Mr. Kneale

Simon Strantzas is the author of the critically-acclaimed Cold to the Touch (Tartarus Press, 2009), a collection of thirteen tales of the strange and supernatural. His first collection, Beneath the Surface (Humdrumming, 2008), has been called “one of the most important debut short story collections in the genre.” Strantzas’s stories have appeared in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Cemetery Dance, and Postscripts. In 2009, his work was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. His third collection, Nightingale Songs, is now available from Dark Regions Press, as are his other collections. He lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and an unyielding hunger for the flesh of the living. Please visit www.strantzas.com for more information. We’re delighted to reprint the following story, “Mr. Kneale,” featured in Nightingale Songs. – The Editors

Cover Art © Jason Van Hollander

“The writing of Horror is not a game. It’s an art form, a serious art form whose lineage traces back through recorded history, whose antecedents continue to be major components in the world’s literature and philosophies. We owe it to ourselves, as authors, to work tirelessly on our fiction in order that we might illuminate the truth of existence through it. That’s my opinion, at any rate.”

There was a small round of applause when my friend Gahan McKaye finished speaking, and as he raised his pint glass to his wide lips some of his small circle of fellow writers followed suit, as though somehow they could absorb his insights through mimicry. Conventions are awash with repetition, after all. I sat across from him and smiled, and he shot me a sparkling wink that said he knew just where he had them. I laughed, and then stroked my beard when I received angry looks from his ragtag entourage.

The WeirdCon convention was held every year in Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel, a short walk from the lake and from the tall tower that marked the city’s location on the map like a giant needle. It was Gahan’s first time as a Guest of Honor, and he seemed suited to it. He knew as well as I did that the fiction he wrote, with its focus on the themes of family, of existence, of existential angst, had a built-in ceiling with readers, but he was comfortable there, happy to make the small advancements in notoriety that come with both a long history of work and the tenacity to continue when most contemporaries had given up and returned to their day jobs. I suppose I was one of the latter, but I didn’t want to think of it that way.

Not that I had a day job, of course. My grandfather had made his money on the CN Rail, and enough of that money passed down to me that I could afford to devote my time to penning fiction instead of working. I’d written a popular book once called “The Howling Faces” but that was twenty-five years earlier and though it seemed like no time at all to me, in the world of horror fiction, where the median age of convention attendees is thirty, its cache was diminishing exponentially. The WeirdCon organizers remembered the book however, bless them, so every year I was invited to attend, and every year I did so—if only to see my friend, Gahan, whose circle of admirers grew slowly while mine continuously winnowed.

But despite what I’ve said, Gahan was not my only reason for attending the WeirdCon festivities. It was the one time each year I would allow myself to rub elbows with others in my field and pretend I was still a part of something I frankly hadn’t felt part of in some time. I attended the panels and listened to writers, editors and publishers discuss the genre I so loved, and then visited the merchants to see what first editions I might be missing. What I enjoyed most, I think, was sitting in on the readings by upcoming authors. Much of it I admit I had no taste for, but I enjoyed listening nonetheless, and each time I sat down I silently held out the hope that perhaps I would encounter something I’d never heard before. It was the way I had discovered Gahan McKaye and his work, after all, and it led to a friendship I wouldn’t have traded for the all the first editions in the world.

The Guest of Honor panel that kicked off WeirdCon was in the Simcoe room, and I had every intention of getting in there early enough to secure a proper seat up front. Alas, life conspires, and through a series of unfortunate incidents involving my getting lost in a hotel I’d stayed in at least four times previously, and then taking a malfunctioning elevator upwards instead of down, I ended up finding the closest seat available was near the back of the room, amid the younger crowd in their dark clothing and with their talkative demeanor. Had I been younger myself, I might have asked for a bit of quiet, but I was no longer quite that brave. Besides, I assumed that they would quiet themselves naturally once the panel commenced.

Beside me sat a young girl dressed in black whose repeated sidelong stares I did my best to ignore. From my vantage point I could see the long podium at the front quite clearly, as well as those attendees who filled the first row of seats. Most were the wives or companions of the guests, but at the end of the row, apart from the others, sat a small pasty-white bald man. He appeared withdrawn, hunkering inward to avoid even the most accidental contact, and he was sweating a far-from-healthy amount. He shook as though he was barely able to sit up, and periodically he’d rub his face and the back of his neck with his stubby withered hands. It seemed as though he was suffering through some great discomfort, and I wondered why, if he were sick, he simply didn’t leave? Was seeing the Guests of Honor speak really that important to him?

The image inspired a passable idea for a story, and thus I was desperate not to lose it. I checked my pockets for my notepad, my constant companion for years, but before I could retrieve it the young girl next to me finally spoke.

“Excuse me, are you Simon Hearst?”

I turned and looked at the young woman for the first time. Her eyes were large, spaced a bit too far apart and circled with dark makeup. Yet I suppose she was pretty in her way. And young. Very young. And I was old. Too old. “Yes,” I said. “I’m he.”

“You wrote, ‘The Howling Faces’?”

“I did. Many years ago.” I wondered quietly if she’d even been alive while I was in the midst of writing it, hunched over my typewriter during the sweltering summer. “Have you read it?”

Perhaps it was the way I responded, but she looked at me queerly.

“No. But I’ve heard of it.”

“That’s nice,” I smiled politely, the heat of my memory dissipating. I looked down at the notebook I’d pulled from my pocket and realized I didn’t know what I planned to write upon the small blank page. Whatever idea had been inspired was frustratingly lost and there was nothing worth writing in its place. As I’d done countless times before, I put my notebook away unused.

“Do you think it would be okay for a forty-five-year-old woman?” the girl asked. “Mother’s Day is coming up and I’m looking for a gift.”

“What does she read?”

She thought for a moment.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her with a book.”

Inside, I choked. By the time I found my voice luck was with me as the moderator appeared at the front of the room and welcomed everyone to the convention. He then introduced the panel’s participants.

It was a disparate group, and beyond Gahan I recognized only one other writer, Martin Stemmel, who was known better for the large pair of glasses he wore than for the “underground weird” fiction he created. It was mentioned in his introduction that he had done a lot of television work, acting as an unofficial ambassador for the genre, but if that were true I wouldn’t have known; I hadn’t watched television proper since I wrote my last book. Instead, I’d spent the intervening time watching a blank page. The other three panel members were unfamiliar to me, having flown in from Los Angeles and New York. One was a screenwriter, the second a novelist who rejected the “horror label,” and the third an editor who had one client who only wrote “dark fantasies.” Nevertheless, the applause for them was fiercer than for my friend Gahan McKaye. I clapped for him though, and I noticed that some of the older gentlemen in the crowd joined me. The bald fellow in the front row, however, did nothing more than continue to incessantly rub his pale blubbery head.

The panel went as panels often do, with softball questions lobbed at the Guests of Honor to paint them in the best light possible. Mr. Stemmel spoke of his interviews on television, and all he’d done to help promote the cause. Even the cooking shows, he argued straight-faced, were important, showing the world that Horror authors were nothing to fear. I wondered for my own amusement if he wore those same large glasses and had the same drained complexion on the small screen. I imagined the contrast there was worse. The publisher had little to contribute, seemingly discomforted by his surroundings. He did not come right out and say it of course, but his disdain for the genre was evident, especially in the way he felt it was his life’s goal to “elevate it” into “real fiction.” The room seemed to applaud his intentions, though, so what do I know? Only my friend Gahan appeared bothered by the man, rolling his eyes at some of the more ludicrous comments. That’s my boy, I thought, immensely proud each time he contradicted the man.

Gahan’s opinions had not changed from those he shared with me through letters or at our yearly WeirdCon meetings. They were remarkably consistent, but I expected no less from a man whose work was so strong. As he explained it: “I’d like to elevate the genre too, I suppose, but I don’t think the thing is broken, rather its view of itself is. Horror doesn’t need champions, what it needs are writers willing to do the best work they can, just like any other sort of fiction. But Horror …. well, it gets a bad rap. It’s considered juvenile, and even those who work hard at it face an uphill battle. I spent most of last year writing a novel, but you’d never know it because I can’t get it looked at. ‘It has too many problems’ I was told, and it was made clear to me multiple times that too many problems is code for ‘too artsy’ or ‘too ambitious’—I heard all sorts of excuses from the major presses, all telling me the same thing: all those supposed ‘problems’ could be boiled down to the idea that I was trying too hard to do good work. I should relax; stop worrying about what things ‘meant’ and just let the story have ‘fun’. I’m sorry, but I can’t work that way. It would be like dying, I think. Give me the art with a capital ‘A’ any day of the week.”

There were some scoffs from the panel. Not loud—or at least I’m sure they wouldn’t have been had there not been microphones so nearby—but nonetheless McKaye’s words were not as rousing as he’d probably hoped they’d be. He sat back, his wide lips in a nervous smile, waiting for the response he must have known was only a matter of time coming.

“You don’t think,” Martin Stemmel said, as though channeling the other members of the panel, “that what you’ve said is a bit … elitist? Why doesn’t fiction have to mean something? As China Mieville says, why can’t we just read these things and ask, ‘How cool is that’?”

“Because we’re not twelve-year-olds,” Gahan said. “I don’t think I could really engage with Horror if I took it on face value alone—it’s too strange and outrageous. In order to process the effects of, say, Lovecraft’s cosmic monsters or James’s ghosts, you must see them in terms of metaphor. That’s part of the enjoyment of weird fiction, that we must bring our own interpretations to the table in a way that other genres don’t allow—those that aren’t based around the imagery and symbolism of the fantastic. It’s why certain stories speak to us so powerfully, because they are about a specific theme. It’s also, I feel, why weird tales are so vital to us all. Like an escape valve for our fears and anxieties. The author owes it to his audience to explore this.”

“But,” Martin responded, “But what’s wrong with just having some fun?”

The clapping that filled the room drowned any response that Gahan McKaye might have offered. I must say, I was not completely surprised. What did surprise me was what I saw when I inadvertently glanced at the rest of the crowd. The pasty bald man was squirming in his front row seat and nodding vigorously at Gahan’s words. Gahan also seemed to notice the display.

“Fun…?” he stammered, his eyes returning to that man, as though the nodding fellow were impossible to look away from. I wondered absently (as is arguably a writer’s nature) what the man’s face actually looked like. Suddenly I found myself overcome with dread. “I don’t think of writing as being … what I mean is that I try … I’m not really sure …” He continued stumbling, all the while his eyes flitting back to the stranger in the front row with increasing frequency. I looked around, but I seemed to be the one person who noticed this. The rest of the panelists—indeed the entire crowd—continued on as though he wasn’t there at all.

“You aren’t sure? Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Martin Stemmel said, and the room erupted in laughter. It seemed to me an awful thing to say to another writer, very close to an arrow aimed directly into his heel, but Gahan suffered the shot well enough, nodding his head amiably even while staring at the man to his right. When the crowd settled down into some sort of order, the panel continued rather uneventfully—no doubt because its main voice of discord had become too enraptured to pose any further obstacles to the panelists’ shared message.

When the panel was done and the audience was getting up from their seats, Gahan remained behind the podium, apparently dazed. I tried to navigate toward my friend through the throngs of people both leaving the completed panel and entering the room for the next, but before I could reach him my way was barred by an overweight man nearly ten years my senior. His long white hair was thin and brittle, and his pallor greasy. He smelled of old musty books, and when he spoke I was sure his tongue had turned yellow. He offered me a jacketless copy of “The Howling Faces” with cigarette-stained fingers.

“Mr. Hearst, can I get you to sign this?”

“Of course,” I said, reaching into my blazer for my pen, half-distracted by my friend at the front of the room. “I always find books without jackets the most enjoyable to sign. Usually they’re the most loved.”

“I left the jacket at home,” he said plainly. “I didn’t want it to get damaged in my suitcase.”

I nodded politely; it was obvious he’d hopelessly misunderstood me. Instead of correcting him, I opened the book to its title page and poised my pen.

“To whom should I inscribe it?”

“Oh, it’s okay,” he said. “Just your name is fine. Personalized books don’t sell as well.”

I signed it without further word, anxious to be rid of the rank man, but I must admit I signed the book as messily as possible, and did my best to “accidentally” crease its spine. I find it’s the pettiest revenges that satisfy the most. While I watched him walk away, somewhat shell-shocked over what I’d done to his book, I smiled, but that smile disappeared when I finally looked again to the front of the room and saw that my friend Gahan had gone.

I kept an eye open for him as WeirdCon continued, but he was nowhere to be seen in the dealer rooms or the bars. I met many other old friends of course, those journeymen writers that appeared at these events as often as I, but usually as far more of an attraction. The thing about conventions is how quickly time passes inside those hotel walls where one can’t properly gauge the day without sight of the sun, so before I knew it evening had already arrived and the next panel on which Gahan was scheduled to appear, “The Art of Horror,” was about to commence. I swallowed the last of my drink and said good-bye to my old friends and returned to the Simcoe room to watch the event.

But when I arrived I discovered Gahan was not there and the moderator, Bill Munny, at that time the editor of “Sci/Fant Monthly,” was looking nervous. When he saw me walk in the door he jumped to his feet and rushed to greet me.

“Do you know where McKaye is?”

“I haven’t seen him since the Guest of Honor panel this morning.”

“No one else has either. Do you think you could substitute for him?”

“Substitute…?” I stalled, not knowing what to do. I’d never been much of a public speaker. I cast a glance out across the sea of faces. Almost instantly I saw in the crowd the young girl whom I’d been sitting beside earlier. I think she was scowling at me. “I doubt many people know who I am anymore. I’m hardly an adequate replacement.”

“You’ll be okay, Simon. You don’t even need to speak. Just sit there.”

And that was the way I found myself at the front of the room behind a microphone, wondering when the air had suddenly become so very warm.

The Art of Horror. You would think, wouldn’t you, that it was to be a panel about those who do the artwork that grace so many books? Perhaps a discussion of Harry O. Morris, or J. K. Potter? Maybe going so far as Hieronymus Bosch or Joel-Peter Witkin? And, for a few minutes at least, I believed that was the direction in which we were going. While Munny spoke, I started working on something about Blake’s Red Dragon paintings and their influence, but all I could think about under those many stares were muddy and disfigured faces. By the time I stopped panicking and started listening, I realized the conversation had taken a turn I hadn’t expected, but was not at all surprised by.

“Writing good Horror is like art,” Munny said. “The way we put words into order to induce our own fears in others. Alfred Hitchcock said it was all about tension. Everybody knows the story about the bomb under the bench, right? I think if Hitchcock were alive today, he would love what computers could do to help that bomb explosion look real, and look really frightening.”

The room clapped, so I joined in out of courtesy. True to Munny’s word, I was left out of the conversation between the panelists, which suited me. Just as the topic quickly shifted from illustrators and painters to writers, it quickly shifted again to filmmakers, and I was at a loss as to what to say. When eventually I was pressed to speak, I recall hearing only crickets on the mention of the films of Tourneur or of Wise’s The Haunting. Still, I like to think someone in the crowd took a note. Someone somewhere must have. Mustn’t they?

The last fifteen minutes were a bit more animated. Munny had run out of steam, I think, so he opened up the panel for audience questions. I squirmed in my seat. My beard began to itch tremendously, a sure sign I was out of my depth. Perhaps Munny sensed it subconsciously and decided to punish me for it. Why else did he pick that familiar young girl to ask the first question?

“Mr. Hearst, when you talked about those films, you said that what made them good was the underlying themes. Gahan McKaye said something the same today. Why do you think Horror can’t just be fun?”

Sweat crept down my neck. I looked down at the table, incapable of speaking to the crowd while watching them. Secretly, I cursed McKaye for disappearing.

“I think you misunderstand me. I’ve never suggested good work cannot be ‘fun’. In fact, I think it’s necessary. But I really think good films—and good books and probably good paintings—need to have a proper balance of entertainment to art. In the past, when I wrote, I did my best to keep the stories exciting and adventurous, but also endowed them with a bit more thematic ‘meat’ than many of my peers were doing. I’ve read books that are only plot and excitement, but I’ve never found them anything but boring and trite. But, by that same token, I’ve read fiction by writers who wanted to write the ‘next great Horror novel’, filled with symbols and themes, and I found that work boring as well. Extremes are always like that; they are always boring. Balance is the key.”

I looked up at the crowd, hoping I’d won them over, but instead their faces told me that all I’d managed to do was turn them against me. The young questioner looked absolutely disgusted with me. I supposed she wouldn’t want any gift I might recommend to her any longer. Munny smiled at me charitably, and asked for another question.

As soon as I could I stepped away from the discussions and the drinking that normally marks the evening hours of a convention and made my plans for escape. The day had taken its toll on me, and I wanted little more than to go out to some nice quiet restaurant and indulge in something to eat. At that point, L’Hotel du Marcel was still in business, just along Front Street, and the chef there made a Roulade de volaille with Emmenthal and prosciutto that one could really sink one’s teeth into. The place is gone now, alas, taken by the changing economy, but to this day I don’t think I’ve ever found its equal.

But as I said it was no doubt still there then, yet I disliked the idea of visiting it alone after my failed panel. I hoped Gahan had returned to his room so I might commiserate with him about the three-ring circus atmosphere of WeirdCon, and the two of us could pretend that the current year wasn’t the exact same as all the years that had preceded it. When I knocked on Gahan’s door, however, there was no response. I thought perhaps I heard a strange gurgle, but it did not last very long and no other sound followed. I shrugged my shoulders and took the elevator back down and walked the two blocks to L’Hotel du Marcel without incident. Contrary to my fears, I had an absolutely pleasant time alone, and by the time I returned to the hotel I was in no condition to do anything more than stumble into bed in a wine-induced stupor.

I woke early the next morning from an uneasy sleep no doubt caused by the ache of a vice tightened around my head. After I’d showered and dressed, I felt marginally better, so I descended to Azure, the Intercontinental’s restaurant, to order some coffee. There were no other guests there save for an elderly couple whom I took to be tourists passing through the city. I didn’t know where they came from, but their accents were European, no doubt from one of the old-world Slavic countries. They looked over at me occasionally while I drank my black coffee, the gentleman’s eyes narrow and his whispering harsh. I paid them no mind. The world has all sorts of strange customs and rituals, and it wouldn’t be the first time they rubbed together the wrong way. I’d learned long ago that what I took as an offence was rarely anything more than a misunderstanding. Thus, I endeavored to give the couple the benefit of the doubt, even when, on passing me on their way out, the old man hissed.

But that wasn’t the strangest thing that happened to me over breakfast. Indeed, that occurred not a few minutes later, when through the restaurant doors I noticed in the lobby the small pale man from the previous day’s panel. I still could not see his face clearly—my vantage point would not allow it—but he seemed different. Invigorated, no doubt from a good night’s sleep. I could tell he was smiling even from that distance—his teeth positively gleamed—and he did not carry himself in the same sickly manner I’d noticed the day before. Even his limp had lessened, and I wondered if perhaps he was not quite as ill in the mornings. I still found his movements slightly odd, and the soft shape of his hairless skull more than a bit disconcerting, but as long as he stayed in the foyer of the hotel and out of my way I was happy to repay him the same courtesy.

“Do you mind if I sit down?”

I turned to see my friend, Gahan McKaye, standing beside me. He looked as though he were on his last legs.

“Of course, of course! Have some breakfast?” He shook his head vigorously at the idea. “So,” I continued. “What happened to you? You look terrible. Worse than I feel, if that’s possible.”

But it was. The dark bags under his eyes had not been there the day before—I was sure of it—yet there they were as though he’d been born with them. He was wan, bleary-eyed, and sweating profusely while shivering. Around his neck he wore a scarf to keep himself warm, but it was tied so tightly the skin above it had turned pale white, and the web of veins in his neck stood out darkly from beneath the material. He asked me in a hoarse whisper to put my hand on his forehead to feel for fever. I obliged, and afterward surreptitiously wiped my fingers when his attention was diverted.

“You seem cool to me,” I said.

“I feel awful. I woke up with this sore throat and I’m still not one-hundred-percent on my feet. I must be coming down with a virus. My whole body aches; and my hands—” he held them out and carefully flexed them, turning them over as he did so to reveal pruned fingertips. “I really should be in bed, but I’m scheduled for some panels today.”

“You are? I didn’t see any on the schedule. I thought you only had duties yesterday.”

Yesterday? How could I have been on panels before the convention even started?”

I was nearly dumbstruck.

“But, you do know it’s Saturday today, don’t you?”

It was then his turn to be dumbstruck. He opened his mouth but there were no words, just the veins throbbing above his scarf. I waited for his illness-dulled mind to catch up.

“Maybe I ought to leave early. Go see a doctor.”

“I think that might be wisest. Will you let me know what they say?”

“Of course I will. I’ll give you a call when I get back.”

But he did neither. Gahan was nowhere to be found for the rest of the convention, and despite the numerous messages I sent to his room, when Sunday afternoon arrived and the closing ceremonies were complete, I still had no idea where he was. I left the convention shortly thereafter, my trip home both long ago and non-refundably booked.

As I said earlier, I had little contact with the genre world—or my friends within it—away from the convention. There were other things to occupy my time, other travels to take and volumes to read. All of it of course to grease the gears of my creative engine, my muse, whose noise was so loud it drowned out all other distractions. I spent a month in Italy, in a small village just outside Napoli where I was waited on by a lovely old nonna who spoke no English and her young bambini who desperately wanted to. I toured the hidden parts of Warsaw and met a pale youth on the street whom I thought for a while had recognized me from the back cover of “The Howling Faces” but instead turned out to have confused me with another tall gangly fellow. I ate and laughed and scrutinized the landscapes and local histories, all in an attempt to feed my “muse engine.” So far away from the insular world of the genre I was happy to leave behind, I hoped somehow my solitude would translate into inspiration, and when I finally placed my pen upon the page words would flow freely from it. Instead, all that flowed were the ideas from my mind, and I ended up with far more discarded drafts than I did words devoted to any of them.

Perhaps, had I stayed home, I would have inevitably heard talk about Gahan McKaye. After all, I can’t imagine it was considered anything but news. As it was, I missed the drama over the intervening year, and when things took their turn there was no way for me to know it and no one who spoke English enough to tell me. Or, if they had, I’d been too preoccupied by my own thoughts to listen.

I didn’t find out anything until I returned to WeirdCon the following year, and when I arrived I could feel something in the air … though for the life of me I didn’t know what. Everyone seemed quieter, talking amongst themselves in hushed tones, and had I been a less secure man I would have seriously questioned why the rooms quieted the closer I came to them. I saw McKaye’s small circle of cohorts in the crowd at one point and as I approached them they looked as though they would have run had they not been cornered. I asked whether McKaye had arrived yet, and the look they passed to each other, then to me, was dire to say the least.

“Did he—?” I didn’t want to speak the words, afraid of the answer. “Is he … dead?” Instantly, I wondered why that had been my first guess. His group of friends didn’t seem as surprised.

“It’s a lot worse than that,” I was told after some thought. I asked what that meant and received shaking heads in response. “You’re going to have to see for yourself.”

I don’t recall what I expected then, but I remember a keen sense of unease trailing me through the small crowds as I investigated that year’s convention, waiting with nervous energy for the late morning “What is Horror?” panel at which Gahan McKaye was scheduled to appear. Walking the rooms I recognized many of the same faces in the crowd that I’d seen in the past, and I found it pleasing that not all of them were of the same age as I. The field needed to attract more young blood, I felt, if it was ever going to retain its hold on the dwindling marketplace of readers. There was a time when WeirdCon would have required a hotel twice the size of the Intercontinental to hold all its visitors, but those days ran out many years ago, and even now we’re working hard to woo those readers back.

I found the familiar Simcoe room in time to get a good seat at the front, yet there was still a panelist missing, and as the minutes dwindled I spent an increasing amount of time checking the clock, then the door, for Gahan’s arrival. I could feel the audience behind me doing the same—the longer the chair on the panel was unoccupied, the quieter the crowd became, until the moderator, Dr. Simmer (the self-described “Professor of the Macabre”) stood amid the barest whispers. I couldn’t even hear the room’s air conditioners running, but I knew they were considering how cold the place had become.

“Welcome to—” was all the good doctor spoke before the doors flew open and Gahan McKaye appeared. Not that I recognized him at first. He wore large sunglasses, his cropped hair tousled as though he’d just come from bed, and around his unshaven throat was a tightly tied cravat, the ends tucked into a faded amber shirt. Were he tanned, I would have thought him fresh off a boat from the Mediterranean; all he needed was a mouth full of olives and a hand-rolled cigarette. A few steps behind him trailed an overweight and pasty old man I mistook for a misshapen child. He walked with a pronounced limp, his face hung so low he might have been staring at his feet, perhaps so he might concentrate on not falling. The sight revolted me, though intellectually I could see no reason for it—certainly it wasn’t based on any bigotry on my part. I’d known all sorts of odd shapes in my day, but nothing as psychologically off-putting. There was a foul aura around him—I can think of no other word for it—and I didn’t know how Gahan could stand to be near him, let alone able to stoop down and whisper into that oddly-pointed ear. The man turned his head to respond and Gahan slowly nodded, and then went to his seat behind the podium. The small man then turned his face to the crowd and for the first time I got a look at his pale stretched features and his overlarge bottom lip, cleft in the middle as though formed from two pieces of flesh fused inexpertly together. His eyes were tiny dots, wide apart, and when I realized he saw me from the front of the room those black orbs fixed on my own and I saw nothing behind them. The shiver that ran down my spine reminded me where I’d seen the little man before. He jittered, and then seemed to regain control and limped to an empty chair in the front row. Like me, the rest of the audience and panel were spellbound by the entrance, and it wasn’t until the odd man took his seat that Dr. Simmer found his voice again.

“Er— as I was saying: Welcome to ‘What is Horror?’“

As he continued, I saw Gahan lean back. Beside him once again sat television “star” Martin Stemmel, but sharing the panel with them was a young man I’d never met before but who had started his own line of books earlier in the year. He was very polite, and I really ought to remember his name, but it’s been some time and, frankly, I never saw him again. I think I heard he lost a lot of money trying to make a go of things and it ruined him, but frankly I’ve heard that same story so many times over the years I may be misattributing it. Regardless, he was quiet and timid and little more than prey for the rest of the panel. One almost felt sorry for the foal. Also at the table was the critic Atticus Bloom, a man so pompous I doubted his name was real. (I always suspected he was hiding from creditors.) He looked to me more like a bloated “Ralph” than an “Atticus,” and the way Gahan smirked at him I suspected I’d see some fireworks. And I did, though not the kind I was expecting.

“What does the term ‘Horror’ mean to you?” Simmer asked each panelist, and as he went down the row those of us in attendance heard the same definitions we’d heard before. As I’ve said: conventions are awash with repetition. There are so few new things to discuss that the same facts are simply repeated ad nauseam. But when Simmer reached McKaye, I don’t think anybody expected to hear, “Frankly, it means very little to me. I don’t much care for Horror to be honest.” I heard the room gasp, though it was possible it was I alone who did so. “Most of it’s a jerk-fest. I stopped reading it a while ago. What’s the point?” Even Simmer seemed knocked off-kilter by McKaye’s comments. My scruffy friend did little to help him back onto his figurative feet.

“That’s surprising to hear. Didn’t you write a series of articles about the genre and its importance?”

He coughed and laughed. Or vice versa.

“The ‘genre’? The genre is comprised of a bunch of adolescent posturing and faux angst. Look at them,” he said, pointing to the sea of darkly clothed youths in the audience. “They aren’t readers, they’re consumers, and it doesn’t matter what I say because the bulk of them won’t understand or care, and you know what? That’s fine. They don’t read Horror for anything other than escape, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

“And you’re fine with that? Escapist fiction?” Martin Stemmel looked surprised, though it could have been his enormous glasses that lent him that bug-eyed appearance. McKaye smiled, and I saw him casually look at the bald little man in the front row. Some inscrutable look passed between them.

“Why not? Listen, I wasted years trying to write ‘Art’ when nobody really cared for it. I’d get critics like Bloom here talking about the use of metaphor and allegories, but more often than not those reviews translated into lost sales. No one ever became famous writing well; they became famous for writing what the airport market loves. That’s where most books are bought nowadays. It’s much smarter—and lucrative—to concentrate on writing something fun rather than challenging. That’s what most readers want, right?”

He paused and looked out at the crowd, as though daring them to stand and cheer. At first, nothing happened, but after a few moments someone in a far corner began to applaud. Then others followed, until the ballroom was full of uproarious clapping. I looked around and saw only a few of my older peers shaking their heads, relaying part of my own feelings on the subject. I didn’t know what had changed in my friend Gahan, but as he lapped up the adulations of the crowd I made plans to find out what had happened to him during his absence.

I found Gahan outside the Simcoe room afterward, surrounded by a throng of young girls with piercings and boys with tattoos. It amazed me that they stood in awe of a man who had launched a derisive attack on them not less than thirty minutes earlier. I was a towering presence, of course, but I was quiet, and I waited patiently until they’d had their time with him. I spotted a familiar face among the crowd—the young woman I’d sat beside the previous year—and I suspect she recognized me as well … at least, judging by the contemptuous glance she gave me as I stood  there. Among the crowd stood the small bald man, his flat-face and glazed round eyes lending him the ghoulish illusion that he could not stop smiling. His pudgy fingers were interwoven but he could not hide their clawishness, nor could he hide the oily sheen of his skin. I shivered discreetly. Gahan eventually saw me there; first glancing, and then looking for longer periods as though my face were coming slowly toward him from a great distance. Perhaps it was my beard and hair—they had turned slightly greyer in the intervening year, and no doubt my features were travelling southward. Nevertheless, I soon saw the old spark of recognition in his eyes from within the crowd—though I think I saw something else in those eyes of his misshapen companion.

“Simon! How are you doing, old man? I haven’t seen you in … well, I don’t know how long it’s been.”

“Since you went to the doctor after last year’s convention, I’d think.”

“The doctor? I don’t recall that.” He looked to the pale old man whose glazed expression had not altered. Still, those staring eyes continued to unnerve me. Gahan shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I’m glad you’re here now, and just in time to help me celebrate.”

“Celebrate?”

“Haven’t you heard? I just made the New York Times best-seller list! After WeirdCon last year I rewrote my novel; it started a bidding war, if you can believe it. HarperCollins picked it up and sent an advance with so many zeroes I almost fainted. The thing came out earlier this month to stellar reviews both here and overseas. I’m amazed you didn’t know about it.”

“I’m horribly ill-informed when it comes to that sort of thing. Still, you must be proud,” I said. “How did you manage to solve the issues you were having? I recall last year you were ready to destroy it.”

“Like I said in the panel: it was easier than I expected. I just dumped the ‘arty’ stuff—it got in the way of the storytelling—and I also realized it wasn’t scary enough.”

“Really?” It was all I could think to say.

We stood there staring at each other, the convention moving around us as though we were trapped in amber. Neither of us spoke, not until the silence was broken by the wet gurgle of the little fat man sniffling. I glanced at him but not for long; from his upturned nose a line of mucus was crawling down his placid face. It was clear Gahan hadn’t noticed.

“You know my friend, don’t you?”

“I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure.” I slightly bowed out of sheer formality and extended my hand. He didn’t look at it but rather continued to stare ahead, his large wet nostrils flared. Then just as I was about to retract my hand he reached out quickly with his own small claw and took it. I wished dearly at that moment he had not. His grip was clammy, cold, and those tiny fingers lay limply among my own.

“His name is Mr. Kneale,” Gahan said. “He’s been a big boon to me, helping me fix the mistakes in the book and get it in publishable condition. He really knows the field and how it works. I owe all my recent success to him—he’s really helped push my career forward.”

“Maybe he could help with mine,” I offered—without a hint of mockery, I assure you—and Gahan smiled wide enough that I couldn’t help but notice his yellowing teeth and the grey color of the gums around them. He did not look healthful, regardless of how energetic he’d appeared during the panel. He took off his glasses and wiped them on the front of his shirt, and the sight of his small bloodshot eyes was enough to startle me. I grew increasingly concerned, and looked toward his small friend who had not stopped staring straight ahead.

“Anyway, Mr. Kneale and I ought to get going; we’re running late for a lunch meeting with my agent. Apparently, there’s been interest in optioning the entire series of books. I didn’t even know it was going to be a series,” he laughed, and fussed with the tightly tied cravat, pulling at it only enough to flash a glimpse of something beneath, something wet. “It really should be quite fun. I’ll catch up with you some other time. I promise.”

He took Mr. Kneale by his tiny hand and led him out as though he were a small child. Too dumbstruck to do anything but watch, I did not move until Gahan called back to the crowd around me, “Enjoy the rest of the convention, everyone!” before the two, like father and child, disappeared from WeirdCon. His circle of young fans appeared unfocused and confused, devoid of their star they stared at each other and then at me. I smiled nervously. They scowled, then one at a time dispersed, leaving me to wonder just what I had witnessed. Whatever it was, it was strange, and it gave me something I hadn’t had in some time. It gave me a good idea.

Ideas are mercurial. Sometimes they are at the center of a maze, and you must navigate twists and turns and dead ends until you find the right way to them. Sometimes, they appear like magic fruit on a tree, but when you pluck them you find they do not taste as sweet as you thought. The worst kind of idea is the one that appears from out of nowhere and promises to be grand, but no matter how many times you try to make something of it the thing never gels. By contrast, the best ideas are those you aren’t even aware you’ve had. You just sit down and write a sentence, which begets another, and then another, until you have written pages upon pages and you’re signing your name to a cover letter and mailing it off to some major publication. When you’ve followed through with an idea like that, you feel the need to celebrate, and me? I uncorked a bottle of wine when I was done and enjoyed a relaxing evening at the back of the house where the garden grew tall and I could hear the insects buzzing.

The novella, “Velvet Death,” was the first piece of work I’d been able to finish since “The Howling Faces” all those years ago, and though it did not compare in length I think I may have experienced a sense of joie de vivre that I hadn’t when the novel was done, when there was still an uncertain future before me. Older, wiser, with a beard to stroke, I was better able to appreciate the act of creation, and better still I discovered the delirious high had not diminished. “Velvet Death” sold to a British anthology and then went on to win the World Fantasy Award the next year, but even before that honor the thrill of the work inspired me to keep going, and over the next few months I did not leave my house, I did not travel—I did little beyond write when I was waking and read while on my way to sleep. It was the most prolific period of my life, that year, and in many ways I think all that has happened since has its roots in that span of time. It touches everything I do.

At the time of the next WeirdCon, I had only just received my award nomination, but nevertheless I was amazed to find the book in which my story had appeared had been read and my contribution in particular had drawn commentary. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was mobbed on arrival—compared to the treatment I had seen Gahan McKaye receive the year before I was virtually ignored—but it was probably first time since the publication of “The Howling Faces” that the number of people who were interested in talking to me was on the increase. During one panel I was referred to as “the ultimate author’s author”—which I assume was meant as a compliment. (I took it as such, at any rate.) I have to admit, the moment I enjoyed most was being approached by the young and by-then-familiar dark-haired woman, no longer much of a girl, and congratulated on my nomination.

“That’s very kind of you,” I said.

“It was touching to see you’d dedicated the story to Gahan McKaye.”

I suppose I ought to explain what happened to Gahan McKaye after he left me at WeirdCon. I’ve been trying to avoid it because—well, because I don’t fully understand it. But the story needs to be told and since I’ve finished my latest novel earlier than I expected, and since I have this Spanish villa rented for at least another week, I suspect now is the time to do it before age or infirmity preclude me from doing so. And the way things are headed, I fear both will arrive rather earlier than I’d like.

After Gahan left WeirdCon things turned sour for him. At this point I was deep in my own writing, and experiencing a sensation unlike any I’d had before. It was as though all fiction was drawn from some glorious central source, some well of creativity, and through my writing I had managed to tap a vein. Through this connection, I could (for moments) see that each aspect of writing—the words on the page, their publication, their being read—was a facet of the whole, and that sight allowed me to draw even further power from it. Without knowing how, I knew not only that Gahan’s second novel had been released, but also how it was received.

The reviews were terrible. Those critics that called it “trash” were perhaps the kindest. I suspect any book called “Killer Bones” must fight an uphill battle, but when the plot of said book revolves around giant mutant animals that read, intentionally or not, as sexual metaphors… well, that sort of book has a target on it from the beginning. Good writing can often save such a project—or if not save it then at least mitigate the damage—but “Killer Bones” was not so graced. I eventually bought the book out of a sense of nostalgic obligation and made a valiant effort to read it, but the sheer terribleness of the prose made it impossible to continue. Even the plot, what there was of one, was hackneyed and weak. Where, I wondered, had the Gahan I’d known gone? The Gahan who had once written with such heart-breaking eloquence that I was sure his work would outlast us all? In his place was an author incapable of penning anything redeeming. The prose lay dead on the page, drained of any life. Where the old Gahan McKaye would have written with a flourish, with a style that begged for attention, what replaced him was simply a shell. Needless to say, I was disappointed, and I think his fans felt the same way. At least, a good number of them came to tell me so in person later, conspiratorially, after what had happened to him, as though I wasn’t already aware of the book’s failings. The full story of his death remains unclear, but the police surmised at the time that Gahan, despondent over the book’s reception, and most likely in a state of confusion exacerbated by an ongoing and undiagnosed illness, had decided to slit his own throat. He was found dead in his home long after he’d bled out.

Needless to say, I was shocked when I heard. No one seemed to know for certain what was truth and what was simply the conjecture of writers devoted to sublimating their fears in impossible fiction. The death hadn’t been widely reported in the papers, which I’ve always thought was a fair indicator that there was nothing scandalous about it, though there are some who argue quite the opposite. I heard from those few mutual friends that still had some sort of contact with him near the end that the police reports described a great number of lacerations all over his body, the oldest and greatest number being concentrated beneath his cravat. If it were true, the question was what had caused them. For a while the thought was he’d died in flagrante delicto and his family had used the last of his money to cover it up. But if you were to believe that, wouldn’t you also have to believe the rest of the story? That the wounds, upon inspection, were tears rather than cuts? There was a lot of information floating around and no one who could speak with any authority on the subject. Even the specter of AIDS was unearthed—it always is when an artist dies in such poor physical condition—but most I knew shrugged it off without merit. “McKaye wasn’t the kind to hide that sort of thing,” they said.

Well, I think it was obvious he was hiding something.

The WeirdCon conference committee each year organized a large “signing session” on the third day for all the panelists in the Simcoe room. Usually, the biggest-name authors and those young ones with “buzz” about them were asked to attend. The rest of us loitered in the bar or restaurant, passing time until the evening programming commenced. I’d done a few signings in my day, but I did not start visiting WeirdCon until long after those days were behind me. Thus, you can imagine my surprise to be invited to take a seat that year behind the table. I happily accepted as somehow the intervening years had convinced me that perhaps I would enjoy it more than I had remembered. Alas, as with all things in life, that was not the case, and after an hour of signing the occasional copy from my meager stack of books and making even-less-occasional small talk, I found myself instead studying the faces of the crowd, marveling at the mix. There were all types at an ostensibly “Horror” convention, from professors to laymen, from those who loved the literature of the nineteenth century to those who loved the rumble tumble of modern films, and if there was one thing they all had in common—and shared with the likes of us behind the tables—it was that they all loved the genre of Horror and its inherent potential. That pleased me to no end to see, and I realized that though I hadn’t always seen the value in each piece of Horror fiction I’d read, when there was passion there I never came away feeling cheated.

While I pondered those things my eyes causally drifted to the table across from me, about ten feet away, that had been swamped with so many bodies I could not see who sat behind it. It was only by chance that I looked over at the right moment, and saw through a fleeting gap a sight that chilled my bones. It was him. He was small and misshapen, his hair gone and flesh turned a pasty white, but he sat there signing books with his pudgy left hand—a hand shaped like a claw—and handing them back wordlessly to the young people around him. From the crowd emerged the dark-haired girl and when my waving caught her eye I beckoned her over.

“Did you just buy a book from Mr. Kneale?”

She glanced back.

“Of course.”

“Do you mind?” I asked, pointing at the volume in her hand. “I’d just like to see what all the fuss is about.”

She seemed hesitant, but eventually handed it over. I read portions of the first page, and then flipped to a few random paragraphs throughout. The prose read familiar, and it took me a moment to understand why. It read much like Gahan McKaye’s work once had, a number of years before, back in his “arty” phase (as he might have called it). It wasn’t the same, of course, but similar enough to McKaye’s work that what I saw bore more than a strong influence. I stood up, the book still in my hand, and looked across the distance at the little man behind the opposite table. His misshapen head did not move, but his little hands did with a flourish I shall never forget, even when all other memories have left me. So intently was I staring that I don’t recall the young woman pulling her book from my no-doubt clenched fingers and leaving. I was mesmerized by the strange contours of Mr. Kneale’s head and the flat, doe-like look on his face. Or perhaps it was by those dull black eyes that had turned toward Martin Stemmel in the chair beside him. I saw Mr. Kneale look him up and down, then a tiny grey tongue poked out and rested in the cleft of his bifurcated lip.

In hindsight, perhaps it’s that image that will never leave me. God, how I desperately wish that it would.