EDITOR’S NOTE by Susan Scarf Merrell
Perfect deadpan marks the opening of Ali Simpson’s “The Monster,” an elegant take on the best kind of horror story — one that Shirley Jackson or Neil Gaiman might tackle, one that makes you laugh even as it scares you, that turns the imagined monsters we fear in the dark into the very real monsters that inhabit our own internal darkness. You won’t have heard of Ali Simpson before. “The Monster” is her first published story. After reading it you will only want more.
As well as being the Fiction Editor of TSR: The Southampton Review, I teach in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton. Ali Simpson came into my class not long ago, hard at work on a novel mired in the importance of its own premise, with characters that couldn’t move because they were weighted down by their own symbolism. But Ali was willing to experiment and was determined to allow her ideas about how otherworldly and worldly schema can collide to be expressed in story. Her work was unpolished, yet always dangerous, even when the storytelling wasn’t successful. And she kept working.
Students who enter the classroom willing to look foolish — willing to fly or falter from week to week — those are the ones who can take both criticism and instruction, the ones who will eventually master voice and pacing and the creation of rich character and narrative tension.
The week Ali submitted “The Monster” to class, it was immediately clear that she had transcended student status — that she’d crossed over to a full understanding of what a story has to have to exist on both the fantastic and the human level. What had happened to Ali? She’d understood the most fundamental fact of story making, one that many people write a lifetime without grasping: that a story has to have a reason for being. And if a story’s why is understood by its author, then its how — the means, the mode, the POV, the structure, the characters — will fall into place.
“The Monster” plays with the conventions of the horror story, and is as much an allegory about a nervous breakdown as it is a metaphorical description of the transition to adulthood, and of the writing process itself. It is dark, and twisted, and unforgettable, and I knew immediately that it belonged in TSR. I’m so delighted to share “The Monster” with you. I’m delighted that I am Ali’s thesis advisor, and I’m also delighted because Ali is a young writer at the beginning of what promises to be a marvelous career.
Susan Scarf Merrell
Fiction Editor, The Southampton Review
LAURA WAS BECOMING UNSURE ABOUT WHAT TO DO with the monster in her closet. He shouldn’t have been there — she wasn’t a little girl; she was a grown woman with a full-time job and a roof over her head that she paid for herself with her full-time job. She had food in the fridge, dishes in the drying rack and dress pants pressed. Who had time or inclination to deal with monsters when there was work to be done, friends to have drinks with and love to pursue? Besides, the world was filled with enough scary stories as it was. Robbers, rapists, famines, and wars. Every day on the way to work, she passed people more unfortunate than she, and she knew if she stopped for a second, she would become a part of them, hungry all the time. She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.
So the monster came at the right time in her life. She had just put her dog to sleep because of his eye tumors. She had also recently kicked out her boyfriend because he thought she was his mother. She told him he was mistaken, that she was not his mother, and then she helped him pack his things, fed him lunch and kissed him good-bye. After Bumblebee went to sleep and the boyfriend was sent on his way, her apartment smelled empty and her sheets were cold. She lay around on the couch when she didn’t have to be at work and kept telling herself not to feel sad — she had a lot going for her.
The loneliness made her sick and pale. Nothing made her feel better and she wondered if the loneliness had been there all along but that she had somehow avoided looking it in the face until now.
The monster appeared on Laura’s worst night. She was counting the dead bugs in the ceiling light when a low snuffling sound came from her closet. She was afraid because she thought it was a mouse, or worse, some city creature toughened by concrete and fed by garbage, the kind that could chew through walls and end up featured in the weird news section of newspapers.
She approached the closet and turned the knob slowly, so she wouldn’t startle whatever was inside. When she opened the door, she found the monster curled up on her shoeboxes amid clothes that had fallen off their hangers. He was about the size of a large raccoon but lithe and hairless with skin the color and texture of old scabs. He had bat-like ears and a beak-like snout from which sharp teeth protruded in cockeyed directions. His eyes were bright and bulbous and his front feet were long and dexterous, tipped with curved claws.
The monster gave a gurgling cheep that seemed to mean hello.
Laura didn’t run. She was intrigued by the little beast. She felt close to him even though he could have been from a toxic waste dump or from a litter of chupacabras. Here was the cutest little nightmare she had ever seen, far more benign than her own nightmares, an almost comforting knot in her daily string of scary stories. She held out her hand and the monster snuffled it, nuzzled it, then came creeping out of the closet into the full light of the room, cheeping all the while. The monster had scars on his back and his ribs stuck out beneath his scab-skin.
“You poor thing,” Laura said.
The monster’s belly grumbled from the air winding through his intestines, apparently without any obstacles.
“Let’s get you something to eat.”
Laura turned to go to the kitchen, wondering if the monster would like some of Bumblebee’s dog food. The monster shambled after her, moving like an ape trying to stay upright.
Laura poured the old dog food into Bumblebee’s empty bowl. The rattling of the dry kibble hitting the aluminum bowl filled the apartment. The monster ate eagerly, shoveling the food into his mouth with his hands, crunching the food with loud chomps and snorting for more. All of her dead bug counting seemed silly as she watched him feed.
From that time on, Laura and the monster were inseparable.
Things were wonderful at first. Laura came back from the office ready to play with the monster. She hadn’t given him a name and felt like he didn’t need one. Why call him anything but what he was? Sometimes she thought of him as Her Monster. She brought him toys from Petco, and when he burned through Bumblebee’s dog food, she started giving him old leftovers, too-ripe fruits, and stale bread.
The monster was more responsive to her than her dog or ex-boyfriend or even most of her friends and family. He nodded, growled and purred at all the right parts of her stories and curled close to her when he sensed her fear. Laura was afraid often, but the monster put her at ease so she didn’t have to think about the poor outside or all the dead people she had known or how the list of dead people she had known was growing and would never stop growing.
At first, the only problem was that the monster refused to go outside with her, not even to meet her friends. Laura didn’t mind because the monster seemed perfect in every other way.
Over drinks Laura’s friends were skeptical when she told them about the monster, but she was so happy and confident that they believed her anyway. Some of them were even a little jealous and wished a monster would show up in their closets on their worst nights. When Laura’s friends came over, the monster was charming and shook their hands. He made them cosmopolitans and fetched a game of Pictionary for them all to play. The monster turned out to be excellent at Pictionary.
“What a nice monster,” said Diane.
“He knows how to throw a party,” said Michael.
“I might have to kidnap him,” said Lisa.
Laura beamed; she felt like they were all praising her.
In truth, Laura’s friends were suspicious of the monster. On the way back to their respective apartments, they discussed Laura and her new relationship.
“It’s a little creepy. Covered in scabs and scars,” said Michael.
“And its eyes. There’s something nasty there. Something hungry,” said Lisa.
“It growled at me when it was sure no one would notice,” said Diane.
“But — ”
“But Laura seems happy.”
“She seems new.”
“She was broken before, but this monster — ”
“Might be making her better.”
A week after the monster met Laura’s friends, she was cooking meals for him and he was welcome to whatever he wanted in the fridge. He had already started moving his things in through the hole in the back of the closet from where he first came: Soggy rucksacks of rotting meat, five-year-old Time magazines, jars of animal organs and pickles, and stolen wedding rings. Laura didn’t say anything when he filled her closet with these items. He was entitled to have his own room.
When Laura was at work, or out with friends or helping her mom replace her kitchen cabinets, the monster would eat almost everything in the fridge. She tried to go shopping every day to accommodate the monster’s appetite. The fridge was often so empty you could see most of its sticky stains. She was getting fed up with the monster’s eating habits; he was getting expensive.
One night Laura was too tired to get groceries after work.
“Looks like it’s rice and a can of beans for us tonight, monster,” she said.
The monster whimpered in protest.
“Sorry, buddy,” she said.
He growled, showing all of his teeth, of which there were at least 100, thin as fish bones. “Hey, there’s no need for that. I was too tired. I had a long day,” she said.
i dont care, the monster said.
Laura was shocked, not that the monster could speak, but that his first words to her were cruel. His voice was a low gurgle, as if he were trying to talk with blood in his throat.
give me give me what i want. now.
Laura stood up.
“No,” she said.
bitch whore, give me, idiot. now. what i want.
He spoke in a tangled angry language, repeating the same sounds over and over again as if reciting a chant.
“I’m sick of you,” Laura said. “Sick of you.”
She wanted to sound like someone with power, but her throat was coated with the sad mucous that comes before tears.
“You’re eating everything and always making a mess. You don’t even clean up after yourself. And now you’re calling me names. How about no dinner at all?”
The monster threw himself off the chair onto the linoleum floor, hitting it headfirst with a thud that sounded like something heavier than he had fallen, like a cast iron pan or Laura’s leather bound edition of Moby-Dick. He tried to hold his breath, puffing up so much that he seemed he would disappear with a pop back to the sullen dimension of imagined worlds. All his breath escaped with a long squeal. He writhed and shrieked as if a hand were clutching his insides. His bulbous eyes bled and his skin broke open in a vertical slice parallel to his vertebrae.
Laura begged him to stop. She dropped to her knees and tried to keep him still, and when he wouldn’t stop, she started to cry. She too felt as if a hand were clutching her insides.
“I’ll get us food,” she said.
The monster’s spasms slowly subsided. After several minutes, he lay almost still, twitching and gasping for breath. Laura cradled him in her arms and his bones felt like a bird’s. She spoke to him gently, like she imagined a mother would do. She apologized and felt his forgiveness in the way he curled against her. She bandaged the wound on his back with gauze pads and Band-Aids before she called for pizza.
In the morning, Laura changed the monster’s bandages and found a fresh layer of smooth skin, a fresh scar.
Laura might have stayed happy, but such incidents became more frequent. Nuzzling on the couch and playing after work was no longer the norm. The monster’s appetite grew until he ate all the cans in the house, as well as the cosmetics and household cleaners. He had taken to beating his chest and urinating in the corners.
“How are your ribs still showing through your belly?” Laura asked.
The monster threw a lamp, which shattered on the wall by her head.
Sometimes, Laura thought of kicking the monster out.
i need i need i need
“What do you need?”
But most of the time, the idea of going back to how she had been seemed much worse.
i don’t know
“You must know.”
food you food you
Laura started missing work to care for the monster. She spent so much time cleaning him, finding food for him, tidying his messes, and learning his language that she often forgot to eat. Her paychecks no longer covered all the food the monster needed, so she started eating newspaper and toilet paper. Good thing she was young and strong, good thing she could take it so the monster could keep living, she thought to herself, even while wondering if there was any reason why she shouldn’t crush the monster’s skull and toss him out her balcony window. Even as she thought about microwaving him or drowning him in the toilet, she was crawling on all fours trying to see things from his perspective. Maybe if she could see things from his perspective, she could placate him and her life would go back to normal. But that was not to be: the monster started walking upright around the apartment, a little taller than a toddler and striding with the confidence of an adult. Laura suspected the monster had been able to walk like that the entire time, like he had been able to speak the entire time. He had just been waiting, but for what?
When she tried to read one of her books, the monster would tear it out of her hands. When she tried to sleep, the monster would roar in her ear. When she went to the bathroom, the monster would wait outside the door, lightly scratching his claws along the grainy painted surface.
As Laura stared at a pile of crushed Cheerios on the carpet, she understood that the monster was trying to consume her life, or whatever she had that counted as a life. Laura climbed to her feet and dusted the dirt from the floor off her hands. She would go right out the apartment door, and run away. It was that easy, but when she turned the knob, the door wouldn’t budge.
i have a present for you
The fleshy lump was a dead pigeon plucked of all its feathers except for one, which stuck up cartoonishly. Beads of blood coagulated where the feathers had been yanked especially hard. The pigeon was still warm and soft. Its beak had been pried open and a piece of paper was stuffed inside. Laura plucked the paper from the beak and smoothed it out with her thumb and forefinger. It was a line from one of her favorite poems:
“Hope is a thing with feathers.”
i made it
“Thank you. It’s very nice,” Laura said.
The monster smiled. Laura went to her bedroom. She set the pigeon on her nightstand and lay down on her bed. She slept for days but did not sleep. The hours were a long scream, the minutes were sucking mud filled with worms, the seconds were hammers rapping the temporal artery. She might have been going to work and having drinks with friends and pursuing love during this time, but mind and body were not her own. The cadence of her voice was wrong when she spoke: the emotions she was supposed to be having were imitations from television shows. Her smile felt like it was missing a few teeth.
When she opened her eyes, it was night and the moon shone through the naked window — one that used to have blinds. The monster was sitting on the bed watching her, his bulbous eyes glistening and cold. A string of drool swayed back and forth from his mouth.
i have eaten almost everything. tell me what you want.
“What I want?”
yes. the lie or the truth?
Laura thought for a while. She didn’t want to hear anything from the monster.
“How about lie first then truth?”
you’ll be all right because you have a lot going for you.
you’re living it, babe.
The monster hopped nimbly off the bed and crossed the bedroom in quick strides.
i’ll be right back. i need to find something to drill through your skull so I can stick my finger into your prefrontal cortex. the man who lives in the apartment next to you, the one you’re afraid of because of his beard, has a nice collection of power tools.
Laura rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling light. The plain fixture was gone, and so were most of the plastic-coated guts that coiled up through the apartment walls. The room was empty. Her fingernails were chipped and powdery from scraping the dry wall. She had a paint taste in her mouth. She couldn’t move; it was if her bed possessed a powerful gravitational force and she was stuck to it, prone. The wound in the ceiling stared back at her.
Laura rolled off the bed onto the shredded carpet. She could barely move. She had lost twenty pounds, but her arms shook with the effort of supporting her weight. Laura crawled into the closet and stared into the hole from which the monster had first come. Spider webs framed its entry and the darkness promised an abyss from which she might never return. At least the abyss wasn’t her apartment, she thought. As she crawled, she wondered if the tunnel led to other homes and apartments just like hers, where the monster had already gone to feed and pillage. As the tunnel forked, she wondered if some paths led to endless drop-offs, if others led to all the closets she had had at different times in her life. Did the tunnels ever end? For now, she didn’t care. It was good to have some time alone inside her head.
About the Author
Ali Simpson received her MFA in creative writing and literature from SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. In addition to The Southampton Review, her work has been published or is forthcoming in The First Line and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently working on a collection of speculative fiction, When Meat is Given a Second Chance. She works as a publishing assistant and lives in the forest.
About the Guest Editor
Dedicated to publishing fine fiction, non-fiction, plays, screenplays, poetry, literary cartoons, photography and art, The Southampton Review opens its pages to writers from across the globe whose work is compelling. Our pages are equally devoted to emerging and established writers and artists.