I just got back from a phenomenal weekend at StokerCon 2017 on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach. The setting itself was pretty inspiring--there was a random door to a super creepy crawlspace above the toilet that inspired a short story I'm going to write. I also started an exercise in Michael Arnzen's class that seemed to be working pretty well, so I finished it and figured I'd post it here. Bonus material, if you will. Without further adieu, I present to you "Gore 101!"
Gore 101: A StokerCon 2017 Exclusive
By Brian Asman
“And for my next trick, I’ll need a volunteer,” the pleasantly professorial man at the front of the conference room said with a wide, sweeping gesture, indicating the twelve of us gathered here on the second day of SplatterCon.
A wave of murmurs roiled through the room. It was too early for this shit. After choking down the half-assed continental breakfast the hotel put out, followed by too many cups of watery coffee, alcohol vapor from a dozen after-parties leaking through our pores, I’m sure pretty much everybody was asking themselves the same question.
Why the fuck did I sign up for a nine a.m. class?
Especially one about writing gross-outs. Worms crawled in and out of the eyes of a man projected on the screen behind the stage, underneath a banner trumpeting the course’s title: Gore 101: Squirming Your Way into the Reader’s Lower Intestine. My stomach churned.
“Come on, somebody, anybody. I promise I’ll be gentle.” The man smiled, baring too many, too-bright teeth. Ned was his name. A last minute substitution for the horror writer Roy Kilpatrick, who’d apparently had some sort of personal emergency.
Later, after everything was over, I’d remember who he was. Ned Lauson, a notorious convention creep who’d been drummed out of the Guild under inauspicious circumstances. I should have recognized him right away. But that’s the problem with writer’s conferences. We only know each other by our bodies of work, maybe through a glamour shot on the back of a dustjacket that looks nothing like us in real life. At a writing convention, anybody could be anybody.
Ned’s gaze settled on me, the predatory glint in his eye raising the hackles on the back of my neck. But I wasn’t big on volunteering for things, at least not until I’d ingested enough caffeine to kill a small elephant. I shook my head back and forth, staring down at my notepad. Hoping he’d pick someone, anyone, else.
Tentatively, a tall, bearded man with an eyepatch and a leather fedora raised his hand.
Ned’s smile stretched to impossible dimensions, straining his unusually tan face. “Great. Come on up here. Don’t be shy.”
The man slowly stood, joints popping, and walked up to join Ned at the center of the room.
“What’s your name, friend?” Ned asked, extending a hand.
“Harry? What a name. Just great. Well, thanks for being my assistant today.” Ned turned from his subject to address the rest of the class. “You’re all here to learn how to write about blood and guts. Gore, evisceration, involuntary amputation, all that good stuff. How to make your readers really squirm. My new friend Harry here is going to help me show you all how to do just that. You guys taking notes? Great.”
Everyone looked around at each other. This guy needed to get to the fucking point, and fast. Otherwise we’d all take off and wait for the bar to open.
“Okay, here we go. In order to make your reader really uncomfortable, sometimes you have to get transgressive. I’m talking about some off-the-wall shit here, something no one’s going to suspect. Like stabbing someone in front of a room full of people.”
Ned pulled out a boning knife, tested the tip with his finger, and then shoved it into Harry’s stomach all the way up to the hilt, giving it a little jiggle at the end to widen the wound.
“Oof,” Harry said, stumbling back.
“Oh what the fuck?” I said, standing up. “You’re wasting our time with this half-assed Giallo parlor trick? We’re here to learn how to write, goddamn it.”
Harry pulled the knife from his stomach. Blood bubbled from the wound, soaking his shirt. He looked at the knife in his hand, to his stomach, and back again. And then he screamed.
The kind of scream you can’t fake, the kind of shit that reverberates deep down in your DNA and says run, run, run you stupid primate back to your fucking trees run!
Ned grinned. “Everybody, watch closely. See the blood? That’s what real blood looks like. See how different it is from the buckets of corn syrup they toss around on the silver screen? Now, let me stick my hand in there and pull some guts out for you.”
We watched in horror as Ned’s hand began to sink into the wound with a horrible sucking sound. His grin spread wider, the look in his eyes manic. “Yep, uh, really gotta get in here. Hmm, there we go. I think I got some guts for you.” He gritted his teeth and pulled. Harry’s fedora fell off his head, landing lamely on the ground behind him. And yet he stayed on his feet. Wobbling like a punch-drunk boxer, but still upright.
It was one of the most impressive things I’d ever seen.
Ned pulled his hand back out of the stomach wound, bringing with it a fistful of shiny pink intestine, striped with blood like a fleshy candy cane. Harry’s mouth open and closed. His head shook back and forth in disbelief at what was happening. At what was coming out of him. His hands flapped uselessly at his sides.
All the rest of us were frozen in place. Not believing what we were seeing. Struck dumb with the sight. A random thought fluttered in the back of my head. Some vague notion of helping, somehow, or at least calling the cops, but it couldn’t fight its way to the fore. I remained rooted in my seat, watching whatever the hell this was unfold.
Ned kept pulling, unspooling Harry’s guts from the widening, ragged wound, Harry himself swaying back and forth on his feet. Not making any attempt to stop the attack, strangely.
“Did you know the average human intestine is nearly five feet long?” Ned asked, surveying the class. “I think I’ve got about two feet in hand so far.”
Somebody behind me retched once, twice, then finally let go.
“Which means,” Ned said, holding up the bloody string and pretending to gnaw at it with his teeth, “I’ve got approximately fifty percent of dear Harry’s guts in my hands. Isn’t that amazing? Half his intestines. In my hands. He’s got the whole entrails, in his hands, he’s got the whole en-tr-ails, in his hands, he’s got the whole entrails in his hands! C’mon, help me out here, I know you know the words. It’s like that Jesus song, except about me. And guts!”
It wasn’t until about three months later that all this made any kind of sense to me. At the time, it was like some kind of psychological test, me sitting in a chair and someone showing me a series of disconnected pictures. Here’s a sunset. Here’s a truck. Here’s Anwar Sadat eating a Costco-size tub of cottage cheese with a giant novelty spork. The whole scene totally shut down my fight or flight responses. The rest of the room, too. A few more people puked. A couple choked sobs or muttered curses erupted behind me. But for the most part, we were silent, uncomprehending of the thing happening before our eyes.
I don’t think anybody even took a Snapchat.
Ned yanked more of Harry’s guts out, hand over bile-coated hand. The jagged, bloody tear in Harry’s stomach widened with every pull, ripping up his torso until I could see ribcage. To my continued surprise, Harry didn’t fall. In fact, something washed over his features, a kind of calming wave that made his one-eyed visage appear as though etched in stone for a fleeting moment. And then he started to laugh.
Huge, belly-bursting (okay, poor choice of words) guffaws exploded from his mouth, launching blood-flecked spit into the air. Ned looked up at Harry, then at us, back to Harry. He arched an eyebrow.
“Care to share the joke with the rest of us, my friend?”
Still chuckling, tears streaming down his cheeks, Harry forced his mouth closed. And then shook his head, slowly, once, with a sort of grim finality. Whatever the joke was, he’d take it to his grave.
Or so I thought.
Suddenly the intestine in Ned’s hand spasmed, springing to life. With impossible speed it wrapped itself around his wrist, winding so tightly I could hear bones pop. Then with a jerk it receded back into Harry’s stomach, pulling Ned with it until his entire arm was buried in Harry’s torso. Up to the shoulder, even.
“Harry?” Ned said tentatively, looking up at the one-eyed man. “I can feel your heartbeat.”
Harry cocked his head at the man, putting his hands on his waist in a perverse Superman pose. Then Ned’s face went slack, blood rapidly draining out of his cheeks as his body jerked. A series of grinding, squelching noises emitted from Harry’s stomach.
And then a new round of screams began.
Ned was screaming, obviously. Plenty of my classmates too. After a few seconds of watching Ned’s body convulse like he’d buried his arm in a blender, I realized I'd joined my voice to theirs.
Somebody at the back of the room jiggled the door handle. It didn't work. Wouldn’t work. At a time like this, they never did. Jiggling turned into pounding and desperate shouting.
That wouldn’t work, either.
That horrible chomping sound continued, Ned shrieking all the while, his head rolling back and forth like a pendulum. Sweat dripped from his forehead. He batted at Harry’s chest with his free hand. Weak, ineffectual baby-blows. Harry didn’t seem to notice.
My head spun, amazed and revolted by this singularly impossible act of mastication.
Finally with one moist, gnashing crunch of bone, Ned stumbled away from Harry, pinwheeling off the lectern, whirling like a lawn sprinkler, spraying arterial blood from the shredded wound where his arm had been. Something wet and sticky spattered my cheek. I absentmindedly wiped it away with the back of my sleeve.
Ned stopped wailing, his cries dying off into a few small, sputtering noises. Whoever that was at the back of the room stopped pounding. A silence crept over the room, broken only by the phlegmy gasps issuing from the back of Ned’s throat.
He wavered on his feet for a moment, then fell over, crashing to the floor. One last spurt of blood leapt into the air. Fell back to Earth. Splat.
Harry’s stomach was already knitting itself back together. Pale, pink skin stretched like taffy, expanding over rent flesh, slowly obscuring viscera. He watched us impassively, his gaze thankfully not settling on anyone in particular.
More retching from the row behind me.
I looked down at my hands, realized I’d been gripping the edge of the table. I figured my face was about as white as my knuckles. My pulse pounded fiercely, made me want to crawl right out of my own skin to get away from it.
Harry’s stomach had pretty well put itself back together at that point, the bloodstains on his shirt and a few gurgling noises echoing from somewhere in that strangely toothy cavity the only signs that anything out of the ordinary had happened. He glanced down at Ned’s body, lying still beneath the lectern, and slowly shook his head.
“I never much liked that guy. I always figured he was up to something.”
From all around me, the class let out its collective breath. No one spoke, our minds hardly up to the task of processing the things we’d seen.
Harry’s face seemed to shimmer for a moment, distorting itself into mismatched rectangles like a hiccup in an HD broadcast, before coalescing in a very different face indeed. Middle-aged yet boyish, wearing a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He smiled, a real, genuine smile, unlike the uncanny facsimiles Ned had offered us in his attempts to act congenial.
“So,” Harry-cum-Roy said to the class, “while that wasn’t my original presentation, I would hope it’s been an instructive one. I’d like to thank my unwitting assistant, Ned Whatever-his-name-was. The Guild for having me, and for putting on such a wonderful weekend. Make sure you thank all the volunteers for making this happen, m’kay? And finally, all of you for bearing with me. I’ve experienced technical difficulties before, but waking up bound and gagged in a broom closet at seven in the morning? That takes the cake. Anyway, we’re about out of time, any last questions?” His head swiveled left to right, taking in a room full of people who had oh so many questions, but none that they could begin to articulate. My tongue felt like a dead slug in my mouth.
“All right, well maybe I’ll see some of you at the banquet tonight. I hope this has been an, er, instructive experience for you.” He flashed us one last winning smile and disappeared through a door behind the projector screen, leaving Ned’s prone form behind for some put-upon SplatterCon volunteer to deal with. The class held its silence for a long moment, and then the frantic and excited chattering began. The door at the back of the room finally decided to cooperate. Someone flung it open with a loud bang. Footsteps stampeded out into the hallway.
Looking down at the blank notebook on the table in front of me, I realized I’d forgotten to take notes.
* I realize that by posting on this blog, this story is technically a non-exclusive since anyone and their mother can read it.