Sunday, October 19, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Eighteenth

Sunday Nightmare Fuel is always shorter. The image inspired this fragment.


Outside the decaying cathedral is a plaque. It is written in a language nobody who worshiped there would understand.
This was one of the last buildings taken in the liberation, after the remainder of the city had been freed. The figures within represent celebrants in mystical ceremonies which would take place herein, in which a supernatural being would be praised and petitioned for boons. 

Despite the obvious fact that their myths weren't true, a number of these "worshipers" remained in the building, after the fall of the city. Their last words were a repeat of the myth that they would live forever.

It is to our everlasting shame that we failed to keep any alive for cultural
Image by Niki Feigen Source:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Seventeenth: So you Decided to be a Ghost

I don't write many ghost stories, but I perhaps should. Ghosts are inherently interesting. What would you want to see, do, or experience if you could reach past the veil of death? What would it mean to the living?

In some ways ghosts could be more interesting than vampires or zombies, the latter of which I find especially boring. 
One side note: today's prompt comes from fellow participant Erin Vataris, who has written on some of the same prompts as I have this month. See her work here for a glimpse as to how a different writer can see something else in the same image.

For now,  Read on!


So you've decided to become a ghost.

IT isn't easy; death isn't what you expected. Oh, there was the predictable anger at leaving too young, but there were no pearly gates, no lake of fire, not really much of anything you'd have expected. Death was like a giant mute button. One year for Halloween you'd actually dressed like a ghost, with a semitransparent hood covering your head. Death was amusingly like that; the world was there, but everything was muted, darkened, far away. You could almost see, hear, smell, but just barely.
Image Courtesy of Erin Vataris

You could go anywhere, but you choose to go home. Through the haze of death you can see her, of course. Still muted, but less than the rest of the world. If you squint, you can almost see her face.


She's like a hint of a beacon in what is otherwise darkness, but no matter how you yell - that you love her, that you miss her, that you're still there -  she doesn't hear you. So you wander.

In some places, the world seems a bit closer. Cemetaries. Churches. Baseball diamonds. Wandering to and from these places, you learn something. You can move forward and back, left and right, as you always did, but there's something else now. You think of it as to and from; back towards the world, and ... away from it. Towards the next step? Towards oblivion? You don't know. But you learn the feeling.

You exercise. It's like it had been to hit the gym, except that the ache isn't in a muscle group. It's all-over, as if you'd done every body part plus your brain in one go. It hurts, but you don't mind; it's the only time you feel anything.

You push through hard, and can sometimes see other people. Once you watch a whole inning of a baseball game, as if through a haze.

You feel ready. You go back home.

You push through, feel the ache through your ghostbody and arms, and soul. It mainly hurts in your eyes, or what your eyes had been.

You pause.

No, she isn't with someone else, or back in love, or anything like that.

She's in bed, reading a book. You always read together, often going so far as to buy two copies. You were always a bit slower than she was, but she'd pace herself so you'd catch up at the end of the night, talk about what you'd just experienced. Then leave your two identical books with two matching bookmarks together.

Even at your strongest, reading a book is beyond you. Even now, the hardest you push, you can barely finish a page. You move backwards, away, until you see out the corner of your eye:

On what had been your nightstand, an identical book to the one she is reading, bookmarked midway through.

Straining against the membranes of the world, you push forward.

Maybe she'll tell you about it. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Sixteenth - CLowning Around

I don't understand the meme that clowns are scary. I take that back: I understand that exaggerated features, and a hidden face can be scary to some, but I've never felt it. To me, a clown is not only a figure of fun but, at best, the narrative thread at the center of a performance. It's the archetype of the fool which can reflect reality through a funhouse mirror.

So, today's prompt was a clown picture. The story is a callback to my earlier "We Can Cure You" 

The image was presented without known attribution.

They cured me. You probably heard about that. It doesn't matter how. If it's magic leeches, mystic chants, or twelve steps of surrender to a higher power, it's a cure. They cured me.

What nobody tells you about a cure is that it doesn't take that part of you away. The wanting a drink part. So they cure you, they take away the drink, and leave the wanting. The hunger.

So we wear masks to cover up the hungering beasts. They could be satin, silk, steel, or leather. Or greasepaint.

IT started with a book, the way such things always do. No, not a magic book, not a dusty tome with no author and no apparent source. I've learned my lesson about shops that weren't there yesterday, and disappear when you aren't looking. No, this was a nice, reliable, Complete Idiot's style guide to clowning. I loved the makeup. Wearing it, I feed different. I'm [name] the clown.

There are places you can practice if you look hard enough. I found a group just outside the city, in an abandoned old church. The furniture has long since been stripped out, the plaster walls are riddled with holes, but it's at least rainproof. It's a good group. Amateurs who love to work on the craft. We practice makeup, practice pratfalls, practice skills like juggling. Not like the "real" jugglers; cascading seven balls is damn hard but doesn't look impressive in a showy enough way. It's just throwing and catching. No, when we juggle it's tricks. Spins and pirouettes that look sloppy-drunk but pull out the catch at the last second.

Yeah, my clown-character is a bit of a drunk. Don't worry, I still don't touch the stuff. And even though the pounds have melted away after hours on the unicycle (another important skill) the veins on my nose show just a bit too much. It's OK, really. The makeup hides it.

So yeah, I came to look forward to the afterwork clowning hour. Then two. And a quick unicycle circuit at lunchtime. And yeah, I was late for dinner a night or two. Sometimes I'd pretend to be late at the office. Look, it's a calling. I wouldn't judge yours? The amazing thing about the clowning club is that someone is always there. Always. I've never come to the church and found it empty.

I came home one night to an empty house. She'd stuck with me through the drinking, but left over the clowning. How fucked up is that?

And here's the crazy thing. The makeup, I swear, is just regular clown makeup, like the way the book got me started was just a regular book. I didn't get it at a magical store, or for an old gypsy woman, or trade my last cow to a mysterious stranger for it. It's just a tube of makeup, ordered over the internet, OK?

So why won't it come off, no matter how hard I scrub?

Why has the mask become my only face?

Must I wear another mask over it, when I'm not clowning?

Do I even want to?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fifteenth - Throwback Thursday

I'm not really a big hard-science fiction reader anymore, but have to admit that it was my first literary love. So, for today's Nightmare Fuel, I present to you an homage to one of the giants of American twentieth-century SF. He wasn't not an author whose politics resonate with me today, but was one of the figures who drew me to my love of speculative fiction. Enjoy.


TV Preview: Out of this Real World

If one TV producer has his way, humans will walk on Mars not in the spirit of exploration but as a desperate gimmick to breath life into the rotting corpse of the reality genre. Decades after would-be space cadets were first bilked out of thousands of dollars for a "one-way-ticket to Mars", fledgling streaming service RAHStream seeks to make the ambitious "Survivor in Space" the centerpiece of its original programming. Technical details remain to be worked out, but tens of thousands of hopeful space survivors have already signed up....

Application for Participation in "BarsoomHouse" Project [excerpted from criminal court documents]

    Other (specify) __________________________
Religious Affiliation:
List all social media usernames and passwords for background verification

Mogul to Join Barsoom House Cast - On his Own Terms
Promises his own ticket will be "one-way" as well

Billionaire Ansom Roberts revealed plans to join the starlost "survivors" of his reality franchise "The Real Barsoom" in a one-way trip to Mars. More accurately, they'll join him. Roberts plans to leave in the single-passenger rocket Harriman one week before the remaining castmembers, allowing the flamboyant mogul  and financial backer of the project to greet the interplanetary castaways at the landing site.

"We're looking back at the history of reality television, nodding to that," a spokesperson explained. "...

[Excerpt from Screams into the Dark: The Personal Blog of the One who Sees]

You all remember my proof of how the selection process for Real Barsoon was rigged, don't you? Well, if they wanted to silence me they rigged it wrong. Maybe they thought that my death on the launch pad would bring too much attention, get the wrong people reading this blog. Well, they miscalculated, didn't they? I'm still here, and still exposing them.

Remember, Roberts' endgame is nothing more than the hegemony of his secret Hindu faith over the world. The very name of his ship, the Harriman proves as much. Harri ... Hari ... Krishna. Wake up Sheeple! Does he need to spell it out in mile-high letters?

Feature: The World's Loneliest Man
No return trip for Ansom Roberts

He never planned a return trip.

That much we knew, but last week's incident on the launchpad - one still being investigated - drove the point home in an unexpected way. Ansom Roberts continues toward Mars, not as the ringmaster in a made-for-streaming-TV circus but as the loneliest man to ever live, doomed to die farther from his fellow humans than anyone has ever been.

Scenes of his preparation are that much more poignant; the row of compressed air cylinders, still labelled with broad paper tags. A utility knife, some freeze-dried food, a few tools. Enough to have lasted him until the  Star Minnow was to arrive with passengers and supplies for long-term survival, if not comfort...

Final Words of Lone "Martian" reach Earth
Over a year after his ill-fated launch, Ansom Roberts' final transmission reached a record audience of RAHGlobeStream's subscribers. The ironically-live feed of his dead body is still available, and will remain so for as long as the transmitting camera functions - this may be years. Viewers can see his spacesuit against the backdrop of empty space, with earth sadly missing from the background.

A sharp-eyed viewer can see the torn-off tag from a compressed air cylinder, pinned to the Martian soil at his feet with a knife. On it are written his final words, from British poet Robert Louis Stevenson

"Under the wide and starry sky
"The Astronaut" by Devin Francisco,

dig the grave and let me lie
glad did I live and gladly die
and I laid me down with a will. 

This be the verse you grave for me
"here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
and the hunter home from the hill"

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fourteenth

Dialog is fun. I sometimes like descriptive texts, and sometimes like to play by setting a scene with nothing but dialog. SF writer Terry Bisson is terrific at that; he has some classics (the beautifully titled "They're Made of Meat" comes immediately to mind) which are nothing but all-dialog flash pieces.

I didn't even use dialog tags here, but I think it's clear who's speaking at which point.
"We're lost. Can we please ask for directions?"

"We're not lost and we don't need to ask for directions. You always want to ask."

"Admit it. You have no idea where we are or how to get there. Why do yo always think you know where you're going, even in a city you've never been to?"

"I know where I'm going. I read the map beforehand. Look, there's the bridge."

"that doesn't look right. I'm checking."

"Don't check. I know where we're going."


"See? We're supposed to continue. Not get off here." "No, this looks right. Trust me. It will be an adventure."


"You're not listening."

"The damn thing doesn't even know how to say 'Parkway'. This looks right. I can see the bridge."


"Where? I can't see anything."

"We would see the bridge if it weren't for this fog."


"Turn that useless thing off. If it's just going to say "recalculating" it's no use."

"If you won't listen it's no use. I really think this is wrong."


"It's fine. Let me pay attention. Look, there's the bridge, right in front of us."

"See? Useless. You can't even use the thing right. Where does it think we're trying to go?"

"It still says the hotel. It just cant find it. Honey... the map is gone."

"Like I said, useless. Things like GPS are a crutch. We keep relying on those we forget how to walk. Now quiet. I can barely see."


Fogged Bay Bridges by Toby Harriman

"This bridge is going for a long time."


"Great. Now we can't use it to get back even if we tried. Why is the bridge so long"

"I don't know. Please... let me drive."

"I don't see the road."

"I know."

"I don't see any cars."

"I know that too. Look, we're on the bridge. It has to get us somewhere, right?"

"You never listen."


"I can't see anything outside."


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Thirteenth. We Can Cure You

I was going to muse on immortality again, but this went a different way. Consider it a modern-day fable of sorts. This one feels like a bit of a throwback to me. 

Have I mentioned that I love magic shops? 

"We can cure you."

That's all it says. That and an address. No phone number, no email address. Just a street address not too far away.

Maybe you're desperate. Maybe you're still carrying a bit of that buzz from last night, and not in a good way. Maybe your breath smells like last night's vomit and maybe your wife is about to leave you.

Maybe you're desperate enough to go somewhere, sight unseen, hoping that the "cure" is for what you need curing.

The shop is small and cozy behind the simple wooden door with a discrete bronze plaque. "The Cure." The doctor - you can't help but think of him as a doctor - is a kindly man of late-middle years with a warm, trustworthy, Norman Rockwell kind of face. You stammer that you know he promised a cure, but didn't say what.

"What ails you? We can cure you. I promise."
Image from WBIR

Your face hot with shame, you mutter something about drink. The man smiles and nods, not unkindly. You almost run when he withdraws a plastic screwcap bottle, about three inches long. A clear bottle, so you can see inside.

You know what leeches are from a TV show about the history of medicine. You'd run if the idea of turning around didn't turn your stomach. Instead you collapse in the chair, close your eyes, feel it latch onto you.

The pain in the back of your stomach fades, the dizziness fades. The room gets sharper, clearer. Maybe the leech drank the alcohol out of your body (Only the alcohol? You know that's crazy). You're no longer hungover.

Six months later is six months without a drink, but a few extra cigarettes a day to compensate. OK, maybe a pack. You're not desperate this time, but still you want a cure. And you remember, after the revulsion, it was easy. Very easy.

You come back. The same kindly man is there, behind the same counter. This time you don't feel shame as you ask if he can cure your smoking. After all, everyone has trouble quitting, right? You still recoil at the jarred leech. This one seems bigger, but lean an hungry. As it latches onto the skin on the inside of your wrist you can feel the nicotine leaving your blood, feel your lungs open up as the creature grows fat. You walk out, feeling better than you have in years.

The pattern repeats, the cures multiply. You no longer smoke, no longer drink, no longer overeat. You don't even waste time with the sports pages. Some days you wonder what came of those leeches, made fat with your vices. Some days.

Some days you just feel sad. There's a bit of emptiness, there's something missing. So you go back, one more time.

"What ails you?"

You try to find the words. It's not as easy as saying that you want to quit smoking, or drinking, or overeating or bad television. "I feel...sad. Kind of empty. Lost."

The smile fades from the doctor's lips. He stands, walks you towards the door. Silently, you follow. You've come to trust him.

Gently but quite firmly he leads you outside, steps back into the shop and closes the door behind him. The sound of the door locking is like a gunshot.

You stand there for a long time, not knowing what to do.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Nightmare Fuel, Day the 12th, In which Nobody Dies

We'll discuss immortality again today; it seems to be a theme of this year's Nightmare Fuel for me.

This vignette was loosely inspired, of course, by a scene from Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.


"So... How was your century?"

I sighed. "fine."

"Just fine? Can't you at least make an effort?"

I took a deep breath. It's always like this. "I created three new identities for myself, juggled the money around the way you'd taught me. Lived in six cities. Learned to play the harmonica; it's nice and portable. Tried the piano again, but it doesn't really fit me. Too hard to move a piano. Took a vow of silence, spent about ten years in a monastery. Married twice. Watched one die of old age, just walked away from the other." I looked back at him. "It's been a century. A lifetime, for some. What about you?"

He sighed. He looked no older than he had the last time we'd met, a hundred years before. Or did he? Were the lines on his face a bit  deeper?  I often have the same speculation about my own face, staring into the mirror for hours on end.

He shook his head. "That's it? It seems ... small. I expected more from you this time."

I felt my face flush, my stomach tighten. "You say that every century. Not everyone needs to fix the world. It keeps getting better on its own."

He gives me a long look. The kind that makes me feel like a bug in a jar. The kind he was always good at. "Really? The world will get better? Around you? When will you learn some responsibility? I can help. We can plan your next century together." I sip my drink before answering. "No, you're right. I'm sorry. I'll", I pause for a deep breath. "I'll do better next time. Maybe learn some medicine."

He laughs, a cool laugh that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Nanotechnology. That's where the future is at. You'll study nanotechnology?"

I nod. "Sure," knowing that we're leading to a long lecture on the right schools, the right resources, which palms to grease to get that nanotechnology education he wants from me. We both know I won't do it, but we have to go through the motions. Thing is, maybe he's right. Maybe I will make something of myself this time.

In any event, this is going to be a long, long day.

I'm just glad it's only once every hundred years.