Failure Is Instructive is an occasional series where I take unpublished/unpublishable stories and reexamine them. They are often very old and not representative of my current work. Notes on the story are in bold italics.
Underground Lights came about during an idea session four or five years ago. I had a week off work and mapped out several stories on whiteboards and easel pads. Other story ideas during that time: a middle aged woman in an empty house with the ghost of an old professor, a child who dies trying to scale a batting cage, a sci-fi story about masked aliens.
I sent it out to a few places, although it had been completed for almost a year. Rejections all around, but it wasn’t submitted widely. I then lost any ambition for it, having turned my attention to more promising work.
The inhabitants of the area underground don’t expect to see the sun. They exist without expectations, without contentment or desire. They live most of their lives like moths drawn to a flame, chasing their little lights around. (It starts off kind of pretentious. The moth to the flame image, the repetition of the words underground and without. It’s too self-consciously arty. Also, the first sentence is unjustifiably stilted — it chucks the reader into the world.)
Occasionally, one will receive the notion that something is missing (The word “one” shouldn’t be used as the subject of a sentence except in case of emergency. It’s particularly confusing in this case. Who is the one? Are they an inhabitant of the area? If you can be more specific you should.) . He will look around the darkness, possessed by a memory, not of light, but of an absence of darkness. The walker will then shake the idea from his skull and walk away.
I don’t want to talk about the accident. I spoke with a therapist soon after it happened. He told me that I needed to talk about it, and through remembering I could let it go. But I remember it with alarming clarity; now I need to forget. (The Joel sections start out better, more direct. The reader knows there has been an accident, and that Joel isn’t interested in a healthy resolution to it.)
The stations are located at no particular interval. They look like gas pumps with short electrical cords sticking out the side(Too short, the underground sections are more elaborate than this. Stylistic inconsistency.). The walkers recharge their flashlights there.
The pumps are encased in corroded metal. Little tin dials mark their surface, but it isn’t clear what they measure. When they feed power the dials light up and spin, making clicking and dinging and whirring sounds. As the machine finishes they slow, then stop, shivering faintly as if from the pleasure of movement.
A walker sometimes encounters one that’s broken down and won’t provide power. Since they break down, it is logical to assume that someone fixes them. Or perhaps new ones are placed every now and then. Or someday they will all break, and the walkers will wander without aid. (This is a good example of the Underground section’s problems. Why say “aid?” Wouldn’t light be a more direct answer? My intent was to make it more mysterious, obtuse, but that’s difficult to do and maintain the reader’s focus.)
I sought out religious means. Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians. I went to a snake handler church (Should have done more research, there probably isn’t a church with a “Snake Handler” sign out front) and remembered how much I was afraid of snakes. I got more esoteric. Lutheran, Buddhist, Zoroastrian. I ended up at a Unitarian Church, but couldn’t bring myself to go to the actual service. (I was raised Unitarian. It’s cool, I can make the jokes.) I just looked at the activity board. Introduction to Shamanic Drumming, Wednesday, 6pm. I wrote that on my hand in shaking, garbled script, like a personal code. The accident left the finer functions of my body crippled. But I’m not going to talk about that.
The area seems limitless to the walkers, but it does have finite ends (Aren’t all endings finite? Is there an infinite ending?). They simply tend to walk in circles.
We sat in a room with construction paper chains of children on the walls. A sponge painted sky covered the ceiling, a sun beaming down in the middle. The room was, in contrast (if you have to point out the contrast, you’ve failed already), only lit by a pair of candles, so it gave a feeling of incorrect twilight.
A woman with short hair like cut straw (a weird and unecessary detail — it provides an image, but do we really need one? Would Joel really care what her hair was like?) led the group. She started the class by talking about the three realms of the spirit and what sorts of things we would experience there. Spirit animals, both false and real. The celestial forms. The third realm, the one resembling the real one. I am paraphrasing, of course.
The walkers use umbrellas with short power chords at the ends, the power stations filling a battery in the handle. A walker presses a button and the umbrella lights up, forming a dull ring of light. They are reliable, but have a limited charge. The walkers live in constant fear of them going out, of being forced to grope blindly in the dark. (This should go further up, at least before the power station section. It’s a good, solid paragraph. Provides information quickly and the images are concrete.)
The first time barely anything happened. I shifted my weight, listened to the beating of the wide thick drum. It slowed then increased in tempo. I opened my eyes a hair and watched the people around me, their eyes closed, their bodies arranged in lotus position. A middle aged man with hairy knuckles was asleep. A thin strand of spit fell from his hanging mouth. (I’ve been trying to pinpoint a nagging problem with Joel sections, and I think they’re too informative. So much of a sentence is the balance between communication and artistry, and Joel’s voice is direct enough, but the sounds of the sentence aren’t interacting. It’s a smaller problem than the overly-florid prose of the underground sections though. I’d rather make sense.)
The next time I followed the teacher’s instructions. I applied myself. I let the beating drum clatter around in my skull. The darkness of my closed eyes gave way a bit, like light just before dawn. I opened them and was in a different place, but the darkness persisted. I closed my eyes. I opened them again. There was no difference. I moved my arms around. The air hung cold and dry, and the ground beneath my feet was like chalk.
In the distance a hazy light appeared and began moving in my direction. It hovered in the air, as if searching for something. The light grew closer, and I shouted, Hello. The light stopped, then swung around in my direction. I could have sworn I saw five fingers backlit with a soft halo of light.
The drumming stopped. I returned to the room.
Sometimes a walker will hold the umbrella up high and think that he can see a ceiling. It looks heavily textured, like packed earth. He holds the umbrella higher, stands on his tiptoes, but then figures that it’s all in his head. The dark plays tricks on their imaginations.
Other times a walker will discuss the concept of the ceiling with another walker, both possessed of the notion that it exists. (Clunky.) One will climb onto the others shoulders and hold up the light. This usually ends in tragedy; the upper one falls and breaks his umbrella. Sometimes, convinced that he sees something, the walker reaches out with his hand, arches his feet. He yells at the person holding him, higher, higher! Again, it ends in disaster. (This paragraph needs taken down to the ground and rebuilt. The sentences are butting heads.)
There are lazy stacks of it (Ah, starting a paragraph with an ambiguous it. This is just a bad idea. I can say debris. It’s fine.) everywhere. Cardboard boxes, rusted out stoves, refrigerators with holes in them, halves of guns (reused this image in “This Is How We Move Through Homes”), dirty clothes, tin toys, corpses, furniture.
A walker once found a great pile of debris made of twisted metal (note to self: don’t include mid-90’s video game titles in fiction), glass and concrete. The ground surrounding it was littered in printed paper. He climbed the pile, thinking that this could be a way to reach the ceiling. The pile grew higher and higher, and the walker grew more convinced that he could see something above. He held his hand up as he walked, awaiting contact with the ceiling. The walker imagined it would be like pressing his hands against cool, damp earth.
He then slipped on a girder and fell into the structure. A sharp crack, then a dull thud reverberated through the wreckage.
Time passed; he regained a dreamlike state of consciousness. Blood pooled around his head like the corona of the sun. He couldn’t move; his umbrella rested several feet from him, looking like a perched bird. The room was rectangular and anonymous, except it had been turned up on its end. The wall was the floor; the ceiling was the wall. All around him were soft forms. Wind whipped through the sideways room, shifting the umbrella. The walker saw the shapes clearly. They were human bodies. Their bare chests rose and fell. They slept. The walker lay there until the umbrella dimmed, shuddered, then went out. (I do like that paragraph.)
The next few sessions went similarly. I fell under when the drums began and came back when they stopped. The area I went to was the same. Sometimes I encountered a light, other times I wandered in the dark.
After my fifth session I spoke with the teacher. I told her about where I went and what happened there.
That doesn’t sound like you’re in the first realm, she said, or the second.
Are you sure you aren’t falling asleep? Sometimes dreams during the drumming can be very vivid.
I’m certain. I need you to tell me where I’m going.
You should focus on the drumming more. Try to imagine yourself in the first realm. Certain people like to imagine themselves next to a river, or in a forest.
I’m not imagining it. I’m actually there.
That’s not true. Your spirit form-
I touched my hand to hers. This is real, I said, This is just as real as when you’re drumming.
She jerked her hand away. This is obviously unhealthy for you, she said. If you don’t like the way I’m teaching the class, then you can go someplace else.
I picked up my backpack and walked out. As I was leaving she said, If you keep doing it your way, it will eventually grow unsafe.
How, I asked.
When you go too far away, you run the risk of getting lost.
I wanted to yell at her, tell her to shut up and mind her own business. Tell her awful things. But I just left. My brain felt like it had been electrically shocked. I buzzed. (This didn’t need to get confrontational. Now it comes across as an artificial attempt at conflict, too predictable at this point in the story when the stakes are expected to be raised. It should be more of a sincere warning, followed by a genuinely disturbing reaction by Joel. Sourceless anger isn’t disturbing, it’s confusing.)
New people enter occasionally. Walkers find them lying on the ground, naked and sleeping. They pull them up, help them find clothes. They show them what the umbrella looks like and tell them to go find one. They watch their backs fade into the dark.
On the way back home, I watched the other passengers on the bus watching me. Big sunglasses obscured the scars around my eyes, and a Giants (unnecessary detail) hat hid the patches on my head where hair refused to grow back.
I heard the drumming in my head, observed the bleached out forms of people around me. It was as if I could have fallen into the underground place then and there. (a redundant explanation considering the following sentence) I imagined a great black hole forming under the bus, sucking all the occupants down with me. We would fall through the substructures of buildings and sewers, eventually colliding with a twisting, grinding sound into the floor of the underground area.
The bus stopped. The driver walked back and asked me to leave. I had been beating the rhythm onto the window with my fists. You are scaring the other riders, he said. Please leave.
The woman is blind; she has no purpose for the umbrella. It’s not that her eyes are defective, she simply doesn’t have any, or even sockets where they should go. Her face, from top to bottom, goes as such: hair, forehead, nose, mouth, chin. The walkers who run into her are disturbed by her lack of eyes. They will walk with her for a ways, then find some excuse to walk another direction. Others will simply walk away without saying a word, assuming she can’t hear their footsteps. (The voice shifts slightly here, even more florid than before. Should be more direct. There’s no need to shift it to signal the introduction of a new character.)
I bought a CD of a person drumming for twenty minutes. In the liner notes, it cautioned against listening alone. This recording should only be used if a live drummer is not readily available, it said.
My apartment is very small. I closed the curtains, locked the doors, turned off all the lights. The humming of the air conditioner blocked out any noise from outside. Little shafts of light peaked through the blinds like God trying to get in. (I’ve had an image of light trying to get into a room for a while. Don’t think I correctly explain it here. I used “like an intruder” in previous drafts, but that’s not insidious enough) I took off all my clothes and let the light trace lines over my body.
I put the CD in the player, pressed repeat all, then pressed play. When the drumming began it felt like falling.
The woman with no eyes is walking alone. Her foot hits something in front of her, a soft and heavy object. It makes a noise. She says, Hello?
The object, a man, stands up. He looks at her. He recognizes something in her, a need. He pulls out his eyes and makes a home for them in her face. He takes her hand and plunges it into his heart, her fingers melting the soft area between his ribs. She pulls his heart out and he pushes it into hers (Can’t remember why she would need the heart. Hm.) The woman opens her new eyes. She sees a man full of holes. He nearly falls over, but straightens himself. His mouth moves and mumbles something in appreciation. He holds her shoulders in his hands, then pulls her close to him. Then he falls to the ground.
Near her lies an umbrella. She picks it up, begins walking.
-This was written before I stopped writing about frustrated young white men. I had completed a few stories with similar protaganists — early 20’s, cranky, unlikable — and it was getting old. That type of character is through, and it takes a work of genius to reinvigorate him. By giving Joel an unnamed physical injury I was trying to make him appear less whiny, but it came across as an artificial plot device. Injury shouldn’t feel convenient to the story.
-The voices hit a decent stride by the end, but they shift a bit throughout. More editing, more time and attention to the piece would have helped fix that. This was likely the result of not writing on a schedule, more here and there.
-I am reasonably happy with the plot, however. There is a natural increase in tension. I liked the effect of the more plot-centered Joel sections gently clashing with the more descriptive, eliptical underground section.
-Unfortunately, because of the inherent problems with the protagonist, this story has no future. It might work better with a Beckettian protagonist, a more anonymous, ageless voice, but I’m not good enough to even approach that. So, the door closed on it for now.