6090 words, short story
The Creature Recants
During breaks in shooting, the Creature from the Black Lagoon usually rests in a pond on the studio back lot and dreams of home. The pond isn’t much even as ponds go. It’s maybe four feet deep at its deepest point and a hundred yards or so around, an abandoned set carved out of the scorched southern California earth for some forgotten film or other: cattails and reeds and occasionally a little arrow of ripples when a dry breeze skates across the surface. Not even a fish if he’s feeling peckish. Which he often is. The catering is suspect at the best of times, and it’s even more so when you’re accustomed to a diet of raw fish and turtle flesh prized living from the shell.
This is Hollywood.
“Don’t expect too much,” Karloff had advised him over sushi not long after he’d arrived, full of ambition and optimism, and Lugosi, strung out on morphine and methadone by the time the Creature made the scene, had been even more blunt. “They vill fuck you every time,” he’d said in that thick Hungarian accent. The both of them typecast by their most famous roles. The Creature had assumed he could beat the odds, but on those blazing afternoons in the pond, now and again scooping up handfuls of water to moisten his gills, he’d begun to reconsider. The water was unkind, perpetually casting his reflection back at him: the bald, barnacle-encrusted skull, the eyes sunk beneath shelves of armored bone, the frills of tissue encasing the gills around his neck. Not what you would call leading-man material.
To think, he’d once been the king of his little world—the vast, dark Lagoon, overhung with the boughs of enormous trees, and the mighty Amazon itself, where anacondas slithered through the algae-clotted water, caiman slid into the flood without a splash, their tails lashing, and catfish the size of Chevrolets trolled the mossy bottom. Not to mention the jungle, humid, rank, and festering, clamorous with the chitinous roar of millions of insects. And here he was in southern California instead, spending his days in waist-deep water and sleeping his nights in an oversized bathtub in a crummy apartment.
Such are the Creature’s thoughts when a member of the crew—it’s Bill, a gopher who’s trying to break into the biz as a lighting tech—walks down to the pond to tell him that Jack’s finished setting up the next shot. It’s time for the Creature to come back up to the set and stagger around the deck of the Rita—not even a real boat, just a cheap mock-up in one of the soundstages on the Universal lot—and menace Julie Adams for another hour or so. She’s a real scream queen, Julie, the genuine article, but she’s nice enough in real life; she even walks down to the pond to chat once in a while between set-ups. They’re all nice enough. Even Jack’s okay, though he’s always badgering the Creature to focus on his motivation when the Creature has enough trouble just hitting his marks. To tell the truth, the Creature’s heart isn’t in it anymore, but he’s signed a deal with Universal, and his agent—who rarely returns his calls anyway—tells him there’s no way to break the contract.
So the Creature hauls himself out of the pond, and tramps back up to the soundstage, trying not to think about the fact that he could decapitate Bill with a single stroke of his taloned hand. Trying not to think that at some level he wants to.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
You never know happiness until it’s gone, that’s the way the Creature figures it. The present always seems like a mess. It was only once he left the Lagoon that he realized how good he’d had it there. In Hollywood, he recalls its dark waters with longing. Sometimes at night, his head pillowed on the bottom of his brimming bathtub and his webbed feet slung over either side to brush the peeling vinyl floor, he even dreams of it. How perfect it seems now, the murky bottom where he’d nested for hours among the drifting fronds of plants he cannot name and the hidden channel that led to his rocky underground lair. Armored with scales and impervious to jaguar and piranha alike, the Creature had hunted both the overgrown shores and the black fathoms, snatching spider monkeys screaming from their roosts and feasting on the great fish that slipped through the Lagoon’s sulfurous depths. He recalls even his isolation with melancholy regret. What had seemed like loneliness—he’d never known another of his kind—now seemed like autonomy, and when the boat that spelled his expulsion from paradise had first steamed into the lagoon he had approached it with a curiosity that now seemed like folly.
He hadn’t planned to leave the Black Lagoon, but life always takes the unexpected turn: caiman poachers in this case, though he hadn’t known that then. It had been the boat, anchored in a sun-dappled inlet, that fascinated him. He’d taken it for some kind of novel creature, and because no denizen of the Amazon posed a threat to him—because he pined for novelty in those days—he hadn’t given a second thought to approaching the thing. He’d been backstroking along, his face turned to the sun, when it came chugging into the Lagoon, stinking of gasoline. When he saw it, the Creature dove into the sun-spangled water, surfaced in the shadow of the boat, and dragged a talon along its rusting keel. He hadn’t seen the net until it was too late. He found himself entangled. Panicked, he began to claw at it. He’d have freed himself had the poachers not reacted so quickly, winching him out of the water even as his talons tore long rents in the ropy mesh.
“My God,” one of the poachers screamed, staggering back.
“Jesus, what the hell is that thing?” his companion cried, reaching for a spear gun. (The Creature reconstructed this dialogue only later.) The Creature was thinking the same thing. What could these soft, distorted reflections of his scaly self be, he wondered—
Then the harpoon punctured his shoulder and he stumbled flailing into the water. He’d never felt such agony. By the time he bobbed to the surface, he was unconscious. When he woke he found himself imprisoned behind steel bars.
The poachers weren’t dumb—grimy, stubbled, and foul mouthed—but not dumb. Three times a day, they tossed a fish, still flopping, between the bars of his cage. When they saw him pour his bucket of drinking water over his head, they realized that he needed to moisten his gills regularly. Using a spare gaff, they poked fresh buckets into his pen on the hour. The rest of the time he spent curled in a corner, whimpering. His terror of the boat at first overwhelmed him: the roar of the engine, the stench of his own waste, the curious faces (if you could call such doughy parodies of his own batrachian features faces) staring at him jaws agape from outside his cage. But you can get used to anything. By the time they anchored in the headwaters of Peru, his terror had dwindled to a dull simmer of anxiety.
He had no concept of the worst possibilities—not then, anyway. He could have been sold to a marine biology institute, where sooner or later scientists would have gotten around to dissecting him to see what made him tick (the Creature’s rudimentary knowledge of scientists derives mostly from horror movies; scientists were all mad, as far as he is concerned). He could have been sold to a zoo, and spent the rest of his life paddling around in a wading pool, while small children gawped at him and tossed half-eaten ice cream cones through the bars. These would no doubt have been more profitable avenues. But the caiman poachers weren’t anxious to disclose their reasons for cruising the Amazon. So he was sold instead to a carny scout combing the region for freak-show specimens, shipped north, and sold yet again, this time to Southeby & Sons Travelling Carnival, a fly-by-night operation that worked the south-western circuit through the spring and fall, wintering in Gibsonton, Florida, along with most of the other carnies in North America.
And here was happiness again—sort of, anyway—though he didn’t recognize it at the time. By then, he’d pretty well been tamed. After he’d raked the shoulder of one of the poachers with his claws, a cattle prod had been brought into play, and three or four applications of that had been sufficient to cool his heels. So when he came to Southeby & Sons he’d been pliable enough. Besides, he fit right in with the freaks. They too were unique: the Living Skeleton, the Fat Lady (fat hardly did her justice), Daisy and Violet, the Siamese Twins, and half a dozen others, midgets and bearded ladies and the Monkey Boy: a community of sorts, a family that assuaged the loneliness that had been his lot back home in the Black Lagoon.
What’s more, he had a vertical glass aquarium he could call his own, smaller than he might have wished, true, but brimful of water. Southeby billed him as the Gill Man and his sideshow performances were no hardship. He could bob in the green water, or kick to the surface for a breath of rank air (the Monkey Boy wasn’t particular in matters of personal hygiene), or even doze if so inclined. Something of a romance—unconsummated, for the Creature’s sexual organs, if he had any, were incompatible with those of human beings—blossomed between him and Daisy, much to Violet’s dismay, who for unknown reasons took an immediate and abiding dislike of him. It was Daisy who taught him to talk, though his vocal cords, unfit for human speech, rendered his voice guttural and unintelligible to the untutored ear. And there was a kind of freedom during the winters in Gibsonton, this perhaps most precious of all. A simple walk of a mile or so brought him to the beach, and he sometimes lazed for hours in the warm, briny waters of the Gulf.
So he might have passed his life, or at least a longer portion of it, for who could say how long he might yet exist? The Creature had no memory of his birth and growth. He was then as he always had been and might always be. But restlessness possessed him. Violet’s inescapable abhorrence was a constant blight on the affection he shared with Daisy, his tank grew cramped, and even his sojourns in the waters of the Gulf too brief, restricted by nine months on the road, burning the lot in one town to set up the next day in another. The midway—the flashing lights of the rides, the alluring chants of the barkers, the sugary reek of cotton candy and funnel cake—grew oppressive.
So when the chance to escape presented itself, in the person of a low-rent Hollywood agent who paused before his tank, the Creature was quick to take it. The agent took the time to decipher his rasping tones, sensed his discontent, and persuaded him to give the silver screen a try. L.A. was close to the beach year round, after all, and the Creature was already in show biz. If stardom didn’t suit him, he could always return to the carny circuit. So it was the Creature signed up to be a contract player for Universal. He didn’t count on being typecast as, well, the Creature, forever flapping about on his great rubbery feet after one nubile beauty or another, his scaly green arms outstretched. Didn’t count on being mistaken for a stunt man in a rubber suit. Didn’t count on the bathtub or the crummy apartment.
Most of all he didn’t count on Julie Adams.
This is Hollywood.
As Bela Lugosi put it, “They vill fuck you every time.”
The Creature has begun to believe that he might be in love with Julie Adams.
“Are you lonely?” she asks him one day down by the pond.
He floats on his back in a stand of cattails, keeping an eye on her through a screen of gently bending stalks. He understands all too well what it’s like to be stared at. Every time he strolls outside his apartment, people stare. He’s learned to ignore the occasional cries of “Hey, fish man,” and no longer stops to explain that he’s not a fish, but an amphibian. Yet the mockery has had its effect. The Creature has begun to wonder if there’s something cannibalistic about him every time he chomps into a fish taco or spears a sushi roll on a single curved claw—with his webbed fingers, chopsticks and silverware are out of the question. The truth is, that’s another reason the Creature has given up on the set’s catering: he senses that people would just as soon not see him eat. He’s never quite overcome the gastronomic habits of the jungle. He wolfs down his meals, smacks his oversized red lips, chews with his mouth open, gets unsightly gobs of food caught in his fangs. The whole thing is unsightly. The studio has ignored his requests to stock the pond with bluegills and catfish so that he can eat in privacy, and rather than protest—the negligent agent again—the Creature elects to spend his days hungry. He figures it sharpens his hostile motivations in the film; he’s become a student of Stanislavsky.
The Creature has, in short, begun to accept the norms of Hollywood. He no longer sees any beauty in his fellow denizens of the freak show (the mere thought of Daisy now repulses him)—but he has very much come to see the beauty in Julie Adams, a tall busty brunette who spends most of her days in their scenes together wearing a white one-piece bathing suit that accentuates her considerable curves. He’s not sure that what he feels is love—love is a relatively new concept to him—but he knows that he eagerly anticipates her occasional visits to the pond, that the sound of her voice sets his heart racing, that sometimes he has trouble sleeping nights, and not merely because the bathtub provides no comfortable accommodation for his dorsal ridge. No, he has trouble sleeping because he can’t stop thinking of Julie Adams.
Is he lonely? In a word, yes.
But the question begs closer examination. He glides out of the bed of cattails and gives Julie his full attention. Perhaps she’s come to suspect his amorous intentions, for she has taken to wrapping herself in a thick white bathrobe before she walks down to the pond. Perhaps she’s merely cold. It’s hard to know.
“Lonely?” he says, hating his inhuman rasp. He cannot help comparing it to the rich, clear timbre of Richard Carlson, the (let’s face it) star of the movie, despite the Creature’s eponymous billing. With a languid kick he turns to face Julie. She sits at the edge of the shore, with her knees drawn up and her hands clasped around her legs. The Creature can’t help staring at her bare ankles. Lonely? He muses on the question.
“I suppose I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Well, there are no other Creatures, are there?”
“None that I know of,” he says, recalling the splendid isolation of the Lagoon.
“It must be very lonely, then. I wouldn’t like to be all alone.”
“I’m not alone anymore.”
Implying that he has become a companion to the human race in general, and perhaps, hopefully, to Julie in particular.
She doesn’t take his meaning. “Sometimes I think we’re all alone, every one of us. Do you ever think that?”
The Creature composes his largely immobile features into an expression of tragic acceptance. “I suppose we are,” he says. “But if you can find someone to love—”
She interrupts him. “I guess that’s true. But it must be especially difficult for you. You’re not human, but you’re not . . . not human, either, if you see what I mean.” She sighs, resting her chin on her knees. “Dick says you’re the Missing Link.” She seems to be blind to the cruelty of this statement, but the Creature has become as accustomed to this appellation as he is to “Fish Man.” If he really thinks about it, he supposes he does stand somewhere between the modern human and his piscine ancestry, but he doesn’t much like what this implies about his place on the evolutionary spectrum.
Annoyed, he backstrokes off in a snit, arcs his body gracefully backward, and dives, dragging his armored belly on the muddy bottom of the shallow pond (oh, how he longs for the fathomless depths of the Black Lagoon!) He surfaces to face Julie across the stretch of sun-shot water—only to find her striding back to the sound stage. Bill is waving him in from the water’s edge. It must be time to resume shooting. Sighing, the Creature breaststrokes toward shore. Once the scourge of the Amazon, he has been reduced to a bit player in his own story.
For it is his story. Or was supposed to be.
History will record it differently—attributing the film’s origins to Maurice Zimm, but Zimm did little more than transcribe the Creature’s narrative during a series of interviews conducted while the Creature lounged in producer William Alland’s swimming pool. That’s how the Creature remembers it anyway. He would have pounded out the screenplay himself if he could have. That task fell instead to two inveterate Hollywood journeymen, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross. When the final draft fell into the Creature’s hands, he recoiled in disbelief. The caiman poachers had been transformed into intrepid paleontologists, the Black Lagoon into an arena of horrors, the Creature himself—an innocent victim!—into a vicious monster. About the only thing the trio of scribes had managed to do right was add a love interest—otherwise, the Creature thinks, he might never have met Julie Adams.
“I won’t do it,” the Creature protested. “I’ll go back to the carnival. Hell, I’ll go back to the Amazon!”
His agent—a balding, mousy little man named Henry Duvall—shook his head dolefully. “You’ve signed a contract.”
“I didn’t sign anything,” the Creature growled. “I can’t even hold a pen.”
“I signed for you in the presence of two witnesses and a notary public,” Duvall replied. “Same difference.”
Cue Bela Lugosi.
So the Creature reported to the set as ordered, climbed aboard the Rita to terrorize Julie as required, shrank before the virile posturings of Richard Carlson (as required)—and fell in love.
“Love,” he tells Karloff, pacing the actor’s capacious study. By this time, Karloff has long since settled into stardom. He lives comfortably in L.A. and has steady work, though he’s still typecast as a horror icon. Smaller than the Creature expected—the Creature towers a good two feet above him—Karloff in his late sixties remains handsome and slim, his dark hair silvering. Five times married, he is perhaps not the best person to approach for romantic advice, but the Creature’s options are limited. His film, the first of a projected trilogy, is not yet completed, much less released, and he is beginning to see that he has been played for a fool. If Boris Karloff can’t escape his defining role—if this charming, gentle man still clumps around in the American zeitgeist wearing elevator boots and bolts in his neck—then what hope has the Creature, who cannot even shuck his costume? There are no Oscars in his future, just endless sequels to this initial pack of lies. Revenge of the Creature. The Creature Walks Among Us. Even Abbot and Costello Meet the Creature, if things go badly enough (or well enough, from Universal’s perspective).
“Love?” Karloff says. He leans back in his armchair and steeples his fingers. “Love is always a delicate matter.”
“Tell me about it,” says the Creature.
“If your love is unrequited”—Karloff retains a trace of his native British accent, a genteel formality—“then there is little you can do.”
This is not the advice the Creature sought. This is not advice at all. This is a statement of fact. The Creature has come to suspect that Julie’s visits to his pond are little more than kindnesses. After all, he sees the way she looks at Richard Carlson, the way she moistens her lips and gazes up at him in adoration. Carlson is nice enough to him, but nice won’t do. While the Creature occasionally daydreams of raking Bill’s head off in annoyance, his fantasies of violence toward Carlson burn icy and pure. He would like to kill him slowly, to spear each eyeball upon a talon and pop them into his mouth like jellybeans, to unseam his belly and feed upon the steaming offal, to wrench off his limbs one by one. For a start. The Creature does what he can to repress these unsavory flights of imagination, but they retain a vividness he cannot deny. He may work in a black-and-white 3D horror flick, but his fantasies are projected in widescreen Technicolor. Perhaps this is his true nature, savage and immutable, antediluvian and, yes, appropriate to the Missing Link. You can take the Creature out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the Creature.
He senses that this is not the way to Julie’s heart.
Karloff clears his throat. “You face many obstacles, of course. You are not handsome. You are not human. You have, insofar as you have been able to detect, no potential for procreation. Yet there might be a way.”
A way? The Creature pauses. He takes a seat across from Karloff. He’d like to lean back, but his goddamn dorsal ridge is, as always, in the way. Another reminder of his inhumanity. Yet there might be a way past even that.
He is all attention.
“Beauty comes in many forms,” Karloff says. “It is, as the expression goes, in the eye of the beholder. But that eye is often best attuned when its object is set against its natural environment.”
“What are you saying?”
Now Karloff leans forward. He smiles. “Underwater, my friend. Water is your natural milieu.”
True enough. In his pond on the Universal lot, submerged to the waist and ladling up clear freshets with one spade-like hand, the Creature looks ridiculous. In the Black Lagoon, however, he glides through the water with a grace and beauty no man can hope to match. Human beings are no more suited to thrive underwater than he is suited to a purely land-bound existence. Clumsy and ill equipped for a submarine life, they don wet suits that are but sad reflections of his own glistening hide. They have rubber flippers where he has feet, heavy oxygen tanks and re-breathers where he has gills. If he shambles gasping across the Universal lot, his adversary in love will shamble—or anyway flail—beneath the surface. In the water, Carlson’s beauty will be but a paltry thing. And while a return to the Black Lagoon is cost-prohibitive, the underwater scenes are scheduled to be filmed in Wakulla Springs, Florida, a return to his beloved Gulf and (yes, he has researched the location shoots) the largest freshwater cave system in the world—if not his beloved Lagoon, the next best thing. Flush with renewed optimism, the Creature thanks Karloff and takes his leave.
The same optimism carries him across the continent, canted awkwardly in his seat—his dorsal ridge; again—and staring out at the blur of the propellers. Halfway through the flight, Julie walks down the aisle to take the seat beside him. She leans past him to look out the window, so close that he can smell the faint lavender scent of her perfume. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she says, gazing down at the green hills unscrolling below the streaming scud. “It makes me think of the film.”
“How?” says the Creature, who can see no clear connection.
“Well, it seems so deep, you know, so . . . dimensional . . . looking down from up here like this. I imagine the way the audience will experience it when they see us swimming out of the screen like that.”
Ah. 3D. If he’s been told once he’s been told a thousand times. Alland’s ambitions for the film hinge upon two factors: the realistic creature effects (which certainly should look realistic, the Creature ruminates) and the use of 3D, only the second Universal film to be released in the innovative format. But then he realizes that Julie has dozed off against his shoulder, and he wonders if he too can have a three-dimensioned life.
Wakulla Springs is everything the Creature had hoped it would be. There are shortcomings, to be sure. He could have wished for a more tropical setting—strangler figs, lianas, and buttress-rooted trees—but there is much to be thankful for as well. The alligators slipping into the murky water recall the caiman of the Black Lagoon; the bulky manatees the nine-foot piracuru and catfish that call his native waters home; the boom of insects the constant roar of the jungle. And the springs themselves are everything he hoped they would be, fathoms deep, and riddled with caverns. Against his better judgment—Julie will think him hardly human at all, he fears—the Creature dispenses with the pretense of his trailer and abandons the on-set catering altogether. Halfway abandons the film, in fact. More often than not, when Jack dispatches Bill to summon the Creature to the set, he’s off touring the depths. He explores the cave system in search of a rocky grotto like the one he had in the Amazon. He dozes in deep, cold currents where no human being can follow. He gluts himself on the abundance of prey, devouring fish raw in clouds of ichthyic blood. Life is good, or better anyway, but he is not happy (or if he is, he does not recognize it). Thoughts of Julie torture him like an inflamed scale under a ridge of his armored breast.
Finally, Jack calls him in for a meeting. Like Karloff, Jack is a kind man. Anger is not his natural métier, yet the Creature is forced to stand dripping on the carpet in the director’s trailer, listening to his gentle rebuke. Somehow that makes it worse, Jack’s generosity of spirit. “I have no choice, you see,” the director admonishes him. “We’re on a tight schedule. We’re not making Gone With the Wind, you know.”
“It’s going to be a good picture,” the Creature says.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t going to be a good picture. I said that we have to make our release date or both our careers are on the line.”
“Your career,” the Creature rasps. “What kind of career am I likely to have, Jack?”
“You’re unique. After people see this picture, offers are going to come rolling in.”
“Don’t patronize me, Jack. We both know there’s only one role I can play.”
Jack sighs. “I guess you’re right. But still, this is going to be a good film. You’ll get to play this role again.”
The Creature laughs humorlessly, snared in a dilemma even his human colleagues must share, forever trapped in the prisonhouse of self. That’s the appeal of acting, he supposes: the chance to be someone else, if only for a little while. And isn’t that what he’s doing here, playing at being something he’s not? He’s not a monster. He never has been. If his range of roles is limited—if he is doomed to be the Creature from the Black Lagoon—well, that’s Hollywood. He thinks of Karloff and Lugosi. Who does he want to become? Does he wish to accept his fate with grace or does he wish to rail perpetually against it, strung out on drugs and bitterness? Is being the Creature any different than being a carnival freak? Yet still he longs for his lost home. How he hates the poachers who have done this to him. He’d like to poke their eyeballs out, too. And eat them.
So maybe he’s a monster, after all.
“I need you on the set on time,” Jack is saying while these thoughts run through the Creature’s head. “It’s expensive to shoot underwater, especially with the 3D rig. Every time you don’t show up when you’re supposed to, you cost us money.”
“I’m sorry, Jack,” the Creature says.
“Look, I know this is hard for you. Nobody ever said acting was easy. Look at Brando. Channel your anger into the role. I need you to be the Creature I know you can be.”
The Creature doesn’t know quite what Jack means by this. He doesn’t even know who—or what—he is anymore. Yet he vows to himself that he will try for something more complex than a B-movie monster—to draw not only upon his fury and resentment, but upon his passion for Julie. He vows to do better.
He does, too.
The Creature shows up promptly as requested. He lingers between shots. He tries to make small talk with the crew. But what is there to say, really? He’s an eight-foot amphibian, finned and armored in plates of bone. He could eviscerate any one of them with the twitch of a talon. Monster or not, he is a monster to them.
Not Julie, though, or so he tells himself. Perhaps Karloff is right: set against his natural environment, she seems to recognize his natural grace. Indeed she seems to share it. Unburdened by the clunky scuba tanks the men’s roles demand, she glides through the water. And between shots she dispenses with the bathrobe she’d taken to draping herself in on the Universal lot, as if swimming together has drawn them closer. Of all the actors on the set, she alone seems entirely at ease with him. They spend more and more time talking. As he lolls in the shallows, she tells him about her recent divorce or about growing up in Arkansas; she tells him about her first days in Hollywood, working as a secretary and taking voice lessons on the side. Yet she is still capable of blind cruelty.
“You’re lucky,” she says. “You never had to fight for your dreams.”
The Creature hardly knows how to respond. So what if Universal picked him up the minute William Alland laid eyes on him? Unlike Julie, he’ll never play another role in his life; all the elocution lessons in the world won’t change his inhuman growl. He’s not even sure what he aspires to anymore. Stardom? Freedom? A return to the Black Lagoon? In his dreams, he sweeps Julie into his embrace, carries her off to the Amazon, unveils to her the wonders of his vanished life: the splendid isolation of the Lagoon, the sluggish currents of the great river, the mystery of the crepuscular forest.
Maybe this newfound intimacy accounts for the otherworldly beauty of the Wakulla scenes. In the dailies, Julie cuts the surface, her white bathing suit shining down through the gloom like god light. The Creature stalks her from below, half-hidden among drifting fronds of thalassic flora, rapt by her ethereal beauty. His webbed hands cleave the water. Bubbles erupt skyward with his every kick. As she swims, he glides toward her from below, up, up, up, until he is swimming on his back beneath her and closing fast: a dozen feet, half a dozen, less, his immovable face frozen in an expression of impossible longing. He reaches out a tentative hand to brush her ankle as she treads water—and pulls it away at the last moment, as terrified of her rejection on celluloid as he is terrified of her rejection in life. What one does not risk, one cannot lose; worse yet, he thinks, what one does not risk, one cannot gain. A sense of inconsolable despair seizes him. In the images projected on the screen, he sees now how little their worlds can connect. She is a creature of the daylit skin of the planet, he of the shadowy submarine depths.
Jack praises the silent yearning in the Creature’s performance.
Yet the whole thing drives the director crazy nonetheless. Frustrated by the task of stitching the haunting underwater scenes together with the mundane L.A. footage, he asks the studio for reshoots and is denied. For the first time—the only time—the Creature sees Jack angry, his face a mask of fury. “This could be so much more than another goddamn monster flick,” he says in the dim projection trailer, flinging away the 3D glasses perched on his nose. Even this angry gesture drives home the Creature’s inhumanity. Alone in the back row, he must pinch his glasses between two delicate claws. His flattened nose provides no bridge to support them. He has no external ears to hook them over. Everything about him is streamlined for his underwater existence.
The Creature grinds his cardboard glasses under one webbed foot. He slams out of the trailer, the door crumpling with a screech of tortured metal as he hurtles into the moonlit night. He is halfway to the water when Julie catches up with him. “Wait,” she says. “Wait—”
Her voice hitches in the place where his name ought to be—for of course he has no name, does he? He is the Creature, the Gill Man, nothing more. There has been no one to name him—even the freaks did not name him—and he has never thought to name himself. He would not know how to begin. Fred? John? Earl? Such human names fall leaden on the tongue, inadequate to describe a . . . a creature, a fiend, an inhuman monster. How will they credit him in the film? The Creature as the Creature?
“Wait,” Julie says again. “Creature, wa—”
The Creature whirls to face her, one massive hand drawn back to strike.
“Don’t,” she whispers, and the Creature checks the blow. For an instant, everything hangs balanced on a breath. Then the Creature lowers his hand, turns away, and shambles toward the water, his great feet flapping. Something feels broken inside him. Jack’s words—
—another goddamn monster flick—
—echo inside his head. That’s all he is, isn’t he? A monster. A monster who in a moment of fury, would have with a single swipe of his claws torn from her shoulders the head of the woman he loved. A monster who would in the grip of his rage, feed upon her blood. The Creature would cry, but even that simple human solace is denied him. The dark waters beckon.
“Wait,” Julie says. “Please.”
Almost against his will, the Creature turns to face her. She stands maybe a dozen feet away. In the moonlight, tears glint upon her cheeks. Beyond her, the men—Jack and Dick and Richard Denning, the third lead—stand silhouetted against the beacon of golden light pouring through the trailer’s shattered door.
“Why?” the Creature says, knowing the doom that will come upon him if he stays.
“Because,” Julie says, “because I love you.”
So Karloff was right. For a heartbeat, happiness—a great and abiding contentment that no mere human being can plumb—settles over the Creature like a benediction. But what is the depth of love, he wonders, its strange currents and dimensions? What is its price, and is he willing to pay it? And a line from another monster movie comes to him, one that Jack showed him in pre-production: It was beauty killed the beast.
This is Hollywood.
It vill fuck you every time.
“I love you, too,” he says in his inhuman rasp, and in the same instant, in his heart, he recants that love, refuses and renounces it. For Julie. For himself. He will not be the monster that loves. He will not be the monster that dies. He will not be their freak, their creature. He will not haunt their dreams. They can finish their fucking film with a man in a rubber suit.
The Creature puts his back to Julie and wades into the water, glimmering with moonlight. It welcomes him home, rising to his shins and thighs before the bottom drops away beneath him, and he dives. He has studied the locations, he has explored the Springs’ network of caverns: from here the Wakulla River to the St. Marks and Apalachee Bay, and thence to the Gulf. The Black Lagoon calls out to him across the endless miles, and so the Creature strikes off for home, knowing now how fleeting are the heart’s desires, knowing that Julie too would ebb into memory, this perfect moment lost, this happiness receding forever into the past.
A winner of both the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award, Dale Bailey is the author of The End of the End of Everything: Stories and The Subterranean Season, both out in 2015, as well as The Fallen, House of Bones, Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.), and The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories. His work has twice been a finalist for the Nebula Award and once for the Bram Stoker Award, and has been adapted for Showtime Television's Masters of Horror. He lives in North Carolina with his family.