Author’s note for “If the Spirit Moves You”

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.


Author’s note for “The Death Sentence”

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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.

Welcome to Paradox City


Three men. Three dark journeys.

One man enters a room that should not exist and discovers a mysterious book containing secrets of dreadful power.

Another man discovers in himself an ability that will reveal mysteries of life…and death.

A third man enters a popular nightclub, where seemingly impossible events are commonplace, and where his life is changed…forever.

Welcome to realms of darkness, fear, and wonder. Welcome to Paradox City.