This World Is Full of Monsters

By Jeff VanderMeer

An alien invasion comes to one man’s doorstep in the form of a story-creature, followed by death and rebirth in a transformed Earth.

I Did Not Recognize What Sought Me

The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.

I grew weary.

I grew weary and I fell asleep on the couch holding the story, wondering what it might be and who had delivered it to me. But there was no time left for wonder. As I slept, the story gnawed its way into my belly and then the story crawled up through my body into my head. When I woke, gasping my resistance, the story made me stumble out the door of my house and lurch through the dark down my street, giddy and disoriented, muttering, “Do not stop me. Do not stop me. Story made me this way. Story made me this way.”

I felt a compulsion to turn to the left, and then to turn to the left again. Until the story made me stop at the end of the block, where the last fence meets a forest. By now I knew that the story wasn’t a story at all. It had just made me think it was a story so it could invade my brain.

And while I stood there in the shadows of the moonless night, beyond the street lamps, beyond the circling moths and with the nighthawks gliding silent overhead…while I stood there and pleaded, the story-creature sprouted out of the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds.

The explosion smashed through me. I screamed out, but the story-creature clamped down on my throat and the scream turned into a dribble of whispered nonsense rhymes in a code that crawled across my skin and inside my mouth. My head itched and there was an uncomfortable weight so my balance was off. But somehow it felt right.

Even the midnight bumblebees circling my head like a halo felt right, or the things like bumblebees that had erupted from my skin, my mouth.

There were so many things I had already begun to forget.

How This Came to Be and What Came Next

I am a writer…I was a writer. It is easy to fool a writer into thinking a creature is a story. The doorbell had rung earlier. When I had opened the door, a bulky little envelope lay on the welcome mat, under the glow of the porch light. When I opened it, a booklet crawled out onto the kitchen table. The booklet smelled like moist banana bread. It was filled with strange words, but somehow I understood that language. I read the booklet from cover to cover like it was a wonderful meal and I was a starving man. I devoured every word.

I had read a story. I was sure of it, even though I couldn’t remember what the story had been about. Nor could I recall who else had been with me in the house, except that there were two of them and they had become mere shadows on the wall.

Now, by the fence, the wildflowers and goldenrod and the weeds twined together and became something else and roots splayed out into me, and atop my head grew a sapling. My balance was terrible—I had to hold the sapling with both hands because I knew that if the sapling snapped it would kill me. But soon the weight would be unsupportable. Soon I would be beyond repair.

The story-creature that had sprouted from my head was restless and had tasks to accomplish. So I plunged deep into the forest in the dark of night, raging across the paths there, smashing into trees, backtracking, unable to know where I was or trying to wrest control from the thing that wanted to control me. But soon I adhered to paths despite myself. Soon I cohered and came to know balance and lifted my hands from the atrocity jutting from my crown. Soon I walked smooth and slow and no root tripped me and no false trail fooled me. I could see in the dark by then, or It could, and what, really, by then was the difference?

By dawn and the calls of birds, I recognized, through the grayness, the side of a hill and a clearing and there I turned once more to the left and pitched face-first into the grass and dirt and crawling beetles. The story-creature’s roots plunged greedily through my brain and through my soft palate and through my lower jaw, seeking the soil. While above me the swaying sapling had become a young tree. Or had taken on the appearance of a tree. It could never have been a tree.

I lay there, face-planted, with some thing growing through me and I let It soak up inspiration from the earth and from the air and from the new sun. I was awash in dreams of chlorophyll and photosynthesis…

We lay like that for a long time until the story-creature had used all of me It needed. Then It withdrew, and cared not how harsh that might be, for even in that short time I had become dependent, and the retreat was like screaming against an addiction. A hole had been left behind and my consciousness ached and jumped through the hole again and again like it led to hell or to nothing, and all my atoms frayed at the edges or spread out wide, or seemed to, and I did not know if I was dead-alive or just dead.

My left leg was a withered thing now, a wet pant leg wrung out to dry, and my left arm I left in the soil—it broke off when I tried to rise, and the stump refused to bleed but after the snap became just like an old rotting tree branch. I think I carried it around with me, waving it around with my other arm, like something demented and foolish and out of date.

I was in the world but I was not in the world, endless and numb yet in agony.

I was shooting through an empty sky with the stars all fallen to the ground, and every star cut whatever it touched, including me, and all the stars that fell touched me.

I could not stop reaching out to make contact even though it made so little difference to my fate.

I Did Not Wake for One Hundred Years

I did not wake for one hundred years. This was truth.

This is the truth.

When I woke, a century had passed and the hillside had folded in itself and become overgrown with vines and the story-creature appeared to have long left and perhaps passed on its message to others and now beyond the hill lay a vast and unyielding desert and facing me on the fertile side, my withered leg pointing at it, was a waterhole from which drank any number of disquieting animals. They held shapes my eyes did not want to recognize although some held no real shape at all, but I knew they were other story-creatures and had spread more than one story.

Some I could only see out of the corner of my eye. Others had the right number of legs but no symmetry and trailed across the ground at odd angles, drawing deep lines in the mud. They snorfled and snuffled and grunted at the waterhole. They fought and died there, too, raising tusks and claws and fangs, and turned the edge of the water to a bloody froth…only to come back to life and forget a moment later their conflict.

The sun above seemed strange, as if it came to me through a filter, but I found that my eyes had a film over them that created a slight orange tint. I did not know how it came to be there, but it seemed protective or at least not unfriendly.

With help from a dead tree branch I could hobble along, and I made my way past the waterhole into the remnants of the forest, back into my neighborhood. Overhead the things that flew should not have been able to fly, for they did not really have wings; they just had the suggestion of wings, like some careless creator had not drawn them in right. My mind made them into insects, because my mind wanted stories it could understand, stories that would not frighten it. But still I knew my mind was tricking me, and for a second I loved my mind for the deception.

My old street, which I felt I had left just hours before, lay in ruins. The pavement had not just cracked but become so overgrown it had no agency, left hardly any impression and my memory had to place it there—along with street lamps that now were just nubs of concrete columns that stood little higher than a foot tall. Among the houses of my neighborhood all roofs had been staved in and few walls remained and even of foundations there were only a handful in evidence.

One of those belonged to my home, and because I had had a basement, that is where I retreated to. I slid with relief into that space, which was flood damaged and filled with debris and overgrown with grass and vines and much worse things but still provided shelter. I slid into that space on the strength in one arm and one leg and I stared up at the sky until the things that must be messages but were also creatures curling through the air, written there and then dispersed, tormented me too much.

I dug into the dirt and grime, bereft. I dug there searching for my past, for something that had once curled around my wrist, for people that I had known but now existed like a reflection in murky water. Why were they no longer there? How could I no longer know them? Their rooms had been there. Their lives had been here. And were no longer.

“It was just a story,” I croaked, and lapped from a dirty pool of water I was so thirsty.

This was a mistake because in that water were still more fragments of story like the one that had been left in an envelope on my doorstep. Phrases and words that were neither phrases nor words absorbed into me and changed me even more, so that my withered leg became a kind of thick, flat tail and of my two eyes nothing remained but in their place were several eyes, but only one of them could see in the regular way and the others looked across the sedimentary layers before me in that basement and saw the past and all the changes that had been wrought, and because I could not accept the mighty judgment and wrath of that, for a time I rebelled and I shut all of my eyes but the regular one.

Thus I squinted at the world that it might look more like the regular world, the one in which I had been a writer and not believed in God and lived alone in a house writing and thinking that being written meant one thing when it meant so many other things as well.

My World Was Irretrievable

The world as it had become held a strangeness too vast for me to understand. I could only comprehend the space mapped by the edges of the basement and so I lay there, hungry and thirsty, for three days and three nights and watched the passage of time as would a rock or a scorpion or a blade of grass. The clouds were curious and not as I remembered and they did not form shapes that I could recognize but shapes I didn’t recognize that were still recognizable as something, even if that something was beyond me.

This troubled me greatly, more than most of my situation, and the way too that the clouds seemed to be something now, that they were looking down at me and that they saw me. I did not like this, and this fact was how I came to know that the past was irretrievable. For some part of me had thought, perhaps, that all I saw might be undone, be unraveled. That I might recover my true sight and my old home and go back to when the story creature lay in an envelope on my porch and that if only I never brought it inside all of the new-terrible would go away, be put back in some kind of box, perhaps even into my brain.

But it could not be put back.

What Happened As I Lay in My Basement

After three days and nights, I sensed the approach of unlikely kin, although the sound of Its passage was unfamiliar. But still, the story-creature that had sprouted from my head, now a century older, leaned in to look down upon me and unfolded Itself before me and in all ways and throughout all times looked down upon me and unfolded Itself before me and kept unfolding and I could not stop It from doing so.

Even though I wanted to so badly.

Even though I would have given anything for the story-creature to go away or to stop doing what It was doing, because I had lost so much already and this new world could not replace that.

But still the story-creature revealed Itself to me, until I understood that now It covered every surface, every space, and even though I thought I had been alone down in the basement among the rat-things and the other things I wanted very much to be rats and weren’t…I had not been alone. The story-creature had always been there, silent beside me, breathing beneath me, waiting for me to wake to its presence, to understand where I really was. But I would never understand. How could I? I had not understood the story to begin with.

When the story-creature knew, when I revealed to It by my demeanor how much I did not understand, the story-creature made a sound like the wind through branches, although the wind through the new branches I had woken to sounded more like a throaty scream being choked off. So this was a sound like the old wind, a lullaby about the ancient times to soothe whatever swarmed and seethed within me, although that was not the problem. Not really. The story-creature bent low and protruded and, there entered into the basement, sack-like, still attached to the story-creature…another me.

I opened my mouth to shriek at the sight, but the sound came out of the mouth of the other me. A me that had been rewritten, so that it resembled me in some ways, down to the wrong eyes and the tail for a leg, but different in others, so that to look at this other me made me feel nausea and claustrophobia until my adjustment.

Unlike me all of its eyes were open—and they saw…so much. So much more than me. Except now those of my eyes that were closed saw what its eyes saw and I fell to the basement floor, unable to process so many incoming images and feelings.

For so long after, I came to understand, I would spend my days listening to part of my own story issue forth from the mouth of another, and still not understand all of that story.

I Began to Have a Brother I Did Not Want

I had not been much part of the story of the world before my awakening and before the creature assigned myself to me. The story-creature told me I had lived alone. I had written alone. I had done odd jobs and been out of the house when I needed to be somewhere else. I had a car and I had a big wooded backyard and I listened to music and I complained about things like everyone else. I believe I talked to the neighbors just enough and I would go over to their houses for dinner on holidays, although I did not invite them over to our house. Others had lived in the house with me, though, stains upon the wall now, lost in the foundations, overtaken by the story-creature’s tale.

I knew only that I had killed people and buried them in my backyard. Bad people. People who needed to be ended. This is how I created my fictions.

I killed them by writing stories about them in which they died and taking the stories and crumpling up the pages. Then I would take a shovel and dig a hole and shove the pages in and cover them up with dirt. Then I would say a few words about their souls and refill the bird feeder or rake the leaves. Sometimes the people died in life and not just on the page. Sometimes they didn’t. But always after I buried the pages, my writing would be enriched.

I didn’t mind being eccentric in these ways. I didn’t mind not having a brother or having parents that I could not remember, and now a century, like I did not mind many things. But I minded having been given a brother by the story-creature. It might seem like a small thing in a way, since I had been asleep so long and lived in the basement of the foundations of a house that had rotted away decades ago.

It might seem like a tiny thing given the world had been colonized by the story-creature and its brethren and even the sun and the clouds had become so strange. But it was a large thing to me. My brother who was me stared at me and I became the receptor for so much that was alien to me. I would lurch to my feet and run around the basement because my brother willed it, while in my head I would see from my brother’s eyes some memory in which he had had to run. Or I would sit quiet as he had sat quiet or I would weep and it was because of some time he had wept. Until finally I realized he was downloading another story into my brain, his story, and soon enough I knew that while I had slept I had been copied and that my brother was almost a century old and been awake that whole time and now I was to become as like him as possible—and then I raged. I raged and smashed my skull against hard things because I did not want to know about the last hundred years or to be filled up with what might make me not myself. Or too much myself.

If I had still been able, I would have written a story about my brother dying and buried it in the backyard.

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