The Traveler

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Special thanks to Shaleen for giving me the idea to write about sleep paralysis.

Rob lay down and closed his eyes. It was time to sleep.

Darkness. Relaxation. A moment in eternity, suspended in the half-life of semi-consciousness. Then he was drifting away from the waking world.

He was a traveler, an empyreal wanderer who roamed the spaces not accessible to him during his waking hours. He didn’t know if there were others like him, didn’t know if his talent was common or rare, only that it was fundamental to his nature.

There was a doorway in the distance, a bridge between Earth and the infinite expanse beyond. Rob rushed toward it eagerly, trailed by the ephemeral white mist that connected him to the slumbering body back at his apartment. It opened as he approached, and he stopped for a moment on the threshold to marvel at the celestial canvas beyond, universes stacked on universes, a cosmos of limitless bounds.

He took it in, a deep breath of the freshest spiritual air, then burst through the doorway like a rocket. He soared across the stars, a soul unfettered by the shackles of solid form. He could be anybody, anything. He thought of a bird, and he was flapping his wings in an endless expanse of blue. He thought of an ocean, and he was feeling his immense world-sized body crash into the rocks. In a timeless instant that could have been a millisecond or a thousand years, he cycled through an uncountable array of creatures and structures both physical and abstract, visited an unknowable number of worlds both alien and familiar.

Then suddenly there was a presence. It bubbled up around him, cutting off his flight through the stars. It reached for him with oily tainted feelers. Rob recoiled. He’d never seen anything like it, had never been afraid in this place before today. He dashed back toward the doorway between the worlds.

It followed. He could feel it gaining on him. If he stayed, he thought it might sever the cord that connected him to Earth, that it would carry him away to someplace dark and cold.

Almost there. He was almost back on the other side. But just as he’d started to wake, that dark entity snatched him from behind. He could feel the mattress beneath his head, feel his lungs rise and fall as his body breathed, yet he couldn’t move his arms or legs, couldn’t open his eyes. The world was still black, with that dark presence trying to reel him in.

He tried to kick loose, but its grip wouldn’t budge. Meanwhile the heart back in his body started to race, the lungs drawing in shorter and shallower breaths. He lunged at his body, scrambled to reanimate muscles that had been frozen by the paralysis of sleep. But he was maddeningly out of reach. All the while that mysterious entity continued to pull, dragging him inch by inch.

Rob clawed, scratched, dug in tight with his heels. Finally its hold began to slip. He could feel himself slide closer to his body. Reach. He had to reach. Just a bit farther. He could almost move a finger. The entity yanked harder, but Rob gave it everything he had. Finally the muscles in his fingers twitched. He felt the doorway between the two worlds begin to close behind him. He was almost there. Almost

The door slammed shut.

Rob bolted from the mattress in a pall of cold sweat, heart thundering in his chest. He scrambled to catch his breath. He’d made it, but barely. What was that thing? Was he safe now?

For the first time in his life, Rob was afraid to go back to sleep.

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The Man

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This piece of flash fiction is an adaptation of a chapter that appears in a novel I’m writing.

George pressed into the late afternoon with his twin brother Bill at the forefront, a crippled knight mounted on his stainless steel steed. Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded futilely. His neighborhood in Anaheim was not particularly nice, nor was it all that safe, but he hadn’t had any problems in the six or seven years since they’d been living there.

Bill had been in a bad car accident when they were kids, and George had been taking care of him in one capacity or another ever since.

A low bass groan emanated from deep inside Bill’s throat, quiet and plaintive.

“I’m fine,” said George. “Just thinking.”

He wondered sometimes how he would continue to take care of his brother on his meager salary. Their inheritance had eased the burden some, but that source of income had almost run dry, and when it was gone George didn’t know what he’d do. He could have finished school, could have become an accountant like his father and made much more than he was making now. But he’d dropped out to help Mom care for Bill.

They rounded a corner and George spotted the man, standing by an empty bus stop. He wore a black fedora and suit jacket, and was smoking and peering up and down the sidewalk as if he’d lost something. George watched him. The man often did that, seemed to search for something just out of reach. It used to creep him out as a kid.

He’d started seeing him shortly after Bill’s accident. He and his brother would be out at the mall and he would catch the man sitting on a bench. Then they would be at the store and he would spot the man standing by the magazines. Sometimes he’d even spotted the man in their parents’s yard, ambling about along the grass as if lost. He thought it odd, seeing the same man in so many places. He’d asked Mom about him once, but when she started eyeing him askance and asking if he was pulling her leg, he decided to keep the matter to himself.

The man had become an inevitability, like death and taxes. Sometimes George wondered if he was crazy, if he was seeing someone no one else could see because no one was actually there. Once, he’d sat down next to the man and tried to start a conversation. But the man had just looked on, as if George didn’t exist.

Bill groaned again.

“Are you okay? Want me to take you home?”

More groaning, an ululating plea.

Then the man gazed in his direction and went rigid.

George’s veins turned to ice. The man had acknowledged him, something that had never happened before. And with the acknowledgment, the world around George seemed to lose definition, making the man stand out in harsh relief to his surroundings.

He closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he whispered under his breath. “Go away, you’re not real.”

When he opened his eyes the man was gone.

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Contagion

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Dianne stood at the summit of a broad stone outcrop, jutting out at a sharp angle from the desolate land of the Mojave desert. She drank it all in, the jagged outlines of sparsely spaced Joshua trees, the humongous brown and gray rocks, the limitless expanse of baked dirt and dried shrubs.

It was mesmerizing.

She would drive out into the desert alone as often as she could with nothing but food, water, a sleeping bag and a tent. She would hike during the day, and during the night she would sleep beneath the stars, trying to puzzle out the transcendental mysteries of the cosmos.

A wind gusted, sudden and fierce, sending ripples through her clothes. A cloud of dust kicked into the air, and she snapped her eyes shut a fraction too late.

“Ow,” she hissed, eyes stinging. She waited, expecting the pain to subside after a few moments. But her eyes kept tearing throughout the day.

That night, as the sun set beneath the peaks of distant mountains, her body began to ache, and by the time she lay in her sleeping bag inside the tent, she was feverish, racked by chills that nearly sent her into convulsions. She fell asleep wondering if she would wake.

She dreamed of a man, or was it a woman? Every time she caught sight of the creature it would change. The amorphous entity seemed to manifest from the desert itself, raw, wild and powerful.

It chased her beneath the baking heat of the sun, until she fell to the ground on all fours and could not run any longer. Then it knelt beside her and whispered in her ear.

Come, it said in a voice that carried across the dry convection-oven breeze. Be one with me.

Dianne felt it brush against her lips—it’s own mouth was dry, parched and cracked like the dirt and the rocks—and then thought and sensation fused, recombined. She was no longer Dianne, nor was she this entity of the desert. She was a new creation, a synthesis of sand and flesh and blood.

The hybrid that was no longer Dianne woke the following morning, its fever broken. It rolled up its sleeping bag, packed up its tent. It got into its four-wheel drive pickup and drove back to the city, to civilization.

Humanity had spent thousands of years taming the desert, pushing it back to the peripheries of the world. Now, she would bring the desert back to them.

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The Faceless Man

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He wanders the world, the Faceless Man, journeys from city to city, always in search of items to add to his collection. When you answer your door he won’t say a word; indeed he cannot, for he has no mouth with which to speak. Instead he’ll incline his head, ever so slightly, all the while clutching a black leather-bound book to his chest with reverence.

He’ll open to the first page, always blank, and bid you gaze upon its fallow surface. Then dutifully, curiously, you’ll look to see what all the fuss is about, and before you know what’s happened you’ll have been pulled inside, transformed from a creature of flesh and blood to an indeterminate being of pen and ink.

He will take you home and place you atop a dusty shelf. From time to time he’ll pull you back down, sit in his favorite armchair to read and drink your loneliness, your madness, your despair, savoring them like a rare vintage.

You’ll never die, but you’ll spend eternity wishing that you had.

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Grace

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Grace clutches a ragged teddy bear to her chest. It reminds her of her parents. The memories are bittersweet.

She gazes up, squints when her eyes reach the bright lines of yellow light that penetrate the wooden slats a hundred feet above. She blinks away tears.

She sidles to the right, her long dress brushing the dirt beneath her legs, and she feels the tug of iron chains binding her to the stone wall. She expects it, though it continues to fill her with despair. She returns to her previous position and the chains slacken. She closes her eyes and dozes.

She never meant them harm. She came after her parents died and left her orphaned in the woods outside their village. They took her in, fed her, clothed her. They took her to church. Taught her to pray. Then they discovered she was different.

They called her a demon. Spat on her. Beat her. Dug a prison beneath the earth, clapped her in chains and left her there to rot.

For the first few days she’d cried out in disbelief. Trembling and wailing, she begged them between racking sobs to take her back. She promised to be good, but nobody listened. She was an uncomfortable truth that was better off buried and forgotten.

She heard their whispers, knew they expected her to die. Yet years passed without food or water and she survived. They said it was unnatural, that she was the spawn of Satan. Every now and then, one of them would gaze down through the wooden slats, peer into her tear-streaked eyes and look away.

A generation passed. The children grew up and ventured out in search of a better life, and one by one the remaining inhabitants grew old and died. The last of them to peer down into her prison had white wispy hair and a thin grey beard. He cocked his head at her, hesitated, moved closer as if wondering what to do. Then he gritted his teeth, clutched his chest, closed his eyes and collapsed.

The first years of her life had been filled with love and light. She’d danced beneath the trees, sustained by the sun, the wind, the earth and the sky, a child of wild nature-born magic. But bound beneath the earth in isolation, her good nature soured. Her heart grew hard, and spite consumed her until her only wish was to set the world on fire, to look on with delight as the skin of those who imprisoned her crackled, blistered and popped.

She knows that one day she’ll be free. Perhaps her chains will rust through completely and she’ll dig herself out. Or perhaps someone will wander by unknowing and rescue her. It’s only a matter of time.

Grace dons a wicked smile.

The villagers could have bred a saint. Instead, they bred a monster.

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The Tunnel

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There is a tunnel buried beneath the layers of the world, outside time, outside creation. It is dank and musty, pregnant with rot and decay. The walls are smeared with the stale blood of creatures extinct billions of years before the Big Bang.

It is a prison, erected to contain a race of pestilence and destruction that had once spanned the breadth of creation. They spread like cancer, defiling everything in their path with a cosmological blight that nearly brought all of reality to its knees. Entire universes fell in the attempt to take them down, and only when the Immortals came were they finally forced to yield.

If death could have stopped them, the Immortals never would have built it. But they would only have assumed another form, and their evil would have continued to dominate. The only way to protect the cosmos was to quarantine them: to lock them away forever in a tomb of stone, fortified with wards and seals to prevent their escape. The Immortals gave their very life essence to strengthen and uphold it, to keep the walls solid and substantial against their feral, outraged cries.

But now the place lies in ruins, corrupted and forgotten—those who built it having moved on. When the prisoners were abandoned, they wondered if their captors even remembered they were there.

The seals weaken with the passing of the ages. In some places, they are stretched so thin that the prisoners can once more sense the outside. They scratch at the walls with insubstantial claws, and the structure gives, ever so slightly, in tiny, imperceptible increments.

Time has made them hungry. The Immortals thought starvation would break them, make them weak and vulnerable. But it only strengthened their resolve to ravage the cosmos once more.

Now they sense a breach, a rip in the fabric of their prison, and they rush at it with teeth bared, picking and tearing, prying and pulling. They work with grim anticipation.

They know the walls are about to come down.

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Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?

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I love dark fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of evil, and literature that grapples with diabolical themes gives me an opportunity to explore this very difficult subject in all of its many facets. I get to enter into the minds and souls of those who do evil, and am able to witness first hand the torment and destruction wrought by their wicked hands.  Is there something wrong with me? Is my fascination with evil the sign of a disturbed and demented mind?

Critics of dark fiction argue that stories which address sinister themes outside of a strictly didactic context necessarily glorify evil, and conclude that the act of reading such literature is, by extension, also evil. Conversely, proponents of dark fiction argue that evil is an inescapable part of life, and that we should not be afraid to tell the truth about it in literature. Which of these two voices should we listen to?

A distinction must be made.

Critics of dark fiction make the mistake of conflating two separate and distinct desires. They argue that because one hungers for an understanding of evil, that they must therefore hunger for evil itself. This is a non sequitur. Is a police officer evil for his fascination with the criminal mind, regardless of the fact that his motivation stems from a desire to prevent further criminal activity? To the contrary, his desire to know evil is rooted in a desire to do good.

FIctional characters enable us to know the mind of evil without becoming evil.

A desire to understand is an inextricable component of our human nature. We don’t just want to know what people do. We want to know why. What motivates someone to make certain choices? Why does one man decide to save a life while another decides to commit murder?

By entering the mind of a fictional character, we can discover answers to these questions. We are privy to their thoughts, their emotions, they’re motivations. We aren’t just exposed to the evil deeds they commit. We’re exposed to the rationale behind those evil deeds. This is very important, because only when we understand the causes of evil can we ever be in a position to do something about it.

Learning about evil teaches us how to be good.

One of the most potent ways to learn is by example. When we see a person act a certain way and observe the result, we take that experience with us as if it were our own. When a person’s actions have a positive outcome, we’re conditioned to emulate their behavior. Conversely, when a person’s actions have a negative outcome, we learn to avoid it.

An accurate portrayal of evil will necessarily showcase the consequences of bad behavior. Sometimes, these consequences will be practical in nature. A bank robber, for example, might slip up during a heist and leave behind clues that eventually lead to his arrest. Sometimes, the consequences will be more spiritual or psychological. A character in a novel might, for example, get away with murder. But if the author has a firm grasp of the human psyche, he will, simply by knowing his character well, reveal the terrible transformation that takes place inside his mind, now irrevocably tainted. From this devastating case study, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what evil can do to us if we allow it into our own hearts.

And, we witness first hand the pain and suffering that evil inflicts on others. We see lives reduced to ruin by greed and malice. We feel a deep sense of desolation and loss. We walk through a desert of despair, barren of all things good, and our hearts howl from their deepest depths for something better. Prolonged exposure to darkness makes the most miniscule act of kindness blaze like the sun. It makes us more sensitive to a right way of living.

In short, reading about evil makes us better people.

Encountering evil in stories reminds us that evil exists outside of stories.

It’s easy to drift through life, comfortable, complacent, apathetic to the suffering of others. Unless we’ve experienced hardship personally, it’s difficult for us to sympathize with those who have.

But when we encounter terrorists, thieves and murderers in fiction, we are reminded that these same criminals also exist in the real world. We are forced to confront an uncomfortable truth that we would otherwise prefer to brush aside. We are forced to watch as innocent characters weep and wail and gnash their teeth in unending agony at the hands of evildoers, and we are reminded that the same thing happens to real people. This awareness breeds empathy, which in turn breeds a genuine love for the rest of our human family and a desire to act against the injustices that afflict them.

Refusing to acknowledge evil is untruthful.

The world is not all pink fluffy bunnies, sunshine and rainbows. Art that intentionally ignores or attempts to sugar coat the darker realities of human life is a distortion, a twisted half-truth that is not only deceitful but dangerous. A selective view of the world through rose colored glasses enables us to look away as innocent people suffer. It allows us to pretend that the world is better than it is, that it’s ok for us to withdraw into ourselves and ignore the plights of others who are less fortunate.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with art that zeroes in on goodness and innocence, any more than there is something wrong with art that doesn’t. A balanced outlook is essential to a healthy understanding of the world, and we need also to be reminded of all the things that are good and right. But we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must be willing to stare it down, to meet its malignant eyes gaze for gaze.

There is tragic beauty in dark literature.

When characters suffer, we cry for them. When an evildoer gets away with murder, we flush with anger and outrage. A good balance of light and dark allows us to explore the full spectrum of human emotions, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is why the ancients devised great epics that dealt regularly with death and loss, as well as why great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet resonate so strongly and continue to persist throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Critics of dark fiction misunderstand us. They perceive a great multitude of maligned individuals prancing through the streets, approving of and even praising evil deeds. But nothing could be further from the truth. As lovers of dark fiction, we are those who are most sensitive to the devastating effects of evil. We are those who are most profoundly disturbed by its manifestation in the world. We are those who recognize more than anything else the terrible evil within ourselves. We are the ones who desire most of all to be better than we are.

We can respond to evil in one of two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, sing Kumbaya and foolishly hope that evil will someday pass us over, that we can somehow wish it away, conquer it simply by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Or we can face it, study it, try to understand our adversary so that we can better prepare for the task of striking it down. Which will you choose?

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