Friday, March 10, 2017

The Ticks of Skull Island

Today marks the release of Jordan Vogt-Roberts' KONG:  SKULL ISLAND, yet another doomed attempt to recapture the magic of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's KING KONG (1933).  Needless to say, any rational film critic would include the original KING KONG in the top ten list of the greatest movies ever made.  Up to this point, several attempts to remake KING KONG--which, by the way, was one of Adolf Hitler's favorite films (according to Ben Urwand of the Daily Mail, the German dictator watched the film "over and over again")--have all failed miserably. 

The only way to pay proper homage to a cultural touchstone as iconic as KING KONG is not to attempt a replication of the original experience, but instead to wield the archetype as a cineliterary tool in order to deliver an urgent and much more relevant message to the collective unconscious of the twenty-first century.  I myself attempted to pull off such a trick back in 2010 when Rudy Rucker published my short story "Ticks" (6,800 words) in the ninth issue of his groundbreaking science fiction magazine, FLURB.  It was gratifying to appear on the same Table of Contents page with such accomplished writers as Paul Di Filippo, Richard A. Lupoff, Kathe Koja, Carter Scholz, and Rucker himself.  I think I succeeded in my goal, as "Ticks" received an Honorable Mention that year from none other than Ellen Datlow, editor of THE YEAR'S BEST HORROR and many other fine anthologies of the fantastique.  If you'd prefer to judge for yourself, however, feel free to peruse the opening two chapters of my humble tale directly below:  


by Robert Guffey

Story Copyright (C) 2010, Robert Guffey 


John Driscoll entered the hospital room, his hat held respectfully in his hands. The nurse pointed at Ann Darrow, sleeping in the room’s solitary bed, and whispered, “She’s been out for the past two hours.” Despite the hordes of dead and dying overflowing into the halls, they had been kind enough to give her her own room. The room smelled sterile and bitter, like disinfectant. Nothing at all like the ocean.

Somewhere behind him, down the hall, he could hear an old man groaning in pain.

Driscoll twisted the brim of his hat nervously. “Is... is she going to be all right?”

The nurse smiled. “The doctor says she’s going to be fine. She’s just tired is all.” Driscoll breathed a sigh of relief. The nurse continued, “I’ll let you stay, as long as you don’t try to wake her.”

“Oh, of course, of course.”

“Normally I wouldn’t let you do this, but... well, you’ve been through a lot.”

Driscoll laughed, the first time he’d done so in a long time. “Well, ma’am, I guess you can say that again.”

The nurse patted his shoulder blade, then began to leave the room.

“Wait,” Driscoll said. The nurse paused in the doorway. “Uh, I was just wondering….” He didn’t know how to say it. “About Ann… was she…?” The nurse was staring at him expectantly. “Was she… harmed in any way?”

The nurse furrowed her brow. “No. I just said: she’s fine.”

“No, I know. But I mean, was she… harmed?”

“No.” The nurse glanced over at Ann, almost as if to confirm the fact for herself. “She’s sleeping. She’s fine.”

“Right, right. I can see that. What I want to know is… was she….” He’d twisted the hat into the shape of a wet towel. The nurse still didn’t understand what he was talking about. He decided to bail out of the conversation. “Thank you, ma’am, thank you.” He began backing away from her.

The nurse nodded, still confused. “You’re welcome.”

Driscoll turned his back on her and approached Ann’s bed. He heard the door close lightly behind him. He couldn’t hear the old man groaning anymore.

Even bruised and scratched, Ann still looked beautiful: her angelic face, her full red lips, her blonde hair draped across the pillow like strands of gold. He sat down in the hard-back chair beside the bed, and watched as her peaceful face contorted nightmarishly. “No, no,” she whispered, “don’t do that... don’t… touch me….” Her face relaxed as her fearful whimperings seemed to transform into moans of pleasure.

Driscoll’s fist tightened. He felt like slamming his fist into somebody’s face. He grabbed Ann by the shoulders and shook her awake. “Ann! Ann!”

Ann’s eyes snapped open, looked into Driscoll’s face. She tried to push away from him.

He wouldn’t let go of her. “What happened?” he said. “What did you let him do to you?”

Ann looked shamefully at the ground. “I….”

Before she could finish, screams erupted from the street below. Something dark and massive leaped past the window.


I was the first person they contacted to study the epicenter of the destruction. The bodies weren’t even cold. They sent a military envoy to my home on Long Island for the express purpose of transporting me to Fifth and Broadway in Manhattan as quickly as possible. The entire ride there, I couldn’t help but think of how many lives would have been saved if only they had listened to me five weeks before.

I’m the acknowledged expert in my field, and yet my opinion was not at all appreciated when I wrote that guest editorial in the New York Times in which I warned the people of America of what might happen if they didn’t come to their senses and stop this insane exploitation. Did anybody take me seriously? Of course not. Instead they just twisted my argument into a Marxist screed against America and the free market.

I’d heard the destruction described on the radio, of course, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw spread out before us. Only Gustave Dor√© could have captured the apocalyptic horror of that frozen tableau: skyscrapers reduced to piles of blood-spattered rubble, mutilated survivors crawling through the ruins of their homes, children crying for mothers who lay dead or dying only inches away, biplanes lying in fragments in the middle of Broadway, the train cars of the Sixth Street Elevated exploded into metallic tatters, a chaotic mixture of flesh and steel. Innocent bystanders, blinded by the ubiquitous flames, running through the streets wailing in panic. I saw an old woman, whose flesh had burned away, screaming and crying and praying all at once, huddled in a ball amidst a pile of burning body parts.

I saw its prostrate mass from blocks away. As the envoy neared Fifth Street, the body became more and more visible. The military boys had tried to prepare me for the sight, but of course no amount of preparation could suffice. Denham’s slogan was no hyperbole. It truly was the eighth wonder of the world.

“No reason to be scared,” said the soldier beside me. “The President’s coming soon.”

I tried not to laugh. I wanted to say, “The President can’t even save Wall Street. What’s he going to do about this?” Instead I chose to say nothing. I think he was trying to reassure himself more than me.

We screeched to a halt just outside the yellow lines the military had roped around the corpse. I saw its cranium first. Though its stomach was pressed to the ground, its head was tilted slightly to the left, giving me an opportunity to study the expression on its face. It looked very much like it was sleeping. The same peaceful expression I’d seen on a thousand apes a thousand times before. For a second, I grew worried that it really was sleeping. But no, no. The blood-drenched ground was adequate testament to its fate. Of course, it was difficult to distinguish the ape’s blood from the humans it had killed upon impact. My God, what a way to go.

And the smell. It permeated Broadway. It was not the stench of a rotting body; the beast hadn’t been dead long enough. It was more like the stench of every ape I’d encountered in my entire career confined to a five-block radius. Imagine the smell of feces and urine mixed with burning hair and you might have a close approximation of what Broadway was like that afternoon.

I spotted the General standing near the right ear lobe. (The ear alone was as large as the General’s head. It was hard to tell from my perspective, but the beast could have been anywhere from twenty to twenty-five feet high.) I was about to call out his name when a man broke through the crowd, pushed aside one of the soldiers, and grabbed the General’s thick wrist.

“What’re you doing?” the man yelled. “You can’t do this, this is my property, I—!”

I recognized his voice first. How many times had I heard it on the radio these past few weeks? (Too many.) Yes, it was none other than Carl Denham. Impresario. Hollywood film director. Explorer. Mad man.

“I wish the planes had taken you out too,” the General said and slugged Denham in the jaw, dropping him to the ground. Despite his advanced years, the General still packed a hell of a wallop.

Two soldiers emerged from the crowd and pulled Denham up by his shoulders. He looked pretty bad. How quickly the wheel turns. Twenty-four hours before, he had been the talk of the town; now he was reduced to a gibbering idiot. “It wasn’t the airplanes,” Denham raved, “it was beauty killed the beast!”

“What the hell’re you talkin’ about?” one of the soldiers said. As they began to drag him away, I jumped out of the jeep and ran toward them. “Wait, don’t!” I shouted.

“Not another nut,” the General said. “Who’re you?”

“Dr. Douglas Burden.”

“Oh, the ape guy. Jesus, I’m relieved.”

How I loved being called that. As if my entire career in Biology had been spent studying primates.

“We need you,” the General said. “We need somebody. I don’t know what the hell’s going on. One minute everything’s fine, the next we’re in the middle of the god damn apocalypse.” The General stared at all the destruction surrounding him. He seemed genuinely disturbed, as if he might break down whimpering at any moment.

I said, “Let’s try to remain calm, okay? I’d like Denham to stay. He knows more about this… this thing… than anybody else. He might have information we need, information he doesn’t even know he has.”

“This, clearly, is a man of great wit and perception,” Denham said to the two soldiers. “And you definitely need one around here.”

The General blustered. He seemed to be on the verge of punching Denham again until I stepped between them and placed my hand on the General’s epaulettes.

“General, please, you called me down here for my advice. If you don’t want to listen to what I have to say, I’ll go home.”

“I wanted your advice about apes, not—!”

“Apes, people—there’s really very little difference, sir.”

Eventually, the General calmed down and ordered the soldiers to release Denham.

“About time,” Denham said, smoothing out his rumpled coat. “If I don’t start getting some respect around here, I might be forced to sue someone.”

The General barked out a frustrated laugh. “By the time the city of New York gets through with you, you’ll be lucky to have a single cent in your pocket.”

Denham waved his hands in the air. “No, no, I can’t be sued for an act of God.”

The General pointed at the giant ape. “You call that an act of God?”

“The laws are very clear. I checked out all the legal ramifications before I initiated this project. In fact—”

The General was barely able to keep himself under control. “How can you stand there and call the death of thousands of people a ‘project’? How can you—?”

“Let’s leave all this legalistic crap for another time,” I said. “Right now we’ve got a somewhat more acute problem on our hands.” A gust of wind blew the stench of blood and vomit into my face. I felt as if I were going to gag. I began to cough instead. “How long has this body been lying here?”

“About thirteen hours,” the General said.

“Have either of you ever been around a dead ape for any length of time?”

“Well, I shot a rhinoceros in Africa,” Denham said. “Got it right between the eyes. Everybody told me not to risk it, but it didn’t scare me. Nothin’ scares me. I don’t quit. Ever.”

I sighed. “How about a dead dog then?”

“I had to bury my little girl’s dog in the back yard once,” the General said. “But that was years ago.”

“I wish you’d paid attention to what happened to it,” I said. “When the body begins to cool, you see, it’ll eventually be abandoned by—”

One of the soldiers who had been restraining Denham pointed above our heads and shouted, “Holy Toledo! What the fuck is that?”

I spun around and saw the fur on top of the ape’s head beginning to ripple strangely, as if something were crawling just beneath the surface.

The tick leaped off the ape’s head. The General screamed like a woman as the thing landed on his chest and sank its proboscis into his throat. The insect was the size of a fist. The General ripped the creature away,—pieces of flesh tearing away with it—and tossed it on the ground. The soldiers open fired on the insect. Its body burst open like an overripe watermelon. Bright, fresh blood sprayed the crowd.

“Jesus Christ,” Denham whispered. His mouth was dripping with tick blood.

I thought, It’s too late. I looked up at the ape’s sleek, black fur.

The entire body was beginning to ripple.

(You can read the rest of "Ticks" by clicking HERE.)

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