“The First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers”—A Folk-Horror Story by Eric J. Guignard, 2018

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Cover art by Christine M. Scott.

The First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers

Eric J. Guignard, 2018

Originally appeared in The Fiend in the Furrows, An Anthology of Folk Horror, ed. by David T. Neal & Christine M. Scott, Nosetouch Press, 2018.

I never heard of basilisks ‘til the night of Murrell’s barn dance, but that was the night I met Rosalie, so the basilisks sorta took a back seat in my thoughts. I think it was Ronny Loom who told me, though his brother, Carter, was there too, and they’re one ’n the same, being just a year apart and closer than spittin’ twins.

“Poppa told me basilisks are crossing the Nolichucky River,” Ronny said. “Heard Lilac and some men from Kingsport bagged half a dozen already, but more keep showing up. Lilac says they’re worth more’n cougar pelts.”

“That old trapper’s still around?” I asked, more interested in hearing ’bout him than gabbing on new mountain game. Legend was, Lilac Zollinger had once been engaged to my great-granny Lizbeth, but Great-Grandpa Micajah dueled him for her hand and won, leaving Lilac with a bullet in the shoulder.

He healed, except for his pride, which supposing got wounded the most. “Heard Lilac caught the scythe two summers ago by way of momma grizzly.” “He survived that,” Carter said. “Thought everyone knew.”

Me and the Looms passed under the banner for Murrell’s dance and into his barn. Its double red doors were shuttered open and breathing yellow light like a hell cat, silhouetting straw-hatted farmers and their bonnet-hatted wives.

“Harv Ridout says Lilac won’t sleep under a roof, but rather beds down amongst the trees each night so he won’t soften up like us townies,” Ronny said.

Carter added, “Harv Ridout says Lilac punched a wolf that was fightin’ him over a cottontail.”

I rolled my eyes. “Harv Ridout’s got less sense—”

The sudden scream of fiddle severed my words, then the clang of guitar followed, and soon a gaggle of folks lined the varnished floor kickin’ up their legs like a train of asses. I never cared much for dancing and don’t know what others see in it. It’s not like kissin’ or anything, not even a little, and I should know ‘cause I done both. Dancing, you’re not even allowed to touch girls ‘cept on their hands, or Pastor Wright’ll whip your bottom scorched as Hell’s eternal fury for such a sin.

That’s when a girl I never seen before swung from the dance line, twirling delicate as a marigold bloom. Right away, my insides turned light and fizzy, like if ever I thought to float on moonlit mist, now would be the moment. She was tall and skinny, like me, but her hair went dark, and her eyes shone like copper pennies set in fire ‘til they glowed and sizzled. She wore a dress pretty as first snow, and it clung to her in the middle and billowed out everywhere else as she moved.

Truth was, I never felt that way looking at a girl before, not even when kissing Aimee Greenwood last Harvest Day. I only kissed Aimee ‘cause she started it, but I liked it too, though how it felt didn’t compare a blue belle to how seeing this new girl weave and bow to each man in line did. Suddenly I felt dancing would be the greatest thing in the world, especially if with her.

“New girl in town,” Ronny and Carter said together. “Heard her name is Rosalie Jacobs.”

“Rosalie,” I repeated, and I wondered where she came from. In Whaleyville, everyone knew everyone—even new folks—but she was a puzzler.

Murrell’s barn was stuffy hot that night, and the back of my neck stuck to the shirt collar with sweat. I ran a checkered sleeve across my forehead and it came away damp and grimy, though I still felt my best in over two years, since that terrible day at the revival.

“I’m gonna ask her to dance,” I vowed. But no sooner had the words been spoke did that vow fall to bitter ash when I saw Rosalie link arms with Luke Holder.

Ronny and Carter shook their heads somber as grave diggers. Luke Holder was older’n us, sized the three of us together, and meaner than a pecker full of sin. It was the cruel joke of the county that he was good looking too, with a big, perfect smile that made gals do funny things, and with eyes blue as winter quartz: cold and hard and sharp enough to cut, should you fall on ‘em the wrong way.

“Hellfire,” I muttered.

Rosalie and Luke swirled and dipped in the center of everyone, and Luke’s hand dipped below her waist too, lower than was decent. I couldn’t believe no one blinked at that, not even Pastor Wright, who would’ve had my hide skinned and burned for offering to His Heavenly Mercy. Rosalie giggled, and I could’ve puked.

“Heard Missus Janey’s got sweet tarts she made from honeycomb,” Carter offered as consolation.

“Sounds fine,” I admitted, and we went off, the sounds of music and scuffin’ all around, Joe Halverson’s mouth harp pickin’ up speed and Holly Barber calling steps.

Must’ve been forty, fifty people dancing in the barn that night, and the big oak beams shook with the ruckus of stomping feet and caterwauls and everyone-but-mine’s laughter. We settled on a bench of hickory and tasted the sweet wonder of Missus Janey’s tarts, and I started feeling better.

“Wonder if Lilac would take us with him after some of those basilisks,” Ronny mused. “Wouldn’t mind to mount one for Poppa’s trophy room.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “What’s a basilisk anyway?”

“Ain’t you heard?” Carter asked. “They’ve been crossing the Nolichucky.”

“Yeah, I heard. What of it?”

“Well, they ain’t natural. Jonas Teakle called ’em the kings of snakes, but said they’re not entirely serpents either, only half-so. They were called forth by the pastor at Swannanoa’s church, and he’s to blame they’re escaping, on account he’s false and their church is awful wicked and full o’ sin.”

“Can’t be worse than ours,” I said, mocking.

Ronny and Carter both threw me strange glances, and I pretended to wipe away crumbs, hiding my face. They might’ve said something unkind next, but then trouble occurred. Seemed Luke Holder hankered for sweet tarts, too, and he wanted Rosalie to delight in their savor alongside him.

Each was panting and flushed from dancing when they came beside us. “… and then I split three logs at the same time,” Luke told her.

“And Judge McClellan said he never seen anything like it.”

“Three logs?” Rosalie repeated back, that coppery fire of her eyes seeming to burn brighter. “You’d have to be strong as an ox.”

“Bet I am!” Luke answered. “And hungry as one. Wait ‘til you try these tarts.”

Missus Janey had stacked several dozen tarts upon a porcelain plate, and set that on a tub for folks to help themselves. You could now see the painted rose blooms and vine swirl whimsies covering the plate’s face, ‘cause most of the tarts had been taken off and eaten within the first hour, they tasted that good. In fact, only two sweet tarts remained, and Luke and Rosalie reached for them.

I can’t help it, but sometimes there’s a sore, vindictive part of me that resents others gettin’ things I can’t have. That little voice took to whispering: It ain’t fair Luke Holder gets to have the girl and the last of the tarts.

My arm didn’t seek counsel with my brain and seemed to shoot out on its own—I snatched the last two tarts from the plate and stuffed ‘em both in my mouth.

“Oh, no,” the Loom brothers said.

“What in thunderation?” Luke yelled. “Those were our tarts!”

I tried to smartly reply how his name wasn’t written on them, but my mouth was so full of the honey-baked pastries when I spoke all that came out were chunks of sweet pie and sugar-berries spittin’ into Luke’s face and the front of his fringe-lined dress shirt.

“Oh, no,” the Loom brothers repeated.

My face flushed at the realization of what I’d done, and what I knew would be given in return: I expected the color filling my cheeks was probably as crimson as Luke’s own face, though I wasn’t mistaking his reddening for any type of shame.

I wanted to tell him it wasn’t my fault, I just act without thinking sometimes, but my mouth was sticky, and I feared what else might come out. I raised my hands to him, fingers outstretched in surrender, and they were smeared by the guilt of delicious berries. He lifted fists that could split three logs at the same time… I expected Luke to be angry, and I expected I’d be hit, and I expected the Loom brothers to stand idly aside. What I didn’t expect was Rosalie’s reaction.

She nodded at me, like we were akin in something, and when her copper eyes glinted, I wondered what terrible secret she knew.

Then Luke’s fists arrived.

* * *

Next morning was Sunday, and no one in Whaleyville missed attending church, regardless how poorly or humiliated they felt, or how many bruisings their face took the evening before at hands of the town lout.

Breakfast weighed heavy in my guts when we packed the rough pews of Whaleyville’s First Methodist Church of God Holiness, and that was not a good thing. Never a sermon passed that I wasn’t compelled to rise and sit and rise again, jostled and shoved by gibbering neighbors, forced to my knees, yanked by my collar, and threatened with eternal brimstone by frothing Pastor Wright. My innards cringed at the thought, as did my quivering knees. I hated it, just hated it, and each week I thought I might water my trousers wonderin’ if the Lord would again save me.

“Receive the genuine Holy Ghost fire!” Wright shouted. “Receive, because God loathes any man who keepeth sin in his heart. Receive!”

“Receive!” Pa and Ma and my little brothers and everyone else in the congregation shouted in kind.

“Don’t question His will like a puppet of Cain, fill yourself with faith! Receive the Word of God!”

Pastor Wright was fat, and I don’t mean overweight like the seams of his suit coat needed loosening, but he was so over-sized he couldn’t even wear a coat, and the Ladies Auxiliary had to sew special garments for him, cobblin’ fabric gathered by collection plate. When Wright bellowed The Good Word, his chins shook back and forth like each was battling to be saved first, and his belly plummeted down and bounced back up like a supplicating heathen. Suppose gluttony wasn’t so much a sin to him as it was a half-handed suggestion he could shrug off while suckin’ down a couple wine-basted pheasants.

“Receive!” Wright shouted again, and we echoed it, and he rattled off a thousand Bible verses, and everyone swayed and repeated those verses by heart, and they cried tears and fell to their knees while doin’ so, and a couple old ladies even fainted.

Before the revival, that would’ve been the culmination of our sermon, the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth response to satisfy any holy roller that he’d put the fear of Satan in our hearts and brought us begging for salvation.

But Wright wasn’t like other pastors and, for him, our worship thus far was just stretching before a ball game.

Prior to the revival, we’d been Whaleyville’s First Methodist Church, without the “of God Holiness” tacked on its end. Walt Brackenbury was pastor then, and he was a fine enough man, tough on Sundays, but friendly thereafter. Then Creighton Wright came challenging, and he brought his tests of “true” faithfulness: The snakes.

For Wright, it was simple enough to uncover nonbelievers by way of handling rattlesnakes: After all, God would shield those who led a Holy seasoned life. The snakes knew your heart, and if you were faithful, then by Grace you’d be saved, and the rest be damned.

Pastor Brackenbury must have been a charlatan, not living a genuine godly life, for he didn’t survive that first test of purity, nor did any others who clung to Brackenbury’s “flaccid” style of worship. Indeed, I thought myself faithful enough, but that hubris proved me as corrupt as Cain’s puppets, for the snakes bit me too—and I nearly died that day.

I’d since been terrified that my failings would prove too indecent an abomination to be weekly forgiven. I wanted to live God’s life, not from fear of damnation, but from fear of the serpents. I tried, but my flaws were known…

“Satan throws lies in our face, and you must throw back those lies! Armor yourself with the genuine Holy Ghost fire. Receive!”

Ronny and Carter stood in front of me, and they screamed with arms lifted to touch the rafters, “Receive!”

Jenny Teakle, cousin of Jonas, started convulsing and fell to the floor flopping like a fish pulled to the bank of the Nolichucky.

“She’s received!” went the joyous cry.

Old Mrs. Kittenridge, filled with arthritis, leapt in the air like a fervent hare.

“She’s received!”

Mary Ruth Barton started screaming, only they weren’t just shrieks, but actual words, though I couldn’t understand them, sounding like a duck quacking in Latin. Her rabid tongue hung from her mouth, and she jabbered away as the others cried, “She’s received!”

Four boys each carried in a snake box to Wright, and the sound of rattles clawed at my senses, louder and louder, promising to finish what they began two years prior. The beading sweat like I’d had at Murrell’s barn dance returned to my forehead, only now it turned cold, even though the church already felt hot enough to cook us all. Someone shrieked and another collapsed.

“Behold the agents of God!” Wright proclaimed, pulling out a rattler that must’ve been seven feet long. “Blessed be their judgment, for we will cast out the nonbelievers!”

That snake was a monster, hideous and terrible, striped orange and black with eyes yellow as angry flames. Wright held it to his huge face and the snake bared long fangs. “Jesus shield me!”

And he kissed the thing right on its awful mouth, a deeper kiss even than I gave Aimee Greenwood last Harvest Day, tongue and all.

“Only the repentant receive benediction!” the pastor shouted. “Come forth in faith!”

And we came: Pa and Ma pulling me in a rush with the crowd to prove none of them was less holy than any others, and I shook with terror.

The serpents were passed around like taking communion, people accepting and crying in tongues, and the snakes answering back. Parents and children caressed the rattlers together as if they were precious as a mewling infant’s cheek, petting the sinewy coils and glittering scales. The crowd surged like a swirling whirlpool with Wright at its center, and his rattlers hissed and judged, and one-by-one the people of Whaleyville were found righteous, unless they weren’t. Three people screamed for real and fell to the floor, filled not with His heavenly spirit, but rather filled with the wicked yellow venom of the vipers.

“Open your heart to the Lord, and repent your sins,” Wright said, “or the snakes will know ye!”

Pa cried out, “I coveted my neighbor John Loom’s crop of bean shoots last week!” and he took a snake.

Ma admitted, “I lied when I told my sons our dead dog went to heaven, since I know animals ain’t got souls!” She took the snake passed over from Pa.

I was next, and Wright shouted, “Repent!”

Horrible thoughts of the revival tent came to me, two years back when I first took a snake. I hadn’t been found worthy then, and a viper’s bite sickened me with wither and seizures.

Memories brought terror, and I cried tears and shouted, “I had unclean thoughts about Rosalie Jacobs last night in bed!”

The shame washed over me, the stigma and guilt of everyone knowing my deficiencies. And suddenly I saw her, halfway back in the clutches of our shrieking and chanting flock, and I averted my eyes, but not before I saw Rosalie’s red lips rise in a strange, biting smile.

But the power of salvation took hold and must have leeched the sin from my heart, for my mind cleared and I immediately felt righteous. I took the rattler by its neck and its mouth hissed open and a probing, forked tongue shot at me, testing, but I stayed strong, unflinching, even when its fangs reached for my wrist…

O! It rattled its war cry and tried my spirit, but finally acquiesced that my faith was good, and the serpent grew harmless as a spring pond.

“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” went the cries, and I was proven righteous as the lot.

* * *

The congregation picnicked afterward, as the weather was fine, and folks gotta eat, so we may as well do it together since Whaleyville likes to call itself “tight-knit.”

I still felt righteous, but I also knew I lied to myself a little, as part of me didn’t regret at all those unclean thoughts of Rosalie… I only repented from fear of the snakes, which was greater than my desire of her, though that didn’t cause my longing to be any lessened.

Gingham cloth was spread out, and some splintered benches and tables moved beneath giant boughed trees that were fat as Pastor Wright. The women set to laying plates and pouring drinks, and groups of men gossiped around us. I made out Herb Cranston’s voice above the others.

“… Heard a basilisk got at Philemon Talbot’s cousin in Kingsport last week, and that cousin died faster than a flying turd hits earth.”

“We gotta do somethin’ about it,” said Holly Barber, who called the dance last night. Holly was a stout, zealous man with side whiskers that billowed under his chin like wild brambles. “Those snakes are crossin’ the river.”

“Ain’t natural snakes, either. Hell spawn, called forth by Swannanoa’s church. It’s a wonder they ain’t been struck down for the abomination they are.”

“Snakes with the heads of chickens,” Jonas Teakle added, winking at his cousin, Jenny. Jonas was always winking at her and, rumor was, he’d taken her in the husband-sense long ago and continued still, even though it wasn’t allowed, them bein’ cousins and all. He turned and winked in the other direction at another cousin, Jimmy.

Herb replied, indignant, “We oughta teach them what the holy judgment of rattlers can do…”

Other men joined in, and their voices and words became indistinguishable.

“You hear that?” I asked Ronny. “They’re talking about snakes with chicken heads.”

“That’s what we were telling you last night. Don’t you listen? And the basilisks ain’t chicken-headed, they’re rooster-headed.”

“That’s perplexing.”

“Heard it true from George Templeton.”

“Well, I never heard of such a thing.” We sat squeezed between devout Jameson Lightspeed on one side and the freckled Peckingpaw sisters on the other. I thought briefly of the three folks snake-bit today, of what they might have done worse than the rest of us, then presumed God or Wright would either save ‘em or damn ‘em, and join us for chicken wings and slaw afterward.

Carter said, “Lilac’s been trackin’ the basilisks down, but the things ain’t amiable to extermination.”

Ronny added, “Heard you look at one and it’ll turn you straight to stone.”

I couldn’t even reply, that notion sounded so asinine, and I made a face that told as such.

“And if the basilisks bite you,” someone added from behind, “their venom will melt the flesh off your bones.”

The voice startled me, being so near. I turned, and it was none other than Rosalie Jacobs.

I puckered with humiliation. No one wants a gal to publically discover she’s the object of his midnight fantasies, and now I had to face her after professing all in church.

Ronny gulped. Carter sputtered, “A-Ain’t heard that.”

“I hear a lot of things,” she said, “though just because it’s preached, don’t prove it true.”

Rosalie stood over me as I sat, and her hip nudged my arm, and her hand squeezed my shoulder. The touch felt gentle and beguiling, a lush cloud to wrap me in scented billows. “That was brave,” she said, “to reveal yourself like that.”

“I—I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I, uh… it just slipped out.”

“You possess good qualities, Davey.”

“You know my name?”

“Doesn’t everyone know everyone around here?” True enough. She still held my shoulder, and I saw the tips of delicate fingers splay toward my heart. Her skin was bronzed, and her nails white as daisy blades.

When I looked up to her face, all I could say was, “Where’s Luke?”

Her red smile hinted that secret again from last night. “Luke has good qualities, too.”

Naturally, I didn’t know what that meant.

Carter brought the conversation back to him. “So what’re you sayin’? Basilisks ain’t real?”

“Oh, they’re real all right,” she replied. “Like your brother said, they’ve got the heads of roosters. And they have little wings midway up the body, stubby things like a baby bat. Not good for much, except lifting the serpent halfway off the ground.”

Ronny said, “I gotta see one.”

“So you shall,” she murmured, and he looked at her curiously.

Carter got himself excited. “I heard they’re born from an egg like a chicken, only it’s the rooster that lays it, not the hen. You hear that, too?”

“A male laying eggs?” I asked. “That don’t make sense. Has the basilisk got the plumbing of both sexes?”

“Actually, a male from any species may lay the eggs for basilisks,” Rosalie answered.

My brain twisted on that, while Rosalie gave me a look that sent all wits leaping overboard. She continued, “Though basilisks themselves are always female.”

And she stared into my eyes…

I heard in school one time that snakes on the other side of the world—cobras—can hypnotize their prey by staring deep into their eyes, and I thought of her look as that: I was immobile, transfixed, rent open for her to peer inside my soul, judging me, as did the rattlers.

Her gaze broke and she let go of my shoulder, shrugging a signal she was done with us.

“See you later, Davey,” she said, and I knew that was a promise.

Rosalie walked away, though at the same time I could’ve sworn I saw her walking away also from Jonas Teakle, winking at him the way he winked at his kin.

* * *

Next day, I woke to screams coming from the neighboring farm, and not at all like the rapturous screams during Pastor Wright’s sermon. Pa took his shotgun and ran out, not even wearing a shirt. His bare chest was a carpet of thick black hair, whereas my chest sprouted but few hairs, and those light and scraggly at best.

He didn’t wait for me, but I got my own rifle from the oak cabinet and ran after him, as it was my friends, Ronny and Carter’s family, who neighbored us.

I arrived there and saw Mrs. Loom was a terrible mess, clenching and unclenching her fists like wringing out an invisible cloth. A pile of bones lay at her feet, pooled by stinking muck that breathed steam and bubbles. She looked like she wanted to touch it, but couldn’t bring herself to do so.

Carter stood in the doorframe, pale as a bed sheet. He mouthed, “Oh no, oh no.”

“Where’s Ronny?” I asked, and Carter’s tears told me exactly where he was.

I felt to collapse.

“Goddamned snake monster got in here,” Mr. Loom roared. He carried a shotgun bigger’n Pa’s. “It slipped out back by the coops. We gotta get it.”

He and Pa went that way, and I followed, though they didn’t care if I was there or not, so taken were they by hunter’s bloodlust.

“Must’ve crossed from over the river,” Mr. Loom yelled. “Damn that hellish town!”

I followed only halfway across the long yard, Mrs. Loom’s cries nervously holding me back like a leash.

Just as Pa and Mr. Loom turned out of sight around the coops, I saw it.

The basilisk seemed to be waiting for me, poised behind a row of hedges, for only when I was alone did it pop out from the dewy leaves. A mask of feathered crust was the creature’s face, and the red comb atop its head waggled like swaying sawgrass. Indeed, I’d heard it described, but that didn’t lessen my shock seeing a snake with the head of a rooster. It wasn’t big, maybe the length of my arm, and half of that was just a long, ropy tail, covered in jade-green scales. Its stumpy wings flapped like crazy, only strong enough to lift the serpent’s upper body, just like Rosalie said, so the creature looked like a kite that isn’t quite airborne yet, its tail still dragging the ground.

I raised the rifle, but too late, its eyes caught my own! I froze, remembering what Ronny said—look at one and it’ll turn you to stone.

And it was true… I wasn’t stone yet, but I couldn’t move either, taken by the spell of its magic eyes, and I knew, just knew, the thing was reading me—the way Rosalie had—communicating something, or testing some quality of my spirit, and if I didn’t pass, transformation of my likeness into rock would befall.

Its ancient eyes glinted at me, a wink of copper-hued acceptance, and I was released. The basilisk dropped tight to the ground, tucked in its lil’ wings, and slithered back through the hedges.

I pointed my rifle under obligation and fired half-heartedly. My aim is terrible, and the bullet went wide, as I knew it would.

Pa and Mr. Loom came runnin’.

“I shot at it, but it got away.”

Mr. Loom cursed and dashed toward the hedge, where I’d blasted.

I saw Pa glance, not after Mr. Loom, but the other way, enviously at a stand of golden peach trees, knowing that our own trees were withered and gave us shriveled and bitter fruit.

Pa caught my notice, sighed, and clapped me on the shoulder. “Good try, son. At least you tossed lead at it.”

* * *

Ronny’s death launched the town into arms-bearing fury. By late afternoon, a group of men gathered outside our church, led by Pastor Wright spittin’ and frothin’ and screamin’ how we got to claim retribution, there being no allowance for serpents to kill folks in Whaleyville and get away with it (his own serpents being the exception, I presume).

The call went up for a party to hunt downriver next morning and kill every basilisk found, and then cross over to Swannanoa and see what needed doin’ there.

Judge McClellan shouted agreement, and so too did Herb Cranston and George Templeton and all the others. Joe Halverson, who played the mouth harp, joined in, only he was smilin’ all the while, though it was malicious-like, not a nice or secretive smile the way Rosalie gave to me.

“We oughta catch ‘em alive and slice off their wings and tails and eyes, and send ‘em still squirming back to Swannanoa’s church,” Joe said. He was known to break the legs of barking dogs just to watch them suffer for keeping him awake at night. Most folks felt righteous to avenge John Loom’s son, but Joe Halverson was of a wrathful and vicious ilk, and he just liked cutting and torturing critters for any reason.

I felt uneasy going, but it’s considered a queer thing in Whaleyville to ever decline a hunting trip. Plus Pa was big on it, and since I was friends with Ronny, everyone expected me to crave vengeance.

Though it’s true Ronny was my friend, I didn’t feel any obligation to avenge him; that small, resentful part of my brain reminded me neither of the Loom brothers ever defended or sought vengeance for me, even when Luke Holder practiced log splittin’ techniques on my face at Murrell’s barn dance.

* * *

Cold night fell, and it was all Pa could do not to wallop something, he was so excited and anxious about the basilisks, both killin’ them tomorrow and double-checkin’ every room to make sure they didn’t slither inside tonight and get us first. Like me, he was temperamental, and I knew that small, resentful voice in my head sometimes also filled his own.

“The Looms have a stronger fence than us, and the creature still got through,” Pa raged.

“The Looms thought they were better’n everyone else. That’s what got ‘em.” Ma was wary of his moodiness, and weary, too, chasing after my brothers who were fightin’ and hollerin’ as always.

Pa kicked over a chair, shoutin’ at no one. “Why should their peach trees and bean shoots grow more fertile than ours?”

It all seemed too much, and I decided I’d had enough and said so. “I’m turnin’ in.”

“Night, Davey,” they replied and went back to it.

I bedded down.

Outside, the moon was full like a pregger’s belly, it glowing through my window, me pacified by its calm. I gazed upon it, letting sleep rise in slowly cresting waves, when a pebble ticked off the glass. The waves of sleep receded. Another pebble, another tick.

I went to the window and opened it, and saw fiery copper eyes lit upon a bright, pert face.

“How’d you know where I live?” I whispered.

“Doesn’t everyone know everyone around here?” Rosalie replied.

True enough, I thought. Except for you

She added, “I’m going for a stroll. Care to join?” “Right now? At night?”

“Now is the time for all good things.”

My mouth went dry. Quick as a whistle, I tossed on my trousers, shirt, and boots, and went out the window to join her.

She took my hand in her own, and it was like seizing a shooting star.

“Thought I’d head to Swannanoa,” she said.

“That’s fifty miles across the river! And what’d you want there, anyway?”

“There’s shortcuts everywhere.” Her voice fell somewhere between a whisper and a sigh. “And I’ll tell you what I want…”

The road from my home was gravel and hard earth, but already it seemed to soften under my steps and grow dim beneath rising mist.

“Like to know a secret about your town leader?” she asked.

I acknowledged that I’d love to know Pastor Wright’s secrets.

“Your pastor drugs the snakes,” Rosalie said, enjoying my eagerness. “The vipers he keeps are harmless, much like a growling bull dog with no claws or teeth.”

“Those rattlers got teeth aplenty,” I countered. “I seen ‘em, I been bit by one!”

“Yes, the snakes retain fangs, but their venom glands are removed. Only parishioners that need be taught his lessons are ‘bit,’ and sometimes unfortunate others, just to keep the rest of the congregation honest to him.”

The perplexity on my face must’ve been obvious as a cannon blast.

She continued. “It’s Creighton Wright himself who bites people. He’s got a needle hidden up his sleeve that’s double-pronged to match the width of snake teeth. It’s filled with rattler juice, and he sticks folks while they’re clambering around him, half-frenzied and clutching snakes, so it’s not noticed he’s the real culprit. People can rile themselves up as much as any rampaging spirit.”

I thought of Wright and how large he was, wallowing in the center of us poor, teeming sinners who were unable to see from one side of his girth to the other. He could block our sight with one hamhock arm and we’d be none the wiser while he pricked someone.

“But why?”

“The usual cravings: power, ambition. Wright hails from Swannanoa, though he was cast out years ago, trying to supplant certain factions. He’s a dwarf of a man with a giant’s measure of himself.”

“Go on.”

She did. “Your former pastor was a faithful man, kept the river strong between our sides. And he died first at Wright’s hand. Now the waters of the Nolichucky are shallowed to puddles.”

And so it was, for I saw the once-mighty river far beneath us, a bare and cracked thing, winding between two worlds with no less impactful a boundary than a cobweb before charging steeds. Around us, the night shone brilliant, and flecks of gold and rubies twinkled in the sky, and planets and suns moved aside as we passed.

“You possess good qualities, Davey. Attributes I find attractive.”

I blushed that she’d find anything attractive in me compared to Luke Holder. I asked, “And what’re those?”

“Your imperfections.”

I blanched. “Imperfections, like my flaws?”

“Aren’t flaws what make men beautiful?”

“I’m not beautiful.”

“You are to me,” she said, and my heart filled my mouth.

We arrived in Swannanoa, and what I saw seemed nothing like Whaleyville, nothing like any town I’d ever known. Tall stone buildings crumbled at their tops, like towers long ago marred in siege. The walls were slick with dark lichen, their doors and windows mere openings rough-cut in masonry that showed distant fires burning within. The town slumbered in gloom as if being peered at through shadow wisps.

And it all swept by as a moving picture in fast motion.

Rosalie continued. “I have walked among you and chosen five whose qualities I love.”

At this, my heart sank that I was not alone in her favor. “So you’re sweet on five of us who are flawed?

Wright must be the love of your life.” “Wright is too wound up in his own beliefs. He is wicked, yes, but not… obedient.”

Rosalie’s face was still of beauty, still of midnight longings, but I felt confused, beguiled, even with her arms linked around me, and we swirling though shadow wisps, the way I first saw her swirl at the barn dance.

And the sore, vindictive voice whispered in my mind, Life ain’t been fair since that revival

We arrived at the end of roads, the bedrock of dreams, the crossroads of light and dark. There was no signage, but I knew it was the fabled church we feuded with, the one Wright laid all blights: Swannanoa’s First Church of Ecclesiastical Holiness.

And it seemed nothing like First Methodist Church of God Holiness. Whereas our church was a steepled box built of whitewashed wood planks, here a columned façade rose above the stars, and there was no door to close people out or in. A pair of stone basilisks stood at each side of the entry, and their eyes followed us as we moved inside where murky gloom wafted like the rest of Swannanoa.

And inside were more basilisks, and they came slithering to our feet.

“Wright binds you through fear,” Rosalie said, her voice a slippery thing, like the serpents. “Here it is only love… love for the First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers.”

“The what?” I said, feeling myself tense nervous, fearful, surrounded.

“They love those who love them,” she replied. “For basilisks are not invulnerable. Like everything, there’s ways to kill them, methods that are timeless, though not oft believed. Our congregation is growing, but still small, still weak. We need men of faith to help protect us.”

“Truth of it, I ain’t got much faith in anything.”

“I will teach you faith. I will show you what it means…”

And when she kissed me, a plume of fire charged through my loins, and my eyes rolled back, and my heart slammed against my ribs like an untamable beast raging at its cell. My confusion, my fears melted away, and I gasped.

Rosalie’s tongue prodded, slipped between my lips, entered me. It tasted hot and sweet as Missus Janey’s tarts, as supple and smooth as butter cream warmed on the hearth. It was lush forests and flowered springs and misty sunbursts. And it was not like kissing Aimee Greenwood either…

Rosalie’s tongue was slender, delicate, and longer than I imagined. Its tip split to a fork, and each end teased a place of my palate before slipping down the back of my throat. Her tongue filled my mouth, filled my airway, and still it kept sliding lower and lower like her hands as they plummeted below my belt.

My whole body went erect, and it seemed hard to relax and lie back on the stone floor when the whole of me wished to bellow in triumph and leap to the sun, but I let myself be led by the feel of Rosalie’s blissful instructions, for she told me what to do without any words.

And the entire time, another little voice cried in my brain that this was wrong, this was a terrible, grievous calamity, and I must find the grace and strength to stop, stop! This was a different voice, unlike the mutters of resentment so often filling my head, but this new voice sounded mighty akin to the sermons of Pastor Wright, whom I hate, so I told it to shut the hell up.

Hell is exactly what this is, the voice replied, none too subtly, but by then me and Rosalie were as one, and nothing else mattered.

* * *

It was dark when I woke in bed, having slept not at all, and dawn when I arrived at the wooded banks of the Nolichucky, dreading what must be done: I gathered with Pa and the others to hunt down the basilisks.

Twenty or so Whaleyville men were there, though Wright wasn’t among us. I doubt he even knew how to hunt, and his bulk would’ve given him a heart attack anyway, walkin’ a quarter mile in those brambles. He was all talk in more ways than one.

I knew most of the others by sight: Philemon Talbot, Joe Halverson, Jameson Lightspeed, Luke Holder, Harv Ridout, Carter and his father, and a dozen more. Only one man I didn’t recognize, and he moved among us with purpose and quick words, carrying a rifle and a pack made from ‘coon pelts. Though I’d never met him, I’d heard more legends concerning Lilac Zollinger than any other superstition.

He was short and stumpy with a drawn, sallow face carved by hard lines like a mining expedition hacked across it looking for precious, pretty things, of which they found none. He was the oldest man I’d ever seen but he moved like a moonlit whisper, in fleeting darts and cloaked by shadow.

“You’re Lizzie’s kin,” he said, eyeing me while ignoring Pa. “I can tell by the hook nose and way your shoulders slump. Always told her to keep her head high, but she didn’t listen.”

Took me a moment to figure he was talkin’ about Great-Granny Lizbeth, who was granny to Ma.

“Didn’t listen either when I said Micajah would do her wrong,” the old trapper continued, though his loud voice fell quiet. “That duel ’tween us, my gun misfired. Should be my blood runnin’ in your veins, not his. But tell her my regards still remain.”

“She died before I was born, sir.”

“That don’t matter,” Lilac shot back. “Don’t matter t’all to tell her.”

I didn’t know how to reply, so cleared my throat in response. Some claimed Great-Granny Lizbeth died mid-life of a lingering sadness, while others said it was no more than Micajah’s drunken fists. A fortnight later, Great-Grandpa Micajah got his throat mysteriously slit while sleeping in bed, and that was that.

“Ready to bag some basilisks?” Lilac asked to no one in particular. The other men grunted and hollered and raised their rifles in the air like a group of pale savages, he their elder chief.

“Whatever you do,” Lilac said, “don’t look in their eyes.”

He unshouldered the ‘coon pelt pack and pulled out small plates of reflective glass, explaining only, “Mirrors.”

Holly Barber replied, “Pastor Wright said quotin’ Old Testament scripture outta do the trick as well as anything else.”

“Wright’s got less sense than a filled crapper,” Lilac snapped, passing out the small mirrors.

“What in Hades we need these for?” Curtis Merriweather asked. “Ain’t gonna shave out here.”

That got a laugh from the others who were in higher spirits than myself. Most treated the morning as a festive occasion like the annual buck tourney, wagers laid on who’d return home with the highest count.

“Use the mirrors,” Lilac repeated. “Don’t look in their eyes or you’ll turn to stone.”

* * *

Curtis Merriweather was the first to look in their eyes and turn to stone. He let out an awful holler like a caught hen, knowing its head was about to elope at the nearest chopping block, and his flailing motions slowed, and his skin hardened to a cracked grey shell, and then Curtis froze solid. It didn’t make sense at all, and yet there he was, become like the marble statue of Andrew Jackson that anchors our town proper.

Jameson Lightspeed was next to look into a basilisk’s eye, and his cry sounded like a lark that’s got its wing shot off, all high-pitched scrills and a fusillade of ruckus. George Templeton was a mauled bear, roaring and bellowing until he became silent.

“Don’t look at their eyes!” Lilac reminded us by shouts.

Harv Ridout, like a jackass, followed Lilac’s order by closing his own eyes. He stood there, rifle in hand, with eyelids clenched shut as if playing hide-and-seek, and a monstrous gold basilisk slid over, sinking its fangs into his foot. Harv screamed.

Lilac fired at the creature while it was vulnerable, pumping venom into Harv, and the serpent burst in half. Its body convulsed once and collapsed, while its winged rooster-head detached from Harv’s foot, flew two flaps, then dropped to the scree with a gurgling squawk. Harv’s skeleton fell next to it in a puddle, the venom having already melted flesh from his bones.

Several of the hunters surrendered their guns right there and fled for home, and maybe they were the smart ones.

“Use the mirrors!” Lilac ordered, and he shot another serpent.

After that, the remaining men sorta fell in line, ‘cause the basilisks didn’t get any more. Nonetheless, I can’t say Whaleyville’s men did much damage either, taking pot shots here ‘n there, but at least by following Lilac’s lead and using the mirrors, they avoided the serpents’ gaze and even turned some of the basilisks’ eyes back on themselves, which fossilized the beasts.

Lilac Zollinger proved a beast himself, a marauding archangel delivering bull’s eye retribution through gunfire and mirror flash. He didn’t miss a shot, and basilisk after basilisk froze to stone or blew to bits. It’s a queer thing, gettin’ in the way of a hurricane, and most of us ducked for cover, out of the line of his rampage.

And as I watched him move, victorious, indefatigable against that strange enemy, I thought of Lilac as being righteously triumphant, the sort of man we needed to lead Whaleyville, the sort of man—though gruff—who stood his ground for honor and justice and truly inspired faith. Here was a man who should never lose… yet in dueling for the hand of Great-Granny, he’d been jilted by a misfiring gun, and such are events that prove our fallibilities. No one can insure against all odds, no one can imagine all outcomes…

And surely Lilac did not imagine Luke Holder suddenly lifting a rifle to him and firing.

Lilac’s forehead blossomed red, right ‘tween his eyes, which bulged funny-big in surprise. It was a perfect shot and Lilac dropped like a load of grain. There wasn’t anything Luke wasn’t perfect at.

Carter mouthed, “Oh, no,” just like he did when his brother got killed. I lifted my rifle and shot Carter also in the head, but of course my bullet somehow went askew, even though I stood only two feet away. His cheek blew in, and his temple blew out, though I aimed at his forehead like Luke had, but it was good enough regardless, and Carter fell beside the old trapper.

Joe Halverson shot Holly Barber, and Jonas Teakle shot Judge McClellan, and Pa shot Mr. Loom, declaring, “I never liked John Loom, anyway.”

After the shootin’, one other man was left over, Herb Cranston, who didn’t know which hand to crap in. Luke levered in another cartridge and shot him, too.

That left just five of us, and together we lowered our guns, sharing in the moment.

Though I was with Rosalie all night, it seemed I wasn’t the only one she’d bedded, for if I looked close enough at the other men I could see the slight matching bulges in their stomachs—like my own—marking the beginning signs of a basilisk egg growing inside.

Five remained, the First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers: Luke Holder, vain and mean; Joe Halverson, wrathful and vicious; Jonas Teakle, lustful and incestuous; Pa, petty and envious; and me, resentful and vindictive. Our weaknesses were known by Rosalie, and our weaknesses were loved.

Later, I’d wonder exactly how those eggs were supposed to come out, but there, on the way home, all I imagined was a fine and mighty revenge coming against fat Pastor Wright and his damned rattlesnakes.

-End-

Click here to support this great Anthology by picking up a copy…very affordable and worth it…

“True Crime”—A Fiction by M. Rickert from Nightmare Magazine, Issue 72, September 2018

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True Crime

M. Rickert, 2018

Originally appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 72, September 2018.

He cut off her arms and threw them on the side of the road. They wanted a boy. Her uncle taught her how to play the game. The last time anyone saw her she was dancing. She was drunk. She was flirting with everyone. She was wearing a short skirt. She had a lot of eyeliner on. She got into the car, which anyone knows is a stupid thing to do. She was stupid. Actually, she was very intelligent, but had no common sense. It wasn’t her fault. But what was she thinking? He pulled over to ask if she had seen his dog. She skipped down the sidewalk because she had just learned how to do so. The first time he hit her, he apologized and vowed never to do it again. He did it again. She had a crook in her nose where he broke it. She learned what brand of makeup covers bruises. Nobody guessed the trouble she was in. A lot of people knew she was in trouble, but a person who doesn’t want to be helped can’t be. They dated for six months before he murdered her. She was very popular. No one can remember her name. She was asleep in her bedroom, which was a diorama of her life from the pile of stuffed animals in the corner, to the cheerleading ribbons, to the college applications splayed on her desk. He snuck in through the window. A pillow can muffle screams and gunshots. She was strangled. She met him at a bar. Her friends begged her not to leave with him. She laughed. When she danced, she raised her arms overhead, her fingers apart, her hands catching the light. She spun in an ever-widening circle. She hoped there was a way out. She tried to remember everything she’d been taught about self-defense. She remembered all of it. She blamed herself. She cried. Her father told her he felt terrible. Her father told her it was a secret. He told her it was all her fault. She hiked alone. She married him. She told him she knew what he had done. She was waiting for the school bus. She didn’t run fast enough. She wore dark lipstick. When she opened her mouth to scream, she threw up instead. She wasn’t paying attention. She was day dreaming. Her mother told her she could not go on spring break, but she went anyway. She met her best friend for a walk. She fought until the very end. She couldn’t believe it was happening to her. If she hadn’t been wearing heels, she might have gotten away. He locked her in a room, but sometimes let her out. Why didn’t she escape? She simply disappeared; no one is even sure she is dead. She was home alone, studying, when they broke in. She jumped from the car. It was in broad daylight. When she screamed, he shot her. He used a knife. He was a stranger. She recognized his voice. He was a cop. He was a priest. He was her professor. Her husband. Her father. Her lover. Her boyfriend. Her ex. He was the high school star football player. He said he just needed to see her one last time. She went. She didn’t go. She was five years old. She was only seventeen. She was in college. She was excited about her first apartment. She was a newlywed. An empty nester. Never married. A grandmother. She was beautiful. She was plain. She had a bright future. An impressive career. Her whole life was a mess. She took drugs. She never took drugs, not even caffeine; that’s what her mother thought, but they found a Keurig in her kitchen. Was it a clue? Her Facebook page was mostly kittens. She didn’t have a Facebook page, which was strange. Her Facebook page was full of politics, and her opinions made her less appealing. How could she believe the things she did? She had a crack in her voice that was annoying. Actually, she was a crappy friend. She stole boyfriends and forgot birthdays. She rode her bicycle to the store to get napkins for the party. They never found her. She used to sing in her sleep. He thought she was older. He thought she was younger. He thought no one was watching. She thought maybe she’d become a private investigator so, when he showed up, she used her smart phone to stealth take a picture of him. She died anyway. She stands by the side of her parents’ bed, watching them sleep. She is a ghost. She runs over the same hill every night, and she doesn’t know why she is there. She’s afraid. She’s making a plan. He ties her wrists. He ties her ankles. She left the window open because it was a hot night. She came home and he was there. He was her first kiss. Once, she thought she loved him. She suspected he had moved on to her little sisters. She hoped she was wrong. She was frozen. Alive. She was broken like a doll. She was a doll. She was a bitch. She was crazy. She was timid. She was born to parents that loved her so much. She cried a lot. She never made a sound. She tried to do the right thing. She deserved it. She never, for one moment, believed it was her fault but she was sorry. She prayed. She cursed. She asked why. She never even had time to speak. She woke up and he was there. She turned, and he was there. He came out of nowhere. She raised her arms to the sky, her fingers splayed; she turned her face to the stars, she was spinning in the light, and everyone stopped to watch her.


Click to read this story at its original location, here…

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/true-crime/


About the Author & Author Spotlight-Interview from Nightmare Magazine

4BE5A21E-056F-4012-AF8C-3741F4C72A2CM. Rickert has published three short story collections: Map of Dreams, Holiday, and You Have Never Been Here. Her stories have been collected in numerous anthologies including American Fantastic Tales (Library of America), The Big Book of Ghost Stories (Vintage), Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror (Tachyon) and Shadows and Tall Trees 7 (Undertow Publications). She is the winner of the Crawford Award, World Fantasy Award and Shirley Jackson Award. Her first novel, The Memory Garden, won the Locus award. Before earning her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts she worked as a kindergarten teacher, coffee shop barista, Disneyland balloon vendor and personnel assistant in Sequoia National Park. She currently lives in Wisconsin where she is working on a new novel, and teaching yoga. Her story, “The Shooter” will be published in 2019 in Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories. Find her online at www.mrickert.net.


Author Spotlight: M. Rickert

Related Story: “True Crime”

Nightmare Magazine (NM): “True Crime” is all the more potent for the meta stream of consciousness form, the single paragraph encompassing so many realities and identities, too many for one woman, yet each embraced by a single feminine form. I read it aloud for my second read, savoring the experimental poetry of syllables and images. How did you approach the challenge of creating an entire narrative out of this particular form?

M. Rickert (MR): I didn’t think about this one a whole lot. I don’t tend to think about first drafts, in general. I write what I feel compelled to write, and then look at it and decide what to make of it. This one needed only a few minor adjustments. My early writing career was as a poet, however, and I do see the influence of those years of studying poetry and form in this piece.

NM: Tell us something about the inspiration behind “True Crime.”

MR: A couple of months ago, David Barr Kirtley interviewed me on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast and we got into a conversation about true crime as a genre. David mentioned that he was conflicted about enjoying such programs. I assured him that there is no reason to feel guilty for watching them. We are not made monstrous for trying to understand the monsters amongst us. Still, there is a voyeuristic aspect to that experience and, after our conversation, that aspect rose within me and asked to be addressed.

NM: Prose is both the scaffolding of a story and the vehicle that carries the narrative forward. The staccato nature of the prose brought to mind spinning under the flashing lights of a dance floor, a sentiment also reflected in the first and last lines of the story. When writing, how much thought do you give to a story’s structure? Are you conscious of the form, or does it flow from the narrative?

MR: The form flows from the narrative and then I consider it. For instance, I really appreciate your keen observation about the staccato nature of the prose in this piece and how it works with the fourth and last lines. My first draft ended in a slightly different place, which didn’t feel whole. After reading it through again, I discovered that reference to dance early in the story and saw how picking it up again at the end might work. Often, if I have moved forward in a piece to arrive at an unsatisfactory destination, I look at where I have been to determine where to go. It meant a lot to me to discover George R.R. Martin’s observation that some writers are gardeners and some are architects, while none are exclusively either. (Brandon Sanderson has an excellent lecture series on YouTube where he covers this subject as well.) I am a gardener in my initial approach, but all following drafts must satisfy the architect. In the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I devoted two semesters of my critique work to consideration of form within various novels and, as I said earlier, I began in poetry which is very form-aware.

NM: There are those who insist that writing should not be political, and others who believe that the act of writing and having an opinion is, in itself, a political act. Where do you fall in that spectrum? Do you consider “True Crime” to be a political story?

MR: I stand, passionately, by the power of language as an instrument for action. I think that those writers who feel inclined to write political work should dare to try. Writers should be wary of anyone who says their strength must be deployed only as a tool of entertainment. I do think of this particular story as being political, however.

NM: You’ve skirted the edges of horror and dipped your toes into the waters of dark fantasy. What scares you? What gives M. Rickert the shivers?

MR: Many years ago, when I lived and worked in Sequoia National Park, I worked ten days and had four days off. Sometimes, I could run those four days together so I had eight days off to go hiking. I was on such a trip once when I realized I was being followed by a young couple from Germany on the same trail. We didn’t walk together, but we were in shouting distance of each other. Eventually, a man passed me going in the other direction. What was it about him? I’ll never know. He sent a cold shiver down my spine, and I remember thinking how glad I was that those other two were close behind. His eyes were very dark, and he didn’t point at me like the guy in the Joyce Carol Oates story, but I felt like he had. People scare me most of all.

I had been surprised by, and surprised, bears during my time in Sequoia. Once I almost stepped on a rattler. Another time I thought I was on a trail but it was a ravine, and I came very close to basically walking off the side of the mountain until a bird called overhead, catching my attention. All those moments were frightening.

NM: Your website remarks on the “mysterious gaps” in your biography as where the truly interesting stuff happened. What is one of those bits of interesting stuff?

MR: Oh, I was just trying to be clever. My life is pretty boring. That’s the truth. Mostly.<

Tonight’s Read: “Houses Under the Sea”—A Story by Caitlín R. Kiernan, reprinted in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 8, May 2013

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Houses Under The Sea

Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2003

1.

Originally published in 2003 in Thrillers 2,
edited by Robert Morrish.

When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.

I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.

I close my eyes, and she’s standing in the surf at Moss Landing, gazing out into the bay, staring towards the place where the continental shelf narrows down to a sliver and drops away to the black abyss of Monterey Canyon. There are gulls, and her hair is tied back in a ponytail.

I close my eyes, and we’re walking together down Cannery Row, heading south towards the aquarium. She’s wearing a gingham dress and a battered pair of Doc Martens that she must have had for fifteen years. I say something inconsequential, but she doesn’t hear me, too busy scowling at the tourists, at the sterile, cheery absurdities of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Mackerel Jack’s Trading Post.

“That used to be a whorehouse,” she says, nodding in the direction of Mackerel Jack’s. “The Lone Star Cafe, but Steinbeck called it the Bear Flag. Everything burned. Nothing here’s the way it used to be.”

She says that like she remembers, and I close my eyes.

And she’s on television again, out on the old pier at Moss Point, the day they launched the ROV Tiburon II.

And she’s at the Pierce Street warehouse in Monterey; men and women in white robes are listening to every word she says. They hang on every syllable, her every breath, their many eyes like the bulging eyes of deep-sea fish encountering sunlight for the first time. Dazed, terrified, enraptured, lost.

All of them lost.

I close my eyes, and she’s leading them into the bay.

Those creatures jumped the barricades
And have headed for the sea

All these divided moments, disconnected, or connected so many different ways, that I’ll never be able to pull them apart and find a coherent narrative. That’s my folly, my conceit, that I can make a mere story of what has happened. Even if I could, it’s nothing anyone would ever want to read, nothing I could sell. CNN and Newsweek and The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Harper’s, everyone already knows what they think about Jacova Angevine. Everybody already knows as much as they want to know. Or as little. In those minds, she’s already earned her spot in the death-cult hall of fame, sandwiched firmly in between Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate.

Continue reading

What’s with All the Dead Bodies Under London’s Streets?

“Human remains dating back to the Roman Empire populate the grounds below the surface of modern-day London—representing a complex burden for developers; and a boon for archaeologists.”

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Up to 3,000 skeletons are being excavated from beneath London. Archeologists have set to work on the Bedlam burial ground beneath Liverpool Street (mashable.com).


London is a city built on bones, both figuratively and very literally. Luckily for archaeologists, the United Kingdom is one of few European countries that actively asks developers to balance the needs of the present against the preservation of the past.B7B72228-D241-44F4-8CD5-158856A13369


Grave robbers had gotten there first. Sometime in the 16th century, they ransacked the tomb for its gold and grave goods, leaving the bones behind and lid cracked.

But five centuries later, on the southern banks of the H Thames, in London’s Southwark neighborhood, the Roman sarcophagus was unearthed again, this time by construction workers building a new residential development. Weighing nearly three tons and buried sometime between 86 and 328 A.D., the stone sarcophagus contained the body of a woman believed to have been about 30 years old at the time of her death. The bones of an infant were found with her, but it’s unclear whether the woman and child were buried together.

The sarcophagus dates to London’s earliest years, not long after the Romans planted the walled settlement of Londinium on the marshy north bank of the Thames in 43A.D. The sarcophagus, to the south of the settlement and across the river, was found just to the west of a Roman road, covered by centuries of human construction and detritus.

It was the find of a lifetime for the archaeologists who worked on it. But in the course of London’s nearly 2,000-year history, perhaps it’s not so surprising at all.

The sarcophagus, its occupants, and 40 years’ worth of London’s Roman burial finds are part of an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands running until the end of October. “Roman Dead”, inspired by the sarcophagus’s discovery, explores how Roman Londoners treated death; many of the objects have never before been displayed. Some of the finds are grim, even for skeletons: four of the skulls on display came from a pit found near the London Wall (the Roman-built wall that once encircled the city) filled with more than 40 skulls of men between the ages of 18 and 35, all killed by blunt force trauma to the head.

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One skull found showed evidence of a gruesome, violent death (Museum of London).


Others are mysterious: the skeleton of a dog, buried in her own grave with her collar but without her head; an iron ring welded in place around an arm, unclear whether it was done before or after death or why. The exhibition also seeks to show that London has been, from its founding, a center of trade, peopled by immigrants from across the known world. One of the skeletons, for example, belonged to a blue-eyed woman of black African ancestry who travelled to London via southern Mediterranean trade routes. She was just one of the nearly 60,000 residents the settlement boasted at the height of Rome’s power in Britannia.

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2014 Quintessence Rouge, Chateau Pesquie, Côtes de Ventoux, Rhône Region, France 🍷🍷🍷🍷

I enjoyed a shared bottle of this very sexy, very complex, very lingering red last night at a new Wine Bar in town. It’s hard to describe so I will let the experts do so below. I’m a red guy all the way. While I do adore a buttery Chardonnay and a very dry white—a deep red with slow fingers gets me going every time. Try it. You’ll be glad you did!

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Country: France
Region: Rhône
Sub-Region: Côtes du Ventoux
Grape Varietal: Syrah
Review Score: 88WS*
Alcohol by Volume: 15.5%

Winemaker Notes:
Dense purple color with spices, eucalyptus, and leather on the nose. Soft and elegant notes of garrigue and eucalyptus on the palate with a long finish. Pairs well with stuffed poultry, wild boar stew, and soft cheeses.

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Critical Acclaim: 
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (RP91)—A vintage the estate is excited about as they loved the quality of the Syrah (don’t forget that Ventoux is quite a ways from the Rhone Valley and have their own climate), the 2014 Ventoux la Quintessence is 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache aged in a combination of new, once and twice used barrels. Medium-bodied, pure and elegant, with lots of pepper, flowers, cassis and a touch of vanilla aromas and flavors, it needs a touch more polish to its tannin, but it’s a beautiful Syrah that will keep for a decade.

Where to Shop:

http://www.chateaupesquie.com/en/wines.php

Further Information:

https://www.wine.com/product/chateau-pesquie-quintessence-2014/199097

Tonight’s Read: A World of Horror, An Anthology of Dark & Speculative Fiction from Around the World, ed. by Eric J. Guignard, 2017 (Intro + TOC + Links)

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Praise for A World of Horror

“Guignard’s editorial prowess is evident throughout; he has selected works that are as shocking as they are thought-provoking. This breath of fresh air for horror readers shows the limitless possibilities of the genre.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A fresh collection of horror authors exploring monsters and myths from their homelands.” —Library Journal

“A cultural tour in the sacred art of horror—definitive proof that ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and more are equally terrifying in every corner of the world.” —Fanbase Press

“This is the book we need right now! Fresh voices from all over the world, bringing American audiences new ways to feel the fear. Horror is a universal genre and for too long we have only experienced one western version of it. No more. Get ready to experience a whole new world of terror.” —Becky Spratford; librarian, reviewer, RA for All: Horror


Introduction: Diversity in Fiction

THIS, ANTHOLOGY, A WORLD OF HORROR, MARKS THE SIXTH I have edited (fifth published, with another forthcoming). Most of those books involved quite a bit of “slush reading,” meaning thousands of submissions coming in from hopeful authors around the world that I would evaluate and discard or accept. Although when I say “around the world,” what I mean is that roughly 95% of the submissions came from the same geographic areas of predominantly-speaking English nations (North America, England, and Australia) with a few outliers from elsewhere. It makes sense: I’m posting for stories in English, offering to print in English, and so English-speaking writers respond.

Yet at the same time, I also despair of reading the “stock voice,” meaning similar stories of plot structure, similar characters and situations, similar belief systems, similar fears; by no means does that imply what I’m reading is “bad,” but just that sameness leads to apathy of literature.

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In general, I think there’s a lack of cultural diversity in horror fiction, and I also think that’s something audiences want to see changed . . . at least I think that based on my own perspective: I love reading stories from authors around the world, because I love stories. I love fresh voices, unique ideas, I love discovering lesser-known monsters or fables, I love reading about history and civilizations and other peoples’ perceptions and conventions. And, while I think all this, I realize I’m part of the problem. Because of what came in via slush submissions on my prior projects, I didn’t look beyond, and I ended up publishing and promoting that very sameness of English-speaking authors who are all generally white, educated, and economically advantaged, and who, really, make up only a small percentage of the global population. Truly, there’s no shortage of tales to be shared from the rest of the world, but not everyone has the opportunity.

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