Content note (click for details)Content note: coerced surgery
At 8 a.m. sharp on Monday morning, Armond lines up at the Day Fair to apply for Bradification.
Armond’s palms sweat badly enough to leave wet spots on his resumes. Several candidates immediately strike him as actual competition, which doesn’t bode well for him. One chisel-jawed fellow practically looks like a Brad already. Armond has to land this job, or else. Between poor progress reviews and coming in last place at Company Fun Run practice, he has no other alternatives but promotion.
A Brad skims Armond’s resume in the applicant line. “Ah! Project management,” he says with Bradlike optimism. “We could use someone with your skillset.” Brad dabs blood from his nose with a big white handkerchief and shakes Armond’s hand. “Come with me. You just landed yourself an interview.”
Armond rechecks if his sneaker laces are tight. If he can’t nail the interview, the Company will make him run.
They’ve assembled a full panel of Brads for the interviews. Their room overlooks the Company kennels, where they’re already setting up for the next Fun Run. Each Brad leans back in his swivel chair and kicks his heels onto the coffee table. They’ve each brought a novelty mug for their americanos with French vanilla creamer: Coffa Cuppee. HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Like A BOSS. They’re all dabbing blood from their leaky creases with napkins and tissues and clean white hankies.
The Head Brad, a glorious specimen with minimal bleeding and very few surgical scars, sips from his Monday Funday mug. “We’ve been over your resume with a fine-toothed comb,” he says brightly. “You’re 71% Brad-compatible, well within the limits for Bradification.”
Armond perks up. This is it: his big break. The Head Brad sucks a bead of blood from his thumb. “But tell me, Armond. Why do you want to become Brad?”
Truthfully, Armond wants to become Brad because he has no hope of outrunning them otherwise, and they’re not going to let him keep his current posting with such poor reviews. It’s either promotion, or the kennels. You can fail up, or get run down. But you mustn’t let them catch even a whiff of desperation, or you’ll be handed a Fun Run jersey faster than you can say funtivities.
“I’m just passionate about the Company’s mission,” Armond begins, plastering on his Braddiest grin. “I love MoneyMaking, and no one MoneyMakes better than the Company.”
In truth, Armond is only a mediocre MoneyMaker. He doesn’t have the proper hand-eye coordination for inking all the little numbers, and he’s downright atrocious at sketching Presidents. The Brads have probably read his performance reviews, because they shift and murmur and bleed through their mesh chairs.
One of the Brads lifts something soft and nylon from under the table. It looks like a tattered t-shirt.
Armond licks his lips. His heart thunders like tennis shoes slapping along asphalt. “I almost forgot,” he adds rapidly. “I’d like to be clear that I’m game for internal Bradification.”
He regrets it immediately, but the Brads relax. The nylon shirt swishes into the wastebasket.
“Few interviewees have professed such commitment,” says the Head Brad, the corners of his lips ripping from the width of his grin. “Thank you for your interview. Enjoy a complimentary lunch in the Breakroom while we make final decisions.”
Armond shakes their hands and thanks them. As he leaves the room, his gaze falls into the wastebasket.
The Fun Run jersey tangled with the balled-up memos is bloodstained and torn open on the front, as though rended by claws.
It’s clear immediately who’s passed on to the next stage, and who hasn’t. Well-heeled Brads hand out jerseys to sobbing candidates in the hallway, while Armond watches from the window as the kennel doors fly open. The chisel-jawed man leads the herd, and seconds later, the Brads thunder out behind them with their steel staplers and unhinged jaws.
Middle management comes with certain responsibilities, and certain appetites as well.
The Head Brad shows up impeccably clean, except for some blood pooling through his jacket at the elbow joints. “Congratulations,” says Brad, polishing crud off his stapler. “You’re the next up for the Braderator!”
Armond tries not to think about staplers or jerseys as he wolfs down his complimentary turkey sandwich, but it’s hard to ignore the sweaty, cologne-soaked stench as they all return from lunch.
They’ve built the Braderator directly in the custodial closet for easier cleaning, but you can still catch a whiff of blood despite all the bleach.
Armond strips off his clothes, ducks beneath the scissorlike chandelier of blades, and sits on the stainless steel chair, which is full of holes, like a cheese grater.
“That’s to let the blood through,” Brad says, clamping restraints around Armond’s arms and legs.
“How does it work?” Armond asks before Brad slides the Internal Braderator between his lips.
“To paraphrase Michelangelo,” says Brad, folding Armond’s coat, tie, trousers, and underpants, “we just cut away everything not-Brad. In your case, that’s 29%. You’ll require only short-term disability to complete the process, with minimal scarring. You probably won’t even have to dip into your vacation leave.”
He closes the closet door. The Braderator revs up like a lawnmower as the razor chandelier descends and spins. Like a carwash, if the carwash were made from surgical steel and the car were made of meat.
As the blades in his throat extend and spin, Armond thinks perhaps he should’ve taken his chances at the races. But by the time the Internal Braderator works deep enough for real regret to set in, his worries have been cut away, along with everything else not-Brad.
Author’s Note: My friend Vylar Kaftan is something of a wizard with titles, and she once challenged me to write a story using the title “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles.” I did, and the story went on to earn critical acclaim and an Otherwise Award Honor List placement. A few years later, she joked that I should write a follow-up called “The Day Fair for Guys Becoming Middle Managers.” Not being one to pass up another Vylar challenge, I wrote this piece in a single sitting. It captures for me the phenomenon you get in really dysfunctional workplaces, where you find yourself doing increasingly bizarre stuff because your workplace culture normalizes it–something that has only become more true for the whole world during the pandemic, where many of us suddenly find ourselves asked to submit to breathtaking personal risks at the request of our employers.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
Content note(click for details)Content note: discussion of suicide
He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.
Members of staff were gazing at him as if he was a violation of this refined space, a drifting smell or spreading stain. Conscious of their eyes on his back, he pretended an interest in the products on offer. He studied the blades, stroked the rough ropes and tapped the wooden frames. Nodding to himself and muttering, he tried to broadcast a message, to somehow radiate his intention to return another day, maybe tomorrow or next week, and purchase a model. In the meantime he was browsing, testing, and yes, he was sincere and innocent, a real customer.
His random passage took him in a circle that consisted of epicycles, a meandering path that perhaps resembled the rolling of lopped heads in some idealised schematic of brutality. At last a tall man approached. They were all tall on this floor, these members of staff, horribly tall as they stood in their unexpected corners, but the altitude of this one was especially remarkable. And yet he wore a coat too long for his body. His posture was rigid, beyond militaristic, and his moustache bristled, but then he smiled and made a little bow, as if he was sniffing a bowl of soup.
The others were watching carefully. There were no customers on this floor apart from him, just staff members, and it was clear the extra tall man was the floorwalker, that he could cover the distances necessary in next to no time at all with his long legs, that he was feared by his colleagues. Within that fear was awe, and nested in the awe was love, but more fear underpinned the love. These secret layers of regard were the geological strata of a commercial tyrant, as difficult to erode as the igneous slabs of a towering sea stack bathed in spray at high tide.
But they were far from the ocean now. This department store was located in a city in a landlocked country, and the land undulated with hills all around, not waves. Then the floorwalker clasped his hands theatrically.
“May I be of assistance, monsieur?” he asked in an accent that was so courteously forbidding that the syllables of his words were like crumbs of biscuits too durable to dissolve in strong tea. “And if not, why not?”
“I’m just browsing today.”
“But what exactly does monsieur have in mind?”
“My name is Mr. Plum.”
“Come now, monsieur, you must have some idea of the particular model you are most interested in? We have every kind of guillotine in stock, the full historical and futurological range. There are the cruder versions that hack and the improved devices that slice. We have long drop and short drop models. Those that catch the blood and others that allow it to trickle or even spray.”
“That’s very helpful.”
“But is it helpful to you, monsieur?”
“My name is Mr. Plum. I was born in this country too. I haven’t yet decided what I need. I’m just browsing, for a friend.”
“For a friend, you say? That strikes me as unusual.”
“For an enemy, I mean.”
“Then it is for yourself you are shopping!”
“Yes, but I wasn’t…”
There was no point arguing. He was out of his depth with this fellow, this utterly lanky floorwalker, a man who was probably never out of his depth anywhere, even while wading across a continental shelf, not that the department store was nearer the ocean now than before. Not enough time had passed for sufficient tectonic activity to take place. Yet it felt as if he had already been trapped here for innumerable years. And now the floorwalker was taking full charge of his destiny, leading him not by the hand but with a form of mercantile magnetism.
Mr. Plum muttered to himself, “I only came into this store for a kettle. I got out of the elevator at the wrong floor, that’s all. I’m reading a book at home, a difficult book. I wanted a coffee break but I don’t have a kettle. I will return to my book when I can. With or without coffee, I’ll read it to the end.”
“Is monsieur troubled?”
“Not at all. No, wait, I want to know where we are going.”
“To browse the products.”
“I see. Yes. That’s your answer, is it?”
“Monsieur stated that he wished to browse. I can facilitate that wish. I am not yet a genie but I have the capability of making some wishes come true. The easy wishes, mostly. Your wish is a very easy one.”
Mr. Plum shrugged. He did this because his shoulders were trembling. The nerves inside his torso were vibrating unbearably. The shrug untied some unwholesome knot and he was well again. Able to walk, to accompany the very tall man, they stopped together next to an apparatus that might have been a grandfather clock rather than a guillotine. And it was explained to him that yes, it told the time as well as lopped off heads. It had been designed for the parlour, for people who still had parlours in their houses, and did monsieur have a parlour too?
“Not really. No, I don’t.”
The look he received was so withering, he added, “Sorry.”
“This way, monsieur!”
They passed squat machines with iron frames and no ornamentation, practical but unlovely, and highly rococo golden devices that soared almost to the ceiling, splendid but equally terrible. They were heading towards a very large guillotine that stood on a platform by itself, like an actor on stage about to recite a monologue. A long wooden ramp connected the lunette of the machine with the lane of a bowling alley. Skittles in the form of little human figures stood and waited for a severed head to roll along and knock them down. Execution as recreation.
“What does monsieur say?”
“It’s too big. It wouldn’t fit in my house.”
“For the garden. An outdoor model. You can sit in a chair and knit while the heads roll down the ramp. Does monsieur knit?”
“Not even cardigans, I’m afraid. And I don’t have a garden.”
“But are you not educated?”
“Of course. I have a university degree.”
“A bachelor’s degree then? Well, that can’t be helped. There are other models to show you. This way, monsieur!”
And they were off again, passing rows of guillotine variants that removed heads with circular blades or blades like the rotors of a propeller. One was simply a perfect replica of a breadknife but enormously magnified and fixed on a pivot to a board as wide as a double bed. Another was a bed, with the blade activated by springs in the mattress. A particularly grotesque version was a giant pair of crimping scissors and Mr. Plum could imagine the muted snip as the blades closed together and left a stump of a neck with bloody corrugated edges.
“Keep going, monsieur.”
“I like the look of the one over there.”
He realised it was a mistake to say this, but he desperately wanted to divert their path away from the hideous coffin-like contraption that stood directly ahead of them, a guillotine that clearly sliced sideways rather than vertically. He didn’t want his body in proximity with such a thing. The one he had pointed out was small and inoffensive in comparison, the sort of contrivance one might keep on a coffee table in the lounge without running the risk of adverse comments from visiting friends. It was like a little cabinet with a door, the blade hidden within.
“Monsieur, this is considered to be a lady’s guillotine. Akin to one of those pearl handled revolvers that ladies keep, or kept, in their handbags. Monsieur! But you are not buying a gift for wife or mistress! You are browsing for yourself. We worked this out using logic only a few minutes ago!”
Mr. Plum spoke thickly, as if congealed blood already clogged his throat. “Perhaps I myself am a wife or mistress. Perhaps.”
The floorwalker arched his lush eyebrows and now they were so high that to reach them for a plucking a woman with tweezers would require an extendable ladder. Or a man with that ladder could conceivably pluck them. It was a modern city, despite its remoteness from the ocean, from the trading networks, from foreign news. For long moments the eyebrows remained up there. He kept his eyes fixed on them. Then they descended soundlessly, at last, and he heaved a sigh of relief, for the floorwalker was smiling. They didn’t descend like blades.
“I understand. You jest. It is for a masque, a fiesta.”
“For one of those, yes.”
“A malign fiesta. In that case, permit me to explain its workings.”
“I grant you permission.”
“You open the door and ask your enemy to smell the interior. Your enemy falls for the deception. They insert their head into the space and inhale. The drop of pressure inside the box then activates a switch that causes the blade to fall. The drop is short, too short for a decapitation. The neck is only partly severed. The victim stands up in surprise and pain. Now the box is attached to his head. He can’t get it off, so you will offer to help. You take hold of it with both hands, a firm grip, and you twist with all your strength. That finishes him off.”
“I see. But what does the inside smell like?”
“Pine resin varnish, monsieur.”
“My name is Mr. Plum.”
“May I suggest that monsieur try it out in the changing room?”
“But I haven’t decided.”
“May I insist that monsieur try it out there?”
The other staff members giggled. They were still standing in their corners, in the alcoves and niches of the walls. He licked his lips. Ought he to make a run for it? But it was futile. The long legs of those man-spiders would catch up with him, they would converge on his fleeing form from all directions. He was doomed that way. The only chance he had was to continue the charade and somehow come out the far end in one piece. He shrugged again, nodded and lifted his hands in mock surrender. The echoes of the giggles faded away. Silence reigned.
Swooping on the box with his long arms, the floorwalker snatched it up in gnarled and massive palms and conveyed it to the nearest changing room. Mr. Plum followed in his wake, pulled along on invisible strings.
The curtains in front of the changing room were dyed the brightest of pulsating reds. But the floorwalker swept them aside and ushered him inside, then he placed the guillotine on the coffee table that was the only item of furniture in the oval room. He departed and closed the curtains after him and Mr. Plum was left alone with his anxiety and his imminent death. He turned to examine his reflection in the mirror, but there was no mirror. There was a screen on which shapes flickered. They were a projection but he was unable to locate the projector.
The shapes achieved greater clarity, came into full focus. And now sounds rose all about him from hidden loudspeakers. The baying of a mob. The shapes were figures of men and women, those who had come to watch a public execution. It was only an illusion, but it unnerved him. He wondered if he ought to thrust his head into the box and hold his breath for a minute, then withdraw and claim the apparatus was broken. Hadn’t the floorwalker told him it was operated by the breath of the victim? But that would only buy him a little time, not enough.
The alternative was really to cut off his own head and have done with it. His body resisted this option, he felt nauseous. What should he do? Remain in this room until after closing time and then hope to sneak out when the staff were gone? But he wasn’t sure the floorwalker ever left the department, or even had a home to go to. It seemed implausible. Then an audacious idea came to Mr. Plum. Picking up the box and turning on his heel, he pushed his way through the curtains without parting them. He looked neither to left or right but marched out briskly.
With his best attempt at a confident voice, he stopped before the floorwalker and said, “Yes, it works perfectly fine. I’ll take it.”
“Monsieur actually tried it?”
“Of course I did.”
“And the result for monsieur was?”
“It’s just what I need.”
“But… but did monsieur follow my instructions?”
“To the smallest detail.”
“You pushed your head into the box and breathed in.”
“Yes. Then the blade fell.”
“And it cut off your head? But I don’t see…”
“It didn’t cut it off entirely. No. I had to twist the box around several times before that happened. Then I knew it was a good device and I picked up my head and put it back on my neck. I wish to buy it.”
“Well now. Does monsieur want it gift wrapped?”
“No need. I’ll take it as it is.”
The floorwalker lifted his immensely long arms and let them drop again and this gesture was one of the deepest disappointment. The tall men in corners and alcoves groaned in unison. Mr. Plum reached for his wallet. He was acutely aware that all eyes were probing his bare neck, searching for the join, for the mark. Not finding it, they would grow suspicious very rapidly, but he might well be out of here before they had time to stop him. It was just a question of finding the elevator. Or maybe there was a flight of emergency stairs somewhere near?
“How much is it?”
“One large and tarnished penny, monsieur.”
“I only have a florin.”
“We don’t have change in the till.”
“Do you even have a till? No, don’t answer that! Keep the change. Keep it until it does change. Until you change.”
“Monsieur is very generous. Very wise.”
“And the way out?”
The floorwalker pointed in two different directions with two of his long arms and Mr. Plum went in a third direction, clutching his guillotine and whistling, but his breath came in shuddering gasps and even when he saw that he was indeed heading straight for the elevator doors his lungs still rasped against his ribcage and every step was an ordeal. But no one followed him. He had won. He pressed the red wall button and the door opened immediately. Then he stepped inside and it closed. He stood to attention, wondering if this box was a guillotine too.
No, it wasn’t. The elevator descended to the ground floor. He stepped out and left the department store. It was early evening already. As soon as he stood in the street, a smile formed on his face and he uttered the words, “I’m free.” The nearest tram stop was only a short distance away. He caught a tram back to his own district, walked for fifteen minutes to his apartment block, tramped up the stairs to the level on which he resided. He placed the guillotine on the floor, groped for his key and opened the door, then picked up the box and carried it inside.
The kitchen was a melancholy place. It still had no kettle. He found space for the guillotine on the counter next to the blender.
Then he went into his study to resume reading a book, the book he had abandoned halfway through, the difficult book. It was the oldest book he owned and he couldn’t recall how it had come into his possession. He sat at his desk and frowned. The words on the page no longer made sense. Even the individual letters were incomprehensible. They resembled bubbles within bubbles. He flicked through the volume rapidly. The same script filled every page. The language the book was written in must have gone extinct while he was shopping in the store.
That did sometimes happen. But what bad timing! What was the solution, if any? He turned his head in the direction of the kitchen. Surely an extinct man was the kind of man who would be able to read an extinct language with ease? But suicide was a drastic action to take for the sake of finishing a book, one he hadn’t found especially entertaining even when he was able to understand it. A desire to chop the book in two overwhelmed him. “I’m not free at all,” he told himself as he stood and wandered out of the study. “None of us can ever be that.”
Author’s Note: The belief that a complete story can grow from a small seed, from just one idea or something even smaller than an idea, an image, a remark, or in this case a pun that just popped into my mind one day for no reason, ‘Are you Being Severed?’ And the moment I had those words I had the story entire. It grew in my mind with an inevitability that seems to have little to do with any conscious effort on my part. Watching the still unwritten story unfold in my mind was like watching the spreading of a pool of water from an upset jug. It just formed a pattern, the pattern it couldn’t help but form. Then it was merely a case of me setting down in words that story and its pattern. I also wanted to see if it was possible to include the sorts of allusions and puns that many readers feel lessens a story’s impact in such a way that the impact isn’t lessened at all. I wanted to find out if such tricks might even enhance the impact. That is how this story came into being.
Rhys Hughes was born in Wales. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published fifty other books, more than nine hundred short stories, and innumerable articles. He graduated as an engineer but now works as a tutor of mathematics. His most recent book is an epic poem, The Meandering Knight, and he is currently working on a collection of experimental stories to be called Comfy Rascals. His blog may be found at http://rhysaurus.blogspot.com
TRANSCRIPT: Dark kitchen, grainy. Camera, low resolution, is pointed at a cooking range with dented skillet resting on it. Both are crusted with food and what appears to be rust. The stovetop paint is flaking off in layers. Over the side of the skillet, a lump which appears to have hair in it is visible. A black sheet has been draped across the counter behind the cooking range. After a moment of rustling, it becomes apparent that hands in black gloves have been in view.
It is unclear if the voice has been dubbed over, but likely belongs to the person cooking. Voice is soft, whispery, and barely audible over the snap of the flame. Audio peaks often.
VOICE: I really— hello. I find cooking videos soothing to watch, so I— I decided to make one of my own. I hope that— I hope that you find it soothing too. To start, I—
The speaker fumbles with the pan. There is a glimpse of stained, cuffed sleeves.
VOICE: I have to make a lot of food, so this pan isn’t— it’s not the best one I could have picked, ah… I’ve done it wrong already.
A hiss. The pan is removed and replaced with a pot. The contents are not visible but slosh when the pot is moved.
VOICE: So— so… let’s start with… an easy thing everyone likes to eat. It—it’s soup. Don’t— don’t criticize me.
The speaker retreats. Chopping is audible offscreen while the speaker continues.
VOICE: In the… you have to sauté it to soften it, but I’m afraid it, er… it’s only gotten harder. That’s… that’s all right. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a stew.
There is a nervous laugh.
VOICE: Oh, it’s— it’s a bone. Here.
There is a thump, and crackle. The pot rattles and begins to bubble over.
VOICE: Then we add it to the— to— it’s boiling— wait—
The camera is knocked to the side, tilting the video. A handful of lump is crumbled into the pot, which causes the liquid to spill over the edges and splash across the stovetop. There is a hissed exclamation and the video terminates abruptly.
VIDEO TITLE: I have to cook a lot so I made another video.
DESCRIPTION: The last video was hard to see. I’m sorry.
TRANSCRIPT: The camera has been moved to above the stove. The video appears to sway in a way that suggests that the camera is suspended rather than mounted. There is a strong light to the right of the video, but the left is in strong shadow. A glistening oil can sits below the light. The dented skillet from the first video sits on the bottom right burner, by the oil.
VOICE: Good— morning. I watched the last one and … this is better now. I’m not— I don’t want to make soup. Today it’s a … gnocchi.
Rustling. With both hands, white pellets are poured into the skillet. They continue to move after being poured into the skillet.
VOICE: These are ones I grew myself, so they’re— you know they’re fresh.
With both hands, the speaker hoists the can and gingerly pours oil into the skillet. While the oil is poured, static and audio distortion increases.
VOICE: The oil keeps— it keeps the can from rusting, so I cover it often… stop it!
The speaker bumps the skillet with their arm, knocking it over. The pellets crawl in all directions after they are spilled.
VOICE: Don’t you understand this is import—
The camera swings wildly. For two frames a thin white hand with too many fingers is visible grasping the black sheet behind the stove before the video terminates.
VIDEO TITLE: Unboxing at home. Fun
DESCRIPTION: I made an unboxing. It is a surprise that I haven’t seen unboxed before. There wasn’t anything at the end of the other video. Please don’t leave rude responses I will see them.
TRANSCRIPT: The camera, tilted, is fixed on a damp cardboard box tied with a string. There are no visible maker or mailing marks on the box. One corner is crumpled in; that corner is stained black. The stain is spreading across the counter, which appears to be the kitchen counter. The lighting is even, but deeply yellow. A tapping which has been audible since the beginning of the video ceases.
VOICE: Hello. I… the cooking was… I will practice so it isn’t so disappointing. Thank you. Today is an unboxing, I…
The speaker reaches into view, and places gloved hands on the box. The speaker appears to be wearing the same stained button-up shirt as in the video ‘Easy cooking for the family.’
VOICE: This is the box… first I untie it…
The speaker fumbles with the string until it comes undone.
VOICE: And then… it’s sealed with… with tape, which I have to cut… I wonder what’s inside? What could have been sent to me?
A nervous, whispery laugh. A kitchen knife with nicked blade is used to saw the box open. There does not appear to be tape holding the flaps together.
VOICE: This is… the hard part because it really has to… hold still. There.
The knife is placed to the left of the box. The speaker gingerly opens the flaps and reaches inside.
VOICE: Now it’s exciting. Aren’t you excited…?
The speaker pulls out a glass jar. The contents are black. White objects float inside. The speaker is excited; their voice pitches up.
VOICE: Oh! It’s my teeth!
The speaker holds the jar closer to the camera. A black fluid runs down the jar from a large crack near the lid. The speaker is audibly disappointed.
VOICE: Oh… it’s leaking…
The hands pull back and footsteps are heard leading away from the microphone. After a full minute of silence, the footsteps return and the video terminates.
VIDEO TITLE: Organic gnocchi garden.
DESCRIPTION: It is not a creepy video. It is filmed in my house please stop asking. It is my house. Please stop asking where my house is. It is a private house.
TRANSCRIPT: The voiceover begins immediately. The camera is held at an average shoulder-height, moving down a dim hall lined with wooden slats. The ceiling is low and does not have light fixtures. The construction style is of the early 1900s.
VIDEO: I had— many people— ah, who asked about the gnocchi. Of course it was good, it’s not… I don’t know what… is that—
Nothing changes in the hallway, but the progression stops.
VOICE: …there isn’t anything. It doesn’t matter, here we are.
The speaker turns, and the camera faces a door the same color as the hall. The speaker, wearing black gloves, fumbles with the door. When the door is opened, a buzzing is audible. The speaker fumbles with a pull string.
VOICE: I keep it in the dark. They said it’s a favorite. It took me a while to figure this out but it isn’t too hard…
The light comes on with a click. The camera sways close to a large. blackening ribcage, mostly stripped of flesh. It appears to be the remains of a cow or pig.
VOICE: Here. And… sorry, I have to open it… a bit strong… ah, if I had another hand— ha ha—
The camera dips as the speaker turns the carcass to face the camera. Black spots buzz across and the speaker hisses and waves them away. A large white blob is visible. After a moment the camera focuses as the speaker pushes it closer. The white is a chest full of writhing maggots. A fly lands on the camera, blotting out half of the video. The voice sounds relieved.
VOICE: And that’s the— my indoor garden.
VIDEO TITLE: f
TRANSCRIPT: The camera swings unsteadily over a pot of yellow oil. There is the sound of shallow breathing for eleven seconds before the video abruptly terminates.
VIDEO TITLE: fryung with mushrooms
DESCRIPTION: im ok
[A significant amount of hard returns seperate the first two words from the following text:]
I SAW YOU THIS IS YOUR LASRT WARNING STP SNREAKING ARIUBD MY HIUSE
TRANSCRIPT: There is swinging and as the camera is fixed into place above the stovetop. A large pot is visible; it is filled with bubbling oil. The hands withdraw from the camera before the speaker begins.
VOICE: Today we are going to fry some mushrooms. Um… I found a bunch of them recently…
There is rustling and the speaker holds a porcelain tray up to the camera. On the tray are several mushrooms trailing mycelium. Alongside the mushrooms are lumps that appear to be covered in fuzz.
VOICE: Since it wasn’t very interesting and I don’t know how to do the video skip, I took the oil to boil while I wasn’t recording. I’m sorry if you wanted to see it. I turned it up to the highest setting until it boiled…
The tray tilts and the contents slide into the oil. As the lump hits, there is a pop and sizzle. Oil bursts across the stove and tray. The speaker yanks back with a startled inhalation, jostling the camera. The tray is pulled away. There is the sound of it being set down off-camera.
VOICE: —ah, and then we, and then we wait for it to finish.
There is a forty-second pause in speaking. The camera is set back into its original position.
VOICE: I know how long it’s supposed to cook. Until it…
The contents of the pot blacken as the oil continues to boil.
There is rustling off-screen.
VOICE [mumbled]: Oh, no.
A hand rests on the side of the stove.
VOICE: I forgot the tool to take it out with…
There is a pause. The speaker hesitates over the boiling pot before plunging their hand into the pot. There is a shrill scream. The camera is knocked spinning. The video terminates.
VIDEO TITLE: Cooking with a roast beef.
DESCRIPTION: Thank you for concern. Today we will cook a roast beef. Please know I did not disturb the gnocchi for this roast.
TRANSCRIPT: The camera is pointed at the oven. The door is open, and the interior is blackened. From the color, grime, and lighting it seems to be the same stove as in previous videos. The speaker’s voice is audible from what seems to be behind the camera.
VOICE: I wanted to show— oh. Hello. Today we’re going to… cook a roast. A… a roast beast. Beef.
With a scraping noise, a rusty metal tray is pushed into view. It is held by an unsteady, bandaged hand. On top of the tray are three chunks of rib bone. The shriveled meat on the ribs is tinged green.
VOICE: I… er, I cut the beef… and now it’s on the plate. So the plate goes into the oven, which is hot… I turned it to, er, to [inaudible] degrees… please be careful with hot things. Though it doesn’t— it doesn’t hurt too much, so don’t worry. Thank you.
The speaker slides the tray into the oven, and then carefully closes the oven door. Though there is a glass window, the inside is not visible due to a combination of filth and lack of light. The video continues to record the oven for several hours without interruption.
Nothing changes in the video until 3:41:53, when there is a distant noise of glass breaking and a light flickers. At 4:08:03 there is a muffled scrape and thump, and a possible second voice with an indistinct exclamation. At 4:15:47 there is a metallic shriek, a series of loud bangs, and shouting, speaker undetermined. The shouting ends abruptly with a damp thud. The camera shakes slightly and is not reoriented.
The video continues without note until 5:32:11, when the oven begins to emit smoke, and at 5:46:23 there is a brief flare of red before the ribs visibly catch flame at 5:52:09. The fire continues, smoke obscuring the image, until there is the sound of loud footsteps approaching at a run. The oven door is yanked open.
VOICE [out of breath]: And— and that’s a —
Violent coughing. The video terminates.
VIDEO TITLE: How to fix a broken window.
DESCRIPTION: A window is broken so I am going to fix it.
The video is clearer, though still filmed at low resolution. The camera is tilted back in view of a broken window. Large shards of glass remain in the splintering frame. The sky is an overcast grey. Shuffling comes from behind the camera before a throat is cleared.
VOICE: Good— good morning. Today is— a window is broken. That’s… that’s not good. Because it goes outside. So anyone could get out. Or … or in. A-anyway. I have… household…
The speaker shakily holds a staple gun in front of the camera with bandaged hand.
VOICE: I tried to sew it, but… the needle broke. And the other thing we needed was… fabric. That you have around the house. Please— please remember, this is a private residence. Okay.
The staple gun is removed and a large piece of translucent, pale fabric, notably marked with brown stains, is held in front of the camera. With rustling, the speaker’s gloved hand holds the fabric up to the window frame. The staple gun is brought up to the gloved hand, and there is over six seconds of hesitation.
VOICE: Oh… shoot.
A third hand, in an ill-fitting black glove, slides into view from the far side of the window. It holds the fabric against the frame.
VOICE: Ah, and then you… just staple it, like this. And like this… over a bit… down…
As they speak, the speaker erratically staples the fabric to the windowframe until the fabric is stretched completely across. It has ragged edges and hangs loosely. The amount of light is greatly diminished. All hands retreat from the frame.
VOICE: Until it’s done. So you can’t just get out.
The speaker’s gloved hand comes back into view, pushing against the fabric with two fingers, outward; it stretches with the pressure, though it is not elastic.
VOICE: Now you can… um… see through it, but not go through it. Ow!
The speaker yanks their hand back, evidently having pricked a finger on the glass. A dark spot remains on the fabric. There is a hiss and whimper before the speaker continues, subdued.
Video begins mid-sentence. The speaker’s voice is distressed and nearly inaudible. The camera is close to a skillet, at an angle. The stove appears to have been cleaned, though it is still crusted with rust and stains. The oil can is on the stove, near the skillet. In the corner of the video is the side of a large pot, with what appears to be plastic melted to the side. There is a white plate with a cut of meat about the size of a thigh ham on it; the meat is resting in a pool of bright red juices. The meat appears fresh. There is a several-second pause before the speaker begins again with a shivered inhalation.
VOICE: Hello, um, today I’m making a… sauté. Ah, I… I don’t like it when anything goes to waste, so I try to use all of it… ah… well, so we’re going to bruise in a skillet.
The speaker picks up the oil can with difficulty and coats the surface of the skillet in oil. While both hands are gloved, a bandage is visible around the wrist of the right hand.
VOICE: The skillet is— it’s already on. So the— oil is so it doesn’t stick.
A nervous laugh. The oil can slips from their grip, splashing oil across the stovetop and meat. The can is shoved out of sight.
VOICE: Then— um— then — salt—
The speaker picks a glass container from offscreen and fumbles with it, dropping it; the meat is covered in a pile of fine salt. There is a sharp intake of breath. The container is snatched from the plate.
VOICE: It’s fine. It’s fine. You’re supposed to— to have it sit in the salt anyway. It’s not bad now. I should cook it and it will be fine. It’s good. It’s good to not be wasteful. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just put it in the skillet so you can cook it.
A muffled click offscreen. The speaker picks up the meat and places it onto the skillet. They yank their hand away from the pop and sizzle of oil.
VOICE: Ah— then it’s— two minutes. Just two minutes.
There is a pause of 3:06 while the meat begins to smoke. From this point on the video is somewhat obscured by smoke. The sounds of breathing are audible under the cooking. At 3:49 the speaker very quickly flips the meat over with their hand, then shoves the skillet aside and places the plate atop the burner. The blackened meat is dropped onto the plate, splashing juice across the stovetop.
VOICE: Then it… it’s done. And you… you get to eat it. So that’s good, it’s very, it’s delicious, savor it.
The speaker’s hands return to frame with a fork and knife spotted with white and brown stains. They cut into the meat, shakily piecing out a chunk which is stabbed and lifted out of frame. There is the sound of chewing, followed by a choke and retching. The plate is knocked aside, into the pot, which topples, spilling brown liquid across the stovetop. The contents of the pot roll into view. Fused to the inside of the pot is a melted white shopping bag with distorted THANK YOU written across it in red. Within the bag is a swollen, pink lump with finger- or toenails.
The thin sound of sobbing.
The video terminates.
The channel was removed shortly following upload of the ninth video.
A woman takes the subway most mornings. She wears bold, bright colours. She curls her hair. She is beautiful, smooth, and human, and her skin is flush with veins and her veins are flush with life. Bone Pile watches her go from its place in the storm drain, a backlog of washed-up parts and autumn leaves and trash. The woman always arrives when the hands on the clock across the street are pointing at certain angles. Some days Bone Pile is lucky and she walks past its resting place twice.
The woman cuts down the street in her high-heeled shoes and descends to St. Patrick Station with her blood-red lipstick and victory rolls. The flare of her skirts and the streak of her eyeliner remind Bone Pile of a bygone era, not that it knows what a bygone era is. But something about her feels like home. Like a place Bone Pile can still remember.
It has to meet her.
But in order to meet her, it must rebuild itself. For years it has rattled through gutters and drains, scuttling through tunnels and pipes to avoid the wary eyes of humans. To escape the glare of the sun. So few of its original parts are left, and it does not know where on its journey it even lost them.
Some time ago, Bone Pile tumbled down into this place, washed through gutter after gutter until enough pieces tumbled inside to lodge in this grate. This gave Bone Pile, for the first time in decades, a view to the outside world. The world has changed since Bone Pile walked alive upon it, and in what remains of its brain, Bone Pile attempts to reconcile the fragments of its memories with this too-new too-fast too-bright reality.
Bone Pile waits until dark. Then, with a shudder, it stretches free of the plastered wads of leaves and newspaper that have cocooned it to the storm drain’s wall. The flaky stuff peels away, cracking, and with a creak and a flex Bone Pile uncurls. It is a slithering length of vertebrae woven through with old hair and garbage, curls of ribcage clinging stubbornly amid the mess. Its jaw flaps uselessly, the mandible swaying low and detached from what remains of its caved-in skull. Four cracked knuckles grip and twitch as it tests its strength.
Bone Pile needs another hand.
Out into the dark and silent street it sends its seeking ribs. Twisted together with knots of rotted cloth, its ribcage scuttles spider-like out into the night. Bone Pile watches it go. Each skittering step the ribs take saps more energy from Bone Pile until it slouches, exhausted, resting its cracked and battered brow against the concrete. Go, it tells its ribs. I will be here when you return.
Ribcage is careful as it creeps across the asphalt. It remembers the time it strayed too close to living eyes. The shrieks, the stomps, the feeling of being disarticulated and kicked to pieces by a frenzied, terrified human.
Discarded in a gutter, fabric shredded by the wind, lies an umbrella. Ribcage feels along its aluminium fingers, testing the strength of its joints. It delights at the spring and snap of the hinge mechanism that pops the umbrella open, the squeal of metal as it bends.
This will do.
Bone Pile strokes Ribcage with its remaining fingers after Ribcage drags the umbrella home. With patience, it peels the fabric into strips and binds its sagging joints. It assimilates the material, strains against it, testing the bounds of its supports. Cracking the umbrella’s metal frame, breaking it down into its base parts, it sheathes metal rods into its skeleton, twisting them just so, sliding them up and in past rubber-band tendons and bottle cap joints.
Bone Pile curls against itself, nestling among the newspapers, and sleeps. Sleep will knit its new body together, and when it wakes it will be stronger.
For the next four days, the woman with the blood-red lips does not appear. It has been so long since Bone Pile was alive that it does not miss life, but it finds it misses her.
Over those four chilly autumn nights, Bone Pile prepares. It gathers more into itself: the cracked remnants of a push-broom make a serviceable leg, woven through with bungee cords salvaged from a dumpster. It can crawl through the pipes with ease now, broadening its search for new pieces, so that when the woman returns it will be ready.
At the bottom of a plunging sewer shaft, it discovers scattered metatarsals and the fractured halves of a kneecap. Bone Pile cradles the patella in its new, creaky-umbrella hand and wonders:
Was this a part of me?
It is now.
When the woman with the blood-red lips finally returns, Bone Pile shudders with relief. The hands on the clock say the right time now, and it now remembers what those hands mean: eight twenty. She is wearing a brilliant purple peacoat. The wool of it looks soft. Bone Pile longs to touch it. It drags its scratchy push-broom foot along the tunnel wall, rasping, and a thought occurs in the remnants of its mind: Her clothes are beautiful. Bone Pile needs clothes.
The clothes that find their way into Bone Pile’s domain will not do. Their colours are drab, faded by sun and drowned in sewage. This far below ground, everything seems to end up brown. Bone Pile needs eyes that can see more colours than brown, so it gorges itself on rats and strings together a garland of their nerves, tiny eyeballs peeking every which way, and dons them as a crown. It can see in all directions now.
Come sundown, Bone Pile shivers up to the streets.
The best place to find human clothing is on humans.
Humans have hurt Bone Pile before, but it does not want to hurt them. It rasps its way free of the storm drain, levering slowly on its newfound joints until it can hunch in against itself, a protective crouch. There are no humans in sight.
Seeking with its many newfound eyes, Bone Pile comes across a human who seems to be resting. She leans against the door of a car, speaking loudly to someone unseen. She is wearing a charcoal-coloured raincoat and a plush blue plaid scarf. The wool of the scarf looks so soft that Bone Pile momentarily both remembers and misses what it feels like to have skin.
Bone Pile is certain it remembers how to speak. It will ask the woman for her coat and her scarf.
“TSSSSSSSSSSSSSS,” hisses Bone Pile from its semblance of a mouth.
The woman looks up. For a moment she stares, as if she cannot quite comprehend what she is seeing, then she screams until she’s out of voice. Bone Pile reaches out, an attempt to assure the woman that it means her no harm. Its fingers just barely touch the woollen yarn of that bright blue scarf and the moment of contact sends the woman into a spasm of motion.
Still screaming, the gurgling inner-workings of a human throat too complicated for Bone Pile, she thrashes free of those comforting hands and stumbles off down the street. She screams the word “MONSTER” into the glowing box she holds inside her hand. A voice rattles back, too far away to understand, and it sounds like the radio.
Radio. Bone Pile remembers the radio. Voices and music carried from far-away places to its waiting ears, ears that could once hold earrings and whispers both. Somewhere there’s music, how faint the tune.
The scarf dangles from Bone Pile’s fingers. It did not mean to scare her.
As it turns to shuffle home, Bone Pile catches sight of itself in the side mirror of the car. The tangled, tufted skull, the dangling toothless jaw, the coronet of eyes. Bone Pile needs a better face. It snaps the mirror from the car with a single twist of its umbrella-hinge hand and clambers downward, toward home. It thinks about radio as it collapses into sleep.
Radio wasn’t always yelling voices that sounded far away. Sometimes, radio was the crack of a baseball bat and the sounds of thousands cheering. During the best times, radio was music.
Bone Pile feels ready. It does not internalize the word monster. It refuses. It internalizes music. Or perhaps it simply remembers. Les Paul and Mary Ford. The Tennessee Waltz. Elvis Presley. Those words rattle in its head like a handful of loose teeth.
The next time it sees the woman with blood-red lips, Bone Pile will say hello.
When it finally sees her, the shiver that quakes through Bone Pile is almost enough to dislodge a couple bottle caps. But it straightens itself out. It curls its fingers, digging at the wall in an attempt to soothe its anxiety. Nerves roil where its stomach might once have been. Fluttering blinks strobe down its crown of eyes. Bone Pile adjusts the scarf about its throat, covers its half-hinged jaw, and takes a moment to trace its bony phalanges over its newly-acquired face.
Bone Pile shuffles to the storm drain, watching the woman’s feet. Today she is wearing neon orange heels that click-clack pleasantly with her every step, and the sound of it is music to Bone Pile’s sensory organs.
It seeks its feelers out through the grate to greet her.
“TSSSSSSSSSSSSS,” hisses Bone Pile.
The woman keeps walking. She doesn’t even look down.
She walks right past the grate as if she hadn’t heard a thing.
Something cracks in Bone Pile’s chest, near where it has built itself a sternum from an old bicycle seat. Bone Pile remembers this part of being alive: the sting of rejection, the cold creeping loneliness of going unnoticed. Of trying and being ignored.
Bone Pile needs a voice.
Bone Pile finds its voice in a human’s purse. A couple of them sit, drunk, on a curb. They’re mashing their mouths together, hands wandering places that hands wouldn’t have gone in public back when Bone Pile was a human, and frustration tightens the hitches of Bone Pile’s bungee cords and whistles through its empty throat like steam through a kettle. It surges at them, wailing, frustrated, but the hollow tube of its debris oesophagus merely hisses air.
Horrified, screaming, the humans stumble away in such a hurry that they leave all their belongings behind.
Bone Pile sinks atop the things they’ve left, subsuming them. It feeds on half-finished hamburgers left in two brown paper bags: meat and carbohydrates and paper, a rich feast of proteins. It gropes its human bone fingers through the woman’s handbag, exploring the interior, the many shapes inside that are familiar yet not.
Down the pipes, lurking out of sight, Bone Pile weaves itself a set of vocal cords from dental floss. It jingles a set of keys in its umbrella-claw fingers, remembering what keys felt like in a human appendage. Keys lead to places. Keys open things.
Bone Pile remembers walking through a door. A man was waiting on the other side. Bone Pile was so excited to meet him. A stirring of excitement it has never felt for anyone but the woman with blood-red lips.
Bone Pile may be a monster, but more and more these days, it remembers when it was not.
“How high the moon… is the name of the song… how high the moon.” Bone Pile sings, the minty fresh twang of its dental floss voice like the crunch of dry leaves underfoot.
Bone Pile cannot work up the nerve to sing to the woman when it first sees her. Too much morning. Too much light. Too many others that might see. It lets her walk past. If she takes the subway home that evening, today will be the day. Something inside its dregs gives a nervous quiver and it shivers up from the storm drain and down a nearby alley, waiting.
The sky has long since grown dark when Bone Pile spots the woman once more. She walks up from St Patrick Station in that brilliant purple coat again, and before Bone Pile can contain itself, it’s jingling the keys to get her attention. Its hand trembles, eager, and she jerks her head toward the sound.
From aboveground. Bone Pile can see all of her. She is more than beautiful–she is colour and sound and life. From the click of her heels to the red of her lips, she’s like a glimpse into a past that Bone Pile only just now understands it had.
“H-hello,” Bone Pile whispers.
The woman squints. She can’t quite see into the alley, recessed from streetlamps as it is. She takes a couple steps forward. Bone Pile shivers. Please don’t let her be afraid.
“Is someone there?”
Bone Pile has not had a human conversation in forty years. Bone Pile was never good at conversations to begin with. It remembers tense afternoons at home, silently working in the kitchen, praying its husband would keep to himself. Bone Pile had a husband.
“I’m here,” it wheezes. It reaches for her. Reaches for a vision of itself that it had forgotten.
Oh no. No. She’s screaming just like the others. Bone Pile stammers, shuffling back–it knows not to chase her, even as it aches to reassure her. The woman parts her blood-red mouth but no sound comes out. Her soft-looking skin goes pale.
“Please,” Bone Pile stammers. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t—”
But by the time it says “hurt you” she has run off down the street. She screams more, and each scream twists through Bone Pile like a knife. Bone Pile remembers in an abstract way that it knows exactly how it feels to be stabbed. How it had real organs once, and under the right hand they shredded so easily.
Slinking, dejected, back toward home, Bone Pile does not look up. It does not realise the woman’s screams have drawn attention.
“What the fuck—” A human man stands there in the alley’s mouth. Bone Pile has run right into him. Either he is not so scared or he channels his fear in a way the others do not, because instead of running he charges.
Bone Pile is swept off its feet as the man tackles it to the ground. The impact is shattering. Knucklebones rattle away along the sidewalk. Bone Pile’s rat-eye crown slips sideways and it goes blind.
The man strikes at it by reflex and when his fists collide with Bone Pile’s body, parts fly free in a shower of detritus. The bicycle seat tumbles free of Bone Pile’s chest. The dental floss frays. With a horrified groan, Bone Pile attempts to wriggle loose. The man seems to realize what he’s just put his fists into, because his voice rises into a shrill wail of terror too, and for a moment he and Bone Pile are screaming together.
He swings again and this time his fist connects with Bone Pile’s shiny new face, the special face it built just for today. The glass of the car side-mirror shatters. Blood erupts from the man’s knuckles. He jerks back, stunned, and this is when Bone Pile can make its escape.
Lurching sideways with all its might, Bone Pile tries to drag itself toward the storm drain. Its legs are tangled with the man’s, so it twists the remnants of its spine and leaves them behind. The push-broom clatters lifeless to the ground.
Shivering uncontrollably, its consciousness made animal by fear, Bone Pile retreats into the darkness of the sewers. So far from many of its parts, it grows sluggish. It can no longer see the same way that it could, missing its borrowed eyes. It feels its way deep into the dark and settles into a pool of putrid water. The flow of sewage seeps through the hole cracked in Bone Pile’s skull and it misses the woman and it misses its life and every action comes slower than the last.
Bone Pile is so, so tired.
It is a crisp spring morning, the last grasp of winter not quite having let go. Kelly Chabot stands with her hands in her pockets, staring down the mouth of an alleyway. It leads to the back of a beauty salon. Apart from a dumpster and the cracked and broken remnants of an old broom on the ground, there isn’t much to look at.
She knows exactly how many days it’s been since she saw the creature. And it was a creature, she tells herself. She’s certain. One hundred and forty-nine days ago, a creature tried to lure her into this alley to…
That’s the part she can’t answer. She was certain it was going to kill her with those gnashing metal claws. And the smell. The smell…
But in her dreams she hears its voice. How afraid it sounded. How if anything it sounded like it was pleading with her. How the whole incident had started with a meek and gentle hello.
She took a different route to work for the longest time, but now in the spring sunlight she feels like she can face this place again. And there’s nothing sinister about it at all.
Stepping out of the alley, she looks up and down the road. Sparsely populated this time of day. She turns a look across the street. The bank across the way sports a squat little clock tower which informs her it’s one in the afternoon.
While her eyes are occupied by the clock tower, she trips, foot hitching on a lip of concrete on the sidewalk. She catches herself, arms akimbo, and looks down by reflex.
There in the gutter, the shards of a shattered mirror reflect her wide eyes and her startled, open mouth. Just as that same glass reflected her face when embedded in the horrifying, guts-and-garbage body of that thing. Kelly staggers back from the storm drain, far enough away that she’s out of ankle-grabbing range, but now that she’s come all this way she can’t not look.
She crouches down, cautious, cagey, creeping forward a little at a time and peeking through the half-rotted grate. Then she sees it. She recoils in disgust when she spies a snapped-off piece of what can only be a human jawbone tangled in the leaves and trash.
Kelly does the right thing. She slips her phone out of her pocket and calls the police.
It’s doubtful anyone will ever figure out how Ingrid Martel died, but at least they found enough teeth to identify her by, even if it took almost a year.
Kelly stands outside Batham and Sons Funeral Home in Five Points. There are few cars in the parking lot and the elegant wooden doors are propped invitingly open, as if in silent supplication to passers-by. A plea to fill the pews, to not let this woman’s final procession pass through an empty room.
Ingrid Martel doesn’t have many living relatives. The daughter who submitted her missing persons report died back in ninety-nine. And the more Kelly thinks on it, the more she supposes that even being blood related to Ingrid might mean little to people these days. She vanished so long ago. None of the people inside this building ever met her.
And Kelly doesn’t know her either. So why is she even here?
She can’t explain it. The strange tug she feels in her stomach when she thinks back to that night in the alley, the gleaming metal hand outstretched toward her.
She wants to look inside. She imagines the interior of the funeral home, all warm-toned wood and tasteful flowers. Lilies, maybe. She imagines a portrait of Ingrid in a glossy wooden frame: a blond-curled beauty with a gentle smile and shy eyes. She imagines all this while standing on the street outside because she can’t bear to take that first step through the door.
When she closes her eyes, she sees a hand outstretched toward her own. A hand of snapped-off mangled metal and garbage. It is crazy—it is absolutely stark raving bonkers—to think that Ingrid beckoned her into that alley somehow.
Yet when Kelly steps into the parlour, she can’t stop staring at the coffin. She imagines the bones inside, wonders just how many the police had found.
Author’s Note: The original draft of this story came to be when I was bedridden after a sudden illness. Though it’s ostensibly a story about a weird sludgy trash monster, it was born from my experiences of how odd it felt to move through the world with a newly-acquired autoimmune disease, how nobody seemed to see my body for what it was. Putting on the right clothes and makeup seemed to be enough to completely fool the world, to cloak the reality that my body felt like a handful of disarticulated parts that weren’t working in tandem with one another or functioning properly. When we experience distance from our own bodies, it can be as frightening as something violent befalling them. I’ve since grown into my newly-disabled body and learned to work within its limitations and appreciate that it isn’t lesser or undeserving of dignity, but those first few months were strange and alien and terrifying and writing this story was one of the first steps toward catharsis.
Lucas made the shortlist for two 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand’s highest honour in science fiction and fantasy writing. She took out the win for Best Short Story and her web serial Into the Mire was a finalist for Best Collected Work. website – www.intothemire.com twitter – @CaseyLucasQuaid
Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between November 2009-July 2010. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here.
As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. One of the teenagers, Sam Lesser, escaped from a mental institution and followed them to Lovecraft to try to kill them again, with the assistance of a powerful but mysterious supernatural entity that is connected with Key House, the family estate in Lovecraft.
Key House has a lot of secrets, many of them taking the form of magical keys with incredible powers. More and more of them have been turning up, both to the kids themselves and to the entity that opposes them. It’s a magical arms race with high stakes, where their enemy is more powerful and knows all the rules.
The series continues to be riveting, creepy, and fun. Highly recommended!
Most Horror stories are built on contrivance. In Jaws, a shark that absolutely isn’t native to that region attacks swimmers. How did it get there and why is it behaving this way? Neither Benchley’s novel nor Spielberg’s film cares. Little more effort is put into justifying the mayor and business owners forcing beaches to stay open. Those contrivances are compelling because characters are suddenly in peril they’ve never prepared for and are so vulnerable to.
You can find integral contrivance in stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It can create an eerie sense that things are wrong because characters suddenly lack agency on some important level, or that a pattern of plot events is being broken. It can be your premise, or it can push the plot out of wherever it’s stuck. It’s the thing coming from nowhere – the unjustified jump scare, or needlessly antagonistic bully, and coincidental run-in with a witch.
The problem comes from overuse. Even audiences that don’t know about plot mechanics sense when it happens. There’s an irritation that the story isn’t moving right because event after event isn’t the result of anything they’re invested in.
A great example of this is 2019’s The Lodge, which recently hit streaming platforms including Hulu. The movie’s premise is that a pair of kids and their dad’s new girlfriend get stranded in a lodge and spooky events start happening to them. It’s a perfectly decent premise, right?
The movie begins with the two children’s birth mother committing suicide. The little sister is shattered. The older brother tries to comfort her. It feels like the start of a painful journey for the kids. If you have any parental instincts, you’re ready to care about them.
Then the contrivances hit.
Contrivance 1: There is a six-month time skip.
Time skips usually pull the audience out of a story, but if you haven’t done anything else weird and get the plot moving right away, the audience will adjust. We all adjusted to the beginning of Avengers Endgame, right?
The time skip means we miss the kids’ grieving, coping, and growth. The movie has reset them to not be fully healed, and now they’re mostly anxious and resentful towards their dad. The story is hedging that we have enough residual care for where the kids were before the time skip to still care now.
Contrivance 2: Within one minute of the skip, the dad tells his kids that his girlfriend is coming with them on a ski trip. The kids are hurt by this idea and are in ready-made conflict with the dad.
The movie’s time skip elided all the conflicts in the decision-making. The ski trip isn’t the result of past choices; it’s from nowhere. What the movie has done is skip to a point of conflict without building it up. It’s cheating on narrative. Especially when a story like this has a functional opening, a move like this breaks flow. The hope is that what comes next will justify it.
Next in The Lodge, the kids have to meet the girlfriend. They wait in the car to avoid the social cues of having to greet her. She gets into the car and doesn’t say hi at first. She’s nervous, too, which feels valid. The dad will have to break the ice for them.
Contrivance 3: The dad gets a phone call and leaves them in the car.
Who called? It’s barely mentioned and doesn’t reflect anything else in the plot. He was basically called by the screenplay.
The call is a contrivance to make this scene as awkward as possible. It’s a redundant contrivance since the kids and girlfriend were already awkward. Now it’s just super awkward.
Since it comes close to other recent plot contrivances, it’s easy for this moment to feel forced and grating. This is the compound contrivance effect. The more things that feel unearned, the testier your audience will get.
That night the kids poke into their dad’s computer and reveal the girlfriend’s backstory: she is the survivor of a suicide cult. Part of why she’s so awkward is that she has enormous unresolved trauma.
You might call this an infodump and accuse it of contrivance, but it isn’t really contrived. The kids are using their agency to pursue believable curiosity about this woman who is basically a stranger. What they’ve learned complicates the plot. This is utterly different than arbitrarily jumping forward six months.
Further, the girlfriend is now much more interesting because of the revelation. This sets her up as a trauma victim. When the movie shows her unpacking medication, it’s meaningful to us. With its characters set up, it feels like the movie is finally about to start and we’ll get that scary goodness. We’re ready for chills rather than just awkwardness.
Contrivance 4: In a bold choice, the movie switches POV to the girlfriend.
She isn’t a co-POV. The kids are suddenly supporting characters in her story. On the one hand she’s a fish out of water and mentally ill, so she’s supposed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, if the audience has been attached to anyone it is the kids, and it’s a huge writing risk to relegate them behind her after what they’ve already been through. Such a big change after the earlier contrivances makes the story feel janky. It makes you question what story the movie is even trying to tell.
Following the switch, there are a few minutes of scenes building the girlfriend’s tension with the kids. They freeze up when she accidentally wears their mom’s old hat and demand it back.
The dad sees that she’s having a hard time so he decides to do something nice for her. He decides to give her the combination to his safe, shows her his gun, and takes her shooting.
This is neither contrivance nor natural. It’s in-between. His motive makes sense, but why the hell does he think shooting things will make her feel at home? It’s so brazenly a Chekhov’s Gun scenario, except a character is literally pausing the plot and forcing the gun to appear in scene. Thanks to the compound contrivance effect, things that aren’t pure contrivance cause the same irritation.
It underscores that all the contrivances have made the father a plot device rather than a character. Who is this guy? Why does he want these people to go on vacation together? Why isn’t he helping them bond? He’s never unpacked as a character.
Then we find out why.
Contrivance 5: The dad gets a mystery call from whatever job he has and abruptly decides to leave in their only car, leaving his kids and girlfriend with no way to leave the lodge.
So it turns out the story put no thought into the dad character because it planned to get rid of him ASAP.
Inside the fiction, it’s exasperating that this person did so much to make this unwanted situation happen and then ditched them all. He’d be a good antagonist if he wasn’t leaving the movie now.
Outside the fiction, bigger things are wrong. The movie isn’t telling a story; it’s forcing one to happen, which isn’t nearly as engrossing. It doesn’t feel like the movie has gotten to where it wants to be despite messing around with so much stilted plotting.
The girlfriend and kids watch a movie in the lodge and have cocoa. None of them are acknowledging how awkward their situation is. The daughter feels sick and the girlfriend isn’t super-considerate, but checks her temperature and says her she’s fine. This is tolerable.
Contrivance 6: They wake to find the power, heat, and water is all off. Their phones don’t work. Their clothes, toys, and the girlfriend’s medication is gone.
This one thing is no more contrived than any one thing in Us or The Shining. This contrivance is the premise of the movie, and you probably were watching to get to this point. In fact a sudden contrivance can be exciting. If things build up naturally and then something dramatic changes, like the blood falling into the eye of the dad in 28 Days Later, it can be terrifying.
What The Lodge has done is replace character agency with too many contrivances. Nothing that got us to this premise feels earned. A Horror story can easily get more tense (or intense) as a protagonist makes a series of dangerous decisions, or as an antagonist makes choices raising the stakes. Here instead things keep being pushed along by forces from off-screen or by virtual non-characters.
It feels additionally cloying because we have three viable protagonists here who should have been able to carry the movie up to this event. We cared about the kids. We understood that the girlfriend was unwell and in a tough position. When they do the standard fare of freaking out and blaming each other and ignoring the apparent supernaturalism of their circumstances, it feels like just the next weird contrived thing that’s forcing them to dance.
Before you can even ask what interesting ways they’ll respond with after they finish panicking, well…
Contrivance 7: You’ll be shocked to learn that they are soon snowed in. There is absolutely no leaving the lodge.
From here it’s obvious that they will perform standard trope responses to outside stimuli until some big twist or reveal. The characters never got proper opportunities to inhabit or push their own narrative forward. These are three people with heavy pain in their lives and reasons to be strong individual characters, and an hour of runtime into the movie the most interesting thing now is what bumped into their window.
Overuse like this is why “contrived” is a pejorative. When it’s used well, these intrusions can push characters to reveal more of themselves or just scare the crap out of the audience. If they aren’t used carefully, though, the only victim of a Horror story is the story itself.
John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.
Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman is a 2000 straight-to-video cartoon film distributed by Universal Studios reviving the version of the characters from 1983-1990 TV show. Three child-sized anthromorphic chipmunks Alvin (Ross Bagdasarian Jr) , Simon (Ross Bagdasarian Jr), and Theodore (Janice Karman), live with their adopted dad/manager Dave (Ross Bagdasarian Jr).
Alvin has been having nightmares about monsters, and is constantly reading his monster facts book, having become convinced that their new neighbor Mr. Talbot (Maurice LaMarch) is a werewolf. Alvin seeks out proof of what he believes to be their neighbors dark secret while trying to navigate their everyday life, including acting in the play adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
This might be appealing to kids of the appropriate age, but it doesn’t have very broad appeal like the best cartoons do. Much of the mystery of the movie is kindof spoiled by the title because you know from the title that there must be a werewolf somewhere in the story and so Alvin’s crackpot theories have to be true of someone, if not the neighbor. It’s fine if you have a kid at a young enough age to enjoy it, but it’s not too likely to have broader appeal. (We happened to catch it on streaming)
School’s out, and everybody wants to see the Great Old Ones: the line into the Miskatonic Zoo doubles back and winds out the gates. The American and Massachusetts flags barely flutter above the gate, and the sun today is merciless in a cloudless sky. I ask my grandchildren, Caleb and Cody, if they wouldn’t rather go to a museum or park, catch a ball game, or go anywhere at all less crowded, but they won’t be swayed. The zoo has been closed for renovations for two years now, and they want to see the Great Old Ones in their new, “natural” habitats.
It was originally built as a prison. It looked the part even when they opened it to public tours, back when I was a baby. It hadn’t done much to change its look in the last 70 years. I’m almost as curious as my grandkids. I’m old enough to have seen America stumble toward evolved attitudes on many things, and the Old Races are a good example. It always starts with fear. Horrors lurking in the dark. And then something shines a light on that fear, and once we see it, we can face it, fight it, drag it into the sunshine, and conquer it. And once we’re not afraid anymore, we can afford to be generous. We make accommodations. We give the object of our fear a place in society—as long as it can never threaten us again. So now the prison for monsters has become a habitat for exotic animals. It happened in a generation.
There is news footage of me, from when I was three, at the newly renamed Miskatonic Zoo. My parents stood behind me, and I toddled up to the thick pane of glass, behind which, under bright lights, was a Shoggoth as big as a moving van. In the footage, I slapped my chubby hands on the glass, and the Shoggoth’s pseudopods shot out and flattened against the barrier, eyes and tendrils forming and dissolving in a frenzy. I laughed, and the camera zoomed in on my innocent delight. The footage was played and replayed. I won’t take credit for changing the attitude of a nation, but I was in an image representing that change. Even today, my claim to minor fame is as “that baby laughing at the Shoggoth.”
From our place in line, we see a metal stair leading to a platform, just inside the gate. A Shoggoth waits under the platform while groups of visitors climb into the howdah on its back. That’s new. A teenage kid in a Miskatonic Zoo uniform shouts something inaudible, and the Shoggoth slowly flows down one of the paths, pausing to let families with strollers pass. Another Shoggoth shambles up to the platform to receive the next riders. Our scientists learned the command language from the Elder Things, at least enough to make the creatures useful. It looks like we’ve progressed since then. They say the Shoggoths started as the Elder Things’ slaves. Now they’re ours. We keep the Elder Things well away from the Shoggoths, of course. Fool us once, et cetera et cetera.
The kid at the counter waves me and the boys through the entrance without taking my credit card, saying “Welcome back, Mister Holyoke!” There is—or was—a screen inside the receiving lobby playing the footage of the three-year-old me with the Shoggoth. They use it in the Visitors Center introductory video too. I can see that Chris and Cody enjoy the conferred status from being with me. I admit it makes me stand a little taller too. It’s the little things, at my age.
The park has changed considerably. Habitats constructed to be “more suitable for the animals’ health and well-being” is a newer concern. Miskatonic now has a school of marine biology as well as zoology, and where once the research was geared toward how to contain these creatures, now it’s about their ecology, physiology, and health.
The Deep One house is completely new. Before, it was a bare, concrete-and-glass enclosure with a cement floor and a murky pool, more for wading than swimming. The fish-men wore collars and cuffs, and the males were locked into kilt-like garments after complaints that visitors were disturbed by the size of their genitals. Now they are unshackled, and let it all fly free. In the lobby there’s an information mural, and an educational video featuring a popular actress, about Deep One reproduction and interbreeding, which doesn’t shy away from the dark history of sexual assault before the species and their half-breed descendants were rounded up. The new, two-level habitat has a facade replica of decrepit Innsmouth buildings and piers, and even an artificial reef some distance off the “shore.” The water’s depth is four or five times the height of an adult, and the bottom is decorated with sea grasses, replicas of sunken ruins, broken columns, and various small, bottom-dwelling marine creatures.
I can’t help but feel that the enriched enclosure is mostly for the benefit of the zoo visitors. The Deep Ones sit as they always had, huddled in small groups on the pier or on the reef, as though they were still shackled together. They stare at nothing, pointedly ignoring all the kids tapping on the glass. As we watch, one of the reef-sitters rolls into the water and paces the tank, as far back from the glass as possible. Back and forth it swims, traveling end to end in seconds with the barest flick of its webbed fingers and toes.
“Stop it, boys,” I say to Chris and Cody, who have joined the other knockers.
“But Grampa,” Cody says. “You did this, and now you’re famous!”
“Just stop bothering the poor thing.” Poor thing. I guess I’m part of the shift. There are no half-breeds in the zoo anymore—I’m not sure what was done with them—but the way these creatures sit in their little circles, not seeming to communicate or do anything, ignoring the constant clamor of children, their bulging eyes staring at nothing and their plump, fishy lips in a permanent “O” of surprise—well, it’s disturbing. I dislike seeing apes in captivity too. A little too human for comfort.
I know I’m projecting. I’m retired, and my main occupation now is keeping my grandchildren occupied while their parents are at work. Otherwise, I do a lot of sitting in silence too, everything behind me, not much ahead.
At the far end of the underwater viewing deck, a sign above a bank of elevators reads “To Father Dagon.” The Shoggoths, Elder Things, Deep Ones, ghouls, nightgaunts, and the fungi from Yuggoth are one thing, but people come to the Miskatonic Zoo to see the colossal Great Old Ones. The zoo houses two of the three “gods” of the Deep Ones—the third, Mother Hydra, is the main attraction in the Stockholm aquarium. Chris and Cody each take an arm and pull me to the elevators. The elevator car’s far wall is glass, and etched into it is a design like the veins of a leaf. An Elder Sign. The Sign is stamped somewhere into all the enclosures, but are most obvious surrounding the Great Old Ones. How they work is still being studied. But they do work. They were the key to keeping the creatures under control.
The elevator slowly descends a concrete shaft while overhead audio describes Father Dagon: how he was captured, his diet, the genetic similarities to the Deep Ones, and evidence for and against him being a mature organism of the same species.
Dagon was the first of the Old Races humanity faced head-on. When he attacked an oil drilling rig, it drew the Great Old Ones out of the shadows and into conflict with American interests. It was just what the nation needed: a monster to target with its military machine, the cost of which was becoming harder to justify to the American people. We uncovered conspiracies, rounded up cultists, weaponized their eldritch lore, and hunted down monsters wherever they lurked. It created jobs, stoked national pride, and returned America to global relevance.
Finally the concrete gives way to the blue-green lighted waters of the tank. Unlike the Deep One enclosure, this tank is unadorned, and massive chains attached to enormous eyebolts in the walls descend into the depths. We see the top of Dagon’s spiny head first. Great spikes webbed with fins crown his head and descend in rows down his muscled back. The elevator sinks slowly, putting us at the level of his huge, bulbous eyes and shark-toothed maw, big enough to swallow the entire elevator car. An Elder Sign-studded collar, just beneath his gill slits, is attached by chains to the walls, keeping the Great Old One immobile.
The elevator pauses so everyone can pose in mock terror for photos.
Then the elevator continues, giving us a full view of all 20 yards of his serpentine body and webbed limbs. Dagon is chained at several points to the wall, and his tank offers little room to move anyway. I’d read there are already protests. Animal rights activists compare Dagon’s captivity to how veal is raised, and there is speculation that the creature might even be sentient. Serious academics use the word “genocide.” And yet I think this manner of holding him seems somehow more respectful. It acknowledges the giant, ancient creature’s power, the threat he could pose.
Then I see the divers. Marine biology students are swimming in the tank, taking scale samples, drawing blood, and scraping parasites from Dagon’s body. Dagon isn’t being shown respect.
He’s being studied.
The elevator reverses direction at the beast’s clawed, webbed feet. During its slow ascent, I stare at Dagon, trying to see the sanity-splitting horror it once was. It is freakishly huge. It has an as-yet inexplicable sensitivity to a particular glyph. But other than that… “Poor thing” indeed.
“Can we see Cthulhu now?” Cody says, just as Chris says “Shoggoth ride!”
The schedule decides it. The next Cthulhu showing is in 20 minutes, so we make our way to the R’lyeh Amphitheater, hurrying past the touch-and-learn displays of non-Euclidean geometry so we can get “good” seats in the splash zone. The amphitheater dominates the zoo campus. A semicircle of concrete steps provides seating for hundreds, and before it rises an artful jumble of greenish masonry blocks glistening in the sun. They feature the same eye-twisting angles and planes from the touch-and-learn exhibit. In the middle of that jumble is the monolith, a darker block of stone as big as a medium-sized office building. It is carved, bottom to top, with an Elder Sign. Floodlights and fog machines set an eldritch, otherworldly atmosphere. The renovation added drama to the show. In past years, Cthulhu was kept in a tank like Dagon’s.
At noon on the dot, the fog machines belch out a dense cloud of vapor, and the floodlights cycle from green to blue to red. A deep male voice booms from hidden speakers, somehow wringing torturous Aklo words through a New England accent. “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” A beat later, a woman’s voice translates. “In his house in R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Applause. Ominous music builds as the fog cloud clears, and then the monolith splits down the middle, the two halves slowly separating. Black smoke pours forth. Then, to the screams and cheers of the audience, Great Cthulhu scrambles out onto the masonry.
Everyone has seen the videos. We all know what he looks like. The octopus head, the dragon wings, the soggy, semi-gelatinous flesh in a manlike shape. He lurches forward, tentacles waving, arms reaching, straining vainly against the enormous shackles that confine him to the stage. Still, his sheer size makes him impressive. If allowed to stand erect, he would dwarf even the monolith.
“What’s that thing on his head?” Chris asks me.
A metal band fits Cthulhu like a crown, but from certain angles you can see that it is held in place by prongs piercing his glob of a cranium. “That’s so he keeps his dreams to himself,” I answer. Cthulhu is the first truly psychic organism studied by biologists and neuroscientists. The research to block his madness-inducing thoughts yielded interesting side discoveries, and mind-to-mind communication among humans is now discussed as a real possibility, with revolutionary consequences.
Cthulhu screeches and blubbers as he strains against his bonds. But they are so obviously secure, that the initial shock of his charge gives way to quiet contemplation of this huge, alien organism. There is no more drama. The rest of the show is devoted to the science, including his disabled telepathy, his not-quite-solid tissue structure, and his probable extraterrestrial origins. His human handlers, so tiny standing beside him, demonstrate how they’ve trained him with simple commands through his neural link. The show concludes with him shambling back into his monolith until the next show. “Cthulhu the dancing bear,” quipped one reviewer on the news.
Chris and Cody loved it, but it was a show geared towards children. It left me melancholy. I keep feeling that something has been lost. Our humility, maybe. Our caution. Or maybe just our sense of awe. Are horror and wonder two sides of the same coin, a coin we’ve put into a hydraulic press to stamp with a logo, turning it into a souvenir? But these are things old men say when the world has outpaced them. It’s rank nostalgia, something Chris and Cody wouldn’t understand. I keep these thoughts to myself.
The line to ride a Shoggoth is long. Many of the visitors at the Cthulhu show had the same idea. I give Cody some money to buy us all ice cream while Chris and I stand in line. Four Shoggoths are queued for the platform. Previous passengers exit the howdah via the opposite platform and stair, behind. With their ever-shifting, amorphous bodies, I can’t tell one of the creatures from another. They had been bred as slaves, I’d read, but at some point they rebelled against their Elder Thing masters. So these protoplasmic masses of eyes and tendrils have some sense of their condition. They are sentient. Now they are pony rides.
Psychologists say coherent human memories don’t go back before the age of about four. My memory of my first encounter with a Shoggoth is surely a product of my imagination and that briefly famous video. In that invented memory, I’m a brave little boy, laughing in the face of an unspeakable horror. I know it was ignorance, not bravery, but it makes me feel good about myself. Proud. I was in the news, and in some small way, I’d helped set the tone for the new, fearless American Golden Age. Put that way, it’s as much accomplishment as any could hope for. I wondered what challenges my grandchildren would face. What would be the fear that spurs their generation to great deeds? Or maybe they’d find a different path to greatness.
We had long since finished our ice cream and held each other’s place in line for bathroom breaks when we finally reach the stair, and then, the platform. A teenager—not the one we saw from outside—opens a gate in the howdah to let out the returning passengers, and then lets us climb aboard. When we all take our seats, the kid utters an Aklo command, and our Shoggoth lumbers forward.
While Chris and Cody record videos of ghouls running alongside us on the other side of a fence, I stare over the railing at the squishy mess that is the Shoggoth beneath us. Eyes, tendrils, ripples of murky color. Ignoring the sign to keep inside the railing, I reach over, fingers splayed, and hold my hand above the creature’s writhing mass.
An eye surfaces from its hide.
It regards my hand without blinking, without dissolving back into its goo. I stare back. It’s impossible to attribute expression or emotion to a Shoggoth’s eyes. There just aren’t enough common reference points with humans. But I wonder, is this my Shoggoth? Did it recognize me? And if it did, what—if any—relationship does our intersecting histories imply between us? I am 76 years old, retired, and I now spend most of my time looking after pre-teen children. I feel a sudden craving for contact with something older than me, something with a perspective that comes from a time people now refer to as “history.” Impulsively, I lean over and try to touch the Shoggoth.
Immediately the eyeball vanishes. The mottled jelly that consumed it quivers and retreats from my touch. I wince. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” I mutter.
“Sir, please keep your hands inside the railing,” the teenager says with the rote cadence of recitation.
I do as I’m told. The quivering subsides, and the Shoggoth lumbers along. While my great-grandchildren laugh, and the ghouls running alongside us howl, I lean back in my seat and close my eyes against the sun, shielding them from the light, but luxuriating in the warmth. I take a nap without any dreams at all.
Author’s Note:I love H.P. Lovecraft’s monstrous, unknowable, unmentionable, indescribable horrors that lurk beyond the edge of comprehension. They’re beings who, by their very existence, invalidate our significance. They threaten our sense of identity and place. They’re the ultimate Other. But unlike Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists, humans tend to meet existential threats, perceived or otherwise, aggressively. What we don’t annihilate, we dominate, subjugate, commodify, and monetize. And only when we feel safe do we finally consider trying to understand the Other.
Rajiv Moté is a writer living in Chicago with his wife, daughter, and puppy. His stories make appearances in Cast of Wonders, Metaphorosis, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Truancy, and others, and he has served as a slush-reading Badger for Shimmer. During the day, he gathers source material by masquerading as a software engineering manager. He scrapes off excess words on Twitter at @RajivMote, and occasionally realizes he should put some effort into rajivmote.com.
It has white eyes with no pupils and no irises. Just white all the way through. But it can see you. So I must not fall asleep as I wait outside this closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict For Sale sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember, baseball bat gripped in my hands.
This is what the boogeyman sounds like.
Short, huffing breaths, almost snorts, like your boss calling you into his office for a chat, because you got yet another email by accident that was supposed go to the CEO, who shares your name. “And you understand,” huff huff huff, “that you obviously didn’t get the whole story with just that one email,” huff huff huff, “and the engineers are definitely going to address that problem before the product goes to market.” Huff. “We understand each other, right?” And you’re too scared of losing your job to do anything but understand.
This is how the boogeyman gets you.
It has six arms. The first set has hands, much like yours. The second set ends in razor-tipped claws. The third set have some kind of suction on the ends. They take your soul. Like your ex-wife when she crossed her arms and said, “I can’t be with you if you’re too scared to even have kids.” When she said, her eyes pinched with that sympathy face, “I know you blame yourself for your brother.”
This is what the boogeyman looks like. Eyes white, all the way through. But he can see you. When he lifts up the blankets to peer under the bed. When those wide, wide nostrils in that too-small nose flare and breath you in. When he reaches his razor-clawed hands under the bed and sinks their points into your screaming little brother’s arms. This is what he looks like.
He looks like your ex-wife sitting on the bed with her hands in her lap, stretching a hair tie over and over again, saying, “This could have worked, it still could, if you weren’t so damned scared of everything. Too scared to ride a bus. Too scared to climb a tall hill. Too scared to ask for a raise, too scared to ask for a promotion, too scared to have kids, too scared to even have a bedroom with a closet. I can’t live like this.”
The boogeyman has a flat voice, like your wife giving up on you. Like when it’s dragging your little brother from under the bed, telling him he’ll do nicely. When you’re screaming, “Nate!” and he’s screaming, “Aiden!” And you scramble out after him. It is hunching toward the open closet, pincered arms bent backward, holding your little brother pinned to its back. The closet is pure darkness. A bad place. It is taking him there, where the boogeyman comes from. You dash. You dash right across and jump, thinking, you don’t know what, thinking you’ll grab its feet, hold it here. Your fingers out, wrap around a boot, but it kicks you away as it leaps into the darkness of the closet, Nate’s screams cutting off as if someone hung up the phone on him.
It was, finally, my wife’s leaving that sent me to the psychiatrist. The one that tells me, “The boogeyman is a classic symbol of fear, one you’ve put in the place of the man who took your brother, since neither of them were ever found.” I listened, but was also looking at the door behind his desk, wondering if it was a closet door. “In twenty-six years you’ve never once slept in a room with a closet?”
A shake of the head, eyes on the door.
“You need to confront this. The best way would be to go back to that house, the very house it happened in. If that’s possible. And face that closet. Barring that, try any closet for that matter. You’ll see. There’s no boogeyman. Just your fear.”
“And if the boogeyman is there? If he does come?”
He shook his head. “If it would make you feel better, bring a weapon.”
“What, like a gun?”
“That’s a terrible idea. No. A baseball bat. That’s what I keep by my bed.”
I wondered what his boogeyman looked like.
My boogeyman, just now, looks like a closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict “For Sale” sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember. It’s chilly and the floor is hard and the baseball bat is clutched tight in my hands and my heart empties and fills with every tiny noise. A creak. A crack. A loud cricket. A tiny groan. Will he come? Is he still there? Still in that closet? Would he face an adult? Do I stand a chance?
What if he doesn’t come? What if he isn’t real?
A scratch. A soft thump. The cricket again. Shadows across the moon. Phantom movement in corners, across bare floors. The damned cricket, even noisier. And every time, the booming heart. The sense that my body empties and refills in an instant of stopped breath and terror. Will he come? What will I do if he does? What will I do if he doesn’t?
The closet door swings open. The darkness lies behind it. I raise my bat. The boogeyman steps out. I swing.
This is what the boogeyman looks like.
He is short. He wears goggles and a tattered wide brimmed hat. Something cloaks his lower face. His clothes fit like someone wearing a glove on their foot. Bits are tied up with string. He rolls over. Springs up. Ready to fight, hands in the air in front of him.
“Aiden?” he says.
He doesn’t huff. He lifts off his goggles, pulls the mask from the bottom half of his face. And he has blue eyes, eyes like mine. “Aiden?” he says again, questing voice. A little rough at the edges.
I raise my bat.
“Is it you?” he asks. “Is it? I was sure . . .”
I shake my head, but I say, “Yes.”
“It’s . . . Aiden, it’s me. Nate.” He coughs.
“Nately mately hate me lately?” The silly rhyme we once made.
His hand goes to his chest. He looks afraid. “I can’t stay.” Voice getting hoarser. Breathing heavy. Looking disappointed. “The air here, it’s hard to breath.”
“How? How are you here?”
“I escaped. And I remembered you, my brother, how brave you were.” Cough. Huff. “So as I got older, living there, in that place . . . I started to hunt them. The boogeymen.” Huff.
“You’re the boogeyman . . .”
“To the boogeymen.”
We are silent a while. Behind him the darkness in the closet remains opaque.
“Mom and dad?” he asks.
“Dead.” I can’t tell him how. Dad’s suicide. Mom’s fading away.
“I could feel you,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever found my way back here.” Huff huff. “But I don’t think I can stay. I think I’ve breathed the air there too long.”
His eyes are blue, but very pale. Watery. The skin pale and pink where the goggles clung. Nostrils flare with each labored breath.
“You hunt them?” I ask. “The boogeymen?”
He grins, sheepish, a little proud. “Try to be brave, like my big brother.” He looks like he wants a hug.
I want to hit him with the bat again.
I want to shove him through the door and out of my life. I want to close the door and keep him here and watch him suffocate and die.
“I need to go back,” he says. “Will you come again? Please? I’ve been so lonely, there.” His breathing is desperate now. His back is to the blackness. “I don’t know why I’ve never sensed you before.”
Because I wouldn’t sleep in that room. Because I was too scared to go near a closet, ever again. Because this, this is what the boogeyman looks like. He looks like your little brother. He looks like you nodding a promise you’ll never keep, as your little brother steps back into the darkness.
Author’s Note: I was convinced of the existence of the boogeyman as a child, and closets still creep me out as a result. I think this story was just carrying that fear into reality.
T.J. Berg is a molecular and cellular biologist working and writing in Sweden. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and was a member of the Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle. When she isn’t writing or doing science, she can be found stravaigin the world, cooking, eating, or playing dinosaurs, princesses, and super heroes, sometimes with her son. She (and pointers to her other stories) can be found on the web atwww.infinity-press.com.
In a generational shift that some claim threatens the fabric of existence and the sanity of all humanity, surveys show that worship of the Elder Dark is at a record low for one particular group—millennials.
Bob Rawlins is worried. “When I was growing up in the 1950s, I made my obeisance before the Manifold Insanity every night, uttering the invocations to satiate the Watchers Just Beyond and keep them at bay for one day longer. But young people now aren’t prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”
I remind him that human sacrifice was deemed unnecessary and illegal in 1985, and animal sacrifice in 2009.
“Well I don’t mean literally,” he says, though there’s a note of longing to his tone.
Bob is showing me round his inner sanctum, a converted basement given over to the worship and appeasement of the Unknowable Gods. He’s the Grand Dark Supplicant of his local chapter, and is continuing a long family tradition: men of his bloodline have been bound to the service of the Elder Dark since the days of the Pilgrims.
“Our ranks are already thin,” he says, resting a hand intimately on an idol of the Ten Thousand Staring Eyes. “I worry the world I’ll leave behind will be overrun by the gibbering horrors of the between spaces, ushering in a never-ending age of nightmares and insurmountable monstrosities. It breaks my heart to think of the Eight Palms golf course getting swallowed by a roiling pit of blackness. Hole five’s a real beauty.”
In town, I talk with a group of twenty-somethings working in the local coffee shop. Aren’t they anxious about the impending immolation of mankind and the eternal night of the Elder Dark?
“Well, I guess,” says Luiz, shaking chocolate onto my cappuccino in a cephalopodan design. “But it’s hard to get worked up about such a distant prospect when I’m mostly worried about making rent next month.”
“Yeah, yeah,” agrees Deema, another barista. “And even if I had the brainspace to worry, I haven’t got the roomspace in my apartment for a shrine. I make my obeisance when I visit my parents at the weekend, but my apartment’s so cramped the shower’s in the kitchen. Where am I meant to find the space for the Eighteen Forms of Frozen Madness?”
“Not that I have any time for the complete incantations anyway,” says Luiz. “As soon as I finish here I start a shift at the Midnight Dark Bar on 8th. Do you know how much mess is made by people burying the futility of their infinitesimal existence in drugs and debauchery? By the time I get home from cleaning that up I’ve only got five hours before I’m back here. It’s hard to muster the energy for self-flagellation on four hours’ sleep a night.”
These responses may sound cynical and resigned, but talking to Luiz and Deema, there’s a sense of frustration: they want to be doing more. But some millennials have other reasons for abandoning the worship of the Elder Dark.
“These old dudes—and they’re always old dudes, you notice that?—they’re all caught up in this spiel, like, ‘If you don’t perform the rituals of devotion then the world will fall to lunacy’, and I’m like, dude, look around already!”
Ace shakes their long dreads dismissively and sips a green tea, looking over the gray ocean from their dilapidated RV. Their parents were members of the ultra-orthodox Church of the Nineteenth Insanity; Ace left home at seventeen, sent on their mission to witness the madness of the wider world. It was meant to reinforce the importance of keeping to the convoluted strictures of the Nineteenth Insanity, necessary to resist the influence of the Watchers Just Beyond.
But instead, says Ace, they saw only human madness.
“Like, all the suffering and hurt and injustice, that’s not coming from beyond the Pierced Veil, ya know? It’s caused by politicians and corporations on this side! People are blind to the roots of their problems, blaming it all on these creatures they’ve never even seen, right?”
“It’s sad to hear,” says Kathy Halton, Honorary Senator for the Sunken State of Hggibbia. “I represent the Many Drowned Dead, so I know better than most what the cost of failure is.”
Senator Halton looks up at the huge oil-on-canvas that hangs behind her mahogany desk, The Sinking of Dead Men’s Deeds, that infamous night when eighty thousand souls were lost to the sea. The eye is drawn irresistibly to the dark slash that hangs in the sky, the Pierced Veil itself, and the indescribable creatures of the Entropic Menagerie that spill forth—and it is surely an unparalleled artistic feat to paint a creature that cannot be described—and there is a strange sensation of being drawn into the painting, as if the soul itself is being pulled out through the eyes and reeled into that perversely dark hole on the canvas. Only Halton’s smooth voice breaks the spell; she seems used to the painting, immune to its attraction.
“Some people are so desperate for a mundane explanation they’ll ignore the evidence of their souls,” she says. “The irony is many of this country’s problems can be traced back to a disturbing lack of faith in the younger generation.”
But isn’t there an increasing consensus on grassroots social media that neoliberal government policies of the last thirty years are to blame for irrevocably leading us to this point of critical failure, where the very substance of the multiverse is threatened with annihilation by wage stagnation and an untenable housing market leading to unrealistic work expectations?
“If only it were that simple,” she responds. “We’re doing everything we can to encourage participation despite the economic downturn, including state-funded glossolalia lessons and mandatory flagellation breaks for government employees. But we can’t force a free soul to act.”
Two days later we’re standing on the windy beach at Chatham, Massachusetts for the annual Sunken Memorial, facing the steel-blue Atlantic where Hggibbia once stood. Senator Halton leads a group of representatives through the Silent Evocations of the Eighteen Forms, their dark trench coats snapping in the wind like ravens fighting over scraps. Two assistants have to help the elderly Health Secretary Johnson through the movements, sometimes physically lifting him to position his limbs correctly.
Fifty yards away, behind a mesh fence and a police line, there’s a protest taking place. I’m not surprised to see Ace at the front, leading a chant of WE’RE NOT INSANE, WE’RE JUST MAD, WE BLAME YOU FOR A WORLD GONE BAD.”It’s all a distraction!” they tell me to a chorus of agreement from their fellow protestors. “They’re using the myth of the Elder Dark to stop you noticing their corruption!”
“Yeah,” interjects another protestor, her pink hair straggling over a loose-fit chunky sweater. “Like, did you know they used this stuff to justify some super racist ideas? Most people can’t spot the subtext now, but if you read the old stuff they basically claimed Jews were in league with the Watchers Just Beyond, right? It’s unbelievable!”
Ace picks up the argument, a real bitterness in their voice. “They like, try and handwave that racism away now, ya know, claim you have to understand it in the historical context, but it just proves how they fit it to their agenda at the time. It’s all bullshit. You can’t trust them.”
I go back to see Bob Rawlins. He’s invited me up for the traditional orgy that marks the Approach of Winterdark, more commonly called the fall equinox. He prepares for the night by stripping naked, beating his tattooed skin raw with a branch of Hggibbian driftwood, and pulling a tight red hood on that covers his eyes.
He offers me the branch and a spare hood, but I respectfully decline.
There’s fifty or more participants gathered at the edge of town for the ritual, all naked bar that same red hood. It’s meant to evoke a feeling of insignificance, reminding supplicants they are only anonymous flesh to the Watchers Just Beyond, but the effect is undercut somewhat by small town America: everyone is easily identifiable from their voice and body shape, and Bob chats casually about DIY projects and school district elections as the sun sets.
Once dusk grows dark and a chill settles in, Bob climbs onto a flame-lit stage set up for the event, reminds everyone to stick around for the barbecue afterwards, then begins the Rituals of Unending Vigilance. I find myself talking to a late arrival: Eric Rawlins—Bob’s son.
“I’m only back for the weekend,” he explains, shuffling uncomfortably. “It means a lot to Dad that I get involved.” He’s eschewed the naked dedication of his father and kept his jeans on, a single Screaming Gshvaddath tattooed in Shifting Ink just below his red hood, dancing wildly in contrast to Eric’s diffidence.
Presumably his father is grooming him to continue the family tradition?
“Yeah, he’s really enthusiastic about the whole thing. Dad’s worried that if I’m not ready to continue his work the next time his back gives out then the Elder Dark will flood the world and shackle humanity to an eternal yoke of madness while he waits on his pain relief prescription. He honestly believes he’s the only one holding it back right now.”
Does Eric think participation is down because people are coming to terms with the history of it and stepping away? I repeat some of the theories I heard at the rally.
“Yeah, I’ve heard those ideas too. I agree with them, to be honest, with the people saying the Worship has racist underpinnings, but don’t tell Dad. He thinks the texts are sacrosanct, and it’s like, if you criticise them, you’re criticising him. But there’s a growing online movement to embrace the original truth of the Unknowable Scriptures, peeling back the layers of human influence and prejudice. We’re all just meat to the Watchers after all, regardless of our skin or beliefs, beneath the notice of an unfathomable Universe made of madness and unending time. I can show you some really interesting Subreddits after this.”
On stage, Bob is in an awkward crab position, thrusting his flaccid penis towards the night sky and howling in ecstasy. Blood drips from his back where a bed of nails beneath him pierces his flesh over and over; volunteers in hi-viz jackets wait at the edge of the stage with antiseptic cream, stood before signs reminding participants to PRACTICE SAFE SUPPLICATION.
Eric looks anywhere but the stage as the crowd shrieks back, lacerating their own flesh with a variety of pointed implements. There are spiked paddles in ornately carved mahogany, hand-sharpened sticks of blasted elm, and one Hello Kitty cat o’ nine tails.
“Dad worries too much, to be honest,” says Eric. “I’ve met a lot of people at college, and at the end of the day people are decent. They do what they can when they can, even if it’s just carving Escherian shapes into their avocados at breakfast. We’re not gonna let the world run to shit with shambling horrors at the bus stop and tentacles blocking up the plumbing. We’ve gotta live here too, after all.”
Eric finally responds to his father’s exhortations with a self-conscious howl, and pricks his thumb with a pocket knife. Bob looks out from the stage, and spots his son; he lifts a hand in greeting, then, unbalanced, slips and lands heavily on the bed of nails. His scream of pain is answered faithfully by the crowd, but Eric runs forward and clambers on stage. He eases his father off the nails and they limp to the side, where a volunteer frantically unpacks a first aid kit.
A brief yet intense exchange follows. The body language is clear: Bob wants Eric to finish leading the worship. The crowd is wavering, their flagellation tools drooping like their middle-aged bodies. I see the moment Eric takes the burden on: his back straightens, his jaw clenches, his shoulders square. He’s doing a good impression of being ready for this, and I find myself hoping it convinces Bob.
Eric strips off and positions himself over the nails. He picks up the chant perfectly from where his father left off, closing out the ceremony with vigour, athleticism and rather more—shall we say—rigidity than his father could manage.
Off to the side, Bob stands with his legs wide as his bleeding scrotum is gingerly nursed by the volunteer paramedic. He’s removed his red hood, and he watches Eric lambaste the crowd with a final chant of “Yhiu! Kaftagh falln!” and receive the answer of “Engibbigth valectia!”
Author’s Note: If you can’t spot the inspiration for this story, I envy you. I can’t go a week without seeing some new article blaming millennials for some natural shift in an evolving world (my favourite from my research: millennials are killing bar soap. WHO EVEN CARES). That said, it was actually reading another parody article that triggered the idea: Why Aren’t Baby Boomers Eating Pho? Given that Lovecraft pastiche is never far from my mind anyway, it only took another hour for the first draft of this to flood out of my fingertips in some indescribable frenzy, typing like a man possessed, suddenly granted ideas beyond my mortal comprehension. My mind has never been the same since, scarred by the knowledge of what lies beyond my temporal horizon: younger generations, acting differently from me. Truly, a cosmic horror to chill the soul.
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a ritual performed unto the Watchers Just Beyond, imploring them for the boon of great knowledge, but all he got were the lyrics to Dashboard Confessional’s watershed album The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Flash Fiction Online and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or follow along on Twitter and Facebook both as @mattdoveywriter.