QSFer Aaron A. Reed has a new bi/gay horror book out where no two copies are the same: “Subcutanean.”
A singular queer horror novel that changes each time it’s printed. Each copy contains a unique telling of the story: no two are ever quite the same.
Insecure college senior Orion loves music, books, and his best friend Niko. When the two of them find a secret basement in their rambling old off-campus house, at first Orion’s thrilled. It’s another secret to share, another adventure to maybe, at last, bring them closer together.
But something’s wrong: the basement doesn’t end. Blandly decorated halls stretch on for miles past peeling wallpaper, empty bedrooms, and countless stairwells always leading down. Soon they realize Downstairs is a snarled tangle of possibilities, more and more opening up the deeper they go. Something down there multiplies everything: architecture, emotions, even people.
Together they must navigate an increasingly dangerous labyrinth that peels back their friendship to raw and angry roots, filled with two-faced doppelgängers, treacherous architecture, and long-buried secrets. Most dangerous of all is Orion’s consuming obsession: somewhere down there, is there a Niko who loves him back?
We didn’t exhaustively explore, beyond checking another hallway and seeing that it, too, branched and snaked off, shedding rooms left and right. Niko had started down that one, but I stopped abruptly, a wave of nausea washing over me, and put a hand against the cold wall.
He stopped instantly. “You okay?”
I smiled, embarrassed. “I think, uh. Don’t want to get too far from a bathroom.”
He eyed me appraisingly. “You shouldn’t have done that last shot. I keep telling you. Beer before liquor, never sicker.” He tousled my hair again, but very gently. “Okay, man. Hang on just one sec. I need to see the end of this fucking hallway and then we’ll get you back upstairs.”
I didn’t want him to leave but couldn’t think of any sane reason to stop him that didn’t sound needy, so I nodded and let him go. Too many vaguely ill feelings were churning around inside me to sort them out from each other.
“I’ll wait here,” was all I could say, the thought of walking back up twisting stairs feeling for a queasy moment like a bad idea.
He was already halfway down the hall, but lifted a hand in acknowledgment. Moments later he’d turned the corner and was gone.
It was suddenly very quiet.
I sunk to a sitting position, knees at my chin, back against the fake wood-paneling. Why do you always, always drink too much? Idiot. I tried to focus on the feel of the carpet under my butt, the smoothness of the wall at my back. I tried not to think about my stomach.
Please, please hurry back.
Something changed around me, subtle but significant. Head swimming, I couldn’t lock on to what, at first, was different. I blinked, squinted.
The light. The play of light around me had changed, gone darker, even though none of the wall sconces in my field of vision had gone out or gotten any dimmer.
We were at a T-junction, where the hall we’d come from, back to the big room with the fireplaces, had branched in two directions. I was slumped against the wall facing the way we’d come, head turned towards the right-hand fork, the way Niko had gone.
I decided the sudden dimness must be from the lights in the hall behind me, the one we hadn’t explored yet. They must have gone out.
Carefully, still fighting nausea, I turned my head.
I’ve always had an unhealthy imagination. This has manifested itself in various ways over the course of my life. Staying under the covers reading comics instead of doing homework, or sleeping. Satisfying myself with vivid fantasies about guys I crushed on rather than risk asking them out in real life. Obsessions, where each new hobby would become all I could think about. Things get lodged in my head and they stay there, sometimes for too long.
The other hall was dark. The lights were off, and the dark brown walls sucked up the refracted light from the other two hallways, so that the end of this one, where it turned another corner, was right at the edge of shadow.
But there was enough light to see that someone was standing there.
In sixth grade I had a brief friendship with a weird, indrawn kid with the same unhealthy imagination as me. He liked to possible. When you catch something from the corner of your eye, he’d explained, and it looks for an instant like something fantastic–a witch’s face in a hedge, a huge monstrous far-off thing instead of a tiny nearby insect–instead of correcting your perceptions, you let yourself keep believing in that first impression for as long as you can. You possible it. Hold it in your head, your mental model of what’s real. Keep your mind from asserting the boring truth it thinks it knows and trust the one your senses first perceived. And I’d tried this, with him and on my own, off and on for a few weeks until I scared myself because I was getting too good at it. So was he: I realized it before long when he started scaring me with stories about the things he’d seen, and I think his parents or the school figured it out not long after, because they took him away and I got sent to a counselor for a few weeks just for being friends with him.
But you don’t unlearn something like that. Not completely.
I stared at the person lost in shadows at the end of the hall and tried to unsee them, to resolve them into a trick of angles and darkness: turn off my brain’s over-eager pattern matchers, finding predators in a coincidence of edges. And at the same time, I could feel that old part of me fighting this, trying to keep seeing what it thought it saw the first time.
A person, standing there in the dark. Watching me.
It didn’t help that the hallway was spinning and I felt closer and closer to throwing up each second.
The shadow took a step forward, slow and deliberate. Like a deer not sure if it’s seeing a bobcat or a bush. I couldn’t see its eyes or expression but it was facing me, looking at me.
And then I realized who it was.
Whether my eyes had started adjusting to the dim light, or the possible in my brain was shifting into high gear, I couldn’t say, but like the solution to a puzzle plunking full-formed into my head I recognized, now, who was standing there at the end of the hall.
It was me.
Aaron is a writer and game designer focused on helping gamemakers and players tell stories together. He is a multi-time IndieCade and IGF finalist, and has spoken about digital storytelling at venues as diverse as Google, PAX, GaymerX, and WorldCon. This November he is keynoting the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling.