The members of the Friday Night Writers’ Circle sat at the small table, its cheap blood-red plastic covering littered with partially eviscerated bags of potato chips and colorful jellybeans. Joe Shank imagined a late-night card game played by declared bankrupts, their gambling addiction having moved them to purge even the snack bar for stakes.
Perhaps that should have been the basis of a story. The one he had written was certainly disappointing. A timely fable, he had thought when originally conceiving it, of modern romance on the Internet, entitled E-Love, now seemed too mechanical and wooden.
As he read it, his writer’s viscera told him that the members of the circle were rejecting his effort without mercy. Shank felt like a surgery patient who had humbly brought his guts to the hospital, only to have the medical team declare that he was too disgusting to be treated. Suddenly, he had a grotesque vision of himself naked on the blood-red tablecloth, the others stirring indifferently through his open frontal bodily cavities, while they calmly munched on a few remaining chips (the ones with the burnt, mole-sized scars always left for last). The literary review process is indeed brutal.
“Oh, Mr. Shank…” Shank was startled from his musings by the squeaky voice of the Dowager Downs, which contrasted absurdly with her hulking frame. She was writing a 1,000-page novel, set in 1960s New Zealand, about a pornographic start-up operation that was producing X-rated films based on the writings of Casanova to entice literate upper-class, private school girls as its audience. This ring of pornographers, with eyes on ultimately seducing all of the wealthy classes as either actors or viewers, was just completing—as the novel began—their first feature, Emily Goes to the Country.
“Oh, Mr. Shank,” Dowager Downs said more sharply this time. “Are you reading a story, or are you thinking up a new one?” (Nasty but clever, thought Shank. I will put the screws in her when her turn comes.)
Shank glanced at his watch and cursed; he must have wasted a good three minutes of his allotted time, silently letting his mind drift. Bending his head as if in homage to the Dowager, who was still glowering over her reading glasses at him, Shank quickly, guiltily, went back to reading, while covertly surveying the rest of the group.
At the head of the table sat Sunshine May, gazing placidly, almost sleepily, at Shank, like a thin, well-built, full-breasted Buddha. She was a former flower child who had once lived in a series of hippie communes from Queensland to the Blue Mountains to Tasmania. Despite being bare-footed and still wearing leather breeches and a crimson blouse, homemade items from her previous life, she now had some type of well-paid, high-flyer editor position reporting on Australia’s Alternative Life-Stylers. Her manuscript, equal parts memoir, journalistic expose’, and fiction, was about the life of Sasha in the various previously mentioned communes, where she was dominated by an odious control freak, occasional boyfriend, and compulsive psychopath named Zane.
To Sunshine’s immediate left sat two unlikely members of a creative writers’ circle, a pair of thuggish, slightly questionable, characters, Yallop and Rattio, whom Shank had labeled Dark and Darkness. The former wore all black, had a ring in his left ear, and had a bald head. The latter wore all black, had a ring in his right ear, and had a bald head. Their contributions ranged from muddled, weird, gothic-style passages, describing dismemberments and disemboweling, to wild, incoherent ravings about sex, Satan, and bodily fluids. This verbiage, or more to the point sewage, seemed to have no relationship to any particular work-in-progress but was a mere frantic recitation of extracts they had shared with their equally bizarro friends on a homemade Gothic website, www. Blood & Bones.com.au.
Shank cringed in his seat whenever they read; was it possible to take a vote to eject such members of a creative writers’ circle for not being engaged in “serious” literature? That was a tricky matter, one best left alone, as he had to walk in the same poorly lit late-night parking lot as these literary criminals. He imagined them stalking him under a full moon, suddenly yanking away their masks, faces like two pale, hard-boiled eggs with large teeth, and laughing soundlessly as their thick, hairy fingers reached for his neck.
Nor was this a mere paranoid fantasy: the way they had glowered and nodded violently toward him when he had first introduced his story E-Love had made him uneasy. Their subsequent childish, half- coherent criticisms of Shank’s use of the Internet showed that they resented an old “book-based” punk like Shank using, or misusing, what they considered their special media.
But after gloom always comes the light: next was June, the newest member, June the Ethereal, as Shank called her. After perusing the rest of the tiresome, motley crew, it was a pleasure and a relief to let his eyes linger on her.
Spacing herself at a meaningful distance from D & D, her manner was that of a charming princess with literary and aristocratic standards who had wandered inexplicably into this herd of irritating commoners: not arrogant but slightly bemused, her distaste laced with a measure of saving good humor.
June wore long black gloves and a tasteful royal blue dress as if she had come straight from some formal dinner. In fact, her wardrobe on creative writers’ nights always displayed the ultimate in taste, her sleek style, classy charm, and expensive perfume offering a blessed antidote to the nauseating Bad Mouth Odor of Dark & Darkness, and their grimy, sweat-stained T-shirts that displayed the usual cliché logos of the Hell’s Angels.
Shank had once, during a recent break, tried to chat her up, but she had only mumbled, before turning her graceful white profile away from him as if he had D & D’s stinking breath. Still, when her turn came, Shank listened uncritically, his heart thudding, quasi-in-love, to her smooth prose style that gracefully painted a complicated, multi-layered, gentle world of ghosts who, in their corporeal state, had sought therapy for various addictions, including compulsive drunkenness. Though the premises seemed absurd, the execution was excellent, and even if her efforts had produced rubbish, Shank would have still defended her words to the hilt. She, however, never returned the favor. When he had earlier read a summary of E-Love’s plot and themes to the group, she had promptly dismissed the whole project as a useless exercise:
“How can real love be expressed in cyberspace?” she had demanded.
“By demonstrating how cyberspace distorts love, I will progress toward a true definition of love,” Shank had responded weakly.
Arching her chin elegantly, she sniffed. “Dudes don’t have a clue… I think you are wasting your bloody time on the whole story. “
Shank wanted to cry out a few real-time clichés of love: if you knew how I felt about you, you would know that it was not a waste of time. I am talking, he had mentally shouted at her, about something emotionally real here. It is not about a bunch of stupid drunken ghosts, crazy gothic ravings, communes full of psychopaths, or ridiculous New Zealand peddlers of smut.
“Tisk, tisk June,” Peg, the group’s de facto leader (because she kept the key to the front door), sarcastically pouted. “You must realize that this is Mr. Shank’s first draft. We don’t expect to find a new Jane Austen amongst our number in our modest little circle, now do we?”
Shank turned to face Peg. Her eyelids seemed to be drooping, but he knew that she was cunning, watching the entire group intently. She was the indomitable Pudding Lady, skin and hair with the hard texture of dried, brown-reddish pudding bread—leftovers from last Christmas. This description captured, in a way, Peg’s literary offerings. Her memoirs rambled on endlessly about her 1940s Tasmanian home life. There was no sweet sauce of creativity; only the hardness of mundane facts: who was born, who died, who married whom, and who constantly sewed hand-woven quilts. Peg the Pudding Lady made matters worse by once passing around a yellowing, dusty album of hoary baby pictures and family portraits—the cheap plastic cover embossed with the words My Most Cherished Memories—to “document” her memoirs, an occasion only enlivened by a chorus of nasty jokes from the group. However, the Pudding Lady was hard. It had not bothered her. She only smiled a dry, cracked little smile.
The hours moved slowly like most of the manuscript readings. Shank’s interminable piece was, as he feared, generally greeted with a collective yawn of indifference. DD asked an elementary technical question about email which provoked a few patronizing smirks from D&D, who suddenly lapsed into sullen silence when June glared at them with a majestic look of total contempt. Shank was hoping at least for a few sardonic remarks from June allowing him at a bit of eye contact and an excuse for some banter but, wordless, she was icily aloof. When the copies of Shank’s piece were returned, he saw that no one, including June, had even bothered to write comments on it.
The room was clearing; everyone, suddenly energized by the end of their enforced boredom, chatted almost merrily. Generally, the night’s session had been a dud: the offerings had ranged from the dull to the insipid. Even June’s latest section of her lively novel had fallen flat tonight.
June, who usually exited, after the session, with her normal swift, regal stride, seemed to linger about for no particular reason. Perhaps, she finally wanted to chat with Shank? His bladder, at the breaking point, though demanded more immediate attention. Cursing this untimely bodily urge, Shank rushed into the men’s room (noting an unusual sight on the way: Peg conferring with Dark and Darkness in a corner, along with two other men, whom he had never seen, in greasy green pants, arms covered with skull and cross bone tattoos, and wearing T-shirts reading Love is Evil. Probably maintenance men come to fix that annoying wheezing radiator, Shank surmised).
Unfortunately, a sudden outbreak of constipated bowels further detained him from any effort to chat with June. After he was finally able to return, he found the room oddly, suddenly, empty, its soulless interior creepy, the old rusty radiator still rattling fitfully like a defective iron lung. D&D, he imagined, were creeping around outside in the gloomy parking lot. Maybe after disemboweling him, they would post a gruesome photo of his remains on their Blood & Bones website. (The fact that this building, part of a community arts center complex, had originally been a hospital for the criminally insane in the 1950s did not help calm his fears.)
“Shank?” Shank twisted on his heels. Standing behind him was Professor (aka Doctor) Derrick Demester. Shank knew him from various articles in the local media and had once taken Demester’s evening creative writing course at the university.
With his streams of carefully crafted dreadlocks, he was known as “Doctor Dread” in both the local and academic community. And the professor loved his moniker. A few months back, he, an academic who had received tenure 20 years ago, had denounced the tenure system as a way to protect all the old “book-centric” academic has-beens. Speaking before a campus rally, he had been quoted in the student online paper, The Academic Body, as saying:
They call me Doctor Dread, and I am here today to strike dread in all the old academic has-beens—or better yet, the ‘never-were’— who still teach today’s youth like students were taught in the 19th century. It is time for a bold, new revolution in creative writing.
Thereafter, in a variety of well-orchestrated interviews and blogs, distributed through the university’s email system, he had unleashed a tirade against “those cowardly fools who hide behind the tenure system and do their old, useless research while delegating their lackeys to brainwash the students with more academic rubbish.” It was time, he had declared, “to truly recognize the revolution of the Internet, which is the actual enemy of soulless Big Brother and his Corporate State. Cyberpunks and hackers are the new revolutionary guard. “
Weirdly, though, in person, he did not dish out a rehash of 60s radical jargon. Having done his Ph.D. on Raymond Chandler’s novels, Doctor Dread had reinvented himself as a tough-talking 1940s private detective, who growled in a parody of noir clichés.
“Before you blow this dump Shank, we have to have a meaningful exchange of jaw,” muttered Dread through his highly stylized clenched teeth.
“You surprised the hell out of me Doctor. What are you doing here? I thought you said that creative writing was a waste of time. ‘Words Suck’ I believe you once told our class,” Shank retorted.
“Cut the Big Despair, captain”, ‘ Detective’ Dread grunted. His yellowish, bloodshot eyes glared from behind the curtain of his dreadlocks in an effort to look threatening. Instead, he looked merely like a sleepy man who needed some soothing drops for tired eyes.
Shank and Dread entered the community center’s shabby kitchen commons area. Reaching into his jean’s hip pocket, Doctor Dread slipped out a small flask of whisky, which he emptied into two large mugs. Sprinkling in some instant coffee and pouring in boiling water from a steaming kettle, he handed Shank one mug. Dread sipped from the other. He quivered a bit, then said:
“I guess you have heard the news?”
“No, what?” answered Shank.
“About the new creative writers’ circle being formed,” replied Dread.
“Uh….” muttered Shank, “Ummm…”
“Yeah,” Dread said, cutting Shank off. Your old group is dust, passé, ancient history, Jurassic Age feces, yesterday’s song, a lime-green Disco Era polyester suit nobody wants”.
“That decision’s gotta come from the director’s office.” Shank was worried: June the Ethereal might leave if the original circle was abolished and merged with another group full of rank beginners, mumbling cranks, and Internet addicts who fall asleep during manuscript readings.
“Oh, Irwina Molina is in the bag”, chuckled Dread, “Everything is cool with her”.
“You mean Irwina Molina herself is saying that our circle will be canned!” exclaimed Shank, his queasy stomach sinking out of sight into his bowels, now constipated again.
“Well, not quite canned,” grinned Dread. “Let us just say restructured, or better yet revolutionized, to democratically meet the demands of the center’s growing numbers of internet-oriented students”. For the first time, Shank realized that he could smell Dread’s malodorous breath in the confines of the kitchen.
“You old fool,” he bellowed at Dread, shaking his fist as if he had him by his dreadlocks and was jerking them back and forth. “I’ll feed you to the sharks,” Shank’s frenzied mouth snarling as if tearing off chunks of Dread’s flesh.
“Screw you, Shank,” Dread said as he stood up and slouched toward the large walk-in kitchen closet, his boots shuffling as if he had crippled feet. Shank thought of nothing but a scarecrow in ragged jeans, his dreadlocks dribbling around his ears like grey-blonde corn stalks, his plaid shirt draped loosely, like a rumpled flag, over his cadaverous chest.
Doctor Dread pushed a withered, spotted hand against the kitchen’s closet door. Creaking open, it revealed the Friday Night Writers’ Circle tied up, frozen mouths covered with duct tape, wriggling on the floor like sacks full of snakes. The two tattooed men, who Shank had seen earlier, hovered over them, clutching loops of thick, hairy rope, and wearing T-shirts which this time read: Love Kills.
Suddenly, Peg the Pudding Lady walked in—her dusty 1940s photo album stuffed into a large straw handbag—holding a boxy 1970s Polaroid camera. She mouthed an obscenity directed at Shank and then began to snap pictures of the two men who turned and smugly gloated as if they were posing for a photoshoot after a big game kill.
Shank’s horrified gaze slid over the bound members—both DD and Sunshine May, eyes glazed over, looked comatose—but quickly fixed on June’s frightened, doe-eyed, pleading look, and her left, partially exposed breast.
A black swarm of movement in the gloomy kitchen, and Dark and Darkness entered quickly from the outside, both now wearing hoods; a quick blast of cold air chilled Shank’s sweaty face. They marched in mechanical lockstep toward June, seized the terrified, struggling woman, carried her out of the closet to the kitchen, and dumped her on her back. Dark flipped a coin and then punched the air triumphantly; clearly, he had won. Darkness’s hooded head slumped a little. Dark then began to unhook his pants belt as he circled vulture-like over June’s long body for just the right position, while the Pudding Lady delicately tip-toed in closer for just the perfect angle for her pornographic photo shoot.
Before Shank could rush to defend June, Professor Dread and Darkness grabbed and held him in an arm lock. In his right ear, Shank could hear the cranky sigh of the kitchen’s radiator and the heavy, lecherous breathing of The Doctor. A massive ache from their grip slowly spread over Shank’s upper body like a thick, penetrating oil. Then, he heard June shriek—and the click of Peg’s camera as she happily snapped another picture for inclusion into her My Most Cherished Memories album.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for inclusion on its website, Britannica.com.
In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio. His poetry collection Ghostly Pornographers, published by Weasel Press/Sinister Stoat Press, is available on Kindle and through the publisher’s website.
For anyone interested in learning more, please check the December 17, 2021 issue, which includes The Chamber’s interview with Mr. White.