Title card music is “Coagula” by permission of Zeal & Ardor. We learned of this band when one of their albums appeared as a chapter heading for We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix. Click through for our interview with Grady for this book. All of those referenced albums were good, but Zeal & Ardor sunk their hooks in and wouldn’t let go. Their powerful mix of gospel, blues, and metal is mesmerizing. You owe it to yourself to check out at least “Blood in the River” and “Gravedigger’s Chant.”
I Hate All that is Mine
by Leigh Harlen
The beanbag crunched and whooshed as Karla dropped into it. No one older than sixteen should have to sit in a beanbag, but she didn’t complain and did her best to get comfortable. While Hailey set up her movie, she rehearsed what she would say when it was over to cover how much she hated it. The camera work was really good. I loved the way you lit the room. That one shot was really striking. No, I’m not lying, I really liked it.
“This is going to floor you, I swear. It’s the best thing I’ve ever made.” Hailey’s hands trembled almost as much as her voice as she hooked up the cables between her laptop and the flat screen television mounted on the wall of her basement bedroom.
“Awesome, looking forward to it,” Karla said, forcing a cheerful tone to hide her skepticism. Hailey was seriously amped up about this. It didn’t bode well. Hailey fancied herself the next Alejandro Jodorowsky and the more excited she was about a project, the more incomprehensible and bizarre it was bound to be. In recent months, Hailey’s projects had gotten so weird, and occasionally unethical, that even the local film club nerds stopped inviting her to their bi-monthly screening night for local filmmakers. A few of her movies had even made Karla question their fifteen-year friendship. Especially that goddamn movie with the octopus and its somehow even more fucked up homage to Oldboy.
“What’s this movie for again?”
“This film is for the short film festival at Cinemarvelous.”
Karla hoped the dim lighting hid her eye roll. Hailey never made movies, she made films. “Ah, cool. You don’t get enough of that place at work?”
Hailey laughed, high pitched with an off-kilter edge. “I mean, yeah. But it is a pretty well-respected festival. Real producers and shit come out for it.”
At last, the television screen projected the off-putting mashup of Dr. Victor Frankenstein—the pre-code 1931 film, naturally—and David Lynch’s face that was her desktop background. “Okay, here we go.”
The screen flicked to life with a wide shot of the house they were currently inside which Hailey rented with her boyfriend and four other people. It was silent except for music so quiet that Karla wasn’t sure if it was coming from the movie or from somewhere in the house.
The shot narrowed to focus on a dark window on the second floor and the music grew to a soft hum. A pale shape moved in front of the glass, stopped, and squirmed. A chill wriggled up Karla’s back as if the thing in the window were watching her instead of the other way around. She strained her eyes, but force of will couldn’t make the camera zoom in closer and whatever it was remained insubstantial. The camera’s gaze lingered on the window for far too long. It created an unsettling, voyeuristic feeling in Karla’s gut, like she was a trespasser leering into someone’s bedroom.
It was a relief when the camera swung down to the porch with its dingy white, peeling paint and the floorboards that sagged under the molding green couch. The door swung open inviting the viewer into the house and the music grew loud enough that she could make out that it was organ music. Karla almost laughed at the absurd drama of it. Probably Hailey was aiming for old-school silent movie accompaniment organ, but instead it somehow sounded like the Phantom of the Opera was playing a duet with a county fair carousel.
In the living room, Hailey’s boyfriend Thad stood blindfolded, every inch of his pale, bony body on display under the bright lights. Three of Karla and Thad’s housemates stood in a circle with him, also blindfolded and nude. Their voices were hard to hear over the strangely dramatic yet chipper organ, but they were each muttering a litany of sex acts they wanted to engage in. They fumbled about the room, anxious laughter and cursing when they bumped into tables and tripped over their own feet. When at last they followed one another’s voice to the one speaking of compatible desires, they fell to the too-long un-mopped wood floor and fucked.
Karla was no prude and had seen other extreme sex scenes before, but this hollow, joyless copulating wasn’t at all sexy and brought a lump of sadness and disgust to her throat.
The camera zoomed in on each focused, clenched, sweaty face then swept through the room as though disinterested in the orgy. It took the viewer up the stairs, pausing on the face of the one roommate not screwing on the dirty floor. Karla was surprised to see James in this film. She only knew him because he also worked at the movie theater with her and Hailey. Unlike the other housemates, he didn’t have any delusions of being a great actor or filmmaker, at least as far she knew. He wanted to pay his bills and be left alone. He ignored the fucking and gazed with sorrowful longing up the stairs. He turned and looked straight into the camera for a long moment and then ripped out a chunk of hair. Blood and bits of scalp hung from the ends as he slowly shoved the hair into his mouth and ate it like spaghetti.
“What the fuck. No way was that real,” Karla said.
Hailey smiled but said nothing.
Up the stairs. One slow step at a time until the camera took in a narrow hallway poorly lit by a gaudy chandelier with about half its lightbulbs removed. Karla recalled the opening of the film, the room on the far right would be the one whose window the camera had focused on so long. She wracked her brain. Whose bedroom was that? Hailey’s room was in the basement so she had never had much cause to be on the second floor. She’d come up to pee once when someone was showering downstairs and vaguely remembered seeing James come out of that door.
The camera continued towards the far door so slowly that she wanted to scream. They must have been looking at the hallway for five minutes.
Karla realized she was holding her breath and forced herself to breathe.
The shot centered on the door at last. It zoomed in closer and closer until she could see the dark wood grain. The music swelled and Karla wasn’t sure it actually was an organ, but she couldn’t place the instrument anymore. Maybe a Theremin.
Fingerprints and bits of white paint marred the shining silver door handle. Closer and closer the camera focused. Her hand itched and she clenched her fist as if she could reach through the screen and open the door herself.
The music cut off and the screen went black.
Karla sat in stunned silence, her tongue unable to find the generic praise she rehearsed.
“Well?” Hailey prompted.
“I… what the fuck was that?”
Hailey clapped and laughed. “I take it from your lack of bullshit faux compliments that it made an impression.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t—“
“It’s cool. I should have told you to stop faking nice a long time ago. But, whatever. This was good, right?”
Karla chewed her lip. “I don’t know if it’s good. It—well, it’s something. You’re right, it made an impression. I want to know what’s behind the door.”
“That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear. Thank you.” Hailey wrapped her in a tight hug and squealed with excitement.
Karla pulled herself out of the embrace. A hug felt far too wholesome when a blanket of unease and revulsion still clung to her. “Don’t you think it might be a little, uh, risqué for the Cinemarvelous crowd?”
“People come from all over for the festival. I don’t give a fuck what the rubes here think if I can impress someone whose opinion actually matters.”
Karla rubbed her temples. She was getting a headache. One of those really awful ones that felt like it was right behind her eyeballs. She cut their hang out a bit short to go home and sleep. On her way out, she stopped at the foot of the stairs that led to the second floor, the desire to go up and open the door almost overwhelmed her. It would be nothing but a bedroom. Possibly with someone inside sleeping and rightfully irritated. She forced herself to turn around and leave the house. It was just a goddamn movie.
Hailey strode to the ticket counter with a yellow bucket in one hand and a battered mop in the other. “James puked in theater four again. Your turn.”
“Ugh. I cleaned up the last one,” Karla said.
“Nope, I cleaned the last one. Last night. Because you had a headache and I covered your shift.”
Karla groaned, but took the mop and bucket. “Fine. Counter’s yours.”
“And there’s not another show starting until the festival when I’m off.” Hailey pulled a book out of her bag and leaned on the counter.
“I hate you.”
“You love me.”
Karla stuck out her tongue and scrunched her face in what she hoped was a horrifying expression, then turned and walked as slowly as she could to theater four. The air inside smelled like popcorn, sweat, and bile. James was hunched in the front row, his head in his hands. The closer she got, the more the smell invaded her nose until she was in serious danger of adding more puke to the puddle of peppermint schnapps, pills, and half-digested popcorn.
“Sorry, Karla,” he said.
She wanted to yell at him and say that yeah, he was really fucking sorry, but his pale face and dark, hollow eyes stopped her and she sighed. “It’s okay, James.”
She’d worked at the theater for three years, almost as long as Hailey. And both of them combined hadn’t worked there half as long as James. He was helpful and polite even when a customer was screaming in his face. And something was killing him, though he’d never say so. It wasn’t just the booze. Even in his sober periods, which were less frequent now than even three months ago, he was still gaunt and smelled faintly of formaldehyde and rotten meat. The only difference drinking made was that when he puked it was usually in whichever theater he was supposed to be cleaning instead of the hallway carpet just outside the bathroom.
“You see Hailey’s movie yet?” he asked.
Karla shuddered. Whatever spell the film had weaved was broken. She saw it for what it was, just another of Hailey’s wannabe shock art. Though she still wondered how Hailey created the effect of James ripping out and eating his hair. She wouldn’t put it past Hailey to try and get someone to do that on film, but James didn’t seem the type to be so desperate for attention that he’d agree to self-mutilation. Still, she found herself wanting to run her hands through James’ long, greasy hair and push it back to determine if he was hiding a bloody bald spot.
“Yeah, I did,” she said.
“I hope Sylvia will let us off to see it tonight during the festival. Hailey’s really excited about it.”
Karla dumped a scoop of vomit into the bucket. She tried not to look too hard at the chunks of food, but a long clump of hair stuck to the pan and refused to let go. She shook it off and gagged.
“You okay?” James asked.
“I really am sorry.”
“I know, James. Take care of yourself, okay?”
She barely noticed his nod as she searched his head for bald spots.
Karla glanced around the theater. It wasn’t quite a packed house, but the screening was well attended. In an uncharacteristically benevolent gesture, Sylvia had offered half of them time off to go see Hailey’s film. Unpaid of course, so only a handful took her up on it.
The lights dimmed and Hailey squeezed her hand.
Watching amateur short films was like eating really shitty popcorn. It was mostly okay. Each film so short that you could get through to the next one before it was too excruciating. Every now and then you got a nice buttery one that encouraged you to keep eating, like the short about a werewolf girl struggling with the moral conundrum of having been a vegetarian who was now overcome by her craving for fresh meat. She ended up becoming a furry avenger who ate hunters. The writing was heavy handed, but it was funny and charmingly weird. But every now and then you bit down hard on an unpopped kernel. Like Hailey’s film.
Across the screen came the words,
I Hate All that is Mine
A film by Hailey Kandinsky
When the first shot of the house appeared, Karla looked around at the audience. None of the other actors, including James and Thad, were there as far as she could see. James was probably sleeping off his earlier bout of sickness, but Thad never turned down the opportunity to see his bargain bin Johnny Depp face on screen. Hailey hadn’t saved him a seat, so Karla didn’t ask. Maybe they were in another fight.
The door to the house opened and the strange music began, but the scene it opened on was different. Thad and the other three housemates were in position, murmuring their sexual preferences to each other, but streaks of bloody tears dripped down from behind their blindfolds and their legs trembled as they blindly sought each other’s bodies. The laughter and the fumbling was gone and replaced by desperation as if instead of seeking sex they were clinging to a lifeline that was sinking fast.
At the foot of the stairs, James once again did his disgusting hair eating trick, but this time it wasn’t the first bald spot he created. His scalp was riddled with bloody hairless patches.
Up and up the stairs they went to that door. And again Karla longed to open it. When the film ended, she found herself leaning forward with her hand outstretched. She glanced around and saw others in similar poses while a huge grin split Hailey’s face.
The house lights came up on the silent crowd. Someone coughed and then the room filled with angry murmurs. Hailey practically jumped up and down in her seat, delighted by the bits of enraged and scandalized conversation around them.
Karla rubbed at the pressure that had built again behind her eyes. “When did you have time to re-shoot damn near the entire film?”
Hailey shrugged and smiled. “Just wait until the next screening. Everyone will really be talking about it.”
The next day, Karla woke to a text from James asking if she’d be willing to work for him the next day. She eagerly accepted. She would have accepted a shift doing nothing but cleaning up his vomit if it saved her from another obligatory viewing of I Hate All that is Mine. The damn film had haunted her dreams all night with an ever repeating cycle of bloody writhing figures and the silver knob looming larger and larger on a door that never opened.
And her entire face ached. Not bad enough that she couldn’t work. But enough that if she stayed home she’d be sitting around doing nothing, and she might as well get paid for that. It wasn’t a headache. It radiated from behind her eyes. A throbbing, pressure like a blister that needed to pop but wouldn’t and pulled everything tight around its swollen mound of pus. It was uncomfortable and irritating and she wanted to reach her fingers into her sockets and pop the bubble of building pressure.
She should probably go see a doctor. The theater did provide health insurance, but it was the shittiest, cheapest option available and she hadn’t even touched her deductible yet. But, maybe if she was in a tight enough spot, she could beg her dad to cover her utility bills for the month. That would mean having to see him and probably sitting through a lecture about how she was wasting her potential and if she’d finished school she’d have a “real” job that gave her insurance with a deductible she could afford.
Or she could take some pain killers and pray whatever this was cleared up on its own or at least killed her quickly.
She dragged herself out of bed and got dressed. She was moving slower than usual and when she glanced at the clock she was already running five minutes late, so she left her hair wild and sticking up in all directions and ran for the bus.
When she arrived to work, the door was blocked by a hawk-faced man who shoved a sign in her face that read, “Is ten minutes of entertainment worth being damned for eternity?”
As Karla squeezed past him, he glanced at her Cinemarvelous polo shirt and glowered. “I Hate All that is Mine is an abomination.”
Hailey would be thrilled when she found out she had protesters. Not that he was the first protester they’d ever had. The town bible thumpers weren’t all that hard to stir up. When they showed Harry Potter the protest line rivaled the local Planned Parenthood.
The waiting crowd was bigger than the night before which was massive for something as artsy as a short film festival. Karla saw quite a few familiar faces. Not just the pitiful regulars who came to the theater to talk with the employees and escape the silence of their own houses, but people who had been in the audience with her the night before. There were different films shown throughout the festival, but there weren’t that many local filmmakers, even shitty ones, so the segment of locally made films was repeated each time. She hoped they wouldn’t be angry and come out yelling about being subjected to the same collection of pretentious tedium and weird shit a second night in a row.
A tall woman with bloodshot eyes framed by brows that looked drawn on with a pen knife held out her credit card. “Is I Hate All that is Mine playing again?”
“Oh good. I’ve been thinking about it since yesterday.”
“You liked it that much?”
The woman pursed her glossy lips. “Huh. Well, ‘liked’ isn’t quite the right word. Compelled? Yeah. I was compelled by it. Have you seen it yet?”
“I have. Yeah.”
The woman’s cheeks flushed a feverish pink. “Then you know what I’m talking about.”
Karla handed her the ticket. “Enjoy the show.”
The lobby cleared out as the moviegoers finished getting popcorn and candy and entered the theater. There was no reason to subject herself to that fucking movie again. But, her eyes still throbbed and if she stayed here, Sylvia was bound to walk by and notice that she wasn’t doing anything and say, “If you have time to lean, you’ve got time to clean,” in that sing-song chipper voice.
Besides, that woman was right, there was something compelling about Hailey’s film.
She snuck into the theater, careful to open and close the door quickly and avoid letting in light from the lobby. The theater had filled from the front so that the only empty seats were towards the back, which was good for sneaking in late, but it was unusual for the very front rows to fill unless they had a completely packed house.
Thad and the three housemates were already fucking on a floor decidedly dirtier than the first time Karla had seen the movie. Blood, dirt, and a crust of various fluids splotched the dark wood. The camera focused first on Thad’s face. The blindfold was gone and the space where his eyes should have been was a bloody ruin of scratches and ragged cuts.
“The special effects are amazing,” a man sitting in front of her whispered to his companion.
Most of the theatergoers, and every single person in the first few rows, leaned forward in unison. Karla felt herself doing the same thing, but even realizing she was doing it, couldn’t stop herself.
Once again, James sat at the foot of the stairs gazing up with longing, but now blood dripped from his hairless scalp down his neck and face as if he were wearing a blood-soaked hat. Out of hair to rip out, his fingers dug at his scalp until his nails caught skin. He tore a strip from his forehead and sucked it into his mouth.
The camera panned off the spectacle and inched up the stairs and towards the door. With each agonizingly slow step, the throbbing in Karla’s eyes intensified until she thought her eyes might splatter on the seat in front of her.
The camera focused on the door knob and it turned. A space no bigger than a strand of hair appeared and the pressure building in Karla’s eyes burst and warm, wet fluid dripped down her cheeks like tears.
A collective cry of dismay bubbled through the crowd as the screen when black and then credits rolled.
Karla buried her face in her hands. She knew where the house was. She could just go and open the goddamn door for herself.
“Stop it,” she whispered, “it’s just a movie.”
It was a very clever trick for Hailey to swap out the film so that it changed on each viewing. But it was a trick and nothing more. She lifted her head and took a breath to steady herself. Thin smears of red dripped down both of her palms. She touched her still damp cheeks and her fingertips came away bloody.
She wasn’t alone. The other moviegoers were staring at their hands or wiping furiously at their eyes. But there was no panic. Not among the crowd and not ripping through her own heart. Revulsion. Fascination. The same things she felt during the increasingly inhuman sex scene or when she watched James eat his own hair and skin.
It was real. All of it was real. She wanted to believe it was trickery and impressive make-up, but that lie was washed away by the impossibility of a theater full of people weeping blood. They should all be screaming, burning the theater to the ground to destroy that depraved movie.
But what she wanted was to see it again. She needed to know what happened next. The door was opening and she needed to see it.
The next day, Karla went to Cinemarvelous on her day off for the third day of the film festival. The doors to the theater were blocked by a growing crowd waving signs and chanting. They faced off against a herd of people trying to shove them out of the way to get inside the theater. Uniformed police officers stood on the sidelines with batons in their hands and hesitant, confused expressions on their faces. To her right, a news reporter called it a stand-off between moralistic censorship and the defenders of freedom of expression.
Karla joined the people trying to get inside. As the film’s start time grew closer, the crowd became more desperate. The yelling turned to shrieking and the pushing to clawing and punching. Someone trying to get inside struck a protester and drew blood and the crowd erupted into a chaotic mess of flailing arms, fingernails digging for sensitive skin, shrieking, and indiscriminate blows.
An elbow slammed into her ribs and Karla swung her fists like a windmill, hitting anyone in her vicinity. She didn’t care if anyone else ever saw the movie again, as long as she did. A crash of glass and a burning canister went through the window and into the lobby. Smoke billowed and a desperate scream ripped from Karla’s throat. The tape might be destroyed.
A sound like a bomb going off rattled the windows and smoke burned her eyes. The police were yelling and brandishing riot gear, but the crowd ignored them. But then the air turned agonizing as the police pepper sprayed anyone and everyone they could reach. The screaming protesters and moviegoers continued to claw at one another blindly, then a blast hit her and she couldn’t see what was happening. She reached out and ran towards the door, bouncing off people, falling, and trying again until a hard blow caught her in the stomach and knocked her to the ground.
By the time she was able to force her blurry, burning eyes open, the fire was out and the police had managed to separate the groups and barricade the doors to the theater. Many were lying on the ground clutching their eyes, weeping, and moaning, while others made feeble efforts to run or crawl towards the theater only to be thrown to the ground and handcuffed. The protesters crowed and shouted thanks and praises to the cops for closing the theater through their own busted and bleeding mouths.
She took a deep breath of the caustic air. She could wait. She had a key.
Karla’s soft footsteps seemed impossibly loud in the empty theater. The dim safety light buzzed overhead and a plump rat—which management insisted was most certainly not in this theater—scampered past with a kernel of popcorn between its teeth. She crept up to the projection booth for theater four, pulled out the huge noisy keyring, and opened the door.
The projector lens was shattered and there was no sign of I Hate All that is Mine. She dropped to her knees and searched under the chair and the lockers lining the wall.
“It’s not here. I would never leave it here unattended.”
Karla jumped. Hailey stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the dim light.
“Where is it?”
Hailey stepped into the booth. Her eyes were wide and clear, her skin so smooth she looked airbrushed. “Home.”
“Can I see it again?”
She smiled. “Of course. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Karla squeezed her eyes shut and relieved tears slipped through her lashes. “Thank you.”
The ride to Hailey’s house felt like hours. Karla screamed her frustration each time a light turned red or a car drove below the speed limit. At last Hailey pulled into the driveway and led her through the side door that took them straight down to the basement. Hailey turned on her computer and the television and started the film. When the title crossed the screen, she turned out the lights and left Karla alone, closing the door behind her.
The macabre scene played out. The sex more desperate and vile each time, James reduced further and further to an awestruck, bloody mass. And each time the door opened a little bit more. But still not nearly wide enough to see what was inside.
It could have been her fourth or her four-hundredth time through when James died. Exhausted, and bleeding, but still compelled, he dug weakly at his left cheek until his fingertips pushed through the flesh and muscle and touched the inside of his mouth. He pulled, but he was too weak to tear. An agonized, despairing sob tore from his throat, his fingers twitched, and he stopped moving.
The shock of his death woke up something in her brain. Karla stood and ripped the memory stick out of the computer’s port and the screen went black.
It was light in her palm. She could crush it under her heel. Snap it in two. Burn it with a lighter until everything inside melted. She needed to do something. Anything. When it was gone she wouldn’t think about the door or James’ scalp or the look of needful horror on Thad’s face.
The tiny thing was so delicate. It was revolting and beautiful. That strange, not-quite-an-organ music came from its artificial guts and blood leaked from its unsmiling plastic and metal mouth.
“James saw it first. He was lucky. But he didn’t capture it. That was me.”
Karla jumped. Light spilled into the room through the open door, but she hadn’t noticed it open.
Hailey held out her hand. “Come, I’ll show you.”
Karla stared at the memory stick and then at Hailey’s hand. She thought Hailey’s fingers elongated and writhed, but then they were just fingers. Thin and calloused with red chipped nail polish.
She set the memory stick on the floor and placed her heel on top of it.
Hailey glanced down, but didn’t look alarmed. “Don’t you want to know what’s on the other side of the door?”
Karla pressed her heel down harder.
She couldn’t do it. She had to know. She reached out and took Hailey’s feverish hand.
Together they went up to the living room where the music began to play, soft and playful and powerful. Thad had been replaced by a man Karla had never seen. A blindfold hid his bleeding eyes and his skin was cleaner, less ripped than the others. Thad lay dead on the floor and when the others began to circle each other, they stepped over and tripped on his body, but otherwise ignored it. Requests for violence and death intermixed with demands for sex. When they fell on each other, blood and tears leaked from their eyes and the fingernail gouges in their backs.
They left them to writhe and grunt and stepped over the bloody lump that was James and climbed the stairs. They walked as slow as the camera had moved in the film until they reached the door. Hailey stepped back and Karla gripped the doorknob. It was warm and pliant under her hand and the lock pulled and sucked at her skin like a mouth. She turned the handle and tumbled inside and—
I Hate All that is Mine
A film by Hailey Kandinsky
About the Author
Leigh Harlen is a queer, non-binary writer who lives and works in Seattle with their partner, a mischief of rats, and a very goofy dog named Anya. Their non-writing hobbies include petting strangers’ dogs and enthusing about bats. Their writing has appeared in Shoreline of Infinity, Aurealis, and Capricious.
About the Narrator
Heather slings jewelry by day but is an aspiring voice actor by night. In her high school years she was classically trained in opera, but now mostly just sings karaoke. She is wildly enthusiastic about all things horror, and has notably curated an impressive collection of earnest, yet awful, dog portraits. “The Stripper” on Pseudopod is her first ever (and first professional!) horror publication. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and her 2 evil cats, Muffin and Banana. Heather’s other narrations can be found on other fine podcasts such as the Creepy podcast, The Wicked Library, The Lift, Tales to Terrify, and The Starship Sofa.