Lessons in Native Fauna

I read this story at a Penguin Plays Rough storytelling event held in The Rocks by Word Travels. Old Yeller was beaming down with his big face, trying to kill us all, but it was grand.

Intellectually I think we all know that Australia is trying to kill us.  People overseas know Australia as the place where crocodiles fight sharks in the water, and if you manage to escape them, there’s a horde of spiders waiting on the shore, weaving webs of silk and lies. People overseas get the danger – it’s why they liked Steve Irwin so much. They saw him as a perfectly rational response to our death-trap of a nation. They think that kangaroos hop down George Street with an unholy cocktail of crocodiles and Taipan’s hiding in their pouches, and only Steve Irwin had the guts to wrestle them into submission and send them back out into the desert.

Us locals know that the kangaroo death brigade is hyperbole. In fact the majority of Australian’s are fairly lax about the ever-present spectre of painful death that hangs over us. Every summer the news is filled with stories about the aggressive Funnel Webs living in our kitchen, or the Redbacks in our toilets, or the sharks in our paddling pools – but it’s always something that happens to a friend of a friend. We are careless. Australia is deadly, but Australia is also patient. It waits for your guard to be down, before it strikes, like a Cassowary going for your eyes.

 

sharkpool

My story begins at a time when my guard was down so far, that people who are clinically dead have been known to have more peripheral awareness. It was the perfect time for Australia to punish me. I was in that magical state of half-being known as university break. I was minding my parents house and by extension, looking after their pets. A glorious month where my responsibilities were so few, that watching a documentary on sloths could fill me with anxiety. I was so lazy, that instead of making a sandwich, I would sit in front of the fridge and eat all the component parts separately. My bar job had recently cut my shifts to four hours a week, for the ultra-legal reason of ‘not wanting to work with a fag’. I had to feed my cat twice a day. This was my life.

On this particular day I was doing season six of my epic Buffy re-watching marathon. It was around midday and I’d been watching since breakfast the previous day. I was naked, curled in a nest of junk food and wine bottles. At some drunken point the previous night, I’d put on a cape made from a bed sheet and hooked my sword on to a belt that hung from my bare waist. I was borderline psychotic, not really able to understand that I wasn’t some kind of terribly plotted character from the Buffy universe.

As I watched and stewed in my own awfulness, I heard a strange bumping sound coming from up the stairs. I paused the DVD, and listened as it continued. My first thought: it’s my parents, coming home from their holiday early. I, their 22-year-old son is naked, wearing a cape and has a sword strapped to him.  Why couldn’t they just catch me injecting heroin like normal kids? But that thought was thankfully dismissed, when I realised my mum probably wasn’t yowling and hissing. The sound of struggle continued, and I had an inkling of what it could be. My cat, Lily, was rescued from the local graveyard, where she probably survived by killing vampires. As a sign of her affection to me, she loved to leave headless birds or defenestrated rats on my pillow. Maybe she had some poor native creature in her talons and was dragging it up the stairs for me.

I finally got off the couch, ready to rescue a cute lorikeet or possum baby or something, only to be confronted by the sight of my cat dragging a fully grown brown snake behind it. Brown Snakes are only the SECOND most venomous land snake, so at least there’s that. The snake was writhing furiously, trying to escape from my cat’s jaws. Lily looked wide eyed and panicked, as if she had literally bitten off more than she could chew, or as the other popular saying goes, ‘had a live brown snake in her mouth’. She struggled for a few more moments, and then looked me in the eyes and let it go.

The Brown Snake reared up and started lunging at Lily with horrifying speed. This was it – this was my moment of testing, the instance where Australia throws something horrible at you and decides whether you deserve to live or die. My reaction, I believe, can only be put down to the 40 straight hours of Buffy I’d been watching, the sleeplessness and also, let’s not forget the fairly considerable level of inebriation. Because as that huge fucking snake bared its fangs and struck at my cat, I unsheathed my sword, and chopped its goddamn head off.

Well – I tried to. Due to ‘the law’ my sword, an authentic Omani cavalry blade, was blunted. So when I hit the snake, with my best, two-handed blow, it kind of just launched it across the room into the kitchen, where it hit the wall with a splat. I might not have beheaded it, but I did cut fairly deep, and it proceeded to lie there and slowly bleed out in a huge puddle.

Now, let’s all move past the fact that this is my one moment of heroism and despite looking ludicrous, wang flopping obscenely beneath my cape and all, this was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done, or ever will, in my life. Let’s move past it, because what I did after it is really fucking weird.

I was suddenly hit by a giant wave of adrenalin. Despite the snake being really dead, the adrenalin also bought a bunch of fear. I became obscurely terrified that someone would know what I had done. I had to hide the body! So I scooped up the still bleeding reptile, stuffed it into an empty Oreo box and chucked it into the next-door neighbours yard. I then attempted to clean up snake blood using windex and paper towel, a practice I don’t recommend to anybody. If any of you are thinking of committing a murder, you probably don’t want someone with this degree of poise helping you dispose of the body. But after the fear died down, and the pigs were unable to track the notorious ‘snake-in-a-box’ case back to me, I realised something marvellous.  Australia tested me, and in the face of danger I proved that I could be mildly effective. I could survive whatever this enormous danger-island sent my way, survive and then panic absurdly afterwards. Thanks, Australia.

To the Frighthouse

This is  story I read at Penguin Plays Rough at the State Library earlier in the year. PPR do the most innovative and fun events in the literary world. You should give them your first borns.

To the Frighthouse

The lighthouse squatted over steep cliffs like a drunk woman in high-heels peeing in a gutter. Years of high winds and crashing waves had shattered the once proud architecture, until it looked like nothing more than an old cupcake. Thick mist curled around the grounds, obscuring the horizon and seeping into the lawn. Walking through the fog was like being licked by a giant ethereal tongue. Somewhere in the distance echoed the call of ravens suddenly taking flight.

A lesser man might sprout goosebumps like a fertile box of cress. A weaker man might feel that squirming sensation deep in his gut, like a tiny cat was trying to get comfortable in his stomach, but which was actually fear. But not I – for if there’s one thing a writer of the genre of horror can withstand, it is the puny emotion known as fear. If fear was fire, then I would be a fireman, able to stride through the roaring flames, chuckling madly and rescuing fistfuls of babies, completely immune to the burning heat. As a horror writer, I would routinely face terror unfathomable to others, and also knew enough to identify the tropes and cliches with ease.

Which is why I have chosen to write my next book – ‘Night of the Living Sled’ about an innocent sled ride which swiftly becomes less innocent – in an abandoned lighthouse in Maine, USA. I’ve found myself able to save bucketloads of money by taking my writing vacations in places that others, who are not lords of the chill, would go mad simply to behold. So as the storm clouds roll in over the foreboding architecture, and lightning flashes illuminate the tracks of giant dogs and velociraptors, I only laugh. Because it’s nothing that I don’t automatically expect. I even think I see, for a split second, a pale woman’s face staring out of one of the top windows. Amateurs.

Later that night, I am writing by the light of the open fire. ‘“There’s no such thing as a cursed sled” screamed Molly, the chambermaid, blood streaming from her eyes and pooling in her frilly little apron and staining her feather duster.’ I dipped my quill into my inkpot, and finished the line. “Oh really” rasped Grandpa Jonathan, the racist ex-banker. “Have you ever seen a little film called… Citizen Kane?”’ I am interrupted by  a rapping at the window. I open the door to discover a dripping wet elderly gentleman, covered in a large raincloak. Thunder cracks and in the distance a wolf howls.

‘Boy, ye must leave this place, for ye are in grave danger.’

I sigh, and identify him. ‘You must be the caretaker.’

‘Nay, boy. I am the caretaker, and let me tell ye, this place is host to a spirit malevolent and      spiteful, that has plagued humanity since -‘

‘The dawn of time’ I suggest, cleaning my glasses with my cravat.

‘Nay, the 1970’s.’

I fixed the caretaker with a stare, and packed my pipe with more tobacco. The old man had skin like an unfashionable leather purse, and stringy grey hair like the pubic thatch of Beelzebub himself. He lifted a shaky arm and scratched at his neck with his hook for a hand.

‘The old hook for a hand’ I chuckled. ‘Classic caretaker.’

‘I’ve got two!’ the man exclaimed, brandishing his other hook wildly.

‘Tis why I don’t use an umbrella.’

‘So what’s the story. Indian burial ground, terrible murders? Are you a ghost? You’re the ghost, aren’t you.’ I started prodding him in the face, his skin as dry as the inner sole of a shoe.

‘I am not a ghost’ the caretaker said, somewhat sullenly.

‘Well, prod me then.’ I told him.

‘What?’ he answered, slowly.

‘Prod me, and then we’ll know that neither of us are ghosts. It’s called the Shyamalan Protocol.’

Reluctantly the old man prodded me, and I gave him a satisfied nod. None of us were ghosts. Although, I was now bleeding, thanks to being prodded by a hook-handed monstrosity.

‘If ye really want to learn the truth, ye must follow me into the basement. But I warn ye, everyone else who has even gone into the basement has…’

I finished his sentence. ‘Died horribly? Gone mad?’

‘Gotten wet shoes. The plumbing is none too sturdy. You tool.’ he mumbled the last part, and I asked him to repeat what he had said.

‘Uhh, I simply said – you fool!’ and chuckled malevolently as we descended into the bowels of the lighthouse.

The basement was indeed uncomfortably wet, and apart from hosting a mixed family of raccoons and cats, there was nothing strange about it. That is until the caretaker opened up yet another set of stairs.

‘Another basement?’

‘Yes, this basement has a basement!’ and cackled wildly. ‘Spooky’ I said glumly, starting to recognise there was a little more to this place than the same old tropes and idioms that I was used to.

Holding up a flickering lantern which barely illuminated the mould covered walls, the caretaker began speaking in a long monotone.

‘They say that one night the devil came here and gave birth to a dog, aye, but not just any dog, a devil dog from Hades with glowing eyes and a preternatural ability to do sudoku puzzles. Did he do them well? Nay, but better than most dogs. And others say that something, something unknowable crawled from out of the ocean and nested in the roots of this lighthouse, and now it’s working on Mitt Romney’s campaign staff, and yet others claim that this is the lighthouse where Virginia Woolf wrote her story ‘To the Lighthouse’, yet the original title was ‘To the Frighthouse’ and in the end of that manuscript someone got stabbed all up in the vagina, but then the editors changed it.  Oh aye, they say a lot about this place. They have a lot of opinions.’

In the third basement of the basement, we ran smack into a group of teenagers and a dog.

‘Let me guess, you guys are here solving mysteries?’

The youths, a lot skinnier, tattooed and pierced than the Original Scooby-Doo gang, gave each other shifty looks, until one said.

‘Umm, yeah.’

The caretaker was trying to pat the dog, a mangy German Shepherd with bloodshot eyes and tattered ears.

‘Old man – I probably wouldn’t pat Scooby over there, he looks fairly rabid.’

‘Not to worry’ said the old man, through a locked, frothing jaw. ‘I’ve got me own rabies to worry about.’

‘So, kids, what’s your verdict. Is there really a ghost, or is it just old Mr Jenkins in a monster mask?’ I asked.

‘Umm, dude, have you got any meth?’

I was starting to think they weren’t mystery solvers at all, unless the mystery was how much meth they could take. And I was also starting to feel… uneasy. There was something about this entire situation that didn’t quite add up. Was there mystery and suspense? Yes. But the clues were more baffling than illuminating. Sometimes I regretted this foray into the realm of horror – my first book had actually been some Australian Literature, a novel called ‘Secret Rural Family Town’. It was a prize winning tale about a young man who seeks to understand the meaninglessness of it all but instead finds out a series of secrets about his family and the small town that he finds so suffocating. But then I was drummed out of the lucrative Aust. Lit market by Peter Carey in a violent fistfight in a small Melbourne pub. David Malouf gambled on the fight and won fifty dollars as a result. Ever since then i’d been forced to earn my coin in the world of spooky thrills.

‘Through this door, master, lies the answers that you seek. The dark shadow that lies over this lighthouse.’

I hesitated, mind racing furiously like an angry horse. Now was the climax, the twist at the heart of every ghost story. What could possibly be beyond the door that I wouldn’t be prepared for in some way. The ghost of a tiny girl, banging her fathers dismembered head against the door of a car. Or something more literary, perhaps, like the ghost of my own humility, which takes the form of Jim Belushi from either Ghost Busters or Blues Brothers, or a strange mashup film called ‘Ghost Brothers.’

I pushed open the door, and discovered a tableau that I will never forget until my dying day. At a table, playing a robust game of Dungeons and Dragons, was Stephen King. He was rolling a handful of dice and staring down a forlorn looking George R.R. Martin. Terry Pratchett was making margarita’s. Stephen King looked surprised at my entrance, and then shamed. He scuffed his foot against the floor, looked me in the eye and said ‘Happy Halloween.’

'Wooooooooo' - Stephen King

‘Wooooooooo’ – Stephen King

I looked back at him and said ‘It’s not Halloween, Stephen King. Halloween was last week.’