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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A teaser from "The Communion of Shadows"

Writing is a funny business.  Sometimes it seems like just getting a few pathetic little words on the page is a near impossibility, and sometimes it's close to effortless.  I had one of those lovely latter moments this morning, while working on my work-in-progress, The Communion of Shadows.  The story, set in rural Louisiana in 1850,  is about four friends, stuck inside during a thunderstorm, who have spent the night recounting their experiences with ghosts and the supernatural.  In this scene, one of them -- Leandre Naquin -- has just told the others that he is under a strange bargain his mother made with the Angel of Death, the upshot of which is that Leandre will only live until his thirtieth birthday.

Which is three days away.

W. A. Foster, The Angel of Death (1897) [Image is in the Public Domain]

The three other men, understandably distressed, try to come to grips with the impending loss of their friend.  The following scene ensues.


Leandre shrugged.  “In any case, I didn’t mean to upset all of you.  But you can see why the subject of ghosts was on my mind.”  He stopped, listened for a moment, then got up and threw open the shutters of the single window.  “The thunderstorm seems like it’s moved off.”
A light breeze of rain-washed air relieved some of the stuffiness in the little room.  There was a distant, faint flash of lightning, and the deep roll of thunder was far behind it and almost too soft to hear.
“Always the question at night.”  J. P. gave his friend a smile.  “Leave the shutters open for the air, or close them because of the mosquitoes.”
“I’m voting for the air, at least for a little while.”  Leandre propped his hands on the sill and leaned out, looking into the darkness.  It could only be a couple of hours before sunrise, but there wasn’t even a hint of pearl in the eastern sky.
“Aren’t you scared?” came T-Joe’s voice from behind him, after a moment’s silence.
“Scared?  A little.”  He paused.  “It’s like when I was a child, and I used to climb an oak tree that leaned out over the bayou.  You’re there, hunched on the branch, nothing but the empty air between your naked body and the water’s surface. It looks like it’s a hundred feet down.  You think, ‘I can’t do it.  I can’t jump.’  Your hands cling to the branch, your heart is pounding, you’re dripping sweat.  You know once you jump it’ll be all right, you’ll swim to shore and in a moment be ready to do it again.  But in that instant, it seems impossible.”  He paused.  “I’m once again that skinny little boy in the tree, looking down at the bayou, and thinking I’ll never have the courage to leap.  I know I can do it, and that it’ll be okay.  Think of all the people who have passed these gates, endured whatever death is and gone on to what awaits us beyond this world.”  He turned around with a broad smile on his face.  “If they can do it, so can I.”
A stubborn note came into T-Joe’s voice.  “Even our Lord Jesus Christ asked that the cup be taken away from him.”
Leandre laughed.  “Very well, my friend, when the Angel of Death shows up, I will make certain to ask.  But I suspect I will meet with the same success that the Good Lord did.”


As far as what happens to Leandre and his friends afterward, you'll just have to read it when it comes out.  All I'll say is what a friend once commented about my books in general: "If you think you know what's going to happen, you're almost certainly wrong."

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Struck by lightning

Something I get asked a lot, and for which I have no particularly compelling answer, is "Where do your ideas come from?"

The most honest answer is "damned if I know."  Usually, something pops into my head completely unbidden, then I have to write the story to find out what it's all about.

Like what happened to me a couple of days ago.  My wife and I were vacationing in Cape May, New Jersey, chilling on the beach and enjoying the sunshine until Thursday, when we had to make the seven-hour drive back home.  It was while I was driving, and my wife was dozing in the passenger seat, that the following came to me.  I've cleaned up the wording a little, but it's substantially as it came to me:
Claver Road doesn't end.  It withers away.  First from potholed asphalt to dirt, then to a pair of parallel wheel-ruts, finally fading into a tangle of blackberry, osier, and scrub willow.  If you tried following it any farther, you'd soon find yourself lost in the deep forest.  The only paths there are deer trails, and those are few in number.  Even the animals shun those woods.  The whole place is sunk in silence, stillness, and shadow, where a whisper sounds like a shout, and any humans foolish enough to go that far make sure to leave before nightfall.
Okay, so where'd this come from, and what does it all mean?

I have no frickin' clue.  Even the name "Claver Road" came to me along with the rest of the description; there is, to my knowledge, no Claver Road anywhere near where I live.  I'm the least superstitious person around, but this sort of thing very much feels like I was struck by creative lightning, the images and words jolted into my brain from an outside source.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Iain Thompson, Spooky Woods in Dalbeattie Forest - - 392901, CC BY-SA 2.0]

It has a Lovecraftian sound to it, though, doesn't it?  I'm certainly going to use it as the opening paragraph of a story of some sort, but whether short story, novella, or novel I have no idea.  My guess is it'll have something to do with a poor foolish unfortunate who went into the woods at the end of Claver Road and did stay past nightfall, but what happens thereafter, I guess I'll have to find out as I go.

And as far as what monsters live in this forest -- I'll probably be as surprised and terrified by them as my character is.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Tell me a scary story....

I just finished reading a book of Victorian ghost stories I'd picked up at a used book sale, and it so happens that my current work-in-progress is a ghost story itself.  This got me thinking about the topic of scary stories in general, and I thought I'd write a few recommendations for some of my favorite Tales of the Supernatural.  I'll be curious to see what my readers think -- and to hear what their favorites are. Always looking for new stories to read...

I have fairly definite opinions about reading material (okay, to be truthful, I have fairly definite opinions about most things).  To me, a good horror story is one that is evocative, in which there is a subtle touch – the imagination, I find, is far more powerful than the written word in creating frightening imagery.  It's as scary, often, to leave the door closed and let the reader spend the rest of his life speculating about what was behind it than it is to actually open the door and reveal the monster.

This is why gruesome stories really don't do much for me.  A story about a murderer with a chainsaw might disgust me, it might incite me to check to see if my doors are securely locked, but it doesn't give me that thrill of fear up the backbone that is what I'm looking for in a good spooky story, what the Scots call "the cauld grue."  Sheer human perversity doesn't fill the bill; there has to be some sort of supernatural element, to me, for a story to really cross the line into the terrifying.  Reading about homicidal maniacs simply is neither very appealing nor very scary (however scary actually meeting one would be).

All this is rather funny, because (as any reader of my other blog, Skeptophilia, knows well), I don't actually believe in the supernatural, and I obviously do believe in the existence of homicidal maniacs.  The fact that something that doesn't exist can scare me far worse than something dangerous that does exist is probably just evidence that I'm not as highly evolved in the logic department as I often claim to be.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

In any case, if you're curious, here are my top ten choices for the scariest stories of all time.  Let's hear what you think -- if you agree, disagree, or if you were prompted to find and read any of these.  Could make for an interesting discussion!

These are in no particular order, and there are no spoilers -- just a brief idea of what the plot is.

"What Was It?" by FitzJames O'Brien.  A house is haunted by a real, corporeal creature that also happens to be invisible.  And insane.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.  What would you do if you were the last human alive on earth -- because everyone else had become a vampire?  Don't watch the movie -- read the book!

"The Mirror" by Haruki Murakami.  If I had to vote for the single best-crafted short story I've ever read, this would be a strong contender.  A group of friends gets together for an evening of drinking and chatting, and someone notices that the host's apartment has no mirrors, and asks why.  Reluctantly, he explains.  You'll see why he was reluctant...

The Shining by Stephen King.  Once again, skip the movie and read the book.  You'll never look at a bathtub, or an old-fashioned elevator, or a long hotel hallway the same way again.

"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" by M. R. James.  A regrettably little-known story which is one of the eeriest things I've ever read.  A British tourist finds an antique whistle half-buried in the sand on the beach, and blows it.  He shouldn't have.

"Details" by China Miéville.  A woman voluntarily lives in a white, featureless room, eats only white foods, and has to close her eyes whenever anyone visits her.  The reason why is truly one of the most terrifying things I've ever read.

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs.  The classic example of not opening the door.

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton.  If this story doesn't scare the absolute shit out of you, you're made of stone.  A story about... a retroactive haunting?

"August Heat" by William Fryer Harvey.  What if you happened upon a stranger, a maker of marble monuments, and he was making a headstone -- with your name, and today's date, on it?

"Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe.  One of the earliest stories of possession.

So, those are my top ten.  Agree?  Disagree?  Any additional that you would recommend?  What stories have chilled your blood, that would be appropriate to sit in front of the fire with, late at night, when no one is awake in the house but you?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Communion of Shadows -- excerpt from a work-in-progress

I decided that for my next novel, I was going to write a good old-fashioned ghost story.  It's called The Communion of Shadows, and is about four friends stuck inside on a stormy night who decide to tell each other about the times they've seen ghosts.  It's broken up into four sections, as each tells his tale -- one is terrifying, one funny, one tragic, and the final one a combination of all three -- and in between each is a bit of the frame story, with the friends sitting around drinking and talking as the little house gets rattled by the storm.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The story is set in nineteenth-century southern Louisiana, an area of the country I know well because my mother grew up there.  Here's the first chunk of the frame story, which sets the tone for the rest of the book.  Enjoy!


August 1850

A desolate moan, and the wooden shutters rattled like there was something unholy trying to enter, but it was only the wind. 
Leandre Naquin jumped at the noise, then turned back toward his friends, the heat of embarrassment rising in his cheeks. Thunder rolled in the distance and the air coming in through the cracks smelled like rain.
“Scared of some noise?” J. P. Ayo’s characteristic grin flashed out in the dim lantern light. “Loup garou come out of the swamp to get you?”
Leandre gave a genial laugh, and the three other men joined in. “No, it just startled me. But it’s coming faster than we thought. Good thing we got the cane cut. Wind like this could blow it flat. Lose the whole field.”
J. P. gave a dismissive wave. “It’s not a hurricane, it’s just a summer thunderstorm. But you know what that means, T-Joe. You better stay the night here.”
Joseph Lirette, the youngest of the four, put on an expression so comically distraught that J. P. snorted laughter and slapped his knee. 
“Won’t hurt you none to miss a night with your pretty wife, T-Joe. You can just make sure and do it twice tomorrow night.”
T-Joe’s face turned scarlet. “That’s not it. I’m just… I hope she’ll be all right by herself. A storm, you know, she could get scared.”
Clovis Dantin snorted. “Better scared for a night than alone forever because you walked home in a storm and got struck by lightning.” He took a swig of the liquor J. P. had poured into tin cups from a heavy ceramic bottle, then leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“I guess you’re right.” T-Joe didn’t look convinced. He took a sip from his own cup, and grimaced. “Damn, J. P., what did you make this from? Lye and horse piss?”
“You get used to it.”
“Not sure I want to.”
Another roll of thunder shook the house. Leandre dropped into a wicker-backed chair, stretching out his long legs and propping his feet on the table. “Refill my cup with some of that lye and horse piss, J. P.”
J. P. obliged with a smile.
“Must be nice, living alone.” Clovis’s habitual scowl deepened, and he took another sip. “My wife’d never let me put my feet on the table like that. You got nobody telling you what to do day in, day out.”
“Nobody to welcome you to bed, either,” T-Joe said earnestly.
“Huh.” Clovis shook his head. “Happens seldom enough in my house, I’d be better off able to put my feet on the table.” He glanced over at J. P., and his expression softened. “Say, sorry, J. P. I didn’t mean…”
J. P. gave him a dismissive wave of the hand. “Don’t worry about it. Marie-Elise died almost two years ago. I’m not over missing her—doubt I ever will be, honestly—but I’m over feeling like every mention of wives or being alone is a knife in my heart. Tiens, you can’t mourn forever.”
“You think you’ll remarry?” T-Joe asked.
J. P. shrugged. “I don’t have a pretty lady ready to take me off to the church, if that’s what you mean. Right now I’m content to go to the fais-do-do and dance with all of them, then come back to my own little house when it’s over.”
“That’s my thought,” Leandre said.
“How about you, though?” T-Joe turned his gaze toward Leandre. “You’re what, twenty-eight?”
“And never married?”
“Why not?”
Leandre smiled and shrugged. “Too much else to do.”
T-Joe shook his head, his expression baffled. “I don’t understand y’all.”
Lightning flashed, its blue-white radiance shining for an instant through the cracks in the shutters. The thunder followed almost immediately, a deep-throated rumble that made the liquor in Leandre’s cup vibrate. “Some times there are good reasons for not having a woman, you know.” 
The corners of J. P.’s mouth quirked upward. “Such as?”
Leandre’s eyes met his friend’s, and he didn’t answer for a moment. Then he grinned. “So I can put my feet on the table.” Rain began to slash against the roof, and another gust of wind made the shutters vibrate. Enough of it made its way through gaps that the flame in the oil lamp guttered and almost went out. “Hell of a night. The kind of nights when the ghosts walk.”
Clovis gave him a raised eyebrow. “Ghosts? What ghosts?”
Leandre shrugged. “Whatever ghosts are out there. There’ve got to be millions. How many people are alive now, and how many people have died since Adam and Eve left the Garden? The dead outnumber the living, no question about it.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re ghosts.”
“Not all of them, no. But tell me, Clovis, you’ve never seen a ghost? Or known someone who has?”
Clovis opened his mouth to answer, then closed it without saying anything.
“Thought so.” Leandre laughed. “I bet we all have.”
“I don’t know why they’d be out in the rain, though.” J. P.’s smile flashed out in the semi-darkness. “Night like this, I would stay in my nice dry coffin. If I was a ghost, only time you’d see me is on a sunny afternoon. And to hell with appearing in a graveyard, you know? I’d show up in the middle of Sunday Mass. I’d love to see the look on Father Rousseau’s face.” His smile faded. “But you’re right, Leandre. I have seen a ghost. It was a long time ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“Whose ghost was it?” T-Joe leaned forward in his chair. His eyes were wide, but whether with fear or interest was impossible to tell.
“Her name was Thérèse. Thérèse Clerot. A woman who I knew when I was a child. She lived nearby, by herself, but it wasn’t so she could put her feet on the table.” He flashed a quick grin at Leandre. “My mama said about her that she was no better than she had to be, you know? A lot of the young men in the parish showed up to her house in the evening, only stayed a half-hour or so. But she never wanted for money or food. Even at my age then—couldn’t’a been more than eleven or twelve at the time—I knew what was going on. And now, looking back, I realize why the young men sought her company. She was beautiful, no doubt about that. Long black hair, flashing blue eyes, skin like rich cream. No wonder she was never lonely.”
“Then she died?” T-Joe said.
“Well, yes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because Thérèse Clerot finally gave up entertaining every young man who crossed her palm with a coin, and actually fell in love. The different men every night changed to one man who came to her cabin over and over again. His name was Michel Dominique.” He frowned, remembering. “Nobody much would have thought about this, because after all, everyone approved of Thérèse settling down, maybe even getting married herself, rather than carrying on all evening with any men who happened along. There was only one problem.
“Michel Dominique was already married, to the daughter of one of the richest men in the parish, Clément Lagrange.”
T-Joe gaped at him. “So his wife was Jacques Lagrange’s sister?”
J. P. nodded.
“I’ve talked to Jacques a dozen times. He never mentioned he has a sister.”
“No, he wouldn’t. She’s dead and gone, too, along with her husband Michel and his lover Thérèse. And the Lagrange family—well, let’s say they were just as happy to forget Julienne Lagrange ever existed.” He looked from one face to the other, and a flicker of his earlier smile returned to his face. “But like I said, that’s getting things out of order. If I’m going to tell the story, I should tell it proper. So if you want to hear it…?”
T-Joe and Leandre both nodded, and Clovis gave a noncommittal shrug, which was about all the enthusiasm he usually expressed.
Leandre refilled his three friends’ cups with liquor. “Then let’s hear it, J. P.”
“All right. Then I have to begin with the day Thérèse Clerot died. And I can tell you about that because I was the one who found her body.”
T-Joe gave a little gasp. “R’gardez-donc,” he said, in a near whisper. “So you’re not joking, or telling us a tall tale because it’s a stormy night.”
This time the thunderclap was so close that they heard a noise like a whipcrack, almost at the same moment the bolt of lightning struck, followed by an earsplitting roll. “Oh, no. It’s no tall tale.” He took a swallow from his cup, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Now that I come to think of it, I wish it was. But I can’t leave it there. Since I’ve started, I might as well tell you the whole story.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What I'm reading (#43)

If you're a fan of offbeat humor, you should read Swedish author Jonas Jonasson's loopy, fun novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

The novel is about Allan Karlsson, the eponymous 100-year-old man, who is looking forward to the hundredth birthday party they're going to throw him in the nursing home so little that he climbs through the window of his bedroom, makes his way to the nearest bus station, and sits down to wait for a bus to... anywhere.  Any place that doesn't have Director Alice insisting that he be a good sport and have a good time and wear a sparkly party hat will be just fine with Allan, thank you very much.

But fate takes a turn when a disheveled young man asks Allan to guard his suitcase while he's in the restroom, and the bus arrives before he returns...

... so Allan takes the suitcase and absconds with it.


[Click the image above if you'd like to order the book from Amazon.]

What's in the suitcase, and what comes afterward, you'll just have to read about.  Along the way we find out about Allan's checkered past, wherein he traveled all over the world and met Harry Truman, Josef Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Chairman Mao (and Mao's illustrious fourth wife), and inadvertently joined the Manhattan Project when he was hired as the coffee boy and showed that he had an uncanny knack for figuring out how to blow things up.  The result is a little like a cross between Forrest Gump and John Cleese's movie Clockwise, where a seemingly small mistake -- in Clockwise, getting on a train going in the wrong direction -- starts a series of dominoes falling that results in complete and utter chaos for everyone involved.

In Allan Karlsson's case, the one act of boarding a bus with someone else's suitcase causes an increasingly hilarious series of close escapes, the entire time with Allan placidly sailing through the furor with serenity and a Panglossian certainty that everything will turn out all right in the end.  After all, that's worked for him for a hundred years, why should it stop working now?