THE CUTTING ROOM coming attraction: “Onlookers” by Gary A. Braunbeck


Over the next two weeks, in celebration of Halloween and the new anthology The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, Tachyon and editor Ellen Datlow present excerpts from a selection of the volume’s horrifying tales.

Today’s selection comes from “Onlookers” by Gary A. Braunbeck.

“… all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world have not any subsistence without a mind—that their being is to be perceived or known.”

—George Berkeley (1685–1753)

“It is a simple equation: take me, subtract film, and the solution is zero.”

—Akira Kurosawa

They are filming something on the street, in front of our house, very close to the front door.

Even though he can’t see them when he pulls up his blinds or pushes aside one of the curtains, my six-year-old son Brian senses that someone is watching. After dismissing his claims as “… an overactive imagination,” Dianne, my wife, finally admitted to feeling the same way, though with the nervous, slightly embarrassed, “Maybe-I’m-Just-Full-Of-Shit-Today” laugh she always uses whenever she can’t put her finger on what’s bothering her. So far neither of them have directly asked me what I think, how I feel, do I believe them or not.

I think this is exactly what the Onlookers want, for you to convince yourself that it’s just your imagination playing tricks on you; it’ll make the work easier for them, and perhaps less terrifying and painful for the rest of us, if and when we cumulatively figure out what’s happening; after all, isn’t perception both perceiving and being perceived? If the Onlookers are edging us toward a state of non-being without our knowing it, then what can we do to stop it, to re-balance the equation, to perceive while being perceived?

My wife and son are fading before my eyes, you see; and more than once in the last few days, both have asked me if I’ve been losing weight, which means I am lessening in their perception, as well.

All around, the colors of our life are become paler. There is a dogwood tree in our back yard, and the red spots on all the leaves have turned to the same foggy gray as an old black-and-white film; as have many of the leaves on the other trees; as has much of the grass.

Dianne and Brian say I’m too pale lately. (Dianne called it “looking a bit gray around the gills.”)

I can’t bring myself to tell them they look the same to me.

They are filming something on the street, in front of our house, very close to the front door.

Something tells me they’re going to want their interior shots soon, before they lose the light.

I don’t think there’s any way I can stop them.

I first saw the Onlookers when I was a child, but had no idea what they were, what they wanted, or of what they were capable.

In the summer of 1964, when I was five, my father—who sold medical supplies—took my mother and me along on a business trip to New York. Spending nearly a third of every year on the road, Dad always felt bad because we’d never had a “proper” family vacation; rightly thinking that Mom and I got sick of spending every summer stuck in Cedar Hill, he hoped this “… madcap excursion in the wilds” (as he called it, like it was going to be some Great Adventure worthy of Jules Verne) would suffice.

We had a wonderful time, as I recall (being only five, my memories are divided into two categories: the bus, taxi, or subway ride to someplace in the city, and the cool stuff I got to do once we arrived).

Dad was meeting with some doctors whose offices were on the Upper West Side in the 140s, near the Hudson River, and for a few hours Mom and I were left to our own devices—which meant sightseeing and shopping.

We’d just left a restaurant where I’d had the best ice-cream sundae in the history of ice-cream sundaes (that I ate way too quickly; it would later come back to haunt me with a stomachache) and were heading for some boring old antique store when we rounded the corner and walked right into a movie—or, rather, the movie walked into us, in the form of a hunched, roundish man in a dark coat that was far too heavy for the summer weather. His head was down so that his face was buried behind the high upturned collar of the coat; all I could see of him was that coat and the gray, flattened hat he wore (which Dad later told me was called a “Porkpie” hat).

The man bumped into Mom, almost knocking her over (he was walking very fast and seemed to be trying to get away from something), then veered left and plowed straight into me.

I spun around, arms pinwheeling, trying to catch my balance, tripped over my own feet, fell backward against one of the sawhorses, went over, tried to twist around so I didn’t crack my skull on the pavement, and landed on the other side on my butt. I immediately began crying; everything hurts more when you’re five years old, and it especially hurts more when it happens in a big, strange, scary city that seems like it could eat visitors from Ohio for breakfast and still want a second helping.

I looked up, hoping to see Mom’s face lowering toward me; instead she stood frozen, having just seen the face of the man in the coat and Porkpie hat.

And that’s when I saw my first Onlooker.

For information on The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, visit the Tachyon page.

Cover by Josh Beatman.