Archive for short stories

Story Fragment: LAPPING WATER (1)

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

As I’ve been spending time in small town Colorado, this story has been pricking at my brain. It’s a quiet horror tale about first dates, first sexual encounters, and the dark, cold hole these events can open in a young person’s mind. I picked a section from the story’s center. 

Lor avoided the lake by habit. There was something about its undulating green surface, the extent of its depth partially hidden, that made Lor feel nauseous. He could blame it on too many childhood viewings of Creature from the Black Lagoon, which planted the image of that giant webbed hand grabbing at his legs, but it went into something more subconscious. The sound the water made as it slapped against the shore was the worst – it made Lor’s chest compress and his ears ring. His parents loved going down every Sunday, and he went sometimes just to appease them, as long as he could excuse himself from a ride in his dad’s rented boat. His dad always showed disappointment in his expression, but didn’t argue. Lor was happiest when homework or general malaise gave him a concrete reason to stay home. The lapping sound always got to him, and stayed until he managed to fall asleep. He thought of telling Avery this and imagined the response, comprised simply of laughter. It was a means to an end, anyway, and maybe Lor would be distracted enough to forget the sound. So he let Avery take him there.

The town was laid out in little blotches – Main St. and the two schools at the mouth of the highway, hotels and cabins dotted along the river, with the neighborhoods breaking up space in between. Then there was the trailer park to the south, where the river started turning into marshland. The lake hid itself near there. On the opposite side of the road was the red sign for Maisie’s and the cupola for the American Legion, but the trees grew so thick on the shore that it might have been its own little world. It was always quiet, even when the tourists swarmed in July. Getting there on foot meant walking on the road in parts, or slogging through the bushes and mud. Avery made it fun. They had plenty of room to grab at each other and kiss in the dark – there were only intermittent streetlights, and otherwise just the moon to cast shadows over them. They kept warm until the path sloped down and led them through the trees, which whipped against their shoulders, the branches pressed so close. For a while Lor could only hear the whisper-brush of the pine needles and snatches of Avery’s breath; then it started. It was a calm night, so its rhythm was slow, patient.

When they broke through the trees and onto the shore, he saw it slinking against the rocks. In the white-blue moonlight, punctuated by stars, it was hard to tell where the lake ended and the forest began – its diameter was long enough to make the edges fuzzy. The water lulled, cold and black, along the jagged shadows of trees. For a moment they didn’t make a sound, just stood and listened. The longer Lor waited, the more insistent the lapping became; the lake’s vastness caused it to echo and expand, coming from all sides. But Avery just breathed deep and smiled – the sound didn’t bother him. A dim thought suggested that Lor should wonder why this was so. He didn’t obey.

“Come here,” Avery said, holding out his hand. Lor staggered forward. The beach was comprised of rocks, not a soft bed, but Avery sat down on them without flinching. He pulled Lor down next to him and put a hand around Lor’s waist, kneading lightly. The anticipation was strong enough to muffle the water, but not mute it. They pushed into each other at full strength – no one around to see them now. Avery’s flavors overwhelmed Lor’s brain and quieted it for the first time all night. It should have left room for the water to creep in, but Lor was busy making sure he was doing this right, grabbing at the best time, maintaining a good pace. Avery guided him. He had done this before.

It didn’t last long; the anticipation had sapped their patience. Afterwards, partially clothed, they panted on the beach. Lor could make out small details of Avery’s body in the moonlight – round, dark nipples and the beginnings of chest hair peeking between his ribs. There was a trail of hair leading down from his belly button that Lor ran his finger across. Avery didn’t look at him – he kept his eyes closed and breathed, grinned. Lor thought he could do this forever, lying in the dark and exploring this body. Then something cold slid across his foot.

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“On the Way Home” Published in 9TALES TOLD IN THE DARK #9

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Delayed but good news from the grave!

On January 22nd, my original short story ON THE WAY HOME was published in 9 TALES TOLD IN THE DARK #9.

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The story examines the uncanny mundanity of the suburbs as a boy gets lost on his way home, but soon finds that beneath normality lurks the greatest monsters. (Inspired by an incident when I did indeed get lost in a suburb where everything looked the same.)

CLICK HERE to read “On the Way Home,” along with many others!

Forbidden Tomes: HAUNTED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Short stories were arguably the first great American literary tradition, with Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne contributing groundbreaking tales that still resonate. It is no question that many of these stories at least dabbled in the Gothic. This tradition has lessened over the years, but there are some contemporary authors who have not forgotten. Joyce Carol Oates is one of them, and she contributes to this tradition brilliantly with her collection HAUNTED.

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I talk about Oates a lot. That’s because I think she’s a genius. These stories showcase her ability to render a typical American scene – dollhouses, Christmas dinner, and Thanksgiving shopping, to name a few – in visceral prose that makes them disturbingly wrong. Her detailed and ruthless eye skewers the everyday with macabre observations, warping things until they are almost beyond recognition. Almost. Her stories are all the more chilling because they rarely stray into the supernatural, drawing all of their horror from things that could – and have – happened.

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With these details Oates explores a number of themes that may, in another author’s hands, be commonplace – but not here. There are four sections of stories, and each deals with a broader, recognizable topic: aging, birth, sex, and finally, death. Oates handles these with just the right touch of grotesque, avoiding the garish, and brings them to light in a way that feels revelatory. In the title story, a girl’s childhood ends abruptly with a nebulous trauma and her friend’s death; “Extenuating Circumstances” and “Don’t You Trust Me” both display the horror to which mothers are subjected; and “Martyrdom” makes us question the nature of humanity in the most horrific way.

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In Oates’s beautiful but glaring prose, the above topics become magnified. Her vivid rendering is what makes her ‘normal’ environments so disturbing. Because Oates is also the master of the unreliable narrator, these worlds become even more unreliable. But, like the best horror fiction, their extremes bring out truths that would otherwise be lost.

On a very specific note, the penultimate story – “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” – presents a delight for horror fans in its reimagining of “Turn of the Screw.” Seen from the perspective of the ghosts themselves, who cannot reconcile their place between life and death, and instead taunt the children whom they loved. This story alone is reason to explore Oates’s collection.

Take these grotesque visions of a world we all know and plunge into them. On cold evenings, the rotted truths that Oates presents will make a particular mark.

“Open House” Published in WITCHWORKS#4

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by smuckyproductions

A short story of Ben’s, called OPEN HOUSE, was published in WitchWorks Pulp Horror Magazine today.

The magazine, now on its fourth issue, focuses on  stories that reflect the spirit of classic comics like ‘The Vault of Horror.’ Like many of these nasty tales, “Open House” follows a criminal who gets his just desserts… and maybe a bit more. When a petty thief takes on a wealthy man’s cabin, he finds that the owners want something from him, too.

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CLICK HERE to check out Issue #4, featuring “Open House.”

Stay tuned for more of Ben’s short stories, coming soon!

Horror Stories for a Snowy Night

Posted in Best Of with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Yuletide is upon us! The nights grow dark, the air cold, and the wind carries voices of ice… the perfect time for a few fireside shivers. Here is a (partial) list of classic and contemporary stories that suit themselves for a cold night, when you tremble from something other than temperature.

  1. THE WENDIGO by ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

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Algernon Blackwood is the unchallenged master of the terrified awe that nature inspires – like an evil twin of the Romantics. “Wendigo” is my personal favorite of his famous tales. His ill-fated group of hunters who encounter the titular spirit in the winter woods are witnesses to a horror that we all understand: being at the mercy of the elements. It evokes a sense of ever-present dread, lurking over the treetops and blowing in on the snow – something that we can’t see, but it sure sees us.

  1. OH, WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD by M.R. JAMES

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No December reading list is complete without M.R. James – he is one of the best practitioners of the fireside ghost story. While many of his stories are worth reading, “Whistle” combines the best traits of them all: chilly seaside atmosphere, ancient relics, and slow-building uncanny events that blow up into shocking terror. All with a cheeky sense of humor. Suffice to say that James actually makes the ghost-in-a-sheet cliché frightening.

  1. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES by ANGELA CARTER

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As with the entirety of her collection, Angela Carter is phenomenal at paying tribute to fairy tales while also subverting them. Here, we find a deeply dark version of Red Riding Hood – a snow-shrouded village in Eastern Europe; a young girl with a vital task, and the boy who seduces her; the horrible, animal secret that might kill her. It’s both frightening and hideously erotic, realizing the full potential of the werewolf/sexual awakening metaphor.

  1. SILENT SNOW, SECRET SNOW by CONRAD AIKEN

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Cited by some as one of the first psychological thrillers in short American fiction, this story has a bizarrely simple premise: a boy becomes obsessed with snow. Somehow it manages to be weirder than it sounds. On one hand, it’s a deeply disturbing supernatural horror story; on the other, it’s an upending exploration of mental illness and obsession. All while having a supremely chilling atmosphere.

  1. MIRIAM by TRUMAN CAPOTE

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What would you do if a helpless little girl follows you home… and refuses to leave you alone? Set in a bitter, empty New York winter, this shivery tale reads like the purest of nightmares: surreal, impossible, but inescapable. It’s also a horrifying meditation on loneliness and manipulation. Capote knew how to scare readers with his true stories, but he also could craft fictional terror, all too well.

  1. THE YATTERING AND JACK by CLIVE BARKER

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No one in their right mind would call this scary. But it’s an absolute blast to read – a combination of demonic horror clichés and brilliant dark humor, often bordering on slapstick. And it all takes place during a traditional Suburban Christmas. Clive Barker has an imagination of dark gold, and it’s displayed beautifully in this tale of holiday Satanism, with a hefty dose of satire as well.

  1. SNOW, GLASS, APPLES by NEIL GAIMAN

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Only someone like Neil Gaiman could take such a classic, overdone story – Snow White, in this case – and completely invert it, so the original is unrecognizable. I won’t tell you how he does it, but the effect is astonishing and wholly terrifying. This wintry fairy tale is a bleak and brilliant nightmare. Its minute twists of the source material alter the reader’s perception so fully that they can never go back.

Forbidden Tomes: BOOKS OF BLOOD I-III by CLIVE BARKER

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Logic would never place horror and erotica in the same field. But history goes to show, these two genres often cross over, finding commonalities in each other that perhaps should not be uncovered. For the most part these crossovers are subtle and quiet. Not so with Clive Barker, who broke open the pairing with his debut work, the BOOKS OF BLOOD.

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First published in 1984, these stories combine two things that often go together – sex and death – but does so in such a blatant, shameless, and powerful way that is so rarely seen. Clive Barker is obsessed with flesh. His prose style is unflinching and brutal, often satirical, but always engrossing (emphasis on gross) in its exploration of the human body. It makes sense, then, that he would focus his stories on the most corporeal of all human acts: fornication and decay.

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The three-part collection is split into different forms of stories. There are traditional horror yarns – “The Midnight Meat Train,” “Rawhead Rex,” and “Scape-Goats,” et cetera – and more comical stories, like “Son of Celluloid,” “Sex, Death and Starshine,” and “The Yattering and Jack.” My favorites, however, occupy a bizarre in-between of philosophical fantasy and horror: “In the Hills, the Cities,” “Dread,” “The Skins of the Fathers” and “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” are the best examples. Here, Barker creates a space in which reality bends, then shatters altogether, questioning the nature of humanity itself.

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In the latter stories especially, the human body becomes an almost celestial plane of horrors, a conduit for the supernatural and the surreal. It might be acceptable to say that the titular story – “The Book of Blood,” kicking off Volume 1 – lays out Barker’s thesis in this regard: “The dead have highways,” he begins, and ends by showing the dead breaking into our world through those highways, literally engraving their words into a boy’s skin. The flesh of his characters is always so vulnerable, yet powerful, too – Jacqueline Ess uses the power of her sexuality to actually alter men’s anatomies, and an entire town joins together to create a singular giant in “In the Hills.”

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What truly makes me love these stories is the sense of freakishness, of abnormality, that pervades the best of them. Barker infuses his protagonists with an aberrant streak that might make them frightening, but also makes them sympathetic, heartbreakingly so. Those of us who have felt like freaks can find voice in these monsters. It is the power of horror, to find a heart in the most horrific of things, and Barker understands this better than most. His stories find the purest core of horror – no trappings, no undue elegance, just raw blood, terror, and beauty.

Forbidden Tomes: THE KING IN YELLOW by ROBERT W. CHAMBERS

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by smuckyproductions

This collection of stories has gained much-deserved attention after its cited influence on the first season of “True Detective” – the source, along with stories by Ambrose Bierce, of the nightmare that is Carcosa and the Yellow King. A work that precedes Lovecraft and even Machen, delving into the madness that is cosmic horror, there is little that surpasses the power of THE KING IN YELLOW.

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Most of the stories in the collection have nothing to do with the title – referring to a centuries-old play written by an unknown author destroys anyone who reads the second act. In the four stories that apply, the play acts as either a threat or as a catalyst, lurking both corporeally and spiritually as a terrible evil. Its words – detailing the nightmarish realm of Carcosa, where the Yellow King presides – bring paranoia, insanity and death to those who encounter them. Chambers’ four works pay witness to the horrors that rise from the play, horrors that predict awful fates for the human race.

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Chambers plays brilliantly at perceptions of reality. The first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” gives us one of the best unreliable narrators in horror fiction – a man who believes he is going to be crowned king after he murders his brother. The final two, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” (the most famous of all), characters are haunted by grotesque figures that watch them from afar – by all accounts human aside for their evil expressions. Similar to Lovecraft, but perhaps even more powerfully, Chambers creates a universe in which nothing is stable, and anything can succumb to the powers of madness.

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The style and aesthetic of these stories is distinctly decadent, a fascinating contrast to the terror that occurs within them. Chambers pays homage to Wilde’s school of poets with sensuous images of flowers, golden crowns, and ivory sculptures (see “The Mask,” the second story) – lush imagery and youthful, vigorous characters, until they come into contact with the dreaded play. His Bacchanal settings and delicate environments become subject to decay and destruction as the madness takes root.

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He is most notable, of course, for his ingenious creation of the titular play and mythos. I have always been fascinated by the idea of pieces of art – books, film, paintings, et cetera – that can affect people solely by coming into contact with them. “The King in Yellow” is the most formidable example of this. Its presumably fictional terrors root in the mind, making them real, with agents of the madness lurking around every corner to torment the narrator until death. The evil has a more profound mental effect because of its interiority, compared to the devils of Lovecraft that exist so distantly from our physical world. The Yellow King makes his home close to us, inside of us. It is harder to escape a horror like that.

While it is regrettable that Chambers did not write more about the world of Carcosa, the four stories that he did present are powerful enough to create a lasting impression on horror fiction. His luxurious writing style infuses the reader with a sense of paranoia and insanity that is dreadfully tangible. The King in Yellow has cast his shadow over a century of fiction, and lasts just as long in the reader’s mind.