Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Bringing Out the Demons

I pull up in front of Stanley’s four-story Los Feliz apartment building at 2:57 ayem. Angie and Jack are already out front: Angie pacing, a furious smoke in her hand. Jack smiles thinly, salutes as I block the grade school playground driveway next door (the only available parking left), leaving enough room for the back doors of Jack’s van to load in if need be.

“Motherfucker,” I mutter, hitting my blinkers and climbing out. It takes everything I have not to slam the door behind me. Then over the thin strip of lawn to the sidewalk, and straight into Angie’s arms.

We hug hard, almost hard enough to break bones. The night is crisp, but our blood is boiling through our skin. I kiss the nape of her neck—she’s far taller than me—and she kisses the top of my head. It’s not sex. It’s solidarity.

“Enough is enough,” she growls. “That stupid sonofabitch.”

“I know,” I say. Both of us trembling with rage.

“Let’s go,” Jack says. He’s already moving toward the glass doors, keys in hand, impatient to get on with it. No arguments there. We follow him in, Angie still smoking. I light up, too, moving through the foyer.

The slowest elevator in God’s creation is unusually perky tonight. It only takes three minutes to arrive, thirty seconds for the door to open, another minute for the fucking thing to close with us aboard. Plenty of time for us to gather our power.

The steel cage rattles, all the way up to three.

• • • •

Just an hour ago, my night was peaceful and sweet. I’d had just a couple of beers for a change, written a couple of pages I liked, grabbed a late-night nosh and a Daily Show rerun before settling into bed. Thought about slapping some old Mystery Science Theater 3000 on, because ending the day on a laugh is my favorite way to go. But opted for straight-to-slumber instead. And straight away I went.

It was ten after two when my Facebook went BEE-DOOP! I’d forgotten to turn the volume down, put the computer into sleep mode.

“Okay,” I said, popping up, groggily peeling out from under my sheet. Unattended to, this shit would be waking me up all night. Once on my feet and still there enough to care, I found the space bar in the pale moonlight and tapped it, blinked back against the fresh glare of the screen.

Stanley Mann commented on a thread you are linked in said the news alert, still lingering rectangular at the bottom left.

“Oh, Jesus,” I said, dreading it at once. Weighing whether I wanted to know right now or not. Pretty sure I didn’t. Was so worn down by his online shrieks of pain and savage drunken assaults on everyone who’d ever cared about him that I’d already defriended him twice, in self-defense. But always brought him back.

Because he was family. The kind you choose, or are chosen by. And he had chosen me as the older brother he never had. And I had chosen him back. Because I loved him.

The him not running on non-stop toxicity, that is.

The one not completely overrun by demons.

By then, the little rectangle had vanished. But there was still a notice at top right. One of many. I found his, and clicked on it. It was on the thread of a woman I liked, had met a couple of times. A talented poet in the horror underground. Tonight going through terrible family troubles of her own.

It read:

Stanley Mann
Can’t bring myself to worry about the problems of a whore. Maxwell Hart Jack Capra Angie Magnet were just laughing about how funnny it would be to rape you lol

“Oh, you MOTHERFUCKER!” I yelled at the screen, suddenly wide awake. “What is the matter with you?”

But I knew before I yelled it. We’d been spiked out of nowhere by a broken robot. And this was the ultimate cry for help, tagged directly at the people who’d tried to help him hardest. Dragging us back into his dementia, in a way we could not possibly help but respond to.

The poor poet, of course, was horrified. As were all of the Facebook friends bearing witness on her thread. Because I was tagged, my FB was now pinging every ten seconds. That’s how fast outrage rears its ugly head these days.

Before I could even begin to respond, Angie pinged in. Thank God she was up. And thank God she was on it, already smoothing shit out with one smart message after another.

That bought me a couple of minutes, as I gathered my thoughts, and typed in my considered but furious response:

Maxwell Hart
OH MY GOD Carley! I am so incredibly sorry for your pain and justified anger. Please know that neither I nor Jack nor Angie would ever say such a horrible thing about you or ANYONE ELSE, and that we are every bit as pissed-off and sickened as you are.

Maxwell Hart
This is a person—a dear friend, hard as it is to admit that right now—who is seriously suffering from profound mental illness, and, as a result, is very badly and shamefully attempting to negotiate the worst part of his life.

Maxwell Hart
He lost his one true love, almost three years ago—found her dead on the floor, the image of which is seared into his skull forever—and the trauma and guilt of not being able to save her has snapped him in fucking half. It’s a horror that no one should have to endure.

Maxwell Hart
For the record, she was a brilliant, lovely and deeply troubled woman. In that sense and many others, they were made for each other. And you wouldn’t believe how many times he saved her life, as she wrestled with the painkillers, prescription and otherwise, that came to dominate the end of her life. And which ultimately claimed her, like roughly 100,000 other women every year.

Maxwell Hart
So while I completely understand the impulse to monsterize him in this moment of clear monstrous awfulness, I just have to be clear that they loved each other. Did great work together. Meant the world to each other. As such, his sorrow and anguish are very real.

Maxwell Hart
This does not, of course, excuse his horrible behavior toward you tonight. Nothing can. It’s beyond inexcusable. This is genuine evil. And the least of it is that he dragged Jack and Angie and I into it, because he’s been dragging us face-first through it for most of the last three years. Which is why I haven’t spoken with him in the last six months. (Which kind of invalidates his whole “We were just joking about” scenario, just in case you were concerned that the bullshit he said might be even remotely true. Which it ain’t.)

Maxwell Hart
No, the worst of it is that—in his lonely despair, his raging and entirely self-created exile from the human race—he finds himself trolling Facebook drunk in the middle of the night. Looking for people in pain, so that he can say, “Fuck you! You think YOU know pain? WHEN’S THE LAST TIME YOU FOUND THE LOVE OF YOUR LIFE DEAD ON THE FLOOR?”

Maxwell Hart
Bottom line: he thinks he’s the only person who ever suffered. That nobody’s pain or injustice could ever BEGIN to compare. In his constricted, curled-all-up-his-own-ass solipsistic universe, it’s all he can do to keep from hating everyone. And now he can’t even do that.

Maxwell Hart
He’s like a werewolf who KNOWS he’s a werewolf—knows he’ll transform the second the vodka and Red Bull kick in—but he’s a) too much of a pussy to actually kill himself, although he proclaims that all he wants to do is die; and b) so dismissive of everyone around him that he can’t be bothered to build the cage in his basement that would keep him from slaughtering innocent others. Somehow above us all. Even at his lowest and meanest and worst.

Maxwell Hart
Which is to say that he is crawling with demons. And his demons run the show. He’s too broken down to fight them. So he just feeds them every night.

Maxwell Hart
And tonight, he chose to feed them you.

Maxwell Hart
I can’t apologize for things I never said or did. But I am sooo, sooo sorry that he assailed you with his random madness. And just want you to know that it wasn’t about you. He is taking his hurt out on anyone he can, and digging in with anyone who’ll put up with it.

Maxwell Hart
My heartbroken advice to you is: DON’T PUT UP WITH IT. Defriend him now. Warn all your friends to do the same. Nothing good can come from letting him into your life at this terrible juncture.

Maxwell Hart
But I will sure as shit be addressing this damage tonight. Stanley, if you’re listening in? You just crossed the line one too many times, baby. This shit ends here and now.

At which point, my phone was ringing. It was Jack, on a conference call with Angie. Already onboard.

“Are we finally gonna do this?” he said.

Less than three minutes later, I was in my car.

And all of my demons were howling for blood.

• • • •

The elevator door opens, and down the maze-like corridors we go. A trail we’ve all traveled at least a trillion times, in all the decades we’ve known him. The tackily hypnotic orange and green carpet is like a visual mantra of repetition.

But this time will be different.

We don’t talk. We don’t need to. Fuck that: we don’t want to. Every single word that ever needed to be said had already been said one kazillion times.

We go through one fire door, to the next-to-last corridor. And with every step, the air crackles and thoomps. The hallway sconces and overheads begin to flicker with our mounting power.

We go through the last fire door.

Stanley’s apartment is at the end of the hall. I can see its interior already, in my mind’s eye. Shelves laden with thousands of quality books and films. Walls festooned with beautiful art and movie posters. A shrine to creativity, and its deep appreciation. All the things he has devoted his mind, heart, and soul to.

I’d never written a fan letter to James Dickey, thanking him for Deliverance. Much less at the age of twelve. But he did. And got a hand-typed, hand-signed letter back. Framed on his wall. Right next to William Friedkin. Harlan Ellison. Robert Stone. Oliver Stone, who he’d actually interviewed for his small town Missouri newspaper at the age of 18. And dozens and dozens of others.

And as I stomp down the hall, already transforming, I try to remember the beautiful person I love. Not the polyglot monster we’re about to face, but the sweet, kind-hearted, brave, and brilliant glimmering soul buried screaming underneath it.

Then Jack kicks the door off its hinges.

And we are in.

We hear the shrieks of Stanley’s demons well before we see them. He’s at his computer, of course, around the living room bend and out of view. Frank the long-suffering cat yowls and bails as we blast inside, the only witness to our last-ditch intervention. Probably thinking thank God.

Our rapidly-mutating shadows unfurl and curl across the walls, revealing every speck of blackness inside us. Passing the shelves. The monuments. Every negatively-ionized particle in the air of this mausoleum he calls home.

And here’s the thing.

We have demons, too. Everybody does. We can fight them. Resist them. Deny them. Embrace them. Make sense of them. Sic Jesus on them. Or utterly succumb to them. That is the challenge of this life.

The saddest thing about Stanley Mann is that he’s utterly given himself over to his demons. Is no longer even putting up a fight.

When we round the bend, he is barely even there. A pale, gaunt, limpid revenant, sucked almost dry of soul.

But his demons are another story entirely.

They rear up from his drained body like pufferfish, like tumors with faces: three immense balloon-like looming monstrosities the size of medicine balls, airlifting off of his shoulders, back, and chest on flesh-tendrils soft and flexible as scrotums. They were riding him like dead weight, crushing him down; but now they shriek and undulate in midair.

Each representing the hate they are made of.

“Get up,” I growl through a mouth lycanthropically distended. I have lost some teeth over the years of soul-battle, but the ones I still have are sharp as fuck. My rage is an animal, and it thrives on ugly meat. Demon meat. The only kind it wants.

Angie and Jack are standing beside me. Angie looks like a goddess made of molten stone. Skin hot and smooth as lava. Eyes entirely made of fire.

And Jack is, if anything, more primal than me. He’s the one who’s been treated like a dog most of all. Fetch me this. Fetch me that. Answer the 3:00 ayem emergency call. Bail my ass out of jail. Knock on my door, and make sure I’m not dead. Endure every abuse I ladle on you, because you’re unlucky enough to be my next-door neighbor. And my friend.

“GET THE FUCK UP,” the Jack-thing bellows, “OR I WILL SHRED YOU WHERE YOU SIT, YOU STUPID SACK OF PARASITIC SHIT!”

Stanley’s demons do exactly what we knew they would. They start screaming ugly insults, rage and terror in their eyes. But they don’t stand up. Because they’re pussies. Fucking pussies. All bark, and no bite.

Jack is the first one in. He heads straight for the center, jaws wide, where the Ego Demon howls in terror from Stanley’s chest. At the moment of impact, the chair skitters back on its wheels, hits the desk and pins Stanley, who flops like a puppet unstringed.

Jack bites a hole in the Ego Demon’s bulbous forehead, going straight for what passes for its brain. Thirty gallons of steaming pus disgorge, go splat on Stanley’s lap. Jack spits out the poison meat and discharge, digs back in, shredding his way from eyes to nostrils.

To his left, Angie flames in on the head from his back. His Misogyny Demon. His woman-hate. His hate of the force he’s supposed to love most—which compels him to love it—but hurts him so much.

It shrieks as she takes its malformed head in her hands and kisses it full on the lips. At which point, it begins to burn, then melt. Screeching, as it runnels down like wax. Staving in between her palms.

This leaves me with the one that lives on his shoulders. His Self-Loathing Demon, floating high above the rest. By far the biggest of them all.

I punch that ugly motherfucker once, twice, three times in the face, then grab it by the ears and drag it down to the couch ten feet away, its tendrils grotesquely stretching like chicken skin.

This is the couch Stanley Mann let me crash on for roughly six months, at one of the roughest times of my life, in one of his many extraordinary acts of kindness toward me when I was at my lowest and worst.

And when I look into the face of his demon, our demons see each other all the way through.

“CATAMITE!” it screams. “ASS-LICKER!”

I yawn in its face, squeeze its throat to full throttle. Its freakish scrotum eyes bug out, and air hisses from what’s left of Stanley’s lungs.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say. “Oh, how you love to project. But here’s the deal, you stupid fuck. I HATE MYSELF, TOO. Everybody does. Every time we fall short, feel misunderstood, or say or do the wrong thing. Okay? I’m just not making a lifestyle out of it.”

The demon snaps at my face in reflexive loathing, begging me to bite and swallow its pain. But I already know what it fucking tastes like. And I don’t want to hose that pus off me. My lust for demon meat has been replaced with disgust.

Instead, I lift its tumor-head up and smash it through the window behind us. Making it stare upside-down at the elementary school next door.

I had honestly begun to fear for those children.

I will fear for them no more.

“You know who you are, don’t you?” I rumble loud as a freight train through the broken glass. “You’re the little bitch that drags the real Stanley down. You’re the timid, flailing narcissist who tears down everything around you that is less than perfection. Who can’t help but find fault, and zero in. Causing hurt after hurt after hurt.”

I begin to saw its tendril neck against the jutting, jagged glass that remains. Pus squirts, drools three stories down, in a sickening, widening flow.

“This part of you needs to die, my friend,” I say. “One way or another. Up to you. Either give up, and clock out of existence forever. Or check into the woodshed, and rebuild yourself into who you want to be.”

The demon shrieks bile, but it can’t touch me.

I saw all the way through till the last tendrils split, lean forward to watch that worthless sack of shit drop, hit the pavement, and sploosh like a ten ton rancid water balloon.

When I come back in, Angie is no longer molten. She is rubbing Jack’s shoulders, gently pulling him back. It is incredibly hard for him to not keep going past the demon he shredded, start tearing up Stanley himself. But he stops.

That’s not the point. That was never the point.

This is an intervention, not an assassination.

Coming back will be the hardest part.

Good luck, my friend.

Salame.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

John Skipp

John Skipp is a Rondo Award-winning filmmaker (Tales of Halloween), Stoker Award-winning anthologist (Demons, Mondo Zombie), and New York Times bestselling author (The Light at the End, The Scream) whose books have sold millions of copies in a dozen languages worldwide. His first anthology, Book of the Dead, laid the foundation in 1989 for modern zombie literature. He’s also editor-in-chief of Fungasm Press, championing genre-melting authors like Laura Lee Bahr, Violet LeVoit, Autumn Christian, Danger Slater, Cody Goodfellow, and Devora Gray. From splatterpunk founding father to bizarro elder statesman, Skipp has influenced a generation of horror and counter-culture artists around the world. His latest book is The Art of Horrible People.