You dart into the twilight, your wife’s voice, her pleas, trailing behind you. The screen door slaps shut, an abrupt end to a suffocating conversation. Through the mesh of the door, you hear the words, “Stay. Let’s talk it out.”
But you don’t stay. You don’t talk it out. Instead, you run. Like always.
You hit the street, shifting into a jog. The asphalt, slick with fresh rainfall, shimmers like onyx under the streetlights. On any other night, you’d be captured by this iridescence. But tonight, your eyes don’t linger on your footsteps. No. They’re set ahead.
On escape from the trappings of modernity: the passive-aggressive nature of your relationship, the mundanity of your chair-bound 9-to-5. Running frees you. It reduces you to a single purpose: forward. And while in motion, you can focus on just that. Everything else falls away. Momentarily, at least.
Head level, spine straight, you pump your arms close to your chest, allowing your hands to wobble limp at the wrists. Your forefeet slap the pavement, the soft steps swishing like a distant cicada song.
Your wife’s voice chases you through the cookie-cutter lanes of your suburban neighborhood, reverberating between the single-story bungalows, each one unimaginative and uniform in its architecture.
Drizzles start. They pitter-patter, pitter-patter, drowning out the noise and coalescing with the sweat beads forming on your skin, blurring the boundary between yourself and the universe.
You near the end of the cul-de-sac.
Ahead, thunderheads brood above the winter-stripped forest. You bound over the curb and head for the overgrown trailhead near the tree line. The bare branches of the forest reach out as if reclaiming the manicured lawn reminding you that civilization is a collective dream—the wild waits on society’s peripheries, ready to reclaim its dominion.
A sharp crack, paired with a bulbous white flash, emanates from on high. A streak of translucent lightning slithers from the clouds. It doesn’t make sense, this psychedelic shimmer, but the atmospheric trick doesn’t stop you.
You push forward towards the trail. The grass shifts to dirt. Scattered pebbles jab the bottoms of your feet. But you don’t wince. You grit your teeth and smile.
The forest wraps you in its embrace.
Illuminated by the glow of your headlamp, the trail snakes through the brush, the long grass high as your head. Branches scrape your elbows, shins, and knees. There’s pain, but the repetition of your movements dulls the sensation. A biochemical urge, part of an ancient natural reward system, drives you forward. You imagine yourself as a predator chasing prey.
This is how we used to live, you tell yourself. Our ancestors descended from the trees so our legs could carry us. Then we exchanged our freedom for creature comforts. For huts, houses, and offices.
The trail zigs and zags, skirting past overlooks that abut a polluted river.
You hop over logs and roots, causing dead leaves to whirl in your wake. Every so often, you catch ember eyes in the reflective glow of your headlamp, but you never catch sight of the forest creature the eyes belong to.
You forge ahead, your body a blade carving through the universe. Your mind is absent of any thought besides the task.
In your ecstasy, you forget that the creature comforts—the huts, the houses, the offices—were erected as forms of protection, as boundaries between ourselves and the wild. You forget that out in nature, humans aren’t just predators. They’re also prey.
The trail ends at a beach sheltered by a weeping willow. Your steps form depressions in the sand as your calves tighten in response to the uneven terrain.
Whispers burble from the river ahead, lulling you like a sweet enchantment. “Just a little further.”
You stop at the banks of the river, lacing your fingers behind your head and stretching backward. But it’s no use. Cramps skewer you between the ribs. Your lungs sear with each breath. Nail aches plague your feet, shins, and knees, their sharp pinpricks striking irregularly as if scraping bone.
You slip your shoes off and dig your toes into the sand, pushing against the pain. You step into the river, the water a cold salve that laps at your feet. In the cold calm, you collect your thoughts.
By the time you get home, they’ll be asleep, you think. The argument will be forgotten. Tomorrow will be another day.
This is why you run: for the clarity you gain through exertion.
You turn to leave but are stopped by a cerebral shudder, an alarm in your reptilian brain that indicates you’re being watched. You feel it, the devouring gaze of unseen eyes.
Your headlight illuminates a thick layer of fog above the water’s surface. You can’t see the other side of the river, but you hear something splash beyond the swirling veil.
Suddenly, a guttural screech fills the soundscape, the sonic assault drilling into your skull and causing you to double over. You wobble in the water as a cataclysmic rift splits your consciousness, opening you to a different plane of reality, one blooming with malevolence.
A predator lies in wait. It seeps into this.
You dry heave into the water, choking on the scent of sulfur. Through hot, teary eyes, you see something break the water’s surface. Whatever it is, its black-scaled body moves as if unencumbered by vertebrae.
The sound drones on, paralyzing you in place. You recognize something familiar in the discordant thrum. The call of the predator.
As your mind falls down the well of primordial memory, you grow blind to the present plane. Starbursts assault your eyes. White noise bathes your senses.
Amidst the humdrum, you don’t notice the crocodilian-like snout inching closer, nor the stalk, snail-like eyes peeking above the water’s surface. No, you don’t notice them at all.
All you notice is a sudden cacophonous silence and then the sound of the ambush.
G.D. Watry is a writer from California. His fiction and poetry have been published in Like The Wind Magazine, Pantheon Magazine, OCCULUM, and Hinnom Magazine, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.
A steady stream of cold air pummels my upper molars as I recline in the dentist’s chair, my arms tightly wrapped around my middle to hold myself still. The air and the scraping send pulses of ice and fire through the nerves in my teeth, and every muscle in my body stiffens; my shoulders and neck feel like rocks.
“All done!” The dentist says. “But I did find a cavity that we need to fill.”
I stand up, steady myself, and walk over to the receptionist’s desk to make my appointment.
“How about Monday, April 24th to have that filled?” the receptionist asks.
The date sounds familiar, but I’m not sure why. I check my appointments on my phone, and it looks like that day is open, so I take it.
“Great! Just remember that we send lots of texts and reminders. Some people find it annoying. You can opt-out if you want.”
“Thanks,” I say, relieved to be leaving for now but dreading next week.
The volume on my phone is turned up because I’m expecting a package any day, and I have to hear the doorbell alert system chime. With the volume turned up, though, my appointment reminders make me jump from my seat every time they come in. At least five times a day, I see “Appointment Reminder: April 24th.” These alerts are synchronized with my email, so the messages make additional pinging sounds, which won’t go away.
I’ve counted how many reminders I’ve gotten in one day, over the past two days: ten. That’s too many, but I don’t opt-out. I like getting the automated birthday texts from the dentist, but every time I see the Monday, April 24th date, I shiver. Not because I have to get a cavity filled. There’s something else I should remember, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Over the next two days, I get twenty more alerts, but when I look carefully at the messages, I notice something I didn’t see before. The reminders say, “Monday, April 24th, 2:30 a.m. @ Hyram Lake.”
I couldn’t possibly be getting a cavity filled at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday, and Hyram Lake is not the dentist’s address. When I finally try to opt-out, there isn’t a link.
During the weekend, the reminders come in at all hours of the day and night. I spend hours deleting them with a sinking feeling in my heart—like I’m supposed to remember something else, something soul-aching and important.
I set my alarm for 1:45 a.m. Sunday night.
The lake is smooth this time of day, a flat extension of land, almost like a solid patch of desert, shrouded by fog. The water in the air pulls at the loose strands of my unkempt locks. At 2:30 a.m., the appointment reminder goes off: Hyram Lake, Monday, April 24.
I look out over the water, hoping to remember, but dreading how deeply I’ll feel the mist that rises.
A shape, somewhat familiar, materializes, walking towards me in the fog, and my breath catches in my chest. I recognize it—the shape of my brother. Flashes from that fateful day hang in the air: he told me he would dive to the bottom of the lake; he said he’d return in precisely one year; when Mom and Dad asked, I said he’d drowned; they’d said they weren’t surprised since he was hell-bent on self-destruction and they were tired.
He stops walking, and we look at each other once more, holding each other’s gaze; a wide cavity grows. His form shifts, and wings like those of the ancient eagle shark spread, filling the void. Turning, he disappears into the fog.
Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here:
I open my eyes, and I’m no longer in the alleyway but in a drafty, dark place. After the haziness leaves my mind like a lifting fog, I blink, and the place—an attic—becomes clear. Cobwebs blanket the downward sloping rafters, and a pale light comes in through a small window behind me, illuminating the dust-covered floorboards.
“Take off your clothes,” a man demands, drunkenly, words slurred and slow. He comes out from behind the brick support beam in the center of the room.
I push myself up to a sitting position—a sharp pain shoots from my head down to my toes. I wince and touch the back of my skull to find my hair soaked in what I guess to be blood.
“No,” I mumble.
Dusty boxes are along the walls, knick-knacks and other garbage are strewn about on the ground, and a set of stairs, leading down to a closed door is beyond the brick pillar.
I slowly stand. The room spins, and I grab a rafter until the vertigo passes.
“Do it,” he says, nearing. Floppy ginger hair covers his forehead, a patchy orangish-red beard splotches his pasty face; he wears an oversized flannel shirt and torn jeans and mud-caked boots. He holds a lead pipe. My black blood is dry on the end of it.
“No,” I repeat.
He raises the pipe, inspects it as if it were something he just found and looks at me. “You want this pipe again? You want to bleed some more? And, not just from your head, if you catch my drift.”
Too much is happening at once. I shake my head, clearing away the fog. “You don’t want me to do that… You don’t want to see me naked.”
“Don’t tell me what I do or don’t want. I’m letting you undress yourself as a courtesy. I could’ve stripped you when you were passed out,” he says.
“Fine.” There’s no other option.
I pull the long-sleeved sweater over my head, letting it fall to the ground. His eyes grow wide, and his lips part when the deep scars lining my body like fissures are revealed. They begin near my waist and slither up my stomach, weave around my breasts, curl over my shoulders, and stream down my arms and back. They splinter off like pleading branches, forming ancient, unknowable patterns.
“Wha—” he starts, swallows, starts again. “What happened? Those scars…”
“My father,” I say flatly, an image of my birth flashes across my mind.
“I'm so sorry, so… very sorry.” He said, tears streaming from bleary eyes, saliva dripping from an open mouth. “I shouldn't have, I shouldn't have trusted them, the Ancient Ones, shouldn't have… shouldn't have made the— the deal… ”
He knelt before me; a meat tenderizer held above his head.
He looked down at me—
“I mean, my real father,” I correct myself, unsure why. Another image burns into my mind.
The tenderizer came down fast, but as it neared my head, his wrist jerked, hitting the floor. His eyes widened, releasing it as if it were red hot.
Stumbling back, he fell onto his ass.
The ground shook.
A pressure-filled the air, tingling with palpable malevolence.
A deep gurgling resonated from everywhere, nowhere; inside and out. Spoke words he couldn’t understand, but I did.
The pact granted life, not the destruction of life. No harm could come to me, an Ancient One’s offspring.
Suddenly, fiery pain shot through my veins, ignited bone and muscle, boiled flesh… Simmered, cooled, leaving scars…
He protected me then, but not since I've grown into myself.
“What?” he says, confused, becoming angry. “Fine, whatever…” He shakes his head. “I don’t care… Just, just take off your pants.”
“Just do it!” He slams the pipe against the rafter again.
I refuse again, wrapping my arms around my chest.
“I’ve had enough of your sass, girl, just do what I say!”
“Then I’ll make you,” he says and grabs my arm, wrenching it from my body—stops when the room trembles, and the pale light coming through the window vanishes.
“What happened to the light?” he stutters.
“I said, no.”
Like smoldering embers, an undulating glow emits from beneath flesh, ascending the depths of the scars. In the faint, red-orange light, his jaw slackens. He stumbles back, dropping the pipe, clanging on the ground.
It becomes brighter, strengthening, radiating heat and tangible energy. Stifling warmth swells within the room. He perspires through his flannel, his hair drips with sweat.
“Stop,” he says, backing into the brick pillar.
Flesh peels back, hissing with steam, revealing what the scars truly hold…
The world beyond, the shapes, sigils, the sounds of a place that’s only a needle prick away.
There’s no blood, no innards; there is nothing inside for a person to enjoy, to ravage—tar-filled valleys, steaming skies of pestilence; wavering monstrous aberrations, rising from umber soil, intertwined at the core of what shouldn’t be.
“No, please, stop!” He collapses onto his knees, covering his face with his hands.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” I ask.
Black tendrils eject out from within, wrap around him. He turns, trying to grip the pillar, his nails scrape and claw but quickly rip from skin. He receives what he demanded.
He's inside me.
The steaming flesh crawls its way back over the gaping hole, like a million insects over bark.
I wait as seams cauterize with scarred symbols, seal, cool…
Then, it’s done, and I’m as whole as I’ll ever be once more.
I grab my sweatshirt, dust it off, and slip it back on. I walk to the door, find it unlocked, and leave the attic, the empty house, returning to the city, to the alleys.
About the Author: Micah Castle is a weird fiction and horror writer. His stories have appeared in various magazines, websites, and anthologies, and has three collections currently out.
While away from the keyboard, he enjoys spending time with his wife, spending hours hiking through the woods, playing with his animals, and can typically be found reading a book somewhere in his Pennsylvania home.
Follow Micah Castle below:
Grandpa’s house had too many rules. Kevin’s parents would diligently remind him of those rules every time they visited.
“Don’t look at the neighbors for too long. Don’t wave to them. Don’t play outside after dark. Keep the windows and doors closed at all times. All the windows and doors. Keep all the lights on at all times.”
The list continued, but Kevin got tired of hearing it. Why did they insist on leaving him here at all? He hated it. Who cared about “maintaining the perimeter,” anyway? Whatever that meant.
Besides, what was the point of being on a farm in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t explore?
They pulled off the highway onto the even quieter backroads and drove another hour to the farm. The sun was setting as they approached the farmhouse.
“Looks like we’re staying the night,” Mom said. Dad nodded in brief assent.
Kevin saw a few tall, dark figures walking among the stalks of corn not far from the road. The neighbors.
Kevin never saw their faces.
“Close your eyes, Kevin,” Mom cautioned. “We’re almost there.”
Kevin sighed and did as he was told. They bumped down the rest of the road and came to a gradual stop. The doors opened and closed; Kevin felt Mom grab him out of his seat and huff as she carried him into the house.
She chuckled and said, “Sweetie, you’re almost too big for me to carry anymore. You can open your eyes now, baby boy.”
Kevin opened his eyes to take in the vista of musty old orange furniture and brown shag carpet. There were so many paintings on the walls that it was almost difficult to see the faded wallpaper beneath. The paintings in Grandpa’s house had always creeped Kevin out. Kevin thought it had something to do with all the red and black streaks that dominated the frames. Supposedly Grandma had painted them. She must have been a scary lady, but Kevin wouldn’t know because he couldn’t remember her.
“I’m not a baby, mom.” Kevin sniffed and rubbed his nose.
“You’ll always be my baby, honey.” Mom grabbed Kevin up in a big bear hug.
Mom was always calling him some pet name. Kevin wriggled himself free of her hug and looked up as Grandpa shuffled into the room. Kevin was always reminded of the cowboys in old movies when he saw his Grandpa.
“Y’all’re cuttin’ it close,” Grandpa grunted as he closed the door behind Kevin’s parents.
A heavy lock clicked and Grandpa placed a metal bar across the door. The grown-ups talked about how they were getting closer, even during the day, and some other things that Kevin didn’t understand or care about. Grandpa’s voice sounded different than Kevin remembered, and he smelled like he hadn’t showered in a while. But, his parents didn’t seem to notice, so Kevin decided it didn’t matter.
“Grandpa, can I go read in my old room now?” Kevin asked as he tugged on his grandpa’s belt.
“Sure, kiddo. Head’n up there,” Grandpa said, then he squatted so his face and Kevin’s were level and winked.
Strange. He’d never done that before.
Kevin couldn’t be sure, but it looked like something was swimming around in Grandpa’s eye. Grandpa turned back and ushered Mom and Dad into another room. Kevin ignored the discomfort he felt at the wink and strange behavior and hurried up the stairs to “his” room. The room was actually the attic of Grandpa’s house. As he opened the door from the stairs into the attic room, he noticed a draft of air and that the lights were off. That also had never happened before. There was a light on in the closet, and as Kevin turned to call to his parents, he noticed the window was broken open, with the boards on the floor.
BANG! Something hit the closet door from the inside at the sound of his voice. The beating on the door continued, and Kevin heard his Grandpa shout from inside the closet, “GET OUT NOW KEVIN! RUN!”
Tall shadows moved in the darkness of the room towards where Kevin stood at the head of the stairs.
Kevin tumbled down the stairs in his hurry to obey his Grandpa’s command. He looked at the opening to the attic as the light in the hall began to flicker.
If that was Grandpa in the closet, then who was down here with Mom and Dad? Kevin thought. A hand that couldn’t be human gripped the edge of the doorway, the light continued to dim. Blackness spread from the hand on the doorway to cover the walls in a web of writhing veins. The black tendrils choked the light even further as they seemed to drain the warmth from the space. Kevin screamed again for his Mom and backed away from the hallway. He could still hear banging from the closet upstairs.
Kevin could not tear his gaze away from the inky figure struggling through the door above him and backed up until he felt his Mom’s shoes. He turned and looked up at his Mom, but he couldn’t see her face. The lights flickered out, and all Kevin saw was a pair of eyes as black as the void.
The world turned cold as Kevin screamed.
About the author: Jesse White is a Georgia-based author who dreams of the American Southwest. An avid reader of steamy romances, mindless poetry, horror fiction, and bad puns, Jesse also loves writing the same. Jesse is a Gemini sun/Libra rising.
We are very excited to announce we have signed author, M. Regan! She wrote a novella that pulled us in with the very first words and never let us go. 21 Grams, will come out in July of 2021.
21 Grams: In the bowels of an unassuming, ever-moving funerary parlor, a mortician known as the Operator hides a fearsome machine called the Godwin, rumored to have the ability to resurrect the dead. It runs, like a soul does, on logos: on words. And in exchange for those words—for a client’s life story—the corpse of their choosing might yet walk again. Careful, though. Words bear weight, so one must choose them wisely. Author M. Regan delivers a harrowing and beautiful glimpse into a world filled with desire, darkness, love, and loss.
M. Regan: M. Regan has been writing for over a decade, with credits ranging from localization work to short stories to podcast scripts. Fascinated by the fears personified by monsters, they enjoy dark fiction, studying supernatural creatures, and traveling to places rich with folklore. Find them on Twitter and Facebook at MReganFiction.
Stunning vistas, remote wilderness, death-defying shootouts—all are elements of the western novel. Western novels entertained readers worldwide, hitting their peak in the mid-20th century; however, the genre itself has suffered a steady decline since.
Despite the decline, the western didn’t die. Publishers continued to offer western books, and Hollywood producers continued to make western films. Yet, despite the decline in popularity, the western genre survived in crossover fiction. Common themes lent themselves across multiple genres, including science-fiction (think Firefly) and horror (what I’m here to talk about).
There are some fantastic authors out there that can mash genres with mastery. Some tend to be difficult (I’ve never seen a meat-punk, cozy mystery). Some are easier. This bring us to westerns and horror—they go together like rum and coke.
In my opinion, the easiest piece of the puzzle is the setting. Westerns are often set in small towns or the wilderness/frontier. This is important because these places are isolated. Isolation is a common theme found in a lot of different horror novels. Look at The Shining by Stephen King. A small family left to tend a hotel in the Colorado mountains, denied easy access to town due to the snow. Or, following the cold theme, we could look at Ronald Malfi’s Snow, John Carpenter’s The Thing. All of these stories take place in settings that are isolated from society. Why is this important?
Isolation adds tension. Isolation invigorates the conflict. It ups the ante with the fact that the characters have to rely on themselves and what they have at their disposal. The protagonist can’t call the cops or emergency services to help them. Food, water, and other supplies could be an issue. The setting can add a man vs. nature element that can provoke strong emotions with your readers.
Westerns embody this setting with gusto. It was the forte of the genre. What would True Grit be without the vast Indian Territory? Even when the western is set in a town, the town itself is isolated from the world. Therefore, they make perfect places for horror stories because the characters can’t rely on outside help to arrive soon. Communication was very limited during the period, and getting news in or out was a process.
Let’s take this a step further—the genre of post-apocalyptic horror and westerns are basically cousins. The frontier town and the post-apocalyptic community share the same feel. For example, they both have a lot of dirt. Westerns are dirty and gritty. Think of any western film you’ve watched. Now imagine any post-apocalyptic film. The characters are always just as dirty. Remember, cleanliness is a luxury in both settings.
They also share the isolation I mentioned earlier. With the expansion of the West, most people were situated in the East as the explorers, pioneers, and frontiersmen blazed the way. With the post-apocalyptic piece, most of the population will have disappeared, or at very least, found pockets to live in. This leaves your character a chance to get out and explore the wilderness with little chance of running into anyone. This leads to my next point—suspense.
Every meeting with other people in either setting is dangerous. You don’t know if the people out there are other explorers, simple travelers, bandits, murderers, or cannibals ready to eat you and wear your face as a mask. Keep that in the back of your mind as you spin your tale.
Post-apocalyptic horror aside, westerns work great as horror because of their familiarity. Cowboys and the Old West have carved out a home in almost everyone’s imagination. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; show someone a picture of a man on a horse with a ten-gallon hat and gun, and there’s a good chance that they can associate that image with cowboys. It’s in that familiarity that you can use to put the reader at ease. We like to find things familiar when we read, even when it’s a fantastic science fiction adventure. Authors use themes, images, symbols to find familiar ground with the reader. Once you’ve set that familiarity with the reader, you can start ripping it away with the horror.
Westerns and horror are making a big comeback these days. Take a look at Death’s Head Press and their Splatter Punk line or movies like Bone Tomahawk. Combining the two genres makes perfect sense, and when done well, can create a rousing, creepy tale.
Horror works because it shakes our foundation of reality, but we can’t shake that foundation until we’ve built it. Let the Old West be that foundation, and have fun with it. Now go write and submit us some horror westerns!