For much too long I have been promising to formulate my views on the writing of supernatural horror tales. Yet I’ve continued to put off doing so. All I can say for myself is that until now I just haven’t had the time. Why not? I was too busy churning out the leetle darlings. But many people, for whatever reasons, would like to be writers of horror tales and crave advice on how to go about it. I know this. Fortunately, the present moment is a convenient one for me to share my knowledge and experience regarding this special literary vocation. Well, I guess I’m ready as I’ll ever be. Let’s get it over with.
The way I plan to proceed is quite simple. First, I’m going to sketch out the basic plot, characters, and various other features of a short horror story. Next, I will offer suggestions on how these raw elements may be treated in a few of the major styles which horror authors have exploited over the years. If all goes well, the novice teller of terror tales will be saved much time and agony puzzling out such things for himself. At certain spots along the way I will examine specifics of technique, come to highly biased conclusions regarding intents and purposes, submit general commentary on the philosophy of horror fiction, and so forth.
At this point I would like to state that what follows is a rough draft of a story that in its finished form was meant to appear in the published works of Gerald K. Riggers (myself in literary guise if you didn’t know). However, it never came to fruition. Frankly, I just couldn’t bring myself to go the distance with this one. Such things happen. Perhaps farther down the line we’ll analyze such cases of irreparable failure, perhaps not. Regardless, the bare elements of this narrative are still suitable for demonstrating how horror writers do what they do. Good. Here it is, then, as told in my own words.
A thirtyish male protagonist, let’s name him Nathan, has a date with a girl whom he deeply wishes to impress. Toward this end, a minor role is to be played by an impressive new pair of trousers he intends to find and purchase. A few obstacles materialize along the way, realistic inconveniences all, before he finally manages to secure this item of apparel, and at a fair price. They are first-rate in their tailoring, this is quite evident. So far, so good. Profoundly good, to be sure, since Nathan believes that one’s personal possessions should themselves possess particular qualities and pedigrees. For example, Nathan’s overcoat is a handsome and well-fabricated garment he special ordered from an esteemed retailer of fine clothes, his wristwatch is the superior timepiece his grandfather bequeathed to him, and his car is a distinguished but not obtrusive vehicle. For Nathan, peculiar essences inhere not only in certain possessions but also in certain places, certain happenings in time and space, and certain modes of being. In Nathan’s view, every facet of one’s life should shine with these essences because they are what make an individual really real. What are theses essences? Over a period of time, Nathan has narrowed them down to three: something magical, something timeless, and something profound. Though the world around him is for the most part lacking in these special ingredients, he perceives his own life to contain them in fluctuating but acceptable quantities. His new trousers certainly do; and Nathan hopes, for the first time in his life, that a future romance—to be conducted with one Lorna McFickel—will too.
So far, so good. Until the night of Nathan’s first date, that is.
Miss McFickel resides in a respectable suburb but, in relation to where Nathan lives, the locale of her home requires that he negotiate one of the most dangerous sectors of the city. No problem: Nathan’s keeps his car well maintained. If he just keeps the doors locked and windows rolled up, everything will be fine. Worst luck, broken bottles on a broken street, and a flat tire. Nathan curbs the car. He removes his grandfather’s watch and locks it in the glove compartment; he takes off his overcoat, folds it up neatly, and snuggles it into the shadows beneath the dashboard. As far as the trousers are concerned, he would simply have to exercise great care while attempting to change his tire in record time, and in a part of town known as Hope’s Back Door.
Now, all the while Nathan is fixing the tire, his legs feel strange. He could attribute this to the physical labor he was performing in a pair of trousers not exactly designed for such abuse. He would just have been fooling himself, though. For Nathan remembers his legs feeling strange, though less noticeably, when he tried on the trousers at home. They didn’t feel that way at the clothing store. If they had, he would never have purchased them. He would also have returned them if his date with Lorna McFickel hadn’t been scheduled too soon for him to find another pair of trousers as fitting as these, which turned out to be not fitting in the least once they began going strange on him. But strange how? Strange as in being a little tingly, and even then some. A little quivery. Nonsense, he’s just nervous about his date with lovely Lorna. And the complications he’s presently experiencing are no help.
Adding to the troubles Nathan has already had, two scraggly juveniles are now watching him change the tire. He tries to ignore them but succeeds a little too well in this. Unseen by him, one of the ostensible delinquents edges toward the car and opens the front door. Worst luck, Nathan forgot to lock it. The audacious hoodlum lays his hands on Nathan’s overcoat, and then both no-goodniks disappear into a tumbledown building.
Very quickly now. Nathan chases the hooligans into what seems to be an untenanted apartment house, and he falls down some stairs leading to a sooty basement. But it’s not that the stairs were rotten, no. It is that Nathan’s legs have given out. They just won’t work anymore. The tingling and quivering have now penetrated him and crippled his body from the waist down. He tries to remove his pants but they won’t come off, as if they had become part of him. Something has gone horribly wrong because of those pants of his. The following is why. A few days before Nathan purchased the pants, they were returned to the store for a cash refund. The woman returning them said that her husband didn’t like the way they felt, which was true. Also true was that her husband had collapsed and died from a heart attack not long after trying on the pants. In an endeavor to salvage what she could from the tragedy, the woman put her husband into a pair of old dungarees before making another move. Poor Nathan, of course, was not informed of his pants’ sordid past. And when the hooligans who stole his overcoat see that he is lying helpless in the grime of that basement, they decide to take advantage of the situation and strip him of his valuables…starting with those expensive-looking slacks and whatever treasures they may contain. But after they relieve a protesting and paralyzed Nathan of his pants, they do not further pursue their pillaging. Not after they see Nathan’s legs, which are the putrid members of a man who is decomposing. With the lower half of Nathan rapidly rotting away, the upper must also die among the countless shadows of that condemned building. And mingled with the pain and madness of his untimely demise, Nathan abhors and grieves over the thought that, for a while anyway, Miss McFickel will think he has stood her up on the first date of what was supposed to be a long line of dates destined to evolve into a magical, timeless, and profound affair of two hearts.
Incidentally, this story, had it reached its culmination, would most likely have borne the title “Romance of a Dead Man.”
As I’ve already stated, there is more than one way to write a horror story. And such a statement, true or false, is easily demonstrated. In this section we will examine the three primary techniques that authors have employed to produce tales of terror. They are: the realistic technique, the traditional Gothic technique, and the experimental technique. Each serves its user in different ways and realizes different ends, there’s no question about that. After a little soul-searching, the prospective horror writer may awaken to the right technique for attaining his personal ends. Thus:
The realistic technique. Since the cracking dawn of consciousness, restless tongues have asked: is the world, and are its people, real? Yes, answers realistic fiction, but only when it is, and they are, normal. The supernatural, and all it represents, is profoundly abnormal, and therefore unreal. Few would argue with these conclusions. Fine. Now the highest aim of the realistic horror writer is to prove, in realistic terms, that the unreal is real. The question is: “Can this be done?” The answer is: “Of course not.” One would look silly attempting such a thing. Consequently, the realistic horror writer, wielding the hollow proofs and premises of his art, must settle for merely seeming to smooth out the ultimate paradox. In order to achieve this effect, the supernatural realist must really know the normal world, and deeply take for granted its reality. (It helps if he himself is normal and real.) Only then can the unreal, the abnormal, the supernatural be smuggled in as a plain brown package marked Hope, Love, or Fortune Cookies, and postmarked: the Edge of the Unknown. And of the dear reader’s seat. In the end, of course, the supernatural explanation of a given story depends entirely on some irrational principle which in the real, normal world looks as awkward and stupid as a rosy-cheeked farm lad in a den of reeking degenerates. (Amend this, possibly, to rosy-cheeked degenerate…reeking farm lads.) Nevertheless, the hoax can be pulled off with varying degrees of success. That much is obvious. Just remember to assure the reader, at certain points in the tale and by way of certain signals, that it’s now all right to believe the unbelievable. Here’s how Nathan’s story might be told using the realistic technique. Fast forward.
Nathan is a normal and real character, or at least one very close to being so. Perhaps he’s not as normal and real as he would like to be, but he does have his sights set on just this goal. He might even be a little too intent on it, though without passing beyond the limits of the normal and the real. We have established that Nathan has a fetish for things “magical” (which word should really have its own pair of quotes, given that the positive connotation our protagonist intends it to carry will be negated by the end of the narrative, when a world of bad magic comes down on Nathan’s head), “timeless” (again the quotes, because if time runs out for anyone, it’s Nathan), and “profound” (hmm, this one has a knottiness about it that the others don’t. “Magical” and “timeless” have a cheaply ironic connection to the incidents of the story. However, “profound” doesn’t work in this way. This “essence” does have an aura about it, though, at least for this writer. For now, then, we’ll let it stand.).
Nathan’s search for the aforesaid qualities in his life may be somewhat uncommon, but certainly not abnormal, not unreal. (And to make him a bit more real, one could supply his overcoat, his grandfather’s wristwatch, and his car with specific brand names, perhaps autobiographically borrowed from one’s own closet, wrist, and garage.) The triadic formula which haunts Nathan—similar to the Latinate slogans on family coats-of-arms—also haunts the text of the tale like a song’s refrain, possibly in italics as the submerged chanting of our anti-hero’s under-mind, possibly not. (Try not to be too artificial; one recalls this is realism.) Nathan wants his romance with Lorna McFickel, along with everything else he considers of value in existence, to be magical, timeless, and, in some vague sense, profound. To Nathan these are attributes that are really normal and really real in a helter-skelter universe where things are ever threatening to go abnormal and unreal on one, anyone, not just him.
Okay. Now Lorna McFickel represents all the virtues of normalcy and reality. She could be played up in the realistic version of the story as much more normal and real than Nathan. Maybe Nathan is after all quite the neurotic; maybe he needs normal and real things too much, I don’t know. (If I did, maybe I could have written the story.) Whatever, Nathan wants to win a normal, real love, but he doesn’t. He loses, even before he has a chance to play. He loses badly. Why? For the answer we can appeal to a very prominent theme in horror stories: be careful what you wish for, because you will certainly get the contrary. What happened was that Nathan got greedy. He wanted something that human existence does not offer—perfection. And to highlight this reality, certain outside supernatural forces were brought in to teach Nathan, and the reader, a lesson. (Realistic horror stories can be very didactic.) But how can such things be? This is really what a supernatural horror story, even a realistic one, is all about. In just what way, amid all the realism of Nathan’s life, does the supernatural sneak past Inspectors Normal and Real standing guard at the gate? Well, sometimes it steps softly by inches until it has crashed the party.
Now in Nathan’s story the source of the supernatural is somewhere inside those mysterious trousers. They are woven of a material which he has never seen the like of; they have no label to indicate their maker; there are no others like them in the store of a different size or color. When Nathan asks the salesman about them, we introduce Exhibit One: the trousers were received as if providentially by the clothier Nathan patronizes. They were not designated to be among the batch of apparel with which they came, the salesman checks. And no one else in the store at the time can tell Nathan anything about them, which is also checked and double-checked. All of these facts make the pants a total mystery in a totally realistic way. The reader now takes the hint that there is something surpassing strange about the pants and will allow that strangeness to extend into the supernatural.
At this point the alert student may ask: but even if the trousers are acknowledged as magical, why do they have the particular effect they eventually have, causing Nathan to rot away below the waist? To answer this question we need to introduce Exhibit Two: Nathan is not the original owner of the pants. Not long before they became one of his magical, timeless, and profound possessions, they were worn by a man whose wife adhered to the rule “waste not, want not” and removed the brand new pants he was wearing when he keeled over and died. But these “facts” explain nothing, right? Of course they don’t. However, they may seem to explain everything if they are revealed in the right manner. All one has to do is link up the Exhibits One and Two (there may even be more) within the scheme of a realistic narrative.
For example, Nathan might find something in the trousers that leads him to deduce that he is not their original owner. Perhaps he finds a winning lottery ticket of a significant, though not too tempting, amount. Being a normally honest type of person, Nathan calls the clothes store, explains the situation, and they dig up the name and phone number of the gentleman who originally purchased those pants, and, afterward, returned them, or had them returned—the signature on the return form is hard to read (how realistic). Quite possibly the lottery ticket belonged to him. Nathan makes another phone call—not minding that the pants had a previous owner because they are so perfect for his plans—and finds out that the pants were returned not by a man, but by a woman. The very same woman who explains to Nathan that she and her husband, never mind the massive coronary, could really use the modest winnings from that lottery ticket.
By now the reader’s mind is no longer on the lottery ticket, but on the revealed fact that Nathan is the owner and future wearer of a pair of pants that seems to have already killed once, and who knows how many other times—thus associating them with impermanence and decay, evils woven into the frustrating fabric of life, evils sent out under various covers (pants, pens, Christmas toys) to cut their recipients down to size because they tried to go against the ways of the world. And so when almost-real, almost-normal Nathan loses all hope of achieving full normalcy and reality, the reader knows why: wrong time, wrong pants, and wrong expectations from a life that has no sense of what we think should be normal and real.
The realistic technique.
It’s easy. Now try it yourself.
The traditional Gothic technique. Certain kinds of people, and a fortiori certain kinds of writers, have always experienced the world around them in the Gothic manner, I’m almost positive. Perhaps there was even some little stump of an apeman who witnessed prehistoric lightning as it parried with prehistoric blackness in a night without rain, and felt his soul rise and fall at the same time to behold this sublime and terrifying conflict. Perhaps such displays provided inspiration for those very first imaginings that were not born of our daily life of crude survival, who knows? Could this be why all our primal mythologies are Gothic—that is, fearsome, fantastical, and inhuman? I only pose the question, you see. Perhaps the forbidding events of triple-volume shockers passed, in abstract, through the brains of hairy, waddling things as they moved around in moon-trimmed shadows during their angular migrations across lunar landscapes of craggy peaks or skeletal wastelands of jagged ice. Such ones did not doubt there was a double world of the fearsome, the fantastical, and the inhuman, for nothing needed to flaunt its reality before their eyes as long as it felt real to their blood. A gullible bunch of creatures, these. And to this day the fearsome, the fantastical, and the inhuman retain a firm grip upon our souls. So much goes without saying, really.
Therefore, the advantages of the traditional Gothic technique, even for the contemporary writer, are two. One, isolated supernatural incidents don’t look as silly in a Gothic tale as they do in a realistic one, since the latter obeys the hard-knocking school of reality while the former recognizes only the University of Dreams. (Of course the entire Gothic tale itself may look silly to a given reader, but this is a matter of temperament, not technical execution.) Two, a Gothic tale gets under a reader’s skin and stays there far more insistently than other kinds of stories. Of course it has to be done right, whatever you take the words done right to mean. Do they mean that Nathan has to function within the monumental incarceration of a castle in the mysterious fifteenth century? No, but he may function within the monumental incarceration of a castle-like skyscraper in the just-as-mysterious modern world. Do they mean that Nathan must be a brooding Gothic hero and Miss McFickel an ethereal Gothic heroine? No, but it may mean an extra dose of obsessiveness in Nathan’s psychology, and Miss McFickel may seem to him less the ideal of normalcy and reality than the pure Ideal itself. Contrary to the realistic story’s allegiance to the normal and the real, the world of the Gothic tale is fundamentally unreal and abnormal, harboring essences which are magical, timeless, and profound in a way the realistic Nathan never dreamed. So, to do right by a Gothic tale, let’s be frank, requires that the author be a militant romantic who relates the action of his narratives in dreamy and more than usually emotive language. Hence, the well-known grandiose rhetoric of the Gothic tale, which may be understood by the sympathetic reader as not just an inflatable raft on which the imagination floats at its leisure upon waves of bombast, but also as the sails of the Gothic artist’s soul filling up with the winds of ecstatic hysteria. So it’s hard to tell someone how to write the Gothic tale, since one really has to be born to the task. Too bad. The most one can do is offer a pertinent example: a Gothic scene from “Romance of a Dead Man,” translated from the original Italian of Geraldo Riggerini. This chapter is entitled “The Last Death of Nathan.”
Through a partially shattered window, its surface streaked with a blue film of dust that thrilled the soul with a sublime sense of desolation, the diluted glow of twilight seeped down onto the basement floor where Nathan lay without hope of a saving mobility. In the dark you’re not anywhere, he had thought as a child bundled beneath his bedcovers, his sight lost in night’s enveloping cloak; and, in the bluish semi-luminescence of that stone cellar, Nathan was truly not anywhere where eyes could see aught but a gloomy fate. With agonizing labor, he raised himself upon one elbow, squinting through tears of confusion into the grimy azure dimness. He now appeared as would a patient who has been left alone in a doctor’s surgery, anxiously looking around to see if he had been forgotten on that frigid table. If only his legs would move as they once did, if only that paralyzing pain would suddenly become cured. Where were those wretched doctors, he asked himself deliriously. Ah, there they were, standing behind the turquoise haze of the surgery lamps. “He’s out of it, man,” said one of them to his colleague. “We can take everything he’s got on him.” But after they removed Nathan’s trousers, the operation was unceremoniously terminated and the patient abandoned in the blue shadows of silence. “Jesus, look at his legs,” they screamed. Oh, if only he could now scream like that, Nathan thought among all the fatal chaos of his other thoughts. If only he could scream loud enough to be heard by that angelic girl, by way of apologizing for his permanent absence from their magical, timeless, and profound future, which was in fact as defunct as the two legs putrefying before his eyes. Couldn’t he now emit such a scream, now that the tingling anguish of his liquefying legs was beginning to course throughout his whole being? But no. It was impossible—to scream that loudly—though he did manage, at length, to scream himself straight to death.
The traditional Gothic technique.
It’s easy if you’re right for the job. Try it yourself and see.
The experimental technique. Every story needs to be told in just the right way. And sometimes that way is puzzling to the public. In the business of storytelling there’s really no such thing as experimentalism in its trial-and-error sense. A story is not an experiment, an experiment is an experiment. True. The “experimental” writer, then, is simply following the story’s commands to tell it in the right way, puzzling or not. The writer is not the story, the story is the story. See?
The question we now must ask is: is Nathan’s the kind of horror story that demands treatment outside the conventional realistic or Gothic techniques? Well, it may be, if only for the purpose of these “notes.” Since I’ve pretty much given up on “Romance of a Dead Man,” I guess there’s no harm in giving another turn of the screw to its bare-bones narrative, even if it’s in the wrong direction. Here’s the way mad Dr. Riggers would experiment, blasphemously, with his man-made Nathanstein. The secret of life, my ugly Igors, is time…time…time.
The experimental version of this story could actually be told as two stories happening “simultaneously,” each narrated in alternating sections which take place in parallel chronologies. One section begins with the death of Nathan and moves backward in time, while its counterpart story begins with the death of the original owner of the magical pants and moves forward. Needless to say, the facts in the case of Nathan must be juggled around so as to be comprehensible from the beginning, that is to say from the end. (Don’t risk confusing your worthy readers.) The stories converge at the crossroads of the final section where the destinies of two characters also converge, this being the clothes store where Nathan purchases the fateful trousers. On his way into the store he bumps into someone who is preoccupied with counting a handful of cash, this being the woman who has returned the trousers which have been already placed back on the rack.
“Excuse me,” says Nathan.
“Look where you’re going,” says the woman.
Of course at this point in time we have already seen where Nathan is going and what “magical” and “profound” trouble he gets himself into as he circles in a “timeless” narrative loop.
The experimental technique.
It’s easy. Now try it yourself.
All the styles we have just examined have been simplified for the purposes of instruction, haven’t they? Each is a purified example of its kind, let’s not kid ourselves. In the real world of horror fiction, however, the above three techniques often get entangled with one another in hopelessly strange ways, almost to the point of rendering my previous discussion of them useless for all practical purposes. But an ulterior purpose, which I’m saving for later, may thus be better served. Before we get there, though, I’d like, briefly, to propose still another style.
The story of Nathan is one very close to my heart and I hope, in its basic trauma, to the hearts of many others. I wanted to write this horror tale in such a fashion that its readers would be distressed not by the isolated catastrophe of Nathan but by the very existence of a world where such catastrophe is possible. I wanted to forge a tale that would conjure a mournful universe independent of time, place, and persons. The characters of the story would be Death itself in the flesh, Desire in a new pair of pants, Desiderata within arm’s reach, and Doom in a size to fit all.
I couldn’t do it, my friends. What I took on was the writing of a story that, for my intents and purposes, would be consummately profound. (There, now I’ve given away my reason for listing this property among Nathan’s three essences.) But I simply didn’t have it in me to put it all together.
It’s not easy, and I don’t suggest that you try it yourself.
The Final Style
Now that we are nearing the conclusion of these notes, it is time to reveal my own prejudice concerning how a horror story should be written. It is my view, and this is only an opinion, mind you, that horror has a voice proper to itself. But what is it? Is it that of an old storyteller, keeping eyes wide around the tribal campfire; is it that of a documentarian of current or historical happenings, reporting events heard-about and conversations over-heard; is it even that of a yarn-spinning god who can see the unseeable and narrate, from an omniscient perspective, a scary set of incidents for his reader’s entertainment? All things considered, I contend that it is none of these voices, nor is it any of the others we have analyzed up to this point. Instead, so I say, it is a lonely voice calling out in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s muffled, like the voice of a tiny insect crying for help from inside a sealed coffin, and other times the coffin shatters, like a brittle exoskeleton, and from within rises a piercing, crystal shriek that lacerates the midnight blackness. In other words, the proper voice of horror is really that of the personal confession.
If you will humor me for a time, I’ll try to explain the proposition that I have just advanced. Horror is not really horror unless it’s your horror—that which you have known personally. You may not be able to get it out in a consummately profound way, but this is where true horror writing must start. And what makes it true is that the confessing narrator always has something he must urgently get off his chest and labors beneath its nightmarish weight all the while he is telling the tale. Nothing could be more obvious, I argue, except perhaps that the tale teller, ideally, should himself be a writer of horror fiction, if not by trade then at least by temperament. That really is more obvious. Better. But how can the confessional technique be applied to the story we’ve been working with? Its hero isn’t a horror writer, at least not that I can see. Clearly some adjustments have to be made.
As the reader may have noticed, Nathan’s character can be altered to suit a variety of literary styles. He can lean toward the normal in one and the abnormal in another. He can be transformed from a realistic person to an experimental abstraction. He can play any number of basic human and nonhuman roles, representing just about anything a writer could want. Mostly, though, I wanted Nathan, when I first conceived him and his ordeal, to represent none other than my real life self. For behind my pseudonymic mask of Gerald Karloff Riggers, I am none other than Nathan Jeremy Stein.
So it’s not too farfetched that in his story Nathan should be a horror writer who wishes to relate, via the route of supernatural fiction, the awful vicissitudes of his own experience. Perhaps he dreams of achieving Gothic glory by writing tales that are nothing less than magical, timeless, and the other thing. He is already an ardent consumer of the abnormal and the unreal: a haunter of spectral marketplaces, a visitant of discount houses of unreality, a bargain hunter in the deepest basement of the unknown. And somehow he comes to procure his dream of horror without even realizing what it is he’s bought or with what he has bought it. Like the other Nathan, this Nathan eventually finds that what he’s bought is not quite what he bargained for—a pig in a poke rather than a nice pair of pants.
What? I’ll explain.
In the confessional version of Nathan’s horror story, the main character must be provided with something shocking to confess, something befitting his persona as a die-hard freak of all things fearsome, fantastical, and inhuman. The solution is quite obvious. Nathan will confess his realization that he is up to his eyeballs in the aberrations of HORROR. He’s had a predilection for this path since he can remember, and maybe even earlier than that. In other words, Nathan is not a normal boy, nor a real one.
The turning point in Nathan’s biography as a man (or thing) of horror, as in previous accounts, is an aborted fling with Lorna McFickel. In the other versions of the story, the character known by this name is a personage of shifting significance, representing at turns the ultra-real or the super-ideal to her would-be romancer. The confessional version of “Romance of a Dead Man,” however, gives her a new identity, namely that of Lorna McFickel herself, who lives across the hall from me in a Gothic castle of high-rise apartments, twin-towered and honeycombed with newly carpeted passageways. But otherwise there’s not much difference between the female lead in the fictional story and her counterpart in the factual one. While the storybook Lorna will remember Nathan as the creep who spoiled her evening, who disappointed her—Real Lorna, Normal Lorna feels exactly the same way, or rather felt, since I doubt she even thinks about the one she called the most disgusting creature on the face of the earth. And though these hyperbolic words were spoken in the heat of a very hot moment, I believe her attitude was sincere. Notwithstanding, I will never reveal the motivation for this outburst of hers, not even under the pain of torture. Character motivation is not important to this horror story anyway, or not nearly as important as what happens to Nathan following Lorna’s revelatory rejection.
For he now finds out that his unwholesome nature is not just a fluke of psychology, and that, as a fact, supernatural influences have been governing his life all along, that he is subject only to the rule of demonic forces, which now want this expatriate from the pit of shadows back in their embracing arms. In brief, Nathan should never have been born a human being, a truth he must accept. Hard. And he knows that someday the demons will come for him.
The height of the crisis comes one evening when the horror writer’s spirits are at low ebb. He has attempted to express his supernatural tragedy in a short horror story, his last, but he just can’t reach a climax of suitable intensity and imagination, one that would do justice to the cosmic scale of his pain. He has failed to embody in words his semi-autobiographical sorrow, and all these games with protective names have only made it more painful. It hurts to hide his heart within pseudonyms of pseudonyms. Finally, the horror writer, while sitting at his writing desk, begins bawling all over the manuscript of his unfinished story. This goes on for quite some time, until Nathan’s sole want is to seek a human oblivion in a human bed. Whatever its drawbacks, grief is a great sleeping draught to drug oneself into a noiseless, lightless paradise far from an agonizing universe. This is so.
A little later, someone is knocking, impatiently rapping really, on Nathan’s apartment door. Who is it? One must answer to find out.
“Here, you forgot these,” a pretty girl said to me, flinging a woolly bundle into my arms. Just as she was about to walk away, she turned and scanned the features of my face a little more scrupulously. I have sometimes impersonated other people, the odd Norman and even a Nathan or two, and that night I put on the mask once more. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were Norman. This is his apartment, right across and one down the hall from mine.” She pointed to show me. “Who’re you?”
“I’m a friend of Norman,” I answered.
“Oh, I guess I’m sorry then. Well, those’re his pants I threw at you.”
“Were you mending them or something?” I asked innocently, checking them as if looking for the scars of repair.
“No, he just didn’t have time to put them back on the other night when I threw him out, you know what I mean? I’m moving out of this creepy dump just to get away from him, and you can tell him those words.”
“Please come in from that drafty hallway and you can tell him yourself.”
I smiled my smile and she, not unresponsively, smiled hers. I closed the door behind her.
“So, do you have a name?” she asked.
“Penzance,” I replied. “Call me Pete.”
“Well, at least you’re not Harold Wackers, or whatever the name is on those lousy books of Norman’s.”
“I believe it’s Wickers, H. J. Wickers.”
“Anyway, you don’t seem anything like Norman, or even someone who’d be a friend of his.”
“I’m sure that was intended as a compliment, from what I’ve gathered about you and Norman. Actually, though, I too write books not unlike those of H. J. Wickers. My apartment across town is being painted, and Norman was kind enough to take me in, even loan me his desk for a while.” I manually indicated the weeped-upon object of my last remark. “In fact, Norman and I sometimes collaborate under a common pen-name, and right now we’re working together on a project.”
“That’s nice, I’m sure,” she said. “By the way. I’m Laura—”
“O’Finney,” I finished. “Norman’s spoken quite highly of you.”
“Where is the creep, anyway?” she inquired.
“He’s sleeping,” I answered, lifting a finger toward the rear section of the apartment. “We’ve been hard at work on a new story, but I could wake him up.”
The girl’s face assumed a disgusted expression.
“Forget it,” she said, heading for the door. Then she turned and very slowly walked a little ways back toward me. “Maybe we’ll see each other again.”
“Anything is possible,” I assured her.
“Just do me a favor and keep Norman away from me, if you don’t mind.”
“I think I can do that very easily. But first you have to do something for me.”
I leaned toward her very confidentially.
“Please die, Desiderata,” I whispered in her ear, while gripping her neck with both hands, cutting short a scream along with her life. Then I really went to work.
“Wake up, Norman,” I shouted. I was standing at the foot of his bed, my hands positioned behind my back. “You were really dead to the world, you know that?”
A little drama took place on Norman’s face in which astonishment overcame sleepiness and both were vanquished by anxiety. He had been through a lot the past couple nights, laboring over our “notes” and other things, and really needed some rest.
“Who? What do you want?” he said, quickly sitting up in bed.
“Never mind what I want. Right now we are concerned with what you want. Remember what you told that girl the other night? Remember what you wanted her to do that got her so upset?”
“So that’s it. You’re a friend of Laura. Well, you can just get the hell out of here or I’m calling the cops.”
“That’s what she said, too, remember? And then she said she wished she had never met you. And that was the line, wasn’t it, that gave you the inspiration for our fictionalized adventure. Poor Nathan never had the chance you had. Nice work, thinking up those enchanted trousers. When the real reason—”
“Are you deaf? Get out of my apartment!” he yelled. But he calmed down somewhat when he saw that ferocity in itself had no effect on me.
“What did you expect from that girl? You did tell her that you wanted to entwine bodies with…what was it? Oh yes, a headless woman. Like that decapitated specter you read about in an old Gothic novel long years past. I would imagine that the illustration in that book only inflamed your fixation. I guess Laura didn’t understand that in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…headless apparitions. Headless. You told her you had the whole costume back at your place, if I correctly recall. Well, my lad, I’ve got the answer to your prayers. How’s this for headless?” I said, holding up the head from behind my back.
He didn’t make a sound, though his eyes screamed madly at what he saw. I tossed the long-haired and bloody noggin in his lap. In a blink, he threw the bedcovers over it and frantically pushed the whole business onto the floor with his feet.
“The rest of the body is in the bathtub if you want to have a go at it. I’ll wait.”
I can’t say for sure, but for a passing moment he seemed to be thinking about it. He stayed put in his bed, however, and didn’t make a move or say a word for a minute or so. When he finally did speak, each syllable came out calm and smooth. It was as if one part of his mind had broken off from the rest, and it was this part that now addressed me.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Do you really need a name, and would it do you any good? Should we call that disengaged head down there Laura or Lorna, or just plain Desiderata? And what in the name of perdition should I call you—Norman or Nathan, Harold or Gerald?”
“I thought so,” he said disgustedly. Then he continued in that eerily rational voice, but very rapidly. He did not even seem to be talking to anyone in particular. “Since the thing to which I am speaking,” he said, “since this thing knows what only I could know, and since it tells me what only I could tell myself, I must therefore be completely alone in this room. Perhaps I’m dreaming. Yes, dreaming. Otherwise the diagnosis is insanity. Very true. Profoundly certain. Go away now, Mr. Madness. Go away, Dr. Dream. You made your point, now let me sleep. I’m through with you.”
Then he lay his head down on the pillow and closed his eyes.
“Norman,” I said. “Do you always go to bed with your trousers on?”
He opened his eyes and now noticed what he had not before. He sat up again.
“Very good, Mr. Madness. These look like the real thing. But that’s not possible since Laura still has them, sorry about that. Funny, they won’t come off. The imaginary zipper must be stuck. I guess I’m in trouble now. I’m a dead man if there ever was one, hoo. Always make sure you know what you’re buying, that’s what I say. Heaven help me, please. You never know what you might be getting yourself into. Come off, damn you! Well, so when do I start to rot, Mr. Madness? Are you still there? What happened to the lights?”
The lights had gone out in the room and everything glowed with a bluish luminescence. Lightning began flashing outside the bedroom window, and thunder resounded in the midst of a rainless night. Through an aperture in the clouds shone a moon that only beings of another world can see. Puppet-shadows played upon its silvery screen.
“Rot your way back to us, you quirk of creation. Rot your way out of this world. Come home to a hell so excruciating it is bliss itself.”
“Is this really happening to me? I mean, I’m doing my best, sir. But it isn’t easy. Some kind of electrical charge making me all shivery down there. It feels as if I’m dissolving. Oh, it hurts, my love. Ah, ah, ah. What a way to end to a miserable life, turning to mush. Can you help me, Dr. Dream?”
I could feel myself changing form, shuffling off that human suit I was wearing. Bony wings began rising out of my back, and I saw them spread gloriously in the blue mirror before me. My eyes were now jewels, hard and radiant. My jaws were a cavern of dripping silver and through my veins ran rivers of putrescent gold. He was writhing on the bed like a wounded insect, making sounds like nothing human. I swept him up and wrapped my sticky arms again and again around his trembling body. He was laughing like a child, the child of another world. And a great wrong was about to be rectified.
I signaled the windows to open onto the night, and, very slowly, they did. His childlike laughter had now turned to tears, but they would soon run dry, I knew this. At last we would be free to live magically, timelessly beyond the pull of the earth. The windows opened wide over the city below and, in a manner of speaking, the profound blackness above welcomed us.
I had never tried this before.
But when the time came, I found it all so easy.