My personal memories of my Great-Uncle Jack are few, but I’ll share the ones I have.
When my parents were too busy fighting with one another to take care of the yard, Jack would come over on his riding-mower, sing opera loudly to himself, and mow it for them. He’d appear one moment, work for about two hours, and disappear. Nobody ever seemed to notice or thank him for his work. It was just something that happened, like a storm or the changing of the seasons.
He had the biggest, softest, old-man earlobes. When my brother was very small, he used to touch them as often as the adults would allow. Jack never complained. He thought it was funny and he had a deep belly laugh.
If there was a social event he loved more than a garage sale, I never knew of it. Just about every weekend you could count on him having something out in front of his yard. When I was a kid, I thought he just loved small glass figurines. Now that I’m an adult, and have been in the houses of more old ladies, I realize he was just trying to keep his wife’s hoard at a reasonable level. Whenever I wanted something, whatever it was, it cost twenty-five cents. If I didn’t have twenty-five cents, it cost however much change I had in my pocket. If I didn’t have a penny to my name, I could owe it to him and then he’d tell me to forget about it the next time I road my bike around. After a while, not paying made me feel guilty and I stopped coming by or even wanting things.
I only ever saw him cry, once. He’d lost at third wife to terminal illness, and someone tried to tell him how sorry they were that he’d had such bad luck in love. He reacted like he’d been punched in the stomach. Still, he kept on living. Jack kept moving and kept living right up until it was time for his own funeral.
That was when I found out I didn’t know jack about Jack.
There were pictures at Jack’s funeral of his youth. There was a picture of Jack on a horse holding a machine gun. There was a picture of Jack in army fatigues in Germany with a haunted cast to his eyes. A few more of him standing in front of tanks. Only a few pictures, but all showing a young man with big earlobes and a bigger gun, on an adventure in a far away land.
An older drunk relative told me about a time when Jack was young and had also been drunk. That once, Jack told stories about his time in the trenches. He told how when he got tired of sitting in the mud, he stacked dead Germans on top of one another so he’d have a place to sit where it was dry. Jack told stories about how he’d had to kill his horse so he’d have something to eat, though no one knew if it was the same horse as in the picture.
… And my aunt told me a story about how Jack liberated a Death Camp. He never spoke of it until he got older and his mind started to go. It was like a secret he kept to himself.
I can only speculate since he’s passed, but I suppose that quiet kindnesses are things we know for ourselves, about ourselves, and the kind of people we truly are. The house Jack grew up in was the same house that my grandmother came from, and I imagine that environment left Jack wanting to know for certain that he was a better man than the one who raised him. So, he went out into the world, walked into hell, and found his proof.
I think about Jack a lot in our current culture, where everything, including human decency, has to be loud and aggressive. About a year ago I was a first responder at a car accident, and although I stayed focused in the moment and did what I was supposed to do, as soon as I got back in my own car a voice in my head said “You should post this on Facebook.” I wish that failing was mine alone, but I think it’s the world we live in now. It’s so easy to shout our decency out to the universe.
For this period of time where we’re all figuring out the etiquette of the future, and working to give due consideration and respect to those who have been historically denied that consideration and respect, that tendency probably has more positives than negatives. Yet the performative aspect of it troubles me. There’s something to be said for a quiet man who rode a horse through the gates of death, helped the damned walk out, and didn’t mention it later in life because it was better for him to know it for himself. There’s a reason, I think, that story moves me more than public virtue.
This is all my way of saying that morality is complicated, subtle and personal. And important, even though it’s hard to grasp hold of it and completely know what it is you’re grasping. Those things were all in my head as I wrote Gehenna.
I wrote Gehenna to be confusing and somewhat silly and to pose the serious question, I think I always end up posing in most of my fiction: “Are you going to let your darkness define you?”
This also came out of a lot of annoying philosophical questions I posed to a good friend of mine who is vegan. To whom do we extend rights and privileges and what must they do for us to take these away? How much of what we decide is right comes from first principles and how much from an aesthetic? Are you still an animal rights activist if the cow deserves it? What if it was never a cow? What if the cow deserves it but expresses regret? What if you go out of your way to set up a justifiable hell? Is that the same thing as devoting your life to darkness? Can humans ever responsibly wield the justice of hell?
My personal stance, is the same as my stance on the death penalty. The only justifiable reason to hurt or kill someone is if you have no other choice, because of violence initiated by the person you must hurt or kill. Even if someone deserves truly terrible, unimaginable punishment that doesn’t mean that you deserve what giving that punishment will do to you inside. I have had the misfortune to meet violence with violence and those are not memories that make me smile.
Better to just end the evil than to give yourself the job of punishing the evil.
I also wrote Gehenna to be funny. We live our lives for ourselves, and not to fight or run away or live in fear of monsters. In this age of wannabe Nazis (which is as baffling to me as someone going out of their way to cosplay a child molester), too afraid to confront whatever it was that their mother/father did/didn’t do or the cowardly void they were simply born with, I liked the idea of a cow with a black spot on its lips and eyes. Let your idols fall and be made small and weak.
I don’t believe we should give grandiosity to evil. There is too much temptation to pick up grandiose things. Let evil be stupid and dumb and afraid. Let it be a cow, begging for its life.
You can find Gehenna here on the NoSleep podcast, for $1.49.
You can find a print of Cow Hitler here.
Finally, I wrote Gehenna to cut through the story of Hitler that I think Hitler wanted to tell the world about himself. Hitler wanted to publicly be seen as a great man doing great things to build a perfect society, while quietly working evil deeds in the dark to accomplish his goals. I wanted to tear that conception down, meet Hitler on my own terms, and leave something darkly funny and philosophical in its place. The truth of the matter is that Hitler was a scared little man who never knew he was the kind of person who would mow someone’s lawn without even getting a thank you. I do not believe humans should ever design hells, but if I were forced to commit to the task, then Gehenna is the hell that I would build for Hitler.