Just don't mention the frogs…
Lou Morgan is the author of Blood and Feathers, published by Solaris in August 2012, with a sequel coming next year. "At the Sign of the Black Dove" can be found in Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, which goes out of print (ink & digital) on November 4, 2012. Pounce while you can.
Editors' note: Lou upfrogs like a boss.