"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, November 30, 2019

On Skua Island (2001) by John Langan

"On Skua Island" (2001) by John Langan is a masterful folk horror mummy adventure.

It begins during a house party, guests stuck in the beach house due to a coastal storm. The members of the household are part of the U.S. academic and financial meritocracy.
The talk turns to the dearth of mummy horror tales:

"The mummy is different," I replied. "It's a relic from a different time, the imperial age, from when the sun never set on the British Empire. Has anyone read any of the original mummy stories, the ones Arthur Conan Doyle wrote?" Only Bob nodded. "I shouldn't call them the original stories; I don't know for sure whether they are or not. I assume they were among the first. Anyway, Conan Doyle's mummy is very different from what we're accustomed to when we hear that name; at least, from what I think of. His mummy is a weapon. There's an obnoxious student of obscure foreign languages at Oxford who buys one that he keeps in his apartment for use against his enemies. He can read the spell that animates the mummy and sends it to do your bidding, which in his case usually involves disposing of the latest person who's annoyed him...."

"This is all very nice," Kappa said, "and very educational, I can assure you. But isn't it a bit off track? We were talking about things that actually had happened to people, not movies and books."

Bob nodded, and Jennifer said, "You're absolutely right, Kappa, we were talking about actual events."

"So," I said, glancing round the company gathered there in the living room, my eyebrows raised for effect, "does anyone have a mummy story they'd care to share?"

There was a pause during which the wind fell off, and then a voice said, "I do."

We looked about to see who had spoken, and our eyes settled on Nicholas, who had been introduced at the start of our stay at the Cape house as an old friend of Bob's from Harvard and who had maintained an almost unbroken silence in the five days since, departing the house for hours at a time on walks whose destination he shared with no one, but which appeared to take him inland, away from the beach and the winter-angry ocean. His face was buried under twin avalanches of white hair, one descending from the tangled mass crowning his head, the other rising from the tangled mass hugging his jaw, but his hooded eyes were a pale bright blue that I should have described as arctic. For dress, he favored a pair of worn jeans and a yellowed cable-knit sweater, which he supplemented with a long grey wool coat and boots that laced up just short of his knees for his jaunts outside. In reply to a question Jennifer had posed our first morning there, while Nicholas was out, Kappa had informed us that Nicholas was an archaeologist whose particular interest was the study of the Vikings, which was the basis upon which his friendship with Bob had been founded when they met at Harvard. Although they had maintained contact over the years, it was not uncommon for Nicholas to disappear on some expedition or another for months at a time, and occasionally longer, which was part of the reason Kappa assumed he never had married. He did not speak much: this we had witnessed ourselves as Jennifer, who prides herself on being able to have a conversation with any living human being, availed herself of every opportunity to ask Nicholas questions, about himself, his career, what he was engaged in currently, that he answered in monosyllables when possible, clipped phrases when not, his voice when he spoke the sandpapery rasp of one unaccustomed to frequent speech. Now he was sitting on a dining-room chair he had positioned at the group's perimeter, between the dining room and the living room, a long-necked bottle of beer cradled in his hands. We shifted in our respective seats to face him, and he repeated, "I do; I have a mummy story...."

Langan accumulates weight and atmosphere with calm assurance in this first section of "On Skua Island." My thought, as a reader, was: I hope it goes on like this forever.

The story Nicholas recounts takes place twenty-five years ago. While teaching at a Scottish university, he is recruited to join a military intelligence mission to Skua. They entice him with photos:

....A couple of the pictures were clear and close enough for me to have a good look at some of the runes, and when I did my heart started to knock in my chest. I had not seen runes like these before: there were certain family resemblances to runes I knew from parts of Eastern Norway, enough for me to be able to read a couple of words and phrases here and there, but there were also striking variations, and more than a few characters that were completely new, unprecedented. You may be surprised to hear that not once did I doubt these pictures' authenticity, but that was the case. I looked at Green and asked him where this was.

"So you're interested?" he asked. I said I was, and he told me that the island in these photographs was located north-northwest of the Shetlands, an hour and a half's boat ride from the nearest human habitation. The place was called Skua Island, and if I thought that artifact of any archaeological significance, he and his employers—his term—were prepared to send me there to study it within two weeks, as soon as school let out for Christmas holiday....

The team sets up a base camp. Nicholas and his teaching assistance begin excavating. Initial digging uncovers a sword. And below the sword, the mummified remains of a woman.

At night, Nicholas works on translating runes inscribed on the standing stone:

....The translation was no less difficult, but I began to find the rhythm of it, so that even though large patches of it remained unclear, the broad outlines were beginning to swim into view. During this terrible plague, the peoples of the islands had sought high and low, near and far, for relief and found none. There was a considerable list of all the important people who had gone to their graves with the thing, denied the glory of a warrior's death in battle through the machinations of the one who had unleashed it. At last, the leaders of—I thought it was the Shetlands, but it could have been the Orkneys—had decided to seek the aid of a wizard whose name I couldn't quite fix; the characters appeared to be Greek but weren't yielding any intelligible sound; who lived in the Faroe Islands and who was something of a dubious character, having dealings with all sorts of creatures—human, divine, and in-between—whom it was best to give a wide berth. Driven by their desperation, the leaders dispatched an envoy imploring his aid. Twice he refused them, but on the third request his heart softened and he agreed to assist them. He journeyed to the islands on a boat that did not touch the water, or that moved as swiftly as a bird across the water, and when he arrived he wasted no time: disclosing the supernatural origin of the plague, he told the leaders that strong measures would be needed to defeat it. He, the wizard, could summon all the sickness to himself, but he could not purge it from the earth. In order for that to be accomplished, he would require a vessel, by which, as the leaders quickly saw, he meant a human being.

....I tried to decode more about the island leaders' response to the wizard's demand for a human being to serve as vessel to contain the plague. It appeared they had consented to his request with minimal debate: one man, Gunnar, a landowner of some repute, had refused to have anything to do with such dealings, but that same night the plague fell on him and by morning he was dead; his brains, the history detailed, burst and ran out his ears. After Gunnar, no one else contested the leaders' decision, and Frigga, Gunnar's eldest daughter, was selected by the leaders for the wizard's use. Elaborate preparations were made, several lengthy prayers were addressed to various gods—Odin, Loki, and Hel, goddess of death, among them—and then the wizard called all of the plague to himself, from all the islands he summoned it. It came as, or as if, a cloud of insects so vast it filled the sky, blotting out the sun. Men and women covered their heads in fear; an old woman fell dead from terror of it. The wizard commanded the plague into Frigga, who was lying bound at his feet. At first, it did not obey, nor did it heed the wizard's second command, but on his third attempt his power proved greater and the plague descended into Frigga, streaming into her mouth, her nose, her ears, the huge black cloud lodging itself within her, until the sky was once again clear, the sun shining.

This, however, was not the end. Frigga remained alive; she had become as fierce as an animal, straining against her bonds, gnashing her teeth and growling at the wizard and at the islands' leaders, threatening bloody vengeance. Nonplussed, the wizard had her rowed to the island of the—to Skua Island, where she was put ashore, her feet loosed but her hands still bound. The island was full of the skuas; there to nest, I supposed; and when Frigga, or what had been Frigga, set foot among them, they flew at her fiercely, attacking her unprotected face and eyes with no mercy. Her screams were terrible, heard by all the peoples of all the islands. At last, the birds left her with no face and no eyes, which the wizard said was necessary so that she should go unrecognized among the dead, so that she should be unable to find her way out of the place to which he was going to dispatch her. Half a dozen strong men seized her, for even so injured she was fearfully powerful, and bore her up to the summit of one of the island's hills, where the wizard once more bound her feet and slew her by cutting her throat. The blood that spilled out was black, and one of the men it splashed died on the spot. When all the blood had left her, the wizard ordered her body buried at the summit of the opposite hill, and a stone placed over it as a reminder to all the people of all the islands of what he, (once more that name I couldn't decipher), had done for them, and as a warning not to disturb this spot, for now that the girl's body had been used as a vessel for returning (that symbol, the broken circle)'s evil to him, it would be a simple matter for him to return Frigga to her body full of his power, and if he did, she would be awful. He, the wizard, would place a sword between the stone and the girl that would keep her in her place, and he would write the warning on the stone himself, so that all could read it. Woe be to he who disturbed the sword: not only would the wrath of the one who had sent the plague fall on him, but the wrath of the wizard as well, and he would lose to the reborn girl that which she herself had lost, by which I assumed was meant his face.

....Despite the hour, I was exhilarated: in a matter of days, I had rendered into reasonably intelligible English a text written in a language whose idiosyncrasies would have cost many another scholar weeks if not months of effort to overcome. Yes, there was a curse, a pair of curses, threatened against whoever disturbed the site, but such curses were commonplace; indeed, I would have been more surprised had there been no curse, no warning of dire consequences. Melodramatic films aside, when all was said and done, King Tut's curse had been nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I was worried about anything, it was the team of Soviet commandos creeping ever closer to us, knives clenched between their teeth, waiting for the precise moment to take revenge on us for whatever operations Collins and his men had been performing. The text on the column I judged an elaborately coded narrative, possibly intended to justify an actual event, the killing of the girl we had discovered, through recourse to supernatural explanations....

This academic work of translation coincides with the killing of several members of the team. Killed in gratuitous acts of violence: skilled warfighters with heads wrenched around backward.

Nicholas sums up:

....there is no culture that is innocent. In most cases, you don't have to dig particularly long or hard to unearth similar events. We are never as far from such things as we would like to think.

Only then does the climax begin:

....The camp was quiet as we sighted it, and as we drew nearer, I saw why: everyone was dead, Collins, Ryan, Joseph, the two others. Ryan was collapsed on a yellow raft, and I could not understand what was wrong with his body until I realized that his head was turned around backwards, his eye sockets empty and bloody, blood trailing from his nose, his open mouth. Collins was on the ground next to him, face down in a wide pool of blood still spreading from where his left arm had been torn from his body and tossed aside, where it lay with a pistol still clenched in its hand. I did my best not to look directly at either of them, because I was afraid that if I did I would join Bruce, who was sobbing behind me. The remaining three men lay with one of the other rafts: a glance that lasted too long showed me another of them with his neck broken, one, I think it was Joseph, with both his arms torn off, the third with a gaping red hole punched into his chest. All their eyes appeared to have been gouged out. There was blood everywhere, flecks, streaks, puddles of red splashed across the scene. From where we were standing on the hill, I could see over the rise beyond the camp to the bay and sea, both of which were empty.

"What happened?" Bruce said. "What happened to them?"

I told him I didn't know and I didn't: no team of Soviet commandos, however brutal, however ruthless, would have done this. Overhead, a small flock of skuas, a half-dozen or so, circled, crying. This, this was gratuitous, this was—I didn't know how to describe it to myself; it was outside my vocabulary.

As was what I saw next....

"On Skua Island" is the finest Scottish adventure story I have read since John Buchan. His Richard Hannay of Island of Sheep and Edward Leithen of John Macnab would be perfectly at home in this climate and with this level of supernatural action.

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30 November 2019

X for Demetrious (2011) by Steve Duffy

"X for Demetrious" (2011) by Steve Duffy is the story of Eastern European immigrant Demetrious Myiciura, his life and death. It is also a riff on ways in which fear of vampires robs victims of life and sanity as surely as vampiric activity itself.

Duffy spares no punches in portraying Myiciura's mental and physical disintegration:

....The bottles and jars he arranges around the room, the cloudy piss mixed with salt for the virtue in it. The last time his bowels moved, he took the shriveled sordes and crushed them up with garlic, for the windowsill. See, here: this is Myiciura, and he is protected, yes, he knows wherein lies true magic and real influence. Baseness raised to power and made sound. Oupire, tread not in this house.

....He held the candle high above the cot, saying, "Papa, it's morning, how are you." His father's eyes—black as raisins in the kneaded dough of his face—followed the light. "Papa," Demetrious said, "papa," and then he saw it, the fear deep down in those staring eyes. Incomprehensible, never before seen or dreamed of, yet now overmastering. How long had his father been lying there in the dark while the rest of the family slept, struggling with a terror that could not be held in check?

In this instant Demetrious learned a great lesson: that there is dread at the heart of all things, that fear comes to all men at the end and reclaims them for its own. Birthed in blood and chaos, we struggle a little while till inexorably we are undone, and horror waits panting at both ends of existence. He opened his mouth, wanting to ask his father what he saw in the wavering candle flame, but the words would not come. Instead he watched, fascinated and aghast at the same time, while the old man took one ragged sucking breath, and then another. He waited a long time for the next breath to come, and somewhere in that everlasting interval, he realized that his father was dead.

....In the course of the war, nearly all the Jewish vampires disappeared, rounded up at dawn, when their powers were waning, and taken away by the soldiers. Myiciura watched in bleak satisfaction from his window as the trucks drove away in the thick mist of morning, leaving behind empty houses, suitcases scattered on the cobblestones, a vivid splash of lifeblood up against a wall. Taken to where? "Up the chimney," everyone said, then changed the subject, as if they feared being overheard. Again, this made sense to Myiciura: fire, you see, father of true iron, the sacred principle behind it all. The rushing force of God's breath drawn through the furnace, to rid the world of all contagion. For a while, Myiciura slept more easily….

But history seems in the end to be on the side of the vampires, and Myiciura dies in a rented room, in a nest of his own fear and filth.

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30 November 2019

The Marginals (2013) by Steve Duffy

"The Marginals" (2013) by Steve Duffy

"You off, then? Aren't you going to give me-laddo the talk or anything?"

"Talk?" Barry was halfway out of the back door before the car had come to a full halt. He had to stoop to Howard's wound-down window to reply. "What 'talk' is that, then? You mean tell him about the job, what he's signed up for? Tell him what goes on, like? Where's the point in that? You tell him now, he'd laugh in your face. Even when he's done it, he won't understand it. Look at me. I've done it the best part of six months and I still don't understand fuck all, I don't. I can tell him that if you'd like." He thrust his head into the passenger window, causing Howard to recoil slightly. "Get that, did you, mate? Fuck, all. There you go, consider yourself up to speed."

It's Howard's first day, and his orientation is sketchy at best.

Some of the material in the handbook binder sheds light, but seems to raise more questions than it answers.


You WILL have come across them, even if you didn't realize it at the time.

In the motorway services, for example, at off-peak hours of the daytime, or through the lonely stretches of the night. In the cafeterias, the Happy Chefs and Costa Coffees. They're drawn inescapably to places like these: the margins, the places in between. They can pass for businessmen, commercial travelers, middle management, representatives. Cups of tea grow cold on the table in front of them as they sit, hands folded, apart from everyone. Other customers come and go while they remain—if you stayed long enough, you would notice it, you'd have to.

You will never see them arriving, nor will you see them leave. Their eyes will never meet your own.

....Once you learn to recognize them, try this exercise: look very closely at the people around you in the Underground carriage or the bus. The law of averages is adamant on this point.

....In their ones and twos they came and went, though never while Howard was looking, it seemed. He'd developed a kind of anxiety compulsion about checking both windows, front and rear: there was something going on, he felt sure, along the course of the stream, but the banks were just too high for him to be able to make it out. Perhaps it was nothing more than a black post, uncovered by the tide. A black post, that's all. But every time he turned away, satisfied or otherwise, from the tidewater creek, it seemed that through the other window there were one or two more of the men, or one or two fewer, over by the trailer.

Where they came from, why they gathered there, what they were doing . . . Howard could work none of it out. The notion they were coming out of (or going back into) the trailer had occurred to him as the most likely explanation for the first part of it, and he spent several hours trying to catch them in the act. By lunchtime he was only half convinced this might really be the explanation. But even if so, what did it actually explain?

....These are different. Nobody grieves for them. The majority are not even missed.

....What these unfortunates have in common, it seems safest to say, is the experience of lessening. The drip-drip-drip of psychic diminution. The attenuation of the psyche. Call it what you will. They are drained, one and all, at the most profound and fundamental level. Months, maybe years of unremitting reduction . . . till the day, long after they'd become oblivious to the whole process, on which they reached the tipping-point and passed over, unnoticed, unmourned. A day on which they did not go home.

....inhospitable thresholds they're forever on the verge of crossing....

....Some, the newly translated perhaps, are drawn to certain houses in the night. While the occupants are asleep they move in close, position themselves outside the unlit curtained windows and press their faces to the panes, as if—though it's pointless to ascribe to them any motives we would recognize—some memory of refuge, of belonging might move in them still. Why these houses? Why these feelings? Who can say? We could assume the houses evoke in them something like nostalgia; probably we'd be wrong. All we really know is that there they are, leaning in against the glass, resigned, unwearied, still and noiseless in their vigils.

Duffy is here merely sketching the strange interstitial and liminal zones of social abstraction that have come to be called Aickmanesque. It is populated by strangers, outsiders we only see by chance from the corner of the eye. 

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30 November 2019

Horror and the Holocaust: The Rag-and-Bone Men (1999) by Steve Duffy

"The Rag-and-Bone Men" (1999) by Steve Duffy skates the thin ice of good taste.

Genre writers from Rod Serling to Stephen King have written about comeuppance visited upon perpetrators of Judeocide; somehow the topic still seems taboo, especially for a genre whose strengths are aesthetic, not political perspicacity or bourgeois liberal rectitude.

Protagonist Jonathan Glatzy, displaced person from Lithuania, UK school caretaker, is a Nazi-era war criminal; alone at the school campus over holiday break, he finds his past deeds closing in.

....Last night came an intruder. Around one in the morning I heard a sound from downstairs, as someone might have left ajar a door, and the wind caught it. I was not asleep, but sitting up by the window in the dark, and I took my heavy torch—unlit, I do not need it to know my way—and checked the premises. There was a back door open in the kitchens, that I had thought was shut, and there was snow blown in by the doorway, but nothing further inside. I locked the door and bolted it, and walked the empty corridors, but there was no one. Perhaps it would be best to tell the police, but this I do not wish to do—not while there are such people nearby, in the woods.

This is the first time such things have bothered me, here. Before, when I lived in East Ham, there was a synagogue and burial ground nearby, and I was obliged to be cautious. I grew a beard, and that helped, but after coming here I shaved it off. Twenty years have passed; still one never knows. I feared as much when first began my wandering. Against memory one must always remain vigilant.

The rest of the day I spent in my room up in the attic, going out only to make my customary tour of the grounds. There were footsteps in the snow on the yard; during the night someone walked all around the outside of the school, pausing at the windows where the tracks are close and crowded. In my job it is not allowed to keep a dog; and yet a dog would give me protection. I am reminded of the dogs we kept in the Schwarze Korps: wolfhounds, and the snow would gather on their coats, and their panting breath would fog in the winter air as they barked and leaped and plunged on their leashes. And cordite and blood and rough tobacco, and the burning of brandy in the throat on a cold day, and after the gunshots and the screaming the great stillness of the Northern forests . . . what good is it to remember?

....Beyond Christmas carols and brash pop songs I could find no music, but at the very end of the dial there seemed to be a play for voices. The reception was poor, and I could make out nothing distinctly, but after a while I was obliged to turn it off. I thought I heard the voice from that man in the snug, the Häftling, the rag-and-bone man: I thought he said, Padernice, though that was of course impossible.

Padernice, the impossible village. A rumor we created for good reason: it made them feel more comfortable, thinking they were being taken to a new town, a new ghetto, whose rules they could be sure of learning before long. A place in which they might hope to shelter from the storm; somewhere the furious withering wind might pass them by. Perhaps the guards would be kind, the rations more generous, perhaps there would be stoves in the barracks, and a synagogue. Is it so cruel, to give hope where none in truth exists? At any rate, it made our task, the task of the Einsatzgruppen, easier. Because I spoke their language, I would say to them, in Yiddish, Do not be afraid, nothing bad will happen to you. You are being taken to Padernice, sonderbehandlung, special treatment. Soon you will arrive at Padernice. And then the short ride out into the forest, and the pits.

Padernice was our invention. In all the Eastern lands, clear out to the chertá osédlosti, the Russian Pale of Settlement, such a place never existed. So how could the rag-and-bone man claim that he came from Padernice? He mumbled; his voice was indistinct; but I have replayed the scenario a thousand times in my mind, and I am more and more certain that was what he said, though nothing else about him is certain any more. I must analyse the situation, and think logically. Logically. From his tattoo, he was not of those we took into the forest with Einsatzgruppe B. The tattoo he could only have been given on arrival at the camps. Was it Birkenau, or Belzec, or Treblinka? Kulmhof was the closest; perhaps from Kulmhof; but there they did not tattoo . . . I was at Kulmhof only a few months, so perhaps I am safe. But it is useless to conjecture. I await the night with mounting apprehension; sleep is impossible.

Chełmno, known as Kulmhof, and the castle on the banks of the Narew; Treblinka in the forest, hard by Malkinia Junction on the Bug. Upstream, Sobibor; Belzec also. South, Oświęcim of the tall birch trees in the farmlands of the Vistula. Hundreds more; but remember these, by the rivers of Poland, strung along the black spiderweb of the railway tracks. Remember these citadels of horror and despair, these ghost towns; remember these capitals of night and fog.

....At the rear of the building, the side that faces the woods, there is a small gymnasium and a changing-room. Here if anywhere the sounds seemed to be congregated, but when I entered there was nothing, and again I was forced to ask myself what manner of thing it is that pursues me, and then eludes me at the last. Will it come to me, or must I seek it out? The faintest glimmer of light came through the small high windows, moonlight on snowfall; in the depth of the shadows I saw a coat hanging from a peg, and for a second I thought it—why cannot I say it, even to myself?

....They stood in amongst the trees, the dull stripes of their uniforms indistinguishable from the patterns of branches against the snow, from the iron railings that afford me no defense. What did the publican call them: rag-and-bone men? Rags and bones, but he could not have seen their eyes, that watched me from out of the shadows, from out of the past. Twenty years ago, and it seemed like yesterday, as if I never escaped, never left the forests of the East with my stolen identity, my dead man's papers. Since two, three days, I have not eaten, and I was dizzy—I almost slipped, the mouth of a pit, an abyss, a freezing wind . . .

....what I fear is not exposure, or a show trial in Jerusalem at the hands of the Zionist hangmen. What I now fear, I can hardly name. That which comes out of the forest does not always have a name. My grandmother knew the names of many things, but there were those of whom even she would not speak. She put salt on the window-sills as protection, and I too have done this. If I had garlic, this too would be a protection; I try to imagine the taste of garlic in my mouth, but I can taste only blood.

Steve Duffy's modest narrative compass in "The Rag-and-Bone Men" rescues it from callousness and bad taste. He is writing about a monster's aftermath, not the emotional afterlife of his victims. 

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30 November 2019

Strange menace: Certain Death for a Known Person (2009) by Steve Duffy

"Certain Death for a Known Person" 
(2009) by Steve Duffy is supernatural horror in small social compass. The ambitious historical scope of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" and "The Clay Party" is set-aside.

(That Duffy is  a skilled practitioner of prose fiction in both the UK and U.S. vernacular is one of the strengths of the genre today.)

The narrator of "Certain Death" recounts a holiday visit to the Headley family at their home, High Thornhays. He experiences an uncanny interaction one night while sleeping-off a drinking binge:

....It was night outside, but the fire in the grate was still in, banked down to a glowing bed of embers. That helped me realize where I was; that and the starlight, reflected off the snow outside and streaming through the still uncurtained windows. The room was dark but not inky black. You could make out shapes, and even a measure of detail; you could probably have found a book, but you wouldn't have been able to read it, not without turning on a light.

I wanted no light. I wanted only about another twelve hours or so of sleep, and the soothing hand of a beautiful woman on my brow, and possibly a cup of tea, if there was one going. I was thinking in an aimless way about getting back off again, when I realized I wasn't alone in the room.

Someone was sitting in one of the armchairs over by the windows. I could see a head, silhouetted against the gleam of the snowfields outside, but no features, none of the detail; the firelight was too low for that. I must have caught my breath in surprise, or grunted or something, because the figure raised a hand in silent acknowledgement.

Who was it? I assumed it was somebody else sleeping over for the night, one of the neighbors who'd maybe had one over the eight. Had I been introduced? Well, that was anyone's guess. I yawned and said, "All right?"

"Fine, thank you. Nice of you to ask." A man. I didn't recognise the voice—no, that's not it, exactly. I thought I did; I just couldn't put a name to it. He spoke a cultured RP English with just the slightest edge; that cool sardonic humor that comes with the assumption of unbounded and perpetual pre-eminence. The sort of voice that built the Empire, and left half the world wishing we'd stayed at home instead.

"What time is it?" I would have told him how I was, but he hadn't asked.

The other—the guest—shifted a little in his seat and glanced over his shoulder through the window. I still couldn't see his face, but I thought I saw a glint of something red as he turned his head. He may have been wearing glasses, and they may have caught the firelight. "It's very late. Or very early still, depending on which way you look at it."

Well, that was helpful. "Have you got a watch on?"

"I don't have any use for watches," admitted the guest, politely amused at the notion. "I'm always on time, you see, wherever I arrive." And modest with it. Clearly, a prince among men.

"No? Well, doesn't matter." I was quite prepared to leave it at that. I was very, very tired, remember, and a bit drunk still, I dare say; not in the mood for late-night conversation. I was settling back on the sofa, when the guest spoke again.

"Nice party." Not inflected one way or the other; an open-ended statement, or a polite enquiry.

"Yeah. Yeah, it was great." Had I said anything? Had I done anything? Spilled my drink over him? Come on to his wife? I couldn't remember.

"All the young people enjoying themselves." Again without discernible inflection. A pause, then: "You were certainly having a ball."

Oh Christ. I had done something. What?

"Talking to Emily, I mean." Friendly on the surface; but no further. Underneath that? You wouldn't want to look.

"They're great . . . all the girls." I so didn't want to be having this conversation. "Really nice family. Nice people."

"Yes, but Emily is your favorite, isn't she?"

Oh, no way. No way had I made it that obvious. "I wouldn't say—"

"That's because you think this is an ordinary conversation."

Could there be anything more calculated to make you throw your brakes on? In the end I just didn't know what else to say. "Isn't it?"

"No,' said the guest, so categorically that it seemed to leave no space for an answer. After a little while, during which time I'd almost decided that the whole thing was actually just an extremely weird dream, he resumed. "No, it isn't. Encounters such as this, they don't happen every day, you see, Mike."

That sounded ominous. Was it a sex thing? You heard about these posh people. Aloud I said, "Encounter?"

"Rendezvous. Rencontre. Whatever." He waved a hand, as if granting me the freedom to fill in the synonym of my choice. "You see, my role here tonight—my purpose—was primarily to observe. Nothing more for now. And then when I saw that we were both observing the same thing . . . Well, it seemed only polite to consult, so to speak. One aficionado to another."

Sometimes when he spoke there was the slightest pause before the noun, as if there were other names for everything—secret names some of them—and he had to be careful which names he used. Careful, because his choice would determine how much he might reveal of his true intent—of his true nature, maybe.

"What do you mean?" It was hypnotic, the dance of the language, but treacherous as well. A snake will dance and weave before it strikes.

The guest sighed, and leaned forwards. Clasping his hands, he rested the point of his chin on the extended tips of his index fingers. Still his face was indistinguishable in the dark. "The matter of Emily," he said, and a shudder passed through the room, passed all the way through me. I swear it did.

"Little Emily." Savoring the words. "So special—but you saw that straight away, didn't you? I noticed you noticing. Such a lovely girl. So . . . vivacious."

I wanted to stop him right there, before he went any further. Our parents' generation had a phrase—it sounds absurdly dated now, but it expressed exactly what I felt—I don't like the tone of your voice. But he was speaking still:

"Vivacious. I wonder, is that exactly the word I was looking for—I mean, in terms of its etymology? Ah, though, I was forgetting: I doubt that sort of thing is covered in college any more. Lively, tenacious of life; long lived." He tutted, like a Sunday painter who'd selected the wrong color. "What do you think?"

"I know what vivacious means," I said sullenly. I wished I knew the word that would get him to piss off, though politely.

"But is it appropriate to the matter at hand? Is it apposite? Is it correct?" With that last word, a hard flinty quality came into his speech: the k sounds practically knapped sparks off the edges of the air.

"Eh? What are you getting at?" For the first time since my arrival at High Thornhays I was on the defensive. Old habits born of inadequacy coming to the fore: truculence, sullenness . . . and just the beginnings of fear. The man with no face there in the armchair: I was already afraid of him. Not nearly as afraid as I ought to have been, not yet. But soon; very soon.

Already I had that sick black-hole sensation of sliding towards something awful, the kind of feeling we associate only with bad dreams, because we're conditioned to believe that such things never happen in real life. Then why do they seem so familiar in our dreams? And why did I feel as though I knew this man, when I'd never to the best of my recollection met him? Why could I already sense what he was going to say, when I asked him "What do you mean?"

"I mean, she looks healthy enough," began the guest; and there it was. It was that odd dreamy foreknowledge of his answer that made me panic, as much as what he said. "She looks healthy enough, I grant you that. But how could you know, just from looking? How could you possibly be sure?" He spread his hands wide. "How could you know what's inside?" The word fell very heavily in the darkened room. Absurd as it sounds, I was already thinking, Yes, exactly, how can you know?

"I mean, what about leukemia?" said the guest, pronouncing that tricky first syllable to a nicety. "Hyperplasic transformation of leucopoietic tissue. Half of all cancers in teenage children. Or meningitis: presents as a headache and irritability. Well." He tittered. "Irritability, in teenagers? How could you even guess, until it was far too late? So many forms; so many causes. Viruses, fungi, bacteria, carcinomas . . . " A languid flourish of his hand, sketching out a process of infinite regression.

"Carcinomas? What do you mean?" There was a tremor in my voice I didn't like. "Nobody's got cancer."

"Ah, well, cancer." He might have been describing an old bad penny of a friend, a mischievous roué impossible to dislike. "I suppose there's always that moment, isn't there, when the first cell divides in a slightly different way? And you don't know it, but inside you something is already changing—the traitor cell, the Judas tissue? And it starts like that—at the snap of a finger." A dry clicking of cold bones.

"Cancer. Limbs of the crab. And there are so many places it can hide. Have you ever stopped to consider this? The body is infinitely tolerant in this respect, Mike, infinitely welcoming. All the major organs, of course—but the big toe? The humble hallux, this-little-piggy-went-to-market? Cancer in your big toe? Look it up in the textbooks. And while you're there, try cancer of the rectum. Cancer of the womb. Cancer of the tongue—even cancer of the eyeball. Imagine that, Mike!"

How could I not? I wonder: did he know that anything to do with eyes terrified me, ever since that playground fight when I'd nearly lost the sight in my right eye? I think he probably did. I don't think there was much he didn't know. He wanted me terrified, you see. He wanted me to panic. And there was no stopping him, he was off again.

"Or the neurodegenerative diseases! It's a list as long as your arm, all the Herr Doktors jostling for immortality in the medical texts. Sandhoff, Spielmeyer, Kreutzfeld-Jakob, Pelizaeus-Merzbacher, Schilder and Pick. Body dementia. Corticobasal degeneration. Spinocerebellar ataxia. All of it lying in wait as you grow old, and you never know. Neurons deteriorating, connections broken all across the cortex, until all of a sudden you're sitting in the day ward in incontinence pants, crying because you've dropped your sippy-cup. It could happen to anyone. To Emily, even—why not?"

The menacing encounter fades. As the years pass, the narrator is able to overcome the emotional trauma.

Until the day, on a bus on the way to meet his wife for her obstetrics appointment, the black portentous wave of that voice rises again to swamp him.

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30 November 2019

Frontier horror thesis: The Clay Party (2008) by Steve Duffy

"The Clay Party" (2008) by Steve Duffy is a masterful matter-of-North-America story. It is an audacious work of great aesthetic confidence and historical imagination.

Duffy weaves the story out of newspaper articles from the Sacramento Citizen-Journal and a private diary of John Buell. The Clay Party is a wagon train of settlers bound for Northern California. Their tyro leader, Jefferson Clay, claims knowledge of a short-cut that will save the party hundreds of miles.

Things do not go as planned.

....August 17th: A wilderness of canyons. Impassable except by much labour. Entire days wasted in backing out of dead-ends and searching for another route. We are falling behind, and the seasons will not wait. Mr Clay delivered the harshest of rebukes to Cagie Bowden for suggesting we turn back to Fort Jim Bridger and the northern trail. (And yet it is only what some of the others are saying.) Too late now in any case.

....trackless wastes along the Wasatch....

September 20th: No slackening in our progress, no rest for any man; but we are slow, we are devilish slow. Without the oxen and the wagons we lost out on the salt pans our progress is impeded mightily, and much effort is expended in the securing of provisions. Clay now wholly removed from the rest of the party; like a general he rides alone at the head of the column, seeing nothing but the far horizon while all around him his troops suffer, close to mutiny. Around our wagons each night, the howling of wolves.

As the prospect of not reaching the mountain passes before they are closed by snow becomes a certainty, Clay's party fractures.

....October 3rd: A catastrophe. The thing I most feared has come to pass. Last night Cagie Bowden led a deputation of the men to Clay's wagon and demanded he produce the note. Clay refused, and upon Bowden pressing him, drew a pistol and shot him through the chest. Instantly Clay was seized by the men, while aid was summoned for the stricken Bowden; alas, too late. Within a very little time he expired.

I was for burying him, then abandoning Clay in the wilderness and pressing on. Hiderick would have none of it, calling instead for frontier justice and a summary settling of accounts. His hotter temper won the day. Hiderick caused Clay's wagon to be tipped over on its side, and then hanged him from the shafts. It was a barbarous thing to watch as he strangled to death at the end of a short rope. Are we no better than beasts now? Have our hardships brought us to such an extremity of animal passion? Back in the wagon, I threw myself to the floor in a perfect storm of emotion; Elizabeth tried to comfort me, but I could take no solace even from her sweet voice. I have failed her—we have all failed, all of us men who stood by and let vanity and stupidity lead us into this hell on earth. Now on top of it all we are murderers. The mark of Cain lies upon us.

....October 23rd: In the night, a great alarm: Indians, howling down from the hills, attacking our wagons. Four wagons lost before we knew it—nine men dead in the onslaught. They have slaughtered half of the oxen too, the brutes. As they vanished back into the hills, we heard them laughing—a terrible and callous sound. I hear it now as I write, and it may be that it shall follow me to my grave: the mocking of savages in this savage land. Savages, I say? At least they do not kill their own as we have done.

John Buell's voice is one of almost Calvinist fatality and resignation. The tone is amplified in the diary's addenda written by his wife, Elizabeth.

....November 10th: Snow all through the night. Trail impassable—neither man nor beast can battle through the drifts. Exhausted, hope gone. Wind mounting to a howling frenzy, mercury falling, sky as black as lead. We have failed. The winter is upon us and we are lost in the high passes. God help us.

After Clay's death, his lieutenant and leader of the party's vigilante faction, Hiderick, takes over.

The horror of settlement is visited upon the settlers.

....The hunger swallows all things. Whole days will pass, and we think of nothing save food, how it would be to fill our bellies to repletion. There is a narcotic in it; it lulls one into a dangerous inactivity, a dull vacant torpor. I have seen this look settle upon a score of people; in each case the end came very nigh after. Daily I look for it in myself. I must be strong, for my angel's sake.

The provisions ran out before the end of November: the last of the oxen were slaughtered and eaten by then, and the mules too. One of the children was the first to die, Sarah Doerr's little Emily; soon after her, Missy Shorstein, and her father the next day. Our sorrow was great—we had no way of knowing that all too soon death would become a familiar thing with us. It is hard to mourn, when horror is piled upon horror and the bodies are beyond counting or remembrance; but it is necessary. It is the most human of emotions, and we must remain human, even in this uttermost remove of hell.

....Now I must be brave, and record the facts of the matter without flinching. Hiderick said that the rescue party were doomed to failure, and would undoubtedly die in the mountain passes; we should not rely on them for assistance. I could have struck him—that he could thus impugn my husband, and his brave allies, when he had not the courage to do aught save cower in his cabin! But I must tell it aright, and not let myself be sidetracked.

Hiderick said that we were doomed, and should not make it through to the spring, save for one chance. He said that we were surrounded by fresh meat, if we had only the brains to see it, and the nerve to do something about it; he said he was a butcher by trade, and would show us what he meant. If I live another fifty years I shall not forget what he did next.

He went to the door of the big cabin and flung it wide open. The snow rose up in drifts all around, parted only where a path had been cleared between the cabins. All around were the graves of those who had already succumbed to the hunger and the cold; maybe nine or ten by that time. We could not dig them in the ground, for that lay ten feet beneath the snowdrifts, and was frozen hard as iron. Instead we lay them wrapped in blankets in the snow, where the cold would preserve them till the spring.

Hiderick pointed to the nearest of the graves—little Missy Shorstein's. "There's your meat," he said, in his thick guttural voice. "Like it or not, it's the only vittles you'll get this side of the thaw."

Human-made horrors start to erase a boundary with and intermingle with the supernatural.

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30 November 2019

Friday, November 29, 2019

Reading: North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud

by Nathan Ballingrud 
(2013: Small Beer Press)

The genius of the system is that it keeps saddling us with a self-image of atomised passivity and acquiescence, then lets us tear ourselves apart when its individual solutions fail to save us from its carnage. Is it any wonder opioids have become the opium of working people?

I feel very close to Nathan Ballingrud's characters because of this shared class predicament. Some of his men are husbands, some fathers, and some sons. Some are facing-down eviction, bankruptcy, homelessness. One just came home after six years in prison. Another is haunted by the New Orleans drowned by Katrina.

Many are the real monsters, but Ballingrud always gives this genre cliche a twist. No easy answers when even the questions break our hearts.

You Go Where It Takes You

"I got to ask you something," he said. "I been wondering about this lately. Do you think it's possible for something beautiful to come out of an awful thing? Do you think a good life can redeem a horrible act?"

"Of course I do," she said quickly, sensing some second chance here, if only she said the right words. "Yes."

Alex touched the blade to his scalp just above his right ear and drew it in an arc over the crown of his head until it reached his left ear. Bright red blood crept down from his hairline in a slow tide, sending rivulets and tributaries along his jaw and his throat, hanging from his eyelashes like raindrops from flower petals. "God, I really hope so," he said. He worked his fingers into the incision and began to tug.

Wild Acre

A man loses his small contracting business and gets his best friend and best worker killed in the process.

…Tara sobbed once, both hands still clutching the steering wheel. Her face was twisted in misery. "You have to get a hold of yourself," she said. "I don't know what's happening to you. I don't know what to do."

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He felt his guts turn to stone. He knew he had to say something, he had to try to explain himself here, or someday she would leave. Maybe someday soon. But the fear was too tight; it wouldn't let him speak. It would barely let him breathe.


….The horse's big body jerked as it tried to right itself, and Nick heard bones crack somewhere inside it. The horse screamed. It lay next to the overturned car, amidst a glittering galaxy of broken glass, its legs crooked and snapped, its blood spilling onto the asphalt and trailing away in diluted rivers. It was beautiful, even in these awful circumstances; its body seemed phosphorescent in the rain.

Nick knelt beside it and brushed his fingers against its skin. The flesh jumped, and he was overwhelmed by a powerful scent of urine and musk. Its eye rolled to look at him. Nick stared back, paralyzed. The horse's blood pooled around his shoe. It seemed an astonishing end for this animal, that it should come to die on some hard ground its ancestors never knew, surrounded by machines they never dreamed. Its absurdity offended him.

Someone splashed by him and dropped to his knees, peering into the overturned BMW; he shouted Oh my God, oh my God, and tugged frantically, futilely, at its door. Nick sensed a larger movement around him as people left their cars and began shouting, milling around the scene in a vortex of chaos and adrenaline.


Trixie materialized behind him and pulled at his shoulders.

"Come on, we have to get out of here!"

He came to his feet.

"Nick, let's go. The police are coming. We can't get caught with that gun."

The gun. Nick brushed roughly past her, nearly knocking her to her knees. He retrieved the gun from her glove compartment and headed back to the horse. Trixie intercepted him, tried to push him back. "No, no, are you fucking crazy? It's gonna die anyway!"

He wrenched her aside, and this time she did fall. He walked over to the horse and the gun cracked twice, two bright flashes in the rain, and the horse was dead. A kind of peace settled over him then, a floating calm, and he stuffed the gun into his trousers, ignoring the heat of the barrel pressing into his flesh. Trixie had not bothered to get up from the pavement. She sat there, watching him, the rain sluicing over her head and down her body. Her face was inscrutable behind the curtain of rain, as was everything else about her. He left her there.

Behind her, the car was hopelessly ensnared in the traffic jam. He would have to walk home, to his mother, broken and beautiful, crashed in her own foreign landscape. Bewildered and terrified. Burning love like a gasoline. He started down the highway, walking along the edge of stopped traffic. He felt the weightlessness of mercy. He was a striding christ….

The Crevasse

"Okay," he said. "Okay, Atka."

Kneeling, Garner caressed the dog. It growled and subsided, surrendering to his ministrations.

"Good boy, Atka," he whispered. "Settle down, boy."

Garner slid his knife free of its sheath, bent forward, and brought the blade to the dog's throat. Atka whimpered—"Shhh," Garner whispered—as he bore down with the edge, steeling himself against the thing he was about to do—

Something moved in the darkness beneath him: a leathery rasp, the echoing clatter of stone on stone, of loose pebbles tumbling into darkness. Atka whimpered again, legs twitching as he tried to shove himself back against the wall....

The Monsters of Heaven

....Amy never told Brian that she blamed him. She elected, rather, to avoid the topic of the actual abduction, and any question of her husband's negligence. Once the police abandoned them as suspects, the matter of their own involvement ceased to be a subject of discussion. Brian was unconsciously grateful, because it allowed him to focus instead on the maintenance of grief. Silence spread between them like a glacier. In a few months, entire days passed with nothing said between them.


....Their father left right after the hurricane. He used to work on the oil rigs. He'd get on a helicopter and disappear for a few weeks, and money would show up in the bank account. Then he'd come home for a week, and they'd all have fun together. He'd fight with their mother sometimes, but he always went back out to sea before things had a chance to get bad.

After the hurricane, all that work dried up. The rigs were compromised and the Gulf Coast oil industry knocked back on its heels. Dad was stranded in the house. Suddenly there was no work to stop the fighting. He moved to California shortly thereafter, saying he'd send for them when he found another job. A week later their mother told them the truth....

North American Lake Monsters

....They did not speak much as they walked. Out of jail for only three days after six years inside, Grady was struggling to recognize his thirteen-year-old daughter in the sullen-eyed, cynical presence striding along beside him. She had undergone some bizarre transformation since he'd last seen her. She'd dyed her hair black; strange silver adornments pocked her face: she had a ring in her left eyebrow, and a series of rings along the curve of one bejeweled conch of an ear. Worst of all, she'd put a stud through her tongue....

The Way Station

"You have a problem," Davis says.

The words push through the dream, and it's gone. He waits for his throat to open up again, so he can speak. He says, "I think I'm haunted."

Davis keeps his eyes locked on him. "I think so too," he says.

Beltrane can't think of what else to say. His hand rubs absentmindedly over his chest. He knows he can't see his daughter while this is happening to him.

"I was haunted once, too," Davis says quietly. He opens a drawer in his desk and withdraws a pack of cigarettes. He extends one to Beltrane and keeps one for himself. "Then the ghost went away."

Beltrane stares at him with an awed hope as Davis slowly fishes through his pockets for a lighter. "How you get rid of it?"

Davis lights both cigarettes. Beltrane wants to grab the man, but instead he takes a draw, and the nicotine hits his bloodstream. A spike of euphoria rolls through him with a magnificent energy.
                                                                                                             "I don't want to tell you that," Davis says. "I want to tell you why you should keep it. And why you shouldn't go see your daughter tomorrow."

The Good Husband

She will never be happy. 

The thought came to him with the force of a revelation. It was as though God spoke a judgment, and he recognized its truth as though it had been with them all along, the buzzard companion of their late marriage. Some people, he thought, are just incapable of happiness. Maybe it was because of some ancient trauma, or maybe it was just a bad equation in the brain. Kate's reasons were mysterious to him, a fact which appalled him after so many years of intimacy. If he pulled her from the water now, he would just be welcoming
her back to hell.

With a flutter of some obscure emotion—some solution of terror and relief—he closed the door on her. He went back to bed and, after a few sleeping pills of his own, fell into a black sleep. He dreamed of silence....

29 November 2019