Fear is Art

gang-776297_1280 (1)

Fear is something we all feel, and as history has shown us time and again, it’s a powerful force. Entire countries have risen and fallen at the behest of fear–of the other or of the unknown, or of those meant to protect us. It’s a deep-seated, primal aspect of the human condition, and sometimes it filters into our art.

It’s only natural that, thinkers that we are, we want to understand the nature of that which is at our core. When we explore it through art–to quote Dr. Samuel Beckett– “Oh boy.” Fear has given us some of the most evocative works in art, both over the centuries and across the spectrum of media. The hair standing up on the back of your neck when you look at Fuseli’s The Nightmare? That’s Fuseli’s fear of the dark from over 230 years ago; the dread that wends its way through the frenzied bow-strokes and haunting baritone of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and settles like a lump in your stomach is a peasant’s folkloric fear of witchery; the pulse-pounding flutter in your chest is the same harried fear of panic that makers of horror-game icons Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame sought to explore; and that “fear of fear itself” Wes Craven harnesses so well in A Nightmare on Elm Streetit terrified a generation.

Stories born of fear are unforgettable because we identify with them, because fear is a shared human experience, and because they put a magnifying glass on that which makes us uncomfortable. They bring us to an uncomfortable place, while indulging our sense of security, because hey, it’s just a story. The artist that channels and harnesses this fear has a powerful tool for the artists’ box.

Show-and-Tell

This is a piece a wrote a couple months ago; it came to me while I sat in my idling car outside my friend’s workplace in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. See, I’m terrified of lightning, and sitting in that car, watching it light up the night like some sort of wrathful, divine fire, I tapped into what I was truly afraid of. The lack of control. I got home, and out spilled this piece. Is it great? Probably not. Does it need work? Absolutely. But it was borne of fear, and perhaps one of you out there can appreciate the terror I felt at the time:

Nothing Personal

The Ford skipped down A1A, bouncing jet ski-like over the rainwater that sloshed up onto the freeway. The steering wheel rumbled beneath Mark’s bone-white fingers; or perhaps it felt that way in his shaking hands. His foot hopped from break pedal to accelerator as the car skid-shifted over the flooded asphalt. Large, fat raindrops swarmed his windshield, smacking the glass like a cloud of stinging bees. His headlights strained to pierce the wall of water in front in front of him. Hunched over the steering wheel, Mark strained to see the dark, barren highway before him, his darting eyes glancing up at the sky every few seconds.

A yellow traffic light loomed out of the gloom in front of him. He punched the gas, skipping through the intersection just before the light turned. He didn’t bother to check for cops, and really, it didn’t matter. “Just keep moving,” he whispered low.

Keep moving, and it can’t catch you.

The storm answered him with cold, bluewhite light and then rent the sky with a jagged, angry line of heat. Run, little boy, it seemed to say, and the engine lurched as it clicked into the next gear. Pulse drumming in his ears, his breath came in quick, staccato gasps while icy sweat dribbled down his forehead.

During the big summer storms, when the air grew fat and tangy with ozone, and the clouds–a line of floating black tanks–rolled in from the coast, Mark would always play the same mental slide show: the image of his grandfather, the old man’s blackened fingernails shiny with the storm’s malevolence standing out against the stark, white hospital sheets; his tenth birthday when the thunder shook the windows of his family’s stucco house—he’d just blown at the candles on the cake when the lightning split the old pine tree just five yards from their back porch; the hot-dog stand at the top of the amphitheater glowing blue before the air cracked and a gnarled finger of light set fire to the stand’s umbrella. Mark had decided long ago there were too many close calls for this to be coincidence. The lightning was after him, and the only way to stay safe was to outrun it.

The back of his neck tingling, Mark’s eyes flitted to the rear view mirror. He jumped as the sky flashed and lit up the man-shaped silhouette in his back seat.

“I’ve never chased you,” said the man in the back. Mark had only seen him for a split second, but had the impression that the man was black, tall and regal, and dressed in bright red garb. “These things aren’t a matter of preference.”

“Jesus!” Mark cried, feeling the panic lurch in his chest and throat.

“Would you feel better if I were?” asked the man. His voice was low and deep and thickly accented. At any other time, Mark would’ve slammed on the breaks, probably bailed out of the car without another thought, and ran. But that would mean stopping. That would meaning being out there, in the livid night, still and alone.

“Who the hell are you?” Mark asked.

“You know, Mark. Deep down you know, which is why you’re acting more reasonable than you’ve any right to.”

Mark had stopped watching the storm. Now, his eyes bounced between the road and the rear view.

“We’ve been playing together for quite some time,” said the stranger. Another flash of lightning and Mark saw that he had changed. He was white now, blond-haired, burly and hirsute and dressed in what might’ve been chain mail. “I think you were four when you first realized who I was.”

“Yeah,” said Mark. “You said this wasn’t personal. You tell that to my grandfather?”

“It wasn’t personal. Wrong place, wrong time. Why are you still upset about that, anyway? He survived, you know. A lot of people survive.”

“And some don’t.” Mark pushed the pedal all the way to the floor, remembering the newspaper story about the golfer in West Palm who had decided to play through the storm and never made it off the green alive. “Rather not take my chances.”

When he spoke next, the stranger’s voice lilted, his accent had shifted again to something a bit more exotic, as if the European languages were completely alien on his tongue. “Doesn’t seem like you have that choice. Chance doesn’t ask to be taken. It just is. For our part, we “go with the flow” as your mortals are so fond of saying.”

In the next flash, Mark saw that his passenger was now a lean, short Indian man. He wore a three-piece suit. However, it was the man’s crimson face that had Mark gnawing at his lower lip. he pulled in a deep breath through his nostrils and exhaled through his mouth, just the way Dr. Mornello had instructed. And then it rose like molten lava, that thing that started at the base of Mark’s spine and creeped up into his stomach, and then his chest. For the first time, the prey could talk to the predator. The warmth flushed his face as his anger broke.

“All these years,” he shouted. “Why? You get off on it? You like tormenting me?” He paused, sucked in another breath. “Don’t tell me it was chance. You were always right there!”

“Watching, yes, but not stalking,” Mark. “ You were interesting. You’re fear was curious. Why fear? We’d never harmed you, never took anything from you. We merely wanted to know. So we watched and observed.”

“So you haven’t been after me?” Mark felt his mouth twist into an awkward smile he didn’t feel. He took his foot of the gas and let the car decelerate. His laughter started deep in his stomach as he pulled the car over and put it into park. He threw his head back, his eyes tearing, and the laugh came out like the bellow of some wounded animal.

“ I promise you. We have never been after you, nor are we after you now,” said the old man in the back seat. His steel grey curls and beard complimented his storm cloud eyes. “All this time you’ve spent running has been completely unnecessary.”

“Well fuck me,” Mark said. “I guess I’ll go for a walk.”

In the next flash of lightning, Mark could see the old man’s mouth had turned upward at one corner into a half grin. Could’ve been my grandfather, Mark thought as he kicked open the driver’s side door, and swung his legs out into the deluge.

“You ever read Aesop,?” the man called after him.

Mark turned his face upward. The rain pelted his face, rinsed away the fear sweat as he peered through squinted eyes at the pregnant, black sky above. Lightning arced in tendrils over the cloud cover. “Sure,” said Mark. Free of his fear, he couldn’t stop that soul-vitalizing laughter that had started in the car.

“Love me some Aesop,” said the old man who had come to stand beside him. “Those Greeks tell the best stories. Scorpion and the Frog?”

“Look, I got it, we’re friends now, ok?” said Mark without looking at him. His vision went white hot and heat surged through his body as a deafening roar burst his ears. There was the freedom of space, and flight, and then he landed hard on the rain soaked asphalt. His skin sizzled, as if he’d been covered in fire. Each raindrop sent sparks of agony across his charred face. The old man stood over him, filling his vision, Small arcs of electricity danced in the man’s eyes.

“You said…” Mark croaked.

The old man shook his head. “And we weren’t. But let’s be honest, Mark. Shit happens.” He kneeled down next to Mark, swept his hand over Mark’s forehead. His touch was like static in a blanket, like sparks at the base of his spine. “Shit is chance, Mark. And chance is our nature. Nothing personal.”

“Nothing personal,” Mark mumbled and shut his eyes against the downpour. Perhaps storms could be outrun, but not chance. Never chance.

EL FIN

How about you?  Do you have a work you’d like to share?  A confession of what scares you?  Place a link in the comments to share with others.

Advertisements

The Weight of Our Stories

campfire-1473507

The black air shimmered as the  story fire reached toward the heavens, railing against the pitch desert sky with spastic, angry  tendrils. The children sat, flanking the inferno, and the elder stood before them, face turned upward gazing in awe at the white, hot stars above. The Milky Way–Leesis–wound through the sky.
  “Why is there corn pollen in the Upper Dark?” asked one of the children.  The elder did not see who it was, did not recognize the voice, but he answered anyway, for it was his lot to impart the wisdom of the old ways.
  “Before there was Earth, before there were the Diné, Black God saw the emptiness in the sky,” he said to no one in particular as he  gazed ever upward into the black, “and Coyote, ever the child, was impatient…”

   Storytelling is the perhaps the first art.  There may be some disagreement on this, but if you stop to think about it, art’s primary purpose is to tell a story.  Photos, paintings, and sculpture are all meant to tell a story. Music, in its many forms, tells a story, either as a soundtrack to life or a sweeping epic (Grieg, anyone?).  Theater and poetry and prose all serve to chronicle events or thoughts or emotions.   Perhaps it’s not always your story.  Perhaps what you want to say with your art is incongruous with the stories that others find. The purpose of the telling may vary, but in art, there is always a story. Always.

    This is why we need to take a minute when criticizing the work of others.  Someone may be a so-so painter or musician or writer, but perhaps the more important question to ask isn’t, “How good are they at their craft?” but “Have they told their story, and am I getting it?” Writing, painting, playing an instrument–these are technical skills.  Anyone can learn them.  But where these skills take you is perhaps the most important part of any artistic venture, and should be the primary focus before the technical elements come into play.

   Mind you, this isn’t an excuse to be lazy in perfecting your craft.  An audience knows when you’re being lazy; if they sense that laziness, they’ll lose trust in you.  And honestly, they should.  If you’re not devoting your time to giving them the very best, why should they devote their time and money picking up what you’re putting down? No, hone your technical skills, make your story as accessible as it can be.

  The real takeaway here is that everyone has a story and everyone can tell a story.  But if you can’t get the rhythm down, or people tell you your brush strokes are hideous, or that your prose is clunky, it’s never a reason to give up and give in, because behind it all, is your story, and someone is going to appreciate it

Alone In Cyberspace

I saw an angel today.

She smiled at me from behind the screen of my tablet,

but when I reached out to her, she turned away,

leaving only my reflection in the black glass.

– K. L. 6/22/2015

City-State and Why Two Heads Really Are Better Than One

Blog Spotlight!

Hey all, as a quick aside, I wanted to put you in the direction of The Dystopian Nation of City-State, the blog of James Courtney and Kaisy Wilkerson-Mills.  This dynamic duo has created an original dystopian universe and put out an anthology to give it life. (These guys are serious self/indie-pubbers. Check out that gorgeous cover art!) Available on Kindle.

Buy Here
Buy Here

I’ve thus far only read some of the samples presented on their blog (leisure reading is a rare treat for me these days, what with school and work and all); I’m impressed by what I’ve seen.

You can check out The Novice here. The pacing was brilliant. The plot was somewhat familiar, and I felt the writing could use some outside editorial influence, but the story did an extraordinary job of setting the mood for their world: dark, gritty, intense. In this small story about the hunt for a serial killer we learn about the morality–or lack thereof–inherent to City-State, as well the corruption that seems to plague it from top to bottom. And that constant reminder of time–what a wonderful tool for ratcheting up the tension!  Well played, Courtney and Wilkerson-Mills. Well played.

The Power of Two

But what really catches my attention about this project is that it’s a collaborative effort. I love collabs; my first published novel, in fact, was a collaboration with the wonderfully talented writer (and amazing friend) Amber Marshall (Sorry, Am, didn’t know which name you were using these days, professionally).

We’d bounce plot ideas off each other. We’d put interesting twists on each others’ character concepts.We acted as second set of eyes for each other. And we boosted each other up. When one of us was bogged down in the story or stumped on where to go next, we passed the baton to the other.  Perhaps the neatest phenomenon however, was that we’d rewrite each others’ work until it blended so well you could barely determine which one of us was writing what. By the time our umpteenth draft was completed, our voices had become one.

But most important for me, personally, was that the collaboration was a way to beat the loneliness.

When I’m “in the zone” I get a little overzealous about my work; some might even say I get obsessive about it.  I forget to eat. I shirk my responsibilities. I avoid social interaction. I sit, locked away in my office, only emerging to use the restroom (and even that feels like a horrible inconvenience), eat, and on occasion, sleep.  When I finally finish and emerge from my own little world, when the dust clears and I have this wonderful story and no one to share it with, well, it’s a bit depressing.  Ok, it’s seriously depressing.  What’s more, I have to learn how to be part of the world outside of my head all over again, and the older I get, the more daunting that task becomes.

But my collaboration with Amber was the first time I didn’t feel that.  She was there from the beginning.  We’d hang out and dream about how wildly successful we’d be; or we’d talk plot and character over dinner; or we’d pass the manuscript back and forth over e-mail at work.  And the best part: someone was just as passionate and excited about the work as I was.  For once in my life, it wasn’t, “Your passion or your life, take a pick.”  I could have my cake and eat it too.  And that was probably more grand an adventure for me than the one we put on the page.

I know a lot of artists prefer to work in solitude.  You want to be the master of your own destiny; I get it.  But I recommend that if you ever find that one fellow artist you click with, take the chance and do the collaboration. You’ve got nothing to lose and an incredible experience to gain.

The Worth of a Picture

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil
Photograph by Petr Kratochvil

Why Poetry Doesn’t Suck Even Though I Think It Does

Poetry isn’t my favorite medium. It’s too abstract for my tastes, and when I read, I don’t want to think too hard. Reading’s an escapist activity for me after all. When I write, well, again, it’s just too abstract. I like the direct approach when I tell stories, and poetry, to me, is that flickering fairy in your peripheral vision, the one that’s suddenly not there when you turn to face it, and so you keep turning like a dog chasing its tail. Elusive, mischievous, poetry…

I think all writers should make it a habit to write poetry at least once a year. Maybe even once a month.

Am I contradicting myself? Perhaps. But the one quality of poetry I do admire is that is it so. Darn. Driven by imagery. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then so is one poetic line. Imagery has this amazing power to evoke emotion by appealing to the senses. Senses in turn, trigger memories, and those memories strike a chord in the old collective conscious (if you believe in such things). Images carry their own universal connotations, making your work more emotionally accessible to the reader, but images are also open to interpretation, allowing the reader to make it their own.

I present a small section of Pablo Neruda’s “In the Wave Strike Over Unquiet Stones” as an example:

“O magnolia radiance breaking in spume,
magnetic voyager whose death flowers and returns, eternal, to being and nothingness:
shattered brine, dazzling leap of the ocean.”

Shattered brine. Dazzling leap of the ocean. I picture in my head waves crashing against the shore. Therein lies the universality. It’s a picture that anyone can identify with, even if they’ve never been to the ocean. As long as you know what a wave looks like, you can create the visual.

Of course, this piece also speaks to me on a personal level. It is evocative of serenity as I think back to my the waves leaping over the rocks of my favorite adolescent fishing spot as the sun peeks over the horizon. The salt and sand and wind are sublime. It’s a deeply personal feeling for me, numinous some might say. Perhaps for you it means something different. Perhaps your last trip to the beach held some profound joy or sadness or anger, depending on your own life experiences. But how you feel about it is irrelevant. That you feel anything at all is what is important.

For this week’s show –and-tell, I’m including a prose poem I wrote on a whim. The goal was to write an evocative piece of fiction. I’ve since expanded this into a short story (not a very refined one).

I call it “Figurehead”.

Figurehead

I found a treasure once, in jeweled Caribbean waters, lost amidst clouds of ruby, sapphire, and topaz that darted and nibbled at salt-crusted Spanish timbers, rotted with the passage of centuries. La Luna was her name. Wooden-eyed with a painted whisper smile, she broke from her prison of sand and seaweed, my prize. Her new home, wood paneling and worn midnight carpet. She rocked with the gentle yaw, fell asleep to the lullaby of the lapping ocean, yearning to see the light above. Trapped, a mute infant locked in her crib by seditious limbs.

Dispassionate teak regarded visitor and inquisitor alike with the same stoic wonder, a sea of faces, a thousand cardboard meals, never seeing the sun’s resurrection or its passage into the abyss. Endless cinema rolling, she watched countless dances of flesh and shadow, lamenting perhaps that the soft coos of tryst did not fall from her own lips. Longing perhaps, for her soft sea bed and coral pillows.

And after the bottle had long since dried and the lovers had gone and blue smoky tendrils spiraled toward the ceiling, she murmured to me in benthic stillness, joining her loneliness with mine. I offered My lady comfort: gilded strings laid upon the altar of her chiseled woodrough neck. Eight pieces placed at phantom feet. Offerings of trinkets pulled from the wreckage of Neptune’s breast, so that shining new moon eyes would never dim.

When I could no longer reach the depths on wizened hands and crooked knees, when the gold and silver and gems ceased to flow, she led me with silken hands to the cove–inkdark water and unyielding rock–and told me amidst the hoarse grumble of the waves, that I had found all the treasure left to discover. But there was treasure on the moon: a palace, and a white rabbit, and a toad and a cloud’s down bed waiting for an old man who’d been gone far too long. Obsidian tendrils caught the wind, danced, carried the smell of salt and of sand. Walking the pearlescent bridge that wavered, a bonfire aura on the night sea, we strolled toward the edge of the ocean and up, reborn in the womb of the pregnant moon, My Lady and I.

El Fin

So now I’ve shared; how about you? Do you have an image you’d like to share? A line of poetry, original or otherwise?