Whether or not you believe in the reality of aethereal essences that fan the sparks of life into immortal flames; those who do see a value and a power in collecting them.
At the twilight of the nineteenth century the Chicago World's Fair promised many marvels, some of which would later go on to become banal in their ubiquity, but on its fringes there were one or two... unofficial exhibitors... whose work and workings remain shrouded in secrecy. Not for them the promise of technologies that might help shape the modern world, instead they were there to prey on the hopes of the Fair's attendees, to draw stragglers away from the pack and pick them off. Over the course of the Fair the number of people who went missing increased dramatically, even allowing for the massive influx of visitors to the city, but the more obviously troubling pattern was the number of walking ghosts: People found wandering the streets of the city in a state of aimless, ambulatory catatonia.
It is the fate of these unfortunates which concerns us now and there are, admittedly, a number of different forms of misadventure (both medical and metaphysical) that could leave someone in such a state as those so-called survivors. Nonetheless the inculpatory evidence in this case; the discovery of a single eyewitness account that - when paired with information from other investigations and the medical records of these ruined survivors - tells us not only what manner of ill befell them but also helps us identify its particular practitioner. We can say, with almost absolute certainty, that a soul collector was operating in Chicago at that time and, moreover, that it was the ravenously sadistic collector who remains a definite-articled mononymous mystery: The Soulhoarder.
Soul collectors are, taken as a whole, a strange and wicked breed. What they extract from a person is so vital that, once taken, it leaves only the hollow husk of a person behind as warm remains. They are bloodless killers, lacking mercy enough even to finish their work, and leaving the families of their victims in a state of suspended despair; neither able to hope for their loved ones' true return nor to properly grieve and move on. This cruelty isn't even, at least as far as our most comprehensive understanding goes, the price for some phenomenal gain. Despite there being various rites, rituals and practices for their extraction, no known forms of the final result are suggested to convey special or extraordinary powers on those who possess them. Even the most prolific collectors of whom we know; Echo-Catcher, Not Anna and The Soulhoarder, were still just mortal men and women.
However they are drawn out and bound - the mechanics of a soul extraction are, despite exhaustive and exhausting research and speculation, no closer to being explained now than they were centuries ago - souls apparently have neither an intrinsic value nor any extrinsic value among their collectors: To the best of my knowledge there are no records of markets or exchanges where collected souls are bought and sold or traded. This absence of community, and that each collector has a unique modus operandi, suggests to me that the act of collecting souls and the surrounding behaviour is an outward sign of a compulsion. A fetishistic drive to repeat a destructive and highly ritualised behaviour over and over again; more akin to the patterns of a serial killer - complete with the taking of trophies - than the methodical processes of even the most amoral investigator of impossible things.
I cannot begin to fathom the chances of such a confluence, of a murderous temperament intersecting with unearned knowledge of such a uniquely esoteric technique for taking lives, nor how it might have happened repeatedly. Still, if such dread questions keep me awake at night I can at least be relieved that one such individual - The Soulhoarder - must be long since dead; the account of which I spoke previously placing her in her thirties during the Chicago World’s Fair. Judging by the number of victims discovered in her wake it was a bountiful, if bleak, harvest, and one quite easily reaped in her carefully constructed trap. The bait? An alluring, and free, demonstration of a refurbished technology that could turn a series of still images into rudimentary animation: A scaled-up life-sized zoetrope that filled a whole room in the abandoned shopfront where it had been set up.
Her zoetrope was based on James Clerk Maxwell’s improvements to earlier designs, which replaced empty viewing slots with focusing lenses to give a smoother feel to the animation. These had, in turn, been replaced with sepia-tinted glasses of mysterious construction and unknown extraction (I assume they were important, since they were the only major component of the construction to be taken away once the front was abandoned). The attraction was a minor success, drawing a few score of people through it each day. They generally came and went in groups, not adversely affected by the oversized standard showings of animated ballerinas and running horses, but The Soulhoarder conversed with those she thought might be suggestible and susceptible: The promise of a private viewing of a more risqué show usually being enough to bring back those guests she had singled out and to ensure that they would keep quiet about their plans.
There might be no accurate accounts of the story if it were not for a lone eyewitness, a young boy sneaking in to follow his father, who watched The Soulhoarder show the man to the viewing window, setting a chair down for him to sit in. She stood just behind him as the engine began to turn, bringing the zoetrope up to speed, eager for what came next. The father shifted, uneasy in the seat, then turned his head to tell her that there was no images, no strip in the drum. She gently turned his head back and told him to look closer, which he did. The young boy crept closer and heard his father exclaim in shock; he froze as his father leant forward and whispered that it was impossible. The boy had to see what was going on, was desperate, so he pressed on until he could see into the zoetrope himself.
Even at such a grand scale there should have only been a few seconds of animation, but he saw a detailed illustration of a young man growing older, the features becoming more familiar with the passage of time until he realised that it was an animation of his own father. Looking for a reaction he realised that his father had become perfectly still, jaw slack and eyes glassy, and that the illustrated versions were hammering silently against the confines of their frames. He glanced up at The Soulhoarder as she shut down the engine and found that she was staring back at him. He ran, of course: Terrified. Only years later - after decades of caring for his father’s hollowed living-corpse - did he write the account that we can now use to properly attribute these crimes, these murders, to the proper monster.