Milestone: The Collected Stories, Volume One

Released today:

MilestoneFrom the Bram Stoker Award-Winning author of THE TURTLE BOY, KIN, and JACK & JILL.

Somewhere out west there is a town called Milestone. You will not find it on any map. If you’re lucky, you won’t find it at all.

Once a thriving mining community, the few souls who still dwell there know nothing of hope and everything of damnation. Because Milestone may appear near-death, a ghost town in the making, but it is very much alive.

There are the stories of invisible barriers that open and close the borders on a whim, sometimes fatally, the whispers of a man in a top hat who comes cycling up out of the darkness of the abandoned mine to change the fate of the town, the buried music box that summons him, the people with unnatural powers, the old man who counts stacks of pennies and prays they never fall…and the fires that burn brightly with the sounds of screams.

Milestone is very much alive, and those unlucky souls trapped within its borders have little choice but to learn the true nature of their prison, or become its latest victim.

And even as they fight against the inevitable, the borders continue to expand.

Milestone is growing.

Included in the following book are the novellas “The Witch”, “Saturday Night at Eddie’s”, “Thirty Miles South of Dry County” and “The Palaver”.

Get your copy now at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, or Smashwords, for only $2.99!

PEEKERS Heads to Hollywood

graphic courtesy of Slashfilm

graphic courtesy of Slashfilm

I’m happy to announce that my short story “Peekers” (originally published in Eulogies, edited by Nanci Kalanta, and reprinted in my collection The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others), has been picked up by Lionsgate for feature film treatment. The film will be written by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (Absentia, Oculus, Soma), and produced by Lawrence Grey (Last Vegas).

Read the full story here.

JACK & JILL: Excerpt

ImageLate this year will see the release of my new novella JACK & JILL, which I can only describe as a corrupt subversion of the classic nursery rhyme which tackles sensitive subjects I have avoided to this point but felt compelled to study now in light of real-world events suffered by people close to me. The signed limited hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications was printed to order (in other words, the publisher only accepted orders during a preorder window, and so no more copies will be produced). I will, however, be releasing a digital edition (cover above) which will be available for preorder in anticipation of the book’s December release date.

To whet your appetite, here is the first chapter…

* * *

ONE

I dream.

My brother and I stand on the verge of one of two graveyards that swell up from hallowed ground to form lofty cross-studded hills overlooking the town in which we have spent most of our young lives. It has never been explained why the dead are buried at such a height, for surely it would make more sense to secret them away in some gated meadow in the valley rather than in plain view of the townsfolk, who could live quite happily without the reminder of what awaits them.

Mayberry has seen its fair share of tragedy. The people walk slightly stooped as if shouldering the weight of loss, their eyes cast downward to avoid registering the twin verdant rises that obscure the sun at dawn and dusk. There is a peculiar smell to this place, like a coat that has been hung up wet and discovered in a closet years later, a sense of age it is not old enough to have earned.

Gothic churches stand sentinel on street corners, facing taverns and pizza joints, and intimidating no one. The houses sag and creak in the shadow of gnarled branches that look like the arthritic hands of apathetic mothers. At the bandstand, stubbornly holding court between a Romanesque town hall and a bank, and looking out over a concrete lot long awaiting development by a planning committee who no longer cares, sits a violinist, who makes up songs as she goes. Her music fills the air, and she never repeats a tune.

This is our town.

I am twelve, John is nine, and we have not yet learned of death. Pain and horror however are kindred. They visit us nightly, and take away little pieces of our soul. We live in nightmare and escape during daylight. And we do it here, in a cemetery that reaches in supplication to the sky, its base ringed with dark mausoleums.

We stand atop the hill, looking down at the long steep slope devoid of graves which leads to the road, and beyond, to the low-slung form of a prison that awaits us in a scant few weeks—the elementary school. We come here every day, and we engage in a ritual so childish and uncomplicated, it allows us to remember who and what we are, or at least, what we’re supposed to be. What we wish we were.

“Ready?” John asks, a wide smile on his pallid young face. The breeze makes his sandy hair dance. He is wearing his navy-colored dress pants and a light blue shirt rolled up at the sleeves. A navy tie hangs loosely from his neck. I am wearing a pretty white dress with red polka dots and my white Mary Janes. Mother calls these outfits our “Sunday Best” and she will not be happy when we ruin them, but neither of us care. Mother has been too selective in the things that concern her, and the guilt of that will lessen the severity of any reprimand.

“Ready,” I reply, and in tandem, we take a few steps forward.

I am vaguely aware of a man, little more than a hunched shadow, sitting down there on the wall that separates the grass at the bottom of the hill from the road. His back is to us, his attention fixed on a newspaper, as unconcerned with us as we are with him.

We drop to the ground. The grass is still damp from the morning dew. As mother fretted after we exited the church earlier, our skin and clothes will be stained, but this is welcome, if only to obscure the invisible, more permanent stains of which we are always so intimately aware.

We lie on our backs, our feet almost but not quite touching, arms close to our sides.

“Go!” John yells, and we roll down the hill. Though my brother’s name is John, and mine Gillian, between us we are Jack and Jill. It is a fantasy, an escape, a secret identity no one can touch, further strengthened by this weekly ritual.

I can never understand why, when we start out together from the same place, John somehow always manages to get ahead of me.

Today is no different.

Faster and faster we go, the world spinning crazily in my vision, which is little more than snatches of green and sky and flashes of light and dark blue as John shrieks with delight. Here and there the ground is unpleasantly stonier as I tumble over rocks half-buried in the earth, bruising my elbows and knees and scraping my skin. I don’t care. I feel nothing but elation. My flesh tingles, the grass whispers against my face. Dew wets my lips. I close my eyes and it is as if the world is moving and I am lying still.

It goes on forever, dream-time stretching to delay the imminent horror.

And then it comes.

I reach the bottom and stop. Lie on my back, breathless. Moisture seeps through my dress as I look up at the whirling sky, which has grown darker since we began our descent. Ugly gray clouds seep over the hill, infecting the blue, and with it comes a chill.

An involuntary moan escapes me. It makes no sense in the dream, for I have not yet discovered the source of the latent dread. Perhaps it is my adult self protesting the direction in which my subconscious is bound.

My skin crawls, but for now I can do nothing but watch the darkening sky, which seesaws over and back as my vision tries to settle.

A sky-spittle speck of rain hits my cheek. My heartbeat thunders in my ears, competing with the hollow sound of my own breath bellowing in and out of my lungs.

I tell myself this is why I can’t hear John.

Gradually, I roll over on my side. I look at the school. The windows are black, neither reflecting the world nor showing what might exist within. I feel a vague tightening in my gut at the thought that soon it will consume us. To the right, I note that the man is gone. Further right, John is sprawled on his back, arms splayed out as he too stares up at the sky.

Unsteadily, I get to my feet, black sparks pulsing in my vision. I fear I might be sick, but close my eyes and allow the last of the disorientation to pass.

“You win,” I call to John, because even though I’m not sure which one of us reached the bottom first, it is safe to assume it wasn’t me. Besides, there is no competition here. There never is. I love John more than anything else in the world. Alone, the events we’ve been forced to endure would have destroyed us. Together, we can find solace in a world that seems to shun it.

There is blood on the grass.

I stop walking as more rain pats my face, not yet able to fully register the long thin shadow that edges its way into my periphery as the man I thought was gone reappears.

The blood, an odd color, more like bad movie blood than anything I have seen in real life, forms a thick wide ragged carpet leading from halfway down the hill to where John lays unmoving three feet away.

The man waits, in no hurry for me to discover his handiwork, and I am in no hurry to look upon him. I know who he is.

“John?”

I step closer to my brother.

Ferocious agony locks my chest and I drop to my knees in grief. I’ve been here before, though the horror never gets old. I know all too well the pattern of this malignant dream and my throat closes, trapping a scream. My breath catches. I try to close my eyes, and find that I can’t.

The stump of John’s neck paints the grass crimson.

My heart crashes against my ribs. Bile fills my mouth.

Fear and terror turn to rage, as I finally look to my right, to the thing awaiting my attention. I do all of this because it has been rehearsed, practiced a thousand times over twenty-odd years of dreams.

The man is tall and thin, and though a clear plastic bag has been wrapped tightly around his badly decomposed head, I recognize his face.

It is my father, and his mouth is wide open, filled with maggots that tumble free only to be trapped again in the folds of the bag. They move languidly against the plastic.

He is wearing a funeral suit stained with dirt. His white shirt and bare feet are spotted with my brother’s blood.

I weep and bring my hands up to cover my eyes, but they too are made of plastic and hide nothing. Certainly not the gruesome gleeful bobbing of my father’s suffocated head, nor the senseless fact that he has rusted clothes hangers for hands. Like a fish, John’s head has been hooked through the roof of the mouth on one of them. His handsome little face now looks like a poor imitation, absent in death of everything that made it beautiful in life.

Finally the scream escapes, a train of utter anguish that plunges free into the cold air. It is mimicked by a peal of thunder as the sky splits and the rain falls in sheets that have more weight than is natural. I am soaked in an instant. Rising from my knees feels like I am struggling to stand underwater.

The plastic bag turns a foggy gray as hurried, excited breath obscures my father’s face. Behind and above him, darkness rushes across the gravestones, creeping down the hill like spilled oil.

He raises the unburdened clothes hanger to show it to me and I hear his voice inside my head. Such a good girl. Do you remember how it felt to have it inside you? Twisting? Turning? It takes guts to know, and I know your guts. Such a good girl.

* * *

R.I.P. Bob Booth

I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Bob Booth, AKA Papa Necon. Another of the old guard is gone. Though I’d corresponded with Bob over the years, I only got to meet him for the first time at Necon this summer, and it was easy to see why he was so well-regarded. The man genuinely loved the genre and all its purveyors, and that affection and respect was evident. To him, all of us were family and he treated us as such.

My thoughts and condolences go out to Mary, Sara, Jillian, and Dan Booth, Matt Bechtel, and all who were closest to him. If there is any consolation to be found in this tragic news, it is that at last his suffering is over, and he’s in a better place, most likely sharing a chuckle with Rick Hautala, Charlie Grant, Les Daniels, and all the Neconites who preceded him beyond the veil.

R.I.P. Papa.

Night Falls on Memory Lane

So there I was, tearing my way through Wretched Angels, the sequel to my novel Kin, when out of the blue a woman’s voice began to tell a story, her story, as if I was the only other person in the room and that was audience enough. Intrigued, I turned away from the impenetrably bleak proceedings I had been engaged in documenting, and soon found myself with tears in my eyes, not from sadness, but laughter. The woman, it turned out, was Cassandra Quinn, daughter of Timmy Quinn, whose journey I chronicled in five books (The Turtle Boy, The Hides, Vessels, Peregrine’s Tale, and Nemesis), but quite unlike that grim, burdened character, Cassandra is, despite burdens of her own, quite spirited and witty. And, after a sleepless night of listening to what she had to say, I knew I had to tell her story.

Thus with Night Falls on Memory Lane, I have begun to chronicle Cassie’s tale. It will be very different to the Timmy Quinn series, more lighthearted but no less scary. There will be fewer ghosts, but an ample number of Bad Things, as Cassie searches for the truth about her own genesis and learns to cope with her own rather unique gift/curse: the ability to see the memories of those with whom she comes into physical contact.

You can read the first rough excerpt at my Facebook page. Below, to get your juices flowing, is another short teaser and the cover art I developed for the book. Right now, I’m aiming for a January 2014 release…

* * *

Excerpt from Night Falls on Memory Lane – copyright (c) 2013 by Kealan Patrick Burke. No reproduction permitted without the express consent of the author:

One morning, when I was fourteen, a man I didn’t know came down our stairs and into the kitchen.

I was sitting at the kitchen table reading an old copy of Entertainment Weekly, probably drooling over George Clooney (I still do—he only gets dreamier the older he gets, IMO), and nibbling on a piece of toast that was way too hard. Making toast might not sound like an art form, but clearly it is because I’ve never been able to do it right. I don’t like it when the crusts are hard as a rock. On some level I’m aware that it’s simply the cost of leaving it sit too long in the toaster, something my mother never does unless she’s distracted, so you’d think the fix would be easy: just take it out earlier. But I always forget, and as I was raised to waste not want not, down my gullet-hole it goes, even if the process is akin to eating a buttery slice of quartz.

I had just chiseled off a piece of crust and had begun the process of grinding it down to a fine, digestible powder, when the stranger entered, his perfect smile visible even in the shadow of the stairs. He emerged into the light and squinted, his eyes puffy from the indulgences of the night before. “Hey kiddo,” he said, nodding politely, his gaze already scanning the room for the coffee.

“Hey,” I said, with little enthusiasm.

I never wanted another father after losing the only one that mattered, but I respected my mother’s attempts to try and fill the vacuum of his absence with someone else—life for lovers must go on, after all—if only for the company, and as long as I was not expected to approve of their clumsy attempts to earn my respect (it would have been easier to hammer a nail in with a pillow). Invariably those ephemeral suitors saw me as Baggage with a capital B: the kid you spoil so it doesn’t try to sway Mommy’s opinion; the dog you pet so it doesn’t bite; the part of the deal that seemed okay when you were drunk the night before, but changed the following morning when you found a sullen teenager glaring at you while trying to sculpt a middle finger from what appeared to be a small slab of greasy granite.

“You must be Cassie,” the man said, helping himself to a mug of coffee.  He looked like he needed a strong cup of regular coffee. The joke was going to be on him when he discovered it was decaf.

“Cass,” I corrected. “And you are?”

He turned and leaned against the counter, the coffee machine gurgling behind him as he hoisted the mug to his lips and took a deep draw. Wincing, he set the cup aside and folded his arms. Decaf, sucka! He was handsome, I suppose. Probably about Clooney’s age, but hadn’t aged nearly as well. There were too many lines around his eyes and mouth, and the gray in his dark hair was less distinguished than unfortunate. He was wearing a rumpled gray suit, his red tie hanging from his pocket like the tongue of a thirsty dog.

“I’m Mike,” he said. “Daniels. Nice to meet you.”

“You too, Mike Daniels.” I stared at him, kicking my legs ever so slightly at the air under the table as if it might chastise the air into tempering the awkwardness.

He folded and unfolded his arms, braced his palms on the counter, looked around our kitsch-choked kitchen (kitschen), and blew air out through his lips before checking his watch. “Damn…it’s later than I thought. I suppose I better get a move—”

“Can I have a hug?” I interrupted, and watched as his brows knitted themselves into a querulous knot.

“A hug?”

I nodded, rose from my chair. I made sure to do it gently so the legs didn’t squeak against the tile. I didn’t want to rouse my mother. If she walked in, she’d realize what I was up to and freak out. Can’t say I’d have blamed her. This is far from the first time I’ve offered one of her suitors a little going away present (and if you’re thinking I’m about to get all White Oleander on you here, that might say more about you than me) and the end result is always the same. They stagger-stumble-run-fall their way out of our house, never to be seen again. Sometimes they even cry out; sometimes they curse me. One of them even called me a witch.

Mike just looked puzzled. “Well…”

“Come on,” I said, careful to keep my face impassive. “You want to be friends, don’t you?”  Careful to keep my voice light lest he conclude that he had found himself in a Stephen King novel, destined to be set aflame by my ire. That would have been a neat trick, but not one I’d have felt comfortable using on the poor guy. I didn’t really mean him any harm. I just wanted to be sure that he didn’t mean my mother any harm.

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” he said, with a sheepish grin, and already I could see the glint in his eye, the erroneous belief that this would mean acceptance, the obstacle of the difficult teenage daughter cleared in a matter of seconds, a development that would aid him in cementing his relationship with my mother. Who would have thought it could be so easy?

But that was not all I saw, and I didn’t need my gift/curse to show it to me.

My breasts were coming in nicely by then, my hair, the color of raven feathers, long and straight. I had my mother’s delicate porcelain features, presided over by a piercing set of blue eyes. Boys at school were starting to take notice even if my body belied my tomboyish inclinations. And already I was discovering how—and how easy it was—to unravel the composure of men.

And Mike was not only unraveling, he was doing so willingly. I was appealing to his ego, and imagined him at the office an hour from now yukking it up with his coworkers: You think the Mom was hot. You should have seen her daughter. Give her another few years, and ooh boy…

I rounded the table, collided against a chair and cursed. Mike grinned. Upstairs, in my mother’s room, something shifted. Shit. I cleared the gap between me and Mike in an instant, wrapped my arms around his chest.

“Woah,” he said, with what could have been a paternal chuckle if pater was not disinclined to being overly familias.

My mother’s footsteps on the floor above our heads. I stepped back and joined Mike in looking up at the ceiling, as if I could gauge my mother’s mood through the plaster. She was up. She was coming. There was little time.

“Guess we raised the kraken,” Mike joked, and then, gently gripping my forearms, extricated himself from me, aware that our little embrace could be deemed inappropriate if seen by a third party.

“Hey,” I said, and he looked down at me.

I put my hand to his brow, palm-to-skin, as if checking his temperature. He gasped and went as rigid as if I’d jabbed him with a cattle prod. “F-f-f-f-f,” he stammered, and involuntarily rammed his right knee into the back of the nearest chair, sending it clattering against the table. Teeth bared, saliva running from one side of his mouth, he dropped like a sack of flour thrown from a truck, his legs bent beneath him. His head banged against the floor with a soft pock. I hunkered down beside him, my palm still pressed against his forehead, and I closed my eyes.

“Jesus Christ, Cass!” Mother, on the stairs.

Mike jerked and spasmed, his eyes wide open, pupils solarized suns. Still I kept my hand where it was, could feel the sharp hum where our flesh connected. Behind my own eyes, I saw the windows. They hung before my face, gray and ghostly and shimmering like the afterimage of a wall of TV screens. Slowly, because it’s never good to do it too fast, I removed my hand. Mike went still. The TV screens disappeared, leaving only the apoplectic face of my mother to fill my vision. I rose, dusted myself off. “I know, I know.”

“Yes,” she spat, her face inches from mine. “You do know. So why do it?”

I shrugged and moved away, back to the table and my limestone toast, while my mother, dressed only in the kimono I’d bought her for her birthday the year before, got to her knees beside her stricken beau.

“Mike, can you hear me?”

I rose off my chair slightly. Mike looked dazed and pale, but other than the small trickle of blood creeping out of his nostril, he could have just fainted. And of course, that’s what he would tell himself when he exited a house he never intended to visit again.

My mother helped him to his feet. “You just sit there for a second and let me get you a glass of water,” she said, easing him into the chair opposite me. She went to fetch him the water. I watched him carefully. He looked back, his pupils gradually returning to the normal size. As he dabbed absently at his bleeding nose and studied the red smear on his fingertips, I cleared my throat.

Slowly, with more than a modicum of fear, he dragged his gaze back to mine. I leaned forward, real conspiratorial-like, and whispered: “Go home to Heather.”

He tried to clear away the blood with the back of his hand and managed only to spread it across his upper lip. He looked like a clown, and that’s what he was: a clown playing in the wrong circus.

At the sink, I sensed my mother listening, though she was trying hard to pretend she wasn’t. Concern was writ across her face. The water glass was already full; still she kept filling it.

“What?” Mike asked. The poor bastard was totally confused and so pale I could see the thin blue worms of his veins beneath the skin. Less than two minutes ago, he’d been all swagger, convinced he’d just conquered the last rebel standing in the way of total dominion in the Quinn-Barnes kingdom. Now he looked like a car crash victim or a drug addict. “What did…what did you say?”

I leaned even closer, allowed myself a bitter smile. “I said: Go home to your wife, you fucking scumbag.”

Then I threw the remains of my toast in his face. Ordinarily that wouldn’t hurt. It’s just toast. But nobody makes toast quite the way I do.

* * *

Coming January 2014.

Night Falls on Memory Lane Small

MOVIE REVIEW: V/H/S 2

V/H/S, the first anthology in a series of found footage horror, has its admirers, but I don’t count myself as one of them. I loved the concept, but found (with one or two notable exceptions, themselves cliched stories saved only by fun execution) the whole thing rather lazy and underwhelming. So much so that the reviews and the success of the thing baffled me. Is this what horror has become? Shoddily produced stories with not an ounce of originality getting by by virtue of their approach, itself dangerously overdone?

I swore I wouldn’t bother with the sequel, but when a screener copy landed on my doorstep, courtesy of someone who remains almost psychotically eager to change my mind about franchises I don’t like, I decided, despite my absolute lack of enthusiasm, to watch it.

The setup of course is the same: A duo of private investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine and Kelsy Abbott) looking for a young man who has gone astray, find themselves in an abandoned house full of old V/H/S tapes, which (naturally) one of them ends up watching. These tapes provide the installments that make up the core of the film.

The first segment “Phase One”, directed by and starring Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next) is easily the worst of the four, and suffers the exact same problems that characterized almost all of the entries in the first film: the concept is neither novel nor new, there are plot holes galore, and it relies too much on telegraphed jump scares and bad makeup effects to compensate for the lack of story. And while I’m far from a prude, if you’re going to have nudity in your story, it should serve a point and not be blatantly shoehorned in there as a plot device that isn’t. So bad is Wingard’s juvenile contribution, essentially an old Twilight Episode with tits, that it left me with no desire to see anything else he’s done, and it did nothing to make me think this second anthology was going to be anything but the same kind of overhyped mess as the first.

But then, to my pleasant surprise, things started to look up. The second entry “A Ride in the Park”, directed by The Blair Witch Project alums Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, starts with an unpromising setup. Indeed at the sight of zombies shambling across the countryside, I wanted to put my foot through the TV. But then things get funny, and rather clever, with the directors using the found footage format to maximum effectiveness. Played almost strictly for laughs (anything else would have meant failure), there’s one scene of gut-munching, specifically one zombie’s reaction to being interrupted, that had tears rolling down my face. So after this unexpected delight, I found myself heartened a little.

And I didn’t expect to find myself saying this, but not only is the penultimate segment “Safe Haven”, directed by Timo Tjahjanto (Rumah Dara) and Gareth Huw Evans (The Raid) far and away the best entry in the V/H/S series to date, it’s also perhaps one of the most effective entries in any horror anthology to date, and if the creators of this franchise have any sense, “Safe Haven” will set the standard for all that follows. I won’t spoil the story for you, but this one is batshit crazy, over the top, well-acted, well-shot, terrifying, and grim. It’s also the longest entry and could easily have been a full movie on its own. Suffice it to say, “Safe Haven” more than justifies the price of admission. All by itself. This, ladies and gentlemen, is horror done right.

Admittedly, when I learned that the last entry, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”, came courtesy of Jason Eisener, the guy who directed Hobo With A Shotgun (a movie I only made it thirty minutes into before turning it off), my hopes, soaring after “Safe Haven”, began to recede again. But again I was surprised. While this one conforms to the safe and typical formula, with little in the way of surprise, it is–like “A Ride in the Park”–how the subject matter is handled that keeps it from being a dud. Rather fun and low-key with a simple premise dynamically done, I found myself tense through this rip-roarer of a finish. While I didn’t love the final shot (a bit of cruelty that left a bad taste in mouth), this was a great way to end the anthology.

The wraparound story (another problem in the first one), while still the same old stuff we’ve seen before, ends on a surprisingly creepy and effective note.

So, color me surprised. V/H/S 2 was everything I’d hoped for the first one. It is, like all horror anthologies, a little uneven, but where the first seemed content to languish in its own self-congratulatory staleness, V/H/S 2 reaches for a higher bar, and in one instance (“Safe Haven”) blows right past it. The end result (and I say this while eating a fine plate of humble pie) is a damn good horror anthology, and has me eager to see what comes next.

7.5/10

Website Relaunch

WebsiteI’m pleased to announce the relaunch of my website www.kealanpatrickburke.com. If you noticed that updates were slow in coming over the past few months, it’s because my website host had become particularly user-unfriendly and the simplest of tasks were a monumental chore. This new site allows me to update in seconds and with minimal fuss, so you can count on it to be a more reliable venue for all the up to date news. In addition to the usual information about me and my work, you can also now purchase signed, personalized copies of my books through the new store. I’ll be adding new titles as they become available.

Check out the website here.