The Myth of You
I love hummus and pita bread. Seriously. Red pepper hummus, pine nut hummus, garlic hummus, spicy buffalo hummus, ghost pepper hummus, chipotle hummus, chocolate hummus, just plain old Mediterranean style hummus with some olive oil and smoked paprika... I'll devour any of it on some nice, soft pita. I've frequently made dinners of the stuff. It satisfies me in a deep, profound way. The same way, actually, that books often satisfy. Food and literature both fulfill a primal hunger to live, to experience, to know and feel. In food and in books, you'll find all manner of flavors. Strawberry sweetness in a love story; the bitter bite of dark chocolate from a horror tale; the citrus tart of satire. An author is a chef, combining various ingredients to achieve the perfect taste for their audience, and every story is an entree that arises from those efforts. If you follow the metaphor far enough, though, you reach an inevitable and mildly unsettling conclusion: the reader exists to consume. This story is an outgrowth of that idea--the reader as starving eater, as devourer of plot and character and theme. To that bare ingredient I added a tablespoon of cosmic horror, a cup of metafiction, and just a sprinkling of dystopia. My intended dish was a story about stories and, moreover, a story about reading and reader expectation (that I may have thwarted while still satisfying). I hope both you and the Rawling infant found it delicious.
I teach a bevy of college classes at night. I actually prefer it that way. I enjoy the feel of a college campus after dark--there's still light and life in some buildings, but the hustle and bustle of the daytime crowds has long since dissipated. What students remain on the foothpaths when the sun goes down? What professors want to spend their evenings lurking the deathly quiet halls? It's as though everything left on a college campus at night is a remnant of learning--the outer fringes of mainstream knowledge. I imagine arcane studies and untoward experimentation must be taking place inside the shadowed classrooms of the academy. And so spawned Special Collections.
The story came into focus when two disparate elements joined. The first was my experience with said campuses after dark. In teaching when I do, I walk by a major university library at night at least once per week. I mean, this is a big library. Six stories. It looks like an office complex. And the top four or five floors are always mostly pitch black at night. Occasionally I'll see a light burning in one or two windows on those floors, though, and those lights make me wonder: who's up there this late? what work do they have to do that can't wait? how strange must it be to sit there, surrounded by all those books and darkness? I wanted to answer those questions... and the special collections room with its student worker cohort began to gestate. But it didn't spring to full life until I added another element: Steven Millhauser.
I'm enamored of Millhauser's first person plural stories. He finds a way to encapsulate the individual experiences of a people in one narrative voice, to make sensible the way that everyone in a particular time and place and situation might think and feel. His narrator is a collective, a we, which is unusual and, to me, interesting. That, in and of itself, would make his work notable, but he also throws bizarre, sometimes menacing situations at his character collectives and lets us see how they work through those situations. The end result is sometimes satirical and darkly humorous, sometimes outright horrifying, and sometimes profound. I wanted to aim at creating a story in a similar vein--albeit with my own style and tone and themes. When I applied this Millhauserian approach to my special collections room and the students therein, the story was truly born. Suddenly, I had a voice for the students and a way to approach both their experiences and the varied experiences of people in the special collections room in years past.
There's a little Ligotti in this story, too (I suppose in most of my work, really), which I think you might notice. Just ask the supervisors. They know. Oh, they know.
A Silence of Starlings
Old age can be hell. I watched my grandmother unravel as dementia took its toll on her mind. I watched my grandfather waste away in a nursing home, unwilling to eat. As our bodies wear down to the bone (literally, sometimes), there's little we can do other than find an inner strength beyond the physical and cling to the people around us. And that's what really scares me about old age: having no one to cling to in those tarnished golden years. I'm not an easy person to know or be friends with. I have very little family. I rarely receive text message or phone calls from anyone. I think ahead, to the future, and I worry about that lack of social connection. I worry that, if I outlive the tiny handful of people who do care about me, who will I have left in this world? No one. At all. That kind of loneliness destroys souls. It's just about the most frightening state I can imagine. So this story was an attempt to work through some of that fear, to set it on the page. This is not a happy story by any means (not that I write many of those, anyway), but a story that, I think, is more a warning to myself and to others--be more open, try to love more, try to love those who love you more, try to form real bonds with others, lest you be left alone at the end of the world.
Compared to most people I've known, I grew up in the middle of nowhere. No hyperbole. From my parents' house where I lived for most of my youth, it takes over half an hour to reach one of those American symbols of "civilization," McDonald's and Wal-Mart. It takes a full forty-five minutes, even without traffic in the middle of the night, to reach a hospital. Another five minutes might put you at an interstate. All of this is to say, I grew up rural. And, let me tell you, there's a good reason we have the entire genre of folk horror. Rural people are strange, often isolationist, ensconced in tradition, and perpetually scared of some sort of idea they see as encroaching on their freedom to be strange and traditional isolationists. I wanted to play up on that isolationism and adherence to tradition, as many folk horror stories have done in the past, but also incorporate a little cosmic horror into the mix and put a Shirley Jacksonian spin on it all by implying that even the small townsfolk don't even fully understand why they do what they do. I don't see the rural denizens of my story as nefarious, as many folk horror stories imply. Rather, I see them as caught up in something they feel the need to venerate because... well, they've always done it and venerated it, even if it's in service of something malevolent. And they don't care. It's that blind allegiance to a concept you don't understand but are willing to fight for that terrifies me.
The Cone of Heaven
Every horror author has to tackle the concept of the afterlife at some point. It's too mysterious, too much a source of dread and anxiety not to. It's spawned religions and their concomitant demonic pits. It's spawned the plane of spectrality and ghosts of all sort. It informs so much of horror because it's the ultimate source of the unknown--a thing potentially mired in unimaginable pleasures or terrors. My own personal belief concerning the afterlife is complicated. I hold open the gates of possibility for it. I hope there's more to existence than flimsy flesh, I want there to be additional realms of adventure and but what that new frontier might entail, I can only speculate on. I think that any afterlife is going to be a whole lot stranger, a whole lot more astonishing (either for good or for bad) than we can fathom, enmeshed as we are in the dominion of the physical. This story was my attempt to run with one of those utterly bizarre, fleeting thoughts I have about what might come after death.
Ancient Greek Stoics believed that the soul didn't come popping into the world fully formed. They believed that you had to experience life in all its tumultuous glory in order to bring your soul into full form, a process called ensoulment. I think that's an interesting notion--that, if there is a soul, it's earned by living. I took the idea and decided to see what an A.I. would do with it. How would an A.I. imagine it could earn a soul? What action could it perform to grow in that way? I'm also incredibly interested in what A.I. would think of our concepts of religion and the hereafter. It seems to me that A.I. would either write it off as illogical or take the concepts and apply them in a very literal manner. Hence you have Calvin (yes, the play on John Calvin is intentional): the spiritually-obsessed A.I. who takes his biblical and theological lessons and applies the illogic of their rites to our world. I never wanted to write a murderbot. It's cliched. But it was the only outcome that made sense here. The thing of it is: Calvin is so desperate for that soul, he'll do anything he thinks pleases God. And in this, in his quest, he's especially scary because, really, he's not so much different than a lot of perfectly human fundamentalists you can meet any day of the week.