Look at its eyes. Its eyes are like reflections of an alien world living in our midst. It is millions of years old, and has had almost the same shape since before we were even walking on two legs. The general lines of its body have been practically the same since we were nothing but little rats hiding in the underbrush and stealing its eggs. The big, blank yellow eyes seem to remember this. Maybe that’s why we are so afraid of them.
Of course, most of them are a lot smaller than they were when we were rats. Its surviving progeny are all dwarfs by Mesozoic standards. But not this one. This one is a monster. It is displayed as a freak - the largest crocodile ever seen in modern times. At forty feet, it’s more than twice as long as the second largest croc in captivity. And I am utterly convinced that it hates me, that its eyes are more cruel than usual when I am watching it through the armored glass of its tank.
But why shouldn’t it hate me? I created it, after all.
I’ve been creating things on paper since I was five. Published my first story when I was fifteen. I shudder when I am forced to recall that one, although that didn’t stop me from letting them publish it again a few years ago, in a collection of my lesser works, unfinished thoughts, and very bad poetry. Poetry has never been my calling. But after writing a handful of books that fairly burned their way out of my typewriter, I went through a long period when not one of my ideas panned out, and I had to let all the “undiscovered gems” — the garbage, to be blunt — get collected and printed in faux collectors’ editions. Thankfully, the dry spell didn’t last forever, and I got a second chance. Another half-dozen books followed, a few of which I am genuinely proud of, and I was a seller once more.
Now, however, I’m stranded halfway through a book which should have been the easiest bit of scribbling I ever did. It is also my most anticipated work in at least ten years, because I made the mistake of telling someone from a horror webzine that this book would be the return of my original Goth heroine. And right now I am truly and utterly stuck. Writer’s block doesn’t even begin to describe my state right now. I suppose that’s why I am at the zoo.
But the animals, which usually amaze me with the intricacies of their inhuman behavior, are not doing anything for me now. Even this one, the one I actually called into existence.
The book was dead in the water for the second time. The first time had been just after he began to work on it. Nothing seemed to make it gel. The characters were all perfect. In the center of the action would be a young woman who had returned from the dead. So very Gothic, thank you. And a whole coven of heroes would gather to live or die around her. She would be the key, but there would be no single protagonist, and the narrator would be someone else, a writer or a journalist. He saw tremendous potential in the narrator.
But potential was all there was to it. He had started the book five times, and practically carpeted his study with discarded sheets of paper, each one a few pathetic, self-aborting paragraphs. Once he had finished the entire first chapter before discovering that it was a virtual replay of something he had written three years ago, only written much worse. He had tried starting from the middle, writing only one central scene to get the ball rolling. He had tried writing it all from the girl’s point of view.
The book was dead, stillborn. Almost suicidally depressed after two weeks of null progress, he had gotten badly drunk. He had gone over to Eduardo’s place and sat with musicians and Colombian woodworkers, and after a couple of joints he had started to talk complete bullshit, pondering curled-up dimensions five through eleven and some great trip-hop. They had gone out to the Izzy Bar and tried to pick up eighteen-year-olds. He had tried to dance, and in the middle of some Madonna remix something flashed in his head and he had to stop.
It was stunning. It cleared everything up. He realized in an instant of clarity why the plot wasn’t working. It wasn’t a problem with the characters. It was their world, the Gothic milieu his heroine inhabited. This time she would have to come into the light. He had to change everything, and quickly.
He had walked out without saying goodnight, his vision miraculously sharp and head clear, and had practically marched home and locked his door. And he had sat down at the typewriter and hammered out revisions until the sun was well over the horizon. It took him about four hours to get things back on track. By the end of another five, he had another chapter and a half finished, and he could see the end of the book like it was actually happening to him. He felt like a god.
I only realized a few years ago that I was actually making things happen. It doesn’t happen all that often, for one thing. And the things I create probably only intersect my own little sphere of existence once in a great while. The crocodile was the biggest thing I had ever made, in every sense. It was also the first one I really noticed.
You’ve seen those news fillers about life paralleling art? Little pieces about bizarre deaths mimicking Dean Koontz’s horror fiction? How about this one - when Jurassic Park was made, there was a big noise in all the science-literate magazines about how Spielberg had made the velociraptors bigger than they really were, because he thought the raptors’ true size wouldn’t be scary enough. And then, about a month later, they discovered Utahraptor, which was actually bigger than the raptors in the movie. Coincidence, right? I doubt it.
When I wrote Dragoneye, no one had ever seen a crocodile forty feet long. He was unbelievably oversized, just as I had meant him to be. The largest crocodile ever reported had been thirty three feet, but the longest ever actually measured was just over twenty feet long. A croc that big was usually estimated to be around a hundred years old. Dragoneye, on the other hand, was supposed to be over two hundred years old. I had flashbacks from his point of view, of him devouring English explorers in the seventeen-hundreds. It was very marketable, since my English explorers were all imperialistic bastards who deserved to be buried in the mud until they decomposed enough to be appetizing to any crocodile. As I recall, the British weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the book as the Americans were. But what the hell. I’ve never cared about the British market, anyway.
But in the middle of the book, a strange thing happened. On the day after I had my big breakthrough into the psychology of the beast, they captured a crocodile exactly forty feet long. It made all the news, and trebled the Bronx Zoo’s revenues when they brought it to the paddock they built for it. He was their star.
That wasn’t the strange thing, though. The really bizarre part, the part that shocked me beyond belief and nearly made me stop writing, was that they captured him thirteen years ago. Right. Thirteen years before I wrote Dragoneye. It had been in all the news, and trebled the zoo’s revenues, more than a decade ago. These days it wasn’t even newsworthy. Except it hadn’t happened until I wrote the passage in the book that really made Dragoneye come alive in my mind.
They called him Jaws. Because that had been the big movie the year they brought him to the zoo. But I knew his name, and it was Dragoneye. And I knew that he knew that I had created him.
You don’t even need to say it. I know what you’re thinking. A little touched, my mother would say. Because everybody knows they discovered “Jaws” back in ‘76. The story of his capture was all over the TV. It was a National Geographic special, and front page on every newspaper in the country. Jaws was, if you don’t mind my abusing the pun once again, big news. And there isn’t any way that I could prove to you that it didn’t happen until I had written about him, thirteen years later. Somehow, my act of creation spawned something that went beyond fiction. Something that changed history retroactively. I don’t claim to understand it.
I wonder what I’ve created lately. Sometimes I don’t want to know. But I get the feeling I really need to know, before it leaps up and bites me.
He had always known that writing was a more powerful act of creation than any kind of graphic art. The ritual act of describing things in words made the things more real. A painting wasn’t a world, it was only a scene. A photograph merely froze an object and illuminated one specific aspect of it. Music created a mood. But a book was a world! When a book was done properly, it made people come to life. It animated places and objects that hadn’t even existed until a well-crafted series of words gave them shape, and color, and finally movement. It was the ultimate illusion.
When I think about it, it seems obvious that I’ve always been doing this. There were strange things happening even before Dragoneye. There was, for example, the girl who thought she was Mary Elizabeth.
Back in the Eighties, when we were all distancing ourselves from everybody else, and my second book was still flying off the shelves, it had not been an affair I wanted to investigate closely. A young girl, probably about nineteen years old, had started writing to me in the name of Mary Elizabeth. It had been obvious that she was some kind of twisted fan. Nineteen years of age and feeling like she was forty, sure that she had seen everything, she identified perfectly with my character. With no solid role models and no parental guidance (nobody in my target audience had any kind of parental guidance - that was the whole point), she had come to believe that she was my heroine, a goth hooker on the run from dark government agencies. She was clearly insane. I could infer that from her letter, even without M.E.’s name signed at the bottom of the last page. (Eight pages in all. Who writes eight-page letters, except crazy people?)
Four more letters followed that one in the next three weeks, each one posted from a different city. Starting in Austin, they shot towards me with frightening speed. The fifth one came from right here in town. And, of course, on the night after that one arrived, she was standing out in the street where I could see her.
I was scared enough to ask for police protection. Anyone who believed she was a fictional character was obviously someone who needed help. And anyone who would identify that strongly with Mary Elizabeth needed more help than most. And this girl definitely believed it. She couldn’t have been making those things up. She had written Mary Elizabeth better than I ever had. She wasn’t just pulling things from the books, she was telling me things from the mythos that I hadn’t even imagined - and they were so perfect it was frightening. I would find myself thinking about them until two in the morning, almost jealous of the depth of her fantasy. I actually caught myself trying to work some of her elaborations into a third Mary Elizabeth novel - an exercise in fantasy, since I had other works in progress and had sworn never to write about her again. I wasn’t going to be pigeonholed after two books.
She never did manage to confront me face to face. I guess the detectives watching the hot young writer’s apartment scared her off. Her last letter arrived in the mail on the morning after her body was found on the subway tracks. I opened it before we knew about the suicide. It was horrible. I wanted to burn it, but instead I gave it to the police. They said it was evidence.
It took me a year to get over it. I tried to write, but couldn’t. Nothing came out right. The words were all twisted, and it was all horror stuff. I wasn’t a horror writer. Maybe a little dark, yes. Definitely a little dark. But not horrific.
Eventually, though, I moved on. I got to thinking about fairies, and my next book was so light and airy you wouldn’t have guessed I had ever invented Mary Elizabeth. The fairies turned out to be the most commercially viable concept I had ever thought of, after a couple of years, my first stalker was almost forgotten. And it was only a short while ago that I thought about her again, and realized that she hadn’t been a fan. She wasn’t some poor girl who thought she was Mary Elizabeth. She was Mary Elizabeth, and all the misery and sickness in her mind was of my invention.
The other day, a woman had accosted him in his coffee shop with a copy of Penumbra under her arm. With the force of opinion that only educated, middle-aged New Yorkers seem to possess, she had accused him of betraying the pixies from the books of the Kinship by writing books like Penumbra. Why was he writing these dark monstrosities, she asked him forcefully. Had he entirely forgotten the goodness and light of the Kinship?
The Kinship books were garbage, he considered telling her. They were a phase I went through in my mid-twenties, before I was confronted with the darker truths of the world, and I probably couldn’t even force myself to write one of them now, even if I was inclined to try. But he didn’t say it. He had learned a long time ago that his own opinion of his work didn’t count. Once it was published, you relinquished any right to criticize it. Critics could praise or condemn it for a short period before their rights to opine faded as well. Then the only people whose opinion counted were the readers. In a way, that was one of the reasons he was so selective of what he wrote these days. He had learned that he could never take back anything he said in a book.
Instead he told her that at this time, it seemed to him that stories like Penumbra served to illuminate certain truths that he felt were applicable to the real world. The Kinship books were, of course, some of his favorites, and he hoped that at some point in time he would be able to write more of them. But for now, he thought it important to tell stories like Penumbra and its ilk.
She had been pleased with the answer, clutching at the hope that some day there would be more of the juvenile adventures she adored, and she had left him alone, pressing him only for an autograph on the book that she loathed. But he had not stopped thinking about her questions. Could he really have become so gothic and twisted? Were the slayers of Penumbra, and the dark drives that they represented, the only things he could truly understand these days?
For he was still in that same dark territory, and the slayers had returned in the new book, although in a different form. Penumbra had seen them rising in caves a mile below the surface of Mars, in a mining colony of the early twenty-second century. Now, in the book that still didn’t have a title, they were gathering around a locus of evil in a small Westchester town. Against them were set a conflicted group of antiheroes, some of whom hailed from Westchester and others from the Big Apple. Finally, the heroine, who was born in Los Angeles and died -- for the first time -- in Austin. The girl who had always played at being undead, and now really was. In a series of seemingly chance encounters, they met and made a connection, and one by one, they realized that evil was invading their lives. The narrator was a writer, somewhat of an autobiographical character, who had been asked by the group’s champion to look up some information on vampires. The writer himself had not yet seen the slayers, but was beginning to feel the presence of dark forces working in some shadowy conspiracy. The last member of the party would be a small boy from the Westchester town, who would be the first one to actually stand against the slayers. He would be killed, and the ghost girl would bring him back, forming two of the book’s three climaxes.
It was a decent concept, blending the mythologies of Penumbra and the Gothic subculture, and it should have been easy. The idea that the slayers were but one aspect of this ancient evil had been suitably foreshadowed in Penumbra and had seemed to hold promise, but it was not working out well. To make matters worse, he kept getting the feeling that it had been done before. Not just a similar concept, but almost the exact same story.
I’ve been feeling for a long time that there were others who were doing the same thing I was. It would be very peculiar if I was the only one with this ability. I mean, I’m not a very famous writer, and I’ve never thought I was an amazingly gifted one either. Not in any really special way. I can make a plot come together, and most of my characters seem as real as the next guy’s. But I don’t think I’m some kind of genius. So it makes sense that other writers could do the same things. But I’ve never been sure of it, until very recently.
I tried to ask Bill Jackson about it one night when we had been talking for a long time about nothing in particular. I’ve known Bill since before either of us were published, and he had always been pretty sympathetic to my troubles, while I tried to be open minded about his incredibly bizarre lifestyle. We had shot a lot of wild ideas off each other in the progress of writing, working each other through a couple of serious blocks and, in his case, several extremely troubled relationships and breakups. I raised my theory as an idea for a story, asking him what he thought about it. He immediately got shifty.
“Paranoia fiction,” he hissed. “Been done way too much. Look at Philip Dick, or Ellison even. It’s a dead end.” His glass of wine was jiggling a little too much for my liking. He was usually rock steady even when he was nearly drunk out of his mind.
“You don’t like it?” I really didn’t know how to pull an answer out of him. I am not great at steering conversations.
“Writers are changing my reality, conspiring to keep me down by making little changes to my world? No, of course I don’t like it. It’s psycho-goth angst crap. You don’t do that stuff anymore.” Considering the things Bill usually wrote -- his last book had been about a teenager who killed transients because his father couldn’t accept his sexual orientation -- this was a little surprising. And I hadn’t even mentioned any conspiracies against me or my hypothetical protagonist. Where had that come from?
He continued, his eyes settling steadily on a young stud in the requisite tight tank-top, sitting with a gaggle of supporters at the end of the bar. “It’s just too easy. Seems like a cheat. Too much like a half-baked X-Files episode. Not up to your standard, I’d say.” And it seemed to me that his eyes flicked towards me as he said this, just for a half second to see if I was swallowing it.
I decided to drop it. “I don’t know,” I told him. “Just an idea I’ve been playing with. Trying to decide what I should do after I finish this next one. I’d just like to get into something totally different, you know?”
He laughed, and returned his gaze to the young blonde he obviously had designs on. “Well,” he told me, lifting his glass, “I’m sure you can come up with something better than that. Shit, anything would be better than that...”
Now I know Bill is part of the conspiracy. I wish I had known this a long time ago. Despite his unreasonable defensiveness, I had never even imagined a conspiracy until he raised the subject. It had never crossed my mind that there might be groups of people who were using this gift for their own gain. It’s so obvious now.
I wish I could use it to get through this block. I’m still writing, of course. I can’t imagine spending a day without writing at least a few lines of something. But none of it has any meaning. And none of it is getting me any closer to the end of the story that was supposed to be wrapping itself up by now.
He watched the news with the volume muted, listening to Tangerine Dream and sipping a screwdriver. It was impossible to focus on the news while the problems of his story tumbled through his mind like kobolds chasing each others in an Escher sketch. The ghost girl had a name now, and that was the only progress he had made. She would be called Mary Elizabeth. He was very sure about that, but he couldn’t remember actually inventing the name.
The name echoed in his head while he watched something about a subway accident, a girl getting caught in the door and dragged for the length of the station. It didn’t seem like she had been hurt.
The narrator was the problem. Getting him to face the slayers in a confrontation that would bring him into Mary Elizabeth’s group. That was the problem. The narrator wasn’t that kind of character. Maybe he was too autobiographical. He had met writers who had no problem writing themselves into stories and making themselves look like Hemingway, but that wasn’t his style.
I have to do something about this. Now that I know the conspiracy exists, I have to find its members and find some weapon against them. I haunt the library. I go online using every search engine I know of, putting in the most obscure and tenuous links, to find some hint of their presence. Still their activities are shadowed. I talk to friends I haven’t spoken to in years, trying to inveigle any kind of rumor out of them, despite an increasing sense that my friends think I am going mad. They must see how frantic I am getting. They have to hear the tiny quiverings in my voice, the uncontrollable signs of desperation. But they give me no assistance. Most of them want nothing to do with me.
I am alone. I am in the greatest danger of my life, and no one will help me. I can feel dark forces gathering around me.
I try to write about myself, to make myself powerful. To somehow weave an enchantment of words against my unseen enemies. But I know that every word I type is counterwritten by blindfolded scribes in chambers of black marble, lit by torches. Or deleted by young men with short haircuts, wearing gray suits. Sitting at workstations in flourescent-lit halls, in government buildings with no windows. They are anonymous and unstoppable.
I go to the zoo, not for assistance but simply to try and calm myself. Perhaps to absorb some energy, or answers, from the creature I created.
It came to him during the second half of the news. They were interviewing a man who had evidently apprehended a mugger, or maybe a rapist. He was (of course) an Average Joe. In fact, he looked like a construction worker, or a mover. The kind of man you just knew would stop a mugging, or win the lottery or something. A guy who deserved to have good things happen to him.
It hit him in mid-sip. He froze for a second, and then slowly put the glass down on the table next to him. Moving slowly, because he couldn’t afford to look at the table and he didn’t want to spill his drink and break the chain of thought that had just entered his mind.
Nothing else has worked, he told himself. You haven’t been able to do jack shit with the writer, the one who resembles you so much. You’ve tried everything with him. So erase him. Use a different character, one you identify less with, but one who fits the tone of the book better than the writer ever could. An Average Joe. Maybe a mover.
Now. Turn off the television. Turn up the music, which is just getting to a really exciting bit. Take your drink, which you will forget to drink in the fever of real writing, and sit yourself down in front of the computer. Go back to the beginning of the book, the part where you first introduce the narrator, and make him the other guy. A guy thirty-odd years old, with a wife named Ellen. Someone who has never seen even a hint of any supernatural activity in his life. A guy who does not watch the X-Files, and laughs at Star Trek. A guy who really wants a kid, who will be drawn into the circle of protagonists by the mysterious boy. That’s your narrator.
He began to type at full speed.
The zoo has not helped me at all. In fact, after watching Dragoneye for a while I feel worse than ever. It seems like he is gloating at my helplessness, taking some saurian version of vengeful satisfaction from my downfall. He seems to be telling me it’s going to happen soon.
I get onto a train going downtown, huddled on a seat. Clenching my fists inside the pockets of my long coat. I feel the fear more urgently than ever. my eyes keep darting around under their own volition, trying to find one of the faceless strangers who are going to destroy me. I feel like I need to pee.
We go underground. Suddenly I know this is where it’s going to happen. Somehow they are going to attack me. Hell, people die every day on the subway, even in the newer, kinder New York. People are staring at me. Am I talking out loud? Not far to go, then. my eyes are still scanning the car frantically, but increasingly I see only visions of my life so far. I suppose this is the ‘flashing before your eyes’ bit. The terror is increasing. Something is going to happen to me. Something horrible. I can feel it coming, some great bat-winged Rorschach blot of shadow enveloping my mind. Slivers of pain falling through the left lobe of my brain, slicing my superego into ribbons. Everyone around me has twisted animal faces, like the mutated lesser brothers of Egyptian gods. The ones they lock in the attic so they won’t embarrass the family when the Olympians come to visit. Teeth like razors. Hissing darkness.
I swear. I shriek, part pain, part fear. my head flies back and hits the window. I shudder forward, crumple...
DELETE TYPE CUT PASTE and SAVE
The train rocks as we emerge into the elevated section, knocking the straphangers around. I see a young girl, probably in her mid-twenties, at least six months pregnant, jostling about tiredly. It’s only a couple more stops before I get off, so I stand up and offer her my seat. She gives me a grateful look, and that’s it.
I set my backpack between my feet and cling to the bar. Above the window, I notice a poster advertising the Bronx Zoo. Of course, they’ve got that big crocodile “Jaws” in the picture. A closeup of one of its big golden dragon eyes. Look at that eye. It looks a million years old, like a reflection of another world.
I close my eyes and do what I always do - make up a story about the crocodile, to tell the kid we haven’t yet managed to have. I hope we can make it soon. Ellen seems to be blaming herself for the fact that we haven’t had one yet. Every day I pray for it to happen. In the meantime, I invent stories to tell him, to save for whenever it does happen. I like making up stories. my friends always said I should have been a writer.