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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Nothing to Fear but Books Themselves

"I was the type of kid who slept on the floor of her parents' bedroom until she was 10. I waste money, not to mention natural resources, by leaving multiple lights on at night, and have somehow never gotten accustomed to the shadows lurking behind my bedroom door…. Stewart O'Nan is my worst nightmare: a genuinely scary novelist whose books are impossible to dismiss as genre fiction…. [His new novel is] so sympathetically imagined that it makes the world outside the book feel insubstantial and false."
—Nell Freudenberger, "'The Good Wife': Spouse Arrest," The New York Times Book Review, May 8, 2005.
WHEN THE doorbell rang, I jumped right out of my seat in front of the computer, where I had been unproductively and quakingly ensconced for the past several hours.

Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself cowering behind the couch.

"Who—who—who's there?" I called out in a quavering voice.

"Della, it's me, Fulton Basilicos, your editor."

"Your voice sounds like Fulton's, but how can I be sure it's really you?"

"You're three days late with your review of Vinca Ravenhill's novel, Love's Adversary, and I'm here to find out why!"

That was Fulton, all right. I got up and advanced to the door.

"Is there anyone with you, or lurking nearby?"

"No! Now let me in, dammit!"

I undid the several locks and multiple chains on the door, and cracked it just wide enough for Fulton to slide in. Once my editor was safely inside, I hastened to make my house impregnable once more. Finished with that time-consuming but essential procedure, I turned to face Fulton.

The editor of the most prestigious review forum in the nation was known throughout the publishing industry for his genial attitude and charity toward reviewers. But none of that famous amiability was on display now. Fulton's long, homely, distinguished face exhibited a mix of disappointment, confusion and resignation.

I felt really awful that I had let Fulton down so badly, but I truly had no choice in the matter.

It was all the fault of the books.

My editor studied me silently for a while before finally speaking as gently as his turbulent emotions allowed.

"Della, what's the problem this time? I thought we had resolved all your phobias regarding which books you could and could not review. Surely you're not finding anything frightening in Ravenhill's novel, are you? It's just a typical bodice-ripper—"

I flinched. "Please, Fulton, watch your language! The very notion of some hairy, bare-chested pirate or duke ripping a woman's shirt off—My head is swimming!"

Fulton took a seat, and so did I, grateful for the chance to regain my shattered equilibrium.

"I just don't understand you anymore, Della. You used to be such a fine, talented reviewer, able to handle anything from Tom Wolfe to Stephen Hawking. But now practically every book I assign you gives you the screaming fantods!"

Knowing it was useless, I still tried to explain myself. "You're aware, Fulton, that I was always a sensitive soul, easily spooked and preternaturally aware of all of life's dangers."

"I had only vague intimations of such, but yes.…"

Confession was painful, but I had reached a point where I had no other option. "My psyche was always more precarious than you could have imagined.

"I spent my girlhood until age ten wearing a gauze veil across my mouth and nostrils, for fear of accidentally swallowing an insect. As you might imagine, I had few friends other than the occasional Jainist exchange student.

"In my teens, I avoided walking down sidewalks too close to buildings, for fear of falling masonry. But since walking too close to the curb invited being grazed by a crazed bicyclist, I could only follow a narrow pedestrian middle corridor that conflicted with foot-traffic in both directions.

"When I went away to college, I wouldn't attend any lectures in rooms with fewer than four fire-exits, or above the second floor.

"My first job, as an assistant editor at St. Swithin's Books, brought me into contact with such frightening entities as the potentially eye-damaging office Xerox machine, the potentially tongue-scalding office coffeepot, and the potentially pregnancy-inducing office co-workers.

"Only a chance introduction to the self-improvement philosophies of Tony Robbins and Zane allowed me to function at all.

"In short, I was a timorous, agoraphobic basket-case who, however, had reached a workable accommodation with the outside world, thanks to a web of arcane superstitions and obsessive-compulsive rituals. And in books I found my refuge from the horrors of the mundane world.

"And then you shattered my protected little universe by having me review Stewart O'Nan."

"O'Nan? What happened with O'Nan?"

"Surely you recall my review of his novel, how horrifying I found it, and how it rendered the real world 'insubstantial and false'? Well, consider my predicament at that point. If the real world, which I had always dreaded, was inferior to the world created by a supreme novelist such as O'Nan, then every book became a potential gateway to hell for me, its contents a thousand times more terrifying than the physical things I had always feared. It didn't matter that most authors didn't have O'Nan's talents. I rapidly reached the point where words on a page were infinitely more scary than anything I could ever meet in real life."

Fulton meditatively pulled at his patrician chin. "So I guess assigning you the new Chuck Palahniuk novel right after O'Nan was not the best thing I could've done for your condition…?"

I awoke to the sensation of Fulton gently applying cold Dasani to my brow and delicately chafing my wrists.

"Please, Fulton, never mention the name of that degenerate perpetrator of masculine horrors ever again."

Fulton looked contrite. "Then I truly erred in giving you the latest Cormac McCarthy, followed by that child-abuse memoir, the Holocaust remembrance and the Abu Ghraib chronicle—"

Gasping for breath, I said, "Please, don't speak—of those—any more—"

Fulton stood and began pacing. "Well, I suspected something along these lines, although I couldn't have put the phenomenon into words before hearing you explain yourself. Fascinating thing. Can't say I've ever heard the like before. Naturally, once I nebulously cottoned to your quandry, I began assigning you more, shall we say, sedate books. But apparently your heightened sensitivity found even those objectionable. Chick-lit novels—"

"Oh, the quiet dateless desperation!"

"—young-adult fantasies—"

"The poignant obstacles of adolescence!"

"—cookbooks—"

"The whole bloody concept of the food chain!"

"—even children's picture books—"

"Why, oh why, was a devil such as Chris Van Allsburg ever allowed to walk the earth?!?"

"—none of these were safe enough for your super-sensitive imagination? Not even tepid romances like Ravenhill's?"

At this humiliating moment, all I could do was nod vigorously, hang my head and weep.

Fulton approached me then and laid a fatherly hand on my shoulder.

"There, there, now, Della, your plight is not irredeemable. If we could find only one category of book you could review that wouldn't scare you, then perhaps we could begin the gradual process of desensitizing you to the awful power of the printed word. But even failing such a full recovery, you could still concentrate on that one category alone, and continue your reviewing career. Now let me just think a minute—I've got it!

"We'll make you our reviewer of genre horror novels!"

I looked up, hope and gratitude blossoming in my heart.

"Nothing's less frightening than those!" he continued. "Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker—Once their hollow words show you the utter ineffectuality of fictional scare tactics, you'll be right as rain."

Amid my tremulous fears, I sensed he had found the answer.

"Why, you'll be cocking a snook under Stewart O'Nan's nose before you know it!"

Tentatively, I asked, "Could I start slowly, with—oh, I don't know, the Library of America edition of Lovecraft?"

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