Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Old Horror Writer

He’s harder to find than most. I have the basis for comparison because I’ve gotten to all of them sooner or later, from the big names to the obscurities. There are some who give up so thoroughly, and disappear so completely, that it’s as if they never existed at all. This guy’s far from the worst.

He’s an old man now, twenty years removed from his last novel and ten from his last short story; he’s no longer a member of HWA or SFWA, and the agency that used to handle his interests now has him in their estate file, sending out occasional contracts and two-digit checks whenever some foreign-language magazine situated in one of the new countries deigns to ask permission for, let alone, compensate, a reprint. Out of curiosity I made myself a voice on the phone and had to stay on the line with them for ten minutes before the receptionist was able to connect me with the member of the agency who knew who he was. The address they had was a post office box, and they hadn’t mailed anything there for three years. I linger in the post office lobby for a few days waiting to see if he ever shows up, but he never does; I suspect he’s paid for years in advance and forgotten that the address even exists.

Fortunately, I have other methods, and I soon appear in front of his home, which is not so much a home as the place where he wound up. It’s a decaying little house in a decaying little neighborhood, a place of boarded-up windows and rusting automobiles, with a front walk stained by brown patches left by years of fallen leaves that were allowed to rot wherever they landed. The sky is gray, the air oppressive, in the way it’s pretty much been everywhere, the last couple of decades. Before I get to the door, I hear the TV playing something with a theremin score, and wonder whether it’s Forbidden Planet or one of its many imitators, before I knock and hear the old man grunt as he gets up from his chair. It takes him a long time to get to the door.

He is a pale and bloodless thing, an old man of the sort who used to be fat but lost most of that as age and infirmity sucked away his substance. He is bald, even on the sides, the skin over his ears tending to gray in the places where blood vessels near the surface have not rendered it pale blue. His teeth are yellow, his lower lip a permanent, and now drooping, pout. But his eyes are a rich brown that suggests depth. “Hello?”

I know the answer before I ask the question, but some formalities need to be respected. He confirms that he is indeed the old horror writer, though he’s astonished that anybody remembers work that is now yellowing in magazines and anthologies that went out of print long ago.

When I tell him that it’s his work that brings me here, he hesitates, casts a wistful glance over his shoulder at the music of weird doings on alien worlds, and lets me in.

The old horror writer is not a talented housekeeper. The floor has been swept just often enough to keep the place minimally presentable, but not enough to render it more than dingy. Books, pulled from one shelf or another and then put down whenever it occurred to him that he was done, sit on every flat surface. The house doesn’t stink of cat the way some I’ve visited have, but a wisp of shed hair dances in his slipstream as he stops at the large but quaint TV, turns it off, and leads me further into the room beyond, which appears to be the most writerly of his three rooms. It is the room where the bookcases are all monuments to himself: his novels, several copies of each, his short story collections, many more copies of each, and, in one high place, a highly sought-after and well-respected trophy that would be shiny if he bothered to dust it. There is no desk, just a soft easy chair, and across from it a much-patched leather desk chair on casters. He gestures toward the desk chair, which I take, and asks if I would like something to drink; water, perhaps.

I say yes to water. He comes back with a tall plastic cup, and ice.

I note that it doesn’t look like he writes here.

Yellow teeth flash. “I don’t.”

I ask if he’s still producing.

“I tinker once in a while. I haven’t finished anything in a little bit, but I tinker; there’s an epic novel that tortured me for almost a decade, in the nineties, that I finally gave up on to save my sanity, that I still add a page to, once in a while. At this rate, I’ll be finished with it when I’m two hundred and fifty years old. I suspect I’ll be dead before I even finish another chapter.”

Is he blocked?

“I’ve always been blocked. I was blocked when I started. That’s the nature of the game. There were always stories I started but couldn’t finish; novels I got eighty percent done but then wandered away from, like faithful wives I left in the lurch to pursue another that wagged her finger at me from the other end of the bar. If I could go back and finish all my fragments, without adding a single new idea to the pile, I’d be a wealthy man. If there were any place that would pay me for them.”

There are still magazines, I say. Websites.

“Yes. Too many pay with love, or an insulting pittance not much better than love. Every once in a while I hear from one that still believes I’ll have an orgasm over a penny a word. Did you know that was considered the low end of the pay scale a century ago, now? It was a scandal twenty years later, an insult twenty years after that, robbery when I sold my first couple of stories; now, with pecans going for a dollar apiece and oranges something only the wealthy can afford, it’s a quarter dropped in a beggar’s tin cup. Once I loved the art so much I was willing to take it. Then it became impossible to sell a story for even those poverty wages without somebody, somewhere, giving it away for free on line. Now I’m at the end of my life and I find my dignity’s worth more.”

But the stories, I say. I name a few of his that made a splash, a small splash, in the day. We talk a little about the one that inverted the vampire trope, where the predator was actually a volume of sentient blood, that invaded and possessed one victim’s body after another; the one about the passenger plane that crashes in the afterlife; the paradise that erupts in horrific bloodshed every seven days; the siblings forced into gladiatorial combat; the professional torturer tasked by his king to find and render real that much-discussed and never-defined abstraction, the fate worse than death. I speak of the most memorable deaths in his work, like the woman turned inside out, or the art collector sucked into one of his more severe landscapes.

His tired eyes come to life whenever he discusses these masterworks and others, but after a while he seems to realize what he’s doing and rejects it. “The problem is, that all of that was just comforting nonsense; it mocked the genuine horror we live with by turning that emotion into a parlor game, making it an exercise in producing a frisson, rather than diagnosing the true evils that are out there. We wrote about zombies overrunning the Earth when the sad truth was that we were creating a terrible future of rising shorelines and endless drought and turf wars fought over glacial runoff. After my wife died, I had to move out of Florida; I became a climate refugee for two years. Once I was at a food bank and saw a cop beat some poor kid’s brains out, for asking what line he was supposed to stand in. I’m not saying that I stopped writing about zombies and vampires that day. But it sure as hell seemed a lot stupider after that.”

He’s mentioned his wife, so I ask him about her.

His eyes go distant. “Do I have to talk about her?”

I ask him if he please would.

“She was the best part of me. And the worst.”

How, I ask, was she was the worst?

“Between the two of us, somebody had to do the hard work of living. I was no damned good at it, so it fell to her. I was the dreamer. She was the doer. She went out and came back and had to listen to me saying I’d done another chapter, written another story. Then every once in a while a three-figure check would come in and she’d make me feel like a hero for a day or so. She was gone for a bunch of years before I accepted what I knew only vaguely when she was around—that to her, for all the love she showed me, I was like a pet dog, praised all out of proportion for performing the only trick he knew. You don’t love that dog less because there’s another you could have gotten, that knows every trick in the catalogue. You love it just as much, but make that one trick seem like it’s worth more. I discovered how much effort that must have been, after she was gone and the praise stopped. I spend much of my time, these days, dwelling on just how much it must have cost her.”

What would you tell her, I ask, if she could be returned to you for five minutes?

“That I never deserved her. That she shed light on a soul that had precious little of it. That I wish I had been a better horse for her to back. That I’m sorry I betrayed her by not being as remarkable as man as she should have had. That there was more wonder in one of her smiles than in any fantasy I ever produced.”

I quote things critics said about his work; list the foreign languages it was translated into; catalogue the award nominations. I name the celebrated figures, some titanic, who attributed to him a number of synonyms for genius.

He listens and gives me a sad smile. “I used to cling to those. A writer’s ego can be a fragile one.”

There are photos around the room of him at one party or another, with famous figures of his era. Two or three are notorious for having had their fictions turned into movies or TV series, manna from heaven that the old horror writer has never had the good fortune to enjoy for his work. A couple of others in the photographs wrote terrific books whose influence is visible in the old horror writer’s prose. I direct the conversation toward these mementos and he brightens a little, telling me about the aphorisms spoken by one, the character-defining moments lived by another. A few icons he won’t talk about: the ones he says ended badly, or ended their friendship with him badly.

He falls silent a little after that. The old house settles and we listen to the sound it makes, like scared mice afraid that it might fall in on them. Cat eyes appear in a narrow crevice between stacks of yellowing books, blink at me, and disappear. The old horror writer was known for his cats, once upon a time; he used to include them as family members, in the bio blurbs at the back of his books.

I ask him why he’s no longer writing.

He sighs. “Look. I don’t know if I can explain it any better than this. There was a news story yesterday. Worldwide, zoos have agreed to stop breeding their tigers. They’re the only place where there are any tigers anymore, but their stock is becoming so inbred that they judged it cruel to continue to continue to try to save the species. They long ago stopped replacing their elephants, because they realized that elephants went half-psychotic in zoos. Soon they’ll be gone, the way the killer whales are gone, the way the bluefin tuna are gone, the way that wild tigers are gone. There are a couple of countries in Africa and Asia killing men and putting their wives and daughters into rape camps, a dozen major cities being abandoned all over the world, because they’re no longer livable. There’s a new disease, caused by heavy metals in the environment, affecting some of our more polluted countries: the occasional baby being born without brains.

“I could go on forever.

“The horror is out there without me writing it, and the sick thing about me after a lifetime of making things up is that I experience it not just as an appalled human being—though I am—but as a lover of the imagination, watching our possibilities contract to zero even as we continue to deny that it’s happening.

“This is the damage a lifetime of nurturing that kind of imagination has done to me. I’m not so much disappointed that this world’s turned to shit as by the awareness that we won’t get to have adventures on another one. I’m not so much terrified that we’ve turned the Amazon into a parking lot, as by the suspicion that we’ve seen our last epic quest into unmapped places. I’m not so driven to despair by the evidence of so many human monsters, multiplying around us even as we breathe, but by the knowledge that we’ve catalogued everything that lives and that we know that there are no monsters of the sort that thrilled me as a child. In short, what I hate myself for, but have to acknowledge, is that I’m not as bothered by the sad wreck we’ve made of this existence, as I am by the destruction we’ve done to the world of make-believe.

“I’ve had to realize that horror fiction, bloody and disturbing as it often was, was not a way to engage with the awful, as to escape it. For me, a junkie breaking in and cutting my throat for whatever small amount of cash I’ve got lying around is just the sordid box known as real life; but a mysterious and shadowy thing, half-nightmare and half-man, drifting across a darkened bedroom in the middle of the night, with claw-like fingertips that become more like scythe blades the closer he approaches . . . that’s comforting. It’s reassurance that there’s more around us than we can see, and that even if some of it is frightening, then at least it’s proof there’s more to the universe than what we see.”

He shrugs. “I spent my life making up those stories, stories that ended, that left the readers licking their lips and saying to themselves, ‘Well, that was a good one,’ before they turned the page and moved on.

“And that, from the ridiculous perspective of ninety-five, turns out to have been a damned wasteful way to have spent my limited time on a dying planet.”

The words dissipate in the dusty air before he registers that he’s spoken them. He bites his lower lip, seems to register me as the stranger I am, and betrays a rush of shame that diminishes him in the few ways that age has not. “I’m sorry. I’m an old man.”

“It’s all right.”

“I can’t just blame being an old man. I’ve always talked too much. At conventions, I was notorious for it.”

“I’m not upset.”

“It’s just that I know you came a long way . . .”

I say, “How do you know that?”

He opens his mouth, closes it. Tilts his head as the internal calculations play back as much as our conversation as he can remember. I see him register that he never actually asked me who I was or what I wanted, let alone where I came from. It always comes as a surprise. It is part of my glamor; whenever I am about, people sense the distance I have walked, and couple that to their own expectations. This man who has answered so many interview questions for so many fanzines, so many websites, so many author Q & A sessions and so many sparsely-attended bookstore autograph sessions, blinks as the illusion wavers and he catches the slightest glimpse of what I am and why I’ve come.

He says, “What are you?”

I flash fingers grown long and barbed, and festooned with hooks, and tell him that I’m whatever he wants me to be.

“I don’t want you to be anything,” he says. “I want you out of my house.”

I could sever his head from his shoulders with a twitch, but I want understanding between us, and so I speak to him, in a thousand voices.

I tell him, with all due deference, that this visit is a gesture of love.

I explain that it’s as he’s said: so many of the deaths available to him, all jostling at the threshold known as blind chance for the opportunity to take him out at the end of his days, are too sad and mundane for one who has imagined such otherworldly sights and visions. In the next year, I explain, one of several things must and will happen to him. He might succumb peacefully in his sleep, but go undiscovered for weeks until his body has bloated and burst and sprouted life of its own; he might fall from a stroke, and find his limbs uncooperative as the telephone capable of summoning help sits untouched in plain sight; he might sense a certain pain linger in his belly until it metastasizes to his bone marrow and his brain, leaving him delirious in agony with no company but the hospice nurses who will see him as nothing more than just another anonymous old man; or he might suffer a day and a half of brutal torment at the hands of neighborhood morons who have talked themselves into the belief that he’s a miser hoarding an immense fortune, and be left bleeding out as they flee upon deciding that he never had anything to offer them. All of these things already want to happen; they are merely racing toward him at approximately equal speeds, the winner a decision to be made by nothing more than random fate.

The splendid death I offer, the shapes I can assume, the sight of something alien and otherworldly that I can offer him, just because my claws slash, is just as horrid, in its own way. But it will also validate his lifetime of work, providing the epilogue to the single-author collection he’s always been.

More, I say: the carnage I leave will render his death notorious. In the same way the sordid murders of one Wisconsin half-wit captured the collective imagination of so many fright merchants and made Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs possible, his will become a perennial mystery, echoing down through just as many generations. Books will be written about what happened to him. Movies will be made about what happened to him. His story will be altered and amplified and told over campfires, for decades.

And then there’s this, I say.

(By now, I have swelled to encompass the entire room, my scaly wings scraping the ceiling, my fiery breath making his many shelves of contributor copies smolder from heat that is more than normal combustion. I have assumed a form that would drive most men mad, and done so knowing that he will not go mad, not in any way that he has not always been; where others would shriek, he merely winces, taking me in, nodding as if his darkest muses have been confirmed. It is one of many reasons why I and all who come from the realm I call home, have always looked upon him and his ilk with such shining love; why we have visited so many, in their final years, and made offers like this to so many of them.)

I tell him that his own work will come back into print, worldwide, and he will at last achieve the true lasting fame that has always been denied him; that it will stay in print, for as long as frightening stories are told; that it will be studied, and admired, and copied, and above all, read, forevermore.

All he has to do, I say, is accept this fate, instead of the mundane ones that await, following months that have no compensating joys to offer him.

The choice is his.

He sits in his chair and blinks at me for so long that I fear he’s gone simple from fear. But then the corners of his lips twitch, and he massages his chin between thumb and forefinger, unable to hide a certain anger even in the presence of a creature capable of disemboweling him in an eye-blink.

He says, “Then you’ll own it.”

“Yes.”

“You’ll make it a source of power.”

“Yes. But think of what you’ll have.”

The cat I spotted before leaves its place of concealment and races across the room to his side, claiming his ankles, purring its bliss even as it ignores me completely. He snaps his fingers and it hops up onto his lap, where it curls up, an ancient animal content in the lap of its ancient master. He pets it absently, and gazes on me with undisguised pity.

He says, “Do you know what happens to all scary monsters, eventually, when they don’t possess control over their own stories?”

It is the one question I’ve hoped he wouldn’t ask, because it means that he knows the answer.

“They become jokes. Women fainted at the sight of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. Two decades later the character was a foil for Lou Costello. Dracula was once considered so ghastly that some parties thought the Bram Stoker novel unfit for civilized consumption. A century later, a puppet dressed up like him taught basic counting skills to preschoolers. I remember when a sparkly version of him romanced a wan teenage girl named after the Hungarian actor most famous for playing that most legendary predator on screen.

“Once upon a time, they made people scream. In short order, they all became themes for sugary breakfast cereals.

“The more popular the imagined nightmare, the sooner all the attention reduces it to impotent shtick—and if I can take anything from your visit, it’s the awareness that perhaps this means my life’s work had purpose, after all. It seems that I’ve done my small part to cast a light that keeps you, and all your kind, away from us.”

I say, “You’ll die forgotten. Your stories forgotten.”

“Maybe,” he says. “And maybe that means I’m irrelevant, that I’ve sucked as much fright out of what I’ve written as I’ll ever be able to. That means you’re irrelevant. And I want you the hell out of my house.”

In the quiet that follows, I find that I once again possess the shape and dimensions of an ordinary human being; one more shadowy and mysterious than the average, but by no means the sanity-disturbing image I was a few short seconds ago. It should be more than enough than I would need to throttle the old fool where he sits, but it would take effort, and even as I consider it, I find that my human arms have become leaden, my human sinews too deprived of will to do much more than lift them. Their substance has turned smoky, transparent; too insubstantial to cast a shadow. Perhaps I can still kill him, but almost certainly not in any manner that anyone will ever consider legendary, not in any way that will give me and my kind strength. It would be pointless.

He continues to watch me as I rise, mumble inadequate thanks for his time, and drift from the room, fading so quickly that by the time I leave, aware that he is even now conceiving a brand new story in the dusty spaces behind me, I don’t need to open the front door in order to pass over his threshold. I head up the walk to the street and am passed by figures who are just as transparent, but growing more substantial as they head toward his front door: a beautiful young woman, a dark-eyed and purposeful man, a figure belonging to neither gender who is nevertheless made of the same stuff. They nod at me as they pass, cursing me with the knowledge that there will now be more stories, more wounds to worsen the hemorrhage of our power.

Someday I will appear before one who accepts the offer.

It just hasn’t happened yet . . .

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The penultimate installment in the series, Gustav Gloom and the Inn of Shadows (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in August 2015. The finale published in August 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.