Earlier this year, I thought it might be interesting to start work on a second short story collection, this one revolving around the following concept: all the stories were to have been set in a city called Thundermist (a thinly veiled nightmare recreation of my own hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island). The working title was to have been Sabaziorum: The Thundermist Tales (or something along those lines). The idea was that there would be around 7-8 short stories and a novella. However, upon completing 4 of the stories (and slowly starting a fifth), the project began losing steam... as the months have gone by this year I've gradually lost interest in writing weird short fiction: I still enjoy reading it a great deal, but I've felt as if I've said all I've had to say on that topic and the newer stories I had created, while technically well-executed, were lacking passion and just repeating themes and things that I had already written about in my first short story collection, Grimoire. Still, I feel the 4 or so stories I created have some merit, so for the curious, I've decided to gradually post them on this blog, so that they can at least be read.
This first story, The Aphotic Zone, was written in the summer of 2010 for my friend David Kelso's project "I Love a Genre," where I presume it shall one day appear. In terms of style and subject matter it is heavily influenced by Thomas Ligotti's masterful short story "The Chymist," from his collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.
The Aphotic Zone
“All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface
do so at their peril.”
“It is easier to perceive error than to find truth,
for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen,
while the latter lies in the depth,
where few are willing to search for it.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Errors like straws upon the surface flow:
Who would search for pearls must dive below.”
Good evening, my friend. Please, step a little closer to me, I can't hear you over the noise of the crowd. Yes, you presume correctly: I am indeed the artist known as Professor Noe. I take it this isn't your first time visiting the Melanoid Art Gallery? Ah, I was correct in my assumptions, then. Quite a turnout tonight, wouldn't you say? I'm not quite sure if I understand all the hullabaloo, though: it's all a bit too minimalist and abstract for my liking. Nothing depresses me more than seeing our lovely organic forms reduced to mere geometrical shapes, and to be honest I’m somewhat appalled by the Cubistic hereticism on display this evening. But there are too many people here for me to talk to you comfortably. Come, let us speak in this less occupied side gallery, where it is quieter and darker, and our only audience will be the shadows, who, even more so than priests, can be trusted to conceal a secret.
H'mm, that's much better. Oh, looks like this room is devoted to a retrospective of the art of Arthur Rackham. Why, that's much more suitable. Let's take a seat right here, underneath the gaze of his illustration of “The Gnat and the Lion,” from Aesop's Fables. Kind of a macabre image for a child's book, don't you agree? I mean, look at the horrific expression on the gnat's face, as he realizes he's about to be devoured by that sinister looking spider. What makes this illustration even creepier is how the gnat has the face of a human being, wouldn't you say? It allows us to place ourselves in his exoskeleton. Gazing at this mere drawing for children I feel a layer of frostbite forming on my vertebral column, a freezing sensation caused by the snowflakes of horror: my very favorite sort of spinal chill.
I must say, you're well-dressed this evening. What's that now? I do suppose my appearance is a little strange. After all, not many people wear all their clothes inside out in the same manner as I do. Furthermore, I also suppose that not all that many people walk around in public wearing a squid mask over their face. What can I say, other than that I'm shy? But that, of course, is a lie. I agree it is a most unusual-looking squid, what with its velvet jet-black exterior, those bulging limpid blue eyes, that webbing of skin connecting its tentacles like a cape of sorts. The mask I'm wearing is a representation of the Vampyroteuthis, more commonly known as the Vampire Squid. I won't bore you with the scientific details, it suffices to say that the vampire squid is a small cephalopod that lives in very deep portions of the ocean. Did you know that it's 300 million years old, and thus existed even before the dinosaurs? Or that it's one of the few animals in nature that can turn itself inside-out when faced with danger? That's why I found it puzzling when I read about a certain fictitious aquatic creature that had been deleted from the film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, one Hydronicus inverticus... the filmmakers cut it from the film on account of them finding it too “ridiculous.” What rot! There's no form we can conceive in our mind that cannot be found elsewhere in nature.
But yes, quite an amazing creature, our friend the vampire squid. A shame it has such a sinister reputation attached to it. Some call it the “Dracula of the Deep,” as if it were some sort of garden-variety bloodsucker of the Seven Seas. But I digress. No, there's no need for you to introduce yourself, as your reputation precedes you, Monsieur Colwin. I have heard that you are a connoisseur of yourself, is that correct? By that I mean that it is well-known in this city that your extensive collection of art consists solely of portraits of yourself, executed by artists whose services you've employed. Yet you've never been completely satisfied by these portraits, no? Perhaps these so-called “artists” have succeeded, on a superficial level, in capturing your likeness, yet your “essence” (or, if you will, your anima) refuses to be imprisoned on canvas by their crude pigments.
Yes, my dear Adrian, I have heard much of you over the last few months. I know that when you had begun your expedition in the field of portraiture, you had initially sought out artists known for their lifelike, almost photo-realistic styles. And you quickly learned a bitter truth: any hack can portray the flesh, but it takes a true genius to paint one's soul. Naturally, you decided to undertake a more abstract approach, which led to a parade of Cubist, Surrealist, and other avant-garde portraits. And though these efforts came a bit closer to capturing the sum of all your parts, you were still left unsatisfied. Hence your recent employment of an experimental musician to record an audio portrait of yourself (I hear he mostly just recorded the sounds of your inner organs, such as your heart? A somewhat admirable approach, I must admit), or that troupe of world-renowned cloud-sculptors from China who had carved a nimbus likeness of your face in the clouds above the city last month. But even they all failed.
And now, you seek me out to do your portrait. Well, I won't lie, it is an honor, and I do so love a challenge. I am curious, however, as to how you have heard of me. After all, I only moved to this city a year or so ago, and I'm not exactly the most sociable and attention-seeking figure, despite my outlandish appearance. Ah, so you've heard of me through Cynthia Glassroad? Yes, we've met. I'm not surprised she doesn't know all that much about me though. It is true that I was born in New England, not far from here in fact, and that I was expelled from the Rhode Island School of Design for what they referred to as “Interspacial Anarchy,” if you can believe that injustice. No, I don't know what it means either! As to answering the other question you just posed to me a moment ago, no, I've never done a public showing of my work. In fact, I forbid the subjects of my portraits to show other people the finished work of art. You see, my portraits are more than just mere portraits. They're something far more unique and primal, masterpieces of nebulosity, if you don't mind my heaping praises on myself.
You mention the name Mabel Osterman. I recently did a portrait of her, and she was raving about it afterwards. What's that? Well, yes, she did spend some time doing another kind of raving, in that insane asylum I've heard so many good things about, but she only temporarily lost her mind. When she saw my finished portrait of her, the poor dear was just so amazed by it that she went a little bit out of her head. But she's calmed down now and the last time I saw her she was as right as rain, and if you don't believe me, just ask Cynthia and she'll verify my story. I think temporarily losing one's mind can be a good thing, actually... after all, what better way to appreciate sanity than by engaging in a torrid love affair with its psychotic twin? It's just like how good health would be meaningless without illness, and how virtue would be pointless without vice. I once knew a man, a philosopher of the greenest sort, who had the foolhardy notion that the existence of Evil was the greatest argument against the existence of God. But I disagree: I think that Free Will is the greatest gift that any deity could give us, and without vice, think of how boring we all would be... nothing more than pious little robots.
No need to hide your checking of your watch: I'm aware I have a tendency to pontificate. It’s a trait I inherited from my father, a most unrepentant deviant who was forever singing hymns of praise towards the untidy practice of undinism. Let's get down to business, as they say in bad movies. To summarize, for many years now you've been seeking out an artist to capture your essence in its most purest state, yet have never found anyone to satisfy your no doubt exquisite tastes and exacting standards. Well, I think me with me you've found your answer. After many years of experiments and tears, I have finally succeeded in discovering a new type of representational art that truly captures the interior splendor of my subjects. But if you'll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to now. If you wish for me to do a portrait for you, simply drop by my house, which is also where my studio is located. Here's my card, all the information you need is on there. H'm, maybe it is somewhat pretentious to refer to oneself as an “abyssopelagic portraitist,” but I find that to be a suitable description of my job. Yes, I do live across the Blackstone River, in the bad part of Thundermist; my house is actually located about four blocks away from an abandoned (and supposedly haunted) mental hospital: I take you've heard of Saddleworth Clinic. You know us artists, Monsieur Colwin, we just love living surrounded by bohemian squalor. So, I can expect a visit from you later on this week then? I very much look forward to it. Until then, I vamos.
* * * *
Why, good afternoon, my dear Adrian! So nice to see you standing on my front doorstep on this lovely October day. But you must be chilly, what with that bitter south wind blowing, so please, do come in, let me have your coat, I'll just hang it in the closet here.
I'd like to welcome you to my humble abode. I hope its appearance isn't too unsettling for you. Oh, no need to worry about alienating me, there's nothing that you can say that could possibly offend me. I guess it must look a little unusual: walls covered with pads of pink foam insulation, the exposed wires and plumbing, and so forth. Yes, it does look as if the walls of the house have been turned inside-out, so that one can see what is normally hidden. I'm sorry, could you repeat that? Yes, I always wear my clothes inside out, and I always wear this squid mask on my face, even when I'm at home, away from the sight of others. I suppose I just like to stay in character.
Come, let us retire to the studio. Tell me, Adrian, if you don't mind my calling you by your first name... you don't? Good. Now, do you know the true meaning of the word occult? No, nothing to do with mere witchcraft or sorcery, I'm afraid. The word occult comes from the Latin word occultus, which means “hidden,” or “secret.” The word itself refers to “knowledge of the hidden.” I myself have a fascination with things we don't see: the things that reality constantly shields from our eyes. Almost all religious, occult and spiritual belief systems and philosophies involve a search for this “hidden” side of existence. One could also make the same claim about art, poetry, and the like, in that very often we (and by “we” I mean artists such as myself) strive to depict things that we can see but that others cannot. We try to show people the world as seen through the eyes of God, and in my opinion, good art should reveal the other side of the veil, so to speak. Ah, but I see we have arrived at my studio. I hope you aren't immune to the beauty of spiderwebs... yes, there are quite a few webs in here. Most people would just sweep them away, but I like the ambiance they add to the room. And how could I, an artist, justify annihilating the toils of nature's greatest little eight-legged artisans? It's my firm belief that spiderwebs should be cherished and cultivated, not swept aside like trash. Moving on, let me briefly focus on the business aspect of my craft so that I can later continue with my philosophical discourse. Just wait here by the door while I go find the necessary papers on my desk.
Let's see, where did I put those papers? Pardon the mess, I really need to clean my desk one day. Where... is... it... ah! Here we are. This is a contract you'll need to sign if you wish for me to do a portrait of you. Yes, certainly, read it thoroughly! It basically states that not only are you forbidden from showing the final work of art to anyone else, but also that you will not discuss my artistic methods to others. Violation of this contract would result in me taking you to court, among other things. You inquire about the footnote that states “Those who break this contract will have their very soul hunted down by the 72 demons of the Goetia”? Oh, never mind all that, standard legalese, my lawyers insisted on its inclusion. Lawyers, what bothersome gnats! Let me know once you've signed, and then we can begin.
Excellent. Why don't you go and lie down on that gurney in the center of the room? That's where you'll be posing. Oh, you're feeling a little light-headed and woozy? That's weird, perhaps you've caught that cold that's going around. Now if you'll excuse me for just one second, I need to go turn on my iPod. Yes, I always like to listen to music when I work. Oh, by the way, could you also take off your clothes, please? I insist that my models be nude when I do their portraits. Nude as Father Adam in his prime. You can just leave your clothes on the floor. Very nice, very nice. I'm sure you've heard this before, Adrian, but you have a very beautiful body. Truly callipygian. Trust me, that’s a compliment: it means you have shapely buttocks. You look a little like Taylor Lautner, if you don't mind my saying so. Of course, you know what they say, it's what's on the inside that counts. One of those rare cliches that happens to be true, by the by.
The music? It's a song called “Rabbit Snare” by a British group named Throbbing Gristle. I see by the face you're making that you're not too keen on it. Or perhaps you're still feeling unwell? Don't panic... yes, it seems as if you're rapidly losing your ability to move your muscles. Almost as if you're becoming paralyzed. Oh dear, it could be that nasty cold that's going around. Or it might have something to do with the fact that pipes all over the interior of this house have been emitting a paralyzing nerve gas ever since you stepped through the front door. Yes, that's probably the most likely reason. It won't effect me because I'm wearing this handy mask, and I'm immune to the stuff anyway, but you're not quite as lucky. You need not worry, it's only temporary, it won't last. Let me just strap you down on this gurney and get you as comfortable as possible. Oh, please don't put up a struggle, even a feeble one such as this, it's very unattractive and completely a waste of energy. See, already your body is becoming comfortably numb. Soon you won't be able to feel a thing. In a way, I envy you, as my pain is constant. You don’t mind if I run my hands over your torso, do you? I like to get a feel for my clay before I start working with it.
Let me just tilt your head so you can see the TV on that wall. In a few minutes I'm going to let you observe Mabel Osterman's portrait session, as I videotape all such sessions. This session which we're doing right now will be recorded. In fact, the recording is the portrait. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. Before we can begin I feel the need to further explain my philosophy, which I hope will enlighten you about my working methods. And I apologize for the hoarseness of my voice: I spend so much time in communication with the spirit world, with the invisible Cobwebbed Ones, that it tends to put quite a bit of strain on my vocal cords. I also apologize for my somewhat extensive vocabulary. I adore archaic and antiquated words, and in my more delusional frames of mind I prefer to see myself as not only an artist but also as a necromancer of dead languages. My favorite word of all-time is “thanatoskiankomorphic.” I won't tell you what that means, though. I will only say that its definition reveals all there is to know about me. Or maybe I'm just lying. If some of what I'm about to tell you doesn't make much sense, bear in mind that the gas you're inhaling at the moment also causes the occasional audio (and visual) hallucination.
Now, earlier I was telling you about my fascination with things that are hidden, with the occult. As a child, I used to always take things apart, to see what they were like inside. My parents thought it was cute when I disassembled their VCR. They didn't think it was as cute when I did the same thing to the family parakeet, named Napoleon, of all things. Please don't misunderstand me, it had nothing to do with mere sadism. It wasn't as if I was also wetting my bed and setting things on fire, like so many other budding little serial killers-to-be. It was simply that I found surface exteriors boring. It was at some point during my teenage years that I determined to become an artist. Hence my years at the Rhode Island School of Design. The real reason I was kicked out of the school was because I drugged a model with formaldehyde and tried to turn her vagina inside-out. But the dosage was wrong and she ended up awakening halfway through the operation. Her screams alerted the campus police, who thus interrupted my work of art. I tried to explain to the Dean my philosophy, but apparently the college frowned on genital mutilation. The story never made it to the papers as the school didn't want bad publicity: I was simply expelled. I went through another depressive period, which was followed by a phase in which I studied a large number of religions, spiritual belief systems, Eastern philosophies, and so forth. Yet I found every single one of them lacking. During this period of my life, I also began a new career, that of a psychiatrist, and I started seeing patients, many of whom ended up becoming the test subjects of my future experiments.
One evening a couple of years ago, I went through a dark night of the soul, and at one point cursed the God who had created this world, who had hidden the most interesting things behind dull walls and tedious flesh. I was in such a state of despair that I considered taking my own life. As I sat in my bedroom with the razor in my hand I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed... until He came to me: the man with the starfish head. Some would call him a demon, but to me, he was my savior. It was He that made me pick up the razor and slice open a finger on my left hand. I saw the blood begin to seep out, my own blood, and I felt dizzy, as if I were witnessing something unreal. It made me think: why do people sometimes get dizzy or light-headed when they see their own blood? That evening, I had a revelation: it's not due to a fear of the sight of blood, it's because we're seeing something we're never meant to see, something that has been hidden away from us. I began to think of the inside of the human body, and all the organs that keep us going, how one never gets to truly see one's own skull when they look at themselves in the mirror. This was the conclusion I came to: that our true selves can only be found within us, literally, that the ultimate occult grimoire cannot be found on any bookshelf but underneath our skin. We need to read ourselves to truly reach enlightenment. The haruspices who tried to divine the future by inspecting the entrails of sacrificed sheep were on the right track, and I foresaw a new brand of theology: the study of the divinity of the human organs.
“In the heart of every human being there exists a haunted house, a dark forest, a pagan temple, a crumbling Gothic castle, and a desecrated church. It is within these ruins that we find our true selves, it is through these dark nights of the soul that Nature is unveiled.” I wrote that, many years ago, when I was a pretentious teenager. Little did I know, back then, how true those words were. So... where was I? Ah, yes, my life following the revelation. First, I began wearing my clothes inside-out, as an outward display of the dedication I felt towards my new purpose in life. I then began carefully studying nature, seeking out animals who were capable of turning themselves inside-out. Sadly, I was only able to find but a few examples, such as the starfish, who can turn its stomach inside-out. Did you know that? And, of course, my beloved vampire squids. Once I discovered them, my metamorphosis was complete. I created this mask and gave myself a new name: Professor Noe, you see. I began practicing my art, gradually perfecting my technique. Granted, a few of my early models died, but these were regrettable casualties of art. Eventually, I saved up enough money to move to this fine city of ours, and I proceeded to build this house, a house that reflects my unique philosophy. And then, my career as an artist began in earnest.
Are you familiar, Adrian, with the term “Aphotic Zone?” Ah, forgive me, I had forgotten that you are unable to speak at the present moment: or do anything at all, for that matter. Back to the Aphotic Zone. Now there's a term you won't come across on a daily basis. Aphotic is a Greek word meaning “without light.” The Aphotic Zone, then, is the portion of a lake or ocean where there is little to no sunlight. Less than 1% of sunlight penetrates this zone, and as a result, bioluminescence provides the only light source in this area of the ocean. Of course, there are layers even further below the Aphotic Zone, such as the Bathyal Zone, the Abyssal Zone, and the Hadal Zone. But I've always found the Aphotic Zone to be most fascinating because it's the natural habitat of the vampire squid. As I formulated my new philosophy, I began to see the innards of the human body as a metaphor for the Aphotic Zone, that is, we carry within us the darkness of the deepest depths of the ocean, and one must never forget that water makes up a significant portion of the human body. Science and technology has given us bathyspheres to explore the lowest depths of the ocean, but has failed to properly equip us with a similar device for plumbing the alien seas beneath our skin and muscles. Ufologists have it backwards: why look to the sky for alien life forms when the ultimate UFO is our own body. The drowning king of alchemy is nothing more than our own unconscious desire to map out these unknown waters, our mare nostrum. To shed light on the Aphotic Zone inside the human body: this became the aim of my philosophy, the goal of my art.
Before I begin working on your portrait, let me show you Mabel's session. Now, let me think, where did I last leave that video? Probably with my collection of previously taped portrait sessions. Let me search the “O” list: Olafson, Ondic, Orton, Orwig, ah! Here we are. Mabel Osterman. Let me just get this started up now. Okay, from the beginning. There's Mabel Osterman, strapped down to the very same gurney on which you now rest, paralyzed, naked, just like you. And now there I am, hovering to her side, scalpel in hand. Do you see? Accompanied by that old song by R.E.M., “Turn You Inside-Out,” I'm cutting her chest open now, as if I were performing an autopsy on her. I hope you don't find all of this dull. It picks up once I reach her interior region, her glorious subterranean ocean, her darkly shining world. Ah! There... see how gingerly I handle her insides, how delicately I hold them up to the camera, how lovingly I caress them? Oh, how I love to whisper noctivigant nursery rhymes to the organs of my models. Adrian, my boy, if you only knew the scandalous things her liver told me.
Have you ever wondered what your jealous organs daydream? Starved of attention, they fantasize about nothing less than the desecration of our beloved surfaces. The flawless faces of innocent babies and beautiful children covered with foul saprophytic maggots. Supermodels losing their minds as the skin starts to flake off their faces, before their horrified eyes. Our lovely lakes and oceans befouled by enormous anuses shitting torrents of fecal matter into once-pristine water. Trees covered with taunting sores and bubbling ulcers. Noble animals melting and mutating into horrific new forms, their outsides suddenly resembling their insides. The young turning into the old, their bodies crushed by time, their skin rotting away: this is pornography for our organs.
A confession: even though I depend on people such as yourself and Madame Osterman to fund my experiments, and even though your very existence is necessary to provide a reason for my art to exist in the first place, it's a symbiotic relationship I find nauseating, as narcissists such as yourself make me sick to death. You're just like everyone else in the world, concerned with outer appearances only. All you care about is your face, your muscles, the flatness of your gut, perhaps even your genital area. Meaningless! Meaningless! Vanity of vanity, all is vanity. Do you ever stop and think about the organs keeping you alive, the organs that never get to take a break, never get to go on vacation, never even get to rest? Maybe you think of them only in moments of morbidity, or at those periods in life where after decades of wear and tear they finally start to break down and rebel. What is cancer but a violent insurrection against a despotic tyrant? What is a heart attack but a noble suicide? Do you know that every organ is like a snowflake, something totally unique and with its own individual personality? Yet no one cares, except I, the man who has given them a voice, the artist who listens to the nightmares of tissues, the agony of the plasma, and the lamentations of the blood. As I turn you inside-out, I plan on reading your insides like a novel, and what I'll discover will be a trillion times more interesting than any words that could come forth from your pretty mouth.
Sorry about that, sometimes I like to get on my high horse. Ah, here's the part of the video where I hold a conversation with Mabel's kidneys. Don't worry about infection, as you can clearly see in this video, I'm wearing gloves, and I would also like to let you know that I always sterilize my surgical equipment before doing the portrait. In addition, my little dark elves will put you all back together once I'm done far more skillfully than any mere surgeon could do. Listen to me, surgical equipment, as if what I was doing was mere surgery! No, the scalpel is my paintbrush. Oh, this is a good part: it's very exciting when I cut open the skull and expose the brain to light. How many people can claim to have seen their own brain? If only I could find a way to peel off one's face to reveal the skull beneath, then somehow attach the face back on... but my art technique has not reached that level yet. Perhaps in the future. Maybe I'll even try it out on you.
Still, all good things must come to an end. You might find this final part of the video curious. You might even ask yourself, “Why is Professor Noe pulling what appears to be the shadows of benthopelagic homunculi out of a jar and sticking them in Mabel Osterman's body?” Well, it's partly insurance: to make sure that the model doesn't reveal my secrets to the profane. Those little monsters, the dark elves that I mentioned just a moment ago (which, by the way, were hydroponically harvested on the shadows of demons captured from some festering Fairyland), will snuggle up in your guts and make sure you behave. Don't worry, after awhile you won't even know they're there. If that sounds crude, look at it this way: many artists like to sign their works upon completion. Consider those little monsters to be my signature, written within the walls of your body: a living and demonic autograph.
Mabel's been stitched up good as new, and our video has come to an end. Now it's your turn. But wait, what's this? Are these tears trickling forth from your eyes? Are you crying, poor Adrian? There there... I promise you won't feel a thing, and it'll all be over before you know it, though it might take you a few weeks to recover, and it will leave a scar. But I can assure you this: when all is said and done, you'll get a copy of the session, and you'll have that rarest of pleasures: the chance to see your very own Aphotic Zone, that Godly shadow that exists within you. I will show you treasures within you whose existence you never even suspected, buried deep within your interior la mer like sunken ships of gold.
And now, for the scalpel...
Picture of a Vampire Squid turning itself inside-out.
Link to a video on Youtube of the Vampire Squid.
Throbbing Gristle's song "Rabbit Snare."
R.E.M.'s song "Turn You Inside-Out."
"The Gnat and the Lion" (Arthur Rackham)
Taylor Lautner: what I imagine Adrian Colwin to look like