“The Queen is controlling, the Witch is sadistic, the Hermit is fearful, and the Waif is helpless.”
― Christine Ann Lawson, Understanding the Borderline Mother
I’m not here for you to feel sorry for me, because it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I’m not here to wallow or to make you change your opinion of me, because it also doesn’t get anyone anywhere. This essay of sorts wasn’t written to change your opinion of me. It’s simply to show you why I write the way I do, and what it means for me to use writing as a form of catharsis. I have Borderline Personality Disorder, and I don’t want your sympathy. I just want you to understand what it means, and how I use it to inspire my writing.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a widely criticised and misunderstood mental illness. It’s called borderline because it indicates someone is on the border of neurosis and psychosis. It’s a fractured psyche, but not entirely unmanageable. BPD controls every aspect of my life. It splits my thinking into black and white. I either love or hate you, like or dislike you; there is no in-between. I won’t go into the specifics of how this diagnosis came about. Suffice to say I grew up with parents who loved me and my sister, except one of them experienced various incredibly horrible traumas in their life they couldn’t get over and wouldn’t seek help to try and get over them. Instead, they drank heavily and offloaded their lifetime of sadness to a child, a child who just wanted to know they were loved and appreciated, a child who just wanted to be a child. This parent also gave up their first child for adoption and then gave me a quest to find this child. Now let’s think about that. A child with a quest. Sounds like some kind of hero in a fantasy story, right? Wrong. I felt it was my life’s mission to find this mysterious sibling because if I did this parent would stop drinking and tell me they were proud of me. They’d tell me they loved me and for the first time, I’d genuinely believe it. They inflicted their pain upon me which, through therapy, I now know is not OK.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I hid in the cupboard to escape this or the number of times I self-harmed just to feel something that was not their pain, but my own. Because there was no room in their life for me to be sad. There was no place for me to voice my feelings that weren’t childish happiness. I don’t know how to make this any clearer: I was allowed to feel my own feelings. I. Was. Not. Allowed. To. Feel.
And that’s the way it’s been for a long time. I don’t always hide the fact I don’t experience genuine empathy for a lot of people. I don’t think I’m a particularly unkind person – I’m just brusque, and if pushed to the point where I allow myself to outwardly project my emotions I will tell you exactly what I think of you, and that isn’t always nice. Because of this, I don’t have many ‘real-life’ friends, and I haven’t had many stable relationships.
However, my current partner, who I have been with for almost three years, also has BPD, and while we have a bizarre relationship, it works. Because we understand each other in a way many others simply can’t. He’s a very interesting person. While I bottle up my emotions and then explode, he explodes straight away without a second thought. But he’s also an artist, and when he’s frustrated, he’ll go work on a piece that gives him some semblance of peace and calmness I can’t always provide. He uses creativity in the same way as I do. I love him more than I have ever loved another partner (I was engaged to my daughter’s father for three years, yet the relationship failed because he didn’t understand my BPD and thought I was just ‘crazy’. He’s not a bad person; he just doesn’t understand, and that’s OK). My partner and I are like yin and yang. We’re two pieces of the same puzzle. And yet our symptoms don’t mirror each other – they’re reflections of the same disorder. I’m obsessive and hyper-focussed, and I push each other to do more and more things that overwhelm me. He’s more laid-back and works on one or two things at a time. But this is why when he has outbursts, they’re horrible, yes, but they’re not as explosive as mine because he doesn’t hold it in like I do. And while he doesn’t go to therapy, it’s a skill I wish I could learn.
For example, I recently had a driving lesson. The instructor expected a lot more from me than I could give, as I had only had around seven lessons from three different people. I told this instructor about it. I made it clear I was nervous. And yet as I drove and missed a few turns he would sigh or click his tongue, or even say “why can’t you do this? Everyone else can.” I let this slide for two or three times. Maybe I should have been able to do this? Maybe he was just being matter of fact because he had to be straightforward during a short person of time allocated for the lesson. However, after another round of “why can’t you…are you ever trying…” I finally showed emotion and exploded with rage. I pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed my bag, told the instructor he was a c*nt and to get f*cked, and I got out of the car and stormed off. He shouted at me from the window, demanding payment, yet I shouted at him to never contact me again.
A few days later, at my psychologist appointment, I told her about the altercation. She told me I was impulsive and that I should have thought about him. What if he was having a bad day? Yet I told her I didn’t care. I’ve made so much progress with my therapist over the years, I really have, yet I honestly didn’t care, and I still don’t.
Let’s imagine you’ve argued with a friend. It’s a particularly mild argument, nothing too bad, and you both manage to get over it and salvage your friendship. Yet for me, that means renouncing them as a friend, cutting off all contact with them, and adding them to your mental list of ‘people I hate the most.’ Later, you may realise it was irrational and you’ve just lost the best friendship you’ve ever had, but at that moment, severing all ties with them is the most logical thing to do. Except, a BPD brain isn’t a logical brain. In my head, my logic switch turns off as fast as it turns on. Just like the way I acted in my driving lesson. All semblance of decency, understanding, and empathy just goes away. I’m not saying it’s an excuse as to why I behave the way I do, but it is a major contributing factor.
Despite many years of therapy, I still haven’t gotten over the abuse afflicted upon me as a child, and I still can’t control my emotions. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the parent who gave me my quest didn’t care about me and what I wanted my life to be? So why should I care about others if the one person I wanted love and validation from couldn’t give it to me? I just can’t get over it, and I still haven’t figured out how to be rational and logical in an appropriate manner. To be honest, I truly believe the way I acted towards the driving instructor is perfectly rational and logical. But I know, deep down, that maybe, just maybe, it’s not the way to treat others, even if I was mistreated in the first place. I don’t want to hurt others in the way I was hurt as a child.
I use all of this pain, all of this sadness, all of this frustration, in my writing. I turn it all into something creative, something cathartic. My sadness is a hollowness, a bitterness, like something rotten inside of me. I suppose that’s why I gravitate towards horror. I can use this in a macabre way to convey my feelings in an acceptable manner. When the overwhelming thoughts of uselessness, of anger, of fluctuating moods, of intense loving and loathing of someone takes over I use horror to explore it. This character becomes mutilated in a physical way rather than an emotional way. This character feels the most intense physical pain they’ve ever felt in their life in a physical way rather than an emotional way. This character literally and grotesquely turns their body inside out in a physical way rather than an emotional way, and for horror writing, it works.
I love writing. It’s a skill I am so thankful I have. I’m also an artist and an academic researcher, but writing is who I am. It gives me a sense of identity when I’m going through stages where I feel there’s nothing inside of me. Writing allows me to create characters in a fairly easy way because I, myself, am a character to many people. I have many different faces I show to people because I want to control how they view me. I hate being out of control. It makes me think of the feeling of helplessness I had as a child.
Right now, as I write this, I am on the brink of tears. My heart is beating so fast I feel it might burst forth from my chest. Why won’t you love me? Why won’t you say you’re proud of me?! Why the f*ck should this be what I write about? Many people tell me I’m funny. I love telling jokes. I love making people laugh. But I can’t tell them I try so hard to make people laugh because it’s the only way I know how to make myself wanted. Because surely my writing and my art aren’t good enough for people to like me?
I don’t know if I can give any solid advice on writing. I believe I’m an adequate writer, but not so good people would ever ask for advice. I know that’s my low self-esteem talking, but deep down I truly believe that. And I don’t know if that will ever change. But I’m trying. You better f*cking believe I’m trying my hardest to change. I’m trying to be a good person, a good role model for my child, a better partner, and someone who cares about other people’s feelings. I’m trying not to be so f*cking selfish. And I tell people to write about their feelings honestly, to write about their pain, their sadness, their struggles in a wholly transparent way. For we all experience these emotions, it’s just some do more than others. And honestly, that’s all I can do.
Bio: Claire Fitzpatrick is an award-winning author of speculative fiction and non-fiction. She won the 2017 Rocky Wood Award for Non-Fiction and Criticism. Called ‘Australia’s Queen Of Body Horror’ and ‘Australia’s Body Horror Specialist,’ she enjoys writing about anatomy and the darker side of humanity. Her debut collection ‘Metamorphosis,’ hailed as ‘simply heroic,’ is out now from IFWG Publishing. She’s currently studying a Master’s degree at the University of Queensland in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. She lives with her partner, her daughter, and her cat Cthulhu somewhere in Queensland.
Metamorphosis: Short Stories by Claire Fitzpatrick
This short story collection includes 17 tales of terror. Madeline will never become a woman. William will never become a man. Does June deserve to be human? Does Lilith deserve a heart? If imperfection is crucial to a society's survival, what makes a monster?
"Simply heroic." - R.J. Joseph [reviewer]
"Wonderful carnage among the formalities and forced smiles." - Aaron Dries, author of 'A Place For Sinners.'"
A wickedly gruesome collection." - Tabitha Wood, author and editor.
"Visceral and demented, full of flesh that twists and transforms and even sprouts feathers, Fitzpatrick's stories will either sicken or delight." - Brian Craddock, Shadows Award-winning author of 'Ismail's Expulsion.'
As you've no doubt noticed throughout the course of this series (enormous thanks to all contributors, by the by), there is a marked tendency for writers that operate in horror (and related subjects) to express extremely intimate and intense psychological states through their work. Whether metaphorically or directly, horror provides the creator an arena for self-exploration and dissection as much as it does the reader. What arguably distinguishes horror in that regard is its lack of parameter; few other genres exercise the same innate willingness -the imperative, even- to smash through or abandon social norms, accepted codes of conduct; to exercise these self-dissections outside of proscribed parameters of morality, protocol, etiquette etc.
What horror provides -not uniquely, but distinctly- is a means of raking the sub-conscious, of exploring what other forms and subjects might distract from or attempt to reconcile. Horror, at its most acute and intimate, is earnest in a way that might ostensibly be considered shameful or culturally repugnant; it allows both creator and audience to explore aspects of themselves that they might otherwise shy away from, deny or sublimate. In that, horror constitutes a sincere form of therapy, even when said creators and audiences aren't aware that it is doing so.
The act of creation itself cannot help but be an expression of the writer's state of mind, whether consciously or otherwise, whether that is the specific intention of the writing or not. This is true in all forms and genres, but horror -alongside certain forms of science fiction- absolutely demands it; requiring the writer to delve deep into forbidden or taboo territories, to take pleasure in the expression of the grotesque, the sadistic, the mutilating and metamorphic. It is on that tension that monsters and miracles are born: liminal and mythic entities such as the werewolf and the vampire, which exercise as much fascination and express as much aspiration and desire as they do horror or revulsion.
Whilst even the writer themselves might express no more intention than to induce a shudder or a quiver of dread, the very fact that they create within this particular tradition, that they express a fascination with such subjects and reactions -not to mention that audiences consistently return to experience them-, demonstrates that there is something deeper at work.
Horror is catharsis, of a sorts. Both on a personal and much wider, political and socio-cultural level. It's no secret that horror fiction and cinema experienced a positive boom in the US towards the end of the 1960s, that arguably sustained up to the mid 1990s in which the genre elevated itself beyond the stereotypes and parameters it is traditionally denigrated under, serving as a culture-wide exploration of internal conflict. Phenomena such as the escalating Civil Rights movement, the slow death of the American Dream, Vietnam, Watergate and myriad other factors stoked a vast, cultural cauldron in which certain neuroses and conflicts boiled, which expressed themselves through the country's various media (most notably in written fiction and cinema). It was this era that saw horror crystallise not only in commercial terms, thanks to phenomena such as Stephen King, George Romero etc but also as something that people flocked to and exulted, though I imagine many didn't consciously articulate why, even to themselves.
Victoriana in the UK also saw a similar efflorescence: from the ready availability of “Penny Dreadful” pamphlets and novellas to epoch-making literary phenomena such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde etc, horror fiction and media exercised a peculiar fascination for the Victorian reader; a fact that is simultaneously ironic and entirely congruent, given the state of the culture:
Not only was Victorian Britain a morass of superficial cultural restrictions and taboos covering a seething bed of appetite and iniquity, it also saw the slow decay of traditional meta-narratives through escalating scientific discoveries, industrial revolution, the emergence of new philosophies and political ideologies, social movements etc. Writings such as Dracula are reactions to that very phenomena; they express neuroses and fears that occur not merely on a personal but a culture-wide level. Frankenstein likewise explores the natural fears that came with the dissolution of certain traditions; the stability and certainty, the moral restrictions that derived from assumptions and proscriptions of God, divinely proscribed morality etc, but also take the analysis several realms deeper by addressing the very concept of identity; what it means to be human in times when traditional concepts of humanity are transforming around us and being altered to fit new and frightening narratives.
The personal, in this regard, isn't divorced from the ideological or cultural, but is ineluctably part of the same mechanism: Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein purportedly as the result of a nightmare, a phenomena that, in itself, is the human mind attempting to digest or express something profound and traumatic; ideas, dreads, hopes and desires that might otherwise remain sublimated, that the conscious mind perhaps lacks the language or the means to wrestle with directly. This intensely personal introspection then expands to incorporate philosophical and existential questions when put to paper; questions that readers clearly asked of themselves and still do, given the book's success at the time of publication and its enduring status.
It would be churlish and presumptive to assume what the writing of horror fiction performs for other creators within the genre; I don't know, not having access to their minds, their processes, the immediate experience of imagining and recording that they undergo during the act of creation. Therefore, one can only hypothesize in that regard, refering to one's own interpretations of their writings and to whatever wider context said writers might have provided.
But, even within the constraints of this series, many have already expressed what the creation and consumption of horrific material serves for them on a psychological level. This is itself a thorny issue, as it is a case of mind commenting on its own condition, which one might argue is something of a paradox (mind being both the phenomena under discussion and the instrument of dissection, thereby rendering analysis problematic to the point of impossible).
However, the act of self-autopsy, of insight that derives from the exercise, is arguably worthwhile in itself; whilst it might be near impossible to legitimately express what it serves, the attempt obliges us to consider our states and motivations, our influences and conditions:
Why do I seem to have a hole drilled in my skull into which hallinogenic visions flow? Why, when I close to my eyes, do I experience drug-trip visions of absurdity, atrocity and transcendental insanity? It's a perpetual point of fascination, one that I certainly have conscious intention to explore through my fiction and through the consumption of other's. I want to know where the monsters come from, and why they come to me. What is it about the infernal nursery inside my head that is peculiarly attractive for them to spawn in? And what does that express about the state of my own mind?
Self-obsessive? Borderline egocentric? Perhaps, but, insofar as I can discern, beyond the more expansive, culture-wide and ideological analyses, this is the only way to explore what horror serves on a psychologial level: once again, it's impossible to cast that net too wide, to speak on behalf of others. It's barely possible to hypothesize regarding one's own condition, so, not only an exercise in self-obsession, but perhaps an impotent one at that.
Nevertheless, it's one I feel acutely every time I sit down to write, every time my mind shifts into a particularly imaginative mode (which is often).
So, what do I know about my own state of mind? Precious little, in particular terms. I know that I suffer with the condition that is generally refered to as clinical depression with suicidal tendencies. I know that I often experience extremely vivid, distorted perceptions of reality that occasionally become visual and auditory hallucinations. I know that I operate in a demon-haunted world; that the demons don't derive from some external metaphysics, but from within. The Hell where they are born has levels that descend for infinity within the bounds of my skull. Nor is it an entirely unwelcoming place, one where I am a trespasser.
Those conditions, those nightmare and dreamscapes, are where I am most at home: they are my realms, my worlds; the only places where I don't feel like a monster in a human suit, the only states where I feel there is place and purpose for me. Part of the problem is that: the attractiveness of those conditions, the degree to which I operate in them, can be problematic, as it impinges on the waking world as much as they are informed by and reflective of it.
This tension, this liminal condition in which I am torn apart and stitched back together, in which I operate in multiple different frames and assumptions of reality at once, is what I most sincerely attempt to express through my work. Often not in any conscious or deliberate way; it often isn't until after the initial writing -which is fevered, obsessive, twitchy and convulsive- that I realise what the stories are about. Even then, it's often not a complete or clearly articulated interpretation.
The stories comprised within my first short story collection, Strange Playgrounds, were written at various points throughout my early-to-mid twenties, as a student at university, riddled with social anxiety, lost and without any particular direction or definition, mired in the throes of a depressive episode that began in my early teens and would last until the end of the next decade. Whilst I wasn't aware of these conditions at the time -an insidious element of mental disease, in that it makes itself seem rational, absolute and default-, I certainly remember suffering their effects: random panic attacks, profound exhaustion, detachment from society and self-imposed isolation. The stories I wrote during this period inevitably express all of the frustrations and self-excoriations that come part and parcel of such a condition, which are fairly evident, reading them back now, but which didn't seem clear at all at the time of writing:
The title story, Strange Playgrounds, was consciously inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's The Pit and The Pendulum. The story represents an attempt to take the initial situation of the story -a man who wakes in total darkness, with no knowledge of where he is or memory of how he came to be there- and to run with that confusion rather than explaining it, as the original story does. However, during the first, tentative fumblings through that darkness, it evolved into something else; the subterranean abyss becoming a place where dreams and nightmares are given shape, where manifestations of memory and trauma walk in flesh and skin. Whilst that wasn't the intention of the story, that's what it became, as well as providing the framing device for the entire collection (the follow up, Stranger Playgrounds, bookends the collection and describes the agonising ascent of the protagonist from that abyss, into a waking world that is stranger still).
Whilst the stories within the collection are ostensibly unrelated, those themes recur and recur: almost every tale is one that involves dissatisfaction, frustration with one's existence, the protagonists variously confused and broken, dissatisfied with their existence in myriad unspoken ways that manifest as more immediate, rationalised expressions. They are splinters of my own psyche, vehicles for the same issues that I was facing at the time and, to a certain degree, still do. From existential despair to utter disgust and dissatisfaction with the state of politics, society, humanity, from unspoken desires and frustrated lusts to friendships souring, the collection provides a fairly intimate -and, perhaps, unpleasant- dissection of the places my mind was wandering at the time, the desolations through which it ploughed (directionless, without destination).
It's a strange experience, going back and reading the collection now, revisiting the states of mind that informed it: to my present day eyes, it seems so utterly obvious that the writer was in a downward spiral, a state of mind that could only end in tragedy, without some help or profound shift in their circumstances. The stories even comment upon that at various points; characters either attempting or contemplating suicides of one shape or form (including a protagonist who literally tears the world open in the depths of her despair, with the sheer, black passion of her nihilism) or being pushed into circumstances where they have no choice but to “jump” (the story The Last Sane Man involves a protagonist who finds himself trapped on a train journey which is stuck in a perpetually looping cycle, that none of the other passengers seem to notice or care about. His only option, in extremis, is to leap from the train into abyssal darkness, to fly beyond the world and all his banal assumptions of being).
To think that the younger man who wrote those stories was largely unaware of what they were expressing is somewhat terrifying, given that the efforts to examine what was then unspoken and undefined are so clear. It leaves me to wonder what state he might have come to or what he would be now had he not had the means or opportunity to do so.
Likewise, later efforts -Born in Blood: Volumes One and Two- consciously tackle subjects of mental illness and psychological states, but not in any direct or overt manner. Whereas it might have been tempting to explore those themes and subjects directly -i.e. by incorporating characters and protagonists that suffer from mental illness of various stripe-, that isn't and has never been the way my mind works or processes with such matters:
Rather, it tends to operate on the level of metaphor and symbolism; that is both how it learns and expresses itself, for better or ill. So, rather than specifically tackling this disease or that, creating characters that suffered with this particular malady or that, the process was far more organic, utilising the same techniques I'd naturally cultivated writing Strange Playgrounds, but with a conscious imperative to focus on the experiential: what it meant for the characters involved to experience the various traumas, atrocities and upheavals that occur within the stories.
This became problematic when I began recalling the broken states of mind I'd come to recognise by that point: the profound depressive periods, the social anxieties, the panic attacks. The problem with conjuring such states of mind and attempting to emulate them for the sake of fuelling fiction is that: they have a nasty tendency to swell and become states of mind again. Whilst I wanted Born in Blood to be every bit as earnest and legitimate as Strange Playgrounds, it became apparent during the course of writing that the necessary recollections were also having negative effects. As a result, the project required consistent breaks if I was to maintain whatever degrees of stability I'd managed to accrue in the interim and not slip back down into that old darkness.
The result is a work that is highly abstract, often in conflict with itself, occasionally so extreme in its despair it borders on self-parody (at least to my eyes). Here, there are stories that express such utter dereliction at the state of being and oneself that characters actively attempt to break one or both, turning their conflicts and frustrations outwards upon the world, hoping to shatter or tear it open, not that there will be anything better on the other side; only something different, removed
from who and where they are.
That imperative is intimately familiar to me; it's one I fight every day: an urge to simply run, hop bus or ship or airplane and lose myself somewhere remote, somewhere far, away from the world I know and the condition it necessitates.
Again, at the time of writing, this was not a conscious factor or expression, but merely something that was obviously preoccupying my thoughts, that expressed itself here, in various states and forms throughout the collection. From characters that physically take flight, running from the states of ennui or abuse that facilitate their psychological conditions, to those that engage in suicide or more abstract efforts to escape what they assume underpins their misery, they generally discover states that only serve to compound such concerns or provide new arenas for more distinct abjection. Unlike Strange Playgrounds, which does have a distinct Utopian strain of hopefulness throughout, Born in Blood doesn't; it suggests that, even with an escape into some abstract state of metaphysics, even what sufferers assume to be the ultimate escape through self-destruction, may not provide release; may even compound what they're attempting to escape.
In that regard, the stories of Born in Blood may potentially represent what I ultimately dread in the same way that those collected within Strange Playgrounds represent hope: the former that reality is as my peculiarly distorted state of mind so often insists it is; a hopeless, rotting, mundane state with no potential for wider exploration or transcendence, the latter that such is a profound delusion: that creation itself might be ripped open or undone like a reflection in a still pond, with sufficient inspiration.
That simultaneous hope and despair -which are two sides of the same coin- is the fundamental dynamic of all of my fiction, the baseline concern that I hope to impart and explore. Within that framework lies infinite wildernesses, states of being, peoples, characters, creatures beyond number, all of whom serve as mainfestations of certain ideas, aspects, concepts; vehicles for wider consideration.
In Born in Blood, characters pray so earnestly for an end. Consciousness being, existence itself, is a kind of torment, being trapped within their own skulls, at the mercy of every dawning day, too much for them to take. And so they take to either mundane or esoteric means to alter that. Whilst the stories are universally fantastical, many exploring a wider metaphysics coalesced around the collection's fundamental despair and nihilism, they also reflect my own inalienable desire to do likewise; to use dissatisfaction as a scalpel, as a blade, to slit creation open and have it bleed miracles, even dark ones. Anything other than endure another series of grey and listless days with their parade of banal atrocities, petty conflicts, navel-gazing arguments, confusions and misunderstandings.
My fiction has allowed me to realise so much in that regard; how I relate not only to the rest of humanity, culture, society et al, but also to existence itself, to my own state of consciousness. Whilst those revelations might not always be pleasant -far from it, in many instances-, I certainly wouldn't be without them, as, through that process, I take steps towards the abstract equivalent of the same sheddings and metamorphoses that my characters experience. Whilst I might dream and fantasise of experiencing them physically (that point at which nightmare and waking overlap and dissolve into one another a kind of lunatic paradise for me), I recognise their worth in the arena of mind, the state of abstraction which is where we live, our principle sphere of operation, beyond any delusion of an absolute, ostensible “reality” we might entertain.
Without that, I have terrible intimations of what and where I might be; a situation I hope to fend off through any means, even if it requires an Alice in Wonderland collapse into the Hellscapes of my inner-worlds.
Grady Hendrix writes books and movies like Mohawk, Satanic Panic, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Paperbacks from Hell, and the upcoming Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.
THE FIRST HORROR BOOK I REMEMBER READING
When I was a kid, my family lived in England for a year. We rented this big house in Dulwich with a hippie living in the basement and a photographer living in the attic, and this enormous library with floor to ceiling shelves. Up on one of the top shelves, I found a copy of this black book with a gold mask embossed on the cover called Folklore, Myths, and Legends of Britain and every page depicted witches being hung, Catholics being tortured, ghosts crawling out of marshes. I knew my parents didn’t want me to read it, so I’d climb up the shelves like a monkey, drag it down, and crouch behind the sofa and pore over those pages dripping with carnage and mayhem again and again because it felt like a travel guide to Great Britain in 1978.
THE FIRST HORROR FILM I REMEMBER WATCHING
Although it’s about leprechauns, Darby O’Gill and the Little People ends with a skin-crawling, crazy-making encounter with a banshee. They showed it at Peter Mansfield’s birthday party and I lost my mind with sheer terror and couldn’t even think of the horrible, caterwauling wail of the banshee for years afterwards without falling apart into gibbering terror.
THE GREATEST HORROR BOOK OF ALL TIME
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are the two great horror novels of the 20th Century. There is no argument. They’re both haunted house books but one’s about loneliness and alienation between people and one is about an America haunted by its history of violence and that pretty much sums up the 20th Century.
THE GREATEST HORROR FILM OF ALL TIME
Return of the Living Dead is not just the greatest horror film, but one of the two greatest films, of all time. When it came out, everyone got to see it but me because I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies, so I had to hear about it for years before accidentally catching it on cable a couple of Halloween’s later and it blew me away because unlike other movies, it fulfilled every single promise it made to its audience. Every single plot element and character is taken to its logical conclusion and the biggest mass murderer in the movie turns out to be the President of the United States. Someone described it to me once as “campy” and I really don’t think it is. It’s stupid, and funny, and horrifying, and disgusting, and hopeless, and cathartic, and depressing all at once. Sounds like real life to me.
THE GREATEST WRITER OF ALL TIME
I stumbled across Ken Greenhall while writing Paperbacks from Hell and realized that he was the heir to Shirley Jackson’s quiet, sinister, self-assured voice with its chilly razor’s edge of precision. His first three horror novels are perfect. There’s Elizabeth, written under the pen name Jessica Hamilton, about a teenage girl who believes she’s a witch and has killed her parents, there’s Hell Hound, about a dog who kills its owners when they don’t live up to his expectations, and there’s Childgrave which is hard to summarize but is about spirit photography, and classical harp players, and smalltown New York, and God. The stories Greenhall tells are about lonely, possibly insane, people and animals, yoked to a writing style that’s totally and completely sane. The frission that creates can get you drunk. I loved his work but it’s his last novel, Lenore, which convinced me he’s the greatest writer of our times. It’s about the freed slave who posed for Rubens’ 1617 painting, “Four Studies of the Head of a Negro”, in Amsterdam and it’s one of the funniest and most surprising historical novels I’ve ever read. It could stand next to anything by Hilary Mantel with pride. Ken died, forgotten, with his books all out of print. Valancourt has been bringing them back and he’s just waiting to be rediscovered.
THE BEST BOOK COVER OF ALL TIME
Hector Garrido’s cover of The Little People by John Christopher is what happens when a batshit painter meets a batshit cover: an Irish castle, overflowing with Nazi leprechauns like some kind of horrible pinata. It’s a cover that changed my life and got me to write Paperbacks from Hell.
THE BEST FILM POSTER OFF ALL TIME
The poster for Stephen Chow’s King of Comedy is one of the most dazzling, hilarious, and deadpan things I’ve ever seen.
THE BEST BOOK / FILM I HAVE WRITTEN
I’m going to avoid trick questions.
THE WORST BOOK / FILM I HAVE WRITTEN
Definitely a trick question.
THE MOST UNDERRATED FILM OF ALL TIME
Return of the Living Dead. Clearly.
THE MOST UNDERRATED BOOK OF ALL TIME
Charles Portiss’ True Grit is the Great American Novel. I get that there’s an argument to be made for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but that’s the Great American Novel of the 19th century, all about exploration, and finding yourself, and boys on a river, horsing around. True Grit is told in the clipped, clinical voice of a 14-year-old girl out to avenge the murder of her father, but it’s really about the hard men and women we needed to tame the American frontier, and how unnecessary and embarrassing they became once we don’t need them anymore. It’s the American book about tallest poppy syndrome, and it speaks to the American 20th Century in a way Huckleberry Finn doesn’t.
THE MOST UNDERRATED AUTHOR OF ALL TIME
Vernon Lee. Essentially, Henry James stole her seat at the table, which is ironic because she loved to troll Henry James. But Vernon Lee wrote beautiful stories about ghosts and the occult, blending them with psychological dissolution, dreams, madness, and memories, in much the same way Henry James did, only without the feeling of timidity that James approaches the world with. Lee’s adventurous spirit, always hungry to learn more, to see more, informs her books, and her sentences come without the accumulation of dust or the tortured constipation of James. If she was a man, we’d read her A Phantom Lover rather than his Turn of the Screw.
THE BOOK / FILM THAT SACRED ME THE MOST
I saw the “garden birth” sequence in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I was way too young and it confronted me with the horror of reproduction and scared me away from sex for a long, long time to come.
THE BOOK / FILM I AM WORKING ON NEXT
I’m working on a book about kung fu movies coming to America, then I’ve got two novels due, so it’s non-stop over here. But right now I’ve got The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires coming out and I just had to postpone my entire book tour, so I’ve got to figure out a way to let people know it’s hitting bookstores on April 7, right in the middle of the Red Death.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is published by Quirk Books.
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: A Novel by Grady Hendrix
Steel Magnolias meets Dracula in this '90s-set horror novel about a women's book club that must do battle with a mysterious newcomer to their small Southern town, perfect for murderinos and fans of Stephen King.
Patricia Campbell’s life has never felt smaller. Her husband is a workaholic, her teenage kids have their own lives, her senile mother-in-law needs constant care, and she’s always a step behind on her endless to-do list. The only thing keeping her sane is her book club, a close-knit group of Charleston women united by their love of true crime. At these meetings they’re as likely to talk about the Manson family as they are about their own families.
One evening after book club, Patricia is viciously attacked by an elderly neighbor, bringing the neighbor's handsome nephew, James Harris, into her life. James is well traveled and well read, and he makes Patricia feel things she hasn’t felt in years. But when children on the other side of town go missing, their deaths written off by local police, Patricia has reason to believe James Harris is more of a Bundy than a Brad Pitt. The real problem? James is a monster of a different kind—and Patricia has already invited him in.
Little by little, James will insinuate himself into Patricia’s life and try to take everything she took for granted—including the book club—but she won’t surrender without a fight in this blood-soaked tale of neighborly kindness gone wrong.
Behind the facade of London's shiny dockside developments, its designer boutiques and coffee bars lie forgotten dark corners and darker secrets. It's a city where anything can happen and being young and pretty won't always save you. This cult smash hit follows scary stories and chilling episodes, from vampire documentaries to alien-infested supermarkets, from teenage necromancy to ghostly East End gangsters. In Urban Gothic, you'll find thirteen tales of the city to chill the blood...
Allow me to be indulgent for just a moment.
Horror anthology show Urban Gothic debuted on Channel 5 on 17 May, 2000. This series of grisly half-hour tales recounted the exploits of zombies, vampires, demons and other assorted terrors to be found stalking the streets of modern-day London. It boasted blood, nudity, swearing, high energy, high concepts and low, low budgets. At the time of its original broadcast, I was 15 years old and it was nigh-on perfect.
It's worth keeping in mind, while I wax nostalgic about this show, that this was in the days long before every household had the internet. We didn't have streaming services or digital TV. In our house, we didn't even have Sky. Our television had just five terrestrial channels, one of which was still brand new (Channel 5) and generally ignored. DVDs wouldn't become commonplace for another couple of years, which meant access to old TV anthologies like Tales from the Crypt or Hammer's House of Horror was pretty much impossible.
Until Urban Gothic came along, the closest I'd seen to a proper horror anthology was The X-Files or The Outer Limits. Both had their moments in terms of scares, but neither leaned in to full-bore horror.
Urban Gothic, the screenwriting debut of 23-year-old Tom de Ville, did. It didn't shy away from the genre's hard edges, dressing itself up as a satire or sci-fi or watering its stories down to appeal to a young-adult demographic. It was graphic, 18-rated, adult (though not necessarily mature) horror designed to shock, offend, frighten and titillate. For teenage me, it was everything I wanted out of a TV show. In many ways, it still is.
I'm not going to pretend it's perfect. Of course it isn't. The execution frequently failed to live up to its ideas. But the concept behind the show, its ethos and attitude, is everything I still want from TV horror and everything I continue to be denied by the glut of horror programming in our current so-called 'golden age'.
Perhaps that's why, 20 years on, though it's not talked about too often, there are a few of us who continue to hold Urban Gothic in such high esteem – because, whatever its faults, it felt like someone was making a show just for us, doing their level best to give us exactly what we wanted.
If Urban Gothic were still around today, I would be writing for it. Either that, or bombarding Channel 5 with spec scripts.
Of course, in reality, the show lasted a mere two series. Tom de Ville has moved on to objectively bigger and better things and, in the years since its broadcast, no-one has seriously called for Urban Gothic's return or even reappraisal as a forgotten, hidden gem.
But it would be wrong to think it's been completely forgotten, that it hasn't had an influence or doesn't have a legacy. This year, while the show marks 20 years since its first broadcast, I will be releasing my first collection of short horror stories, John McNee's Doom Cabaret, through Sinister Horror Company. In doing promotional interviews for the book, I've been asked what got me into writing horror stories and why I wanted to bring out a collection. Thinking it over, I realised Urban Gothic was a huge part of it.
When I was 21, I got it into my head I was going to make a horror anthology TV show. From reading about Urban Gothic online, I'd known Tom de Ville had been about my age when he'd created and written his, so why not me? I didn't know how to write scripts, but I thought if I came up with a bunch of ideas and wrote them as short stories, I could adapt them at a later date.
It was a fantasy. I never seriously imagined myself taking meetings with TV executives. But I drew up a list of ideas for episodes anyway, and I started writing stories. And I haven't stopped. Somewhere between then and now, I started selling stories and, on April 24, I'll be publishing John McNee's Doom Cabaret, (excuse the butt in but, you need to pick up a copy it's amazing - Jim Mcleod) which is as close to producing my own anthology show as I'm likely to get.
Without question then, Urban Gothic had a huge influence on me. Having said that, it has been a long time since I watched any of the episodes. But with it's 20th anniversary coming up, I'm in the mood to revisit it, starting this week with the pilot, 'Dead Meat'. In subsequent instalments of this series, I'll be checking out two episodes at a time. If you can track them down, I hope you'll join in and watch them along with me. And check out my interview with Tom de Ville to learn about the origins of the show and find out what he thinks, looking back on it two decades later.
S1.01 DEAD MEAT
“We found a dead body and we need some of your blood to trap its undead spirit. I thought it might make an interesting night out.”
First impressions of 'Dead Meat'? Cheap. Very, very cheap. That's not the kindest thing to say, but it's true. The cameras feel like they've been nicked from Byker Grove along with some of the sets. I'm not sure if even Family Affairs, Channel 5's own cheap-as-chips soap opera, looked as cheap as this first episode of Urban Gothic.
In many ways, though, this works to the show's credit, giving it an unpredictable, edgy feel. It feels like a bootleg product that found its way onto television through illegitimate means, somehow avoiding the attentions of executives, slipping through the cracks of standards and practices to arrive, unpolished and uncensored, in your living room. When, around 10 minutes in, a frog is dropped into a blender, you expect the camera to cut away. When it doesn't, instead holding on a lingering, very convincing shot of the poor amphibian being blended to red pulp, the effect is decidedly jarring.
This doesn't feel like the kind of show that could have convincingly simulated the blending of a frog. It doesn't seem like it would have the budget to splash on a throwaway gag. But it does feel like the kind of show where someone might just have said “fuck it” and dropped an actual frog into a blender. I'm sure the cast and crew would not have stood for that, but in the moment, it's shocking enough to make you sit up and take a bit more notice of what your watching.
What kind of show is this?
This is the question it feels like most people would have been asking watching this first episode. It is not an episode which shows Urban Gothic at its best, nor does it show it at its worst. But as an opener, it was probably well chosen. “If you can get on board with this,” it seems to say, “You're going to enjoy yourself.”
As for plot, we open with two youths ripping off a gangster and hiding out in an abandoned warehouse. When they stumble on a corpse, they invite their occult-obsessed friend Milton over to try to raise the dead. Why? For fun, of course. The only motivation a teen ever needs. Things go less than well, culminating in a minor bloodbath and transformation for most of the cast into flesh-hungry acolytes of an undead necromancer.
It sounds like a simple story, with a handful of characters wandering around the one location, but 'Dead Meat' packs a lot into its 30 minutes, with designer drugs, unresolved romantic entanglements, black magick, decapitation, an underground temple and a subplot involving a randy librarian all thrown into the mix.
It all ends up feeling a bit overstuffed, not least because of the dialogue. It isn't that it's bad, there's just so much of it, including more than a few lines that are inaudible or incomprehensible. It's hard to shake the feeling that if the characters had less to say, there might be room for director Andrew Morgan to get creative with building tension or crafting moments of genuine emotion. As it is, there's simply no time for that, because everyone has a lot of lines to get through before the credits roll.
At least everything zips along quickly and the cast generally does a good job with the material. The part of protagonist Leo marks an early role for Ashley Walters (aka Asher D), who would go on to stardom in 2004's Bullet Boy and Bulletproof, currently airing on Sky One, with a slew of film and TV credits in between. He makes an engaging enough lead here, even if he struggles to land some of the jokier lines in the quip-happy script.
Faring a little better are William Mannering (channelling a young Paul McGann) as wannabe necromancer Milton and Jemima Rooper (then on the cusp of finding TV semi-stardom as Nicki in teen drama As If, a sort of half-forgotten precursor to Skins which was actually much better). Playing a knife-wielding, drug-dealing thug, Rooper is about as convincing a troubled inner-city teen as Sophie Aldred's Ace in Doctor Who, but she nails the tone, seeming to understand the '80s schlock-horror vibe the episode is aiming for better than anyone else.
It also has to be said that Kevin Molloy makes a striking impression as cadaver/zombie/necromancer Straker, with his final shot hinting at an intriguing parallel universe in which the 'Dead Meat' story continued as an ongoing series, following the lives of this gang of undead misfits as they eat their way through London's underworld.
That wasn't to be. But we will get to see at least one of these characters again...
Join me next time for two of the best episodes of the series with 'Vampirology' and 'Old Nick'.
It’s something that I feel guilty about everyday, I do feel fine, I’m calm, collected, and most importantly of all I can filter the barrage of information that is being thrown at us on a daily basis, and can discard both the scaremongering and pointless optimism. I’m a nurse, I’m trained to deal with pandemics (there are risk bulletins every year within the health and social care sectors regarding potential pandemics). I’m also in the at risk category as I am asthmatic. I have had strains of corona virus (both common colds and flu fall into these), and following these have developed bronchitis and pneumonia, and been admitted into hospital not knowing if I’m ever going to take another breath unaided again. But strangely the things that should make me nervous aren’t
I’m not saying that Covid-19 is the same as any other strain of corona virus, it isn’t. It has a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu, but a lower one than Covid-2 (SARS). But the main concerns around Covid-19 are that the length of time you are contagious is much longer than most strains, and that the illness can incubate and be carried for up to 14 days before we show any symptoms (this is why we have the quarantine periods of 7 days for symptoms and 14 days if someone in your household has symptoms but you don’t). This means that on top of the increased mortality rates Covid-19 has over seasonal flu, it can infect far more people, stretching our health services to breaking point. In addition, hundreds of people are unable to see their ailing relatives due to international travel restrictions.
Now this may all sound scary, but the important thing to remember here is that yes it is the end of the world as we know it, but it isn’t the end of the world. There are a lot of trained people dealing with this pandemic, working on immunisations and cures, treating those with the illness, developing protective equipment, researching into the epidemiology of it. It may be difficult to believe with the onslaught of media and social media, politicians and snake oil peddlers, but this will end. Pandemics have come and gone, this one will too.
There are steps in place to help us maintain our physical health in relation to Covid-19. The information is updated daily on the GOV.UK website and it currently states that everyone in the UK should:
· Stay at home
· Only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home)
· If you go out, stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people at all times
· Wash your hands as soon as you get home
· Do not meet others, even friends or family.
Gov.uk: Corona virus (COVID-19): what you need to do
Now this is exactly what we should be doing to try and reduce the spread of this disease. However the terminology used is not the best for relieving anxiety, both presently and for your future selves. Repeatedly telling ourselves to do these things, and repeating the behaviours is an excellent way to change the way our brains process information, and thusly changing the way we act (it is used very successfully in CBT and other therapy forms to treat anxiety and phobias). But these repeated mantras and behaviours can also programme our brains negatively (think about how Charlie McGee reacted in the final scenes of Stephen King’s Firestarter). Leading to long term social anxiety, generalised anxiety, agoraphobia, mysophobia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. I have seen many people saying that even when social distancing is lifted they would no longer would feel comfortable getting on a plane, or being in a large crowd of people. But there are some slight tweaks to your mindset that you can do to help you reduce your anxiety.
Changing the wording of these rules slightly may seem odd, but you are now telling your brain that the disease is the problem, not people. And that there isn’t a safe zone in your house and a danger zone outside. Making these changes now, will reap huge benefits in the future.
Other tips to keep yourself well and healthy in the long term:
· Don’t stress if you can’t get antibacterial products. It is the rubbing of your hands together that helps remove the virus, any form of soap will do this. You should only use hand gels, wipes etc, if you can’t wash your hands with water and soap.
· Do remember to wash your thumbs and your wrists (most people forget these when washing their hands)
· Do use a moisturiser. If your hands get dry and cracked they can harbour more germs.
· Do go out for your sanctioned walk. There is a huge risk of your large muscle groups becoming weak when we aren’t doing our usual routines. Loss of muscle tone from your large muscles, primarily your thigh muscles, puts you at a higher risk of falls, but also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. If you are unable to go out, for either physical or mental reasons, then please do lunges, walk up and down your stairs, or find something sturdy you can use as a stepper.
· Do make sure you are keeping your vitamin D levels up. Either 15 minutes out in the sun or a good vitamin D tablet (look for one that says Vitamin D3, as this is the one we best absorb. Vitabiotics do a good one in the UK), as a lack of vitamin D can lead to problems with your muscular and skeletal systems. It also helps with our mental health. And after a long winter we are all in need of a dose of it.
· And most importantly, please repeat to yourselves that this is just temporary. Soon you’ll be able to see your friends, family, even that annoying bloke at work again.
There is good clear advice available on the NHS website
And at the Gov.UK site
And please remember… It’s the end of the world as we know it. And you’ll feel fine. xxx
Penny Jones knew she was a writer when she started to talk about herself in the third person (her family knew when Santa bought her a typewriter for Christmas). She loves reading and will read pretty much anything you put in front of her, but her favourite authors are Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and John Wyndham. In fact Penny only got into writing to buy books, when she realised that there wasn’t that much money in writing she stayed for the cake.
Four and half years ago, something amazing happened, while chatting to a bunch of friends in the aftermath of the Adam Nevill's book launch at Fantasy Con, I looked up to see that I had unwittingly been circled by everyone in the room. My first thought was, " oh well if I'm going to go out I'm going to go out screaming."
Then Phil Sloman (Best Legs in Horror ™) stepped forward with a glint in his eye. Had Phil done the unthinkable, and amassed his legion of coffee cream hating Slomanites in one room to seek their revenge on the leader of teh Coffee Cream Alliance?
I frantically searched my bag for my emergency supply of throwing coffee creams, only to realise I had eaten them for breakfast. What was I going to do.
Thankfully, as you can guess since I'm writing this, that it was not to be the day I Died. However what it was was one of the most emotional days I have ever experienced (just don't tell my wife). You see Phil, had spent the year putting together a one off anthology of stories from my favourite horror authors, where each and everyone of them was tasked with killing me.
Almost five years after the event I still can't find the words to fully express how honoured and humbled by such a generous gesture from Phil the authors involved and the beautiful afterword from my long term drinking buddy Fiona.
There has only ever been one edition of the book, and it sits pride of place on my office desk, so whenever i get those crazy feelings of being alone I can look at the book and see that it isn't the case.
I had the thought this week, that a lot of people are struggling with the lockdown, and that maybe some of you will get a kick out of seeing me get killed multiple times, so with the permission of the authors i now present to you a limited series of articles featuring some of the stories in the anthology.
Today we welcome the legend that is Tim Lebbon with his story You Dirty Cat
Cats will never be man’s best friend. I know that now. That’s why I’m a man on the run, with a hundred grand on my head and a one-eyed hit-man never more than half a step behind me. I shot Gross Gary’s one and only son-and-heir in the face; sprayed his brains across the inside of his bullet-proof windscreen. I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t, but do you think Gross will give a flying fuck about what I intended when he gets a hold of me? I won’t even have a chance to say ‘hi’ before he lays into me with a chainsaw.
My name is Jim McLeod, and I must die.
I’m living in a box. Literally. An old transport container in some forgotten corner of the docks. Thing’s been stuck here for five years and the hinges have rusted half open. But it’s warm enough, I suppose, even if it does smell like an abandoned morgue after a shit-eating party. Sometimes I hear a gentle whisper as something slides along the outside wall. Cats, I guess. They must know when they’re not wanted, because they never come in.
For now, it’s home.
Gross Gary thought his nickname came from all the chainsaw executions he carried out, but almost everyone knew that it was a result of his terrible nose-picking habit. It was an unconscious thing, like scratching your balls or rubbing your eyelids, and the fact that he always ate it afterwards lifted it from plain unpleasant to, well, gross. The name stuck; he liked it. Said it gave him character.
The first time I met him was six months ago, sitting in a bar full of smoke and lunchtime losers, slurping cheap bottled beer and wishing I’d never been born. The only thing that drove me to Gross was money, or rather the lack of it. What else drives someone like me -- maybe not honest, but decent; perhaps not hardworking, but prepared to pull my weight -- to someone like Gross? Cash. Moolah. The big green.
Gross stormed in and ordered a drink as if he owned the place. I found out later that this was the case; he’d ‘inherited’ it from an ex business partner who’d found eternity in a bridge support. He had two heavies with him, hanging at his shoulders like pet vultures. One of them was his son, Norman, who I’m sure never understood his nickname Bates. He was short, slight and renowned for his gleeful sadism. The other was Gross’s hit-man Bouncer who, rumour held, was heavily into S&M. The two thugs went well together.
Gross was carrying his Persian. “This is Trixie,” were the first words he ever said to me.
“Hey, Trix.” I raised my bottle and drained the gassy dregs in mock salute. I sensed the sudden tension there; all the muscles in the room became bunched, coiled, ready to spring.
“It’s Trixie,” he said. “Her name’s Trixie.” His tone of voice forbade any response other than that which I gave.
“Sorry. Trixie. Hi, Trixie.” This time I did not raise my drink. The cat regarded me with curious cool eyes before going back to the important job of licking her arse. Gross tickled her absently beneath the chin as he sat himself on a barstool held steady by Bouncer.
The big hit-man sniffed and sneezed, then needlessly clicked his fingers at the barman. The guy was already there, two shades paler than he had been five minutes earlier.
“The usual, Sir?” he asked.
Gross nodded, managing to keep his index finger in his right nostril throughout the manoeuvre. When he extracted the digit a string of snot flopped down onto his chin.
I grimaced, realising how apt his nickname was, then locked eyes with Bates. The guy was cooking me with his stare, challenging me to react to his Dad’s horrible habit.
“On me,” I said to the barman, “and get these two gentlemen whatever they want. Oh, and another of these.” I waved the bottle his way and he went about setting them up.
“How much do you want, McLeod?” Gross asked.
Straight to the point. Well, I thought, two can play at that. “Seventy-five thousand. I’ll pay you back half before Christmas, the other half before this time next year.”
Gross smiled at me and wiped his finger on his cat’s neck. “So that’s sixty thou this year, sixty next?” The cat purred and stretched in his lap.
Bouncer went to sneeze, dug in his pocket for a handkerchief and sprayed everywhere seconds before slapping it to his nose. What was it with these guys and snot? I thought. I saw him glance at the Persian, and suddenly realised what was wrong. Bummer, being allergic to your boss’ favourite pet.
I almost laughed. “A hundred and twenty?”
Gross nodded. “And another five for every week you’re late with a payment. To a limit, of course.”
Gross took a gulp of brandy, stared up at the yellowed ceiling, offering me a view of the blackheads and tiny pustules around his nose and upper lip. I wonder if he sniffs coke, I thought. Maybe that’s why he eats his own snot.
“Three weeks over,” he said slowly, “and then the repayments translate into body parts.”
I was silent, and he took this as a request for clarification.
“A months of limbs, and then your head.”
Bates grinned over his right shoulder. Bouncer moved back slightly and sneezed again.
I had a sudden urge to leave. I had debts, sure, but none worth a headless torso. I imagined slipping from the barstool, dropping a twenty onto the counter and walking calmly away, leaving Gross to stew with his two cronies and the slinky moggie in his lap. I’d open the bar door and walk out into the sunlight, poor but safe, lacking credit but still in the black to the tune of two arms, two legs and a head. I’d find a coin in the gutter, I knew, and I’d be able to call my parents. Ask them for a loan. Swallow whatever pride I had left.
At the same time, I knew that Gross would never let me leave. He had me now, and although there was only one kind of contract these guys ever really understood -- the one involving a silenced gun and a weighted body in the river -- I knew that business had already been done. If I backed out now, I’d be in default.
“OK,” I said. “Deal.”
As if to confirm my suspicions Gross nodded. “Yes, I know.” He rubbed his nose, and I watched with dreadful anticipation as his index finger slowly curved, hooked, and sunk straight back in to the second joint.
Trixie meowed. She blinked sleepily and settled into a silky ball in Gross’ lap. Bates sat on a stool and reached out to stoke the pet, and I had to close my eyes to avoid laughing at the grotesque, ridiculous sexual image this formed in my mind. Father and son, Gross and Bates. I snorted, halfway between a groan and a giggle.
Fuck, I must have a death wish.
Bouncer went out to their car and returned with a paper bag containing the cash.
“See you at Christmas,” Gross said nasally. “Oh, and McLeod? Don’t forget to pay for your round.”
I pulled a twenty from the middle of a bundle in the bag, threw it into a beer puddle on the bar and left.
I never did see them at Christmas, but then you’ve probably guessed that by now. What you may not have guessed is what happened to the money, and why there was none to pay Gross back.
Well, suffice to say I’m a fool. I never thought of myself as a loser, I’d always imagined myself more as a roguish gambler. Someone DeNiro might play, but not Keitel.
The cash went down the same drain that created the debt in the first place, the debt I borrowed from Gross to pay off. Not cards, not women, not drugs. Gold.
An old school friend had a sure-fire way of locating and retrieving gold sunk in transport ships during the last World War, and my cash went in to help finance the search. Trouble is he also had some heavyweight backers, and whenever the projects went tail-up they always shoved the debts onto the small-time shits like me. And my friend’s sure-fire methods weren’t as certain as he’d led us all to believe. He disappeared with half a million before he’d even tried a second time.
I never learn anything. Not even by my mistakes. That’s why, in the process of paying off a bad debt, I created a worse one.
So come Valentine’s Day, while lovers canoodled in restaurants and kids steamed up car windows in country lanes, I found myself moving from place to place, trying to brush over my tracks, desperately making final arrangements to get out of the city. Trouble was, I was so concerned with covering up the way I’d come that I didn’t look ahead.
I ran straight into them.
I was on my way to buy a gun when I found one thrust into my back.
“Into the car, asshole,” Bates said.
I closed my eyes, feeling the whole world turning fluid and me sinking down into it. “Look––"
“Into the car, or I’ll gut-shoot you here in the street and take off your limbs with a hacksaw.”
How could I argue with such a proposition? I reached out slowly, grabbed the handle he indicated and opened the door. He pushed me in and kicked the door shut behind me.
I was alone on the back seat, or so I thought at first. Then I saw Trixie, Gross’ Persian cat, curled in the far corner and regarding me with cautious eyes. In the driver’s seat Bouncer sat with hands at ten-to-two, knuckles white where he grabbed the wheel, staring straight ahead.
Bates jumped into the front passenger seat and turned to aim the gun at my face.
“Your Daddy sent his brains to do the talking?” I said, nodding at the cat. Inside, I grimaced. Idiot.
The gun curved up and around, and I saw sunlight reflected from the barrel in oily rainbow arcs as it came down to meet my head. There was a loud thunk! and for a second I thought, That didn’t hurt. Then the shock gave way to pain, and it felt like someone had poured white-hot metal into my eyes and ears.
The car moved off. By the time my senses had started to sort themselves out the light had changed, and I realised that we were heading out into the suburbs. I was leaving the city, but not in the way I had planned.
“Don’t want no money,” Bates said.
“But I can-“
“You think Gross Gary needs money?” He frowned at me over the top of his gun. Its barrel looked very wide. “He’s got more millions in the bank than you’re got pubes. No, my dad wants revenge. He can’t let you be seen to get away with it, even though it was only a little loan. Gives the wrong impression, y’know?”
“Your old man still eat his own snot?” Oh shit! Sometimes I wished I could just shut the hell up. The gun didn’t swing down again, however, and when I glanced up Bates was in the same position, smiling a smile that would look at home on a gargoyle.
“Have a giggle, man,” he said. “No, go on. I mean it. A man should have a bit of fun in the last moments of his life.”
I thought he was going to shoot me there and then, and I hunkered down into the seat as much as I could. I looked at the cat where it sat against the door, staring at me, tail twitching as if controlled by an invisible wire. I wondered whether it would lick up my brains when they spattered the upholstery, and I was suddenly sure that that was why they had brought it. Waste me, drive around while the cat-
Bates squealed and dropped the gun.
The car slewed across the road as Bouncer’s head ricocheted from the steering wheel. “Bless me,” he muttered.
A thought zipped through my head (you’re just not this lucky) but I’d already snatched up the gun and sat up. Strangely, the first thing I pointed it at was the cat.
“Keep them on the wheel, big boy,” I said, talking very slowly and deliberately so that my nerves could not slur my words. I aimed the gun into Bates’ face; his pupils were black and wide, the barrel reflected. “Keep driving, not too fast. Turn around and head back into town as soon as you can. Let me know before you do it.”
Bates sneered at me and pretended to dismiss what was happening, but I saw a nervous tick beneath his left eye.
The cat stood and slunk across the seat, snuggling itself into my lap. I reached down and tried to shove it aside, but it hissed. I kept the gun aimed at Bates’ nose. He laughed.
We stayed that way for a while. It wasn’t like in the films, where the good guy has a ten minute fight with the bad guy, offs him and saves the day. We just sat there: Bates staring at me, looking for the first opportunity to launch himself my way; Bouncer driving, hands tight on the wheel; the cat in my lap, seemingly asleep; and me, my arm becoming sleepy with the weight of the gun, my mind in a spin.
What the hell to do?
“Gotta stop,” Bouncer said. His voice sounded weird.
The car slowed and crunched onto the hard shoulder. Bates glanced briefly at Bouncer then back at me. Passing a secret signal, perhaps.
The cat raised its head as if to ask what was happening.
Bates’ eyes glimmered, his body tensed. His lips were pressed together so tightly that they were white.
It took seconds, but I can remember it all in exquisite detail. The sneeze from the allergic Bouncer that sent the shocked cat’s claws twisting into my nuts. My hand jerking, finger squeezing, the deafening crash of the gun. Bates’ face disappearing through his head and onto the windscreen. Bouncer struggling against his seatbelt, digging his hand inside his jacket, eyes wide in the mirror as he realised what I was about to do ...
I had to. He was reaching for his gun.
I shot him as I opened the back door and fell onto the loose gravel. His side of the windscreen turned red in sympathy with the other side, and he began to scream and scream. A high pitched scream for such a big man.
I glanced into the car once more before I ran away. A haze of gunsmoke had turned the inside opaque, but I could still see the mess I’d made. And I could still see that fucking cat, calm and smug on the back seat, stepping daintily across the leather upholstery towards where the ruined men lay.
As least it was not my brains it would be licking up today.
So here I am, an old gambler in hiding, a rogue with no marked cards left to play. Hell, a loser. I’ve never killed a man before, and it doesn’t feel good. What feels worse is that I didn’t kill two -- Bouncer lost an eye, and he’s more pissed at me than I ever thought anyone could be. His bosses response? Jim McLeod must die.
Yeah, right. As if I haven't heard that one before.
So there’re two things I’m listening out for, above the sibilant whisper of the oily sea. One is the sound of Gross’ ridiculous Persian moggie purring away as he tickles its back, like some miscast Bond criminal.
The other is a sneeze.
I don’t know which I want to hear the least.