Last update: 10 JUNE 2016.
Procession of the Black Sloth was first published in The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2007). It was the only story original to that collection.
It is available on-line on the Baen Books site as a sample chapter.
It can also be found in German translation in Hallucigenia (Golkonda Verlag, 2015), as "Die Prozession des schwarzen Faultiers".
The story was nominated for a 2007 International Horror Guild Award in the Long Fiction category.
It lost to Lucius Shepard’s Softspoken.
It was also nominated for a 2007 Shirley Jackson Award in the Novella category.
It lost to Lucius Shepard’s Vacancy.
The story has inspired multiple music projects.
Scottish author Alistair Rennie, recording under the name 2000 Ancient Tombs, released the track “Theme for “Procession of the Black Sloth”” on November 22, 2011. It can be found at Bandcamp.com and Youtube.com.
In 2012, a band calling itself Procession of the Black Sloth released a self-titled album on Bandcamp.com under Whispering Eye Recordings. Included are four tracks, two of which have titles directly referring to the text of the story:
2. Torsion temple
3. Eternally Trapped in the Chamber of Pounding
“We’re caretakers. Who are you, love?” (p.76)
The white iron doors were there: the Chamber of Pounding; (…) (p.76)
They have released other albums/songs with themes that can be found in Laird Barron’s works: prey/predator dynamics, parasites, hallucinations, etc.
Yet another song inspired by the story is "Chamber of Grinding" by Black Wolf, which can be found on Reverbnation. The lyrics make clear reference to story elements, and are reproduced here:
the chambers reek of putrid death
they've swallowed countless final breaths
the torture tables with their gore
rivers of blood snake the floor
the chambers vary by degree
looks like the chamber of grinding for me
heavy stone cold and wet
utter hopeless doom
as im dragged along the floor
I try to read the ancient doors
chamber of blood
chamber of maggots
chamber of mountain of knives
chamber of fire chamber of howling
chamber of fire and time
chamber of black sloth hell
eyes water lungs scream
open rotten wounds bleed
horrid ancient evil strength
permeating every thing
in the dull light old bones lay
varying stages of decay
hanging shadows strange angles
cant tell what is real
sanity under siege
nothing real that can be done
choking on the rancid air
mouth full of blood and dust
paralyzing morbid fear
arms and legs turned to mush
we are caretakers
judgement must be passed
those who perform crooked deeds
and malpractice are thus served
its not the afterlife I fear
it is the chamber drawing near
its not the afterlife I fear
it is the chamber drawing near
choking on the rancid air
mouth full of blood and dust
waiting for more bones to crush
In 2009 the story was being developed for film by Laird’s agent at the time, Brendan Deneen. The status of this project is unknown to me. [http://variety.com/2009/scene/markets-festivals/lit-agent-dives-into-films-1118006431/]
As you (re-)read Procession of the Black Sloth, watch for these Barronisms:
- Espionage / sabotage
- Mental fugue
- Lights flicker/die
- Distorted spatial perception
- Distorted time perception
- Odor of overripe fruit
- Odor of rank decay
- Piping and Fluting
- Scary old people
- Washington State
- Saturn Devouring His Son
- Faces are masks
- Unreliable recording
- Self-medication (alcohol)
- Whiskey (Scotch)
- Private thoughts spoken aloud by others
- Eerily apt dream/vision
- Grotesquely elongated body parts
NOTES ON THE TEXT
Page numbers used throughout refer to the paperback version.
Sloths are a species of tree-dwelling mammal, about the size of a human toddler, found only in Central and South America. They are slow-moving folivores, eating mainly leaves and deriving little energy from them. There are six extant species of two-toed and three-toed sloths, and myriad extinct species of ground sloths (some gigantic
species reaching 5.2 m in length and weighing 6 tons) and semi-aquatic marine sloths. Sloth fur color tends to greys and browns. Their sedate lifestyle encourages the growth of algae, which lends their fur a green coloration, providing camouflage in their arboreal environment. There are no black sloths, to my knowledge.
See Discussion for more information about the title.
"There are eighteen. One for every trespass." (p.31)
Di-Yu, the eighteen hells referenced in the story, is drawn from Chinese folklore/mythology which derives from the Hindu/Buddhist hells described in more detail in the Discussion section.
The beam illuminated the sleeping man's slack face: Ted K., a computer monitor salesman from Cleveland. (p.31)
The first of several characters in this story named after horror writers, Ted K. appears to be named for American author T.E.D. Klein. Klein is frequently cited in Laird’s blog posts and interviews. In a 2008 essay, Laird wrote:
Finally, I must also mention T.E.D. Klein's Dark Gods. I've read this collection of four superlative dark fantasy novellas many times over the years. It's one of those books that ends up on my rolltop desk alongside my thesauruses, dictionaries, and grammar guides --a kind of style handbook of the macabre. Klein, one time editor of Twilight Zone Magazine, is a master of quiet, creeping, cerebral horror. A consummate stylist, he effectively and relentlessly builds an atmosphere of dread before springing the shocks on his hapless, albeit impeccably drawn, characters. Read Dark Gods at night by the mellow glow of a cozy old lamp with some blankets and a snifter of brandy. I don't think any modern author surpasses Klein when it comes to the art of the spooky tale.
I can’t find a connection with Cleveland or computer monitor sales. Klein was born in New York City and lives there still. He was editor of Twilight Zone magazine (1981-1985) and CrimeBeat magazine (1991-1993). He has taught English at John Jay College.
Fifty-seven years old come August (p.31)
Klein was born in 1947, which would have made him 57 in August 2004. The story appears to have been written in 2006/2007. The story is clearly set in the 2000-2007 period, but it may not be possible to determine a more precise date from the text.
Let that be my epitaph—He was thorough. (p.32)
Is it ironic that Royce is considering what will be on his gravestone from the comfort of a plane taking him straight to hell? One can reasonably assume that he is already dead at this point, as indicated by the first line of the story, and the bathroom incident shortly to befall him.
I must look like hell. Or smell like it. (p.32)
The first of many casual references to hell/demons/damnation. The steady accumulation of these indirect clues have a cumulative, dripping-faucet effect on the reader. The semantic field of words relating or referring to "hell" includes the following:
Hell (19), fire (8), damn (7), dead/died/dying (13), devil (5), suffer (4), trespass (3), punishment (2), demon (1), soul (1), sin (1), torment (1)
How about you, Mildred? (p.32)
Mildred was the sixth most popular name in the United States in 1912 and remained popular into the 1920s, but has sharply dropped off in use since. [wikipedia]
Between these staccato shutter clicks of light and dark, something happened in the tarnished mirror. (p.32)
This scene feels very cinematic, but my experience with Asian horror cinema is 10-15 years out-of-date. If there is a specific film being referenced I either can't remember it, or never knew it.
What the hell was that? (p.33)
"Where's the fire?" (p.33)
They jettison shit at cruising altitude, you know. It freezes into a block and plummets to earth. Or is that a myth? Blue ice? God, I remember something about blue ice. Strange to think of such an inane urban legend. (p.34)
In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration released a document entitled “Fact Sheet – It Came From the Sky: Human Waste, Blue Ice and Aviation” to dispel the widespread belief that human waste was disposed of mid-flight. (It is no longer on the FAA site, but is still available at Archive.org.) It is not, but leaks can occur.
A 2003 episode of the HBO series Six Feet Under featured blue ice falling on a person and killing them.
He preoccupied himself with football. He was a season ticket holder in Seattle despite the fact he seldom went, mostly passed his tickets to friends and associates. (p.34)
Seattle, Washington has a professional American football franchise, The Seattle Seahawks. They joined the National Football League in 1976, and were playing in Qwest Field (later renamed) in downtown Seattle in 2007. The price range for season tickets in Seattle in 2010 was $52-$110. [http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/2010-05-11-ticket-prices-mainbar_N.htm]
What did they play there? He had no idea whatsoever. (p.34)
The most popular spectator sport in Hong Kong is horse racing. There are professional football (soccer), rugby, cricket, and basketball teams active in Hong Kong. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_in_Hong_Kong]
Mr. Jen's face was crumpled and scarred as a piece of old, battered tin. (p.34)
I don’t know if Mr. Jen is a reference to a specific person. His scarred appearance may be significant considering the environment in which he finds himself.
He held a sign that read MR. HAWTHORNE. (p.34)
American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is perhaps best known for his novel The Scarlet Letter. His novel The House of the Seven Gables and several of the short stories collected in Twice-Told Tales include ghosts and other supernatural elements.
drove him directly to the offices of Coltech Ltd. (p.34)
There is a Coltech Electronics Ltd. operating in Hamilton, Ontario, since the late 1990s. This is likely not the source of the name.
The grand Coltech seal, a lion rampant before crossed lightning bolts, loomed over all. (p.34)
The lion is a commonly used animal in heraldry, where it symbolizes bravery, valour, strength, and royalty. Rampant describes its “attitude” (the position of its body and limbs), which in this case would be erect, in profile, with forepaws raised before it, standing on one or both hind legs. Lightning bolts traditionally symbolize swiftness and power, but has come to signify electronic communication (and warfare) in the military, intelligence and signals community. See for example:
Here is your Octopus card, Mr. Hawthorne. (p.34)
Octopus is an electronic payment system which uses contactless smart cards. It launched in 1997 to serve the mass transit system in Hong Kong, and grew to be used for payment in retail stores, car parks, and vending machines. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octopus_card]
beehive hair (p.34)
The beehive hairstyle was popular in the United States and other Western countries throughout the 1960s. The name is derived from the conical shape of the massed hair, which resembles the shape of a traditional beehive. Photos can be found here: [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/18/beehive-hair-photos_n_3907214.html]
Mr. James extends his apologies. (p.34)
Martin Reardon James is named for Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). M.R. James is perhaps the best known English writer of ghost stories (after Shakespeare and Dickens). He published four collections of ghost stories (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) being the first), which are still highly regarded. He remains influential and widely read among practitioners and aficionados of the genre.
However, he took the liberty of reserving a room for you at the Hyatt. (p.34)
There are several Hyatt hotels in Hong Kong.
He eyed the Möbius strip configured to form a sideways eight. (p.34)
A Möbius strip is an object with one surface and one edge. It was discovered by German mathematician August Möbius in 1858. The sideways eight (or lemniscate) is the mathematical symbol for infinity, in use since 1655. Infinity is a relevant concept when thinking about the afterlife.
Oh, you have a three o' clock tomorrow with Mr. James and Mr. Shea at the Demeter Lounge. (p.35)
Miguel Shea is named for author Michael Shea (1946-2014). Laird admires Michael Shea’s work, and wrote the introduction to his omnibus collection The Autopsy and Other Tales (2008, Centipede Press), which is
reproduced on his blog here: [WP_140303] Shea wrote the introduction to Occultation and Other Stories.
Demeter is the mother of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades and taken to the Greek underworld. The goddess of the harvest, she put a stop to the growing of all plants to put pressure on Zeus for the return of her daughter, incidentally dooming all living things in the process. A custody share agreement was reached by which Persephone would only stay in the underworld for part of the year, during which time (winter or the dry season, according to different versions) plant life growth was temporarily reduced.
a subsidiary of his employers at BelCorp (p.35)
There is a Belcorp, in the cosmetics business since 1968 in Peru, which is unlikely to be an inspiration. An alien entity carrying the name of the Moabitish god Belphegor (Baal-Peor) plays an important role in three of the stories in this collection ("Bulldozer", Hallucigenia, and The Imago Sequence), so it may have played a factor in the naming of this corporate entity.
Rumors surfaced regarding industrial sabotage, the sale of trade data, and an alleged network of moles... (p.35)
Concerns about spies, moles and/or sabotage are also present in "Old Virginia", "--30--", "X's for Eyes", and "Man With No Name", among others.
Shea, in his role as major-domo... (p.35)
A major-domo refers to the head (major) person of a household (domo) staff, one who can speak and act on behalf of the owners. Informally, the term can also refer to an employee who oversees the day-to-day operation of a company.
He referred to the enterprise as a snipe hunt. (p.35)
A snipe hunt is a practical joke played on newcomers which consists of sending them on an imaginary errand or giving them an impossible task to perform. Snipes are shorebirds, difficult to hunt (hence the term "sniper"), and inexperienced campers have traditionally been sent to capture make-believe "snipes" using a preposterous method. More generally, a snipe hunt is any situation which ostensibly has to be taken seriously but which one believes is fundamentally ludicrous.
"But, hell, whatever makes the boys in Georgia happy..." (p.35)
The Georgia in question is the southern American state, the capital of which is Atlanta, which is where the head office of either Belcorp or Coltech (or both) is located.
"Shrink is to be expected", Shea said... (p.35)
Shrinkage, shortened to shrink, is an accounting term for product which is lost between manufacture and point of sale. The term encompasses causes in which there is no ill intent (accidental damage, perishable items past their expiry date, shipping errors, etc.) in addition to internal and external theft.
"Brendan Coyne," ... (p.36)
The name may be a reference to writer John Coyne (b.1937), who has written several horror novels and who has appeared in horror anthologies. I can find no references to the writer in Laird's interviews and blog posts. An artist by the name of John Coyne (presumably not the writer) presented Laird with a sculpture [Lj_110903] in 2011, after the publication of this story.
He downed a huge gulp of whiskey and looked at his watch. (p.36)
I cannot recommend that you play the Laird Barron drinking game, but here are the rules:
- Purchase a bottle of scotch. Recommendations here: [WP_140529].
- When you come across the words "whiskey", "scotch", or any brand of whiskey or scotch, take a sip.
- When you come across another Barronism, finish your glass.
Keep emergency contact information handy and check in with a loved one regularly. (If you are playing, I skipped a mention of "scotch" at the bottom of page 35, and won't be pointing out further appearances, for liability reasons.)
"I don't hire schmucks, do I?" (p.36)
Schmuck comes from the Yiddish "shmok", which literally means "penis". Figuratively, it has come to mean "a stupid or foolish person". [Merriam-Webster]
A tiny bit of graft for harmless favors was simply a perk of the trade. (p.36)
We can add "corruption" to "invasion of privacy", if we're tallying Royce's karmic debts.
Royce couldn't have imagined a more monotonous, soul-killing assignment. (p.37)
Royce knew would shock the hell out of working stiffs in Detroit (p.37)
Henry Ford, who sponsored the development of the assembly line technique of mass production, established his motor company in Detroit. Many other manufacturing companies (motor vehicle and otherwise) established themselves in the area during the 20th century, and the city became synonymous with mass production, manufacturing, and blue-collar jobs.
They slaved away as if the Devil himself were standing over their shoulders. (p.37)
Royce was ensconced in the Lord Raleigh Arms... (p.37)
There does not appear to be a Lord Raleigh Arms, neither in Hong Kong nor anywhere else that I could find. Lord Raleigh may be a reference to either Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan spy and explorer whose exaggerated accounts contributed to the legend of "El Dorado", or John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) the Victorian/Edwardian physicist who discovered Argon.
If there is a building in Hong Kong or elsewhere which served as the inspiration for the Lord Raleigh Arms, I am not aware of it.
Many of them wore dust masks common in China and Japan (p.38)
A real and growing trend which has spawned an industry. In 2013, Chinese shoppers spent US$141 million on face masks on the country's largest e-commerce site. [Quartz.com]
Elvira, as the English-speaking residents referred to the haunt... (p.38)
Elvira is the horror hostess character played by American actress Cassandra Peterson. She was the host of Los Angeles television program Elvira's Movie Macabre (1981-1986) and co-wrote the movie Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, in which she starred. She was also associated with comic books, a home video series, calendars, and video games.
One of the janitors confided "little friends" followed her around. "Kids?" Royce said... (p.38)
This echoes a scene in T.E.D. Klein's "Children of the Kingdom" where the superintendent of a retirement home father confides in the narrator (who will soon place his father there):
"Rats not gonna bother my machines," added the superintendent. "They got no business here. Me, I think it was los niños. Kids."
"Kids?" said my wife and I in unison, with Calzone half a beat behind.
"You mean children from the neighborhood?" asked Karen. (...) "What would they want in a place like this? How could they get in?"
He shrugged. "I don' know, lady. I don' see them. I only know is hard to keep them out. (...)
Laird has praised "Children of the Kingdom", and the collection (Dark Gods) in which it is housed, on multiple occasions. See: [LEZ140327] [Lj_070725]. From the essay "The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With":
Dark Gods has exerted some influence on my writing career. It reinforced my long held notion that novella-length horror is the genre at its most sublime. [Archive.org]
"Little friends" make a reappearance in The Croning:
Ye wanna steer clear o’ ’im and ’is little friends. Ye shall come to a nasty end nosin’ ’bout that gent.”
The Spy knew the refrain. He wondered aloud as to the nature of these little friends.
“Ain’t ever seen ’em, just ’eard of ’em. Cripples and deformed ones. Some ain’t got no arms or legs is what I ’ear. They crawl along behind ’im, see? Wrigglin’ in the dirt all ruddy worm-like.” “
Whether these are the same type of creatures described in this story is unclear.
thinking of the brats that populated Golding's dark vision. (p.38)
The allusion here is to William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies (1954), in which pre-adolescent boys are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific during a nuclear war. The book "portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves in a paradisiacal country, far from modern civilisation, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state". [Wikipedia]
recorded all conversation via a microwire (...) (p.39)
Microwires have a metal core and a glass coating. They were "created in the Soviet Union for military purposes". They are 3 to 5 times thinner than a human hair, and can be used to store data. [phys.org] [technovelgy.com]
keep tabs on a cheating spouse at the local Dew Drop Inn. (p.39)
There are roadside motels by that name throughout the United States and Canada.
a smoky, dim place with poker lamps on chains (...) (p.39)
I'm unable to determine if "poker lamp" refers to something more specific than a lamp used to illuminate a card table. The words conjure up images of stained glass lampshades (Tiffany lamps) and conical, green, glass lampshades.
Jodie Samuels was quite the character; (p.39)
There is a contemporary horror writer by the name of Mark Samuels, a fictionalized version of whom appears in Laird's story "More Dark":
He even went so far as to out that British hack, Mark S, as one of the original instigators, although that’s a mighty generous accusation considering Mark S’s best ideas were all previously written by Lovecraft, Aickman.
(Mark has, unsurprisingly, expressed dismay at this characterization. [TLO_121218])
Laird has stated that he enjoyed Samuel's story "Ghorla", which appeared in Inferno (Tor, 2007), but this was after the publication of Procession (and before the writing of "More Dark"). [Lj_080114]
I'm not confident in this identification. If there is another person to whom the name might refer, I am not aware of it.
Coyne's father, a career Army lieutenant, dropped dead of a heart attack at a formal dinner... (p.40)
Laird father's John was "a Marine and Vietnam veteran" (Diabolus Knocks, foreword to Ray Russell's The Case Against Satan). He trained in infantry and served two tours during the war [Jason Barron Blog], and raced in the Iditarod 26 times [Iditarod.com]. While they are estranged [Lj_11011], John was alive when the story was written, and still is, to my knowledge.
There wouldn't be a momentous revelation, no potboiler twist. (pp.40-41)
A potboiler is "a literary composition of poor quality that was written quickly to make money (to boil the pot)" [WordNet Search]. This may be a comment on how long and difficult this story was to write (see Discussion), or a wink to the reader, since this story includes what could be considered a traditional twist: the protagonist is dead, and he is in (some versions(s) of) Hell.
Hypersensitivity, too much liquor and caffeine, cigarettes and lack of sleep coupled paranoia and mania to birth a form of high-functioning schizophrenia. (p.41)
See article on self-medication. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by "distortions in thinking, perception, emotions, language, sense of self and behaviour. Common experiences include hearing voices and delusions." [World Health Organization]
to marry the cute orthodontist in training, Jenny Hodge. (p.41)
Brian Hodge is a horror writer who has written 10 novels, and over 100 short stories, novellas, etc. Laird mentioned his 2011 collection, Picking the Bones ("Horror, crime, generic lit, smooth as glass, tough as nails.") in a short list of Shirley Jackson Award nominees he admired. [Lj_120423] He first appeared in print in 1988, but I don't know when Laird first read him, or whether this character's name bears any relation. The other characters in this story whose names refer to authors have the same gender as these authors, so I may be mistaken.
Shit, I'm the poor man's James Bond. (p.41)
James Bond is the British Secret Service agent created by Ian Fleming. He has appeared in 14 novels written by Fleming, over 40 by other authors, and more than 20 films. Laird has written that "Fleming’s Bond novels were fixtures in my family’s library." [WP_150120] Laird contributed the story "The Cyclorama" to the James Bond-themed anthology License Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond (2015, ChiZine Publications). That story refers to its protagonist as "Double-0-Seven" but does not use the name "James Bond".
played shrill, discordant tunes on various woodwinds... (p.41)
in the Governor White ballroom. (p.41)
I'm not sure who "Governor White" might be. There were no governors of Hong Kong by that name. Texas, Arkansas, North Dakota, and the Roanoke Colony, among other places, have had governors named White.
She resembled almost completely an aunt on his mother's side, Carole Joyce, ... (p.41)
Carole Joyce is named, I believe, after writer Joyce Carol Oates, whose varied works, particularly her short fiction, includes horror. In 2007, Laird described her as a "stalwart of the short medium (...) show(ing) no signs of fading from the scene" ["Twenty-First Century Ghosts", Locus Magazine]. In 2010 he included her story "Where are you Going, Where have you Been?" in a list of "titles I've really enjoyed over the years". [Lj_100822]
Carole Joyce had been a large woman as well, and vaguely unwholesome in her appetites. (p. 42)
In Weird Tales 359, Barron wrote:
“The elderly antagonist of “Shiva” gets to something else I began writing about early on and have developed assiduously ever since – the concept of decrepitude and/or agedness masking a kind of satanic virility. (…) The idea that wisdom which accumulates with age might serve to corrupt rather than enlighten, that a mentor would choose to embrace evil, or that an elder might possess hideous physical strength and be randy as a billy goat aren’t unique literary devices, however as a shorthand for anthropomorphizing (…) ancient evils, these are
saws with a few teeth left, so to speak.”
Buddhism, Taoism and more esoteric systems (p. 42)
Buddhism is an ascetic religion and/or philosophical movement originating in India sometime after the 5th century BCE and exported to eastern Asia around the 1st century BCE. There are a great number of Buddhist branches and schools, which vary widely in beliefs, goals, and practices, but are united in generally following the teachings
attributed to Gautama Buddha.
Taoism is a spiritual/philosophical/religious tradition originating in China in the 4th century BCE with the dissemination of the Tao Te Ching, a work attributed to Laozi. It emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, (translated as the “way”, the “path”, or the “principle”) something that is both the source and the force behind
everything in existence.
she'd told a wide-eyed Royce numerous hair-raising parables about wretched boys in foreign cultures going to the thousandfold hells in a hand basket where they were inevitably certain to suffer the most exquisite torments imaginable. (p. 42)
The story in a nutshell.
Mrs. Tuttle and Mrs. Fox, the inseparable canasta partners; (p. 42)
Lisa Tuttle (b. 1952) is a British science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer. She has shared the table of contents with Laird in numerous anthologies: Inferno (Tor, 20) and Creatures: 30 Years of Monsters (Prime, 2011), Blood and Other Cravings (Tor, 2011), and Nightmares: A Decade of Modern Horror (Tachyon, 2016). These all
post-date the composition of Procession, and I could find no direct mention of her in Laird’s blog posts or interviews, but it seems likely that the name refers to her.
Janet Fox (1940-2009) was an American fantasy and horror writer. I could find no evidence that Laird was familiar with her work, which appeared in multiple anthologies throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but she appears to be the likeliest candidate for this name.
Canasta is a traditional card game in the rummy family.
Erma Yarbro, an emaciated wasp from Yonkers who made no secret her dislike of the Far East and its inhabitants; (p. 42)
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (b. 1942) is an American horror writer. She has won the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award (2009) and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement (2012). She is known for her historical horror novels about the vampire Compte de Saint-Germain, in which series there are over 30 books. I could find no evidence that
Laird was familiar with her work, , but she appears to be the likeliest candidate for this name. If there is a significance to the name “Erma”, I’m not aware of it.
Mrs. Grant, who'd lost her legs to diabetes and trolled the quadrangle in a motorized wheelchair; (p. 42)
Mrs. Grant alludes to prolific American writer Charles L. Grant (1942-2006), who wrote numerous "quiet horror" stories set in the fictional New Jersey town of Oxrun Station. [Personal communication]
and solemn Mrs. Cardin, an inveterate smoker with a button in her trachea. (p. 42)
Mrs. Cardin alludes to American writer Matt Cardin (b.?) whose collection Dark Awakenings (2010) Laird has praised on his LiveJournal [Lj_100628]. [Personal communication]
a shibboleth that spoke of subterranean things (p.42)
A shibboleth is “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief an usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning” (Merriam-Webster)
He wore a Houston Rockets warm-up suit (p.43)
The Houston Rockets are a professional basketball team operating in the National Basketball Association. Team colours are red, silver, black, and mustard, and one can find warm-up suits in silver/red, black/red, mustard/red, among other combinations of those colours.
affiliated with the Tong. (p.43)
Tongs (“gathering place” or “hall” in Cantonese) are organizations found in the Chinatowns of North America. These “secret socities or sworn brotherhoods” (wikipedia) provide important community services for recent Asian immigrants, and are often tied to organized criminal activity. They are similar in structure and function to the Triad found in Hong Kong and other British-controlled parts of Southeast Asia, which is perhaps what Royce meant here.
acknowledged his halting attempts at Cantonese (p.43)
English was the only official language of Hong Kong until 1974, when Chinese was added. The majority of the population of Hong Kong migrated from the Guangdong province of China, where dialects of Yue Chinese are spoken. Cantonese is the variety of Yue Chinese spoken in Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong.
from his usual haunts; (p.43)
In addition to the semantic field of "hell" noted previously, we can identify a related semantic field, one of words relating or referring to "ghosts":
Ghosts (4), haunt (3), disembodied (1), soul (1), spiritualist (1)
Gerald, the late-shift barkeep (p. 44)
I was unable to determine whether this name is a reference to a particular person.
Shelley Jackson recently signed on as a cultural attaché (p.44)
The name is a reference to Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), the American horror writer for whom the Shirley Jackson Awards are named. These are awarded for “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. [Wikipedia]
Laird’s collection ‘The Imago Sequence and Other Stories’, in which this story first appeared, won the 2007 Shirley Jackson Award in the Collection category.
She'd graduated from Western with honors (p. 45)
This may be a reference to Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington, 145 km north of Seattle, which is the area from which Royce hails. The University of Western Ontario rebranded itself as Western University in 2012, five years after the story was written, and no other universities are known by that single appellation, to my knowledge.
Manny Poe, Manicevic Poe, something similar. (p.46)
I could not determine whether Manny/Manicevic was a reference to a particular person. Poe is undoubtedly a reference to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), an influential and universally-known American writer of horror fiction.
He smoked a Cohiba cigarette (p.44)
Cohiba is a Cuban brand of cigarette, in production since 1987, known for its very strong flavour. They are available in duty-free shops in airports worldwide.
"The damned busybody crones," he said. (p.45)
The crone is a stock figure in traditional folk tales. An old woman, often malicious or sinister, and frequently one who trades in the supernatural. Crones appear in several stories by Laird, notably in Hand of Glory, and in his novel The Croning.
She convinces her elderly chums to take back the so-called epithets, like hag and crone and treat them as tools of empowerment. (p. 45)
The hag is another recurring character in folk tales, sharing many characteristics, and often used interchangeably, with the crone. A wizened old woman, frequently malevolent, who may be a witch, or a form chosen by a shapeshifting creature. The “Old Hag” was the (literal) nightmare spirit in English folklore, the creature who sat on the sleeper’s chest, sent him/her nightmares, and prevented him/her from moving or breathing upon waking. See notes on “Old Virginia” for a longer discussion.
"The Procession of the Black Sloth." (p. 45)
See discussion below for more about this name.
Rebellion against foot-binding and the like. (p. 46)
Foot-binding was practised in China from the 10th century until it was banned in 1911. The feet of young girls were bound to prevent their growth. To produce the desired effect, the toes were curled under until they broke. Held in place, the foot was bent further until the arch broke. The freshly broken foot, folded along the seam created on the arch, was bound solidly in place. In addition to the deformation resulting from the breaking and binding, the practice led to ingrown toenails (they sometimes were removed entirely to prevent this outcome), poor circulation which would inhibit the healing of injuries to the foot, loss of toes, loss of balance, and, once the bones finally healed, frequent re-breaking of said bones. It was a symbol of social status, an indication that the owner of the feet was not required to use them for anything as plebeian as employment. [Wikipedia]
It might be a black weasel or marmot. (p. 46)
A weasel is any mammal of the genus Mustela, which includes the least weasel, polecats, stoats, ferrets, and minks. 10 of the 17 species in that genus have "weasel" in their common names. They are found in the northern parts of Eurasia, North and Central America, and some parts of Indonesia. There are some species of weasels (such as the European mink) in which individuals might have black or black-brown fur.
Marmots are not weasels. They are rather part of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), related to groundhogs and tree squirrels. There are species of marmots in which individuals have dark fur, which is unusual. As prey animals, their colouration tends to match the ground in which they burrow.
As noted in the discussion below, black weasel is the correct answer.
Moon goddess nonsense, or some such effing crap. (p. 46)
"Moon goddess nonsense" may refer to 20th century popular representations of traditional pagan beliefs which identify the moon with female goddesses, and women in general, due to the coincidence, significant or otherwise, between the lunar cycle and the human female reproductive cycle. Such beliefs appear to enjoy a greater popularity with women than with men, in no small part due to theme of female empowerment with which they are associated.
she goes to mass at the cathedral on Bonham. (p. 46)
This refers to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, inaugurated in 1888. It is located on Caine road, which continues where Bonham road ends (see attached map).
This hoodoo isn't like her. (p. 46)
Hoodoo is traditional African folk magic, distinct from Voodoo, which is a system of beliefs derived from Hoodoo developed by displaced Africans slaves in America and the Caribbean. The term is often used indiscriminately to refer to any form of witchcraft or magical belief system.
My own dear mum went through a New Age period. (p. 46)
New Age is a term which is used to refer to the wide variety of belief systems which emerged into popular consciousness (and popular culture) in the 1970s. Though very different belief systems are grouped under the same umbrella, one characteristic which many of them share is the belief in the perfectibility of the human individual/race/spirit/etc through esoteric or unconventional means.
She wanted to commune with Atlanteans. (p. 46)
Atlanteans are the purported residents of Atlantis, a fictional state introduced by Plato in his allegorical works Timeaus and Critias. Located by him on a continent in the Atlantic Ocean, it is entirely submerged due divine displeasure. While the scientific and scholarly consensus is that there is no such sunken continent, there is also no shortage of people who, from the 19th century to the present day, have devoted their energies to establishing its existence.
Past-life regression, a technique by which a suggestible person is placed in a hypnotic trance and encouraged to confabulate, and spirit communication, in which a medium pretends to speak with invisible spirits in exchange for money, have been used to establish contradictory accounts of the lives of Atlanteans.
...it'll be back to bunt cakes and macramé. (p. 46)
I believe "bunt cakes" refers to "Bundt cakes", a cake baked in a Bundt pan which gives the cake a distinctive ring shape with fluted sides, tapering towards the top. From Wikipedia: "The style of mold in North America was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s, after cookware manufacturer Nordic Ware trademarked the name "Bundt" and began producing Bundt pans from cast aluminum."
Macramé is a form of artisanal textile making which using knotting. It was popular during the Victorian era, and experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, when it was used to produce wall hangings, clothing, and other decorative items. Coyne's mother would be in the right demographic to have experienced the 1970s resurgence of the art form.
...and a mussed edition of the I Ching he'd accidentally kicked under a chair. (p. 46)
The I Ching is a Chinese divination text which dates to the first millennium BCE. The text uses 64 groups of 6 lines, called hexagrams, in which each line is either broken or unbroken. Each line and hexagram is associated with a cryptic statement. It came to greater cultural prominence in America in the 1960s and 1970s. See note on New Age, above.
Then there was the Asian horror cinema, which was gaining popularity abroad, but left Royce cold.
This story was "an homage to horror, especially that found in Asian cinema." [SOY_090916] See discussion below for more about the films that inspired Laird.
A man in office clothes shuffled into a vast cavern and approached what soon resolved as a mountain of knife blades. (p. 47)
There is a 2015 Singaporean film titled Mountain of Knives, but I was unable to determine if any Asian film pre-dating the composition of this story which features such a scene. The "Mountain of Knives" is one of the torments to be found in some Chinese conceptions of hell (Diyu). Sinners are either thrown from cliffs to land on mountains of knives, or are required to climb such a mountain, or trees studded with knives and sharp thorns.
This is an example of the "eerily apt dream/vision" motif that recurs in Barron's fiction, in which the protagonist's subconscious, having understood the predicament it finds itself in, communicates this understanding to its conscious counterpart through dreams or visions.
He was the spitting image of a guy who'd operated a salvage yard in Royce's home town. (p. 47)
Many of the characters who populate this story look familiar to Royce. In addition to the contestant, there is Chu who “looked a lot like an exchange student Royce tangled with his sophomore year”, Agatha, who “resembled almost completely an aunt on his mother’s side”, the other elderly women, who were “the ghosts of teachers, librarians and
neighbors who’d populated his childhood”, and the young man with the swimmer’s body, who has his brother’s eyes and build. Doppelgängers are a recurring concern in Barron’s stories and, according to the author’s blog posts on the subject, in his personal life. [WP_130911]
Mrs. Ward gnawed at the bones with an almost sexual intensity that called to mind the hoary old painting of Saturn chewing his hapless children to bits. (p. 51)
"I'm enjoying Journey to the West. Have you ever read that one, Mr. Hawthorne?" (p. 51)
Journey to the West is a classic of Chinese literature, first published in 1592. It is a fictionalized account of the 7th century pilgrimage of Chinese monk Xuanzang, who went to India to recover sacred Buddhist texts. In the novel, he is accompanied by three disciples, including Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. During the pilgrimage, they have encounters with various demons, divine beings, and animal spirits. As Xuanzang’s flesh is believed to grant
immortality, a great number of them seek to eat him.
This one's a tricky devil. (p. 52)
"We know our hell-dwellers, and you are certainly one. Girls?" (p. 52)
The girl in 333. (p. 53)
Popularly believed to be associated with the Christian devil (himself an ambiguous figure), the
number 666 is the “number of the beast”, as described in Revelation 13:18:
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666. (New International Version)
The beast in question could be either one of the two described in that text, but it has come to be identified with the antichrist, Satan, Hell, etc. The use of 333 is likely meant to be suggestive.
What the hell is your game, lady? (p. 53)
Dubbing was poor and her mouth and the sound from her mouth moved at different speeds. (p. 53)
Dubbing (called “revoicing” within the film industry) refers to the practice of translating a foreign language film by replacing the voices of the screen actors by new dialogue recorded in the local language. Synchronizing the new dialogue with the lip movements of the screen actors is difficult to achieve since, by virtue of being in a different language, the new sounds are different from the ones originally produced.
"Di Yu," the nurse said in a hoarse monotone. (p. 53)
Di Yu is the realm of the dead in Chinese mythology, drawing from Taoism, Buddhism, and traditional folk beliefs. It is a purgatory, in which the dead must atone for the sins committed in life by undergoing punishments, in preparation for reincarnation. Conflicting accounts of the mythical realm have divided it into 3, 10, 18, or more “courts”, “levels”, or “chambers” – each one dealing with a specific transgression and punishment.
See Discussion below for additional information.
2: CHAMBER OF GRINDING (p. 53)
The grinding torture consists of putting sinners in a grinding machine after which they are naturally “ground into a bloody pulp”. It is reserved for “wealthy men who do no good and waste food”. [Wikipedia] [Source]
Its placard read: BLACK SLOTH HELL. (p.53)
See Discussion below.
The metal tag on the exhibit said: Megatherium. S. America, ca Pleistocene epoch. (p. 54)
Megatherium (“great beast”) was a genus of giant ground sloth found in South America from 5 million years BP (early Pliocene) until 10 thousand years BP (late Pleistocene). One of the largest land mammals to have roamed the Earth, it was roughly elephant-sized. It was herbivorous, and suggestions that it may have been partly carnivorous, based on certain anatomical features found mainly in carnivores, are controversial. Its extinction coincides with the expansion of human hunters over the continent, and may have been precipitated by the fragmentation of its habitat due to climatic changes. It’s migration to the Chinese underworld is something of a puzzle, and is probably
best explained by the protagonist’s suggestibility and expectations.
Her manager didn't know much English either, was only able to relate the name of the theater—The Monsoon Gallery, which specialized in independent and art films. (p. 54)
I was not able to find such a theater in Hong Kong, nor do I know which theater might have inspired it.
Ming Cho, chief liaison to a mainland conglomerate (p. 55)
I was unable to determine if Ming Cho is a reference to a particular person.
and led the restaurant in a rousing chorus of "Camp Town Races" (p. 55)
“Camptown Races”, as “Gwine to Run All Night, or De Camptown Races” is popularly known, is a traditional minstrel song published in 1850 by American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster. Many of Foster’s songs were used in minstrel shows, which were popular entertainments that depicted African Americans unflatteringly for the amusement of white
audiences. Songs of his that might be familiar to a modern listener include “Oh! Susanna” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”.
Cho and Liu Zhu came to the rescue (p. 55)
I was unable to determine if Liu Zhu is a reference to a particular person.
About two-thirds of the way through the meal Royce noticed Bill Zander—Billy Zed, the resident Brits called him (p. 55)
I was unable to determine if Bill Zander is a reference to a particular person.
Shea privately informed him Bill had partaken earlier of some particularly potent Thai grass they'd gotten from a Cambodian in the Mount Victoria region. (p. 56)
Thai grass is likely a reference to cannabis, possibly to “Thai sticks”, a form of the drug which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It was considerably more potent than other forms of cannabis available in the West at the time, because “Thai cannabis growers had for hundreds of years selected seeds from their strongest plants, which
coupled with Thailand's long growing season, high temperatures, and rich volcanic soil, conspired to produce an exceptionally potent product.” [Wikipedia]
Mount Victoria may be a reference to Victoria Peak, a mountain in the western half of Hong Kong Island.
Balmy drizzle cut through the smog, (p. 56)
Air pollution is a problem in Hong Kong, causing 4 deaths a day on average in 2007. It boasts the world’s highest traffic density, coal burning power plants, and a proximity to factories in Guangzhou and the Guangdong area. Low visibility due to smog afflicted the area 1 day out of every 5 in 2004.
Mrs. Degive from 129 (p. 57)
I was unable to determine if Mrs. Degive is a reference to a particular person.
The label said: M.POE.; D. ANDREWS; J. STEVENS. CHAMBER OF MAGGOTS. (p. 58)
J. Stevens may be a reference to American poet Wallace Stevens, mentioned in interviews, blog posts, and in the epigraph that leads off Hallucigenia. [Lj100731] [CWM21]
It might also be a reference to Australian horror writer Bryce J. Stevens (b. 1957) but I can find no reference to him in any of Laird’s writings.
Continuing with the theme of woman horror writers, D. Andrews may be a reference to Virginia C. Andrews (1923-1986), an American writer of “gothic horror and family sagas”. She is perhaps best known for her 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic. [Wikipedia]
even the mini bottles of Christian Brothers he kept in the pantry (p. 60)
Christian Brothers is a mark of brandy sold by the religious order of the Christian Brothers since 1882 from their vineyard in California. It appears to have a reputation as a low-end, inexpensive liquor.
an elegant gentleman named Bertram Harris (p. 62)
Bertram Harris could be a reference to English horror writer Steve Harris (b. 1954), or to the poet of the same name whom Laird mentioned on his blog [Lj_110706B], or to Thomas Harris (b. 1940), American suspense writer best known for his novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, mentioned in passing on Laird’s blog [Lj_110708]. It could conceivably also be a reference to American mystery writer Charlaine Harris (b. 1951), well-known for The Southern Vampire Mysteries series (source material for the HBO series True Blood), but about whom Laird has never written, to my knowledge.
He'd heard the cautionary tales about Mickeys in the wine, the date rape drugs kidnapers preferred. (p. 62)
A Mickey, or Mickey Finn, is a sedative drug slipped into someone’s drink, reputedly named for a Chicago bartender of the 19th century, who was alleged to have drugged and robbed his customers. [Source]
Drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) commonly stems from the surreptitious administration of an incapacitating agent. Rohypnol, also known as “roofies”, may be the most notorious, but just as certainly as the nearest star is the Sun, the most common date rape drug is alcohol, [Source] which is frequently self-administered. No matter what the source of intoxication, drug facilitated sexual assault is reprehensible.
at a tourist castle in the Loire Valley. (p. 64)
There are over 50 castles to which this could refer, as can be seen on the handy tourist map here, and I could not determine which particular one Royce visited. The lack of snowy peaks in that region would seem to rule out Count Mock’s castle, from The Croning.
And childlike figures cowered beneath the killing tables in the lakes of gore, bloated bellies like famine victims, and unnaturally slender necks—cranes' necks—and alabaster faces that shone with pure, ravenous horror. (p. 64)
Unnaturally long necks are found in other stories from this collection (Old Virginia, Hallucigenia), among many others, as are grotesquely enlarged/elongated parts (hands, tongues) and bodies more generally.
"Hell yes." Royce dragged on the cigarette and blew a rolling cloud of smoke. "Hell, yes.” (p. 65)
He told himself the trespass wasn't premeditated (p. 66)
Barron uses “trespass” here in the narrow sense of “wrongful entry on real property”. He uses the word two other times in the story, in the more general sense of “a sin or other wrong or improper act”. The first is in the first sentence ("There are eighteen. One for every trespass.") and on the next to last page:
"They've a chamber for every trespass, you see."
"Eighteen," Royce said. "Eighteen."
It's a nice bit of symmetry. If this is the thematic axis around which the story revolves, then p.66 arguably marks the turning point, so to speak.
Cousin Tobe's farm (p. 67)
This might be a reference to Tobe Hooper, American screenwriter and film director. He directed Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, and Salem’s Lot, among others.
Instead he poured himself a tall glass of XO (p. 68)
XO (“extra old”) is a grade of cognac, designating a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored at least six years.
I fucked you because you look exactly like a guy I knew in college. (…) I couldn't get over how much his girlfriend and I looked alike, either; we could've been sisters. (p. 69)
Two more instances of doubles.
a seaside resort at the edge of the New Territories. (p. 69)
The New Territories is the largest of three main regions of Hong Kong – it is situated between Kowloon and mainland China, and encompasses 86.2% of the territory and 50% of the population.
You've got to see the cavaedium (p. 72)
The cavaedium (“hollow room”) is the central hall or court of an Ancient Roman house. An inner courtyard, open to the sky in order to let in sunlight.
It's just an atrium (p. 72)
Atrium and cavaedium are treated as synonyms by a majority of modern sources, and I was unable to determine what difference there may have been between the two words for Roman architects, if any.
"It was not the fucking Yakuza," Mr. James said. (p. 72)
Laird’s novella Man with No Name features Yakuza enjoying the hospitality of a remote and slightly sinister countryside hotel.
"This looks like a nice place for second tier entertaining," (p. 72)
“Second tier entertaining” is not an idiom with which I’m familiar. It could literally mean “entertaining which is not top tier / for those who are not top tier”, but more seems to be implied.
The garden contained a sand pit and shrubbery, a Koi pond and some marble benches. (p. 72)
Koi ponds are ponds which hold koi, a species of ornamental carp.
The broad's like Lon Chaney. (p. 73)
Lon Chaney (1883-1930) was an American film and stage actor. “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, he developed ground-breaking make-up techniques to transform his appearance to portray such characters as Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) and Erik (the eponymous phantom in The Phantom of the Opera). His son, Lon Chaney Jr. (nee Creighton Chaney), famously portrayed the werewolf in The Wolf Man.
You think your evil twin dropped the dime on her and left you in the dark? (p. 74)
You aren't the Manchurian Candidate. (p. 74)
The Manchurian Candidate is a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, filmed in 1962 and again in 2004. It features a soldier who is brainwashed by an enemy nation and used as an unwitting sleeper agent.
That's why they call it the Drink of Forgetfulness. (p. 75)
The Drink of Forgetfulness is, in Chinese folklore, a drink given to a soul once it has atoned for its deeds and repented, before it is sent back to the world to be reborn. It is served by Meng Po, the Lady of Forgetfulness. It is her duty in Diyu to ensure that those who are ready to be reincarnated forget their previous lives and
their time in hell. [Source] [Wikipedia]
I was in the Chamber of Wind and Thunder for seven lifetimes. (p. 75)
The Chamber of Wind and Thunder is “a great cavernous space filled with lightning and the smell of burning flesh, and bodies buffeted by cyclones thrown here and there like rag dolls”. It is reserved for those who kill and commit crimes out of greed. [Jesus and Eightfold Path, Lavie Tidhar]
"Don't you get it? Everybody lives in hell." (p. 75)
At this point in the story, the protagonist realizes the extent of the water damage caused by the constant dripping.
He knew the ravenous ghosts had no business with him and ignored the croaks and groans, the restless snick of claws on cement, the strangled click of saliva in constricted throats. (p. 75)
Hungry ghosts are found in Chinese Buddhist and folk traditions. Humans driven by an intense emotional need who commit evil deeds are reborn as hungry ghosts. I can find no descriptions of such ghosts which match the one given here, however.
The white iron doors were there: the Chamber of Pounding; the Chamber of Fire; the Chamber of Blood; and the rest. (p. 76)
In the Chamber of Pounding, “those who wilfully waste food will find themselves pounded like crops.” [Source]
I could find no reference to the Chamber of Fire, but the Chamber of Flames is where “people who steal, plunder, rob and cheat” are sent to be burned. [Source]
In the Chamber of Blood, “blasphemous crooks who show no respect to the gods suffer the fate of being skinned.”
crawling along the shore of bubbling lakes of tar (p. 76)
A tar lake, or tar pit, more accurately a lake of asphalt, is a naturally occurring feature that forms when subterranean asphalt (a sticky, black, and highly viscous form of petroleum) leaks to the surface. Living animals are easily trapped by the sticky material, eventually die of starvation, and slowly sink into the asphalt, where
the bones are preserved from further decomposition by the anaerobic medium. Tar pits are an example of Lagerstätten, sedimentary deposits which hold extraordinary preservation or concentration of fossil remains. Over a million fossils have been recovered from tar pits around the world; bones from specimens of Megatherium have been
recovered in the Talara tar-pits of Peru. [Wikipedia] [Source]
From nearby, Shelley Jackson said, "These are your lives, Royce Hawthorne." (p. 76)
This Is Your Life was an American documentary television program which first aired from 1948 to 1961. International adaptations, revivals, syndication runs, and spoofs have kept the show in the public consciousness to the present day, at least to a small extent. In the show, a guest in the audience would be surprised by the host and guided through a presentation of their life story, featuring appearances by family, friends, and acquaintances.
Laird has described the story as:
“a novella about a security consultant sent to Hong Kong to hunt down a corporate spy. The protagonist takes residence in a compound reserved for foreign nationals — an old, decaying structure that is inhabited by an insidious cult. It’s an homage to horror, especially that found in Asian cinema. I’m a devoted fan of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa and have found inspiration in films such as Audition, Gozu, and Cure.” [SOY_090916]
Audition is a 1999 Japanese horror film about a widower’s difficult re-entry into the dating scene, directed by Takashi Miike. Gozu, also directed by Miike, is a 2003 film about a man’s search for his brother. Cure is a 1997 Japanese film directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa which tells the story of a police investigation into a series of
strange murders. These terse summaries do not do justice to the atmosphere of dread, strangeness, suffocation, and dislocation which permeates these films.
On how cinema influenced the writing of Procession, he wrote:
Yes, the story was inspired by Chinese mythology, particularly that of the Eighteen Hells. Cinema in general counts among my chief influences, especially aspects of cinematography and script. Asian cinema has been a revelation. Mood, pacing, dialogue the higher quality Asian films exhibit a rawness that Hollywood eschews. Takashi Miike, for example, imbues his pictures with edginess and a kind of tainted eroticism. He’s a master manipulator. He injects absurdity at precisely the right moment. Even at his darkest he’s playful after a macabre fashion and these elements complicate what are otherwise simple narratives. [BOF_091229]
Laird on writing the story :
"Procession of the Black Sloth" and "Parallax" were difficult. I edged out of my comfort zone in both of them. "Parallax" required about nine months to complete. It was maddening. However, I learned from that ordeal and put the lessons to use when constructing "Procession of the Black Sloth," which is a full blown novella and a bit more ambitious than anything I'd previously attempted. [BS_080916]
The story originated from a brief passage of another, much more traditional novella of mine. A character in this unfinished novella is telling a ghost tale set in modern Hong Kong. The story threatened to become so complicated and so divergent, I lifted the passage and let it roll.
"Procession of the Black Sloth" does not follow the Lovecraftian mode prevalent throughout the rest of the collection. The story was a tremendous challenge in that it's probably my most ambitious piece from a technical perspective. Normally, my work is layered, but here I pushed myself to exceed the limitations I'd set in the noir pieces by attempting to tackle and execute a stylistically unorthodox narrative on a larger scale. On the surface I endeavored a cinematic approach in an homage to classic horror authors and filmmakers, something I think is readily apparent from the most cursory review. However, my inspiration was almost exclusively Asian horror cinema. I'm a fan of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Miike's Audition and Gozu, and Kurosaw's Cure made an impression on me and these films acted as cynosures as I battled to hammer the novella into a comprehensible shape. I was under deadline, so after coming home from the day job I'd stick out writing until two in the morning, settling for three or four hours sleep. Weekends, I chopped away at it practically around the clock. Consequently, I submerged emotionally and cognitively into the project. Nightmarish in itself, the narrative seeped under my skin and
transported me into a weird head space for the two months of its creation. I'm glad it's over. [SJAB_080530]
On the research required, and reaching Western audiences with Eastern myths:
I conducted a significant amount of research regarding the physical and historical geography of Hong Kong and the Eighteen Hells, or Diyu. Getting these aspects right presented the greatest challenge other than formulating the novella itself. Procession of the Black Sloth is an homage to horror in general, but most especially to Asian horror cinema, and as such, I've found the great body of world literature and film has prepared Western audiences to receive the material. Koji Suzuki's Ringu cycle and films such as Uzimaki, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Juon are examples of work that has penetrated Western consciousness and reshaped the imaginative calculus. And of course, anime and manga are powerful and prevalent forces here in the U.S.. In any event, Sloth deals with the reciprocal nature of the universe, a concept that transcends EastWest artistic traditions and gets to the
root of human fascination and dread, the heart of spirituality we all share in one guise or another. [BOF_100113]
The title is a reference to the Black Sloth Hell and the Procession of the Black Sloth described in the story. As one character remarks, this appears to be a mistake by the protagonist:
"I don't think it's black sloth. I think it's black weasel hell. A Buddhist punishment." (p. 63)
The Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick writes that “in Buddhism one is not thrown into hell or punished by some deity. Rather, the hells are the fruition of one's misdeeds and the externalization of one's own character which is shaped by one's deeds.” [http://nichirenscoffeehouse.net/ShuteiMandala/vedic.html]
One important feature of Hindu and Buddhist hells is that they are not eternal or infinite. The torments suffered therein may last millions of lifetimes, based on the accumulated karma of the sinners, but they will eventually be released to re-enter the world. There are eight major hells, each subdivided into sixteen minor hells. Samjiva is the first major hell, and it includes such minor hells as: “Place of Excrement, The Sword Circle, Place of the Cooking Pot, Hell of Many Pains, Place of Darkness, Place of No-Joy, Place of Extreme Suffering, Hell of Diseases, Iron-paired Hell, Evil Stick Hell, Black Weasel Hell, Spinning Hell, Hell of Complete Pain, Red Lotus (Padma) Hell,
Pond Hell, Hell of Torments Received in the Air.” ["Buddhist Hell and Filial Piety: A Study of the Origins and Evolution of Hell in Indian and Chinese Buddhism and its Relation with Filial Piety", Simon Lazzerini]
Samjiva (Reviving): This hell is reserved for those who kill or cause the death of sentient beings by denying them the means to live and who show no remorse but instead feel justified and pleased by what they have done. There are many torments to be found here, but the most common involves being tormented and killed in the same way that one tormented and killed others and then being revived for further punishment. But not all of the punishments are so straightforward. One particularly gruesome punishment for hunters involves the hell-dwellers being forced to eat a mixture of excrement and molten copper filled with diamond beaked maggots which precede to consume the evildoers from the inside out. This hell is divided into several regions with names like Place of the Cooking Pot, Hell of Torments Received in the Air, or the Black Weasel Hell. [http://nichirenscoffeehouse.net/ShuteiMandala/vedic.html]
The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism describes Samjiva (Sanskrit) or Tokatsu-jigoku (Japanese) as the “hell of repeated rebirth for torture”:
also, hell of repeated rebirth, hell of regeneration, or hell of repeated misery. The first of the eight hot hells. It is said that dwellers in this hell are constantly injuring and killing one another. When a cold wind blows over the bodies of those killed, however, they immediately regenerate and begin to fight again, in this way repeatedly undergoing the same torment. The Sanskrit word samjiva means reviving or reanimating. Explanations of the hell of repeated rebirth for torture differ slightly according to the source. [http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=993]
The exact number of hells and their names appears to be unimportant however: the protagonist’s belief is all that matters. Sloths, the small contemporary species or the giant extinct variety, are not found outside Central and South America. There are no sloths in Asia, and never have been, but the denizens of hell are all too willing to make accommodations for Royce’s misapprehension of “black sloth” for “black weasel”. They have gone so far as to put up a door placard (BLACK SLOTH HELL, p. 53) conforming to his expectations.
The story leaves open the question of whether any of the events or characters have a basis in reality, or whether they are mental constructs. Is Royce in an actual Buddhist hell or does he simply imagine that he is in Buddhist
hell? It may matter to us, ontologically, but to Royce there is probably no difference.