Sunday, April 28, 2013

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy and Squid Pots

So I guess getting scared to death is an actual thing. There's a statistic for it, both global and nationwide but I didn't feel like looking it up as I am battling a cold, and usually statistics are some pretty cooked up bullshit anyway.

But it happens.

They call it Taktsubo Cardiomyopathy, or sometimes Transient Apical Ballooning Syndrome, on account of how the human heart takes on a pretty messed up deformation after the killer adrenaline dump. Here's a side by side of how your heart looks when it swells up to the point of bursting, as opposed to how a normal ticker is supposed to look:

Fear isn't the only emotion that can cause the human heart to get all swollen and bursty-like, sometimes TC can be caused by a sudden onslaught of depression and stress. There was a huge spike of TC-related deaths after 9/11, and cases of it are common in old married couples where one of them kicks the bucket all of a sudden and then the other one pops off a few months, or sometimes weeks later.

It's sometimes called "Broken Heart Syndrome", although having typed that I suddenly worry that I've now given some serious ammunition to any angry spurned lover who decides that not only is it okay to drunk dial their ex at 3 o'clock in the morning but it's absolutely imperative to do so because This is a life-threatening situation. That's not how it works, okay? (DO YOU HEAR ME SHEILA, GET OVER IT! THAT WAS SUMMER CAMP AND WE'RE BOTH ALMOST 40!)

Sorry, that was a sidebar for my next column, "Why I'm no longer on Facebook" followed by "Why Photoshop can be an absolute mothefucker sometimes".

Anyway, the term Takotsubo Syndrome actually comes from the ancient Japanese practice of trapping octopuses octopeese octopi squids in ceramic pots and then hauling them onshore. Here's a shot of the pots:

This actually spawned a semi-hilarious awareness campaign about TC and the whole stress-management-to-avoid-having-a-heart-attack thing called the "Keep Your Octopus in its Pot" campaign.

Of course this image - which was quite popular for a brief period in Asian Hospitals - of an angry cephalopod attacking vital internal organs led some folks to believe that there was some sort of horrendous octopus uprising, causing widespread panic and another temporary spike in the very disease that Doctors were trying to prevent.

The 2nd campaign poster was a little more vague, but (in my opinion) somewhat more menacing ...

I often wonder about the likelihood that a westerner will come across one of these pots washed onshore, maybe like somewhere in Hawaii or something. I picture an older guy, a tourist from the Midwest in his late 50's who has no idea what it could be. He wanders across the sand and spots it rolling up out of the surf.

"Ho! A souvenir," he thinks, and then hurries up to grab it before the waves snatch his newfound treasure away from him. As he grips the rim of the pot, an errant tentacle lashes him by the wrist and the next thing he knows he's wrestling with a half-mad octopus desparate to escape its imprisonment.


Naturally this sort of madness would cause his heart to explode in sheer terror, causing the first ever case of a Takotsubo actually causing a Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

It Means "Strangle-Face"

The witch-light rocketed across the sky, crashing into a patch at the edge of Barrett’s field, where the kudzu had overtaken a 1940 Ford Tractor so completely that its chassis was merely the suggestion of a hump buried under a sea of ravenous and otherwise useless vegetation. Useless, except for the fact that it hid – up until that moment – a twenty square foot victory garden where I grow a few small marijuana plants on account of my, um, eczema.

Tendrils of greenish-white fire began to lick up from the border, and somewhere dogs began barking. Of course this had to happen, and just when I had settled in for the night. I cursed under my breath and rose up from the porch to grab my shotgun.

I had no idea of what that strange light could have been, but ever since the neighbor down the road experienced some unpleasantness vis a vis stepping outside one morning and finding a half dozen cows, his blue-ribbon prize winning sow and a German Shepherd all burnt up and turned inside out amidst some kind of looney-tunes crop circles I make it a point to carry the heater with me everywhere. It pays to be prepared. As my victory garden sits about a quarter-mile from the front porch as the crow flies, I elected to forgo shank’s mare in lieu of the pick-up truck. I ain’t a young man anymore.

2 minutes later I was stumbling and cursing through the tall weeds like an idiot. At the center of where my poor, harmless crops used to soak up rays there was now a large, smoky crater. And at the center of the crater was a smooth, egg-shaped bit of technology no bigger than a Frigidaire. A hatch popped open at the top and I made a bit of a show of racking that scattergun and hoisting it at said hatch.

“You’ll want to come out nice and slow,” I said, sounding a whole lot more confident than I felt.

The voice that came back sounded a bit like that Stephen Hawking feller – the smart little guy in the wheelchair. He’s always going on about things like space-time and black holes from what I’ve seen in the papers; maybe he got it in his mind to try launching himself up there. People are always getting funny ideas.

The voice could have been Stephen Hawking’s, but he wasn’t speaking any English that I knew of. “Dos vedanya,” I think he said. And: “Tovarisch.”

“Never mind all that,” I said. “Get to where I can see you.”

“Da, da…” Two furry little paws popped out, followed by a furry little face. It looked at the shotgun barrel and ducked back down for a minute. Then it came out slowly, hands held high, grinning.

It was a capuchin monkey, wearing an orange jumpsuit. Slung around its neck was a contraption that looked a bit like a “Speak and Spell.”

I lowered the gun, and the monkey hopped down, still grinning. It gestured at the gadget and shrugged. May I? I suppose it meant.

I nodded, and it tapped a few more keys.

That Hawking voice chirped again: “Dos vedanya, tovarisch.”

“Shoot,” I said. “Is that Russian?”

The monkey stood up a little straighter, and tipped me a salute.

“Well I’ll be. Do you speak any English?”

The monkey seemed to consider this for a minute, and then tapped a few more keys. “American?”

I nodded.

The monkey went back to typing. A few seconds later Hawking chirped “Three. Blind. Mice.” The monkey grinned so wide I thought the top of its head was going to slide off.

“Not bad,” I said.

Just then a second foo-lite streaked overhead and exploded somewhere up the road. The monkey screeched and jumped onto my shoulder before I even knew what was happening.

“Friend of yours?” I asked.

He tapped a few more keys, and what came out sounded like “Zadushit Litso.” He was trembling.

“Should we go check it out?”

He paused, and then typed again. “Da.”

___ ___ ___

Whatever it was had smashed into the trailer that used to be Ma Barrett’s Fresh Sushi and Fireworks Stand. It must have torched the fish something awful, either that or Ma Barrett was taking a bit too much creative license with that whole “Fresh” angle.

“Zadushit Litso,” the monkey typed.

“I don’t know what that is,” I said.

He typed some more. “Three blind mice.”

“That’s not helping, either.”

We hopped out of the truck, and my eyes started watering. The rotten fish smell was like a punch in the face. “Ma?” I called out. “Doc?”

“Three. Blind. Mice.”

“Cool it with that.”

From the wreckage of the trailer, I saw something emerge that hurt my head to look at. Imagine what’d happen if a tarantula got an octopus pregnant and then took it to Chernobyl for the “baby-moon”. That’d give you an inkling, but it wouldn’t do this sonofawhore justice. It was wearing something like a fish bowl on something like a head. These aren’t the right words, just something that’ll have to do. One horrible not-yellow not-eye was fixed on me. “Zadushit Litso?” I said.

The monkey nodded. For some reason, he was frantically stripping out of his jumpsuit as this thing scuttled out of the wreckage, advancing on us. It was waving what I’d originally thought was an oversized turkey drumstick, until I saw the fuzzy slipper at the bottom end, and I realized it was the lower half of Ma Barrett’s leg. I racked the shotgun and centered the sight on that eye and pulled the trigger.


I may have forgotten something at the house.

The creature made an awful sound that was a chuckle but nothing like a chuckle. It slithered at us with sickening speed. From the corner of my eye I saw the monkey hurl something. A split second later, a sodden diaper struck the creature in the head, stunning it. Without thinking, I reversed the grip on the shotgun and swung it like a baseball bat.

The not-fishbowl encased not-head exploded, showering us in space-glass, ichor, and monkey-piss. We did a little victory dance, my new friend and I.

Then, a dozen more of those foo-lights ripped across the sky. We stopped dancing. “Zadushit Litso?” I asked.

He didn’t have to type anything. I saw the answer in his eyes.

Notes on 'It Means "Strangle-Face"'

So this is the unedited version of the story that I wrote for The Iron Writer Challenge last week. Some folks complained that the story was already too long, but fuck those guys. As it is, I like this original, even longer version of the story better. I hope you guys do, too. Cheers - Will

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How I spent my Vacation, Part 2

(Notes: This is the 2nd essay I wrote as part of the Infernal Machines blog tour, in its earliest form.)

5 Horror Novels that Directly Inspired Infernal Machines by Will Millar

I originally wanted to do kind of a top 5 list, but there’s so much incredible stuff out there that I would be doing the Horror world a disservice even trying to quantify what’s what. So instead, I want to simply focus on some great works that directly inspired my story.

#5: Off Season by Jack Ketchum

About halfway through Infernal Machines, there’s an indirect reference to the Sawney Beane clan, which some folks may recognize as the very real band of Scottish cannibals that Ketchum’s seminal masterpiece was based upon. I put the reference in there on purpose, as kind of an “Easter Egg” for hardcore horror fans. Also, while his brand of super-realistic (and unflinchingly graphic) horror is different to my own approach to the genre, Ketchum is one of those people who I’ve not only read, but out-and-out studied.
I believe the genius of Jack Ketchum is not so much in his ability to paint completely real, fucking absolutely terrifying pictures of humanity at its worst, but in the way he draws you in to the world he’s describing. You root for his more sympathetic characters, even as you know the best they can usually hope for is a quick death. And while his villains are more, well, fucking villain-y than anything this side of Edward Lee’s City Infernal, they are nonetheless compelling in all of their 3-dimensional, fully realized glory.

#4: Ghost Story by Peter Straub

“Start at the beginning” is something you hear a lot when it comes to the basic structure of telling a story, but in most cases with a story as large and complex as your average novel, that’s a whole lot easier said than done. Straub, who is out-and-out my favorite writer by far, took this axiom for Ghost Story, and he beat the hell out of it, stole its lunch money, and then kicked it in the balls a few more times for good measure.
Ghost Story actually starts about 30 pages before the novel’s chronological conclusion and then tells a story through a series of flashbacks, half-remembered fables, and jarring cuts in perspective, piecing together a series of events that stretches across the span of almost a century, with no fewer than 5 protagonists sharing the spotlight. There’s absolutely no reason you should have a clue what’s going on, and yet Straub manages to make the whole thing work.

#3: Salem’s Lot/Jerusalem’s Lot/One for the Road by Stephen King

While I realize that some folks who are regular readers of my blog are probably rolling their eyes at this point and wishing I would stop talking about Salem’s Lot, all I can say in response is this: Someday I will be dead, and it’s more likely than not that on that day I won’t have anything more to say about the subject.
It was the first real horror story that ever captured my interest, and while my earliest exposure to the tale was through Tobe Hooper’s excellent screen adaptation, a few years later I read the novel and it was all I could do to keep my head from exploding from the sheer awesomeness of it all. Not only that, but SL led me to Night Shift & Jerusalem’s Lot, which of course led me to H.P Lovecraft, and you can pretty much take it from there. 30 years later, I still read the book and its related shorts about once a year and find new things to marvel at.

#2: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

If Salem’s Lot took over the reins of my imagination from any other work of fiction, it was Ray Bradbury’s dark masterpiece. These two books could represent the Yin and Yang of my subconscious mind, with Barlow and Straker occupying the dark end, and Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show taking up the… uh, other dark end, I guess.
In all seriousness, I owe a lot of the language and imagery of the Arthur Cardiff character and his Emporium of Majick and Wonder to that traveling circus, and I’d be lying if Stoner and Paulie didn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway.

#1: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

About 7 or 8 years ago I tried (and failed) to write the Great American Vampire Novel. Having grown up with my Salem’s Lot obsession, and logging enough hours watching the Hammer vampire classics to recite at whim long lines of dialogue from Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or Captain Motherfucking Kronos himself, I figured I had the chops. And so, after 2 and a half years of writing and re-writing, and peer editing and re-rewriting, and everything else that goes into the harrowing process of sculpting a huge mound of bullshit into some semblance of a coherent narrative, I was ready to show the world my work!
To say that it sucked would be paying it a complement. I called it Hell’s Deliverance, which makes about as much sense as the story itself – which was kind of a mash-up of bad Lovecraftian pastiches and Breaking Bad fan fiction, minus Walter and Pinkman, with some vampires thrown in almost as an afterthought. If that sounds cool to you, it’s only because I boiled it down to about 40 words, as opposed to the original 350 pages.
But I learned a lot about what goes into writing a semi-decent novel by writing the dreaded 1st novel. For my second attempt, I figured I would ditch the vampires and do an homage to Frankenstein instead. Infernal Machines, for better or worse, is what came out of that attempt.