Farewell to the World

Dedicated to Fred M. Wilcox, Scott Derrickson, and Harry Bates.

“My poor Krell. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.”
— Dr. Edward Morbius

“Commander Adams. Ms. Morbius. Do you understand why you have been brought here?”

“Actually, Mr. Carpenter.” The young woman, small and diminutive next to John J. Adams. “It’s Mrs. Adams now.”

“Oh. I see.” Klaatu notes their body language, their closeness, and the band on the woman’s hand Even after all this time, he has to catch himself before missing any Earth customs. Perhaps it’s that cultural disconnect, or maybe his people did not reconstruct his brainwaves as well as they had hoped. Nevertheless, considering the circumstances, it is a swift development. “My apologies, and my congratulations.”  

“Thank you, sir.” Commander Adams nods. They sit in the briefing room, just the three and two other occupants. The dark-haired man is polite, in full dress uniform. He knows this is a briefing. The young woman is in a smart dark conservative business suit, complete with a short skirt. Humans have always had a strange perspective on both modesty and exposure. Mrs. Adams looks awkward in the fashion, almost as much as Klaatu once did in the suit he was forced to borrow from what seemed to be an eternity ago. Now he sees the ring on the Commander’s finger as well. “The nature of this inquiry, Mr. Carpenter. It is about Altair IV.”

“To the point.” Klaatu allows a small smile. “Yes, Commander. That is the nature of this debriefing. The United Planets has been clear on this matter.”

“With all due respect, sir.” The way Commander Adams says it, his words still formal, still manages to convey anything but irritation and perhaps an element of protective fear as he seems to sidle physically closer to his wife. “The C-57D has already filed its report.”

“Yes. I know.” Klaatu looks down at the papers, something this species still continues to utilize as documentation while others have already long since moved onto electronics. “Your investigation into the radio silence of the Altair IV Expedition, and the Bellerophon concluded that they were both destroyed by psychic phenomena on the surface of the planet, the same force that took the lives of Lieutenants Ostrow and Farman, Chief Quinn, and …” He looks up, feeling his sympathy written on his face. “Dr. Morbius.” 

Klaatu almost expects Mrs. Adams to look away. As it is, it’s Commander Adams’ brow that furrows: in sadness, or anger, or perhaps both. Mrs. Adams puts a hand on his, and keeps Klaatu’s gaze. He knows he must look strange to her. For all their species look alike, he is well acquainted with the human discomfort with his high cheekbones, and the overall asymmetrical physiognomy of his face. For some reason, however, despite her timidness there is a clear look in her eyes. For a few moments, he recalls his … he still thinks they are his … memories of Helen Benson, of her fear of the unknown being overcome by her determination to do the right thing. 

“My mother and father were the sole survivors of the expedition.” She says, her eyes level with his. “My mother, as you know, died of natural causes. My father was assaulted … by the phenomenon before we escaped the planet.” She sighs. “The power of the Krell was too much for him. It destroyed the mind of the Bellerophon‘s skipper, from what he told me, told … us.”

“And poor ‘Doc.'” Commander Adams rubs one thumb over Mrs. Adams’ hand as both an acknowledgement of her comfort, and his returning of it. “And Dr. Morbius. After we realized the nature of the phenomenon that destroyed the colony and the Bellerophon twenty years ago, Dr. Morbius faced his … Monster of the Id. He stopped it, but it cost him his life. He was mule-headed. Stubborn. Too smart for his own good, probably even before that ‘plastic educator.’ But he was a good man, and he died a good man.”

“And he detonated the 9,200 thermonuclear tandem reactors in the Krell underground complex, destroying the entire planet.” Klaatu confirms, shifting the papers, and putting them aside. 

“After his intelligence was augmented,” Mrs. Adams says, “My father couldn’t risk anyone, or anything, else potentially activating that power, releasing their … manifestations …”

“Yes.” Klaatu replies, looking down for a few moments. “The Krell civilization, in addition to creating a device that measured and augmented the intelligence of their young through mental exercise, also constructed machinery that could molecularly reproduce any material of which they have a sample.” Klaatu knows this, the rest of their confederation utilizing similar technology in more limited and controlled ways. “Your … friend over there is an example of some of this knowhow.”

“Robby.” Mrs. Adams smiles, looking up at the clunky, glittering automaton at her side. “My father made him after his own ‘education.’ He always said he tinkered him together with pre-made Krell technology. He always downplayed what he could do.”

“Your father was a modest man.” Klaatu says, not missing the look on Commander Adams’ face as he says it, remembering full well the report of the Doctor’s lack of cooperation, and the fear of what he learned being misused by any humans aside from himself, a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Pardon, but your name is Robby, yes?”

There is a series of clacks and the intense working of transparent circuitry as a voice booms in the room, reverberating. “Affirmative, Mr. Carpenter.”

“My apologizes again, Robby.” Klaatu smiles. “We, of course, have taken your testimony into account as well.”

“There is no need, Mr. Carpenter.” The whirl and clicks of the robot continue. “I simply reiterated the words and recordings of everything that had transpired, and what I had been monitored to explain during our previous briefing.” 

Monitored. A fascinating choice of word, in Klaatu’s mind. Perhaps “seen to” is the right use of that specific designation. “Yes, there is much we can learn from you. Our confederation, the United Planets and the homeworlds have a version of your replication process, but is it true that you truly duplicated — from one sample — an alcoholic beverage from one …”

“I replicated 60 gallons of rocket bourbon, simple alcoholic molecules with traces of diesel fuel.”

“It was … for Cook, ship’s mess.” Despite the situation, Commander Adams’ manages to have a combination of chagrin and amusement on his face. “Apparently he put the bottle in a slot. The robot … burped?”

Klaatu smiles. “Really?” He tries to think about Gort imitating the sound of biological flatulence, and fails. “Is this true?”

There is more clacking and seeing Robby’s dome move back and forth. “Morbius programmed some mannerisms into me. He had a … sense of humour.” 

Klaatu notes the humans in the room smiling, Commander Adams trying to hide it under one hand, and Mrs. Adams’ filled with a certain reminiscence. “He even duplicated the bottles for him.”

“That is impressive.” Klaatu leans forward. “I’ve read the reports. I suspect that Robby is capable of doing a great deal.”

“Well.” Mrs. Adams tries not to look nervously to Klaatu’s side. “He isn’t as advanced as other robots I’ve seen.”

Ah yes. Klaatu’s smile becomes tinged with a bit of sadness. That is why she has been focusing some much on him. As otherworldly as his appearance may be, though he hasn’t announced himself as “alien” by their standards, even though as far as Earth is concerned Klaatu died over three centuries ago after a “temporary revival” — and perhaps he had — he must be more reassuring than his constant companion. The poor woman had been on a world without any other people aside from her father and then the crew of the C-57D. And Robby the Robot had been something of overgrown toy, with slinky arms, bright lights in a glass dome, tottering steps, turning gears and wheels, and clamp hands. He is almost comical. But Gort …

Gort stands at Klaatu’s side. Commander Adams as seen Gort’s kind before, tall, silvered, silent, visored most times, and hoping that the visor would remain closed besides. There is nothing playful or amusing about him, even though Klaatu is used to him, and his general passive benevolence. But he is imposing, and by design. Gort remains by his side as every member of his “race” does with any high-ranking United Planets dignitary. And Klaatu knows that he himself has more notoriety among the homeworlds than most given the relatively recent — and controversial — inclusion of the human species into the confederation. He’d been the first injured — and even killed — for their message in centuries. He doesn’t like that distinction. It’s unseemly to gain renown from another younger species’ fear and ignorance. Frankly, it’s distasteful to him, as distasteful as … 

Klaatu has a mandate. And he needs to get to it. The sooner, the better. “Forgive me for being blunt,” he says, and immediately regrets it as they mirror his words from three hundred years ago. “But this is all information that we are aware, Robby’s sound effects not withstanding.”

“Right.” Commander Adams stares at him, and gives Gort a side glance. “Forgive me, sir.” He says, respecting the chain of command even in the relative peace-time in which this whole galaxy should be. “But why exactly are we here?”

“You already know about the power of the Krell.” Klaatu says, his smile gone, leaning forward intently. “They created a machine that could manifest any matter from thought, a vast underground planetary network that scanned the synapses of its inhabitants — already accustomed to replicating anything they desired from even a single molecule — to make creation beyond a sample, or a template.”

“Limitless power.” Mrs. Adams says, though her words sound like someone else’s, like her father’s.

“Yes.” Commander Adams affirms it, but his tone is impatient. “We recorded all of this in our report.” 

“We did not acquire this information in our report.” Klaatu sighs. “Our confederation already knew about the Krell, and their achievement.”

The two humans say nothing, but their faces express everything. It’s as Klaatu expected when his superiors gave him this authorization, and order. Shock on the young woman’s face, and the Commander’s but also a wariness to the latter, and a grim set to his gaze. His face becomes stone. “You knew … about the Krell.”

“Yes.” Klaatu says, knowing now that there is no turning back, wondering if the United Planets would always make him a messenger of ominous tidings. “We were there. When it happened.”

*

20,000 Years Ago

He can only watch, helplessly, as the glass spires melt in front of him. Winding stair cases, floating steps fall with their travelers still on them. The sight, from their ship, is unimaginable as vessels are disintegrated, and lives wiped out in a myriad of instants. 

And they are the fortunate ones. 

Klaatu sees the Krell below. He sees them staggering through their wide archways, trying to get away from crackling, hoarse apparitions of pure energy. They are screaming. Crying. The event, Klaatu’s readouts tell him and the others, is localized to the planet itself. The Krell had done it. They’d completed their engine, and the vast machinery, all over their world.

This was the beginning of a new dawn. The long legged, broad, Krell with their magnificent tails, are … they have been, they had been, an inspiration to the confederation of worlds. They traveled the galaxy, perhaps even the universe, when the confederation was young, when they were just different planets slowly exploring the stars. Their automatons were legendary, wondrous, their offspring constructing them for just a lark out of single building blocks. Klaatu’s people, and the others, they made their police — their race of robots — used Krell design, among others, as inspiration while the Krell themselves had no need for them at all, striding peacefully among the stars, brining samples of life back to their homeworld, reconstructing them, hoping to show others what they have achieved through example. 

Klaatu watches as the arches fall on the Krell, burying them alive. They tried to help. They tried to warn them, to slow down. But they had achieved much in their millions of years of evolution. This had been inevitable. This final step. To make manifest their dreams. 

But what didn’t count on, was their nightmares. 

As another shimmering spire falls, and all Klaatu can hear is screams, he senses Gort coming behind him. He and Gort exchange a look … and Klaatu steps aside. 

Klaatu knows that each species sees Gort, and his “race” differently. He is even known in different languages. Here, he is Gnut. Klaatu can see it, almost. A tall, angular green-tinged figure with a loin cloth — perhaps like the humanoids they liked to interact with, as they had apparently with Klaatu’s ancestors — with visible muscles. He moves seamlessly to the Krell, who see perfection in everything. He wonders, in their mindless terror, if they can see the beauty in their own destruction in this moment. Gort’s face, is this form, is usually sullen, or brooding. This is what Klaatu was told, and what he can even see through the art of the Krell … and their minds. But right now, as Gort observes the carnage, as a nightmare creature grabs a Krell by the tail and rips it off them, flinging them wailing into the sky, all Klaatu can see on Gort’s metal-muscled face — made clearer by the manifestation engine on the planet causing all of this chaos — is sadness. 

Then, his eyes open. Usually, Klaatu’s species among others, would see a beam of shimmering light from a visor. Here, they are just red eyes. But they glow. 

With fire. 

Klaatu watches. He makes himself watch. There is no way to help them. The nightmare manifestations will tear them apart, piece by piece. Their own fear and hate torturing them. There is no language — no conception — to even explain to the Krell what is happening to them. And the terror in their offspring’s eyes is too much for him. And possibly for Gort. 

It doesn’t take long, but it takes too long. Gort’s metal-muscles flex almost artistically around his neck and shoulders as his eyes continue to burn. Klaatu tried to disable the electronics on the planet, but their reactors are too advanced and deep, too synchronized to turn off the effect now. It is all up to Gort now. Gort and his grim sense of duty. 

“Gort.” Klaatu whispers, after a time, “Gort. Baringa.” 

By the time it is over, Gort closes his visor. The manifestation of Gnut, the familiar Krell depiction of him, is gone from Klaatu’s perception. He is a tall, metallic construct again. Gigantic. Expressionless. Faceless. Inscrutable. They are above the world, their synapses away from any field of energy that should remain. The planet’s demoniac nightmares have died with the last Krell. 

Klaatu’s will continue for the rest of his lifespan. 

*

“The Bellerophon had a mission two decades back.” Klaatu explains, meeting their eyes. It is the least he can do considering the circumstances. “As you know, the confederation allowed Earth to keep its weapons, and maintain colonies provided that no atomics or any other weapons of destruction — or acts of hostility — would be brought to any member world. Altair IV was to be a colony.” 

“Bellerophon.” Mrs. Adams’ tone is as faraway as her gaze. “He was the hero that tamed Pegasus, with a bridle he gained from Athena herself. Father told me that story. He rode Pegasus.”

“Yes.” Klaatu admits. “I recall that story.”

“Well, if you do.” Her voice becomes cold. “Then you will know that he tried to fly Pegasus to Olympus, only for the gods to take his steed away, and leave him to fall to the earth, in brambles, blinded, and dying.”

Commander Adams follows up on his wife’s words. “I’ve never heard that story, so you have me at another disadvantage.” The barb is clear, just shy of insubordination. “I know the one about Prometheus, though. And Icarus.” His eyes narrow. “You sent them there.”

“Yes.” Klaatu says. “Earth already found the planet. It was an Expedition sent to … find what might remain. We suspected that there were Krell archaeological remains. The Bellerophon was informed, and consented to excavating what they could find. Unfortunately …”

“They didn’t know that the machine was still active.” 

“I don’t understand.” Mrs. Adams turns, almost pleadingly to Robby. “Robby, why didn’t Father tell us any of this?”

The calculation circuits in Robby’s dome click hard, and fast. “Unknown, Miss Alta. My hypothesis is that he wished to have the perception of a space for you and himself. He did not wish to worry you about outside affairs.”

“Yes, Alta.” Commander Adams grips her hands gently. “Your Father sheltered you. He didn’t want you to know about …” He glares at Klaatu and Gort. “All of this.” And, somehow, his eyes narrow further. “Wait. You know, this whole time, about the planet.”

Klaatu closes his eyes. He knew how terrible an idea, this whole situation, had been. He told them, his superiors. But they didn’t listen. It seems to be a constant on every world in, or out of the United Planets, that one’s superiors don’t listen. “Yes.”

“Then that means.” And Klaatu can almost see the gears in Commander Adams’ mind turning as transparently as those in Robby’s cranium. “You had a ship nearby. With one of those.” He inclines his head at Gort.

Klaatu doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. 

Commander Adams’ bares his teeth. “All those lives. You sacrificed all those people for what? To get that power for yourselves? To use us to do it? Are you still sore at us after three hundred years? Didn’t we pay enough? That was supposed to be our colony! Our territory! Are we just expendable to you?”

“Commander …” 

“No. I get it now. You incredible hypocrites.” Commander Adams shakes his head. “You condemned us for the atomics we were making. You barely begrudged us our weapons: pistols and laser cannons, nothing to you. Nothing to you, and that tin can. And you put us on a planet where our worst nightmares would come true! Where we’d spread it to the universe! What did you think, Mister! That you could control what the Krell failed to do? That we –“

“In all honesty.” Klaatu feels the disgust in his mouth as he speaks the words. “Your minds, even augmented, are nowhere near those of the Krell. You, and your nightmares, would never have gotten off the planet without our police force neutralizing you.” 

“You know my Father had augmented himself.” Mrs. Adams murmurs. 

“Yes.” Klaatu says. “It was … a remarkable achievement. He accomplished much. You said it yourself, Commander.” He turns to the fuming man. “He will be remembered. I won’t …” He tries to find the words. “I won’t pretend to know, or even agree with the decisions of my superiors, but something has to come from this tragedy. From several millennia of tragedy. And it has.”

It takes them a moment. “Robby.” Mrs. Adams replies. “You think Robby can help you with your research.”

“He can.” Klaatu turns to the automaton. “Robby, is it true that Dr. Morbius recorded inside of you all of his research on the Krell?”

“Robby?” Mrs. Adams’ eyes widen. “Is … is that true?”

“I am not monitored to grant that information.”

“Robby.” Mrs. Adams’ voice becomes flat.

“I am not monitored to …”

“Dammit, Robby!” Mrs. Adams’ face turns red. “Archimedes!

“Alta, what in god’s name has gotten into –” Commander Adams grabs her arm, but immediately lets go as he realizes, it is all out in the open now. All too late.

The robot pauses for a moment as everyone looks at him expectantly. His globe glows temporarily with expended energy. 

“Affirmative.”

Klaatu nods, slowly. “We thought as much. Robby is integral in our research of the Krell, and their sciences. In using their science and technology responsibly. But he is not the only one we need.” 

“No.” Commander Adams gets up from his seat.

“Commander Adams.” Klaatu says. There is only so long this insubordination, even though completely understood, can be tolerated. “You need to remember yourself.”

“Are you threatening me, sir?” 

“No.” Klaatu looks at Gort, who still hasn’t moved. “I am warning you.” 

“I don’t care. You are not taking her. Her, or Robby. I am tired of this –“

“You have no choice, Commander.” Klaatu says. “You will, of course, accompany them, with a promotion –“

Suddenly, before Klaatu can react, he sees Commander Adams throw himself across the table. For the first time in hundreds of years, Klaatu finds himself rough-handled again, the Commander’s hands bunching up his uniform. “Like hell we’re going anywhere!”

“Stay back, Miss Alta.”

“Robby, stop!”

Klaatu feels his airway blocked by the human Commander’s hands. He wonders, briefly, if they can retrieve enough of him again from the audio tapes. He recalls telling Helen that resurrection was beyond even his species’ — beyond this confederation’s — power. And it technically wasn’t untrue. They can only, at best, make copies with as near perfect memory engrams as they can from sonic impressions. From radio waves. Will Klaatu truly be the one that returns if he dies here because of this entirely unnecessary exercise? This one last waste of life? 

But then he sees Gort step forward. His visor is beginning to lift.

“John, stop!”

“Gort –” Klaatu gasps out. 

Then, Klaatu feels his windpipe fill with air as Gort tears Commander Adams off him. He holds him, in the air, with one arm, as he begins to scan him. As he …

Something knocks into Gort. It doesn’t move him, but it dislodges Commander Adams from his grasp. The Commander falls to the floor, red-faced, shaking, angry or terrified, or both. Robby and Gort wrestle. Sparkles, negating energy, comes from Robby’s ridiculous but strong vacuum tube arms. His appendages are pincers. Gort, however, remains still and his eye-slit is burning. It’s crackling with power. 

“Robby. Stand down.”

“Negative, Miss Alta.”

“Robby, that is an order.”

And that is when Klaatu realizes it. The report he read. Robby has been built with a command by Alta’s father, by the late Dr. Morbius. Of course the Robot, if entrusted with the Doctor’s secrets, built with a command not to harm humans, would also have an imperative to protect his only daughter, from any threat, perceived or otherwise. 

Klaatu and Mrs. Adams regard each other. She is at her husband’s side, holding him to her, his arm around her. For a few moments, he sees Helen again, in her expression if not her resemblance. She nods. Slowly. 

“Robby, Archimedes.”

“Gort.” Klaatu rasps, trying not to remember the last time he uttered these words with regards to the Krell. “Baringa.”

Sparks, red hot, purple lightning, forms in the dome of Robby’s head. Then, slowly, the robot lets go off Gort. Gort, for his part, scans everyone in the room. His gaze falls on Klaatu for a second longer, before his visor lowers back onto his eye slit. Klaatu attempts to get onto his feet. Then, he feels someone helping him up. Gort. He always forgets, even after all this time, how fast the automaton can move. He nods at him, thankful. Just how many times has the robot saved his life? Or remained by his side throughout the hardest decisions he’s had to make? He doesn’t know, but he hopes the other knows how grateful he is, how safe he feels with him, this being that could snuff him out like a tiny flame, his age-old protector …

“I apologize, for my part in this getting out of hand.” Klaatu says, finding his voice again, wanting to sit, but remaining standing. “We –“

“We will take this assignment.” Mrs. Adams says. 

“Alta –” Commander Adams says, but she cuts him off. 

“No. My Father … he died for this knowledge. It was his life. And if it can help … can it help others, Mr. Carpenter?”

Klaatu almost forgets his assumed name. He slumps his shoulders. “With time. With self-consciousness. With conscience. What I was going to say … what I should have said, to my shame, is that while the Krell were more advanced than humans, possibly than almost anyone in our confederation, they forgot their baser instincts. Their fears. Their subconscious. We have not. We are not that … elevated. Clearly. And you, humanity, you know yourselves. We were impressed by what Dr. Morbius did, despite …” Shame fills Klaatu again, at what that discovery cost, at what he is forced to condone. What would the late Professor Barnhardt think of this accomplishment? Or Helen? “With time, and perhaps better minds, a better mindset, this could eliminate the need for any violence. Any threat of force.” He looks up at Gort, his face apologetic. “For peace without any fear of ultimate sanction.” 

Gort remains still. Mrs. Adams, for her part, has a thoughtful expression on her face. “Perhaps with a modified plastic educator, that’s how it can start.”

“Alta?” Commander Adams touches her arm.

“Oh, John. We could help people. All of this doesn’t have to be a curse. It –” She turns to Klaatu. “I agree. On a few conditions.”

Klaatu is quiet, taking in the words. The situation. “And those would be?”

“First. We have a station, to ourselves. A space station. You have those?”

“Yes.” Klaatu readjusts his suit. “We do. We have been constructing one, for just such an occasion.” 

“Alta, we don’t have to do this …”

“We do.” A pained expression forms on her face. “And you know it, John. I …” 

Klaatu sees it. She spent her whole life on a small planet, isolated, alone except for a few others. “I …” He says. “I’m sorry for the sacrifice we are asking you to …”

She turns to him. Her eyes are firm. Set. She’s made her mind up. “We will do it. As long as you meet our conditions. We get the station. John gets his promotion. And we set the litmus on the research. We determine what is safe.”

Klaatu’s brow furrows as he watches Commander Adams come to his wife’s side. “You are asking a lot. To trust you, even with the best of intentions, with what you will uncover …”

“Just as you did with a bunch of human colonists that you expected to fail, and have to sterilize?” 

Klaatu doesn’t say anything. His silence says everything. Mrs. Adams shakes her head. “We’re not asking you to not have … one of those, Gort or whatever he is nearby. You’ll do it anyway. But you will defer to our judgment. On what you get. Can you tell your superiors that? Are you authorized to do that, Mr. Carpenter?”

Klaatu takes a moment to consider. They won’t be happy, but their confederation wasn’t made in a day. They had the patience then, to see it through. They can have a little more. “I will tell them. It is the least I can do.”

“Yes. It is.” Mrs. Adams’ eyes soften. “Thank you, Mr. Carpenter.”

“Thank you, for your service Mrs. Adams.” Klaatu turns to the others. “And you, Commander?” Klaatu asks. “And Robby?”

“I will obey Miss Alta.” Robby says, nodding his bulk to her direction once.

“I will go to my post.” Commander Adams replies, his face overtaken by his glower. 

“For what it is worth.” Klaatu says, as they begin to adjourn. “You have …”

“What? Have we passed your test, sir?”

Klaatu nods, knowing he deserves that. “The parameters of the confederation. Of the United Planets. Your probationary period is over. Your world, and colonies — your civilization — will now be an official member of our union, with all of its privileges and responsibilities.”

Commander Adams’ facial expression doesn’t change by a margin. “I’m sure the rest of the brass will be happy. But I’m not doing it for you.” He puts an arm around Mrs. Adams. “This is for my wife.” 

There is nothing more to be said as the arrangements are made, leaving nothing but paperwork and records to be dealt with. As the humans leave, their own robot in tow, Klaatu moves away from the conference table. He goes up to the grey non-descript wall. Slowly, it opens, revealing a night sky filled with stars. Somewhere, out there, Altair IV is still burning, the planet now another star. 

“The Almighty have mercy on us, Gort, old friend.” He says, feeling the robot at his side, as always. “The Almighty forgive us.” 

No More Yielding

Even now, her father’s ghost haunts her. 

The footstep booms through the chamber, on the small space station Eureka. Or perhaps its the strike of a large clawed hand on the doors of the observatory. Alta holds the blaster pistol in her hands. Her husband’s. She’s surprised that her grip is so tight, that it isn’t shaking. 

Boom.

The doors dent, just a bit. Alta breathes out, closing her eyes for a few moments, trying to find that centre. Trying to rediscover that calm. That old happiness. The little wooded brook where she used to bathe. The personal zoo, the little menagerie, her father kept for the two of them. The ornate couch where she studied physics, mathematics, geometry, and the rest of her academic assignments. Her father reading her stories. Her father. Her father …

Dr. Edward Morbius, who rediscovered the Krell of Altair IV.

Boom.

The impression left in the doors is more pronounced. A little more red. 

Alta shakes her head slowly, from side to side. No. That won’t do. All of those memories: her tiger that turned on her, poor Lieutenant Ostrow, or “Doc” dead on the couch, and seeing her father — seeing Dr. Morbius for the first time in her whole life … No. She needs to not think about that. She needs to …

“Miss Alta.”

“Robby.” Her voice is quiet, as she recalls the large robot at her side. He’s so … she’s always thought he was cumbersome, awkward. Like a giant, wind-up children’s toy with helical rubber arms, and spinning, whirring gadgets. It was as though, when her father tinkered around with the knowledge of the Krell, he unconsciously thought of Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz, a children’s book from the beginning of the twentieth century, almost three hundred years ago. He was supposed to have comforted Dorothy as she’d found Oz fallen to ruin and darkness around her. She is so glad that he’s here now, despite this. “We need more …”

Boom. 

 “Those doors are composed of Krell metal.” He reminds her, a chill streaking down her back as she remembers her father saying almost exact same words to John, in an eerily similar situation. “It will not hold.”

“I know.”

“Miss Alta.” The echoing tone, less monotonous despite being recorded on vocal tapes, somehow manages to resemble concern, even if she knows better. 

“It’s all right, Robby.” Alta says, putting her hand on the automaton’s shoulder, her father’s words about him just being an object be damned. “It will buy us some time.”

They’d bought themselves a lot of time, these past couple of years, Alta admits to herself now. After John found them, after they’d left on his ship C-57D to watch Altair IV erupt into a beautiful sphere of blue destruction, they reported to the United Planets: to the interplanetary governing body centered around Earth that Altair IV and its deceased colonists — including her father — were supposed to be a part. Robby, and as it turns out she herself, had much to offer and with John at her side they’d made a life for themselves. 

“Robby.” Alta says. “Is she safe?”

Robby’s censors whir and buzz, the clacking of his internal circuits filling the tenseness of the room as she braces for the percussion on the other side of the doors to continue. “Affirmative, miss.”

“Good.” A part of Alta relaxes, despite the fear, in spite of the grief she hasn’t processed yet. She looks down at her hands, with the pistol, smudged in …

It’d been so quick. The force fields hadn’t stopped it, just as they hadn’t succeeded in doing so six years before. Six years. But it let them see it. It’d been subtle, at first, as it had with the colonists as her father told her, as it did when it attempted to sabotage John’s ship. It resembled a giant behemoth with the face of a gremlin from hell. But before that, it was just a whisper. Just a few coils gone missing. Just an accident in the control room that took a few lives of the skeleton crew they had here. 

That’s not what this is. John told her, as she remembers his strong hands on her shoulders, his square fingers settling in her uniform firmly. She’d come a long way from the girl that wore thin clothing, to conservative dresses. She is a crew member now. She works at the station. It died. He says. It died with your father. 

It did. She remembers. She recalls similar doors bending and burning, liquifying as the presence, the psychic storm of energy of rage made incarnate came for her and the Commander that would take her away from her father. But she sees her father, Dr. Morbius again, in her mind’s eye. His dignified mien, his stern yet gentle face accentuated by his goatee, broken in anguish, distraught, his hair a tangled mess, despair and a fierce protectiveness warring in his eyes. 

And she sees John. She sees John jump in the way. He didn’t even hesitate. She saw his face, with that dark curl of hair, greying a bit, over his blue eyes: his expression every bit as passionate as her father’s, the grim set of his mouth, the love in his gaze towards her. 

When Dr. Morbius, when her father died, she didn’t even have the chance to mourn him. Not the person she realized he hadn’t been, not the being who had so callously dismissed the lives of “Doc” and Farman for his research and his space, not the force that always kept her from going out to Earth to be with other people, to the stars to explore and further expand her mind … and not the human being that sacrificed his life against his literal demons to save her own. She couldn’t even hold him. She’d been too busy clutching John, having John hold her as agony filled her entire being. 

And John … she had even less than that. She grabbed his back, burying her fingers into his uniform, as the … thing ripped and burned him into … 

Into nothing. 

Ashes stain Alta’s hands like the sins of her father revisiting her now. She ran. She and Robby had separated, and for a reason.

Perhaps Robby should have remained on the planet when it detonated. It would have been safer. 

They agreed to help the United Planets reverse-engineer what they could.

“And I have come to the unalterable conclusion that man is unfit, as yet to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” 

She remembers her father’s words, however, even now. Alta agreed to help them on one condition: that she and Robby — and by extension her husband as the commanding officer — would have a scientific space station to slowly, and carefully, unravel some of the secrets of the Krell. That had been her official stance, backed up by John. And they got it. It helped that Robby’s ability to reproduce a sample of any material given him was a microcosm, a sliver of what the Krell had been originally capable. It said a lot about her father’s ego that he considered Robby to be an oddity, a hobby, or a toy that allowed them to make other automatons, smaller ones, drones that could assist in their research and limit the amount of other humans around them. 

And Alta had been to her father’s study. She’d learned some lessons from him. And she was no slouch. She knows she is an intelligent woman. 

“My poor Krell,” her father’s voice laments from six years from an orbital thermonuclear grave. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.”

Dr. Morbius, the first Dr. Morbius, hadn’t been so fortunate. Neither is the second. 

John hadn’t been either. 

Boom. Hiss. 

The doors are red hot now, with a white heart causing their metallic layers to gradually buckle. She can’t ignore it. It’s staring her right in the face. She can feel it.

At first, she’d been delighted to be on Earth, to be surrounded by so many people, with their customs, their practices, and every kind of endeavour open to her. Her husband had been at her side as well, married at the United Planets Headquarters, grounding her in a living, breathing existence in flux, not the placid, static, dead world left long destroyed behind her. But then, the whispers started. The missing items. The mechanized locks on their home always breaking down as though from the inside. Almost always, they would have to stay elsewhere, and the little incidents would stop. 

For a while. 

If they had been in more superstitious times, the couple might have thought themselves haunted, or cursed by the events on Altair IV. It’d been the impetus to encourage the leadership of the United Planets to let them actually begin their research in a contained setting like the station, though not fully disclosing the true reasons on official channels. Unofficially, they were to monitor the phenomenon. 

Hisssss …

Alta tries not to flinch as the rent in the doors grows. She knows she did good. Between her and Robby, they made miniature versions of the machines that replicated substances on the molecular level. Nothing too complex, nor dangerous. Eventually, they made mechanisms that could generate repair parts and, more importantly, food. No one need ever go hungry again. They were just in the process of finishing their touches on allowing their inventions to create complex medicines, some not even discovered by humanity yet, when … life became complicated again. 

For Alta. For John. For the both of them. 

She wonders, even now, as the creature on the other end of that door comes inexorably towards them how her father — with his intellect vastly increased by the Krell’s “plastic educator” — couldn’t figure out how to save her mother from death, from what he called “natural causes.” Perhaps there had been some complications beyond the skill of the Krell to repair, that even they in their highest state couldn’t save an organism from the cessation of life: from death itself. Certainly, they hadn’t escaped their end. But maybe it had been her father who had failed, who by his own admittance had been the equivalent of a developmentally challenged young Krell. But did he fail? Didn’t Dr. Morbius survive the plastic educator’s rigorous routine? Didn’t he expand his own field of knowledge beyond philology — the study of words and language and their intersection with literature and philosophy — into the hard sciences to make a construct like Robby with the technology he had at his disposal? Didn’t he create her animal friends, including the tiger that she loved, that nearly killed her if not for John? 

Didn’t he always generate a small simulacrum of herself with his mind? Wasn’t she always in his thoughts?

The door and the wall around it rumbles, seemingly shaking the entire station from where Alta stands. She feels the anger fill her veins, sadness turning into rage and fear, her heart beating hard. What if it had all been a lie? What if she had been just another creation of his? Another generation? Another construct? Maybe she never had a mother at all, and somehow she exists beyond even the good Dr. Morbius’ demise. Is she the child of Altair IV in makeup as well as soul? The Eidothea to its Proteus? The Athene to his Zeus? Or perhaps, her mother had existed, and her father and his experiments — his attempts to raise his IQ — had other effects, had become genetic, had … 

He never let her use the machine. It’d been too risky. One look at what happened to “Doc” had been enough to show her that much. And the demon that came after them … She dreamed of it. She dreamed of it killing Farman. Yes, he’d taken liberties with her. She knows that now. John tried not to speak ill of the dead, especially a comrade and a friend, and she knows he wouldn’t have gone too far, if she had said no, but she didn’t know what it was like to be with others, or why her body didn’t react the way she’d read about to those kisses. She’d had so damned few experiences, trapped on that world with her overprotective, brooding, lying overseer of a father …

Hisssss … 

The tear is small, but visible now. 

But Alta doesn’t care. She bares her teeth. She’d enjoyed that freedom. Those embraces. But what she felt with John had been a hundred times that, even though she’d been angry at him, desired him … But he had been all she knew, almost as much as her father. Both meant well … But she wanted to travel. To experience life beyond her books, and data. To live. 

And she saw it. She saw how it pained John to always been around her, all the time. And even more so on the station, virtually isolated. And they still needed that skeleton crew of human beings. Not now. Not anymore. And she saw … she remembers how he looked at those young ladies, recalling what Jerry, poor Jerry said about John’s roving eye and how girls and women shouldn’t be alone with him, even though a part of her even then knew he was just projecting what he was, that John was a fine, upstanding man, firm and loving, but she was keeping him from life … she took his life away from him. 

She’s killed him.

“Miss Alta.”

Alta finds herself blinking back tears, and failing. The hole is larger. Soon, the doors will melt and collapse altogether. She’s seen it before. She’s experienced it. But not from this angle. The terrible truth. She doesn’t need a “plastic educator” to see the greater picture. She understands that the psychic manifestation, the psychokinetic maelstrom, the nightmare made material without the machine or the lost planet of her birth, doesn’t belong to her father or the absent Krell. Not directly. It’s different. She can almost visualize it now. More sinuous than bulky. The foot isn’t a claw or tail, but a head. She hasn’t seen the face, though. She can’t bear to, even now. She wonders, when the Krell’s nightmares destroyed them and their civilization, if their psychic constructs obliterated all physical traces of their species, of their physical likenesses because for all their near-enlightenment, those subconscious impulses, those little resentments and hatreds, they just couldn’t bear to see themselves — their very uglinesses — in the mirror anymore. 

This is why she wanted the skeleton crew phased out, to maintain just the machines like Robby to watch her … just her. And John, John would never leave her. He was always there and she … she … 

And the two of them. 

And the three of them. 

That’s when she remembers. That’s when Altaira Morbius — Alta Adams — recalls what is truly important. 

The door is almost down now. She knows what’s coming. She turns to Robby. Her father was a philologist before being a scientist. He read her just as much poetry as he helped her study organic chemistry. And he loved his stories too. She wonders, looking at Robby, about the early twentieth century again, how Robby wasn’t so much influenced by the word robota, a Czech word for enforced labour, or rab — slave — though that is where the word robot is supposed to have been first derived. That word had been attributed to Karel Čapek, its creator, to his brother Josef, just as the Three Laws of Robotics hadn’t been solely created by Asimov but John W. Campbell. But Asimov had made a “Robbie,” a robot accepted by his assigned family after saving the life of their child. 

Regret with nostalgia mingles in Alta’s heart. “Robby. Remember your orders.” She releases a shaky breath, drawing on her resolve. “Maintain reports to the United Planets. Don’t inform them of what occurred on this station. Continue work on the plastic educator. She will need it. Guide her. Slowly, as I outlined for you. She will … she will need it.”

“Yes, Miss Alta.”

“Thank you, Robby.” She smiles. She turns, and puts the blaster pistol in one hand, wiping at her eyes with the other. “Thank you for everything.” She braces herself. “And now, your final order, Robby.”

The robot doesn’t say anything. 

“Robby.” She says. “Protect her. Protect my daughter. Protect Miranda.

“Archimedes.”

She remembers what John did with the door combination back in the Krell Lab. The two of them had Robby hide their girl. This … thing won’t find her. It might destroy the machines and drones around it, but Alta doesn’t plan for it to go that far. No. This manifestation, this monstrosity. It ends. It ends here.

She looks at Robbie. She recalls looking up at the big machine. It occurs to her that the robot has seen her ever since she was a baby, making food for her, creating emeralds and diamonds for her dresses, at her whim, patiently blasting non-lethal beams to ward away her pets from the fruits on the kitchen table, creating medicine when she was sick, faithfully there for her father … for her. The dials on either side of his cranium almost look like eyes. She wonders if the automaton feels anything. If he is even capable with what her father programmed into him for a lark. 

The sparks in his glass cranium crackle for a time, even with the override. Even as she reaches out her hand. And gives him the pistol. 

“Robby.” She says again, as the creature on the other end of the door screeches and roars out its hatred of a life wasted, of being deprived of its illusions, its comforts, of destroying what it coveted so much. “When it comes through. Only then. I want to look at it. If I can. I want to look it right in the face. And then … kill it. Do you understand?”

“Affirmative.”

Alta gulps, a sense of relief almost overwhelming her. “T-thank you, Robby. You … thank you.”

There is a pause. “Farewell, Alta.”

The door collapses completely as heavy breathing, always in the background, now fills the room. Dr. Alta Adams, nee Altaira Morbius, stands her ground in the observation deck of the Eureka, surrounded by stars. She remembers her father telling her, when he showed her the Krell Lab not to look into the eyes of the Gorgon. But right now, she recalls another myth: of Odysseus tied to his ship as he forced himself to hear the deadly songs of the Sirens as his crew rowed onward. These are her thoughts, thinking about sitting at her father’s knee, at her husband’s side, her daughter on her lap as she faces her darkness in the eye, and doesn’t even hear the quiet hiss of a blaster pistol’s measured violet disintegration discharges. 

An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak

I’d been curious about Castle Freak for a little while.

Part of the reason I’ve had interest in the film is because I am still catching up on the first official season of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In series, and then I heard that Barbara Crampton is involved with its remake. It’s strange, for me, being a Lovecraft fanatic that I never made the connection that, aside from being given a poster of concept art from which to work, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been inspired — at least roughly — to make the 1995 film Castle Freak by H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story “The Outsider.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Castle Freak, beyond knowing it takes place in an old Italian Castle and expecting there to be a ton of gore and brutality: possibly by a group of monsters on an unsuspecting American family. At the time, I didn’t even know that Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton were even in the film, never mind its central stars: though knowing Crampton was being interviewed on The Last Drive-In episode of Castle Freak became another impetus in me having a look at it.

I’ll admit that watching Joe Bob Briggs’ segments did spoil aspects of the movie for me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. I’ve heard that many fans of Gordon’s work don’t think as highly of Castle Freak as they might Re-Animator, and even From Beyond. A lot of it, from my understanding, is that while the latter two films — created in the 1980s — have heavily goofy and “camp” overtones, drawing close to comedy in horror, Castle Freak itself is played out seriously, and without laughs. Unlike the science-fictional and paranormal elements of the former two films, Castle Freak is a mystery horror film with obvious Gothic influence: complete with tropes such as family secrets, hereditary sins, a long lost, deformed and/or insane family member, and a scene of crumbling beauty and the price of pride turned into madness revisited on unsuspecting descendants.

Another element I can also argue is that while Re-Animator, and to some extent From Beyond — which I have written about and attempted to experiment on in this mad laboratory that is my Blog — are very clearly based from Lovecraft’s works, Castle Freak uses “The Outsider” as just a stepping stone, or a foundation to create an entirely different work. Re-Animator still follows the resurrection of the dead and the hubris of Herbert West, and From Beyond does illustrate what happens when you attempt to view and interact with dimensions beyond human perception, but Castle Freak? It isn’t like “The Outsider” in that the “creature” involved isn’t the protagonist or some possibly undead monstrosity that was once a human being realizing what he is, and fleeing from that knowledge.

Giorgio Orsino — the titular “Freak” of this film played by Jonathan Fuller — is a tormented man whose death was faked by his mother the Italian Duchess D’Orsino and, blamed for the sins of his American father in leaving her, spent the rest of his life chaining him in a dungeon and flaying him with a barbed whip. He is five years old when his death is falsified and forty-two years pass before his mother dies from a heart-attack after beating him one last time. He is practically a feral being by the time he manages to escape his bonds, though he seems to have a grasp of some rudimentary Italian when he does occasionally speak. However, unlike the protagonist of “The Outsider” who seems to be quite intelligent and has “many antique books” Giorgio is not only driven by a sense of loneliness — more visceral than existential — but hunger and fury over his torment and neglect. If anything, his skittering manner of moving through the corridors of the Castle, is reminiscent more of Lovecraft’s :”The Rats in the Walls” than anything else, and for more reasons than one when you realize just how famished he is. Giorgio is a living being that wants what he thinks is owed to him, and he literally wants his pound of flesh.

Lovecraft, of course, is no stranger to Gothic themes and tropes, especially considering how “The Outsider” and its narrative style is influenced by the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. The story of Castle Freak, however, follows not just Giorgio who is the monster — and I would argue one of the true victims of this entire film — but also the American Reilly family and in particular its patriarch John Reilly.

John Reilly, played by Jeffrey Combs, is an alcoholic and an unemployed professor. His father abused him during his early life, and it the echoes of it affect him all the way until the end of Castle Freak. He inherits the Orsino Castle after the Duchess, his aunt, dies and he takes his family there to claim and potentially sell the property. John’s wife, Susan (played by Barbara Crampton), despises him. There is really no other word for it. Due to his alcoholism he lost his employment, and because his five year old son J.J. dropped his video game in the car and tried to reach for it, the boy loses his life in a car accident when John tries to stop his son and simultaneously keep his eyes on the road: failing at both. This same accident blinds his daughter Rebecca, played by actress Jessica Dollarhide, and it leaves his wife to blame him for everything that’s happened to their family.

I think one element of this film that needs to be discussed is its use of connections, and how they all pay off. And when I mention connections, what I am really talking about are relationships. From the police officer who has a relationship with the sex worker that John takes him when his wife spurns him again, to the child they’ve had together, to the amoral Italian Orsino lawyer being the sibling of the housekeeper that warns the Reillys of the Castle and what her death causes, and John’s own tormented relation with Susan, the memory of J.J., and his attempts to protect Rebecca, Susan’s own resentful bond with John, and her over-protective and even obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and the Duchess’ own malicious and petty need to torture Giorgio, and Giorgio wanting to belong to this new family that he can somehow sense as his kin … it all fits together in a patchwork like the scars on Giorgio’s body, and the worn stones of the Castle that is their heritage.

This unity, or this twisted rhyme, can be seen in the form of J.J. J.J. is the child that shouldn’t have died. Giorgio, whom everyone believed dead, once looked the spitting image of J.J. Two dead children that are blood-related, and practically doubles or doppelgängers of each other: the former’s death indicative of an emotionally absent father whose alcoholism led, in part, to the car crash that took his life, and the latter whose father’s physical abandonment led him to having his very identity destroyed in all the ways the matter are central to this film. Families and children, unhealthy dynamics between spouses, siblings, and parents and children are what make Castle Freak.

And then, there is the matter of karma. We find out, and it becomes clear especially after Joe Bob’s talk with Barbara Crampton, that Giorgio and John both have the same American WWII soldier: the former being the Duchess’ son, and the latter being the bastard child of her sister that ran off with him, unmarried, to the United States. The Duchess dies before any justice or vengeance can be carried out on her from the boy whose life she ruined out of a sense of pride and, presumably, the American soldier is also long dead and gone.

Giorgio is John’s Shadow, another popular literary trope. He has abusive and neglectful parents like John, except taken to the nth degree. He was flagellated by a mother for his perceived sins, and tormented for things that were — unlike John — literally beyond his control. Even John’s sexual frustration as punishment by his wife and her anger, and inability to connect with those of his blood, or a disconnect from the sexual relations he has to have with the sex worker are mirrored horrifically in that Giorgio seems to be castrated, but his mother left him his testicles and the frustration of loneliness and an animal fury he can’t express in any other way: as we see with what he does to the poor sex worker. But mostly, there is a grief there. While John grieves, and is guilt-stricken by J.J.’s death, Giorgio mourns even the death of his tormenter and that fury needs somewhere to go.

And Giorgio, after killing the sex worker and the housekeeper sister of the man who could have saved John from being blamed for their murders, finds this outlet: in the form of the scourge that his mother used on him his entire life. It is this whip he uses on John who, in a way, represents the reason Giorgio had been rendered into a tortured being. To Giorgio, if he can think that far, John is the brother that his father left him for, and abandoned him to the cruelty of his insane mother. In a way, John’s existence is the reason his life is so ruined, and that madness is taken out on his hide.

Giorgio, his mother’s whipping boy, makes John his own. And Giorgio, who John once saw as resembling his dead son — the child dead by his own negligence — is something of a gross magnification of his own guilt flagellating himself. And yet, something happens with John that Giorgio is incapable of understanding, or undertaking. For all of John’s selfishness and self-absorption, he still loves his family. Perhaps, at this point in the film, after contemplating suicide, drinking, and undertaking actions that further hurt his family, John doesn’t want Giorgio — both a psychopathic monstrosity of his aunt’s torment, and a symbol of his own guilty conscience — to damage his family anymore. And with a noble moment of self-sacrifice, John tackles Giorgio and the two fall to their deaths: united in death in a way they could never have been in life.

At the end, Susan Reilly sees this — him having saved her and their daughter — and seems to forgive him, perhaps even seeing her own part in the torment that led to all of John’s own actions as they exchange their last words with each other. The Reillys live on, with perhaps the cycle of abuse and pain and recrimination broken by John and Giorgio’s deaths, and the understanding of what led to where they are now: and perhaps after mourning they can find a way forward.

The sins of the family, in this case, are not a blood related curse or a result of eugenics as Lovecraft’s stories and those of his Victorian predecessors often go, but of generational abuse and trauma. But there is one thing that bothers me in this otherwise relatively immaculate film.

Where is Giorgio’s coffin?

At the end of the film, we see John’s coffin being taken to his funeral, or his funeral endings, but we never see what they do with the boy who was supposed to have died decades ago. John is a sufferer of terrible familiar trauma, consciously or otherwise, but Giorgio himself is an even more obvious victim. What happened to his body at the end of the film? Did he even get the dignity of a burial? A real burial?

It gives me inspiration: to try something else.

I always try to say something in this Blog that is more than just a rehashing of something already said and done. So, in light of the upcoming remake by Tate Steinsiek and its more overt and cultish Cthulhu Mythos influences of which I’m curious to see unfold, I started to think to myself — and this was the only reason this article even happened — what if we went back to the roots of “The Outsider?”

There are obvious issues. “The Outsider” is a short story that functions well from a first-person limited perspective. The readers are limited by what he knows and perceives. It is hard to translate that into a film narrative, even with voice over narratives: though it would make for perhaps a good experimental short film, or animation. And I am sure it’s been done already.

So, let’s Frankenstein this fucker, my solution to almost everything in this mad lab. Think of it as following looking at the lives of two children traveling different paths through Castle Freak. First, let’s take Giorgio Orsino from Stuart Gordon’s film. Let’s say that he isn’t the only freak in the Castle, that Giorgio was used by his mother and her family to seal the rest of them away: namely, the ghouls from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands Cycle respectively. Imagine John and Susan Reilly as being completely unsympathetic or clueless and it is Rebecca who focuses on finding her way into understanding how the Castle works: on discovering that it is a weak place between reality and the Dreamlands. Consider that John was supposed to be the original sacrifice, but his father and mother left with him: perhaps even unknowing, and it was up to Giorgio to be offered as a perpetual whipping boy, his blood sealing the other creatures below the Castle into the Underworld.

But then the Duchess dies and Giorgio is freed. A lot of the events of the film continue, but Rebecca is more proactive and bitter about not only being blind, but having her mother constantly attempting to control her. I also like the idea that something comes of her learning some Italian, as she attempts to do in the film, and begins to understand Giorgio: even sympathize with him after she realizes how damaged he is. It may even be that there is something in his hoarse voice that reminds her of her lost brother J.J. I’d also be fascinating if we saw the film from Giorgio’s perspective, and there is a part of him that still thinks he is that golden-haired five year old child until he looks at a mirror, or he does something particularly feral and vicious: almost making him like two different characters and making the audience wonder who that strange child is who also resembles J.J. until the end.

I would have it that it looks like John is attempting to save his family, but he fails. Perhaps he and Susan kill each other, or the other beasts get them instead. Rebecca goes insane or perhaps begins to think that there is another way. It is Giorgio who after his killings of the housekeeper and the sex worker that actually opens the Gate and unleashes the beasts fully: taking Rebecca with him. It’s with Giorgio pledging himself to them that we realize the Reillys and the Orsinos they came from, have ghoul blood. And Giorgio and Rebecca become ghouls, slowly changing, mutating: with Giorgio eating the corpse of his mother who tried to consume his life and keep him in a stillborn stone womb of a prison, shedding the illusion of the child he used to be and wished he still was and the mutilated husk of a broken human to become something more. And Rebecca ends up devouring her own parents: those who controlled hers and emancipating herself to a whole new existence. They then leave with the ghouls — the last of their line here — to live in the depths of the Dreamlands and feast on the dead forever.

So, in this way I am marrying together “The Outsider” with “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” thereby adding a supernatural or low-key Cthulhu Mythos element into it — though not to the apparent extent of Tate Steinsiek’s work with something of a gross and twisted “happy-ending.” Instead of John’s redemption and reaffirmation of family and society, it could be a story about Giorgio, and even Rebecca’s dark salvation from the ruining influence of a mortal world, and the freedom of a bloody, supernatural one beyond human morality.

Conversely, there is the other “child” of my Mythos thought. We make a cinematic story with “The Outsider” traveling through his grave, to his ancestral castle and shying away from the truth of his undead nature, with only snippets of memory and perhaps he — and the audience — see him as a whole being like the youth of “The Quest of Iranon” as he travels through places like “Under the Pyramids” and even through a “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” to finally realize what he is, and to come to peace with it as he joins the ghouls and night-gaunts in their revels. This would have more of a dark epic fantasy cinematic horror feel to it: a saga that expands out to a glorious Lovecraftian cosmic ending: romantic in the sense of it being sublime in unearthly Nature.

Even though I like the 1995 Castle Freak, and my original intent was to not attempt to alter films that I feel work in their own way, I also love the idea of an Outsider, of a supposed monster or a disabled female character — who is actually the central character in the upcoming Steinsiek remake — being the protagonist of their story and challenging a world view in being so. There are opportunities there, perhaps being taken in the remake to an extent. We will just have to see.

Creepshow Commentaries: Season One

This is something different, even though it might not look that way. Before creating my little laboratory here, before truly coming to The Last Drive-In that consumed me during the summer, but after I stopped writing for GeekPr0n and during a lull in writing about some horror films and comics for Sequart, I began watching the new Creepshow serials on Shudder.

At the time, this creative descendant of Stephen King, George Romero, and Greg Nicotero reminded me of the time I watched the very first Creepshow with my late partner, and when I heard this series was being created I commented on each episode as it came out. But eventually, I wanted to keep my comments. Part of it had to do with the fact that for a while I couldn’t leave comments on Shudder and even when I did, after a time, they would become lost, and I found that I actually liked what I was writing. What complicated it even further was, like I said, I really had no place to put it. It’s true that I had my Mythic Bios Blog but it just … didn’t fit.

As it is, they are comments, but even as such they began to coalesce like the rendered pieces of some dead eldritch god coming together, gravitating and mutating towards each other in something that others might call … themes. In a way, you can think these early prototypical samples of Dissections and Speculatives for the formation of the Horror Doctor Blog itself much later on. As such, they are rough, down, and dirty. I could clean them up, but honestly? I like how elemental and honest they are. This is some early work, including the dates in which I wrote them if not seen the episodes, ,and I’d like to think someone can glean something from this, or at the very least see the place of horror from whence I am still learning. Or, you know, before my descent into madness.

Right now, as of this writing, it is Friday November the 13th of 2020. If there was any appropriate time to release these, it would be this night. And to all the people watching a reanimator student at work in this twisted horror medical theatre, allow me to introduce you to my almost epistolary, “found commentaries” on Shudder’s Creepshow.

*

September 27/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Gray Matter/The House of the Head

I like the spiritual influence of the film on the first episode and its two stories so far. The Creep is so much less … communicative than his Crypt Keeper television cousin, at least in this early episode.

“Gray Matter” was an interesting story. You could go very far, to say, that it talks about the dangers of alcoholism and that sometimes it might take a hurricane to quench the thirst of an addict … or not. The dispersion of scenes between the cafe owner and the boy, and the sheriff and the doctor served to add a little more tension to the piece. That tension and suspense making your stomach clench as the boy’s story slowly continued, combined with the gross out factor did fairly well, though it might of gotten a little out of control towards the end. 

“The House of the Head” was my favourite of the two, to be honest. Carl Jung always used the house as a symbol of one’s subconsciousness, or the collective unconscious. Combine that with the premise that if you can have haunted dolls and toys, you can also have haunted dollhouses. And dollhouses have often been literary metaphors for girls exploring their identities in socially accepted ways to become women. You can make an interesting reading of what the protagonist, the little girl Evie, does in attempting to deal with that malign influence, working in that system of the house … before realizing it is the house itself with which she needs to deal with: perhaps more than the thing in the house that no one outside of herself sees. 

It’s a creepy thing, to think you have control over your surroundings, or a place of your arrangement and there is always something there implicit in that place, or space that you just can’t get rid of. It’s actually similar to the mould, or the organic matter in the Harrows beer in “Gray Matter”: something that should have been dealt with by an authority — like a sheriff or the girl through the policeman figurine, or the caricature of a First Nations spiritual symbol of the shaman (talk about an “Indian in the Cupboard” fuck you) — but it is a child that has to deal with it. 

The boy in “Gray Matter” dealt with it one way, by attempting to surrender to it and get away himself. The girl, Evie, in “The House of the Head” got rid of the thing … which might go on to haunt, or infect, or manifest in other’s experiences: not that she had a choice. Not that anyone would have believed her. Not that anyone believed the boy … until it was already too late. 

The themes are good together and complementary. I think the latter story was the stronger one, but they both have merit. I can’t wait to see what the Creep has lined up for us in the next episodes that follow. 

October 4-8/19 

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Bad Wolf Down/The Finger 

What can I say? I really liked this episode. “Bad Wolf Down” was something to which I was very much looking forward. I mean, Werewolves killing Nazis? Where can you go wrong? I also recall the episode in “Love, Death, and Robots” called “Shape-Shifters” where you had werewolves serving both the American Army and what seemed to be an Arabic militia, and it was a case study in character development on the American side. I will say, that “Bad Wolf Down,” which had been advertised for a while with the above premise of Werewolves killing Nazi scum, was sillier than I thought it would be. But it fits into ‘Creepshow’ which also is a homage to ‘Tales from The Crypt’: in it being something of a morality tale in war. It didn’t quite go the way I thought it would. I actually thought they might make it a lot like “Secret War” where the WWII Russians are fighting the forces of hell, but I like how they kept the Nazis evil, but at the same time they also demonstrate how the American soldier characters, who are good people who regret killing, or try not to kill civilians, are willing to embrace the monster to destroy their enemy: a metaphor for war if I’ve ever seen one. Also, Jeffrey Combs as the SS commander was really awesome to see, and made me feel like not only was looking at a 1950s rendition of a Nazi villain, all outlandish and over the top evil, but he brings a ‘Re-animator’ antagonist vibe to the thing. And also, that ending right? War changes a man indeed. 

But I knew nothing about “The Finger.” I like how in both stories, you see comics pages strewn throughout the scenes — tying into the central theme and aesthetic of ‘Creepshow’ and especially how the protagonist of “The Finger” collects them like the old discarded relics that some people used to think them to be. I really like how he’s depicted like what some people might believe to be an “ordinary, normal man” — or a “nice guy” in our time: a millennial adult who feels abused by the system and society, and neglected by everyone around him while also feeling a certain degree of self-entitlement. It was so cool to see the Finger itself grow and become, well, Bob. Bob is pretty much anyone’s best friend who feels discarded, lonely, and has a whole set of petty grievances. 

This story felt like such a ‘Tales from the Crypt’ or ‘Twilight Zone’ episode, and the first-perspective and retelling of the story from the protagonist was chilling in that he is actually so relatable while, at the same time, there is something disquieting and even creepy about him. Certainly, his perspective — which is the axis from which the story is shown — is biased, and we never know whether or not he took that blowjob from his stepdaughter so long ago. I actually hope that — one day — Bob comes back to the protagonist. I think the strength of both stories is how we see the moralities of the characters in how they embrace the monstrous to undertake what they believe to be justice. It is still horrible, but there is a relatibility to it all. Here, the monster isn’t an antagonist but humans are, and if anything the monstrous is to be pitied, or even loved. And Bob, I mean: can you imagine having a friend, someone that would love you, like Bob? And just how far you would feed his love if you had one? And just, for all of the morality you think you have, what you really do with a case of lycanthropy … or Bob? I actually am surprised, but I really like “The Finger” *more* than “Bad Wolf Down,” though I like the former as well. I find that the second segments in these episodes tend to be stronger. I wonder if the trend will continue. I look forward to watching more. 

October 11-12/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: All Hallows Eve / The Man in the Suitcase

What can I say: this episode has been for me, unequivocally, the best one ever so far. I’m trying to find a central theme here, but I’d say it would be something like vindictive justice, or karma coming, coming, coming to get you. 

“All Hallows Eve” reminds me of an “Are You Afraid of the Dark” episode, or the film version of “Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark” with far more of a tight, controlled, storyline with elements of gore. It’s one of those *in media res* situations where you gradually discover what those trick or treating kids really are, and what happened to them. I loved their tree house, and the D&D session they had — a 23 is a good total, it’s too bad it didn’t translate into luck in their real lives — and the ‘Goosebumps’ poster on the wall was a nice touch. At first, I thought it was going to be each of the adults they terrified being the culprits in what happened, like in a Toronto After Dark short film I saw years back where a group of adults are terrorized by the ghosts of vengeful children whom, as it turns out, they killed as a serial killer swingers group of sorts. I knew there was something about those children, especially the one dressed as a ghost — because we all know what sheets were made to cover — and I like how when they accomplish their final goal, dealing with the bullies that accidentally but cruelly ended them, the boy was restored under that sheet. It was so poignant. I am glad they got their justice and that they can sleep now, perhaps having better dreams and only treats, like they should have done years ago.

And then, we have “The Man in the Suitcase.” I should have seen it coming in retrospect — especially with the cartoon shown during the college kid Justin smoking up — and it was only towards the end that I knew what was going on. I felt bad for Justin having to deal with a complete bitch like Carla, and his asshole roommate Alex. I didn’t know to expect until I saw the description about the coins coming out of the contorted man, in pain. The ethics and horror of it … it got the point where the college kids were just torturing him for the pleasure of it, in addition to the greed and the aphrodisiac of Mammon. But Justin was the only one with qualms as the other two lost their humanity, which was the point. 

I don’t know, I feel like there is some racial, post-colonial statement to make about what are presumably a bunch of North American college kids profiting off of, and even taking pleasure from, the suffering of a subaltern like a brown, Arabic or Persian man in a bag. In a way, I think it the whole story and situation was more like a morality tale or a cautionary one — an echo of a 1001 Arabian Nights tale where a supernatural force arranges a lesson and it may well have been Justin’s lesson, or infernal intervention as opposed to divine: one he ended up learning at the very end. Really, both stories are about emotional baggage in addition to vicious supernatural justice. The Golden Dragons, the D&D kids that were burned alive by the bullies that believed they were mainstream and the parents that backed them from being punished temporally, finally freed themselves from one last quest of vengeance, and the man that turned out to be a djinn — an evil genie traveling on a plane in his suitcase of a lamp — destroyed the two people that walked all over Justin, and because he actually had a conscience at the end, even rewarded him. Maybe mixing it with the post-colonial resonance might confuse the narrative, or make it problematic, and perhaps Justin didn’t deserve mercy, but all I know is that his ex and former roommate deserved everything they got. They failed the supernatural test, the one foreshadowed in Justin’s nightmare, and everything they visited on what they thought was a helpless force condemned to make them rich was visited right on them. 

But damn. This episode was so utterly satisfying. Five out of five skulls. 

October 18/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 4: The Companion/Lydia Layne’s Better Half

I will never get used to the Creep not talking like the Crypt Keeper often does at the beginning of his own shows, even if he does play narrator in the facsimile of comics pages at the beginning of each ‘Creepshow’ episode.

You know, one of these stories is called “The Companion,” but in reality both of them are about companions, and companionship, and how it can be used to one’s advantage, or gone horribly wrong as a result. I actually didn’t know where “The Companion” was going at first, even though the scarecrow seen as the graphic, hanging on a cross in a field on its own, reminded me of the story “Harold” recounted in Alvin Schwartz’s ‘Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark’ and its recent film equivalent. However, the only Harold in this particular story here is Harry, who runs from his abusive, drunken, psychotic older brother Billy into an abandoned field where he releases the unnamed scarecrow from a cane stabbed through its heart. 

The scarecrow itself was created by an old farmer named Raymond Brenner from straw, ancient bones under the soil of his property, and a heart embroidery made by his wife Mavis — his beloved companion — who died, and left him lonely. He made the creation to help him deal with that loneliness, and all went well until it killed a Girl Scout coming onto his property to try to sell some cookies. The scarecrow is different from the depictions of Stephen Gammell’s Harold in ‘Scary Tales,’ with its tusks, and almost organic parts on its chest. It looks truly macabre and terrifying. One might also think that the scarecrow is a lot like Bob from ‘The Finger,’ except while it does what its creator says, it will protect its creator — or the holder of the cane that the creator stabbed it with — at all times, or is jealous of the creator’s time, and will act accordingly. I also love how not even the scarecrow’s creator knew what animated it: the bones, or the heart that Mavis wove independently of this. It was inspiring. 

In the end, Harry uses the cane that Brenner stabbed it with all those years ago after the death the girl, to stop it from killing him, and then entrap his brother, and kill him instead with its tendrils of roots and death. At first I thought Harry was trying to make his own scarecrow, as we see him weaving something after reading the suicide letter of Brenner, but why do that when he can just sew his bedsheets around him, and get a perfectly good, ready made companion to do the job for him: to use a greater monster against a pettier one. 

Speaking of greater and pettier monsters, I’ve not forgotten about ‘Lydia Layne’s Better Half.’ It is an age-old story about greed and power, and fear and burying guilt and the evidence of a crime of murder and blood. It has a very feminist theme, or at least it uses the popular language of such. Lydia is a high-powered executive that passes over her lover Celia for a position in Switzerland, to keep her as a trophy-wife, and under her heel while paying lip service to the power of women advancing in a patriarchal world and the destruction of a glass ceiling. It is, ironically, her glass achievement award that impales itself through Celia’s brain after she attacks her, when Celia plans to tell the press about both the passing up of her for the position in favour of a man, and the result of a physical attack.

Lydia pretty much falls under the crooked archetype of the hypocrite that deserves retribution in the style of EC Comics’ ‘Tales From the Crypt’ as she attempts to hide her crime, to protect her reputation and power, and reveals that Celia had just been a plaything the entire time, while moving her body and attempting to make it look like she died in a car accident. Instead, she gets stuck. In an elevator. With a rotting corpse of the woman she claimed to love. For 24 hours. 

You don’t know if what happens to Lydia — who has no real remorse for what she has done to her jilted lover — is the result of insanity, or supernatural justice. All I know is, when she climbs on Celia’s body to attempt to escape, to continue her literal climb to power, and her place at the top it has social and gender connotations there that are painful to see, and what happens to her afterwards — as her erstwhile companion seems to get her revenge — is poetic. 

Both stories are incredibly strong, and I look forward to seeing where ‘Creepshow’ goes beyond this. Five skulls. 

October 28/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Night of the Paw / Times Is Tough in Musky Holler

What can I say, both of these stories in this episode feel like homages. I’ve just come fresh off the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and its showing of Ryan Spindell’s ‘The Mortuary Collection’ — which is an anthology of tales told through the frame of a creepy narrator done right, and its story “Till Death” an eerie parallel to ‘Creepshow”s “Lydia Lane’s Better Half,” elevator and impaled head of a murdered partner’s body and all, but this latest showing has callbacks to specifically literary sources.

I mean, look at “Night of the Paw.” At first, I didn’t know where this was going until — inevitably — the Fakir of Mumbai’s Paw is introduced: a relic borrowed from the classic “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W.W. Jacobs. Interestingly enough, the old man who has saved the woman he found at his doorstep is called Whitey: a parallel to Mr. and Mrs. White of the aforementioned story. And like the couple, both he and the woman he summoned with the Paw attempted to resurrect a loved one from death … and unlike the short story, it doesn’t shy back from the gory, horrific consequences. I will admit, having the woman be a murderess who killed her husband to euthanize him with a gun was a little heavy-handed, a bad pun when you consider both the fact that she loses two fingers in her hand, and the Paw itself, and I am confused as to why the Paw resurrected all the corpses in the morgue including her husband’s, but the theme of doing something gruesome and horrible in the name of good names, and receiving one’s poetically ironic fate as a result is something that carries over to the next story. I will also state I like how this story utilized the comics panels segments more, and made you read them and see them to fill in some of the blanks between the live action sequences. 

And this brings us to “Times Is Tough in Musky Holler.” At first, I thought the former Mayor Barkley and his inner circle were in hell, going to be judged by the people they had betrayed and killed. But as the story continues, you realize that it is taking place after a major event: namely, a zombie apocalypse. It turns out, Barkley and his cronies used the chaos of the dead rising to seize power in the town of Musky Holler and in a ‘Battle Royale’ or ”Hunger Games’ fashion they created arena games where their political opponents would be fed open, publicly, by the dead. What we get to see is an extension of a EC Comics Horror ethos — think the story “Foul Play” from ‘The Haunt of Fear’ except with a zombie, or a series of crimson-hued undead resembling Nathan Grantham from the first ‘Creepshow’ film’s “Father’s Day” of so many decades ago — play out, and all of the war criminals get their … just desserts in a game — the last game of its kind to punish its creators — called, fittingly enough, “Hot Pie.” 

You can argue that both stories utilize the theme of people rationalizing to themselves undertaking horrific actions for a greater good — to reunite with a deceased loved one, or to help a town survive an undead invasion, though the latter was far more self-serving — or that they both have the undead rise to deal karma on the protagonists, or that fate cannot be avoided one way or another, but whatever the case it all entertained me. Greatly. 

October 31-November 4/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 6: Skincrawlers / By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain

Halloween came early this year in the form of this final episode of the first season of ‘Creepshow’ being released on Shudder one day early. I find I don’t have as much to say about this one. Both stories utilize the idea of hidden animals or creatures in Nature that can benefit humanity, and that those that hunt or seek them often find more for which they could have bargained. 

I wasn’t sure about “Skincrawlers” at first, though I knew based on the comics panel art it would be a body horror situation. It could have been that the fat-eating leeches were already controlling their human hosts, or they had laid eggs inside of the people seeking to lose weight. It was pointed out to me that throughout time people purposefully ingested tapeworms for a similar and grotesque reason. The protagonist looked like a man who unlike the others volunteering for the program realized he was actually happy with who he was, and how he looked, and that the leeches were too high a price to use. You kind of knew what was going to happen when the eclipse was mentioned on the news segment right before the leech demonstration was supposed to occur with the protagonist. I don’t know if there is really a moral here aside from the price one can pay when they try to skip steps, especially with their health, but the irony of the protagonist pushing a vending machine down on the larger leech, and being the only one of a few to escape it speaks of a particular karma or ethos. And for a man who wanted those creatures nowhere near his body, he really shouldn’t have eaten a candy bar coated in the remnants of the creatures and their horribly dead human hosts.

Now, “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” seems like a much longer story. Written by Joe Hill, and directed by Tom Savini, the story is about Rose: the daughter of a man attempting to find a mysterious and elusive beast called Champ in the lake, whose obsession kills him before the story begins. She has a younger brother, and a mother who lives with a greedy, abusive alcoholic Vietnam veteran named Chet who always needs to be the Alpha Male in the area. Rose’s boyfriend looks like Rambo thanks to his bandana and knife, but resembles more someone from the old Kobra Kai dojo in the ‘Karate Kid’ days. Rose keeps records and clippings of any Champ, or Champy sightings. She ends up finding proof that Champ exists, and that her father wasn’t insane, only to have Chet threaten her boyfriend (I was totally waiting for someone to tell her boyfriend to “sweep the leg” — I just can’t get that Kobra Kai 1980s martial arts image out of my head) and herself when they believe they find the dead body of Champ … and realize that they are wrong. The karma is served here and Chet is devoured, but it is clear that Champ — this analogue to the Loch Ness Monster as an aquatic dinosaur-like being — isn’t good or evil, but is an animal that reacts to hostility, and may well have devoured all of them including Chet if she hadn’t been distracted by the death of her progeny. The mystery as to what killed Champ’s offspring, as claw marks are seen on its side, remains — and Rose’s boyfriend’s attempt to carve hers and her father’s name into the side of the dead creature, which is seen as sweet, becomes horrible and sad when you realize it is the real Champ’s child, and is just another example of humanity trying to mark something from nature that it doesn’t understand for itself. But the mother at the end finally believes in what her late husband sought and with the death of her abusive partner, everything has closure and feels sweet and almost saccharine, until Chet’s severed foot arrives on shore.

This episode was all right, but it just didn’t feel like a strong episode or duo of stories to end off the first season of ‘Creepshow.’ It does make its theme clear: of this is what happens when humans meddle in elements of nature and the unknown that they don’t understand, and that your actions have consequences in a moralistic vintage horror ethos fashion, I feel like the previous stories might have been more solid to end on, especially on All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. Certainly, the “All Hallows Eve” story from Episode 3 might have been better here. Nevertheless, they were solid stories, and I definitely look forward to knowing that there will be another season of ‘Creepshow’ coming up.

October 30/20

Warning: Potential Spoilers for ‘A Creepshow Animated Special’: Survivor Type / Twittering From the Circus of the Dead

When I first saw this, I was taken aback. I already knew that this would be a special episode, but what I didn’t realize were a few things. First, it didn’t hit home that it would be its own entity: not an episode, but a Special in, and of itself. And second, when the Creep began drawing his pages, scarring them with his black ink quill, I found my mind awaiting the transition from the comics pages to the live action as I usually do … and I almost forgot that this whole Special is, like an undead construct powered by necromancy, an animated production. 

The animation studio Octopie succeeds in making something resembling EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt shamble across Shudder’s video screen to a terrible and gloriously shaded semblance of life. Everything, as it was in the first Creepshow is a homage to EC Comics’ horror series. Even the illustrated Creep resembles the first incarnation of the Crypt Keeper, or some interstitial version between the robed white-haired man and the rotten, cackling skeleton that we all know and love.

But that is another show, from another time. It’s been a while since I’ve written a review of a Creepshow episode and a lot has changed in just a year. This is the year of the Pandemic. This is the time of COVID-19. I don’t know if either of these stories, adapted from both Stephen King and Joe Hill respectively — father and son of horror — were animated by Octopie and directed by Greg Nicotero before or after the Pandemic, but they have some resonances.

I have to say, these stories are gross. Both of them. But they are gross in a way that doesn’t make them spectacle, but genuine existential and even empathic horror. In “Survivor Type,” created from Stephen King’s short story, animated in a manner reminiscent of Alan Moore’s own homage to old horror comics Tales of the Black Freighter with seagulls galore, we see a doctor stranded on a desert island named Richard. Aside from the fact that he is voiced by the great horror film veteran Kiefer Sutherland, which gives him a tremendous force of personality, he is quite relatable. Despite, or because of, his ties and drive to do whatever it is to survive you get driven into his story. Even though I know what kind of story this is, I actually wanted him to survive — to live. But when you look at the price of life, in that situation, there is a point where you wonder just how merciful it would be to exist at that point.

When you look at this current timeline we’re living in, where health specialists and professionals are practically on the frontlines of the Pandemic, not knowing how they are going to stop it but being painfully aware of what the effects of the virus will be on others — and themselves — perhaps even hoping for some miracle cure, some saviour that never comes. Or perhaps you can look at it as, through survival in a time of great isolation, we can go on through compartmentalization, but by doing so we lose little parts of ourselves and our humanity each day. Or if you go into even more existential extremes based on old EC horror comics morality — that humanity’s path to consume the world out of greed, as represented by the doctor Richard, will ultimately devour itself, this cannibalistic stretch practically makes itself.

Perhaps this read would be more effective in the adaptation of Joe Hill’s “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead.” It takes a while to get to where it needs to be, and while the red herring, if you will pardon the ghoulish pun and context, is a corpse that never gets eaten, the one in the following story is a “cock-sock” which I almost hoped would be a Chekov’s condom (and probably something Richard will never need again).

It is a story that is also narrated, but while Richard is the only character for the most part and it is easy to forget that he is narrating other characters too, Blake is around her family the entire time: on what will be their last family road trip. She is constantly on a Twitter analogue social media app complaining about her family and the trip “from hell.”

There is an attempt to humanize the characters but it is a little flat. And then they get to the Circus of the Dead. I will say, there’s a part of me that thinks this was an attempt to criticize the effect of the Internet desensitizing people to reality, or their own instincts. I don’t know. I wonder if a North American family would wonder why there is a Circus that has a zombie-theme and it doesn’t seem to be Halloween in their story. 

But I appreciate how the Circus arranges itself, how it operates like some kind of grisly Grand Guignol, and the audience isn’t so much a tough crowd as it is quite rotten, and … par of the course. Crypt Keeper humour all said and done, I personally think that Blake would have made a good social media manager for them, though the Ringmaster seems to have that all in hand.

I just, again, see the art of it reflecting this current time. The disease around the family and the few living audience members that they willfully ignore, the warning that they dismiss as spectacle, even the spray of undead gore that they don’t realize has already infiltrated them due to their carelessness all has eerie resonance now beyond a simple zombie story if the Hazmat suited circus member wasn’t enough for you.

Both stories in the Animated Special both have to deal with cannibalism, and the human desire and inclination to ignore the hard facts in front of them. “Survivor Type” haunts me long after watching it because you know the horror of it will just continue until the human completely becomes inhuman, and yet “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” has only one human element at the end: that realization that Blake loves her family even though it’s far too late, and she must take the place of the announcer before her, who also lost someone she loved, and only continued to exist out of fear. In this time, isolation is the enemy: it makes us — borrowing from the above idea I wrote about  “Survivor Type” eat the different parts of us if we let isolation get to us, and forget the connections that we actually have. Both Richard and Blake scorned their connections, one thinking he could survive in life by his … own two hands, and the other wanting to get away from her family.

Yet, in the end, both of them wanted connection: both wanted to be saved, and both lost everything … including their humanity. Perhaps, in the end, in the time of a greater horror looming over us as we huddle with others or on our own, there is a dark morality lesson here to consider after all. 

Behind My Son of Shadows

Nothing ever goes according to plan. This is especially true in the mad science known as creative writing.

I’d been planning to place something within the Reanimation Station for quite some time, to take apart and rewrite an old film and make it into a more coherent story. There have been some smaller, minor experiments before that point: splicing Society and They Live, looking at alternative story ideas and possible narrative execution derived from Cannibal Holocaust, From Beyond, and even Hogzilla, and outright creating a short continuation or epilogue to Crimson Peak.

But this wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Before undertaking this Project, without a hope for financial compensation and only out of the perverted goodness of my black heart, I needed to attempt something … larger.

‎Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is not a bad film, though it isn’t as well known as it should be. In fact, it is a great movie. But, as most homage and fanfiction writers do, I wondered what would have happened if it had gone … differently.

It all began with the premise: what if Stefan, who claimed to be the heir to Chilton Manor, told his new wife Valerie the truth about his phone call back home, and what he truly wanted out of her?

I’d already seen the film twice, but that wasn’t enough. The first Phase of my process was reading up on the movie, on the characters, and even some basic thoughts from critics and its director. I also thought it useful to fill in some gaps about Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess of Hungary, herself. I knew that in order to make the story compelling, I needed to consider what each character was thinking and feeling beyond how their movements and facial expressions are telegraphed in the film.

But even before all of this, I’d already decided that the story was going to be two scenes: the first being the aftermath of Stefan telling Valerie the truth and him meeting Ilona Harczy in the honeymoon suite as per the usual proceedings of the film, and then the Countess Elizabeth Bathory also coming into the room to talk with Stefan privately, and confront him over the knowledge of what he really is.

It sounds simple, right? The film works well not just because of its turns in lush and austere aesthetics, but also due to what it doesn’t show or say. I know that ascribing clear meaning or explanations to things from the film wouldn’t work as they are not in the film. That is a personal rule of mine. If I am going to work in someone else’s playground I am either only going to play with the toys they’ve left behind, or take note of those items and bring some that potentially complement them.

For example, there are a few references to Elizabeth Bathory, and I did place some Dracula allusions into the narrative as well. What’s fascinating is that from Bathory, and Vlad Tepes came in no small part influence for how the image of the vampire is depicted in the literary arts. Yet Dracula isn’t necessarily Vlad Tepes, and the historical Elizabeth Bathory isn’t a vampire. It is the ideas of these legends based off history and folklore, these created identities that are the most fascinating elements to me. They are fictional personas masking something else entirely, another concept or truth that ultimately gets revealed while saying very little about their concrete origins. And if you have watched Daughters of Darkness, you also know that this applies to Stefan to some extent as well: in that he too is a construct over another, darker truth that gets realized one way in the film, and I attempt to reveal in another in my own derivative narrative.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be sparse with little bits of ornamentation changed into something else in the operating theatre of my writer’s mind. The truth of what happened with Stefan and Valerie in my narrative, in contrast to the film, was going to be slowly revealed and only touched upon: kind of like how the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” talk about abortion without being blunt or direct about it.

But if we are going to go into literary influences that aided me in building on, and understanding this cinematic narrative, I would also mention Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: a novella that deals with homoerotic and queer undertones along with the dissolution of a morality and mind obsessed with possessing youth and beauty. Ostend in Belgium, while not Venice, Italy still has some of the architectural and ornamental tradition that mirrors the latter.

There is definitely a Continental European literary influence over Daughters of Darkness, especially in seduction and love as a passionate force that destroys bourgeoisie mentality — a middle-class mindset — and that life itself.

My alternate ending idea changed, however, when Ilona Harczy wanted more “screen time” in the narrative. To elaborate, she spoke to me. One thing that I’ve seen online is that different reviews of Daughters of Darkness ascribe a variety of perspectives to the film. But what they all seem to agree on, or most of them, is that the women — the vampires — are lesbians. It does seem that Elizabeth and Ilona are in a hierarchical lesbian power exchange relationship, especially accentuated by the fact that Elizabeth is the vampire that made or sired Ilona: compelling her with what seems to be a bond. And towards the end of the film, Valerie is influenced by that same magnetism. But I think there are complexities there that are more than just a black and white sense of sexuality, or even gender understanding.

Ilona, to me, wanted to leave the worn down, exhausting relationship she has with her domineering partner, still hungry for blood herself but also for companionship with someone other than Elizabeth, maybe even a temporary reprieve from her own sense of unhappiness. She is a mirror to Stefan in that he too trying to run from his own responsibilities, wanting to embrace his hungers, his appetites but only able to make excuses to attempt to escape the inevitable as well. Neither character is happy, and in this derivative construction of mine, I wanted to make it clear that they know this on one level: even if it is lost in translation between them.

I was content to let Ilona have her time with Stefan, but then a new challenge arose. You see, I really liked — love — Kümel’s dialogue. There are some lines in his film that I just wanted to exist in this alternate ending that was quickly becoming an alternative chapter. It began with Stefan and Ilona, and then after Ilona’s limited third-person narrative, I had to go back to Valerie and see what her interaction with the Countess would be like.

Valerie runs away, this time from the verbal truth and not the visceral, punitive corporeal punishment that Stefan utilizes against her in his sense of thwarted ambition — of being the subordinate instead of the master as he thinks a man should be — and the Countess finds her. I didn’t want to reveal too much about what happened, or what was said otherwise there is that fear of repetition in the narrative. A lot of the lines still worked, especially when applied to Valerie realizing that Stefan’s sadistic desires, and his sexuality are not what she expected: or the truth about his home life.

I think where I had to be really careful was attempting to get to the third-person limited perspective of the Countess. Whereas Valeris is a central protagonist in the film and much about her own development is already made clear to the point it being dangerous repetition, Elizabeth Bathory needs remain more of an opaque, yet open mystery. You can, and you should, read between the lines. She has seen it all. In fact, she has done it all. When you look at her interaction with Stefan in the film, you see they have a lot in common. The difference? The Countess reached the point where she can enact these desires. Stefan has not.

I was thinking about character motivations and dynamics. I considered the fact that Elizabeth would like to travel around a great deal, not just because the Bathory family lost their land ages after the Blood Countess’ house arrest and death, but also because if she had been entombed alive in her own home, she wouldn’t want to stay in one place for too long. It would terrify the hell out of her, which is why she needs to move around so much, and how she came to the hotel at Ostend again. At the same time, the Countess is old. It’s said that it is never polite to speculate on a lady’s age, but when you see Elizabeth interact with others, in the way she moves, or looks at them, or smiles it really does feel like she is ethereal, that she is attempting to remember how to affect human mannerisms and emotion when the only real feelings she channels anymore are disaffection and hunger. She’s jaded and tired, and while Ilona is desperate to feel something else — anything — Elizabeth has particular tastes and likes to take incredible risks.

I added even more literary references, especially from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The historical Elizabeth Bathory, who apparently suffered seizures and some say actually bathed in the blood of healthy innocents to stop them, was also a highly literate young girl who speak Latin and ancient Greek. She was smart, and if the Countess of this film is her, or descended from her, or bases herself off her, I can see her comparing her idea of love to Satan, Death, and Sin. I know that it’s Mary Shelley who makes references to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, but it just suits the Gothic environment crafted in Daughters in Darkness.

Writing this has been challenging. Imagine filming, and the conceit that a lot of the work in film is post-production: in the editing room. So consider finding a complete and excellent film, a masterpiece, and cutting apart pieces of it, and splicing together dialogue into different spaces, with words that are your own and might possibly complement the original dialogue: while something new. That’s what I attempted to do here.

However, and this is important, I didn’t want to destroy the themes of the film. A part of me wonders, even now, if making this ending focused on Stefan doesn’t defeat the purpose of the film, or go against the natures of the characters involved. Certainly, I can’t deny that I changed its trajectory and emphasis on women while, at the same time I feel like it still explores those elements amongst power dynamics, and the questions of eros, and freewill.

Let me just say: rewatching the film again, and going through various scenes and their dialogue made me truly appreciate the detail and layers, the nuances, in the narrative. Elizabeth is calculating, but she isn’t all-knowing. She just knows how to adapt like, in Kümel’s words to Mark Gatniss in Horror Europa, any good “demagogue.” Elizabeth is a casual opportunist, and while she seems to have preferences towards Valerie, for what seem to be similar reasons as Stefan’s, she doesn’t rule him out either. I think what gets me is her speech to Valerie in the film about what men want from women, sexually and kink-wise, and all the while you begin to realize that when Elizabeth is talking about what Valerie is expected to do for Stefan, she is really wanting Valerie to undertake these actions for her. In a way, Elizabeth is projecting her needs and desires on Stefan and men to introduce them, or define them, for Valerie. She is basically manipulating and grooming her away from Stefan after their violent encounter in the film.

In my story, it is a longer game, but Elizabeth does use the situation to win Valerie’s trust and take advantage of her vulnerability. What happens when someone is young and in love and invests this whole energy into a risky business of a person that doesn’t pay off, or turn out the way they think? They panic, and seek someone who knows, or seems to know what the deal might be. And while Stefan does have Dominant, and sadistic tendencies, he does share in the fact that he is bisexual — just as the female characters all seem to be. In the film, he associates gender with a power dynamic: he is a submissive or subordinate partner to his male partner at Chilton Manor, while he chafes under as he has other needs, and inherently believes that a man should be dominant over a woman. That chauvinism is there. However, in the scene in the lounge he does give into the Countess’ sensual domination — whether supernatural, or not.

Elizabeth can read Stefan. You can also interpret this as she talked with Valerie about him. And when someone trying to still feel something, to keep experiencing pleasure, can get more than one good thing, they will. Stefan has the tendencies towards sadism, but Elizabeth has learned it, and it is telling that he calls his partner in England “Mother” but the film Elizabeth wraps her arms around him, and in my fiction she ends up taking the control that he wants to give.

There are other elements that I didn’t plan that turned out well, such as Ilona’s eventual fate. I’ve been reading Clive Barker’s Imajica recently, and the novel begins with a theory of fiction in which there is only room for “three players” in a narrative: be they characters, or themes and three it becomes: though whether or not it will become two, then one like in the film isn’t clear by the end of my narrative. This riff or modification of Aristotle’s Poetics aside, it works out well, especially in using the Chekhov’s gun objects from the film: the razor that Stefan accidentally cuts himself with at the beginning of the story, and Ilona’s pearl necklace. The first item had already been there, and gets used in a different way in the film whereas I worked the necklace in differently.

Originally, I was going to have Ilona drop the necklace when leaving Stefan and Valerie’s honeymoon suite:

In her haste, in her stride to leave, Ilona drops the pearl necklace onto the floor. It snaps, spilling every ivory bead, each one rolling away, releasing them into the shadows gathered under the bed. 

However, there is no way she would have accidentally destroyed that necklace. It is a good image, and excellent foreshadowing, but I found a place where it fits far better, and used more than it was in the film. I had even used a third-person limited Stefan perspective that I didn’t end up using where he compares Ilona’s teeth to the pearls:

Stefan feels her watching him as he showers.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. Something, after Ilona however, feels more coiled. He turns around to see her. In the light of the bathroom, he sees her luscious lips, parted, and her teeth — paler than the pearls that were around her neck, dashed onto the floor like the rest of the room by his hand — exposed.

It is a good paragraph, as well, but in the end I used Ilona’s perspective instead and moved the pearls reference downward, and then away from there to her denouement in the bathtub of her’s and Elizabeth’s suite.

I don’t really know what else to add to this behind the scenes, or backstage look at my literary homage to Daughters of Darkness except I think that if I had to explain how the title works beyond it being a gender-bent version of the English title, it would go a little something like this.

Basically, Stefan who claims to be from Chilton Manor is part of an unofficial and illegal relationship with a more powerful man who stays in his estate and calls himself “Mother.” Valerie wants to protect him and be his wife but she’s basically young and with little substance beyond what she can become. Ilona, who seduces him, is dressed in black and wishes to be free, already resigned to what happens to her with moments of defiance — like him — and when she touches his face and hair, she almost seems to see a reflection of herself except so much younger. And Elizabeth, who plays with him and his wife, is an older feminine version of what he is, and what he could be. But like the shadow of shadows, he is always going to be tethered to something: his partner, his idea of what a man should be, the Countess, his sexual desires, and his unacknowledged needs. Originally, I was going to have the story end where he and Valerie almost touch fingers after the Countess claims them, after he is turned on the memory of Ilona’s final fate. But I needed to have Elizabeth behind them with, yes, that gimmicky black raincoat that looks like a vampire cape or the wings of a bat. It mirrors what Valerie, or the form of Valerie, does at the end of the film with that couple she meets after this is all said and done.

Stefan may have a different existence in this story, in this alternate ending, but he is still a shadow. He is still subordinate to someone else. He is still a slave to his passions. The difference? He knows it now. And he has died for them: just in a different way.

I hope liked this look into the bloody mess of my creative process, and that I will see you all for the next experiment.

Son of Shadows

Dedicated to Harry Kümel’s 1971 film Daughters of Darkness

Stefan feels nothing.

He sits in the King-sized bed, now empty aside from himself. And he doesn’t count. The honeymoon suite is a mess. After he and Valerie talked, after she left … he must have destroyed the entire place. All the blankets, his clothes, the ornaments, even the bathroom toiletries are strewn everywhere.

And the phone. The phone is in pieces on the floor, against the wall. The same phone that he called …

Stefan notes his hand. His belt is the only thing he’s kept on him, wrapped around his hand. Pins and needles prickle across it as he realizes he must have blacked out with the strap around it, gripping it into a tight fist.

His chest feels tight, as the events from hours ago fully materialize back into his conscious mind. He sits up, maneuvering his legs so his feet can touch the cool wood of the floor. He puts his head in his hands. The leather of his belt, and the metal of the buckle keeps him grounded. All that volatile emotion that he’s tried to avoid, and all he feels now is hollow. Of course Valerie is gone. His wife. As if …

He lifts his head out of his palms, and blinks. There is a figure, standing near the window. So silent …

“Valerie?” His heart leaps into his throat, with many other feelings that are harder to define.

She steps away. The woman isn’t Valerie. She has short black hair. Red lips. White skin. So pale … so …

“Ilona.” Her name comes to his mind, as does her smile at him from the stairway from what seems to have been a thousand years ago. Stefan’s fingers are inches away from where the lamp used to be, until he realizes that it’s one of the things he’d already smashed in his earlier rage. He lowers his hand. Ilona is at his side, sitting at the edge of the bed.

“Why are you here?” He asks her, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted.

He can see her a little better now, in the dark. It’s foolish that he mistook her for Valerie, showing him just how foregone he really is. He can see her black dress, her clothing not like Valerie’s lighter colours. And the pearl necklace stands out around her neck and chest like a string of small full moons.

“I’m so unhappy.” She tells him, tracing a hand across his cheekbone. “Unhappy.” Her fingers trail down his chin, and rest in her lap. In the darkness, she is an eclipsed silhouette, a silvery outline of a ghost. Stefan doesn’t say anything. What does one say under these circumstances? It’s not the first time he’s heard a woman say these words, directed at him, or no, far from England, in a Continental hotel room. But perhaps it’s the first time they really hit home, in the moment.

Instead, seeing this vulnerability that he can somehow feel, he touches her cheek. He looks her in the eyes. “You’re as white as a sheet.” He murmurs, remembering his own terror.

Ilona turns away from him. “No, no.” She whispers. “I’m frightened.” She pauses for a second, as though letting that admission sink in. “I don’t what’s going to happen … to any of us.”

It is such a bizarre thing to say. But Stefan has nothing witty to say. Nothing clever. Nothing dismissive. He thinks back to the events of the evening, and the phone dashed against the wall of their honeymoon suite, feeling the old, oppressive tide of helplessness rise up inside his throat again, no longer enraging him, merely threatening to choke him and take him down with it into its depths of self-loathing. “Neither do I.”

They sit that way for a time. He feels something cool and soft on his hand, on his fist wrapped in his own belt. He realizes it’s Ilona’s hand. He feels her other hand stroking his hair, bringing him closer to her.

He shouldn’t. It’s a bad idea. It’s not good to look up at her right now. It’s bad enough that he’s naked. Because if he does look up at Ilona, if he meets her gaze …

Stefan does it anyway, another terrible decision in a series of awful life choices. There is some consistency in that much. Ilona’s eyes are dark, and they reflect no light. But they are deeper than the unlit room, and there is both a sadness that makes her seem a lot older than what she is, and a hunger beyond a simple midnight rendezvous. For some reason, they make her red lips seem more crimson, less of a pout and more of the orchid that … Stefan doesn’t want to think about.

“I know.” She says, softly. Her lips are inches away from his own. “You didn’t understand anything yet.”

“No.” Stephen also admits, more to himself than to her. “I’m afraid not.”

“How could you?” Her gaze is the equivalent of a sad shake of the head as she lowers her hand again. “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No.” Stefan says, thinking of his own circumstances and the bed that he unmade in which he must lie. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

Her hand keeps circling on his own, over the belt. Somehow, he can feel her fingertips trail across the veins underneath. Slowly, imperceptibly, his hand begins to unclench, to let go. All that’s left is that one emotion in Ilona’s eyes.

Loneliness.

And as she strokes his hair, with a combination of fondness and despair in her gaze, her generous lips brushing against his cheek, as she gently but firmly pushes him back onto the bed, her mouth on his collarbone, his chest, and trailing wetly lower, Stefan gives into that loneliness as well.

*

Ilona’s mouth tastes of both Stefan and Valerie. She knows they’d made love, before the telephone call. Before their argument. Before Valerie left. It’s the closest she’s come to having either of them. She remembers her orders, as much as she would nothing more than to discard them, and slake her thirst.

But she has done this. She can no more disobey Elizabeth than leave her. Yet it is the smaller things. The little moments under her. Away from her. They are victories. That is what Ilona tells herself. After sampling the other precious substance that Stefan had to offer, to distract him, to become diverted herself, her core contracts within herself, and around him as she moves slowly, sinuously, contorting her body in the way that he needs. That she needs.

Ilona Harczy knows what she’s doing. She’s done this for a long time. She doesn’t know if she does this for her own enjoyment, or Elizabeth’s, just as much as she’s forgotten the fine line between loving her Countess, and hating her. It is same with this young man. She isn’t blind. And neither is he. In the darkness, at least he won’t see the red stain on the side of her throat. Not that it matters. It’s too late for them, one way or another.

He’s so callow, and venial. So weak. And yet, there is anger inside of him — a profound unhappiness at his life’s circumstances — and a concurrent fear of leaving those elements that so confine him. The truth is, for all she sees the seeds of what Elizabeth finds amusing in the man while lusting far more for the girl — the traits that attract her like for like — she sees a scared youth: trapped in more ways than one.

And Ilona can relate to that sentiment. For deep down, as she folds herself back and moves, and he loses himself in her, and as he gives her the means to take the edge off her red hunger for a time, her red lips parting at their temporary solace, Ilona knows that the person she despises more than Elizabeth is herself.

This is something else that she and Stefan have in common: this, and this momentary, sweet sensation of blissful, unthinking oblivion.

She lies with him for a while, in the dark, watching the rise and fall of his chest. The sound of his heartbeat against her ear makes her feel alive, gives her a sense of anticipation, of having something other than more cold nights with Elizabeth with which to look forward, if only for a little time.

Ilona unwraps Stefan’s belt from around her neck, from where she forced his hands around it, which she inevitably took from his grasp. She touches the imprints left in her flesh, and smiles.

This. This much, right now, is hers.

*

“Do my questions upset you?”

Valerie looks out into the sea, at the dark grey sky, and the turbulent waters. They mirror her heart like some brooding form of romantic cliché. The Countess’ … Elizabeth’s dulcet tones are soft. Inquisitive. Once, that same whispering voice entranced her, just as much as it repulsed her in the lobby of the hotel with what it promised her, with what it shared with Stefan.

Stefan …

“The answers …” She replies quietly, bitterly, realizing yet again in the fog of confusion and pain that Elizabeth’s stories from the hotel lobby, and Stefan’s conversation with her that night aren’t, in their very nature, that dissimilar after all.

There is a chuckle. Faint and throaty. “Not always pleasant, eh?” The Countess sighs. Valerie is mindful that she’s still holding her carryall, having intercepted her at the train station so fast.

The dead travel fast, she thinks to herself, and wonders of the truth of it, especially of the girl in Bruges. Valerie tries not to shudder in the cold winds of the night. Elizabeth, however, continues speaking as though reading her mind of that afternoon. “But as I always say, one must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest deeps of oneself where the light never reaches.”

Valerie turns to look at Elizabeth. “But you cannot imagine what —”

The Countess smiles. Her hair is wavy, and golden. There are laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Between her and Stefan, they believed her to be in her mid-thirties, but as Valerie looks into her eyes she sees a wryness, an old amusement. Her smile makes her cheeks dimple, her cheekbones more prominent. There is something glamorous about the Countess, obviously regal, and incredibly worldly.

“Oh, yes.” Elizabeth says. “I can.” She puts an arm through hers and Valerie, again despite her best judgment, allows her to do so as they walk. “It’s not so difficult to see through your Stefan.”

The jolt of her words hits Valerie, as she remembers Bruges, and the Countess’ arms around him in the armchair, and the phone call. That damned phone call …

“Tell me, Valerie.” Elizabeth says, smoothly interjecting over the trembling storm inside her heart. “Didn’t you already know?”

Valerie suddenly feels tired. The fury, the hurt, the way his dull, flat tone hit her harder than any belt ever could, leaving a numbness inside of her that reminds her of just how young and idealistic, how stupid she really was: that she still is. “He said the same thing to me.” She murmurs. “On the bus, back to the hotel.”

“It began in Bruges.” Elizabeth prompts quietly, her question more of a gentle statement, a lingering on the skein of her mind.

Valerie finds herself shaking her head, feeling herself hurting again. “No.” She blinks back tears. “It was before. On the train. In the bed. Our words to each other.” The two of them walk back into the darkness as she allows herself to full her resignation. “Deep down, that was when I knew.”

*

“You’re both so young.” Elizabeth Bathory tells Valerie as they head to her rooms after walking a few hours through the deserted city. “You can’t give up after a few days.”

“I —” She watches the young woman, barely out of girlhood, her blonde hair a white-gold, her sky-hued eyes keenly poignant, not like the faded disenchanted blue of Ilona’s gaze. “I don’t know if I can face him. Right now.”

“It’s all right.” Elizabeth tilts her head, and attempts a smile. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember how to make a facial expression that is so reassuring. “You may stay with us for the night. I will join you shortly.” She turns and pats Valerie’s hand, holding it in her own for a few beats. “Trust me, Valerie. I meant what I said by the sea.” So many changes, the prospect of it fills her with a warmth she hasn’t felt in a while, not with Ilona, not even in Bruges, and Nice, and Monte Carlo. She realizes the name for this feeling. It’s genuine excitement. Elizabeth doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and she adores it, almost as much as the woman she is putting into her room. “You do understand Stefan, if you truly think about it.”

“I …” Valerie finally looks down. “I’ve tried. I can’t help it. He … frightens me. He needs help. And I …” She turns her face. “I don’t know.”

“Does he?” The Countess asks. “Or is that what he said scared something within yourself? Are you truly frightened of your own feelings?” She shakes her head at the younger woman’s silence. “Don’t trouble yourself with this right now. Get some sleep. I will …” She pauses, considering her next decision. “I will send Ilona to check in on you.”

“I …” Valerie actually meets her gaze. This pleases Elizabeth a great deal. “Thank you, Elizabeth. I don’t know what I would have –”

“You would have left.” Elizabeth sighs, deciding on honesty. “And you would have regretted it.” She leans forward, and gently kisses Valerie on her pallid cheek, the colour and texture of warm marble. She smiles, a little more truly, at the red mark that she’s left there, the Dionysian upon the Apollonian. Such a symmetrical, Grecian beauty. “Have a good sleep. Tomorrow evening, we shall speak further.”

She hands Valerie her luggage, and gently but firmly pushes her through, past her threshold. Then, when the door closes behind her, she lets out a faint huff. Right. This is a … complication. But if time has taught Elizabeth Bathory anything, it’s that for all things change the right amount of patience will allow everything to fall into their places.

This is her thought as she walks towards the honeymoon suite, and lets herself in.

*

Ilona watches Stefan bathe under the shower. She doesn’t care, at this point, if he sees her looking at him. Her lips are parted, and her teeth are exposed. In the light of the bathroom, he can probably see her, if he just turns around.

She observes his shoulders straightening, his posture under the running water becoming still. His neck is rigid. When he turns to look at her, she closes her lips. There is a new light in his eyes. He’s grinning. They are just separated by their naked bodies, and water.

“Come on.” He says, his tone lighter than when she first came upon him. She can see him eyeing her, her flesh, and the marks that he’s left on her.

“No.” Illona says, her skin crawling away, instinctively, from the running water. One of her first lessons that, in her eagerness, even now she sometimes forgets.

“Come on in.” Stefan invites her, his smile almost matching his dead set eyes.

“No.” Ilona says, a little more urgently, fear of another kind creeping into her heart.

Stefan smiles. It’s as though he’s sensed this spike of terror. He comes out of the shower. “You’re not afraid of a little water, are you?”

Stefan’s arms are around her. He grabs her, forcefully. Their liaison has woken something inside of him. She can see the fire in his eyes, but it is the water and not the figurative blood in it that scares her far more. Suddenly, she is reminded of just why Elizabeth has her eyes on this couple. She thought it was just the girl, but …

“Ilona. There you are.”

Thinking of, almost literally, the Devil. Ilona turns, in Stefan’s grasp, to look at her Countess. She’s alone. The girl is nowhere to be seen. Did she think she was going to take him? Even now, Ilona knows better. There is a faint amusement in Elizabeth’s eyes as she takes in the scene. Stefan, for his part, tenses. His assertiveness, his aggression, leeches out of him as he looks from herself, to the Countess. And back. For some reason, Ilona finds herself putting a hand on the small of his back.

“Now —” Ilona isn’t sure whether Stefan is about to issue a demand, or an excuse.

It ultimately doesn’t matter. It never did. Elizabeth shakes her head. “Come now, Ilona.” She says, her voice melodious, drifting. She tosses Ilona’s black dress and pants to the ground. The white pearls stare up at her like sightless eyes from a dark shroud. “We have a guest in our rooms. I need you take care of it.”

It is clear to Ilona to whom Elizabeth is referring.

She stares into Elizabeth’s eyes. It’s strange. She’s noticed, over time, that her Countess merely runs through the bare minimum of emotions beyond her strong appetites, a dance or pantomime of social behaviour barely recalled. Even in humiliating her right now, though this is not even close to the worst of it. She turns back, to look at Stefan. She can feel him breathing hard, his wet body rigid, his face full of fury and passion before slack and speechless.

“Now, please. Ilona.” The Countess brings up her willowy arms, and delicate fingers like she is wearing her boa and dress, and not her simple white sweater. This is Ilona’s summons.

Ilona turns back to Stefan. A smile curls on the side of her red lips, as crimson as Elizabeth’s. She reaches up, and grabs the sides of his face. Then, she crushes her lips against his own. She trails her lips down, to Stefan’s neck, letting them linger against a faded scar from the nick of a razor, allowing Elizabeth to see it. It had been good to feel like a desirable object again as opposed to a detached entertainment, an echo of both being the lover and the ardently beloved. There is a defiance in her heart, for a second. A thank you. A goodbye.

Ilona turns, and bends down to pick up her clothes. She doesn’t look at Elizabeth in the eye. She’s done enough. She’ll probably pay for this later. But it’s worth it. Just for that moment. As she walks past Elizabeth, putting on her slacks, pulling her blouse over her head and chest, she wonders wonders if her Countess would be jealous that she got that taste of her lovers together — of the complete set — first.

This what Ilona uses to fortify herself as she returns to their rooms.

*

Stefan can barely process what’s happening. He feels Ilona’s lips on his skin, on his neck. She’s so pale, even after what they … what they did together. And that emotion in her eyes when he came for her, to drag her into the shower. It was genuine fear.

He recalls the bed. The coolness of her body against his. The way she slowly moved, the position she fell towards, what he did to her, what she made him do to her. Even her hands in his own felt like … and the way she remained so utterly still.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. But something that had been building inside of him — coiled — ready to pounce, ready to explode has, for lack of a better term, unfurled. It thrums inside of him, even now, at this strange scene. He watches Ilona’s perfect, porcelain buttocks retreat into the shadows of the room, thinking about how she instinctively sucked on the part of his neck that he cut, the sight of blood making him feel … behind the Countess who, idly, strokes her dark hair as she passes. It’s a detached gesture. A possessive one. It’s like the way a girl would play with one of her dolls.

And suddenly, the reality of what has happened, what he has done, all of it, hits Stefan. Hard. He tries to recall what he was trying to say to the Countess before she’d interrupted, but the words don’t come out.

“Your wife is staying in our rooms.” The Countess tells him softly, her gaze never wavering.

It occurs to Stefan that he’s still naked. “Oh.” He replies, then takes a step back, sitting on the rim of the bidet.

“You are having troubles.” She says. Her face seems sympathetic, but Stefan can tell there is something hard about it, an effort, like the muscle memory doesn’t entirely recall the motions.

“She …” He stops himself, thinking about their time on the train, on the bus, on the boat. “She doesn’t want to see me, anymore.”

The Countess almost glides. She sits on the edge of the bathtub. It occurs to Stefan that both she and Ilona match the ivory material. “Do you wish to talk about it?”

Slowly, Stefan shakes his head. “If my wife is with you, surely you’ve already talked. And …” He waves his hand, at the room, at all of this. “I think I’ve done enough.”

“Have you?” Unlike Ilona’s sad eyes, or the heavens in his wife’s, the Countess’ are a darker, almost steely grey. “Tell me.”

“Countess —”

“Stefan.” She trails her hands over his, folded over his lap. “Remember our talk. We are friends now. You may call me by name, yes?”

Her touch is faint. Ghostly. But muscles in Stefan that he didn’t know were tense begin to loosen. “Of course, Elizabeth.”

She smiles. It is a radiant smile, almost tentative in the manner that he’s observed. “Come.” She puts her arms around his shoulders. “Let’s go back to your room, and talk some more, yes?”

Stefan nods, once. He lets her help him up. They walk across the tiles, and the mirror, and he is so lost in his thoughts he doesn’t particularly see anything other than the outline of himself, wandering through the fog on the reflection. A part of his mind registers, distantly, that his razor isn’t on the basin. It must have fallen in, he supposes. Instead, Stefan focuses on the Countess’ movements, and her form leading now him by the hand. Whereas Ilona reminds him of a flapper from the Roaring Twenties, Elizabeth is akin to a ghost of an actress from the era of Silent film, ethereal white and faded gold. A queen from a bygone time.

He finds himself seated on the bed, still rumpled from his time with Ilona, from his rage, from his time with Valerie. She sits beside him. Their feet almost touch. A part of him wonders if he should cover himself. He can see his clothes on the floor, his white shirt, his black pants, his red sweater …

“We wear similar colours, you and I.” Elizabeth laughs softly.

Stefan recalls her attire when they first met, and realizes she’s right. He decides to give up, that it is far too late for modesty. She’s seen enough of him tonight. It seems as though everyone has, at this point. “Great minds.”

“Yes. With great expectations heaped upon them.”

He looks up at her, his eyes scrutinizing. “How much do you know?”

She shakes her head, the look on her face distant, musing, mulling something over. “You are so sad. So tense. I can see it.”

He feels her move up behind him, folding her legs until she has them on either side of his, her feet hanging again from the bed frame. Stefan doesn’t know what to think of this. He’s just, he’s so tired. Her hands are soft, but firm on his shoulders as her fingers begin to knead the muscles underneath.

“She wouldn’t let up.” He explains, her hands finding the knots in him, unkinking them. His mouth opens and closes almost of its own volition. “She wanted it to be known that we were married. I tried everything. And I thought that maybe …”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. He knew what the result of that call would be before he even made it.

“Family.” Elizabeth drawls out, silvery, behind his ear, making goosebumps crawl up the bare flesh over his back. “It is the first love. Obligation and Duty are unto it like Sin and Death to Satan.”

Paradise Lost.” For a few moments Stefan allows himself a crooked smile, losing himself in the voice of the Countess. “I wonder if it is possible to lose something that you never had.”

“Lucifer had no choices. You never have a choice.” The Countess says, her fingers moving towards the sides of his neck. Perhaps it’s just Stefan’s imagination, but there is a lilt to her tone that hadn’t been there before. “That has nothing to do with love. That is what I told Valerie.”

He stiffens under her touch, hearing his wife’s name again, recalling that night. “What do you know of that, Bathory?”

The absolute venom in his voice startles even him. The Countess’ fingers stop in their massage. Stefan breathes in, and lets out a long sigh. “Of course you know. A stupid question.”

“You told her.”

“Yes.” Stefan says. “After the call. I felt it welling up inside of me. That helplessness. I thought — I thought she wanted to know. About me. I thought that maybe …”

Elizabeth starts to probe the back of his neck with her fingers, her clothed body against his spine.

He bows his head. “I told her everything. All of it. The Manor. The Continental trips. Being alone. I thought maybe if she understood that, realized that, she might know where I came from. She might … know me.”

“You went to the only place that could understand you.” Elizabeth’s words flow through his mind like smoky molasses. Rich, and elegant, and deep. “It’s all you’ve ever known.”

“But it wasn’t enough!” Stefan hisses. His fist tightens as he clenches his jaw, looking away. “I needed more! I need more. I …”

“You wanted to hold her down.”

“Yes.” Stefan murmurs.

“You want to have power over her.”

“Yes.” Stefan feels Elizabeth’s fingers splay out on his chest.

“You wanted her to feel what you have felt, all these years.” Her hands roam around his ribcage, her lips in his ear, her legs wrapped around him.

“… yes.” Stefan closes his eyes.

“You wanted to take that belt, the one you didn’t use, the one you thought about using on her, and thrashing her with it within an inch of her beautiful life.” Elizabeth’s hands roam downwards.

“Mmph.” Stefan groans, his eyes clenching shut, his body betraying him under her hands.

“You wanted her to be like the girl from Bruges.” A pair of lips husk as they kiss his earlobe.

Stefan’s eyes flutter. “Oh god …”

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs. “We are talking about love, remember? God has nothing to do with it. Or everything to do with it, if Family is the first love as is to Satan. You told her all of that, didn’t you?” She continues stroking him, idly. “Just as we talked about those things back in the lounge.”

Stefan’s throat is dry. Something is tensing up inside him, a massive knot in his chest. In his lungs. In his heart. “I can’t …”

“It’s all right, Stefan.” Elizabeth tells him, one hand stroking the side of his face. “That is why you love her. Valerie. It’s what you dream of making out of her, what every man dreams of making out of every woman — a slave, a thing.” Her lips drone into his eardrum. “An object of pleasure.”

Her other hand lets go of him, and scrapes her nails up his inner thigh. “It is understandable.” She tells him, his senses everywhere, his body trapped between the state of animation and stasis.

“It sounds …” Stefan says, his mind almost back into his body from Elizabeth’s caresses. “It sounds like you want this as well.”

“Mmm.” Elizabeth’s hands spread across him again, going lower. Stefan finds himself thinking about Valerie again. Valerie. If Ilona is a doll, and Elizabeth a femme fatale, then Valerie is a nymph. Playful and coy. The answer to that age-old question as to how something so innocent can be so lustful at the same time. And she knows. She knows what he is.

“They are fantasies.” Elizabeth says, teasing him again. “Fun. Little things to spice up a dreary life. All to make a show, like that week in Bruges.”

“Is that what you are …” Stefan sighs, his mind coming back to him. “Like in the stories? Erzsébet Báthory tormenting young women, the only thing she’s known her entire life … in a life of Obligation, and Duty? Sin, and Death? And Satan as her Family …”

He looks to see Elizabeth staring at him, her eyes misty but gazing right into him. “And what if I were?”

“Hm.” He lets himself become distracted, by the thought, entertained by it as she is amusing him now. “It would explain a lot. After all, if she still lived, she wouldn’t want to be stuck in one place. She’s always been stuck, hasn’t she? When she was born, when she lived … and when she died. You’d feel trapped. Claustrophobic.”

“You make me sound like some kind of ghoul? A vampire?”

He laughs. “You can’t stop. You could have a mansion, an entire Castle, to feed to your heart’s content. Why travel against the edge of the sun to do so?”

“Why don’t you stay and enjoy the garden in England? After all, who understands a boy better than his own Mother?”

Stefan’s heart jolts as Elizabeth’s grip tightens. He finds that he has nothing to say.

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs into his neck, continuing her movements. “Just as Dracula is not Vlad Tepes, I am not my ancestor, the Blood Countess. I am even less than that, Stefan. I’m just an outmoded character, nothing more. You know, the beautiful stranger, slightly sad, slightly … mysterious … that haunts one place after another.”

“W-who are you?” Stefan grits his teeth against the growing sensations in his body. “Are you even real?”

“Are any of us real?” Elizabeth asks. Even her breath smells red. “We all make stories of ourselves over time. Little artifices. Fictions. Am I the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, for instance? And are you really Stefan of Chilton Manor?” Stefan opens his mouth, and he is past the time for words. “Come.” Elizabeth purrs, wrapping herself tightly around him, as he loses himself in her embrace, as he lets her let himself grant him permission. “Let us make a new story together.”

*

Stefan stands on the boat in the night. Everything after their time in the honeymoon suite moved so fast. Elizabeth explained to them that it was like this: time moving slowly, in increments, and then all at once.

He remembers Valerie’s screams as they came into the bathroom of Elizabeth and Ilona’s suite.

Poor Illona. Stefan finally figured out where his razor had disappeared. In the end, she found the water after all, and turned it red. Their favourite colour. Valerie, her white sweater covered in blood, like the spot on Ilona’s pale neck grown and turned large. Stefan keeps the image of Ilona’s body in his mind’s eye.

Elizabeth assured Valerie that it hadn’t been her fault. That she didn’t suspect her, despite the implications. Of course it hadn’t been Valerie’s responsibility. A part of Stefan wanted to rib her further, as he had with the Belgian newspaper, to rankle her, to probe that place, to enjoy her squirming. But restraint. Elizabeth teaches restraint. And patience.

Stefan decided to dig the grave, in the mud, in the darkness, though it’d been Elizabeth’s plan. He hadn’t forgotten how quickly she’d come to that decision, to deal with Ilona. He’d laid a kiss on Ilona’s lips, so pale in death, that when Elizabeth threw the earth on him, and he’d become tangled in the corpse’s limbs, it’d taken him aback. He wondered then, if this had been her plan all along, to bury them together … until a hand reached down …

And Valerie pulled him up. Despite everything.

Then, the Countess’ red bed. And the two of them, as she explored them, and the violet boa around her shoulders. Seeing Ilona’s body, being entwined in it, terrified but … excited him. It helped make that night even more memorable. He wishes he can thank her for that. The last thought he had, of his old life, was seeing Elizabeth’s boa, its feathers reminding him of a bird in a gilded cage, and he couldn’t help recalling the orchid: the Laeliinae, Cattleya violacea. 

Stefan doesn’t think of flowers anymore. Instead, right now he stands on the deck of their ship, wishing it called the Demeter or at least the Persephone, crossing, in Elizabeth’s words, the River Oceanus. It is much calmer now than in those early nights. He turns to his side. Valerie stands there, a stoic, white statue from another time.

“Tell me.” He says, also from another place, another era. “Do you love me?”

Valerie inclines her head. “Don’t you know?”

Her mouth moves, her pouting naivety now become a calculating Galatea. “No.”

Stefan nods.

There is the pause, of a breath that neither of them need anymore.

“And you?” She asks, her eyes far away, the firmament in there as dark as the night that they have led her into, that they were destined for together.

He remains facing away from her, all of his lies now laid bare, now knowing every sordid part of each other. Now knowing, and reveling in, what truly he is. “No.”

Valerie also nods, curtly, hiding her face under her platinum bangs. “That’s good.”

And as their fingers reach each other’s, before Elizabeth can call for them again, Stefan thinks about Ilona’s necklace. She must have dashed it to the floor when she entered the bathroom. He imagines it, in her haste, in her stride as Stoker might have said, snapping, spilling every glorious, ivory bead, each one rolling away, released into the shadows and the crimson tide lapping around them. He considers what kind of newspaper article that would have made, back in Ostend. Stefan grows hard.

Their fingertips almost meet even as Elizabeth comes in from behind, languorously stretching out her arms under her black raincoat, sheltering them, feeling her presence looming over them all.

Shall I Come to Thee

Dedicated to Guillermo del Toro.

Carter McMichael departs from his automobile, leaving it on the road down below, as he ascends the rest of the land.

He has no idea how his father managed this trek, at a much longer distance, up this mountain of clay, in a snow storm. But he had: otherwise neither his mother, nor Carter himself would be here. That had been the extent of it. Carter had known that his mother, Edith, had been married to another man before his father, and that she had suffered from an illness that precipitated him to come here, to England, to Cumberland, to the manse at its centre, and he had taken her away with the aid of the villagers once the weather cleared.

There had been some sort of scandal. Neither his mother, nor father elaborated on it — no one in fine society, neither American nor European, would do so — but whatever happened resulted in the deaths of the entire baronetcy of this territory: both the baronet himself, and his sister. It is a small rural territory, even now, well into the twentieth century after an entire World War the town is relatively isolated. Even so, news did get out.

Carter takes a few breaths, and a pause. He had always been a sickly child, something to do with his mother’s condition but his parents would never elaborate on it. The Spanish influenza had taken his mother on his seventeenth birthday. He couldn’t be at her bedside, couldn’t even say goodbye to her. His father had forbidden it, given how delicate his constitution had always been.

He coughs, letting the heaviness ease out of his lungs. His father hadn’t wanted him to take this trip. But he needed to know. He needed to see this place for himself.

The townspeople had given him directions, had even been friendly enough, but there had been a sense of reservation behind their politeness: a degree of caution. His father had let him go. He was well past the age where he could be told what to do, even though the man always told him he needed to settle down with a good woman, to eventually get his bachelor’s days behind him. Doctor Alan McMichael had been a large, gold-haired man of great curiosity, but the death of his wife had visibly aged him, bowed his shoulders, his blond hair turned grey.

He’s always delighted in showing Carter his “spirit photography” and the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that he claimed he only gathered because of the man’s background in ophthalmology: but he fooled him as well as mother, which was not at all.

“She made me promise.” The old man had told him, clasping his hands. “She told me we would tell you when you were older. But the best …” He had a far away look on his face. “The best way is that you go there, and see for yourself. That is what she told me.”

“What is up there?” He asked his father. “Is it like Mother’s book?”

Alan McMichael had smiled at him. “Your Mother always took some creative liberties, Carter. The truth is … much more banal. You will just find dirt there. And ruins. But, if there is anything else to be found, she told me that you would find it. That you would see it. Whatever you do find, come back to me afterwards. We will have a proper talk. I promise.”

That was when his father handed him a letter. The envelope was old, and not addressed to anyone that Carter recognized until … he paid attention to the name.

Now, catching his hitching breath, Carter has left the trail and come to the top of the land. The fence still stands, in the distance. And so does the structure behind it. Its sharp towers point up to the sky, and while some of them have broken away with time, he recognizes it from the photographs, from the descriptions.

Allerdale Hall.

Carter continues walking. This is the inspiration for his Mother’s novel. This place where she traveled to as a young woman, a girl, younger than he is now, and away when sickness or … worse afflicted her. The envelope with the letter acts as a bookmark in the book he carries in the crook of his arm as he strides forward, to take in this whole scene for himself.

In retrospect, Carter isn’t sure whether or not it had been a smart idea to reread Mr. Stoker’s novel on the journey to England, or to Cumberland proper. It is his favourite book, and it certainly captures the Gothic romance and horror genre in which his Mother worked, but its more modernist elements appeal to his sensibilities: as both a reader, and a writer himself.

As he approaches the mansion, he’s easily reminded of Castle Dracula or the Exham Priory of one of his favourite pulps. One of the towers has fallen, the other just a haphazard set of bricks and mortar. Only the central one remains whole and as it is, it approximates a slant reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. His father hadn’t been exaggerating. The mansion is crumbling in on itself, upon closer inspection, sinking deep into the red clay. Even now, the soil looks like blood.

It squelches under his boots, trench boots that he never got to wear in their intended place as he had been exempt from Service. It’s less like blood now as he comes to the door of the gate, swinging it open on its rusted hinges, and more like gore. The air itself smells … metallic.

Carter notes that the pits on the property are still existent, but closed up. And all of Thomas Sharpe’s equipment, his machinery which he had designed himself, had been removed. Apparently, after the disaster that came to the baronet others began to see the potential for the late Sir Thomas’ inventions. As it had transpired, his mother had inherited the technology, along with the whole of Allerdale Hall itself as Sir Thomas’ widow.

According to his father, Carter’s mother had agreed to give both the patents and schematics of her former husband’s works to eager investors. Carter knows that red clay contains ultisol and can used for brick-making — which the Sharpes had done for the Crown before the fall of the Monarchy, and the rise of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. That is what he learned from an old British textbook by one Mr. Salisbury he purchased in London. But the iron ore rendering became more important in this era, especially on the eve of the Great War when the Allies were hurting for it. Hence the letter he carries with him now.

It’d been addressed to the Lady Sharpe, from 1914. And it had taken him a moment to realize that the lady it was written to was Edith. It’d been from the British government, requesting that the Lady Sharpe — who had done business with clay-mining equipment — release her late husband’s land for the War effort. His father hadn’t given him any copy of a reply letter.

Carter isn’t sure how a baronetcy works according to English law: if a baronet relinquishes all lands and titles upon remarriage after their spouse’s death, or if they retain these privileges. He also isn’t sure why they simply didn’t seize the land for the Crown, and take the resources for their own. All he knows is that no one in the village felt inclined to talk about the mansion, or the Sharpes. They didn’t even talk about his mother.

The newspapers, however, did the rest. And the legend as well. They are what led him here.

He walks towards the steps of the great mansion, as though sagging under the weight of its own unstable foundations, and the sins committed within it. Carter’s foot hits something. He looks down, and sees … a ball. Carter almost missed it. It’s a small, rubber, red ball. It rolls away into the dirt of a deeper crimson.

The door stands in front of him. The wood is frayed, the hinges on the frame askew. There is a key hole. Carter doesn’t have a set of keys, but he doesn’t need them. Not anymore.

Before he pushes the door in, he slowly breathes in, and out. Once he’d found about that his mother had been the Lady Sharpe, he’d looked into the truth about Allerdale Hall. How the Lady of the Hall had died. How her daughter had been locked up in a mental institution in Switzerland for a time. How Sir Thomas’ wives had disappeared over time: the wives he had before his mother.

His mother never told him about any of this. But he recalls his father’s words. He also remembers the legend of the Black Ghost.

The door protests, but Carter manages to go into the mansion. He realizes, only moments later, that he needn’t have bothered. Sections of the wall have already fallen away. The hall itself is strewn with debris, the carpet stained in mud and dust. What his father had explained as the decaying skeleton of something once so grand, was now almost in complete ruin. No one had bothered to repair or renovate the structure. No one had attempted to tear it down either.

It had just been left here. To be forgotten.

But even in its dilapidated state, he recognizes it. It’s the interior of the Great Hall in his mother’s work Crimson Peak. He can make out the Gothic architecture, the ornaments, the colour, and even the smell. The winding staircase has collapsed, the place where the lift used to be is empty and probably lost in Hades, and the hole in the ceiling has grown into a maw of a leviathan defying the heavens with its rotting grandeur. But this is the place. He wonders if there is a clockwork workshop above, or multiple suites, or the bathtub of blood, or even the nursery …

It’s real. It’s all real. The shattered windows of the estate seem to follow him as he looks around, like the eyes of some restless dead thing. Even as the wind blows, he can hear his footsteps on the cracked tiles. It’s perfect. The ambiance of this space speaks more than a thousand written words. Ghosts can easily live here. And, if he remembers the novel correctly, the library should be on this floor ….

Let the wind blow kindly …

Carter pauses. The air howls above. It’s strange. For a few moments, he wonders if he heard something. Perhaps he had just been too focused on the atmosphere here. On the story he’d heard from town. He sees the curvature of the hall, and turns left. The library should be that way.

In the sail of your dreams.
And the moonlight your journey …

The light is wan and pale as he enters the darkened room. It’s gloomy, but Carter can make out rows upon rows of mouldering books. It hurts his heart to see them like that. Each one of those books could have been first editions, Greek and Latin-translations gone to dust. Why had no one cleared them out? Why hadn’t his mother taken them? And it’s as almost as though his thoughts have become someone else’s words, those of the wind … Notes drifting in the air.

And bring you to me …

There is a keening in Carter’s chest. It’s not his lungs. It’s a growing sense of sadness, and disconnection. It feels as though there is a song in his head, and the sound of piano keys playing. He reaches the mantle piece and sees the inscription. His parents spared his Classical education no expense.

“I shall lift up mine eyes,” he whispers, his eyes squinting in the gloom, “onto the hills …”

We can’t live in the mountains …

Carter turns as the voice materializes, fully, into the room. He looks away from the mantle over the fireplace, and sees the piano.

We can’t live out at sea …

The piano is lopsided, dusty. Falling apart. But the seat is still there. And someone … someone is sitting there. It’s a shadow, in the darkness. Carter hears the voice. Her voice. A part of him remembers what the villager children said. He blinks. But the form is still there.

Where oh, where oh, my lover …

The song is unbearably sad. The piano keys and their strings, which should by all rights not even be functional, send the pang into him. It reminds him of the day his mother died. But it’s more than that. It’s of a time that’s over. Something that happened, and never should have been. A bittersweet poignancy. A love lost forever.

Shall I come to thee?

Carter’s brow furrows as the feelings threaten to overtake him. He can almost see two forms, in the darkness, in a lost room, holding each other, one rocking the other back and forth, spooning them, cradling them. But that was over. A long time ago. And it will never come back.

There is only silence. She doesn’t turn around. Slowly, as though his pain reaches out to hers. Her dress is black, almost gossamer. So is her skin, though her hair is darker. Carter can’t help himself. Something in him aches at the sight of this lonely figure. He reaches out a hand, as though to touch her shoulder.

“Thomas?” There is a whisper, in the wind. “Have you come back … to me?”

Carter’s hand stops. The realization of what this is, that this is not just a story he’s reading or hearing about around a campfire, that this isn’t one of his father’s slides, hits him like an icicle to the gut. His throat is suddenly very dry. He takes a step back. And another.

The room feels cold and not just because of the mountain’s high altitude. He turns, to run, to get away from …

She might have been beautiful once. He can see that. There is a wound in her chest, blacker than the rest of her. And her face … it’s caved in. As though something crushed her skull in, like they said his grandfather’s had been at the Gentleman’s Club one day. But it’s all of her. It’s as though she is a translucent, blackened version of ligaments and skin. She doesn’t move right, as she jerks towards him, but there is a smoothness to her facial features or what is left of them.

“Thomas.” She whispers, bringing a long, blackened hand towards him. For a few moments, Carter thinks he can see the bloodshine of a stone on her finger. She is like Allerdale Hall, made incarnate. “Tell me, when will she let me be free … Thomas …”

Then, her face warps and twists. Pure hatred and an endless sorrow from hell itself engulfs her gaze. It’s the most horrifying thing about this apparition as Carter staggers backwards, as she lifts a cleaver — glinting with midnight malice — above her head.

“Now you will see!”

Carter falls to the ground, screaming as black moths explode all around him, fluttering mindlessly. Then, he feels nothing. Just a frigid breeze. He can’t breathe. Carter is gasping for air, his heart pumping hard. He looks up, finally. There is nothing there. No one. His mind is detached from his body, viewing the entire situation, processing this impossible thing. That’s when he sees it.

It lies on the ground. A red stone glittering off a golden ring. A part of him wants to reach out, to touch it, to take it for himself. There is a part of him that thinks it belongs to him. The rest of him runs out of the room, down the hall, outside the ruined mansion, shouting incoherently.

He is on his knees in the red mud, trembling. Carter is numb. Empty. It’s like what they said about shell-shock from the trenches that he’d been thankfully too young, and too infirm, to be drafted. That’s when he begins to notice something else.

There is a man. He’s standing right in front of him. Carter stands up, his body freezing into place. The man looks at him. He’s pale. Incandescent. There are marks on his chest, and a cut under his eye. But he can’t deny it. He knows that face. It’s his own face, but without his mother’s eyes.

The man reaches forward. Pallid fingers seem to cup Carter’s face. Carter doesn’t feel anything, but he experiences everything. The man smiles at him, sadly, his gaze full of regret and resignation. Then, he’s gone.

Carter drops his book. He must have been holding it through the entire ordeal. He crouches down on the ground, his elbows on his red-stained knees, as he proceeds to cry into his hands. The letter to Lady Sharpe flies out of the pages of his book, and into the winds.

*

“Why didn’t she destroy the mansion?”

It’d been a month since Carter came back from Cumberland. He sits at home with his father, in his study. The books with their horror stories still manage to comfort him even after everything that’s happened; the medical specimens in jars no longer threatening given that they are actually dead.

Alan McMichael looks tired behind his spectacles. They are so much like Edith’s when she still lived. He sighs, looking at his son.

“She wanted to keep her there.”

There is nothing else said between them for several moments, just the sound of the grandfather clock marking time. Carter slowly shakes his head. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were always a sickly boy, Carter.” His father says, sadly. “It was best you were just entertained by those stories, and not afraid of them. There is so much … I wish she and I could have told you.”

“You can tell me now.” He says to his father. “I … how did you know?”

Alan squints up at Carter, scrutinizing him. He doesn’t say anything for a few moments. Finally, he sighs. “Carter, you know your favourite novel?”

Carter tries to maintain his composure. “Yes. What … of it?”

“Do you remember the end of it? How Mr. Stoker ended the entire thing?”

Carter takes a moment. He looks down to sip of the glass beside him on the easy chair. His father had prepared brandy in advance. He now fully appreciates this fact. “It is a happily ever after, of sorts.”

“Your mother always loved stories that ended that way. Even if life didn’t always do so.”

“Everyone survived.” Carter murmurs to himself. “Except for … Quincey Morris. The American.”

Alan laughs. “The hunter. The one who stabbed Dracula with a Bowie knife.”

“He –” Carter pauses. “The Harkers. Mina, and Jonathan. They named their son after him. After Quincey. Quincey Harker.”

Alan doesn’t say anything as he sips at his own brandy, waiting with the decanter at the table next to him.

“I always wondered.” Carter says. “If Quincey was Jonathan’s or …” He closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.

In a low voice, Alan McMichael speaks. “Your mother loved me, Carter.” Then, the old man sighs. “But she had been in love with someone else.”

Out of the corner of his eye, for a few moments, Carter can almost see something bright. It isn’t from the hearth. A figure, in white. His mother. Paler. Wan. Her hair an unbearably bright gold. She’d been so sick. She seems to smile at the two of them. He can almost hear her voice, asking him as she had always done, if he had been inspired.

Tears well up in Carter’s eyes again. She could have told him, but perhaps this was her way … their method of telling him the greatest ghost story of all time: told in the most poignant manner possible. Carter smiles reaches out and takes his father’s hand in the space between them.

“Tell me everything.” He says, and he realizes that it is just the two of them now. “Father.”

Pearls Before Swine: A Rewrite of Diane Jacques’ Hogzilla

I never, until very fairly, thought I would write something about a 2014 film literally called Hogzilla, but here we are.

It’s happening.

Right.

This film, which had been incomplete for several years after being directed by Diane Jacques, was shown on second last week of Season Two of The Last Drive-In. I swear, I was even going to go into this earlier but as a student of horror rather than the Doctor that I have attributed to this Blog — much like Victor Frankenstein is called a Doctor by Hollywood but … less impressive than that — I have had some … remedial horror viewing to do. But I wanted to get here while it is still fresh.

I won’t go into the effort that was made to put this film together, to have it viewed on the show by Diana Prince — and presented with classy style as Darcy the Mailgirl — or how The Last Drive-In director Austin Jennings “restored it from previously existing cuts, since the old sequences and project were a mess” according to a Tweet he made on June 13th. I definitely will not be covering how this film was made, as Joe Bob himself and many others have definitely covered by now, I’m sure. There is even a Hogzilla Restoration Project involved and … I don’t know whether to commend them for their utter loyalty, or truly give up on the human race as sane.

This film is unique in another way for The Last Drive-In. As of recently, I discovered that while Hogzilla itself isn’t on Shudder, the Joe Bob episode that plays and comments on it, actually is. The only parallel I can find to that is the fact that there are two versions of The Last Drive-In showing of Cannibal Holocaust — with the film, and without it.

I don’t know how I feel about having watched this. But Horror Doctor, you might ask, speaking of Cannibal Holocaust didn’t you watch it not long ago? Didn’t that mess you up? Didn’t it leave you with a sense of guilt, but also some guilty-pleasure?

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Cannibal Holocaust left me feeling dirty, especially for loving it. I’m left to the auspices of my own conscience about that one. But you see, Cannibal Holocaust was well made. Hogzilla

To give you an idea, based on Joe Bob verbs, it was like … Cannibal Holocaust is the dirty “aardvarking” that you regret, but you secretly go back occasionally because deep down it felt good, though societal norms tell you it should not. Hogzilla

Hogzilla is just aardvarking. Dirty, bad aardvarking. There is just no saying otherwise. Like, Tommy Wiseau attempting an … aaardvarking scene bad except without that. And yet. It was a spectacle.

And that spectacle was held together by: the acting presence of Joe Bob Briggs himself.

Never mind the weird shirt that said “Marines” on it. The extremely slow pacing, and the unlikable and not even interesting news cast crew characters. Two sets of credits between two separate introductions. The character relations that just happen without any development. And a really … messed up mutant hog prop that isn’t even seen that much, and it’s mostly just a camera that sneaks up and kills, and very awkwardly. To be honest, I was just more transfixed by the absolutely vapid and horrible characters we had to deal with, after a jumpy two introductions, that took too damn long to die horribly, to notice the other things. It was so messed up, that it took Job Bob’s segments and the red carpet premiere treatment of The Last Drive-In itself to keep me from depression.

And yet …

Maybe I’ve just gone insane. It’s not the first time a fake mad scientist has claimed such a state. But here is the deal. You see, I have already begun some preliminary experiments for the Project that I want to host on this site. You have, no doubt, read some of them by now, those of you interested in such things from my “Strains and Mutations” area. Society and They Live … and they do, have been surprisingly cooperative under my ministrations. But, to get to the point: I want to take Hogzilla, and I want to explore how I would rewrite it.

As a story.

In the words of Joe Bob, as both himself, and Andy McGraw, “It’s gonna get nasty.”

The way I would write Hogzilla as a story — in prose or as a screenplay (if I could write screenplays, which I have never tried to seriously do) would go a little something like this.

It’d need to have the tone of something between a lampoon or a parody of human selfishness, and self-centredness with a production value and ideology similar to Troma’s War. This allows for a certain level of ridiculousness and camp, while genuinely displaying grossness and suffering in many of its forms. Telling or showing a story straight through this lens would be a fine line, but we can keep it in the pen I’m sure: until we need it to get momentum charging down that climactic trail.

So, our story would begin with a brief account of those Monster Pigs, or Hogzillas from the past. I would even place a very brief account, a newspaper heading like the one in the film about Joe Bob’s character Andy McGraw — a nice easter-egg — and the tragedy of his son, but we would really focus on the news cast crew.

The thing is, I agree with Joe Bob in that Diane Jacques should have edited out the beginning with his character McGraw, his son, the Hogzilla beast, and the police officer. I also understand, however, why it was kept in by Jacques and Jennings: Joe Bob is the main attraction in this film. Let’s be honest. And in terms of when the film was shown in the eighth week of The Last Drive-In, it had come right after Scare Package: with the last anthology film “Horror Hypothesis” actually featuring Joe Bob as well — also predating his reemergence at The Last Drive-In — so thematically, it would make sense to keep his appearance in the following film: the show itself just barely keeping Hogzilla cohesive, and watchable.

So, about that newspaper clipping with McGraw. I like the idea that the clipping of him with his photo looks old. Like 1950s or 1960s old. This story about a drunk father that accidentally killed his son happened decades ago, and you only see it on the side in passing with a headline like “Child Dies During Hunting Trip: Accident, Or Hogzilla? Father Still Missing.” It’s one of many clippings included with accounts of the Chris Griffin killing a wild boar-domestic pig hybrid in Alapaha, Georgia 2004 story, and the account of “Monster Pig” supposedly killed by the eleven year old Jamison Stone in 2007 at the Lost Creek Plantation, a commercial hunting reserve outside Anniston, Alabama. One of the reasons I think this film was made was to attempt to draw on a kind of “Monster Hog exploitation” that was going on in some news media at the time. It didn’t age well, but it is still something we can work with in its own story. Some of these clippings were already added by Jacques in the film, I just think we can streamline them a bit more.

Perhaps as we narratively transition, we realize these clippings are being held by one of the initial characters. These are a news and stunt crew with some models, as we do require the gratuitous boob shots for the Drive-In Totals. They are all in Central Florida, going to an old Plantation, a hunting reserve that has been used for decades until it was abandoned one day. There are legends, of course, that the place is cursed and there has been sightings of this beast called Hogzilla that attacks people. This way we establish a scene, and a history of animal exploitation and violence here. They are setting up deeper in the bush, preparing for something. They even have a cage with them. And then, we have a perspective from those bushes and the beginnings of an assault on this skeleton crew in the bushes near the plantation.

Now, we have our intrepid idiots. I would keep all of their personalities the same, except they are a safari team now: with some newspeople and hunters. I think most of them, with the exception of Frank and Dr. Laurie Evans should be unsympathetic as fuck. They are greedy, opportunistic, and they are used to getting their way. Frank is the assistant that is always the butt of their jokes, and Laurie is there as the veterinarian to know what they are dealing with. She believes they are going to capture Hogzilla for study, and has the appropriate tranquilizer equipment. It is going to be a big scene: tracking this beast down, and taking him, and smiling for the camera. Too good to be true, right?

I like the idea of McGraw appearing out of nowhere with his boar tusk-topped staff, like some grizzled Bruce Campbell/Ash Williams analogue with a one-thousand yard stare: much like the one Joe Bob wore that night at The Last Drive-In when his crew in an ultimate act of betrayal switched out a film he wanted to show in order to reveal this twisted monstrosity of a direct-to-video film upon the world at large.

He gives them the warning that they do not heed, because they are — again — stupid. McGraw’s line “There ain’t no hogs here. There’s demons and devils and creeping things, but there ain’t no hogs” is purely inspired, especially when delivered with that haunted stare of a man who has seen far too much.

So are you with me so far? Right. Right off the bat, like in the film, things go wrong. Our primadonna newsman, Brad Bennett, can’t get in contact with the team of people that were supposed to be here: though we don’t know that. He just seems to be bitching into his cellphone for the usual reasons, but there is some tension there, and it explains that he is actually contacting people that are nearby and not out of complete Wifi range. Then the elements betray them and they lose their tents. But it gets worse. During one night, something happens to their supplies as well. They are just destroyed. Gone. It looks like a wild animal went through them, along with with their tents. They see tusk marks on the tree trunks.

The character of Joanna immediately, like in the film, blames McGraw because she is a bitch. I like the idea that she is the former wife of a character in Jacques’ previous film Off The Chain, and I would keep that in for sure.

Now I would have them order Frank to go salvage the vehicles for anything to eat while they try to rough it in the Plantation, with what’s left of their equipment. They make fun of him for his weight and his penchant in eating Pork-rinds. Then, he is at the trunk when they hear a scream, and a squeal. They go, and find that Frank isn’t there anymore, but there is a whole lot of destruction and blood. Something got him.

One by one, I’d have them give into paranoia and blame each other. I would have Mitch — the marine guy — guarding Laurie, and they start to have a bond: her being attracted to him, and him being protective of her. Now, a few more of the crew get taken down, and are found gored to death, even mutilated. Eventually, the remaining crew come across a large hog. Our marine, as he calls himself, guns the pig down. And he seems to have dealt with the beast.

But then, the attacks continue. Eventually, Mitch and Laurie are the survivors. And Laurie … finds there is just something not right about this situation. About any of it. The attacks do not seem entirely consistent with a boar’s behaviour, hybrid or injured or not. And she genuinely knows something is wrong when the pig is killed, and she sees it is in no way large enough or powerful enough to have done any of this.

And then, Mitch gets messed up in an animal trap made of tusks. We find out that Frank didn’t die. He has orchestrated all of this. He explains to Laurie that the marine — who is not a marine at all like he has been claiming this entire time, but a weekend warrior buddy of an executive — and another of the crew arranged in advance to have a drugged-up pig sent here to the Plantation to be released and taken out so that they could make it look like they found, and killed, Hogzilla. They never intended to just capture it alive, but to make a spectacle for the views. He tells her that this is what they did to a pig named “Fred” back in 2007 at the Lost Creek Plantation. Frank reveals that this pig’s name is “Harry.” Laurie is disgusted with this, but then Frank reveals that the reason he killed everyone here is because he is tired of all the fat jokes, all the comparisons between him and something unclean, greedy, and disgusting as a pig: when it is human beings that project all of these qualities. And you have to admit, when you watch Hogzilla, it is absolutely shitty how they treat Frank and when he takes that gun and imagines shooting them, I can totally picture him doing it, and I almost wanted him to do so.

Of course, Frank isn’t a good guy. His plan has been to kill the whole crew and be the only survivor, filming the wreckage, and taking all the credit for the footage. He claims that the “marine” would die a hero at least, having died taking out Hogzilla, while Laurie was just an unfortunate casualty. He doesn’t listen to her appeals to his humanity, stating she barely even looked at him, never mind defended him the entire time against the others they were there. After mashing Mitch’s” body a few times with a tusk in his hand, he is about to kill Laurie …

When a great dark horrible shape smashes out of the bushes and gores the hell of him. Frank is screaming the entire time as the real Hogzilla, his eyes piss-yellow with hate, continues to charge through, throwing him around, screeching. Laurie runs, only for someone else to push her out of the way.

It is McGraw.

McGraw charges forward, with a gun. He wields his walking staff with the tusk as well, which we see is actually a spear. His face is smeared with a line of blood, like warpaint. He launches himself at the great boar that is Hogzilla. And he actually manages to land a blow. But the beast is too strong. He looks like he is going to be thrown aside, or trampled. Laurie finds her tranquilizer gun that she remembers she has, the one they didn’t let her use on poor Harry as she wanted to capture Hogzilla alive. The darts barely do anything. Some miss. But then, before the beast comes for her, she lands a few more hits. The beast slows, just enough for McGraw to get the killing blow through its head.

McGraw is gravely injured, though he claims he has suffered far worse pain. Laurie tries to help him, to bandage his body, and get him out of that place. He tells her that he tried to warn the rest of the crew and models in the bush, had even spent his time trying to save them, but it was too late. He’d been spending the rest of his time tracking “the Beast.” He also tells her about his son, Robbie, and the whole sordid story about how he had been the local drunk: and how in just one moment of negligence he lost his son on this very Plantation, to this beast, forever. He has already added the other tusk the boar left behind to his spear.

Laurie says it’s all right. He avenged his son. They can go back, and prove that Hogzilla existed and clear his name. But McGraw just wearily shakes his head. He says that he committed himself a long time ago, that beasts like Hogzilla, like the Monster Pig, they are created from humanity’s covetousness and cruelty inflicted onto nature, onto animals. That they made Nature their own demons, and that someone — with nothing left to lose — has to deal with those demons in their own way. It is his penance. It is all he can do right.

They get out of the wilderness and McGraw gives Laurie directions to the nearest town. She walks on, but as she looks back to say something to McGraw he is gone. She keeps walking until she meets the local sheriff. She tells him what’s happened and who she met. He tells her that’s impossible: as the whole incident with McGraw happened forty or fifty years ago. The man Laurie’s seen is nowhere near elderly, and realizes his hunt has only just begun.

Meanwhile, a trunk loaded with piglets — with men cursing and poking at them — bursts a tire. The trunk veers off. As the drivers and workers are trying to right it, one of the pigs — young, but large — gets out of the pen that crashed, looks with fierce eyes and feral anger, and runs off into the bushes.

So yeah. I applied some elements from Jaws, and Mononoke Hime into this rewrite. It’s not perfect.  Neil Gaiman once said that when someone looks at a story and it doesn’t work, they are almost always right. But when someone suggests a way to “fix” it, they are almost always wrong. But then, I don’t think Neil Gaiman has ever encountered something like Hogzilla, or thought of working with it. So, I guess there’s that.

But yeah, this was so dirty to write. And it felt like bad Aardvarking. But I won’t lie. After a while, I began to feel happier than a pig in shit.

And right. This really did get nasty.

 

Society Lives

Dedicated to Brian Yuzna and John Carpenter. Contains vulgarity and body horror. Reader’s discretion is advised. 

“Huh.” Judge Carter rolls the cigar in between his index finger and this thumb. “You really do look pretty strange without your satellite. Doesn’t he, Jim? Nana?”

“Yes.” Jim shakes his golden-haired head slowly.

“He looks … fascinating.” Nana trails a finger down the sharp angles and cratered contours of the other’s cheek.

“Hm.” Judge Carter settles back into the chair. “What do the rest of you think?”

He stirs on the bed. He finds himself tied to it. Where did that girl go? He was going take her asshole. Or maybe he did? She just screamed at him. Fuck. They do that sometimes. But why … he can’t move. Are these his handcuffs? But then he begins to register their words. He recognizes them. Judge Carter. Jim and Nana Whitney of the Beverly Hills Whitneys. The whole social circle.

“Judge Carter.” He tests the bonds, experimentally. “There seems to have been a hiccup.”

“I’ll say.” The old man chuckles. “Wow. You’re really not much without those disguises. are you? What do you think, Dr. Cleveland.”

“Oh I don’t know.” The heavy-set, balding older man looks down at the figure like he is a strange specimen. “Body language and facial tics are in line with … human psychological behaviour.”

“Blue skin.” Judge Carter whistles. “Large cartoon eyes. No nose. That’s what folks look like from Andromeda? Huh. Can any of you make yourselves look like this way?” He shakes his head, smiling. “I know I sure can’t.”

“We … we had an arrangement.” He tells them, trying to remain firm, to remember his place in all this, to keep control. “You have your territories. We have ours.”

“And you keep all the good toys to yourselves.” The Judge says. “Except for the tech that we use to make sure our territories aren’t … disturbed. And we can eat in peace. But you weren’t watching the news, were you my friend?”

He looks around, hoping to find …

“Looking for this?” A smiling woman, much like the one he’d been fucking in the ass, holds up his wristwatch. “These give you quite the trip, don’t they?”

“We had an agreement!” He tries again, a little more concerned as the women begin caressing him, stroking him. He’s still naked. And he realizes they can see him. They can see everything.

“Yes yes.” The Judge waves his cigar with one hand, absently. “Goodness. We had to use all the tech you gave us to cover our territories from your blunder. Otherwise, we’d have lost everything. Our circuses. Our bread. Everyone knows about you, man! Well, they almost did.”

The figure struggles against the touches of the women. Of the men. They are all holding him, stroking him. He begins to feel hot.

“We had to cover for you. You left a vacuum when your satellite got blown to Kingdom Come.” The Judge grins, and the others laugh with him. “And nature abhors a vacuum. There is a child I know, he has great promise.”

“Listen.” The figure says, his skin feeling clammy, soaked in sweat, in slick with liquid. How did he get so warm so fast? What is this? “My people, we can fix this, and everything will …”

“Be back to normal? No. No, friend. I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” The Judge gets up, putting the cigar in his mouth, resembling nothing less than a distinguished caricature of Pop-Eye the Sailorman, Around him, the Whitneys and the others begin stripping off their clothing. “The boy I’m talking about, he is still in secondary school, mind. But he likes to say that the rich suck off the poor. That, in itself is a terrible choice of words. It’s actually always been the other way around. You’d think, by now, that we and you would both understand that fact of life.”

“We will regain control!” The figure says, feeling his grind down under the weight of so many hands and … arms and legs … and … genitalia … and …

“Hm.” The Judge brings a rolled up magazine to his face, letting the figure see it. “Miss June.” He grins, chewing on the black cigar. “Usually my favourite. At least I don’t need those new-fangled 3D glasses that were going around to read it now.” He unrolls it. “Hmm. Marry and Reproduce. Obey. Well.” He puts the slick papers down, creased and greasy with sweat or something else entirely as he begins take off his own clothes. “You don’t have to tell us twice.”

“No …” The figure’s gaunt, bony face slackens in the non-human equivalent expression of horror.

“Oh yes.” The Judge croons, stretching, continuing to stretch, rising up almost to the ceiling, parts of him. “Maybe you could do this, once. On other worlds. After other hostile takeovers. But you forget. Old money always trumps new. Land rights over Industry. And you never endanger the flesh market.” He growls. “A true blue-blood would know that.”

“No … oh no …” He writhes as their limbs cover him, flesh and pink and expansive.

“Hey honey.” Nana Whitney looks to her husband as she also puts a hand around the Judge’s shoulders. “He looks like a blue skeleton.”

“Still has a cock though.” Jim Whitney tilts his head around. “The more you know.”

“Marry and Reproduce.” Judge Carter has a drink in his hand, that he raises and sips at, another limb sprouting from him to take his cigar. “Obey. We have our own imperatives, as well.”

The figure moans in fear and agony as limbs begin to not so much meld into his blue flesh and protruding bones, but meld into them, sink into them, exploring cavities that were hidden by ligaments, making others that didn’t exist before.

“First we dine,” The Judge grins, putting down the glass. Then he puts the cigar back into his mouth, “then we copulate.”

Mouths bite and lick at the figure’s skin, kissing, sucking, suckling  … attaching. Beige grafting into indigo. The figure screams, but limbs wetly cover his mouth. The Whitneys both kiss the Judge on either side of his face as they go onto the massive bed with the others.

“Usually, it’s a hunt of our own choosing.” Judge Carter tells the engulfed figure, grinning voraciously at his kicking, and his body distending under the touch of the others. “We’ve done some of our homework. You are called Fascinators sometimes. I’m sure I speak on behalf of the entire Society here, when I say: we’ve always been curious to know just what a Fascinator tastes like.”

There is only muffed gurgles, and whimpering as the Judge descends on what is left of the being, looking more like a mass of cheap pink blue-berry bubble gum than anything close to humanoid.

“Hey …” The Judge burbles to no one in particular, to everyone as he joins the rest in their feast. “Please remind me that we now have one more vacancy to fill in Washington.”

 

Family

Dedicated to Brian Yuzna and Society.

It’s been four decades since the Party at the Whitneys. No one touched us after that.

I’d say we’d been on the run, and sometimes the others tried to get us, but it’s all been pretty half-hearted. It’s just more of their games. A lot of the time, it isn’t even them, just everyone else — ordinary people — sent out after us: to deal with our terrorism.

Our fun.

It was so great, getting in Billy’s car, the wind in our hair, speeding away at the dawn. That fool, Teddy, got what was coming to him. I always knew there was something special about Billy. He was just so … intense, you know? It was more than just a drive to succeed, and the petty politics of popularity in the gymnasium that day when he put Petrie in his place. It’d been a game. Even though he didn’t know the rules, or the why of the game, he always knew that none of it was real. You don’t breed that kind of passion. That kind of awareness.

I knew then that I wanted him. And I showed him exactly what I wanted.

Just sophomore games. Teddy the Tycoon. He didn’t take any of it seriously, even by the standards of the Society. And he paid for it. It got old fast. The coming out, and then just sagging flesh, old man skin, elastic girl parts, boy bits that like to show just how big they are, and a massive sunken pit of gross ennui, of pure boredom that can only stimulate itself by playing with other people’s lives. It was all just masturbation after a while.

Until I met Billy.

Maybe the Whitneys thought he was something like their pet. I remember Dad doing something like that, even though we were … well, not the highest in the Society. But Daddy got old and Mom … Mom was always hungry. She came after us, after the Party. When you get old enough, and you shunt so many times, when you overeat, it gets harder to maintain that mask of humanity, and Mom already had so many problems doing that at her best, may she rest in peace. It was only because of the virtue of our birth that Mom even survived that long, and I had to keep eye on her when her faculties … changed. Just think about cannibalism and prion disease taken to its end result, but in a body that constantly grows like cancer.

Like …

It’s hard to think about now. She had always been trying to eat Milo’s hair. For some reason she had a thing for hair in her last days. I think it was the Keratin, even though it was so bad for her. But she guarded our lives. She was fond of Milo, or his hair. And I made it clear that Billy was mine. And god help me, for all her faults, my Mom loved me, and I loved my Mom. She remained strong and she could sure shunt towards the end.

Even though we had Mom in tow, it was mainly just the three of us: me, Billy, and Milo. We still had property in the suburbs, something the Society finds more gross than any of the parties. Billy adapted quick. He was always trying to expose them, the others. He learned how to moderate BBSes, then the Net, and then chat forums.

Forty years of running to different properties, and organizing rebellions that pretty much got squashed, though we took a few of them with us. The Whitneys really underestimated Billy. But I don’t know. They bred him to be the apex of what they think a human should be. like a well-groomed pet, or a pig made to slaughter. I guess he was more of a boar? But like I said, Billy had always been too smart. I watched him in school, and knowing he was almost eighteen — which is when the shunting would start — I made my move. I wasn’t even thinking. I just wanted to have my fun. I just wanted to see how he ticked.

If only Shauna knew. That bitch wanted into the Society. You know, to this day, I almost regret interfering — though I definitely rocked his world and I will never take that back — if only to see the look on that blonde bimbo’s face when she saw what high society is really about. I’m not sure even they could digest all that silicon though.

Billy was just a tool to her. He was prime food to the Whitneys. And what was a diversion for me … That will. That gall. That ambition. They thought it was cute. I think, sometimes, maybe when we had sex that night at my house a part of me went into him. Maybe that’s how he split Teddy from the inside out. Teddy thought to shunt Billy, but Billy ended up shanking him. To this day, I’m not sure anyone has killed one of us mid-shunting. I didn’t even know it was possible. I don’t think the others did either. That’s why they keep their distance, and come at us through their proxies, through their up and comers promised a place in Society. A whole lot of wannabe slaves. A whole lot of Shaunas.

But I think, looking back, it’s less what I did with Billy. I remember when he and Milo suggested that maybe we had been a parallel evolution — one step from the primordial ooze that kept closer to where life came from — while the rest of life became more solidified. Maybe in making love to Billy, I woke up a part of that shared beginning, and Teddy’s end … and that of a few others. Or perhaps Billy was just that strong.

It was an adjustment. We found others. People that discovered the Society. And others that used to be a part of the Society, kissing cousins that got tired of being disrespected, and didn’t really care for playing with their food. Humans are mostly dessert anyway. We can easily live off of our leeches. But the most challenging adaptations came from just the three of us.  I remember, in the beginning, that anger and hostility. Milo didn’t just love Billy. He was in love with him. I mean, seriously: the shrunken voodoo head, the naked action figures, and the dolls were much more than a subordinate jealous of his social superior. And his real hate of me was pretty clear at Teddy’s party.

Obviously I had no issues with it, given where I came from. And Billy and me … well, we shunted, in a way. It’s not something I have to do, but it’s enjoyable. But what few know is that while we devour enzymes and nutrients from a person, we can also give some back.

I never forced it. It was Billy who wanted to see what I could do. I guess that quip about my piss made him curious. But I saw what the Party had done to him, after the years of gaslighting by the Society, making him watch Blanchard die, nearly killing him too. He was the one that asked, and we explored that. I remember, like it was yesterday, the feeling of him being inside of me, and me being in him — really in him — like we had never been before. Sometimes, Milo even joined in, and it almost … it almost felt like what family used to feel like for me. It was different. There was something reaffirming about it. Something vital — even alive — warm and gentle and vibrant in ways that no mountains of greedy flesh could ever really feel, or emulate.

Billy lived longer than he would have. It turns out, he did have a mutation after all. In my darkest days, I think maybe that’s how he resisted Teddy’s shunting.

It was cancer.

Billy … Billy made me promise that we would be together. I didn’t care about the mess, or the sickness. Or appearances. I took care of him until I couldn’t. And then we shunted — we truly shunted — that one last time. And he went inside me, and I went inside him. We ate, and we copulated. And a part of him is, and will be with me, me. Forever.

As for the other part … Sometimes, I think I can still feel him. Sometimes I see him in Dave, our son. I wonder: just what kind of world are we still going to make together?