A Talk with T.J. Tranchell
Hey there, TJ. Thank you for taking the time to talk about your latest book, The Lamentations of Blackhawk. Before we get into that, though, I want to ask some questions so readers can get to know you better.
How many books have you written so far? I have five published books so far (three novellas and two collections). There is another novel and a book of essays that are basically finished, but just sitting around. They may never see the light of day. There are a handful of anthologies I'm in and in 2022, I had an essay in FANGORIA, which was a bucketlist accomplishment for me.
A lot of them take place in Utah. Why is that?
I grew up in Utah and for a long time I avoided writing about it or setting anything there. Then, while living in Las Vegas, I had a story in my head I couldn't escape and it would have been an injustice to the story to set it anywhere else. After that, I embraced Utah as a setting for my stories. Utah people are the people I know best and those places inhabit a sort of twilight zone for readers. They are either just as familiar or so foreign to readers that I can get away with a lot that I might not be able to do honestly with a different setting.
Utah is a place people think they know but is wide open for the horror field. I love the burgeoning Utah horror scene. The state has been dominated by fantasy fiction (religiously influenced and not) for far too long. It's time for the things that go bump in the night to take over.
What got you into the horror genre?
This is one of my favorite questions. I was born on Halloween. I loved trick-or-treating as a kid, but for a long time, I would get scared and bail. One year, I was taking birthday party invitations to friends and that included one friend who I hadn't seen in a while because we moved to another part of town. He was having his birthday party and that included a trip to a haunted house. There was supposed to be a kid-friendly side. I came out of there white as a ghost and will never forget it. I was heading into my sixth birthday. Fast forward. I had a friend when I was 11 whose parents let him--and me--watch whatever we wanted. So one day we watched MISERY. I fell in love. I went to the library and the librarians didn't blink that I was checking out MISERY the novel. I'd read Poe and Sherlock Holmes before, but King was new territory. I've never let go of my love of horror since then.
What sparked your interest in writing? Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be a writer, or did it kind of occur over time?
When I was in sixth grade, the Scholastic Book order forms did a contest to finish an R.L. Stine story. (King had done the same thing in the 1970s in a men's magazine.) I wrote mine and entered the contest. I did not win. What I did get, though, was a recommendation by the English teacher to a young writers conference at Utah State University. There was a keynote speaker who was probably important, but I don't remember who it was. All of the young writers were put in groups and we read our stuff for some judges. It might have been an actual competition but if it was, I didn't win that, either. I read my story and really put everything I had into the reading. I had this combined moment of writing an effective story and performing it. I did a lot of theater, but writing was always the place I came back to. As a writer, I am every character, I'm the director and set designer, and the music supervisor. As an actor or even a director, one gets limited in the roles. As a writer, one gets to do everything.
Tell us about The Lamentations of Blackhawk. What is it about?
The Lamentations of Blackhawk is about a small Utah town that has more secrets than it is willing to give up. The story brings together characters from other books to fight demons and ghosts and other people. It's about dealing with the past at a moment when the present is trying to kill you. That's super vague, but it's just not as easy to pinpoint exactly what it is about in easy terms.
I've read your other books, Cry Down Dark and Tell No Man. Without spoiling anything, there is a lot of crossover in Blackhawk with those other two books. Did you know when you started Cry Down Dark that it would end up like this?
No, I didn't. I never intended to write a sequel or a trilogy as it stands now. Cry Down Dark touches on the town of Blackhawk but most of the action is somewhere else. With Tell No Man, I purposefully decided to dive into the Blackhawk I had created. The ending of that book leads naturally to The Lamentations of Blackhawk, so that was more planned. At the beginning, though, no. It seems like the right thing to do. It's King coming back on me. One can read the Castle Rock/Derry books and see the references to other stories but that doesn't mean we're stuck reading them in that certain order. Readers can take Cry Down Dark or Tell No Man in either order before reading The Lamentations of Blackhawk. I like the crossover, even if that wasn't the original goal. But unlike some long-running fantasy and horror series', the books are still short.
Is there anything that surprised you while you writing The Lamentations of Blackhawk?
I'm always surprised, because I am telling myself the story first. The big surprise for me was a character who popped up when Peter Toombs (first in Cry Down Dark) goes back to the town in which that book is set. The character is based on a campfire tale I'd heard when I was a Boy Scout. Classic urban legend style story and there he was, like he was waiting for me to use him.
What are you working on now?
I have two works in progress. The first is a nonfiction project currently titled Holding Out for a Hero: Forty Years after Footloose. Blackhawk is based on Payson, Utah, where I did most of my growing up. The 1984 film Footloose was filmed there and the surrounding area, so I am writing about it. The second is another novel, currently titled Do Not Forsake Me. Trying my hand at horror westerns for that one. We might even see Blackhawk in its earliest days. If things stay on track, it will be the bloodiest things I've written.
Where can readers and fans follow you?
The best place to catch up with me is my own website www.tjtranchell.net, but I am still active on social media. @TJ_Tranchell for Twitter and @TJ-Tranchell for Instagram. If I ever try out the new platforms, my site is where I will announce that.
Thanks for having me and we'll catch you on the flipside.
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween, has worked as a journalist, horror movie columnist, pizza delivery man, warehouse worker, haunted house monster, customer service clerk, college instructor, and other less glamorous jobs. Tranchell has his master’s degree in literature from Central Washington University with, naturally, a focus on the horror genre. Tranchell published his first novel, “Cry Down Dark,” through Blysster Press in 2016. In 2017, Blysster released a collection of short stories, poetry, and film criticism titled Asleep in the Nightmare Room. 2020 saw the release of a second collection, The Private Lives of Nightmares, followed soon by his second novel Tell No Man, which he published under his imprint LAST DAYS BOOKS. He has also published horror short fiction and was co-editor of GIVE: An Anthology of Anatomical Entries, a dark fiction anthology from When the Dead Books. He is a rising star among horror scholars, having presented work on Stephen King at the Popular Culture Association’s national conference, and in 2021 at the Ann Radcliffe Conference on the “Great American Horror Novel.” He currently teaches English at a community college in Washington state. Email him at email@example.com.
A Reading of 21 Grams by M. Regan
Author M. Regan reads us a sample from her novella, 21 Grams. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book by following the link below!
The Black Forest was a dark wood with an even darker history, but winter was approaching, and the larder was bare. The boy packed his crossbow and quiver and as much water as he could carry, then set out just after dawn. Frost festooned the leafless trees, and the ground crunched noisily beneath the well-worn leather of his boots as he traipsed across the countryside, leaving behind the only home he’d ever known.
Plague had swept across the land just the season before, killing his parents and all but the healthiest citizens of the village atop the hill. Marching Flagellants murdered the rest.
He spied the acrid smoke from the funeral pyres as he stood outside the rundown manor and watched the band of maniacal zealots march past on the road to Ravensburg. He remembered their banners hanging limp in the autumn morn, 100 men whipping bloody stripes across the pale flesh of their backs as they chanted prayers for salvation.
His family had been one of means, but coin mattered little in a realm populated by nothing but traveling monks and wandering ghosts. Now that he was alone, the four walls which held him were nothing but shelter from the wind. His needs were few. He only hoped to find and kill a boar for enough meat to last until spring. He’d set several traps in the fields, but they remained as empty as his belly. He knew if he didn’t leave for the forest soon, he wouldn’t have the energy to do so. His father had told tales around the fireplace of hunters who had entered the Black Forest never to return—victims of the wolf packs who called the forest home. This, the year of our Lord 1350, was meant to be the year they finally braved the deep woods to face the wolves and kill a boar together, father and son. Now he would have to face the challenge alone.
He was tall for 15, lanky but strong. Even clad in thick leathers and furs to protect him from the bitter cold, he looked more like a wraith than a man. The moment he set foot in the wood, he became just one more shadow amongst the skeletal trees in an indistinct world of gray.
It was late afternoon, his crossbow still untested when he first heard the monsters howl. They were distant but unmistakable. Long, lonely cries pierced the forest, silencing all other creatures as each held its breath, waiting for what might come next. Seconds ticked away, then one by one, the birds began to chirp, and the squirrels began to scamper once more. The boy was too deep into the wood to turn back empty-handed. He readied his crossbow and again took up his trek for winter sustenance.
The sun began to set, its rays gold and red as they touched the top of the barren trees. His gray surroundings became an orange haze, like a warning fire gone unheeded. When he first saw her, she was in the form of a naked woman: wild eyed, wild maned, and draped atop a tree branch. Too stunned to speak, he stood and stared, his crossbow forgotten at his side until she smiled.
“You must be freezing,” he managed to say. He pulled off the topmost of his furs. “Here, put this on.”
Her smile grew wider, revealing a set of gleaming white teeth. She shook her head and then leapt to the ground gracefully, her bare feet hardly making a sound when she landed. She glanced down at the boy’s weapon, then took off at full speed, racing into the trees as if to escape him. He gave chase without a thought, desperate to know more about this strange woman, determined to save her from the predators he knew must be near.
She was fast, and he quickly grew winded, but he managed to keep her in sight as she dashed ahead. As the last of the day’s light glittered on the frost-laden trees, she finally stopped in a small clearing and waited for him to catch up. He approached warily, careful not to frighten her away. When he stood before her, she stepped close and, without a word, lightly planted a kiss upon his numb lips.
He shivered as he stood in place, unsure what to do next. She took a step backward and directed her deep brown gaze toward the sky. She howled as the last of the day’s light disappeared, and the full moon revealed itself in the darkness above.
It was the howl of the wolves, and goosebumps arose on the boy’s skin as other beasts hidden in the wood joined her cry. They stepped into the clearing, one after another, a dozen winter wolves with white-gray coats and hungry eyes. As he stood frozen in place, the boy watched the woman transform, her beautiful face and body morph from woman to wolf in a matter of seconds. He tried to raise his crossbow, but his muscles failed him. Instead, he dropped to his knees, and like the Flagellants who had heralded the end of the world, he begged for salvation.
She delivered it quickly. She sank her teeth into his throat, and he felt the cold seep into his bones. She drank his blood as her pack watched in silence. Everything went dark. The night swallowed him whole. He was sure he would be reunited with his parents in the afterlife. But it was not to be. He awoke the next morning curled next to his new mother in a snow-dusted den, comfortable and warm despite his lack of clothes. She stroked his hair and smiled, gifting him with a look of utter devotion. She had tasted his heart, and it was pure. He was one of them. He had entered the forest a child of man. He was one of the moon’s children now.
Matt Handle lives in Atlanta, Georgia where he juggles the reality of being a husband, father, and software developer with the imaginary characters and worlds that constantly vie for his attention. His short stories can be found around the web including at Dark Recesses Press, Daily Science Fiction, Verbicide, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fabula Argentea.
by Stephanie M. Wytovich
In the past decade or so, speculative poetry has presented itself in the marketplace as an equal and valid contender in the field, thereby solidifying its place in the world of publishing, both large and small. Readers now not only enjoy it in magazines and individual collections, but also in anthologies, craft books, and in nonfiction articles exploring its value, voice, and contribution to science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Two great examples of this are the recently relaunched Weird Tales and the 2021 Halloween issue of Southwest Review edited by Andy Davidson.
When I started out as a fledgling poet, I turned first to The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA), and all these years later, I remain a member in this community that continues to celebrate poetry in all its different forms. When I first heard about the SFPA, I quickly researched their website, joined their Facebook group, and signed up for my yearly membership. As someone new to speculative poetry—not to mention someone who didn’t even know that speculative poetry was an avenue to pursue at the time—I devoured the listing of current markets they had and still have on their website, careful to make note of which magazines spoke to me and the work I was doing. I began submitting to their own magazine, Star*Line, and then discovered the themed work they did with Eye to the Telescope.
Later on, I learned about the Rhysling Award, the Dwarf Stars, and the Eglin Award and was fortunate to have some of my work published in subsequent anthologies while my book Mourning Jewelry placed third in the Elgins in 2015. I bring this up because the opportunity to read for these awards and get to know and network with fellow poets was not only inspiring but a kind of professional development in and of itself. I had never formally studied poetry, but I learned and continue to learn so much from this group and it’s provided me editorial opportunities, such as with Issue 17 of Eye to the Telescope, promotional outlets, and camaraderie in a career that is not only isolating but quite lonely at times.
Similar to the SFPA, my involvement with the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA) has proven invaluable to my life blood as a poet. From the Bram Stoker Awards to the HWA Poetry Showcase to the HWA Poetry Blog and then the Dark Poetry Scholarship, the HWA has worked hard to include, promote, and educate writers about how horror poetry can supplement their writing career and lead to a road of publication and higher learning. Similar to the SFPA, HWA members have countless opportunities to publicize their work and/or events, contribute to a variety of initiatives, and teach/attend continuing education workshops. Furthermore, when I attend Stokercon, there are always panels that discuss the state of speculative poetry, or that talk about the intersection of horror, writing, and mental health, and whether I am listening in the audience or contributing to the discussion, the conversation around poetry is always present and well-attended, proving that the form is not dead, but rather very much alive.
If you’re interested in getting more involved in the speculative poetry community, I highly recommend checking out the organizations above, volunteering where you can, and continuing to submit your work frequently. Please note that there are also mentorship opportunities, board positions, jury seats, and editorial work to be sought out, so there are lots of ways to contribute to the market, the genre, and get more involved in the work that’s being done. Afterall, if we want to continue to see poetry flooding the markets, we need to nourish the communities that support it while also educating and promoting each other’s work.
Stephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous magazines and anthologies such as Weird Tales, Nightmare Magazine, Southwest Review, Year's Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others.
Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a recipient of the Elizabeth Matchett Stover Memorial Award, the 2021 Ladies of Horror Fiction Writers Grant, and has received the Rocky Wood Memorial Scholarship for non-fiction writing.
Wytovich is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and most recently, The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.
Follow Wytovich on her blog at http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter and Instagram @SWytovich and @thehauntedbookshelf. You can also find her essays and nonfiction on LitReactor.
I cradle Mother at my breast until the conductor comes to stamp my ticket. The man doesn’t seem to notice her trembling beneath my coat.
“Where you headed, young lady?”
On the opposite bench, a grizzled older passenger wakes without opening his eyes, presents his ticket, then slumps back to sleep. When the conductor departs, I close the door behind him and unbutton my coat. Beside me, the raven spreads her wings and caws.
“Be still, Mother,” I whisper. “We’re going to the black water. We’re going to make you well again.”
I pull my suitcase down from the luggage compartment and retrieve the glass medicine bottle. “Just a thimble’s worth to dull the pain.” That was what the doctor said. The raven pecks violently as I try to hold her steady. I part the beak with one hand, and tip the silver thimble with another. Then the raven changes, and now a tawny bobcat is curled beside me. I stroke her spotted pelt and her ear twitches, and I listen to the rhythm of her laboured breaths.
The steam engine roars, and the carriage rumbles; the train whistle blasts. I struggle to withhold my tears.
I wake with a start in the dead of night, and the sickly bobcat is gone. Rising, I glance out the window. Beyond looms a skeletal wilderness of naked birch like some sprawling orchard of bones. All is dark and silent; the train isn’t moving. By the pale moonlight, I discover my grizzled fellow passenger isn’t moving either. His big lungs draw no breath. A trail of blue-black blood leads from his mangled throat out into the corridor. The tracks are like none I’ve ever seen.
I knew Mother was ill the moment her teeth sank into my wrist. She had gone out in her wolf skin to hunt for our dinner. When she didn’t come home, I scoured the woods and found her whimpering, scratching her head against the bark of a tree. I ran to her side, and she lunged at me; I tumbled backward. Mother soon realized her mistake and hoisted me up in her strong human arms.
“What have I done? My poor, sweet Matilda. What have I done?” My blood still streaked her mouth and chin.
At the homestead, she bandaged my wound with ointment and herbs then retreated to our bed. There was no dinner, and Mother didn’t rise for three days. On the third, I crept once again into the surrounding woods and followed the path into town.
I walked back with Dr Ellis under cover of night, lest any of the townspeople notice us. Dr Ellis wasn’t like other men in town—the godsmen who raised torches and cried “witch” or “devil woman.” I could see the way he looked at Mother, and I knew this was because he loved her. I’d read of such things in my books.
Once, when I was little, the men with torches had come to our door, and Mother greeted them as a great brown bear. The godsmen scrambled away, screaming.
Mother could still control her magic then and changed her skin at will, not at random (like she does now). Now, I can’t be certain what skin she will inhabit next. Raven. Bobcat. Monster…
The lamps in the corridor have all gone dark as well. I poke my head out and listen to the darkness. Amid the susurrant snoring of sleeping passengers, I detect another, stranger, sound. A low, guttural growl. A claw tapping gently on glass. Mother is hungry, checking the locks. One door, several doors away, clicks and slides open.
I pursue the sound with silent steps, parallel to the trail of blood. I grip the medicine bottle tight, prepared to wrestle Mother to the ground. My body quivers at the memory of her jaws clamping down on it. But I must be brave, lest anyone else be killed. Perhaps more than a thimble is needed this time.
When Dr Ellis came out of the cottage that night, he found me sulking under the tall willow. (Many nights I dreamt the doctor would ask Mother to marry him and come to live with us at our homestead and be my Father.) He knelt beside me, and held my wounded hand.
“I suspect your mama,” he said, “has a tumor in her brain. I’ve seen similar cases before. This tumor is making her very sick.” He said something else then about “X-rays” and a “radiologist on the coast,” but I’d become suddenly dizzy, disoriented. “Sometimes,” he continued, “sick people behave unlike themselves. But you must always remember: your mama loves you very much.” That was when he handed me the bottle, explained how to administer the medicine and how much and when.
“Is Mother going to die?”
He responded without saying a word. I sprang up and knocked his bottle to the ground. I told him I knew a place, Blackwater Spring, where the water healed the sick through magic—not with “X-rays.” Mother had said so when I was little. I told him I’d bring her there and make the tumor disappear.
I pause at the open door of the sleeper car. Moist chewing sounds reverberate within. “Mother?” I hiss.
A black silhouette rises up on its hind legs and turns toward me. My breath catches in my throat. I drop the medicine. I remember our last night at the homestead. It was also the last night I’d ever touch her human skin, gaze into her human eyes, and listened to the music of her human voice. Gazing now into these glowing noctambulant eyes, I recognize no trace of her at all.
Mother has gone out into that skeletal wilderness, and I don’t give chase. As I stare up at the ceiling and the blood pools around my head, I reach out for the thimble and broken bottle of medicine. “Just a thimble’s worth,” I think aloud. “To dull the pain.”
Kirk Bueckert is a young writer living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. His previous work has been published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House and the League of Canadian Poets. He hopes you enjoy reading this new story as much as he has enjoyed writing it.
“I still think you went the wrong way,” insisted Trudy.
Dave glanced at the rear-view mirrors, ensuring that the camper he was towing didn’t go off the narrow pavement or clip one of the many limbs hanging over the path. “I turned where the sign pointed. It said to go this way for sites 38-66.”
“It said sixty-five.” Trudy crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat.
“Either way, we’re not turning around until we get to the end. It does seem like a long time since we passed the last campsite.”
Trudy’s inevitable statement of “I told you so” was interrupted by the sound of the bottom of their camper scraping the road as they hit a deep dip. The screech sent a chill up Dave’s spine.
He maneuvered the pick-up around another tight corner and exhaled at the sight of a clearing ahead. A small wooden post marked the spot as campsite sixty-six.
“There. I knew I was right.” He pulled to a stop and climbed out to look at their home for the next three nights.
“It’s a long walk to the bathroom and showers,” announced Trudy.
Dave slapped at a mosquito buzzing near his ear. “I’m more worried about backing the camper in. It’s a tight fit. You’re going to have to direct me.”
Trudy rolled her eyes. “You know I never can help you. You always get mad at me.”
Dave didn’t reply. He swatted another bug and returned to the pick-up. Then, he pulled a short distance beyond the narrow driveway and rolled down the windows. Shifting into reverse, he cranked the steering wheel to the right and began backing up. Immediately the camper veered off in the wrong direction. Muttering to himself, Dave stopped and pulled forward slightly. He would have to start again.
“That was the wrong way,” yelled Trudy.
“I know that,” he screamed back.
On the next attempt, the camper turned the correct direction but too sharply, heading directly for a large oak tree.
“Watch out for that tree.”
The next try found the pick-up nearly hitting the wooden post that displayed the campsite number. “What evil maniac put the post that close to where I have to back up,” thought Dave.
The fourth effort seemed to go better. Dave stopped and waited for Trudy’s verification.
Eventually, she yelled, “Why aren’t you moving? I’m waving you back.”
“How am I supposed to know that. I can’t see you when you stand behind the camper.”
“You don’t have to yell.”
“Yes, I do. So do you. That’s the only way we will be able to hear each other.”
With a deep breath, Dave began backing up once again.
“Stop,” shouted Trudy, “you’re going to hit a stump on the left. You’ve got to pull forward and try again.”
Fifty-two tries, forty-seven minutes, over one hundred silent swear words and at least half that many not-so-quiet curses later, the camper was finally in the campsite. It sat at an awkward angle and tilted heavily to one side.
The pick-up sat nearly perpendicular to the camper, and its front half was nestled in the underbrush that surrounded the clearing. Dave hopped out of the cab and stepped into what appeared to be a patch of poison ivy. After going out of his way to avoid a large beehive hanging nearby, he began the long process of unhooking the camper. The tally of curses uttered continued to climb.
Dave pulled a toolbox out of the back of the pick-up and set it on the ground. His knees cracked, and he felt a sharp pain in his back when he knelt to get the tools needed to steady the camper before unhitching it. The process would go much easier with Trudy’s help, but that ship had sailed a half-hour earlier when she had trudged off in anger.
After what seemed like an eternity, Dave finally finished. He tossed the toolbox back into the pick-up, banging his knee against the hitch while he did so. There was only one job left to do. The annoying itching sensation around his ankles was becoming impossible to resist. He didn’t give in to the poison ivy, but he did scratch the mosquito bite on his cheek and the three welts on the back of his right hand. Smiling at the sarcasm, he pulled the “Happy Camper” flag from a storage bin, rubbed a knot out of his back, and went to hang the sign on the campsite marker.
As he approached the wooden post, Dave was struck by a strange feeling that he had done all this before. It was more than deja vu. He’d been to this campsite before.
He hung the banner and took a step back to look at it.
The flag no longer showed a marshmallow roasting over a campfire with the words “Happy Campers” embroidered above. Instead, it now showed a camper engulfed in flame and “Unhappy Campers” in bold letters.
A deluge of memories erupted in Dave’s mind. He remembered everything.
Knowing what he would see, he looked at the campsite number. This was not campsite 66 but site 666.
A mosquito settled onto Dave’s ear. He didn’t care; he was too busy screaming.
“I still think you went the wrong way,” insisted Trudy.
“I turned where the sign pointed. It said to go this way for sites 38-66,” replied Dave.
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has enjoyed spending some of his free time trying to turn the odd ideas circling his brain into stories. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary. Together they enjoy board games and, of course, camping.
"Last Man Standing" by Ed Ahern
Man is the last species to die,
for he can eat all the others.
Plankton, plant, pork or porgy
All go down his maw.
Forget about cockroaches and rats,
Man dines on them both.
Consider seafood as example.
sea urchins and periwinkles,
sharks and slugs and squid,
unless rotted, all eaten.
And after man consumes
all the plants and animals
he’s apt to eat
other men as well.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over three hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of six review editors. Follow Ed on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The Beast by RF Thomas
Frank’s end began with a black spot where no black spot should have been. And Frank knew, though he pretended not to, that it meant Big Trouble.
Frank had always been different, the bad sort of different. He was awkward and angry with things nobody was ever angry with.
After the death of his wife, he drifted further, life’s tether stretching thin and strained. At the office, everyone supposed he was grieving, and gave him consideration. But over time, Frank became the odd character. First pitied, then scorned. He was an uncaring victim of sidelong looks and water-cooler jokes.
Today had been stressful for Frank, as all of them were anymore. But now he was almost home. The city bus had only one more stop, and Frank’s turmoil was receding. Sighing, he turned and looked out the window, allowing himself the luxury of letting his mind go blank, taking in the view without really seeing the children playing in the park.
The bus lurched to a start, and he tiredly turned to face the front. Suddenly he jerked back towards the park, confused and searching.
There! Far back in the trees behind the bandstand was an alien, inky shadow. A dark black circle where no shadow should have been in the gentle twilight. He blinked, and it was gone.
“What was that?” he whispered, mouth dry like a piece of black velvet. Or, a sly voice suggested, a portal.
It happened again two days later. Idle at his desk, staring out at highway traffic, his heart suddenly skittered with fear. This time the vivid black spot was a tire on a delivery truck. When Frank blinked, it was gone and the tires were normal. Even as he told himself he was seeing things, he had noticed the black spot was bigger than before.
After the fourth time (something is opening), Frank told himself it must be a problem with his vision. Surely not important enough for a doctor. At the pharmacy, he bought eye drops. He told himself, “It’s nothing serious.”
But then the thing changed, and he knew it was worse than an eye problem.
The Big Change happened when the spot began shifting into an emerging man-shape. After this, Frank became nervous and twitchy. He avoided looking out windows and would conform his body awkwardly to do so. When he walked, he stared at the ground. When he spoke, his darting eyes never lingering. He whispered to himself.
His co-workers noticed. The old rumors of his wife’s death began again.
“Frank has never been the same since his wife died.”
“Never did get all the facts, did we?”
The boldest went further, “They called it a suicide, but it sure was strange, wasn’t it?”
And the thing kept coming. Growing. What was it, was it a man? No, it was too thick, too broad.
Frank got a closer look one afternoon at home when he let his willpower lapse. Standing at the sink, washing dishes, he lifted his head and looked out the kitchen window. Immediately, as if it had been waiting for him, the shape strode out behind a nearby house.
Frank froze, soapy dishrag in hand, unable to move or think. Before it disappeared behind the next house, Frank saw a large, beasty creature, reddish-brown, hairy and menacing. The worst thing? At the last moment, it turned its shaggy buffalo head and looked straight into Frank’s window.
Frank squeezed his eyes shut and stood trembling, heart pounding with tremendous runaway force. He tried to unsee the thing and remember it at the same time.
He now knew the thing was coming for him. It knew who he was. He thought of the old poem by Yeats. The slouching rough beast.
After that, Frank’s world shrunk into a tightly wound sphere of fear and denial.
Am I going insane, or is it real? It can’t be real. If it’s real, then everything is real—all the impossible things are true: vampires and monsters and all the fairy tales and God and Hell. And if that’s true, all the things we call normal are phony and flimsy.
Or is this what it means to go mad? To wrestle inside a shadow world while pretending not to, and people just live their lives around you as if nothing is happening?
On his last day, Frank loaded the old revolver and carried it in his pocket everywhere he went. At bedtime, he placed it on the night table.
He didn’t sleep; he didn’t toss or turn. He just laid there, lamp on, holding his breath—listening . Just make it to sunrise. Make it to another day.
When he heard the first footstep—it could have been anything—there hung a split second where it wasn’t real yet. But then another step, and another.
Frank grabbed the revolver and lay with wide eyes, staring at the closed bedroom door.
The steps came on, louder, overly forceful, taunting. Then, Frank heard heavy breathing, and it was at his door and was close enough he could smell it. Rank, fetid, inhuman.
Impossibly, the doorknob began to turn, and though Frank wanted to close his eyes, he was paralyzed with terror. The door swung open, and a great, shaggy head peered around the doorway. It opened its mouth in a grotesque smile, huge yellow teeth slimed and dripping.
Frank’s last thought was this: It isn’t real! If I speak to it, it will disappear. He shuddered, opened his dry mouth, and with a forced croak said, “I’m sorry.”
The next day, little was done at the office. Each new piece of the story caused groups to gather in cubicles, the lunch room, or the water cooler.
“Went the same way as his wife.”
“Everyone could see Frank was having problems.”
“Police said it was suicide. Doesn’t surprise me.”
“And with the same gun his wife used.”
Mr. Thomas once studied journalism at Eastern Illinois University and now after more than 20 years in the manufacturing industry, is chasing his American dream of becoming a full-time novelist. His published works are listed on his website rf-thomas.com. With lifelong roots in the Midwest, he currently calls Central Illinois home.
Bitter Water by Harris Coverley
one late autumn
the bitter water spread
through the entire building
filling mouths with a caustic taint
but the tenants did not care enough
until the dreams came:
a thousand agonies of loneliness
the sum total grief of mere being
the cats howling, the dogs whimpering
a hundred people—men, women, children--
feeling that they were falling, falling, falling...
forever and forever and forever,
after two nights of mass distress
the grim hysteria bubbled over
and—making a connection--
they finally sent the super up to the water tank
he lifted the lid and there she greeted him:
floating face down, fully clothed
her backpack still about her thin shoulders
her stygian hair clumped like rotting seaweed
some of them had been wondering
where she had got to
she had been such a nice girl
a little quiet perhaps.
Harris Coverley has verse published or forthcoming in Polu Texni, California Quarterly, Star*Line, Spectral Realms, Corvus Review, Spank the Carp, Better Than Starbucks, View From Atlantis, Poets' Espresso Review, Once Upon A Crocodile, The Rye Whiskey Review, 5-7-5 Haiku Journal, and many others. He lives in Manchester, England. Follow Harris on Twitter @ha_coverley.
The Blaring Blue by Emmie Christie
You know how TVs have advanced so far they show details better than real life? A giraffe at the zoo seems unrealistic and vague, like you expect it to have more pixels or something. Well, that’s how the Nebraska sky operates.
It blares an eldritch blue, too bright, too bold. It shouts like a bathroom LED bulb, revealing your red splotches where none showed in the forgiving yellow light of the bedroom vanity.
Unnatural. Too real. Too high a frame rate.
At first, it will fascinate you. Hypnotic. But don’t stare too long. Sometimes, at high noon on December days, when the cold freezes the moisture in your nose into tiny stalactites, the sun ricochets off the blanket of snow back up into the cloudless, windless sky, and the air tastes like peppermint because of nostalgia, a shadow appears in the East.
In other states, the human eye can’t catch it, but the blaring blue presides over the prairie and uncovers the outline of something with wings. Angelic? No, not angelic. Those who do spot the silhouette shudder and gibber at reporters in semi-coherent sentences.
“Heavy,” they say. “Like it wants to fall.”
The reporters snigger and smile at each other, and the cameramen try to capture the ‘weather phenomenon’ with their high-tech cameras. They never do. The lens cannot grasp the loudness of the Nebraska sky, cannot capture the vastness of the open horizon that somehow adds to the crescendo of it all. The reporters don’t see it, either, because they stare at the wrong times and never for long enough.
But the weight of that silhouette presses like the drop on a rollercoaster. A sinking. An inevitability. A judgment for decisions you cannot withdraw, no matter how much you scream and throw your hands into the air to surrender.
Step over the state line with trepidation, and don’t look up during cloudless days. The locals know. It’s a horizon transplanted from another place, where giant shadows show up in the florescent heavens. Shadows heavy enough to fall.
Emmie Christie’s work tends to hover around the topics of feminism, mental health, cats, and the speculative such as unicorns and affordable healthcare. She has been published in Intrinsick and Allegory Magazine, and she graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2013. She also enjoys narrating audiobooks for Audible. You can find her at www.emmiechristie.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @EmmieChristie33 and on Facebook @EmmieChristieFiction.