“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.

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“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.

“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.

“The Stiff” (Review)

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The Stiff Part One Title Page

The Stiff
by Jason Bradley Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To say anything more would be a spoiler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter five title page

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

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

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

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

Wham

Versus this (in chapter six):

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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.

Orford Parish Books Publications 1 – 4 (Review)

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


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

This book hit me like a rock.

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

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

Let me step back a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Again, hit me like a rock.

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy Little Oren and the Noises here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Split chapbook, round two!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And that’s everything OPB has released so far.

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

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

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

Nadia Bulkin on Women-in-Horror Month

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A moving and incredibly sad post by  author Nadia Bulkin.

NADIA BULKIN

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

***

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

***

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

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“Night Dog” by Matthew M. Bartlett

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“Night Dog”
by Matthew M. Bartlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From: Wren_Black@AII.eso

Subject: Changes for A.I.I.

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

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

Together we will walk into the future.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s blank,” I said.

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

***

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

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

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

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

She looked stricken and did not answer.

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

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

You often consider humankind and its destiny

You feel involved while watching soap operas

You often contemplate the complexity of life

You willingly involve yourself in matters which engage your sympathies

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

One week and one day later I had a job.

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

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

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

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

***

Holeman paid my bill and we left the buffet.

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

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

He was gone.

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

Byron Holeman

Programmer

Deprogrammer

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look upon me, said Wren Black.

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

Favor us with your eyes, the crowd chanted.

Look upon me, commanded Wren Black.

Favor us.

Look upon me.

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

***

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

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

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

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

Approved personnel.

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

Look upon me.

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

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


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

In Memory of “Salem” (2014 – 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

First this happened:

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And then there was this:

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And there was also this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you waiting for?


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

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

Best of 2016

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Wow, 2016. What a year…

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

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

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

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

Novels/Novellas

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

Chapbooks

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

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

Collections

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

Debuts

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

Mosaic Novel(la)s

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

Anthologies

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

Comics

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

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

Magazines

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

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

Zines

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

Audio/Podcasts

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

Films

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

Television Shows

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

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


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

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Illustration by Richard Svensson for this blog

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Illustration by Michael Grant Kellermeyer for “Woodland”

Matthew M. Bartlett Portrait

Portrait of Matthew M. Bartlett by Dave Felton

Portrait (without Texture)

Business card portrait of yours truly by Yves Tourigny

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

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

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

“Too Late” (Review)

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Too Late
by Sean M. Thompson

Sean M. Thompson‘s debut Too Late opens with a story about a murderess on death row who carves her victims’ heads into “art” before selling them online.

That’s a pretty good tone-setter for this book.

Let’s backtrack a bit – full disclosure must come first. Sean M. Thompson stories have appeared on this site before (the dark and gross “LillyBridge“; an original serialized novella called The Demon; and, on my Matthew M. Bartlett fan site, the manic nightmare of “Martin Pussfoot Strikes Again“), I am a devoted listener to the podcast he co-hosts, and I did blurb this book.

However –

 – there is a reason why I did all of those things.

That reason?

Sean M. Thompson is friggin’ awesome.

So is the cover to this collection of shorts, as one can see. It’s by a fella named Mark Richards. There’s another bit of promo art that I don’t think has been used, by the talented Yves Tourigny. Let’s have a look at that below, shall we?

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Ah. Lovely.

And those images capture the spirit of Too Late so very well – one bursting with energy and insanity, the other a quiet terror. There’s a good mix of both throughout the book.

The first story, the one I mentioned before – “Fickle Mortality” being its title – is an ideal example.

On the one hand, you’ve a (hopefully) insane woman raving about murder as a tool to travel backwards through the gateway of death into a new life.

On the other hand, you’ve got a tired old criminal sitting on death row, reflecting on their crimes, pondering what will happen next.

Such balancing acts are what Thompson excels at in these stories – an ability to make the supernatural frenzied and bloody while simultaneously slow and creeping.

This is continued into the next story, one called “Stranded in the Storm”. Brrrrr. I could imagine reading this by the fire on Christmas Eve, the spirits of Charles Dickens and M.R. James reclining in armchairs, delighted at the chance for one last ghost story for Christmas.

Except this isn’t a ghost story. Not, at least, in the literal sense.

Instead it’s about a couple driving in the snow when the car breaks down. This is a classic urban legend motif, of course, and but one of the reasons why Too Late‘ll make a great Halloween read (with its EC Comics-style nastiness and its inventive usage of classic monsters). I won’t delve into the details, but let’s just say there’s something very nasty in the snow – something both tragic and horrifying, with its eyes set on the young lovers.

My personal favorite, though, is story number three, a tale called “Jumpin’ Jack”. This introduces the forest of Whispering Pines, which is a connective element between some of Thompson’s stories. Its a very short vignette that only hints at the supernatural, but Jesus, it’s disturbing. The less one knows about this story walking in, the better, but it sent a noticeable shudder through my frame.

Then we have “Dust”, a ghostly Western following two murderous outlaws that come across a ghost town. The slow buildup in this one is delicious, and the characters are probably the most fleshed-out in the book. Again, any hint of what is to come is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s quite possibly the bloodiest tale in the book – at least, one with the most onscreen violence.

Concluding the book – wait, are we really done already? – concluding the chapbook is “The End of Humanity”, a short piece which is thematically connected to the aforementioned serialized novella The Demon. It’s a piece which damns you as you read the first word, epitomizes the title of the collection, claims to sentence the reader to eternal agony via a culturally transmitted disease – demonic possession. Thankfully, this story is a work of fiction. If it wasn’t, then I’d be dooming you just by writing this review – even as your eyes scan the screen, you’d  be infected.

But it’s not true.

Phew.

Look, the point is, Too Late is a knock-it-out-of-the-park debut and the perfect book for Halloween. Clocking in at an appropriate 66 pages, it’s very, very short, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in content. That content consists of good, realistic people (straight out of our own lives) thrown into nasty, bloody situations (straight out of the pulp magazines). It’s dark, it’s gruesome, and above all, it’s promising.

I’m a Sean M. Thompson fan.

And I’m proud of it.

You can – and should – buy Too Late on Kindle here and in paperback format here.