This short, sharp shocker from Black Static #21 was Ed Grabianowski’s first published fiction.
The unnamed male narrator and his partner Laura are on the brink of moving to a larger apartment ‘after two years in the same tiny space’, and as the story opens they are packing in anticipation of transferring to their new home.
The narrator thinks that he sees something happen to Laura – ‘She shuddered then. Not a physical shudder, not like a seizure. More like the twitch you see when the film is about to break at a movie theater. She flickered.’ She is changed in other ways too; her previously sleek hair becomes wet and stringy, hiding her face, and she makes ‘a sort of clicking sigh’. And then the moment is past, and though disturbed the narrator is able to dismiss it as a mental aberration, some kind of audio-visual hallucination.
But then other ‘little incidents occur’, and a pattern emerges, one that alarms the narrator even more. Laura is late back from lunch, an event that is almost unheard of, and then the narrator reads a newspaper report of a homeless man being attacked, and others seeing somebody described as simply a ‘strange person’ walking the city’s West Side, events concurrent with Laura’s absence. While Laura is away in Memphis on a business trip, the narrator wakes in the early hours of the morning to find doors and windows open, and the apartment pervaded by ‘a foul odor, as though from rotted meat’, for which he can come up with no explanation.
Worse still, as they sleep on a mattress in the middle of their boxed up belongings, he wakes up to see his wife transformed, her hair ‘ice cold and soaking wet’, and again making ‘that chittering sound’, which he now recognises as laughter. The moment passes, and his sleeping partner is her familiar self again, but the narrator is terrified, and his unspoken fear creates the emotional landscape in which their relationship has its being.
Events reach a crisis when he again wakes up to find Laura changed – ‘If I live for a thousand years, I will never forget that face. It was my wife’s face, but… corrupted. Like my wife was being worn by something that was not the same shape.’ Only this time she is awake, and attacks him.
The narrator wakes up, with no idea of what has happened – ‘I can only assume that I passed out from sheer terror.’ This isn’t the end though, with the narrator waking one more time to hear that hideous laughter, only ‘I felt it come from my own throat. My limbs began moving then, but I was not in control. I was a passenger.’
The story’s title is suggestive. ‘Extraneus’ suggests ‘extraneous’ and is probably intended in the meaning of ‘coming from the outside’, but I’m not at all sure about that ‘Invokat’. The suggestion is of something ‘invoked’ from outside.
The build up to the story’s resolution is assured, with the narrator’s opening declaration – ‘None of these little incidents meant anything to me at first. I drew no connections.’ – equally applicable to the reader, with their cohesion apparent only in retrospect, though actually this too could easily be an attempt by the narrator to impose a pattern on events (we don’t really know that there is a link between reports of ‘strangers’ and Laura’s absence at lunchtime – there is only coincidence and circumstantial evidence). I think Grabianowski makes one slight misstep in his telling, with the narrator’s declaration that something worse is to happen after Laura’s final transformation, thus telegraphing the ending to a small degree.
There are echoes in the text of films like Paranormal Activity, while Laura’s transformation brings to mind Sadako from Ringu. A supernatural interpretation of the story touches on the central idea of moving to larger premises, with the suggestion that perhaps some entity has possessed Laura and is also now moving to a more spacious desres, the body of the narrator.
Alternatively a psychological reading picks up on the fact that pivotal events take place during Laura’s absence – when she is inexplicably late back from lunch, when she is out of town – suggesting that the narrator is subconsciously concerned with what she is getting up to at such times, perhaps suspects that she is having an affair. By way of concretising this she now appears as hateful to him - the laughter he hears is at his own expense while her wet hair could represent the shower in which she washes her lover’s scent from her body and the smell of rotting meat could signify the state of their marriage.
Finally he can only act by transforming himself, becoming the one who laughs last. It is a way of abdicating responsibility for what happens. It isn’t him hurting Laura – ‘I wasn’t in control, but I watched it all happen.’ – the monster does it.
Both interpretations have merit to them, and the story’s appeal lies in the way it operates on different levels like this. It’s an impressive debut from Mr Grabianowski.
All the same I wish I knew what was meant by ‘Invokat’.