How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Straight From His Own Letters and Work.
Edited by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek
Book Review and Commentary May 31, 2016
Reading the letters of authors is often an eye-opening experience for writers. In correspondence we can find an intimacy that a writing craft book fails to provide. In How to Write Like Chekhov, editors Brunello and Lencek give us an experience with Chekhov that goes beyond a technical craft book. And for this, I truly appreciated getting to know Chekhov’s thinking and values as he digs deeply into expressing himself as an artist and a man. Chekhov wrote 568 short stories, numerous novels, and plays. Tolstoy called him an ‘incomparable artist—an artist in life.’
How relative is his advice from over 100 years ago? Well, if you are looking for a mentor who understands the transformative power of art, this…
“Can I pour you another scotch, Slick?” Frank asked, a slight giggle escaping his lips as he took another sip. He was not expecting a response, of course, as he stared amusingly at the lifeless figure sitting across the dining room table. The vibrant glow of a small candle in the center illuminated a macabre spectacle as Slick’s face was frozen in a grimace of pain and terror. Long, gaping slashes decorated his face and throat, splitting the skin with the charm and grace that only a vengeful straight razor could provide. Frank smiled to nobody in particular, cherishing the liquor warming up his esophagus.
Sheila is going to love this, he thought to himself.
Frank had known for weeks that Sheila, his wife of two years, was up to something. He had snuck away from the university long enough to follow her around town. While he should have been teaching his introductory to astronomy courses he was instead hunched down in the front seat of his Oldsmobile Antares day after day watching Sheila meet up with Slick, a computer software hot shot, in the parking lot of a deserted factory on the edge of town. The initial sense of betrayal and hurt quickly transformed itself into a darker entity, one he felt growing inside of him like a tumor. It was truly amazing what raw emotion could do to a man, especially one who was always so well-adjusted and even-tempered. He didn’t make much money working at the university, but felt that he was a good husband and deserved more respect. How dare she! Here he was touting off to work in a dress shirt and tie every day trying to make a living while she took her ever-widening, balloon ass to some young smooth talker, basically giving it away like heatstroke at the beach.
Frank wiped a bead of perspiration from his brow as he refilled his scotch glass. He reached into shirt pocket and retrieved a Salem; cigarettes and liquor always were a team, yes indeed.
More of a team than Sheila and I ever were
The flickering of the candle allowed Frank to watch the tiny droplets of blood fall from Slick’s exposed carotid artery into his glass. His polo shirt was matted with splotches of crimson, as were his hands, which had been folded on the table neatly in front of him. Frank curiously eyeballed the defense wound slashes on Slick’s knuckles, which were plainly visible, even with the dim lighting.
“Now, Slick, my man,” Frank said as he waved the bottle of scotch in his direction, “are you quite sure that I cannot pour another for you?”
Frank had done a damn fine job. For someone with no history of violence or criminal tendencies, he pulled it off nicely. He had been on his way out the door to the university to work on some research articles when Sheila announced she was going out with her female friends for the day.
“It’s only three o’clock. You’re leaving already?” he had asked. He knew she was full of crap, but was curious as to how she was going to explain this one away.
“We’re going to a concert, but we need to go visit this friend of mine first for her birthday.” She rolled her eyes playfully. “You know how it is, Frank,” she said as she lightly pecked him on the cheek.
Yeah, he knew all too well how it was. He could feel his dark blue eyes seething with hate as he watched her walk back into the kitchen. He closed the door gently behind him, walked to his car and parked it halfway down the street, waiting patiently for her to leave. The research could wait. Frank needed to tend to his domestic business first. As expected Sheila was out the door within the next fifteen minutes and speeding off to meet Slick by the factory. Frank hid behind a tree across the lot and watched the two of them for the next forty-five minutes, as the sounds of her flirtatious laughter suffocated his cheated ears. He cupped his hands over them and squatted down as he tried to block out everything around him. He was trembling so bad that he had wet himself just a tad. There would be hell to pay.
The day’s festivities had ended at Slick’s condo. Frank overheard Sheila agreeing to spend the night and leave for work from there in the morning. He had been chain-smoking around the corner of the building where he could hear everything that was being said; the morons left the bedroom window open. Frank’s patience paid off when Slick left around 10:00pm for a run to the drugstore. Frank met him at his car as he left the drugstore, his hands and the straight razor going on automatic as the bag of allergy pills hit the darkened pavement, accompanied by Slick’s shrill screams. Nobody heard a thing. Frank had his way with him. A job well done.
The last few hours had been a lot of work, but the end was approaching. Frank checked his watch as he absorbed another mouthful of scotch.
Sheila’s cell phone alarm would be going off in ten minutes, breaking her slumber and welcoming in the work day. Frank had quite a breakfast sight planned for her. He wanted to see her traumatized expression as she came upon Slick’s freshly mutilated corpse seated at the table. Then it would be her turn. The candle flame reflected brightly in Frank’s eyes as he polished off the remainder of his scotch. An alarm went off several minutes later, breaking Frank out of his daze. He smiled as he ran his fingers over the straight razor in his pocket. He could hear muffled footsteps in the bedroom.
Till Death Do Us Part, Sheila
Louis was born and raised in Chicago, IL and currently lives in Macomb, IL. He has been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a personal hobby. He is hoping to one day begin working on his first novel. His flash fiction piece, “On Call,” was published on the Funny In Five Hundred website in January 2016.
The gypsy, pale olive skin and glossy black hair stared at me with dark eyes that seemed to look right through me. “You and your lady friend come inside,” she said. I hesitated. “What are you afraid of?” She reached up and touched my face with her fingers. A scent of peppermint and sage filled my nostrils and made me giddy. “You afraid I seduce your boy friend?” She asked Jane. Just then a policeman walked by and the young gypsy woman stepped back away from me. The policeman glared at her and she disappeared back inside her tent.
I listened for an instant and I could hear the strains of violin coming from within. Sweet and sorrowful it played. We stepped inside and quietly slipped off our shoes before we crossed the plush purple carpet. Suddenly there was a loud creak and when we turned around there was a large gypsy man with a brown felt hat pulled low on his forehead standing in the doorway. “It’s alright papa,” she said. He just looked away and then stepped back into the shadows.
Sleep eluded me that night. I lay in the darkness upstairs in the old farm house that my Grandmother owned. Our family had lived on this land for four generations and when I was thrown out of my Mother’s house by her new husband my Grandmother had insisted that I come to stay with her. She told me, “Nicky I’m tired of rambling around this huge house all alone.”
Why not I thought? I still had my senior year in high school to go through before joining the Army why not spend it with Grandma. That was one month ago. It was August and that was fair time in Rhinebeck.
I laid in the darkness trying to empty my head of troubling thoughts, carnival gypsies and fortune tellers. It seemed to be impossible though I couldn’t get her out of my head. I could still smell the peppermint and sage that had lingered on her finger tips.
Jane had noticed it and was annoyed by it even though we were just friends. She had mentioned it on the way home. “You’re awful quiet.” She had said in the car.
“Bone tired that’s all,” I had said.
Jane lived next door to my Grandmother and since she was around my age like all Grandmothers she tried to hook us up. I had no interest in Jane except for a friend. It was nice to have someone to hang out with. I was a stranger in a strange land being from the city and it was nice to have a guide. When school started I was quite sure we would drift apart each to our own crowds.
Now I was wide awake again and thinking of my gypsy angel. All my senses were in high gear a heightened sense of awareness. I strained to catch any untoward sound in the house, a creak here and a drip there, my Grandmother in her room next door as she coughed and then turned another page in her magazine.
What was it like in her world? She was around my age my gypsy angel. What was it like on the carnival midway when all the people were gone and you were alone with the spinning tea-cups and the mad-mouse, when the lights were off and the music silenced.
It must be ominous the silence. That’s was what I kept thinking about and what I wanted to know. It was where I wanted to be with her. It was where my heart had wandered off to on this warm summer night as the scent of the carnival lingered on the breeze.
I could see the glow of the lights outside my window and they drew me on like a moth to a flame. I stood at my window and sucked in the smell of grease paint and diesel fuel with just a hint of danger and intrigue mixed in.
After turning on the light on my bedside table I sat on the edge of my bed torn between the world I knew and the world I wanted to know better. It was truly the calm before the storm. I got up slowly and took my pants and shirt off the chair. It was time to decide.
Despite my sense of urgency about the need to be over there and with her right now I moved slowly, carefully down the staircase going to great lengths to avoid the squeaky steps. I silently slipped the chain off the top lock and closed the door softly behind me. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath I was free.
The magnitude of what I was about to do sent goose bumps down my spine. I crossed the road there wasn’t a car in sight and the only sounds I could hear were the sounds of the generators running at the fairgrounds.
It was a tight squeeze but I snuck under the wire fence where the kids snuck in. It was an absolutely balmy night. There had never been a better night to get wild and crazy and as I walked along the midway I felt like I belonged there.
There was one snack-wagon still open and there were a couple of guys sitting out on a picnic table having a beer. My heart froze what if they said something? I felt beads of sweat pop out on my forehead and my hands felt cold and clammy. They’ll know I thought. They’ll see right through the guise and know I’m not one of them. As they looked my way I started to panic but they just smiled and said, “crazy night.” I smiled back and nodded as they went back to their conversation.
I glided by like a ghost haunting the midway, the center joint, the line joints, and the stick joints were all my play ground, and who will win the rag in a bag I thought. I know, I know, but I couldn’t sleep I had a premonition that something…no everything starts tonight. I was born again to the smell of cotton candy and fried dough. Like drugs they coursed through my veins. Then there she was sitting in front of a sign that said, “DARE TO KNOW THE FUTURE.”
I stared at her I couldn’t help myself. She shook her head and said. ”You’ve come back to me they all do once I’ve laid hands on them they wear the stain of passion on their souls and the scent drives them mad with lust.”
I nodded and took a deep breath the scent of peppermint and sage filled my head and made me tipsy. “Okay, so what do we do?” I replied half in a trance.
“You want to be with me.” She said. “You want to be here when the darkness comes, you want to be in the middle of it all.”
“That’s why I’m here,” I replied.
“No, you are here because I placed a spell on you. Do you have nerves of steel? Are you strong enough to be my lover? I think not go home little boy.”
“Bitch,” I cried as I lunged at her wrapping my fingers in her long black hair and yanking her head around so her lips were just inches from mine. She just stared up at me defiantly. I knew that danger didn’t scare her she thumbed her nose at it. I let her go and fished in my pocket for my pack of Newport. As I lit one up she took it gently from my fingers. “I don’t even know your name,” I said.
“Aishe,” she whispered.
“I’m Peter,” I said.
“I know who you are Peter you have been chosen just for me.” She whispered as she placed her lips to my ear. Then in one motion she spun around me like in a dance and said. “Come with me.”
All my strength suddenly seemed to ebb away and I was entirely at her mercy. I followed her down the darkened midway like a puppy. With a click of her fingers and a wave of her hands the lights came on and the carnival came alive. Invisible hands worked the rides each one longer then the next and ghosts called from the joints promising untold riches if we popped the balloons or made a basket. “Win a prize for the little woman,”a ghostly voices whispered.
Things seemed to be moving faster and faster as Pink Floyd’s Money thundered out of huge speakers all around us. “Perhaps something earth-shaking is happening here.” She laughed. “World shattering, mind bending,” she screamed hysterically as the Tea cups spun faster and faster.
I wanted her now more than ever I took her by the hand and led her off the midway out of the bright lights and on to the soft green grass. She put her hands on my shoulders and closed her eyes. I felt her strong yet sensitive hands work the tension out of my muscles as her fingers probed deeper and deeper. My senses were reeling, I felt high and drunk all at the same time. We tumbled into each other’s arms and I knew that our coming together was right, it was the destiny that I was born for and then reborn to.
I was fully aroused my body shaking as I plunged deeper and deeper inside her. My tongue and fingers centered fully on her ecstasy. Her whispered voice changed to moans and then animal grunts and hisses as her passion grew. Her nails ripped through my shirt and raked my back just before my sweet release.
Suddenly there was a flurry of motion and the man with the brown felt hat yanked me off her. “Watch out boy,” he cried as he raised his rifle and fired three times. On the ground where Aishe and I had made passionate love was a dead Bengal Tiger. The man with the felt hat just shook his head as a single tear ran down his cheek. “She knew she was cursed with the mark of the tiger upon her but she wanted to know love just one time.”
Timothy Wilkie is a writer/artist living in upstate New York. His short stories “Ossuary”, “The Flaw”, and “The Cell Phone” have been published in The Horror-zine and his story “Sweet Meat” has been published by Massacre Magazine. His art has been featured in The Horror-zine and Arabian Nights. Twice he has received the Golden Poets Award from the American Poetry Association.
It was, as far as I can ascertain, in September of the year 1811 that a post-chaise drew up before the door of Aswarby Hall, in the heart of Lincolnshire. The little boy who was the only passenger in the chaise, and who jumped out as soon as it had stopped, looked about him with the keenest curiosity during the short interval that elapsed between the ringing of the bell and the opening of the hall door. He saw a tall, square, red-brick house, built in the reign of Anne; a stone-pillared porch had been added in the purer classical style of 1790; the windows of the house were many, tall and narrow, with small panes and thick white woodwork. A pediment, pierced with a round window, crowned the front. There were wings to right and left, connected by curious glazed galleries, supported by colonnades, with the central block. These wings plainly contained the stables and offices of the house. Each was surmounted by an ornamental cupola with a gilded vane.
An evening light shone on the building, making the window-panes glow like so many fires. Away from the Hall in front stretched a flat park studded with oaks and fringed with firs, which stood out against the sky. The clock in the church-tower, buried in trees on the edge of the park, only its golden weather-cock catching the light, was striking six, and the sound came gently beating down the wind. It was altogether a pleasant impression, though tinged with the sort of melancholy appropriate to an evening in early autumn, that was conveyed to the mind of the boy who was standing in the porch waiting for the door to open to him.
The post-chaise had brought him from Warwickshire, where, some six months before, he had been left an orphan. Now, owing to the generous offer of his elderly cousin, Mr Abney, he had come to live at Aswarby. The offer was unexpected, because all who knew anything of Mr Abney looked upon him as a somewhat austere recluse, into whose steady-going household the advent of a small boy would import a new and, it seemed, incongruous element. The truth is that very little was known of Mr Abney’s pursuits or temper. The Professor of Greek at Cambridge had been heard to say that no one knew more of the religious beliefs of the later pagans than did the owner of Aswarby. Certainly his library contained all the then available books bearing on the Mysteries, the Orphic poems, the worship of Mithras, and the Neo–Platonists. In the marble-paved hall stood a fine group of Mithras slaying a bull, which had been imported from the Levant at great expense by the owner. He had contributed a description of it to the Gentleman’s Magazine , and he had written a remarkable series of articles in the Critical Museum on the superstitions of the Romans of the Lower Empire. He was looked upon, in fine, as a man wrapped up in his books, and it was a matter of great surprise among his neighbours that he should ever have heard of his orphan cousin, Stephen Elliott, much more that he should have volunteered to make him an inmate of Aswarby Hall.
Whatever may have been expected by his neighbours, it is certain that Mr Abney — the tall, the thin, the austere — seemed inclined to give his young cousin a kindly reception. The moment the front-door was opened he darted out of his study, rubbing his hands with delight.
‘How are you, my boy?— how are you? How old are you?’ said he —‘that is, you are not too much tired, I hope, by your journey to eat your supper?’
‘No, thank you, sir,’ said Master Elliott; ‘I am pretty well.’
‘That’s a good lad,’ said Mr Abney. ‘And how old are you, my boy?’
It seemed a little odd that he should have asked the question twice in the first two minutes of their acquaintance.
‘I’m twelve years old next birthday, sir,’ said Stephen.
‘And when is your birthday, my dear boy? Eleventh of September, eh? That’s well — that’s very well. Nearly a year hence, isn’t it? I like — ha, ha!— I like to get these things down in my book. Sure it’s twelve? Certain?’
‘Yes, quite sure, sir.’
‘Well, well! Take him to Mrs Bunch’s room, Parkes, and let him have his tea — supper — whatever it is.’
‘Yes, sir,’ answered the staid Mr Parkes; and conducted Stephen to the lower regions.
Mrs Bunch was the most comfortable and human person whom Stephen had as yet met at Aswarby. She made him completely at home; they were great friends in a quarter of an hour: and great friends they remained. Mrs Bunch had been born in the neighbourhood some fifty-five years before the date of Stephen’s arrival, and her residence at the Hall was of twenty years’ standing. Consequently, if anyone knew the ins and outs of the house and the district, Mrs Bunch knew them; and she was by no means disinclined to communicate her information.
Certainly there were plenty of things about the Hall and the Hall gardens which Stephen, who was of an adventurous and inquiring turn, was anxious to have explained to him. ‘Who built the temple at the end of the laurel walk? Who was the old man whose picture hung on the staircase, sitting at a table, with a skull under his hand?’ These and many similar points were cleared up by the resources of Mrs Bunch’s powerful intellect. There were others, however, of which the explanations furnished were less satisfactory.
One November evening Stephen was sitting by the fire in the housekeeper’s room reflecting on his surroundings.
‘Is Mr Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?’ he suddenly asked, with the peculiar confidence which children possess in the ability of their elders to settle these questions, the decision of which is believed to be reserved for other tribunals.
‘Good?— bless the child!’ said Mrs Bunch. ‘Master’s as kind a soul as ever I see! Didn’t I never tell you of the little boy as he took in out of the street, as you may say, this seven years back? and the little girl, two years after I first come here?’
‘No. Do tell me all about them, Mrs Bunch — now, this minute!’
‘Well,’ said Mrs Bunch, ‘the little girl I don’t seem to recollect so much about. I know master brought her back with him from his walk one day, and give orders to Mrs Ellis, as was housekeeper then, as she should be took every care with. And the pore child hadn’t no one belonging to her — she telled me so her own self — and here she lived with us a matter of three weeks it might be; and then, whether she were somethink of a gipsy in her blood or what not, but one morning she out of her bed afore any of us had opened a eye, and neither track nor yet trace of her have I set eyes on since. Master was wonderful put about, and had all the ponds dragged; but it’s my belief she was had away by them gipsies, for there was singing round the house for as much as an hour the night she went, and Parkes, he declare as he heard them a-calling in the woods all that afternoon. Dear, dear! a hodd child she was, so silent in her ways and all, but I was wonderful taken up with her, so domesticated she was — surprising.’
‘And what about the little boy?’ said Stephen.
‘Ah, that pore boy!’ sighed Mrs Bunch. ‘He were a foreigner — Jevanny he called hisself — and he come a-tweaking his ‘urdy-gurdy round and about the drive one winter day, and master ‘ad him in that minute, and ast all about where he came from, and how old he was, and how he made his way, and where was his relatives, and all as kind as heart could wish. But it went the same way with him. They’re a hunruly lot, them foreign nations, I do suppose, and he was off one fine morning just the same as the girl. Why he went and what he done was our question for as much as a year after; for he never took his ‘urdy-gurdy, and there it lays on the shelf.’
The remainder of the evening was spent by Stephen in miscellaneous cross-examination of Mrs Bunch and in efforts to extract a tune from the hurdy-gurdy.
That night he had a curious dream. At the end of the passage at the top of the house, in which his bedroom was situated, there was an old disused bathroom. It was kept locked, but the upper half of the door was glazed, and, since the muslin curtains which used to hang there had long been gone, you could look in and see the lead-lined bath affixed to the wall on the right hand, with its head towards the window.
On the night of which I am speaking, Stephen Elliott found himself, as he thought, looking through the glazed door. The moon was shining through the window, and he was gazing at a figure which lay in the bath.
His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possesses the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
As he looked upon it, a distant, almost inaudible moan seemed to issue from its lips, and the arms began to stir. The terror of the sight forced Stephen backwards and he awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on the cold boarded floor of the passage in the full light of the moon. With a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age, he went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dreams were really there. It was not, and he went back to bed.
Mrs Bunch was much impressed next morning by his story, and went so far as to replace the muslin curtain over the glazed door of the bathroom. Mr Abney, moreover, to whom he confided his experiences at breakfast, was greatly interested and made notes of the matter in what he called ‘his book’.
The spring equinox was approaching, as Mr Abney frequently reminded his cousin, adding that this had been always considered by the ancients to be a critical time for the young: that Stephen would do well to take care of himself, and to shut his bedroom window at night; and that Censorinus had some valuable remarks on the subject. Two incidents that occurred about this time made an impression upon Stephen’s mind.
The first was after an unusually uneasy and oppressed night that he had passed — though he could not recall any particular dream that he had had.
The following evening Mrs Bunch was occupying herself in mending his nightgown.
‘Gracious me, Master Stephen!’ she broke forth rather irritably, ‘how do you manage to tear your nightdress all to flinders this way? Look here, sir, what trouble you do give to poor servants that have to darn and mend after you!’
There was indeed a most destructive and apparently wanton series of slits or scorings in the garment, which would undoubtedly require a skilful needle to make good. They were confined to the left side of the chest — long, parallel slits about six inches in length, some of them not quite piercing the texture of the linen. Stephen could only express his entire ignorance of their origin: he was sure they were not there the night before.
‘But,’ he said, ‘Mrs Bunch, they are just the same as the scratches on the outside of my bedroom door: and I’m sure I never had anything to do with making them .’
Mrs Bunch gazed at him open-mouthed, then snatched up a candle, departed hastily from the room, and was heard making her way upstairs. In a few minutes she came down.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘Master Stephen, it’s a funny thing to me how them marks and scratches can ‘a’ come there — too high up for any cat or dog to ‘ave made ’em, much less a rat: for all the world like a Chinaman’s finger-nails, as my uncle in the tea-trade used to tell us of when we was girls together. I wouldn’t say nothing to master, not if I was you, Master Stephen, my dear; and just turn the key of the door when you go to your bed.’
‘I always do, Mrs Bunch, as soon as I’ve said my prayers.’
‘Ah, that’s a good child: always say your prayers, and then no one can’t hurt you.’
Herewith Mrs Bunch addressed herself to mending the injured nightgown, with intervals of meditation, until bed-time. This was on a Friday night in March, 1812.
On the following evening the usual duet of Stephen and Mrs Bunch was augmented by the sudden arrival of Mr Parkes, the butler, who as a rule kept himself rather to himself in his own pantry. He did not see that Stephen was there: he was, moreover, flustered and less slow of speech than was his wont.
‘Master may get up his own wine, if he likes, of an evening,’ was his first remark. ‘Either I do it in the daytime or not at all, Mrs Bunch. I don’t know what it may be: very like it’s the rats, or the wind got into the cellars; but I’m not so young as I was, and I can’t go through with it as I have done.’
‘Well, Mr Parkes, you know it is a surprising place for the rats, is the Hall.’
‘I’m not denying that, Mrs Bunch; and, to be sure, many a time I’ve heard the tale from the men in the shipyards about the rat that could speak. I never laid no confidence in that before; but tonight, if I’d demeaned myself to lay my ear to the door of the further bin, I could pretty much have heard what they was saying.’
‘Oh, there, Mr Parkes, I’ve no patience with your fancies! Rats talking in the wine-cellar indeed!’
‘Well, Mrs Bunch, I’ve no wish to argue with you: all I say is, if you choose to go to the far bin, and lay your ear to the door, you may prove my words this minute.’
‘What nonsense you do talk, Mr Parkes — not fit for children to listen to! Why, you’ll be frightening Master Stephen there out of his wits.’
‘What! Master Stephen?’ said Parkes, awaking to the consciousness of the boy’s presence. ‘Master Stephen knows well enough when I’m a-playing a joke with you, Mrs Bunch.’
In fact, Master Stephen knew much too well to suppose that Mr Parkes had in the first instance intended a joke. He was interested, not altogether pleasantly, in the situation; but all his questions were unsuccessful in inducing the butler to give any more detailed account of his experiences in the wine-cellar.
* * * * *
We have now arrived at March 24, 1812. It was a day of curious experiences for Stephen: a windy, noisy day, which filled the house and the gardens with a restless impression. As Stephen stood by the fence of the grounds, and looked out into the park, he felt as if an endless procession of unseen people were sweeping past him on the wind, borne on resistlessly and aimlessly, vainly striving to stop themselves, to catch at something that might arrest their flight and bring them once again into contact with the living world of which they had formed a part. After luncheon that day Mr Abney said:
‘Stephen, my boy, do you think you could manage to come to me tonight as late as eleven o’clock in my study? I shall be busy until that time, and I wish to show you something connected with your future life which it is most important that you should know. You are not to mention this matter to Mrs Bunch nor to anyone else in the house; and you had better go to your room at the usual time.’
Here was a new excitement added to life: Stephen eagerly grasped at the opportunity of sitting up till eleven o’clock. He looked in at the library door on his way upstairs that evening, and saw a brazier, which he had often noticed in the corner of the room, moved out before the fire; an old silver-gilt cup stood on the table, filled with red wine, and some written sheets of paper lay near it. Mr Abney was sprinkling some incense on the brazier from a round silver box as Stephen passed, but did not seem to notice his step.
The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full moon. At about ten o’clock Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country. Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moon-lit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound. Were not they coming nearer? Now they sounded from the nearer side of the water, and in a few moments they seemed to be floating about among the shrubberies. Then they ceased; but just as Stephen was thinking of shutting the window and resuming his reading of Robinson Crusoe , he caught sight of two figures standing on the gravelled terrace that ran along the garden side of the Hall — the figures of a boy and girl, as it seemed; they stood side by side, looking up at the windows. Something in the form of the girl recalled irresistibly his dream of the figure in the bath. The boy inspired him with more acute fear.
Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell upon Stephen’s brain, rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those hungry and desolate cries that he had heard resounding over the woods of Aswarby all that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them no more.
Inexpressibly frightened as he was, he determined to take his candle and go down to Mr Abney’s study, for the hour appointed for their meeting was near at hand. The study or library opened out of the front-hall on one side, and Stephen, urged on by his terrors, did not take long in getting there. To effect an entrance was not so easy. It was not locked, he felt sure, for the key was on the outside of the door as usual. His repeated knocks produced no answer. Mr Abney was engaged: he was speaking. What! why did he try to cry out? and why was the cry choked in his throat? Had he, too, seen the mysterious children? But now everything was quiet, and the door yielded to Stephen’s terrified and frantic pushing.
* * * * *
On the table in Mr Abney’s study certain papers were found which explained the situation to Stephen Elliott when he was of an age to understand them. The most important sentences were as follows:
‘It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the ancients — of whose wisdom in these matters I have had such experience as induces me to place confidence in their assertions — that by enacting certain processes, which to us moderns have something of a barbaric complexion, a very remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in man may be attained: that, for example, by absorbing the personalities of a certain number of his fellow-creatures, an individual may gain a complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control the elemental forces of our universe.
‘It is recorded of Simon Magus that he was able to fly in the air, to become invisible, or to assume any form he pleased, by the agency of the soul of a boy whom, to use the libellous phrase employed by the author of the Clementine Recognitions , he had “murdered”. I find it set down, moreover, with considerable detail in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, that similar happy results may be produced by the absorption of the hearts of not less than three human beings below the age of twenty-one years. To the testing of the truth of this receipt I have devoted the greater part of the last twenty years, selecting as the corpora vilia of my experiment such persons as could conveniently be removed without occasioning a sensible gap in society. The first step I effected by the removal of one Phoebe Stanley, a girl of gipsy extraction, on March 24, 1792. The second, by the removal of a wandering Italian lad, named Giovanni Paoli, on the night of March 23, 1805. The final “victim”— to employ a word repugnant in the highest degree to my feelings — must be my cousin, Stephen Elliott. His day must be this March 24, 1812.
‘The best means of effecting the required absorption is to remove the heart from the living subject, to reduce it to ashes, and to mingle them with about a pint of some red wine, preferably port. The remains of the first two subjects, at least, it will be well to conceal: a disused bathroom or wine-cellar will be found convenient for such a purpose. Some annoyance may be experienced from the psychic portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies with the name of ghosts. But the man of philosophic temperament — to whom alone the experiment is appropriate — will be little prone to attach importance to the feeble efforts of these beings to wreak their vengeance on him. I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emancipated existence which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me; not only placing me beyond the reach of human justice (so-called), but eliminating to a great extent the prospect of death itself.’
* * * * *
Mr Abney was found in his chair, his head thrown back, his face stamped with an expression of rage, fright, and mortal pain. In his left side was a terrible lacerated wound, exposing the heart. There was no blood on his hands, and a long knife that lay on the table was perfectly clean. A savage wild-cat might have inflicted the injuries. The window of the study was open, and it was the opinion of the coroner that Mr Abney had met his death by the agency of some wild creature. But Stephen Elliott’s study of the papers I have quoted led him to a very different conclusion
The Farmington Writers Circle will meet again on Thursday, June 17, at 7:00 pm at Hastings Hardback Café on 20th Street in Farmington. The topic will be “Creative Outlets for Marketing Your Book”. The public is invited to attend and join in the discussion.
The Farmington Writers Circle is a nascent organization of writers whose goal is to market and publicize their works. Everyone is invited to join. Contact Phil Slattery through this website with any questions.
Susan Dunphy sniffed and frowned as she crossed the foyer. A putrid stench oozed into the room. It was the unmistakable stench of a rotten egg. She began to panic! Her persnickety mother-in-law was on the way over. The source of the odor must be found and eliminated immediately. Rushing under the arched doorway into the kitchen, she investigated the contents of the garbage. She wrinkled her nose and waved her arms
theatrically as she hysterically tore through the inlaid cabinets. She still couldn’t find it. The foul emanation must be coming from somewhere!
Visits from the mother-in-law seemed to have a negative effect on Susan’s mental state. Like the Humpty Dumpty in the old nursery rhyme, she was cracking up, and no knights in shining armor were on hand to put Susan Dunphy together again. Her father passed away…
Take Charlie Broadmoor’s life. Please. Charlie sucks at stand-up comedy. He gets by, though. Things are okay. His life is decent. Until the night he makes fun of a demon’s comb-over. Big mistake. What kind of demon wears a comb-over? The sensitive kind. The kind who’s not going to let an insult slide. A demon who’s going to take Charlie down. As in down to Hell. And he intends on dragging everyone Charlie cares about along for the ride.”
Sirens Call Publications is pleased to announce the open call for the 27th issue of The Sirens Call…
For this issue, we’re looking for your best horror stories falling under the theme of
Go psychological or slasher, creature or paranormal – as long as it falls under the umbrella of horror, we’re open to it. Make your tales creepy, kitschy, funny, romantic, or sci-fi – get creative and send us the kind of skin-crawling, bone-rattling story you’d want to read.
Your only limiting factors are your own imagination and the word count!
Submission Deadline: June 1, 2016
Short story word count: 1,000 – 2,500
Flash fiction word count: 300 – 1,000
Poem length: minimum 10 lines; maximum 50 lines (with a limit of five poems per author)
Drabbles: 100 words (limit of five submitted per author)
In 1830, only a few miles away from what is now the great city of Cincinnati, lay an immense and almost unbroken forest. The whole region was sparsely settled by people of the frontier–restless souls who no sooner had hewn fairly habitable homes out of the wilderness and attained to that degree of prosperity which today we should call indigence, than, impelled by some mysterious impulse of their nature, they abandoned all and pushed farther westward, to encounter new perils and privations in the effort to regain the meager comforts which they had voluntarily renounced. Many of them had already forsaken that region for the remoter settlements, but among those remaining was one who had been of those first arriving. He lived alone in a house of logs surrounded on all sides by the great forest, of whose gloom and silence he seemed a part, for no one had ever known him to smile nor speak a needless word. His simple wants were supplied by the sale or barter of skins of wild animals in the river town, for not a thing did he grow upon the land which, if needful, he might have claimed by right of undisturbed possession. There were evidences of “improvement”–a few acres of ground immediately about the house had once been cleared of its trees, the decayed stumps of which were half concealed by the new growth that had been suffered to repair the ravage wrought by the ax. Apparently the man’s zeal for agriculture had burned with a failing flame, expiring in penitential ashes.
The little log house, with its chimney of sticks, its roof of warping clapboards weighted with traversing poles and its “chinking” of clay, had a single door and, directly opposite, a window. The latter, however, was boarded up–nobody could remember a time when it was not. And none knew why it was so closed; certainly not because of the occupant’s dislike of light and air, for on those rare occasions when a hunter had passed that lonely spot the recluse had commonly been seen sunning himself on his doorstep if heaven had provided sunshine for his need. I fancy there are few persons living today who ever knew the secret of that window, but I am one, as you shall see.
The man’s name was said to be Murlock. He was apparently seventy years old, actually about fifty. Something besides years had had a hand in his aging. His hair and long, full beard were white, his gray, lusterless eyes sunken, his face singularly seamed with wrinkles which appeared to belong to two intersecting systems. In figure he was tall and spare, with a stoop of the shoulders–a burden bearer. I never saw him; these particulars I learned from my grandfather, from whom also I got the man’s story when I was a lad. He had known him when living near by in that early day.
One day Murlock was found in his cabin, dead. It was not a time and place for coroners and newspapers, and I suppose it was agreed that he had died from natural causes or I should have been told, and should remember. I know only that with what was probably a sense of the fitness of things the body was buried near the cabin, alongside the grave of his wife, who had preceded him by so many years that local tradition had retained hardly a hint of her existence. That closes the final chapter of this true story–excepting, indeed, the circumstance that many years afterward, in company with an equally intrepid spirit, I penetrated to the place and ventured near enough to the ruined cabin to throw a stone against it, and ran away to avoid the ghost which every well-informed boy thereabout knew haunted the spot. But there is an earlier chapter–that supplied by my grandfather.
When Murlock built his cabin and began laying sturdily about with his ax to hew out a farm–the rifle, meanwhile, his means of support–he was young, strong and full of hope. In that eastern country whence he came he had married, as was the fashion, a young woman in all ways worthy of his honest devotion, who shared the dangers and privations of his lot with a willing spirit and light heart. There is no known record of her name; of her charms of mind and person tradition is silent and the doubter is at liberty to entertain his doubt; but God forbid that I should share it! Of their affection and happiness there is abundant assurance in every added day of the man’s widowed life; for what but the magnetism of a blessed memory could have chained that venturesome spirit to a lot like that?
One day Murlock returned from gunning in a distant part of the forest to find his wife prostrate with fever, and delirious. There was no physician within miles, no neighbor; nor was she in a condition to be left, to summon help. So he set about the task of nursing her back to health, but at the end of the third day she fell into unconsciousness and so passed away, apparently, with never a gleam of returning reason.
From what we know of a nature like his we may venture to sketch in some of the details of the outline picture drawn by my grandfather. When convinced that she was dead, Murlock had sense enough to remember that the dead must be prepared for burial. In performance of this sacred duty he blundered now and again, did certain things incorrectly, and others which he did correctly were done over and over. His occasional failures to accomplish some simple and ordinary act filled him with astonishment, like that of a drunken man who wonders at the suspension of familiar natural laws. He was surprised, too, that he did not weep–surprised and a little ashamed; surely it is unkind not to weep for the dead. “Tomorrow,” he said aloud, “I shall have to make the coffin and dig the grave; and then I shall miss her, when she is no longer in sight; but now–she is dead, of course, but it is all right–it must be all right, somehow. Things cannot be so bad as they seem.”
He stood over the body in the fading light, adjusting the hair and putting the finishing touches to the simple toilet, doing all mechanically, with soulless care. And still through his consciousness ran an undersense of conviction that all was right–that he should have her again as before, and everything explained. He had had no experience in grief; his capacity had not been enlarged by use. His heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it. He did not know he was so hard struck; that knowledge would come later, and never go. Grief is an artist of powers as various as the instruments upon which he plays his dirges for the dead, evoking from some the sharpest, shrillest notes, from others the low, grave chords that throb recurrent like the slow beating of a distant drum. Some natures it startles; some it stupefies. To one it comes like the stroke of an arrow, stinging all the sensibilities to a keener life; to another as the blow of a bludgeon, which in crushing benumbs. We may conceive Murlock to have been that way affected, for and here we are upon surer ground than that of conjecture no sooner had he finished his pious work than, sinking into a chair by the side of the table upon which the body lay, and noting how white the profile showed in the deepening gloom, he laid his arms upon the table’s edge, and dropped his face into them, tearless yet and unutterably weary. At that moment came in through the open window a long, wailing sound like the cry of a lost child in the far deeps of the darkening woods! But the man did not move. Again, and nearer than before, sounded that unearthly cry upon his failing sense. Perhaps it was a wild beast; perhaps it was a dream. For Murlock was asleep.
Some hours later, as it afterward appeared, this unfaithful watcher awoke and lifting his head from his arms intently listened–he knew not why. There in the black darkness by the side of the dead, recalling all without a shock, he strained his eyes to see–he knew not what. His senses were all alert, his breath was suspended, his blood had stilled its tides as if to assist the silence. Who–what had waked him, and where was it?
Suddenly the table shook beneath his arms, and at the same moment he heard, or fancied that he heard, a light, soft step–another–sounds as of bare feet upon the floor!
He was terrified beyond the power to cry out or move. Perforce he waited–waited there in the darkness through seeming centuries of such dread as one may know, yet live to tell. He tried vainly to speak the dead woman’s name, vainly to stretch forth his hand across the table to learn if she were there. His throat was powerless, his arms and hands were like lead. Then occurred something most frightful. Some heavy body seemed hurled against the table with an impetus that pushed it against his breast so sharply as nearly to overthrow him, and at the same instant he heard and felt the fall of something upon the floor with so violent a thump that the whole house was shaken by the impact. A scuffling ensued, and a confusion of sounds impossible to describe. Murlock had risen to his feet. Fear had by excess forfeited control of his faculties. He flung his hands upon the table. Nothing was there!
There is a point at which terror may turn to madness; and madness incites to action. With no definite intent, from no motive but the wayward impulse of a madman, Murlock sprang to the wall, with a little groping seized his loaded rifle, and without aim discharged it. By the flash which lit up the room with a vivid illumination, he saw an enormous panther dragging the dead woman toward the window, its teeth fixed in her throat! Then there were darkness blacker than before, and silence; and when he returned to consciousness the sun was high and the wood vocal with songs of birds.
The body lay near the window, where the beast had left it when frightened away by the flash and report of the rifle. The clothing was deranged, the long hair in disorder, the limbs lay anyhow. From the throat, dreadfully lacerated, had issued a pool of blood not yet entirely coagulated. The ribbon with which he had bound the wrists was broken; the hands were tightly clenched. Between the teeth was a fragment of the animal’s ear
Writing is a solitary act, but being a writer is not. We live in the Real World with everyone else, and our lives are just as full and noisy and chaotic as the next person’s. We have friends and family to care for and enjoy. We have day jobs (with meetings and emails and conference calls) and households to manage (via negotiation and sometimes bribery). We are subjected to the same onslaught of news, social media, and sundry other local and global communications as every other non-luddite member of this hyper-connected human race.
What makes writers different is that our lives include another layer that exists, sometimes above and sometimes below, everything else: the world of our writing. And, unlike the activity-powered Real World, this other world of stories and ideas and dreams is brought to life by stillness and solitude.
The Farmington Writers Circle will meet again on Thursday, June 17, at 7:00 pm at Hastings Hardback Café on 20th Street in Farmington. The topic will be “Creative Outlets for Marketing Your Book”. The public is invited to attend and join in the discussion.
The Farmington Writers Circle is a nascent organization of writers whose goal is to market and publicize their works. Everyone is invited to join. Contact Phil Slattery through this website with any questions.