Years ago I put together a collection of horror and sci-fi short stories I’d written around 2010 – 2012. This was shortly before I took a stab at my first novel Pareidolia, and served as a literary canary in a coal mine; I had next to no idea what the creative writing process was like.
I self-published the stories for a short time on Amazon Kindle in 2012. It was a limited arrangement, and the publication is now gone. Happily I’m a data hoarder and the stories lived on in my hard drive. I’m very proud of them, not as literary accomplishments, but as testaments to ambition. The first story of the collection, also titled Dante’s House, is the only one worth republishing. And so, with a fresh 2021 polish, here it is.
I want to be a writer, so I’m going to write. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Be brave enough to suck at something new. That one’s a bit easier to swallow, and these stories do indeed suck. I’d never written before, not really, and I thought it would come to me as naturally as music.
It did not.
From the original forward:
This is my first book. I wouldn’t have written a single word had it not been for the countless horror, mystery, and postmodern novels that I inhaled between semesters at college while trying desperately to get away from the world of science and reality. Reading these authors’ works inspired me to find my own voice, and I blame all of my efforts on them.
Writing, as with most creative efforts, comes across as effortless when done very well, either by raw talent or decades of experience. Sitting down to give it a whack was sort of the literary equivalent of an amateur photographer taking pictures of old people’s hands: you’ve got to start somewhere, but it’s going to have amateur written all over it. But at least you’ll have started.
From the original dedication:
To my parents, who support me in all of my creative attempts, no matter how bizarre.
This too remains true. My poor mother, God love her, would wear a helpful smile while listening to me read pages of this drivel out loud. This is what mothers do. Of course she had next to no idea what I was doing. I barely did. But she listened, and supported. And I continued to revise and re-write and suck. But I kept going, and my first (and so far only) novel wound up being almost readable due in large part to these early efforts. (That was the tag line for the book: Pareidolia: Almost Readable.)
So go forth and suck at something new, is I guess the message here. I sure did!
Here then is the first story from my 2012 short story collection Dante’s House.
The Prichett Center for Arts Education is a residential high school that occupies what’s left of an abandoned Catholic college campus in an outer-ring Milwaukee suburb. Centered on a pond and nestled against a small forest just off a minor highway, Prichett houses 200 students in a handful of refurbished postwar dormitory buildings that wouldn’t have looked out of place hovering over a planet in a 1960s sci-fi movie. Across a small grassy field just to the east of the campus an unused pair of railroad tracks marks the far side of what back then amounted to a demilitarized zone beyond which we joyously trespassed. Farther north the tracks slip beneath the highway in a grand overpass suitable for getting shitfaced under.
Scattered in spotty amoeba shapes not technically on campus—we weren’t allowed to leave campus on school days, a point rendered completely irrelevant by the fact that we also weren’t permitted to smoke anywhere on school property—the smoking areas orbited the school in nature-choked islands of ancient concrete behind forgotten tool sheds and around garages somehow completely cut off from any surrounding residential neighborhood or seeming existential purpose. It was almost as if whole swaths of houses and businesses were lifted off into space after the less desirable bits were holed out and left earthbound where weeds and ugly flowers jealously held them back. On these islands, semi-surrounded by trees that guarded the campus from the south, we conspired to commit great feats of debauchery and exploitation, and saw to the less glamorous and rather more frequent business of sadness and boredom that surrounds the good parts of late teenage life like packing peanuts. And we smoked. The teachers never joined us, even the cool ones, and we knew all of them smoked like tugboats.
In 1989 we were the first class, the guinea pigs. The school was to accept juniors and seniors, and of course there weren’t any seniors that first year so only some of the sepulchral campus buildings came back to life, opening dozens of opportunities for mischief. The clearly overwhelmed teachers and staff had never before worked in a system that overemphasized art, didn’t use letter grades, and hosted an academic year-round residence for minors. We ran that shit like an organized crime ring. When the weather was nice we did interpretive dance on the lawns to express our feelings about the social sciences. In geometry we eschewed Euclid and Archimedes for Escher and Dali. We passed physics by recording live spoken-word performances mimicking the Doppler effect. I spent all of three hours on my final junior project in a Burroughs-inspired farce that consisted entirely of shredding and reassembling the words of a short story I wrote in eighth grade and having it read live to video by a 57-year-old drag queen in front of a municipal trash incinerator during a protest.
In the second year the faculty came up behind us faster than we were coasting and before the fall semester was half over it became clear that most of us would either face expulsion or simply not graduate on time or both unless we committed ourselves to extra helpings of core state educational requirements. (The students there today are paying the price for the faculty’s first-year naiveté regarding our willingness to put so much hard work into doing art the way we saw fit: our way, which usually involved hours of quiet reflection before and after the sacred act of creation, and nearly always under the influence of something naughty.) Having somehow found ways around even the direst of consequences in the second year, the six of us managed to find our way back to that comfortable zone we missed so much from the opening months of the previous fall. We faked our way out of class and wandered into the demilitarized zone and smoked and drove to nearby malls where we shopped ironically for vinyl records and ugly secondhand clothes. It was all warm and wonderful and lazy. Three of the six of our core group had family homes within a thirty-minute drive. Most of us had cars, enormous houses, divorced parents, and few siblings. The dinner parties were legendary. I blacked out most of the long holiday weekends and I still have difficulty with short term memory loss.
I’d tell you that we experimented with drugs, but by now I’m sure you’ve painted a picture that will quite suffice. I know why you’re here. Let’s get to the good part.
*** had just come into an obscure vogue the way most novelty narcotics do, through the circuits of royal club society. It never caught on like its close cousins DMT and LSD, but for a short time it registered a respectable bump on the needle that measured designer drug hype in all the right cities, and usually among circles that tended to savor the darker fare of urban nightlife. Our little clique found out about *** during the summer between our junior and senior years through Dottie via her brother and his shady dissertation advisor at Dartmouth. Harris—he’s another one of the six, you’ll meet the rest later—took to calling it the holy grail of Jungian spiritualism and went on and on about it when he drank gin. We didn’t actually lay our hands on any for almost a year. Because of this mystique born of delay the beginning notes of our time with *** resounded in an unmistakable dissonant key of secrecy and danger and was accompanied by light staccato stabs of adolescent excitement. Of course rumors quickly followed and by mid-November the whole affair degenerated into a sarcastic fugue of high school tittering. Eventually the faculty got wind of it and we were subjected to not one but two hysterical all-school assemblies which only added credibility to the lore. In the nine months the student body was aware of its existence only seven of us laid our hands on it and just two of us had actually taken it.
During that pre-senior summer Dottie and her brother Jim joined their mother on a two week stay in New York for vacationing and a symposium on international law. By some cruel coincidence Jim learned shortly before leaving that Rory (the shady dissertation advisor) would be presenting at a solid-state chemistry conference in Philadelphia around the same time. Rory extended his trip and drove up to conspire breathlessly with Jim over wine and cocaine in DUMBO warehouses: Was it true? Was it really here? Yes. Did it actually live up to its hype? Depends on who you listen to. Is it dangerous? Don’t be a pussy. Do we know how to get it? Let me make a phone call.
Rumors of *** made their way to Dottie around the same time they found her brother, but by different channels. If you were a young adult in New York you couldn’t avoid catching threads of it somewhere, even if it was maddeningly impossible to get far enough away to view the entire tapestry. *** had an undeserved reputation for inducing gentle waves of euphoria on the dance floors of legendary Manhattan nightclubs. In reality it was anything but gentle—unnecessary 911 calls were common and there were rumors of the odd coma. The drug was an unusually exotic serotonergic hallucinogen developed to narrowly target violent cluster headaches. It was still in Phase 2 clinical trials, but the dealers were able to smuggle it into the country by way of a slippery Canadian researcher who worked for a pharmaceutical company, I forget which one.
Dottie would have brought a few doses back with her from New York but the thought of facing down airport security gave her such a fright, and meanwhile her brother assured her that he knew a connection in Chicago through Rory’s associates. He simply pleaded with her to try it with him upon their return to Wisconsin.
Later it emerged that the rush of success one felt after making it through a dose—which of course led to a psychic awakening if it didn’t cause demonic manifestations and irreversible psychosis, never a lack of theatrics—was the best part of the experience. People who took it in groups claimed to be able to read each other’s minds and communicate with angels using a language that involved miniature trails of light, because of course they did.
There was also a certain iconography that accompanied the lore like a meme echoing in glyphs and tattoos: every user reportedly saw the same insignia burned in their field of vision during the trip—a kind of spinning Celtic triskelion—that heralded the opening of a transcendental wormhole through which celestial communications were made possible. Dottie was instantly hooked on the idea and sold it to the rest of us for a song. The stories she breathlessly recounted about exposure to the searing white force fields of spiritual truth and hallucinations in the third eye gave me cluster headaches of my own, but eventually I was won over. We engaged in frustratingly adolescent and deeply casual vision quests the year before, and the notion was utterly irresistible that compared to *** our prior adventures had amounted to child’s play. (“Your hallucinations have hallucinations!” Harris would scream, hands waving.) Radical pharmaceutical experiments mixed with rumors of the occult? You didn’t have to tell us a story like that more than once. We ate that shit up.
In our senior year, five weeks prior to graduation, the fates aligned. Dante’s family announced plans to abandon their massive suburban home for a week in the Solomon Islands, Rory’s colleague was in town with doses of *** for sale, and the idea of a Satanic ritual to mark the last dinner party before graduation was brought up as a joke. All three ideas snapped neatly into each other like an ouroboros: click, click, click. A profane Last Supper complete with the bread and wine of our hypercubic savior. The black mass was of course Harris’ contribution. It emerged during a painfully slow lecture on linear systems of graphics processors. (“What in hell does this have to do with literature?”, he couldn’t stop asking.) We all admitted that it was inspired and wondered why one of us hadn’t thought of it before.
The following day I was in Dante’s dorm room looking for his copy of Ulysses and working up the courage to ask him to let me borrow it for the remainder of the year. I was also trying (halfheartedly) to advise him on his senior project.
“You’re not supposed to let on that it’s not verbatim,” I said. “How can you be expected to know Latin? Doolaney absolutely will not check that it’s correct. The whole point is to demonstrate your potent skills of analysis. It’s not in here. Look under your bed.”
“It’s verbatim. I don’t care if she checks it or not.” Dante was sitting at his desk with his back to me, his pen tapping wildly on a book.
I asked him if he’d spoken to Tesla. He lifted his head and exhaled audibly through his nose.
“The woods. I thought the two of you were taking pictures for that moronic yearbook committee,” I said.
“She’s meeting us downstairs in an hour. I don’t think she wants anything to do with taking pictures in the woods, but go ahead and ask her if you like.”
He continued writing. I went to the closet for another look and found his copy of Ulysses under a small cardboard box of cassette tapes marked CIVIL WAR in fat black marker and sent a board game crashing to the floor as I turned around to wiggle the book high over my head like a king’s proclamation. “You will lend me this book for the remainder of the year.”
“These are not the droids you’re looking for.” He threw his pen across the desk and rose quickly to leave. “I want it back before June. You have a visitor.”
“Harris, for fuck’s sake. Sit down.”
I took Dante’s chair as Harris stood in the door and watched Dante leave. He turned to offer a thoughtful frown. He’d let his blond mohawk go all frizzy in the last few days. “Can’t. Too many crushed red pepper flakes on my frozen pizza last night. Already had two shits this morning. I can’t put any more pressure on my pucker right now.” He made fists and bounced lightly on the balls of his feet.
“Oh, the humanity.” I put my feet on Dante’s bed and pretended to read the upside-down book on my lap. “Will you be joining us this afternoon?”
It was a Saturday and Dottie had an appointment to buy six hits of *** from Rory’s contact—our bread and wine. The rest of us had better things to do, but we all felt compelled by some gruesome fascination to come along and watch. My stomach had been tightening all morning thinking about it. Harris struck a mock kung fu pose, released a loud grunt, and waited a beat before pouncing on me. The two of us toppled to the floor.
“Don’t forget to use a condom, you two.” Dante closed the door behind him and pulled down his pants.
Harris rolled off of me and stood by the closet as Dante dressed. He slapped Dante on his naked ass and sent me a wide sideways smile. “Aleister Crowley is for pussies.”
I watched Dante send Harris a withering look and held in a snicker. Harris partied like the son of an African warlord, but he was more thoughtful than most people guessed. The amount of money he spent on alcohol was paralleled only by the amount of time he spent banging his head against a used copy of In Search Of Lost Time. His sudden and unexpected excitement about the occult was therefore to be handled with a careful measure of fraternal guidance.
I flipped the book over in my lap. “What exactly did you have in mind?”
Harris’ smile morphed into a fake frown. He paced the length of the bed and thoughtfully stroked his chin as if delivering a lecture. “Venom and Coil having it out with Kenny G. and Anita Bryant on dueling sound systems; a backwards recording of H. Spencer Lewis’ 1916 speech at Columbia dubbed over Little Debbie’s Cream Pie 2; motorized antique photographs that spin around on the walls; candles that spit blood; an animal sacrifice.” He squeezed the bulge in his boxer briefs. “Sodomy over a crucifix; blood, shit, and cum; a crucible of maggots; retarded homeless people; demon bait.”
“We’re not having an orgy.” Dante ignored us through the mirror on his closet door and pulled on a black T-shirt.
I leaned back in Dante’s chair and allowed a grin of admiration. “You sick fuck. You are a true creature of the night. When did we decide Crowley was out of the picture?”
Harris belched and rolled his eyes thoughtfully across the ceiling. “He was, how do you say, kind of a pussy.”
“He was a pussy’s pussy.”
Dante, in a quiet huff, left the room again.
“Well what then?” I asked Harris. “And be serious. This is our last chance before graduation.”
(Dante and I began laying down the Last Supper groundwork the night before and within ten minutes we were ticking off caveats for Harris’ attendance like a pair of customs agents: “Nobody is to bring gin.” “I’m not letting him carve a pentagram on my hardwood floor.” “He’s not allowed to bring that fucking zurna.” “Yes, but mother of Christ whatever you do don’t forget to bring the Telemann. It’s his security blanket. We forgot to bring it once when we dropped acid last summer and it took two of us forty five minutes to talk him down from the little attic above my stepmother’s walk-in closet.”)
“I’ll have something within the hour.” Harris clicked his socked heels together, stood at attention, and saluted me with both middle fingers before grabbing Dante’s copy of Ulysses and running into the commons area.
Later Dottie and Tesla were waiting for us in the lobby, fidgeting. We stepped through warm puddles in the parking lot and tumbled into Dottie’s enormous brown station wagon which had a back seat like an elongated fast food chain booth, all glittery yellow and plastic. Dottie turned around to survey our slow and careful backwards departure from the parking spot as Harris and Tesla began a tickle fight in the back seat with me in the middle.
“Stop it. Duck, I can’t see.”
“Knock it off.” Dante, having assumed the role of dad to Dottie’s mom, shot us scornful looks over his shoulder from the front passenger seat. To Dottie: “Are we picking up Sarah? Where the hell is she?”
“She’s with her dad. Some kind of emergency. We’re to call her at seven.” Dante stared at Dottie for a moment before sighing and returning his gaze to the windshield. We pulled onto the freeway, mom and dad and us children fighting in the back seat asking if we’re there yet.
Harris, staring out at the road: “Dottie. We need cigarettes.”
Me: “Don’t stop. I have some, and we’re late.”
Tesla: “I’ve changed my mind. You’re all Satan-worshipping drug addicts and I want nothing to do with the lot of you.”
Me: “We’re not stopping. Dottie, you said this is our last chance to score *** before this guy leaves the city.”
Harris: “I want a Slurpee. He can fucking wait. Do we have the money?”
Me: “I’ll give you a Slurpee.”
Harris: “Lick me you whore.”
Dante: “Shut up all of you.”
We arrived at the Perkins in silence and eleven minutes behind schedule. The rest of us were to wait in the car a block away while Dottie made the score in the restaurant bathroom which we did and she did. The soft-gelled white capsules each had single red dots and looked like little rolled up Japanese flags—a different batch. “The ones we saw in New York had blue dots.” We hid the doses deep within the lining of Dottie’s purse and went to a movie to calm our nerves but it didn’t work. Sarah was in hysterics when we called her from the bank of payphones at the Knotty Pine Shopping Center at seven. We stood around in a loose circle while Dottie held the receiver to her ear and listened silently for ten minutes uttering only the occasional single-syllable word. The longer this went on the tighter and more curious our circle became. She twice covered the phone to mouth something to Tesla and said one word after hanging up—a name, actually.
Crash (I hated that fucking name) was a childhood friend of Sarah’s and another student at Prichett but the rest of us only sort of knew him. We were all lit students and Crash was the only theater major with whom we openly associated, primarily because of the fish stick incident of the winter before in which he demonstrated on the dormitory rooftop how his uncle had combined frozen fish sticks with ordinary household chemicals to achieve magnificent feats of pyrotechnics. We were all threatened with expulsion. Crash had an unhealthy obsession with trance channeling and carried around a tattered copy of Seth Speaks like a downtown Christian brandishing a Bible. The last time we saw him was in the theater department’s Christmas production of Gay Othello. And apparently had suffered some sudden dark fate relating to *** according to Sarah.
“This is bullshit! This is some kind of bullshit fucking scare tactic. What is this? We don’t even know this asshole!” Harris was launching into his own version of hysterics after we joined Sarah in a corner booth at the Red Dragon restaurant across the mall from the movie theater where we ordered coffee and wontons and tried unsuccessfully to collect our wits. Sarah took shaky drags from her cigarette and didn’t look at any of us because she was trying not to cry. Harris abruptly ended his rant, pulled at his mohawk, and stared a hole through the table.
Dante shot each of us a shut-the-fuck-up look and nodded at Sarah. “Go ahead.”
“Somehow he managed to get his hands on a hit of ***.” I suddenly remembered that Crash knew Dottie’s brother. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dottie involuntarily clutch her purse. “He took it and went missing for three days,” Sarah continued. “They picked him up yesterday morning by the zoo. I just got back from the hospital. He looks like he’s been through a lawn mower.”
“What the fuck was he doing out at the zoo?”
Sarah shook her head. “He was running down the side of the road and blubbering incoherently about something he saw at his girlfriend’s house. She’s out of town with her parents, and he broke in and was hiding there all night for some reason. He said some loud noises scared him out of the house just before dawn. He saw something that scared the shit out of him and he ran. He heard… “ She put out her cigarette and stared through the restaurant window at the black and orange shadows of the parking lot. Her heavy black eyeliner ran down the length of her cheeks as if painted that way for a stupid horror movie. “He heard weird sounds coming from the back of the house like grinding metal or booming or something. He said he even felt it under his feet and saw it knock pictures off the walls.”
We yanked the rest of the story out of her through sobs and long pauses. Sarah explained that after an hour of hiding in his girlfriend’s bedroom listening to the strange booming noises Crash eventually worked up the nerve to creep downstairs and face the intruder, too afraid to think to call the police. At four o’clock in the morning a ruckus in the alley woke up old Mrs. Beersworthy next door, who was indeed not too afraid to call the police. Apparently Crash had convinced himself that the ancient sprawling furnace in his girlfriend’s house had somehow come to life and clawed its way up the basement steps and greeted him, hissing and clicking, at the stairwell by the kitchen. He became so unhinged that he must have used a chair to break through the kitchen window, because when the police arrived there was blood and glass and a chair and scattered trash cans all over the driveway—the opposite of a break in.
“He was covered in cuts and bruises. His face was pale and his eyes were yellow and stretched wide open like some kind of jaundiced adrenaline junkie. He was obviously in shock. He couldn’t put more than two words together for like a full day, and when he did, he kept flipping back and forth between English and French and he wouldn’t stop talking about his girlfriend’s house and being followed and some bullshit about an underground church.” Sarah rolled her eyes at the ceiling in an attempt at mock fright. “L’église au dessous des égouts! He just kept shaking and stuttering and clawing at the nurses, and he was missing his left pinkie finger.”
For reasons I can’t at all explain I wondered if Crash started using complete sentences around the same time Harris made off with Dante’s copy of Ulysses. My eyes wandered back to the table and Sarah looked directly at me for the first time since we sat down. “There’s some kind of weird burn in the middle of his back. They think the injuries might be self-inflicted, but he’s also showing symptoms of radiation poisoning. His fucking hair is falling out. They finally got him to calm down this afternoon, but then out of nowhere he started freaking out again and kicked an orderly in the face, and now he’s strapped to his bed and sedated all to fuck. There’s a police officer stationed outside his room and they asked me a bunch of questions. They won’t let me see him anymore.”
Dottie shook her head and whispered, “What the fuck?”
“This is bullshit. He’s a theater major for fuck’s sake!”
I kicked Harris’ leg under the table and shifted in my seat before asking, “Is he being charged with anything?”
Sarah exhaled deeply and stared at her cigarette. After a long pause she said, “They think he has something to do with a U sorority girl who was raped and beaten into a coma on Thursday.”
Tesla and Harris let out simultaneous sounds of exasperated disbelief. Dante got up and walked over to the pay phone near the back of the restaurant. Dottie held Sarah’s hand. I was trying to not think about a bloodied and hysterical Crash raping some university cheerleader when Harris glared at me menacingly and tightened his jaw. He didn’t have to say anything. I could read his mind. We’re still going to take it.
Crash’s nervous breakdown really took the wind out of our sails and the black mass seemed in poor taste, not funny. At the Last Supper we all showed up, but none of us had the stomach to imbibe anything stronger than box wine and shitty weed. Against our strongest objections Harris took the *** anyway and called us all pussies and locked himself in the unfinished basement armed only with a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum and a flashlight. After an hour of pleading and pounding on the basement door we gave up and decided to just let him ride it out in peace. We nervously settled in for a double creature feature in front of the oversized ‘70s television set in the living room and did bong hits and tried not to think about what was happening right under our feet which must have been happening very quietly, whatever it was. Four hours later the shrill duet of the smoke alarm and Harris’ maniacal screams sent us all tumbling off the couch, half awake.
I see! I see! I see!
(Beep! Beep! Beep!)
We had just barely emerged from the house after trying unsuccessfully for fifteen minutes to break down the basement door with an end table when the fire trucks and police cars came screeching around the sleepy suburban corner. Because we ran screaming out into the lawn without first emptying our pockets, we all later faced charges of possession with intent to sell (to wit: shitty weed) but since none of us had any priors, in lieu of jail and fines we were saddled with the (arguably worse) punishment of traveling around the state and talking with middle school students about the dangers of drug use. After the funeral we gathered around to watch Dottie unceremoniously flush the rest of the *** down the toilet, little Japanese submarines succumbing to a typhoon, and Sarah threw up in the kitchen. We climbed up under the railroad bridge and smoked and talked about graduation, and I tried not to wonder where Dante’s copy of Ulysses was and how I was ever going to get it back.