Today’s story features some rock-solid storytelling.
Lapidify: To See And Die
[Drama] [Horror] • 11,705 words
Ambergris is a pony of few pleasures, and being called out for meaningless social events is not one of them. When he bows to duty and attends, however, he barely reaches the home of his host before he is faced with something worse than tedious conversation. Something far worse.
The dreaded cockatrice, a creature capable of turning others to stone with a simple glance, has just entered the home of his host. Now a mere nuisance of an evening has become a monstrous nightmare, but as Ambergris struggles to save the occupants of the house, he must also struggle against the pressures mounting in his own mind.
FROM THE CURATORS: When RCL alumnus Skywriter offered this as a reading suggestion, describing it as “claustrophobic pony horror done the right way,” we found a great deal to like — starting with the lush narrative voice. “Oh, this is lovely,” Chris said. “The British Imperial tone of the narration fits perfectly with a story that blends foreign and familiar in its setting, and which explores pony race relations in the way this does.” Present Perfect agreed: “I’d say the big draw here is the narration. Ambergris has a very strong, consistent voice, and the overall style of language is very pleasing.”
And while the horror was certainly effective, what drew the most consistent praise was the well-realized and imaginative setting. “For me, the atmosphere was the big thing,” AugieDog said. “The weirdness of the non-Equestrian setting and the hybrid building where most of the action takes place; the ‘haunted house’ aspect of having a monster with a sort of intelligence behind it; the matter-of-factness of the sentiment that ‘every town has this kind of dark wilderness somewhere nearby.'” Horizon loved the worldbuilding: “Some awesome elements, like the mixture of pegasus and earth construction, are almost worth the price of admission by themselves.” And Chris found those things accentuating the horror: “The physical setting is beautifully realized, with the cross-cultural house practically a character in its own right in the tense middle section,” he said. “And how tense it is! There is some wonderful work here, keeping the readers on the edge of their seats.”
In short, this was a tightly-knit story where everything contributed to the ultimate impact — including its fine balancing act with canon. “I’m really impressed with how this story takes a familiar monster from the show, instead of the more common otherworldly or bloodthirsty horrors of other fics, and uses it to great effect,” Present Perfect said. “We know what a cockatrice is, we know what it does, but there are enough details thrown in here to create enough of a sense of the unknown that the horror can pervade the reader.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Impossible Numbers discusses cartoon gravity, deathless wars, and terrifying chickens.
Give us the standard biography.
I live in the UK and I studied English Literature once. That’s about as much as I’m willing to provide, since I like my anonymity on the Internet. I’m a fan of MLP:FiM. That’s all anyone really needs to know.
As for said MLP:FiM enjoyment, that started late in 2011. In what I imagine was a popular route to the show back then, I was browsing TVTropes (in my case, on November 10th when the second season was just starting), and I kept stumbling across references to MLP:FiM. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what got my interest, but in any case, I was interested enough to chase it down and watch a handful of episodes online. It was on YouTube, I think.
Well, I’d only intended it to be a “handful”: I watched the entire first season in two days. Words like “pony”, “rarity”, and “equestrian” conjure up totally different mental images for me now. My mind’s been captured by the show’s gravitational pull.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Quite by accident; I was trying to be way too smart, and so I wanted to reference the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers (i.e. the square root of minus one; historically, it’s a number long thought to be impossible). I like mathematics — which is not the same as saying I’m any good at it — and thought it would make a nice name. Somehow, I garbled it into “Impossible Numbers”, and since then I’ve been using it far too long to want it corrected.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Now, there’s a million-dollar question. But it would be a copout to say “I like them all for different reasons”, so here goes.
On paper, the answer should be Fluttershy because I can identify with more of her traits; she is reclusive and (most of the time) peaceable, likes animals, and is almost constantly aware of her own shortcomings. She also has some admirable qualities, most obviously her kindness but also her willingness to try new things even when she doesn’t entirely want to — like cheerleading for Rainbow Dash, attending Iron Will’s workshop, being firm with the breezies, and going out on Nightmare Night. “Hurricane Fluttershy” is one of my favourite episodes almost entirely because of her character arc in it.
Another serious contender is Rarity. I’m no fan of fashions and clothes by a long shot, but translated through the lens of a put-upon artist trying to run a quality business, it seems a lot more relatable, even praiseworthy. Plus, she is, to me, the funniest character in the show. Forget Pinkie Pie’s wacky antics; I never get through “A Dog and Pony Show” or “Simple Ways” without bursting into laughter at some point, mostly thanks to the sheer gusto with which Tabitha St. Germain attacks the role. Also, there’s a lot going on with her — such as her class aspirations and relationship with her sister — that’s fascinating for someone interested in conflict for stories.
Yet one I keep coming back to is Applejack. While I identify with Fluttershy and find myself repeatedly entertained by Rarity, I find Applejack incredibly easy to like.
Maybe it’s her neighbourly outlook, or the way she strives to be the voice of reason without being pushy about it. Maybe it’s her stubborn pride which compels her to do her job, come what may. Maybe it’s her close ties to her family. Maybe it’s that, out of the main characters, she seems to be the most approachably normal. Maybe it’s the admirable commitment to honesty even when she’s not necessarily good at it. Or maybe it’s just because I like the whole Wild West thing.
I have no idea what the winning factor is, but she has it. In any case, the result is that, for instance, I like “Apple Family Reunion” a lot more than most people seem to, simply because I enjoy watching her and her family even when they’re just chilling out.
What’s your favorite episode?
Another tough one. Oh dear.
The contender that first popped into my head when I considered this question is “Sonic Rainboom”, so I’ll go with that one. For me, “Dragonshy”, “Look Before You Sleep”, and “Suited For Success” were what pushed the show from the good room to the great room, but this episode locked the door afterwards and sealed my fan loyalty inside for years.
“Sonic Rainboom” provided a fascinating exploration of how different aspects of weather-making work in Equestria, but that was just icing on an already-delicious cake. This episode made it clear that Rainbow Dash does have some self-awareness issues behind her bravado, which made her a lot more sympathetic for me. I liked how the story threads ran in parallel and complemented the main issue, such as Fluttershy’s tentative attempts to support Rainbow Dash, and Rarity’s kind moment of solidarity getting sidetracked by her showing off in increasingly ridiculous ways. It’s an understated form of character-based comedy, not laugh-out-loud funny, but I do smirk when Rarity, at the peak of her boastfulness, ends up unwittingly channelling Icarus and flies too close to the sun.
Inevitably, the ending makes this episode a landmark, and caps all these points perfectly. Yes, the episode has problems: the bullies are one-dimensional and kind of unnecessary, it starts slow, and there are some awkward bits of animation here and there. But nothing — I mean nothing — tops the moment when Rainbow sees Rarity falling, and immediately and spectacularly dives down and rescues her, pulling off the eponymous meteorological marvel in the process while Fluttershy screams her head off. I watched this episode again recently, and the beautiful combination of awesome, cute, funny, and heartwarming in that scene still gives me chills even five years later.
What do you get from the show?
As you can guess from above, one of the show’s main attractions is its main cast. Lauren Faust et al set out to show a variety of characters, each epitomizing a different kind of femininity and none of them being wrong. In this, they are successful.
More than that, it’s actually great to see their differences contributing to their strong friendships while at the same time providing conflicts and differences of opinion, which is what I really liked about the message in “The Cutie Map” and the speech at the end of “Slice of Life”. What makes this more than an intellectual exercise is how easy it is to like them as characters in and of themselves. I don’t just appreciate the diversity of the cast; I genuinely want to watch them tackle their problems and learn from them.
Of course, the fantasy setting has its charms too, and while the world-building is a bit too “anything goes” for my liking, some of the ideas are fascinating. There’s the “stewardship of the world” aspect for one, which naturally inspires questions like “Is there a species which manages the rock layers and oceans too?” I get plenty of inspiration there. I also like the simple innocence of it, the touches of comedy, and the character designs.
What do you want from life?
Peace and quiet, some degree of security, and as much time as possible learning things and writing about them afterwards. Give me a library and some writing equipment, and I won’t ask for much else.
Why do you write?
Well, it’s cheaper and easier than trying to get into film.
Seriously, though, the impulse in either case would be the same: make this great thing I just imagined happen, and in a perfectly safe way. Realize the awesome triumphs and setbacks of a war, but without killing any actual people. Capture the excruciating heartbreak of two friends caught in an unwinnable conflict, but take comfort in knowing you’re not hurting anyone. That’s a level of freedom, exploration, and creativity that is deeply appealing; when done right, it’s even transcendent.
I’ve been obsessed with stories since I started reading long ago, to the point that I almost see every day and every event through the lens of a story. I used to read loads (nowadays I read a fair amount), and every time I read a great story like the finest of P.G. Wodehouse or the funniest of Douglas Adams, I marvel at the experience. Easily my favourite author is Terry Pratchett, whose works — when I discovered them — were gold mines to a budding prospector.
It never occurred to me not to be a writer. I approach TV shows, films, games, even radio dramas with the same narrative-sensitive mindset, but the written word tends to stick. It seems to be the purest of all the narrative media. You don’t need a filmmaker’s studio or the embarrassment of trying to act through your own voice; you just need words and imagination. I can afford those on my budget.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
This: find someone who’s a veteran writer and see what they have to say. I’m nowhere near experienced enough to be passing on reliable advice myself. The best I can do is suggest what seems to work for me, since in all honesty a person who sets out to be a novelist and ends up writing a novella at best is not someone with a lot of clout to throw around. Yet, anyway; I reserve the right to be a late bloomer.
In the meantime, I suppose the simplest advice would be the best: write the story, come what may. Try stuff. Experiment. Horror is not even my thing: I’ve written slice-of-life fluff pieces, dark stories about what villains get up to, and a semi-political adventure story about breezies, for Pete’s sake.
Most of the scientific research I’ve stumbled across tells the same story: practice, practice, practice. There’s no substitute for it, because if you’re bad, it’s the only way you’ll improve, and if you’re good, it’s the only way you’ll actually prove it. Every piece is a potential checkpoint for your progress. Do something enough times and your brain will adjust and adapt to it through sheer bloody-mindedness.
It’s often said the unknown is what makes horror stories work. How did you make a familiar monster like the cockatrice into something unfamiliar?
I can’t speak for horror as a whole, but I did have certain principles in mind when writing the cockatrice.
The first was to capitalize on its horror potential from its starring episode, logically extrapolating from what we already know. It’s certainly goofy and slow, but that makes it easy to forget that the creature already has a huge advantage in being able to turn our primary sense against us. Make it stealthy and quiet, and it’s erased yet another sense: hearing. And look again at the hybrid parts; those scales can be powerful armour, those wings can smack someone senseless for a few crucial seconds. Even a chicken can be pretty terrifying in the right context; imagine a crazed rooster leaping up to peck and claw at a screaming child’s face.
The second principle was that it was always the master of the situation. Ambergris has to tread carefully because the cockatrice has a one-hit-kill attack. If he relies on hearing to track it, have there be a child pegasus who needs help, and make it harder for him to tell the difference. If he wants to escape the house, have the cockatrice break the lock off the door. If he wants to trap it, have his delicate plan go wrong because the cockatrice sees through it or simply overpowers it. Of course, the cockatrice isn’t omnipotent, not by a long shot, but having it be slightly beatable makes it all the more galling when it repeatedly and stubbornly isn’t.
Another principle I used was — as you point out — to emphasize the strangeness, since part of horror is a sense of alienation. That’s why it happens in a country outside Equestria, in a setting much less familiar to the reader. I emphasized the ridiculousness of the cockatrice in the very first paragraph, the better to contrast it with its deadly power, to show off its fundamental wrongness. The traits of minor characters can be recruited for this purpose; the Monster Catcher seems a little too eager and enthusiastic about his job, which puts Ambergris off when they finally meet. Even the weird architectural mishmash of cloud and wood was intended to seem alienating. Every part of the canvas can be used for the artist’s purpose, not just the obvious ones.
The last principle I used was to never settle for one kind of horror. Building up terror before the kill is just one kind. Another kind is existential dread; the scene where Ambergris realizes someone is going to have to write a eulogy for one of the victims is just as crucial to the experience as the scene where the cockatrice is stalking him through the lounge, because the whole point of fearing the cockatrice is to fear the death and heartbreak and psychological breakdown it can bring. The point is not to try and kill the characters as gorily as possible, but to let the characters slowly stew and deliberate over how badly they’re screwed.
What’s the relationship to Equestria of the lands in which this story takes place?
The idea was that, outside of Equestria, things tend to be a little backward. Non-Equestrian unicorns still haven’t recovered from losing their power over the sun and the moon, pegasi still have a strong military association, and the earth ponies’ idea of integration with the latter is simply to smash their (incompatible) architectural styles together. While it’s not completely isolated from Equestria, it’s sufficiently remote for the locals to regard that famous country as strange, almost legendarily so. It was in service to the story’s atmosphere that the social backdrop Ambergris lived in was remote and unfamiliar. It’s effectively a land that time forgot.
What do you see as Ambergris’s fate after the end?
That I can’t tell you. Leaving it ambiguous and uncertain is part of the horror experience. One component of messing with someone’s mind is denying them a place where they can stand securely, but where they can imagine a lot of horrible things happening. That’s why Nothing Is Scarier is such an effective trope.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Good grief, no. I think I’ve prattled on enough. Happy New Year, everybody!