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The Frolic by Thomas Ligotti

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  1. The Frolic (1982)
  3. In a beautiful home in a beautiful part of town—the town of Nolgate, site of the state prison—Dr. Munck examined the evening newspaper while his young wife lounged on a sofa nearby, lazily flipping through the colorful parade of a fashion magazine. Their daughter Norleen was upstairs asleep, or perhaps she was illicitly enjoying an after-hours session with the new color television she'd received on her birthday the week before. If so, her violation of the bedtime rule went undetected due to the affluent expanse between bedroom and living room, where her parents heard no sounds of disobedience. The house was quiet. The neighborhood and the rest of the town were also quiet in various ways, all of them slightly distracting to the doctor's wife. But so far Leslie had only dared complain of the town's social lethargy in the most joking fashion ("Another exciting evening at the Munck's monastic hideaway"). She knew her husband was quite dedicated to this new position of his in this new place. Perhaps tonight, though, he would exhibit some encouraging symptoms of disenchantment with his work.
  5. "How did it go today, David?" she asked, her radiant eyes peeking over the magazine cover, where another pair of eyes radiated a glossy gaze. "You were pretty quiet at dinner."
  7. "It went about the same," said David, without lowering the small-town newspaper to look at his wife.
  9. "Does that mean you don't want to talk about it?"
  11. He folded the newspaper backwards and his upper body appeared. "That's how it sounded, didn't it?"
  13. "Yes, it certainly did. Are you okay today?" she asked, laying aside the magazine on the coffee table and offering her complete attention.
  15. "Severely doubting, that's how I am." He said this with a kind of far-off reflectiveness.
  17. "Anything particularly doubtful, Dr. Munck?"
  19. "Only everything," he answered.
  21. "Shall I make us drinks?"
  23. "That would be much appreciated."
  25. Leslie walked to another part of the living room and from a large cabinet pulled out some bottles and some glasses. From the kitchen she brought out a supply of ice cubes in a brown plastic bucket. The sounds of drink-making were unusually audible in the living room's plush quiet. The drapes were drawn on all windows except the one in the corner where an Aphrodite sculpture posed. Beyond that window was a deserted street-lighted street and a piece of moon above the opulent leafage of spring trees.
  27. "There you go, doctor," she said, handing him a glass that was very thick at its base and tapered almost undetectable towards its rim.
  29. "Thanks, I really need one of these."
  31. "Why? Aren't things going well with your work?"
  33. "You mean my work at the prison?"
  35. "Yes, of course."
  37. "You could say at the prison once in a while. Not always talk in the abstract. Overtly recognize my chosen professional environment, my—"
  39. "All right, all right. How's things at the wonderful prison, dear? Is that better?" She paused and took a deep gulp from her glass, then calmed a little. "I'm sorry about the snideness, David."
  41. "No, I deserved it. I'm blaming you for long realizing something I can't bring myself to admit."
  43. "Which is?" she prompted.
  45. "Which is that maybe it was not the wisest decision to move here and take this saintly mission upon my psychologist's shoulders."
  47. This remark was an indication of even deeper disenchantment than Leslie had hoped for. But somehow these words did not cheer her the way she thought they would. She could distantly hear the moving vans pulling up to the house, but the sound was no longer as pleasing as it once was.
  49. "You said you wanted to do something more than treat urban neuroses. Something more meaningful, more challenging."
  51. "What I wanted, masochistically, was a thankless job, an impossible one. And I got it."
  53. "Is it really that bad?" Leslie inquired, not quite believing she asked the question with such encouraging skepticism about the actual severity of the situation. She congratulated herself for placing David's self-esteem above her own desire for a change of venue, important as she felt this was.
  55. "I'm afraid it is that bad. When I first visited the prison's psychiatric section and met the other doctors, I swore I wouldn't become as hopeless and cruelly cynical as they were. Things would be different with me. I overestimated myself by a wide margin, though. Today one of the orderlies was beaten up again by two of the prisoners, excuse me, 'patients'. Last week it was Dr. Valdman, that's why I was so moody on Norleen's birthday. So far I've been lucky. All they do is spit on me. Well, they can all rot in that hellhole as far as I'm concerned."
  57. David felt his own words lingering atmospherically in the room, tainting the serenity of the house. Until then their home had been an insular haven beyond the contamination of the prison, an imposing structure outside the town limits. Now its psychic imposition transcended the limits of physical distance. Inner distance constricted, and David sensed the massive prison walls shadowing the cozy neighborhood outside.
  59. "Do you know why I was late tonight?" he asked his wife.
  61. "No, why?"
  63. "Because I had an overlong chat with a fellow who hasn't got a name yet."
  65. "The one you told me about who won't tell anyone where he's from or what his real name is?"
  67. "That's him. He's just an example of the pernicious monstrosity of the place. Worse than a beast, a rabid animal. Demented blind aggression… and clever. Because of this cute name game of his, he was classified as unsuitable for the regular prison population and thus we in the psychiatric section ended up with him. According to him, though, he has plenty of names, no less than a thousand, none of which he's condescended to speak in anyone's presence. From my point of view, he doesn't really have use for any human name. But we're stuck with him, no name and all."
  69. "Do you call him that, 'no name'?"
  71. "Maybe we should, but no, we don't."
  73. "So what do you call him, then?"
  75. "Well, he was convicted as John Doe, and since then everyone refers to him by that name. They've yet to uncover any official documentation on him. Neither his fingerprints nor photograph correspond to any record of precious convictions. I understand he was picked up in a stolen car parked in front of an elementary school. An observant neighbor reported him as a suspicious character frequently seen in the area. Everyone was on the alert, I guess, after the first few disappearances from the school, and the police were watching him just as he was walking a new victim to his car. That's when they made the arrest. But his version of the story is a little different. He says he was fully aware of his pursuers and expected, even wanted, to be caught, convicted, and exiled to the penitentiary."
  77. "Why?"
  79. "Why? Why ask why? Why ask a psychotic to explain his own motivation, it only becomes more confusing. And John Doe is even less scrutable than most."
  81. "What do you mean?"
  83. "I can tell you by narrating a little scene from the interview I had with him today. I asked him if he knew why he was in prison.
  85. "'For frolicking,' he said.
  87. "'What does that mean?' I asked.
  89. "His reply was: 'Mean, mean, mean. You're a meany.'
  91. "That childish ranting somehow sounded to me as if he were mimicking his victims. I'd really had enough right then but foolishly continued the interview.
  93. "'Do you know why you can't leave here?' I calmly asked with a poor variant of my original inquiry.
  95. "'Who says I can't? I'll just go when I want to. But I don't want to yet.'
  97. "'Why not?' I naturally questioned.
  99. "'I just got here,' he said. 'Thought I'd take a rest after frolicking so hard. But I want to be in with all the others. Unquestionably stimulating atmosphere. When can I go with them, when can I?'
  101. "Can you believe that? It would be cruel, though, to put him in the regular prison population, not to say he doesn't deserve this cruelty. The average inmate despises Doe's kind of crime, and there's really no predicting what would happen if we put him in there and the others found out what he was convicted for."
  103. "So he has to say in the psychiatric section for the rest of his term?" asked Leslie.
  105. "He doesn't think so. He thinks he can leave whenever he wants."
  107. "And can he?" questioned Leslie with a firm absence of facetiousness in her voice. This had always been one of her weightiest fears about living in this prison town, that every moment of the day and night there were horrible fiends plotting to escape through what she envisioned as rather papery walls. To raise a child in such surroundings was another of her objections to her husband's work.
  109. "I told you before, Leslie, there have been very few successful escapes from that prison. If an inmate does get beyond the walls, his first impulse is usually one of practical self-preservation, and he tries to get as far away as possible from this town, which is probably the safest place to be in the event of an escape. Anyway, most escapees are apprehended within hours after they've gotten out."
  111. "What about a prisoner like John Doe? Does he have this sense of 'practical self-preservation,' or would he rather just hang around and do damage to someone?"
  113. "Prisoners like that don't escape in the normal course of things. They just bounce off the walls but not over them. You know what I mean?"
  115. Leslie said she understood, but this did not in the least lessen the potency of her fears, which found their source in an imaginary prison in an imaginary town, one where anything could happen as long as it approached the hideous. Morbidity had never been among her strong points, and she loathed its intrusion of her character. And for all this ready reassurance about the able security of the prison, David also seemed profoundly uneasy. He was sitting very still now, holding his drink between his knees and appearing to listen for something.
  117. "What's wrong, David?" asked Leslie.
  119. "I thought I heard… a sound."
  121. "A sound like what?"
  123. "Can't describe it exactly. A faraway noise."
  125. He stood up and looked around, as if to see whether the sound had left some tell-tale clue in the surrounding stillness of the house, perhaps a smeary sonic print somewhere.
  127. "I'm going to check on Norleen," he said, setting his glass down rather abruptly on the table beside his chair and splashing the drink around. He walked across the living room, down the front hallway, up the three segments of the stairway, and then down the upstairs hall. Peeking into his daughter's room he saw her tiny figure resting comfortable, a sleepy embrace wrapped about the form of a stuffed Bambi. She still occasionally slept with an inanimate companion, even though she was getting a little old for this. But her psychologist father was careful not to question her right to childish comfort. Before leaving the room Dr. Munck lowered the window which was partially open on that warm spring evening.
  129. When he returned to the living room he delivered the wonderfully routine message that Norleen was peacefully asleep. In a gesture containing faint overtones of celebratory relief, Leslie made them two fresh drinks, after which she said:
  131. "David, you said you had an 'overlong chat' with that John Doe. Not that I'm morbidly curious or anything, but did you ever get him to reveal very much about himself?"
  133. "Sure," Dr. Munck replied, rolling an ice cube around in his mouth. His voice was now more relaxed.
  135. "He told me everything about himself, and on the surface all of it was nonsense. I asked him in a casually interested sort of way where he was from.
  137. "'No place,' he replied like a psychotic simpleton.
  139. "'No place?' I probed.
  141. "'Yes, precisely there, Herr Doktor.'
  143. "'Where were you born?' I asked in another brilliant alternate form of the question.
  145. "Which time do you mean, you meany?' he said back to me, and so forth. I could go on with this dialogue—"
  147. "You do a pretty good John Doe imitation, I must say."
  149. "Thank you, but I couldn't keep it up for very long. It wouldn't be easy to imitate all his different voices and levels of articulateness. He may be something akin to a multiple personality, I'm not sure. I'd have to go over the tape of the interview to see if any patterns of coherency turn up, possibly something the detectives would use to establish the man's identity, if he has one left. The tragic part is that this is all, of course, totally useless information as far as the victims of Doe's crimes are concerned… and as far as I'm concerned it really is too. I'm no aesthete of pathology. It's never been my ambition to study disease merely for its own sake, without effecting some kind of improvement, trying to help someone who would just as soon see me dead, or worse. I used to believe in rehabilitation, maybe with too much naiveté and idealism. But those people, those things at the prison are only an ugly stain on existence. The hell with them," he concluded, draining his glass until the ice cubes rattled.
  151. "Want another?" Leslie asked with a smooth therapeutic tone to her voice.
  153. David smiled now, the previous outburst having purged him somewhat. "Let's get drunk, shall we?"
  155. Leslie collected his glass for a refill. Now there was reason to celebrate, she thought. Her husband was not giving up his work from a sense of ineffectual failure but from anger. The anger would turn into resignation, the resignation into indifference, and then everything would be as it had been before; they could leave the prison town and move back home. In fact, they would move anywhere they liked, maybe take a long vacation first, treat Norleen to some sunny place. Leslie thought of all this as she made the drinks in the quiet of that beautiful room. This quiet was no longer an indication of soundless stagnancy but a delicious lulling prelude to the promising days to come. The indistinct happiness of the future glowed inside her along with the alcohol; she was gravid with pleasant prophecies. Perhaps the time was now right to have another child, a little brother for Norleen. But that could wait just a while longer… a lifetime of possibilities lay ahead, awaiting her wishes like a distinguished and fatherly genie.
  157. Before returning with the drinks, Leslie went into the kitchen. She had something she wanted to give her husband, and this was the perfect time to do it. A little token to show David that although his job had proved a sad waste of his worthy efforts, she had nevertheless supported his work in her own way. With a drink in each hand, she held under her left elbow the small box she had got from the kitchen.
  159. "What's that?" asked David, taking his drink.
  161. "Something for you, art lover. I bought it at that little shop where they sell things the inmates at the penitentiary make—belts, jewelry, ashtrays, you know."
  163. "I know," David said with an unusual lack of enthusiasm. "I didn't think anyone actually bought that stuff."
  165. "I, for one, did. I thought it would help to support those prisoners who are doing something creative, instead of… well, instead of destructive things."
  167. "Creativity isn't always an index of niceness, Leslie," David admonished.
  169. "Wait'll you see it before passing judgment," she said, opening the flap of the box. "There—isn't that nice work?" She set the piece on the coffee table.
  171. Dr. Munck now plunged into that depth of sobriety which can only be reached by falling from a prior alcoholic height. He looked at the object. Of course he had seen it before, watched it being tenderly molded and caressed by creative hands, until he sickened and could watch no more. It was the head of a young boy, discovered in gray formless clay and glossily glazed in blue. The work radiated an extraordinary and intense beauty, the subject's face expressing a kind of ecstatic serenity, the labyrinthine simplicity of a visionary's gaze.
  173. "Well, what do you think of it?" asked Leslie.
  175. David looked at his wife and said solemnly: "Please put it back in the box. And then get rid of it."
  177. "Get rid of it? Why?"
  179. "Why? Because I know which of the inmates did this work. He was very proud of it, and I even forced a grudging compliment for the craftsmanship of the thing. It's obviously remarkable. But then he told me who the boy was. That expression of sky-blue peacefulness wasn't on the boy's face when they found him lying in a field about six months ago."
  181. "No, David," said Leslie as a premature denial of what she was expecting her husband to reveal.
  183. "This was his last, and according to him most memorable, 'frolic'."
  185. "Oh my God," Leslie murmured softly, placing her right hand to her cheek. Then with both hands she gently placed the boy of blue back in his box. "I'll return it to the shop," she said quietly.
  187. "Do it soon, Leslie. I don't know how much longer we'll be residing at this address."
  189. In the moody silence that followed, Leslie briefly contemplated the new openly expressed, and definite reality of their departure from the town of Nolgate, their escape. Then she said: "David, did he actually talk about the things he did. I mean about—"
  191. "I know what you mean. Yes, he did," answered Dr. Munck with a professional seriousness.
  193. "Poor David," Leslie sympathized.
  195. "Actually, it wasn't that much of an ordeal. The conversation we had could even be called stimulating in a clinical sort of way. He described his 'frolicking' in a kind of unreal and highly imaginative manner that wasn't always hideous to listen to. The strange beauty of this thing in the box here—disturbing as it is—somewhat parallels the language he used when talking about those poor kids. At times I couldn't help being fascinated, though maybe I was shielding my feelings with a psychologist's detachment. Sometimes you just have to distance yourself, even if it means becoming a little less human.
  197. "Anyway, nothing that he said was sickeningly graphic in the way you might imagine. When he told me about his last and 'most memorable frolic,' it was with a powerful sense of wonder and nostalgia, shocking as that sounds to me now. It seemed to be a kind of homesickness, though his 'home' is a ramshackle ruin of his decaying mind. His psychosis had bred this blasphemous fairyland which exists in a powerful way for him, and despite the demented grandeur of his thousand names, he actually sees himself as only a minor figure in this world—a mediocre courtier in a broken-down kingdom of horror. This is really interesting when you consider the egoistical magnificence that a lot of psychopaths would attribute to themselves given a limitless imaginary realm in which they could play any imaginary role. But not John Doe. He's a comparatively lazy demi-demon from a place, a No Place, where dizzy chaos is the norm, a state of affairs on which he gluttonously thrives. Which is as good a description as any of the metaphysical economy of a psychotic's universe.
  199. "There's actually quite a poetic geography to his interior dreamland as he describes it. He talked about a place that sounded like the back alleys of some cosmic slum, an inner-dimensional dead end. Which might be an indication of a ghetto upbringing in Doe's past. And if so, his insanity has transformed these ghetto memories into a realm that cross-breeds a banal streetcorner reality with a psychopath's paradise. This is where he does his 'frolicking', with what he calls his 'awe-struck company,' the place possibly being an abandoned building, or even an accommodating sewer. I say this based on his repeated mentioning of 'the jolly river of refuse' and 'the jagged heaps in shadows,' which are certainly mad transmutations of a literal wasteland. Less fathomable are his memories of a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks of some kind that won't remain still, a stairway that's 'broken' in a very strange way, though this last one fits with the background of a dilapidated slum.
  201. "But despite all these dreamy backdrops in Doe's imagination, the mundane evidence of his frolics still points to a crime of very familiar, down-to-earth horrors. A run-of-the-mill atrocity. Consistently enough, Doe says he made the evidence look that way as a deliberate afterthought, that what he really means by 'frolicking' is a type of activity quite different from, even opposed to, the crime for which he was convicted. This term probably has some private associations rooted in his past."
  203. Dr. Munck paused and rattled around the ice cubes in his empty glass. Leslie seemed to have drifted into herself while he was speaking. She had lit a cigarette and was now leaning on the arm of the sofa with her legs up on its cushions, so that her knees pointed at her husband.
  205. "You should really quit smoking someday," he said.
  207. Leslie lowered her eyes like a child mildly chastised. "I promise that as soon as we move—I'll quit. Is that a deal?"
  209. "Deal," said David. "And I have another proposal for you. First let me tell you that I've definitely decided to hand my resignation no later than tomorrow morning."
  211. "Isn't that a little soon?" asked Leslie, hoping it wasn't.
  213. "Believe me, no one will be surprised. I don't think anyone will even care. Anyway, my proposal is that tomorrow we take Norleen and rent a place up north for a few days or so. We could go horseback riding. Remember she loved it last summer? What do you say?"
  215. "That sounds nice," Leslie agreed with a deep glow of enthusiasm. "Very nice, in fact."
  217. "And on the way back we can drop off Norleen at your parents'. She can stay there while we take care of the business of moving out of this house, maybe find an apartment temporarily. I don't think they'll mind having her for a week or so, do you?"
  219. "No, of course not, they'll love it. But what's the great rush? Norleen's still in school, you know. Maybe we should wait till she gets out. It's just a month away."
  221. David sat in silence for a moment, apparently ordering his thoughts.
  223. "What's wrong?" asked Leslie with just a slight quiver of anxiety in her voice.
  225. "Nothing is actually wrong, nothing at all. But—"
  227. "But what?"
  229. "Well, it has to do with the prison. I know I sounded very smug in telling you how safe we are from prison escapes, and I still maintain that we are. But the one prisoner I've told you about is also very strange, as I'm sure you've gathered. He is positively criminally psychotic… and then again he's something else."
  231. Leslie quizzed her husband with her eyes. "I thought you said he just bounces off walls, not—"
  233. "Yes, much of the time he's like that. But sometimes, well…"
  235. "What are you trying to say, David?" asked an uneasy Leslie.
  237. "It's something that Doe said when I was talking with him today. Nothing really definite. But I'd feel infinitely more comfortable about the whole thing if Norleen stayed with your parents until we can organize ourselves."
  239. Leslie lit another cigarette. "Tell me what he said that bothers you so much," she said firmly. "I should know too."
  241. "When I tell you, you'll probably just think I'm a little crazy myself. You didn't talk to him, though, and I did. The tone, or rather the many different tones of his voice; the shifting expressions on that lean face. Much of the time I talked to him I had the feeling he was beyond me in some way, I don't know exactly how. I'm it was just the customary behavior of the psychopath—trying to shock the doctor. It gives them a sense of power."
  243. "Tell me what he said," Leslie insisted.
  245. "All right, I'll tell you. As I said, it's probably nothing. But toward the end of the interview today, when we were talking about those kids, and actually kids in general, he said something I didn't like at all. He said it with an affected accent, Scottish this time with a little German flavor thrown in. He said: 'You wouldn't be havin' a misbehavin' laddie nor a little colleen of your own, now would you, Professor von Muck?' Then he grinned at me silently.
  247. "Now, I'm sure he was deliberately trying to upset me without, however, having any purpose in mind other than that."
  249. "But what he said, David: 'nor a little colleen.'"
  251. "Grammatically, of course, it should have been 'or' not 'nor', but I'm sure it wasn't anything except a case of bad grammar."
  253. "You didn't mention anything about Norleen, did you?"
  255. "Of course I didn't. That's not the kind of thing I would talk about with these… people."
  257. "Then why did he say it like that?"
  259. "I have no idea. He possesses a very weird sort of cleverness, speaking much of the time with vague suggestions, even subtle jokes. He could have heard things about me from someone on the staff, I suppose. Then again, it might be just an innocent coincidence." He looked to this wife for comment.
  261. "You're probably right," Leslie agreed with an ambivalent eagerness to believe in this conclusion. "All the same, I think I understand why you want Norleen to stay with my parents. Not that anything might happen—"
  263. "Not at all. There's no reason to think anything would happen. Maybe this is a case of the doctor being out-psyched by his patient, but I don't really care anymore. Any reasonable person would be a little spooked after spending day after day in the chaos and physical danger of that place… the murderers, the rapists, the dregs of the dregs. It's impossible to lead a normal family life while working under those conditions. You saw how I was on Norleen's birthday."
  265. "I know. Not the best surroundings in which to bring up a child."
  267. David nodded slowly. "When I think of how she looked when I went to check on her a little while ago, hugging one of those stuffed security blankets of her." He took a sip of his drink. "It was a new one, I noticed. Did you buy it when you were out shopping today?"
  269. Leslie gazed blankly. "The only thing I bought was that," she said, pointing at the box on the coffee table. "What 'new one' do you mean?"
  271. "The stuffed Bambi. Maybe she had it before and I just never noticed it," he said, partially dismissing the issue.
  273. "Well, if she had it before, it didn't come from me," Leslie said quite resolutely.
  275. "Nor me."
  277. "I don't remember her having it when I put her to bed," said Leslie.
  279. "Well, she had it when I looked in on her after hearing…"
  281. David paused with a look on his face of intense thought, an indication of some frantic rummaging search within.
  283. "What's the matter, David?" Leslie asked, her voice weakening.
  285. "I'm not sure exactly. It's as if I know something and don't know it at the same time."
  287. But Dr. Munck was beginning to know. With his left hand he covered the back of his neck, warming it. Was there a draft coming from somewhere, another part of the house? This was not the kind of house to be drafty, not a broken-down place where the win gets in through ancient attic boards and warped window-frames. There actually was quite a wind blowing now, he could hear it hunting around outside and could see the restless trees through the window behind the Aphrodite sculpture. The goddess posed languidly with her flawless head leaning back, her eyes contemplating the ceiling and beyond. But beyond the ceiling? Beyond the hollow snoozing of the wind, cold and dead? And the draft?
  289. What?
  291. "David, do you feel a draft?" asked his wife.
  293. "Yes," he replied very loudly and with unusual force.
  295. "Yes," he repeated, rising out of the chair, walking across the room, his steps quickening toward the stairs, up the three segments, then running down the second-floor hallway. "Norleen, Norleen," he chanted before reaching the half-closed door of her room. He could feel the breeze coming from there.
  297. He knew and did not know.
  299. He groped for the light switch. It was low, the height of a child. He turned on the light. The child was gone. Across the room the window was wide open, the white translucent curtains flapping upwards on the invading wind. Alone on the bed was the stuffed animal, torn, its soft entrails littering the mattress. Now stuffed inside, blooming out like a flower, was a piece of paper, and Dr. Munck could discern within its folds a fragment of the prison's letterhead. But the note was not a typed message of official business: the handwriting varied from a neat italic script to a child's scrawl. He desperately stared at the words for what seemed an infinite interval without comprehending their message. Then, finally, the meaning sank heavily in.
  301. Dr. Monk, read the note from inside the animal, We leave this behind in your capable hands, for in the black-foaming gutters and back alleys of paradise, in the dank windowless gloom of some galactic cellar, in the hollow pearly whorls found in sewerlike seas, in starless cities of insanity, and in their slums… my awe-struck little deer and I have gone frolicking. See you anon. Jonathan Doe.
  303. "David?" he heard his wife's voice inquire from the bottom of the stairs. "Is everything all right?"
  305. Then the beautiful house was no longer quiet, for there rang a bright freezing scream of laughter, the perfect sound to accompany a passing anecdote from some obscure hell.
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