Author’s note for “Prometheus and Chiron”


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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.

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.