Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Nightmare Soup by Jake Tri, illustrated by Andy Sciazko


Since my previous post was all about spooky Yuletide stories, I thought I'd review some more horror books for the holiday season (okay, I admit this is also partially to finish reviewing some of the books I read for Halloween, too. I had big ambitions, folks!)

Folks who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s will remember well Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in The Dark. Well, mostly people will remember- and are probably still haunted by- the books nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  As far as I know, no other kid’s horror book since then has really been able to precisely capture the raw hiding-under-the-covers-all-night fear of that book and its stories.  But Nightmare Soup, written by Jake Tri with illustrations by Andy Sciazko, digs its twisted, ghostly roots dug pretty deep into that world.

The tales in Nightmare Soup are short and simple, like creepy tales kid’s would tell each other while sitting around a lone flashlight in a dark room (kids still do that, right?). The stories are all original but clearly drawn from contemporary horror and urban legends such as monstrous clowns, aliens and ominous, lurking Beings From Elsewhere like Slenderman and The Rake. There are also several works dealing with creepy real life animals- skin-burrowing botflies and the tongue-replacing sea louse Cymothoa exigua- that have gained infamy thanks to the internet. Many of these tales have the feel of Creepypastas, the internet’s answer to old campfire tales.

Andy Sciazko’s creepy black-and-white drawings are very clearly done in the spirit of Stephen Gammel’s illustrations. While some of the pictures are quite effective, I can’t help feeling like the art is trying a bit too hard to gross out the reader or project that nightmarish shock that Gammel’s art had.  That is not to say they aren’t good. Indeed, the illustrations often compliment Jake Tri’s stories quite well. And some of them can be extremely eerie.  But it’s the difference between finding a room with blood and innards splattered all over the walls and ceiling versus coming across an otherwise clean room with a few small crimson drops leading to the basement door.

There are some excellent stand-out stories in this book. I particularly like the poem The Sloth. I would not normally have thought of these slow, sleepy xenarthrans as being horror material, but this poem makes them into a particularly creepy predator that stalks its prey slowly, but inevitably catches them. The accompanying artwork is effectively macabre and unsettling.

I am also fond of the tales Full Moon Guests and Mr. Wilson, Their twist endings feel as if they’ve been pulled right out of old EC horror comics.  And, of course, I can’t help but enjoy the story Tongue- because really who can resist a story featuring the ghoulish charm of the aforementioned Cymothoa exigua.


If there is a flaw in Nightmare Soup it is that it seems to be trying to emulate the look and feel of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark without having enough of its own identity. I do genuinely admire the attempt to capture that nostalgic fear that Alvin Schwartz’s original books spawned in so many kids. I think this anthology will be most effective on modern kids who don’t know Scary Stories and will get the chance to experience that squeamish fear for themselves.

You can get a copy of Nightmare Soup on the book's website.

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?

Thunder
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.

Sarge
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?

Screamer
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.

Gaming
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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Halloween Reviews- The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fiction by Jeffrey Thomas



Jefferey Thomas is pretty famous in the realm of Weird fiction. Among his most popular creations is Punktown, a city on a distant planet where hundreds of extraterrestrial races try to survive amid class struggles, social alienation and gruesome body horror. The stories in The Endless Fall are not part of the Punktown Universe, though they all share many stylistic themes with that grim, starry city.
 Thomas’  tales are a parade of phantasmogoria. There are whispers all along the edges, hints of what’s really going on. But the story leaves it to the reader to piece together the truth behind the skein. There are strong veins of Lovecraft throughout these works, but also the dream-like mysteries of Richard Lupoff or Clark Ashton Smith.

 Thomas’ protagonists are lost souls. Whether pushed to the edge of society, alienated form loved ones, or simply choosing to live alone and aloof, they are oarless boats slowly drifting into strange seas lit by the corpse-lights of alien dreams.

The stories in this collection are:

Jar of Mists
A quiet tale about a bereaved father trying to understand why his estranged daughter killed herself. Was it to escape this world? Or to find another?

Jar of Mists is set near the otherworldly Sesqua Valley of fellow horror author, W. H. Pugmire. the Valley is a place somewhere on the West Coast of North America, but not quite in the same time and space as the rest of our world.

The Dogs
A recurring theme of Thomas’ works is a character remotely viewing a nightmarish future Earth destroyed by unfathomable alien horrors. In this tale a man uses magical formulae to see the unsettling evolution of humanity’s canine companions in a world where their masters and mistresses have long ago died off.

Ghosts in Amber
My personal favorite story. A haunting, beautifully weird tale of cobwebs, ballooning spiderlings, abandoned factory and fossil tree resin (or maybe it’s something more). As I said, Thomas’ stories are often dream-like and give only a few hints as to what is actually happening. This story is an especially good example. There’s much more going on than the reader sees, but the full nature of that larger reality is left to the mind’s invention.

The Prosthesis
Thomas (that’s the name of the protagonist, not the book’s author) works in a factory that manufactures medical prosthetics- including prosthetic fetuses for women who have suffered a loss. Thomas himself lost someone himself when he was just an infant- his twin brother Mason. And lately Thomas has been smuggling supplies home from work.

The Dark Cell
In the 1890s a young woman named Rose is sent to prison in Yuma, Arizona for killing her abusive husband. While there, she gets into a fight with an angry, bitter girl. As punishment for causing trouble, both of them are sent to a small, cramped cell in a lightless cave beneath the prison. The pit is meant to be a place to cool off, but the darkness brings out ancient, savage things that have been held down by the light of day.

Snake Wine
A former boxer from Australia runs a bar and brothel in Vietnam. One day a young woman brings him a bottle of snake wine-a classic Vietnamese liquor for virility. But the creature pickled inside the bottle is like no serpent he’s ever seen. It’s pale and pink with little vestigial limbs like an amphisbaena lizard or, so he jokes, a baby dragon.

The Spectator
They just appeared one day. Mannequins colored black as empty space. They appeared in seemingly random places in people’s homes all across the world. Immobile, unresponsive. Watching. What are they here for? And why has one suddenly appeared in the nursery of the narrator’s long-dead daughter?

Bad Reception
Another tale of a lonely man getting a glimpse of the cosmic horrors of the far future. A Korean war vet starts seeing strange visions on his TV, possibly a result of the weird frequencies he’s been picking up from the plate in his head.

Sunset in Megalopolis
A bit of an odd duck in this anthology. A superhero from the Golden Age of Comics has been trapped by his arch-nemesis in a stasis field for thousands of years. When he is at last released, he finds himself in a bizarre Paradise inhabited by creatures that maybe, possibly, were once human long ago- though they have been modified to the point of being unrecognizable as such.  Falling back into old habits, the time-displaced protagonist tries to be a hero to these beings. But their minds are so alien to his that he may be doing more harm than good.

Portents of Past Futures
The nude body of a young woman is found in a vacant city lot next to a series of weird street-art murals. Detective Sloane has to figure out who she was and also why she’s soaking wet when there’s no water anywhere nearby. And what does that old woman who lives across the street know?

Those Above
It’s been a long time since Those Above erupted from another dimension and enveloped the world in a dull gray sky of interwoven intestine-like tentacles. Hind is a worker in a factory that processes and renders bits of Those Above that fall to Earth. He makes blocks of gelatin that mortals stick their heads into at night to keep the monsters out of their dreams. He does a good job, but something about the company just doesn’t feel right.

The Individual In Question
The Individual in Question has endured...something. Some sort of massive supernatural event. He cannot remember what it was exactly. Only vague impressions. But the event has left him physically altered in a most unsettling way.

The Red Machine
Leslie is a frustrated artist working in a boring job where she gets no respect. To keep her sanity, she needs to create. At first it’s just sardonic, grisly cartoons that she hangs on the company bulletin board. But something dark is pushing around inside her. Compelling her to collect old junk- cardboard sheets, picture frames, old televisions, skulls. Compelling her to assemble them into a contraption that will give her frightening powers.

The Endless Fall
In the titular story an astronaut awakens in his space capsule to find he has crash-landed on a planet in the midst of deepest autumn. He can’t remember who he is or why he was even in space, let alone where he is now. Nor does he know the nature of those huge black pyramids coasting through the sky overhead.

You can get a copy of The Endless Fall here


Friday, September 22, 2017

Halloween Reviews- Walking After Midnight: Tales For Halloween by Evan Camby

For the Halloween season this year, I wanted to do a book review series. There's quite a range of works here. Some are short, spooky campfire tales, others are longer, slower gothic horror. Some are Lovecraftian. Some are old folktales. There's even a bit of creepy poetry.

For the most part I tried to stick to horror anthologies, but there one or two full novels did end up in the mix.

I'm going to try to post a new review every week until Halloween, and maybe keep going through November. Depends on how quickly I can read through them. Here's my first review of the season.





The stories in Walking After Midnight are short and simple in a good way. They feel like tales you might tell a friend to pass the time while you’re driving down a lonely lightless road at 1am. They also reminded of the classic creepy books from my childhood. Books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or, well, Scary Stories For Sleep-Overs.

The book is a quick read and while the stories won’t necessarily frighten you, they will certainly get you in that eerie autumn mood.

Hat Man
The first story is actually the weakest of the bunch on its own. It borrows too much imagery from Slenderman, Freddy Kreuger and Shadow People mythology without adding anything new. Even so, an anthology often works best as the sum of its parts and The Hat Man, when viewed as part of the book as a whole, adds that essential “boogeyman” element to the Halloween season.

Hayride
Who doesn’t love a fall hayride? It’s an integral part of any trip to an orchard or harvest festival. Just make sure that the ride is actually supposed to be part of the attractions.

A Good Samaritan
Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who has met a person in apparent need on a lonely road and felt that creeping anxiety that something wasn’t right...

Walking After Midnight
In the titular story, a man returns to the small rural town he left many years ago. While reminiscing with an old friend, he gets an idea to visit an old forgotten graveyard the two of them used to explore when they were kids. As they tromp through the cracked, eroded tombstones, they soon realize they are not alone in the dark. But it’s just the old sheriff giving them a hard time, isn’t it?

Into the Abyss
Ouija boards are just a goofy toy invented in the 1890s as a parlor game. Despite all the moral panic, a piece of cardboard with numbers on it and a little wooden planchette can’t actually summon spirits, can it? No points for guessing.

Trick & Treat
Shelley loves Halloween (don’t we all?) Unfortunately she and her husband live way, way out in the middle of nowhere. Despite all her spooky decorations, no trick-or-treaters ever come. Until tonight.

Walking After Midnight is an eerie, quick read. An appetizer to get you ready for more as the days grow short and the wind starts to smell of autumn leaves.

You can get a Kindle copy here


Monday, September 18, 2017

More scarecrows

Here's another entry from my scarecrow blog. Check out the whole thing here!


WINNOWINGS
The autumnal forces that give scarecrows life infuse every piece of their body. So much so that even sloughed-off scraps-- bits of burlap, rotten straw, shriveled gourds, and more- possess their own living essence. These remnants often form miniature bodies for themselves from whatever further fragments they can gather, creating tiny creatures called winnowings.

Like their larger cousins, each winnowing is unique. Unlike scarecrows, however, these smaller creatures usually have no desire or compulsion to guard a field and will often wander off to find their own purpose. Winnowings often gather together in small groups for companionship. There are even rumors of entire cities of these beings hidden in the remote places of the world.

Here is just one example of these groups.  From left to right, the winnowings are:

Routinier- His body is formed from an old wooden skeleton toy with dry roots for feet and neck, an old gourd for head, and a thin fabric strip from an old scarf for arms. Routinier has a fondness for sneaking up to hide under open window  to listen to the tunes played on old gramophones and these new radio receivers that are becoming so popular. He often sways his scarf-arms to the music, practicing for the day when he can make his own music, once he figures out just what produces those sounds he loves so much.  

Inglenook-  A couple of napkins stuffed with old straw, Inglenook was once a teru teru bozu (a small rural Japanese charm to bring good weather). He hung from the rafters for a few months before being blown under the porch in a fierce storm. Carried deeper under the house by wind and curious rodents, he eventually settled into a snug corner just under the big pot-bellied stove in the kitchen, a spot that remained warm even in the coldest winters. The house was abandoned and torn down decades ago, and now Inglenook wanders with his companions to find a new home. Preferably with some place warm and snug to sleep.

Farceuse- Formed from a small pumpkin that was forgotten in the patch after the larger gourds were harvested. She possesses a strong gift for acting and imitating voices thanks to months of listening to the workers at the farm. Farceuse often puts on short comical plays for the enjoyment of her companions, and any other fellow travelers they might be spending the night with.

Melorrhea- Another runt pumpkin with the added mobility of twig arms and legs and a few scraps of cloth that she sewed into a dress. She is a lover of music like Routinier. But where he wishes to conduct, Melorrhea is far more interested in composition. One might even say to an excessive degree. Several of her pieces, if played in full, last over six hours. She writes her compositions on old scraps of cloth, bits of wood, slips of paper, anything she can find. Melorrhea does not save her compositions, preferring to leave them wherever the group stops for the night as a little “gift” for the fans she is sure she will one day have.  This is not a problem as Melorrhea possesses an eidetic memory and can write down the entirety of her song at will.



Monday, September 11, 2017

Scarecrows I Have Known

So here's a new thing I'm doing. Scarecrow drawings!

Last year my son was finally old enough (four, to be exact) to really started enjoying Halloween almost as much as I do. As part of our spooky autumn festivities, I took him to a bunch of farms and orchards. Among all the corn mazes, pumpkin patches and hay rides, by far his favorite things were the scarecrows.

Since then he’s pretty much been on a non-stop scarecrow kick. Sure it fades from time to time as his obsession turns towards mummies, skeletons or pirates (naturally). But scarecrows are always there in the background.

A few months ago I started doodling scarecrows for him during slow periods at my job. As I drew, I made up little stories for each scarecrow, building up a pretty detailed lore.  Eventually I decided to develop a book. Two books actually. One will be a picture book for my son at his current age (also for my daughter who is herself a voracious book lover even at only one and a half years). The other will be a sort of “field guide” in the vein of Brian Froud’s Goblin and Fairy books, made for when my kids both get a little older.

I thought I’d share some of my scarecrow drawings with you guys, along with the background stories I created for them. I’ll be posting the original doodles, usually made on notebook paper or the backs of my daily schedules, along with more refined redraws.

Original sketch
The Redraw



HASPENALD

As a consequence of their habit of standing in one place in the field all day, many scarecrows develop an almost obsessive interest in studying a particular thing in their local environment. Some will learn the calls of every bird, insect and animal that wanders through near.  Some will catalog the size, shape and color of every single  rock in their field down to the smallest pebble. Some will identify and name every single spider they can find. And so on.


Haspenald’s obsession is the night sky. As the sun goes down, one can always find him in the middle of his cornfield gazing up at the stars. He has memorized the placement and  movement of hundreds of them. He knows the seasons of meteor showers and can even recognize the difference between planets and stars. Though he has never read a book on astronomy- and indeed, cannot read at all- he has learned a great deal about the nature of stars and planets from the Traveler Crows that visit his field. More on them later.

I'll be posting more entries on a new blog here.

The Pope Mastodon

Here's another article I wrote for the latest issue of Tracks and Trails, the newsletter for Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

I've had a fondness for mastodons ever since I worked at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (though when I was working there it was called the Ruthven Exhibit Museum). Two of the most prominent exhibits in the prehistoric life hall were a pair of complete skeletons of these hairy pachyderms (well, technically not complete- a few bones were substituted from other, less complete finds. And a couple bones were even recreated using early 3D-printing). Their enduring presence at the museum left an indelible mark on my memory. And apparently I wasn't alone in my fondness for these beasts as the mastodon was declared Michigan's official state fossil in 2002.

The U of M mastodons. Male on the left, female on the right.


Here's a clearer view of the female skeleton. Though she's not as dynamically posed as the male, she does have the distinction of being on display at the museum for several decades before her counterpart was unearthed and assembled.  

A close-up of the male's right femur, which was 3D-printed from a mirrored digital model of the left femur. You can clearly see the triangular "pixelation" due to the low resolution of this earlier technology.

And since I'm gushing over mastodons already, here's a set of mastodon footprints also from the U of M Natural History (Fotprints! From a mastodon! Could there be a finer fossil? Surely everyone must know by now that my other big fossil obsession is fossil trackways.)  


It was a very pleasant surprise to find that Connecticut has its own mastodon- though this one is sadly in storage at the moment. Fingers crossed that it'll eventually find a permanent home somewhere. 

Writing this article took a bit of basic detective work since the bones have been moved around so much. But I actually got to see them in real life AND discovered a very cool museum out on the western edge of the state.

Due to the newsletters limited space, I only got to share a few of the photos I took of the Post mastodon. But lucky for us a blog has no such limitations, so you'll get so see a lot more than the poor newsletter readers. Because really, who can ever get enough of looking at mastodon bones? 

Anyways, here's the article in full.


THE POPE-HILL STEAD MASTODON

It was not so long ago that giant beasts roamed New England. Under the shadow of retreating glaciers, amid the conifers and cold prairies that have themselves migrated far to the North, mastodons roamed. Protected from the chill winds blowing off the ice sheets by coats of thick, woolly fur, these distant cousins to the elephant and the more well-known mammoth inhabited Connecticut until nearly 12,000 years ago.   

Though mastodons look similar to mammoths- a confusion that is not helped by their scientific names (Mammut americanum for the mastodon, Mammuthus primigenius for the woolly mammoth)- the two animals had several distinctive differences. Mastodons were lighter-built with shorter legs. They also had a flatter back and head as opposed to the mammoth’s sloping back with its large fat-storing shoulder hump. 

A side-by-side comparison of a Mastodon (in front) and Mammoth (in back). Note: models not to scale. Or, er, color in the case of the mastodon. Mammoth model from Safari Ltd, Mastodon from tams7prairie on Ebay. 
The biggest difference, however, lay in the structure of their teeth and what they ate. Mastodons browsed on trees and bushes using large, cone-shaped cusps on their teeth for crushing tough twigs and leaves. Mammoths had ridged washboard-like teeth for grazing on grasses. Due to these different dietary preferences, mastodons inhabited the dense, scrubby forests of prehistoric America while mammoths stuck to the open grasslands.

(note: I didn't mention this in the article that got published in the newsletter, but "mastodon" means "breast-tooth". It was named by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who thought the tips of the cusps looked like human breasts. Uh, okay... if you say so, Georges.)

Tooth comparison. On the left is the Mammoth's ridged, grass-grazin' tooth. On the right is the Mastodon's pointed twig-crushin' and browsin' tooth. Also not looking particularly boob-like. Tooth models from the U of M Natural History Museum


The arrival of humans in North America is believed to have contributed significantly to the extinction of both woolly beasts, though the warming climate and changing habitats also probably played a significant role. Yet even though the mastodons may no longer roam America, their bones still lie waiting in the Earth

In 1913, workers digging a trench at Hill-Stead, the farm and house of Farmington industrialist Alfred A. Pope, uncovered just such a cache of giant bones. Realizing the significance of this find, the superintendant of Hill-Stead contacted the Peabody Museum. A team of experts from Yale guided by Professor Charles Schuchert, head of the museum’s paleontology department at the time, led the workmen in an excavation that unearthed a nearly complete mastodon skeleton. The body was missing only its tail, the small bones of the feet and its tusks. Though one of the latter would eventually be discovered a few months later.  

Workmen from the Hill-Stead site with bones. Picture courtesy Colleen Swift, Assistant Director of the Institute for American Indian Studies

The excavation was a local sensation and over the course of a week almost 2,000 people flooded the Hill-Stead property to get a glimpse of the bones being removed from their tomb. Numerous newspapers- some from as far away as Maine- reported on the discovery. It is not surprising that so many folks took an interest in this find. The mastodon had long held a fascination for Americans ever since the first five pound molar was dug up on a New York farm in 1705. Initially the creature to whom this giant tooth belonged was call the incognitum or “unknowable”.  But throughout the 18th century many more teeth, tusks, jaws and other gigantic bones were tilled from the soil, allowing scientists to identify the beast as a cousin to the elephant, though one that was unique to North America. Thomas Jefferson himself would use the mastodon as a symbol of the strength and vigor of the New World to counteract the belief among European intellectuals that the fauna of America was smaller and weaker than that of Africa and Europe.  

Jaw bone with considerably worn-down tooth cusps. In storage at the Institute for American Indian Studies

Since it was first freed from the ground in Farmington, the Pope mastodon has had quite a journey around Connecticut. At various times it has been housed at Yale, at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History in Storrs and briefly at the Hill-Stead property itself. However, the majority of the skeleton’s time has been spent at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT. The Institute, as stated on its website, “preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality and knowledge of Native American cultures.” The Pope Mastodon would make its first stop there in 1977  when the IAIS- then called the American Indian Archaeological Institute- incorporated it into a larger exhibit on the archaeology and life ways of the early Paleo-Indian inhabitants of Connecticut. It would remain on display until 1989, when it was sent into storage at the University of Connecticut, though it returned to the IAIS in 2015 for a 40th anniversary retrospective on the museum’s history.

Fibula, tibia and a knee cap. From the IAIS storage.

Close up of the tibia showing marks left by roots that grew around the buried bone

An analysis of the Pope Mastodon also undertaken in 2015 by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History determined the animal had died between 14,775 and 14,255 years ago, making it the oldest discovered mastodon in the Northeast.

Tired of looking at Mastodon bones? Of course you aren't! Here's a pile of ribs.

Okay, last photo. Here are a couple toe bones and a vertebra in the back. Note the long spinous process on top of the vertebra, and compare it to the pictures of the articulated skeletons at the beginning of the article. These processes anchored the thick muscles of the mastodon's neck and front legs.

Currently the Pope Mastodon is housed once again in storage at the IAIS.  But even if you can’t see the bones themselves, the Institute is definitely worth a visit to learn about the history and living culture of Native Peoples- particularly the Peoples of Connecticut such as the Schagticoke, Golden Hill Paugusett, Quinnipiac, Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot and other Nations. 

The Institute for American Indian Studies Museum and Research Center is located at 38 Curtis Road in Washington, CT. 

Check out the IAIS' website here