Departments

Three Horror Stories

I.

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"Sounded like somebody down there calling for help."

"There's nobody down there. The dogs went through last week. They sealed the tunnels after that."

"Yeah, but this seal's not tight. The storm worked it loose. It was cold last night. Somebody could have slipped in."

"I don't hear a damn thing. It's just wind getting in somewhere. The seals are loose, like you said. If you want to keep your job, just get over there and press the damn button. We're running a day late already. We've got to get these tunnels filled in."

II.

"Did you find it, daddy?"

"Find what, little one?"

"Did you find the monster in the basement?"

"Of course. I was looking for the monster. There's no such thing as monsters, little one."

"But I saw it daddy, I know I did! Why are you standing out there, daddy? Come in here where I can see you."

III.

"Thanks for coming so quickly."

"No problem. Somebody told me you were, like, doing medical experiments or something for cash? So, I mean, what's that like?"

"Well. Pain, humiliation, sometimes I could hardly get out of bed for weeks, sometimes I thought I'd go crazy. A lot like the office, actually, except I didn't have to bend over for the boss."

"So how much did you make?"

"I went in for something off the books. Set me up for life."

"What'd they do you? I mean, you even kinda look different."

"Oh, nothing much. Did some funny things to my appetite."

"So where are we going? I'm hungry. We going out?"

"I just ordered in."

Nondefinition #24

Lighthouse. They built the lighthouse where no ships came. Later, they lied to their children—told them that the ships had come first. They chose not to think about how sometimes the spices from the ships needed names, the hides needed scaling, the dolls needed pruning. So they prospered in their lie, until a storm broke the lighthouse. Only its coiled iron stairs remained. The warehouses emptied, and still the ships did not come. So the old men told the young men, who had been children, how they had lied. Some fled; some stayed, and helped rebuild. The sea has long since moved away. In the tower, where once was a lamp, now are bells. But whether the god came first, or the bells, no worshiper now remembers.

Forests

Forests have personalities, different as their different attitudes toward human beings. I feel now the weary indifference of the Great Piney Woods; I remember well the young daring malevolence of the Pine Barrens. City Park of New Orleans (the largest live-oak grove in the world), like its city and people drives thick deep roots into unfaithful soil. I adduce these three as forests I know very well. I could talk of other forests, but I defer to those who know them better.

By personality I do not mean the mood that a forest induces. The personality of a forest is not an embodied or predictable quality, yet it can be correlated with the forest that has it—as the personality of a building can be correlated with its architecture, through plans cannot foretell it and architects cannot make it to order.

Trees make up a forest, and a forest conceals its trees; so a forest is constituted by concealment. And a forest conceals more than trees. The forest is full of things that jump and climb, squirrels and woodrats, and claws and teeth to hunt them. The forest provides for things which must hide at times: a hole for the bear's hibernation, noon twilight for the owl's delicate, instrumental eyes. We name forests for the kinds of trees which conceal them; we know forests by what they can (and what they have) concealed. Tall, straight firs that keep their needles about their trunks hide little, have little to hide, are friendly. (The TV studios of British Columbia should learn that there is no dread to be found in their forests.) All the forests of the American South are full of the memories of ambuscades and bushwackers. What could tell of the forests of Europe, better than that their field neighbors could believe whole covens to hold there unheard? That in imagination wolves moved their not in packs, but in armies? The Pine Barrens conceal ghost towns well, and what night visitors leave there better. And it is easy to believe the report of Goodman Brown (or Lovecraft) of the forests of New England.

Since a forest is known by its kind of secrets, it is not easy to get to know a forest. They are all very skilled in dissembling with pryers. They must be courted, with unconscious attention and curious patience. What is there by way of personality is not perceptible to all; but though it cannot be pointed to, yet it not fancy or sentiment. Secrecy is a kind of negative language; who keeps secrets speaks in silence. In this shadow of language forests speak, teaching by omission.

Nondefinition #23

These days. These days, in our culture, it is generally agreed that (in most cases) in our society, for us today, we can certainly say that, from a modern perspective—as studies have shown—everyone knows, as a matter of common sense—even the other side must see it by now—that anyone who has looked into the problem (and this is well-known) has grasped the obvious. It's a matter of record. Also note that polls have shown that most people, across all backgrounds, know very well (whatever they may say) that it's as plain as day. If you can believe that, what's next? I hate to be alarmist, but the sad fact is that, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, at this moment, facing a crisis (somebody has to say it) we need to understand what we're up against. The fact of the matter, and I hate to have to say this, is that what is comes down to, in our culture, is that in the end that's what we have to learn to live with in our society these days.

The Twentieth Century

[Not an essay.]

What was that? What just happened?

I appeal to the oldest and most common kind of understanding.

Let us imagine an idol, which shall be called the Twentieth Century. Let it be made of steel. Let it be vast, too vast to be seen all at once. Above all, let it have been built quickly—quickly, and unasked. It would be best if the dwellers wherever it was to be built, had no warning that it would or could be. They only woke one morning, and found it over them, and the sun rising behind it.

Let it have no face: no mouth to explain, no ears to heed, no nostrils to stink in, and no eyes to witness.

And let it have two hands: a hand of bright steel, and a hand of dull steel.

In the bright hand of the idol is a key. And all around the bright hand are the tokens of pilgrims who leave what the power of the idol has opened at their prayers: which are locks, fetters, chains, bars, doors, and gates.

In the dull hand of the idol—what is in the dull hand of the idol? For the dull hand of the idol is tight shut. Around the dull hand and closed fist are the tokens of penitents willing and unwilling: which are empty things (for the dull hand only takes): bottles, boxes, chairs, beds, shoes.

And let the worshipers of the idol tell stories of it.

Let them say how the idol came from afar. Everywhere, it came from afar. It came from afar with two hands. It came loudly, without fear and without shame, and it touched everything.

What it touched with its bright hand that holds a key, was opened. The bright hand opened the bonds older gods left as they fled before the steel god. The bright hand opened the cell of night; opened the house of sickness; opened the prison of birth; opened the pit of ignorance; opened the veil of lies.

What it touched with its dull hand that is closed, was taken away. It touched the cleanness of the height and the quiet of the deep; it touched the peace of the valley and the pride of the peak; it touched the hope of the beggar and the pity of the rich man. It touched the dreams of dreamers, and the pride of makers. And lastly it touched cities, and countries, and peoples.

Then it sat where it now sits, and touched only what was brought to it.

This god has two hands—a bright hand that opens and a dull hand that takes away; but this god, who is blind, deaf, and dumb, does not know which hand is which.

Of what shall become of the steel idol, stories do not agree. Some say that it is already dead; that it is already rusting within, and someday it will fall in on itself, and its shadow will no longer fall; that the power that draws pilgrims and penitents is but an ember in ash. Some say that it is resting; that someday it will rise to blunder and touch and end the world—but they do not agree whether it will end the world with the opening touch of its bright hand, or the taking touch of its dull hand. Some say that it has already sown the end of the world, and awaits a harvest. Some say that it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and restore all it has taken; and some say that it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and close all it has opened. Some say that it is lonely, and awaits another of its kind.

And some few even whisper that it shall not die: that beneath it, it is driving roots; that behind the stains on its steel skin, the vines are working.

Nondefinition #22

Shoehorns. A small strip of metal used to force feet into too-small shoes. Here is a device whose near-ubiquity tells you something basic and easy to overlook about the past. Look at old pictures and the looks on people's faces and think: shoehorns. Look at old news and the things people said and did and voted for and think: shoehorns. The next time something about the 20th century perplexes you, ask yourself: if I had to start every day of my life by levering my feet into stiff, hard-soled shoes, might I be as crazy?

Literature

Stevenson, somewhere, warns an aspiring writer to consider the insignificance of literature—particularly how little the world would change, had Shakespeare never lived. But this is preposterous. Certainly, I can name no great historical force that Shakespeare impelled or deflected. If you can be convinced that history is a script, a set of roles to be filled—then you must admit Stevenson's doubt.

But if any individual can have an effect on history—however subtle—then Shakespeare's influence is inescapable. For if we knock out Shakespeare, then, five centuries later, we have a different human race. Restore the life of every soldier whom Harry's speech inspired to heroism; take back every life the soldier saved. Take back the child of every pair of lovers brought together when the love suicides at Verona made a young man seek his Juliet, a young lady her Romeo. Take back every life that stayed to make the choice to be or not to be.

Go on with the rest of literature. All those soldiers of Greece who fell to fall like Achilles, all those poets who died to die like Werther; all who wandering like Kerouac found strange mothers for their children; even whom a shared fandom offered friendship and friendship became love. Go back to the beginning, back to folk tales and fireside legends; repeal poetry altogether and see how each woman's love, with no better occasion than strength or success, breeds brutal children whose loves and lives are yet more brutal, and so on all the way down.

That literature occupies mostly idle time does not make choice in literature vain choice: we get only measures of time, and whatever changes how we use any of that time, changes what we leave. Our work is in and for the present, and the present's always delusive future. The true future grows in our leisure.

This is literature's unique power, which other arts only employ. It is not the player that they fall for, but the literary characters Music, and the Musician; not the flag that they die for, but the Flag, the Nation, that someone once defined in telling.

If we could know the minds that went with the names, we would see that genealogy is a transcription of literature; and that the human race we know has not merely happened, but has bred itself by a prolonged act of literary criticism.

Nondefinition #21

Acronyms. Once: a proud technical civilization with an awkwardly written language, which solved the problem by resort to acronyms and abbreviations. Near the end, did some sage warn how many the acronyms had become? How they were combining to breed new acronyms? Even as they prepared for their greatest triumph, their language had become utterly confused. None were found now who knew all the acronyms of another. They scattered abroad, forming peoples who shared just enough acronyms to begin to form a basic common vocabulary. Abandoned and untended, Atlantis fell. Some of these groups are known to us: Proto-Indo-Europeans, for example, or Hamito-Semites, or Sino-Tibetans.

Fable of the Mayor

The island was no island: it had been a hill in the park before the flood. Now it was so small and brambly that the man there could not even pace. He loosened his tie and stared over the floating wreckage, searching for a boat or a helicopter. Surely someone was coming. He had picked this spot as the safest in the city on the very day he vetoed the appropriation for a new floodwall.

He was free, now. All the evidence was gone: no paper trail for the prosecutor, no assets in his name for his wife's lawyers to seize. He was like Noah on Ararat: when he came down from the mountain, all his problems would be gone.

He leaned back against the tangled branches, dry and creaking, thick and restful as a cradle here. He lit a cigarette, dragged, and threw the match onto the water. It landed with a hiss.

There was perhaps just enough time, before pain erased all thought, for him to notice that one of the things which had risen from the drowned city to float around his little island, was an oil slick.

Moral: A betrayer can never relax.

Nondefinition #20

Ball bearings. What is the power in perfection? A perfect day, not much better than a good day, justifies a life; a perfect face, not much better than a good face, launches 1000 ships; and a perfect little metal sphere, not much rounder than a toy marble, allows us to remake the world. If we can but learn to make a perfect sphere of hydrogen, rounder than round by an invisible increment, we can have our power from tame stars. Sometimes striving for perfection is foolish, the enemy of the good; but perfection itself should not be despised—when the key fits, doors open.