"Is this some kind of a joke?" I ask, as he finishes explaining who he is, and what he wants from me.
"Anything but." His big hands wrap tightly around the coffee cup, and he leans towards me across the desk, as if to emphasise his earnestness. His eyes are deeply set, and there are lines gouged deep around them. Not the usual crisscross of worry and laughter that you find around the eyes of a middle-aged man but
(lines dug by monstrous hands)
more a map to places that no person should have to go to and sights that nobody should have to see.
"Explain it to me again," I say. "Are you seriously asking me to believe that a character, once he's called into being, has a genuine existence of his own from that moment on?"
He shifts in his seat, his uniform hanging on his spare frame. It was clearly made for a bigger man – or maybe for him, when he was a bigger man. He drops his eyes for a moment, knowing that everything he’s said is ridiculous, but determined to carry on as if it makes perfect sense.
"Well, yeah. I guess that's about the sum of it, if the author is good enough. Of course, generally characters stay where they're put. If the hack puts them in LA, then they can move around the States like any LA resident, if they're put in a fictional town they'll live out their life in the places their author made for 'em. Hobbits aren't ever going to walk down Broadway, and Mike Hammer isn't going to retrain as a choreographer for the Ballet Rambert – something like that would be outside their raison d'etre. But when a book comes to its end, the characters will live out a life that carries on logically from where the author left it. They’ll never know that they’re characters, they’ll live, die, and eventually the places will dwindle. Usually.”
“But you’re different, right?”
“Yeah, because one time in a million – or a billion, probably – they’re going to find out they didn't get born in the normal way, but just sprung full grown from the brow of Joe Bloggs, writer."
"So, " I'm interested, but still not convinced that this guy isn't just some particularly inventive kind of nutcase, "how did you find out?"
"Pure luck." He shrugs, takes a swallow of coffee, puts down the mug.
"A woman author (never published, no doubt he saw to that) wrote a character into a book called John La Pointe. Well, of course, people share names left right and centre, but that's not such a usual name. Then she wrote the description, and by some weird coincidence the character that came together was pretty much the same man as our John. A little older, but what he was doing was a logical progression, the place was close enough for him to have got there, so rather than a new character being created, the one who already existed found himself living in her story, with a nice smooth transition from ours."
"But if the move seemed natural and logical, how did he come to his revelation, then? How did he notice?"
"Well fictional towns have bookshops and libraries, too, okay? They may have some works by authors that never see the light of day outside those places, like Jo March, or Thaddeus Beaumont, or whoever, but the rest of the shelves are filled up with just regular books like the shelves anywhere else. The only authors missing from those shops are the ones actually writing the story."
I nod. I think I see where it's going, now.
"He picked up a book, by an author he’d never seen at home, surprised, because this guy seemed real prolific, for someone he’d never heard of. John was always something of a reader. He read it from cover to cover,
(he wanted to vomit, seeing it all down there on the page)
recognised the events. At first he thought someone had fictionalised what had happened in town. Then he read more books by him. All fiction, all describing exactly things that had happened with us, our thoughts, our fears, everything. And all in such loving, disgusting detail. John was a cop -- the conclusion was obvious. At the end of this woman’s story, John came home, with the books, and the realisation."
He looks at me again, his haunted, harried eyes daring me to rip my gaze away from them.
"Miz Grey, my town has been through much more than you could ever imagine, (I hope), and I've dealt with terrors and monsters beyond description, but this man is worse than the worst of them. Unless you do something to help us he's going to keep coming back, and coming back, and even if he stops, the horrors will just never finish, because that's the life he's written for us. Whenever anything looks like turning out right, something darker and viler than we’ve seen before will ooze out of the drains, or roll in with a new settler, and destroy everything we've built. And I'll have to keep living, while I watch and fail to save the people I love, time after time after time, because that's the fate he's decided for me."
As I look at this man, this creature, I feel a moment of agonising guilt. If what he says is true, if my characters have volition once I’ve made them, then what have I done? How many have I tortured and twisted with the traumas I have created for them, how many have I murdered, raped, sent insane? Am I any better than...
I don’t want to think about it.
"Why me?" I ask. "I've never even had a novel published, why choose me for this?"
He shrugs. "I'd just read one of your stories when John told me. You seemed as good as anyone."
"But I can't just steal some other author's characters," I shake my head. "It's not, well, ethical. He's done all the creation work. He's built you, your town, backgrounds and neighbourhoods. It'd be plagiarism if I just took them."
"And that's worse than what he does to us?"
I think. I think hard. I nod.
"I'm a writer. It's just the worst thing a writer can do to another. It may seem cruel, Sheriff Pangborn, but he created you, he's got the right to do what he likes with you. Like God, and Job."
He reaches for my hand. Grabs it. Squeezes.
"Please. Please. I can't fucking go through any more, and if you had an ounce of empathy, of common fucking humanity, in you, you'd know that."
"I'm not even American! How the hell do you expect me to write about Maine? I've never been out of LAX!" My protest is weak, I know, but I don’t want anything to do with this.
"Research." He's adamant. If he doesn't stop squeezing my hand, he's going to break the fingers. I try to tug away, but I can't get loose.
"He'd never let me, anyway. He'd sue." I sigh with relief. That one is incontrovertible. He'd sue, and he's got the money to make sure I can never do this. I'm off the hook!
Except I'm not.
"Well of course, first you'll have to kill him."
Of course. Why didn’t I realise that? I try to rise from my seat
, but his hand on mine won’t let me.
“I can’t kill anyone!”
“Of course you can. You do it all the time. You do it with this.”
He releases my hand, walks round behind me and presses the "on" switch on my Acer. He grins a little as he sees the wallpaper -- Spike from Buffy -- and says "Y'know, I'm not sure there's a woman in the world doesn't think that man's hot." Then he clicks on the Word icon.
"There you go," he says, as the blank document fills the screen. "It's all yours. And do me a favour, okay?"
My hands hover over the keys.
"Make it bad.” His voice is filled with venom, with a hatred stronger and deeper than I ever want to explore, “the fucker deserves it."
It'll never work, I think blithely, but if it'll get this man off my back, at least I can make a start. I begin to type.
He ran out of gas at the top of the long slow hill that headed into lights spread out below. Night had already closed in, obscuring the sign that welcomed visitors to Castle Rock, Maine. Inside the air conditioned leather-lined interior of the big Ford, the stereo was pouring out the divine flying sopranos of "The Flower Duet" and even if Stephen King could have heard the hungry chittering noises that the shadows made in the dark, he would have dismissed them as his overactive imagination. He shifted into neutral and let the car roll into town.