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Prometheus and Chiron is a more or less straightforward horror story, and its trigger was also straightforward—so straightforward that you might be able to guess it without me telling you, once you’ve read the story. But I’ll tell you anyway.
One morning, in the waning months of the year, I was nearly alone on the train station platform, waiting for my usual train. The sun had not yet risen, so it was still quite dark. As I dithered about (most likely doing some writing or editing), I glanced across the track, and saw a woman standing very still beneath one of the electric lights on the other side. I looked away for what seemed only a moment, though it could have been quite a bit longer, and when I looked back up, the woman was gone, as though she’d vanished into thin air.
A look down the platform soon revealed that she had simply walked to the other end, for undisclosed reasons of her own. But her initial silent presence and subsequent seeming vanishment made me think about the possibility of a ghost haunting a railroad platform. What might have led someone to die in, and then to haunt, such a place? Under what conditions would such a ghost be visible? What if it were a ghost that only a certain type of person could see? This wouldn’t necessarily be a person with psychic abilities (as in my story If the Spirit Moves You, from Welcome to Paradox City) but a person who has certain characteristics, perhaps similar in some special way to the person whose ghost remains.
The story took shape pretty quickly from there. I don’t recall how long it was before I started writing it, but by the time I did, all the elements were present. I wanted to deal, of course, with the hellish experience of a spirit being trapped in one place, right where she had died, and the frightening fact of a living person finding himself able to see such a ghost. But I also wanted to deal with the much realer hell that both of the characters in the story exemplify, one with which I’m familiar on many levels: as a physician who has treated those with chronic pain and with addiction problems, as a sufferer of chronic pain due to back injury, and as someone who has seen friends and family die as a consequence of addiction.
The ghost-woman trapped at the station represents the classic, purely self-destructive individual that most people probably imagine when they think of drug addicts: someone who, for whatever reasons, started taking drugs and got hooked on them. I dealt with this tangentially in Ifowonco, but it’s central to Prometheus and Chiron. This ghost is a woman whose life was ruined—and ended—by her abuse of narcotics. Unfortunately for her, at the place she died, a supernatural force was present, one not merely destructive but actively malevolent.
Tommy, on the other hand—the protagonist—is a different breed of addiction victim. He’s a former Marine, a hard worker, a basically upright citizen and good person, who worked in the construction industry. Because of an accident on the job, he’s been left with chronic pain from low back and knee injuries. He’s qualified for disability benefits, but as many people know, these can be woefully limited in the relief they provide. To cover his cost of living, Tommy has to do at least some paying work now and then, but he has to hide that work from the authorities, so he doesn’t lose his benefits, and he has to treat his pain to be able to function at all. Unfortunately, the only available medicines capable of dealing with significant chronic pain are opiates…and they come with a series of liabilities, including increasing levels of physical dependence—and the risk of psychological dependence—and consequent, agonizing withdrawal symptoms if one is suddenly deprived of them. This is a terrible, no-win situation in which all too many well-intentioned people find themselves.
It’s this dependence on opiates, which he shares with the ghost-woman, that allows Tommy to see her, and that, combined with his good heart, makes him vulnerable to the danger he encounters.
The title of this story arrived after I’d almost completed the first draft, but it must have been percolating through my subconscious for some time. It is, in a way, somewhat pretentious, but I couldn’t help myself; it seemed so appropriate. It also risks, for those familiar with mythology, giving away the end of the story. I recognized that possibility but decided that the risk was worth it.
Prometheus and Chiron is shorter than many of my short stories, and it’s fairly concentrated and direct. Writing it was enjoyable—it almost always is—and more than a little bit cathartic. It allowed me to express some of the personal horror I experienced while taking prescription pain medications for many years while at the same time suffering through the pain that made them necessary. (It wouldn’t be too over-simplistic to say that those experiences were a large part of what led to the crashing and burning of my previous life.)
Writing Tommy’s character was a revelatory experience. Knowing that he was going to be going through some very bad things indeed, I named him after someone I knew—not well, but well enough to know that I didn’t like him much. However, as I wrote, I realized that my fictional Tommy was a far finer person than my impression of his namesake. This led me to wonder if, just maybe, the real person had aspects to his character that were also quite admirable, if only on some small scale, and which I was being uncharitable in not recognizing. I can’t give you an answer to that question, because I only knew the real Tommy briefly and haven’t seen or heard from him in a long time. Maybe, though, if we all knew the inner workings of other people’s minds as well as we experience imaginary characters through the medium of fiction, we would find at least some sympathy for even the most unpleasant of people. For me, at least, that’s probably a lesson worth considering.
Enough philosophizing. Ultimately, Prometheus and Chiron was meant to be, and is, a fairly simple supernatural horror story, and I don’t expect or ask for anyone to care much about it on any other level. I hope you enjoy it.