Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dead Hungry: a ghoulish delight by Louis Arata

Flesh:  It’s What’s For Dinner.

Ghouls are overrunning Chicago.  We’re not talking supernatural beasties but humans with an inexplicable appetite for the dead.  It doesn’t matter if it’s road-kill, bodies from the morgue, or the recently buried.

For graduate student Tucker Smith, life is now scarier than the horror novels he studies.  His girlfriend is feeling peckish for raw meat.  His roommate is dabbling in the Ghoul Culture.  And his grunge rocker brother is involved in the black market supply of bodies.

Tucker soon discovers that low-budget horror movies, reality TV shows, national food competitions, and cultural sensitivity collide with family secrets.


       “DON’T TELL me that movie didn’t suck, because it did.  It was so way like that other movie with the killer in that shitty mask trying to be all Jason, but it’s also like that Wes Craven flick, you know, all self-referential, but this one, this movie, this was just crap!”
Freddie combusted with caffeinated energy, his spiky red hair a halo of fire.  Enveloped in two oversized t-shirts and a flannel shirt, he wore a belt almost a foot too long, and his boxers jutted over his waistband.  He tried to agitate Tucker and Darien into the same state of stunned disbelief.
“Can’t they come up with one frigging original idea, just once?  Like we don’t know the main chick’s going to be some tough Barbie who stabs the psycho with his own ice pick.  And of course you know!  You know he’s going to pop up again.  Boo!  Ooh, I’m scared, he’s still alive!  Shit, like we haven’t seen that a bazillion times before!”
Freddie turned to Tucker.  “Come on, admit it.  It was shit.  Right?  It was shit.”
“Yes, it was shit.”
“Thank you!”  Freddie took a victory lap around his friends.  To celebrate, he dodged into traffic like a crazed prophet.  “Skip this movie!  It sucked!” He gestured wildly at the movie theater.
Freddie’s antics reminded Tucker of Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, warning travelers that they’re here, they’re here, you’re next.  Grinning, he threw an arm over Freddie’s shoulder and guided him down the street.
Freddie proceeded to rave about overlooked classics such as Hell Hounds II:  Bark Until Dark and Field of Screams, which were so much better than tonight’s Chop ‘Til You Drop.  “Great title, stooopid story,” he said.
“Of course it’s stupid,” said Tucker.  “What did you expect?  Movies like this aren’t about creativity; they’re about what sells.  Sexy women, violent stalkers, grisly deaths.”
“Don’t forget stupid puns as titles,” said Darien.
“No movie like this is going to have an original thought in its head.  It’s movie-making by cliché.  Stick enough familiar elements together, market it to teenage boys, and you make enough money for a sequel.”
“Exactly, exactly!” exclaimed Freddie, as though his ranting had made the same point.  “They could be sooo much smarter if they did something cool.”
“You’re the one who picked the movie,” said Darien.
“Yeah, but still.”
A hazy film of car exhaust permeated Chicago’s humid night air.  Up and down Michigan Avenue, skyscrapers formed a glistening cavern.  Tucker steered his friends onto the plaza next to the Tribune Tower, its neo-Gothic design infested with gargoyles watching from flying buttresses.  Freddie ran ahead to pretend-skateboard along the lip of a stone planter.
“Next time, I choose the movie,” Darien said privately to Tucker.  “No more horror, okay?  How can you stomach it?”
“It’s all fodder for the dissertation.”
“You don’t really like them, do you?”  Darien shook his head in distaste.  “You heard the guys behind us, right?  Laughing their heads off when the killer cut out that girl’s tongue.”
Tucker shrugged.  “Horror gets more intense as violence becomes more permissible to show, but does it ever really change?  The same things still scare us.”
“Since when does seeing people get butchered become entertainment?”
“All I want is to figure out why people enjoy a good scare.  That pleasant chill of fear.  Movies are a safe way to experience that.  You’re not really in danger, even if you feel scared.”
“Okay, I can see that’s why you watch horror movies.  But Freddie?”
“He’s about the gross-out factor.  He’s got that catalog of all the different ways people get maimed in movies.”
Darien laughed.  “He’s a psycho.”
“I don’t think he makes a connection between a real serial killer and the killer in Chop ‘Til You Drop.  For him, they are two completely different animals.  He’s a goofball, but in-between his ranting and raving, sometimes he’s got a little insight.”
“Kind of hard to believe,” Darien murmured.  Up ahead Freddie was executing fake skateboard maneuvers that drew cheers from a nonexistent crowd.
They headed down to the Loop to a pub for a late night beer.  Tucker liked seeing the city lit up along the river.  The Wrigley Building glowed in sugar-coated cheerfulness, and behind it loomed the glass visage of Trump Tower.  Near the DuSable Bridge, a saxophonist played an endless iteration of Auld Lang Syne.
Further south, they passed under the El tracks on Wabash Avenue.  Heavy shadows formed a subterranean world.  When a train roared overhead, its cars thumping, it was like a monster rising from its lair.  Street lamps couldn’t cut through the grimy residue staining the buildings.  Retail stores, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, featured generic posters for kitschy clothes and jewelry.  In second and third-story windows, bright neon signs advertised Tarot readings, yoga and massage.
The street stretched empty and dark.  Apart from the El trains, Freddie remained the greatest source of noise.  He kept mercilessly teasing Darien about the movie.  “You had your eyes closed the whole damn time!”
Darien refused to be taunted.  “I saw it.  Though I wish I hadn’t.”
Just then, Freddie jumped back a foot.  “Holy shit!”
A big rat bolted from an alley.  It moved so fast, it registered only as fluid motion.  In the middle of the street, it halted to pick at litter flattened in the road.
A delivery van came through the intersection and crushed it.  In an instant it went from being a rat to being a glossy, steaming, lumpy thing.  Its leg twitched twice before becoming still.
Oh god, Tucker thought.
Freddie slapped Darien’s arm.  “Come on,” he said, jogging toward the furry gob.  He hunkered down next to it.  “Poor devil never had a chance.”
“Don’t be gross.”
“Probably working late to support the wife and kids.  I sure hope he had insurance.  Notify the next of kin!”  Freddie pinched one of the snapped legs and waved it at his friends.  In a squeaky voice, he said, “Officer, I saw the whole thing!  He was drunk, I tell you, drunk!”
“Freddie, leave it alone.”
Wiping his hands on his jeans, Freddie trumpeted a doleful Taps.  Tucker hated to admit he wanted to laugh.  Catching Freddie’s arm, he moved him away from the mess.  With a second glance at the rat, Tucker felt surprisingly disturbed, as if he’d witnessed a drive-by shooting.
Then something else emerged from the alley.  Much larger, it shambled onto the sidewalk.  Darkness hid the face, and the body was hefty with layers of soiled clothes.  Without a visible face, he seemed less than human.  A zombie, something Undead.
The man appeared not to see them; he cut across their path at a leaden gait.  Tucker gave him a wide berth, while Freddie, more fascinated than brave, hunched over to peer up into the man’s face.  “Hey dude, what’s happening?”
Darien tried a gentle approach.  “Hey, man.”  No response.  To Tucker, he said, “We need to do something.  He needs help.”
Tucker wasn’t sure what to do.  Something didn’t feel right.  The man moved through his own world, disconnected from reality.  What emanated from him, maybe a form of psychosis, was more than Tucker could handle.  All he wanted was to get his friends to safety.
Freddie walked directly up to the man.  “Looking to get tanked, blotto, piss-faced?  You need some change?”  He rummaged loose coins from his pocket.
Tucker stopped him.  Freddie protested, “Hey, I’m being a good Samaritan is all.”
The homeless man, visible beneath a street light, was probably white, except his skin was grimy and his beard too thick to tell.  His clothes peeled like the skin of a rotting onion, his boots held together with packing tape.  His overcoat had an oily sheen, like city streets after a rainstorm.  Unconscious of their presence, he walked like a discarded clockwork winding down.
He circled in the street, closing in on the dead rat.  No cars were coming, yet even if they were, he paid no attention to his surroundings.  He crouched over the rat.
It was time to do something; Tucker couldn’t simply walk away.  Clearly the man didn’t recognize the danger of wandering in traffic at night, in Chicago.  Tucker took a step toward him then stopped.
The man was eating the rat.

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About the Author

I am not a vegetarian, but after writing Dead Hungry, I’m one step closer to becoming one.  I’m a long-term resident of Chicago, so it was fun bringing fictional mayhem to its crowded streets.  While I’ve written novels since I was in my teens, Dead Hungry was my first horror novel.  Various jobs have allowed me to sell classified ads, balance checkbooks, debrief former gang members, format surveys, build databases, hand out stipend checks, and assist with million dollar budget projections.  For fun, I’m involved in theatre.  My play, A Careful Wish, was first produced at the Fourth Street Theatre, in Chesterton, IN.  

Connect with Louis

Twitter:  @LouisArata

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