Ochre Sepulchre

Hraban Amsler came to the end of the forest path and continued apace. The sparse, charming wood thickening swiftly before him. Ochre and gold. Colors the harbingers of Fall.

He knew the route well and yet felt as if he’d taken a wrong turning. The feeling came unbidden into his mind, though the man knew he had taken the correct path, as he had countless times before.

After several minutes spent vainly attempting to recall his surroundings, he paused in a clearing and looked about, puzzled by the alien peculiarity of the place.

Skeletal branches scrapped the barren welkin as if in the throes of anguished fury and where once there had been stars there was now only ruts of deeper blackness, like scars upon shadow.

There was no wind; nor bird-song; nor cricket cry; nor the croaking of frogs; nor the gallop of deer; nor the skittering of skinks; nor the grunting of boar.

All about were bones and silence and nowhere was the path to Harrohane.

I swore I took the right path. And yet…

Amsler looked down at the watch strapped to his left wrist and muttered a curse. It was later than he expected, though the sun seemed not to have moved at all from when he left the well-worn path. If he didn’t arrive on time he was sure he’d be fired.

Amsler paused and rescanned the forest which seemed to be closing in about him. All about the trunks of the mangled wood were marks of wear, the bark torn and smoothed like deer-sign. He moved closer to the nearest tree, which bore no similarity to any species the man could recall, and bent to the smoothed area about its radius.

They were the marks of hands.

Human hands.

Hands moved by desperate, reptilian fear.

“What place is this?” Amsler wondered aloud, his breath coming cold before him, despite the oppressive heat of the vegetal enclosure. Again when he looked the trees had closed about him, the ground becoming thicker with snaking vines and grasping roots.

“Perhaps I’m dreaming.”

He felt his head as the sky became dark with the leafy canopy, the malevolent foliage drawing shadows upon the ground which danced as if in mockery and obscured the skittering insects which poured forth from flesh-sated soil and spilled like ocean waves against Amsler’s boots.

“Or hallucinating.”

The stalks of the ferns and trunks of the trees were now so thick about the man that the forty-by-forty clearing into which he had stumbled, had nearly disappeared, having now shrunk to the size of a living room.

“What I see, what I hear—this cannot be real, but rather some trickery—of my mind’s construction, or another’s. The marks upon the trees and the bones beneath them attests to the utility of panic. Even if this is some strange, new reality—which I do not believe—to react as my predecessors would prove fruitless. No, this is nothing more than a momentary fit of some kind. I know not its origins, but I know its solution.”

Steeled of mind, Amsler moved loquaciously forth, to a small stone mound in the middle of the clearing and there sat down upon it as branches reached out to him and insects flooded about his boots, exhuming the bones of the wood’s victims with their consumptive fervour.

He closed his eyes and inhaled as the stars, like arrows, fell from the welkin.

“I am unafraid of illusions, truthful though they be.”

When he opened his eyes the wood, and all within it, had gone. In place of the forest, a great sea of ash stretched out before him. The detritus began to shift, revealing a human form, skin cracked and glassy and breathless, and in its hand, a small bronze key, pristine amongst the flat, sandy expanse. Some fifty feet away from the ashen exhumation, a great manse stood out against the starless sky. Amsler observed the door of the house, which, like the key, was also of aged bronze. He bent to the curled corpse and trepidatiously reached towards the artifact.

An Inhabitant Of Carcosa (1886)

For there be divers sorts of death — some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God’s will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey — which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigour for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.

Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there be not something behind, other than that which he has discerned, I noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with Heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and sombrecoloured rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.

The day, I thought, must be far advanced, though the sun was invisible; and although sensible that the air was raw and chill my consciousness of that fact was rather mental than physical — I had no feeling of discomfort. Over all the dismal landscape a canopy of low, lead-coloured clouds hung like a visible curse. In all this there was a menace and a portent — a hint of evil, an intimation of doom. Bird, beast, or insect there was none. The wind sighed in the bare branches of the dead trees and the grey grass bent to whisper its dread secret to the earth; but no other sound nor motion broke the awful repose of that dismal place.

I observed in the herbage a number of weatherworn stones, evidently shaped with tools. They were broken, covered with moss and half sunken in the earth. Some lay prostrate, some leaned at various angles, none was vertical. They were obviously headstones of graves, though the graves themselves no longer existed as either mounds or depressions; the years had levelled all. Scattered here and there, more massive blocks showed where some pompous tomb or ambitious monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion. So old seemed these relics, these vestiges of vanity and memorials of affection and piety, so battered and worn and stained — so neglected, deserted, forgotten the place, that I could not help thinking myself the discoverer of the burial-ground of a prehistoric race of men whose very name was long extinct.

Filled with these reflections, I was for some time heedless of the sequence of my own experiences, but soon I thought, ‘How came I hither?’ A moment’s reflection seemed to make this all clear and explain at the same time, though in a disquieting way, the singular character with which my fancy had invested all that I saw or heard. I was ill. I remembered now that I had been prostrated by a sudden fever, and that my family had told me that in my periods of delirium I had constantly cried out for liberty and air, and had been held in bed to prevent my escape out-of-doors. Now I had eluded the vigilance of my attendants and had wandered hither to — to where? I could not conjecture. Clearly I was at a considerable distance from the city where I dwelt — the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.

No signs of human life were anywhere visible nor audible; no rising smoke, no watch-dog’s bark, no lowing of cattle, no shouts of children at play-nothing but that dismal burial-place, with its air of mystery and dread, due to my own disordered brain. Was I not becoming again delirious, there beyond human aid? Was it not indeed all an illusion of my madness? I called aloud the names of my wives and sons, reached out my hands in search of theirs, even as I walked among the crumbling stones and in the withered grass.

A noise behind me caused me to turn about. A wild animal — a lynx — was approaching. The thought came to me: if I break down here in the desert — if the fever return and I fail, this beast will be at my throat. I sprang toward it, shouting. It trotted tranquilly by within a hand’s-breadth of me and disappeared behind a rock.

A moment later a man’s head appeared to rise out of the ground a short distance away. He was ascending the farther slope of a low hill whose crest was hardly to be distinguished from the general level. His whole figure soon came into view against the background of grey cloud. He was half naked, half clad in skins. His hair was unkempt, his beard long and ragged. In one hand he carried a bow and arrow; the other held a blazing torch with a long trail of black smoke. He walked slowly and with caution, as if he feared falling into some open grave concealed by the tall grass. This strange apparition surprised but did not alarm, and taking such a course as to intercept him I met him almost face to face, accosting him with the familiar salutation, ‘God keep you.’

He gave no heed, nor did he arrest his pace.

‘Good stranger,’ I continued, ‘I am ill and lost. Direct me, I beseech you, to Carcosa.’

The man broke into a barbarous chant in an unknown tongue, passing on and away.

An owl on the branch of a decayed tree hooted dismally and was answered by another in the distance. Looking upward, I saw through a sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades! In all this there was a hint of night — the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl. Yet I saw — I saw even the stars in absence of the darkness. I saw, but was apparently not seen nor heard. Under what awful spell did I exist?

I seated myself at the root of a great tree, seriously to consider what it were best to do. That I was mad I could no longer doubt, yet recognized a ground of doubt in the conviction. Of fever I had no trace. I had, withal, a sense of exhilaration and vigour altogether unknown to me — a feeling of mental and physical exaltation. My senses seemed all alert; I could feel the air as a ponderous substance; I could hear the silence.

A great root of the giant tree against whose trunk I leaned as I sat held enclosed in its grasp a slab of stone, a part of which protruded into a recess formed by another root. The stone was thus partly protected from the weather, though greatly decomposed. Its edges were worn round, its corners eaten away, its surface deeply furrowed and scaled. Glittering particles of mica were visible in the earth about it-vestiges of its decomposition. This stone had apparently marked the grave out of which the tree had sprung ages ago. The tree’s exacting roots had robbed the grave and made the stone a prisoner.

A sudden wind pushed some dry leaves and twigs from the uppermost face of the stone; I saw the lowrelief letters of an inscription and bent to read it. God in heaven! my name in full! — the date of my birth! — the date of my death!

A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as I sprang to my feet in terror. The sun was rising in the rosy east. I stood between the tree and his broad red disk — no shadow darkened the trunk!

A chorus of howling wolves saluted the dawn. I saw them sitting on their haunches, singly and in groups, on the summits of irregular mounds and tumuli filling a half of my desert prospect and extending to the horizon. And then I knew that these were ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.

Such are the facts imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.

###


—by Ambrose Bierce, first published in the San Francisco Newsletter, December 25, 1886

Cassilda’s Song (1895)

Along the shore the cloud waves break,

The twin suns sink behind the lake,

The shadows lengthen

In Carcosa.

Strange Is the night where black stars rise,

And strange moons circle through the skies,

But stranger still Is

Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,

Where flap the tatters of the King,

Must die unheard In

Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice Is dead,

Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed

Shall dry and die In

Lost Carcosa.


 

 

 

 

 

 

by R. W. Chambers

The Lost Continent (1968)

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§.00


The Lost Continent (a 1968 Seven Arts-Hammer Film production, based loosely upon Dennis Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas) opens with a wheezy, breezy organ-laden lounge track by The Peddlers—vaguely reminiscent of the club music in Melville’s Le Samouraï—murmuring over the introductory credits. The song (which I found quite catchy) is, in its languid, slightly seedy tone, at odds with the ghostly, forlorn scenery, but, as one will discover, not with the lurid characters of the drama, for whom it is a fitting anthem.

Cut to a child’s burial at sea upon a tramp steamer moving under an auspicious sky. The steamer is surrounded by a graveyard of ships, seaweed-strewn and ominous. The murky color-saturation lends to a tangible otherworldliness which digital is as-yet unable to capture in its chromatic projection. The vessel’s captain (Eric Porter), who provides the departed’s last rites, ruminates on how he and the scant, peculiar crew—some dressed in 60s fashion, others in colonial-era armor—arrived at such a grotesque wending. From there the film jumps back in time, where, again, we see the stone-faced Captain Lansen being hailed by two customs officials, who he promptly ignores, much to the chagrin of his nervous first officer, Mr. Hemmings (Neil McCallum).

The film then introduces the colorful main-cast of passengers, the alternatively charming and boorish drunkard-pianist Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley), the eastern-european fugitive and aging-beauty Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), the bumbling, self-important Dr. Webster (Nigel Stock, who is seen reading Uncharted Seas in his introductory scene in a respectful nod to the source material), his wayward daughter Unity (Suzanna Leigh playing the only main character who retains a name from the novel), the jovial bartender Pat (Jimmy Hanley) and the scheming mustachioed Ricaldi (Ben Carruthers).

When the captain instructs Hemmings to avoid “the usual shipping lane” on-route to Caracas, the latter’s curiosity and concern grows. It is then unveiled that the captain is transporting a large quantity of chemicals in the cargo-hold which react violently with water. A hurricane encroaches, yet the captain expresses little interest in turning around and tells the first mate that if he wishes, he can put the matter before the passengers. Hemmings does so and is astonished when none vote to turn the ship around. Lansen declares they will “keep going.” Thereafter, a drunken Tyler sardonically quips, “One man. One vote. Aren’t you glad you live in a democracy?” Hemmings, confounded, pronounces the passengers “bloody mad” and rushes back to the captain whereupon he is greeted by the crew who informs Hemmings that the cargo is filled with explosives. Shortly thereafter, Lansen confesses the truth of the matter to Hemmings: The cargo is indeed filled with combustible material as the crew feared, which was why the captain ignored the customs officials. Lansen then tells his first mate the reason he’s transporting the material is because its his last haul and one he plans to retire on (hence his challenging-forth into the storm).

As this is occurring, Eva returns to her quarters to find Ricaldi rifling through her belongings, in which lies 2 million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. He explains that his interest in her is “nothing personal” and that he’s working for the man from whom she stole, who, unsurprisingly, wants his properties returned. Eva attempts to bribe him, first (vainly) with money, then (successfully) with sex (unlike Unity, Eva’s sexual liaisons have a deeply moral impetus, as she needs the money to save her son from her ex-dictator-husband who holds the boy hostage).

As Eva barters with Ricaldi, Unity quarrels with her controlling (and possibly incestuous) father (Mr. Webster), who accuses her of being a whore (which she is), though he has little moral high-ground upon which to stand, as Unity swiftly recounts his numerous affairs with his nurses, secretaries and even his patients. Through this exchange it is revealed that, just like Peters, Ricaldi and the captain, the Websters, too, have a secret reason for being on the ship, for Mr. Webster was formerly practicing in Africa, where he carried out illegal operations on his patients when he wasn’t busy diddling them. The unprofessional doctor’s behavior caused such a stir that the police opened up a investigation, forcing the Websters to flee.

On deck, the crew attempt to take the slack out of the ship’s anchor-chain, which they botch, causing a rupture in the hull that floods the cargo-hold. This in turns threatens to ignite the chemicals. The emergency pumps prove useless and the crew, thoroughly distressed, convince Hemmings to lead a mutiny. The crew-leader, however cautions against mob-tactics, and states that Hemmings will be in charge and that everything will be done in a legal “above board” manner. The crew agrees. It is here that the film displays its knack for deft and three-dimensional characterization; even amidst such dire situations, the crew-leader is cool-headed enough to understand the latent dangers of hysteria and frenzy, never letting his own caution get the better of him. Unfortunately, the crew-leader’s reserve is all for naught as the captain, when confronted, refuses to abandon ship and states that he’ll kill anyone who tries. Unity’s lover, the radio-operator, tells the passengers that the crew is abandoning the vessel and asks them to join. Pat asks if the captain ordered the desertion. The radio operator tells them he did not and the bartender is aghast. “That’s mutiny!” the loyal soul cries. “Call it what you like.” Declares the radio-operator, before vainly attempting one last time to convince them to leave. All decline save Unity, who is swiftly ordered back into place by her father. Failing to move the passengers, the radio-operator curses them hysterically and dashes for the lifeboats as Tyler declares to his companions, “This is the moment when all the rats leave the sinking ship.” Emphasis on rats.

Back on deck the crew moves to escape but the captain arrives and opens fire, hitting the radio operator, whose head is then smashed by a winch much to Unity’s horror. The surviving crew members, lead by Hemmings paddle away to an uncertain fate as the captain mulls over his next plan of action.

One of the wounded crew members is brought into the piano parlour where Tyler, still swilling booze, incessantly strikes up a funeral march, which, unsurprisingly disturbs the other passengers. When Webster attempts to wrest Tyler’s bottle from him to use on the patient to sterilize his wounds, Tyler becomes incensed and flys at the bartender. Before Tyler can beat Pat senseless the captain intervenes, breaks up the fight and enlists the passengers aid in moving the explosive barrels from the hold before it completely fills with water. This they successfully accomplish but it is only a matter of time before the water leaks into the new room housing the barrels; in light of this, Lansen decides there is nothing further to be done but abandon the ship, as Hemmings previously suggested, which lends a sense of grave futility to the previous scene; for the captain killed his own men for doing precisely what he would later go on to do. Yet, it was mutiny. Betrayal. What currency is more precious than loyalty? Had they stuck with him, no one would have died and they’d have escaped the ship all the same.

After the passengers and the remnants of the crew escape the ship, tensions run high. Tyler, shorn of his booze, attempts to thieve rum from the captain, which greatly annoys Webster. Tyler later successfully steals the rum and cackles about it and is again confronted by Webster. Irked, Tyler trounces the man, accidentally knocking him into the ocean. Distressed by his drunken impulsivity, Tyler leaps after Webster as a shark approaches. The sea-beast kills Webster, leaving Tyler utterly devastated. Two of the remaining crew members find this a opportune time to stage yet another coup to ensure they have access to the supplies. This fails, as Eva shoots the chief mutineer in the gut with a flare, killing him. Tyler makes his way back to the boat as Eva breaks down in tears. From that moment on, Tyler decides to give up drink.

Sometime later, the lifeboat is seen drifting through fog. Nearly 47 minutes into the film, we are finally introduced to the ‘lost continent’ itself, which, though certainly lost to the world, isn’t really a continent by any classical definition, but rather, a great, floating, matted tangle of carnivorous seaweed, which wastes no time in wounding the captain and devouring the cook. This is quite a departure from Wheatley’s novel, wherein the seaweed is likewise thick and strange but yet, not malevolently sentient, nor carnivorous. Shortly after encountering the weeds the survivors find a ship floating in the fog and hail the crew, only to be greeted by Pat, the bartender, who had been left behind during the evacuation whereupon they realize its none other than Lansen’s ship.

After a change of clothes, Tyler and Unity engage in a discussion in the bar, where Tyler (conspicuously drinking coffee) begins to apologize for accidentally causing the death of her father. Rather surprisingly, she thanks him for “freeing” her. Naturally, Tyler is perplexed but when she proposes a toast to the future, he hesitantly raises his cup (of coffee).

The captain and the rest of the crew discover that the ship is now completely in the grip of the hungry aquatic vegetation, which has jammed the propeller. Lansen remarks upon the situation in one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines in the film, “Now we go where the weed takes us” (I’m surprised it hasn’t been meme’d).

The weeds drag the ship into the Sargasso sea, as they do so, Unity attempts to put the moves on a increasingly morose and withdrawn Tyler, who will have none of it. In an attempt to loosen the pianist up, she brings him a drink as Pat looks on with worry. Tyler, however, promptly declines. He does, however, begin to dance with her as she whispers sweet nothings to him. That is, until, she offers him a drink again and suggest they go back to her cabin. Infuriated, Tyler reprimands her and casts the glass across the room, shattering it against the wall. He declares he’s “given up the booze” whereupon Unity (who at this point in the film had become my least favorite character) informs him that “it won’t do you any harm.” To which he replies, “The first one never does.” Unity then becomes irate and demands he have drink, stating that it “might just make a man out of” him. He calmly replies “I’m beginning to feel like a man for the first time in years.” He turns her down once more and she storms off to find another man (as I previously mentioned, she’s a whore). She finds her “man” in Ricaldi, who is smoking on deck. Before they can consummate there extremely premature relationship, however, a giant octopus-like creature attacks, grabs Unity, covers her in slime, then kills (and presumably eats) Ricaldi.

Some time after this harrowing experience, the crew hears cries of help coming from the water and discover a young woman striding towards them across the seaweed through a pall of fog via the aid of a balloon backpack and paddle shoes. Tyler aids her whereupon she explains she’s being followed, and right on cue the camera cuts to a legion of shadowy figures, balloon-and-armour garbed and paddle shoed, striding over the carnivorous flotsam. Whilst such a description might sound comical, its not played for laughs. I certainly never cracked a smile as I was watching. Rather than coming off as goofy, its evocative of a grotesque dreamscape. The balloon-harnesses, are taken directly from the book (Uncharted Seas), whereas the paddle-shoes are a original invention. In the book, the inhabitants of the lost continent used balloons and stilts to evade the ravenous octopi that camouflaged themselves within the weeds, in the film, the inhabitants trudge over the vegetation like water-bugs. Wheatley’s inspiration (and hence, the film’s) for the balloons came from balloon-jumping, a popular fad of his time.

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The crew engages in a battle with the lost continentals, which the crew wins and captures one of the striders alive.

It is here that the film, for the first time, cuts away from the crew and passengers to another, much older ship, hidden in the roiling mists of the lost continent. It is revealed that the piratical water striders are the descendants of Spanish conquistadors and have been living on the lost continent for hundreds of years. They are ostensibly ruled by the boy-emperor, El Supremo (alternatively, El Diablo), however, the real power behind the throne is the insidious, masked man referred to only as The Inquisitor (Eddie Powell—the prolific stuntman behind the action in films such as Alien, Aliens, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).

The cut makes excellent narrative sense, as the crew and passengers learn all of this information at the same time as it is being shown to the audience by interrogating one of the Spaniards they’d capture. Here again, is another departure from the book, where the hostile inhabitants of the lost continent were not forgotten conquistadors, but negro savages (presumably, a bloody race war was a little too recherche for even the notoriously transgressive Hammer Films). The young woman they brought aboard, whose name is Sarah (Dana Gillespie), explains her people had moved to the lost continent to escape religious persecution, however, they found precisely the opposite under The Inquisitor’s bloodthirsty proxy reign.

That night Sarah abruptly departs without a word, water-striding into the fog. However, Tyler spies her leaving and heads out after her along with Pat and another member of the crew. They catch up with her and plan to spend the night in a cave when Pat is attacked by a giant crab, which kills the poor man. Before the hideous crustacean can turn its rapacious maw upon the rest of the wayfarers, however, its waylaid by a giant scorpion(thingy). The two beasts then engage in a duel to the death, which is interrupted by the crewman who shoots the oversized crustacean in the eye, killing it. It’s worth remembering the shark earlier in the film, as the patchwork monsters featured in the scene were the creation of the late Robert Mattey, who also designed the model sharks used in Jaws. The monster fight is the low point of the film. Ambitious and interesting as Mattey’s creations are, they’re simply not convincing. It’s all too obvious that they’re running on wheels! The interlude into monster mayhem, however, is quite brief, so it (much like the giant octopus scene) detracts little from the overall serious tonality.

The Inquisitor then shows up with a band of guardsmen who incapacitate Sarah, Tyler and the crewman and take them back to their decaying galleon-turned-death-cathedral. In a film with more winks and nudges, this might all be quite ridiculous, however, The Lost Continent never loses its sincerity and plays every scene for emotional believability (which is one of its greatest strengths, beyond its solid acting and fantastical setting and atmosphere). Before The Inquisitor can have El Supremo execute them, Lansen and the rest of the crew burst onto the scene and hold the Spaniards at gunpoint. The Inquisitor, unperturbed, then addresses Lansen in one of the best exchanges in the film. The Inquisitor tells Lansen that he and his people can’t escape. That escape is impossible because it is God’s will that they stay. Lansen, of course, disagrees.

The film concludes in a cataclysmic battle pitting Lansen and Tyler’s men against The Inquisitor’s forces. In the fight, El Supremo is slain and it is his body which rests in the coffin that is dumped into the water at the beginning of the film.

The beginning, it turns out, is the end. A peculiarly inconclusive one for an adventure film. For we know not whether they are able to defy The Inquisitor’s expectations, or whether he was right that escape was impossible. Though we don’t know if they escape, we know that they would try until the last. As Lansen said, “The day we stop trying, we stop living.”


§.01


Sources

  1. Dick. (2019) The Oak Drive-In: The Lost Continent (1968).
  2. Matthew Coniam. (2016) Wheatley On Film: The Lost Continent (1968). The Dennis Wheatley Project
  3. Michael Carreras. (1968) The Lost Continent. Seven Arts-Hammer Films.

In Tooth & Claw (Supernatural Horror Anthology Review)

Contains spoilers.

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Daniel Soule’s In Tooth & Claw (Rotten Row Publishing), an anthology of surreal and supernatural horror stories, begins with the novelette, Plight of the Valkyrie, the story of a soul-reaping guild that seeks out a empathic, medically skilled serial killer for recruitment. The premise is fascinating, however, the deployment of a extremely lengthy monologue midway into the story concerning the purpose of the spectral guild to which the protagonist (Mortimer) belongs both saps the story of its tension and, at the same time, creates a build-up without a pay-off. That the guild angle is central to the story and also the very thing which removes the unsettling atmosphere the story generates in its impressively moody introduction suggests that the story might have been more effective without recourse to supernaturalism, as Val’s murderous medical proclivities proved sufficiently intriguing so as to have been able to carry the tale in its entirety, should the author have so-desired.

The next story—The Breed—is one of the best in the collection. The tale centers on a number of paratroopers from Nevada who are sent to the Middle East to liquidate a number of Farsi-speaking and thus, presumably Persian, terrorists at the behest of the US military. Of course, given the title, one can assume the novel angle: The soldiers are werewolves, born out of a secret nazi experiment that was coopted by the US government. Despite deploying a premise reminiscent of David Brückner’s Iron Wolf, the narrative nevers falls to schlocky mediocrity, firstly, owing to the deftness and three-dimensionality with which the paratroopers are detailed, secondarily because of the competence of the prose and the structure of the story, and thirdly because the narrative threads are drawn together with a seriousness and authenticity typically absent from the kind of exploitation and shock-horror film it brings to mind. The 1987 film Predator is mentioned in the story’s opening and presents itself as a good point of comparison, as The Breed is as different from Iron Wolf as the beginning of Predator is from its own middle and end.

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Illustration depicting a scene from ‘The Breed’ by Stuart McMillan.

To Kill A Quisquilia (a title I first erroneously read as ‘To Kill A Quesadilla’) concerns a young woman’s death and a supernaturally gifted boy’s contention with a demon (the titular ‘quisquilia’) disguised as a garbage truck (which, as far as disguises go, is quite original). The tale provides a tonal break from the two proceeding tales, as it begins as a grim mystery and swiftly develops into a jaunty, macabre comedy. A welcome bit of levity to break the tension of the preceding tales.

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Illustration depicting a scene from ‘To Kill A Quisquilia’ by Stuart McMillan.

Next is The Switch, a psychologically introspective murder mystery. Its interesting in that the mystery lies not in who the killer is, but in why the killer did what she did (the reveal is quite gripping, so I shant spoil it).

After that is The Breed: The Last Watch, a continuation of The Breed’s mythos. It fails to match up to the original, chiefly because of its clumsy structure, as the reader is constantly jostled between numerous underdeveloped characters which are scattered throughout different time-periods. The problem with the story is not that there are time-jumps, but rather that one has no idea what is going on as a consequence thereof.

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Illustration from ‘The Breed: The Last Watch’ by Stuart McMillan.

Next up, Only Some Things, the story of a deformed man waiting at a bus stop. Though emotionally evocative, it feels unfinished, namely because it ends so abruptly. As a sketch for a longer work, however, its thoroughly intriguing.

Next is Witchopper, my personal favorite in the collection, which tells the tale of a father and son who set out to investigate the veracity of a local urban legend. Unlike, The Breed: The Last Watch, the time-jumps are very deftly deployed such that never once did I have to re-read a line or skim back up to the preceding page in a attempt to understand what was going on. It also features several scenes of impressively atmospheric tension.

Concluding the anthology is The Lostling, which, much like Only Some Things, is a story about which little can be said, as it also feels underdeveloped. There is no middle or end, but only the introduction of a introduction. That being said, it is also one of the most ambient and haunting of all the pieces.

In Tooth & Claw is a thoroughly mixed-bag, but never a boring one.


My thanks to Mr. Daniel Soule for providing me with a early copy of the anthology.

The Silence & The Howl (§.25)

§.25


Harmon begin typing as soon as he returned from his encounter with the literate watchman. A new story occurred to him, and, inspired by the day’s events and the memory of the thriller Andy had played when Lyla had come over, he set himself to the task of its completion. A dull, irregular clacking emanated from his keyboard until the light crept over the edges of the world and eschewed the darkness for a magnificent plume of solar irridescence.

After seven hours without a break, Harmon paused, shifted in his chair, lit up a cigarette, smoked a moment and then withdrew to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of ice water and another cup of coffee as Marla came ambling clumsily down the thick-carpeted stairs. Her hair was wild and rabbit slippers obscured her slender, shuffling feet.

“Mornin.”

“G’morning,” she groaned, rubbing sleep from her puffy eyes, “You been up all night?”

“Yeah. Writing.”

“Sheesh, don’t you ever sleep?”

“Couldn’t.”

“You aren’t a vampire, are you?”

“Not last time I checked.”

She chuckled and leaned against the kitchen counter.

“Andy told me you were a writer. Fiction, right?”

He nodded and handed the foggy woman a cup of coffee, which she readily accepted with a broad smile and a mumble of thanks. For a long moment they stood staring at each other before the sound of Andy’s footsteps reverberated on the linoleum above. They both turned to greet him, confused by his furrowed brow and the cloudy expression in his eyes and mouth.

“Sonsofbitches.” He muttered leaning against the wall.

“What is it?”

Andy worked his jaw and then looked towards his guest.

“We’re outta work.”

“What’d Swain say?” Harmon inquired without emotion, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter as Marla.

“Just said we were fired—excuse me—’let go.’ I hate that bullshit. Fucking weasel words. ‘Let go.’ ‘Passed on.’ Bullshit. Fucking bullshit.”

“Sorry baby,” Marla replied, with a pout. She massaged Andy’s shoulder as the man shook his head and glared at the scuffed linoleum of the floor.

Harmon reached up to the cabinet and withdrew a coffee cup and then slid it across the counter to Andy who nodded back in thanks.

“No point complaining about what we can’t change. Other jobs to do.”

“Hell – like what?”

“Well, what are you good at?”

“Ain’t good at nothing.”

“That’s not true,” Marla chided sadly.

Harmon inhaled deeply and then moved off of the counter and looked out the window. Not a single soul stirred upon the barren street, now covered in a thin skin of dead leaves that skittered with the wind like hollow bugs beneath the swaying skeletal boughs.

“Its a lovely day. We should go out. We can go to the cafe I was telling you about and stop by the river.”

Marla smiled and nodded, “That’s sounds nice.”

“Alright,” Andy intoned sullenly.

Harmon turned back to the window and sipped his coffee, watching as a flock of crows tore a red-stained eagle from the sky.

*

Fiction Recap 2019 [#2]

Selection of fiction works we’ve published this year.


July


June


May


March


February


July


§

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The Fissure

“The gear is missing.”

Sanford Witter cursed under his breath and then again, louder. He turned from the half-disassembled tractor, scoured the matted dirt of the barn and found nothing. Dropping to a knee, the man looked underneath the dull, grist-laden machinery and spied a enormous rat, clutching something between its hideous, oily paws.

Something circular. Something shiny.

The gear.

“Give it back, you sneakin’ sonofabitch.”

The creature let out a loathsome chittering and pranced south into a wide crevice at the base of the foundation. Whitter furrowed his brows, doubly vexed.

Why, he wondered, would a rat take a gear? How could it carry something so heavy with such unnatural ease? And where did the crack in the foundation come from? Had it always been there? No, he shook his head fractionally. Its new. It hadn’t been there last Wednesday. I’m sure of it. Sure of it…

He rose and dusted his overalls off, adjusted his hat, spat and lit up a smoke and stood starring at the darkness that had swallowed his gear.

“Who you yelling at, hon?”

He turned slowly to his wife, who stood at the doorway, arms crossed, brow furrowed; concern overshadowed by heavy wooden trusses and a rising wind from the far plain and the high, hills beyond.

“Nothing. No one,” he replied gruffly.

“Made coffee.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

“Something the matter?”

“Somethings always the matter.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Its… you’re not going to believe this… a rat. Biggest rat I ever seen. Up and took one of my gears.”

“Oh. Ok…”

“See, I told you that you weren’t going to believe it.”

“Its cold out here and you’ve been working all day. Why don’t you come inside for a while? You’re so busy all the time… we rarely just… talk anymore.”

“Whaddaya mean? We’re talking now, ain’t we?”

“That’s not it. Oh, nevermind, nevermind.”

She shook her head and left-off as a chill wind snaked between the boughs of distant trees to shake the foundations of the barn. Witter rolled his eyes and rubbed his temples, heeling the dirt.

“Always something…”

*

In the days that followed the gear-theft, more pieces of mechanical equipment vanished from the barn. More pieces from the tractor. A wrench. A screw. A toolkit. A motor. With every theft, the crack in the wall grew wider. Witter could fit his whole arm, up to his shoulder, in it, but could see nothing within.

Witter, against all the protestations of his higher judgment, suspected the rat, but spied neither hide nor hair of it; either in the barn or in the spreading crevice, which he began to examine regularly with a flashlight.

He set traps laden with peanut butter around the tractor and the fissure in the wall and checked them daily, and every day, found the traps undisturbed.

*

A month later Witter awoke and rolled to wake his wife. She was gone. The imprint of her plump body yet-retained by the soft fabric of the covers. Witter frowned and pulled on his slippers and robe and rubbed sleep from his murky eyes and ventured downstairs.

“Hon? Martha?”

Room after room reverberated with the muted patter of plastic soles heeling against carpeted wood. Room after room he found nothing. Whenever she got up she showered and made tea and smoked her hickory pipe and read the paper with the TV on. This she would do, barring periods of illness, without fail.

Where’d she get to? She ain’t supposed to be going anywhere today. Least… she didn’t tell me she’d be leaving. She’d have said something if she were. She always says something. Nagging. Complaining bout my work. No… she’d have said something.

He threw on a pair of pants and a t-shirt and made for the drive. The car was sitting where it always had. He moved to the barn and screamed at what he saw.

Martha—dragged towards the fissure by the rat, which had grown considerably in size—clawed the padded dirt floor, blood spilling from broken fingernails.

“Martha! Hold on.”

The rat stepped on to one of the traps laid before the fissure and howled, momentarily releasing the terrified woman, who, gasping, threw herself blindly toward the door.

Witter seized an adjustable wrench from the weight-bar at the front of the tractor and ran forth with the sleek hunk of metal raised and brought it down upon the rats head. The creature shrieked, a small path of blood forming in bluish pulse beneath skull’s skin.

“Die, you sonovabitch!”

He brought the wrench down, harder this time, and heard a sickening crunch and felt the beast fall still beneath him. The horrid monster’s head gushed with frothing charcoal-colored rheum which hissed upon contact with the floor and ascended to the sky like strips of charred paper.

Witter released the wrench and took a step back, eyes wide, mouth open. Trembling.

“What on earth…”

The creature’s skull cracked open, like a paper mache balloon, wider and wider, as two steely claws emerged and rent the cranial cavity like as the fissure in the wall. From the depths of the chasm, crawled a rat. The mammal grabbed the wrench and swiftly dragged it into the head-hole of the carcass and vanished within the amniotic null.

When Witter’s eyes wandered to the fissure on the wall.

It was gone.

He turned to Martha and found her lying on the floor with a bloody wound to her skull. Her left eye, distended on its stalk, crustacean-like in the kindling light, which glinted off the small, cyclical gear, tightly clutched in her stiff, right hand.