Midnight Oil

As a special Halloween treat, we have a short story from Xeric-Award winning graphic novelist Neil Kleid. The perfect fit for the occasion. Enjoy!

Patrick Checker lost his mind sometime between final count and lights out.

Frank Day, horror novelist and convicted Communist sympathizer, wouldn’t have minded except that he was sitting across from Checker at the time. Fingers followed Checker’s brain, then his teeth. They’d been debating the structures of stories and Checker, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, adamant that solid characters made up for formulaic plots, had been refuting the argument Day had constructed over the last hour when the right half of the screenwriter’s forehead slid past his eyes and into his nasal cavity, choking him as skull, brain, and hair joined it inside his throat.

 Day, a large man carrying the air of a history professor with deep-set eyes, prone to favor herringbone jackets and a Vandyke beard, moved to take Checker’s hands but had trouble maintaining a grip when the fingers came off joint by joint. He shouted for the guards as Checker pitched forward into a pool of his own dissolving muscle, blood, and bone. The body shuffled, stumbled, and fell to the ground with a sickening splash that sounded like overripe melons being pulped with a single, gleeful hammer.

Hours after the guards carted off the remains, the inevitable questions began, jabbing the finger of blame into the curious face of the only man who could have conceivably killed Patrick Checker—Frank Day. Locked together in a small cell containing nothing more than beds, urinal, books, and clothes, the only people Day and Checker had contact with at time of death were each other. No guard had been in their cell since count; no inmate could have slipped in undetected. The case was open and shut: Frank Day, traitor to America, was being framed for murder and saddled with a ticket to ride the lightning.

Day, of course, had nothing to do with Checker’s death. In fact, the famous author of several noteworthy gripping psychological horror novels shouldn’t even have been in the position to witness Checker’s death, much less try to save him as his limbs dissolved. Frank Day, raised and nurtured in the finest prep schools New England had to offer, topped the list of bestselling American authors. His first novel, Cries of Banshee Isle, sold well enough to procure a three-book deal, and he spent the last few years cultivating both literary and collegiate admirers, resulting in tempting offers from MGM, UA, and Warner. But Hollywood couldn’t have called at a more inopportune moment: The year was 1947 and the House Committee on Un-American Activities had begun a wave of terror designed to blacklist more than three hundred artists, directors, actors, and screenwriters suspected of subversive acts. Special Agent Allen Wisdom, a G-Man specifically assigned to Day’s watch, placed the novelist under the glare of flashbulb lights after publicly arresting the novelist for charges of conspiracy. According to the HUAC, Day’s books promoted “subversive and Un-American virtues” and were “saturated with liberal propaganda and lascivious imagery.” Under pressure to present the Committee with names of colleagues sympathetic to the Communist Party, Day chose prison before disloyalty.

After refusing to hand over an ex-girlfriend and after beating the hell out of an aide, Day’s cellmate Checker was charged for assault and convicted of treason. UA pulled his latest flick from their production schedule and during work detail, Checker confided he’d finally have time to pen the Great American Novel could he break down the Hollywood formula and resurrect a singular, unique writing style from its remains. He’d gotten seventy-five pages written before dying horribly on the leftmost corner of Cell Block B.

Hallucinations aside, Day was certain he didn’t kill Checker. Perhaps something medical or viral had been at fault, but rare is a body fine one moment, then struggling to retain its remaining limbs mere seconds later. Therefore, Day assumed as the single witness to Patrick Checker’s grisly demise, it must have been something unusual. Something supernatural. And that set it firmly in Frank Day’s area of expertise.

Lost in theories, precedents, and a handful of familiar cases, Day went about his detail alongside hundreds of convicts, each preaching their tale of woe. He ate his meals in the cafeteria, busing his tray, then paced the cell block, pondering what sort of ethereal execution might have killed a man who wanted nothing more than to tell stories in a decade where stories are examined for hidden meaning. As the bars closed one night and the lights went out, Day struggled to explain the unexplainable, knowing that without an answer he’d soon meet the gallows. He sat on the lower bunk, running his fingers through his hair, the only sounds around him the low snoring of his neighbors and a sharp, determined scraping that faded in from above, quickened, stopped, and quickened again.

Fearing rodents gnawing on the bunk, Day stood…and his head bumped into a pair of standard issue prison shoes. The soles had been restitched, as if hastily sewn together with dirty shoelaces, and the pants above were frayed and bloody, a series of stitches leading his eyes away and up toward torso, shoulders, face, and eyes. Those eyes—roaming and blank, like a blind man’s—hungrily stared at a spiral notebook clutched between the thing’s patchwork fingers. An odd sight, yes, but the one detail forcing saliva from Frank’s mouth had to be the fact that the recent occupant of the late Patrick Checker’s bunk was, in fact, its former occupant.

Checker—or something resembling and, from Day’s vantage, writing like him—brought its legs up beneath its body like a child preparing to hear a story. It (for the thing on the bunk, weight resting on the creaking frame, could only be an “it”) acknowledged Day’s presence and went on writing, scratching and scribbling with a filed metal spoon dipped in liquid and glistening in the moonlight. Checker’s corpse looked the way Day had seen it last—head and eyes slumped between the shoulders, drawing down toward mottled, ashen skin imperfectly covering a bag of bones that had written three South Sea epics during a three-week bender, each outbidding the other at rival studios. And along the thing’s skin were rows of stitches, holding joints together so that their owner could slowly, inexorably drag its pen across the blank, waiting page.

Careful not to alert the guards to his movement, Day edged closer and leaned to see what Checker was writing. It was prose, broken from the structure of a screenplay format, and upon further review Day recognized the manuscript for Checker’s long-simmering novel. As he watched, the thing that once was Patrick Checker began to lecture the moon-dappled cell far from the eyes of the erudite, educated literati.

“Hollywood,” it began, “was built on the bones of the writer. The miserable thousands with aspirations to the as-yet-uncharted frontier of cinematic entertainment—the desire to create and, hopefully, get paid for it. Arriving at the Gates, arches looming over studios, the writer—the last shaman in this, the twentieth century’s latest dangerous jungle—sacrifices himself to the Western gods. He hands over ingenuity, spark, and story that make his tales sing, dance, and delight the tribe. Poor writer! Last idealist in the New Frontier, casting myrrh, incense, doubt, and fear along his sacred Bible, burning all that he is so that his voice and ideas might live.”

With this pronouncement, Checker struck its notepad with the end of the pen and brought sunken eyes to glare at Day’s wide, searching face. “But the voice wasn’t his. The idea another’s. No one can call this tortured creativity any sort of ‘living.’”

Day realized the creature was waiting for an opinion on the matter, but with no rebuttal forthcoming it shrugged its shoulder and slid from its perch. Checker shambled past the novelist and peered into the block to see who might be listening. By the time Day formed a single word, its head swiveled back, as if on a joint, and it stepped back toward the bunk, pressing on with accusation.

“You didn’t kill me, Frank. You know it; I know it.”

Day cleared his throat and squeaked. “Y—you…Yes. I know that, Pat. But…?”

“What did?” Checker asked, terrible smile stretching its stitched lips. “That’s the answer every moviegoer searches for in the permanent midnight of the picture house. The million-dollar reveal that hasn’t been used over and over in the never-ending rewrites of three original stories some screenwriter invented before movies were a gleam in California’s eye. You want to know the Grail.”

Checker pushed past, fingers pressing Day aside. Day flinched and stumbled, falling onto the cold floor, and Checker continued to the bunk. It stared back, eye level with Frank Day’s forehead, and waved its slowly filling pad like a flag.

“You want to know ‘Who Done It.’”

Day nodded, keen to discover the answer.

“It’s simple, Frank, So simple it’s unbelievable. Hollywood done it. The movies, the studios. Hollywood killed me, Frank, and they’ll do it again. And again.”

Day raised his right eyebrow and knitted it with the left, perplexed. It was insane to suggest that Hollywood or any such agents connected to the film industry had entered their cell in the night and removed Patrick Checker’s spine, ripping fingers from his body like petals in a meadow. Unbelieveable, indeed. Or was it? Day had certainly been witness to far worse.

“Doubt, Frank. It’s scribbled on your face like notes on a draft. How could a place, an idea, kill a man? You saw me crumble…body falling inside itself, no one touching me, no human being save you in its vicinity …and here I stand, whispering that my demise was murder not of human hands but brought about by the hands of a town.

“The system broke me, Frank. It promised me fame, fortune, work, and the promise of more…but my contract never guaranteed originality. There were no clauses allowing me to keep ideas or use them in lieu of pap, the hackneyed plots Louis B and others made me cling to, over and over again. The greatest films ever made? Bullshit. There are no original ideas in Hollywood and the greatest films ever made were recycled in the hands of a town. Original stories were sold and shelved for Boy Meets Girl until writers throughout Lost Angels wanted to throttle Boy, slap Girl, and run howling into the Hills. The machine beat them down, ate them up, and never let them forget that original thought would never grace the Silver Screen nor be followed by the triumphant credit that dreamed it up.

“They killed us, Frank. They took our ideas and hung them on pikes atop the Gates. They sucked the life from us, one plot after the next, and turned us into shambling, grunting parodies of the writers we were.

“They made us into zombies. They killed us, Hollywood did, and the murders continue as we rot in this dungeon and you do nothing.”

Day stammered to defend himself, but Checker leaned forward, shaking with rage, pieces of its carcass flaking across the cell. “I have, Frank! I have documented the battle that broke me apart, joint-by-joint, idea-by-idea. My fight against temptations tossed my way, treats for the lapdog I’d become. The ordeal every writer faces upon entering the Gates as the studios and keepers of stories sank them in desperation and buckled pride to their back like yokes to oxen and millstones to the necks of those who desired the greatest of all freedoms: to dream.

“But it made no difference,” Checker said, pacing, “because they broke me metaphorically and my body had to follow. The studios, the HUAC, the whole damn town—they split me like a chicken, slumped me like a baseball team, and now I’m a shambling zombie, existing on the border of a life not worth living and a death far more appealing.”

Checker stopped and Day cleared his throat, hoping to move their conversation to the conclusion he hoped it was progressing toward.

“Patrick…ah, Pat.” He cleared his throat again, keeping his voice low. “Why come back? What is this about?”

“Retribution, Frank. You’re no more guilty of killing me than the man in the adjoining cell, and tonight I plan on pointing blame toward its intended target.”

Checker handed Frank the pad and he accepted it, quickly reading the document that, as he got a closer look at it, appeared to be less a novel than a biographic manifesto.

Hollywood was shepherd of my destruction and patron saint of my re-creation. My name is Patrick Checker and I was killed by a City of Broken Dreams. My name is Patrick Checker and I was a screenwriter. This is the story of how Hollywood killed me.

Page after page of his life and career. The wrongs done to him by the studio and a love of films dashed by an industry that transformed him into a crumbling corpse. Fascinated, Day turned pages, reading about injustices and gossip, and as he read he considered the awful treatment accorded to Hollywood writers, the fate handed down by a paranoid government unwilling to consider fresh ideas or revolutionary paradigms and my god, could this clear Day from a death sentence? Probably not but the hope, the dream of not having to end a life of literature, a life of storytelling despite the government, and if only Checker, dear Checker, could stay until morning, stay until the guards arrived, they could walk into the light and clear their names, but Checker turned pages, reciting ideas and sharing anecdotes that would never see the light, never see the dawn unless shepherded by another. And somewhere in the flurry of pages, the litany of stitched fingers, Frank agreed to be that shepherd if he lived oh lord if he could see the light of day, and the thing that was Checker turned another page and smiled its horrible, sliding smile and reminded him he was no more guilty than the man in the adjoining cell, but Day took Checker’s hand, the dying, shriveled zombie hand, and promised to be that shepherd and fight the revolution if he could live just live oh lord let him live through this and Checker’s hands came off in his own with the finger chosen to point toward its target and the pages turned, until before Day knew it, the long night became morning and he sat in his cell, alone, holding the right hand of his former cellmate and a chapter of a terrible, honest manifesto that, if finished, could clear his name.

Lights came on, the guard announced the count, and Day sprinted forward to show his prize, ask for the warden, anyone who would listen to Patrick Checker’s tale, former screenwriter and Hollywood zombie. The guard saw the hand and shrank back in disgust, then pulled Day from the cell, snatched the sheaf of paper, and called for his colleagues…but his colleagues were busy. They were performing the same routine in the adjoining cell. And the next. And the next.

Frank Day watched as prisoner after prisoner emerged from his cell clutching sheaves of paper with the same efficient, sketchy handwriting detailing the story of wronged Hollywood writers and Patrick Checker’s true killer. Each entry picked up where the last left off, merging into a single tapestry that cleared Frank Day of Checker’s murder and called for justice against those who committed his metaphoric manslaughter. As prisoners stumbled from their zombie night, strapped to the flickering embers of one man’s dream, they brandished evidence pointing to the man who gathered them as one to cry vengeance. Each convict, to a man, carried a piece of Checker’s formerly stitched corpse, bequeathed to them sometime during the night.

Whether Patrick Checker appeared that strange evening to write his last, most celebrated work or sixty prisoners merely tapped into something greater than them to create a document that would haunt the entertainment industry, Frank Day did not know. All he understood was that his late friend had returned to make things right. Though guilty of subversive activity, Day was cleared of the murder of Patrick Checker and years later, past Communist witch hunts and long after being released from prison, thought about the long midnight lecture by perhaps the last great writer of his generation—a man who cared enough about his stories to fight for them from beyond the grave. And though writers would continue to sell themselves to the studios and sacrifice dreams for a shot at fame and fortune, Patrick Checker’s last, great idea paved the way for a gradual shift into independent filmmaking apart from the system that forced men to write to studio specifications. Checker’s manifesto, published under the only title Frank Day thought possible—Hollywood Zombie—was worth living, dying and returning for.

And years later, reading it again in the twilight of his life, Frank Day couldn’t help but think what a great movie it would make.

Xeric-Award winning cartoonist Neil Kleid authored Ninety Candles, a graphic novella about life, death, legacy and comics; Brownsville, a graphic novel about the Jewish mafia, and The Big Kahn, a drama about a family secret so well-hidden even the family didn’t discover it until it was too late. He’s written for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image Comics, DC Comics/Zuda, Shadowline, NBM Publishing, Slave Labor Graphics, Random House and Archaia Studios. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and boys, working on three graphic novels, several comic books, a big boy novel and no sleep. Pray for him at www.rantcomics.com.

Original sketches by Neil Kleid and Jake Allen, respectively.