The Scar

Scar

You’re staring.

Don’t worry. Everyone does. They can’t help it. You probably didn’t realize you stared. Even now, when I’ve caught you, you have no idea why you were doing it. You don’t know why you can’t look away.

And you can’t look away. The fact is, someone could hit you in the head with a fireplace poker, and you would still struggle to look away. You don’t know why. Just like you have no clue what’s causing that sick feeling in your gut, like your intestines are full of frightened parasites all scrambling to escape you, like rats from a sinking ship.

Don’t panic. I’ll tell you. It’s not a secret. I have no secrets. Not anymore. You’re staring at my scar.

Go ahead. Look for it. Search my face, my neck, my exposed arms. You won’t find it. Strange, because you’re looking right at it. Right now, if I asked you to close your eyes and describe my eye color you wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s true. You wouldn’t even be able to describe the color of my skin.

You can’t focus on anything, right now. Nothing but my scar. It’s gnawing away at you and you can barely remember why you came here and what you’re doing and it’s driving you insane that you can’t look at or think about anything else and you can’t even find it.

It’s there. It’s right here. You can’t see it because it’s in a place you’ve never paid attention to, even though you’ve look there thousands of times before. Every time you look at another person, or an animal, or a tree. Because they all have them.

You are staring at me not because of what you are seeing, but because of what’s missing. It’s as if someone stripped all of the color from their skin. You couldn’t help but stare at the colorlessness, because up until that moment you had assumed such a thing was impossible.

I thought so, too. I didn’t mean to do it. I was just bored. I was bored and curious and playing around with my knife. This knife. It’s very special. I don’t know if it was special before I used it to do what I did, or if using it made it so. But it’s special now.

This is the knife I used to reach in and gouge out my own soul. I didn’t know there was such a thing as souls. I still don’t, really. I don’t know what they are, or what they’re for. But I know what it means to lose one. I know what it feels like to rip it out.

Maybe I should have stopped after I started digging. It was like a sore on the inside of your mouth. You know you shouldn’t worry it, but you can’t stop. You can’t stop until you’ve ripped your essential essence from your being. It’s happened before.

You won’t remember. You people never do. I could stab this knife into you and slice off your finger and you would have no idea how it had happened. You’d make up a story. Or someone else would, and you’d believe them. Explanations are like souls. Your mind can’t stand when they’re missing.

I could stab this knife into you, deeper than your finger, deeper than your flesh, deeper than your heart. I could make you like me. You’d remember me, then. Then, only then, you would understand.

But I won’t. Not this time. Instead, I’m going to walk away, and only once I’m out of your sight, only once something mundane and fleshy and full of color blocks your vision will you forget me.

But you won’t. Not really. You people never do. You just pretend. You come up with stories that explain the wriggling in your stomach, the panic that nestles in the back of your mind. The stories amuse us, as we watch you. They’re all we have left.

You still amuse me. So I won’t cut you. I won’t make you like me. Not this time. Not just yet.

Sweet dreams.

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Hungry

Trou noir / Black Hole

I’m hungry.

It’s funny, that’s the one thing, I think, you can never get used to. I got used to being lonely, a long time ago. I got used to being bored. I got used to that weird feeling that we never had any reason to come up with a word for when it’s been so long since you’ve spoken to someone that, no matter how much passion or rage or lust you once had for them, you can no longer remember their name.

I can’t remember anyone’s name. I don’t even really remember what that means. Name. It’s like playing racquetball, or having blood. I remember that those were things and that once I care about them, but I have no sense of what they actually were.

I’m used to all of that, now. If it bothers me in moments, I don’t recognize it for what it is. It has dissolved into the slurry of what remains of my existence. But the hunger. I don’t think you can get used to that. If I haven’t, no one can.

When I was a small child of whatever sex I was—whatever that means—there was a picture about people who were trapped together in the mountains. Mountains were big and cold. I remember that. That’s what I remember about mountains.

These people were trapped in the mountains and they had no food, and nothing to hunt. Eventually, the living decided to eat the dead. It was a big controversy among people. Would you do that? Would you eat the dead flesh of your own species to survive.

It’s funny. Some people thought they wouldn’t. That’s funny. I think about that sometimes, and it makes me laugh.

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One Last Time

Light in a Dark Room

“We’re going to die,” she said, her voice flat. “They’re not going to let us go.”

He looked at her, at her face. His dying phone barely lit the closet the two of them were squeezed in, but he knew those features too well. They were blank. She said the words in perfectly matter-of-fact tone, like she was telling him the local Quizno’s was closed for St. Patrick’s day. She, who got emotional over socks.

He knew what that meant.

“Damn,” he said.

“Damn?” she raised an eyebrow. “I say we’re going to die, and what you come back with is…damn?”

“Well what the fuck am I supposed to say?”

“You’re supposed to argue with me!” She tried to throw her arms in the air in indignation, but the space was too cramped. It almost made him laugh. Almost.

“You always argue with me,” she said. “Last week I bought a Powerball ticket and you wouldn’t shut up about the fact that I should have gone for the Mega Millions. You argue with me over every…” she fell silent. “You’re not arguing.” She looked into his eyes. They were tender, curious, bewildered. Her eyes. “Why aren’t you arguing?”

He shrugged. “Because you’re right. When you talk like that—all flat like a golf announcer–it’s because you’re right. It’s always because you’re right.”

“You…you believe me?”

“Of course I believe you. You’re the smartest woman I’ve ever met.”

She fell silent again. He wondered what was going through her mind. If she was about to break down. He wouldn’t blame her.

He wondered if he should hold her, wrap his arms around her so tightly that she might break. That’s what he did when her mother died. It was the only thing that calmed her down.

“I didn’t know that,” she said.

“What?”

“That I…that you thought I was smart. I didn’t know that.”

“I…what? Of course you are. You know, like, practically everything about everything. That’s why I fell for you in the first damn place.” He kicked the wall in frustration. For a moment he worried that the people outside would hear them. Then he realized it didn’t matter.

“You never told me that,” she said.

“Of course I did,” he snapped. Wait, had he? Had he ever actually uttered those words? “I didn’t think I need to. I thought it was obvious. I mean, how could anyone know you for more than five minutes and not realize how brilliant you are?”

“Then why are you always arguing with me? Telling me I’m wrong?”

“About what?”

She rolled her eyes. “About everything. You tell me I’m wearing the wrong lipstick to go with my dress, or that I hold my chopsticks wrong when we go for sushi. Or that I use Google wrong when I’m trying to find the names of they guy who wasn’t in the Beatles.”

“Almost everyone who has ever lived wasn’t in the Beatles,” he said. “I think you mean the Beatle who was replaced.”

“See! You’re doing it now.”

“No I’m not,” he said. “Okay, maybe I am.” He wrapped his fingers around themselves and clenched tight. “I argue about…about stupid things. Little things. It’s not you. It’s just…I do that to everybody.”

She shakes her head. “You do it to me more.”

“But…not about real things. Not about things that matter. On those…I mean, you…” He took a deep breath. “I let you figure that stuff out. Because I’m not…smart enough.”

The silence hung heavy between them.

“Damn,” she said at last.

He laughed. He couldn’t help it. She looked at him like he’d just tried to eat a tire iron. Then she started to laugh, too.

“You really mean that, don’t you?” she said. “You think I’m brilliant.”

“Of course I do.”

She fell silent again.

“I wanted you to argue with me.”

“Huh?”

“When I said it, that we’re going to die, I…I knew it was true. But I wanted you to argue with me.”

He nodded. It made sense.

“I…I like when you argue with me.”

He started. “What do you mean?”

“You heard me.”

“But all you ever do is complain about it.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t…I don’t know anything.”

“Yes you do.”

“I don’t feel like I know anything. Not until, not until I’ve said it to you. Not until I’ve made you shut up about it.”

He laughed again.

“Always happy to help.”

“I need you,” she said. “You know that, right?”

He looked at her. “You’re the most important thing in my life. You know that, right.”

She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “I didn’t.”

He shook his head. “Neither did I.”

She smiled. “We actually had something here, didn’t we?”

The past tense gripped at his chest, but it was strange. He felt calm. Scared, yes. Even terrified. But calm.

“I guess we did,” he said. “I wish we had…”

“No,” she cut him off. “Don’t do that. Don’t go that way.” He nodded. She was right.

It’s good to know,” he said. “Before it ends. I mean, I don’t want it to…”

“It’s horrible,” she agreed. “But yeah. It’s good to know.”

A creaking sound echoed through the corridor. Light spilled in. Whoever was out there was coming.

They squeezed each others hands tightly, then they looked at each other. For the first time. One last time.

The Monsters Within, Technical Notes

Evil Pumpkin (4)
We try to deny it, but we all have monsters within us. They seethe just below the surface, all fangs and teeth and incorporeal rage. We glimpse them when we turn away from mirrors, out of the corners of our eyes. We feel them when we look at a beloved friend lying asleep and some part of us, some dark, hungry part of us that cannot be tamed, feels the urge to do something terrible. It is not enough to acknowledge these monsters. We must understand them, lest they control us, urge us into actions as horrific as they are sublime.

This understanding is my great endeavor, and it is through this work that I have discovered these truths that I am about to unveil. These monsters are not nameless, nor or they formless. Once the light of rigorous scrutiny is shined upon them, they are all too familiar. We each are made up of not one monster, but three.

Specifically, we each have within us the following:

  1. A zombie
  2. A ghost
  3. A lycanthrope

Before I go into detail, a note on my qualifications. Firstly, I was born on October 27th, which was the date of the original Halloween (probably) back when it was a pre-Indoeuropean festival honoring Dark Cthonia, Lord of Horror Stories. It’s important to note that the reason their god of evil and fright was the god of stories, because unlike their descendants, these peoples weren’t dumb enough to think that shit was real. Also I made up the name Cthonia because records from that period are sketchy, but I think it sounds pretty call.

In addition to the birthday thing, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy. Also my wife has read even more of it (all of it? nearly), and she’s told me about a lot of it in pretty good detail.

Okay, back to the theory. We are all made up of a zombie, a ghost, and a lycanthrope, and these three factors explain everything about us. Well, okay, they don’t explain everything about why we decide to become plumbers or why we like black olives. But they describe everything about how we manifest as monsters. Let us address each one briefly.

The Zombie: Our zombie is our corporeal body. That part of us that is nothing but empty, hungry flesh, seeking to sustain and duplicate our own existence mindless of the costs and the consequences. It also years to improve itself, to regain the intellect it lost when it was a complete entity, but its methods for doing so are as futile as they are useless. The zombie is even unable to recognize that the last sentence is redundant.

The Ghost: The ghost inside of us is our spirit, and our mind. The ghost allows us to think and function as intelligent beings, but it is shackled by its attachments. The emotional urges that make up so much of thought are present in the ghost, but it is lacking both the neurochemical factors that originally produced those urges and also the corporeality to act upon them.Thus, the ghost can think and feel but by itself it cannot change.

The Lycanthrope: The lycanthrope is the most rarefied of our monsters, but perhaps also the most important. The lycanthrope is the living principle. It is the spark of life that turns the lifeless zombie and the bodiless ghost into breathing, bleeding humans. It is also what lets us grow and change. But it also encompasses our rage, our passion, and the extremes of our emotions. NOTE: the lycanthrope was originally the werewolf, but the source material has taught me that maybe not everyone is a werewolf. Some people are turtles and probably also other things.

In a normal person, all three of these monsters are present and in balance. Strange things happen when you remove them.

If you rip the ghost out of a person, what remains is a ghost and a zombie. This is where ghosts and zombies come from. In this procedure, the lycanthrope is torn in half, and each of the remaining creatures has a fragment of it.

The zombie that remains is the hungry, mindless, brain-eating beast found in novels, movies, and parts of Detroit. It has no mind, because it has no ghost.

The ghost that remains has the personality of the original person, but obviously it also has no body of its own. It can interact with the physical world only weakly if at all. The personality that remains is only a shadow of its formal self, however, because it cannot change. Lacking the physical brain of the zombie and the full lycanthrope, it has only a limited set of emotions and thoughts, usually those it experienced at the moment of death. It is usually drawn to scenes of its life, people and places that remind it of what it was, in an attempt to regain what it cannot understand that it has lost. An isolated ghost is a slave to its own identity, as we all are, sometimes.

A full-blown lycanthrope manifests if this monster aspect gains dominance over the other two. The mechanisms for this are varied and outside of the reach of this endeavor.

If a lycanthrope is removed or destroyed from a person, what is left is a vampire. This conclusion is inevitable, both because of the logic I am about to present, and because of course there’s a vampire.

Once the life-force in the form of the were-creature is removed from a person, what is left is a body and a mind that are not alive, lacking in life’s vibrancy and dynamic nature, but still full cognizant and functional. It will not die naturally because it no longer has metabolic function. It can no longer change. It can still reproduce, but that reproduction is mechanical and infectious. It cannot create new life as that requires the lycanthrope. It can only transform others into those like itself, but since it has the mental awareness granted by its ghost, so do its “offspring.”

It requires very little additional speculation to see how this theory can be used to explain how people can be transformed into all variety of monsters. At least, all variety of the Urban Fantasy/World of Darkness/Halloween variety which are the purview of these notes. For example, it takes very little imagination to see how one would use these rules to explain the advent of mummies, or pumpkin kings, or teen wolves.

There is much left to be explored regarding the nuances of this theory, but its explanatory power is undeniable. As are its practical applications. By learning to comprehend our inner monsters, we can learn to resist them. More importantly, we can learn to harness and utilize them, for our own terrible, terrible ends.

 

Red On The Tip of My Pen

How well I could write if I were not here!

 

I don’t know how this happened. I think about it a lot. That gets me nowhere.

“I’m writing a new novel I’m really excited about,” I said to Maya on the phone the other day. That’s my mom. I call her Maya.

“Oh, great!” she said. “What’s it about?” I heard the apprehension in her voice. She knew what I was going to say.

“It’s a horror novel.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Right.”

“I don’t know where this comes from,” I said. “I never liked horror movies as a kid.”

“I know. That was your brother. Do you like them now?”

“Yeah. Kind of. I mean, I really like them. Some of them. It’s weird.”

“You’re weird,” she said, with the kind of unconditional affection wrapped in mild insult that is the hallmark of mothers everywhere. At least, the good ones.

As an adult, I love horror movies, but it was a long time coming. I’ve loved horror fiction for a long time, but something about movies put me off. I remember sitting in the finished basement where I spent almost all of the free hours of my childhood. My brother and I were both stuffed on the love seat with the brown flower pattern that used to be my grandmothers, watching our tiny TV. Mostly it got used for Sega Genesis games and Saved By The Bell after school, but it was the weekend, and either it was my brother’s turn or I didn’t have a game I was playing. He had the remote, and he flipped from channel to channel.

He stopped on a shot of a boy with wide eyes. Creepy music in the background.

“Change it,” I said. “This looks stupid.” He didn’t change it. An awful owl puppet showed up on screen, and something scary happened.

“Ooo, a bad horror movie,” my brother said. “I love bad horror movies.”

“I’m going outside.”

I didn’t love bad horror movies. I still don’t. I love good ones. But not all of them. When I talk to people about horror or browse horror websites like Bloody Disgusting I feel alienated. Because I love scary. I love creepy. I crazy love unsettling.

But I don’t like gore. Blood and guts both disgust and bore me. They’re supposed to do one, but not so much the other. Furthermore, I don’t even understand why people find them appealing. I mean that literally. I consider myself highly empathetic, and I don’t bat an eye at the fact people have different preferences than me. I don’t like raw onions, but it’s not weird that other people do. They have a different mind, different senses, different reactions to the same stimuli. So I accept that people dig sprays of blood on the screen. I’m just not sure why.

It’s more true for me than it is for other genres I don’t like. I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, but I completely grasp their appeal. Human connection, the fantasy of idealized romance, the warm, beautiful feeling that real love is out there, possible, never even that far away. But with gore? I just don’t get it.

Which makes the next part weird. This novel I’m writing, that one my mother will be sad that she can’t read if it somehow gets published? It’s pretty gory. There’s blood. There flesh flying off of people’s faces and splatting against the wall. At some point, someone’s head pops clean off and lands amidst a pile of Doritos. I’m less than 10,000 words in. And my other novel? That was pretty gory, too.

It’s not that I hate blood and guts. Not enough to turn me off of a horror story or movie that otherwise appeals to me. Sometimes it’s even the whole point, but everything else is so conceptually interesting or well written that I love it anyway. Kill Bill is one of my favorite movies. One of my favorite short stories is Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train, which is not about cooking steaks on an electrified third rail. Although I should totally write that story.

When I read bloody, visceral descriptions of blood and viscera, I always wonder what the writer is thinking. Do they find this kind of thing appealing? Are the just totally unfazed by it? I used to think the answer had to be yes. Now I’m not so sure. Because I don’t find it appealing, and I am definitely fazed by it. But not while I’m writing.

I’ve noticed that my brain sometimes writes jokes I find distasteful for demographics I don’t identify with. The frattiest of frat boys, or the reddest of rednecks. Jokes I think would be legitimately funny to people in those groups, but that I don’t find amusing at all. Maybe generative creativity goes isn’t about the appeal to the brain that generates it. Maybe writers don’t always write for themselves, but for the ages.

Or in this case, ages 13-17, mostly male, parental permission required for entry.

 

More Than Just Fear

candyman

 

“Candyman’s not as scary as Freddie,” Alexis said, leaning on her desk.

“He’s much scarier,” said Gene. “Freddy’s not scary.”

“Freddie kills anyone. With Candyman you have to say his name three times in front of a mirror. Who’s gonna do that?”

“Well, yeah, but with Freddie you have to say ‘Kruger Kruger Kruger.’ So it’s the same.”

I watched the conversation with abstract anthropological interest. Or at least, that’s how I describe it now. As nerdy as I was, even I didn’t see myself as a pop-culture anthropologist among my peer group in sixth grade. But I did find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their passions, even those I didn’t share.

This conversation further cemented something for me: I hated horror movies. After all, they were all about making you feel scared. That was their entire purpose. Who would want that? Fear is terrible. I spent enough time frightened of dark and impossible things as it was. Adults wax about they miss innocent joy and belief in the fantastical children possess. But they forget about the fear.

Children spend so much of their time afraid, because they Believe. How can they not? We only know that the world is round, that certain mushrooms can kill us, that there used to be a thing called the Roman Empire where they spoke a language no one speaks anymore except the Pope and some Catholic school teachers, because someone you trusted told us, and we believed them. To a children, the world is full of dark, hungry things. They are just as real as Santa Claus, life after death, and the Boston Tea Party. Things that are never seen or touched, but that, in the right moments, cannot be doubted.

I just watched Candyman for the first time the other day, more than twenty years after Gene and Alexis made me never want to watch it. It sprang to my mind because I saw Tony Todd, the actor who plays Candyman, in two separate episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Playing two separate characters, although in their defense one of them was a Klingon. To many people I’ve known, Todd is and always will be Candyman, no matter what other roles he plays. Seeing the actor made me realize I’ve never seen the movie, and that was a gap in my knowledge. Because now, as an adult, I love horror movies.

I love them in a way I never could as a child. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that I came to realize that my middle school classmates had a very unsophisticated view of the purpose of horror. They were after what might be called “popcorn horror.” Popcorn horror is all about the fear. It’s about the thrill of being scared, decontextualized from any exploration of themes or interesting narrative or character work.

A friend of mine, writer and filmmaker Evan Alexander Baker, summed it up perfectly with the following quote:

As a lifelong horror fan, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT prioritize being “scared out of my wits.” I watch horror movies because I want to be confronted with interesting, resonant images and ideas relating to the abject and the uncanny.

I am not there for a “thrill ride.”

Are there some genuinely scary horror movies that are also masterpieces of the genre? Absolutely. Are they masterpieces of the genre BECAUSE they are scary? Nope; they’re scary as a byproduct of their ideas and imagery.

When filmmakers set out, first and foremost, to be “scary,” they produce hollow technical exercises.

It took me years to appreciate that it’s not horror that I don’t like. It’s cheap horror. A lot of people gauge horror on the “scare” scale–like it’s a love-tester with “love” replaced with “fear”– and there’s nothing wrong with that. Popcorn horror has its place, for the people who like that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.

I still don’t exactly enjoy being scared, but I love being unsettled. I love engaging in the vast landscape of imagination that exists in the places of the human mind that make us uncomfortable. My favorite kind of horror is the type that makes me doubt my view of reality and the world.

I love it for the same reason that I love really fantastical fantasy like China Meiville or AD&D Planescape setting, or conceptually experimental science fiction like the works of Philip K. Dick or John C. Wright. I love them because they are mind-expanding. At its best, horror is even better at this than any other genre, because it is unafraid to stretch your worldview until it breaks. Until it bleeds. It expands the mind in a way that is both intellectual and viscerally primal. Cartesian radical doubt for the senses.

The other reason I love horror as an adult, when I could not as a child, is because I can take it. I no longer Believe. Not the way that I did. I still get scared walking into the basement in the dead of night, but it’s not the paralyzing dread it was as a child. I can grit my teeth and make myself do it, because this basket of clothing isn’t going to wash itself. Hopefully. When something is frightening enough, it is real. As a child, you might understand intellectually that the shadow on cast by the door doesn’t contain a smiling beast with teeth for eyes. But emotionally, you know it is there. In your brain you feel it as strongly and completely as if you had seen it walked across the living room floor.

Adults have this kind of fear, too. You can see it when a parent loses track of their child in a crowded grocery story. They might go into complete panic until they find them. The odds that the child has been abducted in those three minutes are very small, but the fear is so real it feels like a certainty.
As we grow older, we learn what the world contains and what it does’ t. We come to rely on these patterns. They’re comfortable. The world becomes a safer place because we’ve seen its shadows enough times that our belief that they are harmless is stronger than the monsters. I can watch horror movies now, even though they still frighten me, because that fear is no longer the threat that it once was. It won’t slip under my skin and whisper in my blood for years, the way it did when I was small.

But it still frightens me, because I still Believe. Not as much as I did, but it’s still there. I dread the person I’ll become if I ever lose that entirely. I don’t think humanity will ever fully understand the world, and so there are places for the things that live in the cracks and lap at the wounds of our nightmares. I did not find Candyman to be that frightening, but I’m not going to say the name out loud. Because I just don’t know. And even now, as I write these words, I’m happier than I like to admit that there are no mirrors in this room.

They Have Teeth

Strange tree trunk

Another 37, Day 14

I’m not quite sure what I have against wood, lately. Anyway, here’s another horror poem! But I quite like I this one. It sort of formed in my head while I was working and supposedly concentrating on other things. It’s been running through my head all day.

 

 

wooden teeth
They Have Teeth

just so you know
the trees have teeth
they like to eat pork
they’d rather have beef

but if they can get it
it needs to be said
they prefer the soft tissue
that lives in your head

you’ll never see them
though they’re always bared
they hide in the places
you’d rather not stare

if you see them glisten
in the venomous night
you’d best strike their form
from your mind and your sight

for if they ever realize
we know that they’re there
you won’t want to breathe
what they leave of the air

so there’s only one truth
that I need to bequeath
just forget that I told you
the trees, they have teeth