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Gloves Off: Round XVIII
Putting an animal in peril
Today we’ll take a longer look at Slash-In Theater by Nick Gibney.
To read the story as originally published, please click here.
By Nick Gibney
Friday the 13th at Slash-In Theater is the worst.
What’s the Slash-in, you ask? Well, it’s the only movie theater/bar combo that caters exclusively to my kind of people: horror fans. I like working here. At least, I like working here every other night of the year but tonight. Nightmare on Elm Street marathon, no problem. I even volunteered for Black Christmas on Christmas Eve. But Friday the 13th sucks. There are just too damn many of them! Friday the 13th movies, that is. I mean, I liked the first one. But the sheer quantity of hours spent at a bar/movie theater for a marathon of this kind means that there is just too much of these three things: fake blood, popcorn, and beer. Oh, and we can’t forget the pseudo-intellectual frat boys whose idea of flirting is to man-splain Final Girl theory, then stare at my ass while I refill their greasy bags of popcorn for the umpteenth time.
My Comments: Consider that you bury your best idea here. The narrator seems to be a girl — or a boy with an exceptional ass, but likely a girl. And the concept of a sexy girl working at a slasher theater is pretty damn brilliant. Play this up from the get-go. For example, On Friday the 13th nights we have to wear these t-shirts, white t-shirts printed the way you’d section up a cow. Brisket, loin, short ribs. But really tight, and cropped, did I say cropped? With a Hooter’s neckline to boot…
It would create a sexy/cringe vibe similar to girls who work at porn shops. A sexy usher at a slasher theater seems complicit with the normalized violence. That seems like your hook.
Beyond that, consider what person would create a “Slash-in Theater”? Just steep in that idea. Hint: Cal is a killer pervert.
For whatever reason, Cal—the owner—refuses to split the marathon across two days. I tell him repeatedly that he’d make more money if he did. But he says he’s too old school, that he doesn’t give a fuck about the money. “Clearly,” I say back. What I don’t say is that calling yourself “old school” just makes you sound like a tool. Because I know that the real reason he doesn’t give a shit about the money is that sweet endowment from the historical preservation society for the building we’re in.
My Comments: Get us into a scene — fast. I’d love to see this building unpacked, but architecture is always secondary to plot. Just a full line of dialog would help ground us, then some actions — the popcorn, the beer — would help avoid this generalized information. Cal leans too close and adjusts the nametag pinned to the narrator’s chest, breathing Wild Turkey breath on her.
Show us Cal. Cal is drunk, but you must demonstrate that. Don’t summarize here, but give us a real scene with Cal being a possibly predatory douche. The dude loves slasher films.
And so, inevitably, at the end of this shit show, I will end up mopping up puke and beer and popcorn off the floor at six in the morning. And the bleary eyed slasher fiends will wander drunk into the street like the walking dead. And let me tell you, with the way they smell, they might as well be.
My only consolation is Doctor Satan.
My Comments: Specifics, please. As a former theater janitor I’ve cleaned a few giant auditoriums. First you wear a back-pack leaf blower and blow the loose popcorn and wrappers from the rear seats down to the stage, where you shovel or vacuum it. Then you mop. The authority you create here — with specifics (do they serve pre-popped popcorn or pop on site?) — will make your reader believe any later, more incredible stuff.
The rhetorical question you ask is okay. Just don’t overwork it. In fact you might use it near the end. Twice is nice, but to hit it once at the end would be a good button.
Who is Doctor Satan, you ask? Well, he is a geriatric, ginger longhair cat that wanders the neighborhood. But always, without fail, and only on Friday the 13th, he hangs out exclusively in alley right next to the theater. I used to wonder if it was the cocktail of horrific aromas that somehow hit the sweet spot of delectable and disgusting for a trash cat like him. But, after much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that he is actually the very spirit of horror movie trash. And each year he comes to accept the sacrifice, the energy of the willing, of those who subject themselves to the twenty four hour shit show that is Friday the 13th.
My Comments: Careful. When you said “cat” I assumed you meant a man — in a beatnik, cool bongo-playing way.
And what makes him “geriatric”? Unpack that abstract.
But this year, so far, I haven’t seen him.
After the fourth film, sometime around two in the morning, he’s still a no-show. There’s a window just above the soda machine that looks out into the alley, toward the fire escape where he usually hangs. If he comes, I can catch his red shape out of the corner of my eye, flitting his tail, or pacing back and forth. So far, nothing.
“Jerry, I’m going on break,” I shout.
My Comments: Consider that the narrator’s body of knowledge is horror films, in particular the Friday the 13th franchise. Instead of “fourth film” she’d either say the film’s name or some major plot point. For example, During The Final Chapter right after the corkscrew-and-meat-cleaver scene, Satan’s still a no-show. Your narrator’s ushered this film countless times, and it’s the clock she lives by.
Still, it’s good that we’re into a scene. Also, where’s Cal? Perhaps stalking teens?
Jerry, my sixteen year old coworker, pops his head out from behind the trash like a scared dog, pockmarked and innocent, his wide eyes bulging from behind his greasy, brown mop of curls.
“Uh—alright,” he stammers. “You want me to man the desk?”
My Comments: No cheating with abstract measurements. What is “sixteen” to your narrator? Pimples? Reedy voice? Sixteen-year-olds also tend to smell a little. If you give your reader the right specifics, she will decide “sixteen” for herself. That’s the goal.
But I’m already halfway out the door. There are few real joys to be had at the Slash-In, especially on Friday the 13th, but imagining Jerry standing behind the concession stand with his broom, stammering through his explanation to one of the patrons that he’s sixteen and isn’t legally allowed to serve the beer, is one of them.
Why do I take such pleasure in poor Jerry's discomfort, you ask? I don’t know. Misery loves company, I guess.
My Comments: Show, don’t tell, okay. If you’re in scene, go with something like: At that a customer steps up for a MGD. Jerry shakes his head, “Sorry, no can do.” Our horror fiend says, “What the fuck?” “On account of my age,” says Jerry.
If this situation is important, it needs to be dramatized. If it’s not important, cut it.
Down the alley, past the fire escape, I look around the dumpster—no sign of him. I walk out to the sidewalk—nothing. Across the street, a few people are milling outside the college bar, Heathcliff’s, but otherwise the street is empty. The Heathcliff and Slash-In, the only two bastions of culture in this podunk town. New Hampshire is weird, but predictable.
I’m about to turn back when I hear a little squeaking whine:
My Comments: Don’t name anything unless it’s crucial. Thus, Heathcliff’s is just some off-campus bar where townies sell drugs.
I freeze, waiting for it to come again. Someone at Heathcliff’s howls with laughter, followed by the echo of a group of girls chittering and preening in response. Behind me, the muffled gurgling of another teenage girl being disemboweled by Jason vibrates from behind brick and glass. I strain my ears, focus my attention, trying to block out all else.
He’s on the roof.
My Comments: By now we should feel the heat of this summer night. The air conditioning noise should be present. As we step outdoors, the humidity should waft over us like a blanket suggestive of Cal’s breath.
And by the sound of him, not feeling great about it. I look at my watch.
“Shit,” I mutter. There’s about twenty minutes left in Number Four.
My Comments: Again, the movie is the clock. For instance, About now pretty Trish is hacking at Jason’s mask but only knocking it off to reveal his deformed face. Pretty soon Tommy will be hacking away and screaming “Die! Die! Die!”
By mentioning “Final Girl Theory” we’re wedded to keeping that concept present for the rest of the story. In Minimalism, if you use something once, you’re committed to keeping it around and building on it.
Get the sound of the AC unit going. It must be planted in the reader’s awareness long before it dies.
I hurry back to the theater and stick my head through the doorway. Jerry spins around from behind the concession stand, dropping his broom with a clatter.
“I’ll be back,” I say. “Emergency on the roof.”
I barely hear Jerry’s stammering pleas for me to stay as I close the door again, heading for the fire escape. The ladder is permanently pulled down because Cal regularly has to go up there to fiddle with the A.C. unit—not that he actually knows what he’s doing. But even with the endowment, he’s cheap and stubborn.
My Comments: The narrator picks up the broom. Don’t explain why. It will demonstrate her fear of potential danger.
We don’t need to know why the ladder is down. And for a non-character Cal is here a lot. By that, I mean he’s not really present except as a sort of explanation. So unless Cal is on the roof kneeling over the cat as he strangles it… consider tossing Cal.
If anything, remark on how unusual it is to have the ladder down. A big code violation. This creates tension because it suggests someone (slasher freak Cal!) has set a trap.
I climb up the rusty, paint-chipped ladder, careful not to move too fast. I tell myself it’s because I don’t want to spook the cat, but the truth is, I can feel the fire escape shift ever so slightly with each step.
Right, squeak, wiggle.
My Comments: It’s not just me. Do you remember the scene in The Haunting of Hill House where Eleanor climbs the library staircase and its anchor bolts pull loose from the wall and threaten to smash her on the stone floor? Do you think Eleanor distinguished “right” and “left” in that moment? Nope. That’s why I harp on this point. Instead, The ladder shuddered and pull to one side. Grit rained in my face as the anchor bolts jerked free from the brick wall, and the ladder shuddered to the other side.
And no filtering through the narrator. Your world can occur all by itself. Thus “I can feel the fire escape” becomes “The fire escape shifts ever…” This allows you to submerge the “I” more. It points the camera without mentioning the camera.
I reach the platform and can literally hear the screws loosen from the bricks of the theater wall.
It’s closer now, maybe ten feet away.
My Comments: I hope to hell that it’s crazy Cal making that meow. Or it’s a movie-going fiend. Again, don’t filter with “… can literally hear the screws…” Also, please avoid abstract measurements. What is ten feet to this narrator. A few steps?
Remember, you’re the person who introduced the Final Girl idea. If she repeatedly called out, “Satan?” and, “Satan, come to mommy,” and, “Satan, baby, are you hurt?” it would be funny.
In this slasher-movie world — where nubile ladies are always going unarmed into basements or attics and being butchered — the narrator should at least suspect she’s in danger. We’d be hearing the screams of slaughtered teens from the film. She’d feel like a trope just waiting to happen. She’d look for a possible weapon, and that would give us an object to hold and use for physical business, thus giving the narrator hands. Even a silly object — Jerry’s broom — could be her arbitrary weapon.
Just up the ramped stairs and over the lip of the roof and I’m free. But now I actually have to stop myself, have to squash the urge to run up the steps and leap over the edge. Because I don’t want to spook the cat. So I take it one step at a time. And as my eye line reaches over the edge, I see him: little Doctor Satan, crouched up against the A.C. unit.
He locks eyes with me and lets out a hiss, but doesn’t move.
My Comments: Keep the possibility that the meow might not be the cat. Also, no filtering. No “I see him…” Way, way from the beginning we should feel this is a sweltering summer night. The metal ladder should be almost too hot to hold. The narrator’s body should be running with sweat. The antiquated AC unit should be rattling and chugging. The AC must seem vital, then be forgotten, then seem tragically broken, then become our salvation. Morph your objects.
That’s when I realize what’s happened. His tail is stuck underneath that hunk of rusted metal.
“Oh my God,” I whisper. “Little guy, it’s okay.”
I tip-toe my way toward him. He hisses, pressing himself against the A.C. unit.
“It’s okay,” I say again. “It’s okay.”
My Comments: Look around. What if some fiend has trapped the cat in order to use it as bait? Sustain that tension and possibility. Remember Alien? We loved Ripley because she risked her own life to save the cat. We’ll love your narrator if there’s a greater sense of tension and risk. Frankly, I think Cal is a pervert who’s rigged this situation to get the narrator onto the roof and attack her. That cork-supported AC unit seems too silly to NOT be a cat trap.
I look closer, at the point where the cat’s leg is stuck. It looks like the support nubs that held the A.C. unit off the tar roof had been replaced with bunches of wine corks.
Cal, you fucking asshole.
The cat must’ve gone under there looking for a mouse, or something, and knocked over the delicate, bullshit, balance beam system that Cal had implemented (probably drunk).
My Comments: Or it’s a devilishly genius cat trap rigged to lure the narrator to a Final Girl fate…
I press my full body weight against the unit and slowly feel it lift. I feel the scurry of weight underneath my feet, then hear something flop behind me. I drop the metal box hard.
Peee-oowwww-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh. Wuh. Wuh.
The A.C. unit rattles and slowly, unceremoniously, dies.
My Comments: Careful with the “I feel,” just “something scurries between my feet. It flops with a soft thud on the roof behind me.” No filtering.
As for the Peee-oowwww-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh. Wuh. Wuh. We need some form of attribution because otherwise it sounds like the cat is smooshed. To date the AC unit has made no sound, so you might intro an AC sound earlier. Personally, I was hoping the Peee-oowwww-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh. Wuh. Wuh, was drunken Cal getting his genitals crushed.
I look behind me, and Doctor Satan is still lying on the ground, his leg sprawled out in an awkward direction. I look at my watch. They’ll be coming out of the movie any minute. And without the A.C. unit…
Without the A.C….
…No. More. Marathon.
I look down at Doctor Satan and smile.
My Comments: What! Whoa! You’ve got a hurt cat. Your reader will give that top priority. No redirecting to the movie goers. Consider making the cat NOT hurt so you can take other action. The animal in peril is always paramount to the reader.
Slowly, gingerly, I approach. He hisses again, but this time he doesn’t have his heart in it. Or he’s just tired. I don’t know.
My Comments: Or the cat is dying. It might work better to watch Cal dying, slowly crushed by heavy machinery while Tommy in Friday the 13th screams, “Die! Die! Die!”
Yes, I vote that Cal is lying half-underneath the tumbled apparatus. He might even gasp the narrator’s name, thus giving her a name at the moment we love her the most.
He lets me scoop him up in my arms with minimal protest. I hope he doesn't scratch me.
“It’s alright,” I say.
We take our time down the fire escape. We’re not in any rush anymore.
My Comments: Keep the movie present. The sounds of the audience. The smell of popcorn. This is your lull.
In the next bit Jerry can ask, “Have you seen Cal?” and we’ll feel smart because we know drunk Cal is being crushed on the roof right now. Seriously, if you’re going to make Cal a drunk, cheap douche, you need to pay it off by making him a horror-trope-obsessed douche. Why’s he book so many slasher films? Cal is clearly a Phantom of the Opera type. And what of the rumor that a young college girl goes missing at least once each year (I made that up)? Front load this with some dread.
Does Cal work the projector(s)? I bet he lives in a rat hole in the booth surrounded by porn and soiled towels.
People are already filing out of the movie by the time I reach the alley. And I can see Jerry sweating through the window. I poke my head in through the door. The panicked look in Jerry’s eyes as he begs me to take over makes me smile.
“Jerry,” I say, “just sack up and pretend you’re twenty one,” then add, “I believe in you, bitch.”
Jerry looks at me like I just kissed him on the tip of his dick and nods, then turns to the first asshole that wants a beer and a fourth popcorn and says, “w—what can I get you?”
My Comments: Jerry asks, “Is Cal in the booth?” The narrator shrugs in response. Then Jerry asks, “Did you know the air conditioning quit just now?”
Make the reader feel smarter than Jerry. Then the narrator can say, “Here’s your broom,” and you button that scene with the gesture of handing it back.
Meanwhile, I scurry into Cal’s office with the cat. I place him on the ratty couch while I use the ancient PC to print out signs to tape to the doors.
I’ll make an announcement before the next movie starts, but I need the signs to prevent the non-hardcore ones from coming to just the late-night shows.
A.C. KILLED BY SATAN, it reads. COME BACK NEXT FRIDAY…THE 13th.
I hit print and, after what feels like twenty minutes later, grab the first copy, blow on the ink, and show it to Doctor Satan.
“What do you think?” I ask.
My Comments: I think that Cal’s going to rot on that steaming hot roof for weeks before they find his corpse. And by then all physical evidence will be obliterated. Then the police will find the skeletons of several film buffs, squirreled away in the basement.
I love that you blew on the ink. See how a valid action grounds a scene!
He doesn’t reply. But he doesn’t have to. It only occurs to me then why Doctor Satan really hangs around the theater on this day, of all days.
My Comments: It occurs to me that this story has enormous untapped potential. A whole world based on celebrating violence and sex. Maybe the narrrator has set the trap to catch Cal? This story could go in several directions. Whereever it goes, it should embrace the creepiness of its setting and nature, then go bigger. Much bigger.
Beyond that, thank you to Nick Gibney!
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