The Difficult Third Collection: James Cooper

Review by Peter Tennant,

Black Static #63

It’s part of music industry folklore that artist’s will find their third album to be the “tricky” one, but fortunately that rule doesn’t seem to apply in the case of literature. And by way of proof I give you HUMAN PIECES (PS Publishing hc, 342pp, £20), the third story collection by Black Static irregular James Cooper. It contains twelve stories, but in the absence of any publishing history in the PDF I read I can’t say if any are original, but I did recognise four from the pages of Black Static and another that appeared in Crimewave. Cooper is a writer who wears his horror genre influences lightly, with Stephen King a particular inspiration, while themes of parental abuse and dysfunctional families populate nearly every story.

With two boys called Jim and Will, ‘Forever Boys’ gives a tip of the hat to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, only the threat to family isn’t an external one for Cooper’s protagonists, but rather the evil comes from within courtesy of an abusive father. Underlying all this is the need for freedom and belief in the miraculous, while for Jim there is a rite of passage in learning how to responsibly use whatever power he has been gifted. It is a fantastic tale, one that offers no easy solutions to the problems posed by its narrative steps. Emma in ‘The Pig Farm’ is the victim of a dysfunctional family, abused and bullied by her two brothers, punished by her father for looking like the mother who died, punishment that takes the form of placing her on the Scarecrow at night to be found by the Weeping Farmer, a tormented spirit continually searching for his missing daughter. Again Cooper paints a terrible picture of abuse, with an attempt to understand if not justify the motives of those involved, and a feeling that really the supernatural aspects of the tale, whether true or not, are perhaps the only light of hope in this tragedy waiting to happen.

‘S.K.’ is pitched in epistolary form, a man writing letters to Stephen King explaining how reading his books to his dying son helps them cope with impending loss. It’s a heartfelt and moving story that celebrates the redemptive aspects of horror fiction and the power of literature to move us and help make some sense out of the nastier aspects of our lives. A teenager suffering from Renfield Syndrome keeps a dog prisoner in a haunted house so that he can feed on its blood in ‘Stray Dogs’, but while overtly horrific the true thrust of the story is about feeling alienated and how making a friend can transform a life. It is a sad story, one that shows us how our finer feelings can both elevate and demoralise us.

‘Night Fishing’ put me in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ with its central premise of four friends whose fishing expedition is disrupted by the discovery of a dead body, but Cooper takes the story off in a different direction entirely, with the body simply a catalyst for tensions simmering away beneath the surface among the four men. You could make a case for it being the adult remix of King’s novella The Body, with the corpse finding them instead of the other way round, and the camaraderie they have shared since childhood disrupted by one of those “frozen moments when”, according to Burroughs, “everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. There’s a bit of contrivance to my mind, in that all the men have secrets that so neatly dovetail, giving an overview of toxic masculinity, but the narrative voice and Cooper’s portrayal of his characters makes it work, grabbing the reader right from the start and carrying us to the inevitable tragedy of the end, or poetic justice if you would prefer.

The actor ‘Cushing’ becomes the focus of an unhappy and tragedy haunted family’s woes, with scenes from various films neatly intercut with the unfolding drama, throwing light on what takes place. It is a subtle and unnerving piece, one in which art imitates life a little too close for comfort, almost like the Addams Family given a twenty first century coat of cultural paint. Released from gaol, Boyd finds a way to atone for the mistakes of his past in ‘The River Remembers’, the story one that conflates family drama and gangster work, but while never less than entertaining, with perfectly realised characters and setting, it is perhaps the least interesting and original of what is on offer. In another setting it might shine, but not here. There’s another abusive son and stepfather relationship in ‘Man’s Ruin’, but Tommy is gifted a magical tattoo by his Grampa that empowers him to strike back. Human anger drives the story, giving us characters we can believe in and sympathise with, while the outré element seems almost incidental, albeit the thing that turns the plot round, and the humour in the relationship between Tommy and Grampa adds yet another dimension to the narrative.

‘Two Houses Away’ is a subtle and beautifully written ghost story of sorts, one that shows the lengths grieving people will go to for release from their pain and the power of love, while at the same time emphasising that you shouldn’t go poking your nose into things that don’t concern you. In ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ another Tommy returns to the scene of the crime to tell Mrs. Guddici the true story of what happened to her son Jed. At heart the story is about how we are haunted by the past and the need to restore some sort of balance in a universe that feels uncaring and indifferent. It’s an emotive piece, one in which Cooper doesn’t set a foot wrong as he gives his characters a depth not usually found in such outings. Mostly dialogue, ‘Coffee. Black.’ is an enigmatic piece with a conversation between two men at a late night coffee shop that touches on matters of faith and belief, horror fiction and real life terror. It’s suggestive and all the more effective for being left so ambiguous, with the reader invited to create motives and backgrounds for these strangers from the hints Cooper has supplied.

Sally, the final girl from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is the protagonist of ‘Texas’, Cooper deftly delineating the aftermath of the atrocity, the way in which she still has to live with the horror of what happened and try to make sense of her own survival (more than an element of survivor guilt is present here). Scenes from the film, consultations with a psychiatrist, and a visit to the farmhouse (now a tourist attraction) combine to create a compelling and absorbing picture of what it means to be a survivor and the mechanisms that are needed to cope, adding a wonderful new dimension to the classic horror film. There’s more than a touch of King’s Secret Window about final story ‘End of Creation’ in which a writer who gambles away a story idea to a friend gets seriously bent out of shape when that friend makes a success of it. There are times when the story gets a little close to over the top, but Cooper just about manages to rein things in and give us a compelling and unsettling account of a personal descent into madness, while posing some interesting questions about the nature of creativity and originality along the way. It was a strong end to a collection that didn’t put a foot wrong, with some of the best stories in genre writing from an author who, while focused squarely on matters horrific, never loses sight of the human pieces.

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Sneak Peek Extract: The Dragon’s Child by Janeen Webb

ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE CHINESE NEW YEAR, the Year of the Dragon, Lady Feng made a mistake.

A cool, sophisticated Hong Kong businesswoman, Lady Feng had just concluded her habitual retreat. As she emerged from hibernation she risked assuming her true form—the form of a Chrysanthemum Dragon. She took the chance. She needed to stretch her claws. The rush of air against her golden scales felt wonderful after those long weeks cooped up in her cave, weeks spent gestating and laying her eggs, watching over them as she checked and re-checked the treasures of her rich hoard to stave off the boredom that threatened to engulf her. Today, she was free.

Below her, the humans who lived in the remote village near her mountain lair were celebrating the turn of the year. Lady Feng dipped and soared, caught up in the moment, appearing, to the people in the procession below, as just one more pretty paper shape among the high-flying red and gold kites with their trailing streamers. She flew lower, and the people were overjoyed to see her: a real dragon had come to bless them. They drummed harder, danced faster.

Lady Feng flew even lower. In dragon form, she was thinking like a dragon. Just for an instant, her instincts took over: her control slipped. Intoxicated by the heady fog of incense, exhilarated by the drums and cymbals and firecrackers, the beautiful golden dragon permitted herself a small snack: a tender morsel, no more than a tiny mouthful. She knew she shouldn’t, but the snack was simply there to be had, resting in its wrappings like an offering on the steps before the Moon Gate, looking so silky soft, smelling so milky sweet. Before she knew it, she had dived: her jaws had snapped shut, and warm blood was filling her mouth. It felt good, so very good, as the juicy meat slipped down her cave dry throat.

But then the screaming started. Humans, she remembered too late, were unaccountably attached to their offspring. There were curses and shouts, and someone actually started shooting at her.

‘Avert!’ She raised her right claw, and hastily invoked a spell of warding.

The shot went wide, but it clipped a hind claw. Lady Feng barely escaped with her fine gossamer wings intact. She dropped from the sky to land behind the nearest building, where she changed back into her cramped human form to blend in with the frightened crowd. There was blood on her pale face and on her fine gold-patterned silk blouse, but she radiated calming thoughts, turning aside the minds of the people around her. A lot of villagers had been injured in their panic to escape the terrible dragon that had so suddenly, so inexplicably swooped upon them from the heavens, and with Lady Feng’s protective glamour fogging their minds, the tell-tale blood spatters passed unremarked.

Later she tried to make amends. Really she did. She limped back to her lair. At nightfall, when the sobbing young parents had subsided into sleep, she returned to the Moon Gate of the little temple with one of her own offspring, the smallest of her four precious eggs, its golden crackle-glazed shell glowing in the lantern light. The abandoned baby sling was still there. Lady Feng tucked her egg into it, swaddling it in the cotton padding to keep it warm.

A child for a child: it seemed only fair.

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Sneak Peek Extract: Les Vampires by Tim Major

Introduction

“My young friend, I know nothing about the Vampires, only that everyone fears them.” 

LES VAMPIRES (1915–16) is a mystery. It is justly famous, yet relatively rarely watched. Its imagery is iconic, but misleading: the famous image of a female vampire bat preying on a victim involves none of the main characters, and the serial features no mythological vampires. It is commonly classed as one of the longest films in the world, at around seven hours long, but this, too, is a misunderstanding given its serialised release, with ten episodes over nine screenings. Finally, while LES VAMPIRES was a contemporary success its reels narrowly avoided being destroyed in the 1930s, and the film wasn’t distributed in English-speaking countries until 1965.

So, like many modern viewers, I came to LES VAMPIRES with uncertain expectations. What I knew of the serial had been gleaned from stills in cinema history books, and from that terrific promotional poster image showing Musidora / Irma Vep entangled in a red question mark. I’d become interested in Victorian and fin-de-siècle crime fiction about rogues and gentlemen-thieves, progressing from E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles, to Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, to Marcel Allain’s and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas. This in turn led me to Louis Feuillade’s first great crime serial, FANTÔMAS (1913).

But it was within Oliver Assayas’ lively, strange film IRMA VEP (1996), about a French director unsuccessfully attempting to remake LES VAMPIRES, that I first saw a snippet of the serial itself. The fictional director, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, demonstrates the magnificence of LES VAMPIRES and its greatest asset, the criminal Irma Vep played by Musidora, by screening a clip from Episode 6, ‘The Hypnotic Gaze’. Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is suitably impressed – and I was stunned. I was determined to watch LES VAMPIRES at the first opportunity.

Rather than consuming the serial in one go (see my earlier point about the length of the film – who would want to?), I worked through it in fits and starts. I watched episodes late at night, often the same episode twice in one sitting. I watched them early in the morning with my newborn first child. I packed DVDs to watch on hotel TVs when I worked away from home. I treated each new episode as a gift to myself, to be withheld and then savoured. Filmmakers and critics often talk of the ‘journey’ experienced by film audiences, but over seven hours the journey – and the relationship with characters – is more profound. Moreover, the tone of LES VAMPIRES takes a few episodes to ‘bed in’, after which point its tangents and about-faces become less jarring and more welcome.  The viewer is trained, gradually, to watch the serial and anticipate its internal logic.

Since watching the serial for the first time, I see its influence in more and more unlikely places. The hotel setting of Ingmar Bergman’s masterful THE SILENCE (1963) evokes the hotel in ‘The Hypnotic Gaze’, with its corridors that twist back on themselves, the deserted streets outside. Jacques Rivette’s CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974) not only features its leads wearing replicas of Musidora’s silk bodysuit, but also adopts Feuillade’s dreamlike tone and circuitousness. David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017) retains the episodic structure of LES VAMPIRES and also its obliqueness and the requirement of surrendering to its woozy logic.

After watching the serial the first time around I wished I had taken notes. So, when Neil Snowdon offered me the chance to write about a cult film as part of the Midnight Movie Monographs series, I was eager to choose LES VAMPIRES. It may not be an outright horror movie, and it may not have been a cult film at its time of release, but nowadays it exists in a strange hinterland: it is an accepted canonical classic that remains ‘under the radar’ for many cineastes. Writing this book allowed me not only to revisit the film and linger on its peculiarities – not least by writing tangential stories loosely inspired by each of the ten episodes[1] – but also to explore some of the context of the film that hadn’t occurred to me on first viewing. Why are the streets of Paris deserted in the film? Because not only was France gripped by the Great War, the front line was just outside Paris and artillery might strike the city at any time. Why does the leader of the Vampire gang change so regularly? Because male contributors to the film were regularly called away to fight on the front line. Why is Musidora always so compelling to watch? Perhaps that’s the most complex question of all…

I’ve watched LES VAMPIRES in its entirety countless times while writing this book, and I’m happy to report that it only improves with multiple viewings. It remains equally magical whether monochrome or tinted, whether accompanied by an orchestral score or a soundtrack of, for example, Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics, whether viewed on a widescreen TV or relegated to a window within a laptop screen (though I can only imagine the amplification of its magic when projected onto a cinema screen).

I think, perhaps, LES VAMPIRES may have become my favourite film. If nothing else, I hope that my enthusiasm for it is infectious.

Tim Major, York, January 2018

[1] One of them was written many years ago, though, and references a different film, in a nod to Feuillade’s incorporation of unrelated, previously-filmed material.

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What’s New? Forthcoming Titles from Electric Dreamhouse Press

We’ve now pretty much drawn the line beneath Neil Snowdon’s epic evaluation of the work of the great Nigel Kneale for Electric Dreamhouse, WE ARE THE MARTIANS. And now, as if that were not enough, Neil has just handed in three new Midnight Movie Monographs but I’m going to pass you across to the man himself to get the official lowdown.

Over to you, Neil . . . 

There are few things that make you happier as an editor than knowing that a reader loves your book. Doubly so when that reader has a direct connection to the subject. So it’s been immensely gratifying to see people’s reactions to the Deluxe Ltd Edition of WE ARE THE MARTIANS over the last week or so.

Thanks to everyone for their kinds words and for their patience as the last leg of the journey took a little longer than expected. I hope you’ll agree though, it was worth it. Please do tag us in your Twitter posts, and on Facebook etc if you’re sharing.

The book was a labour of love for all of us involved, and I know that readers share that love for Nigel Kneale and his work, so I think you’ll all appreciate how much it meant to receive a telephone call from his widow, the author and illustrator Judith Kerr, last friday who wanted to thank us for her copy of the Deluxe Edition, and to say how much she loves it. It’s as close as we can ever come to getting Nigel’s own approval, and it means the world to me.

With that in mind, it seems a good time to announce that work is underway on afollow up volume of essays, and a related project that I can’t quite tell you about just yet. But with Judith’s enthusiastic approval, we took the opportunity to start talking about something that Pete and I have both long dreamed of. Fingers crossed we’ll have something to announce soon!

Manuscripts for the the next three books in the Midnight Movie Monograph series are in with cover art and layouts being worked on as I type and I’m very excited about them. What are they you say?

Well, we’ve got Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas writing about Euro Cult Poe Anthology SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (Histoires Extraordinaire) directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini; a film that changed his life as a young teen. I always knew the movie was important to Tim, but what he’s written completely overturned the way I saw the film. You’re in for a treat! (I’ll be saying this a lot by the way, but one of the great thrills of doing the job I do is commissioning writers I love to cover movies that mean the world to them, and seeing the sparks that result).

We’ve also got UK novelist Tim Major, author of YOU DON’T BELONG HERE, whose work was new to me until about a year or two ago, and who has been a revelation. He’s written a monograph on the sublime silent serial LES VAMPIRES, and in the process reignited my own obsession with its director Louis Feuillade, and Paris in that period. One of the reasons I always wanted to approach authors as well as critics for this series was precisely the hope that they’d bring a different angle to that we might expect and Tim has delivered in spades. His book is part commentary and exploration of his own fascination with the film, and part metatextual fiction that responds to, and evokes, the uncanny texture of the dreamlike world of the film itself. (Check out the rough version of the cover art).

Finally, I think I may have birthed a monster. Or rather Stephen R. Bissette has, and oh my am I happy about it!

Perhaps you know Steve as the extraordinary comics artist of Swamp Thing (from the classic run with Alan Moore and John Totleben), or his own biography of a T-Rex,Tyrant. Or maybe you know him as the editor and publisher of Taboo, the groundbreaking horror comic anthology which birthed From Hell and many others. Or maybe you were introduced to him—as I was as a snot nosed pre-teen—in the pages of Gorezone, where he took over from the mighty Chas. Balun to write a column that was about so much more than ‘gore movies’. Hell, perhaps you know him from the many books about film and comics history he’s written over the years as well. If you know him at all, you likely know that he doesn’t do anything by half.

And so when I invited him to write for the series, and he suggested THE BROOD, not only did I leap on it, I knew it would likely be a little longer than the usual 30,000 words. And as the book came together and Steve kept me updated, we knew that indeed it would go long, it kept expanding, new avenues kept opening but I don’t think even Steve expected that it would come in at roughly 250,000 words! Steve is what you might call a ‘holistic film critic’ he doesn’t just look at a theme or the filmic history of a genre convention he looks at it ALL. The emergence of an idea within a culture, where and how that relates to the times in which the film was conceived and made, how that might have influenced the filmmakers in creating the film, and the audience in how they received it; the production history and where it sits within the chronology of regional and genre film making; the personal histories of the artists involved and of the critic who is writing this . . . why it was so desperately, and deeply important to him and so at odds with the critical establishment of the time, including critics that he has enormous respect for. One shys away from calling something a ‘definitive’ work, but I think it’s safe to say  this one is going to be a bit special.

I’ll leave it there for now. There’s more exciting stuff to come from Electric Dreamhouse this year, but I’d like to keep a few things to surprise you with!

The order page is up for LES VAMPIRES with the pages for THE BROOD and SPIRITS  OF THE DEAD to follow in the coming week.

Sneak Peek Extract: DISLOCATIONS by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke

DISLOCATIONS, the first volume of the Kon-tiki Quartet, tells the story of humankind’s last-gasp efforts to reach the stars, set against the backdrop of an Earth torn apart by looming environmental disaster . . .

Project Kon-tiki, the world’s first extra-solar colony expedition, is just weeks away from departure, and tension is mounting at Lakenheath Base. Psychologist Kat Manning is one of the eighteen specialist whose clone will be sent to the stars, and her job is to work with the original specialists, the ‘left behind’, to monitor and support them through their dislocation . . . But when Kat is kidnapped by the Allianz, a faction opposed to the colonisation program, more than just her safety is at stake. The entire mission is in jeopardy.

Sneak Peek Extract: DISLOCATIONS

TRAVIS DENHOLME LEFT HIS RENTED COTTAGE ON THE outskirts of Ely at three and arrived at Lakenheath Base forty-five minutes later. Dusk was falling, presaging another subzero January night. Even from a mile away, the halogen arrays illuminated the base with a glare that spread across the surrounding forest and obliterated any sign of the stars overhead.

The usual crowd of protesters was stationed on the approach road, their numbers increased due to the imminence of the launch. The local police and security guards drafted in by UNSA had done their job, and the two hundred noisy protestors were kettled behind carbonfibre fences well back from the road. Even so, the din of their voices increased as his car approached; just last week an activist had scaled the fence and flung herself in front of the little VW. The car’s systems had braked too late, and the woman had thumped into the grille and rolled over the bonnet, screaming her hatred through the windscreen. She’d dropped to the tarmac, picked herself up, and staggered off, seemingly unhurt, but Travis had been shaken by the incident.

As he neared the gate of the base, he passed the area to his right reserved for the protest leaders and their guests: B-list celebs attempting to up their failing profiles by identifying themselves with the Allianz. A dozen men and women stamped their feet around a plasma-burner, trying to ward off the Arctic blast, one or two of them turning to stare at his car as it braked before the gate. Beyond the small group, banners and placards gave voice to Allianz discontent: Project Kon-Tiki a Big Con, and Anarchists Against Colonisation.

Ute was there, as ever; tiny and looking perished in her green puffa jacket, a woolly hat pulled down over her ears. For a second, it seemed that their eyes connected, but he reassured himself that she wouldn’t be able to make him out through the side-window. He stared straight ahead at the slowly opening gate, wondering if he would have been on this side of the fence had Ute not finished with him ten years ago. The car rolled through the gate, braking before the second gate as the first closed behind him. A security guard stepped from a lighted kiosk, and Travis wound down his window and presented the biometric chip embedded in his metacarpus.

“Evening, Dr Denholme,” the guard said, scanning his hand.

“Here we go. Enjoy the party.”

Travis smiled. “I’ll do my best.”

The second gate slid open and the car drove on, Travis aware that he was moving from one world to another, from a world of deprivation and conflict to one of privilege—and, like a symbol of that privilege, a mile away across the frost-encrusted apron, the towering form of the shuttle stood beside the launch gantry. In four days the eighteen specialists would depart Lakenheath Base for the starship parked in geo-sync orbit, and a week later the Kon-Tiki would light out for the stars.

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ONE MORE KILL by Matt Hughes

Sneak Peek Extract:

ONE MORE KILL by Matt Hughes

For seven years, I’d thought of myself as a dead man walking. 

     Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but that was how I felt. Before those seven years of real-life zombiehood, I had spent more than twenty years as a US Army Ranger. The basic job of a Ranger is killing, so most of my Army years had been taken up with preparing to kill people or teaching others how to do it, interspersed with some brief periods actually devoted to taking lives. 

     But besides making me into a highly effective killer, the military had also made me a creature of routine. So once a month, during those dead-man-walking years, I would take the subway downtown to the VA center and wait in a big room full of plastic chairs and half-filled with people who didn’t talk to each other much, though some of them talked to themselves. I would wait until my name was called, then go into a small room where a youngish, moonfaced MD named John Oliphaunt – everybody called him Doc Ollie – took a few ccs of my blood. He slipped the vial off the needle and held it up to the light and said, “Well, you’re still a red-blooded American boy.” 

     Which was what he always said. And I always answered, “Then why didn’t the Army want me anymore?”

     He wrote a few words and numbers on an adhesive label then stuck the paper to the little container. “We’ll call you if there’s anything . . .” and left the rest of it hanging. Right where it had been hanging for every month of those seven years.

     After that, I would leave the VA Center and go on with the rest of my routine. I had been running a small travel agency in mid-town Manhattan since the Army had cut me loose on a medical discharge. So on this day like any other day, I rode the subway back, got off at the stop near the deli where I usually bought lunch, picked up four sandwiches and took them back to the office. Marj, who pretty much ran the business for me, looked a question at me when I handed her her ham-and-Emmental on pumpernickel. I shook my head and shrugged, told her, “Same old, same old.”

     Another cliché, yes. But there could be nothing new in my life, so there was no reason to find new ways to say the same old things.

     Shelley Cooper and Rosaline Amberson, my other two employees, were at their desks in the travel poster-decorated open area out front, both on the phones. I gave them their lunches, got smiles and nods of thanks, then went to my own little cubicle in the rear. I ate my roast beef on whole wheat and washed it down with black coffee from the carafe beside the sink. There was paperwork to do, so I did it. When I finished, I tidied my desk, got up and told Marj I was going for a walk. 

     “Be back before closing?” she said.

      I didn’t know. “If I’m not, close up, okay?”

     “No problem.”

     I went out into the fall sunshine. A few blocks east and I turned onto Eighth Avenue and went up to Columbus Circle then continued on to Central Park West. It was a toss-up whether I’d go into the park or stay on the sidewalk until I got to the Museum of Natural History. I’d had a thing about dinosaurs when I was nine or ten; it was the only part of my childhood I cared to revisit.

     But today it was the park. I walked about with no particular destination in mind, turning from one path onto another at random, thinking about nothing much because I had nothing much to think about. From the day of my discharge until my present age of fifty-three, I’d been like the man in the old Ian Tyson song: just getting up every day and walking around. Sometimes I’d sit on a bench to watch the passers-by, the tourists and the New Yorkers. They were all strangers to me. I had only ever made one friend in my life and, after he’d sold me the travel agency and arranged for me to take over the lease on his apartment, he’d headed south to play golf, drink whiskey, and let himself be chased by widows.

     When it started to get dark, I walked home. It had been a routine day, just like the one that came before it and just like the one after. But the one that came next changed everything, forever.

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Sneak Peek Extract: ‘The Goosle’ by Margo Lanagan

‘There,’ said Grinnan as we cleared the trees. ‘Now, you keep your counsel, Hanny-boy.’

     Why, that is the mudwife’s house, I thought. Dread thudded in me. Since two days ago among the older trees when I knew we were in my father’s forest, I’d feared this.

     The house looked just as it did in my memory: the crumbling, glittery yellow walls, the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud. My tongue rubbed the roof of my mouth just looking. It is crisp as wafer-biscuit on the outside, that mud. You bite through to a sweetish sand inside. You are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating.

     The mudwife might be dead, I thought hopefully. So many are dead, after all, of the black.

     But then came a convulsion in the house. A face passed the window-hole, and there she was at the door. Same squat body with a big face snarling above. Same clothing, even, after all these years, the dress trying for bluishness and the pinafore for brown through all the dirt. She looked just as strong. However much bigger I’d grown, it took all my strength to hold my bowels together.

     ‘Don’t come a step nearer.’ She held a red fire-banger in her hand, but it was so dusty—if I’d not known her I’d have laughed.

     ‘Madam, I pray you,’ said Grinnan. ‘We are clean as clean—there’s not a speck on us, not a blister. Humble travellers in need only of a pig hut or a chicken shed to shelter the night.’

     ‘Touch my stock and I’ll have you,’ she says to all his smoothness. ‘I’ll roast your head in a pot.’

     I tugged Grinnan’s sleeve. It was all too sudden—one moment walking wondering, the next on the doorstep with the witch right there, talking heads in pots.

     ‘We have pretties to trade,’ said Grinnan.

     ‘You can put your pretties up your poink-hole where they belong.’

     ‘We have all the news of long travel. Are you not at all curious about the world and its woes?’

     ‘Why would I live here, tuffet-head?’ And she went inside and slammed her door and banged the shutter across her window.

     ‘She is softening,’ said Grinnan. ‘She is curious. She can’t help herself.’

     ‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

     ‘You watch me. Get us a fire going, boy. There on that bit of bare ground.’

     ‘She will come and throw her bunger in it. She’ll blind us, and then—’

     ‘Just make and shut. I tell you, this one is as good as married to me. I have her heart in my hand like a rabbit-kitten.’

     I was sure he was mistaken, but I went to, because fire meant food and just the sight of the house had made me hungry. While I fed the fire its kindling, I dug up a little stone from the flattened ground and sucked the dirt off it.

     Grinnan had me make a smelly soup. Salt fish, it had in it, and sea-celery and the yellow spice.

     When the smell was strong, the door whumped open and there she was again. Ooh, she was so like in my dreams, with her suddenness and her ugly intentions that you can’t guess. But it was me and Grinnan this time, not me and Kirtle. Grinnan was big and smart, and he had his own purposes. And I knew there was no magic in the world, just trickery on the innocent. Grinnan would never let anyone else trick me; he wanted that privilege all for himself.

     ‘Take your smelly smells from my garden this instant!’ the mudwife shouted.

     Grinnan bowed as if she’d greeted him most civilly.     ‘Madam, if you’d join us? There is plenty of this lovely bull-a-bess for you as well.’

     ‘I’d not touch my lips to such mess. What kind of foreign muck—’

     Even I could hear the longing in her voice, that she was trying to shout down.

     There before her he ladled out a bowlful—yellow, splashy, full of delicious lumps. Very humbly—he does humbleness well when he needs to, for such a big man—he took it to her. When she recoiled he placed it on the little table by the door, the one that I ran against in my clumsiness when escaping, so hard I still sometimes feel the bruise in my rib. I remember, I knocked it skittering out the door, and I flung it back meaning to trip up the mudwife. But instead I tripped up Kirtle, and the wife came out and plucked her up and bellowed after me and kicked the table onto the path, and ran out herself with Kirtle like a tortoise swimming from her fist and kicked the table aside again—

     Bang! went the cottage door.

     Grinnan came laughing quietly back to me.

     ‘She is ours. Once they’ve et your food, Hanny, you’re free to eat theirs. Fish and onion pie tonight, I’d say.’

     ‘Eugh.’

     ‘Jealous, are we? Don’t like old Grinnan supping at other pots, hnh?’

     ‘It’s not that!’ I glared at his laughing face. ‘She’s so ugly, that’s all. So old. I don’t know how you can even think of—’

     ‘Well, I am no primrose myself, golden boy,’ he says. ‘And I’m grateful for any flower that lets me pluck her.’

     I was not old and desperate enough to laugh at that joke. I pushed his soup bowl at him.

     ‘Ah, bull-a-bess,’ he said into the steam. ‘Food of gods and seducers.’

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Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

Sneak Peek Extract: Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages

“Aaahhh-eeeeeeee-aaahhhh-eeeee-aaaahhhh-eeeeee-aaaahhhhh!”

A long, ululating cry pierced the quiet of the jungle.

“That’s Tarzan!” Boy said. “He’s going for a swim!” Boy grabbed Cheeta’s paw and they raced through the wiry grass until they came to the bank of the mighty river. A fallen tree lay across a branch of a taller tree, overhanging the water. As nimbly as any young ape, Boy scampered up the steep angle to stand beside his father, leaving Cheeta below to watch.

Tarzan stood high above the slow-moving river, naked except for a triangular loincloth low on his hips, his knife sheathed at his side. He was a magnificent man, his thick hair long and dark, his skin the color of honey. He was poised and ready to dive, every inch of his smoothly muscled body as sleek and lithe as an animal’s, showing at a glance his wondrous combination of enormous strength, suppleness, and speed. His deep, brooding eyes scanned his realm.

The ape-man might be ignorant of the ways of civilization, uneducated, childlike in his puzzlement about the tools of the white man. But this was his world, and in it, he was the most cunning, the most intelligent, the most respected—and most feared—of all the creatures. King of the Jungle.

“Umgawa!” he said to Boy. And without another word—for he was a man of few words—Tarzan took another step out onto the limb, flexed his powerful legs and—

“Cut!” yelled the director.

Johnny Weissmuller relaxed. He looked down into the crystal clear waters of Wakulla Springs for a moment, then cuffed little Johnny Sheffield on the shoulder, and the two actors climbed down the ladder hidden from the cameras on the far side of the tree. On the ground, his assistant helped him into his white terrycloth robe, its edges stained brown from his full-body makeup. Weissmuller was as tan as any man in Hollywood, but Tarzan had to be flawless.

“Boy go for swim?” he asked.

Sheffield shook his head. “I’ve got to do my schoolwork. Union rules.”

“Swim tomorrow,” Weissmuller said, and ruffled his blond curls.

A colored boy rowed them across the water to the movie encampment with its folding canvas chairs, tents, and trunks of equipment. Weissmuller slouched into the chair stenciled BIG JOHN, and watched as Little John ran across the manicured lawn and into the Lodge for his lessons.

Cameras were mounted on a floating barge in the middle of the river. Beyond them, two stunt doubles now stood on the tree branch, and at a signal from Thorpe, the director, they dived headfirst into the deep, clear water. One of them faltered and made a huge splash.

“Crap!” said Thorpe. He turned to the swimming coordinator.

“We have to shoot that again, Newt. Tarzan doesn’t splash, for crissakes.”

“Can do.” Newt Perry waited for the two Tallahassee lifeguards to swim over to the platform. “He wants it again. Make it a clean entry, this time.”

The smaller of the two boys grinned. “At fifty bucks a dive, I’ll go in any way he wants.”

“Just dry off and get back up there. The sun’s almost below the trees.”

Johnny watched from his chair. Even with the canvas umbrella, he could feel the heat of the sun on his back. Time for a cold one. He waited for the cameras to roll again and watched as two men carried a big wooden crate around the side of the hotel, struggling to keep it upright.

With a grunt, they lowered it to the ground next to a big wire cage outside the prop tent. Weissmuller could hear angry screeches from inside the box.

“What’s in there?”

“Monkeys.” The man opened the cage door and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Two more crates up there. Turtles and some kinda birds. Parrots, I think.”

He pulled on a pair of heavy gloves while his partner used a crowbar to open the lid, splintering it. The gloved man grabbed the nimble little animals by the scruffs of their necks as they clambered out, and tossed them into the cage.

“How’re you going to ship them back?” Weissmuller pointed to the ruined crate.

“Don’t have to. One jungle’s the same as another. We’ll just let ’em go when the shoot’s over.” He closed the cage, rattled the handle to make sure it was latched, and headed back toward the hotel.

“Quiet on the set!” the assistant director yelled through his megaphone.

Johnny turned back to the action above the river.

The next dive was as slick as a whistle, almost as good as he could have done himself. He flexed his shoulders. He hated the idea of a stunt double, but the studio demanded it. At two grand a week, he was too valuable to risk. He glanced at the thirty-foot diving platform over the deepest part of the springs. Thorpe had been away yesterday afternoon for a meeting, and Johnny had spent an hour diving off again and again, happy as a kid. The other guests at the Lodge had gathered around, applauding.

That was okay, too.

“We almost done?” he called to the assistant director after he’d yelled Cut!

“Yeah. Losing the light.” The man walked over, looking at his watch. “I should remind Thorpe he’s got dinner with Mr. Ball in an hour. Coat and tie for the dining room.”

And a direct line of sight across the lawn to the platform. No diving tonight. “Okay.” Weissmuller stood up, towering over the other man. “I’m going to change, drive into town.”

“Thorpe says—” He paused. “—He says to keep it in your pants and go easy on the booze. You’ve got close-ups tomorrow. Ten o’clock call.”

Johnny shrugged. “Tarzan have fun.” It wasn’t his idea to film in a dry county. He stepped over the tangle of cables and headed for his room in the Lodge. His robe open, his feet bare, he padded quietly across the terrazzo floor of the lobby, almost as silently as if he were the king of this jungle.

Twenty minutes later, showered and shaved, his long hair slicked back and tamed with Brylcreem, he stepped out of the elevator and looked around the ornately tiled lobby. He’d been told the hand-painted designs on the cypress beams of the ceiling were Moorish, with a little art-deco Mayan, like Graumann’s, but they reminded him of the barns in the Pennsylvania Dutch country where he grew up.

He smiled and strode down the hallway to the front door. It would have seemed unlikely to any observer that the man in the crisp, short-sleeved tropical weight shirt and knife-creased linen slacks had been swinging half-naked through the primeval forest an hour before.

“Black Packard,” he said, tossing the keys to a colored boy.

“Yessuh.” He brought the convertible around, chrome winking golden in the last of the afternoon sun, and held the door open.

Johnny Weissmuller nodded his thanks, flipped the boy a coin, and got behind the wheel. He slid his sunglasses from under the visor, put them on, and angled the sleek car out on to the highway that led north to Tallahassee. Twenty miles between him and the admiring young co-eds of the Florida State College for Women. A good night to be a movie star.

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ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins

Sneak Peek Extract: 

ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins

At three months of age, Sara had crushed her grandmother’s index finger. Turned the bone to sawdust. By ten months she had broken six cots and her mother gave up and let her share the double bed. Nobody was allowed to give her wooden toys. Wood, for some reason, aroused more acutely the desire to break and crush. She fared better with stuffed teddies, which she loved to cuddle and stroke. As though their lack of resistance to the world made them safe from her unquenchable desire to smash everything to pulp.

By her third birthday, she was starting to learn self-control. As strong as she was, she still hadn’t worked out the buttons on the remote control. The threat of missing Playschool could make her behave. Then Disney princesses taught her meek beauty. She couldn’t plough her shoulder into the wall as fast in pink plastic high-heels.

But she was always aware of the dark thing inside her. It thrilled her and it frightened her, and she quickly learned to be ashamed of it; though the shame didn’t make it go away. Behind the long backyard was an empty block, and she spent furtive hours every afternoon breaking branches, turning over rocks, chucking broken bricks into the iron fence. School was hard: so many other children to get along with. They had to move town four times, change schools, start over. Broken monkey bars. Water bubblers wrenched off their weldings. A whiteboard eraser thrown so hard at the wall that it made a hole through the plasterboard and sailed through to the other side.

By sixth grade she was fatigued from being the new kid. She learned to be gentle. She learned to pull the rage out of her hands and arms, compress it into a white-hot ball behind her ribs. She sometimes broke a desk or a chair by accident, and gained a reputation among her teachers for being clumsy. Of course. A girl her size had to be clumsy.

That was it. She came to heel.

 *  *  *

Only that wasn’t it. There was one other incident, wasn’t there? She just didn’t like to remember it. High school, bitchy teenage girls, a Queen Bee. Sara always kept her eyes down, but she nudged six foot, with red-gold hair and generous curves. She couldn’t stay invisible. The rage bubbled over. It seemed so long ago now since she had felt that power move up through her veins and sinews…

Sara had seen Queen Bee just two weeks ago, across the road in the distance. She was still in the wheelchair. The clumsy-fingered churn of guilt had started all over again. Nobody had been around to witness that fight. The injuries weren’t consistent with a schoolyard smackdown, so nobody believed Queen Bee and of course Sara denied everything.

Sara was used to denying everything.

Now available for pre-order, here.

Best New Horror #28!!!

We’re ready for action with BEST NEW HORROR #28, in both trade paperback and regular hardcover states and surely-to-goodness sporting the best yet cover art of total depravity and downright unpleasantness.

Check this for a line-up, believers:

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Horror in 2016 – The Editor
  • Pale Tree House – Angela Slatter
  • The Light at the Centre – Maura McHugh
  • En Plein Air – J.T. Glover
  • India Blue – Glen Hirshberg
  • Walking with the Cross – Peter Bell
  • Bedtime Story – Richard Christian Matheson
  • The Symphony of the Normal – Darren Speegle
  • The Ballet of Dr. Caligari – Reggie Oliver
  • Who is This Who is Coming? – Lynda E. Rucker
  • The House That Moved Next Door – Stephen Volk
  • Princess – Dennis Etchison
  • A Home in the Sky – Lisa Tuttle
  • On These Blackened Shores of Time – Brian Hodge
  • The Enemy Within – Steve Rasnic Tem
  • The Court of Midnight – Mark Samuels
  • Far from Any Shore – Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • The Fig Garden – Mark Valentine
  • White Feathers – Alison Littlewood
  • Over to You – Michael Marshall Smith
  • In the Dark, Quiet Places – Kristi DeMeester
  • Mare’s Nest – Richard Gavin
  • The Red Forest – Angela Slatter
  • Necrology: 2016 – Stephen Jones & Kim Newman
  • Useful Addresses

We’ll have to hold off for a while until the signature sheets for the limited edition have made their way around the world . . . but you know the drill on that score: we’ll get as much done as we’re able.

Meanwhile, we’re delighted to announce that BEST NEW HORROR #29 is now open to submissions of materials first published in 2017. All the details can be found, here.

Deadline is January 2018.