What is the origin of “Centipede Heartbeat”?
I was briefly involved with a man who worked at an entomology lab, and one day when I went to meet him for lunch he was feeding pinkies to their Amazonian giant centipedes. Even though centipedes don’t have the brain capacity for cruelty, the way they fed looked cruel. The centipedes would attack, inject their prey with venom, and then withdraw while the pinkies convulsed. This would be repeated two or three times before the centipedes finally started eating. This is a perfectly viable feeding strategy if what you’re trying to kill can fight back, but with helpless infants it looked like these centipedes were deliberately drawing out the process, and then stepping back to admire their prey’s agony. I suppose centipedes have stuck with me as rather menacing little creatures ever since.
Lisa appears to be agoraphobic, but we never learn why. Why doesn’t she want to leave the house?
My imaginary background for this story is that Lisa has suffered from mental health problems throughout she and Joette’s relationship, and that Joette was finally on the brink of leaving her—some of her things are still packed up in the garage—when Lisa had a breakdown that convinced her to stay. So not only is Lisa motivated by psychosis (or, if you’re so inclined, an actual invisible centipede invasion), but she’s also found a way to keep Joette forever if the poison kills her.
This story taps into a primal fear of insects. Is that a personal fear of yours?
Not really. One of my very first acid trips went bad, and I became convinced that my body was a spaceship being piloted at very high speeds by centipedes that wanted me and all of humankind to suffer terribly and die. In retrospect that’s hilarious, but at the time it was quite distressing. Snakes and insects are such common unpleasant hallucinations that I do believe we’re hardwired to respond negatively to them, and for that reason they play a large role in our collective unconscious. Personally I don’t mind insects, though I prefer that they not be crawling all over me.
Lisa’s actions and the question of whether she’s imagining her partner’s condition or if it is really happening, drive the horror of this narrative. As the writer, did you ever decide if what Lisa was experiencing was real or just a paranoid delusion?
For me, this is a story about a crazy person, but I had readers who preferred it if the centipedes were really there. One of the joys of reading can be interpreting a work without regard for the author’s intent, so I don’t think my preference really matters here.
What else do you have coming up?
I’ll have a piece called “Flock,” about a woman kidnapped by giants, coming out in Kaleidotrope this summer. I also write non-fantastical fiction under a different pseudonym, and as that guy I have a short story forthcoming from the New England Review.
Spread the word!