“Of Doomful Portent: an Advent Calendar of Grotesque Horrors” (Review)

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Of Doomful Portent: an Advent Calendar of Grotesque Horrors
by Matthew M. Bartlett

The storm of the century. A Satanic church. An ominous winter procession. A parasite and a pope. A pig head and a radio. Faces beneath stomachs and corporate demons and funeral attacks and radios and men in the woods and a hair monster and some very peculiar dolls.

All of these, and more, lurk in the pages of Matthew M. Bartlett’s latest endeavor, a collaboration with incredibly talented digital artist and game designer Yves Tourigny. This isn’t the first time Bartlett’s been mentioned on this site (nor, I pray to God – or whatever it is he holds holy – the last), since his work is so utterly different from virtually anything I’ve ever encountered, and Of Doomful Portent: an Advent Calendar of Grotesque Horrors displays his continued ability to get under the skin in ways that are funny, horrifying, and (as the title suggests) extremely grotesque.

Of Doomful Portent is structured as a mosaic of sorts, much like his debut collection Gateways to Abomination and its “sequel” Creeping Waves. It consists of twenty five flash fiction pieces, the longest clocking in at around three pages, which eventually very loosely connect with each other. While Of Doomful Portent doesn’t quite reach the intertwined crescendo that the full-length collections/novel(la)s do, there are indeed several recurring elements (some more subtle than others): the ominous Mr. White Noise, the cannibalistic Pope Sevenius, and the Goetic demon Gaap amongst them.

Of course, WXXT and Leeds are present (as they always are), but they seem to step back a little for this one, letting the grotesque imagery play out while they loom silently in the background. Without WXXT’s special kind of madness as prevalent as it usually is, the whole thing feels colder, bleaker, more alien. This is, of course, apropos for the winter season.

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Yves Tourigny’s illustration for “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or The Pig of the Ritual Dream”.

Bartlett has always had keen eye for language and imagery, but here he dials it up to eleven. Some of these fragments read like nightmares I have actually had, which gave the whole thing an uncomfortably personal feel. The descriptions are truly revolting, with one particular passage (in “Encounter with Pope Sevenius”) being so utterly appalling that I had to take a quick breather before continuing. Others are more subtle in their creepiness, like the unsettling “It Was a Turkey”, the outright disturbing “Father Light”, and a bone-chilling little yarn called “The Ash-Eaters”.

It’s not a 24/7 assault, however; Bartlett allows humor into the horror to further screw with the reader’s sense of place. Shorts like “The End of the Family Line” gave rise to a chuckle, whilst the final “chapter” – a dark fragment called “Hurt Me Henry” – had me both laughing and shuddering in nearly the same breath.

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Yves Tourigny’s chapter opener for “It Was a Turkey”.

Yves Tourigny’s illustrations elevate this book from a collection of exceptionally grim and bizarre horror shorts to a work of artistry. There is an image for every story, and each one is pitch-perfect. Whilst many traditional illustrations are usually only present to compliment the writing, Tourigny’s art adds flavor to and even improves the stories, giving a whole new dimension to Bartlett’s grisly winter menagerie. They do so much more than what is usually expected of an artist that I couldn’t help but be awed. Tourigny and Bartlett had previously worked together on the interior art of Bartlett’s “B-sides” collection Dead Air, but in the chapbook format they really shine together.

Every story features an illustration, but that’s not all: preceding each “chapter” is a demented snowflake with a thematic (or literal) tie to the story, beautifully designed to accentuate the titular Advent theme. The sheer love of the genre and of the craft is evident in everything Tourigny’s brought to the table so far, and Of Doomful Portent is no exception.

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Detail of Yves Tourigny’s illustration to “The Highway Procession”.

The project (referring to it as a “book” would be almost demeaning) is on target for an extremely limited release at NecronomiCon Providence 2017. This edition, I am told, will take the subtitle’s Advent Calendar reference to a new level. It will likely be released in a more traditional physical/eBook format later on, allowing the sheer miracle of this project to be unleashed upon the world. (Since this is being posted before the project’s release, I am unable to provide a link at the bottom. I will update this post when it’s widely available.)

This genuinely may be my favorite Bartlett production to date. While this features the same flavor of unhinged imagery we’ve seen in Gateways to Abomination and Creeping Waves (both undeniable masterpieces already!), there is a particular potency to its darkness: a kind of manic nihilism that I haven’t sensed before. Coupled with Tourigny’s illustrations this makes for a genuinely haunting experience, one that will follow the reader long after they have laid down the book, settled down, and curled in bed on a long winter’s night.

“Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror” (Review)

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Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror
by Joseph Pastula, Matthew M. Bartlett, Sean M. Thompson, and Jonathan Raab

Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the second installment of “What in Beelzebub’s unholy name have those Orford Parish Books boys gotten up to now?” You may remember the first time we looked at the exploits of Orford Parish Books, probably because it wasn’t too long ago as the blog flies. That post covered such diverse topics as murder houses, picture books, the American flag, and wrestling.

Now we zone in a bit on their most recent publication, a self-styled “split chapbook” entitled Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror. As the title suggests, it contains four weird horror narratives, all of which relate to the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview. Orford Parish Books has not yet failed to pick a bizarre topic for its publications.

We open with an introduction entitled “How to Hunt for a Job, and What to Do Once You’ve Killed It”. In the voice of an Orford Parish necromancy professor, Tom Breen gives us helpful tips for interviews, including:

Once the interview is concluded, be sure to send each member of the hiring panel a thank-you [sic] note, which should include a still-raw pig’s heart with black-painted nails driven through it, and an attached card reading, ‘This is you.’

These types of intros have showed up in three of the five Orford Parish Books publications so far, and they never fail to delight/unnerve. I’ve found myself looking forward to them – they (quite literally) make me laugh out loud, while still being tonally in-keeping with the darksome contents the reader is about to experience.

We start with Joseph Pastula’s “An Office Manager at Orford Mills” and it is perfect. The titular office manager is assigned a job interview position, and some increasingly unusual characters start showing up to apply. I don’t wish to spoil the novelty of the story, but it’s absolutely wonderful. Pastula writes carefully and precisely, artfully and gradually changing the protagonist’s tone from a bored and mildly annoyed to frightened and possibly deluded. Each visitor – my favorite is a shaky, wobbling man who turns out to be…well, no spoilers – is different and disturbing in their own way. The writing is more or less unremarkable, which serves to highlight the bizarre nature of the plot in sharper (and more unsettling). This story shows how the author has gotten better and better since his first prose appearance in Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Then we have “The Storefront Theater” by our old friend Matthew M. Bartlett. This is easily the darkest story in the book. Another faceless misanthrope dwelling in a dismal suburb of devil-haunted Leeds receives a frightful midnight caller just when he needs it the most. Of all the excellent stories in this book, this one got under my skin the most. The opening scene is genuinely bone-chilling, and the narrator’s visit to the theater of the title goes into some really surreal and horrifying territory. The one word I would use to describe this, though, is subtle. This is something Bartlett is a master at: despite the fact that most of his stories contain almost upsettingly extreme grotesquerie, it always hints at something less definable and more pervasive. Case in point: the last line of this story, which is a thousand times creepier than a billion maggot-infested corpses.

Sean M. Thompson (who readers of this site will know from his recently concluded serial The Demon, his short story “LillyBridge“, and our review of his debut collection Too Late) is new to the Orford Parish ship, and yet he earns his keep with the same bloody relish as the others have. “Cat’s Claw, LLC” tells of a young woman’s late night interview at an eerie old mansion in the woods. The plot is fairly direct and entertaining, rooted firmly in classic horror genre tropes (the story can even be read as an in-joke, for those who were friends with Tom Breen on Facebook a few months ago). In the end, though, it’s the little touches that really bring it home: the darting deer-like shape in the forest, the animal hunts depicted in paintings on the walls of the mansions, the dark purple-walled office and a pen made of bone. The last line, like in Bartlett’s story, gave me shivers up and down my spine.

Jonathan Raab, too, is a newcomer. We’ve only reviewed him once before, although his incredible pulp horror witch war novella The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie made our Best of 2016 list. (I also loved his story “The Secret Goatman Spookshow”, which you can read online here.) His story – the longest in the book – is called “A Capable Man”, and it rounds out the grim excursion which this book encapsulates quite nicely. Following a rather incompetent unemployed man (I wouldn’t call him a scumbag, but he’s not far) interview at a new corporation in Orford Parish, this story overwhelms with its bleak mood and its heavy depiction of the slacker’s life. Raab’s prose firmly places you in the headspace of the main character, and the interview scene is off-kilter in a way only a skilled writer can accomplish. While it has Raab’s signature high strange undertones, and there are some very creepy moments, I would overall class this more with modern weird fiction then horror. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary, I thought it worked in the story’s favor. It was a perfect way to close the book.

Orford Parish Books is just really incredible. Everything they’ve put out has been great, but this seems like the most complete of their entries. The only drawback is the absence of a full-length Tom Breen story; his particular narrative voice is one that I missed while reading this chapbook, only enhanced by the taste we got in the introduction. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic read, and I eagerly look forward to their next release – whatever in Heaven or Earth that’ll be.

You can buy Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror here.

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

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Sean M. Thompson’s
The Demon

December 31st

New Year’s Eve was always a pain in the ass detail for Detective Byrne, and this one was no exception. Even with what was at stake, she hadn’t forgotten her time on the force, back before it had all blown up in her face.

The streets were lousy with drunks, men and women alike, and between the rich yuppies attempting to date rape unsuspecting freshmen and the real perverts with years of experience under their belts, things could get nasty. She’d seen it get ugly on more than one New Year’s Eve shift.

A plain black baseball hat sat on her head, the brim pulled low. Her earpiece was in place in case the girl working for the Agency was wrong in her prediction, but Zia was usually accurate in her assessments.

Her employer didn’t believe in leaving anything to chance, though. Every plan had a number of contingency plans in place. Come to that, she was fairly sure they’d have no scruples dumping two in the back of her head and burying her in an unmarked grave.

She wore a vest under the puffy black winter coat, the jacket concealing any bulk from the kevlar. The hat was bulletproof; they told her it was effective, but she was still going to try to avoid taking a bullet to the fucking brainpan.

On each leg, an ankle holster holding a Ka-bar with serrated edges, and 9mm pistols filled with hollow points. Two shoulder holsters held two Baretta .380 (her preferred gauge) pistols. Pocket rockets, that’s what the Chief used to call them when she’d practiced with them.

If she needed the real heavy artillery, she’d give the Agency the word. But, if it came down to it, she wasn’t sure how effective the weapons would be tonight.

“You in position, Byrne?” someone in the command center said in her earpiece.

“Yes.”

I sure hope you’re as good as she thinks you are, she thought, and continued searching the block. She barely noticed when the first flakes of snow started to accumulate on the sidewalk.

***

The time was right. Cort knew it somehow, as sure as he’d ever been of anything in his entire short life. He was going to meet whatever foul thing had been terrorizing the city tonight. And he was ready for whatever came, no matter the consequences.

His phone vibrated in his pocket, an unknown number.

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He wasn’t sure what compelled him, but he grabbed one of the largest knives from the block in the kitchen, a six-inch knife he’d used to chop vegetables, and placed it in his jeans. An ever-present prod in his back to remind him of the stakes. There were no delusions left within him, the fate of thousands – perhaps billions – rested on his actions tonight.

He grabbed his winter coat, the same one he’d had for the last ten years. He’d bought the down jacket at an Eddie Bauer in a mall a few towns over from his mom’s house. There’d been a sale, he remembered that, and he’d had a hundred bucks knocked off the full price. It was his favorite coat, like wearing a blanket, really, soft and comforting. He needed that reassurance now. He needed whatever he could get.

The voice in his head was uncharacteristically quiet: the voice he’d mistaken for his own for many weeks. Only now did he fully accept that his culpability in his crimes was murky at best. In this moment he accepted that he’d lost control, entirely and completely. Like a drunk starting the program, he admitted that he had a problem, and needed help.

It was time to take his life back. Even if that meant losing it.

He didn’t bother locking the door when he left.

***

“Should we do anything, master?”

The man caressed her cheek. Such a pretty little thing. They were all so cute, his children.

“No, Stacy, just relax. It’s New Year’s Eve. Enjoy yourself.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sir. Ha. Like he was a customer at the bank, instead of the agent of this shitty world’s destruction.

“Well, actually, there is one thing you can do.”

“Yes?”

The man laughed, the flames in his eyes shining in the near-darkness.

“Put some champagne on ice.”

He turned to the rest of them. All were braced, awaiting his instructions.

“The party has begun!” he shouted. All of children cheered.

Some began to dance, others kissing and biting each other. An orgy was sure to break out at any minute. And why not? This was a time of celebration! Everything was wonderful. The time was truly at hand.

The man felt all their pleasures; tasted all the sweetness that dribbled down their throats. He lived through them all. Their glistening bodies writhed against each other, tongues lapping at skin prickled with goose flesh.

Tonight, one of his favorite children was coming home.

***

Cort wasn’t sure how he knew where to go, but his movements were confident. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation, nor debate over which direction to turn. All was muscle memory, the practiced journey of one on autopilot.

A light snow drifted from the heavens, riding a gentle breeze. The flakes caressed his face like a tired lover after a long day.

Everything was so beautiful. The harbor, boats along the dock, waves splashing against the hulls. Buildings off in the distance, lights sparkling high above the streets. This, all of this, was what he was fighting for. The city he loved couldn’t be destroyed. The people he lived beside couldn’t succumb to this plague. He wouldn’t let it happen. No matter the cost.

There was always the chance he wouldn’t be coming back. If so, he’d take this image with him to the grave. The city in its holiday cheer, illuminated, and blanketed with snow.

There are worse scenes to go out on.

The manhole cover was heavy, but seemed to have been previously loosened. He wrenched it up, clearing enough space to crawl through to a ladder.

Down he descended, entering the sewer. The smell was awful, stinging his nostrils. He used his phone as a flashlight to cut through the murk.

Soon, said the voice in his mind.

On he walked, a left here, a right there. As if he’d made this same trek hundreds of times before, a whale navigating via sonar through the depths.

On he traveled, absolutely sure of his destination. A beacon brighter than the light of the phone lit the way: an image of the man in his head, face obscured by shadows.

I will find you, Cort thought.

How long he traveled, he couldn’t exactly say. Eventually, he came to the ladder he was certain he had to climb.

Hand over hand, he rose, up, out of the filth. Free from the oppressive waste, he pulled himself up and out of the sewer. Perhaps to his final reward.

What greeted him was a decrepit train stop. He didn’t recognize it, then remembered someone telling him once about an abandoned stop on the red line. He’d never expected to see it up close.

Red Christmas Lights hung along the ceiling, a fire flickering off in the distance, its shadows swaying off the walls. The susurrus of voices rang in his ears. As he moved closer to the flames, he noted the ceiling grew higher with each step.

Something was inherently wrong with the room. A T-stop, no matter how luxurious, never had ceilings this high. The architecture was suggestive of a lavish cathedral, stripped of any of the beauty. Crude wooden shacks and tents were set up across the room. The structures reminded him of those used by squatters, or large populations of the homeless who lived together in places long abandoned.

A teeming mass gathered behind the huts and tents. Their cries grew louder – of pain or pleasure, it was hard to discern.

Things were hung along the outside walls of the shacks. The room was too dark to make out the exact colors. His first thought was that they were the pelts of animals. His approach cautious, he closed the gap between himself and the revelers.

No mistaking the human skin stretched across the wooden walls. They were still covered in blood.

In front of the fire a man stood, body obscured by darkness. Behind the fire, men and women in various states of undress drank, kissed, and fucked. Some bit each other, others dancing in the shadows of the pyre. A few choked each other, some hit each other with bloody fists: if they were rutting or not, it was hard to tell.

Many were covered in the rash, a few with pentagrams on stained and dirty chests. Celebrants covered in dried blood, some in excrement. Off in a corner Stacy was naked, save for a black cloak, the front opened wide. The sight stirred something violent in him, and he had no way of knowing if it was due to the infection, or his own free will. The way her taut muscles bulged under her glistening form filled him with a joy he could not stomach: he wanted to strip down with the rest of them. To bite, chew, penetrate, lick, suck, cut, and punch with the others.

It looks like so much fun, he thought, and he couldn’t tell if it was the voice in his head or just him.

At the back of the room, a massive outcropping of rock stood sentinel. In with the wood of the blaze, bones rested, propped against each other, leaning above human skulls of all sizes.

“It’s nice to finally meet in the flesh,” the man said.

His face was entirely obscured by shadow.

“Wish I could say the feeling was mutual,” Cort said.

Grunts of satisfaction, moans behind the fire. The bottom of the man’s face appeared from the darkness, a mouth of perfectly white teeth. His smile was adept as an experienced newscaster’s.

“And why wouldn’t you be happy to meet me, Cort? I love you.”

The man turned to his congregation, in their bliss.

“I love you all!” he shouted.

The speed with which the man snapped back around made Cort cry out.

“Nothing to fear, child. Daddy just wants you to have fun at our New Year’s party.”

“I’m not your ‘child’, asshole.”

The man’s whole face emerged in entirety from the darkness. The most shocking part was how normal he looked. Short black hair cut neatly, a well-fitting black suit, grey-collared undershirt with red tie, covered in arabesque designs in black. This thing of such profound ugliness donned a winning smile, on top of excellent taste in fashion. Cort would be lying if he said the man looked anything but radiant.

“What, expecting horns and a tail?”

Cort took tentative steps backward. The man scoffed, walked towards Cort.

“You need to stop this.”

The Demon laughed loudly, shoulders hitching with his mirth.

“Oh, you are rich, Cort. I don’t need to stop anything. The only thing that needs to stop is your holier-than-thou act. It’s sooooo boring.”

And wouldn’t you like to join in with your friends over there?

“Get out of my head.”

“Make me,” the Demon said, his eyes vulpine in the fire’s glow.

This man – this thing – could read his mind, was practically part of his mind at this stage. He’d never actually had a plan, had merely been driven by blind rage and a desire for revenge. What he was supposed to do now was utterly beyond him.

And always the itch, to lick and bite; to scratch, drink blood, smoke, snort, and guzzle. The urges were agony to fight, like every addiction he’d ever had multiplied and thrown at him all at once.

Enjoy yourself, the Demon’s voice said in his mind.

Your problem is you think what I want for you is evil.”

Stacy moaned loudly. She used a short hooked blade to slice open the skin of her left breast; rubbed the blood as it pumped out of the wound down her nipple, along her stomach, sliding the crimson lower down her sweat-slicked skin.

Doesn’t she look tasty?

“I’m not falling for this.”

“Falling for what? I just want you to be happy, Cort.”

He closed the distance between them, Cort too terrified to move. The Demon placed a heavily-muscled arm around Cort’s shoulder. That gleaming white smile was maddening. The more he witnessed that grin, the more he saw the expression for what it truly was: the bared teeth of an aggressive predator, sizing up its next meal.

“You made me kill her,” Cort said.

He felt hopeless. How was he going to stop this thing? It was literally in his head.

That’s right, Cort. You can’t win.

You made me do it,” Cort repeated, melancholy tinging his voice.

“Did I really?”

“You know you did.”

“Hm. Why don’t we just see about that?”

The Demon snapped his fingers, and the station blacked out of existence.

***

Cort came to, in his apartment. The knife was in his hand. Janet’s mouth was stretched open in the rictus of a scream.

No, please –

You need to see what YOU did, Cort.

Cort lunged, his body moving against his will. His muscles moved with terrible purpose.

Please! I had nothing to do with this – 

The knife penetrated Janet’s stomach. No sound escaped as she started to scream.

Stop!

You did this of your own volition.

The look she gave him when the blade sunk home sent shards of glass pumping through his heart. He begged his body to stop moving, to no avail.

Each new violation damned him, Janet screaming silently. She fell to the floor, and Cort continued his assault. His blood-covered hands put the knife down momentarily to caress her face, smearing a crimson handprint on her cheek.

MAKE IT STOP!

Tears streamed down Janet’s bloody face.

This is the truth. You need to know what you did.

Helpless, as his arms kept straining, her blood running in rivers out of the wounds. The blood pooled on his apartment floor, soaking his bare feet. The claret fluid gushed torrential out of the lacerations; the apartment flooded, inch upon inch, soaking the room, rising ever higher.

PLEASE!

Her lifeless body floated in the flood, her eyes open and unblinking. Soon Cort was submerged entirely. He couldn’t breathe – the blood was filling up his lungs – he couldn’t breathe! Jesus, he was going to drown, he needed air, his lungs burned, he saw spots in the ruddy ocean –

He fell to his knees, gasping for air, back in the abandoned train station. Prostrate before the hideous thing that donned the flesh of a man, vision still swimming.

“Why are you – ” He coughed violently. “Why are you doing this?”

“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.”

The Demon stepped away with a distinct flourish, a trained Shakespearean actor preparing to give a soliloquy. He turned to face Cort.

“You’re all so funny. You long for freedom: the freedom to fuck whenever you please, to do drugs, to hurt other people. The freedom to steal, cheat, lie. The freedom to have fun, in other words.”

“Maybe it’s fun for you – ”

The Demon shot his hand out, fingers extended.

“The adults are talking. Shut up.”

Cort looked over to Stacy. Her hands rubbed violently against herself, masturbating with her blood-stained fingers. He scanned past the fire to a full-blown orgy that had broken out. A group of them were taking turns punching each other in the face, the ones resting drinking champagne. Two women were biting each other on the neck at the same time. He saw one skinny woman injecting heroin while a short man gave her a rimjob. A couple were passing a crack pipe back and forth. A teenager snorted coke from the hand of a girl who looked to be his age. One fat man squatted as he shat on the floor, giggling.

“All I’m doing is giving you all a little nudge. The very tiniest push. Trust me when I say it doesn’t take much. So many of you long to embrace your true natures, to be the violent apes prevalent in your genetics. Yet you all try so hard to be civil. You cling to this notion that there’s a cosmic scorecard, and every day you don’t hit someone with your car, or cut someone’s head off, or rape someone, you get a smiley face sticker tacked to a big sheet of paper with your name on it on an enormous corkboard in the sky.”

Cort scowled, practically growled his response.

“You can’t just reduce human compassion to fucking cowardice.”

“Think about it. Take away the religions telling you to be good to one another. Take away the societal norms. Strip away all the artifice, and what you have in the end are people terrified that maybe they should be enjoying themselves, and aren’t. People afraid that maybe there isn’t a big Santa sitting on a throne made of clouds in the sky, who will give them a great big hug when they die if they just hunker down and eat shit their entire lives.”

Cort walked closer to the thing in the suit. His vision burned red, even knowing he didn’t stand a chance, he wanted to run up on the demon and jab his knife into his throat.

“So the alternative is being a rapist? A murderer? Hurting people just so you can feel good?”

The Demon nodded, ever so slightly.

“That’s not freedom. That’s chaos.”

“Chaos is freedom, Cort. Order is arbitrary. By necessity it reduces your liberty.”

And don’t you want to embrace diving off the deep end?

Their moans grew louder, Stacy’s practically shouts now, the Demon’s laughter louder than all combined. His howl of delight reverberated off the walls like thunder. He crouched, and stood, slowly, arms by his sides: a conductor from a land of screaming nightmare set to lead an orchestra of the infernal. As his hands lifted, the fire behind him rose to impossible heights.

“Listen to them, Cort! Do they sound like they’re damned? It sounds to me like they’re in paradise!”

The Demon danced in front of the fire, taking huge, almost comical steps, gyrating his hips in some sort of crazy samba.

Don’t you want to go have some fun?

Cort threw caution aside, ran up to the man in a frenzy. He grabbed the thing by the collar, and shouted into his face.

YOU MADE ME KILL THE WOMAN I LOVED!

“Oh, someone’s getting feisty. I just love it when you get all mannish.”

Cort punched him in the face, screaming in a scalding red rage. The Demon spat blood into the fire, which sizzled, and flared the flames burgundy. He rose, pressed up against Cort, looked him straight in the eye. Blood dripped from his now swollen bottom lip.

“Yes, Cort. Don’t you see? This is what I was trying to tell you. This is what you were all along. An animal. A beast that can talk. That felt good, didn’t it, child?”

Just let go, you’ll feel so much better.

“No…”

He backed away. The fire seemed to wrap around the Demon’s silhouette. He was furious, confused. If he hurt that thing, he’d be proving its point, playing into its hand. And how did he know this hadn’t been its plan all along? It had been in Cort’s head the entire time he’d thought about what to do.

His fingers wrapped around clumps of hair, as he squeezed them in his fists. His throat hurt as he cried out in frustration.

Stop fighting, said the Demon’s voice in his head, the phrase overlapping. Staggered out, repeated, said over and over.

Overwhelmed, Cort stumbled over his feet and fell onto his back. He couldn’t stop this thing, he’d been a fool to think he could. How could one man stand against something that crawled from the Pit?

The Demon bent at the waist to place a hand on his cheek.

“I have something to show you.”

The Demon turned back to face his congregation. Voice booming like a revival preacher at full clip, he cried out.

“I’m going to let you all see what we’re going to do tonight! The hour will soon be upon us! The old ways of man will be ripped apart, kicking and screaming!”

The Demon threw his arms to both sides, palms up, eyes wide. His expression manic, he slowly pointed with his right index finger at the ceiling, tilting his head in tandem.

The ceiling disappeared, replaced by the city. A light snow blanketed the streets. Around the Boston Garden, and Cort saw himself, face covered in blood, huge grin warping his features, alongside the rest of the possessed storming up from the subway. They chased people on the sidewalks, who fled for their lives, screaming. Innocent civilians stabbed, choked, shot, beaten to bloody pulp. Wide-scale assault the likes of which Cort had never seen. He saw the fat man who’d defected on the floor earlier smash a woman’s head into nothing more than a red smear against a fire hydrant, as he howled with laughter. Stacy, her robe now tied, used her hooked knife to stab a middle aged man in the temple, as his two boys stared on in terror. And he saw himself, running through a crowd, stabbing at will, some of the possessed holding down victims, which he gutted, stabbed, kicked, and strangled. Police trying to intervene stabbed, shot, beaten, and while they managed to cut down a few of the possessed, the sheer number of the infected quickly overpowered them.

The scene changed. The Prudential center on fire, massive explosions sending shockwaves of glass to the streets below. The other office building ablaze, some collapsing from loss of structural integrity.

A man with a rocket launcher, firing at police helicopters. One rocket hit home, and the chopper exploded, crashing into a nearby building; a sound like metal screaming and glass and fire singing.

The Zakim bridge now, the lights changed to red: hundreds of bodies hanging from nooses along the top of the bridge like Christmas ornaments from Hell.

The image above descended through the street, showed them the room they stood in. It traveled to a massive stone dragon’s mouth at the far end of the cave, whose eyes lit ablaze as rocky apertures slowly slid away inside the mouth. Down its stone throat, and they traveled through a massive cavern. The projection changed to a massive metal door, so large Cort couldn’t even guess how tall, huge letters carved above to read “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here“.

A stirring at the back of his mind told him to look down. Following his instinct he shifted his gaze. And then everything clicked into place.

The presentation was using up the man’s concentration. This demon had snuck his way inside his head…but maybe the connection could go both ways?

“The sheer power of your most carnal desires acted out is truly wondrous. The massive loss of life will give me enough power to open a doorway below.”

Cort focused all his energy on the man’s face; felt the electrical shock scaling up his spine.

“We will release the terrible beauty the abyss contains.”

He visualized leaving his mind, traveling into the man’s head. Gathered all of his energy, at critical mass, and fired at his target: the mind’s eye of the Demon.

***

Flashing images assaulted him.

The man, still human, in a black robe, face hidden, reciting incantations from a red leather book as he sat before a fire in the wilderness: images of creatures, abominations with numerous limbs and eyes, appearing in the flames. They sang to him in a language he could not understand.

A mansion on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. The man on his knees, shirtless, on the edge of the cliff, waves crashing against the rocks below. Heavy rain pelted the land, lightning crackling through the sky.

A heated poker in the shape of a pentagram, scalding into the flesh of his chest as he wailed in agony. He felt the pain as the man lived through the memory again, screamed in abject fear and pain along with him.

A bonfire, inside the flames, burning to death as he screamed, as the flames destroyed his flesh, his skin coming off in black folds.

All at once, Cort shot back into his body like a window shade snapped back. The Demon stared at him, mouth open in mock surprise.

“You’re sneaky.”

The crowd stared at him, all of their revelry stopped for the moment.

“I like that.”

If he was going to get to this demon, he’d need to distract it again. Now that he’d caught Cort rooting around inside his head, he’d be on guard. There was only one tactic left at his disposal.

“How does this all work? I saw a flashing red screen. So, what, your essence got transferred into my brain?”

He heard the Demon chuckling in his head.

“It wasn’t just a ‘flashing red screen’, boy, not any more than blood is just red liquid. A hybrid of computer code and the language of Hell, merged into the mother of all computer viruses. No expert could ever hope to get rid of it, unless they were fluent in the language of the Damned.”

“Did you create the virus?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re a damned computer programmer?”

The Demon laughed again. The infected had gone back to hitting each other or fucking. Scott, off in the crowd, drank champagne and pawed at a woman beside him. It took all his willpower not to scream out his friend’s name.

“I’m a fucking demon, Cort. I don’t need to be a computer programmer. I’m from Hell.”

“So if you’re so powerful, why do you need us? And why do you need all those servants, those little creatures, the people in the walls?”

He could sense hesitation from the Demon. The slightest hint of a frown on its face.

“Even if you’re the most powerful warrior in the world, it’s still a numbers game. I’m not just trying to take over a city here, sweetheart. I need an army. I need to amass energy. The more people I convert – ”

“Infect,” Cort said.

The Demon sighed, somewhat annoyed. “Semantics. The more people I ‘infect’ – ” here the Demon used exaggerated air quotes, ” – the thinner the membrane between this world and the Pit becomes. Every new member of the congregation breaks down more of the barrier. Are you familiar with the concept of overlapping dimensions?”

“Do I look like a theoretical physicist?”

“No need to get bitchy. Yes or no?”

Cort nodded in the negative. He focused on building up his psychic energy. His fingers and toes started to tingle.

“There are things that exist in your universe you’d never dare dream of. They dwell in alternate dimensions, overlapping your own. Normally you wouldn’t be properly equipped to see them. But here’s the rub: my gift to you is not just freedom, not just power…”

The Demon formed his index fingers and thumbs into circles, and placed them in front of his eyes in a pantomime of glasses.

“I’ve blessed you with the gift of sight.”

Cort sensed the Demon letting his guard down, so rapt with his own words. If he was patient, he knew soon he could go in for another strike.

“So you mean those creatures – the things in the walls – they’re always there?”

“Yes, they’re always around. However, most of my kind aren’t strong enough to use the same avenues.”

Cort tried to look summarily awed. He prayed his second attempt would allow him an opportunity to go deeper into the Demon’s mind, to distract the man in his own memories. The last journey he’d been too close. He needed to observe, not experience. The next go round he would try to release as many memories as he could, assault the Demon with its own history.

“If you possess enough of us, you have the energy to open a door to Hell, so the rest of your buddies can – ”

“Do a little redecorating, yes.”

The energy sizzled in his spine, lightning in his head. He’d give this next journey all he had.

“What makes you think I want any part of that?” Cort said, twitching now, he couldn’t help it, the power was too great.

The wails of ecstasy echoed off the walls of the abandoned subway station. He saw Scott snorting something off a short woman’s ass. He wondered where Abie and Katie were, but he had more pressing matters to attend to.

The Demon snapped his fingers to get Cort’s attention. He flipped it off. The Demon chuckled.

“So obstinate, but I do love that quality in you. What I’m offering is a chance to be on the winning team. I’m giving you the chance to be truly happy. The time of humanity is at its logical end. The Earth has a finite amount of resources left. You’ve completely fucked the natural environment. Factor in the global nuclear arsenal, and how much time do you really think humans have left? It’s all been leading to this, Cort.”

The energy crackled through his body. So close. He’d attack at any second.

“Why fight destiny?”

The Demon walked to the opposite side of the fire. Cort stared through the flames at him as his form shifted in the shimmering heat.

“You have a choice. To feel pleasure the likes of which you’ve never experienced, or to be slaughtered without incident. To fight with us, enjoying the endless spoils of victory, or to suffocate in a pool of your own blood.”

Join us, the Demon’s voice said in his mind. Join us or die screaming.

The time was right. Cort unleashed all of his pent-up energy. A sensation like passing out while still standing, flying through the space between them. He dove right back in.

***

He fell through terrible memories. This time around, Cort tried to throw them to the forefront of the Demon’s mind.

The man recited strange words over dead and rotting animals. The creatures’ eyes opened, crawling with maggot-filled limbs along the dirt. The images shifted to the man in a mausoleum, shouting ancient words, moving his hands rhythmically. The dead slouched from their tombs, screaming, as his laughter echoed over all.

What are you doing? the Demon’s voice asked.

Seeing who you really are.

He was more distant now, an observer rather than a participant. He watched these things instead of feeling them.

Villagers dragging the man before the cliff. A preacher held the bible before his face, and slapped him with it.

Without warning, Cort was in the fire, tied to a stake, screaming. Something was wrong. He’d lost his distance.

What’s wrong, don’t like being in my memories?

As he burned, he heard himself – heard this man – scream.

In order to strike, he’d have to figure out how to control his body while still in the Demon’s mind. The images were hard to ignore, sensations flying at him, excruciating pain. He focused.

Let me go.

With effort, the repeating of the mantra, he found he could once again see the Demon’s memories from a safe distance. He tried to picture how his body looked, most likely standing staring at the Demon vacantly. He willed his left foot to move, had no idea if his body complied.

The man remembering his fall into endless piles of bones, stretching as far as the eye could see.

Fuck off! the Demon’s voice echoed.

The ground shook and the man looked down, realized he rested upon a gigantic tongue. The tongue tilted everything; a massive devil, eyes gouged out, skin covered in deep wounds all over its body, swallowing him. Without warning Cort was back in the Demon’s memories, worked down the purple pulsating throat of the behemoth.

Stomach acid dissolved his skin, the pain excruciating, and Cort pushed out, was able to distance himself from the pain. He witnessed the man’s – the Demon’s – torment, his body somehow still alive despite the severity of its destruction.

A river of lava. A seven foot skeleton of a massive six-horned goat, with a net made out of human intestines attached to a human spine, dragging the destroyed corpse of the man from the stream of fire. Carried to a gigantic pit, the man thrown in. Black skies, land where the sky should be, everything upside-down, and a massive castle of burning brimstone.

The man, body still destroyed, jumped along a series of stones floating in the dark sky, the world topsy-turvy. Winged eyes flew past, as Cort traveled down, fell upwards towards the castle above.

The man, corpse disgustingly ravaged yet still animated, stood before a creature whose frame practically scraped the massive ceiling, a dark robe obscuring its face.

Cort willed his feet to move, attempted to see through his eyes back in his physical body, and failed at first. He saw the faintest flicker of the abandoned train station, within ten feet of the Demon. A juggling act between physical existence and spiritual, between a Demon’s memories, and his body’s sight: his foreground filled with the Demon’s point of view, then from outside of the Demon’s body, to inside, in his memories.

The rotting corpse of the Demon before the massive cloaked figure, a withered and leathery grey hand reaching out, touching him on the top of the man’s head –

A flickering view of his physical body, Cort close enough to the Demon to touch him now –

An assault of disparate images, the Demon in none of them. A field of mud, people crucified for miles on enormous bones tied into crosses; torrents of yellow vomit splashed from the heavens onto wailing victims; blood, knives, and razors mixed with the regurgitation which splashed from huge gaping maws above: mouths like those of enormous lamprey, row upon row of teeth traveling down gullets; the creatures screeching out, the sound vibrating like an earthquake.

A massive obsidian sea, waves crashing against a frozen shore, the humps of an enormous serpent, sharp bone scales protruding from every inch of its body, impaling countless victims, snow falling from dark clouds, a sky the purple of a deep bruise.

A massive plain on fire, mountains of black stone. A behemoth the size of the peaks, massive curling horns and black wings on its back, tail whipping, skin of burnt dark red; infinitesimal smaller creatures flying off the massive body, some crawling along the jagged plates of its back, insectile.

The Demon screaming, eyes on fire, head coursing with black electricity –

Cort reached into his belt loop and grabbed the knife. His body seized, tremors rocking through him. Blood oozed out his nose and ears, and he felt a pressure in his head, but his purpose was clear. He had to do this.

Screaming face after screaming face, the worst atrocities he could ever imagine, like every rape, murder, war crime, and genocide all combined into a best-of reel, each image assaulting him getting progressively worse: all ages, genders, types of pain, of horror, of sorrow ever imagined; he vomited back in his body, pissed himself; the images too much, demons all around him, as far as the eye could see, screaming in a tongue he could not understand, rushing forward to a vortex, a black hole spiraling, a means of escape; he was going to fall, he was going to pass out, he had to leave, he couldn’t take anymore of this, he head to LEAVE!

All at once he snapped back to his body, and made eye contact with the Demon.

He looked positively joyful.

“Atta boy.”

“This is for Janet.”

He jammed the knife into the Demon’s eyes in quick succession. It howled in pain. The massive ceiling and dragon’s head in the back of the station fading out, the regular ceiling and back wall coming into view. Still the Demon screamed, and filled with a blistering red rage, Cort dug the knife into the flesh of its throat, and sliced the jugular open. Blood pumped from the wound, the Demon grabbing his throat with both hands, falling to his knees, gasping for air. The massive ceiling and dragon gate completely vanished.

All of the possessed immediately began screaming in horror. On the ground, the Demon lay lifeless. He kicked the thing in the gut for good measure.

Cort ran through the crowd, past the crude shacks. He finally found Scott rocking back and forth in the fetal position on the dirty ground.

“We have to go!” he yelled.

His friend barely seemed to register him. Cort lifted him up off the ground, and grabbed him by the hand. He dragged Scott out of the tunnel like a child woken fresh from a nightmare.

He didn’t bother looking for Abie or Katie.

The
End


Raised by feral cats in the wilderness of central Massachusetts, Sean M. Thompson writes fiction to frighten and enrage the normals. He is the author of Too Late, a collection of horror stories; Hate from the Sky, a bizarro novella; and The Demon (or TH3 D3M0N), which you probably just finished reading right here. When he isn’t bathing in the blood of the innocent, he co-hosts the podcast Miskatonic Musings, and (rarely) updates his blog, found here.


That’s it. It’s over. You can read the whole thing right here.

Mcmanbeast Books will be releasing a revised and expanded version of The Demon this fall under the title TH3 D3M0N. It is the first of a planned trilogy. We will talk about this when it rolls around.

I sincerely thank Sean M. Thompson for allowing me to debut his excellent novel on my site. I’ve learned a lot about editing since The Demon‘s start in July of last year, and that’s due in no small part to this book.

Thank y’all for reading. We’ll be starting a new serial pretty soon, one very different in tone and content from The Demon but hopefully no lesser in quality.

Details soon.

“Unmanageable Spirits: a Look at Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Wish You Were Here'” by S.P. Miskowski

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“Unmanageable Spirits”
a Look at Nadia Bulkin’s “Wish You Were Here
by S.P. Miskowski

Who doesn’t dislike tourists? With their loud clothes and their demands for special treatment, even tourists hate other tourists. But no-one regards them with more apprehension than the individual whose job it is to ferry them around and show them a good time. It’s exhausting work, for the umpteenth time recounting a location’s history and significance to people who are tuned out to all but their own personal adventure.

On any tour in almost any city you’ll find individuals who want something extra, a secret spot or a deal known only to the locals. The belief that a deeper level of experience can be purchased for the right price isn’t strictly a characteristic of people raised in the United States, but we seem to be the most gauche and relentless about it. Give us the good stuff and give it to us right now.

We don’t know how many people Dimas, the protagonist of Nadia Bulkin’s story “Wish You Were Here”, has taken on guided tours in Bali; enough to make him expert at spotting personality types and anticipating what they want. He’s quick to perceive the nature of two couples, Melissa and Josh, Rose and Ben, as he shows them the sights. They turn out to be a particularly unruly group and over the course of a few events Dimas loses them to accident, sexual misadventure, and the allure of drugs.

The one person who sticks with him has a dark purpose. Rose has come to what she thinks is a highly spiritual place in order to make contact with her son, who died in a car crash. Dimas tries to discourage her obsession. Over the course of the tour he tells a series of tales in response to the demand for ghost stories. Nothing will satisfy Rose. Her unconsciously xenophobic view of Bali centers on exoticism and ritual. She wants Dimas to perform a ceremony he learned from a family member as a child, so that she can speak to her son.

Hundreds of stories and films misinform Rose’s expectations. She seems convinced that touring a country where her skin color sets her apart as a traveler, a place where she doesn’t know the language and doesn’t care about local culture or history, she will be more in touch with the occult. She wants what she wants when she wants it.

Dimas, it turns out, is also a traveler. The life he left behind haunts him, particularly the memory of Ani, a friend killed in a fire set during the kind of social and political conflict Rose can’t even imagine. Dimas has settled in Bali to try and forget the past but he finds himself in another place of uncertainty and unrest. Everywhere he goes he thinks of Ani and the horrific way in which she died.

Once Dimas agrees to help Rose, he seals her fate and his own. I won’t spoil the disturbing nature of that fate. I’ll only note that Dimas was correct when he warned that reaching out to spirits is a very inexact process; it opens a door you can’t close again at will.

In this rich, marvelous story Nadia Bulkin accomplishes an astonishing number of things simultaneously. We have the natural beauty as well as the tawdry entertainments of a popular tourist destination. We learn about recent history through the experiences and assiduous social observations of Dimas. Above all we recognize the degree to which we are all haunted by those we’ve lost but also by the dense, violent history of each place we encounter and each person we meet. Such things are not meant to be handled, like a toy, and then put back where we found them. Death, horror, the world beyond our reason or reckoning, is not manageable; it is as powerful, as real, and as terrifying as human life itself.


S.P. Miskowski is the author of the Skillute Cycle from Omnium Press, Stag in Flight from Dim Shores, the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated Muscadines from Dunhams Manor Press, and the forthcoming novel I Wish I Was Like You. She has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a Swarthout Award. Visit her here.

Nadia Bulkin is an Indonesian author of socio-political horror and weird fiction. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award and her story “Wish You Were Here” (discussed in this post, and available to read online here) was reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Vol. 9. Her first collection, She Said Destroy, is coming from Word Horde this summer.

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

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Sean M. Thompson’s
The Demon

December 30

Work called and left a message saying he was fired.

Cort wasn’t surprised. He hadn’t bothered to check in with his employer in weeks. Also, he was pretty sure the entire office was possessed.

Far too damaged to do anything but cower in his apartment alone, it occurred to him that for all intents and purposes, he’d appear to anyone out of the know like an agoraphobic. This, of course, was a much better reputation to have than as a murderer and cannibal. The thought of Janet sent him into a tailspin, the familiar lump in the throat and hole in the chest when he remembered that someone he cherished so much would never be coming back, even if she was still alive in some other world.

Who was to say that hope wasn’t a terrible joke to the demon inside him? Its cruelty knew no bounds. Or, if not a product of the thing whispering in his ear, perhaps it was the part of his mind still clean producing a dream he needed to keep him going – to keep him fighting back, rather than collapsing onto the floor in a heap and letting himself waste away.

You could go visit Stacy and have some fun.

No.

Lately he wasn’t sure just how alone he really was. The feeling of being watched was much stronger than ever before. And the multiple criminal acts he’d committed plagued his conscience, his culpability in them a needle slowly but consistently pressed into his brain.

To distract himself, Cort decided to check on his social media accounts. He needed an escape: welcomed the chance to focus on something else, to pull him out from the maze of his conscience.

Cort logged onto Facebook, and was surprised to find there were multiple posts going back several weeks.

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Had the detective read this? Cort frantically scrolled through, deleting each status, but knowing that the damage had already been done.

He knew he hadn’t written them while awake, he hadn’t lost any time since this fucking thing had made him kill Janet.

Had he been writing these while he was asleep?

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“Jesus…”

Somewhere back in his bedroom, a deep voice uttered “No.”

“Is someone there?”

He scanned the room. There was nobody there.

“Just…spooking yourself out.” The sound of his own voice comforted him, reassured him that he was still there. “There’s no-one here.”

Except a bunch of weird creatures in the basement.

The voice again, closer now. “We are everywhere.”

The thing inside him was making him hear the voices. They weren’t real. Nothing he had seen was real…

Unless it was all real.

The walls called to him.

Come, Cort. Embrace the chaos.

Why am I fighting at all? I just need to accept this. I’ll be happier.

“Shut up! You won’t get to me.”

Movement out of his peripheral vision. Cort turned, and saw nothing. Again, movement from the other side, just out view. He turned – nothing there. The room was normal.

Except, that wasn’t right. The couch was sideways, and the coffee table was at a different angle than before.

“Stop it.”

Stop what? Nothing to be afraid of. We’re all friends here.

“Whatever the fuck you are, you’re not going to beat me.”

Was that laughter he heard behind him?

But I’m you, we are us.

“No. This isn’t going to work. I’m onto you.”

What, did you not like Stacy?

A stranger’s voice laughed loudly in his head.

“I – ”

I’m in here with you, boy. I know how much you liked her.

“You’re not going to control me anymore.”

I’d like to see you stop me.

“I’m going to fucking kill you.”

The voice in his head ceased. A profound silence encompassed his entire being. Cort breathed in deeply, sighing with relief at a moment’s peace so desperately longed for. Maybe he did have some control over this after all. The blackouts had stopped entirely, unless he was still doing things when he thought he was asleep.

Maybe…maybe I can stop this.

Cort thumped onto the couch, leaning back, enjoying the way the cushion caressed his aching muscles. The stress of everything had tensed up his shoulder and back muscles.

I should order one of those back-massaging mats, Cort thought.

His gaze traveled across the room, off to the left, looking at his bookcase with its paperbacks and DVDs, taking in the picture of his parents and him on a whale watch on the second shelf he’d seen countless times before. He kept scanning to the right, noting the front door, a pair of sneakers tossed off to the left on a cheap welcome mat. Cort continued to survey the room, his eye finally stopping on the wall ahead of him. There was some kind of water damage, or other stain.

Cort slowly crept closer to inspect the damage, squinting to get a better look at what was wrong with the apartment’s wall. When he was close enough to touch the plaster he noticed what he’d taken for a stain was actually a shape.

A rudimentary human head was formed in the plaster. His heart palpitated in his chest. The materials of the wall gradually began to shift, transmogrifying into other shapes. Cort started to feel faint, acid rising up his throat. Yet he was frozen in place, paralyzed by fear. Two arms swelled from the plaster and wood, attaching to a neck leading to the head above. The rhythmic movement continued, a torso birthing itself from the wood, along with two legs which bloated out at the bottom.

In the wall before him, a crude mannequin was formed. A single slash at the bottom of the head split the plaster and wood apart. The opening stretched wider, wood cracking to accommodate, and spoke.

Cort,” the person in the wall said.

Cort cried out, stumbled backwards. “No.” The demon was just messing with his mind, this wasn’t real. None of it had been real, save for the murder. He needed to hold on.

The man in the wall smiled, the wood splintering with the movement.

“You need to stop moving my furniture.”

It’s not right yet,” the person in the wall said.

Cort ran for the door. Arms rushed out from the wall and grabbed him. Beige plaster hands and splintered wooden fingers held him tight.

“Let go!”

I shouldn’t fight this, he thought. Then: Bullshit, yes I should!

But should he really? They just wanted to be friendly. Why was he being so standoffish?

His captor was another wall person with no eyes, no mouth, just a plain head, and simple body. The thing was still attached by an umbilical cord of plaster and wood protruding from the wall.

Cort pushed the confusion away. He continued to fight against his captor with all of his energy.

What makes you think you’re so special? We’ve seen thousands like you. They all went the same way. You really shouldn’t fight him. He’ll give you pleasure you’ve only ever dreamed about. Gifts you never thought possible.

“Oh, right, so I can kill people? So I can behead babies and take pictures?”

Cort punched at the wooden arms that held him. Despite his struggle, he couldn’t break the wall person’s grip. The one facing him continued.

The thing about true power is the freedom to let go. Preconceived notions of morality don’t matter anymore. You are becoming something so much more than the rest of them. What are a few dead compared to becoming a force of nature?

Cort grabbed the painted arm wrapped around him, and wrenched it down. A satisfying crack, the person in the wall moaning in pain.

He ran to the center of the room.

We just want to play,” the one facing him said.

Two more materialized to the left and right of the first, forming like sculptures from clay. Four of them became six, then eight, then ten, until every wall had an identical human shape which surrounded him.

The mouths cracked apart, one after another in a crescendo.

We just want to hold you,” they said in unison.

There arms began to stretch towards him, fingers elongated, wooden hands reaching out to crush him. There was nowhere to go. The arms stretched further and further. They lifted him from the ground.

We see everything,” they said as one. “We’re always watching, gathering information. We can track, trap, kill. Ours is a mutually beneficial relationship.

“What do you get out of this?” Cort asked, trying to buck free. The pressure on his chest made it hard to breath.

We like to watch.

There was no way to beat them physically. They defied logic. Human strength couldn’t compete.

But why do you have to compete? It’ll be easier if you just relax.

“I don’t want any part of this!”

You have a funny way of showing it, Cort. Sure seems to me like you were more than happy to let the things in the basement help you.

“That was different!”

And how was that different?

How was it any different, really? They were here to help him. It was silly to be so obstinate against help.

No. No, he needed to fight!

It seemed the monster inside him was done with the act. Hard to keep up the charade when there were men formed from his wall, holding him off the ground.

Don’t fight this, Cort. I have such wonders in store for you.

The great revelation that he’d been watched in his apartment all along filled him with horror. Who knew how long they’d been scrutinizing him? Who was to say they hadn’t always been there, just beneath the surface of his perception? He had no way of knowing if they’d been everywhere he went since birth. Perhaps they’d been watching him from the first day he nestled against his mother in the hospital.

Cort squeezed his eyes shut.

I’m done with this, he thought. I’m done with all of this.

His eyelids shut so tight he saw little white dots of light. Cort formed an image in his mind of the things holding him. He focused on the scene, the colors becoming brighter, the details coming into sharp relief.

Cort visualized the long wood and plaster arms breaking, one after the other. A light tingling sensation started on the tips of his fingers. He could practically hear the splintering wood, hear the people in the walls uttering deep cries of torment.

The image became brighter, details in his apartment became clearer still. His toes felt electrified, along with his fingers, and his forearms. Cort rewound the scene, starting it again from the beginning, replaying the images over and over.

A tingling sensation on the top of his scalp accompanied his arms and legs now. The sensations grew in intensity, electrical current swimming in his head like fish from lightless depths, acclimating to the change in pressure.

His whole body began to twitch, his back spasming, his arms and legs convulsing.

The images replayed in his mind, so clear. The energy grew in intensity. Everything happened so clearly in his mind: the arms cracking, the people in the walls howling, his body falling to the floor. As he let the scene go on longer, more details came into focus. Looks of anger on the plain mannequin faces of the people in the walls.

His teeth clacking against each other, his body shaking so hard he could barely keep his eyes closed. The shock spreading through his whole body. The tingling before a sneeze, but stronger. The sensation before an orgasm, but stronger. The charge inside him, the focal point behind his eyes, his whole body ready to unleash the energy it contained.

The scene replaying, over and over, gaining in speed before it began again. And he could almost feel the impact as his body fell to the floor. His mouth began to foam, and he felt a trickle of blood leak from his nose.

The voice in his head bellowed, deep as a bottomless pit.

YOU WILL BURN!

Cort’s eyes burst open.

One long beige arm cracked, a sound like thunder. The next arm broke apart. The rest broke apart, one after another in a circle. A deep rumbling cry of anguish all around him. Cort fell to the floor, knocking the wind out of him.

NO!

The voice in his head went silent. Like a circuit breaker flipped, the connection was no longer active.

Cort coughed, and rolled onto his back. His apartment was back to normal, no cracked wood or plaster on the ground, no things in the walls, none of it.

Slowly, he made his way to his feet. He wiped at his nostril, saw it came away bloody. His muscles ached, and he felt exhausted.

His cell phone buzzed in his pocket, and the dread hit him immediately. He knew it was going to be his father on the other end of the line.

“Hello?”

“Cort, my boy, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, dad. What’s up?”

“I think you know what’s up, Cortland.”

His head swam in brackish water. His breath quickened, his ribs feeling like they might explode out of his chest at any second.

“Dad, no – ”

“It’s so wonderful with him inside you, Cort. Why are you fighting?”

There it was. The confirmation he’d been dreading.

“Christ. No. Dad…”

“It’ll all be alright, son. You’ll know where to go when the time comes.”

“Dad, wait – ”

The call ended, his breath went with it. The phone flew across the room as he screamed in anger. Storming into the kitchen, he yanked open the wooden cabinet next to the fridge, grabbed the bottle of scotch he’d opened with Stacy. He didn’t bother enjoying the taste this time around, just put the bottle straight to his lips and drank deeply.

He didn’t want to feel anything anymore. His system was entirely overloaded. All the fear, all the grief, all the pain, what the fuck was it for? Was life so precious he should bother to endure this any longer?

His back itched, and he yelled, scratched the inflamed section. Half the bottle went into his stomach in short order.

Cort took off his shirt, went into the bathroom meaning to shower. As he walked by the mirror something caught his eye, and he doubled back. On his chest, the rash was a deeper red than the other scabs.

The reflection staring back at him was a stranger. Deep purple bags under his eyes, and his hair was greasy, sticking up in tufts. He’d lost weight, his cheeks sunken in, looking hollow, the curves of his face now harsh and angular. His face was positively febrile, practically homeless. More mental patient than savior, who was he kidding.

Thoughts ceased when he saw the rash on his chest. Clear skin in a circle around it, one of the few spots not tender and pink, with scabs or inflammation. The rash lines connected, forming the shape of his undoing, the Fall of Man. He almost laughed at the absurdity of it. The message was clear. His place in the pecking order was cemented.

In that moment he felt more lost than ever. Abandoned by whatever good forces existed, if they ever had. Into black waters he fell, thrashing against the wake of a heavy storm. A storm set to destroy humanity – to usher in a new age of monstrous beings. Evil incarnate, the serpents rising from the depths, baring fangs set to sink in and rend innocent flesh off bone, down their foul gullets.

Formed on his chest, an upside down star within a circle. The Mark of the Beast.

The rash was a blood-red pentagram.

Did you really think you’d get rid of me that easily, Cort?

To be concluded
June 13th, 2017.

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

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Sean M. Thompson’s
The Demon

December 23

The rash bloomed down Cort’s shoulders and back, stopping short of his ass; raw red welts that formed a roadmap of pain along his skin. Things had been such a mess he’d hardly noticed when the rash had grown worse. His inner monologue had grown ever more alarming as of late: vile, deplorable acts popped into his mind unbidden; thoughts like sharpened razors slicing at his throat. His thighs were itchy with red scales.

Work had called and left a message, but Cort ignored it. He couldn’t afford to leave the house anymore, for his safety and the safety of others. He was doing the best he could to keep the urges at bay, but sometimes they just seemed so…tempting.

Cort couldn’t get over the sense that there were things in the apartment with him. He never saw anything, not clearly, but out of his peripheral vision he swore he detected almost constant movement. The feeling of being watched never went away, either. Drinking became an activity that started the moment he got up, and lasted until he went to bed. A liquor store down the street delivered; he was sure the delivery people thought he was nuts, but then again, maybe he was.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he ate from a microwavable chicken parm dinner. A glass of whiskey cooled his palm, condensation dripping down his arm. He sat in silence, afraid to turn on the TV in case something snuck up behind him.

But it’s nothing but friends here, Cort. Why worry about a little company?

This is my apartment. Unwanted visitors are not welcome.

You want them, though. You love the company.

No. The point is moot, there’s no one in here.

I can change that. I can go have some fun with a neighbor. Maybe just give a little knock, and see what happens.

I’m not leaving this apartment.

The immediacy of his thoughts – the depravity and strangeness of them, the lack of segues from one thought to the next – everything was really getting to him.

Cort felt his cell vibrating in his pocket. The caller ID read “Dad”.

“Shit,” he muttered, and hit the answer button.

“Cort! How are you doing?”

His father seemed more high strung than normal. Ordinarily he would start with a simple “Hey Cort”.

“I’m…I’m okay. How are you?”

“I’m all right. Listen, the reason I’m calling is – I don’t know if your IT department warned you yet, but you need to limit your internet usage.”

“Why?”

As if he had to ask. He’d been shocked word hadn’t spread faster of the virus. Cort knew he was far from the only one infected.

But I’m fine. I’m just enjoying myself.

“There’s a nasty virus going around. We’ve been trying to check the computers at work all week, but there’s no evidence of anything. Some of the team heard rumors the virus might some kind of cyber terrorism.”

“Yikes,” Cort said.

There’s some real pretty things in the building, I bet. Maybe I should go exploring.

I’m not leaving the apartment.

Cort couldn’t bring himself to mention anything about having already seen the red flashing screen. His father didn’t need to be dragged down into the filth with him.

“I never thought I’d say this, but the computer virus supposedly messes with your mind. I remember you asked me about it the last time we had dinner together.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s right. Okay, well, I’ll be sure to not use the internet as much. Do they say what you’re supposed to do if you get the virus?”

There was a shuffling of papers heard over the line.

“They say you should call a hotline they’ve set up. You want the number?”

“Sure,” Cort said. He jotted the number down, never planning to call it, and wished his dad a good night.

Cort was wandering back to the table to finish dinner, while a new onslaught of terrible thoughts streamed in. He countered each with a mental reassurance, a regrounding of himself.

I wonder what it’d be like to push someone into traffic? I bet it’d be fun.

I do not really want to push someone into traffic.

I should really visit a neighbor. I could stab them to death.

I am not a murderer.

I wonder if Stacy’s around. I’d like to eat her alive.

I am not a cannibal.

But you already ate some of Janet.

“Leave Stacy alone!” he shouted.

Maybe I should call that number Dad gave me.

Maybe I should go shoot up the mall?

Jesus, what the fuck is wrong with me? This is too much. This is all too much.

There was a knock on the door. It startled him from the chair.

“Who is it?” he called out.

No response. Cort walked to the door. Pressed his eye to the peephole, and looked through. There was no one in the hallway. He was going to open the door, when he realized he didn’t have a weapon. Cort grabbed a four inch knife from the block in the kitchen.

He creaked the door open. With trepidation, Cort exited to the hallway. He checked to his right. No one. Maybe whoever it was had had the wrong apartment?

Something tackled him from the left. Cort fell back through the door into his apartment. A woman’s voice hissed. When she’d hit him the knife must have connected with a part of her. Self-preservation kicked in, and he scrambled to his feet, lifting the knife, ready to defend himself. He looked down, taking stock of his attacker.

“…Stacy?”

She had a cut in the right side of her pink t-shirt, blood soaking through the cotton. Cort dropped the knife, rushing over to make sure she was okay.

“Holy shit, Stacy, why did you tackle me?! What the fuck?!”

She simply smiled in response, real big. There was something alarming about the glint in her eye. Adrenaline surged through his bloodstream.

“Well, is the cut deep? Can I look at it?” He thought about calling 911.

“Sure, baby,” Stacy said.

She lifted her shirt off in one quick motion, and he coughed. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

“Uh, well, okay. Let’s see.”

Stacy yelled, and like a rabid animal she ran and tackled him to the ground. Her arms wrapped around his torso on impact. The contact with the floor sent a flood of hurt up his spine, her weight connecting with his stomach. Cort groaned, too stunned to do anything but stare wide-eyed at the events as they unfolded.

“Stacy,” he cried, “what are you doing?”

“What do you think?” she asked, and tugged his shirt up over his head.

Under other circumstances Cort would have been over the moon about Stacy being on top of him, grinding against his crotch. Her hair was wild, her smile was infectious. But something about her hiding from him beforehand, and the fact that she looked like an escapee from the loony bin ready to eat him alive made his physical and emotional reactions complicated.

Just enjoy her! You’ve wanted this for so long.

But not like this!

“Aren’t you in pain?” he said, in between her kisses. “I stabbed you!”

She grabbed the knife off the ground and jabbed it into his side.

“FUCK!”

Cort screamed, grabbing his side, hot agony flaring in the entry wound, his adrenaline surging. The laceration was a bright agony he knew would get worse once his endorphins leveled out. Shock set in almost immediately. Anger burned him up, set his hands curling into fists.

“There, now we’re even,” Stacy said, unzipping his jeans.

Despite the stab wound, Cort felt a renewed vigor. He pushed Stacy off him, wincing at a fresh wave of pain in his side. Ripping off her jeans, rubbing her; biting her hard on the neck, the lizard brain kicking in. Soon everything was lost in the steps of the rough dance of lust.

***

He awoke to a knock at the door. Cort desperately needed to sleep, but the knocking persisted. Stacy lay in his bed, naked, glistening with sweat. The sex had been the best of his life.

Of course, that’s because she’s possessed.

He got up, winced. He’d somehow forgotten the stab wound.

Passing through the hall towards the front door, he noted a small pool of blood on the floor in the living room. Common sense dictated he should probably clean up blood stains before entertaining guests.

“Just a second,” he called out.

He rushed to the kitchen, and grabbed the roll of paper towels. Wiping up the blood was harder than he thought, a stain left behind he had to hit with cleaning spray. He threw the paper towels out, and for good measure moved some other trash on top of them.

Is this really my life now? Cleaning up blood like it’s the most normal thing in the world?

This is your new life. Normal is relative, anyway.

Trying to seem as nonchalant as possible, he opened the door.

“Can I help you?”

The woman wore a faded brown leather jacket, a plain black t-shirt, dark jeans, and scuffed brown motorcycle boots. Her short strawberry blonde hair was messy on top, buzzed on the sides, looking slept in. The casual biker attire and messy hair didn’t match the hawkish way her eyes scanned him. A three inch scar ran from the lower part of her neck, presumably traveling to her chest, though how far was impossible to tell under the shirt. Her smile was slight, but playful. Cort sensed from the set of her jaw, and the somewhat emotionless expression on her face that the relaxed demeanor was a front. Lastly, he noticed the badge attached to her belt.

“Hi, I’m Detective Byrne. I was just wondering if you’d seen Janet Delacroix lately?”

Oh fuck, she knows. Shit. Going to have to kill her now. Fuck! No, I’m not killing anyone else! Oh, come on, Stacy could help you get rid of the body, and you know how you have your friends downstairs. No! Yes.

I need to kill the detective.

“Mr. Garcia?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You were zoning out.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry, what was the name again?”

“Janet Delacroix.”

Fucking hell, Cort, just kill her!

NO! I’m not killing anyone else!

“I haven’t seen her, no. If you want to leave a card, I can get back to you if I hear anything.”

Slice her fucking throat.

No-one else dies.

“You’re bleeding,” the detective said.

“What?”

Cort looked down at his grey undershirt. Even through a bandage, blood was soaking the cotton in a Rorschach design.

The detective burst out in a laugh.

“What’s funny?”

Detective Byrne pointed behind him. Cort turned, and made an involuntary noise. Stacy stood in the living room completely naked.

“Jesus Stacy! Put some clothes on.”

“You seem like you’re a little busy, Mr. Garcia,” the detective said through her laughter. “Just let me know if you hear anything.” She handed him her card.

“And if you get sick of him,” the detective said, directing her words to Stacy, “my number’s also on the card.”

With that Detective Byrne winked, and walked off down the hall to the elevator. Cort wasn’t sure if he’d dodged a bullet or stepped closer to the line of fire.

He shut the door. He turned to Stacy, not sure what to say. He noticed for the first time that she had a spattering of rash along her shins.

“What the fuck Stacy?”

“I got bored.”

He sighed, and rubbed his eyes with his hand. When had his life turned into a paranormal soap opera?

“Who was that?” Stacy asked, wandering over.

“Some detective,” he said, absently.

“She was cute,” Stacy said.

“If you’re into the tough tomboy thing.”

You’re going to have to kill her eventually.

I’m not leaving the apartment.

He’d completely lost track of the time, preoccupied with Stacy. Night had descended on the city like a cloak of obsidian. The apartment which had once seemed like a sanctuary now felt like a den of iniquity and madness. Perhaps this had been his destiny all along. Maybe this was truly how things were supposed to go.

It is glorious, isn’t it? Fucking my dream girl. I’m even getting away with murder, and that’s pretty fun, if I’m being honest.

Stacy caressed his cheek, and let her hand trail down his abdomen along the light tufts of hair.

What about Janet?

Exactly. WHAT about Janet?

Cort didn’t exactly form words, but the gist of his body language and grunts were assertion. Still, at the back of his mind, the nagging guilt.

An image in his mind of Janet, standing on the bright field, waiting for him.

***

They’d moved his kitchen chairs by the window to look out at the parking lot. Off in the distance, the waves of the Harbor swayed rhythmically. The lights in the lot were beacons in a sea black as oil.

Cort opened an expensive bottle of Scotch. He’d been saving the stuff for a special occasion, but all things considered, the day seemed pretty special.

They clinked glasses, which swirled the amber liquid. Cort took a sip, relishing the way it burned down his esophagus, warming his guts.

“You know it’s real, right? You’re not crazy,” Stacy said.

“Oh, because you’re the picture of mental health,” he said, barking a laugh.

“You have the rash. You can feel it. I have it too. It’s been slow to spread…I’m new.”

“So you just accept there’s a demon inside us?”

“Don’t you? You’ve seen things.”

“Things a crazy person would see.”

“You have him inside you, Cort. Those blessed with his presence can sense his touch.”

Stacy wore one of his old t-shirts for some local band he’d seen many years ago, the Rat Traps. The fabric bunched around her chest, keeping the bottom of the shirt lifted a bit, her belly exposed. Conflicting emotions pumped through him seeing her flesh. Cort wanted to lick the skin. Another part of him wanted to slice through the flesh, to rip the fat and muscle with his teeth, to taste the warm blood as it trickled down his throat. He wondered if Stacy’s blood would warm his stomach in the same delightful way the whiskey did. He also wondered if Stacy was thinking the same violent thoughts. Something told him she was.

He took another sip of the scotch, staring at the dark waves as they splashed on the docks.

“That cut I gave you looked deep.”

“It scabbed over pretty quickly.”

“Enhanced healing?”

“Would that really be so out of the realm of possibility?”

“Well then why am I still fucking bleeding?”

“You ask too many questions, Cort. Anyone ever told you that?”

A few people had said as much.

Relax, just enjoy this.

“When are you leaving?” he asked her.

“Do you want me to leave?” she responded, in turn.

Cort swirled the contents of his glass, and downed the rest.

“No,” Cort said.

December 24

Everything felt so wonderful, so new, so vibrant. He finally felt alive for the first time in he couldn’t remember how many years. So why was he fighting at all? For some girl he’d barely known, who he’d only gone on a few dates with?

For the woman you loved, who the bastard made you murder and eat.

No, it wasn’t like that. She was part of the problem. Stacy and I, we’re the solution.

Cort lay on the bed, breath heavy, body sore but satiated. He had more energy than he’d ever remembered. Things were actually working for him, and he felt accepted, and loved. He was totally at one with his surroundings, and the urges within him.

“I’m going to take a shower, love,” Stacy said, winking at him.

“Cool.”

“You’re welcome to join me.”

“I figured. No, I need a rest.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, and as soon she was out of sight he second guessed his decision.

When he sat up and the yawn hit him though, he knew he’d made the right choice.

Boredom got the better of him, and seeing Stacy’s jeans on the floor, he decided to go through her pockets. Cort wasn’t sure what compelled him to; perhaps it was merely curiosity, perhaps it was for a reason harder to define.

He found a cell phone, figuring he’d scroll through her photos. Maybe Stacy had some cheesecake stuff. He was of course correct in this assumption. There were a few good ones of her bending over in a skirt, a few of her in front of a mirror. The pictures changed from Stacy’s body to cats fighting, which he found pretty weird. He kept scrolling, saw a picture of his apartment building. She must have been tracking him long before she’d knocked on his door. Scrolling to the next picture, he cried out, and dropped the phone.

On the phone’s screen was a picture of a middle aged man with his eyes gouged out.

He bent, picked up the phone, and kept scrolling. Another disgusting tableau of a woman with her intestines pulled out of her body, wrapped around her neck. A panorama of man with his hands and feet cut off, stacked in a pile in front of him while he screamed, tears streaking down crusted blood on his cheeks. The next picture, Cort gagged, threw the phone away.

The screen shined with the image of a decapitated infant.

“Don’t like what you see?” Stacy asked from the foot of the bed.

Cort shouted, and jumped up with fists raised.

“How long have you been killing people?”

She took a powerful stride forward, limbs graceful, eyes full of menace. He scanned the room for weapons, and the best he could find was the desk lamp. He tried to calculate how much time it would take him to rip the cord and lamp from the wall before she charged; to his dismay, he didn’t think he’d have enough. Stacy could rip his throat out while he was still reaching.

“I may have misled you, Cort. I believe I told you I was still early stage.”

She laughed, abrasive as broken glass grinded in a trash compactor.

“I’m not.”

She broke the distance in seconds, pinning him to the bed. Her pupils were huge and black, irises like lost galaxies, fascinating him. Hypnotized, Cort couldn’t break her gaze.

“I’ve been like this for a month. The rash, it scabs over and flakes off after a few weeks. You had it right. I can heal faster than you. All of us with his touch can.”

“I can’t kill people,” Cort said, trembling now, unable to look away from her, though he desperately wanted to.

“Oh, can’t you? I think Janet would beg to differ.”

“That wasn’t me!”

“What, you blacked out? You think he made you do it? Cort, honey…he didn’t.”

“You’re lying!” he said, screaming at his body to move, just move. He needed to be ready to fight Stacy off.

Her face was inches from his own. A few hours ago he would have enjoyed this. There was something wrong with her eyes, and it took him a moment to understand. A certain light flickered in them. Cort blinked, focused, then realized what he was seeing.

There were flames reflected in each of her irises.

She licked the side of his cheek, cackling with laughter.

“Your tears are exquisite,” she said, squishing his cheeks together in her hand.

Cort hadn’t realized he’d been crying.

“You need to leave,” he said, still shaking, trying to hide it, to appear strong.

“No need to get bitchy.”

She grabbed her clothes off the ground, pulled on her jeans, and t-shirt. She picked up her panties from the ground, and tossed them at him.

“To remember me by,” she said, and laughed again, all teeth and snarl.

“Get the fuck out of my apartment,” he said.

He’d regained some degree of self control, of composure.

“I’m going, but I want you to know something,” she said, turning to face him, the front door in her outstretched hand.

Cort took all of her in. She was beautiful, in a feral way: wild and free. But feral animals were bloodthirsty, and that he couldn’t abide.

“With each day that goes by, you’re going to get more and more like me, like the rest of us. And when you finally come around, you’ll know where to find us.”

She dipped her head, vulpine in the scant light.

“We’ll be waiting for you.”

With that she walked out, and Cort didn’t know whether he should be thrilled or saddened by her departure.

To be continued
June 7th, 2017.

“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.

2013-07-10-TS-0028-willnotchange

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.

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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.”

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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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