The Story Behind the Most Difficult Story I’ve EverHad to Write
In late 2003, I started a short story tentatively titled “The Clacker.” I had the bare bones of a religious concept, itself based on my bare bones knowledge about the Cathars, a branch of Christianity wiped out by the Roman Catholic Church. (If this behavior by the RCC comes as a surprise, you probably shouldn’t be reading horror fiction, or science fiction, or fantasy or…look, just pick up some history books from your local library. Concentrate on books aimed at young adults.) Of course, I had internet access, just like the vast majority of Americans. Usually, research plus imagination crystallizes into some kind of story! It isn’t necessarily a good story, but at least it has a middle and an ending, to keep the beginning company. After several hours in which I wrote, and rewrote (moved around some words) the same two or three paragraphs, I surrendered.
But this wasn’t exactly a surprise.
You see, my creativity had been slowly leaching away, like a vital nutrient washed out of the soil by heavy rains. Creativity is, perhaps, the most vital nutrient required in order for writers and illustrators to grow their respective works of art. I was both, so the losses were doubled.
Fast forward to 2013, when a fortuitous change in my medication started growing that essential creativity once more, and without warning. I found myself suddenly deluged, not by rain, but by The Nutrient. Potent stuff that the desire to create is, I was overwhelmed by ideas. Stories I wanted to write and drawings I wanted to do wouldn’t just materialize; I had to grow them. I had a LOT of work ahead of me. I did a bunch of drawings, mostly of women and elder gods, and stuttered through the beginnings of half-a-dozen stories that were essentially going nowhere. I was all over the place, writing horror, science fiction, dark fantasy…but just their opening paragraphs. Drawing came naturally to me. I’d been a visual artist first, having picked up crayons at approximately the age of five. I didn’t write my first story until high school—during senior year, no less. Writing required more focus.
I don’t remember how I got the idea to go looking through my old fiction folders, but it was the trigger, or the key, or even the electron microscope (focus, get it?)—choose your metaphor. I opened many old files, which my latest version of Microsoft Word needed to translate into the new century, second decade. I found myself aghast at such amateur writing, and absurd, old tropes from the 1990s. The only ones that held any promise were the seeds of classical material: ghosts, apocalypses, cosmic horror, Lovecraftiana (no, probably not a real word), etc. You get the picture.
Ultimately, I settled on two stories: the apocalyptic “Sacred Glyphs” and one of those Lovecraftian pieces, entitled “The Clackers.” First thing I did was rename it “The Bible Black,” a title I stole from Ronnie James Dio’s final project, Heaven and Hell. The fact that he died before the album’s release just gave this song a creepy pathos that no musician could, or would, be able to pay for. If you want to hear the song that would ultimately inspire “The God Whom No One Worships,” tap here.
To deflate this bloated blog post, I will hurry along, now. I asked both my wife, Sherry, and my good friend, author/artist Dean Italiano, to give it the metaphorical red-pen treatment. They both gave me a lot of good advice. I think it was around then that I renamed it “The God Whom No One Worships.” But as I read it over, again, I felt something was wrong. I was too close to it, though, had worked on it too recently, to be able to see it clearly.
So I hired Mary SanGiovanni’s MSEditing to help me improve that story, and it was worth every penny. When Michael Kelly was seeking a short work of pulp fiction, I sent, among other things, “The God Whom No One Worships.” He accepted, asking only that I retitle it “The Night Kingdom.”
So, “The Night Kingdom” (It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? That’s why he wins the awards, folks.) will appear in the inaugural issue of Weird Horror #1, along with twelve other chilling tales, this October. I urge writers to pick it up in order to get an idea of what they’re looking for, and I urge everyone else to pick it up because it will undoubtedly be good spine-tingling fun.
Long ago, before I had read the word “sociopath” in some now outdated psychology text book, I met Joe* (*not his real name). Joe introduced himself to me by kicking me in the ass, repeatedly, while we walked home from school. I was eight, and my parents and I had just bought our first house, a ranch-style two-bedroom one-and-a-half bath in Parlin, NJ. It wasn’t my first day at that particular school, but it was the first time I walked home afterwards, rather than being bussed to the apartment complex we’d previously inhabited.
Joe was walking with a kid I didn’t recognize, nailing my buttock with his sneaker to a cadence that any boot camp instructor would have approved of. When I finally turned around to confront him, we somehow got to talking, and realized we lived on the same street and that we both liked Star Wars. Joe was my first best friend. I knew this because he told me so a few weeks later. By then, we’d started playing over at each other’s houses, as well as those parts of Parlin easily accessible to a couple of boys with bicycles.
Joe was my first experience with deliberate, willful lying, simply for its own sake, as if it were not a sin or a crime, but rather, a way of life. He lied about the most inconsequential things. Joe cheated at every game we played, and if I managed to win, he would explain to me why I’d still lost. To me it didn’t matter. I was just thrilled to have a best friend. We also used to play make-believe type games, which I enjoyed the most, as I got a thrill out of inhabiting a character, whether it be a starship engineer (Joe was always captain,) a cowboy, a gangster, or a Jedi Knight. It was during one of these games that Joe got me using the word “nigger.” To this day, I do not know if Joe knew the actual meaning behind that word, but he’d convinced me that niggers were cute little creatures that spoke in cartoonishly high voices and became embroiled in various hijinks. We played that game for several years until, overhearing us as we ran around their backyard, Joe’s father admonished us that it was a cuss word denigrating black people, and that we were to cease using it immediately. His father was one of the few people, in fact the only one that I can recall, that Joe truly feared.
Joe had an adorable mutt named Barney. He was something like a long-haired terrier with the saddest eyes I’d seen on any animal. One day, while playing with Barney in the kitchen, Joe got him to leap up on his hind legs, and proceeded to “dance” with him, far too roughly and far too quickly. Suddenly, Joe gave Barney a backwards push, and an audible snap echoed in the small kitchen, followed by piteous howls. When Joe tried to calm Barney, the dog bit him. I felt horrified and confused as we watched Barney roll side-to-side. When Joe’s mother got home from some errand, she was furious. Barney had snapped both of his hind legs. Joe described the incident, and complained that Barney had bit him. What stands out in my memory, beyond poor Barney’s obvious suffering, is the expression on Joe’s face as his mother bundled the pooch up in a blanket and headed out to the car. Utter fascination. I had witnessed him scooping goldfish out of the pond in their backyard and smashing them flat with bricks, but in hindsight, I can see that this was a pivotal moment in which Joe became cognizant of his power over larger animals.
Another of Joe’s favorite pastimes was playing with his magnifying glass. He liked lighting dry leaves and twigs on fire, then quickly stamping them out. He enjoyed frying ants and beetles under the glass’s focused beam even more. I was just as guilty. Joe insisted that I cook bugs with his magnifier, so I did. I don’t recall feeling guilty about it; it was just something we did. Joe’s lure, capture, and torture of cats, however, wasn’t something I could get myself to join in. I told him I was afraid of them (and I was, actually) and he called me chickenshit and chuckled about it. By this point in our relationship, I had begun to realize I was in a kind of trap. His escalating cruelty frightened me, but the idea of walking away from our friendship, or telling somebody, an adult perhaps, completely terrified me. I didn’t like to contemplate what Joe would do to me if I tried to break away from him.
By this point, I was eleven years old, and three long years had deposited me in a place I could never escape from — never would have ebscaped from, had my father not gotten a substantial promotion and salary hike at work. My parents informed me that we were going to buy a new house, a house nobody had ever lived in before, in another town. However hard I try, I cannot recall Joe’s reaction to this news. Perhaps it is something I have blocked out.
In 1983, we moved to East Brunswick. Though Joe and I kept in touch by phone, gradually, his hold over me lessened and disappeared. There was no great moment of relief, no joy. My friendship with Joe had left me permanently weird inside, and at my new school, other kids could sense that strangeness in me. Those who didn’t avoid and ignore me generally bullied me. Looking back, however, armed now with the knowledge of a man in middle age, I know that my father’s promotion saved me, saved some integral part of who I essentially was and would become.