Hear the Squidman Speak by Mike Minnis

He said they made him do it.

First thing, I hate that damn nickname. Squidman. I am not the Squidman. I am Arthur Ashbourne. Art Ashbourne.

Second thing, I didn't kill Geoffrey Tucker. Sure that's what the cops said. That's what the judge and the papers said. But it isn't true.

Yeah, I know, we're all innocent in here, but I swear . . .

Squidman . . . goddamned stupid name. Tucker gave it to me. People picked it up from there.

And Tucker got what was coming to him. Pure and simple. He should've listened to me. But did he? No.

Goddamned know-it-all actor.

Every time I approached him on the subject, it was No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Then it got to the point where he'd cross the street just to avoid me. I mean I had to crash a couple of his fancy-ass Hollywood parties just to get his attention. Last time I did that, I got busted one in the nose by one of his bodyguards.

Friggin' asshole . . .

Hollywood? Yeah, I been out there. Trust me, it ain't what you think. All that glitz and glamour nonsense, all that rags to riches stuff is honest-to-God bullshit. Pure and simple. Miles and miles of these Godawful pink stucco villas and palm trees and every friggin' waiter with a screenplay he wants you to look at. Suck-ups and shit-eaters.

Drives me nuts.

Seriously . . . if He comes back, that's the first place He should head and He should just stomp it flat. I mean every last star, starlet, director, producer, writer, agent -- everyone. Just stomp Hollywood flat. Kill the bastards . . .

Now look, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't really want something like that to happen to those people. Or anyone. Because He's awful. He really is . . . I mean I don't even like talking about Him, if I can help it. It's worse than Tucker's murder.

So can we talk about something else for a while?

Can we?

Why am I the Squidman?

Hoo . . . long story. Doesn't have a happy ending, either.

I used to have nightmares as a kid, just about every friggin' night, it seemed. I don't have them very often anymore, which is good, because I swear I didn't sleep my entire childhood. I was too scared. Night lights . . . teddy bears until I got older, then me tryin' to get the family dog to sleep in my room. Anything. Usually I ended up creepin' into my brother's room around three A.M. or so to sleep on the floor and would wind up catchin' a cold. None of it worked.

God, but there's nothin' like a big, dark, silent room in a big, dark, silent house to get a kid goin' at night. Especially with the moon comin' in through the window. Man, that used to get to me. Big shadows in the corners . . . house creakin', settlin' in for the night . . . me starin' at the closet door, or the window, or the ceiling, waitin' for something awful to happen. I hate to say it, but I'd wet the bed before I'd dare set foot on the floor at night. Thought something under the bed would grab me.

The nightmares themselves, they varied . . . sometimes they were really vivid and sometimes they were more, well, dreamlike, I guess. Lot of the time I wasn't even in them. Just an observer, this all-seeing eye.

The early ones were pretty conventional. There were your usual runnin' away from something in slow-motion . . . your fallin' from high places . . . the monster's got you and you can't scream. That sort of thing. Parents took me to a psychologist to see what was wrong with me. He said that I had an active imagination.

Brilliant diagnosis.

He said that I'd eventually discover girls or something like that and outgrow it. And I didn't.

Goddamned shrink . . .

They're all like that, you know. They look at you like you're some kind of bug, some kind of germ under a microscope. Let's see what makes Johnny tick. Let's pick his brain apart like some kind of cheap pocket watch and --

Sorry. I wander sometimes. But Jesus, they drive me nuts. Psychologists. Like actors. They're on stage all the friggin' time.

'Active imagination' . . .

Funny thing about these nightmares, is they had this . . . this common theme. I mean, most nightmares don't, do they? They're kind of random, right? You eat a couple slices of cold pizza 'round midnight, your stomach gets back at you later with a little freak-show. Right?


The theme?

Oh, yeah . . . I can't pin it down exactly, but it was pretty heavy stuff for a kid. End of the world.

No, not by nukes or anything like that. That was the big doomsday threat back in my day. Commie ICBM's. Duck and cover. Stop, drop and roll. The old man even had a bomb shelter in the backyard back in those days. Jesus, what a lousy little pile of bricks and tin sheeting that thing was
. . . wouldn't stop a snowball, let alone an H-bomb. And it stank, too, because it leaked and Ma was always dumpin' mothballs in there.

Jesus, did it stink.

It wasn't Bible stuff. No Judgment Day or Rhapsodies or anything like that.


Oh. Yeah, I meant Raptures . . .

But back to what I was talkin' about, these nightmares.

They were clear. I mean really clear. Ever notice details are missing in most of your dreams or nightmares? Or they get things wrong? Like you're married to your best friend's wife, or you show up to work with nothing but a pair of black dress socks on and your briefcase? Or it's blazin' hot outside and you can't feel the heat? Or you hear voices but you can't make out the faces? It's like some form of mental tunnel vision. That's what the early dreams were like . . . and I wish the later ones had been like that.

One of the ones I really remember goes like this: I'm alone in my backyard. I'm out playin' with my army men by the big old blue spruces we used to have. Got 'em out of a comic book. The army men, not the spruces.

But that's when I start noticin' that the details are out of whack. I mean, I admit, I'm not much to look at these days, but I came from a good neighborhood, a good background. That was back when people had pride and self-respect. Not like now. You kept your lawn cut, your car waxed, and your dirty laundry to yourself in those days. You had problems, you kept your mouth shut. Not like now.

But I'm wanderin' again . . . maybe 'cause I don't like talkin' about this stuff much.

Like I said, it was a good neighborhood. But in the dream -- nightmare, I mean -- everything was wrong. It was like all the houses had been deserted five, ten, fifteen years. Paint-peelin' . . . windows dirty and broken . . . grass knee-high and yellow . . . weeds everywhere, creepers growin' up the sides of houses. It was mid-autumn. Now normally you'd smell leaves burnin'. But they were all over the place, scrapin' over the road, in the gutters. Papers and trash. I know something's really wrong when I see Mr. Adams' Ford in the middle of the street, on its side . . . and I'm thinkin', where is everybody? What happened?

Then I know something really bad's happenin' because the township siren goes off. Just whoopin' up and down, up and down like it would before a tornado. Civil Defense Alert, is what they called it. Wasn't too long after the Commies launched Sputnik, as I recall, so I figured the Russians were invadin' us. Time to get into the bomb shelter and wait for the Marines.

So, like a kid, I run into my house to get my family. Jesus, it's even worse on the inside than the outside. Dust and mold rot and spider webs. Years of it. Wallpaper peeling. Floorboards warped. Stains on the ceiling. And nobody's there. No one. Not even the dog.

Now I'm scared witless. I mean I have tears in my eyes. So I run back outside and that goddamned siren is still screamin', and I'm wonderin', well hell, if nobody except me is here, then who in the hell is soundin' the alarm?

And so I end up in the bomb shelter . . . with the mothballs . . . the cans of powdered milk and dried peas . . . the single light bulb and the short-wave radio. The old man'd tried to cheer the place up by hangin' a calendar on the wall. Hunting dogs or different kinds of game birds, that sort of thing.

I'm sittin' there when the siren cuts out all of a sudden with a squawk. Then it's dead quiet. I mean I can hear the light bulb buzzing, it's that quiet.

So I wait for a while, figurin' that eventually the Marines'll show up. They'll take me on over to City Hall, where everybody else'll be, hidin' in the basement, and I'll see my family again.

But nothin' happens . . .

I wait a little longer.

Still nothin', still quiet.

Then I hear it, from far away. Boom. Sounds like a bomb. Muffled, but the ground shakes just ever so slightly. So does the calendar. Then I hear it again, except this time it's louder, closer, with more of a reverberation, an echo. B-boom! Kind of like two very heavy things fallin' almost at the same time. I think, that's what it is. Bombs. Atomic bombs? Would the Russians need to drop that many in order to blow my neighborhood away? And why were they droppin' them on my street to begin with?

Boom! B-Boom! That's when I began to wonder if it was bombs after all, because I didn't hear them fallin'. Just the impact. And it was too . . . too methodical. Too uniform. Too . . . precise, to be bombs.

I finally admitted to myself that it was footsteps. Gigantic, earth-shakin' footsteps.

Then I really got scared, because my Grandpa, you see, was this old-style Pentecostal preacher. I mean he was all Old Testament, brimstone-and-hellfire, seven plagues of Egypt. I honestly think he liked it when God one day up and decided to throw all those frogs and locusts at everybody. I think he liked the idea that the world was gonna end one day and all the sinners and creeps would be left behind to make do with whatever.

So I figured God was comin' to trample all the no-goods underfoot, and for some reason, that included me. Little Artie Ashbourne, sinner in the hands of an angry God . . .

I couldn't sit still. I didn't know whether to run or scream or beg forgiveness or what.

It was getting' closer. The calendar began to shake, and then the light bulb, and then the calendar fell off the wall. Then, Jesus Christ, one of those big spruces falls over with a crash! I hear the footsteps pass over and away from the bomb shelter. Boom. Boom-boom. Boom. God's back and boy is he pissed.

Sorry, I find that funny sometimes . . .

But that's when I made a big mistake.

Little kid logic for you: God really wouldn't stomp a kid, would he? I found that hard to believe. So I slowly, carefully opened the door to the bomb shelter and peeked outside.

Sure enough, one of the big spruces is down. Snapped like a pencil. Bleedin' sap. I mean I could smell it, and how often do you smell anything in a dream?

And just beyond it is this huge imprint in the ground. It's the size of a car. And deep, maybe sunk down two, three feet. No way in hell does it even vaguely resemble a footprint. I didn't have any idea what it looked like. It steamed, too. Smelled like whatever was down there was slowly burnin', like acid.

I was so friggin' mesmerized by that print I wasn't payin' attention to what was goin' on around me. I didn't notice that the footsteps, or whatever they were, had stopped. But I did hear this faint, horrible scream, and I realized, Hey, that's one of the neighbors! And I looked up, and that's when I saw it.

Jesus, was it big.

How big?

It made my neighborhood look like some kid's toy collection, that's how big.

Big and sickly-green and three-legged, like one of those Martian things out of that War of the Worlds movie.

I mean, that's what I thought when I first saw it. The Martians have landed. Earth is doomed. But in my heart I knew this thing wasn't a machine. It was alive. Its sides were heavin', palpitatin' in this sick, off-kilter rhythm, like it couldn't breathe our air very well. And its flesh is hangin' on it like slime . . . and it's got somebody in these friggin' huge claws of its, inspectin' 'em like a bug or something . . . but how can it see anything if it doesn't have a face? It just has this one huge tentacle taperin' out of this kind of carapace or whatever. No eyes or nothin', just that tentacle lashin' about
. . .

Then it dropped whomever it had. Just let them fall forty, fifty feet and dash their brains out in the road. It saw me.

How? These patchy clots of white bumps erupted from its skin, then disappeared, like that. Honest to God, I think they were eyes. Or something. Then it pivoted on its legs and came at me.

Jesus Christ, did I ever scream.

It got worse from there.

Certain times of the year really got bad for me. Late spring was bad. I can remember just absolutely dreadin' sunset 'bout that time of year, with the crickets chirrin' and night-noises and the shadows gettin' long and that friggin' God-awful sense that somehow, everything was suddenly awake and aware. And hateful. Ever get that sense about a place? That it knows you're there, and that it's watchin' you, and that it doesn't like what it sees?

I used to get that sometimes . . . now I get it so bad I'm almost grateful to be in here. Four walls. Locked doors. Bright lights. Guards on duty, three shifts, the whole damn day. And I can kid myself: yeah, I'm safe in here. They won't come after me in a place like this.

That's what I tell myself, anyway.

Who are they?

You should ask. Tucker might've been able to tell you, if he wasn't dead.

I didn't kill him, you know. Honest to God. I didn't.

One Halloween. I was out with the other kids -- now this ain't a dream, OK? This really happened. One Halloween -- I was out with the other kids. Can't really recall any names, except maybe this Morris kid who was dressed up like a pirate and some other squirt decked out like Dracula. I was a skeleton. I actually didn't like 'em all that much, but they were the only kids who would be my friends then.

Kind of the school weirdo, you see.

Anyway, here we are with our bags full of Hershey bars and Good 'n' Plenties and those caramel apples kids can't get anymore because of the friggin' perverts stickin' pins in them and God knows what else . . .

Anyway, here we are, Artie Ashbourne and Morris the Pirate and Dracula, walkin' through the neighborhood at night. Jack-o'-lanterns glowin' on porch stoops. Wind up high in the trees. Some other kids were out, but most of them were in -- it was gettin' late. But we were bound and determined to make it a haul that year. Next year we'd be too old. Puberty, you know. I was gonna discover girls and leave all the night terrors behind. Yeah, right.

Eventually we ran outta houses. Well, all except for one, and that was the old Chesterfield place out on Burne Road. Yeah, I know, like the cigarette brand, right? Chesterfields.

But it's like a law or something: every neighborhood must have an old abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The law also says that periodically the neighborhood children'll gather there to throw stones at the windows and scare the bejaysus out of themselves tellin' stories. Which is what we did, of course, but always by day. It was just a house then, small, boarded-up, rotted-out and nasty smellin'.

But we'd never gone there at night. Yeah, I'd been by it once or twice by day . . . but not at night.

So we came up with a dare. One of us had to knock on the front door of the place, by himself. The two others'd wait in the weeds. Somehow, it ended up bein' me, of course. Ain't kids swell?

So I walk up the path. Stairs creakin' under my feet. Hands sweaty. Drac and Morris waitin' behind some huge dead lilac bush, probably laughin' at me, but scared, too. Some small animal goes tearin' off through the dead leaves piled up against the porch and I start thinkin' that maybe this isn't such a great idea after all. Maybe we should just all go home and count up our candy. I can't recall now just what had happened to the Chesterfields -- probably something innocuous, but us kids embellished on it until it made for a suitable ghost story. Murder, bodies hidden in the attic or the basement, that sort of thing.

Next to the front door was this big bay window. It'd been boarded up like the rest, but some kids had pried a few of the boards loose. On the frame nearest the door. Underneath was dirt and dusty glass. I really couldn't see anything inside.

I was kind of glad about that.

So I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

Nothing happened, of course.

That's when I decided I'd show Pirate-Boy and the Prince of the Undead a thing or two. So I knocked again, louder this time. Then I pounded on the door with my fist and said, "Hey, open up in there!" I figured I'd scare the hell out of those two for putting me up to this, give them something to talk about.

That's when I glanced again at the dusty windowpane again. This time I could see something. Words, written in the dust: CTHULHU FTHAGN. Gibberish. They had not been there before, but they were there now.

Man, I saw that and just about pissed myself.

I yelled and took off at a dead run. Dropped my bag of candy, everything. Those two came runnin' after me. All of us scared outta our wits.

Word got around in school after I told those little creeps what I'd seen on that windowpane. I eventually got beat up a couple times afterward because of it. Like I said, ain't kids swell?

But at the time I just had this one thought: tomorrow, everything's gonna be OK, because tomorrow was the first of November. All Saints' Day.

Not too much later I started hearin' voices.

No, not those kind of voices. It wasn't God or the Devil talkin' to me. They talk to all the nutcases it seems. Shit, who doesn't blame what he did on those two? Workin' overtime, is what they're doin' . . .

What I mean is that I was overhearin' something. It wasn't really talkin' to me at all. It was like this radio station I could just barely hear, playin' in another room. You ever do that? You start hummin' a song to yourself for no reason, next thing you know, you walk into the other room, and it's playin' on the radio or TV. It was like that.

It was gibberish again, mostly, like what I saw on that window. I mean I really couldn't make out much in the way of words. It was mostly a reverberation, an echo. Faint, at first, but it got louder as time went on. Kluh'luh. Very harsh. Very guttural. Kluh'luh. Not all the time, obviously. I would've gone nuts years ago.

Not that I'm nuts now, you should understand. It was the state's decision to put me in here. That and those friggin' headshrinkers . . .

Kluh'luh. . . it was really bad around certain times of the year. Louder and louder. Got to the point that some days I'd just hide in my room with the shades drawn and my head under the pillow.

Didn't make a difference.

There'd still be that goddamned sound pulsin' in my head.

And so it was back to the doctors. Back to the psychiatrists.

The movies were what ruined me.

I've seen 'em all, I think. All the classics, anyway. But word was that if you wanted to find Artie Ashbourne, you went to the theatre. Sure enough, there I'd be, sittin' by myself in the dark, starin' at the big screen. I'd skip school to see a comin' attraction. Got into trouble a couple times for that.

I'd watch the cartoons . . . the newsreels . . . sometimes I'd watch the main feature twice. It was nice in there. Nice and dark. Nobody knew I was there, I liked to think. And if they had the speakers on loud enough, sometimes I couldn't hear that damn sound in my head.

I liked everything. The war movies. The westerns. The gangster flicks.

But I liked the horror movies best. Isn't that a kicker?

I've seen all of them, too. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The House on Haunted Hill. Macabre. Them! Mostly the ones made in the '50's. After that they just started gettin' either too stupid or too gory. Either too much blood in 'em or they had a bunch of beach-blanket bozos muckin' everything up.

But, yeah . . . if it was a horror flick, I was there. I usually tried to go by myself, though. Once or twice I brought a date and all she did was ask stupid questions and wanna hold hands. And if I went with friends, all they did was make out with their girlfriends and throw popcorn at the screen. Really annoying. You lost the entire effect.

I admit, in retrospect . . . a lot of them things were real clinkers. I mean you knew the laboratory wall was a cardboard mock-up. You knew that the monster was rubber and guide wires. You knew who was gonna buy it and who was gonna come out OK. But I loved 'em anyway. I could deal with what was happenin' on the screen. What I couldn't deal with was what was goin' on in my own life.

And that friggin' sound in my head . . .

Nah, it ain't too bad these days.

Or maybe I'm just getting' used to it, like people who live near a highway. They don't hear the noise after a while.

Or maybe the world's gettin' crazy as Him.

But yeah . . . that was my world. Hated it when the lights went on. Jesus H, there's everybody again with their dumb faces hangin' out, includin' some of the goons that liked to pick on me -- the kinda guys you knew would've been killed by the monster in the flick you just saw. Dead. Then their goddamned smirky girlfriends would come runnin' to me, all scared and not so smirky anymore. Oh, Artie, please help us, please save us, and I'd say, Hey, you had your chance, but you shouldn't have laughed at me! Then I'd feed 'em to the monster or something. Watch 'em get all screamy and gory. Goddamned cheerleaders and rich little Daddy's girls.

Boy, did I like to imagine that . . .

Geoffrey Tucker was my hero.

Well, yes and no.

There isn't a lot of stuff on him, really.

Well, until all this recent shit. Stuff, I mean. I really swear too much, now that I think about it.

Geoff Tucker was something of a B-movie constant. He was in a lot of them. Kind of like Tor Johnson. Not at first, though. It was small potatoes for a while. He'd get cameo appearances and then there'd be his name in the credits as "Delivery Man," or "Second Nazi Guard."

Old Geoff . . . what a guy. I wonder if he read my fan letters.

The so-called horror film buffs make a big deal out of the villains, don't they? Karloff and Price and Lugosi. Don't get me wrong, I respect their work and all, but nobody ever says anything about the good guys, do they? They're there to either foil the evil master plan or get snuffed. But nobody ever says much about 'em.

Tucker was the good guy in almost all of his films. Well, wait, I take that back, he was Doctor Mordo in Dr. Mordo's Dungeon of Death, but I think he was seriously miscast in that role. So did Don Schiffler. It was the last film they made together, and I honestly think they were tryin' to revive Tucker's career at that point, but it was a bad move. Tucker just wasn't right in the part.

Schiffler? Screenwriter. Better than a lot in that genre, I might add. Actually, a little too much better.

Well . . . it was like havin' an orchestra conductor show up for one of those punk rock concerts. I mean, sure, both forms are technically music -- don't know about that punk stuff, though -- but the differences in style, in execution, in everything . . .

What it came down to, was this: Schiffler was an artist in a business where all that counted was how many fools could be parted from their money. Here he was tryin' to actually say something, and all the clunks who owned the studio that used his stuff could think was: how do we get Susie Pom-Pom and Billy Pimple-Face into the theatre? How do we juice this up and dumb it down? What's the bottom line for us? What kind of return can we expect?

I mean, Jesus Christ, they just completely bastardized everything he wrote. They even changed the titles just to get people into the theatres. That's how "Walk With Me Again, Love" became The Zombie Master, and "The Strange Return of Richard Pine" became The Mystery of the Smiling Corpse.

But then you have even worse nonsense like Night of the Moon-Beast, where all these Salem witches are wearin' lip gloss and stuffed bullet-bras under their black robes. Or teenagers dukin' it out with mummies. Or that friggin' asinine "flamin' roller coaster of death" in Carnival of Fear -- the 3D one, where it's supposed to jump out of the screen at everyone . . . I mean, come on . . . I'm surprised the guy didn't go into pornos or something. Probably more dignified.

I think Tucker was one the reasons Schiffler hung on as long as he did. He knew Geoff had real talent. Geoff could actually make a go of some of the God-awful material sent their way.

You should watch him sometime. He's really at his best in the earlier stuff, like Blood of the Pharaoh and The Haunted Morgue. That was before the drinkin' and pill-poppin' really got outta control. But about the time I supposedly off'd him, he was on his way back. Gettin' clean again.

And that was Schiffler at his best, too, before the crappy independent studios he had to work for started really bastardizin' his material. No, they're gone now. They either went bankrupt or were bought out.

Which is usually the way it is in this business . . .

Funny things, those early Schiffler-Tucker films. They were so different from what followed. I mean mood was paramount. You always had this naggin' sense that things weren't gonna turn out all right, you know? I mean it wasn't gonna be some happy-crappy, "Yay, we beat the monster, everybody to the soda shop!"

Schiffler wasn't into that stuff at all. He was dead serious about what he was doing. And Tucker played right along with him.

Tucker's characters died a lot in the early films. Or they went crazy. Or they just barely escaped with their lives. That really jolted people. They were used to the Army or the FBI steppin' in if the kids couldn't tackle the situation. But Schiffler didn't allow for that. A lot of the time, there wasn't anyone that Tucker could turn to for help.

I could relate to that, see?

Most of the time, he couldn't even mention what was happenin', because people would think he was insane. Like in The Haunted Morgue, where these ghouls live underground and eat corpses, except that they've cleared out the local boneyard, so they start raidin' the morgue for bodies. Tucker catches on pretty early, but everybody ends up thinkin' he's nuts, and that maybe he's the one up to no good, so they lock him up. And the ghouls get him in his cell one night.

Man, I had nightmares over that one . . . but like I said, I could relate.

Nobody was ever gonna believe me, either. And they didn't. And they still don't . . .


© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"Hear the Squidman Speak": © 1998 Mike Minnis. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998 Old Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: October 5, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004