The prophet is limping. He has invaded the minds of too many monsters and fiends and conniving serial killers. Dark intuition is forming bruises on his flesh; he can feel the visions taking a toll. He cane-taps through the shadows, his thin frame jolting with coughs. To some he is the New Messiah—a panacea for the rampant violence of a world that was once pure. To many he is an offense to nature, akin to Stevenson’s Hyde or Shelley’s monster. He ducks under the yellow CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS tape and investigates the body. A crowd forms around the border, murmuring theories and gossip and nonsense: “This bum’s a scam artist.” “The demon is near the demon is here the demon is near the demon is here the demon…” “Who keeps doing this?” “Save us O Lord from these devils, these killers of women and children.” “Straight outta The Dead Zone.” “…is near the demon is here the demon is near the demon…” “This fuckin guy’s a nut job.” The prophet rises to speak to no one in particular. “The brutes are everywhere,” he says. His words come out in white fog, evaporating as quickly as they form. The Giant surveys from above, casting his vote for a survivor of the stand-off.
There’s a lull in the music. For the first time in his life, the priest realizes his supernatural aptitude is a curse. He steps down from the podium and begins to walk away. He quickens his pace until he’s running—looking for paintbrushes, looking for new forms of nature/existence, looking for war.
He changes location semi-annually, using new space as a point of entry for the sermons. If you close your eyes you can hear the landscape in his prophecy—when you open them again, the landscape is newly emboldened, as if outlined in black ink by a caring, attentive hand. This will remind you of your childhood when, to impress your parents, you traced out an image from one of your books, perhaps a tiger or an eagle, onto a clean white sheet of printing paper: Look mom, you would say, look what I’ve drawed. She would correct you, The word you’re looking for is drew, then add something like, That’s nice but you shouldn’t lie. The priest’s enchanting spirals to a full stop; his voice breaks. You can see the way this magic taints his body. Welcome to the religion of impermanence… attendance is always low, interest level remains static.
His affinity for landscape leads to painting. The marriage of ART and BEAUTY—two distinct categories in the priest’s mind—nearly eliminate the sense of duty he once felt to preaching. Unconsciously, his decision to sermonize outdoors and in changing locations comes to be more a way of saving his God-given plot than any innovated method of teaching the Word.
He’s the Willie Stark of Christianity, mutters the genius, carving hateful epithets on the walls of his makeshift home. The priest is the angel of his own artifice, eyes closed to the bitter vigor of the masses. There was once a time for the city, a time for the tundra, a time for the prairies and the forests and the vast bodies of open water. Now all he wants to do is drop a bomb on it all.
Aside from landscape painting, the priest’s other vocation is film criticism—particularly war films. The hour is late; the priest huddles in the dark, perched over a text. He reads aloud: The category of war film is uncontentious. War films are about the waging of war in the twentieth century…
There’s one room in the house he can’t enter, one plane he will never colonize. He can almost hear the midday drone of war announcements clutching his ambition with a titanium grip. Every night he stands at the foot of his bed, admiring the false imprint of a crucifix on his blankets. Give me my honesty again, he gurgles while clawing at his collar. The shirt won’t come off, either because he’s had seven drinks too many or a vindictive deity has decreed that this is the end. Give me my honesty again, he repeats, crumpling into the shadow. He splits its pattern into a trisect of incompletes, drowning in his own whiskey-vomit.
Matriculating into the darkness, a fever descending upon his brow, the priest traverses the valley. The open wilderness yawns below him. When he reaches the highest point, he takes one last look at ALL THE BEAUTY before hurling hand grenades into the forested chasm.
His newest painting is a disaster—he fails to implicate himself on the surface, to encode his grief in the translation. And that’s all it is, really, he chokes out. Really, continuing some low form of translation, the priest sputters. You crane your ear toward him in an effort to listen. He’s hardly discernible through the noisy mess of snot and tears: I just got it all wrong. Pious self-pity in the temple; nomadic loneliness on canvas.
One can see cars riding the highway all night; men in camo shorts sell dope until sunrise; hookers shuffle from bedroom to bedroom provided HONEY GOT THE CASH OR A FIX; the seagulls form plagues in the sky, courting and mating frenetically, confusing the notions of UP and DOWN in the artistic effort to GAIN RELEASE, to CONTINUE THE SPECIES without asking WHY and WHAT FOR. The genius thinks all this—or fantasizes about it—while picking at the tabernacle, curious as to what’s inside.
The criteria of combat, meanwhile, has exercised a number of theorists, critics, and historians. Traditionally, the concept of combat places men in trenches or dropping from planes; pits tanks against rifle fire; divines upon guerillas who manufacture impromptu weaponry in the dunes just beyond the mood. This is largely an unimaginative definition. Consider briefly N.L. Priest’s notorious film A Mirrored Flame. Quite literally, the mono-angled film stars an aging war veteran sitting at a bar running his index finger along the rim of a full glass of whiskey, contemplating firstly whether he should drink it, secondly pinpointing the genesis of his alcoholism, and lastly speaking, in its only line, about Shutting out the din of remorse entrenched in his skull. Similarly, we as critics of the war film genre should consider Priest’s posthumous release, simply titled War (Priest’s title), which consists of a single continuous shot: a gloved hand rolling dice on a linoleum floor (a notably unclean or old linoleum floor).
The genius is huffing glue behind the altar. You can hear him in the silent moments—the hot, nasal whine of chemicals bombing his brain. He’s surging with dope. He’s burning holes in his knowledge, blanking his memories, praying quietly out of sight.
1. “The thing wasn’t so much a work of fiction as a criminal agenda. We were spellbound.” A PAUSE. RECORDING CONTINUES: “We acted with ease and brevity… we didn’t go to the cops, no, we found the murders ourselves… who can trust the cops in such time-sensitive matters? They’re pigs…”
2. You’re trying to fuse the words together in some sort of palatable way, but all you can think about is your cut and how deep it is—one, two inches maybe? You think you might need stitches. N.L. is working cash at the corner store—part-time work to feed creative will. Captain Anarchy takes the reins, adjusting his pants while pistol-whipping the protagonist. Down with plot structure. Down with character development. Down on her crotch, where your mind continues to drift.
3. Most small press publishers don’t receive, let alone accept, horror submissions. The arrival of a photorealistic story about the killing of rural women changed everything for Dark Mirror Publishing.
4. Something happened during the time N.L. was away from the office. Desecrated manuscripts led him to believe there were Other Forces at work. “Listen to Captain Anarchy…” he began. “No, this is garbage.”
5. All actions come from a predetermined place of intentionality. Agency is a rodent pinned to a dartboard by hillbillies mutilating for kicks.
6. The plot isn’t as realistic as B led me to believe. The murderer, aptly named M, kills the first woman during a session of sadomasochistic sex. M takes it too far and nearly decapitates her with a rope and tourniquet device. Quite fantastically, M wakes up the morning after with the woman’s limbs grafted onto his back. His desire to conceal this disfigurement is only matched by his desire to kill again. He sets out to murder not only one but three or four more women—each of their limbs amalgamated to his so that by the end of it all he looks more like Kali than any serial killer.
7. The employees at Dark Mirror couldn’t think of a title. One woman suggested labelling it in a way that would cause the average consumer to miss the irony. One man crossed hairy fingers across his paunch and shook his bangs out of his eyes. After reading the book for the first time, you approach the discussion with caution—this is not simply fiction. This is a moving, breathing organism… and it has fangs.
8. Captain Anarchy is getting fat, juggling instant meals and hatespeak. Listen to the intonations of revolution as they leak under the door, pressing through the cracks and invading your space. It will take you a week to decode this discourse, to reconfigure it in a way that meets your daily needs.
9. “I don’t accept no for an answer,” begins Ca-pi-tan Anarchy. Juggling with knowledge, the women—tied and gagged—had no choice but to listen to his voice booming to a maniacal crescendo. “I will not accept,” he began again, but he was cut off by the sound of one woman struggling in her chair before falling down and crawling toward an exit—any exit.
10. B writes A writing N.L. in the third person: you take charge for the first time in your writer-for-rent career. This is how all the hacks fill the page—get loaded on the cheapest poison in the liquor store, drink yourself into a dreamlike trance, and recreate the popular mythos in 80,000-100,000 words. This is the Novel That Changes Everything, the marriage of art and commerce. “No it isn’t,” says Captain Anarchy. “Read some fucking Kafka. Ever heard of Conrad? Go soak your head, fucko.”
11. “The book? What happened with the book?” asked A. B looked inside himself, then returned to staring through to the space directly behind A’s head. B begun: “well, the plot and details matched up with suspect events that occurred after we had received the book. Events… what a word… I mean the murder of four or five women that could only be related temporally before we received the manuscript.”
He’s as good a conversationalist as any. He’s oblivious to mercy and in no mood to talk. Well-dressed. Wearing a fedora and pulling it off. A Bogart kind of guy. Eyes forward, reading bottle labels or remembering heartbreak. He orders two shots and a beer.
“Put it on my tab,” you say.
“I’m not going home with you tonight, friend,” he says.
“Too bad. I could use some love.”
“You could use a shower.”
You laugh, finish your drink and extend your hand. He doesn’t shake it.
“Why do I get a free round while that poor bastard spends his daughter’s college funds on swampwater?” you ask, nodding toward a guy sitting a few stools over.
The guy is sweating discounted whiskey. Stubble beaded with liquor. Lazy violence peering from a fat face.
“You got a fuckin prollem?” fatass calls over.
“Oh, you heard me?” the stranger says.
“Yeah, n I axed if you got a fuckin prollem!”
“Only ninety-nine of them.”
Fatass wobbles to his feet. The bartender wipes a glass and watches with passive interest.
“You wanna take this outside, mister?”
The stranger continues staring ahead, reading symbols in space. Downs his first shot. Hisses quietly. “Don’t go home all bruised up again. Your wife might work up the guts to divorce your flabby ass. Here,” he pulls out a 20, waves it at fatass. “Take this. Get out of my sight, you sack of shit.”
Fatass wrenches his features into a wet pink ball of fury. “No one talks to me like that.”
“Yes they do. Everyone talks to you like that. That’s why you’re here alone, drinking whatever they wipe off the bar. Now go buy some toothpaste and a new shirt. A 20 should meet your standards.”
Fatass sways, damp and defeated, for an endless minute. Finally, he takes the money and nods hard. He waddles out the door. The stranger takes his other shot and drinks half his beer. For a moment you wish you’d taken your conversation elsewhere.
Then you reconsider. You imprint bravery on this stranger’s face. He tells it like it is. A real James Cagney. Classic Hollywood. The kind of man they don’t make anymore.
“That guy’s tail is so far between his legs, it’s tickling his stomach,” you say with a laugh.
“With that much stomach hanging down, the tail wouldn’t have to go up very far.”
You laugh again. “So do I get to know your name now?”
“No, you do not get to know my name. If you buy me another shot, you get to know my secret.”
“Heavy shit, brother. You ever read The Catcher in the Rye?”
“Suck my dick, friend.”
You both chuckle, a social performance.
“Get him another shot of that,” you tell the bartender.
The shot comes. He slugs it back.
“Okay, you got the shot. Now I get the secret.”
“I think they call that a compromise. I’m not very good with those.”
“It’s called a deal. Any man who’s not good with those isn’t worth shit to me.”
His gaze peels from space and drifts to you. There’s danger in those eyes. “Here’s my secret: after you’ve been down there—down there, I mean, where all of them come from—you are free to do anything.”
“The demons, that’s who. I’m not talking Scripture here. I’m talking about the whiskey in that shitbag’s guts. I’m talking about your need for conversation. I’m talking about the rotten, diseased whore that some corporate lawyer is fucking somewhere in this city right now. I’m talking about the thing that kills us. Once you come to want something enough, it comes so you need it. And once you need something enough, well shit… Once that happens, you might as well say sayonara to everything else. And I mean everything else.”
“You’re talking about addiction.”
“It’s more than that. Monomania. Demons. The Captain Ahab condition.”
“Obsession. The danger of dreams. I’m not just saying I’ve looked death in the face. I’m saying I’ve ripped the curtain away and I can laugh at the screaming girl in the shower. Because I’ve done it. It’s not just that I’ve pressed a hot fire poker into a man’s arm until he screamed. It’s the fact that I didn’t pull it away. No matter how much he screamed and begged and pissed himself, I kept that thing scorching until it touched his bones. Until it burned his insides.”
“What do you do?”
“I talk with the demons. I learn their names.”
Your vantage point is safe but you’re sick with regret. The guys are silent. A beer bottle hisses open and you hear the glug-glug of a first drink. / “This is going to be huge.”/ You feign indifference as the skyline erupts, cutting the illusion of peace with a mournful boom. / “Shit. We did it.” / You know what’s happening. You know that somewhere across the expanse of blackness a family is caught unguarded in the street, screaming a horribly dreamlike symphony as it feeds those crimson tongues. You can almost hear the implosion of automotive steel under the grip of flaming claws. You can almost smell your kitchen of childhood solace—dried herbs torched in a tumult of instant destruction. / “Goddamn. I told you it would be quick.”/ Distant inferno crackles in your pupils as you share a drink with the boys. A drink becomes three drinks, then five drinks, then you lose count. You’re drunk off your ass and the fire keeps burning. / “Goddamn. It was so quick.” / Someone turns to see your expression but you’re not going to look away. It’s your responsibility to keep watch.