The Illusion of Risk

What are you buying when you get on a roller coaster? Not risk… but the illusion of risk. Being hurled to the edge of danger but knowing that you’ll never have to cross it. … Think of Alaska as one big theme park.”
—- Limbo (movie), John Sayles

This year’s New Orleans Writing Marathon was based at the wonderful, historic Beauregard Keyes house in the French Quarter. What a beautiful place – I recommend a visit and a tour.

I particularly enjoyed the artwork hanging on the walls. On our trip across the river to Algiers, we discussed a dark painting that I remembered. You couldn’t see much – only a snow capped mountain line and maybe a bit of an orange glow. When we returned for the evening, I took a photo of the painting with my phone and was surprised to see that there was more visible in the picture than there was in real life. There was a row of mountains and a small boat in the foreground that you could not see with the naked eye. I was particularly taken by that subtle orange glow behind some trees on the right hand side.

Enhanced photo of a painting in the hallway of the Beauregard-Keyes house, New Orleans

The staff from the Beuregard-Keyes House said that the painter and even the date of this particular canvas was unknown. I talked to the others that had been at Algiers with me and realized I had the wrong artwork – they had been discussing a nearby painting of Venice at night by George Loring Brown.

That didn’t matter to me, I still was fascinated by the dark line of snowcapped mountains and still water. The next day at a nearby breakfast place I decided to write a flash fiction based on the painting (changing the mountains into volcanic peaks for dramatic effect). Inspired by one of my favorite films, Limbo (see it at your risk, I loved the film but the others in the theater stood up and cursed the screen at the end – Christopher Null said, “I can forgive many things. But using some hackneyed, whacked-out, screwed-up non-ending on a movie is unforgivable. I walked a half-mile in the rain and sat through two hours of typical, plodding Sayles melodrama to get cheated by a complete and total copout finale.” – He is completely wrong, the movie ended the only way it could….), left the ending… somewhat unresolved.

Typed up from my handwritten notebook:

July 11, 10:30 Croisant D’Or, New Orleans

The darkness was so all-encompassing it felt as thick and liquid as the saltwater they dipped their paddles in. The four canoes and single small skiff moved in a rough line. Sam could almost see the skiff ahead – more of an impression than actual vision – rowed by the four on board – its sails useless in the dead calm night.

Beyond, the unseen moon hidden by an invisible line of cliffs to the right illuminated the snow capped upper slopes of the volcano. Its torn cone glowing in the sky – visible, but selfish with its cold light.

The paddles and oars clumped up and down the line, with an occasional weak splash. The men were all too exhausted with effort, fear, and lack of sleep to work efficiently and the sound of wood striking gunwale or skipping off the water at the wrong angle was a surprise to these skilled seagoing men – but they were so numb – the embarrassment passed.

They worked in silence. Sam wondered if the other men’s minds were silently exploding within – as his felt. The humidity thickened the darkness. The only breeze was provided by their paddling – the heat was broken every now and then by invisible lenses of cool air that fell down the slopes from the snowfields miles above. They passed through a bank of sour sulfur mist from the fumaroles along the shore. The paddling increased to move through that foulness as quickly as possible.

Sam saw something new – coming to life out of the ink. At first it was barely visible – a dark dull rust-colored patch ahead, quickly heating into a dark but distinct orange glow.

It was a bit to the right of the skiff, along the shoreline. Sam realized this was their destination, their camp. There was a line of dunes and behind them a swampy area before the land rose quickly up the mountain. They had pitched camp atop a series of grassy hummocks above the brown stagnant drainage, but still protected by the dunes from being seen from the sea.

At first the glow heartened Sam and the others as their rowing increased a little more in pace. They were almost back. Sam thought of a bit of a rest – of a stout drink around the campfire before they had to start the hard work of unloading the rifles and ammo boxes from the canoes and the skiff. Sam even thought beyond that, of crawling into his tent for sleep. That seemed the end, he couldn’t get his mind past the imaginary sensation of letting himself falling limp and snapping his eyes shut.

But as they approached at a frustrating pace, weighted down by all that steel until the tiny waves lapped at the gunwales, the orange glow began to grow and spread.

Soon, it was all-encompassing. They could even see yellow licks of flame flicking over the tops of the dunes. Long tongues of red light reached up the sides of the mountain above, moving and interspersed with long ominous purple moving shadows.

Shouts, curses, and desperate cries peppered up and down the line of little boats. Sam kept silent though, and continued to paddle with desperate hopeless effort. They all did, still moving straight into the growing conflagration.

They had nowhere else to go.

Sam thought, “I am mortal. We are all going to die… but when? Is it going to be tonight?”

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 28 – The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twemtu eight – The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, by Karen Russell
Read it online here:

The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis

I have written about a movie I saw once, in the theater… Limbo, directed by John Sayles. An excellent film, and one you have to see – but I have a warning. At the end, most of the (few) people in the theater stood up and screamed at the screen. They were furious at the ending of the movie. I chuckled a bit – there is no other way the movie could end… and there is that title, what do they expect?

Today’s story The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, shares one characteristic with Limbo. It sets up a mystery – and then sort of refuses to solve it. It’s frustrating if you are used to popular pleasing paint-by-number fiction, but there is really no other way for it to tell its story.

It’s a long-form short story, bordering on a novella. It needs this space to set up the characters of four urban bullies – a gang of thugs that, seen from their own points of view, aren’t as awful as they seem to everybody else. Though inside their own heads… at least the narrator, they are beginning to suspect that their place in the universe isn’t as inevitable or necessary as they had convinced themselves.

Then a mysterious scarecrow shows up tied to a tree in their own private universe, a wooded spot inside a run-down park in their urban wasteland of Anthem, New Jersey. Something about the scarecrow looks familiar… and when they figure that out a series of discoveries, unveilings, and violent reactions pull the four down a frightening path to… something.

Really good, worth the work to read.

Enjoy.

The central acres of Friendship Park were filled with pines and spruce and squirrels that chittered some charming bullshit at you, up on their hind legs begging for a handout. They lived in the trash cans and had the wide-eyed, innocent look and threadbare fur of child junkies. Had they wised up, our squirrels might have mugged us and used our wallets to buy train tickets to the national park an hour north of Anthem’s depressed downtown.