“The Lost Art of the Horror Story” by Thania Rios

05Aug09

Five lines and forty-five minutes into her latest attempt at a poem, Leah decides it’s now okay to call the effort—um. Well. Normally, she’d look for a bigger word, something a bit more… more, but the fact of the matter is that the poem is stupid, simply and purely. There’s too much of herself in it. Which is inevitable in writing, she knows, but the fact of the matter is that she’s sick of herself by this point, let alone herself in half-assed iambic pentameter. She hoped poetry would make for a slightly more legitimate form of mourning than all out sobbing, but failing that she tosses herself onto the bed, reaching between the mattress and the headboard and freeing a Green Lantern comic. Flipping through the issue, she wonders if this technically counts as heartbroken behavior, then figures that the circumstances (nineteen and back at home, waiting for her mother to call her down to dinner, and not very likely to feel any sort of gratification other than masturbation for a long, long time) are pathetic enough to qualify.

Twenty minutes later, she finds that she can’t bring herself to walk across the room for Green Lantern #25. Rolling onto her stomach, she slides off the bed frame, the tips of her hair brushing against the floor as she peers under the bed. She finds nothing of interest, but doesn’t bother wriggling back up. She enjoys the rush of blood to her head.

She’s not really in the mood to write, but if she were, she might shove the poem aside and take another shot at a horror piece again. Granted, previous attempts to write something intentionally disturbing hasn’t worked out (too abstract, too literary, not literary enough, and so on and so forth into the night), but wouldn’t this be a good time for a monster to show up?

She imagines a girl, heartbroken and horny, too busy feeling maudlin and miserable to take note of anything else. But just when our unsuspecting heroine thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, suddenly, it appears. She almost mistakes the viscous fluid for floodwater at first, seeping up between the floorboards as it does, until it takes on a circular shape, expanding onwards and upwards until it’s almost as wide as the bed and the tip of its rounded body just misses scraping against the mattress.

(Leah will call it an amoeba, though the fact that it has flagella might peg it as a distant cousin instead. Seeing as how it’s her creation, she really should be the one to look up this kind of thing, but— well, that’s what it gets for being so vague, for not having the backbone to bother correcting her.)

It rolls back and forth, unable to decide if it wants to explore, soaking up all manner of under-the-bed filth as it goes. It leaves a secretion trail, shiny and slightly sickening, but at least it spares her the trouble of dusting. Not, of course, that the horror heroine sees it that way; unaccustomed to looking for silver linings, she screams, as heroines are wont to do when encountering monsters. But instead of attacking, the monster flinches backward, hiding behind the bedpost.

(She’ll name it The Niceness. Though she thinks that’s clear enough, someone will still ask her what it’s supposed to mean; insistent, she’ll point at it with a simple and strained “Look.” It seems innocuous enough at first, until you take a look at its flagella, until it outs itself as not an amoeba at all, not even a mutant one, but rather as something entirely unnatural, and not even in a compelling, fictionalized sort of way—it has no spine, no substance, the very embodiment of “I don’t care, I don’t mind, I’m not mad.” Wussiness. Pussiness. Monstrosity.)

“If you think you’re going to get to me, you fuck,” the heroine spits, pausing, both to catch her breath and think of a closing—

“Leah? What are you doing?” Leah looks up. She either missed her mother calling, or, like her monster, she’s taken to sudden apparitions. Rita’s gained weight since Leah’s last visit: it suits her, giving her more of a maternal look. It must come in handy at work, allowing her to lull all sorts of private school kids into worlds of false security big enough for them to start wailing about whatever problems private school kids are likely to have these days. To Rita’s credit, though, she’s avoided pulling out the old child psychology tricks thus far— Leah hasn’t been gently, unflaggingly, infuriatingly prompted to talk (or write, or draw, or dance, or paint— whatever comes to her!) once about her feelings. Though considering what she must look like (tense and pale, off-red curls in more disarray than usual, and body hovering on the borderline between ‘thin’ and ‘wasted’), Leah knows that interrogation is inevitable. For a moment, she almost feels sorry for Rita; she might be better off assuming that her daughter is hallucinating than ferreting out the truth, painfully boring as it is. (After all, Rita’s the one shilling out $65,000 a year for Leah to study creative writing; it might pang her that the best concept Leah can come up with is something that’s not quite an amoeba.)

Besides, it’s almost romantic: being the mad poet unable to distinguish between artistry and reality, being so dreamy and so lyrical and so—so that she’s simply unfit for the world of everyday people. But remembering where she is and the five unfinished lines on her desk, she scowls and pulls herself back onto the bed. “Do you think I could fit a monster under there?”

Rita hesitates, then, apparently figuring that there’s really no way she can make things worse, settles herself down next to her daughter. “Sweetie, are you sure there isn’t anything you want to talk about?”

Leah shakes her head. “Not really.” She waits seven seconds before adding an exasperated “What?” because even if her mother hasn’t said anything to the effect, or even stared at her for that long, she must think that there’s something wrong with her, that she can’t just sit down and talk about her problems like a normal person.

“I didn’t say anything,” Rita replies, infuriatingly unflappable.

“It’s just—no, no,” she breaks off, sighing. “It’s stupid.”

“No, what?”

“That’s the problem. It’s stupid.” Rita will almost undoubtedly complain that she’s being immature, but she persists in this vein anyway: “I mean, it’s impossible for anyone to actually talk about their emotions without sounding like a douchebag.”

“Aren’t you overgeneralizing?” Rita asks, not taking the bait that might otherwise lead to a fun digression about the essential point of therapy. (But she still can’t resist adding: “And you can’t find a better word than douchebag?”)

“Like, if someone just says ‘I’m sad,’” Leah continues, “What does that do? Everyone’s sad. It’s not really anything noteworthy.”

Rita is trying very hard to keep her mask of therapeutic inscrutability on, but Leah can already see the conflict of interest begin to seep in, her irritation at the fact that it’s her daughter busting out this nihilistic crap bleeding through. “And it has to be noteworthy?”

Leah knows it’s egocentric of her, but nevertheless, the answer is yes. To transcend adolescent bullshit and become actual art, it does.
And doesn’t she deserve it? She knows that the correct answer is ‘no,’ that others go through much worse and are left with much less, but even so—with her first love lost to her and with no one else but her mother and the Green Lantern for company, shouldn’t she at least have something (a verb, an image, a metaphor) she can build on?

“Yeah. Kind of.”

She’s held herself back for long enough, but Rita can no longer resist: “If it’s about Alice, sweetie, you’re still young—”

 “Dammit, Mom, it’s not about that.” It is, more or less, but Leah feels this is beside the point. “All right, listen—”

 
 

* * *

All right. She’s going back to the amoeba—because, yes, she is upset about Alice, but that doesn’t strike her as particularly interesting. A love lost might merit some tears, but that still doesn’t mean it’s worthy of any sort of inquisition. The answers, after all, are obvious: she’s still young, she’ll find someone else, she’ll move on.”

And even if she were to focus on her own fears—was she too distant? too open? too much herself, or not nearly enough so?—the response still comes too readily: seize the day, shoot for the stars, and other feel-good crap that eventually ends in you finding yourself, whoever that turns out to be.”

But if you were to embody all that fear and angst and let it roam off into the wild—as an amorphous mass capable of devouring everything in its path, say—why, then some confusion was allowed. That was the beauty of genre fiction. Because, shit, how did you kill a giant amoeba? Some might contend that all you had to do was man up and see that it was slaughtered, but it would be unclear to everyone what, exactly, manning up meant in the face of flaccid, unrepentant, indomitable impotence. [footnote 1]

So if Rita really wants to know what happened, the details will probably be of some interest to her. It was a fight about a party and a paper that led Alice to accuse Leah of both immaturity and unrepentant snobbery, of a complete lack of interest in her life, and contempt for all of her friends. While Leah paused, trying to decide if that was really the kind of thing that called for a comeback, Alice sneered, opened one of Leah’s poetry anthologies, and fell into a sullen silence on the couch.”

But if she’s after the heart of it—is less interested in what actually happened than what happened to Leah—then she should imagine it as a dark and stormy night, even though the fight actually took place at two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Leah was not, in fact, an awkward undergraduate, but rather an archeologist who stumbled across the totem of a mysterious monster while on a dig. Connecting the creature to graffiti she’d seen back in Chicago, she learned from a friendly detective that the scrawled symbols marked locations were ritual murders had been committed. While on her way home, she caught someone in the act of drawing one underneath the El tracks; she knew it was foolish, but she still felt compelled to ask him what, exactly, was it that he meant by that. He’d hissed at her and fled. Later that night, the monster visited.”

She’d managed to scare it off by flinging a dictionary at it, but she knew it was still in the apartment. Though she was tempted to spend the rest of the evening cowering underneath her bed covers, she also knew that was a course of action that would probably end with her getting eaten. Steeling herself, she stepped tentatively out of her bedroom, and began her search for a weapon.”

I need that.”

Alice sighed, seething and shuddering, and glared up at her, drawing on a cache of offense that, even though Leah had been privy to the fight and knew full well what it was that Alice was so pissed off about, she still found staggering. “Excuse me?”

Hamlet,” she explained. “I—the anthology. That’s the Norton Shakespeare. I need it for the paper.”

Laughing balefully, Alice read to the end of the page; she then threw the book in Leah’s general direction, going wide and missing her head by a foot or so. It hit the wall with an angry thud then collapsed on top of the Battlestar Galactica DVDs resting on the shelf below.

“Fine. Truth be told, all those pretty words were way over my head.” [footnote 2]

Earlier in their relationship, Leah would’ve taken that as a cue to draw closer to her, cupping her chin and hugging her shoulder, and reassuring her that she didn’t care about her family’s class status, or the fact that she hadn’t managed to make it to college, all the while feeling guilty that Alice’s comparatively exotic background (honest to God poverty! What a novelty!) made her that much more appealing to Leah. But now—it was its own little world, But Now, and Leah still hadn’t adjusted to living in it. She could’ve tried comforting Alice, she guessed, but she couldn’t imagine that either of them would’ve liked it.

And, shit—why should she? It was a question she didn’t have the nerve to follow up on, but nevertheless, it deserved to be asked.

Instead—and Lord, she knew it was passive-aggressive of her, but for what it was worth, she was curious—she ducked her head, bangs falling in front of her eyes, and, running her fingers along the spine, she checked for damage.

She could hear Alice shifting, though she didn’t have much of a desire to look up and read her expression. “I—okay,” she sighed (still shuddering, but less seething this time). “That was wrong.”

“You didn’t break it.”

“I didn’t mean to do that,” she continued; if Leah wanted to flatter herself, she could’ve described her tone as pleading.

“I know.”

“But that doesn’t change the fact—” she broke off, drawing on that offense again, but this time with a hint of sorrow mixed in: “God, Leah, you always do this.”

It comes out as half-statement, half-question: “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“I know you’re busy, all right?” If Leah looked hard enough, she could find a passive-aggressive dig in there—the implication that schoolwork was no work at all—but if she looked harder still, she could allow that she was just being paranoid. “But this is Madison’s twenty-first. You said you would help me.”

“I know, but—”

“So now she’ll have to do it, and—” Alice sighed. “Come on, Leah. You have to know that’s bullshit, making someone plan their own party.”

It didn’t take very much work to construe that as passive-aggressive at all. Leah alone in her ivory tower, too awkward and anti-social to come down and make friends. But she could be reading too much into it, couldn’t she? And calling her on it would be irrelevant to the matter at hand, wouldn’t it?

“You know I don’t regret moving to Evanston for you, but I see her even less now, and it’s hard, you know?” She paused. “Are you even listening?” [footnote 3]

“So what do you want from me?” She didn’t necessarily mean to sound annoyed, but—still, she didn’t see much point in taking it back. “What, do you want to write it?”

Alice eyed her uneasily. “Leah, do you have a problem with Madison?”

Comparatively, the archeologist had it easy. At least the monster was mildly predictable. If it was capable of any kind of rational thought, it would probably take advantage of its amorphousness, hiding somewhere she couldn’t easily reach. Behind the stove, maybe; it was probably working itself between the grill and the wall at that very moment, absorbing what must’ve been half-a-year’s worth of dust, bug husks, and fallen food. She could try flushing it out with the broom, she supposed, but then what? A baseball bat might do the trick, but—

She screamed as the mirror behind her shattered, though she managed to avoid being hit by any of the shards. Looking down, she could just make out the Webster’s buried underneath the broken glass. Turning, she saw The Niceness at her heels, looking as smug as an amoeba was capable of. Had she been in a mood to study, she would’ve taken note of how it was able to throw; judging by the ectoplasm that was still closing over the exit wound, it seemed that it had absorbed the book into itself before projecting it outward, but she would need to observe it more closely before she could say for certain.

Then again, considering the fact that it had just managed to corner her, she probably had more pressing concerns. If she stooped to grab hold of the dictionary, she would be putting too much of herself within biting range; she could try kicking the glass at it, she guessed, but that could too easily end up working against her.

As she deliberated (pondering upon how horribly ironic it would be if she died in the process of over-thinking something), she stared at the monster, shell-shocked. It drew closer to her, emitting a low hiss, but when it finally got within reaching range—when it finally might snake a flagellum around her ankle and end this nonsense—it pulled back, hissing louder still before rolling backwards, retreating to parts unknown.

Well. That was lucky.

It figured that she would only be able to pose an actual challenge when she was completely unaware that she was doing so.

“I barely know Madison.”

“It doesn’t bother you, that you don’t know my best friend?”

She could ask why, exactly, that responsibility fell entirely upon her, but she already knew the answer: it wasn’t like she had anything else going on. Yes, she was that pathetic.

After all, the fact that Leah was pathetic was the only reason they’d met in the first place. Her inability to make friends at Northwestern was what spurred her to explore Chicago, if only in the interest of being able to have some sort of knowledge to lord over the suburbanites she was surrounded and alienated by (and to alleviate her own guilt, having been born and raised in Evanston herself). Getting caught in the rain in Rogers Park one day, she slipped into a nearby café, and as she tried to convince herself that the cramped, overcrowded room was actually quite lovely and she wasn’t lonely in the least, she spotted Alice behind the bar, munching on a stale muffin and not looking particularly majestic, but even so—

Little Alice stepping through the looking-glass, dreamy and otherworldly, all green eyes and soft skin and wonderfully full breasts that Leah still appreciated, even if she hadn’t touched them in a week and a half. She gazed upon her, in full-blown, Byronic, “She Walks in Beauty” worship, and thought that maybe she deserved to feel pathetic.

“You know I love you,” Alice said.

“I know.”

“But—” she paused, searching for the right words, then decided that there was nothing more powerful than simple, irreversible, insurmountable fact: “She’s my best friend.”

“Okay. Fine.”

“So if you have a problem with her…”

“Alice, can we stop?”

Then again, if she already issued the challenge, she might as well see it through.

The archeologist thought she saw the monster slip away into the living room, but by the time she made it through the doorway, it had already disappeared. There was a fountain pen on the coffee table; gripping it tightly, she peered underneath the furniture, though she was still uncertain of what she would do if she actually found it.

“Excuse me?” Alice repeated.

“If you’re mad at me, then just say so. If you want me to suffer, then be blunt about it. But whatever game you’re playing—”

“You think this is a game?”

“I’m starting to think you do.”

For certainty’s sake, she checked beneath the ottoman one last time, but it could really only be behind one of the bookcases. She sighed. By the time she managed to work the shelves away from the wall, it would’ve probably escaped (or, worse, taken the opportunity to envelop her, but as time wore on the archeologist felt more confident about her ability to avoid that particular fate. As it turned out, this monster didn’t seem to be much of one at all).

“Fine. You want honesty? Well, you’re wrong.”

Approaching it at a run, she threw herself against the bookshelf; unable to get away in time, she clung to it as it collapsed. Flush against the wall, right where the shelf had once stood, was The Niceness, flattened and oblong.

“What?”

Thankfully, the pen hadn’t been broken during the fall; ripping the cap off and tossing it aside, she charged at the—the… fuck it, the miserable wretch! (because at this point in the narrative, she had earned the overblown words), burying her arms in its filthy, nauseating body. Then, before it could actually bring itself to stir to action, she buried the pen in its nucleus, jamming it in harder when she felt it twitching, stopping only once she began to feel what she was pretty sure passed for its digestive system seep into her left sleeve. With one last twitch, it slumped lifelessly to the floor.

She smiled, slowly and sadly—thinking about it later, that smile (the nerve of that fucking smile) could very well lead Leah to fall out of love with her—

“You should have a problem with Madison.” [footnote 4]

She could go on about love and betrayal and disillusionment at this point, but her mother will undoubtedly tell her that, no matter how agonized she may be, nineteen-year-olds have no business philosophizing. Leah, sadly, will have to agree.

Life is complicated, she knows, more complicated than her nineteen-year-old mind can imagine, but back in her childhood bedroom, Leah isn’t all that interested in complications.

Love, she thinks, feeling an overwhelming urge to return to the five lines in the composition book, is all about ignoring complications, and heartbreak, in turn, was all about giving into them. Of course, if she was really interested in learning a lesson from the break-up, one might wonder if she wouldn’t be better off giving up on words altogether—simply living, as opposed to fixating on living eloquently.

But love, friendship—all that is fleeting, isn’t it? Even if she does get her shit together. Language, on the other hand—

It strikes her that this is an unwise course of action, masochistically mining her emotional baggage for its literary benefit. It’ll probably result in a delayed coming-of-age five or ten years down the line, in which she learns to stop worrying about artistic glory and begins to appreciate being—well, simply being.

 

But as long as she can write that story, she’ll probably be fine. At least she has The Niceness for now, though Rita is bound to assure her that, as she is still young and relatively good-looking, another romantic prospect is soon to follow. [footnote 5]

But Leah thinks that she’ll be just fine with horror. If Alice read more genre fiction, after all, she’d know better than to ask Leah if she could ever forgive her, if she could count her among those friends she always talks so much about. A coward, Leah may be, but in horror stories these things are never constant—there’s always a twist, a metamorphosis, a shift from mild-mannered maid to blood-sucking, sunlight-shunning nympho.

And Alice would probably be annoyed at that, would accuse her of retreating into literary speak just to spite her, would ask her how much longer she plans on lording one mistake over her—but Leah, at least, is fine with that.

______________
BACK[footnote 1]

“Leah, I’ve told you time and time again, shyness isn’t synonymous with cowardice. And what’s with all this castration talk?”

Aside from feeling obliged to object to the characterization of herself as shy, if Leah isn’t careful, this could easily spiral into more divorce drama. She can already see the cogs in Rita’s head turning, trying to figure out what the last disparaging thing she said about Leah’s father was (the thirty-two year old fiancée, just bordering on the edge of propriety, or the condo in Miami—Miami!—of all places). That easily could have led to a resentment towards Rita that aggravated Leah’s desire for a strong father figure— or worse, led to a fear of father figures, and accordingly of all men, and even though Rita knows it’s nonsense, that homosexuality is the kind of thing you’re just born with, you never do know—

And as far as horror goes, this kind of drama could actually populate an entire mythos of stories, full of savage, hulking, mindless he-men and seductive, Sapphic succubae. But, really, it’s beside the point, and Leah considers her tendency towards dithering and digression amongst the worst of her minor flaws.

“Listen, Mom.”
 
BACK[footnote 2]

Although Rita manages to contain herself admirably, Leah can still hear a hint of a scream in her voice as she asks, “She threw the book at you?”

“Not at me,” she clarifies. “I mean, it didn’t really get that close. And Alice was,” still is, Leah supposes, but even so, “a pacifist. She just…overreacts sometimes.” It sounds like she’s defending Alice, but really (and understandably), Leah’s far more interested in defending herself. She knows it’s never anyone’s fault when they end up with an abusive partner, but Leah’s seen those women— they always look so sunken, so defeated, so feeble, like they knew he would never really love them and knew he’d never stop, but fuck, what else were they supposed to do?—and has no interest in joining their numbers. Even the emotionally abused cut it too close for her comfort.
 
BACK[footnote 3]

“No.”

“Mom—”

“I’m sorry, no.” Though Leah protests, Rita lets a little more of that scream slip in. “Who does she think she is? I’m sorry about her tragic, poverty-stricken childhood, I’m sorry that she couldn’t apply herself enough to earn any scholarships, but that is not your problem. You don’t need her approval to do well. You have no reason to feel guilty about coming from a good home.”

“I know, Mom.”

“And having the nerve to cry about it?”

“I know.”

“Sweetie, I’ve held my tongue about it for long enough, but it needs to be said—you’re better off without her.”

Leah should want to follow that up with another ‘I know,’ but she actually thinks that the fact that she can’t quite yet speaks well of her, albeit in a twisted sort of way: she’s still managed to cling to that romanticism, that masochism, that just-slightly-skewed way of seeing the world that’s essential to good horror writing (and maybe one day, to writing in general).
 
BACK[footnote 4]

“She cheated on you?”

“Mom—” Leah’s been dreading this conversation most of all, if only because it’s by far the most humiliating.

“She cheated on you, and you—” She can’t help it; faced with Rita’s wrath, and the undoubtedly non-stop evening of bitching and raging and ponderings upon why Leah felt obliged to go for a woman exactly like her father, Leah finally does it— she whines, high and surprisingly agonized, the sound slipping from her lips before she has a chance to put it to actual words, coming out more like a dog’s yelp than any human sound.

“Never mind.” Rita rubs her back comfortingly; Leah bites her lip and resists the suddenly overwhelming but equally childish urge to fall into her arms. “Why don’t we go out for dinner tonight?”

Contrarily, a small part of Leah can’t help but wish that they had the fight, instead of Rita Learning and Growing and Developing and using that new, maternal body of hers to come up with exactly the right thing to say.

Sighing, she nods.

She’ll have to satisfy those violent urges in some other way.
 
BACK[footnote 5]

“And it is, so I don’t understand why you talk about it like it’s some kind of an insult.”

“Yeah, but—I can’t brood, Mom? I can’t just wallow for a little while?”

“And this is how you want to do it? By giving yourself more to feel bad about?”

Leah pauses. “Yes, Mom. Yes, it is.” Romantic and extreme it may be, but she still believes that if she pushes herself enough and loathes herself enough and agonizes just as much as necessary, she’ll get something worthwhile out of all this.

“Suit yourself,” Rita sighs.

 
______________
Thania Rios was born and raised in Chicago and, as she saw no point in ever familiarizing herself with another city, is currently majoring in English at Loyola University Chicago. She has work forthcoming in Cantaraville, and her biggest dream at the moment is to move away from the West Side.

 

 
 

To read Thania Rios’ comments on Craig Greenman’s “The Church in the Next Town Over,” click here.
______________
Notes from the desk of K. Anne Unger, Editor

The strong characterization of the protagonist in this piece really made the story come alive. Our hero is indifferent and calculating when coping with love loss until she crawls inside to process her feelings. When her coping method reveals her private eccentric self, we come to understand her heartrending pain as her personality fragments, or threatens to, in response to her sorrow. Though entertaining at times, such profound roots in human behavior give depth to the main character and story, making the character more real for readers. We relate to the hero’s emotional entanglement, and remember how we naturally want to show our strong, capable self to the outside world regardless of how much inner turmoil we may be experiencing.

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Comments on this story by Jonathan David Sanchez Leos, author of “Corners”
Life needs footnotes. There is so much information lost in between conversational pauses–in those sighs that give way to the resignation that leaves one saying: “Never mind. It’s just too much to say.” For a writer, it’s unbelievably difficult to capture this phenomenon–to describe not only what is being said, but also what is being unsaid. That is exactly what’s so intriguing about Thania Rios’ story, “The Lost Art of the Horror Story.” Through this stylistic innovation of the “footnote,” the reader is reminded of the breadth of emotions and thoughts that accompany a lover’s quarrel or a conversation with mom–that there’s always another story behind what’s being said. Emotions are intrinsic to the plot of this story, since this isn’t just a story of heartbreak. It’s a story of hurt. Rios does a fantastic job of externalizing those internalized feelings of gelatinous ill we feel when we’ve been hurt by someone we once loved–both sickening and intangible, universal and overtly personal. It is a chimera made of our own fears and insecurities, and definitely, the most frightening monster of all.
 




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