Sam: A Tale

Author’s Note: This story is a work of horror, and as such contains content that some readers may find offensive. Reader discretion is advised.

I fought my restraints, wincing with pain…

I’d mustered far more strength the day before!

My right arm was free; why could I not rip my bonds away? Wasn’t duct tape meant to simply be torn apart?

Not this much duct tape, apparently…

I eyed the pile of empty cardboard spools scattered in a corner of my basement, wondering how long my current situation had taken to plan.  Days? Weeks? Or had all this simply been a matter of impulse, born of a random trip to the hardware store?

Would I ever know?

I eyed my wrist, shaking terribly as my vision went blurry; I needed a drink, and sooner rather than later.  Knowing that I was a mere floor away from my liquor cabinet was driving me slowly insane.

So was the thirst.  And the hunger.  And the stifling, maddening sense of growing claustrophobia; I felt like a fly wrapped a spider’s web.  I held my wrist before my face, sweating bullets as the colors in the room grew brighter, more surreal…

I could eat, if only I possessed the courage; my own arm was within easy reach of my hungry mouth.  My flesh was firm, meaty, strengthened by years of manual labor; it could ease my hunger, and my blood could slake my own thirst. 

But could I withstand the pain?

My stomach lurched with gnawing hunger as my temples throbbed in agony.  I didn’t have a drink available, at least not one with alcohol in it.  But I could feed, if I so dared, and I could also whet the dryness of my parched throat.

Closing my eyes, I buried my eyeteeth into my shaking wrist…

“For the love of Pete,” I snarled, “will you just SHUT UP already?!”

My wife dodged the beer bottle that I flung at her, her green eyes full of fear. 

I didn’t really mean to hit her, mind you; I just didn’t like her nagging me during a football game, you know? And I mean American football, not that lame soccer crap that my wife watches on our ‘telly’ when I’m not around. 

Molly’s a ‘good girl’ and all that, but her favorite sport just bores me to tears.

I think that’s where our marriage stumbles a bit.  Molly’s Irish; she’s got the red hair, freckles, and flat chest to prove it.  So she’s accustomed to useless men, shiftless clowns who spend years on end being ‘laid off’.

She’s not used to a hard-working guy like me; she’s not used to someone who’s earned the right not to be bossed around.

So she tries bossing me around…

And I ain’t having it.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” whimpered Molly, picking the dripping beer bottle up from the carpet.  “I was just reminding you to pay the garbage bill, ‘cos you forgot last month and they stopped service.”

I handle the bills around here!” I snapped.  “You can’t balance a checkbook to save your life, and you know it! So lemme alone already, wouldja?”

“O… Okay,” stammered Molly.  “Would you like another beer?”

Duh!” I snapped, settling into my recliner. 

Molly brought me another beer, already opened; I took a gulp as she disappeared back into the kitchen, watching eagerly as the Redskins and Panthers re-formed their starting lines.

The game was a complete blowout; the score wasn’t even close.  I lost interest well before the end, so I turned off the TV and opened a novel.

I must have dozed off in my chair; I awoke abruptly around midnight, yawning.  I felt little sheepish as I stretched myself awake; I had to work the next morning, and I was still half-drunk. 

I climbed groggily out of my chair, hoping that Molly was in bed; if she wasn’t, she’d grill me like a drill sergeant.  Did I have clean clothes for tomorrow? Did I remember to set my alarm? Did I need my jacket laid out? Did I check the weather for tomorrow…?

The woman treated me like a kindergartner! Her Irish brogue, once so soothing to me, had become nails on a blackboard.  All I ever wanted her to do, these days, was to shut her pretty mouth…

Unfortunately, that wasn’t gonna happen.

I sighed as I opened the bedroom door.  Molly was lying asleep, half-covered by a blanket. 

I tried climbing quietly into bed beside her…

“Did you set your alarm?” asked Molly, her Irish lilt piercing the darkness.  “And lay out your clothes?”

“Will you quit treating me like a kid?” I snarled.  “Lay off already!”

“I’m sorry,” said Molly humbly.  “I just want you to be rested and ready for work.”

“I learned how to get myself off to work well before I met you!” I yelled.  “So shut up already!!!”

“I’m sorry…” whined Molly.

“I know you are…” I said, flopping into bed and leaning over her.  “Are you willing to show me how sorry you are?”

Molly gave me a hesitant kiss…

I didn’t climb out of bed until I was completely finished with her, and I threw her discarded underwear back onto the bed. 

“You wanna beer?” I asked. 

“You know I don’t drink…” said Molly, staring at the ceiling with a blank expression.

“Some Irish girl you are,” I said sarcastically. “Water it is, then”.

I stumbled down the hallway, and clicked on the kitchen light.

Molly was standing at the sink…

I looked back down the hallway; hadn’t I just left her in the bedroom?

Then I looked back at her.

Molly?” I whispered.

She turned to face me, her eyes jaunty, saucy even. 

“Yes, love?” Molly giggled playfully.

“Were… weren’t you just in the bedroom?”

“Maybe,” she winked, giving her rear end a flirty shake.  “I’m allowed to climb out of me own bed, right?”

“Y… Yeah…” I stammered, pulling a beer and a bottled water from the fridge.  “I just… I didn’t see you come in here.”

“Probably ‘cuz you drank too much!” laughed Molly.

I backed slowly away from her, and walked down the hallway.  Molly didn’t follow me; she just stayed in the kitchen, humming to herself as she washed the dishes.

I clicked on the bedroom light…

Molly was lying in bed; she squinted as I turned on the light. 

“Did you get me a water?” she asked sleepily.

“Were you just in the kitchen?” I demanded.

“What?” yawned Molly.  “No, I’ve been here in bed.  Why?”

“I JUST SAW YOU IN THE KITCHEN!!!” I roared, my hair standing up the back of my neck. 

“I wasn’t IN the kitchen!!!” wailed Molly.  “I swear!”

“Quit yelling at me!” I warned.  “I ain’t having that!”

“I’m sorry…” said Molly contritely, looking at the wall.  “Just lay back down with me, huh?”

Shaking like a leaf, I climbed into bed as Molly took her water from my shaking hands.

My mind was racing as I took a gulp of my beer.  Had I blacked out? Drank so much that I’d forgotten some interaction, a passing-by of my wife in the hallway?

Sleep… came hard that night.

Three days later…

I motioned the tow truck into my driveway, guiding the driver backwards as he dropped off my Chevy Lumina. 

As I paid the driver, Molly came outside. 

“What’s goin’ on?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said dismissively.  “Get back inside.”

“But…”

“Shut up, and get back inside!” I ordered.

The tow truck driver gave me a funny look as Molly obeyed my command, but he wrote out his receipt without commentary.

I stormed into the kitchen as the driver pulled away, rudely interrupting Molly’s dinner preparations. 

“What were you doing out there?!” I demanded. 

“I just… I just wanted to know what was goin’ on,” said Molly, adjusting her apron as she looked down at the floor.

“You were questioning me in front of other people?!” I raged.  “Really?”

“Well, me father was a mechanic!” said Molly, showing a rare spark of spunk.  “And I told you the alternator was goin’ out! If you’d fixed it when I’d first mentioned it, you’d have saved us a towin’ bill!”

“What did you say?” I whispered dangerously.

“I… I…” stammered Molly, “you just mighta listened to me, is all…”

“Listen to THIS!!!” I snapped.

I slapped Molly across the side of her pretty face, as hard as I could. 

She fell onto the floor, looking up at me with terror-stricken green eyes…

(I would NEVER hit my wife with a closed fist, you know? That’s only something a guy does to other men.  But sometimes, a woman’s just gotta be put in her place; sometimes, a man’s just gotta show her who’s the boss.  You fellas know what I’m talking about, right?)

Molly rose from the floor, holding her reddening cheek. 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking at the floor.  “I’ll let you handle the car issues from now on.  I… I deserved that.”

“Yeah,” I said coldly.  “You did.”

I turned, and walked out to the garage. 

I’d hoped that replacing the alternator would be an easy fix, like it was on my old Impala: Remove two bolts, add the new part, and re-adjust the belt.  I was praying that the repair wouldn’t be as hard as it was on my wife’s long-scrapped Nissan: Un-bolt the entire engine, dismantle the exhaust manifold, and then replace the part…

I lifted the hood of our old Chevy, expecting the worst…

I was distracted by a giggle, coming from a corner of the garage.

I lowered the hood, looking toward the garage door…

Molly was standing in front of it.

“What the hell?” I demanded.  “Weren’t you just in the kitchen? How did you get out here?!”

“What?” smiled Molly, her cheeks glowing as though I’d never hit her.  “I’m not allowed inside the garage?”

“No, you’re fine…” I said, gulping.  “I just didn’t see you come out here, is all.”

“Well,” laughed Molly, “I’ll file a flight plan next time I change rooms! Is spaghetti okay for dinner?”

“Yes…” I said, backing away as Molly walked towards me.

“And would you…” asked Molly, shaking her hips seductively, “like to have a good time with me after dinner?”

“Y… Yes…” I stammered.

“Good!” laughed Molly.  “I’ll see you soon.  Dinner in ten minutes!”

I watched, unnerved, as Molly un-tied her apron and dropped it onto the garage floor.  She hummed an eerie tune as she left the garage, leaving me alone with my uneasy thoughts.

It took all of my will to walk back inside…

Molly was scooping spaghetti onto our plates as I took a seat at the table.  She wore her apron yet, and was chatting away as though I hadn’t just given her a well-earned slap.

Something wasn’t sitting well; something was off.  Molly was acting far too chipper for the occasion…

I needed a momentary escape.

I excused myself from the table, giving Molly a lame excuse about having forgotten to lock the garage door.

My blood ran cold as I entered the garage; I saw Molly’s discarded apron lying on the floor.  Hadn’t she tossed it carelessly away, before heading back to the kitchen?

And yet she’d been wearing the exact same apron when I’d entered the kitchen.  Had my alcoholism finally gotten out of control, I wondered? Were my memories getting all mixed up? Was I suffering from ‘delirium tremens’?

I was careful to avoid touching Molly as I stumbled into bed that night.  My habit was usually to read for a while before trying to sleep, but tonight I was just too drunk.

“Did you set your alarm?” yawned Molly.  “You gotta go in early tomorrow, you know.”

Piss off!” I snarled.

I lay there for a moment, thinking about how unnerved I was…

“I’m sorry,” I murmured contritely.

I woke up in the middle of the night…

After the day I’d had, I would like to say that I’d enjoyed some illuminating dream, or at least a memorable nightmare of some kind. 

But I hadn’t…

I just had to pee.

I stumbled down the hallway, annoyed by the lack of light.  (And also by the knowledge that I’d never find the hallway light switch in the darkness…)

I fell into the bathroom, finding the switch despite my assumption that I wouldn’t.

I moaned as I relieved myself, grateful that I’d awakened before soiling the bed.  (Over-consumption had oft been responsible for the ruination of my sleeping place!) I was so wobbly that my aim was off; I sprayed a few drops into the basket of magazines next to the toilet.

I pulled my boxer shorts back up at last, and turned off the bathroom light before heading back to the bedroom.

The kitchen light was on…

I approached the room warily, blinking as I stepped into the garish glow. 

Molly was standing at the sink, washing the dishes; she turned to face me, smiling as though she hadn’t a care in the world.  Her eyes weren’t blacked anymore; they looked as though my after-dinner discipline had never even happened.

Molly was wearing an attractive pair of printed bikini panties.  (That was strange; I seemed to recall that she’d gone to bed wearing her favorite frumpy pajamas.) Her hair was also stylishly bobbed… but I remembered dully that Molly always wore her fiery hair down to her tiny waist.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” I shouted.

Molly smiled wickedly, shaking the red curls away from her porcelain face.  “Whatever do you mean?” she asked innocently.

“Did you suddenly learn to walk through walls?” I whispered, unnerved.  “Cut your hair in seconds? Who are you, woman?”

“You… you’re scaring me!” whimpered Molly, wide-eyed.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

I was about to relent, about to back off.  I mean, my words were crazy, right? I was about to shrug off my irrational fears, and walk away…

And then I heard a loud snore coming from the bedroom. 

Molly stared at me, wide-eyed, as more snores continued to drift down the hallway.  I could feel my heart pounding in my chest now; my temples were throbbing, and I was shaking with sudden terror.

“Who…” I whispered, trying to sound assertive, “ARE you? And why do you look like my Molly?”

 “Oh!” laughed the now un-masked un-Molly.  “You’re sooooo…”

My guess is that she was about to say ‘paranoid’, but I never gave her the chance; I threw my arm around the back of her neck, and wrapped her hair around my fist.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” wailed Molly.

“Shut up!!!” I growled, slapping her.

She flailed against my assault, but alas… men are simply bigger and stronger than women, which is why I always availed myself the luxury of dismissing the complaints of the Feminist Movement.  I dragged Molly down the hallway by her hair, ignoring her screams of protest as I fumbled for the bedroom light.

I flipped the light switch up, and threw my wife onto the bed.

Panty-clad, bobbed-hair Molly rose slowly to her knees… only to face the pajama-clad, long-haired Molly.

“What…” I grated, “is going on here? Do you two know each other?!”

My wife and her doppelganger stared each other in their identical green eyes, each unsure as to how to answer…

“WELL?!” I shouted.

“I… I don’t know!!!” whimpered pajama-clad Molly.

“What’s your NAME?!” I demanded, giving the panty-clad Molly’s hair a cruel yank. 

“SAM!!!” cried the panty-clad Molly.  “My… my name is Sam.”

“What the hell kinda name is that?” I demanded.  “Is it short for ‘Samantha’?”

“Something like that…” smiled the panty-clad Molly, with eerie calmness.  “Sure, Samantha.”

Please stop!” moaned pajama-clad Molly.

“Oh, quit whining!!!” sneered the panty-clad Molly witheringly.  “You’re such a spineless wimp!!! Seriously, stand up to him already!”

“What did you say?” I whispered, raising my hand.

“You heard me…” replied Sam coolly, as Molly stepped around me.

“Yeah, well,” I snarled, “I’M gonna…”

The ‘kick your ass’ never escaped my lips; my intended threat suffered an interjection from a blow, delivered decisively against the back of my head. 

They left me a notebook.  Or she left me a notebook.  Or maybe no one did, and I’ve just lost my ability to keep my thoughts and memories straight.

I also had a pen, and a free right arm.  (The rest of my body was wrapped in too much duct tape for my right arm to tear away.)

I was always too avid a reader to shy away from the chance to actually write something now.  Was this Molly’s revenge? Enticing to me to author a memoir at which she could laugh for the rest of her life?

I can barely read my words now, I wrote.  My hand is shaking too badly, and my blood is obscuring the pages.  I’m also out of my mind with hunger, which makes my thoughts even loonier. 

I tried to keep my grip on reality; Sam was a hallucination, nothing more, and Molly attacked me out of mere panic…

I turned the notebook page dully, doubting that I could write much longer…

Something slipped from between the leaves, a piece of yellowed paper.

It was a page, I realized dully, torn from the Gaelic-English dictionary that Molly had given to me as a wedding gift.  She’d hoped that I would learn her native Irish tongue (which of course I never did). 

I could barely read the page, but one thing stood out.  A single word was highlighted: Samhnach.

I had to blink a couple of times before I could read the attached definition, and its very simplicity chilled me to the bone…

Anger.

What had that fiery-headed phantasm said? What evil words had my Molly’s hellish doppelganger spoken?

My name is Sam…

God DAMN it all!

What the hell kinda name is that?’ I’d demanded, like a complete oaf.  ‘Is it short for ‘Samantha’?

I will perish haunted by the defiant expression in Angry Samhnach’s eyes, an expression that reflected all the years of suppressed rage that had conjured her to unholy life…

What the hell kinda name is that? Is it short for ‘Samantha’?

How Samhnach must have laughed inside as she answered my question!

Something like that… 

Regarding Fiction…

‘Foolish boy. Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.’

– G’mork (from the film The Neverending Story)

The psychology of fiction fascinates me…

Why do humans so love stories? Why do we revel in made-up narratives that – at least visibly – have zero impact upon our actual existence? Why do we so often dwell on fantasies instead of our waking lives?

The answer, I think, is quite simple: We love stories for the same reason we love Nitrus Oxide. ‘Goofy Gas’ takes the pain out of dental surgery, and Fiction takes the pain out of living. Only humans, out of all Creation, possess the ability to maintain a non-existent world buried within the consciousness; only humans possess the ability to flee inward instead of outward. (Side note: That probably explains why I’ve never met a writer – including myself – who wasn’t somehow cracked in the grape. We actually live in a place that was meant simply to be a temporary refuge. ‘Course, if we didn’t do that then there wouldn’t be any books for everyone else to read…)

Life is messy. It doesn’t often make sense, and its ever-varying, mad-cap scenarios seldom resolve themselves into an ending wrapped tidily with a little bow; stories, on the other hand, do. They have to… ‘cuz if you’re dumb enough to submit a manuscript that makes no sense and has an unresolved ending, you’ll get that lovely email that all writers dread: Thank you for considering SuchandSuch Publishing for your book. However, this is not the story that we are seeking at this time. We wish you the best of luck with your manuscript…

But what if our stories really did mimic real life? Can you imagine a fantasy novel? ‘Otis Graybeard waved his arms, chanting a spell… but nothing happened, and his friends threw stuff at him and called him a dumb-ass. The end.’ How about a science fiction novel? ‘Zulian Supernova climbed into his homemade rocket, bound for Venus. Then it exploded in his backyard, blowing Zulian to smithereens and taking out half the neighborhood. The end.’

What if the most popular literary genre – romance – was starkly realistic? ‘Sally was madly in love with Lorenzo St. Germaine, who was brutally handsome and filthy rich… but Lorenzo wouldn’t give her the time of day, so Sally married the garbage man instead. The end.’

Even soldiers in a war zone get pulled away from the front lines once in a while, so they can re-charge their batteries with ‘Rest and Relaxation’. The human mind cannot tolerate constant, inescapable stress.

The military has R&R…

The rest of us have stories.

The People of the Lie

The sun had not yet shown its face; perhaps it never again would…

Standing ominously against the dreary backdrop of the Chicago skyline was an imposing old building, one that would appear abandoned if not for the gaudy posters plastered across its darkened windows. Each garish printing promised some upcoming concert or play, and every foretelling was a bloodbath of color bled pathetically across the glass.

Only the posters betrayed any hint of perennial life in this run-down palace of an event center; otherwise, this wreck of a building just blended seamlessly into the seedy Chicago city-scape.

Homeless people lounged restlessly beneath the shelter of the front awning, arranging their blankets and cardboard boxes to suit their individual needs. This, it would seem, was the ‘norm’ in this area; the Homeless sleepily arranged their cardboard homeless homes, too outcast to even attract even the notice of the local gang-bangers.

Only one random vagabond rose from his tattered blanket, taking a swig from his pint of cheap liquor as he tottered down the stairs toward the street in front of the event center…

He stopped before a telephone pole, eyeing the cheaply-printed placard nailed to its oaken surface.

Have you seen this man? read the sign.

Upon the printed request was a picture a somewhat corpulent man, balding, and with hair coming out of his ears. Underneath his photo read ‘Last seen at Goldthwaite Center. The bottom of the paper had a printed phone number, posted by the local detective investigating the disappearance.

The homeless man wiped his bearded face, looking up and down the street. Each telephone pole had the same placard stapled to it; this, it seemed, was the Chicago Police Department’s idea of an ‘investigation’.

Maybe the homeless man just wanted some toilet paper. Or maybe he just happened to have some luckily-scored marijuana, but no rolling papers. Or maybe he just needed to cover up some of the tears in his cardboard box.

At the end of the day…

At the end of the day, it was anyone’s guess as to why he went up and down the street, pulling each sign down and stuffing each one into the pockets of his filthy coat.  

At the end of the day, it didn’t matter whether the signs remained posted, or were torn down. The day was still just as bleak, and the theater just as run-down…

And the missing man was still just as missing.

Bobby McGee loved rock n’ roll.

Of course he loved rock music! His mother had named him after Janis Joplin’s iconic song; how much more ‘rock n’ roll’ could a man possibly get? (Granted, Bobby McGee had originally been a woman named ‘Roberta’, since the song had originally been written by the country music icon Roger Miller… but then, Bobby’s mother hadn’t known that at the time of his birth; she was only seventeen at the time, after all.)

Bobby had spent the last twenty years of his life seeking out great concerts wherever he could find them, from Styx to Megadeth, and from Kansas to Godsmack; he was the eternal ‘fan boy’ of all things Raucous and Rebellious. In fact, Bobby might even have been a groupie if not for the fact that he was hairy, short, balding…

And the wrong gender.

Bobby stood in front of his designated seat, straining his neck to watch his new favorite front-man shredding away on his guitar.

Bobby bobbed his head to the music, smiling away as he adjusted his ‘hi-fi’ earplugs. The drummer was pounding the kick drum so hard that Bobby could hardly read the band name printed on it: Death by Volume. This band had sold twenty million albums (or digital downloads thereof) in a mere four years; Bobby mentally recited these numbers with a sense of awe that bordered on reverence. This was the highest-grossing tour of all time, shattering the records set by both Michael Jackson and Guns n’ Roses combined.

Truly, this was an epic evening! He was lucky, Bobby thought, to have scored a ticket.

He pumped his fist vigorously to the savage music, glorying in the sonic hedonism of it all. Above all else, Bobby always looked forward to the next guitar solo; the guitarist/vocalist, Steve Valmer, was his favorite ever! Steve always shredded along at a lightning pace, making it all look so easy as his fingers flew up and down the polished mahogany neck of his ‘axe’. Strobe lights, pyrotechnics, and endless clouds of dry-ice smoke only added to surreal aura of the display

Bobby lowered his fist as the music died for a few minutes.

“HOW’S EVERYBODY DOING TONIGHT?!” roared Steve Valmer into the microphone, pulling his long, blonde hair away from his face. “Y’ALL FEELING ALRIGHT?!”

Bobby roared along with the crowd; his parched throat was aching already, but he didn’t mind.

There was nowhere he’d rather be… than right here!

“I wish my wife was here with me tonight,” said Steve. “But she’s in Brazil right now, shooting a movie. Speaking of which, we’re filming here this evening. So everybody shout with me, ‘HI SADIE’!!!”

Bobby joined the crowd in the deafening greeting, feeling a quiet stirring of envy.

Steve Valmer had married the veteran actress Sadie Lee years before; the couple had two children. Sadie had always been Bobby’s secret crush; redheaded, slender, and beautiful, she’d starred in the Bobby’s favorite film, a psychological thriller called I Have Not Forgotten.

“So…” continued Steve, “our children, Todd and Brielle, are backstage. I asked them if they wanted to come watch Daddy play, and they asked ‘do we have to…?’”

Bobby laughed along with the rest of audience, licking his lips as Steve segued into the band introductions.

Bobby hated to miss any part of the show, but he couldn’t stand his dry throat anymore!

As fast as his chubby legs could carry him, Bobby sprinted up the stadium steps, towards the elevated mezzanine above. It was quieter up here, far removed from the roar of the arena below. The mezzanine consisted of a few merchandise booths, and a lot of bars.

“Tall Budweiser, please…” Bobby panted to the nearest bartender.

Taking the double-deuce can (and paying way too much for it), Bobby turned and half-jogged back towards the steps.

He slowed a bit, ready to begin his downward trek when someone stepped out from behind the nearest merchandise booth.

“I’M sorry!” said Bobby, plowing into the slender woman. “I didn’t see you!”

“It’s okay…” mumbled the woman, adjusting her dark sunglasses and setting her baseball cap back on straight. “I should have watched where I was going.”

Bobby took a step back, eyeing the woman as he clutched his beer can. There was something very, very familiar about her…

“Sadie?” he whispered. “Sadie Lee?”

“Maybe…” said the woman coolly, lowering her glasses and looking back at Bobby with brilliant, bright-blue eyes. “Who’s asking?”

“I… I’m just a fan! gushed Bobby. “I’ll bet I’ve seen I Have Not Forgotten fifty times!”

“I’m flattered,” said Sadie, smiling. “Usually with guys your age it’s The Crow, or Natural Born Killers.”

“May I have an autograph?” asked Bobby.

“You got a pen?”

“Oh… no…” said Bobby sheepishly. “I can get one from the bartender, though.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Sadie. “I’ll tell you what: If you promise not to tell anyone I’m here, you can watch the show with me from my private box. I’m not exactly in the mood to be mobbed, you know?”

“Of course! yelped Bobby stunned. “I… I thought you were in Brazil?”

“So I’m told,” said Sadie evenly, motioning with her head. “C’mon, follow me.”

Bobby followed Sadie up the stairs into the VIP section, trying hard not to stare at her rear end. It was hard not to; Sadie was wearing ‘painted-on’ blue jeans, and besides…

It was Sadie Lee’s behind, after all.

I can’t believe this is happening, thought Bobby as he took a draught of beer en route.

Sadie nodded at the two black-clad security guards flanking the door of her private box, and opened the door.

“After you,” she said affably, holding the door open.

Bobby followed Sadie into the booth as one of the guards pulled the door shut behind them.

“Have a seat,” offered Sadie, motioning to one of the over-stuffed chairs.

Bobby sat down in the daze, no longer interested in the concert… and quite unable to break his gaze away from his teenage crush.

“You look as though you’ve just found Jimmy Hoffa!” teased Sadie, baring her sparkling eyes as she set her glasses on the sideboard.

Bobby watched in amazement as Sadie took off her baseball cap, letting her fiery red locks spill down to her shoulder blades.

He took another gulp of beer, bug-eyed…

“Cat got your tongue?” teased Sadie, reaching for a volume knob mounted on the wall. “That’s a cliché, I know, but it always comes to mind when I meet a tongue-tied fan. Here, let’s turn the noise down so we can talk; I’ve heard this performance a hundred times before, anyway.”

Bobby tried to muster the courage to speak; all he could manage was ‘uh…’

“Oh, you guys are all the same!” giggled Sadie, actually slapping Bobby on the knee. “I’m not Queen Elizabeth, man, and even she poops and pees like everyone else! Here, let’s do this like normal people…”

Sadie held out her slender hand, smiling. “I’m Sadie Claire LeFountain, publicly known as Sadie Lee. And you are…?”

Bobby mustered every ounce of his courage…

“I’m… I’m Robert,” he stuttered. “Robert Evan McGee, but my friends call me Bobby.”

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” said Sadie, quoting Janis Joplin as she shook Bobby’s hand and sat down. “There, was that so hard? So do you live in Chicago, Bobby McGee?”

“No, ma’am,” replied Bobby politely.

“You can drop the ‘ma’am’!” interjected Sadie firmly. “‘Sadie’ will do just fine, thank you.”

“Sorry, uh… Sadie,” amended Bobby. “No, I’m from Georgia originally, but now I live in Montana; I manage a hardware store there. I had to take a road-trip to get here, because the closest show to me was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it sold out before I could get a ticket.”

A ticket?” asked Sadie, raising a pretty, perfectly-groomed eyebrow. “No girlfriend?”

“No…” blushed Bobby. “I… I’m not good with the ladies, I’m afraid.”

“And yet here you are with me!” giggled Sadie. “Score! What makes finding a girlfriend so hard for you, Bobby McGee?”

“I… well, I don’t meet many women in my line of work, at least not single ones,” blushed Bobby. “They all just come in with their husbands.”

“So you don’t meet women at work. Where do you hang out when you’re not working?” quizzed Sadie.

“Well… I spend my weekends at the Comic Shack, playing Magic, the Gathering…” moaned Bobby, hanging his head.

“Wow!” laughed Sadie. “That’s a crying shame, Bobby McGee. If it makes you feel any better, I find you quite charming.”

“Really?!” chirped Bobby, taking a slug of beer.

“Balding head, beer breath, and all!” chirped Sadie. “Do you know what the curse of being a celebrity is?”

“Nope,” said Bobby.

“It’s always wondering…” said Sadie, her brow furrowing, “who really loves you, and who just wants to use you. It gets harder as you get older. I was twenty-five when I shot I have Not Forgotten; now, I’m two decades older. Oh, I work out and my dieticians monitor every bite I eat; I’m aging better than any middle-class girl ever could… but in the end, will I just be put out to pasture for being too old? Not every girl’s a Meryl Streep, you know.”

“Well…” said Bobby, “would it matter? I mean, you’ve made more great movies than most actresses out there, and I’m sure you never have to worry about money. I mean, why worry about your future when you’ve had such a great past?”

“The Celts believed…” mused Sadie, leaning forward and resting her chin in her hand, “that the gods needed belief – and adoration – to continue their existence. Without such, they had no sustenance, no life-force. The Irish who refused to succumb to Christianity came to believe that the gods – and the faerie-folk with them – disappeared from the world of men, unable to survive the slow decline of worship.”

“I don’t follow…” said Bobby, chugging the last of his beer and setting down the empty can.

“I mean…” said Sadie patiently, “that when one’s entire adult life is judged as a success or failure based on the opinions of others, what happens when the limelight fades? Can one really go on living, or would Existence just then become a mockery of Life? I suspect that one’s breath might then become a mere clock, ticking away toward the end.”

“I suppose I don’t know,” said Bobby tactfully. “I’m just a hardware store manager.”

“And so you are,” said Sadie, wiping away a tear. “Would you care for a drink, Bobby McGee? A nightcap with your old crush, as we watch the last of my husband’s concert? I can get anything you like, and I do mean anything!”

“Aged Scotch?” asked Bobby hopefully. (He was oh-so-fond of well-crafted, aged Scotch whisky, but alas… the expense!)

Sadie smiled as she leaned forward and tapped the intercom button on the sideboard. “Two doubles of Clan McCutcheon!” she ordered. “Served neat, please.”

Bobby’s eye bulged out at that; he couldn’t believe that he’d actually heard someone ordering such an insanely-priced beverage so casually. 

Sadie seemed rather contemplative as she waited for the whisky to arrive, so Bobby let her be as he watched the concert winding down. (He did give her the occasional side glance, though, and he was pretty sure that she caught him at it.)

A tuxedo-clad waiter arrived in short order, demurely delivering two tumblers of whisky. Bobby took his with shaking hands, still feeling more than a little dumbstruck by his current situation.

“I told you I could get anything!” said Sadie smugly, raising her glass. “Cheers, my new friend!”

Bobby clinked his glass against Sadie’s, and took an appreciative sip.

“Wow…” he breathed, “I could never afford this!”

“Enjoy your taste of the good life,” said Sadie with a wink. “The spotlight burns out pretty fast, I’m afraid.”

Bobby took another sip as Sadie turned up the volume switch, and rested her chin once more upon her slender hand.

Sadie was obviously intent on enjoying the rest of the concert, so Bobby lapsed into silence. (He was more interested in Sadie than he was the concert, but he tried to be discreet about his staring…)

Sadie’s lingering smirk told him that he wasn’t quite as successful as he wanted to be.

Bobby sipped away at his insanely-priced whisky as the concert rolled towards its spectacular finish.

Steve Valmer played through the finale, exited the stage, and waited as the audience demanded one more song…

Only when the curtain call was finished did the lights finally come back up. Bobby set down his empty tumbler with regret, wishing that he’d asked the waiter to leave the bottle. (Not, of course, that the waiter had actually brought the bottle; Bobby grinned at the ridiculous thought that the bartender probably guarded such beverages with a shotgun.)

“Well, I suppose that’s that…” said Sadie flatly, rising.

She took a few steps back from Bobby, and extended her hand. “It was lovely meeting you, my new friend,” she said brightly.

Bobby rose to shake her hand…

And fell flat onto his face.

“Are you okay?” asked Sadie, with a concerned expression.

Bobby rolled onto his back, eyeing Sadie with slightly-crossed eyes. Her face was blurred now, as grotesque now as it had earlier been beautiful.

“I don’t feel so good…” moaned Bobby.

Sadie knelt over him, brushing her crimson locks away from her porcelain face. “Did you drink too much, honey?” she cooed.

“I don’t think so…” slurred Bobby. “Can you help me up?”

Sadie rose, laughing. “Having trouble walking, are you?”

“Y… Yeah…” moaned Bobby, his head spinning.

“But we had such a lovely time!” giggled Sadie. “You can’t pass out on me, like some random drunk! What kinda date is that?”

“Sorry…” moaned Bobby, his head flopping sideways. “What’s happen… happ… ha…”

Sadie knelt over him, her sky-blue eyes suddenly growing very, very cold.

“You wanna know what’s happening?” she whispered. “Do you really?

“Y… Ye… uhhh…” slurred Bobby.

“I poisoned you,” said Sadie, with no hint of emotion whatsoever.

Huuuhhhh…?” wheezed Bobby.

“Shut the hell up!” ordered Sadie. “You’re dying; you can’t talk anymore. Let me tell you something, my adored fan…”

Bobby stared in comatose horror as Sadie rose again, looking scornfully down at him.

“You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Sadie. “I’m supposed to be shooting a movie in Brazil. That movie’s finished already; it comes out next month. I didn’t like being naked for half the damn thing, but that’s how my world works; you either peddle your ass, or you’re brushed aside. There is very little difference, in the end, between an actress and a prostitute.”

Sadie took a sip of her whisky, and set the tumbler back down.

“In my world…” she continued, “you do as you’re told. I’m supposed to gloriously re-unite with my husband and children in two weeks, and it’ll make headlines; I can’t risk you blowing our fairy-tale reunion scam. People magazine will run a cover story, in which I’ll give an interview about hard it is to balance being both a mother and an actress. My husband will appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, his career pushed forward by the publicity from People. The truth is that I cheat on my husband all the time and nannies are raising my kids, but that’s how it goes; it’s all a game, nothing more. Do you see?”

Uhhhhh….” gurgled Bobby.

“The truth,” smiled Sadie, “is that I don’t give a rip about my ‘husband’, nor does he about me. We do what we want, whenever we want, and we answer to no one except our own. The only sin we could ever commit is disappointing our handlers, our producers and financiers. As long as we toe that line, we can do whatever else we want. We’re above social expectations, above accountability… even above the law.”

Thpb…” drooled Bobby.

“We are what everyone longs to be, the New Gods and Goddesses,” intoned Sadie. “Our handlers raise us up, the media heaps praise upon us, and thus we are worshipped. It’s all a charade, a grotesque masquerade; we are the modern Iscariots, the People of the Lie.”

Bobby burped, only dimly noticing that he’d wet his pants.

“It’s all right in front of you,” whispered Sadie, kneeling again. “We’re a complete farce, right out in the open, and hidden in plain sight. We speak in code, and laugh at your kind because you can’t figure out that code.”

Bobby’s vision began to narrow…

“For instance,” smirked Sadie, “‘Served neat’ is code for ‘add a dash of cyanide’. Wanna know another code phrase?”

Bobby puked a little as Sadie rose, and began choking on his vomit as she tapped the intercom button on the sideboard.

“Hello?” she said calmly. “I need a custodian, please. Could you send up Todd?”

Letting the intercom button go, Sadie turned to Bobby.

“‘Tod’ is the German word for ‘death’,” explained Sadie affably. “Get it? It means I just killed someone – again – and I need the body carted off. The custodian will arrive with a covered trash can, stuff your carcass into it, and no one will ever know what became of you. Isn’t that oh so clever?”

Bobby felt his breath slowing down, and his heart beginning to falter…

Sadie knelt over him one last time, and kissed his forehead gently.

“Thank you for watching my movies,” she whispered. “It was truly lovely meeting you, my much-appreciated fan. May there be many more just like you.”

Bobby’s eyes rolled back in his head as Sadie rose; he never saw the door open, or the janitor coming in…

He didn’t feel his neck breaking as the custodian forced him into the narrow trash can, and he felt no trace of shame as his urine was unceremoniously mopped off the floor.

When the mess was finally tidied up, all that had once been Bobby McGee was pushed downstairs with the rest of the refuse.

The sun not yet shown its face; perhaps it never would.

The nameless vagrant finished rolling up his pinch of marijuana, and raised it to his withered mouth. He took an appreciative puff as he lit up his treat, and held his breath to let the much-appreciated drug take effect.

The transient choked a little as he finally released the first cloud of rancid smoke; he leaned against the cold brick wall, already feeling his senses going numb.

As the vagrant took yet another puff, one of his impromptu rolling-papers blew away, idly snatched up by a passing breeze. Only the wind knew what the cheaply-printed placard read, and the wind would never betray the answer to its question…

Have you seen this man?

Exploding Heads and the Endless Story…

I think my head’s about to explode… again.

I’ve been training with my new publisher’s marketing director, learning how to network with other writers for promotional purposes. (THANK you, Callie!)

Now, I’ve done this before. But back when I was a player on the ‘indie book’ scene, promoting your work meant MySpace posts and Amazon.com reviews. Well, times have changed since then! By the time the dust settles and I fall into a routine, I’m gonna have more accounts than an offshore bank. FaceBook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter…

What’s really blowing my mind, though, is something that I didn’t quite pick up on years ago: There are a LOT of writers in the world! I’m almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people with whom I interact. A part of me wonders, how on earth am I gonna peddle my own work amidst such an endless sea of ink?!

On the other hand…

It’s also comforting to know that I am part of a very, very large community. In some sense I’m e pluribus unum (one of many), but it’s the ‘ones’ that give the ‘many’ its power. With every new writer, the world’s tapestry of stories grows richer and more varied. Each new tale opens up possibilities for another, and every established writer is another pair of hands helping to pull the fledglings into the nest.

Every writer is unique…

And yet, somehow, we’re all plugging away at one epic tale… the tale that will define our age long, long after its people have been forgotten.

Regarding Comfort Zones…

I have a new novel coming out

This still strikes me as somewhat surreal. I’ve published three before, but always through self-publishing/small-print venues. Having a proper publishing company accept my work – under a traditional contract, and not some dodgy ‘hybrid’ deal – is a new one on me.

I’m very grateful for my blessing. God engineers all of our lives, and I’m thankful that He’s nudged mine in this direction. I’m grateful…

And I’m also very, very nervous!

During my small-press days I was a ‘big fish in a small pond’, easily one of the more popular writers in the circles among which I ran. Now I’m just a minnow… in a really big pond!

But that’s okay.

I’m out of my comfort zone, but I also know that I won’t grow unless I challenge myself. I know this as a person, as a Christian, and as a writer. So here I go, learning how to network alongside my publisher’s established writers so I can effectively do what writers are supposed to do: Bring their work to the people who wanna read it!

I’m nervous, sure…

I’m also very, very excited!

And that’s a good feeling. It’s hard to be excited in a comfort zone…

Regarding Another Novel Novel…

I read Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel yesterday…

I read it all in one day; I just couldn’t bring myself put it down. It was like being fourteen all over again, and reading Rebecca for the first time.

It’s similar, in some ways. Like Rebecca, it’s narrated from a first-person perspective, and set in Cornwall ‘high society’. But the narrator, this time, is a man (as opposed to the nameless bride in Rebecca). 

Rebecca, in some sense, was a tale of moral absolutes: The nameless narrator-bride is pure and innocent, while Rebecca was pure evil. My Cousin Rachel is murkier, and more morally ambiguous. Is Rachel truly a heartless manipulator, as her deceased husband made her out to be? Or is she simply a misunderstood victim of circumstance?

Maybe Dame Daphne answers those questions, or maybe she doesn’t. In any case, the same brooding, haunting tone that defined Rebecca defines this tale as well. There’s a movie, too, starring Rachel Weisz. I’ma hit Best Buy tomorrow, and pick it up.

And if the movie sucks… I’ll hafta go have words with the director, ‘cuz the novel was pure gold.

Go read it!

Hopefully That WAS the ‘Last’ of the Mohicans: An Analysis of a Literary Hack (who’s not me)

Don’t get me wrong, people… I loved the film The Last of Mohicans as much as the next guy. (I mean, it had Madeleine Stowe. Ooooh, yeah!) But let’s be honest here. I blew through all of James Fenimore Cooper’s work when I was fourteen, and yeah… the dude’s writing needed some help.

So here’s a critique of his novels, delivered by none other than the god of American literature himself: Mr. Mark Twain!

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature in Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the Deerslayer tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leather Stocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

I am sorry there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practised by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor—a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving towards a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn’t that neat? For several years Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so—and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some “females”—as he always calls women—in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannonblast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn’t strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain through the dense fog and find the fort. Isn’t it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature’s ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person’s moccasin-tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases—no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fulness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless your heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which he has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of “the caves”; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry’s queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer’s half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at—but choose for yourself; you can’t go amiss.

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” In the Deerslayer tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason; and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook’s outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become “the narrowest part of the stream.” This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were oftener nine hundred feet long than short of it.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to the form of an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by a rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal-boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess, then, that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it had only two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low-roofed log dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length”—a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms—each forty-five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians—say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indians never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him, and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the house! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The fault was Cooper’s, not his. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians.

The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did—you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still farther astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat—for he was a Cooper Indian. In the matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigarshop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as an observer.

The reader will find some examples of Cooper’s high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in The Pathfinder.

          “A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its

          head having been first touched with paint.”

The color of the paint is not stated—an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen by them at that distance, no matter what its color might be.

How far can the best eyes see a common house-fly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nailhead at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nailhead at fifty yards—one hundred and fifty feet. Can the reader do it?

The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge off the nail-head; the next man’s bullet drove the nail a little way into the target—and removed all the paint. Haven’t the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer Hawkeye—Long-Rifle—Leather-Stocking—Pathfinder—Bumppo before the ladies.

          “’Be all ready to clench it, boys!’ cried out Pathfinder,

          stepping into his friend’s tracks the instant they were vacant.

          ‘Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is

          gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though

          it were only a mosquito’s eye.  Be ready to clench!’

“The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.”

There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.

The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man’s rifle; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, “Be ready to clench.” Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat was a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing—a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper raised his rifle and drove the centre of the bull’s-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. “It’s a dead miss,” said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, “No, Major, he has covered Jasper’s bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target.”

Wasn’t it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

          “The respect for Pathfinder’s skill and for his ‘quickness and

          accuracy of sight’” (the italics [”] are mine) “was so

          profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration

          the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a

          dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact.

          There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster’s

          bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper’s, and that,

          too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be

          certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly

          established by discovering one bullet over the other in the

          stump against which the target was placed.”

They made a “minute” examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder’s turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.

But, alas! here is a disappointment; an incredible, an unimaginable disappointment—for the target’s aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet-hole!

          “’If one dared to hint at such a thing,’ cried Major Duncan, ‘I

          should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target!’”

As nobody had missed it yet, the “also” was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.

          “’No, no, Major,’ said he, confidently, ‘that would be a risky

          declaration.  I didn’t load the piece, and can’t say what was

          in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving

          down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name

          Pathfinder.’

          “A shout from the target announced the truth of this

          assertion.”

Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he “now slowly advances towards the stage occupied by the females”:

          “’That’s not all, boys, that’s not all; if you find the target

          touched at all, I’ll own to a miss.  The Quartermaster cut the

          wood, but you’ll find no wood cut by that last messenger.”

The miracle is at last complete. He knew—doubtless saw—at the distance of a hundred yards—that his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole—three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this—somehow or other—and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.

The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on the seventh, and can’t help himself. In the Deerslayer story he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

          “’She’s in the forest-hanging from the boughs of the trees, in

          a soft rain—in the dew on the open grass—the clouds that

          float about in the blue heavens—the birds that sing in the

          woods—the sweet springs where I slake my thirst—and in all

          the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence!’”

And he preceded that, a little before, with this:

          “’It consarns me as all things that touches a fri’nd consarns a

          fri’nd.’”

And this is another of his remarks:

          “’If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in

          the scalp and boast of the expl’ite afore the whole tribe; or

          if my inimy had only been a bear’”—and so on.

We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in-Chief comporting himself in the field like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father’s fort:

          “’Point de quartier aux coquins!’ cried an eager pursuer, who

          seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.

          “’Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!’ suddenly

          exclaimed a voice above them; wait to see the enemy; fire low,

          and sweep the glacis.’

          “’Father? father!’ exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist;

          ‘it is I!  Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!’

          “’Hold!’ shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of

          parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and

          rolling back in solemn echo.  ”Tis she! God has restored me my

          children! Throw open the sally-port; to the field, 60ths, to

          the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs!  Drive

          off these dogs of France with your steel!’”

Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate word. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called Deerslayer. He uses “verbal,” for “oral”; “precision,” for “facility”; “phenomena,” for “marvels”; “necessary,” for “predetermined”; “unsophisticated,” for “primitive”; “preparation,” for “expectancy”; “rebuked,” for “subdued”; “dependent on,” for “resulting from”; “fact,” for “condition”; “fact,” for “conjecture”; “precaution,” for “caution”; “explain,” for “determine”; “mortified,” for “disappointed”; “meretricious,” for “factitious”; “materially,” for “considerably”; “decreasing,” for “deepening”; “increasing,” for “disappearing”; “embedded,” for “enclosed”; “treacherous;” for “hostile”; “stood,” for “stooped”; “softened,” for “replaced”; “rejoined,” for “remarked”; “situation,” for “condition”; “different,” for “differing”; “insensible,” for “unsentient”; “brevity,” for “celerity”; “distrusted,” for “suspicious”; “mental imbecility,” for “imbecility”; “eyes,” for “sight”; “counteracting,” for “opposing”; “funeral obsequies,” for “obsequies.”

There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now—all dead but Lounsbury. I don’t remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that Deerslayer is a “pure work of art.” Pure, in that connection, means faultless—faultless in all details—and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper’s English with the English which he writes himself—but it is plain that he didn’t; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper’s is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

The Masque of the Red Death

In the wake of American journalism’s latest crisis ‘du jour’ – the Coronavirus outbreak – I felt the need to post a similarly-themed tale. It was written by a far better writer than I’ll EVER be! So, my dear readers: I give you the immortal Mr. Poe…

THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avator and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

   But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”

 It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven — an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue — and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange — the fifth with white — the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet — a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.

 He had directed, in great part, the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fête; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm — much of what has been since seen in “Hernani.” There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these — the dreams — writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away — they have endured but an instant — and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him — “who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!”

It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly — for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who, at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince’s person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple — through the purple to the green — through the green to the orange — through this again to the white — and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry — and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

 And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Regarding the Coolest Comic-Book Story Ever…

The Goblin tried to destroy my mind… but what did his evil really do? Open a door to the good… to the two of you. All those years I tried to shut you out. So afraid to even think of you. Feeling so GUILTY… so responsible for your deaths. But now, MOTHERFATHER… I can let myself remember. Now I can love you. Now I can grieve.’ And in his grief he finds new freedom, and that freedom lifts him up and carries him off… into the DAWN.

J. Marc DeMatteis (from The Spectacular Spider-Man #183)

Have you ever read a story that just blew your mind from its very first line?

Let me back up a bit…

I… have read a BOATLOAD of comic books in my day! From Neil Gaiman’s seventy-issue run on The Sandman to the epic Batman: Knightfall, I’ve been around the newsprint block more than a few times. I’ve read thousands of books, including series that date back to the nineteen-forties. When it comes to ‘sequential artwork’, there ain’t a whole lot that I don’t know.

But there is one story that will always remain my favorite: The Child Within, by writer J. Marc DeMatteis and artist Sal Buscema.

Now, I have Sal Buscema’s entire run on The Spectacular Spider-Man. I re-read through the run once a year (along with Sam Keith’s epic series The Maxx, and Gaiman’s The Sandman.) The entire run is amazing, but it kicked into overdrive when writer Peter David handed the baton to J. Marc DeMatteis. And within that run lies The Child Within, my favorite six-issue tale of all time.

The trick with writing comics, I think, is that a writer must take them seriously. One cannot focus over-much on the costumes and the super-powers, lest one’s tale de-evolve into a cheesy Power Rangers rip-off. This truth DeMatteis understands in spades: The Child Within is possibly the most harrowing, disturbing tale ever to grace the four-color page. It sucks you in like a Hitchcock film, pulling you deep into the dark recesses of each character’s mind.

Buscema – easily one of my favorite artists – was the perfect illustrator for DeMatteis’ nightmarish tale. His style is sharp, clean, almost bare-bones, and yet remains extremely vibrant and expressive. His work really stood out in the nineties, when more ‘sketchy’ styles were trendy due to artists like Todd McFarlane.

Most Spider-Man fans would tell you that Spidey’s best stories were Kraven’s Last Hunt (by DeMatteis and Bob McLeod) and Torment (by Todd McFarlane). The Child Within smokes them both, in my opinion; it was a true stroke of genius.

The Child Within ran in The Spectacular Spider-Man #178-183, in late 1991. All six issues can be readily purchased for a couple of bucks apiece; in fact, you’ll probably pay more for shipping than you will the actual magazines. For some odd reason, The Child Within was never collected into a trade paperback.

It should have been!

So go hunt it down and read it. Seriously.

You’ll be glad you did…

Fire and Blood: A Fable in Seven Parts

Author’s note: Fables are not my strong suit. Nor is writing in the present tense. But sometimes breaking one’s mold is satisfying, and more than a little cathartic…

Part I

In all the world, there is none so graceful, so beautiful, or so powerful as the Phoenix.

The awe-inspiring bird of ancient myth soars high above his world, transcending even Time itself. He soars in, out, and through all the ages of men, carried aloft by wings be-feathered with incandescent flame. He turns his piercing eye toward the doings of mankind with open scorn, his plumed head un-bowed. Un-bowed… before man, beast, and even the Almighty Himself.

For who is greater than the Phoenix? He is the dragon-bird of the Heavens, the Watchman of the Ages.

Perhaps he had a beginning, or perhaps he never did. Perhaps someone plucked him from the pyre of his birth. Or perhaps he is simply timeless, without beginning and certainly incapable of ever coming to an end.

In his travels the Phoenix gazes often upon the mountain of the Almighty. He finds it in odd places sometimes, the mountain, and always unexpectedly. Sometimes it rises from the desert, overlooking the heathen hordes of the Middle East. Sometimes it appears on lush isles, surrounded by the resort cities of America, the modern Roman Empire. But always it seems to follow the glorious Phoenix, the mountain, and always the great dragon-bird turns and sails disdainfully away from it, flicking his crimson tail feathers in irritation.

For the Almighty is really just a crutch for the weak, is He not? His worshippers grovel at the feet of their deity, their praise mixed always with barely concealed terror. They are addicts to religion, those weak-minded mortals who must need cling to the idea of a Greater Being. But not so the Phoenix… The Phoenix has sailed through all the ages alone, dependant on none, and will continue to do so.

The immortal Phoenix has no need of either the Almighty or His mortal servants. Do they love their master, really… or do they simply desire release from the fear of death?

Either way, the Phoenix is his own being, an entity apart.

As the sun rises over Eden, hits its zenith over the half-built Sphinx, and sets behind the crumbling Mount Rushmore, the Phoenix flies effortlessly across the fluid eonic winds – ageless, changeless, and proud beyond all measure.

For who, in the end, can be greater than the Phoenix?

Part II

The mammoth trumpets loudly, calling out in anguish as golden claws tear into its hide.

Crimson wings beat about its head, forcing it to the earth in unwilling surrender. It thrashes like a fish, a massive hulk of struggling sinew, fur and tusk. Its piteous cries tear into the frigid Siberian air, mingling with the vicious snarling of the hungry Phoenix.

At last the great mammoth dies, as everything must in the end. It settles into the snow, spreading a scarlet stain upon the pristine white blanket.

The Phoenix throws his head up in triumph, his chilling victory scream piercing the still, frozen night as blood drips from his razor-sharp beak.

While the Phoenix hunts here often, he disdains to actually eat here… For what union can a creature of fire and flame have with the never-ending ice? Grasping his kill in his curved talons, the Phoenix takes wing toward another age, another place.

The Phoenix drops his prey atop a high, lonely mountain, one whose peak pierces the cloud barrier. Here mankind will hinder him not; here, he may continue to remain the stuff of mystery, of myth.

Of course, every boon has it price…

For where mankind is not, the celestial becomes more tangible. Here there be the guardians and warriors, the protectors and killers of mankind; they flock about the Phoenix curiously, cherubim, seraphim, and nephilim all. The winged, ethereal creatures – male and female both – flit about the Phoenix as he feeds, the ghost-like tendrils of their clothing just brushing the great dragon-bird, their touch as light as a whisper.  

It is not long before their presence becomes odious; the Phoenix rises from his gorging, his tearing of flesh and cracking of bones, and snaps angrily at the celestial minions who come too close. This is his prey, his kill, and he is determined that they should hinder him not.

They eye him but coolly, completely unbothered by the rage of the mythical Phoenix. He is merely legend, their indifference seems to say… But they are the sort that pre-dates even legend. As such, they are beyond even the Phoenix’s reproach and retribution. They are as numb to his attempts at rebuttal as Death was to the mammoth’s frantic trumpeting.

The Phoenix will later tell himself that he’d eaten enough, that he was about to leave anyway. He takes wing furiously, leaving his gory, dismembered meal to sully the mountain’s craggy peak, and leaves this hell of angelic torment.

He’d eaten enough… really, and truly, and the celestials mattered no. They had nothing whatsoever to do with his leaving.

Really.

Part III

The Almighty is an elusive thing, easy to see, easy to identify but hard to follow, and impossible to pin down.

The Phoenix resents Him mightily for this.

Sometimes the Almighty is obvious but distant, a shining form that tops of the mountains from which he views the entirety of His creation. It is then that the Phoenix resents Him the most, for He is untouchable then, unfathomable and omnipotent; His very presence seems to scorn the mighty Phoenix.

The Almighty, in His untouchable, all-powerful form. How the Phoenix hates Him!

Often the Almighty becomes Spirit, the sentient, changeless phantom. This form, also, the Phoenix dislikes. But he is not so afraid of Him then; he cannot see the Spirit of the Almighty, after all. But he can sense Him, and he finds him frightening nonetheless. The Spirit is separate from the God upon the mountains – but yet He is the same singular, sovereign entity that is the Almighty.

Some days, though, for brief, passing moments, the Almighty becomes simply… mortal. A perishable vessel of flesh. A man, much like any other.

The Phoenix cannot say why he even recognizes this incarnation of the Almighty, this Son of Man. Perhaps he can sense the Spirit within Him, or perhaps the tangible Almighty simply shines even more brightly upon Him.

The Son of Man, too – like the mountaintop Almighty, or the Spirit – is also the Almighty Himself, yet the Phoenix grasps this not. One thing, however, is certain; the Phoenix does not fear the Son of Man. He follows Him daily, floating effortlessly on astral winds, watching as the human Almighty does very human things with His time.

Some days the Son of Man works at mundane tasks, wielding hammer and saw as lustily as any carpenter. He sweats, bleeds, laughs and grunts like any other man intent on building the buildings that house his world.

Yet sometimes the Son of Man pulls away, to pray, to connect with the Almighty upon His mountaintop – this Almighty who is also the Son of Man. Sometimes He wanders the known world with those He has chosen, His select followers. The Phoenix, if he would follow, is forced to fly far and wide, watching from a distance as the Son of Man spreads whatever news He carries to the far corners of His humble nation.

Sometimes the Phoenix lingers within the age of the Son of Man for a time, and sometimes he travels to another, leaving the Almighty-made-flesh to His own devices.

Today, however, the Phoenix is earthbound, watching lazily, preening his crimson feathers disdainfully as the Son of Man stands at the foot of a tall mountain, speaking quietly to his closest friends. The Phoenix cannot hear His words, nor does he care to. He is simply here to observe, to find some new reason to cast scorn upon God and Man both.

The Phoenix raises his plumed head, suddenly intrigued.

The Son of Man has risen above his followers, hands outspread, moving aloft as though pulled by unseen strings.

Now, thinks the Phoenix with macabre humor, Man has learned to fly?! Smiling with his hooked, cruel beak, the Phoenix lunges from beneath his shade tree.

Far, far above the awestruck assemblage, the Almighty shines from His mountain. The Son of Man sails toward Him, as though somehow drawn by the majesty of the Frightfully Eternal.

Determined suddenly not to be denied a privilege handed to a mortal – even a wholly Divine, Immortal Mortal – the Phoenix flies upward, determined to follow the Son of Man into whatever heaven might await Him atop the mountain.

And who truly knows what really waits at the top of the mountain of the Almighty? Only the Almighty Himself, and His Spirit… and the Son of Man.

But soon, the Phoenix vows silently to himself, he too will know.

Part IV

Straining more with each flap of his thunderous wings, the Phoenix rises higher and higher, following the Son of Man as He ascends toward the mountaintop.

Flames lick at the tips of his wings the beat at the chilly air, but the Phoenix worries not. These are not the flames that consume, but the flames that illuminate, that the world may see the Phoenix and stand in awe.

The Phoenix breaks through the clouds and then through the atmosphere, breaking into the Eternal Night as he struggles to overtake the Son of Man. The Son looks serenely down at the Phoenix, shaking his head a little. Silly bird, He seems to be saying. You cannot seize my world for yourself, any more than you can seize the wind

The Phoenix pays Him little heed. He merely redoubles his efforts, determined not to be outdone by anyone, divine or otherwise.

Still the Son of Man rises, moving past star and planet, through the Endless Nothing toward the mountaintop heaven.

The Phoenix begins to tremble more and more with each passing stroke of his wings. Tarnished feathers fall from his aching wings every now and again, drifting slowly toward the atmosphere, where they disappear in flashes of flame and puffs of smoke.

The Phoenix is slowly overtaken by a dawning realization, the sinking feeling that he might actually be able to die.

Still the Son of Man rises serenely, paying the Phoenix little mind.

The ageless beast continues his ascent, but with increasing sluggishness. He hangs his head low, his plume all but gone now, diminished feather by missing feather until it is no more.

One… last… flap, one last desperate plunge toward the Son of Man – who is all but out of sight.

The bedraggled tail feathers that once pointed toward the earth point suddenly skyward, and the Phoenix begins to fall.

He resists, of course, managing a feeble movement of his twitching wings every now and then. But to no avail; he has reached the end of his strength, and he is utterly spent. There is no help for him now… For who would bother to aid him who has scorned all?

The Phoenix hits the atmosphere with a rush of searing pain, and a sudden stab of fear. Like the returning space capsules of the modern age, the force of re-entering the firmament causes massive heat.

As his body begins to simmer and scorch, the Phoenix realizes that this is not the sort of flame that illuminates…

This is the sort of flame that consumes.

The Phoenix stares downward with bulging eyes. Gone is the stunned crowd who watched the Son of Man ascend into heaven; gone is the lush valley of earlier, the tree beneath which the Phoenix preened his once-lovely feathers.

The earth opens up slowly, a hungry maw of flaming fissures, cracks that scar the face of the earth like veins on a dying man.

The Phoenix plunges down, down, exhausted beyond recovery. He looks upward painfully; the Son of Man is far beyond his gaze.

Gone is the crowd, the followers of the Son.

There is no one to listen, no one to hear as the Phoenix crashes into a fissure and begins to burn.

Part V

The Phoenix lifts his head wearily; exhausted, he lets it fall. The flames in which it lands are unbearably painful, yet he lacks the strength to fly away.

His wings crack ominously as he rolls over; his crimson feathers burn one by one, curling away from his blistering flesh in withering clumps of smoldering ash.

So this, then, is Death. To burn yet not be consumed, to suffer and yet not die.

Squawking weakly, the Phoenix struggles to his knees. His golden claws melt and drip away, and his toes dig into the softened earth. Looking skyward with smoke-blurred eyes, the Phoenix looks skyward at the stars, toward the sky that was once his playground.

The Son of Man is up there somewhere, while he – the great Phoenix, the timeless demon-bird – wallows here, in the flames of his own making. All that he ever knew, all that he ever wanted although he’d taken it for granted, is up there… nearly within the grasp of his twisted talons.

So close… and so far that it may as well be on another planet. Life, liberty and all that is good are just out reach but within easy eyeshot, tormenting, mocking.

The Phoenix flops painfully toward a shadow at the edge of the fissure, dragging his broken wings painfully behind them. Maybe it is cooler here; maybe, he thinks, the fire is not quite so hot.

He curls up in the crack, covering his de-plumed head with his spindly, tattered wings. Gone is the glorious creature of ages both past and future; gone is the Watchman of the Ages. Only this tormented beast remains, worse off than any creature who ever perished beneath his grasp.

The Phoenix lays his head down. Groaning, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps.

He feels something beneath his head, something that shouldn’t be here, something that should not have survived the flames.

Ever curious even in his agony, the Phoenix blinks the smoke from his eyes and peers through the darkness.

A scroll. He’d lain his head upon a scroll, something perishable, a creation forged of parchment and ink. Something easily destroyed by flame and heat… yet here it is.

Bits of his burnt and melted feathers cling to the scroll as he unfurls it, his need for distraction overcoming even his pain.

He reads the first few words aloud, mouthing the words with a smoke-blackened beak. In the beginning

‘In the beginning’, here at the end of all that is worthwhile, the end of all joy…

But he can sit out there, wallowing in the flames… or he can hide here in this crack that barely hides him, where even the flames lick inward every once in a moment, and read.

In the beginning…

Part VI

The Son of Man stands at the edge of the fissure, looking down upon the Phoenix.

The Phoenix looks up, knowing what he must do. He knows why the Son is here, and what he came to do. He knows for what purpose he has been given the scroll…

But such a loss of pride! Such a humiliation, to do what the Son expects of him!

The Phoenix groans as he looks around. He had once lived for his pride, valued it above all else. But now he knew better.

For as long as he clings to his pride… he will burn. It was not the Son of Man who threw him into this furnace, but he himself, and by virtue of his own pride, his own sin. And there was no help for him, by his own effort; he could only, by his own effort, do nothing but sit here and burn.

Giving in at last, the Phoenix raises his voice and cries out to the Son of Man, begging for mercy, for redemption. Screeching, he recants his pride and his rebellion; he wails out a raucous song of repentance and supplication.

As though He had been waiting for just such a cry, the Son of Man readily raises His arm.

His sleeve falls down His arm, revealing a gaping hole in his wrist. Blood pours from the wound, as though the wound is yet fresh, and deliberately un-bandaged. The Phoenix stares in disbelief, wondering what on earth this has to do with his cries for mercy.  

The blood gushes into the fissure like a flood, slowly beginning to fill it. The Phoenix thrashes about in alarm, frightened. He is burnt nearly beyond recognition, still in terrible agony… but what good is this blood going to do him?!

The blood pours in, filling the fissure, rising like a flood…

The Phoenix raises his beak above the rising tide, squawking in terror… But his cries are cut short by an abrupt gurgle. The blood covers even his head now, and there is utter silence.

There is only the Son of Man…

And the fissure full of blood, the sanguine pit that once held an eternally dying Phoenix.

Part VII

The Phoenix stands up, flexing his golden claws… claws that, moments ago, had been melted beyond recognition.

He raises his head slowly, the head once crushed in defeat, the head whose plume had been burned to ash. He clicks his once-scorched beak and surveys the dusky-gray sky above with piercing eyes, eyes undimmed by neither smoke nor tears.

He looks to his left, to his right as he spreads his wings. His crimson feathers gleam wonderfully even beneath the slate-colored dawn, and his shoulders and breath ripple with fluid strength and renewed resilience.

The Phoenix looks over his shoulders and eyes his tail, a glorious thing meant to flow behind him like a trail from a comet.

Awed by his new being, the Phoenix looks around. The blood soaks the fissure yet, the Pit that had once been his Hell. The Pit in which he burned and died a death of sorts, the Pit in which he lay feeble and wounded and tormented by Death that refused to become something final, and clean.

The blood boils yet, but only a little as the heat dies; already it is cooler here. The Phoenix cocks his head, listening to the dead leaves scattering in the breeze above. They make a rasping sound, pleasantly reminiscent of trees limbs, scratching gently on a windowpane on a cold, windy night.

Smiling, the Phoenix crouches a little, holding his wings behind him…

Shrieking like a resurrected banshee, the triumphant Watchman of the Ages lunges from the Pit, soaring toward the clouds in a geyser of color and flame… The sort of flame that glorifies, that illuminates; the flame that consumes is dead now, extinguished once and for all by the outpouring of blood.

Ah, the Blood…

Confused – suddenly unsure of himself – the Phoenix looks downward, gliding for a moment upon a convenient breeze.

The Son of Man stands by the edge of the fissure yet, watching the Phoenix circle the sky, His wrists bleeding yet. Yet the Son of Man seems unconcerned about this, as though He doesn’t mind bleeding. As though He was so eager to watch the flames die that the blood bothers Him not; He seems in no rush to seek a bandage, or healing.

The Phoenix looks up, peering beyond the veil of time…

He looks out across the courtyard, toward the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The great works of man, from Colossus to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…

He stares across the golden bridge into the New Sodom, imagining it falling into the bay when the Father’s vengeance comes to the city at last…

He watches with growing hunger the migrating mammoth herds of Siberia, and the hustle and bustle of the glory that was once Rome…

And he suddenly realizes that none of it matters. Vanity, meaningless…

Empty.  

The Phoenix circles a little, and looks down upon the one thing in his life of arrogance, death, and re-birth that ever did matter.

Making his decision, the great dragon-bird abandons the skies that he once so loved, and plunges toward the earth.

The Son of Man raises his arms, smiling His gentle smile, as though He’d been waiting. His wrists bleed yet, but perhaps they must; perhaps there are other flames that need snuffed, other victims that need re-birth.

The Phoenix skids to the earth at the feet of the Son, bowing his head in a gesture never before known to him… And there he remains. He spreads his wings, lowering them humbly to the ground, waiting.

Come with me, the Phoenix seems to stay. Let me be your beast of burden; let me be that which bears through all time, to do the work which you came to do. Let me be that which carries you across the sky, in all your glory.

The Son of Man lays a gentle hand on the feathered head before Him, spilling a few more drops of blood as He does.

Let me do this for you, the Phoenix seems to say. Please, not because you need my help…

But because it would be my honor, for I love you.

FINIS