The Universal Set [Short Story]

The Universal Set
by Grant Gougler

The crazy woman was on the corner again. Of course she was on the corner. There was nowhere else crazy could go.

Bay wondered why the cops hadn’t done anything about her yet. It was obscene she got to spout her nonsense where anyone, including children, could hear it. The woman was beginning to draw crowds!

People came to laugh at her dancing, her screaming, her obscenities, and she fed off their energy and they fed off hers. Bay had laughed at first, too, but now the crazy woman was beginning to worry her.

The woman wasn’t just an anomaly anymore. Now she was there more often than not, standing on the bench for all to see and shouting with every ounce of breath for all to hear. And what she was saying… it was so cruel and mean! How could anyone think like that, much less put that absurd level of badness out into the air where anyone—especially children!—could be exposed to it?

“What’s wrong with her?” Bay’s son asked.

“Nothing, honey. Just pretend she’s not there.”

“Why is she so loud?”

“Just get in the car before your ice cream melts.”

“Maybe we should listen to her.”

“No,” Bay snapped. She’d lost control of her voice, and felt the tears welling up in her son long before they actually pooled in his eyes. “Oh… oh, I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean—”

“I was just asking a question!” he wailed.

“I know. I had no right to shout at you.”

The doors of the car were closed then and the crazy woman’s diatribe had become unintelligible. The air conditioner chilled Bay in contrast to the humid hotness outside. Despite the cold air, the ice cream was streaking down her knuckles and making the skin between her fingers sticky.

Bay could already feel her friends and family sending tendrils of concern in her direction. The tendrils were slow at first, like seaweeds grazing the bottom of a boat, but soon they were enveloping her thoughts piecemeal.

It wasn’t long until the fireflies arrived: macroscopic drones which were as ubiquitous as they were intrusive. A dozen or so surrounded the car, shooting video through the windows.

“That woman out there,” Bay explained carefully, “isn’t an Empath like most people.”

“That’s why I can’t feel what she’s feeling?”

“That’s right. And what she feels… you don’t want any part of it, honey. It’s hatred, plain and simple. And if you catch it, it can damper your own Empathy.”

Bay expected the boy to reel from such a terrible idea, but he did not. Instead she felt the shame shimmering on her son’s forehead like a heat mirage. He diverted his eyes as Bay scrutinized him. All the while, she could feel more and more of the tendrils paying attention to the scene. The story was blowing up beyond a local level as the fireflies streamed it live.

“Son,” Bay said, attempting to limit her tone of accusation. “I can feel your shame. What did you do?”

“Nothing,” the boy said sheepishly.

“Then why do you feel bad about something?”

He was absentmindedly playing with the buttons on the armrest. “I… I kind of took a snapshot of her.”

“You did what?!” Bay had planned to control the anger in her voice, but didn’t catch it in time. First she felt her son’s fear, then a crippling wave of shame from the viewers. The tendrils were angry at her for being so brutish, and they were agitating the water of her psyche. “I’m sorry, honey. I just wanted to know why you would do such a thing. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I just thought she was interesting,” the boy said with a shrug.

The boy’s shame reminded Bay to keep her own reactions in check. She couldn’t afford slipping again, couldn’t afford sending out any more badness. Couldn’t afford upsetting those who were watching.

She had to empty her head of the bad vibes. If they bounced around in there too long they could cause considerable harm. Everybody knew bad thoughts were bad for you. It was the kind of common sense the crazy woman derided during her paranoid monologues, the very reason she had been abandoned by the system. Bay had to shake the badness from her body. Had to take a deep breath to detox herself of the negativity.

Bay asked her son, as calmly as possible: “Were you going to share that woman’s picture with your friends or something?”

A crescendo of good vibes came washing over Bay and she was delighted by the approval. Most of the tendrils agreed with her delicate ways. Yet there were still holdouts, in the very back of the vast network of minds, tendrils sent by people halfway across the country. They were people she’d never known and would likely never meet, yet they were watching the scene unfold just the same.

The story was blowing up. She could feel it.

Bay knew she could win over the holdouts by the end of the discussion. She had to. If she didn’t they could cast her from the waters like the crazy woman. Sure, the waters were choppy and exhausting, but she could not imagine life without them. Bay needed them, needed their good vibes, and they needed hers.

Everybody needed somebody. Otherwise they would end up like the crazy lady, dancing and screaming desperately for attention: “WATCH ME DRY-HUMP THIS BANANA IN EXCHANGE FOR MY BAD VIBES! FREE LUNACY FOR ALL YOU EMPATHIC FUCKS TO SOAK UP LIKE THE BRAINLESS SPONGES YOU ARE! COME AND GET IT BEFORE IT’S ALL GONE ON THE CORNER OF 15TH AND JEFFERSON!”

“Honey,” Bay said, prodding her son. “You’re avoiding the question.”

“I tried to share the picture,” he confessed, “but the feed disappeared.”

“That’s because she’s not a good thing to share, honey. The things she’s saying aren’t even legal to share, which is why the system automatically flags them. And that’s why she goes outside to spread her lies and her fear: it’s the only place she has left.”

Half the tendrils were placated for the moment, but the other half agitated the water even harder. Bay wasn’t sure why they were so upset. WHAT HAVE I DONE? she asked them and they laughed at her ignorance while a few promised they would kill her.


Bay shocked herself with the realization that this thought had taken place in the conscious part of her mind, not in the subconscious wings where selfish thoughts were permissible. She felt the backlash in the form of bad vibes, a great deluge of them drowning her with pain and shame and hatred and anger. The fireflies were pressing against the windows then, making room for the dozens of others which had been drawn to her disgrace.

The story had officially gone global. And in that moment she and her son were the most famous people on the planet. In that moment…


But the anger came hard and the tendrils were almost uniformly maligned against her. The entire world seemed to hate her then.


As she choked on the shame she glanced at her son in the seat beside her. So peaceful. So innocent. So naive to the badness in the world… naive was better. Naive was good.

Oblivious to what was happening to his mother, the boy had finally begun to control the melting of his cone. His grin was huge as he licked at the ice cream strategically. He was getting the opposite of what Bay was getting at that very moment. There was a kind of economy to the vibes: if you were getting the bad ones, then that only meant someone had to be getting the good ones.

Cowering against the shame, Bay screamed hysterically. Despite the badness, Bay could sense the boy’s polar goodness in the form of great satisfaction: SUCH A GOOD CONE! VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR! The drowning woman reached for the goodness as if it were a lifeline.


Then the swell of anger split again: some of it Pro Vanilla, some of it Team Chocolate. Yet so much of the anger on both sides of the divide was still aimed directly at her.





The deeper Bay sank, the more the waters calmed. The anger was ripping itself apart as it attacked anything it could: chocolate, vanilla, music, celebrities, and everything in between. It was a snake devouring itself, a trapped animal gnawing off its own foot.

And then, as inexplicably as it all began, it was over. The waters calmed. Bay was forgiven as much as she was forgotten.

So she ate her ice cream, wishing the cops would do something about the crazy woman. The tendrils agreed. All was good again for several seconds.

Split Second (1992) [Midnight Movie]

It’s the year 2008 and global warming has managed to submerge London in about a foot of murky water. I’m not sure where the mutant rats figure into this poor man’s cyberpunk world, but the little buggers are ubiquitous and the characters will wreck entire apartments just to gun ’em down. Harley Stone (Rutger Hauer) is a loose cannon of a cop who punches and kicks anyone who gets in his way. When a fellow cop inquires about his sanity, the chief of police (Alun Armstrong) replies with that good ol’ “he’s the best there is” cliche.

Actually, calling anything in this movie cliched might be missing the point. It isn’t “only” science fiction, fantasy, horror, and action, but I want to say it’s a parody of all that stuff, too. It even goes out of its way to do the old “meet your new partner” routine with surprising freshness. Or maybe I’m being too kind to it, considering I feel like I’m the only person who likes this movie. And I always liked this movie.

Split Second opens in a scuzzy night club called The Non-Stop Striptease. A spiky-collared Rottweiler attempts to bite Stone’s nuts off in the alleyway entrance, at which point Stone calmly flashes the dog his badge and says, “I’m a cop, asshole.” This placates the dog. We don’t know why Stone is here—we get the feeling he doesn’t know, either—but soon a woman’s heart is ripped out and, somehow, no one saw who was responsible for the murder. This doesn’t stop Stone from racing out into the dark streets, punching and shooting anything that moves (or doesn’t) in an attempt to alleviate his severe anxiety.

See, a long time ago Stone’s partner was murdered by the very thing which is running around town, ripping hearts out and drawing intricate astrological signs in blood. Stone has been steadily going downhill ever since the incident and it’s not until later when we find out why he’s psychically linked to the beast. The monster, by the way, is ten feet tall, has a wicked set of teeth and claws, but turns out to be one of the most disappointing rubber suits you’ll ever see. Never mind that because the ride up until that point is fun as hell.

Featuring Kim Cattrall, Pete Postlethwaite, and Michael J. Pollard, this British production from The Burning director (my favorite slasher film) is a madhouse that rarely loses steam. You’ll laugh at it for the first ten to twenty minutes, then you’ll realize it’s very much in on the joke, allowing you to laugh with it for the rest of the running time. Rutger Hauer is one of the few bonafide actors who fell into these low budget films with the same wit and enthusiasm he had in more serious efforts—you can tell he’s enjoying it, too. I can’t think of anyone else who was equally great in both A- and B-movies, then slipped back into A-movies without missing a step.

Do you like the early 90s ridiculous vision of the future? Do you like Rutger Hauer? If yes, you’re going to like this movie. Early nineties Terminator, Alien, and Predator ripoffs are kind of a guilty pleasure for me, if only because I’m so damn nostalgic for them.

And you know what? Fuck the haters. This is a legitimately exciting movie. It was the perfect cure for the unbelievably disappointing Star Trek Beyond, which I saw on the same day. How a movie can have so much cool stuff in it, and completely fail to excite me, I’ll never know, but I digress. Split Second delivers the speed.

The Exorcist is one of the best shows nobody’s watching

So why hadn’t I seen the television version of The Exorcist yet? Because I had no idea it existed until earlier this week. And when I did find out, I rolled my eyes and started the first episode on Hulu just to see how bad it was so I could move on.

Fast forward to this weekend and I’m all caught up on the eight episodes (episode 9 of 10 doesn’t air until December 9th, by the way). Putting aside some terribly distracting CGI moments and a questionable plot twist, The Exorcist is kicking all kinds of ass. 
Here are some of the pros:
1. It’s not a reboot like Lethal Weapon, it’s a respectful continuation. 
2. This is one of the strongest casts I’ve seen on TV in a very long time. Ben Daniels as the exorcist is the closest you can get to topping Max von Sydow.
3. While not as graphic as the film (or the stuff AMC frequently gets away with), the extra crazy stuff is still implied. You just have to pay attention or you’ll miss it sometimes.

I wish the show would catch on, but it’s probably not going to. It’s a damn shame, too.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) [Midnight Movie]

You have to admire the simplicity of this setup: Nick Holloway (Chevy Chase) becomes invisible after a freak accident. Rogue CIA spook David Jenkins (Sam Neill) will stop at nothing to capture the invisible man for nefarious, espionage-related reasons. So far, so good, right? Poor Daryl Hannah, unfortunately, gets relegated to playing the afterthought love interest who’s simply here to stretch out the middle portion of the movie. Can you imagine being the star of Splash, then having to eat shit in a role like this?
It’s hard to make invisibility boring, but Memoirs of an Invisible Man forgets to include any of the built-in fantasies most people would have when daydreaming about the subject. In Unnecessary Monologue #2,356, Chase’s voiceover confesses he thought being invisible would be fun, but it’s not.

Seriously? Being invisible isn’t the most awesome thing in the world? Maybe that’s why I like the movie a lot more today than I did when I was a kid: a kid can’t look past the preposterous notion that invisibility would be a burden rather than a useful super power. 

Here’s my other problem with Memoirs: Chevy Chase didn’t want to be funny in it. That sounds like I’m being snarky—and I am, to an extent, because his notorious ego is the entire reason this film doesn’t work—but director John Carpenter said this about Chase:

He wanted to sort of slowly, whether this is right or wrong, to slowly move away from broad comedy and do something with a little more depth. And so he resisted the comedy all the way through it. 

On the plus side, the score is exciting, Sam Neil plays a great bad guy, and the special effects are out of this world. You automatically know how they did an effect in 99% of today’s movies, and the answer is usually: “Oh, that’s just CGI.” In Memoirs, there are some head-scratchers. The invisible man will chew bubble gum, inhale cigarette smoke into his lungs, and see his own stomach full of food (minus the stomach) before puking the contents up. I really had no idea how they did some of this stuff before looking it up.

Otherwise, it’s not a great movie for fans of John Carpenter. There are times a scene can have a bit of a whimsical Starman feel to it, but most of the time the camera is moving far too often (and far too conventionally) for this to be a genuine Carpenter flick. Meanwhile the concept isn’t deceptively simple in Carpenter’s usual style, it’s just straight forward and simple. It’s one of his few movies which really is about what it’s supposed to be about, yet the result still isn’t bad enough to pan it.

It’s just a movie. Often an enjoyable one. I have nothing more or less to say.

Arrival (2016)

There’s so much I want to say about Arrival, but the movie works so much better the less you know about it. I certainly wouldn’t say the trailers ruined it, just that I was disappointed I saw them before letting the film unfold naturally. I’ve felt uneasy about the idea of a sequel to Blade Runner, but now that I’ve seen director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Sicario (my fourth favorite film of 2015), I can breathe easy. Here’s a director who’s probably going to be a household name like Spielberg and Scorsese. He’s also the guy who’s going to pick up the torch Neill Blomkamp dropped.

This is my favorite science fiction film since last year’s Ex Machina. It might be the best movie I’ve seen all year. Arrival is so far removed from Hollywood’s narrow view of science fiction, it’s no wonder it released in November rather than the summer (it will also help get it the Oscar nominations it deserves). I don’t remember the last time I saw a non-summer movie in the middle of the day which was as packed as this one, either, so hopefully it’s making boat loads of money.

We need more of this.

No, entire cities aren’t destroyed in the opening act. The President of the United States doesn’t look out the window of the White House and whisper, “My God.” Not only are no landmarks destroyed, they’re nowhere to be found—the alien ship which settles over America chooses to do so in Montana of all places. Even though the trailer gives away the reveal, it’s no less breathtaking seeing it within the context of the story.

The characters representing the government agencies provide strong conflict for the scientific characters without becoming the Jaws Mayor. Usually you’re supposed to hate the military character Forest Whitaker is playing, but you typically don’t draw actors as accomplished as he is if you’re so predictable. Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA stooge also has clear and understandable motives, even though he, too, would have been made a villain in lesser movies.

I’ve complained several times on this blog about how scientists are often portrayed in movies. I’m glad I can say Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner nail it. They’re not pizza-eating losers in lab coats and they’re just the right amount of nerdy—the kind of people you would actually see interviewed in science documentaries. Adams’ character especially is complex and to say any more than that might give away some of the best stuff in the movie.

Gods of Egypt (2016) [Midnight Movie]

How did this happen? How did I enjoy something as absurd and silly as this? How could I go into it so negatively and come out so satisfied? Because it’s a surprisingly fun fantasy film, that’s how.

In fact, here’s a long list of fantasy films I enjoyed a lot less than I enjoyed Gods of Egypt:

  • 300
  • Peter Jackson’s King Kong
  • The Hobbit trilogy
  • Howard the Duck
  • Independence Day movies
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • Jumanji
  • Men in Black II
  • Any of The Mummy films
  • Any of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels
  • Sin City 2
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
  • Stardust (actually, I liked this one about the same)
  • Star Wars prequels
  • Underworld
  • Wild Wild West
  • Willow

So why did Gods of Egypt get some of the same negative press as the more infamous films on the list above? How in the hell did it get such a low Rotten Tomatoes rating while painfully routine comedies and remakes consistently garner higher ratings? I don’t have the answer to those questions and I suspect anyone who claims to know for sure is reaching just a little too far. Even so, I can’t help but feel something dishonest is going on here, such as pressure from social media groups or… okay, now even I’m reaching. (Let’s not forget this stuff is subjective… maybe the movie really is shit and I’m just out of touch.)

Yet it seems Gods of Egypt was dragged through the mud long before its February release date and everyone wanted it to fail. I expected pretty much what everyone else expected: another mind-numbing 300 ripoff with loads of bad CGI and no creativity whatsoever. I’m not saying the CGI in Gods of Egypt isn’t bad, just that it’s a lot less distracting than I expected. This is a huge, somewhat complex fantasy world—how else could they have filmed it? On location? (The Lord of the Rings filmed an awful lot on location, sure, but this ain’t Lord of the Rings. It set out to be a lot richer than that world.) It also doesn’t feel nearly as phony as Sky Captain and the Star Wars prequels did.

Yes, there’s an awful lot of white faces and English-speaking characters for a story that’s allegedly Egyptian. And no, this isn’t a very accurate portrayal of that particular mythology, either. (I guess that’s where the fantasy part comes in, isn’t it?) I’ll be honest: most of the humor was what you would expect from bad children’s movies, and the action is pretty lackluster whenever it goes all Matrix-y. On the other hand Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who hasn’t found a lot of mainstream success beyond Game of Thrones, has “movie star” written all over him while Gerard Butler is an extremely likable screen presence as well. Both of these guys aren’t getting the hits they deserve.

Look, if you’ve ever enjoyed Highlander, Flash Gordon, or Krull, you should really give this one a chance, especially now that it’s on HBO. I can’t say I would have liked it as much had I paid money for it, but for a free movie, this is some very creative entertainment.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) [Trailer]

I don’t normally post fan edits, but this one’s poignant. (The official trailer, on the other hand, is all kinds of lame). Somehow I’ve never seen this movie despite the fact Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite writers of all time. I’m still deciding whether I want to rent it or buy the Blu-Ray.
As usual, there’ll be a Midnight Movie featured here this Friday so be sure to come back and check it out. Or don’t. It’s a free country, last I checked, but I must confess I didn’t see the results of the election at the time of scheduling this post. 
And I feel fiiiiiiiiiiiiine.