Too Short A Death

By Peter Crowther

(From his up-and-coming collection from Cemetery Dance; THINGS I DIDNT KNOW MY FATHER KNEW)

Hey…hey!’ The man on the stage was trying to make himself hear, laughing while he was doing it and waving his hands conspiratorially, as though he were Billy Crystal in the Mr. Saturday Night movie. But the sound that he was trying to drown out was not the sound of people enjoying him but rather of them enjoying each other or their food or their drinks.

‘Yeah, Hillary Clinton.’ The man frowned and shook his hand as though he had picked up something that was too hot to hold. ‘You heard…you heard Bill wants six more secret service agents assigned to her, yeah? Well,’ he reasoned with a shrug, ‘after all, if anything happened to her, he’d have to become President.’

In humor terms, it was one step—a small one—up from Take my wife…please! but somebody let out a loud guffaw and David MacDonald turned around on his seat to see who it had been. At one of the tables over by the coat racks two men were laughing, but it was clearly not at Jack Rilla.

‘Thanks, Don,’ Jack Rilla shouted into his microphone. ‘My brother Don,’ he added for the audience’s benefit. ‘Nice boy.’

The man at the table—who was clearly no relation to the comedian—turned to face the stage and gave Jack Rilla the bird, receiving a warm burst of applause.

Macdonald had never enjoyed seeing somebody die on stage, so he turned back to his food.

He was enjoying the anonymity. All the effete photographers and the snot-nosed journos had gone, taken up their cameras and their tape recorders and walked. Gone back to the city.

He was no longer news. “The most innovative poet of his generation”, The New York Times had trilled, mentioning—in the 18-paragraph, front page lead devoted to his quest—the names of early pioneers such as William Carlos Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ezra Pound; Kenneth Fearing, to whom they attached the appellation “The Ring Lardner of American verse”; the so-called war poets, including Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro—the Pulitzer winner whose “Auto Wreck” had been widely (and wrongly!) cited as the inspiration behind MacDonald’s own “The Downer”, and even some of the Black Mountain College graduates, in particular Robert Creely and the college’s head honcho, Charles Olson. This latter ‘revelation’ enabled the hack responsible for the piece to tie it all back again to Williams and Pound, who, with their respective paeons “Patterson” and “Cantos”, were commonly regarded as being among the North Carolina college’s—and particularly Olson’s—chief inspirations.

A neat job, but, in the main, entirely wrong.

MacDonald loved e. e. cummings, born a generation after Williams but infinitely more eloquent in his embrace of nature and naturalness and, to the end, delightfully, whimsical. Similarly, he preferred Carl Sandburg—whose “Limited” he had used in its entirety (all six lines!) as the frontispiece to Walton Flats, a surreal and fabulous  (in the true sense of the word) novel-length tale of godhood and redemption which he had written in collaboration with Jimmy Lovegrove—to the Runyonesque Kenneth Fearing. And as for the “war poets”, Macdonald rated Randall Jarrell above all the others—Shapiro and his “V-Letter” included—even to the point of learning Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” when he was only twelve years old.

When it came to open verse, MacDonald settled for the Beats—Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in particular—over the inferior Black Mountain scribes, a fact which seemingly never ceased to amaze the self-styled poetry pundits. But it was their amazement that so astonished MacDonald, just as it astonished him now how nobody seemed to give credit to the “Harlem Renaissance” and the fine work produced in the field of poetry by the likes of Etheridge Knight (of course), plus forerunners of the stature of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and contempories such as Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. As much as anyone—if not more than, in many cases—these writers, in MacDonald’s opinion, were fundamental in recording the consciousness of a country at odds with itself, as he had gone to great pains to explain to a surprised David Letterman on live television a little over three years ago. Quoting the final few lines from Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa”—in which the poet comments on the patronizing of the whites—MacDonald took great relish in Letterman’s damp forehead.

Sitting at the bar, MacDonald recalled the piece.

‘…I really hope that no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.’

But the attention he had received in the press the following day was nothing to the coverage afforded his bold announcement that he was to forgo the novel on which he was working and, instead, go in search of Weldon Kees.

That was almost a year ago now.

The newspapers and the magazines had all followed: followed him to dry California towns, tracked him into the wastes of New Mexico, dogged his footsteps into the inhospitable Texas plains and now, back in the sleepy Nebraskan township of Beatrice, they had grown bored. After all, a fanatic is only of interest so long as she either looks like succeeding or looks like dying. Simple failure just isn’t news.

Now no flashbulbs flashed as he walked still another dust-blown, night-time Main Street in some godforsaken town, in its own way just one more boil on the fat backside of indulgence, a lazy, going-nowhere/seen-nothing grouping of weatherworn buildings and choked-up autos clustered around an obligatory general store and wooden-floored bar…with maybe a railroad track where no trains stopped any more thrown in for good measure.

Now no microphones were jammed between his mouth and some under- or overcooked indigenous delicacy as he continued his quest even through physical replenishment. Sometimes the questions had been more rewarding than the food. But the answers he gave were always the same, and the novelty had plain worn off.

Beatrice, Nebraska. A small, slow, company town lacerated by railroad tracks and gripped for eleven months of the year by permafrost or heat wave.

This was where he had started and, now, this was where it all ended. It was the latest—and, MacDonald now believed, the last—stop on this particular tour. Eleven months in the wilderness was enough for any man: Even Moses only spent forty days, for Crissakes.

Whitman’s America had come to a dead-end on the shores of the Pacific and, like the land itself, rolled lazily down to the waterline seeing only oblivion. MacDonald was tired. Tired of honky-tonk bars where he would search through a maze of good ol’ boys and raunchy women, rubbing against tattoos and beer bellies, straining to see and hear through cigarette smile and jukebox rhythms, carrying home with him the secondhand, hybrid musk of sweat and cheap perfume; tired of the revivalist espresso houses in the Village, where he would search through intense poets and poetesses, all wearing only dark colors and frowns, the de rigeur uniform. They, like him, searching, always searching.

He pushed the plate forward on the table, the meal unfinished. It had been a bean-bedecked and fat-congealed mush that maybe could have passed for gumbo if he’d been about 1,500 miles to the southwest. He wiped his mouth across a napkin from a pile on the corner of the bar, their edges yellowed with age, and noted the faded photograph of a town square with picket fences that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Archie comic book or a Rockwell painting. He’d walked through that town square—in reality, little more than a pause for breath between developments in what was merely a typical Nebraskan suburb—to get to the bar in which he was now sitting. There had been no sign of the picket fence.

Just like Rockwell himself, it was long gone. But he had seen from the swinging racks in the drugstore that Archie was still around, though his hair was longer now. Nothing stays the same forever. Maybe this town had been Rockwell once, but now it was Hopper, filled up with aimless people like Jack Rilla, the unfunny comedian, all living aimless lives, staring unsmiling out of seedy rooming house windows at the telegraph poles and their promise of distance.

Weldon Kees, where are you? he thought.

The bartender slouched over to him and lifted up the plate quizzically. ‘No good?’ he said, his jowls shaking to the movement of his mouth.

MacDonald frowned and shook his head, rubbing his stomach with both hands. ‘Au contraire,’ he said, effecting an English accent, ‘merely that you are too generous with your portions.’

The bartender narrowed his eyes. ‘Aw what?’

‘He said you gave him too much.’

MacDonald turned in the direction of the voice to see a man in his early forties chasing an olive around a highball glass with a tiny yellow, plastic sword. The man looked like a movie star from the late fifties/early sixties, like maybe Tony Curtis or someone like that. He wore a plaid sportscoat, oxford button-down with a red-and-green striped necktie, and black pants rucked up at the knees to preserve two of the sharpest creases MacDonald had ever seen. Covering his feet, which rested lazily on the rail of his stool, were a pair of heavily polished Scotch grain shoes and, within them, a pair of gaudy argyle socks. MacDonald’s eyes took it all in and then drifted back to the glass. There was no liquid in it. He hadn’t noticed the man before, but then he wouldn’t have. The bar was crowded to capacity, a good turnout for the amateur talent night promised on a rash of handbills pasted around the town.

The bartender nodded and, with another puzzled glance at MacDonald, he turned around and slid the plate across the serving hatch. ‘Empties!’ he shouted.

MacDonald swizzled the plastic palm tree in his club soda, twisted around on his seat and smiled. ‘Thanks. You want that freshened?’

The man turned to him and gave him a long, studied look, taking in MacDonald’s plain gray jacket and pants, green, soft-collared sport shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, and nodded. ‘Yeah, why not, thanks. Vodka martini. On the rocks. Thanks again.’

MacDonald raised his hand a few inches off the bar, and the bartender acknowledged with a short nod that looked more like a physical affliction.

‘You here for the competition?’

MacDonald took a long drink and put his own glass back onto the bar. ‘That’s right. You?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘But really only to enjoy the efforts of others. I’m actually a performer myself.’ The strange and self-knowing smile suggested hidden complexities in the statement.

MacDonald nodded and glanced at the stage, ignoring the opportunities to probe. At this stage of the journey he had had it with barroom confessions. Jack Rilla was telling a story about three men from different countries being sentenced to die…but being given a choice of the method of their execution. It was horrible.

‘How about you?’ the man said. ‘Are you a performer?’

‘There’s some that might say so,’ MacDonald replied, grateful to be able to turn away from what Jack Rilla was doing to stand-up comedy.

‘What do you do?’

‘I write poetry.’

‘That so?’ The interest seemed genuine.

MacDonald nodded again and drained his glass as a crackly fanfare of trumpets sounded across the PA system to signal the end of the comedian. Nobody seemed to be clapping.

Turning around so they could watch the small stage at the end of the adjoining room, they saw a fat man with a Stetson starting to announce the next act. By his side were two younger men holding guitars and shuffling nervously from one foot to the other. The fat man led the half-hearted applause and backed away to the edge of the stage. The duo took a minute or so to tune their instruments and then lurched uneasily into a nasal rendition of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’

MacDonald shook his head and held up the empty glass to the bartender, who had apparently forgotten them and had now taken to slouching against the back counter. ‘Refills over here,’ he shouted. The bartender lumbered over and refilled the glasses, all the while mouthing the words to the song. MacDonald took a sip of the soda.

‘Not too good, huh?’ the stranger said.

‘The service or the entertainment?’

The man jerked his head at the stage.

‘I’ve heard better,’ MacDonald said. ‘It’s probably safe to say that Dylan’ll sleep easy.’

The man smiled and nodded. ‘I knew a poet once,’ he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘Uh-huh.’ He lifted the glass and drained it in one perfectly fluid motion. MacDonald recognized the art of serious drinking…drinking purely to forget or to remember. He had watched somebody he used to know quite well doing just the same thing over a couple of years…watched him in a thousand bar mirrors. He called those his wilderness years. The man set the glass down again and cleared his throat. ‘What kind of poetry you write?’

‘Kind? It’s just poetry.’

‘The rhyming kind?’

MacDonald gave a half-nod. ‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘Depends on how I feel.’

The pair of troubadours finished up their first song, receiving a smattering of applause, and launched immediately into another. This one was their own. It showed.

MacDonald reached into his pocket and pulled out the plastic button. The number on it was 23. He looked at the board at the side of the stage: beneath the number 22 was a piece of wipe-off card bearing the legend Willis and Dobbs.

While Willis and Dobbs crooned about some truck driver whose wife had left him for another woman—modern times!—a small group of four men and two women chatted animatedly at the table right down in front of the stage. A tall spindle of metal stood proud in the table center and boasted the word JUDGES. They didn’t seem to be talking about Willis and Dobbs. Maybe it was just that they didn’t like country music.

Willis and Dobbs finished their song almost in unison and bowed while the audience applauded and whistled with relief. As the duo shuffled off the stage, the fat man with the Stetson shuffled on the other side, also applauding. As the fat man reached the microphone, MacDonald took another swig of the club soda and slid off his stool. ‘Wish me luck,’ he said to the stranger.

The man looked around. ‘You on now? Hey, break a leg,’ he said, slapping MacDonald on the arms as he walked past him.

The usual nervousness was there. It was always there. He made his way through the people standing up in the bar section and then walked down the two steps to the adjoining room where he threaded his way among the tables to the stage. All the time he walked he was memorizing the lines, though he knew them by heart. He reached the stage as the fat man told the audience to give a big hand to Davis MacDonald.  The timing was impeccable.

He walked over to the microphone and nodded to the room, raising his hand in greeting. ‘Hi there,’ he said.

A smattering of nods and waves and mumbled returns acknowledged him. The man at the bar had turned full around on his stool to watch him. He raised his glass—which MacDonald saw had been replenished—and nodded. MacDonald nodded back. Then he faced the audience and lifted one finger to his mouth.

As always, the silence was almost immediate. It flowed over and around the people sitting at the tables, flowed through and into them, touching their insides and calming their heads. The only way you could recite poetry and feel it—whether reading it yourself or listening to it being read by others—was to do it in silence. After all, whoever heard of a painter painting onto a canvas that already had something on it?

There were a few nervous shuffles as MacDonald paced from one side of the stage to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pants pocket. At last, satisfied that this was as good as it was going to get, he removed the micro-phone, pointed over the heads of the onlookers to some impossible distance, and began.

‘She’s down!

‘Like a wounded mammoth, her body sags

and, across the sidewalk,

in a shower of fabled jewels,

she spills the contents of her bags.

‘The empty street becomes alive

with do-gooders, tourists and passersby,

all holding breath.

Transfixed, and with mouths agape,

they see her features lighten under death

while, alongside,

the treasures once so richly cherished—

a loaf, some toothpaste, matches, relish—

lie discarded on the paving slabs.



‘And ooohs and aaahs, the silence stabs.

‘It takes some time but, action done,

the audience turns away its eye and,

with a thought as though of one.

thinks there one day goes I.’

On the final line, MacDonald turned his back on the audience, walked slowly back to the microphone stand and replaced the microphone. A smattering of applause broke out around the tables. MacDonald nodded and raised his hand, mouthing the words thank you, thank you. He caught sight of the man at the bar. He looked as though he had seen a ghost.

After ‘The Downer,’ MacDonald recited his ‘Ode To the City.’

‘Beneath the legends of the stars

the drunks cry out in a thousand bars

while pushers prowl in speeding cars...

civilization is never far in the city.

‘Bronchitic winos cough up more phlegm

to mouth the glassy teat again,

and venereal ladies stalk the concrete glens...

though love has long since left the city.



‘The neons wink cold, thoughtless lies,

to flood the dark and strain the eyes,

while the flasher opens wide his flies...

because nothing hides inside the city.’

MacDonald lifted the microphone from the stand again and walked across to the left of the stage.

‘Smoke-bred cancers maim the flesh,

the addict chokes his vein to strike the next

while the abortionist clears away the mess...

as all life dies within the city.


‘The dropouts pass around the joint

and the rapist hammers home his point,

but the suicide doth himself anoint

in the fetid, stagnant waters of the city.


‘The kidnapper pastes together a note

and then binds his charge with silken rope

while frantic parents give us hope...

which so long ago left the city.’

And now, as ever, the audience was his.

“In Mendaala When It Rains” came next, followed by “Dear Diary” and “Conversation”. Then MacDonald paused and, unfastening the top button of his sport shirt, sat down on the front edge of the stage. ‘I want to finish up now with a couple of poems written by a man I never met,’ he said, the words coming softly, ‘but who I feel I’ve known all of my life.’

‘This man stole from us. He stole something which we possessed without even realizing…something which we could never replace. The thing he took from us…was himself.’ He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it in a pile at his side. ‘On July twentieth, nineteen fifty-five, Harry Weldon Kees, one of your…’ he pointed, sweeping his outstretched arm across the audience, ‘…your town’s…most famous sons—disappeared from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

‘He left…he left many things behind him—not least a fifty-five Plymouth with the keys still in the ignition—but the worst things that he left were holes.’

The faces in the audience looked puzzled.

‘Those holes, ladies and gentlemen,’ MacDonald went on, ‘were the spaces that he would have filled with his poetry. Yes, he was a poet, Weldon Kees, and I’m here…here tonight, in Beatrice, Nebraska…his hometown…at the tail end of what has been almost a year-long search for him. Because, back in nineteen fifty-five, Weldon’s body was never found. And because there have been some stories that he is still alive…somewhere out there. And if that’s true, then I felt I had to find him.’ He stood up, shrugged, and said, ‘Well, I tried.’

‘Weldon…wherever you are…these are for you.’

Reciting from heart, as he did with all of his “readings”, Davis MacDonald recounted Kees’ “Aspects Of Robinson” and, to finish, “Late Evening Song”.

‘For a while

Let it be enough:

The responsive smile,

Through effort goes into it.

Across the warm room

Shared in candlelight,

This look beyond shame,

Possible now, at night,

Goes out to yours.

Hidden by day

And shaped by fires

Grown dead, gone gray,

That burned in other rooms I knew

Too long ago to mark.

It forms again. I look at you

Across those fires and the dark.’

‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen…thank you for listening to me.’ MacDonald replaced the microphone and ran from the stage, leaving tumultuous applause behind and around him.

When he got back to the bar and slumped onto his stool, he saw that the man next to him was nursing his drink in his hands and his head tilted back, staring into the long but narrow angled mirror above the bar. MacDonald followed his stare and saw it all then: the bar, the back of the bartender’s head as he moved by, the man’s highball glass, and himself staring. But there was no reflection of the man himself.

He turned around quickly, mouth open, to stare right into the man’s face and saw immediately that he had been crying.

‘I’m Robinson,’ he said. ‘A friend of Weldon Kees.’

MacDonald looked back at the mirror and shook his head. Then he looked back at the man and said, ‘How do you do that?’

‘You tell a good story in your poems,’ he said. ‘I have a story, also, though I’m no weaver of words like you and Harry.’

MacDonald slumped his elbows on the bar. ‘I think I need a drink.’

The man stood up and straightened his jacket. ‘Come on, you can have one back at my place.’

‘Is…is Weldon Kees still alive?’

‘No.’

‘Did he die that night?’ Did he jump off the bridge?’

The man shook his head. ‘Let’s go. I’ll explain on the way.’

When they left the bar, the sidewalks were wet and shiny, reflecting shimmering neon signs and window displays. As they walked, MacDonald could also see his own malformed shape in the puddles but not that of the man who walked beside him. ‘I think I’m going mad,’ he said.

The man gave out a short, sharp laugh. ‘No, you’re not.’

MacDonald turned to him and grabbed hold of the arm in the plaid jacket—

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch grain shoes,

Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down

The words of the poem he had just recited hit him suddenly and he pulled his hand back as though he had been burned. ‘How can you be Robinson? Robinson would have to be—’ He thought for a moment. He’d have to be around eighty or ninety years old.’

‘I’m actually much older even than that,’ the man said.

MacDonald looked down at the sidewalk, saw his reflection…alone. He pointed at the puddle. ‘And what about that?’

‘The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,

Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.’

He smiled and shrugged.

‘Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.’

‘What are you?’ MacDonald asked.

The man stared into MacDonald’s eyes for what seemed to be an eternity, so long

His own head turned with mine

And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes

That stopped my blood. His voice

Came at me like an echo in the dark.

that MacDonald thought he was not ever going to answer his question. The worst part of that was that, while he stared, he simply did not care. ‘I think you can guess,’ he said, suddenly, releasing MacDonald for his gaze.

‘Oh, come on!’ MacDonald laughed. ‘A vampire? You’re telling me you’re a vampire?’

The man started to walk again. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘My kind go by many names. And, yes, vampire is one of them.’ MacDonald started after him, his mind ablaze with stanzas from Weldon Kees’ poetry.

The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone.

His act is over.

And

These are the rooms of Robinson.

Bleached, wan, and colorless this light, as though

All the blurred daybreaks of the spring

Found an asylum here, perhaps for Robinson alone.

And even

This sleep is from exhaustion, but his old desire

To die like this had known a lessening.

Now there is only this coldness that he has to wear.

But not in sleep.—Observant scholar, traveler,

Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave,

A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades,

A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué,

A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes—

All these are Robinsons in sleep, who mumbles as he turns,

‘There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize—

This city-nightmare-black—’

He wakes in sweat

To the terrible moonlight and what might be

Silence. It drones like wires far beyond the roofs,

And the long curtains blow into the room.

MacDonald suddenly realized that he was running…running to catch up with the man. But, while the man was only walking, MacDonald was getting no nearer to him. Good God, he thought, it’s true. All of it.

The man turned up some steps and stopped at the door of a house. As MacDonald reached the man, he stepped inside and waved for MacDonald to enter.

Inside, the house smelled of age and dirt. A narrow hallway gave onto some stairs and continued past two doors to a third door which was partly open. ‘I’ll get you that drink,’ the man said and he walked along the hall to the end door. MacDonald followed without saying a word.

The room was a kitchen. Dirty dishes that looked as though they had been that way for weeks were piled up in and beside the sink. In the center of the room, a wooden table with a worn Formica top was strewn with packets and opened cans. MacDonald saw several cockroaches scurrying in the spilled food.

The man opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Jim Beam and two glasses. He poured bourbon into the glasses and handed one to MacDonald. ‘I first met Harry back in 1943. He was writing for Time magazine and The Nation where he did an arts column.’ He pointed to a chair littered with newspapers. ‘Sit down.’ MacDonald sat and sipped his drink. The man continued with the story.

‘He was also doing some newsreel scripts for Paramount—he’d just done the one about the first atomic bomb tests—and he had recently taken up painting. He was as good at that as he was at anything, exhibiting with Willem de Kooning, Rothko—’ He paused and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry…are you acquainted with these names at all?’

MacDonald nodded.

‘Ah, good. Yes, with Rothko and Pollock—and he was holding a few one-man shows. So, I guess it’s fair to say that life for him was good.

‘I met him one night in Washington Square. I say one night when, actually, it was well into the early hours of the morning.’ He paused took a drink. ‘I was hunting.’

‘Hunting?’

‘Yes. I was out looking for food.’

‘Are we back to the vampire shtick now?’

The man ignored the tone and continued. ‘I usually arise in the early evening. If it’s too light outside, I stay indoors until the sun is about to set. Contrary to fable, we can exist in the sunlight although it hurts our eyes and causes headaches like your migraines. So we don’t do it. Not usually.

‘This particular evening, I had already fed upon a young woman down near Port Authority. She had arrived in town from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and she offered me herself for twenty dollars. That was a steep price for a prostitute back in 1943, I can tell you. But she was an attractive girl and she knew it. How could I refuse?

‘I killed her in an alley, and drank my fill.’ He drained his glass and waved it at MacDonald. ‘More?’

‘Huh? Oh, no. No more, thanks. I’m fine with this.’

The man turned around and poured himself another three fingers. ‘Always the truth is simpler than the fiction, don’t you find?’ he said as he turned back to face MacDonald. ‘The truth is that we do not have to hunt every night. A complete feed will sustain us for many days—sometimes a couple of weeks—before we start to grow hungry again. Vampires, as you call us, are not naturally aggressive…any more than humans, we hunt and kill merely to feed.’

‘Anyway…where was I? Ah, yes. When I met Harry—he was calling himself Harry back then, and I guess I just never lost the habit—when I met Harry, he was working on notes for his second book. He was walking through the Square where I was sitting. I was completely sated at this time, having—’ He waved his hand. ‘The girl and so on.’

MacDonald nodded and took a drink, eyeing the open door at his side.

‘Anyway, he sat down beside me and we started to talk. We talked about the city and the night—both of which I know well—and then he mentioned that he was a writer. I think that’s what Harry regarded himself as more than anything else: a writer.

‘And he asked me if I enjoyed reading. I told him not very much at all. Then he mentioned his poetry: Did I like poetry? I told him I really wasn’t qualified to comment on it. I did have some books, I told him, but, I said, frankly they might as well be filled with blank pages for all the good they are to me.

‘Sometime later, of course,’ he said, leaning forward from his place against the kitchen counter, ‘he wrote—in the first of what I came to regard as my poems—

The pages in the books are blank.

The books that Robinson has read.’

MacDonald took another drink and hiccupped. ‘Did he know…did he know that you were a, you know…?’

‘Not immediately. But, eventually, of course, yes.’ He took a drink and rubbed his hand against the glass. ‘We were…we were alike, you know. Alike in so many ways.’

‘Alike? How?’

‘Well, alienated. I suppose you could say that we were both outcasts from society. In those days I lived in New York.

‘I have, of course, lived in many places—I won’t bore you with the details: Harry covered some of them in his “Robinson At Home”…uncouth bearded figure; keen-eyed sniper; a beggar on the streets; confidant of popes—but when I lived in New York, it grew too hot for me in the summertime. I used to go up to Maine, to a little coastal village called Wells. Do you know it?’

MacDonald shook his head. Holding out his empty glass, he said, ‘I think I will have that refill now.’

The man took the glass. ‘Of course.’ He filled it to the brim and handed it back. ‘Harry didn’t like me going off in the summer. He said it made him feel lonely.’

‘Lonely? Were you both…were you living together at the time?’

‘Oh, gracious no. Harry was married—Ann was her name: nice girl, but entirely unable to cope with living with someone like Harry. And, of course, as he became more and more taken with my…shall we say, company, he became even less livable with.’ He sniggered. ‘Is there such a phrase as “livable with”?’

MacDonald shrugged why not? And took another drink. The man smiled in agreement. ‘So, Ann took more and more to drinking. In 1954 she went into the hospital and—oh, of course, by this time we were in San Francisco. Did I mention that? We moved across to the West Coast in 1950. Harry took up with some new friends—Phyllis Diller, the comedienne? And Kenneth Rexroth?’

MacDonald nodded to both names.

‘Wonderful poet. Ken Rexroth. Wonderful.’ He took a drink.

We moved out West because, as I say, Harry hated the summers in New York when I was away. You remember “Relating To Robinson?”

(But Robinson,

I knew, was out of town: he summers at a place in Maine,

Sometime on Fire Island, sometimes on the Cape,

Leaves town in June and comes back after Labor Day.)’

He laughed suddenly. ‘I tell you, I never—never—went to Fire Island. Or the Cape. That was Harry. He was just so pissed off with me for leaving him.’ He shook his head and stared down into the swirling brown liquid in his glass. ‘So pissed off,’ he said again, but quieter.

‘So—San Francisco. It was fine for a while, but Ann grew more and more restless. Harry had taken up playing jazz. He was good, too. Incredible man. So versatile. But our relationship—and the constraints placed upon it by his being married—was starting to take its toll. You see, Harry was growing older…I was not.

‘In 1953, he wrote ‘The lacerating effects of middle age are dreadful. God knows…what the routes along this particular terrain are, I wish I knew. The trick of repeating It can’t get any worse is certainly no good, when all the evidence points to quite the opposite.’ He shuffled around and lifted the bottle of Jim Beam. ‘You see,’ he said, flicking off the screw cap with his thumb, ‘I wanted Harry to let me taint him.’

‘Taint him? How do you mean?’ MacDonald watched the cap roll to a stop on the dirty floor. Its sides were flattened.

‘I mean…to make him like me.’

‘A vampire?’

‘A vampire. He would have had eternal life, you see. It doesn’t happen every time. Not every time we feed. That’s another thing the legends have got wrong. We only taint our victim if we allow our own saliva to enter the wound. Most times, we do not.

‘But, no, Harry wouldn’t hear of it. He said that life was too precious—which was a paradox of a thing for him to say—and he couldn’t face the prospect of hunting for his food. I told him that I would do all of that for him…but it was no use.’

MacDonald took a deep breath and asked the question he had wanted to ask for several minutes. ‘Were you lovers?’

The man’s eyes narrowed as he considered the question, and then he said, ‘Of a sort, yes. But not in the physical sense. We were soul mates, he and I. I had the information and the experiences of the millennia and Harry…Harry had the means to put them into words. Such beautiful words.’ He fell silent and, lifting the bottle to his mouth, took a long drink.

‘By the time 1955 was upon us, we both knew that we couldn’t carry on this way. In his poem ‘January,’ Harry wrote:

This wakening, this breath

No longer real, this deep

Darkness where we toss,

Cover a life at the last.’

And MacDonald added: ‘Sleep is too short a death.’

‘You know it?’ the man said, clearly amazed and apparently quite delighted.

‘I know them all.’

‘Of course, you would.

‘Well, that year, we decided that Harry would have to disappear. I suppose we had known it for some time. Harry had often toyed with the idea of his suicide—even before he met me. He kept a scrapbook of cuttings and notes, and a chronological list of writers who had killed themselves or simply disappeared. One of his favorites, you know, was Hart Crane. He threw himself off a ship.

‘Yes, I know. His poem ‘Voyages’ is one of my own favorites.’

‘Harry’s, too,’ said the man. He sighed and continued. ‘And so we decided that he would jump—or appear to have jumped—from the Golden Gate Bridge. The day he did it was one year to the day since his official separation from Ann.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Mexico. Mexico City. He lived in Mexico—we lived in Mexico, I should say—very happily. We led as close to a normal life as we could—which was very close indeed.

‘Harry wrote poetry and short stories—many of them published under noms de plume—and we spent the nights together, talking. I would tell him of all the things that I had seen and experienced and Harry would put them into poems and stories.

‘Then, in 1987, a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner wrote that he had met Harry in a bar in Mexico City back in 1957.’

‘That was true, then, that story?’

The man nodded enthusiastically. ‘Every word. Absolutely true. The journalist was Peter Hamill.’

‘Harry was pretty zilched-out that night, I remember,’ the man said wistfully. ‘He’d been drinking Jack Daniel’s and then, because it was my night to hunt, he went off by himself—something he did very rarely—and polished off several bowls of marinated shrimp and most of a bottle of mescal. We thought nothing more about it until, like three decades later, for crissakes, the story appeared in the Examiner. Needless to say, we left Mexico City within a few days.’

‘Where did you go then?’

‘Oh, different places. Central America at first, but then Harry got to hankering for the States so we moved up to Texas.’ He took another drink from the bottle. ‘Then, when Harry’s health got really bad, we moved back to Beatrice.’

‘What was it? What was wrong with him?’

‘Cancer. He was riddled in the end. He died three weeks ago. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to cope.’

MacDonald didn’t know what to say.

‘Even in the final days, I begged him to reconsider. If he’d let me taint him, he could have conquered the cancer. Then we could have lived forever. But he wouldn’t.’ The man dropped the bottle and slid down the side of the counter to the floor. MacDonald jumped unsteadily from his chair and went to help him. He found a cloth by the side of the sink and ran cold water over it, flicking pieces of food and a couple of dead bugs into the sink. Then he rubbed the cloth over the man’s face.

‘I want…I want you to see him,’ he said. His voice was shaky and slurred.

‘See him? I thought you said he was dead?’

The man nodded. ‘He is.’

‘He’s dead and he’s still here? Here in the house?’

Another nod.

‘Where?’

‘Upstairs. In his room.’

MacDonald turned around and glanced back down the corridor towards the front door. Suddenly the smell of decay which permeated the house made sense. Kees had died three weeks ago. The weather was warm.

The man shuffled himself back up to a crouched position. ‘I…I want you to see him now.’

MacDonald took his arm and helped him up. ‘Okay, okay.’

‘C’mon, then, let’s go.’ The liquor was clearly having an effect. On MacDonald, it seemed to be having no effect at all. He felt as though he had never had a drink of alcohol in his entire life.

They staggered down the dark corridor to the foot of the stairs. ‘You sure you want to do this?’ MacDonald asked.

‘Sh—’ he belched loudly and hiccupped. ‘Sure. Harry’d want to meet you.’

They started up the stairs, swaying from side to side, MacDonald against the handrail and the man called Robinson buffeting against the wall.

At the top of the stairs, the smell was deeper and thicker. It was now pure decay.

‘Thish way,’ Robinson said, and he took off by himself along the narrow corridor toward the end room. He reached it with a thud and took two steps backward, stretching his right hand out toward the handle.

MacDonald ran forward. ‘Here, let me,’ he said, against his better judgment. Robinson stepped aside.

MacDonald took hold of the handle and turned it. His first impression was that the air that escaped from the ancient pyramids must have smelled like this, only milder. It stank. He lifted his hand to his mouth and swallowed the bile that was even then shooting up his throat. He pushed the door open and stepped into the room.

It was almost pitch-black. The curtains were drawn across the narrow window, but a small night-light glowed beside a wide bed that ran from the side wall into the room. In front of the bed and along to the side beneath the window, stretched a long desk strewn with huge piles of manuscripts and sheets of paper. On the table was a typewriter, a confusion of pens and pencils and erasers, a half-full—or half-empty—bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and an army of empty glasses, some upright and some on their sides.

On the bed itself was a body, though its resemblance to anything that might once have lived was tenuous. It was dark and wizened, and seemed to move and writhe where it lay. MacDonald realized that Harry Weldon Kees now provided a home for a multitude of insects and larvae.

The door clicked shut behind him.

MacDonald spun around and faced Robinson. ‘You…you’re not drunk,’ he said.

The man smiled. ‘Sorry. I’ve had what you might say was a lot of practice in holding my liquor.’ Then he opened a cupboard by his side. ‘I have a job for you.’

‘A…a job? What kind of job?’

‘I want you to kill me.’

MacDonald laughed and made a move toward the door. ‘What the hell is this…? I’m getting out—’

Robinson pushed him back and MacDonald stumbled against the bed, throwing his arm out to steady himself. MacDonald’s hand sank into something which seemed damp and clammy. He felt things pop under its weight. ‘Oh, Jesus!’ He jumped away from the bed and looked at his hand. It was covered in what looked leafmold. He shook it frantically. ‘Oh, God,’ he said. ‘Oh, Jesus…’

‘Here.’ Robinson reached into the open cupboard. He pulled out a flat-headed wooden hammer and handed it to MacDonald.

MacDonald took it and said, ‘Oh, Jesus!’

Then Robinson reached in again and pulled out a wooden pole, its end sharpened to a fine point.

MacDonald started to whimper.

‘Here. You’ll need this, too.’

‘No, I won’t.’

‘You—’

‘I’m not doing it. I’m not doing anything else, I’m getting out of this—’

Robinson took hold of MacDonald’s jacket, crumpled it in his fist, and pulled the man toward him. ‘You’ll do what I say you’ll do…if you do want to get out of here.’

MacDonald started shaking and stepped back, away from Robinson. The man had spoken right into his face, breathed right over him…but the smell had not been of Jim Beam, it had been of blood. Heavy and metallic. ‘Why? Why do you want me to do this? Why me?’

‘Because I want to sleep the long sleep. Because…because I’m lonely. And because you are here.’

‘Is…is there no other way?’

Robinson shook his head. ‘At least one of the legends is true. A stake through the heart. It’s the only way.’

MacDonald looked at Robinson and fought off looking around at the thing on the bed. ‘What if I don’t?’

‘I’ll kill you.’

It didn’t take long for them to get things organized. Robinson stretched out on the bed next to Weldon Kees and held the stake’s point above his chest with his left hand. With his right hand, he held the hand of the body by his side.

While he thought about trying to make a break for it, MacDonald heard Robinson sigh a long, deep sigh. ‘It feels funny,’ he said. ‘Funny to be lying here at last, lying here waiting to die.

‘I’ve come close a couple of times—well, more than a couple, I’d guess—but I’ve always managed to turn things to my advantage.’ He turned his head to Weldon Kees and smiled. ‘Old friend,’ he said softly. ‘You and me, forever now.’ He looked up at MacDonald, smiled at the man’s shaking hands around the shaft of the hammer. ‘You’ve no idea, have you?’ he said.

‘About what?’ MacDonald lowered the hammer, grateful for the pause.

‘Loneliness. The ache of ages spent completely alone. I thought that loneliness was all behind me. I thought Harry would eventually relent and let me taint him. But it was not to be. He even begged me not to bite him if he should slip into some kind of coma before the end. He said if I did, then he would never speak to me again.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t live without Harry’s words. I cannot live without his words. Death can only be release.’ He closed his eyes and shook the stake gently. ‘Do it. Do it now.’

MacDonald lifted the hammer high. As he started to bring it down, Robinson’s eyes opened and fixed upon him. ‘Burn us when you’re through.’

The hammer hit the stake squarely, as though MacDonald’s hand had been guided right to the very end. The pole went into the body hard and lodged in the mattress beneath it. Robinson’s body arched once, high in the air, and then slipped back.

MacDonald watched in fascination as the skin shriveled and pulled back, exposing teeth that looked nothing like what he expected a vampire’s teeth to look like. The eyeballs jellied in their sockets and sank back out of sight. The flesh and muscle atrophied, the bones powdered, and within seconds Robinson’s clothes sank back onto the dust. There was no blood.

As if in a daze, MacDonald put down the hammer and walked across to the desk. He lifted a pile of papers and scattered them about the desktop. He could not help himself. As he threw the sheets around, he tried to read some of the lines…some of the title pages. He started to cry.

He threw sheets onto the floor…high into the air, and watched them flutter onto the lone body on the bed. ‘Please…please, God, let me take just one sheet…’

In his head, amidst the confusion, he heard a voice he did not recognize. It was an old voice, but it sounded gently and wise. It said, Take one sheet, then…but only one.

MacDonald grabbed a sheet and jammed it into his sportscoat pocket. Then he picked up a book of matches, struck one, and ignited the whole book. He tossed it onto the scattered sheets, turned calmly around, and left the room.

The fire took longer to get going than he expected.

In the movies, the conflagration is always immediate. But here in reality, it took almost an hour. MacDonald watched it from across the street, watched the first flames reach up to the waiting curtains, watched the first glow in one of the downstairs rooms, smelled the first smoke-filled breeze blowing across the sidewalk.

Then it was done. And only then did MacDonald feel released from the power of Robinson’s eyes.

As he started back to the heart of Beatrice, a gentle rain began to fall. MacDonald pulled the crumpled sheet from his pocket and, in the occasional glow of the streetlights, started to read. It was a poem. A complete work captured on a single sheet of paper. It was called ‘Robinson At Rest.’ It began:

Robinson watching a movie, safe

In the darkness. The world outside spills by

Along sidewalks freshened by rain.

He says to the man by his side, ‘Is that clock correct?’

‘No,’ the answer comes. ‘It’s stopped

At last.’

And seventeen lines later it ended:

—Weldon Kees (1914-1993)

HORROR EXPRESS (Panico en el Transiberio) by John Connolly

Electric Dreamhouse ‘MIDNIGHT MOVIE MONOGRAPHS’ NEW TITLE announcement!

I’m intensely proud of what we’re doing with Electric Dreamhouse, immensely pleased that readers and critics seem to get what we’re aiming for and appreciate what we do. But I still have to pinch myself sometimes that it’s actually happening. That the people I work with actually WANT to work with me . . .

Case in point: about a year and a half ago . . .

Stephen Laws and I hosted an ‘Evening With John Connolly’ in Newcastle as part of the Novocastria Macabre genre events we do up here. John was touring with  the 10th Anniversary edition of his wonderful novel THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS. Afterwards, we went for pizza and nattered about books and movies and what we all were up to, and I told John about Electric Dreamhouse and the Midnight Movie Monograph series we’re doing. Somewhere in the conversation, John said he’d be up for writing one.

I honestly can’t remember if I was bold enough to ask him if he would—I’d had a drink, so it’s possible—or whether John just volunteered based on what I’d told him about the books and what it was we’re trying to do . . .

I emailed him the next day to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it . . .

I hadn’t.

Was he sure? He must be a very busy man . . .

Yes. He was sure, but he’d need to think about what film he’d like to write about.

Over the next few months we kept in touch . . .

. . . me figuring it would happen when it happens, and we’d work around his schedule (best selling author and all that, y’know . . .he really is a very busy man). Somewhere in there, he told me he thought he’d like to write about a not-all-that-well-known Spanish/UK co-production from 1972 called HORROR EXPRESS.

At that point, I hadn’t seen it, but knew the film by name and mentioned it to Stephen Laws. “Oh, it’s wonderful! You have to see it!” And he dug me out a dvd for the next time that I saw him.

I watched it.

He was right. It was SO much fun.

By this point John was pretty sure this was going to be the film he’d write about. There was nothing else that he was really interested in, even though he’d seen the movie only once, when he was a kid. Still, it had made such an impression at the time, it was all that he could imagine spending thirty thousand words exploring.

That was fine by me.

Are you sure? It’s not exactly a classic . . .

I was sure.

I mean, it’s not even all that well known . . .

I was sure.

And so John went to it.

And oh my did he deliver . . .

The book that John has written is one in which we accompany him as he explores Why?  Why this film? Why has it stayed with him? Why does it so draw him now? And will it stand up to youthful remembrance?

If you know John Connolly’s writing, you perhaps might know what to expect, it is warm, it is funny, it is thoughtful, and it is surprising.

What John delivers in this book, is something I found quite moving. In looking back at this seemingly insignificant little exploitation film that found it’s cast and crew by quite the strangest ripples of the butterfly effect, he manages to touch on something universal, something that lies at the very heart of why Electric Dreamhouse, and the Midnight Movie Monographs, came to be: the way small strange movies find their way in to our hearts; mark us in ways their makers could never possibly foresee. The way these small strange movies can change our lives… because they’re Art.

HORROR EXPRESS (Panico en el Transiberio) by John Connolly will launch as part of the Irish Film Institute’s annual Horrorthon in Dublin, on Saturday October 26th, where John will introduce a screening of the film and be signing books.

Available for Pre-Order.

Q&A: Walking with Ghosts by Brian James Freeman

Robert Brouhard chats with Brian James Freeman about his new horror collection, WALKING WITH GHOSTS.

Brian James Freeman (left) and Robert Brouhard (right).

RB: Hello, Mr. Freeman. Thank you for speaking with me today. I see that PS Publishing is about to publish a new book by you called Walking with Ghosts, a 29-short-story collection. Is this your biggest collection so far in your career and does it feel exciting?

BJF: It is easily my larger collection to date. It contains revised versions of previously published stories and a few new ones, too. I’m very excited for this book to be seeing print and I’m thrilled to finally have something published by PS Publishing!

RB: For those that are new to your writing, what would you tell a reader to expect from your kind of horror tales?

BJF: Most of my stuff is very quiet. Very little gore and direct horror, although there are some things that happen “off the page” that is very bloody and horrible. Readers say that’s why some images from my stories such as a tipped over lawnmower or a tea kettle screaming on the stove have stuck with them for so long. They didn’t see the awfulness happen; instead, they had to think more deeply about what must have happened and let their imagination work it out, which made the horror of the event last longer.

RB: As a long-time reader of your work, I’ve notice some small interconnections in your works. Should we expect any of that in this collection… like repeating characters or locations?

BJF: There are several locations that show up time and time again, and at least two stories that are so directly connected they’re basically brother and sister.

RB: I’ve noticed the theme of family is very common in your work. What other themes are favorites of yours to write about and why?

BJF: I don’t actually have a great answer to this! I’m more of a “gut” writer, so I don’t think too hard about themes until after the early drafts are done. Then I will do a pass specifically to see if there’s something my subconscious was poking at, and I’ll try to weave that thought into the work a little better. But I only tend to think of themes at that point, so it’s more about what my subconscious has been dwelling on than which themes that are my favorites.

RB: I know it’s probably hard to choose, but do you have a favorite story?

BJF: Very difficult to pick one! “Mama’s Sleeping” or “Pop-Pop” or “Ice Cold Dan the Ice Cream Man” are at the top of my personal list right now simply because they’re fairly new and that feeling of “hey, this might be good!” is still lingering. On the other hand, “Running Rain” took years of revisions to get the prose where I wanted it, and I love the story because of all the work it took. “Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13” is one of the older stories and writing that one changed how I approached storytelling, which in turn changed the entire direction my writing was headed in. That said, “The Last Beautiful Day” might be my favorite story I’ve ever written, which is why it closes out WALKING WITH GHOSTS.

RB: How do you recommend readers go through your new book: front to back, jump around, one story a night, etc.?

BJF: Readers can approach the book however they’d like, but please don’t read the story notes at the end first! Spoilers abound there. That said, I spent much of this year trying to get the arrangement of the stories just right, so I should probably say to read the book in order!

RB: Are any stories brand new to this collection? Have any been published in the UK before?

BJF: Several are brand new or were only offered to my Patreon.com supporters previously.

RB: One of my favorite parts of some short story collections is when the author talks a little bit about each story candidly, will we get that with this collection?

BJF: Yes! I love reading story notes from the author, yet I had great hesitation about writing them for my own collection. Part of the reason is I’ve noticed some authors use the story notes as a way to kind of “prop up” a work they see as being less than their best. I firmly believe a story should stand on its own. You send it out into the world to live or die by what you’ve put on the page. If you have to explain something, you failed. But… I do love story notes, so I gave writing them a try this time. There’s a note for every story, actually.

RB: I noticed there is a brand-new Introduction by William Peter Blatty. How did that come about?

BJF: Bill and I stayed in touch after I worked on the production materials for his short novel Elsewhere in 2008 and 2009. He was a generous guy with his time, he offered me some excellent advice when I needed it, and he is dearly missed.

RB: Thank you, again, Mr. Freeman.

BJF: Thank you, Robert!

Unsigned edition in-stock and available to order. 

Sneak Peek Extract: DISLOCATIONS by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke

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

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

Sneak Peek Extract: DISLOCATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

“Here we go. Enjoy the party.”

Travis smiled. “I’ll do my best.”

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

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Sneak Peek Extract: ‘The Goosle’ by Margo Lanagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     ‘We have pretties to trade,’ said Grinnan.

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

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

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

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

     ‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Bang! went the cottage door.

     Grinnan came laughing quietly back to me.

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

     ‘Eugh.’

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

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

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

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

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

Available to Order Now.

ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins

Sneak Peek Extract: 

ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins

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

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

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

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

That was it. She came to heel.

 *  *  *

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

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

Sara was used to denying everything.

Now available for pre-order, here.

SOME NOTES ON A NONENTITY: THE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT

 

SOME NOTES ON A NONENTITY covers Lovecraft’s entire life from birth to his untimely and painful death and will be launched at NecronomiCon this coming weekend with a presentation from Sam and Jason on Saturday morning. I wish we could be there—break a leg, guys!

Since his death in 1937, H. P. Lovecraft and his works have become an overwhelming part of popular culture.

His creation, Cthulhu, has appeared in films, cartoons, video games, music and virtually all other parts of popular media. However, although many may know Lovecraft’s creations, few people know the details of his extraordinary life. SOME NOTES ON A NON-ENTITY: THE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT is a biography of this enigmatic and legendary writer.

SOME NOTES ON A NON-ENTITY is a 120+ page graphic novel written by SAM GAFFORD and illustrated by JASON ECKHARDT.

Based on years of research into the primary sources regarding Lovecraft’s life, this graphic novel spans Lovecraft’s youth to his later years. Episodes covered include his odd relationship with an overpowering mother; his brief sojourn in New York City and disastrous marriage; the creation of his most amazing tales; and his physically painful decline to an eventual death while considering himself a complete and utter failure.

Gafford is a weird literature scholar who has written about Lovecraft for several critical magazines and is a founding organizer of the NecronomiCon convention which celebrates Lovecraft’s life and work. Eckhardt is an award winning artist who has received great acclaim for his covers for such publishers as Necronomicon Press, Hippocampus Press and others. Recently, his work has been featured in the highly reviewed ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT by Leslie Klinger. Together, these two respected creators have developed what will surely be considered THE graphic novel biography of the man who has been hailed as second only to Edgar Allan Poe as America’s most important writer of weird literature.

Available to order, here.

SOLAR PONS

This week is a bumper crop with not one, or two, but SEVEN paperback volumes gathering together the complete Basil Copper’s Solar Pons stories. It’s also worth bearing in mind that not only will our FantasyCon launch party (29th September, 5pm) feature the debut appearance of all these titles but also editor Stephen Jones and artist Les Edwards will be on hand to sign copies. We’ll also be doing single copies at a discount and a very special deal for anyone who wants to buy all seven titles over the weekend. Click the images to pre-order copies.

So without further ado, here’s all seven paperbacks:

The Dossier of Solar Pons #1

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • Explanation by Dr. Lyndon Parker
  • The Adventure of the Perplexed Photographer
  • The Sealed Spiral Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Six Gold Doubloons
  • The Adventure of the Ipi Idol
  • The Adventure of Buffington Old Grange
  • The Adventure of the Hammer of Hate

The Further Adventures of Solar Pons #2

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Shaft of Death
  • The Adventure of the Baffled Baron
  • The Adventure of the Surrey Sadist
  • The Adventure of the Missing Student

The Secret Files of Solar Pons #3

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Crawling Horror
  • The Adventure of the Anguished Actor
  • The Adventure of the Ignored Idols
  • The Adventure of the Horrified Heiress

Some Uncollected Cases of Solar Pons #4

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Haunted Rectory
  • The Adventure of the Singular Sandwich
  • Murder at the Zoo
  • The Adventure of the Frightened Governess

The Exploits of Solar Pons #5

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Verger’s Thumb
  • The Adventure of the Phantom Face
  • Death at the Metropole
  • The Adventure of the Callous Colonel

The Recollections of Solar Pons #6

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • ​​​​​​​The Adventure of the Cursed Curator
  • The Adventure of the Hound of Hell
  • The Adventure of the Mad Millionaire
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Claw

The Solar Pons Companion #7

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • Once A Pons a Time . . . Stephen Jones
  • Foreword . . . Basil Copper
  • In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes . . . Basil Copper
  • Plots of the Stories . . . Basil Copper
  • Characters in the Stories . . . Basil Copper
  • The Sayings of Solar Pons . . . Basil Copper
  • Solar Pons Plot and Dialogue Notes . . . Stephen Jones
  • The Adventure of the Northleach Stocks . . . Stephen Jones
  • Painting Pons: Artist Ben Stahl . . . Stephen Jones
  • The Adventure of the Defeated Doctor . . . Basil Copper
  • The Adventure of the Agonised Actor . . . Basil Copper
  • The Adventure of the Persecuted Painter . . . Basil Copper

DARKER COMPANIONS edited by Scott David Aniolowski & Joseph S. Pulver, Sr

Here’s a few paragraphs lifted from Scott’s Introduction ‘Hymns From The Church In High Street.’ Take it away, Scott . . .

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 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 anthologyDARK 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.

With that thought in mind, I contacted Peter Crowther at PS Publising.

“PS Publishing seemed the obvious choice of publisher as they have such a longstanding relationship with Ramsey Campbell and are the premier specialty publisher of all things Campbellian. Peter liked the idea and immediately committed to take on the project.

“Realizing the scope and breadth of the project, I decided a co-editor would be invaluable in helping to keep all the moving parts organized and going in the right direction. During my stint as the fiction line editor for a small press, Joe Pulver had approached me with a pair of anthologies he wanted to do. I really liked Joe and his work and had great respect for him. We had very similar tastes in literature and thought alike on numerous topics, and those first two anthologies he produced went on to receive accolades from fans and the industry, alike, so tagging him as my co-editor for the endeavor was a no-brainer.

The original germ of the idea was to pay homage to THE INHABITANT OF THE LAKE.

“However on consideration that seemed far too restrictive for such a momentous occasion, and there are already plenty of volumes of Cthulhu stories. Incidentally, my own initial venture into editing was a Ramsey Campbell Cthulhu tribute anthology back in 1995 that coincided with his guest of honor appearance at the second NecronomiCon in Danvers, Massachusetts. So been there, done that. The second incarnation of the idea was to do an anthology inspired by the early Campbell short stories as collected in , and . That seemed more wide-ranging and would include material from the pivotal point in Ramsey’s career when he shook off the bewitchment of Lovecraft and found his own true voice. Ultimately, we decided that this needed to be a proper, career-spanning retrospective. I discussed the idea with Ramsey who gave his blessings and the go-ahead to make use of any of his creations, no holds barred!

“Joe and I each compiled a wish-list of authors whom we wanted to invite to contribute. We compared notes, merged lists, and found that we had far too many names, even only taking into account those we’d had on both our lists. We debated all the names and finally had a list we both agreed would be our starting point. A great deal of thought and discussion went into the line-up for this book. There were a few key points we insisted on, and from the start, it was our goal to have a diverse, international mix of contributors. We sought out authors who were fans of Ramsey’s and had been influenced by his body of work — folks whom we knew would put their hearts into it because they wanted to be a part of this tribute and not just to make a sale. Our only edict was that this was not going to be another Cthulhu book, although as it was an important part of Ramsey’s career we couldn’t completely ignore it and did include something for the Cthulhu fans.

“With two or three notable exceptions, everyone accepted our invitation. As the stories came in we were thrilled by what we saw, and it wasn’t long before all the slots were filled and we had to stop sending out invitations. Joe and I assembled our table of contents, which we did with significant care and consideration. Like composing a piece of music, works were put in a particular sequence to achieve a certain melody, sometimes unsettling and other times full of wonder. is our opus in reverence to Ramsey Campbell and his long and esteemed career, our Hymns from the Church in High Street.”

Available for pre-order.

EXTRASOLAR Edited by Nick Gevers

Sneak peek extract:

Introduction by Nick Gevers 

Imagine you’re the captain of Earth’s first interstellar spaceship. The twist is, though, that the spaceship is the sort of vessel dreamt up by SF writers of the mid- to late twentieth century. This could be an advantage: the further back in SF’s history you go, the freer writers seem to have felt in ignoring the obstacle posed by the speed of light. So your spaceship is an FTL one, Faster Than Light, propelled by some sort of hyperdrive. You can reach the stars in a few weeks of subjective time.

Now imagine, further, that your conception of exotic solar systems—even close ones, like Alpha Centauri’s—is based entirely on guesswork. Your ship is twentieth century, your knowledge is twentieth century. You know nothing of what orbital telescopes and other technologies have in fact revealed over the last couple of decades. Like any SF writer of the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, you have had to rely on intelligent extrapolation from the nature of our own, familiar, solar system. Rocky terrestrial planets near the sun, gas giants further out, plenty of rocky moons orbiting the gas giants, lots of comets and other ice objects in the outermost reaches. Surely this pattern must often repeat itself, especially in the case of yellow dwarf stars like our sun? And thus there must be many Earth-like worlds, home to complex forms of life, worlds with breathable atmospheres, potential New Earths?

You and your crew sally forth as outright discoverers, using direct close-up observation to confirm or disprove your suppositions. You are aware of the possibility of shocking outcomes. Perhaps other stars simply have no planets at all. Perhaps you will find peculiar configurations; after all, writers like Hal Clement, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and others conceived of very odd, even crazy, planetary arrangements in their time. Might godlike aliens have engineered entire solar systems closer to their hearts’ desire, fashioning ringworlds, Dyson spheres, shapes more fantastic still?

So you are ready for surprises; your imagination has been primed by the cognitive shocks implicit in a thousand SF stories. Your imagination is a capacious one (after all, you’ve come up with a starship and yourself in charge of it, so you’ve a bold enough fancy.) But the universe has a tendency to overwhelm us with its cosmic ingenuity…

Thus your tour of the stars in our galactic neighbourhood astonishes you. Colossal superjovians, gas giants eight, ten, fifteen times the size of Jupiter, barrel along in grotesquely irregular orbits around their suns, creating gravitational chaos, spinning planets and moons of more ordinary size all over the place, even into interstellar space. Such displaced rogue worlds can wander for billions of years between the stars, unless captured by another stellar primary. There are plenty of smaller gas giants, some like Jupiter, some like Neptune; also no shortage of rocky Earth-like bodies; but in many cases a star’s entire family of planets orbits it extremely close in–inside the equivalent of Mercury’s orbit–enduring temperatures of many hundreds of degrees centigrade and thus qualifying as so-called hot Neptunes and hot Jupiters. They must have formed much further out, so how did they migrate inwards with such freakish consistency? Their years are equal to a few of our days. And those terrestrial-type worlds: so often these are super-Earths, a lot bigger than Earth itself, with several times our gravity and very thick atmospheres. Indeed, even a less imposing super-Earth can boast a bizarrely thick atmosphere, earning the designation ‘super-puff’. Or a rocky planet drowns beneath an ocean thousands of miles deep!

You and your starship crew are in due course both drunk on novelty and in the grip of alarm. You had hoped to locate a reasonable number of worlds physically resembling Earth and safely within the Goldilocks zone, that orbital space around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to evolve on a stably orbiting rocky planet with an atmosphere thick enough to shelter fragile organisms, yet thin enough not to stifle them. But there are discouragingly few such havens; and even if they carry liquid water, misadventures like solar flares, nearby supernovas, errant superjovians, asteroid and comet strikes, gamma ray bursts, and huge volcanic eruptions can render them no refuges at all. Where are the New Earths to be found?

A member of your crew makes a suggestion: why not direct the search to red dwarf stars? If planets so frequently orbit very close in, wouldn’t the comparatively dim output of light and heat by a red dwarf leave its terrestrial planets potentially habitable, despite their proximity? So you set course for a selection of these stars, and you begin to approach your El Dorado. Many worlds huddle around these ember-red fires; there are Earths and super-Earths in great numbers, and could that gleam over there be home to a mighty alien civilization, dreaming under a blood-red sun?

 

#

 

The answer to that last question is Probably Not, but this is an imaginative exercise, after all. All the facts about exotic stars and their planetary companions, revealed to us over the last twenty-two years by astronomers using the Kepler and other space telescopes and employing various methods for filtering information out of complex observations, can be summarized, though very inadequately, as I’ve done above. The implications of these findings are dismaying, in confirming that complex organic life is unlikely to occur often; but also encouraging, demonstrating the extraordinary talent Reality has for defying our expectations, and opening up grand new vistas for the scientific intellect to explore and the science-fictional imagination to populate with scenarios of far-ranging wonder.

For Extrasolar, I asked fourteen leading SF writers to take on the new possibilities, whether in hope or in fear or a mixture of the two. The results are gratifyingly and fascinatingly diverse; so here we go, beyond our comfortable solar system, out to others, enticing, menacing, always bracingly strange…

–Nick Gevers, Cape Town 2017

Now available for pre-order.