January 31, 2022 by Laird
A little something I wrote for the reissue of David Nickle’s wonderful collection, Monstrous Affections.
by Laird Barron
Who the hell is Len?
In the dream I’m trapped in a David N story. “Looker” got reprinted in a year’s best anthology and I read it and said to myself, damn. Which is absurdly prophetic. In the dream, and maybe the original story, there’s a beach house and a party thrown by some dick, Leo or Larry, or something. The guests are glamorous, disaffected young nobles who’ve fled the air raids to the countryside and I meet a beguiling woman who leads me to the beach to blaze and go skinny dipping after; something about her skin suggests unearthliness and then I wake up in the car back in the USA but that doesn’t dispel the ominous nature of the dream; it wildly intensifies my anxiety. The dream is wrong—in the real story there is a house and an odd woman who frolics on the beach while I dive into the ocean and I think the other hosers are disaffected and doomed. Something-something about eyes. And the host, Larry or Leo; who can say? The host is always the key to beach party phantasms. But I’m already forgetting how the nightmare went and am flying into the next.
It’s midafternoon but growing darker and darker. Purplish black. I can’t tell where it’s coming from, the dark light.
Awake and driving back from Canada and David N’s house. I haven’t drunk much since Athena died, since the novel manuscript first crept into the category of “late,” or since my stomach percolated dread and acid every day; but this weekend I have been drinking, haven’t I? Good throat-searing stuff from an iron flask stoppered by a pickled thumb. David N unearths the flask with an entrenching tool, its blade stained with old dirt. The shovel makes a ker-chunk! ker-chunk! sound as it chops through rocky soil. The thumb is merely a gag, he’s quick to assure us. We chill in his half-dug basement writing cave and then get crocked while the stuffed elk head stares us down.
John thinks that’s where we went wrong. The basement. I see it differently. He and I quarrel; out of fear, one hundred percent.
“He’s a journalist, Laird,” John says. “A fucking journalist.”
“A Canadian wouldn’t do this to us,” I say.
“A fucking journalist might. What was it you said? About his writing?”
“No, no—the other thing,” John said. “The hagiographical thing.”
“That he’d have to be a wizard to pen such baroquely magnificent passages of new weirdness?”
“Yes! That. A wizard. You may as well have said black magician. Because, hand to God, I’m pretty sure he’s a black magician.”
“What were we talking about in the den? Politics? Mass disappearances? A dude named Len.”
“Probably some asshole,” I say. Then to myself, “Don’t drink Len’s wine or smoke his pot. Don’t drink David’s liquor. Don’t read his books? Don’t lick eyeballs. It’s gross and they won’t like it.”
We aren’t talking now. I’m drunk and hungover, or drunkover. Landscape inside and outside the car glows monochrome. John concentrates on the dark road. His glasses are shimmering circles of cold white fire. David N’s collection, Knife Fight and Other Struggles, lies on the floorboard where it slipped from my fingers when I traveled into the other twilit place. Earlier before we’d driven so long, I walked in a field of squelching mud, searching for a likely spot to piss, and now my muddy boot-tread has besmirched the paperback cover—a gorgeous stylized painting of a hand and a knife improbably balanced on its palm, ready to close and to fight. More a shiv than a knife.
If you were to ask me to name a handful of the best living prose stylists in weird fiction, in horror, in dark fantasy, David N would be on the ballot. Not because saying so might curry favor, nor rescue me, although, hey. David N. has a power that manifests when he channels through a digital cathode or through a hunk of dead pulped wood, such as his collection mashed beneath my boot. Lucky, lucky it’s not one of his other books, especially that it’s not the earlier collection, Monstrous Affections. The affably terrifying man on the cover haunts me—shut eyes, over-over-sized mouth clamped down hard, savoring the crunch and the scream. What if I’d stamped upon his face?
Fuck me, Monstrous Affections IS down there on the floor, albeit in a newer, sexier format, and so is Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, among the muck of wet, dead earth, rusty nails, shattered bottles, and decomposing children on a soggy milk carton flap. A man, a critic, a colleague from a foreign land, gets ensnared by the stories, the collections, the political reporting, and very nearly neglects to acknowledge David N writes excellent novels. He writes anything he wants. He’s a wizard, after all. Possibly a black magician, of which John claims there are five. Three living and two who wish they weren’t.
Yeah, John says our world unraveled in David N’s literal man-cave, but I say it was the chance meeting at the Kremlin Bar in New York City this autumn that’s to blame. Which means I’m to blame. David N and Madeline Ashby had edited an anthology called Licence Expired, about a world-famous literary spy whose copyright in Canada lapsed for a brief period. As fate would have it, I sell a story to them for that anthology. Alas, the tale may never be reprinted outside of Canada; hell, folks are paranoid about shipping the book through customs. So, when David and I cross paths at the Kremlin, I innocently blurt that I’ve read excerpts from my spy story at various appearances. He’s a handsome, handsome man. Chiseled features, trimmed beard, and impeccable attire. A warm, erudite man. The warmth drains as I blather on, glorifying my faux pas. His erudition and Canadian forbearance go bye-bye by the time I trail off midsentence.
“Why would you do that?” he says. “Didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I say, for the love of everything holy, no live performances in the United States? Didn’t I promise there’d be consequences?”
I buy him a drink and he calms down. Becomes his genial self again.
“You and John will be at the symposium next month in Toronto? Come out to the house. I’ll whip up some poutine. We’ll have a time.”
And we do, gods help us.
Thirty-six hours on the highway and it’s only 4pm. We’ve made it a few miles. Very few. The light is greasy and failing. There’s maybe six or seven stars circling the drain. I don’t recognize any of them.
“It’s impossible to decide what he does best,” I say, scratching the stubble on my jaw. “Short fiction, novels, journalism, or his editorial work. He’s a renaissance man!”
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Praying will do you no good.” John’s a lapsed Catholic, so he would be the expert in the car.
“The booze we drank,” I say. “Who knows what that shit was? He dug it out of a hole and we guzzled it down like a couple of rubes. Maybe it was tainted. Maybe we’re tripping balls.”
“David wasn’t digging up that flask,” John says. “He was burying something.”
“I couldn’t see past where he crouched. He looked over his shoulder and grinned, finger to his lips.”
“Where was I?”
“Wherever the hell you were.”
Because the gloom reaches through glass and bulbs and wires, our headlights are pale as smoke. The cab is almost blacked out. John’s glasses have gone cold; they catch the dying light of the dashboard and that is all. A handful of pebbles plink against the windshield. Then larger pebbles and mud and the first of the rocks. John sighs an accusatory sigh.
If I could only figure out the riddle of Len, this might be okay.
I sense, rather than see, the figure in the back seat heave up. A splayed hand engulfs the top of my head. I’m sure another has John, but I can’t turn to look. The car is motionless as a lunar capsule rocketing against a backdrop of velvet black. The void swallows all light and sound except for David N’s entrenching tool. The shovel is so loud it has to be hacking away in the back with our bookbags and jackets and the small pile of David’s work—magazines, newspapers, ARCs, hardcover and trade paperbacks. Signed and personalized. Intimately personalized.
Ker-chunk! Ker-chunk! goes that fucking spade; digging a hole into the outer darkness big enough for two.