Guest Blog: Ben Larken – The Creature from the Black Cliché
The Creature from the Black Cliché
By Ben Larken
My horror thriller Pillar’s Fall is about a detective playing a lethal cat-and-mouse game with a demon-possessed boy on a rampage. I wanted it to be disturbing, visceral, and relentless—and I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of cheesiness that many of these kinds of stories fall prey to.
One area where cheesiness often abounds is in that category of Bad Guy Origins. I’ve read my share of cliché horror novels and seen plenty of B-movies, and it’s that explanation of how the bad guy got into the story that usually requires the biggest suspension of disbelief. Either the maniac just broke out of prison or the realtor forgot to mention they live on an Indian burial ground or nuclear radiation had an undesired effect on the animal kingdom. Now we’ve all seen or read versions of these premises that not only made them sound convincing but did it in a cool and intriguing way. But for every one that gets it right there are dozens that don’t, and the quickest way to lose your audience is to introduce the antagonist in a lame way.
In my case, I wanted to unleash a demon. And I think anytime you deal with the subject matter of a demon-possessed child you are contractually obligated to pay homage to William Peter Blatty’s masterwork The Exorcist. Everyone remembers that awesome hypnosis moment from the film, when the demon breaks up a session with a game of Ball-Crusher. I thought it’d be fun to do my own therapy session and play with hypnosis in a slightly different way.
I’ll leave it for you to decide if I steered clear of the cheese…
Dave Morrissey sat on the periphery of the proceedings, watching through glassy eyes. There were four of them altogether—the counselor, the hypnotist, himself, and of course Seth. Seth was the reason for this assembly of minds. Dave watched his twelve-year-old son on the opposite end of the office, slumped in the big easy chair, the boy’s eyes carrying a different kind of glassy look. As the hypnotist—a puffy, bald Brit named Dr. Pandor—talked, Seth’s eyes slipped farther into the distance, and Dave could only guess what the boy’s mind was doing.
Dr. Pandor’s silky voice rose. “I’m taking you back now, Seth, back to November 11. Do you see that day, Seth? Are you there?”
Seth’s voice came in a drunken mumble. “Yes.”
“Tell me what you see.”
“Blood,” he replied, his voice neither rising nor lowering. “It’s coming from under the bathroom door. It’s soaking through the carpet.”
“And what are you doing?” Pandor continued. “What is your reaction when you see the blood?”
Seth’s fists clenched in his lap. The bushy-haired redhead trembled slightly. “I’m calling the police. My back’s against the hallway wall, and I’m squatting. Mom’s just having a bad morning. That’s what I tell the lady on the phone. Mom’s always kinda whacked-out in the morning. But the blood’s coming at me. It’s working through the carpet, fanning out like . . . like grape juice through a paper towel. I mumble to the operator. She’s got to get someone here now. Mom’s never been this whacked-out before. I wanna run outside and wait for them, but I’m stuck. And I know—I know when the blood reaches me, I’m gonna die.”
“The police came, though,” Pandor interjected. “Did they get there before the blood reached you?”
Seth’s small frame shivered. “No.”
Dave felt a gigantic urge to weep. He should have been there. He had discussed all this with his girlfriend. But all her support didn’t take him away from the fact that part of this was his fault. Maybe Mary had been a manic-depressive, but Dave never tried to help her through it. He was too busy helping himself with other things. Meanwhile, Mary had slipped further and further into a state of mental blackness. The final stage of that blackness occurred the moment Mary brought home the grocery bag with two items inside: a bottle of vodka and a knife. She consumed half the bottle, and then the knife consumed her. He remembered talking to the first officer on the scene. The officer found Seth in the hallway, curled up like a baby on the floor. Half of Seth’s clothes had been soaked in the blood puddle. Seth was conscious, but the officer could tell the boy was in shock. He picked Seth up to move him, and the officer said the boy remained frozen the entire time. Carrying him felt like hoisting a bag of bowling balls, the officer said.
“I want you to return to the present.” Pandor said. “Return to the present and tell me how you feel now.”
“I feel dead,” Seth replied, his breath picking up speed. “I feel as dead as my mother. I wish I were dead . . . so I could go with her.”
“You think death would be preferable to your life as it is now?”
“Even though your father is still here and he loves you?”
“He cheated on my mother. He’s the reason she killed herself.”
Dave coughed, and the tears came. He couldn’t hold them any longer. They streamed down his face as his shoulders took off on a shaking spree. He knew this was coming. Still, this was the first time the words came from his son’s mouth. And they hurt. God, they hurt.
“Okay,” Pandor ventured. “That sounds reasonable. Why don’t you try it right now?”
A jolt passed through Dave. What did that guy say? He reached impulsively to Lanville, who must have seen the reaction coming. He held up a calming hand toward Dave, his eyes condescending and obnoxious.
“Yes,” the hypnotist continued. “Let’s try it now. Leave your body for a moment. But don’t turn it off. Let your body continue to function. Leave the engine running, so to speak, but step out of the car. Go to your mother and then come right back. Tell me what you see.”
Seth’s voice passed into a whisper. “Okay…”
The boy closed his eyes, and Dave couldn’t hold back any longer.
“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded, his nasally voice turning high-pitched. “This isn’t what I pay you for. I want you to heal him, not send him deeper into suicidal fantasy land.”
Lanville threw out his best white-toothed smile, ready for his close-up. “We are trying to heal him, Mr. Morrissey,” he whispered confidently. “What do you think this is going to do? It’s going to end his curiosity about death. If he looks at it through his mind’s eye he won’t want to see it in real life.”
“Yes, but you have to admit this is a little extre—Seth!”
Dave jumped out of his chair, his eyes locked on the twelve-year-old boy who had started convulsing wildly. Lanville grabbed Dave before he could move forward, and Dave turned and saw something that absolutely horrified him. He saw a glint of fear in the young psychologist’s eyes. Mr. Close-Up hadn’t expected this. And when he turned to Pandor, he saw an even larger look of surprise.
“Seth, listen to me,” the hypnotist commanded in a strained calm. “Stop your journey and come back. Talk to me now.”
The convulsing continued, and when a jet of spittle shot from the boy’s mouth, Dave lost all pretense of control. “Seth!” he screamed, running to the boy and grabbing him by the shoulders. “Seth, wake up! Don’t listen to him. Just wake up!”
“Seth?” Lanville offered. “Can you hear me? This is Dr. Lanville. Can you hear me?”
The convulsing quickened, becoming a sharp jitter. The boy’s bones shook so fast in Dave’s hands that he nearly lost his grip. Seth was going to die any second. He was losing his only son and there was nothing anyone could do. How do you get into a mind that’s already started shutting itself down? “Oh God, Seth, no,” Dave moaned. “Please come back, son. Please come back.”
The convulsing abruptly stopped. Seth went slack in the chair, and for a heart-stopping moment Dave was sure his son was gone. But then Seth inhaled a long breath, and a sly smile quietly spread across his face.
“I’m back,” he said, almost sounding amused.
The hypnotist puffed a sigh of relief and gave the boy a double glance, as if he wasn’t completely sure the boy had truly been hypnotized. “Okay,” he replied, regaining full composure. “What did you see?”
“I saw Mom,” Seth answered, his tone almost conversational. “I saw her waving at me in the shadows. There were lots of shadows. They covered everything, and they moved constantly. They were like actual beings, even though they were empty and shapeless. So many shadows.”
Pandor arched an eyebrow, exchanging a confused glance with Lanville. “So is that really a place you want to return to?”
The boy chuckled, a low guttural sound that creeped the hell out of Dave. “Oh no,” Seth answered. “I’m never going back there again.”