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Gloves Off: Round XV
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Today, let’s take a longer look at Bela Lugosi’s Not Dead by Cris Farias
To read the story as originally published, please click here.
Bela Lugosi’s Not Dead
August 18th, 1956 – Los Angeles, California.
November 1st, 2021 - Seattle, Washington.
The pain was gone. Puff.
I lied down to take a nap, and when I woke up the pain on my leg had been gone. I’d had that pain for months and could not take any pain killers because of a decades long addiction and a miserable time in a sanatorium, so sleeping was always accompanied by nightmares and the constant, stabbing pain.
My comments: Okay, this will sound terrible — very not-PC — but can you burn the language a little? For example, “The pain, such pain, pain that went on from when the roses bloomed until the snow until now, now that pain, it was — Puff. A little nap I took, and — Puff.”
It’s not enough to invent a story here, you should also invent a voice specific to this Hungarian-born actor. A man with a flair for drama. Your use of onomatopoeia is great, it signals the moment when standard language fails. “Puff.” Don’t go so far as to write in pidgin, but look for chances to mimic German or Yiddish sentence structure, placing the verb near the end. Or placing the object at the end in the style of “Throw mama from the train a kiss.” By burning the language in an appropriate way you’ll create authority and give the reader a joy she hasn’t felt since first learning to read.
As a last-ish resort, throw in a few words of Hungarian to suggest what can’t be expressed in English. But be careful because this device can get hackneyed fast.
However, this time, at my usual afternoon nap time, I went to sleep and had no dreams and no pain. So I woke up and didn’t open my eyes right away, for that might bring the piercing agony right back. I felt rested, but strange. Was it possible that my nerves had died from the constant pain making me permanently paralyzed? I didn’t know, so I didn’t move my body either, my eyes would stay closed for a while.
The next second, my ears caught my attention.
My comments: Here look at submerging the “I.” Weed out most of these “I”s and that will force you to turn the camera elsewhere. For example, “After the nap the same fan turned in the window. The tick-tick-ting of the blade turning, where it touched the wire, the tick-ticking sounded the same. The blinds rattled. Until a person opens his eyes the world contains nothing but such sounds. But the pain — puff. The noise of a car drove past, but the pain — puff.”
You’re building toward an incredible premise, so take baby steps. Give us lots of real details. Build your authority by making the language particular to Lugosi.
The room sounded different. So I listened: a slow but rhythmic bang-bang-bang of metal was coming from far away, and from about the same area another bang-bang-bang on wood was beating on a different, faster beat. Construction site. On another layer of sounds in the mixture, several zooms started low and became louder before becoming low again, as if ocean waves were passing by what I assumed to be a window. I started to wonder when did I get next to the beach when some sort of siren started to reach my ear. It sounded different, but it was definitely an ambulance siren.
It made no sense. This all couldn’t have lasted more than five seconds, but felt like a very long, confusing time.
My comments: Be careful of filtering. Don’t listen. Don’t highlight the narrator’s paying attention. Just deliver the sounds and smells, but do so in Lugosi’s voice (whatever way you invent that).
Another second and my attention went right back to my eyes – the eyelids were fighting the bright light, which made me see red. Several aggressive blinks later, I wondered if I were at a hospital, the brightest indoor place I could think of. But as my eyes finally started to work, I could see I was not in a hospital. Much worse, I seemed to be in a different country.
I was lying still on the hard, cold floor, but I could no longer stay that way, so just I sat up slowly but surely, and looked around.
“Hope?” I called for my wife. My voice failed in an unexpectedly high pitch.
My comments: Again submerge the I. For example, “As for the floor, pray you should never, ever find yourself stretched out after a nap on such a floor. Cold and hard, but like ice it felt. A voice called out, ‘Hope!’ But screeching it sounded, the way a bat would make, but still it was my voice. Again, I called, ‘Hope?’”
Silence followed. Not complete silence though: the zoom-zoom continued to come from the window along with the hammering.
The pain didn’t come back, so I looked at my legs.
My comments: Baby steps. Unpack your physical actions. It’s too soon to reinterate the sounds you’ve just introduced, so use that real estate to slow down your action. For example, “What was there to do? You get your elbows down and prop yourself up on your elbows, and look around. I looked around, but mostly I looked where my legs should be.”
“These are not my legs…” I was staring at the beautiful, long, sun-kissed skin of a woman’s legs. The last time I looked, I had a pair of proper seventy-three year old man’s legs: saggy, pale and ultimately ugly to look at. What kind of dream is this?
Overwhelming would have been an understatement. Even my thoughts sounded different. I had always heard my own thoughts with my Hungarian accent. That too, was different.
My comments: Okay, you can begin to lose the Hungarian accent here, but slowly. Demonstrate the change instead of announcing it. First show the foreign syntax, then morph away from it.
Please avoid received text (clichés) such as sun-kissed — unless you can amp them up to create a dated Lugosi language. For example, “These legs! Fay Wray should have such legs! Sun-kissed, these gams are. My wife, Hope — God bless her — should have such shapely pins!”
One more second and I was on my feet, as agile as a cat. This body was pain free, agile, light, and let me say: gorgeous. The hands, I inspected, were small and the fingers were short, so I tested the compelling finger waving that people loved in my acting days, but this time with teeny-weeny fingers, from pinky to pointer, with its black-polished nails – without my long fingers and doubles joints it just looked pathetic.
My comments: Please avoid abstracts such as ugly and gorgeous and pathetic. No shortcuts. Instead, unpack the details so the reader makes such judgments. Also, is the narrator dressed or nude? We see bare legs so this detail needs to be dealt with soon.
This could only be a lucid dream, what else would be the situation? Since it felt like a good dream, I was not even anxious. I looked at the legs again. The pain-free female legs. I touched them with the girly hands and pinched it playfully. And I felt it both on the leg and fingers. I investigated the feeling of the hands on the rest of the body: face, breasts, stomach… The hands felt the body and the body felt the hands. Very lucid hallucination, this one.
My comments: Nope, too soon to break the tension by dismissing or explaining the situation. Stay in the physical moment. Also, instead of repeating the no-pain detail so often, use that real estate to give us the setting. All we know so far is the floor and some vague sounds.
I searched around the room for a mirror. The room around me was a very strangely decorated living room, a style I couldn’t recognize. A giant black rectangle that reminded me of a school black board, only slightly smaller, sat where a television unit would be. A dark blue couch occupied the wall on the opposite side of the room. I had been lying down on the floor, by the side of a small table in the middle of the room. There were books everywhere. But no mirror in sight.
I checked the glass door, which I thought was a window before, trying to figure out where the beach was, but I couldn’t see water anywhere. Instead, there were weird cars passing by the street – looking and sounding different.
My comments: Careful of thought verbs: recognize, reminded, thought. Unpack your action. Climb to your feet. Tip toe. Hug yourself against the chill of the room.
And you do not get to say “where a television unit would be.” Describe it, interact with it, so that the reader realizes it’s a flat-screen television.
The rest of the apartment was also strangely decorated and the only mirror available was the one in the bathroom, readily reflecting an angelical face with blue eyes. The long, dark brown, wavy hair pleasantly tickled the back of the neck; it was soft and smelled like flowers.
“I could look at this face for a long time.” I enunciated, this time knowing my voice would match the body, and wondering how long I would be able to do so.
My comments: Since the narrator has dismissed the event as a dream, do you see how the tension is gone? Everything is so readily accepted. One possible downside is the loss of the wife, Hope. After all this painless relief and self-ogling, the sad truth is that Lugosi has lost his beloved wife.
Really unpack the mirror moment. See the reflection as a naked stranger, first. Then touch the glass. Then touch your own body.
I couldn’t help but think that if I had this face, I would have mirrors on every wall so I could look at myself at every opportunity I had. I’d be the modern version of Narcissus.
The contrast between my physical conditions pre and post nap was astounding. I jumped and skipped around, spanned and squatted as fast as a rabbit – no pain, no nothing. On top of it’s beauty and functionality, this body felt like an oasis in the desert. Explaining this accurately might prove to be an impossible mission, but picture a body that yells “touch me”.
My comments: Careful of the received text like “oasis in the desert.” Again, you can risk clichés but only if you burn the language to stress Lugosi’s English-as-a-second-language voice.
Once I was almost out of breath from all the hopping and skipping, I jumped on to the couch, which was made of the softest velvet I had ever touched, and looked around, waiting for my breathing to slow down.
The room was actually beautiful. Strange, but nice, clean and spacious. There were books everywhere: shelves and furniture where filled with them up to capacity, so the reminders set on piles on the floors by the only free wall in the room.
There was a bug somewhere. Or so I assumed. It was somewhere in the room.
My comments: Don’t assume. Just make the buzz a bug. Then make it not a bug. Note how all thought verbs — realize, assume, recognize, know — rob the story of tension because they tell the reader what to think and don’t allow the reader to experience the confusion of the narrator.
That, and I really want you to burn the voice. We need some sense of the Lugosi persona.
I followed the sound to the coffee table in the middle of the room, where it seemed to be coming from.
The only thing on the table besides books was a small black brick.
The brick was the bug. I mean, the brick was making the bug sounds.
My comments: Exactly. Make it a bug. Then make it not a bug. Don’t assume or decide or in any way lessen the tension until you reveal the true meaning of something.
Touching it didn’t sound like a very smart idea, I’ve learned early on in life that you don’t go about touching things you’ve never seen before. A bomb was the first thing the crossed my mind, but I couldn’t tell because I had never seen either a bomb or this brick looking thing that sounded like a busy bee.
My comments: Again, burning the voice would allow you to switch between first, second, and third person. For example, “A person touching such a buzzing brick, maybe it’s a bomb? A bomb maybe the likes of which no person’s ever seen, mind you, but a bomb nonetheless. Not a thing to touch lightly.”
I was on my way to the door, decided not to spend another minute in a room with a possible bomb in it, when someone started to unlock the door from the other side. A male head peaked through the widening gap:
“Knock-knock-knock…” the man said without actually knocking, coming right in.
My comments: Is the narrator naked?
I didn’t move a muscle.
“Eva! Why aren’t picking up the phone? Freaking the shit out of me, bro!” he asked while taking off his shoes and jacket “Been calling you for three days. Where the hell have you been?” He kicked the shoes under the small bench by the front door and started walking toward me.
I couldn’t say a word, because I didn’t know what to say. What could I say without sounding like I was having a mental breakdown? He stood close to me, I had to look up to see his face.
My comments: Okay, the call for Hope has been dropped. Time to shout out, “Hope!” once more. That was a dropped set-up.
He was wearing garments as bizarre as the decor of this place. I had never noticed such fashion anywhere in the US or Europe. His hair was completely undone, but the locks of golden, wavy hair didn’t look horrible. He had green eyes and a reddish beard, and smelled like cologne. He waited for me to say something.
My comments: Always try to avoid the “is” gerund construction. Here, “was wearing.” Instead, just use “He wore…” Or better yet, “Only a crazy man would wear such clothes, short pants short as underpants he had on. And his shirt! Like a big baby he looked in his undershirt with a smiling circle on his chest with printed under that the words Have a Happy Day!”
In other words, burn the language. Get inside the character. Unpack the clothes according to Lugosi’s perspective and allow us to decide they are bizzare.
He could see me… I mean, he could see the woman whose body I was occupying. Could he be just another part of this mystic endeavor? How did I end up here? When was I going to wake up?
I was starting to get lost in my attempt to make sense of this series of events when I felt the man’s cold fingers on my arm.
My comments: Again, look at your set-ups. The wife, Hope. The agile body. The glass door. The male Lugosi reacting like a man instead of a woman. Here at the end, you need to pay off as much as possible, as quickly as possible. The mystery man comes in so late that it feels like cheating to suggest he’s the menace. You might get away with that if Lugosi is awakened by the telephone, because that would make the man present in some form from the beginning.
Otherwise, how can you manage your set-ups? Consider throwing a book through the glass door. Asking, “What have you done with my Hope?” Then grab a dagger of broken glass and hold it to the man’s throat. End there.