(This short story appeared in Unbelievably Bad #15)
Since my youth, I had known Horatio to be a teller of strange fables so it was no surprise to me when I found him ensconced in his domicile shouting angrily about Luddites. I suggest to him the application of salves and balms to sooth his inner turmoil but he is having none of it. He is convinced that an army of Luddite saboteurs lurk just outside his front door, “first it was the toaster and then the remote control!” He wails in horror.
“Could you not ascribe their demise to planned obsolescence?” I enquire innocently.
He snorts in derision at my temerity.
“And who do you suppose invented planned obsolescence?”
Clearly, there is no reasoning or civility to be had with my old chum, so I go with the flow.
“Naturally, I agree with your sentiments and I suggest a robust attack being the best form of defence.”
He leaps into action, “I like the cut of your jib!” He barks before dashing into the kitchenette.
He emerges a few moments later, clutching a knife and then deflates like a punctured soccer ball.
“Who am I kidding? Luddites are far from innocent, yet that is not what troubles me. You see, friend, I have written a book…”
My heart sinks; there will be no redemption or peace for him if he wants to be a writer. His life will be fraught with disappointment, poverty and substance abuse, his relationships fractured spasms of lust and his general health and well-being will always be in a state of flux. I shake my head wearily, “Why would you attempt such a thing?”
But it is no use – he dashes into his study and re-emerges a moment later feverishly clutching a dog-eared manuscript.
“Here it is! I have done it!” He barks triumphantly.
He slams the offending article down in front of me and I thumb at it absent-mindedly.
“Well aren’t you going to have a read?” He demands.
Horatio slinks back to the couch and collapses face first into it. His body convulses as he sobs loudly. I can hear him pleading, “Just read it, for the love of god, man, just read it.”
It is a profoundly awkward moment but finally, it is the sight of his oversized buttocks clenching under thin slacks that makes me acquiesce.
“Okay, okay, I will read the damn thing!”
Horatio looks sideways at me with dazzled eyes, “Do you mean it? Tell me this isn’t a cruel joke.”
I answer him by turning over the first page with a flourish and start reading.
So I change gears…Gun the engine…And before long we are smooth sailing through bombed out terror-dactyl mudflats where dancing is a contact sport played by the armless and insane and children piss through colanders to purify the stream.
‘I think we may have missed the turnoff…’ Says Leisha, her eyes wide in fear.
She is probably right but it is too late anyway as the video game moon flickers above and slow burn flares drift on down.
‘Better buckle up, I think there may be turbulence ahead.’
I yell over the static that crinkles out of broken speakers and smells like burning metal. Then we are hydroplaning sideways in slow motion…through the rain past dead cathedrals and sad shires…and her hair, her hair, her hair…it looks like some underwater plant grooving to a deep, deep current.
My reverie is destroyed by a rude noise; Horatio has snuck up next to me with a Saxophone and blasts the bloody thing not an inch from my ear hole. I fall sideways onto the couch in shock like a man shot. He steps in and blows it directly in my face, I kick out at him and catch him on the hip, he falls whilst blowing dementedly on the stupid instrument. He leaps back to his feet with dexterity that belies his rotund disposition and stands there delivering short blasts into the mouthpiece. It feels like someone is stabbing knitting needles into my ears. Then I bring my leg up straight and smash it into his testicles. He hits a high note then drops the sax and staggers over to the opposite couch and collapses dramatically.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?” I demand.
He is curled up in pain but manages to hiss through clenched teeth, “What did you think so far – of the story I mean?”
“It doesn’t make any damn sense and neither do you!”
I sit down in exasperation and try to remember what it was like to feel a connection with somebody or something.
Horatio sits up, blows his nose on his sleeve, looks to his left, looks to his right, crosses his legs, looks to the ceiling, uncrosses his legs, smooths out his slacks, picks his nose, examines the tip of his finger, sighs loudly, crosses his arms, does a tiny fart and fixes his eyes on me like laser beams.
“You! You of all people, I thought you would understand what I am trying to do here.”
I flick through the pages, “It makes no damn sense, Horatio! I can’t imagine reading an entire manuscript of that crap.”
Horatio flips onto his back on the couch and starts kicking out his stumpy legs.
“Ai! Ai! Ai! Can’t you see what I am trying to achieve? If you read the bloody thing you would experience a radical new way of thinking. You would be utterly transformed!”
It is time for me to leave, it is clear that Horatio has completely lost his mind. I stand up.
“Well, old friend, time for me to go. It has been…interesting.”
Horatio just shakes his head.
“No, you aren’t going anywhere.” He gives me a patronising smile as he reaches down the side of the couch.
I turn to leave and hear a click; the maniac has produced a revolver and is levelling it at my groin.
“One more step and I will blow your balls off.”
I laugh, “You can’t be serious?”
He answers me by closing one eye as he aims and tightens his hold on the weapon.
“Siddown and start reading.”
So I sit and start reading, vowing silently to myself that I will shove the damn thing down his throat at my first opportunity. The story quickly changes to one about a man trapped in a world that is a huge Ikea store. Initially, he enters the store looking for one small and insignificant item and soon finds himself hopelessly lost in a confounding maze of home improvements.
His path is constantly beset by obstacles; a moustachioed man pushing a quadruple decker pram filled with mewling brats; a woman yammering loudly and incoherently into a mobile phone; shop assistants who give him contradictory and confusing directions. I notice too that the font is getting smaller as I read on. I start feeling agitated and annoyed, it is just so bloody pointless and frustrating! Why the hell can’t he just find an exit? But it goes on and on and on for page after page after page.
By the time I am half way through, I am restless, irritable and discontent. I just want to get out of my skin. I look up at Horatio.
“Keep reading! Don’t stop, it must be read in one sitting to experience maximum effect!”
The story doesn’t change, just the same hapless bastard walking through an endless Ikea store. And the font has become so small that I have to squint with my face not two inches from the page. By the time I am three quarters of the way through, I start craving a drink. Not just a sip or even a few beers, I want to nail a bottle of whisky. The feeling increases until it is foremost in my mind-an imperious obsession that blots out all else.
I tell myself that once the ordeal of Horatio’s damned manuscript is over, at least I will have solace in a bottle. But it has become impossible to read, the font is so miniscule I have to close one eye and put the other only centimetres from the words. The main character is stuck in an endless loop in the kitchen section of Ikea. I drop the manuscript, stand up and walk towards the kitchen.
“Hey! I didn’t say you could stop reading-it’s not finished.”
Horatio levels the gun at me. I keep walking.
“Fuckin’ shoot me! I couldn’t give a shit, and if you don’t have anything to drink you’d better shoot me anyway because I will kill you.”
In the kitchen, I start opening cupboards until I find one filled with bottles. I pluck out a bottle of Jamieson and twist off the lid. Then I up end the bottle and pour it down my throat. I swagger into the lounge room clutching at the bottle.
“Give up, you can’t write. That was the most atrocious piece of shit I have ever fuckin’ read.” I snarl before walking into the toilet.
I take another scull of the bottle, flip open his medicine cabinet above the sink and start pulling out medication. Most of it is useless crap like ibuprofen and Claritin so I drop it in the sink. Then I find something worthwhile, Dexedrine, I shouldn’t be surprised really, Horatio has been an ADHD prick for as long as I can remember. I punch out a sheets worth, toss them into my mouth and wash them down with whisky. Then I pluck out a pack of Endone and repeat the process. I strut back into the lounge and point the finger of my bottle hand at Horatio.
“Seriously, you are the most pathetic writer I have ever had the misfortune to read. Completely and utterly incompetent! Who heard of such a thing? Some fuckwit trapped in bloody Ikea! That was the most boring shit I have ever been subjected to.” I hoik up a golly and slag it with true feeling onto his shag carpet.
Horatio just sits there with a small smile playing on his lips.
“And the font! Your page layout skills are atrocious! The fuckin’ font was so small at the end I couldn’t read the cock sucking piece of shit!” I smash another hit from the bottle and it pours off my chin.
Then I laugh like a madman.
“You fuckin’ idiot! Trying to be a writer, what were you thinking?”
I look at him sitting on the couch smiling his little smile; a pathetic figure!
Then he shifts and smooths out his slacks.
“On the contrary old friend, my book is a resounding success.”
“Ha! By what degenerate measure?”
“Let me ask you this; have you heard of a book called Knots by R.D. Laing?”
I roll my eyes at him and take a swig.
“He posited the idea that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are adverse reactions to subverted external stimuli. Naturally, he was ridiculed by the Psychiatric Association so he disproved them by writing Knots – a book that if read in one sitting emulates the experience of schizophrenia.”
“So the fuck what? Hey, have you got any weed, haven’t smoked that shit in years but I sure as hell would like some now!”
Horatio giggles like a giddy schoolgirl and lets out another tiny fart.
“Can’t you see what I have done? My book causes its readers to experience the mental derangement that leads to chronic addiction.”
I look at him and then to the bottle then back at him again. It was odd for me to drink with such gusto, not to mention the drugs.
“Why I oughta…” I lift the bottle as if to throw it at him.
“Eeeeeek!” Horatio pulls his legs up and extends his arms, “it’s only temporary, don’t worry!”
“You son-of-a-bitch! Why would you…” I flop down on the couch and laugh, it is all so ridiculous.
Then I take another pull on the whisky as I feel the pills in my guts working their magic. It is a magnificent high with both drugs fighting for supremacy.
“Might as well go with it my friend, give in to your impulses…” Says Horatio in dulcet tones.
“Put on some music, something suitable for the occasion.” I mumble.
He waddles over to the turntable and pulls a record out from below it. He places it on the mat and drops the needle. 1969 by The Stooges oozes out of the speakers as I melt into the couch…
…I wake up and don’t know where I am. There is something on my chest. I look down, it’s a book. Confused, I sit up. It was too real for a dream, maybe a hallucination? I pick up my phone and punch in a number. After ten rings, Horatio answers.
“Hey. I had the weirdest dream about you last night.”
“Should I hang up now?”
“Nah, mate, not one of those dreams. Actually it wasn’t a dream, pretty sure I had a flashback of some sort.”
I explain in detail what happened.
“A writer, eh? No way that I would be insane enough to attempt such a thing. You are sure it wasn’t some sort of waking dream?”
“What do you think it could have been?”
“Tell me, did anyone you didn’t know give you a drink or something to eat last night?”
“Tell me, has your doctor prescribed you a new medication lately?”
“Tell me, have you ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder?”
“Tell me, were you reading a book right before this happened?”
“Yeah, I was. Why?”
“Tell me, was it a very old book?”
“First edition of The King in Yellow, 1895.”
“Tell me, was it a very dusty book?”
“Yeah, it had all kinds of dust inside it on the pages. Stop fuckin’ saying ‘tell me’ all the time!”
“Sheesh! No need to get your knickers in a knot. But not to worry, I think I know what may have happened. You say there was dust inside the book?”
“Yeah, some pages more than others, had a peculiar smell to it, made me sneeze a few times too.”
“Fascinating! I think I may know what happened to you friend. There have been reports through the ages of people hallucinating due to contamination from the dust of old books. Under the microscope, this dust was discovered to actually be a fungus containing an as yet undocumented hallucinogen. By the sounds of it, you experienced its intoxicating effects.”
“You don’t say?”
“If I were you, I would toss that book, old or not.”
I end the call and pick up The King in Yellow. I open it to a chapter called The Yellow Sign, sneeze three times in a row and start reading.