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Lips by David Hartley

The ventriloquist made a show of locking the auditorium doors with big heavy Houdini chains before swallowing the keys.

The audience shifted, frowned, giggled.

He returned to the stage, stood tall in the spotlight and produced needle and thread from his top pocket. He bowed, deeply, and then proceeded to sew his lips together.

Blood cascaded down his chin and pattered to the floor. He whimpered with the audience, drew heavy breaths through his nose as they gasped. At the end, he fainted.

The dummy turned its head and blinked. ‘Do I have your attention now?’ it said.

 

Follow David on Twitter: @DHartleyWriter

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Purchase David’s Debut Threshold From Gumbo Press: Gumbo Press

 

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Comment by Paolo Jose Cruz on June 22, 2013 at 23:44

That would be a resounding YES.

Absolutely gruesome. The resolution seemed obvious from the moment he brought out the needle and thread. Regardless, it was chilling to read the events as they unfolded.

But now that it's over and done, I have to wonder if the whole experience wasn't a little gratuitous. Was the whole drama just for shock value? As it stands, we'll never know if he's just the world's most extreme ventriloquist, feigning unconsciousness, or if there's something more sinister happening -- but we haven't really been given a reason to care, either way.

Maybe i'm just not enough of a horror fan to appreciate the gory act, for its own sake. But I didn't really experience any fear; just gut-level revulsion. If that was the desired effect, then congratulations. But otherwise, it's just a whole lot of very articulate carnage, with no real emotional investment.

Comment by Paolo Jose Cruz on June 23, 2013 at 4:59

Admittedly, after reading this, I can't look at the cover of Threshold the same way -- and I *do* mean that in a positive way. 

Comment by Clare Kirwan on June 23, 2013 at 12:57

I like the story and think it works on it's own, but having read Paolo's comments, he's right that it's a little cold. Difficult in the 99word restriction, but if you replaced some of the description with a hint of maybe emotional distress or a sense he's being controlled but can't fight it... that would make it even more powerful!

Comment by David Hartley on June 23, 2013 at 15:23

Hi hi, good points there actually. I've never thought of it in that way. I think I constructed this story in the knowledge that I was going to read it at an open mic night so I was going for horror/comedy impact. Always works quite well in that context.

Yes the 99 limit is a restriction, but that doesn't mean it can't have a hinting of emotion there. So maybe a revisit is in order in the future...

I think when I initially put this together it was all about the control and release of information - the locking of the doors, the uncomfortable audience, the needle and thread, the fainting - the creep, creep, creep of horror. An experiment on my behalf then - to see if that kind of dread could be done in 99 words. But I love the idea that he's being controlled... I think somewhere I was recalling the 'Night of the Living Dummy' Goosebumps book!

Comment by David Hartley on June 23, 2013 at 15:24

And yes Paolo - I was so happy when my friend Kate came up with that cover for Threshold. Of all the 13 stories in that collection, it was Lips that had the biggest impact on her!

Comment by milo on June 23, 2013 at 19:34

For me I think it is a story suffers from the fact that magicians (Penn and Teller in particular) create very similar scenarios in their acts, and so there is more pantomime here than horror.

I think it's difficult to write scary slasher/gore horror in a time when we are exposed to so much real-life gratuitous violence in the newspapers and on TV. I remember being told that fictional violence would desensitise the purveyor to real-life horrors. I think it's the other way round.

It's still a nicely written 99 story though.

Comment by abbie foxton on June 24, 2013 at 11:25

David, first lines had me - I hadn't planned on staying to read - so I continued. Disturbing enough for a micro, I felt the chill of sighs from the audience. So I gather this is one from the collection - Threshold. It has a dark emptiness, I conjured the stage, it all happens so fast, the macabre stabs quick. Ventriloquists and their painted friends always sit uncomfortably in my psyche so I was duly disturbed. If this wooden dude was in my bedroom, I'd have to cover him with a blanket.

Comment by Shakes on June 24, 2013 at 17:50

Hey David - just bagged THRESHOLD from the weekend promotion. I loved this 99'er - it's totally my bag and that growing sense of tension was clearly there for me. "He whimpered with the audience" is a great line and following on from the strange way he locked the doors and swallowed the key really set me on edge. When the 'punchline' came I was more than satisfied.

Comment by David Hartley on June 25, 2013 at 9:45

Milo - i know what you mean about being desensitized. Quite a lot of the mood of this piece was inspired by Derren Brown's aesthetic - particularly in his live shows (particularly the one with the creepy Victorian Svengali dummy if you've seen it).

Abbie - glad to have creeped you out (in a good way!). That is really the ultimate thrust here; a quick stab of chills using things which already have a lot of baggage in reader's minds. i love the fact that all you really need to say is Ventriloquist - stage - blood - dummy and already there's a whole maelstrom of freaky stuff going on in people's heads!

Shakes - thanks for grabbing Threshold - i hope you enjoy it. Glad the tension came through for you here - i was particularly happy with the 'whimpered with the audience' line, implying that the audience have as much psychological connection with the ventriloquist and the events on stage as the dummy has to everyone and everything. Anyway, hope Threshold ticks the right boxes with you :)

Comment by Kerry J. Hall on September 2, 2013 at 16:17
Gruesome tale, but definitely caught my attention! Does make one think about desentization..I could have stopped when the magician locked the door but felt compelled to read on, being " chained" into it right along with the audience..don't know if you meant this as a cautionary tale, but I took it to heart and its a fabulous story!
Comment by Ann K. Boyer on September 2, 2013 at 21:54

Hi David! I thought the tale was intriguing and unique. I felt the suspense and the end was completely unpredictable. I initially thought the ventriloquist was going to turn the audience into his dummies, not that he was the dummy. I think you had some really great tidbits. I'm of the personal opinion that you don't always have to explain the "why" or even the "how" so long as you draw the reader into the emotion of the "now". Let the reader's imagination run wild on the hidden story. I do agree that 99 words is a very restrictive space to work within, but it is very possible. I loved the story. :)

Comment by KM Zafari on September 4, 2013 at 7:47

Woo! This one gave me chills. Fantastic!

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