I read this story as part of an event last Halloween, and was lucky enough to go last (everyone's receptive to the final story of an evening because then they can go to the loo qualm-free). I've never read a story out loud before, and there turned out to be a surprising amount of adrenaline involved, basically because the feedback loop for a scriptwriter is usually, at best, six months-ish, so hearing people's reactions seconds after I've flapped some wordings from my mouthhole was a weirdly new experience.
A lot of this story is in the reading, so you have to imagine my voice, which is like a cross between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jon Hamm but sexier than I've made that sound ANYWAY SHUT UP JAMES DO THE STORY.
There’s A Worm At The Bottom Of The Garden
That thing that every barcode has to contain the number ‘666’ or it doesn’t work? Or if you pull a face and the wind changes, you’ll get stuck like it? Or that thing about the dead granny on the car roof? My dad made all those up.
Dad loved his little stories. He was a writer, although if he’d told anyone that, he’d have had to kill them. Or give their name and address to a third party a couple of doors down who’d do it in-house. If he ever did have to tell people where he worked, he usually said Health and Safety. Which was true. Kind of.
It had all begun in World War Two. The British government had cracked the whole radar thing, and the Germans wanted to know how their bombers were suddenly being located in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night by Hurricanes and Spitfires that had come seemingly hundreds of miles out of their way for no good reason.
The explanation the British Government came up with was ‘carrots’. Two thriller writers and a librarian were pulled out of their normal duties and told to come up with a story that sounded good, before the Germans made the connection with the oddly-shaped concrete structures on the Kent coast and realised the Brits had the ability to see flying things and floating things from quite a long way away, and we lost our advantage for good. What the writers came up with was ‘carrots’.
Specifically, that carrots gave their consumers excellent night vision, and that the British populace had started eating carrots dawn, noon and night, and consequently every spotter on the ground, every plucky pilot with a handlebar moustache, every old maid cycling to church with a cold beer or something, had consequently developed hawklike 20/20 vision and the ability to spot a Heinkel bomber ten miles away on a dark night even in thick cloud.
The story was printed out and passed on to trusted agents who began spreading it in every tavern, teashop and town hall in the land. The Germans bought it. And the British bought more carrots. Many many more carrots. Because of the night vision thing. Which was why, when the Germans finally did twig radar, the two conscripted novelists and the librarian weren’t sent back to their units, but given a nice office and told to keep coming up with the stories, even after the war ended, the government thinking: if a made up story can sell carrots without even trying, how far can we take this thing if we really go for it? And thus the secret government department of UrbLeg was created.
The plan was to release controlled legends in conflict areas, carefully engineering flawed narratives into each story’s DNA, rendering them unbelievable once they had spread beyond a certain point. So by the time people started comparing notes and saying things like ‘Hey, if that thing with the clown and the scorpion is true, who the hell is telling the story?’, the damage was done, the seed of doubt sown, the regime destabilised, the rebellion suppressed.
Of course, it couldn’t work forever. Rival nation states quickly worked out what was going on, and began setting up their own UrbLeg departments, often contracting their best literary talents to work undercover. Early experiments often ended in failure: French weaponised narratives often imploded in ennui, the Russians’ went on for so long, and so gloomily, many of their targets simply wandered off, and the Americans included such overt product placement, the targets became suspicious. ‘And the murderer was calling from inside the house! On a Bell Electric Western System telephone, which has great audio clarity and comes in a variety of colours!’
It was bad enough that when these narratives met each other in the wild they started mating, creating thousands of bastard anecdotes with minor variations, each a little more macabre, a little more likely to dig in with it story hooks and be carried to places UrbLegs were never meant to go. Bad enough that they started coming home to roost, the creator of the ‘spiders bursting out of the boil on the girl’s cheek’ story hearing it told back to him just three weeks after he’d generated it after a bad marital breakup and way too much coffee. But worse, far worse, was what a squad of brutally conscripted magical realists locked in a bunker somewhere in South America managed to do, sometime around the early Seventies.
My dad had just started working at UrbLeg then, recruited after his regularly rejected series of children’s stories called ‘The Constant and Depressing Deaths of Tiny Emil and His Friend Harbottle” had come to the attention of a high-up civil servant with an eye for talent, and positions to fill after a number of internal breakdowns. And so his first day at work, my father heard the gasps of disbelief, and saw the trembling hands clutching faxes, that announced the first weaponised narrative had gone meta.
Out there, in the South American rainforest, the magical realists, who already had a bad rep for playing with nested narratives, had gone completely, bug-eyed insane, and created an urban legend that had turned itself into a coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories sharing a common rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by establishing audience expectations according to the known trajectories of their literary and rhetorical form. Shit had got real.
A United Nations approved list of literary critics were parachuted into the jungle, fighting three days and three nights until the breakout was suppressed, every single one desperate to point out the irony that they were critiquing urban legends in a singularly rural environment, but all the time knowing introducing one more ounce of self-awareness could turn the whole thing really fucking icky. Finally it was over, loose story threads burned from the trees by flamethrowers, every last potential sequel stamped squealing into the blackened ground, and my father and his new co-workers gathered round a speaker listening to the whole thing.
After that, it could never be business as usual. The South Americans had made a crack in the world, and it was only a mater of time until something forced its way through. Things quietened down, ambitions lessened. UrbLeg started restricting itself to homilies, minor anecdotes, satirical nursery rhymes. Many of the staff were laid off, and when I replaced my dad after he died after a thing in ninety-six, UrbLeg was down to three people. The internet gave us a brief resurgence, but was really just cranking out umpteen variations on the same old ‘waking up without kidneys’ stories on various forums. Still, it paid the mortgage.
Until the Coalition took over. One day, without warning, we were all sacked. And the next day, rehired again, on zero hour contracts by StoryCorp the same large corporation, with fingers in television, films and advertising that had, as far as we could tell, taken over every urban legend generation department across the known world.
For three days, nothing happened. There were rumours we were being integrated into viral marketing units, maybe doing some ARGs for some upcoming computer game. Then the order came, to every UrbLeg department across the world, just two sentences, one little story we had to get out to every sentient being on the planet. Our terms of employment ended after this last job, and we couldn’t help noting StoryCorp didn’t appear to have made any long terms plans for paying gas or electric on our building either.
The new story was “There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden, and his name is GARKASH THE DESTROYER, BRINGER OF THE END TIMES, DEVOURER OF HOPE. Please do not resist his coming”.