I wrote this originally for Thunderdome XXIV with the prompt of Write a supernatural horror story set in a small town . Because I have some kind of death wish, I used this as a flash rule:
I think we should divorce it from that, even. Just have another thread where people issue writing challenges and other people can take them up. They can be nonspecific "I'LL FIGHT ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING" or not "I THINK THE SADDEST RHINO IS A BAD RHINO AND I CHALLENGE HIM TO A LOVECRAFT-HORROR-3-PART-OFF" and people take them up if they feel like.
Then I added another one to set it in Malaysia to showcase myself as a gigantic dummy . Ultimately I became the victim of my own hubris since I couldn't even finish it for the dome, because as I said to Muffin:
A Bad Rhino posted:
I read the half draft and caught myself using only octopi to illustrate the lovecraft bit (instead of fears of the unknown and
Anyway I went back to it because I thought there may be potential, so I did some stylistic things and expanded it to 3k. Would love some hard crits on it as I'm trying something new and thinking of submitting it to places.
PS I didn't set it in Lovecraft's mythos because gently caress his archaic eldritch vocabulary and rampant racism bullshit.
I walked across the hull of the flooded speedboat to the engine with difficulty, the seawater stinging my skin. “Jak!” I yelled out, but I was completely alone. The only thing before me was the crystalline waters of the vast ocean. Seawater was pouring out from each tube and crevice of the engine, an ancient construct with mechanics only understandable by the natives. Cursing under my breath, I looked out to the Rahsia. There was no way to swim back.
Something was in the ocean. Before I could look closer, a dark cephalopod limb, the size of my arm, slammed over the side of the boat. I fell into the hull with a splash. As I sat up, more tentacles draped themselves into the boat, pulling up something from beneath the waves.
* * *
It was the third night of our stay at the Rahsia island, and I remained unconvinced. The beaches were idyllic, and the town was small enough to be described “quaint” in some airline magazine, but there was nothing else to it at all. Whatever hidden charm Dato’ Halim claimed the island possessed simply escaped me.
There was a reason the beaches were idyllic. Unlike those in the other tourist-friendly islands, the sands were dark and coarse, more rocks than grains, and stepping on them gave me nothing but cuts. Every morning it became a graveyard of random fishes, including jellyfishes and starfishes just to increase the variety. This morning Cecilia found a dead leatherback turtle, seagulls standing on it pecking out eyes. The petite girl managed to keep her calm, until our insipid local cook served us a breakfast of congee with half-boiled turtle eggs. She cried buckets and refused to leave her room since.
How I wish I could claim the townsfolk were a tribe of cheerful, salt of the earth types whose happiness hinged only on the fullness of their bellies! Instead, they were a miserable, superstitious lot, their faces scrounged up in gloomy scowls everywhere they went. Nowhere was that hospitability I was promised they would have – upon request they held the mere task of giving directions with the same reverence as parting oceans and seas. Oftentimes I observed them breathing pidgin Malay curses under their breaths, mouths opening and closing like the flailing fishes on the beach, gasping for air. Even the children fishing at the bay with strings and hooks looked like angry, aged mariners, sweat glistening on their dark, slimy skins.
To my dismay, Dato’ Halim decided to postpone the sea excursion until tomorrow so he could “console” Cecilia. He seemed the only person to be enjoying himself. When we first arrived he fed Cecilia and me some bollocks about how he was never a beach person, but somehow the seas of Rahsia island invigorated him and he felt like a new man etc. It should have dawned upon me then that I may be pumping money into a beach fantasy life fuelled by a debilitating mid-life crisis. Instead, I was stuck trying to justify my purchase by repeatedly surveying a floating shithole. I conducted it today by buying buckets of beer and getting drunk under a coconut tree, smoking Marlboros and counting fishes swept up the coast.
“Spare a Tiger, boss?”
Under the shade, the smirk of our local guide Jak shone like a white flash in the waves. He may have the same ichthyoid complexion of the natives, but he was the only friendly face we knew. “Henry,” I said, throwing him a bottle. “And don’t call me boss.”
He squatted down beside me and, with a quick bite, snapped the cap off. We did a quick toast and downed the piss-light liquid.
Satisfied, Jak lay down on the sand and let out a mighty burp. “Not Dutch?” he asked. “This island’s bad for them.”
“Irish. And why?”
He pointed at the town behind him with his thumb. “The Windmill,” he said. I briefly recalled a building with a tacky windmill façade of faded paint and rust. Now it was boarded up and covered in moss and dust. “Dutch named Overbeck came here, built the bar, then went out to the sea.”
“More like a pub to me.” I passed him another bottle. “So he never came back?”
He laughed, then bit off his cap.
“Nothing so simple, boss,” he said. “You know what Rahsia is famous for in Malaysia?”
I knew the answer, then immediately regretted it. “You’ve got squids.”
“Yes boss. So, America’s scientists tell us that the seas are getting hot, so sotongs move about. Sometimes they go to places they shouldn’t be, thousands of kilometres away.
“Overbeck, he wanted a swim. Because the sea made him younger, he said. We told him no because someone’s sampan got overturned by a squid. Humble Squid, I think?”
“Humboldt squid.” Jumbo squids. Up to 5 foot long, as detailed in Dato’ Halim’s experts’ reports. Last sighting in the 80s.
“Yes. So he mocked us, said our boats were small, not like his orang puteh ones. He took off his clothes and jumped in to the sea.
“Hummer squids, they aren’t like other squids. They bite and scratch and kill and eat everything. Sometimes they don’t even eat them. Just kill, because they are in the way, you know? Worst of all, boss, they kill their own. Remember, Overbeck, he was there with his orang puteh dick and orang puteh balls dangling out in the water. And there was a swarm of angry dangerous things coming his way which don’t care about his orang puteh logic and orang puteh boats. What do you think happened?”
He took a long swig of his beer.
“Our grandfathers used to appease sea spirits by puja laut - we danced around a fire and chanted, and we painted our boats with eyes and teeth. At midnight we tied up a virgin and put her in the biggest boat then pushed her into the sea. Then it became bountiful again with fish and our fishermen stopped getting killed.”
Jak threw the bottle behind him.
“Sometimes we couldn’t get a good virgin, so we look for someone nobody knew. That worked too. And you know something, boss?” He smiled at me. “After Overbeck went out to sea, we don’t get overturned sampans anymore.”
I stared at him. The beer in my bottle was already warm.
“Look at your face!” He laughed, and punched me in the shoulder. “Orang puteh! Easiest to bluff. Ha ha ha!”
I laughed and threw Jak a bottle. He bit off the cap again, and his teeth shone like a shark’s.
* * *
My sense of bravado and stupidity prevailed over logic, prompting me to kick at the tentacles with my bare feet. The sensation was that of burning sandpaper, the heat and burn going through the base of my foot into my spine.
I screamed out and looked back at the village. At that one moment I finally recognised the thing in the ocean.
Jak. It was Jak, swimming back to the Rahsia at the velocity unlike that of any men. Under the blazing sun his naked skin was scaled and dark like that of a saltwater fish.
As he swam his face turned towards me, and he gave me that smile, a toothy grin befitting an ancient, primal predator.
* * *
I have never seen Dato’ Halim so excited. The house sake was the best, and he already ordered seconds before the waitress finished slicing up the grilled kobe steak fillets. A waiter was ready to serve platters of fresh sashimi, including that coveted bluefin tuna belly, which the menu had beside its entry polite warnings on the preservation of endangered species. I wisely declined his offer to have the horse sashimi.
“I found an island,” he said in between sips of miso. “Rahsia, it’s just off east from the Perhentian islands and that dreadful Redang with its Taiwanese hordes. Most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
“So we should exploit this lovely nature reserve and turn it into a luxury resort town?” I asked.
“I knew you were the right man.” He chuckled. “I just need an investor. Which is where you, Mr. Henry Ward, comes in, according to my accountants and experts and… the head of the finance ministry.”
“Isn’t that your Prime Minister?”
Dato’ Halim laughed. “Right man!” He twirled his moustache and feigned shock. The Dato’ got his title from what the papers claimed to be dedication in building condominiums and creating jobs, but the word in the street was that he had been very good in greasing the right palms.
I was wary. Malaysia was losing out to its cheaper neighbours in the beach resort department. “I would commit,” I told him. “But I’d love some hard facts first. I didn’t even know your island existed until our starter course.”
“Trust me, I only knew last week,” Dato’ Halim said. He nodded at his personal assistant Cecilia, who departed after a brief bow. “My uncle, Alhamdullilah, passed away and we found records of the island in his things. Turns out we used to have family there, so I may in fact have some Rashia blood! And what better way to return to your roots than building it up into an enterprise?”
I nodded, appreciating his wanton capitalism. Cecilia emerged from behind the doors, joined by the chef holding a tray. “Entrée!” exclaimed Dato’ Halim.
The chef placed a bowl each before us. It was filled with a bed of white rice seasoned with light vinegar, and adorned with wild mushrooms and thinly sliced ginger. Bright crimson salmon roe made up a part of the bowl, and little dishes of sliced squid liver and green squid heart were placed at a side.
Lying on top of the rice and the mushrooms and the ginger and roe was a live red squid the size of a child’s palm, its eyes black and calm. The top of its head was finely sliced off, revealing unknown organs within. For one moment I felt its gaze upon me, ignorant of what malice a larger being could have against it to dictate how it should live and die.
“Does it surprise you?” Dato’ Halim asked, and chuckled again. “You should be, Englishman. And what wonderful sights I can show you…”
The chef held in his hand a small cup of soy sauce, and tipped it over the squid in my bowl. Upon the briny liquid hitting the squid, its limbs shot up and I jumped back. As he continued pouring the squid danced on the bowl, its tentacles jerking and twirling in a restless, epileptic motion, like a puppet being maneuverer by a wild man who had no understanding of rhythm or music. The flailing limbs threw one of the salmon roes off the bowl on to my shirt, the egg exploding in the impact excreting dark, crimson juice.
Cecilia raised a hand to hide her gulp, and Dato’ Halim laughed. “Hakodate Odori-don, the dancing squid rice!” he said. “And you are paler than ever! You shouldn’t worry though – it’s dead and cannot fathom what’s happening to it. Nerves and salt, something like that.”
The squid fell off the bowl, and stopped moving. Under the dim lights of the room I saw its uneven head, and briefly was reminded of the bald head of the Dato’.
“I hope I didn’t scare you off the deal,” Dato’ Halim said in false apology.
I gave him a weak smile. “Of course not,” I managed, though I was trying to hide from the squid’s stare.
He dismissed the chef, and poured soy sauce over his own squid. “You want to know the best thing about this island?” He said, as I watched him snatch the trembling squid with his chopsticks. “Rahsia is Malay for secret.”
The squid hug its tentacles around the chopsticks, and the Dato’ put it in his mouth.
* * *
Initially I was relieved when the pain was gone. Then I realised, with horror, that I have gone completely numb. The poison of the thing crawling onto the deck had turned me into a still, breathing corpse.
The creature pulled itself onto my legs. The venom had gone to my eyelids now, and my wide, unclosing eyes beheld his visage. Its colour was all wrong and the skin viscous and scaled, but there was no doubt about it. The creature coming to kill me was my business partner.
Dato’ Halim had returned to his roots.
* * *
Jak anchored the speedboat somewhere about thirty kilometres off the coast. The excursion, so far, was the best thing about this trip – the waters were clear and blue, the fishes were colourful and aplenty, and the sun was bright but not enough to scorch the skin. Dato’ Halim was surveying the island with a pair of binoculars and dressed in a ridiculous wetsuit, clearly not caring less about how it accentuated his love handles.
He pointed out at the Windmill. “What do you think we should tear this down to?” he asked. “Brazilian grill, or tex-mex sushi?”
“Why not just local seafood?”
“What’s the specialty?” he said. “Got to be unique somehow for the tourists. Maybe Cuban-Cajun? Just stock store-brand frozen meats and barbecue them. Pretty cheap, right?” He set the binoculars at the deck. “What’s this spot called again?”
Jak smiled. “Overbeck Point,” he said.
“Mmm,” said the Dato’, moving towards his new toy. The small red jet ski was, he claimed, state-of-the-art, custom built for him, and unused until today. He sat on it and did a little hop in his seat like an excited puppy. “Dead Dutch story needs more romance. Maybe he saw a beautiful ghost at night? We should get a copywriter… remind me, will you?”
“Sure,” I said. Cecilia had not left her room, so I volunteered as PA. I recorded his notes by promptly forgetting them.
The jet engine turned on with a loud grunt, and blared loud Afro-Caribbean music. The Dato’ took off, leaving the boat to just me, Jak, and an icebox full of cold beer. He told us he needed to test the water to see what corporate team-building activities could be conducted on the Rahsia. At the rate he was going, those activities were going to be minimum ten grand per person.
Dato’ Halim was speeding around in circles in his new aquatic playground. I threw Jak a bottle and opened one myself. I lay back on the deck, the world feeling right for once. Leaving the overgrown child to himself, I looked back at the island I was going to develop into a money tree.
Smoke billowed from within the town and the beach was filled with people. Curious, I grabbed the binoculars and looked through them.
One of the buildings was on fire, and it looked like the house we were staying at. I shifted view to the people on the beach. The villagers were chanting and dancing in a straight line towards a boat docked at the beach. Women, half-submerged in the water, threw seaweed rings into it. Behind the chanting crowd was a heavyset man dragging a sack across the sand behind him. It was tied up with rope and twine, and upon closer inspection it contained something… human-shaped. The height and size of a teenager.
The height and size of Cecilia.
“Halim!” I called out. The Dato’, oblivious, was still doing doughnuts across the sea. He finally stopped after noticing me frantically waving at him. “You want a ride too, Henry?” he yelled.
“We’ve got to go!” I screamed. “They kidnapped your PA!”
“What? I can’t hear you!”
Dato’ Halim turned off the music of his watercraft.
The surface of the ocean under his feet exploded into a geyser of mist and rain. Great, long, grotesque red tentacles burst out from the sea, tearing the sky into half. The tentacles blocked the sun and I found myself cast into a sudden darkness. From beneath the water was the sound of a yawning chasm, like that of a whale call but deadly and old, muffling the explosive noises of the Dato’s jet ski. Rising under the twirling feelers was a pulpy, monstrous, elongated head, and a black giant eye, a dark abyss sucking the light out of the day, bigger than the falling burning parts of the jet ski, was staring at me. In that one moment of darkness I witnessed a deep, seething hatred for all living things standing in its way. A hoary, terrible reminder of how small I was in the world. Its world.
The sun once again came into view, blinding me momentarily. The being dropped to its side into the ocean with a giant splash, and a large wave came at my direction. I just barely grabbed when the water hit me, and to my great surprise the boat merely did a violent rock instead of overturning. Spitting out seawater, I dredged across the flooded hull to the side where the monster fell.
The monster’s voice was all that it left behind, a cavernous sound growing quieter and quieter. There were still burning debris falling from the sky.
“Halim!” I yelled, “Halim!”
The Dato’ was no longer there. At the spot of the sea where he once were, a pool of darkness grew and expanded.
Were it all that remained of the renowned capitalist Dato’ Halim, it would have been red of blood and flesh. Instead, under the clear skies and in the emerald blue sea, the pool was a dull green of copper-rich squid hearts.
* * *
Under a tropical sun and beneath cumulus clouds, drifting in the middle of the South China Sea, I lay awake and helpless as a man I once called friend, his eyes dark pools of void and gills pulsing across his cheeks, spread let unfurl the feelers of his mouth all over my face. For each drop of acid on my skin and each bite of its spike teeth I felt every bit of pain, yet was unable to move or scream.
I stared into the sun as I slowly died, my only solace that it would ultimately blind me.
|# ? Jan 24, 2013 09:34|
|# ? May 25, 2013 02:58|
OK, general thoughts:
* the nonlinear arrangement doesn't work at all. I put the story back into proper chronological order and it actually hits a lot harder.
* we need to spend a little more time with Cecilia. Even just giving her a couple of lines of dialogue would help. Her getting grabbed is the thing that sets the climax off and it feels a little sterile. The mad party they're throwing also seems more interesting than what's going on in the water. Maybe have him wake up to fire outside the hotel, then they run to the sea (looking for a boat to escape or something?), then one of them gets grabbed and dragged back? The rest are far out to sea when the squid hits.
* were Jak and Dato squid things all along, or did they get eaten by the big squid and turned into them? That's not really clear. The dancing squid meal/boat incident thing could work really well but I'm not entirely sure what's going on in the latter.
This whole bit is great. It's natural dialogue without being awkward and while the worldbuilding is AS YOU KNOW, it's fairly quiet about that and it works.
Overbeck, he wanted a swim. Because the sea made him younger, he said. We told him no because someone’s sampan got overturned by a squid. Humble Squid, I think?”
* this bit:
is not so good. It all happens too quickly. Spend a little more time with this ceremony- it's the thing that summons the big squid, right? He's there to eat his virgin and our dude was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Smoke billowed from within the town and the beach was filled with people. Curious, I grabbed the binoculars and looked through them.
* there's a few grammar errors sprinkled through that a good copy edit would sort
* there's a lot of really simple, powerful language: stuff like
could be cheesy but it really works here.
Dato’ Halim had returned to his roots.
* you're a little heavy on action and interior monologue, a little light on description. For action to work, we need to know a little more about the actors. Remember the pyramid of abstraction.
|# ? Jan 24, 2013 23:25|
Thanks dude. The non-linear arrangement was the new thing I was trying out - the idea was to fit in a structure of worldbuilding-suspense-shithappens, with the last bit cut around for framing where the elements of the first and second part (Jak's sinister nature, the Dato's potential family roots) fit in. Looks like it doesn't work, so I'll look into rewriting it linearly. Jak was one of the weird folk all along and Dato' was changed due to his blood ties.
The truth is Cecilia and her rave party scene were afterthoughts which I'll also look into developing. I actually have never heard the Sanderson lectures (thanks for the link) and since I have a nice fat weekend I'm gonna spend some time watching them.
|# ? Jan 25, 2013 02:33|