The Cannibal Priests of New England, part five: The Carrion Angels

There were four of them. They emerged from the lantern-smoked alleyways of the nameless port town, building themselves from shadows and burnt rags. Seven feet tall, their thin bodies wrapped in fluttering black cloth, they listed back and forth as they walked, their bones creaking like the rigging of ships. Their faces were open mouths drifting among the tattered ribbons and the gloom. Teeth glinted in the firelight like hard flint.

They stalked the narrow avenues of the town with measured deliberation, going unseen by most of the population, and sending those few that did see them shrieking and scattering like frightened gulls. Some of the more foolhardy among them turned and fired a few wild shots before running. The carrion angels were oblivious to all of it, their bodies accepting the violence they way a corpse accepts the worm. They swung their great heads toward each juncture of road and alley, lifting their snouts and huffing deep breaths as they tracked the scent.

They followed it to a darkened warehouse where they found the corpse of Thomas Thickett, the back of his head cratered and his brains splashed across the stacked crates and the packed earth. The stink of it made them drunk and they lost focus for a moment, hunched around this glorious fountain of scent, this unexpected confection. But they remembered their duty. Turning aside for the moment, they creaked slowly through the warehouse.

They knew almost immediately that the heads had been taken.

The trail resumed at the bay door, wending down toward the docks. But before they pursued it, they returned to the feast that had been left them. They surrounded the body of Thomas the Bloody and stooped to feed, lowering their heads into the bowl of his corpse. They ate with a grateful reverence, the sound of wet meat and cracking bone giving measure to an almost absolute darkness.

Outside, the town had erupted in a panic. Word of the carrion angels’ presence had spread fast and the narrow roads were choked with men fleeing for their ships. Pirates and sailors careened drunkenly, lurching, stumbling, trampling the fallen. Throughout the town panicked men shot and stabbed at shadows, and the road to the sea was marked by the bodies of the dead and the dying. Most of the women stayed inside, shuttering the windows and locking the doors; others, often the youngest and least experienced, followed the pirates to the docks, forgetting in the terror of the moment the temperament of these men, and remembering only when they were beaten back or shot as they tried to climb the gangplanks to safety.

The ships were alight with lanterns, riggings acrawl with sailors making ready for the sea. Boats were dropped from the sides and men were set to towing the vessels from the port. Gunsmoke hazed the air and the bloom of violence was a grace upon the town. They walked in their slow, swaying gait through it all, like four tall priests proceeding sedately through hell, confident in their faith.

The scent ended at the docks. The crate of heads had gone to sea.

It was a small thing to sneak passage aboard a ship. The carrion angels dissolved into rags and dust, blowing like so much garbage in the wind, carrying over the water and into the rat-thronged hold of one of the several pirate ships, settling amongst the refuse and lying as still as the dead.

The captain of this very ship, a hard old man called Bonny Andrew, who harbored a longstanding terror of these creatures yet misjudged their physical nature, waited until they had reached some distance from land and ordered his ship to turn about, offering its broadside to the town. At his command the ship fired its complement of guns in a poorly orchestrated yet devastating volley, sending cannonballs smashing through weak wooden walls and bringing whole buildings to the ground. Another ship took inspiration from this and fired as well.

Within moments the nameless port town and its luckless residents were reduced to broken wood, and smoke, and blood. The pirates, satisfied at their own efficiency, rounded out to sea, dark under a moonless night.

The carrion angels slept in the hold. The scent’s trail was a road, even over the sea. They were sure of their step.

(Art by Jeremy Duncan)

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The Cannibal Priests of New England, part four: The Darling of the Abattoir

Alone in the first mate’s quarters, which had been surrendered to him without a twitch of protest by the one-eyed Mr. Johns at his captain’s order, Martin Dunwood lay in the cot suspended crossways across the tiny room and tried to acclimate himself to the deep pitch and tumble of The Lady Celeste as it pushed its way across the cresting waves, on its way to the open sea. Somewhere above him rain drummed over the ship, and its crew worked the lines and the sails with the precision — or lack of it — one might expect from a congress of pirates. Martin did not care to speculate on their abilities; he felt sick enough already. Instead he entrusted his fate to God and focused his attentions on better things.

Alice.

The promise of Alice pulled him across the sea, from his meager home in St. Giles to the polluted stink of London, and then to Tortuga and this wicked man’s vessel; he resolved that he would let it pull him across the whole of the world before he would ever give up his search.

The light in the lantern guttered as the ship plummeted down a steep trough. Martin snuffed it out before it could spill and light the room on fire. The darkness which fell over him was oppressive, as though someone had thrown a weight over him. The sounds of the water smashing into the hull, and of the raw voices outside shouting to be heard over the storm, became impossible to ignore. It seemed as though the whole ship’s complement had suddenly crowded into his cabin and begun knocking things about.

So he thought of Alice.

He remembered the first time he ever laid eyes on her: she had been standing on a corner outside a grocer’s shop. Her fine clothes and her red hair were disheveled and there was a horror in her expression, her face as pale as a daylight moon. Blood matted the expensive materials of her dress, caked heavily near the lower hem and arrayed in a pattern of sprays and constellations further up her body, as though she had just waded through some dreadful carnage.

Martin, who had been sent to London on his father’s errand the previous day, stood transfixed. He didn’t know what catastrophe had befallen her but it seemed she needed immediate help. He waited for a carriage to pass before he stepped out into the muddy thoroughfare, but immediately came up short — an older gentleman stepped out of the grocer and joined her at the corner. He too was well-dressed, though his clothes were free of blood. He threw an overcoat around her shoulders and hailed a carriage. Within moments he bundled her into it, and with a flick of the driver’s wrist she was whisked away, leaving behind her an ordinary corner on an ordinary street. The drabness of the image seemed to reject the possibility that she had ever been there.

It was not until years later that he saw her again. By that time his father had accrued some money through real estate, and had graduated into more elevated social planes. They had been invited to a party thrown by a local banker, and as Martin lurked unhappily in a corner of the room, resenting the pomp and self-satisfaction of the people around him, he saw her again.

She was standing amidst a crowd of men, young and eager for her attention. She smiled at one of them as he gestured to illustrate some point, and Martin knew at once that none of the fools had a chance with her, that she was wearing them like jewelry. He pressed his way through the crowd until he joined her little retinue.

If she noticed him as he approached she did not show it. He stationed himself in her outer orbit and just watched her. She stood stone still, and although she was properly demure and maintained the comportment of a young lady of her station, she was set apart from everyone around her. She seemed carved from stone. She was acting.

At the first break in the conversation, he said, “Didn’t I see you once outside a small grocer’s in the East End? It would have been a long time ago.”

Her eyes settled on him. They were a pale blue. “I rather doubt it.”

“You would remember this,” he said. “You were covered in blood.”

She betrayed no reaction, but even in that she revealed herself. No shock, no disgust, no laughing dismay. Just a cool appraisal, and silence.

One of the young men turned on him, his blond hair pulled back harshly from his forehead in a bow. “I say, are you mad?”

“Possibly,” said Martin.

“It’s all right, Francis,” she said. “He’s right. I do remember that day. It was quite dreadful. A horse had come up lame and had to be shot. It was done right in front of me and I think it’s the worst thing I ever saw.”

“I don’t remember a dead horse,” Martin said.

“Perhaps you weren’t paying attention,” she said. “So much goes on right under our noses.”

Within minutes she had dismissed her pretty men and Martin found himself sitting some distance from the party, talking to this remarkable woman who seemed to fit amongst these people the same way a shark fits amongst a school of mackerel.

“Why did you say that to me?” she said. “What did you think would happen?”

“I had no idea. I wanted to find out.”

“Hardly the right environment for radical social experiments, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would say it’s precisely the right environment.”

She offered a half smile. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Martin Dunwood. My father owns the–”

“Are you some sort of anarchist, Martin Dunwood?”

“Would it make me more interesting if I said yes?”

In minutes they were in the banker’s bedroom, fucking with a furious, urgent silence. Thereafter they met often, and always clandestinely. She was even more contemptuous of the world than he, prone to stormy rages, and he got drunk off of that rage. It was wild and different and echoed his own sense of alienation from the world. Their illicit sex was as much an act of defiance as it was a hunger for each other. After a month of this she took him to his first Farm, and he saw what she did there.

It was when he watched the blood drip from the ends of her long red hair that he knew he was in love with her, and that he would break the world to keep her.

(Art by Jeremy Duncan)

Motorcycle

When I lived in New Orleans I rode a motorcycle for about five years. It was a dark red Honda Shadow, VT600C, paid for with money I made as a bartender. I must have paced New Orleans and its surrounding areas several hundred times on that thing. My friend Sara taught me how to ride, and once I started it was hard to ever get off.

I remember very well getting out of the UNO newspaper’s office, where I was editor, at two in the morning on layout night, and driving across town through the empty night on my way home. I would come down Elysian Fields, with its pocked, rough roads, skirt the French Quarter where the music still played and you could smell the beer and the river and the cooking food, drive through the Central Business District and all the lights, through the Lower Garden District and smell the baking bread, and then up Prytania Street, where night blooming jasmine flooded the air with its scent. It was a direct engagement with the city at night, something that’s impossible to replicate in the shell of a car. Even in the heat of August, the wind cooled you as you rode.

I remember riding south into bayou country, the small ribbon of road carving a modest path through green crops of soybean or sugarcane,  huge and venerable oaks, the roadside seasoned with old, stormbeaten homes. I remember smelling the Gulf’s salty air and feeling the sting of blown sand on my face. Riding in the rain, the fear galvanizing, every nerve extended, every dip and chunk in the road a possible end, each finished trip a celebration of will, ability, and luck.

I sold it when I got divorced and moved to Asheville with Mia. I couldn’t justify the risk involved while I was a single parent. Sometimes it was hard to justify even when I wasn’t single. But I think about it a lot. Especially lately, as I close in on seven years here, and I find myself still working a job I thought would only be transitional, still single, still trapped in amber. And also as there are signs of forward progress at last, as my first book moves closer to reality and the first novel is underway, with a strong momentum. It’s a road novel, in some ways, and so naturally my mind returns to my favored experience of the road.

I won’t be getting one again any time soon. At least not while Mia still lives at home. But someday I will. I’ve always wanted to take a month-long motorcycle trip through Alaska. By myself, or in the company of someone else … it doesn’t matter. I can feel that day coming closer.

The evolution of a title

At Readercon this past weekend, I had breakfast with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press and we talked about the collection. First, we settled on a target date for the book’s debut: Readercon of 2013. That’s a year to play with, but — since they will be putting out several other books before then — the ball is already rolling. I’m told we have to get the cover art locked down in a month’s time, so we’ll be poring over possibilities in the coming weeks. This part, I must admit, is a lot of fun.

When choosing cover art, it’s necessary to consider the title. And the title to this collection has just changed for the third and, one hopes, final time.

When I sent Small Beer the manuscript, it was called Monsters of Heaven: stories. (I’ve never liked “… and Other Stories” as a part of a title; I prefer a book to have a single title, with the word “stories” close by, to avoid confusion (and sometimes I wish we could even get rid of that).) I told them I was also considering You Go Where It Takes You as the collection’s title, and that met with a much more enthusiastic response. I poled my friends, and opinions were pretty split between the two. Since I liked them both, I decided to go with the latter.

At Readercon, I was told that when they asked people they knew, reactions were decidedly in favor of Monsters of Heaven. More memorable, they were told. More likely to get picked up. “So we’re going with your original title,” they said.

Just one problem: the novel I’m working on now is called Map of the Lower Heavens. Though there’s no guarantee that will be the title when it’s finally on the stands, I have no reason now to think that it won’t be, and I don’t want each of my first two books to have the word “Heaven” in the title. So I suggested the third title, again drawn from a short story in the collection, which I thought could work for the book as a whole. This one, mercifully, everyone liked right away. (By this time the writer Jedediah Berry had joined us, and offered his approval as well.)

The book is now called North American Lake Monsters: stories. I like it because it sounds like a field guide, or a bestiary, and because lake monsters are necessarily hidden beneath a placid surface, which is a theme that links many of the stories.

This suggests an entirely different sort of cover art than either of the previous titles, and so I’m spending the evening looking for something strange and beautiful.

I love working with a press that cares so much about what the writer wants for the book. I can’t wait to see what we make.

New Work

First, there will be a minor delay in the next installment of “The Cannibal Priests of New England,” as Jeremy Duncan attends to personal matters. I do not anticipate the delay being longer than a week. The next installment — “The Darling of the Abattoir” — is one of the longer ones, in which we first encounter Alice and pick up a few hints about the Farms. Jeremy’s done an amazing job so far, and if he needs a little more time for this one I’m more than happy to give it to him. He makes me look good.

In the meantime, I’ll take the opportunity to offer some updates about other work.

“Wild Acre” is finally out, in Gary McMahon’s anthology Visions Fading Fast. This is a story I’m pretty proud of. It is, in a sense, a werewolf story, which I know some people find a little passe. I like to think this one is a bit different, though. It doesn’t go in a direction I’ve seen these things go. But I love werewolves. I’ve always found them pretty terrifying, and I was eager to take a crack at them. Here’s a money shot:

“Finally he reaches the top of the hill and looks inside.

Dennis is on his back, his body frosted by moonlight. He’s lifting his head, staring down at himself. Organs are strewn to one side of his body like beached, black jellyfish, dark blood pumping slowly from the gape in his belly and spreading around him in a gory nimbus. His head drops back and he lifts it again. Renaldo is on his back too, arms flailing, trying to hold off the thing bestride him: huge, black-furred, dog-begotten, its man-like fingers wrapped around Renaldo’s face and pushing his head into the floor so hard that the wood cracks beneath it. It lifts its shaggy head, bloody ropes of drool swinging from its snout and arcing into the moonsilvered night. It peels its lips from its teeth. Renaldo’s screams are muffled beneath its hand.”

I’m working on a longer story called “The Atlas of Hell,” sort of a fusion (I like to think) of Richard Stark and Satanism. It’s much more in the tradition of the Cannibal Priests, though: there’s no goal here but to have fun. It’s fast-paced, over the top, and, I hope, a good time. It features Jack Oleander, a walk-on character I used years ago in a small piece called “The Malady of Ghostly Cities,” written for Jeff VanderMeer’s first Lambshead anthology. I’ve considered revisiting that character many times since; it’s a pleasure to do so now, and to really give him room to move around. I’ll be reading from this one at Readercon next week.

Finally, I’m working on the novel, currently called Map of the Lower Heavens. It’s a bewildering experience, writing in this form. I’m excited, scared — all the usual things when writing a novel, I suppose. I’m going to resist the impulse to post an excerpt just yet, but I probably will eventually.

And, coming next year: You Go Where It Takes You: stories, from Small Beer Press.

In real life, Mia just turned twelve, and she’s back in Alabama for three weeks to visit her mom. Once again I find myself feeling unanchored and listless without her here. But there’s suddenly a lot more free time; let’s see if I can’t derive some measure of good from it.

The Cannibal Priests of New England, part three: The Cargo

The sailors called him Thomas the Bloody, because it made them laugh. Thomas Thickett was a small, slender man: stooped, balding, and constantly ill. He had a penchant for nosebleeds — they came without warning, and always with a gruesome vigor — and so he received his name. He was born thirty-seven years ago in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but fled to the islands after escaping one of the Farms in Boston. He kept a gun beneath his bed, and he slept poorly.

He had come into possession of a small, ramshackle warehouse, situated far from the docks, in a game of cards three years ago. He stored unmarked cargo for indefinite periods without asking any questions, and he provided sails and timber to the quartermasters who came to him when it was time to refit their vessels. As long as he did these things he was assured a livelihood here.

Even so, he knew that the time to leave was almost upon him.

Rumors and whispers grew like mold in this dank little town, and he was beginning to hear words that scared him. Words like cattle hunters. Prospectors. Carrion angels. Cannibal priests.

He was alone in the warehouse. It was densely packed with mildewed crates, rolled canvas, bags of grain. A single lantern, balanced precariously on a wooden barrel full of God only knew what, cast a shallow little nimbus of orange light, and threw strange, wide-shouldered shadows against the wall. A cool wind blew in from the bay, carrying the sharp tang of ozone, the promise of rain and thunder.

He wished it would start soon. In the quiet he could hear the hoarse whispers, a dozen or more voices attempting speech in the strange tongue of the dead. The voices crawled over the walls like cockroaches.

He heard a pair of boots trod over the wooden floor outside his office and he sat quietly as the door was pulled open. Captain Beverly shouldered into the small room, his first mate close behind him. The captain’s eyes danced quickly around the contents of the room before settling on him at last.

“Thomas the Bloody,” he said. “Bless my bones.”

Thomas nodded at him. “It’s been some time, Captain. It’s a fine thing to see you again.”

“You’ve met my first mate, Mr. Thierry?”

“I have, sir. Yes. I have the cargo right here, sir.”

Captain Beverly and Mr. Thierry exchanged a glance. “Right to business then, is it? All right, Tom, all right. Show it to me then.”

Thomas the Bloody guided the two men out to the main floor of his warehouse. There was a large door here which would swing open to admit carriages drawn by mules or oxen, but it was secured fast, shutting out the din of the town. He carried the lantern in one hand to light their path. The whispering voices were louder in here; he felt steeped in ghosts.

The voices came from the crate, about waist high, which sat in the middle of the room like a diminished little temple.

“I have a carriage secured. It’ll be waiting outside,” said Thomas. “On my expense, of course.”

“Of course, Tom. Always reliable.” Captain Beverly nodded at the crate. “Open it.”

” … Captain?”

“I want to be sure.”

Thomas fetched a crowbar from a shelf and set to, his body sheened in an icy sweat. Nails squealed against wood and the top of the crate popped off. Thomas the Bloody stared inside despite himself. He felt the pirates come up on either side of him.

The crate was filled with severed heads. Their mouths moved thickly and slowly, pushing sound through their mouths in thin, reedy little wisps. Eyes rolled in their sockets. Tongues moved like grubs in earth. The heads were blackened with decay but they appeared to be European. The language they attempted was like nothing any of them had ever heard.

Captain Beverly clapped him on the shoulder. “Seal it, Tom.” His demeanor was much reduced.

Thomas gratefully complied, quickly nailing the lid back over it. The voices were barely muffled.

“There’s talk, Thomas,” the captain said to him as he worked. “The Farmers are looking for you.”

He paused in his work. He held one long nail between his fingers. He stared at the dirt caked around the fingernails, the grain of the wood beneath his hand. He said nothing. A dark coin of blood dropped from his nose onto the crate’s lid.

“Consider this a favor, old friend,” said the captain. He felt more than saw Mr. Thierry move behind him.

“No,” said Thomas the Bloody, but before he could turn the world opened in a terrible shard of light. He smelled burning hair, glimpsed a gore-streaked mess splash onto the crate in front of him, and was enfolded by the final darkness.

Captain Beverly wiped Thomas the Bloody’s brain from the crate with a handkerchief, then folded it gingerly and placed it back into his pocket. Mr. Thierry held the smoking blunderbuss at his side.

“See that this gets on board,” said the Captain. “And smartly. I want to be gone before the jackals arrive.”

Outside, it had finally started to rain.

(illustrations by Jeremy Duncan)

The Cannibal Priests of New England, part two: The Captain

Fat Gully slid into the city like an eel into a coral reef, steering his round body through the nooks and crannies of the crowd with an adroitness that Martin both hated and admired. It was just another reminder that he could not allow himself to be fooled by this squat little man, by his ungainly frame. He was a quick, murderous little villain.

The port was alive with its usual pitched debauchery. It was a ghastly place. Martin did not know its name and doubted something so wretched had ever troubled to acquire one. It was a confusion of noise and stinks: roaring and howling, gunpowder and piss. Taverns spilled with light. Women were passed about like drinking mugs from one lecherous grotesque to another — some seemed to enjoy it as much as the men, though perhaps that was only a side effect of hard drink; others wore the flat, affectless expressions he had seen on his first visit to a Farm, hidden away in the slums of St. Giles, back in London. Black faces abounded here; he’d heard that some were even free, though he found that hard to credit. A black man was as alien to Martin’s experience as a crocodile or a camel, and he found himself staring even as Gully hustled him along.

A dim glow marked the docks: fires and lanterns alight on shore, ship windows radiant as business was conducted within. The masts were like pikes struck into the earth — they gave an odd appearance of order beside the lurching little town.

Gully shouldered aside a man nearly double his size as he crossed the muddy street, and made his way for a two story wooden structure alongside the docks. It was clearly an inn, and a busy one at that, but there was little noise coming from inside. Martin looked for a name but, like the town itself, it seemed to have remained unchristened.

“Mind your manners, now,” Gully said. He pushed his way into the building, and Martin followed.

The room was close and hot. Several small round tables made up a kind of dining area; an arched doorway led into a kitchen where dim forms toiled. A fire grumbled to itself in the vast, grimy hearth. The flue was insufficient to its task, and black, oily smoke trickled up the wall and gathered like an ill portent on the ceiling.

Mr. Gully approached a table of three men, centrally located in the dining area. His demeanor was much reduced, and when he spoke, it was with none of his usual bluster.

“I brung him, Captain Beverly,” he said. “Like what I said.”

Martin knew the men immediately for what they were: pirates. They were not likely to be anything else, here in Tortuga, but the shabbiness of their bearing would have made it plain besides. The man on the right was older, his gray beard hacked short and his face a jigsaw puzzle of scars. One eye sat dully in its socket like a boiled quail’s egg, dull and yellowed. The man on the left was slender, almost boyish, his skin the soft brown of rain-darkened wood. Between them was Captain Beverly: incongruously handsome, though long unwashed, with shaggy blonde hair and a beard that had last seen a razor when King Charles himself had been a boy, or so Martin figured. All of them wore loose-fitting clothing and all of them were armed with steel. The younger man also held a blunderbuss between his knees, which his fingers tapped across with nervous energy.

“Oh my my, look at the pretty little thing,” the captain said, and the older man offered a chuckle.

Martin stood ramrod straight, determined to suffer whatever insults to his person were coming. He needed this passage. “Mr. Gully will have told you I have money,” he said.

“You’d better, Pretty. I wouldn’t want to think you’re wasting my time.”

When Martin just stood there, the captain spoke to Gully without troubling to look at him. “Ask the gentleman to produce the coin, Mr. Gully.”

Martin ignored Gully, whose face was a shadowy moon in the firelight, and withdrew his purse. He placed it onto the table, suddenly sure that one of them would cleave his fingers from his hand for the sport of it. When they did not, he removed his hand and let it rest steadily at his side.

The older man spilled the coins onto the table and counted them. The captain did not look at them at all. He kept his gaze fixed on Martin; he seemed happy, almost jovial. When his compatriot informed him that the money was sufficient, he waved a hand as though he was beyond such trifles.

“Mr. Gully tells me you’re bound for Nantucket,” he said.

“I am.”

“But I don’t want to go to Nantucket.”

“I don’t expect that you do. As far North as you are inclined to go should be quite sufficient, if you please.”

“Where do you come from, Pretty? From far away, I think.”

“I was born in Bristol. I sailed from London.”

“To what end, I wonder. Hm? A gentleman from the King’s good country, here in the savage clime, squandering his wealth.”

Martin wondered the same thing of the captain. He was an educated man; not at all what he’d been expecting.

“That is my own business, Captain. With respect.”

He sensed Gully stiffen beside him, but none of the seated men seemed to think anything of this minor rebuke.

“So it is, then, Pretty. See that your business does not interfere with mine, and perhaps we shall part as friends. Mr. Johns here will see you to your berth. My ship is The Lady Celeste and she is docked outside. Dishonor her and I’ll bury you at sea. Are we in agreement?”

Martin swallowed his pride. To be spoken to like that by a man of such low station — a thug who should be lapping water from the puddles in Newgate Prison — caused a pain that was nearly physical.

But Alice awaited him on the far side of this journey, and he could not afford the comforts of his station. Not now. But he would remember this wretch and he would see him suffer for this display, that he vowed.

“Yes, Captain. We are in agreement.”

Captain Beverly clasped his hand and gave it a vigorous shake. “Do let’s be friends, Pretty. Now follow Mr. Johns and perhaps I’ll join you later for a drink, and we shall tell wonderful stories of our youth, hm? Won’t that be lovely?”

The older, one-eyed man permitted himself another chuckle.

“Now forgive me, I’ve murder to do. I shall see you presently.”

He departed, the young dark-skinned man in tow. Mr. Johns, the old man with the dead eye, made no move to rise from his chair. “Sit yer arses down,” he said. “I mean to to be well drunk before I get back aboard that devil’s ship.”

Martin and Gully had no choice but to comply.

(illustrations by Jeremy Duncan)

The Cannibal Priests of New England, part one: Tortuga, 1662

Palm trees heaved in the night wind. Between them he made out a heavy layer of stars, like a crust of salt on heaven’s hull.  A briny stink filled the air, reminding him of how very far from home he was. The sea was calm tonight and the waves made a steady hush against the shore.

Behind him the small port town gabbled excitedly to itself: fiddles and croaking voices lifted in song like a chorus of crows, voices raised in anger or friendship, the calling and the crying of girls and women. It sounded like life, he supposed. No wonder it made him ill.

A shape lurched toward him from town: a man, fat and stumbling, a rag-wrapped something in his left hand. He navigated the sand with difficulty. The smell of rum blew from him like a wind.

“Martin,” Fat Gully said. His voice was thick. “What’re you.”

“Are you attempting to speak?” said Martin. “I’m taking some air. Please go away.”

“Nonono,” Gully said, his words sliding together and colliding. “No you don’t. No you fucking don’t.”

Martin controlled his voice. “No I don’t what.”

Fat Gully crashed down onto his butt, his fall cushioned by the sand. The thing in his hand looked bloody. “No you don’t take on no high-born airs with me, you fancy bastard. I’ll peel you standing, fat purse or fucking not.”

Martin wore his rapier, but he had seen Gully and his wicked little knife in action and was not eager to test him, even in his diminished state. Instead he turned his gaze to the gory rag in Gully’s hand, which had begun to leak a thin black drizzle onto the sand. “What in God’s name do you have there?”

Gully smiled and climbed slowly to his feet. The lights of the town behind him cast him in shadow as he extended his arm and opened his hand; he looked like a thing crawled from hell.

Martin inclined his head forward to see, raising an eyebrow. It took him a moment to make sense of it.

“I know what you’re about,” Gully said, a dull smile moving across his face. “I want a seat at the table.”

“I don’t know what you mean by showing that to me, but I assure you I have no use for it. Get rid of it.”

“You’ll learn not to bark orders at me, Mister Dunwood,” Gully said, rewrapping his dreadful trophy and securing it in some mysterious inner sanctum of his jacket. He did not seem in the least disappointed by Martin’s dismissal. If anything it, he appeared cheered by it. “Oh yes you will. We’ll see what it means once we get there, won’t we?”

For the first time in a long week Martin felt something inside him lighten. “‘Once we get there.’ Have you found us passage then, Mr. Gully?”

“I have indeed,” said Gully, smiling again. He turned about and made his tentative way back to town. A pistol cracked in some ill-lit alley and a cry of pain rose above the cacophony of voices like a flushed bird. Gully lurched in its direction, his purpose steady. “Come and meet our new benefactors, Mr. Dunwood. We ship with the tide.”

(illustrations by Jeremy Duncan)

The relaunch of The (Illustrated) Cannibal Priests of New England

Some time ago I started a serial here called “The Cannibal Priests of New England.” The idea was to update regularly but without forethought. I was to write each segment cold, making it up entirely as I went along. Everything was first draft; no revisions allowed. I maintained it for five installments before it became moribund, for a number of reasons I won’t get into here.

About six months ago, though, I started working on it again. I didn’t make any updates because my plans for it had changed. I recruited my friend Jeremy Duncan (an illustrator and blogger in the burgeoning OSR roleplaying industry, and husband of the fantastic new writer Alexandra Duncan) as an illustrator. I had ambitious plans: I wanted to launch the serial on its own dedicated website, with a design based on old pulp adventure magazines. The layout of the pages would be in large magazine-style typeface, with Jeremy’s illustrations adding some life to the entries, in the same way Sidney Paget lit up Sherlock Holmes in The Strand. I had some ideas for additional content, too. It all looked pretty wonderful in my mind’s eye.

Then I contacted a web designer and learned what all my pretty dreams would cost, and I scrapped just about all of it. What I kept, though, was the best part: namely, Jeremy’s illustrations.

So here we go again. I’m reposting the first five entries on a biweekly schedule, and from then on we’ll maintain that schedule (God willing) until the story is finished. I’ve already written well ahead of that fifth installment, so I think the prognosis is good. Once the story is done, we’ll see what happens. I’d love to see it printed in a small, illustrated book.

To those of you who have asked me about this story during its hiatus, thank you for your continued interest, and for your patience. I hope you like the new look as much as I do. This time it’s full steam ahead.

“and Love shall have no Dominion” by Livia Llewellyn

You think, at first, that it’s going to be funny. You think it’s a joke. Here’s the first line of the story:

craigslist > hell > district unknown > personals > missed connections > d4hf”

Craigslist in Hell? Okay. I settled in for something light.

And then the first paragraph:

human star, are u my gate to the world? – (central park west, August 2003)

it was the night of the blackout–do u remember? time is as one to me time is nothing to me time is nothing, but in ur linear existence it was Then, it was the night the city closed her hundred million eyes. one hundred degrees and still rising as heat bled up from the buildings and streets, anxious to escape into the cool of space, never again to be bound. u were walking up the western edge of that man-made forest in the hard pitch of night, humans stumbling all around, flailing and quaking under an unfolding sky of stars they had never before seen, or simply forgotten existed. humans, brilliant with the Creator’s life like star fire and u the brightest of all, but red and gold and white like my fallen Majesty, my sweet Prince, shining in the cesspools of earth he eternally spirals through, a necklace of diamonds crashing over shit-covered stone. and i? i was wandering to and fro upon and over the world, as our divine Prince taught us, and as i glanced down i caught the faint flash of a spark. that is what drew me down and in, the force and fuse of life that comprises ur soul. u felt it 2. do not deny: i know u saw the thick branches of the trees bend and toss in my wake, rippling and bowing before my unseen passage. i saw ur eyes widen, and the bright gold fuse of stargodfire coil in ur heart, darken and drop lower. u quickened ur pace, but u never stopped staring into the primal green mass, ur desire rising with the heat with the wind with every thunderous vibration of my coming. mystery power and the unseen currents of un-nature, revealed in the absence of confusion of un-light and machines–these things drew ur most inner self toward me even as u turned away walking up the long walled side of the forest, running ur hand against the ancient rock, fingers catching thick moss and small weeds, soft fingers scrabbling over hard cold granite sparkling-veined with the crushed bones of things long past. and the wall became my body my horns my mind and i lapped at ur creamy thoughts and the city shuddered in unease, and so did u.”

Even now, reading over that paragraph for perhaps the dozenth time, I get goosebumps. It’s one of the most audacious, commanding openings to a horror story I have ever read. The prose is a rough current: you step inside and you’re gone. We know immediately that this is the voice of something old, and dark, something to which time and space mean almost nothing as it is “wandering to and fro upon and over the world.” There is a sense of amoral entitlement: the disregard for the woman’s distress, the interpretation of that distress as an excitement, and an enticement. And there is a terrible beauty, conveyed both through language and through the sense of deep time: the city described in terms of organic life, shutting her hundred million eyes, unspooling its heat into the sky, like a thing dying; the woman dragging soft fingers across “cold hard granite sparkling-veined with the crushed bones of things long past.”

It is this beauty, I think, which gives this story its moral weight.

“and Love shall have no Dominion” is about a demon who falls in love with a woman. It never once succumbs to the temptations of camp, which it teases you with in the opening line, and flirts with throughout with the use of internet-conventional spellings and disdain for capitalization. Instead, it takes two brave risks. It plays the story straight, trying to imagine how such a love would manifest; and it tells its story from the point of view of the demon, who is genuinely in love, genuinely moved to obsessive action, but can only speak its love in the language of pain and debasement. It is unaware of this as a failing, or as a limitation. It’s the only language it knows.

“do u remember Catala, on the beach, thirty-six years ago, before it sank into the sands? u were only twelve, and u fell through the rotting deck of the beached ship while looking for treasure. i stayed with u for a day and night, until they found u. i made the cold ocean waters warm and kept the crabs and gulls at bay, and i put my hand on ur heart and held u ever so tight, my horns and wings ur shelter, my body ur bed. i thought u saw me, through the veil of your tears. i thought u smiled. i thought i kissed ur lips. i may be wrong.

no, that memory is gone. it never happened. i ate it away; and then i broke ur legs.”

I believe that horror fiction serves its function best as the literature of antagonism. It’s trite to say that it makes the reader uncomfortable, or that it attacks conventions of society. That is all true, but it’s easy to write about catastrophic violence or the degradation of the human body and mistake the feeling of disgust this causes in the reader as a successful assault on convention. This is a mistake too much self-desribed horror fiction falls into. Stories like that actually achieve the opposite of their intent: they bolster societal convention because the reader is not provoked into any kind of self-appraisal; the reader is only sickened, and the story is forgotten.

“and Love shall have no Dominion” succeeds in this regard because it takes its narrator seriously, and because it infuses the narrator’s intent and speech with a troubling beauty. The reader engages with the demon, apprehends its perspective, and is implicated. I don’t know if that was the author’s intent, and I don’t presume to speak to that. But this is how I read it, and this is what gives it so much of its power for me. This horror story offers no catharsis because it does not permit us the comfort of keeping evil separate from ourselves. It brings us into its heart, and though we are stunned and diminished by its cruelty, we are also entranced by its beauty.

And at the story’s end, when the demon performs the story’s final action, whether it is the ultimate cruelty or an act of breathtaking grace is an open question.

This is a ferocious story. It was published in an anthology edited by John Skipp, called Demons. To my knowledge, it hasn’t garnered much attention or acclaim. In some ways this is understandable. Reading it, like reading many of Livia Llewellyn’s stories, is an emotionally taxing experience. It offers the reader no consolation or catharsis. Llewellyn is also a woman writing in a genre which has an ugly history of being an unwelcoming place for women. There is still a thriving, troglodytic subculture in the field which will never take a woman seriously; the horror genre’s reputation for misogyny is not unearned, and will take time and effort to shed.

But there are more than enough of us out there who love powerful writing and who love the vast potentials of this genre to counteract all that. This writer, and this story, deserve your undivided attention. I hope it gets anthologized, recirculated, and read. It’s one of the best and most emotionally honest horror stories I’ve read. I don’t know how classics are made; but this one deserves the title.

“do u remember it, that single slow moment when our eyes met, when u truly saw me, when u touched and whispered to me as a lover? i think i no longer do. i think it was a human infection, a trick of the Creator, a cancerous dream.”