Edition 25: Occult.net by Mike Resnick
Mortimer loves horror, but he’s never been any good with work of his own. He lucks out with an interview with a hero of the genre, who sets him on the path of his dreams, if only he knows what he will need to give up to achieve it. SY
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been addicted to horror stories. I was desolate that I missed the end of Weird Tales. Hell, I was even bitter about being born too late for Terror Tales and Shock Mystery Tales, which were not exactly horror’s gold standard.
I worshipped H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (and of course Bram Stoker), and would take bus rides more than one hundred miles from home just to attend an autographing by Stephen King or Peter Straub. Even if they were known for other work, I collected—and read, and re-read—the few horror stories by Ray Bradbury and Fritz Leiber and Joe Lansdale.
I even tried my hand at it when I got out of college, but while I could push nouns up against verbs with some minimal grace, I simply couldn’t come up with notions that were original, or saleable, or preferably both. I began to think that every good horror story had already been told. Then I’d pick up a new novel or anthology and suddenly realize that no, they hadn’t all been told. They just weren’t going to be told by me.
All those unsold and mostly half-finished stories did me some good, though. At least I was used to sitting down at a keyboard and going to work and before too long I latched on as a journalist.
It wasn’t wildly exciting, that’s for sure. I’d interview this ditzy dyed-blonde actress, or that sub-literate boxer, or report Christmas selling strategies from the local department stores. Nothing you’d ever want to write home about, though evidently they were precisely what you wrote for newspapers and websites, about, at least until you were as big as Charles Krauthammer or Paul Krugman.
Then came a day—I’d say it was the day I’d been waiting for, but in truth I had no idea they’d ever ask me—to do anything interesting, when I was told that Kimball Clair was in town on a speaking engagement, and that he’d agreed to an interview.
I could hardly believe it! I was going to interview Kreepy Kim, the hottest writer in the country, and my current hero. I mean, hell, he even outsold Stephen King! And he deserved to. A lot of his fans were suggesting that Clair was short for clairvoyant.
I showed up at his hotel at the appointed time, where I got my first surprise. The occasional controversial politician travels with a bodyguard to protect him from the whackos, but writers who are on tour have, at most, a caretaker assigned to them by the publisher to arrange their interviews and meals, and make sure they keep to their schedule.
Not Kreepy Kim. He traveled with three armed bodyguards and a caretaker. When I thought about it, it made sense. This was a guy who was making maybe thirty million dollars a book just in America, and every one of them sold to twenty or thirty countries, and all but one had been sold to the movies as well. Which meant he was a bigger target for kidnappers than any writer, or director, or actor, or producer, or rock group that had ever lived.
He looked exactly like the photo on his dust jacket: kind of short, kind of skinny, kind of balding, kind of buck-toothed, kind of ugly. He greeted me, shook my hand, and invited me into the parlor, which must have been forty feet on a side. He gestured to his caretaker and bodyguards, who all left, and suddenly the two of us were alone.
“Well, young man,” he said, “what can I do for you?”
“My name is Mortimer,” I said. “I’m here for the interview.”
He nodded his approval. “Good name if you ever decide to become a horror writer.” He paused long enough to light a cigar. “They still make the best ones in Cuba.”
I just stared at him. He looked so relaxed in his velvet jacket and ascot tie.
“Goblin got your tongue?” he said with a smile.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “You’ve been my hero for years. I didn’t realize I’d be so tongue-tied around you.” I paused. “Perhaps I’d better leave.”
“Without a story?” he replied. “Nonsense! Just calm down. I’m just a guy who tells stories for a living.” He smiled, cigar smoke curling around his head. “Just like you, except that your stories are true and mine had better not be.”
“I could never be like you, sir,” I said. “You’re the best.”
“Sir is some other guy,” he replied. “I’m just Kim, and you’re just Mort or Morty, whichever you prefer. Now, what would you like to talk about?”
So I asked him about the book—its title, its length, which other countries and media he’d already sold it to, how long it had taken him to write, how many cities he’d visit on this tour—anything I could think of, because once I ran out of questions I’d have to leave, and it could be years—if ever—before I was in his presence again.
Finally I ran out of things to ask, and all I could come up with was a question about his next novel.
“I won’t be writing another one,” he answered. “This one’s my swan song.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
“Am I smiling?” he replied with an absolutely straight face.
“But you’re…you’re Kimball Clair!”
“And Kimball Clair has written his last book,” he said. “I’ve had eight bestsellers; megasellers, really, if I can be immodest. This is my ninth. Surely that’s enough dead trees and bandwidth.”
“I-I just can’t believe it!” I stammered.
“You never heard of anyone retiring before?” he asked with a smile.
“I’ve never heard of a writer doing it,” I said. “I mean, no matter how old or infirm you are, you work sitting down. If your vision is bad, you get a bigger screen. If your vision goes entirely, you use voice-activated software. I mean, sure, some writers retire, but that’s because no one wants them anymore. But you, you’re the most popular writer in the world!”
He seemed amused. “I had no idea it was so easy.”
“I didn’t mean that,” I said awkwardly. “I meant—”
“It’s okay,” he said gently. “I know what you meant.”
“I’m just, well…devastated,” I said. “Who’s going to take your place, the way you built on Stoker and Lovecraft and King?”
“Beats me,” he replied with a shrug.
“Probably Naomi Watson,” I suggested.
He shook his head. “No, she’s got one in press, and only has one more to write.”
“But she’s only got half a dozen books out!” I exclaimed.
“Seven,” he corrected me.
“And I think she’s still in her early thirties,” I added.
He nodded. “Thirty-four.”
“Like I said, people retire.”
“Not in their thirties, when they’re on top of the world!”
He smiled. “What better time?”
“But-but…” I stammered, “it just seems wrong. Hell, if I could write like you and she do, I’ve never quit.”
“If you’re such a fan of the genre,” he replied, “why haven’t you tried yourself? I mean, you are a professional journalist, so clearly you know how to communicate via the written word.”
“I wish it was as easy as you make it sound,” I said with a rueful smile. “I’ve got maybe thirty stories and four complete novels on my computer. Nobody wants them, and I don’t blame them. Whatever I’ve done, people like you and Naomi Watson have done it first, and did it better.”
He stared at me for a long moment. “And you really would be a horror writer if you could?”
“I’d kill to be one,” I said. And then amended: “A good one.”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Okay.” The hint of a smile crossed his face. “Let’s finish the interview.”
I went back to asking him questions, which he answered fully and thoughtfully, and in another ten minutes we were done. I thanked him and got up to leave.
“Just a minute.” He walked over to the desk and pulled a pad of notepaper out of the drawer. Withdrawing a pen from his pocket, he leaned over the desk, scribbled something on the top sheet and then tore it off, folded it in half and walked over to me.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“It’s been a pleasure,” he replied, reaching out to shake my hand, and in the process passing the folded note to me.
“What is this?” I asked.
“You seem like an earnest young man,” he said. “I hope you were telling the truth.”
I was confused. “About what?”
“Oh, this and that,” he said with a shrug. “I hate to rush you, but I’ve got a dinner appointment with one of my fan clubs, and”—a huge smile crossed his face—“I certainly can’t be late for that.”
He walked me to the door as I stuffed the note in a pocket. A couple of bodyguards escorted me to the elevator, and a moment later I was in the lobby. I hurried out the front door, walked to a nearby bus stop, and I was back in my apartment about twenty minutes later.
I pulled a half-eaten pizza out of the fridge, warmed it up, popped open a beer, and had a quick dinner. Then I walked over to my computer desk—well, I call it a desk, but it’s really just a beat-up old wooden table—and sat down to write up the interview.
I’d written for about ten minutes when I reached into my pocket to pull out a tissue and my fingers came in contact with Clair’s note, which I’d forgotten about.
I pulled it out, opened it up, and read it:
I turned it over to see if there was anything on the other side. It was blank.
I’d never heard of Occult.net. I figured it was the name of some Kimball Clair fan club, or maybe an upcoming horror convention. Either way, it couldn’t hurt to take a look, so I logged onto the internet and typed in the URL.
And suddenly I was staring at a good-looking man in his fifties, his red hair starting to turn gray at the temples, sitting on a leather easy chair surrounded by a couple of mean-looking hounds laying on the floor on each side of him. An impressive collection of spears and spikes and other ancient weapons decorated his walls. I thought it was maybe the beginning of a horror film, but then he looked at me and smiled.
“Hello, Mortimer,” he said, and I realized it was a live transmission.
“Hello,” I said, surprised.
“I see my friend Kim has sent me another one.”
I frowned. “I don’t Skype. Hell, I don’t even have a camera. How are we communicating?”
He chuckled. “With words, of course.”
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“You can call me Nick,” he said. “Just like Saint Nick, only different.”
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
He chuckled. “You contacted me. Shouldn’t I be asking that question of you?”
I just stared at the screen, confused.
“Let me take a shot in the dark,” he said after a moment. “You want to be a writer.”
“I am a writer,” I said defensively.
“Ah, but not a writer of things that count and deeds supernatural. And we both know that’s the only kind of writing that counts.”
“And this Occult.net is a workshop site?”
“After a fashion,” he said, picking up a sheaf of papers. “Now, I’ve been studying your early attempts—”
“You’ve been what?”
“The four novels, the abandoned stories.”
“How the hell did you get in there?” I demanded.
He grinned. “Beautifully phrased.”
“You didn’t answer me,” I said.
“If you’re not bright enough to figure it out, you’re certainly not bright enough to be the next Kreepy Kim Clair,” he replied, still smiling. “Anyway, I find a certain paucity of imagination in them. You’ve been too influenced by other writers. You’re never going to get to the top by just retelling their stories.”
“I thought that was precisely how writers got to the top,” I said.
“You don’t believe that for a second. When did Kim or Naomi ever repeat someone else’s themes or, dare I use the term, literary gimmicks?” He paused for a moment, and seemed to be staring into my soul. “Now, do you want to be an unsold—or very occasionally sold—second-rater all your life, or do you want your name to join the pantheon of the great writers who have dominated this field?”
“You know the answer,” I said.
“Of course I do,” he replied. “But I need to hear it from you.”
“I want to be a great writer, mentioned in the same breath as H.P. Lovecraft and Watson and Clair, to sell like they sell.”
“Well, actually, Lovecraft did it on his own,” acknowledged Nick, “which is why Kim and Naomi and a few others I’ve helped along the way sell more in a month than poor Howard Philips sold in his lifetime.”
He leaned forward and stared intently at me. “So, Mortimer, are you interested?”
“You know I am,” I said.
“Of course I know it, but you have to say it,” he replied. “Protocol demands it.”
“Yes, I’m interested.”
“Good,” said Nick. “The ground rules are simple enough. I’ll make a small adjustment while you’re sleeping, and when you wake up tomorrow, you will be ready—and able—to write a novel that’ll make the critics and the readers forget all about Dracula and The Shining and Kim’s latest blockbuster.”
“And what do you get in return?” I asked.
“I thought Kim had made it clear,” answered Nick. “I’ll own another ten percent of your soul with each novel you sell, and of course I’ll stipulate that the novel must top either the New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list.” He paused and stared at me. “There is one little glitch, though,” he added with a frown.
“Oh?” I wasn’t surprised. The deal had sounded too good to be true.
He nodded. “The referee”—he jerked his thumb toward the ceiling—“insists that I cannot collect one-tenth or nine-tenths of your soul, that you must write and sell ten books before the contract can be activated.”
“So that’s why Kim and Naomi are each stopping with their ninth book!” I exclaimed.
“Temporarily stopping,” he said. “They’ve each got another forty years or more to go. You don’t miss the adulation when you can walk down the street and everybody knows you—but these aren’t actors who are on movie or television screens every few months. The recognition stops sooner than you think, and so do the sales. I’m sure Kim is adamant that he’ll never write another book—” suddenly Nick smiled—“but ask him again in ten or fifteen years, when he’s run through most of his millions and people can’t remember his name.” He smiled at the thought. “So, do we have a deal?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Excellent!” he said. “The adjustment will be made before you wake up tomorrow morning. And that concludes our business. Any time in the future you try to log on to Occult.net, you’ll be connected to the web page of a store bearing that name that’s out in the boonies.”
“You know,” I said just before logging off, “I’d always pictured you differently.”
“You mean like this?” he asked and suddenly I was looking at a red-skinned, pointy-eared creature with glowing eyes.
I gulped and nodded.
“Ah, hell,” he said with a shrug, and suddenly he was a non-threatening, middle-aged man again. “What are appearances between friends and partners? And we are partners. For all eternity.”
“Not until I write that tenth book,” I said.
He nodded his agreement with an amused smile. “True, not until then.”
“And it’s a good thing you mentioned eternity,” I continued, just as the screen began fading to black, “because I am never going to write it.”
His amused laughter continued for so long after I lost the visual that I finally had to unplug the damned computer.
Mike Resnick is, according to Locus, the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. He has won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 Hugo nominations), plus a Nebula and other major awards in the USA, France, Poland, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia and Japan. His work has appeared in 26 languages. Mike is the author of 70 novels, 10 books of non-fiction, 275 stories, and 3 screenplays, as well as the editor of 42 anthologies. He is currently the editor of Galaxy’s Edge magazine and the Stellar Guild line of books.