The Sepia Tinge of Decay

Echo of footsteps
A sharp fluorescent buzzing
Empty grocery store

I spent way too much time watching Dan Bell’s Dead Mall series on YouTube last night, and it creeped me out. Dan Bell himself is appreciative of the period architecture and kitsch aesthetic, and he doesn’t film in a way that attempts to create elements of horror where none exist, but there’s still something upsetting about these places.

This video series is all very Rust Belt; and, based on the specific locations, I would assume that this slowly creeping neglect is connected to both rural depopulation and the institutionalized economic marginalization of Black communities. That’s upsetting enough in and of itself, of course.

But there’s also a more universal memento mori quality to these videos that inspires a dread of cultural senescence.

I feel like someone should make a video series along the same lines about abandoned websites, because they give off the same sort of energy. It’s not nostalgia, because the affect is distinctly negative, but it’s similar. I think what makes the urban exploration of abandoned malls unpleasant is that they’re “abandoned” instead of “closed,” meaning that the lights are still on and the water is still running. If they were completely shut down and gradually being overtaken by nature, they would be beautiful, but there are still people inside these almost-dead buildings, and that’s disturbing. In the same way, online spaces like Blogspot/Blogger feel weird because there are still a few people using them, and websites for children’s movies from the 2000s are a little eerie because someone is still paying to host them. You want to feel nostalgia when you look at the past; but then, when you realize that it’s not safely in the past, it’s uncomfortable and uncanny.

Also, can I be real for a second? Tumblr is starting to take on an “abandoned mall” feeling, and I don’t like it.

American Gothic Posthuman Romance

I’ve been reading an epic ongoing Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfic series, Everything Is All Right. I know almost nothing about the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, but the fic’s author, R. Lee Smith, is a prolific and extremely interesting writer who happens to share to one of my more arcane interests, interspecies romance. Smith’s writing style and subject matter resemble those of Stephen King – and I say this as a fan of Stephen King, if that needs clarification – except if all of King’s protagonists were female and also down to romance monsters.

Smith’s work came highly recommended by @corseque on Tumblr, whose taste in fiction I’ve grown to trust over the past two or three years. Corseque mentioned that this author has been writing fanfic, so I clicked on the link and started reading the first novel in the series, which is about the developing relationship between the author’s original character romancing Bonnie, a rotting animatronic rabbit without a face.

People say of writers they admire that they would read anything they wrote, up to and including a shopping list, but I think the real test of how much you like a writer is whether you’d be willing to read their erotic Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfiction. For me, regarding R. Lee Smith, I guess that answer is “yes.” I’m not sure that this is the sort of thing I could recommend to most people, but it’s quite good. Like, really good. I’m taking my sweet time reading the series, but I’m hooked.

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to comment on how amazing fanfiction is. It’s so cool that so many fantastic writers put their work up online for free, and it’s such a gift that anyone can access it at any time from anywhere. Sometimes I get frustrated with fandom, but there is not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to every single fanfic author on this planet.

The Stan Bryant Saga

I want to share a story about my mother’s family, who all live in rural Georgia. This story is about how strange that part of the world is, and it involves one of my mother’s cousins, Stan Bryant.

Everything I’ve been told is somewhat corroborated by public court records and articles drawn from the local paper, but it’s mostly hearsay. The only thing I can say with 100% certainty is that Stan Bryant is dead.

Stan Bryant was the son of my maternal grandfather’s sister, whom I knew as my Aunt Mervyn. When I was a kid, my Aunt Mervyn scared the bejesus out of me, and I later learned that she had schizophrenia. The disease apparently runs in my mom’s family. My grandfather’s mother, one of my mom’s sisters, and another of my mom’s cousins had it as well. I used to be worried that I would develop symptoms myself, but I think I turned out okay. In any case, Stan was my Aunt Mervyn’s only son, which can’t have been easy.

Stan grew up to be a nurse, and he lived in various cities up and down the East Coast. I met him a few times as an adult, and he seemed like a perfectly normal person, if somewhat mild-mannered and overly polite. Apparently, however, he was a serial wife beater. According to one of my uncles, Stan would be a perfect gentleman until a woman married him, at which point he would commence physically and emotionally assaulting her. This abuse would escalate until Stan felt compelled to flee whatever city he was living in so as to escape legal action. In this manner he married and divorced four wives, leaving behind four sons, all named Stan Bryant.

I should probably mention here that “Stan Bryant” is a pseudonym I created. This business gets weird, and I don’t want anything to be searchable.

Okay, so. After his most recent divorce, Stan Bryant returned to my hometown. Although he ostensibly came back to help care for his mother, Stan didn’t move back in with her. I believe Aunt Mervyn was supported with funds supplied by a trust set up by my grandfather, who had owned land all across the county. He built houses on some of this land; and, after he died, he left various properties to members of the family. Stan was living in one of these houses, which he legally owned. I’m not sure if he was working, but we later found out that he certainly wasn’t paying taxes.

Regardless, Stan started dating a woman named Tammy (also a pseudonym) who had no legal residence of her own and promptly moved in with him. It turns out that Stan had finally met his match, as Tammy was more than a little unstable herself. The two didn’t wait to get married before launching into a series of increasingly violent altercations, the last of which ended in Stan getting shot in the face.

The official account is that Stan threatened Tammy with a gun and then, filled with self-loathing, committed suicide by shooting himself. It’s important to note, however, that Stan never owned a gun, and the gun was registered in Tammy’s name. Tammy also happened to be cheating on Stan with the county sheriff, who was the first person to appear on the scene after the incident.

Because my Aunt Mervyn was not of sound mind, the management of Stan’s estate was overseen by my mother and her two brothers, all three of whom are lawyers. They jointly handled the legal proceedings and unilaterally claimed that the formal investigation of Stan’s death was off-the-charts bizarre. Because none of them felt the need to antagonize the sheriff, however, they let the matter slide. Who knows what actually happened?

Tammy sued the estate for Stan’s house; but, as soon as it came to light that Stan owed tens of thousands of dollars of back taxes, she decided that she wasn’t so interested after all. Instead of declaring bankruptcy on the estate and washing their hands of the affair, my mother and uncles decided that they would rent out Stan’s house. The person they hired to clean the place apparently found things that deeply upset him, and he started spreading stories that the house was haunted. In the end, the only person who would rent it was a Vietnam War veteran living on disability checks.

It initially seemed that this man was a perfect tenant. He paid his rent on time, kept to himself, and didn’t cause trouble. Unfortunately, his neighbor’s wife, whom my mother charmingly refers to as “the town bicycle,” had a crush on him, and he presumably ended up sleeping with her. Her husband, in a fit of jealous rage, reported to the sheriff that the man was using his military connections to run a drug cartel. The veracity of this accusation is debatable (and highly dubious), but the sheriff decided to investigate anyway. What he found in the woods behind the house were two growhouses in which the tenant had been cultivating marijuana. The sheriff confiscated the plants and put the man in jail. Since then, the house has been empty. I’m still not sure who’s doing what about the taxes on the property; but, as long as my mother doesn’t get shot in the face herself, I’ll probably never find out.

Meanwhile, the incident allowed Tammy to receive disability compensation, which she used to buy a house of her own. She also managed to acquire a large commercial property that’s been unoccupied for more than a decade, and she was recently granted a license to convert it into an animal shelter. The officer who heads the local Animal Control was extremely upset about this, as she had prohibited Tammy from setting foot onto the grounds of all the animal shelters in the county years ago because Tammy had been adopting cats and selling them on eBay. As a compromise, the Magistrate’s Office restricted Tammy’s shelter license to a maximum residential capacity of twenty-five cats. This restriction has been relaxed, and the shelter now houses more than fifty cats, which are apparently free to roam the building and grounds.

So the end result of Stan Bryant’s strange life and stranger death is a live-action Neko Atsume. If this story were fiction, I suppose it would have a more fitting conclusion, but I couldn’t make up this sort of thing if I tried.

The world is a weird place, y’all.