Sunday Snippet – The Spirit Duplicator

There is no limit to the extension of the curious mind. It reaches to the end of the imagination, then beyond into the mysteries of dreams, hoping always to convert even the dreams into reality for the greater well-being of all mankind.
—-The Outer Limits, Control Voice, Keeper of the Purple Twilight [2.12]

Yell

Oblique Strategy: Only a part, not the whole

The Spirit Duplicator

Trout Slobber had many reasons for hating his parents. Somewhere in the middle of the pack was, of course, his name. It was an old family name, they explained. He thought it was a tradition that should have been abandoned long ago.

Trout’s favorite thing was to read in his bed at night, under the quilt. The thick, soft fabric tented up over his knees, squinting at the slowly fading yellow circle of a flashlight. His parents rationed his supply of batteries – the sort of thing he hated them for even more than his name. They always admonished him not to “waste things.” For a long time he would steal batteries from the foreign man that ran the gas station. Trout hated to steal, hated the idea that he was a thief, but until Aurora helped him out he felt he had no choice.

He was in love with Aurora Schoner, a tall, skinny girl that caught the school bus at his stop. She wore a silver headgear that looped out from her braces and bent around to hook into an elastic band on the back of her head. Trout knew she hated how the headgear made her look, but he thought it was charming. Aurora had been riding the bus for almost a year and the two of them slowly became friends, as close as awkward kids could be. Trout wondered if Aurora loved him as much as he loved her, but could never uncover the courage to ask.

Aurora gave him batteries. Her parents never seemed to ask questions.

If other kids were around Aurora always referred to Trout as “Master Slobber,” because she thought it was cute – but if the two of them were alone she called him Trout. Aurora was bookish, like Trout, though they never read the same books, other than their school assignments. She liked to read woman’s books full of romance and adverbs.

Their neighborhood was divided by a heavily wooded creek. Years before a road cut through the creek and connected the two halves but the bridge was decrepit and unsafe and nobody wanted to spend the money to rebuild it. The road petered out on each side of the creek with concrete barriers blocking traffic from the crumbling bridge.

The bridge, the creek, and the overgrown vacant floodplain lots behind the housing development were the playgrounds for all the kids in the neighborhood. There was the creek, brown and green with dirt and algae, trickling over rocks and hunks of old concrete. There was an old molding pile of hay up in the lot from when someone had tried to have a horse. There were the thick tangles of riparian trees and vines. This was the geography of the children’s world – inflated and colored by their imaginations into a mystical and mysterious land of canyons, jungles, and ancient ruins.

There was always an ebb and flow across this landscape, groups of boys throwing rocks from the creek, older kids poking their heads up from the piles of hay, shouts and insults, mean laughter and sniffles. Trout didn’t like this aggression and bragging (it always reminded him of his parents and their friends) so he imagined himself a scout, a spy, a lone agent, flitting unseen along the edges. He would slink through the tangled woods, following faint trails that he imagined only he could see, and hid behind bundles of vegetation to spy on the caterwauling clots of rowdy kids.

One day while exploring a wide loop of the creek he stumbled across a brown paper bag wedged down in a corner of abandoned concrete. The spot was bent far enough out to be within a few feet of a busy alley and Trout had found mysterious stuff thrown away into the brush there before.

Trout picked up the bag and realized it had something heavy and rectangular concealed within. He braced himself and slid a deep steel tray out onto his lap. It was a covered with white porcelain and filled with some amber material. He carefully reached out and touched the smooth surface and realized that it was some sort of firm jelly. It was stiff enough to stay steady in the tray, but still jiggled a bit when he tapped on it. He tipped the tray a bit to let a shaft of sunlight fall into the jelly, and he realized that there was some sort of ragged purple stuff running through the mass, an irregular pattern, lines, curves, bits here and there.

He shoved the thing back into the bag, and, heart pounding, headed for home. He had to snake around to avoid a group of kids that were chasing each other with dried shafts of weeds attached to round balls of dirt pulled from the ground. They would club each other or throw the things whistling through the air.

Trout was able to escape unseen and slid the bag under a thick bush on the side of his house. Later, after dark, at chore time, he trundled two bags of trash out to the cans in the alley. On his way back he retrieved the bag and hustled it up to his room hiding it under his bed.

That night he hid under his blanket and carefully examined his prize with his flashlight. He could not imagine what it was, the cool metal tray, the firm jelly and the purple squiggles. His mind filled with exotic possibilities, but nothing seemed to make sense. Trout would slip the tray back into its bag and hide it under his bed, but he would toss and turn and then fetch it out for another look. He barely slept.

The next morning, at the bus stop, he pulled Aurora aside and told her what he had found. She kept asking him for details.

“How big was it again?” she asked.

“I don’t know, maybe as big as my notebook.”

“It was full of jelly? Up to the top.”

“Almost, not quite to the top.”

“What did the jelly taste like?”

“God! I didn’t eat any of it! Do you think I’m crazy?”

“Okay. Now. Tell me again about the purple stuff.”

“It was like marks, all over the jelly.”

The bus pulled up and they piled on. They didn’t want to talk about the tray on the bus, afraid someone would overhear them. Trout kept glancing sideways at Aurora, who was silent and looking down the entire bus ride, serious, like she was thinking hard about something.

Finally, as they were walking up to the big double doors of the school building, Aurora said, “I want to see this thing. Don’t tell anybody else about it. Meet me an hour after school down at the playground. Bring the bag.”

Trout nodded and slipped into class. All day he struggled to pay attention to his teachers and his work. He was too excited. He would stare at the big clocks at the front of the rooms. The red second hand seemed to creep around the dial and the tiny jumps the minute hand would make seemed miniscule and rare.

On the way home, Aurora and Trout didn’t sit together on the bus. They didn’t want to raise any suspicion. Trout’s parents were watching television and they only nodded when he said he was going down to the playground. He quickly sneaked the bag out from under his bed, piled his leather glove and a baseball on top, and flew down the stairs and out of the door.

Aurora was late. Trout hid the bag in the gravel under the slide and tried to look relaxed as he threw the baseball in the air and tried to catch it coming down. He felt his stomach would bust until he finally saw Aurora walking up the sidewalk. She was carrying some loose blank sheets of typewriter paper and a little bottle. It had a rubber bulb on it and a nozzle – Trout thought it was what girls sometimes kept perfume in.

“What’s that?” he asked, gesturing.

“Oh, it’s only water,” Aurora said. She paused for a moment and said, “I know what the thing is.”

“How…”

“My parents knew.”

“You told your parents?”

“Of course, dummy. They don’t care. My dad knew exactly what it was and told me what to do.”

Trout couldn’t speak. He was torn between the horror of knowing his mystery had been revealed to Aurora’s mom and dad and the excitement of finding out what it was. Aurora whistled for a minute and he realized she was enjoying his consternation and impatience.

“Well, what is it?” he finally said.

“My dad says it’s called a hectograph. He says they also call it a jellygraph. It’s used to copy stuff.”

“Copy?”

“Yeah. Those purple markings? That’s a special ink. It goes into the jelly and then you put a piece of paper over it. The ink comes out. You can make a bunch of copies that way.”

“But I looked at the purple things. They didn’t make any sense.”

“That’s ‘cause it’s backward. It’s like a mirror. You can’t read it like that. That’s why I brought the paper.”

She wriggled the sheets in her hand.

“What about the water?”

“Dad says that it might dry out, the water will help pull the ink out. Well, what are you waiting for? You brought it didn’t you?Let’s get the thing.”

Trout fished the tray out from under the slide. They crouched over the jelly surface and Aurora gave it a few spritzes of water from the bottle. Once the surface was glistening, he carefully slid a page of paper on top of the jelly and gently smoothed it over the surface.

“How long do we have to wait?”

“Don’t know,” said Aurora, “My dad didn’t say.”

Trout picked at a corner of the paper.

“Let’s see,” he said and raised it up. They turned it over and spread it out on the grass. Clear, bright purple letters covered the sheet.

“Yeah, I can read it,” said Aurora, and the two of them started in.

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Look Like Chopped Liver

“Don’t start an argument with somebody who has a microphone when you don’t. They’ll make you look like chopped liver.”
― Harlan Ellison

Mural (detail) at Bowls & Tacos, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Taken on the Friends of the Santa Fe Trail Pub Ride.

Oblique Strategy: Lowest common denominator

Another Snippet: From a short story – Slow Advance by me

I finally kicked down the noisy neighbors’ door to find they had moved out. The place was empty. All that was left was their disembodied voices, still arguing. At an incredible volume.

I had to look around, but finally found the eight track player. My father showed me one of those once and explained the tape inside was a loop. It would never stop. I stood there, gobsmacked, and reacted too slow as a cat ran out of the hallway and dashed out the still-open door.

The sound system, such as it was, was sitting on the floor making a dent in the filthy shag carpet. There wasn’t anything else for me to do but to turn the volume knob down and hit the oversize bright blue led-lit power switch. The light turned to red. I spun around and headed home. I had splintered the jamb with my boot, so the door wouldn’t latch. In the hallway I paused, returned, and pulled the plastic box of the eight track from its hole and quickly strode home.

“So, that was quick,” Jane said as I walked back in, “what the hell is that in your hand.” I set the tape down on the coffee table and she handed me my beer. It was still cold, with an archipelago of condensed moisture droplets sparkling on the amber glass. Jane picked the eight track up and stared at it.

“They weren’t home,” I said.

“No, that’s impossible. We’ve been listening to them both scream at each other all day.”

“It wasn’t them, It was that,” I gestured at the tape.

“Well, at least it’s quiet now,” Jane said. “Hand me the remote, I want to watch Glee.”

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 27 – The Peaceable Night by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Jellyfish at Aurora, Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 27 – The Peaceable Night by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Read it online here:

The Peaceable Night by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Suhaila toed the mass of jellyfish and thought, At least they don’t sting. The tide had deposited thousands of their bodies up and down the beach in thick clumps, clusters of sand-spackled flesh so glossy it might be mistaken for cellophane from far away. The domes of their bells lay scattered everywhere: tangled in kelp, indented by purple-bellied slipper shells, pierced by the black horns of mermaid’s purses.

—-Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, The Peaceable Night

I remember once taking the ferry across from Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsula the water was full of jellyfish. I don’t mean a lot of jellyfish… I mean full – millions upon millions of huge, bluish bellshaped coelenterates – it seemed that they had displaced the ocean – there was more jellyfish than water. I don’t know what quirk of weather, currents, or tides produced this bounty, but it was beautiful and frightening at the same time.

Of course, I remember a less pleasant encounter. At the beach on South Padre Island a wave washed a Portuguese man o’ war (yeah, I know – they aren’t really jellyfish… so sue me) over me, the long tentacles draped across my arms. The pain was amazing. It hurt as much as any pain I’ve ever felt. It was more like an electric shock than a sting. I spent several days in bed, sick – my arms had needle tracks like a champion junky where the nematocysts punctured my skin in long lines twisting around my body.

Today’s story features a recent widow with a young daughter. They have recently purchased a beach house and are struggling to pull each other through the day. It is a story of jellyfish and beach cleaners and trying to save a little bit of something. It is a story of war and immigration and trying to get your life back.

It’s a good thing those jellyfish don’t sting. It’s a shame that almost everything else does.

Interview with Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar:

You started out as a scientific researcher. What made you leave that path to pursue writing?

To be honest, I was a writer long before I was a scientist. I wrote my first story in third grade—a spiral-bound, illustrated little story called “If I Were a Kitten for a Day”—and wrote novellas and a few just-for-fun fantasy novels in middle school and high school. I’m a writer for the same reason I was a scientist—I’m fascinated by how the world works. So I continued to write throughout high school, college, and grad school, which resulted in a much better knowledge of and appreciation for the craft of writing. Along the way, I also studied science, because there were questions about the world that I wanted answers to. I’ve always been a curious person.

Writing has always been a necessary part of who I am. For me, writing is like a reflex; it’s how I process my experiences and the world around me. It keeps me sane. So while I eventually realized that academic science was not the right career path for me in the long term, my passion for writing only grew stronger.

—-From Creative Quibble

Red Jellyfish, from the Aurora Preview

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 26 – At Lorn Hall by Ramsey Campbell

Here’s a closeup of the sculpture on the clock on the carriage house.

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 26 – At Lorn Hall by Ramsey Campbell
Read it online here:

At Lorn Hall by Ramsey Campbell

To its left, where he might have looked for a doorbell, a tarnished blotchy plaque said LORN HALL. The door displayed no bell or knocker, just a greenish plaque that bore the legend RESIDENCE OF CROWCROSS. “Lord Crowcross,” Randolph murmured as though it might gain some significance for him if not summon its owner to the door. As he tried to recall ever having previously heard the name he felt a chill touch as thin as a fingernail on the back of his neck. It was a raindrop, which sent him to push the heavy door wide.

—-Ramsey Campbell, At Lorn Hall

Ramsey Campbell is considered one of the masters of modern horror – and from what I’ve read, I’d have to agree. I particularly impressed by the evolution and breadth of his talent… from Lovecraftian tales, to jewels of erotic horror, to his increasingly complex novels.

Today’s story is a straightforward gothic frightfest… a haunted house full of ancient furniture, barely functioning lighting, and foreboding paintings of the master, Lord Crowcross looking down on every scene. There are these odd headphones that narrate the tours… and maybe more. There are even spiders that add their webbing to the lace patterns of doilies on the furniture.

Scary stuff. Game over.

Interview with Ramsey Campbell:

Starburst: What are your thoughts on horror fiction? Do you think one must experience horror in order to write it?

Ramsey Campbell: I think you have to experience horror in the imagination. That’s what you dream up onto the page. On a personal level, my childhood is a case of nightmares. Someone once said I was born to write horror; I’m not too sure about that. A fair number of horror writers have a strange background. It’s not specific to the field, and I’m not certain if it’s even special to it. That said, I grew up reading adult horror. It was a very small step from reading George MacDonald to fairy tales. Victorian fairy tales were a complete nightmare that have been cut out of the later versions. They use the same kind of suggestions. What is left out is then up to my imagination, for me, that’s how much of the best horror fiction works, even today.

Thoughts on your childhood?

I had a very strange childhood. I lived in a small house with my parents. They became estranged very shortly after I was born, and I didn’t know my father at all for about twenty years, even though he was in the same house. I never saw him, and he became this kind of monstrous figure. My mother suffered from schizophrenia, and at a very early age I had to figure out the difference between what she saw and reality. I had to work that out when I was three years old, you know. A useful perception, obviously. That’s defined a lot of what I write, this difference between what is perceived and what is real. That was a long answer. (laughs)

What type of influence did H.P. Lovecraft have on you, in particular your early work?

Oh huge. Huge! I read a number of anthologies from the library when I was young and teenage. You couldn’t get a book on Lovecraft, and it wasn’t until 1960, I believe, that the first ever paperback collection of Lovecraft stories came out called, Cry Horror. They contained Call of Cthulhu and Rats in the Wall. Some of his masterpieces. Also some of his lesser stuff like Moon Bog. But I read that through in a single day, and I was completely steeped in it. I knew that was what I wanted to write, basically. But I didn’t write short stories or a novel for at least three years. At eleven I completed a terrible work called, Ghostly Terrors, which was everything I read just stuffed together, but it gave me focus. I knew this was the kind of thing I wanted to do, and I wanted to imitate. But I hadn’t travelled, never gone further than Southport, and Lovecraft’s work was set in Massachusetts. I wrote five stories very much imitating Lovecraft. Lovecraft didn’t use dialogue, so nor did I. I unlearned a lot of stuff. I sent the works originally to Arkham House to see if they were any good. They wrote back two pages describing what was wrong with the pieces. Not the least of which, of course, was the lack of dialogue. It’s interesting how many writers start off imitating other writers.

—-From Starburst Magazine

(click to enlarge)
Magnolia Building
Dallas, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 25 – Mademoiselle Fifi by Guy de Maupassant

Graffiti in Deep Ellum. This warrior is nothing if not well-muscled… plus he is carrying off his prize of war.

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 25 – Mademoiselle Fifi by Guy de Maupassant
Read it online here:

Mademoiselle Fifi by Guy de Maupassant

The captain, a short, red-faced man, was tightly belted in at the waist, his red hair was cropped quite close to his head, and in certain lights he almost looked as if he had been rubbed over with phosphorus. He had lost two front teeth one night, though he could not quite remember how, and this sometimes made him speak unintelligibly, and he had a bald patch on top of his head surrounded by a fringe of curly, bright golden hair, which made him look like a monk.

—-Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi

Guy de Maupassant wrote over three hundred short stories, which is a lot, and is considered one of the fathers of the modern short story. Despite this, probably the only thing of his you have read is The Necklace – which they made you read in high school. It. like most of Guy de Maupassant’s work, is a stunning look at the destructive power of class, envy, and poverty. But, since you read it in high school, you only caught on to the twist ending.

Guy de Maupassant’s work holds up well today – the themes are as modern as this weekend. Today’s story, in particular, could be adapted to the modern time without much work, it is a timeless story of brutal men that enjoy destroying what is fine… what makes life worth living. It is only when they are thrown together with equally brutal women that they might come to realize the error of their ways… and by that time it is too late.

Stairway to Heaven
James Suris
Steel, Paint
Art District, Dallas, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 24 – Sweethearts by Richard Ford

The cover of Richard Ford’s novel – The Sportswriter.

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 24 – Sweethearts by Richard Ford
Read it online here:

Sweethearts by Richard Ford

This was not going to be a good day in Bobby’s life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail. He had written several bad checks, and before he could be sentenced for that he had robbed a convenience store with a pistol—completely gone off his mind. And everything had gone to hell, as you might expect. Arlene had put up the money for his bail, and there was some expensive talk about an appeal. But there wasn’t any use to that. He was guilty. It would cost money and then he would go to jail anyway.

—-Richard Ford, Sweethearts

I am more than a little ashamed of the fact that I came to read Richard Ford’s work because of a perverse fascination with the cover of his novel, The Sportswriter. The odd thing is that I never found The Sportswriter to be my cup of tea. I simply couldn’t make a connection with the novel’s protagonist, Frank Bascombe. The second novel in the Bascombe series, Independence Day, won the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Though those well-written and highly acclaimed novels never were my favorites, I absolutely loved Richard Ford’s short fiction. It was rougher and tougher and had people in them that I cared about.

Today’s story, Sweethearts, is about a man tasked with helping his girlfriend take her ex-husband down to the penitentiary to start his one-year term of imprisonment. The criminal is a real piece of work – though everyone else in the story has made enough mistakes that they can’t be too unforgiving. It’s the kind of impossible situation we all find ourselves in now and again… and if you don’t, you’re not trying hard enough.

Richard Ford:

Do you think stories are created or discovered?

That’s easy. Stories are created. It isn’t as if they’re ‘out there’ waiting in some Platonic hyper-space like unread emails. They aren’t. Writers make stories up. It might be that when stories turn out to be good they then achieve a quality of inevitability, of there seeming to have been a previously existing and important space that they perfectly fill. But that isn’t what’s true. I’m sure of it. A story makes its own space and then fills it. Writers don’t ‘find’ stories—although some writers might say so. This to me just means they have a vocabulary that’s inadequate at depicting what they actually do. They’re like Hemingway—always fleeing complexity as if it were a barn fire.
—-from Granta

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For Family & Friends

An advertising sign I saw outside a transit station in a rough part of town.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 23 – The Call of Cthulhu By H. P. Lovecraft

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 23 – The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft
Read it online here:
The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

—-H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

I have written about H. P. Lovecraft before – I wrote about how I first read him here… and I wrote about a great really bad movie I saw decades ago based on the Cthulhu Mythos.

Today I guess I’ll mention a sort of silly story. I was in the Garland, Texas library a few years ago, perusing the fiction aisles. The fiction, as is the usual convention was arranged by author. At the end of each case was the start and end of the author’s names… such as Smith-Thompson, or Adams-Baker. In the C section it had Clark-Cthulhu. That caught me off guard. I didn’t know that Cthulhu had written any popular fiction. I checked the stacks and there was a collection of short stories set in the Cthulhu Mythos written by a variety of authors and the person that cataloged the book mistakenly thought that Cthulhu himself, the great evil one, born on the planet Vhoorl in the 23rd nebula from Nug and Yeb had actually penned the tome himself.

I really wanted that little plastic sign and considered prying it off myself when nobody was looking. Unfortunately, I am too honest for that. When I moved to Richardson I stopped going to the Garland library on a regular basis and the last time I visited the fiction section had been reorganized and the sign was gone.

You have to take my word for it. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

H. P. Lovecraft:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
—-from Supernatural Horror in Literature

H.P. Lovecraft