It's the blog that dripped blood.
A place of random thoughts, curiosities, reviews and ramblings.
|Posted on February 21, 2014 at 11:50 PM||comments (0)|
When it comes to dissecting Aussie culture, Greg McLean’s latest illuminates the tropes better than Baz Luhrmann’s massively budgeted attempts. And while I think there’s more to Australia (2005 than most give it credit for, Wolf Creek 2 ultra-effectively dissects issues such as masculinity, the city vs country conflict, and immigration with the most dangerous of tools: a mirror. An important distinction.
Wolf Creek 2 has a plot that is very similar to the 2005 original. Set in the vast Australian outback, we watch as foreigners fall victim to pig-shooter/serial killer Mick Taylor (John Jarratt, reprising his infamous role). One such victim-to-be, is worthy adversary Paul (Ryan Corr — a charismatic alternative to the long-established Final Girl cliché). It’s the dynamic between Paul, the hunted, and Mick, the hunter, which fills the film’s latter (and stronger) half.
Like all good sequels, this film sets itself firmly within the same universe of the original, but smartly avoids telling the same story twice. The original Wolf Creek was a gritty, cinéma vérité-style, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) riff told from the perspective of the victim. This one is different. Its perspective is from that of the villain, and as such, it reflects the villain’s traits, both in structure and style.
Like Mick, Wolf Creek 2 is larger than life. Like Mick, the film does not tremble in fear; rather it confidently flexes muscles primed to squeeze triggers and throats. That this stylistic shift is pulled off is largely due to Jarratt's performance, which shifts from Freddy Krueger-inspired parody to transcendent eeriness with no effort at all.
So… Goodbye shaky hand held camera. Hello widescreen bravado. Goodbye extended prologue establishing the well-drawn characters of potential victims. Say howdy-do to a snappy, visceral pre-credit sequence featuring splattering brains and that oh so familiar, victorious, guttural laugh.
In essence: Wolf Creek was a horror film. Wolf Creek 2 is a Western with horrific elements. And beneath it all is some nice sledgehammer satire. That’s not a bad thing. Also, in a nice ‘influence-echo’, the film actually has an air of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) about it, another film that was smart enough to know that the intensity of the original could not (nor should it) be reproduced and decided to go down the route of black comedy and political satire instead. On top of that, both finales cumulate in bloodied, corpse-strewn underground tunnels. All of this is expertly shot by director of photography, Toby Oliver (Beaconsfield), who makes great use of the widescreen format, filling each shot with the beauty of the outback, not to mention the grime of a lunatic’s labyrinth.
McLean and co-writer Aaron Sterns inject suspense at every turn. Some moments, however, work better than others. The opening is pure shock, which is a fine way to electrify your audience, but it comes at the cost of actually scaring them. On the flipside, the cumulating scenes, usually where horror films fall apart (think of the overlong explanation sequence at the end of Psycho, or the ‘monster’s lair’ conflict in Stephen King’s IT miniseries) is actually the most sweat-inducing part of the film. This is particularly well done considering this is where the satire cranks into overdrive. And this societal reflection is so apt it makes me wonder when the script for Wolf Creek 2 was actually written. It’s so topical it could have been ripped straight from the headlines.
As is the nature of any horror film told from the perspective of the killer, Wolf Creek 2 is not terrifying. Many may find this disappointing, as the drawcard of the original was its almost paralysing scares. But that is not to say it is not involving, because it is. But the scares aren’t the primary drawcard here…
It is the evocation and perversion of the Australian outback.
McLean follows in Peter Weirs’ footsteps. This is his Picnic at Hanging Rock (1979), a film wherein the landscape was so threatening it could open up and swallow you whole. There’s also an air of George Miller on display, with its atypical love of the highway as horror-zone ala Mad Max (1979) and The Road Warrior (1981). Other than the Tobe Hooper inspirations, the backbone to the Wolf Creek series, there are also refreshing Spielberg nods in a spectacular truck chase straight from Duel (1971). In addition, there’s further exploitation of the outback farmer myth, as Mick rides his horse into battle, only to step off the saddle to crack his whip in the face of his prey. And again, there is a scene in which the old-fashioned Australian family unit, poor Ma and Pa Kettle, who are living a life off the land, find their utopia destroyed by the savagery of their inverted idolism. During this set-piece, one of Wolf Creek 2’s finest, McLean draws from Sergio Leone, whose stylistic violence was so often about power and domination. The direction, in this regard, is unexpectedly mature. And ruthless. We can't help but watch as all of the stereotypes Australia exports to an international audience come back to haunt us. To stalk us dead.
Put together, these conflicting approaches mostly work. Sure, some of the narrative shifts are clunky, and the first third seems disconnected from the rest, but these are not irreconcilable missteps. Wolf Creek 2 is just too damn assured of itself for nearly anyone with a love of Australian cinema history to dismiss. There’s no hiding its grand and classical cultural ambitions as it ploughs through the stereotyped brochure epitomised in Luhrmann’s post-Australia tourism campaign. But it is passionately un-subtle, which we realise beyond a doubt as the xenophobic Mick Taylor mows down a mob of kangaroos with a semi-trailer in his endless pursuit for foreign flesh. This is actually Wolf Creek 2’s greatest charm.
SCORE: 4 out of 5 slaughtered backpackers.
|Posted on October 18, 2012 at 10:50 PM||comments (5)|
Condolences just aren’t enough.
That’s why I’m telling you that you’re not alone. And I know that’s hard to hear. Sometimes, the pain of loneliness ends up feeling a little like pleasure, which is why it can be so hard to give up.
You’re not alone; take comfort in this fact … But never underestimate how severely you can be underestimated.
I don’t subscribe to that 1950s mentality that children should be spoken at and not listened to. Like many others (but importantly: not all), I believe children should be respected, meaning that cries for help should be taken seriously. And I don’t believe that a child’s loss should make martyrs of their misery. Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd didn’t ask for that.
All she asked for was help.
… I’m twenty-eight and the spectrum of bullying has broadened since I was a child. Back when I was an overweight, pimple-faced, ginger haired, pale skinned nerd at school, all I had to worry about was getting through the taunts of a select few who refused to accept anyone who didn’t fit into the jigsaw of what they deemed ‘conventional’. And having survived this, I would come home (my backpack always dumped in the hallway, despite the pleas of my mother to do otherwise), watch Zorro or Spellbinder on the idiot box, and then maybe my brothers and I would bury chicken bones in the backyard so we could authenticate that afternoon’s paleontologist training (because what ten-year-old boy doesn’t want to dig up dinosaurs when they grow up?). After all this, post dinner, I’d maybe curl up with the latest R.L. Stine book before bed. Yeah, that was my day in a nutshell.
I didn’t come home after surviving school, and get on the Internet. To my memory, I didn’t hear the delightful cries of the dial-up tone until I was in my senior high … But I remember hearing its murmur. I remember thinking it must be this incredibly liberating place—like a giant town where you could to meet anyone and learn everything. A bookworm’s Nirvana. I was too young to know of the venom in the Internet’s veins. And I didn’t know that the only way to survive that venom was to develop immunity to it.
But I didn’t have to worry about any of this, not back then (now as an adult, the bullies I encounter are those who condescend, over-demand and demean within the workplace, or from behind their pulpits). All I had to do as a kid was get through the school day. All seven hours of it. Simple as that, right?
I wasn’t an unpopular kid. Actually, for someone with my interests (which veered far from the sports field that apparently defines what it is to be ‘Australian’) I got off pretty light. The majority of the cool kids liked me. I guess it was because I had a sense of humor, plus all of my classmates knew I hosted awesome sleepovers (I always knew of some R-rated horror movie that we could watch together—A Nightmare on Elm Street was a sure-fire hit).
I remember after one such event, one of the popular guys in my class came and sat next to me on the aluminum bench beneath our school’s gigantic peppercorn tree. “Hey Aaron,” he said with a smile. His lunch was on his knee. “I thought I’d come and hang out with you today. And guess what—I’m going to sit like you do!”
I wasn’t even aware that I sat a particular way, but I guess I’m glad I did. Take your complements wherever you get them, folks.
However, not all days were quite so pretty. In primary school, a guy who would go on to become a very successful business-owner would sporadically bully me. I recall thinking, “if only he was consistent … If only he did it every day, my guard wouldn’t drop and I wouldn’t be lulled into a safe sense of security.” And even worse, he always seemed to make up for lost time when he decided to enforce the hatred he had for the world, on we, the select few honored enough to elicit his attention.
On that particular day, he chased me across the schoolyard. I ran up the jungle gym, which was an old wooden structure in the shape of a ship. I scrambled up the rope ladder. He was right on my tail. He grabbed my ankle and I swung around and kicked him square in the chest. Bad idea. His anger only made him faster. He was on me in a second. I remember the way my head slammed against the ship’s wooden deck as he ploughed my face with punches.
Coppery blood from a cut inside my mouth. Dust in my eyes. And so on.
There was another time, in the fourth grade, when I was walking along a balancing beam at the very far end of the school grounds. Recess was almost over and at any moment, I expected to hear the bell ring, summoning us back to class. It was summer and there were bushfires that year; everything was swathed in grey smoke. I was walking the length of the beam when I felt hands on my ankles. Pushing me.
The pusher was a not-particularly nice girl who lived at the end of my street. I don’t know why she hated me. Perhaps it was because I sometimes heard screams coming from her house.
I fell and hit my head on the beam. When I opened my eyes, the schoolyard was empty. I dragged my sorry ass into the classroom, only to be yelled at by my teacher. I told her I was hurt, that there was pain in my neck and my headache was so bad I couldn’t see straight. She didn’t believe me. Not until the tears started to flow half an hour later.
These were rare, painful splinters in my adolescence. But rare is operative word here. I was not systematically punished by my peers, thank God; I was never blackmailed or emotionally crushed, day-in-day-out.
Just every so often, the way I spoke; walked; the way my interests led in an alternative direction to those who think theirs’ is the only way; when kids realized that yeah, they’re right, my thighs were bigger than theirs … Only ever so often, on days when these factors came into play, would I snag. And the splinter would dig deep.
I can understand how people survive systematic abuse and bullying. Which, I guess, is why I understand why people give up. That venom in the veins that I mentioned before … immunity searched and often prayed for. It sadly only comes to some. So I get it.
That’s why the stigma of nooses, of blades, the temptation of the bridge that seems almost designed to be leapt from, will never go away. Not until things change. I just don’t know if it ever will. As a result, it is we who must change, educate and take a stand. Author and reader alike. There is not a lot we can do … but at the very least, we can unanimously share our stories. Voices Carry, as the old ’Til Tuesday song goes, but only if people are willing to listen. That’s why there’s power in numbers.
All of this I understand. But I still don’t get ignorance.
Modern day evil breeds modern day cowards, and the Internet has given these people the means they so desperately require. Welcome to the 21st century schoolyard, folks. Only there are no teachers watching over the students, nobody waiting behind a desk for your plea to become legitimate once the tears start to flow and the bruises rise to the surface of your skin.
Listen. Always listen.
For as long as there have been bullies there have been victims. And being bullying is not a rite of passage; it’s a crime. People need to understand that not everyone is strong. Yes, some people need help, and yes, that’s totally fine. Humans can be frail as the bodies we are wrapped up in, we break and whither and are always susceptible to punches, be they physical or psychological.
So listen. Always. Help when you can.
These collective blogs are not about preaching; they are about uniformity. Strength. We’re not here to build a wall that will protect children from the world, that forces them into safe houses from which they are never allowed to leave. We’re here in the hope that—if there are enough of us—we can adapt the architecture of that house and its surrounds. And that those who are hurt by the cruelty of the selfish and the cowardly, need not live alone.
But the important thing, above all else, is that they live.
* * *
Authors Against Bullying contributors.
Please check out their blogs - comment, contribute and spread the word.
|Posted on October 5, 2012 at 12:20 AM||comments (0)|
It’s an absolute thrill to have Brian Moreland as my debut guest interview. His first two novels, Dead of Winter and Shadows in the Mist are now available through Samhain Horror, and both are excellent reads. Aside from being a great writer, whose work has been unanimously praised by the likes of Douglas Preston, James Rollins and others, he’s a super nice guy—I’m honored to have him here.
Brian, I think a good place to start is for you to introduce yourself and to tell us a little about your new Samhain release, Shadows in the Mist.
Hi, Aaron, and thanks for having me on your blog. I write historical horror novels and supernatural thrillers. My first novel, Shadows in the Mist, is about an Army platoon leader who has seen a lot of death during his tour, from battling Germans in North Africa, Italy, and Germany. Lt. Jack Chambers has lost so many men that he’s earned the moniker “Lt. Grim Reaper.” Now he’s down to his last few men who call themselves “the Lucky Seven” because they’ve survived many battles with Lt. Chambers. All he wants now is to get his men out alive. To earn an opportunity to send them home, Chambers volunteers his platoon for one last secret mission: lead a team of commandos to a Nazi bunker. What Chambers and his men don’t know is something dark and evil is waiting for them in the foggy woods.
Your literary track record reads like an independent author's dream come true. You started out self-publishing Shadows In The Mist, only to have it picked up by a major publishing house. It now lives on at Samhain Horror. How did all this happen, and how does it feel to know that an entirely new audience is experiencing the novel?
It’s true. I originally self-published my first novel. After years of rejections from literary agents and playing the waiting game, I decided to put the destiny of my writing career into my own hands. So I formed my own small publishing company. I put a lot of effort into producing a book that would compete in the marketplace. I hired a quality editor to help polish my writing and work out any issues with the plot. I hired a top-notch book cover designer and an award-winning illustrator, Les Edwards, to paint the cover. Together, my team and I produced a book that stores would stock. I also got it listed on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.
My next challenge was that I was an unknown author. So I was persistent about getting the book out to reviewers to expand my audience. I did a small book tour and hired a publicist to get me into newspapers. I also got friends with large email lists to send out email blasts, telling their friends to go out and buy my book. The campaign was a success. Shortly after I launched the book, Shadows in the Mist hit #1 on Amazon.com’s Bestselling Mysteries & Thrillers list. At that time, The DaVinci Code was #4. I believe that was due to aggressive pre-pub marketing and an eye-catching cover. I entered the book in the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards. It won a Gold medal for Best Horror Novel. All of these successes led to me getting a literary agent and she pitched my book to Berkley/Penguin. They bought the rights and my novel went from being a self-published trade paperback to a mass-market paperback stocked in stores across the nation. Selling my book to a large New York based publisher was my ultimate goal all along. It really changed the game for me. Shadows in the Mist also got published in Austria and Germany under the title Schattenkrieger, which means “Shadow Warriors.”
After three years with Penguin, I eventually got the rights back to Shadows in the Mist. By that time I had already sold my novel, Dead of Winter, to Samhain Horror. When I told my editor, Don D’Auria, that Shadows in the Mist was available again, he offered me a contract to re-release it under the Samhain Horror label. I was thrilled to see it come out again with its original cover in September 2012. I’m excited to share this novel with new readers
Has the manuscript evolved or changed with all of these different versions?
Yes, each time I worked with a new editor, I got the opportunity to improve it, based on reviews and feedback from fans. With this latest version, I tightened the beginning, eliminating some chapters I felt slowed down the story. I also reworked some of the dialogue between the soldiers, since I’ve gotten better at writing dialogue. I’m really happy with the Samhain Horror version.
How did Dead of Winter land at Samhain?
My agent and I were trying to find a good fit for my new book. I had finished Dead of Winter in November of 2009 and was eager to sell it to a publisher right away. That’s how I feel after finishing a novel. I just can’t wait to share it with readers. But in 2009, publishing houses were shuffling their editors like Vegas dealer shuffling cards. My agent was afraid my book would get bought up and then lost in the chaos, so she told me let’s wait it out. It was tough to do, but we held out from submitting my book for over a year. I’m glad we did, because we were ready and waiting for the right opportunity. And then in January of this year my agent told me that Leisure Books was dissolving their horror line and that their editor, Don D’Auria had moved over to Samhain Publishing to start up a brand new horror line called Samhain Horror. Don wanted to start the line in October 2011 and was looking for submissions. We submitted my book within about two weeks of Don starting his new job. My agent sold me on Don, saying he was a legend in the horror business. I hadn’t heard of him, but I did a little research and discovered that he had been the editor for many of my favorite authors—Brian Keene, Richard Laymon, Ronald Malfi, and Jack Ketchum, to name a few. On his blog, Brian Keene wrote a post about how much he loved working with Don D’Auria. I flipped through a dozen books by Leisure authors and read the Acknowledgements. Again and again, I kept seeing Don’s name being praised, many describing him as the nicest editor to work with. That sold me, so I told my agent let’s submit Dead of Winter to Don at Samhain. Less than 30 days later in February, my agent called back and said that Don loves my book and wants it to be one of the first books to release in October. I was so excited. My first novel I had to wait over a year to see my book in print. With Samhain, my novel released eight months after we concluded the book deal. And working with Don has been a dream. Like everyone says, he is the nicest guy and very diplomatic in his style of editing. He made some great suggestions on how to improve my novel while keeping most of the book in tact. With Don and Samhain, I definitely feel like I’ve found a home to publish my future books as well.
As you mentioned, Don is a horror heavyweight. What's your collaboration process like with him?
Working with Don has been very easy for me. Since I’ve met him a couple of times in person, we have a great rapport. He’s just an all-around nice guy and very positive and encouraging. During an edit he’ll send me a Word Doc of the manuscript with constructive notes on what he recommends I cut or expand. Then I’ll go through it and make the corrections and write a paragraph here or there if I need to explain something that Don thought wasn’t clear enough. Mostly it’s been minor changes that take less than a day to fix. The first edit is also my last chance to add any new writing to the book.
Then I send it back and a copy editor goes through the manuscript for grammar, punctuation, and consistency. An example: in Dead of Winter I sometimes I had capitalized the word “Devil” and sometimes I wrote it as “devil.” The copy editor pointed out that I needed to choose one and stick with it throughout the book. During the second edit, I approve the copy editors suggestions and then send it back. This takes me about 3-4 hours tops.
Next, the book is typeset for print and ebook versions. I get to see the book one more time before publication to make sure the final version looks polished. I really enjoy the editorial process, watching the transformation of a story on a computer screen to a finished book with cover art.
As a writer, how often do you hit a wall in your manuscript? Have you ever felt dwarfed by the enormity of it all, especially when starting out? Also, do you plot your novels in advance or do you intuitively write your way?
So far, I’ve hit a wall on all three novels that I’ve written. Writer’s block is just something I’ve had to deal with and push through. With each of my novels, I’ve gotten stuck for a period of months until I finally got back into a writing groove and figured out where to take the story. I loosely plot my novels with a general idea where I want to take it. I get visions of upcoming scenes and write toward them. Mostly, I’m an intuitive organic writer and I discover the story as I write it. That’s what makes it fun, is the characters are always surprising me with the actions they take. My first three novels all have monsters in them and they aren’t fully developed until I’ve written several drafts. The monsters I create in the beginning usually evolve into something I hadn’t planned when I was plotting the story.
Growing up, was there a horror novel or film that really sparked your passion for the genre? If so, what was it, and how did it change you?
I was brought up watching old black and white horror movies with my Mom, who’s a big horror buff, so I thought monster movies were super fun at a very young age. The two movies that impacted me the most and scared me the most are the original Alien and Prophecy (1979 version). Those two movies raised the bar for how much a good horror movie can scare you. While many of the earlier films had been campy, Alien and Prophecy maintained a dead serious tone throughout and focused on developing characters that had depth. When I write, I always aim to re-create the emotions of terror and fun that I felt when watching those two films. Other movies that I enjoyed early on were The Exorcist, The Shining, Horror Express, and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
You've said in the past that you're an author, adventurer and world traveler. Has travel changed the way you write? Have you ever been to a place, enjoyed the vibe and been inspired to write about that locale?
I think world travel has expanded my awareness to other cultures, other ways of thinking. My research trips to Europe definitely influenced the writing of Shadows in the Mist, which takes place in Belgium and Germany. I spent a couple days in Heidelberg, and love that town so much that I decided to include a couple scenes there in my novel. I’ve also been on a writer’s retreat in Rome and wrote a short story set there while I was staying in Rome. That was a cool experience. Also, my trips to Seattle and British Columbia, Canada inspired me to base my third novel, The Devil's Woods, up in the Pacific Northwest.
In addition to being an author, you're a video editor in Texas. Has working in this industry helped you with your writing process, perhaps from a narrative perspective? Is video a twin passion? Have you made any short films over the years, etc?
Yes, editing documentaries and TV commercials have taught me how to tell stories visually. I’ve been editing videos for over 20 years. It’s been another creative outlet for me and a great way to pay the bills while I’ve been building my career as an author. I have edited a number of documentaries for producers, plus I wrote, produced, and filmed a WWII documentary about my grandfather.
So Brian, what really scares you, and has this fear ever been featured in your novels?
What scares me most is the idea that a killer is inside my house, creeping around in the dark. Sometimes I hear things that go bump in the night and I feel fear that someone is sneaking up with a knife. So far, this serial killer hasn’t shown up in my novels. Most of my horrors have been based on historical events. I do feel for my characters and feel genuine fear and adrenaline when I put them in dangerous situations.
What do you ideally hope readers take away from your novels, especially Shadows in the Mist?
I write for the fun of it, so mostly I want readers to have a fun time, like riding a wild roller coaster ride and enjoying it so much they tell their friends to ride it.
So what's coming next?
This past summer I completed my third novel, The Devil’s Woods. This is a modern-day novel about a haunted Cree Indian reservation up in British Columbia, Canada. Something evil in the woods has been abducting people for over a century, and now a couple of brothers will go into those woods in search of their missing father, an archaeologist who disappeared while on a top-secret expedition. This is probably my most action-packed novel yet with plenty of terrifying thrills. Samhain Horror has already picked it up to release in December 2013.
Now, I’m switching gears to write novellas, so I can release a couple of shorter works in between my next two novels. You know the drill, Aaron. Once you finish a book, you have to keep pumping out more fiction to keep your fans happy.
I hear you! Well, thanks so much for joining us here at the blog, Brian!
Thanks so much for having me as a guest on your post, Aaron. I’m a huge fan of Australia. I backpacked across your country back in 2000 and had one of the best times of my life. Cheers!
* * *
Brian Moreland writes novels and short stories of horror and supernatural suspense. His first two novels, Dead of Winter and Shadows in the Mist, are now available. His upcoming novel The Devil’s Woods will release December 2013. He loves hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, and dancing. Brian lives in Dallas, Texas where he is diligently writing his next horror novel. You can communicate with him online at www.brianmoreland.com, on Twitter @BrianMoreland, Facebook, through Goodreads, Brian’s Horror Fiction blog or at Coaching for Writers blog.
|Posted on October 2, 2012 at 5:50 AM||comments (0)|
So here we are...
You work for months on end; debate over sentences; cry and sweat over the tiniest editorial decision ... and it all boils down to this.
Will people like your work, or will it be hated?
Will you offend, or will it be met with little more than casual indifference?
Well, I've rolled the dice and the lives I typed into existence —in the middle of the night, in a rush before work and in those never long enough lunch breaks— are now in your hands.
THE FALLEN BOYS ... has fallen. And I'm terrified. Moments like this, you're reminded just how thin one's skin really can be.
Yeah, even horror authors bleed.
Click on the book cover to learn more...
|Posted on September 20, 2012 at 1:00 AM||comments (0)|
Prologue: An Evening in Washington State
July Twenty-Eight, 2007
The house was a moonlit carving in the dark. There were no chirping crickets, no birdsong—just winter silence. The sigh of trees. Stacy Norman slept inside, unaware of her role in The Forgiveness. She’d been chosen because she appeared innocent, but she would suffer because she’d committed the unpardonable crime of kindness.
Her murderer had appeared at her doorstep two months earlier, asking if a particular family lived there. Stacy had smiled at him and told the tall, deep-voiced man no. “Not much help to you, am I? Good luck, though,” she said, and closed the door, catching a quick glimpse of his smile.
This was the first of three visits he would pay to her house. The second was to scout for hiding places, surveying turns and locating the stairs, accumulating all the information he would need to make the third visit a simple, problem-free affair.
A breath of air through the house, coming from an open window somewhere—it had nothing to do with their entry. Stacy’s murderers had used the key under the doormat, which they had discovered on visit number two. Stacy would suffer because she was kind, but she would die because she was trusting.
The tinkle of ladles, suspended from the kitchen range.
It was a small, rented house on the outskirts of Preston—redbrick exterior and shingled roof that trembled when the winds blew hard. It was a long commute to work at the architecture firm in Seattle, but Stacy knew it was worth it. There in Preston she had privacy and silence, which was enough for her.
She used to be afraid of living alone but not anymore. The solitary life grew more and more inviting with each passing year, loneliness wearing thin. She didn’t own the little redbrick house, but that was okay. Renting taught her the value of patience, of working towards what you want. One day she would live in a home that she herself had designed, paid for and was proud of. It, too, would be on the fringe of a city surrounded by trees. And silence. Just the way she liked it.
Clocks ticked in the living room. Photographs of Stacy’s family back in Maine lined the walls, faces trapped under glass. A dog-eared copy of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues was bent over the arm of a chair. She was fifty pages from finishing.
Her diary sat on the desk in the study, an eagle feather marking her place. Her father had slipped it into her suitcase the day she had left home to study in Seattle. That had been six years ago.
Danny stayed over last night, read one entry. At first I didn’t want him to, but I gave in. Not to him, but to my damn hunger. I know that sounds stupid. Hunger. But I don’t know any other word for it. I’m not making excuses—it was nice. He was rougher than I like but what the hell, right? He made me coffee in the morning. I think I’m falling hard. I don’t know if I want that.
Stacy Norman, the pretty architect who walked the homes of others in her mind, who no longer feared the dark. Stacy who knew that time was short but life was long—that it was okay to be in love, but dangerous to fall. Stacy Norman slept with the knowledge that the world would be the same tomorrow: hard and lonely. She could live with that.
The two men were under her bed. They knew what time Stacy returned from work, what time to hide.
Once her breathing had slowed and sleep had snatched her away, they crawled out from under their hiding spot, Stacy’s gentle snores the soundtrack to their achievement. Their hearts were beating fast, excited. A little frightened. Stacy was their first.
Not a fingerprint was left behind; there were no stray hairs curled up on the floor. Not a trace. Just their heavy imprints on the carpet, disappearing in slow motion. They were careful. The musk of sweat-on-dried-sweat radiated from them. They both needed to piss.
Their breathing in the dark.
The man who had knocked on Stacy’s door and asked about the family was tall and thin, but full of wiry strength. His comrade was short and solid, a little overweight. Fitting under the bed had been a struggle. The tall man straightened up, looking enormous below the room’s low ceiling, stepped forward and flinched when his kneecap popped. The sound shattered the silence. Whatever control they thought they had, disappeared.
Stacy opened her eyes, bolted upright, the mattress creaking under her weight. She wasn’t afraid. The old house groaned at night and the trees outside often played music against the gutters. When she’d first moved in, such sounds would send her running from room to room, armed with a hand-me-down frying pan and her cell phone, searching for intruders who were not there. True, Maine had its fair share of trees, gutters, old redbrick houses—and intruders too—but this was the city. Her parents had cautioned her about home invasions and suburban drug crime in their thick, New England drawls. So when she heard those sounds in the night she often heard their voices too.
Stace, you got to keep the house bolted tight. Tight as a robin’s asshole.
“Jesus, Dad!” They had laughed.
Yessum, always ask who’s knocking before you go and open up that door.
Maybe we should get you a gun for Christmas.
“Ha, yeah right. There’s a spirited idea. No thanks, I think I’ll settle for the usual Sears socks and Barnes & Noble gift cards if that’s okay with you.”
Once Stacy had learned the intimate noises of her new home, her decision not to get that gun and to leave that spare key under the back door mat was a very deliberate one. She refused to live in fear anymore.
Stacy Norman would die because she was proud.
In the dim light she saw two white faces bleed out of the darkness. One smiled and the other looked sad. In the fleeting moment between seeing them and the pinprick stab of the needle in her neck, she recognized the faces for what they were.
Greek dramaturgical masks.
Comedy and Tragedy.
* * *
Five days passed. In North Bend, near the Snoqualmie region in upper Washington State, the shorter of the two men walked out of the house and dropped to his knees. He dug his fingers in the lawn, churning soil until its scent ran sweet. All of his life had been spent either tending to the land or farming animals. The smell of earth was home to him. He was gasping, eyes red from crying.
The trees shivered in the wind, their uppermost branches scratching at the grey belly of the sky. It was a bitter morning.
He was dressed in a bloodied apron, his cheeks smeared with grime.
A few minutes passed by and he heard the rear screen door slam behind him. Slow, deliberate steps drew close. He heard singing, soft and out of tune.
“‘Got me a wayward girl, cute as a bee. See-sawin’ across the universe and ending up with me…’”
The footsteps stopped behind him and the short man felt someone touch his shoulder. It was a soft, smooth hand, one which hadn’t spent its life tending to fields and farms. Rather, other more delicate matters. Now they both had calluses. They had been working on the girl for five days straight.
“‘…Packed our bags in two battered cases. Shot out of town past a sea of shocked faces…’”
There wasn’t enough light in the yard for the sun to cast the tall man’s shadow, but his friend, still on his knees, felt it over him anyway. They stood that way for some time, the tall man continuing to sing. Soft rain started to fall.
“‘…Down a road leadin’ home, just me and this girl. Who travelled the universe so I can show her my world…’”
Morning cartoons blared from inside the tall man’s house. There were no more screams.
“‘…Where people ain’t happy with the luck of the draw. Where the sick and the sad have drawn up next door. My old street ain’t a street no more. Just a place for the mad to live without law…’”
Stacy had been a little lamb, a thin mess of blood and bone wrapped in a woolen sweater. The tall man stopped singing and smiled. His tongue slid over his lips—they were dry and broken. His body was alive with tingles. He even felt dizzy.
He wanted to say the name out loud but didn’t dare. She was an architect, just like him. He had redesigned her for his purposes, for The Forgiveness.
Her name had a texture, a flavor to it, innocent but stern. Chocolate turning to charcoal.
Phlegm rattled in his throat and he forced the sticky wad down.
The two men were surrounded by trees, which didn’t judge or stare. This was the glory of inanimate things—you could always escape from them. People were harder. In a way, the trees were their allies. They could conceal certain things. Even them. They would have to be careful.
Rats swarmed among the bushes at the end of the yard. The glimmer of black eyes, tawny fur camouflaging with the deadfall. They chirped and squealed in their high-pitched way—it was painful to hear. Stacy’s cries had been easier to listen to; the tall man didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because he was grateful to Stacy for her sacrifice, and for the rats he felt nothing but disdain.
Vermin—disgusting little things. Those bastards could chew through anything with their razor teeth, and worse, they were too stupid to fear the traps he’d set, or the poisoned bait he left in the dankest corners of his house. He could hear them scurrying behind the walls at night, so close they might have been chewing inside his head. He had no idea how they had gotten in. Rats were sneaky.
The tall man’s hands weren’t shaking because of the cool, morning weather. They shook because he was excited. He could still remember the number of eyelashes Stacy had, and how they had felt in the hollow of his palm after he’d plucked them out. One by one.
“She suffered,” said the shorter, more solid murderer. His breath smelt of nicotine gum. Of the abattoir.
“Yeah.” The tall man had a faint Southern lilt to his voice, softened by his years in Washington State.
“I never thought you could feel so downright horrible.”
The taller man handed his friend a cigarette and a fifty-cent lighter that he’d bought at Ken’s Gas and Grocery in town. He didn’t smoke himself and had bought the Camels because he knew his comrade, his friend, would need them. Today more than any other time.
Bloody, soil-stained fingers held the cigarette over a wisp of flame. The shorter man spat out his gum and took a drag. He felt his lungs fill with smoke, held it. The tingle that reminded him of what a fool he’d been to quit in the first place. The short man paused and looked at the rats among the trees, waiting for nightfall, and exhaled. He thought of his wife back home in her bed. His knuckles hurt. Arthritis.
“Don’t worry,” the tall man said in his muddled accent. He lifted his hand and swatted a mosquito. A red star in the palm of his hand. He should have worn the bug dope, it was that time of year. “Next time will be less messy.”
* * *
Excited to read more? Purchase a copy at The Samhain Horror Store:
Or at Amazon.com
Or watch the Official book trailer:
|Posted on July 18, 2012 at 2:35 AM||comments (0)|
When you’re as prolific as Stephen King—and when the ravens of Hollywood have picked at your bones for over forty years—you’re bound to hit some home runs. Take Carrie (1976) or The Shawshank Redemption (1994) for example, films so superbly crafted they’ll garner Oscar attention.
And then there are those other films. The not quite so polished gems.
But here’s the thing… I actually like a lot of those flicks that folks discredit. In fact, I like some of them quite a bit. They proudly line the walls of my DVD collection. So, this is my opportunity to shine light on those ‘underappreciated’ works. You sadly won’t see any Darabont adaptations on this list, that’s for sure—this is a moment for the Bastard Prince’s of the King cannon to reign supreme. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I have a super soft spot for these films. A lot of them, for better or for worse, shaped the film viewer—and writer—I eventually became.
So without further adieu, here are my ten personally anointed Princes.
10. The Mangler (1995)
Don’t fuck with this iron folding machine, it’s likely fueled with hellfire. Just ask Detective John Hunton, who is trying to find out why workers are being chewed up in its jaws.
Perhaps more than any other film on this list, this is the one I’ve had to defend for the longest—although it’s not an easy task. Internationally regarded as a low-point adaptation in both the careers of King and director Tobe Hooper, this perverse, disgusting and grimy film has been condemned since the moment it was released.
And make no mistake, this is a seriously oppressive film, but one which plays with the cartoonish elements in the premise and runs with it like a bat outta hell. It’s not very good and it does make you feel dirtier just for watching it, but I get a kick out of it. And more than a lot of the other films on this list, it’s surprisingly faithful to the original story.
The Mangler oozes atmosphere. It looks, sounds and feels like maniacs crafted it. This is a fairly consistent thing for Tobe Hooper, which is why I’ve enjoyed the sensibility of his films for so long. And that’s the name of the game when it comes to horror films, even if they are as consistently stupid and delightful as this.
The Mangler in all of its oil-dripping, sheet-pressing glory is revealed, like some bastard child of HR Giger and the Spanish Inquisition. And then that poor blue-collar champ gets the chomp in the opening scene. Ouch, indeed.
9. The Graveyard Shift (1990)
A decrepit textile mill perched on a Maine hillside is home to more than unsatisfied workers. Not even the best unions on earth can keep their rat infestation under control. However, the vermin scuttling around are the least of their issues. Their biggest problem is in the basement, and it’s getting hungry.
This has got to be the only film on this list that people generally seem to hate (a little) less than The Mangler. But you don’t get to be baptized a Bastard Prince for being a masterpiece—let’s remember that.
Shot on location in Maine, this film, like The Mangler, oozes atmosphere. You can smell the stink of sweat, grease and bloodstained cotton. It’s a septic, almost depraved stench. Imagine finding a decayed rat under your couch—that’s the kind of mood this film evokes. It’s part fascination, part repulsion.
This isn’t to say the film is buoyantly gory (although it has its moments); it just has grit to spare. Similar to The Thing (1982) (only minus the classiness), The Graveyard Shift is a masculine film, which is a unique trait. But on the downside, it’s amateurishly constructed, and as a result, all of that hard-earned atmosphere plateaus out into mediocrity.
But damn, it’s loveable mediocrity! The effects are good; the industrial vibe played to the max; I admire the third-act plot twist, even though it doesn’t really work; and come on— it’s got both Brad Dourif and Robert Englund chewing up the scenery. And when it comes to scenery chewers, these guys have got dentures to spare.
Our devout crew—who’ve braved the dreaded graveyard shift—are in the mill’s basement. And it’s hot down there; sweat is dripping down their faces. And to top it off, their employer is obviously loosing his marbles. And one by one, they’re disappearing. And all of this is set to an eerie soundtrack of squeaking rats, the leathery rustling of giant wings and distant screams.
8. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
A school teacher returns to his home town. Here, his younger brother was murdered by a group of teenage hooligans. But his brother wasn’t the only victim to die that fateful day; the gang was lost to a freakish train wreck... And now, all of these years later, these bastards have come back to haunt the teacher, one by one, in the guise of students in his classroom.
This is what made for TV horror is all about. Watching this, one is reminded of the Dan Curtis / Richard Matheson telefilm collaborations of the 1970s, ala Scream of the Wolf (1974) or The Night Strangler (1973). So if you enjoy streamlined storytelling and frill-less thrills, you’re in luck to begin with.
Sometimes They Come Back works because the short story was so well defined to begin with, easily lending itself to adaptation. There was little fluffing required. The film wisely climbs the ladder of King’s plot rung-by-bloody rung. Good move.
All of the eerie sequences in which the hooligans who killed the teacher’s brother, appear in his classroom. And then they start to sneer and taunt him in front of the other students.
7. Thinner (1996)
An overweight lawyer finds himself cursed by a gypsy after running down the old man’s wife. Now the lawyer is getting thinner; the pounds are dropping off day-by-day. But this dream come true is really a nightmare in disguise, because his weight loss is showing no sign of slowing... He’s getting thinner. And thinner. And thinner.
Thinner was a mixture of fable-like concept and nasty execution. And it’s great to see that these threads have translated from one medium to another (even despite the subdued ending). Thinner presents an idea—a house of cards—and then allows it to crumble, with all of the pieces falling in mostly the right ways.
The performances are good; there’s a nice King-cameo; and director Tom Holland, who also made Child’s Play (1988 ) and Fright night (1985), tells the story with an economy that has become his trademark. Like The Graveyard Shift, the film was also shot in Maine and the locales shine, offering an authenticity to King’s world that a lot of other adaptations lack. The makeup effects are second-to-none and the entire story is told with a wicked tongue held firmly in cheek.
On the downside, it feels a little padded (it’s only 92 minutes) and Kari Wuhrer is way too beautiful for her role (she’s too ‘90s hot’ in role that requires a rough edge). But these are minor drawbacks. It’s Thinner’s nihilistic streak that makes it tick.
This one’s a given. It’s the very last scene – hell, it’s the last shot. But I wouldn’t dare give it away. Cue evil laugh.
6. Desperation (2006)
In the middle of the Nevada desert, a maniac cop is snatching travellers off the highway and dragging their sorry asses back to the deserted town of Desperation. There they discover the remains of slaughter and a supernatural secret that will challenge their faith and will to survive.
The first of two Mick Garris adaptations to proudly snag a place on this list, Desperation is perhaps the most uneven of the bunch. Why? Because it opens so spectacularly and slowly collapses under the weight of its inferior second half.
Garris’ direction is solid, just as it was in The Stand (1994) and The Shining (1997) (two excellent adaptations) with many scenes beautifully blending pulp with prophetic biblical references. It’s occasionally scary and elegant, yet often incoherent and murky, so the flaws are evenly dealt. And there are a couple of great directorial flourishes, including the over-saturated color palette and the choice of wide-angle camera angles. These lenses propel the viewer closer to intimidating characters on the screen without ever being emotionally distancing. That’s tough to pull off, and Desperation succeeds at it.
The film contains a superb opening set piece, but sadly collapses under the impression of its first half. Left to scramble, inspiration dwindles—despite a number of wonderfully rendered scenes (the flashbacks are very well done). These faults asides, there’s a lot here to be enjoyed, not least of all Ron Perlman’s almost “Kubrickian” performance.
Desperation brims with a joyous energy; the cast is attractive; it’s beautifully shot; and Nicholas Pike’s score is sublime. There are haunting images of possessed animals (the coyotes lining the roads is particularly effective) and more than anything else, there are scenes of dread. Take for example, when young David Carver wanders the empty police station and discovers a dead body that gasps in a death rattle when he brushes against it. Awesome.
As mentioned above, the opening is a stunner, but there’s another scene that gets me every time for its combination of hokeyness and back-to-back thrills. It’s a literal triptych of frights. Steve and Cynthia take shelter in an abandoned Desperation supermarket. They seek distraction from the horror outside by playing with a novelty slot machine – only to have it spontaneously vomit blood. It’s illogical, but dammit, it got me good and it’s an image I never forgot. They delve deeper into the building and find dead bodies piled everywhere, covered in spiders. They make a run for it and escape through the front door, only to be swooped at it by a possessed raven. It’s like a trip to the Devil’s circus, where King is the crooning carny who checked your jacket.
5. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Charles Brady and his mother have a terrible secret: they are sleepwalkers, ancient creatures who can change their appearance at whim. But they are the last of their kind, and they need sustenance. And Charles has set his eyes on Tanya, one of the girls in his class.
Sleepwalkers is also directed by Mick Garris and was the first in a number of collaborations with King, continuing with The Stand, Quicksilver Highway (1997), The Shining, Riding the Bullet (2004), Desperation and Bag of Bones (2011).
To begin, this film is full of deliciously black humor and boasts the best use of an Enya song in cinematic history (yes, better than David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)). Also, Garris’ camera has a tendency to weave and gyrate, echoing Argento and evokes a color palette that reminds one of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (for which Garris was a story editor and recurring writer – he even directed an episode that frighteningly predates the plot of The Green Mile). But it’s the performances that shine brighter than anything else here. Mädchen Amick is stunningly beautiful—as always—displaying the girlish vulnerability that made her so loveable in Twin Peaks. She’s an innocent virgin dancing through a world of adult, and often dangerous, eyes—a theme that’s embodied in a scene where she girlishly dances at work…
This isn’t a scary film, but it’s got childish energy to spare. It evokes the same sense of excitement I get when I watch Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985). It’s over the top and knows it. Yes, the strokes are broad and the violence is cartoonish, but it’s not meant to be anything but. It also contains a killer set of cameos. Yes, Stephen King, Clive Barker and Tobe Hooper all feature in the same scene—and keep an eye out for familiar faces like John Landis, Joe Dante, Mark Hamill and Garris’ wife Cynthia.
My advice is unplug your brain, tap into your inner child and indulge in some EC Comic-inspired thrills. Oh, and eat your vegetables. Otherwise you’ll get no dessert.
Charles has taken Tanya to Homeland Cemetery under the pretense of doing some headstone rubbings. Only what he’s really after is her soul, which he plans to suck out of her mouth and feed to his mother (via a truly bizarre sexual act). This entire scene sings—it’s well written and directed, and contains some great cinematic choreography. It’s a lynchpin scene, one that rips the viewer from one kind of film and dumps them in another… This latter just happens to be of the campy, blood-splattered kind. Fine by me!
4. Silver Bullet (1985)
The residents of Tarker’s Mill think they’re at the mercy of a psychotic murderer. Only it isn’t a man prowling those streets… Marty, the young handicapped protagonist believes the town is under threat from a werewolf. But who could it be?
Yet another badass performance from Gary Busey? Check. Wheelchair bound child actor who doesn’t manage to annoy the shit out of you and actually employs a high degree of emotional involvement? Check. Nasty werewolves running around in a rare (for King) whodunit plot? Double check. Other pluses are the sincere, small-town setting and a cast of curious characters that happily interweave through varying sub-plots, all the time spouting some atypical King dialog.
Sure, the creature designs look like Power Rangers in fur coats, but it all works. On top of this, it’s wonderfully filmed in the under-utilized JDC-Scope process, the score is solid and Twin Peaks/The People Under the Stairs’ Everett McGill has a solid part to sink his teeth into.
The supporting cast is peppered with famous faces (keep an eye out for Terry O’Quinn and Lawrence Tierney) and the baby-faced Megan Follows is an endearing narrator. And what do all of these plusses add up to? Well, the answer to this question is sadly, yet another Dino De Laurentiis financial flop that I just can’t help digging. Big-time. This film is To Kill a Mockingbird with claws—not a bad mix. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s a misunderstood masterpiece, because it’s not. It’s just old-fashioned fun, and deserves to be seen.
The revelation of the werewolf’s identity, which comes after a day-long search for a one-eyed suspect… but I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling things for you!
3. The Dark Half (1993)
Thad Beaumont is a best-selling author who has written a number of novels under the pseudonym, “George Stark”. But after a blackmail threat from someone who has discovered his literary secret, Beaumont choses to come clean, and announces Stark’s fictitious nature to the world. Bad idea. People are dying. Mr. Stark ain’t happy.
The Dark Half was the second King adaptation directed by George A. Romero directed (though he did write Creepshow 2 (1987) and a segment of Tales From The Darkside: The Movie (1990)). It’s a tense and atmospheric exercise, one that contains some truly startling imagery. In many respects, it’s the final great Romero film (though there is a lot to like in his later work). Certain scenes embody an eerie, dreamlike quality with their depictions of rotting meat and shattering vases.
The film is given buoyance by fantastic performances, especially those of Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan and Michael Rooker as Alan Pangborne (a role which would later be portrayed by Ed Harris in Needful Things (1993)). The theme of the doppelgänger and the shocks are both expertly handled. Watching this, you know you’re in the hands of a pro. You need only view that sequence of Technicolor bloodshed when the literary editor is stalked outside his apartment. And Hellraiser’s Christopher Young sets all of this to an oppressive, suspense-fueled score.
The primary flaw of this film is the pacing in the final act; it drags and grows repetitious when it should do the opposite. It also ends on an abrupt and strangely unsatisfyingly note, as darkest night closes with the potential for future dawns. But this sense of ‘hope’ isn’t enough to ruin an otherwise consummately made experience.
Pretty much any scene in which you hear Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Trust me—goose bumps are guaranteed. You’ll never think of that song the same way ever again. And watch out for those sparrows, too.
2. Christine (1983)
Arnie Cunningham has fallen in love and that love is changing him. Everyone used to think he was such a geek, but now he’s becoming cooler and cooler. He’s also developing a bit of an attitude problem. He’s getting cocky. Overconfident. Possessive. But love can do that to some folks, right? Oh, and did we mention the love interest is “Christine”, a bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury?
Christine is a good example of editorial streamlining saved by great direction. And if you’re going to water down a balls-to-the-wall retro horror novel about a pissed-off Plymouth with the ghost of a decaying dead man in the back seat … well, you better get John Carpenter behind the lens.
Christine is one of those films, like De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, which tonally captures the melancholy of adolescence, making Carrie and Christine kindred stories of isolation, of the pain and rejection we endure in our younger years. But without these emotions, we cannot grow.
This is an insidious film that’s full of great moments and performances. It showcases yet another fantastic electronic score from the director, superb cinematography (that manages to be stylish without ever being emotionally exclusive, as so many over-stylized horror films can be) and simple, yet effective, special effects. It’s never terrifying in the way it should, or deserves, to be. But don’t worry; Christine has enough John Carpenter set pieces to keep demanding audiences well and truly satisfied.
I’ve always felt that the football scene in which Dennis injures himself in front of his best friend, his new girl and the car was an emotional showstopper. It’s also draws together the film’s twain thematic themes: horror and the horror of change.
1. The Night Flier (1997)
Richard Dees is a tabloid investigative reporter on the heels of a serial killer who travels by private plane and stalks victims in rural airports. Dees has got a hot, young protégé with him, and together they discover that ‘The Night Flier’ may not be human.
It goes without saying that The Night Flier is underrated. Watching it, one would think Mark Pavia would go on to have an expansive career. Sadly, this is his only feature credit to date. And that’s a shame. Pavia’s directorial touch is assured and refreshingly confident. And this confidence infiltrates the eerie soundscape, the creeping camera work and the controlled pacing. On top of this, Miguel Ferrer is fantastic—as always—in a role that isn’t much of a stretch for him, although he imbues it with a pathos that transcends mere asshole behavior. Thankfully, he comes out genuine on the other side, and that’s a tough balance, considering the places King took the character—and Pavia only takes him further.
The film is a welcome alternative to the anemic vampire films of late, with one foot grounded in the modern world and the other in traditional Bela Lugosi lore. And unlike a lot of horror films (some of which are on this list), The Night Flier earns its deliriously gory finale. It’s almost cathartic in its fucked-up-ness.
A film about ‘opposites converging’ (characters, plotlines and genres), this is an adaptation that only now seems to be receiving the accolades it deserves. Word on the street is that Pavia is helming a King anthology that will combine Mile 81, The Reapers Image, N and The Monkey. And I think he’s got it in him to do these stories justice. But it’s The Monkey that seems the most controversial inclusion. Legend has it that this was Frank Darabont’s long-gestating property, and for those who’ve waited years for that version, this news may be met with disappointment. But I’m not worried. If this anthology develops wings, which I sure hope it does, it’s bound to fly with Pavia in the cockpit.
From beginning to bloody end.
-- Aaron Dries is the author of the award-winning novel, House of Sighs (2012). Available now through Samhain Horror.
|Posted on March 26, 2012 at 7:30 PM||comments (3)|
We’re not emerging into the digital age anymore — it’s very much here. With that in mind, I think it’s important to remember the value of good-old-fashioned books, and more importantly, the paper bound between their covers. The words on those pages only last a reading for some; for others, the words last for as long as the novel remains in print … But then there’s that other shelf life. The kind of shelf life that extends to the almost cult-like raiding of book market bins (usually the ones with $1 each or 3 for $5 scrawled across the cardboard in permanent ink) and eBay raids (though dammit, they take the fun out of searching). Shelf life as inspiration, resulting in borderline obsession.
But paper breaks down. It fades. The words slip into oblivion. Dust to dust.
And what then of the author? You know, the bespectacled, chain-smoking guy banging away at the typewriter? What of guys like Robert Bloch? The answer to this may be a question for many.
That question being: Who?
Even the devil gets his due … so why not Robert Bloch, the great-grandfather of the horror slasher?
1959 saw the release of his novel Psycho, a nasty little story with a nasty little reputation that caught the eye of a not-so-little man with a not-so-little reputation … It was a match made in Heaven turned Hell. Welcome to the auspicious world of Bloch and Alfred Hitchcock, a place where the knives are always sharp, where motels are open even if the light isn’t on … a place where showers are best taken cold—if taken at all.
Bloch’s influence on modern horror stretches back many years, succeeding prior to Psycho and lasting long after its publication. You need only flip through the pages of any respectable horror anthology encompassing the past hundred years of genre fiction to chip away at Bloch's legacy. His short stories dealt with crummy deadbeats and scheming husbands planning to do away with their wives; dealings with the devil in bayous and bars; they dealt with pins and knives and fate. His stories were indebted to the business of fear, and in true pulp-style, he somehow made a living out of it. Just.
It started with the fondly remembered magazine Weird Tales, to which Bloch contributed in a voice not dissimilar to his mentor and correspondent H.P Lovecraft. But what developed was an author with a voice of his own, a voice that knew when to rise to scream-high pitches and when to drop to the depths of disparity. Bloch knew what he was doing, how to do it and when. This was a guy who could make you sweat. And laugh.
He won the Hugo Award in 1959 for his classic short story, That Hellbound Train (which was recently adapted into an excellent comic book by Joe R. Landsdale and artist Dave Wachter) in which one of those crummy Joe-nobodys referred to earlier, makes a pact with the devil himself. The story still works. You can still smell the steam of that haunted locomotive today.
Awards aside, the winnings continued. Take for instance stories like The Pin (1953) in which an overworked and depressed grim reaper spends his days and nights stabbing at an endless list of names with the titular weapon (and a what a weapon it is). Or A Toy For Juliette (1967), which puts the iconic Jack the Ripper (with whom Bloch had a long, literary relationship) in outer space. Or even better yet, The Animal Fair (1971), a story that reveals the fate and history of a maligned, deformed circus ape (trust me—it’s pretty fucked up … and sublime).
It’s fair to say that even without his novels, Bloch’s deft touch left claw marks down the back of genre fiction.
But let’s not forget those novels.
As much as I adore his short-stories, it was his full length books that I really responded to. They were littered with auspicious puns (a definite trademark; Bloch was the author who taught me the brittle relationship between horror and humour), twisted noir-ish plots, surprise endings and (un)appealing characters who always did the most (un)appealing of deeds. And they were longer—awesome.
His career as a novelist began with The Scarf (1947), which kicks-off with the haunting lines:
“Fetish? You name it. All I know is that I had to have it with me.”
Suffice to say, Bloch had me at hello. And I’m not alone on that one.
The bones of his cadaver-career grew, snapped and malformed to encompass more short stories and other twisted novels. The Scarf was followed by Spiderweb (1954) and the wickedly plotted The Kidnapper (1954), about the unravelling of the seemingly perfect crime. The same year saw the publication of The Will To Kill, which had me terrified of jesters. I ask you: have you ever wondered what’s inside their canes?
Why knives, of course. Knives …
One year after getting Shooting Star (1958 ) onto shelves, Bloch released the book that would inevitably become his middle name, Psycho.
Cue violin screeching.
Yeah, we know all about the film. It’s a masterpiece, there’s no disputing it. Everyone has seen it at least once, and everyone knows that Hitchcock directed it from a screenplay by Josef Stefano (who also went on to write the under-appreciated Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) directed by genre veteran in the making, Mick–Masters of Horror–Garris). Yet so many people don’t know that Psycho was based on a novel (of the same name, no less) by Robert Bloch? I’ve taken film lectures that don’t acknowledge it because the speakers weren’t even aware. If you listen to the audio commentary between Gus Van Sant, Vince Vaugn and Anne Hench on the Psycho (1998 ) remake DVD, you will hear Van Sant mention the book in passing and Hench proclaiming that she had no idea it wasn't an original screenplay.
It’s saddening. Hitchcock himself loudly proclaimed his admiration for the book, (to paraphrase), “it all came from the novel” and, “Stefano was hired to write dialogue, not plot.”
Bloch’s name is even gone from the remake's opening credits (in yet another distracting departure from Van Sant’s mission to reproduce the original film frame-by-frame). It also gets an anaemic rendering in Robert V. Galluzzo’s otherwise great 2010 documentary, The Psycho Legacy (although Bloch’s writing does get it’s due in a twelve minute segment on the DVD’s special-features disk).
People like William Peter Blatty and Stephen King (who devoted much of his inspiration to Bloch and other writers of his generation, including Richard Matheson) acknowledge the importance and significance of Bloch’s erudite plotting and craft—so why is it continuing to go on un-credited?
Let’s dig deeper.
Consider one of Psycho ( the film’s) greatest achievements: its mechanics. It was Bloch who cheated expectation by establishing a female character who, for all intensive purposes, would be the heroine of the story, only to surprisingly kill early on in the book. The result: utter disorientation of the reader. Added to this, is the Second Act flip of alliance from murdered Mary to secondary characters Sam and Lila, and topped off by the shrill Final Act twist heard around the world:
Norma Bates is Norman Bates.
The book is identical to the film almost note-for-note, with two primary deviations: dialogue (Bloch had immaculate, clean and clever prose, but this description does not necessarily extend to his dialogue, which is fashionable, if no-frills) and a First Act deletion.
That deletion, to Stefano’s credit, made complete sense. The novel depicts scenes between Norman and his mother as though she is still alive. Instead of going down this path, Stefano and Hitchcock decided to have the mother appear off-screen until the very end (with the exception of the cleverly shot murder sequences). As a result of this change there was a huge gap in the plot, and now our quarter-length surprise murder in the shower is now —by default— the opening scene! To accommodate this, Stefano expanded Marion’s (Mary in the book) back-story and the theft details. But if you listen to Stefano speak in interviews he credits himself with this plot device. And that’s a shame. In no way am I intending to belittle Stefano’s talent, but comments like these cheapen his reputation as a wonderful writer of dialogue. It disrespects Bloch (and don’t get me started on the delirious snobbery of François Truffaut in his awkward and infamous Hitchcock interview).
But the disrespect would not end there. We’ll get to that.
Psycho the novel is almost impossible to read without imagining Anthony Perkins in the Bates role, much like reading King’s The Shining without picturing Jack Nicholson (although credit where it’s due, Steven Webber did a great job as Jack Torrance in the 1998 (also) Mick Garris directed The Shining mini-series). And here comes the trouble: Bloch’s Bates is a very different man than the one portrayed in the film, both physically and mentally. He’s overweight, biting and bitter, with the veneer of cordiality. Perkins, on the other hand, is 'the boy-next-door,' handsome and trustworthy—it’s a wonderful deceit. And I’m not the first to say it: Perkins turned in a fantastic performance (one of the best in film history).
So, should you be inspired to pick up Bloch’s book after trawling through this speil, it’s imperative that you literally re-cast it in your mind. Trust me on this, it reads so much easier if you’re not making the constant comparisons to the film (and characterizations). Although it’s difficult to do, it’s best to erase Hitchcock from your mind completely. Take a different approach—think gritty and real (Bloch’s inspiration for the book was the Ed Gein case, which also served as the basis for Tobe Hooper’s classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)), simply because that’s how the book is written. It has a grim, nasty feel to it. Mischievous. The book has secrets and it’s deceiving you. You get the impression that it’s cleverer than you are. It holds its cards close to its chest, teasing you with glimpses—but never quite enough (for example: in his wonderful “Unauthorized Autobiography”, Bloch explains that Norman Bates—the name—is the novel’s biggest clue. Norman can be broken into two parts Nor and Man, as in nor man or woman, and Bates echoes the words baits as in “to bait”. Bloch did the same thing with the title for his 1982 sequel Psycho 2, which again provides the ultimate clue in the books most-unexpected revelation).
But back to re-casting … Think Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Norman Bates.
I know you’re probably going … really? But it works as Bloch wrote him. Another thing to remember is that in the book, Norman is not two personalities as he is depicted in the film, but three. He is Norman, his mother and Norman as a child.
The other necessary deviation concerns the infamous shower scene.
Readers expecting a blow-by-blow recreation of Hitchcock’s spellbinding sequence will be disappointed. Hitchcock’s murder runs forty-five seconds, required seven days of shots and seventy camera set-ups. Bloch did it in one sentence.
And a pun, no less.
“Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.
And her head.”
Although the two experiences are vastly different, the ultimate effect remains the same: the utter, excruciating shock. Both showers rain facts upon Mary/Marion. You are going to die. It’s going to be a knife that ends you. You are going to bleed … Goodbye.
Now that you’ve put the required wedges between the book in your hand and the film in your memory (Norman, the tone and the shower), sit back, turn off the television and hope for a rainy night—with nary a trusty umbrella to be seen—and read.
Once you have finished reading, dash out and find copies of Bloch’s Psycho 2 (1982) and Psycho House (1991), completing the trilogy. Most people who read the first sequel expect something akin to the content of the (admittedly well-crafted) film Psycho II (directed by the ‘Aussie Hitchcock’ himself, Richard Franklin, and written by Tom—Child’s Play—Holland in 1982). Again, you will be disappointed.
Psycho 2 (the book) has no resemblance to Psycho II (the film) because it’s not an adaptation at all. Bloch had nothing do with the movie and reputably, did not ever see it. The rights to the novel were snapped up by Universal with every intention of filming it until they sat down and actually read the content.
“Uh-oh,” said Universal. Followed by a swift, “oh well. Who needs this Bloch guy anyway!”
Some people have said that the novel is un-filmable—and I strongly disagree—but it would take a considerable talent to bring it to the screen. I think Franklin could have done it. But the reason the book was never realized was because the film executives at Universal objected to Bloch’s unflattering representation of the film industry.
Bloch himself was an industry insider. He was a Hollywood writer when he wasn’t a pulp novelist, penning screenplays for William Castle (Strait-jacket in 1962 and The Night Walker in 1964), Alfred Hitchcock himself on his television programs, Freddie Francis (The Skull in 1965 and The Psychopath in 1966), among others. Psycho 2 was not his first exploration into the what would become the ‘Lynchian underbelly’ of the film industry. His novel The Star Stalker takes that billing, being the first in a sadly un-finished trilogy about the silent-film era (a character from that book actually has a minor role in Psycho 2).
The plot of Psycho 2 has Norman escaping from his mental institution in the guise of one of the two nuns he has just murdered (one of which—it's later implied—he raped), after being seemingly cured by his psychiatrist, Doctor Claiborne. He grabs their van and makes a run for it, kills a hitchhiker along the way, and high-tails it for Hollywood to put a stop to the production of “Crazy Lady”, a filmic adaptation of the now infamous “Bates case” (maybe Kevin Williamson read this book before sitting down to write 1998’s Scream 2). But not before stopping off at Fairvale one last time to visit Sam Loomis and his now-wife Lila … Doctor Claiborne is hot on Norman’s tail, especially now that a sizeable body count is piling up in Tinsel-town.
It is in this setting that the true intention of the novel becomes apparent: Psycho 2 is an often-biting mediation on slasher films and the Hollywood machine in general. Bloch depicts the industry as being full of drug addicts, misogynists and perverts, interspersed with innocent actresses and bat-shit crazy directors. It’s all great, surreal stuff.
In order to discuss further, I have to reveal the books' secrets. You have been warned. If I’ve piqued your interest enough for you to seek it out, then turn back now. Winged monkeys and apple-tossing trees lurk beyond, dare you tread further … Bevareee!!! (note the three exclamation marks—that’s how serious I am.)
The great surprise of Psycho 2 is that there is a surprise at all. You breeze through the pages thinking you are being treated to a psychological slasher with some nasty satirical undertones, brimming with red-herrings and enough muggufins to keep even Hitchcock himself set for life. But it turns out you are reading a who-done-it. Or more aptly, a who-didn’t-do it. And folks, it wasn’t all Norman, or young Norman, or Mother-Norman—which explains the pun in the title. Remember how Norman killed that Nun after escaping from the institution, grabbed their van and picked up that hitchhiker? Well, it turns out that it was not the hitchhiker’s blackened remains in the burned out van on the side of the road … it was Norman’s. The hitchhiker fought poor Norman off and got away. Then, in a delirious rift on some very Hitchcockian themes, the murders from that moment on were committed by Norman’s psychiatrist, Doctor Claiborne. His motive: a well-executed example of transferral of guilt/personality. It turns out Claiborne took too many return dips to the Bates well, and somewhere along the line adopted the personality he spent so many years trying to understand and subsequently, destroy.
I assure you, it’s an ending no-one saw coming. Especially Universal.
So the internationally praised novel (Peter Straub and Stephen King were chief advocates) was deemed irrelevant and subsequently scrapped. A new screenwriter hired to create a film with no relation to the source material at all. And so began the fork in the road, which would send two Norman’s down two very different paths.
Psycho II the film, as I mentioned before, is a well-crafted experience. Franklin directs with incredible economy and the cast is exceptional (Meg Tilly is especially good). And truth be told, I’d always thought Holland’s script to be among one of the best plotted thrillers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. I still think that … but I never knew how derivative it was until I saw that old 1964 William Castle film Strait-jacket.
Written by Robert Bloch.
Here is the synopsis for that film: Lucy (Joan Crawford) has spent the last twenty years in a mental asylum for the criminally insane because she got a wee bit axe-happy on her cheating husband—with her young daughter, Carol (Diane Baker) in the room no less. But time has passed and Lucy is now sane enough to be released back into society, under the care of her daughter and her new fiancé. They greet her with open arms and treat Lucy with respect—almost as if nothing had ever happened. But …
And you knew that but was coming, right?
BUT… Lucy is beginning to see and hear things that are triggering unhappy memories and feelings in her. They type of feelings that make even the most certified of sane people feel a little ... unhinged. Enter her former psychiatrist (Mitchell Cox) who as soon as arrived is as soon dead. Decapitated. Kaput. And who is the main suspect? Lucy, of course.
Cue a flashing SPOILER declaration, flickering in the night like a VACANCY sign on an old highway motel.
It wasn’t Lucy committing these murders. It was her daughter. The plan had been to create emotional triggers to set her mother “off” to the extent that she would attract the suspicions of those around her. Carol then went on to kill, dressed up as her mother, in an act of revenge for the murder of her long-dead father.
That’s the nuts-and-bolts of Strait-jacket and I’m sure this stripped-down recital sounds familiar enough to the seasoned Psycho fan. I'm not saying Holland is guilty of plagiarism, but (there’s that damn BUT again) the echo still rings. Strip away the extra characters and the superfluous last-minute Mrs. Spool revelation in Psycho II and you’ve got Strait-jacket.
It’s not saddening, but it’s worth a sigh. Hollywood didn’t have the balls to show its underbelly in ’82 (or perhaps they simply wanted a franchise) and instead, made an uncredited remake of a film penned by the same hand they had rejected.
Let’s move on.
Psycho House was originally to be titled Psycho 13. My interpretation of this: where is the thirteenth room of The Bates Motel? That question serves as the helix upon which the entire novel operates, and I’ve come too far to not give you my two cents about it (flick on the SPOLER sign again). Bloch holds this metaphorical revelation to the very end, in fact, to the very last sentence.
“Let me make a suggestion,” Steiner said. “When you’re finished, maybe you can write another book, about life in the asylum.”
“No.” Steiner gestured towards the window. “Out there.”
Psycho House concludes Bloch’s almost melancholy reflection on the monster he created and how the public clung to Bates cum pop-icon for so many years. The book dealt with the notions of serial killers as celebrities and the general public’s hunger for bloodshed. Psycho House isn’t as good a read as its two predecessors; it serves rather as a fitting epilogue to the series, written by a man more concerned with impact than shock.
The plot: Amy Haines is in Fairvale researching a book she plans to write about Norman Bates and his ongoing popularity. Meanwhile, a local entrepreneur has recreated the infamous Bates Motel and adjoining house as a soon-to-be-opened tourist trap (even down to an animatronic Norman, “Mother” recreation and the murdered Mary in the shower). However, the weekend before the opening a young girl is murdered in the house, giving Amy a perfect angle for her book. All of a sudden, her subject is “hot” again, and her snooping may just pay off—financially, as well as artistically. She enlists the help of a demonologist, Fairvale’s local newspaper publisher and Dr. Steiner (who is in charge of the still-unstable Doctor Claiborne). Their combined sleuthing is unfavourably looked upon by Fairvale locals, who in turn, look upon the Bates case as a blemish upon their reputation. But people are being murdered; the “Mother” dummy is missing; who is the killer?
It’s an old fashioned who-done-it where the plot almost takes the back seat to Bloch’s pitch-perfect prose and wicked sense of humour. On the downside it lacks the great revelations the series had become renowned for (it’s a case of the “twist” discourse that plagues the horror/thriller genre unlike any other, in which the expectation of a twist is determined by the effectiveness of the twist which preceded it— think Shyamalan films post The Sixth Sense etc), and honestly, it isn’t as genre-pushing as either Psycho or Psycho 2. But it does, well and truly, close the door on the Bates mythology. The book’s perspective is no longer mediation, rather a judgment we all as horror fans and members of news watching society, are guilty of.
Between these three novels there was The Dead Beat (1960), Firebug (1961—another important Bloch novel which forms an unofficial triptych of narration that began with The Scarf and continued with Psycho) and The Couch (1962—an adaptation of Bloch’s own screenplay, but a finely structured novel on its own). The Todd Dossier (1969) was a second novelization, this time for a film that was never filmed, which left behind a novel that Bloch legally couldn’t have published under his own name. It was released under the name Collier A. Young, a character in the book. Bloch did one further adaptation: The Twilight Zone (1983). The Twilight Zone poses as a great example of Bloch’s commitment to his trade. He was given the screenplay six weeks before his manuscript needed to be submitted to the publisher, only two of the sequences were screened for him, and he had to change the ending of the first segment after a fatal accident that occurred during filming. Add to this there, is no “wrap-around”, with the stories instead presented as un-related throwaways, based on an existing screenplays, from prior teleplays, from originally published short stories. If it’s exhausting to read just imagine what it was like to write!
1962 saw the publication of The Terror, which was a fine, economical murder-mystery about Kali Thugee cults in (then) modern day society. It’s almost impossible to find, but if you do find a copy snap it up quick—you’re guaranteed a delightful mystery.
It’s important to remember that as well as being a staple in the psychological horror genre, Bloch was just as involved and cherished within the science-fiction community. Ladies Day/This Crowded Earth (1968 ) and Sneak Preview (1971 ), carry on this tradition. These three novellas are indebted to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but are full of Bloch’s wit and bitter violence, giving these stories a tartness its influences lack.
The seventies rolled by and Bloch released It’s All in Your Mind (1971), Night World (1972—which came very close to being adapted for film a number of times with Bloch as screenwriter) and American Gothic (1972).
American Gothic is another horror novel about a psychopathic mass-murderer with roots in reality. Set in the late 18th Century Chicago, pharmacist and real-estate industrialist, G. Gordon Greg, invites people to come and stay in his urban mansion during the Chicago State Fair. But those who enter never come out again. It’s a fantastic, sick read, based on the story of H.H. Holmes, “America’s first serial killer”.
The novel shares similar themes and atmosphere to Night of the Ripper (1984), a moody, suspenseful retelling of the Ripper legend, based in fact, full of pre- From Hell (Alan Moore, 1991) appearances from The Elephant Man, Oscar Wilde and others. Night of the Ripper concludes a multi-decade fascination Bloch had with the elusive murderer, that began in 1943 with Your’s truly, Jack the Ripper. This classic tale combined fact with supernatural fiction, with the Ripper cast as an eternal being who must make human sacrifices to stay alive. It was adapted for radio (Stay Tuned For Terror) and television (for the amazing Boris Karloff hosted anthology series, Thriller (1960-1962), which also featured many Bloch adaptations and teleplays). The Ripper fixation continued with the aforementioned A Toy For Juliette, A Most Unusual Murder (yet another reason to fear old antique stores) and an episode of the original Star Trek series, titled A Wolf In The Fold.
In the suspense/thriller vein Bloch revealed the chaos in the seemingly serene with There Is a Serpent in Eden (1979), which is a delightful who’ll-do-it set in an aged-care home. It’s a novel I’ve always loved, with an ending that’s on the predictable side, but lovingly predictable. Its resolution is delightfully pulpish. 1991 saw the publication of Bloch’s last novel, The Jekyll Legacy (co-authored by Andre Norton), a disappointing sequel to R.L Stevenson’s classic, that despite its charms, fails to thrill due to Bloch and Norton’s jarring clash of styles.
On the supernatural front, Bloch wrote two final novels: Strange Eons (1978 ) and Lori (1989). Eons is an unexpected treat, especially for H.P Lovecraft fans. It is a meta-fictional divulgence into the Cthulhu Mythos that is as fast-paced as it is structurally surprising. Lori to this day cries for a cinematic rendering, a sentiment shared by The Psyhco Legacy director Robert V. Galluzzo. With its mixture of dreamlike imagery, serpentine storyline and subtle sexuality, it seems the perfect match for a director like Mick Garris, who handles that mix well.
On 23 September 1994, seventy-seven year old Robert Bloch died from a battle with cancer he didn’t even acknowledge in his autobiography, which was only written one year earlier. Reading that final work is a bittersweet experience. It's full of his best punch lines and observations, but between the sentences seethes the unspoken knowledge that he does not have long to live. And still it's wonderfully entertaining. Bloch once said of Fritz Leiber: “When he writes of graves, they always yawn—but his readers never do.” It is an astute observation, and one that he could have easily directed at himself.
The humor and the fear survive in pages that are quickly breaking down, on shelves that are emptying out. Books are dying, but the words won’t disappear so quietly. Not if we pass them on. That’s why I wrote this article. Bloch was born in 1917; I was born in 1984. He is as much a part of my writing as he is a part of horror history. The cycle of influence continues to spin and it’s our duty to credit the plot of our inspiration even if others don't. There are those among us who checked into the Bates Motel and never checked out.
So say it.
No man or woman lives forever. Even if they, like Robert Bloch’s Jack the Ripper, murder to extend their immortality.
-- Aaron Dries is the author of the award-winning novel, House of Sighs (2012). Available now through Samhain Publishing.
|Posted on March 5, 2012 at 9:10 PM||comments (0)|
It was the night before ebook release and all through the house … not a creature was stirring—
Oh, hold it. Something was stirring. Something in the dark. The kind of something that only starts to lurk about once you’re asleep in your bed. It crawls up your staircase towards your room, its joints popping as It moves. You can’t see It because your eyes are closed, but Its form is blocking out the moonlight and casting a dim shadow under your door … which is opening. Wider and wider.
—Sorry, I got carried away.
You only get to be a debut author on the eve of his first ebook release once, so damn-it, I’m running with the theme here.
House of Sighs has been a long time coming. I wrote it over two years ago now while traveling abroad. It was pounded out in frenzied sessions on semi-working hostel computers at all hours of the night, on borrowed netbooks, in libraries, by hand in laundromats. When the time came to format the manuscript for Samhain (with the advanced readers copies needing to get out the door A.S.A.P.) my editor, Don, mentioned to me: “Aaron, there’s some seriously weird text elements in your Word document, like thousands—indents, symbols, characters that I’ve never seen before. Our IT department is scratching their heads. Some of it’s in Chinese.”
I tell you, it was a long night stripping my entire manuscript down to the 300 page paragraph, italics-less, completely un-formatted form it took for me to rebuild it up from again. But it was worth it. Unequivocally worth it.
Those moments when I was pounding my head against the wall because I didn’t know whether or not to let a character live or die? Worth it. The intense mental anguish a single sentence can put you through? Worth it.
I don’t know what kind of future is in store for my wee book. It may slip into oblivion; people may hate it. Who can tell, really? One dude’s Bible is another dude’s toilet roll—it’s all a crapshoot. Yet at the end of the day, I’d be an idiot—and I probably wouldn’t deserve to be here, on the eve of eves—if I didn’t at least hope that House of Sighs has a shelf life. Just a little. I’m not looking for a falcon of success here … I’d happily settle for a little blood-splattered courier pigeon, just so long as somebody is there to receive its message.
Time will tell. I'll see you on the other side.
Oh, and watch out for that creature on the stairs. It’s hungry.
|Posted on March 1, 2012 at 8:50 PM||comments (1)|
DADDY by Aaron Dries
Lewis was only two weeks into his four-month contract with the London architecture firm when he found the baby in the dumpster, lying on a cot of lettuce leaves and used condoms. He butted out the cigarette he'd been smoking, downed his coffee and ran into the alley, following the cries.
He saw her through his thick lens Coke-bottle glasses; she was naked, shivering. She sucked on his pinky finger when he cradled her in his hands. Her hunger broke something in him; something he didn’t even know was there.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, the plumes of breath freezing before his face, leaving him to wonder how the baby had survived for so long. London chill ran deep and merciless—grown men died in such cold.
He carried her back into the building, his shoes clattering up the designer glass staircase. The little baby flooded his palms with her urine, hot and stinking. His shadow passed over the immaculate carpet. Co-workers, some of whom still didn't know his name, watched him as he marched toward his office. He stopped near windows that overlooked the grey cityscape, swarming with tiny people going about their business. Dead leaves rode the wind.
The child’s uncomprehending eyes—twin blue suns—stared up at him. Into him. Bright.
Lewis had no siblings. His parents were dead and he’d never married. The concept of someone leaving a child to die in the cold was impossible for him to grasp. He shook his head, tears beading off his silk tie. His secretary stepped up beside him, her narrow face half in shadow.
“Mr. State...” It was all she could think of to say and somehow, the trailed-off sentence seemed to express it all.
After the screaming reporters and flashing light bulbs, the silence of his rented apartment was deafening. He felt emptied out—a picked-at carcass held together by will alone. Though the baby was gone from his arms, its weight haunted him.
He fixed himself a Weight Watchers meal that tasted like flavored plastic and didn't bother to ask himself why he expected anything different. But the taste didn't matter. Two bites in and he realized that eating was just another failed distraction. Loud television and the bland, flat beer in his hand hadn't worked their charm either.
Lewis looked around the room. The walls were vacant and so blindingly white it hurt his eyes. There was an artificial plant accumulating dust in the corner, its leaves shivering as warm air gasped from the ducted air-conditioning.
It was then that he felt the first pang of homesickness. Lewis didn't have many friends in London—and even less in Minnesota—but at least there he had his magazines. His little side projects.
His glasses made a heavy thunk as he placed them onthe dining room table. He rubbed his eyes and in the darkness saw the unnamed child, red faced and screeching. He could imagine the nurses taking her away.
The hospital reeked of antiseptic and piss—scents that grabbed him by the balls and dragged him back into his mother's nursing home. She didn't know who he was in the end, and the last time he saw her, she’d been sitting on a throne of her own shit.
Lewis searched for a distraction and found his feet. One step then another. Repeat. This was how he got by. His thighs brushed together as he strode down the hallway; the swish of his trousers sounded like saws felling trees. He stopped at the nurses' station leading into the Pediatrics unit. The window was decorated with Thank You cards covered in spider legged self-portraits, rainbows. A deflating balloon bobbed at the end of its string. Lewis leaned forward, cleared his throat and introduced himself.
The nurses clapped. They shook his hand. “I know this is going to sound naff, but would you sign this for me?” The staff member offered him her arm, which had been wrapped in plaster. His scribble was one of many.
“This has just made my day, shit, my whole week!” said the nurse who was now escorting him down a long, white corridor. “Oh, we named her Bernadette after the street you found her on.”
Lewis rolled the word around in his mouth, just as a child would a piece of candy. The nurse gave him a smile and walked away, leaving him among the rows of cots. Some were empty. He looked down at the baby, her head cupped in his palm. He didn't think the name quite fit.
No. It seemed ... grand.
She was a tiny thing, but rough around the edges. He could see it in her eyes. He’d seen grown men without that grit—he lacked it himself. She had old eyes; the look of someone who had seen a lot, survived, and come out the other side stronger. Lewis could see it so plainly because it was something he so plainly desired.
He thought the name was inappropriate, but who was he to judge?
I'm the fella who saved her life, he thought. I've got every right to my opinion. They should have asked me to name her. But as was his typical manner, Lewis remained quiet.
Although he’d never been in the unit before, he felt like he belonged there. The baby tingled in his arms. She was such an easy thing to love. Her mouth pressed against his thumb; it felt like nothing. Like everything.
She fit inside his life perfectly.
The nurse returned two hours later and took her from him. He fought the urge to snatch her back, and it was the same every time he visited. But the pain of leaving the child behind was worth it, because when she was in his hands he felt more alive than he had in years. And then strangers who couldn’t possibly care for her the way he did would take her away, leaving him to walk through the shit-stinking hospital alone.
On his sixth visit, the male nurse at the station told him Bernadette was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” Lewis asked. He was astonished at how calm he was when all he really wanted to do was dive over the counter and grab the nurse by the shoulders and shake some sense into him.
“Look, Mr. State—”
You condescending little bastard, he thought. Lewis didn't want to hear what the heavily accented man had to say. He didn't want to see his lazy grimace, that haphazard smile thrown across his face like an empty body bag over a gurney. He didn't want to see his teeth or smell the traces of cigarette smoke embedded in his skin. Lewis prepared to turn around, but the nurse's soft voice stopped him short.
“Lewis. She's been ... collected. You know? A relative came and picked her up.” The nurse sighed, feigning compassion—it infuriated him. “It wasn't her mother. Nobody has any idea where she is. It was an aunt that came and picked her up, I think. I'm sorry for you. I know how you felt about little Bern’.”
Little Bern’? Lewis stepped back. The station was a large square cut into the hallway wall; it looked about three feet in height and three by three in width. Plexiglas windows within reaching distance were covered in greasy fingerprints. Lewis traced the walls with his eyes, configuring measurements in his head. He could see the floor plans scratched onto butcher's paper and some British architect stabbing a finger at it and saying: “See here? That's where the window will go. That's what will drive him crazy—”
“Don't take it to heart. We should be happy for the little tot,” the nurse continued. “You're a hero here, mate. Remember that.”
The floorplans and sketches vanished. There was just the hole in the wall and the slight young man on the other side reaching for the Plexiglas window. Lewis stepped forward, his throat heavy. “I'm not your mate.”
Lewis couldn't sleep on the plane back to America.
The couple next to him looked to be in their mid-twenties, their hands intertwined. When they were asleep they snored and when they were awake, they laughed. Between their jabbing elbows and the plane’s turbulence—which even had the stewardess unnerved—Lewis felt like screaming.
He imagined doing it himself—simply opening his mouth and roaring, drawing as much attention to himself as possible. Everyone would look at him. The children would be scared, but at least they would know how much he was suffering. Someone might even recognize him from the news and turn to their traveling partner and whisper behind their hands.
“Look, there's that man.”
“I wonder what happened to him?”
But Lewis didn't thump around in his seat, or scream, or do anything else to get their attention. He just sat there in silence, blinking every few moments, and stared at the emergency instruction booklet in his hands. When the stewardess rolled the service cart to a stop next to him and asked if he would like to order something off the menu, he politely declined.
Lewis couldn't count how many times he must have passed the store and not seen the baby doll. The thrift store had been on that street for years and it was rare for him to even notice it, unless of course it was Christmas or Easter and the large window was decorated with lights. And even on those days, he wouldn't have seen the doll were it not for the brown paper bag blowing in the wind. It had skirted across the road, rising and falling, brushing against the tarmac like a tenacious angel daring to touch the earth once more. The paper bag skirted past him and planted itself against the window with a soft crunch.
DARLING DIDDI. SHE TALKS, LAUGHS AND GOES POTTY!
The bag blew away.
Diddi stared up at him from the confines of her box. She had flushed cheeks and eyes the color of faded blue jeans. She wore pink overalls covered in flowers and knitted vine.
There was no time to hesitate over his purchase. The doll had been bought before he realized he was even in the store.
His apartment was an open loft fit-out with good ventilation and lots of natural lighting—an architect's wet dream. The breeze blowing in through the open window ruffled his thinning hair; the light cast his shadow long across the living room floor.
Darling Diddi sat in his hands. It was an old battered thing, scuffed and beaten, but the resemblance to Bernadette was uncanny. Her upturned nose. Her chin.
His phone rang and the machine picked it up. He didn't bother answering it anymore; he never accepted personal calls. His landline was simply a breeding ground for telemarketers. If it was work related they reached him by email. The only other voices he heard in his home were those filtering in from the television or on occasion, from the woman who called out, you've got mail, from somewhere inside his Mac.
Lewis doubted that the doll was the same one the box proclaimed it to be. The child in his hand looked nothing like the one printed on the cardboard inlay.
Diddi or Bernadette, his little girl looked like a Lily.
“And never an Elizabeth,” Lewis said, smiling.
It had been his mother's name, and his mother's expression.
Want an Elizabeth, go pick on a Windsor. Instead you got me: Lily.
The battery socket looked as though it had been warped by heat, so he succumbed to the notion that he would never hear his daughter speak, but that was okay. He knew that parents feared for the health of their newborns. After all, there were challenged children being born every single day. He saw it on the news and read about it on the Internet all the time. Lily being mute was a blessing.
Life hands you barley and bones, well, go on and make some damn soup.
That had been another one of his mother's expressions.
So what if Lily couldn't speak. It didn't stop Lewis from holding his head high. “But you can hear, can't you?” he said. “Yeah, I know you can. You're smart. I know that, too. I can see the smarts in your eyes.”
Lewis pulled his baby close to his chest, took off his shirt and pushed his flaccid nipple into its mouth. He rocked her in his arms. “There you go, oh come now, it's okay. Sh-hhh.”
He wanted to sing her a lullaby but he didn't know any.
He had been wrong about Lily being mute. She could make noise—just nothing intelligible. There was none of the cute goo-goo-ga-ga's he’d read about in books and saw on soap operas.
There was just the crying.
Lewis would get up in the middle of the night, shaking off dreams in which he was falling or sometimes wandering the halls of his mother's nursing home, following the scent of shit and soap to her room.
He’d constructed a cot from the modeling materials he kept around the apartment for projects that required dioramas and functioning models. Lily's mattress was made from the tie-dyed silk material he purchased at the Camden Markets on one of his few trips outside London Central. The old woman who sold it to him had claimed to be blind.
Lewis plucked Lily from her bed and patted her on the back. Her cries were endless, amplified over and over in echoes of echoes.
The moonlight creeping in through the Venetian blinds painted them in gray stripes. His bare feet stuck to the tiles, and when he shuffled around, he heard clammy scratches. Lewis couldn't remember the last time he’d mopped the floors, or infact, done any of the housework that required more than just a superficial wipe. Yeah, he knew some chores were slipping through the cracks, but assumed such things were common in the lives of single parents.
Lily cried and Lewis checked her puckered mouth. Her bright blue eyes glowed in the dark. “Oh baby, you must be teething.”
In the dream he couldn't move. His mother was writhing in bed, fighting her sheets as though they were alive and trying to strangle her. Her face was split open in a grimace of agony and she’d wiped a layer of shit across her lips in a sickening, brown clown smile.
The wind will change and you'll be stuck with that expression, Lewis, his mother would say. Back in the days when she could form words. Back when she knew who she was talking too.
He wanted to get up and tend to her, but the last time he'd done that she'd rolled over and latched her gummy mouth on his wrist, her good arm snapping around to pinch his side. The nurses told Lewis that he could no longer approach her. That his mother had been a danger to herself for quite some time, but had now graduated into being a danger to others.
Lewis wondered how long it would take for her to die.
It seemed cruel for her to live in such a way—her soul imprisoned in a decrepit husk, without even thoughts to keep her company.
He knew that there were many long days and nights of crying to come yet. This was only the beginning.
“Jesus, muchacho! You look like you've spent two weeks in Vegas and haven't stopped to piss,” said Xavier, a draftsman at Lewis' firm. Xavier looked at his co-worker with two parts awe and one part concern. The concept of someone having a life outside of work excited him—and Lewis, of all people! He was more shocked than anything.
Lewis wanted to tell him about Lily, or maybe show him the small photograph of her that he kept tucked away in his wallet, but a little voice inside him told him to keep it to himself. That same voice also screamed at him to clean his act up, shave and get some sleep.
You're dying on your feet, warned the voice.
Lewis took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry to disappoint you, Xavier, but nope. No Vegas trip, I'm sad to say. Just a stretch of shitty nights.”
“Insomnia? Ah man, anything but that.”
“Yeah. It's a bastard of a thing; it hits you like a freight train.”
“Well Jesus, man, put down the coffee!”
His mughad the words GERM TOWN—RECONSIDER VISITING printed on it, only the lettering was threaded with stains from where his shaking hands had spilt its contents over and over again. It was yet another unwashed thing in his life. He could see his reflection in the inky liquid, warped and gaunt. He looked unrecognizable as the man he’d been prior to visiting London.
“Thanks Xavier,” Lewis said, slamming the mug down on the kitchenette counter. Some of the coffee jumped out of the mug, slapping against his shoes. “Someone's too tired to give you a smile, how about you give him one instead?” he spat, unable to hide the sarcasm.
Xavier raised his hands, trying not to laugh. “Hey, was that another one of your mother's sayings, muchacho?” he asked as Lewis rounded the corner and vanished into his office.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
But Lily wouldn't shut up.
Her screams were high-pitched wails that seemed to last forever. He had no idea how lungs so small could hold and then expel so much oxygen at once. The sounds she made pierced the air and dug into his ears like something alive, scratching at the inside of his skull.
Since the baby, Lewis was quick to anger at the best of times. Between the stress of multiple work-related projects and the lack of sleep, he felt like he was falling apart at the seams. Lily's cries tore him up in the most intimate ofways—as though each wail were a betrayal.
As if she knew his vulnerabilities.
Her cries for food would assimilate with his dreams so when his mother with her shit-stained smile, turned to yell at him, he heard the infantile scream. Her green eyes would turn blue just before he woke up, clutching his chest and lathered in sweat.
He tried calculating the square-footage of his room, creating sketch-ups of the designs and material requirements—anything to distract him from the noise. He buried his head under his pillow and took sleeping pills that were strong enough to make him groggy but too weak to knock him out.
Lily screamed again. And again.
Lewis towered over her, reached down and shook her by the shoulders so hard that the makeshift cradle collapsed, scattering cardboard and wire. Her baby rattle hissed as it rolled across the floor.
Lily's mouth didn’t move and the sound did not stop and her eyes did not blink. Lewis pushed his child against his chest with one hand, the other hanging limp by his side.
A bitter wind sent the trees outside his apartment into shudders, their branches scratching against the windows. Clouds passed overhead with the speed of a running stream. Lewis watched the television blink on and off. His eyes glazed over and grew dim. The Presidential State of the Union address was on but he had no interest in anything that was being said. Nothing the man at the podium with the black suit and handsome tie seemed to apply to his world. Not anymore.
The baby was a vampire feeding off his energy, off his love—just as his mother had done.
Yeah, she may have given him life, but it had come at the cost of his own. She had turned soft, both in mind and flesh, and come to collect the freedom she had given him at birth. That was why he put her in the nursing home; there had been no other choice.
Death had been too slow.
Lewis had lost a lot of weight. When he looked at himself in the light of the bathroom mirror, he saw shadows being cast by his ribcage. His sagging man-breasts clung to his chest like the teats of female hogs. He itched in places where he shouldn't. People had commented on his smell at work, on his dandruff.
He was beyond humiliation. Day by day his daughter pushed him into new places. Darker places.
Lily was screaming.
The television picture shrank down into a dot, lingering on the screen for just a moment.
Lewis stood up and the bones in his back cracked. He walked over to where he’d left Lily on the floor, lying on a bed of old Time magazine covers. She’d shat herself again. Her sloppy mess covered the faces of former politicians and public figures alike. But Lily didn't care, and neither did he anymore. This was the extent to which she had sucked the life from him.
Lewis picked her up. She wreathed and shook.
Her blue eyes looked into his. They’d never seemed so bright. The more she fed, the louder she screamed, the fainter he felt. “You're killing me, Lily,” he said.“You're destroying me.”
Even his voice was softer. All of its grind and edge was gone.
As though mocking him, Lily's cheeks were still the same flushed rose they had been when he saw her in the window of the thrift store. She continued to wail—or was it laughter?
“Stop, Lily. Stop now. This is your last chance.”
But she did not stop.
“Cut it out, God-damnit, Lily! Stop! Stop! Bernadette stop it!”
No response. Just the continuing noise.
He punched her in the face and felt it collapse inwards under his knuckles. One of her eyeballs fell from its socket, sailed through the air, and shattered on the floor, breaking into shards that lit up in the flickering television light.
The President continued to drone on. People were clapping. Static rained down over the audience.
Lewis felt Lily's pain; it gripped his chest. It hurt to hurt her, just as it had hurt to put his mother in the home. He remembered how she had turned to look at him, confused and afraid, as the nurses led her through those pneumatic glassdoors and into a world of white. It had also stormed that day.
Lewis opened the front door of his apartment. The wind cut through him. Leaves swirled in circles at his feet as he stumbled down the stairs, one hand on the balustrade and the other clinging to the baby. He stole furtive glances at his surroundings, frightened that someone just might hear Lily's screams and come running. Just as he had in London.
And were his neighbors to enquire, what would they find, he wondered?
Lewis knew that only someone without children would judge him. He was neither a bad man, nor a guilty one.
He passed through the trees, seeing faces in their trunks crying for mercy, and passed into the alleyway beside his building. The only light came from the street-lamp at the end of the road—it was partially obscured by the branches of an old sycamore, casting frenetic shadows over him and his crime.
The father cried with his daughter as he lowered her into the mouth of the garbage can.
Lewis sat on the kitchen floor. He estimated that the sun wouldn't come up for another two hours. The storm had blown itself out and sucked away all the noise. Left behind was a stillborn silence that set his teeth on edge.
He held his hands up to his face, studying the structure of his bones and veins. There was an architecture to the human body that he'd never appreciated because he'd never sought it out. Though he may get old and weathered, the structure of his being held strong. Not even death could destroy that. There were skeletons defying time in their coffins in shallow graves all over the planet.
This was one of many distractions he could employ and exploit in his newfound quiet. Lewis decided to have a shower. He could do that now without worrying about how long he pampered himself, afraid that Lily would cry for him again. There would be no more guilt. Lewis walked down the hallway and pushed the bathroom door open, reached into the darkness for the light switch. He found it and flicked it on.
The room burned bright. He saw the bathtub. The drawn-back shower curtain. The woman with the slit wrists staring back at him, lying chin-deep in a pool of blood.
Her face was framed by lifeless hair and she had bright blue eyes, just like Lily's. Only fiercer. The woman pulled herself upright and her skin tore away where her back had been resting against the lip of the tub, revealing insect-infested flesh. As she began to speak, a rosary slipped out from between her lips and snaked into the scarlet water.
“Lewis,” the woman said. When she spoke, the sound of moving phlegm rattled in her lungs. She bore a distinct South-London accent. “You wanted it, you got it.”
He tried to turn and run from the room but he stood rooted to the spot. He could feel himself shaking in his clothes. Huge wells of emotion threatened to burst free, but didn't.
Gashes criss-crossed up and down the woman's arms. Blood dripped from the wounds like honey and the tip of a razor protruded from one cut near the crux of her elbow. A flicker of sadness crossed her face and she grew still, as though she were taking a moment to reflect on where she was and what had brought her to this place. The expression died, and whatever life had been in her faded with it.
Lewis watched her jaw slacken then unhinge. The sound of it made his heart jump. He screamed and collapsed to the floor.
The woman raised her head to expose her bulging throat. Her jawbone slanted off to the side like the broken wing of a bird and her mouth opened wide.
Something's trying to get out. But by the time he understood what was happening, it was too late, and he’d seen what was pushing up her throat to peer out at him. He saw an old grinning face covered in shit.
His mother wormed and twisted under the woman's skin, trapped and shaking. Ancient fingers curled out from inside the woman's mouth, prying the lips so far apart that it looked as though she had a smile that stretched off to either side ofher head. His mother's eyes rolled back in their sockets to reveal the whites. She gasped for air and mewled like a newborn.
The cry ripped through Lewis. He crawled out of the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind him. He lay breathless in the hallway.
Lewis didn't know what to do or where to go, so he shuffled back into bed and drew the sheet up close to his chin. The sun was yet to come up and despite the dark, he knew he wasn't alone. He didn't need to see it to know it was there. It was close, he could feel it. After a few sluggish minutes, he could hear it too.
The tap of plastic feet. The jingle of its baby rattle like the sound of pebbles in ajar. Lewis' heart seized up and skipped a beat.
Moonlight fought through the clouds and the room dissolved from black to blue. He could see the paintings on the walls, the remaining Time magazines on the dresser. But not It.
He swallowed hard, the noise of his clicking throat startling him. Lewis prayed for the clouds to return. Were his prayers to be answered, his bedroom would be swallowed up by the darkness so at least he wouldn't have to see it. Hearing it was one thing, but locking eyes with it was another. Lewis had shown compassion and mercy throughout his entire life, it seemed unfair that it would be denied to him now.
Chi-chi-chi-chi-chhhh, went the rattle.
There was a tug on his sheet; it tightened over his toes. He craned his neck forward, his chin doubling. Beyond the mound of his chest he could see the foot of the bed. Everything else seemed to disappear. Lewis had read once that the human focalpoint was the size of a thumbprint, and lying there, watching and waiting for its arrival, he knew that to be true.
The small hand reached up onto the mattress. Plastic fingers fumbled and latched at the sheet, folds unraveling as its weight bore down. It started to pull itself upon to the bed. Lewis wanted to close his eyes but couldn't. And then he saw it.
The crown of its bald head. Its heavy eyelashes. One cobalt peeper stared out at him from its bent-in face. The rosy cheeks, soiled and scratched. Its mouth was caught in an eternal pucker. Feed me, feed me, those lips said to him. I'm hungry.
But the words were only in his head. His visitor may have stared and stalked, but it did not speak. He was too terrified to realize how grateful he was.
A moment passed by and that last saving grace was gone.
The baby's first word was drawn out, as though the non-existent batteries in its belly were running dry like a record played at half its speed. Those puckered lips did not move. The word carried no echo. It was just for him.
* DADDY was first published in SNM Horror Magazine in March 2010
|Posted on October 23, 2010 at 7:06 PM||comments (0)|
The following is an excerpt from "House of Sighs" by Aaron Dries. None of the following text may be reproduced without permission of the author.
PROLOGUE: IT BEGINS
“There is only one Evil: Disunity”
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
ONE HUNDRED AND FIVE
Suzie Marten was ten years old when she died.
Her passion was dancing. Spinning herself dizzy in search of rhythm, pirouetting until her toes hurt. Her father had bought her a pair of ballet shoes. They fit perfectly. Suzie loved those shoes with a pure love only children can feel for inanimate objects. She was wearing them when she was torn apart.
It was the ninth of November, 1995.
To Suzie, Sunday morning was the final stop between freedom and school. She both loved and hated Sundays. Suzie despised school and especially her teacher. When he got mad he threw things. She imagined he spent his Sundays alone, watching the clock, eager for Monday so he could overturn someone’s desk. He had done this to her best friend, books and pencils crashed to the floor, an eraser bounced up and clipped one boy’s ear. At recess Suzie hugged her friend. “It’s okay. I saw on the T.V that teachers can’t do that and we can sue him. He’s such a … dirty shit.”
They looked at each other, shocked. Dirty shit.
“Suzie Marten you can’t say that! If they hear you say that they’ll send a letter home to your mom and she’ll wash your mouth out with soap. I saw that one on the T.V too.”
“Na-uh she won’t. My mom’s too tired to do that. Always in bed. And besides, she says words like that! She works the dog watch at the hospital- whatever that means. She gets home from work when everyone else is getting up. I don’t know what a dog has to do with it. I once saw this boring black-and-white movie about a vampire who only ever came out at night. He could turn into a bat and flew around eating people- or something- and during the day he slept in a box. Did’ja ever see that one?”
Suzie once teased her mother’s mouth open with a spoon while she slept, to see if she had fangs. Donna Marten bolted awake, grabbed her daughter by the wrist and pulled her under the sheets. They laughed. That night they had Fruit Loops for dinner.
On the morning of the ninth, Donna fell into bed after a ten-hour shift. Her knees ached, the smell of disinfectant and cigarettes sweating out of her pores. She was too tired to shower. Suzie pulled the blankets up to her mother’s chin.
“M-oom,” Suzie said, her voice drawn out and meek.
“What is it, Honey? I’m dead on my feet.”
“Come on, out with it. I’m two ticks away from dreaming.”
“Well, I was wondering. How come on television Moms don’t get old? How come Julia Roberts never gets wrinkles but you’re starting to look like an old lady?” Donna stared into her daughter’s innocent eyes.
“Think yourself lucky I love you, Suzie,” she said, wishing her daughter were old enough to start lying like everyone else. They kissed goodnight, all forgiven. She watched her daughter pull the door shut.
Suzie passed a cabinet full of her gymnastics trophies in the hallway, the glass planes shaking as she bounced. Her reflection twittered from one family photo to another. Leaping into the kitchen, she slid to the refrigerator in her socks. It was covered in drawings and magnets, school reports and shopping receipts.
Alone at last.
Her father was away on another business trip. Where he went she rarely knew, but was always glad to see him go because he never came back empty handed. Once he brought a packet of wind up crayons, another time, the ballet shoes.
She watched Sailor Moon over cereal. Afterwards, she pulled her hair into a ponytail and brushed her teeth, the bristles as frayed as corn stalks after a storm. A week later her mother found dried mint splashes on the mirror. She licked them off.
Suzie put on her headphones even though the padding itched her ears, slipped into a pink leotard and tu-tu. She pressed play on her Walkman and music filled her ears. She slammed the front door as she went into yard.
In the house a hum escaped the freezer, the grandfather clock ticked. Gentle draughts tickled a wind chime near the window. Donna snored.
Suzie danced to Mister Boombastic on the front lawn. In her opinion, she lived on the most boring street in all of James Bridge, maybe even all of Australia: a rarely travelled stretch of road on the outskirts of town. Suzie had no neighbours, but should a car come along she liked the idea of being seen.
Autumn was hot that year, the house surrounded by matchstick grass. The valley hissed when the wind blew through the dead trees, a desperate, lonely sound.
Suzie spun and curtsied. She laughed to herself. I could do this all day, she thought. And I will!
She loved watching her shadow on the lawn, the way it was a part of her. But when she leapt into the air they were separated. If only she could fly forever, but she would miss her shadow. That would be sad, like losing a friend.
Four hours after falling asleep, panic reached into the dark and ripped Donna from her bed. Her stomach knotted, brow flecked with dried sweat. It had not been the sounds of screeching tires, or the muted gunshot that woke her- fatigue had seen to that. It was simply that her mind had fled her body and her flesh had no choice but to follow.
She threw open the door and ran from room to room. Nothing.
“Suzie!” she yelled. Her voice was feral, unrecognisable as her own. Something inside fuelled her dread. The house was empty.
Donna stumbled outside, her eyes squinting against the sunlight. Pain thudded in her head and shot down her spine. Suzie was not in the backyard. As she rounded the house and neared the front gate, she felt heat waves coming off the brick wall to her right. She fumbled with the latch. Next to her were the trashcans. Their stench reached out for her. The latch opened and the gate swung wide.
Donna ran onto the front lawn and stopped.
The Walkman was shattered near the gutter, ribbons of grey tape fluttering in the wind.
Suzie Marten was strewn in pieces across the road.
Crows fluttered over intestines, disturbing the stillness. One hopped onto Suzie’s head, spread it’s bloodied wings and squawked. It lowered its beak and bit the child’s tongue, which had been cooking against the tar.
In front of her was her daughter’s ballet shoe, the foot still inside. Donna screamed.
Her breath came short as her nostrils filled with the smell; a mixture of burnt chemicals and sugarcane, shit and salt. She would never forget it. Darkness flittered over her vision. Donna ran to her child. She lashed out at the birds. They twirled and cawed, sprinkling blood drops over her face. “Get away from my baby!” she screamed, arms thrashing. But the beaks returned to meat, soft stabbings sounds at ankle height. One crow settled on her shoulder, feathers brushed against her cheek. Her world emptied. Colour drained from her face; she clambered over gravel. This isn’t happening, she thought. It can’t be. I’m dreaming- that’s it! I’m still sleeping, my baby isn’t torn to pieces. Donna started to laugh, short deep bleats. Parents were not equipped to see such sights; to smell such insane, bitter scents.
She fought the birds again, kicked out, punching. She didn’t comprehend what she was doing until she held one in her hand. Its scream mingled with her own, formed a single high-pitched mewl that echoed across the fields. Donna let it drop, its wings broken.
Donna fell to her knees and attempted to scoop up as much of her daughter as she could. Her arms swept wide in manic, possessive hugs, pulling the larger chunks close to her chest. Tears slipped down her face. She gave in and settled on the largest intact fragment: Suzie’s head, neck, collarbone and left arm, which hung on by a thread. The birds were hungry and would not let their bounty escape without a fight. They swooped, their black eyes empty.
The chunk of Suzie was only a quarter of the corpse, but Donna thought it was heavier than her daughter had ever been intact. She turned her back to the crows, deflecting swoops and scratches. Without warning the weight in her arms lessened and Donna felt something slap against her shins. Something warm and wet.
Donna was a nurse and assisted doctors in surgery. What she saw sitting on her shins, was unlike anything she had ever seen at work. It was small and childlike. A healthy heart that still had many years of beating left to do.
Donna collapsed amid a flurry of dark wings, dark shadows.