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.

Sneak Peek Extract: Black Wings VI Edited by S.T. Joshi

Sneak Peek Extract:

Introduction by S.T. Joshi 

THE INFINITE MALLEABILITY OF LOVECRAFTIAN MOTIFS, as exemplified by the contents of this volume, calls for some discussion. Why has H. P. Lovecraft’s work been such an inspiration to writers of weird fiction over the past century or so when other meritorious writers—ranging from the “modern masters” identified by Lovecraft himself, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and M. R. James, to such recent luminaries as Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell—failed to do so?

The history of Lovecraftian pastiche would make an interesting study in itself, and I have attempted to do so in my treatise The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos (2015). That book shows that, once writers put aside the mechanical imitations—which in many cases extended merely to the invention of a new “god” or new “forbidden book,” even if the overall theme of the story was anything but Lovecraftian—practised by such writers as August Derleth and Brian Lumley, a new era emerged. Writers now began searching more deeply into what exactly went into the making of a “Lovecraftian” story—and came to the conclusion that a multiplicity of motifs could be drawn upon, in contexts Lovecraft himself would scarcely have recognised, with the result that writers could infuse their own personalities into a work that nonetheless draws upon themes pioneered by the dreamer from Providence.

The central message of Lovecraft’s work, to be sure, is cosmicism—the depiction of the infinite gulfs of space and time and the concomitant insignificance of the human race, and all earth life, in the overarching history of the cosmos. In his earlier stories, Lovecraft used the figure of the “god” Nyarlathotep as a symbol for this cosmic menace. Archaeological horror was also a powerful means by which Lovecraft conveyed the essence of cosmicism, and Ann K. Schwader (“Pothunters”), Lynne Jamneck (“Oude Goden”), Don Webb (“The Shard”), and Stephen Woodworth (“Provenance Unknown”) have followed this methodology.

For Lovecraft, the sense of place was supremely important. Here was a man who spent every spare penny in exploring havens of antiquity from Quebec to Key West, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina. He enlivened his native New England with an entire constellation of imagined cities where anything can happen; and in this volume, Tom Lynch’s “The Gaunt” takes us to Lovecraft’s Arkham, while Aaron Bittner (“Teshtigo Creek”) duplicates Lovecraft’s regional horror in North Carolina, while veteran W. H. Pugmire (“To Move Beneath Autumnal Oaks”) etches new lines of terror in his carefully crafted Sesqua Valley in the Pacific Northwest. Darrell Schweitzer does much the same thing in the rural Pennsylvania setting of “The Girl in the Attic.”

Alien creatures—whether it be the fish-frog entities from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or the inbred gorilla-like monstosities of “The Lurking Fear”—are ever-present in Lovecraft, signalling his fascination with the anomalies of hybridism and the potentially loathsome mutations of the human form. It is this motif that animates such variegated
tales as William F. Nolan’s “Carnivorous,” Nancy Kilpatrick’s “The Visitor,” and Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Mister Ainsley.” Jonathan Thomas’s “The Once and Future Waite,” an ingenious riff on “The Thing on the Doorstep,” suggests unthinkable transference of soul and body, while Jason V Brock’s “Satiety” not only plays a clever riff on the half-plant, half-animal entities in At the Mountains of Madness but makes pungently satirical references to recent controversies about Lovecraft’s status in contemporary literature.

Caitlín R. Kiernan takes Lovecraft’s “forbidden book” theme and turns it into a means for probing the psychology of fear in “Ex Libris.” In their various ways, Mark Howard Jones’s “You Shadows That in Darkness Dwell” and Donald Tyson’s “Missing at the Morgue” make use of Lovecraft’s recurrent theme of other worlds lying just around the corner from our own. David Hambling’s “The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage” performs the nearly impossible by fusing the locked-room detective
story with Lovecraftian elements.

This volume includes not one but four poems in the Lovecraftian idiom—a testament both to the renaissance of weird poetry in our time and to the felicitous adaptability of Lovecraftian motifs in the realm of verse. Ashley Dioses, Adam Bolivar, K. A. Opperman, and D. L. Myers have all distinguished themselves as poets of technical skill and emotive power, and their verses exhibit the quintessence of terror while adhering to the strictest standards of formal rhyme and metre.

There is no reason to believe that Lovecraft’s dominant role in the creation of contemporary weird fiction will end anytime soon, and the future should reveal still more innovative treatments of the themes and imagery he fashioned out of the crucible of his imagination.

Available for pre-order.

Black Wings VI edited by S. T. Joshi

Synopsis:

This sixth volume of S. T. Joshi’s acclaimed Black Wings series demonstrates as never before how infinitely malleable are H. P. Lovecraft’s weird conceptions. The twenty-two stories and poems in this book run the gamut of modes and genres, but each of them is fueled by elements large and small drawn from Lovecraft’s inexhaustibly rich corpus of writing.

Cosmicism is central to Lovecraft’s imaginative vision, and it oftentimes is manifested in tales of archaeological horror. In this volume, stories by Ann K. Schwader, Lynne Jamneck, Don Webb, and Stephen Woodworth treat this motif in varying and distinctive ways. Lovecraft’s work is also infused with a profound sense of place, as he himself was attached to the familiar locales of his native New England but also travelled widely in search of new vistas to stimulate his imagination. Here, stories by Tom Lynch, Aaron Bittner, W. H. Pugmire, and Darrell Schweitzer summon up the landscapes of diverse realms in America to tease out the horrors embedded in them.

Alien creatures are featured in many of Lovecraft’s greatest tales. In this volume, William F. Nolan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Steve Rasnic Tem, Jonathan Thomas, and Jason V Brock summon up multiform monsters inspired by Lovecraft’s notions of hybridism and alien incursion. The forbidden book theme is deftly handled by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and the notion of other worlds lying just around the corner from our own is the subject of stories by Donald Tyson and Mark Howard Jones. Finally, David Hambling cleverly adapts Lovecraftian concepts to the locked-room detective story.

In commemorating the incredible efflorescence of weird poetry in our time, this book presents poems by four leading contemporary poets—Ashley Dioses, K. A. Opperman, Adam Bolivar, and D. L. Myers. Each of their works fuses skilful use of rhyme and metre with compact evocations of Lovecraftian themes. H. P. Lovecraft’s work is likely to continue inspiring writers for many generations, and this volume presents a vivid snapshot of what can be said in this idiom by sensitive and talented authors.

Here’s the full line-up:

Introduction – S. T. Joshi
Pothunters – Ann K. Schwader
The Girl in the Attic – Darrell Schweitzer
The Once and Future Waite – Jonathan Thomas
Oude Goden – Lynne Jamneck
Carnivorous – William F. Nolan
On a Dreamland’s Moon – Ashley Dioses
Teshtigo Creek – Aaron Bittner
Ex Libris – Caitlín R. Kiernan
You Shadows That in Darkness Dwell – Mark Howard Jones
The Ballad of Asenath Waite – Adam Bolivar
The Visitor – Nancy Kilpatrick
The Gaunt – Tom Lynch
Missing at the Morgue – Donald Tyson
The Shard – Don Webb
The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage – David Hambling
To Court the Night – K. A. Opperman
To Move Beneath Autumnal Oaks – W. H. Pugmire
Mister Ainsley – Steve Rasnic Tem
Satiety – Jason V Brock
Provenance Unknown – Stephen Woodworth
The Well D. L. Myers

Now available for pre-order.

Sneak Peek Extract: DARK PLACES, EVIL FACES Edited by Mark Lumby

Introduction by Shaun Hutson 

Horror is one of the most popular genres in literature and always has been.

I know some of you are probably wondering how I’ve come to that conclusion as most bookshops these days don’t even have a horror section and those that do keep it tucked away somewhere as if they’re ashamed of it. When I talk of horror I am not referring to the kind of insipid dross that has invaded the shelves in the past ten years like Twilight or any other “teenage love story with a supposedly creepy background.” I am speaking of real horror. Real “scared to turn the light out, nightmare-inducing, bowel-loosening, spine-tingling” horror.

Throughout my 30 odd years of writing horror and seeing the book business from every angle imagineable, I cannot recall a situation like the one we have now. Horror is hugely popular in the cinema (much of it generic and plain poor admittedly) and has been for years but, for the first time I can remember, this trend has not spilled over into literature. Normally cinematic trends are reflected in the book business but many publishers seem resolutely determined to ignore horror if they can. I cannot understand this reluctance so it’s refreshing when someone tries to redress the balance. That has been done admirably in this collection of stories you are about to read.

Horror lends itself brilliantly to the short story medium and the authors of the tales contained in this anthology have produced work that illustrates this perfectly. Short stories are a difficult skill to master. By definition they need to be tight, punchy and to the point. You can’t spend page after page trying to convey details and characters. This all has to be done with economy and brevity and you will find that has been achieved beautifully within this collection.

My first introduction to written horror was via short stories. The Pan collections of horror stories were among some of the earliest horror stories I ever read. They were the natural successors to writers like
H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Edgar Allan Poe and M. R. James and many other well known and classic exponents of this art. And make no mistake, short story writing is an art.

You have to grab the reader as quickly as possible and you have to keep your grip on them. The worst fault an author can have, in my humble opinion, is to over-write. Stick to the point. Get your ideas across in the least amount of words possible. Don’t waffle. The short story allows a writer to do this but it also makes demands on the writer that a novel does not. You can take three or four pages in a novel to describe action or characters. You can’t take that time in a short story. Everything has to happen quicker and yet still retain that smoothness so the reader doesn’t back out of the story. It is a task that many shy away from but one that the authors of the tales in this anthology have embraced.

There is a danger that a short horror story can end up as just a prolonged sick joke and I must confess that is sometimes one of my failings when it comes to this medium. Everything builds to that one single pay-off line sometimes. If it works, it works beautifully. If it doesn’t it’s clumsy and contrived and horror should never be contrived. It should flow, straight from the mind (possibly warped and twisted) of the writer onto the page and into the consciousness of the reader.

That is what the writers of these stories have done so well. I’ve been asked many times during my writing career what the purpose of horror really is and I’ve always said the same thing. It should be to scare the hell out of the reader. People don’t pick up a horror story because they want a good laugh (not even the really bad ones!). They choose horror because they want to be scared. They want to be shocked. They want to be challenged. It’s a genre where there are no limits. No restraints on your imagination as a writer or reader. Anything goes.

You can be transported to some dingy old house, a dungeon in a faroff castle, a tomb in a long-forgotten cemetery, an abandoned hospital or prison, a menacing waxworks or some underground tunnel somewhere and you look forward to that trip. You relish the horrors the author has in store for you. You want to be forced to see things you’d never normally see outside your worst nightmares. You relish those images. You savour the horror.

And you love it because it’s all experienced from the safety of your armchair or your bed. You can put the book down when you’re finished and just forget about it. Unless the author has done a particularly good job and then that story stays with you. That image haunts you. That turn of phrase remains stuck in your brain like a splinter in your flesh. But that’s what we all want from horror. We want it to disturb us. To stay with us.

Over the years I’ve had letters from people telling me that my work has given them nightmares, forced them to sleep with the light on and even, in a few instances, caused them to throw up. I always take those comments as compliments. If I’ve got the ability to disturb someone so intently with what I’ve written then I must be doing something right. If you picked up a humorous book you’d want to laugh. If you read a romance you might want to cry so, if you pick up horror, then be prepared for whatever may come your way. It goes with the territory.

So, if you’re sitting up in the middle of the night after reading this collection of stories don’t curse the writers, thank them. They’ve done their job properly. They’ve scared you and they’ve made you think.

You might hate them a little bit for keeping you awake but what the hell. It’s a small price to pay.

Now available for pre-order.

Mark Lumby chats about his new charity book, DARK PLACES EVIL FACES.

Dark Places Evil Places was originally going to be a collection of my own stories. It was a project to make money for myself. But around the time the idea came into my head, my wives friend got the big ‘C’. My wife had taken 6 months out of our lives from myself and our children to care for her and help her through chemo. She was doing so much and I was doing nothing. So I decided to make DPEF into a charity book, and Macmillian was close to my heart as they had cared for others who had lived and died within my family. True, it could have been any cancer charity; they’re all worthy; they all do great things. But, to me, Macmillian was the obvious choice.

But it would be tough to do it all myself in the time scales I had wanted to achieve. So, I put an open call out for submissions on social media and through my own blog site. The response I received was overwhelming. I also knew specifically the authors that I wanted in the book, the big names. ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get’ is my philosophy. So, I asked and they contributed.

I also had author friends on social media whom I had heard great things about, so I approached them also. The result was, to me, a fantastic, yet strange combination of writers. At that time, the book was only going to be digital, although I did have my sights on something more. It was all about raising as much money as I possibly could and I felt that the profits from an ebook wouldn’t be enough. That was until I asked PS Publishing, and they helped me to put all this together, to create both a book and ebook. They have been extremely generous and I couldn’t have wished for anything better.

How I chose the authors? My choices were not based on collecting the same type of storytelling; I wanted to mix things up and show totally different styles. I didn’t want a theme—personally I don’t like theme based collections. I didn’t want to read one ghost story and then another. That’s why, when reading this anthology, you will find that not one story is relevant to another.

I had the authors; I had a publisher. I didn’t have great artwork. This is when I contacted Tomilav Tikulin. He had been involved in creating many amazing Stephen King covers. This was the type of imagery I wanted for Dark Places. I asked him if he could come up with something for me. He agreed to be involved and gave free range of a selection of artwork I could choose from. It didn’t take long to realise which one!

The title choice was an instant one. Because this was a collection of horror stories, Dark Places, Evil Faces seemed fitting, although some might argue that the title is a bit cliche.

Then, in January 2017, my determination to compile this anthology took on an extra lease of life. My mum was diagnosed with cancer. It was stage 4 and had reached her liver and bowel. Now, this book was all about her. It had become extremely personal and I wanted to strike cancer where it hurt.

As much as this anthology is about my mum, it’s about everyone else, too. It’s for their brothers and sisters, mum and dad’s, and friends. It’s about my sister who also got Cancer this year. And I’m sure that the authors involved in this anthology have been hit by the trauma it causes, whether it being themselves or watching someone else go through the pain and grief.

Now available for pre-order.

SHE SLEEPS by R.B. Russell

Sneak Peek Extract:

As I ran headlong into the wood there was another gunshot and a blow to my shoulder that spun me around. It was as though a bolt of lightning had hit me and the pain was unbelievable. Splinters of wood flew all about my head. I should have been thrown to the ground but the brunt of the discharge had been taken by a tree. The blast had forced the breath out of me, disorientated me, but somehow I stayed on my feet. My legs were insisting that I continue to run.

When the next shot came, twigs and leaves rushed past along with stray pellets, but this time my pursuer had missed his target. The gun­man would have to stop and reload, and I had the advantage of my momentum-even if I didn’t know in which direction I was now head­ing. As long as I was running away, nothing else mattered.

I tore madly between the trees, over fallen trunks and through brambles. I dashed down the bank of a stream that had cut a deep path through the sandy soil. When I reached the bottom I splashed along the course of the water for several yards before running up the opposite bank.

At that moment my heart was singing with my love for the trees. They had given me cover and had allowed me to escape. The sun was slanting through the branches like one of the blurred photographs on the sleeve of the album that had given me so much trouble.

And then I tripped and hit the ground hard, landing on my wounded shoulder.

Again the lightning…

I knew that I had been out cold for only a few seconds, during which time my unconscious mind had been going through my old archive, looking at the photographs and letters, leaflets and diaries. I could still smell the dust and the mustiness of old paper…. But then I realised that my face was in the dirt and decomposing leaves of the woodland floor. I knew exactly where I was, and the danger I was still in.

‘Please don’t let these be my last thoughts!’ I pleaded, and forced myself up on to my feet. My shoulder gave me more pain than I imagined I could ever stand. My right arm was heavy and would not move. Blood was running down the inside of my sleeve, over my useless hand, and was pouring from my fingers.

I didn’t know if I could hear my pursuer or not, but I started to run again….

Now available for pre-order.

BORN TO THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell

Sneak Peek Extract:

Stop Press, 11 April 1955

Eric Wharton, the popular newspaper columnist, was today drowned in a fall from New Brighton ferry.

From an editorial, 13 April 1955

So Eric Wharton has gone on his way; on the way we must all one day follow. He will leave a gap in many lives. Popular alike with his colleagues and his many readers, he was a true man of the people who told the truth as he saw it without fear or favour. Liverpool- born, he travelled the world but always stayed true to his roots. He was admired by most, and even those he criticised in his column respected him. He once famously wrote that if he were a stick of seaside rock, the word he would want to be printed all the way through him would be Honesty. He need not have feared, and surely now that quality has earned him his place in Heaven.

NEWSPAPERMAN’S LAST WORDS DISPUTED.
JOURNALIST “DISTRACTED” BEFORE DEATH.

The Liverpool coroner today recorded a verdict of accidental death in the case of newspaper columnist Eric Wharton.

On the afternoon of the 11th of April, Mr. Wharton fell overboard from the Royal Iris ferry. Crewmen were alerted by members of the public, but were unable to rescue Mr. Wharton. His body was subsequently recovered by the Liverpool coastguard.

In court, colleagues of the journalist described how he had seemed “preoccupied” or “distracted” in the weeks preceding the accident, to the extent that he became unable to write his popular newspaper column. An unfinished draft was found in his typewriter, complaining of his inability to think and ending with the apparently random words “looking over my shoulder.”

Passengers on the ferry, on which Mr. Wharton regularly used to travel to his home in New Brighton, observed that he gave the impression of “looking or listening” for someone on board. Several passengers reported that he appeared to be trying to brush ash or some other substance from his clothes, though he had apparently not been smoking. His preoccupation may have left him unaware that he was dangerously close to the rail, where his actions caused him to lose his balance. While a number of witnesses agreed that he uttered a cry as he fell, there was dispute as to whether the word was “leave” or “believe.”

Mr. Wharton’s housekeeper, Mrs. Kitty Malone, was overcome by emotion several times while giving an account of her employer’s mental condition. She described how Mr. Wharton became critical of her tidiness, which he had previously praised in his column, and would straighten the bed she had made “as if he thought I’d left some nasty thing in it.” She further testified that Mr. Wharton seemed to grow determined to embrace his faith in his final days, frequently repeating the word “Christian” to himself.

The coroner concluded that while the balance of Mr. Wharton’s mind may have been to some extent disturbed, there was no evidence of intent for suicide, and insufficient reason for a verdict of death by misadventure.

Eric Wharton was born in Liverpool in 1904. He attended St. Edward’s College and subsequently went up to Oxford. In the Second World War he was awarded the DSO…

Available for pre-order

Darker Companions by edited by Scott David Aniolowski & Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

Welcome to DARKER COMPANIONS, a celebration of Ramsey Campbell.

The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ramsey Campbell’s first fiction collection, THE INHABITANT OF THE LAKE AND LESS WELCOME TENANTS. The Arkham House book, published in 1964 when he was just 18, was actually his second appearance at Arkham House, the first being in 1962’s August Derleth-edited anthology DARK MIND, DARK HEART, his first professional sale as an author. To commemorate the impressive event, I thought it only fitting to assemble an anthology of stories in tribute to Ramsey, written by some of his many fans and friends currently working in the field of the weird.

Here’s the line-up in all of of its perverse pleasure:

  • Introduction: Hymns from the Church in High Street by Scott David Aniolowski 
  • Holoow by Michael Wehunt 
  • The Long Fade into Evening by Steve Rasnic Tem 
  • Asking Price by S.P. Miskowski 
  • Author! Author?  by John Llewellyn Probert 
  • Meriwether by Michael Griffin 
  • The Entertainment Arrives by Alison Littlewood 
  • Premeditation by Marc Laidlaw 
  • A Perfect Replica by Damien Angelica Walters 
  • There, There by Gary McMahon 
  • We Pass from View by Matthew M. Bartlett 
  • Meeting the Master by Gary Fry 
  • Saints in Gold by Kristi DeMeester 
  • This Last Night in Sodom by Cody Goodfellow 
  • The Whither by Kaaron Warren 
  • Uncanny Valley by Jeffrey Thomas 
  • The Dublin Horror by Lynda E. Rucker 
  • The Sixth Floor by Thana Niveau 
  • The Carcass of the Lion by Christopher Slatsky 
  • The Granfalloon by Orrin Grey 
  • Little Black Lamb by Adam L G Nevill

Available for pre-order.

Treasure Trove of Tales: EXTRASOLAR Line-Up

And then there are the Earth-type planets circling red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri, much discussed recently.

With such extraordinary new astronomical knowledge in mind, I asked contributors toExtrasolar to write stories exploring super-Earths and superjovians and hot Neptunes. I also suggested that they could look at how SF itself is being altered by the tantalising filling in of so many gaps in the cosmic map. This is the treasure trove of tales that resulted:

  • Holdfast – Alastair Reynolds
  • Shadows of Eternity – Gregory Benford
  • A Game of Three Generals – Aliette de Bodard
  • The Bartered Planet – Paul Di Filippo
  • Come Home – Terry Dowling
  • The Residue of Fire – Robert Reed
  • Thunderstone – Matthew Hughes
  • Journey to the Anomaly – Ian Watson
  • Canoe — Nancy Kress
  • The Planet Woman By M.V. Crawford – Lavie Tidhar
  • Arcturean Nocturne – Jack McDevitt
  • Life Signs – Paul McAuley
  • The Fall of the House of Kepler – Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse – Kathleen Ann Goonan

Available for pre-order.

Chapter 1 MONSTER TOWN

Sneak Peek Extract:

MONSTER TOWN by Bruce Golden

 

THE BLOOD OF HIS BLOOD

It was a hard wet rain that beat an ominously staccato rhythm on the roof of my Packard as I drove to the outskirts of the city.  Thunder rumbled overhead like a bowling ball sliding down a corrugated tin roof, and the ferocious whipcracks of lightning sounded as if they were tearing great rents in time and space.

The rain didn’t bother me. Neither did the thunder.  I was sober . . . more or less.  What nagged me was the unknown. Not the unknown that I knew about.  I could deal with that.  It was the obscure unknown, the one that always popped its ugly mug out of a dark shadow with a cackling laugh, that worried me.  Call it a personality quirk, but I could never be completely relaxed if there was a mystery to be solved–even if I knew the answer would presently reveal itself.

What puzzled me this particular evening was what the wealthiest man in town wanted with me. Usually I just took pictures of cheating spouses, or an occasional insurance scammer pretending to be laid-up, but actually water skiing off Catalina. But three hours ago I’d gotten a call from some secretary saying her boss, one Vladimir Prince, would like to speak with me about contracting my services. What the job was she wouldn’t say, asking only that I arrive precisely at seven. I almost said no thanks, as I’d planned on being deep inside a bottle by seven.  Normally I never let my work interfere with my drinking, but the rent was due.

You may or may not know that Vladimir Prince was the owner of several wineries and a couple breweries, along with enough other businesses and real estate holdings to choke a platoon of accountants. However, unless you keep up with the trades, you probably don’t know that Prince feathered his initial nest egg working in the movie business. He was known back then as “Dracula” or “Count Dracula” or “the Dark Prince,” depending on the script. Unlike most horror movie stars, he’d invested wisely.  Which is why he lived out on the very edge of Monster Town, away from the urban blight and general riff raff that infested the main streets.

Of course Monster Town isn’t the way most people picture it. Yes, it had its roots in a time when movie monsters were ostracized by their Hollywood brethren. Instead of fighting to fit in, they let themselves be ghettoized just south of Beverly Hills, into a post-war industrialized area whose industries had gone belly-up.  And it wasn’t just famous freaks of the silver screen that lived there. It was also home to hundreds, hell, thousands of wannabes.  It wasn’t unlike Hollywood in that sense–where every waitress is a star-in-waiting, and every valet has a screenplay he wants you to read.

Yes, Monster Town, for the most part, is populated with the hopeful, the star-struck, the dregs of the Earth who weren’t quite monstrous enough.  Its avenues are peppered with the gimps, the geeks, the freaks who never got their shot at fame and fortune.  Of course some of the more well-known monsters reside there too, though few of them were as smart or successful as Prince.  What they have are their memories, their posters, their faded fame . . . but little fortune.

Casting directors still, on occasion, trolled the streets for a small part here or there, but Tinseltown just wasn’t making monster flicks like they used to.  So, when the celluloid gravy train dried up, monsters had to make a living like anyone.  Now they were fry cooks and teachers and dog catchers and shopkeepers.  Some were hoodlums, others thieves, and a few were even killers.  In other words, Monster Town was really like any other city.

Before I could get to the suburb I was headed for, I had to pass through the ghost town that had been the old factory district.  Most of the companies there had gone out of business years ago, but I saw a few that still showed signs of life.  Whether they were actually making things, or just tearing them down, I had no idea.  I passed the old pump station, and was surprised to see it still pumping away, despite its rusty exterior, diverting water from the L.A. County Waterworks’ main line to Monster Town.  I guess something had to keep the toilets flushing.

Even though I lived in Monster Town, I wasn’t in show business–never had been.  I ended up there by happenstance.  Not really an interesting story.  Now I was just looking for a job to pay my bills and keep me in hooch.  Though I never imagined a job would take me this far from the grime and crime.

Even when I was flush with cash I didn’t get out of town much.  I certainly was never invited to any parties in the ritzy suburban neighborhood I was driving through now.  I belonged here like broccoli belongs on a chocolate sundae.  But the trees and green grass were a nice change from the littered asphalt and cracked and peeling paint I could see from my own digs.

The truth is, it was almost a dreamscape.  Each house I drove past seemed bigger and more ostentatious than the last.  When I finally reached Prince’s place, it was, without a doubt, the biggest one yet.  You couldn’t even call it a house.  It was a full-blown mansion . . . a pearly white summer palace standing iridescent in the rain.

I gave my name at the gate and was granted entry.  The rain slowed to a damp drizzle and the sky cleared just enough to reveal the setting sun.  I didn’t know if it was the still-lingering clouds or the fact I needed another drink, but it felt like an uncertain gloom had settled over the lush countryside.  The only thing I was certain of at that moment, was that I needed new windshield wiper blades.

I pulled into the estate, saw its grounds manicured as carefully as a duchess in waiting.  Guards patrolled the extended property with sentry dogs.  I shuddered just a little.  I didn’t like dogs–not guard dogs, not poodles, not friendly little mutts. I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t like them.  Fortunately there were none close to the house where I was told to park.

I pulled up and got out of the Packard.  I put on my hat and adjusted my trench coat.  Maybe it was just the extravagance of the setting, or the idea I’d be sitting down with the richest man in town, but I noticed the old fedora was getting a bit threadbare.  That made me think about my coat, and the stain on it from that night I couldn’t remember.  Well, he wasn’t hiring me for fashion advice . . . if he really was hiring me.

Prince’s stately manor reeked of intrigue and danger, with its stately columns and interlacing arches rising up like some old southern slave plantation.  I stared up at it and could almost hear a mysterious, forlorn trumpet wailing in the background, backed by a handful of inscrutable violins.

Out front here was actually an open tent designed just for car.  It wasn’t just any vehicle, but a Rolls Royce.  A manservant was busy polishing it, and I noticed the usual female “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament had been replaced with a sterling bat, it’s wings outstretched in an imitation of flight.  It was weird, but definitely appropriate.

Four guys in expensive suits came walking out of the huge double doors before I reached the stairs leading up to the manor’s entrance.  They weren’t monsters and I’d never seen them before. They got into a limo that was waiting for them and drove off.  I trudged up the stairs, breathing harder with each step and thinking a little exercise now and then wouldn’t kill me.  It didn’t help that the rain always made my old wound ache.

Catching my breath I rang the bell.  Faintly I heard something from inside sounding like the summoning of the monks.  It was only seconds before the doors opened.  Standing there was this guy dressed like a cross between an opera singer and a 17th Century general. I recognized him right away from his movie days, when he played Renfield, Dracula’s servant in all those old films.  Apparently some actors couldn’t shake their erstwhile roles.

He stood there for a moment, staring at me with disdain, before saying, “Mr. Slade, I presume.”

“That’s right.  I’m here to see Mr. Prince.”

His bug eyes reminded me of Peter Lorre.  Using them to full advantage, he gave me another look like he might have to disinfect place if he let me in.  Resigned to it, he stepped aside so I could enter.  I caught of whiff of gun oil as I passed him.  He had it hidden well under that costume of his, but I figured he was packing.

“May I take your hat and coat?” he asked in a manner that told me he didn’t really want to touch them.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep them.”

It was a grand entryway, wide open and almost high enough for King Kong to stand without slouching. A huge staircase dominated the space, its lacquered railings leading up and around to where they finally vanished from view. The decor was all ivory and chrome–not at all what I expected from the Prince of Darkness.

Renfield directed me to the library, which, with its hundreds of books, looked like any other millionaire’s library–I presumed, having never really been in one. I wondered how many of the books Prince had actually read. My first thought was, probably not many–though if the rumors about his age were true, he just might have had the time to read them all.

“Wait here,” instructed Renfield. “The master will be with you shortly.”

I looked the place over. It was cluttered with wood carvings, little stone statues, and other eccentric doodads. There was a large fireplace with an ebony gargoyle perched on either end of the mantel, a finely crafted antique work desk, and some overstuffed chairs. But what dominated the room was above the mantel. It was a life-sized portrait of Prince himself. From what I remembered, it was a perfect likeness. It featured his aristocratic nose, his close-set black eyes, and that famous stare of his that would have frozen a hot cup of joe.

Nosey sleuth that I was, I wandered over to the desk and looked at the papers scattered there. I was surprised to see a brochure from that new amusement park they’d recently built down in Anaheim–the one I figured was mostly for kids. It didn’t seem like a place Dracula would visit for fun. Yet there was a map of the place and some design schematics I couldn’t quite make out.

I didn’t want to touch anything, so I twisted my head around to get a better look. I was only half-twisted when a voice surprised me.

“I thought I’d come down and get a look at you myself.”

Standing in the doorway was a sleek dame decked out in a simple white satin dress that likely cost more than my Packard did new. She was a looker and, by the way she stood posed there, she knew it. She had dark hair, sophisticated eyes, and pouty lips, but her face was pale . . . almost sickly looking.

Out of reflex, I took off my hat. I don’t think she cared.

“So you’re the private detective.” It wasn’t a question so I didn’t answer. “I thought gumshoes only existed in movies.”

“I’m real enough . . . but it usually takes me a couple of belts to get warmed up.”
She flashed a quick smile and sauntered towards me with sufficient sex appeal to stir a eunuch. When she was close enough for me to smell her perfume, she stopped. She reached out to touch my chest with her finger, as if to be certain I wasn’t an illusion.

I wasn’t sure what she’d try to touch next, but I thought it best to remain professional and not find out. I took hold of the hand she’d stroked me with and gave it a little shake.

“Dirk Slade. Pleased to meet you. Are you Mr. Prince’s daughter?”

She giggled at some private amusement as I released her hand.

“Mr. Prince doesn’t have any daughters . . . that I know of,” she said, staring up at me with a wantonness that was hard to miss.

“I see you’ve greeted our guest, Mina.”

I looked up from her beckoning eyes and saw him. I’d expected him, I knew I’d be meeting with him, but to actually see him in the flesh was a shade unsettling. I mean, how often do you find yourself in the presence of Count Dracula? Even if he was just an old actor, he was still the grand monarch of monsters.

“Now, please,” he said to her with only a slight accent, “I need to speak with Mr. Slade alone.”

She pouted but it was a little girl act that faded quickly to an alluring smile. She waved her fingers at me and walked out.

He waited until she was gone and said, “My son doesn’t approve of my paramour. He thinks she’s too young.”

It’s true she didn’t look half his age–and that’s if he was only as old as he looked.

“However, like many people, I’m a creature of my desires. And I’ve always had an indescribable thing for girls named Mina. She’s not particularly bright, but she pleases me in the ways that matter most.”

I briefly speculated on what those ways were, but realized I probably didn’t have the imagination to do it justice.

He moved towards me then. I say “moved” because he seemed to glide more than walk. He was as smooth as milk on marble and right next me with his hand out before he should have been.

“Vladimir Prince,” he said, taking hold of my hand but not shaking it. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He’d let go of my hand and was making his way around his desk before I knew it. “You come highly recommended, Mr. Slade.” His voice was gently commanding, yet reassuring.

“Please, have a seat.” He gestured at the chairs in front of his desk.

“Who recommended me?” I was curious who would vouch for me with a high-roller like Prince.

“Oh, I know many people, Mr. Slade. I have many sources.”

“I’m a fan of yours, as well,” I said. “I’ve seen all your–”

“Please,” he said a bit too loudly, “let’s let the past stay in the past. I’d rather speak about the matter at hand.”

Apparently he didn’t want to talk about his old movies. Maybe the association was bad for business. That was jake with me, so I took a seat.

“What is the matter at hand? I was told you were in need of my services.”

He hesitated and I took the moment to study him more carefully.

He was slender, with short, slicked-back dark hair, and a pasty complexion, not unlike his young squeeze. He wasn’t wearing the cape I half expected, but looked refined in a very expensive, stylishly embroidered smoking jacket. The only thing out-of-place about him were his long fingernails. Whether he sharpened them to a point or they just grew that way, I had no idea.

He still hadn’t answered me, so I reached into my coat pocket. Before I even touched my pack he said, “Please don’t smoke.”

Renfield appeared then, carrying a tray filled with an elaborate bone china tea set and some little biscuits.

“Would you join me in tea?”

The tea really threw me. I found his choice of beverage surprising for a guy whose empire was built on booze. If anything, I expected him to offer me a mug of Impale Ale, or maybe a glass of Vlad’s Sangria.

To be polite, and because I really needed this job–whatever it was–I picked up one of the dainty cups of tea Renfield had poured and took a sip. I was almost afraid my big mitt would crush the little thing.

“Before I tell you why I’ve asked you here today, Mr. Slade, I must be certain I can count on your discretion.”

“I’m as discreet as they come, Mr. Prince. I wouldn’t last long in this business if I wasn’t.”

He sipped his own tea and I watched the shadowed corners of his mouth, hoping for a glimpse of those famous canines of his. I didn’t see them. I did notice his face held this cool, controlled expression that never seemed to change. Not even when he began to tell me why I was there.

“My son has gone missing, Mr. Slade. I want you to find him.”

“How old is he?”

“John is 17.”

“How long’s he been missing?”

“Three weeks now.”

“If you don’t mind my saying, it seems like a long time to wait before trying to find him.”

He got this faraway look in his eyes. “My son has been known to make himself unavailable for days at a time. You might say I was unconcerned I hadn’t heard from him, at least until recently.”

“Why not call the police?”

“I don’t want the police involved. I’m sure you understand.”

I nodded. There could be a dozen reasons why he didn’t want the police in on this. Half of them legitimate.

“Alright, I’ll take the job. I get $100 a day,” I said, doubling my normal fee, “plus expenses.”

He waved his hand as if it were an insignificant detail.

“Any idea where I should start looking for your son?”

“I know he has a school friend at James Whale High named Harold Talbot. I believe young Talbot is on the football team. He might know what happened to John.”

“Is that where your son goes to school?”

“Yes. But he hasn’t attended for at least a month, according to their records.”

“Then he dropped out even before he disappeared.”

“It would seem so.”

“Alright, I’ll start there.”

It had all been very formal. Almost like he’d hired me to pick up his dry cleaning. For a guy whose son was missing, he seemed rather cold . . . stiff. Not that I would have expected a gush of emotion from an old bird like him, but he’d handled the entire transaction like he had a wooden stake up his ass.

“You’ll keep me apprised of your progress?”

“Sure.”

“That’s a recent photo of him,” said Prince, pointing one of his overly long fingernails at a framed photo on his desk.

He was a good-looking kid, slender like his father, with the same dark hair and eyes.

“You can take it with you if you like.”

“Not necessary,” I said. “I’m good with faces. I’ll remember him.”

More likely than not, the kid was playing back seat bingo with some dolly deep in Monster Town, with or without a needle in his arm. I’d roust some bums, ask a few questions, kick in the odd door or two, and probably find the little Prince in a few days . . . though, at a C-note a day, I might not be in any hurry.

Like I said, it wasn’t show business, it was just a job . . . and that was jake with me.