J.R. Angelella is the author of the novel Zombie (Soho Press) as well as a forthcoming Southern Gothic supernatural YA series (Sourcebooks/Teen Fire) co-written with his wife, Kate Angelella. He is a contributing author to the forthcoming murder-mystery anthology Who Done It? (Soho Teen), benefiting the nonprofit organization 826NYC and his short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He lives in Brooklyn.
An excerpt from Zombie appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, J.R. Angelella answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Zombie. Enjoy!
1. What is writing like?
The screen flickers. Thin, white lines streak and scroll up from the bottom, horizontally, thin at first, but widening as they reach the top. The lines grow and widen, before cutting back to a soundless black—disappearing. A screen of nothing. The black continues. Then, a buzz breaks into the background, faint, but constant and steady. The buzz, too, fades away and disappears and reveals for the first time actual sound—movement. General movement without words. Like when Dad returned from his walk with Dog earlier—coughing, grunting, walking, moving, breathing, whatever-the-fucking. I punch up the volume and lean in close. The screen still black, a muffled voice speaks in short, clipped phrases. A calm voice. A male voice. A direct voice directing others. The whatever-the-fuck noise in the audio scrambles like tuning an AM radio station, finally correcting itself, clearing away the cobwebs. Then the voice.
“Some call it God’s Will. Others—Devil’s work. Some call it Fate. Others—self-directed destruction. Maybe you prefer Destiny. The semblance of it amounts to utter garbage. We live a pre-determined life, an inevitable existence. A name matters nothing. What we seek is absolution. What we seek is beyond a higher power. What we seek is reckoning. What we seek is an uncommon valor. A code—this is it and it is all we have—a code. Wholeness. Transgressing without the slowed process of phases. Skip the burn and get right to the healing. Fractured, bitter, endless pieces familiarized into a singular oneness. You. A man. Adam. God’s creation. The first. Fuck Eve. It’s about commitment. Sublimation of spirit. Will. Fate. Destiny. Bullshit. One code. Without it, we are merely base animals. Do we agree?”
A wall of deep and heavy male voices responds, “Yes.”
An electric buzzing begins. A power tool. Far away. In a single tone. Then, it changes. The buzzing changes.
“Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid. But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not all, that is not his worst defect; his worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity.”
The men respond, “Yes.”
The buzzing now screeches—slowing for a moment, before speeding up, ripping through something. I want to press pause and stop this whole thing, but my fingers don’t move or can’t move. The buzzing screeches and screams, ripping and ripping. Silence again. And an uneven breathing, which becomes whispers. A new voice, almost invisible, speaks to himself.
“Jesus Christ, no. I—no—I. I have to—no. Shit. No, no, no.” The man’s voice sounds fragile, frozen, and far closer to the speakers than the other man. The man stops talking, but his breath picks back up—fast, heavy, and hard.
Silence resumes, which forces me to search the black screen for something, anything, and then I see it—a thin circle of light at the edges. I touch my finger to the screen and a blue spark shocks me. I trace my finger along the light.
The main voice continues, “Things finally come down to the business itself, to the act of revenge itself.” Footsteps. Walking. Shoes. Crunching of plastic underfoot. The man’s voice moves closer to the camera now. His tone changes, no longer reciting words, but rather taking registration. “Month—August. Day—Twenty-Nine. Sublimation one—Ralph Andersen.”
There is a dark void of silence. Until an avalanche of sound comes crashing down—a collective primal scream. Who knows how many people are involved, or what it means. The microphone pops and cuts between silence and the communal scream. A reverberating echo pounds the speakers, the screen still black.
A new voice close to the camera says, “Are you a fucking virgin at this? Take the damn cap off.”
Cap. Camera. Someone has forgotten to remove it.
The circle of light disappears as the cap pops off and a hot, bright, white light crashes into the lens, causing the camera to shuffle and refocus, shocking it into disorientation. The group primal scream now filters through mechanical camera adjustments. Everything blurs and nothing is clear. The scream stops and a choking is all that remains. The choking is violent. Maybe better described as gagging. Like someone having chopsticks shoved down their throat. The robotic sound of the camera auto-focusing stops and the white light settles and the white emptiness looks like what I imagine Heaven to be.
The aggressive white rushes away from the camera as color descends. An image comes through in flashes. A man. A man’s body. Thick, industrial plastic covers him like a blurry blanket. Monitors and machines run wires to him, slipping under the plastic; his eyes taped shut; a clear tube stuffed down his throat, chocking him. He is awake. His body twitches. His neck turns, pulling away, gagging, chocking. A seizure, maybe. The way he thrashes under the plastic and the plastic begins to move and slide and gains speed and clears away from the body completely and the anonymous head finally becomes a head with a body and arms and legs.
The man is strapped to the bed, restrained with long, leather straps crossing over his chest, his stomach, and his knees. The man is fully naked, his junk exposed and all. The body extends out of the frame of the camera, stopping at his knees. No one is on camera at all except for the man—only this man in pain.
Two men dressed in pale green surgical scrubs and caps and masks covering their faces poke around the monitors and plunge a syringe into the IV bag. They talk to each other, checking vitals, but their voices are inaudible. They finally exit off screen—doctors of some kind.
The main man’s voice returns. “Oh, absurdity of absurdities!”
Snuff film—is this what I am watching? No. Snuff films are not this. They are where some dude fucks a chick and then kills her on film for serious pervs to get off on, but this isn’t that. I don’t know what this is. This is something else altogether. I lean forward, lean closer, look closer.
The camera pitches again—auto-focusing—and I see them. A crowd stands in front of the man strapped to the bed and the bed is centered on a slightly raised stage. I see them and think it’s a trick of light. I see them, all of them, standing. I hear the man’s voice again.
“. . . that you have not, and perhaps never will have, an object for your spite, that it is a sleight of hand, a bit of juggling, a card-sharper's trick, that it is simply a mess, no knowing what and no knowing who, but in spite of all these uncertainties and jugglings, still there is an ache in you, and the more you do not know, the worse the ache.”
The man strapped to the bed gags.
Dog leaves the living room, sleepy, moving away in a slow walk. I wish I could follow.
The surgical tape over one of the man’s eyes snaps loose, so that one eye remains taped shut while the other is open wide, seeking, searching the room. The eye finds the camera. I tilt my head like people tilt their heads in horror movies, all cliché-like and shit. I try and see the man’s face, like I might know him, like I might be able to identify him for the police or something.
I see them there. Others. Men. Their heads are covered in black hoods and masks, like executioners. Some of the men are shirtless. Some in suits. They stand in front of the stage with the bed. They just watch, doing nothing, except for a few that rub their dicks or suck on their fingers.
The main man, the leader says, “This is what redemption looks like, gentlemen. This is the real Ralph Anderson.”
The man in the bed gives up, stops fighting, breathing shallow breaths, and I keep breathing, breathing for him. He closes his one eye and breathes through the tube down his throat and then exhales and opens his one eye. A surge blasts from his chest as he throws everything into a final fight, twisting his body with enough force that forces some men away from the bed. The doctors rush back into frame, holding him down. The movement startles the crowd as they shift like current away from the stage and collide with the camera. The tripod with the camera crashes to the ground, the camera still filming, but only legs and the heavy plastic covering the floor and the crunching of feet stepping on the plastic. Then the audio goes silent as legs moves past the camera and the screen cuts to black.
Sublimation goes back to Dad’s closet like a fucking bullet. Fucking leave that bullshit behind. I wish I had never found it. I wish I could make myself forget it.
This is the savage animal ripping through my body at this very moment.
2. What isn’t writing like?
The problem is that I don’t feel horrible from the art, but rather absolutely terrified from failing to feel anything.
3. When you do it, why?
This space is endless. Nothing matters in this space. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Because nothing actually exists here. Everything is possible here, but nothing is certain here. There’s no telling how long this moment will last, but I want it forever. Forever and forever and then a little more forever. To feel this protected. An endless spot in time where our decisions and our actions are nonexistent. I share this space with no one and wouldn’t let anyone in if they came knocking. The anger and rage and presence of certain people in my life are all gone, leaving only a flat line of possibility.
My memory is left intact, but emotion gutted. The memory of what was said that has brought me to this place is a trail in the woods, leading from the house to the dark, unknown destination beyond the house. To watch all this take place. Spoken about. Preached about. Prayed about. To bring us all together is what it is about. The truth is that we all have things to say and whether we are right or wrong, we say them. We say things we believe and most often we’re wrong. And even if we’re right, we fight so hard at making someone believe we’re right, we become wrong. Words make us into monsters of ourselves.
4. When you don’t, why?
And this is the space we exist in for now. A kind and quiet and gentle place.
Nothing is undone here. Hands not re-attached. People not un-drugged, de-sexed, un-plaided, re-booted. People simply stop.
I realize now, here, in this stuck state, that there had been a rattling, snarling demon inside me, growing in strength for some time. Ready to eat its way out. I know this now because I feel nothing now. I am empty now. There is nothing. The heavy, sick darkness stuck inside my skin is gone. Evaporated. Ripped clean. Vaporized. Disappeared.
I am brand new.
There is nothing left to put back together with tape or glue or nails—this is what is left.