Demon Lover: Part Five

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Trigger warnings for disordered eating, self-harm, abusive relationships.

My girl saw nothing of her lover but what she wanted seen. Love like that is an ideal camouflage, such that a monster cannot see herself for what she is, as caught up in the moment as her prey. The best deceit is wholly believed by the deceiver. 

She woke at 4 am frequently, extricating her legs from Elise’s, looking down on her girlfriend’s prone body with something between possessiveness and contempt. She often thought to herself, in those moments, that she was the only thing in the world keeping the girl alive. If Elise had ever woken during those moments, both of them would have mistaken that look for love. 

Perhaps Elise would murmur with a slight, sleepy quirk, a little “Vela, stay.” The nurse’s mouth would also turn up, perhaps teasing in theory, but so spiteful I could have drunk her like a fine merlot. 

“One of us has to pay the rent.” 

At first, their evenings were all tenderness. Elise would even cook, though the smell often turned her stomach. She’d spend hours in the bath, preparing herself. Vela wanted her, cherished her. She needed to prove herself worthy. 

Vela thought so too. If her new worshipper’s intensity did not increase with every supplication, she needed a reason. Was Elise lazy? Was she broken? Was she talking to her ex again?

Elise denied it with her tears and with her words and with her body. It was only Vela. Could only ever be Vela. Vela found her, Vela saved her, she couldn’t live without Vela. 

“You’d better remember that,” the nurse said, kissing down her convex of a stomach before scowling at her unruly mound. “God, can’t you at least wax? I’m tired of this.” She tugged at the dark, curling hair sheltering Elise’s clit, so hard my girl gasped. 

Elise went out the next day, and when she came back she was hairless from the neck down. I could taste her experience ⁠— professional women, crisp and uncomforting, had done the work. She might have enjoyed the pain, in another context, but not from a stranger. Not when she just wanted to be held. 

I was surprised Vela hadn’t wanted to do it herself. When she returned from work, her hands roamed my girl, sculpted and pale, a prize to be handled. Elise vanished into thinghood. 

That night, she dreamed that all her hair grew back, and kept growing, until she was covered. Her arm, her knees, her back, her stomach. Her hair grew so long that Vela couldn’t find her. When the nurse got near, screaming her frustration, she choked on Elise’s thick, dark hair. Blinded and confused, Vela reared back in disgust. 

In the quiet of the dark room, I curled around my girl’s heart and smiled. 

She woke shaking, telling Vela it was a nightmare. The nurse comforted her as if she were a child, her voice achingly patronizing. Elise fell into the sugar-coated words, pulling from my influence. 

By morning, the nurse was surly, blaming Elise for her lack of sleep, although I was the one who’d growled at her all through the night, long after her trembling girlfriend fell asleep. She snapped at my girl to help her make breakfast, overwhelmed by her lack of sleep. Her thoughts were clear to me ⁠— blame falling on the delicate woman beside her, who would never be good enough or strong enough for her. 

Still, she wanted Elise. She’d shaped her so beautifully, but there was more work to be done. My girl’s hands trembled as she cut the soft, crusty bread. 

“Goddammit, Elise,” the nurse snapped, grabbing at the knife just as my girl jumped, startled at the sound. 

The knife sliced open Vela’s reaching hand, the sound visibly red in the dim kitchen. Elise’s eyes widened, her mouth stammering out an apology disconnected from her mind. That was filled only with the sound of her hammering heart. 

Vela grabbed the knife with her uncut left hand, making an uncoordinated slashing motion toward my girl, who thought to herself that Vela seemed possessed.

As if I’d ever inhabit such a vessel. No, as Elise let out a mental cry for anything to help her, I slid into her body, grabbing the knife with my own strength. It cut into Elise’s hand, but Vela’s eyes widened when I squeezed the knife, and it clattered to the kitchen floor, bent. 

Who was the demon now? I didn’t pause to gloat as I would have in any other case, but moved Elise’s feet to the bathroom. She locked the door herself, crying as she held her cut hand.

It took Vela mere minutes to rally. “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” her voice came from the other side of the door. She was calm and comforting as ever, totally in control. “I’m so tired, and I meant it as a joke, but I lost control for just a second. I’ll call off work and we can talk about it.” 

Elise shook her head, still sniffling. “Go to work,” she said, voice trembling. 

“I think we should talk about this now,” the nurse answered, sweet but assertive. 

“Go to work,” I growled from Elise’s throat. 

Vela stepped back from the door. I like to think that she recognized my voice. Finally, I smelled fear on her. 

My girl calmed as the nurse left, closing the front door quietly. She loosened her grip on her hand, and under my suggestion, found her way into the shower. The water slicked her fear away as she relaxed into its ministrations, blood dripping from her hand. 

“You need to leave,” I spelled in rivulets running red into the drain. 

I know, she thought. 

“I don’t know how,” she said. 

Together, I whispered directly into her brain. All alone, together. 

She bundled herself in a long sweater dress, her hand wrapped in gauze. A woman at the hardware store told her how to install new locks in detail, then slipped her a card for a woman’s shelter, along with her own cell number. 

“In case you have any questions.” 

We went home. Elise packed up Vela’s many territory markers, putting them in a box outside her newly impenetrable door. By the time Vela came back, pounding on the door and demanding to talk to her, Elise was deep into a dream of a dark forest, branches curling around her, protecting her from all other harm. 

Three long, red marks appeared on her arm. Even in her sleep, she smiled, her fingers tracing the interruption of her bare, already stubbling skin. The wild woman in her dream felt the sting from a branch, protective and embracing. The trees, she thought, have eyes, and claws. They are all energy. 

Already, hair was growing over the marks I’d left her. That, too, was me. She grew warmer by the second, wrapped in herself, and me. She didn’t know how to live in the wilderness yet, but as her hair grew, I would teach her, teach her everything she needed to live without shame or order.

After all, what is a demon, but an angel broken free?

Retelling Beauty and the Beast

Just because something has been done before, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing again.

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for a good fairy tale retelling, and Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorites. The story form is rich emotional soil for drama and intrigue, be it Cruel Beauty, A Court of Thorns and Roses, or one of Robin McKinley’s gorgeous fairy tales. The tale as old as time does not actually get old.

In my retelling, prompted in part by rage at certain choices in a recent movie adaptation, I take a serious look at the viewpoint of one of the story’s villains. Originally published in 2018, this short story is now available for free on StoryOrigin. If you, like me, can’t get enough fairy tale retellings, I hope you’ll check it out.

Demon Lover: Part Four

Part One Part Two Part Three

Trigger warnings for disordered eating, self-harm, abusive relationships.

A thing like me cannot be frantic. We are not made for frivolous impulses, even weak versions like I. Elise’s absence did not fill me with worry, merely frustration. I was trapped in her habitation until I rode a human out ⁠— and they would have to stay long enough to let me in, then live long enough to cross over some more fitting threshold. 

Moreover, I wanted her, not some convenient stand-in, like the awkward male coworker who gathered up a bag of clothes after a week of her absence. Elise existed in the most delectable state of shame, and had only grown more succulent by the day. She would taste so pretty, writhing in pain within my grasp. And now she was out of my reach, at a hospital somewhere, from what I could gather from the man’s murky thoughts as he shuffled through her closet. 

Had I pushed too far? Had I missed my chance at the kind of meal I hadn’t had since the Inquisition? Was she going to make it home in one piece?

Unmoored from my purpose, I sank into a sulky hibernation. I barely noticed the hum and flow of the maintenance man, the landlord, or the nosy coworker who kept coming by to gather mail. They held no interest after Elise. 

I woke properly in early fall day, to the footsteps of a woman wearing sensible clogs meant for long hours of standing. Tall, and nearly as thin as Elise, with a brisk step I’d only ever noticed in military men, she brought bags of groceries and soft blankets, rearranging the apartment to suit herself. 

A few hours later, my girl shuffled in. 

Elise was gaunt as the grave, and as I flickered through her memories, I could see that she’d been institutionalized — without me! I writhed at being denied such a treat as plaguing doctors with ever more unfathomable symptoms. 

But she’d brought one back. Our interloper, who busied herself with tidying and talk. She had the stench of death on her. A nurse, or perhaps a physician’s assistant. Elise looked at her with delicious agony, worshipful and eager to please. 

Their relationship had progressed beyond professional already. The nurse fed her by hand, waited with her for hours while she digested, then scowled at her beeping alarm. With a searing kiss, they parted. 

Deep love is hard to override, but sudden love is worse. My girl’s mind was full of thoughts of her new lover, swimming in endorphins I couldn’t trade in. I was locked out. 

She sang in the shower. She kept the lights on when she dressed. She ate and slept and exercised at her new god’s command. The woman didn’t move in, but she may as well have. 

I resorted to growling through the walls while they slept. There was more in the nurse I could have worked with ⁠— even through her haze of love, I could taste fear, and anger, and a need for control ⁠— but people like her were no greater victory than the resentful repairman who had been in and out of the apartment for decades. 

Still, she annoyed me. I watched the nurse watching Elise on rare mornings when they woke together. I wanted Elise, a line of light snaring her spine, as treacherous and narrow as a ladder out of hell. I wanted to line that creamy expanse with claw marks. The nurse didn’t think in those terms, but there was a baseness to her destructive urges that I recognized in myself. I hated the thought of myself in competition with a mere mortal. 

I would read it in her, the urge to destroy perfection. Unlike Elise’s former lovers, this one had no desire to marr her skin and hold her afterwards. Though my girl begged her for a bit of violence to take solace in, the nurse wouldn’t have it. She would snap and order and fuss, but it amounted to control, not care. She wanted the vessel to achieve perfection while the soul crumbled beneath her grasp. She wanted to inhabit an empty, pliant body. 

That was the first time I thought that the nurse should have been the demon, and I the lover. 

I could have taken the nurse. I could have slipped inside her in an instant. There was nothing in her to withstand me. It would have been so easy, riding that beast to freedom. Or I could have stayed, had Elise physically as I destroyed the nurse from the inside out.

And my girl wanted it. She panted for it, out of love and lust and loneliness. She’d happily agree, beg for it, enjoy it. The nurse didn’t want that, which I didn’t mind, but I still despised the idea of inhabiting the nurse. She was ever so base, and only wanted to hurt Elise in ways my girl didn’t want. 

Like I had. I told myself the taste looked worse on a mortal. It wasn’t supposed to be their nature, to want to harm each other. I was meant to make them want it.

Demon Lover: Part Three

Part One Part Two

Trigger warnings for disordered eating, self-harm, abusive relationships.

The next night, Elise didn’t come home. Nor the night after that. I barely noticed the time slip by, but when she returned, she brought a man with her. 

She wasn’t the type to coddle living things. Most people like to have something living nearby ⁠— a plant, a fish, a cat, another human. I’d never seen another living being in her space. It was just her and me. 

Until him. 

He was chewing gum when he stepped across the threshold, his eyes following her as she vanished into the bathroom. He closed the front door gently, then stood in the pristine living room. 

Tabula rasa, meet tabula rasa. He was as well groomed as the apartment, concealing a bit of pudge and a mountain of uncertainty under a pressed and tailored shirt. 

“Elise, where’s your garbage?” he asked, his voice too loud for the space. 

He could barely understand her answer, but found the trash anyway, taking the gum from his mouth with his fingers, which he did not wash in the sink. 

Was this her someone to talk to? It didn’t seem so. She emerged from the bathroom in only knee high socks and a loose wool sweater. Nothing they said after that held any meaning. 

She didn’t let him take the sweater off her, although she allowed him to peel off the socks with a reverence most would reserve for church. He failed to please her, so she pleased herself, not bothering to hide what she was doing as he collapsed next to her. He left a few hours later, after they’d both fallen asleep. 

She did not invite him back. 

I waited. Seasons changed. She didn’t speak to me again, and gradually, I reintroduced my calling card: three long and inexplicable scratches on her arm. The new scratches, once again discovered in the shower, did not result in another one-sided conversation. When her fingers lingered over them, she smiled fondly, drawing on some memory I couldn’t reach. 

She left for a few days after that, packing a small overnight bag filled with lace dresses and long silk nightgowns. When she came back, it was with starry eyes and a chest full of vapid sighs. 

When I crept under her covers that night, ready to slash at her other arm, I found her body covered in long, thin marks. Someone had gotten there before me. 

I hovered centimeters over her skin, halfway to being offended. There was nothing to do but leave my own marks anyway, but it hardly seemed meaningful. I wasn’t even sure she’d notice three more marks on her pale, covered arms. 

For good measure, I ripped through her dress. Let her try to ignore that. 

Yet, she did, discarding the nightdress into her laundry without a second glance, humming in the shower, stroking the lines on her arms, legs, and stomach. Whoever her new paramour was, she had no space in her head for wondering about demons. 

That suited me perfectly, even if it meant I needed a new plan. 

Her absences lengthened with the sun’s reign. I would have followed her, given the opportunity, but without a vessel I moved as slowly as a glacier. She wasn’t ready yet, and if she kept ignoring me and absenting herself from her own living space, she never would be ready. I would exist only as a concept until some other poor fool moved in. 

She was too fond of my favorite kind of physicality. I needed to change my game. 

One night she came back weeping, mascara running down her face. I felt her emptiness from the moment she came in from the street: heartbreak, plain and simple. That was a memory I could touch. Unhappiness fell within my domain. 

I saw it all as it ran through her mind on repeat ⁠— her lady was leaving, called to work in a far away city. They’d only known each other for a few months, but Elise hoped, then begged to be taken away with her. To be worthy. 

This I could work with. Her intensity of feeling finally made her easy prey, and once she cried herself to sleep, I ripped into her dreams. I became her lady, a beady eyed, heavy set woman of no particular grace. Elice had only cared about how her lady covered her in praise, each strike accompanied by an ode to her uncertain beauty. Afterwards, her lady would hold Elise, glowing, and she would vanish into the soft pink cloud of warmth and safety. 

In the dream, I did all of this, just to snatch it away. 

“You’re too much to take with me,” I told her, shifting my hefty body to lean over her. “Don’t worry, pet. I’ll put you to sleep.” I put my forearm over her throat and bore down. As she began to choke, I showed her my truest face. 

She woke gasping, the memory of my form already vanishing, but the rest stuck like tar to her soul. Sleep didn’t find her again until dawn. 

Let no one convince you that human unhappiness is varied. After a few eons it all runs together like snow-melt to the sea. Hers was no different. She bundled her self-worth up in new dresses and old tears. The dreams I sent her barely made a dent in her nightmares, so plentiful were her naturally occurring fears. It seemed to her that her lady had lifted her from mediocrity. She would do anything to not descend again. 

Limes replaced the grapefruit in her fridge, accompanied by rare treats of melon. She soaked up the torments I sent her.

After a month, she disappeared. 

living like a medieval monk

I live in what I have to describe as a goth/solarpunk collective, in a small house with a large garden. Because of a (possibly not coronavirus) illness I had, I’ve been self-isolating for more than a month now. Here’s a look at my quarantine life with 4 roommates:

  • We all have projects we’re working on. A lot of them revolve around the garden or home improvement. There are new bike hooks on the carport and a pulley system to hang the kayaks. No one is in charge.
  • Time has lost all meaning. I wake up around 11 now, usually to something strange happening in the living room, like a sword fight, or an 80s workout video.
  • Someone ends up baking something at least once a day. Yesterday Roger made scones and clotted cream. Today I made garlic rosemary cornbread. I am eating better than ever before because there is time for it.
  • We set up a booth with seeds and vegetable starts along the road, free for anyone. It’s the one resource we have that easily translates into helping our community.
  • I only put on bras for photo shoots and the video parties we host about once a week.
  • I’m in the midst of creating a complete tarot deck. I think it will be called the Isolation Tarot. The suits are currently Eyes, Serpents, Caverns (okay, they’re vulvas, I admit it) and Tentacles. I’m almost done with the Minor Arcana and I haven’t started the Major Arcana yet.
  • We’re trying to make friends with the crows by putting out unsalted peanuts whenever we see them. Mixed results so far.
  • I started a YouTube channel where I read poetry but I have no finished the book that I meant to publish last month.
  • We have a swing and a trampoline. These are getting a lot of use, and I’m so grateful that my roommates set them up last year.
  • I’ve started yelling at airplanes. When they fly over my neighborhood, I yell “Shoo, sky demons!” until they’re gone. Then I go back to gardening.

Collective living: pretty damn nice in the midst of a crisis.

Sitting with fear and art

If you have generalized anxiety disorder, you’ve probably learned to talk to yourself about death. We all have our own methods, but my general script goes like this:

Anxiety: You’re going to die because of X, here are the reasons.

Me: I will die someday, and I’m going to take reasonable precautions to postpone that, but it is going to happen, so let’s handle that. I’m not going to obsesses over an inevitability. That kind of control is an illusion.

Confronting my own mortality happens at least once a week, usually for spurious reasons. Currently, the script includes a few more specifics. I remind myself that pandemics happen, and we’ve been due one for a while. I remind myself that the Black Plague killed 50% of Europe, and at least we’re not dealing with those odds. I remind myself that, like death, massive changes are inevitable, and that most human lives of an average lifespan include at least a few terrifying, life-altering events. I have been born in a position of privilege, but there’s no contract saying I’m going to be exempt.

Then, if I’m still spiraling, I tell someone I love them, or I remind myself of the amazing life I’ve led so far, and I have a good cry and dive into some art. Preferably making my own art while consuming someone else’s art.

“No one human is a drain on society,” Amanda Palmer says. She’s livestreaming from a church in Wellington, New Zealand right now. I’ve liked her since college, but I’ve never been a music person, it’s her first concert I’ve ever attended, even if it is online. I haven’t paid much attention to her in the last few years, but I happen to be in a Twitter anxiety spiral when I see her tweet about starting livestreaming.

That seems like a better way to spend my evening, I think. Palmer is answering questions and introducing the seven or so other people in the Wellington church with her. The video is being streamed from a laptop held by a guy she just met. It’s a choppy miracle to be watching someone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean answer questions from other anxious quarantined people around the world. In a bizarre twist, I realize that I may have toured the exact church with my grandparents when I was 11 years old.

In another moment of serendipity, she opens with my favorite of her songs, In My Mind.

And when they put me in the ground
I’ll start pounding the lid
Saying I haven’t finished yet
I still have a tattoo to get
That says I’m living in the moment

In My Mind, Amanda Palmer

That bit always gets me. I’m not done, and I’m never going to be done. That’s something I can cope with because it’s something I share with so many others.

The feed freezes halfway into another round of questions, and when it reloads, Neil Gaiman’s face is staring into the laptop camera, trying to fix the issue. He starts reading Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which is a bit dark, even for me. I expect it to hurt to hear — I’ve read it before, but I had to put a moratorium on reading Poe years ago because of nightmares. It doesn’t hurt. It feels like another acknowledgement of the fears we share.

This is my second livestreamed event this week. The first was a stream of a Seattle Symphony concert, something I’d never normally tune in for. Now, it seems important, not just because I’ve been sick at home for two weeks now. Artists reaching out means everything right now. I’m reaching back.

You’re going to die soon, my fears whisper.

It’s a possibility. I shrug. It always is. I move on to my next art project. But look how well I’m living.

How Not to Announce Your Independently Published Novel on Facebook

  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. No, I didn’t self-publish because I was rejected by real publishers, I self-published because I’m too impatient and anxiety-ridden to write query letters in the first place.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. I know, it’s audacious that I’d just go and write a book, then publish it without any authority telling me it was good enough. And then to announce it, like it’s not some dirty little secret? The scandal. Who do I think I am, anyway? Don’t I know writing is serious business?
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. I know the book you’ve been thinking about writing would be much better, but it doesn’t exist, does it? It must be very frustrating, me announcing a clearly inferior work, while your masterpiece is still only 10 pages long.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. It’s written in the pompous yet jaded style of the Next Great American Novel, but of course it can’t be that because I’m a woman.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. Yes, it’s just an ebook. No, it’s not a “real book.” Yes, a physical copy would be ideal, but I know how well this book is (not) going to sell. An ego boost just isn’t worth the hundred extra dollars it would cost to format paperbacks.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. Don’t worry, it’s the most literary thing I intend to write anytime soon. All the other books I’ve written so far are distinctly genre. Much less tragic and much more potentially lucrative. It’s not very professional of me, but I just couldn’t leave this one alone without publishing it. But if I cared about being professional I wouldn’t be posting this, would I?
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. I know you’re concerned about my good name, but names are cheap on the internet, and most of you probably already think I’m a trainwreck anyway.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. If you hate me, you should probably buy it. Pull it up on your phone during happy hour and read sections of it in a mocking tone to your friends. “We’ll be right back, we’re going to get more drinks,” they’ll say, interrupting a particularly cringe-worthy scene. “What’s up with her today?” you’ll hear them whisper to each other as they walk away. “She’s never mentioned this girl before, why is she so invested?”
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. It might be one gigantic shaggy dog story. Read it and find out!
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. It was either publish this or write detailed character studies of every single creepy man I’ve ever met, so there are some predatory fuckers who should be pretty grateful for this book. Just kidding, I’m still totally going to write those character studies at some point.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. And if you want to play the “list the ways self-publishing in general and this book specifically are bad ideas” you are going to lose, because I can list way more of them than you. So don’t try, because that would just be embarrassing for you. Not for me. I no longer feel embarrassment.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. Now that I’m an author I’m even more vicious when people poke at my insecurities, so tread carefully.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote. It’s okay. Of the 1,200 something books I’ve read it’s solidly in the middle.
  • Anyway, here’s a book I wrote: x

The Art Monster Tires Of Their Manic Pixie Dream Girl Skin

I am not here for you to learn a lesson. I am not here so you can be a better man, or a more clever man, or a more interesting man. I am here to tell stories. Maybe you’ll be one of them.

Darling, that’s a threat.

I don’t care if you like my stories. I don’t care if they make you better or worse, or if they display the virtues you want. I don’t care if my characters are too female for your empathy, or too unfeminine for your comprehension.

Nothing I am is for you. You should worship me for that. You should hate me. You should want to be me. You should want to kill me. Envy me and only me.

Shut up now. I’m talking.

I was never going to be your muse, darling, but you can be my mine, if you work at being pretty the way I want you to be. Show me those cut lines, baby, show me your spine. I’ll write all night about the fragility of mankind.

There are still claw marks inside my skull from all the time I wasted trying to stay quiet and nice. There are still tremors in my voice when I disagree. I do my chores before I write, I put my shit away. That’s all old learning I’m capable of shedding.

I know you want me to stay that way, not to get ugly, obsessive, productive, and mean. In the game of greatness, I’m the one who is supposed to be a casualty. For that alone, I’m going to take everything.

I’m done with nice and good. I’m done with pretty and clean.

This is a power trip. This is a rallying cry. The art monsters are rising out of soft skin and rainbow hair. They’re talons and teeth and wrinkles. They’re lightning and fat and snarl. They’re not interested in hearing about your film. They’re not going to see your band. You’ll want them because they do not care. You’ll hate them for making the art you’ve always claimed.

Consume me and I will destroy you from the inside out.

Inspired by Lindsay Lynch’s Women Don’t Get to Be Asshole Geniuses and Jenny Offill’s Magic and Dread.

I wrote a book about muses and monsters in the Pacific Northwest woods. Find it here.

Pilgrimage to Villa Diodati

We took Quai Gustave-Ador out of Geneva proper, walking along Lake Leman until the winter tourist crowds subsided. I insisted on walking, despite the cold which had migrated to my lungs. I knew it wouldn’t be the same by bus. If I didn’t walk, it wouldn’t feel to me like I’d really arrived at Villa Diodati, the place where Frankenstein was born.

Why was visiting Villa Diodati so important to me? After all, books can be written anywhere, and while I enjoyed Frankenstein, I probably wouldn’t rank it in my top ten favorite books. Looking around my library, I can’t even say for certain that I still have a copy.

I suppose it’s not the book itself, which was mostly written later anyway. It’s the idea of the book, and the story behind the idea of the book. In that regard, Villa Diodati matters.

So we climbed, taking the narrow, moss-lined road up to Cologny, past all manner of wealthy homes and embassies, their driveways gated and guarded by expensive surveillance equipment. A few cars passed us, and two joggers in slick work-out gear, but otherwise we were alone, the codeine in my system not quite enough to keep me from coughing fits as we walked.

The hillside town of Cologny

Already, my expectations were shattering. I hadn’t really been expecting a climb. Both my favorite Byronic horror film, Gothic, and the somewhat more historical Rowing with the Wind depicted Villa Diodati as close to the water. Additionally, as a fellow open-water swimmer, I’d always imagined Byron choosing a closeness to water, ready to rid himself of the shackles of his hated club foot by diving in at every possible moment.

Of course, the summer of 1816 wouldn’t have lent itself to swimming. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tamboro covered Europe in a bleakness known as “the year without a summer,” creating an ideal breeding ground for gothic ghost stories. The weather for our walk was mild, for January, one of those bright grey winter days without a hint of rain. It crossed my mind that perhaps our weather was similar to what Mary Shelley experienced.

We approach the property

Passing through Cologny, we saw few people. It was Sunday, our last day in Switzerland, and a single bakery, tantalizingly open, almost delayed us. We could still see the Jet d’Eau from certain points while walking through town, but it didn’t feel like we were in the city anymore. It must have felt infinitely more remote in 1816.

My fascination with Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and even John Polidori started during a college course called The English Romantics. Lord George Byron seemed the kind of art monster who’s fun to read, but would be hell to encounter in a bar or at a party. I found Percy Shelley best when he embraced brevity, and dreaded reading Frankenstein, because I’d never liked any of the movies.

I should have had more faith in the teenage girl who wrote it. I’d yet to learn of Mary Shelley’s Original Goth Flavor, but the moment I started Frankenstein, my opinion of the novel changed. I saw how Brian Aldiss could argue for its place as the first true science fiction novel. More importantly, I recognized in it one of my favorite tropes, the fallen angel hellbent on destroying his creator.

Here, at last, was a story I could get behind. I was more offended than ever by the brain-dead movie monster Frankenstein. The best villains are full of brains, spite, and insecurities.

Villa Diodati from the street

Taking a side street slightly downhill, we arrived at Villa Diodati. Although I’d seen pictures online, preparing myself for finding this privately owned property, I still almost missed it. I was suddenly glad we’d come in winter: we’d barely have been able to see the villa from the street with summer foliage.

Although beautiful, Villa Diodati was less grand than I expected. I’d imagined something sprawling, not an ornate cube on a steep hillside. I paced the garden wall, taking dozens of selfies, glad we were the only people anywhere to be seen.

The only clue that this was the famed house where literary giants once vacationed was a sign on what must have once been the carriage house, indicating that Lord Byron once stayed there. From a sign at the nearby Park Cologny I learned the Shelleys had rented a house slightly closer to the lake: another fact the movies twisted for narrative expediency.

Discovering how wrong I’d been was the opposite of disappointment. I’d traveled there to understand an aspect of a story I loved: four unconventionals, stuck in a villa on a stormy summer night, telling ghost stories. The youngest, a teenage girl who’d run away from England with a rock star poet, gets an equally unconventional idea: What if a scientist could harness power previously thought to belong only to God? How would his creation feel? This germ of a story would outlive all the rest of the rebellious group’s infamy, spawning thousands more stories, each audaciously asking “what if?”

Of course the villa matters, and the turbulent weather, and the view from the villa, and the lake below. That’s what I walked to Villa Diodati to learn, and that’s what I discovered:

The scope of it.

Pacific Northwest Gothic: A Template


  1. We start with fear and end with the fantasy. First, there is a corpse on a riverbank. Later, she dances on a stage with red velvet curtains.
  2. The North decays just as well as the South, but in deceptive ways. You won’t smell the body rot coming from the forest over the scent of pine and rain. You won’t be able to tell if the seal is resting on the beach, or has washed up with eyes already eaten out. You won’t see our poverty under our technological gleam, but everything rusts in the rain.
  3. There is no difference between a monster and a predator besides literary conceit. A man need not be overly clever to kill hundreds, if no one is watching. A demon is a man until he is a demon. Until he cannot be explained. Until we do not want to explain him.
  4. You cannot trust the light. It will leave.
  5. Fantasy is a false denouement. The fantasy is the mouth of an ouroboros: a snare to bring you back to the fear. A predator can be caught, or killed, or imprisoned. A monster cannot. A monster lives where mirror meets glass, where mind meets sleep.
  6. Like monsters, we can survive only in the liminal. Horror we can handle, as long as the macabre is fantastic as well. Like the bullied children we once were, we dream up magic to glorify our wounds.