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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2013)

"There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead."

—Arthur Machen

There are probably few better single-author collections of horror stories than The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2013).

The stories are of high quality, carefully revised and polished; no stylistic idiosyncrasies or "poetic" style are allowed to occlude between reader and text.

The Redfield Girls • (2010)

An achingly perfect tale about women caught up in the malignant power of a landscape, united by experiences of the uncanny as well as an "awful lore is not yet dead."

"His brother Caleb drowned in the Devil's Punch Bowl. Four people saw him fall into the water and disappear. The body was lost, but Job claimed to meet something pretending to be his brother a year later. He was walking along the beach and saw him lying under a pile of driftwood. Job ran toward his brother's corpse, but when he reached it, Caleb sprang from the weeds and slithered into the water, laughing. Job was terrified when he realized the figure didn't really resemble his brother at all. And that's why he stopped fishing here."

Vastation • (2010)

Solipsism and black wings carven of onyx.

....The flagellants march past the stoop of my crumbling home every day at teatime. We don't observe teatime here in the next to last extant Stateside bubble-domed metropolis. Nonetheless, my artificial wifey makes a pot of green tea and I take it on the steps and watch the flagellants lurch past, single file, slapping themselves about the shoulders with belts studded with nails and screws and the spiny hooks of octopi. They croak a dirge copped from ancient tablets some anthropologists found and promptly went mad and that madness eagerly spread and insinuated itself in the brainboxes of billions. They fancy themselves Openers of the Way, and a red snail track follows them like the train of a skirt made of meat. Dogs skulk along at the rear, snuffling and licking at the blood. Fleas rise in black clouds from their slicked and matted fur.

The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven • (2011)

Two women explore the area around their forest cabin. 

     "Well, what did you find? Some moonshine in mason jars? D.B. Cooper's skeleton?"

     "Time for the reveal!" Miranda extricated herself from Lorna and went and opened the door, letting in a rush of cold night air. She returned with what appeared to be a bundle of filthy rags and proceeded to unroll them.

     Lorna realized her girlfriend was presenting an animal hide. The fur had been sewn into a crude cape or cloak; beaten and

weathered from great age, and shriveled along the hem. The head was that of some indeterminate predator-possibly a wolf or coyote. Whatever the species, the creature was a prize specimen. Despite the cloak's deteriorated condition, she could imagine it draped across the broad shoulders of a Viking berserker or an Indian warrior. She said, "You realize that you just introduced several colonies of fleas, ticks, and lice into our habitat with that wretched thing."

     "Way ahead of you, baby. I sprayed it with bleach. Cooties were crawling all over. Isn't it neat?"

      "It's horrifying," Lorna said. Yet, she couldn't look away as Miranda held it at arm's length so the pelt gleamed dully in the firelight. What was it? Who'd worn it and why? Was it a garment to provide mere warmth, or to blend with the surroundings? The painting of the hunter was obscured by shadows, but she thought of the man in buckskin sneaking along, looking for something to kill, a throat to slice. Her hand went to her throat.

     "This was hanging from a peg. I'm kinda surprised it's not completely ruined, what with the elements. Funky, huh? A Daniel Boone era accessory."

Jaws of Saturn (2013)

....He said, "I think something odd is going on with you." 

     "Mmm? I feel pretty damned fine." 

     "Have you been taking drugs? You doing X?" 

    "Are you trying to piss me off?" She smiled and blew smoke at him. 

    "I'm trying to decide what I think. You're acting different." He didn't know what to say about her bizarre iris and figured keeping his mouth shut was the best course for the moment. 

      "Hmm. I've been seeing a hypnotist. Trying to break this smoking habit." 

     "Uh, did you happen to think that might be the reason you've had lousy dreams lately? Go screwing around in your brain and God knows what'll happen."


The Siphon • (2011) 

Enticing story about interactions among espiocrats running the military-industrial complex.

     Dr. Christou was broad through shoulders and chest. His large head was bald except for a silvery fringe, and his mustache and beard were white streaked with black. He wore a vintage suit and three rings-two on the left hand, one on the right. He drank copiously; Canadian Club. These days a proper Greek drinks scotch, but as a culture-strapped American, a Canadian import will suffice. Lancaster couldn't help but notice he resembled the bluff and melodramatically distinguished actors who populated Saturday night horror features of yesteryear; a physically imposing relative of Christopher Lee. The doctor said to Mr. Rawat, "I don't pretend to know the truth, my friend. There are cracks in the world. These cracks are inhabited by…marvels undreamt of in our philosophies."

     "We have known each other for an age," Mr. Rawat said. "and I am still uncertain where the truth ends and the bullshit begins with you."

     "I think the subject of night terrors is fascinating," Mrs. Cook said. She and her husband were slightly younger than Mr. Rawat and Dr. Christou, around Lancaster's age, a year or two shy of senior discounts and social security checks. The couple were gray and heavyset, habitual tans as faded as ancient tattoos. Mr. Cook wore a heavy tweed jacket, and his wife a pattern dress and pearls that were slightly behind modern fashion. She'd drunk her share of gin and tonic.

     "Francine majored in literature," Mr. Cook said, gesturing with his tumbler of Johnnie Walker Blue. "The classics-Henry James, Wilde, Menken, Camus, Conrad. That lot."

      "Actually, I prefer Blackwood and Machen during the proper season. When the leaves are falling and the dark comes early and stays. The Horla, by Maupassant. There's a fine one regarding sleep paralysis and insanity."

The Men from Porlock • (2011)

A masterpiece of cosmic horror, of the Appointment in Samarra, and the epitome of Vastation in horror aesthetics.

....Bane laughed, then spat. "Yeh, so I am, laddio. This is a haunted place. Explorers wandered 'round Mystery Mountain in the 1840s. Richies in the city, newspapermen mostly, financed 'em. Found mighty peculiar things, they say. Burial mounds 'an cliffside caves with bodies in 'em like the Chinee do. A few o' them explorers fell on hard luck an' got kilt, or lost. Some tried to pioneer and disappeared, but onea 'em, a Russian, came back an' wrote hisself a book. An pieces o' that book wound up in another one, a kind o' field guide. Looks like a Farmer's Almanac, 'cept black with a broken circle on the cover. I seen that page afore. Ain't too many copies o' that guide not what got burned. My mama was a child o' God and hated it on account o' its pagan blasphemy, documentin' heathen rites an' sich. Grand pappy showed me in secret. He weren't a particularly devout feller after he finished spreadin' the Lord's Word. Had a crisis o' faith, he said."

Blackwood's Baby • (2011)

A White Hunter in the 1920s joins an upstairs-downstairs group of protagonist for a hunting trip on the Olympic peninsula. As readers of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Lansdale know, hunting trips in fiction are never just hunting trips.

....Dr. Landscomb said, "Hark, my cue. The wood we now occupy is called Wolfvale and it stretches some fifty miles north to south. If we traveled another twelve miles due east, we'd be in the foothills of the mountains. Wolfvale is, some say, a cursed forest. Of course, that reputation does much to draw visitors." Dr. Landscomb lighted a cigarette. "What do you think, Master Scobie?"     "The settlers considered this an evil place," Scobie said, emerging from the bushes much to the consternation of Mr. Briggs who yelped and half drew his revolver. "No one logs this forest. No one hunts here except for the lords and foolish, desperate townies. People know not to come here because of the dangerous animals that roam. These days, it's the wild beasts, but in the early days, it was mostly Bill."     "Was Bill some rustic lunatic?" Mr. Briggs said.     "We Texans know the type," Mr. Williams said with a grin.     "Oh, no, sirs. Black Bill, Splayfoot Bill, he's the devil. He's Satan and those who carved the town from the hills, and before them the trappers and fishermen, they believed he ruled these dark woods."    

     "The Indians believed it too," Mr. Welloc said. 

     "I've talked with several of the elders, as did my grandfather with the tribal wise men of his era. The legend of Bill, whom they referred to as the Horned Man, is most ancient. I confess, some of my ancestors were a rather scandalous lot, given to dabbling in the occult and all matters mystical. The town library's archives are stuffed with treatises composed by the more adventurous founders, and myriad accounts by landholders and commoners alike regarding the weird phenomena prevalent in Ransom Hollow."     Scobie said, "Aye. Many a village child vanished, an' grown men an' women, too. When I was wee, my father brought us in by dusk an' barred the door tight until morning. Everyone did. Some still do."    

     Luke Honey said, "A peculiar arrangement for such a healthy community."    

     "Aye, Olde Towne seems robust," Lord Bullard said.    

     Dr. Landscomb said. "Those Who Work are tied to the land. A volcano won't drive them away when there's fish and fur, crops and timber to be had."    

     "Yeah, and you can toss sacrificial wretches into the volcano, too," Mr. McEvoy said.     "This hunt of ours goes back for many years, long before the lodge itself was established. Without exception, someone is gravely injured, killed, or lost on these expeditions."    

     "Lost? What does "lost" mean, precisely?" Mr. Wesley said.    

     "There are swamps and cliffs, and so forth," Dr. Landscomb said. "On occasion, men have wandered into the wilds and run afoul of such dangers. But to the point. Ephraim Blackwood settled in Olde Towne at the time of its founding. A widower with two grown sons, he was a furrier by trade. The Blackwoods ran an extensive trap line throughout Ransom Hollow and within ten years of their arrival, they'd become the premier fur trading company in the entire valley. People whispered. Christianity has never gained an overwhelming mandate here, but the Blackwoods' irreligiousness went a step beyond the pale in the eyes of the locals. Inevitably, loose talk led to muttered accusations of witchcraft. Some alleged the family consorted with Splayfoot Bill, that they'd made a pact. Material wealth for their immortal souls."

Hand of Glory • (2012)

A noirish narrator out of Hammett runs into something dark in the Roaring Twenties.

....The severed hand clutched a black candle. A brass kaleidoscope of particularly ornate make caught my attention. I squinted through the aperture and turned the dial. The metal felt damnably cold. Jigsaw pieces of painted crystal rattled around inside, revealing tantalizing glimpses of naked thighs and breasts, black corsets and red, pouty smiles. The image fell into place and it was no longer a burlesque dancer primping for my pleasure. Instead I beheld a horrid portrait of some rugose beast-all trunk and tentacle and squirming maw. I dropped the kaleidoscope like it was hot.

More Dark • (2012)

An Answered Prayer story reminiscent of Capote's fiction Answered Prayers: the author bites the hand that feeds him. It's a strange tale in bad taste filled with contempt for a thinly disguised Thomas Ligotti. Hemingway had to excoriate Sherwood Anderson; perhaps this is similar. 


30 April 2020

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010)

Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010)

The Forest • (2007)

"There are an estimated five to eight million species of insects as of yet unknown and unclassified. Hell of a lot of insects, hmm? But why stop at bugs? Only a damned fool would suppose that was anything but the tip of the iceberg. When the time of Man comes to an end their time will begin. And be certain this is not an invasion or a hostile occupation. We'll be dead as Dodos a goodly period before they emerge to claim the surface. They won't rule forever. The planet will eventually become cold and inhospitable to any mortal organism. But trust that their rule will make the reign of the terrible lizards seem a flicker of an eyelash."

     "You're talking about cockroaches," Partridge said in triumph. "Fucking cockroaches." That was too amusing and so he snorted on his pungent liquor and had a coughing fit.

     "No, we are not," Campbell said.

     "We aren't talking about spiders or beetles, either," Toshi said. He gave Partridge's knee an earnest squeeze. "To even compare them with the citizens of the Great Kingdom…I shudder. However, if I were to make that comparison, I'd say this intelligence is the Ur-progenitor of those insects scrabbling in the muck. The mother race of idiot stepchildren."

     Campbell knelt before him so they were eye to eye. The older man's face was radiant and distant as the moon. "This is a momentous discovery. We've established contact. Not us, actually. It's been going on forever. We are the latest…emissaries, if you will. Trustees to the grandest secret of them all."

     "Hoo boy. You guys. You fucking guys. Is Nadine in on this?"

     "Best that you see firsthand. Would you like that, Rich?"

     "Uhmm-wha?" Partridge did not know what he wanted except that he wanted the carousel to stop.

     Campbell and Toshi stood. They took his arms and the next thing he knew they were outside in the humid country night with darkness all around. He tried to walk, but his legs wouldn't cooperate much. They half dragged him to a dim metal door and there was a lamp bulb spinning in space and then steep, winding concrete stairs and cracked concrete walls ribbed with mold. They went down and down and a strong, earthy smell overcame Partridge's senses. People spoke to him in rumbling nonsense phrases. Someone ruffled his hair and laughed. His vision fractured. He glimpsed hands and feet, a piece of jaw illumed by a quivering fluorescent glow. When the hands stopped supporting him, he slid to his knees. He had the impression of kneeling in a cellar. Water dripped and a pale overhead lamp hummed like a wasp in a jar. From the corner of his eye he got the sense of table legs and cables and he smelled an acrid smell like cleaning solvents. He thought it might be a laboratory.

     —Crawl forward just a bit.

     It was strange whatever lay before him. Something curved, spiral-shaped and darkly wet. A horn, a giant conch shell, it was impossible to be certain. There was an opening, as the external os of a cervix, large enough to accommodate him in all his lanky height. Inside it was moist and muffled and black.

     —There's a lad. Curl up inside. Don't fight. There, there. That's my boy. Won't be long. Not long. Don't be afraid. This is only a window, not a doorway.

     Then nothing and nothing and nothing; only his heart, his breathing and a whispery static thrum that might've been the electromagnetic current tracing its circuit through his nerves.

     Nothingness grew very dense.

     Partridge tried to shriek when water, or something thicker than water, flowed over his head and into his sinuses and throat. Low static built in his ears and the abject blackness was replaced by flashes of white imagery. He fell from an impossible height. He saw only high-velocity jump-cuts of the world and each caromed from him and into the gulf almost instantly. Fire and blood and moving tides of unleashed water. Bones of men and women and cities. Dead, mummified cities gone so long without inhabitants they had become cold and brittle and smooth as mighty forests of stone. There loomed over everything a silence that held to its sterile bosom countless screams and the sibilant chafe of swirling dust. Nadine stood naked as ebony in the heart of a ruined square. She wore a white mask, but he knew her with the immediacy of a nightmare. She lifted her mask and looked at him. She smiled and raised her hand. Men and women emerged from the broken skyscrapers and collapsed bunkers. They were naked and pallid and smiling. In the distance the sun heaved up, slow and red. Its deathly light cascaded upon the lines and curves of cyclopean structures. These were colossal, inhuman edifices of fossil bone and obsidian and anthracite that glittered not unlike behemoth carapaces. He thrashed and fell and fell and drowned.

     Nadine said in his ear, Come down. We love you.

     The cellar floor was cool upon his cheek. He was paralyzed and choking. The men spoke to him in soothing voices. Someone pressed a damp cloth to his brow.

     —Take it easy, son. The first ride or two is a bitch and a half. Get his head.

     Partridge groaned as gravity crushed him into the moldy concrete.

     Someone murmured to him.

     —They are interested in preserving aspects of our culture. Thus Orren Towne and places, hidden places most white men will never tread. Of course, it's a multifaceted project. Preserving artifacts, buildings, that's hardly enough to satisfy such an advanced intellect…

     Partridge tired to speak. His jaw worked spastically. No sound emerged. The concrete went soft and everyone fell silent at once.

Occultation • (2008)

....She flounced from the bed and promptly smacked her shin on the chair that had toppled over from the weight of her jeans and purse. —Ahh! She hopped around, cursing and fuming and finally yanked on her pants and blouse, snatched up her purse and blundered through the door into the night.

     It was cold, all right. The stars were out, fierce and prehistoric. The dark matter between them seemed blacker than usual and thick as tar. She hugged herself and clattered along the boardwalk past the blank windows and the cheap doors with descending numbers to the pop and cigarette machines by the manager's office. No bulbs glowed along the walkway, the office was a deep, dark pit; the neon vacancy sign reared blind and black. Luckily, the vending panels oozed blurry, greenish light to guide her way. Probably the only light for miles. She disliked that thought.

     She dug whiskey-soaked dollar bills and a few coins from her purse, started plugging them into the cigarette machine until it clanked and dispensed a pack of Camels. The cold almost drove her scurrying back to the room where her husband doubtless slumbered with dreams of unfiltered cigarettes dancing in his head, but not quite. She cracked the pack and got one going, determined to satisfy her craving and then hide the rest where he'd never find them. Lazy, unchivalrous bastard! Let him forage for his own smokes.

     Smoke boiled in her lungs; she leaned against a post and exhaled with beatific self-satisfaction, momentarily immune to the chill. The radiance of the vending machines seeped a few yards across the gravel lot, illuminating the hood of her Volkswagen Beetle and a beat-to-hell pickup she presumed belonged to the night clerk. She was halfway through her second cigarette when she finally detected a foreign shape between the Volkswagen and the pickup. Though mostly cloaked in shadow and impossibly huge, she recognized it as a tortoise. It squatted there, the crown of its shell even with the car window. Its beak and monstrously clawed forepaws were bisected by the wavering edge of illumination. There was a blob of skull perhaps the diameter of a melon, and a moist eye that glimmered yellow.

     —Wow, she said. She finished her cigarette. Afraid to move, she lighted another, and that was tricky with her hands shaking so terribly, then she smoked that one too and stared at the giant tortoise staring back at her. She thought, for a moment, she saw its shell rhythmically dilate and contract in time with her own surging heart.

     The night remained preternaturally quiet there on the edge of the highway, absent the burr of distant engines or blatting horns, or the stark sweep of rushing headlights. The world had descended into a primeval well while she'd been partying in their motel room; it had slipped backward and now the desert truly was an ancient and haunted place. What else would shamble from the wastes of rock and scrub and the far-off dunes? 

The Lagerst├Ątte • (2008)

An incredibly powerful meditation on and negotiation with the protagonist's experience of grief and loss.

Mysterium Tremendum • (2010)

A sublimely ambitious tale of hidden landscapes and their guidebooks. A masterpiece of uncanny cosmicism.

....The trail wound under the arch of a toppled dead log, and ended in a large hollow partially ringed by firs and hemlocks. The hollow was a shadowy-green amphitheatre that smelled of moist, decayed leaves and musty earth. Directly ahead, reared the dolmen—two squat pillars of rock supporting a third, enormous slab. I was amazed by its cyclopean dimensions. The dolmen was seated near the slope of the hill and blanketed with moss, and at its base: ferns and patches of devil's club. It woke in me a profound unease that was momentarily overshadowed by my awe that the structure actually existed. 

     None of us spoke at first; we stood close together and took in our surroundings. Glenn squeezed my wrist and pressed his hip against mine. Victor hadn't taken a single picture, demonstrably cowed upon encountering something so far beyond his reckoning, and Dane's mouth actually hung open. I whispered into Glenn's ear, "The History Channel isn't quite the same, is it?" He smiled and pecked my cheek. That broke the tension and, after shucking their packs, the others began exploring the hollow. My uneasiness remained, a burr that I couldn't work loose. I checked the book again—the author hadn't written much about the site proper, nor documented any revelations about its history or importance besides the astronomical diagrams in the appendix. I stowed the guide and tried to set aside my misgivings as well. 

     The moss that bearded the dolmen was also thick upon the ground and it sucked at my boots as it sucked at the voices of my friends and the daylight itself. I thought of lying in a sticky web, of drowsing in the heart of a cocoon. The pain in my arm spiked and I shook off the sudden lassitude. We approached within a few feet of the tomb and stared into the opening. This made me queasy, like peering over the lip of a pit. This was a stylized maw, the mossy path its unfurled tongue. 

     "This isn't right," Glenn said. Victor and Dane flanked us, so our group stood before the structure in a semicircle. "A hoax?" I said without conviction, thinking of the artificial Stonehenge modern entrepreneurs had erected in Eastern Washington as a tourist attraction. "I don't think so," Glenn said. "But, I've seen a few of these in France. They don't look like this at all. The pile of rocks is close. That other stuff, I dunno." The stones were covered in runes and glyphs. Time had eroded deep grooves and incisions into shallow, blurred lines of demarcation. Lichen and horrid white fungi filled the crevices and spread in festering keloids. 

     Dane forged ahead and boldly slashed at some of the creepers, revealing more carvings. Fat, misshapen puffball mushrooms nested in beds among the creepers and his machete hacked across some and they disintegrated in clouds of red smoke. I joined him at the threshold and shined the beam of my flashlight through the swirling motes of mushroom dust, illuminating a chamber eight feet wide and twenty feet deep. Stray fingers of reddish sunlight came through small gaps. Vines had penetrated inside and lay in slimy, rotten loops and wallows along the edges of the foundation. My hair brushed against the slick threshold and beetles and pill bugs recoiled from our intrusion. Just inside, the chamber vaulted to a height of fifteen feet and was decorated with multitudes of fantastical carvings of symbols and creatures and stylized visages of the kind likely dreamt by Neanderthals. The far end of the chamber dug into the mountain; a wall of shale and granite sundered by long past seismic violence into a vertical crack, its plates and ridges splattered rust orange by alkaline water oozing from rock. 

     The floor was composed of dirt and sunken flagstones, and at its center, a low mound of crumbling granite that was an oblong basin, the opposite rim worked into the likeness of a massive, bloated humanoid. The statue was worn smooth and darkened by grime with only vague hollows for its eyes and mouth in a skull too proportionally small for its torso. 

     I clicked off the flashlight and allowed my eyes to adjust to the crimson gloom.  "Okay, I'm thunderstruck," Glenn said. "Gob smacked!" Victor said, his jovial tone strained. He shot a rapid series of pictures that promptly ruined my night vision with the succession of strobe flashes. The glyphs crawled and the primeval visages yawned and leered. Dane must've seen it as well. "Stash that goddamned camera or I'm going to ram it where the sun don't shine!"

     Victor frowned and snapped the lens cap in place and in the midst of my visceral reaction to our circumstances, I wondered if this exchange was a window into their souls, and how much did Glenn know about that. I watched Glenn as he examined the idol and the pool. I felt a brief, searing contempt for his gawky frame, his mincing steps and too-skinny ass. I hung my head, ashamed, and also confused that something so petty and domestic would impinge upon the bizarre scene. For the hundredth time I considered the possibility my meninges were filling with blood like plastic sacks. 

     Up close, the basin was larger than I'd estimated, and rudely chiseled, as if it were simply a hollowed-out rock. Small squarish recesses were spaced at intervals around the rim, each encrusted with lichen and moss so they resembled mouths. Cold, green water dripped from the ceiling and filled the basin, its surface webbed with algae scum and fir needles and leaves. The attendant figurehead loomed, imposing bulk precariously inclined forward, giving the illusion that it gazed at us. I glanced at my companions, their faces eerily lighted by the reflection of the water.

     …A horrible idea took root—that these men masked in blood, eyes gleaming with febrile intensity, had conned me, maneuvered me to this remote and profane location. They were magicians, descendants of the Salamanca Seven, necromancers of the secret grotto, Satan's disciples, who planned to slice my throat and conduct a black magic ritual to commune with their dear dead Tom, perhaps to raise him like Lazarus. Everything Glenn ever told me was a half truth, a mockery—Tom hadn't been the black sheep sidekick, oh no!, but rather the darksome leader, a sorcerer who'd initiated each of them into the foul cabal. Any moment now, Dane or my sweet beloved Glenn would reach into his pocket and draw the hunting knife sharpened just for my jugular, Victor's coil of rope would truss me, and then… Glenn touched my arm and I choked back a cry and everybody flinched. Their fear and concern appeared genuine. I allowed Glenn to comfort me, smiled weakly at his solicitous questions.

     Victor said, "Boys, what now? I feel like calling CNN, the secretary of the interior. Somebody." Glenn rubbed his jaw. "Vicky, it's in the book, so apparently people are aware of this place. There's a burned-down village back thataway. That explorer, Pavlov, Magalov, whoever, named it after himself. People surely know."

     "Just because it's in the book doesn't mean jack shit. How come there's no public record? I bet you my left nut this site isn't even on the government radar. Question is, why? How is that possible?"

     I said, "An even better question is, do we want to screw around with the ineffable?" Victor sighed. "Oh, come on. You got the heebie-jeebies over some primitive art?" 

     "Take a closer look at the demon faces," Dane said. "This is forces of darkness shit. Hardcore Iron Maiden album cover material." He snorted and spat a lump of gory snot into the water. For a moment, we stood in shocked silence.

     "If you want to flee, dears, say the word." Victor laid the sarcasm on too thick to fool anybody. "Let's march back to the land of beer, pizza, and long, hot showers." He drew a cigarette and leaned against the basin to steady himself. The snick of his lighter, the bloom of flame, shifted the universe off its axis. He shuddered and dropped the lighter and stepped back far enough that I glimpsed a shivering cord the diameter of a blue ribbon leech extended from beneath the lip of the basin and plunge into the junction of his inner thigh and groin.  

     Greasy bubbles surfaced from the depths of the stagnant water, and burst, their odor more foul than the effluvium of the dead vines liquefying along the walls, and the scum dissolved to reveal a surface as clear as glass. The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark. A thumbnail-sized alabaster planetoid blazed beneath the ruptured skein of leaves and algae, a membranous cloud rising. 

     The cloud seethed and darkened, became black as a thunderhead. It keened—chains dragging against iron, a theremin dialed to eleven, a hypersonic shriek that somehow originated and emanated from inside my brain rather than an external source. Whispers drifted from the abyss, unsynchronized, unintelligible, yet conveying malevolent and obscene lust that radiated across the vast wastes of deep space. The cloud peeled, bloomed, and a hundred-thousand-miles-long tendril uncoiled, a proboscis telescoping from the central mass, and the whispers amplified in a burst of static. I went cold, warmth and energy drained from my body with such abruptness and violence, I staggered.

     Glenn shouted and jerked my shoulder, and we tripped over each other. I saw Dane scrambling toward the entrance, and Victor frozen before the idol, face illuminated in the lurid radiance. His expression contorted and he gripped his skull in both hands, fingernails digging. The slimy cord drew taut and released from the muscle of his leg with a wet pop, left a bleeding circle in the fabric of his pants. Another of these appendages partially spooled from the niche nearest me, writhing blindly as it sought to connect with warm meat. 

     The howl intensified….

Catch Hell • (2009)

A harrowing tale of - shall we say? - the Great God Pan.

...."What's that?" asked Ms. Fabini, Mr. Cockrum's pale young mistress. "Over there."

     Katherine had previously noted a copse of rather deformed oak trees that crowned a low rise in the otherwise flat field. She counted five trees, each heavily entwined in hawthorn bushes to roughly waist height. The thorn bushes made a sort of arched entrance to the hollow interior. Shadows and foliage obscured what appeared to be large pieces of statuary.

     Mr. Prettyman said, "Ah, that would be one of several pagan shrines scattered across this region. They're no secret, but we keep mention of them to a minimum. The edification of our esteemed guests is one thing. Wouldn't do to stir up a swarm of crass tourists, on the other hand." 

     "Of course, of course, my good man," Mr. Cockrum said, to which the rest of the party members added their semi-articulate concurrence.

     "Indian totems?" Mr. Woodruff asked, shading his eyes. "Shall we nip over and take a closer look?"

     "Celtic," Sonny said.

     "Quite right," Mr. Prettyman said. "You've done your homework. The details are sketchy, but Mr. Welloc and those of his inner circle imported various art objects from Western Europe and installed them in various places—some obvious, others not so. Allegedly, this piece was recovered in Wales."

     "In other words, robbed from the peasants," Mr. Cockrum said to his girlfriend from behind his hand.

     They filed into the copse where it was cool and dim.

     "My word," Mr. Woodruff said. 

     The stone effigy of a muscular humanoid with ram horns reared some eight or so feet and canted sharply to one side. It radiated an aura of unspeakable antiquity, its features eroded, its form shaggy with moss that issued from countless fissures. Pieces of broken masonry jutted from the bed of dead leaves at the statue's foot—the remnants of a marble basin lay shattered and corroded. Even in its ruin,  Katherine recognized the sacrificial altar for what it was. Heat and chill cycled through her. Blue sky peeped through a notch in the canopy and it seemed alien.

     "Exactly like the painting," Sonny said, his voice hushed. 

     "It's…ghastly," Ms. Fabini said, white-gloved hand fluttering near her mouth as she stared in awe and horror at the statue's prodigious endowment.

     "Oh, honey, control yourself." Cockrum squatted to examine the base of the statue, which had sunk to its calves in the dark earth. Sonny joined him, dusting here and there in a fruitless search for an inscription. From Kat's vantage, their heads obscured the Goat Lord's genitals. It struck her as a disquieting tableaux and without thinking, she raised her camera and snapped a picture an instant before they rose, dusting off their hands.

     Katherine toed the ashes of a small fire pit, stirred sand and charred bits of bone. She said to Mr. Prettyman, "Who comes here? Besides your guests."

     "Only guests. No one else is permitted access to the property." Mr. Prettyman stood beside her. He'd tied his long, white hair in a ponytail. It matched the severity of his expression. "There are those who pay for the privilege of borrowing the shrine. They hold services, observe vigils."

     "You find it distasteful," she said. 

     He laughed coldly. "I understand the will to madness that is faith."

     "You say they imported this from Wales."

     "Yes, from a ruined temple."

     "But, isn't this a pagan god. It resembles—"

     "Old Nick. Of course. Don't you suppose The Prince of Darkness transcends religion? The true Man of a Thousand Faces. He's everywhere, no matter what one may call him."

Strappado • (2009)

Far East horror braided with performance art horror. A truly nightmarish creation.

....Kenshi told Swayne he'd never heard of Van Iblis. 

     "It's a pseudonym," Swayne said. "Like Kilroy, Or Alan Smithee. He, or she, is a guerilla. Not welcome in the U.K.;  persona non grata in the free world you might say." When Kenshi asked why Van Iblis wasn't welcome in Britain, Swayne grinned. "Because the shit he pulls off violates a few laws here and there. Unauthorized installations, libelous materials, health code violations. Explosions!" Industry insiders suspected Van Iblis was actually comprised of a significant number of member artists and exceedingly wealthy patrons. Such an infrastructure seemed the only logical explanation for the success of these brazen exhibitions and their participant's elusiveness. 

     It developed that Guzman had brought his eclectic coterie to this part of the country after sniffing a rumor of an impending Van Iblis show and, as luck would have it, tonight was the night. Guzman's contacts had provided him with a hand-scrawled map to the rendezvous, and a password. A password! It was all extraordinarily titillating. 

     Swayne dialed up a slideshow on his cell and handed it over. Kenshi remembered the news stories once he saw the image of the three homeless men who'd volunteered to be crucified on faux satellite dishes. Yes, that had caused a sensation, although the winos survived relatively intact. None of them knew enough to expose the identity of his temporary employer. Another series of slides displayed the infamous pigs' blood carpet bombing of the Viet Nam War Memorial from a blimp that then exploded in midair like a Roman candle. Then the so called "corpse art" in Mexico, Amsterdam and elsewhere. Similar to the other guerilla installations, these exhibits popped up in random venues in any of a dozen countries after the mildest and most surreptitious of advance rumors and retreated underground within hours. Of small comfort to scandalized authorities was the fact the corpse sculptures, while utterly macabre, were allegedly comprised of volunteers with terminal illnesses who'd donated their bodies to science, or rather, art. Nonetheless, at the sight of grimly posed seniors in antiquated bathing suits, a bloated, eyeless Santa in a coonskin cap, the tri-headed ice cream vendor and his chalk-faced Siamese children, Kenshi wrinkled his lip and pushed the phone at Swayne. "No, I think I'll skip this one, whatever it is, thank you very much."

     "You are such a wet blanket, Swayne said. "Come on, love. I've been dying to witness a Van Iblis show since, well forever. I'll be the envy of every art dilettante from Birmingham to Timbuktu!"

The Broadsword • (2010)

Another leech mythos tale, absolutely unnerving. "We are cattle," Fort wrote. Barron's gloss: "We are provender."

....As the sun became an orange blob in the west, the temperature peaked. The apartment was suffocating. He dragged himself to the refrigerator and stood before its open door, straddle-legged in his boxers, bathed in the stark white glow. Tepid relief was better than nothing. 

     Someone whispered behind him and giggled. He turned quickly. The laughter originated in the living area, between the coffee table and a bookshelf. Because the curtains were tightly closed the room lay in a blue-tinged gloom that played tricks on his eyes. He sidled to the sink and swept his arm around until he flicked the switch for the overhead light. This illuminated a sufficient area that he felt confident to venture forth. Frankie Walton's suite abutted his own—and old Frankie's hearing was shot. He had to crank the volume on his radio for the ballgames. Once in a while Pershing heard the tinny exclamations of the play-by-play guys, the roar of the crowd. This, however, sounded like a person was almost on top of him, sneering behind his back.

     Closer inspection revealed the sounds had emanated from a vent near the window. He chuckled ruefully as his muscles relaxed. Ordbecker was talking to the baby and the sound carried upstairs. Not unusual; the hotel's acoustics were peculiar, as he well knew.  He knelt and cocked his head toward the vent, slightly guilty at eavesdropping, yet in the full grip of curiosity. People were definitely in conversation, yet, he gradually realized, not the Ordbeckers. These voices were strange and breathy, and came from farther off, fading in and out with a static susurration. 

     Intestines. Kidneys. 

     Ohh, either is delectable.

     And sweetbreads. As long as they're from a young one.

     Ganglia, for me. Or brain. Scoop it out quivering.

     Enough! Let's start tonight. We'll take one from—

     They tittered and their words degenerated into garble, then stopped.

     Shh, shh! Wait!… Someone's listening.

     Don't be foolish.

     They are. There's a spy hanging on our every word.

     How can you tell?

     I can hear them breathing.

     He clapped his hand over his mouth. His hair stood on end.

     I hear you, spy. Which room could you be in? First floor? No, no. The fifth or the sixth.

     His heart labored. What was this? 

     We'll figure it out where you are, dear listener. Pay you a visit. While you sleep. Whoever it was laughed like a child, or someone pretending to be one. You could always come down here where the mome raths outgrabe…. Deep in the bowels of the building, the furnace rumbled to life as it did every four hours to push air circulation through the vents. The hiss muffled the crooning threats, which had ceased altogether a few minutes later when the system shut down.

——30——  (2010)

Former lovers stuck at an isolated scientific outpost, adjacent to "Site 3," location of a former Manson-style murder cult. 

     —We all end up in the fire, anyway. This friend of mine told me a story. He was raised in Kansas on a farm. He told me his older brother met Satan. Billy Bob was riding his tractor one miserably hot afternoon and the Devil was sitting on a stump at the end of a row. Fire engine red, horns, tail, pitchfork stuck in the ground. The Devil said, Hi, Billy Bob.

     —And? I'm on the edge of my seat here.

     —I dunno. My pal couldn't get anything else from his brother. His bro was one of those sullen, salt o' the earth types. You, know, the kind I despise. He only mentioned it when he was drunk as a skunk and preached the Rapture.

     —Probably didn't know what came next because he'd cooked his brains sitting on the tractor one too many summers. Now full darkness was upon them and they were two lumps of shadow, side by side. 

     —When I saw the horn, kinda peeking out of the dirt, ants swarming over it, this feeling, a shock, hit me. A moving picture, a sick, sick black and white movie, clicked on in my mind. I wanted to sit in the dirt and keep replaying it. This morning I watched you sleeping and the movie started again. For a few seconds I got why our cult friends went to the nursing home and went wild. I really, really understood. 

     He couldn't see her face. He didn't know what to do with her, so he pretended not to hear. —My father was a woodsman, he said.  —After Mom died, he disappeared into the Olympic National Forest with a backpack and his dog. He made a ramshackle camp in the heart of the forest and lived there about eighteen months. He had cancer and he didn't want to go on without his wife, so he did what the mountain men used to do. He went into the wilderness to die. Animals ate him. Only the bones were left.

     —That's a beautiful story, she said. —My dad's fat as a cow and farts his way through CNN and tournament poker sixteen hours a day. I wish a wild animal would eat him. 

Six Six Six • (2010)

A son's reminiscences as he packs up his family home with the help of his wife.

....Know what Pop said to me one night when he crawled from under my bed? It was pitch black, but I recognized his breath as he crouched over me. He whispered, Lucky you can't see me like this, kiddo. Me and your sister are out of our faces.


18 April 2020