Archive for Fiction

Forbidden Tomes: THE ACCURSED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Happy March, ghouls – we’re beginning to get a taste of spring in the air. It’s a time of reawakening, good weather, and fertility. Unless you’re in a Joyce Carol Oates book. In one of her only outwardly supernatural works, Oates weaves a disturbing portrait of historical Princeton as it falls under the power of demons. Things get weird in the sepulchral spring of THE ACCURSED.

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It’s 1905 and we’re in Princeton. While some actual figures appear in the background, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair (who were at Princeton then), the main story depicts the Slade family as the daughter – set to be married – is targeted by a vampiric demon. When the demon takes young Slade as his unwilling wife, the surrounding characters (accurate and fictional alike) fall into madness, betrayal, and violence. It really sucks when demons walk into history; they tend to ruin things.

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Having read a few other works by Oates, I expected this one to be like those – psychological, grim, and very disturbing. While it is all of those things, this novel sports a wonderful, crooked sense of humor as well. Like Shirley Jackson’s work, there is social satire to spare here, stemming from these real people’s responses to demonic activity. And though it may be funny, it also tends to get nasty. Oates has created a synthesis of the macabre, the grotesque, the political, and the tragic. It’s pure literary fun to watch Mark Twain, Jack London and Sinclair interact in a world where demons roam.

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Being a part of Oates’s Gothic series (which includes “Bellefleur” and “The Mysteries of Winterthurn”), this novel is written in high language and spares no detail. It moves slowly, which for some is a turn-off. But for those who are willing to wait for the Gothic nightmares to begin, the payoff is all the better for what is established before. The imagery and manifestations are suitably bizarre – possessed babies, toad-demons in a bog-castle, snakes ejecting from men’s throats – and, even better, visually represent the neuroses of the characters. Oates is brutal with the psychological dissection of her creations, and this is no exception.

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In spite of its slow pace and its ultimate focus on satire over horror, “The Accursed” is a wicked ghost story – more so because the supernatural elements explore the human characters. The period setting and springtime aura give the uncanny occurrences an air of elegance, almost loveliness. Oates’s universe is pleasant… until it’s not. The madness and horror that seep (or explode) through the historical trappings is of the highest order. It’s a hellish tale, poking through the fallacy of human belief and their sureness in themselves, finding corpses instead.

For an old-fashioned but gruesome epic of phantoms and broken minds, Oates has given us a gift. She is a craftsman of the highest order, as long as one has the patience. So take the vow and enter this work of nightmares – but know that those vows are binding.

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Short Story: THIRST

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Another bit of flash fiction that originated from a class assignment – to write a character who wants something. Badly. 

THIRST

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Even the grass had begun to scald her exposed skin by the time she noticed the glass of water, shimmering in the rays of brutal white sun. Her sandpaper throat gaped and sucked in dusty air at its promise. The sun had taken nearly every atom of moisture from her body and absorbed it uselessly into the furious sky. Brittle and draining, she could not move, let alone find her way back into the house under the protection of a roof. She had lain there wheezing, aware of how her body would shrivel like a forgotten apple off the tree, until the glint of liquid shot into her eyes and blinded her. Someone had left it on the old boards of the porch, barely concealed by the shade and leaking deliriously attractive condensation. As she stared at it, she could almost feel it sliding down her throat, seeping into the membrane that had receded and cracked, replenishing all that was about to evaporate. The false sensation was enough to give her strength, and she turned over, and began to crawl.

Dark sweat had crusted on her skin, beneath which her muscles and bones were melting into rancid jelly, so movement was a monstrously painful task; but the water beckoned, and she could slide along the grass if she rooted her fingers into the soil and tugged. With pitiful huffs of desert-breath she inched toward the house. The soil singed her hands and formed instantaneous blisters. Pain, however, had become mundane to her in the heat. She scorned her hands for their weakness. Soon soon soon she promised them, that cool touch and rush and we will feel good again.

The porch seemed to retreat from her as she dragged her gelatinous body toward its prize. Stooooop she wanted to cry, but her tongue clacked like a dying beetle between her teeth. She could feel her vocal cords twanging in her chest; in a moment they would snap. Wait goddamnit she cried to them, wait one fucking second. It was closer, yes, drawing closer all the time. The water seemed to exude relief and mercy in a cooling breeze. Its cresting kiss invigorated her flaccid limbs and they slunk forward at a slightly faster pace, just fast enough to reach that water before the sun finished its task of burning her to ashes. She would laugh at the sun once the water had restored her vocal chords and tongue. Oh, how she would laugh, shake the earth with the raging sound, quake the sky until the sun itself came tumbling down, crashing into her flood of moisture and extinguishing in a pathetic fizzle of steam, how lovely that sound would be in her gushing ears, how powerful her cooled and reanimated body pulsing with fresh fluid…

The door to the house opened as she reached for the glass, hardly a foot away. A man dressed in loose beige linen stepped out, squinted at the sun in disdain, and made his slow way over to the edge where she was lying. Without looking at her, he stooped and swiped the glass from its place. He sipped at it and grimaced – no longer cold. Spitting to rid himself of the taste, he upended the glass and let the water tumble into the dirt, which drank it up greedily. Then the man took the glass back inside and disappeared.

She remained still, unfeeling, for a moment. Her mind had numbed. But she did notice the rim of condensation on the wood of the porch, the ghost of her salvation. The grass or the sun had not yet swallowed it. Perhaps if she moved quickly, pulled harder at the soil, she could reach it with her tongue before it, too, disappeared. With a hollow groan to the merciless sky, she rooted her fingers once more and heaved.

Short Story: FACING DEATH

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 Another original story for you horror fans. I wrote this one about two years ago. 

FACING DEATH

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Elizabeth knew her grandfather was going to die before anyone else had guessed it would happen, the day before it occurred; it showed clear on his face, as if he was wearing a Halloween mask. The mask remained there all day, no matter what he was doing or which way he turned, and in the morning her mother found him in bed, cold and stiff. A surprise heart attack had come upon him while he slept. Elizabeth wept for him, but most of her tears came out of fear of the mask, and the implications it held for her. She was six years old.

After that first encounter, the mask became commonplace for Elizabeth – appearing on the faces of strangers, waiters in restaurants, clerks in shops. Dreaded most were the moments when it would appear in the face of a person she knew. She grew accustomed to its patterns, if not the fear; twenty-four hours before the coming of death, it would hover there flawlessly, and leave only when the moment arrived. She saw it on her friend June at age seven, on her grade school teacher eight months later; at age nine, after a long respite, it showed itself on her grandmother, who lost her battle with cancer the next afternoon. She pushed her friends away slowly but deliberately, for she could not bear to look at them. All who had known her before the first appearance noticed the change, a new nervousness in place of her characteristic buoyancy, but they soon learned that Elizabeth would not answer their questions. She revealed her secret to no one, except once, when she lifted her head to God and asked him for an explanation. He did not answer her.

Years went, and the fear dulled until it became manageable. The faces of her friends and family remained unmarred, and though she still saw it in strangers, it did not faze her so much. She returned herself to society and was glad.

During this period she did wonder far too often about the cause or purpose of her strange ability. It was impossible to stop the event itself from occurring, even if she could see its approach in advance. Why was she allowed to see it at all, then? She no longer expected an explanation; but that did not stop her from lying awake at night, searching for it in the impenetrable darkness.

The sky that day was blue and hazy, the air full of the vibrant warmth of late spring. Elizabeth was sunbathing in the morning rays, sipping the lukewarm remnants of her breakfast tea. It had been six days since the sign had appeared in anybody’s face, and she welcomed the absence.

“Come inside, Elizabeth,” he mother’s voice chimed from the back door. “You’ll get burned.”

Elizabeth sat up, blinked out the red impressions in her eyes, and stood. “Coming mother,” she said.

Her mother’s hair spun around in a golden wave as she turned her head back to Elizabeth. The face that followed stole Elizabeth’s breath and the strength in her knees failed. She could not contain her scream.

“What’s wrong, dear?” said her mother.

“Nothing,” Elizabeth gasped. “You surprised me is all.” She inched past the staring horror until she was inside the house. Once safe, facing away from her mother, she allowed the tears to spill. She hurried to her room and sat on her bed, sobbing, trying to imagine how it would happen. Please, let it not be too horrible, she thought to herself, to the God she only half-believed in. Let her go peacefully. Let her not feel any pain.

“Elizabeth?” her father’s voice called. “Is everything all right?”

She wiped her eyes and cheeks as best as she could. “Yes, daddy,” she said. Her voice was unreliable and cracked. She wondered if she should tell him, but she knew it would be impossible to explain to such a rational man, even if the simple confession eased the pain; but perhaps it would only make it worse.

“Your mother said you were upset about something.” His head appeared in the doorway, and for too short a moment Elizabeth thought she was hallucinating. She did not scream; she remained frozen on her bed, certain that her horror showed, unable to mask it anymore than her father could mask his fate. “Is anything the matter?”

“No, daddy. Everything’s fine.”

She imagined he must have smiled as he left, and wished achingly that she could have seen it. There were no words to describe the hole that opened inside her chest. She thought of her siblings, David and Henry and Julia, and began crying emptily at the image of their infant grief. They would not understand, and she did not know how she would explain it to them, because she did not understand it herself.

Their tinkling laughter floated to her from their playroom across the hallway. With much effort, she stood and went to meet them. Nothing could prepare her for what she saw when she opened the door, and laid her reddened eyes upon the three identical masks that turned to look at her. “Hi Elizabeth,” said Julia, but Elizabeth did not hear her, for she had already run down the stairs and out the front door. She did not feel the sun, or hear the lawnmowers and barking dogs that made up the neighborhood aura. Her mind was invaded by a singular kind of dread. How was she meant to bear it, if she could not stop it from happening? What cruel force chose to reveal this to her?

The voice that spoke to her across the street had no answers for her, only a friendly “Hello.” It was old Mrs. Wilson from three doors down, walking her poodle as she did every morning. Elizabeth composed herself in order to return the gesture, but her composure failed when she saw the old woman’s face. Screaming, she ran down the street. Each house she passed bore another face just like the ones before – Mr. Green on his porch, smoking a pipe; the Paisley twins with their red wagon; the new married couple who had moved in only a week ago, expecting a child. Each of them marked with the same sign, all bound to one fate, and blissfully unaware.

Never in all her nights lying awake and searching did Elizabeth dare believe this would come; yet she knew that if she walked to all the houses in all the world, the same image would greet her on every face.

Ignoring the calls of her baffled neighbors, Elizabeth drifted down the street and into her own home. She avoided the eyes of her family, pretended not to hear the frightened questions that followed her up the stairs, shutting herself in the bathroom and locking the door. It took all of her courage to look into the mirror.

With the calmest of hands she opened the door and walked down the hallway to her own bedroom. Her parents and brothers and sister watched her go. She did not hear them as she unlocked the window and drew it open far enough to fit through. She said, “Don’t worry, you will all understand soon;” then let herself tumble onto the hard, unyielding pavement below.

Forbidden Tomes: CLARK ASHTON SMITH

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As this is the first post of its kind, I’ll give a little introduction – in addition to the “Films That Haunt Me” section, I will be writing articles called “Forbidden Tomes,” discussing horror fiction that sometimes goes under the radar. For our first foray into the dark world of words, I’ll talk a bit about Lovecraft’s great contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith. 

The Penguin edition of Smith's best stories.

The Penguin edition of Smith’s best stories.

The name H.P. Lovecraft is synonymous with weird fiction, stories of uncanny and otherworldly horrors. I only recently began exploring his contemporaries and discovered the wealth of bizarre stories that lurk beyond Lovecraft – particularly the stories and poetry of Clark Ashton Smith.

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I entered into Smith’s world with only a vague notion of his style and the knowledge that he and Lovecraft were friends. There is no way to prepare for the entrance into his allegorical and surreal creations. From ruined temples to forgotten gods that are still hungry to vengeful necromancers destroying their rivals’ countries, Smith weaves a variety of disturbing fables with exquisite and Baroque language. Once I got used to his style I was fully entranced.

These alien worlds full of sorcerers, labyrinths, catacombs, and horrific spirits are wholly original and powerful. Smith is credited with the invention of several creatures in the Cthulhu mythos, most recognizably the toad-god Tsathoggua. As a major fan of everything Gothic and monstrous, his populations of ghouls and mummies and blood-thirsty vault-creatures are an absolute dream. The walking corpses and evil wizards particularly touched on childhood fantasies that I hadn’t acknowledged in years.

Smith's sculpture of the toad-god Tsathoggua.

Smith’s sculpture of the toad-god Tsathoggua.

What gives Smith’s fantastical tales their power are not only their imagination, but their focus on deeply human themes. Stories like “The Dark Eidolon” and “The Maze of the Enchanter” explore the consequences of people’s jealousy when granted the ability to act on their greed; while “The City of Singing Flame” and “The Weaver in the Vault” display the psychological wonder of unknown, uncanny encounters.

By grounding his writing in these recognizable emotions, Smith transcends mere entertainment, and his stories make a strong impact because of it. One in particular haunts me the most – “Xeethra,” a parable about a peasant boy who is allowed to live as a king so long as he never shirks his privileged position due to the pressure; the ending is, you can imagine, poignant and tragic. I did not expect to experience such a variety of emotions, going beyond simple fear. That is the power of Smith’s mind and fiction, and why it endures so strongly today.

Smith's own artwork - titled 'Racornee.'

Smith’s own artwork – titled ‘Racornee.’

My copy is the Penguin edition, called The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, edited by wonderful weird fiction scholar S.T. Joshi. While far from complete, it represents his work well, and includes a lot of his poetry, too – also beautiful. There is a spectrum of horror, fantasy and science fiction here that will please fans of any genre.

Clark Ashton Smith is a voice from another time, echoing Lovecraft but even transcending him with his fable-like themes that resonate deep. Light a candle and enter his world on a dark summer night while the dreamy wind blows outside. It is guaranteed to transport you.

The Other: Book Review

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2013 by smuckyproductions

Author: Thomas Tryon
Published in 1971
9/10

Since I don’t have a recent book to review for today, I thought I’d discuss a classic. “The Other,” written by an actor-turned-author, is a fantastically written supernatural thriller with great twists and wonderful atmosphere.

Twins Niles and Holland Perry live on a sprawling farm in 1930’s Connecticut. Their grandmother has taught them to transport themselves into other’s minds, in order to imagine what can be seen through their eyes. One hot summer, strange things begin to happen surrounding them: family members die violently, objects vanish, and sanity dissolves as the twins’ secrets drive the Perry family to ruin.

What really makes the novel fascinating is the evocation of place. Tryon brings the Perry farm to life fully, through beautiful prose and  extreme detail. It’s easy to be lost in the world the novel creates – it’s romantic, peaceful, and at times eerie beyond belief. The characters are given the same care, each one fully fleshed and visualized. “The Other” pulled me into its universe, and I loved every moment I spent there. This intense illustration makes it all the more terrifying, then, when Tryon introduces the horror behind the charming veneer. And there is plenty of horror that shows its head by the end.

The story takes turn after turn into ultimate darkness. Most of the novel is very quietly creepy, but the morbidity of some moments shocked me. The twists are sprinkled throughout, coming at the most unexpected moments. Some may see them coming from a mile away, but I always found myself taken by surprise. As a thriller, “The Other” is marvelous.

I’m surprised to find that “The Other” isn’t mentioned more when discussing horror classics. It’s a fantastic novel, with great characters and plot turns. Though it’s short, it is completely involving and at times, even brilliant. I recommend it, and put it high on my list of favorite horror stories.