Sean M. Thompson’s the Demon: Chapter Two

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THE DEMON
by Sean M. Thompson

Chapter 2
July 29th

Cort’s father, Francisco Garcia, sipped his coffee. He smiled in the way all fathers do when they’re pleased to see their children again. It had been too long since he’d seen Cort, and he always liked to catch up with his boy; his little boy, and Cort was thirty now, but in some way he’d always think of his son as a small child, when he’d play in the backyard of their house before the divorce.

“I’m stuffed,” Francisco said, and noted his son’s nod of assent.

Cort wasn’t shocked his dad was full. His father had eaten such a large plate of Linguini it was a wonder he could still speak.

“I really don’t know how you aren’t obese,” Cort said.

“Good genes, plenty of exercise, I guess.”

Cort relished the moment, free of stress. Especially after all the weirdness with the disappearance of Katie earlier in the week, hanging out with Scott, trying to see if anyone had seen her. Cort tried to enjoy the moments when he noted they were good; hold onto them the way other people might hold onto knick knacks.

Life would beat you down, if you let it. So it was important to recognize the good times.

The lights were low, provided primarily by a candle in an empty wine bottle on the table. The restaurant was small, with paintings of villas and the Italian countryside along the light yellow walls. You hardly had elbow room, but the food was so good you didn’t care. It was a favorite spot of his dad’s. They went to this place at least twice a year.

Wasn’t a terrible way to spend a Friday night, stuffing your face with your dad in Boston’s North End. Cort certainly wasn’t having much luck in the coliseum fight to the death known as the dating scene, so why not catch up? It really had been too long.

“You talk to your mother recently?”

“No. I was going to call her tomorrow.”

“She worries about you, you know. You should call her more.”

“She’s my mom. That’s what moms do, right? They worry.”

Es verdad,” his father said.

Later, walking the streets of the North End en route to get cannolis, Cort asked his dad if he’d heard anything at work about the Demon.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a computer virus called ‘the Demon’, or maybe ‘the Red Screen of Death’. You heard anything about it yet in the office?”

Francisco gave Cort a puzzled look.

“Haven’t heard anything yet, son.”

“Yeah…you might not ever.”

Cort felt pretty dumb. It was like he’d just asked his dad if he’d seen any leprechauns lately. I must sound like some kind of crazy person asking this shit.

Cort wrote a note into his phone: Call mom tomorrow.

“Anyway, let’s go cram some more food down our gullets,” his dad said.

“Why the hell not?” Cort replied, and his father’s high cholesterol was a good reason why the hell not, but Cort kept that comment to himself.

***

Scott drove, and his speakers pumped out heavy bass, Rick Ross rapping how God forgave, and he didn’t, and how only hustlers could relate to such a sentiment.

Cort was in the back seat, drank from a mix of rum and orange juice in a little silver flask. He liked the mix, because a lot of people hated it, so less people tried to get a hit off his booze. He did feel like a loser being older than twenty-one pregaming before a party, though.

A lot of the time Cort felt like he was too old to be doing…literally every type of social activity he engaged in. But there was also the sense that being an adult nowadays had a different connotation. The world was changing, and it was normal to do things children liked to do at, say, thirty-one. Case in point, take that new Pokémon game everyone was losing their minds over. These weren’t children playing the game, well, not exclusively. These were people with children of their own, by every definition adults, and yet playing a game made for children.

“Whose house are we going to again?” Cort shouted over the music.

“Janet’s!” Scott shouted back.

Cort gave him a thumbs up, and went back to staring out the window at the other Friday night people. They were around Allston, and though he disliked the area, Cort liked Janet (or at least thought he liked Janet), if in fact Janet was the Janet he’d met at a dinner party a few months back who he was thinking of. His memory had always been full of holes; it was a wonder Cort could remember to dress himself in the morning.

Some guy on a skateboard ate shit trying to jump over a planter built into the sidewalk. Cort laughed, felt guilty about it, and then gave up any attempt at having a conscience and continued to laugh at the man’s pain. Such was the world, wasn’t it? There were whole shows designed around laughing at other people’s pain.

He was just being a member of society. Cort hadn’t designed the system, he just played in it.

***

More than half of the party were staring at their phones. It was funny, it made you want to stare at your own phone in turn, even though you’d feel like just another statistic. There was a strange comfort in disappearing, even surrounded by people you could make an honest to God, face to face interaction with.

Cort had always been awkward. Maybe he thought too much, worried too much, but even thinking this was thinking too much for a party, wasn’t it? He’d always envied people either willing to get so loaded people enjoyed them, or so naturally charismatic people loved them.

Cort had never been one of those people. The things people laughed at the hardest he said were statements he always expressed in perfect sincerity. But then, again, the society he lived in laughed at others’ pain, didn’t it? So, it all made sense, in a deranged sort of way.

Shit or get off the pot, right?

The speakers blared some incessant mix of pop and pop rap, which he found about as enjoyable as a frying pan to the face. And it all came back to dumbing everything down: the music, the conversations, even the fun had to be dumbed down at these kinds of parties. Or, at least, that was how it seemed to him.

Cort saw Janet (or the girl he thought of as Janet), standing by the entrance to the kitchen, under the door frame. He caught her eye, and was pleased to note she was in fact the woman he was thinking of from the dinner party. He was fairly sure it was, at least.

Cort maneuvered his way over, and took a quick hit off his flask for courage before he began the introductions. He prayed that this was actually Janet, and not some random woman he was about to embarrass himself in front of.

“Hey!” he shouted.

“Hey!” she shouted back in turn.

Janet motioned to the kitchen, presumably because it was quieter in there, easier to talk.

“That’s a little better,” Janet said once they’d made it inside the better lit kitchen.

She smiled, and it brightened Cort’s mood; miraculous, considering mere minutes before Cort didn’t think it would have been possible.

He noted Janet’s canine teeth were a little sharp looking, and was intrigued to learn he found this to be cute. He then became cognizant of how many seconds of silence had elapsed, and he desperately searched his brain for a statement, any statement…

“Yeah, a little quieter. Yeah.”

Oh, this is going great, he thought.

The silence ticked away, every second amplifying his feelings of conversational failure.

He decided he’d just do like Hunter S. Thompson advised: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

“I like your sharp canine teeth,” he said, and Janet laughed.

And he still felt uncomfortable, so he grabbed a beer off of a nearby table, popped it open, and started to chug from it.

“I like that you didn’t bother to ask if you could have that beer,” remarked Janet.

“Uh, I can give you a few bucks – ”

“Relax…Cort, right?”

She remembered his name, so that was something. Although, she could just be one of those people that was really good with names…

“Janet, yeah?”

“Guilty as charged,” she said.

Cort laughed, and his laugh was a little too loud, and someone from in the living room, where the party proper occurred, gave him a funny look.

“You wanna get dinner sometime?” he asked, then immediately thought wow, way too soon, Cort.

Sure. Not with you, though.”

I’m just gonna go jump off a building, he thought.

“I’m kidding! What’s your phone number?”

“Asking for mine. How progressive.”

“Progressive, shmogressive, a number is a number. Gender should have nothing to do with it.”

I hope I don’t fuck this one up, Cort thought.

They chatted for another half hour. They talked about work, she talked about renting, the trials and tribulations of losing a job, which she had last year. A good conversation, and when Scott nudged him on the shoulder and explained he was taking off, Cort felt better than he had in a long, long while.

It was always nice when people surprised you.

“You two seemed to be hitting it off,” Scott said, as they left the house.

“I’d like to think so,” Cort said.

They climbed into Scott’s car. Cort making a grunting noise. He really needed to lose some weight. The spare tire was a product of a sedentary lifestyle, one full of take-out and lethargy.

“Yeah. I think we’re gonna go to dinner,” Cort said.

“My man!” and Scott shot him with a finger gun.

Cort mimed taking the hit, and slumped in the passenger seat.

July 30th

A Saturday, and for some reason Scott had come over. Nice to have someone around, so Cort tried not to get too annoyed about Scott’s lack of prior invitation.

Cort was scrolling through some of the Facebook statuses Katie still had up. One caught his eye.

chapter 2 #1

“You know, it’s twisted, but it sounds like it’d make a good drinking song,” Cort said.

Cort handed his phone to Scott, who read the post, and giggled.

“You got any more beer?” Scott asked, and for some reason felt the need to mime a man drinking, tipping his hand to his mouth.

“Yeah, you don’t need to act it out. I know what a beer is.”

They drank, and then drank some more for good measure. Then they sang the lyrics of Katie’s post, and Cort really hoped none of his neighbors could hear. They sang it as a round, then they danced while they sang it. Frankly, Cort was embarrassed how much time they spent singing the fake song by what was clearly a mentally ill person.

When they’d grown tired, Cort asked if Scott had heard anything from Katie’s family yet.

“Not yet. No.”

They sat in silence.

“We probably shouldn’t have sang that. This whole thing isn’t funny.”

“No. It isn’t,” Scott said.

Scott left the room, grabbed another beer out of the fridge, without asking if he could. Cort threw him a bottle opener. Scott drank deep, finishing half of the beer in a few moments.

“I’ve been drinking a lot lately,” Scott said.

“It’s sorta understandable. Katie disappearing is pretty fucked.”

“It’s not just that,” Scott said.

Scott finished the beer and sighed. Cort felt for his friend. It was obvious he was really stressed out.

“You remember Abie?”

“Yeah?”

“She’s gone missing too.”

Cort wasn’t sure what to say. One disappearance was odd, but two, in the same month? Cort heard someone shouting in the hall, momentarily distracted. He came back to the present.

He tried not to show how strange this news made him feel. He wondered about the nature of the mind, and how technology could affect it. How little anyone really seemed to know about the effects of say, the Pokémon game everyone was playing, or even the little stuff like all the apps people used everyday on their smart phones. The burning question was, could a virus sent through the web really mess with your brain? Is that what really happened to these two women? It was science fiction, someone’s made-for-TV movie. There was no way this could be real. There was no getting over the doubt.

The doubt was what kept Cort from freaking out.

He scrolled through Facebook, and looked at another post from Katie on his phone.

 

chapter 2 #2

***

Later that night, Cort looked to see if there was anything Abie had posted. There were a few weird tweets.

chapter 2 #3

There was another one where she said she wanted to kill herself. Cort made a note in his phone to ask Scott if Abie had a history of depression, or had ever displayed any suicidal tendencies.

One of the comments under one of Abie’s tweets was a friend asking if anyone had seen the weird videos Abie posted to her YouTube channel. The girl on the comment had posted a link.

Cort followed the link, and there was a short video, thirty seconds. He clicked play, and watched as someone walked through a park; presumably Abie.

Someone behind the phone (what he assumed was a phone due to the picture quality) said:

“To be as the dragon, you must do what the dragon would.”

A group of teens on screen, a boy on the swing, a few girls smoking cigarettes, one guy playing with a basketball.

“For him,” said what Cort assumed was Abie, flatly, on the video.

He heard one of the guys on the swing ask, what the fuck?

Then the air exploded with the thunder of gunshots, and screams.

Cort flinched, closed the browser. He sat, in shock. Closed his eyes tight. Opened them again, not sure what the purpose of shutting his eyes was, just, a momentary break from seeing to calm himself.

Was this fucking real?

The events of the last week finally hit home. This wasn’t just some internet prank. Actual people were getting killed. Real people.

Except…were they? Really?

Slowly, Cort reopened YouTube, checked his history, and played the video again.

He paused the clip as soon as the gunshots started. The video quality was grainy. Cort couldn’t see the gun in the video. He watched the rest, looking for anything which could prove the authenticity of the clip, or the lack thereof. Though Cort saw the teens run, saw one of them clutching his stomach, how could he be sure this was real? A homemade squib for the blood, blanks in the gun. It’d be easy enough to fake the events.

There was one other video under Abie’s YouTube channel. This was of her face only. Cort braced himself, and pressed play.

“I’ve got this weird rash on my chest. It’s kinda like a triangle, with two points facing up. It’s not itchy, it’s just ugly, like, super duper ugly. Went to the dermatologist, he gave me some lotion to put on it. I hope it helps. I hate this rash.

“I feel really odd lately. Like I’m living in a dream. Like, maybe none of this is real. Like, maybe…maybe I’m not real. How would I know, though?

“How do I know any of this is real?”

The rest of the video was Abie filming the rash on her chest with her phone. She was right, it was pretty nasty. Red, raised, and kind of scaly.

Was it all connected? Cort remembered reading on that wiki entry for the Demon about rumors of a rash. Though, again, a Wikipedia entry was far from reliable.

Was any of it real at all? Or was it all just some kind of elaborate hoax? A prank so big many people were involved…a viral gag, so to speak.

Cort went to the kitchen, poured himself a glass of milk. Darkness clung to every corner of the room. He’d always been a fan of limited light, and coupled with his limited finances, a lamp a room seemed to be a sound decision.

He grabbed a bottle of sleeping pills from the cabinet by the fridge. Took a few, and swallowed them with the milk: tried not to feel like an addict.

Cort always had had trouble sleeping. So, he took the sleeping pills, though he tried not to do it every night.

But tonight…tonight something told him he’d need all the help he could get.

***

She walked in darkness, surrounded by the heavy, acrid stench of filth. The voice in her head sang a sweet melody of the deep. Her shoes were caked in human waste.

She’d never felt more alive.

Her reptile brain was front and center, fitting considering the rash which adorned her chest, back, arms and legs. It hadn’t reached her face yet.

Forward, following the song inside. Images of flames, of buildings crumbling, of gun shots ringing out all over the city. Of creatures skittering from the light, of dust clouds blocking out the sun. Of the way things would be, soon.

And always the song, always the voice, always the message of the depths; of the lost, of the broken, of the one cast down.

Her home…she had to find the one who would tell her of her new home, of her new family, of her new purpose. She needed this information, like an infant needs to be cradled in its mother’s arms.

A rat screeched at her, floating on a piece of cardboard. She snatched it in her hand, broke its neck. Sank her teeth deep into its flesh, too hungry to care about the foul taste.

“On, on, further,” she sang, her head full of love for the the champion of hate.

The man she had to meet wasn’t far now. The messenger on Earth: the one who would tell them the next phase in their evolution.

“On, on, deeper,” she sang, following a new navigational system in her head.

Her own personal GPS, courtesy of the voice in her head, and the process of changing, of becoming something more.

She didn’t miss her old life, the old routines. The old ways of man had been around for far too long.

This was destiny. This was fate.

This was the natural order of things.

Oh, but the walk was endless. When would she find the savior, the chosen one, the one sent to lead the way?

“On, on, darker,” she sang, and some instinct told her that around the next bend in the sewer, she’d find the ladder.

Sure enough, around the bend, there was a ladder. The manhole cover above was removed.

This was the way. Every part of her screamed at her body to move, to climb. To rise.

Hand over hand, up, towards the faint light. The voice in her head urging her on, giving her words of praise.

She climbed up and out of the sewer, and came upon a place she was unfamiliar with. It took her a few moments to realize what it was. Where she was.

A voice behind her then, the same as the one in her head all these weeks. The prophet. The one sent to lead them.

The Servant of the Pit.

A sweet voice for one such as him, full of compassion, and understanding.

“So glad you could make it, Abie.”

To be continued
September 13th, 2016.

Sean M. Thompson’s the Demon: Prologue & Chapter One

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THE DEMON
by Sean M. Thompson

Prologue
July 22, 2016

She paced the room, trying to gather her thoughts while it was still possible. The quality of the light spoke of broken people soon to be lost forever. Every sound was excruciating, from the ticking of the clock on the wall, to the faint splashing sounds of the cars on the street outside.

She needed to do this while she was still in control. While her grasp was tight, effective, true.

A car horn startled her, made her scan the room, frantic, desperate to find the space remained as ordinary as seconds before. Never had she been so cognizant of the passage of time, of the effects of perception.

A cursory look confirmed the kitchen, the bathroom, the furniture, everything in the apartment was normal. Haphazardly strewn like clothes after a night of heavy drinking, sure, but not in completely different places as she’d found it so many times before.

This was important.

This was very important.

Her sense of reality of late had grown thin as early spring ice, and she needed the room she sat within to stay, to remain as it was, as it always had been; before this whole mess had started: before the very world around her began to constrict tight as a boa, cold-blooded, ravenous.

She sat at the desk, opened a tab in her web browser, went to Facebook, and started to type a new post. Outside, rain beat a steady rhythm on her window, and set her confession to a tune.

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She shut her eyes tight, leaned back in the leather chair. Gritted her teeth. Pushed the breath out of her lungs like focusing her energy, like meditation: a gathering of all her sanity into one last stand.

One final push.

To reach out.

To stop this thing.

She wasn’t strong enough to do it on her own anymore.

She was about to click the trackpad to post the status, and stopped.

In that moment she knew all that she had been, all her hopes, and dreams, loves, and hates, everything that formed her, made her unique, all of it, all of the memories, and the photographs stored in her mind, every aspect…

…it was all lost forever.

Where she had once seen a full status, many words, now there were only five.

She posted the status, grabbed her coat, and left the apartment.

Out into the storm.

On the bright screen in the empty apartment, the five words shined through the darkness.

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Chapter One
July 27th, 2016

Cort sat on his leather couch, the hum of the air conditioner mingling with Alice Cooper screaming about being eighteen, and liking it, loving it. He had his phone open to Twitter, as he so often did after work in the evenings. A half eaten chicken parm with ziti sat on the coffee table in front of him, beside an empty can of cheap light beer.

Thirty one years of age, single, and a relative loner save for a handful of friends, Cort thought his lot in life was, more or less, acceptable. His apartment was in a nice part of Boston, close to the waterfront, which he could afford mostly due to a mutual friend of the family who owned an apartment complex in this location, and cut him a discount. Not that he couldn’t have afforded it without the discount, but it made life a little easier, and provided him with a monetary cushion having a few hundred hacked off the rent every month.

He didn’t have any pets, and for the time being, he didn’t have much of a desire to rectify his lack of cuddly creatures hovering by his legs. Maybe, someday, he told himself, he’d get a dog, or a cat, or both, but as it stood currently the half-listened-to television was good enough.

Cort was scrolling through his Twitter feed of friends, celebrities, and strangers posting out their thoughts about the upcoming election, food they’d just eaten, or memes of cats, when he came upon one of his friends, Scott, or rather @ScottiBGood, and a tweet which alarmed him.

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There were a few comments under the tweet, one of which was from a mutual friend named Abie, saying she hadn’t seen Katie, and stating she’d read a weird status from her a few days before her disappearance.

Cort opened up his Facebook app, and searched for Katie’s profile. He went back a few days, reading through posts, hoping for a clue as to either Katie’s whereabouts, or what Abie meant about Katie posting strange things.

Right away, it was obvious what Abie was talking about. There were posts about “the things in the basement”, “the people in the walls” and “furniture rearranging itself”. And some of the posts were even less cohesive: hard to pin down in the way a piece of abstract art is hard to interpret, which is a good thing when it comes to paintings, and a bad thing when it comes to reflections of the human psyche.

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Going through one particularly odd status about a burning sensation (which Cort assumed had to do with some sort of rash) he noticed a guy had commented with “#TheDemon”. Cort googled “The Demon” and couldn’t find anything substantial. There was an IMDb listing of a really low budget looking film from 2013, an Amazon listing for a book, but the third link seemed to explain what the guy on Facebook was referencing. It was a short Wikipedia entry, and anything read off a Wiki link had to be taken with a grain of salt, but Cort dove in anyway.

Reading through the article, what he gathered was “The Demon” was some sort of new computer virus. However, there really wasn’t anything of note described, such as how to avoid getting the virus, or what the effects were on your computer, or phone, or tablet. The main thing the entry emphasized was a red flash on the screen:

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“Weird,” he said.

Below this was a curious entry to the page, at the bottom, which appeared to be added only a week prior by what he assumed was another person. This short paragraph mentioned possible “changes in behavior” and “hallucinations”.

It had to be bullshit though, and it was just a Wiki entry, so Cort shrugged it off.
Cort was about to check twitter for #TheDemon when there was a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” he called out.

“Scott. Let me in, dude.”

Cort, annoyed at someone visiting without an invitation, begrudgingly let his friend inside. After all, Scott was someone he’d known since college, and one of the few friends who would actually visit Cort, so why alienate him?

“I just read one of your tweets about Katie. Any luck yet?” Cort asked.

“No. None. It’s like she just fucking vanished.”

“Yeah. What was up with some of that bizarre crap she wrote? Some of it was pretty damn spooky.”

“Definitely. And that’s what she didn’t delete,” Scott said.

“She deleted some stuff she posted?”

“Oh yeah, man. The stuff still up is tame compared to some of the ones I read before she deleted them.”

Cort didn’t know whether he should be excited he was getting involved in a mystery, or freaked out someone he considered a casual acquaintance was missing, and may or may not have had a psychotic break. Far off, he heard the horn of a boat coming into Boston Harbor. He’d gotten used to the sound, the way anyone in a city takes for granted certain noises, such as cars outside, or, more accurately, car horns.

“You want a beer?” Cort asked, already getting up to grab one for himself.

“Yeah, but just one. I told Katie’s mom I’d ask around at a few places for her tonight.”

“I’ll come with if it’s close by,” Cort said.

Cort had been on the fence on whether he wanted to go all in with the search, but it appeared that in a split second he’d decided his docket was empty enough that he could get involved in the disappearance of a friend of a friend.

“Yeah, one’s a few blocks down. Other is near MIT, so I was just going to Uber there.”

“Is it Stacy?”

“Hey, don’t get any idea Casanova.”

They sat in silence for a few, Scott drinking his beer, looking like he wanted to say something, but wasn’t quite sure how to start.

“You look like a bug crawled up your ass. Spit it out, what do you want to say?”

“I was just thinking about something Katie told me about two weeks ago.”

Cort waited, but Scott wasn’t going on. He got frustrated, and moved his hand in a circular motion, the index finger in a wheel in front of him as if to say go on.

“She told me she got that Demon computer virus.”

***

Stacy Danver’s place was only a few blocks from Cort’s. He’d had been trying to get Stacy in the sack for many years, and had only recently stopped his attempts.

“Hey, Stacy,” Cort said.

Stacy just stared at him, then turned her gaze to Scott.

“I haven’t talked to Katie in over a month,” Stacy said.

Scott thanked her, Cort gave her a wave which was summarily ignored, and they walked down the street to a bench, while Scott used his phone to arrange for an Uber to drive them to Abie’s house.

“Do you know a lot about computer viruses?” Scott asked.

“I know very little about them.”

This was actually an understatement. Despite having grown up around computers, Cort barely knew the ins and outs of the machines, or really about a lot of technology in general. If he ever ran into issues with technology, he’d either call his dad, ask a friend, or browse the web (if he still could) for an answer.

“My dad might know a little, he works in a government office.”

Thinking of his dad, Cort checked his text messages, and saw the one from the day before which read:

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“Do you think that’s even possible? A computer virus making you go nuts?”

“I think it’s kind of nuts to even assume that’s possible,” Cort said.

“But think about it. We’ve got this huge influx of information coming at us all day with these fuckin’ things,” Scott said, shaking his cell phone over his head.

“But I think people just have shitty attention spans from that, Scott. People don’t go nuts like Katie because of it. Maybe she just had a history of mental illness, have you ever thought about that?”

A blue sedan parked by the curb, and Scott got up, made his way to the car. After confirming that this was in fact Emmanuel, the right driver, they got in and the man, smiling, told them to buckle up.

Some alert or another set Cort’s phone to vibrating in his pocket, but he ignored it. He was content to stare out the window at the city as they drove, and lose himself in his thoughts for a while.

Cort had always liked Boston, despite having only lived in his apartment for a little over three years. He found the city to be clean, and enjoyed that it didn’t quite reek of piss as much as some of the bigger ones did. Sure, the rent was absolutely outrageous, and a lot of the people could be aggressive and standoffish, but it was a place which felt as natural to him as breathing.

His job was fairly mind-numbing, but it paid the bills, and he was getting by, despite living alone, or perhaps because of it. And really, nowadays, did anyone like their job?

Dusk crept over the brightly lit office buildings across the Charles river, and the view was postcard perfect. Even with all the craziness with Katie going missing, Cort was enjoying his week, despite it being only Wednesday.

He’d always enjoyed the summer, probably run off from when he was a kid. Summer meant freedom: meant fun in the sun, bikinis, and doing stupid shit you hoped wouldn’t lead to lasting injury or a short, stern talking to by the cops. Summer meant food that would likely give you a spare tire, and perhaps a drunken hook up with someone who never called you back even after you’d left several messages.

Cort had grown up in the suburbs roughly twenty minutes outside of Boston. His father was of Mexican descent, and his mother was Irish. His mom always liked to joke that it was a role reversal of sorts, as she’d know a lot of Latino women who got hitched to Irish men. Of course, come to that, his mother didn’t always exercise the most tact when it came to discussing…well, anything, really.

He was glad his parents still got along, despite the divorce. Thankfully, they’d stuck out the marriage until Cort had graduated from college. Well, thankfully for him. The holidays were difficult, but he understood, and still loved and got along with both of his parents the way they still loved and got along with each other.

“We’re here,” Scott said.

Cort pulled himself out of the past, back to the present.

“Let’s go see if Abie’s home,” Scott said, and they exited the sedan and waved back at Emmanuel as he drove off.

***

“Come on in, guys.”

Abie’s place was small, but it was cozy. She made them tea, and offered them Girl Scout cookies, which Cort declined due to a diet he was more or less failing to adhere to already. Scott grabbed a handful of cookies, and Abie deposited the box back in the kitchen, then grabbed a stack of papers, and handed them over to Scott.

“What are these?” Scott asked.

“I screen-grabbed some posts on Facebook and Twitter before Katie deleted them.”

“Jesus…these are fucking horrendous,” Scott said.

Scott handed Cort a page of Facebook posts.

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“Holy Christ,” Cort said.

He read further.

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“I can’t read any more of this shit right now,” Cort said, thrusting the papers back to Abie.

“Oh, it’s really wretched stuff. Katie loved animals. I’m telling you, that’s not Katie,” Abie said.

“Did she have any mental illness in her family?” Scott asked.

“No. Both of her parents are still around, in their eighties. Both sharp as tacks, neither one had any obvious mental stuff. I mean, her dad gets anxious sometimes, but not enough that he ever needed treatment. I’m telling you, I’ve been friends with Katie since middle school. She’s as stable as they get.”

They sat in silence, neither of them willing to speak first. Finally, Cort broke the silence.

“Do you think she actually did this stuff?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Abie said, and ran her hand through her auburn hair, a nervous gesture.

“Shouldn’t we call the cops?” Cort asked.

“Already did, and they can’t find her. Also, you know, they got more to worry about than a fully grown woman who might just be in a motel on drugs for all they know.”

“Did she do drugs?” Scott asked.

“No. She’d have a drink every once and awhile, smoked pot a few times in college, but that was it,” Katie said.

“So do you think there was any sort of trigger that set her off? Anything really stressful she’s been going through?” Cort said.

“No. She loved her job, she was single but had been seeing a new guy, and they seemed to really be hitting it off.”

Abie stood, made her way to the window, as if the sight of human beings was too much for her at the moment. She stood with her back to them, and stared out at the street.

“I just keep thinking how she told me she got that computer virus.”

She turned back to face them, slowly.

“That’s ludicrous, right? There’s no possible way something you see on the internet can make you go insane, right?”

Cort got up his nerve, and grabbed another paper, this one with a list of tweets. He scanned down to the last one on the page, and felt the temperature in the room drop twenty degrees.

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To be continued
August 13th, 2016.

Announcing Sean M. Thompson’s “The Demon”

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The Conqueror Weird is trying out something new – a monthly serial.

Sean M. Thompson (whose story “LillyBridge” was written for our Month of Bartlett) pitched us an idea for a twelve month serial entitled The Demon. We gladly accepted this proposition and, I may say, I am very excited to see the response. The Demon is a powerfully creepy yarn and is possibly Mr. Thompson’s finest work to date.

An installment of the serial will be posted on the 13th of every month, meaning it’ll run from tomorrow (July 13th, 2016) to July 13th, 2017.

Raised by feral cats in the wilderness of central Massachusetts, Sean M. Thompson writes fiction to frighten and enrage the normals. When he isn’t bathing in the blood of the innocent, he co-hosts the podcast Miskatonic Musings, and (very rarely) updates his blog, found here.

I met Sean, along with many others, at this past ReaderCon. I attended from Friday to Sunday and had a fantastic time – met Sean, Gemma Files, Nathan Ballingrud, John Langan, S.J. Bagley, Tom Breen, Michael Wehunt, Justin Steele, Mike Griffin, Livia Llewellyn, Ellen Datlow, Simon Strantzas, Paul Tremblay, Michael Kelly, and an innumerable amount of others I couldn’t name in one sitting. (I also, of course, met the inimitable Matthew M. Bartlett again.) Many reviews are coming soon. I am back from hiatus and ready to rock!

Walpurgisnacht 2016: Month of Bartlett Conclusion

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Well, here it is! The final ceremony for the Month of Bartlett! Walpurgisnacht!

We had a great time. Some of my favorite people chipped in for posts, all of which floored me. Now for the conclusion.

I promised some big news, and hell, you’re getting it. But first…my review of all of Matthew M. Bartlett’s work. THEN you get the big announcement. If you can’t wait, skip to the end. But if you can, then I suggest you enjoy some pleasurable suspense.

THE WORKS OF MATTHEW M. BARTLETT

A COMPLETE REVIEW OF ALL MATTHEW M. BARTLETT’S PUBLISHED WORK

(as of April 2016)

THE COLLECTIONS

GATEWAYS TO ABOMINATION

Gateways to Abomination

You’re browsing on Amazon, looking for some quality, indie weird fiction. As you do this you stumble across a rather interesting book with very positive reviews. You read a few, and though they are quite favorable, you read two words that inherently evoke suspicion: “self-published”. So much self-published trash these days. But S.P. Miskowski, Scott R. Jones, Michael Wehunt, and Kristi DeMeester all gave it five-star ratings. You scroll back up and get a better look at the cover.

It’s of a town or a city, pleasant urban buildings nestled together amidst suburban touches of shrubbery. Quite nice, really, except there’s something strange – the buildings seem to be a collage of sorts, simple drawings crudely cut out of paper. The cover seems to be weathered, too, worn and used. A pulpy caption towards the bottom advertises sensational diabolism, next to a rather interesting logo reading “GARE OCCULT”. You see naught of this. It’s just a city. Except for a rather strange figure – but its hard to see what that is.

But no, not just a city – a dark shape looms above. It looks to be a radio antenna. But surely it is too large! Why, the largest building is not half its height!

And then you see the goat. It’s almost the same color as the background, so its difficult, but you make it out. Four-horned, smugly smiling, watching over the city with red scribble eyes. The figure near the city is the goat as well, now with a human body, welcoming you to the dark.

That cover art is by Katie Saulnier. That weathered, worn design and occult logo is by Tom Pappalardo. And that book is Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett.

It is quite difficult to categorize this book. The cover reads “Collected Short Fiction”, but I often refer to it as an episodic novel, though even this seems inaccurate. The book consists of pieces bordering on what you might call flash fiction, short-short pieces that read like fractured nightmares. But all share a loose connective tissue that ties them together.

There is a small suburb in Massachusetts named Leeds. And things have gone terribly wrong.

Take the opening piece, “the woods in fall” (all titles are in lowercase), only two and a half pages and not even the shortest in the book. A man is listening to his radio when the cat dials it all the way to the left. Something he hears makes him walk into the woods, where he meets a withered figure who promptly vomits worms. It’s strange and disorienting, yet it manages to sum up all of the connected elements of the book – Leeds, the woods, and the dark radio station WXXT.

Most pieces are the length of “the woods in fall”, if not shorter, with only a few delving into longer territory, but all of them – all of them – manage to punch you in the gut. Take “the ballad of nathan whiteshirt” – it’s only a little over one page, and still managed to be one of the most unnerving reading experiences of my life. Part of this is because of Bartlett’s language. One of the most poetic writers working today, Bartlett manages to make the words ooze off the page and infiltrate your senses. Some reviewers have described getting sick while they read the pieces, the most infamous being “the theories of uncle jeb”, where the titular uncle opens his cancerous navel to let onlookers see inside.

I AM Cancer, he’d intone, and he’d grasp the folds of his stomach, gaping wide his navel, which was never properly tied off (according to Father), stretching it wide, a hole you could pop a child’s head into (if you were of a mind), and the smell was low tide and sprawling arrays of fungus sprouting in the folds of a field of mildewed clothing, of dank basements and bile-strangled wells, carrion and the faeces of the squatting dead.

That is quite nauseating, as is “a world of lucretias and ledas”, where the narrator, Jebediah Blackstye, stares at the streaks in his long black stools.

The stories are interrupted by disturbing news transmissions from “Uncle Red”, who describes all sorts of grisly phenomena in the Leeds/Northampton area. Through these segments and others we learn that the dark influence of WXXT, a witch-cult who have gone to radio, has gone back to at least 1802, and quite probably earlier.

“the ballad of ben stockton” parts one and two describe a visit to the dentist gone horribly wrong. This one in particular is likely to unnerve anyone, as it goes right for the jugular of mutual discomfort. “when i was a boy – a broadcast” describes a young boy’s lust for a corpulent older woman, feeling almost painfully personal and disturbing. “the arrival” parts one and two – presented in reverse – introduce that goatish creature we saw on the cover, the sinister Ben Stockton, who carries an overwhelmingly oppressive air of menace about him. “the gathering in the deep woods” follows a man attending the titular gathering, while “cat-tails and rushes” describes the wreckage after an overwhelming fire. “the investigator” hints at a fascinating plot-line – WXXT’s battle with the F(ederal) C(ommunications) C(ommission), who will stop at nothing to end the witch-cult’s reign of terror.

Bartlett has an eye for the most upsetting images in literature – a dog with multiple and grotesque breasts, drowned men reclining in bathwater, two men grappling over a hook of meat – and yet there’s a darkly comic element to it. There are actual moments where you’ll laugh out loud, which makes the whole thing more unnerving. WXXT twists everything around it, and that doesn’t only include the book. It twists you, the reader, transforming your perception into an ungrounded nightmare.

It’s only appropriate, then, that the collection should end with “the reddening dusk”. Like the opening piece, it captures the essence of the book, but in a slightly different way. While “the woods in fall” was more of a  quiet horror story, “the reddening dusk” is a delirious fever-dream, rupturing the surface of reality into sheer horror. Reading it was almost a guilty experience for me, heightened by the fact that I enjoyed it so much.

As you can see, it has been difficult for me to form my thoughts on this into a coherent post. But know this – Gateways to Abomination is a terrifying experience of a book. I was literally disoriented after reading the book. It’s a masterpiece in any genre and it deserves your applause.

What – another book? That’s exciting…

Buy Gateways to Abomination here. Not “You can buy it” – BUY IT. I have no words to describe how completely freaking awesome it is, which is why this review was so disorderly. How could anything be better than this? How do you follow something like this up?

CREEPING WAVES

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Gateways to Abomination floored me, but…Creeping Waves. WOW. I knew it was going to be good, but I never expected something like this.

First, you’ve got that Nick Gucker cover. Nick Gucker! Illustrator of gross and drippy phenomena! He doesn’t disappoint here. Look at all of the disgusting, Bartlettian phenomena – a ossuary WXXT booth, dancing embryos playing with a hanged man (this one is out of view, as its cut off by the spine), a man wrangling worms, a black Satanic snake, Ben Stockton beckoning a child whose mouth is crammed with tiny teeth…all under the landscape of a distorted fair, clownish monoliths rearing up to the sky. Holy hell.

Nathan Ballingrud provides a beautiful introduction, describing how Bartlett burst onto the scene and how he’s back with a vengeance in Creeping Waves. But, as wonderful as it is, it doesn’t even begin to cover the contents.

The book opens with an eerie prologue narrated by Ben Stockton, reminiscing on the genesis of WXXT and covering some ground for those who haven’t read Gateways to Abomination. It is followed by “Spring Thaw”, a short, creepy piece that hints at the horror to come. But the real fun begins with “Rampage”. It’s a dark story. A really, really dark story – one that seems to take some concepts from “path” (a story in Gateways) and warps them into a much more morbid idea. After “Rampage”, you’re doomed.

The book is much more intertwined than Gateways. The whole WXXT gang is back, and the FCC is still after them. What silly shenanigans will they get up to this time? Thematic elements from “Spring Thaw” are woven through the contents. A certain narrative – one about a faded cult leader named Vernon Golden – is serialized throughout the book, along with Anne Gare’s Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue (discussed in the Companions section). There are sequels, prequels, references and opening chapters. Old ideas are elaborated upon, and new ideas rise along with them.

The book is considerably longer than Gateways, so I’ll focus on the more traditional narratives, the first of which is “Master of Worms”. A dark story about a twisted family patriarch, Bartlett starts off restrained before delving into unbridled surrealism. The opening scene is one of the most shocking things I have ever read.

Next up is “Night Dog”. Wow. This has to be one of the scariest stories in the book. A man named Wendell, working at the ominous Annelid Industries International, has his world turned upside down – no – has his world puréed in a goddamn blender by a strange man who proclaims horrifying revelations as the company meeting approaches. There were times during this story when I was thinking “No, no, NO” as things went from bad to worse to hopeless. Probably my favorite of the longer narratives.

Then “Rangel”, the next longer narrative, comes along. I think it’s safe to assume that this is Bartlett’s most successful story – it’s in the contents of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Three (ed. Simon Strantzas, series ed. Michael Kelly) and was considered by Ellen Datlow for her latest volume of the Best Horror of the Year. Not only that – originally published as a chapbook by Dim Shores (with creepy illustrations by Aeron Alfrey), it sold out of not one but two limited editions. Reading it, one can certainly see why. I’m not going to talk too much about the plot, but instead I’ll just say this: Halloween parade in Leeds. Something to see! This was my introduction to Bartlett, and look where I am now – reviewing all of his work…

“The Egg” is a deliciously nasty tale, probably one of Bartlett’s most brutal compositions to date. A family is raising chickens – they wanted pets, and chickens were just the best fit for them – and decides to leave the radio on for their comfort. Life lesson: chickens + WXXT = bad news. My description makes it sound almost comical, but trust me, “The Egg” is anything but – and it features one of the cruelest endings in literature.

“Little Leeds” isn’t that long, but I wanted to pause on it because…well, you’ll see. Bartlett has a story coming out soon that ties very smoothly into this, and…well, I don’t want to spoil the fun. A rebellious girl joins a group of teens in the woods. Needless to say, things get very strange very fast.

“The Purging of My Uncle’s House (The Time of the Black Tents)” is a continuation of “the sons of ben” from Gateways to Abomination. This tells of a grim family reunion in an old, secluded house, while some sort of dark ritual takes place outside in the woods. Dripping with mystery and terror, this is a highlight story in the book – and it also brings up more questions about the “Real Leeds”, a ominous location referred to throughout the book.

The exploits of Vernon Golden creep through the book. A bygone leader of a forgotten cult, he contacts the son of a couple who once were amongst his followers, telling him that he needs help fighting the devil in Massachusetts. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, and the plot takes frantic twists and turns in a delightfully dark form.

The real climax to the book is “Baal Protects the King” (parts one and two). I honestly cannot bring myself to describe this story, and, to be honest, I don’t know if I even really could. It’s a onyx goblet brimming with blood, a raging hurricane of nightmarish imagery and haunting ideas. Its intensely disturbing scenery will stay with you for days after you read it.

Creeping Waves is, as of this date, Bartlett’s masterpiece. It’s…it’s…it’s the best thing ever. It’s the most distressing reading experience I’ve ever had. It’s dark, it’s devilish, and it’s disturbing.

I really can’t describe it better than that.

Buy Creeping Waves here on Amazon and here direct from Muzzleland Press, the publisher.

DEAD AIR

Dead Air

I’m not gonna spend too long on Dead Air since it’s no longer available to the public. Let’s just say that before Gateways and Creeping Waves, Bartlett published a book that reads like an embryotic version of both. It’s extremely rare and hard to find, but I suggest you try to track it down – it’s a treasure. While some pieces are recycled into the newer collections, most of it is basically new, and boy, is it a disturbing book. Since it is an older book, certain characters are almost radically different – Ben Stockton, for example, is more…human than his powerful, demonic contemporary. It also features many eerie photographs, some of which are found in Creeping Waves. But I digress – it’s an excellent book, but I shan’t taunt you with an unavailable book.

THE COMPANIONS

THE WITCH-CULT IN WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS

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The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts features thirteen one-page entries, each about a dark figure who turns to occult forces. Not all of them have to do with Leeds, but the ones that do expand upon the WXXT mythology. For example – we learn more about old Anne Gare, who runs an ominous bookshop in the twisted town, while we also learn about Virginia Willaby, whose charming home was host to a horrifying event known as “Black Thanksgiving”. It also features absolutely gorgeous illustrations by artist Alex Fienemann, each depicting the witch in question. All of these creepy contents are thus wrapped up into a lovely-looking book, and is a must-own for fans of New England folklore (even though there are no actual folktales contained herein). I would find it hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t enjoy this book.

Buy The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts here.

ANNE GARE’S RARE BOOK AND EPHEMERA CATALOGUE

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Now sold out, this book contains several descriptions of evil tomes that Anne Gare possesses. Most of this material can be found in Creeping Waves, but some entries cannot, while Creeping Waves has some new entries of its own. Highlights include the Libellus Vox Larva, which, I think its safe to say, is the Necronomicon of Bartlett’s work; the Stockton Pamphlets, which detail the sinister activities of a colonial Leeds coven; and The Barkerton Parade and Others, a collection of shockingly violent horror stories. Some entries feature snide commentary by the cataloger – presumably Gare herself – which provides some humor amidst the darkness. Overall, a fantastic book. (As if you didn’t know I was going to say that.)

UNCOLLECTED SHORT FICTION

SPETTRINI (chapbook; limited ed.)

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A KrallCon 2016 exclusive (though the story will appear in The Stay-Awake Men and Others, a collection coming this December), “Spettrini” focuses on the mysterious disappearence of the titular magician, and what his apprentice does in his absence. Sort of. I don’t think I really described that right, but the story is astounding in its execution. The standout here is how well Bartlett utilizes his descriptive powers. The atmosphere broods from the opening lines, and the setting is so strongly established that you can practically feel the cold night breeze. Since it was an exclusive it got a limited distribution, but I’m excited to see what people think about it when it’s included in the collection. It’s a fantastic story.

CARNOMANCER, OR THE MEAT MANAGER’S PREROGATIVE (Xnoybis #1, ed. Jordan Krall; limited ed.)

A grisly excursion into lust, murder, and meat, “Carnomancer, or the Meat Manager’s Prerogative” (also to be collected in The Stay-Awake Men and Others) follows a man who, working at a convenience store, gets entangled in the madness of the meat manager, Foxcroft. This is one of the nastiest stories I’ve ever read. It’s gruesome and dark – a gross look into the mindscape of a man who needs serious help. In a horrifyingly funny way, the story ends on an almost comical note – closing the story’s warped plotline, though the images and concepts will haunt the reader for a long time afterward.

FOLLOWING YOU HOME (The Siren’s Call eZine #20: Screams in the Night; available online here)

A super-short story, “Following You Home” crams more ideas into its meager two pages then some manage to weave into novels. Merrill, a socially awkward man at an uncomfortable New Year’s Eve party, leaves early, only to be stalked by a frightening figure indeed on his way home. Reminiscent of the best Ramsey Campbell stories, “Following You Home” features a realistic protagonist, a grotesque monster, and a terrifying ending that leaves the reader wondering.

MACHINE WILL START WHEN YOU ARE START (Resonator, ed. Scott R. Jones; available here)

Elaborating on “From Beyond”, this hilariously gross story tells of a creep working at Target who buys the “Tillinghast Masturbator” for sexual pleasure. Unfortunately, the results are kind of alien, and – against the box’s badly misspelled warnings – the guy starts to watch some porn to help along. This does not turn out to well for him. Like “Carnomancer, or the Meat Manager’s Prerogative”, the story ends comically – this time with a practical punchline, a genuinely funny ending that juxtaposes nicely with the earlier gruesome imagery.


AND NOW…

…the big announcement…the one you’ve all been waiting for…

The Conqueror Weird is producing a full-length audio drama based on Matthew M. Bartlett’s critically acclaimed book Gateways to Abomination. Yes, you heard that right. It’ll be an audio book of sorts – a weird amalgam of readings, dramatizations, sound effects, and music.

The cast includes Andrew LemanSean BranneySean M. ThompsonJose CruzJonathan RaabSam Cowan, Matthew M. Bartlett, Brian O’Connell, and more. The production will feature a gorgeous original cover by acclaimed artist Michael Bukowski, along with interior artwork by Yves Tourigny, Dave Felton, and more.

You can listen to a sample track here, read by Sean M. Thompson.

Trailers are on the way, as is the cover. Gateways to Abomination is expected to be released sometime in the spring of next year.

That’s all for the Month of Bartlett, leeches. More transmissions coming soon.

Matthew M. Bartlett Portrait

A portrait of Matthew M. Bartlett and his cat Larry by the inimitable Dave Felton, done especially for the Conqueror Weird.


I’m not quite done yet. Just a few tidbits.

In May I’ll be reviewing these books:

  • Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt
  • The Lure of the Devouring Light by Michael Griffin
  • Orford Parish Murder Houses by Tom Breen
  • Tomorrow’s Cthulhu, edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski
  • Cthulhu Lies Dreaming, edited by Salomé Jones
  • A double Scott Nicolay review: Noctuidae and The Croaker
  • The Operating Theater by Christopher Ropes
  • A double review of Cody Goodfellow’s Rapture of the Deep and The Free School
  • The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau

Also, my first published story, “Woodland”, appeared yesterday in The Yellow Booke, Vol. Three, edited by Michael Kellermeyer. You can read it for free online here, but I hope you consider buying a paperback copy from Amazon here. It’d mean a lot.

“Woodland” is an unusual story. Written entirely in second person, present tense (even though there are a lot of flashbacks) and heavily inspired by the Bob Dylan song “Ballad of Hollis Brown”. It hints at some things that are coming. I hope you enjoy it (if you read it).

That’s all for now.

“LillyBridge” by Sean M. Thompson

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“LillyBridge”
by Sean M. Thompson
(warning – adult content)

I’m not sure what compels me to visit “Shimmyin’ Shirley’s”. Not normally one of those guys who likes to go to strip clubs. Hell, I’m not even from Western Massachusetts. Just down this way for a business conference. Why my company insisted on holding it at a Marriott in the middle of fucking nowhere is beyond me.

I’m driving down a barely lit road, flanked on either side by dense forest, when I see the pink, neon sign. There’s an incredibly lewd caricature of a woman shaking her prodigious, neon boobs in the glaring light. Even as I’m pulling the car into the lot I’m wondering, what am I doing?

An impressively greasy biker bouncer (who smells like stale cigarettes and meth) informs me that I’m “in for a treat, pal, we got our finest herky-jerky women things on the pole tonight.” He slaps my shoulder with a meaty palm, and I’m not successful quelling my cry of alarm. I don’t like the way his pupils dilate when I flinch.

“Woah! Jumpy fella, ain’t ya? Well, the girly-whirlies will fix ya right up, yesiree.”

Nameless biker freak #3 walks me into the club, and I’m assaulted by a powerful, malingering stench: something like low tide mixed with piles of burning tires. There’s another stink below I can’t place.

Strobe lights flash to and fro, as what I can only describe as a mix of dubstep and polka thunders out of speakers, tied at sporadic intervals with what appears to be a mixture of rope made from human hair intertwined with snakeskin, and used condoms.

I belly up to the bar, and an enormous albino woman asks me “What’s your poison?”

There’s a blacklight running the length of the dusty bottles behind the bartender, and I swear one of them has a leech floating in it.

When I squint, I see all manner of foul stains along her taut, cotton tank top, and more lit on her alabaster skin, on top of crude cartoonish tattoos of goats, witches, and, strangely enough, one of The Pope.

“Uh, just a beer, imported if you have it,” I say, trying to be nonchalant, and failing.

The bartender makes a face like I just told her I stabbed her uncle, and hands me a chipped glass, with a faded, photo realistic picture of a cat’s face on it, filled with foamy suds.

“Only thing imported here is Svetnanya,” she says, then belches.

“That sounds like a made up Russian name,” I half-heartedly mutter, but the bartender’s already turned her massive back to me, and has snatched a bottle of whiskey off the bar, which she proceeds to glug with the finesse of an established alcoholic as she stomps away.

I take my beer (god I hope it’s a beer) to a small table by the stage. The club only has three other patrons, which stands to reason as it’s a Sunday night.

There’s an anorexic looking guy in plaid pajama pants, and one of those winter hats with the ear flaps, putting a dollar into the swamp green g-string of a wrinkly older woman, who legitimately looks like she’s seventy if she’s a day. This geriatric’s pendulous breasts are sweeping against ear-flaps slack-jawed face, and I retch a little. Yet, I don’t leave, and frankly, my lack of action alarms me.

Why am I still in here? I wonder. This establishment is the very definition of disgusting.

And yet, I’m strangely drawn to the grotesqueries of the scene.

A blonde guy, with a tan and surfer shorts is getting a lap dance from a bald woman wearing a zebra print vest, who, on closer examination, is missing her two front teeth, and appears to be cross-eyed. She twirls nipple tassels made from worms hot glued on. I down my oh-please-be-beer in a frantic gulp, and the stirrings in my loins alarm me to no end.

There’s an incredibly strong woman, with a bright red mullet, chewing on snuff, feeling up a stripper in a, well, in some kind of pale leather bikini. Shades of Ed Gein float into my noggin’, which I will away.

“Boy howdy, take my money Misty Muck!” strong mullet yells, then whoops and hollers.

Misty gyrates, shoving her crotch into the strong woman’s face. When the dancer’s countenance is visible, I recoil, knocking over my empty glass.

Misty has no eyes. Shoved into the empty sockets are twigs, and rocks.

Someone grabs my shoulder, and I scream.

“Wait until you see LillyBridge,” biker-bouncer whispers in my ear, and his hot breath so close sends slivers of ice down my spine. The strobes have me seizurous, and the smell has me whoozy.

All the lights shut off at once, and “Shirley’s” is dark as the heart of a death row sociopath. I feel things slither over my bluchers; big, undulating creatures in the dark. Hear my fellow patrons whispering in excitement, moaning in pleasure, and underneath this noise, a thrum, as of a high powered generator.

All at once, a spotlight hits the main stage, and a funeral dirge, with a little bass to it thumps out of the speakers.

“Coming to the stage we have the Empress of Ice Cream, she who was old when the world was young. The gal so nice she got to live twice. Revel in her form, for it is the shape of your damnation. Your screams are useless in this place, so it’s utter folly to attempt to cry for help, or to try to escape. Your filthy hands aren’t worthy of her dirty pillows, nor the juice in her caboose. Sanity is but a memory before the majesty of her terrible machinations. Welcome, LiiiiiiiiillllllllllyBriiiiiiiiiiiiiiidge.”

She must be twelve feet tall, wearing a bra and panties made of human faces, tanned and stretched. I trace the rigid muscle of her calves up to her thighs, gravity backflips, and suddenly she’s either on the ceiling, or I am. She grinds against a pole made of human spines, melted together. The strobes mask her expression, momentarily shadow her teeth, which are large, and sharp, in the pulse of the new light. She blows a kiss at me, and her foetid breath makes my body grow weak. I can easily smell her from ten feet away. I slump from my chair, and either fall to the floor, or jump onto the ceiling. LillyBridge tosses her face-bra at me, and I kick like a thrashing lunatic.

LillyBridge, oh LillyBridge, we dug a very deep, deep ditch,” the DJ sings, and the rest of the club takes up the tune.

In unison they all sing “You crawled back out, we’re all finished, oh Lilly, Lilly, LillyBridge.”

And I’m laughing now, can’t stop laughing, and LillyBridge dances her way off the stage, in my direction. The flock of perverts around me sing the round louder, and louder still, until their voices boom over the thumping death-bass.

We’re all finished, oh, LILLY, LILLY, LILLYBRIDGE!

The giantess picks me up, and her body is festooned in dirt. She lifts me close to her face, and I see her hair is filled with wriggling maggots. She licks my cheek, and her tongue is long and black: a giraffe’s tongue, rotted beyond death.

LillyBridge whispers in my ear in an ancient rasp –

“They tried to bury me, but you can’t keep a good woman down. They always need someone to dance to the tunes they play, the songs they sing, on WXXT. Leeds appreciates a good woman, a strong woman. I’m one of the oldest, of dirt and rot, and the things that live deep under the world are my children. Everyone wants a good screw, and little man, after you meet me – ”

Her tongue jams into my ear, deep, deep, my eyes roll back, my vision greys.

“You’re screwed,” she purrs, and bursts into a cackle which sets me twitching.

I kick, try to loosen her vice grip, but she’s too strong, and I can feel consciousness slipping away, though I’m pitching a tent in my business slacks. And still the chorus screams the words to the song, as Lillybridge rubs me along her grave-mud-caked body, and her tongue finally slithers out of my ear, to snake its way down my pants, and the other dancers gyrate demonaically, and far off behind the stage flames crackle, and long for flesh.

“We can wait forever for you, lover,” Lillybridge whispers, as I feel blood bubble out of my eyes, ears, and nose, and my spine spasms as her foul appendage laps me to climax. I scream until my voice is nothing but a tinny rasp, as she thunders with laughter, the rest of the club dancing around us in a circle, hands entwined.

“Oblivion is only a lap dance away, and even when you leave, you’re never really gone. We take a piece of you, as payment, an offering to our humble little establishment.”

The strobes flash faster, and the dancers peel off their skin; toss it onto their clientele, and my brain feels as if it’s boiling, ready to leak out my ears. I shake, and shudder, and Lillybridge smiles real wide, exposing bits of human skin lodged in her enormous, crimson-stained, sharp teeth, exposing gums rotted and purple.

“Now, let’s have some real fun,” she says, and moans loudly, as funeral bells chime the end through the speakers.

And…heaven help me…it’s excruciating bliss.


Raised by feral cats in the wilderness of central Massachusetts, Sean M. Thompson writes fiction to frighten and enrage the normals. When he isn’t bathing in the blood of the innocent, he co-hosts the podcast Miskatonic Musings, and updates his blog, found here.

“A Voice in the Static” by Clint Hale

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“A Voice in the Static”
by Clint Hale

These last few nights, while drifting off to sleep in my warm bed, I’ve woken suddenly to find myself, once again, in Leeds, MA. There is a strange sort of darkness to that place, and the air itself seems alive with pulsing static. If I listen closely, perhaps leaning into the cab of a long-abandoned truck within the black forest, and press my ear to the cold plastic of a speaker, I can hear something within that static. It fades and buzzes and I worry what it might wake within the lightless wood. Eventually I hear a man, speaking ominously of salvation through plague, a drone of sonorous percussion layered beneath his lulling voice. In time – minutes, moments, eternities – I realize the static is no longer coming from the speaker. Instead, it is coming from the direction of a soft, glowing light swelling to life among the trees. The voice in the static is speaking my name, and enveloped in an unknowable accumulation of imperceptible radio waves, I begin to walk.

***

Matthew Bartlett is a man with a message. He knows well that words themselves are inert, dead things; incapable of movement and life until a skilled hand comes along and fashions them into something worthy of being read. In that respect, he has already proven himself to be a more than capable wordsmith. He has a keen eye for knowing just how much to divulge in his fiction, and a staggering ability to paint the grotesque in a hypnotically beautiful light. His message is unique and affecting, one that expertly couples the visceral with the psychological. And at the very heart of this message – this communicable view of a world always in the process of decay – are his characters: people shaped by the shadows that encroach on their tiny lives; people who breathe the dank, sodden odor of unreality; people emotionally encumbered by a definite lack of something. These multifaceted individuals are what allow the strange events in his stories to feel possible, despite their inherent impossibility; indeed, the whole of Gateways to Abomination is an example of that very process of sublimation in action. Whether through raw sensuality or a subtlety attuned to their individual temperament, Bartlett’s characters act as a conduit for his carefully constructed message to be transmitted.

I will admit that the Man from Leeds was not on my radar until well after the release of Gateways. I was not there at the beginning, witnessing his momentous rise out of the overwhelming muck of self-published authors. But word travels fast around the campfire of the Weird, and soon his name was on the lips of many a respected author. So here we are, paying tribute to a writer staggeringly talented yet unassuming. A man who can craft nightmares you’ll want to relive, and take you to a town you’ll never want to leave. His prose is lyrical and effortless, and despite his often grisly subject matter it is always written with passion and a finely-tuned attention to detail. His plots, though surreal and bewildering, are never out of place in his careful hands. Though the future is often bleak for those in his tales, the same cannot be said for the author himself. As far as I’m concerned this is only the beginning for him, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

But you already knew all that. You’ve read his work, experienced his purposefully fragmented insight. You’ve traversed his mental landscape, seen the grey men in grey coats with grey faces. You’ve heard the transmissions, the whispers that sound like rain. You’re a receiver now, the end result of a signal sounding through a forest made dark by more than just the absence of light. The only thing left to do now is follow the voice in the static.


Clint Hale is a writer of short fiction and the editor of the Dark of Things.

“America Bizarrica” by Tom Breen

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“America Bizarrica”
by Tom Breen

Robinson Hale’s big break came courtesy of a book he bought from a bum in a shabby overcoat selling battered hardcovers from a blanket in Tompkins Square Park.

Hale liked the dust jacket – a stylized illustration of a man in what looked like a Pilgrim costume holding his hand up and averting his face from the viewer. Curious Lore and Customs of the Connecticut River Valley by Abel Pitkin looked almost contemporary, but it was published in 1929.

The book proved to be a treasure for Hale, who had been trying to place stories with America Bizarrica, the popular weird travel website within the vast “lifestyle platform” empire of Tub, once a scabrous fanzine and now a company that took in millions of dollars and put out high-quality Internet content for affluent people under 34.

America Bizarrica published long-form essays, photo slideshows, and crisply-edited video, and the only remit was to be strange and different, not just in tone, but in content from all the other “off the beaten path” and “weird America” sites with their gormless reports of giant balls of twine or the plaque marking the spot where George Washington once ate an entire onion. Best of all, America Bizarrica paid, and paid well.

The odd old collection of tall tales, folklore, and vituperative asides about local customs turned out to be Hale’s way over the wall of indifference that had greeted all of his previous queries to the website.

Like many similar collections published at the time, Pitkin’s looked backward, as electricity, indoor plumbing, and the automobile remade America, sweeping away folkways that in some places had endured since before the Revolution. But whereas many of his contemporaries looked back with nostalgia or tried, however vainly, to argue for the preservation of old customs, Pitkin seemed relieved that “the barbarous ways and verminous superstitions” of the country from Brattleboro south to Old Lyme were passing away.

He regarded with particular loathing two obscure towns in the valley, Orford Parish in Connecticut and Leeds in Massachusetts. While the book treated most of the region’s residents with condescending comedy as bumpkins, scolds, or credulous oafs, Pitkin’s tone sharpened when describing the folkways of Leeds and Orford Parish, and his descriptions took on the character of sermons preached by that  famous Connecticut River Valley divine, Jonathan Edwards.

Hale, though, was thrilled to read of Secret New Year in Orford Parish and the grotesque procession through Leeds on All Hallows’ Eve; of King-Kill House and Sorrow Falls and the Devil’s Wallet; of rituals to make rivals impotent and stories of witches who persisted long after the Salem days.

It was particularly exciting when Hale discovered there was relatively little written about the towns online. The weird travel sites seemed to be unaware they even existed, and in the major newspaper archives he could find only a scattering of short stories about crimes or disputed local elections.

With visions of a four-figure check dancing in his daydreams, he made his first trip north from Williamsburg one summer, to cover Orford Parish’s annual Fourth of July parade or, as the town called the event, “the Procession of Antique Horribles”. When the Bizarrica editor saw Hale’s video of grotesque costumes, fire eaters, drunks in Boy Scout uniforms sleeping on the sidewalk, and the leering, goatish effigy of Thomas Jefferson (“God of Democracy”) paraded through the town at the climax of the berserk celebration, he not only accepted the piece on the spot, but promised to pay for anything “half as weird”.

Following that success, Hale sold three more pieces to the website, all based on things Abel Pitkin had written back in 1929: “goblin money” on the streets of Leeds; Orford Parish elections in which only children could vote; and a phenomenon, in the Connecticut town, in which mayors seemed to disappear with alarming regularity.

In addition to paying his rent, the articles were starting to make a name for Robinson Hale, as they were picked up, rewritten, and spread to other websites, and the Internet began to awaken to the wondrous strangeness of Leeds and Orford Parish. Hale was amused to see his articles had even been noticed in the towns themselves: shortly after his fourth article was posted on America Bizarrica, he read online a letter to the editor of the Orford Parish Vituperator, the town’s shrill, eccentric daily newspaper, in which Hale’s piece was denounced by a reader.

“These fine fellows in Brooklyn City can chortle all they want at the good people of Orford Parish and Leeds, but they should be watchful, lest they find the joke is on them,” the letter concluded.

“Always nice to encounter a fan,” he wrote when tweeting out the link to his growing number of followers.

Two days later, Hale was on the road north from New Haven, crafting in his mind the book pitch about the towns he was sure a publisher would pounce on.

His new story would be the first to directly tie the two towns together, inspired by a passage in Pitkin’s book about something called “wolf stones”:

The early settlers of New England, much afraid for the disposition of their dead, would, in some remote places, resort at times to laying huge stone slabs lengthwise over freshly dug graves. The utility of this practice was in protecting the mortal remains of the deceased from wolves, which in those days prowled the region in great packs, and would, in times of scarce victuals, resort to digging in churchyards for flesh, however corrupt. This was at a time when almost no one was buried in a coffin, and when the proverbial ‘six feet deep’ was scarcely to be found in that rocky and unforgiving soil.

Wolves were extinct from southern New England by 1745, and the frugal Yankee, ever desirous of saving money and labor, was happy to lift the wolf stones from the grave and put them in the countless miles of stonewall that still girdle this part of the world. And so wolf stones followed wolves, and were gone from New England by the time of the Revolution. Today there are only a handful of these stowaways from history that remain in churchyards; a wolf stone in Old Mystic, Conn., and one at York Village in Maine. And there are two in the valley, in those unhappy towns, Leeds and Orford Parish.

The reason the stones have remained at Old Mystic and York Village appears to have been forgetfulness initially and historic preservation latterly, but the reason they are planted still in Leeds and Orford Parish differs, as those towns must. Such things cannot exist in places like Leeds and Orford Parish, pestilential villages fatted on unwholesome deeds, without black rumors attaching themselves, and indeed, it is attested very early in both places that the objective in placing the heavy slabs on the graves was not to keep wolves out, but to keep whatever was buried beneath from rising again.

Pitkin’s book gave the location of both stones, a Google search told Hale the two cemeteries were still extant, and with a terse but encouraging email from his editor, he was on his way from Brooklyn one bright morning in February.

The trip did not begin well. His experience in the Orford Parish cemetery – a tiny burying ground established in 1702 that was located on a twisty, forlorn road in the hilly southern end of town – was mildly unpleasant, and as he drove north on I-91 to Leeds, he consoled himself with the thought that at least it would make a decent anecdote for his story.

When he had arrived at the Connecticut burying ground, he had been nonplussed to find the wolf stone – easy to spot, exactly where Pitkin said it was – surrounded by a group of teenage girls, dressed in their age group’s uniform of skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Not wishing to engage them in conversation, he pretended to study some of the other old stones in the cemetery, nearly all of which were eaten by lichen and cracked by centuries of New England winters, although on one he could make out the epitaph “And now Lord God almighty, true and just are all thy ways, but who can stand before thy cold?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he was startled to see the girls wriggling their jeans to their knees, and taking turns sitting on the wolf stone. He recalled Pitkin had said the stone was seen locally as a cure for infertility – actually, Pitkin had written it was seen as a cure for fertility, but surely that had to have been a typo. As Hale debated whether to try and get interviews about an apparently living folk custom versus the potential for being seen as a creep, a chunk of rock landed near him, and he heard sharp, mocking laughter from the gaggle of teenagers.

A Roman candle of panic went off inside Hale as he recalled Orford Parish had a reputation quite apart from the quirky, macabre superstitions recorded by Pitkin, one rooted in the mundane terrors of heroin and unemployment and violence. But the girls, having achieved whatever end they had in mind with the wolf stone, apparently threw the rock as a parting shot, for they soon left Hale alone in the cemetery to take his photos and hurry back to his car.

It was nearly 3 p.m. when he coasted into the center of Leeds, his phone’s GPS signaling that he had arrived at his destination, although the gnarled, tiny churchyard spotted in Google Streetview was nowhere to be seen. Instead, what confronted him at the address was a small, shabby brick building with a convenience store occupying the ground floor, a hand-written sign proclaiming “We Got ATM $ Cash” in the window.

Parking on the street, he looked in vain for anything that looked like it might be a churchyard, or park, or green space. Probably the convenience store clerk would know where to look, he thought, as he pushed the door open.

Inside, he found a tiny store whose wares appeared to have been organized by a tornado. Items seemed to have not so much been placed on shelves as flung there, and if there were some taxonomy to how they were arranged, he could scarcely imagine it.

There was no one behind the counter but standing in front of the beer cooler was a man plunked somewhere along the timeline of a hard middle age, regarding Hale with a dazed expression. The man clutched a plastic bag in one hand as the other attempted to hitch up his baggy, stained trousers, the cuffs of which engulfed the shoes he was wearing. An untucked dress shirt, garlanded with food stains, and a battered grey hooded sweatshirt completed his look, along with a stink that Hale registered as the likely bouquet of homelessness.

“Hi,” Hale mustered, in the politeness with which he had been raised. “Do you work here?”

“Roger’s taking a dump,” the man said in a glottal voice.

“I’m sorry?” Hale asked.

“Roger. The owner,” the man said, very slowly, as if each word were costing him money. “He’s taking a dump. He told me to watch the store while he’s out taking a dump. Hadda go across the street, ’cause he don’t have a can here.”

“Ah, okay,” Hale said. “Well, maybe you can help me out. I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m looking for a peculiar kind of old-fashioned gravestone. People, I guess, used to call it a ‘wolf stone’.”

He was about to elaborate further, but the man’s eyes flickered at the last two words.

“Oh, sure,” he said. “Only, we call it something different. We call it, ah, that is…” and here he trailed off, as if thinking too hard about something.

“So…you know where it is?” Hale asked, the impatience in his voice almost imperceptible.

“Oh, sure,” the man said. “It’s in the basement.”

Hale paused, and his hopes plunged.

“Oh,” he said. “So, they removed the stone and … put it in storage?”

“Oh, no,” the man said, smiling to reveal a set of small, yellow teeth. “No, nobody’s ever removed that stone. No, you see, you see, ah, they used to, this whole block used to be a churchyard, you see. And then when they built up this block, they moved all the graves down the street, only they didn’t move that stone. They just built the building over it.”

This was better than Hale could have dreamed. You couldn’t get more America Bizarrica than that. His hopes were tempered only by his suspicion that the man before him was drunk, brain-damaged, or both.

“Is it something people can go see? Or should I wait for…Roger to come back?” he asked.

“Oh no. Go on down. The basement’s right there,” the man said, motioning over his shoulder to a narrow door on which a New England Patriots calendar from 2007 had been tacked and never removed.

Nodding, Hale tried to hold his breath as he squeezed past the man, only to exhale when his interlocutor held up the plastic bag he had been clutching. The smell from the bag was even worse than the stink coming off its owner, and Hale could see the insides of the bag were streaked with brown gore.

“Hey,” the man said. “You wanna buy some spare ribs? Best in town. Cut these just this morning. Make my own sauce. Ten bucks.”

“Uh, thanks, but maybe when I come back up,” Hale said, hurrying past.

He heard the man chuckle as he descended the stairs, flicking on a light switch as he went. When he reached the bottom, the basement was much larger than he had imagined, stretching not only under the convenience store but perhaps the whole block. Some areas of it were ringed with iron picket fences about three feet high, while stone slabs leaned against the whitewashed walls as far as the light would let him see.

About 20 feet from the staircase was a grave like the one he had seen in Orford Parish: a headstone resting on a dirt floor, with a white stone laid lengthwise over it. Removed from the burying ground setting, it looked like an art installation, and Hale forgot the unpleasantness of his encounter upstairs as he paused before it, trying to read the inscription on the wolf stone.

He traced his fingers in the shallow grooves, and mouthed the words he thought he felt there. “Taller Jeems will not be the man who will not,” he whispered, trying to make the words form a semblance of reasonable order, when the headstone toppled backward, shattering on the ground.

Startled, Hale scanned the basement and then moved quickly for the stairs, worrying that no one would believe he hadn’t pushed the stone over, trying to decide on a way to explain to – who? – that he wasn’t some vandal from New York, just a writer trying to tell a quirky story.

He was so distracted by his anxiety that he tripped over the tree root, thick as an elephant’s tusk, which lay at the threshold of the doorway. He tried to catch himself but fell, not on the greasy tile of the convenience store, but onto wet grass and spongy moss.

Leeds – the sad, low-slung brick buildings, the dusty cars at untended parking meters, the cheap diners and the crumbling old houses – was gone, and around him there was a forest, wild and tangled and shuddering with life.

Stumbling to his feet, he shook his head as if to reorder the sight before him to something comprehensible, but tripped again when glistening, ropey tendrils snaked from beneath a row of ferns to grasp at his ankles and wrists, probing his face, moving with vegetable indifference into his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes, pulling him down into the soft dampness.

He could see the trees above him fall, the brush cut away, the first crude houses spring up, and then sturdier dwellings, and then men in Colonial dress with solemn faces laying a huge stone over him, and then the roads grew broad and well-traveled, and the town disgorged its sons to die in war, and the rain fell on the corn, and the buildings were larger and the carriages disappeared as hard streets coursed through the town, and the river turned the wheels of a mill until the mill was no more and at last a vast antenna tower sprouted from where he lay and waved over the town as night came.

The last thing, before he was joined forever to the black soil of Leeds, was the sound of a radio crackling into life, its staticky tendrils testing the air, beckoning to the unwary.


Tom Breen is a former newspaper and wire service journalist who lives and works in Eastern Connecticut. His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Broken Worlds and Creepy Campfire Quarterly Vol. 2, and his chapbook, Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide (to be reviewed by the Conqueror Weird soon), was published in February, 2016. The best places to find him are Colonial graveyards in New England, or on Twitter as @TJBreen.

“In Leeds” by John Linwood Grant

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“In Leeds”
by John Linwood Grant
with apologies to Matthew M. Bartlett

I won’t touch you, Matthew. Maybe it’s the sweat on your palms, the way your hands are shaking. Maybe I just don’t get the whole contact thing, the need to reach out. I didn’t have to reach out to bring you over, did I?

You can call me John. It’s easy on the tongue, if you have one. Some folk round here don’t, and they get along just fine.

Here? This is Leeds, Matthew.

Not your Leeds, of course. I’ve been there, and it’s a dark and dandy place, but it sings a different tune. Over there you’re too close to those silver-stringed gee-tars, those holy-rollers and a chance of redemption.

There’s no redemption here. No chance that if you turn that radio on, you’ll hear a preacher, or some sweet country gal with her panties dry and her momma’s cross hanging round her neck. The sounds on our airwaves are old, older than you’ve ever dreamed.

You hear that? That’s a legionary, pissing on a cross seventeen centuries ago, the night before the locals hooked out his guts and made him eat them. He was happy that night, because he was going home. He was leaving. Ten years of crotch-rot and sodden tunics, women – and men – whose diseases hadn’t even been thought of where he came from.

Not much has changed. We’ll drive a little, and I’ll show you.

These are the graveyards, edging the city, yellowed grass around soot-stained teeth. You can still read what it says on some of the stones. Twelve children, this one had, all dead before a year. Each tiny mouth chewed a part of her away, and she joined them before she was thirty. The cholera came that year, and played on her street, played hopscotch through the stinking refuse – this house, then that one.

See, she’s smiling at you. Or maybe not. That lower jaw’s probably somewhere round here, if we look hard…

No? Let’s go further in, then. Mills and homes, homes and mills. Each fed the other. Nothing Satanic about these mills, only the clatter of engines as they did the work of a fine new God. Limbs trapped in grinding gears, lungs clogged with fibre, backs breaking…

That man by the towering chimney? He’s no-one. Don’t nod, don’t look. He’ll unbutton his waistcoat and show you the cancers and ulcers that wealth bought him but wealth couldn’t cure. Wet things that cling to him still, whispering of new acquisitions and mergers, new sacrifices for the mills to the glory of…Leeds, I suppose.

There’s still money here, but it gathers in the fine quarters, chokes itself on cocaine and fancy gin.  Brass plaques on the gates, and women in tight leather trousers, vomiting their children into schools to make room for another handful of tablets and a top up.

The radio? You really have a thing about it, don’t you? Let’s see… here’s a channel you’ll like. A local channel for local people. Stanley Earnshaw and his Dancehall Tunes. There’s nothing like a nice bit of piano music on a damp night.

Maybe it doesn’t sound right yet, but you’re new here. Stanley lost his fingers in the ice and cold of the Baltic convoys. Each blackened digit came away with his Royal Navy woollen mittens, and now he plays much better, hammering the keyboard and weeping because his wedding ring is somewhere north of Riga and the sea doesn’t care.

Where does it come from? Out in the woods, maybe. No, I’m kidding. They say there are transmitters, but that’s not true. We don’t need them. Our Leeds carries sound like diseased blood speeds the virus. I could turn the radio off, and you’d still hear Stanley, crouched over his piano and smiling for the microphone.

We’re not going to the woods to look, no. You’ll have to trust me. Alder and birch crowd the streams, trees with hate in their thin bodies and a passion for drowning. I have to look after you, Matthew. If I don’t, you might not want to come again.

Instead, we’re going deeper into the city, past the cardboard, mould-infested estates where the white boys cry in their beds, ready for another day of spit and prejudice. Boys who drown cats because their fathers are too strong, or too absent, for the real violence to begin.

Victoria rules here, grief-swollen source of monumental buildings, expensive boutiques like fancy escorts next to huge, stately matrons. The small businesses, the second-hand book shops and the grubby sex-stores have been bulldozed to worship the mall, and the man you saw by the blackened chimney is here as well, a double-breasted, fashionable suit holding his sickness in, hiding the leeches which cling to his greed.

And here we are, nearer the river. They called us the Ladenses, the people of the fast flowing river, but we built too hard and too high for the river to win. Watch yourself, now, we’ve reached the infirmary, see?

A thousand crooked eyes of glass, scanning the streets for the smallest wound or bruise, hungry beyond measure. A mall and a mill, a maelstrom of victims, so brave, so brave. The arterial roads bleed ambulance-diesel, bringing home the sheaves. Don’t even dare a paper-cut while it’s watching. There are miles of low corridors, hissing steam pipes, alcoves piled with the broken footballers left from United’s surge to glory, old men whose hips rejected them and the children of tough love on every estate. You don’t want to go there.

But you do want to be here, in the shadow of the infirmary. Why? Because it’s all about you, Matthew, and Leeds, Massachusetts, and the sucking fear of that figure by the river. You know it, because you write its kind. Lank grey hair, plastered to an ulcerous scalp, while the Stocktons and Whiteshirts and Gares titter in the woods.

You made a slight mistake, Matthew, and maybe that’s why you came so easily when I called. Maybe that’s why I’m John, paving the way for your glory. And making sure that you carry on.

Get out of the vehicle and I’ll show you. She’s here, in this neat little medical museum, and she’s been waiting for you. She’s not yours, you see. She’s the Leeds witch, Mary Bateman, hanged for her gifts and her sins, and she knows her colonial brothers and sisters very well.  This is her skeleton, see, stripped of vanity, and around those bony feet the ant-men wait, guarding her until her skin returns.

They sold it, her skin, like swatches of cloth from the mills, like carpet samples from the malls. They stripped it from her in 1809, without a by-your-leave, but Mary knew that her time would come. She knew that you would come.

The ant-men are close, with their blades of broken glass, discarded scalpels from the infirmary. Their small eyes gleam red, like all good monsters, but they are kind, in their own way. They will only write on your skin this time, and mark it for future use.

What will they write?

Why, WXXT, of course.


John Linwood Grant is the editor of greydogtales, a blog about lurchers, longdogs, psychic phenomena, and writing. His debut novel, A Study in Grey, is available here.

“Dispatches from the Gutter of Heaven: an Appreciation” by Jose Cruz

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“Dispatches from the Gutter of Heaven”
an Appreciation
by Jose Cruz

Root around in the subterranean fiction of Matthew M. Bartlett long enough and you’ll be sure to find paradise. A strange form of paradise, perhaps, but the genuine product nonetheless; where else might one feel such complete shirking of inhibitions, such total submission to forces greater than ourselves? Weaker men have called this madness, but how can one transcend to total bliss without first divesting themselves of such anchoring preoccupations as reason and normalcy? If heaven truly is a place on Earth, then it is undoubtedly a Weird one.

And that place can only be bleeding Leeds, Massachusetts.

Reading certain passages from Gateways to Abomination, it’s tempting to categorize Bartlett in the school of shock mongers and mistresses who peddled their gruesome wares during the Horror Boom of the ’70s and ’80s; a man in the deep woods who suddenly and inexplicably vomits black worms and a crusted hermit delighting in the exquisite pain of his cancerous navel have the ring of cheap, tawdry theatrics, the kind showcased by many a paperback original to entice bored shoppers from the checkout line and enter a world where the prose was just as dry and creaky as the skeletal children who begged for purchase from their holographic covers. And while it’s true that Bartlett does maintain a literary heritage to these retro penny dreadfuls, the magic of his work lies in his ability to invigorate the most outlandish image and mundane setting with the lyricism of a poet drunk on the scatty wine of his most personal nightmares.

This power is made possible through Bartlett’s honesty as a writer. There is no posturing, no superficial desire to provoke a reaction from the audience. The piles of shit wearing party hats; the double-fanged fathers returning to reclaim evil sons; the leeches who soar through the air on banshee shrieks of static; all of these are in some way integral to Bartlett’s identity. They are his creative tumors, cleaved from his brain and latched to the bloodspattered page, instantly infectious to all readers who dare stalk the twisted byways of his feverish imagination.

Because Bartlett is an honest writer, he writes honestly about the area he calls home, namely the environs of western Massachusetts. It is a place of history and legacy, of families known and unknown, of uncompromising filth, of vibrant beauty found in the darkest of corners. Bartlett romanticizes this environment, but that is not to say that he beautifies it. His fascination does not end with the picturesque tourist shops and majesty of the wood. He romanticizes the dirt and squalor too, the physical and mental fissures of this Bad Place, the dilapidation. He is perhaps at his most personal in “when i was a boy – a broadcast”, a story that could surely pass as biography even with all its demonic fantasies intact. His depiction of an adolescent’s sexual longing for the sleazy mother of some neighborhood playmates gets to the very heart of an aspect of humanity that many writers tend to shy away from, namely our inherent desire to roll around in scum when the occasion calls for it. This is meant in the most literal sense possible. Bartlett’s fiction likes to poke at the scabs and pick the nose of good taste and then look at the discoveries it has uncovered in the process. The narrator of “when i was a boy” wants nothing more than to burrow deep into the rotund ass of his friends’ mother and revel in its musty odor. Though the reader may never have possessed this specific thought, it still speaks truthfully to the fact that in the end we are, all of us, a pack of primitive animals who, were it not for the constructs of society, would have no trouble shitting where we ate or doing anything else there for that matter.

It seems only natural that a radio should relay these messages to us. The radio is, after all, a room full of secret voices, one whose door can be opened by the gentlest turning of a dial. We walk through this room at every moment of the day, but it takes the antenna for us to pick up the wavelength, to hear the muttered prophecies and stranger-than-fiction truths that reside within it. The voices are like those nasty thoughts we try to keep pent up within our own locked rooms – how good it would be to feel the squash of carrion underneath my foot, to smell the gamey trickle of menstruation – and it is through these tapped broadcasts that our secret desires and true selves are revealed. It takes a mighty conduit to beam this dirty monologue to our ears, and Bartlett is our modern Opener of the Way.

Having been thus opened, we plunge our hands into the filth of our exposed souls and become blessed, rising on singed angel wings and leaving behind the withered facades of our civility to the worms. And as we rise, a voice echoes down from the dark clouds, a melody stuttering through static.

Heaven, it sings to us. I’m in heaven…


Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of the Haunted Omnibus [note from Brian: truly the blog that the Conqueror Weird aspires to.]. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.

Number of the bEast 2016 – an Appreciation of Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

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Today was supposed to be Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. Appreciation Day.

Today was supposed to be Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. Appreciation Day, but for some reason things have gotten a little strange. I hadn’t heard about this before. Was this a new thing? What exactly…you know…was it? Then again, Joseph S. Pulver is not only one of the most amazing writers ever to grace literature but a living treasure, so I decided to do a fun little write-up like several other sites in the Blogosphere have been doing.

I went back to some of his stories – a few derived from that seminal classic of weird fiction, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow; others completely original masterworks – so I could write this post. But while I was reading them something rather unusual happened. There was a pressure behind my eyes. Dizzying afterimages – yellow, with borders of purple – danced before my eyes. I took a break from reading an removed my glasses. I felt warm.

I walked into the den. My dog was chasing her tail, something she hadn’t done since she was little. After several failed attempts she stopped and her spine elongated, bones cracking, and she bit off her tail, playing with the ragged stub as if it were a toy. Her eyes were yellow.

Now I sit downstairs. I tried to leave the house. I tried. I tried. I looked outside. I cried. I cried.

It’s yellow. It’s all yellow.

I hold my damp face in my hands and scrawl words I don’t understand on it with an old rusty nail I found somewhere.

I see the King stand before me. He removes his mask. Under he is a kind-eyed man with a smirk on his face, a handlebar mustache, and a t-shirt reading “xPulver”.

“Hey,” he says. “Get up. You’ve got front row seats to the show of your lifetime.”

I rise.

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