I made two more headers for my website. These have an obvious horror bias. Let me know what you think. I hope that by making the site more attractive and visually stimulating, I will attract more dedicated, repeat readers and not just someone who happens to find my site in a search (though those are welcome too, of course).
I ran across this video on Twitter and just had to share it, though it has nothing to do with writing or literature. It would make a good story or even an Aesop’s fable. It has drama and is loaded with tension and suspense. Check it out.
I just finished typing up the first draft of Bobby the Brown Pelican. Word count: 1,168. I don’t even know if that’s the right length for a children’s (around 5-6) book, or if it’s too long or too short. I will do a little research and read a few children’s books. I am somewhat familiar with them, but I need to study them more intensely. I will also try to find a few beta readers, who have experience in this field. I believe the simplicity of the language is at the right level. I have taught children of this age, so I think I have a feel for the way they talk.
I have been thinking of publishing it myself on Amazon or Smashwords, but now I am leaning toward a traditional publisher. I have found lots of royalty-free photographs of pelicans on Pixabay and Pexels. The trick will be to find the ones that match up with what is happening in the story.
Now it’s on to writing a sci-fi horror story about an American colonel torturing an alien armada commander in an apocalyptic future. This is more my style.
Now available at Amazon in paperback: my novelette Click, an action/adventure tale set on the south Texas coast, and my short story collection examining the dark side of love, The Scent and Other Stories.
In Click, a Texas policeman, on a secluded island while recovering from the guilt of shooting an unarmed man, suddenly finds himself under attack by unknown assailants and caught up unknowingly in a web of intrigue.
Reader Charles Stacey gave Click five stars and commented: “Author has a wonderful ability to develop the characters using few words. Great foreshadowing to build suspense. And then a really outstanding twist at the end that left me smiling.”
In this The Scent and Other Stories, I explore the dark, sometimes violent, sometimes twisted, sometimes touching side of love, the side kept not only from public view, but sometimes from our mates. Set in the modern era, these stories range in setting from forbidden interracial love in the hills of 1970’s Kentucky to a mother’s confession in present-day New Mexico to the callous manipulation of a lover in Texas.
Readers comments on The Scent and Other Stories include:
On “The Scent”
“This story has a lovely dreamy quality whilst being unsettling too. It lingers on half processed emotional experiences and leaves the reader asking ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ – feelings that are familiar for so many people.”
“You wrote about something we can all relate to – how, out of the blue, the scent of something evokes a memory of something long past; and the emotions we felt at the time! A clever story …”
“This descriptive piece about remembrance, the thought of what might have been, is a common sad thread that will resonate with those have experienced the pain of that one love lost. Slattery’s use of scent was exquisite as we feel Quinn’s pain and hope that he finds his peace, at last.”
“Fantastic writing – I held my breath for most of the story. The descriptions of the countryside and the people were beautiful and the tension compelling. This could possibly be the start of a novel or a suite of stories. Thank you very much and good luck with your writing in the future”
“Suspenseful and engaging. The dialogue and descriptions kept pace with the action. Well done.”
On “A Good Man”
“Lots of detail examining an old question of how do you judge a person’s life. It left me wondering.”
“Great job capturing the social climate of the sixties. Good choice for how to present the story – deathbed “confession” by the mother. I enjoyed it.”
On “The Slightest of Indiscretions”
“Excellent writing brings this poignant story to life and makes the reader work to understand more of what might be. Very many thanks for a satisfying, emotionally intelligent read…”
A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horroris currently available only on Kindle, but it should be out in paperback in the very near future. Watch for it at Amazon.
Readers of the stories contained include:
In this collection of published and previously unpublished stories of horror, I offer a look into the minds of people who perpetrate horrors, from acts of stupidity with unintended results to cold-hearted revenge to pure enjoyment to complete indifference. Settings range from 17th-century France in the heart of the werewolf trials to the Old West to the present and on to alien worlds in the distant future. Comments on previously published stories include:
Jay Manning, editor of Midnight Times commented in its Spring, 2006 issue: “Wolfsheim” is basically a traditional horror story that tells the tale of a small European village confronted by the threat of werewolves. If you like stories about lycans, you definitely need to check this one out. Great stuff.”
Publisher Charlie Fish of Fiction on the Web summarizes “A Tale of Hell” as a “… chilling vision of hell”. Other comments on “A Tale of Hell” from readers of Fiction on the Web:
“An intense and well paced story, cleverly leading the reader up a number of garden paths before Jack’s reality finally clarifies and appears in all its horror. The writing is focused and spare as Jack’s malevolent characteristics and idiosyncrasies manifest themselves…Overall a strong tale that lingers in the imagination…”
“brilliantly descriptive piece on man´s apparently unstoppable descent, literally into hell,…”
” Enjoyed this story. I thought it was nicely written. Started with a familiar vision of hell, but added several unique treatments; kept me interested in how it all would end. Thanks”
Publisher Charlie Fish of Fiction on the Web summarizes “Dream Warrior” as a “…powerful revenge epic about a man who visits his Mexican grandfather for spiritual guidance after a violent crime results in the death if his fiancée”. Fiction on the Web readers commented:
“quite literally a rite of passage, mystical and with an interesting payoff, one which Miguel may have to reckon with in time. some very good writing and characterisation. well done”
“…this is a rite of passage, complex and rich with significance. The cultural invocations are vivid and intense, the work of a writer in his/her full stride. The future for Miguel, who knows? The readers interest is fully engaged with what is to come…”
“Really enjoyed the story-kept me up past my bedtime reading it!”
“I loved the concept, was fascinated by the almost hallucinatory detail of legend with its fatal shadowlands.”
Reader comments on “Murder by Plastic” includPhile:
“Chilling and brilliantly economical”
“Very well-paced and intriguing”
“Fabulous story! Five stars!”
While you are at Amazon, visit my new author’s page and visit it frequently to keep up with my newest releases and stay on top of my new miniblog.
Today, my short story, “A Good Man”, was published at http://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk. Many thanks to Charlie Fish at Fiction on the Web for publishing this, one of my best stories. “A Good Man” is not horror, but a modern crime drama. Mr. Fish describes the story thus: “On the day before her death from lung cancer, Christopher’s mother tells him a secret about his father that may change his perception of his parents forever…” Doug Hawley, in the first comment on the story notes: “Lots of detail examining an old question of how do you judge a person’s life. It left me wondering.”
Please drop by Fiction on the Web any time and check out “A Good Man”.
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture — flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation — the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
But dead — no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon
fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he — just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
But something was going on overhead. It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm. These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing. It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.
Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess. For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favourite pleasantry that he knew ‘every soul in the place.’ From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.
Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.
The work of excavation was not difficult: the earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before offered little resistance and was soon thrown out. Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt. At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up. With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction. For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return. But Jess was of another breed.
In the grey of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.
‘You saw it?’ cried one.
‘God! yes — what are we to do?’
They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room. Mechanically they entered the room. On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess. He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.
‘I’m waiting for my pay,’ he said.
Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong, the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.
For several years, Mrs. H. T. Miller lived alone in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with kitchenette) in a remodeled brownstone near the East River. She was a widow: Mr. H. T. Miller had left a reasonable amount of insurance. Her interests were narrow, she had no friends to speak of, and she rarely journeyed farther than the corner grocery. The other people in the house never seemed to notice her: her clothes were matter-of-fact, her hair iron-gray, clipped and casually waved; she did not use cosmetics, her features were plain and inconspicuous, and on her last birthday she was sixty-one. Her activities were seldom spontaneous: she kept the two rooms immaculate, smoked an occasional cigarette, prepared her own meals and tended a canary.
Then she met Miriam. It was snowing that night. Mrs. Miller had finished drying the supper dishes and was thumbing through an afternoon paper when she saw an advertisement of a picture playing at a neighborhood theatre. The title sounded good, so she struggled into her beaver coat, laced her galoshes and left the apartment, leaving one light burning in the foyer: she found nothing more disturbing than a sensation of darkness.
The snow was fine, falling gently, not yet making an impression on the pavement. The wind from the river cut only at street crossings.
Mrs. Miller hurried, her head bowed, oblivious as a mole burrowing a blind path. She stopped at a drugstore and bought a package of peppermints.
A long line stretched in front of the box office; she took her place at the end. There would be (a tired voice groaned) a short wait for all seats. Mrs. Miller rummaged in her leather handbag till she collected exactly the correct change for admission. The line seemed to be taking its own time and, looking around for some distractions, she suddenly became conscious of a little girl standing under the edge of the marquee.
Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino’s. It flowed waist-length in smooth, loose lines. She was thin and fragilely constructed. There was a simple, special elegance in the way she stood with her thumbs in the pockets of a tailored plum-velvet coat.
Mrs. Miller felt oddly excited, and when the little girl glanced toward her, she smiled warmly. The little girl walked over and said, “Would you care to do me a favor?”
“I’d be glad to if I can,” said Mrs. Miller.
“Oh, it’s quite easy. I merely want you to buy a ticket for me; they won’t let me in otherwise. Here, I have the money.” And gracefully she handed Mrs. Miller two dimes and a nickel.
They went over to the theatre together. An usherette directed them to a lounge; in twenty minutes the picture would be over.
“I feel just like a genuine criminal,” said Mrs. Miller gaily, as she sat down. “I mean that sort of thing’s against the law, isn’t it? I do hope I haven’t done the wrong thing. You mother knows where you are, dear? I mean she does, doesn’t she?
The little girl said nothing. She unbuttoned her coat and folded it across her lap. Her dress underneath was prim and dark blue. A gold chain dangled about her neck, and her fingers, sensitive and musical looking, toyed with it. Examining her more attentively, Mrs. Miller decided the truly distinctive feature was not her hair, but her eyes; they were hazel, steady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and, because of their size, seemed to consume her small face.
Mrs. Miller offered a peppermint. “What’s your name, dear?”
“Miriam,” she said, as though, in some curious way, it were information already familiar.
“Why, isn’t that funny—my name’s Miriam, too. And it’s not a terribly common name either. Now, don’t tell me your last name’s Miller!”
“But isn’t that funny?”
“Moderately,” said Miriam, and rolled a peppermint on her tongue.
Mrs. Miller flushed and shifted uncomfortably. “You have such a large vocabulary for such a young girl?”
“Well, yes,” said Mrs. Miller, hastily changing the topic to: “Do you like the movies?”
“I really wouldn’t know,” said Miriam. “I’ve never been before.”
Women began filling the lounge; the rumble of the newsreel bombs exploded in the distance. Mrs. Miller rose, tucking her purse under her arm. “I guess I’d better be running now if I want to get a seat,” she said. “It was nice to have met you.”
Miriam nodded ever so slightly.
It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city. At all hours it was necessary to keep a lamp lighted, and Mrs. Miller lost track of the days: Friday was no different from Saturday and on Sunday she went to the grocery story; closed, of course.
That evening she scrambled eggs and fixed a bowl of tomato soup. Then, after putting on a flannel robe and cold-creaming her face, she propped herself up in bed with a hot-water bottle under her feet. She was reading the Times when the doorbell rang. At first she thought it must be a mistake and whoever it was would go away. But it rang and rang and settled to a persistent buzz. She looked at the clock: a little after eleven; it did not seem possible, she was always asleep by ten.
Climbing out of bed, she trotted barefoot across the living room. “I’m coming, please be patient.” The latch was caught; she turned it this way and that way and the bell never stopped for an instant. “Stop it,” she cried. The bolt gave way and she opened the door an inch. “What in heaven’s name?”
“Hello,” said Miriam.
“Oh…why, hello,” said Mrs. Miller, stepping hesitantly into the hall. “You’re that little girl.”
“I thought you’d never answer, but I kept my finger on the button; I knew you were home. Aren’t you glad to see me?”
Mrs. Miller did not know what to say. Miriam, she saw, wore the same plum velvet coat and now she had also a beret to match; her white hair was braided in two shining plaits and looped at the ends with enormous white ribbons.
“Since I’ve waited so long, you could at least let me in,” she said.
“It’s awfully late….”
Miriam regarded her blankly. “What difference does that make? Let me in. It’s cold out here and I have on a silk dress.” Then, with a gentle gesture, she urged Mrs. Miller aside and passed into the apartment.
She dropped her coat and beret on a chair. She was indeed wearing a silk dress. White silk. White silk in February. The skirt was beautifully pleated and the sleeves long; it made a faint rustle as she strode about the room. “I like your place,” she said. “I like the rug, blue’s my favorite color.” She touched a paper rose in a vase on the coffee table. “Imitation,” she commented wanly. “How sad. Aren’t imitations sad?” She seated herself on the sofa, daintily spreading her skirt.
“What do you want?” Mrs. Miller asked.
“Sit down,” said Miriam. “It makes me nervous to see people stand.”
Mrs. Miller sank to a hassock. “What do you want?” she repeated.
“You know, I don’t think you’re glad I came.”
For a second Mrs. Miller was without an answer; her hand motioned vaguely. Miriam giggled and pressed back on a mound of chintz pillows. Mrs. Miller noticed that the girl was less pale than she remembered; her cheeks were flushed.
“How did you know where I lived?”
Miriam frowned. “That’s no question at all. What’s your name? What’s mine?”
“But I’m not listed in the phone book.”
“Oh, let’s talk about something else.”
Mrs. Miller said, “Your mother must be insane to let a child like you wander around at all hours of the night—and in such ridiculous clothes. She must be out of her mind.”
Miriam got up and moved to a corner where a covered bird cage hung from a ceiling chain. She peeked under the cover. “It’s a canary,” she said. “Would you mind if I woke him? I’d like to hear him sing.”
“Leave Tommy alone,” Mrs. Miller said, anxiously. “Don’t you dare wake him.”
“Certainly,” said Miriam. “But I don’t see why I can’t hear him sing.” And then, “Have you anything to eat? I’m starving! Even milk and a jam sandwich would be fine.”
“Look,” said Mrs. Miller, arising from the hassock, “look—if I make some nice sandwiches will you be a good child and run along home? It’s past midnight, I’m sure.”
“It’s snowing,” reproached Miriam. “And cold and dark.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have come here to begin with,” said Mrs. Miller, struggling to control her voice. “I can’t help the weather. If you want anything to eat you’ll have to promise to leave.”
Miriam brushed a braid against her cheek. Her eyes were thoughtful, as if weighing the proposition. She turned toward the bird cage. “Very well, she said, “I promise.”
How old is she? Ten? Eleven? Mrs. Miller, in the kitchen, unsealed a jar of strawberry preserves and cut four slices of bread. She poured a glass of milk and paused to light a cigarette. And why has she come? Her hand shook as she held the match, fascinated, till it burned her finger. The canary was singing; singing as he did in the morning and at no other time. “Miriam,” she called, “Miriam, I told you not to disturb Tommy.” There was no answer. She called again; all she heard was the canary. She inhaled the cigarette and discovered she had lighted the cork-tip end and—oh, really, she mustn’t lose her temper.
She carried the food in on a tray and set it on the coffee table. She saw first that the bird cage still wore its night cover. And Tommy was singing. It gave her a queer sensation. And no one was in the room. Mrs. Miller went through an alcove leading to her bedroom; at the door she caught her breath.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Miriam glanced up and in her eyes was a look that was not ordinary. She was standing by the bureau, a jewel case opened before her. For a minute she studied Mrs. Miller, forcing their eyes to meet, and she smiled. “There’s nothing good here,” she said. “But I like this.” Her hand held a cameo brooch. “It’s charming.”
“Suppose—perhaps you’d better put it back,” said Mrs. Miller, feeling suddenly the need of some support. She leaned against the door frame; her head was unbearably heavy; a pressure weighted the rhythm of her heartbeat. The light seemed to flutter defectively. “Please, child…a gift from my husband.”
“But it’s beautiful and I want it,” said Miriam. “Give it to me.”
As she stood, striving to shape a sentence which would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn; she was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time. Its sheer emphasis was stunning. But here in her own room in the hushed show-city were evidences she could not ignore or, she knew with startling clarity, resist.
Miriam ate ravenously, and when the sandwiches and milk were gone, her fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection on its wearer. “That was very nice,” she sighed, “though now an almond cake or a cherry would be ideal. Sweets are lovely, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Miller was perched precariously on the hassock, smoking a cigarette. Her hairnet had slipped lopsided and loose strands straggled down her face. Her eyes were stupidly concentrated on nothing and her cheeks were mottled in red patches, as though a fierce slap had left permanent marks.
“Is there a candy—a cake?”
Mrs. Miller tapped ash on the rug. Her head swayed slightly as she tried to focus her eyes. “You promised to leave if I made the sandwiches,” she said.
“Dear me, did I?”
“It was a promise and I’m tired and I don’t feel well at all.”
“Mustn’t fret,” said Miriam. “I’m only teasing.”
She picked up her coat, slung it over her arm, and arranged her beret in front of a mirror. Presently she bent close to Mrs. Miller and whispered, “Kiss me good night.”
“Please—I’d rather not,” said Mrs. Miller.
Miriam lifted a shoulder, arched an eyebrow. “As you like,” she said, and went directly to the coffee table, seized the vase containing the paper roses, carried it to where the hard surface of the floor lay bare, and hurled it downward. Glass sprayed in all directions and she stamped her foot on the bouquet.
Then slowly she walked to the door, but before closing it she looked back at Mrs. Miller with a slyly innocent curiosity.
Mrs. Miller spent the next day in bed, rising once to feed the canary and drink a cup of tea; she took her temperature and had none, yet her dreams were feverishly agitated; their unbalanced mood lingered even as she lay staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. One dream threaded through the others like an elusively mysterious theme in a complicated symphony, and the scenes it depicted were sharply outlined, as though sketched by a hand of gifted intensity: a small girl, wearing a bridal gown and a wreath of leaves, led a gray procession down a mountain path, and among them there was unusual silence till a woman at the rear asked, “Where is she taking us?” ”No one knows,” said an old man marching in front. “But isn’t she pretty?” volunteered a third voice. “Isn’t she like a frost flower…so shining and white?”
Tuesday morning she woke up feeling better; harsh slats of sunlight, slanting through the Venetian blinds, shed a disrupting light on her unwholesome fancies. She opened the window to discover a thawed, mild-as-spring day; a sweep of clean new clouds crumpled against a vastly blue, out-of-season sky; and across the low line of rooftops she could see the river and smoke curving from tugboat stacks in a warm wind. A great silver truck plowed the snow-banked street, its machine sound humming on the air.
After straightening the apartment, she went to the grocer’s, cashed a check and continued to Schrafft’s, where she ate breakfast and chatted happily with the waitress. Oh, it was a wonderful day more like a holiday—and it would be so foolish to go home.
She boarded a Lexington Avenue bus and rose up to Eighty-sixth Street; it was here that she decided to do a little shopping.
She had no idea what she wanted or needed, but she idled along, intent only upon the passers-by, brisk and preoccupied, who gave her a disturbing sense of separateness.
It was while waiting at the corner of Third Avenue that she saw the man: an old man, bowlegged and stooped under an armload of bulging packages; he wore a shabby brown coat and a checkered cap. Suddenly she realized they were exchanging a smile: there was nothing friendly about this smile, it was merely two cold flickers of recognition. But she was certain she had never seen him before.
He was standing next to an El pillar, and as she crossed the street he turned and followed. He kept quite close; from the corner of her eyes she watched his reflection wavering on the shop windows.
Then in the middle of the block she stopped and faced him. He stopped also and cocked his head, grinning. But what could she say? Do? Here, in broad daylight, on Eighty-sixth Street? It was useless and, despising her own helplessness, she quickened her steps.
Now Second Avenue is a dismal street, made from scraps and ends; part cobblestone, part asphalt, part cement; and its atmosphere of desertion is permanent. Mrs. Miller walked five blocks without meeting anyone, and all the while the steady crunch of his footfalls in the snow stayed near. And when she came to a florist’s shop, the sound was still with her. She hurried inside and watched through the glass door as the old man passed; he kept his eyes straight ahead and didn’t slow his pace, but he did one strange, telling thing: he tipped his cap.
“Six white ones, did you say?” asked the florist. “Yes,” she told him, “white roses.” From there she went to a glassware store and selected a vase, presumably a replacement for the one Miriam had broken, thought the price was intolerable and the vase itself (she thought) grotesquely vulgar. But a series of unaccountable purchases had begun, as if by prearranged plan: a plan of which she had not the least knowledge or control.
She bought a bag of glazed cherries, and at a place called the Knickerbocker Bakery she paid forty cents for six almond cakes.
Within the last hour the weather had turned cold again; like blurred lenses, winter clouds cast a shade over the sun, and the skeleton of an early dusk colored the sky; a damp mist mixed with the wind and the voices of a few children who romped high on mountains of gutter snow seemed lonely and cheerless. Soon the first flake fell, and when Mrs. Miller reached the brownstone house, snow was falling in a swift screen and foot tracks vanished as they were printed.
The white roses were arranged decoratively in the vase. The glazed cherries shone on a ceramic plate. The almond cakes, dusted with sugar, awaited a hand. The canary fluttered on its swing and picked at a bar of seed.
At precisely five the doorbell rang. Mrs. Miller knew who it was. The hem of her housecoat trailed as she crossed the floor. “Is that you?” she called.
“Naturally,” said Miriam, the word resounding shrilly from the hall. “Open this door.”
“Go away,” said Mrs. Miller.
“Please hurry…I have a heavy package.”
“Go away,” said Mrs. Miller. She returned to the living room, lighted a cigarette, sat down and calmly listened to the buzzer; on and on and on. “You might as well leave. I have no intention of letting you in.”
Shortly the bell stopped. For possibly ten minutes Mrs. Miller did not move. Then, hearing no sound, she concluded Miriam had gone. She tiptoed to the door and opened it a sliver; Miriam was half-reclining atop a cardboard box with a beautiful French doll cradled in her arms.
“Really, I thought you were never coming,” she said peevishly. “Here, help me get this in, it’s awfully heavy.”
It was no spell-like compulsion that Mrs. Miller felt, but rather a curious passivity; she brought in the box, Miriam the doll. Miriam curled up on the sofa, not troubling to remove her coat or beret, and watched disinterestedly as Mrs. Miller dropped the box and stood trembling, trying to catch her breath.
“Thank you,” she said. In the daylight she looked pinched and drawn, her hair less luminous. The French doll she was loving wore an exquisite powdered wig and its idiot glass eyes sought solace in Miriam’s. “I have a surprise,” she continued. “Look into my box.”
Kneeling, Mrs. Miller parted the flaps and lifted out another doll; then a blue dress which she recalled as the one Miriam had worn that first night at the theatre; and of the reminder she said, “It’s all clothes. Why?”
“Because I’ve come to live with you,” said Miriam, twisting a cherry stem. “Wasn’t it nice of you to buy me the cherries…?”
“But you can’t! For God’s sake go away—go away and leave me alone!”
“…and the roses and the almond cakes? How really wonderfully generous. You know, these cherries are delicious. The last place I lived was with an old man; he was terribly poor and we never had good things to eat. But I think I’ll be happy here.” She paused to snuggle her doll closer. “Now, if you’ll just show me where to put my things…”
Mrs. Miller’s face dissolved into a mask of ugly red lines; she began to cry, and it was an unnatural, tearless sort of weeping, as though, not having wept for a long time, she had forgotten how. Carefully she edged backward till she touched the door.
She fumbled through the hall and down the stairs to a landing below. She pounded frantically on the door of the first apartment she came to; a short, redheaded man answered and she pushed past him. “Say, what the hell is this?” he said. “Anything wrong, lover?” asked a young woman who appeared from the kitchen, drying her hands. And it was to her that Mrs. Miller turned.
“Listen,” she cried, “I’m ashamed behaving this way but—well, I’m Mrs. H. T. Miller and I live upstairs and…” She pressed her hands over her face. “It sounds so absurd…”
The woman guided her to a chair, while the man excitedly rattled pocket change. “Yeah?”
“I live upstairs and there’s a little girl visiting me, and I suppose that I’m afraid of her. She won’t leave and I can’t make her and—she’s going to do something terrible. She’s already stolen my cameo, but she’s about to do something worse—more terrible.”
The man asked, “Is she a relative, huh?”
Mrs. Miller shook her head. “I don’t know who she is. Her name’s Miriam, but I don’t know for certain who she is.
“You gotta calm down, honey,” said the woman, stroking Mrs. Miller’s arm. “Harry here will tend to this kid. Go on, lover.” And Mrs. Miller said, “The door’s open—5A.”
After the man left, the woman brought a towel and bathed Mrs. Miller’s face. “You’re very kind,” Mrs. Miller said. “I’m sorry to act like such a fool, only this wicked child.”
“Sure, honey,” consoled the woman. “Now, you better take it easy.”
Mrs. Miller rested her head in the crook of her arm; she was quiet enough to be asleep. The woman turned a radio dial; a piano and a husky voice filled the silence and the woman, tapping her foot, kept excellent time. “Maybe we oughta go up too,” she said.
“I don’t want to see her again. I don’t want to be anywhere near her.”
“Uh-huh, but what you shoulda done, you shoulda called a cop.”
Presently they heard the man on the stairs. He strode into the room frowning and scratching the back of his neck. “Nobody there,” he said, honestly embarrassed. “She musta beat it.”
“Harry, you’re a jerk,” announced the woman. “We been sitting here the whole time and we woulda seen…” She stopped abruptly, for the man’s glance was sharp.
“I looked all over,” he said, “and there just ain’t nobody there. Nobody, understand?”
“Tell me,” said Mrs. Miller, rising, “tell me, did you see a large box? Or a doll?”
“No, ma’am, I didn’t.”
And the woman, as if delivering a verdict, said, “Well, for cryinoutloud…”
Mrs. Miller entered her apartment softly; she walked to the center of the room and stood quite still. No, in a sense it had not changed: the roses, the cakes, and the cherries were in place. But t his was an empty room, emptier than if the furnishings and familiars were not present, lifeless and petrified as a funeral parlor. The sofa loomed before her with a new strangeness: its vacancy had a meaning that would have been less penetrating and terrible had Miriam been curled on it. She gazed fixedly at the space where she remembered setting the and, for a moment, the hassock spun desperately. And she looked through the window; surely the river was real, surely snow was falling—but then, one could not be certain witness to anything: Miriam, so vividly there—and yet, where was she? Where? Where?
As though moving in a dream, she sank to a chair. The room was losing shape; it was dark and getting darker and there was nothing to be done about it; she could not life her hand to light a lamp.
Suddenly, closing her eyes, she felt an upward surge, like a diver emerging from some deeper, greener depth. In times of terror or immense distress, there are moments when the mind waits, as though for a revelation, while a skein of calm is woven over thought; it is like a sleep, or a supernatural trance; and during this lull one is aware of a force of quiet reasoning: well, what if she had never really known a girl named Miriam? That she had been foolishly frightened on the street? In the end, like everything else, it was of no importance. For the only thing she had lost to Miriam was her identity, but now she knew she had found again the person who lived in this room, who cooked her own meals, who owned a canary, who was someone she could trust and believe in: Mrs. H. T. Miller.
Listening in contentment, she became aware of a double sound: a bureau drawer opening and closing, she seemed to hear it long after completion—opening and closing. Then gradually, the harshness of it was replaced by the murmur of a silk dress and this, delicately faint, was moving nearer and swelling in intensity till the walls trembled with the vibration and the room was caving under a wave of whispers. Mrs. Miller stiffened and opened her eyes to a dull, direct stare.
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Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.
“Hark at the wind,” said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.
“I’m listening,” said the latter, grimly surveying the board as he stretched out his hand. “Check.”
“I should hardly think that he’d come to-night,” said his father, with his hand poised over the board.
“Mate,” replied the son.
“That’s the worst of living so far out,” bawled Mr. White, with sudden and unlooked-for violence; “of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in, this is the worst. Pathway’s a bog, and the road’s a torrent. I don’t know what people are thinking about. I suppose because only two houses in the road are let, they think it doesn’t matter.”
“Never mind, dear,” said his wife, soothingly; “perhaps you’ll win the next one.”
Mr. White looked up sharply, just in time to intercept a knowing glance between mother and son. The words died away on his lips, and he hid a guilty grin in his thin grey beard.
“There he is,” said Herbert White, as the gate banged to loudly and heavy footsteps came toward the door.
The old man rose with hospitable haste, and opening the door, was heard condoling with the new arrival. The new arrival also condoled with himself, so that Mrs. White said, “Tut, tut!” and coughed gently as her husband entered the room, followed by a tall, burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage.
“Sergeant-Major Morris,” he said, introducing him.
The sergeant-major shook hands, and taking the proffered seat by the fire, watched contentedly while his host got out whiskey and tumblers and stood a small copper kettle on the fire.
At the third glass his eyes got brighter, and he began to talk, the little family circle regarding with eager interest this visitor from distant parts, as he squared his broad shoulders in the chair and spoke of wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.
“Twenty-one years of it,” said Mr. White, nodding at his wife and son. “When he went away he was a slip of a youth in the warehouse. Now look at him.”
“He don’t look to have taken much harm,” said Mrs. White, politely.
“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, “just to look round a bit, you know.”
“Better where you are,” said the sergeant-major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass, and sighing softly, shook it again.
“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “What was that you started telling me the other day about a monkey’s paw or something, Morris?”
“Nothing,” said the soldier, hastily. “Leastways nothing worth hearing.”
“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White, curiously.
“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps,” said the sergeant-major, offhandedly.
His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him.
“To look at,” said the sergeant-major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”
He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.
“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.
“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
His manner was so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter jarred somewhat.
“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White, cleverly.
The soldier regarded him in the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth. “I have,” he said, quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.
“And did you really have the three wishes granted?” asked Mrs. White.
“I did,” said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.
“And has anybody else wished?” persisted the old lady.
“The first man had his three wishes. Yes,” was the reply; “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”
His tones were so grave that a hush fell upon the group.
“If you’ve had your three wishes, it’s no good to you now, then, Morris,” said the old man at last. “What do you keep it for?”
The soldier shook his head. “Fancy, I suppose,” he said, slowly. “I did have some idea of selling it, but I don’t think I will. It has caused enough mischief already. Besides, people won’t buy. They think it’s a fairy tale; some of them, and those who do think anything of it want to try it first and pay me afterward.”
“If you could have another three wishes,” said the old man, eyeing him keenly, “would you have them?”
“I don’t know,” said the other. “I don’t know.”
He took the paw, and dangling it between his forefinger and thumb, suddenly threw it upon the fire. White, with a slight cry, stooped down and snatched it off.
“Better let it burn,” said the soldier, solemnly.
“If you don’t want it, Morris,” said the other, “give it to me.”
“I won’t,” said his friend, doggedly. “I threw it on the fire. If you keep it, don’t blame me for what happens. Pitch it on the fire again like a sensible man.”
The other shook his head and examined his new possession closely. “How do you do it?” he inquired.
“Hold it up in your right hand and wish aloud,” said the sergeant-major, “but I warn you of the consequences.”
“Sounds like the Arabian Nights,” said Mrs. White, as she rose and began to set the supper. “Don’t you think you might wish for four pairs of hands for me?”
Her husband drew the talisman from pocket, and then all three burst into laughter as the sergeant-major, with a look of alarm on his face, caught him by the arm.
“If you must wish,” he said, gruffly, “wish for something sensible.”
Mr. White dropped it back in his pocket, and placing chairs, motioned his friend to the table. In the business of supper the talisman was partly forgotten, and afterward the three sat listening in an enthralled fashion to a second instalment of the soldier’s adventures in India.
“If the tale about the monkey’s paw is not more truthful than those he has been telling us,” said Herbert, as the door closed behind their guest, just in time for him to catch the last train, “we sha’nt make much out of it.”
“Did you give him anything for it, father?” inquired Mrs. White, regarding her husband closely.
“A trifle,” said he, colouring slightly. “He didn’t want it, but I made him take it. And he pressed me again to throw it away.”
“Likely,” said Herbert, with pretended horror. “Why, we’re going to be rich, and famous and happy. Wish to be an emperor, father, to begin with; then you can’t be henpecked.”
He darted round the table, pursued by the maligned Mrs. White armed with an antimacassar.
Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said, slowly. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”
“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you?” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that ‘ll just do it.”
His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face, somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.
“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.
A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.
“It moved,” he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor.
“As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.”
“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”
“It must have been your fancy, father,” said his wife, regarding him anxiously.
He shook his head. “Never mind, though; there’s no harm done, but it gave me a shock all the same.”
They sat down by the fire again while the two men finished their pipes. Outside, the wind was higher than ever, and the old man started nervously at the sound of a door banging upstairs. A silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three, which lasted until the old couple rose to retire for the night.
“I expect you’ll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed,” said Herbert, as he bade them good-night, “and something horrible squatting up on top of the wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains.”
He sat alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire, and seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement. It got so vivid that, with a little uneasy laugh, he felt on the table for a glass containing a little water to throw over it. His hand grasped the monkey’s paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went up to bed.
In the brightness of the wintry sun next morning as it streamed over the breakfast table he laughed at his fears. There was an air of prosaic wholesomeness about the room which it had lacked on the previous night, and the dirty, shrivelled little paw was pitched on the sideboard with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues.
“I suppose all old soldiers are the same,” said Mrs. White. “The idea of our listening to such nonsense! How could wishes be granted in these days? And if they could, how could two hundred pounds hurt you, father?”
“Might drop on his head from the sky,” said the frivolous Herbert.
“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”
“Well, don’t break into the money before I come back,” said Herbert as he rose from the table. “I’m afraid it’ll turn you into a mean, avaricious man, and we shall have to disown you.”
His mother laughed, and following him to the door, watched him down the road; and returning to the breakfast table, was very happy at the expense of her husband’s credulity. All of which did not prevent her from scurrying to the door at the postman’s knock, nor prevent her from referring somewhat shortly to retired sergeant-majors of bibulous habits when she found that the post brought a tailor’s bill.
“Herbert will have some more of his funny remarks, I expect, when he comes home,” she said, as they sat at dinner.
“I dare say,” said Mr. White, pouring himself out some beer; “but for all that, the thing moved in my hand; that I’ll swear to.”
“You thought it did,” said the old lady soothingly.
“I say it did,” replied the other. “There was no thought about it; I had just—- What’s the matter?”
His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed, and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.
She brought the stranger, who seemed ill at ease, into the room. He gazed at her furtively, and listened in a preoccupied fashion as the old lady apologized for the appearance of the room, and her husband’s coat, a garment which he usually reserved for the garden. She then waited as patiently as her sex would permit, for him to broach his business, but he was at first strangely silent.
“I—was asked to call,” he said at last, and stooped and picked a piece of cotton from his trousers. “I come from ‘Maw and Meggins.'”
The old lady started. “Is anything the matter?” she asked, breathlessly. “Has anything happened to Herbert? What is it? What is it?”
Her husband interposed. “There, there, mother,” he said, hastily. “Sit down, and don’t jump to conclusions. You’ve not brought bad news, I’m sure, sir;” and he eyed the other wistfully.
“I’m sorry—” began the visitor.
“Is he hurt?” demanded the mother, wildly.
The visitor bowed in assent. “Badly hurt,” he said, quietly, “but he is not in any pain.”
“Oh, thank God!” said the old woman, clasping her hands. “Thank God for that! Thank—”
She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other’s averted face. She caught her breath, and turning to her slower-witted husband, laid her trembling old hand upon his. There was a long silence.
“He was caught in the machinery,” said the visitor at length in a low voice.
“Caught in the machinery,” repeated Mr. White, in a dazed fashion, “yes.”
He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting-days nearly forty years before.
“He was the only one left to us,” he said, turning gently to the visitor. “It is hard.”
The other coughed, and rising, walked slowly to the window. “The firm wished me to convey their sincere sympathy with you in your great loss,” he said, without looking round. “I beg that you will understand I am only their servant and merely obeying orders.”
There was no reply; the old woman’s face was white, her eyes staring, and her breath inaudible; on the husband’s face was a look such as his friend the sergeant might have carried into his first action.
“I was to say that ‘Maw and Meggins’ disclaim all responsibility,” continued the other. “They admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son’s services, they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation.”
Mr. White dropped his wife’s hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”
“Two hundred pounds,” was the answer.
Unconscious of his wife’s shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor.
In the huge new cemetery, some two miles distant, the old people buried their dead, and came back to a house steeped in shadow and silence. It was all over so quickly that at first they could hardly realize it, and remained in a state of expectation as though of something else to happen —something else which was to lighten this load, too heavy for old hearts to bear.
But the days passed, and expectation gave place to resignation—the hopeless resignation of the old, sometimes miscalled, apathy. Sometimes they hardly exchanged a word, for now they had nothing to talk about, and their days were long to weariness.
It was about a week after that the old man, waking suddenly in the night, stretched out his hand and found himself alone. The room was in darkness, and the sound of subdued weeping came from the window. He raised himself in bed and listened.
“Come back,” he said, tenderly. “You will be cold.”
“It is colder for my son,” said the old woman, and wept afresh.
The sound of her sobs died away on his ears. The bed was warm, and his eyes heavy with sleep. He dozed fitfully, and then slept until a sudden wild cry from his wife awoke him with a start.
“The paw!” she cried wildly. “The monkey’s paw!”
He started up in alarm. “Where? Where is it? What’s the matter?”
She came stumbling across the room toward him. “I want it,” she said, quietly. “You’ve not destroyed it?”
“It’s in the parlour, on the bracket,” he replied, marvelling. “Why?”
She cried and laughed together, and bending over, kissed his cheek.
“I only just thought of it,” she said, hysterically. “Why didn’t I think of it before? Why didn’t you think of it?”
“Think of what?” he questioned.
“The other two wishes,” she replied, rapidly. “We’ve only had one.”
“Was not that enough?” he demanded, fiercely.
“No,” she cried, triumphantly; “we’ll have one more. Go down and get it quickly, and wish our boy alive again.”
The man sat up in bed and flung the bedclothes from his quaking limbs. “Good God, you are mad!” he cried, aghast.
“Get it,” she panted; “get it quickly, and wish—Oh, my boy, my boy!”
Her husband struck a match and lit the candle. “Get back to bed,” he said, unsteadily. “You don’t know what you are saying.”
“We had the first wish granted,” said the old woman, feverishly; “why not the second?”
“A coincidence,” stammered the old man.
“Go and get it and wish,” cried his wife, quivering with excitement.
The old man turned and regarded her, and his voice shook. “He has been dead ten days, and besides he—I would not tell you else, but—I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?”
“Bring him back,” cried the old woman, and dragged him toward the door. “Do you think I fear the child I have nursed?”
He went down in the darkness, and felt his way to the parlour, and then to the mantelpiece. The talisman was in its place, and a horrible fear that the unspoken wish might bring his mutilated son before him ere he could escape from the room seized upon him, and he caught his breath as he found that he had lost the direction of the door. His brow cold with sweat, he felt his way round the table, and groped along the wall until he found himself in the small passage with the unwholesome thing in his hand.
Even his wife’s face seemed changed as he entered the room. It was white and expectant, and to his fears seemed to have an unnatural look upon it. He was afraid of her.
“Wish!” she cried, in a strong voice.
“It is foolish and wicked,” he faltered.
“Wish!” repeated his wife.
He raised his hand. “I wish my son alive again.”
The talisman fell to the floor, and he regarded it fearfully. Then he sank trembling into a chair as the old woman, with burning eyes, walked to the window and raised the blind.
He sat until he was chilled with the cold, glancing occasionally at the figure of the old woman peering through the window. The candle-end, which had burned below the rim of the china candlestick, was throwing pulsating shadows on the ceiling and walls, until, with a flicker larger than the rest, it expired. The old man, with an unspeakable sense of relief at the failure of the talisman, crept back to his bed, and a minute or two afterward the old woman came silently and apathetically beside him.
Neither spoke, but lay silently listening to the ticking of the clock. A stair creaked, and a squeaky mouse scurried noisily through the wall. The darkness was oppressive, and after lying for some time screwing up his courage, he took the box of matches, and striking one, went downstairs for a candle.
At the foot of the stairs the match went out, and he paused to strike another; and at the same moment a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.
The matches fell from his hand and spilled in the passage. He stood motionless, his breath suspended until the knock was repeated. Then he turned and fled swiftly back to his room, and closed the door behind him. A third knock sounded through the house.
“What’s that?” cried the old woman, starting up.
“A rat,” said the old man in shaking tones—”a rat. It passed me on the stairs.”
His wife sat up in bed listening. A loud knock resounded through the house.
“It’s Herbert!” she screamed. “It’s Herbert!”
She ran to the door, but her husband was before her, and catching her by the arm, held her tightly.
“What are you going to do?” he whispered hoarsely.
“It’s my boy; it’s Herbert!” she cried, struggling mechanically. “I forgot it was two miles away. What are you holding me for? Let go. I must open the door.”
“For God’s sake don’t let it in,” cried the old man, trembling.
“You’re afraid of your own son,” she cried, struggling. “Let me go. I’m coming, Herbert; I’m coming.”
There was another knock, and another. The old woman with a sudden wrench broke free and ran from the room. Her husband followed to the landing, and called after her appealingly as she hurried downstairs. He heard the chain rattle back and the bottom bolt drawn slowly and stiffly from the socket. Then the old woman’s voice, strained and panting.
“The bolt,” she cried, loudly. “Come down. I can’t reach it.”
But her husband was on his hands and knees groping wildly on the floor in search of the paw. If he could only find it before the thing outside got in. A perfect fusillade of knocks reverberated through the house, and he heard the scraping of a chair as his wife put it down in the passage against the door. He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back, and at the same moment he found the monkey’s paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish.
The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back, and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.
My flash work of crime/thriller/horror “Murder by Plastic” appears today in www.fictionontheweb.co.uk. “Murder by Plastic” has previously appeared in Every Day Fiction in 2013. It is a work of taut suspense involving murder, gangsters, intrigue, and betrayal. “Murder by Plastic” has been called “chilling and brilliantly economical” and “very well-paced and intriguing”.
Many thanks to Charlie Fish and his staff for reprinting this, one of my favorite stories.
I am looking for holiday-themed flash horror for the holiday season. If you have a work of horror or a horror-related article suitable for publication on a specific holiday (whether it be Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, President’s Day, Boxing Day, Australia Day, or any other officially recognized holiday) please feel free to submit it. Please be sure to adhere to my Submissions Guidelines.
Walking down the hall, Sarah shivered at the chill of winter as it brushed over her delicate skin like the bristles of a wet paintbrush. Looking ahead, she saw the darkness of the living room: a large table with six chairs set around it, with a hanging light.
She smirked; the home was supposedly haunted, at least that’s what the ad had told her. The real estate agent had been wary when she brought it up, only bringing it fully into light when Jessica revealed that it was a selling point. The papers had been signed, and by the beginning of the month she had her new loft overlooking the Riverwalk, which was brilliantly colored due to the holiday season, strung up lights flickering with the colors of the rainbow. Even now with her shades covering the window Sarah could see the flickering lights, their dim glow coming through the wooden slates to merrily dance in her darkened den.
Walking into the kitchen, she stepped on something thick and leathery, causing her to gasp. Flicking on the light, she looked down to see her wallet on the ground. Bending down to scoop it up, she checked it over to make sure nothing was missing and looked for her purse.
“This never leaves my purse unless I’m buying something…” Sarah muttered to herself, walking out of the kitchen and back into the den, only gasp in surprise.
Stacked up on the table, the high backed ends holding up the light fixture, the chairs had moved from their spots on the floor to the top of the large table. She saw her purse sitting in the center of the table.
“Hello?” She called out to her small loft, looking around wildly. She didn’t dare dream that this could be an actual haunting; such a thing would prove too good to be true! Looking around wildly, she tried her best to remain calm.
That is until she heard the giggles of a little girl.
Her heart beating a mile a minute, she moved forward into the hall leading to her bedroom. It was dark, and the light switch was on the other side of the hall… but in this dim lighting, she could just make out the shadowy form of someone small, with long unruly hair. Another giggle escaped from the entities direction, sending shivers down Sarah’s spine.
“Hello?” She said, hoping to keep the spirit calm. “Are you lost?”
The entity tilted its head to the side, a glint in the dim lighting reflecting from its dark eyes, which seemed to be analyzing Sarah, judging her. The entity slowly turned and walked into the total darkness of the bedroom, singing a wordless song softly.
First contact! Sarah thought frantically, standing still as the spirit moved deeper into the bedroom. It’s important to let them know you’re here to help them, not to do anything bad.
“Little girl? I’m coming in the bedroom… don’t be afraid, okay? I just want to talk,” Sarah called out, padding softly into her bedroom, shivering as a cold wind blew in from her balcony. The two doors that led to her view over the San Antonio River had been opened, the curtain billowing lazily. In the flickering glow from the holiday lights, Sarah could just make out the figure of the little girl standing in the shadows near the closet.
“Are you afraid?” The little girl asked her voice cold and detached, though still curious.
“No, of course not. I would never be afraid of you… what’s your name?” Sarah said, walking further into the room, taking each step slowly so as not to startle the ghost-child.
“Erin. I live here.” The child replied in a sing song manner, her eyes glinting happily in the darkness.
“Well I live here too. Maybe we can be friends?” Sarah said, walking around the bed until she was standing in front of the opened balcony, a few feet away from the girl.
The girl shook her head. “He said I can’t have friends. You need to leave before he gets to you.”
“Before who gets to me?” Sarah asked before being slammed from the side, her body flying out and landing on the balcony, her left side bruised from the sudden impact.
“Him.” The girls voice faded as a hunchbacked figure, arms dragging along the floor, came into sight. In his hands was a strand of Christmas lights, looped around like a lasso.
“No. I just want to be your friend!” Sarah cried.
“Friend…” The spirit groaned, waving a misshapen arm at Sarah, knocking her out onto the balcony. The cold air nipped at her flesh as the specter advanced, stooping in the doorway.
“Yes, friend. I want to help you, I want to understand you!” Sarah pleaded, doing her best to stand, leaning on the railing.
“Friend…” the ghost repeated, the lasso of Christmas lights lashing out and wrapping around Sarah’s hand before snaking up her wrist and forearm. “Friends play games.”
“Y-yes, friends play games! So let’s go inside and play a game!” Sarah said, growing more nervous by the second as her arm became numb wherever the strand of lights touched.
“Already playing a game,” the ghost replied, the strand of light slowly slithering from its hand to begin wrapping around Sarah’s neck.
She screamed, hoping someone would hear here from the streets below. The strand of lights, now flickering on, was wrapped tightly around her arm and neck.
Then they began to constrict.
Gasping for air, Sarah stumbled back as another wave of force slammed into her, pushing her over the edge of her balcony, leaving her dangling some ten feet above the sidewalk.
As she inhaled to scream, the cords constricted even tighter, choking her on her own fluids as she dangled lifelessly. Just as she felt the pressure of her lungs give way, Sarah gazed out over the Riverwalk at the people walking to and fro, some stopping to stare, screaming for an ambulance.
I am pleased to announce that I have accepted the first work of fiction submitted to Slattery’s Art of Horror Magazine. Although some might not consider it “horror” per se, because it is not supernatural in nature and does not contain horrific gore, it does meet the stipulations I have set out for this magazine, in that it contains a horrific element and it pushes a nebulous boundary between horror and another genre, which in this case is mainstream literature. I like the story and its understated element of suspense, its thoughtful wording, and its ability to draw the reader into it for a vicarious experience. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
by Steffany Willey
Asha was my spur-of-the-moment walking buddy. She lived five houses away, and if one of us suddenly needed a break from our mom lives we’d give the other a call. Winter and summer we’d plod the two-mile loop, often grumbling about what our kids did or didn’t do, sometimes bragging about the grandkids. We’d pick apart the neighbors’ landscaping, which often amounted to little more than plugging in a feeble row of Home Depot arborvitae, and made suggestions (to each other) like clipboard horticulturalists.
Our route passed a house I’d visited many times. It was a trim two-story colonial with a wing on one side that had once been a garage. The lawn was thick then, lush, the sidewalk edged, the shrubs mulched. Inside, the rooms lulled sweetly in this tidy castle.
Over the years it had changed hands a number of times but to progressively disinterested owners. Now it had deteriorated into such a mess it brought us to a halt. We scowled at a tree skeleton and overgrown shrubs that shrouded the windows. That same grass was choked with weeds that were well beyond a lawnmower and a gallon of Weed B Gon. Even the sidewalk fought to hold its own. It was a shame. It brought down the neighborhood.
It was during that scathing appraisal that we saw the girl. She was at a front window and seemed to be struggling to open it. She looked like a young teen. When she saw us she waved. We waved back. She kept on waving.
Suddenly a man emerged from the front door. He was fortyish and lean, a swimmer or runner possibly. In jeans and a pressed shirt and a stylish day-old beard, he couldn’t have been more at odds with this sorry house. Or that was our impression until he marched our way.
“Everything OK?” he demanded in a no-nonsense tone. His laser eyes pinned us down as if we’d been trespassing. The message was clear: Move on ladies. Were neighbors giving him heat about his property?
“Yeah,” I think I mumbled, and turned away to walk on. When I glanced back the girl was gone and a shade pulled. The man stood firm, watching.
It bothered me. Asha too. Had the girl been waving or beckoning, asking for help? We hemmed and hawed. Should we do something about this? Or was she just a kid sent to her room and trying to sneak out?
We made a point to check out the house the next day. This time I jotted down the address and name on the mailbox, but weeks passed before I contacted the community association and was told to share my concerns with the police; in turn, they took note, made a written report.
So it was. We did our bit, said what we saw.
Fall brought birthdays and holidays and deaths in the neighborhood. We squeezed in our walk when we could, offering up our critiques. A couple houses went on the market, polished it seemed overnight. Asha’s neighbor built a lopsided shed on a twenty-degree slope in his backyard that was supported on one edge by stilts; it and his new John Deere riding mower crashed to the bottom of their lot two months later. We might have told him so.
And sometimes I would drive by the house with the girl and see a light on, but usually it was dark, to itself.
The winter was harsh, the land hidden under a glaze of snow that leaked all day then morphed into black ice at night. Our walks were few, and we didn’t get back into the swing until March. By then neighbors were emerging like hibernated bears, poking into gardens and washing cars. One afternoon we slowed to admire a ’57 T-Bird, its owner in the driveway stroking it like a cat. I’d seen him before, similarly entranced, touching up flaws only he could see. His house, as it happened, was across the street from the house with the girl.
“Do you ever drive it?” I asked pleasantly as we came even with his driveway.
Snatched from his reverie, he offered, “Fourth of July parades. That’s about it.”
“I’ll have to look for you. I never miss the Catonsville parade.”
“‘I’ll be there.”
I glanced behind me. “I was wondering about that house. It looks abandoned.”
He wrung out a chamois that looked dry.
”Yeah. He … ah … isn’t there.”
“I guess you could say that.” He honed in on the passenger-side door, buffing an area under the handle. Asha and I traded looks.
“Were there children living there?”
“We saw a girl at a front window a while back. Something seemed … off … not right …”
He sighed and turned to us. “I figured they were relatives.” Then: “He was arrested a few days ago on child pornography charges. He’s … he was …. a teacher.” He didn’t meet our eyes.
“Oh no!” I said.
Asha touched my arm. “Sweet Lord,” she croaked.
We stood looking at each other, the three of us. There was more but he wasn’t saying. Guilt was written on his face as if in Magic Marker.
“I’ll look for the car at the parade,” I finally said, backing off and pulling Asha with me.
“I’m sorry,” he said as if he was to blame.
Later it made the news, and in a month a For Sale sign was stuck in the mud by the driveway. No one had bothered to tame the property, so someone was going to get a good fixer-upper deal. Families clamored for homes in this school district so it would sell easily.
Though we still walk, we never speak of the girl or remark on the house as we pass. In fact, it’s as if it isn’t even there
I was surfing the Internet just now, looking for websites where I can comment, and came across The Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section filtered down to their comments on horror movies (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/commentisfree+film/horror). They seem to produce an article on horror films about every 5-10 months, but the articles are interesting and are worth checking out for a different perspective than what one usually encounters (at least in the articles I read). The two articles I read today from The Guardian are “Why Zombies are the Coldest Comfort” by Catherine Shoard and “Why the Human Centipede II bugs me” by Sarah Ditum. Unfortunately, the replies for both were closed, so I will state my opinions here.
As a novice writer of horror and as someone who has read a considerable amount of what might be termed “classic horror tales” back to its beginnings as a genre, Shoard’s article puzzles me. She seems to take the viewpoint that what makes a horror movie enjoyable is that we can feel safe while watching it. She states near the beginning of her article:
Zombies are a threat it’s easy to rationalise. They are unlikely. For this reason, plus issues with speed and intelligence, they are not especially scary. They are essentially a pest control problem with metaphor potential. Even squirrels run quicker… So their presence as a backdrop in a soap such as The Walking Dead provides just the right boost in tension for viewers to convince themselves they’re a long way from Emmerdale (or whatever the Mexican equivalent might be). The Walking Dead is a show that – like Pret a Manger – innovates exactly the right amount within a set formula.
Later, she adds:
More even than with comedy, the director encourages the audience into a specific response; if they don’t elicit it, they have failed. So those who are best at scaring us also make us feel we’re in a safe pair of hands.
And then there’s her conclusion:
Life is frightening. Horror works because it gives us something quantifiable to battle: you know where you are with a zombie.
It seems that Ms. Shoard is saying that the reason we can enjoy zombie movies is because we can feel safe in watching them, because zombies obviously don’t exist and are therefore not a threat and because we are so far removed from them. The second statement is perplexing as well when she states “that those who are best at scaring us also make us feel we’re in a safe pair of hands.”
Ms. Shoard doesn’t seem to understand that one of the basic principles of horror according to H.P. Lovecraft, a universally recognized master of horror of the last 200 years is “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” This is a consistent theme in the horror genre since the days Horace Walpole and the beginnings of the gothic novel. What makes for great horror is a blending of suspense and fear. A writer of horror, be it short story or novel or a movie, does not want his audience to feel safe. He wants them to feel that if they put down the book and walk out of the building, they may be snatched up by Cthulhu or encounter their former neighbors rising from their graves with a ravenous hunger for the living. It’s been a long time since I have read an article this inane. I hope it is a long time before I read another.
I will agree with her on one point: more than with comedy, the director does encourage the audience into a specific response and if they don’t elicit it, they have failed. However, Ms. Shoard doesn’t seem to know what that response is or how to go about achieving it.
I could go on deconstructing this article ad nauseum and reducing it ad absurdam, but I have better things to do with my morning than to antagonize Ms. Shoard. I have nothing against her personally; I just find her opinion in this instance to be off-base and out of touch with the basics of the horror genre.
The second article I read was Sarah Ditum’s “Why the Human Centipede II bugs me”. The teaser to this article sums up the paradox Ms. Ditums explores nicely:
The horror-porn sequel dampens my anti-censorship urges, but banning such films risks losing more intelligent offerings.
I could go into an extensive examination of this article line by line, but, as much as I would love to do that, as I said earlier I have other things I have to accomplish today. However, I encourage everyone with an interest in or an opinion on the extremes of gore and bad taste in horror films today to read this article. It is quite well-written and it does a good job of getting to the essence of the problem: yes, there are films out there today that are so vile and repulsive that we would be better off to ban them for the good of society, but by limiting what is available to the public, we run the risk of losing more intelligent fare that has to deal with these issues.
Personally, I have never seen any of the human centipede films, because the concept is so obscene that I cannot bring myself to watch them and I cannot see any reward or point in forcing myself to do so. As anyone who reads my blog with any regularity knows, I am not a fan of gore for its own sake and I am not a fan of anything tasteless. A lot of people would probably see a vague hypocrisy in this, but those people are ones who perceive horror only as sensationalist, teenage slasher films and do not have a profound knowledge of its history and of its breadth or of the underlying, eternal principles of great horror as in the quotation above from Lovecraft. But that is my taste in what I feed to my mind via my eyes. I will not apologize for it, because I have nothing for which to apologize.
Contemplating what I said in the previous paragraph brings me to another interesting perspective. Perhaps examining the wide range of opinions and viewpoints on this controversial topic reveals something about human psychology. I am not sure of what that would be, but I am sure it would make for an interesting thesis for someone’s Master’s degree. A line and motif from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, “Millennium” (starring Lance Henriksen, ran from about 1998-2000) is “This is who we are.” Somehow, thinking about the ongoing discussion on this controversial topic, I get a subjective feeling that, for better or worse, this is who we are.
The bottom line for this portion of today’s blog is that I find myself of the same viewpoint as Ms. Ditum and I encourage everyone to read her article, whatever your viewpoint on gore in modern cinema (whether of the horror genre or not). It may just broaden your perspective.
Just now, I finished pasting Stephen King’s famous quotation on the three types of terror into my page on “Thoughts on Horror from the Masters” and I remembered that yesterday I was trying to remember the quotation, but could only recall a vague impression of it. Thinking on that impression now, I think that it was just as valid and true a one as the one by Mr. King, but simpler, more compact, and easier to remember. The concept is (I’ll refine this a little for the sake of clarity):
The three most common types of horror are: suspense (knowing someone runs the risk of decapitation at any moment), terror (seeing him/her being decapitated), and disgust (watching the head roll down the stairs).
I don’t think this idea should replace Mr. King’s by any means, but should probably be viewed as a simplification of his rather lengthy statement.
There are also probably a hundred more different flavors (i.e. variations of the sensation) of horror but these are the three that seem to me to be the most common, at least in movies and other popular media.
I was sitting on my sofa just now, contemplating various matters, one of which reminded me of Lovecraft’s “Shadow over Innsmouth”. I started thinking about how Lovecraft describe it and all his locations eerily. It occurred to me that he lived almost his entire life in Providence and seldom went out of its vicinity. In fact, most of the settings for his stories occur relatively near to Rhode Island. Apparently, he did not travel or often from his home. I started thinking that if he traveled little and only to nearby areas and if he saw the few places he went as spooky or eerie (which would explain why he could describe places so eerily), then maybe he was uncomfortable or had a fear of going outside his physical comfort zone. From what little I know of his day-to-day life, I have the impression that he probably did not leave his home very often and probably spent his time in his room writing or editing stories and writing tons of correspondence to his friends and colleagues.
This makes me wonder if Lovecraft had at least a touch of agoraphobia, a fear of public places.
He seems to have been fascinated with architecture and is very descriptive of it, but I have to wonder if that isn’t because if he was fascinated with it because it frightened him. If something frightens me, I watch it very closely and find out what I can about it in order to alleviate my fears.
I have never read anything about Lovecraft having agoraphobia and I am no psychologist. If anyone knows of an article on this subject, please let me know. I would also love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic.
I picked up a copy of the latest issue of “Cemetery Dance” this evening and read the Stephen King short story “Summer Thunder”. This is a very interesting piece. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the story is about a man, his dog, and his neighbor, who have survived a nuclear holocaust and are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning.
This story was quite different from the other Stephen King stories I have read (which have been quite a few, though not all by any means). There is no supernatural factor in the story. There are also no twists or surprises. The story maintains the same pace throughout, just as the protagonists face the same things day in and day out until they die.
I would classify this story as horror-tragedy, because, even though it has very little of the blood and gore normally associated with the horror genre, it definitely has a horror “feel” to it, but that horror is subtle and understated. “Summer Thunder” sets up a tragic scenario and the horror finds its basis in watching these people suffer through no fault of their own. They were not involved in starting the war in any way; that was done by world leaders thousands of miles away. These are the common citizens, the “Everymen” that normally populate King’s works as protagonists, and who must pay the horrific price for their government’s actions. That is the tragedy and that is a large part of the horror.
What is also horrifying about the story is not the action described in it, but the scenario it describes, because this scenario is definitely one that could literally happen to each of us, should our government and/or other governments decide for whatever reason, to push the proverbial button. Each of us can (or perhaps should) see ourselves as the main character, who will be forced to watch his or her world disintegrate after a nuclear apocalypse.
That concept alone should be enough to bring the true horror of this story: that this scenario is, and has been for a long time, a real possibility for each of us.
I just finished watching an episode of the X-Files entitled “Chinga” [note to Spanish-speakers out there: I don’t know who chose the title, so please forgive my language] from Season Five and I noticed that it was written by Stephen King and Chris Carter (the creator of the X-Files). The story’s antagonist is a talking doll that can force people to injure or kill themselves in gruesome ways. Like many, if not most, of King’s stories, there is no explanation of how the came to exist. All the viewer finds out about it is that a lobsterman pulled it up one night in a lobster trap and his daughter comes to possess it after he meets his own gruesome fate.
I find in my own writing that I like to provide an explanation or background as to how things originate. This is just my nature. I like to know the origins of things. However, I have come to believe of late that, in terms of horror, that is a very nineteenth century concept.
Lovecraft said in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:
“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and protentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only daily safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
For me, what Lovecraft is saying is that if the laws of nature are negated, then anything is possible and monsters like Cthulhu really could exist and are capable of doing us harm at any moment. Combine this with his statement that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” and it becomes apparent that stories like “Chinga” derive much of their horror effect from the fact that the origin of the threat to a story’s protagonist(s) is unknown or that there is no explanation for the threat.
This would mean that one of things that provides to “Chinga” the element of horror that it has, is the fact that origin of the doll is unknown. Therefore, any of us when we are fishing or scuba diving or swimming in any body of water, could discover a doll that would turn his/her life into a nightmare. That is a scary thought.
Of course, this means that Stephen King would be one of the greatest practitioners of this technique, which I believe he is.
I think I shall try to experiment with this in the near future.