Michael Kirchhoff

What is “The Fifth Beast”?

It is a wholly revised version of my first novel, now on sale for the Amazon Kindle for only two bucks.

See? You didn’t have to read this whole post to get the answer. Indeed, by answering the question posed in this blog title in the first sentence, rather than shrouding the solution in a compelling mystery and teasing out clues in suspenseful doses before revealing the inexplicably exciting twist at the end (along with several dozen Uzi-laden chase sequences), I’ve once again demonstrated the narrative mastery that has propelled me to the obscurity I’ve worked so hard to earn.

The Fifth Beast Kindle CoverSpeaking of ancient epochs lost to the ravages of memory, the origins of The Fifth Beast extend all the way back to my college years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. The human-like species that existed on this planet in that bygone era (also known as the early 1990s) would barely be recognizable to us today. For one thing, the homo sapiens of that time had straighter necks, as they weren’t looking down at their fucking cell phones 24 hours a day. In addition, the ignorant troglodytes of that era ate gluten with horrific abandon, which modern scientists now believe contributed to the now-unthinkable idea that Madonna should act in movies.

I distinctly remember sitting in the small cafeteria at LMU, scribbling down the first paragraphs of a really stupid idea I had for a short story. A woman enters a restaurant in an expensive bohemian neighborhood of an unnamed East Coast city to meet with an old friend. In their conversation, it becomes apparent that there was some kind of betrayal that occurred between them, and the subsequent falling out embedded resentment in both women that percolates underneath the stiff pleasantries of their reunion. The story ends with the shocking twist that one of the women is an alien and the other is an android. They transform into their native forms, fight, and destroy the restaurant, killing everyone inside.

Real mature, right? I know what you’re thinking: “Didn’t he steal the idea for that story from John Cheever?”

Though I did have an assignment to write a short story, I didn’t turn this one in. I wrote it mostly for my own childish amusement, it was too ridiculous to show to other humans. I believe in that early draft, the alien character swallowed several waitresses whole. (I went through a phase in my early fiction where I wrote a few stories about people turning into various kinds of monsters and consuming other people, describing the transformation and feeding in graphic detail. I’m sure Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be proud and maybe a little jealous.)

After college I wrote my first novel. It was an earnest examination of my adolescence, written in my early 20s, which means it is unspeakably horrible. It currently lives in a forgotten, cobwebbed corner of my computer’s hard drive, and after my death, I’ve left detailed instructions for a hazardous materials company to destroy the novel’s Word file in a way that will not maim or injure anyone who may be in a potentially infectious radius.

Several years later, people demanded a means to share pictures of their cats with millions of people at a time, so the Internet was invented. In 1997, I came up with a brilliant scheme for using this new superhighway of information: I would create a web site where I would write a novel, one chapter at a time, and post it on a weekly basis. I borrowed my friend’s “Learn HTML In 30 Days” book and hand-coded the whole thing myself.

You’ll be shocked to learn that the web site did not ignite a bidding war between Random House and Simon & Schuster for the publishing rights to my burgeoning opus, and I did not become the Charles Dickens of the Friends era. And yet, looking back, the web site was not the worst idea I ever had. It got me writing fiction again on a regular basis, which I had gotten away from while working full time. This was years before blogging and live journaling became a thing, so I had come up with a primitive platform for distributing my work long before other people would get very rich for doing the same thing, only better.

I had decided to use that old short story about the two women meeting in the restaurant as the launching point for the serialized novel. A heavily revised variant of that short story became the first chapter of the novel, and my extrapolations about who these two women were and why they were here provided the structure of the larger plot. I had no real idea where the weekly chapters would go, but I was motivated to see if I could create something coherent, philosophical, and entertaining.

I don’t remember how many chapters I managed to post before I stopped. Around 7 or 8, I think. The deadline of one chapter per week that I had arbitrarily given myself was too arduous to maintain. It was around this time that I got my first “you’re a big boy now!” job doing technical writing (thankfully lifting me from the doldrums of the property management gig I fell into after college), and trying to emotionally support my wife while she also worked and went to school, I realized that I could continue to work on the novel privately on a less onerous schedule.

When I did stop updating the web site with new chapters, I was shocked to receive a few angry and disappointed emails from folks who had been following the story. People had actually been reading? This was both baffling and encouraging.

The novel languished untouched for a few dark years. In the early 2000s, newly divorced and looking for distractions, I decided I was going to finish the damn thing once and for all, even if it took me years to do so. Which it did.

I completely upended the entire structure of the book, assigned new and (I thought) more interesting motivations for the primary characters, and tried to weed out much of the juvenile shit. I changed the title several times.

I presented the first chapter of the novel to a writing workshop, where it received an enthusiastic reaction from my fellow students, but a memorably chilly one from the instructor. “It is certainly well-written,” he said, “but the fantastical subject matter, and the graphic depiction of the scene, is … not to my taste.” Never fun to hear for a writer, but the structural feedback he did give was useful, and I rewrote that first chapter again. And again, and again — that first chapter of what is now The Fifth Beast is easily the most rewritten material I have ever produced. Almost nothing of the original short story I wrote 20 years ago remains in that chapter, except that it takes place in a restaurant.

In 2006, with a tremendous sense of relief, the novel was finally published with the title Imminent. I had already begun working on my next project, a more mature story that I felt was going end up being deeper and more compelling. I thought I was done with Imminent.

Seven years later, I decided I wanted to toss the novel into the Kindle Direct Publishing program, where I could set my own ridiculously low price and try to attract some readers. My plan was to hire a professional artist to redo the cover (I managed to wrangle the amazing Filip Acovic), then just toss the book up into the cloud.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the cloud. I decided I wanted to make a few small corrections from when the novel had been published as Imminent, which led to me to actually reading it for the first time in years. I had learned even more about writing in the intervening time, and I realized that the story wasn’t really as good as I wanted it to be. So I started rewriting, removing, editing … a little bit at first, but then I couldn’t stop. I changed the names of major characters. I gave the alien races in the story new names, new motivations, and new descriptions. I completely ditched entire chapters and rewrote them from scratch. I cut out entire sections where I had meticulously spelled out things that were either unnecessary or way too over-descriptive — after I was done, I had cut about 50 pages out of the novel altogether.

Of course, since this was essentially becoming an entirely new novel, I had to change the title again, for the 37th time.

And so, while The Fifth Beast may have the bone structure of Imminent and the other, previous incarnations of the story, it really is its own animal. It is the leanest, most refined version of the novel that will ever exist (I can’t imagine ever rewriting this thing yet again … but then, I also said that 7 years ago).

Now, do you have two dollars? Do you have a Kindle, or access to a device that can download the free Kindle app (which is, at the time of this writing, all of them)? Are you curious about what a deep dive into the swirling maelstrom of psychosis that churns under my placid, boyishly charming exterior?

Then I think you should read The Fifth Beast.

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