Dark Room

by Katie Darby Mullins

“Honestly, I don’t think he was enjoying living in this world.” 

Bård Eithun of Emperor


I read some newspaper article that said the Devil made me do it. The journalist didn’t ask me, though. He was afraid. Everyone’s afraid, and they’re right to be. I am not locked away, not like they think I am. My spirit is free and it is hungry.

This all started with the church burning. I have been unable to tell this story because it is so intimate, it is like me telling you how my face looks when it twists in orgasm or how it feels to cut my veins open, hard, and watch the contents spill. I have to tell it now, though; the journalist—Erick Per Blumberg, something like that—he got it all wrong.

The fire burned, first, and it was beautiful. Deep blues bleeding into oranges.  But isn’t that how everything starts? A moment of beauty consumed by raging, uncontrolled fire. It was such a strange church to begin with, tucked away on a wooded hillside, the roof such a deep triangular “V” that it went all the way down to the ground. It looked like the middle little pig’s stick house. It was ready to burn. It had been ready since some naïve fool built it back in the 12th century. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t waiting to be done.

Most arsonists, they crouch behind a bush. They watch, but they don’t want to get caught, you know? I’ve never cared to get caught. That’s fine with me. I stood in front of the fucker and watched every moment, close enough to feel the ash sizzle and pop on my forearm like grease from bacon. Small red spots bloomed, and I breathed the smoke in deep so that my lungs would hurt and swell. I wanted this moment to become a part of me. I turned around, felt the warmth on my back. Bergen is such a strange town: coastal, so the salt and breeze filters in. You’d think the weather would be awful in northern Norway, but there’s a strange force field around the town: something prevents it from ever getting too hot or too cold. I looked out over the green treetops, saw the coast lined with cars and shops and houses, and I spit. By the time I turned back to the fire, it had erupted. Flames were shooting out into the trees, jumping from flammable surface to flammable surface. One flame caught my cheek, burned it pretty badly. I did not cry or even really feel it. I was sad, but it was time to walk away.

How did that fire lead to this, you should have asked, Erik Blumberg—you should have asked me about the fire. I would tell you. I would tell you that it was about defending my own religion, about taking back the land that was given to the gods more years ago than you can even fathom. But nothing would have happened without that fire.

The day after the church burned, I went back to the site and took pictures, black and white ones. I knew I would need them for something. Then I went back home to Oslo, went to Helvete, our record store, the one that sold our albums. “Simen,” I said to the kid behind the counter. His face was heavy with piercings and his hair was spiked with deep purple and black glue of some kind. “What do you have in for me?”

“I don’t know, man. Nothing you don’t already have. Fucking slow week,” he said. He was reading an alt-weekly, sitting on a battered barstool that had, at one point, been attacked by spray paint. Everything in the store looked that way—except almost all of the store was in black spray paint. The chair was red, with big drips of red paint that had run and then dried that way. “You got the new Emperor record?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

“You’re a wreck,” he said, looking up from his magazine for the first time. “What happened to your face?”

“Burned it.”

He laughed. “Oh, no. Dude! You didn’t burn that fuckin’ church down, did you? In Bergen?”

I smiled. He knew. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You need to get that looked at. Hang on, my girlfriend, she can help. She’s good at cleaning up wounds. Star?” he yelled, and she popped up from the basement. I always thought her name was so stupid: she had been named Astra, but had gone with an American name. Everyone’s so quick to lose their homeland these days.

Her pale belly stuck out in a few rolls underneath her t-shirt, and she wore a long plaid skirt covered in safety pins and chains. Her arms were covered in small white scars and a few bigger white scars. Even more sparsely were pink cuts, light ones that seemed recent. I would not say anything to Astra about this: we all had this problem at the time. It would be like if I got drunk and went to teach at a rehab, telling the drunks to quit.

“Oh,” she tsk-ed at me. “Oh no, Kristian. You are hurt, I can tell.”

She was such a cow. She never said anything interesting. I am only remembering now in the re-telling how annoying I found her.

“It will be fine,” I said, but she touched me, insisted that she could fix it. How do you fix burned flesh? She didn’t know.

“How will you go onstage tonight?”

“The same way I always do.”

“And your makeup?”

Finally she was helpful. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Is Jon around?” I asked. “I need to figure that out.”

“Hey, asshole,” he yelled from downstairs. “I’m here, like always. Where else would I be?”

Going down the stairs at Helvete was always an experience in and of itself. There was not great lighting, and there seemed to always be spiders ready to surprise you in the dark from the handrail. Cobwebs dusted the ceiling, and the paint, the constant smell and visual of the matte black paint.

“Tykje,” Jon said when he saw my face. I knew he was just cursing, but I couldn’t help but tease.

“Did you call me the Devil?”

“Do you name the Devil to his face?” Jon laughed. “Perhaps that is a good nickname for you. We have been having the hardest time coming up with your name.”

Jon was Skull. Of course, Erick, you would know that. You must have viewed it on Google or something before you wrote that article. Simen, our drummer, was Bonelick, and I was, at least for a while, Snaketongue. Everyone was always so surprised it was just the three of us, just bass, guitar, and drums, but we were very loud, and we knew how to make those sounds multiply together. I cannot take all the credit: as the guitarist, Jon was key. He played open, loud chords instead of the power chords the other metal bands worshipped. All of the strings vibrating together in dissonance while Simen and I played hard and fast.

“I like that,” I said. “Devil.” The word felt good in my mouth. I thought about that church, burning to the ground with me as the only witness.


I am feeling bad. The church burned almost like that. But maybe the flame didn’t leap off the building and randomly attach to my cheek. Maybe I walked so close to the building that I couldn’t avoid it. Maybe I stuck my face in the flames and held it there until it finally hurt.


I did not do these things because I am evil. Honest, Jon was my friend, and I loved him. I loved Simen, too. But even now, when I say those words, I get a picture in my mind of some things that we never did: a hug we never shared, a laugh that never happened. We did not spend our time well, I guess. That might be my only regret. Everything else had to happen.

One night after I’d started calling myself Devil, I had a dream where the real Devil came and spoke to me. He said, “If you are to use my name, you must do it right. You must understand that it’s a great responsibility.” We were in a field—no, a forest. And he held my hand to the cool ground, which felt like it was just barely hovering over the water. But all of the sudden, it was as if the water started to boil, and my hand started to boil, but instead of burning, I grew taller and taller. My chest puffed up and my hair grew long and I was a god.

“I won’t let you down,” I said, and he slapped me across the face.

“You are not beholden to anyone now. Do not let others sway you with their pride or anger.”

Of course I woke up, and of course I felt good about it. It was a good dream. It was, in a way, freedom from all of the things that scared me.

The night after the fire, I did go onstage, and I did play in full makeup. It hurt to put corpse paint, thick, sticky pancake stuff, over open weeping sores, but I knew that once I hit the stage it wouldn’t matter. (That was another thing you got wrong, Erick Blumburg: it was nothing like KISS or Alice Cooper. We wore our makeup to look like decomposed bodies. It was not the same). Jon kept patting the makeup on, sometimes gently, sometimes less so, and saying, “I am so jealous of you. This looks so hardcore.”

That night was one of our last shows. It was the last one I remember. I wish you had asked me about this. It is important to know what the people who were actually there remember, and not the way historians and journalists look at it. I remember the show in Oslo, for a home crowd. I remember everyone in unison, screaming and moshing and throwing things. There was a blind fury that night. At one point, a small group of boys in the front row started screaming, “Skull, Skull, Skull” so loudly that it is like I can still hear their voices echo. And I was proud of him, honest. I was shocked to see that people were finally appreciating his genius, our art.

Erick, you seemed to think the lyrics in our songs meant something, but they didn’t. It was noise to fill the void between guitar solos. We said whatever sounded the meanest. It was the only thing that seemed to make the kids feel better, to scream something mean and heartless at the top of their lungs. They seemed cauterized by that. They were almost able to cut their pain and suffering off like a bad limb and leave it on the floor of the concert. You seemed to think that we were worshipping Satan, but we were really just worshipping the music. I remember Jon, after a particularly nasty solo, smashing a bottle of whisky on the ground, using it to cut through his guitar strings, and then cutting his own tongue with the broken glass. His tongue. But that was the man Jon was. Perhaps crazier, he got another guitar and finished the show, spitting blood the whole time. My face didn’t look so gruesome then.


Sometimes I wonder if the Devil was a dream. Is it possible that he had that whole conversation with me in my apartment? He is the Devil. I suppose he can do anything he wants. Of course, I am a believer in Norse history and Norse gods. I don’t recognize one evil being, soaking up all the evil in the world and spitting it back to the deserving. The world is a much more terrifying place than that. If the Devil had made me do the things I did, wouldn’t he have had me hurt sinners? Or maybe he wouldn’t. I do not know. I am not a scholar.


I have heard that the night Jon died, someone had thrown a goat’s head up on the stage. I was on the other side of the stage and didn’t see it, but I was assured it was a real one: a goat that had been alive and was killed for the sole purpose of throwing its head onstage. Back in those days, I was numb to things like that, but now I do see that is pushing the boundaries of good taste. It seems ridiculous that we garnered that kind of frenzy. It was nothing like what would come after my arrest, after everyone else was dead. Then we would really be famous.

According to Simen—who was the only person there, but certainly can’t be trusted to tell the truth on this matter—when he got to Helvete after the show, Jon was already dead, his head blown off and the gun still warm in his hand. He hadn’t left a note (at least not one that we could read: everything in the basement was covered in blood). The wall, however, was so dark and so painted, his blood barely showed up as anything more than a red sheen: barely visible in the dim basement. I do not know what happened next, but when I showed up after the long, painful task of removing my makeup—the wounds, remember, had not healed yet—there Simen was, over Jon with a camera. He had the flash on, I remember, because when it went off, it illuminated the whole scene. The blood was a different color than I thought it would be; like corn syrup with red dye in it. So bright. Everywhere.

“What the fuck,” I remember saying. Did I cry? That’s a question for you, Erick. I bet you wonder if I cried.

And I ran to Jon and I cradled his head in my hands, and I said, “Simen, what did you do? Why did you do this?”

He looked confused. “I didn’t,” he said. “He did this himself. He always said he would. We knew this was going to happen.”

“Why are you taking pictures?” I asked. I was kneeling on the cold unfinished concrete floor, my knees on fire from the hardness of it.

“It seems like the smart thing to do,” he said. “I know you took pictures of the church. I saw them. I know you did.”

I can’t remember exactly what we said, but if I could rewrite the conversation, these are the things we would have covered: what happened, why the pictures. I think at some point Simen was crying. I was so angry, I couldn’t care.

“Why would he do this?” I asked over and over again.

“It will make for a story, though,” said Simen.

I didn’t let him finish explaining. I could have shot him, true: Jon’s gun was right there. It would have been easy. But I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I hit him in the face, over and over, until he was unrecognizable. I hit him until he didn’t look human.


Or maybe it happened the other way around. Maybe I saw Jon dead on the sofa, head tipped back and dangling behind the couch. Maybe I was the one who, anesthetized by all the death and darkness, moved the hair out of his face and positioned him for the picture. Maybe I thought it would go with the church pictures. It’s possible, I guess, that I ran my fingers on the upside-down cross tattooed between his ribs, and perhaps then the whole thing hit me. When Simen walked in on me, he could have attacked me, and I killed him in self-defense. It’s hard to know exactly what happened. I am sure Erick, you have an opinion on this, and maybe you could write the definitive story. I am still so unsure.


I know my memories of Jon are tinged by what we learned after his death: that he had actually slept in a coffin at night, that he had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist as actually believing himself to be dead. My memories of Simen are less specific: I remember his girlfriend, Astra, weeping inconsolably at my trial, almost as if she thought it were still the funeral. Everyone had moved on to the next thing: the sentencing. She was still stuck on the dying.

I don’t write this to make myself look better. I know that these things will never look right to most people. But I need to be understood: if I had not been still taking off my makeup, if I had never been burned in the fire, I would have not allowed Jon to die that way. I wouldn’t have had to hit Simen.

And maybe—if you had asked—I would have told you that I hated myself for taking pictures of that rotted church, empty and flaked with ash. I would have let it stay there, forever, like it was. There are things, I’ve learned, that cannot be captured. No matter how much you think you’ve got them in the frame, in a manageable way, there is always something lurking outside the borders, sneaking and evil. Perhaps that is like me.



Katie Darby Mullins currently teaches at the University of Evansville. In addition to editing a recent rock ‘n roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she’s been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Harpur PalateBroad River ReviewBig LucksThe Evansville Review, and more. She was also recently a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shea Press poetry chapbook competition. She is also founder of the music blog Katie Darby Recommends.