“The Stiff” (Review)

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The Stiff Part One Title Page

The Stiff
by Jason Bradley Thompson

Note: I should say in advance that the media reviewed is as of yet incomplete.

As a high school freshman myself, I find horror stories about high school fascinating. It’s not like you need that much embellishment. High schoolers already have to deal with mental/emotional shifts, a sense of discomfort in their own body, vicious social structures practically designed to screw people over, the conflict between a longing for childhood irresponsibility and a hunger for being recognized as mature, a gnawing sense of existential dread, the growing desynchronization of the mind-body/childhood-adulthood dichtomies…

Ahem. Well, this is not a confessional booth. Suffice to say, high school is generally unpleasant for most people, and usually stressful, so its not that hard to imagine horror in that setting.

At least, not hard for Jason Bradley Thompson, whose webcomic* The Stiff is the best high school horror story I’ve yet to read.

The Stiff follows Alistair Toth (prepare yourself for the references!), a student** at Larkspur High who is obsessed with horror film, fiction, and the like. He’s also, as the title suggests, a bit of a stiff: he claims to be asexual, doesn’t drink or smoke, and seems utterly disgusted by the idea of sex. The closest thing to a friend” he has is Jamie Etchison, who (unlike Alistair) is not only open to things like sex but is actively exploring her newfound sexuality.

Things get complicated when new student Alice Hoffman arrives at school. She actually begins to stir up some feelings in Alistair, leading to several fantasies of his which we see depicted (him and her being the last two survivors of a zombie apocalypse, etc.). But this isn’t a normal crush. Something much more subversive and disturbing is at work.

Things really go into a tailspin when Alistair is temporarily hypnotized at a party. Social problems created by this incident aside, he becomes fascinated by hypnotism, and, one day when he’s home with a fever, suffering from frenzied nightmares, he chooses to hypnotize himself.

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To say anything more would be a spoiler.

The story is slow. Thompson allows it to move at its own pace, jumping back and forth in time, showing the same events from different perspectives. This really helps build character and setting. By chapter four of the work (as of right now, there are five chapters, an unfinished sixth chapter, and a prologue) I felt firmly rooted in the lives of the major characters. They’re all likable people, particularly Alistair (when he’s not being pretentious!) and Jamie. Their conversations aren’t forced, the dialogue (despite a few misspellings) feels real. They act like normal people (well, most of the time. Alistair has a few things going on, so it’s not out of place.) and I feel like I know them.

Alistair’s struggle with his crush for Alice Hoffman can be interpreted as…well, what it is: a crush. It can be strange (and certainly frightening) to develop a crush on someone for the first time, especially when one is so conditioned against the concept of romance as Alistair is. Of course, in Alistair’s case, things are a little more unusual, but on the whole Thompson very effectively replicates the tumultuous emotions that go along with having a crush.

The horror itself is still in the shadows, and even after reading all of it I still don’t know what’s going on. That’s a wonderful feeling, though, isn’t it? The ambiguity of what’s really going on (and there is a lot of it!) is the very best kind of torture. Thompson is building an atmosphere, layer by layer, and the mystery of what the threat actually is is what makes it so haunting.

For this reason I hesitate to call The Stiff: Part One complete horror. The slow burn and the sheer unnaturalness of what is going on puts it more in line with modern weird fiction, or with Robert Aickman’s idea of the “strange story”, than with what I’ve come to know as horror. (Although, really, who needs demarcation lines for genre?)

The allusions, though, are unmistakable. There’s a student called Shirley Jackson, a dog named Sredni Vashtar. Even Larkspur, the genus that gives Alistair’s high school its name, is entirely toxic. This is the decidedly “meta” (and certainly tragic) twist to the story: Alistair is trapped in a scary story and doesn’t realize it, just like the hapless protagonists that he’s so fond of reading about.

Now onto the art. Ah, the art. Jason Bradley Thompson had already proved his artistic merit to me when I started reading The Stiff: Part One with his absolutely incredible adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (which you can, and most certainly should, buy here). This project doesn’t offer up monsters or splendor, except in Alistair’s dream/fantasy sequences and the title pages of each chapter (which are drawn with obvious relish).

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Chapter five title page

The art makes use of bold outlines and sharp crosshatching, leading to a claustrophobic sense of darkness. The characters, on the other hand, stand out bright white against the page, sometimes ugly, other times beautiful. When the horror comes a-creeping it is visibly shown in the panels: gnarled, decaying blotches of darkness ooze into the panels and indeed into the characters themselves. It made me feel physically uncomfortable at times, which is saying something.

There’s also so much attention to detail that it borders on obsessive. If you look at the panel of Alistair hypnotizing himself, you can read the title of more or less every book on his shelf. There’s a magazine called Film Threat on his dresser, and a mug of some liquid on the floor. It must take quite some time to cram so much into a single panel, but it certainly pays off.

Thompson once worked at VIZ Media, co-wrote a (quite entertaining, even for someone not particularly interested in the subject) column called House of 1000 Manga, and designed an acclaimed game called Mangaka, so its no surprise that his art can show the manga influence at times. His characters’ expressions, in particular, can be reminiscent of traditional Japanese comics. This is not a bad thing; on the contrary, I found it to be a bit of a breath of fresh air, given the style that most major American comics are drawn in.

The art does start out a bit rough, but greatly improves over time. Thompson himself noted this in his comments to the second page of the prologue: “the art in the early pages […] is old and sometimes a little embarrassing. […] Part of me wants to redraw these early pages, but recently I’ve come to the conclusion that artists going back and redrawing/rewriting their old stuff is a waste of time creatively”. It’s a matter of this (in chapter one):

Wham

Versus this (in chapter six):

Chomp

It’s worth sticking with.

It would probably be pertinent to mention at this point that, unfortunately, The Stiff (in its webcomic incarnation) has been canceled. Writes Thompson:

I set myself up with an artstyle [sic] too detailed and a plot too long to finish in the format I chose. […] thinking of the tremendous time investment it would take to draw those 750+ remaining pages, I think of the dozens of other, newer projects I’d rather do with that time. And when I think of leaving the sad, dangling possibility that *someday* I’ll finish drawing it, I think of other unfinished-but-never-officially-canceled comics that have bugged me and my friends over the years […]Inasmuch as possible, I’d rather not be part of such company, and have The Stiff[***] be a dead webcomic rather than an eternally-waiting-to-be-finished comic.

This was sad news to me when I initially read it, but not all hope is lost. “I’m going to finish The Stiff[****] as a prose novel,” he says in the same post. “Prose has vastly different requirements than comics and the resulting work will surely be different than a graphic novel would have been, but at least in prose I can honestly say that it *will* get done.”

It will be interesting to see The Stiff in a prose format, and how the comic will play off the writing. I am, however, wholly invested in it. God knows when it’ll be done, but I can wait.

Even in its current, half finished state, I can confidently say that The Stiff is one of the best weird fiction stories I’ve ever read, period. Yes, I’m going there. In my opinion, Thompson is in the league with the best of Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, Laird Barron, Matthew M. Bartlett, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Nathan Ballingrud, et al. Even if the story were to remain unfinished, it would still remain one of the best things I’ve ever read.

It just checks off everything that makes a really effective weird tale: compelling characters, disturbing horror/menace, the unknown, modern sensibility, and all the others. Part of me is worried that I might be overselling it, so keep your expectations low…but I’m not overselling it. At least, not in my opinion, which I recognize isn’t everyone’s.

I’ve gushed quite enough, and, it being a Sunday, I have school tomorrow. I’ll walk down the hall, go to my classes, doodle pentagrams in the margins of my notebook and scribble them out, and try not to let the day-to-day fear of death get to me. After reading The Stiff, though, that’s just a little harder…and I couldn’t be more glad for it.

You can (and most certainly should!) read The Stiff (so far) starting here. You can also just browse Mr. Thompson’s website, which is brimming with wonderful art and comics. The Comics Archive is a good place to start.


ANNOTATIONS

*For those who don’t know, a webcomic is defined as “a series of comic strips published online”, though it generally means any form of graphic media (not just comic strips) that one can read online.

**I hesitate to write freshman/sophomore/junior/senior because I’m sure I’d get it wrong, given that the story kind of hops around in time and space. Just…read the comic.

***My italics.

****My italics.

Sean M. Thompson’s “The Demon”: Chapter Nine

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Sean M. Thompson’s
The Demon

Groggy from lack of sleep, a presence seemed to be wandering around Cort’s thoughts. It wasn’t a mere string of thoughts – it was like a dream of a different mind, separate from his own, and the thoughts it might have.

His chest itched, felt irritated. He made a mental note to check out the skin on his chest by the end of the day.

About 7:30 he walked off to the train station. A wicked wind blew, the buildings acting as a wind tunnel. He did his best to appear cool and collected, having just murdered and ate another human being. Not just anyone either, but a person that he loved.

Not to mention having just seen little weird monsters eat her remains. No, I’m doing remarkably well. Pat yourself on the back, buddy. You are a model citizen.

The police station came up on his left. Cort stopped, and stared at it. He could just turn himself in. He gritted his teeth, and part of him knew turning himself in was the right thing to do. He definitely wasn’t fit to walk the streets. He’d assaulted an old man, and then gone on to kill a woman he’d been romantically involved with.

Despite his guilt, he kept walking.

Cort turned the corner, and saw the subway stop ahead. Something dark passed through his peripheral vision. He turned his head quickly to see, but he only saw pedestrians: nothing out of the ordinary.

There hadn’t been much snow, and the sidewalk wasn’t too bad. He’d made good time, despite being a bundle of nerves.

Down the stairs he descended. The journey lower felt fitting. A symbolic gesture, a subterranean landscape to match the black waters flooding his psyche.

There was something about the station which raised the hairs on his neck. It was a quality he couldn’t define, couldn’t articulate.

Everything appeared normal. The passengers all looked normal, acted normal. A guy playing an acoustic guitar strummed a remarkably boring, cliché song about working hard to earn money for his lover. Men and women in business attire. A few students with backpacks, or messenger bags. A typical scene for a Monday in the subway.

So why were his guts churning like he’d just found a bomb?

His train arrived. Cort took a seat at the far corner. The car quickly filled to capacity: a tall guy and a short Indian women having to stand, while a woman in a burqa sat near with a baby in a stroller.

I wonder what that baby would look like if I threw it onto the tracks –

“No!”

The other passengers stared at him, and he realized he’d just said that out loud.

Oh Jesus, keep it together Cort, cool your shit, man.

He tried staring out the window instead, hoping the buildings and vehicles might get his mind off his fellow passengers. There was a reflection in the glass. A passenger sat behind him. Cort focused on this man – a black guy, pretty big from what he could gather. As he watched, the man’s mouth began to open wide. His jaw bones snapped in unison, and his arms and legs broke in tandem. The man slid to the floor in the reflection, and continued to slide over towards him.

Cort cranked his neck around. The seat across from him was occupied by a Chinese girl, who looked to be a student, reading an engineering textbook. She gave him pretty much the look he was expecting.

Cort turned back to the window, shutting his eyes tight, listening intently for his stop.

***

The office building looked like some kind of angry god of glass and metal, staring down at him with thousands of eyes. The angles were all wrong, the way the place tilted down towards him. Realistically, Cort knew that the building would have toppled over into a heap of rubble had it really been at such a pronounced lean.

The whole world had gone sharp and insane over the course of a few nights, and now he had to walk around pretending like he either wasn’t possessed by a fucking demon, or  like he wasn’t so profoundly batshit that they should lock him up and throw away the key.

As he entered the building, he swore he saw an overweight woman on the street in a black dress and heels wink at him.

Once inside, the security guard looked normal, but many of the office drones stared at him with feral eyes, sizing him up. They looked like they wanted to devour him whole. The ones staring at him seemed to be whispering something, but he couldn’t make out what.

Cort rushed to the elevator, hit the button for the second floor. Many of the people in the lobby stared at him as the doors shut.

When he got to his floor, he rushed out, heading to the relative safety of his desk.

A short janitor, with a long scraggly beard and a blue baseball hat rolled a mop and yellow bucket on wheels into the elevator. He was whispering something, over and over, as he passed Cort. It sounded like the same thing the office workers downstairs had been whispering, but he still couldn’t hear well enough to decipher the words.

The janitor giving him one solitary wave, before the doors shut.

Cort walked by cubicles on the way to his own. Every employee stared intently at their computer screens, the glow off the monitors shining in their eyes. None of them were typing anything, or clicking mouses. They simply stared at the monitors, enraptured, moths hovering before a porch light.

He thudded into his desk chair, and rolled around to find Jake staring at him like an escaped lunatic.

“Jesus, Jake!”

“You know there isn’t much time left, right?”

Cort squinted quizzically. “What are you talking about?”

“I know you feel him inside you.”

Cort backed the chair away, as far back as it could go until it thumped into his desk. A cold weight was sinking in his stomach.

“I, uh, have to get some work done, Jake, so I’d appreciate it if you – ”

“You killed anybody yet?”

Cort froze. “What?”

“Oh, don’t play coy. I have. A lot of us here have. I’ve done so many things, Cort.”

Jake rolled towards him, and trapped, Cort could only watch in horror as his cube mate inched closer, and closer.

“Necrophilia, bestiality, cannibalism, these are a few of my favorite thiiiiiings,” Jake laughed in a sing-song voice.

Cort stood, and Jake grabbed him by the hips, forced him back to his seat.

“I know you killed a woman, buddy. And that’s okay. Because she was only a human. And the new world, the one on its way, it’s filled with people like us. People with his voice, with his will.”

“No…no. This is wrong.”

He tried to stand again, and Jake held his shoulders so he couldn’t.

Wrong is a human concept, Cort. We’re better than that. We’re more than morality. We hail from a place of ancient decay and darkness, a spiritual plane as black as the dead stars in the frozen heavens.”

Cort stomped on Jake’s foot, and the man let out a surprised cry, which was filled with laughter, even through the pain.

“There’s nowhere to run, Cort. This world is ours now. It’s only a matter of time.”

He hurried to the elevator, feeling their eyes upon him, and hearing the same whisper, only now he could make out what the words were.

Hail Satan.

His heart thudded against his ribcage hard. They all stared at their screens, and there was no desire within him to stay.

Hail Satan.

He burst out the door, stumbling across the pavement.

Hail Satan.

He hailed a cab, told the driver his address. Out the window of the cab, the buildings sagged down towards the street, in a sky that was markedly darker than before.

***

Cort woke on his back. The sun was bright. His skin was warm, and a gentle breeze rustled through the field, a barely perceptible susurration of the flowers all around him. Someone called his name. It was difficult to see through the light, blurred by the glare shining through the cloudless blue sky.

“Cort,” Janet said.

Cort stood, the image of Janet clearing into focus with every second his eyes adjusted. They stood in a field of daisies that stretched far as he could see.

Janet being here seemed wrong. Cort couldn’t remember why. Something bad had happened to her, hadn’t it? Something terrible.

And then everything came back to him. Wracking sobs escaped his throat, as he struggled for air through his grief.

“Jesus, Janet, I’m s-so fucking sorry. I – I didn’t…”

Cort coughed, tried to steady his voice through the tears. His chest ached with sorrow. Seeing Janet brought everything to the surface. The distractions of all the craziness of the past few days washed away, and left only this. Only the terrible crime he had committed. Only the life he had taken.

“Cort, listen. You’re the only one who can stop him,” Janet said flatly.

He breathed deep, looked her in the eye. “What? I’m the only one who can stop who? I – Jesus, Janet, I killed you.”

She sighed. “You weren’t yourself, Cort.”

“I ate a piece of you!”

“That wasn’t…wow, really?”

“I blacked out, I – ”

“Look, that – that wasn’t you, Cort. That’s…that’s really fucked up, but that wasn’t you.”

“But they were my hands! I should have known – ”

“You love me, right?”

“Yes.”

There was no hesitation. He loved Janet, and she’d been taken from him, by him. What was he going to do now?

“You have to make this right,” she said.

“How could I ever?” he asked.

“There’s a man in Boston who isn’t a man at all.”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“No one knows his name,” Janet replied, beckoning him over with her hand.

They walked in silence for a time, the field of daisies sloping gently down, for miles in either direction. Cort loved her, and somehow she’d been returned to him. He didn’t deserve to ever see her again. He should be rotting in prison for what he did.

“Should I turn myself in?” he asked.

She held him by the shoulders.

“Cort, this is real. This is me. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but I’m alive again, in…this place. There are a lot of good people, innocent people, who need your help. You don’t want anyone else to die, do you?”

“No. I don’t.”

“Good. Because you need to avenge my death.”

“But…but I was the one that killed you!”

“For the last time, it wasn’t you, Cort! You have to believe me that I know you would never do something like that!”

“And how do I know that I’m not crazy? That I’m not just dreaming?”

She hugged him. Cort felt the warmth of her body as her arms wrapped around him. It felt real enough.

“You need to trust me, Cort. This is real.”

“Where are we?” he asked.

“I…I don’t know,” Janet said, though there was a tinge of apprehension in her voice.

“So you don’t know where we are, and you don’t know the name of this…guy I have to stop.”

“He’s not a man,” Janet said.

The flowers seemed to go on indefinitely. This place was beautiful. He never wanted to leave.

He tried to focus. Tried to piece everything together. All the concepts were muddled, like recollections after a drunken night. Nothing entirely made sense.

“If he’s not a man, what is he?” he finally asked.

“He’s the creature inside of your head, and he’s the one behind the computer virus. He made you kill me. He may not be a ‘he’ at all, but when he walks, he does so with human legs. His tongue is the Serpent’s, and his is the Voice of the Deep.”

Cort paused, feeling sick. “Satan?”

“No. Not him. He’s an emissary, a servitor. A soldier, leapt straight from Hell onto Earth.”

“So what am I supposed to do about it? I’m not exactly a master assassin! I’m not special in any way, Janet!”

His anger bubbled within him, boiling water left too long on the stove. Where the fuck was this, and why was Janet here? He was so confused, and scared, and full of grief and guilt.

Her death was his fault. No matter what she told him, it was his hands had done the terrible work.

“You are special, Cort. That’s the only reason you were able to travel here. That’s the only reason I’m able to talk to you now.”

He stared at her in confusion for a few moments, before finally sputtering out “What?”

She reached out, slowly, and placed her hands in his.

“There are people that inherit a certain…predisposition. Not many do. Don’t ask me how I know, I’m not entirely sure myself. But when I came here, I just…knew. Just like one person can grow up to be good at math, or can have a wonderful memory, others are able to see and process things most can’t. You’re one of those people, Cort. When you sense someone calling and know exactly who it is, that’s not a coincidence. When you somehow knew my hometown without me telling you when we first met, you didn’t overhear it. You just knew it. You were able to pick it out of my mind.”

“This is such bullshit,” he said, frustrated. None of this made any sense whatsoever. He was in an endless field of flowers with a woman he’d just murdered, (willingly or not), and now this dead woman, miraculously alive was telling him he was what? A psychic? Spiritually gifted? Had ESP?

That was fucking ridiculous.

“You can get inside his head, Cort,” Janet said softly.

“I work a low level data entry job, and I can barely remember to bring my wallet with me half the time. You’re trying to tell me I’m gifted? I have a hard time believing that. Granted, demonic possession is equally hard to wrap your head around, but being able to…what are you actually saying to me?”

“I’m saying you can travel, Cort. I’m saying you can find this thing that wears the flesh of a man, and get inside its mind.”

“To what end? Even supposing this isn’t just me being a crazy person, having a crazy person dream, being stuffed to the brim with delusions of grandeur – even assuming this is real, what could I possibly get out of hopping into the mind of a goddamn demon?”

She smiled, and motioned for him to sit. Cort did, sighing. Janet’s eyes held him rapt.

“The only way you can stop this is if you find him, and kill him. You’re one of the few with him inside your head who can actually fight back, who can block him out. The others can’t do that, Cort. You need to block him out, and you need to search for him.”

“And why can’t someone else do it? You just said there were a few!”

“Cort, they could be children. They could be elderly. I have no idea how many others there are, or how to access them. But I know you can do it. You need to have faith.”

“You’re trying to tell me in the entire city of Boston there’s not one other person who can do this?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

He sighed, rubbed his forehead. This was totally absurd. Was he supposed to believe that he was some sort of “Chosen One”, a Stephen King character? It was so out-of-the-question…and yet when he looked at Janet, there was such a real earnestness in her eyes that he couldn’t help but be moved.

After a pause, he said “How am I supposed to find him?”

“You’ll know when the time is right.”

They sat in silence. Cort leaned in and kissed her.

“I failed you,” he said, feeling the guilt well up in him again.

“You can make this right,” she replied.

“I miss you so much.”

“I know.”

This place was so beautiful. Janet looked radiant. Cort realized she was wearing the same dress he’d seen her in on the night they first met.

“If I’d only fought harder,” he said, feeling like he might break down again, “maybe you’d still be alive.”

She hugged him, and pressed her nose against his, so close her eyelashes tickled his forehead when she blinked.

“This wasn’t your fault, Cort. This thing…it’s pure evil, just like the Beast himself. The world is in danger. You have to fight back.”

“Will I ever see you again?” he asked, crying again, only distantly aware of the tears sliding down his cheeks.

“When your days are at an end. When you leave your first life for the next. When you pass over, you’ll see me again. And we’ll walk hand in hand, on this field that goes forever.”

They stood in silence for a time. And he kissed her again, hard, wrapping his arms around her. Cort prayed he’d never have to let go. He wished more than anything he could stay in the sun, in this field, with the woman he loved. He dreamt of a life with her here, and knew it would be a long time before he’d ever see this place, or her, again.

His work wasn’t finished yet.

“Forever,” Janet said.

The field blinked out of existence, and he fell through endless night; never stopped falling.

***

Cort came to, gasping for air, lying on the floor of his apartment. His chest itched like crazy. He got up, slowly, wandered to the bathroom. Took off his shirt, and stared at his chest in the mirror.

An upside down triangle of a rash was flaring up, a blood red.

Cort caught movement behind him, turned, but there was nothing there.

He rushed to the front door, and confirmed it was locked. Again, the movement of something out of his peripheral vision, by the wall. Yet, when he looked, nothing.

I wonder what Stacy’s up to, he thought, and the words felt like buzzing wasps inside his brain.

Leave her out of this! he thought, fully himself, confronting that other voice that mimicked his own.

And all of a sudden, a strange sensation. His inner monologue just…stopped. No thoughts, no voices. It was like someone getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar, freezing up. His mind was completely blank.

Cort sat on the couch, and gradually his thoughts returned. They seemed to be more or less normal.

Cort called the office and made up an excuse about an aunt dying, saying he’d need to use up the rest of his sick time for the next week. He assured them on the message he’d call them back tomorrow. Went on to say he’d email them to confirm.

Stacy’s probably home right now, he thought, and went to the kitchen to pour himself a stiff drink.

***

“That’s a whole lot of food, mister,” the woman behind the counter said.

Rosy’s was mostly empty, save for a few cooks in the back, and this girl, her nametag indicating her nomenclature was Shondra.

He stared at her, letting the silence work its magic. Silence was a powerful tool. Silence could kill a person slowly from the inside out, and make them do all manner of delicious things.

Finally, he spoke.

“Darrell, has he found a new job yet?”

Shondra frowned.

“How do you know my husband?”

“Oh, I know a whole lot of things, Shondra. For instance, I know that Darrell has been working very hard, but not to find a job. Tell me, how well do you know Sofia?”

“My neighbor? How do you know about my neighbor?”

His smile could freeze the rain.

“Mister, you better cough up some answers. I got pepper spray in my purse, and I’m not afraid to use that shit.”

“Darrell has been working very hard with Sofia for the last month, sometimes twice a day. While you’re here, hard at work, trying to keep a roof over your head, over his head, he’s been fucking your neighbor. And he hasn’t just been fucking her, he’’s been falling in love with her. As we speak, they have plans to get married in the next six months, and he’s been trying to get up the courage to leave you for the last week.”

She started to cry, and looked like she was about to say something, and stopped.

Inside of her head, he continued.

Shondra, you deserve so much more than such a lousy deadbeat. So here’s what I think you should do. I think you should go home, and you should open up your closet. On the top, behind a box of old DVDs, there’s a small handgun Darrell purchased last year. The bullets are beside it. Now, Darrell will be in Sofia’s apartment, giving the old one-two to her, and he won’t hear you come in. If you aim at his back, you can kill two birds with one stone. Sofia has five thousand dollars stuffed into a shoebox under her bed. Take the money, and get out of there as soon as you can. You’ll have a few minutes. Your other neighbor, the elderly woman, she won’t be able to hear the shots, and the man at the far end of the hall has a warrant out for his arrest, so he won’t be inclined to tattle.

A dreamy look on her face, Shondra said aloud, “Why are you telling me this?”

He leaned in a bit, and in his eyes, Shondra saw flames. They were hypnotic, the way they danced, and they relaxed her. She could stare into his eyes for hours.

“I’m telling you this because no one deserves to be walked on, Shondra. Now, go tell your boss you have to leave early.”

She turned, and, suddenly thinking of something, he clapped his hands to get her attention. Shondra cried out, and turned back around.

“Almost forgot, can you put extra hot sauce in there?”

To be continued
April 13th, 2017.

Orford Parish Books Publications 1 – 4 (Review)

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Orford Parish Books is what I guess you’d call a “boutique press” that publishes books generally centered around author Tom Breen’s fictional locale of Orford Parish. I decided to review all four of their released books (so far) in one go, so without any further ado…


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Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide
by Tom Breen

This book hit me like a rock.

I was expecting it to be a collection of linked short fiction – that’s generally what these types of things are, right? – or, less likely, a mosaic novel in the style of Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination.

What I got was one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever received – an amazing, fully fleshed out, well-written, frightening, hilarious faux-tour guide.

Let me step back a bit.

There is a town in Connecticut called Orford Parish. Like any other small town, it has a local newspaper, quaint people, mediocre restaurants.

It also has an ancient tree that will answer any question it is given, groups of children repeating the word “Despair” over and over while playing in the snow, and more murders per capita than any other place in the United States.

Of course, as First Selectman Norman Dimble reminds us, there’s “‘More than murder – but plenty of murder'”!

This book purports to be a collection of short descriptions each centered around the history and folklore of a specific “murder house” in Orford Parish. Each description includes the name and address of the house, a story recalling the history of it, and a quick write-up on the best restaurants in the area. No, I’m serious. It’s all quite funny, but when you peel back the skin of it you begin to see something more unnerving.

For example, what’s so funny about the cannibalistic rage that enveloped the NuLove Hippie Commune? Who’s laughing at the Lathrop House, home to one of the most disturbing and mysterious murders ever set to paper? And there’s certainly nothing funny about the priest who stared into the void that is God…

It’s hard to talk about my favorites in this book without giving anything away. The NuLove one was probably my favorite, followed closely by the aforementioned Borden-inspired Lathrop House entry (which genuinely had me looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night). The book knocks your expectations out of the park with the very first fragment, which totally subverts your idea of “murder” and presents quite a puzzling conundrum until the truth (?) of the matter is revealed…

Breen’s writing is precise; it ranges from elaborate to sharp depending on the intended voice. The wistful narrator of “Armorica”, the only traditionally structured narrative in the book, does genuinely seem to be reminiscing her childhood, while Norman Dimble’s infectious enthusiasm for his blood-soaked city leaps off of the page. On the whole humor and wit shines in every narrative; you will find yourself laughing a lot during the reading of this book, which contrasts with the horror and, in doing so, makes that horror more effective.

I honestly don’t know how much more I can say about this book without spoiling its effect. Suffice to say that this made my “Best of 2016” list for a good reason: namely, that it is inventive, funny, dark, and all-in-all surprising in the best possible way.

If you don’t read this – and I really, REALLY mean this – you are doing yourself a disservice. Buy Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide here.


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Little Oren and the Noises (Picture Books for Weird Kids, Vol. 1)
by Joseph Pastula

Again, hit me like a rock.

When I heard the second release from Orford Parish books would be a picture book, I was surprised but not necessarily deterred – okay, it was a little bizarre, but they’d pulled that off with Orford Parish Murder Houses, right? I checked out the author’s webcomic Silkworms, which made me feel unusual for a while after – a good sign. Still, I was more than a little doubtful when I opened up the package…

Let me describe Little Oren and the Noises in the simplest way I can. If Thomas Ligotti wrote a picture book, this would be it.

The story follows an Orford Parish man who doesn’t like noise, and who goes to very extreme lengths to avoid it. To say anything else would be to ruin the nasty surprise this book has waiting for you. Joseph Pastula’s pictures are uncomfortable in the best way, and I felt more than a little disturbed when I saw the, um…noises.

The story is simple and uncomplicated, but coupled with the pictures the whole thing becomes an eerie experience that left me claustrophobic and upset.

I can’t say too much about this book, as its mostly pictures and the story is very easily spoiled. But I can say that anyone, even adults, will enjoy this – if they enjoy such bizarre, uncategorizable works of weird fiction. And really, who doesn’t?

You can buy Little Oren and the Noises here.


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Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror
by Joseph Pastula and Tom Breen

(Note: I can’t find a high-rez image of the cover, so this promotional image will have to do.)

This is the first in a series of so-called “split chapbooks” which are essentially tiny, themed anthologies with just two or three stories. In keeping with its recurring theme of “doing something really, really strange”, Orford Parish Books’ first themed chapbook is Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, which is – you guessed it – Orford Parish horror stories relating to the flag of the United States.

The “hit me like a rock” phrase is getting overused, but again, it’s the only adequate way to describe my feelings on discovering the theme of this slim volume. Orford Parish Books’ previous publications both effectively explored the fringes of weird horror, but I didn’t know how one could possibly make the American flag scary. However, I was catching on, and I figured things were going to be interesting (if not anything else). My expectations were, again, exceeded.

Joseph Pastula’s cover is quite eye-catching – there are skulls in the white lines, the red is reminiscent of blood, and the stars are all inverted pentagrams. These themes are expanded upon in the erudite faux-introduction “The Flag, and How it Got that Way” by an Orford Parish professor of demonology. This was a welcome surprise. It’s a funny little thing, and adds to the delightful oddness of the book.

We kick this book off with Joseph Pastula’s story “Orison for the Departed”, which is not set inside Orford Parish but just outside of it. Its a sort of ghost story, more or less, about a house covered in flag paraphernalia, and the man who finds out why. For some reason this story reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House, but this is probably just a cosmetic connection. Pastula’s prose is slightly more baroque than Breen’s, but it suits the story quite well and provides nice contrast to the second offering. His development of atmosphere is quite skillful, and I look forward to seeing more full prose offerings from the author.

The second story is Tom Breen’s “Our Heart’s Blood Dyed in Every Fold”. It follows an Orford Parish “flag club” (as it were) composed of fathers whose children have gone missing, and who blame a group of astral warriors for taking them. Drawing on a curious old witchcraft custom of Europe, the story evokes both laughter at the absurdity of the situation and pity for the poor, deluded (or are they?) men whose children have been taken. Breen cultivates a very strong voice for the narrative, whose sarcastic comments and snarky asides provide most of the humor in the tale.. No-one’s laughing at the end, though, in a sad and disturbing conclusion with an ambiguous final line that still has me puzzling.

One would think that Pastula’s baroque ghost story would clash with Breen’s dark comedy, but they don’t. The one actually compliments the other (and vice versa), highlighting the good qualities in the story it sits alongside.

The book ends with an appendix that echoes the introduction and gives a more thorough account of Orford Parish flag history. It’s a fascinating bonus, one of the little touches that (like the introduction) really make this book shine.

On the whole, I was thoroughly surprised and impressed by this addition to the Orford Parish Books canon, and was eagerly looking forward to the next book.

You can buy Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror here.


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Three Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle
by Matthew M. Bartlett, Joseph Pastula, and Tom Breen

Split chapbook, round two!

When I heard that the next book’d be themed after wrestling, I was no longer surprised. That is, it’s not that I was expecting the book to be about wrestling, but I was expecting the book to have a somewhat unusual theme, and that’s what I got.

I also no longer had any doubt in my mind that the book’d be quality. Orford Parish Books had won me over; I was excited for the release and couldn’t wait to see what the team would do.

Speaking of the team, a new member was brought on: the reputable Matthew M. Bartlett, who we might’ve talked about before. This ratcheted up the excitement from ten to fifteen, and when the package finally arrived I tore it open like a ghoul going at a throat.

We jump right into the (mat) action with Bartlett’s “The Dark Match”. It tells of an unnamed man desperately fleeing his hometown of Leeds (and we all know what goes on there!) for the relative safety of a seaside town named Hulse (Bartlett names it in an interview, but not in the story). There he meets a bizarre old man who proceeds to tell him a remarkably grisly story of Hulse’s underground late-night wrestling shows. After the story is finished, our narrator realizes Hulse may not be as safe as he thought. The tale has an intense conclusion that leaves the reader disturbed.

Bartlett’s in fine form here, with his signature brand of surreal horror on full display and an eerie, rapturous prose that draws the reader across the page. It’s also nice to see a change of scenery from Leeds (as much as I love it!) with the decrepit seaside town that this story takes place in. I hope we see a lot more of Hulse in the future! This is a very strong start.

Then we have Joseph Pastula’s truly gruesome “A Severance of Roots”, a shudder-worthy title I didn’t realize the meaning of until writing this post. Our narrator finds an obscure mention of a particularly brutal wrestler called “the Great Hakai” and goes to great lengths to find out more about them. To say anything more would be to spoil the story and its effect. While there is no supernatural element, or even a direct threat to the narrators, the story is possibly the most unsettling in the book. The last paragraph, which isn’t even really a twist, left a cold feeling in my stomach. It mimics the horror of looking back at some terrible past event, the sharp shock of an unexpected monstrosity. I often get this sensation when reading Ambrose Bierce, who could write a horror story like no-one else. In a surprise knockout this entry wins my favorite of the book, despite the incredibly high caliber set by the other two entries.

Finally, we have “The Vision of James Lee Dawson, King of the Death Matches” by Tom Breen. This forms a nice middle ground between the quiet horror of “A Severance of Roots” and the balls-to-the-walls surrealism of “The Dark Match”. It follows a grizzled wrestling veteran to one of his last matches. His eerily quiet opponent, however, isn’t interested in the script. This is probably the biggest treat for those who actually watch and enjoy wrestling. It provides the thrill of the match with the horror promised by the book, and Breen’s characteristically sharp sentences are perfect in their succinctness (another Bierce-like trait). This also has a surreal scene, one of the most utterly strange images in the book (and “The Dark Match” is in this book, so that’s saying something) and a powerful defining image for this slim volume. The ending itself is quite poignant. It rounds things out wonderfully.

There’s another darkly comic faux introduction (attempting to answer the question “Is wrestling real?”), some funny fake bios, and incredibly creepy/hilarious interstitial material taking the form of 1950s-style ads. The services and products advertised are truly bizarre, and (like the bonus content found in Old Gory) add something special to the book.

Wrestling fan or not (and I’m not!), this book is for everyone. Really. I genuinely think anyone can enjoy this book. There’s compelling characters (“The Vision of James Lee Dawson, King of the Deathmatch”), chilling scenarios (“A Severance of Roots”), complete insanity (“The Dark Match”), and some comedy thrown in to lighten the mood (introduction/interstitial material/author bios). It’s an excellent volume that belongs on every shelf.

You can buy Three Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle here.


And that’s everything OPB has released so far.

Their line-up is exciting. They’ve a folk horror anthology edited by S.J. Bagley coming out (submissions are still open, if you’re interested!) and their next split chapbook, Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror (with Pastula and Bartlett returning, with the excellent Jonathan Raab and our very own Sean M. Thompson joining the crew), looks very promising.

Orford Parish Books is the breath of fresh air that the weird horror community needs. It’s funny, it’s weird, it’s scary, it’s quality, and it finds horror in the most unusual of places. I highly recommend you visit their website and their Facebook page.

Or, perhaps, you’d like to visit Orford Parish itself. Sure, it has a Facebook page too, but you want the town itself. I know a fellow who can draw you a map, if you’re willing to pay. He’s at the gas station, drawing circles in his blood, muttering about the ghost worms that eat his wife at night. Or something like that, no-one can understand his language anyway. But when you get the map, you just drive, and you’ll find your way there. You’ll never want to leave.

Nadia Bulkin on Women-in-Horror Month

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A moving and incredibly sad post by  author Nadia Bulkin.

NADIA BULKIN

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror…

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Sean M. Thompson’s the Demon: Chapter Eight

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Sean M. Thompson’s
The Demon

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illustration by Brendan O’Connell

Cort’s phone buzzed in his pocket. It caused him to flinch. The rectangle of glass and plastic vibrated like a thing alive, angry. He answered, never taking his eyes off Janet’s corpse.

“Hi honey, it’s mom.”

“Oh, uh…hey, mom.”

“How are you doing?”

He noticed for the first time there were scratch marks in the floor from her nails. Jesus, he couldn’t have killed someone, like, really fucking killed someone. Murder was an act criminals performed: drug dealers shooting rivals, madmen stalking prostitutes down dark alleys. Cort knew in his heart he wasn’t a criminal. And yet the body in his apartment, the dead woman staring lifeless, would suggest otherwise.

He felt sick all over again, and had to swallow it down.

“Mom, it’s, uh, not a good time right now. Can I call you back?”

“I haven’t talked to you in almost a month, Cort. Come on.”

“Mom, I’m really feeling sick. Please.”

“Oh. Well, promise me you’ll call me tomorrow.”

“I promise.”

“Okay. Feel better honey. Love you.”

“Love you too, mom. And, uh, try not to use the internet.”

“What?”

“Ask dad about it.”

“Okay. Talk to you tomorrow, Cort.”

“Love you, Mom.”

He hung up the phone, and now that the initial shock had worn off, there was a hurricane inside his mind. I need to get rid of the body, but no, what I really need to do is turn myself in!
He paced the room, grabbing his hair between clenched fists. This wasn’t my fault. I know I’d never kill anyone if I wasn’t being…swayed by whatever the hell was in that computer virus.

He nearly tripped on Janet’s body, looked into her terrified face, and started crying.

“No. No, no – ”

Why would I do this?

This woman, Janet, he’d dreamt of building a life with. Moving in together, long nights in, laughing and smiling, sharing stories. Making love, and the mundane stuff like going to pick out their first couch at Ikea, or meeting her parents. The visions now just so much mud smeared over a pastoral canvas.

Do you really want to go to jail? This was self defense.

Bullshit this was self defense! Who’s in my head?”

Get it together, Cort, it’s just you. It’s always just been you.

“No. No, I can’t believe that!”

But the more he thought about it, the more doubts he had. She’d had enough fight in her to scratch into the floor, who was to say she didn’t force him to kill her?

“That’s insane. She…Janet loved me!”

Did she really love you though, Cort? She barely knew you. And you barely knew her.

The fact remained no matter what his reason had been, and no matter what was going on, he had to get rid of the body. Cort labored under no delusions: if he went to prison, he would be beaten, repeatedly raped, and would probably get hooked on smack to deal with the pain and the horror of the cage.

Most importantly, he didn’t think turning himself in made sense. When he searched his mind, he knew there was an unwanted visitor. But there was something the visitor didn’t want him to know. Sometimes, when he would think, he got the sense it wasn’t him thinking, and there would be a desperation to his thoughts. Almost like a thing inside was trying very hard to convince him he was thinking his own thoughts, only it kept failing to execute the illusion effectively.

“You’re failing. You’ve never had this much resistance before, have you?”

He had no idea how he knew what he did, but his instincts had always been strong.

This was not the time for introspection, though. If he was going to figure out how to beat this thing, how to warn others, if he could, he had to get rid of the body. And, God help him, he knew how.

It involved doing some stuff he was really not looking forward to.

***

Cort had bought the reciprocating saw to help Scott put up some drywall. Anything to help his friend save some dough, right? He’d bought a long blade, and this proved to be useful when he started in on the terrible work. The black trash bags he just had. He’d never liked the idea of people being able to see into his garbage.

The bleach was already under the sink, which proved useful on the tub. He threw up three times, and after the third found a stillness inside which allowed for the strength to finish, free of emotional turmoil. In this numb state, he bagged the rest of the pieces of the body, sans fingers and teeth, which he had cut off, and wrenched out, respectively, with a pair of plyers.

Almost done, almost done, he thought, over and over.

He made a stop at the kitchen to take a deep swallow from a bottle of Wild Turkey in his cabinet.

The furnace in the basement was the best option. Speed was imperative. Quiet was necessary, and he couldn’t run into anyone.

Breathing as slowly and deeply as possible, psyching himself up, with the two black trash bags in his hands. If he’d been struck with a fatal heart attack, or an aneurism at that moment, it would have been a blessing. Yet, his body was fine, save for the adrenaline responses, which were to be expected, and the shock, which too was expected.

Without meaning to, Cort burst through his front door, then slowed his steps, and made his way to the stairwell as quietly as he could. No one yet, thank Jesus, and he rushed, but in a measured way, so as not to seem too deliberate. A door started to open behind him, and he rushed around the corner, and increased his pace.

Just get to the fucking furnace. Just get there, and get rid of the evidence.

Even as he turned the corner into the basement proper, he realized the furnace probably wouldn’t entirely get rid of Janet’s body. There would surely be bone left over. Burning her body would buy him some time, though.

Maybe I should dump her remains in the harbor?

But there was that show he watched where the millionaire tried to do that, and the bags just floated to the surface.

Maybe I should do both?

No, that was stupid. He’d burn the remains as best he could. Besides, there were cameras everywhere nowadays. He was fucked if anyone even began sniffing around. This was a temporary solution to a problem that would require a better plan later, when the smoke had settled.

Pipes unfurled from the body of the giant stove like protracted limbs, snaking along the ceiling, tensed and ready to strike. Crazy or not, he pictured them smashing down, beating his flesh bloody; cracking and snapping his bones until he was just a screaming creature, all purple flesh, slack appendages, and unending pain, a bloody sack of bone shards, flayed skin, and burst organs.

The furnace, all gleaming metal and flames behind slatted metal teeth, inspected him with the indifference of a machine that lurked in shadow. A metallic beast, breathing fire, inhaling, and exhaling. The metal expanding, and contracting.

Cort was afraid to open the door.

An animal chittering behind him.

“Hello?” he called out, heart thumping in his chest.

Something scurried through the darkness.

“Is somebody there?”

A crash, and an empty soda can rattled out from the gloom. Was it a raccoon? Christ, what if it was rabid?

The furnace kept breathing. Cort opened up the grate, slow, unsure if the mouth of the machine would clamp shut, biting through the meat of his arms.

He tossed the bags full of Janet into the fires.

Another animal squeal behind him.

What he saw couldn’t possibly be real, absolutely not.

There was a creature, hunched, about the size of a big dog, standing on its hind legs.

“W-what?” was all he could manage.

Another creature appeared to his left. This was only partially obscured by shadow. Scaly flesh, almost reptilian, dark, practically black. A slit of an eye, the murky red of fresh blood.

Cort froze, not sure what to do. What did one do when faced with the impossible?

The furnace kept breathing.

The beings stood still, yet he could hear them hissing, mewling. One darted towards him, and he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. The thing ran past him, opened up the grate to the furnace, and dived in.

Dumbfounded, all Cort could do was watch as the other creature ran past him, and also dived into the furnace.

They were sifting through something inside the flames, and at first Cort was too overwhelmed to piece it all together. Then, understanding locked into place, and his mind opened to pure, unadulterated terror.

The creatures were eating Janet’s charred bones.

The things were destroying any evidence.

He ran back up the stairs. When he finally got into his apartment, Cort locked the door after him. Terrified as he was, the second Cort’s head hit the cushion of his couch, he fell asleep.

***

Something was choking him.

His eyes adjusted through a crimson haze of burst blood vessels. A laptop charger cable was twisted around his throat. Gasping for breath, Cort wrenched the cord free. The cable led to a laptop, floating in the air before him. Its screen was bleeding.

All the love in the world, a stranger’s voice said softly in his head.

The sky was a dark lilac, the dirt a bleached pink. Things shrieked through the sky: laptops, a few tablets, and some smart phones, all flapping black bat wings.

Cort turned, and saw a creature, aqua blue skin, with a computer monitor for a head. A cable led from the monitor to its chest, where a massive port merged the cable with flesh.

All the while he felt a massive presence near, while the stranger’s voice reassured him –

All the love in the world.

In the logic of dreams, he was suddenly outside his apartment building, the sky around it still that dark purple, the dirt still that bleached-out pink.

On the roof, a rose colored creature, something like a pig – but where its eyes should have been, an inverted cross, an enter button. An extension cord for a tongue lolled out of its screaming mouth. Around the base of the apartment building were human faces, ethernet cables snaking out of their wide-stretched mouths, traveling into various ports on various floors of the building.

A rumbling, and the ground crumbled apart. Blue flames shot up from a freshly formed pit. And from that pit, a behemoth of plastic and flesh. Bone white, giant demonic black wings outstretched; two mammoth laptops on its right and left shoulders, attached to a computer monitor in the center. Every monitor had one enormous, unblinking green eye, a slit of black pupil on the screens.

All the love in the world.

His body broke out in sores, which burned him down deep, all over. And still the voice kept reassuring –

All the love in the world.

The giant, the same height as his apartment building, beat its massive wings, its obsidian eyes staring into the depths of him.

All the love in the world.

“All the love in the world,” Cort replied.

The pain was unbearable, but he couldn’t control his voice: he spoke, it spoke, something else spoke through him. He itched, and burned, and tried to scream, but couldn’t manage.

Massive ethernet cables shot from the blue flames around the computer beast, wrapping themselves around him. They dragged him towards the pit. Ever so slowly they pulled him towards the flame, and he fought, but they were too strong. The sores on his body opened up, and the massive blue flames drew nearer, the cables pulling him closer, ever closer.

All the love –

“In the world,” he coughed out.

This hatred we unfurl.

He dug his hands into the dirt, but it was no use. The heat melted his sneakers. The cuffs of his pants burst into flames.

Cort stared up, to the thing which blotted out the sky. To the towering demonic beast, which stared down with three monitor faces, bat wings, and unfeeling reptilian eyes.

Welcome to the Netherworld.

His flesh burned, and he couldn’t even scream.

***

He screamed, and gasped for air.

He sat at his kitchen table. There was a plate in front of him, and the lingering taste of something on his tongue.

“What…”

He stared down at the plate and froze.

He would have recognized that thigh anywhere.

Vomit exploded from his mouth, and drenched the table, his shirt. He actually fell off of the chair from the force of his retching.

When had he put a piece of Janet in his refrigerator?

When had he cooked a piece of her flesh?

She was so delicious, wasn’t she?

“No!”

She was so scrumptious, and you still have a few delicious bites for tomorrow.

“No, no, no, no, no – ”

He ran for the whisky as fast as he could. Desperate to find his couch, but it was moved again, this time it was in the corner of the room.

Cort dropped himself down onto the cushions, and drank deeply of the Wild Turkey. Yes, that was wonderful, he needed to just breathe, and everything would be okay, he just needed to slow down, he’d figure out how to beat this thing, but not now, now he just needed to relax, or he was going to have a heart attack.

That’s it, just relax.

“Get out.”

But there’s no one to send out, dude. I’m you. It’s just you.

“No.”

It’s always been just you.

“I wouldn’t do this! I…I would never!”

And yet you have.

To be continued
March 13th, 2017.

“Night Dog” by Matthew M. Bartlett

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“Night Dog”
by Matthew M. Bartlett

On numberless midnights, swatting away the night dogs leaping at the hem of my coat, their teeth flashing like crescent moons, I went in for night work at the flagship office of Annelid Industries International in the profusely wooded easternmost environs of Leeds, Massachusetts. Numberless midnights with the moon spilling its milklight down the forested mountain, numberless midnights crossing the parking lot to the gentle music of the cricket song and the fabric whisper of my pant legs. I’d badge myself in a half-hour early, fingernail the security code into the keypad, follow the lights of the red EXIT signs to my desk, where I would wear the light from the computer screen like a mask – a mask composed of spreadsheets and schedules – until 3 a.m. Then I’d rise, stretch, head to the kitchen, release from the vending machine a squashed, frosted thing to eat, brew a pot of coffee to wash it down. Mug in hand, I’d walk to the pedestrian bridge to watch the cars passing under while the coffee spread its warm fingers through my system. Then back to spreadsheets and schedules, mail alerts and messages, until 5 a.m., slouching through the double doors with the other night shift slouchers.

On one of those midnights, during an early March warm spell, one of the night dogs, a wiry, cat-like thing with an elongated snout and teeth like Hokusai mountains, got a curved claw caught in my jacket pocket. It whipped its body back and forth as I knelt, knee joints popping, and grabbed with my right hand the dog’s long ear, feeling its eye moving wildly beneath my palm. I tucked my thumb under the upper lip, closed my hand into a fist, and with my left hand wrested free the paw. Then with both hands I flung the beast into the reeds and rushed to the door. The other night dogs, bellies low to the ground, bared their teeth and inched at me, but none was foolhardy enough to lunge.

In the main hall, three offices from my own, I stopped to attend to a loosened shoelace, when I heard somewhere behind me the sound of a baby gasping and wailing. In the instant the sound registered, it was suddenly muffled, then cut off altogether. Leaving the lace hanging, I rose slowly, as silently as I could. I turned back, and peeked around the corner at the hall that led to the President’s Office. The corridor was dark, shadowed, interrupted with rhombus-shaped sections of weak light from the windows, its terminus black as pitch. I inched down the hall and, when I reached the President’s Office, I saw a rounded shadow spreading from under the door. My eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and the shadow revealed itself to be an expanding oblong patch of blood-soaked carpet. It glimmered in the half-light. Just before it reached the tip of my shoe, I turned and walked briskly back down the hall and around the corner, my breath popping from my lungs in little bursts.

I had learned quickly in my early days with Annelid Industries that intervening—even, perhaps especially, in the spirit of being a Samaritan—was not looked upon favorably by management. In May of my third year there I had happened to glance into a warren of cubicles and saw a man’s legs jutting from one of the open walls. I hurried over to find a youngish man, slender, nose flattened against the carpet, arms and legs splayed. I knelt, patted him on the shoulder with the palm of my hand, gently turned his head to the side. He was breathing. I called 911 from the man’s desk phone, told the operator to send the ambulance to the side door. When the EMTs arrived I opened the door and led them to the scene.

As the man was being lifted onto the stretcher, a coterie of frowning executives arrived, and one of them called the driver aside. They formed a tight circle, speaking in low voices, their faces tense and furrowed, while the EMTs loaded the man into the ambulance and, absent their driver, began to minister to him, talking him awake. A few moments later the driver, red-faced, was released from the convocation and called a brief but equally intense conference with his co-workers. Then two of the EMTs climbed into the ambulance and unloaded the stretcher, still bearing the stricken man. The driver and the one of the executives each grabbed a side rail and guided the stretcher through the double-doors that led to the executive offices and the auditorium hall.

About ten minutes later, the men brought back the tenantless stretcher, folded up the wheels, and deposited it back in the ambulance. The EMTs left without further ceremony. A few hours later I checked back at the man’s cubicle and saw it had been emptied of everything but a computer monitor, wires dangling from its back. The next day I was called to Human Resources.

Wright Knowles, the HR manager, a prim, mirthless man whose unironed shirt collars stuck up like toast points, handed me a written warning; vague, but biting, the intimation was that matters of perceived emergency were to be dispatched only by approved personnel, a club to which I absolutely did not belong and, if I continued on my present course, a club to which I would never belong. He signed it, pushed it over to me so that I could do likewise. I had never in my life received so much as a talking to, and I remember feeling chastened.

Now, I hurried back to my desk. I could feel my heart drumming, in my shoulders I felt it, and at my pulse points. I sat, caught my breath, did my best to try to settle into my work. The building was always quiet, but that night it was unusually so. From time to time the fluorescent lights in the hall flickered and the image on my monitor contracted briefly, shot a few lines of static across its lower section, then recovered. The phone rang shrilly once, and not again. When the red voicemail indicator lit up, I grabbed the receiver, typed in my code. I could hear only the sound of wind and faraway voices, calling in urgent tones. I strained to make out what they were saying, but it was no use. I hung up, dug back into the night’s tasks. I thought about the blood. I thought about that baby’s choked-off cry, and I thought about that warning from HR.

When my shift was nearly done, I checked the company email. There was only one new message. It was from the CEO himself, Wren Black.

To: AII-Corporate; AII-RDSci; AII-LSci; AII-ESO; AII-XXT

From: Wren_Black@AII.eso

Subject: Changes for A.I.I.

Good men and women of A.I.I.,

The time has come. Watch your email over the next few days for an invitation to a spectacular company event. The last of its kind took place forty-five years ago, in a different world. Come celebrate the latest step in the ever-unfolding saga of Annelid Industries International. Refreshments will be served. Attendance is mandatory. We can’t wait to see you there.

Together we will walk into the future.

For a reason I could not name, I was unnerved.

I put my finger on the mouse to close the mail window and an instant message popped up. The sender field was blank. The message was the address for the 24-hour Pan-Asian Buffet a quarter mile up the road. That was all.

***

The Asia-India-Ichiban Buffet was dimly lit and all but deserted. Red curtains and swirling neon representations of bowls and bottles adorned the rain-bubbled windows. The furious looking hostess, all in black, sickly slender but for the jutting protuberance of her pregnancy, was texting rapidly with both hands, her thumbs moving like the front legs of a fly, tears shining on her cheeks. In a red-cushioned booth by the sushi station, a young couple sat side-by-side, laughing in an unmistakably malicious manner, at what I could not tell. Across the room an old man in a fly-blown cardigan sat at a table by a window, alternating between looking glumly out at the grey boulevard and scraping noodles from his bowl with his finger and nudging them into his mouth.

I was just sitting down with my plate when a man slid in opposite me. Startled, I knocked over my water glass, and the man grabbed a pile of napkins and started to mop up. I grabbed his arm. He was bearded, slender, dressed in a light jacket and dark blue jeans.

“Wendell,” he said. He sounded sad. “Let me look at you.”

I let go his arm and winced. I don’t like to be stared at. He said, “The email came today, didn’t it, from Wren Black?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know who you are.”

“Wendell, we knew each other, a long time ago. I’m Byron Holeman. Look at me.”

The name meant nothing to me. I stared at his face, but I couldn’t reconcile his features. They were morphing, blurring, blending, eyes going square, then narrowing, their color changing from blue to brown to green and back. His mouth widened, pursed. His nose changed shape again and again as though animated with clay. My stomach clenched as though I was falling from a great height, and I fell back into the cushioned seat.

“That’s all right. I guess it’s not important, not now, anyway. The important thing now is this: the company event at A.I.I. – you don’t want to be there for it. You don’t want to be in Leeds. Wendell, you don’t want to be in Massachusetts. Go to Maine. Go to New York. When it’s all over…”

Who was this madman, I wondered, with a face that would not stay still, telling me I knew him, insisting I abandon my livelihood. “I…I need my job,” I said, ashamed at my obsequious stammer.

Holeman put his hands in the air, palms out. “Just listen to me for a few minutes, then I’ll leave you to your meal.”

I looked at my watch. “Go ahead,” I said.

“I worked there, at A.I.I., Wendell. In tech support. One day about four years ago I was going through old company footage, and I hacked my way into a password-protected file. I saw it, Wendell, the film of the 1969 meeting. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was more of a ritual, a rite, than anything else. Wendell, I saw impossible things, terrible. Some of it…I’m still not sure it was real, but I don’t think it could have been faked. But it’s about to happen again. Annelid Industries International is old, far older than this country, older than you know. It started out as…as a different kind of concern. It was formed and founded by men with their hands in all sorts of forbidden things. They conjured up… Wendell, I hate to tell you, but I fear you’re under their thrall…under its thrall. Most everyone there is, too.”

And that was more than enough for me. “I’m sorry. I really am. But I have no idea what you’re saying to me. I think I’m going to leave.”

“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “Where do go when you leave work, Wendell?”

“I…” My mind conjured up blurred images of streets, houses, apartment buildings, high-rises, lawns, hedges, fences. They melded together into a chaos of glass, brick, wood, concrete, stone, and dirt. I could picture myself getting in my car, starting it, pulling the seatbelt across, driving out of the lot…and then? And then? Trying to focus made me dizzy, dropped a ball of nausea into my gut. I leaned over in the booth, grasped the edge of the table. “Why are you doing this to me?” I said.

“You helped me out when we were boys,” was his reply. He then pulled from his pocket a rolled up newspaper, spread it out on the table. “Read this,” he said, pointing to the upper left corner.

“It’s blank,” I said.

He looked down at the paper, looked back at me, stricken. “It’s…it was…the article about your disappearance.”

***

I had come to A.I.I. in those faraway days when applicants desirous of employment typed up their resumes on 24-lb paper, carefully constructed an accompanying cover letter, tri-folded the two into a business envelope, and deposited it in a metal mailbox to be taken away by blue-suited workers in white trucks, submitted to an extensive and complex process of culling and sorting and coding, nestled in bins with hundreds of thousands of other envelopes, divided and dispatched, and finally delivered to the hands of Personnel managers who would slide them open with small knives, examine their contents, and determine whether the sender warranted a personal audience.

Mine, apparently, had done the trick. I was called in for a night interview.

The A.I.I. Leeds campus consisted of two stone buildings that stood across a forested road from one another, connected by a pedestrian bridge. Behind the peaks of Building A rose a tree-covered mountain, forbiddingly caliginous and dark as pitch, except toward the peak, where pale yellow lights shone here and there, adorning the high trees with a suspicion of sepia. Behind Building B sprawled a crumbling, weed-split concrete wall about 8 feet high, its eastern and western edges obscured by thorny brambles. Beyond the wall rose the silos and pylons and staircase-encircled towers of some manner of factory, all of it lit up stark and bright like a mockery of daylight.

I drove under the bridge, turned into the lot, gave my name to the man in the gatehouse, and parked my Corvair between two hulking Jeep Cherokees. The receptionist bade me sit in a small waiting room, and then, after an interval, she called my name. When she stood, I noted that she was pregnant, very far along, too. She led me to the room where my interviewers waited. “Boy or girl?” I asked cheerfully.

She looked stricken and did not answer.

The conference room was sufficiently long to accommodate a long table with eighteen chairs, a dry-erase board, a ceiling-mounted projector and screen, and nothing else. The hiring manager, grey-haired, slender, in vest and jacket, and the head of the recruitment division, a young woman, blonde, in a tasteful business suit, also, I noticed, pregnant, sat at one end, each with a copy of my resume. I sat at the opposite end, clutching my own copy next to a mug of rapidly cooling coffee. The questions were standard, and my answers generated nods of assent and impressed looks between the two. At the close of the interview, the hiring manager took me aside and asked me whether I would assent to a polygraph examination and a routine physical, to be scheduled within the next seven days. I agreed. Having worked almost exclusively in manufacturing, never before in a business office, I assumed these preliminaries to be standard. Four days later I drove back in a frothing downpour for the three-hour testing period.

The personality test was long and unexpectedly stressful to navigate. Some prompts were repeated several times throughout, each time with slightly varied wording. Some were invasive. Of them, I still remember these:

You often consider humankind and its destiny

You feel involved while watching soap operas

You often contemplate the complexity of life

You willingly involve yourself in matters which engage your sympathies

For each I had to select agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat disagree, or disagree. The desired answers were not in every case easy to determine, but I did the best I could.

One week and one day later I had a job.

On my first day, I was supplied with several binders of lined notebook paper. Each page contained handwritten names, many nearly illegible, perhaps a phone number, a partial address. My task was to locate complete contact information and enter all of the data into a spreadsheet of my own design. These bits of information, I was told, represented Contractors. Their disciplines remained a mystery. Each could have one of twenty-eight codes assigned to him or her, codes that upper level managers would enter into my spreadsheet, and codes were also assigned to each of the company’s laboratory technicians, whose names I was not allowed to know.

I was to use the codes to match contractors to technicians and arrange meetings and set intermittent work schedules. I arranged hotel rooms, made dinner reservations, provided company as necessary – that is, if persuasion were needed or goodwill necessary to garner – based upon the contractor’s sexual preferences, no matter how odd or verboten, which were also noted in the spreadsheet.

As the main liaison and contact, I was also responsible for transporting Contractors from reception to the Laboratories. It worked like this: The red bulb on my desk console would flash three times. I would tap the pound sign twice to indicate I’d received the message, lock the computer, rise, and walk to Reception. The Contractor would be standing – there were no seats – perhaps studying the painting of lightning-lit caves that spanned the wall, perhaps looking out the window. His features would be obscured by a black hood that covered his head, obscuring his features but allowing him sufficient sight to navigate. I would walk the Contractor through the main hall, up the stairs, and to the pedestrian bridge. On the bridge would be a Laboratory Technician, features obscured in the same fashion. He would favor me with a slight nod, take custody of the Contractor and lead him through the door into Building B, where office staff were not permitted, just as Lab workers were denied access to the corporate offices of Building A. I would return to my desk and mark the Contractor’s arrival in the database.

This was my work. I did this for years. It was all I knew.

***

Holeman paid my bill and we left the buffet.

Over dinner he had told me about the contents of the article: a man, Wendell LaPorte, had left his house to go to the market, and did not return. His wife Laura filed a missing persons report. A lengthy interview with detectives indicated nothing about the family life that might have precipitated a sudden departure. He could not have simply fled, the wife insisted. He loved her, adored their son. He was in all outward appearance content. She would spend every resource she had to find her husband. She was certain something terrible must have befallen him. The police were keeping the investigation open, but one might easily infer from the article, Holeman told me, that it was not going to be aggressively pursued. After all, no one truly knows what is in a man’s heart.

Holeman told me about a follow-up article published a few months later. The man’s credit cards had not been used since his disappearance. His one living parent, his father, had received no contact from him, nor had his friends.

He was gone.

We stood under the awning in the rain. He took out his wallet, pulled from it a business card. He handed it to me. It read:

Byron Holeman

Programmer

Deprogrammer

It had a phone number and an email address and a street address in Stamford, Connecticut.

“Get in your car,” he said, “Head south on 91. When you get to…let’s say New Haven, call the number on the card. My secretary will provide you with an address. Go there and get yourself settled. Once I’m finished with my business in Leeds, I’ll join you and we’ll talk about getting you back to your family.”

A family, I thought. A family I…don’t remember. I promised him. And then I got in my car and drove straight to A.I.I. I was running late. I prefer to be early for work.

***

I parked my Corvair as I had done on a million midnights, innumerable midnights, infinitesimal midnights. The night dogs were unusually aggressive. I shouted at them, kicked them away, smacked at them with my hands. They whined. They yowled. When I got to the double doors, I turned to find them hunching, their tails curled up under their legs. They looked miserable, like they were witnessing some tragedy and were helpless to prevent it. In some strange way, I felt sorry for them.

Going back to my desk, I took the route that led me through the East Hall. Lining the corridor in that hall is a gallery of framed portraits of the CEOs over the years. The first is from the late 1800s. A silver-tinted daguerreotype, copper-spotted at its corners, it depicts a steely-eyed, white haired man, broad of face, with runaway brows and a tight frown. On down the line, there are gaunt faces, fat faces, beards, waxed mustaches. Some of the men – all men, all white to the point of pastiness – are grinning blankly, others stern and serious. Apart from skin color, there is a unifying feature in all of the portraits. Something maybe, about their eyes – not their shape or their color, but the fierce imperative implied in their stares. Walking down the hall is something akin to time travel, but with an audience, all the eyes following you, like you’re in an office-themed variety of some malignant spook house.

I logged into my computer and looked at my email. There was one new message. It was addressed to me only, and the “From:” line was blank. The email consisted of a URL ending in a long string of numbers and letters and, under that, the number 77. I moved the cursor to the link, watched the arrow morph into a pointing white-gloved hand. I clicked.

Four video feeds appeared on the screen: the reception desk, empty; the main hallway, down which two security guards walked in apparent silence, looking straight ahead; the mostly empty parking lot; and the long, sky-lit atrium. I became unaccountably afraid that something awful, something grotesque and misshapen, might enter one of the frames. Dismissing that unwelcome thought, I noted that each video feed had a number at its bottom left, alongside a digital counter. I clicked the arrow at the bottom of the screen until I reached the 77th feed.

The display was crisp but for the occasional eruption of pixilation. It showed a well-appointed office, two walls filled top to bottom with glass-fronted bookshelves, the third a massive window that looked out to the wall of trees. I saw a desk, massive, gilded, with grey-veined black marble panels on the side and a gold-tooled black leather surface that reflected the soft light from the green-shaded lamp atop it. The desk was clear save a few scattered papers and a feathered pen and inkwell. Then a man walked in under the apparent location of the camera. From just the back of his head and his assured walk, I knew him to be Wren Black. He pulled back the chair, sat in it, and looked up at the camera, through it, straight into my eyes. I flinched and reached to close the browser, then stopped.

Wren Black leaned back in his chair. I could see only the man’s chin, above it the peak of his nose. The screen went red at the center of his shirt like a bright bulb under velvet. A flaw in the camera. No. His hands flew up and his long fingers pulled apart the shirt. I reared back. On Wren Black’s chest were two long, horizontal slashes, red and swollen. They opened to reveal large eyes, blood vessels burst in each one, splotches of red, pupils dilated. They blinked. Tears streaked down the man’s rib cage, and then the skin of his face went taut. His lips spread apart in a grimace, revealing clenched teeth. One of the teeth sprung out like a bullet, flying at the camera, hitting the lens, causing a curved crack to appear on the screen. Wren Black’s face went red, darker, purple. His neck flexed, spasmed, and then his head began to crumple. The skin of his face pinched inward and tore at the hairline, revealing a red expanse of muscle and skull. The chin and jaw were consumed by the neck, which was greedily chewing like an upturned mouth. A tongue, large and pink, lashed up over the nose, and the skin tore again at the forehead and the whole of his face was slurped down, leaving a bare skull whose eyes were now dull and lifeless. The skull bubbled as fissures formed all over its surface and it crumpled like sodden plaster. The now-headless Wren Black rose from behind his desk and walked toward the camera. The horrible eyes in his torso looked at me. Right at me. I closed the browser, kicked back my chair, and ran out into the hall.

I intended to turn right and run. My legs disobeyed me. They slowed, turned left. Ahead of me at an intersection I saw a throng of workers walking east. Everyone is here, I thought, the whole company is here. I twisted my torso from side to side, trying to turn, but it was no use. I joined them as they moved along the bridge. The doors to the forbidden laboratories swept open, the crowd poured through like milk.

The laboratories! I saw such things as I moved with the crowd!

Through one doorway I saw men shining penlights at a winged leech the size of a baseball glove buzzing madly about the brightly lit interior of a glass enclosure. Its wings were a translucent blur. Through another I saw a great conveyor belt teeming with all manner of teeth. Workers in surgical masks reached in from time to time, pulled out a tooth, threw in into a wheeled cart with canvas walls. Down a long hall to my left I saw a goat, upright, limping along on hind legs, using a cane with a brass human head to steady itself. I moved with the crowd, marveling at it all, into the auditorium.

The chairs were arranged in twelve curved rows each a half step up from the one below it, all facing a great marble rostrum that looked like it wouldn’t be out of place in some grand cemetery. On either side of the rostrum were three oak podiums. Behind those depended a massive screen, silver in color, which spanned the whole of the wall. From the high ceiling hung a lighting rig worthy of some grand concert hall, spotlights at the front facing this way and that, like snipers whose aim covered the whole of the stage. Unseen hands guided me to a chair near the back.

I sat, gripping the sides of my chair, my fingers, the only part of me I could control, tapping out arrhythmic beats of distress on its undersides. My colleagues and co-workers, half of them hooded, filtered into the room, murmuring. Then I heard a long, lowing sound, like that of a euphonium. The room rumbled. I felt my chair shake, my heart jostled madly in its cage, my brain rumbling in its quarters. The lights dimmed and the conversation hushed, then went silent.

The large screen depicted a crowded forest of thin trees, their branches bare and sagging. The camera swept across them, a cut, and the camera repeated its journey, faster and faster this repeated, creating a strobe effect. It was illusion, maybe, that in the sweep of the camera, the trees seemed to bend at previously undetectable joints along their scratched surfaces, bend and bow and dance. Somewhere in the blur of bending and bowing and dancing, shapes formed in the trees, hulking, pulsing, many-limbed. Toothless maws opened and closed on their rippling surfaces. The trees grew bubbling pustules, chancres, buboes. They dribbled pus and blood and gurgled lava.

Wren Black, the CEO of Annelid Industries International, strode through the room, down the center aisle, his head gone, a fire guttering at his neck, the flames red, purple, green. A plume of black smoke trailed behind him. His skin glowed red. The great eyes on his chest swept the room. Heads turned to mark his passage, and the crowd’s murmurs coalesced into a rhythmic hum.

He climbed the podium, stood before the crowd. His voice came in from the speakers around the room, introduced by a shriek of feedback.

When I came to this company and gave it its name, Annelid Industries International, the voice said, I felt like an interloper. In a sense, the company had existed for years, but without a home, without a name, without a singular vision. But all of its disparate divisions were profitable. Profitable and thriving. Their interests in the life sciences, in education, in entertainment, and in the esoteric, were interlocked like the interior of some great and vast and new machine, a machine that pulled in consumers and wrung from them gold. They summoned me to give them their name and to expand their power to this world and worlds beyond.

I vowed to honor their wishes. I expanded the company. I sought out powerful people, and I bought them, at the expense of profit, at the expense, I know, of profit-sharing checks. There were some who seethed about that. But those people are gone. The rest of you can laugh at them, at the naysayers, the same way that we laugh at a church that tries to thwart and stifle us, at the malignancy of a press that disseminates vituperative lies like the seeds of poison trees.

We grew. We took footholds in Germany. In Russia. In London. In Prague. And last month construction began on a Mideast headquarters in Qatar that will, when it is complete, rival the great palaces, the great temples of the world.

Wren Black stepped down from the podium, a wisp of smoke still trailing him as he began to walk up and down the aisles, his voice still emanating from the speakers.

A corporation is a man with many arms. Its reach may extend to a multitude of arenas: education, commerce, communication, biology, macro and micro, even into affairs of faith and of worship, of belief itself. But the essence of a corporation lies not in those arms, not in their reach, not in the grasp of the hands at their terminus. The essence lies in the man at the center. It is his vision that directs those hands, sends the nerve impulse down the arm, having the wherewithal to say grasp more firmly, having the wisdom to know when to say let go.

Consistency is the cornerstone of Annelid Industries. In those great glorious days when A.I.I. became a force in the world, I shone a light before me, a light that beamed from my immortal heart. That light revealed in the seemingly impassible tangles of the world a path. And you are the workers who clear that path, who cut and sweep aside the weeds, who push aside those who might hinder our progress. If it not for you, that path might be overtaken by the branches, woven and barbed, that threaten even today to diminish and extinguish that light.

It is time now that this body moves to the side of that path, lays down in the thicket, and passes from this life. I pledge to you that in my new incarnation I will continue to push this company into unheard of realms. My eyes will look out from a new face, and from its mouth will come forth my voice, the voice spoken through many mouths over many years. A corporation is a man with many arms, with many faces, but with one man at its center. It has been my life’s work to honor that tradition, to speak as one voice through many mouths. My time is past, but I am again and always part of the future. May it be so for all of you, when your time does come. Thank you for your true hearts, for your courage, and for your consistency.

A shriek tore through the room. I thought at first it was some sort of shrill cheer. The room exploded in applause. Down the aisle, two security guards were dragging a man. As he was brought by me, he raised his face to the ceiling. Slender, bearded—it was Holeman, his features no longer shifting, but distorted by terror. He was clawing at the guards’ sleeves, crying. I have three daughters, he said, I have three little girls. They dragged him before Black and pushed him to the ground. He lurched forward and grabbed the hem of Black’s coat in both hands. The crowd gasped. Black pulled from his jacket a large serrated knife. He fell to one knee and jammed the knife into the side of Holeman’s throat. A great glut of blood shot out, spattering the front row. They wiped the blood from their eyes. Holeman was making a terrible sound, a ragged, gurgling wheeze. Then Black began to saw.

Holeman’s body sank to the carpet, his hands clutching at air. I saw his wedding ring. I saw the hangnail on his index finger. I saw the birthmark at the base of his thumb. Black grasped in his fist a clump of Holeman’s hair, raised the sawed off head to the crowd. I had never before seen a dead man’s face. It was white, slack, still. The mouth hung open. Wren Black placed the head on his shoulders, and the torn, mottled skin spat forth a cloud of pink smoke. There was a sound like bubbling. Holeman’s eyes popped out like jelly and fell in globs on his cheeks, replaced by eyes I knew, eyes I recognized – the eyes of all the portraits of the CEOs through the years: blazing, pitiless, yet dead.

Look upon me, said Wren Black.

We look upon you with devotion as you favor us with your eyes, the crowd murmured. Two seats to my left a woman in a black dress pushed her way to the aisle, fell to her knees, and began tearing at her eyelids, ripping them completely from her face, flinging them to the carpet. A man in the row in front of me began to do the same.

Favor us with your eyes, the crowd chanted.

Look upon me, commanded Wren Black.

Favor us.

Look upon me.

The image of the trees on the screen fizzled, went to white noise. The static seethed, then fizzled, revealing the blurred and pixilated image of a family. Before a green, bucolic backdrop a kind-eyed brunette woman in a green blouse smiled serenely. Her left hand was on the shoulder of a small towheaded boy in front of her, in a sweater vest, with gapped teeth, an embarrassed smile. Next to the woman, hand on the boy’s other shoulder…was me. I had hair, too, more brown than grey, and a healthy middle-aged weight that obscured my cheek bones. Coldness shot through my insides, from my stomach to my joints to my extremities, like an internal jet of water meant to rouse me from a faint. I felt the profound need to find the woman, to protect her and be protected by her. And the boy – I wanted to gather him into my arms shield him from danger. Something loosened its hold on me. I struggled to my feet. I may have been calling out, calling names I now cannot recall. People began to turn to look at me. Wren Black turned his horrible new head in my direction, glaring. I turned and bolted from the room as fast as I could go.

***

A corridor where there couldn’t possibly be a corridor, angling off of the pedestrian bridge. Looking out the windows from the bridge, you see black on black through a prism of kaleidoscopic black, cars floating like spotlight-eyed undersea creatures along the rain-drowned road beneath, but then, walking a few feet further, there it is, unmistakable, a lit corridor leading off into the night. I ran past it to the door the corporate offices, flashed my badge, two quick beeps and the red light blinked. They’d shut off my access. No choice, back the way I came was an army. I fled onto the impossible bridge. It was harshly lit, with a black linoleum floor and walls of large brick, painted over bright and brand-new white. Recessed lighting in the ceiling shot down in glinting cones, drawing pale circles on the floor. Ahead, the hall turned to the right, and when I turned the corner I found myself on a wet road, impenetrable tangles of bushes on either side. My feet skidded, and I landed hard on my back and slid. I got to my feet. Ahead of me, maybe less than a quarter mile away, I saw the lights of the A.I.I. Campus, of the bridge between the buildings. I scrambled to my feet, turned and ran. The faint ends of red searchlights wheeled in the sky like devils. The trees above me, leaning in, seemed to be placed in patterns, cloned, and re-cloned, stroboscopic, like a cartoon with repeating backdrops. Then I looked down, saw a cluster of eyes moving toward me, and stopped. I put my hands on my knees, stared back. The moonlight reflected off of those eyes, dozens of them, giving them the appearance of small green tunnels with echoing, unknown depths. White teeth glinted below each pair of eyes, emerging like the tips of knives stabbing out from the darkness. The night dogs loped into view, blocking the road before me. I could hear their eager breaths, almost smell the foul ichor puffing out like smoke from their gaping jaws. But then they turned, all but one, and faced away from me. The one night dog jutted his head in my direction, then turned and pointed his nose down the road, and looked back at me. The gesture was unmistakable. Follow, it said.

The dogs began to run and I began to follow, but then I glanced up the mountain and froze. The yellow lights that ringed the mountaintop were blinking, blinking and pulsing, growing larger and shrinking back, as trying to break free of their moorings. Great cracks like rifle fire echoed down the mountain, and the lights did break free, whatever massive beings that bore them wrenching themselves from the earth, black shadows peeling away from blacker shadows. Trees buckled as they began to descend. I looked back at the road. The lead dog again beckoned, the others began to trot, and then to run, and I fell in among them and ran.

A half-mile or so down the road I had to stop to regain my breath. I looked up and ahead of me I saw the dogs skid, scramble and stop. A grey door hovered in the middle of the road, flickering, contracting, glowing—willing itself into being. The dogs growled at the apparition. I kept running, right at the door, then jogged quickly to my right to bypass it. The door jogged too, and opened, revealing a blue tiled room—one of A.I.I.’s lavatories. Wren Black stepped into view, grabbed me by my collar, and flung me into the room, slamming the door even as the night dogs began hurling their bodies against it.

Wren pushed at my chest until I was backed up against the sink counter. Those blazing eyes glared from that dead but pinkening face. They glared…and then they softened. Wren Black released my collar, wiped his hands on his suitcoat. “Wendell,” he said. “I have a job for you, a job working closely with me, a job very important to the advancement of the company – we will provide you lab access, access, in fact, to the whole campus. This will, of course, involve a promotion and quite a substantial pay raise. You’ll be working directly with me, and with the top echelons of our division.”

Approved personnel.

Into my vision, blocking out everything, blocking out Wren Black, pushing away the blue tiles and the grey door, into my vision came the woman, her face, her hand resting gently on the shoulder of a boy, a man at her side, grinning blankly, a smile for the camera, a neutral smile. Was that man happy? Was he strong? Did he work among the top echelon? Was he approved personnel? I did not know. Those people were strangers to me. They might as well have been the picture that came with the frame, the one whose empty beaming faces you crumple and toss into the trash.

Look upon me.

The tiles began ungluing themselves from the wall and the floor, rising skyward, the roof tearing away to facilitate their passage. All around me, all around Wren Black they rose as he grinned at me, Holeman’s teeth gleaming in front of a swirling serpent’s tongue. The ceiling rose into the sky, a white rectangle spinning into the black night, just a speck, and then gone. I felt rain on my upturned face. I tasted it with my tongue. And then I too rose with the tiles, following them up, the blue-black night flaking and falling away around me, revealing in stipples a hint of the blinding-white infinity beyond it.

On numberless midnights with the moon spilling its milklight down the forested mountain, numberless midnights crossing the parking lot to the gentle music of the cricket song and the fabric whisper of my pant legs, a million midnights, innumerable midnights, infinitesimal midnights, I go in for night work at the flagship office of Annelid Industries International in the profusely wooded easternmost environs of Leeds, Massachusetts.


Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to AbominationCreeping WavesDead Air, and The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts. “Night Dog” was originally published in the anthology High Strange Horror (ed. Jonathan Raab) and reprinted in Creeping Waves. He was courteous enough to allow me to showcase that story here – it’s one of my favorites, and I’m sure you can see why. Please visit Matt at his (admittedly oft-neglected) blog, or check out a fan site here.

In Memory of “Salem” (2014 – 2016)

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(This was also posted on my personal blog, Devil Coven. If you haven’t watched Salem – well, watch it, but also beware of very, very mild – mostly censored – spoilers in the below article.)

It was seeing Robert Eggers’ chilling The Witch in February last year that really got me interested in classical Satanic witch lore. Viewing the film was followed by a dive into texts like Heinrich Kramer’s* Malleus Maleficarum, Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum, Montague Summers’ A Popular History of Witchcraft, and so on.

One day, while lazily surfing on Netflix, I came across the first two seasons of Salem. I figured I’d watch it and see if there was any merit to it.

I generally don’t expect much from these types of shows; they usually a) have no respect or solemnity towards the hundreds of innocents that were tried, killed, and defamed as witches, b) have no understanding of the goldmine of material that the witchcraft topic provides, and generally go down a sort of “dark Harry Potter” route, and c) are generally trashy shows. I had similar problems with American Horror Story: Coven, which not even its strong leading cast could save.

So I put on the first episode, “The Vow”, not expecting anything of interest to occur. At worst it would be offensive, at best it would probably be mediocre.

First this happened:

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And then there was this:

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And there was also this:

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And by the time this strange dark pilot was over, I had already given the show five stars.

The show has, ever since I saw it, been my favorite thing on television. It dodges all of the aforementioned problems – it has respect for those who died and acknowledges that they weren’t really witches, it has almost incredible faith to the folklore (right down the Malleus Maleficarum‘s weirdest, most NSFW chapter), and the characters are well-drawn and compelling.

It’s certainly an acquired taste. I appreciate that creators Adam Simon and Brannon Braga go totally out there with their witches. If you’re going to have a show about traditional European/early American witchcraft, you really just have to suspend your disbelief and go balls-to-the-walls. This is possibly the only show that could pull off a certain appendage being transformed into a crow without making me laugh out loud.

The performances, too, are outstanding. Shane West plays the leading man role with grit and intensity. Tamzin Merchant starts out as the innocent childish Anne Hale but beautifully captures the various changes that begin to occur in her life. Seth Gabel plays the Puritanical Cotton Mather, who may not be so bad after all (his father, on the other hand? Ha!), and excellently pulls off the part of the erudite scholar who gets way out of his depth. Oliver Bell, one of my favorite performers in the series, actually, is really very impressive as [spoiler] who later – in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever seen in any medium – becomes [spoiler]. Ashley Madekwe plays one of my favorite characters, Tituba, and excels at it. Joe Doyle is wonderful as the archetypal Gothic prince, while Lucy Lawless – Jesus, she probably scared me more than any other character in a show populated by devils and monsters.

There are some lesser characters I haven’t covered (Elise Eberle, despite playing one of my least favorite characters in the show, does a lot for the role, as do Iddo Goldberg and Jeremy Crutchley; Samuel Roukin is really strange and menacing as Beelzebub; Xander Berkley is admirable as secret witch Magistrate Hale; Stephen Lang and Stuart Townsend and Michael Mulheren so on are all wonderful) – but there’s one cast member who’s the real star of the show. Janet Montgomery…Christ, will someone give this woman an award? She plays Mary Walcott, later Mary Sibley, and even later just Mary. I can’t talk too much about her performance without ruining it, but by God she’s amazing. She’s scary, sympathetic, sometimes quite funny, and always engrossing in her role as the Samhain** of the Essex Hive (or coven). She’s absolutely amazing and her performance alone is a reason to watch the series.

Many consider season one to be the weakest season; I never had a problem with it, and, upon rewatching some of the first half, still don’t see any glaring issues. If anything it was the first half of the third season that might’ve been a little clunky – it was certainly not bad, nor mediocre, but the pacing was decidedly slow and somewhat out of touch with the quick-moving action of its predecessors. This is more than made up for, however, with the second half.

There are some nice references here and there that the discerning eye can catch. There’s a rat familiar named “Brown Jenkins” after H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal Brown Jenkin (from my favorite of his stories, “The Dreams in the Witch House”) while the final episode has some subtle nods to his “The Thing on the Doorstep”. [spoiler]’s transformation in the final episode is redolent of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The witch couple in “Night’s Black Agents” for some reason remind me of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in The Princess Bride. There are surely a few more, but these I won’t spoil.

Salem is emphatically not a documentary; while it incorporates a few real-life characters like John Alden, Cotton and Increase Mather, Giles Corey, etc., things never appear extremely accurate (compared to, say, the stunning verisimilitude of The Witch). But this is not at all a bad thing: the vision of 1690s New England presented is almost fairy tale-like, an imagined heightened reality that allows for some truly gorgeous costumes and a lot of eloquent (but not archaic) language. Real occurrences like the French-Indian War are frequently implemented, and there’s even some relevance thrown into the mix: in the third season, Salem is struggling from a refugee crisis.

The final episode, which aired last night, was really amazing. It left the door open for future stories while not leaving any loose ends and giving a satisfying conclusion. We found out [spoiler] was pulling the strings all along, and not everyone got their happy ending. I still feel bad about what happened to [spoiler]’s character at the end of season two, but he’s been gone a long time. The peripheral characters met their fates quickly. Poor, cruel [spoiler] did a lot of nasty things, though she certainly didn’t deserve that. But by God, that last scene is going to stay with me till the day I die. It’s one of the most bleak, pessimistic, utterly horrifying things I’ve ever seen. One reviewer described it as “soul-crushing”, which is probably the best way to describe it. I won’t spoil it for you. Just go watch the show. First two seasons are on Netflix and the third is on its way.

I was fortunate enough to see the creators, along with Janet Montgomery and Shane West, at 2016’s New York Comic Con. All of their responses were well thought-out and friendly, and everyone seemed like a really charming person. I was, unfortunately, much too shy to ask any questions, and, while I was dying to go to the signing, a family matter came up and we had to leave. I left very regretful that I never got to meet the gang, especially since that was probably my last opportunity to.

As the past year has been full of both external and internal drama, and I’ve needed something dark and weird to lift my spirits, Salem was a godsend. I’m fourteen years old, which is already a pretty awful time to be alive without all the extra nonsense thrown in, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find film/TV that sates my (decidedly niche) interests.

Salem did more than just sate those interests. It helped me get through a lot of stuff, and while I’m sad to see it go, I’m glad it got such a good ending (and that it even exists in the first place!). It’s as terrifying as The Witch and as intricate as Michael Alan Nelson’s Hexed (God. Can we get a Hexed TV series? Please?). It’s nightmarish and absurd and really beautiful and worth watching.

What are you waiting for?


*Heinrich Kramer’s“: there is dispute over whether or not Jacob Sprenger – attributed as co-author in many editions, including the original – actually contributed to the work.

**Samhain“: the leader of a coven is referred to in trial transcripts as the “Grand Devil” or “Coven Devil”, but this often leads to confusion with Satan himself. Salem uses the name of the pagan festival from which Hallowe’en originated as the title for the master of a coven.

Sean M. Thompson’s the Demon: Chapter Seven

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The Demon
by Sean M. Thompson

The apartment building stared down at him, leaning like a horny drunk that wanted to do terrible things. Its angles seemed wildly erratic, like the set of a German expressionist film, rather than by the harbor in Boston. Every apartment window was an eye, unblinking, staring at him with a still and silent fever soon to break, like ocean waves during a heavy storm. The grey concrete building seemed impossibly tall, its thirteenth floor disappearing into the clouds.

A humble place for humble men to sit and breed and bring the end.

Was that a poem by someone? Cort couldn’t remember. It seemed fitting when applied to the sight of his apartment building. Had it always been this tall? He would’ve known if it was this massive. Skyscrapers were the kind of company this apartment building should keep, so high in the heavens, leering down with implacable contempt.

No one was outside the building, and he counted his blessings for that. Double checking his shirt, he confirmed there was no blood on his sweater. His mind arrived back at the assault of the old man: the way his face has resembled a raw steak, purple, wet. Except – he was asking for it, he insulted me…but had that really happened? The events were growing hazy, the order of things, the chronology suddenly hard to piece together. In his mind, images of the older man pushing him and giving him the finger came, but for the life of him, Cort couldn’t remember what had prompted the altercation.

Before his nerves could get the better of him, Cort pushed through the front door. He stood before the locked entryway, jittery. His keys were deep in his pocket, taking him a full minute to retrieve. The sensation was bizarre, like his pocket went all the way down to his thighs. Had he somehow been drugged at the walk-in clinic? Maybe someone had dosed him while he was at the supermarket. He had hit his head pretty hard, maybe the effects of it were more serious than the idiot doctor at the clinic had realized.

What an asshole. I’d like to dump his bloated corpse in the Charles.

He immediately wondered why he had such a visceral reaction to the doctor. He wasn’t amazing, but he didn’t deserve to be murdered, that was for sure. Key entered lock, and the mechanism clicked over as he thought I wonder if that bitch on the first floor is around, the one with the big ass. Maybe I could give her trouble sitting for a – 

Wow, he was really in a mood today. What the hell was up with him? Sally was a nice woman, and he was pretty sure she was dating someone anyway. Cort found himself disturbed by his newfound aggression, and once again repeated to himself that he’d hit his head pretty hard, so perhaps he should go lie down.

Shit, but I have to get ready for Janet to come over. And if I play my cards right I could rip her in two like a – 

Whoa, no “ripping in two” was ever going to occur, even if he did get lucky tonight! Christ, he was in rare goddamn form this late afternoon. The mail room was empty, and he unlocked the tiny metal box, retrieving a single piece of junk mail from Triple A, which he put in the trash. Despite his horror at how crude his thoughts had been when thinking about his downstairs neighbor Sally, there was a stirring in his loins, which both alarmed and invigorated him. Cort pictured her as he’d last seen her: getting her laundry, bending to retrieve her clothes from the dryer in a stretchy pair of yoga pants, which compressed and lifted her thighs in a glorious way. She’d caught him staring, and he’d coughed, and had never really been sure what the point of the cough was, other than to signal that he, in point of fact, was a living being with lungs.

I’ll eat her like a four-course meal, he thought, and he couldn’t help it, he laughed to himself, and it felt good to laugh, laughter was the best medicine after all, and Jesus he should really lie down.

That was when he heard the noise, echoing from the stairs. The sound bounced off the hallway, which wound around and down to the basement level. With tentative steps he called out, asked if someone was there, and nothing and no one replied.

Cort held his breath, and waited. He closed his eyes, and focused – hearing the pipes bringing heat to the apartments above, the whirring of a dryer, the thump of the clothes in the basement.

Probably just something in the washer or dryer down there. Nothing to be worried about.

There it was again, though. No mistaking it now. The sound was an animal chittering, reminiscent of the noise a raccoon might make. He should really just go, call the super and have animal control or something take care of it.

You should go upstairs and cook the groceries.

He looked down and realized he’d left the groceries outside. Truth be told, he’d forgotten about them entirely. He went back outside, and sure enough, there was the brown paper bag, left by the bushes. Cort picked up the bag, and tried to ignore the tugging in his guts, the fear like stomach cancer burning up his insides. He rushed back in, ran up the stairs to his apartment, hearing another animal noise – but screw that, it wasn’t his problem to take care of whatever was in the basement.

Inside the apartment, once the food was in the fridge, he checked his phone, and saw a text from Janet.

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What had he texted her? When had he texted her? Jesus Christ, had he sent her something last night after he’d hit his head? Wait, no, that would’ve been earlier today, right? His sense of time was completely out of whack.

A noise through the wall alarmed him, a woman moaning. He’d never heard any of his neighbors before. One of the things he liked best about the apartment was how thick his walls were. So, if he was hearing this woman moaning, she must really be belting it out. The moans continued, obviously sexual; he’d heard the same in all manner of pornography he’d perused while drunk and bored.

He noted the time, and felt another vibration on his phone.

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“Oh crap.”

He frantically took the swordfish and the lemon juice out of the fridge. Almost without thinking he preheated the oven to 425 and began to unwrap the fish. He took out a baking sheet and sprayed the fish with lemon juice.

When did I learn to cook swordfish?

You learned after reading that recipe earlier, remember?

But when was that? He’d…he’d hit his head, and gone to the doctor…wait, maybe he had hit his head last night. Yes. Yes, so he must have read the recipe last night. He was pretty sure that was what happened, almost positive now.

The doorbell rang, and he shook his head, checked the timer on his phone. He only had a few minutes left on the fish –

Wait. Didn’t I just put the fish in?

He checked inside the oven, and the swordfish was the nice white brown he was supposed to have cooked it to. Christ, had he just been staring at the wall for the last half hour? Cort vowed to get a good night’s sleep, to check in with another doctor for a second opinion the next day, which was…Sunday?

The buzzer again, and he ran off to let Janet in.

***

“That was wonderful,” she said, having another sip of wine.

“Thank you. I was surprised I pulled it off.”

“You’ve been very surprising lately,” she said. “Like that text the other day. I liked it.”

“Yes. Well…I was just saying how I felt.”

Sweet God, what had he texted her? Why couldn’t he remember?

“Yes, I sure meant it,” he said, desperately trying to gauge her reaction, for some sort of hint as to what he’d texted her.

“I bet you did,” she said, a lascivious smile on her face.

“Just so we’re clear, what did I text you again?”

Her smile faltered a bit.

“That you wanted to eat my ass like it was a tasty melon.”

The wine in his mouth was spit out in short order.

“Are you okay?” she asked, standing up, walking towards him.

“Fine, sorry, wrong tube,” he said, wondering again at exactly what time he’d said this to this woman he was swiftly falling in love with. Good lord, he rarely ever said anything like that! He might have thought it, but he never would have texted it!

“There, there,” she said, and he stopped coughing, which was good, as Janet was rubbing his back.

He felt very relaxed, and planned to have a lovely conversation with her.

Janet unzipped her jeans, and stepped out of them. Cort forgot what he wanted to talk with her about. Up, and he was kissing her deeply, touching her body, and she was smiling, laughing as they made their way to the bedroom, as he thought I’ll rip her in half, I’ll eat her flesh and Christ, he was certainly in a weird mood, but I am going to get laid finally, yes as they entered his bedroom, and break her spine from – hold on a second, no, no spine breaking.

They lay on the bed, and he felt warm, wonderful, and he drifted away, wholly unaware.

***

The knife was clutched in his hand, so tight his knuckles had gone white.

“What – ”

His comforter was covered in blood, and there was something under it. Down stuffing from the blanket, crimson, stuck to the floor, his hands. He wondered where Janet was.

He noted how he felt: sexually satiated, relaxed. So they’d had sex, and he wondered where she’d gone. Was she hurt? And what was under the blanket?

Why was he holding a knife? Jesus, God, why was he –

The knife fell to the floor.

Please, no. Please, no, oh, god, no, no, no. Please.

The shape under the blanket –

Cort retched. Took a few steps away from the blanket, and fell to the floor, the strength going out of his legs. He vomited crimson, like the stained feathers, like the stains on his bedroom floor.

A single, pale hand led out from underneath the comforter.

“No…”

Yes, he thought.

Something was terribly wrong.

With him. With his mind. With the world.

“Janet.”

The name, damning him, cursing him for all time. He retched again. Took a shaky breath in, focusing on his breathing, failing, struggling to get oxygen. Ten minutes before he could work up the strength to stand.

His steps were heavy with the weight of dread and sorrow. He felt his footsteps echo down the echelons of a new path – a path of torment, evil, madness.

Cort slowly lifted the blanket.

In death, Janet’s eyes were lightless.

Her naked torso was covered with knife wounds.

 

Best of 2016

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Wow, 2016. What a year…

On the bright side I was finally welcomed into the fold of the community (I think), I had my first three stories published (two of which were illustrated!), the blog got good(ish) traffic, I went to both KrallCon and ReaderCon (both of which were amazing), we started to run Sean M. Thompson’s excellent serialized novella The Demon, the Month of Bartlett was fantastic, and on the whole it was a pretty awesome year for weird/horror fiction.

On the dark side the world seems more bleak than ever, I went through some pretty terrible things, and [politics politics politics].

My “Best of 2016” list is somewhat half-assed and rather quickly slapped together, but I think its representative of most of the truly special stuff I read this year. Criteria:

  • has to have come out this year
  • I have to have read it/watched it/etc. (of course)

Novels/Novellas

  • Noctuidae (Scott Nicolay)
  • Altar (Philip Fracassi)
  • The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie (Jonathan Raab)

Chapbooks

  • Stag in Flight (S.P. Miskowski; illus. Nick Gucker)
  • Split Tongues (Kristi DeMeester; illus. Natalia Drepina)
  • The Free School (Cody Goodfellow; illus. James Quigley)
  • Spettrini (Matthew M. Bartlett)
  • Baphomitzvah (Maxwell Bauman)
  • Orford Parish Murder Houses (Tom Breen)

(Christopher Ropes’ Complicity gets an honorable mention here, even though I haven’t gotten the chance to read it yet.)

Collections

  • Swift to Chase (Laird Barron)
  • Singing With All My Skin and Bone (Sunny Moraine)
  • Furnace (Livia Llewellyn)

Debuts

  • Greener Pastures (Michael Wehunt)
  • The Lure of Devouring Light (Michael Griffin)
  • The Secret of Ventriloquism (Jon Padgett)
  • Too Late (Sean M. Thompson)

Mosaic Novel(la)s

  • Creeping Waves (Matthew M. Bartlett)
  • Wytchcult Rising (Philip LoPresti)

Anthologies

  • Eternal Frankenstein (ed. Ross E. Lockhart)
  • Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (ed. Scott R. Jones)
  • Lost Signals: Horror Transmissions (eds. Max Booth III and Lori Michelle)
  • Nightmares: a New Decade of Modern Horror (ed. Ellen Datlow)
  • Wicked Witches: an Anthology of the New England Horror Writers (eds. Scott T. Goudsward, David Price, and Daniel G. Keohane)

Comics

  • Providence (writer Alan Moore; illus. Jason Burrows)
  • Colder: Toss the Bones (writer Paul Tobin; illus. Juan Ferreya)
  • Laid Waste (Julia Gfrörer)
  • Panther (Brecht Evens)
  • Hot Dog Taste Test (Lisa Hanawalt)

(There’s a horror comic in Hot Dog Taste Test, but on the whole its humor. Nonetheless, its really, really good.)

Magazines

  • Night Watch (eds. Tallboy and Krusty)
  • Ravenwood Quarterly (eds. Travis Neisler and Christopher Ropes)

(Full disclosure: I have been published in Ravenwood and occasionally wade through the submission slush to help out, thus making me “assistant editor”. I stand by my statements – its a good magazine.)

Zines

  • Phantasmagoria (Johanna Öst)
  • Beneath a Dim Sun (Justine Jones)
  • Outer Monstrosities (Nick Gucker)

Audio/Podcasts

  • Miskatonic Musings (hosts Sean M. Thompson, Leeman Kessler, and Charles Meyer)
  • Spooklights (hosts Jonathan Raab and Matthew M. Bartlett)
  • The Outer Dark (host Scott Nicolay)
  • Werewolf Ambulance (hosts Allen Hitches and Katie Markowski)
  • Dark Adventure Radio Theatre (directors Andrew Leman and Sean Branney)
  • Pickman’s Model (reader Andrew Leman)

Films

  • The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
  • Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Television Shows

  • Salem (creators Adam Simon and Brannon Braga)
  • Stranger Things (creators the Duffer Brothers)
  • BoJack Horseman (creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg)

(BoJack Horseman is not a horror show, but it’s so damn good that it deserves to be here.)


That’s it! Happy holidays to all from the hellhole of suffering and damnation that is the Conqueror Weird. Here are some cool illustrations that were either based on my work (!!!!) or involved me in some way. Let’s hope 2017 is better!

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Illustration by Richard Svensson for this blog

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Illustration by Michael Grant Kellermeyer for “Woodland”

Matthew M. Bartlett Portrait

Portrait of Matthew M. Bartlett by Dave Felton

Portrait (without Texture)

Business card portrait of yours truly by Yves Tourigny

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Matthew M. Bartlett-based card game illustration by Yves Tourigny (I modeled)

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Album art by Michael Bukowski for an audio dramatization of Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Gateways to Abomination”

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Illustration by Dave Felton for “My Mother’s Skin”

Sean M. Thompson’s the Demon: Chapter Six

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The Demon
by Sean M. Thompson

December 16th

Cort woke up on the floor and didn’t remember why.

His head ached like he’d had a night of heavy drinking. He yawned, and went to sit on his couch, then stopped. Blinked, just to make sure he was really awake, and seeing everything correctly. His confusion was a subtle stirring in his mind, a tiny motorized toy clinking of its own accord. He must have been really drunk, like really, really sloshed. His couch was moved to a different corner of the room, and he’d rearranged his TV to where the couch used to be.

“Weird.”

Cort went to the kitchen, and grabbed a plastic cup from the cabinet. He didn’t even remember what day it was. Opening the fridge, he went to grab the gallon of orange juice, and froze.

He could have sworn he’d left the juice on the bottom right hand side of the refrigerator. Only, now, it rested behind the milk on the left hand side, and further, he’d thought he’d left the milk on the right side.

Then again, if he’d been drinking hard enough, and got blackout drunk as he suspected he had, Cort could have done all manner of strange things. He remembered one time in college when he’d woken from a night of partying to find a gallon of milk in the microwave, and a burrito on a plate in the trash.

Besides, his best friend was missing. He had every right to drink.

Something was trying to claw its way back into his thoughts. Cort retraced his steps, to the night before. He’d been doing something. Someone had called for some reason…

He fished his cell phone out from his pocket, and checked the call log. Janet had called last night around nine, and yes, that was right, she’d said she wanted to come over and have him cook on Friday night, okay, so he’d talked to Janet, and then he’d gone to…hm. He’d hung up, and what had he decided to do?

It alarmed him that it was so hard to remember the events that had occurred mere hours before. Had he hit his head? Maybe he had a concussion. He should really Google the symptoms of –

In a flood it all came back. The flashing red screen, and the fire scalding him inside like old wood with faulty wiring. His loss of control: the way his body spasmed and shook, and finally, passing out.

Only, then, why was all his stuff rearranged? Had he been walking around after he passed out?

Maybe I was in a blackout, just not from drinking. Fuck, this is bad, this is really fucking bad. I need to call a shrink, or my dad, or – 

A calm voice spoke in his head. No need to freak out, I just saw a flashing red screen, and I fell and bumped my head. I must have a concussion, and maybe I should go to the hospital.

Only, the voice – ostensibly his inner monologue – something seemed off about it. It didn’t feel the same as thinking your own thoughts, it felt like someone transmitted into his head, but – but that’s crazy, Cort. You just hit your head, and you’re confused, that’s all this is. The whole “Demon” thing is just blown out of proportion. It’s getting to you.

“Yeah, that’s right, i just hit my head,” he said aloud, though he wasn’t sure why. “I’ll go Google what the symptoms of a concussion are, visit one of those walk-in places to make sure I’m okay, and then everything’ll be right as rain.” Right as rain, repeated his inner voice.

“Everything will be cool,” he said, and he felt a weight lift off his chest. Very cool. Cool as a cucumber.

He remembered it was Friday, that he’d seen that on his phone when he’d gone to check his call log. Janet would be coming over later, and he needed to figure out what to make for dinner.

Do swordfish with a nice white wine. “I don’t know how to cook swordfish.”

Sure you do, remember? You have that recipe you bookmarked on your laptop.

“Oh…right. But walk-in first.”

He definitely felt really off. So he hustled, grabbed his jacket, his keys, and googled where the nearest clinic was.

***

“Well, good news. It’s not a concussion.”

Cort hated the doctor. He had the most nasally voice he’d ever heard, and the bastard was so very smug.

Follow him to the parking lot and punch him in the face, he thought, and then corrected himself with Whoa, no, that’s way too much. Why would I even think that? No, I’ll just get out of here, and give him a bad Yelp review.

“I’d say if you feel funny in the head you should talk to a shrink. Physically, you’re fine.”

Sanctimonious prick, Cort thought.

“Thanks for all your help, you piece of shit.”

“Excuse me?”

Oh my God! What the fuck am I saying?!?!

“I’m going to go,” he said. “Thanks for all your help.”

He left the office and did the paperwork at the front desk as quickly as he could. The receptionist gave him a funny look, to which he half smiled, then rushed out.

***

Snow drifted from the sky, soft as a lover’s touch. The clinic was only a ten minute walk from his apartment, and the sun’s setting cast a warm pink glow to the crystalline white-and-grey of the city around him. Buildings and storefronts crowded the landscape in this part of the city. Sometimes it seemed like those big towers were staring down at him, but in a matronly way, when the holiday lights sparkled off of the rows of windows looking down.

He loved Boston in winter, in this time before New Year’s. Two months later, when grey slush covered every dirty curb, he would be really sick of it. But this time, the first few snowfalls, he couldn’t think of anything prettier – the lights and the decorations for the coming holidays dancing over everything, lighting the stone and glass and metal, refracting and shining as bright as constellations.

The people around him laughed, ran for late appointments, hugged. One guy in a Bruin’s winter hat with a yellow pom pom on top cried into a paper bag of booze. A fat woman in sweatpants with cats on them loudly argued with someone on her cell phone. By her expression, Cort wasn’t even sure if there was someone on the other end of the line.

There was a man, who looked to be a few years younger than him, who made eye contact with Cort. He wore a navy peacoat, and had rimless glasses, which reflected the lights around. The man never broke his gaze with Cort. He didn’t so much as blink. Unnerved, Cort continued down the street. He checked over his shoulder, and saw the stranger kept pace.

The man followed Cort for a few more blocks, then turned down a side street. Relieved, Cort walked on, until he came to a supermarket.

Inside the grocery store, he traveled down the aisles until he located the seafood department. He picked out a nice cut of swordfish, and the made his way to the alcohol, and found a decent bottle of white. A father with his child in a cart passed, the small brown haired boy locking eyes with Cort, and, lifting his small index finger to his lips, indicated “Shhhh.”

Cort blinked, and the boy stared at him, and he wasn’t sure if what had just happened had really happened. 

He made his way to the 12 items or less line. In the checkout, the person in front of him – a large woman around his age with curly red hair – turned around and smiled at him, exposing teeth which looked alarmingly sharp. He smiled back, a little tentatively, glad things were finally normalling out, when the woman leaned in and whispered in his ear.

“All creatures scream when the abyss claws its way out of them. Six upon six upon six blood soaked orgies, smearing human filth on the congregation of scalded flesh. The revelry dance to the tune of psychotic melodies and miasmas of terrified spirits trapped in a vortex, drunk down fast as hate-flavored whisky. We’ll skin them alive, and tan and wear the pelts when the world is bathed in fire and these buildings crumble to the ground. Won’t you take me to funkytown, Cort? We can do it in the alley next to this place, and you can degrade me under the light of a decrepit moon, and the clerk can watch. After you shower me in your swimmers, we’ll kill him, and drink his fucking blood.”

Cort stepped back. “Excuse me?” he began, eyes wide.

“I said ‘have a nice day’,” she replied, smiling, but there was still a glint in her eye which he didn’t trust.

She paid for her items, and exited the store, and when the clerk asked him how he was doing, he honestly didn’t know how to respond.

He exited the market – only when he got back to the street, and darkness began to surround him, the scene seemed to have changed. He looked about, and realized with mounting anxiety that every single person stared at him, faces locked in his direction, eyes unblinking. None of the pedestrians moved, but merely stood still, eyeing him like hungry jackals. He started to walk, feeling their eyes upon him, not sure if he was losing his mind, or if perhaps he had some kind of neurological problem from when he’d fallen the night before.

The people in front of him turned, and began to walk backwards, staring at him, and one woman licked her lips, and a man in turn grabbed his crotch, giving it a tug through his jeans. Cort’s heart hammered in his chest, and his mouth was dry, as he quickened his pace, every face he saw staring at him with lustful eyes, but whether they planned to fuck him, kill him, or eat him, he didn’t know. It was all too much, and he ran, ran as fast as he could to the closest alley, and ran in, as his vision went to black.

***

He came to with his fists soaked in blood, and an older man underneath him, whose face was a mass of bruises and pulp.

Please…just t-take my wallet…” the man groaned out.

“What – ”

Please d-don’t hit…please don’t hit me anymore…

“I don’t – I – when did I start hitting you?” Cort stammered out.

Please…” was all the man said, and he threw his wallet from his coat with a grunt.

Just take it, you deserve it, he thought, immediately followed by no, this is a dude in his        fifties, I’m just going to get the fuck out of here before I get arrested!

He ran out of the alley, away from the man he’d presumably beaten bloody, towards his apartment, darkness all around, cold as a meat locker, his breath puffing out in ragged, guilt stricken rasps.

***

The man walked the streets outside Faneuil Hall. He really did love the lights, and how the people around him reacted to them, with so much longing in their eyes, as they entered stores, obsessed with buying the perfect gift or new item of clothing, or toy for themselves.

Young or old, it didn’t matter – each contained the same avarice, more or less.

The Holiday season really was one of the best times of the year for his kind. So much greed, and it was so easy to get someone thinking of what they truly “deserved”.

A heavily muscled man in a backwards baseball hat bumped into him.

“Watch where you’re going, dickhead!” the man barked at him.

“Twenty three,” he replied.

“What the fuck did you just say?” the man in the backwards hat asked.

“That’s how many surgeries you’re going to need to be able to walk again,” he replied.

“You wanna go, you fuckin’ queer?” the backwards hat man said.

“No, but you do. You’re a closeted homosexual. You’re overly aggressive due to a desire to shove cocks in your asshole and mouth, but you’re afraid your father and friends would not approve of your love of dick, so instead you pick fights with people and engage in all the classic signs of self-loathing transference. It doesn’t have to be like that, though, Terrence. You can become a regular cum-dumpster, and engage in the most depraved of male orgies, if you’d only just agree to do something for me.”

“What?” the man in the backwards hat said, and this was the fun part. When he saw their eyes glaze over.

Sheesh, he’d barely had to do anything with this fellow. It was really too easy.

The man leaned in and whispered to Terrence, and the muscle-bound man walked off. The man smiled as he took in the rest of the scene – all the hungry people, so full of fear, and hate, and precious, precious longing. The man would use these things to his advantage, and really, he’d already started the process all those months ago. Now all he had to do was enjoy himself, and wait for the real fun to begin.

He smiled as he heard the car tires screech, and the pedestrians scream as he made his way to the end of the street, and rounded the corner.

To be continued
January 13th, 2017.


Note: this was posted a day late through the editor’s forgetfulness and poor Wi-Fi. We should be back on track next month.