The most recent Consternation of Monsters podcast features a recorded live reading captured at the 2015 West Virginia Writers Summer Conference, during its open mic entertainment on Friday evening. It is me reading my short story “Nigh,” which appears in the collection. As I explain at the start of the podcast, the very night of the reading this year essentially marks the 11th anniversary of the first time of not only the first live reading of that story but also my first reading at a West Virginia Writers conference at all. I first read the story at the 2004 Conference as part of the Friday night People’s Choice Prose competition. (Technically, the anniversary happened on July 9, as that was the date of the Friday night of the conference in 2004, but you get what I’m saying.) The story then wound up winning first place for that night, as judged by the attendees of the event, as well as the other participants. (No, I did not vote for my own short story. I voted for Jann Hoke’s short story, because it was very funny. She took second place that year, but I would have been happy to be second to her first had the voting gone that way.) It’s a story that lends itself to a short reading time, which for People’s Choice is a 5 minute limit. Currently it’s about a six minute read, but back in 2004 the whole story still fit on one piece of paper.
Go read the story or listen to the podcast before proceeding, because here there be some spoilers. I’ll wait.
Okay, you back?
Much like the character in “Nigh” I spent a lot of time thinking about the End of the World (in caps) as a kid. It used to really bother me, because from what every TV preacher (as well as a number of preachers in churches I attended) said, the End was just around the next curve in the road and we were barreling toward it in a custom van with flames painted on the sides. It was a foregone conclusion. Why else would The Omen have made so much money in theaters? The math I didn’t do then, and which not enough people do even today, is that the end of the world has ALWAYS been just around the next curve, and people have been making that claim for thousands of years. This was first pointed out to me by my grandmother, who had heard tent revival preachers say “The End is Nigh” when she was a little girl, World War I was in full swing, and things looked very much like it was lining up that way. However, with folks like Hal Lindsey walking the earth, publishing titles such as The 1980s Countdown to Armageddon, things seemed a bit grim to me during the actual 1980s. There was also the matter of some kid at school who had said he’d been told that Nostradamus had predicted that the world would end sometime between 1990 and 1996. Somehow that prediction-via-game-of-telephone seemed more real to me than a thousand books saying otherwise and I took it as gospel that Nostradamus (a man that kid at school also said had never ever been wrong on a single prediction and had not only predicted his own death but when, decades later, church officials had to exhume his body and move it somewhere else, they found a plaque on Nostradamus’s dead-assed chest with that day’s date inscribed on it, in a kind of EFF you from beyond the grave) would not be proven wrong.
After 1996 came and went, I started rethinking where I needed to be burning the most calories in terms of worrying about things beyond my control. I had long since done the math that the end is always predicted to be around the corner, but it still felt good to know that kid at school had been wrong after all these years. So jaded was I to any predictions of doom and gloom that I hardly batted an eye at the whole Y2K thing. Most predictions of doom and gloom are made to sell newspapers and feed the 24 hour news culture we now find ourselves in. Not to say that bad shit can’t happen, but 9 times out of 10 it does not. And when it does, you’re usually blindsided by it anyway.
So with that background understood, writing about the end of the world was no problem. The base idea behind “Nigh” occurred to me sometime in the late 1990s and I wrote it down in my writer’s notebook (or the file ideas.doc in my creative directory, as the case may be). The gist of the idea stemmed from the Bible verse mentioned in the story, Mark 13:32, which says on the subject of the end of the world: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It was a verse that had been cited to me by my father when I, in the 7th and 8th grade, would be in the doldrums of depression over the idea that the world was about to end, or the Russians were going to nuke us, or that I would be swallowed up by an earthquake when the New Madrid fault burst. I don’t know if it made me feel any better, but he said it a lot.
What occurred to me about the verse, though, was that it would be semi-logical for a character to use it as a Biblical legal loophole. The character would assume that God, in his wisdom, would never allow the end of the world to happen on a date that some Joe Average human had predicted it to fall upon, and so that character, noticing the signs and portents of the world around him, might decide to take it upon himself to prevent the end of the world by… on a daily basis… publicly predicting that the world will end… tomorrow. I figured he would even have a yellow The End is Nigh sign, as well, in homage to a certain character from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ The Watchmen. And that’s about all the idea I had for quite a while. I didn’t do anything with it. I just had it saved in my ideas file and there it sat, waiting for me to pick up the gumption to do something with it. I knew it was a good idea, I just didn’t know how to frame it. It didn’t seem like something that could support a ten page short story.
Now, I don’t think I’d even heard the term Flash Fiction when I first decided to write the story in 2002. I knew that short short fiction existed, but I don’t think I’d heard the term flash fiction until around 2005. But I was inspired by Neil Gaiman to write something very short. He had, after all, written brilliant 100 word short story “Nicholas Was…” as an exercise in writing story that could fit on a Christmas card. I didn’t think I could do the 100 word story, but surely I could fit one onto a single page?
With this in mind, in 2002 I issued the challenge of writing a one page short story to some writer friends and gave us a deadline in a couple of weeks. I then began looking in my ideas file for something that might fit the bill and found again my idea beneath the heading of “The End is Nigh.”
After thinking about it a bit, I supposed that if a man (Mr. Daniels, to borrow the name of a prophet) was going to forestall the end of the world by predicting it would come tomorrow, everyday, then eventually someone out there was going to take notice–someone who might not want the end forestalled. I also thought it would be neat if someone was there who would come to understand what Mr. Daniels was doing, who might then realize the gravity of the situation and set out to take his place. And it also occurred to me that it would be funny if the end of the world began at a Starbucks.
The original version of “Nigh” fit on one sheet of paper, single-spaced, with one line for the title and byline and one line for “the End.” Everything in between was story. My writer friends liked it, gave me some critiques and I polished it up, still keeping it on the one page. This is the page that I took to my first WV Writers conference a couple of years later.
After my win, I expanded the story, not only in line spacing but also in detail, adding more sensory details and the like. This I did not only to try and improve it, but also because I wanted to submit it to an anthology called Dark Tales of Terror, which paid by the word. It still topped out at two and a half 1.5 spaced pages, though, because it just doesn’t need more. It was accepted for the anthology and saw print in Dark Tales of Terror, published by Woodland Press in 2010.
If I’m ever asked questions about the story, the question most folks want to know is the identity of the driver of the Infiniti. There are a handful of logical beings that might fit the bill, from God to the Devil to points in between. However, it’s a question that I never ever answer directly. I know who it is, and there are hints to be found (not only in “Nigh” but in another story within the collection), but if you take “Nigh” as a self-contained story, me answering that question could negate the assumption of the character’s identity on the part of the person asking the question. Their version of the story might be better for them than the one I intended. (Or, they might be right on the money.)
Then there’s the story of the time “Nigh” was optioned for a film…
(TO BE CONTINUED…)