Note to reader: this is the second part in a two-part showcase on the works of Diexilius . If you haven't read the first part , you will probably want to before continuing forward with this analysis. As well, there will be detailed spoilers for the story we analyze here, and I strongly urge you to read it before reading my thoughts.
"Okay, but first I'll have to remind you, any substance you found was probably not on purpose"
- Diexilius, 2019
When I approached Diexilius for insight on his story Predicting Something, he remarked that he "...just wanted to come up with a less conventional idea, and something about that specific scenario sounded good enough." When able to look back and critique his work, he expressed disappointment in the simplicity of the story. "It's been a while since I've read my own stories," he said. "so I didn't remember it being that shallow [...] Morality is very complicated, and I wrote it with no intent of having nuance."
I get the impression he chose the story's premise more for its novelty than the potential exploration of morality it invited. The idea, to him, was something unique, which struck me as surprising because as I described it, the narrative follows a very prototypical folkloric premise; that being a selfish character who steals from a poor blind person, and then faces a swift, possibly supernatural punishment at the point in the story where it's revealed that the blind person was more than they at first appeared. When pressed on this he indicated that he wasn't even thinking of this archetypal narrative when he wrote it, but that "...almost any moral story I could present wouldn't be unique in any way since I have a mostly conventional morality."
"Because I don't like to write, well, morality. You may have noticed, but the second story is almost nothing like the first, and I was always more pleased with that one."
Introduction and Summary
With the length of this story it's more necessary to summarize than Predicting Something was, so I suppose that's where we'll start.
Upon visiting his dealer, who is named Jay -- apparently (and amusingly) after JayTen who I've written a showcase on -- our protagonist Victor is sold a new, mysterious drug named Moonless Night. Apparently it gives the user an intense, lucid trip, and Victor seems curious enough to try it. When he gets back home and gives it a shot, he begins experiencing the effects immediately, witnessing a strange magnificent light. "It was something like a combination of blue and yellow but not green. An impossible color."
Following the light, he finds himself in a long metal tunnel with red walls and steel-grated floors. After a while of walking, he finally he makes it to the source of the light, "a large, multicolored crystal, its light enhanced and focused with the help of towering mirrors and gigantic lenses. With apparently nothing to power it, this thing seemed to produce its own light."
Victor is greeted by a strange, tall monster. It expresses that it's part of a larger group of similar beings that 'have been there for a while.' They don't know the origin or purpose of the crystal but survive by eating those who find their way to it. The parallel to moths is so obvious that I don't even need to make it. Victor runs away from the monster, as some other below him reach through the grated floor. And then the water begins to rise, and as the light at the end of the tunnel flickers, seemingly, reality does so itself.
The water rises high enough that Victor cannot run and he's outpaced by the monsters. He's skinned alive by them, and left to drown in the water. "I didn’t see any point in holding my breath so I let the substance fill my lungs. It had a familiar foul taste." At this point he wakes up from the hallucinations, back in his bathroom.
Victor explains to the audience that despite the horrific experience, he doesn't regret taking it, and is getting ready to take a pill as he writes. "It was very thrilling. That's some quality I've never seen before. [...] I won't overthink it. I’m going to take it. Just thinking about it puts a big grin on my face."
In the way Predicting Something inadvertently subverts tropes inherent to its premise, Grey Steam was written with the explicit purpose of inverting popular cliches in the creepypasta field. Unlike Predicting Something, you don't even have to look very far to see this, as it was written for ShawnCognitionCP 's Anti-Cliche Creepypasta Contest 2, where the contestants were assigned two overplayed conventions and challenged to write a "good" story while incorporating those tropes as thouroughly into the story as possible. Quote, "Your goal is to make both of these cliches work in a single story - the larger the role they play, the better."
The cliches Diexilius got as prompts were "depressed druggie tries a new drug" and "evil grin/smile (for example, the bad guy smiling devilishly, characters can't stop smiling, etc)." In trying to integrate these conventions in a novel way, he took a relatively systematic route, taking both prompts and using them as two discreet elements rather than blending them into a single horror premise. I suppose you can't really expect anything different, as the story partially writes itself. Piece by piece, it reimagines the prompts. It begins by tackling the depression, and then it introduces the drug, and then it spends the rest of the story setting up the basis for the evil grin/smile.
Depression was something I didn't really touch on in my summary and you may be wondering how that plays in. In many ways, you could argue it doesn't play into the story at all, in the same way you could argue the evil grin/smile didn't play into the story at all. The main star of the tale is the drug and the hallucination it provokes, the other stuff might appear to only be here because they were part of the prompt.
Certainly it's possible to write a fairly defendable summary without addressing either even once. The grin is a physical characteristic of the monsters, something they don as they tear our protagonist apart, and the depression is used as a sort of loose introduction, something to get us to the point where our protagonist is a disaffected drug addict.
"Now I know what you may think, drugs aren’t a good solution, but I’d take any solution at this point. [...] If I could feel better even for half an hour a day, it would be worth it."
When I asked Diexilius about the way depression is depicted, he said "[I] remember that I once read an analogy like that somewhere and wanted to use it somehow, and when the contest happened I thought it would fit the set up."
The analogy he's refering to is at the very beginning. Victor calls depression " a bit like…a tapeworm. [...] The only thing a tapeworm does is feed, leaving the host to turn into a husk of himself." The analogy does fit the prompt, depression was mentioned in the required cliches right away, and the way the analogy was used slightly disconnected from everything sort of shows in this respect. In many ways this story reads like it was constructed out of disperate ideas that all happened to coincidentally resonate with the prompt Diexilius was given. This underground tunnel works as a strange drug-induced hallucination, and the evil smiles are befitting of our cruel monsters. As a whole, however, these parts don't all unify to one thing. Because "depressed druggie tries a new drug" and "evil grin/smile" don't inherently push towards one unified thing. Work outside of just aligning those ideas is necessary to create a text that feels focused.
That being said, it works for the theme of the contest exceedingly well. Diexilius's intentions to create a story that went beyond the typical fare of its chosen cliches were fulfilled, and the story in question is at once inexplicable and mysterious, frightening in how it goes unexplained. The reader is allowed to read it merely as a story about a druggie who finds a drug that works for him, but the specifity of the hallucination, the internal logic, and the sensation of peering into a place that could exist if it weren't forgotten (and impossible), lend more weight to the narrative than it might otherwise have had.
The parts where he's writing about drugs and depression themselves seem the most strained. The introduction and scene with Jay are themselves well-written but could easily be seen as merely set-up. The opening line, "It’s probably hard to understand depression for people who don’t have it," is interesting to me. When I asked Diexilius if he had experience with depression or drug abuse, he replied "I personally never had these sorts of problems, though later on I would know someone who did." I asked him how he thought the analogy held up now that he's had time to be more acquainted with it, and he said "...depression varies from person to person, but in a general sense I think it holds up. If enough happens, you can fall further and further and be drained of life."
The irony in writing about depression despite being self-aware that it's "probably hard to understand for [those] who don't have it," despite being amusing to point out, doesn't hold much significance to me. I might speculate that the degree to which he didn't understand depression was the reason depression holds such little importance to the narration aside from this introduction. He'd heard the analogy and wanted to include it, and it fits the prompt, but aside from that there's little in the way of paying off the theme and that may be because he knew how little he knew, and didn't want to overstep himself. Speculation aside, I do think there's a bit more here regarding depression and the ways drug-addiction relates to that than meets the eye.
At the beginning of the story, during the introduction, Victor says he has "enough to sustain [his] lifestyle" and that seems accurate to me. Not just financially but emotion-wise. He appears to be just barely getting by, and it's hard to tell, either way, whether the drugs are helping that, or hurting it. He's fallen into a routine, "Wake up, go to work, leave, buy drugs, get home, and get high and fall asleep hours later." The story itself represents a break from that routine, not a continuation of it, and for a moment it was difficult to tell why. He indicates that "this routine was interrupted recently," even though when you get down to it the only thing that changes is that he's taking Moonless Night now.
But the real-ness of the experience he has taking the drug seems to be what does it for him, and if it's not his routine that's any different you have to wonder if it's his depression. Life used to be something done for the sake of it for Victor, barely getting by day after day just so he could afford to do it all over again. When you get trapped in a system like that, if can be hard to feel like you're actually existing at all, not really receiving or giving out any value to the external world around you.It can become difficult to know where your place is, when your very being is dedicated to just sustaining itself enough to continue sustaining itself. Victor seems to come away with a very different perspective on it all. Quote, "You never realize how lucky you are being alive until you feel so close to death."
Despite the description of his mutiliation being truly graphic and unpleasant, Victor is liberated by the experience, knowing that it's a controlled environment where he's safe, but feeling it all the same. But this is falacious. Drug addiction can often feel safe or controlled but just because there are no actual monsters tearing off his skin doesn't mean the drug has no ill-effects. This depiction of drug addiction is interesting in this respect. Taking the experience in the tunnel as a general metaphor, Victor's experience takes on a profound effect. It's a horrible, drawn out experience, tearing him apart and wrenching him dry of blood, drowning him in the substance, "familiar"-ly described. But when it comes down to it, he still comes back for more, despite the psychological and emotional trauma, despite the detrimental effects of longform addiction which he is familiar with.
The ending of the story is subversive in its ability to tie everything off with an apparently "happy" ending, but in a sense it's quietly depressing, disturbing in its authenticity.
Let's take a moment to address the crystal. It's a mysterious thing to find. The entire setting itself is strange and peculiar. Industrial walls that move organically in a misplaced tunnel housing an unaccountable relic. It's a Lovecraftian thing to find, in how the impossible color which the crystal emanates mirrors the meteorite from The Colour Out of Space, and possibly more closely the unseen spectrums from From Beyond. But surprisingly, yet again, when pressed, Diexilius expressed that he wasn't familiar with the story when he wrote this one.
"...I had heard of some colors outside of our visible spectrum (red and green that isn't brown, blue and yellow that isn't green) and it sounded neat to me so I thought I could maybe use it somehow. [...] At the time I wasn't aware he was ahead of me in that concept."
When Lovecraft wrote his stories, he did so reportedly with the same inspiration. He had merely learned of the wide visual spectrum beyond our range of perception and was inspired by that concept enough to incorporate it into his horror. Lovecraft used his sensory manipulation for different reasons, of course. In his stories, the perception itself is the root of the terror, as in From Beyond where "hacking" the retina grants access into these other wavelengths -- and to all the horrible secrets they kept from us! Meanwhile in Gray Steam, the impossible color merely ADDS to the strange, ineffible quality of the hallucinations. It gives the drug a more affecting quality, giving rise to questions over what Moonless Night is actually doing. And this makes the entire thing seem more incredible and mysterious.
The colors arent the root of the horror, merely supporting elements which lift the drug itself into the spotline, similarly to the depression and the evil grins/smiles. "...It's supposed to be a surreal experience," Diexilius said. Each factor of the story bends to that will, which does create an effective lucid nightmare.
But, here we find ourself with another baffling occurance of the author deliberately crafting an unconventional story, yet inadvertently echoing a time-worn staple of the genre. Are these things mistakes? In both instances, the ways the conventions are used display different effects than the prototypical stories. Of course, subverting cliche concepts was the entire intention of this story, but in elements like this one and in Predicting Something we find Diexilius's bizarre penchant towards, seemingly, doing it unintentionally. Perhaps this is part of the reason this particular story worked so well, the contest theme was merely a good fit for him.
Of course, reinvention being such a good fit for an author that they do it unwittingly might appear to be a stretch, or even downright impossible, but that would ignore how these stories originated in the first place. Diexilius was correct in his instinct when he thought Predicting Something had an unconventional take, he just wasn't conscious of what it was an unconventional take on. The stories in folklore he's accidentally riffing on originated exactly the same way. Unspoken truths in morality that were expressed through a tangible form like a short story. Diexilius's self-described "conventional morality" made him the perfect fit to mirror those sentiments but his willingness to get creative made the finished execution more than the sum of its parts.
The same is true here. Even if Diexilius had never heard of Lovecraft, cultural ideas and stories are unique in how they're able to appear fully formed in discreet locations before ever forming together into a larger societal narrative. Theres often just something in the water, even if for nearly a century. It's Diexilius's ability to pick up on that that created an original take on the idea. In many ways, the work as a whole serves as a case study in this societal tendency towards a large interconnected tapestry of independent agents all reflecting the same broader world in similar yet distinct ways, creating a large intertextual work of folklore and popular media.
Gray Steam by Diexilius is a multifaceted story. It spends a lot of its effort trying to find a plausible way to incorporate the contest prompts. Under the pressure of a depressed druggie, the new drug, and the evil grin/smiles, it opts for a streamlined approach that fits the theme but sacrifices a holistic consistency with its overall vision. Despite these individual parts failing to coalesce however, the ways each are played with generally creates a collection of interesting ideas that inform and interact with each other in unique and often inspired ways. Diexilius demonstrates a profound knack for reinvention which shines in this story especially as it was the intention from the outset. Here we can see how despite the counterintuitive way the story constructs itself, it's possible to make something seemingly scatterbrained or disconnected feel whole and individually affecting through clever use of set-up and small, meaningful details, such as the setting of a mysterious misplaced tunnel, or our protagonist's ruminations on addiction and depression, twisting a seemingly prototypical story into something more nuanced than it previously appeared.
But hold on, would Diexilius himself even agree with that?
"As long as it doesn't have to do with the corpses, I can be quoted on anything."
- Diexilius, 2020
You may have noticed my quotes sourced to Diexilius directly, from some relatively recent private conversations I had with him. I used these to support my arguments as much as I could. Some of my insights wouldn't even be possible without them, such as everything I extrapolate from him not knowing of the Lovecraft stories dealing with unseen lightwaves. But this isn't the same thing as author support, he doesn't know the takeaway I depict here and he certainly didn't dictate it to me. Refer to the quote I used to open this article, "any substance you found was probably not on purpose." That I included that is partially a joke but it's significant in that Diexilius probably doesn't find his stories nearly as profound as I've implied here.
In reference to my musings on determinism regarding Predicting Something, he said "I did think something about fate and all that when writing it, but if I can't recall it it probably wasn't half as intricate," [his emphasis].
He went on to describe the story as average, implying I think that the relative 'quality' of the story is relevant to the meaning held there. Diex doesn't seem to regard his stories that highly, and therefore doesn't seem to find them very thematically interesting. It's beginning to look like the theoretical summation of my efforts here that I described in the previous part, "an exhaustive exercise in coming away with the wrong conclusion," might be the ultimate truth of the matter entirely.
Does it matter whether Diexilius was considering these things as he wrote it? Can meaning be worth analyzing if it's unintentional? Perhaps the real signifier of virtue belongs to the reaction of the audience. In that case, the comments on Gray Steam don't seem much more concerned with the things I was saying either.
Some Other's Thoughts
Reading the comments is an interesting experience.
MrDupin made an interesting observation, he called attention to the final line, one I didn't touch on whatsoever. The implication is fascinating, which I missed entirely myself. Quote, "Just thinking about it puts a big grin on my face." I took that line for what it meant on the surface and didn't consider the possibility that perhaps Victor was destined to become like one of those monsters, with their big grins. Maybe that's how they all got trapped there, and the process of skinning is supposed to make you look like them after you're bathed in the strange gray liquid under the grates. Or maybe I'm still completely missing the mark even now. I'll let the rest of what Dupin said speak for itself.
"The description of the grinning men and the dream world fit harmonically with the theme of drug consumption. The prose followed suit too. Exactly what I would expect from a story about a drug trip. [...] The use of the grinning was good enough. Nothing spectacular, but you avoided the common pitfalls. The depression thing felt though a bit shoehorned in, tucking it quickly in the introductory exposition. The drug part was what took over the story, which was expected and done very well."
On these points I'd say my essay reflected Dupin's thoughts almost perfectly, with some alterations and expansions here and there.
BlackPersephone also seemed to echo something I wrote in the conclusion my section about depression.
"Not sure if it was intended or not (my apologies otherwise) but it was a unique way of depicting drug addiction as a whole; something that can cause so much pain and suffering yet so much joy and stimulation, with the temporary latter overcoming the long former. And of course in this case, it goes beyond - something is actually vividly and violently eating you. That kind of subtle desperation is eerie."
As a whole the comments seem to repeat the same few ideas. The story is good, relatively well written and quite descriptive but had a few grammatical errors. It's well-done for the theme but the emphasis is skewed mostly in favor of the drug-element, which a few called very believable. Aside from what I've already quoted, very few thoughts are shared as to what the story means.
There aren't that many comments to begin with. Despite being written for a contest, it didn't place, and only has eight responses. In the context of being a contest submission, I can understand their reactions. The more interesting question is often whether or not it will win, did win, or deserved to have won. "It's a good submission," some say.
What's The Point?
Where does my analysis factor into all this? As I asked before, how does one prove the merit of a critical interpretation? There are points I missed, there are things I've no doubt interpretted differently than Diexilius intended, or things I gave heavy significance that were unplanned -- accidents, or just in-the-moment, unmotivated filler. When a story is famous, academically honored even, the analysis writes itself. Providing evidence for your thesis becomes enough, in and of itself, but often times for lesser-known, amature works, the creations of hobbyists, the question of writing a comprehensive breakdown and interpretation becomes.... "why?"
But the thing is, comments or no comments, author interview or no author interview, the story says what it says. Whatever it has to say depends on the reader, and so going into the comments proved not only to be interesting but enlightening. The observations of other readers managed to inform the way I saw the story even after creating a fully formed analysis -- there were things I missed. Does this mean that with enough research into other people's opinions, it's possible to form them all together into one perspective that is 'objectively' right, impossible to disagree with?
I suspect even if Diexilius himself created an essay on what the work means, he wouldn't satisfy everyone. I didn't include MrDupin's interpretation of the final line in my review, Diexilius probably wouldn't include my interpretation of the Impossible Colors in his. There are things in his story he didn't intend, things that he did intend that didn't come across the way he intended. There are things in this story that mystify me, things that I'm conscious of not understanding, threads I haven't connected, things I've not seen, but in that way my experience with the story is ongoing. It's an organic thing. Likewise, Diexilius likely views this story different than he did nearly three and a half years ago. So then where does this showcase come into all of this?
To me, it's valuable enough to just make meaning out of something. In the same way Diexilius saddled himself onto an arbitrarily chosen set of cliches and tried to make something meaningful out of them, there is something of value to be found in every set of ideas. I've had a few people, including Diexilius, scratching their heads at me choosing his two stories to highlight. He doesn't really write for this website anymore, they say, and his stories are so 'unremarkable.' Going to the lengths I've gone through to exhaustively dissect these stories might play like a joke, masochistic, only worth doing to prove a point. And in the same way, isn't it strange to make a contest about telling good stories with overdone cliches?
We create meaning, novel and mundane both. The one thing these showcases have shown me above all else is that said meaning, when you look for it, is everywhere. That we all create meaning, that we all love to see meaning be deciphered as much as we love deciphering it. But instead of writing a story to reflect the world around me -- instead of trying to make something resonant and original and "good" -- out of arbitrarily chosen "cliches," I write reviews and analyses of randomly chosen creepypasta writers. Because that process is beautiful, and deserves a light to be shined on it every now and then.
Diex is rad.
His stories demonstrate a moving cultural curiosity, and demonstrate creativity with conventions. His able to tune into ideas bigger than him and flip them into something original is reflective of a broader ability to find novel observations about even mundane ideas. His stories are absurd and high concept, featuring flawed protagonists and strange situations, but they speak with a quiet wit and a softness to their insanity that leaves them feeling more imaginative than intense.
He has a particular talent in setting up odd ideas organically, both stories existing in the cross-section between pure fantasy and barely plausible. There's nothing technically impossible about someone stealing from a fortune-teller and then gashing their head on a rock, nor is there something impossible about a druggie having a drug-induced hallucination, but both stories capture a certain mystique that beckons the reader to wonder about the possibility in the 'other' side. They invite the imagination and play down the supernatural in ways that provoke the reader to settle themselves in an atmosphere that is difficult to find anywhere else.
Check out his stuff, if you haven't already.
*(and James Sunderland killed his wife!)