Keith Snyder
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The Talking Villain

Happy holidays, Journalscapers and mystery fans.


The Talking Villain
Keith Snyder

You sit at the table and write, waiting for the killer to come. You know how he thinks; you even approve a little.

The books on your shelf: destroyed forever. Some would say improved.

You tap your pen.

The detective's girlfriend had a lot of enemies, some who wanted her dead. On Wednesday, a post on rec.arts.mystery: Is my memory going? Does anyone else have a copy of the book? Could you please check and see if she's dead in yours, too?

Answers rolled in: I'm stunned; she's dead; what's going on?

Group psychosis? Bafflement. An infinitely expensive practical joke? My copy still has the splotch from where I spilled coffee on it, so I know it's the same book, but she's dead in chapter 12.

What the hell? The author's agent releases a statement: The author has no comment. It's very odd.

The ruckus subsides.

Weeks pass.

You watch the door, watch your books, watch your pen moving across the paper. Which route? Where will he come from?

Weeks pass. Though there's still some grumbling on the newsgroup, people have other things to do.

The talking cat is found poisoned on page 3, the next 300 pages now blank, save for page number, author/title, and a decorative little filigree.

A new uproar: It's proof of the mutability of reality; the subjective aspect of human perception; the power of the collective unconscious. It's a prank; it's a dream; it's a nightmare; it's a blessing.

Does anyone but me find this unsettling? Yeah, it's freaking me the hell out! It's a bizarre twist; it's a welcome departure; it's phenomenologically interesting. It's got me drinking again.

It's a pattern, you recall thinking.

Weeks pass.

All the "How to Write" books say to put yourself in the scene. You watch the ink flow from your pen.

Weeks pass. Collectors hold on to their strangely blank copies of the talking cat book. Everyone else returns theirs. A discussion of the decline of paper quality springs up.

The ethically unstained hero's ethically dubious lethal sidekick is found dead in an Advance Reading Copy, in his usual haunt, his usual drink untouched, no clues. The bad guy gets away at the end. This latest book in the series isn't out yet, so not many have read it. On Dorothy-L, some early readers praise the author for having the guts to kill off a series character; others praise the ethical ambiguity of the ending. Some complain of betrayal; they read series books for the comfort of spending time with an old friend.

You were among those who read the story before it was published because the publisher asked you for a blurb; the writer is a nice person to whom you owed a favor; you happen to know that the lethal sidekick was just fine, doing the hero's dirty work, being edgy, catching the bad guy, same as usual.

Three characters dead.

This is a serial killer.

You begin working up a profile; most serial killers are white males. This one wet the bed as a child, has a phenomenally small penis, and is impotent.

Weeks pass.

You watch yourself writing, waiting.

Weeks pass. The perky female detective is found stuffed into the trunk of her funky little car, ink dimming on the page as she loses consciousness, first-person narrative fading as she dies. Six blank pages, then the resumption of text, as this chapter is from her policeman boyfriend's point of view. This was the point in the story at which she phones him--and it doesn't happen. The policeman boyfriend sits at his desk, a cardboard cutout unable to move along the board game of the plot. He can't even drum his fingers.

Every other chapter is blank. He's still sitting there when the book ends.

Weeks pass.

"Hello," you say, your pen still forming words on the paper. You haven't seen or heard him, but you know he's there. He's not in the room or in your books. He's in your story.

"Hello," you write. "I know you're there."

He doesn't speak. But you can feel him moving, bulging the paragraphs, rippling the adjectives, but now he's gone.

Weeks pass. The spinster busybody is pushed in front of the 12:04 express from Puddlingshire, which runs at 12:15 on alternate Thursdays and goes through only one tunnel, which is precisely the length of ten cars.

The hard-drinking, two-fisted gumshoe who recently sobered up chokes to death on his AA chit.

The plucky amateur is executed in his own living room when, like an idiot, he goes straight home after confronting a mob boss.

That's when you started writing.

He's back.

"Hello," you try again, and you feel him stop. He's watching you.

You write a few lines in which you gaze idly around the room. You describe the look of the table, the texture of the paper. The black ink is stark as the pen moves, the table solid, the paper rough under the metal point of the pen, smooth to the touch of a finger.

His impatience seethes.

You describe how it feels to wait for him: the tension in your back, the way the words flow less easily, how difficult it is to keep both levels of the story in your mind, your concern about abandoning the newsgroup angle when it became irrelevant and dropping the italics in the current section. You describe your description: self-referential, self-indulgent; you'd have finished the sentence, but--

"Fucking pedant."

Now you know how he talks, so now you know who he is. You've always been that kind of writer.

From "fucking," you extrapolate an intimidator, part animal. From "pedant" comes at least a high-school education; his disdain suggests he holds no degree.
You fill in telling details: hands, expression, haircut.

He moves again. You wonder what weapon he'll have brought. He strikes you as a knife man.

He's at your throat with it.

"Give me one reason not to kill you right now."

"Well--" The knife scratches your flesh when you talk. "You can't yet. This is a talking villain story. It's one of the things you hate about it."

He bends close. You smell his fetid breath.

"You don't know anything," he says.

"I know why you came," you say.

He laughs. "Oh yeah? Why's that?"

"You hate this story.'

"Who wouldn't?" he hisses. "It's bad enough that your serial killer's only motivation is 'he's crazy.' But then you got to go and make it a talking-villain story, too."

"Oh," you say, "that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's also got a deus-ex-machina ending, it uses semicolons and single-sentence paragraphs extensively, it's told in the second-person with shifting tenses, and you 'hissed' when there were no esses in your dialogue. Not only that, but I made you an impotent bed-wetter with a phenomenally small penis. You couldn't help but come for me."

He doesn't speak or move.

"What gives you the right," you say, "to murder fictional characters?"

"They were trite."

"So are you."

"They weren't believable."

"You're a crazy serial killer with fetid breath."

He's not moving.

"No one," you say, "has the right to do what you've done. Not readers, not reviewers, not editors, not publishers. No one. The only one with the right to kill off a character is its author."

You watch your pen forming the words across the paper.
You smile, giving him time to figure it out. You enjoy the expression of horror that crosses his face.

His eyes widen; his expression goes slack as he looks at his author.

The knife drops from his lifeless hand.

"Now you'll never know why I chose to write in the second person," you cry. "You poor fool! I knew that you only kill characters, not authors, and I chose the second person in order to put myself into this story. Everyone knows 'I' is never really the author speaking, and 'he' would have been obviously a non-authorial character. That left the enticingly ambiguous 'you,' which has the added benefit of appearing to 'transcend the genre.' You deluded fool! You fell into my fiendish plot, where I crushed you in the iron grip of my cunning! You were no match for my fevered genius! Bwaha! Bwahaha! Bwahahahahahahahaha!

"I told you it was a talking villain story," you add.

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