The Death Sentence, physically if not temporally the first story in Welcome to Paradox City, is probably the most obvious of my stories to have been title-triggered. I don’t recall exactly when I decided to use the phrase as the title for a story, but it surely was at least partly influenced by my having been an involuntary guest of the Florida DOC. I spent my guesthood mainly in FSP West—the Florida State Prison, west unit. This was directly adjacent to the big, old-fashioned, main prison building, where Death Row was located. Roughly once a month while I was there, all activity was shut down and everyone was confined to their quarters for an afternoon—usually a Tuesday, if memory serves—while an execution was carried out*.
The actual origin of the story, however, didn’t take place until I was all but through with the DOC, nearing the end of my time in work release. I hadn’t completed the first draft of Son of Man at the time, though it was proceeding well. I don’t recall what led me to take a break to write a short story, but I’d been pleased with Paradox City, and have always enjoyed reading short horror stories, so I decided to write another one, and the notion of The Death Sentence came readily to mind.
The idea arises from a simple play on words, of course: There is a sentence, in the linguistic sense, obviously not in English, that causes death. I decided that it would have to be heard to take effect…in other words, if the sentence is spoken aloud, anyone who hears it will die, instantly (except the speaker).
This is, in some ways, a sort of dark wish-fulfillment. How many of us wouldn’t at least imagine that we’d like to have access to such a potent and untraceable weapon, to remove from the world those who really deserve it, in our own minds at least. Contrary to the fantasizing, though, I think most people—not everyone, alas—would, if they found such a thing, never willingly use it, except perhaps in self-defense, or in similar circumstances.
There’s strong evidence supporting this conclusion, it’s not just some Pollyanna notion of human benignity. Many of us occasionally find ourselves in situations in which we could exercise power over our fellow human beings in various malevolent ways, and we almost never do so. Similarly, though there are at least as many firearms as there are humans in the United States, a truly tiny number of them are ever used against other people.
Of course, as Louis CK has opined, this is partly just because it really sucks getting caught murdering someone, but if the laws against murder were to be repealed, “There would be a lot of murder.” He was doing a stand-up routine, though, and was probably exaggerating even his own thoughts. Deliberate, premeditated murder is a rarity, thankfully. There are people who will do it, though, as we all know. Some are mentally ill in obvious ways, some are sociopathic in character, some are just supreme assholes. But what would even a non-psychopath do who had stumbled across a magical sentence that could kill any listener? It would clearly be untraceable, an impossible crime to solve by any ordinary means. What sort of person would find the temptation to use it—at least here and there—irresistible? Again, I think most people would not use it, but maybe someone who was socially awkward, a bit of an outsider, might at least be slightly more inclined…though such a person’s conscience might torment him in the end.
But I didn’t want to write just a simple story of a person who discovers such a power and uses it to get even with those he has perceived to have wronged him, but finally gets his comeuppance, either through the workings of fate or through the dictates of his own guilt. That could be a good story, but it seemed too obvious to me. There had to be more to it.
Also, where on Earth would someone find such a sentence? Probably nowhere that really was on Earth, at least not in the ordinary way. It certainly wouldn’t be likely to originate anywhere in the human realm. And it would be unlikely to stand on its own, but would surely be found in some ancient, dreadful tome, full of many such tidbits of terrible, arcane knowledge. When imagining such a tome, what springs into the mind of any lover of horror literature but the works of H.P. Lovecraft? I wouldn’t literally want to bring the Necronomicon itself into my story, certainly not in its original version (so to speak), but why not have some related text appear? And where better for it to appear but in a library, perhaps in some hidden room that isn’t normally accessible by patrons, but which might, at just the right time, be opened for a person of just the right type of mind?
And that was that. The story, more or less, was born. Of course, a tome of Lovecraftian nature would not merely be content to have its bearer haplessly—or even willfully—use the power within to kill random or targeted humans. (It almost goes without saying that such a dark repository of knowledge would have a mind and purposes of its own.) Why would it bother to do such a thing? Humans, after all, from the point of view of the gods and demons of the Cthulhu mythos, are as ephemeral as mayflies; a single human life—or even a thousand—brought up short might momentarily entertain such creatures, but could hardly be a matter of importance, worthy of any effort. There had to be some greater motive, some other purpose, at hand.
Thus, the protagonist (we can hardly call him “hero”) of the story learns, even as he discovers the effect of the single legible, if unintelligible, sentence in this strange but strangely fascinating book, and uses it, that there are other effects to its use beyond simply bringing death to those who hear it. Gradually, he becomes aware of a deeper, more terrible secret to the book, and to our flimsy, soap-bubble universe, behind which lies the true reality of the dark, Outer Gods…gods which have no need for any human worship.
Of course, no mortal could encounter such information and remain unscathed. Insanity is one of the most common findings among Lovecraft’s characters, but even that might be mild compared to other fates. Needless to say, the protagonist of The Death Sentence is not unaffected by his encounter with the book and the titular sentence. By the end of the story, it’s difficult to say where his new fate will lead him, but it’s unlikely to be a destination that the rest of us would want him to choose. Unfortunately, we’re not likely to be given a choice.
Now, a little side-note. It’s fairly common practice among authors to occasionally indulge ourselves by putting people who have really irritated us into stories and having them suffer, or even die. This betrays a dark part of human nature, no doubt, but it can surely come as no big surprise. I can think of two occasions in which I have indulged in this practice (I far more often model good people in my stories roughly after real people I’ve known). The Death Sentence is where one of those occasions occurs. I’m not going to reveal which of the several deaths in the story it was (you may freely hazard your guesses), but I exculpate myself by saying that this person is among the most odious that it has been my misfortune to encounter…and, remember, I’ve been to prison! I feel no guilt over killing this person in my story (though in real life, I even feel guilty about killing cockroaches…and I try never to kill spiders, which are, after all, predators on a great many insect pests for whom I have much less pity**.)
This is probably more than really needed to be said about The Death Sentence. At heart, it’s just a pure, gonzo horror story, written entirely for the fun of giving the reader a harmless thrill; in this, I suppose it’s a bit like building a roller-coaster, but much less expensive. Still, even the most light-hearted tale can sometimes have benefits besides pure entertainment, and it may be useful for us to imagine what we might do if we were suddenly to uncover a perfect, untraceable, irresistible weapon. Putting away indulgence in fantasy, I think most people would do far better, be far more restrained, than they might expect of themselves.
Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna after all.
*Florida is one of the last bastions of the death penalty in America, and under Governor Scott (aka Governor Voldemort…if you want to know why some call him that, just google a few photos), it was carried out with almost unprecedented frequency.
**and though I leave them completely alone when I’m out of doors, I am positively enthusiastic about killing ants when they get in the house, especially in the kitchen. This is partly for practical reasons: if one ant finds food, she’s going to bring ten thousand of her sisters to come get more of it. But it’s also simply a fact that, if I were to invade an ant colony, they would do their level best to kill me, so it only seems fair that I kill them if they come into my home.