‘There is a writhing worm in all of us, waiting to be freed.’
-From The Salvage Song of the Larks, and Other Stories, by Michael Ashman
The first time I heard the scorched music of the emperor worm coincided with my first sighting of the place that lay behind the city I had inhabited for fifteen years. The city I lived and worked in (and would most likely die in) was London, a place I had always felt to be lacking in reality, with its tarmac roads, grimy pavements and corporate spaces merely a flimsy stage set. As the set was torn down and replaced at an ever-increasing rate, as the actors became increasingly unconvincing, and the plots boring and nonsensical, I began to catch glimpses of another city. It was then that I heard the first rough cacophonies of the scorched music of the emperor worm. This other city I christened Nematoda, and it was a hellish and parasitic place, but also possessed an honesty I felt my London was lacking, and that drew me to it. I went willingly, is what I’m saying.
I remember distinctly the first time I glimpsed Nematoda. I was coming in to Blackfriars station on one of the smooth Thameslink trains that connects the city to the commuter towns of Bedforshire and Hertfordshire; I did this most weekday mornings as part of my commute, changing from tube to Thameslink at St Pancras station.
It was a gorgeous spring morning in late April, and the river sparkled like it had been scattered with expensive coruscant jewellery. I could see the river larks on the muddy shore, singing their salvage songs with gusto, a few detectorists out early, and a lonely man with an ancient dog that barked at the murky river.
My fellow commuters seemed happier than usual after the weeks of rain, dark skies and slushy snow that had beleaguered the city. The Thames at Blackfriars is a wonderful sight, enough to spark the heart of a jaded Londoner, and that day was no different. I can remember clear, specific details from those moments before my first sight of the hidden city where the emperor worm held sway: the strange crease in an office worker’s shirt sleeve; the way a young woman bobbed her head arrhythmically to an internal soundtrack; a nervous looking Galician couple on their way to Gatwick, half-hidden by monstrous plastic red suitcases. And I remember the story I was reading at the time: ‘A Life Constricted, or, These Serpentine Coils Will Crush Us Both’, by the legendary London chronicler of the arcane, Michael Ashman. It was from a collection, published by the defunct Malachite Press and now out-of-print. It was a nice, manageably sized hardback edition, with a glowing endorsement from the writer D.A. Northwood etched on the cover.
As I looked over the river before taking the steps down to the South Bank, the salvage songs of the larks increasing in volume, the horizon of buildings – walkie talkie, shard, gherkin, etc. – warped and dissolved and the sky, just seconds before the swirling blue of a larimar gem, became a dark and brooding malachite green, reminiscent of the briny waters of the Thames estuary. Other, more ramshackle, buildings took their position on the skyline and it was then I heard that glorious scorched music. Monstrous, some would call it, but I enjoyed its brutal and experimental nature, its wilful tunelessness and insistence on repetition and brutality to make its point. It brought to my mind burnt earth, the acrid scent of marijuana smoke confined in a small space, brittle crunchy grass in waterless desert plains, the toxicity of melting plastic. The dissonance was gorgeous, the impurity compeltely true, perfectly honest.
The vision of this other city was brief, perhaps ten seconds at most, but behind the ramshackle and decaying buildings of Nematoda’s skyline I saw the contortions and writhing of the thing I just knew was the emperor worm. And I knew, as I stood at Blackfriars station, that the emperor worm, with its segmented body and fearful mandibles, was the source of the scorched music bleeding into my world and bringing me joy. I was happy for the stage set and its ever-changing cast of actors to be proven false.
As the years went by and my life in London continued, I would see Nematoda and hear the brutal music of the emperor worm occasionally. In the depths of winter by the New River Path as it approached Alexandra Park, the water iced over and frosty, I saw a writhing mass of eel-like creatures beneath the ice, and I heard the caustic refrains of the worm’s music. I punched my knuckles bloody on that ice to try and reach them, but it proved too thick.
I heard the scorched music at a decadent and hedonistic party held in an old warehouse out beyond North Acton; but when I pressed who I believed to be the DJ, he claimed to have no knowledge of the emperor worm, despite the t shirt he wore clearly depicting a squirming limbless beast; a wyrm, serpent or hagfish, perhaps.
Standing at the platform of Pimlico underground station, an announcement came over the tannoy informing those who were waiting that the next train would not be stopping. It was a common enough occurrence in London, almost everyday. But as the train passed through the station, I could see it was no train at all, but the fast moving and segmented body of an emperor worm. At that moment the scorched music surged, powerful and raw, through me. The other travellers at the platform seemed not to notice. It was easier to ignore things in the city.
I glimpsed the city of Nematoda many times in those years, but it was always distant and hazy, and I could never find a way to access that ramshackle metropolis. I tried, enlisting the aid of urbexers, lonely psychogeographers, vocalists from brutal hardcore bands, urban birders, the Judderman cult, obscure sound artists, and troubled writers of grim poetry who idolised the late Hecate Shrike. All people, I should say, who had some awareness of Nematoda and its inhabitant, but none held a passion for it that I felt matched my own. Through these people (I considered them allies, really) I discovered many wondrous things, broke bread with the frog-eyed tunnel-tribes who lived in the disused parts of the underground, danced long into the night in party caverns, and learned so much about the secrets of London Incognita. But Nematoda remained out of reach, as enigmatic as that first day at Blackfriars.
I visited tattoo parlours and inked my thin and wasting body with images of bobbit worms, lampreys, deep-sea eels, coiled Celtic serpents, ouroboros, Jormungand, and my own artist’s impression of the emperor worm, in the dim hope that I would somehow entice it into revealing Nematoda, into showing itself fully. It was an act of devotion to a deaf god that in the end was futile; perhaps all such acts are. I never found the entrance to the city.
And now, as my time in London is nearly over, I doubt I will ever find the entrance to Nematoda, and the source of that beautiful scorched music. I had so many questions that I never found answers to in the years since that beautiful day at Blackfriars, when the river sparkled and the larks sang their songs.
What was the emperor worm?
Was it benevolent, malicious or indifferent?
Why could only some of us hear what it seemed to offer us?
I will never know. But then, I will tell myself as I jump in the car to drive off to a new life in the west of England, it is important for the world to still contain mystery.
Gary Budden is a writer and editor. His collection of uncanny psychogeographies and landscape punk, Hollow Shores, was published earlier in 2017 by Dead Ink, and his dark fiction novella Judderman (as D.A. Northwood) is published in 2018 by the Eden Book Society. His short story “Greenteeth” was nominated for a 2017 British Fantasy Award and adapted into a short film by the filmmaker Adam Scovell. His work has been published widely, including Structo, Elsewhere, Unthology, The Lonely Crowd, Gorse, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He lives in London, UK.