A short story.
“If you’re always running from monsters, you don’t have time to exercise your brain, to think about the most important issues arising from biological life.” I felt I’d made my case succinctly, so I left it at that.
Ever the argumentarian, my cohort replied, “Biological life? As if there’s any other kind. And are you trying to say all we’ve been publishing are stories about people running away from monsters?”
“I think the jury’s still out on what constitutes life. It could be that consciousness is life and generating everything we see in the material universe. In which case, there is as much life in a piece of granite as there is in your brain…which sometimes seems to be made of granite, now that I consider the matter.”
J.R. made that disgusted little noise he favored; a sort of clucking with his tongue, and poured himself another cup of coffee. “None of this is getting us closer to making our deadline.” We were 48 hours from the designated date of delivery for our new anthology.
“This deadline is just another monster to run from.”
Plopping into his chair, J.R. grunted, “You going to wax poetic now?”
He liked having the upper hand intellectually. When conversations wandered off the range, exploring turf with which he was unfamiliar, he bristled. I tried to put my proposition in as nonthreatening a light as possible. “Can we take a couple minutes and just noodle around with this idea? I think we can spare ten or fifteen. Don’t you?”
“The metaphysical noodler!” Heaving a sigh, he leaned back and gestured with his arms, giving me his permission to “have at it, knock yourself out, dude.” I started talking, not expecting him to agree with anything I said. I just wanted to verbalize my thoughts and have another reasonably intelligent human listen.
“Everything in society is being reduced to monsters. All of us are encouraged to run for our lives from terrorists, GMOs, the economy, the Republicans, the Democrats, the latest virus they’ve created from whole cloth and fake news.” I let this proposition sink in. He sipped coffee, maintaining eye contact, but noncommittal. My opening salvo had not impressed him. But then I wasn’t trying to impress as much as get this out of my head and into the world. “So, we’re all running from monsters, all the time.
“Why? Because if we’re running from monsters, we’re not stopping to rationally process any of the information the media outlets are force-feeding us. Thinking is destructive to their agenda.”
My co-editor and friend snorted. “What agenda? Whose agenda?”
“I’m simplifying for the sake of discussion. No doubt there are many agendas involved and at least as many conspirators.” He settled back deeper into his chair, reluctantly along for the ride as I played out my spontaneous monologue. “I suppose all of this is the inevitable outcome of a consumer society. We are the cattle, the cannon fodder, the guinea pigs. Those at the top of the food chain don’t seem to even consider us part of the same species.”
“Maybe we’re not,” he suggested in a bland tone.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But, that’s a discussion unto itself. The point is this; we are trained to think of church, state, medical profession, insurance companies…all of them, as sort of benign parents who are looking out for our best interests. Public education ensures this perspective. It’s not until people become adults, usually in their thirties, that they realize the whole thing was a scam. They’ve been had, bamboozled.”
He shrugged, no longer stubbornly opposing my rambling rant.
“So, getting back to our task at hand, I think the reason why our horror stories aren’t as engaging as we would hope, is that people have bigger, scarier monsters chasing them every day, all the time. Horror stories are supposed to offer a vicarious thrill, a ‘safe’ way to be frightened. Who needs it when our authority figures are spying on us, poisoning us, lying to us and hiding themselves behind impenetrable walls of secrecy?”
I could tell by the shift in his eyes, a slightly softer expression, that J.R. was warming to my flow of ideas.
“Daddy’s got an axe,” he muttered, a grim, half-smile on his lips.
“Exactly. And because Daddy’s got an axe, why would anyone even care about someone else’s daddy with an axe in a piece of horror fiction.”
“Sales haven’t been bad, dude,” he said, defensively.
I considered this. “True. Don’t you think our readers are mostly part of a vanishing breed?”
“Don’t you think our readers are educated folks with decent jobs? Part of the rapidly shrinking middle class? The last vestiges of a once great herd of monied consumers, destined for extinction?”
“Damn. You make it sound grim.”
“It is grim, isn’t it? Aren’t we witnessing the fall of the great American experiment? The demise of plenty and the onset of a highly technological dark age in which a handful of corporate kings lord it over billions of serfs?”
He clearly did not like the picture I was painting in his mind. “There is hope,” he suggested without a great deal of conviction.
“Snowden!” he said, sharply, convinced his example carried a lot of weight. “He poked a hole in the surveillance state’s agenda.”
“Yeah. Anything we think about Snowden is pretty much conjecture.”
“Not what he revealed, but what we think his revelations mean. It’s all conjecture. A thing we don’t know for sure is his motivation. Why did he really expose the NSA? Has that exposure stopped or even slowed their spying? No. In fact, the knowledge that we’re being spied on may have made people more fearful and consequently more docile. It’s the old panopticon thing, just ratcheted up a few notches.”
“So, what are you saying? We should just give up publishing horror stories, give up on life, withdraw and fade away?”
“Hell, no. I think they’ve strengthened their game and we need to do the same.”
He waited for me to explain what it was I had in mind that might possibly be a response to dystopian overreach.
“We need to add new layers to the game. Instead of a single layer on the chess board, we need to play the game in 3-D, with multiple levels.”
J.R. nodded, considering this.
“Instead of purveying horror tales that exist in a flat world of mistaken assumptions, we need to cultivate stories that recognize the game of life as it’s actually being played. We need stories that are built on the understanding that the government is corrupt, churches are about mind control and the medical community is controlled by pharmaceutical pirates and insurance parasites.”
I recognized the spark of enthusiasm catching fire in his eyes. “But are our readers ready for that added layer of realism?”
“Layers,” I corrected. “Yes. They are. The schlubs out there who can’t wrap their heads around it, don’t read our books anyway. They watch the Walking Dead.”
“They are the walking dead.”
“We agree on that point.”
“Let’s assume there are enough literate people out there who would appreciate this new game plan…and that’s a huge ass assumption…where are we going to find the type of stories you’re talking about? Is anybody writing that sort of thing?”
“We may have to write them ourselves.”
“Yeah. We write the stories, different topics, different styles, various pseudonyms.”
My partner laughed out loud. “This is a very subversive idea!”
“Totally. But, in a good way, right?”
The conversation veered drastically back into reality as J.R. glanced at his watch. “All right,” he said, “I agree with you in theory. But, none of this changes the fact that we’ve got to deliver the new anthology in less than two days. Let’s get back on point.”
From a pragmatic view, he was right. As I shifted back into editorial mode, I felt a bit like a winded fugitive, a survivor in a zombie flick who’s just taken a breather under an oak tree and is now racing ahead of the shambling mob of undead eaters once more.
“So, that FBI werewolf story that takes place in East Texas…we keeping that? Yay or nay?” J.R. asked, flipping through the papers on the table in front of him.
“Sure,” I said, settling completely back into the reality I thought I’d escaped for a moment. “Why not?”
Bret McCormick wrote, produced and directed indie films in Dallas from 1984 to 1996. He has written for film, television, comics and a variety of short fiction publications, including The Saturday Evening Post. In 2016 he co-edited, with E.R. Bills, an anthology titled, ROAD KILL: Texas Horror by Texas Writers (Eakin Press.)