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

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

Sunday, September 5, 2021

19 stories from The Year's Best Horror Stories XIV (1986)

....the brooding silence was shattered by a bloodcurdling scream from the galley. With a prick of panic we rushed to its source and found the cookie shrieking in agony, his eyes wide circles of fear. He was flailing his arms and clawing mindlessly at one of the creatures—a very big one—which was feasting on the side of his face. For a second we were all agog, smitten by the horror of the spectacle, until the helmsman, whose chum he was, lept forward to seize the fiendish creature with both hands, and with all his might wrenched it off of its victim. Tragically, in so doing the thing took with it a third of the cook’s face, exposing raw white bone. His eyes rolled up in the back of his head, his face dripping gore and his mouth gaping open in shock. He fell to his knees, tottered a moment, then collapsed to hit the floor with a ghastly sound. He twitched once or twice and lay still.

"Dead Man's Hand"

The Year's Best Horror Stories XIV 

edited by Karl Edward Wagner

(DAW, 1986)

*     *     *

Introduction: Nurturing Nightmares by Karl Edward Wagner

     These are the nineteen stories from 1985 that best succeeded in creating a moment of fear—whether at intellectual or at gut level....

     The stories here represent the best of horror fiction at the midpoint of the 1980s. I was somewhat surprised to note that only two of these nineteen writers were born before World War II. Such selection was certainly not intentional, and I suspect it represents the renewed energy that has marked the horror genre over the past decade or so. It’s interesting that both of the pre-War-generation writers have turned to horror fiction only in recent years....

*     *     *

Penny Daye by Charles L. Grant

Charles L. Grant the fiction writer is someone I find hard to read. Perhaps it's the small print and eye-punishing margins of those 70s and 80s paperbacks?

His short stories are uneven. I enjoyed "Penny Daye," about a Yank in the UK facing up to how little his life has amounted to.

     “Closed?” I said. “How the hell can Stonehenge be closed, for god’s sake?”

     The woman behind the glass smiled sadly and shrugged. Rules, she told me, were rules, and she couldn’t let me pass.

     I turned my gaze from her to the tunnel, back again and sighed. The return bus to Salisbury was already gone, and another wouldn’t be along for well over an hour. Still, I told myself sternly, you’re here and you might as well make the best of it, don’t you think? So I walked up to the verge and looked over the other side.

     They were there, lying, tilting, standing, a worn path in a great arc around them, a rope-fence to keep the souvenir hunters from taking their chips and gouges.

     I felt it again—age, and melancholy, and the wind that danced continuously over the Plain, rounding the ringstones’ edges and flattening the low grass, putting voices in my ears that I could not understand.

     I imagine I made a rather forlorn picture, because a few minutes later a stout puffing man in a smart dark uniform and round cap came up beside me. He was much shorter than I, his face red and creased, and without a word he handed me a fat silver flask.

     “Pity,” he said, instinctively knowing my position. “It’s best to come here alone, too. You come in a group, there’s all chattering and questions and you can’t get a true feel for what you see, if you know what I mean.”

     I nodded.

     We introduced ourselves then, after another round of something that had no relation to brandy, but had the fire just the same. His name was Peter Jones, and he was a guide for the helpless who didn’t know what they were looking at.

     We talked, and we sipped, and we stared at the circle until, as the sky darkened and a fleet of black clouds massed on the horizon, he took my arm. I frowned. He winked and said that we can’t have reporters all the way from America losing out on this last chance, now can we? I grinned, then, and followed him, down the incline, past the ticket booth and through the tunnel. No one stopped us, though someone who might have been his boss gave him a dark, disgusted look.

     By the time we climbed up the other side, we were alone.

     “Do you want the lecture, John Dalton?” he asked.

     I shook my head. He had spoken in a reverential whisper, and I knew why—this place, far larger, far more grand than the space it occupied, was more like a cathedral than any cathedral I’d ever been to. If I were so inclined, I would have said that the forces which had created it, and sustained it, were still hard at work in preservation, and perhaps preparation.

     I shivered.

     Peter nodded and passed me the flask.

     We made the circuit, all the way around to the ragged, aslant Heel Stone, and I was trying to imagine what the circle must have been like with all its pieces intact and standing, when I saw her.

     The woman from Salisbury station.

     She was in the middle of the monument, wearing the same clothes, sitting on one of the fallen blocks.

     I grabbed Peter’s arm and pointed. He looked, lifted his shoulders against the wind, and pulled me back off the path before handing me the flask. By this time I was more warm inside than out, and my mind had a tendency to wander into places where I knew I didn’t belong. But I did see her. I wasn’t so drunk that I was imagining it. I knew she was there.

     Especially when Peter said, “She’s dead, you know.”

     “Is she?” I asked calmly, and didn’t object when he pulled me down onto the ground, where we sat cross-legged, watching that beautiful woman watching us. She was framed now between two of the larger, linteled pieces, and there was nothing behind her but the circle and the sky. We heard no cars, no buses, no planes passed overhead. “Is she really?”

     “Indeed.” He looked at me sideways. “You’re not afraid?”

     I shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

     “Good man. There are those I know who tend to feel a little threatened when they see her. Mind, she’s never done anyone, but it is a bit unsettling, you’ve got to give it that.”

     I was.

*     *     *

Dwindling by David B. Silva

The late David B. Silva was a real force in the 80s horror community. This is something hard to appreciate in hindsight. But "Dwindling" is one of the perfect tales he left behind for us, evoking childhood, rural isolation, and the power of wishes.

It is also about the horror of wishes, and those who suffer the cosequences when wishes come true.

     Tammy never returned. He knew she wouldn’t. And like his parents and his brothers, he never asked about her.

     That night, Brian went off to sleep in his own room, the room that Derrick’s imagination had lent to Sarah and Tammy. It seemed lonelier without Brian sleeping in the corner, without his arm hung over the edge of the bed, brushing a hand against the floor. At least he still felt the comfort of Georgie’s rocking, the comfort of the bunk bed swaying back and forth as it had always done as long as he could remember. At least that hadn’t been taken from him.

     Summertime lost its magic after that. The days became too hot, Miner’s Pond too cold. The beautiful yellows and greens around the farm shriveled, becoming deathly browns. The laughter that had so often swept around the dinner table, became a whisper, a cough of its past joy. Everything changed, and somewhere along the line, memories of yesterdays gradually became more and more difficult to call up again, as if pieces of his life were somehow being consumed. The magic of summertime had been lost and everything was suddenly different.

     Even his parents seemed somehow different, somehow changed. He wasn’t sure exactly what the difference was, and wondered if perhaps it was merely his imagination at play again.

     “Remember before?” Derrick heard his mother ask his father one night. They were outside on the front porch, casually gliding back and forth on the porch swing, allowing themselves to be overheard by the evening stars and by Derrick himself. He was upstairs in the attic, poking through old boxes of toys, searching for a game of Cootie which he hadn’t seen in years. Just a bored-night impulse, that was the only reason he was there.

     “Before what?” Pa said.

     The arthritic squeaking of metal to rusting metal filled the moment of silence and drew Derrick curiously closer to the window.

     “Before we got married,” she said. “Remember how we used to walk along Dogwood Creek at night and the breeze would rustle through the trees, sounding like God himself was trying to talk to us? And how we always knew we’d get married and live out the rest of our lives together? How it was never gonna change?”

     Pa chuckled. “I remember.”

     “I miss those times,” she told him.

     “Guess I do, as well.”

     “They were good times.”

     “The best,” his Pa agreed.

     “I want to go back.” The rhythmic squeaking paused for a breath, then started up again. “I want it to be like it was then, without the worries and the fears, without the kids and the farm to look after.”

     Pa didn’t say so much as “Hmm.”

     “Mind ya, I’m not unhappy,” she said. “But it’s all slipping by so quickly. I want to do it all again. I want to court and marry and make babies all over again, like it was the first time.”

     “Been feeling this way all summer, have you?”

     Derrick couldn’t see them on the porch, they were sitting almost right underneath him, but he imagined her nodding her head. He stepped back from the window, suddenly feeling a strange sense of shame from his eavesdropping, realizing his ears had crossed the path of something they were never meant to hear. But they had heard, and Ma had been different all summer. Perhaps that was the only trick of his imagination that hadn’t really been a trick. She had been different. The whole summer had been different.

*     *     *

Dead Men's Fingers by Phillip C. Heath

This brilliant short story is worth the purchase price all on it's own. 

It is a stunning achievement in all respects: context, style, craft, etc: Heath recreates in a 19th-century-style the story of a doomed 19th century whaling voyage. Captain and crew go one whale too far in their good fortune: their prey turns out to be infested with barnacles hiding a nasty breed of deep-sea parasites.

     The hand, still with its parasite, was then dropped into a burlap bag and placed in one of the pots of bubbling oil for a long while. When the creature was dead, the sack was discarded and the hand carved away until only the creature remained. We huddled round and studied it in detail.

     It was comparatively small—that is, in relation to the others we had noticed on the whale, ranging in size from a man’s fist to a large dinner plate, and semi-spherical in shape. It reminded me of a horseshoe crab without its tail. The shell was rough and incredibly resilient, thicker and tougher than a tortoise shell. Someone tried to cut it with a short mincing knife and could not. This chitinous mantle was strengthened by a lower one-half inch band of movable, shelly plates, probably its means of locomotion—a ring of rubbery cartilage from which sprouted sparse, stubby growths of bristle or hair, mayhap some sort of sensory apparatus. Despite the dense and rigid carapace of the creature it was remarkably light in weight.

     The underside mouth parts of the animal functioned as a piercing organ, and our scrutiny disclosed a narrow but deep slit running lengthwise which housed several rows of sharp, serrated teeth. Surrounding it was moist, leathery tissue with what looked to be cement glands, and dozens of tiny needlelike claws, each tipped with barbs. On this particular specimen these could be extended as much as five centimeters and were unquestionably the source of its tenacious clinging and boring abilities.

     With a skitter of gooseflesh we surmised that this surely explained the presumed rubbing motions of the whale against our hull, having been driven mad with pain. I dare say the longer we pondered the dark possibilities of this the more it seemed plausible. The sperm is primarily a deepwater dweller; its predilection for giant squid, some four hundred pounds and measuring five and fifty feet in length, lured them down more than one-half mile to feed, their awesome under-teeth enabling them to dislodge the squid from their rocky lairs at the bottom of the sea.

     Even other whales, such as the slender gary, were known to have surfaced after foraging with their heads and lips besmeared with a murky ooze from the inky depths below. The faint sunlight would give way to utter blackness, and in the unfathomed realm of an eternal night who could guess what alien creatures lurked therein? There were all manner of sea-floor scavengers, parasites, and suchlike; weird carnivores, primitive snails and other curiosities. The intestines of any whale might be teeming with as many as twenty different kinds of pelagic worms. So it was not improbable at all, then, that our stricken whale had perchance been made host by these odious denizens of the deep, conceivable like wandering through a nest of ticks or fleas.

*     *     *

Dead Week by Leonard Carpenter

Leonard Carpenter is a new writer to me, and "Dead Week" is an outstanding non-supernatural horror story. It takes as its starting point a mundane predicament every student has had nightmares about: forgetting to attend a class until it is too late to drop it. But the mortal perils flowing from protagonist Cassy's overwork and sleep deprivation only start there.

     Professor Thayer closed the book before him and motioned Cassy to a chair. “Hello, Miss ... uh, I’m pleased to see you. Aren’t you in one of my classes?”

     “Well, yes I was ... I mean I am. That’s sort of what I needed to talk to you about. I stopped going after the second lecture.”

     “Why, that’s funny—I thought I’d seen you more than that. I recognize your bangs.”

     Cassy blushed. Although she had been busy all day formulating excuses, they evaporated now. Cassy told him simply and truthfully what had happened. There was something so reassuring in his manner that she went into more detail than she had done with anyone, and she finished with a lump in her throat. She took the drop card out of her book bag and placed it on his desk.

     Professor Thayer nodded at it, but didn’t seem in any hurry to sign.

     “Tell me,” he asked, “how many units are you taking?”

     “Fifteen. Besides your class, I mean.”

     “That’s quite a load. You also work part-time?”

     “Yes sir. At the Meals Facility. And my lab requirement is six hours a week, but I usually spend more time than that.” Cassy didn’t mean to sound abject, but somehow she didn’t feel like holding anything back.

     “You must be under great stress. I can see how it might cause, uh, a slip of the kind you describe.” He smiled. “Oh course I’ll be glad to sign your card.” But instead of reaching for it, the professor folded his arms, leaned back in his chair, and began to profess.

     “It’s a shame, in a way, that you couldn’t have taken my class. It would have given you some insight into a problem that’s affecting you—and affecting us all, whether we know it or not.

     “The course deals with overpopulation. It’s been controversial in the Demography Department, since it probably should be called a sociology or population-ecology course instead; some of my colleagues don’t approve of my taking what amounts to a moral stance, by saying just how much population is too much. But since the class deals specifically with human society, and most of the data are here, I’ve kept it in the department.

     “We explore the correlation of increased population density with all the classes of effects—from high rents to disrupted living conditions, stress, violent crime, suicide, el cetera. One of the key factors at work is anomie—the insecure, faceless ‘lonely crowd’ feeling discussed by Durkheim and Riesman. It’s hard to define an emotion like that scientifically, but it’s easy to see its results; they fill the front pages of our newspapers—with gruesome statistics.” Professor Thayer prodded a fat green softcover volume of census figures at the side of his desk, so that it flopped shut of its own weight.

     “Of course, when you’re discussing overpopulation, there’s no better example of it than the student body of a large school like Berkeley. In this case, the population pressure is artificial—resulting from the crush of students to a favored institution—but it’s intense enough to develop all the classic effects: high rents, crowded living conditions, the overload of facilities, and above all, stress. An interesting microcosm.” Professor Thayer gazed speculatively at Cassy for a moment, then resumed.

     “The intriguing approach is to view all these social problems not just as ill effects, but as attempts by a dynamic system to balance itself. Death controls, in E. C. Festung’s phrase.

     “When a population exceeds natural limits, it definitely will be reduced—if not by birth control, then by death controls such as famine and disease. The human species is uniquely fortunate in having the power to choose—though we don’t seem to be using that power.

     “Festung identified a wide range of behaviors peculiar to man as death controls: war, terrorism, violent crime, transportation accidents, cult suicides, nuclear ‘events’ ”—the professor drew imaginary brackets around the word with two pairs of fingers—“all the unique disasters we take for granted today. He maintains that they all stem from an instinct, inborn in mankind far beneath the level of rational thought, to reduce a population that, unconsciously, we perceive as too large. Like caged birds in the five-and-dime pecking each other to death. In effect, crowding is seen to induce irrational and aggressive behavior. A fascinating theory.” This time his pause was punctuated by the sound of sparrows chirping outside in the quad.

     “Unfortunately, it all tends to sound very morbid. Many students can’t work with it—too depressing. They’d rather just shrug it off, at least until it becomes too big to ignore. Like so many contemporary issues, it’s a hard one to face—I’ve seen some fine minds become paralyzed by a sort of ecological despair.” He massaged his chin a moment. “In a way, your little bout of forgetfulness parallels the attitude of all Western society toward the population issue, ever since the time of Malthus. The initial warnings were just too grim, so we thrust it away to the back of our minds. Unfortunately that doesn’t alleviate the problem.”

     The professor lapsed into silence and stared out the window for a while, hands folded. Then he bestirred himself and looked at his watch. “Oh my, I see I’ve run on for quite a while. You ended up taking my course anyway—the special condensed version. Hope I didn’t bore you. Or depress you. Here, I’ll sign this.”

*     *     *

The Sneering by Ramsey Campbell

Perils of age and anxieties about caring for our spouses and ourselves, about being powerless in the face of the everyday, steep like acid in Ramsey Campbell's little gem of how contempt is fed.

     She seemed content. She seldom left the house, except for the occasional evening stroll. He shopped alone. The scribbled subway was empty of menace now. Once, returning from the shop, he saw Emily’s face intent behind the shivering pane as a juggernaut thundered by. She looked almost like a prisoner.

     The imitation daylight fascinated her most—the orange faces glancing at her, the orange flashes of the cars. Sometimes she fell asleep at the window. He thought she was happy, but wasn’t sure; he couldn’t get past the orange glint in her eyes.

     She was turning her back on their home. Curls of dust gathered in corners, the top of the stove looked charred; she never drew the curtains. Her attitude depressed him. In an indefinable way, it felt as though someone were sneering at the house.

     When he tried to take over the housework, he felt sneered at: a grown man on his hands and knees with a dustpan—imagine what the men from the estate would say! But he mustn’t upset Emily; he didn’t know how delicately her mind was balanced now. He swept the floor. His depression stood over him, sneering.

     It was as if an intruder were strolling through the house, staring at the flaws, the shabbiness. The intruder stared at Emily, inert before the window; at Jack, who gazed sadly at her as he pretended to read. So much for their companionship. Didn’t she enjoy Jack’s company anymore? He couldn’t help not being as lively as he was once. Did she wish he was as lively as the mob outside the window?

     He couldn’t stand this. He was simply depressing himself with these reveries. He could just make out Emily’s face, a faint orange mask in the pane. “Come upstairs now,” he said gently.

     His words hung before him, displaying their absurdity. The sneering surrounded him as he took her arm. It was coarse, stupid, insensitive; it jeered at them for going to bed only to sleep; but he couldn’t find words to fend it off. He lay beside Emily, one arm about her frail waist; her dry slim hand rested on his. It distressed him to feel how light her hand was. The orange dimness sank over him, thick as depression, dragging him down toward a dream of sleeping miserably alone.

*     *     *

Bunny Didn't Tell Us by David J. Schow

Schow's early masterpiece is pioneering, an early turn for noir-Bierce horror. The opposite of most crime, the moral of noir is You can't win. "Bunny Didn't Tell Us" shows us just what that might look like on a mean street.

     Riff remembered how it had gone down in Bunny’s Brentwood “office.”

     Bunny had been laughing, flashing his ten-thousand-dollar teeth. “Poor old Desmond,” he cackled. “Poor soul.”

     Riff had gotten a phone call and had shown up precisely on the half-hour. “What became of Desmond?” Desmond was one of Bunny’s competitors. They cursed each other in private and slapped each other’s shoulders, trading power handshakes, whenever anyone else was watching.

     Two of Bunny’s boys bellowed deep basso laughter from across the room.

     “Why, poor old Desmond somehow got his ass blowed off,” said Bunny. “Terrible thing. You can’t even live in the city anymore ...”

     The watchdogs stopped guffawing at a wave of Bunny’s hand. His pinkie ring glittered and his broad-planed African face went dead serious. Riff stood, arms folded, waiting for the show to end so business could become relevant.

     “What it is,” Bunny said to Riff, “is this. You remember Desmond, Riff, my man?”

     “I saw him a few times.”

     “You remember all those rings and slave bracelets and shit he used to wear all over his hands?”

     “Yeah,” said Riff. “Mandarin fingernails, too.”

     “Them’s was for tooting. But you recall, right?” Bunny was nodding up and down. So far so good. “One of them rings was a cut-down from that diamond they called the Orb in the papers—stolen from that bitch in Manhattan last year.”

     “The one married to the toilet-paper tycoon.” Riff knew the ring. It was cut down, alright, but was still of vulgar size, and worth at least a hundred grand.

     “You got it. Well, here’s a little piece of trivia that nobody knows. Poor old Desmond was buried wearing that ring.”

     Riff was already beginning to get the picture. As with all pimps up from gutter level, Desmond had insisted on burial as lavish as his lifestyle, and in a boneyard as obscene as the diamond he’d hired stolen. Riff looked back at the bodyguards. “Why didn’t you just have your goons steal the ring after they blew the back of his head off?” he said, smiling.

     Bunny kept his happy face on. “Why, there ain’t nobody in the world would finger me; that was a accident, man,” he said, his voice sing-song and full of bogus innocence. “Besides, we take the ring then, that means Desmond’s boys be hunting it, and I don’t want to end this life in the trunk of some Mexican’s Chevy being drug out of the ocean by the police.” He pronounced it police. He shrugged. “But now—now, as far as Desmond’s people are concerned, that rock is a permanent resident of Forest Lawn, by the freeway. Ain’t nobody gonna miss it now.”

*     *     *

Pinewood by Tanith Lee

The perils and pitfalls of widowhood.

     The phone rang.

     It made her jump.

     “Oh, damn.”

     She picked it up, and heard, with the relevance of a conjuration, her sister’s cool, well-managed tones.

     “Oh, hullo, Angela. I don’t want to be a cow, but this really is rather a bad time—I was just about to start dinner—”

     “Pamela, my dear,” Angela said, her voice peculiarly solemn, “are you all right?”

     “All right? Of course I am. What on earth—”

     “Pamela, I want you to listen to me. Please, my dear. I wouldn’t have rung, but Jane Thomson says she saw you in Cordells at lunch time. She says, oh, my dear, she says she saw you waiting for someone.” Angela sounded unspeakably distressed. “Pamela, who were you waiting for?”

     Pamela felt a surge of panic wash over her.

     “I—oh, no one. Does it matter?”

     “Darling, of course it does. Was it David you were waiting for, like the last time?”

     Pamela held the phone away from her ear and looked at it. There was a bee trapped in the phone, buzzing away at her. She had always been terribly afraid of bees.

     “I really have to go, Angela,” she shouted at the mouthpiece.

     “Oh, Pamela, Pamela,” Angela said. She seemed to be crying. “Darling, David can’t come back to you. Not now.”

     “Be quiet,” Pamela said.

     The bee went on buzzing.

     “Pamela, listen to me. David is dead. Dead, do you hear me? He died of peritonitis last July. For God’s sake, Pamela—”

     Pamela dropped the phone into its receiver and the buzzing stopped.

     The dinner was spoiled before she realized how late he was going to be after all. He had told her the conference might run on, and not to wait up for him. She waited, however, until midnight. Upstairs, she took the book from his bedside table and replaced it with the Graham Greene—it would surprise him when he found it.

     She hated to sleep without him, but she was very tired. And she would see him in the morning.

*     *     *

The Night People by Michael Reaves

    When I opened my eyes again, the model had moved.

     I stared in surprise. The hassock was near the fireplace, where the red light reflecting off crumpled foil looked vaguely like logs ablaze. The model leaned forward and stretched, then looked toward the window. I saw her face quite clearly, white as fresh-cut pine, with delicate bones. Her eyes were violet. They went wide with surprise—and fear—when she saw me. Then she stood, wrapping the robe about her, and was quickly gone into the darkness of another room.

     I heard footsteps behind me.

     “Will you please keep up with the group, sir?”

     The tour guide was about ten years younger than I and politely stern, like an airline stewardess trying to convince someone to fasten a seat belt. The group waited several pools of light down the street. I felt oddly contrite. The astonishing scene I had just witnessed, and the calm unreality of the city itself, made my transgression seem somehow more serious than it was.

     “I’m sorry.” I made a vague gesture toward the window. “There’s someone in there.”

     “Quite possibly, sir. We have people working on these exhibits all the time.”

     “No, I mean the model in the exhibit—” I turned back toward the window, gesturing, and stopped, speechless. The model was still there, exactly as she had been posed before, unmistakably a construct of paint and plaster.

     The guide turned and started back toward the rest of the group. I hesitated, then hurried forward and caught up with her. “I’m sorry—I’m not feeling too well ...”

     Her expression changed immediately to one of professional concern. This was a situation she knew how to deal with. “Of course, sir. This way.” She took me back to the exit stairs, keeping up a solicitous monologue. I hardly heard a word of it. The face of the model stayed before me in the darkness of the Underground City. I knew I had seen her before.

*     *     *

Ceremony by William F. Nolan

"Ceremony" is based on cliche for its plot; unless "Ceremony" initiated the cliche? In the UK John Blackburn had several titles about crooks who get a horror comeuppance, but the names of US works that braid crime stories with horror escapes me.

"Ceremony" is a hitman procedural about a killer who winds up stranded in rural Rhode Island on the night of the big local festival.

     He reached the door, opened it. The bell tinkled.

     “You are invited to the Ceremony,” said Exetor.

     “No thanks.” He started out—and heard Exetor say: “Attendance is not voluntary.”

     He left the drugstore. Now what the hell did that mean? He looked back through the cracked plate-glass window at the old guy. Exetor was standing there, staring out at him, not moving.

     Weirdo. Him and that chick at the cafe. Both of them, weirdos.

     It was still raining. He shifted the weight of his travel bag from right to left hand and began to walk in the direction of the Blackthorn. He was feeling kind of lousy. Stomach upset. Headache. Maybe it was the long bus ride and his missing the Sutter contract. He’d be fine once he’d moved up his total to fourteen.

     Right now, he just needed a good night’s sacktime. He checked his watch. Getting toward ten. Exetor and the cafe girl would be closing up, probably heading for their Ceremony. Fine. Just so they were quiet about it. No loud music or dancing. He grinned, thinking what ole Exetor would look like hopping around the floor. Exetor, the Dancing Skeleton!

     He heard something behind him—the low-purring sound of a car’s motor in the misting rain.

     Cop’s car. Sheriff. And with a deputy in the seat next to him. The car glided slowly alongside, stopped. Jeeze, he hated cops. All cops.

     “Evening,” said the sheriff.

     “Evening,” he said.

     The lawman was gaunt and sharp-featured. So was his deputy. And both solemn. No smiles. But then, cops don’t smile much.

     “Just inta town, are you?”

     They damn well knew he was—but they liked playing their cop games.

     “I came in earlier with the bus. They’re fixing it. We had a breakdown.”

     “Uh huh,” said the sheriff. “Harley, over to the garage, he told me about the trouble.”

     A pause—as they stared at him from the car’s shadowed interior. The motor throbbed softly, like a beating heart in the wet darkness.

     Finally, the sheriff asked: “You staying at the hotel?”

     “I plan to. Guess they’ve got plenty of room.”

     The sheriff chuckled wetly, a bubbling sound. “That they have, mister.” Another pause. Then: “Mind if we look over your suitcase?”

     He stiffened. The Mag .357! But unless they tore the travel bag to pieces, they wouldn’t find it.

     The sheriff remained behind the wheel as his deputy got out, knelt in the wet street to open the bag.

*     *     *

The Woman in Black by Dennis Etchison

"The Woman in Black" begins as a youth-comes-of-age-in-hardship story like Ole Yeller or To Kill A Mockingbird. But then, this being an Etchison story, events soon take a turn. Beautifully done by a master.

     When they took his mother away he went to live in the big house.

     There he discovered rooms within rooms, drapes like thick shrouds, a kitchen stove big enough to crawl into, overstuffed furniture that changed shape as he passed, a table with claw feet larger than his head, ancient carpets with designs too worn to read, floor heating grates that clanged when he walked on them, musty closets opening on blackness, shadowed hallways that had no end.

     These things did not frighten him.

     For soon he made friends with the boy across the street; his aunts and uncles came by to help with the meals; it was summer and the back yard stayed light forever.

     Before long, however, after only a few days and nights, he found that he could think of but one thing: of the lot next door, beyond the fence, of the high wall that kept him from its bright and dark treasures.

*     *     *

...Beside the Seaside, Beside the Sea... by Simon Clark

A macabre interval between turns of the tide.

     With waves washing her feet, she rose and wavered as if unsure of her balance. Then the girl, her feet wetly patting the sand, walked up the beach toward the town. The promenade was busy—people sniffing out inviting pubs, clubs, and theaters. The machines still sang their electric songs but the candy floss stalls, sweetshops and children’s amusements had closed for the night. Fish and chip papers scurried across the road, occasionally folding about her ankles. She paused by the red shell of a wartime mine, now meekly collecting pennies for a good cause.

     Baring his teeth, the man with the camera and scrabbling fur ball of a monkey approached her—“Hello, luv. Lovely evening”—and threw the monkey at her. Screaming, it kicked, bouncing back onto the man’s arm. Tiny black fingers clutched at his lapels and tie.

     “Petro! Petro. Go to the nice girl, Petro.” The monkey squeaked. “Have your picture taken with Petro, luv. Now move that hair away, we can’t see yer face. Petro, go to the nice lady.” The monkey clung to him crying. Camera in one hand, he pried the limpet capuchin from him with the other. “It’s OK luv. He wouldn’t ’arm a—bloody hell! The sod bit me.”

     The monkey scrambled up onto his shoulders and the man sucked his bloody finger, hissing threats. When he looked up, the girl had gone. Three giggling girls, pink-flushed with martini, were crossing the road. “Hello, my darlings. Lovely evening.” He threw the monkey at them. It obligingly cuddled into the scented arms of the redhead.

     By shellfish stalls, selling cold bite-size morsels of salted gristle and muscle. Hamburger, hot-dog stalls expelling hot breaths of sausage, onion, and frying smells. More arcades. And as the money bells rang, colored lights flashed in gratitude.

     The night wind was blowing cold. Flying in from the dark distances of the sea; sizzling the surf and driving the tattered paper flotsam before it. Some fastened jackets and coats. But most fell back before the chilling breeze to seek refuge in pubs and cafes.

*     *     *

Mother's Day by Stephen F. Wilcox

A disturbing slice of family horror. Wilcox beautifully conveys the pits of surrender, resignation, and the uncanny.

     He’d been sixteen years old; half his life ago. November. The early morning had provided a light dusting of snow, as if to aid them in the hunt. He remembered a pewter sky and the sharp cold air, like a knife in his lungs. There was a clearing in the woods, a gently sloping hillock, and beyond that a copse of young birch trees tangled up with wild ivy. Father had circled and gone ahead to flush the buck. Now there came a rustling in the birch grove and a slight movement as the brush parted ahead of Donald. He raised the 12 gauge to his shoulder, a deer slug ready in the chamber. Another movement in the trees. He hesitated a lifetime, and then fired.

     “It wasn’t my fault,” Donald muttered to himself, as he yanked the caulking gun from his tool box and inserted a tube of elastic sealant. Using a utility knife to cut the tip off the tube, he watched the white goo ooze slowly up the nozzle and he set to work plugging the gaps around the aluminum storm windows.

     The house had been quiet for the last two hours while Donald labored to complete the weatherization project. Mother stayed in her converted bedroom, browsing aimlessly through one of the many mail order catalogues she kept under the bed. She never disturbed Donald when he was taking care of her house. The job moved along at a satisfactory pace; the duty was light this day. Still, Donald couldn’t keep his mind on what his hands were doing. The memories wouldn’t let him.

*     *     *

Lava Tears by Vincent McHardy

An unnerving story. 

     In the half dark, Sam Tullage judged the fallen log to be two feet high. It was three. So when he lifted his leg and spotted his flashlight further into the woods and stepped ... he tripped. The ground was as unkind as his fellow searchers’ comments.

     “I think Big Foot got him.” Mike Resnick said from somewhere to the left.

     “Undigestible!” Steve responded. “Sam’s got a bottle. You’ve been holding out on us, haven’t you?” Brushing aside some spindly ash saplings, Steve saw his prostrate friend.

     “You’re lucky you won’t be carrying me out of here. I could have snapped my leg. Give us a hand.”

     Mike walked in on the two just as Sam bent down and reached out with his hand.

     “Oh, My God! A snake.” Steve cried.

     Charged with a vision of his own painful, lingering death, Sam jumped up and bleated, “Kill it!” He then proceeded to tango from one unstable perch to another, finally ending up on the log that had tripped him.

     “Well, he can move when he wants to” Steve said. He cradled his shotgun across his arms and steadied his flashlight on Sam.

     “Go on. Give the snake a good view” Sam yelled. He looked down to where his gun had fallen. The ferns and the tangled dead branches of forest floor seemed all to move like worried fingers over a knotty problem. His discarded flashlight under lit the ferns marking a beacon where the night insects crawled.

     “Come on Sam. There is no snake.” Mike kicked the spot with his Cougars. “Steve’s just wasting our time.”

     “Christ!” Sam scrambled down. “I’m not out here for my health. If I wasn’t a volunteer fireman I’d be home in front of the tube.”

     “Wouldn’t we all.” Steve looked up through the forest canopy searching for a star. It was black. The only light came from their flashlights. The wind blew. Sending the oak and maple leaves twisting and surging. The pines provided a low background hiss. Blending well with the more boisterous deciduous woodwinds. All creaked under the communal strain.

     “Look at it. There’s going to be a storm. Let’s go back.”

     “Can’t. We promised to work to the beach then north up to Battleman Ridge. Then ...”

*     *     *

Rapid Transit by Wayne Allen Sallee

     He nearly tripped over a toad of a man sitting virtually on top of the doors. Thin, a scarecrow in a three-piece suit. Sunken shoulders, bony knees and ankles touching (as if he was a turkey trussed up for somebody’s, probably his boss’, Thanksgiving dinner), eyebrows perched atop black plastic Sears Optical frames and neck muscles protruding from an ill-fitting collar twitched together in a mad fugue. A Cicero-Berwyn businessman working late. He smelled of Brut 33 cologne.

     In the last seat, next to the conductor’s booth, a pregnant black woman gazed out at the rooftops passing just below eye level. A small boy with huge brown eyes and a Walter Payton t-shirt sat tugging at her faded blue sweatshirt, vying with the dirt on the tenements for his mother’s attention. Their clothes said off-the-rack Zayre’s, and their faces had 18th Street written into every sad wrinkle, and in the dirt under their fingernails, too.

     Cassady was able to get a seat in the back of the car. He slid down next to a man in work boots reading (most likely with some degree of difficulty, he thought) the new Robert Ludlum novel. Across from him sat two elderly women, one with a purple babushka wrapped around her head, both their faces buried deep in The National Enquirer. The headlines screamed to enquiring minds everywhere: Liberace Bombshell!, and in smaller print beneath: Boyfriend Tells All! Cassady remembered reading a headline from one of those tabloids once—his mother used to call them her “supermarket magazines,” just like she used to call those idiotic soap operas her “afternoon stories”—and it said that Jerry Lewis was a UFO clone.

*     *     *

The Weight of Zero by John Alfred Taylor

Taylor wonderfully conveys 1890s London, focusing on the petty bourgeois milieu of men attracted to the grotesque. This author is worth seeking out.

     Outside, the rooftops swan in violet light. Anthony suggested it was too fine an evening not to walk, that his room was just far enough to allow a breath of air.

     Ahead a pair of sailors haggled with a woman under a streetlamp. Anthony laughed to see Constantine look away in disgust. “If you feel this way in Toulon, how can you go anywhere in London?”

     “One knows where to go.”

     “Your club perhaps. Otherwise they’re ubiquitous. Ask the French; they come to London and they are shocked at our regiments of soiled doves. And there’s a new recruit every minute—the Ripper was Fighting the tide—a quire of whores made for every one he killed.”


     “But Jack knew what he was doing—”

     Constantine stopped dead and glared at his brother. “I’d rather you didn’t indulge your morbid taste in humor just now.”

     Anthony bent his head apologetically. “No humor intended. Just that the Ripper was serious—”

     “Most madmen are.”

     “Not mad, Constantine. Only doing what was demanded. Like the judge who sentenced the Haymarket Martyrs, like whoever actually threw the bomb in Chicago ... But Jack was the one who gave the clue.”


     “That there was something preternatural involved—”

     “There’s nothing preternatural about butchering prostitutes.”

     “No so much that, though some of the mutilations and dissections were unusual. No, what I’m talking about is his invisibility.”

     Constantine shook his head bemusedly. “You should write for the shilling-shockers.”

     “You haven’t studied the reports,” Anthony whispered. “Blood was still pouring from Long Liz Stride’s throat when the carter found her in the yard, and he’d come in by the only gate. And Catherine Eddowes was dead as well within the hour. Then think how often he struck in areas where the police were hunting him in force—”

     “So he said the magic word and disappeared?”

     “Nothing so puerile. But nobody knows his name after a decade, and he may not know he was the Ripper.”

*     *     *

John's Return to Liverpool by Christopher Burns

"John's Return to Liverpool" is a fascinating story about survival after death.

     When she dried him he felt warmer, healthier, more human. The water that dripped from his hair was warm. He even began to smile. He stood there, still pale but a little more pink, while she rubbed him dry with a thick white towel. She felt the rib, the muscle wall, the relaxed skin of his genitals, the slow thump of the heart. It was then that she asked him about the marks. They were distinct pinkish circles, almost like immature nipples.

     What are these?” she asked, trying not to sound as nervous as she felt.

     He looked down.

     “You must know,” he said.

     “Are they where the bullets hit?”

     He nodded.

     She tried to be calm, as calm as she could “John,” she asked, “are you dead?”

     He laughed. He pushed his hair back with one hand. “Of course I’m dead,” he said, “can’t you tell? Don’t you believe what you read in the papers?”

     Later John sat in her husband’s dressing gown in front of the fire. He stared into its flames, watching the black coal burning. He seemed content.

     When he slept his hair fell across his eyes in a fine swath, making him look almost boyish. She pushed it gently back from his eyelids with her fingertips. He drew the blankets tightly about him like a child.

*     *     *

In Late December, Before the Storm by Paul M. Sammon

Another story of widower horror. Saddens, but delivered so skillfully.

     Most of a fresh six-pack lay on the seat next to me. Although I’d already finished four beers, that terrible mental clarity alcohol sometimes brings had sunk its fingers deep into my brain and stubbornly refused to let go. I was glad I’d stopped at an all night market for the fresh brew. I’d need it.

     I drove and drank, drank and drove. Cruising. The electric landscape of motels and warehouses and harshly lit Christmas-tree lots looked alien, deserted, like an abandoned lunar colony.

     Some time later I got off the freeway. My hands must have registered the huge pink-and-blue neon sign that shouldered up against the frontage road ahead, because my brain didn’t; I’d rolled down the off-ramp and was turning into one of the two narrow lanes that ran alongside that same neon sign before I consciously realized what I was doing.

     Suddenly I knew where I was going: to the movies. I’d pulled into a drive-in.

     I hadn’t been to a drive-in for a long time. They hadn’t changed much. I pulled up beside the small concert ticket booth that divided the two incoming lanes. A kid who looked about seventeen stepped out. He was tall, thin, wearing yellow foul-weather gear. When he leaned his gaunt face in my window, I could count the pimples on it.

     I said, “One.”

     He spotted the beer on the passenger seat and frowned. Then he craned his head to look into the rear compartment of the van. My age and the fact that I was alone must have satisfied him; he smiled slightly and took the four singles out of my hand. But then he hesitated.

*     *     *

Red Christmas by David Garnett

     “You’ll get him, dear.” said Susan. “I know you will.”

     Richard knew it too. However long it took, no matter what it cost, this was one case he had to clear up. But he wondered how many more victims the madman would claim before he was trapped.

     Richard was finishing his main course. Susan was pouring custard on the apple pie. Then the phone rang.

     He was on his feet at once. “Franks,” he said into the receiver. “Yes. Where? Jesus! Like the others? Yes, I’ll be there in five minutes.” He replaced the phone.

     “Another?” said Susan, and he nodded.

     “Haven’t you time to eat this?”

     “Keep it warm,” Richard told her, but he knew that in a few minutes he’d have completely lost his appetite. He’d seen many murder victims during his career, but none had affected him like these. Perhaps, he reflected, I’m getting too old for this sort of thing; too conscious of my own mortality.

     He put on his coat and scarf, hat and gloves. “I shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours. There’s nothing I can do there, but I’ve got to make an appearance.” He opened the door, and gave her the same warning he had for the past week: “Bolt the door. And don’t open it to anyone but me. Anyone.”

     “Yes, Richard,” said Susan.

     Richard went out into the cold, the front door closing behind him. He looked up into the black, star-filled sky as he began walking. There was no moon tonight, but his route was well lit.

     What he hadn’t told Susan was that the murdered woman had lived only a quarter of a mile away, in a small house on one of the streets he’d come along only twenty minutes ago. It hadn’t seemed worth getting his car out of the garage again. If he had to go to headquarters, he’d get a lift back in a patrol car. But Susan had probably noticed he was on foot, and she’d guess he wasn’t going far. It couldn’t be helped, he was on his way now.

     As he walked, he tried to remember if he’d noticed anything unusual as he’d come along West Road. A handful of cars, a butcher’s van delivering turkeys, a police car, two or three people walking, a bunch of kids carol singing. In none of the other cases had any of the neighbors seen or heard anything out of the ordinary, and Richard expected it would be the same here.

*     *     *

Too Far Behind Gradina by Steve Sneyd

Among many other shocking things, "Too Far Behind Gradina" is a pitiless exploration of a UK tourist family in Greece. 

     Emico grasped the vast handle of the door, itself four times a man’s height.

     The door clanged, but did not give.

     Emico seemed human as in temper he bashed and crashed at it.

     Mariella realized that, horrible as these people were, these so alluring, so vile Germans, they were still infinitely better than being here alone. Yet paradoxically she could not help believing, somewhere at the back of her mind, that had she been here alone somehow the door would have magically opened for her: that she would have got in where they could not.

     There was some muttering in German between Emico and Heidi, with glances at the smooth sweep of stonework up to just-visible battered battlements. They must have seen it as hopeless.

     Emico started along the wall’s foot to the right, forcing his way through prickly growth with exaggerated motions of obviously restrained fury. For the first time Mariella pitied him, despite her determination not to be affected by his crippledom.

     He vanished from sight.

     Heidi sneered at Mariella, as if to say “You wait there, useless, you’d only be in the way”, then dived after him into the tangle that grew right to the masonry’s foot.

     Mariella sat down: emptied a stone from her shoe that had hurt for ages but she’d felt too embarrassed to touch. Then climbed behind a growth of spiny dry branches, and let herself piss.

     And finally, just for luck, gave one last bang on the great door that seemed to belong not in the real world but in a fairy tale of dungeons to frighten childhood.

     Echo, echo of resounding noise.

     Silence enough for the dust a lizard stirred to fall with a scrabbling noise among the roots of the brush.

     And then, far off within, a sound of movement. A bell, seeming, and then a clank drag as if of huge metal feet. Terrifying: except that Mariella was so pleased to have succeeded where Emico had failed, she would have welcomed even the King of Hell to prove her point.

*     *     *


2 September 2021

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