So awhile ago, I wrote this story for an anthology that had one of those open calls that you hear about, but never seem to quite work out. I don’t get it. I mean, they wanted stories about the Apocalypse, and boy is this one ever.
I know. They wanted some good ‘ol misery-wallowing, which is something I don’t do very well.
This may not stay up forever, so read it while it’s here.
THE BLACK MASS VARIATIONS
by Matt Maxwell
The world was perfectly deteriorated, every streak of weathering and wear placed with deliberation and thought. Stacks of emergency supplies were still wrapped in shiny plastic, red block lettering only half-visible underneath. Ross thought it was bags of rice and beans and maybe some clean water. It was stuff that someone else wanted, but they weren’t going to get. Not this time.
He cranked the safety off of the Armalite AR-15 and sighted along the scope. It wasn’t the best scope that he could get, but it would have to do. Not like he had a lot to choose from now. But at least he was going to keep all this food. He just had to hold these guys off a little bit longer. They didn’t have the guts for a sustained attack.
The sun was bright, too bright, the whole place feeling overexposed and washed out. Dust blew through the street leading up to the Chevroco station, and he was up on the roof now. The supplies were in plain sight below.
Yeah, not so funny picking on me anymore, is it?
Ross sighted and saw someone through the glass. Tall, skinny, digi-cammo fatigues, but they weren’t Army. They just dressed like it to throw people off. To throw him off.
He imagined they were all Kevin.
He breathed out and readied. The AR wasn’t made to snipe with, but you had to work with what you got in this world now. The dust swept up off the asphalt like the start of a fire and the guy was now in front of a sign that proclaimed LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT AND SKINNED in sloppy black strokes.
Three bullets went out in the burst, but the first one had done its job. The skinny guy tumbled backwards against the sign. Nobody was taking Ross’ stuff today. And nobody was telling him what to do today. Not for a long time. And why the hell not?
Three more minutes…
He allowed himself a breath and wiped the sweat from the brow. This was the worst part. When he was short, when everything he’d won was on the line and could be taken away at any second. But it was also the most thrilling. There was something to lose now.
His heart raced and he settled back into place. There were a couple more out there. He’d heard them before, but they were silent now.
The screen abruptly dimmed gray and a message reading HOST MIGRATION — WAITING ON NEW HOST.
“The hell?” Ross muttered. “Third time this match.”
He didn’t look away from the screen. He knew it was still going to be gray and overcast outside. Just like it had been since he got home.
Since the Scream. Since three days ago. That was how long it took for everything to go away.
Ross Ayers was a skinny fat kid with the dreaded spider-like abdomen and brittle legs that had made every day at gym class a nightmare. His eyes were dark and piercing under a unruly shag of mostly blonde hair usually featuring several gouts of a bright other color that lasted as long as the spray tint would, usually only days. There was an echo of blue in it now, sticking around for more days than it should have since he hadn’t bathed in several. Nobody was around to tell him he had to.
Nobody was around to tell him to pick his shit up, or that he couldn’t eat hot pockets whenever he wanted to. He hadn’t flushed the toilet in his parent’s room, okay, his mother’s room, in a couple days. The smell was pretty awful by now. And when his mom came home, he was probably going to catch hell for it, but fuck her for not being around for the end of the world, right?
And to hell with dad for not being around for months before that. Really years, he hadn’t been around mentally in years. Just that his body decided to catch up with his brain and check out. If his own dad couldn’t be bothered to show up for his son’s life then he was welcome to that overflowing toilet bowl.
Ross remembered walking home from school and trying to avoid Kevin Long at the schoolyard. Kevin was one of those big, Neanderthal-skulled kids who had matured early and thought the world owed him everything because of it. The planes of his jaw and brow were all wrong, too big, too strong, like he could just eat anyone who got in his way. And Ross had gotten in his way just by living.
School had let out and he had made for the entrance and out into the neighborhood, in a rush to avoid Kevin when he heard it. Not so much heard as felt it. A hum, like when he’d turned up the Deadmau5 too loud on his dad’s precious car stereo and everything in his insides was pulsing to the insistent bass beat, filled his entire body. Only it wasn’t pulsing. It was a long drone that made his bones feel like jelly and his brain spin around in his skull. It took all his strength not to piss his pants right then and there.
The sound continued like a low and rumbling line of storms in his spine, bringing him to his knees and letting them soak in the rain-drenched grass. Ross breathed through gritted teeth, hissing and spitting. The sound rang through him and lit his every nerve, making them hum and sing.
When he came to, his heart raced and he shook from adrenalin. Then Ross heard the screaming coming from the school. The whole concrete building rang with it. All of the voices blended together into something else, unearthly and wrong, bent and backwards, not a sound that could have come from humans or humanity.
Someone came out, bleeding from his nose and ears. His mouth was ringed in blackish reddish liquid like makeup put on all wrong or corpse paint made up during a seizure. Ross recognized him as Chris Dunn, another outcast who was obsessed with the anime GREEN DREAMS UNDONE and drew pictures of Nomi every period instead of taking notes.
Chris tumbled down the stairs and someone followed him out the doorway, hunched over and drooling blood. It was Kevin. His arms were muscled and his fingers all curled around imaginary necks or bones or something. Kevin was worked up, jumping around like a gorilla. He took the last five steps in a leap and then jumped onto the prone and begging form of Chris Dunn.
Then Ross realized that Kevin wasn’t drooling blood from the inside, but from one of the bites that he’d laid onto Chris. And he put down another one, right on the soft spot at the base of the other boy’s neck. He was mouthing something, Ross figured it was “Nomi” and then he started running.
The screams from the school didn’t stop. Ross heard them. He heard Chris’ scream over it all and the sound of the school faded to a copy of the droning hum that had pulsed through him.
Ross dodged a couple of cars on the road who were being driven by people who’d forgotten how to drive. One of them was clawing at the windshield from the inside and Ross stopped to laugh at it for a second, until he realized that she were foaming at the mouth and this wasn’t an act. He left the woman behind the wheel of her white Kia and her eyes rolled around while she palmed the glass. The Scream was ringing in the air, distant now, coming from everywhere, punctuated by irregular crunches of metal against metal and the insistent whine of car alarms.
Ross ran home and locked the door behind him, imagining that Kevin Long was two steps following, teeth bared and lips red with blood that wasn’t his own. Suddenly gym class didn’t seem so bad anymore. That was just embarrassment and maybe a bruise or two, anti-bullying campaign or not. This was…Kevin had been chewing on Chris.
He waited for his heart to stop. His eyes wandered around the room for something to center on. A small scrap of yellow paper caught him, stuck to the hallway table that always caught Ross’ hip when he was cutting across the corner in a hurry. Another note from his mom. She was going to be “really” late tonight. Now there was a joke.
So something happened and there’s no mom, no dad. And from the sounds of the things happening outside, maybe a lot of people had no moms or dads. Ross couldn’t hear screams or crashes, nothing so distinct as that. Everything that was happening outside the window was blending together into a long, low hum that sometimes fluttered into dim recognition, but was tuneless, sourceless.
He made sure the blinds were closed and the door well locked. And then he turned on the television to see if anyone else knew anything. There was no sound coming out of the television. Instead, there was a static shot of what appeared to be an empty news set. The angle was off just a little, enough to see that some papers had been scattered on the news desk, but nothing else. The set was abandoned. The little inset image behind the anchors showed uneven static. Ross tried to think of where the broadcast was based out of.
The camera moved, like someone walking past had bumped it. The screen lurched for a second and then focused on a guy in a suit, his back to the camera. The scene adjusted for the light outside of the set and Ross saw him making motions like Kevin had while sitting astride Chris. As if aware, the guy turned back to the camera. His eyes were gone, tears of blackened and reddened fluid trailing down from where they had been. Ross flicked the channel away before he could see any more.
He tried to think about what it was that could make so many people go this crazy this fast. Ross picked out another news channel, two stations up. There was an actual human in front of the camera, relatively intact. The African-American newsreader looked shocked and stunned, but was otherwise okay. Ross listened closely.
“Reports indicate that some sort of event has taken place somewhere along the west coast, just moments ago.” Her eyes were wide and uncomprehending, bright and open. “We have conflicting information about exactly what is going on. Witnesses are hard to come by and calls to our San Francisco bureau can’t get through. Los Angeles is responding but…not making sense.”
The screen behind her changed to a view of a city. San Francisco. He could see the Transamerica building and the Golden Gate far behind it. The city was on fire, smoke from uncounted sources streaming up into the sky.
Ross stared at the screen for a long time, no longer listening to her voice. The image moved just a little, like those cinema-still .gifs, only it never quite repeated. It was sunny in San Francisco, but the smoke would blot all that out soon enough.
The news station was somewhere back east, so whatever was hadn’t happened there. That was some reassurance, that things were okay over a thousand miles away. It was stupid, he knew.
“The President will be making a statement as soon as we have some solid information on this. Our sources at the White House indicate that he’s being briefed and will be speaking at 7pm Eastern time.”
That was three hours from now. Maybe a touch more.
Ross warmed up a hot pocket and sat in front of the television. He remembered his mom talking about 911 like this, where they were afraid to go out and afraid of what they were seeing on the television. He thought that was stupid, but didn’t think so now, zoning out and waiting for an authority.
The President never spoke. Or if he did, Ross never saw it. The last thing that made sense was the statement that “Chicago has gone black” and then minutes after that, the same hum that had washed over him after school came through the television, through every microphone at the television studio and people fell over all at once. Even reduced and compressed through the television signal, it made Ross’ spine shake and his skull quiver. He found himself with fingernails dug into his thighs when it was over.
The newswoman was sitting back in her chair, eyes rolling around like spinning marbles and tongue protruding between lips turning purple. Whatever happened here was happening everywhere, just delayed, like the sound had to travel from place to place before it could do whatever it was doing. He suddenly found himself trying to figure out the rules of the thing, what it was doing, how it was happening. If he could figure out that, then he was better and bigger than it was. Just like the genius who figured out that you shot zombies in the head and they went down like a sack of potatoes.
The sun was going down outside. The buzz and howl of activity was still going almost like crickets before sundown. Ross peeked through the window to the neighborhood itself. The streetlights had flicked on, as well as the automatic address lights on all the houses, but nobody was turning on interior lights. Some houses had the blue twitch of televisions on, but only some. He couldn’t see anyone walking the streets outside.
And maybe mom would come home after all. He wasn’t sure what to think about that. He didn’t see any cars moving on the roads. No flashing lights, either, no emergency response only distant yellow blobs of firelight in the coming fog.
He turned off the downstairs television and went to his room. Once there, he took his laptop and set up in the closet. He’d already cleared out a space there with a blanket and pillows and power. Ross would close the door of the closet once inside and lay the blanket down along the door runners so that light wouldn’t leak out and alert his mom that he was up playing when he should be sleeping. If there was anyone out there tonight, he figured that acting like another house where there was nobody home would at least make him blend in enough to keep him safe.
The internet wasn’t much better than television. He tried to tease out the geography of places by which ones were still feeding out new information and which ones weren’t. Facebook was a shitstorm, whoever was left was frantically sending out updates or just asking what’s happening over and over with so much punctuation that you’d think they had epilepsy. Then there were the folks who seemed to be just randomly pressing keys in long strings of nonsense. Sometimes a lot, over and over.
Wedged in-between all that, there were the people who were writing out words, but they didn’t make much sense. His aunt from New Brunswick was sharing posts that said stuff like HE IS COME and NOT THE END BUT THE BEGINNING and those unsettled Ross even more than the nonsense, that someone was happy about what had happened and welcomed it. An update from someone from Las Cruces who looked like he’d covered his face in his own feces and glared into the camera like he wanted to eat it.
Anyone from Europe or anywhere else was confused and scared. The wave would hit by morning or before. Ross wondered where it would hit last.
Ross closed the laptop then looked out the blinds. There were two figures below, circling each other and maybe saying something, but there wasn’t any sound above the constant low him. Ross wanted to call out to them, thinking that maybe they were okay and not crazy. But then he realized that anyone who was okay, would not be out and certainly not after dark. Instead he was silent and watched as they went at each other, the winner pulling the head off the loser, taking some minutes to do that after hacking at it with the flash of a utility knife under the streetlight.
That night he fell asleep in the closet, using the laptop opened to a blank document as a night-light. He hadn’t needed a night-light since he had been five, but tonight was different.
The next morning, he found a camera still focused on the Presidential podium of some meeting room somewhere. The blue curtains behind it were stained waist-high in blood and other fluids and they rippled ominously, like someone twitchy was hiding behind them. Maybe it was the President. Ross had to content himself with never knowing.
The only channel that wasn’t static was someone hiding in one of those mobile news vans. It looked like someone who’d never been meant to be on camera, fat and sweaty and unshaven. He reminded Ross of the guy who worked behind the counter at Gamestop and always told him and his friends to get the hell out and stop fingering the M games.
“I don’t know if anyone’s listening, but I’m outside Fairfield still. Busted an axle on the 80, using gas to keep the generator going for as long as I can. They’re outside, a whole pack of them.”
He reached to tilt the camera past him and the banks of electronics. There was a flurry of red-stained hands flat against the glass, hammering against it like a school of drunken fish. The man tilted the camera back and he looked tired, like even the energy for fear was out of his reach and would be forever.
“I’d sure like some help, but I know I’m not going to get it. So let’s get to the main event,” he said with an empty cackle. “Something special I’ve found.” He flicked a switch and it snapped audibly.
The image changed to a small town in the foreground, far away from the camera, all humble low buildings with cars tangled together in the streets. And bodies. Too many of them to count. Squatting over the hills was something. It looked like the skyscrapers of a city, but they were made from rot. Swirling around it was howling wind and the low hum of the Scream that had started it all.
The whole mass looked like it was moving slowly. And it was tall, so very tall. It was taller than anything any man had made, even so far in the distance. Miles tall. Clouds tall. Ross stared at it and he wanted to scream but instead bit his lip until he bled.
“If you know what this is,” the man in the van said, “Then you might be the master of the new world. That’s the view from Atwater, California. That’s where it started and there ain’t a person who can tell me different.”
The tower closest to the camera bent slowly upon itself. It was like watching a forest made of fungus dance. Ross wanted to believe it was fake, that somehow this guy had spent the end of the world convincing someone that it was even worse than they feared, worse than people attacking each other because some sound melted their brains and it was everywhere. But that didn’t make any sense.
“I can see it plain as day and I bet you can, too. Got a text saying there’s people walking to it like drunks on a Sunday.” The man tapped out a ragged rhythm with bitten nails. “I’d go there myself if I thought I could make it two steps.”
The view shifted over to the spittle and blood streaked windshield of the news van, tilted at a funny angle. The faces were like the faces of cavemen in books, all emotion and bestiality carved out of barely-human features. The activity inside made them more frantic, beating against the window in a hailstorm of broken beats. The camera went blurry for a second while the guy thrust his hand with the bird flipped up high right in front of it. Then it focused on his hand and the suggestion of motion in the background.
Ross figured it wouldn’t get any better than that and switched the channel. A bunch of them were blue-screened, like all of society had just hit a fatal error and nobody was there to kick the works back on. He paused on one of the local stations, cable access. There was a man sitting there in front of a chalkboard and written on it was the phrase HE IS COME, written so big that it almost couldn’t fit in the frame. The man was wild-haired and he stood to one side, just nodding in approval at the image.
One of the weather stations showed a close-up of the western US, and it looked like there was a giant storm or something squatting over the central part of California. It was black like ink swirled into a jar of water, but not spreading out, just chaotic and strange at the edges. He knew that right underneath it would be the town of Atwater and whatever those titanic fungus growths were. He’d put things together. Just like he’d thought up that it was all a giant sound wave and it had started there and the wave was more than sound, but something that ate up brains and shit out monstrosities. He watched the storm expand and contract in place like a jellyfish or octopus. Breathing.
Ross sat there like a machine until the channels began to blink out of usefulness, or he’d seen all their insanity already. That kept him until about noon, not even twenty-four hours for things to fall into silent nonsense. He never saw the guy in the news van again.
Maybe the survivors were being smart like him and not advertising that they were whole and alive. Maybe there was a whole group, an army unit and they had food and water and were taking in survivors and maybe his mom was there with them and at least she was safe and wouldn’t be too worried about him. He’d be okay here.
There was the sound of a scream overhead. It must have been building for some time, but he’d just missed it. Now it was too loud to ignore and he ran to the window to see what it was. The sun was blotted out for a moment as the jetliner passed overhead, seemingly just a few feet over the rooftops of the neighborhood. It roared past the house, loud enough to shake it and rattle the discarded cell phone along the hallway where it had been left open and whispering.
The sound passed as the 747 kept going, crazy low. Ross watched the jet trail recede and wonder if it was headed to Atwater. He thought about going himself. The guy in the camera van seemed frazzled, but not crazy. Not over the edge.
As the plane went off to the south-southeast, pulling up to avoid the foothills, Ross heard the rush of footsteps following behind. He raced upstairs to get a better view and saw a ragged group of runners, wild and blank-eyed, clothes torn and bleeding from crashing through whatever was left outside now. They were following the plane, scrambling at human top speed, stumbling and pulling themselves up, scraped and bleeding, but not stopping.
Ross huddled down and watched as they kept going, drawn by something, some force, some attraction that made them frantic and unthinking. Like zombies mindlessly chasing a car down a road, he guessed.
As the runners went past, the hum slowly returned to fill out the silence. The plane’s over-flight was barely even a whisper now. He wondered how long they could keep going like that. Ross himself could barely run a lap without wanting to die. He wouldn’t last ten minutes out there.
Then had he started playing some SPECTRE, figuring that he could at least practice against drones and work on his skills. Out of curiosity, he checked the matchmaking function. The globe spun up in the background and clusters of little green dots lit up sporadically across representations of the US and almost nowhere else. A dot here and there. Iceland, or was it Greenland. A couple of lonely dots in the UK. He was almost afraid to see who was still playing, and if they were anything like the Facebook posters or burnouts on the television. Or maybe they were like him.
Ross rolled the dice and stepped into the lobby and tried a game or two. The power was still on and the servers were still up. This might not be a situation that would last. He waited for the desert holdout level to load.
That was three days past. He’d paused for bathroom breaks always in his parent’s toilet because that felt like breaking the rules, and hot pockets, of which there were still plenty in the freezer. Ross thought about eating the food that might go bad in the refrigerator, but those were all fruit and vegetables and stuff that his mom bought in a hopeless effort to get him to eat something she wanted him to.
Then the servers went offline. It wasn’t long after that the first flickers hit the electrical grid. The sun was still out so it was hard to notice, but for the screen going black. Subtracting the hum of all the appliances in the house, the background noise of the new world grew a little louder.
During the daylight, Ross had taken to watching out the upstairs windows, one hand shifting the plastic blinds and making them scuttle like snake scales.
The neighborhood was quiet and always damp. He hadn’t seen the sun itself since the Scream. The sky was a solid and bleak grey, dome of clouds that only showed bands of white between them on occasion. Green patches of lawn were beginning to look overgrown now, otherwise the place looked like it had on any other day that Ross had skipped school. For all he actually knew, each house was occupied and everyone was just keeping to themselves. He wanted something to happen, something like the jet and the crazies chasing it, just to break the monotony. Even the background hum had begun to trail off.
He’d finally learned how to sleep at night, figuring that if anything was going to happen, it would be then. He’d been trained to expect that with a lifetime of movies and videogames. The bad stuff always came out at night when the lighting could be dramatic and fear was at its highest. But after a few nights without power, Ross had calmed himself. Last night he’d even fallen asleep in his own bed, outside of the hidey hole he’d made up in the closet.
The morning was bleached white, diffuse sunlight almost burning through the clouds today. A litter of wrappers, hot pockets and crackers and other dry and empty snacks, littered the floor. It had begun to feel like a nest and the smell from the toilet down the hall was sticking around like an unwanted guest. He figured it was safe to crack a window or two on the top floor to air the place out.
Ross took a deep breath and dashed into the master bathroom, standing on the toilet so he could reach the sliding window above. The smell hadn’t mellowed at all, much to his disgust and there probably wasn’t water to flush it anymore. He pushed against the window but it wouldn’t budge. Both hands up, he tried again. It began to move, and he went harder at it. As the frosted glass slid in its track, he got a look into the side yard next door. Someone was there, tapping at one of the windows. Whoever they were, they wore a black raincoat and their short hair was unkempt.
In putting all his weight into the window, his center of gravity shifted too far. He fell off the toilet and thumped hard to the linoleum floor. Maybe he’d seen the person below respond to the noise, looking up in his direction, but he couldn’t know where he was.
He lay there for a long time, trying to be silent. His mind raced, having been unoccupied for so long. This wasn’t a crazy. They grouped up. This was someone who could think, and they looked pretty rough. And they heard him and they were going to figure out where he was and that he was alone and easy prey.
Ross strained himself to listen and heard nothing other than the steady drip of moisture off the roof. He pushed himself up, shaking the whole time from the exertion, laughing for a second that he wouldn’t have to do those thirty push-ups for Mr. Lowell after all. Then he climbed onto the toilet and peered down and out into the side yard.
The figure down there, definitely female, dirty and on the ratty side of a shambles, was looking right up at him. Ross dashed his head back quick enough to catch himself up on the wall behind him. Stars swam in his eyes and he swore he heard someone calling for him, not by name. He must have hit his head pretty hard, dull ache kneading the right side of his skull.
Then he heard it again. It wasn’t the headache at all.
“Hey kid,” came the voice from the yard. A woman’s voice, harsh and smoked out.
Ross decided to wait him out, hugging himself and wishing that he had an AR.
“Hey kid. Come out,” the voice said. “You’re not one of the freaks, are you?”
And then Ross wasn’t alone in this world anymore.
Trina had told him that it wasn’t safe to be there anymore, that a big pack of crazies who’d left San Francisco were on there way through here, and they were finally figuring out that they should be hungry a week or more after the world ended. She was moving along in advance of the pack and after she’d talked about them, Ross swore that he could hear something, a drone of voices and chants that didn’t sound either near or far away.
She had been a bartender in Solano, one of those places that served the guards from the nearby prison. Some had been in drinking early when the Scream happened and they went just as crazy as just about everyone else. It was like they’d forgotten how to be human or use guns or clubs, Trina told him. She’d only gotten away because she learned how to fight dirty and the crazies were acting like they couldn’t fight at all, just being spastic and going after anyone who didn’t look like they were crazy. It was like they could see who the Scream got and who it passed by.
Her eyes told Ross that she wasn’t lying about this. She’d been thinking about it, only she had a lot more experience than Ross had had. Trina was back here because her sister lived with the guy next door and Trina’s car had given out pretty close to here.
Neither of them knew what had happened, but Atwater was news to Trina, and she figured that would be pretty much where the crazies on the move were going. They were being called there. Whatever had come, whatever had grown up there, it was calling everyone home, declaring its ownership of the new world.
“Better eat up this stuff before it goes rotten,” she said.
“Figure there’s a grocery store in walking distance. Get stuff there.”
“Your precious hot pockets are gonna thaw and go bad too,” she told him with a scowl. She pointed at the empty boxes on the counter. “Besides, you weren’t gonna leave this house at all, were you?” she asked him with a sour glance, just like his mom would have when talking about his fucked-up grades.
He looked away at that, suddenly ashamed that he’d had to answer for how he spent the end of the world.
“So what are you going to do?” he asked her. “I mean, if they’re coming this way.”
She tore another big bite and swallowed before answering. “I’m going to see if there’s beer in that refrigerator and then I’m going to find a place to hole up in and let all this crap pass.”
“My mom only likes Bud Light,” Ross answered.
“Your mom has shit taste,” she said.
He waited a moment before he added “Maybe we should, y’know, go check it out.”
“What, Atwater? You want to see it?”
“Well, don’t you? I mean, that’s what started it all, right? That’s why the world is what it is now.”
“Ross, I saw guys in business suits and cops trying to claw each other to death over who was the truest believer. You ever hear them talk? They talk, you know.”
Ross shook his head because he hadn’t.
“They’re out there killing non-believers and when there’s no non-believers, they are tearing each other’s throats over who serves Him best. They say that, but it’s like a capital H Him.” She teared up for a moment and swiped at her eye savagely, filled with a burning resentment.
“Maybe they’ll all kill themselves before they get there. The closer they get the more they’ll freak out,” he offered. “I mean, you and I haven’t had our brains melted by this.”
Trina looked out the window of the kitchen into the grey and drizzle that was solidifying again now that it was past noon. “You’re probably crazy too.”
“You’re the only one who can say so,” Ross answered with something like authority.
She thought about what he said. “As long as I don’t have to take your teeth out of my throat, I don’t care about crazy.”
“I’m going to go. I pulled out an old map and Atwater isn’t even a hundred miles from here.”
“Hah!” she laughed. “You’re a week in, holed up in your mommy’s house and it smells like shit upstairs. You’d have left if you were going to.”
“Maybe I was thinking it before you showed up.” Ross was lying a little, but he’d lied a little plenty of times and got away with it.
“Bet there’s still cars on the roads that work. Crazy got no use for a car and it doesn’t take much gas to make a hundred miles.”
She looked like she had been thinking the same thing but didn’t want to admit it. “Only if there’s gas left to get somewhere else after.”
The secret was that Ross didn’t want to go anywhere else after that. He’d seen just a little of the Black Mass, the name that he’d secretly given the thing outside Atwater. He wanted to go there and understand it, fight it, deactivate it and make the world like it used to be. The crazy people would stop being crazy and his mom would be safe with that National Guard platoon and things would be okay. Things would be okay. That was the other secret. That he was holding onto this hope that had no basis in reality. Everything had been drowned out in the Scream and here Ross was, in his heart of hearts wanting an endless supply of hot pockets and to play SPECTRE and talk about anime with Chris once more even though Ross really didn’t like anime all that much. He just wanted things to be a way that he understood.
And he wouldn’t have that unless he understood the fungal towers that had sprouted up out of the earth a hundred miles to the southeast. He didn’t know what Trina wanted and to some degree didn’t care so long as she helped him out. But whatever she really wanted meant that she needed him along, so she agreed.
The strip mall at the bottom of the hill right by the highway didn’t look any different. At least from a distance. There were still cars in the parking lot, only a couple of them with the doors hanging open. Leaves from the turning trees had dropped and scattered like thousands of dirty footprints on the tops of cars and between them. They’d taken some of the fruit that was still good and cooked up the last of the thawing meat from Ross’ house. They hoped to pull out a car from the lot here and maybe some other non-perishables from the grocery store.
They saw the first of the bodies covered in a slick of leaves and organic debris, between a pickup truck and someone’s Prius that looked like it had been used as a dumping ground for meat bones and other stuff looted. Ross thought at first that the smell was the meat from the store, but then he realized that it was a stinking corpse, the first he’d seen in person.
The corpse was face-up, and he looked like he was pleading once Trina scraped the leaves and bones and other grime off with the sole of her boot. She made a noise of disgust, realizing that his eyesockets were empty and had filled up with the perpetual drip from the sky.
Ross stared and wanted to retch but couldn’t. It was Kevin Long’s face, most of it, that was under the leaves. And in his death he looked like a sad little child, lost in the crowd at the mall and looking to any adult like he might be their mom or dad. The only thing that threw it off was the beard of someone else’s blood that had stained deep on the skin below his nose.
“You look sick. Did you know him?” Trina asked.
“Yeah, he. We were at the same school together.” Ross took a long time to say it.
Ross wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to be, that Kevin Long made school hell and enjoyed doing it, but most of all he didn’t want to say that he was happy that Kevin was dead, that he wanted to say ‘good’ over and over and take a leak on the body. But that he was sad at another part of the world being dead and gone and most of all he was scared that whatever did it to Kevin would do it to the both of them.
“We should go,” Ross said, but he didn’t say why. It was still early in the morning, sun up and coming into the front of the store. There was still time.
Trina looked in cars to see if the keys were still in the ignition. There were a couple like that, but the batteries were well and dead or the engines had been left running idle and the gas had just gone out. She filed along a row of cars, searching.
Ross found the body just outside the store. It was a teenage kid wearing an employee’s uniform; Ross had seen him a hundred times before. There were keys in his hand, among them one of those oversized electronic fobs that opened the car automatically. It said DODGE near where it met the key ring.
Ross reached out at it, looking around and trying to keep Trina in eyeshot. She was checking out another car, but he wanted to make this find himself, show he was useful, because he sure as hell felt like he wasn’t. She’d walked how many miles and dodged crazies while he had just holed up like a creep. Ross looked at the pale and locked fingers, all wet. He knew that when he pulled on the key, the guy was going to get up and hiss at him or spout blood out of his mouth or something.
Ross stilled his hand and lashed out, grabbing the keys which were colder than anything he’d ever touched before. He felt a little of the guy’s skin and almost let go but didn’t. The skin was just as cold, and hard now. He pulled, but the fingers wouldn’t budge. They’d stiffened in place, so Ross braced and pulled again. Hard this time, harder than budging that window or as hard as he’d thrown the whispering cell phone into the hall. As hard as he wanted to hit Kevin.
The keys didn’t come free, but the guy did, or at least his upper half. Ross hadn’t seen under the mess of leaves that a bunch of him had been ripped away, beneath the ribcage and to the tops of his thighs. The top half of the teenage clerk broke loose and skidded across the wet parking lot. Ross fell backwards and the torso climbed on top of him like it was alive and pinning him down.
Ross screamed for the first time since the world ended. His throat hurt from the sound, which was much higher and shrill than he’d expected. He freaked out, whipping his hands back and forth and pushing the body off with his hands and legs, limbs flailing. It made a slick, sliding noise as it rolled to one side, on its back now. The blue eyes stared right into the entranceway of the store, like it was watching for something coming.
Trina rushed over, panic pulling at her features until she figured out what had happened. She looked at Ross and took in his fear before she responded. There was an instant where Ross was sure she was going to laugh at him and he didn’t think he could take that. Instead she pulled him up with one hand, then waved the leaves and crap off.
“You okay?” She looked like Ross wasn’t the first guy she’d had to dust off.
Ross nodded, too raw from the scream to speak just then. He pointed at the keys in the guy’s hand.
Instead of pulling the keys from the hand, she bent the fingers away, grunting as she reshaped each one. On the third, the keys clattered away to the parking lot.
She picked it up and admired it. “Hope it’s not a Dart,” she muttered. “Good find, Ross.” Trina clicked it and a muscular-looking red car blinked its lights from under a coating of wet leaves.
“Challenger,” she said admiringly. “Niiiiiice.”
They loaded their stuff in the trunk of the car, deep enough to fit a whole family into. Then they picked their way through the store. Shelves were randomly stripped, displays upended, produce mashed into thin and stinking paste. It looked like a whole monkey house had been given PCP and told to go have a party, right down to the random piles of shit. The bones stripped of all meat were an unwelcome touch.
“Ain’t a one of those that came from the meat counter,” Trina muttered.
They grabbed some cans of nuts and bottled water that had been left more or less intact, stepping carefully over the litter left behind. Both of them stopped when they heard something rattling at the back of the store, like someone bowling into towers of beer bottles with a frozen turkey, cold, sliding and brittle.
Ross pointed back there and Trina mouthed “Oh hell no” to him. The noise stopped and there was a grunt of questioning. They both broke and ran to the door, jumping into the car after what felt like seconds.
Something moved at the front of the store and Ross goggled at it. “Trina!” He pointed right across her face right as the car thrummed to life.
The huge figure came through the door, waddle-running. All Ross could think was that he started at three hundred pounds before all this went down because he couldn’t imagine how anyone could put on that much weight after the world ended. The man was grotesquely fat, carrying a long legbone in one hand like a club.
He had a mouth full of something and he roared at them, spitting a torrent of red glop and saliva down his front. It could have been strawberries and Ross was content to believe that as the acceleration of the car slammed him back into the seat like a pair of giant hands. The big guy moved to stop them, standing in the center of the lane like he was big enough to block two tons of steel. Trina swerved just a bit and clipped him on the arm, hard, whipping it back in dislocation and slapping himself across the back.
“Choke on it,” she said as she made the turn out of the parking lot, sliding on a shoal of wet leaves. The car jarred right and she fought against it then put the hammer down, heading to the highway.
Progress there got a little tricky. Uncountable cars were pulled over to the side as the Scream had melted the brains of the drivers and they simply slowed to a stop. Three lanes meant there was plenty of room to swerve around, and the Scream had hit well before rush hour, so the roads had been more clear than not.
Once when nosing past a tipped-over livestock truck, they had to punch it past a couple of crazies in police uniforms who jumped out of a pile of dead cows. They didn’t look like cops anymore, features contorted by insanity and whatever else the Scream had made them become. Ross couldn’t even pity them anymore. Not even a day outside and he’d numbed.
“Look at that,” Trina pointed. There was a tangled mass of crazies pushing a flatbed railroad car piled with bones and mannequins laid out in suggestive arrangements. Another offering to the father of the new world.
“Do they even know where they’re going?” Ross asked.
“Dunno, but they’re gonna have a hell of a time getting that thing off the tracks.”
The sky darkened as they headed to the east and edged around any towns in the way. The fires had been out for several days now, but smoke still hung there, smoke that was thick and black and fed well. Something else felt thicker, like the air itself had more presence. The winds carried pieces of junk, leaves and what looked like hanks of hair ripped free of scalps. On the right side, there was a line of heads on metal fence posts like old Burma-Shave signs minus the punchline. The last of them was being shoved in place by a hunched-over woman, naked to the waist and covered in soot.
“They’re not crazies, are they? Not like that pack you ran from.”
“Not like the pack I ran from at all,” Trina said, then laughed at some private joke.
They had to stop well south of there, outside Modesto. The southbound lanes of the 99 were choked with unrecognizable shreds of metal, scattered from the east to the highway. The largest piece of scrap was marked with red and blue stripes and the partial word AMER. A jet engine assembly encroached on the shoulder, taller than the car. The concrete lanes were blackened from long-dead fire.
“Guess they didn’t make it,” Ross said.
Uncountable seagulls picked through the wreckage, hopping and squawking, chasing away the ravens and what looked like a small pack of stray dogs from the meat bits left.
Trina nudged the car past the green-black clumps of oleander in the median and into the northbound lanes. Didn’t really matter now, did it? Traffic was equally frozen in either direction. North may as well have been south now.
The first wall of airborne dust and smoke came across the road south of Turlock. It looked like those pictures of the dust bowl or those giant superstorms in eastern China that Ross had read up about for science class. He never imagined what one would look like in person. It was as tall as anything he’d ever seen, moving like a slow-motion tornado. This was what he’d seen on that weather satellite days ago.
“We can’t drive through that,” she said. Her voice had hollowed out some now and she’d been quieter the further south they’d gone, having not said more than a handful of words after the crashed airliner.
The whorls of the storm-wall had their own strange music, far deeper and louder than any part of the Scream that Ross had heard. The car itself vibrated in sympathy, setting the hum up and down their spines.
As they stopped, they could see figures walking almost out of sight of the road. A yellow school bus tumbled and bumped its way through empty expanses of old cattle yards, people like stick figures clinging to it and surrounding it with skinny fists. Ross couldn’t figure out if they were trying to stop it or help it along.
They stopped and watched the world coming to Atwater, the world that was left anyways.
“We have to go through that. We’re never going to understand until we do,” Ross protested.
“Look at it. There’s a bunch of cars parked there. It’s like they all hit some wall and just stopped.” She pointed, finger bent up against the windshield.
She was right. There was a line of cars like they were parked to watch a drive-in movie or something, all more or less stopped across the same imaginary line. Then a wave of wind-borne junk slammed across the passenger-side of the car. They looked like doll parts, stunted limbs far from maturity.
At least Ross hoped they were from dolls.
“Ross, this is stupid. There’s nothing behind that.” Her finger was still pressed against the window, first joint bent back enough to look painful.
“We can fit between those cars there.” Ross pointed so that his finger was almost touching hers, as if to show how blind she was that she couldn’t see the spot in the frozen traffic.
Her face screwed up a little now and her finger drew back. She looked younger than when Ross had first seen her. Maybe that was the shower she’d taken off the last of his house’s water pressure. And maybe it was something else that she hadn’t really ever showed him before.
It rained now, little patters on the roof of the car, spattering the windshield with muddy water and grit. Then the drops swelled in intensity and size, until they both realized that it was fish and frogs, some as long as a man’s hand, scattering and falling from the sky like an upended biology experiment writ large. The frogs still wiggled, tiny limbs twitching after the impact, some even hopping away.
“Those fish are fucked,” she said, laughing at the strangeness of it, diverted away from whatever was eating her a moment ago.
Tiny chirps and croaks welled up around the car, and Ross realized that they were working a counter rhythm to the thrumming and titanic drone of the storm and whatever lay behind it. Atwater was still some ten miles away, maybe more. Too far to go on foot easily. But they were too close to turn back now. Ross’ brain was on fire with possibility, in a way that he’d never felt before. The secret to it all was on the other side of this storm and he was close enough to it now that he couldn’t let it go. He thought about the gun in his hand. Maybe that would get him what he needed.
“I’m going to go,” he said, and it came out like stone. Ross himself was shocked at how mean it sounded, finding his voice for the first time.
“You’re insane. It’s raining frogs out there for Christ’s sake!” She laughed at it but then decided that it wasn’t funny anymore.
“I’m walking, then.” He flashed on the bleach white of the desert town in SPECTRES but that felt like someone else’s world now. He’d been pulled out of it and like a hermit crab, he just couldn’t return to his old shell. The nest was just too small.
Trina’s lips went tight and she swallowed hard. “You can’t go. I can’t…”
The light outside swirled to green as an arm of what looked like algae suspended in water slapped hard onto the roof of the car, washing away any residual aquatic life.
“I can’t be alone anymore,” she said. “That’s stupid, right? Five nights of wandering around and the crazies screaming and murdering each other and hiding and I just don’t want to be alone to live in that world.” She didn’t let herself cry because it wouldn’t have changed a thing. “But I don’t want to get any closer.”
“You think you’ll become one of those?” Ross asked, tapping the window with his free hand, pointing out at a small clutch of former humans scrabbling together, shielding themselves from the rain or offering themselves to it. They were gone. The closer they got to it, the more gone they became.
“I only did this because it seemed like a good way to stick together,” she said. “You know I lied about the pack of crazies from San Francisco, the horde? There’s some, yeah, but not like what I said. My sister doesn’t even live in that house.”
“But they’re still going to be hungry if they get this far.” Ross leaned over, closer to her, not to kiss or to make a move, but to tell her. “They won’t come any closer than here. Look out there.” He pointed.
More junk rained down from the sky. Unrecognizable chunks of machinery now, thudding dully like distant cannon fire. An entire naval vessel picked up and carried by the storm that surrounded the Black Mass fell into the earth and stuck like a knife.
“Everything is being tilted and rolling here, but just to that border. We gotta push past it. Cause out here, everything just gets crashed into everything.”
The wreckage of a B-52 from an old air station spun like a gigantic throwing star, cart-wheeling through one of the luckless groups of worshippers in the rain. Pieces of it flew through the air and then were picked up again by the wind.
“It’s breathing. You feel it breathing?” Ross said. “When it takes a breath, we can push through.” He remembered its slow pulse in the weather satellite.
She stared like he was insane now. “We should have just stayed up there, away from here, let the crazies all come and get worked over.”
“Someone has to see it and know it,” Ross replied. “Someone has to not be scared or to just worship it.”
“Crazy,” she said as she fluttered the gas pedal. The car rocked, but maybe that was just wind.
The Black Mass at the center of this new world began to draw a breath. The storm wall contracted like a gooey membrane and they rocketed forward.
The Challenger rammed into the wind and mist and whatever else was floating inside. At either side, the bodies of dead and discarded cars strewn with garbage and bones grew closer and closer. The lane felt more and more like a trap, like a maze where there was only one way to go and it was leading to an end as certain as nightfall after sunset.
The breath of the world was still rushing past. It shook the car, buffeting it, slapping it. Trina stayed straight and the roar of the engine was now the only thing they could hear. The Black Mass held its breath and they hit the wall, shuddering on the rain-slick road.
The disassembled works of civilization pelted them, tiny chunks of everything. No piece was bigger than a fist, whipped by wind and water and mud into a sort of primal chaos, meaning stripped out of it all. It was just pieces. And they were all over the road.
Wheels made contact with something that wasn’t road and the mud-streaked car lost traction. The outside was invisible, meaningless now and the world was filled with the angry rattle of pieces of junk raking the car by the hundreds. It sounded like fingernails, the fingernails of every dead man and woman pattering against the car as it lurched and went to two wheels, and then to none.
Gravity went away for a sickening moment and then returned as the wall melted away in dazzling sunlight. Sunlight came pouring through the brown-muck haze, painfully bright. The car was still in the air now, pitched horribly towards the passenger side. Momentum gave out. The Challenger landed hard on the passenger side and slid there along the concrete.
Trina could see that there was something stopped in front of them, maybe a truck, impossible to see through the fouled windshield. There was a sound of children’s bones breaking, tearing, as something smashed through the front of the car and into the passenger seat. Then things ground to a halt and were swallowed by silence.
Ross was stuck and bleeding, in so much pain that he couldn’t feel any of it anymore. He couldn’t move, rebar pinning him in three places that he could see. Trina stared at him, her brown eyes wide and bleeding tears.
“You can’t stop,” he said through his own blood. “You have to go further.”
She said that she wouldn’t leave him but Ross didn’t say anything back to her. His young body was like a bird now, something kicked out of the nest too young to fly, but too big to be held back anymore.
Trina climbed out of the car into the sunshine. She looked behind her and saw the towering wall of weather, still parked in place and quivering but not moving. Maybe it was breathing and maybe it wasn’t now. It looked for all the world like a wave ready to break but not falling far enough to do so. She had trouble turning her back on it, but if it had suffered the insult of her driving through, then maybe it would stand a little longer.
Over the foothills to the south, she could barely see the tops of the Black Mass. They looked like rotten flowers sown by giants. Even in the stillness of the storm’s eye, they flowed and waved as if underwater. Trina didn’t know if it was flesh or bones or skin or what it was made of. She scrambled over the gentle hill, grass green from early rain because this place was green in the fall. There was nobody else around, nobody else to see it, just her.
From the top of the hill she saw the towers, just like Ross had said they would be. They slumped under their own weight, not a one of them straight. They reminded her of seashells or insects, organic patterns that repeated and grew from within themselves, changing subtly from top to bottom. They looked like a cathedral, tall and gothic, shot through with curling veins or maybe roots that were somehow drawing sustenance through the air. Looking through the binoculars she’d found in the glove compartment of the car, she saw that there were clouds of birds or insects orbiting in slow circles around the mass. Some were roosted and pecking, like they knew the thing shouldn’t be here. Trina picked up her feet, jogging down the hill with a purpose now, grass rustling in her passing.
She walked down the concrete strip of the 99 towards Atwater and whatever waited there, and there she would tell it that it didn’t matter and that the world would keep turning anyways.
She couldn’t wait to tell it.
No update this week. Meant to, but things got deep into the suck.
If I posted one, it’d be pretty foul, so maybe it’s better that I don’t.
Perhaps after I get back from vacation. Be gone for ten days. A number of things might’ve changed by then, since a big project launches on the 28th (not writing, nope) and I should be hearing back on some stuff so, maybe then. But to be honest, the underlying things that drag aren’t likely to change for the positive.
Been working up to this one for awhile. Been a hell of a last six weeks or so. Really been a pretty draining year up to this date. The turning of the solstice didn’t magically fix anything either (not that I expected it to — I’m a grownup.) See, there’s some things that don’t get fixed, no magic wand, no hand of God, no self-actualized inner Anima offering up the hidden wisdom until the right instant.
Some weights don’t get to be set aside so easily, no matter how much I’d like, we’d like, everyone would like. The last six months, and really several years previous to that have been rough going. So here’s the thing, which I’ve talked about with some folks in person, but not everyone and not publicly. Like I said, a weight.
There are some things that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t happen to you. You don’t get to plan for them because you don’t want to even consider the possibility of them happening to you or your family. I don’t get that luxury, and believe me, it is just that.
Eleven years ago, not long after the birth of our daughter, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Yes, I’ve heard every single Michael J Fox joke: they’re all very funny, very clever, good work. There is not a day that has come and gone since then during which this condition has not played a part or ruled my thoughts. For some years, the external symptoms were not that visible, not that much of an impact on daily life.
That changed over time, continues to change. Medication only masks the symptoms (and in some cases creates its own side effects that are nearly as debilitating), but the disease continues unabated. The weight mounts. On everyone in the family, only I’m Mr. Mom, so I try to take it for the kids where I can. And I have to take it for my wife as well. Stubborn as she is, that only takes you so far.
So, a little more weight. I can take it. That’s my job. Pile some more on. I can take it.
Until I can’t.
Think I hit the wall several times this year. I know I did. Pretty sure I went right through it once. I don’t recommend that.
There isn’t a fix for this (though yes, I know about Deep Brain Stimulation procedures and it’s not applicable at this time). There isn’t a cure. There is only management through medication. And I’ll be honest when I say that this is the worst thing that I’ve had to go through or see anyone personally go through. I say this knowing that it’s worse for my wife and that my best efforts are momentary salves. She still works (and does a hell of a job at it) but not full-time. But it will not get better.
When you see the present, particularly a present that you’re having a hard time dealing with, and you map that onto a projected future, it makes for very grim going. Don’t do this. That said, it’s a hard thing not to do, sometimes impossible. Again, grim going. Particularly when you’re trying to transition to a new medication that works only half as well as advertised, perhaps to get better, perhaps requiring the medication be abandoned.
Needless to say, there hasn’t been much work done. Sure, I’ve been talking about pitches (for comics that may or may not ever see the light of day — that’s a subject for another time.) Pitches are easy, at least the messy and doughy pre-work before you wind it like steel cable taut and without an ounce of fat so that it rings with promise. That stuff is easy to do, almost fun. So what if nothing comes of them, they’re fun, right? Lots of people *pay* to have fun and I get to do it for free. The real work comes from shaping it up and actually writing it. And there hasn’t been the energy or focus to do that. Or the will, to be honest.
Sorry, is this a downer? That’s not the intention here. Nor is it it clumsily (or dexterously) fishing for sympathy. Sympathy I don’t need. Understanding is always welcome. So if perhaps my fuse is short (it is, and probably shortens on a daily basis since the world continues to delight in throwing inexhaustible supplies of bullshit around), then understand that I’m really very angry at things that I can’t hope to control. I can barely live with them.
Does it feel good to get this out? Don’t know. It feels necessary, somehow. Just like the alchemists knew the Black Phase, the nigredo, that’s something that’s got to be worked through. It’s an important, even critical part of the reaction (you know, the one that transforms the alchemist herself, not merely turning lead into gold).
So when I try too hard to make a joke, you know why. Yeah, I shouldn’t use social media as a way to vent (cue me mocking, well everything, on Twitter) but that’s how the cookie crumbles. We work with what we’re handed. We try to get by. Sometimes it even works. But you don’t get the option to punk out, even when you think you really want to.
I’ll try to talk about something more uplifting next week, I promise.
And some say he was never here at all.
That’s a line from a Tom Waits song. He might’ve even written it. But then he said a there was a woman who was harder than Chinese algebra and I guess Stephen King heralded that as a great noir line from an author this year, 2015. So maybe it’s one of those things that doesn’t have an origin at all. It’s just there, y’know?
I’ve been late on updates, yeah, I know. I also know exactly how many of you are dying for them (hint – you don’t need algebra to get to that figure), which is why they’re late. I mean, I already know about all the sludge I’m skating through. And nobody cares about the backstory, right? They only care about the product, not how its gotten to or what kind of process it took.
That’s one of the first things I learned in my time in a pretty awful for-profit-college design course. You’d do the project and before you got to make a presentation on it, everyone else in the class got their chance to say something on it. Granted, a lot of folks didn’t have much to say (sometimes smart, sometimes really abysmally stupid). But you know what? They got to say it before you could step in and explain your masterpiece.
That’s the thing. You don’t get to explain it. You get to make the thing and it gets to be the catalyst for someone else’s experience (even if it’s a humble mock up of a CD cover or a book cover or dummy of a coffee shop newsletter). You. Don’t. Get. To. Explain. It. First. Which inspired both good and terrible habits.
Good habit? Try and make the work as good as you possibly can. Granted, my idea of good and satisfying doesn’t seem to be shared by too many other people. This doesn’t make me special or superior. It does make me a hard sell.
Bad habit? I undersell the work at every chance, because I stupidly believe in my heart of hearts that the work should sell itself. This is, however, completely inimical to the media landscape that we both inhabit and try to shape. When I see people leaning on “My work is X meets Y,” I despair. And not just merely because it’s someone using other work to try and justify theirs. It’s because they’re worried about letting the work stand on its own.
Now we can argue about notions of originality and how much every work (particularly genre works) are beholden to those that came before etc etc. I’m not sure that has to be the first introduction to the work, though. It sure doesn’t have to be the one that leads the solicit or review or back cover copy, but that’s what we often get. I dunno, maybe it’s just so ingrained in us now that people don’t even think about it any longer. Gotta admit, it’s convenient.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST meets THE HOWLING – There. I just did it to the first STRANGEWAYS book. Doesn’t matter if it’s not the slightest damn thing like either of those (other than featuring cowboys and werewolves). But now the groundwork has been laid and you’re all excited to read the book now because it’s as good as these two good things smashed together, right? Yeah, not so much. I guess I’m old because I think it just cheapens everything involved.
All that said, I’ve got those mash-ups hovering around the back of my mind when it comes to describing pitches because the game has to be played. Doesn’t mean that I have to like it.
What does this have to do with yarn? Well, a yarn’s a story, right? And the stories we tell about the story/book/music/movie, those are all things we’re doing to sell that. That’s the branding. That’s the advertising. And those are yarns being spun, ones that don’t really matter all that much. Or shouldn’t. Should be the work doing the heavy lifting, then the class gets to pick it apart on its own merits, and not on what you say about it by way of introduction or end-notes or aphorisms that set it up. All that stuff’s window dressing.
I can get up and say “Well, I chose these typefaces and these elements to reflect the blah blah blah” and it doesn’t change a god damned thing about how the work was received. Would having that opportunity beforehand sway some of my classmates into thinking that the work was amazing and groundbreaking and worthy of full credit? Maybe.
But that’s not an opportunity we really get in real life. We try to influence things, sure. Try to make promises about the work, boost it, make it bigger. But not a word of it is true. The only truth to it is what it pulls out of the reader (which is dependent on what the reader puts into it, but that’s a whole ‘nuther subject, as is the whole matter of branding and expectation and hype)
So, yeah, nobody cares much about the how it’s made (except other artists, oftentimes) so ain’t nobody wants to hear about the struggle or the life outside that puts demands on your time and energy. Doesn’t matter. Not important. So why burden you with it here, right?
That yarn’s not crucial, even when it’s fraying.
No, really. That’s a song title. Right here.
I’m often asked for writing advice, and I try to be respectful in my answers, though I bet I’m not good at that part. The hellish thing of it is that… Well, there’s several.
1) Folks think I’m a potential source of good information regarding their writing careers.
2) Everyone’s got to have their own path. Mine is not one I’d wish on anyone else. And that’s professional life as in writing.
3) There’s a persona out there of writing expert doling out advice (go look up “how to write books” in this, the Kindle age of publishing) and while some of them are fine writers in their own right, many of them are selling self-help stuff. Ultimately there’s only been one of those that I had any respect for and that’s THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield.
And hell, even that one didn’t take in me completely. Still, it’s a good way to look at things. It looks down at the roots of creativity, ’cause everything else is just window dressing.
All that said, I’m still asked for advice. I’ll do some for comics as well if I don’t run out of patience with this.
Keep in mind, you can’t walk into a bookstore and find anything with my name on it. If that’s your yardstick for successful (and sometimes it is for me, I’ll admit it) then this will probably just make you mad. It might do that anyways.
“Where do your ideas come from?”
Any writer I know has gotten this question more times than they want to admit. And it’ll continue to be a lead question on interview packets.
The answer for me, and for just about every writer I know, is “How do you make them stop?”
So here’s a thing. The idea is probably the least valuable part of writing. Sorry. Everyone who comes up and says “Hey, I’ll give you the idea and you just write the book/story/comic/videogame/whatever” is full of crap. You probably know this instinctively. And if you’re one of those people and are somehow reading this? Well, sorry, you’re full of crap.
The idea is a start, maybe something to hang from, grow a crystal around, whatever your metaphor of choice is. But the idea without the hundreds of hours of work? Pretty goddamn useless, right. Sure, if you’re lucky, your idea comes in the form of an elevator-ready pitch and you already have your marketing campaign half-thought up. Great. But the pitch isn’t the movie. It’s not even the basic plot, much less the screenplay or novel.
Truth of it is I have more ideas than I can use. Of course, a lot of them are of interest only to me (but then that seems to be right in line with most of my work apparently, haha). But they’re there. Files and files and files filled with them. Some developed, some just three lines.
“How do you sell a book/comic/story/movie?”
Easy. Write something that someone in a position to publish/promote/create likes. It doesn’t have to be good. It does have to be something that they like. I’m sure there are many very brave editors out there who’d go out on a limb for a work they though personally distasteful if it would sell, but…
I mean, that’s the game, right? Gotta write something that’ll sell. Only lots of stuff that’s published simply doesn’t sell. And sometimes a lot of stuff that is seen as unmitigated crap does sell. But you know what, all those things that didn’t sell at all? Someone thought they were worth picking up and putting out there (sure, a lot of them were self-published, ahem, in this, the Kindle age.)
So yeah, write something that the editor likes. But that’s not a guarantee. Besides, my own work hasn’t paid for its printing costs much less anything else, so I’m really *not* the person to ask.
“What will the editors like, then?”
Damned if I can tell you that. And even if I did, by the time I told you and the work got finished, there’d be a new brightly-colored-object/genre in town.
“Well, what should I write?”
You have to do what makes sense to you. That falls into the whole “everyone’s got their own path” thing above. Sorry if that’s a little too Alan Watts/WAY OF ZEN for you.
Take, for instance, fan fiction. I’ve talked a little on this before, but not too much.
My personal take is that fan fiction is an indulgence (though sometimes a profitable one, just ask EL James and whoever else will have gotten a six-figure deal via filed-off-the-serial-numbers fan fiction.) There’s no story that requires access to previously-existing characters in order to be made to work. If your Superman fights Godzilla story (with Sherlock Holmes having turned to kaiju herpatology in the background) doesn’t work with original characters, then maybe it’s not that great a story? If the frisson of the work rests on the fact that it’s a beloved character (that someone else created or franchised) doing things against type, well maybe that’s not so great either.
For instance. Just watched HAMMETT on Netflix, which is a fictional story about real-life detective fiction author Dashiel Hammett getting himself into trouble in 1928 San Francisco. And while it was a fun little movie (occasionally punching above its weight class in a few ways), I couldn’t help but think that it didn’t need to lean on Dashiel Hammett being the main character. It could have stood on its own two legs (and sure, keep the detective a writer who also writes for the pulps, since that was intrinsic to the story) with an original creation.
But hey, the movie makers probably got some more attention with it starring Hammett, right? Just like fan fiction gets read because it’s about these characters (transformative or not) that everyone already loves. That’s borrowed power, folks. If it’s what you really want to do, then do it. But it’s not a path I’m interested in walking.
The story has got to make sense to you. And that’s everything in it. The setting, the tone, the characters, the plot if you must have one (note I didn’t say ‘genre’ because that’s an imaginary construct — even more so than these other things I just listed.) Even if it’s not a thing that you’d necessarily want to write on your own, if you’re taking the job, it’s got to be something that you can get some kind of hook into. Believe me, if that doesn’t happen, you’re just opening the door for misery. This isn’t “follow your bliss” ’cause that’s something that people who don’t have to live in the real world say all the time to the rest of us who do. But it is an admission that you’ve got to feel attached to what you’re doing beyond the pay.
If your muse tells you that it’s only Superman versus Godzilla, then great, do the best that you can with that. I won’t tell you otherwise.
You have to give a fuck about what you’re creating, because nobody can do that for you. If, like Mickey Spillane, giving a fuck is contingent on paying the rent, then go for it. I do say “giving no fucks” a lot, sometimes I even mean it. But where the rubber meets the road, you’ve got to be the first one who does, ’cause nobody else can do that for you.
I know. The above wasn’t so much advice as it was a diatribe on various subjects that have always bugged me. Psych.
Let’s get to the fundamentals.
1. You have to give a fuck. Just like it says above. Starts with you.
2. Pick a job you can complete. The idea? That’s great. Now you have to make it. Stick with a scale that you can work with. If you don’t get it out of your head (and out of notes stage) then it’s not of any use to anyone else.
3. It will probably be not very good. Don’t worry, but don’t be defensive either. This is not an easy one to get over.
4. Some people will not like your work. Some people will not ever like your work. You will not change their minds. Don’t go trying to.
5. Read the reviews if you must. I don’t. I’ve asked friends for reads of work. Sometimes that went well, sometimes it didn’t. I’ll take the heat for when it didn’t. That’s on me.
6. Work in a group if you must. I’m of the age that submitting work to a writing group for critique carries no appeal. That also might just be me.
7. Things work better when you have a plan, but be prepared to throw that plan out. Write a basic outline. Even better, write up your basic characters first and give them all goals and let them fight it all out to see who wins. I could’ve saved myself many headaches by not second-guessing myself or by letting go when a thing plainly didn’t work. That said, what works for you may indeed not work for other people, or you might need to raise your skill level. Or re-think things. Or decide it was one of those “not very good ones” and learn from it.
8. Don’t second-guess based on your audience. Yes, that’s the easiest thing in the world for me to say, since I don’t really have an audience. Well, that’s not quite true. But my audience is a handful (primarily other creators) at this point. However, this goes back to the being true to the work and yourself.
9. Story is character is setting is plot. All four feed into one another. Sure, any plot can be told in any place with any characters. The trick is to make all four disappear into one piece of work. Assumption is a tricky process.
10. Stop aspiring. If you’re going to write, then write (or draw, or create, or whatever). I’ll be the first to admit that real life steps all the hell over things sometimes, but that’s nothing that can’t be overcome.
11. These are probably out of order. Worrying about reviews is something that happens after you finish the work.
12. This advice may not work for you. I don’t pretend it will. I haven’t packaged it in a Kindle book with a kick ass title filled with optimism and hope that you too will be able to write a kick ass novel in thirty days. (Hint: that is a lie – when I was on all cylinders, I could do a first draft in three months but then I might just suck). But at least I’m not selling you a dream that you could dream yourself.
Want to know the real secret? It’s #1 up there. #2 is a stepping stone to get yourself into a framework where you can take steps and not try to run a marathon the first week. #3 is just simple personal growth. The rest is gravy.
I know. Not much to it. But when that one thing is in line, all other things will follow.
I was gonna go with “Six Act Play” but the other one sounds so much cooler (and is a nice callout to one of my favorite DEFENDERS runs from when I was a kid.)
So let’s talk a little about structure. It’s a thing that I’ve been thinking about, trying to figure out how to structure the first SMOKETOWN storyline. See, since I’m planning on pitching this to an actual publishing house, I’ve got to think about playing in a familiar structural space. Granted, in STRANGEWAYS, this wasn’t so much of an issue. I mostly kept to a 5-6 issue per arc structure.
You have to remember, this was back starting in 2003 when trade collections of monthly comics were only becoming something like the standard. Lots of stuff still wasn’t really written for easy collecting; it wasn’t a primary consideration. Unlike now, where things are still put together in relatively tidy bundles of six issues of material, even if that doesn’t really serve the story. Yes, of course there’s exceptions.
But it wasn’t too long before “writing for the trade” became a shorthand for a lot of fan/critic grousing. Stories were accused of being padded out to fit this formatting, whether they needed it or not. This was also in the time of decompression in comics storytelling (at least in the mainstream), where sequences were given room and space to air out some. There’s both good and bad sides to this. On the good, we got artwork that had room to breathe. On the bad, well, we got single issues of comics that didn’t feel so much like a single issue, but like something that was meant to be nothing more than a chunk of a larger whole. I complained about this quite a bit in the FULL BLEED days. And really, there’s nothing more disappointing than a four-dollar comic book (which was a development that took place at about the same time) that you read in five minutes to sour you on the experience.
So, around that time, the unit of consumption for the comic went from the single issue to the trade. That was how you got a complete storyline. Yes, other sub-plots weave in and out around those arcs to keep interest. But the story moved to a multi-issue format and single issues didn’t really stand on their own. There were creators who worked to make the single issue satisfy (Ed Brubaker on CATWOMAN and CRIMINAL come to mind) but even those creators recognized the limitations of the multi-issue arc as a story unit.
We’re all familiar with the three-act structure. Overfamiliar, really. It’s become the standard for mainstream movie storytelling (that and the Monomyth are really what drives what feels like 99% of Hollywood screenplays these days.) The structure can be a fine thing to work from, so long as it isn’t allowed to become a strait-jacket.
But when it’s shifted to comics, when you map a story onto a six-part serial, the easiest way to do that is to have an act turn at the end of every issue with a wrap-up in the sixth. So you get a six-act storyline. Which is fine, only the pacing gets weird because each act ends up being the same length, making a kind of monotone beat.
Now this is only an issue if you’re working on a comic for monthly serialization. If you’re writing an OGN, you can do whatever you want, so long as you end on page 120 or whatever. And once there was a time that doing an OGN seemed like a sensible thing to do as an independent. That time’s passed. At least for me. I’ve done the going-it-alone route as an OGN publisher.
So now I have to figure out how to structure a story so I can sell it to a publisher. Only trouble is, this isn’t a six-issue storyline. Not without stripping a lot out of it. Which I’d kinda rather not do. It’s a pretty big story. But I’m also looking at, y’know, the reality that I may not get twelve issues to do it. A frustrating prospect. Remember, I’ve already stared that reality down when the first company to publish STRANGEWAYS started melting down before the first issue hit the stands. The first issue wasn’t yet out and I talked to the owner of the company who couldn’t assure me that it would be around to publish the fourth issue. So I pulled it, publishing it myself finally.
We all know how that went.
That said, I’m not sure that a 12-issue miniseries is going to be an easy sell to a publisher. Or for that matter, an open-ended continuing series from an unknown quantity creative team. Maybe two six-issue mini-series would work.
But press in on this a bit and I wonder about the unit of storytelling in comics versus, say, television. We’re in the middle of a longform-drama golden age on television, right? That’s what I hear. The comic’s basic unit of consumption is the single issue, which comes together in an arc. For television, you’ve got the episode, which comes together into a season. Simple enough. Only if you compare the base unit, it’s kinda not fair. 22 pages of comic story versus 44 (or so) minutes of television. Even if you go on a 1:1 relationship of pages to minutes, comics come up pretty short (and I’m not convinced that’s a completely unfair comparison).
This is also where someone comes along and points out that a standard screenplay is 120 script pages or so and movies are a perfectly good way to tell a story. Sure. But movies aren’t comics. Time passes differently on the page. And we don’t watch them twenty minutes at a time, either.
Sure. Any good single issue will stand on its own and satisfy, but there’s a limit to how much can go into one. 22 pages. Just like 44 minutes of a show. Only so much time/plot/event fits into it. But I couldn’t help but think how much more weighty an episode of HANNIBAL or DAREDEVIL felt, compared to single issues of comics I like. Would I like ‘em better if they were able to cover more ground in the suggested serving size? Dunno. I still read a lot of stuff only in trades for the simple fact that I want a story, not a chapter. Changing that now on books that I don’t want to wait for (or want to support in the DM).
So maybe the metaphor doesn’t work one to one. Maybe expectations are different enough from one media to another that I’m just overthinking things. As usual. Still, trying to maintain the balance of structural needs versus storytelling is a puzzle that’s been chewing at me. Much less having to convince someone else to publish the thing.
And something that satisfies me, while we’re at it.
I dance around telling the whole story sometimes. Nobody wants that, anyways. Chop it up, bite-size it, make it more easily digestible. That’s what I keep hearing. Doesn’t matter how clean my prose is, it’s always too oblique, too circular. Or perhaps it’s more like I don’t have the name to haul that weight around, dig? What is James Joyce if not oblique, the obliquest at times? Not that I’d have the grit to compare myself to him, mind you. That’s just an easy name drawn from the hat right here. The hat filled with approved canon.
Canon’s fine, until it becomes the border wall of What’s Acceptable, whether that’s by academia or genre scholars. Once that wall is built, well, it might get built higher as more and more people add onto it, but it’s rare that the border itself is allowed to sprawl into further territories with the unknown pleasures that might be there for the picking. (No, I’m not listening to Joy Division right now, as an aside, but Ritual Howl who are doing just fine.)
But yeah, that’s the trouble. Once those walls are set and the building takes place, they’re not coming down anytime soon. Too much invested by those who’ve spent their lives (consumptive or additive) in studying all the nooks and crannies, the quarries from which the bricks were taken, the quality of the mortar that holds them together, the intricacies of their arrangement and the underlying patterns beneath. The wall becomes the thing. And that wall is something that keeps you in, as much as keeping other stuff out. Gotta maintain purity, y’know. Canon purity, genre purity.
Which misses the forest for the trees and the air between ‘em, the rocks underfoot. Folks don’t want to think about their westerns having werewolves in ‘em, to pick an apparent example (stay away from vampires, too). But for me, that’s as natural as anything. That’s as crazy as saying that you can’t have a noir mystery set in a year past 1950, only stuff before that is pure. The genre isn’t about the setting, but about the vibe you pull off the work. It’s all about the art being the start of an experience, and what that art pulls out of you. I get the same charge out of TOUCH OF EVIL as I do from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or ROAD WARRIOR (MAD MAX 2 for everyone but the US). But they’re not the same work, though I can read the same kinds of bones at their centers.
They’re all stories. Which has always been the interesting thing to me. Sure, some of the window dressing and genre trappings are fun, and sometimes they elevate themselves to an essential part of the experience (looking hard and with love at you, BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN) but the same *kind* of story could have been told in a different setting and given the same punch. Of course, if they weren’t science fiction films, their audiences (at least at the onset) would have been pretty radically different, right? I mean, that’s how these films were sold, on the basis of genre trapping. Same goes for any of the films that I’d mentioned before, really. Genre is how the thing is marketed. How it’s sold.
We hear all the time about things that “overcome their genre limitations” and that’s a garbage thing to say. All it means is that some viewers took their blinders off long enough to see the quality of the thing within, past the xenomorphs or replicants or-post apocalyptic bikers and what the film was really doing. The only limitations of genre are ones of classification. Which section of Amazon will you find this in? Movie theaters don’t have screens set aside for romcoms, just like they don’t have ones set aside for science fiction. The only difference is how those things are packaged and sold.
Sure I could talk about blockbuster as genre, though it’d be fairer to talk about it as mode, as an aim. Just like superheroes aren’t a genre of comics (or movies now), but a bundled set of (really pretty muddy these days) expectations and color palettes. Oh, and convenient whipping boy for critics. I mean, how could any of these stories have anything of value in them? They’re just about stunted adults punching things and explosions.
That’s as dumb as saying that science fiction is all robots and steampunk and immediately worthy of scorn at best and ridicule as a rule. Fill in your favorite genre/setting fiction here.
Genre is nothing more than flavor, candy coating if you like. It’s the story that matters.
Which is all a long-winded way of me expressing my impatience with selling my work and inability to classify it effectively, or perhaps my refusal to. Probably because I don’t want to be locked down to any one thing. May or may not have mentioned before that I’m an occasional musician (under the name Identify 9 and The Roswell Incident before that.) But it’s nothing I could ever do professionally. Performing the same group of songs over and over? Couldn’t do it. I’d never get it right, nor would I want to, not to mention the whole genre thing in music. I’ve recorded both heavy doom metal and super sparse electronics, Velvet Underground-inspired melt-rock and soundscape. (I’ll also be the first that I may not have done any of them particularly *well* but I’ve been pleased with the work.) Hate being nailed down. Hate doing the same thing over and over. Yes, the difference is all in the variations, heard that.
But getting back to things at hand, this is one of the reasons why I like comics so much. There’s a huge variety (and even sometimes diversity) of work out there, and when you go to the comic shop, it’s all more or less put together. Sure, you get places where there’s the DC shelf, the Marvel shelf and the Everything Else shelf (along with the Adult shelf). It’s the Everything Else shelf that’s interesting to me (even if I can’t read it all, time being what it is.) And please don’t mistake this for my saying “Everything is perfect in comics genre diversity forever and ever amen.” I didn’t say that, nor would I. But what comics has going now is a good start.
Even if I have to figure out what genre to lead with on SMOKETOWN (though I see some other creators getting away with being genre-averse, so maybe I could too.) I guess I could lead with “horror” but I’ve had this talk before…
Back next week.
(And yes, I stole the title for this week’s post from a Neko Case song — only steal from the best, folks. Of course, by saying this, I’ve just borrowed it and broken one of my own rules.)
EARLY NEXT MORNING EDIT – Couple threads I didn’t tie together here.
People often mistake “comics” for a genre when it isn’t, of course, it’s a form. Same with superheroes. They’re a form (as are blockbusters). Any kind of story can be told within that form, though superhero stories are often somewhat limited, primarily because of audience expectation as much as anything else, that and fear of going too far out on a limb, but I’m not here to dissect the expectations of the form and limitations exposed by such a line of thought.
I wanted to observe that since comics are perceived as a small form/genre, there’s a freedom there. To be shelved with or considered alongside other comics, a comic just needs to exist (in theory — of course the practice is trickier). The thought is probably no clearer this morning than it was last night and perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered.
Heads-up warning on two more photosets that I just posted to my Flickr page.
Featuring visits to Chris Cooper’s studio, the South Coast Plaza, the giant tombstones to the past at the former Tustin air base, the Warner Brothers backlots, a collection of (in)famous vehicles, the original Bob’s Big Boy, and of course, neon.
Featuring the Art Deco beauty of the Orinda Theatre, sushi, videogames at the High Scores Arcade Museum and antique shopping in Almeda.
Quick update to let you know that I’ve posted the best of the photos from my recent(ish) trip to Seattle to attend the Emerald City Comic Convention a couple months back.