Early summer, just a few weeks before the eclipse — and all the chimp-chattering madness wrought by a cool, blind sun. I was in a café in Siem Reap, Cambodia, at the time, decompressing after a long school year, sitting with Miss Seng, and listening to the soft click and tap of her chopsticks, when my brother, knowing my interest in late night, B-movie weirdness, especially when it strikes the Oregon Coast, sent the astounding details:
First, luminous, worm-like creatures — some more than two feet in length — had, suddenly and without warning, invaded the Pacifica, from Baja to the Gulf of Alaska, fouling commercial fishing gear and washing ashore in their dead, rotting millions. These tubular, pus-seeping sea-freaks, known to conventional science as pyrosomes, or “fire bodies,” but more commonly as “sea pickles,” have never been observed in such overwhelming, almost Biblical numbers. And no one knows why. (One politically unpopular explanation involves the apparent cooling of the California Current.) Thought to be harmless — individually, at least — the multitudinous beasts are now wreaking havoc on the local salmon fishing industry, flooding nets to breaking point, and threatening to actually capsize boats. In fact, several independent contractors are already on the verge of bankruptcy, and entire crews are out of work. The economic and psychic implications for canneries, sushi bars and local fishmongers — not to mention casino buffets — could be both catastrophic and irreversible.
“Strange,” I said. “Even for Oregon.”
“Certainly.” Miss Seng’s right eye, clouded over with a cataractous veil, and glinting in the early morning sunlight, gave her an air of ancient, third-world wisdom. She knew it, too. “Strange.”
The second bizarre incident involved a truck that had accidentally spilled its cargo of 7,500 pounds of live hagfish onto Highway 101, causing a four-car pile up — and triggering a full-blown gag fest among onlookers. Hagfish are an eel-like relative of the lamprey and a culinary prize in South Korea, but are, nonetheless, a repulsive species, with wrinkly bodies and burrowing, flesh-sucking mouths. When threatened or otherwise stressed, hagfish actually tie themselves into knots, and deploy a singularly disgusting self-defense mechanism — in the form of seemingly impossible amounts of translucent, viscoelastic, slime. Fortunately, nobody was seriously harmed in the collision. But I could just imagine sitting in my Civic and being abruptly surrounded on all sides by knotting, scum-secreting leechoids, flopping on the road, and wriggling across the windshield. First responders broke out the fire hoses to clear the scene of suppurating hagfish. But for a brief, heart-pounding moment, it seemed as though slime would win, and that the Western Seaboard, and then the world, would be consumed by fish mucus.
“Son of a dead Khmer king!” At the time, I did not realize that these outlandish occurrences were just harbingers of the solar insanity that was, even then, rolling into place with with astro-mathematical certainty. “Of course,” I said, “this kind of thing has happened before.”
Miss Seng nodded as if she understood. I had a sepia-toned flashback to November of 1970 — when a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Florence. The 45-foot, eight-ton cetacean was quite the tourist attraction. For a few days, at least. But then the decaying beast started to smell so bad that tourists chose to spend their disposable income elsewhere. Engineers from the Oregon Highway Division (known as ODOT today) decided to dynamite the dead and malodorous grumpus back to the ocean from whence it came. BLAM! The explosion went off without a hitch, but instead of blowing safely, neatly out to sea, the whale came raining down onto the crowd that had come to witness the detonation, spattering them with rotten blood, and clubbing them with Flinstonian slabs of blubber and bone. It was scene out of Queequeg’s worst nightmare, and I remember watching it on TV when I was fifth grade.
“Queequeg?” Apparently, Miss Seng had not read Melville.
And I wasn’t aware that I’d said the name aloud. “Nothing.”
By this time, my brother had logged off, promising to keep me posted. A few hours later, after reflecting on the Lovecraftian goings on back home — and all the rich, video-on-demand potential — I sat in a tuk-tuk, on the way to a borderland chophouse that was reputed to have the best blowfish and chips in all of Southeast Asia. I held Miss Seng’s hand and rehearsed my pitch:
“Somewhere on the scenic stretch between Newport and Depoe Bay. Traffic is backed up on both directions due to construction. A refrigerated truck idles in the northbound lane. Inside, the driver is pale and shaking. His arms and forehead are damp. But not with sweat. When the truck driver looks in the rearview — and sees that he is already starting to transform, he freaks out, stomps on the accelerator, nearly misses an innocent flagman, and then careens directly into the opposite lane, sideswiping a school bus carrying the Newport High School marching band. The truck flips onto its side, unleashing four tons of hagfish — genetically engineered by greedy Californian aquaculturists, and cross bred with Venezuelan piranhas, each pulsing with a highly contagious, mutagenic slime and armed with a fierce metallic underbite — onto the road in a squirming, oozing, snapping tsunami of mucoid terror!” I had to take a breath.
Miss Seng, who had witnessed real-world horror in her lifetime — war, genocide, famine — gasped.
“Chaos!” I shouted, with as much movie trailer melodrama as I could muster, and startling the tuk-tuk pilot. “Burning trees and twisted oboes! Blood and goo! Courage and cowardice! All headed to a plasma screen near you!”
Miss Seng’s head tilted to one side, allowing her long black hair to fall over the left half of her face, and she smiled with perfect teeth. “Like ‘Sharknado?’”
She did understand!
The rest of my trip continued without incident, save for a nasty run-in with a Chinese stewardess on the mind-numbing, 14-hour flight back to the States. I’m back in Newport, now, still dealing with jet lag, as well a persistent, but not unpleasant tingling, which may have something to do with blowfish neurotoxin, waiting for Mr. Spielberg’s office to return my call — and wishing Miss Seng was here now, to guide me through the New Darkness.
Steve Sabatka’s young adult novel, “Mister Fishback’s Monster,” is available from Black Bed Sheet Books.