W. P. Johnson

Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

House of a Thousand Rewrites

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Years ago when I lived at 6th and Wolf in South Philly, someone walked into this bar down the street from me called Mr. Bs and shot up the place with a shotgun. Hearing it was odd because you knew it was a gunshot, that it couldn’t be anything but that. It sank into your stomach like a cold lump of coal.

My friend and I used to go to this bar every night and buy forties, so much so that the bartender just started asking us how many instead of what we wanted. It was what you would call a “black bar” and we stuck out like sore thumbs. I remember how, one night, the bartender said to my friend, “What you want nigga?” and how happy that made him, like he was finally one of them, a working class black man instead of the pasty Irish punk he really was.

After it got shot up we stopped going. Olde English, after all, wasn’t something worth risking ones life over and it was cheaper to buy a case of Lionshead once a week anyway. I do miss tipping the bartender though (she would always call me sugar or honey). But the thing that I remember most about that night wasn’t how afraid I felt when I heard the gunshot. What I remember most was the calm I felt after, as if it was all over, that nothing else would happen that night as if murder was a nightly quota that would not surpass its number.

The first day I moved to 6th and Wolf, someone got shot and killed down the street. Another summer night, years after living there, there was something of a riot as a group of girls left Mr. Bs, chasing down this one girl that had slept with another girl’s man. Some of them had rocks, others knives. All of this happened minutes before I had biked home. As far as I knew, the streets were calm and empty, just another Saturday night. But as my friend tells it, if I had been there a minute earlier I would have been caught in a wave of blood thirsty women chasing after this poor girl. Who knows what happened to her? All I really remember is how quiet it was after. All I remember about the day I moved to 6th and Wolf is how I wasn’t worried about anyone taking my stuff.

It gave me the idea for a story. What if someone died every night? Specifically, what if only one person could die? No more, no less?

Tentatively I titled it “The Nightly Quota” and began writing a narrative about a small town in Virginia (I had just taken a road trip there). It would feature a man and his dying wife, his neighbor, and the eerie routine of one person dying every night whether it be through natural causes or at the hands of another. As it progressed, the protagonist would begin murdering people on his own in order that his wife would not die since her death would put the town over its quota. He would discover that a group of men were taking the bodies and feeding it to a gigantic parasite that had been feeding off the town since it existed and that its excrement gave them immortal life (this same parasite is also responsible for the quota). At some point he would steal this excrement and feed it to his wife so that she would live, falling to the hands of these men after and swiftly condemned to execution by hanging. Since an execution takes the randomness out of who will die, it is also a reason to celebrate. There would be a large party of people enjoying a night during which they know without a doubt that they would live. The story would end with the wife watching her husband executed, knowing she will have to live forever with this memory.

This is how the story started anyhow…

Now the story takes place in a apartment building in an unnamed city (Philadelphia presumably) and it features a protagonist troubled by the filth of his neighbors, the stress of it prompting violent night terrors to the extent that he has harmed his wife. As the story progresses, we learn that something odd is going on: the landlords of the building seem intent upon their tenants being miserable and unhappy. The story is tentatively titled “Harvest” and its ending is, in my opinion, one of the most frightening conclusions I’ve ever written.

I don’t have any drafts of the aforementioned “Nightly Quota”, but the description alone is striking enough in juxtaposition to what it has become (in fact, its so different from “Harvest” I could probably still write it). It took me nearly a month to finish a draft of the story and during this time everything changed: characters, setting, plot, as well as the antagonists (parasites were replaced with demons). It was a frustrating experience and it made me question my value as a writer: is this a sign that I was getting better or did I take a step backwards? Am I completely OCD about my work? Who the hell spends a entire month rewriting a twenty-two page story a hundred times? I’m twenty-nine for Christ’s sake. I should be writing a story a day…

When my last story “Skin” was compared to Thomas Ligotti, I looked him up and found the comparison to be very flattering. His work was labeled as “philosophical horror”, the kind of brooding existential dread one feels when faced with a unnameable evil. But he was also fairly prolific, having written hundreds of short stories. His short story collection The Nightmare Factory is roughly five hundred pages with forty-five stories. At the rate I’ve been writing stories, this same collection would take me about five years to write. Stephen King’s catalog would probably take me a hundred years to write!

But fuck it, I’m not Ligotti, I’m not King. I’ve got a different story to tell you. And I’m going to take my time telling it.

Below are several introductions to “Harvest” presented in the order at which they were written over the course of this past month. The title of the story also changed during the course of writing these introductions.

1. (Nightly Quota) It was one of the oldest apartment buildings in the city. If you were willing to listen to the tenant of room 413, Allen Lambert, he would go on for hours about how it used to be filled with junkies, thugs, and welfare mothers living off a rotation of credit cards and foodstamps, how it went from Irish to African to Asian back to African again. Then everyone was displaced by a wave of naive University students wielding their trust funds and all the supposed living whose meager salaries could no longer handle the rates at which their rent was increasing found themselves homeless. The new breed of tenant were the kind of youthful wide eyed teenagers that would plant gardens on the fire escape and bike up Spring Garden to Broad only to have these gardens knocked over in their absence when the previous tenants made attempts of breaking into their old rooms. After enough incidents, the fire escape was taken down and the remaining poverty was pushed out like a collection of unwanted tumors.

2. (Hellmouth) The vestibule smelled like vomit and salt water. During the winter, presumably when the furnace was turned on, Leo swore he smelled the smoke of burnt hair seeping out from under the basement door, clinging onto everyone’s winter clothing.

3. (Harvest) Filth kept Leo up at night. He was almost sure that his closest neighbor Allen was a hoarder and had never thrown out a single thing in the past twenty years. At night, he could hear the click clack of cockroaches crawling over one another behind the bedroom wall that had faced Allen’s apartment. It was so thin he could not help but notice what he had not heard, that of a shower running or a toilet flushing, dreaming that his neighbor marinated in his own filth.

In some ways, I kinda like the second one the most; it’s so short and sweet and does a lot with very little. But it ended up being wrong for the story since it put a focus on the basement and while I originally intended for the basement to be a topic of interest, the idea ended up being scrapped altogether (besides, basement stuff is horror hack anyway). The final draft, on the other hand, perfectly sets up the focus.

Currently I’m letting the story age for a bit before revisiting it for final edits after which I will try to sell it. If I manage to, obviously I will post a link here to where it will end up. If not, I will probably just post it online for you all to read. Until then, I’ll be busy rewriting the novel another thousand times. But at least when its finished I’ll know I got it right.