“I used to work in a pill mill in Florida Part One” – https://www.reddit.com/r/nosleep/comments/5k78ih/i_used_to_work_at_a_pill_mill_in_florida_ive_saw/
In the last couple months, I started to think about writing more on what makes something horror for me. I think horror can be just as niche a comedy. People’s senses of humor can vary wildly and so can their sense of fear. For some, nature is a terrifying concept. Stories about tornadoes and hurricanes are chilling. I personally don’t click with Man vs. Nature type stories. I feel that the evil needs some form of intelligence for me to be scared of them. Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors live in that space. Large and beyond human comprehension but also thinking and planning. The masked slasher (Jason, Michael Myers, Leatherface) has been a hugely popular horror trope followed by variants (Freddy Krueger most notable). There is an intimacy to that horror. Teens stumbling through dimly lit rooms and the close murder of the blade. But again, that type of horror has never clicked with me. Possibly because of the oversaturation of that genre during my formative years. Jason just isn’t scary anymore. Most of my scares have been coming from literature lately more than film, in particular, short stories.
For this first installment, I’d like to look at a recent series on Reddit’s NoSleep titled “I used to work at a pill mill in Florida.” If you are unfamiliar with this particular subreddit, it is a wonderful place to find original, creative horror writing that takes advantage of the format of the internet. I’ve seen some incredibly ambitious serialized horror that used comment threads to expand the story beyond the original post. The story we’ll be talking about is a little more traditional, though the author has maintained the facade in the comment threads.
In Pill Mill, we’re introduced to Wilks, the narrator, who is going back to tell about escaping a job at a seedy pill distribution center where Xanax, Roxicodone, and more were handed out like candy. There is also a cloud of evil over the business and others like it in the area. Haunting figures stalk the lobbies and parking lots. Money has to be moved from the mill to a drop off in an abandoned schoolhouse where ragged teenagers stand just beyond the shadows. The story feels like a pillbilly Scarface with creeping horror, so it is a very unique tale of fear, to say the least.
The first thing that makes Pill Mill scary for me is that it touches on a real life problem in America, especially in my own region of the Southeast. Nationwide prescription drugs are abused habitually by over 15 million Americans. The most abused types drugs in order are painkillers, tranquilizers, and stimulants. Opioids are a particular preference and overdoses for women on these drugs has risen 415% since 1999 and 250% for men in the same time period. (Source: https://talbottcampus.com/2015-prescription-drug-abuse-statistics/). The drastic rise in these drugs has been tied to a health insurance system where doctors have patient quotas and to meet those simply hand out painkillers to churn through patients faster. In Pill Mill, Wilks describes the system where addicts as far north as the Appalachians in Tennessee are rounded up by drug dealers and ferried down to Florida to get their doses and hand them over for a few of the pills or other narcotics as payment. The setting is incredibly bleak even without the supernatural elements. Because of these addicts are on the bottom rungs of America’s economic ladder they are exceptionally vulnerable to the evil presence and won’t be actively searched for by law enforcement.
Florida has gained a definite bizarro reputation thanks to the meme culture of the internet. There is a subreddit titled FloridaMan based on the common newspaper title that begins “Florida Man…” and is followed by some hyper-insane act of crime or strange public feat (“Florida Man Shoots a Pokemon Go player outside house, Florida Man tossed live alligator through Wendy’s drive-thru, Florida Man break into house poops on floor and drink contents of vacuum cleaner). In 2012, a man under the influence of the still unidentified drug was found naked and wandering the streets after chewing through most of a homeless man’s face. The homeless man lived and has gone through rehab. The assailant was killed by police officers who cited his animalistic rage likely due to the drugs in his system. A tragic story for sure and the sort of bizarre tale that sounds too strange, yet all too real.
If we step back to an even larger regional view, we can see the Southeast as a whole has its own reputation for a sort of antiquated, mystery.The Southern Gothic is form of literature that’s beginnings can be seen in the 19th century. It mixed a grittier, less romantic view of the region (see Mark Twain) with full on grotesqueries, playing up the truly eerie nature of tent revivals, decaying antebellum homes, and deep psychological conflicts born out of slavery, the Civil War, and religion. The first season of True Detective would stand out as a perfect example of the modern Southern Gothic. My personal favorite reputation of this genre is found in the work of Flannery O’Connor. She passed away tragically at the age of 39 from lupus, but in her short life managed to produce a body of work that is studied intensely. She referred to the South as “Christ-haunted landscape” reference the way in which “old time religion” played upon the hellfire & brimstone guilt aspects of Christianity. Her work highlights the absurdity of Southern life particularly hypocrisies found when modern life and Christian dogma intersect. Reading her work it is hard to argue against it being classified as a form of horror. There are no overt monsters or gory violence, but there are moments of sheer mind-twisting disorientation. In many ways, the Flannery oeuvre is a sort of mythos, not as detailed, but arguably on par with Lovecraft. Like the infamous New Englander, themes of religion, modern life, race, and mortality come up regularly. Doubt of the presence of the Christian God in particular was important in O’Connor’s work. In her work, God is almost a Cthulhu-like figure at times, this brooding distant force. When characters make contact with this God presence they are transformed and in ways that leave them forever shaken. Her 1960 novel, The Violent Bear It Away features a protagonist who undergoes a near unending series of violations and ends up having his perceptions altered.
The final piece that Pill Mill shows a near mastery of is the need for orientation vs disorientation. All of these things I’ve listed above could fall under orientation. They are types of literature or current events that exist as part of our schema. When horror works it makes those connections of orientation, all the while planning to upend this with elements to disorient. Wilks first day of work is my favorite example and the one the series leads off with. He spends some paragraphs describe both the problem of drug abuse and his own questionable choices that led him to this job. Nothing is too fantastic, and it plays on a situation most adults can relate to, taking a shitty job and going to work for the first time. The element of disorientation comes beautifully out of a tossed away description of someone standing just beyond a door frame. And this moment, when the narrator and the reader become aware that their perception was incorrect provided me such a deep gut wrenching chill. It was an assurance that this series would provide with horror that knew how to snake its way into your psyche and press all the right buttons.
There are currently seven parts to this story with a final chapter coming soon. I hope you find time to read through them. If you are looking for a fresh horror experience, this is one I highly recommend.