It’s the early nineteen-nineties, and Jerry, a successful advertising executive, is having a breakdown. He’s done too much shading of the truth, and he’s watched too much Headline News, and he can no longer make sense of the world. Now, sitting at the breakfast table, he contemplates the possible future for himself and his family while dealing out a hand of solitaire…
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.
Here it is:
There’s not much more to say than that. Enjoy!
Hello there, everyone.
Here, at last, is the audio version of I for one welcome our new computer overlords, read by the author (me). You are free to listen to it on this site, or to download it to listen at a later time, and even to share the file with your friends. You are not allowed to charge anyone money, or to otherwise make money, from that process, nor to pass the work off as your own. Other than that, however, please enjoy. If anyone does a dance remix, please let me know, I’d love to hear it.
I apologize for the many imperfections in this audio file – there are inconsistencies in volume and tone, which make it clear where I began new recording sessions, and there is also the occasional air sound on the mic. As I’ve written before, doing this is a learning process, and I expect that my next audio recorded story (probably Prometheus and Chiron), will have somewhat better production values. Depending on the reception this one receives, there will be at least some delay before I do that; it’s a time-consuming process, and even though P and C is a shorter story than Ifowonco, on this one I must have put in ten to twenty hours of work for each hour of the final recording (just over two). I really must get back into full-throttle writing of Unanimity, also. However, depending on how enthusiastic the reception is for this audio version of Ifowonco, as well as the inscrutable exhortations of my soul, I may turn to my next audio recording sooner rather than later. I also plan to turn this audio into a video, which will likely just be the audio track, playing over some fixed image – probably the e-book cover, I shouldn’t wonder.
As you may notice, in order to be able to post the audio recording here, I’ve upgraded my site, and you shouldn’t be seeing advertisements on it anymore. If you do, in the future, they’ll be ads I’ve put up myself.
And speaking of advertising…if you enjoy this audio telling of my story, I encourage you to buy the e-book version for Kindle. It’s only 99 cents (in America, with equivalent pricing in other territories), and the Kindle app is free and can be used on any smartphone, laptop, desktop, or tablet. Even though one loses the romance of the paper book, the convenience of being able to carry around an essentially limitless library in your pocket is hard to beat, as even Peter Lunsford admits. I currently lug 118 volumes around with me wherever I go, and believe me, I’m just getting started.
To purchase, or just to peruse, the story at Amazon, just click on the image of the cover above, or on any of the full or abbreviated instances of the title written in this post (similarly, you can see Prometheus and Chiron by clicking on any of the links attached to its title or abbreviation).
Okay, well, without further ado (and there has been much of it, hopefully not about nothing), here is the audio version of Ifowonco, submitted for your enjoyment:
This author’s note for If the Spirit Moves You is the last one from Welcome to Paradox City, and though it’s the middle story in that small collection, I think it was the last one that I wrote. It’s also the lightest-hearted story in the book, though it still qualifies as one of “three dark tales,” because its subject matter is ghosts…or the “unquiet dead” as one of the characters in the story asks us to say.
This was not a title-driven story. The idea for it was triggered by a comment I heard while staying with my parents and my sister for a few months, after having completed Work Release at the tail end of my sojourn with the Florida DOC. It was October and, as was their wont, my sister and mother had put up many holiday-related decorations in and around the house, including the front lawn. One morning my sister came in from raking some leaves and she said to my mother that, while she was out front, a ghost fell out of the tree near her. I knew she was referring to one of the decorations she had put up earlier, but her statement made me think about what might happen if a person were outside and a real ghost fell out of a nearby tree.
Of course, ghosts, as understood in popular culture, aren’t normally prone to falling, so the idea seemed humorous to me. I wondered under what circumstances a ghost really might be subject to the usual influence of gravity. I also wondered under what circumstances a person might actually see such a thing happen.
The story didn’t develop right then and there but percolated and fermented and sporulated and incubated and underwent all sorts of other metaphorical processes for quite some time. Finally, it popped out in more or less complete form: What if people don’t see ghosts anymore, not because we have come to know that they don’t exist, but because the increasing disbelief in them has deprived them of their power? If that were the case, and if they realized it, how might they seek to change the situation, so that they could regain their influence. Also, why would they want to do it? I thought it would be more interesting, and more fun, if they weren’t trying to accomplish anything sinister, but rather to bring themselves to the attention of the modern world, so they could enlist the aid of modern science in helping to free them from their prison as earthbound spirits.
The purpose of writing this story was just to play with the idea. I suppose that’s ultimately true of any story at some level, but I also wanted to make this one funny, at least a little. Thus, the almost slapstick nature of the young ghost’s tumble from the tree while trying to practice hanging himself, and the confused subsequent interaction between him and Edgar Lee, the story’s protagonist, in which each only slowly realizes the other’s nature.
Among many influences on the story, one is my love of manga and anime, a taste I acquired only after I was already in my thirties. The supernatural stories in manga often have a different kind of sensibility than many traditional Western tales. This is probably partly because of the cultural heritage of Shintoism, which considered spirits to be integral and essential parts of the world. Many anime and manga have characters who—unlike nearly all of their fellow modern humans—can see and interact with spirits of one kind or another, good and bad. This would be just the sort of person who might encounter an inept ghost falling out of a tree. Thus, Edgar Lee, I decided, had at least some Asian heritage…including a great-grandfather who had, in China, used a peach wood sword to exorcise demons.
I enjoyed combining seemingly contradictory attributes into individual characters in this story. There’s the inept and clumsy young ghost with a bit of a snarky attitude, who is a fan of James Randi—that rock-star of the skeptical debunker community. There’s the ghost’s friend and fellow spirit, the instigator of the plan to reawaken belief in and awareness of ghosts, who is painfully PC in his sensibilities and tries to raise consciousness about the inappropriate use of stereotypes regarding the “unquiet dead”. There’s Edgar’s father, a sober and rational retired electrical engineer who is utterly unsurprised when Edgar discovers his own supernatural ability, and who says, “These things happen.” And of course, there’s Edgar himself, a struggling copywriter for a PR firm who realizes that he is possibly the last person on Earth who can see ghosts.
This obviously isn’t supposed to be a deep story, though I do try to take it and its characters seriously within their own world. It’s always harder to be funny than it is to be scary—probably for good, sound, biological reasons—so I rarely write to try to make other people laugh. In this story, mostly, I was writing to make myself laugh, or at least to smile, while still creating interesting characters with a problem that really would be bad if we were faced with it. How horrible would it be to be trapped on Earth for eternity, unable to have any effect whatsoever on anything that happens? Pretty horrible, I’m thinking.
The story makes a nice buffer between the other two in Welcome to Paradox City, neither of which has much humor, and both of which have very non-happy endings. If the Spirit Moves You ends on a rather optimistic note, and I like sometimes to imagine what sort of events might have followed the story’s conclusion. I hope that some readers think about such things as well, and that at least a few of them share my bizarre sense of humor and get a modest laugh out of the story.
Finally, a brief word about the title. The first draft of the story was complete before I even started thinking about what to call it, and that task required a few solid days’ pondering. I considered and rejected several rather stupid and ham-handed plays on words, including one which turned out already to have been used by a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Finally, I decided just to go with a slight variant on the dry joke Edgar’s father makes at the end of the story. He is, probably, my favorite character in the tale, and is partly modeled after my own father; giving him (nearly) the last word as well as the honor of naming the story seemed entirely appropriate.
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.
Okay, well, today I’m going to take a brief break from my “Author’s Notes” series, to give you some updates and reflections upon what’s happening in my current writing. I plan to return to the Author’s Notes next week, with a reflection on “The Chasm and the Collision.” This one of my most emotion-laden works, and is, perhaps, the closest one to my heart. At least, it’s the one that bears the greatest personal hope and motivation, though my darker stories are probably more reflective of some aspects of my personality.
Those of you who follow this blog will have noted that, earlier this week, I published “Prometheus and Chiron,” as an e-book for Kindle. As with “I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” I think it benefited greatly from my decision to re-edit it de novo. This fact has convinced me more than ever of the wisdom of a suggestion Stephen King gives in his wonderful book “On Writing.” He recommends that, once you have finished a story, you put it away for a while before beginning the editing/rewriting process. That way, when you come back to it, you do so with a fresh point of view, and a more objective eye.
Both “Ifowonco” and “Prometheus and Chiron” were subjected to rewriting and editing before I ever posted them here on the blog, and yet when I returned to them, I found that they needed quite a bit of fine-tuning. This was not specific to the narrative—I was well satisfied with the arcs of both stories, and didn’t change any of those substantial facts. But the language use, the choice of words—stylistic matters, as well as grammatical ones—bore significant improvement. This is probably at least partly a result of the fact that, in putting the stories on my blog, I was publishing them informally. I was happy and eager to receive any feedback, including the pointing out of glaring stylistic problems, grammatical errors, and so on, by blog readers. This didn’t happen—unfortunately—but I would have welcomed it, and so perhaps I was a bit lazy. Beyond that, though, it’s simply a fact that I first edited the stories immediately after writing them, and so I was still in the mindset of that initial creative process, not in that of a critic. The story in both cases was so fresh in my head that it flowed right through the awkward phrasings and poor word choices that I had used, because I knew only too well what I meant to say. Coming back after a while helped me realize that, while my intention might have been clear to me, the true measure of success is how well that intention is communicated, not how strongly it was felt by the author.
So, I’m pleased with the outcomes of my more recent editing, though I’m sure that both stories—like every other one ever written, probably—could be improved still. Stories, I think, are never really finished from the author’s point of view; they’re just allowed to go free.
My happiness at putting those two short stories out as e-books has led me to take a short break from “Unanimity” and focus entirely on rewriting “Hole for a Heart” to release it as an e-book. Then, I shall return to “Unanimity,” and complete it while not working on any other simultaneous fiction projects. Thankfully—and I am indeed quite thankful for this—I am blessed with the ability easily to return to the state of mind I was last in when writing a story, and am able quickly to jump back into the stream of its creation, without losing the earlier threads. This is why I was able to write “Son of Man” more than twenty years after I had first started it, with an opening that is almost identical, even in specific phrases, to how I had written it decades in the past. The story then proceeded, more or less, just I had thought it would back in the nineties.
Of course, even in a story conceived and written in one continuous, unbroken chain of creation, there are always surprises. That’s one of the great joys of writing fiction. Characters and events are simulations, of a sort, and they follow the rules you program into them. Sometimes the interplay of these rules produces outcomes the writer didn’t explicitly imagine or expect when beginning the story, but which are inescapable products of the nature of those characters and events. This is really quite a wonderful thing, when it happens, and feels nearly miraculous.
Given my plan to focus on it exclusively, I expect that “Hole for a Heart” will be released more quickly on the heels of “Prometheus and Chiron” than the latter was following “Ifowonco.” I could be wrong. “Hole for a Heart” is even slightly longer than “Ifowonco,” and is quite a bit longer than “Prometheus and Chiron.” It may take a lot of work to tighten it up optimally and to shape it into a form for which I’m willing to charge people actual money.
And now, to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.” At least, that’s all I have to say for the moment. I’m a bit long-winded, in writing if not in person, so I don’t doubt that more will be forthcoming on these topics in the future. In the meantime, please do consider buying and reading my stories, and if you do, please review them. In fact, if you write to me and ask, I’d be happy to buy you a copy of any of my short stories—and probably my novels—in return for the promise that you will review them. I don’t need you to promise to give them good reviews. You can be brutal and needlessly sadistic, if that’s your preference. In this, I am fearless, for I suspect that—once one stops weeping—it’s possible to learn more from the feedback of a malicious reviewer than from one who merely sings one’s praises, though the latter is no doubt more pleasant. This doesn’t mean I want you to say you don’t like the stories if you really do like them, just that you don’t have to butter me up; I’m fat enough already.
I hope you all have a wonderful week. Try not let politics get you down too much—everything’s ephemeral, after all.