DARK CITIES

Dark CitiesThe Titan Books anthology DARK CITIES, edited by Christopher Golden and featuring stories set, as the title suggests, in cities just this side of normal, has officially been released upon the world.

And, as books like this generally don’t get much in the way of a marketing push, it would be great if you could help spread the word. Of course, buying and reviewing the book is an even better strategy, but any assistance raising awareness of the title would be much appreciated, if only so we get to do more of them.

 

Here’s the table of contents:

THE DOGS by Scott Smith
IN STONE by Tim Lebbon
THE WAY SHE IS WITH STRANGERS by Helen Marshall
WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS by M.R. Carey
GOOD NIGHT, PRISON KINGS by Cherie Priest
DEAR DIARY by Scott Sigler
WHAT I’VE ALWAYS DONE by Amber Benson
GRIT by Jonathan Maberry
DARK HILL RUN by Kasey Lansdale & Joe R. Lansdale
HAPPY FOREVER by Simon R. Green
THE SOCIETY OF THE MONSTERHOOD by Paul Tremblay
THE MAW by Nathan Ballingrud
FIELD TRIP by Tananarive Due
THE REVELERS by Christopher Golden
THE STILLNESS by Ramsey Campbell
SANCTUARY by Kealan Patrick Burke
MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH by Sherrilyn Kenyon
GRAFFITI OF THE LOST AND DYING PLACES by Seanan McGuire
THE CRACK by Nick Cutter

You can grab a copy of the book here.

Short Stories: 2017 Edition

It’s been quite a productive year for me already, and while (as per usual) I can’t spill the beans on everything that’s cooking right now (as much as I’d love to), I can at least share some news about stories that are on the way in various publications.15319120_1192194820869660_8567178783653999739_n

My story of dwarves tasked with finding their errant brethren in territory governed by the dead, “Down Here with Us” will appear in Tales of the Lost Citadel, a shared fantasy world anthology edited by C.A. Suleiman. There’s no release date yet, but as I’ve already received a sample copy, I imagine it can’t be too far away. More news on this as I have it.

“Andromeda”, about a technological and possibly cosmic plague, will appear in an upcoming chapbook from Sinister Grin Press.

ebookcover

The wartime story “Go Warily After Dark” about a family who pick the wrong place to seek shelter during an airstrike, will appear in Crystal Lake Publishing‘s forthcoming anthology Tales from the Lake Volume IV, edited by Joe Mynhardt and Ben Eads, due August 30th.

One of my rare erotica pieces “She Comes” is slated for publication this month in Great Jones Street‘s My Bloody Valentine series.

“Traveler”, a nasty little piece about a body-hopping entity who uses his unwitting victims to commit unspeakable crimes, will be featured in Dark Fuse Magazine in March.

hbyaoh-tpb-cvr-solMy novelette “A Wicked Thirst”, about an alcoholic whose date goes gruesomely wrong, will appear in Garden of Fiends: Tales of Addiction Horror, edited by Mark Matthews. As a rather cool incentive, the first 25 people to order the book can choose a free book by any of the authors listed on the table of contents.

“Sanctuary”, about a child sent to retrieve his father in a city forgotten by the rest of the world, will appear in Dark Cities, edited by Christopher Golden, and published by Titan Books. Look for it in May.

“Verstedkt”, in which our titular hero is sent to an Alpine village to investigate claims of a witch, will appear in the prose anthology Hellboy: An Assortment of Horrors, edited by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola, due in August from Dark Horse Books.

Lastly, I have just turned in a short story “The Mannequin Challenge”, about an antisocial man who reluctantly agrees to attend the office Halloween party, and quickly wishes he hadn’t, to the Halloween Carnival anthology, edited by Brian Freeman, to be published by Cemetery Dance Publications and Random House.

I’ll update this list as more news develops…

Hellboy & Me

hbyaoh-tpb-cvr-solAs reported by Entertainment Weekly, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy returns in the prose anthology An Assortment of Horrors, edited by genre stalwart Christopher Golden. The lineup includes stories by Chelsea Cain, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Richard Kadrey, Chris Roberson, Paul Tremblay, Delilah Dawson, Laird Barron, Angela Slatter, Chris Priestley, Michael Rowe, Rio Youers, E. Lily Yu, Weston Ochse, and me.

In my story “Verstedkt”, Hellboy is called to a remote region in Europe to investigate a village in which the people are regularly forced to sacrifice one of their own to pacify a witch. But from the outset, all is not quite what it seems.

The book will be released in August via Dark Horse Books. You can preorder it here.

 

Everybody Loves SOUR CANDY

Sour Candy - Resized

Okay, not everyone, because that’s pretty much impossible (and for those of you who didn’t, I tried, I swear), but I am certainly gratified by the positive feedback I’ve received for my humble little (read: weird and twisted) novella. In addition to the overwhelmingly great reviews from readers and reviewers alike, some of my favorite writers also weighed in with the following praise (a kindness for which I am endlessly indebted):

“SOUR CANDY is spectacularly good. A brilliant premise, marvelously executed, it’s as close to a perfect story as I can remember reading. I only wish I’d written it myself.” – Bentley Little, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of THE POLICY and THE CONSULTANT.

“On top, SOUR CANDY is a parental nightmare. But just under the lid is a mindscrew-story of a man’s life exploding. Like The Twilight Zone and the great, shorter stuff by Beaumont and Matheson, Kealan Patrick Burke opens a door that we didn’t even know was in the house.” – Josh Malerman, author of BIRD BOX

“SOUR CANDY is Kealan Patrick Burke at his beautifully hideous best. Original, compelling, and unsettling as hell, it’s must-read horror!” -Christopher Golden, New York Times #1 bestselling author of DEAD RINGERS

“An unexpected knife-turn in psychological suspense…” Christopher Fowler, author of NYCTOPHOBIA, THE SAND MEN, and the Bryant & May series.

If you haven’t already found out why Phil Pendleton really shouldn’t have accepted candy from a strange kid, you can procure your SOUR CANDY here.

 

THE SEVEN: Tim Lebbon

Continuing my interview series called THE SEVEN, in which I invite some of my favorite authors to answer seven questions about their most recent projects, today’s guest is surely one of the busiest and most prolific authors in the genre, Tim Lebbon. Tim is the multiple award-winning author of The Nature of Balance, Face, White & Other Tales of Ruin (the title story of which should be required reading for any horror fan), Hush (with Gavin Williams), the Noreela series of dark fantasy novels Dusk, DawnFallen, and The Island, and most recently Echo City, the novelization of the hit horror film The Cabin in the Woods (movie reviewed here), and a new series (with Christopher Golden), The Secret Journeys of Jack London.

* * *

Q. What is your most recent release?

The Sea Wolves, Book Two of The Secret Journeys of Jack London, co-written with Christopher Golden (excerpt below).

Q. What inspired the project?

There’s a long version I’ll tell you one day over a pint, but for now here’s the short version:

I wrote the novelisation to the 30 Days of Night movie.  At a Thai meal in Toronto during the World Horror Convention, someone asked whether I’d added any scenes in, and I mentioned what I think is a really cool scene––a Polar bear enters the town and is stalked and killed by vampires.  We joked about vampire Polar bears, I said ‘Yeah, White Fangs’, and Chris said, ‘You know what, we could totally do that’.  We fired ideas over the table, and within a minute we were discussing The Secret Journeys of Jack London.  A minute later, in what might have been the fastest offer ever, we were offered a three book deal by a publisher who was eating with us.  That fell through, which was no bad thing because the series ended up with HarperCollins, and was bought by Twentieth Century Fox before the first book was even published.  Result!

Q. What is the primary theme you’ve chosen to explore with this project?

All three books concern Jack London’s coming of age and his coming to terms with the streak of wild he carries inside him.  We think it’s something that will appeal to any teenager, or anyone who’s ever been a teenager. They’re books about confronting the world outside, which is perhaps the greatest challenge in growing from childhood to adulthood.

Q. Of everything you’ve written to date, which project has been the most difficult for you?

My novella The Reach of Children, one of my most critically acclaimed pieces of writing which was also the hardest to write.  It was influenced heavily by my mother’s illness and death.

Q. Which title would you suggest as a good introduction for newcomers to your work, and why?

That’s a difficult one, because my work changes as I grow older.  Right now I think I’d suggest Echo City.  It’s a fantasy novel, but very very dark, and it shows how my writing retains a gritty ‘horror’ edge even when I stray into alternate worlds.  My work is becoming more diverse, I think, with this year seeing publication of a big scale horror thriller, a fantasy novel, and the first in a YA trilogy.  I’m also writing screenplays now, my latest being My Haunted House, a spooky animated movie for children that I’ve written for a UK producer/director team.

Q. What are your thoughts on the burgeoning digital market?

It’s happening.  We have to grab on or be left behind.  As with any new technology it’s suffering birthing pains, but it’s here to stay, and I think in the long run it is going to be fantastic for readers and writers.  Many are proclaiming the end of books, but I think the initial chaos will settle down into a happy medium.  Printed books will inevitably suffer sales-wise, but I think they’ll always be with us in some form.

Q. What’s next for you?

2012 is an exciting year for me.  Coldbrook is out from Hammer in the autumn, as well as The Heretic Land, my new fantasy novel from Orbit.  My novelisation of The Cabin in the Woods should be hitting shelves right about now.  And my first solo YA novel, London Eye: Toxic City Book One, is due soon from Pyr in the USA.  I’m also working on a couple of screenplays, one solo and one with my mate Steve Volk.  And there are other exciting projects I can’t mention yet, but watch this space.

* * *

And now, an exclusive excerpt from The Sea Wolves, Book Two of Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden’s The Secret Journeys of Jack London series.

* * *

Chapter One

the pelican

If it hadn’t been for the pelican, Jack London would have been murdered by the Wolves.

Even lulled by the gentle motion of the ship, he had been unable to sleep or rest, though in truth that was all his body craved.  His mind burned with memories of his adventures in the north, and each ache, pain and wound recalled those experiences as surely as a smell or sound.  Confined in a cramped cabin with his friend Merritt Sloper and three weary men whose eyes were flat with defeat, Jack’s senses sang with other sensations.  So long in the wilderness—and with his own wild nature urging him to run, to climb, to live—he felt stifled by that room, and it was inevitable that the pressure would drive him up onto deck.

And so it had been for the last three nights.  The days were easier, filled with casual conversations and hours spent gazing into the hazy distance, wrapped against the cold and yet buffeted by the sun.  But the nights were more difficult.  It was as if the darkness called him into its embrace—the darkness of infinity, not the false shade of a room without light.

Jack welcomed it.  He breathed in the fresh air and held onto the railing, legs shifting slightly as the ship dipped and rose through the gentle Pacific swell.  His hair was ruffled by the breeze, and it felt like the hand of a loved one soothing his brow.  Perhaps I do need soothing, he thought, because the memory of all he had been through—the deadly Chilkoot trail, his near-death in the great white silence, Lesya, and the dreadful Wendigo—were enough to drive any ordinary person mad.  But one thing Jack had learned during his months in the frozen north: he was far from ordinary.

“I’m Jack London,” he said, and the name was amazing to him.  This was no self-aggrandizement, no hubris; he had begun to learn what a single human being might be capable of, and wanted to explore that potential to its fullest extent.

There was a light mist settled on the sea, and a heavier bank of it some distance to starboard.  He could make out the half-moon and stars as vague smudges above, and turning around he saw the captain and the best of his crew hunkered in the wheelhouse, doing their utmost to ensure that the Umatilla sailed true and safe.  Two men sat in the crow’s nest thirty feet above, their vague shapes and gentle chatter lost to the mist and darkness.  Jack walked forward toward the bow, where he knew that in the blink of an eye he could feel totally alone.

He wondered what it would feel like to make a solitary journey across these seas.  On his way to Alaska so many months before he had appreciated the immensity of the ocean, its power, and the respect it required to master it.  Now, he saw its wildness.

There was movement at the bow.  At first he thought it was a clump of impacted snow, or a tangle of material shivering in the breeze.  But when he approached he saw the heavy beak and beady eye, the wings folded in, and the pelican huddled there regarded him with neither trust, nor fear.

“Hello, bird,” Jack said softly.  He glanced back and up, but no one else seemed to have noticed the creature.  Swirls of moisture played across deck, and the rolling bank of mist to starboard seemed to have moved closer.  No one else strolled the deck this late at night.  He turned back to the bird, and it had raised its head and half-spread its wings.

Jack went to his hands and knees, trying to present no threat to this magnificent creature.  He looked it over for signs of injury, but could see none.  The bird had simply seen the ship as a place to rest, and perhaps it had done so many times before, recognizing the bow as one of the quietest places on board come night time.

“I’ll not harm you,” he said softly, and his throat seemed to throb with an unusual vibration.  He realized that he had no real idea what sound these birds made, but it bobbed its head, flapped its mighty wings several times, and then hunkered down again.  Jack grew still, and found himself staring into the bird’s eye.  He was reflected in there.  He wondered how it viewed him—threat, something interesting, or simply part of the scenery?

He watched as Lesya, the forest spirit, had taught him to watch, and before long he did not perceive this tableau as man and beast at all.  It was simply observer and observed.  Though in the end she had proved to be a mad thing, Lesya had given him a gift, opening his mind and senses so that if he focused he could touch the thoughts of other creatures.  Reaching out to the pelican, he sensed the same feeling of foreboding that had only just started to settle over him.

In the distance, Jack heard several resounding thuds of waves striking a hull.  He frowned.  The Umatilla rode smooth as ever, and he had not felt even the smallest impact vibration.  The pelican lifted and opened its heavy beak, as if tasting the darkness.

Jack heard that sound again, the thud-wash, thud-wash of a hull cutting across the waves instead of going with them.  He looked up at the two men in the crow’s nest, but they were vague shadows behind a gentle haze of mist, and he could not even tell which direction they were looking.

“What’s this, then?” he asked the pelican, and the bird spread its wings.  But it remained behind the railing, turning on its big feet so that it could look directly back along the deck.  I could call to the lookouts, Jack thought.  But what would he say?  Darkness and the mist stirred his senses, and that feeling of things slightly askew might be only in his mind.

He leaned on the railing and looked down, ghostly white-tops breaking gently away from the ship.  They were cutting through the water, not impacting against the waves, and the spray that reached him up here was carried on the gentlest of breezes.

A shadow moved far out across the waves.  Jack held onto the railing and scanned the skeins of mist that played like curtains across the ocean’s surface.  Something huge, he thought.

And then he saw the shadow again.  A hardening of the mists, a solidifying of shapes that danced where no one normally watched, and the boat that emerged was cutting a diagonal that would intercept the Umatilla within twenty seconds.  Three masts, maybe a hundred feet long, the craft was dwarfed by the Umatilla.  And yet there was something about the way it moved that seemed almost predatory.

The vessel’s masts sported dark sails that swallowed the weak moonlight, and it slipped through the water as if it were hardly there at all, a phantom ship.  The only sign of its existence was the intermittent thump of waves against its hull, but that lessened as the ship came close to matching the Umatilla’s course.

Jack could see shadows busy in the rigging, and more on deck.  The booms swung as the schooner drew down alongside the Umatilla.  And Jack knew then that something was very wrong indeed.

* * *

Read More of The Sea Wolves

Visit the author’s website

Excerpt copyright (c) 2012 by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon. No unauthorized reproduction permitted.

Halloween Guest Blog: James A Moore

Cover of "Bloodstained Oz"

Cover of Bloodstained Oz

Cover of "Under the Overtree (Leisure Hor...

Cover of Under the Overtree (Leisure Horror)

Halloween is upon us, and we have a treat for you. James A. Moore, author of such novels and novellas as Under the Overtree, Serenity Falls, Blood Red, Bloodstained Oz (with Christopher Golden), Fireworks, Deeper, Vendetta, and Subject Seven has written a Halloween story, just for you. “Harvest Gods, Revisited” is a brand new, never before published tale set in the same world as Moore’s novel, Harvest Moon and the short story, “Harvest Gods”, and has a distinctly E.C. Comics flavor, which makes it the perfect way to end this series and usher in the night.

And now, down with the lights, and up with the curtain, as we present to you, “Harvest Gods, Revisited”…

* * *

Harvest Gods, Revisited

By James A. Moore

 Sometimes people are cruel. That lesson comes to everyone sooner or later, I suppose. It came to me when I was very young. It came to the boy down the road from me a few hours ago.

I watched, of course, because that’s what I do. One can hardly make judgments without a good reason, after all.

His name is Ray Larkin, and like all children, he lives for certain events. Ray was the boy who best loves Halloween.

Was. I suppose time will tell how he feels about the season in the future but just now, at this moment? Well, decide for yourself.

* * *

Ray settled into the classroom seat with barely bridled impatience. Lunch was done, and there were still two more classes to endure before freedom came his way. Two more classes before he could prepare for Halloween. Halloween on a weekday. It should be illegal as far as he was concerned.

At seven years of age, Halloween held a special place in Ray’s heart. Everything was scary, yes, but fun scary, not bad scary. There was a difference, as he’d learned a long time ago, when he was seven. When his dad died, Ray was too young to much understand what that meant, but in time he got to understand that part of what that meant was his mom was sad a lot of the time. Mom was a good woman, and a great mom. No two ways about that, but she sometimes waited until he was asleep—or thought he was—and crawled into her bed and cried for a long time before she fell asleep herself. He thought maybe he understood about her loneliness, but not as well as he thought he would someday. His Grammy and Grampy had told him that he would understand someday, but for now he just had to know she was missing her husband, his father.

And then his mom met Lawrence. Lawrence was a big man—well, relatively. Most men were big next to Ray, who was only nine, after all—with a nice suit he liked to wear and a smile that was warm and friendly as long as Mommy was around and not always as pleasant when she left the room. That was okay at first, because Lawrence made Mommy happier and she didn’t cry as much.

And then it wasn’t as okay. Then it became a problem, because Lawrence started coming around more and more often. And when Lawrence came around, Mommy smiled more and Ray started not being quite as important. He knew Mommy loved him. That wasn’t really it. More it was simply that she had to be shared with a man who didn’t know how to smile with his eyes and almost never smiled at all when he was alone with Ray. He’d tried to explain that to his Grammy once, but she shook her head and leaned in close so that no one else could hear, even though there was no one else in the house, and said “Your mommy needs to have Lawrence in her life, Raymond”—she always called him Raymond when it was time to discuss serious matters—“and she needs you to understand that. Lawrence is the key to your mommy being happy and we all want her to be happy, don’t we?”

Well, there was simply no arguing with that. So Ray left everything alone. He kept his peace and he swore to himself that he would do nothing to stop his mommy from being happy.

Lawrence was a nice man, really, but he was also too serious. He didn’t like to have fun. As a result, Mommy stopped liking fun, too. Or maybe that was one of those things he would understand when he was older, like why his mommy needed Lawrence in the first place.

Instead of going out to Chuck E. Cheese’s for dinner once or twice a week, they stayed home to eat. Instead of watching Disney movies on DVD once a week as a treat, Ray and his mother only watched them when Lawrence was out of town. He did some kind of work with cars. Most of the time he stayed in town and went to an office a few miles down the road and came home by five-thirty in the evening. But maybe every other month he left town for a couple of days and they got to watch new movies. It was always fun.  Ray started living for those times, because Lawrence didn’t like the TV in, and when it was on, he always had it set for one of his news channels.

The news was boring, and mostly it made Lawrence go on and on about the liberals, and how they were trying to take over the world for the bleeding hearts. Ray wasn’t exactly sure what a liberal was, but he suspected it was something to do with the library. He started dreading the idea of going to the library, because the last thing he wanted to see was a man whose heart was dripping blood while he was trying to decide which book he wanted to read. He was getting very good at reading, because that was almost all that Lawrence ever wanted him to do. The only exception was that his mother was teaching him to play the piano. He maybe would have hated that, but it was a little fun and sometimes Mommy sang and she had a perfect voice for singing as far as Ray was concerned.

The thing was, come Halloween, Ray got his mother all to himself for a few hours. Lawrence didn’t like Halloween very much, either, but he allowed that Ray did and Mom insisted that she should take him out.

So, yes, Halloween was only hours away and he wanted it now.

Of course the hours crawled. But eventually they passed. Sometime later, much later according to Ray’s patience, he was allowed to run for home and get ready for trick or treating.

That was the plan, at least.

Ray took off from the school and made a beeline through the woods, heading for his neighborhood and planning to get home as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for Ray, the Beldam Woods were not always the nicest place to use as a short cut.

In very short order he was lost.

Within half an hour he was on the verge of tears, shivering in part because the weather was very cold and also because the woods were pretty darned scary at the best of times. The Beldam Woods were an ancient lot of trees, most of which had already been stripped of their leaves and all their colors. The trees were skeletal figures that loomed over his tiny body and creaked in the winds blowing from the north. There was a threat of winter weather come early and he knew that, too, because it was all they were talking about on the news the night before, and he’d have remembered it too, if he hadn’t been so determined to find the quickest way home for Halloween.

Seven years old, just the right age to forget all about things like safety until it’s exactly too late.

Ray wandered around and around, his feet kicking through the thick blanket of dried leaves as he got colder and colder. The air was dry, too, and he wanted something to drink. He also wanted to pee something fierce—that was one of Lawrence’s favorite terms, something fierce—but was afraid to get spotted breaking the rules. What if someone saw? What if someone told his mom? Trick or treating might get taken away and then what?

No. He had to hold it in. That was the only option.

Ray was on the verge of tears, cold and miserable and so desperate to go potty, when the stranger showed up. He was an old man, tall and lean and weathered. His skin was almost as wrinkly as the leaves on the ground and his hair, while long, was thin and wispy around his head.

He carried a small pumpkin in one hand, and walked with a cane. The old man looked at Ray for a moment, his face set in a dour expression of disapproval. Ray found himself desperate to disappear. If he could hide away, maybe the man would simply go away.

Instead the man continued to stare at him.

“Would you be ‘Raymond?’” the voice was as creaky as the trees and almost as cold as the air. Just hearing him speak was enough to make Ray shiver. Still, he was caught by the dichotomy of his mother’s rules: He was not to speak to strangers. He was also always supposed to be polite. The two orders did not work well together and Ray was forced to choose which to follow. He finally decided that since the man knew his name he must not be a complete stranger. There were several friends of his mother that he had met before when he was very, very young, and didn’t really remember. They always seemed to remember him and to be surprised that he had grown so much. Maybe then, the old man was one of those sorts. A non-stranger that he didn’t remember.

He answered, “Yes sir,” in a very small voice.

After another long moment of looking at him the man squatted until they were closer to the same height and looked Ray in the eyes. “Your mother is worried about you. You weren’t on the bus.”

“I tried to take a short cut.” He meant to explain more, but the tears started. A moment later he was crying like a little kid and the old man was suddenly holding him. He hugged hard, unable to stop the tears. And a few minutes later, all cried out, he looked on as the old man stood up.

“Come on then, Raymond. Let’s get you home to your mother.”

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” It was a little late to point that out, but it was one thing to talk and another to actually go somewhere with a stranger. His mother might be even angrier and as it was, Halloween trick or treating might be taken away from him.

“My name is Mister Sticks. Your name is Raymond. We are no longer strangers.” The old man shifted the pumpkin to his other hand for a moment and then changed his mind. “Here. You hold this for me, won’t you? And then I can lead you home.”

The gourd was nearly perfect. It was just the right size for Ray’s hands, and the skin was a bright orange that was the color he always looked for when he eyed the pumpkins at the market. The same color as the one he’d picked last week and they’d carved just last night.

He took the pumpkin and nodded his head seriously. This was, of course, a serious display of trust. Ray could have dropped the thing, and then where would they be?

“Why didn’t you take the bus, Raymond?”

“Because I wanted to get home sooner. I wanted to see my mommy.”

The old man looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “You don’t see your mother often?”

“I do, but today is special. I get her all to myself.”

The old man nodded. “I have to share my mother, too.”

“You do?” He tried to do the math. The man was very old; his mother must be even older. Ray couldn’t begin to imagine how old the lady in question might be.

“Oh, yes.” Mister Sticks nodded his head. “With my brothers.”

“I have to share my mommy with Lawrence.” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from his voice.

“Is Lawrence your brother?”

“No. I don’t have any brothers. He’s my mommy’s boyfriend.”

“You sound disappointed. Is it Lawrence that makes you sad? Or not having a brother?”

He had to think about that. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Charlie at school had a big brother and liked to talk about him all the time. Eric at school had a little brother and was always talking about what his little brother did that was funny. Lawrence was never funny.

Mister Sticks smiled then and nodded knowingly. “You’d rather have a brother than Lawrence.”

Ray laughed. It was all he could think of to do. The man was right, but not completely.

“Or maybe you’d like to have your father back and have a little brother.” Mister Sticks, who had been leading him through the woods very calmly, suddenly stopped moving and looked down at Ray again, his old, blue eyes staring hard. “Your mommy could be with her husband, and you could have a little brother, someone to show how to be a big boy. Am I right? Is that what you’d like?”

Ray looked around, suddenly feeling guilty, though he had done nothing to make him feel that way. Maybe it was just knowing that someone could so easily understand his desires, even when he couldn’t figure out how to say them himself.

Finally he nodded his head. Guilt or not, it was true and his mother told him he shouldn’t lie.

The old man nodded his head. “I could make that happen, you know. I could bring your daddy back for your mommy, and they could give you a little brother, maybe a little sister. And you could spend more time with your mommy, too. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes. Yes I would.”

“What would you trade to have that, Raymond?” Mister Sticks was looking away again, like the answer didn’t really matter, but Ray wasn’t fooled. He knew the man was still listening. Ray was not silly or stupid or even a little slow. He knew exactly what was happening, even if he lacked the right words to fully understand and express it. This was a deal. He knew that, like when he traded his bologna sandwich to Deidre at lunch because Deirdre liked bologna more than she liked grilled cheese and grilled cheese was the best stuff ever as far as Ray was concerned.

“I don’t have anything to trade.” Ray sighed. A little brother would be neat. A daddy? That would be pretty cool, too, especially if it meant his mom never crying herself to sleep again.

“Don’t you?”

He thought hard as they walked. The woods looked like they were thinning, he could see the sun between the branches and that hadn’t happened since he got lost. And there was a thrill in his chest at the thought of getting home to see his mom. Still, there was unfinished business here, wasn’t there? What could he trade for a brother and a father? What would he be willing to trade?

“How about Lawrence?”

“What about him?”

Ray looked at Mister Sticks and swallowed. This was it. This was the bargain chance. “What about if I let you have Lawrence?”

“You’d let me have your mother’s boyfriend? What if she likes him?”

“Well, she’d have Daddy, right?”

“Well, yes, of course. But are you sure you want to trade? Once we agree, there’s no going back.”

“Yeah. Deal.” Ray smiled and held out his hand, and Mister Sticks took his hand and shook. The old man’s skin was dry and hot and almost as rough as the wood on the trees around them.

The leaves hissed and the wind roared and for a moment the old man’s face was wrong. He looked too weathered, his eyes and nose and mouth fading into the shadows until he almost looked like a jack-o-lantern.

And then all was well again.

Mister Sticks led the way and in only a couple of minutes they were free of the woods and walking up to the back yard of the house where Ray had lived his entire life.

Ray ran fast, heading for the front door of the house. He moved around the side of the place at high speed, because he knew for certain that he would be in trouble because he was so late already. He might have used the back door but his mommy always left that locked, just in case someone should try to sneak in.

And as he rounded the corner of the house he saw the school bus just coming up the road. His mother should have been outside and calling his name, but instead there was just the bus rumbling as it slowed down. The number 83 was clear on the side. It was his bus, not the one that came by later to drop off the older kids.

Ray looked behind him to see if Mister Sticks was there. It was always possible that the man could help him explain to his mother—but even as he thought that he knew that what had been said between him and Mister Sticks had to remain a secret.

Ray moved around to the front of the house exactly as his mother was opening the front door. She saw him and looked no further. The bus had stopped and kids were already piling out and that was enough of the equation to make sense to her.

Somehow he had gotten home in time, despite the old man telling him that his mother was calling for him. Ray frowned for a moment, puzzled, but then decided to merely be glad he was okay and that Halloween was not ruined.

Half an hour later he had changed into his costume—this year he was Captain America—and they were ready for the sun to set, the better to go trick or treating. Four other mothers came to the house and brought children the same age and even younger than Ray. The group would be going together, because, as his mom said “youneverknowwhosoutthere,” which as near as he could figure meant that there was less chance of getting hurt if you walked with other friends. He could have told her that all by himself, because she’d taught him as much years before.

House after house, with a group of kids who were all alien in their masks and oddly familiar as well. He knew it was Jay under the Darth Vader mask, but the voice and the face together made a wonderfully dizzying confusion ring in his head. That, too, was part of the fun. Of course the candy that was starting to make his bag feel heavy was a nice part of the night as well.

But this year was different. This year he saw a few grown ups in costumes as well. The strangest was the man with the pumpkin head. He knew the stories, of course.  Just last week at the library—look out for liberals!—Missus Sue had read the tale of old Hattie the witch and her three sons….

Ray’s skin crawled. He’d heard the term before but never expected to feel it for himself. His skin tried to slither away and hide, because the name of the old man he’d dealt with was Mister Sticks.

Mister Sticks, the oldest son of the old witch. Also known as the Pumpkin Man.

He spun in a circle, looking for the man with the jack-o-lantern head.

And the world spun madly with him as he tried to catch a breath, tried to find out where the giant shape with the pumpkin head and the old clothes had gone. He even wore an old Pilgrim’s hat with a wide brim, like all the old stories said.

But Momma said that the stories were all just fairy tales. Make believe, like ghosts on Halloween and witches….

Ray looked at his mother, where she was talking with a woman he knew, but couldn’t for the life of him remember by name. She was just Tory’s mom as far as he was concerned.

The two women kept speaking as he tried to raise his voice. And behind them he saw the man again, standing above them, on the branch of an old Oak tree that dominated the front yard of the Stack family’s house.

The man looked down, and held up one finger. He placed that finger over the glowing slash of a mouth that dominated his pumpkin face. His white hair was as thin as it had been when he was just a man, and it moved against the faint breeze.

The fires that burned inside of that face looked cold instead of warm, and Ray felt himself shiver.

He reached for his mommy, so very, very afraid.

And then he collapsed.

 ***

 Are you expecting to hear that I killed a little boy?

I didn’t. I have before and I likely will again, but I rather like Raymond. He was innocent and he wanted a lot of the same things I wanted when I was younger.

Mostly he wanted the attention of his mother, and to have his father close by.

The only thing in the way was Lawrence.

Getting rid of Lawrence was easy. You’d be surprised how many people are susceptible to fear. And the light I carry with me is an ember straight from Hell. Rest assured, I can be scary when the mood strikes me.

Lawrence died screaming.

Long before I answered to my current names, I was known as Jack and then Jack of the Lantern. To this day my visage is celebrated come Halloween. Through my incarnations I have learned a few tricks as it were.

One of my gifts in this world was granted by the boon the Devil himself offered me when he handed me the ember from Hell to guide my way through the afterlife. Hellfire can feel a soul, can burn the sin right out of a soul, no matter how innocent or corrupt.

Lawrence is gone. He will be remembered. He left his girlfriend with a child, you see, and she will raise that child, because she does not believe in coincidences, nor does she believe that she could ever give up a child for adoption. She is, in short, a good woman with a good heart. She is raising one child already. She will raise a second without giving it a moment’s thought. I know this, because I can see the intentions within her soul.

Lawrence would have made a good provider. He might even have made a good father, but he was not a good man. I know that, too. I saw it in his eyes when he was dying.

Now why would I care about that?

I don’t, not really, save in that I see something of myself in the eyes of a child who is currently recovering from a deep scare he received on Halloween night.

Even a little sin can make me a frightening sight. It’s a gift, I suppose.

Of course, that hardly makes me an innocent. I don’t judge anyone. I merely observe and from time to time I remember that I am a Harvest God. I will gladly offer prosperity in exchange for a sacrifice.

Witting or not, young Raymond offered me a sacrifice. I accepted it. In return, he receives a brother or sister that his mother is already carrying.

Next he gets his father back.

I wonder if his mother will scream when she sees what time has done to her dead husband, or if she will recognize him at all.

– END –

“Harvest Gods, Revisited” copyright (c) 2011 by James A. Moore. No authorized reproduction permitted