A Room in Dodge City Vol. 2 Excerpt: The Harmless Slaughterer

Today we are featuring the first of two excerpts from David Leo Rice’s A Room in Dodge City Volume 2. Weird Fiction Review recently interviewed Rice, a Brooklyn-based Weird author whose work has been published in The Collagist, Black Clock, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. As well as writing, Rice also creates surreal animations and is working on a feature film with Simon Pummell; more info can be found at his website http://www.raviddice.com/. In our interview, Rice touched on splitting realities, the loss of free will, and the difference between sleaziness and seediness: all notable elements of Rice’s A Room in Dodge City series. Much like a television show, Dodge City was published online in linked vignettes and later bundled together into a “first season” which can be purchased as a book from Alternating Current Press. In the first season, a narrator known as the Drifter arrives at Dodge City, a terrifying community of zealots, killers, and historical figures like German Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn, all of whom follow the dream logic of the murky American ruin. Brian Evenson describes A Room in Dodge City as “What might happen if Edvard Munch decided to paint directly on the inside of his own skull rather than a canvas.” The Drifter is pulled into this world and its cast of characters until the season/novel culminates in his decision to remain in this absurdist world.

Volume 2 focuses on the Drifter’s subsequent exploits, namely his attempt to find a foothold in the highly secretive and clannish Dodge City Film Industry, ruled over by the enigmatic and possibly immortal filmmaker Blut Branson. In this excerpt, the Drifter watches one of Blut Branson’s films from within the Temple, a theater created specifically to show Branson’s works, in the style of Bayreuth for Wagner’s operas.

By this point in the Retrospective, which has a strict no reentry policy, meaning that all films must be watched in the gathering daze of those shown before, I’m losing track of the beginnings and endings, and my critical faculties are fading. It’s starting to feel like one ultra-long film, which I suspect is the Programmer’s intention.

Now I’m watching a pastoral, old-timey version of Dodge City, a little Shtetl-like, as Dodge City’s past can sometimes seem – as if the Old Country were located not overseas but deep in the Heart of America – when a Wanderer appears in Town, stealing in under milky cloud cover just before dawn, skulking among the pastures like a warlock in a Hungarian folktale: gaunt and black-cloaked, face obscured under a wide-brimmed felt hat. The camera hangs back as he takes a few preliminary turns around the pens that hold The Dodge City Farm Animals – pigs, sheep, cows, and goats by the looks of it, though I have the impression that some animals are playing others, as is often the case in Branson films, “casting is 99% of Directing” being one of Branson’s favorite phrases, if Branson on Branson is to be believed.

After pausing in what looks like contemplation for a moment, the Wanderer leans in to whisper something in one of the animals’ ears. As soon as he’s finished, the animal – a goat, by the looks of it – yawns exaggeratedly and falls over. At this point, I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be dead or sleeping.

***

Dead, as it turns out.

Over the next few days, the film reveals the method that the Slaughterer (now that we know what he is) uses: he simply strides up to one of the farm animals on those long legs of his, whispers in its ear, and stands back to watch it gently, even peacefully, keel over dead.

What’s he whispering?” is, of course, the none-too-subtle subtext of the film at this point – the phrase itself is whispered among the townspeople, who always populate the backgrounds of Branson’s films, played by actual Dodge City citizens, naturally, though of course they appear more squalid and haunted-eyed than most actual people around here, even those culled from the Annex.

What’s he whispering?” Indeed. I whisper the phrase in my seat during a montage in which ten or twelve animals are killed in quick succession, though, this being a Branson film, I know better than to expect a concrete answer by film’s end, which, since the films are all shown back-to-back, isn’t a moment I have especially high hopes of even being able to identify as such.

In fast montage, the slaughterer – known now as “the Harmless Slaughterer,” a phrase whose ambiguity doesn’t quite dawn on me until I reflect on it later, once the trance of the film has at long last been broken – whispers in the ears of all the farm animals of Dodge City, causing them to keel over one by one, until the entire stock of the Town has been reduced to meat, which, according to five or six interview testimonials included in this section of the film, is the sweetest, butteriest, and most delicious meat ever tasted in these parts.

Like goat-lobster,” says an old man in overalls with an eye-patch. “Not that I’ve tried the real thing.”

***

The only problem, of course, is that once all the animals are dead, none are left to kill. At this point, to no one’s surprise but to everyone’s disappointment, the Harmless Slaughterer departs, into the same grey cloudiness he emerged from, seemingly never to return. It reminds me of those old-fashioned stories in which a false prophet emerges from the wilderness to tell a Town the End is nigh, and thus that they should go ahead and kill all their livestock and spend all their money and commit whatever Incest they’d been holding themselves back from, and then furtively departs when it turns out the End is a bit further off than initially projected.

Dodge City reverts, out of necessity, to a vegetarian diet, at least until new breeding calves and sheep can somehow be obtained. The memory of the meat produced by the Harmless Slaughterer grows in the minds of the populace, passed down through the generations in another fast montage, “to the point where” (according to the film’s narrator) “it could only be described as Manna from Heaven, so sweet and succulent that no latter-day meat could ever do it justice.”

***

Indeed, this latter-day meat – once a few scraggly specimens are culled from the nearby woods and hastily domesticated by a cabal of desperate farmers – is stringy, tough, and grey. Worst of all, the blood and fear of its death throes – carried out in a cloud of meth by frantic slaughterers in the old slaughterhouse – is so apparent in every bite that few Dodge City citizens can stomach it, ravenous though they surely are.

The people get to wishing the Harmless Slaughterer would return, which, in due time (this being a film, and thus in large part a wish fulfillment machine) he does. He strides back into Town, visibly aged though clad in the same black cloak and felt hat as before, totally impervious to the wreckage left in his wake, and gets back to work.

Or he would have, if he’d deemed any of the animals worth slaughtering. But clearly he doesn’t. “Not a single viable specimen in the lot,” he says to the camera, speaking in what, if I’m not mistaken, is Branson’s voice. “Vicious, dumb, half-feral,” he says, more to himself than to the camera now, staring at the muddy ground he’s standing on.

Thus it comes to be that he spends his days lounging by the fountain in Sacrifice Square, whittling a stick, speaking to no one. Summoned but unable to get down to work.

No one, that is, until three teenagers – two boys and a girl, cousins perhaps – creep out to where he sits and settle in beside him. For a moment, no one speaks.

The tension in the theater is heavy.

Then one of them, the girl, clears her throat and says, “Sir, we can’t help but ask … what did you whisper to those animals all those years ago? To make them taste so good?”

The Harmless Slaughterer smiles and motions for her to draw near. Clearly, he’s not going to respond except by example.

High on the fearlessness of youth, she takes him up on his offer. Brushing her hair from her ear, she takes a deep breath and presses it up to his mouth. He licks his lips and places them against her cartilage, and then begins to transmit whatever it is.

He leans back as she falls dead with a relaxed, slightly lewd smile on her face.

Entranced, unable to stop himself, one of the boys submits to the same fate, falling on top of her.

Then – this is clearly the climax of the film – the third boy leans in to listen to the Harmless Slaughterer’s message, but, instead of keeling over, he smiles, deviously I believe, and wipes his ear with his palm, as if to cleanse it of grease or oil, and kneels on top of his dead friends or cousins.

For a moment, he prays.

Then he begins to eat of their doubtlessly sweet flesh, tearing into their necks and bellies with his teeth and fingernails while the Harmless Slaughterer watches from above, neither perturbed nor impressed. The meat looks soft and supple, like slow-cooked barbecue, and I don’t mind saying that I experience a pang of hunger, here in the theater.

When he’s eaten his fill, the boy looks at the camera, motioning it in for a close-up, and says, lips covered in blood and flesh, “And this is one of the innumerable ways in which I became Blut Branson, uniquely vested, as I am, with private knowledge of God’s Will and the inner strength to utterly disobey it.”

Then, with a wink, he leans in and whispers in the Harmless Slaughterer’s ear. The film ends with the Harmless Slaughterer falling over onto the pile of partially eaten bodies while the boy who has now revealed himself as Blut Branson steals his hat and cloak and walks into the distance, vanishing into the same gloom the Harmless Slaughterer emerged from. Like the Harmless Slaughterer, he will eventually reemerge to entrance and perhaps annihilate Dodge City all over again, in his own time and in whatever manner he sees fit.

Until then, we wait for his next film to begin.