Remembering Harlan Ellison

Once upon a time when the world was younger and maybe just a tiny tad or two wiser . . .

(though perhaps that’s just the way it seemed), I strolled to the stop one day after school to pick up the bus home and, keen to delay homework, sidestepped into one of the Leeds branches of Woolworths—yesirree in those days the bigger towns regularly had several Woolworth stores. First port or ports of call were the comics and book counters (always a healthy display) and their Embassy records stand where you could buy cover versions of ‘hip pop songs’ of the day recorded by other artists (yeah, these truly were wiser times). Anyway, on the bookstand, I saw, amidst a confusion of gaudily covered paperbacks, one book that has, it’s fair to say, pretty much changed my life: ELLISON WONDERLAND by Harlan Ellison, in whose brief but brimming 190-page array of creativity I was to meet Skidoop, a beatnick Beelzebub; I think, member of a race of suicidal super giants visiting Earth briefly on his way to eternity; and Gnomebody, a jazzy little leprechaun in a pork-pie hat.

I bought the book (aged 13 or so—it was 1962) and pretty much read it that same night and so started a love affair with Harlan Ellison’s writing, his joie de vivre, that irreverent and often downright cruel chutzpa, and his pure alligator-like irascibility. And now he’s gone. Just like that.

And so we went on together, with me steadily building my Ellison collection (along with many others), the two of us, not actually meeting until 1993 at the World Fantasy Convention in Bloomington, Minnesota (about which more later).

In the dog days of autumn 1988 . . .

John Gilbert and the Newsfield crew (CRASH magazine, LM and others) came up with a new magazine called FEAR and I started freelancing for them doing reviews and fairly detailed interviews which I was also doing for David Pringle’s INTERZONE and MILLION, Jessica Horsting’s MIDNIGHT GRAFFITISTRANGE THINGS ARE HAPPENING and so on which included Ray Bradbury, Patrick McGrath, Andrew Vahchss Jonathan Carroll, Ramsey Campbell and, of course, Harlan not to mention umpteen musicians including Frank Zappa (now there’s a story!).

Talking to Harlan was a gas, hilarious, eye-opening (and—watering!), and both funny and sad, often in the same breath. The man did not pull punches and when he had an opinion (like, when did he NOT!) he let everyone know. Thus you’ll find many people in the industry hold differing opinions and I have to say that they’re all justifiable. In closing that particular item, I’ll say this. Being some years away from emails and the internet, I sent the article across to Harlan and got on with the process of preparing for our annual holidays then a couple of weeks away.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the docks about to leave for France, to receive a telephone call (I had a mobile phone courtesy of my job at the bank but it was a far cry from the tiny cell-jobs I carry now . . . more a fully realized telephone kiosk strapped to my back!) from my mother who, in turn, had received a delightful call from a “lovely young man (all men were young as far as my mother was concerned, even then, when she was the age I passed just yesterday) in California called Alan Ellington” who wanted me to ring him about an article. To cut to the chase, I called Alan Ellington (a cunning disguise on Harlan’s part) and he waxed lyrical about the piece which, with a handful of amends, he passed for publication.

We remained pretty good friends from that point, exchanging comic books and telephone conversations.

 

Harlan never seemed able to come to terms with the fact that when it was 8 in the evening for him, it was 4 in the morning for me. But I have to say I could forgive the guy pretty much anything, even when, just a few years ago when we were working on the special PS edition of ELLISON WONDERLAND (which is where we came in on this topic, kids, so stay with it to the end as well as this entire Newsletter) and had a contretemps with Harlan calling me daily (in the Yorkshire Dales when Nicky and I were taking a few days walking) and saying things that I like to think he didn’t really mean. Thus the book appeared without the two of us speaking about it, but it did receive some great reviews and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to reprint the book as a trade paperback under PS’s Drugstore Indian Press imprint . . . along the same lines as our Caitlin Kiernan collections. I’ll let you know.

But now I’d like to finish a little more upbeat

. . . by going back to my attending (at the same time as Harlan, whom, I believe, was a Lifetime Achievement winner) the Convention in Bloomington.

It was my first Big convention and my first time in Minnesota where, I kid you not, the spit freezes in your mouth in seconds unless you dress warm. I was up for Best Anthology Award for my editing debut, NARROW HOUSES and, in line with the generosity and warmth of spirit that is so prevalent in this screwball business lots of folks were coming up to me and telling me—with winks and back-slaps galore—that I stood a good chance of winning, even given the remarkable quality of volumes up for recognition. Thus I spent a goodly amount of time the evening before the big Banquet at which the Awards were made, writing my acceptance speech.

And so I sat, trembling nervously as one after another, the categories and nominees were announced until, lo and behold, Small Crowther Person, the time came for Best Anthology.

Now, I’m not going to BS ya on this cos it wouldn’t be fair.

This is how we operate, you and me, and it’s too late to stop now even if I wanted to. And so I will tell you this: for the briefest of moments, I wanted to kill Dennis Etchison, for it was he who, with that fabulous tome, METAHORROR—and Dennis, there’s still a part of me that hates you—accepted the Best Antho Award to rapturous applause. And ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you that some of that applause was from me—truthfully—delivered as it was with a rictus grin and a tear-channelled face. METAHORROR was/is a damn fine book. And, hey, I regained the power of speech in a short time thereafter.

But there was someone else at that Convention, someone else who, it turned out, also thought I should win (not as much as I thought I should win—don’t forget, we’re telling truths here, kids) and, Goddamnit, he was on a mission to make sure the whole world knew.

So I’m in the lobby talking with Dennis Etchison (who, somewhat annoyingly, was holding his statuette—MY damn statuette, ladies and gents) plus Tom Monteleone and Peter Straub. And suddenly, entering stage right, Harlan appears a few yards away, and he’s marching determinedly in the direction of we four humble scribblers.

I like to think that everything went quiet and, heck, maybe even time stopped, but I guess it didn’t, not really. But Harlan’s presence turned heads—no question. And he stepped right up to us, took hold of my beard (I wore a full set in those halcyon days) and shook it so hard I thought he was about to pull the damn thing right on off of my face. And relaxing his grip, Harlan said “You wuz rucked, kiddo.” And without further ado, having completed his message to the troops, he strolled off like the Tasmanian Devil in the old Warner Bros cartoons, threw his saddle and blanket over the pinto tethered to the bar and then he was gone leaving Dennis, Tom, Peter and me considering the only possible response which was “Hey, who was that masked man?”

And now he’s gone and, dammit, I’m pissed off that that singular voice has been silenced . . . though I suspect that on certain nights when the fire embers are still crackling in the grate and the candle is flickering close to dark, we’ll hear from him again—or think we did. And that’ll just have to do for now.

Happy trails, Harlan. You were a rascal, no denying, but one rascal every once in a while is essential.

— Peter Crowther 

 

Sneak Peek Extract: Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day

 

Check out these story extracts:

Change always comes slower to the Midwest. Sacramento, California, had lost power months ago: bunnies in the substations and gas pipelines that had run dry. Meanwhile, DC had emptied of its politicians and any semblance of nation-wide emergency management.

The Ohio version of the apocalypse mostly involved Pilates classes and running clubs filled with other women of childbearing age. Bunny fever, people called the new birthing paradigm, and not in a good way. If you were a woman, you better be a skinny woman with no possible baby bump in sight. Nothing like impending group hate to motivate. Regular exercise had never been so popular.

Even after the fall of both coasts, in Lakemore we had streetlights, local news, and reliable refrigeration. And staying healthy wasn’t such a bad thing. Compared to most everywhere else, it was actually a good place to live. That’s what Steph and I and all those other women told ourselves. And why not? We had nowhere else to go.

—From “Everyone Gets a Happy Ending”

And this:

Horace’s fingers were skeletal thin and oh so hungry. His eyes dark as empty holes. Once upon a time, before the scream of metal against metal had mixed with all those other screams, before she and Horace and the Orphan Train had arrived in the woods, Horace had been different. Back then, Horace had loved the hills on the west side of Manhattan almost as much as he loved these woods. He’d loved rolling barrels through the alley next to their apartment and yelling at the top of his lungs. One autumn day he’d tucked one of their father’s many hand-rolled cigarettes behind his ear and chased a wooden barrel down the steep hill on Strathmore Street, grinning and making Eliza swear she wouldn’t tell, even as he flipped and fell and lay sprawled across the paving stones at the bottom. Eliza had screamed then too despite Horace’s laughter, wrapped her arms round his neck.

—From “The Woman in the Woods”

Or this:

Long before Veronica’s death and everything that followed, I understood the power of film. The one secret that all photographers know: Only physical images offer an actual path to our living world. It is the chemicals—the darkness—the photographer’s intention—that cuts through death’s wall. No photographer is ever really alone. When we’re working, our darkrooms are like crowded railway stations: the dead passing through with each developed frame.

At night in my darkroom, I soak my limbs in developer, fixer, rinse, and then stare—hopeful—as the ghosts rise from the pictures I’ve imprinted on my arms: a longhaired child with stick-thin limbs, a scowling old woman with a limp, a village, a traveling horde, a forgotten family, the father carrying their smallest child. No matter what I try, it is always dead strangers who follow my guideposts back to the land of the living. My wife Veronica’s face is never among them. And so, each night after our daughter, Jenny, goes to bed, I turn on the blood-red light, submerge my arms, and try again.

—From “A Pinhole of Light”

What about this:

Just like every other morning, Momma sat with Sylvia and Grandma in the dim, wallpapered kitchen. Momma sipped her coffee and Grandma ate her oatmeal one careful bite at a time. Sylvia could almost count the seconds between each mouthful.

Three. Two. One. Swallow.

Meanwhile, Momma smiled and smiled.

“I thought I’d plant a few flowers, Mom, to get my mind off of things. You know, therapy.”

From the center of the table, two salt-and-pepper-shaker girls in yellow dresses watched Momma and Grandma Charko. Nearby a crowd of wallpaper ladies stared at them with faded, gone-away eyes. Momma’s own eyes were wide and shiny, like all those nights in Asheville when Momma didn’t bother to sleep, swallowing stuff she took out of that small wooden box. Momma took a different kind of pill now. Grandma and her days-of-the-week pillbox made sure of that.

—From “Raising Babies”

Wait, this:

After Tuttle’s stealth inspection and her second letter, the deputy, some newcomer fresh from the academy, showed up at my front door. He wore aviator sunglasses and very little hair. His pink skin glowed, oily from the summer heat, as he stared down at me. I thought I saw his nose wrinkle as he bent down to give me the papers.

“I don’t want them,” I said, trying to wave him away. This was only partially true. Paper was always a useful addition to the collection. It was the words written on them that I didn’t want.

“I drove all the way out here,” the deputy said in slow, careful tones, as though he was sure I’d somehow never noticed the county sheriff’s substation on my walks around town. As though my tiny stature indicated a tiny brain.

Stupid Arizona hick. I knew the titles of most works in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Latin American collection, along with a handful more in the Heard. I spent my time with Vik Muniz, Mario Martinez, and Gabriel Orozco. When I looked at their works, I felt myself stretching high into their private universes. Breathing was easier inside those frames.

—From “Holes in Heaven”

Also, this:

Peter’s hand moves slowly, hovering above Delia’s bare forearm, as little as an eighth of an inch between her flesh and his trembling fingers. The ghosts feel safest that way. That’s what Peter had told her as he swallowed the last of his beer and set the glass aside, his eyes intent, lingering first on her lips, and then falling from her breasts to her right arm.

Peter doesn’t look away despite the sideways glances of their companions and the uncomfortable clatter of their silverware. A lone waiter watches from across the terrace. Delia bends her head, ignoring them all. She is focused on Peter’s open palm as it creeps above her bare arm.

“Concentrate,” Peter whispers. His hot breath envelopes the outer curve of her ear.

What do the ghosts feel? Delia wonders but does not ask. Instead, she closes her eyes. For a moment nothing changes. The night air still feels dark and cool on her bare shoulders. She can hear the cars on the nearby Boulevard Saint-Michel as the taxis bring their loads of tourists to the Left Bank. A cab parks just beyond the terrace’s back stairs. A group of women erupt from the open door, speaking in English.

—From “Finding Your Way to the Coast”

And this:

When I was little I thought the world must be full of Mrs. Henrys: a second voice safely encased inside each special child, watching everything through their bright young eyes.

Back then, David didn’t care that he couldn’t see or hear or even touch Mrs. Henry. After all, Mrs. Henry was funny. And I was more than happy to repeat everything she said.

“When I’m bigger…” David said. “When I’m bigger, I’ll drive a car all the way to Alaska so I can see the polar bears and the igloos. Esta will come too because she’s my friend.”

“I was bigger once, little David Tissandier,” Mrs. Henry replied in her Mrs. Henry way, and already David was cracking up. “No. Really. Much bigger. With two extra rows of teeth, just like a dragon.”

“Fat whopper, Mrs. Henry. Fat whopper. Everyone knows dragons have one row of teeth. It’s sharks that are all jumbled.” But David was laughing. And Mrs. Henry was laughing too, the sound like a deep hum or a rumbling purr.

Of course, I was the only one who could hear her.

—From “Florida Miracles”

And this:

As soon as Hazel stepped off the ferry and onto Vinalhaven Island, she felt it. The carved stone eagle, the curb, the granite planter set in front of the fire station: the ghosts of Carver’s Harbor were embedded in the building materials of the little town. The other passengers who’d disembarked—even Hazel’s mom—didn’t seem to notice a thing. In that way the island ghosts were no different from the ones at home. Most people missed their presence entirely.

It was June, not even close to the height of tourist season, but the harbor town’s streets were bustling. An old man walked along the sidewalk dressed in a three-piece suit, his expression hidden by both his walrus mustache and the brim of his Trilby hat. A little farther down, a woman with weathered skin and upswept hair stood outside the Davidson Realty storefront. Despite the month, she wore a black skirt that hung just inches from the ground. Meanwhile, two boys in knee-high boots and woolen trousers raced the length of Main Street.

—From “Signal & Stone”

One more:

I took my time, silent, lips soft against your stomach. Tangled sheets. My hands clutched your narrow hips, then slipped higher until I felt the outer edges of your breasts. I tasted the dampness trickling from between your thighs, salt and musk. Like 8-mm film, my movements took sixteen frames one slow second at a time.

Afterwards, you held pieces of your special brown-orange film up to our bedside light, sharing your work. Each cell was marked, scratched, the original image buried somewhere underneath. Your art, you told me, was about transformation.

Even then I made mistakes. Pointed out a slash mark, an odd corner of red. Left the ghost of a fingerprint behind. “Love me,” I cried, finally deciphering the film’s tiny words. The long L and five smaller letters suddenly clear.

—From “Raven Hair”

C’mon now! How can you resist? Julie C. Day’s debut collection is now available for pre-order

 

Sneak Peek Extract: The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint

 

 

 

Those days, the prickly pear boys hung around the Little Tree Trading Post during the day, drowsing in the desert heat mostly, but still seeing and hearing everything that took place between the old adobe building and the two-lane road that ran up into the rez from the highway. They weren’t seen, themselves—or at least not as themselves. Nobody gave a second glance to the small grove of cacti crowded up against the base of one saguaro or another. Nobody even noticed that they were rarely in exactly the same place from one morning to the next.

But Thomas Corn Eyes did. He worked at the trading post and noted their different position every morning when he arrived for work.

No one in Thomas’s family had ever had eyes the colour of corn, either the green leaves of the tall midsummer growths or the yellow of the kernels. They got their name back when the federal government insisted a surname was required for everybody, without exception. On the rez they had a lot of fun coming up with names the whites thought were pregnant with traditional meaning. Johnny Squash Mother. Agnes White Deer. Robert Twin Dogs.

No, Thomas had brown eyes, the same as everyone else in the tribe. The difference was he could also see a little deeper into the invisible world of the spirits than most people could, but that wasn’t something he would ever talk about. He didn’t want to risk gaining the attention of the tribal shaman, Ramon Morago. For the past decade Morago had been searching for an apprentice, and working with him was the last thing Thomas wanted.

It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his Kikimi heritage, or even that he didn’t consider himself a spiritual person. But he was only eighteen and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life living on the rez, organizing sweats. He didn’t want to be making medicine bags for the aunties, taking Reuben’s dog boys out on their spirit quests, or any of the hundred-and-one other things a shaman did.

But no matter what he wanted or didn’t, he still saw into the spiritworld, and the spirits knew it.

Thomas was studying the cacti through the windows, trying to catch one of the prickly pear moving, when the long black Caddy pulled into the parking lot. It was a ’56 or ’57, a real classic and in perfect shape, the glossy black paint job so deep it seemed to swallow light. He couldn’t see a speck of dust on it, which, considering the roads around here, had to be a bit of a miracle. The tinted windows didn’t let him see the driver, but man, you’d have to feel like the king of the world behind the wheel of a car like that.

He straightened up behind the counter when the driver’s door opened and a striking older woman stepped out. He wasn’t sure what made him think she was older. Her features were youthful and she moved with the easy grace of a dancer. She was tall and colt-thin with a wave of thick black hair that was almost as glossy as the car’s paint job. He figured her for a model, maybe even an actress, but neither explained what she was doing driving herself out here in the sticks except that she looked Native—not Kikimi, but definitely Indian. Then he caught a glimpse of her aura—the ghostly shape of a raven’s head on her shoulders—and he figured she was going into the rez to meet with Morago or the Aunts.

She glanced in the direction of the trading post and caught him staring. Thomas looked away, but not before he saw her smile. So much for maintaining his cool.

When she came inside she should have seemed out of place in her tight designer jeans, strapped sandals, and the midriff-baring T-shirt that probably cost more than everything he had in his closet put together. Her skin was the hue of the shadows in a red rock canyon and her eyes so dark they seemed all pupil. The eyes, he decided, were what had made him think she was older.

The trading post was like an old general store, the shelves stuffed with everything from groceries and toiletries to clothing and tools, with a cast iron stove up against one adobe wall around which Reuben’s friends would sit in the afternoon to gossip and drink coffee or tea. But oddly enough, the woman appeared to fit her present surroundings as comfortably as she might a runway or some fancy restaurant. Odder still, her raven aura didn’t rest passively on her shoulders. It looked around the trading post as though it had a mind of its own.

He’d never seen anything like that before. He wasn’t a stranger to the auras themselves—his awareness of them was an element of his being able to see into the spiritworld. Not everybody had an aura. It was only those with the closest ties to their ma’inawo blood. Those who carried an animal spirit as well as a human one inside them. But he’d never seen an aura that acted independently the way this one did.

“Ohla,” he said. “Welcome to the Painted Lands.”

The woman smiled and pointed to the cooler at the far end of the counter. “Do you have any bottled Coke in there?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

His response seemed to amuse her, and Thomas felt a flush creep up from under his shirt collar. To cover his embarrassment, he went over to the cooler. He took a bottle out of the icy water, wiped it down with a terrycloth towel, and popped the cap. Returning to his place behind the counter, he set it down in front of her.

“How much?” she asked.

“A dollar.”

Her perfectly shaped eyebrows went up.

Thomas shrugged. “People around here don’t have a lot of money. Reuben, my boss, doesn’t like to gouge them.”

She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of the front pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. Thomas didn’t think there’d been room for even a bill in that pocket.

“Keep the change,” she said.

Do I really look like that much of a charity case? Thomas thought, but he only nodded and put the money in the till. A woman like her? She could afford to help out Reuben’s bottom line.

“And how much for a map?” she asked.

“Of the rez or the National Park?”

“I’m going to the casino.”

Of course she was.

“You’re on the wrong side of the rez,” he told her.

“There’s a right and a wrong side?”

“No. Though I guess that might depend on who you’re talking to. What I mean is, this isn’t the fancy side with the casino. That’s south of here, on the other side of the Vulture Ridge Trailhead.”

“The what?”

“That’s just the part of the National Park that divides the two sides of the rez. All you need to do is keep going south when you get to the trailhead. There’s plenty of signs, so you don’t need a map.”

He gave her directions that would take her back down Jacinta to Zahra Road where a south turn would take her straight to the casino. She barely seemed to be paying attention, but her raven aura fixed him with an unwavering gaze as he spoke. It was as if it was more than simply an aura and was memorizing his words for her as well as itself. Thomas focused on the woman’s face, trying to ignore the ghostly presence of the bird.

“Just remember,” he said, “that Zahra changes names at the crossroads and becomes Redondo Drive when it continues south.”

“I will. Thank you.”

He watched her start for the door, the head of the raven aura revolving so that it continued to face him. She paused just before stepping outside and turned back to look at him.

“You’ve been so helpful,” she said, “that I feel I should share some direction with you.”

Thomas had no idea what she was talking about.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I know where I am.”

“Are you?”

Thomas shrugged. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“But do you know who you are?” she asked.

The raven aura cocked its head when she spoke. Thomas had really never seen anything like it before. He’d never seen a woman like the one at the door, either. She could as easily have stepped right out of the pages of a magazine, or from a movie screen, as from that long black Caddy she was driving.

“I don’t really think it matters who I am,” he said.

“That might be the saddest thing I’ve heard all day,” she told him.

That was because she didn’t live on this side of the rez, he thought, but all he did was give her another shrug.

“It should matter to you,” she added. “You should learn about yourself. Embrace all the aspects of who you are.”

Thomas couldn’t stop himself. “Says the woman in designer clothes on the way to the casino in a vintage Cadillac.”

Her dark gaze held his for a long moment.

“Not everything is what it appears to be on the surface,” she said.

Then the door was closing behind her.

He tracked her through the window as she returned to her car. She never looked back, but the raven aura watched him until the closing car door cut them both from view.

Well, that wasn’t weird.

He stood looking out the window long after the dust kicked up by her tyres had settled.

Available for Pre-Order.

 

Sneak Peek Extract: Walking with Ghosts by Brian James Freeman

As William Peter Blatty writes in his introduction to Brian James Freeman’s WALKING WITH GHOSTS . . .

“Freeman’s prose is clean and lovely, painting the canvas of the printed page so unobtrusively yet with such pronounced effect. His writing will leave you both chilled and deeply moved.”

And he’s right. Brian’s first full-length collection features twenty-nine unforgettable tales including several that are seeing print for the very first time. Intense, eerie, and compelling, the pages within contain characters and creations that will leave a haunting impression on the reader long after the final page is turned.

Here are a few tasters:

No one was supposed to be in the abandoned town. The escorted group of reporters, photographers, and cameramen wore paper masks provided by the U.N.’s media liaison team and they wouldn’t be here for more than half an hour. There had been no sign of any civilians when the four CH-47 Chinook helicopters circled the region on the way in and they didn’t expect to see anyone on the way out. Only the insane and the sick would still be living here.

Stephen carried his camera close and he walked alongside Rick McDuff, a reporter whose career dated clear back to Vietnam. Nothing fazed him anymore. Stephen wished he could say the same, but he was merely a self-taught photographer on his first tour of duty outside his hometown and, even after several months of traveling to places like this with Rick, he didn’t have the courage or the stomach to process the horrific scenes with a cold, clinical eye the way his much older colleague did.

They were passing a crumbling house when a hesitant movement in the shadows caught Stephen’s attention. There was a young girl in there, wearing a dirty and tattered dress draped over her skeletal frame. Her skin was pale and her eyes were very blue.

“Rick, look,” Stephen whispered, pointing as the girl ducked deeper into the shadows of the interior.

“The house?”

“No, the little girl.”

“I don’t see anyone,” Rick said. He glanced at Stephen for a moment, as if to confirm he wasn’t joking, and then back at the ruins. “They searched to make sure the area was clear, you know.”

—From ‘An Instant Eternity’

And this:

Every Saturday, his little boy awakens with the rising sun.

The middle-aged widower is already awake in his own bedroom down the hall. He has barely slept in the six months since his wife’s tragic accident ripped her from their lives, breaking his heart and devastating his little boy, but he remains in bed and waits for the day to begin. What else can he do?

He hears his son’s bedroom door creak open. He closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep. He hopes his son will not speak the words he always speaks on Saturday mornings, but the man’s heart knows better.

“Daddy?” his little boy whispers.

The man blinks his eyes open, as if he’s just waking up, and he forces a big smile for his son who stands in the doorway in his pajamas. The August sunlight sneaks around the curtains, washing across his little boy’s angelic face. The father smiles even though he’s frozen inside. He smiles and he hopes today won’t be like every other Saturday for the last six months.

“Good morning, Timothy,” he says.

“Mornin’, Daddy. Can we go on the Mommy Tour?”

The father wants to sigh, but he holds his smile. This is what their therapist, Dr. Linda Madison, has advised him to do.

“Yes, of course. Give me ten minutes to get ready.”

His son’s smile widens as the little boy bounds back to his bedroom.

The father’s smile fades into a grimace. He dresses in silence.

—From ‘Where Sunlight Sleeps.’

Or this:

The young man must be lonely.

There is something terrible about the look in his eyes, about the way his body slumps over the heavy, black answering machine perched on his lap. He sits on the chair in the middle of the barren room, and he is naked except for his white underwear and his cheap watch. He’s drenched in sweat. A single tear hovers on the edge of his pale, trembling lips. He has dark hair and narrow fingers with fingernails chewed to the quick.

The wood floor groans when he shifts his weight. There are no windows, only the door to the hallway and a door to the walk-in closet. A single lamp glows with a yellowed light, but the light does not reach the corners of the room. An extension cord snakes across the floor, powering the lamp and the old, boxy answering machine.

He pushes the button that was once marked ANNOUNCEMENT before years of contact rubbed the word away. The tape crackles, there is a beep, and a woman’s voice speaks: “You’ve reached the Smith Family, we can’t come to the phone right now, but if you leave a message, we’ll get right back to you.”

This is the voice of the dead. The sound has deteriorated a bit with age, but when the young man plays this tape, the dead woman lives on, just for a moment. There is a second beep and the woman is dead once again.

The young man plays the tape one last time, then checks his watch and sighs. He returns the machine to the closet. He wouldn’t want to be late for work, and the dead woman isn’t going anywhere.

—From ‘Answering the Call’

And from his foreword:

In these days of almost gleeful excess there’s a surprising gentleness to Brian Freeman’s work though, of course, you should also be prepared for the occasional slam-dunk when you least expect it. Otherwise, it’s a veritable oasis of calm in a frenetic world.

“When I’m between projects,” he says in his Foreword, “I’ll often find myself drifting toward my ‘finished stories’ folder — a poorly selected moniker if there ever was one — where I’ll open manuscripts and tinker here and there until it’s time to give up on them again.

“That’s where the title of this volume comes from. It’s how I would describe my life with these short stories. In my head, I walked among these events, transcribing them to the best of my ability and then rewriting in an attempt to convey the realness of what I first experienced, but even after I typed The End, they never left me alone. Not really. These characters are still waiting for me to walk with them again. And I do. Often.

“But it is better to have gotten the stories down on paper as best I can, that much is true. The ghosts aren’t nearly as boisterous once the story is written and published. But still, they wait. They often have more to say.

“Collected here are twenty-nine ghosts that have haunted me at one point or another since I was thirteen years old. I’m ready to visit with them again.”

Available for Pre-Order. 

Best New Horror #25 Edited by Stephen Jones

There are some readers out there who have missed one or two volumes in Stephen Jones’s long-running BEST NEW HORROR. So, with volume 29 now well underway and in order to help fans of quality horror fiction to fill in some of those frustrating gaps, we’re about to publish volume 25.

This 25th edition of Best New Horror showcases some of the very best short stories and novellas published in 2014. So get ready to spread your wings and take a bite out of this latest anthology of agony. And don’t forget to tell your fellow fiends about our new series of Best New Horror reprints. Just let them know who sent you . . . The Old Hag.

  • Introduction: Horror in 201
  • Who Dares Wins: Anno Dracula 1980 by Kim Newman
  • Click-clack the Rattlebag by Neil Gaiman
  • Dead End by Nicholas Royle
  • Isaac’s Room by Daniel Mills
  • The Burning Circus by Angela Slatter
  • Holes for Faces by Ramsey Campbell
  • By Night He Could Not See by Joel Lane
  • Come Into My Parlour by Reggie Oliver
  • The Middle Park by Michael Chisleet
  • Into the Water by Simon Kurt Unsworth
  • The Burned House by Lynda E. Rucker
  • What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Z— by Lavie Tidhar
  • Fishfly Season by Halli Villegas
  • Doll Re Mi by Tanith Lee
  • A Night’s Work by Clive Barker
  • The Sixteenth Step by Robert Shearman
  • Stemming the Tide by Simon Strantzas
  • The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith
  • Guinea Pig Girl by Thana Niveau
  • Miss Baltimore Crabs: Anno Dracula 1990 by Kim Newman
  • Whitstable by Stephen Volk
  • Useful Addresses

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Sneak Peek Extract: Plague of Gulls by Stephen Gregory

November in Snowdonia. I’m in the caravan, up at the quarry. The gulls are going crazy, screaming and battering at the windows with their wings. I can hear the slither of their feet on the roof as they land and take off again. 

When I open the door, step outside and fling them a handful of bread and biscuit, they fight and gobble as though they’re starving and then they beat away from me, a white and black and grey cloud. I shut the door and walk to the edge of the quarry. 

It’s cold, eight o’clock in the morning. There’s a silvery drizzle blowing in the air. 

My stump’s hurting. The doctor said it’ll ache when the winter comes, he said I’ll feel the ghost of the missing finger when the days get colder. The ghost is haunting me already, a throbbing pain where the finger used to be. I cup both hands around my mug of tea and peer over the brink of the quarry.

My quarry. It still seems strange. It belongs to me, the hole, and everything in it. The gulls, all mine.

The birds calm down, once they’ve woken me and winkled me out of the caravan. And the pain in my hand eases a bit as I press it to the hot mug. Standing on the edge, I look down into the pool, a hundred feet below me. The water’s always different, it changes with the time of day and the light on the surface. In the mornings, before the sun’s risen over the hillside, it’s perfectly black, perfectly smooth, and I can see deeply into it. 

Dad’s car. I can make out the humped, rounded shape of it, lying in the pool like a dead whale. Dimly, the headlamps peer up at me. Shivering. Hard to believe, not so long ago it was August, the summer, the carnival in town. November … the word sends a shiver down my spine.      

I blink away from the round eyes at the bottom of the pool and look about the quarry. It’s littered with the rubbish which people bring up from Caernarfon: there’s a raggedy kind of avalanche, where people have driven up and slung their bags and boxes and broken machinery, unwanted bits of their homes, their gardens, their lives. A spillage of discarded stuff, snagged on the rocks on its way down to the pool …

A strange inheritance. I own a hole a hundred feet deep, and all the air and water in it. I own all the broken, unnecessary things which are thrown into it. And hundreds of gulls, which come to the quarry for the pickings and to wake me in the morning for their breakfast. 

My tea’s going cold. I sling the dregs onto the ground. I look up to the top of the hill, the iron fence and rusted barbed wire which are supposed to stop sheep and curious hikers from coming too close. Down to the town, miles below me: the gleam of slate from the rooftops, the towers of the castle no more than a glimmer of grey through the drizzle. 

Cold. I turn away from the quarry, with just a glance at the pool again. A flurry of a breeze picks up a sheet of newspaper. It whirls in the air, folding and turning this way and that, and a few of the gulls dive to the hole, as though they think the flutter of white is a gull from another quarry trespassing on their territory. But then they twist away, and the paper settles on the water. It spreads and darkens and sinks. The outline of the car blurs and disappears.

I turn back to the caravan. When I open the door, there’s a rush of air and some of the gulls drop to the roof and land there. They try to get into the door as I squeeze inside. For a mad moment, there’s a brawling of wings and their big rubbery feet and jabbing beaks around my shoulders, as they try to force themselves past me …

‘No, not you! And not you! And not you!’ 

I yell at them, and I beat them off with my hands. They clack on my mug with their horny beaks. And then, when they fall away from me, squalling among themselves, one of them springs forward again … 

Yes, you! Get inside!’ 

I let the bird come in, between my legs and into the caravan, and I quickly shut the door. 

Outside, the racket gets louder and louder. All the gulls in the quarry are banging at the windows and on the roof to try and get in. I pull the curtains shut and sit on the bed, with my hands around the cooling mug. Minute by minute, the commotion subsides, until my little space and the world outside are quiet again. 

‘You,’ I say to the bird. ‘This is all because of you.’ Right now, it’s standing on the end of my bed, rearranging a few ruffled feathers with the tip of its beak. At the sound of my voice, it cocks its head on one side and looks at me with a bright black eye. ‘Yes, you. What makes you think you’re so different from all the others?’

And you? the bird seems to say to me. What’s so special about you?

Nothing special. No claim to fame. I’m David Kewish, eighteen years old. Five years in a dingy little private school in Bangor and then I do so badly in my exams that not a university in the land will take me in.

David Kewish, sitting in a caravan in a Welsh quarry, with my gull. It pants into my face. I love that smell. The carpet feels damp, and the rumpled bed I’ve been sleeping on. I see myself in the wardrobe mirror. Funny, even when I’m tousled and bleary I look alright, a well-made teenage boy with a clear complexion and thick black hair. Nothing special. 

It was a strange summer. Some upsetting things happened. That’s why I’ve come up to the quarry, to let it all blow over. Rumours and whispers and tales about me. About the bird. About me and the bird. 

A strange summer. People got hurt. Was it one or two? Or three? Who’s counting?

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Remembering Gardner Dozois

Gardner [left) & Jack (right) photo courtesy of Scott Edelman

Drowning in Memory

It’s July 14, 2007, 1:30 am, and I’m trying to reach Gardner. I’m in Melbourne; he’s in an intensive care unit in Philadelphia. I finally get through by calling his partner Susan Casper’s cell phone. She hands the phone to him. His voice is craggy and breathy; he is still receiving oxygen.

“So I died and came back.”

“I told you you’d make it.”

“Well, it’s either on or off,” Gardner says. “I don’t think there is anything else, any kind of life after death. One instant you’re conscious. The next you’re not. Gone.”

“Well, you’re here.”

“If I wasn’t, you’d be writing a eulogy.”

“Yeah,” I say, remembering…remembering.

“I love you, Gardner.”

“Love you…”

#

And then it’s May 28th, 2018, 2:30 am, which is just few moments later in subjective time, that constructed metaphor we think of as our past. Gardner has been in hospital since the 3rd of the month. Congestive heart failure. But the prognosis was excellent that he’d be able to get out soon…after suffering through a few weeks of rehab. I had talked to him the week before, and he told me he was bored, anxious to get home, get back to work on his Best of the Year collection. A short, rather strained call, as I hadn’t been calling regularly after Susan had passed away in February of last year. Grief had somehow walled us away from each other.

But now, now that it was too late, I was calling, for I had just learned that Gardner had taken a turn for the worst. I called his son (and my godson) Christopher around midnight my time, and Chris told me that it was bad…very bad. Gardner had developed a systemic infection. Christopher was going to talk with the doctors in a few hours about his prognosis. I stay up, worry, and watch reruns of bad sitcoms.

It’s now the abovementioned 2:30 am, and I call Chris, who while calm and composed is shattered: “Gargy (our term of endearment for Gardner) is on a respirator, Uncle Jack. There’s no hope. We’re just waiting for some of the other relatives to arrive.”

Gargy impossibly incomprehensibly would be gone in a matter of hours.

And while Christopher holds the phone to Gardner’s ear, I say, “I love you, Gargy. I love you very much. I’ll see you on the other side.”

#

I don’t know if Gardner had enough function to hear me, to hear the words that still echo in my mind. Finally, I went to bed, but didn’t sleep…I waited up to somehow be present, even though I was ten thousand miles away on the other side of the world; and as I lay in bed, eyes wide and mazed with tears, images skittered through my mind, memories so bright and intense as to be hallucinatory. And I remembered the saying that drowning men see their lives pass before them.

#

It is 1971, and I’m with Gardner in my parent’s home. It is a square stucco house, all white except for a great blue front door and black trim along the edge of the roof. It’s summertime and Gardner and I are sitting on my bed in my old room, which has been kept just as it was when I left home. I can see into the back yard through the window over my desk. I look at the sunken garden and the broken white fountain and remember getting drunk in the back yard last night with Gardner and the woman we’re both in love with. It was a silly night, Gardner singing old rock and roll songs, all of us taking a walk down Ackley Avenue, then coming back and trying to turn on the spotlights for the fountain.

“We should make a pact,” Gardner says. He’s sitting beside my ebony black night table and leaning against the headboard of the bed. He has long blond hair, a light-complected face, and a thin curly beard. His eyes are pale blue, and he’s wearing his old, torn combat boots.

“Okay,” I say. We’ve been talking about writing, which is what we always talk about.

“And I think we should always write what we want to, whether it sells or not,” he says.

“Okay.” This is easy for me because I can’t imagine writing anything except what I want.

“We probably won’t make a dime, you know. We’ll probably starve.”

“I know,” I say, looking at the garden again.

I’m not worried.

#

It’s 1973, and I’m on the train with Gardner. We’re going to a workshop being held in Jack C. Haldeman’s rambling old mansion in the Guilford section of Baltimore: the Guilford Writers’ Workshop. I’d never been to a workshop and was understandably nervous as I clutched the manuscript I was going to submit. Gardner just chuckled and said, “Don’t worry about it. The worst that can happen is they’ll kill you.”

#

I can’t stop the procession of memories: a road trip with Gardner and Joe Haldeman…we’re on our way to Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm’s Milford Writers’ Workshop. We’re driving and talking, we’re embarking on a lifetime of writing and talking, we’re our own heroes, and we don’t care that life is swallowing us up in great noisy gulps. I’m visiting Gardner and Susan in Philadelphia: I have just finished a novel, and I’m not going to leave until Gardner finishes his conceptual edit.

It never occurs to me, not even once! that I might be imposing.

The title The Man Who Melted was Gardner’s.

And then, as memories during grief are not necessarily sequential, I’m driving Gardner from New York to Philadelphia, which will become his new home: Susan lives in Philadephia; and then—

—I’m standing beside Gardner as his best man.

In a photo floating around in the æther of social media, I’m dressed in a grey suit with a relaxed, happy expression on my face. Gardner (also suited up) is, however, looking very, very serious…determined. This marriage is for life!

And so it was.

#

As I gaze through the dark—now as I can see through the perspective of time and memory—I can see that we spent our youth living our own version of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. We didn’t know it then, but we were living the very life we dreamed of: we were submerged in the mystery, beauty, and excitement of words and ideas. Science fiction was an expression of beauty, of a sort of mathematical elegance, and we were writing it, reading it, and as time went on, editing it. Sitting together in the late hours in Gardner and Sue’s apartment on South Street and doing word counts…that was before word processing, but the quiet joy of selecting stories, determining the Platonic absolute of where each story should be positioned in an anthology, that elegant balancing that felt so much like the act of writing itself.

I don’t need to tell the reader that Gardner became one of the most important editors in the genre, as influential and essential to the mature state of science fiction as John W. Campbell was to its earlier formation. He was fine tuned to talent; he loved developing it in other writers; and that ability to nurture and develop so many writers, that ability to focus and shape the field…that was genius. Less known, sadly, is that he was a brilliant short story writer. The short form was his métier. Although he lamented that he wasn’t really comfortable with novel lengths, his oeuvre of what I think of as perfect short stories are second to none in or out of the genre. They are true expressions of the poetry that circulated through him like blood.

And as I surface from this sad, joyous, poignant reverie, I remember a special time of success, a period when Gardner, Susan, Michael Swanwick, and I were collaborating and workshopping like mad things. We secretly called ourselves The Fiction Factory. (Heaven forefend that word get out that we were hacks!) That was during the eighties when we were selling everything we wrote to the slicks, to PlayboyPenthouseOmni, and others, and making what was then serious money for our efforts. It was a time of compressed joy and friendship, a singular green time of youth, expectation, and creative awakening, and, of course, we thought it would go on forever.

It all started with…

No, there isn’t room here for that story, and for the myriad stories that, unleashed, would follow. Suffice it to say that Gardner and I have both published collections containing both fiction and nonfiction about that time. Gardner’s is called Slow Dancing Through Time; mine is The Fiction Factory. We explain it all in those volumes. (I can see Gardner standing up and shouting, “Yes, yes, buy these books by these shameless hacks!)

Lastly, I probably don’t need to mention that Gardner lived larger than life. He was welcoming to everyone, he was the quintessential Protestant schtickmeister, he could do stand up with the best of them, but safely hidden behind that comedic armor was a very private, intensely serious person. To have known that Gardner was and is one of the great joys of my life; and if you’d like to hear what love, friendship, memory, and pure silliness sounds like, I would refer you to the interview Gardner and I did for The Coode Street Podcast conducted by the excellent Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. As they wrote in their tag-line: “We’re not sure any of it made sense, we do know it was a lot of fun to record.”

Coode Street Interview

So, dammit, Gardner, here I am writing your eulogy.

Don’t you remember? You were supposed to write mine!

Farewell, my brother.

I miss you!

—Jack Dann

Portions of this eulogy appeared in different form in Insinuations by Jack Dann (PS Publishing, 2010).

Sneak Peek Extract: ICE by Candas Jane Dorsey

To draw you into Candas’s oh-so-magical world, first, this: 

A naked woman working at a computer. Which attracts you most? It was a measure of Whitman that, as he entered the room, his eyes went first to the unfolded machine gleaming small and awkward in the light of the long-armed desk lamp; he’d seen the woman before.

—From ‘(Learning about) Machine Sex’

Okay, now: I defy you. Can you turn your back on what follows that? Or this: 

A school project to measure the size of the moon. What equipment will be necessary? The principal in his office has Rex Begonias in bloom; he rotates them from his greenhouse at home, bringing them through the cold corridors muffled in a quilt. He listens to the project idea expansively, but instead of granting permission begins to tell me about the cooking demonstration he gave earlier in the day. I haven’t eaten yet today and his description is tangible in my mouth.

—From ‘Sleeping in a box’

“Measuring the moon!?” C’mon now! Or perhaps best of all:

As we know, reality faulting was at first thought to be another kind of phenomenon altogether. The first National Geographic article was called “The Crack Where the World Closes”; it presented the facts known at the time, which were mainly about the gradual decrease in space being measured at certain locations. At that time the theory was sketchy and depended a great deal on a proposal that the phenomenon was due to the existence of a pair of minuscule black holes creating a long elliptical event horizon.

It wasn’t until the following year, in Scientific American’s summary “Reality Fault Lines: A Geotemporal Survey”, that the public became aware of an entirely new way of thinking about the problem.

—From ‘Turtles all the way down’

Or (just one or two more, bear with me now cos we’re almost done) there’s this:

In the dream I was confronting someone I thought I knew and he was turning out to be a total stranger. I thought it was the new lover in whom I believed, but when I woke up I realized it was my ex-husband. Furthermore, when I canvassed my dreams for the last two weeks, all the time I had been sick, I saw that he had been sneaking through every one, somewhere in the background, trying to move suitcases into (not out of!) the attic, or acting as if he still lived with me.

I looked back on my dreamlog and realized that he had been seen if not by me then by someone in my dream in at least fourteen separate instances, and in several consensual events. I filed a complaint with the Dream Board. On the basis of the resulting scan of his dreamtime, they issued him a ticket for several moving violations and in family court I applied for a restraining order.

You understand, said the judge, I can’t actually keep him totally away from your dreams. But if he shows up there, you can call the Dream Police and have him removed, or even arrested.

And what happens to my dream in the meanwhile? I said.

That’s the best I can do, said the judge, and his obvious sympathy grated like a layer of sand over the pavement of hard reality. It was the first time I heard that sound, but not by any means the last.

—From ‘Death of a Dream’

Oh, my! And finally. Here’s the cherry on the icing on the top of the cake, that runs thus . . . following after a tiny epigraph from Lewis Mumford (“In the city, time becomes visible”):

I have lived in cities until my heart is lost to them: beautiful random human constructions with their geometry chaotic and their rhythms arbitrary. I dive deep into their oblivious centres, and their darkness and danger does not deter me from loving them. To me, it is no surprise that cities are dangerous. Any lover so deep in the heart is dangerous. Any group of that many intentions, that many dreams and cynicisms, is bound to conflict and occasionally to terrify.

But set against that are the moments when the sun reflects from the mirrored glass of the old buildings and down into the shadowed streets, and walking through an alley I see a corner of even older brickwork alight with that golden reflexion. Restless energy, surprising times and places of tranquillity, dreamlike scenarios glimpsed from car windows: everything placed in conjunction, or maybe unplaced completely but still emerging arranged. still emerging arranged.

—From ‘Living in cities’

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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.

Buy Black Static #63 or subscribe and get it free by using “BS63 FREE”.

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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