Flash Fiction: “CleerQuil” by Jonathan Raab and Colin Scharf

Everyone in your new neighborhood knows about you.

They know an awful lot about you.

They saw the moving truck, and watched from dark windows.

They hear your footsteps on creaking floorboards late at night, when you have trouble sleeping and pour yourself a little drink.

“CleerQuil,” one of them told you the other day. It was the man from down the street, from the house with the unkept yard covered in dead leaves. There’s a metal rod staked into the ground there, with a bit of loose chain wrapped around it. “There’s a lot of allergens in this neighborhood.”

The bottle was in your hands. It was icy-cold to the touch.

“Thanks,” you said. “But I have plenty.” Your cupboards were full of CleerQuil. You don’t remember ever buying any.

“Take it,” the man said. “It’s a real thing. I saw it on TV.”

And you waved him goodnight. There were others. They smiled. Plastic teeth, dead eyes. Their faces fell slack when you turned to go back inside.

And they watched.

Last Tuesday night, they went through your garbage, looking for empty bottles. Now they know how much electricity you use.

You’ll find a note in your mailbox when you go home from work tonight. The note is hand-written, scrawled in overwrought cursive across a thick square of faded paper the color of spilled coffee.

The note will say, if the moon is right:

“It’s a real thing. We saw it on TV. You should take it.”

The neighborhood will look deserted, but they will be there. You won’t see them, but you will feel their eyes upon you, and you will tell yourself that you have a sore throat.

Short Story: “Velvet Black” by Ryan Barrett

Sometimes, when the late seasonal wind blows, and rapidly drops to an unexpected chill, subtly kissing the summer season goodbye, certain isolated events occur that are inevitably disregarded.

Those missed or stolen moments, like that first fallen leaf. Not the one you saw sail gently to the ground in the cool fall or late summer breeze, but the one that you didn’t see, that fell into a cold, murky puddle, beginning its decay without attention. There are things that pass by in the long shadows of the earlier setting sun, that send a shiver up our spines when we least expect it; that cause us to look over our shoulders, and to squint for sight into that dark corner where we thought we heard something whimper.

I am aware of these things and of their validity, though not a vast understanding of them all. But I am aware, because I have experienced such an event that has left my eyes of awareness forever pried open.

I had been late, yet again, for an appointment I had aimed to keep for several weeks. To indulge you in my motive, the importance held itself in a ring, an expensive—expensive to my economically meager stature—ring, which sat in my pocket as I entered the wooded, inner city park named for St. Vladimir, across from her apartment.

It was a large wooded sanctuary from the city pollution and concrete, complete with paths, benches and quaint decorative light posts. The time was ten past nine on my watch, but it was dark, very dark that night. I recall the moment I stepped into the park, that exact moment when the temperature dropped like an anchor into the depths and sent a shiver down my spine. The change was so abrupt that it stopped me in my heated tracks, just as my foot hit the gravel path which snaked its course through the park. I stood there and looked behind myself instantly, as if I had been slapped on the back by an old mischievous shadow-friend, trying to offset my mood with a trick.

Of course there was no one near me. The only movement emanated from below the dim light post across the street; the skeletal shadows of branches swayed across the cracked asphalt road.I was by all means, alone.

I continued on my way, at a slightly elevated pace, through the cold and damp paths of St. Vladimir’s park. My sweating palm grasped and turned on end the small ring case, which burned intently in my pocket. My mind was in many places, drifting from idea to outcome of my intended destination, when a sudden realization came upon me that every single quaint light pole in the park… had furtively shut off.

One. By. One.

Bathed in the black, the park lost all quaint qualities. I stopped and fished for a cigarette in my other pocket—or more truthfully, in my modest recollection—for my lighter.

I lit my cigarette, and, unable to hold back another shiver, my body shook. Something inside me had begun to buzz, not audibly, but in that sense one inexplicably experiences seconds before a car crash, or witnesses an accident. Perhaps it was the blood running faster through my veins due to the fear-induced adrenaline, or maybe it was something bad I had devoured earlier in the evening at Sal’s Diner. Whatever it was, it was a tell I should have read… and then run.

Instead, I continued walking, at a slightly quickened pace, my cigarette ember burning brightly. I did my best to stay on the familiar path, but visibility was impossible beneath the canopy of pines which laced the park. I found myself walking over roots and uneven ground, until I was no longer on a path at all.

It was at this point that I heard the moan.

A long, weak, dusty voice from out of the black; that thick velvet black. I stopped and listened, for the sound didn’t frighten me, but for some unknown reason, intrigued me. The sound swept through the night again, and this time I was sure it was the voice of an old man, perhaps sick or lost in the thick blanket of such an uncharacteristically dark night. I pulled my lighter from my pocket and flicked it to catch flame. I walked slowly and carefully over the entwined roots writhing like serpents in the dancing light of my miniature torch.

As I continued, the moan sounded off once more. At the same moment, its source came into my view: a small bundle crouched at the base of a tree. I approached the wrapped body cautiously, speaking words of assurance and questioning of well-being. There were no answers as I drew near: no moans, no movement. I held my lighter tight and crouched beside the ragged bundle. I crouched there for a few extended seconds, and then reached forward to touch what appeared to be a shoulder.

An arm shot forth from the tattered rags and grabbed hold of my neck with such force that I knew this could be no old or sick man. A face so old and worn emerged; leather skin hung loosely on crevassed cheekbones; uneven stubble and pockmarks accentuating every deeply folded wrinkle and stain of time. His mouth was curled into what appeared to be a twisted grin of gnarled broken tooth and black gum, and his eyes—I am still unaware if I had exaggerated these details due to shock or some sort of trauma—but his eyes appeared to glow amber yellow and red, not unlike the ash of my cigarette, which now lay smoldering on the ground next to my abandoned lighter. His hands tightened at my throat and it was then I realized there was something incredibly sharp pressing against my jugular. I had not seen a knife, or any object other than the old hand which moved so stealthily into its fatal grip. Unseen razors threatened my flesh with desecration, and though I could not see the blades, I knew the threat was very real by the look in the crazed old man’s fiery eyes.

We crouched there, both locked in some perverse portrait of predator and prey, for I’m not certain of how long. Paralyzed with fear, I awaited the inevitable conclusion of my life, when it dawned on me that this was no old man, but in fact, a demon. What I had done to call forth torment from such a thing… as in this being my modest and truthful recollection, perhaps I in fact do know, but will never share.

The demon looked into my eyes with all knowledge of my being, with every insight beyond my own subconscious. The very feeling of utter invasion of one’s soul is something that still haunts me.

He then spoke to me, not in some demonic voice, but in the same old dusty voice I heard in his summoning moans. He pulled me in close to the stench of his breath, and he whispered, “Your debt has been paid in velvet black. You’ve given what was owed, and shall never have it back.”

He then released me and sent me stumbling backwards to the cold forest floor. I sat a moment looking at him as he gazed back at me, his curled grin no more, replaced by a somber look that entranced me in still silence until he pulled the rags back upon him to become the tattered bundle once again.

I leapt to my feet and ran, as if guided by some extra sensory vision, through the thick trees to emerge into a clearing. With sudden and eerie happenstance, the park lights returned to life. I stood aghast, catching my breath and looking about my surroundings. Recognizing the place that had seemed so foreign in the absence of light, I swallowed, gasped for one more deep breath to slow my rushing blood, and leaned forward placing my hands and weight on my thighs. And that’s when I noticed it.

The ring was gone. That ring I had worked so hard for and which had garnered such deep meaning in the short time that it was in my possession—it was gone. Was I to be robbed of this without even a struggle? This angered me thoroughly, beyond my dissipating fear and ushered forth my fading adrenaline reserves. I vaguely recall scanning the immediate area, finding and picking up the large rock, searching back through the half-lit wooded area for the place of my ambush. I soon found it and furiously approached the resting man. I stood with the rock raised above my head, ready to bring it down without prejudice, upon the wretched, thieving thing that had denied me the pleasure of my engagement.

I bellowed for him to look at me, to give back what was mine, but the ragged bundle showed me no discourse, which only infuriated me more. In rage, I kicked him. The bundle of tattered rags still held the old man, only now he was a corpse, ripe with the stench of death and rot. His amber eyes had given way to the concave dwellings of a thousand writhing maggots; his wrinkles had tightened against his skull, frozen into a skeletal scream, which pushed forth his few rotten teeth and a black, hardened tongue.

I fell backwards in pure shock. I couldn’t bear to spend another moment in that wicked place, and so I stood and ran. I ran from the park, down streets and nameless alleys. I ran in any direction there was light, in some sort of daze, until the sun crept up at dawn, and I found myself back on the stoop of my own apartment, wondering if I had ever left. Had I only just awoke from some strange lucid dream, hearing echoes of moans and sirens from some unearthly source conjured by my mind?

In the days, weeks, and months that followed the incident, I constantly questioned my sanity. I questioned every gust of autumn wind that brushed against my back, or rustled the old season’s leaves. I questioned the coincidences that had led me away from her apartment, and the fact that in that same evening, a fire had erupted in the early hours of night and burned the building to the ground while she slept. I know that there was something vast at work that eve, something that I may never comprehend. Those burning amber eyes I see every time I close my own and attempt to sleep.

They have watched me, like some sort of sentry keeping vigil on my propositions, my occupations, my indiscretions, though never for my protection. I still hear those words and the voice echo in my mind, etched into the days that have come to pass as my life, the changing seasons as my hair grows thin, as wrinkles set in and sunspots sneak across my flesh, as I draw closer to understand the night in the velvet black.

***

Ryan Barrett is an actor, writer, and producer. He’s appeared in films such as Monkey in the Middle, Kingdom Come, Ejecta, The Drownsman, and many others. You can find his full filmography at imdb, and learn more about his upcoming projects at his Facebook fan page.

Book Review: Together In Terror, You and Us

We Live Inside You by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Short Story Collection Published by Swallowdown Press, 2011

Review by Michael Bryant

Author Jeremy Robert Johnson spins his yarns in a deeply introspective tone, with an unorthodox creative style that finds the soft spot in your imagination and buries the ice pick.  We Live Inside You is an anthology of short stories that are not all classic horror or weird fiction, but carry a strand of darkness and morbidity throughout.

Genocidal Buddhist monks who chant viral incantations deliver a firm and somewhat unnerving handshake as we are introduced to Mr. Johnson’s style in the opening story “The Oarsmen”. “When Susurrus Stirs” brings the reader into Johnson’s curio-phobic relationship with parasites where an apparent symbiotic relationship turns gruesome with a vulgar metamorphosis. “The Gravity of Benham Falls” is a classic ghost story that provides, as the author describes it, “…a mid-read break from all the surrounding intrafamilial homicide.”jrj-entry

“A Flood of Harriers” starts with a roadside confrontation on an Indian reservation and descends into psychedelic madness centering around the apocalyptic vision of Wokova, and “Laws of Virulence” brings us back to the parasitic horror at the center of Johnson’s mind with insidious arthropods whose hosts gaze trance-like with seaweed eyes.

The collection concludes with a bonus section; four stories including a different version of “Persistence Hunting”, which appears in the earlier part of the anthology in a more trimmed, edited form, that is one of non-weird tales but a tragic one. Also included is a review of The Mars Volta’s Album “The Bedlam in Goliath”, formatted as a supernatural story centering around the band’s encounter with a ouija board and their musical attempts to exorcise the dark forces that plague them.

Among the several stories that are not weird fiction in the collection I found “Trigger Variation” to be true horror in its rawest form, exploring the self-inflicted demons within. This story in particular stuck with me, and I still find myself drifting back to it and chewing it over. I enjoy stories that make you think, and this anthology is a buffet of food for thought.

While this collection is worth the read, it does have a couple of duds. I found “Consumerism” to fall absolutely flat, and while “States of Glass” is well written with a good story, I found myself becoming bored and began skimming to the end. However, taste varies. The author’s notes at the end provide the personal touch that always adds icing to the literary cake.

If you’re looking for writing that veers from the beaten path and isn’t afraid to experiment, We Live Inside You provides horror that shoots away from the traditional format, featuring monsters both human and otherwise. Check it out in e-format and print, and if you like what you read you can find more at jeremyrobertjohnson.com.

 4 / 5 Soul Devouring Parasites

Film Review: The Pineal (Phallus?) Gland’s Revenge

From Beyond (1986) directed by Stuart Gordon

Starring Jeffrey Combs, Ken Foree, Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel

 Most horror film aficionados love Re-Animator, the first of Stuart Gordon’s many H.P. Lovecraft story adaptations for the big screen. Its follow up, From Beyond, is a lesser-known film, but in many ways superior to the original.

Both films have a lot in common. First and foremost is the performance of Jeffrey Combs, who plays (in both films) a scientist crossing over into unethical and unnatural research. In Re-Animator he is arguably the villain as well as one of the main protagonists; it’s his out-of-control research that invites the terror and splatter that follows. In From Beyond, however, his character is Crawford Tillinghast, now a resident at a psychiatric hospital following his research with his mentor, Dr. Pretorius (a wickedly delightful Ted Sorel).

Crawford wants nothing to do with the house in which they conducted their research; he fears most of all the resonator machine on the top floor, which, when activated, stimulates the pineal gland (or the third eye of mysticism), allowing human beings to see and be seen by creatures in parallel worlds. He claims the activation of the machine drove Pretorius mad and ultimately led to his death at the hands of some monstrous, unspeakable creature.

The opportunity to study Crawford’s apparent psychosis is too much to resist for Dr. Katherine McMichaels (the lovely Barbara Crampton), who arranges for his release on the condition that he accompany her to the house and show her the resonator. They are accompanied by a no-nonsense policeman (Ken Foree, who is the only one making relatively good decisions in the film), and spend several days at the site of the strange research.

Capture

The plot is predictable in its pacing, but the set pieces involving the resonator, human mutation, and sexual deviancy are anything but. The film, while quite funny at times, shocks with its unnerving, gross-out special effects. Fans of Re-Animator, Videodrome, or The Thing’s practical creature effects and body horror will squirm in disgusted delight. Everyone else will be suitably horrified.

The mushroom-trip visuals of the film, quick pacing, and outstanding practical creature and mutation effects, all make this a visual and aural treat for horror fans. From Beyond is an overlooked classic that pushes the limits of the visual medium of cinema—it’s a dark nightmare of absurdism, a grim portrait of humankind’s place in the cosmos, and quite simply the most fun you’ll have with some beers, popcorn, and a couple of friends on a Friday night.

My only real complaint about the film is the sexual bondage motif—it felt shocking for shocking’s sake, meant more to titillate than horrify. If you’re not much of a Puritan, it probably won’t bother you.

All in all, From Beyond is a superior film to Re-Animator, but both are in the same ballpark of greatness in the horror genre. Stuart Gordon doesn’t accurately adapt Lovecraft’s stories, but he does try to capture some of the tone of hopelessness and horror intrinsic in the writer’s work. If you enjoy the film, consider reading the original story here, which is much shorter, but provides plenty of tiny glimpses into a realm of madness and unholy un-life.

5/5 Phallic Snake Brain Glands (You’ll See What I Mean)

Flash Fiction: A Ship in Darkness

“A Ship in Darkness” by Robin Wyatt Dunn

I record the ship’s message, known only to me. It has no words; it is a ship made of wood in dark ocean without light. Broken, sinking, dying.

Like me. I understand its message.

It is a tomb.

It’s so quiet.

So exquisite and beautiful.

What else could be my life, now, but this?

I am its natural message. The last resident of an experiment that did not achieve its desired result, indeed, it did not achieve any result.

All are now fled. Only me, and the last floating wreckage.

A dead love affair. A ruined nation. A presage of dawn, seen, but only in the mind, light within the mind’s eye, brighter than any made by sun . . .

What were we experimenting with? What weren’t we experimenting with? Time. Authority. Emotion. Apocalypse. Human response to apocalypse. Mind-reading. Mental control. Degrees of sanity, and its sharing. Degrees of insanity. Correlations between the DSM 4 and our own sea-bound habits, methods of calculating our sexual frustrations, our food-related habits as the storerooms were methodically exhausted of food, our increasingly stubborn refusal to contact the mainland . . .

My own mind control ray . . .

Well a mind control ray is not so unique. We all developed one out here. It’s nothing so dramatic. All chess-players know of it. All teenage girls. It’s just that it can be toyed with, and there’s no point to doing so, really . . . like growing a 40 foot cock: what are you going to do with it?

Elephantiasis of the mental gonads.

Still, I say it was a success. Because of what I see now: beauty.

Why is destruction so beautiful? Chaos is a kind of order, yes. Violence a kind of love. All romance is at least in part a story of war, if only a war within.

And so the destruction of our ship, my livelihood, my relationship, my career and now my body is at the deepest level a love affair, of one mammal, and one ocean, and one decrepit boat, a boat glowing with meaning . . .

The shades of black, moonless, rise over me like demons, like executioners.

Ocean water seasalt, the potion fills my mouth and nose.

I spit it out, grinning.

My name is Orlando. But the name means nothing. It is my body that has meaning. Cold and afraid, delirious. Some final sanctuary of land, of land-flesh. Land flesh which is only sea-flesh, temporarily contained.

The last fire has sputtered out. I am alone in the rich ash, on the last floating deck.

There isn’t even a radio. In the distance I can see a helicopter, coming this way . . .

I must dive so they do not see me. But in a moment.

You see, I am healed. How is destruction healing? How is murder healing? It shouldn’t be but it is so. Nature forgives us so much . . . forgives us anything . . . everything . . .

The sea is my religion.

I am to be eaten by sharks.

***

Robin Wyatt Dunn was born in Wyoming during the Carter Administration. He lives in Los Angeles. His vital statistics, as well as a list of his books and publications, can be found at http://www.robindunn.com.

His most recent novel, Fighting Down Into the Kingdom of Dreams, is available in print and e-book formats.

Film Review: Abide With the Pit

Jug Face directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle

Review by Michael Bryant

Ever wonder if there’s really a God in Heaven?  Tired of your prayers going unanswered?  Can’t afford health insurance? Well brother, pull up a chair, pour yerself a glass a’shine, and let me tell you the Good News of the Pit! 

Jug Face is the feature debut of writer and director Chad Crawford Kinkle, and delivers a steady stream of terror and despair. The film is centered around an isolated and impoverished backwoods community that worships a being dwelling within a potter’s clay pit. In exchange for the occasional human sacrifice, chosen through the subconscious making of a person’s image on a “jug face” by the potter Dawai (Sean Bridgers), the Pit provides its followers with a cure for all disease and injury by washing in its blood-soaked cesspool.

There’s trouble in paradise when Ada, played by the stunning Lauren Ashley Carter, must face a difficult choice between the well-being of the community and the safety of her unborn child, who she fears may be the next sacrifice.

While this film cranks up the weird factor, it remains grounded in its characters, who are not caricatures of bloodthirsty hillbillies with a taste for anal rape, but simply people working to make the best of what meager opportunities are afforded to them. The combination of great performances, solid character development, and a strong showing in directing from Kinkle create a sense of empathy for the characters that is sadly rare in many modern horror films.    

Jug Face is a breath of originality in a genre overrun by tired cliches and gore-saturated slaughter fests. Kinkle is a director from whom to expect great things from in future, and I will certainly be looking out for his next film. 

 5/5 Lovecraftian Pit Monsters