If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know I write a lot of flash fiction. I never set out to be a flash fiction writer, but about five years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a weekly contest held on the forums of a horror magazine called Shock Totem (Thanks, Andy!). The contest was simple: someone posted a prompt, usually a photo, and then you had one hour to write and edit a story of 1,000 words or less. The authors would then read, comment, and vote on the stories, and the winner would post the prompt for the following contest. I took to the short form fiction like a duck to water, and I’ve participated in a bunch of contests/exercise like the one at Shock Totem and now through my writing group on Facebook. They’ve been really good to me too. Something like eighteen of my published stories started life as one-hour flash fiction scribbles.
While I do get great ideas from these contests that eventually become published stories, not all of my efforts are destined for fame and fortune. I’ve got dozens of one-hour flash stories that didn’t quite make the grade sitting on my hard drive collecting digital dust, so I thought I’d give these misfits their day in the sun and put ’em on the ol’ blog.
This first one is a little horror piece called “The Writing on the Wall.” I’ve cleaned it up a bit from it’s original form, and I couldn’t help a little tinkering, but the story is pretty much what I came up with in an hour some three years ago.
The Writing on the Wall
I didn’t expect the college to put me up at the Hilton or anything, but Jesus, this little one-room dump is bordering on third-world squalor. A quick description of my new digs: green carpet the color of Astroturf, worn flat and threadbare in numerous places; a cracked ceiling dotted with what can only be black mold; a pervasive smell of cat urine (likely soaked into the carpet); and bright yellow wallpaper of the absolute cheapest quality. Oddly enough, the wallpaper looks new, if clumsily applied. Gee, Mr. Landlord, thanks for spending the $12.99 to really make this place feel homey. Oh well, it’s free, close to the college, and there’s enough space for my meager belongings. I guess I can’t be too picky.
Classes started today. The little shits taking Dr. Harrison’s Introduction to Archaeology are really the bottom of the barrel, academically speaking. As his TA, I didn’t have much to do other than pass out the course materials, but even then, some of the questions I got were eye-rollingly bad. One strapping young lad asked me if we’d be covering dinosaurs. Fuck me.
Anyway, I found a weird thing in my room today. That terrible yellow wallpaper is peeling up in a few places, and out of sheer boredom, I pulled up a section to see what was on the wall beneath it. Well, I can see why the landlord covered it up. The previous asshole interred here wrote all over the walls in bright red sharpie. The little bit I uncovered looked like some kind of weird mathematical equation, except the symbols weren’t numbers. It kind of looks like Sanskrit, but I haven’t come across anything like it in my own studies. Maybe Dr. Harrison can tell me something about it.
Remember that funny writing beneath my wallpaper? I showed Dr. Harrison a sample. He said it is Sanskrit, although a much older form than any I’m familiar with. He actually got a little squirrely when I asked him to translate it. He ignored my request and became very curious about where I’d seen the writing. When I told him, his face went white as a sheet, and he made some excuse about needing to make a phone call or something.
What the hell is on my wall? Kind of creeped out now.
I pulled all the wallpaper down in my room. I don’t give a shit if the landlord doesn’t like it; he should have painted. The walls are literally covered with ancient Sanskrit. In addition to that, there are all kinds of weird geometric shapes—strange cubes and spheres that are oddly out of proportion. They’re kind of hard to look at. I’ve got to find someone who can tell me what this shit says.
Oh, I also had a real up-the-ante moment on the creepiness factor today. The guy who lived in this room before me, David Randall, committed suicide at the end of the last school year. Nice of the school to keep that information to themselves. I’m having trouble sleeping as it is.
I’ve asked Dr. Harrison to help me translate the writing on my wall a couple of times, but he won’t do it. In fact, the last time I asked, he got really pissed and threatened to bring my “misconduct” to the school board if kept asking him. What a dick.
All is not lost, however. I went to one of the other professors in the archaeology department, Dr. Kline. She’s a funny old bird but damn helpful. She was able to translate most of what I brought her. The samples I showed her were mostly about some god or demon called Yag Socoth or something like that. Dr. Kline said the name translates roughly to “The Key and the Gate.”
I’m going to see if I can get another room.
Can’t sleep, and when I do my dreams are horrible. Darkness and then, in the blackness, a writhing mass of pulsating spheres or bubbles. There’s a sound, like a heartbeat, rhythmic and awful, and something whispering or maybe grunting over the whole thing in a language I can’t understand.
Dr. Harrison is getting fed up with me. Lack of sleep is keeping me from performing my duties, and he’s ripped me a new one on a number of occasions. What I need is to take a few days off to get my head straight and get some sleep. It’s unlikely Dr. Harrison will allow that.
Couldn’t get a new room, so I asked the landlord to come in and cover up the writing on the wall. Even that yellow wallpaper would be preferable to staring at David Randall’s crazed ramblings. He wouldn’t do it, though. He said since I tore down the wallpaper, I could paint the room myself, out of my pocket. Cheap-ass motherfucker.
The dreams are getting worse. I’m terrified to close my eyes. I’m not sure what will happen when I do. I’ve been sleep walking. A couple of times I’ve woken up outside, a mile or two from my room. It got so bad I used some of my meager savings to stay a few nights in a hotel. That didn’t help either. The dreams followed me there.
I was going to paint the wall, a nice soothing blue, but David Randall’s scribblings are starting to make sense. The name Dr. Kline translated for me, The Key and the Gate, is at the heart of it all. It’s like an equation or a code. It’s clear David went mad before he could finish, but I see what needs to be done.
Maybe if I complete what David started, it well let me sleep. If that doesn’t work, my room is on the tenth floor, and I have a window.
If I remember correctly, the prompt for this story was peeling wallpaper or something (don’t quote me on that). Anyway, I haven’t done anything with this story because it’s a pretty cliché idea (and a Lovecraft pastiche to boot) that any fan of the horror genre has seen a million times. I also don’t think the current epistolary construction works great for such a short piece. If it were text messages or something, it might work better (that might actually be fun). I did enjoy the character’s voice, though, even if the end result is predictable. The thing with these one-hour exercises is that you don’t have time to do much but go with your initial reaction to the prompt. Sometimes that reaction leads you down a path you wouldn’t normally take and even to a fairly original idea, and sometimes you go straight to your comfort zone and write something, well, like the story you just read. 🙂
I do highly recommend the one-hour flash exercise. Give it a try sometime with your writing group and see what you come up with.