Art

Into the Dark

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I should have known there’d be a price. There always is. But I was a struggling independent writer. I’d plunked most of my life’s savings into a creative business that was pulling in less than a hundred dollars per month and I was desperate. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a life preserver, you take it. You don’t ask how and you don’t ask why. I wish to God that I had, but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?”

It was almost three in the morning when I heard his voice for the first time. I was sitting at my laptop, poring over credit card statements and wondering how much longer I could stay afloat before crushing debt put an end to my artistic ambitions (“Follow your dreams,” people used to say when I was younger. But dreams, as it turned out, didn’t pay the rent.)

I should have been alone, and when I heard those words I stumbled, tripped over my desk chair, and tumbled to the floor. I looked up, heart stampeding, and there in the shadows stood a man, filling the open bedroom doorway.

“Few things are more heartbreaking than an artist who’s tried and failed to make a living from his work.”

Who are you?

That was the question I wanted to ask, only I couldn’t speak. The man stepped forward just as I scrambled to my feet, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered how long I had left to live before he pulled out a gun or a knife.

“I’m a friend,” he said as if he’d heard my unspoken question, and in retrospect, I believe he did. His voice was deep and resonant and seemed to fill all the empty pockets of the world. It was enigmatic, hypnotic, and before long I felt my terror drain from me like a leaky faucet.

“I know what you’re going through. All that money wasted on failed marketing. All that time invested in words that sit in some obscure corner of the internet, never to be read again. All you want is to support yourself while doing what you love, to be understood and appreciated in the process, and every day, life finds another way to teach you how foolish you were for even trying.”

“Yes,” I said, head bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box.

I was no longer afraid, yet there remained a lingering sense of wrongness, like a veneer of smog over an otherwise beautiful day. I knew I should be scared, but at that moment I couldn’t articulate why. The uninvited stranger’s presence in my home seemed, just then, to be the most natural thing in the world, and I found myself agreeing with everything he said.

“Yes,” I said again. “That’s exactly right.”

“No one cares how hard you work or how much debt you accrue. It’s a travesty the arts today are so undervalued. Ah, well. That’s why I’ve come. Together, we can create something that will change the world forever. With my help, you’ll reach unparalleled levels of fame. Your money problems will disappear. Most importantly, people will read your work and listen to what you have to say. You can have everything you’ve ever dreamed of and more. All you have to do is accept my help and agree to work with me.”

Even in that hypnotic state, my mind managed to sound the alarm. Don’t do it, that part of myself urged. Don’t give him what he wants.

And he did want something, of that much, at least, I was certain. But his words had drilled down into a primal region of my heart that knew only a raw and excruciating hunger for success.

The man’s eyes had found my own, and despite the advanced darkness of the night they seemed to glow. I can help you, his gaze seemed to say, and God help me, I took the bait.

“God, yes. Help me, please.”

The man smiled. His head dropped in a half bow, and just before he lifted his eyes, I thought I felt the fabric of reality itself shift beneath my feet.

Then, all at once, he was gone. I blinked, bleary-eyed, and looked around, as if he hadn’t just vanished before my eyes. I could still feel whatever was in my head preventing me from being afraid, but that was no longer important, no longer a worthy subject of study, because now my mind was bursting with ideas. Too many ideas. Dark, twisted, sinister ideas. They throbbed in my temples like a migraine, and the only way to ease the pain was to sit before my laptop, fingers splayed across the keyboard, and loose them into the world.

My recollection of everything that’s happened since is vague and riddled with gaps. I know only that in the months that followed, I took the internet by storm. The dark and haunting themes that invaded my mind each night seemed at last to strike a societal chord, and the sort of viral response I’d spent thousands of dollars each month trying to manufacture came about organically.

Every now and then, I would hear the stranger’s voice. “I am with you,” he would say. “Come, follow me into the dark.” And, God help me, that’s exactly what I did.

Never before had the stories in my head been so vile or corrupt, and with each blog post, with each podcast, with each self-published book, I was certain I’d gone too far, that my readers would abandon me, that the stranger’s promise to help would come to naught in the end.

Now, almost a year later, I’m a celebrity. I’m bigger than Neil Gaiman, than Stephen King. I sit down at my laptop each night to regurgitate the strange and otherworldly terrors in my heart, and like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I use them to lead people into the dark.

I realize now that I’m his vessel, that through the work of my hands he intends to carry out his dark designs. I know that what I’m doing is wrong, that if I had any shred of decency left I would pull the plug on my writing for good and salvage whatever wreckage of my soul survives. But I can’t stop. I’ve accomplished too much, invested too much, and as they say in poker, I’m all-in.

So I soldier on, and as I lead the world forward into the dark, I try not to think of what the stranger might do to us when we get there.

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The Word

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This post was originally published through Patreon on May 29, 2018

Once, I was a writer. Still am, though now I keep my work to myself. In my youth I wasn’t so reticent. I submitted my stories all over, even got some published in prestigious magazines. I was on my way up, ready to storm the gates of the literary world.

Then the words stopped flowing.

The channel through which their magic once surged slowed to a trickle, and a thousand nascent worlds inside my head withered and died. Oh, how I mourned their untimely loss. I sat for hours in silence, trying to pick apart the dam that held the words back. But it was no use. They were gone, and they were never coming back.

Then a miracle: a missive from the gods.

One word.

It burst to life inside my head in the middle of the night like an atomic bomb, waking me from a dreamless sleep.

One word.

It filled my vision like the blinding glare of the noonday sun. It was so beautiful. I had to capture it; I had to contain it for future study. So I sat down at my desk, something I hadn’t done since the magic died, and I prepared to write.

Nothing happened.

The word was so vibrant, so full of life, yet my pen wouldn’t move, couldn’t. There seemed no way to express it in writing. How to record such transcendent beauty, such otherworldly clarity?

This was no natural language, I soon realized, but something more, something beyond symbols and sounds. I kept my interior gaze fixed upon its wondrous contours, and in the course of my examination, I became aware of more: an undercurrent, a river of words just as elemental as the first, throbbing beneath the surface of the world like an artery.

Pumping, flowing.

This was true language. Not the names assigned to things by creatures incapable of understanding the world any other way, but true names, the purest essence of all that ever existed and all that ever would.

I had to examine this other language more closely, had to divine its innermost secrets. So I turned inward, focused on its constant flow, churning now, like a river, pulsing, spouting…

Too close, the current pulled me in.

Flying.

Flailing.

Struggling to hold my head above the water.

Power crackled all around me, and I knew in that moment that if I didn’t pull back, if I let it draw me in much further, I would burn before the searing heat of realities too profound for any mortal mind to comprehend.

Pushing against the flow, I forced my way upriver. But the words had hold of me now, and they didn’t want to let go. The current grew faster, stronger. After a time, I could feel the gravity of another world in the distance, tugging at me from the other side of time.

For a moment, I actually wanted to go, wanted to let the words sweep me away. This was a journey, I thought, that all of us must take sooner or later, a truth the river spoke to me as it charged through the cosmos. But it wasn’t my time. There was more left for me to do in my mortal life, and I couldn’t yet move on.

So I pushed. I pushed and pushed and pushed. All the while, those words sang to me, cajoled me, urged me to follow after them.

I will, I promised. In the fullness of time, I will.

It seemed they understood because, at last, they offered me a way out. A light appeared in the distance, pointing the way home, and all I had to do was trudge against the current and follow after it.

The light grew.

Grew.

It enveloped me, reached down to pull me out, placed me back once more in—

My room. Once more, I was in my room. I was at my desk, pen still in hand, my notebook stretched before me, ready to receive my vision.

Those words were gone now, along with the one that had first revealed itself to me. But I could still feel that otherworldly current beneath me, thrumming, rumbling. The dam inside my head exploded, and a flash flood of new words surged through an opened mind. Only ordinary words this time—human words—yet I embraced them as a long lost love.

I could have found unrivaled success with words like these. I could have made a lot of money, built a towering career as a celebrity author. But it seemed profane to put them to such use, and at any rate, I was no longer interested in making a name for myself. All I wanted was to study that living, thriving river, and to ponder the journey that I promised I would make in the fullness of time.

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The Voice

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“You can’t do this,” whispered a malevolent voice in the dark, a sound Amanda hadn’t heard in years.

She gritted her teeth, dug in her heels and tried to stand her ground. But it was persuasive, and Amanda didn’t know if she was strong enough to defy it.

The voice had been with her from birth, a dry hollow rattle that only she could hear. Its jealous strains had always tempted her to doubt, but the successes of her youth had made her confident, perhaps overly so, and for decades, the voice was little more than a nuisance, a background static in a constellation of accomplishments and accolades.

She’d conjured whole worlds ex nihilo, populated an entire cosmos in the realm where reality and conscious thought were one. Still, the voice was persistent, pointing out the flaws, the imperfections in her work.

“That world over there,” it would say, “Look how it wobbles and tilts on its axis.”

And Amanda would see it as if for the first time and realize the voice was right.

“And that world over there,” the voice would continue, “Look at its bulbous, oblong shape. How can you call yourself a professional?”

And Amanda would look again and once more realize the voice was right.

On and on the voice argued, and no matter how long Amanda honed the finer details, no matter how long she strove to satisfy the exacting requirements of perfection, she always fell short, and the voice was always there to remind her.

Amanda’s final attempt had been almost ten years ago, a tiny desert world that had come to her in a dream. In her eyes, it was a possibility for redemption, an opportunity to reduce that awful voice to silence at last, and she labored for the better part of a year, drawing on every resource left at her disposal.

When at last she was finished, sweaty and short of breath, the voice offered a terse appraisal.

“A good idea that suffers from a lackluster implementation.”

Amanda withered. A few weeks later, she retired.

But the urge to create had proved too strong to ignore. She’d tried, of course. For years she’d tried. She’d worked other jobs, and when she got home she would occupy her off hours with various unrelated hobbies, all in the vain hope of drowning a desire that had only ever lead to heartbreak and frustration. But the old dreams refused to die, and though Amanda had found some temporary respite from the voice, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she would have to try again.

When that time finally came, when the need to create grew into an all-consuming fire that threatened to scour her soul to the bone, she locked herself in her basement, where she’d covered over her old workshop with a faded dusty tarp. Now, taking a deep breath, she swept the tarp aside.

“What are you doing?” asked a familiar voice. “You’ve been out of practice for years. What makes you think you’ll succeed now?”

Amanda trembled. She knew it spoke the truth. Even during her peak, the voice had found plenty of flaws in her work. What made her think she could do better now?

Still, the desire to create overwhelmed her. It was an ocean of power held back by only a single floodgate, a force of nature that would destroy her if she didn’t channel it properly. So she ignored the voice. She picked up her old tools, dusted them off beneath the dim illumination of a nearby desk lamp, and after a shuddering, rattling breath, she got to work.

“Didn’t you hear me?” asked the voice, incredulous at her determination. “You’re going to fail. You’re going to fuck this up just like you fuck up everything.”

Amanda hesitated. She tried to focus on the nascent world in front of her, tried to shut out the voice’s spiteful remarks, but it was hard, it was so hard. The tools slipped in her fingers, and she wondered, not for the first time, if she was making a mistake.

But that urge, that need to create, it burned, it burned so much, and every moment she spent second guessing instead of working was a moment of torture and almost unbearable agony. So in spite of the voice’s constant rebukes, in spite of her own crippling doubts, she kept at it.

On and on she toiled, for hours or days, she couldn’t say, and as the rusty hinges and squealing iron gears began to turn as they once had so many years ago, the pent up magic burst inside her like a grenade, a shower of bright, coruscating sparks that filled Amanda with almost euphoric joy.

When at last she’d finished, the voice offered a scathing critique.

“That world,” it mocked, “Look how crude and simple it is. Hardly your best.”

Amanda considered its remarks. “You’re right,” she said, but after having released a decade of frustration, after having poured her soul into the project, she discovered that was okay. She’d learned that through the lens of imperfection, beauty could only be magnified.

The voice sputtered and could offer no reply. For so long, it had used the truth as a weapon. Now, that weapon was useless. Deflated, it fled into the darkness and was silent at last.

Amanda knew it would return, that in the fullness of time it would make her doubt again. But instead of shrinking away from the inevitability, instead of hanging up her tools for another ten years, she decided she would face it head on.

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