With Halloween a scant three days away, it’s the perfect time to curl up with some spooky fiction and get yourself delightfully creeped out. But this week’s story doesn’t rely on your standard witches and vampires and werewolves, all easily dismissed and cartoonish Halloween fare. No, this week’s story, “The Insurgent” by Nicholas Rombes, features ghosts and monsters of a different sort: the kind that are real, the kind that are with us every day. Rombes’s eerie tale will chill you to the bones with its whispered message: reality is the weirdest thing of all.
The walk to mile 9 is familiar. Through the outskirts of the largely abandoned village, down into the valley, due west, until the remnants of the old city come into view, its cracked cobblestones, the toppled First Presbyterian church spire still dangling from the structure, its upside down cross like some alien warning symbol, the granite-faced library with its smashed-in windows, and then, in the distance to the east, across the river that divided the city, the smoke from the camp settlements.
What had happened here?
The same thing that had happened everywhere.
“The Insurgent” comes from Rombes’s 2014 novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, which explores the intersections of life and cinema through a fictional interview with a respected but eccentric film librarian. The stand-alone excerpt reprinted by Weird Fiction Review this week is the treatment for a cerebral horror movie that was deemed “too philosophical, too abstract” by studio heads and thus never saw the light of day. And it is indeed theoretical, dense with the kinds of thoughts that stick in your brain, that you turn over and over looking for answers, when maybe there are no answers at all, or maybe the thought is the answer itself. (Yes, thoughts like that thought.)
The film follows a woman named Evie, an engineer for the government who is sent to repair a well at the far edge of the State. The State, as we will come to know, does not mean, for example, Michigan. This is State with a capitol “S,” something much more imposing. As Evie sets off to the distant and mysterious well on foot (there do not seem to be vehicles in the State, at least not for citizens), Rombes’s vivid and atmospheric descriptions of the landscape make clear that this is a world different from the one we know, but one that is perhaps not far off. Towns are reduced to rubble or guarded by men with guns, steeples are toppled, people trudge from place to place carrying sacks of grain on their backs, and in the air, circling constantly, are flocks of drones.
This is not a post-apocalyptic film, a film of what happens after the end of the world. The theorist in Evie understands this, about the story she’s in, understands that the end of the world is really a reactionary fantasy, the dream of thin-blooded tyrants, spun into popular narrative by writers and artists and movie makers. The landscape around her—the broken roads and disfigured buildings and polluted rivers—is not some dystopian fantasy of the slate-wiped-clean, but something far more dangerous: things as they are. The present is always the present, even when it seems like the future. There is no “post-“ to what was happening to Evie.
As Evie gets closer to the well, strange things start to happen. She is followed by drones and by animals. Something from a dream appears in the flesh (no spoilers). Her travelling companion, who was already a weirdo, gets weirder. But mostly, the movement of the story is inward as Evie’s thoughts and memories unspool and tangle together with each step toward the mysterious, looming well. “The Insurgent” is a meditation on the surveillance state, the line between the living and the dead, the conflict between the subjective and objective. The result is an unsettling journey beneath the narrative of reality that we so stridently cling to for stability. In the interview with Rombes that accompanies the story, Rombes describes it best:
I subscribe to the theory that the so-called “weird” is what reality actually is, and that we’ve slowly constructed elaborate narratives (political, social, scientific, etc.) to create a vital illusion of order and rationality. . . Weird fiction and media are appealing because they remind us of what we’ve been conditioned to suppress or forget: the rules and niceties of civilization are important bulwarks against the chaos, but that does not make the chaos any less real. In “real life” we desperately need and want these bulwarks: they save us from our darker angels. So we turn to art—weird fiction, for instance—to satisfy our deep, primordial knowledge that, my friend, the universe itself is one very weird, improbable concoction.
So go read “The Insurgent,” embrace our weird, weird world, and have a very happy Halloween.