I ended up writing “The Key to Clever Medicine” as a result of a writing challenge, of sorts, proposed to me by Chane Coetzee, a fellow writer. This kind of challenge has proven to be quite productive – it allows you not only to think out of the box, but to leave the box entirely – and you never really want to go back. You never really want to write any other way. You don’t want to write about something unless it scares the shit out of you – on any conscious or subconscious level, whether the subject matter be classical horror monsters, or monsters of a different kind – loneliness, despair, madness.
I’ve always drawn inspiration through writers like Roald Dahl, Edgar Allan Poe, Chuck Palhniuk, Stephen King, Hunter S Thompson, etc and their commanding influence is evident in a lot of my writing. I think it’s incredibly important though, not to mimic another writer but to learn from them, to craft your own unique voice. Palahniuk’s overwhelming influence in particular broke through while writing The Key To Clever Medicine, it was simply unavoidable – and the result was something better than I could have hoped for. I continue to write the only way I know how, I shuffle along to whatever moves me, and maybe one day I will be half as great as Palahniuk himself. One could only hope.
But Jesus, I find myself rambling.
Here is an excerpt from the end result, a story which started as a horror – and turned into something I’ve never really written before – a really fun little black comedy…
“There will be killing till the score is paid.”
Homer, The Odyssey
Pete Jones tossed back four Vicodin with a mouthful of bottom-shelf Vodka and sat down at the desk. His typewriter awaited. The blank page beckoned. By God, before the crippling nausea and vertigo came to drag his limp body shrieking to the ground, he would fill this page and the next with something splendid.
The smell of ink drifted in everything he touched, and in the ribbon – when he pulled it out – he could still read the final words of the last sentence he wrote so long ago.
In these keys were the key to the finest writing his mind could fathom. As the grandest of grand pianists would sit themselves upon the bench and touch one key or another, sending vibrations through the many strings – he would play these keys of his own, rocking the carriage to and fro, sending vibrations through the soul.
All keys are capable of unlocking something, black and white, silver and gold, the keys to the piano and typewriter all harmonize with the explosive emotions of the one playing them. Keys can open a chest, a chest of treasure, or the chest of a living being – split right open for the whole world to gaze upon a beating heart.
His dreadful heart exposed, he could already hear the melodic rhythm of the letters pounding into the ink ribbon. In this chair, on this desk, this is where thoughts came to collide with paper.
Jerry Lee Lewis will go to Hell tickling the ivory teeth of that screaming monster, but not Pete Jones. Oh no, he’ll be going to Hell too, but for something far, far fouler.
Means and Motive, any self-respecting murderer needs one.
Pete Jones paced his study, contemplating what kind of glaring madness, logical or illogical, could drive a sane man to do some good old-fashioned stabbing.
A dagger, a revolver, a goddamn candlestick, which weapon would this fiendish character use to kick-start his life of depraved crime? What is this renegade reprobate’s Modus Operandi?
Pete took a large sip straight from the Vodka bottle, and the aggressive bastard went down hard and rough like clever medicine. He’d once met a Russian who had told him, “If you’re going to drink Vawdka, better to do this iced cold. Iced cold, but no ice, you understand? Vawdka natural anti-freeze, you put ice, ice melts. You vant to drink Vawdka or fucking vawter? No ice. Ice is for assholes.”
Pete sucked down another large burning mouthful. Ice or no ice it tasted like the ashes from which an inspirational muse-phoenix would erupt, and that’s all that mattered. As Pete paced, he patiently waited.
When flaming imagination finally alighted upon his shoulder, it landed hard. He rushed to the desk, placing eager, trembling fingertips upon the keys, ready to go.
The first letter struck the page with a mechanical clack, and just then, that good-for-nothing neighbour’s beastly hounds began their ceaseless, brain-jarring barking.
Pete shuffled out into the afternoon sun, giddy and bursting with Vodka-induced potvaliance. There the no-good brute stood with his head buried beneath the open hood of his trashy ’73 Ford Granada.
His hounds were barking at the fence, throwing themselves into the faded, peeling pickets and gnawing on the painted wood like blood-crazed maniacs.
“Does that goddamn thing ever run?” asked Pete aloud, approaching the wretch from behind.
A slick pool of black oil gathered beneath the old car, running away into the street. The hounds were barking so loud he could barely chase down a coherent thought.
The neighbour turned away from the greasy engine and looked up at him, rubbing stained hands across his pants and adjusting his dew-drop shaped glasses.
“Oh, Pete!” he said, surprised, holding out a blackened hand. “What did you say just now?”
Pete looked down at the bastard’s extended paw, and then down at his own, blackened with ribbon-ink. Hell, he thought, taking the man’s palm for a fleeting shake.
“I was just saying hello!” he yelled over the barking din, swaying a little. “Listen, Bob, have you got a minute?”
“Sure, Pete, sure!” said Bob, adjusting his spectacles again. “What’s on your mind?”
“Well!” yelled Pete. Barking, crawling Jesus, that unremitting barking, he could scarcely put a sentence together out here, let alone on the page. “See, Bob, I –”
“Shush!” screamed Bob, turning on the dogs and hurling a grease-soaked ball of rag at the picket fence. “Shush for the love of God!”
The hounds leapt away, tails tucked between their legs, whimpering and sniffing around. Pete sighed with relief.
“Sorry, Pete,” he said, frowning. “What were you saying?”
Pete chuckled uneasily, running the back of an ink-soaked hand across his brow.
“Well, I was just going to ask if you wouldn’t mind calming your dog’s down a bit, Bob,” he said. “But you’ve gone and done that now.”
Bob laughed, his great big meaty old face pulling taut.
“Driving you nuts, were they?”
“Little bit,” said Pete. “I’m outlining a new writing project, see, having some trouble thinking over all that crazy barking.”
“Sorry, Pete,” said Bob, smiling. “I’ll try to keep them under control.”
“That would be great, thank you,” said Pete, nodding slowly. Any faster and he was terrified he would throw up into the Granada’s engine. He turned away from the old brute and made for his front door at the end of the driveway.
“New writing project, that sounds exciting!” said Bob, and Pete turned back to look at him. “You haven’t written anything proper in what, four, five years?”
Pete Jones felt the hair rise up on the back of his neck, creeping only momentarily down his spine and shoulders in flashes of white, and then it settled, tingling into the distance like some bad, drunken memory.
He managed a meek nod.
“Yes,” he muttered sullenly. “Something like that.”
Back inside, Pete collapsed into the chair in front of his typewriter, loaded with paper and hungry for pretty words. From a pill bottle he rattled out four more pale Vicodin into a pale palm and tossed them back with more room-temperature Vodka.
For a while he sat with his elbows on the edge of the desk and his face in his hands, rocking gently back and forth to some ghastly rhythm thumping in his head.
Murder, he thought, and imagined running out across the driveway to slam that broken-down old Granada’s hood onto Bob’s empty head.
Murder, he thought. Murder, murder, murder.
Murder until thought by detached thought, he slowly found his way back into those dark alleyways frequented by his villainous character.
Pete looked up from his ink-stained hands, blinking away the unsteady wavering. His fingers found their way back up to the keys.
The first letter struck the page with a mechanical clack, and as if on cue, as if he’d been unwittingly cast into some kind of sadistic play of the cosmos, doomed to strut the hellish floodlit stage and relive the same poorly written punchlines for the remainder of eternity, the hounds next door immediately leapt to resume their relentless, pointless, infuriating barking.
Pete Jones slammed a frustrated hand down into the desk.
“Murder!” he shouted.
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