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Extracts from We Were Called Specimens by Jason Teal

By Jason Teal.
With an Introduction by Orrin Grey.

Jason Teal, We Were Called Specimens, (KERNPUNKT Press, 2020)

Introduction by Orrin Grey

One blind spot (among many) in my literary study is that I have never developed a deep understanding of what we might call experimental fiction. Prose poetry. Heck, regular poetry, for that matter, if we’re being honest about it.

Not that I don’t comprehend its importance and have at least some awareness of both its utility and its necessity, but I’m not necessarily the best person to explain any of that to someone else.

I’ve learned from my experience with cinema that to really understand a form, you often have to acclimatize yourself to it. Not everything yields itself up to your first, clumsy ministrations. And with this sort of fiction, I simply haven’t had enough experience to know the lay of the land just yet.

Which makes me an unlikely candidate to write this introduction, for the stories, vignettes, poems, what-have-you contained in this strange little puzzle box of a book are certainly experimental. Most of them are what I would call prose poetry. Sometimes broken out into discrete blocks of text—often replete with intentional repetitions that function like a Greek chorus, like call-and-response—other times one run-on paragraph that chokes much of a page, in each case, the form itself a part of the meaning of the piece in ways that I recognize, even if I can’t explain.

But We Were Called Specimens is more than just experimental fiction—like any book, or story, or collection of stories, it is a great many things in one. Its subtitle calls it an “oral history,” an account of the creation of a mythos; the birth of a universe. It is protest fiction, and resistance fiction, and literary fiction—and sometimes, as in “Simon Conjures the Dead” or “MurderLand” or “The Age of Death, An Account,” genre fiction, as well. It is satire and subtext.

It is all of these things and more, and some of these things I understand better than I do experimental fiction, so perhaps that’s why I’m here. To say, “Hey, even if you don’t generally read stuff that’s called ‘prose poetry,’ give this thing a shot. Don’t be put off early on by the fact that the stories aren’t what you’re used to. Give the language a chance. It’s often incantatory—it will lull you, if you let it, and it might take you someplace you’ve never been before.”

That place may be a small cave or the edge of the universe, the Death CoasterTM or a burnt-through pasture “rocked by perpetual lightning storms we caused.” Wherever it is, it will feel strangely familiar. It will tickle some half-awake part of your brain that tells you that maybe you have been here before, after all. In a dream, perhaps, or reading another book, some other time. Standing in line at the supermarket and waiting your turn, as your mind slipped into neutral while you stared at the headlines of the tabloids arrayed there to tempt you. Maybe you saw an article about Marjorie there…

*

When I met Jason for the first time, it was because he had invited me down to Manhattan, Kansas to read from my latest collection. I say “down” out of habit, but actually it’s more to the side and up, a drive out along I-70, around Topeka. If I were out east, I would have crossed a state or two. Here, I barely made a dent.

We had lunch at a pizza place and talked about writing and movies, about Kansas—where I had lived all my life and to which he was still a relatively fresh transplant—and horror practice. That’s what I do, after all. I’m a horror writer.

We read scary stories at a coffee shop—myself and a handful of other writers—and drove through Silent Hill-like fog to continue our discussion at an IHOP at two in the morning, which seems like the thing to do in a college town.

Back then, I hadn’t read anything that Jason had ever written, so we talked about the things that I had written, about movies and monsters and monster movies. The things I knew well.

In We Were Called Specimens, Jason writes about things that he apparently knows well—about the way our quotidian tasks become rituals, our rituals become mundane. The mythologies that we build to help ourselves cope with our march through life—and death—and the ways that we deny those mythologies.

Almost every story features the same handful of names—Marjorie, Leo, Simon, Rebecca—but they are jumbled around, plopped down in different places each time. Marjorie the goddess. Marjorie the exploitative aunt. Marjorie the pop culture phenomenon. Marjorie the Hand. Marjorie the failed salesperson. Marjorie the final girl. Marjorie the walking wounded.

In this way, each name becomes a kind of shorthand for all of us. We are all Marjorie, we are all Simon, we are all Leo, we are all Rebecca—or we know them, know someone like them. If not in this story, then the next one, or the next.

Themes bend and break from one story to the next as well, but they also recur and reform. Consumption. Denial. The distractions of modern living, and how they have ceased to be distractions and have become fundaments, necessities. “Everything hinges on the inner workings of the parade.”

*

I said before that I knew the utility and necessity of experimental fiction, at least somewhat, and that’s true, but here’s something else I know: I know the importance of feeling seen. Of reading something and thinking, Yes, that’s me, if only for a moment, if only for one line.

Earlier, I called the writing in We Were Called Specimens “incantatory,” and it is, but an incantation needs a goal, doesn’t it? This one is, ostensibly, an incantation to the deity Marjorie—but is it in praise of her, or an appeal for protection against her curse? Or is it both?

Whatever it is, it is also something else: a window or a mirror. Through its obfuscations and elisions, it lets us see clearly, and be seen, if only for a moment. That’s something rare and special, even—and especially—when you don’t understand it yourself.

Orrin Grey, December 2019

*

Death by Genius

Ask anyone, it was the children-gangs who changed the course of history. Unhuman agents of destruction, weaponized by grief, we watched them slice through Leo, parental locks, little SEAL teams on the footage. Wheezing contradictions: proudly dying of our problems, but we wished relief for their generation. New clean air to breathe. Minutes and Professor Leo’s unsealed quarters were ripped open with rifle fire. We weren’t interested in failed potions, old trophies. Later, cleaning up after the kids, we dreamed of different pastas, or what we’d steal for dinner, scrubbing circles inside those tall homicides.

Filthy shopping bags flapped in plain view on our world. Our husbands chased their women around kitchen islands, prescription erections flapping like hanged sheets. As children-gangs stormed our houses, waving assault rifles, we were speechless with virus rot. What did it matter anyway, to die there in our houses, choking on dictionary amnesia. But the children-gangs stopped us in our thoughts. They said, Find the patient zero for us and your lives will be spared. We slobbered virus blessings, hugging our tumored chests. We memorialized our suicided neighbors with ugly effigies, bulky statues on our lawns lit up and glowing.

It’s unconfirmed, but Leo was gentle, if cursed to die like us. This is how his plaque reads at the foot of his statue. The radio of the universe was in flames, but Leo wouldn’t stop trying to find a cure. While Leo blended potions in the kitchen, our ears were stopped with good virus wax. We didn’t hate the sickness, really. We have good virus eyes, spotted with lesions, inside of good virus skulls. But this news came out. Blared TRAITOR into smartphones, robopets. We had to hitch home from the horror conference, tear down life in search of Marjorie inside our walls. Called her patient zero.

Words plunged like drugs from needles.

We spent years lost, hiking alone through miles of uncombed forests.

Little changed after interrogations. We tried parts of Marjorie, different vials. Found her in the attic, curled between touching slats, open to the ruined world and willing. Bit our lips, licking good virus blood. Buried in the flowerbed, Marjorie’s song thrummed the trees alive. A plane crash-landed in the city and everyone died on impact. The forecast called for rain, but the sun was out. It was winter then. The virus had slowpoked its way through humanity. Our radios disconnected from fortune. A dog shook violently in the unused schoolyard, chained to a nearby protest. Leo’s rebels were exposed as our high-powered lights checked and rechecked for survivors, but the good virus had erased residual hurt. We washed the damaged bodies of dissent from our street. The fumes there were toxic but slow working. Marjorie tumbled out where we found her, chest cinching with stomach acid. But we forgot the exposed Marjorie instantly because our limbic functions had eroded. Suds pooled together then shrank away into wet nothing.

The sky was wide and cold when we threw ourselves off the bridge.

*

Abscission

We stopped speaking. Forget everyone was glad. Forget everyone laughs at the bad parts and goes home confused. Forget our children were forever at war or perpetually miscarried. Never mind the dancing parties and burning old relics in a spiritual fire. Together we could raise new gods in safety and sustainability. But no one listens to reason or hope. Never mind the constant scrutiny, our neighbors trimming shrubs into impossible shapes. Our neighbors gloating unconvincingly, as if war stops after surrender. Talk about stock prices. Pretend to understand stock prices. Forget nonbelievers barred followers from organizing, locked her temples and demolished her holy sites. Forget the great wall sagged inward. Forget how it collapsed with the smallest push from the other side. Together we nervously bargained with our futures. Never mind the necessary killings. Our garden shears speckled with stranger blood. Forget we lost ambition defending our town. Waves of rebels were relentless but irregular. Talk about the end times. Talk about the stampedes of underworld fauna. Dream skeletal frames wielding swords. Go back to work. Believe in this world. Forget how subterranean plants screamed birdsong at us on our daily commutes. Forget the pounding on the windows. Leave the idea of worship in the dust. Forget the world upended into hell and how work was the only safe haven. Never mind the malware wreaking havoc on Technical Support. Drink the Kool-Aid and forget the old ways. Walk home, stepping around animated corpses, raised by the foolish necromancers. Forget how our infrastructure began to crumble, how the ground opened up and swallowed nuclear families, the lost pets they loved. Leave town council meetings encouraged but enraged. Forget ideas to rescue our town had dwindled. Forget how Marjorie still talked from underground. Forget we heard her looming voice like a sickness, whispered in gales from a mighty storm cell. Share how we lost sleep. Commiserate how we lost sleep covering our ears. Talk about survival. Talk about ways to appease the voices, what they were asking us for. Forget limits, sensibility. Dream about our bloodied hands, losing days or weeks on waking. Return to work. Days feel numbered. Then: work stomped to bits and blooming fire. Pretend this is enough. Feel our souls descend through our toes like heart attacks. There are old gods the world stopped sacrificing for. Forget where we buried the goddess Marjorie in the dirt outside of town. Forget her sharp fingers, now tangles of fallen leaves and branches impeding the progress of travelers. She became a tree neglected by water. Talk about pilgrimage to the tree. Enlist elders to remember the way back to her burial grounds. Try and fail to escape the town by car. Forget the health of the goddess waned from our tiny deaths in traffic. Forget Marjorie was the goddess of revolution, noncorporeal and hungry for sacrifice. Forget we found nuclear shelters and met in secret to discuss further retreat. We moved underground and heard the voices even clearer. Yet the pounding came steadily from aboveground. Train ourselves to listen through the shouts of heresy and scripture. Heavy fists from nonbelievers coaxing us out for automatic lickings. Taunting us with words about divinity. Purpose. Listen in those shelters to the brazen lies adapted from outside of the great wall. Forget our heads swelled. Forget our hearts buzzed with civic suicide. The purpose moved like poison in our veins. Forget our shelters filled with reinvigorated bellows. Ignore our yellowy teeth. Ignore how our breaths smelled from rationing toothpaste for meals. Forget we pulled each other up by the shoulders, off our purple, scaly hands, and breathed out deeply. Feel the heavy armor made of garbage on our shoulders. Forget we were free, but we had sat on our hands. Hate the heavy armor for our clumsy hands and the cumbersome assembly. Welds cut into the dinner tables, into shag fibers of our shelters. Forget we were smitten with our goddess. Forget we knew oppressive reign and it was easy to return. Forget passing unserviced cars crashed into barricades along our pilgrimage. Leave under the pregnant fog of dawn. Vote to send children into foreboding dark buildings, use their smooth hands and weak voices to open doors. Never see the children again. Find other ways around the debris, into abandoned farms with stores of grain and meat. Struggle with progress in the rain. Forget our numbers were small, but capable, and forget we raised Marjorie into a homunculus in the cover of night. At the base of the tree we wept. We saw our murderous goddess resurrected. Forget we kept the homunculus Marjorie well-guarded. Move the homunculus around family to family for the new beginning. Forget assassins failed to carry out contracts on our vessels for the lord Marjorie. Forget we left hateful visitors with new scripts pierced artfully into their bellies. Hang the corpses from the street lights, first for warnings, then routinely out of boredom. Look at the letters and pretend we could scry the future. Interpret the signs from failing crops, worsening weather. Forget we built another wall to keep new survivors out. And a wall in front of that wall. Forget how we sweat. Forget we needed to believe, and that it’s important to believe in something if we’re doomed to repeat it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Jason Teal edits Heavy Feather Review. His first book, We Were Called Specimens: An Oral Archive of Deity Marjorie, from which these pieces are excerpted, will be released by KERNPUNKT Press in July 2020.

Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters, as well as a writer, editor, and amateur film scholar who was born on the night before Halloween. His stories have been published in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and his writing on film has appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Unwinnable, to name a few. Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales (Word Horde, 2018) is his third book of stories. John Langan once referred to him as “the monster guy,” and he never lets anyone forget it.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 18th, 2020.