Archive for Novel

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Dad’s Stories

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2017 by smuckyproductions

 

I’ve finished a major rewrite of this project, so here is a fragment to celebrate. From the novel’s beginning, when the protagonist remembers his father’s campfire stories, which set him on a journey into the darkness of the woods, and his mind. 

Dad’s stories were all the same. The details shifted, depending on my age or his mood, but the format and essence were set in stone from the first. That’s why I loved them and why he could remember how to tell them. He started as early as age five, maybe earlier. We had to wait for the campfire to be raging, dinner charred and devoured, a whiskey to lubricate his throat. By the time he was ready, dusk had settled around us; his head a big shadow against the gold-red sky, and the night wind starting to stir the trees. Dad would take a sip of his drink, inhale deeply – a moment of anticipation, suspense – and then he would begin.

“There are some things, Luke…” He did that a lot, borrowing grand ideas from smarter people and tossing them at minds who must have been too little to understand, or at least couldn’t recognize the source. And following this statement, he would weave his world. All it took was a sweep of his hand. A dark mountain, endless rows of murky pines, sharp smells of water and dirt; in the center of it all, a father and son, huddled around their fire. He had a special way of framing it, not quite literary but remarkable for a suburban father who prided himself on straightforward thinking – no frilly shit. Every time I heard that opening, I could see nothing aside from his fire-crossed face, and I would be transported.

Our hero, the son, was always my age and height – usually shared my name, too. Luke (or Dan or Mike, if Dad was feeling creative) had embarked on a camping trip with his father. They were having a hell of a time, an ideal escapade, with no need for lessons or encouraging words or explanations. The trip started in this ideal manner, told as Dad’s eyes went a little glassy with the fantasy; but night had to fall sometime.

For all his shortcomings, Dad understood better than most the landscape of the woods at night. He might have been a strong rival for Algernon Blackwood, if I do say so, had he given it any real thought. He had the atmosphere on his side, too. It’s incomparable – the darkness is so complete, trapped in the tree branches, and while you know that your surroundings are overwhelmingly huge, you feel entombed in them, unable to run in any direction. Just to stand within it, be a part of its fabric, is an exhilarating enigma. But with exhilaration can come fear. There is nothing lonelier in the world than being lost in the woods after dark. I’m not sure if he was aware, but Dad always infused this terror into his stories. As a kid, it’s even worse, looking up into the dark and knowing that your only protection is your father.

So night would fall on fictional Luke, and he would dutifully go to sleep, or venture into the trees for more firewood – an obedient counterpart. He wouldn’t get far before he felt a weight in his gut, the weight of far away eyes; and then the noises would start. A twig snaps. Footsteps – tiny or huge – echo in the distance, then again, a little closer. They rattle the boy’s bones as they drew forward. My little body would be quivering by this point, thinking of that huge form slinking so effortlessly through the forest – but my counterpart stands his ground. In the early stories, fictional Luke would walk into the firelight as the beast appears, mountainous in its ebony self that blocked out the moon. Dad never gave it a clear shape, but my brain did a fine job; always adding an extra eye or mouth, endless limbs to hug its victims to death. In its gut-shaking voice, the monster howls, “I am hungry! And my favorite food is little boys!” But the boy is no coward. He steps into the firelight and challenges the beast. Usually, his threats work; the monster breaks down and proclaims that he’s just lonely. The boy makes a new friend and Dad gets away with scaring the shit out of me – as long as it’s a happy ending. Though in the silence, when my dad started snoring, I would think of the monster’s approaching steps and wonder – in real life, would I be brave enough?

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Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Gates to Hell

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by smuckyproductions

Another fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT – the rewrite is nearing its end, but this page comes from the story’s start. Musings on popular urban legends that, while eerie in their own right, mask the true horror that they imply. 

Junior year of high school I got a little obsessed with Gates to Hell. Our lovely country has its fair share, so the urban legends suggest. Always threatened to go on a road trip and visit each of them, oil lantern and book of psalms in hand. Never found anyone who wanted to go with me.

There’s some good ones out there, anyway. The residents of Clifton, New Jersey, for example, believe that a tunnel system below their fine town burrows into the fiery pit itself. The further you go, the closer you get to the Devil – but you might not find your way out. Pennsylvania has several, maybe thanks to those good-hearted Quakers. In Downington, a father murdered his family and opened a door through which supernatural beings descend. Luckily for the locals, they can’t come back up. York has not one, but seven. Step through the first and the other six will appear, but no one has made it past the fifth without losing their minds. Even Kansas has one, not that they’re much else to do out there but talk to demons. Residents of Stull warn against (mostly in vain) staying overnight in their old cemetery. If you’re brave enough to try, you might lose sense of time, and hear the terrible echoes of past ritual sacrifices made on the dead ground. Those who can steel their nerves against these sensory assaults might see the gates open – but local law enforcement is not liable for those who decide to go through.

Our culture conjures these stories almost without effort, it seems, simply by dreaming and hoping. Spooky ones, but nothing beyond that – just a little chill to pass the time, no harm done. Sometimes the veneer doesn’t cover the rotting truth, though. There’s the Devil’s Gate Reservoir in Pasadena, other side of the continent. In 1957, a boy strayed just a few feet ahead of his hiking group, rounded a corner, and vanished. Seconds out of sight, enough to erase him from the world. And the same happened in ’56, ’60, kids plucked from the air without a trace, fates never justified, families deprived of their chance to say goodbye.

It’s sensible that people would create these tales of devil holes and witches, in the wake of something like that. They give intention and reason to these mysteries. Better to blame pure evil than accident, a tumble into a ravine, or some confused soul seeking to transplant their pain onto someone pure, unsoiled, and convince themselves that this is justice. Let the demons take responsibility – we aren’t capable of that cruelty. There’s a story there, no doubt. But the demons can only provide so much distraction before they announce their horrible alibi.

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Ghosts in the Dark

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2017 by smuckyproductions

The air is turning cold in the forests and mountains; autumn is staking its claim. In honor of the darker weather, here is another fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT – this one relating to the character’s search for answers in a nebulous, eerie world. 

The mountain looks down on this room every night, just an outline against the stars. I stare at it from the window, listen to the wind slipping through the pines and the shaky hoot of an owl; but the mountain is all I can see. I intend to initiate a staring contest between us. It hasn’t accepted the challenge.

When it’s this late at night, with the bloodstream clogged and the air cold, inky – no need for ghouls or winged beasts or God up there. The town has its own ghosts roaming the dark. The ghosts of the miners, for example, trekking through the trees from that final place of rest that no one has bothered to uncover yet. The ghost of that suicidal woman, Janet, a rather new shade. Ghosts who lost their jobs, rich families who abandoned their legacy and patronage; fathers trying to start a fire with wet matches in the dark. And the missing girl, Stephanie. Her ghost is the most intangible. I still don’t know where she’s been or where she’s gone. I can feel all of them at the window if I try hard enough – maybe the regulars can, too, and that’s why they drink, to convince themselves it’s just the wind. And it is just that, just a lonely breath in the other room, gone cold by the time you hear it. That’s one thing about the city. Nights are just brown or grey gloom, depending on pollution, and you know someone, somewhere is still awake; the night and silence are never complete. Here, they’re sovereign. Anyone who wanders out there at this time of night might as well be a ghost, because no one will be there to see them, and with just the moonlight cast upon their doomed steps – there! There he is, at the window. Going to tell me one more story. This time the beast’s already breathing down my neck. My own breath, and it hardly stirs a hair.

Mom hated that I got drunk. But she never understood the medicinal effects. It’s fair, isn’t it, to get drunk? Breath no longer cold; vision unreliable enough to blame these shapes on the poison, a side effect. Graham and Roselyn and Stan get it. They’ve learned the secret of living with this empty air. But not with the ghosts. No, I suspect there’s no secret to that; the shadows will continue to creep, creep closer to the window and tap – polite until they lose patience.

But even ghosts need to sleep, and dream. My vigil on the mountain ends. It’s already against the window. I won’t invite it in.

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Last Chance

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by smuckyproductions

I’ve always struggled, as a writer, with finding specific instances that develop a character’s goal while giving the reader a reason to sympathize. With the current novel revision, that’s something I am trying to overcome. Here is an early introduction to the protagonist and narrator – hopefully it inspires a twinge of empathy. 

July 19th:

A slow and average afternoon at the bookstore, no A.C., sun oozing in yellow strands through the dusty windows. The old paper and shelves gave the air awful, sedating mustiness. Nothing to do but stare and fan oneself, think desperately of something far away. The first customer in an hour relieved me of my boredom and asked if I could recommend a book on writing. She smiled, a little nervous, embarrassed. “You’re a writer?” I said. “I want to be,” she replied, wringing her hands. So I smiled, too, and laughed a little, quoted a favorite teacher who put my doubts to rest a while ago – “Anyone who writes is a writer.” She laughed, too, and asked, “What are you working on?” Like she really wanted to know.

And as I tried to think of a response, the boss strut over, stretched to her full imposing height. She exuded enough ice to cut the heat through her presence alone. The customer glanced warily at the boss – she must have felt the air cool – then hastily made her purchase, and went off to learn what I’m supposed to already know. When the door jangled shut, the boss tapped on the register and glared at me with her teeth slightly bared for a moment until she was certain she had my attention. Then she intoned, “You’re selling books. You’re not writing. Not on my time.” She returned to her full height and the edge of her lip twitched, expressing her triumph, before slinking away. I could have argued the contrary, but she walked away before I could think of anything to back up my case. Still haven’t found evidence in my favor. Any supporting statement would be a lie. But it doesn’t have to be. This is the last chance, buddy. Before I melt to this register forever.

I keep thinking of what Dad would say when he started his stories. “There are some things, Luke, that we were never supposed to mess with.” Or, “that we were never meant to find.” I had no idea what he meant back then, just that he was going to give me all his attention and tell a story. Now I want to know why he chose that phrase. Some things. What things?

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Pure Fear

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2017 by smuckyproductions

For the past few weeks, I’ve been rewriting a deeply personal and tough novel called THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT. It’s a collection of journal entries, articles and interviews compiled by a young writer exploring childhood memories of a podunk mountain town, but he discovers a dark force and devastating truth that threatens to ruin him. Here’s a fragment from an early section, as he begins examining the memories before making the leap.

Fall of sophomore year, some friends and I left our little bubble to visit this abandoned mental hospital somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. It was a nasty old building, painted over with graffiti and gutted, aside from a wheelchair or two left to rust – memoirs of a hundred anonymous sufferers. We pitched in for a handle of very bad whiskey and sat in the dead leaves, drinking, trying to spot ghosts in the broken windows.

It got dark earlier than we expected. We stayed too long, let the sun go down without noticing. It was probably the whiskey that kept us slouching and murmuring. But without the sun we didn’t have much to say. We listened tentatively to the bugs cricking, the breeze knocking a few dry leaves together, metal creaking somewhere in the empty halls. In the dark, my nerves kicked up and built into fear, the most useless and loneliest kind. The building’s bulk was so dark and imposing against the sky’s final blue, leaning over us uninvited visitors who had nothing to offer but more trash. It might have been massive, but it would still be forgotten. I made myself a promise, hugging my knees against the cold, that I would crusade against this awful obscurity; I would not let myself succumb to this concrete skeleton’s fate. But the shadows of the asylum had an argument of its own: how could I, a much smaller thing, overcome something that even this behemoth couldn’t defeat? I wanted to scream at it to prove my point – I could speak, I could make noise, and it was just dust – but I decided not to disturb the ghosts. So we all stayed quiet until one of us announced that the last train would leave soon, and we shuffled down the path by the light of our phones, glancing over our shoulders every so often. We didn’t talk about it on the way home; never talked about it again.

I think that is the purest fear I’ve felt in a while, the electrifying and active kind that won’t let you sit still. I’m starting to feel it again.

 

 

Forbidden Tomes: TO WALK THE NIGHT by WILLIAM SLOANE

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

It’s been quite some time since I published a Forbidden Tomes review, and I can think of no better way to revive the tradition than to discuss my latest cosmic read. This story is one of many that found new life last year, finding a place amongst authors like Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell and Thomas Ligotti. Yet it sets itself apart from those by creating a style that I find wholly unique. Our tome today is William Sloane’s quiet tale of monstrosity called TO WALK THE NIGHT. 

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The plot is straight out of Lovecraft – after finding their old professor burning to death under impossible circumstances, two college friends become involved in the professor’s enigmatic wife. When one falls in love with her, the other succumbs to unnamable fear, and unravels a truth too horrible to mention.

Lovecraft might have written this, but his version would have been drastically different from Sloane’s. The story is set when the narrator returns to his friend’s home to tell the man’s father the truth of his death. From the first sentences, we are instilled with a sense of tragedy, but also dread. Lovecraft’s stories have always been fairly emotionless, evoking nothing but fear. Sloane sets himself apart by infusing his terror with human sadness. It managed to draw me in from the first page, and when the fear came into play, I was already vulnerable.

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Sloane moves his plot along at a quiet, patient motion – most of the scenes are utterly mundane, but with this mystery dangling over us, they become uncomfortable. Those who want instantaneous monsters and tentacles need not look here. Our characters are the centerpiece of the story. But through masterful descriptions of landscape and memory, Sloane creates a sense of smallness that haunts them – and us – throughout the everyday interactions. He creates fear out of almost nothing, a lesson today’s writers have not yet learned.

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By the time we are ready for the revelation, set brilliantly in the vast desert of the Southwest, we already have guessed at most of the elements. Sloane still manages to surprise us by bringing back that tragedy. At its core, this becomes a story of loss, loneliness, and the inability to accept the ‘other.’ Like the best of horror, it is about outcasts. The cosmic notion of a vast, impenetrable universe only amplifies this sense of sadness. I was chilled by his story, but also felt heartache, and when horror can do that to me, I can’t help but love it. Sloane chooses small details to frighten the reader, but also to bring across that tragedy, and make it visceral.

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Due to its slow pace, it will not please everyone. But for those who can be patient and are willing to accept the human elements, there is a majorly entertaining read waiting for them. We must thank NYRB for re-releasing Sloane’s novels. This is a lost gift to horror fans, and a reminder of how much power the genre can hold.

Forbidden Tomes: THE WOMAN IN BLACK by SUSAN HILL

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Around this time of year, everyone loves a good ghost story. Most of them are suitable for some momentary shivers, perhaps a glance over the shoulder, and a hearty (albeit nervous) laughter at the supernatural. But there are some ghost stories that leave a lingering chill. Their fears extend past the fun of fiction into something darker, more clinging. One such ghost story is Susan Hill’s classic, THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

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Many people have seen this story done on screen, either in 1989 or recently in 2012. The lucky ones have witnessed it on stage. For those who haven’t, the tale goes forward as such: an ambitious young solicitor travels to the distant, foggy climes of Eel Marsh House in order to sort the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. But something else lingers in Eel Marsh, and the neighboring town. When the young man sees a mysterious woman dressed in black standing in the local graveyard, and meets undue paranoia from the townspeople, he begins to unearth a horrible secret.

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Susan Hill sets herself up with delightful Gothic elements from the get-go. Recounted by the young man several decades later, the story feels like one told by a campfire, but his reluctance to tell it gives a feeling of unknown dread. The landscapes are wonderfully mist-shrouded and dreary, the house itself is gloomy as one could want, and the mystery surrounding it all has an air of danger: you don’t really want to know the truth. The image of the titular woman, wrapped in black and almost skeletal, is chilling. Then the real horror begins.

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Even in the films (preferring the 1989 version over the recent adaptation, though that one is decent too), the story conveys several layers of fear. There is the spooky apparition, the somber house; but then there is the terror of the townspeople, who refuse to discuss the woman in black. We get the sense that something awful lingers beneath the creepy trappings. Hill delivers on this, too. The revelation of the woman in black is the stuff of nightmares. It goes beyond a simple chilly encounter, branching into almost existential horror, because there is no escaping it.

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It’s difficult to discuss this darkness without ruining the surprise, so I’ll leave it at this: for those who like their horror with a dose of gravity, “The Woman in Black” is ideal. It will have you looking in the distance a bit too hard, searching for the form of a specter with a terrible prophecy.