Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christmas Ghosts

Illustration by James McBryde for the M. R. James ghost story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Now that the Halloween season has passed- well, HAS been passed for almost a month now- it seems like it should be time to put away all the ghosts and witches and other creepiness and start getting ready for the winter holidays* 

But the season of hauntings and creepy things lurking in the woods is far from over. It’s only just beginning, in fact. For many cultures, winter is a time when the walls between worlds grow thin and beings from Another Place step into our plane of existance. If you look into Yuletime traditions outside of America, you’ll find hordes of ghosts, witches, trolls, household spirits and other supernatural things creeping around the outside walls or hiding behind the stove.

One of the better-known examples of Yuletide spookiness is the British tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas. When you hear  “Christmas ghosts” you probably think of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (and maybe also the line about how “there’ll be scary ghost stories” from the song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sung most famously by Andy Williams).  But this was just one in a long history of tales. And indeed, it wasn't the only Christmas ghost story Dickens’ wrote.  

Winter ghost stories have been told in Europe for centuries, but in Britain, the tradition really took off in the Victorian period. These tended to be what you might call “cozy” stories. The protagonists were often well-to-do or at least comfortably off. The hauntings frequently took place in or around a stately manor or otherwise well-furnished dwelling. There was little of the macabre alien horror of William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen or the later pulp writers like Lovecraft. Nor did Christmas ghost stories possess the desperate, psychological horror of Edgar Alan Poe or Mary Shelley. These were tales meant to spook, but not horrify. Something to create a little creepy fun on a cold winter’s night.** A good example of this scary but ultimately harmless haunting is M.R. James' "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad", available to read here

James, by the way, is one of the better known ghost-story writers. Head academic administrator first at King's College in Cambridge, then at Eton College at the beginning of the 20th century, he was renowned as a medieval scholar and antiquarian, as well as a prolific author. Each year around Christmas he would write a new ghost story then invite his close friends, academic fellows and favored students to his rooms at the College where he would read the tale out loud by the flicker of a candle or a crackling fireplace.

There are many, many more creepy things lurking in the shadows around the winter holidays. I’ll detail a few more of them in future posts.

For now, here are a couple of great articles that delve deeper into the origins and traditions of the British ghost story:

*(If you’re into that, of course. I personally love Christmas, but I know there are plenty of people who aren’t big on this time of year. For some, it’s the constant barrage of commercialism. For others, Christmas is a time of painful memories and loneliness. Some just aren’t that into it. I can understand all those points.)

** As with any literary genre, of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the "cozy haunting" style of Christmas ghost. See, for example, Dickens' strange "To Be Read At Dusk"

Monday, November 20, 2017

Real Life Scarecrows

With this book I'm working on for my son, I've had scarecrows on my mind a lot lately.  And so I knew I just had to build some real-life ones for Halloween this year. My son enthusiastically seconded the idea and made sure I followed through by reminding me pretty much every day.

My son posing with Bauer. And also a random witch's arm prop from Spirit Halloween
Our first scarecrow, Bauer, was made out of old clothes from the Good Will store fitted over a wooden cross-frame, which you can partially see behind his legs. The arms are dead spruce branches from my backyard and the skull is a plastic prop tied on with rough hemp rope.

Bauer after losing his hat on a particularly windy day.  Decorative mummified cat for scale.

In this second picture you can see the base I used to keep the scarecrow from falling over. Initially I tried to simply drive the bottom of the cross-frame into the ground, but the soil is all hard-packed clay. So I had to stand him up with a wooden base instead.

For our second scarecrow, Cervus, I wanted an even more cobbled-together look. His body is made entirely of dead tree branches held together with zip-ties (the rope wasn't secure enough and kept falling off). The covering is a sheet of black scrap fabric from an old art project. While I would have loved to have used a real deer skull for the head, I couldn't find one on such short notice. So instead I used a plastic replica.

Cervus' body held together with zip-ties. Not the most stable structure. He fell over pretty much every day. 
Now that I've figured out the basics of scarecrow-making I plan to add more next year. Maybe a whole "Night Parade" of them marching across the yard. Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween Review: The Colour Out of Time by Michael Shea

H.P Lovecraft’s story The Colour Out of Space is, for me, the tale that best exemplifies his obsessive dread and horror at the uncaring, indifferent cosmos. For anyone not familiar with the tale, it is about a meteorite that falls onto a farm in rural Massachusetts. Something arrived inside the space stone, a bodiless presence detectable at first only as a strange color that does not fit into the normal visible spectrum that human eyes are used to. As the story progresses, the Colour slowly corrupts the unfortunate farmer and his family and lands, withering the crops, mutating the animals and eventually causing everything to grow sick and die. Throughout the tale, the Colour is unknowable, unidentifiable. It never manifests in a physical body. It’s not even clear if it’s even a living being at all. Maybe it’s a kind of radiation or an unknown element. Or something else entirely. It resembles a natural disaster more than a cohesive entity. More a flood or plague than an outsider entity like Cthulhu or the mi-go.

Michael Shea’s sequel is set fifty years after the events of Lovecraft’s story when the farm where the Colour fell to Earth has been drowned at the bottom of a man-made reservoir. The thing has been dormant for decades under the dark water, but now it is beginning to manifest once more.
 Shea’s book initially exhibits that same dread of uncaring cosmic catastrophe of the original story as the mutagenic taint of the Colour slowly and subtly seeps into the environment surrounding its watery prison. His tale also shows how such a cosmic incursion continues to affect victims long after the first encounter is over, much as a natural catastrophe forever leaves a scar in the survivors’ psyches.

  Eventually, however, Shea’s version of the Colour becomes increasingly more anthropomorphic. It is described as evil and hungry, scheming to terrorize and devour human life-force. At times it even seems to sadistically taunt the protagonists. A choice that, I feel, somewhat dilutes the horror of the thing.

In tone, Shea’s story actually feels closer to Algernon Blackwood than H.P. Lovecraft, primarily in the characters of its protagonists, Gerald Sternbruck and Ernst Carlsberg,  who are two elderly but spry and outdoorsy travelers as opposed to the bookish homebody heroes of the Old Man of Providence. I am especially reminded of Blackwood’s river explorers in “The Willows”, who also stumble into a realm of otherworldly beings whose very nature is hostile to human life.

Gerald and Ernst are deeply familiar with each other’s thoughts to the point that each can readily guess what the other is thinking, much like amateur detectives Monsieur Dupin and his companion from Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. I feel this comparison is apropos since Gerald and Ernst are themselves amateur investigators, setting themselves the task of discovering the nature of the miasma that is infesting the lake, if initially for no other reason than that they believe it is their duty to uncover the truth behind the mystery. Though once they see what happens to victims of the thing in the lake, they turn their quest towards stopping it before it can spread.

In an interesting twist, Lovecraft himself and his stories actually existed in the world of Shea’s novel. Here the being Gerald and Ernst are fighting actually served as the inspiration for “The Colour Out of Space”. Lovecraft learned of it from Sharon Harms, a young protégé of his who witnessed its arrival on Earth and the subsequent destruction of her childhood friend and his family.

Miss Harms is the most intriguing character in the story. She has been waiting for fifty years, keeping a vigilant watch for the Colour to re-emerge so she can finally have her revenge. Her methodical planning proves critical in the final confrontation. 

Thematically Shea’s book isn’t the best sequel to “The Colour Out of Space”. The being is far too anthropomorphic and malevolent. Nevertheless, it definitely stands on its own as an enjoyable story inspired by the mythos.

You can get a copy of The Colour Out of Time here.   

You can also read Lovecraft's original story, The Colour Out of Space here.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Two Sentence Horror Stories

To celebrate Halloween, and as part of a writing prompt on GoodReads, I've written 15 two-sentence horror stories. Enjoy!

Note: the places and times in the titles are meant to give a sense of "grounding" to the tales. To put each scene in a particular spot in time and space. 

Gilboa, New York  7:16 Am
I awoke to see the Man Who Was Only Bones disappearing through the door that led to the hall. I tried to reach out to him but my arm was just a hollow tube of skin, my hand just an empty glove.

Murfreesboro, TN  2:39 PM
Tiny cubes of my husband’s bones hovered like bumblebees against the blue summer sky. I tapped one and watched it spin slowly, marveling that the bones were still suspended three days after I’d taken them out of him and cast them into the air.

Avon, CT  9:13 PM
As I sat upon the grassy hill, enjoying the warm night breeze against my bare arms, I was quite surprised to see a second moon emerge from behind the familiar single orb. I was even more startled to see the two of them blink.

Ypsilanti, MI 3:07 PM
I looked up from my book at the sound of soft crackling. On the couch, the shell of my wife’s old skin- a papery, translucent thing like a cicada shell- was slowly splitting up the back.

Gardner Lake, Norwich, CT  1:37 PM
I rowed the boat out onto the lake until I could see the roof of the sunken house dimly outlined against the tea-dark waters below. Leaning closer, I could just barely hear the soft piano music coming from inside it.

Natchez, MS  1:23 AM
After five hours of frantic digging with shovel, trowel and my own torn fingers, I finally reached the coffin and yanked open the lid. Inside, as I’d feared, lay not my brother’s corpse, but a bloated pale maggot as long as a man.

 Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT  2:34 PM
I picked up the chunk of amber again, not sure if I’d seen right.  And there it was entombed next to a pair of winged termites: a perfect replica- no longer than my thumb nail- of that strange man that had been standing on my back porch last night.

Pameacha Pond, Middletown, CT  4:15 PM
Two eyes the color of lemon drops peered up at Timothy from the murky, soup-green water below his floating feet. He turned to ask Marcus if he saw them too, but found only a few small ripples where his brother had been.

Jupiter, FL  6:05 AM
I often see him out of the corner of my eye, standing against the wall. I have never seen his face because every time I turn to look directly, he vanishes.

Great Cypress Swamp,  Delmarva Peninsula, DE  6:55 PM
“Is it my turn now?” asked the yellow-eyed thing as she stretched out a veiny, six-fingered hand from among the duckweeds and pond slime.
“Yes,” Melinda said, smiling as she slipped the glove of human skin off her own clammy, fungus-blue hand and rolled it lovingly onto her sister’s.

Jefferson City, MO  7:14 AM
Mr.  Alexander lay in his bed with eyes closed and arms resting peacefully at his sides. Cautiously, I pressed my ear to his chest and heard the faint buzzing of the insects that had completely hollowed out his body.

Lynn, MA 5:23 PM
I rested my head against the cold, damp stone of the ruined root cellar and looked out through the collapsed wall at the hemlocks as they swayed back and forth. It took me a few minutes to realize that there was no wind.

Apex, NC  3: 17 PM

I was playing with a couple of those transparent floaters in my vision, making them dance and dart around. I made one land on my dog’s back, only to watch it enfold her in a transparent chrysalis and dissolve her in seconds.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halloween Reviews: Tales From the Underground by G. Elmer Munson

I picked this book up a few years ago from a harvest/craft/art festival as I was just starting to get into reading other local, indie authors. Many of the tales are set in Connecticut, which is pretty neat since I can readily picture the locals described.

Munson’s tales are reminiscent of old EC comics like Tales from the Crypt, or of anthology horror shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s like Tales from the Darkside, Night Gallery, Monsters, Dark Room and, well, Tales from the Crypt.

While Munson’s regular horror tales are alright, his skill really shows in his “undead plague” stories- Lovely Lea, Screamer, The Last Tower, Gaming, The Doomed Man and From the Bottom of Mirror Lake. By this point, our pop culture has been so saturated with fetid, wormy zombie-juices that we hardly even see them anymore. Yet Munson’s zombie tales add enough of a tweak on the trope to make them interesting.

At the end of the book, the author provides an appendix that explains the genesis of each story, an addition that I greatly appreciate. I love reading about the creative process that goes into a tale.

On to the stories themselves.

Blank White
A tale of severe writer’s block with a grisly ending straight out of those horror comics I mentioned.

Jackson and the Nothing
A man is chased through New Haven alleys by an angry cloud of darkness. But does the monster have a good reason for its anger?

A simple tale about a cat being an even bigger asshole than normal.

It’s A Trap
I see what you did there...

This story is flash fiction only a paragraph long, so to say anything would give away the whole thing.

Bad Cop
A sadistic cop terrorizes a young couple pulled over on the side of the road. I’ll be honest, this story nearly soured me on the book. There’s a gratuitous rape scene at the end that seems designed only to shock- which feels like a cheap, unnecessary trick to me. It’s especially uncomfortable in the wake of all the police brutality scandals that have come to light in recent years (though, to be fair, this story was written in 2012, before police abuse became more widely discussed in American media.)

 Luckily the subsequent stories brought my interest back.

Through the Window
A creepy, effective variant on the classic “the monster in the child’s closet is real” tale. I don’t think that’s really a spoiler since the very first line is “you told me there were no monsters”, which of course means that there clearly are.

Young brothers Robbie and Zeke share a room with a forest of toys scattered on the floor between their beds. As the story opens, Robbie has begun hearing strange skittering sounds coming from the pile. You probably have an idea where the story is going- especially after seeing the little illustration at the start of the beginning- but it gets weird near the end in a good, creepy way.

Lovely Lea
Okay, technically this isn’t a “zombie apocalypse” tale. It IS a story about an apocalypse though. And a growing contagion.

Hanging with Jack
Another flash fiction story. Not much else to say here.

Bimini Underground
My favorite story. Kwami and Jada have swum through a tunnel in the coral reef that leads to a strange, air-filled cave. Why does it seem like the walls are moving? And why is the water starting to burn their skin as if it were acid?

You don’t often get to see what the zombie transformation looks like from the perspective of the afflicted.

The Last Tower
Brandon and Rogers are the last two living people at an island prison overrun by the undead. They’re trapped in a guard tower trying to keep the hordes at bay. When their ammo finally runs out, they decide “fuck it”- they’re getting out any way they can.

In his accompanying notes, Munson says he sometimes uses this “fuck it” rule to advance his stories when they get stuck. What is this rule, exactly? To quote the author directly, it’s “nothing more than to have a character say ‘fuck it’ and do the opposite of what they were doing.”

Works for me.

If you’ve ever walked through a casino, you’ve probably seen those people sitting at the slot machines dropping in coin after coin, looking almost dead. What if sometimes there’s more truth in that image than you realize?

The Doomed Man
Another flash story. This one with a zombie theme to go along with the others in the latter half of the anthology.

From the Bottom of Mirror Lake
The waters of Mirror Lake have been turned into a biohazard sludge by the big factory on the shore.
As Connie and her boyfriend Greg sit on the old pier under the No Trespassing sign, they can see the factory brazenly dumping crates of toxic filth into the lake. Weird, large crates longer than they are wide...

You can get a copy of Tales From Underground on Amazon

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yet more scarecrows

Here's a new entry in my living scarecrows blog! To read more, go here.

The final illustration
In cities all over the world, you’ll often find at least one back alley that has walls completely plastered with blobs of hardened chewing gum. These “gum walls” seem to spring up spontaneously like a multihued fungus as more and more people add their expended mastications to the spreading horde. These curious works of collective urban artwork are sometimes highlighted with extra leavings, such as coins or seeds stuck into the sticky gum. It is from these little donations that tonight’s scarecrow, Chicle, arose.

Chicle’s (pronounced “Chee-klay”, not “Chick-el”) genesis came from two pumpkin seeds impressed into the sticky dots of a gum wall deep within the labyrinth of the city’s alleyways. It’s not clear exactly what made the seeds sprout and grow. Perhaps there was enough grime and dirt built up on the wall to provide rudimentary soil. Perhaps it was the Autumnal Powers themselves- those strange forces that breathe life into all scarecrows- nourishing and invigorating the seeds on strange dusts brought in by the chill fall winds.

The original doodle that I made for my son during a particularly slow day at work.

Whatever the cause may have been, the pumpkin seeds began to grow and sink their roots wherever they could find purchase in the cracked mortar of the brick wall or in the moist, grimy spaces beneath the gum dots. Eventually, they reached the stagnant, grease-slicked puddles and miniature dunes of blown dust at the base of the wall. The plants were small and wizened but clung tenaciously to life. Soon the city vermin- rats, roaches, fruit flies, pseudoscorpions and others- brought other nourishments to the gourds in the form of food scraps, decaying leaves, grease scrapped from discarded food boxes, and even their own droppings. Like many things about Chicle’s existence, the precise reason for this unexpected charity is not known, though it is thought to have been a primitive kind of worship. Perhaps the rats and roaches are more attuned to the presence of the Unseen world than humans realize.

 As the pumpkins grew, the vermin also took their own small rewards, nibbling away bits of flesh from the gourds for sustenance. When the pumpkin that would become Chicle’s head was ripe, the rats gnawed eye-holes into it and devoured the fibrous interior mush to create a hollow for the scarecrow’s spirit to reside.

When the time was right, the rats also brought together bits of trash to form the scarecrow’s body. Old, rusty pipes and scrap lumber became his arms while scraggly urban weeds became his fingers, and the pumpkins’ own dried vines twisted together to form legs. The Autumnal Powers even used the diluted essences within the gum of the wall to give Chicle a ruff of leaves and fruits from the Manilkara- the Central American tree from which the scarecrow’s namesake resin is drawn to create chewing gum.

Chicle now guards the gum wall, though from what exactly is, once again, not known. Patient observers have seen him cultivating more dwarf pumpkins from the seeds the rats extracted from his head. Is he raising an army to defend against some unknown foe? Chicle and his vermin companions do seem to display an odd fear and aversion to the crescent moon and will go into hiding behind the dumpsters and trash bags of the alleyway whenever the lunar orb is in that phase. Recently coins have begun appearing in the gum alley that have been bitten into sickle shapes by teeth much harder than an ordinary rodent's. Chicle displays a distinct fear of these tokens and will pace in agitation until the coin is removed by one of his companions.

If you're curious, you can read more about gum walls here.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Halloween Reviews: The Box Under the Bed by Eileen Albrizio

Here's a short entry for a short tome.

This is a book about being haunted. But these are not jumpscare phantoms or Creepypasta wraiths. Within this slim book, there are many ghosts of the more conventional sort- translucent shades of people passed from this world. But then again, maybe they are just conjurations of a brooding mind. For there is also a different strain of revenant here- formed from painful memories, regrets, mental illness- growing like phosphorescent gray fungi among the classic haunted-house wraiths. These other ghosts are the hollows formed by loved ones lost, and the dreads that lurk in the dark corner of every mind. This is horror in the vein of Poe.

The title is most appropriate, for the fears and memories are the kinds that are often shut up and locked away, pushed out of sight. Yet they continue to linger there quietly in the dark amid the cobwebs and dust piles, lying just below your sleeping head. Seeping up into your brain in the dead quiet at 3am.

The Box Under the Bed is primarily poetry, but there are a few prose tales sprinkled in the mix, including a section of flash horror stories that deliver quick little shocks of encounters with the undead. Like a lot of poetry, it merits reading a second time to fully absorb all the nuances and see the shapes etched out by the words like roots from a centuried oak in graveyard soil.

You can get a copy here.