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Author Topic: Pseudopod 319: Cell Call  (Read 14217 times)

Bdoomed

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on: February 02, 2013, 07:34:39 AM
Pseudopod 319: Cell Call

by Marc Laidlaw

Cell Call” first appeared in BY MOONLIGHT ONLY (2003), a British small press collection edited by Stephen Jones. It has been reprinted several times since then. It has been adapted twice by independent film directors - once in the U.S., under its original title, and another version currently underway in Ireland under the title NIGHTLINE. “I was one of the last people I know to get a cell phone… I wrote this story around the year 2000 and was afraid it would date very quickly as cellphones became historical artifacts. If I were writing it now, I would probably have to update it and call it something like “Text Mess.”

MARC LAIDLAW published published half a dozen novels and many short stories before becoming a writer at Valve Software, where he wrote the HALF-LIFE series of games, and for the past few years has been writing dialog and lore for the competitive online game DOTA 2.

George Cleveland - is your reader this week. George lives in Tamworth, NH where he cares for cats with Attention Deficit Disorder. He is the Executive Director of the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway. For many years, George was known as The Voice of the Valley on New Hampshire radio, where he conducted over 3500 interviews with newsmakers from all parts of the world - George has spoken with most major Presidential candidates, a representative of an interplanetary confederation and many noted authors and musicians. An avid collector of tales and legends, he sniffs out new hauntings and reports of long lost treasure. He has frequently written on people and places of interest, including musicians and artists and has appeared before numerous historical and school groups in the United States and Hawai’i speaking about his grandfather, former President Grover Cleveland. He was featured on C-SPAN’s ‘American Presidents’ series when they broadcast from Cleveland’s birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey.



“”I have to throw on some clothes. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

It was an unusually protracted farewell for such a casual conversation. He realized that he was holding the phone very tightly in the dark, cradling it against his cheek and ear as if he were holding her hand to his face, feeling her skin cool and warm at the same time. And now there was no further word from her. Connection broken.

He had to fight the impulse to dial her again, instantly, just to reassure himself that the phone still worked - that she was still there. He could imagine her ridicule: he was slowing her down, she was trying to get dressed, he was causing yet another inconvenience on top of so many others.

With the conversation ended, he was forced to return his full attention to his surroundings. He listened, heard again the wind, the distant sound of still water. Still water which made sounds only when it lapped against something, or when something waded through it. He couldn’t tell one from the other right now. He wished he were still inside the car, with at least that much protection.

She was going to find him. He’d been only a few minutes, probably less than a mile, from home. She would be here any time. “



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Listener

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Reply #1 on: February 04, 2013, 01:12:59 PM
I'm not sure how I felt about this story. I figured out he was either dead or in a different dimension -- probably dead -- when it was raining while the wife was driving. But it felt more like it stopped, instead of ended -- like I needed just a LITTLE more. Maybe one or two more minutes (200-400 words?) that would give me a little more resolution rather than leaving me wondering just what happened, exactly. I realize the nature of horror is sometimes that we DON'T know -- as in my case with "What Happens When You Wake In The Night" -- but for this particular story I did need to know.

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Reply #2 on: February 04, 2013, 03:23:35 PM
I don't remember the last time a story freaked-me-the-hell-out like this one did.  Perhaps because it was so mundane in many details, just one step off the beaten track. 

I totally got this guy.  I have a cell phone, but I feel pretty much about them as he does.  I am often absent-minded, and the only reason I don't regularly lock myself out of the car and other things like that is because I have learned that I can remember things if I establish a routine, and so , and checking my car keys is one of them.  I can get a bit obsessive about my routines, as a result, but most of the time, it works out well enough.  I totally get the anxiety over his wife scolding him for things--my absentmindedness can cause conflict when I go to the grocery store to pick up a few things for her, because I don't remember the brand names/flavors/other details of what I'm supposed to buy.  We've learned to work around this well enough, before I leave I write very specifically the brand and flavor and other relevant details on the list, and then there's no conflict.

And even though I've never been in that particular situation, I do sometimes worry about car breakdowns and getting lost in dangerous circumstances.  The detail of the rain did very well to show that there was just something off-kilter and wrong.  The situation would certainly be frustrating and irritating without that, but with that, it becomes something sinister.

Well done!



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Reply #3 on: February 04, 2013, 03:23:54 PM
Also, Half Life is awesome.  That is all.



Scumpup

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Reply #4 on: February 04, 2013, 09:26:55 PM
This was another one of those "the main character is dead but doesn't realize it" stories, wasn't it?



Sgarre1

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Reply #5 on: February 04, 2013, 11:46:10 PM
Actually, by my take... no, not at all...



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Reply #6 on: February 05, 2013, 03:25:19 PM
I didn't read it that way at all either. 



H.P. Lovesauce

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Reply #7 on: February 05, 2013, 07:41:07 PM
Between this and "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night," if I ever get lost or drop a cell call or even lose my keys, I will instantly leap to the obvious and inescapable conclusion.



Scumpup

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Reply #8 on: February 05, 2013, 09:27:14 PM
I'm open to other options than the main character being dead.  What are they and how do they fit with the information we have?
  We know he isn't good at multitasking while driving.  We know he is unfamiliar with the area other than his commuting route.  We know that, where he is, his car is malfunctioning in a very unusual way.  His wife is, at the same time, seeing his car in the "real" world.  The place he is now is pitch black and silent but for the sound of still water.  Meanwhile, it is raining in the real world.  This is all part of a horror story.
  Seems to me he died somehow on the road and his "wrong turn" he couldn't pinpoint was into yet another dark, dreary afterlife.
How are others putting these pieces together and coming up with something different?  The stuff about the car is what really sells me on him being dead.



Sgarre1

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Reply #9 on: February 06, 2013, 01:40:15 AM
displacement - temporal or dimensional.  Doesn't matter much, just playing off the displacement in time and location that cell technology gives.  In this case (unlike "What Happens") what the 'answer' is is not part of the point of the writing exercise at all (I liked to think of him as stuck in some pan-dimensional prehistoric swamp that, contrary to all logic - just like the story- has carried the road over with it - or perhaps some kind of malignant landscape).

Different than "What Happens" because, as I've said before, the 'answer' in "What Happens" is not intended as a surprise - instead, for savvy readers willing to give in and not try to out-think the piece but just feel it, the 'answer' is meant as confirmation of their worst suppositions, and the reinforcement that the truth that feeds that supposition is unavoidable.  Two very different stories, from my point of view.  I think Alasdair did a bang-up job describing the intended effect of this one in his outro - YMMV.



Scumpup

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Reply #10 on: February 06, 2013, 03:11:33 AM
In that case, why do we even need to go with something as fantastic as temporal or dimensional displacement?  He could just as easily simply be lost and his wife looking at a car of the same model and color as his while she is in a localized downpour.  If I give in and feel that, it isn't a horror story of any description.  Now it's just a mundane anecdote about a married couple on an irritating evening.



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Reply #11 on: February 06, 2013, 02:35:44 PM
displacement - temporal or dimensional.  Doesn't matter much, just playing off the displacement in time and location that cell technology gives.  In this case (unlike "What Happens") what the 'answer' is is not part of the point of the writing exercise at all (I liked to think of him as stuck in some pan-dimensional prehistoric swamp that, contrary to all logic - just like the story- has carried the road over with it - or perhaps some kind of malignant landscape).

We know he took a wrong turn.  The way I see this story is that he turned not only off of his route home, but slipped into a parallel world, the car being some remnant of that.  The cell connection held on for a little while inexplicably.  What freaked me out about the story is that one small mistake can leave you in a place that should be close to home but isn't.

Different than "What Happens" because, as I've said before, the 'answer' in "What Happens" is not intended as a surprise

Except for those of us, like me, who don't think that that character was dead either.  To me that one is clearly a tall tale as told by the child.  The format of it doesn't make sense any other way--the child is clearly telling the story to someone, but if he's literally stuck in the dark with only his parents, he has no one to tell it to.

In that case, why do we even need to go with something as fantastic as temporal or dimensional displacement?  He could just as easily simply be lost and his wife looking at a car of the same model and color as his while she is in a localized downpour.  If I give in and feel that, it isn't a horror story of any description.  Now it's just a mundane anecdote about a married couple on an irritating evening.

The localized downpour is what convinces me that it's NOT just an irritating evening.  Especially since the downpour on her end seems to be sustained, and on his end there is no sign, even though he's supposed to be only blocks from home.



Scumpup

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Reply #12 on: February 07, 2013, 02:47:33 PM
It was my take that the wife was emotionally upset when she told the main character she was looking at his car.  She wasn't simply peevishly demadning "I see your car...where the hell are you?"  Though we can not say with any certainty exactly why she was upset, we can presume that there must have been something immediately and obviously badly wrong for her to see it from inside her car, at night, and in a rainstorm.  I'm apparently alone in this, but that suggests to me that the car was damaged, as in a wreck.
« Last Edit: February 07, 2013, 02:59:05 PM by Scumpup »



Moon_Goddess

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Reply #13 on: February 07, 2013, 03:11:00 PM
But it felt more like it stopped, instead of ended -- like I needed just a LITTLE more. Maybe one or two more minutes (200-400 words?) that would give me a little more resolution rather than leaving me wondering just what happened, exactly.

See I can't disagree more.

I want more stories like this, the true horror of this is all the things your imagination goes wild with


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Reply #14 on: February 08, 2013, 02:29:09 PM
It was my take that the wife was emotionally upset when she told the main character she was looking at his car.  She wasn't simply peevishly demadning "I see your car...where the hell are you?"  Though we can not say with any certainty exactly why she was upset, we can presume that there must have been something immediately and obviously badly wrong for her to see it from inside her car, at night, and in a rainstorm.  I'm apparently alone in this, but that suggests to me that the car was damaged, as in a wreck.

I agree that she was upset, but it wasn't spelled out why.  To me, I thought she was upset because she has come upon his unattended car in the rain, where he claims he is standing by his car without rain and can't see her.  That would freak me the hell out, so it makes sense to me for it to freak her out too.



Sgarre1

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Reply #15 on: February 09, 2013, 04:24:29 AM
That was my take as well *but* I get Scumpup's point and... here's the interesting thing... I *think* (for me at least) that feeling he's describing arises out of Mr. Cleveland's reading, whereas my original take arises out of just reading the story on paper.  When I read it, years ago, I didn't imagine the wife as upset as George has made her in our reading - sounding unnerved, yes, but not as upset - and I can see where Scumpup's reading is a good interpretation relative to that reading.

So, there we go!
« Last Edit: February 09, 2013, 04:36:41 PM by Sgarre1 »



FeloniusMonk

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Reply #16 on: February 11, 2013, 02:06:49 AM
I definitely got the impression that he was dead - my take was that he took the corner without looking (by his own admission, he did that) and totalled the car.
Everything after that was his journey to the afterlife/purgatory/the flying spaghetti monster's kingdom.
I can really see the point about the wife’s tone though. Without the near-hysteric voicing my take would be a bit more ambivalent.

All that aside I loved this story. It freaked me out to the point that I finished it and called my fiancée just to say “are you ok?” She already thinks I’m mad and knows my habit for letting stories scare me so that’s ok.



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Reply #17 on: February 11, 2013, 02:50:35 AM
Quote
It freaked me out to the point that I finished it and called my fiancée just to say “are you ok?”

Thank you.  I could ask for no greater reaction than this!



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Reply #18 on: February 11, 2013, 05:25:09 AM
This was awesome.  I friggin loved this story!  Just imagining what it would be like as his wife, to slowly realize that you are talking to some sort of remnant of your loved one... aaah! Crazy.

I'd like to hear my options, so I could weigh them, what do you say?
Five pounds?  Six pounds? Seven pounds?


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Reply #19 on: February 12, 2013, 02:37:07 AM
My first thought after listening was "Twilight Zone," except with no moral to the story. I didn't like the wife, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to! In the end, I assumed the idea was that he was a bit of a ghost, but that the phone was for some reason carrying the signal to the land of the living. The end with the repeat of what she said last seemed just a touch unnecessary, but wasn't entirely unwelcome.



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Reply #20 on: February 16, 2013, 04:30:30 PM
I don't see a whole lot of wiggle room on the "protagonist is dead" angle, honestly.  I mean, yes, you can contort things a bit, close one eye and squint and say maybe he's time traveling or something, but it's pretty clear what implication you're supposed to draw, particularly with the repeat emphasis on the line at the end of the story.  (And also the water, as passing over such a barrier is a feature of many afterlives, and the stillness, and the gradual fading of the clinging vestiges of warmth and light.  Plus, in comparison with "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night," there is a clear and plausible mechanism by which the protagonist could have died, as well as external confirmation that what he perceives is not what everyone else is perceiving.)

However, this is a very well-done version of Dead All Along, one that keeps its cards close to its vest until the reveal, at which point it shows just enough for you to get the *click* and then ends before anyone can go, "Aw, man, that's it?"  It doesn't even reveal the twist; it reveals up to the point just before the twist and lets you take the last step, which is why it's such a powerful sensation for many of us.  (Which is another reason I don't see him not being dead, by the way; if the story is meant to be unexplained, like "What Happens..." then it should belabor the point a bit more and provide more oddities.  The only reason to end just as the main character realizes what's happening is if you want your audience to draw the obvious conclusion themselves.)

I dislike Dead All Along, but this is a good story and a fine exemplar of the genre.  I enjoyed it and appreciated the skill with which it was told, both in the sense of the words on the page and the nuance of tone in the reading.

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Reply #21 on: February 16, 2013, 09:18:13 PM
This story nailed the emotion of dread in many ways for me.  Even though I'm sure I've seen this plot on the various lists of "Don't send us this kind of story", the author and the narrator made it very enjoyable. It had the feeling of a classic "Tales from the Darkside" episode.

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Reply #22 on: February 17, 2013, 01:14:01 AM
I definitely got the impression that he was dead and didn't know it. I wonder what I would have felt had I read it, rather than heard it, but for me, it was very clear that the wife saw the car after an accident. Given that the thing that triggered his getting lost was him taking his eyes off the road while driving, it seems to me rather a stretch to think it was anything but death.

I found myself rather disliking the story for the first half of it - both because I was certain he was dead and unhappy with the concept, and because I felt myself annoyed at the portrayal of his relationship with his wife. But, as the story got closer to its climax, I found myself getting more and more into it, partially because of the excellent reading.



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Reply #23 on: February 17, 2013, 02:22:47 PM
I'm sure most people remember the "Scary Stories to tell after Dark" books from when they were younger. If you remember there was one story about a man walking around, scaring people until he finally finds a pay phone. He calls his house looking for his wife only to have it answered by some he didn't know. The person on the other end says something to the effect of, "I'm sorry, she's at her husbands funeral right now."

Definately had the impression that this story could have been the first half to that one.



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Reply #24 on: February 18, 2013, 02:53:44 PM
it's pretty clear what implication you're supposed to draw, particularly with the repeat emphasis on the line at the end of the story. 

Apparently it's not clear, if the editor who bought it disagrees.