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The International Writers Magazine: An excerpt from “A Symphony of Fear”

Ghostal Regions
Dean Borok

Havelock switched off the TV and went into the bedroom. He peeled off his clothes and jumped into bed, though it was not yet seven P.M. What he needed was a good twelve hours’ sleep. Then he would be able to get to the factory early and re-check all the work that he knew he had fouled up that day. In less than a minute, he was out cold.

The world of dreams is an eternal infinite universe inside each person. Though it may to some extent be driven by the unformed expression of neurotic impulses and sexual repressions of the dreamer, it is also informed by conversations with the dead: voices of the Unanswered, the Unresolved, the Unredeemed, who struggle to make their desires known to the material world by using living voices of those fortunate enough to still possess them. By what method of selection is one chosen to be a vessel for the revelation of these programmes? That is a question which has long intrigued such illustrious deities and savants as the world has produced.

The eternity of dreams can act as a soothing Doctor Without Frontiers, or it can be a manifestation of a satanic dimension of hell; a fount of philosophical profundity, or a bottomless oubliette of gibberish; a rocket to the celestial paradise of desire, or a subway ride to the terminus of consummate suffering if one should endure the misfortune of boarding a train conducted by the infernal motorman of Orphean malediction. This was the train Havelock found himself on, the solitary passenger of a fluorescent-lit express barreling through diabolical stations with names like “Hiroshima,” “Auschwitz,” “Ypres,” and “World Trade Center.” As his train flew by on the express track, Havelock was able to catch a glimpse of the crowds of dead souls jammed together on the platforms; rotting, monstrously deformed victims missing limbs and faces; fountains of blood spouting from open arteries, people retching and vomiting from gas intoxication, wailing from the suffering of unendurable agony as herds of rats gorged themselves on maggot-ridden body parts that had been kicked onto the tracks by the ever more crowded mobs of victims compressed onto the  narrow quais, waiting for a local which would never arrive.

This train ride went on for hours, passing through an infinite number of horror-ridden stations. Tiled walls announced the names of stops: Nanking, Krakatoa, Srbranica. Havelock, who had at first been revolted and horrified by the monstrous scenes of suffering he was passing through, eventually became habituated and even impatient. At length, he was only stirred to interest by the most grotesque manifestations of atrocity, chemically mutated birth defects or people who had become fused together from the heat of nuclear explosions. Finally, he lost interest completely as his train progressed mile after mile, station after station, hour after hour, the monotonous clacketing of its steel wheels against the rails pounding out a metronome rhythm of tedium.
To amuse himself, Havelock composed a little song:
The death train through hell,
It sure is swell,  
Mutilated corpses smell,
It’s got its own beat,
Of rotten meat, 
Landmine victims got no feet

The train slowed and switched tracks. It pulled into an empty, garbage-strewn station. The mosaic-tiled sign on the wall said “Avenue X. Gravesend.” Havelock thought to himself, it figures that the train to hell would end in Brooklyn.

The doors opened. A voice announced. “Last stop. Everybody off the train.”
Havelock picked up his duffle bag and walked out. He looked for an issue and saw the exit sign at the end of the platform. Hoisting his duffel bag over his shoulder, he made his way to the sign and ascended a flight of stairs.

He found himself on the deck of a troop ship mobbed with soldiers that was being nudged into a docking berth under the scorching Mediterranean sun. Havelock found that he was wearing a soldier’s uniform as well, in camouflage green with a peaked garrison cap.

A sign on the side of a corrugated storage shed announced to him that he was in a port named Philippe. A French flag hung limply from a pole in front of a colonial-style administration building at lands’ end.

Havelock and his fellow soldiers smoked cigarettes and watched over the side as arab longshoremen dressed in long robes secured the ship’s ropes to the dock. Gangplanks were set up and the soldiers, each bearing his duffle bag and carbine, filed down to the wharf where they mustered in platoon groups to await their transport assignments. The stood at parade rest, their kit bags in front of them.

The sargeant of Havelock’s section came up and addressed the group.

“While we’re waiting for the trucks, I’ll just say a few words. Welcome to Algeria. Remember that you are still in France. Our job is to maintain order and security until the government in Paris arrives at a disposition concerning the future governance of this territory. Remember that all the inhabitants, European or Arab, are French citizens and entitled to all the guarantees of the constitution.
“Having said that, I will remind you of a fact that you already know – that we are in a war zone, although with the exception of certain sectors adjacent to the Moroccan and Tunisian frontiers where the adversary maintains standing divisions, it is an unconventional war, a shadow war. Certain of you who have served in Indochina know what I am talking about. For the rest of you, that means that the enemy will not fit any normal combatant profile. It could come in the form of a woman with a knife or explosives concealed beneath her clothes, or a child with a hand grenade. Do not be deceived by a smile or a friendly greeting. Always be on your guard.
“Right now you are attached to the Eighth Parachute Regiment. You were trained to jump out of planes and kill people. But that does not mean that that is what you will do here. It’s possible that some of you will be transferred to infantry or intelligence battalions, depending on the needs of the service and our evaluations of your capacity and motivation. Follow orders, maintain discipline and work as a team with your comrades, and hopefully you’ll avoid any undue misfortune.”

An officer wearing a round kepi approached with a clipboard and summoned the platoon leaders. In a minute, the sergeant, whose name was Lhotel, returned. “All right, the trucks are here. Platoon, attention!” He marched the soldiers to a staging area filled with idling trucks and they clambered into the backs of them. The canvas tops had been rolled down, and as the convoy rumbled out of the port and onto the streets of Philippe, the troops were able to get their first glimpse of Algeria.

The port and center of town were heavily fortified with tanks and half-tracks. Soldiers manned sandbagged control posts at intersections, and at regular intervals along the tree-lined boulevards. The centre-ville resembled any French town, apartment blocks with ornate facades, outdoor cafés, department stores and boutiques, banks and manicured gardens. Well-dressed Europeans on the streets went about their affairs in seeming normality. Schoolchildren in shorts carrying leather satchels and piles of books entered walled lycées. Blue-uniformed gendarmes armed with submachine guns stood sentry in front of a commissariat displaying a tri-color flag on a flagpole over its entrance.

The town was not large, and in a few minutes the convoy passed through the arab quarter at its periphery. The contrast was dramatic. Children in rags played in the dust next to fly-ridden piles of trash under a baking sun. Veiled women peered out at the passing trucks from the dark interiors of jerry-built huts. Mangy dogs and barnyard animals scrounged for food in the barren yards or looked for bits of shade in the meager shadows of dead trees. Waves of heat rose from piles of manure. As the soldiers surveyed this dismal landscape, which seemed to eerily resemble the stage set of a surrealist left bank theater production, the kid sitting adjacent to Havelock said in a discreet voice, “This doesn’t look like any part of France that I ever saw.”
Somebody else said, “It looks like a fucking shit house de merde. No wonder they went berserk.”
Another voice piped up, “You sound like a bunch of commies. You think this tells the whole story? We’re not off the ship fifteen minutes and you’re sounding like a bunch of damned defeatists. Why don’t you just shut up!”

They rode for a long time in silence, sweating in the dust and heat. The convoy passed through monstrously dreary arab villages identified by signs in Arabic and French signifying names like Sartir and Bouktir, flea-bitten bidonvilles with food stalls displaying stringy bits of meat crawling with flies, hanging from posts exposed to the African sun. It was a desolate wasteland of a place. Veiled women carrying bundles cringed in the shadows of walls. Children waving sticks harassed pathetic dogs who fled trailing drooping tails and shanks sticking through their threadbare coats. Such men as were visible from the passing trucks were seen working in the fields pushing crude plows through rocky, crotted soil, or lethargically breaking stones with pick axes in open-pit quarries. The trucks were forced to slow down to a snail’s pace over stretches of highway which were so rutted and potholed as to be practically impassable. At one point they passed a road crew of arab workers guarded by a lacsidasical detail of native harkis soldiers. One soldier on the truck remarked, “Did you see how they work? No wonder the road’s in such bad shape.”

Another said, “That’s not the worst of it. During the day they’re workers, but at night they come back as fellaghas and tear up all the work they did.”

Just when the desolation would reach a stage of such oppression as to consummately shatter any remnant of human sensibility, a scenario of divine lovliness would arise out of the heatwaves from the barren, black earth like a mirage. These were the European-owned farms and vineyards; fertile, beautifully irrigated and groomed plantations verdant beyond all comprehension, resplendent with balconied mansions resting on impeccable lawns adorned with manicured gardens and bougainvillas. The farm structures, barns and equipment sheds were well maintained and freshly painted, peopled by purposeful workers who drove modern farm machinery. Modern automobiles were seen to be parked on the grounds, and the occasional chic, well dressed French woman would wave at the passing convoy from the terrace.

The soldier who had earlier admonished had his carping comrades exalted triumphantly, “You see? That’s what we’re fighting for!”

Late in the day the convoy reached it destination, the camp at Guellal. They mustered in the courtyard of the barracks building, where they were addressed by the squadron captain, a young career officer named Poisson. “Welcome to Guellal. After you are dismissed you will be shown to your quarters. Install yourselves, shower, and mess is served at 19:00 hours. Lights out at 22:00. Because of the nature of the operations in this sector, you may be awakened during the night for nocturnal sorties. You must be fully dressed and equipped and in formation here no later than ten minutes after you are called. That is all. Section chiefs, dismiss your sections!”

The sergeants called out in unison, “Dis-missed!”

Algeria! The name alone is enough to send one into an hypnotic euphoria of reverie, provoking visions of jangling coins on a dancer’s bodice; swaying palms and olive groves; winding alleys of the casbah; scimitars and daggers; camel caravans traversing an infinite desert dotted with idyllic oases, Barbary pirates. It has inflamed imaginations through the ages, inspiring the sun-drenched tableaux of Dégas and the existential musings of Camus.

Since the birth of human civilization it has played a pivotal role of the cultures of Africa and Europe. A province of imperial Carthage, it provided cavalry troops for Hannibal’s conquest of Iberia and Gaul and his twelve year rampage across the Italian peninsula, later allying itself with Rome during her brutal reduction of Carthage. It was overrun in the fifth century by the Vandals and recaptured for Byzantium by the Emperor Justinian. The Berber tribesmen of ancient Kabylie flooded across the Straits of Gibralter to spread a golden age of Islamic culture throughout Spain, receding like a tide to leave a detritus of Moorish temperment that still informs the societies of Europe and Latin America. What is Cartagena but the Spanish name for Carthage?

The French Foreign Legion, newly formed, subdued and captured it for France in 1830. Rich in agricultural resources, it was also discovered to contain vast petroleum deposits. The French also found a use for its vast, sparsely inhabited Sahara region, using it as a testing ground for their nuclear weapons production.

Havelock knew nothing of this except that it came to him as a dream, not so different from the inspiration that affects a writer from an unknown source, compelling him by way of obscure forces to move his hand across a page, guided by impulses of mystic provenance.

Maybe he had been infected by a psychic contagion during his pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, the spirits flowing to and fro across the consecrated terrain of Père LaChaise Cemetary judging his artist’s soul to be a suitable vessel to inhabit with their memories and passions. Maybe something had occurred when he had participated in the procession up Sixth Avenue on All Hallows Eve, New York’s psychic ground being turned over to suddenly expose a buried underworld of worms, bugs and parasites better left entombed under the soil.

Havelock was an artist and the furthest thing from an intellectual, but he knew viscerally that the artist’s inspiration is mostly stimulated by abnormal shocks and setbacks that crush ordinary souls. The key to survival is to ride the crest of the wave rather than try to resist, hoping that the meaning of the thing will ultimately reveal itself in a fashion that he can shape into a communicable form. This abstraction he would never be able to verbalize in a million years, but it was nevertheless the key to his survival, and the fluidity of his nature enabled him to endure, after a fashion, the sledgehammer blows that his spirit was having to absorb.

The barracks erupted in light as Sergeant Lhotel strode down the aisle in full battle gear. “Wake up, soldiers! Let’s go! Everybody downstairs and ready to move out in ten minutes! Move your asses!” The soldiers, barely awake, threw on their uniforms, laced up their boots, grabbed their helmets and carbines, and crowded down the stairs to the courtyard. When they were in formation, the sergeant briefed them. “There’s been an attack on a farm fifteen kilometers from here on the road to Sidi el Khier. Apparently it’s pretty bad. We’ll secure the area for the DOP to investigate, and then we’ll fan out and search for the perpetrators. They can’t have gotten far. Any questions?”

Nobody had any questions.

“All right, Let’s get to the trucks. Double time, hurry and move it!” The soldiers ran to the idylling trucks. From the side of the road, Sergeant Lhotel yelled to his men, “Be alert for ambushes. They could be trying to lure us into a trap!” Then he jumped into the cab of the lead truck.

The convoy barreled down the road in the pitch darkness, the trucks’ headlights showing the only illumination in sight. The soldiers peered out anxiously from their seats in the rear, rifles at the ready. Like Havelock, most of them were green conscripts. Havelock’s neighbor whispered, “We’re sitting ducks out here.”

Havelock heard himself say, “Quit carping. We haven’t even got to the battle yet. Just keep your eyes open.” Nevertheless, he was shaking too.

The convoy reached its destination without incident. A sign painted in fancy script announced the name of the establishment: Vignobles LeClerc SA. Etabli 1909. Vins Fins. Appelations Controlées. It was a vineyard. The convoy pulled onto a tree-lined private road and halted in front of an ornate mansion. A couple of luxury sedans were parked at the front stairs of the house. Private roads led in either direction from the house to equipment and wine processing sheds, all of which were in flames. Captain Poisson and a detail of DOP intelligence officers were already on the scene, having arrived at high speed in jeeps. They were examining the bodies of well-dressed European settlers which were scattered about the lawn. Some had had their throats cut and others had been shot at point blank range. An elegantly dressed young woman in a peach-colored silk dress lay on her back on the grass, staring vacantly into the darkness, her abdomen sliced open from her breastbone to her pelvis like a gutted fish.

The soldiers piled out of the trucks, Sergeant Lhotel yelling “Come on, let’s go! Corporal Bouchard, get a detail down that road and secure the area where those buildings are burning. Charpentier, you do the same in the other direction. Detain anybody you find and bring them back here. Schroder, secure the entrance to the farm. He addressed the troops, “The rest of you, I want you to form a line and go into the fields at intervals of ten meters. Don’t group together. Watch out for ambushes. Anybody you find, try to detain them without killing them, if possible. We need to interrogate them.

Havelock stalked warily through the vineyard, carbine at the ready. In the starlight he could discern the silhouettes of his fellow soldiers to the left and right. His apprehension at being exposed in unknown terrain, vulnerable to an invisible enemy, was palpable. The minutes ticked past as the column of soldiers marched farther and farther into the field, until the burning farm structures, the only landmarks in their topography of obscurity, had diminished in size to small glowing embers.

He was jolted by a flash of light and a small explosion to his left. The flash, lasting only a millisecond, was followed by a man’s hideous screams of terror and unendurable pain. The other soldiers quickly ran over and grouped around the wounded victim, who was writhing in agony on the ground.

“It’s Millet. He stepped on a landmine.”

The man’s reddened face was contorted in a grotesque eyepopping mask of horror, his mouth stretched to twice its size in a bizarre smile like a funhouse billboard. His abdomen had been blown open like an over-inflated soccer ball, internal organs bulging out through the shreds of his flesh. One leg was blown clear off and the man’s arteries were irrigating the ground under him with torrents of black blood.

Two soldiers kneeled over him, one cradling his head. “There, there. The medics will be here soon. You’ll be fine.”
The wounded man looked up into the eyes of his friend. “What happened? Oh God, it hurts. Make it stop hurting. Mais pourquoi, pourquoi? Where am I? I have to go home. I have to walk my dog!”
He died.
“Poor devil.”

Shots rang out. A man cried and fell as bullets thudded into his body. Flashes of light appeared in the dark like fireflies from shadows rising up that appeared in the dark to be a wooded area about a hundred meters in front of the line. The corporal who was leading the detail ordered the men, “Get down!” They all hit the dirt. “Who got hit?”
“It’s Boileau. He’s still breathing.”
“Blondin, run back and get a medic.” The firing from the trees continued, with the bullets whizzing over the soldiers’ heads. “The rest of you, this is what I want you to do,” the corporal continued. “Five of you, I want you to spread out at intervals of ten meters and return fire. Let them think they have us pinned down. The rest, divide into two groups. One group circle fifty meters to the left, the other group fifty meters to the right. We’ll run to the trees and then close in and catch them in a pincer. Don’t shoot until you’re in position.” The bullets continued to zing overhead. “The five men who are returning fire, when you hear us engage them, you’ll stop shooting and run in from the front. Any questions?” There were no questions. “All right, now. Speed is essential. It shouldn’t take more than two minutes to get in position. We should be able to kill them all. These arabs are stupid. Now, go!”

The group broke up, keeping low. In a few seconds the line of riflemen was set up and returning fire. Havelock ran with the detachment that broke off to the right. After he felt that he had put enough distance between himself and the skirmish line, he stood up straight and ran with all his strength toward the copse of trees. He could hear the clump clump of his own footsteps and those of the other men, his own breathing, the firefight to his left and the chirping of the cicadas in the African night.

The men made it safely to the trees without drawing fire and started to close in towards the source of the shooting. In a minute’s time they were close enough to see the muzzle flashes from the insurgents’ guns. The pressure of the excitement and fear had built up to critical mass in Havelock, and he felt he couldn’t wait any longer to start shooting. He raised his rifle to his shoulder and started squeezing off rounds, stopping after each shot to reset the bolt. The arab attackers stopped firing into the field and turned to confront the soldiers. Bullets flew blindly in both directions as the two sides strained to fix a bead on their enemies. The bullets whizzed by Havelock as he struggled to reload faster and return fire, aiming into the pitch dark.

He felt a hammerblow to the head and was knocked down onto his back as a bullet slammed into his helmet. His ears started ringing, but it wasn’t a churchbell kind of ringing – it was a sinister, diabolical kind of electric ring, like a condemned man strapped to an electric chair would experience from the metal conducting helmet that had been strapped to his head. The ringing seared through his brain as he felt the life force being drained from his body. Havelock sat up in his bed. It was morning, and the phone was ringing. He picked up. It was Paulette.
“Why didn’t you call me last night? she demanded.

© Dean Borok December 2007

The Passion of Nino De Jesus
Dean Borok
(extract from Symphony of Fear)
Niño de Jesus frequently had marveled at the fork lift truck on his way to work and one day, when the proprietor had left the gate unlocked, he snuck in for a closer look. Climbing up the ladder on the side and peering into the control booth, he noticed that they had left the key in the ignition. After all, one might reason, who would steal such a monster? Only a crazy man!

Mayor Keynes In Punta del Este
Excerpt from novel in progress "A Symphony of Fear"
Dean Borok

No smoking gun was ever discovered with the mayor’s fingerprints on it, and as the flood of nebulous accusations and innuendo cascaded daily in the newspaper and media reports, he ceaselessly insisted that he was the victim of a right-wing smear job

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