Gods can be cruel. For those of you who don’t know the tale of Cassandra, see here. In short, the sun god Apollo gifted Cassandra with the ability to see the future, but when this act of generosity failed to open her legs, he spitefully twisted the gift into a curse. Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.
Around Halloween, when the shops fill up with plastic fangs and pumpkins, I am led to wonder what the point of it all is nowadays. What is the role of horror in modern life? One aspect of it is, for me, being reminded that no matter how much we feel safe and in control with all our gadgetry and sophistication, the dark is just outside. I find powerful horror stories to be the ones which remind me of just how fragile this sense of control is, by offering up scenarios that believably transform mundane life into a nightmare.
Here is one such scenario that came to me through real life inspiration, with a small added embellishment for effect!
This isn’t a story about me. It’s about a boy, Sam, I knew at school. He was pretty quiet which is why I never really got to know him sooner. I do remember the stuffed dinosaur key-ring attached to his bag though.
The first time I noticed something was amiss was during class. Out of the blue the teacher asked him a maths question. He laughed, held his dinosaur to his ear, nodded as if listening to something, then gave an answer. We all laughed at this farce, but soon fell silent as we realised there was a problem. The teacher, a chubby chap by the name of Mr. Carter had turned to the board, frantically writing. Uncertain, the class whispered and fidgeted. A minute later he finished, paused a moment, then turned to Sam saying “Yes, that’s right.” He started to ask something else, but Sam was saved by the bell and ensuing diaspora. Most likely the others forgot this curious event. I didn’t.
I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen Academicals’ recently, and recalled this particular excerpt where the daunting Patrician – getting a litle tipsy – recounts a personal childhood experience:
The Patrician took a sip of his beer. ‘I have told this to a few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’
This mini-tale called to mind a personal experience when gorge-walking with a group of youths somewhere in Devon. The party came across a sheltered rock pool between turbulant waterfalls, in which we were greeted by a lone duckling. It chirped without fear and swam right up to us. As we passed through the pool it followed us with uncertain paddling and bobbing, the ripples of our passing threatening to drown it at any moment. Then, after we had traversed the pool, and helped one another to clamber up the next obstacle, it watched us leave, spinning in circles and attempting to follow. Of course the water kept throwing it back each time it tried, in vain, to come with us. We stood atop the waterfall, catching our breath, and discussed the situation. The duckling had likely become separated from its mother and been swept downstream to this place where it was effectively trapped. We could not help it for fear of our human scent rendering it alien to its own kind anyway. All in all it was a particularly heartbreaking moment and when asked what was likely to happen to it I was pretty frank about its minimal chance of survival.
As we pass through life our roles change, sometimes we are gods holding powers of life and death in our hands, and sometimes we are victims of forces that threaten to devour us. Some feel trapped in roles they feel compelled to play, through love, fear, notions of duty and myriad other reasons that twist and twine into bonds. I wonder, if those bonds were severed, what kind of god would you make? In whose image would you attempt to craft the world, and according to what principles? The Patrician speaks of becoming the moral superior of a supreme being, but given the status quo I do not feel that is remotely difficult. The difficulty may rest in retaining your notions of morality as you become a god. Power transfigures the best of us, and the result may be scarcely recognisable…
Once upon a time there was a young boy. He was strange, and therefore not particularly popular. Aside from being quiet he had a habit of dancing a lot at odd times. It was a very queer dance, hard to describe: His arms moved like waves, his body twisted, turned and swayed. The dancing had started when he was very young, to the amusement of older relatives and friends, and he never seemed to grow out of it. When asked why he did it, he returned the question, ‘Why don’t you?’
Another story? What naughty mer-children you are! Well, so long as you are ready for sleep, I suppose there is a little time. Listen closely, for this is the tale of the Mermaid’s Lament…
Though it was only a short walk from the resort, it was far enough to seem like a tropical paradise. I had meandered for perhaps twenty minutes, far enough to escape the rest of the tour party huddled around the finest overpriced gewgaws I had ever seen. My mind had been flooded with misgivings and regrets for a long time, and I had hoped the trip would bring some kind of peace. At the very least, some distraction. Sadly the only ones forthcoming had been the drawling accents of fellow passengers and other buzzing pests. I just needed some time to myself.
The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the ancient Greek for the lifting of the veil – a kind of revelation. This is a story about the angel tasked with the final unmaking.
Like a lot of children, I was convinced that I had psychic powers. If I just concentrated hard enough, for long enough, I would be able to make miraculous things happen. The intently constipated look on my face, growing redder by the second, fixed gaze on the damned pencil that absolutely refused to move. I’m sure Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ had fair responsibility for this fantasy! I even recall this intensity washing over into my dreams, as I acutely recall several occasions where my psychic experimentations actually worked, only to wake up moments later to find I could not actually fly after all.
Accepting that there are things in the world that you cannot achieve with the power of your mind alone seems to spare a great number of strokes and hernias. At least, that’s what they would have you think!
I travel a lot these days. Club to club, I spend most nights on the go. Japan, Europe, America – All over the shop. Money isn’t really an issue thanks to having a sizeable inheritance from my parents. Dad was a lawyer, mum was a pharmaceutical chemist. I’ve spent a great deal of my waking hours partying, and I’m pleased to say that I regret almost none of it. There’s never a lack of friends to offer moral support and help spend your money. This is mostly irrelevant though. What I wanted to tell you about was a very special night. A night that sticks in my mind like a splinter of heated metal. It burns with a tropical energy, and sweat sprouts on my skin at the faintest recollection. And yes, if you must know, there was a girl involved.