Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Any Morning

(Originally published as “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning” in Sanitarium Magazine, Issue #38.)

Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Any Morning

 

He woke up, again, to the same alarm as always: static hiss of radio underscoring the accentless newsman as he said, “…he went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.”  He slapped the radio off before he heard the rest of the story and pushed himself up out of bed.  Sarah shifted on the mattress next to him, an airy sigh slipping from her lips as she curled up in the covers.  She never heard the newsman, no matter how many times he said the exact same thing.  They’d had a fight about it, once.  She always heard a rock song, from Oceanrest Rock & Blues Radio.  The same song, every time…something by Nine Inch Nails, but he couldn’t remember the title.  He only ever heard the news report, the same news report, over and over again.

“Steve?” Sarah’s voice was sleepy-soft.

“Yeah?” he asked, pretending not to know the question.  Pretending not to have heard it every day for as long as he could remember, going back more days than he had any reason to keep counting.

“Could you make breakfast for the kids?  I had a late night.”

“Sure.”

The form of her was invisible beneath the sheets, but he knew she smiled.  It was a small smile, no teeth showing.  He’d maneuvered a glance at it on one of the hundreds of days that were all exactly alike.  Within minutes, she’d be back in the depths of sleep.

*****

He scrambled eggs in the frying pan.  They spat oil and sputtered as he chopped at them with the spatula.  The dog, Shep, wove between his legs excitedly, as if expecting a helping herself.  He stared at the pan, listening to the sound under the sizzling eggs.  Radio static, in crescendo.  The clock on the stove blinked to 7:35 AM.

The television flickered on in the living room.  The news anchor sounded exactly the same as the Radio Man, sounded exactly the same as his boss, sounded exactly the same as how many other people he’d met living the same day over for months on end.  The anchor leaned toward the camera, “His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He walked over to the set and turned it off.  He stared at the blank screen until the smell of burning eggs brought him back to the stove.  He swore he saw something move behind the black veil of the dead screen, but he could never make it out.

*****

He didn’t remember buying the gun.  He remembered the code to the safe, the number he punched into the keypad to unlock it, but he didn’t actually remember buying the thing.  It was as if it had always been there, waiting, whispering in his dreams.

The safe was in the closet of their bedroom, on the opposite side of the house from the twins.  He remembered it being there when he brought them all home from the hospital.  Had it been there when they’d moved in?  Had it been there when they bought the house and he carried Sarah over the threshold like a second wedding?

The question hurt his head.  He walked back to the kitchen, closing the door quietly behind him.

*****

Amy was up, first.  She came out of her room so fast she would’ve crashed right into the wall if he hadn’t been there to catch her.  He’d learned that from the first few times the day repeated: same time, every morning, Amy careened out of the room fast as a bullet right into the wall.  Being there to catch her saved him twenty minutes of crying.  It saved her a nasty knot on the side of her head, too.

“Watch it there, kiddo,” he said, smiling down at her.

She was very small and young and knew little about pain.

She pulled herself out of his hands and ran toward the kitchen table.  “You’re coming to the play tomorrow!” – not a question, a statement.  Amy had a role in the school play, and had been increasingly excited about it during the lead up.  She was bubbling over.  Except tomorrow never seemed to come.  All her enthusiasm was trapped in the present, imprisoned in the same endless morning.

“You bet,” he whispered back, knowing she couldn’t hear him.

Charlie came out of the room next, rubbing his eyes.  “I don’t wanna go.”

Steve reached down and ruffled his son’s dirty blond hair.  “Too bad, Chuckie man.”

“It’s a stupid play.”

“It’ll only be one night.  You’ll be fine.”

Charlie grumbled his way into the kitchen and sat down at the table.  He poured too much ketchup on his eggs.

*****

He brought them both a glass of milk and half of an English muffin with peanut butter and jelly.  It was what they had in the house: milk, eggs, English muffins, peanut butter, jelly, and four cans of tuna.  Groceries had been tight.  Everything had been tight since they’d discovered they were having fraternal twins instead of a single child.  It didn’t help that Sarah hadn’t had a successful book in four years.  Or any book at all.  A sales job in telecomm wasn’t enough to feed a family of four.

The debt had worried him until the calendar stopped moving.  Now it seemed like a funny joke.  If a collector called, he would cheerily give them all the appropriate information and hang up the phone, knowing nary a dime would go missing from it.  Another of the fringe benefits of not having a future.

“Never put off till tomorrow,” he muttered to himself, watching his children eat.  It was a joke he’d made, before.  It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t aging well.

“You’ll break,” the dog had the Radio Man’s voice.  Its mouth didn’t move, but Steve could hear it in his head.  “They all break, eventually.  One way or another.  What do you think you have in you?  A couple more months, maybe a year?  How long can you make the same breakfast every morning?”

He glared down at the dog and found it jumping up and down around the kitchen table.  Charlie slipped it a palm-full of egg and ruffled its ears.  The animal glanced back at Steve with mischief in its eyes.  Charlie loved the dog, of course.  Charlie couldn’t hear it whisper in his head.

*****

How many times had he done this?  How long had he fought?  How many ways could he avoid doing it?  How many times could he wake up in the same bed and hear the same news report and decide not to let it happen?

Over.  He just wanted it to be over.

*****

The bus picked the kids up a few minutes late.  8:39 instead of 8:30.  Of course, after the first few times Steve had just started taking them out to the curb at 8:35ish.  He waved them aboard the yellow bus and watched it drive away.

There was one thing he hadn’t tried, yet, but he didn’t want the kids to be home if it worked.

*****

Sarah was still sleeping when he tip-toed back into the bedroom.  He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  It was a 30.06 and held five bullets.  He loaded it up and listened to the safe sing static in his ears.  It was always static.  Static and the radio voice, out of every pore of the world.  The dog had the voice.  The stray cat had the voice.  The birds had the voice.  The mouse scurrying across the sidewalk had the voice.  He could hear the news report shivering beneath the earth’s skin.

But problems do have solutions.

He left the bedroom with the gun and walked out to the backyard.  It was a quiet neighborhood.  The only sound was the pop and crackle of the thing living inside the air, the rustle of leaves scratching each other like record needles.  He took a deep breath.

His teeth felt strange against the barrel, like biting into a piece of flint.  It was cold and hard and it made his enamel itch.  He closed his eyes and fumbled for the trigger with his thumb, awkwardly hunched over the gun.  He tried to block out the gritty texture and the coppery taste of metal.  He struggled not to gag.  His thumb found the curved edge of the trigger, and he heard himself whimper.

He squeezed.

*****

The radio man said, “He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup” and Steve reached out and slammed his hand on the alarm clock.  He rolled over and pulled Sarah close to him, feeling her body ease into his.  She helped his lungs expand.  The alarm clock turned back on.  “His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before—”

He turned away from Sarah, grabbed the alarm clock, and wrenched it from the wall.  He pushed himself out of bed and threw the clock on the floor, watching its plastic pieces break apart to reveal electronic guts.  He picked up the remains and threw them down, again, watching them shatter and spin away from each other.  The floor was covered in debris.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sarah sat up in bed.

Steve swallowed air to drown the fire in his chest.  “I’m sick of it.”

Sarah seemed small in the center of the mattress, caught in the whorl of sheets.  Her voice seemed smaller still.  “My parents said…if we have to…”

He shook his head at her, bull-like, “No.  That’s not—I’m not living in a basement with two kids, the dryer banging around all night, living behind walls we make out of shower curtains.”

Moving would be a waste of time, anyway.

“Just until I finish the book,” she offered.

He took a deep breath and started picking the shattered radio pieces up from the floor.  “It’s fine,” he muttered.  He bit his tongue to stop himself from talking about the news report, the Radio Man, the repeating day.  She never believed him, anyway.  “Keep writing.  I’ll figure it out at work.  We’ll figure it out.”

He hadn’t even gone to work for months.  It seemed pointless, now.

“I’m sorry,” he dropped the radio innards into the bin at the foot of the bed.  “Just…work stress.  The boss.  We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in years and…nevermind.  I’m just sorry, okay?”

She nodded, not replying.

“I’m so goddamned sorry.”

“Come here,” Sarah reached out with open arms, “let me hold you.”

*****

One day, to kill the monotony, he told the kids to skip school and go to the zoo with him.  He snapped at Amy when she tried to turn on the car radio, smacked her hand harder than he wanted.  She didn’t cry, but she looked up at him with wide, scared eyes.  The tape deck grinned at him, spat out a tape like a tongue.  He grabbed it and threw it out the window, watching it shatter against the road behind them.

The day was muffled and distant inside his head.  The kids jumped around and took photographs on disposable cameras, snapshots of big cats and exotic birds.  Steve tried to keep his eyes on his feet, feeling the gaze of every animal branding his skin.  Monkeys howled at him, teeth bared, “His daughter tried to run away!  His daughter tried to run away!”  Their laughter chattered in his head.  One of them threw crap at him, spattering his slacks with their shitstain.

The kids got tired and grumpy and started to whine, so he took them to lunch at a cheap burger place down the road.  His wallet was out of cash, so he paid on a credit card.  The kids’ faces got gross with condiments, their fingers sticky.  Steve wiped them off with sanitary napkins despite their arguments.  Amy was particularly against it.  “Daddy, stop!” she yelled, drawing the attention of parents at another table.  As if they were any better.  As if their children were so polite.  He wrangled Amy still and wiped her mouth with the moist towelette as she squealed.

The overhead speaker snickered at him in Radio Man static.  “The only way out is through.”

“Come on, let’s go,” Steve muttered, angrier than he wanted to sound.  He grabbed his children by the wrists and ferried them out of the restaurant.  He sat them down in the back of the car and locked them in.  He paced around the parking lot for fifteen minutes before he joined them, begging God or the Universe or anyone for an answer, for a tomorrow, for something to do.

A young woman, maybe fifteen or sixteen, walked around the side of the lot.  Bleach-white hair sat mop-like on her head, the sides shaved clean down to the scalp.  She was fatally thin and smelled of unwashed summer heat.  She scanned the parking lot until her eyes fell on him.  “Sir…?”

The stench of her made him recoil.  He fished a couple crumpled bills from his pocket.

She took the money and ferreted it away in the folds of a tattered, XXL hoodie.  “Thank you.  But that’s not what—”

He was already walking away, unlocking the driver’s side door of the car and sliding into the seat.  She stood outside the burger joint staring at him, something behind her eyes making him think about police detectives or psycho-analysts.  He turned his keys in the ignition and tried to clear her smell out of the back of his throat.

“Daddy?” Charlie asked.  “Who is that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.  It didn’t feel like a lie.

*****

One day, he told Sarah, and she didn’t believe him.  He told his boss, and he didn’t, either.  He told a therapist and she prescribed him drugs.  He told a cop and spent the day in a cell.  He told anyone that would listen and nobody did.  There was no point in keeping it secret, day after same-day.  The Radio Man didn’t seem to care, either.

“Tell everyone!” fifty televisions called out inside a Wal-Mart, “Tell everyone and maybe they’ll start tuning in to the same channel!”

*****

Shep slept on the floor in front of the dead TV screen.  Steve stared into the flat black and drank espresso.  Something moved behind the screen, inside the darkness, he was sure of it.  He just had to see it.  It was part of an answer.  It had to be.  Because there had to be an answer and he had to find it.  He finished his fourth coffee of the morning and heard Sarah open the bedroom door.

“What are you doing out here?”

“Called out for the day,” he answered, his words caffeine-sharp.  “Needed time to think.”

He could feel the words she wanted to say, feel them like static around the hairs of his arms.  You shouldn’t skip work right now, maybe, or: we really need the money.  But she kept the words to herself and set about making her own clone of the kids’ breakfasts.  Eggs, English muffin, milk.  The tuna sat in cold cans uneaten.  He refilled his mug while she ate and sat back down in front of the screen.

“I’ll go back in tomorrow,” he said, feeling her eyes still on him.  “I just needed a day off.”

“You deserve one.  I’m sorry about…” a pause, more words unsaid, “I’ll start freelancing again.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he waited for the screen to pulse, for something to writhe inside it.

Shep roused with the smell of food.  The squeak of dog-yawn made Steve wince.  Radio Man came through Shep’s mouth: “Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’”  The dog panted a couple times and trotted to the kitchen.

Steve kept staring at the screen.

Sarah did her writing outside, that day.  In the quiet neighborhood with the nice grass, blissfully unaware of the thing vibrating under the skin of the world.  Steve just sat in front of the television, eyes glued to the blank, endless black.  The kids came home, troubled their mother, and went to bed.  Sarah came back inside, laptop under one arm and children’s toys under the other.

“Nice show.”

“Trying to meditate.”

“Okay, then.”

She vanished into the bedroom, where he could still hear her fingernails clack against keys.  The clock ticked forward.  9:30pm, 10:00pm, 11:43pm…it rolled over to 12:00am, 12:15am, 12:23am.  Steve felt his breath get short.  It was tomorrow.  A smile crept across his face and he started giggling.  1:17am. He jumped up off the couch with a laugh and—

“…but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident…” he turned over in bed and shut off the radio.  A sob wracked through his body, and something hot lashed back at it.  He stood up.

“I’m going to kill him,” he muttered, pulling on a pair of beaten sweatpants and a t-shirt from under the bed.  “I’m going out there and I’m going to kill him.”

It was such a simple solution, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t tried it, already.

*****

He walked out into the front yard and the grass smelled like disinfectant and absence.  He wasn’t sure if Sarah would follow, and it didn’t matter anyway.  In less than 24 hours she would forget anything she’d heard him mutter that morning.  For her, a rock song would play on the radio and she’d curl back up in bed.  He crossed the lawn and reached the sidewalk.

Shep was there, waiting, staring up at him.  A stray cat sat next to her, staring with the exact same eyes.  Their mouths opened at the same time and a rush of static washed through his head.  Radio Man came out of their mouths: “You can’t kill me, here.  You can’t die.  Haven’t you figured it out?  Go to the gun locker, open it, and take out the rifle.  It’s easy when you do it.  Wake up and it will be tomorrow.”

He rushed the animals and they scattered, running along green grass in different directions.  He roared after them.  When he turned back around, he saw the blond homeless girl staring at him from behind a tree.  Her hood was up, but the look and the smell were unmistakable.  “What the hell are you doing?” he snarled, stalking toward her, hands balled into fists.  “Did you follow me?  Did you follow me to my house?”

She retreated as quickly as the animals had.  Something about her didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t place what.

*****

Oceanrest Rock & Blues was in a tiny building on top of a hill northeast of town.  It took him four hours to walk there.  He could’ve taken a car, but he didn’t.  The time gave him space to breathe, to brood, to let the answer solidify in his head.  He had to kill the Radio Man.  That was the only other option.  Then it would finally be over.

He expected to find a reception desk when he threw the door open, but there wasn’t one.  There wasn’t anything.  The place had been torn apart.  A dented air vent hung from the half-collapsed ceiling, exhaling cool, sweet air into the dusty room.  The remains of four destroyed chairs lay scattered across the floor like limbs after a bomb.

His loafers were quiet against the floor as he made his way into the station.  Broken wires like nooses hung from everything.  Ceiling tiles had been pried away to reveal leaking pipes and busted vents.  Something had come through here and destroyed the place.  He found no one waiting in the hallways as he went.  The building was catacombs-empty.

The window that looked in on the recording studio dripped with opaque gray sludge.  Steve reached out and touched it, feeling it cool and mud-like oozing around his fingers.  He wiped the viscous residue on his pants and turned the corner.

The door to the studio hung open.  Static crackled from inside the room.

Steve walked in.

The Radio Man stared at him from the center of the room.  He had microphone heads as eyes and a smile that anyone in America could buy into.  He tilted his head to one side and spoke in the same voice Steve had always heard, “Do you think you’ll wake up and it will be tomorrow?”

Steve charged him and put a fist in his everyman smile.  His skin split around the Radio Man’s teeth.  Radio Man stumbled back and crashed spread-eagle on a small, worn table.  Steve rushed forward and hit him, again, this time in the throat.  Electric feedback warbled from Radio Man’s mouth, loud enough to make Steve grab his ears.

“His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe.  She fired and hit him in the stomach.  He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest,” the Radio Man was back on his feet, his voice deafening in Steve’s head.  “He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.”

Steve dove at the man and tackled him to the ground.  He was deaf and blind from all the sound, but he didn’t need to see or hear to keep punching.  He lashed out with his fists until his knuckles were broken and all his skin was flayed by splintered bone.  The Radio Man laughed through it all, bursts of static snicker and radio-persona crack-up exploding from his mangled face.  He never fought back.

When the sound died away, Steve stood up.  All the pain shrieking in his hands seemed like a distant, foggy memory.  He staggered back through the empty radio station and walked out the front door, leaving twin trails of blood in his wake, dripping off his fingers.

Outside, a bird peered down at him from the boughs of a tree.

“The only way out is through,” Radio Man’s voice teased from its beak.

*****

Amy’s play never came.  Charlie never wanted to go, anyway.  Steve ran lines with her every morning, a rehearsal for a show that would never go up.  There were always eggs and English muffins and not much else to eat.  The safe whispered static in his dreams.  The world whispered static in his daylight.  The night ate the day and yesterday ate tomorrow.  Amy and Charlie never grew older, never grew up, never complained about dating or learned about unemployment.

They smiled and laughed and sometimes they ran into walls and that was as bad as things got for them.

*****

Static sizzled under the burning eggs.  Steve’s knuckles were bone-white around the spatula handle.  How long had it been, now?  How many times had he cooked the same breakfast?

“He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.”

Was it a threat, or a promise?  Was it the end, or the beginning?

*****

The eggs sputtered on the pan.  Shep wove between his legs.  “Go to the gun locker!” the animal yipped in Radio Man’s voice, “go to the gun locker!”

Steve picked the dog up and threw it against a wall.  It landed with a whimper on the kitchen counter.  “What the hell do you want from me!?” he screamed, grabbing the furry animal in his hands and shaking it.  “What do you want!?”

“His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He smashed the animal down against the countertop, hearing more bones splinter.  “Why are you doing this to me!?”

“You’ll break,” Radio Man’s voice was quieter, distorted, coming from a broken speaker inside the dog’s body.  “They always break.  The only way out…the only way…”

He lifted Shep’s body in the air and brought it down again, until the Radio Man stopped talking and the animal’s corpse painted his hands red.  Amy and Charlie went to stay with their aunt in Portland, and he spent the rest of the day in one of the police precincts.

*****

The voice got more persistent.  He unplugged the alarm clock and the birds outside would sing the report for hours.  The dog would bark it, the stray cat would mewl it.  The eggs started talking to him, the voice whispering beneath the sputtering oil.  The television would flick on and the Radio Man’s voice would come out of the news anchor, children’s cartoons, Tony Soprano’s mouth.  It was all he heard all the time every day.  It was in his head like a brain worm, eating his mind.

*****

He opened Sarah’s laptop and typed:

He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  He loaded it with five rounds and leaned it against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children.  He walked back to the bedroom and kissed his wife on the forehead.  She smiled faintly and turned over in bed.  The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.  It was time.  There was no way out but through.  He ruffled his children’s hair and opened the fridge to reveal empty shelves.

His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still asleep when the slaughter began.  He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup.  His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before she could make it to the bedroom.

His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe.  She fired and hit him in the stomach.  He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest.  He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.

Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’  His neighbor alleges he was screaming at the dog, sobbing, “Is this enough for you?  Can this all finally be over, now?” when the first cop cars pulled up across the street.

Neighbors say Steven Clarke is a good man, but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident.  He’d written a grim short story on his wife’s laptop depicting a similar scene to what happened that morning, and hadn’t been to work for two or more days.  Was it a psychotic break from reality?  One witness might know the truth: a young homeless girl found on the sidewalk across from his home, crusted white hair cresting her otherwise shaved scalp…

*****

He hit ‘snooze’ and climbed out of bed.  He pulled on a pair of boxers and a dirty t-shirt.  He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  He loaded it with five rounds and prayed, hands so tight around the barrel he hoped it might break.  Heat burned his cheeks as he begged the universe to intervene.  Maybe someone would remember something: maybe Sarah would find the document he left on her laptop, or his boss would remember him screaming in the office, or the cop would remember locking him up—they’d remember, and they’d stop him.  But he couldn’t keep doing it, anymore.  It had to be over.

He leaned the gun against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children.  He wrung his hands in front of the stove and pursed his lips in another prayer.  Shep looked up at him with microphone-head eyes, “After this, everything will be okay,” Radio Man promised.  “It’s easier than you think.  And then you’ll all be free.  All of you.  They’ll be free to dream what dreams may come.  You’ll wake up tomorrow.”

Steve opened the front door and let the dog out into the yard.  He walked back to the bedroom and kissed Sarah on the forehead.  She smiled faintly and turned over in bed.  Amy and Charlie laughed from the kitchen table.  Silverware scraped against plates.  Footsteps crunched the green grass outside, cutting across the front lawn.  Maybe it was a teenager on the way to school.  Maybe it was a cop coming to gun him down.  Maybe it was all in his head, anyway.

The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.

“Daddy,” Amy called, face covered in peanut butter and jelly, “is mom coming to the play?”

“She wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied, voice quivering like his guts.

Charlie rolled his eyes when Steve ruffled his hair.  The fridge was nearly empty.  Groceries had been tight for some time.  Everything had been tight for some time.  Sarah’s parents had an unfinished basement they could use for a while, but they’d have to bring their own walls.  Tuna sat uneaten in the pantry.  The sun rose at 6:45 AM and set at 8:20 PM.  Everyone breaks, eventually.

Steve licked his lips and felt a shuddering breath force its way into his lungs.  The children were very small and young and knew little about pain.  At least this way they would never have to find out.  He closed the fridge and picked up the rifle.  The only way out was through.  Maybe, if he was lucky, he would die from the stomach wound and it could all really be over.  Maybe tomorrow could be born without him in it.  Maybe the footsteps crossing the lawn were headed toward the front door.  It sounded like it.

He imagined a young homeless girl, smelling of unwashed summer, swinging the door in.  She would hold a knife in her hand and it would go up into his shoulder, on the inside, finding an artery on the way, and he would bleed out on the floor.  His family would never know why, and eventually they wouldn’t need to know why.  They would just live.

The doorknob turned.

He wrapped his finger around the trigger.

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A Test : Oceanrest Flash Fiction

The woman across from me wears a plague mask.  Except she’s not really wearing a plague mask, she’s making me think she’s wearing a plague mask.  She thinks I’m one of them–someone like her.  But I’m not one of them.  I’m not one of anybody.  If I was somebody, I’d have a real job, a real life.  I’d have a home.

“Are you paying attention?” she asks.

“Sure.” I lie.

She shows me a card.  The back is absence-white, color of nothing and everything at once.  “I need you to focus on the card,” she says.  “I’ll know if you don’t.”

She’s not lying.  I’ve danced these steps a dozen times.  I haven’t had a choice.  Legally speaking, I signed up for this.  Technically.  There’s a contract somewhere, my name’s on it.

I focus on the card.  Blank white.  Nothing white.

“What do you think is on my side of the card?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess,” she says.

“The number seven.”

She nods curtly, sets the card aside.  From the stack of exact-same cards, she plucks a new one.  Holds it up between her fingers, nothing side facing me.  “Is this one also a number?”

“Sure.”

“Good job.  What number do you think it is?”

“Fucking thirteen for all I care.”

Another short nod.  “Interesting,” she says.

“What’s interesting?”

She sets the card aside, replaces it.  Blank back.  Everything is so white in this place.  Her coat: white.  Her mask: white.  The back of every card: white.  The floor tiles, the walls, everything.  Except the meds I’m allegedly ‘testing.’  Those come in all colors, shimmering like oil, glowing like a rainbow or the scales of a dead fish.

“This one is a picture.”

“Okay.”

“What is it a picture of?”

“The moon?”

“Right.”  She sets the card aside, shuffles the stack a couple times, cuts the deck, re-cuts it, re-shuffles, and fans them out in front of me like a row of too many teeth.  “Could you pick out the number twelve?”

“Probably not?”

“Give it a guess.  Go with your gut.”

I roll my eyes.  Pick a random card.

She turns it over.  Twelve.

“You have an eighty-percent success rate across two hundred guesses, in the time you’ve been here.  Are you sure you’re guessing?”

“Yes!” I slam my hand on the table.  She tilts her head.  I’d stand up, but my feet are chained to chair legs.  I slouch, instead, curled in.  “Of course I’m fucking guessing, they’re a bunch of blank cards.”

“Right.  On one side.”

I show her my middle finger but she doesn’t react to it.  Not that I can tell, at least.  But maybe she’s done that to me, too.  I can feel her in my head, tinkering around with my retinas, my eardrums.  Picking at the folds of my brains like a groping pervert.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” she asks.

“I signed a contract for ninety days.”

“And how many days has it been?”

I open my mouth.  Balk.  Close it.  How many days?  “Fifteen?  Twenty?”

She nods.  “Interesting.”

“How many fucking days has it been?” I yell.

An enormous figure shifts against the wall behind her, a blur against white paint.  She holds her hand up and the blur vanishes, melting back into nothing.  But I know something’s there, now.  If I blur my eyes I can make it out.  Man-shaped, but huge.

“Please don’t yell,” she says.  “I assure you, we will release you.”

“How many days?”

“Nine.”

“Out of ninety?”

“Yes.”

A cold pain rolls through my veins, rooting itself in the fabric of my lungs.  My jaw slacks, my eyes burn.  I clutch the edge of the table like a drowning man clutches the side of a lifeboat.  “No.  You’re lying.”

She sets a small amber pill down in front of me.  I know this one–tastes of honey and campfire, gives me tatters of dreams I can never quite remember the day after.  What kind of drug company is this?

She sets down a glass of water (where did it come from?) and pushes it toward me.  “Exit of the study is considered forfeiture of pay and all other signed gains.  The NDA, inclusive of all fine print, will still apply to you, however.”

“What are you doing to me?”

“We’re studying you.”

“Who is ‘we?'”

“Unfortunately, due to my own NDA, and my personal interest, I can’t answer that.”

“Who are you people?”

“Please, take the pill.  We will give you a break from memory and guessing tests for the next four days.”

“I can’t do this…” I half-collapse forward, losing all balance, suddenly nauseous and wet-faced, tears streaking my cheeks.  “I can’t–I can’t–I can’t…”

“You can, actually.  And you’ll be better for it.”  She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder, consolation for her own victim.  Squeezes.  “There is a power sleeping inside of you.  We’re just trying to help wake it up.”

“Don’t touch me.”

But I like it.  It feels good to have human contact.  Has it really only been nine days?

She withdraws her hand from my shoulder and pushes the water closer to me.  I take the pill.  When I look back at the room, she’s gone.  Or she’s making me think she’s gone.  She can do these things.  My ankles are uncuffed, unchained from the chair legs.

I wonder if the manacles were ever really there at all.

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Reading Suggestions: International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day!  And I have some reading suggestions.

I know what you’re thinking: dude, nobody cares about your stupid opinion.  I know!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Of course, there are certainly obvious books to read for International Women’s Day.  Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks.  Girls to the Front, by Sara Marcus.  Cunt, by Inga Muscio.  There are many amazing books on the topics of intersectional feminism.  But I’m not going to write about those books.  Feminism and feminist theory are very important, of course, but I don’t have the breadth of knowledge required to make a list of must-reads in that area.  Instead, I’m going to write about really awesome, amazing books that happen to have awesome, amazing female authors.

For instance,

Anything by C. V. Hunt

C. V. Hunt is, according to her website, “the author of several unpopular books.”

Hunt is also an entertaining, transgressive, hilarious author of dark fantasy and horror.  Some of my favorites include Ritualistic Human Sacrifice and Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, both of which will make you laugh and cringe and wince.

You can pick up Hunt’s books in paperback, kindle, and even audiobook.  If you’re into it, you can also pre-order her upcoming work, Home is Where the Horror Is.

Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins

Do you like prose-poetry?  Do you appreciate beautiful language?  A fan of dark subject matter?  Heather Cousins wrote the book for you.

Something in the Potato Room is a beautiful book, brilliantly written, about deeply unsettling subject matter.  The line between fact and fantasy blurs and quivers in this gorgeous, liminal work.  Relatable and harrowing with an exquisite sense of language, Something in the Potato Room reaches into the dark recesses of the human spirit to find the exact spot where decay blooms into life again.  Or…something like that…

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of short faerie tales bundled up with striking illustrations and gorgeous graphic layout.  Creepy, haunting, and even heart-warming, Through the Woods collects emotionally diverse and fascinating stories.

I can’t get these stories out of my head.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, maybe on a subway platform or just walking down the street, I’ll get the lyrical lines of “Cold Hands” stuck in my head.  They’re so good.  So bloody good.  Of course, this isn’t the only work Emily Carroll has been involved with and her site will give you an idea about the breadth of her other work.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble is another collection–this time of short stories.  Kelly Link has been hailed as a bold and brilliant voice in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi–for good reason, too!  These stories are intelligent, charming, and moving.  Her excellent prose and storytelling skills really shine in this award-winning collection, and I personally had a fantastic time reading it.  Link’s ability to examine tropes and genres in fresh and interesting ways is virtually unmatched.  If you haven’t given Link’s works a read, yet, I highly recommend you do…and what better place to start than this cool collection of short stories?

The Listeners by Leni Zumas

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘literary,’ The Listeners is for you.  Leni Zumas’ use of language shows an expert command of English and a willingness to commit to heightened and experimental styles.  Zumas’ sentences are razor-edged and cunning.  Though it uses references and metaphor from the genre world, The Listeners takes place very much in an unmagical reality.  Dripping with meaty imagery, cut wide with sharp and razored prose, and bleeding with emotional turmoil, the book is a brutal crime scene of real-life.  The plot is a bit weak, but the characters are deep deep deep and the language is to die for.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

It’s a thriller.  A supernatural thriller?  Who knows!  Night Film plays with concepts of belief and faith, and makes extensive use of the subjective nature of ‘reality’ and ‘fact.’  The beauty of Marisha Pessl’s work is in the storytelling, her ability to play games with what is known and what is unknown, and how thin the line between.  The charming, enrapturing characters help, too.  A spiral of madness and a thriller well worth reading, I recommend picking up Night Film in any of its various forms immediately.

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

If you’re a fan of close-to-life fictionalized accounts, Gonzo Girl is fantastic.  Pietra was an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson for, well, long enough, and her time in this role serves as the prime inspiration behind this wild, crazy ride.  It follows a newbie editor out of NYC as she’s pulled into the orbit of a madman writer out in the middle of chaotic, drug-fueled nowhere.

Cheryl Della Pietra has also been a magazine editor and short story writer.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is a lovely writer.  Her stories are hilarious, personal, deep, cutting, jarring, and dark.  Is that too many adjectives?  Too bad!  They’re all accurate.  And Gutshot is an amazing collection of her work.  More than once, I winced.  Many times, I cackled.  I didn’t cry at any point, but there were definitely very poignant moments.  I highly recommend checking out her work, and particularly picking up this gem of a collection.  Hey, if the New York Times says it’s “bizarre and darkly funny,” who am I to disagree?

Did You Get All That?  Good.

This is just a short list, of course.  I didn’t have anything by Octavia Butler!  And Octavia Butler is a brilliant author.  Kindred is a famous, amazing work!  And it has a graphic novel adaptation.

I also left off several amazing female-oriented collections, such as Sisters of the Revolution (a collection of female-authored spec-fiction works) or She Walks in Shadows (a collection of female-authored Lovecraftian works).  These collections showcase an incredible range and breadth of talented authors, and I don’t think I can finish this blog entry without mentioning them.

And I shouldn’t exeunt stage left without giving a shout out to my favorite guilty pleasure series… My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland, is perfect beach-reading in my opinion.

The Library Is Endless

I suppose that’s a good enough start.  I still feel as if I’ve left out a virtual library of brilliant work, but that’s bound to happen with a list like this.  Anyway, this has been a list of works by some of my favorite female authors, in no particular order, with no particular organization.  Just off the top of my head.

I didn’t even get to do shout-outs to my favorite short story writers whose longer works I haven’t read yet.  But maybe we’ll save that for another list.

In the meantime, I think I’ve put together a really nice starter-list for anyone seeking a good book.

Go forth and read!

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Video Games for Writers

Hello, imaginary friends, and welcome to my process blog.  Today, I’m going to write, believe it or not, about some good video games for writers to play.  Besides reading, obviously, video games are my primary source of entertainment.  This isn’t to speak ill of television or film, but to speak well of the VG media.  Video games are involving, challenging, entertaining, increasingly mature, and more daring than ever.  The better ones involve fully realized characters, involved (if sometimes needlessly complicated) plots, and an amazing sense of pace.  The best of them can even teach us something about the creative process–structure, story, and keeping the attention of the generally inattentive.

(As usual, I will throw in a writing prompt at the end.)

Without further ado, I will present my admittedly biased list of games that writers should play.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake makes the list in part because the main character is a writer, and because writing (and the creative process in general) is a key element of the plot.  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

Alan Wake also makes the list because it shows how media can be flexible, experimental, and still engaging and fun.  Alan Wake is a video game presented as a TV-esque episodic, the plot of which centers around a novel (and the creative process that produced said novel).  The game contains elements of all three media…and it doesn’t stop there!  It also plays with mixing and melding different genres. Mystery, horror, thriller, and action genres are all twined together throughout the gameplay and story.  The game is a wonderful example of story over structure.  It doesn’t care to adhere to any specific genre, any specific medium, any specific tropes or expectations–it mixes and matches with reckless abandon, and it’s a game that’s all the stronger for it.

A writer can take a lot away from that.  Alan Wake may primarily be an action/horror game, but it uses motifs and tropes from action/comedies, mystery thrillers, even buddy-cop movies.  It doesn’t force its story (or gameplay) into a media- or genre-specific toolbox, it just keeps opening more toolboxes.  You can do the same thing!  Write a Lovecraftian action-western!  If you run into a dead-end, open the pulp-noir toolbox and fish something out.  Another dead-end?  Open the buddy-cop toolbox.

Alan Wake also makes another important point: you can only pull all of this off if it’s still fun, if it’s still internally-consistent, and if you can keep your audience’s attention.  It does all of that, by the way.  It’s fun as hell.  I recommend playing it not only for its willingness to open all the toolboxes, but also because it’s a roaring good time.

The Stanley Parable

Sometimes, your characters will surprise you.  So it goes in The Stanley Parable, a fun little playable-essay on video game design, narrative structure, and the wild unpredictability of characters.

In The Stanley Parable, you play the role of Stanley.  Your time in the game is narrated by an exacting, well, narrator.  The narrator is trying to tell a story.  Unfortunately, you’re just as likely to work against the story as you are to work with it.  Since you’re the player, after all, you get to make the choices.

I think this is a remarkable game for several reasons.  First: it’s funny as hell.  Second: it’s a real hoot to play through.  Third: it captures, very well, the struggle a narrator can have with their characters.

As writers, we develop characters to be people.  We want them to be complex, to have depth and consciousness, to have contradictions and flaws.  We want them to be as human as possible.  And if we’ve done our job well, they will occasionally surprise us.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve written up an outline only to realize, halfway through, that one (or more) characters would never ever follow through with it.  They go ahead and do what makes sense for them and I’m left to scrap the outline and start again.  It’s very frustrating.

A very similar relationship evolves between Stanley and The Narrator.  As Stanley, you are the character.  Yes, you could do everything the narrator tells you to do.  It’s quite easy that way, actually.  But, ultimately, it feels sparse, boring, uninvolved.  You go through the motions without real meaning, rolling your eyes half the way, and the ending becomes a kind of mockery.

I won’t give away more.  It’s a playable and replayable game and I hope you give it a spin.

The lesson is this: well-designed characters will surprise you.  Don’t try to hammer them back into shape.  The more you try to force characters to fit your outline, the less human they will seem.  If you deprive your characters of agency, they become boring.  Readers want human characters.  Characters who make their own decisions (or seem to, at least).  Realistic characters with agency and contradictions and a sense of self!  So don’t fight them too much, or the whole thing will break down…

Spec Ops: The Line

In an action game, you expect to kill people.  You expect firefights and explosions and huge set pieces.  Fierce enemies, intense action sequences, and high-octane plot lines.  What you don’t expect?  Moral consequence.  Judgment.  Guilt.  Intellectual and emotional confusion.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game that hates action games.  It’s a game that changed the way I thought about war.  And it’s a done-and-done-again adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Spec Ops: The Line is lengthy and complicated.  It shocked me into doing research on veterans’ affairs, moral injury, PTSD, and the alarming ways in which we, as a nation, discard our returning soldiers.  It sounds shallow and awful and trite, but this game drove me to interview veterans, to read essays and forum posts, and to pore through articles and books.

It started when I shot a civilian in the middle of a heated, three-way firefight.  She was running through a maze of alleys and Walker (the POV character the player controls) had been harried from all sides by assailants.  I turned a corner, saw a figure charging at me, and reacted.  Then I watched as a woman screamed in pain, dropped to the ground, and died while clutching the wound in her stomach.  Before I had time to come to terms with what I’d done, someone else was already shooting at me.  I had to keep moving.

Things got worse from there.

But I won’t make this article about my The Line experience.  That could be an article in and of itself.  The point I want to make is this: this game changed my emotional response to the world around me.  I’d read Heart of Darkness and seen Apocalypse Now, but it was Spec Ops: The Line that dug its claws into my heart and tore it up.

Are you worried that you’re writing a story that’s been done before?  Don’t be.  Heart of Darkness has been adapted into at least two different films.  Its plot has been mirrored and paralleled in countless novels and novella.  There are callbacks to Heart of Darkness littered all through our media.  I’ve experienced plenty of them.  But this one hit me like a Mack truck.  So if you’re working on a project, and you’re worried it’s been done before…stop worrying.  You never know.  Yours might just be the one that changes someone’s life.

Metro 2033/Metro Last Light

Setting.  Setting is very important.  We’ll have a process blog entry on that point, soon enough.  But setting is also very difficult in storied sci-fi/fantasy settings–it has to be delivered without too much exposition.  Readers don’t want history lessons.  They don’t want long explanations.  They want more story.

The games (based on the Metro 2033 series of novels, which I own but have not read yet) do an incredible job with setting.  At one point in Last Light, an old, gray-haired man is doing shadow-puppets for a group of children.  As the show went on, the children stopped recognizing the animals.  Many of them were extinct.  The old man became exasperated, trying to explain beauty to people who had never seen it.  Eventually, he gives up and tells them to go home and come back the next day.

Most of the setting and world-detail of these games is provided by such events.  A slew of graffiti on a subway wall, a group of children chasing rats with sharp sticks.  A corpse found in the sewer with a hole in its head, an old gun clutched in its rotting hands.  A family who tries to kill you…and when you kill them, first, you find a chopped up corpse in their fridge.

You don’t really need to know the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of these things.  The ‘what’ is enough.  Nobody moans a history at you, nobody drunkenly recounts the long tale of the apocalypse.  Nobody needs to.  The tale is there to be seen.  And if there are strange creatures, unholy mutants, and desperate ghosts in the subway tunnels?  Of course there are.  The world has made it clear that this is not mankind’s kingdom any more.

Play this game because it does the best job of expressing setting and history of any game I’ve ever played.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange is one of the most heart-wrenching, emotional games I have ever played, and I have played a lot of games.

The main character of Life is Strange gets a special power: she can reverse time.  But while most games outfit you with an ability to go tangle with great forces and perform amazing feats, Life is Strange just puts you in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to navigate life.  The reverse-time ability doesn’t let you fight monsters, it just lets you make different decisions.  When you see a police officer harassing a young woman, what do you do?  (1) take a photo as evidence?, (2) intervene directly?, (3) ignore it?, (4) do any of the above, but then backtrack and investigate what really happened?  Each choice leads to a very different set of consequences, and reverse-time powers or not, you’ll have to choose one of them sooner or later.

There’s a lot to learn and unpack from Life is Strange.  There’s the fashion in which the player can rough-draft and brainstorm their decisions.  Or the way it uses magic realism and supernatural sci-fi to tell a deeply intimate story.  It does an excellent job of making small things seem huge and of creating a real, living world that these things happen in.  Life is Strange is, in my biased opinion, the most necessary game on this list.

But the most powerful lessons it has to offer are about character and consequence.  The entire game is character driven, a mess of people with tangled motivations and relationships, each of them complex and flawed and hurting and a little bit beautiful.  It’s a great lesson in giving depth and humanity to even the seemingly background characters.

It’s a greater lesson in the nature and gravity of consequence.  Super powered or not, Maxine Caulfield is still just a semi-normal person trying to navigate a semi-normal life.  And that’s what gives the game its emotional power.  Despite the seemingly magical abilities, we can’t foresee or prevent our actions from having consequence, sometimes to extreme effect.  We can’t be heroes, we can only do our best.  So it goes with a character in a story: their actions should have consequence.  Great consequence, unforeseen consequence, heartbreaking or affirming consequence.  Their actions, however small, make ripples in the world.

If you want to know more, play the game.

Writing Prompt

Write a story outline framed entirely as character choices.  Try a flow chart!  Open with a situation (“Zumi runs down a hallway until she reaches an intersection,” for instance) and then branch through the outline by following the protagonist’s choices.  (If she turns left, what happens?  If she turns right?  When the thing chasing her catches up, what if she fights?  What if she runs?  Etc.)  What happens to the story/outline when protagonist choice is the most important factor?

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Why Dark Fiction?

Hello, imaginary public, and welcome to today’s process blog entry: “Why Dark Fiction?”

Some time ago, on the internet, while discussing writing with a bunch of fellow writers (whom I’ll likely never meet in person), I was posed a question by someone who had actually read some of my work.  At first, I was stunned, because who reads my work?  But, then, I decided to answer the question.  The question, in essence, asked why I so rarely included ‘redemptive’ endings in my stories.

I assumed (s)he was asking about the ending of No Grave, because it seemed like a safe assumption to make.  My short stories don’t allow for a wide variety of endings, to be honest.  A story entitled “A Black House Rots North of Town” does not seem to promise a happy ending.

But it’s a fair question.  It taps into a kind of debate that I’ve seen people get involved with, before.  Especially in genre fiction–fantasy and sci-fi and such–where part of the allure is escapism: what ending do we provide an audience?  Are authors obligated to leave the audience at-ease?  Are we obligated to try to improve their real-life suffering by providing fictional easement?

My answer is unsurprisingly non-committal.  Mostly, my answer is an awkward, uncomfortable face and a series of tense, shrug-like gestures.  A few sounds akin to words like “eh?” and “maybe?” and “kinda?” and “iunno?”  Luckily, I mostly see this debate on the internet, where I’m able to scroll past without comment.  When asked about it on a forum, I provided a neat, clean paragraph that hardly covered my actual opinion.

But today, I’m throwing in my 2-cents.  And a writing prompt at the end.

Stop Reading Now If You Don’t Want No Grave Spoilers.

Seriously.  I’m not going to get too specific, but you’ll know the approximate ending if you keep reading.

Assuming you care.

Which, if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Alright: last chance to stop reading.

Seriously, you can scroll down to the writing prompt and skip all this.

Still here?

Great.

So, several people I’ve spoken to regarding No Grave have some issues with the ending.  It’s a bit dreary.  The ‘good guys’ (to the extent any of them can be called ‘good’) sort of lose.  Or, at least, they certainly don’t ‘win.’  Whatever that means.  And the main character makes a choice that is deeply selfish in the face of great evil.  (For the record, I would probably make the same choice).  Perhaps worse: once the selfish choice is made, she’s not particularly effective at carrying it out.  It all seems pretty unpleasant.

Well, sure, but that’s the point.

I find it therapeutic actually.  Because, in real life, we lose all the time.  Or we make choices that don’t pan out.  Or we try to save people and they die anyway.  Et cetera.  Mostly, we’re very small and weak and human.  We fail probably more often than we succeed.

And this is the important part: that’s okay.

Tristan makes a terrible mistake and tries to salvage it and it doesn’t work.  Nicole commits to a losing proposition after essentially being pressured into it and she gets scared and doesn’t do it.  Cyrus pursues his own interests selfishly until he sees how far people will go for each other and then those people get fucked because of him.  Even though he tries his hardest to turn over a new leaf and save them, it’s just too-little-too-late.

So what happens, then?  Everyone packs it in, tail between their legs, goes home, and eats a bullet.  No, wait, that’s not what happens at all.  They take their moment, they mourn, they cry about it, they feel guilt and pain and suffering and then they pick themselves up and get ready to try again.  They’re getting licked out there and they huddle up, count off, and prepare to hit the field.  Once more into the breach and all that.

As far as I’m concerned, their failure is a message of hope.

Let me explain.

Escapism vs. Hope

‘Escapism’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘complete fantasy.’  I don’t need to tell a story where the good guys win.  I don’t think the ‘good guys win’ formula is terribly hopeful.  Optimistic, sure, but not hopeful.  Hope isn’t hard to do when you’re winning.  Hope is hard to do when you’re losing.  And that’s the narrative I’m building.  Losing isn’t the end of a thing and neither is failure.  Loss and failure are just things that happen.  People make bad decisions, selfish decisions, wrong decisions.  People fuck up.  Then they try again.  Most of us will probably die with works unfinished and we hope others pick up where we left off.  The world spends a few months raining shit down on us and we hope we do better next time.  Hope isn’t in a victory, it’s in the attempt.

I have no desire to sell the ‘good guys win’ narrative, or any narrative of false optimism.  Or any narrative that feels false to me at all.  Sure, sometimes the good guys will win, I’ve definitely written and outlined stories where that’s what happens–because that’s what makes sense.  But in the main, that’s not the product I peddle.  My type of escapism doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, or a ‘redemptive’ ending as it was put to me.  But I don’t think people need those.  I don’t think they’re particularly helpful.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in easing real-life suffering or imbuing an audience with a sense of hope or wellness.  Instead, I aim to say: “hey, so, things suck right now, shit happens, whatever, but you shouldn’t give up.  Pick yourself up, brush it off, and try again.  Hold out for next time.  And the time after that.  And the time after that.”

Or, perhaps, in this trying era, Maya Angelou put it best: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”

There’s a common saying that things are always darkest before the dawn–so maybe my stories aren’t about the dawn.  Maybe my stories are about the darkness getting darker and the characters having the strength to hope that the dawn breaks soon.  To have the strength to use gas-station bics and old, beaten matchbooks to make their own dawn because they don’t want to wait anymore.

And sometimes the darkness takes one of them, and all the others go out and gather sticks and build a pyre and set it ablaze and that inferno is its own dawn, for a while.

Good guys don’t always win, but they always keep trying.

That’s the narrative I’m selling.

Writing Prompt!

If you feel like doing some writing today, try this one out: write at least one (1) page where the story begins with the character failing.  Bonus points if the character fails because of their own stupid mistakes.  After the failure is complete, what happens next?

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My “Best Books of 2016” List

I’ll get this out of the way.  These are just books I read this year: a collection of fiction from various genres as well as a dash of non-fiction.  Were they published in 2016?  Likely not.  But they’re great books and they deserve more attention (and sales).  In any case, this is my list of the best books of 2016…insofar that I read them all in 2016.

 

#5: The Listeners, by Leni Zumas


The Listeners
contains some of my favorite prose from this year.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, “Zumas has razored into existence a beautiful grotesquery of the English language.”  It’s a tangled tale, a literary experiment, and a horrorshow of a ride.  It does occasionally veer into over-heightened prose, and the ending leaves something to be desired, but it’s a gorgeous work of sharp and painful art and worth every minute I spent reading it.

You can get it at Amazon.com and I recommend that you do.

 

#4: Ritualistic Human Sacrifice, by C. V. Hunt


C. V. Hunt continues to be one of my favorite authors of dark fiction.  Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a great example of why: it’s a wild, insane ride that rushes by at a rollercoaster speed and has little regard for what is or isn’t socially acceptable.  It’s grotesque, horrific, and hilariously transgressive.  I was, by turns, laughing, grimacing, and shuddering.  Hunt has perfectly balanced horror with humor…provided you have a particularly dark and transgressive kind of humor.

Pick it up at Amazon.com and buckle up, because it’s a bumpy ride.

 

#3: Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, by A. J. Somerset


Non-fiction.  A moderate view of gun culture in the United States and Canada.  Arms is a dissection of cultural mores, historical trends, media, and even ballistic science–all in the service of trying to find sanity in a maddening debate.  Deeply informative and incredibly well-researched.

I always post links to buy things on Amazon.com because I assume that’s where the majority of people reading this will do their shopping.

 

#2: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle


Man…this was an amazing novella.  Just amazing.  Victor LaValle is an incredibly talented author.  He’s an amazing linguist, a dazzling player of the English instrument, with punched-up and tight-wound prose that is at once haltingly beautiful and rapid-fire.  If you haven’t read The Devil in Silver, for example, you should do that immediately.  In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle’s talent with prose is heightened and practiced and a perfect homage to Lovecraft’s work.  Where Lovecraft’s paragraphs tended to bloat, however, LaValle trims off all the fat and leaves nothing unnecessary.

I noticed, this past couple years, that there’s been a tremendous wave of cosmic horror authors trying to work to confront and combat Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism…of all these efforts, I believe LaValle’s was the most successful.

Purchase it on Amazon.com literally as soon as you can.

 

#1: The Nameless Dark, by T. E. Grau


T. E. Grau’s story collection The Nameless Dark is everything I like about cosmic horror and most things I like about fiction in general.  Grau’s prose is lyrical and rich and extremely readable.  The stories cross genres and time periods and Grau is easily at home in all of them, weaving haunting and sometimes horrifying tales with believable (if not necessarily always likable) characters and doing it all with some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever happened upon.  Thrilling, harrowing, and entrancing, these tales are worth a very close read.  Perhaps several.

Pick it up at Amazon.com.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Welcome to Nightvale
, by Joseph Fink

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Good News, Bad News.

Good news and bad news.  An update from the cave.  The hermit shambles forth from the dark mouth, a decree on his chapped lips.

(That’s me, by the way.)

Let’s start with the bad news: it seems unlikely that my work with The New American Apocalypse will continue, at least not for a long time (by which point it will be no longer topical and probably forgotten by its readers).  I know, I know–we were all looking forward to the final battle between our brainburnt narrator and the squirming tentacles of fascist, greed-driven evil, but I’ve fallen several entries behind and have taken on too many projects to spend much time catching up…and certainly not before voting day.

Perhaps I’ll resurrect the story and finish it soon, maybe 2 years from now, maybe in the form of a smaller, less-improvised, and even more grotesque little chap-book.  Who knows?  I don’t.  And even if I did, I would carry the idea in secret, hidden beneath the tattered folds of my yellow cloak.

On to the good news!

The good news: the reason The New American Apocalypse has been on the back-burner for so long, and the forces behind my decision to suspend all work on it (at least for some time) is because I’m juggling too many other, larger projects.  I am plodding along, slowly but surely, on a sequel to No Grave.  It’s unlikely to see release before mid-2017, but it’s getting done.  The Brownstone crew and the sundry other characters wrapped up in this world of shadows, secrets, and scares will visit upon you again!  Fear not…or, yeah, probably fear a little.

The second piece of news: I am also plodding forth in my dealings with the large (and largely-abandoned) town of Oceanrest, Maine.  By now, some of you might’ve noticed a story about a black house in the woods, or about a strange CD linked to hallucinatory effects, or about a man who wakes up every morning haunted by the ghosts of the future.  Or maybe you’ve just heard about Oceanrest from a mysterious diary page found in a rotting pile of debris.  In any case, the setting is going places.  I’ve hinted at something for a while and, to excuse my seeming abandonment of my improvisational blog project, perhaps it is time I came clean and told you: there are talks of a novel.  I’ve written it, three full from-scratch drafts and months in revisions and rewrites, working happily with editorial staff from various interested parties.  I don’t want to give away too much, in case we get caught in development/contractual hell, but there may be copies available in bookstores in the foreseeable future (assuming we do not all drown in hellfire or nuclear radiation first).  Expect to see more Oceanrest short stories in e-zines, magazines, and on my blog, and (hopefully) you’ll be able to get a larger look at the town and its denizens in the not-too-distant future.

The third piece of news: I am writing a podcast.  As these things often are, the podcast is being created on a tightwire budget above a vast crevasse of darkness, but the people in charge are people I’ve worked with on other projects and who have a history of creating quality goods despite (or because of) budgetary limitations.  They have a strong track record and I trust them.  These words will reach your ears, sooner or later, through the lips of talented voice actors.  Of course, I’ve never written a podcast before–and this is why, in the past four months, I have gone from 1 podcast subscription with 40 “heard” episodes, to 15 podcast subscriptions with 266 “heard” episodes.  I’ve been learning the ropes, writing and revising episodes, etc… and this has, in addition to the above-mentioned news, taken time.

So, between an upcoming Furies book, a possible Oceanrest book (and more Oceanrest stories in general), and a podcast…my plate is a bit full.  And so we bid (hopefully brief) adieu to our New American Apocalypse and its tentacular evils in order to march more steadily forward.

With great love and hope and utter sky-rending terror,

Spencer

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 23

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part NineteenPart TwentyPart Twenty-One; Part Twenty-Two;

Part Twenty-Three:…)

Day 40

The universe is going to end.  Ultimately, everything does.  Species go extinct, eras come to a close.  The apocalypse happens…not with a bang, and maybe not even with the over-quoted whimper.  The apocalypse is a mundane thing.  It happens every day.  An old man halfway across the world closes his eyes for the last time and takes everything he might’ve done next week with him.  A young woman overdoses on pain medication.  A species of insect is just discovered the day before it vanishes.  A billion lightyears away, an old star finally gutters out.  The apocalypse isn’t flashy.  It doesn’t brag.  It doesn’t drive a nice car or pour overpriced champagne into its hot-tub.  It just waits and, eventually, it wins.

Bummer, right?

But you never think you’ll be there for it.  You’re vaguely aware that one day you, personally, won’t exist anymore.  You’re vaguely aware that a distant future happens without you in it.  But the whole shebang?  The end of mankind?  No way, right?

This apocalypse was slow, too.  The New American Apocalypse was decades in the making.  We just didn’t notice it because, most of the time, the apocalypse isn’t flashy or bright or particularly fast.  Most of the time, the apocalypse is boring and dull and takes an incredibly long time.

Where did this one start?  Well, it was long before I wrote my shitty poems, I’ll tell you that.  Before the Cult of M’Ra or the Church of the New American Jesus.  But when?  I stay up at night, too tired to move and too scared of my own thoughts to sleep, and wonder…when?  When?  WHEN?

But I can’t find a date.  Can’t even figure out the era.  If someone asks me “where did this all get started?” I’d have to shrug my shoulders and mumble something about inevitable entropy or maybe the cruelty of human nature or the absolute resourcefulness of the Great Darknesses.  I think that scares me more than everything else.  If I could point to an event, or a decade, or a moment, or something, if I could point to something in our shared history and say “here, it started here,” then maybe it wouldn’t feel so inevitable.  But it’s like people keep telling me: I just put the straw on the camel’s back.  Everything else was already there.  Added slowly, over decades, maybe even over centuries, by so many people with so many different ideas that it’s impossible to narrow it down.

Nobody in history woke up and said “well, time to start the apocalypse, I guess.”  Nobody wakes up and decides to be the bad guy.  They just kind of…do it.  It’s only evidenced in retrospect, in the vast archives of history.  Vanderbilt was a cruel, self-righteous criminal.  Pullman was a heartless money-grubbing monster.  They didn’t wake up and decide to be assholes.  That’s just the best that they could do with the beliefs that they had.  With their priorities.  With their perspectives.

So it goes, I guess.

Same thing with the Cult of M’Ra.  I bet every single one of them, from the Grand Penis to the lowly Scrotophyte, believes that they’re doing something that has to be done.  Talk about delusions of fucking grandeur.  But there’s something there, right?  They didn’t wake up in the morning and pray to their Mighty Veined Deity to be assholes.  They do it because they believe in something, they legitimately believe in something.  They do it because they think there’s something wrong with the direction things were going in before the Great Darknesses rose up.  They have faith in their own goodness.  Faith in their Cock God and the moral structure of its hairy testicles.

Yeah, well.  I think this world has seen enough of what faith can do.

“What’s got you up so late?” Mr. Baldwin asks.  His wounds are recovering admirably, but we’ve all had to continue covering for him.  I’m waiting for those interned psychos to come knocking.  Or worse.  The Scanners.  Surely they’re looking for him, by now.

“Thinking about inevitability.  About the way people act that makes these things happen.  About maybe how this is just the path human nature takes us down, that there’s never been another way to go.”

“You really think that?” he’s on the bunk below mine, bandaged and salved, and his voice has a quality that makes me think that the Earth, itself, is speaking.

“I dunno.  Maybe.  It just makes sense, sometimes.”

“You think the Cult of M’Ra makes sense?” he asks, as if reading my mind.  “You think a bunch of crackers wearing Halloween masks and walking around with longsword-sized dildos makes sense?”

“In the context of the human species?  Maybe.  Maybe this is just what we are, you know?  What we’ve always been.”

“Jesus, no wonder they got you so easy.  Programmed you to forget their agenda, made your eyes blind to the structures of their systems, your ears deaf to the evils of their scriptures…then they waited for your nihilistic foolishness to do the rest.  Instant patsy.”

“But am I wrong, though?  The Great Darknesses made this all possible, but the people did it.  The Cult of M’Ra, the Church of the New American Jesus, hell, even the zed middle management types and the cannibal class chasing everyone out of their apartments in Queens–they’re all just humans, living or recently deceased.  They were just waiting for some squid-faced monster to give them the go-ahead.  That’s all.  They just needed permission.”

There’s a long pause.  I can hear him think.  He can hear me, too, I bet.  The two of us just stewing in the darkness.

He breaks the silence.  His voice has the strength of coiled roots drilled into the soil.  “Long is the way and hard that out of darkness leads up to light.”

I furrow my brow, though he can’t see it.  “Is that Milton?  Are you quoting Milton at me?”

“Don’t be weak,” he says.  “Don’t be a coward.  Don’t look for an excuse to give up.  You want the truth?  The truth is that the world can be shit.  People suffer.  People are always going to suffer.  Some more than others, and for reasons that won’t make any sense.  So you have to make a choice: you either give up, turn a blind eye, tell yourself there’s nothing you can do about it…or you can do something about it.  The world doesn’t need another asshole like you in the first category.  That’s what it is.  The path is long and it is hard as all hell, but it’s the only path leading up.  The only path running against the one you’re so afraid is your only option.”

I nod, though he can’t see it.  “Guess so.  Just…why bother?  Because…extinction, you know?  If not the Great Darknesses, maybe just bombs.  Or a plague.  Or the sun eating the Earth.  Or–”

“Excuses.  Philosophical bullshit.  Academic nonsense to make you feel better about not wanting to do shit.  You ever hear the story about that photographer?  Uh…what’s his name?…Carter?  The guy who took the photo of that starving kid and the vulture?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I know that one.”

“Yeah, well.  Look at that shit and tell me about how the sun’s going to eat the Earth and nothing matters, huh?  Existential depression.  You’re lucky to be in a place where existential depression is the shit that you’re worried about.  Extinction.  Meaning.  Maslow’s damned pyramid.  Do me a favor, alright?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Feed the kid, when it happens to you.  Just feed the fucking kid.”

A long pause.  I say nothing.  I can’t think of anything to say.

He speaks, next: “Tomorrow, by the way.  The attack happens tomorrow.  We’re going to open a portal, again, and this time you’re going through.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t fuck it up.”

I would say ‘ye of little faith,’ but I’m not a man of much faith, either.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 22

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part NineteenPart TwentyPart Twenty-One;

Part Twenty-Two:…)

[Day 31]

The sky rumbles.  The bosses lumber around with whips.  Tentacled things in three-piece suits writhe around the perimeter.  Do 12-legged monsters dress to the right or to the left, do you think?  It hardly matters.  What matters is this: they have shown up.  That they would even deign to show their faces around here speaks volumes.  Well, I say “faces,” but only about half of them have a “face” in the way that humans traditionally think of them.  Perhaps the word “visages” is  more apropos?

Mr. Baldwin smirks at me.  “They’re scared.”

“No they’re not.”

“As close to it as they’ve ever been.”

I hope he’s right.  Having seen the leader of these vile forces, ‘hope’ may be all I have to go on.  I think back to the phone call last month, trying to ascertain the fate of The Girl, being greeted by an ominous voice instead.  An emissary?  Surely not the Beast, itself.  I don’t believe that monster does much in the way of talking.  Its maw exists only to feast.

“What are they nervous about?” I ask.

“The coming siege.”

“Wait, you mean this shit is actually working?”

Mr. Baldwin merely nods.

Is it so impossible to imagine?  Art, culture, rhetoric…are these things inspiring rebellion?  Revolution?  Has our simple aid lent strength to the guerrilla revolutionaries fighting back against the tide of darkness?  Perhaps.  Mr. Baldwin seems to have more faith in the matter than I do.  Maybe he knows something I don’t.

“When the time comes,” he tells me, “you still have your job to do.”

“What?” I ask, having all but forgotten my previous mission.

Poems of the Apocalypse.   Your own personal Frankenstein monster.”

“Did you read them?”

“I did.”

“What did you think?”

Mr. Baldwin chuckles.  Shakes his head.  “I think you’re low down.  Way low down.  Maybe you stared at the Abyss too long.  Hell, maybe you took the Abyss out for a few drinks and spent a night shacked up in a motel with it.  You wrote the book as a black hole for hope.  It was a spell.  The words were magic.  People who were Fighting the Good Fight gave up when they read the thing.  People who were on the edge of madness took the leap.”

“Well, yeah.  I figured that part out.  But I mean…was the work any good?”

“The poetry?”

“Yeah.”

“Passable.”

“Passable?” I ask.

“Passable,” he confirms.

And wouldn’t it just figure that my most important piece of work was merely passable?  Isn’t it almost predictable that the most important thing I’ve done in my life is something I did while brownout/blackout drunk, hammering dumbly away at my keyboard in a state of depressive nihilism and Azazoth lunacy?  That it would be ‘passable,’ at best?  Of course it is.

Why did I ever get into this business?

 

[Day 36]

I can’t believe this shit.

Technically, the camp workers aren’t slaves, per se.  Not even wageslaves, really.  They’re indentured servants working to pay off an unpayable debt.  So, not ‘wageslaves’ but ‘interest-slaves.’  Debt-slaves.  Old fashioned indentured servitude, gussied up by pretty corporate language and finance law-speak.  Our shoulders are yoked by red-penned debt.  By impossible interest rates.  By fines and nickel-and-dime strategies imposed by our bosses.

And, apparently, some of the workers view that as a fair thing.

Now, I’m familiar with the ideology of a Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire, but this takes it a step too far.  There are people bound here who believe the tentacular, faceless, void-worshiping bosses might actually promote them.  There are people here who believe they might one day start their own void-worshiping business!  They think that they might be able to lease out a loan to an even poorer person at an even higher interest rate than their own and turn that weak-tea concept into a bustling void-worshiping bank!

Fools, at best.  Monsters, at worst.  Humans, nonetheless.

Some of them attacked Mr. Baldwin last night. They brought mostly fists and feet to the assault, supported by an assortment of words. They called him a “rabble rouser,” a “commie,” a “union-loving scumbag,” and, of course, a “nigger.”  Not to mention all the other usual epithets and reprisals one might expect a red-blooded American debt-slave to call the men trying to fight on their behalf.  The list is endless and repetitive.  The creativity of its inventors extends only to finding more nonsense syllables to string together in insult.  I’m sure whoever reads this is already familiar with the vocabulary.

After he’s brought inside half-dead, he rests.  His face is marred with bruises and his lips are rouged with blood.  We have to find someone to cover his morning shift censoring library books and his afternoon shift of skinning the dead for consumption.  I guard him through the night and one of the other inmates–er, employees–takes care of him while I work the early afternoon away by revising history books to suit the needs of the Great Darknesses.

The next morning, I air my grievances to him.  Do these fools not realize the tremendous fight he’s undertaken on their behalf?  Do they not see the risks of the mantle he’s borne for them?  Can they possibly believe these undulating aberrations reaping the rewards from their labor have their best interests at heart?  (If they have hearts, that is.  I’m uncertain about the specifics of their grotesque anatomies.)

“You don’t have much experience rallying folk, do you?” he asks.

“I’ve written a couple pieces here and there.”

“Uh-huh.  They get much of a reaction?”

“Not really.  One guy called me a white-knighting faggot mangina.  Y’know, on the internet.  Before.”

He stares at me.

“Yeah.  I guess it’s not really the same.  Another guy said he would fuck me up if he ever saw me, but I didn’t really take him seriously.  It was all online.”

He continues staring.

It’s awkward.

“I used to go to rallies and stuff when I was younger.  Less afraid.  You know, peaceful protests and stuff…large groups…” I clear my throat.

He laughs.  It seems to hurt him.  “That all?”

“Uh.  Yeah.”

Still laughing, he says:  “Thank God you only got the one job to do, then.”

 

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 21

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part NineteenPart Twenty;

Part Twenty-One:…)

[Day 26, Cont’d]

I read the words of the Dark Ones, in the tongue of the Great Darknesses, yes, I spake!:

“A woman’s place is in the home! The Lord himself seeds all wombs! Abortions shall be performed only with hooks and hangers! A child of rape is a beautiful creation, deus vult!  Hupadgh’fhalma!  Goka gof’nn!  Damn the sluts to a thousand squirming young!  Damn the prudes to barren wombs!  Serve!  Serve!”

My mind clouds!  My vision dims!  Oh, forgive me!  Ms. Bradbury, especially, forgive me!

But I go on!:

“He was a troublemaker!  He stole something!  Look at his social media photos!  The police are endowed with the right to decide what constitutes reasonable force!  The burden of protecting the citizenry is a heavy one and wears on their nerves!  De-escalation is an impossible option!  All lives matter!  Mnahn’orr’e!  Bow!  Bow!”

The starless cosmos glowers in my periphery!  Mr. Ballard, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Conrad, ah, I swear though my mouth betrays, my heart is not in it!

A portal forms in the center of the room, small and growing, purple and photo-negative light coils around us…the spell continues:

“The great Phallus M’Ra, worship!  M’Ra’fhtagn!  Rise up hard and vast, oh massive godlike Phallus, rise up and into our spirits!  Come into our hands!  Give us strength, M’Ra, strength of hand to silence, strength of grip to serve, strength of finger to spread the gospel wide!  Ia!  Ia!”

Neverending gospel of the Great Dark Ones!  My lips seem to peel away from my face as I speak!:

“Uln’Vanderbilt!  Uln’Pullman!  Uln’Reaganomics!  The worms and slaves beneath shall serve as meat for the monster of industry!  Chew between the white-collared teeth those back-broken wretches, hunched in inferiority!  Chew against lean muscle and fatty gristle, burn their calories empty, devour their spines!  Hain’t I got the money?  Hain’t I got the power!?  Vanderbilt’fhtagn!  Robber King of Gutted Economy, rise!”

The tenebrous portal devours all light as it opens like a vast maw in the earth!  I lose my voice and it is Mr. Baldwin who smacks me over the head and keeps me speaking, even as the words I utter turn my guts and raze my weak and harrowed soul:

“Plug in!  Download the Hollywood programming: yea, first we believe in the bootstrap mentality, that all men and only men and maybe a couple very attractive women are created equal and have access to equal opportunities and therefore any failings are failings of the character; yea, and second we believe in the doctrine of the meaningless, that no story shall afflict the brain with questions, no story shall drive us to act, all tales exist for the sole purpose of entertainment!

“Yea, and download the News Media Add-on: that third we believe in the news cycle, we adhere our attentiveness only to a spread of five-to-seven-days before moving on, that all problems not solved in the time frame are unsolvable, that the entertainment ends and curtain falls, that out of the camera’s focus nothing exists; yea, that fourth we believe that class does not exist, that wealth is a byproduct of competence, these men and primarily men and maybe a couple acceptable women with the right parentage are pillars of industry, Messiahs of Commerce striding among poor shriveled indigents, worthy the vault of fortune they possess; yea, that fifth we believe in Fair and Balanced reportage as labeled by articles set forth by the blinded gods of chaos chirping in the far reaches of space, that our duty as journalists rests on strong research, on finding the most disarming photographs available of white killers and most alarming photographs available of the black and brown ones, that our duty as journalists rests on adherence to the principals of the party, the writhing chaos gibbering around our meaningless lives;

“Yea, and download the Fast Forward Tube Feed: that sixth we believe in strict overabundance, that fatted bodies cannot fight and fatted minds cannot think and so we must stuff the mouths of the Cattle Class with all the cheapest feed available; yea, and that seventh we believe in the blinding flash of overly compressed frames in every minute, of pumping out a kaleidoscope of entertainment and reportage instantly overwhelming, of generating sensory overload on a scale that cannot be contained, cannot be expressed, cannot be understood except in the glibbest, blithest, most meaningless of observations delivered in under 140 pithy characters!”

And so the portal opens wide its endless mouth and down the throat of that terrible maw we see the hideous truths.

There: the American Heart of Darkness.  There: the pulsing balls of the Great Darknesses.

This is dead land; this is city land.  Moonlight crawls along broken columns.  A horde of human flesh is fed to a machine tyrant.  It devours factories full of four-fingered children.  It devours poor neighborhoods and low-income housing.  It devours streets and counties and parishes and dead-end towns miles away from the nearest grocery store.  Its innards roar like the mouths of a thousand garbage disposals.  It defecates money and meat, both equally bloody, and leaves a trail of half-digested bodies still twitching in its wake.  Its eyes are black holes.  Its mouth is a black hole.  Its hunger is bottomless.  It feasts forever.  It feasts not with agenda but out of blind idiot instinct.  It feasts because it can.  It feasts because it feasts.  There is no ‘why’ and maybe there never was.

Its world is a shattered grayscape of wasteland.  The subway cars are oil-slicked worms eating their way through the mantle of the earth.  The highways are taut strings clenched in its clawed fingers.  The mountains are the spines of Its brethren.  Smoke gutters its way up from everywhere.  Charred skeletons stare up empty-eyed from mass graves lining the globe.  Tentacled robber barons and zed middle-management types eat the remains of mankind with paired wines behind picture windows. The skyscrapers are great phalluses.

And every radio station and every TV show and every newspaper and every cheap liquor ad with a pouting woman on the poster all say the same thing: This Is The Way Things Are.  This Is The Way Things Are.  This Is The Way Things Are.

No!  No!  This is the way the world ends!  This is the way the world ends!  Not with a bang but an advert!  Between The Way We’ve Always Done It and the Way We Could Change Things falls the fucking shadow!

I am screaming, I realize.  I shriek with horror.

The thing, the monster I now realize is leading the Great Darknesses in their newest assault on our world, the Beast itself, peers up at me through the portal we opened and I see the infinite darkness of Its eyes shift like oozing tar.  Its gaze upon me, It grins.  Its teeth are smeared with blood.  Viscera hang between its many fangs.  It is in sore need of floss.  But worse: Its breath.  Or worse, still: that I can smell Its breath, that It laughs at me, at my smallness and my weakness and my cowardice, that It snickers so giddily and so happily that the reek of Its corpse-enriched breath reaches me.

Mr. Baldwin wrenches me away from the portal, clutching my wrists in his grasp.

He tells me I was trying to claw my eyes out.

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