My, how the time flies. I was excited to see the WEP challenge had begun on Wednesday, and I was preparing to have a post up within the first two days of the challenge. And now, here we are, inching towards the end and I haven’t gotten anywhere yet!
If you’re looking to dabble in procrastination, I wouldn’t recommend it. But enough digression. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. First of all, a big thank you to Denise and Yolanda for hosting this event, and a special shout out to Damyanti, whose blog post introduced me to the event. She’s definitely one to check out and follow.
Neil Gaiman is my favorite author, and I could pick any of his amazing and imaginative settings, from the fairy tale kingdom in The Sleeper and The Spindle to the ‘underground’ London of Neverwhere. But perhaps one of his most memorable settings is the ‘Other’ world in the novella Coraline (later adapted into an animated film).
A young girl, the titular Coraline, looks for a way out of her boring existence and stumbles into another world, accessed by a secret doorway in her new house. The new world is similar to her own, but not quite the same. Her ‘other’ parents are more loving and her ‘other’ neighbors fascinating. But there’s a darker side to this world that becomes visible soon enough…
This is one of many moments where Coraline discovers that world’s true face:
Up through the hole came the smell of damp clay, and something else, an acrid tang like sour vinegar.
Coraline let herself down into the hole, looking nervously at the trapdoor. It was so heavy that if it fell she was sure she would be trapped down in the darkness forever. She put up a hand and touched it, but it stayed in position. And then she turned toward the darkness below, and she walked down the steps. Set into the wall at the bottom of the steps was another light switch, metal and rusting. She pushed it until it clicked down, and a naked bulb hanging from a wire from the low ceiling came on. It did not give up enough light even for Coraline to make out things that had been painted onto the flaking cellar walls. The paintings seemed crude. There were eyes, she could see that, and things that might have been grapes. And other things, below them. Coraline could not be sure that they were paintings of people.
There was a pile of rubbish in one corner of the room: cardboard boxes filled with mildewed papers and decaying curtains in a heap beside them.
Coraline’s slippers crunched across the cement floor. The bad smell was worse, now. She was ready to turn and leave, when she saw the foot sticking out from beneath the pile of curtains.
She took a deep breath (the smells of sour wine and moldy bread filled her head) and she pulled away the damp cloth, to revel something more or less the size and shape of a person.
For what’s supposed to be a children’s story, the story creates a very disturbing and unsettling atmosphere. This chapter, where Coraline confronts one of the story’s antagonists, is probably one of my favorite moments from the book, because it’s something that seems to belong in a horror film. The acrid smell, the faded inhuman imagery on the walls, and the lump of clay that had once imitated a human form. All of that comes together in grotesque harmony. That this scene was altered so significantly is one of my biggest disappointments with the movie adaptation.
For the second part of the challenge, I’m trotting out an old story of mine. I had written it for a fiction challenge over a year ago. The original story was mostly about the character interaction, but I’ve changed and expanded it to highlight the setting and build up the atmosphere some more. Hopefully, it sets the right tone.
He does not sleep.
He does not eat. Or speak. Or even breathe. He just sits in his old chair, hollow gaze fixed on the door. Almost as if he’s waiting for someone. Or something.
His daughter is his only companion in that frigid waste. She had come here many months ago, leaving her own life behind, to care for him. Far from city streets that were teeming with life and clamoring with noise, she found herself surrounded by eternal winter. The sky in these parts was always the color of stone, the land always covered in snow. Ashen trees dotted the landscape, their twisted, jagged branches raised in a grotesque salute.
She could not tell where the cabin was. Whether it was the east or the west, north or south. She just knew it was there, amidst the ice and the rocks. Its warm mahogany walls almost glowed like dull embers against the stark landscape. Where the wood from the cabin had come from was a mystery. There were no trees like it in the area, and no trace of living beings that could have brought the wood there. But it did not matter. It was her father’s home, the place he had called home for the past fifteen years, ever since her mother’s passing. His rare excursions to the city soon stopped entirely, and her visits were infrequent. But she knew she would be needed there soon.
He was getting old, but refused to admit it. He was a man of rituals and routine, and he would not allow her to disrupt them. Every morning, he would rise and go hunting to bring back food. She was a more than capable hunter herself, but he was an exceptionally stubborn man, and so she stayed home, carrying on with her daily chores and cooking for the both of them. She would ask him about the hunt when he came home, and he would tell her, adding his own embellishments where necessary.
That morning, she had felt something wrong. It was colder than usual, with strong, icy winds slicing through the air. Even the fire would not warm their little cabin. She had told him not to go out; they had provisions to last them another week. But he was stubborn as always. The hunt was an almost sacred ritual for him. So he had left in the dim gray light of the day, and when darkness came, it did not bring him back with it.
She was anxious. What had happened? Had he gotten lost? Fallen somewhere? The weather would not have been kind to his old bones. She gathered up some supplies and decided to go in search of him. She had to find him, whatever the risk. As she was preparing to leave, she felt a wave of uneasiness pass through her, followed by a horrific, rotting stench. The door of the cabin opened and he entered. She would have rushed to help him, to inquire about where he was, to see if he was alright. Instead she stood in place, petrified by the sight in front of her.
He had come home, but he was not the same man, if he was still a man at all. His skin was dried out and leathery, stretched tightly over his bones, as if he had been mummified for centuries. His face was gaunt and skeletal, mouth contorted into a ghoulish rictus. And his eyes, his brilliant blue eyes that seemed to twinkle when he told one of his hunting tales, were gone. Empty sockets stared at her listlessly, and yet, she felt they saw more than she could imagine. She wanted to scream, but her voice was buried deep inside her. As she fought the nausea that was threatening to overtake her, he latched the door, walked over to his old wooden chair and sat down, eyeless gaze fixed on the entrance of the cabin.
That is how it has been for the past three days. She tries to search for some sense of normalcy, carrying out her daily chores and cooking meals for both of them. She leaves a plate for him at the table. But he does not eat. She tries talking to him, trying to understand what has happened. But he does not speak.
He just sits in his chair, hollow gaze fixed on the door. Almost as if waiting for someone. Or something.
He does not sleep.
She dares not sleep.