Dirk Strasser has won multiple Australian Publisher Association Awards and a Ditmar for Best Professional Achievement. His short stories have been translated into a number of languages, and his acclaimed fantasy trilogy, The Books of Ascension – Zenith, Equinox andEclipse – has been published in English (Pan Macmillan / Momentum) and German (Heyne). Dirk’s short story, “The Doppelgänger Effect”, appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology, Dreaming Down Under (HarperCollins), edited by Jack Dann. His most recent short story publications include “The Mandelbrot Bet” in the anthology Carbide Tipped Pens(Tor), edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi and “At Dawn’s Speed” in Dimension6 #2, edited by Keith Stevenson.
Here for you now, is a sneak preview from it. So deliciously insidious, we thought Dear Reader would be the perfect Halloween accompaniment to your dark readings…
I feel compelled to tell you this. Darkness works in different ways, and its paths twist and turn as it seeks release. And do not believe for a moment that I speak of the soft darkness, the darkness of night – for its tumescence can be predicted by charts and numbers. No, dear reader, I speak of the darkness of the soul, that which was once called evil before the word lost its meaning. I speak of that darkness which is far more particular, which is far more perverse, which is far more real.
And I tell you again, dear reader, I tell you again because I am compelled in ways you cannot know. Darkness works in different ways. In some it gnaws like a tumour, a florid silhouette of growth. Perhaps that is how it will work in you. Or perhaps its manifestation will be a lack, a loss that knows nothing of itself except an aching absence. Is that how it will be for you? Or perhaps the darkness works in you as it does in me: in a compulsion to infect others, over and over and over again.
So, dear reader, that is what I am about to do. You could stop reading now, but I am afraid the infection has already occurred. I have already planted the dark seed inside you, and it will grow whether you leave me before I finish my tale or not… but you won’t leave me, dear reader, will you? You may try. You may put the book down as you read these very words. But you will return to me for my tale. Of that I have no doubt. You will not leave me now for the same reason that I write this tale. The compulsion is with you. You must discover what manner of dark seed is now burgeoning in your soul…
It is in the words, dear reader, that my tale lies. Ah, you say, but what is there to any tale but words? And, of course, you are right. But words are more than the means to my story, dear reader, they are its very substance. My memory begins with my first word. Who among you can trace that first spark of consciousness to his first spoken word? Very few, I would guess; for if you could, I suspect you would share my dark fate. And I know I am unlike you. What was the stuff of your first self-awareness: a scene perhaps, an emotion, a being? In me, the first that I knew of myself is tied like a noose around my first word.
“Dad,” I said with childish inflection. “Dad.” Again and again like a flurry of wasp stings. Not that the child’s mind knew of the venom in those words. Yet, even then, the compulsion was there, and I spoke the word with a joy I now see as malevolent as a cancer.
From that moment I have learned the subtle ways of the darkness. It never has the immediacy of pain, never the sharp sting of a blade, nor the bite of ice. The pain comes, in time. No, the darkness at first leaves only a dull, shallow ache that has no name, a nothing where once something was. I watched my father from that day on, aware even in my tender years that I had perpetrated some monstrous crime on his being. His eyes hollowed as the months and then years passed, his skin dried, but worse still, he died inside. I could sense his demise as I reached the age of schooling. He still existed, but something ate away the goodness inside him. For him the darkness I had invoked was a vacuum. His soul leaked through his pores day by day, and I knew that I was somehow responsible.
The word “Mum” came soon after the first name, and I spoke it with the same subtle and perverse joy that I had said “Dad”. A single utterance of the name, I have discovered since, is enough; yet its repetition twists the arrow and allows the barb to work its evil intent on gristle and sinew. For my mother the darkness worked as a tumour, contaminating her marrow with its own poison, consuming her life with its own perversion. Over the years her mind turned and twisted on itself, and, in a grotesque afterthought, her body eventually followed. An obscene bile would issue from her throat, a vitriol desperate to escape its host. Yet, like an ulcer, that escape only stimulated further and more profound infection.
Sophia was the baby. My words never gave her the chance to be anything more. The anger at her intrusion into my life was something I admitted from the very outset. For the first time I used my power to destroy that which I hated. I would enter her room silently, night after night, and bend over her cot, calling “Sophia” again and again. I would whisper it first with the soft malevolence of a razor, then louder like the grating of a saw, and finally every “Sophia” that I cried was the swing of an axe.
She died before my parents did.
Darkness know thyself. The words still resound a hollow echo in my head, though their source is a mystery to me. I knew my own darkness the day I lost my father. Though I had lived but eight years, I knew his frailness, his desiccation, was my doing. With childish logic I thought that reversing the name would somehow undo what I had done. “Dad!” I cried, and laughed a sorrow-filled laugh when I realised the monstrous joke the word had played on me.
From that day on I resolved never to speak a person’s name. I fought to excise the address from my speech, slough it from my skin like dead tissue. And yet the compulsion remained, like a pyromaniac’s fascination with fire, like a madman’s urge to plunge from a cliff top. Still, it is surprising how unnecessary names are; speech can be twisted to eliminate them in many artful ways, and I became a scholar of that precious art. I grew adept at such phrasing, my hesitations soon dissolved into a natural flow, so that very few would be aware of what was missing from the pattern of my speech.
I began to shudder and recoil from the sound of my own name. “Martin,” my teachers would say, and I would feel a tightening at the back of my throat. How alien my own name became in the mouths of others. Soon it became difficult to keep the association between “Martin” and what I saw as myself. How pale and insipid the word was on the lips of others. “Martin” became a wraith which co-habited my body and drew its rude physical nourishments from the same sources as I did. That was all.
As I grew into adulthood, so did my resolve. Yet, even at the time when my resolve was at its zenith, I could not escape the darkness within me. My intercourse with casual acquaintances I could control, but when this nonchalance became something closer, my barriers slipped and my self-control was insufficient for the task. Friendship unlocked the dark power. “Paul,” I said, realising immediately what I had done. “Mark,” I said, after years of control. “David”, “Malcolm”… all became too close, and suffered my darkness.
And then there was Elisabeth. I fought no greater battle than to be close to her. She understood me more fully than anyone, yet she understood me not at all. “Please say my name, Martin,” she would whisper, and a tightness would take residence in the back of my throat. “Please, Martin, just once.” I would hold my breath till the blood drained from my face. “Please, I want to hear you say `Elisabeth’.”
“I can’t,” I would say as those muscles over which I had no control finally caused me to gasp for air. “You will have to be content with `I love you’.”
But it was not enough for her. The words were not sufficient and the love was not enough. She would demand of me the one thing I could not give her. Yet, I could not leave her. And thus she became the first person who I told of my darkness. She laughed, of course, thinking at first that my words were mere jest, and then finally, as my insistence did not waver, believing that I was insane.
I spoke of my parents, of Paul, of Mark… even of little Sophia. “Dead,” I said. “All of them.” Perhaps it was the solemn insistence in my voice, perhaps the darkness in my eyes, perhaps simply the intimacy we had achieved, but eventually she came to accept what I had told her as the truth.
From that moment on our bonding became more intimate than I have ever known. She knew what was inside me, and though no-one could love the darkness, she loved the part of me that was not dark, loved it as fully and completely as any love.
And as time passed, her mouth became my own, and she spoke the names that I had only allowed to form as thoughts in my mind. She spoke them for me, giving me what I had forbidden myself. She sensed when a name was needed and said it so that the necessity for me to do so disappeared. And she did so with such fluidity, such imperceptible grace, that friends would be unaware that I never spoke their names. We were as one, her words and mine; and she entered my speech as she entered my soul.
It was a time when I was visited by pride, or perhaps an untempered arrogance. I believed I had beaten the darkness that had blighted my life. In my thoughts I cried to it as one cries to a vanquished opponent in battle. I gave silent voice to the exultant joy of victory.
Yet, I see now that in this very moment of my belief in victory lay my defeat. That dark foe was subdued but its spirit lived and thirsted for revenge. In my arrogance lay my downfall. And Elisabeth, whom I believed to be my saviour, proved to be my nemesis. It was in the ultimate joy of our lovemaking that the darkness emerged from my being, filled with a hatred and loathing unmatched by the utterances of my youth. I was lost as the pleasure of our being – Elisabeth and I – reached its zenith. I abandoned myself totally to her, and the barriers I had placed on that which lay within me broke.
“Elisabeth,” I cried in a joy which knew no bounds. “Elisabeth.” And once more, “Elisabeth.”
And with that cry, my heart all but ceased beating. Elisabeth and I stared into each other’s eyes, knowing the import of what had been done. For the first time I saw that beast which I call the darkness. It hung between us like a guillotine suspended by a thread. And I saw the guillotine descend, and I saw the beast enter Elisabeth’s eyes.
“Perhaps you are wrong,” said Elisabeth, but her voice was already not what it had been. Something had changed.
I shook my head as tears formed in my eyes. “You know I am right,” I said.
And she did, of course. She had loved me too well not to know.
It was in the days which followed that I learned a further truth: as I had grown and matured, so had the darkness within me. Elisabeth’s death was not the slow decline the other’s had been. Within two days the convulsions started. It was as if she was trying to shake out the seed I had placed within her. But soon the seed grew too large and the convulsions eased. Though the next stage was not filled with the same violence, its malevolence chilled me to a core far deeper than I knew existed. She would lie on her bed and twitch and grimace, and then lie still, still as if life had departed her bosom. Then she would call out my name and cry that she loved me in a voice that puckered my heart into a bitter travesty.
At these times, when the Elisabeth I had known called to me, I felt the irresistible urge to call back, to say her name in ways I had never been able to say. As she grew worse, and the seed had become her, and what had been her had become a dying flower, I realised the only way.
I sat next to her as she lay, still twitching, still crying, still grimacing, on our bed. I took her hand in mine as I had done so often before and lowered my mouth to her ear. I kissed her gently and the twitching ceased. Then I whispered what was in my soul. “Elisabeth,” I said. “Elisabeth, I love you.”
She seemed to draw a breath, and I could feel her hand gripping my own. I leant back to see her face, and the contortions had fled to reveal a serenity across her features. Then the convulsions started again. She cried out, and a bile bubbled from her throat. And I convulsed with her this time, feeling the darkness I had placed behind her eyes. I lay over her mouth as we shook.
“Elisabeth,” I cried over and over. “Elisabeth. Elisabeth.”
Until finally the convulsions ceased.
I drew back from her, wanting to look at her face, but it was not the face I had known.
Then I cried my own name, in vain hope that I could inflict on myself what I had done to her, but the beast which lay within me only laughed…
And, dear reader, her death fed my darkness. It grows in strength with every passing day, and with it grows my compulsion. The barriers I had built for the beast have now all but vanished. I still fight, but, dear reader, I so rarely find the strength any more.
And like any compulsion, my darkness feeds on its own cancer. The more I name, the more I need to name. I am that darkness now, and I need to destroy in order to live.
Now, dear reader, let me reveal to you what monstrous proportion my darkness has now grown. As I write these thoughts I shiver at the perverse pleasure of the direction of my growth. I have discovered of late that precise names are no longer necessary, and that I can invoke the darkness with terms of address far more general and all-embracing. And my most recent discovery is that the written word for me now serves the same purpose as the spoken word. And I wonder, with the delicious and insane wonder that only darkness can bring, how many more people can I now infect, dear reader?