The Alligator King

Shared Worlds, Malaprops, and Creating Fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer and friends

Shared Worlds, Malaprops, and Creating Fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer and friends

On July 30 of this year, six intrepid writers, including myself, created a round-robin story, sentence by sentence, at the legendary Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. The others, fresh from teaching at the Shared Worlds teen SF/fantasy writing camp at Wofford College, were: Shirley Jackson Award-winner Nathan Ballingrud, NYT bestseller Tobias Buckell, critically acclaimed writers Julia Elliott and Terra Elan McVoy, and Bloomsbury US first-time novelist Leah Thomas. They’d just spent a long week having the students do writing exercises, critiquing their stories, and having one-on-one sessions with those students, with special guest Thomas Olde Heuvelt arriving late in the week to talk about his U.S tour for his novel HEX and being a writer from the Netherlands.

I help run the camp and my wife Ann serves as the editor in residence, and it’s always extremely rewarding. This is our ninth year of operation and the tradition of reading at Malaprops after the camp has become a kind of lucky charm, a great way to support a local Carolinas institution, and a nice way for writers who’ve worked hard with the students to unwind after the camp. This year, with such a cohesive and great group of writers, it seemed appropriate to create our own shared world through storytelling.

Shared Worlds founder Jeremy L.C. Jones set out the rules: “Each writer gets thirty seconds to think up the next sentence in the story, and we start with Julia Elliott. The audience will get to participate. Ann VanderMeer’s the editor. [If she feels it’s not going well] She can slam the brakes on this monster … redirect, edit, ask for more cats…” Olde Heuvelt asked, “Do we get electrical shocks when someone takes too long?”

No, there were no electric shocks, but each writer did get one pass. Here are the results — with exclusive illustrations created by Shared Worlds in-house illustrator Jeremy Zerfoss.

— Jeff VanderMeer

AUNT FRANCINE & THE ALLIGATOR KING

(line by line)

Julia Elliott: Alligators, they say, creep right through her living room, and possums suckle litters on her velvet couch. Birds nest in her moss-festooned chandeliers. Open any closet and moths spew out.

Terra Elan McVoy: And yet she was still having trouble getting a jar of peanut butter open.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: So when I visited her, for the sixth time in a row, I was like “Where do you hide the coffee in a place like this?”

Leah Thomas: She said, “The coffee is not the issue, it is only the peanut butter that I am preoccupied with… “

Tobias Buckell: But that was the problem with visiting Aunt Francine.

Jeff VanderMeer: PASS!

Nathan Ballingrud: What no one knew is that the coffee was hidden in the attic with the vulture.

Julia Elliott: When Aunt Francine poured wine upstairs to feed the vulture it had this annoying habit of peeling off her liver colored pantyhose and piling them into a damn pile on the floor.

Ann VanderMeer: Not enough cats [in this story]. Add more cats! More cats.

Terra Elan McVoy: So, since the vulture feeding always made my skin crawl I made myself useful and had to throw the peanut butter in.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: “Don’t worry too much about Aunt Francine’s antics,” my mamma told me before I visited her.

Leah Thomas: “You know she hasn’t been the same ever since the cockroaches crawled into her ears.”

Tobias Buckell: “…And don’t worry, it was only three missing husbands.”

Jeff VanderMeer: But the real problem was in the basement, not the attic.

Audience Member: I should have known better than to ignore the alligators.

Nathan Ballingrud: The alligator came stirring from his slumber.

Julia Elliott: And hordes and hordes of kittens worshipped the Alligator King … adorable.

Terra Elan McVoy: I heard his slippery step upon the stair and turned and the door opened [and I was] aware all I had in my hand was that godforsaken jar of peanut butter.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: As I smelled its stinky breath, I thought “Darn, I need some Smuckey.”

Leah Thomas: If only Smuckey were here, and if only Aunt Francine had not removed her pantyhose because everyone knows what draws the gator from the basement.

Tobias Buckell: Smuckey was always the faster thinker of us.

Jeff VanderMeer: Smuckey would have known exactly how to get that alligator king back in the basement, but I had no such luck.

Nathan Ballingrud: And the door creaked open and the alligator came walking into the living room, and Aunt Francine looked around and smiled.

Julia Elliott: Then she reached for her hidden jar of peanut butter and opened it and pulled out a rotten spoon from the stoop and dipped it into the peanut butter and held it out and the alligator came and licked dollops of peanut butter from the dissolving spoon.

Terra Elan McVoy: The kittens, upon seeing their king, feasting happily broke into song.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: I’ll PASS on that.

Leah Thomas: “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow.”

Tobias Buckell: “Oh great Alligator King, denizen of the basement, bringer of all things good to adorable kittens, we salute you.”

Jeff VanderMeer: “Look,” the Alligator King said, “I’m really sick of getting this kind of reception when I just come out for some stinking peanut butter.”

Nathan Ballingrud: PASS.

Julia Elliott: [To the tune of the Meow Mix commercial] “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow … “

Terra Elan McVoy: Then I felt the old affection Smuckey always had for me covering me like a warm blanket and giving me the knowledge of exactly how to most beautifully wrap up this sixth visit with my Aunt Francine and her singing kittens.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: I also remembered a thing my mamma [said]… she knew exactly what to do in a situation like this.

Leah Thomas: Could it be that Smuckey and the Alligator King were one in the same? (Everyone loves a terrible twist near the end of the story.)

Tobias Buckell: Because it was only after Smuckey had disappeared that the Alligator King showed up.

Jeff VanderMeer: “For eff’s sake,” [the Alligator King] said, “I’m standing right here while you’re standing right there looking at me.”

Jeremy Jones: Anyone in the audience? Anyone?

Tobias Buckell: They’re like “You dug your hole deep enough.”

Second Audience Member Contribution: “Sorry,” I said, “this is only my third time visiting my Aunt Francine and I’ve never met you before.”

Nathan Ballingrud: I moved to give him the jar of peanut butter but I gave him the coffee instead.

Julia Elliott: So the Alligator King upended the coffee can and gobbled up every last [bit].

Terra McVoy: Immediately upon licking the last coffee ground from his mouth, however, a hideous hissing crackling sound began to emerge from his stomach.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: So I turned to Aunt Francine and I said “Can we now play Monopoly?”

Leah Thomas: I’m sorry, in this game of life, we only play Trouble.

Tobias Buckell: PASS.

Jeff VanderMeer: Francine said, “I’m actually only here for another purpose entirely and I’m just glad somebody came over and the Alligator King came up from the basement because there’s really something I have to tell you.”

Nathan Ballingrud: And then she pulled off her mask.

Julia Elliott: There was another mask and then she said “It’s time for me to molt and I need you to help me, go get a jar of Vaseline.”

Terra Elan McVoy: The Alligator King made a second sound of hissing disgust and headed back down to the basement. I would never know for sure if he had really been Smuckey or not.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt: So I crossed the street to the drug store and asked for a bottle of Vaseline and the lady behind the counter said “Not again.”

Leah Thomas: PASS.

Tobias Buckell: I stared right back at her and said “What’s an acceptable substitute?”

Jeff VanderMeer: And she said “Peanut butter.”

AUNT FRANCINE & THE ALLIGATOR KING

(all at once, now…)

Alligators, they say, creep right through her living room, and possums suckle litters on her velvet couch. Birds nest in her moss-festooned chandeliers. Open any closet and moths spew out. And yet she was still having trouble getting a jar of peanut butter open.

So when I visited her, for the sixth time in a row, I was like “Where do you hide the coffee in a place like this?”

She said, “The coffee is not the issue, it is only the peanut butter that I am preoccupied with… “

But that was the problem with visiting Aunt Francine.

What no one knew is that the coffee was hidden in the attic with the vulture. When Aunt Francine poured wine upstairs to feed the vulture it had this annoying habit of peeling off her liver colored pantyhose and piling them into a damn pile on the floor. So, since the vulture feeding always made my skin crawl I made myself useful and had to throw the peanut butter in.

“Don’t worry too much about Aunts Francine’s antics,” my mamma told me before I visited her. “You know she hasn’t been the same ever since the cockroaches crawled into her ears. And don’t worry, it was only three missing husbands.”

But the real problem was in the basement, not the attic. I should have known better than to ignore the alligators. [Because now] The alligator came stirring from his slumber. And hordes and hordes of kittens worshipped the Alligator King … adorable.

I heard his slippery step upon the stair and turned and the door opened [and I was] aware all I had in my hand was that godforsaken jar of peanut butter. As I smelled its stinky breath I thought “Darn, I need some Smuckey.” If only Smuckey were here, and if only Aunt Francine had not removed her pantyhose because everyone knows what draws the gator from the basement.

Smuckey was always the faster thinker of us. Smuckey would have known exactly how to get that alligator king back in the basement but I had no such luck.

The door creeped open and the alligator came walking into the living room and Aunt Francine looked around and smiled. Then she reached for her hidden jar of peanut butter and opened it and pulled out a rotten spoon from the stoop and dipped it into the peanut butter and held it out and the alligator came and licked dollops of peanut butter from the dissolving spoon.

The kittens, upon seeing their king feasting happily, broke into song.

“Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow…Oh great Alligator King, denizen of the basement, bringer of all things good to adorable kittens, we salute you.”

“Look,” the alligator king said “I’m really sick of getting this kind of reception when I just come out for some stinking peanut butter.”

“Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow … “

Then I felt the old affection Smuckey always had for me covering me like a warm blanket and giving me the knowledge of exactly how to most beautifully wrap up this sixth visit with my Aunt Francine and her singing kittens.

I also remembered a thing my mamma [said]… she knew exactly what to do in a situation like this.

[But] could it be that Smuckey and the Alligator King were one in the same? Because it was only after Smuckey had disappeared that the Alligator King showed up.

“For eff’s sake,” [the Alligator King] said, “I’m standing right here while you’re standing right there looking at me.”

“Sorry,” I said “this is only my third time visiting my Aunt Francine and I’ve never met you before I would be interested.”

I moved to give him the jar of peanut butter but I gave him the coffee instead. So the Alligator upended the coffee can and gobbled up every last [bit].

Immediately upon licking the last coffee ground from his mouth, however, a hideous hissing crackling sound began to emerge from his stomach.

So I turned to Aunt Francine and I said, “Can we now play Monopoly?”

“I’m sorry, in this game of life, we only play Trouble,” Francine said. “I’m actually only here for another purpose entirely and I’m just glad somebody came over and the Alligator King came up from the basement because there’s really something I have to tell you.”

And then she pulled off her mask.

There was another mask and then she said “It’s time for me to molt and I need you to help me, go get a jar of Vaseline.”

The Alligator King made a second sound of hissing disgust and headed back down to the basement. I would never know for sure if he had really been Smuckey or not.

So I crossed the street to the drug store and asked for a bottle of Vaseline and the lady behind the counter said “Not again.”

I stared right back at her and said “What’s an acceptable substitute?”

And she said “Peanut butter.”

About the Author

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