PULP APPEAL: MAKE ME NO GRAVE (guest post by Matt Spencer)

My review of Hayley Stone’s Weird Western “Make Me No Grave”

Broadswords and Blasters

Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novels The Night and the LandThe Trail of the Beast, and Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is Changing of the Guards. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Spinning
an effective Wild West tale is harder than it looks, for the same reasons as
any form of historically-inspired adventure fiction, though in some ways even
more so. On the one hand, there’s a consciously mythologized landscape that the
audience knows well, at the very least by pop cultural osmosis, and from which
they expect certain things. On the other hand, modern readers tend to view such

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CHANGING OF THE GUARDS: First Look

Changing of the Guards comes out April 1. You can pre-order it now from Amazon in e-book and paperback. The e-book is only $0.99 if you pre-order it. For now, check out the gorgeous cover by Pablo Fernandez and read the first chapter here:

Front Cover Final rgb

Prisoners

Severen never quite lost consciousness on the way to the enemy camp, through the steep, rising hills. His captors wouldn’t let him. Neither would his cramped, dehydrated legs which he kept pumping forward, no matter how much his boots came to feel like leaden weights, especially with all the mud collecting on them. His twisted ankle screamed at him worse and worse. His throat and guts felt dry. He kept wanting to shout – no, plead – for water, but he couldn’t catch enough breath for it. He tried to trace the way they took, but he couldn’t keep his mind or his vision clear enough. Besides, who was he kidding, what good would that do?

Sometimes he thought, Why am I not dead yet? Most of the time, though, all he could think was, One way or another, I’m gonna kill that fucker Rorkaster. Beyond that, he no longer formed coherent thoughts. He just knew that his skull hurt so bad that it must be cracked somewhere, so his brains were probably leaking out of his ears and nose.

The dip and climb of the mountainous trail grew steeper and sharper, so the ropes on his wrists and ankles tugged and scraped crueler, like they were about to wear straight through to the bone. Finally, his body insisted that he slow down. One of the Schomite bandits hit him with a stick, then kept hitting him till he made his feet pump faster again.

The long, prickly rope tethered him and the rest of the prisoners, a marching line of long, lean, cleanly muscled bodies, with marble-smooth, pale-purple skin that gleamed in the high-altitude light, where it wasn’t caked in rancid gore and mud… all Imperial Spirelight agents like himself, the ones his dumb ass had led to this hellish end, he reminded himself. Best he could figure, he was somewhere in the middle of the chain. He couldn’t tell how many of the others were left, in front of him or behind. The rope connecting them kept scraping his wrists all to hell.

A thump sounded somewhere behind him. His bonds pulled tauter, jerking him about, and everything got heavier. His knees felt like they’d shatter as he kept them from buckling.

“What’s the holdup?” someone shouted from ahead, in the sharp, raspy voice of this breed of Schomites of the deep ranges. Severen wondered blearily how many of his fellow captives knew it, or even had the properly adapted vocal cords with which to speak it. Few if any of them, probably. The poor bastards were probably better off that way.

“One of these glowsticks just crapped out on us,” answered another of the blurry, stocky shapes, in a slightly rougher dialect.

“So get ’em back up and keep the line movin’!”

A rough-shod boot echoed against a meaty trunk. “Ah, shit, this one’s dead.”

“Ain’t one of the important ones, is it?”

“How the fuck should I know? It’s another dead glowstick. I been lookin’ at dead glowsticks all day.”

“It dressed up fancier than the others?”

The first Schomite brave barked out a short, sharp laugh. “None of ’em look fancy to me anymore. It just looks like another dead glowstick.”

“Fuck it, just get the others movin’ again, will you? We’re burnin’ daylight here.”

That was true, Severen noted, even though his eyes were too swollen shut to tell. The high mountain sun wasn’t roasting him in his uniform like it had been earlier. The sweat that soaked him went cold. Even the blood drying on his face and hair made his head feel heavier. The gash in his side might be deeper than he’d first thought. He still felt its cooled wetness, sticky inside his shirt and vest. The longer he trudged, the more it felt like a hot, engorged sack shoved beneath his skin, sending sharper flares of pain with every jostle of movement. It bit into his exposed skin, while he sweated under his gear, chilling him deeper through the bones.

“Want I should cut the carcass loose, Chief? Pitch it over the side?”

A pause followed. “Nah, fuck that. Let the dead asshole drag. You’d waste too much time re-tyin’ the rope. Besides, might as well see how many of ’em can take the dead weight. It’s what these glowsticks deserve, anyhow.”

Severen heard one of the captors give a muted shudder and whisper, “I swear, what’s the point of takin’ all these prisoners if we’re just gonna work ’em to death on the way back to the camp?”

From the front of the line, Severen heard Chief Rorkaster shout, “’Cause that’s how we narrow it down to which of ’em are worth our while. Now get ’em movin’!

Someone struck Severen across the back again. Behind him and in front, the smack of the stick echoed off the backs of his fellow agents. Severen lurched forward with the rest, so his guts jostled and rolled against his cracked ribs and he vomited all over the guy in front of him.

A while later, someone jerked at the rope so Severen stopped in his tracks. So did the one in front. The one behind him must have taken a hair longer to get the message, ’cause that one collided against his back. For an instant, he felt a woman’s breasts against his back. Ella wasn’t the only woman in the company, but that felt like a body almost as tall and muscular as his own, so it was probably her. He said her name, or at least tried. By now, he couldn’t even tell if any sound came out of his sore throat and dry mouth. At least these assholes let him stand still for a moment. He felt thick, soft grass beneath his boots. He lifted his head and blinked deliriously.

Before him, there rose the old wooden stage in the woods from his childhood, the one he and the other kids used to play on. Brecca had just swiped a bag of old spare-part clothes from behind the local tailor’s shop. He’d run giggling with it downhill through a lightly wooded area behind the big barn and dumped it out across the old flat wagon, the one all the kids climbed around on and called a stage while they played dress-up. They tried on whatever grown-up persona they believed came with what they grabbed, so they interacted with each other accordingly. Things got unbelievably goofy and crazy sometimes, on that old stage.

The sky was deep gray… late afternoon. Soon, the younger kids would be called in for dinner or bedtime by their parents. Was that Shrira on the far edge of the stage, half-clad like a scullery wet-nurse, playing with the baby doll? That didn’t seem like her style. By that age, Shrira was usually more interested in burying her nose in some old scroll, or eavesdropping on the grownups while they talked about the latest troublesome news…

Someone slapped Severen across the face. No, he wasn’t a kid playing with his friends in the woods. He was Captain Severen Gris, an International Police Agent of the Spirah Empire, and here he was, captive of the Schomite bandit chief Rorkaster. Those kids on that faraway, long-ago stage had all been Spirelight kids. The only Spirelights here were prisoners of war like himself. One of the Schomite bandits untied him and shoved him forward. His legs gave out and his knees hit the grassy dirt.

“Good a place to start as anywhere, boys,” shouted the chief. “Get the others on their knees and line ’em up around him.”

Severen’s companions were shoved down next to him, on either side. A moment later, someone grabbed him by the wrists and yanked them backwards. He clenched his teeth for how it pulled at the gash in his shoulder. They bound his hands again, this time behind his back, with a shorter cord, along with his ankles.

Severen blinked crust from his eyes. Rorkaster strode by, in front of him. For the first time, Severen got a look at the man up close. He stood almost a head shorter than Severen, which put him taller than a lot of people, taller than any of the local Schomites… but Rorkaster wasn’t a local, Severen reminded himself, not by birth. He stood out from his more wiry Schlogmire cohorts, with his stocky upper body, lean hips, thickly knotted arms, his ears slightly pointier, his tense, gnarled, long-fingered hands that looked sculpted and wired for the exclusive purpose of inflicting pain. Before, at a distance, he’d looked bald as a Spirelight Priest King. Up close, Severen now saw dark, bristly stubble on the crown, cheeks and chin. His skin was a collage of light and dark green patches on ashen white, like lily pads floating in milk.

“Okay, feeding time, come and get ’em, everyone,” shouted the bandit chief. He flung a palm back, indicating Severen and the other prisoners, then he turned to them and smiled. “Just kiddin’, guys. You glowsticks sit tight for a second, hear?”

Severen blinked his eyes clearer. They were in a wide, sunken clearing, surrounded by thick, towering trees. Off to his left, he still saw that old wagon he and his childhood friends used to play on. He blinked again. No, it definitely wasn’t, and these Schomite bandits weren’t kids playing the bad guys in a children’s war-game. Rorkaster grinned down at Severen like a loon.

Severen’s pounding head kept swimming, between one time and place and another. The other kids climbed on and off the stage in various clothes he’d never seen them in. All the malicious hooting and hollering brought him back to the reality of the moment.

Was he in trouble because of what he’d been up to with Shrira, and the other kids knew before he did, so they weren’t talking to him? Here came Shrira’s little brother Chardi, dressed like a Schomite forest bandit. Chardi always loved getting to play the bad guy, when he wasn’t playing pretty songs, when he didn’t know he was serenading his older sister while she made out with Severen in the barn.

Severen wished he was back in that barn with Shrira. He wished he was back in the city-state of Trescha, waking up in her arms.

“So if we ain’t gonna execute ’em, what are we gonna do?” Chardi asked Rorkaster. Today, Chardi sounded a lot like an actual Schomite bandit. That’s because it’s not Chardi, you idiot. Chardi’s been dead for years. It’s the dirt-worshiping prick who whacked you on the head with a sling, back in the gully, earlier today, remember? Not-Chardi said, “Just leave ’em tied up out here to rot alive?”

“You kiddin’?” said Rorkaster. “Fuck no! That’d bother the little kids around here. Can’t have little kids runnin’ around, steppin’ in blood, guts, hair, teeth an’ eyeballs rollin’ all over the place, can we? Plus they’d stink the whole camp up. That’d draw more animals we don’t wanna have to chase off. That, and there’s shit I need to talk about, with this one.” His eyes narrowed on Severen.

“Don’t look like you’ll have much luck. Looks like it’d be nicer to just cut this one’s throat. Otherwise, he’s just gonna live out his days as some brain-dead simpleton, pissin’ and shittin’ himself in back alleys till one day some drunk glowstick goes out to take a piss and trips over his corpse.”

“No thanks to you,” said Rorkaster. “Damnit, Chess, the one interestin’ Spirelight we get alive, and you gotta go give the fucker brain damage!”

“Just hold your shit for a minute, will you?” said Chess. “I’ll go see what the blend lady’s got fresh-brewed.”

Someone nearby shouted, “You don’t quit tryin’ to get up, glowstick, I’ll cut your fuckin’ ankle tendons.”

It took Severen a moment to realize the threat hadn’t been directed at him. His eyes cleared a little. Rorkaster crouched in front of him and grinned. “Anyone still in there, friend?”

Severen tried to snarl venomously at the dirt-worshiping bastard. The sound came out as a pathetic grunt.

“I’ll take that for a yes,” said Rorkaster. “Captain Severen Gris, am I right? Man, I’ll give you this much, you know how to wrangle a crowd. That’s a lot of glowstick agents to keep organized, especially spread out to hold a whole village. More than I like to work with at once, anyhow. You take charge of too many guys at once, gotta tell ’em all what to do, it’s just one more chance for one idiot to fuck it all up for everyone. That must be more of a glowstick skill, am I right? Or maybe not so much, considerin’ how easy it was for my little pack to take out your whole damn command. We ain’t here to talk tactics, though. Naw, what I wanna know is your thoughts on what’s been happenin’ to the livestock in these parts.”

The one called Chess reemerged from the shadows and handed something to Rorkaster. “This is what the blend lady has whipped up. Your boy there, let’s see how much more useful it makes him, or if he chokes to death on it.”

Rorkaster gave Chess a nod, then crouched in front of Severen. He grabbed Severen by the jaw, forced his head back and pried his mouth open. Cool, syrupy, minty-sweet liquid poured into Severen’s mouth and down his throat. Eventually, Rorkaster let go, somehow with more violence than with which he’d grabbed. Severen choked down the strange homespun Schomite medicine, then nearly collapsed forward onto his face. His head bobbed around as though on a loose spring as the concoction rolled through him. Before he knew it, he already felt it flooding his brain. His eyes rolled up, almost all the way back into his skull. He caught the outline of the treetops sharper against the dimming sky.

“That’s it, that’s it…” Rorkaster grabbed Severen’s shoulder in a weirdly friendly way. “Give it a few minutes. After that, I got all sorts of questions for you, and you better remember how to speak honesty. Me, I speak honesty fluidly, so I know how to spot a liar.”

Severen’s head swam as the medicine did its work… back through worlds and ages. Little by little, the Schomite sorcery did its work, repairing his brain, so he finally remembered how he’d wound up here… how it had all started back in the city-state of Trescha.

SMALL PRESS SPOTLIGHT: KILLER CHRONICLES by Somer Canon

This book took me by surprise, in a number of ways. As much as I’ve been loving my journey through the hidden riches of modern fantasy and horror in the small-press/New Pulp scene, it’s rare (anywhere in modern literature, really) to see an author at work with such a finely honed, methodically, deliberately implemented grasp of the craft of storytelling. Somer Canon is one such author, as she demonstrates to head-spinning effect in her recent short horror novel KILLER CHRONICLES.
KC cover
Christina and her best friend Anais run the True Crime website Killer Chronicles, which is exactly what it sounds like. When a series of gruesome deaths in a small West Virginia town catches Christina’s eye, she goes on a road trip to do some up-close investigative journalism…which quickly becomes too up-close. The killer turns out to be something other than human, an ancient, many-faced trickster fairy calling herself Grenadine, who takes a special interest in Christina. This being fixates on Christina with something one might call a twisted form of affection, claiming to want to help her, except Grenadine’s idea of being helpful quickly turns out to be the worst thing possible, for Christina and everyone around her.

It’s hard to talk about what makes this book work so well without spoiling any of the surprises, yet this book comes with a lot to unpack, so I’ll keep the as spoilers vague as possible. Where Canon most effectively subverted my expectations was in repeatedly lulling me into a false sense of security about just what kind of book I was reading here. Canon establishes her ability to make the reader’s skin crawl in just the first few pages of the prologue, while subtly cluing us in that there’s something supernatural afoot. We’re then introduced to Christina’s daily life and prepare to follow her through some paranormal sleuthing. Christina can come off as grating and petty at times, but she narrates the tale with such a laid-back, snarky, effortlessly real voice that the reader can’t help but like her. Canon’s depiction of making one’s living as an independent journalist also feels real and fascinating, exploring the process of gathering information, navigating the suspicion and hostility of potential sources, while tackling hot-button subject matter with a controversial approach. Even once Grenadine shows up and starts making (increasingly gruesome, often darkly funny) trouble, I at first felt like I wasn’t reading the Extreme Horror novel this book is marketed as, but rather more of a somewhat darker-and-tenser-than-usual Urban Fantasy tale.

The fascinating thing about Grenadine is that while she’s a mythical, ageless being with priorities and a moral compass that are other than human, there’s a recognizably humanized, somewhat childlike quality to the creature as well…specifically of an all too real sort of narcissistic, manipulative, emotionally abusive personality-type whos play havoc with your life and mind if you get sucked in too close. This leads to the book’s most jolting, redefining turn, where the creature orchestrates a nightmarish situation between the human characters, leading not only to an all-too-human act of horrific violence, but an unflinching depiction of the traumatic aftermath for everyone involved*. From here, Canon foregoes the expected run-of-the-mill climactic final act, instead steering the focus away from the supernatural, into places far more psychologically disturbing, morally/ethically ambiguous. We see the perils of “Be careful what you wish for” taken to a nightmarish extreme, with a dose of scathing satire on modern online media culture. In the end, we’re trapped like flies on the wall, watching things play out to a conclusion that’s both inevitable and almost a non-ending, albeit in a fittingly ironic way, with a closing sentence that’s nothing short of a sardonic masterstroke.

KILLER CHRONICLES is available in e-book and paberback on Amazon, from Bloodshot Books.

Image result for killer chronicles by somer canonSomer Canon lives in Eastern PA with her husband, two sons, and five cats. Her preferred escape has always been reading and writing, and horror has always been the hook that catches her attention best. Feel free to find her on social media and never fear, she’s only scary when she’s hungry! Author website: http://www.somercanon.com/

* – Fair content warning: trauma survivors, approach with caution.

SMALL PRESS SPOTLIGHT: FOREST UNDERGROUND by Lydian Faust

I grabbed this slim volume on a lark – the first book of oft-anthologized dark scribe Lydian Faust – and was richly rewarded by a surreal, psychological, lightning-swift read that has (almost) everything that a good horror story needs, and nothing it doesn’t. The story first draws us into the uneasy interactions between Luna, a mental patient who may or may not be something other than human, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Alisha Sizemore, whose methods and motives are deeply questionable…all the more so once we meet some of her other patients.

FU cover

The first half of the book is primarily built around the tangled mystery of Luna’s mind and memories, of growing up as…well, a woods-bound homeschooled kid with an unusually dysfunctional family. Other reviewers have made much of Faust’s use of the “subverted/dark fairytale” trope (specifically “Little Red Riding Hood”), but Faust uses this as more of a jumping-off point than anything else, into a much larger, distinctively vivid hidden world, of which we see only the most evocatively unsettling glance. If so inclined, Faust could easily make this the first scant step into a larger mythos of her own invention, reminiscent of the best of Caitlin R. Kiernan…particularly in the menacing, elusive nature of the titular forest and its denizens.  To go into further detail would be to spoil some of the book’s juiciest surprises. The latter portions of the story deal in Alisha’s traumatic youth, first with her narcissistic mother, then the horrific bullying she endures at an elite boarding school, where the haunted dorm room down the hall is the least of her worries. While both Luna and Alisha’s stories are filled with shadowy things that go bump in the night, it’s in the unflinching depictions of all-too-believable human cruelty and the resulting trauma, where Faust truly makes the reader wince and cringe.

The central dramatic tension is anchored in the subtle, slow-burn back-and-forth between Luna and Alisha, neither of whom are wholly reliable narrators. The question isn’t so much “Who should I be rooting for?” as “Who should I be more worried for?” Initially, it’s very much Luna who elicits our sympathies, a troubled young woman who’s come to a bad state, at the shadowy mercy of an icy, ruthless professional*. Whatever’s up with Alisha, though, her own growing unease becomes equally relatable, as Luna reveals not only her unexpected lucidity, but that she may well be holding more of the cards than she first appeared. Faust understands the importance of atmosphere in situations like this, of the relationship between surroundings and human behavior. She’s a natural at painting the echoing, haunting surroundings of Alisha’s maybe-not-quite-what-it-seems psychiatric facility and Luna’s childhood haunted forest in equal measure, often in just a few sentences, where many accomplished writers would require whole paragraphs.

It’s only in the climax where the telling of the tale somewhat falls apart. For one thing, at a pivotal moment, one supporting character’s on-the-job behavior goes zero-to-sixty gung-ho, in a previously unhinted manner, so it feels like Faust was trying to pile one more layer of tension and danger onto the scene than was necessary, at the expense of credibility. And while the big-twist reveal remains shrouded in a certain amount of intentional ambiguity, it feels lacking in thought-out, internal cohesion, in a way that doesn’t do justice to the tale leading up to it. Also, of the two main characters and their intersecting journeys, I felt far less satisfied by the connective tissue of one than the other, between where she begins and where she ends up. Right as this came dangerously close to leaving a sour taste in my mouth, though, Faust hit me with a denouement that’s at once out-of-left-field yet utterly fitting, in a way that left me both satisfied and thirsty for more. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of this storyteller’s juicy, vivid, haunting tales.

Image result for jeri hogarth* – I kept picturing Alisha Sizemore looking like Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth in Jessica Jones.

LF APLydian Faust is a writer of horror and dark fiction. She is also a painter who likes to lay it on thick. Ms. Faust lives in one of the murder capitals of the United States of America. Her hobbies include nachos and alien conspiracy theories. You can find her at www.lydianfaust.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lydianfaust, and on Twitter @LydianFaust.

Forest Underground is now available on Amazon in e-book and paperback.

Pulp Appeal: THE GETAWAY by Jim Thompson (Guest Post by Matt Spencer)

My latest article for Broadswords & Blasters:

Broadswords and Blasters

Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novelsThe Night and the Land,The Trail of the Beast,andSummer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is the short-fiction collectionStory Time With Crazy Uncle Matt. He’sbeen a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Among the genre-defining noir writers of the 40s and 50s, Jim Thompson stands out for his brutal subversiveness. Rather than following a hard-nosed detective through a criminal underworld (where our protagonist may be morally ambiguous, but remains, in essence, a clear-cut good guy up against clear-cut bad guys), Thompson was among the first major writers to explore stories from the point of view of…

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Pulp Appeal: Worms of the Earth (Guest Post by Matt Spencer)

My article on Robert E. Howard’s WORMS OF THE EARTH, for Broadswords & Blasters.

Broadswords and Blasters

Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novels The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast, and Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is the short-fiction collection Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

If you know me and/or the kind of stuff I write, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the works of Robert E. Howard, even if only by reputation, as to the man’s profound influence on the evolution of heroic adventure lit, and fantasy/speculative-fiction in general. On those merits, whether you’ve read him or not, you probably already have an idea whether or not…

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Holiday Story Time, with a free yarn

Image result for creepy new england church

Happy Holidays from Crazy Uncle Matt, wishing you and yours a bountiful year ahead, with a free story for Christmas:

Kids Say The Weirdest Things

Our neighbors are nice, but a little weird. That’s okay. So are we. A few months ago, my husband and I moved into the middle of a three-unit townhouse in a little country village. Spring turned into summer fast, and I’m getting back into shape turning part of the back yard into a little vegetable garden.

The neighbors to our left are quiet and mostly keep to themselves. It’s the ones to the right that I wonder about. There’s a single mom with a teenage daughter and a cute little boy who’s maybe six or seven. The boy has a friend who often comes over and plays, a bouncy little girl his age from down the road. Some nights the lady has some friends over. They play strange music. I’ve only seen her friends a couple times, showing up and leaving while I’m out on the back porch with insomnia and a cigarette. The lady and her kids don’t look or act wealthy, but their friends must be, judging by those fine tailored black suits they always wear. Sometimes they sing along to the music. It’s muffled through the walls, not too bothersome, but I do notice. It sounds like some foreign language I can’t place. So it’s funny that they occasionally complain about the noise my husband makes when he’s up late drinking and writing.

The other day, I was out in the garden. It had been a dry couple of weeks, and I sighed in irritation at the wilting edges of the kale and squash I was trying to grow. I thought about using the hose, even though the lady next door would complain about how that drains the well. An SUV pulled into the driveway. I looked up and saw our neighbor get out. She crossed the back yard, to her back porch. Her little boy followed. I remembered them leaving earlier. They’d both been dressed up nice when they left, like they were going to some fancy occasion. I’m pretty sure the boy’s little friend from down the road was with them when they left. She wasn’t with them now. The mom was still dressed up fancy, but her son now wore plain shorts and a sports T-shirt. He ambled sullenly behind her, like he’d been bad and gotten scolded or spanked. They climbed the steps and went inside. A few minutes later, the mom came back out. She’d changed into shorts, flip-flops, and a tank-top. She started seeing to her flower boxes on her back porch. Before long, the little boy came out and joined her. He looked happier now, scampering and hopping and laughing around, enjoying life like little kids ought to in the summer out in the country, on a day like today. I glanced up with bored interest semi-regularly, from beneath the shadow of my floppy straw sunhat.

Up on the porch, the boy squealed at his mom, “Can I go out and see her?”

I glanced at my struggling crop. The leaves didn’t look half so wilted as they had earlier. Maybe it was the light, but they looked like they’d gone a few shades darker green.

I didn’t realize the kid was talking about me ‘til I heard his Mom say, “No, no, she’s busy.”

“Please? I wanna go see her! I like her!”

My husband was at work, I’d been at my gardening for a while, and I thought overhearing that was so adorable, so I went What the hell? “It’s okay,” I called out, tilting my chin up and putting on my best smile. “He can come say hi!”

His mom said something like, “Okay, you can go say hi, but don’t bother her too much.”

With a big grin on his face, he bounded down and raced out across the back yard towards me. I kept seeing to my gardening. He trotted to a halt and stood there watching me, like I was the most fascinating thing in the world.

“Hi, how you doing?” I said.

“I’m okay,” he said. “I like you.”

“I like you too,” I said with a giggle.

“Guess what! We went to church today!”

“Is that right?” Oh, yeah, today was Sunday. I hadn’t figured them for the church-going sort of family – whatever that is anymore since I was a kid – but okay.

“Yeah. Me, my mom, and Susie.”

“Is Susie your little friend I always see you with?” His teenage sister was named Kelly or something. She was out of town this week with some friends, I think I remember hearing. Spring break, or something.

“Yeah,” he said.

“What church you guys go to?”

“The one up the dirt road over there.” He pointed off to the road that ran down to the left of the house, past a few barns and houses.

“Oh, you mean the one back that way, through the woods?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh, neat! I’ve seen that place when I’ve been out on bike rides. That’s a pretty church.” It really is a lovely building, the one we were talking about, the old arching colonial sort of structure. “I didn’t know we knew anyone who goes there.”

“Uh-huh, and today the Priest had me and Susie help him with the ceremony.”

Priest? Ceremony? That was a little surprising. I guess I’d just assumed in the back of my mind that the place was something Protestant, so they’d have a pastor or preacher or reverend or whatever. I hadn’t seen any Catholic churches around here. Episcopalian, maybe?

I just said, “Wow, cool.”

“Yeah. It was a special ceremony, because it’s a special day, and the priest said we’re special. He put the high scepters at the end of big, long poles, and had us hold them, one of us on each side of him.”

“Wow, that’s really great! You must be really, really proud and excited.”

“Yeah! And you know what else? The priest asked me and Susie which of us wanted to walk in front of him and which one wanted to walk behind him. I wanted to go first, but Susie said she wanted to go first too. So I, I, I let Susie go first. Mom tells me I’m a gentleman. The Priest called me a little gentleman too, so I…I…I wanted to be a gentleman to Susie.”

“Well, it sounds like you are, and that’s good,” I said. “You should keep being a gentleman. Not enough men are.”

“Yeah. Do you want to hear about what we did at church?”

I really didn’t, but I still said, “Yeah, keep telling me!”

“The Priest, he…he…Once we walked up to the altar, the Priest had me and Susie stand…one on each side of him…up at the…the altar. The Priest read words from the Great Old Book.”

“Oh, you mean the Bible?”

“No. The Great Old Book. Anyway, the Priest had me and Susie stand on each side of him while he read the words in the Great Old Book. We were both holding the high scepters up, so the tops of them were above his head while he read. That’s a real special thing. Then because Susie walked in front up to the altar, the Priest picked her up and he put her on the altar. The Priest had me help him open Susie up and take things out of her. It was…was…It was really scary when Susie screamed. But then she went to sleep, and it wasn’t scary anymore. It started smelling bad after she stopped screaming. The…the Priest said she was asleep. I was glad she got to sleep. Oh, oh, and then me and the Priest took things out of Susie and put them all around the altar, like the Great Old Book told the Priest how to do. The Priest kept saying words from the Great Old Book while we took stuff out of Susie and we…we…spread her around.

“Then all the lights in the church went kinda dark. So did the lights in the window. The rest of the people out in the benches were saying stuff with us. There were things outside the windows. The things had wings like birds, except they weren’t birds, and they had wings like flying dinosaurs have, but they weren’t dinosaurs either. They had big wings, and…and…the big things kept flapping their wings on the windows outside. You know what else? It was really messy when we arranged Susie’s insides around.  Big millipedes came out of the red mess that came out of Susie. The big millipedes took the rest of Susie away. They also took some of the people out in the benches away. The Priest said it was because their faith was weak, but that’s good the millipedes took them away too, because now the land of this town is cleaned up of them, and now the town can live on out here for another year.

“You’re gonna grow lots of good stuff in your garden now. The dirt’s gonna be really, really good all summer, because of what me and Susie and the Priest did when we stood at the altar, and the Priest said the words so the Ones Who Rule The Woods won’t be mad at us now for another summer. I’m sad because I won’t get to play with Susie for a while anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say to all that. I guess I just stared at him.

He saw me frowning, and he put his hands in his pockets, and shuffled around like he felt guilty, like it dawned on him that he shouldn’t have told me about all that. He met my eyes again, pouted for a second, then turned and ran back across the yard, up his porch, and into the house.

Not knowing what to make of all that, I took another look at my garden’s yieldings. Now that the little guy mentioned it, the kale looked twice as full as before, and my squashes had swelled and ripened already.

 

Kids Say The Weirdest Things, © 2018 by Matt Spencer, first appeared in the anthology X4 © 2016 Thirteen O’Clock Press. Currently available in print, along with more weird, wild tales, in the collection STORY TIME WITH CRAZY UNCLE MATT, now available in on Amazon, in e-book and paperback, from Back Roads Carnival Books.

SMALL-PRESS SPOTLIGHT: CHURCH by Renee Miller

Renee Miller gives readers a lot to unpack in her slim psychological horror novel CHURCH (Unnerving Press, 2017), from its themes of mind-control and religion, to how these ideas are approached, and the characters/points of view through whom they’re explored. This book made my skin crawl very early on, and pulls few punches as the true menace of the story reveals itself and escalates. Miller hardly seems to either try or need to reach for shock-value. Rather, she matter-of-factly lets things play out to their logical extremes according to human nature under these circumstances, which are appropriately nightmarish.

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The premise is at once simple and loaded: a devout Catholic man has fallen for Carol, a woman in a bizarre cult (the resemblance to Scientology and other headlines-making fringe-groups is not subtle). He sets out “save her soul” by investigating her church and pretending to join, and quickly finds himself in over his head, trapped in an escalating nightmare as the cult’s leader Darius seeks to brainwash him into the fold.

Miller almost immediately foregoes wrapping her “Zabir” cult in any real mystique, instead opening from the point of view of Darius, graphically exploring his systematic process of brain-washing, abuse, exploitation, and sustained mind-control over his followers.

This book’s structural masterstroke is its tight sense of focus; other than Ray, I’m pretty sure the only character in the book who’s not a cult member is the Priest he consults in his obsession with “saving Carol’s soul.” We only really get to know Ray, Carol, Darius, and Darius’s right-hand man Cole, a sadistic pervert who seems to be in on the scam with him, at least to some degree. Even more starkly apparent is how there are no “good guys” here. Through Darius, we see the venal, cynical greed behind the sham personified by organized religion, but it’s through Ray that we explore the mentality of the “true believer”. It’s clear that Ray’s own fanaticism, while more conventional and less overtly destructive, is just as toxic, controlling, and delusional as that of the followers of Zabir. Miller never lets us forget this, yet she manages to endear us to him just enough that we empathize and fear for him as he falls into the cult’s clutches and struggles to retain his own identity and sanity. The central dramatic thrust of the narrative is the escalating battle of wills between Darius and Ray, and one could equally argue either one to be the true protagonist here…particularly once Darius’s true motives for ensnaring Ray become clear. We’re made to feel almost like his co-conspirators as he stretches his depraved ingenuity in their mental cat-and-mouse game. Some readers will find it understandably off-putting that we never get a look into Carol’s real point of view on all this (more on that in a moment), though the enigma surrounding her proves crucial, as her role in both the cult’s conspiracy and the larger narrative yields some of the book’s most crucial, shocking surprises.

If I have one major gripe about this novel, it would be that Miller misses any opportunities to really explore what kinds circumstances and states of mind leave people susceptible to getting suckered into this kind of cultish brainwashing. In these current political times, it’s an especially pertinent hot-button issue, of which the subject-matter itself begs the question. Ray seems to have been raised within the doctrine of his church, and there’s only one brief mention of him having once strayed from that fold before being drawn back in. What we never really get is any exploration from the point of view of the cult members themselves, how they see Darius, or the psychology of what bad place in life made joining the cult seem like a good idea at the time in the first place.

In the latter half of the book, Miller at times seems to be planting seeds to deeper mysteries that go nowhere. By the time one turns the final page, though, one’s left with the stark sense that there’s not all that much depth to these rotten people or the horrors they inflict on each other, beyond greed and hubris, with whatever grand ideologies they wrap it in being quite incidental…and it’s hard to get more horrific than that.

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Renee Miller lives in Tweed, Ontario. She writes in multiple genres, but prefers dark fiction with strong elements of horror, erotica and/or comedy.
Follow her on Twitter and visit her Amazon author page to grab a copy of CHURCH and other titles in print and e-book.

SMALL-PRESS SPOTLIGHT: BROADSWORDS AND BLASTERS ISSUE 3

One of the perks in breaking into the small press/indie speculative fiction scene is digging ever deeper into this new, ever growing and evolving underground scene of weird, wild new voices. After having the honor of being part of B&B’s first two issues, my newfound addiction has been catching up on the magazine’s subsequent issues and the authors therein, along with several other fine small-press magazines I hope to review soon. While the first two issues featured many enjoyable tales (hi, folks), here editors Cameron Mount and Matthew Gomez significantly ups the ante with multiple shots of the hard stuff, without a timid or indifferent entry in sight.

Gold, Skin, and Time by Renee Miller: Right off the bat, this volume shows it’s not messing around, by kicking the door in with this rattling Weird Western. Already an accomplished horror author, Miller immediately makes us feel right at home (while certainly not safe), opening from the point of view of a long-suffering, bullied innkeeper of a frontier town. Things quickly swerve from ruggedly dangerous to downright nightmarish, and don’t let up from there. While I was initially put off by Miller’s explanation of the strange goings-on, she brings it all together with a final twist that’s both mind-bending and sobering.

Watercolor Blue by Charles Roland: A crime-noir tale, of a smalltime thief getting in over his head with some much, much worse people. This one reads like it would be right at home in the original Black Mask magazine. Shades of both Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich abound. If I have one complaint, it’s that I’d have liked more specificity in the villains, with a slightly more distinctive sense of time and place…though it’s hard to stay irritated, given the tale’s vice-grip pacing and escalating stakes.

Moss by Will Bernardara Jr.: Here’s where things start to get really out there, with a crew of cursed pirates, stuck in the festering loop of a hell of their own making. If you ever wondered what the point of view of an undead or mutated crewman from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks might be like with a hard-R injection of splatterpunk body-horror, where you can smell the otherworldly putrescence of the ship, the crew, and their abominable master…this tale might make you sorry you asked, but you’ll keep turning the pages ’til the end anyway.

Zero Days Since Last Accident by Rachel Ungar: This story begins like a seemingly routine space-pirates story, which feels strongly influenced by the show Firefly. Then before you know it, you find yourself locked in a frenzied, sustained, escalating chase, which speeds towards its natural conclusion like the ground rushing up to meet you.

Testing Limits by Karen Heslop: A look behind the scenes of the video game industry in a cyberpunk world. As with anything where virtual reality is involved, the paranoia of questioning the nature of one’s reality quickly comes onto the table…but Heslop isn’t content to stick with that, with some delightful genre-bending surprises that are best left for the reader’s discovery. While I wouldn’t call this tale lighthearted, it’s certainly the most…optimistic story herein, with streaks of whimsy and idealism, which are a welcome relief from the cumulative grim intensity of the others.

Valero Serves a Hungry Grave by Coy Hall: The issue closes out with yet another Western, as strong as the first, though quite different in method of attack. Hall crafts a loving homage to ’60’s and ’70’s Spaghetti B-Westerns such as the Sartana series, employing a non-linear structure, the true motive and impact of which doesn’t become clear until the final page. Where he particularly shines, where most modern hardboiled writers of whatever stripe fall short, is how he digs into the psychology of his violent antihero, along with those of his enemies and tenuous allies, in ways that rings true. While this tale stands on its own just fine, it also introduces a vivid, distinctive figure in Valero, of whom I wouldn’t mind reading more.

Order this and other issues of Broadswords and Blasters at Amazon. You can also follow the magazine on Facebook and Twitter.