A few years ago, I spent about two years trying to write fiction. None of it was very good. My first effort, which was truly terrible, was a fantasy novel called The Black Feather, which was an attempt to write the standard fantasy story, but this time taking the side of the generic Dark Lord, who was a kind of arch-conservative trying to stop the fantasy world in question from becoming modernized, plutocratic and banal. My second effort was a more reasonable stab at a fantasy novel-- a children's fantasy novel, this time-- called The Bard's Apprentice. A publishing house mulled over it for a good while, before sending it back to me with a "no thanks" and a savage reader's report. That was the closest I came to being a novelist.
After that I wrote a horror novel called The Snowman. It was set in a Dublin suburb which was being controlled by an extra-terrestrial being. This being, summoned by the wish of a terminally ill child, had taken the form of a snowman, and (with child-like misguided kindness) had decided to grant the suburb's residents Their Wildest Fantasies. This, of course, resulted in all kinds of chaos and carnage. (I thought it made a cute title and subtitle, though. The Snowman: a Horror Story.) I actually think it was a pretty good concept, and the first few chapters were passable, but it was terribly executed on the whole.
Then I wrote a series of a hundred short-short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares, and finally another children's fantasy called The Man Who Could Make Worlds, which was about a boy trapped within his own fantasy world. After that I gave up fiction as a bad job, especially since I didn't write it with any enormous enthusiasm (for all my determined industriousness). I never even read fiction with that much enthusiasm. It wasn't till I was in my thirties that I realised it was actually OK to prefer non-fiction to fiction. (I still feel vaguely guilty and unbalanced for not reading novels more often, and more enthusiastically.)
It was an interesting time in my life, though. I just wrote all the time. I pretty much wrote all evening, and all weekend. I even stayed at home on my summer holidays and wrote, wrote, wrote. I thought I would have to get better eventually. I wrote ten thousand words in one day once-- although that was as a challenge to myself, and it was probably ten thousand words of the purest rubbish. My imagination had been kindled by reading about the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who famously said "If I was told I had a month to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster", and "I think through my fingers". I guess I was play-acting a bit-- but when do we ever stop play-acting?
I do think God made use of this interlude in my life, though. The more I wrote, the more I found myself wondering what any story was ultimately about, and then (which is really the same question) what life itself was about. By the time I had finished my collection of horror stories, I had written and thought myself into a deep depression, and a spiritual crisis. But that crisis had a happy outcome, since it led me to faith.
I was going through some files on an old computer just now, shaking my head at how bad most of my stories were. But I did come across this horror tale, which I think is fairly good in a twisted kind of way. I guess I want to have something to show for all those months of effort.
The Story of Life
Roddy stood in the lobby of the cinema, studying the posters. Now and again he glanced towards the attendant standing in a small space between two cordons, waiting for the first of the morning’s customers to appear.
It was a tall, skinny guy with wavy hair and heavy-framed glasses. He was gazing into the middle distance, dreaming. Then he smiled to himself, obviously thinking of something funny, and walked towards the shop to share it with his buddies.
Roddy strolled through the cordons, breezily.
He could have easily paid the price of a matinee ticket. He had three hundred euros stuffed in his back pocket. Roddy was twenty-three and he had never worked a day in his life.
He found it perpetually astonishing that anybody did work. Making money was easier than gathering lint in your pockets. How could the world be so full of smart people—people who could speak several languages and operate complicated machinery and understand pages and pages of legalese—and yet contain so few souls that had realised that great and simple truth, the childish simplicity of getting money for nothing?
Roddy had walked into warehouses and carried out bags of CD players. He had dressed in worker’s overalls and been given the run of solicitor’s and stockbroker’s offices. And everywhere, everywhere, there were wallets and purses just begging to be taken.
Roddy rarely bought anything if he didn’t even have to. But there was a pretty girl behind the counter of the lobby shop, so he strolled over.
“Could I’ve a bag of Suckers and a medium Zesto, please?” he asked, drinking in the scent of popcorn and hotdogs. He had always loved the cinema.
“Sure”, said the girl with the nice skin and the sandy hair, barely looking up.
“What’s the best thing on right now?”, he asked when she’d returned with the overflowing foam cup and the brightly-coloured bag of chocolates.
“Don’t know”, she said, curtly. “I hate films. That’s seven twenty.”
“Service with a smile”, said Roddy, in a sing-song voice. She glowered at him, snatching the note he held between his fingers.
“Hey, what’s this?”, he asked, when she dumped his change onto the freshly-polished counter. “I gave you a twenty.”
The girl shot him a stony stare. Roddy stared back at her, all indignation. Nobody had ever stared him down. It only took a second for the self-doubt to creep into her eyes, and a few seconds later she was opening the till again.
“OK,” she said. “Sorry about that.”
“No worries”, said Roddy. He grinned at her as she stuffed his change away. He felt a pang of pity for the girl. She was so cute. It seemed hard that she’d go through life like all the other cattle, the bulk of her time spent waiting, wading through the day, watching the hands of the clock go round.
The cinema was still empty, apart from some a few kids. They were waiting to get into a film called Hillbilly Heroes. Roddy took one look at the poster to their right and decided he’d give that one a miss.
He went from door to door, glancing at the posters. Rage on Wheels. It’s a Girl’s World. The Spy Who Purred. Doomfighter Three: The Black Planet. He sighed.
Here was one, though. The Story of Life. The richly-coloured poster showed a pair of pterodactyls flying above a primeval forest, superimposed over a DNA-like pattern. The Story of All Stories! read the tagline. It was just about to begin.
“That’s more like it” muttered Roddy, pushing the door open. Funny; he flicked through the cinema magazines every month, but he hadn’t heard of this one.
There was nobody inside. Well, what could you expect, with competition from Doomfighter Three? He settled himself in a middle row and waited for the ads and trailers to end, sipping his Zesto and munching his Suckers.
Then the screen went black. Slowly, an image appeared on the screen, fading in from darkness to a fiery orange. A pond glistened in a rocky landscape, under a sulfurous sky. A flash of lighting filled the screen, making Roddy blink.
Captions, in rude black Roman text, appeared on the screen.
Earth, some 3.8 billion years ago. The planet has already been in existence for over almost a billion years. In a shallow pool, chemicals bombarded by electric storms have formed amino acids. From these basic building blocks, the first simple bacteria are about to come into existence.
The captions faded from view. Roddy sat in the darkness and waited.
And waited. And waited. Nothing was happening on screen.
Perhaps ten minutes had passed when he rose from his seat in irritation. He walked to the edge of the aisle, turned, and then stopped.
The door he had come through—glowing EXIT sign and all—was gone.