Someone — maybe Ray Bradbury, maybe some other scribe — once said that every writer has a million bad words in them, and that once those bad words are gone, you can write something worth reading.
When I was a teenager of middling talent and musical taste, I chose to blow all million of my bad words on short stories inspired by Can Rock songs.
I didn’t do it consciously. I just had a deep and abiding love for listening to melodramatic songs that Edge 102.1 played to fulfill their CanCon requirements as well as writing even more melodramatic fiction and I saw no reason that I shouldn’t combine my two great loves into one throbbing mess of angst that I totally wouldn’t find adorably embarrassing 20 years later.
So I wrote. And listened. And wrote. And somehow, I managed to amass an entire collection of short stories inspired by songs that has been released by Canadian artists in the mid-1990s. Not all of those stories were terrible (arguably) and not all of them were by terrible artists (thank god for The Lowest of the Low, whose excellent music and literary references may have single-handedly saved me from this phase) but they all managed to contribute to my million.
Now that I am a nominally successful writer who never pens anything abjectly terrible, I think it’s time to celebrate and acknowledge the words and music that made me everything I am today.
So, for the next few weeks, I am going to be sharing the best/worst of the lot with you. And I’m going to start with an absolute gem.
I wrote “Fire in the Head” at some point in 1997, when I was 15 years old. I was, on the surface, a Good Kid at the time. I didn’t smoke, do drugs, drink, or bang (some of these were personal choices; others were a matter of access) but I did some things that were much worse, like reading obsessive amounts of Joseph Conrad and listening to Windsor, Ontario’s favorite Doors tribute band, The Tea Party.
I have no fucking clue what I was thinking on either count. I read Heart of Darkness at least seven times while I was in high school, and managed to miss every single pertinent point you could make about the book every single time. I somehow missed the glaring bullshit colonialism that runs through Conrad’s entire oeuvre (which is a massive, MASSIVE achievement in obliviousness) and whatever point the old white dude was trying to make himself and somehow got it into my head that all of Conrad’s works, especially Heart of Darkness, were about transferable madness. I was pretty sure that you could pass mental illness around like a common cold, and that this was the greatest literary fodder of all time.
Around this time, I started listening to The Tea Party. I don’t know how or why this happened, to be honest. I resisted for years. I actively mocked them. And then, one day, after seeing them for the 29875483975th time at some Edgefest or other, I just gave in. From one minute to the next, I was just like “Well, fuck it; I guess I’ll be a Tea Party fan.”
So then I bought Edges of Twilight and somehow convinced myself that “Fire in the Head” was listenable. And then I read Joseph Conrad WHILE listening to “Fire in the Head.” And then this story happened.
I probably should have done drugs instead.
PART ONE: FIRE IN THE HEAD
I did not set the fire. I was sure of it. Yet, there was a distinct yellow glow peering through the heavy foliage of my large back yard. And, like a mindless fool, I pursued it.
My walk toward the light was not totally without purpose. I had to find out who set the fire in my clay oven, for it had not been me. With my eyes focussed on the one small light in the the thick, velvety black of night, I made my way through the tight web of branches and leaves, until I reached the small clearing which I’d made my hideaway. There, I was greeted by two animal eyes glaring a sinister green as they shot through the orange of the fire and straight at me.
One couldn’t have asked for a clearer warning, or louder omen. Those eyes did little to move me in any way, though. I was not scared nor upset by them, until I realized that they belonged to a beast far different than my mind had imagined. They belonged to my best friend.
As I focused, Elyse’s form became clear. She was hunched over, as if her body had been snapped and the heat of the fire on an already humid, scorching night had caused sweat to drip down her face. How she came to be in such a state, I could not guess. I was filled with hate for whatever, or whoever, had done that to my happy friend.
“Greetings,” said a sweet voice sliding out of the monster’s mouth. “I mean, welcome back.”
My suspicions were confirmed with that statement. She was delusional. I had not been out all evening, let alone made my way to the clearing and my oven.
“You took so long. I hadn’t thought you were coming back at all.”
As she spoke, her body lurched closer to where I was standing. Although I panicked, I made no move, like a fawn hiding from a predator. After a few steps, she stopped, as it it had never been her goal to get any closer to me. Yet.
I was too dumbfounded by the malevolent metamorphosis of Elyse to be frightened by it.I had seen her the day before, the cheerful, bubbly girl that everyone found hopelessly enchanting. She’d stood straight and majestically, and I’d told her she looked simply angelic.
How she had fallen. Her features were worn, even pained, and her eyes lacked any trace of humanity.
“I was hoping you’d return,” she spoke with the only aspect of herself that hadn’t changed.
“But I haven’t been here all night,” I responded.
She shot me a look that one would give a deceitful child. “And I thought I was mad.”
Elyse took a few steps back so she could once again glance at me through the fire
“Why did you leave me here?” she asked rather pitifully.
“Leave you here? I know I have not been out all night. What are you doing here, playing with my oven?”
She found this hysterical, and had the maniacal laugh to prove it.
“The fire was burning, I had no choice but to submit.”
With that she selected a large twig from the ground and thrust one end into the oven. Moments later, she pulled it out again, burning rather violently, with a blackened skull of some sort of small creature dangling on the end. She grinned as if to say: that’s what I’ve been doing.
I suppose my shock was not impressive enough, for she continued.
“This isn’t the fun part. This is just the dumping stage.”
The last statement for her what she wanted. I took a step back, finally terrified.
The fire on the stick became too hot for her, and she let both it and its ornament fall into the pit of the oven.
“That was a trial run,” she continued sweetly, but detached. “I’m ready for bigger and better things.”
I knew what she meant, although she denied it.
“Oh, not you. Someone else.”
In support of her claim, she put a few more feet of distance between us. Further from the light, the green glow of Elyse’s eyes faded and they began to reflect the flames instead. What a telling image it was.
She began to sway to some rapid beat rhythm inside her head. The swaying became more pronounced until it exploded into a full-out dance. With graceful motions she swirled around the fire in the oven, mimicking its turbulent swirls, sparks and throws. Her eyes evolved from reflecting the fire to simply being fiery. Her dance stealthily brought her to my side.
“You have something I want,” she declared inches away from my face before dancing off again. Safely back at the opposite side of the burning oven, Elyse started to laugh and taunt me like a child daring a friend to do something foolish.
“Don’t be stupid! Insanity’s not transferable. That’s what you’ve always said, right?”
I had always said that. She spoke the truth. Even thought I still believed it, I hesitated to try to understand where she was coming from and what she was thinking. Something deep inside me wasn’t convinced she couldn’t drag me down.
“Besides, would it be such a bad thing if it was? There’s nothing so horrible about it. I’m in a happy place. Blissful, even,” she asserted with a smirk.
She didn’t look happy, She looked wild, but a desperate wild. her smile was sinister, not joyful. Her dance appeared blissful, heavenly even, but it was beautiful , in a menacing way, like the beguiling red of lips painted with blood. She was broken.
Suddenly, she stopped. I ceased to exist as she focussed on the fire in the oven. Although I couldn’t notice a difference, Elyse felt that the fire was starting to die down.
“Look what you’ve caused. Now I have to feed it.”
Feebly, I gathered some twigs, and handed them to my poor friend. She took them and tossed them in, but she then shook her head.
“That’s not what I meant. It wants the other thing. How could you say that madness can’t be passed on?”
With rage, she lunged past the oven and straight at me. As I walked backward in a subtle attempt to get away from her, I ran into the outreaching branches of a bush. For the first time, I realized that she had succeeded in trapping me. No escape would be quick, or undetected.
The farthest I could get away from her was the other side of the fire.
“If you aren’t going to give me what I want, at least let me satisfy this need of mine. At least let me feed the fire.”
She looked at me with troubled eyes. I met them with my own, trembling pair.
“I don’t even know what you want from me.”
She screamed her answer, and it echoed for eternities afterward.
“I want my sanity back!!”
My mind became flooded with memories of a more driven, violent time. How I had so easily forgotten it, I didn’t know. As Elyse crumbled in front of me, the fire before he gave way to the white flames of my past. A long forgotten past, save for the fact that it had only occurred a few hours before.
Elyse was crying, but the rage of her outburst had not diminished.
“I believed you when you said that insanity could not be passed on, or traded. I came out here to help you. I listened to your descriptions of what went on in your mind because I thought that I could hear it all unscathed and pull you out. You knew all along that you were just giving me your burden. I suppose that I was a small price to pay for freedom.”
I broke into an instant cold sweat, and tears started to pour down my trembling face. Duty, morality, justice, friendship, they all appealed to me but I was deafened by my passionate fear of ever returning to the dark place I’d just escaped from.
Elyse looked at me with pleading eyes, and thrust her hand through the fire, heedless of the pain the heat was causing her.
“Please. I don’t have to describe anything to you, just remember and pull me out of this. If you save me, I will try to save you.”
I knew what my best friend was going through, and I was well aware she was suffering for and because of me. But try wasn’t good enough. I had been saved, I wasn’t going to look back.
I turned my back on Elyse, and her outstretched hand in the oven’s fire. I fought my way through the foliage slowly, waiting for my transgression to be punished by another dose of senility, but I escaped almost unscathed. I never looked back at the glowing point of light, or its slave.
Now, I am content to live with the guilt of knowing that I set the fire, and left my dearest friend burning with it.