The Grinning Man
I haven’t blogged in a while. Every time I think of my poor neglected blog, buckets of guilt crash down on me like I’ve accidentally triggered a Rube Goldberg machine.
I even missed my usual Best Books of the Year post (In 2016 it was Emma Cline’s The Girls, Sophie Hannah’s Closed Casket and The Cursed Child script).
I guess I’ve just been busy. When I’m not working on my new novel, I’ve been throwing myself headfirst into short stories. Like baking or knitting, or any act that involves making something, I find writing extremely therapeutic.
One of these stories was recently longlisted for the Short Sharp Stories Award. Please cross your fingers for me.
I wrote another story for a friend about a coven and overcoming hardship, which you can read here.
The following is a little something I wrote that takes inspiration from The Joker – because comic books and super hero movies make up a large percentage of the things that bring joy to my life.
So for your reading pleasure, here is The Grinning Man.
Warning – There are swears aplenty.
The Grinning Man
From my research I can safely say that the first mention of the grinning man was in Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs, published in 1869. In it, a boy named Gwynplaine was mutilated to such an extent it left him with a permanent grin. The book inspired several films of the same name, the most famous being Conrad Veidt’s eerie portrayal in 1928. His rictus grin shocked the world.
It is my belief that the laughing man represented a primal fear. The Other. The bad man. When Jerry Robinson created the super villain known as The Joker in 1940 it was because the idea was always there, flitting around his subconscious like a moth. He was The Clown King of Crime, an agent of chaos, a villain with no moral code whose insanity burned as bright as his glinting smile. He’s appeared all over our screens in some form or another as the villain of the piece. It is a face ingrained on the psyche of millions. There is no imaginary monster under the bed. There is only the Grinning Man.
My work – my obsession, is to find every mention of him. He appears in the Norse Eddas as Loki, the trickster, and bringer of Ragnarok, the end of the world. He is the laughing Japanese god of Fortune; the Greek god Gelos, the personification of laughter; the Egyptian god Geb, whose laughter made the earth shake. He is Anansi, Nanabozho, Kupua. He surfaced in the sixties as a New Jersey urban legend. Hundreds of sightings were reported. He has appeared over and over again, not as a central character like the heroes or the virgin-born princes, but always in the shadows, always meddling, always spreading malice. And once you know he’s there, well, you see him everywhere. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed.
I found them by accident. There’s a nonsensical Internet meme called Jokur based on the iconic comic-book character. One of my colleagues at the university sent me a link for a laugh. I’m not too stuck up to say I was tickled. One afternoon I needed a break from work and started trawling around the net looking for them. I found my way to an obscure Internet forum where the topic ranged from Joker to the urban legend of the Grinning Man. I lost hours reading the posts. One response caught my eye.
@Jokur_89: LOL. @Clown_Face99 You sound like one of the Laughing Man Cult.
@Clown_Face99 Shut the fuck up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
The Laughing Man Cult. I hadn’t heard that reference before. The forum went quiet after that, as if this Clown_Face99 posed a threat to the other users. I’m a social anthropologist. This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night. I worked into the early hours, trying every lead, every search term variation, but nothing came up. My rational mind told me it was probably nothing, that the Internet isn’t meant to make sense. But I couldn’t let it go.
I returned to the forum and looked up the user Clown_Face99. He or she, their profile didn’t specify, was not as active as the other users. Most of his replies (I decided to go with the masculine) were intended to bait other users and question their arguments. The basic modus operandi of a troll. There was only one instance where he had posted anything of considerable length. Under a discussion post about why Batman never killed the Joker, he posted the following:
The Joker is an agent of chaos. He cannot be killed. If Batman was really as strategic an adversary as the writers make him out to be, he would know that the eternal force of chaos cannot be defeated. If the Joker were to be killed, another would take his place, because chaos lives inside us all. Batman represents self-control. Rules. Without these we are all the Joker. The battle between self-control and chaos is never ending, but at the end of the day, chaos always wins.
Clown_Face99 was describing the idea of Ragnarok, the chaos unleashed by Loki that brings about the end of the world. It was the first time I had seen my own thoughts voiced by another. I decided to search for Clown_Face99’s activities on other sites and came across a music streaming portal he seemed to spend a lot of time on. According to his profile he (as it was indeed a he) lived in London. I hadn’t heard most of the bands he listened to – Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Scary Bitches, Obszon Geschopf, Switchblade Sympathy. I took my search to YouTube. They were mostly dark and gothic, with an aesthetic that saw the artists disguised in heavy clown make-up. I was starting to pick up a definite theme in Clown_face99’s tastes.
I clicked on the Activity tab and found some posts by other users. The top post by X_Scary_Bitch_X was an event poster for an upcoming Dark Electro party hosted by a group who called themselves The Clown Posse. The picture on the poster was a rictus grin, with the both corners of the lips slit.
There was one comment underneath the post.
@Clown_Face99: Let CHAOS reign!
I shuffled uncomfortably in my overcoat as figures disappeared quickly through the nondescript black door. I was overdressed compared to the clubbers who wore very little – shiny miniskirts and ripped fishnets, big black boots, PVC trousers. At least I had the good sense to wear black. I walked resolutely forward and followed them through the door, feeling very much like Alice about to encounter a room full of Mad Hatters.
The passageway was lit by candles. The thump thump of music made the ceiling creak ominously. A man sat at the end of the passage. He was completely bald and wore nothing but a pair of black PVC pants and studded boots. My eyes lingered on the dark etchings covering his white skin. He looked up at me and grinned widely through black lips. “Lost, mate?”
I shoved my hands in my pockets and adopted an air of nonchalance. “I’m meeting someone at the party,” I said, pretending to study an old flyer on the wall. He began to laugh, softly at first, then louder. It took on a maniacal edge. I nudged past him and mounted the stairs. He didn’t stop me. Black graffiti covered the walls, words written over each other, up, down, across. Like a completed wordsearch in different coloured pens.
Worm food. Worm food. Worm food.
The reason people don’t smile is because they don’t want to let the madness show.
Once you see it…
The joke is on you.
Laugh like no-one is listening.
We’re all mad here.
When you look into a mirror, it is not yourself you see…
There were hundreds of these sayings. Anthropological gold. My earlier trepidation disappeared as the researcher took over. I felt like I had discovered a new subculture in the way a lepidopterist discovers a new species of butterfly. Two women with white painted faces grinned as I passed. The girl on the left winked at me and they immediately burst into laughter. I cleared my throat and moved on to the club itself. I counted about forty of them, pale and black-clad, like goths but…different. It was the make-up. Their faces were white as porcelain masks, all marked differently – painted frowns, smears of red, deep black shadows around the eyes, and everywhere, everywhere, smiles. They were all clowns.
I made my way to the bar and ordered a beer. What I really wanted was a gin and tonic but I didn’t want to appear more of an outsider than I already was. I clutched the lukewarm bottle and watched the goings on around me in fascination. Men and women danced to the tinny organ grinder music without abandon. They kissed in the darkness. Everyone appeared to be laughing.
“Getting an eyeful are you?”
I jerked and found myself staring into the terrifying mask of a horror movie monster. He had the build of a young man, but his face was hidden behind white clown make up with long sharp teeth from his lips all the way to his cheekbones.
I adjusted my spectacles. “I was just thinking.”
“Oh yeah, about what? Girls in latex bikinis?”
He laughed and leaned closer to the bar. “And what would someone like you know about chaos?”
“You’d be surprised. I’m writing my PHD on tricksters in mythology.”
“Is that right?”
I loosened my collar. It was stupid blurting out the truth so soon. I should have gone with documentary filmmaker. “Yes, I’m fascinated by the subject. How chaos balances everything out. How it has always existed.” I was baiting him in the hope of learning more. Behind us, the deranged circus music took on a darker timbre.
He stared at me. His make-up was making the back of my neck prickle. “You’re fascinated by it. But you know nothing.”
He shifted closer and it took all my self-control not to back away. “Your brain won’t allow it. Look at you. You’re a square. You wear these clothes because you’re expected to. Even your shoes are from a boutique. You brush your teeth twice a day. You spend at least ten minutes of your morning carefully combing to your hair to the left. Jesus, you even iron your own trousers. There probably isn’t a rule you don’t obey.”
“With all due respect, you don’t know anything about me.”
“I know this. There is nothing between you and death. All these rules, these hoops you jump through – getting up every day at the same time to sit behind a desk for eight hours, all so you can afford to feed yourself and live in a nice flat, none of its real. None of it matters. Exactly one month after you die no one is going to care anymore. All those years spent working towards some imagined goal, slaving, paying your taxes, obeying the rules dreamed up by someone who died before you were even born, what was it all for?”
“Well, if there’s no rules, societies break down. It would be chaos.”
He grinned. “That’s the point. It’s the only time human beings are ever alive. You spend so much energy trying to keep in control, getting through the day so you can get through another. If you just let go, just once, do you know what would happen?”
“What?” I was leaning forward, anticipating his next words.
His eyes were bright underneath all the get-up. He grinned. “Nothing. Nothing would happen. No police would come crashing down your door. You’d be free to feel for the first time. Free to see the giant joke of it all.”
“And once you see it,” I said, repeating the line from the wall.
He leaned back. “Exactly.”
I took in at the ecstatic expressions around me on those pale tattooed creatures. They didn’t have a care in the world.
“You think we’re freaks, don’t you?”
“No, of course not.”
He drained his beer. “The thing about freaks, mate, is that they own it. No-one can take it away. People like you look at us and you’re afraid of what we represent, because you know deep down that underneath all your rules and self-control, we’re under there, waiting to come out.”
I realised at that moment that there was a good chance I was talking to Clown_Face99. Either that or Tyler Durden.
“Tell me about the Laughing Man Cult.”
The moment the words left my mouth I knew I had made a mistake.
He crossed his tattooed arms and turned back to the bar. “Where did you hear about that?”
“Nowhere. Somewhere. I can’t remember.”
He laughed and motioned for the bar tender. “Two Joker Bombs.” He eyed me shrewdly then turned away. “Better make it four.”
A Joker Bomb, it turned out, was a shot of Jagermeister inside a whiskey tumbler of absinthe. When the liquid hit my stomach the world lurched and didn’t right itself again.
“What do you people do?” I asked, trying to focus.
“Whatever we want.”
I nodded, burped, and undid my collar button. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. The Victorian occultist Aleistor Crowley wrote that.”
I felt an arm snake around my shoulders. “Enough talking college boy. We’re partying now.”
I accepted another ominously green drink and swayed. “But you haven’t told me about the Laughing Man yet.”
A terrifying grin took over my vision. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
My eyes peeled open and the world immediately started spinning. I leaned over the side of the bed and retched, but nothing came out.
“It all came out last night, darling. I’d stay away from your bathroom if I were you.”
I blinked for a few seconds, then peered over my shoulder. A young woman with jet black hair and white make up running down her face was lying next to me with her head propped up on her hand. She was completely naked.
She grinned. Her lips were still crimson even though her lipstick had long since rubbed off. Her green eyes were rimmed in kohl. With one catlike motion she eased onto all fours and knelt next to me. “You passed out on me last night. I’ve been waiting for you to wake up so you can make it up to me.”
I propped myself up on to my elbows and waited a moment for the world to stop whirling. “I’m very sorry. This was obviously an awful mistake. I don’t usually bring women home with me after a night out. I don’t even know your name.”
She grinned again. “It’s Ivy. And yours is Jonathan. You were going from person to person last night asking if they knew who the Laughing Man was.”
She laughed. “Yes. And then you said I was the most beautiful girl you had ever seen and wanted to know if I wanted to have tea sometime.”
“Well, that sounds more like me. And you are… very beautiful. It’s just…”
She cut me off with her laughter. “I’m just messing with you. You were too drunk to stand so Nick told me to get you home in one piece.”
Memories of the previous night swam through my head like a skipping film. “Nick. Is that the man I was talking to at the bar? The one with the teeth?”
Ivy swung her leg over mine. “You ask way too many questions. It’s boring.”
I blinked at her groggily. “Now look here …”
In one lightning-quick move, she closed in on me, obliterating all further objections.
“You were saying?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.
I slunk into the library feeling like everyone could read my flushed cheeks like an open book. I had a meeting with a colleague who was willing to share his research on Norwegian eddas with me. The trickster was a popular theme and he had just translated some recently discovered poetry from a research trip to Oslo. There was still some time before he was due to arrive. I set up my laptop in a quiet alcove where I was least likely to be disturbed. Academics were the worst gossips and I had already spotted Archie Simpson hanging around the classics. If he saw the welt under my left eye he was sure to comment. I cringed at the memory. I could still hear her laughing in my head.
I shook the thought away and opened my Inbox. There were a few unread emails waiting for me. I skimmed the subject lines and nearly choked when I saw the last one.
So you want to know about the Laughing Man?
The email was from KillerClown_Face@gmail.com
You’re in it now.
Meet me at the Fox & Hound in Shepherd’s Bush at 6.
I ordered a lager and held the frosted glass against my forehead for a minute.
“Drink it. You’ll feel better. Hair of the dog and all that.”
I lowered my glass. I recognised the voice but not the man. He was younger than I had imagined. Twenty-four, twenty-five. His hair was cropped short and he had high cheekbones. He was wearing a faded black leather jacket over blue jeans. If I didn’t know any better I would have taken him for an average football loving bloke. He grinned and the comparison ended.
“We haven’t formally met. I’m Jonathan.”
He laughed and disappeared inside his own lager that had just arrived. “I know who you are, mate.” He reached into his pocket and slid one of my own business cards across the table.
University College London
“Oh. I see. I must be honest, much of last night is a blur.” I waited for him to stop laughing before continuing. “You mentioned The Laughing Man in your email.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Straight to business I see. What do you want to know?”
“Everything,” I said loudly, slamming my hands down on the table. “Sorry.”
He chuckled into his glass. “You apologise too much.”
“Do I? Sorry. Um. Right. The Laughing Man. Is he a God to you or a person? I’m assuming we’re talking about another manifestation of the trickster god. Or I could have this all wrong and it’s a pop culture reference I haven’t heard of. Do you know, I don’t even know what Snapchat is? I mean, that’s what’s so frustrating about this whole business. You spend years researching a subject and then a whole new subculture pops up under your nose.”
Nick laughed for a full five minutes. “Are you done?” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.
I nodded politely and took a sip of pure foam.
“The Laughing Man, well it’s a philosophy, yeah? Like your Victorian magician that said, ‘Do what thou wilt’ and all that. It’s a way of life.”
“But where did it start? Where is this cult based? And who exactly is The Laughing Man?”
Nick leaned back in his chair and studied me. “It’s not really something that can be explained. You have to experience it.”
“Well can’t you at least try?”
He laughed. “You’re a stubborn fella. All right. The Laughing Man is the one who laughs last, you understand. The one that sees the humour in everything. You have to embrace the light side of life. You get it? You have to let go of that fear you have of breaking the rules.”
I sighed. “You’re talking about chaos again. Is that the end goal? The revelation? That the world will end in chaos and we all die.”
“Well it’s going to, isn’t it?”
“I suppose. And so, you’re saying that the idea is to laugh in the face of chaos, in the face of death?”
“You’re getting it now.”
We ordered another round. “Every religion and mythology speaks of the end times. It’s not a new construct. What makes The Laughing Man Cult so different?”
Nick considered the question. “Because it’s a huge joke, isn’t it?”
“All of it. Society. Religion. The things we think matter.”
“Yes, but what specifically do you believe in. What is the point of this?” I made a sweeping gesture with my arms, narrowly missing a woman balancing an armful of drinks.
He smiled, but did not answer.
I was becoming extremely frustrated. We walked to another smaller, busier pub filled with laughing people. My chest constricted when I spotted the slim form of Ivy inside.
“She’s taken a liking to you, mate,” whispered Nick with a grin. He disappeared to the back, leaving me at the mercy of a table of crazed twenty-somethings, all staring at me like I was the punchline of a huge joke. Ivy slinked her arm around my waist. She was wearing a fluffy cream jacket that cropped at the waist and a short black dress. “Jonathan has the devil in him,” she said to the delight of the others.
“Well it’s a good start,” said Nick, who had returned with a tray of drinks, including, to my dismay, more Joker Bombs.
“Poor Loki just wanted to fit in with the other gods, but the more he tried the more damage he ended up doing. And when it came down to it, the others wouldn’t accept him. They blamed him for all their misfortunes, effectively absolving themselves from all responsibility.”
I put my glass down to stop myself from waving it around and slopping absinthe all over the table. Ivy had her head tilted so her black bob fanned her jawline. She listened intently to every word. She was wearing my spectacles and looked much better in them than I did. They made her eyes look three times larger.
Nick slammed his glass down. “And that’s the crux of it right there, mate. He was an outsider. And it was only once he realised and accepted that did he realise his true power.”
I shook my head fiercely. “No. It’s the celestial balance. The sun and moon. For every hero there must be an antihero. Light and dark. He was meant to be the outsider.”
Ivy sighed at my side. “And he almost got it too.”
Nick smiled. “He’s almost there. Don’t worry. Jonathan’s a smart boy.”
I was too drunk to argue. There was another party happening somewhere in Camden. Ivy and the other girls disappeared to put their make up on. When she returned it was like she had transformed into a being from another universe. Her hair was powdered into gray tangles and she had pale pink blotches on her cheeks and thin painted lips. The sight stirred something in me, which she immediately sensed. We kissed right there in the middle of the pub, in front of everyone. It was something reckless students did. But at that moment I didn’t care. She was crazy and beautiful and part of this new world that I hadn’t fully figured out yet.
For the second night in a row I found myself among them. No one we passed seemed bothered by the group of dishevelled clowns and one academic laughing their arses off. This time the music didn’t have the same alarming, alien quality to it. It was familiar. I was still dressed as Jonathan the researcher, in my pressed trousers and collared shirt. But my hair wasn’t combed to the left. It was wild and dishevelled. In fact there was a wildness to me that alcohol wasn’t solely responsible for. Nick and the rest were rubbing off on me. I was the man making out with the girl in the darkness. I could taste the plastic of her make up in my mouth. Feel the oily residue of her clown make up on my skin. I realised that whatever social conventions I was raised to respect didn’t matter among those people. During the cab journey home, the driver yelled at us for making out in the back seat. We didn’t stop.
Later that evening I unearthed my old vinyl player and we danced in my living room to old records and drank wine straight from the bottle.
“Why do you care so much about what other people think, Bubbles?” She had started calling me Bubbles for some reason.
“Well it’s about respectability, isn’t it? If I wasn’t respected by the university I wouldn’t hold the position that I do. And we wouldn’t be able to tear this fine place apart like we’re doing right now.”
She lay on the couch on her stomach, her legs in the air. “But does it make you happy?”
I considered the question. It took me aback to suddenly have to take something seriously. After all, I was wearing nothing but a pair of Ivy’s underpants and a wizard’s hat I had bought for Halloween. “I’m making a living. Forging a career, making a name for myself at the university. I’d say I’m pretty happy. Finishing my thesis would make me happy. I think I’m on to something that no one else has cottoned on to yet.”
“The Laughing Man,” she said, mocking my accent.
“Yes.” I flopped down on the couch beside her. “You can be my research subject. Tell me Ivy. Tell me what attracted you to this subculture? What first made you put on the clown make-up?” I aimed the wine bottle at her like a microphone.
She eased herself upright and took the bottle from my hand, suddenly serious. “Remember that story you told us about the Norse Gods and how they all turned on Loki because he wasn’t one of them?”
“Yes. You and Nick seemed to think I had missed the point somewhere.”
She smiled. “You did. You missed it entirely. You say there is always two sides to a story. Light and dark. God and the Devil. And Loki is the devil the Gods created because they needed a scapegoat. But you see, it’s all untrue. All of it.”
“What do you mean?”
She hit me with those green eyes that were always shining. “There was never a Loki or a devil. The Laughing Man doesn’t exist.”
I sat at my desk and thumped my fist against my head. I had a deadline approaching and that euphoric feeling of discovery was slipping away. I had lost weeks binge drinking, debating with Nick in circles and waking up each morning with a hangover so strong it could melt paint. Every time I felt I was close to something, the glimmer of certainty would flit away.
Chaos. The end of the world. Every argument, every legend ended the same way. The trickster brings about the end. The battle against good and evil always has the same result. The villain wins. But Nick and Ivy were both adamant that he didn’t exist.
I shut my laptop with a click and found myself being studied by Archie, who stood with his back against a bookcase.
“You look like shit,” he said.
“Deadlines,” I said, running my fingers through my hair. I had forgotten to shave that morning.
“Looks more like a vampire attack to me.”
I touched my neck absently. Ivy liked to bite. “Yes, well. I have to get on. Looks like it’s going to be another late one. No rest for the wicked. Ha ha.”
He pulled his nose up, as if he could somehow smell me from there. “Indeed.”
I had to pull myself together. I wasn’t thinking straight. I could hardly articulate a legible sentence anymore. I watched Archie disappear in his tailored suit and marvelled at the fact that I didn’t care that it was better than any I owned. I left the library and waited at the steps as a group of protesters marched past carrying posters that said “Students against Brexit”. I felt nothing. No sympathy. No resentment. Just nothing. As if I had finally realised the pointlessness of it all. I forced my way through and made towards the Tube station. People rushed past me to catch the next Tube home, even though the following one was only three minutes away. I slowed my steps and began to laugh. Nick was right. We were all willingly keeping the hamster wheel turning.
Instead of going home to work I took a Tube to Nick’s afternoon haunt. He greeted me the usual way. With a pint and a shot.
“I think I’m starting to get it,” I said, settling on the stool beside him. We were at the window, watching people pass.
He nodded. “The big joke.”
“Took you long enough.”
A woman strolled past with a pram. Behind her, two Jewish men were talking animatedly as they walked.
“You still haven’t told me how the cult started.”
Nick took a long sip. “It happened on its own. People figured it out and started looking for other people who knew. The Internet makes it easy. Soon we all started sharing the joke and it grew from there.”
“But why the Laughing Man?”
He laughed. “You know the answer to that already.”
I was starting to. It was like that urban legend in New Jersey. Once the face of the grinning man gets into people’s heads, they see him everywhere. I laughed into my beer. Besides me, Nick laughed into his.
I stared at my laptop with my paper open in front of me. I was finished. All those years of late nights reading, trawling through archives and articles. It all came down to the Word document open in front of me. The Grinning Man was real. I had found him in the ghoulish faces of The Laughing Man cult as he had existed thousands of years before in the pages of old stories. Nick was right that it was all a giant joke. A huge lie that continued to grow. But the Laughing Man would have the last laugh.
I heard Ivy approach from behind. In the living room mirror in front of me I could see that she’d finished putting on her make up. She brought her milky white face close and licked mine from chin to brow.
“How long are you going to be, Bubbles?”
“Not long. I’m almost finished.”
She dropped her pot of white make up on the table and skipped away. I heard the fridge door open and the clink of a bottle.
I hadn’t touched the clown make-up before now.
I hesitated before unscrewing the pot and took some of the white paste in my fingers. It smelled like the plastecine clay I used to play with as a boy. I smeared some on my face and laughed at my reflection in the mirror.
Then I leaned down to type.
The Laughing Man represents an uncomfortable truth. That in spite of all our myths and legends that speak of the monsters and hellish beings responsible for our misfortunes, it is men who are the real monsters.
There is no Devil whispering in our ears, no trickster in the shadows waiting to jump out. There are only men. The truth is that no matter how hard we work, how many rules we obey, we invented these shadows to hide our true natures. To hide the truth that The Laughing Man is every one of us.
The joke’s been on us this entire time…
And once you see it…