Categories
fiction

A Sky Unwholesome

Toby Hankins burned the books on Sunday. He started the fire behind Aunt Edna’s house on Cattledrive Road.

By the time all was ready the sky had turned red with dusk. Toby unpacked the wood from his truck and Edna watched him out the back window of her house. She wore the purple scarf embroidered in stars her sweetheart gave her before the war.

Toby did not look Edna in the eye. He stacked the salvage wood in a bonfire pyramid and put the books at the bottom.

The wind rifled their paperback covers.

His hands shook to strike the wood match. He tried and failed to light it many times. The red sunlight turned purpleblack and gave way to a sky unwholesome. Not a cloud, not a star above. The sky looked as though a hand had been cupped over the world and Toby thought sooner or later something would peek through the purpleblack fingers and he’d look up to see the glimmer of some strange, great eye.

The pages whispered.

Toby sprayed haphazard the lighter fluid and droplets soaked his jeans. The liquid like crystal settled into the fissures and cracks of his hands. He thought I’ll go up too. He flung the match and the wind almost stole it away. Not again would he look up.

The cover of the first paperback with its strange stars printed in purple and red began to burn against its wishes. Slowly slowly took the fire onto itself but did not crinkle or turn black. Orange ghosts of flame danced atop the covers with curled hips. Toby Hankins thought surely fire would not betray him. Surely fire was the thing, the last thing he had, the only weapon left among the remains of a ravaged arsenal with which he may betray the gods and by the way he would not look up again.

Aunt Edna called out and he did not turn around. He squirted lighter fluid and whispered old hymns, one he recalled from Edna’s funeral in ’82. When he sang it the wind stole the words.

The night was dark now and the sky open. Aunt Edna looked out from the window, eyes and mouth dark and open. The books refused to burn.

Categories
fiction

This Town has too Many Dark Festivals

In April, there is the Feast of the Black Finch, where a number of townsfolk are strung up in the trees, their limbs covered in feathers and sweet hazelnut mash, whereupon they are left to dangle until throngs of local songbirds swarm the branches. The songbirds devour the mash so slathered over the townsfolk, and in so doing peck incessantly at the hapless participants with their tiny, dagger-like beaks. The rite has been described as highly uncomfortable.

In November, during the Circus of the White Newt, the most disliked members of the community are draped in red robes with their lips sealed shut with masking tape. The town elders lead a procession of the chosen disliked into a winding maze of catacombs beneath the town, until such time as the morose group arrives at a cavern riddled with blind albino cave salamanders. The blind albino cave salamanders swarm the chosen with their sticky little feet and weird little noses, until such time as the chosen ones are itchy and disturbed and drenched with slime. Then, the procession leaders serve coffee and sweet yam pie, of which the chosen are not allowed to partake. It is tremendously cruel.

In May, the local children build floats for the Parade of the Everlasting Cud, their dioramas comprised entirely of bubble gum wrappers and half-digested alfalfa.

Every forty-third year on the Winter Solstice, there is the Carnival of the Dark Perambulation, during which an effigy of the titan Iapetus is constructed at the edge of town. The titan is comprised of the residents themselves, nervously stacked on each other’s shoulders, bound by dried blackberry brambles and old beeswax, and during the construction the participants sing a cacophony of unholy hymns, a dark ruckus of malicious oratorios, a canticle the likes of which drives sane folk mad, and this song lasts all hours of the day until, just before the onset of night, the titan begins to walk, lumbering with the screams of the townsfolk screeching at its very joints, every movement a crush of tiny limbs and heads within, and the titan trudges into the blood-red sunset, to the edge of the fields where the bones of hundreds of the townsfolk’s ancestors lay littering the soil, those sad remnants shed off where the titans of past Carnivals once walked, as though a massive constrictor shed its scales upon the fields or a dark star rained down in hot particles of unknown cosmic matter. The townsfolk within the titan dance the dance of the untold ancients; then they head back to town and finish up their Christmas shopping.

 

Categories
journaling

A Note on Cosmic Horror

I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite stories from people like Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and the anthology Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror, and I have to say I love this stuff. Eldritch horrors lurking in tombs, interdimensional beings wanting to eat us and drive us mad. Love, love, love it.

It bothers me, though, whenever I get that nice, terrified thrill of the unknown that, in the past, this thrill has been associated with HP Lovecraft’s prejudice and xenophobia. It could be said he wrote about ancient eldritch gods returning to the earth because he was actively terrified of immigrants bringing their non-American traditions to his tidy New England life.

The subtext of why I love this kind of horror is, I’d like to think, largely based on my unflappably pessimistic view of our own insignificance in the grandiosity of the cosmos and the universe’s ever-present spiral towards doom.

Regular horror, with its re-confirmation of conservative normalcy (according to Stephen King), just doesn’t do it for me. Too hopeful.

Still, it haunts me to know I’m enjoying essentially the same plot devices that were created by xenophobic jerks.

I think people who suffer from xenophobia are broken on some level. Really, despite whatever perceived differences you can find in a person, someone with even the most basic empathetic abilities should be able to see that people different from themselves are intrinsically human. I lived in Vegas for six years, and over the course of that time I couldn’t understand much of what my neighbors said (despite hundreds of dollars in college courses which, at a certain point I realized were not, in fact, designed to actually help me speak the language). I certainly didn’t understand why my neighbors bought gargantuan pinatas or stopped five times a day to pray, but I never doubted they were people. Those differences didn’t make them not people. They put their kids on the bus to school and called their parents and got pissed off at parking tickets. People stuff, just like me.

I have to remind myself that good cosmic horror is not actually xenophobic, nor does enjoying such fiction make one xenophobic. In a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading, the monsters are very, very far from human. Often, the monsters are wholly alien or unknowable beings that exist on a completely different plane. Rather than xenophobia, I think, good cosmic horror and weird fiction practice something closer to exophobia–this fear of things outside human perception or outside what it means to be intrinsically human.

But because of this confusion, I think we should altogether stop calling this genre Lovecraftian. We don’t often name buildings after the architect (or, really, the construction foreman, because one could argue that no writer builds inventive ideas in a vacuum. Great artists steal, and all that). And with the world as it is today, we really don’t need more excuses to be jerks to each other.

Ultimately, good exophobic cosmic horror works without maligning anyone’s personhood. We can all read exophobic horror with a clear conscious. Such fiction is full of reasonable monsters, monsters in the form of bizarre otherworldly intelligences hidden in the dark and performing strange machinations that will ultimately doom us all. That makes perfect sense.