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.

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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…

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Charles L. Grant’s The Orchard

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In the midst of writing a new essay for Dancing with Shadows, The Charles L. Grant Blogathon, I realized that I had said many of the same things before, and much more succinctly, in my preface for Necon Books’ digital reissue of The Orchard, which is not only one of my favorite titles from Charlie’s extensive body of work, but also one of my favorite collections, period. So, rather than repeat myself, I thought it more prudent to share that essay with you here (with slight edits for clarity):

There’s no better time to write this introduction than today, October 24th, because this is Charlie’s season. As I sit here pecking away at the keyboard, the light is an eerie shade of tarnished gold through a persistent rain. Dead leaves scratch across the porch like dirty paper airplanes thrown by sullen children. The wind is not quite howling, but it’s considering it, as it whips through the woods around my house. The branches are gnarled and bare, casting long thin shadows that look like rotten ropes poised to pull in the encroaching dark. The earth is sodden, the air smells like smoke. The river is thick and full and muddy as it rushes under the small wooden bridge that leads away from here.

This is Charlie’s season.

And this is what I said to my girlfriend a few days ago as we bundled up and took a stroll along the lane that meanders through these woods. “I love fall,” I told her. “The quality of the light, the taste of the air…it’s Charlie Grant’s season.” She did not need to ask who I meant, as she has heard me go on (and on, and on, God bless her patience) at length about my favorite writer. I have read passages to her from his books; she has seen the towering stack of yellowed paperbacks bearing his name that materializes beside the bed at this same time every year. She knows I edited a book called Quietly Now, which was a celebration of the man and his work. And she has heard me speak of him as a writer whose style I emulate over all others. There are any number of reasons why this is the case, most of which I’ve covered in the various essays and tributes I’ve written since Charlie passed away, so I won’t rehash them here. Besides, if you’re reading this book now, then chances are you already know them.

orchard-uk-pb-grantOf everything Charlie wrote, my favorite books of his are those that combine quartets of stories linked by a central motif and packaged as novels, books like Nightmare Seasons, The Black Carousel, Dialing the Wind, and this one you’re reading now. It has long been argued that, for horror writers particularly, the novella is the ideal length for a story. It allows character development and plenty of darkness, while negating the need for rambling or filler. For the reader, it’s just long enough to be worth the investment, but not so long it seems daunting. Charlie seemed most at home with novellas, and indeed they represented him at the height of his power, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Orchard.

Here, our connective tissue is the titular venue, an old orchard on the outskirts of town that has somehow managed to be forgotten by most of the people in Oxrun Station. And perhaps it wants to be forgotten. There was a fire there, you see, and although apples still grow on the trees that escaped the flames, it is inadvisable to eat them. Doing so changes things, changes you, and unleashes an insidious evil, whether within or without.

But people will always find places not meant to be found, and amid the shifting mists and half-glimpsed shadows, the orchard spreads its tendrils into the minds of the weak, exploiting the unrequited love of poor, overweight Herb Alstar in “My Mary’s Asleep”, and the loneliness and paternal insecurities of policeman Brett, in the ironically titled, “I See Her Sweet and Fair”.

I read this book in my late teens, about seven years after it was released, and though I didn’t revisit it until Captain of the Good Ship Necon, Bob Booth, approached me to write this introduction, the one story that had never left me was “The Last and Dreadful Hour”, which I recalled with almost perfect clarity. It’s a terrifying piece, a veritable chiaroscuro of horror, and my favorite kind of story—one that traps people together in a single setting and pits them against some type of invasive, unknowable evil. After I first read this, visits to my dilapidated local movie theater were never quite the same, and as I sat in the gloom, usually alone, waiting for the movie to start, I would always find myself squinting into the shadows beneath the stained screen, wondering if there was something hiding there. It’s a testament to Charlie’s power that he can write something so moody, so dark and dirty, that it sticks in the mind decades after you first read it. And that’s one of the reasons I love his work so much. It is less a reading experience than an immersion into a meticulously crafted and lyrical carnival of shadows you find difficult to forget.

Similarly, the closing segment of The Orchard, “Screaming, In the Dark” documents a man trapped (this time by injury and not supernatural means) in a hospital bed as odd things begin to occur in the hallways and rooms around him. What I like most about this one is how Charlie subverts the use of darkness and somehow manages to make dazzling bursts of white light even more threatening.

The Orchard is bookended by the story of Abe Stockton, the current chief of police, who is not long for this world, and the man he brings to the orchard to educate about the ways of the place. To assist him, he has brought along some files, and it is those that make up the stories in the book. This introduction and epilogue could be considered incidental, but they’re anything but. In addition to making the book read more cohesively than most novels, they’re also just as skin-crawlingly unsettling as the stories themselves.

If you’re reading these stories for the first time, I envy you. And I can’t help wondering what Charlie would have made of seeing his work presented in digital form. Some authors still rail against the new medium, and I completely understand why. Like them, I too have a deep attachment to physical books. To me, it’s as much a part of the reading experience as the stories themselves, and it’s still how I prefer to read, if possible. The argument could, and has, been made that digital reading is too cold and impersonal, but to be fair, I think this misses the point. The medium is irrelevant, merely the means by which the stories are brought to you. Deliver them via papyrus scrolls, cave paintings, pulp, movies, audio, digital screen, retinal scan, or brain implant (for who knows what comes next!), it is the stories, and only the stories that matter. I don’t think Charlie would have cared how you read his work, only that you enjoyed it. And it is my hope that having his work available digitally exposes it to a new and expanded audience. It is nothing less than he deserved.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve prattled on long enough, and I am due another walk with my better half. It is the perfect day for such things, just as it is the perfect day to reminisce about my favorite writer and mentor.

Because now the light is fading and streetlights are coming on, sending shadows sprawling across the porch and toward the door. The wind has indeed risen to a howl, moaning once more about the things it seeks to change. The leaves are scratching at the door, tapping on the windows, asking to be let in, eager for me to come out. The river hurries on, and there’s a chill in the air that foretells of the coming storm.

It’s Charlie Grant’s season.

And it always will be.

 

 

John Carpenter’s TALES FOR A HALLOWEEN NIGHT, V2

I have a story (“Mr. Goodnight”) in the upcoming graphic novel anthology John Carpenter’s Tales for a Halloween Night, Volume 2, edited by Sandy King Carpenter. As a lifelong fan of John and Sandy King Carpenter’s work, to say it’s an honor to be included in this book is an understatement.

Look for the book in stores on October 18th, or preorder the book here.

From John Carpenter, the man who brought you the cult classic horror film Halloween and all of the scares beyond comes 12 more twisted tales of terror, tricks, and treats. In volume 2 of the award-winning graphic novel series, Carpenter brings together another stellar ensemble of storytellers from the worlds of movies, novels and comics for a collection of stories that will haunt your dreams at night.

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Discount Books/Dollar Drops!

Ravenous Ghosts displaycoverAs if Halloween freebies weren’t enough, I’ve recently dropped the prices on some of my novels and collections. Here are the new prices:

KIN: $2.99 (was $3.99)
MASTER OF THE MOORS: $2.99 (was $3.99)
CURRENCY OF SOULS: $2.99 (was $3.99)
NEMESIS: THE DEATH OF TIMMY QUINN: $2.99 (was $3.99)

RAVENOUS GHOSTS $2.99 (was $4.99)
THE NUMBER 121 TO PENNSYLVANIA & OTHERS $2.99 (was $4.99)
MILESTONE: THE COLLECTED STORIES: $2.99 (was $4.99)

Happy Halloween!

DEAD LEAVES: 8 TALES FROM THE WITCHING SEASON Free Until Nov. 1st

DEADLEAVESTo celebrate my favorite holiday and season, I am making my autumnal collection DEAD LEAVES: 8 TALES FROM THE WITCHING SEASON free from today until November 1st at Smashwords, who cater to all digital platforms. In this book you’ll find the short stories “Someone to Carve the Pumpkins”, “Haven”, “How the Night Receives Them”, “Tonight the Moon Is Ours”, “The Toll”, “Will You Tell Them I Died Quietly?”, “Not While I’m Around,” and “The Tradition”. Also included are my lists of recommended movies and books for the Halloween season.

Download your free copy at Smashwords.

The Last Halloween

As a writer of the dark stuff, it should come as no surprise that autumn is my favorite season, October my favorite month, and Halloween my favorite holiday. As soon as the leaves change color and begin to fall, it’s time for the coat to go on and for long walks in the woods.

In my youth it was no different. In school, it was the one time of the year in which it was okay to have portraits of slavering monsters festooning the classroom walls, pumpkins wearing expressions comical and malevolent lined in rows on the long tables beneath them. We bobbed for apples, and played games all day instead of learning anything of value. Even our teachers seemed infected by the Halloween spirit and dispensed candy to the sweet-toothed students with all the fervor of kings tossing coins to the poor. We were allowed to come to class in the costumes we intended to wear for Halloween. There were competitions for the best. Then, once school was out, we walked home, watching the younger children whose trick-or-treating was confined to daylight hours (out of fear of monsters both very real and dangerous), and discussed the best neighborhoods to hit for the most amount of candy. Every year, it was pretty much the same.

Until the last one.

I was thirteen, and aware that I was toeing the line of being too old for trick-or-treating. From what I had seen, once you passed a certain age, your idea of what constituted fun began to change. For some, this meant tormenting the younger kids with eggs and flour and water balloons, or toilet-papering houses. Or worse. For others, it meant staying at home watching horror movies with their parents and handing out candy, often with a look of regret that they had outgrown the privilege of being on the other side of things. I probably belonged to this latter category on the night I decided to go trick-or-treating for the last time.

I went alone, as my friends had decided that this was the year that they were going to retire from the nightworld, a decision that disappointed me greatly. I was unwilling to relinquish the feel of the one night in which I got to play the monster, and in truth, I think I was afraid of the greater implications of being too old to trick or treat. If I was too old for that, what else was I too old for? Christmas? Riding my bike to the old abandoned house at the end of the neighborhood? Writing love notes to girls I had crushes on? It was as if, in taking off my mask, I would be taking off the face of my childhood, and the thought depressed me. So, to hell with it, I thought, and off I went—a dime-store Dracula with a cape, capsules of foamy blood syrup in my mouth, and a talcum-powder pallor to my skin.

But almost immediately, I knew things had changed. The younger kids had already gone home, and there were fewer kids my own age roaming around by the time I stepped out into the night. The air smelled different, the electricity gone, and as I went from house to house the people who opened the door to me seemed less enthusiastic, less engaged by the ritual, as if they too had grown exhausted of the pretense, or perhaps, were just nonplussed by mine. It was a season for children, after all, so what was I doing here, an adolescent, too old for it all, holding out my bag with a forced grin on my bloody mouth and nothing to say?

As the night went on, it became evident that I had been fooling myself. The streets were dark and empty, the spirit I had grown to cherish gone, already carried home in the hearts of the younger children, with none reserved for me. In getting older, I had given up the right. And as I pondered this, a slump-shouldered vampire heading back to his crypt for the night, I was set upon by four tall monsters, teenagers toeing their own line of grown-up responsibility as their twenties loomed on the horizon. I weathered their assault of eggs, flour, and water balloons without complaint until, howling and hollering at the moon, they moved on in search of another victim.

I remember standing there for a long time outside a house in which all the lights were off—a sign for you to move along, please, no candy here—chewing a fistful of gummy worms as cold egg yolk slithered down the back of neck, and realizing that no amount of denial would ever change the fact that it was my last Halloween.

But again, I was wrong.

When I got home that night, sullen and miserable, my mother looked at me, grinning, and told me to go get cleaned up. After a shower, I felt better, and the night ended with me and my mother sitting in the dark watching horror movies on television while we shared the candy. This, I realized, was my Halloween now, and as much as I tried, as much as I lamented the loss of the spirit that had characterized the Halloweens of years past, I couldn’t find reason to complain about it. It was, as a matter of fact, just fine.

It was the last Halloween only in the sense of celebrating it as a child.

It was the first Halloween for the adult I was becoming.

Nowadays, when this time of year comes around, I still feel something of the old magic. There is an equal amount of fun to be found in making it fun for others. I love when the costumed children come around and being one of those people who does leave the lights on, does open the door and spoils them with tons of candy. And my girlfriend and I have made something of a big deal, not only about Halloween, but the whole season. Starting on October 1st, we begin to decorate the house with Gothic candles, skulls, lights, and various bits of Halloween paraphernalia. We watch horror movies and read horror novels all month long.

I love this time of year, and have realized that it’s only ever the last Halloween if you let it be. Eventually, of course, time itself will give you your last Halloween, but even then, even when we’re ushered quietly into the realm of the spirits, Halloween night will still be ours, and like that kid too old to trick-or-treat, we’ll simply be doing it in our own way on the other side of things.

Movie Review: SINISTER

I had a lot of hope and excitement for Sinister, not because it’s affiliated (however tenuously) with Insidious, a movie I enjoyed despite its many flaws, but because for months before the release the reviews were unusually positive for a horror movie, and the trailer promised a dark, uncompromisingly ugly horror film, leading me to believe this would be right up my alley.

The setup is an intriguing one. A true crime writer, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t written a bestseller in years. Eager to find the inspiration that will satisfy his ego and justify uprooting his family for the umpteenth time, he buys a house in which the previous family were brutally murdered. With a lot at stake (his wife makes it clear that her faith in him is wearing thin), he begins his investigation almost immediately. He is aided in this by a box of home movies he finds in the attic of the house which are not, as their labels claim, happy family memories at all, but snuff movies depicting the deaths of the various families. And in each movie, there is a symbol and a mysterious presence that seems to be able to leak into Ellison’s world simply by being seen.

This is the concept that got me excited for months before the film’s release. Unfortunately, after about the first forty minutes–and after Ellison’s third time walking around in the dark with a baseball bat–the movie shows its hand, and it’s a curiously restrained and cliched one. Perhaps the problem is one of heightened expectation. The marketing of this film would have you believe it’s a grim and gutsy horror flick in the style of Se7en or 8MM, when in fact, it’s nothing of the kind. Take away the setup, and you’re left with a run-of-the-mill haunted house story, one that’s neither original nor particularly effective and depends on jump-scares and stingers, most of which you’ll already have seen in the trailer. Now there’s nothing wrong with cliche if done right (see The Possession, which doesn’t have an original bone in its body, but still managed to be fun), but Sinister does more wrong than right.

Perhaps the most egregious offense are the curiously ineffective makeup effects. The ghosts could have been made-up using the kind of stuff you’ll find in Wal-Mart at Halloween, and the main villain looks like the guitarist from Slipknot on a bad day. They just weren’t scary. At no point did I feel the kind of dread upon which a movie like this depends. And by the time we get to the end–telegraphed twenty minutes earlier–it all feels kind of ham-handed and rushed, better suited to a Masters of Horror episode than a theatrical release. You should feel shocked, terrified, empathic, tense by the end. Instead you feel nothing.

It’s not all bad, lest it seem as if I’m intent on burying it, and I do suspect it is indeed a problem of heightened expectation. Had I known nothing about Sinister going in, I’d still have been let down by the lack of originality and weak effects (because I’m neither blind nor a newcomer to horror), but I might have had more fun on the journey. The acting, particularly from Hawke, is excellent, even if the script requires him to be little more than a stock horror idiot at times. Refreshingly, the police are not depicted as bumbling idiots. I very much liked Fred Thompson’s turn as the Sheriff who doesn’t appreciate the way Ellison has depicted the police in his books, and James Ransone’s deputy provides some nice comic relief to offset the darkness. There’s also a nice scene between Ellison and his wife (Juliet Rylance) mid-way through the film that’s unexpectedly poignant and well-written. And Vincent D’Onofrio has an effective turn as a college professor (AKA Mr. Exposition) but looks like an actor we’re going to hear dropped dead of a massive heart any day now.

The music too deserves a mention. It’s about the most sinister thing about Sinister and might have been more memorable in a better film. It does more to establish mood than the choreography and sets combined.

Overall, if you’re looking for some standard horror fare this Halloween, you could do worse than Sinister. But if like me, you demand more from your horror, you’ll be disappointed.