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Book Club Discussion Guide

DON’T THINK OF A CRIMSON ELEPHANT

By Flavius Octavius Davis

BLACK HOUSE PRESS READERS GROUP GUIDE

This reading group guide contains questions for discussion, suggestions to deepen your appreciation of the book, and instructions for dealing with the knowledge that this text has made you vulnerable to psychic incursions from the blood red trunk reaching out from the nethermost regions of the astral plane. The questions are intended to enhance your experience, empower group members to share personal insights, and help you cope with the fatal error in judgment you’ve made by selecting such a reading.

INTRODUCTION

The nameless narrator of Don’t Think of a Crimson Elephant warns against empathizing with his plight. He pleads with you not to follow his nightmares through the skyscraper bone yards, shifting mountains on the horizon, or game trails in the storm clouds. He spoils the dramatic tension, telling you outright that his journey ends in damnation. He warns you of the consequences of letting the seeds of forbidden truths take root in your mind. He tells you that daydreams are like farmland and that fear is their fertilizer. He goes so far as to give you cause to cower from an herbivore.

Breaking the fourth wall the narrator states his fate and yours are intertwined. He tells you that you have the power to save him, and therefore yourself, by simply putting the book down, but did you listen? Nope. You interpreted the narrator’s earnest disclaimer as some kind of dare.

After all, forbidden texts are usually bound in human flesh, hidden away in the moldy old libraries of eastern European counts. Who has ever heard of one coming with its own international standard book number on the back?

You weren’t going to fall for the narrator’s fear tactics. What a tired gimmick, right?

Your hubris made you a speed-reader. Each chapter was a stride toward your allegorical gallows, each sentence a thread in the rope around your neck, each period a nail in your coffin. Still you pressed on to the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. Now here you are.

These questions should give your book club food for thought, before that which reaches out from beyond the veil of perception consumes their minds.

  1. Everyone knows that Flavius Octavius Davis (the famed mustachioed maestro of the macabre) had gone off the grid to live in quiet isolation as Henry David Thoreau had before him. The account of the fire that spread from his cabin throughout Sequoia National Park has been widely debated. As has the condition in which Davis was found, pacing the interstate wearing a papier-mâché outfit that was later revealed to be the pages from his manuscript. Before Davis succumbed to the effects of smoke inhalation he told the EMTs, “Your brains are peanuts. Sweet delicious peanuts. Don’t think of the Crimson Elephant or he will snatch them up.” What was it about Flavius Octavius Davis’s final moments that compelled you to read his final work?
  2. You shouldn’t think of the Crimson Elephant, as the nameless narrator thoroughly warned you against, but if you had, did you picture a red skinned circus animal spraying its ears with its own nostrils or did you picture a mammoth with tusks as thick as palm trees, gushing gallons of gore from its every orifice? Did you imagine blood trickling off its trunk, perhaps from the pool of viscera the creature had emerged from? Take a moment to let everyone in your group describe what they saw.
  3. The nameless narrator is a traveling salesman. He emphasizes how every sales rep worth their salt knows to reflect their client’s self image back to them, to make themselves relatable by echoing the same values, and to develop simpatico by mirroring their client’s mannerisms. Sales reps do this because they know that after a little while the client will start to imitate their gestures as well. When the sales rep scratches their wrist their client feels a sharp tickling sensation upon their soft delicate flesh and can’t help but dig their nails into. When the sales rep yawns their client’s eyes feel heavy as a wave of fatigue rolls through them, and their mouth opens wide to draw breath. When the sales rep expresses a personal benefit of their product the client considers how the purchase could better their own life. When the narrator said this did you find yourself itching your wrist? Did you yawn as well? Did you find his madness contagious?
  4. At what point in the story did you realize that this was what the narrator was doing to you? Is it when he tries making himself relatable by recounting his humble upbringing? Is it when his parents syphon fuel from their neighbors’ gas tank so they have enough to rush their son to the hospital? Is it when the meteorite strikes and kills the narrator’s wife and the insurance company refuses to cover it, because it’s considered an act of God? Or is it when the bibliophiles, that turn out to be cultists, decide that the narrator, a traveling salesman, will make the ideal sacrifice to their Mastodon master?
  5. Once it’s revealed that the trumpeting trunk heralds terrible misfortune did you find yourself getting shaken at the sound of car horns? Were you relieved to learn the source of the sound was not the Crimson Elephant? Did terrible misfortune befall you anyway? If so, please share.
  6. The nameless narrator escapes the cultists’ blades and manages to find a trail in the woods, but no matter which way he goes giant footprints lead him back to the raging bonfire that he’s running from. At what point in your reading did you start seeing giant footprints in your day-to-day life? And where? On the highway? In your front lawn? On the carpet? Please be specific.
  7. Did you find yourself relating to the narrator when he realizes the command don’t think of a crimson elephant made him think of one more? When the narrator researched the power of negative suggestion did you find your own intrusive thoughts intensify? Did you, like the narrator, find it impossible to sleep under the shadow of the four-legged beast, with its swollen gut hanging down like a canopy? Did you dream of cosmic thunder, bone buildings, and meteor showers?
  8. Did you believe in thought viruses before you read Don’t Think of a Crimson Elephant? How could you have been so naive? Do you feel betrayed by modern psychology for not warning you of the coming contagion? Do you feel like generations of mystics and monks failed to prepare you for this plague upon your mind?
  9. Humanity is doomed. Every cranium is but a shell under the great weight. The pressure will come slow enough for all to feel themselves cracking at once. When you think about it, doesn’t humanity deserve its fate?
  10. Did it occur to you read these questions before you brought them to your group discussion? If so, you’re the lucky one. You know that the only way to keep your mind from getting devoured is to offer the Crimson Elephant others to satiate its appetite. You’ve volunteered to host the book club, volunteered to buy the wine, and when one of your guests mentioned how strangely sweet it tasted, you dismissed their query with, “It’s imported.”

Most fast-acting poisons show up in toxicology screenings. It’s the all-natural ones, the ones you sow from your own garden that take a little more time to get the job done. No worries. If the rest of your book club is just now reading this far then they haven’t got long.

Sure they can try to gag themselves, to search the cupboards for Ipecac, but by now the poison is already in their bloodstream, blocking their airways, slowing their breathing. Now would be the time to say your goodbyes, to inform your guests that the great belly must be filled, that its better for it to take a few big bites than for it to nibble on the entire world. Tell them that their minds will behold such red wonders, that the finest poets lack the words, that they should follow the light into the gullet. Tell them to think of the Great Crimson Elephant, or not to, it doesn’t matter, both commands will get the job done.

Don’t be alarmed when the ground quakes beneath your feet, when the frames tip over, and the bookshelves explode.

Try not to think about the cracks spreading across the ceiling, the bricks spewing from the chimney, or the tiles bursting into sand. Don’t dwell on the bright red light shinning through the blinds. Don’t dwell on the trumpeting, how it’s louder than any foghorn, or how it makes your eardrums bleed into your palms. Don’t dwell on the trunk breaching your front door, clogging the hall, slithering around corners, and fixing itself to the craniums of your best friends.

Lets not talk about the elephant in the room.

Just remember that you are the one who gets to live on (if you can call what follows living) forever walking in those giant footprints, through cities made of bone, beneath stampedes in the sky, toward the shifting horizon.

Now discuss.

The Smilers: A Horror Story About Happy People

The first incident happened at the liquor store.

I had a bottle of pinot noir in one hand and tub of Peppermint Bon Bon in the other. I had taken my time settling on the wine. The ice cream had melted down my palm and puddled on the floor. It seeped through my slipper and pooled between my toes. By the time I felt it I’d already slipped.

The bottle rolled down my hand and up my fingers in an arch. I dove to catch it. It clinked on the linoleum, but it didn’t crack. It would’ve been a great save had it not been for the shelf I’d knocked over in the process. Cans popped out of six packs, rolled down the aisle, and spouted leaks.

I crawled around in my pajama pants collecting craft beers into my hooded sweatshirt. I wobbled up to the front counter with arms overloaded with aluminum and pockets oozing with ice cream and beer foam. Continue reading The Smilers: A Horror Story About Happy People

Newsreelmancer PART 2

Continued from Newsreelmancer PART 1

Welcome to the year 2036. Technology has changed, but society’s ills have remained the same.

Our hero purchased a pair of smart lenses off the darknet, so he could slack off at work. Too bad the first thing he saw with them was a terrorist attack. Three planes crashed into the Freedom Tower at the exact moment our hero turned his lenses on. Coincidence, or is there something sinister about these so called Oracle Eyes?

Newsreelmancer PART 2

The night the One World Trade Center was attacked I lay in bed staring at the applications on the ceiling. I scanned through those rune stone icons, opening and closing them. Apart from the News app, none of them opened with a strange flurry of pictures.

There was one app that refused to open at all.

This rune had a keyhole etched into it. I squinted at it but it wouldn’t enlarge nor would it ignite. After thirty seconds of staring all that appeared were the words DET HEMMELIGE KAMMER. I ran them through a Norwegian to English dictionary. They translated to THE SECRET CHAMBER.

I’ve seen applications that pose as other things: documents, system apps, or folders. Things a suspicious spouse wouldn’t bat an eye at. Developers marketed these apps as little black books for swingers, photo libraries for sexts, and lock boxes for corporate secrets.

Those apps hid in plain sight. DET HEMMELIGE KAMMER had “Secret” in the title and an icon that demanded inspection.

I kept trying, but the application wouldn’t respond to squints, nor would it give me a field to enter a password in. Stranger still, it wasn’t present in any of the Oracle Eyes beta operating systems I found online. Either these lenses were pre-alpha prototypes or they’d been modded after the fact. Continue reading Newsreelmancer PART 2

Newsreelmancer PART 1

The world can’t seem to go a week without a soul shattering tragedy. The news is getting harder to take, while the methods for viewing it are only getting easier. Imagine a future where tragedies are worse and updates come as easily as thinking. Would you be able to resist filling your head with all the bad news?

Newsreelmancer

The words 1 SEARCH RESULT projected on the wall.

I flung my tablet on the pillow, threw my fists up in victory, and jumped on the bed. My cat, Loki, saw my excitement as a threat and fled the room.

The page loaded. The logo filled the wall from the ceiling to the dresser: the pyramid, the all seeing eye, and the finger applying the contact lens to it. The perfect emblem for the holy grail of wearable technologies.

I caught the tablet before it fell off the mattress. I’d filled several columns with letter combinations and put checkmarks next to the ones whose searches produced nothing. I was finally able to circle one: Fern_Rep_Coy_Release.

The price hovering above my cactus was one grand.

I craned my neck. “Alfred, open my wallet.”

A refined English accent boomed over the surround system. “Which card would you prefer sir?”

Projections of four credit cards spread out over my action figure collection, three glowed red. One glowed green. I pointed to the green one, “Let’s go with the MasterCard.”

“Very well, sir.”

The price tag for the Fern_Rep_Coy_Release flipped around to PURCHASED. Continue reading Newsreelmancer PART 1

The Inspiration Killers: A Story about Monsters that Prey on Creativity

Most of the symbols on the crime map were self explanatory. The blue men’s room signs with guns represented armed robberies, green cars were thefts of motor vehicles, baby blue houses were residential burglaries, red fists were aggravated assaults, purple R’s were sexual assaults, and green dollar bags represented thefts of businesses.

The symbol for what happened to me was black. The image was a floating phantom with a pointed head, winglike robes, and a curved trail for legs.

This phantom symbol covered the map around the liberal arts schools, the downtown design firms, and the bohemian blocks in Uptown.

Zoom into the map and you’d see phantom symbols across the street from the bookstore that hosted poetry readings, on the bus stop outside of the improv comedy club, and the lot behind First Avenue, the concert venue.

If you scanned a crime map of Texas you’d find the greatest concentration of phantoms were in Austin. In Oregon they were in Portland, and in Minnesota they were in Minneapolis. That’s where one got me.  Continue reading The Inspiration Killers: A Story about Monsters that Prey on Creativity

I Am Fire: A Story about a Game of Truth or Flare

It was the last semester of senior year and all the cool kids were boycotting prom in favor of something better.

Why rent a limousine when you could make an entrance in an art car shaped like a pumpkin? Why break the bank on a pastel dress when you could wear a piece designed by one of your friends? Why go to a twerk-a-thon in a hotel ballroom when you could go to a masquerade in the Hollywood hills?

Moira promised carriage rides around her estate, vaudevillian cabaret dancers, and a hard rock cello quartet. She promised sword swallowers, contortionists, and devils on stilts. She promised a magician with body modifications who did tricks with his magnetic hands, a pain proof man that hammered nails into his nostrils, and a death defying woman who escaped coffins buried underground.

She promised memories worth making, which was more than our school was offering.

Moira came from wealth and fame. She was the queen bee of our hedonistic hive. If she wanted to live out her Victorian carnival fantasy us drones had, to lace up our corsets, and come a-buzzing.

Tonight we were going to party like it was 1929. Continue reading I Am Fire: A Story about a Game of Truth or Flare

#Unblessed: A Scary Story Told 140 Characters At a Time

The following Tweets were posted between 3:05 and 3:20 AM on Friday April 29, 2016. They were geotagged along the bank of the Mississippi in Minneapolis Minnesota, between Central Avenue and the Stone Arch Bridge. Signs of arson were detected in the Pillsbury A-Mill, downed trees were found throughout the Father Hennepin Bluff Park, and strange prints were spotted along the north bank of the river. No bodies were discovered and the legitimacy of the following Tweets is still in question. Continue reading #Unblessed: A Scary Story Told 140 Characters At a Time

The Phantom of Truth

The Phantom of Truth appeared at the foot of my bed. His black robe draped over the mattress. His boney knees made the springs squeal. He pinned me to the pillows with a crocked finger as thick as a broom handle.

The Phantom did not fade in and out like a waking dream. He was a real tangible thing, buckling the floorboards, scrapping his hunchback against the ceiling, getting dust all over everything. He was a giant whose every movement shook the room. If he jumped he’d take the whole floor down with him.

It occurred to me that his long black robe was made from scales. I thought the robe might’ve been stitched together from snakeskins, until I saw it puff out on its own like the sack beneath a frog’s neck. The cloak had no seams. I couldn’t tell where it ended and the creature’s long arms began. Continue reading The Phantom of Truth

Slender Man’s Rival

He was born on a Photoshop forum. The assignment was to add something supernatural to an unexceptional situation: a corporate meeting, a self help seminar, or a state fair.

I found a picture of a church picnic that was perfect. It took place in a field, there was a lot of space between the subjects, and the horizon was filled with evergreens. If viewers looked closely at the tops of the trees they’d see a figure in the canopy: a silhouette formed from the crisscrossing branches. A wooden giant poised to crash the gathering and have a picnic of his own. Continue reading Slender Man’s Rival

The Heckhound

We got our psychic vampire from a breeder
We got our psychic vampire from a breeder

That first week was fun. We thought it was adorable, the way Butterscotch rubbed her snout on the carpet until she sneezed, the way she kicked her little ears until her tags jingled. She walked around the lake with her tongue out and her rump held high.

Joggers guessed what mix she was, asking what shelter we got her from.

Rolling our eyes, we said, “We rescued her from a breeder.”

Two weeks later, we scoured the net to find the breeder’s site had mysteriously disappeared.

It wasn’t that Butterscotch peed on the carpet too much, it’s that when she did it was in the shape of a pentagram, never spilling a drop outside the circle. It wasn’t that she begged for the chicken in my hand, it’s that with one bark the drumstick vanished only to reappear inside her jaws. It wasn’t that she tugged on her leash, it’s that when she did we jumped entire blocks, materializing into oncoming traffic.

Butterscotch’s bark had bite. There was fire in her puppy dog eyes.

When she snapped at the mailman, his shorts burst into flames. When she marked the hydrant, her urine seared a hole through the iron, making a geyser on the boulevard. When she had trouble jumping onto the mattress, she chomped on the box spring until she’d crushed the corners and made herself a ramp.

Now we’re stuck like this, sleeping diagonally in a pile of toys, treats, and rawhides. We dare not leave, because we know Butterscotch will sniff us out wherever we go.