If you believe in yourself, you’ll believe in anything. – Nicola Masciandaro
Based – very roughly – on a true story.
[Subsequent content carries a vulgarity and decadence warning, for sensitive readers.]
§00. Friday was fright night at my (virtual) place, and Deadlines was the most reliable source of inspiration. Most of the deracinated Shanghai morbid literature scene cycled through the place, but no one would be turning up for hours. So it was just Cal and me. We both had better things to be doing, which – as usual – we weren’t.
“‘Beginning is the most difficult thing.’”
“That’s it?” I asked, unconvinced.
“Yes, those words, exactly.”
He tilted himself even further backwards into the deep leather chair, so that he was staring straight upwards into the attic rafters. His slow exhalation released a column of cigar smoke on an obscure expedition among the old beams. “Surely, yes … That’s all it takes.” Voice down-paced in dreamlike detachment. “Then it’s happening.”
If Calvin Lambsblood Dodd had written so much as a paragraph of horror fiction himself, it had been done in strict secrecy, without a hint of the fact escaping. Yet the attitude he now slipped into, once again – that of an authority on the topic of anomalous prose construction – had been adopted as if by instinct, and with seamless confidence. He was adept at it, undeniably.
It was hard not to smile, but my irritability was slow to dissipate. “‘Thing’ is wrong.” I closed my laptop, with calm theatricality, and finished my drink. “A beginning isn’t a ‘thing’. I use ‘thing’ too much already.”
Dodd squinted at me, his features micro-adjusted to some space between amusement and annoyance. “So you’re just going to bunker-down in your precious writer’s block?” He shrugged. “That’s OK. Let’s investigate the Thing, while we’re waiting for the others.” Then, indicating my glass with a slight re-angling of his head: “Ready for the next one?”
I glanced at my watch, knowing it would be precisely 3:33pm, and it was. Not that it mattered. “Sure.”
He caught the bartender’s attention with an absurdly feudalistic hand-gesture that concluded silently in two raised fingers.
“Dark Enlightenments again?” The softly-spoken words, ritualistically unnecessary, carried easily across the empty lounge. We both nodded in confirmation.
§01. A Dark Enlightenment – or ‘333’ – is a hell of a drink. Dodd had spent most of a weekend inventing it, immediately after the Include-Me-Out Club had first been convened at Deadlines. The base was some kind of rough ‘whiskey’ he had discovered in southern Yunnan, distilled as moonshine in the mountains. Each bottle served as the pickling jar for a giant venomous centipede, which tainted the liquor distinctively. The complete cocktail recipe, as far as I was able to tell, was:
2 shots ‘pede spirit
1 shot absinthe (for the wormwood)
1 shot black rum (for the extinction of light)
3 drops funestia
1 drop specially-concocted house ‘herbal tincture’
1 speck strychnine
Absolutely no ice.
The psycho-active effects were remarkable. It was almost certainly illegal.
§02. Not that illegality was any problem for Dodd. Even if the Shanghai authorities had given a damn about self-inflicted brain damage in a private club, which they quite evidently didn’t, there was Dodd’s girlfriend, the ‘PP’, to manage things. PP was the ‘Party Princess’ (with ‘party’ referring to the Communist Party of China, rather than to anything more frivolous). People called her that to her face, and she didn’t seem to mind. Her real name was Jiang Yu, her uncle a senior cadre in the local party apparatus. Dodd met with him regularly, and they got along well. Boss Jiang’s security-related administrative position meshed well with Dodd’s specialism in organized decadence and unscrupulous trans-national deal-making. Their Party Nights were notorious.
§03. Cal was strictly a facilitator, and not a practitioner. It was a distinction he invested with peculiar significance.
“I don’t need to write. I don’t want to write. Fuck writing.”
“OK.” I had no idea where he was going. “So what about this?” I gestured vaguely towards the surrounding lounge, abstractly indicating the club. This was ‘the second drink’ exchange. We must have had it hundreds of times before, and each time it got worse.
He squinted at me suspiciously. “Honestly?”
“‘Of course’,” he repeated, the sarcasm wound up to a peculiar, biting extremity. Recognizing that its object was unintelligible, he added, awkwardly: “Which ‘course’ would that be, exactly?”
Not only was the conversation increasingly hard to follow, his mood was deteriorating unpredictably. There seemed no way to extract myself from it. I took momentary refuge in a gulp of 333. “You build a temple to writing, and then tell me you’re not interested?”
“Oh, that …” he feigned nonchalance, took a drink, idly toyed with a cigar, put it down without lighting it. Then, as if restarting randomly: “I never told you about Mary Karno, did I?” It wasn’t a question, and he didn’t bother waiting for a response. Without significant pause he continued: “I never told anybody about her, about her ‘practice’. It’s time I did.”
Up to that point I had read only a couple of Karno stories. It had been enough to get the gist. Her fiction was undeniably intense.
Merely by broaching the topic, Dodd had undergone an extraordinary transformation. His obnoxious, sullen slump of posture and affect switched into ardent engagement. He leant forward, as if about to clamber onto the table, left leg jittering as an emotional dissipator.
“It’s not that I don’t have problems with her stuff,” he declared, adamantly. Tiny drops of sweat beaded his forehead. “I mean … fuuuuuck.” He reclined a little. “Truly. Fuck.”
“Sure. It’s strange stuff.”
“The priest-torturing thing she has going on, it’s unbalanced. You know, really unbalanced.”
“The sex is out there too … out somewhere. Guess there has to be a market for that kind of metaphysically-smashed lesbo-tentacular fucking demon-twisted goneness.”
His voice dropped to something scarcely above a whisper. “Still, she’s serious.” He picked up his cigar, inspected it curiously, and finally ignited it. “Utterly serious.”
It seemed pointless to interrupt.
“She stayed in my place for a while, you know. A small place I own here. Off Fuxing Lu. It was an interim arrangement – lasted maybe three months, a little under. Thing is, the place was set up for …” He trailed off. Clearly, the function of this building was not easily describable.
I had already guessed why. “Boss Jiang?”
Dodd’s expression froze immediately into a mask of fortified suspicion, cross-laced with lethal traps. “What do you know?” he hissed.
“A lot more now,” I responded, with a pathetic laugh.
There was a drawn-out moment of tension. Then he smiled crookedly. “Yes, it was an arrangement we had,” he conceded unnecessarily. “He called it ‘the information room’ – set up guests there, place was rigged with all kinds of crazy snoop-tech shit that he provided.”
“And you put Karno in there?” I asked, in disbelief.
“It was a mistake. She was supposed to get the apartment next door – the unmonitored twin. It was over a week before I learnt what had happened, and by then the situation had become rather … sensitive.”
“Yeah, well, not exactly, as you know, but the point is – I wound up learning a lot.”
“Are you just going to carry on snarking about this? Or are you going to let me tell you the story?”
“No, yes, whatever. I’m interested. Obviously.”
“So you’ll shut the fuck up with the smart-ass remarks?”
After a micro-punishment pause, he continued. “I’m going to cut short the technical details, because you’re being such a jerk about it. Main point is, Boss J. didn’t have any professional interest in Karno, naturally, but she kind of captures attention, if you know what I mean. Extracting all the video wasn’t easy, but in the end it isn’t the sort of material you want to leave lying around for a Party inspection team to stumble upon. After XJ took over, the negotiations became a lot smoother. A couple of bottles of Moutai and he was ready to wash his hands of it. Assured me there weren’t any copies. Who knows? It probably doesn’t even matter. I was going to delete the lot immediately – nearly nine gigabytes …” he scrutinized me for overt indications of skepticism. My poker-face held. “… but then I thought, ‘what has he seen?’ – it seemed important, right? I had to know what I was dealing with. You don’t survive in this business by blinding yourself to potentially vital information. Could have been some Tantric craziness with the Dalai Lama there, for all I knew. Sure, it felt grubby, but my hands were tied.”
‘Grubby’ doesn’t begin to cover it, of course. It was the abomination of desolation. Still, Dodd had his business, and his bar. I had my blog. The story had to come out.
“You’re not going to mention any of this, are you?” he suddenly asked me, anxiously.
“I was thinking of switching a few names about.”
“You ready for another?” changing the subject.
Without replying, or taking his eyes off me, he did the neo-feudal hand signal again.
“It’s fate, right?” I suggested encouragingly. It seemed to work. There was an unknotting of tension.
“You ever see her odd little essay about ‘Ascryptions’?”
I shook my head.
“Never met anyone who gets it. You know, even remotely what it’s about. I certainly never did, before. Subtitled Practices for writing on reality, then wall-to-wall senselessness, even by her standards. Remember Bob Clayton?”
Another head shake. I didn’t want to risk interrupting him.
“Strange guy. Driven. Working on that tale about buried-alive dreams for over a year, without ever managing to finish it. Anyway, he was obsessed with that piece. Constantly trying to talk to me about it. Told me once that it ‘solved everything’. Hung himself from a rafter two weeks later. Not to imply there was any connection. I’ve come across that a lot – not quite so far gone, of course.”
The digressions were straining my patience, but the drinks arrived. I stole one of his cigars, without asking, and flamed it up.
“It’s all in the first two sentences. ‘Writers get stuck when they forget that every story has a demon. To begin, you have to learn its name.’”
“Exactly. And there it was, on the video. I actually watched her start a new story – two actually – open an immaculate notebook, with a giant question mark, jot down a few scrappy thoughts, cross-legged, meditating or some shit, then cross some kind of threshold – you could see it, as if something had cut through her body, switched her – and then she seriously set to work, patiently, full of – what the fuck do you call it? – intention, rolling back the rug, chalking a huge diagram on the floor, all swirls and numbers and ancient evocations, then building what I can only describe as a voodoo shrine, pasted together out of candles, clippings from poetry books, kitchenware, pictures, drug paraphernalia, bits of dead animals, and electronic trash. She’d get up, wander around the number maze in loops, muttering some cryptic stuff, in a whisper – the audio was too crap to pick it up – then back to the shrine, shifting pieces about, nudging it towards convergence. It was mad as fuck, obviously, but the horrible thing was that I began to pick up on the purpose, I could see it coming together, like a wave out of hyper-space, the necessity of it, I just couldn’t stop watching, seeing it arrive. I mean, holy fuck. And then a jolt went through her, harsh and electric. She snapped out, crossed over to her laptop, and typed in the name. Ascryption. That’s how it works.”
We were both silent for a moment.
“She has to come and lead a discussion session at the club,” I said, predictably.
“Invite’s already in the motherfucking mail,” Dodd replied.
[To be continued – with some regularity]