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
poetry

The Things that Possessed Her

First it was a real demon, a good one, a Great Duke and Earl of Hell, who yearned to teach philosophy and oblige souls of the dead to appear (it hadn’t had much to do since Copernicus).

Then it was a small demon, one made of shadows and fiction, with stark eyes and bad makeup, taken from a movie she’d watched too many times (it grumbled about Mothers and hell but mostly kept to itself).

Then it was an old demon, a dusty one, that took every opportunity to point out that the word demon in Greek meant power, agency, (and in the proto-European, provider, which pleased it to no end).

Then it was the last demon, a trembling little wispish one tucked inside the drawer of some childhood fear, some backward, tiny, half-forgotten pain that despite its insignificance took hold of everything she thought and did. (This demon, the worst of them all, whispered to her, let’s go somewhere we can be alone).

Categories
fiction sketches

Crawling In, Crawling Out

After “Old Woman Skin and Bone,” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Schwartz, pg. 18

She was a worm charmer, and she kept her worms to herself. She never competed at county fairs. (Such events had so many people crouched in muddy fields, knocking and stomping at the earth. Making vibrations meant to call the worms out, but who could really gauge their skills in such a noisy place?) When she charmed worms out of the ground, she did so alone, with her wood rattler: a long stick carved with teeth, jammed deep into the earth, scraped so it sang like skeletons clattering. She took her rattler out into pastures and empty lots, undeveloped suburbs and abandoned fields, and she called up the worms: good ones, pretty shiny fat ones.

Her worms lived in tanks along the walls of her trailer: teeming pink-gray-brown behind the glass, glistening, like slippery knitting, crawling in, crawling out. They left cocoons like yellow pearls embedded in the dark, rich soil. She kept the best ones in the largest tanks, big terrariums with moss and mist, and never did she think to sell them as bait. She named them names like Daisy, Gibraltar, Toots. She warmed them with sun lamps, fed them dead things charmed up from the churchyard. She kept rainwater in barrels to sprinkle over them, drumming water drops to call them closer.

The rain reminded her of stormy days as a child, days she cut across the churchyard and watched things wriggle up from the grave dirt, things looking for moisture, following the source of the vibrations, her footsteps. She remembered: the worms crawling in, crawling out. She remembered: her mother saying, that’s what you’ll look like when you’re dead.

These days, she keeps an ear to the ground and listens to see if she hears mother, wriggling up. These days, when she sleeps, she dreams of bones jammed deep in the earth and rattling a skeleton call. The dark, rich soil over her face, teeming. She opens her mouth, she opens her eyes. She lets them crawl.

Categories
poetry

I might be a dungeon

Last night, while cutting onions
I cut my finger and made
a small peep-hole,
a mini-cavern, and bled a little.
Peering inside, I saw
what might have been gray cobblestones,
rough-hewn stairs, old pitch torches
lighting long passageways, smelled
the smell of smoke and moss, heard
the occasional clank of
sword against bone,
teeth against shield,
and the groan of paladins dying
(I heard this, while squinting,
keeping my finger-hole close
to my ear)
the chomp of monster jaws
making short work
of cheap armor,
the clink of emptied riches
into a hoard, the whisper
(or perhaps weeping)
of the party’s magic user
who spoke of terrible secrets, written
in unknown languages, buried
in the levels below.

Categories
poetry

A Letter from Your Love Interest (who is not an Embalmer)

When you leave
I’ll preserve you
(your memory, I mean).

I’ll tuck my dreams of you away
in a bed of Egyptian sand
for centuries and centuries, until
the treasure of your face is uncovered
a rich and ancient icon,
ossified,
priceless.

or I’ll dip you in brine
(my feelings for you, that is)
a recollection of our love suspended
in formaldehyde
or honey, like the Persians did.

or I’ll nestle you down deep
in a peat bog bed.
The unusual conditions
of low oxygen, acidic water
and Irish cold
will transform the reminder of you
into silky black leather.

or I’ll lay you down
on a long steel table
pierce your carotid artery
and expel your
blood and interstitial fluids
(uh, memories),
flush your veins with
methanol
(love)
and other solvents,
so the time we spent together remains
chilled forever
a tag on the right toe.

This is to say,
when you’re gone,
My thoughts of you will
never rot
they will never decompose.
you’ll remain forever
precious,
refrigerated

(in my mind).

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
fiction

This Old Hellhouse

Ralph and Edna Larned built Maalphegor in 1951, shortly after Ralph got a job teaching 9th grade geometry at Thomas Edison junior high. At the time, Edna had just been promoted to head nurse at the rehab ward of Cowley County Memorial Hospital.

Maalphegor, at first, had three bedrooms, two baths, six walk-in closets, and a fully equipped kitchen with all the modern conveniences. It was built by Ralph’s own hand (although much of the design and decor was handled by Edna) and due to the concrete and ectoplasm construction, it would never fall, never collapse in the event of an earthquake. No disaster could ever loosen the house from its foundations (or, at least, so it whispered to Ralph and Edna at night).

Living there, however, was always a strange crisis. The end of the world was always coming in Maalphegor, at least for the neighbors whose hellhouses weren’t as well built, and Ralph and Edna became convinced that preparation through consumerism was the only way to save off Armageddon. Thankfully, Maalphegor came with it’s own door-to-door salesmen; at the beginning, they looked a little like Bela Lugosi clones, but as the years wore on, the shadows in the salesmen’s faces deepened, a bit like Pazuzu from the Exorcist. Increasingly they began to look like Slender Men once Ralph and Edna’s children came of age.

The salesmen sold the family new appliances and luxurious additions to Maalphegor: delights such as weatherizing strips and desk lamps and a new washer/dryer, a sun room and a study and fifteen guest bedrooms. When the neighbors asked, the family insisted they’d do anything–anything–to halt the advance of apocalypse. For everyone’s sake of course.

By the time Ralph and Edna spent up all their retirement, the neighborhood looked considerably different, as Maalphegor had devoured the entire block, and the neighbors had all moved away. But Ralph still grilled up dinner on the massive back patio every Sunday (using what pigeons and squirrels still remained in the attic as meat) and Edna did her best to keep all the curtains tidy.

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.

Categories
fiction

“Great, but Too Many Floating Eyeballs”

Review: Carpathian Dream Resort Hotel and Casino
4328 Cliffs of Despair Road
Cahul, Cahul District MD-3909, Moldova

4-out-of-5-stars1

My husband booked a room at the Carpathian Dream hotel for our anniversary, and for the most part it was a great establishment. The decor was super run down with moth-eaten curtains and faded antique rugs, candelabras everywhere full of these murky yellow candles that might have been made of real tallow. Wolves howled at all hours during the night, and there was always a full moon. The hotel would have been just what we wanted for a romantic, atmospheric honeymoon, if it hadn’t been for all the floating eyeballs.

When we checked in, the maî·tre d’ leered at us cruelly and refused to really say much beyond “We’ve been expecting you.” The bell-hop looked to have a little grave dirt left on his shoulders, his hat was a bit worm-eaten, and he dragged all of our luggage up by himself. (It must have been tough for him–he was so skinny!) Our room was bitter cold and no manner of warmth from the fireplace could chase away the chill, so snuggling deep into the pillows on the antique canopy bed was just the ticket. The moaning from the hallways really helped my husband get to sleep in the absence of his white noise generator, and breakfasts were served right on time, with plenty of black, crusty bread and what looked like cold, somewhat coppery tomato juice. Yum!

I’d have given the whole experience five stars, really, if it hadn’t been for the eyeball thing. God, they were just everywhere–and sticky, too. There’s nothing like stepping out of a hot shower to bump into a swarm of bloodshot ocular organs trailing their spindly pink nerves behind them. You wake up in the morning and find them in your hair, in your coffee, stuck to your forehead. Gross. The floor was just sopping wet with aqueous humor. And other guests maybe like the feeling of constantly being watched, but it’s not really our thing. My husband and I tried that for a bit in the 70s and it didn’t work out.

But aside from all that, the experience was great. The Carpathian Dream Hotel and Casino is now a tradition for my husband and I, so we’ll be looking forward to booking them again for our next anniversary. 9/10 would go again. (But not looking forward to the eyeballs.)

Categories
fiction

That Fish is Going to Eat You

Look at it, all way down there in the deep watery shadows
With black marble eyes that seem inhuman and strange
It looks at you coldly, without hardly a quiver
I think that fish is going to eat you.

It wasn’t the best idea to go swimming, of course
Despite how warm it is on this lovely June day
How spontaneous you seemed, jumping into the pond with a whoop
Now you shiver, very quietly, because that fish is going to eat you.

This secret forest pool seemed so placid, idyllic
You paid no heed to the arcane markings carved into the trees
I didn’t carve them myself, but I read them (before I hid the brushes)
Those markings pretty much said that fish is going to eat you.

Is it a fish? Maybe not. Who knew this pool was so deep?
How many sharkish eyes does it have? Two? Twenty-seven?
Those strange, greyish eyelids stretch wide open to see you
…Well, to do more than just see you. (Specifically, eat you.)

What can you do but scramble for shore?
Your legs kick frantically as the waves start to froth
Foul bubbles rise up–are those tentacles? Teeth? Whatever,
they wrap around your ankles, preparing to eat you.

Down you go, down to the deep, struggling as you descend
What a terrible way to go out, I must say.
I’m sorry I had to watch such a scene, but thanks to you
I’m at least happy that fish is not going to eat me.