“The Monster Study” – Fiction by Andrew Davie

“The Monster Study” is Andrew Davie‘s nightmarish short story from our Spring 2017 issue.

{ 2014 }

DURING HIS TRIAL AT THE EXTRAORDINARY CHAMBERS in the Courts of Cambodia, Number 2 was asked how he could perpetrate such vile actions against fellow human beings? Silence followed as he stared blankly, a former party leader turned pariah.

The ceiling fans did little to cool the room, which had now housed the attendees for almost seven hours. Pressed shirts, which still reeked of moth balls and chemicals, now shone like they had been rubbed down with ham.

When he failed to respond, his crimes were repeated by one of the co-prosecutors. It took fifteen minutes to go through each particular count and subset. Spectators in the audience often had to leave the proceedings; their wailing could be heard just outside the room, piercing lamentations. One person fainted, and another became sick.

Number 2, as he was referred to during his leadership, looked somewhat annoyed now, a frail elderly man whose accused crimes took place nearly forty years prior. The co-prosecutor wiped sweat from her brow, and continued, stating these crimes had been corroborated by Numbers 3 and 4, whose testimony had been heard mere days before this particular trial started. She appealed to his vanity. She made bold declarations, systematically destroying everything he supposedly held dear: his patriotism, his leadership. She stated how his admission of guilt might save him from a death sentence. When she finished her remarks, she looked drained, aged, like she’d recently been paroled and released from the grips of a fever.

Throughout it all, he did not betray his inscrutable countenance.

{ 1981 }

Wes Craven sits at his desk staring at his typewriter. He is forty-four years old, and already the director of two films, which will become cult classics, noted for their graphic and sexual violence. However, he’s still mulling over what he regards as a failure with his first studio picture, Swamp Thing.

What makes matters worse, his friend and occasional collaborator, Sean Cunningham, has borne a successful series with his Friday the 13th films. Originally dubbed a failure, the third movie, now boasting a hockey mask-wearing villain, recently displaced Poltergeist as the number one movie at the box office.

Craven continues to stare. The ideas are not coming, and the frustration builds.

An avid birder, he grabs his binoculars and walks the winding path near his house out into the sunshine. The woman jogging by has no concept, no idea; this man is responsible for some of the most deplorable cinematic scenes released in the last few years. Their ignorance always pleases him; how he resembles some corn-fed Midwesterner but lurking right beneath the surface the capability for such atrocity. Flaubert once wrote, “Be regular and ordinary in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” This mantra epitomizes Wes Craven. Returning to his house, he goes out onto the porch with yesterday’s newspaper. He begins skipping around from byline to byline until something grabs his attention: Cambodian refugees who die in their sleep.

Craven’s heart beats a little faster.

He skims over technical jargon about cardiac arrhythmia, or Brugada Syndrome, as possible causes of death and reads an interview with an assistant medical examiner who had treated six who had died.

As Craven reads the examiner’s words, the idea begins to form in his mind.

There are no bullet wounds, no puncture or stab wounds, no signs of any trauma or foul play, the examiner says: “I’ve been searching through medical journals for the last few days, and the only thing I can tell you is those people were literally scared to death.”

Relatives of the deceased believe the deaths to be the work of Khmout Sukkhot, a demon of Asian folklore who kills you while you sleep.

 { 2014 }

The co-prosecutor took the last drag of a cigarette and stubbed it into the ground. The pressure to get an admission of guilt eroded any sense of confidence she had before the trial began. Armed with eyewitness testimony, records, photographs, she imagined the man, who started out as a math teacher, would wilt. Instead, he seemed to grow stronger.

The belief he displayed in validating his actions during his frightening reign made him a daunting figure. He’d proven himself so adept at ascertaining traitors within the regime he quickly headed up Tuol Sleng, S-21, the prison camp designed specifically to sift through the party members of the Khmer Rouge and, like rotten teeth, extract them.

After the recess, she will present the ledger.

A damning document, if there ever was one, written in a shorthand which could have only been created by The Devil himself to account for the souls writhing in brimstone.

Mostly, it contained orders to execute prisoners after they had been interrogated.

One executive stated, of twenty prisoners, “Smash them to pieces.”

Some were kept alive for medical experimentation, used as guinea pigs to train the medical staff; others died from blood loss from transfusions for wounded soldiers. Some were bled out to see how long they could survive. Other missives eradicated people whose misfortune came from living at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

The first time she read through the translation she convulsed from the gravity of what she was tasked to do. Whole generations exterminated; now they relied on her to receive some remuneration. A confession would ensure she’d achieved her goal, and redemption could be had for those who’d lost their lives under the regime.

{ 1982 }

The script has bounced around from studio to studio; no one will finance the thing. Craven isn’t at his wits’ end, but he’s close. He’s pitched it so many times his recitation is committed to memory: A child killer burned alive by the parents of his victims; he takes his revenge by killing their offspring in their sleep.

Craven’s eschewed the idea of yet another masked killer: Hockey, human skin, a spray-painted-white William Shatner Halloween mask; he wants his villain to be witty, have a sense of humor, bask in the utter torment he’s causing. A scarred face, a product of the killer’s immolation, will serve just fine in this capacity. He names his antagonist Freddy Krueger after a boy who used to bully him in school, and bases his look, specifically the fedora, on a homeless man who once frightened him as a child. Always, though, he returns to the articles about Khmer refugees for the initial source of inspiration.

He meets with executives at Disney; they want something more kid-friendly. Craven gives them a hard pass. Paramount Pictures declines to state they have a similar film already in production. Later, Craven will mount their rejection letter on his wall as a trophy. Eventually, he’s able to convince a fledgling studio, New Line Cinema, to bankroll him for 1.8 million dollars. Originally a distribution company, this will be the first original content they produce, and later will refer to themselves as “The House that Freddy Built,” due to the success of the Nightmare franchise saving them from bankruptcy.

Very quickly, meetings begin with his production team. There needs to be a defining characteristic aside from the killer’s look; a signature weapon. Jason has a machete, Leatherface a chainsaw. But what about Krueger? During a conversation with a friend in the special effects department, Craven describes watching his cat tearing at the side of his couch, specifically the unsheathing of the nails; there’s menace and ferocity in the act. Suddenly, he sees it: a glove with steak knives. They construct prototypes quickly.

Casting begins. Most who are seen by Craven to play Krueger are too nice, too kind to children; they lack the menace required for this part. Eventually, Robert Englund auditions. Later, he’ll describe attempting to channel Klaus Kinski from Nosferatu.

He wins the part, and the rest of the cast is solidified.

{ 2014 }

The co-prosecutor put the ledger away. Her time cross-examining the witness ends, and Number 2 took his place off to the side of the proceedings, flanked on either side by guards. Next, they will hear testimony from one of twelve survivors of Tuol Sleng, out of fifteen thousand who had been imprisoned there at one point or another.

She sat down, completely spent, but cannot stop staring at the monster across the way. The images burned into her mind from the carnage she’d just read aloud will take years to wipe clean.

Sleep will no longer come easily. Haunted for the rest of her life, she wants to rise, cross the room, pass between people wilting in the heat, and grab him by his shirt. For the first time in her life, she would violate the law—the one thing she swore to uphold above all else—and drag him outside of the courthouse into the street. Hearing him beg for mercy, she would ignore his repeated pleas for clemency. Then, she would do the worst thing imaginable; her worst nightmare. She would douse him with accelerant, watch him retch from inhaling the deadly fumes, and burn him alive.

{ 1983 }

“Action,” yells Craven, and Amanda Wyss, the actress playing Tina, runs frantically, flailing her arms. Behind her, Englund, donning full Freddy Krueger regalia, pauses to establish his presence, then takes off after her. It’s a frightening moment; the first time Freddy makes an appearance in the film outside of a jump cut at the opening.

The scene, a dream in which he’s chasing her at night in her neighborhood, reveals Krueger’s personality. He’s toying with his victim now, appearing out of thin air, from behind a tree, ready with a quip or a gesture. While Tina runs, the audience will get the sense that her effort to escape is futile; one simply cannot outrun the boogeyman.

Eventually, she is cornered in her nightmare, and Craven yells cut.

Filming is almost completed. They have one more scene, the most graphic and complicated to shoot. Tina levitates out of bed, and while her boyfriend Rod attempts to help, she’s massacred, flung against the ceiling and wall. The scene requires the room to rotate, which will create the illusion that the actress is flying around the room, when in reality she’ll never leave the floor.

Shooting commences. Gallons of blood are used to simulate her disembowelment. She writhes and convulses in utter horror. Craven yells cut, and the First Assistant Director follows by saying “checking the gate,” a command to the camera operator to make sure there are no obstructions in the lens. If there are none, then principal photography on A Nightmare on Elm Street has been completed. The gate is clear, and the First AD states it is now a wrap on the film. A cheer goes up from both cast and crew who enthusiastically applaud Wes Craven, who has spent the last few years of his life committed to seeing this project through to fruition. Later, champagne will be opened, and an after party will rage until the dawn hours.

The final scene has pushed Amanda Wyss to the limit, and still suffering from vertigo, combined with exhaustion, she has a breakdown. Craven leads her off the set and hugs her, calming her down. His paternal instinct takes over. He wipes the matted hair from her eyes and helps towel the blood from her face. Holding her close, he soothes her.

None of this is real, he tells her, none of this is real.

{ 1975 }

Tuol Sleng translates to “The Hill of the Poisonous Tree.” It was a school at one point, now a consolidated area for all prisoners of the party. Fitting it should be run by a former math teacher.

Sok was going to be fifteen in a month; he was a guard at the prison and scared now every moment of every day of his life. If he made it to fifteen, it would be a miracle. All around him, paranoia festers and grows.

He assists with the hot unit; the section of the prison where torture is authorized in order to break the prisoners and get a confession as to their disloyalty to the party. It is a challenge to stay alive as even the guards are subject to follow strict and regimented rules of order. There are thirty rules all told from simple edicts such as not sitting down while on duty. They were forbidden to learn inmates’ names, assist in methods of interrogation; the list seems endless and almost impossible to follow at all times. If there were any infractions, the guards might find themselves joining the ranks of the incarcerated.

Sok has not slept in days.

An hour into his shift, he’s called for a meeting with Number 2. His stomach begins to feed on itself. He does not know what an ulcer is, but his inside lining currently resembles that of an eighty-year-old war veteran.

He walks through the hallways separating the former classrooms listening to the screams and cries of those being forced to endure unfathomable pain. By now, such routine occurrences no longer cause him to flinch or empathize. He negotiates a few dead bodies laid out on the floor, flies already feasting, and arrives at his destination.

Number 2 is hunched over his ledger, making notations, humming to himself. Like a symphony conductor, his hand has a musical quality as he doles out the fate of hundreds in a simple flick of the wrist. Another painful moment passes; Sok under no circumstances would ever interrupt. Finally, Number 2 picks up his head. He asks Sok about his allegiance, and Sok replies with the mandated response; it sounds artificial and automatic, and he curses himself for not sounding more authentic. The moment of silence which follows is unlike Sok has ever experienced. He almost passes out but doesn’t. He wonders whether Number 2 is The Devil or some evil demon who’s taken the shape of an unassuming man capable of such cruelty and indifference to human suffering. Number 2 goes back to his ledger and commands Sok to go to the burial site, what will eventually be known as “The Killing Fields,” to receive further instructions.

Outside, the sun has never shone so brightly, and the smell of death is not as overpowering. He begins the journey toward the mass gravesite eager for the brief reprieve he’ll get to be away from the prison. Walking along the twisting road, further into the jungle, he begins to cry. There is no emotional connection. Those long since severed from his mind; just the burden his body has endured these few months.

He arrives at the graves.

Guards stand by with poleaxes and other blunt weapons. They make casual conversation with each other and smoke cigarettes. None of them is over the age of twenty. Each has a hollowed out look about them, and their eyes dart about unable to remain focused on one thing for too long. Sok walks up to the leader of the group. He acknowledges Sok, then signals to the other guards, who approach the prisoners. The condemned cry and raise their hands to fend off the incoming strikes but are quickly dispatched. The sounds of their deaths reverberate around the jungle. As Sok begins to relax, forgetting he’s even part of this spectacle, the leader of the group places his hand on Sok’s shoulder. He tells him today will be the opportunity to prove himself both as a man and a loyal party member. They walk away from the executions, toward a jeep, about twenty feet away from the now decomposing bodies. The other guards have begun the task of filling the crudely dug holes, swinging bodies on top of the other.

Lying on the back seat of the jeep is a baby, not more than a few months old. The guard picks it up and hands it to Sok. He motions for Sok to follow him to a copse of Chankiri Trees bordering the outskirts of the clearing.  The guards have stopped their tasks, and Sok feels all of their eyes on him. He can hear them whispering, and dread builds. The baby, sensing something amiss, begins to cry and wriggle in his arms. Unaccustomed to holding an infant, he stops walking to keep from dropping the baby. He’s admonished for doing so and quickens his pace until he and the leader are in the shade. The wind picks up, then dies down.

It is at this point his mission is revealed: he must smash the child against the tree, so it won’t grow up to seek revenge for its parents’ deaths. The rationale is uttered as one might point out a commonly accepted fact, like the color of the sky. The guard lights a cigarette and walks back to join the others; he stops midway and calls back over his shoulder that Sok must laugh while undertaking his task, as not doing so will be a demonstration of sympathy.

Sok cradles the child in his arms, staring into the unassuming eyes.

He knows in a few moments he’ll have to re-adjust his grip, probably around the child’s ankles, for the best trajectory. Slowly, he begins to detach himself, tries to think of something amusing to generate his laughter, ignoring the act which must now transpire solely as a means of self-preservation.

He lifts the child into the air as the rest of the guards grow silent. The first shrill of laughter escapes his lips as he tries and fails to imagine his life to come, his existence. This current moment is not real. It is simply a nightmare.

{ X }

ANDREW DAVIE received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. Currently, he teaches in Virginia. His work can be read in Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, The South Dakota Review, among others. His website: asdavie.wordpress.com

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