8 min read

Building Beyond: The Rule of Three

A monstrous trinity

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

Between birth and death, every person is guaranteed to encounter three monsters.

dave ring is a queer writer of speculative fiction living in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Hidden Ones (2021, Rebel Satori Press) and numerous short stories. He is also the publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press, and the co-editor of Baffling Magazine. dave is the editor of the anthology Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, which comes out later this month. Find him online at www.dave-ring.com or @slickhop on Twitter.

Everyone gets three monsters. That’s the rule. More of a curse, right? But we can call it a rule to be polite.

Of course, if you die real young, or suddenly, the funerals will get a little peculiar. But you’ll figure that out.

The first two usually show up before you turn sixteen. They could be anything. And they are. Clever aswang and terrifying banshees, slobbering loup-garou and violent hitchhikers... all the worst parts of the stories we tell each other by the campfire. Usually you get the first from whatever folklore you heard the most growing up, or maybe a proximal monster if you’re close to the home of a local cryptid (think Mothman or the like). The second you usually have to Google. They like to surprise you with that second one.

If I wasn’t clear, you do have to beat them, somehow. Sometimes that gets a little stabby, but other times it’s more like high-stakes trivia or a dreaded riddle. Although now that everyone sort of expects a riddle we’ve seen a shift back towards the murdery classics.

Anyway, the third monster, in my opinion, is the worst. The third monster is always the version of yourself that you’re most afraid of. And that gets tricky.

See, monsters one and two could show up in the middle of work, during your SATs, during a doctor appointment—but these days insurance covers basically all of those disruptions, so it’s mostly a hassle. And sometimes you’re conveniently in the right place for what needs to happen next—you finish with your OB-GYN and then get wheeled down the hall so you can get stitches for the gouges left behind from the chupacabra attack. Happy days! Sure, there’s occasionally a little confusion, as one might expect, say if two people who are still expecting monsters get visited by a killer clown or a vengeance-bound ghost. We’ve seen some pushback due to this—more homeschooling, etc. But school protocols have only improved since the early mishaps, and now many countries have instituted protocols for every teacher to complete a certification in monster target assessment as part of their onboarding.

But monster three, your doppelganger, always comes when you’re alone. And it could show up any time it damn well feels like. No one can ever talk about it afterward—there’s a compulsion against it or something—but sometimes you can tell, like, by the way someone uses their personal day. But after that, it’s sort of everyone’s best guess who they’re talking to afterward. Did your cousin always suck or is this the monster version? Who knows.

I’m still waiting for mine. The big question I have about monster three is, what if that version of yourself is just...better? The boogie man was impressive, yes, but I was a triathlete in peak form. I survived the rakshasa with a lot of coaching even though I suck at backgammon. But monster three?

What if this doppelganger shows up, takes me out, and no one notices? Or worse, I get arm-wrestled out of existence and then a quiet consensus just builds up amongst everyone I know, like, hey, dave is sorta….cooler now, right?

That scares the shit out of me.

Steve Shell is a storyteller, writer, and poet living in Asheville, NC. He is one of the founders of DeepNerd Media and a co-creator of Old Gods of Appalachia.

A person will meet their first monster when they are very young. Possibly before they are old enough to sleep alone. I saw mine whilst trying to sleep on the edge of my Mamaw's bed when I was three years old. She sat in the chair by Mamaw Edith's sewing machine and was working at something in her hands. She was not there to see me. She fiddled and worked with whatever it was in her brittle, bird-boned fingers and never seemed pleased with whatever it was. She was a monster though and she was not afraid to let me know that she was real. Her hands and feet were not clear to me in the pale light that leaked in around a tightly drawn shade from the porch outside, but I knew they were claws, or talons or whatever children think the chickens in the neighbor's back yard that terrify them have on their feet. Knives, perhaps. She never spoke to me or told me why she was there, she just sat and fidgeted and did not move from the chair. I would eventually fall asleep and she would be gone when I woke up. She would be there every night until I was old enough to sleep on my own.

A person will meet their second monster when they are old enough to think they are in love. This varies depending on the size of the heart inside the person feeling the feeling that is probably not love but the early onset of changes that said person will not understand for a long time, maybe never. I saw my second Monster while navigating the badly laid out floor plan of our middle school. He stood in an alcove that housed a custodian's closet. The kind of space that has a door with an engraved sign that just reads JANITOR 3 and is set somewhere horrible like under a back stairwell where you can't see everything and bullies or Monsters find themselves right at home. You know that this door is always closed during school hours, and your big boy brain knows that it is filled with chemicals and cleaners and a wide variety of mops and brooms and other stick adjacent properties used for harmless things. It cannot be opened by students, bigger boys have tried. The day I saw my second Monster that door was open and he stood there naked, covered in sweat and hair and what had to be blood. The dim light of a sleeping fire alarm was his only light. He wore a hat with the logo of the high school sports team, the school I'd one day go to, but not just yet. He had one good eye that smoldered like a dying cigarette, and the other was dead and cold. He unconsciously rubbed and picked at a spot on his chest that seemed to be the source of the blood but if it hurt him, he did not show it. He did not move towards me, but seemed to expect me to come to him. I did not. He looked at me with something that felt both like hunger and indifference. You might find it difficult to believe but Monsters generally don't care about us unless we break their routines or prevent them from getting their needs met. This one looked at me and he knew. He knew about Susan and how I felt about her, knew about the way my boy parts reacted when she or Becky, or Sarah, or Susan's older sister Tara came close to me and the other boys to deliver a note or to say something both wonderful and mean. He knew about the ways my older neighbor had talked to me and touched me and knew that I didn't want him to know, but did not care. He knew these things and he breathed them in and the dying Marlboro Red that was his left eye would swell with pregnant volcano-colored light and then fade to a soft shade of embarrassment. It did not seem unusual to me that he was naked in a school. His nudity was neither sexual nor intentional. Monsters will not play by our rules and we should not expect them to. He held out a hand and asked if I would help him for a minute. I did not. I went to Math instead.

People meet their third Monster much later in life, long after the possibility of monsters is no longer something they consider on a daily basis. They do not think of their first two monsters often because their mind puts monsters in a box that we are not allowed to know about until someone asks us how many Monsters we think we get to see in life, and we know the answer is three, so we become aware of the box and here we are.

I have not met my third monster yet. I do not know their shape or what things they might want from me. I do know what they might teach me next and I am both afraid and not afraid of that fact. I suspect they will find me when my beard is entirely white, which it is not just yet. I suspect when they come to me I will not be able to offer much resistance because I assume I will be very tired, because I am very tired now and if it gets worse than this, good lord. I know they will be tall, I know they will be strong. I know they will probably pick me up and tell me all the things I need to know as my hands and feet clench in horror as I feel the chair in my Mamaw's bedroom by her sewing machine settle beneath me and I will look up to see a little boy, too scared to sleep by himself peering at me and trying hard not to wake his Mamaw, as I sit and fidget because I do not know what to do with my hands. I never have.

My monsters would live in the mirror. The first would appear in the moment that a child first recognizes their own reflection: broad features, appealing to an infant’s view of the world. An offer to switch places from time to time, just for fun. The second would appear in the moment that a person’s parent first dies: long limbs arcing over the bed in the night, and a dangling face that whispers the parent’s last thoughts into the darkness. And the third would appear in the moment that a person first experiences the true and certain knowledge that the world will go on when they are no longer in it: a hovering cowl that descends and forevermore clings to the shoulders and throat, with eyes that always and only look backwards. They do not come in a predictable order; once they have arrived, they never, ever leave.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. dave's monsters offer a window into a world in which we accommodate the struggles of those who are visited by terrible things. Steve's monsters are intimate in the way that so much of the terror we find in this world tends to be. My monsters serve as beacons: here is the life this person has lived, they say, and perhaps they will look at each other in the night when two souls share a bed.

What monsters visit the lives of others in the world you’ll create? Are they the same for everyone? When do they arrive?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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