The other day at the bookstore, a woman came in to return a book. It was one of those ubiquitous Young Adult paranormal titles, with a matte black cover featuring colorful spot-gloss accents and a touch of gold foil on the title treatment, something dealing with destiny, and danger, and demons.
No Fault When Stars Grow Right
The woman had purchased this book for her granddaughter, who, after reading the back cover copy and part of the opening chapter, had decided that demons were entirely too scary for her worldview, and had instructed grandma to exchange the book and bring home something less terrifying: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which she referred to as “that Cancer Kids book.”
We had a chuckle over this, commiserating that, as rational-minded adults, cancer is far, far more terrifying than any number of fictional demons. After all, cancer has killed a number of my friends. Demons, on the other hand, shockingly few.
But since my stock in trade tends toward fictional demons, and monsters, and strange alien god-things threatening and terrifying humankind, the wheels started turning. The gears engaged. I considered H. P. Lovercraft’s stomach cancer, Brian Lumley’s story “The Big C” and Norman Spinrad’s “Carcinoma Angels,” rolling their ideas around in my head like scotch in a glass, examining the viscosity, the translucence, savoring the peaty, dank scents. Then, adding a few aromatic bitters culled from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the memories of friends lost to cancer, and a few ice cubes, wrote this…
(With Apologies to John Green)
Ross E. Lockhart
Late summer of the year I turned seventeen, my mother decided that I was depressed. The evidence was in her favor. I stayed home a lot, spent long hours in bed, reading the same book—a John Dee translation of the dread Necronomicon—again and again and again, and spent an awful lot of time worrying about the return of the Great Old Ones and the utter demise of the human race.
When one frequently reads of the dreadful things awaiting humanity in the latter days as stars grow right, depression comes with the territory. But then, so do madness, terror, existential angst, and, occasionally, religious fervor. But that is the cancer that eats at the soul of all human endeavor, the stultifying fear that we are only temporary things in a universe incapable of noticing, let alone acknowledging, our plight.
Mom decided that I needed treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Bob, who after talking with me for an hour or so about my cosmicist bent, put me on a more aggressive regimen of antidepressants (which I pocketed) and recommended that I begin attending a weekly Support Group.
This support group featured a veritable rogues’ gallery of depressed and disaffected teens, in various conditions of disarray and disheartenment. It was, I’m sure you understand, depressing as fuck. We would meet every Thursday night in the basement of an old Unitarian hall, now acting as Sabbath sanctuary for a group of fishy-smelling oldsters calling themselves the Esoteric Order of Dagon. We would sit in a rough circle in the dingy hall, where a giant, intersecting figure had been etched on the floor, looking sort of like two Christian fish symbols colliding in a massive eye, a two-tailed figure representing Mother Hydra, the all-seeing aquatic matriarch of the aforementioned New Aeon cult.
I remark on this because Sunand, the Support Group Leader and the lone so-called adult in the room, talked about the Eye of Mother Hydra every meeting, like some true believer on a door-to-door mission, with pamphlets. We mostly rolled our eyes as he testified, and I’d sit there, looking back and forth between my peers—wannabe vampires, burnouts, stoners, longhairs, parent-punchers, sex fiends, depressoids, readers, writers, and artists—and realize that each was as bored, and depressed, and doomed, as I. I thought of the Sword of Damocles hanging over each of our heads, as certain as a planet-killing comet or strange tentacled things crawling out of the sea, and fantasized about grasping that sword by its hilt and lopping off our Fearless Leader’s head mid-sentence, sending it rolling into the corner like a soccer ball into the net.
I SHOULD BE SO LUCKY!
Here’s how our typical Support Group meeting would go. A silly ritual, repeated week to week. Most of the time I’d only half pay attention. We would introduce ourselves: Name. Age. Malaise. I’m Asenath. I’m seventeen. I know that our species is doomed. But I keep showing up to these meetings, so I must be okay.
Thus begins the Great Big Circle Jerk of Support, as we go around the circle and each burnout takes their turn, sharing their own Special Snowflake reason their parents and/or doctors (or both) started dragging them to the Esoteric Order of Dagon Existential Angst Support Group. I ignored most of them, preferring to picture each with their brains boiling, dripping out of their gaping, open mouths, or devoured slowly by Giant Squid, or picked apart by strange, fungal beings from beyond the ex-planet Pluto. The one-upsmanship of their boasts, the endless unsuccessful suicide attempts, the cancerous rot of just soldiering on, living another day even though they were each doomed, all doomed.
The only redeeming aspect of the Support Group from Hell was Cioran, a tall, skinny, long-limbed kid with bulging eyes and long, dark lines on his neck. Cioran came from the East Coast, some flyover fishing town that the government had blown up in the nineteen-twenties. Gangsters, or bootleggers, or something. He’d breathe heavily through his mouth, and sigh loudly, often interrupting Sunand’s boring soliloquys on the greatness that is Mother Hydra. Cioran was a weird-looking kid, but there was something familiar, comforting, even, about his face, like a misremembered dream, so every week I’d move a chair closer to where he tended to sit, a silent game of musical chairs as I closed in on him like a predator.
The day finally came where I managed to grab the seat next to Cioran. I’d arrived early in anticipation, my pulse beating a rapid tattoo of anticipation over this gangly teenager I’d only spoken to from across the room. The others filtered in, taking seats, talking, laughing in spite of the inevitability of it all. Soon, Cioran grabbed his usual seat, giving me a quick second look and a brief smile. I met his eye, then looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap, noting the thick webbing between his fingers. The introductions began working their way along the circle, eventually coming to me.
I’m Asenath, I said. I’m seventeen. I know that our species is doomed. But I keep showing up to these meetings, so I must be okay.
Cioran, on my right, spoke next. I’m Cioran. I’m seventeen. I’ve got these vestigial gills on my neck. They showed up shortly after I turned sixteen. My parents and my doctor say I’m supposed to have surgery soon, have them removed, but I’ve been thinking about skipping out on that. Maybe hitting the road. Maybe returning to the sea.
My heart fluttered. My hand went up to my own neck, felt a trace, a ridge I’d never noticed before. Then another below it. And another. I gasped. Cioran kept talking.
I think Asenath is right. Signs and portents are coming to pass. There are stirrings in the deeps. Prophesies are being born out.
Humanity has long claimed the place of steward of the earth, caretaker. And yet we have been terrible caretakers, dumping endless rivers of crap into the sea, shearing forests, breeding like uncontrollable cancer cells. And maybe that’s what we are, a cancer eating its host. A cancer, dooming itself as it devours and grows and metastasizes. It’s not our fault, just our destiny.
I looked around the room. The half-dead, half-asleep eyes of our Support Group fellows bounced around lazily, unaware or uncaring of their ultimate fate. Sunand picked at something beneath his fingernail, yawned. Cioran talked on.
We are just the latest generation of carcinomatous cells, reproducing and dividing ad infinitum. Unaware of our malignancy. We fall. The Old Ones return. Chaos reigns. Inevitable.
I looked up at Ciroran and met his eyes. He was talking to me. Only to me. Looking back at me. Only me.
I reached out, took his hand in mine. Felt the webbing between his fingers, between my fingers.
And as I held his hand, above our heads the stars grew right, the eye of Mother Hydra blinked, and the end of the world began.