Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: Prisoner of Peace

A hard one to talk about, this, since I don't want to give too much away about a tale that I suspect is best encountered with as little preliminary knowledge as possible.  I suppose I can safely say that it's a ghost story - the second in the collection after The Burning Room - and that it was originally published in the Stoker-award-winning anthology After Death, before being podcast soon after in Pseudopod.  And I perhaps shouldn't say, but will anyway, that it's my favourite of the horror stories I've written.

The reason for that is that it falls most closely in line with my own tastes in horror.  Ever since I played the video game Silent Hill 2, for me one of the masterpieces of the genre in any medium, I'd been wanting to try and capture in my own work some of what I'd found most effective there: the combination of overt violence and grotesqueness with more complex psychological subtexts and the studied build-up of a profound, almost instinctive sense of dread.   There's something fascinating for me in the way that the Silent Hill games make the deepest fears of their protagonists tangible in subtle and yet often immensely twisted ways.  They're hellscapes of the mind, basically, and while that isn't exactly an original notion, I've never seen it done quite so effectively as here.

The impulse to try and incorporate that into a horror story had been with me for a long while, but I never found the right project for it, and I certainly didn't want to end up with something that was only an imitation or pastiche.  Nor was I particularly inclined to include the blood-and-gore side of things, it was definitely more the puzzle box aspect that appealed to me, the idea of a story in which the external trappings only make sense once you come to appreciate the character's interior world.

I don't know how much those Silent Hill genes show through in Prisoner of Peace; it's a more subdued affair, sad rather than horrifying, not even really intended to be frightening or disgusting but just to try and creep inside the head and scratch away there.  It deals in tragedies both individual and societal, and the ultimate horror it finds is an all too real one from the past, one that's always haunted me as a nadir of what we as a species are capable of.

And on that note, here's a sample:
There is a tapping coming from the next room.  
I call it a room, but I know it is a cell - just as I know that my room is a cell.  The tapping is irregular, arrhythmic, and I think it is the sound of someone trying to communicate.  A pipe runs along the bottom of my wall.  If I were to strike it, just so, with the heel of a sandal or a stone perhaps, it would make a noise like the one from the next room.
But I have no sandal, no stone, nothing to rap against the pipe.  Nor do I know what the noises mean, if they mean anything at all.  If the tapping is a message, it is one I cannot understand, can't reciprocate.
I realise now that I have heard the noise before - and sometimes, other noises too.  On occasions, there is a sound of heavy, booted footsteps.  They approach from the near distance, pass my door, continue a little way and then return, recede, approach again.
It can only be someone patrolling the corridor, and I think sometimes to call out.  There are many things I could say, many questions I could ask.  The footsteps remind me that there was a time when food was left.  A bowl was placed inside my door, and later, removed.  There was rice, always, and less commonly, thin vegetable stew, a little fish.
It seems a very long time since I tasted any of these things.
Perhaps this is why I never call out.  Perhaps it is why the sounds from the neighbouring cell fill me with nothing but unease.  What frightens me - more than tapping or the echo of pacing footsteps - is the thought of the answers I might receive.

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