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[personal profile] villagecharm
This, as always, is just a first draft.


In Which I Proclaim the Life of the Author

Late at night, I hear them complaining about me. My characters.

Saraya Hyde, the pretentious porn star-turned-“serious”-actress-turned-mysterious-ghost-woman. Ross Calhoun, the sinister crooner who visits down-at-heel nursing homes. Master Sgt. Chris Whitmer, U.S. Marine Corps. The nameless protagonist of “Turn Off the Porch Light,” in which two eager young boys meet a very grim ending on Halloween night.

Some of the others, too, less fleshed out than their peers, but apparently quite capable of slandering my abilities as a writer.

“I’m a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life person who unwittingly serves as a blank canvas for his interest in antinomianism,” Hyde whined one night, when she thought I couldn’t hear. “It’s humiliating. Do I have a boyfriend? A girlfriend? A dog? A gym I like to work out at? I have no inner life at all. I’m just a collection of nihilist platitudes with ‘smoky eyes,’ as he never tires of typing.”

“At least you have a name,” said the “Porch Light” protagonist in a voice so thick with entitled self-regard I instantly regretted writing him that way. “Actually, don’t you have two names – a stage name and a real name? Isn’t that a plot point in that interminable new novella he keeps working on?”

“Oh, God, don’t remind me,” she replied. “That thing, so far, is almost entirely exposition and flashbacks. At least he gave me an iPhone in another story, so I can go on Twitter while I’m sitting through all the blather.”

“Well, I’d kill for a little exposition,” Calhoun said, in a honeyed tenor. “Literally, or so it seems. He’s never even clear if I’m supposed to be a regular old Joe, or some kind of demon. Maybe the devil? It’s all very ambiguous.”

“Ambiguity seems to be the only thing he can do,” Whitmer muttered. “Can anyone here even describe what they’re wearing?”

“Whatever it is, it’s black,” Hyde said. “He’s very clear about that. I guess I should be thankful I’m wearing anything at all.”

“I’m wearing something nondescript, but it’s hard to say what that even means in my context,” Porch Light said. “I mean, all we know about me is that I own a house and lure strangers to their deaths. So … khakis and a Polo shirt?”

“I might be in civilian clothes – whatever that means – I might be in field camouflage, I might be in dress blues,” Whitmer said. “It’s hard to imagine he’s ever met a real-life U.S. Marine, based on that alone. I wonder what my haircut looks like.”

At this point, lying in bed, my fists clenching and unclenching, I want to scream. How dare they?

Character development? Is that really what they think people are looking for in stories of the strange and unnameable? Has any reader, transported to the depths of fear by the transcendent flights of a Ligotti, a Lovecraft, a Kiernan, ever said to herself, “I wish I knew more about this particular character’s haircut”?

No, one thousand times. The only reason people read tales of the higher macabre is to engage with ideas – the kinds of ideas far too unpalatable for the bourgeois family dinner table of “mainstream” fiction, ideas like the absurdity of existence, the necessity of dread, the nihilism to which thinking logically about entropy and the curse of consciousness must compel us. It is not a medium for exploring the inner lives of people just as dull as the average American, with her shopping center face and her mind glazed by social media oversaturation.

The nerve – the absolute, appallingly entitled nerve of characters who, with the possible exception of Porch Light, lack so much as an associate’s degree between them, kvetching to each other about my “thin” plots and “wooden” dialogue. And each one of them – by the way – a murderer, or an accessory to murder!

I want to spring out of bed and rush out into the dark hallway and down the stairs to the living room where I hear them talking, to scatter their little klatsch with my creator’s rage, seeing the looks of terror on their faces as they realize I can undo them just as easily as I let them spring into the world.

I tried that on the first night I heard them complaining, actually. After getting over the shock of hearing my characters speak out loud – and after a well-delivered pinch to assure myself of wakefulness – I charged downstairs brandishing a baseball bat (of the Louisville Slugger variety – there, how’s that for detailed description?), not sure of what I would find.

I found darkness, and a room that was empty save for my idiot cat, Oliver Cromwell, dumbly batting at the tablecloth in the dining room.

I know you think I am insane.

###

The precipitating factor for my putative insanity, you’ll suggest, is the death of my father last winter, after a long and terrible illness (specifically, dementia). Unmarried, unpartnered, unmoored from any connection to society apart from a tenuous job on the underside of higher education, a human ruin upon whom middle age is setting like snow on an unvisited statue; I am a perfect candidate for a psychotic break, in other words.

You would be wrong, of course. I am not insane.

Lacking the tiresome distractions of marriage or children, of hobbies or overly scheduled friendships, I was able to direct my grief into a productive channel, for I had read and remembered Isak Dinesen’s instruction that “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

In fact, I had been planning this for months before my father died; midway through his illness, although I did not, naturally, realize at the time it was the mid-point. It was just when I had permitted myself to accept the fact of his impending death – that he would die, in other words, that the clumsy, late diagnosis of vascular dementia wasn’t a mistake, that one day this agony would end. What then?

To write, of course – the source and summit of my continued existence on this planet since I was very young, when I would craft horror stories of juvenile crudeness (although, god knows, I could probably sell the film rights today, but perhaps not without first making them yet cruder) and fold them into “books” that I would foist on my brother and neighborhood friends. This continued through high school, when I would shyly write stories for female classmates with themselves as the heroines, and into college, when I won my first writing awards, and then to my career in the press and subsequent detour into, I suppose, “the academy.” I am, and have ever been, a writer.

So, I decided I would honor my lost father with a book – I have written them before, and will write them again, once this unfortunate situation with my characters is resolved – that would both capture his true and unique gentleness and greatness of spirit and do so in a way that was not obviously a tribute to him. I wanted to repay my father’s innumerable kindnesses with art, not with another sloppy entrant in the misery memoir sweepstakes.

It would be, I decided, a travelogue/novel/history/memoir/postmodern tour-de-force about my home state, Connecticut, and would carry the peerless title Satan’s Kingdom (the reference will be familiar to anyone with so much as a passing familiarity with the Farmington River). All the details, digressions, sharp observations and flights of fancy would be wrapped around a tight, impenetrable core of sadness that would give the work its emotional weight, like an interesting version of a W.G. Sebald work. It would be a critical success and a respectable commercial undertaking; it would enable me to elevate myself in the dismal world of higher education, and to endow a scholarship in my father’s memory.

I made cursory notes for the book during his declining weeks, and 10 days after the funeral I sat down at a space I had cleared on the dining room table with those notes, my laptop, a mug of hot cocoa, and a candle burning in front of a black-and-white portrait of my father as a little boy, wearing a postman’s cap and a mischievous smile.

The trouble was, every time I sat down to write Satan’s Kingdom, I found myself staring at that portrait, and before long my eyes were stung with hot tears and I became unable to compose so much as a sentence. Moving the picture to another room didn’t help; the project, in my mind, was so tied up with my father – even though he would play a only shadowy, elusive role in the work itself – that I could not even begin an outline of it without a physical sensation of grief sweeping from my throat to my chest, leaving me breathing hard and staring into the night beyond the living room windows.

Satan’s Kingdom would have to wait until my emotions were not as raw, until I could contemplate the work with a modicum of critical distance. I realized, too late, that building a monument to my father and writing a book were different things, for in the first only tenderness could prevail, while success in the second depended on utter mercilessness.

The compulsion to write didn’t leave me, though, as I knew it would not: “Here Lies a Writer” is what they should chisel on my tombstone one day, if accuracy is their aim. And a writer writes, to the exclusion of much else.

Around the time I decided to postpone work on Satan’s Kingdom, I read an interview with Joyce Carol Oates in which she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that she knew many writers whose trickle of productivity had become a flood as soon as they endured the deaths of people they loved. Slightly perturbed that this had not yet happened to me, I went one Saturday morning to the Starbucks nearest campus, where, fortuitously, my laptop stubbornly refuses to work with the store’s wi-fi connection, thus freeing me of the distractions of the Internet. I opened a blank Word document and waited to experience what Oates had observed in others.

That afternoon, I found myself disquieted by the arrival of Sgt. Chris Whitmer, the U.S. Marine who returns from Afghanistan only to find his infant son dead of a SIDS-like condition in his on-post housing unit. The death shatters Whitmer’s marriage and drives him mad, once he discovers a cluster of similar child deaths in housing on the base. He hallucinates his son’s return, as some kind of demon, and resolves, when we leave him, to arrive at a meeting on the base about the deaths in a manner that we understand will be fatal for many people, including Whitmer himself.

I wrote it in three hours, took a breath, and went home, wondering where it came from. The next day, in my office, I began scribbling notes on a series of improbable, grotesque horror movies about 1980s urban decay in New York City. Over the next several days, those ideas came together to form a 7,000 word story about a beneath-the-underground snuff film called “Night Season,” which forced its viewers to pass it along to new audiences or suffer terrible fates.

Before long, the stories were coming so quickly I had to keep a notepad on my bedside table. I would wake in the night (something that happens often enough anyway; I am a light sleeper, and suspect I may suffer from sleep apnea, among other conditions) with a plot, characters, and - most important of all – a central premise, a theme, a philosophical underpinning for the tale itself. I was exploring dread and absurdity in such richness that it began to feel as if the ideas were coming to me from some external source, and that I was a mere conduit for them. I had never written so easily or fluidly before in my life. So this is what Oates meant.

Soon enough, Saraya Hyde, the obstreperous little tart, pushed her way into my life, her nativity an 18,000-word novella in which she serves as a distant object of contemplation for an unlucky New York Times reporter. She popped up again in a nasty little tale of a young man who gruesomely mutilates himself in a vain bid to win her favor, and the next thing I knew I was cruising past the 22,000-word mark in a story that ostensibly sought to retell the earlier novella from her perspective, but which quickly spiraled out to take in Breton witchcraft, occult bookstores, and the dismal world of “doom metal.”

All the tales, I found, shared a few crucial elements in common, generally a setting in or around a fictional New England town that I dubbed Orford Parish – a kind of modern-day version of Lovecraft’s Arkham, where the sinister cults and baroque satanic rites of old have become mere elements in the drab, post-industrial social landscape. I invented a newspaper for this sordid little burg and called it The Orford Parish Disrupter, until I realized, when gazing on the magazine rack during a visit to Barnes & Noble, that “disrupter” had become a “buzz word” for the kinds of idiots who brag about changing the course of human affairs with the invention of an app or new way to purchase consumer goods. I renamed it The Orford Parish Vituperator, a name I just can’t love as much as the original.

The disappointment didn’t sting too much, because I was too busy filling in the details of Orford Parish’s peculiar folklore and history in a separate Word document that I realized, after a while, could be a book on its own. Here I created witch sects and unhallowed churches, provided such information as could be known about the disturbing creatures called the Threndlestaves, explained the unique local custom of writing a wish on a piece of paper and nailing it to an ancient oak tree, delineated some of the sad history of the town and its many anti-Quaker persecutions, and offered broad hints about the Little Gentlemen, who seemed to oversee it all.

These stories – and their rich, strange background – constituted “horror writing” only to the extent of an observer’s lack of sophistication as a reader. Certainly, the themes were macabre, grisly, or unsettling (though not, he said with a shudder, “Gothic”), but they had as much in common with the hackwork of your nearest chain bookstore’s “Teen Paranormal” section as the French Laundry does with Red Lobster. These were pieces for the connoisseur, the reader with as much Buzzati and Schulz as King and Campbell on her shelves. My work was closer in some ways to the heralded “New Weird” and “International Strangism” movements in the literary macabre demimonde, but even then, too many of the exemplars of those currents lacked the finesse, the subtlety, the willingness to frighten without fear, that I knew my stories possessed.

Perhaps because of that, I found myself curiously uninterested in finding markets for them. I realized, of course, that such markets had diminished greatly since the last time I produced short pieces of strange fiction – my early post-college days, to be somewhat more precise.

Back then, the main organs of the genre were newsletters like Hell Notes – on actual paper, if you can bring yourself to imagine such wonders – and the outlets were journals that published quarterly or bi-monthly or, if you were quite good (or were chummy with the right person), anthologies. In those days, I wrote mostly homages to the great Aitch Pee Ell himself, along with Jamesian meditations on loss and longing set amidst the haunted late 20th century ruins of my beloved New England. I sold a few pieces, welcomed a few successes, but my journalism career began demanding an increased share of my time, and offered more tangible rewards than the world of dark fiction.

Returning to contemplate that world anew, after an absence of nearly 15 years, did little to make me regret choosing journalism over horror. The old newsletters were all gone, of course, as were most of the journals and anthologies, replaced by a dispiriting collection of publish-on-demand outfits, online-only “e-zines,” and other pay-via-contributor’s-copy concerns that at least gave me some satisfaction in realizing there were, in fact, industries in more trouble than journalism.

Some things remained unchanged, though, such as the seemingly inexhaustible appetite for petty gossip and inept character assassination in the tiny world of horror writers. The only new element was that, whereas in the past such activities had to be carried out at the sluggish pace of phone calls, letters, or face-to-face conversations, now they could be done in a super-efficient electronic pigpile via Facebook or Twitter.

I am, as you have deduced, “a quick study,” and so it was with relative ease and alacrity that I came to realize my work would find no paid outlet. And although it’s surely tempting to read this as Milton’s Satan shaking his fist at the heavens (if we’re defining “the heavens” here to mean “tiny print-on-demand publishing companies that employ heavy metal graphic designers to make all their atrocious covers”) and saying he’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven, I was honestly at peace with this revelation. The work didn’t seem to want to be cossetted in such environments, you see.

As the stories began to accumulate in a (metaphorically) thickening folder on my laptop called “New Work,” it felt more and more like I was healing myself of a terrible grief. Oates’ observation was, I realized, one that related to the writer rather than to the work: by opening myself up, post-bereavement, I was engaging in a cathartic act. The work was a process, not a product. Understanding this, I was content to let it remain forever in that folder on my computer, engaging me briefly or extensively, but not troubling the rest of the world as I got into fighting trim to begin Satan’s Kingdom, my real “life’s work.”

This only changed thanks to a chance encounter with an old friend, which I now regret, insofar as it enabled my characters to come to life and plot to kill me.

###

I first met Matthew M. Bartlett years ago, when I was at college with his younger brother, Jon. Jon and I would read our work at the same “open mic” poetry nights in venues around campus, outings which revealed, among other things, that few of our contemporaries were suited to poetry, public speaking, or showing themselves under direct light.

Jon’s older brother, who had also published poetry, came along to a few of these nights, and – I believe it was the fall of 1997 – once the three of us attended a Morrissey concert together in Hartford. But while I found Matthew a sharp and convivial conversationalist and agreeable companion for an evening of literature or music, ours was little more than a friendly acquaintance for several years.

Years after I graduated college and moved away for what would be the first stop of my career in journalism, Matthew and I reconnected via the now-antique online blogging platform Livejournal, which at the time was something of an industry leader.

It was an outlet for me to write down the impressions and events of daily life – thus forming an invaluable record for later – but also to keep my hand in the types of writing excluded by my newspaper job: political analysis, music and literary criticism, and short fiction.

Drawn since childhood to the macabre, as I have mentioned already, most of this short fiction was of that variety; nothing I’d be particularly keen to show anyone today, but not bad for being dashed off by a hard-charging young reporter swinging between deadlines.

Matthew (hereafter: “Bartlett”) commented a few times that he admired my stories greatly, and suggested that they were “even publishable,” a plaudit that made me chuckle. For indeed, I had already been published in organs of the “horror” demimonde like Skeleton Frenzy, House of Shock, and Drip, as well as having a story selected for inclusion in the 2002 installment of The Year’s Best Spooky Chillers, a proud professional moment despite the haplessly moronic title.

When I relayed these publication credits to Bartlett, he seemed quite impressed, and confided to me that he, too, had been dabbling with short works of the higher macabre. I offered, with an inward feeling of dread (for few things are more unpleasant for the published author than a friend’s eager cry of “Do you wanna look at the novel I’m writing?”), to take a look at them, and to my surprise was happy to find they were good – quite good. Spiky, rugose dispatches from a leaf-rustled New England of perpetual twilight, they captured what was essential about “weird” writing without being overly backward-looking or derivative.

I told him so (I have long been blessedly free of anything like professional jealousy in the world of fiction writing, given the galloping success of my journalism career, which was then just in its earliest stages), although I suppose my praise didn’t mean all that much to him, because it was years before he finally got around to publishing anything.

Last summer, while scanning the Facebook groups and blogs of the horror word despite the recognition that none of it would make an appropriate home for my work, I was struck by the unanimous chorus of praise for a new voice in weird fiction: that of one Matthew M. Bartlett. His debut volume of stories was praised by all the right people, and after acquiring the collection I found myself compelled to add my plaudits to theirs. I “added” him on Facebook to congratulate him personally (or as personally as one get on Mr. Zuckerberg’s ingenious advertising delivery platform), and we soon fell into a long epistolary conversation updating each other on where our lives had taken us in the last decade or so.

I discovered that Bartlett was living in Western Massachusetts, not far from my home in Connecticut, and that he often came to my hometown to visit old friends. I suggested a meeting, and somewhat charmingly, he proposed the famous Queen of Doughnuts on Green Road, a local institution that has been feted by “road food” bloggers and that television show starring a gibbering, rotund goblin with spiked blond hair who raves about the meals he consumes in “dives and drive-throughs,” and an establishment I had inserted into my Orford Parish tales under the recognizable pseudonym King Donut.

The appointed day came to the great little doughnut dispensary, and Bartlett was as I remembered him – jocular, verbose, quick to laugh. It was an easy meeting, free of old unspoken grudges or petty feuds. It would have passed uneventfully and been filed away as a pleasant memory of a Saturday’s diversion had I not mentioned, casually and with no hint of a grubby desire to “ride his coattails,” that I, too, had returned to writing the sorts of dark tales he had so admired all those years ago.

Bartlett pressed me for details and, not having read a single word of these stories, urged me to consider publication (perhaps I had left a more lasting impression than I imagined!), but I explained to him that the straitened character of the macabre publishing world was no place for my strange, delicate tales. On my hard drive they would remain, I assured him, for occasional perusal by their most devoted audience: me.

He chuckled a little and began telling me that when he had first contemplated getting his tales published, the horror world seemed baffling and intimidating to him (not a problem I have ever had, but I listened patiently). He found an online community devoted to the brainier aspects of macabre culture, and posted a few early versions of his stories there. The thoughtful encouragement he had received there had given him the confidence to pursue publishing through more traditional means, he said, adding that it might be something I’d want to try.

I politely demurred and he didn’t pursue it, but when it was time to leave the Queen of Doughnuts, he reminded me of the site: “TLDR:Spooky,” it was called.

“Stupid name, smart people,” he said, as we parted ways.

Later that day, enjoying the solitude that follows the gift of a new catnip-scented toy to my tiresome, stupid pet cat, I confronted the growing beast of my novella about Saraya Hyde. In those days, before she became sentient, she was a pleasant diversion in a life that had too few of them.

I had sacrificed a great deal on the altar of daily journalism, and my labors were well-rewarded for as long as stayed in the field. But when my father became badly ill, it became clear that I – unmarried, no children, not even a real home, given my news-based peregrinations across North America – was best suited to return home and take charge of his care, I left journalism for a job in higher education that is frankly beneath me. And when the tremendous satisfaction I felt at ably doing challenging work had left my life, I realized too late how little of anything else there was to take its place.

There was my father, of course, and in time I became an expert on Medicare, nursing home evaluations, Blue Cross insurance billing, the legal position of power of attorney, chronic pain management, the “stepwise progression” of vascular dementia, hospice care, the cost of funerals, and probate court. It was the equivalent of an emotionally-draining second job, though, not a sustaining raison d’etre.

Lacking the desperation for external approval that enables some people to easily make friends, I at least had my writing. And as the stories poured out of me, I found myself preoccupied in particular with Saraya, who seemed a more engaging person altogether than the unfortunate Sgt. Whitmer, or the thinly-veiled versions of myself who served as the protagonists of several tales. I felt driven to understand her – a fictional character! – in a way that I had never encountered before. Perhaps I was failing to heed my own well-informed understanding that it is the ideas which make the successful weird tale, rather than the “marionettes” who wear ersatz emotions “like cheap imitation jewelry,” as Adorno had it. Perhaps I was subconsciously seeking to manufacture a replacement for that romantic companionship lacking in my life.

Whatever the cause of my fascination, it had stranded me in the midst of a piece that was now nearing 28,000 words without so much as a second act in sight. I reflected glumly that this was becoming a novel; a bastardized, dead form of literature of use only to bourgeois MFA graduates of the sort praised by the middlebrow yokels festooning National Public Radio. I was exploring her adolescence, producing a lot of words but with no clear idea about where it was leading. The outline I had drawn up at the beginning, which concluded with the death by black magic of Saraya’s mother, was now hopelessly obsolete. I found myself too enervated to continue working without so much as even a vague direction. I needed a break.

Opening a web browser, I found myself heading to Bartlett’s recommended destination of “TLDR:Spooky,” and, grimacing at the name aside, being pleasantly surprised by the mix of erudite entries on obscure aspects of intelligent horror. Just scrolling around the page, I found, for instance, a paean to “Robin Redbreast,” an obscure film aired just once on British television; a convincingly argued assessment of “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” as a crucial entrant in the folk horror genre; an interview with the young weird fiction writer Grace Hsing; a Jungian exposition of “The Haunting of Hill House”; and some macabre poems with real imagination and not a little craft.

After about an hour of reading and lurking, I filled out the brief email form that served as a membership application, and felt stupidly grateful an hour later when I received a reply informing me that I had been accepted as the newest “spooky.”

The community wasn’t entirely to my liking; there was, for instance, a weekly “spooky watchalong” of a pre-selected film that offered the opportunity for a kind of group blog in which members competed to amuse each other rather than elucidate the qualities (or lack thereof) of the film.

Many of the (sigh) “spookies” also seemed rather young, and unfamiliar with what I would regard as authors, filmmakers, and works so basic to an appreciation of horror that to be without them is to remain, in some sense, outside the genre entirely, but I am able to make allowances for the callowness of youth, a grace that has assisted me immeasurably in my tiresome work at the college.

For the most part, though, I found myself happily preoccupied with the community, albeit slightly guilty that my membership was giving me a daily reason to avoid grappling with what I now thought of as “the Saraya novel.”

I was also intrigued by the weekly feature known as “Say What You Want Saturday,” in which no posts were scheduled in advance, and the doors were metaphorically flung open for members to post whatever they wanted. This was, I suppose, what Bartlett had talked about; Saturday was when fiction, poetry, photography, art, and even some short films were posted by members of the community who solicited the thoughts of others on their work.

At first, I saw this as an opportunity to observe and perhaps critique the work of less mature artists – I did not need a “workshop,” even a virtual one, after all. I had been published, which was a distinction I don’t believe I shared with many of my fellow “spookies.”

One Saturday morning, though, after feeding and watering my idiot cat and preparing a steaming mug of hot cocoa, I was once again engaged in a heated game of “avoid Saraya,” which ultimately led me to post a story about her – “Come for Me,” about the youthful self-mutilator – to community.

“Just a nasty little thing I sharked up recently,” I wrote, by way of introduction. “Curious to hear your thoughts.”

Realizing it would be foolish – and more than a little needy – if I hovered in front of the computer all morning waiting for anyone to respond, so I took a brisk walk around Union Pond and spent a pleasant hour browsing among the racks of LPs at a boutique record store in the neighboring town of Vernon.

When I got home that evening, I was pleased to find two dozen or so comments appended to the story, all of them glowingly positive except for the thoughts of one particularly sour community member – I noticed that he (it must have been a “he,” given the online handle “Dickblood666”) didn’t seem to like much of anything – who criticized me for not rendering the soul-destroying sexual encounters in the story in granular, pornographic detail.

One always remembers the criticism – however ill-founded or (in this case) prurient – rather than the praise, I reflected as I scanned over the laudatory comments once more. Most of them were brief, to the point of inarticulateness; I half-wondered if the community members had read the story at all, or if they had just written “Scary!” or “Great job! I liked this” in an effort to be collegial and encouraging.
One commenter, though, seemed to have done more than the cursory amount of work.

“Really interesting insight into pornography in a postmodern context,” she (“AprilDuke”) wrote. “There’s a real core of loneliness at the story that ultimately seems more frightening than the grisly end of its protagonist. I’m curious, too, about the archetype you’ve rendered here – the distant pornstar as all-devouring monster. OK if I share this link with interested parties?”

“Certainly!” I wrote back. “Glad you liked it – and I’m gratified you cottoned on to the main themes of the tale. We’ve constructed quite a beast for ourselves with this Internet, haven’t we?”

“Indeed,” she wrote back.

Happy to have enjoyed at least one intellectually fruitful exchange, I decided to post more of my stories to the community on successive Say What You Want Saturdays, spacing them out so as to not appear over-eager for praise. As the weeks went by, the ratio of thoughtful comments to glib praise began to equalize, and I found myself, in all humility, taking on something of the reputation of a community sage, fielding inquiries from aspiring writers and being pestered to name some of my favorite works in the genre.

This felt better than being published, to be honest. To share my work with the world, to engage in discussions on it, and to not be bogged down by fretting over submission deadlines or ludicrous, print-era requirements for manuscripts (underlined words rather than italicized, honestly), all in the service of a pittance (or worse, a contributor’s copy – particularly laughable if the journal was online-only).

Although I hesitate to say I was “happy,” precisely (“Call no man happy until he is dead,” the Greeks cautioned), I was reasonably content with this state of affairs until one Say What You Want Saturday when I posted a new, short Saraya story, which blended in elements of the Friulian benandanti folklore.
Once again, the story’s received mostly favorable notices, and once again, the lone dissenter was “Dickblood666.”

“Omfg this is boring,” he typed. “Only you would write a story about Saraya Hyde in which there’s no actual sex, and where I feel like I’m back in freshman year history class (bored).”

His formulation made me pause, for certainly it was true overall that “only [I] would write a story about Saraya Hyde,” as she was my creation.

“There are other ways to write about Saraya Hyde?” I responded. “Do tell.”

His response consisted solely of a link to a thread on a website called “creepypesto.com”: It was called “Have You Seen Saraya?,” and it had scores of entries, stretching back over a month, in which people had posted questions, comments, stories, and fan art about the character I had created in a novella at the beginning of the year.

I have been chest-deep in flood water and I have picked through the matchstick remains of a trailer park obliterated by a tornado along with the few survivors of the calamity, so my reaction was not one of paralyzed shock. I merely looked at the first post in the thread and saw it was authored by one “AprilDuke,” who wrote, simply, “Pretty creepy ideas in this one!” next to the cut-and-pasted text of my story and a link back to the TLDR:Spooky forum page on which it first appeared. Fine, I thought.

What happened within days was something I could have scarcely predicted but which, in its own way, was a far greater testament to my writing than a $25 check or even, gods forfend, a Horror Writers Association award bauble. Commenters on the original post began expanding the thread by reporting the appearance of Saraya Hyde in their own dreams.

“I was in my high school, on a Saturday for some reason, and then I saw her coming toward me down the hallway near the gym,” the poster KrepeGrl wrote. “She was wearing this black dress that looked like something you’d wear to prom, but it had spikes and studs and nails all around. She was so beautiful, with these dark eyes and black hair, but she had this angry look on her face.”

That was more or less as I had described her in “Come for Me.” I was, at this point, more than a little impressed with my abilities to conjure realistic characters for readers, even evidently young, impressionable ones.

“I felt like I should run, but I was rooted to my spot, just watching her come closer and closer down the hall. When she finally got to me, she took my hand and opened a classroom door, and this river of blood just poured out. That’s when I woke up.”

This was a bit on the nose, but it was followed by a dozen or so other commenters relating their dream encounters with Saraya, and then by one commenter, “Francelia Rimes,” posting four pen-and-ink sketches of the woman she had seen in her dream, which were not only competently done, but genuinely reminiscent, overall, of how I had pictured my nihilistic little porn actress.

Nine days after AprilDuke’s initial post, the commenter Yocky Parker wrote, in response to the dreams and drawings, “Hey guys i hope this is cool i wanted to add a little bit to the Saraya Mythos and so I wrote this little story its kind of dumb but whatever” [all sic]. This inarticulate introduction was followed by a crude but enthusiastic short tale in which a nameless young high school student (perhaps a version of young Parker himself) was ravaged on repeated nights by the succubus-like Saraya, to the point where, on the occasion that a real-life human girl actually touched the protagonist (on the shoulder), he “deflated like a popped balloon, all the water and blood pouring out of his body in seconds,” which I actually think is a rather good image.

Parker’s post was met with acclaim, and soon others were posting their own stories, and Photoshopped manipulations, and drawings (none as well-executed as Francelia Rimes’), in a bid to increase the boundaries of “the Saraya Mythos,” a term that made me chuckle a little, as old HPL himself might have from the Great Beyond upon contemplating Augie Derleth’s labors on behalf of Cthulhu & Co.

If the modest praise I had received at TLDR:Spooky had seemed like a reasonable substitute for publishing, how much more gratifying were those initial days spent on the “Have You Seen Saraya?” thread! To create is sublime enough, but to see one’s readers take that creation to heart so much so that their dreams are infiltrated – there can be no greater honor for a writer. I may never write as well as old Kafka, but he never lived to see Josef K. burrow into the minds of his readers. This, surely, was the foretaste of eternity for which Augustine yearned.

So I thought, anyway, right up until the moment when I awoke in bed, my sleep disturbed by the voices of my characters, alive in my house and despising me.

##

I’ve explained what happened on that first night I heard my characters slandering me: rush downstairs, baseball bat wielded, nothing to see but the idiot cat playing with the tablecloth.
I dismissed it – as you would – as an auditory hallucination produced in that strange state between slumber and wakefulness, albeit uneasily. But what was the alternative? That my house was haunted by fictional characters I had created?

It was harder to make that uneasy rationalization the second night, and harder still on the third. I worried not that I was going mad – I assure you, gentle reader, I am as sane as winter – but that my admittedly less-than-ideal health behaviors had finally conspired to fetch me, in middle age, to the doorstep of sleep apnea and the attendant, multifarious problems that arise when one gets only a few fitful, broken hours of sleep each night. The human brain is a marvelous organ, but what it needs most of all is daily rest. Without that, it can unleash terrors that are as insubstantial as sunlight, but just as deadly with prolonged exposure.

I consulted my physician via telephone, and she prescribed sleeping pills. Foolishly wary of the things – what if I didn’t wake up?, some part of me asked – I nonetheless enjoyed the first uninterrupted night of slumber since before my father’s death, and passed the night quite without hearing my harsh inner critic manifest itself as a Babel of voices in my living room.

This brought me a measure of peace. I even thought about incorporating the episode in a story; why not? I thought, a bit wryly, who better to introduce a hint of postmodern sophistication to the burgeoning Saraya Mythos than the man who started it all?

Pride goeth before a fall, I suppose. My fall came a few days later, when I saw my creation Saraya Hyde sitting in the library of the college where I work.

I was walking past the vast, South-facing window of the Holcomb Building. The sun was dipping in the sky and my thoughts were on that night’s takeout dinner prospects when I happened to glance through the window into the library. There she sat, quite alone at a long wooden table, her hands hidden in the pockets of a snug-fitting black hooded sweatshirt.

A trick of my overtaxed brain? Just a normal member of the no-hope undergraduate class that sits slumped and barely sentient at the college where I work? All white women look the same?

No, unfortunately. Our eyes met, and she met my gaze with a burning look of hatred I can still recall without difficulty. It pinned me to the spot where I stood, like a pitiful insect. People walked around my rigid form, scarcely even looking in my direction. Finally, I was released; Saraya stood from the table and began to walk away.

What should I have done? Dashed into the Holcomb Building and through the doors of the library, only to find she had vanished? No, friend. I have read these tales before – I have written them, in fact. I did the sensible thing.

I walked briskly to my car and drove home, my appetite ruined.

At this point, I knew two things: first, that I was not mad. An insane person does not rise at the same hour every morning, feed and water his idiot cat, shower and shave and dress himself in a professional manner, and then go out to the dispiriting business of teaching English and creative writing at a community college. The maniac does not pay his utility bills promptly, or monitor his credit card balance online, or update his LinkedIn profile. If you have ever encountered real schizophrenia – and I doubt very much that you have; it happens to run in my family, however, so I know whereof I speak – you understand that one afflicted with this disease cannot, unmedicated, navigate the rough waters of daily life.

The second thing I knew was that I had first heard and now seen at least one character from a series of short stories I conceived, wrote, and posted to an online forum with the inelegant name “TLDR:Spooky.”
I was unable to reconcile these truths. In desperation, I turned to the Internet.

Specifically, to creepypesto.com, and its “Have You Seen Saraya?” page, a question that now made me grimace. From that initial post by AprilDuke, the page had now sprawled to encompass countless threads and sub-threads, new topics and stories, freshly updated photos and clumsily written stories, all about my creation.
I despaired of finding some entry point into this pandemonium, until I noticed a sub-topic with the title, “Real-Life Encounters.” Here, I found people claiming to have seen – and more than that – Saraya Hyde in public, along with scoffing doubts, angry rebuttals, and the entire depressing panoply of reactions to strangers’ thoughts online.

But in this wilderness, one post caught my attention. By a commenter using the name “Servant of Elves,” it considered, relatively dispassionately and with sophisticated terminology, the question of whether or not the collective effort that produced the Saraya Mythos – the writing and thinking and arguing and drawing and editing and dreaming – could actually result in the creation of a real being.

The post was all too short, but it contained a link to an article where Servant of Elves said the idea was most thoroughly developed.

That link led me to a site called Not Enough Horror Business, and a sprawling, pretentious, lightly-edited essay by a Tom Breen, who filled his meditation with 10-cent words and theoretical references he seemed to only partially understand.

The title of the essay was “In Which I Proclaim the Death of the Author,” and celebrated the online genre of horror folklore known as “creepypasta,” in which tales of the sort that used to be passed around the Boy Scout campfire are generated and disseminated on the Internet, typically anonymously or pseudonymously. The idiotic term “creepypasta” itself is a burlesque on “copypasta,” a now archaic word for the type of content that, in the early days of the Internet, was copied and pasted into emails or crude websites and passed around.

I had been aware from the moment I saw the “Have You Seen Saraya?” page that my work had somehow made the transition from fiction to creepypasta, and unlike the standard, grubby horror writer who is always scrounging for credit or praise, I was delighted.

George Orwell wrote that the only objective measure of a literary work’s quality is the crude but undeniable one of longevity: a work is good if people continue to read it, otherwise not. Of course, this measurement is generally only valid after an author’s death, but it seems to me that virality is at least a prominent indicator of future longevity: the more a story – or even the elements of a story, like its characters – is shared, is retold, is mutated and recombined in new forms, the likelier it will take root in the imaginations of readers, and live on. Let the others claw and swipe at each other for a coveted spot in the latest unread edition of the “Year’s Best All-Time Chilliest Chillers,” or to be nominated for an award that no one outside the genre recognizes! My aim was higher: immortality.

This nuanced appreciation of my creations’ successes as creepypasta would have been anathema to the author of the essay, it was apparent, for much of his screed was taken up with tiresome, cultural studies-derived blather about the tyranny of individual authorship and “the privatization of narrative,” an ill-defined concept he connected to the Protestant Reformation, in a particularly poorly-reasoned line of argument.
“The Work will be set free only when the byline is erased forever,” he wrote. “Let the last author be strangled with the guts of the last copyright lawyer!”

It is a measure of my patience that I soldiered through much of this nonsense before reaching the part of the essay that interested me: the question of works of literature – “the living canon of the Folk,” in his somewhat alarmingly fascist terminology – being able to influence “the real world,” or even to step into it from the insubstantial realm of story itself.

Breen posited two ways in which this could be possible. First, the most straightforward: readers or hearers of a tale who are so influenced by the work that they act in their lives as if the story that transfixed them is “real.”

“Two twelve-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbed a classmate in a failed attempt to offer her as a sacrifice to Slender Man,” Breen wrote. “The victim lived, despite grievous wounds. The two assailants face charges of ‘attempted first-degree intentional homicide.’ Is Slender Man – who sprang from a Photoshop contest on the Something Awful forums in 2009 – ‘real’? To three young girls, their families, and the majestic criminal justice system, the point is essentially moot.”

Reasonable enough. How many Harry Potter weddings have there been? How many drunks have walked the footsteps of Leopold Bloom on 16 June? Perhaps the person I glimpsed through the library window was some kind of Saraya Hyde “cosplay” fanatic, and nothing more. Perhaps.

But, Breen went on, there was a second sense in which it might be possible for works of literature to step over the boundary into our world.

“We cannot discount the occult, proleptic qualities of writing,” he argued. “The act of writing, for most of its history, has been properly understand as an undertaking of ritual magic – words on a paper, folded and placed in a leather pouch on a string, were enough to ward off illness from the Greeks to 19th century Cornwall. Was the Roman Emperor Commodus mistaken to institute the death penalty for ‘scribes’ as well as fortunetellers? Did Margaret Thatcher fall from power because of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation, or because Iain Sinclair wrote ‘Downriver’?

“Clement wrote: ‘To write all things in a book is to put a sword in the hands of a child.’ I ask you to think of this as something other than a metaphor.”

The argument, drawn from Jungian psychoanalysis, Tibetan Buddhism, certain interpretations of Paracelsus’ theories on creating a homunculus, and a messianic strand of anarcho-syndicalism suppressed in northern France at the turn of the last century, was this: characters in stories could become real given sufficient effort by “the Folk,” which in his terminology was a quasi-sentient collective presence capable of performing any feat.

“When the real world changes into simple images,” he wrote, paraphrasing Guy Debord, “simple images become real beings and effective motivators of an hypnotic behavior.”

“All of this could be dismissed as mere theory, of course,” Breen went on. “But to those who make that claim, let me ask: Who killed Col. Eric Daly?”

This last question was lit up in the colored text of a hyperlink, which took me to a news story in the Fayetteville Observer, a North Carolina newspaper. It seemed that an officer at Camp Lejeune had been murdered – shot to death – by an assailant who was still at large. Much of this was related in brief, backstory-providing paragraphs, because the focus of the story was a series of local rumors swirling about a Marine supposedly driven insane by the death of his young son, and driven to seek vengeance on the Corps.

“The stories seem to have begun online,” the story noted, before making their way into the streets of Jacksonville. The rumors described the Marine as “average in height and build,” notable only for the gruesome fact that he carried his son’s corpse on his back, the boy’s lifeless arms somehow fastened around his father’s neck.

“This terrifying figure has leapt from the world of online folklore to an official police investigation, as at least three witnesses have come forward to say they saw someone meeting the description near the restaurant where Daly’s body was found,” the paper reported.

“Although police say they still have no official suspect in the case, residents near Lejeune have given the frightening character a name, drawn from the online rumors: Sgt. Chris.”

Perhaps my fingers shook. Perhaps they did not. I opened another tab and googled “Sgt. Chris” + “creepypasta.” Amid a stack of results, the entry on Know Your Meme was most succinct:

“Sgt. Chris is an urban legend about an ex-Marine who seeks vengeance for the death of his son. He first appeared in a creepypasta that depicted him as traveling with his son’s withered corpse when stalking and killing those he blames for the child’s death.”

Beneath that brief entry was a wealth of drawings and Photoshopped images of a man in a crewcut – sometimes in field camouflage, sometimes in tattered dress blues – with a creature clinging to his back that looked variously spindly, mummified, or demonic. The hyperlinked word “creepypasta” in the short description took browsers to my story, “Down Range,” posted some weeks ago to the creepypesto.com website by AprilDuke.

Numbly, I read the rest of Breen’s essay, which was mostly a long-winded and inconclusive meditation on the ramifications of fictional characters springing to actual life. Even in my bewildered, increasingly frightened state, I reflected to myself, Here is a man in bad need of an editor.

Knowing I could accomplish little more with my nerves unsettled, I snapped my MacBook shut and went outside for a brisk nighttime walk.

##

Here are the events of my walk that night, as best as I can recall them:

I had neglected to bring along my iPod, which was a mistake, as my walks are normally enlivened by the ability to listen to a well-done podcast or two. But that night, I thought I wanted a head free of distractions, only myself and the fresh air.

I was perhaps a mile from my home when I became aware of footsteps behind me. I thought nothing of it, as I walked this route almost nightly, and encountered at least half a dozen fellow pedestrians, typically with a dog or two.

My route took me past the old pond on the corner of Adelaide Street, and it was here that I realized the footsteps were getting closer, and the person behind me was moving closer. As I like to maintain a fairly robust pace myself, I was annoyed at someone so impatient they had to speed up to pass me, as if we were teenagers racing cars on the Interstate.

Resolving to handle the situation with a disapproving glance, I turned. There, perhaps half a block behind me, standing beneath the orange sodium light of a streetlight, was Master Sgt. Chris Whitmer. Clinging to his back was his son, or a thing that had once been his son – white, hairless, and shriveled, his long bony limbs jutted out at impossible angles behind Whitmer’s back.

I ran, of course. What should I have done? Stood still and written a different ending to his story? And anyway, at that point I had no concept of what was happening other than that a genuinely upsetting duo was rapidly approaching me on a deserted nighttime street. Of course I ran.

I ran up Hilltop Street, since it was the nearest to me. I had attended nursery school on this street, many years ago, but for some reason – perhaps the darkness, perhaps the terror I felt as I heard Whitmer begin to run after me – the neighborhood looked unfamiliar. The houses weren’t where they should have been, and tall hedges had sprung up blocking what I recalled as open yards.

Drawing upon some deep reservoir of instinctual logic, I understood I was not going to best a Marine in a footrace, and that my best course of action was to bang on the door of a house, get inside, slam the door behind me, and have my startled hosts call the police.

As I dashed through along the street, my lungs protesting at this unfamiliar exertion, I despaired at the darkened houses that lined my path. It would not do to try one of them; by the time the frightened homeowner emerged from bed and made a decision about whether to go downstairs or call 911, Whitmer would have been upon me. Up ahead, though, not too far, was a house with its porch light glowing, a beacon from shore to a vessel tossed in a deadly sea.

Tearing up the steps, I both pounded on the door and rang the bell in a manner which, if I had thought about it, would have surely terrified anyone inside the home, certainly at this late hour. But to my incredible relief, the door swung open almost immediately.

Standing there, clutching a bottle of cheap cider, was the nameless protagonist from “Turn Off the Porch Light.”

“Happy Halloween,” he said.

I screamed and barreled into him, all reason and calculation lost in an animal clamor for safety. As soon as my hand touched him, a huge hole blew open between his neck and his shoulder and a gust of air erupted from it. His body shrank and withered like a deflating blow-up doll, and within seconds he was nothing more than a husk of skin and a pile of casual clothes.

Whitmer had reached the porch steps, though, and looked a good deal more substantial than Nameless Protagonist. I stumbled into the house, trying to recall the nature of the supernatural hazard I had put there in the story, and remembered that it had been located in a back room on the first floor.

My legs ached as I charged up the stairs. I thought I could make it upstairs before him, but then the son-thing on Whitmer’s back detached from his father and sprang horribly across the slanted ceiling above me, his spidery limbs leaving globs of residue where they touched the surface.

Whitmer closing in and his son-thing swiping at me from the ceiling, I screamed and covered my head with my hands, staggering into a bathroom at the top of the stairs and slamming the door behind me.

Expecting the Marine to try and batter it down, I leaned my bulk against it, but the frame didn’t shake with pounding or kicking, and when Whitmer spoke, it was in the firm, calm voice of a man used to being heeded.
“Open the door,” he said. “Open the door right now.”

Instead, I looked around the bathroom, considering my options. There was nothing there with which to fight, and anyhow, I can’t fight. There was a small window across from the door, but I had no clear plan on how to get it open, nor of what to do once I was out of the window. If I fell and broke a leg, Whitmer could simply take his time walking outside to the backyard. Should I remain in the bathroom and call the police from my cell phone?

A white, thin arm, bent like a pipe cleaner, emerged from the door behind me. It didn’t crash through the door or seem to cause any damage at all; it simply unfolded, smoothly and hesitantly, flexing its cord-like muscles as the hand attached to it began to grope blindly along the wall, seeking my face.

My decision was made. I rushed toward the window, foolishly, but my gambit was rewarded by an agile plunge through a surface that was not hard glass, but felt much more like cheap cellophane. I landed on the roof outside, slid, and scrabbled vainly for the gutter before tumbling onto a row of bushes below, landing on my back.

Before I could even react, I saw something soft and white and plump descending in a graceful plunge from the roof. I screamed and shielded my face; it landed on my hands with a soft, light thud, like a wet, folded towel.

Rolling and thrashing as if on fire, I screamed louder and more frantically, stopping only when I heard distant voices.

Deliverance! Looking up, finally, I called, “Here! Over here! Help!” before daring to look at what had landed on me from the window above.

It was newsprint. Clumps of soft, wet newsprint, and nothing more. And the house I had just escaped from, a modern suburban dwelling with furnished rooms and glowing electric lights, was a ruin: peeling paint, plywood nailed over windows, an air of neglect that could only come from years of non-occupation.

A group of neighbors found me, carrying flashlights and baseball bats. My cries had alerted them. Thank god I am a professional man; my appearance told them simply that I was one of their number, and had been first to reach the scene of the disturbance.

“Did you see them?” one man asked.

“They …” I stammered.

“Goddamn kids,” he spat. “They keep breaking into this place. It’s a goddamn liability.”

“First thing tomorrow, I’m making another complaint to the city,” someone else said.

“Good luck,” came a third voice. “The city could make a book out of our complaints. They don’t care.”

“So,” the first man said, turning to me again. “Did you see them?”

“Yes,” I whispered. “I saw them.”

##

It got worse after that. No longer able to rationalize what was happening, and tired and sore from my encounter with my characters, I went home and took sleeping pills. I briefly thought about taking them all, but it was a passing, foolishly adolescent notion. I had seen worse, I thought as I lay in bed, clutching my baseball bat, although at the moment I was perhaps too tired and upset to recall when I had done so.

When I awoke – partially, that is; I believe the phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis, and is quite dreadful – Saraya was on top of me, naked and covered in dark gore, moving rhythmically. I could neither speak nor move.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” she asked, blood or makeup or something else dripping from her face onto mine.

“Why did you make us if you’re incapable of loving us?” she asked, and leaned forward, her lips touching mine, and then her teeth biting into my tongue, blood geysering from my mouth as she clamped down onto my tongue and leaned back, extracting it from my body with a sickening squelching noise.

That broke the spell; I was able to move again, freed from the chains of the half-awake state in which I had been trapped. I thrashed pitifully in bed before I realized she had vanished. My hands found my mouth, perfectly intact. My wretched sobs were evidence enough that my tongue was still my own.

Nothing more needed to be done. Hands shaking, I packed a suitcase with some clothes and my laptop, let the idiot cat out for a final time, and drove to a hotel. There I slept, fitfully and interrupted by terrible nightmares. Before sunrise, though, I sent an email to Tom Breen, the author of the post about the processes by which fictional characters are made real.

“I need to speak with you about your essay,” I told him. “I need to know how to kill my characters.”

##

He proved to be an almost unimaginably offensive oaf. He answered my email promptly, larding his response with poorly-understood terms and ineptly rendered turns of phrase, claiming that he knew my work and was impressed that I was coming to “the correct and proper conclusions” about his own theories.

I wanted to meet him in person, which proved to be an irritating ordeal. To my surprise, when he gave me his phone number, he had a Hartford area code and local exchange; to my irritation, he told me he lived in “Orford Parish,” the fictional town I had created as the background for my horror tales.

“Manchester,” I said, correcting him, annoyed at his pretense.

“That’s in New Hampshire,” he responded.

“Fine,” I said. “Where would you like to meet in ‘Orford Parish’? Or should we make it Narnia? Perhaps we can rendezvous at Hogwarts.”

“Ha!” he brayed. “Let’s meet at King Donut on Green Road,” tediously using another term from my stories, this time in reference to the Queen of Doughnuts.

“Fine,” I said. “How will I know you?”

“I’ll be the pleasantly plump fella wearing a costume swami’s turban and working my way through a couple of sour cream doughnuts,” he said.

Noting this idiotic blather, we arranged to meet in a few hours, enough time for me to shower and do further Internet research on my predicament.

My creations had been busy, I learned; there were now YouTube video series devoted to “Sgt. Chris,” and the mushrooming lore of the Saraya Mythos had led to talks of a Hollywood film. There were now Wikipedia entries on the characters, who were identified as “popular exemplars of the creepypasta genre.”

Ross Calhoun, too, had sprung to awful life from the slim tale in which I made him; a digitally distorted clip of an old recording of the crooner Russ Columbo singing “Prisoner of Love,” paired with a montage of disturbing images, was being passed around the Internet as a Ross Calhoun song that would cause whoever heard it to die within five days if they failed to pass it on to five other people.

There had to be some way to reverse this, I thought. If I had written these awful people into life, surely I could write them into death. I took some solace from the fact that none of the characters who had died in my stories had yet to appear either in my life or in the world of creepypasta. That must hold the key to stopping them.

I arrived at the familiar location of the Queen of Doughnuts to find it had changed utterly.

It was the same address, the same spot on Green Road, but in place of the elegant, 1950s-era Space Age architecture, what greeted me was a shabby row of down-at-heel businesses: a laundromat, a karate studio, a convenience store, a “smoke shop.” In the middle, beneath a fading sign, was King Donut.

I sat in the car for long minutes. Perhaps, as you have maintained all along, I really was mad.

All that enabled me to finally go into this building that shouldn’t exist was the conviction that the man who could help me put all this right again was sitting inside.

I found him there, at the far corner of a long, curving counter, clad in a soiled New England Patriots sweatshirt, grotesquely fat, and wearing the preposterous Halloween headgear he had mentioned on the phone. The only other customers in the tiny space were three old men in hunting caps sitting in a row and drinking coffee out of paper cups. Behind the counter stood a middle-aged Dalit woman in sweatpants and gold chains, yammering in Tamil on a cordless telephone.

“Ahoy-hoy!” Breen called out to me. In front of him was a paper box of doughnuts, already half eaten. “At last, reader meets author.”

Unsure of myself, feeling sick as if in the early stages of flu, I moved past the suspicious looks of the three unwise men and sat on a stool next to Breen.

“Hello,” I said, unsure of how to begin.

“Couldn’t you have written us a better place to meet?” he said. He smiled pleasantly, but there was nothing behind it. I noticed the lenses of his glasses were greasy smears, and his face was pitted with acne scars. I abhorred him immediately.

“Very funny,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“You were probably expecting the Queen of Doughnuts,” he went on. “Couldn’t you have been more of a documentary realist writer? Creating your own half-assed Arkham was a beginner’s move. The whole place feels unsure of itself.”

“Listen,” I said, whatever patience remained in me now gone. “I have come to you seeking help for a problem that you seem to understand. If you are any kind of gentleman –“ and here he cut me off.

“Well, I'm not a gentleman,” he said, chortling. “But let me see if I can’t help you with your ‘problem.’ You wrote some stories that were posted online; other people took characters and elements from your stories, created their own works from them; and now those characters and elements ‘of yours’ have come back to you in less-than-strictly-pleasant form, correct?”

I nodded, waiting for him to go on, but all he did was shrug his stooped shoulders and twirl his fat fingers in a gesture that said, “What more do you want from me?”

“How did this happen? How can I stop it?” I asked, hissing, and was caught short to hear my answer not from Breen, but from the Dalit woman behind the counter, who spoke in an emotionless, unaccented voice.

“Your grief and your loneliness called out to the Little Gentlemen,” she said. “They were able to fashion from those materials the children you see before you.”

Before I could respond, one of the old men in hunting caps and flannel shirts spoke up.

“You are the womb through which a dark world groaned to be born,” he said.

“The Duc d’April took the rough things of yours and made them fine,” another said, in that same flat, unwavering voice.

“There is nothing more for you to do,” the third member of this absurd chorus said.

I turned to Breen, who wore that same simple, empty smile.

“The Duc d’April is one of the Little Gentlemen,” he offered.

Everyone in the dingy little restaurant looked at me. No one spoke. My brain struggled to grab hold of some firm piece of true information to counter the madness that was being poured onto me.

“The Little Gentlemen don’t exist,” I said, struggling to control myself. “I created them to serve as background characters for stories I wrote.”

Breen nodded sympathetically.

“I think you’ll find, sir, that it is you who do not exist. It’s no longer your story to tell. All of the people who’ve taken your ideas and your words – they’re the ones creating reality now. Do you really think you have some special ownership over any of this? Because you –“ and here, he sniggered, “’created’ it? This is one of the reasons why people find authors such dreadful company.”

I had heard enough.

“I don’t exist? I don’t exist, is that what you said, you fat greasy oaf? I am a professor of English – at a community college, fine! I am a former reporter for The Associated Press, the world’s largest news-gathering organization! I am a co-winner of a Polk Award! Don’t exist? I’ll show you who doesn’t exist!

“I can fix this. I can erase all of this – all of you – just by sitting down and writing. None of you will ever know the burden, the ecstasy, the terrible joy of creation, but I do. I am leaving. I am going. I am going to remove you – and all of these misbegotten minor characters – by the end of the afternoon. What’s that, sir? Am I upsetting you? Have I put you off your doughnut?”

I breathed, hard. Breen, still smiling like a bastard, took a luxurious bite of Boston crème.

“Is that right?” he asked. “So, tell me, if you’re the one writing all this, Mr. Author, do you even have a name?”

The question caught me off-guard, which is the sole reason I paused and seemed to stammer. Of course I have a name. Of course I do. I am not some nameless protagonist of a third-rate unpublished horror story! I have a name. But you – you seek it, do you? Oh no. I know the power that names have. I’ll keep that to myself. I know what names can do, and undo, to people.

At my refusal to answer this impudent query, the whole damned jury in that awful place laughed, a terrible, joyless sound.

I strode to the door.

“Hey,” one of the old men called out. “Could you maybe write me a 20-year-old blonde cocktail waitress as a wife?” an idiot remark that prompted more mirthless cackling.

God damn them!

##

The first night almost broke me. I drove on what were deceptively familiar streets, vainly seeking to return to my house. But with each turn, each bend in the road, each crest of a hill, I found myself in surroundings that were just new enough to send me off-course. I drove past new bus stops, and houses that should have been on the other side of town, and businesses that had been closed for years; I drove on roads I knew that now had names I didn’t know; I began passing landmarks from my stories, landmarks I know to be wholly fictional.

Worse, when I tried to double-back or retrace my route, I found everything changed – again, subtly – so that I was no longer sure if I had passed a particular intersection or building before, or if it was all new to me. I even thought to return to the King Donut (Queen of Doughnuts, god damn it), but found, to my increasing frustration, that I couldn’t seem to locate the busy thoroughfare of Green Road, with its famously crazy-quilt intersection.

When I saw signs for the Interstate, it was as if I spotted dry land after days on a life raft. Abandoning my plan to return home, I decided that what was needed was distance; I had to get away from this town, shaping and reshaping itself before my eyes. I had to get to places I had never used as locations in fiction, places where Saraya and Whitmer and Breen and the Little Gentlemen didn’t exist and couldn’t find me.

Boston: yes. Boston was real. Boston was substantial. Its streets and houses and landmarks were captured in a million photographs and films and television broadcasts. I would find shelter in Boston, and from there, I could finally sleep, and think, and plan. I found Interstate 84 easily, and began the journey east.

It should take roughly 90 minutes to get from Manchester to Boston. After two hours in light traffic, I began to wonder why I had not reached my destination. My thoughts, it was true, were distracting me from paying close attention to the route, but I had traveled to Boston a hundred – two hundred! – times before. I could do it blindfolded.

Ahead of me, a green signed beckoned. On top was the familiar red-white-and-blue crest of Mr. Eisenhower’s greatest gift to his nation. I-84 West, it said.

“Exit 13: Orford Parish,” the green sign read.

I glided down the exit ramp off the highway, quite capably, it seems to me now, for I was sobbing the whole time.

But that is over. Here in my hotel room – my credit card still functions quite well, you grinning sons of bitches – I sit, and there is no need for tears. Because at my disposal is the instrument of my salvation: my laptop computer, or rather the gleaming white Word document open at the center of it.

No, better: the incredible power which flows from my brain to my fingers and then onto the document; the promethean essence of the creator, unleashed in all its fearsome glory.

I have written myself a problem; fine. I shall write myself a solution.

None of you, with your Photoshop contests and your “fanfic” and your pathetic little dreams, can understand the sheer grandeur of the prospects upon which I gaze. I am Author! It is I who makes and unmakes the worlds! It is I who commands new generations to be born, and just as easily consigns them back to the dust again!

I will fix this. I will make it right again.

None of it is true. None of it. My father isn’t dead; I can bring him back easily, as easily as one of you fools falls out of bed in the morning. I never left journalism to endure the humiliations of life as a lecturer at a third-rate community college; there I am now, reporting from France on the massacre of cartoonists! And none of these things that happened to me has happened. It is all false. I alone am truth.

I can fix this. I can.

I will bring my father back, and I will restore my fortunes, and my god, I will kill them all. I will kill Whitmer and his mewling brat; I will kill Calhoun, who was never more than a cardboard standup at any rate; I will kill Porch Light, if I didn’t do that already on a night which did not happen in a house that does not exist; I will kill Breen and Bartlett and the three old men, and the Dalit woman; and I will save Saraya, my little Saraya, for last, because before I kill her I will inflict on her the most agonizing suffering a creation has ever endured from her Creator. The things I have planned for her! I’ll start with the eyes, those eyes will go first. But she’ll still be aware of everything that happens. My fingers tremble with nervous joy at the anticipation of the pain I’ll write into her.

It begins now. The Great Work. I am poised before the screen, my face bathed in its pure light. I will change everything. I will restore everything.

i am a writer

god

damn

you

all

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