The gallery was full of visitors. Most of them crowded around the two most famous paintings by the ingenious artist best known as The Nightmare King.
One of those paintings was The Lady of Red Shadows. Her eyes were covered with a red scarf. There was something eerie about her; many reported having strange visions and frightening nightmares about poisonous red flowers and fierce red-eyed beasts for days or even weeks after they had seen the painting.
Also the fame and wealth of the Nightmare King, his mysterious life and the unique dreamlike nature of his work caused a fascination with this eccentric artistic genius. There was, in his paintings, something so much beyond human sensory perception that it fueled quizzical assumptions and savory gossip. Drugs were incriminated for the unearthly aspect of the pictures and the bizarre sensations they induced.
Other artists tried all sorts of drugs to obtain a similar effect; all their attempts failed. Either the drug theory was wrong or the Nightmare King was on some unknown drug only accessible to him – which was not likely. There was always a possibility of a deal with the Devil. This was suspiciously whispered by some imaginative individuals, who then laughed and affirmed that this was only a joke. Few are those who genuinely believe in the Devil nowadays and those who do will rather not admit it. Also in the creative field, musicians are those reputed to sign agreements with demons. For some reason, painters are generally not favored by the inhabitants of Hell. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule…
Actually, the only one who knew the explanation behind the inspiration of those masterpieces of art was the painter himself. But this was his own secret; one that he cherished and would share with nobody else.
When he decided he would be an artist without a day job to support him, everything went wrong, as if a series of curses were unceasingly falling on him. His family thought he was crazy. He lost most of his friends. He desperately struggled to prove to everybody that they were wrong; that he was a successful artist. But all his works were ignored or rejected. In the long run, he felt like a failure. He lived in total isolation, ignored phone calls, kept his windows shut all day and spent most of his time alternatively brooding over his ill fortune, daydreaming while listening to music and drawing in a passionate, infuriated way as if he was possessed by a demon that could only be appeased while he was concentrating on his artwork.
One night, while drowsing over his new sketch, he had a weird…what was it? A vision? A dream? It started by his own image in a dark mirror. But his reflection was not the usual one. He looked like a wild animal – some unusual kind of deluded werewolf. He was scared…
Of a sudden, a woman stood beside his eerie reflection. Although breathtakingly beautiful, she radiated darkness and her face was expressionless. She made a sign that he was to follow her. And he did without giving it a second thought, without asking any questions, without a single moment of hesitation. As if this was something he was always meant to do. Walking behind her in his beastly shape, he had a sensation of ascending and floating among clouds. Actually, the place where the woman led him was more likely to be located under the earth or hidden in a mysterious wild forest. This was a nightmare place, one that belonged in the realms of darkness. Yet, he had such a wonderful feeling there! How was that possible?
He felt like Alice in Wonderland at the moment when she was attacked by cards. By no means was this supposed to be pleasant. And yet, it was… great – even more than that. This was awesome. Amazing. Fantastic!! He was unable to figure out why something that would make anybody else wake up sweating and screaming with terror was such a delight to him. He did not try to understand more. This would be pointless – he would not, never mind how hard he tried. He kept wandering throughout this eerie place and he looked around him and what he saw could be considered as a masterpiece of art by the standards of the nightmare realms.
His guide brought him to a shifting place. The transformations followed the brisk and irrational pattern of dreams. He was in a garden of shiny flowers crowned with thin feathers instead of petals. Beheaded statues stood all around the garden as if they were the fearsome sentinels of the angel-feathered flowers.
The statues became alive and their heads were made of a cluster of white feathered flowers or of one single giant flower the petals of which were butterflies. The woman that brought him here picked up one of the flowers on the ground; she blew on it and whispered some mysterious spells that sounded like the music of a funeral march for a child-fairy. And under this powerful charm, the huge statues melted and their flower heads dissolved into a shower of white feathery petals and white snowflake butterflies smoothly whirled all around the place as if performing some kind of Dance Macabre. The garden shifted to an eerie snowy landscape. The ice seemed made out of clouds skillfully combined with minute diamonds and it took shapes as various as those of the clouds, causing an incessantly changing aspect of the spotless scenery. And as though somebody had blown a divine breath into the shapeless snow, fierce creatures of wondrous beauty emerged out of the bodies of the stone sentinels that had previously melted into ice. Light as shadows, the creatures danced; they moved as swiftly and gracefully as snowflake-made felines and then they vanished as though they were but mere shadows melding into the wild frozen wind.
Back to reality, the shape shifting ice echoed in the mind of the artist like a fluttering and he painted all kinds of outlandish hybrid birds the plumage of which was in exquisite shining colors.
The beautiful woman that guided him in the dark realms, this powerful sorceress, incited a powerful lust in him. She was as mysterious and sensual as the voluptuous scents of the Oriental nights. In her silent darkness, the lascivious sorceress was fierce and cruel like the Heart Queen in Wonderland and her passionate nature was as wild and rebellious as an untamed feline. And yet she was innocent and fragile like a young child; pure and chaste like an unsullied virgin. Such woman was not likely to exist in the real world. He would be enslaved to her if he met her in reality; he was addicted to her delightful obscure company during his journeys in the shadow realms.
His strong, unfulfilled desire for this shadow sorceress also passed onto the canvas: an impression of melancholy and wild passion came out of the bird – women depicted on his paintings. His winged creatures had the gloomy beauty of the sirens, whose song caused the death of sailors attracted to them like moths are to flame. His creations were akin to the queen of Atlantis who killed her lovers after she had spent the night with them.
As time passed, the painter became aware that people loved his work. Now many were those who praised it. People wrote kind things to him to let him know how grateful they were for the beauty he brought to their lives. The famous professionals in his field regarded his work with great respect. Some artists sick with envy even wickedly pretended to discard and despise his work. The latter was not so pleasant for the painter, but this is part of fame. In the beginning, he was happy. His ego was satisfied. It was like when he had good marks at school and his parents congratulated him and sometimes bought him presents.
Then something weird happened to him. He became melancholic. He was indifferent to praise and fame irritated him rather than flattering him. Why should he care so much about what people thought of his work? They had ignored it at first; then they praised it. Could they not ignore it again after some time? And what if he wasted so much energy to keep fame that he would not have enough strength left to visit his dark, weird worlds that so much inspired him? It did not take him long to decide. One night, he stared persistently at his reflection until he became once more a beast. He rushed into the dark mirror and decided that traveling in the obscure worlds was the only thing worth his energy.
His beloved dark enchantress waited for him mounted on a black horse. His heart pounded in his chest like a bird fluttering away from its cage when he saw a faint smile on her beautiful usually expressionless face. Waving her hand, she invited him to join her. As soon as he sat behind her, the horse spread his huge black wings and, swift like the wind, it took them far away, into the deepest worlds of the shadow realms of uttermost eeriness and unspeakable beauty. His companion was like the Queen of Snow that held a young boy captive in her fascinating frozen kingdom; she was like the rabbit that led Alice to the delirious fantasies of Wonderland. Every night she waited behind the mirror and she would take him into a different place inhabited by fearsome creatures that possessed the breathtaking splendor of the erotic nightmare demons.
Once back to reality, he fervently painted, trying to transport the sensations incited by whatever he had encountered in the shadow realms on his artwork. And through his art, part of his experience was shared with the world. And people kept admiring him and wondering about his inspiration and gossiping about him and even being jealous. Nobody ever found out the truth; to be honest, few were those who cared to know. Whimsical assumptions, savory gossip and even rational analysis of his work – all of them were part of the powerful effect his art had on people and the awe it incited in them. Even if he had bothered to explain, few were those who would have believed him and even fewer those who would have understood. And had those few known, they would probably have been less envious. Or maybe they would be even more jealous of him. After all, human nature is sometimes as whimsical and unforeseen as dreams.