- Author : Orrin Grey
"When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars" was first published in Orrin’s third collection Guignol and Other Sardonic Tales
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When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars
by Orrin Grey
“What’s the earliest memory you have of your father?” my therapist is asking. Such a tired line, something that a therapist would ask in a movie. I don’t tell him the truth, of course. I cast around for an easy lie, the same one that I would give to Kenzie if she asked, though she never does. Tell him something about my dad wrapping Christmas presents in old shoe boxes, packing them in socks, a twenty-dollar bill stuck between two bricks, wrapped in faded paper. Something that could be cute but always felt mean-spirited.
My laptop case is lying on the floor of the office. In it is a letter on stationery from the Seldon Civics Committee or somesuch, a clipping from the Seldon Herald , complete with a grainy newsprint photo of the old Gorka Theatre, with its marquee like an art deco wave. I’m driving there from here, in a rented black Accord, but I thought it would be a good idea to get one last therapy session in before I go.
No, let me stop. That’s a lie, and I know it. Kenzie thought it would be a good idea, and she’s right, but I knew it would be a waste of time, and it is. I talk about Seldon, about my childhood, about my dad, but I skim over the surface, like I’ve taught myself to do. A rock skipping across a deep, black pond, never touching the water long enough to attract the attention of the beasts that circle below.
I had written a book; nothing actually very respectable, one of those “100 Films to See Before You Shuffle Off This Filthy Coil” jobs, but it made it into the Library Journal , found its way onto B&N shelves, and something of that must have been enough to attract the attention of someone at the Seldon Public Library. I learned, from the letter and then the phone call, that it was still in the same place it had always been—an old bank building, across the street from what used to be the drug store—kept alive thanks to the efforts of the same civics committee that was on the letterhead.
They were trying to save the Gorka Theatre and so were hosting a local film festival for charity. Obviously not big enough to draw in any actual celebrities, they had reached out to me and asked me to host a few screenings, maybe even write a piece about it for the Herald. Local boy makes good, that sort of thing.
So why did I say yes? Did I want out of the apartment, which seemed too claustrophobic now, as I tried to navigate around the not-quite-fight I seemed to be perpetually having with Kenzie, who, bless her, just wanted to help me, but I didn’t want to be better just yet? Did I think it was finally time to confront Seldon, maybe drive by the house where I grew up, or that other house, out on the long dirt roads that criss-crossed each other like gridlines of orange clay? Did I really care about saving the Gorka?
I remembered it from my boyhood. I had watched Tremors there and the Tim Burton Batman. I remembered the big pickles that they sold out of a jar on the counter, the Mountain Dews full of crushed ice, a flavor that I still mentally associated with monster movies on the big screen, even though I hadn’t had a Mountain Dew in probably fifteen years. According to the voice of the lady on the phone, the one-screen theatre was no longer privately owned, was instead kept limping along by the same civics committee that propped up the library, now dedicated to revival showings of The Wizard of Oz and the like.
Did I think, as I told my therapist, as I intimated to Kenzie, that maybe I could get another book out of this experience? If I was a film writer, after all, then the Gorka was my ground zero, wasn’t it?
I had memories of my parents dropping me off, the truck idling in the grocery store parking lot across the street as my mom pressed a few crumpled bills and pocket-warmed coins into my hands while my dad wasn’t looking.
The marquee was lit with neon pink, which spilled out onto the sidewalk around it. I remembered the strange tingly feeling I got when I saw older kids making out in the shadows of the alley next to the theatre. I remembered the way that the guy behind the counter—Sam Gorka, I know now, but didn’t know or care then—always knew my name, handing me my pickle or my Mountain Dew and smiling at me beneath his paper cap.
There had to be a story here, right? About my going back to the place where I learned to love movies, to love that tingle of expectation that crackled through the theatre like static electricity when the house lights went down. About the long walks home through the small town dark, hugging the middle of the side-streets rather than the sidewalks, because the sidewalks were full of shadows that suddenly loomed up tall. About sitting next to Stormy Willis in those ratty theatre seats, letting my knee brush against hers. About my own first kiss in that darkened alleyway, all hot and sudden and confusing.
What had the Gorka been to me? A place to escape a home that I remembered mostly as dark rooms and heavy silences, the furniture and the walls and the dark curtains all blending into a fungal mélange of lichenous drabness in my memory. Only one thing clear, my father’s voice, telling me how useless it all was. What was the line, the one that Walter Matthau gets in Hello, Dolly? “You artists produce nothing that nobody needs never.” My father would have agreed, even if he would have hated the movie, if he ever saw it, as he had seemed to hate most things.
That was the story that I had told even myself. That this trip back to Seldon would be good for me; good for my therapy, good for my nonexistent career. I dutifully ignored the voice in my head that knew better, that knew that if I was able to write about myself and my feelings at all then I wouldn’t be writing about movies instead.
They’ve graveled the roads since I was here last. I listen to the tires make that satisfying crunch as they roll over the new gravel because I’ve exhausted all of the downloaded episodes of Werewolf Ambulance and Pure Cinema Podcast on my phone. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find the house on my own, but here I am, rolling over the cattle guard and up to the place where the big gate used to hang. The sun is going down, it’s turning the whole sky orange and red. The sun itself looks like a squashed tangerine and all the light is the color of that scene at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre , with Leatherface dancing in the middle of the road.
The house isn’t where I grew up. When I was a kid it was my grandma’s house. It had been my grandpa’s farm once, but he died before I was born, and she hired young men from town to come take care of the cattle when it was time to sell them or brand them or do anything but milk and feed, which she handled herself until her dying day. I remember the house as a dark place—dim and faded, like an old sepia-toned photograph.
The sun doesn’t help now, shining through the slats of the house, through the broken out windows, turning the whole place into a silhouette, a paper cut-out of a Halloween haunted house.
My grandma died when I was in high school and my parents moved out here for my last summer. I spent three months in one of the upstairs bedrooms before I went to college, with a view out that window right there that took in the then-depopulated cattle pens, like something from a photograph of the Holocaust. But it was never home to me.
I park the car, shut off the engine. The fence is still here but the gate is missing. I walk up to the house, where all the windows are broken out, the paint stripped off by the merciless Kansas wind, the insides filled with broken wood and rat droppings. The house seems thin now, like a façade in a stage play or an old TV show. It seems like I could just reach out and push it over without much effort.
Why did I come here, rather than to the house where I spent most of my childhood, the house where now some other family lives? To my left are the cattle pens, and next to them the barn, which still seems solid and sturdy. Against the setting sun, it is a black block, a monolith. No light cuts through its walls or roof, but contrast also makes it impossible to pick out any details of the structure from this distance, and I don’t walk any closer. Scared of it, as I always was when I was a kid, when it was still full of big, roiling walls of flesh, of animals with bland eyes that seemed to look through you, behind which I could detect no consciousness.
My room is in the Stardust Motel, next to the Pizza Hut on the edge of town that was there even when I was a kid and the Speedy Stop gas station up at the top of the hill. There’s a Coke machine three doors down from my room that has ginger ale, and the bedspread is itchy, the shower missing its shower head so that the water just comes out in a gush, like from a tap. The water is pleasantly hot, at least, and the room only costs around $70 a night, so I don’t complain to the scraggly-looking kid who sits behind the front desk, sporting a patchy beard and mustache that haven’t yet completely grown in.
The town is different than I remember. Already when I was a kid the tides of prosperity that once buoyed up places like this were beginning to recede, and in the twenty short years since I was here last, they have drifted so far afield that they can no longer be seen, even on a clear day. More buildings stand empty than not, and those that have fallen have been replaced with characterless constructs of manufactured sheet metal, when they have been replaced at all.
Before checking in to my room, I drove down Main Street, looked in the empty storefronts. There’s a Dollar General Store now that wasn’t there before, and the lights from the grocery store were still on, though the place was closed for the night. I knew that the library wouldn’t be open either, so I sat in the middle of the road on Osage Street and looked at the darkened marquee of the Gorka Theatre, the dark alleyway next door, before I drove back to the motel and picked up my room key.
No cards here, still keys with those big plastic keyrings that will ship the key back if you drop it in a mailbox somewhere. It reminds me of The Shining , but here the room numbers only go up to 23.
I should call Kenzie, but instead I just text her. Let her know that I made it okay. Then I do my usual hotel routine of turning on every light in the place, even if, in this case, that consists of a yellowy dome light populated by the bodies of a handful of dead bugs and a table lamp by the single queen bed. I take a scalding shower, then sit on the scratchy bedspread with my laptop open in front of me, pretending like I’m going to write up something worthwhile about my trip so far until I finally just put in a DVD and fall asleep to the sounds of big atomic ants eating people out in the desert.
The next day I meet the librarian for breakfast at the Main Street Café, where she just drinks coffee into which she dumps creamer after creamer. I tell her I don’t drink coffee, and I order a Coke, even though if you asked me I’d tell you that I don’t drink soda anymore, either.
She looks like someone who got shrunk in the wash. Her wrists are skinny, her hair and glasses both too big for her face. She wears a floral print dress underneath what looks like the jacket from a navy-colored pantsuit. She could have been the librarian when I was a kid; I don’t remember that librarian looking any different than this.
She tells me how pleased she is that I was able to make it, how proud she is that someone from Seldon is a “famous writer.” I don’t bother to correct her. My eggs come out overcooked and rubbery on top of a pile of hashbrowns, so I chop up the whole concoction and dump some ketchup over it, wash it down with the forbidden taste of Coke.
Around breakfast, I answer the librarian’s effusive if uninformed praise by letting bland platitudes fall out of my mouth, as I have trained myself to do. I tell her about how some of my first expo-sure to film writing came from the old orange Crestwood House monster movie books that they used to have in the library here, about my early memories of the Gorka. She beams, like she’s supposed to, and I eat my food.
It’s Saturday, and the film festival is supposed to start this afternoon. To my surprise, they’re showing Paper Moon instead of The Wizard of Oz , and then they’re following that up with some made-for-TV-type pioneer movie that I’ve never heard of that was apparently filmed nearby. “We also found an 8mm film that was shot by a local filmmaker back in the 1970s,” the librarian says, “and the school had a projector that can play it, so we’ll be ending the festival with that.
“We’re so glad that you came back after all this time,” she murmurs, pouring more creamer into her coffee, stirring and stirring it with a little metal spoon that clinks against the edge of the cup.
“Everyone comes home sooner or later.”
In the slaughterhouses, they used to kill cows with hammers, right? Until they replaced the hammers with those pressurized air guns, like in No Country for Old Men. I saw my dad do it once. Kill a cow. No, not a cow, a calf. Kill it with a maul, blood on blunt steel. My dad seemed huge then, leathery and creaking, like an automaton made of bone and sinew.
That’s the memory I never tell to my therapist, to Kenzie, just like I never tell them that I was afraid of him, always afraid. Not of what he would do to me—the fear never got that specific—but of what he was. Something alien, something I could never understand, never get inside, while he was already inside of me from before I could form memories. My own voice in my head speaking his words, like a wooden puppet on the lap of a ventriloquist.
Telling me how useless everything was, what a waste of time was everything into which I ever poured my energy.
In the end, he was the one who looked like a puppet, reduced and shrunken, hooked up to the marionette wires of the hospital machines, nothing like the leathery golem of my childhood memories, blood dripping from the hammer in his hands, the mindless squeal of that dying calf echoing in my ears as I crouched in the darkness of the barn, the smell of blood and brains and hide filling the air.
By then, the time to confront him was already past. My mother had died years before, and he and I had stood silently on either side of the casket, nothing more to say to one another, not even then. At the end, there was nothing left in that withered husk, nothing that burned out from behind those dark eyes. If I was going to stand up for myself, I had already missed my chance, so I just stood there silently once again, my eyes on the floor, while he stared at me, his eyes cold and hard and mindless, like the cows in their pens. I walked away without saying anything. He died sometime in the night, and I didn’t drive back for the funeral.
Between Paper Moon and the other movie, Frontier Song , or whatever it’s called, I walk out onto the street for some fresh air. The sun is sinking behind the grocery store, and someone has turned on the Gorka’s marquee. Pink light paints the sidewalk under my feet, and I look up at the sign to see that about half of it is burnt out. Past it, I can see the stars just beginning to pepper the darkening sky.
The inside of the theatre looks almost exactly how I remember it—the ticket booth and the concession stand in the same place, the carpet still threadbare. The old movie poster frames have been taken down and replaced with painted reproductions of the posters for a couple of classic films, while the walls have been repainted and are already starting to peel again. The chairs inside the theatre are just as they always were—hard and narrow, smelling faintly like a thrift store—but I’ve got a couple of them roped off just for me, next to the librarian and a man who looks like a pastor and says that he’s from the civics committee when he shakes my hand.
Normally I would never agree to host something like this without getting to see the films first, but there’s not much that’s required of me here. Most of the seats are empty, and those that are filled are all clearly occupied by locals. The majority are people who look like they just came in from church—old and flabby and attempting to look prosperous in suits that they obviously wear only for special occasions—while a few are local teenagers who are unlikely to appreciate anything that’s on the day’s docket.
Before Paper Moon , the librarian got up in front of the crowd—such as it is—and introduced me, talked about my book as though it was a New York Times best seller, and then I walked up in front to a scattering of compulsory applause. I talked a little bit about movies, about growing up in Seldon and coming to the Gorka, and then I sat back down and the projector sputtered to life, and that was it.
Before I left the hotel, I popped a pill from the case that I keep in my pocket at all times, and now, standing out in the growing dark in front of the theatre, I chase it with another one, dry-swallowing. The concession stand inside is open, staffed by a kid with greasy hair under the same kind of paper hat that Sam Gorka used to wear, and I decide to go in and see if they have any Mountain Dew, if they still have crushed ice.
Inside the lobby the librarian is talking to the guy from the civics committee. When they see me come in, they both smile big, beaming smiles at me. I smile back, like I’ve trained myself to do.
I learned a long time ago that animals that behave themselves don’t draw unwanted attention.
The pills make me drowsy, and during Frontier Song I mostly doze off, so that I’m half-surprised when the credits are rolling and the house lights are coming back up. The librarian shuffles to the front of the house and leads a round of undeserved applause for the movie that just finished screening. “While our volunteers get us set up for our third and final film,” she says, “I want to say a few words about this theatre, and the movie that you’re about to see.
As most of you probably know, this theatre was started by Samuel Gorka way back in 1953, and it stayed in his family for two generations. What we’re about to watch is a short film that Samuel shot right here in Seldon back in the 1970s, using all local cast and crew.”
This time the applause is a little more heartfelt. Samuel Gorka had been the father of the Sam Gorka I knew; I remembered seeing him from time to time, a wizened man by the time I was a kid, who occasionally haunted the theatre like a ghost, mostly spending his time in the projection booth. A memory hit me then, sudden and hard, one that I had set aside and lost over the years, of Sam saying to me, “Dad treats those projectors like his babies.
Nobody else knows how to run ’em like he does.”
I look up at the window of the projection booth, but can’t see anything behind it from this angle. My imagination conjures up an image of Samuel Gorka, little more than a mummified corpse by this time, shriveled up like those shrunken apple heads that Vincent Price used to peddle in the backs of comic books, still running the projectors that no one else knows how to operate.
Before I can chase the weird fantasy too far, however, the librarian is sitting back down in the chair next to me, the house lights are going down, and the projector is sputtering to life once more.
The film is dark, which means that the house is kept dark, so that everything around me is murky and lost, save for the occasional glint off the librarian’s glasses. My fingertips are resting on the cold, sweating surface of my Mountain Dew, the wax paper damp under my touch. The footage is amateur, handheld, like a home video. Something that I would expect to see in a modern found footage horror movie. The setting is dark, lit by the flickering orange glow of long torches stuck into the ground, of a fire that’s somewhere off camera.
The cameraman is approaching a structure that I recognize, even past the darkness and the grain of the film. The door of the barn on my grandma’s property is like the mouth of a cave. In the background are the cattle pens, newer than I have ever seen them looking, and within them dark shapes that are not cows shift and jostle.
There are people gathered around, lined up on either side of the dirt path which leads up to the barn door, like they are watching a parade. It takes me a moment to realize that they are naked, their skin decorated with crude daubs of paint or mud. The people in the crowd are a mix of genders and ages. Here sagging bellies hang over flaccid genitalia; there taut, firm breasts are decorated with circles around the nipples. One man strokes an erection, but the camera doesn’t linger on the crowd.
From out of the barn door steps a minotaur, a sledgehammer cradled in its hands. No, not a minotaur, because the head isn’t that of a bull. The figure is just a man, isn’t it, in a rubber goat’s head mask and yak-fur leggings? Like Satan on his rock in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. But that doesn’t look like a mask, even in the grainy 8mm footage. It looks like an actual goat’s head, hollowed out for a man to stuff his own head inside. Yes, there’s even something, black stuff that must be blood, dripping down from the stump of the neck, staining the man’s torso in little smeared rivers, and all I can think is that he must be choking on the stuff inside there, his mouth and nose and eyes full of gore and filth. How could he stand it, even for the short duration that the camera will stay on him?
But the camera does stay on him, doesn’t flinch away, as it would in a studio film, to preserve the illusion, that glimpse of something wrong that stays stuck in your brain because you can’t fully process it, and so you fill it in, build it up. No, here it stays and stays, staring, transfixed. It draws slowly closer. Not a zoom, the cameraman actually approaching with shaky steps. Closer and closer to that bloody goat’s head mounted atop that leathery, familiar body.
Up close, it’s clear that the goat’s head is real. There’s nothing else it could be. And yet, and yet, how did they get the eyes to do that? To glow like that, yellow like that, with life behind them?
Those slitted, sideways pupils slightly narrowed in the middle, like hourglasses turned on their sides, the yellow around them glowing like a Tiffany lamp.
The cameraman is kneeling in the dirt now, looking up at the figure towering above him. I’m six years old, crouched in the dark, watching my father bring the maul down on the head of the calf, watching how its eyes change when it dies, hearing that squeal that has never left my brain, the stench that I sometimes still think I can smell in my clothes. The goatman raises the hammer up above his head, and the film doesn’t flinch as the blow falls.
I think that the camera is laying in the dirt now, still filming, but I can’t be certain because the film is starting to run in front of me, to wobble and distort. I can feel the beads of sweat on the cup against my fingertips, and I try to stand up, but the theatre seems to spin. The librarian is asking me something, and there is laughter in her voice as I stumble against the seatbacks in front of me, pitch forward, and crumble into the darkness between the theatre seats, then into a deeper darkness yet.
I wake on my knees, with a bag over my head. Under my jeans, I can feel the dirt, and I smell the rank stench of old hay and animals. Through the bag, I can see the flicker of flames, and I know where I am, even before they pull the covering off.
I’m kneeling in front of the door of my grandma’s barn, and all around me are the people from the theatre. They’re dressed for an older kind of church now, their clothes shed, their naked bodies daubed with what I now know is not paint but blood mixed with earth.
I wish that I was thinking of Kenzie, regretting the distance that I have always kept between us, but mostly I’m thinking of myself, of the stench of that dying calf, and other memories that I thought time and distance and ritual had scrubbed away. The stone has stayed too long on the surface of the pond, and now those circling creatures below have started to rise.
The figure steps out of the darkness, and I know it immediately, even as I know that it is impossible. The severed goat head drips black blood down across that familiar chest, and the hammer rests in those familiar hands. Its steps are mechanical, like a puppet being pulled forward by invisible cables, like the figures in one of those mechanized dioramas in a penny arcade. It steps forward, one foot, then the next. The hammer rises in its hands; a spring being wound tighter and tighter.
I look up at the stars that seem like they’re being blotted out by the goatman’s shadow, and wait for the blow to fall.