He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision–he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: `The horror! The horror!’ (Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, via Link)
My wife will not read my books or stories. She says they are too dark. She asks me why I won’t write something she’ll read, something warm, romantic, positive. Maybe something family friendly. I tell her that I’ll consider it. And I do.
The problem is that the world is not warm, romantic, positive, or in the least bit family friendly. We try to pretend that is, but that is a lie of the worst sort. The world is a dark and dreadful place that we vainly attempt to convert into sunshine and laughter. It doesn’t work. What I write, the image that forms in my mind is a world full of terror, deception, and incredible anger. To write anything else would be at the least disingenuous and dishonest to myself.
Still, I said I would try and I have. This past weekend my wife and I made the long drive to Northern Virginia to pick up my almost four granddaughter, Hannah, and bring her back to Florida to stay with us for a couple of weeks. Hannah is a beautiful little girl who is smart, active, friendly, and innocent of the world. She knows Jesus and recites from the Bible. Jesus loves me, yes I know, cause the Bible tells me so.
If a little child can’t inspire something warm, romantic, positive, and family friendly, who can? After all, you write what you know. So as we plied the many miles up and back, the thought, the grain of a story, began to form in my mind. And I will freely admit that even though I am two thousand words into it, I still don’t know where this is leading me. Here’s the basic idea:
Grandparents have their young granddaughter come to spend the summer. To be closer to her in case she needs them during the night, they sleep in the spare bedroom across the hall from hers, rather than the master bedroom. Everything is wonderful until one night Grandpa is awakened by a plaintiff voice next to his bedside.
“Poppa,” said the voice, “I have to go potty.”
By the half-light of the moon through the skylight, he takes her to the bathroom, waits while she does what she needs to do, makes sure she washes her hands, then guides her back to her bedroom. As he enters the bedroom though, he sees her already safely tucked in bed, fast asleep. He looks around him for the little girl he just took to the bathroom. She is gone.
Now he thinks he must have dreamed it or he simply fell asleep standing there while she crawled back into bed. Confused, he lies awake for hours thinking about it, wondering what must have happened. He knows he dare not tell his wife for fear that she might think him incapable of helping care for the preschooler. He is certainly aware of his age, aware of his growing weaknesses, and yet he feels that there must be something more.
But what is the “something more”? Is the little girl a ghost? If so, is she malevolent or passive? Why did she call Grandpa “Poppa”? Why did it happen now? Is it the room? Is it the granddaughter? Is it the house? Is there some hidden history? Are they in danger? Who will save them? How could he forget putting her in bed? Was it at stroke or is he losing it, going crazy? Is this “Ghost Whisperer” or “Poltergeist”? How will the story be resolved?
So many questions, so many possibilities, but none of them leading to a bright light and a field of flowers. Maybe you have an answer, a better idea.
I opened this post with a quote from The Heart of Darkness, one of my all time favorites, because you can’t get much darker than Joseph Conrad’s descriptions of Kurtz and the Congo. As much as I hated the book in high school, his words have stayed with me all these years. They are haunting and compelling, creating mental images that I cannot jettison from my subconscious no matter how hard I’ve tried. Those same images were, of course, morphed and reimagined for a new, more graphic generation in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now. The setting is changed to Viet Nam, but the words uttered by Marlon Brando as Kurtz remain, “The horror… the horror…”
There it is, ever present, the horror. That something that touches the very essence of our primordial soul. Fight or flight, adrenaline high, fear of the next word, the next image. Anxiously welcomed, the horror takes us to the edge of abandon from which we may never escape.
But that’s the difference between fiction and reality. Fiction brings us to a place we are no longer willing to go in reality. Terror, murder, mayhem, the supernatural, all these are viewed at a safe distance. Just close the cover, close the viewer, walk away, and you’re free. Or are you? Are you ever really free of what you’ve experienced? Doesn’t it become part of you, melding itself to your psyche, influencing who you are? Was Marlow ever free of the memory of Kurtz or the Congo? Somehow I don’t think so.
Marlow was changed forever by the darkness. You may dawdle in the sunshine, pretend flowers are your friends, and never go near the shadows. You may sing about how Jesus loves you, but late at night when the lights are low and the wind pushes against the window pane and the creaking of the house leaves you unsettled, no matter who else is in the room, no matter how close you are, you will still be alone with the darkness.
Embrace it and let it make you whole.
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