Tuesday, 18 March 2014

City Souls

Ahhhh, it's good to be back in the game. This is for Chuck Wendig's "Something Punk" flash fiction challenge, in which the topic is about:
a) A world taken over by the technology or fuel source or by humans (often in an authoritarian role) attempting to control the utilization and implementation of that tech or resource.
b) Characters who represent an anarchic, rebel “punk” vibe in this world.

I chose Soulpunk. Enjoy below!

The rickety elevator descended in fits and starts, as if it’s spirit were trying to discourage the passengers inside from continuing on their course. It also made a whining, grinding sound that drove Bennett up the wall. His fellow passenger on this little excursion certainly wasn’t helping, either.

“Quite the, ah, irony, no?” his associate, Dr. Harold Amon, said. His voice had the kind of nasal quality to it that was instantly annoying. “Power being so, ah, erratic this close to the Source.”

The way Amon said it Bennett could practically hear the capitalization. The reverence. He’d be glad to be out of this place and away from the generators. Ten levels below the City streets, past subbasement after subbasement. “The boiler room.” He’d heard others on the mayor’s staff jokingly call it. He knew they’d never been down here, had never actually seen it with their own eyes. If they had they would’ve gone with a much more gruesome name for it.

Truth be told this was only Bennett’s second time down here. He’d despised his trip so much he’d sworn never to come back. But he was back now, on a special assignment from the mayor. And when the mayor said jump you didn’t ask when or how high. You immediately leaped as high as you fucking could and hoped you overshot the mark.

The elevator’s grinding and shaking slowed down then a second later stopped.

“Here,” Amon said, and Bennett could’ve sworn the doctor had hissed out the word.

The elevator doors screeched open and they stepped out onto the metal catwalk above the boiler room. He looked down and there it was. Like something Bosch would paint if he were high on meth and listening to dubstep. A modern day vista of one of Dante’s circles of Hell.

Row after row of people, human beings, hooked up to the machine. All efficiently and evenly spaced apart, with wires and hoses and cables sticking into them. Bennett didn’t know how many were down here. Some things were better off not knowing.

Perhaps there was a time when the majority of electrical power came from coal or nuclear plants, hydro dams and perhaps for some other places it even came from ‘clean, renewable’ sources, such as wind or solar. But humanity’s needs had long since overshadowed what was possible to pull in from those technologies. Souls were the only thing that could truly supply the all consuming beast that was the City Grid, now.

“Isn’t it such a sight?” Dr. Amon asked. Before Bennett could reply he continued on. “So many, many sinners given the chance to put their filthy souls to productive ends. It is truly a miracle, is it not?”

Bennett felt like he was going to be sick. Instead he asked, “You told the mayor you had something to present?”

“Ah. Ah, yes, yes. This way.”

The doctor led him down a metal staircase and onto the main floor. From a closer perspective he saw the main metal tube sticking into the people’s chests: bolts and wires dug deep into their flesh, securing the apparatuses to them. He knew what the tube was, had had it explained to him on his previous trip. The Soultaker, the device that siphoned the contributor’s essence, their soul for lack of a better term, and shunted it away through a near endless warren of wires to refine and transform it into electricity to feed into the City’s electrical grid. It somehow seemed fitting to recall that that the plant was located beneath an old, disused slaughterhouse.

He recognized, too, the catheter and IV tubes shoved into their bodies, but the dozen other cables and cords attached to them he couldn’t name and had no idea to their purpose.

Amon stopped at a girl on the seventh row, nodded his head, as if deciding that she’d make the most appropriate subject. If he had to guees the girl’s age he would’ve put it at early to mid twenties. So young, he thought. Her skin was pale and clammy looking, and had a sickly greenish tint to it. Her head was shaved, though he could see faint traces of stubble, signs of a mohawk long gone. Except for the tubes and wires she was completely naked. Bennett found the sight more off-putting than erotic.

“Though I could’ve, ah, provided a detailed report or perhaps even a Powerpoint presentation, I thought that physically viewing would prove more revealing. Now if you look at them can you clearly see how the contributors fade on us, Mr. Bennett? How they’re sickening? The charts and diagnostics speak for themselves.” He tapped the small monitor beside the girl, the one with the innumerable and incomprehensible blinking lights and shifting screens. ‘But the ah, physical symptoms are the most telling, yes? To put it bluntly, she and a dozen others like her soon won’t be able to contribute.”

“And what do you want the mayor to do about it, Dr. Amon?”Bennett snapped, letting out more of his emotions than he should have.

If the doctor was at all startled by the outburst he didn’t show it. “I need more souls, Mr. Bennett. More to replace the ones we’ll lose and to provide for the City’s growth. Especially if the mayor hopes to have the riverfront and airport expansions he’s been, ah, longing for.”

“We’re already at the limit for those convicted of murder, manslaughter, assault and sex crimes. I don’t see how we can add more, unless you want the mayor to publicly endorse these sorts of crimes so we can prosecute more - - ”

“You misunderstand,” Amon said, cutting him off. “I comprehend that there’s only a certain amount of criminals that can be sent to me, ah, us. However, if he were to, ah, change the parameters for those who apply for the program? Expand it out towards those with drug and burglary convictions?”

Amon took Bennett’s look of shock as a sign to continue.

Ahelp to establish the mayor’s commitment to his tough on crime platform. Such a bold move would also, ah, show the bleeding hearts on the city council that they can’t push him around?”

Bennett closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. Goddammit, he’s fucking right. About all of it. If we play this right we can even guarantee the mayor’s re-election in the fall. He hated himself for thinking it but there was no use burying his head in the sand to try and ignore the facts.

“I can make the proposal to the mayor as soon as we get back,” Bennett said.

“Excellent, Mr Bennett! So, so good to hear.”

Bennett took a look over to the girl. She was staring at his shoes, bits of drool and snot drooling out of her nose and mouth.

“Just one thing before we head back,” he said.

The doctor cocked his head to the side and waited patiently for him to continue.

“Tell me what exactly this one did to get here,” Bennett requested, pointing to the girl. The doctor grabbed a tag hanging off one of the cables. He took out a small table from inside his coat, punched in the number on the tag, then scrunched his eyebrows together as he read off the screen.

“Armed robbery and, ah, manslaughter. It says she and her boyfriend held up a liquor store then accidentally shot the clerk working there when he was reaching down for a bag to put the money in. Apparently they thought he was reaching for a gun.” The doctor shook his head, reminding Bennett of a grade school teacher he’d had who did the same when marking bad tests. “That’s all there is in the contributors’ database. If you want more I can give you the police case number to follow up?”

“No, that won’t be …” Bennett started, then stopped. She was looking up at him, her near pupil-less brown eyes staring right into his face. She’s conscious! How? Weren’t all the contributors were supposed to be permanently comatose? He looked over to Amon, hoping he saw her reaction as well, but all that was there was the beaming pride of bureaucrat who’d gotten what he wanted. Bennett turned back to the girl but her head had returned to its normal position, her eyes again vacant and staring off at nothing at all.

“Mr. Bennett?” Amon said. “Are you, ah, unwell?”

“Let’s …let’s just go, alright?” Bennet said.

The doctor shrugged, no doubt returning his mind to other, more pressing concerns.

Back in the elevator, Bennett let out a long sigh of relief, even though the grinding and shaking seemed even worse than before. It didn’t bother him as much though. He had other things to worry over. He knew that tonight, and for perhaps many other nights to come, his sleep would be haunted by the girl’s face as she looked at him.

They really ought to come up with a better name than “the boiler room’, he thought. Another, more accurate yet more unsettling name came to mind. If you were going to be honest, you’d call it the Farm. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Schlocktober Reviews: The Legend of Hellhouse

And so Schlocktober is once again upon us. Yes, that tenth month of the year where I try to cram in as many horror movies as possible like the last bits of pumpkin pie during Canadian Thanksgiving. Like every other genre movies of the horror persuasion vary widely in quality; some good, most bad. Doesn’t matter, I’ll watch’em all from 70s B-movie ‘sploitation to the all too pointless modern day horror remakes to movies that are actually good fucking entertainment.
So I wanted to start the month off right and watch something decent. Or at least had the possibility to be decent. The Legend of Hellhouse, based off of Richard Matheson’s much shorter titled Hell House. Why the added legend bit? Fuck if I know. Unlike half the characters in this flick (literally) I’m not psychic.
Before we dive in, just a few forwards. I’ve read the original 1971 novel a few years ago (after a ringing endorsement by Stephen “I-actually-directed-Maximum-Overdrive” King) and I really enjoyed it. It was unique and creepy and although it shared in many of the haunted house troupes it played around with them rather than running them straight. Did I find it scary? No, but then again the list of scary books that actually got to me can be counted using kindergarten math, and I didn’t let it get to me. There’s a kind of blunt and raw edge to the book, a premonition of the culture the 1970s would become famous for (ignoring disco and the invention of soft rock of course). It was violent, but not excessively so, and it never sacrificed atmosphere for cheap scares. Like every good horror story, it invoked the downward spiral, ramping up its intensity until the final, shattering pages. All in all, good stuff. I even pictured how to do it as a movie while I was reading it, until I found out later that such a movie already existed.
It also introduced a fragmented view of the hauntings, as with most of the novel each character tries to understand and contextualize the phenomena around them based on their own prior experiences and paradigms. From the Christain spiritual medium to the parapsychologist skeptic, the characters in the novel have to contend with horror around them but also try to justify and convince everyone else that they have the right answer, the proper truth, to what’s happening around them. Each character is perfectly fleshed out and real, and are given their own singular third person narrative in which we can get the story from their point of view. Awesome stuff really. I wish more horror media tried this rather than just go for the cheap, dumb scares. Le sigh.
That’s all well and good, you might be asking yourself, but I came here to read a horror movie review during masturbation breaks to free porn sites, not a fucking book review. To which I say, touche, let’s get to the movie. And also, really? Bustyasianbeauties.com? Have you no shame man? That’s practically asking for malware.
Anyways, the movie itself is stark, brisk, and in it’s own way, brief. The intro is over and done with in a pace that would make even fast food servers cringe. Dr. Lionel Barrett, a parapsychologist and skeptic meets up with millionaire Reinhard Deutsch, who promises a metric shitload of money if he can prove the existence or nonexistence of life after death. The arena will be Hellhouse, a manor once owned by professional debaucherist Emeric Belasco. Hellhouse say a string of blasphemous rites and general depravity until his own death long ago. Since then the manor has become known as the most haunted place on earth. Barrett’s got a week to prove life after death and he can choose a team of anyone he wants. Also, they are to build him “The Machine” and bring it to him by Wednesday. After that bit of tight exposition is over we’re hit with the opening credits in plain orange script.
It’s so simple it almost reads like a police report. Just the facts ma’am please, just the facts.
Then we get introduced to the rest of the cast reporting in for duty: Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith, who spends most of the movie with the kind of wide mouthed expression that’s meant to show innocence but instead conveys a former brain injury; Benjamin Fisher, the only survivor of a group of psychics who tried to investigate the house 20 years previously, and Florcence Tanner, a Christian spiritual medium who veers from brick throwingly annoying to pants shittingly stupid and naive. She’s easily my least favorite character and her (spoilers) death scene’s only flaws were that it didn’t come sooner and that it wasn’t grisly enough. Plus, it kinda reminded me of that scene in The Exorcist where Linda Blair stabs her cooch with a crucifix while shouting, “Let Jesus fuck you!”
So all these characters are in hellhouse, but what to do? Well, that’s the fun part. And by fun I mean a quic tour of the house (with particular attention to the chapel. Pay attention, this and the dining room are the only important settings in the movie, unlike the book) a few trippy seance scenes with Miss Tanner and Mr. Fisher, and the sounds of the house tempting them. The house plays on their fears in subtle and not so subtle ways. I’ve never been mindfucked by a house, but like a crack high it doesn’t sound a particularly pleasant. Remember kids, just say no to spiritual mindfuckery!
Miss Tanner gets drawn in through her stupidity, somehow convincing herself that Belasco had an illegitimate son named Daniel, and that he along with his father are haunting the house in a concept she calls multiple hauntings. She gets involved with “Daniel” trying to help him to resolve his earthly pathos and fetters and move on. It…doesn’t work as well as she hoped. One early scene has a presence in her room open and shut the door. It… isn’t scary. Or atmospheric. Instead it just comes off like Casper’s older teenage brother Balthazar the Emo Git Ghost. Just the way it’s shot, with a set camera and few cuts, just doesn’t work.
However, this is probably one of the few shots that don’t work. (The other is a possessed cat that attacks her, which kinda looks like a rejected Monty Python sketch. Maybe one involving the dangers of bad catnip trips or something? I dunno, British comedy can be tricky and weird.) The other shots though are done in the same practiced business style that seems to predominate in the movie. The manor itself is vast yet clausterphobic, like you’re in the body of whale, being slowly digested. The effects are, for the most part, seamless, with an emphasis on practical effects that seem less dated now then movies that came out only ten years ago (*cough* that shitty remake of The Haunting *cough*).
The actors themselves are fine and up to the task, although it’s a little jarring that they’re all British while the novel takes place in America with Americans. Even ——, who plays Miss Tanner, does a good job with what she has and I have no beef with her. I just hate how she was adapted from the book. In fact, every character except for Ben Fisher seems to get the shaft here, with the same brisk pace that carries the plot forward in tsunami like fashion also fails to dwell on the characters and make them as three dimensional as they were in the books. Ah well, c’est la vie I guess. I’ll stop bitching about how the movie compares to the book. At least for now.
What the movie does get right is the clash between Dr. Barrett and Miss Florence, between traditional spiritualism (albeit with a Christian bent) and modern science parapsychology. This was at a time when parapsychology still mostly existed within the scientific world and not completely outside of it as it mostly does today. ESP, mind control, clairvoyence and astral projection were still possibilities within science at that time. The film opens with a quote from an actual clarivoyent, who claims that although the events in the movie are fiction that all of the phenomena are based on real world facts. Man, you never see that stuff anymore. The only people who seriously believe in that stuff are your girlfriend when she’s checking out her horoscope and that cousin you have, y’know, the one who believed in the Mayan 2012 Apocalypse and who’s since moved onto to some half baked notion of Chakras. Yeah, that one. Doesn’t he still owe you twenty bucks or something?
Ahem, getting back to topic the whole modern versus mystic theme, as well as the other themes of individual perceptions battling it out, is for the most part carried faithfully over from the book. As for the two “side characters” (who’re also, spoilers, the only ones to survive) Fisher and Edith, they’re mostly about survival. They want to either take the money and run in Fisher’s case, or make sure everyone survives, with Edith. Unfortunately, again, they just aren’t handled as well as they could be, so while Fisher’s survivor guilt is kept mostly in tact Edith just becomes a very one note character, a nurturing super-ego while she’s conscious but a ravening, lusty super slut that throws herself at anything with a pulse when the house starts to influence her. It’s the ol’ Madonna-whore complex used in with less subtlety than a Batman villain.
And speaking of possession, that’s the one big appeal of this movie. Although it’s a little less new and exciting than it was then, the idea of a haunted house influencing and possessing people was a really cool idea. Stephen King basically admitted he’d used the idea for The Shining, and it shows. The house likes mind fucking the people who’re in it, and uses their own vices and, indeed, paradigms against them. You’re left wondering if the conflicts between the characters wouldn’t have been so great if not for the house’s malign supernatural influence. You can’t help at the end feeling like if they’d been able to compromise and work together they wouldn’t have ended up as they did. Like Congress but half as scary really. And if that were the case we wouldn’t have had a very good movie now would we?
While I’ve provided plenty of spoilers and talked a lot of shit about this movie, but I still encourage people to see it, if for no other reason than it’s one of the old school horror movies that put atmosphere over body count. And for the fact that it didn’t feel the need to provide 72 1/2 beginnings and the obligatory fake out ending. God I hate that shit.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Schlocktober Reviews: Insidious


Insidious came out about a year ago, and I'd heard good things about it. It didn't sound like something I'd see in theatres (most horror movies are total renters for me) but the buzz around it had me want to check it out. Until, that is, I found out that it was by Leigh Wennell and James Wan, the same guys who did the Saw series. Then my interest fell into the realm somewhere between "meh" and "fuck this movie in its virgin ass with a 17'' dildo".

As you can probably tell, I'm not a fan of the Saw movies Or the Hostel movies either. Not because I object to TorturePorn . (Let's face it, my favorite horror movies are the 70s Dario Argento films, probably the closest thing to a definitive example of the subgenre you could ever find.) It's just that I consider them really poorly done.  All quick cuts, and twisting angles straight out of a music video. In fact, quick tangent to already occuring tangent, Nine Inch Nails did a series of banned-from-TV videos featuring mechanized traps tearing into people back in the 90s. So the novelty isn't really there for me, leaving just a bunch of increasingly over the top and ridiculous plot twists that strain credulity to far beyond the breaking point. But I digress.

But over the last week I've heard some good things about Sinister, the new film by them, and a lot of the stuff involved favorable comparisons to Insidious. So, being the diligent and dilletante horror fan that I am, I put aside my compunctions and decide to finally watch the damn thing. And the damnedest part of the damned thing is, it's not bad.

Actually, its really rather good.

The film pics up with very familar horror trope as the Lambert family moves into a new house. On the onset they're fairly normal; the dad Josh (played by Patrick Wilson) is a teacher while the Renai (played by Rose "I'm Talkin' bout my Asshole" Byrne), is a stay at home mom who's also on her piano compositions.  The kids, middle child Foster, baby , and oldest Dalton don't come off as schmaltzy, or smartasses or fake. They, like the rest of the family, come off as normal, dare I say even likeable. You find yourself actually caring about these people, which makes it all the more traumatic when shit goes down later.

We're introduced to the Lamberts in a hectic morning scene that everybody can relate to. The baby's crying, the kids are fighting, Josh's rushing off to work and Renai's trying to keep seem manner of order and unpack at the same time. Amidst all this is the slow build up signs that something is not right with the house. Objects go missing or mysteriously fall over. Strange soft whispers are heard vaguely from far away. The thing is though, that the characters are all obviously busy that their dismissal or ignorance of these things doesn't come off as stupid, but understandable, even rational.

All this changes one night when Dalton, exploring the attic, screams and falls off a ladder, bumping his head. Renai consoles him and scolds him for being where she shouldn't belong, then puts him to bed. That night he falls into a coma. The doctor's can't explain what's happening or what caused this. It's a mystery that looms over the family as they now take care of their torpored son. It's a tribute to both the actors and the material that these scenes resonate on an emotional level, and you actually care about these people in their moments of grief and anguish and resilience. You sympathize as they go through this tragedy. (Remember the last time you did that with a horror movie made in the last ten years? No? Yeah I didn't think so.)
Throughout this first section of the family the horror is all low-key, events happening at the peripheral of the narrative that slowly build up the eerieness bit by bit. Soon creepy, incoherent whispers can be heard over the baby monitor. While Renai's speaking with Foster he off-handedly asks if they can keep the door closed; when she asks him why he says that he doesn't like when Dalton walks around at night. There's even a very effective jump scare (a la Ghostwatch) where a stranger's face as a creepy face is seen in the nursery room window. The house security alarm goes off in the dead of night, Josh investigates, finding the front door wide open. He checks the house. No one else is there. Renai is attacked by a pale dark clad man in her bedroom and when he disappears she rushes to Dalton's bed, finding a bloody imprint of a hand upon the sheets.

Desperate, she resorts to something drastic, something that barely any other horror movie protagonist has ever tried before: she pleads with her husband to move to a different house. And equally as strange and bizarre, he listens.

It's a bit of common sense that seems self-evident in any other genre but it really shows how smart the filmmakers are here. (Yes, hell has surely frozen over cause I'm praising the makers of Saw. Bite me.) These guys have obviously seen a lot of horror movies, the know the genres, and there's ample evidence here that they've seen the classics and know the pifalls and cliches. More importantly though, they actually try to subvert the common tropes and not in a "if we reference them as they're happening it makes them not as cliche" type of way as with the Scream franchise. (Surprisingly not a fan of those movies either but let's save that for another time shall we?) No, these are smart guys trying to do something comfortably similar but noticeably different in the long stagnant horror genre. They approach the events in a way that makes sense, and for the most part it shows.

However the character's genre saviness here is misplaced Moving, as you've no doubt guessed, doesn't work. It'd be a short, anticlimatic film if that was all it took. No the move to a different house happens around the half-way mark, for we're not dealing with a simple case of a haunted house. The other half of the movie contains what can only be described as all manner of fucked up shit, of which I can provide but a sampling. Child ghosts. Poltergeists. Psychics. Seances. Astral projections. Demons. Secret long buried back stories. And to top it off a spiritual trip to a werid Otherworld called the Further that's part Silent Hill and part John Carpenter's The Fog. Oh yeah and it also contains the creepiest picture drawing scene this side of Dorian Gray. (Literary references in a horror movie review for the win! Yes kiddies there's more to Schlocktober reviews than profanity, YouTube clips and parentheses.)

The second half of the movie is most definitely the payoff to the slowly building eerie from before. It goes into a controlled overdrive of psychotic monstrosity and dread with all the stopping power of a mack truck. There's more than enough well executed ideas here to last ten horror movies, and even when they're not 100% original they're still very well executed...for the most part. The sheer volume of events in the last half bit seems almost as if the filmmakers are throwing tons of shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. Some of it falters, either through complete ridiculousness or just not being given proper time to fully develop. For instance, there's a quick, very subtle scene that shows not only how a few of the ghosts perished but also hints that this was what created the strange dark gateway in the old house that began the whole mess. But this is only hinted, never revealed outright and it's a shame that more time wasn't spent on this idea. However there's more that works here than doesn't and the final climatic battle for young Dalton's soul is both suitably epic and fittingly terrifying. 

This is a great film for any fan of the horror genre, especially those who are sick of the endless remakes and crappy torture porn iterations. It's original, it's fun and at times it's genuinely scary to boot. I only wish Wennel and Wan would work this into a movie series instead of the Saw films. But if wishes were fishes, I'd ...be a fisherman or some shit? Wait that metaphor doesn't work at all. Ah fuck it. I need a drink. See ya next time.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Liver of Darkness

It all begins with a call that comes in at six. It's Wall's on the other end, shitfaced. He tells me I've got my wish granted, we're going out drinking tonight. Under my breath I curse whatever malevolent genie that pulled this one off. Wall goes on, saying how he was supposed to hang out with his girlfriend tonight but got hammered with some good ol'boys from his classes instead. He'd called his girlfriend two hours late and told her the good news. She told him to go fuck himself and hung up. Smart girl, can't blame her really.

    He tells me he's headed to Blacklight, and that I should be there too. I've seen and done this all before, I know exactly how this'll end and here's the hint: not well. I must have early onset dementia cause I actually agree to meet him there at eleven. That gives me a few hours to get ready and back out if I want to. I won't though.

    An hour or two later I call Jay and ask him if he wants to join in on the “adventure”. He's hanging out with his girlfriend and tells me he's gonna sit this one out. Probably the smartest move that's gonna be made tonight. He wishes me luck though which is good cause luck is the only thing on my side right now. Looks like I'm flying solo for this one.

    I leave around ten to hoof it downtown. By the time I get there it's ten-thirty, half an hour too early. This is a deadly sin among the night fiends, and the penance is desertion in downtown desolation. I head into Coopers, the first and last resort of drinking sanity. The usual suspects of the six to eleven run are here; middle-aged hipster wannabes drinking what passes for Cosmos, clingy cougars getting their drink on before the arrival of their prey, and of course those sad unfortunates who can actually stomach the in-house food and come back every week asking and paying for more. Out of all of them I recognize no one so I head up to the bar and order beer, hoping it'll dull the headache I can already tell is coming. I cozy up to a side table facing both the entrance and the TV. I pretend I'm on the wait for someone or that I give a shit about the Raptors game that's playing.
    The former is technically true and after three beer the latter's coming as close to being true as it's ever going to get. Finally tired of being the single guy creeper in the bar (no one ever wants to be stuck being that asshole) I say fuck it and head out into the cold.
I walk the night, spin rota fortuna and hope it lands on a decent bar. A few blocks away I end up at The Lounge, not a bad spot really if you're not crippeled by clausterphobia. In some of the more cramped parts of this place even liliputians and Gary Coleman would be hard pressed to maintain elbow room. I forget what I order or if I even order something at all, but the bartender reaches down and hands me a beer. Beer in hand, I make my way over to where the band is playing. I didn't catch their name, hardly ever do, but their music's good, even tempoed with undercurrents of jazz and funk. The small crowd gathered in front sways back and forth to the music like millenial flower children, all calm smiles and gentle rocking.
I don't know anyone here but it's my kinda scene all the same. No overblown egos in this place, that's for sure. In fact it's a damn fine place to lose your ego, just flow free with the music and forget your worries.

    I look over to the base player, see his eyes wired open and staring at the crowd like he doesn't reallly see us. He's on something, has to be, but that doesn't affect his playing bass. He wails on it like it's an actual part of him, just a third arm or leg, it's hard wired into his soul even. During the last winding end of a song his get even bigger, take on a reverent gleam. Whatever Crystal Dragon Jesus this guy is praying to it can only be worshipped through song. Beside him to the left the keyboardist effortlessly switches instruements, changes it up to a baritone sax. Her deft fingers wring from it a sweet sounding cacaphony making all of us, even me, groove and sway, willing victims to the muses' paramours.

    All of a sudden the siren songs ends, and the lead singer pimps his new CD, saying it'll be out in April, not February since February's already past. The band start to pack up and the drone of conversation moves it's way from the back and filters all over the bar. I'm once more a sailor with wax in his ears, and I finish my beer and decide to leave. I ask the guy at the door if I need a stamp to get back in. He tells me not to worry, he'll remember my face. I'm not sure if that's a comfort as I descend the stairs and head out into the cold once again.

    By now Coopers has picked up and there's a band playing too. The “band” turns out to be one guy playing techno on a keyboad. He plays the stuff Moby would still be playing if he were still playing. It's fast paced beats that hint at Soul. The crowd seems to like it, nodding their heads as if giving their consent.

    I pour a few more beers into me (tha's what now, six, seven?) before I notice her. A short but classy skirt shows off her flannel leotard clad legs. Cute tiny nose on a pretty face that's framed by curly brown hair that has just a tint of orange. She's talking with her friends for a bit before they go over to the bar for drinks leaving her alone to dance to the music. She dances real classy too, grooving her hips from side to side in tune with the music. Some part of me thinks she's probably a pretty cool chick, says to go over and say hi. I know I should, I really should but my body won't respond. Can't respond it seems.

    The next song, I figure. I'll go over and introduce myself after the next song. The next song comes and goes, making me a liar. Self-deception is warmly reassuring sometimes as I promise myself I just need another drink in hand before I try anything. Yeah, right.
In between the guy playing techno tells us that Apple is coming out with an update to OS X. He says that in keeping with the cat motif they're naming it Pussy. He puts on a cat mask, meows into the mike and then gets back to business. He laces the next song with purrs and mews, I half expect him to turn to the side and cough up a hairball. The curly hair girl goes over to the bar for a drink and I decide to do something incredibly stupid. Instead of going right, over to the bar, I go across the street instead and pay five bucks to get into Blacklight.
Inside is just what I expected. There's no style here, no flair, just some jacked up blacklight and the lowest common denominator put up for display everywhere you look. It's one big dance floor, a gradiated altar to the false pop idols that are the newest flavor for the next fifteen minutes of infamy. I scan the crowd for Wall, see nothing more than a chorus of flesh scantily covered in black tank tops and low riding jeans. I wander around, trying not to upset the committed bacchannal. I bump into Wall's friend Paul, who stares at me through one half-open eye like a deer in perpetual headlights. He seems to recognize me, but doesn't know from where until I ask where Wall is.

    He waves vaguely over to the flesh pit near the bathrooms. “Over there,” he slurs.

    “Are you sure?” I ask, carefully, not wanting to piss him off since he sometimes has a mean fucking temper. I've heard the stories. “I didn't see him when I passed by.”

    “No, naw,” he replies, waving again like he thinks I didn't get it the first time. “Wall's over there.”

    I shrug and head where he's pointing. I run into a guy I haven't seen for over two years and barely even remember. We talk about women for a bit when his face goes blank and motions to look behind me. A girl's on the table in the back, dancing for everyone to see. She gyrates slowly, suggesting everything as she lifts her arms above her. She reminds me of a serpent, of a vampire, of a stripper, of all three. She gathers a crowd (including a few bouncers) around the table to watch her, not surprisingly it's mostly men. It's a separate kingdom from the rest of the bar, with herself as the obvious Queen. She is Circe, and those gathered round are her swine.

    I turn around and throw myself back into the crowd. I look around the pit and try to take it all in. I'm not going to remember it all of this, there's too much beer misting it all up. Out of the corner of my eye I think I see someone swallowed and devoured whole into the crowd. To my left is a guy and a girl grinding on the dance floor, the guy has one hand down the front of her pants while the other reahces up to grope her tits. Freaked out I get the fuck out, emerging out of the pit somewhere near the bar and run into Chris and Ashley. I catch my breath while we exchange drunken pleasantries, then I tell them they're too good for this place. It's true, they're good people and shouldn't have to slum it at the Blacklight. I take my own advice and leave. I remember that the second band should be starting up at Cooper's and I still have my stamp. I get in the doors and head to the Men's Room. Who I meet in there takes me completely by surprise.
I honestly didn't expect to meet him tonight, not since the Blacklight, perhaps even sometime before then. But here he is, the man himself, in the flesh. I almost call him Kurtz when I greet him.

    “Wassup dawg?” he greets me back. He goes for the high five but his alcohol intake won't let him connect it. He leans on the corner then laughs maniacally, like that's the funnies shit in the world. He asks me how my night is but doesn't let me finish (or even start) before he launching into his own alcoholic exploits. By the time he's gotten to ten o'clock in his sage I'm almost impressed that his liver hasn't shut down already. He doesn't finish, stops right in mid sentence when he sees Greg and runs over to him. He sneaks up behind him like you can only do in a noisy bar then latches onto his leg and starts mock humping it. Greg looks confused and pissed til he turns around and sees who it is.

    “You crazy motherfucker,”Greg smiles. “How you been?”
Greg treats it like it's the most natural greeting in the world. That's the charm of Wall, I guess. It's a natural charisma that let's damn near everything he does slide. He'd be a great politician, one of the radical kind I'm sure.

    We all watch the new band play for a bit, they're not half bad but not exactly good either. We talk a bit catching up, and then Wall tells me he's going over to the Blacklight while Greg is nowhere in sight. I stay, my decision already made for me when the girl with the Curly hair comes downstairs and starts dancing again. I want to go over, all I need to do is take five steps to the left, but my muscles are atrophied and my bones are turned to Jell-O.

    Time speeds up, goes lightspeed: last call flies past, the band stops playing and the lights turn on with full intensity, all in the space of an eyeblink it feels like. There's no time anymore, no time left. We're all herded outside, and I catch Wall outside the Blacklight.

    “I knew you'd come back here,” he says. We start walking through the mixed crowd that's spilled outside onto the streets, pass by faces in the crowd that are only half-remembered. We're both too poor to spring for a cab ride, so we hoof it. Wall stumbles on the way home, once then twice then too many to count. Each time I help him back to his feet. We get to his place and he invites me inside for greasy after bar snacks. It takes him five minutes to get the key in the door, and his after party plans crumble when he does, straight onto the floor. I try to help him to his feet for the last time tonight but he waves me off mumbling something I don't quite catch. I'd like to believe it was “...the horror” but I severely doubt it.
    I call a cab and leave and in the back of the cab I lean back, try to reflect on tonight's events.

    I can't though; everytime I try my mind goes back to think of a short classy skirt and curly brown hair with just a tint of orange.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Beyond the Dragon Doors

It started off as a medieval fantasy version of Waiting for Godot set in the realm of the 8th Age. I'm not really sure if the finished product bears that description anymore. As always you can find the other great entries to this week's Flash Fiction Challenge at Chuck Wendig's terribleminds.
Feel free to leave a comment and please to enjoy!

In the year of the Prophet Giames, 1282

    In the fortress-city of Rhea, a bastion of Prizraki strength in the increasingly hostile and rebellious north of Secunda, lies the Palace of the Conclave. Deep within this palace, past many guards and barricades, is a room where the highest Prizraki Lords dwelling on the Second Continent meet twice a year to direct the course of their great Crusade against the false prophet and his legion of followers. These wise lords of a foreign empire sit at the ancient Stone Kings Table in a room locked and protected by the Dragon Gates, large metal and stone doors that bore the relief of a great dragon upon them. There, in their consummate and communal wisdom, advise Grand Prince Pietrov IV, the Voivode of Voivodes, of how best to wage his war for control of Secunda. That is how the heralds and the priests of the Prizraki Empire tell it. Of course there are rumors to the contrary. 
    "He's taking his sweet damned time," Prince Rivka said aloud, to everyone and no one in particular. The other gathered lords did their best to ignore his complaining. They were well used to the Prince's temerment, though they mostly tolerated it because he was the third son of the emperor and cousin to the Grand Prince. "He's been keeping us waiting for hours now, with no word or messenger to tell us how long he will continue to be."
    "I'm starting to believe our great Voivode General forgets we are his peers,"Rivka continued, "and not some motley band of common foot soldiers under his command."

    "He'd be lucky if we were under his command," Grand Baron Zoktair snorted. Out of all of them, the Baron had spent the least amount of time in Secunda and had the greatest amount of contempt for the people, culture and traditions there. He hadn't even bothered to learn the local languages, not even the common dialects. "I wouldn't be surprised if half the Northern Legion were infected by the heresy already. Most of them aren't even Prizraki, but baseborn local shits.Can't know where their loyalty lies."

    "A rusty saw is of no use to the woodsmen," High Exarch Tzesarvic piped in. No one was certain if he was quoting scripture or not.
    "We will not hold Secunda if we continue like this," Baroness Elena said. She was Pietrov's second wife and half his age, but that did not mean she was meek. She was as fierce as her husband when it came to matters of the realm. "The breakdown of the rebels alliance was pure luck, one we might not get again. We need to consolidate our gains and try to win back the support of the people."

    "Agreed," Baron Gubanov said. Although born across the sea in Prima, Gubanov had grown up among the people of Secunda. He felt he knew them better than anyone at the Conclave, even the It's time we stop bullying the local people here and stop those decrees that are clearly not working."

    "What are you suggesting then?" Zoktair spat, pointing his finger at Gubanov like it was a flaming sword. "That we end the pogrom? Let the heretics continue to mock the Almighty with their debaucherous ways? Perhaps we should all put down our swords and embrace them and the rest of the rebels like long lost brothers and sons?"

    "Blasphemy," the High Exarch shouted, spittle flying from his mouth. "Pure and utter blasphemy. I will not hear it."

    "The plan has some merit," Elena said calmly. "Back in the homeland we let the pagans on the fringes of the Empire live their lives in peace so long as they bend the knee and give oaths of loyalty to the Emperor. Why couldn't the same be done here?"
    "Good lady, I apologize but I fear your sex must be getting the better of your intellect," Tzesarvic said, shaking his head. "To be shown the truth of creation and to firmly deny it as the heretics have done is the greatest sin possible. The fact that they've turned their backs on the Esher and follow the flashy words and empty promises of a false prophet is akin to spitting in the face of God Himself. No tolerance or mercy can be given here."

    "I'm not certain of God, but I know you're doing a wonderful job of spitting in our faces," Rivka said. He made a show of wiping his face with his sleeve.

    "You insolent little --- if you weren't the son of..."

    "But I am old priest and you had damn well remember it. My father is not a young man and when he dies..."
    "When he dies one of your many brothers will be emperor," Zoktair interrupted. "Not you."
    "You'd better pray that's true Baron for if I do become emperor my first act will be cutting off your fat pompous head and mounting it on a pike in my dining room."

    "Do you really think I'm afraid of you, boy?" Zoktair said, getting to his feet. "You, who can't even hunt down a pack of fucking rebels in the woods and you think you can take me on? I'll strangle the life out of you first you piss-ant little..."

    "Gentle lords enough," Gubanov said, his voice loud enough to echo in the chambers. "This bickering is pointless. Every time this council convenes we do nothing but argue over petty strifes. I shouldn't have to remind you that we may still lose this war, yet we continue to squabble like children. If it weren't for the Voivode..."

    "Who is still not here," Rivka said.

    "Thank you, o great oracle" Zoktair said. "Please, regale us with more of your wisdom. Does the sun really rise in the east and set in the west? Does bathwater really clean one's stink? Pah! If you were as good at catching rebels as you were bandying about and wasting our time this war would've been won long ago."

    Rivka's rebuttal was cut off by the booming sound of the dragon doors opening. The lords turned to look, expecting to see the large, glaring form of the Voivode framed against the doorway. Instead they were met with the near cowering form of an army messenger, tired and out of breath.

    "My lords..." he wheezed.

    "Yes, what is it boy?" Rivka growled. "Spit out your damned message already. No doubt news that my dear cousin shall not grace us with his presence for yet another day.

    "Stop bullying him Rivka," Elena scolded. "Give the boy a chance to catch his breath and speak."

    "It's the Voivode, my lords," the messenger said. "He...he's..."

    "Yes?" Gubanov said. He could feel his heart racing and the small dark chill up his spine that heralds dark news.

    "He's dead my lords. Felled in a rebel ambush on the road to Rhea."

    The messenger continued on, filling in the details of the Voivode's death to the demanding lords.. But Gubanov didn't listen. He couldn't. He could only look about the room, wondering what the future held in store now. Pietrov's son was still a babe. One of them would have to become Regent until he came of age and he knew the Conclave would not survive the decision. He wondered if Prizrak itself could. Before he knew it he was walking past the lords, past the messenger and past the dragon doors, into the long winding hallway of the palace. He was halfway down the first corridor when he heard the real shouting and yelling begin.