At the Edge of the Garden

When I was ten years old, all my friends had trampolines. I wanted a trampoline too, but my mother was opposed to the idea. One of my cousins decided to jump onto a trampoline from the roof of his house, breaking his arm and becoming a neighborhood hero in the process. My mother used my cousin’s behavior as a justification for keeping our yard trampoline-free, but I understood that she didn’t want her garden to be invaded.

My family lived on the outskirts of a pine forest bordering a small town. The property would later be sold, cleared, and incorporated into a subdivision, but our house was fairly isolated when we lived there. Since I had no one to play with and nothing better to do, I spent the summer roaming the forest with my dog while pretending to be a dinosaur. After a boy was shot in a hunting accident only a mile away from our house, my mother came to the reluctant conclusion that keeping me and the dog in the yard on a trampoline would probably be safer than letting us run wild in the woods.

The trampoline dominated my mother’s garden, as she had known it would, but this was more than likely a relief for her. She had neglected to do any weeding that summer, and the plants had gone feral. The trampoline blocked the view of the overgrown tangle of the rose bushes and ornamental shrubs that she used to keep meticulously maintained. My dog would sometimes disappear into the thistles and milkweed that grew as tall as my waist at the edge of the yard and emerge with his coat covered in burs, and my mother would pretend not to notice.

My parents’ marriage had turned sour. They fought after dinner, so I tried to be in the house as little as possible. I would go outside to jump on the trampoline every evening. It was soothing, almost hypnotic. I would position myself in the middle of the black canvas tarp and bounce in place as I watched the sun set over the pine trees standing just beyond the garden. I would hop off the trampoline and head back inside once the sky had gone completely dark, but twilight tends to linger in that part of the world, especially during summer. Sometimes I would be on the trampoline for more than an hour, letting my mind draft into various fantasies of prehistoric life while my dog barked at the rabbits that sniffed around the patch of soil where my mother used to grow carrots.

One evening, just as the sun had begun to sink below the tops of the pines, I saw a figure slink out of the dim forest underbrush. There wasn’t enough light to see clearly, but I was convinced it was a person. My dog was somewhere else, so I was alone with the shadow.

I was struck by a sense of terror, but I couldn’t stop jumping on the trampoline. My body moved mechanically as the blob of darkness made its way across the yard. Eventually it halted, raised the stalks of its arms, and slowly waved at me. I kept jumping, and it kept waving. It seemed as though it were trying to get my attention, but I refused to acknowledge its presence. If I looked at it directly, the stalemate would be broken, and I would be eaten. I was only a dinosaur in my mind, after all, and I knew that I was no match for whatever had come out of the trees.

As the sun disappeared, the shadow sank back into the forest. I hopped off the trampoline and ran inside as quickly as my shaking legs could carry me. 

The next day, when the sun was fully back in the sky, I ventured out to the line of trees beyond the garden, but I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The thick mat of pine needles covering the ground lay undisturbed.

Later that afternoon, my dog got hit by a speeding truck on the state highway that ran past the end of our driveway, but I don’t think there was any connection to what I’d seen the previous evening. How could there have been? Nothing made sense to me at the time – not the death of my dog, not the end of my parents’ marriage, and not the creeping realization that my mother and I would have to leave our home at the end of the summer. All things considered, a strange shadow lurking in the woods at the edge of the garden was the least of what was wrong with that house.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This story was originally published in Issue 7 of 3 Moon Magazine in April 2021. The issue’s theme was “Growing Malcontent,” and this story was my first foray into botanical horror. 3 Moon Magazine ceased publication and closed its website at the end of 2022, and I am reproducing this story with the kind permission of the editors.

The House in Fata Morgana

The House in Fata Morgana describes itself as “a gothic suspense tale set in a cursed mansion,” but I would describe this visual novel as 500k+ words of torture porn. It’s so bad. It is so so bad.

The premise of the game is that you wake up in an abandoned mansion with no memories. A creepy maid guides you through the house while telling you the tragic stories of the people who once lived there. It turns out that the maid was present in all eras of history, and that you were too – albeit not in the form you expect. Along the way there are a lot of silly and juvenile anime tropes, as well as a seriously awful mistreatment of transgender issues. And did I mention torture? There’s a lot of torture.

The remainder of this post includes discussion of torture, including sexual assault, so please take care.

One of the reasons I shy away from away from amateur writing communities is because they tend to have at least one person who will go through a manic phase and then won’t shut up about how they wrote 10k words in one night, and how these words are the most brilliant thing that’s ever been written, and how every single one of these words are perfect and should never be edited.

The House in Fata Morgana wrote 10k words in one night, and it shows. The ideas behind the individual character stories and the overarching plot aren’t bad, but the writing is godawful. There was clearly no editing, and the pacing is a miserable mess. Characters repeat themselves endlessly in a way that goes far beyond “demonstrating the theme of a cycle of abuse.” Each of the sub-stories drags on forever before ending in a bloodbath of screams that go “AaAAAAggHHH” and “NnnGGggGG uuuUrrhhh” and “hehehHEHEHehehe” for literally dozens of minutes of the player clicking through meaningless text.

(I don’t mean to suggest that the translation is bad, by the way. It’s actually very polished. Still, I feel horrible that the translator had to wade through this mess, and I hope they got to take a long vacation afterward.)

The art is pretty but extremely limited, and the character designs fail to convey any sort of personality or mood. The game offers almost no horror art, or even any interesting visual imagery. The giant gothic mansion has maybe ten rooms, and they’re all bog-standard stock photos run through different filters. The player is asked to make a few decisions, but they’re few and far between. These choices are binary, with the wrong decision being crystal clear and resulting in an obviously premature end to the game. In other words, there’s no real gameplay to speak of, nor any real payoff for making your way through the text.

About two-thirds of the way through the game, I got to the point where I was holding down the skip button to speed-read through the text as quickly as possible. I gave up at some point during the penultimate chapter. Towards the end, the story’s pace slows down instead of quickens, making the game feel even more tedious as it offers revelations that might have been surprising if the writing weren’t so mind-numbingly boring.

The House in Fata Morgana could have had the potential to be unique and interesting if its writing had been properly edited. At perhaps 250k words, the player would still have been able to spend a significant amount of time in this creepy mansion with these unfortunate characters, and the writer still would have been able to convey the sense of feeling trapped in a web of words. I’m willing to grant a creator sufficient room to explore the world of their story, but I think it’s safe to say that three entire novels’ worth of extra words will try anyone’s patience.  

There’s also the game’s severe mistreatment of transgender issues.

By this point I have enough exposure to Japanese otaku media to understand that the representation of queer identity and sexuality is complicated. For example, is a work of fiction seemingly intended for a straight male audience secretly LGBTQ+ friendly, or is it actually homophobic? And, if it is borderline homophobic, how much energy do you need to expend to reinterpret the plot and characters into something that can be read as queer-positive? Is it worth the trouble?

Even with the benefit of the doubt, however, the second-to-last chapter of The House in Fata Morgana hit me especially hard.

This chapter is about a transgender (and possibly intersex) character quietly coming out as gay and then being tortured by his family. It’s intense, and it lasts for more than an hour of gameplay time. I don’t use the word “problematic” lightly, but the way this torture and misgendering resonates with the rest of the story is deeply upsetting.

Maybe this is all resolved and everyone gets a happy ending, who knows. For me, I’m not sure any ending is worth having to sit through hours of a transgender character being imprisoned and starved and beaten and tortured and being told, in line after line after line of text, that he would be happy if only he weren’t gay.

I feel like this goes beyond “horror” and enters the realm of something else entirely. Either the writer has an intense fetish, or it’s sincere homophobia. I don’t think every piece of media needs to be ideologically pure or written for me specifically, but the way this element of the story casts a different light on the plot of the entire game (for complicated spoiler reasons) is extremely weird and fucked up.

I think most players will eventually run up against the question of “why don’t the characters just get up and leave the house,” and the same frustration applies to The House in Fata Morgana in a meta sense. Namely, you don’t need to be trapped by this poorly-written and poorly-edited and poorly-paced game. You can just quit playing! So that’s what I did.

If you’re wondering whether you should spend $40 to check out The House in Fata Morgana and just play until you get bored, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s a strong psychosexual element to the story presented by each chapter, with sexual assault and torture being the dominant themes. This is par for the course for gothic horror, but the player’s enjoyment of this game is going to be strongly dependent on how many hundreds of thousands of words of explicit descriptions of non-erotic yet still sexualized torture they’re willing to tolerate. Also, the very first chapter is about incest.

I love horror, and I’m not judging anyone who uses fiction to explore the darker sides of human experience. Still, considering how highly rated The House in Fata Morgana is on Steam, I think it’s important to say that this game definitely isn’t for everyone.

Quiet Haunting

I moved to South Philly toward the end of the pandemic. My landlord raised the rent, and it was cheaper to buy a house. Granted, it’s not a big house, nor is it particularly nice. The floors are uneven, and the ceiling sags. The kitchen is like a set from an old movie, and the basement is infested with house centipedes. But it’s affordable, and it’s quiet, especially since no one lives next door.

Recently, however, I’ve started to hear things moving on the other side of the townhouse wall. The noises aren’t loud or frequent. It’s mostly soft shuffling and light tapping, usually right before dawn and just after dusk. To make matters even more curious, someone has been watering the plants in the house’s back yard. Two leafy fig trees have grown from small sprouts to extraordinary heights over the summer.

Earlier this evening, I noticed that the house’s back door was open. It was just a crack, as if someone had forgotten to close it. The opossums that live in the alleyway that will come inside and eat your trash if you let them, so I figured I’d be doing someone a favor if I closed the door. I climbed over the crumbling cinderblock wall and maneuvered through the foliage. When I put my hand on the knob, the door surprised me by swinging open.  

The was nothing inside, just uneven floors and sagging ceilings like my own, but I could hear a beeping sound emerging from the basement. I peeked down the stairs, where I saw an older man in a colorless cardigan sweater sitting on a metal folding chair. He was flipping through an issue of National Geographic that he’d taken from a sagging cardboard box filled with old magazines.

I froze in alarm, but he looked up and met my eyes before I could back away. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I apologized. “I live next door, and I heard the beeping. I was worried something was going to explode.”

“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “It’s just an oven timer. I figured I’d give it a few more minutes, but I might as well turn it off.”

I felt awkward, like I couldn’t just leave, so I asked him why he was sitting in the basement with an oven timer.

“They pay me to look after the place,” he answered. “You know, rattle a few chains, make some thumping noises in the night. Feed the spiders, maybe put a bloody handprint on the window, that sort of thing. It keeps the property values down.”

I realized that I could see the back of the chair through the man’s sweater. This didn’t bother me as much as perhaps you’d think it would. I’d seen stranger things in the neighborhood, and the man seemed nice enough. “I haven’t really heard anything from next door,” I admitted. “Do you want me to be more scared?”

“Don’t sweat it. They’re not paying me much, and I haven’t gotten a raise in years. My heart’s just not in it these days.” With a sigh, he closed the magazine and tossed it back into the box before disappearing in a thin whisp of smoke.

I left the basement, closing and locking the door behind me before returning to my own house. I guess the post-pandemic economy has been tough for everyone. All things considered, I don’t mind living next to a haunted house. Like I said, it’s affordable, and it’s quiet.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This illustrated short story was originally published in the Philly Zine Fest 2022 Anthology. This year’s Philly Zine Fest was held at Temple University on Saturday, November 5. Despite a giant political rally happening right across the street that afternoon, it was a very chill and relaxed event with lots of good vibes and creative energy. It’s been my dream to table at the Philly Zine Fest for years, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. Here’s to many more celebrations of independent artists and writers in years to come! If you’re interested, you can find the Philly Zine Fest website (here), and it’s definitely worth checking out their parent organization, The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library.

Also, I should mention that I really do live next door to an abandoned funeral home. True story! I posted a photoset on Instagram (here).

Gothic Horror Story Elements

In order for a story to be considered “Gothic,” I think it needs to include…

– A house. This “house” can be a castle or a space station or an abandoned medical research facility or what have you, but it needs to be a place where people live and eat and sleep.

– It has to be a big house. In addition to being big on the outside, it should be larger than it appears. The house should have something along the lines of a secret sub-basement, hidden rooms, tunnels in the walls, a House of Leaves style portal to another dimension, or something along those lines. The house needs to be large enough to be considered a labyrinth.

– The house has to be old and in a state of decay or disrepair. In addition, the house needs to be isolated and surrounded by wilderness. Over the course of the story, the natural environment should intrude on the interior of the house. This should still be the case even if the environment is not technically “natural,” as in the case of Suburban Gothic.

– The house needs to be associated with and occupied by a family.

– The family needs to have a dark secret, preferably one hidden within the house.

– At least one member of the family should still live in the house. “Family” can be loosely defined, but the concept of “family” as such is key.

– If there’s no family living in the house, then the story is a “haunted house” story, not a “Gothic” story. This is also the case if the people living in the house aren’t alive or aren’t human (or whatever passes for “a normative person” in the world of the story). This is important, as “Gothic” is just as much of a narrative structure as it is a collection of tropes. For example…

– The point-of-view character should be a member of the family in some way. Often this character will come into the house through marriage or inheritance. Sometimes they won’t initially know they’re related to the family. In the case of servants and governesses and so on, the point-of-view character will either be secretly related to the family, or they’ll be a parent or spouse in all but name. If the point-of-view character isn’t related to the family, they will gradually fall under the delusion that they are.

– The point-of-view character will obviously be privileged, as they live in a large house and are associated with a wealthy family, but they also need to be disadvantaged in some way. The way in which they’re disadvantaged should have some thematic relevance to the dark secret hidden by the house.

– The point-of-view character must be forbidden from certain behavior by an arcane rule or system of rules. The forbidden behavior will generally involve the navigation of space in or around the house: Don’t go into the forest, don’t go into the cellar, don’t leave your room at night, etc.

– The disadvantage of the point-of-view character will compel them to accept the family rules even though they can intuitively feel that something is horribly wrong. This traps them within the house.

– The goal of the point-of-view character is to escape the maze of the house. The only way to navigate this labyrinth is by breaking the rules, engaging in forbidden behavior, and bringing the dark secret to light.

– The primary antagonist should be a living person in the family, related to the family, or emotionally invested in the family in some way. Although supernatural elements are not out of the question, it’s often the case that the phenomena presumed to be supernatural have a rational (albeit psychologically deranged) explanation. That being said, there’s often a Todorovian elision between “natural” and “supernatural,” with the distinction being left to the reader.

– When the point-of-view character reveals the family’s secret, this destroys the house. This destruction is usually literal. The family almost always dies as well. If the point-of-view character is too closely tied to the family, they may die too. Regardless, the reader will understand that the collapse of the house and the demise of the family is a good thing that needed to happen.

– The house and family should represent an older social system responsible for the disadvantage of a group of people represented by the point-of-view character. This system usually concerns oppression on the basis of class or gender, but it can sometimes be about race, nationality, or colonial heritage.

– The Gothic genre is not conservative, because it’s essentially about how outdated systems of privilege that still continue to oppress people are deeply fucked up and unhealthy and need to be destroyed. “Haunted house” stories are often conservative, but I would argue that Gothic stories advocate for radical systemic change and the self-realization of freedom from social expectations.

– At the same time, Gothic stories are not didactic. The lure of the forbidden goes both ways, after all, and the reader should be able to understand why the point-of-view character allows themselves to become trapped in the house. The old castle is majestic. The beast-husband is attractive. The spoils of ill-gotten wealth are luxurious and comfortable. The ruins are delightfully mysterious. The poison apple looks delicious. The story is queer and problematic, and that’s precisely why it’s appealing.

There are numerous cross-genres and sub-genres of Gothic that have their own specific conventions, like Gothic Romance and Boarding School Gothic. I didn’t address the visual language of the Gothic, or how tropes and conventions vary between times and cultures. Still, I think this is the core of the genre.

Haunted Houses

Earlier this week I published my newest zine of horror-themed microfiction. Haunted Houses contains fifteen very short stories about haunted spaces and the terrible people who inhabit them. The cover art is by @QuinkyDinky, and the zine contains interior art by @irizuarts. I’ve got a listing up on Etsy (here), and I’m also promoting the zine on Twitter (here) and Instagram (here).

This zine is quite short, with each story and illustration occupying only one page. This is partially a trick of formatting, but it’s also a result of careful editing. You wouldn’t want to spend too much time in these places, after all.

I have to admit that, even though I’m categorizing this zine and the two other collections of microfiction that preceded it as “horror,” I’m on the fence about what genre my stories actually belong to.

In my mind, the genre of horror isn’t about a specific set of tropes or narrative structures. Rather, horror is characterized by the psychological and visceral sensation of unease it inspires.

I personally prefer to think of most horror, including the stories I write, as “dark fantasy,” or perhaps simply “magical realism.” I’m not easily creeped out by fiction, mainly because the real world is so lowkey awful so much of the time. As I write this, the National Guard is setting up base at a West Philadelphia Target in advance of the presidential election next week, ostensibly as a “defense” against people engaging in civic protest. There are actual tanks in the parking lot of the place I go to stock up on toilet paper, and that’s really scary. But monsters? Not so much.

I’ve always tended to identify with monsters, and not simply because so many villain characters are overtly coded as queer. Monsters are about disrupting the status quo, and I can get behind that. Postwar American horror cinema, including the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, is all about interlopers quietly invading small-town America and infecting people. The story behind many of these movies basically boils down to this: Can you even imagine scary things like communism and feminism and civil rights secretly gaining a foothold in our town? (Stephen King goes into fantastic detail about this in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, if you’re curious, and I think the book still reads well and holds up in many ways.)

To me, monsters aren’t scary because I am the monster, which is an uncomfortable set of life experiences to try to talk about in fiction or otherwise. There’s nothing you can specifically put your finger on regarding why people treat you the way they do, but you know there’s something a little off.

Fuck Sigmund Freud and his weird misogyny and homophobia, but I think I’m on the same page with him regarding “the uncanny” as one of the primary components of horror. Freud got a lot of things wrong in his career, but something he gets absolutely right is that it’s difficult to discuss the uncanny in concrete terms.

The uncanny doesn’t just apply to appearance, of course – social interactions and environments can be uncanny as well. If what I’m writing is horror at all, it probably falls into the subcategory of social horror, which focuses on people behaving in a way that’s almost human, but not quite. Many horror stories are cathartic, in that the status quo is threatened but ultimately restored at the end. Even if things have changed, we can feel relief in the knowledge that at least they’re getting back to normal. With social horror, however, our anxiety is never resolved, because we now understand that the status quo itself is horrifying.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of my identity and life in a mimetic way. When I’ve tried, it’s been my experience that people either won’t believe me, will think I’m being manipulative in an attempt to elicit undeserved sympathy, or will be put off by the political elements underlying my descriptions of the ways in which I’ve had to move through the world.

The point of the stories in Haunted Houses is not to try to explain why certain aspects of my life have been unsettling, but rather to create a sense of the uncanny in order to communicate the sense of feeling unsettled for reasons you can’t quite explain. Sometimes my stories about haunted houses are about the hidden trauma of being queer in a society that goes out of its way to create monsters; but, in the end, I just really like telling stories about strange people occupying uncomfortable places. I enjoy exploring these themes both as a reader and as a writer, and I’ve found that summoning the courage to open the door and peer into the darkness on the other side is, if not total escapism, still good spooky fun.

And right now, at this specific moment in time, I think we can all relate to the uncanny experience of feeling trapped in a haunted space, because this is our daily life – we live here now.