When we launched The Book of Cthulhu, we partnered with Skurvy Ink to produce glow-in-the-dark Fear the Weird T-shirts. Now, that T-shirt has gone international, appearing in the new music video by Italian band Autumn’s Rain. Here’s a link to the music video. Watch for the Weird at :45.
The thing which may once have been my uncle reached out for me, stroking again the edge of the mask where it fused with my own flesh.
“Will you submit, nephew?” His fingertips began to flake apart where they had touched my skin–its skin–smoldering like the ashen leavings of his cigar.
“Haven’t I?” I held up the bottle, so much heavier now than when first I had lifted it from the trunk, but still thirsting. To this day the echo of that thirst resides in me. It might have driven me to kill myself with drink, if any spirit distilled by man could ever have dreamt of quenching it.
He laughed and waved a dismissive hand; flecks of ash floated in the wake of his fingers. “Mere schoolboy villainy. Beckman thought that he could refuse the call, that he could become its master. I must confess, once I too suffered from such delusions, but I learned. It’s better that you have no such fantasies. Give me the bottle.”
His supercilious tone did little to endear him to me, but I could find no reason to refuse. I was, I had decided by then, dreaming. Or so I told myself. I still try to convince myself of it to this day. I was not in this damp and dismal room in Gilman house but safe in my own bed, suffering under the effects of wine and brandy and the strain of my translations. In the morning I would laugh at my somnolent visions of hollow corpses and dermophagic relatives.
I placed the vessel on his outstretched palm. The corrosion had spread from the tips of his fingers to the first knuckle, baring pearly glimpses of phalanges through crumbling grey flesh.
“Now the mask.”
I lifted a hand to my face but could find no purchase at the seams. My uncle shook his head at my futile attempt. “No. With this.”
He offered me the curved blade which I had last seen still amongst his other possessions. It was only then that I realized that the weather-beaten steamer trunk lay on the floor beside him. On the wall behind it hung a mirror, but from my vantage I saw no reflection within.
I balked, but his gaze was implacable. And if I were only dreaming, as I still struggled to convince myself, perhaps the best way out was to follow this nightmare to its conclusion. I no longer felt any of the unholy arousal the mask had first sparked in me, not any of my former burning curiosity about the bottle’s inscription. Even the surreal sense of somnolence had begun to fade, leaving me only weary and afraid.
With a trembling hand I brought the blade to the side of my face, feeling clumsily for the place where the alien skin merged with mine. The initial incision was just before my ear, and I shuddered to feel an oily fluid seeping from the wound, cooler and more viscous than blood. There was no pain from the cut, but my shoulders ached from the awkward angle the procedure required, and my arms began to shake as I dragged the blade across my brow. Where the knife wavered from the mask to my own skin, there I found pain. My pulse leapt and fluttered below the blade, and for a terrible instant I wondered if one determined stroke might end this madness once and for all, but I lacked the needed certainty–or the faith.
I wonder sometimes–I imagine I will always wonder–what would have happened if I had finished the task. If I had removed the mask, my mask, and looked into that mirror. But as I worked, trembling and clumsy, my hands slick with fluids, a blow fell upon Beckman’s door. I paused, black fluid dripping from my fingers. My uncle’s eyes flashed as he looked up, and beyond the window the darkness seethed and crackled. Before either of us could speak or act, another blow fell with a crack like the wrath of Jove, and door flew inward.
One might imagine I was beyond surprise at that point, but not so. I looked up to see my sister framed in the doorway, and I cannot recall a time I have been more shocked.
“I had hoped you would have more sense than this,” she said, shaking her head. It was the sort of admonition she had used on me uncountable times in our youth, whenever she found me in the midst of some foolishness or ill-planned deviltry. Her tone had not lost the power to make me flinch with chagrin.
My reserved, bookish elder sister–she had inherited the curiosity and thirst for knowledge that plagued so many in my family, but after the death of her fiancé years ago had settled into respectable spinsterhood. Or so we had always thought. But now she stood on the threshold of that miserable room, her spine straight and head high, a book held close to her chest like a shield. Her face was set in its familiar lines, but now a strange, fierce glow filled her, transforming her into some implacable fury, some avenging Olympian.
“I think perhaps you ought to leave now,” she said to me. “Before you wander any further astray.”
Had I but known as a child what depths of horror so simple a word could contain…but none can understand that abyss who have not stood upon its brink themselves. The knife fell from my numb fingers. My uncle commanded me to halt as I took a step backward, but even had my sister not offered me hope like a spar to a drowning man, a lifetime of heeding her cautions–or regretting my failure to do so–left the crumbling phantasm with no hope of countermanding her. One step, then another, until I stood beside her at the door. I expected her to display horror at my mangled face, but all I saw in her eyes was her usual affectionate exasperation at my foolishness, and a deep fatigue outstripped by determination.
“Go,” she said. I went. “As for you, Uncle–”
The last thing I saw as I stumbled for the door was my sister opening the book in her arms, and our uncle’s mouth stretching in a roar. Fissures spread across his cheeks. Thunder shook the stones and timbers of Gilman House, though all other reports of that day I have found agree that the sky remained clear and bright, unblemished by any cloud. But thunder chased me down the hall, and I still wake trembling when storms sweep off the ocean.
Of my flight from Gilman House I remember nothing. I came to later that day on my own front step, groggy and spent as if in the aftermath of a fever. The bottle, my notes, my uncle’s trunk–all had vanished from the house. Even then I might have written the whole affair off as illness and nightmare, except…
Except that a scar, pale and slick and long-healed, now runs from my left temple across my brow.
I have not heard from my sister since that day. I have not seen my uncle save in nightmares. My face in the mirror remains my own. For now.
This concludes “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad.” We sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed the story, and if you did, please tell your friends.
The Perplexity from a Place Abroad
Round Five Kyle Muntz
“There is a hunger within this room,” said my uncle. “Can you feel it?” He stood behind a penumbra of smoke, two fingers closed around his cigar. In my youth, though we never met, I remember seeing a picture of him once, and he had looked much like this: a man with a robust beard, broad face, wide shoulders, silhouetted in darkness. He reached slowly forward, and it was as if the darkness unfolded—it seemed he intended to touch my face, but in truth he touched the mask.
“Your eyes,” he said. “You cannot see, for you are blinded.” He stepped towards Beckman, and began to inspect the remains. The clothes he removed roughly, to be tossed into a pile in the corner, but the remains he treated delicately. The knife was lifted and set aside.
“He is hollow,” said my uncle. “You see?”
Beckman’s innards had been removed. What remained could not be called a man at all, merely his shell. His clothes, the desk, and even the knife were without blood. There were not even any bones.
“When I cut my lip,” I said, “I saw what happened. The blood fell towards the bottle; it was consumed.”
My uncle did not reply, but began to tear off pieces of Beckman’s skin; and eat them. For many minutes, we did not speak. I thought that something must be wrong—no man could do such a thing, or so I’d thought. That is why I remained silent, for I could not believe my eyes.
“This is the hunger within the mask,” he said, at last. It did not take long, only a few minutes more, until soon there was nothing to set aside. “I have worn it. I have read the ancient languages.” He stepped forward, and raised his arms. “Can you hear? Within the bottle there is a darkness, and that darkness itself is alive. It is vaster than all men, and we must submit to it.”
His features took on a peculiar character, seen in that light. It was my uncle’s face as I remembered it, yes; but at the same time, somewhere within, I saw the hint of another face. And that face did not belong to a man, or anything like a man. I should mention that time has distorted my memory of that day (in my mind I now see my uncle’s picture, rather than the man himself; I see darkness outside the windows, though in truth it was hardly past noon), but the impression was clear: of another, second visage, subtly distorting the first. Of the many horrors I witnessed (or thought I witnessed, even as I wonder, on occasion, if it was not some terrible vision brought on by the mask), this more than any has stayed with me—and indeed, there are nights I cannot sleep, for I often wonder if eventually I shall look into the mirror and see that second face, somewhere beneath my own.
The sixth and final round of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” can be found here.
This portion of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” (c) 2014 Kyle Muntz
There I was, standing over Dixion’s ghostly body as the last droplet of blood evaporated. Just outside the window a dove cooed in the metallic purple of sunset. The mask was whispering again, secrets I should not know. Moreover, as promised the crude translations were hidden in the undercarriage of Dixion’s box spring and easily retrieved. I cannot entirely account what became of the corpse after swiping the formula, other than what appeared in the newspaper.
You’ve got blood clot gumdrops buddy, they’re waiting here just for you a’whole bag of them with your name on it pal.
He was getting closer, I could almost feel the toxicity of yellowed fingertips and water logged eyes running down my already anxious spine. I sloshed the container in my fist and found it to be a little louder, a little heavier than before.
He looks a little busy kiddo, maybe you should curl up, read a book by the fire like old times, eh?
I slid the jiggling script to Beckman, who blindly absorbed it and returned a scrap of aged parchment in its place. I wanted to ask how many more, how many had known. Instead, I grabbed the note and read the name silently to myself, exaggerating the vowels, making familiar phonics strange. The effigy had paralyzed some but not all the facial muscles needed for articulate speech. Either way the condition of my voice was far removed from itself, being more of a struggle than it was worth.
Fredrick howled when I clubbed the groggy publican on his way home from an unusually busy night. I can’t be certain if it was because of the mask, or because he knew who was underneath, but it happened none-the-less. The bottle waxed gluttonous in my palm as it drank the scene clean, filling up only a fraction more. As it did so the mask grew luminous in the alley, casting a pallor of the bizarre and criminal on brick walls. After, I dug at the fringes, trying to peel away the farce, but still I couldn’t manage the seam from skin. Still it wasn’t enough
Uh-oh. I don’t quite think you’re ready for the big leagues son, best you leave it to the older generations to handle.
Beckman was face down in his work when I returned, the rusted silver of a knife hilt sticking out from his damp back. There were no broken doors, no evidence of struggle, not a speck of conflict for logical deduction. But old Rudolph hadn’t just been murdered, rather he had been thoroughly emptied of his fleshy contents.
From the far corner of the room, just beyond the visibility of the desk lamp wafts the hazelnut poison of rich cigars. And it wasn’t that the smell was foreign that troubled me, but that it was so far removed from its natural context.
“Well then, from what I can tell it seems the package arrived safely and even on time. Can you imagine that? I sincerely hope you didn’t reimburse that poor excuse of a sea captain?”
Round Five of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” can be found here.
This portion of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” (c) 2014 Rand Burgess
Accordingly, I began by transcribing the bottle’s inscription. Although the text was not lengthy – only three lines, deeply incised in a curious spiraling slant — this proved more difficult than I had anticipated.
To begin with, a strong light source and considerable magnification were required to reveal each symbol. The clay’s ground quartz admixture made the text shimmer and shift as I worked, and I found myself forced to rest my eyes after only a few minutes of concentrated effort. Worse, when I returned to my labors, I often found that what I had previously written no longer matched what I saw.
Though these differences were slight, prior experience with ancient scripts made me wary. If these lines held some arcane meaning – as I already suspected — any error might be critical. Only by several hours’ copying and recopying did I finally achieve a stable version; even then, I wondered what a fresh reading next morning might reveal. Appending a list of the sources I had consulted in vain, I laid my work aside in favor of a late supper and a half-bottle of wine.
Perhaps it was that indifferent burgundy, followed by a brandy nightcap to quiet my mind that brought on the dreams. I am ordinarily a very sound sleeper, untroubled by such phantasms.
Or I was once.
Awaking some hours later to the metallic tang of my own blood, I discovered that I had bitten my lower lip badly. More blood dappled the pillowcase, and my throat felt raw. Seizing a handkerchief from my bedside table, I blotted my lip as best I could before struggling into dressing-gown and slippers, then heading downstairs to my study.
I could not have said at the time why I did this. Nor what I expected to find there. Some fragmentary dream-memory simply nagged at me, and it was with considerable relief that I found my desk and papers undisturbed.
My uncle’s bottle (which had borne a hideous significance in those dreams) still lay where it had the night before, on a scrap of black cloth beneath my desk lamp. But was it truly as I had left it? Folding the cloth carefully around the fragile thing, I picked it up for a closer inspection with my hand lens.
At that moment, my wounded lip broke open again.
Encumbered as I was – the lens in one hand, the bottle itself partially uncovered in the other — I could only watch as one fat droplet spattered the ancient clay. Rather than staining it, however, my blood simply vanished. It was as though the incised surface had absorbed it, leaving only a fading shadow.
Unnerved, I moved to set the bottle back down. As the liquid inside shifted, it emitted a sound I can only describe as keening – far louder and more resonant than the whine I had imagined earlier. Another drop of blood fell from my lip. Rather than striking the carpet, as it certainly should have, it slanted toward the artifact in my hand and disappeared.
I have no clear recollection of the next few hours.
Round Four of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” can be found here.
This portion of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” (c) 2014 Ann K. Schwader
The first was an oddly shaped bottle of miniature dimensions, made, I believe, of some kind of admixture of ground quartz and red-colored clay. It was clearly ancient and bore a distribution of incisions or symbols that formed a script I did not recognize. After several visits to the university library, and consulting with several volumes of Anderson’s Lost Scribes of the Proto-Cultures, I determined that the script had no obvious basis in the Indo-European languages, nor did it possess any resemblance to the Afro-Asiatic or Turkic families with which I have a more than passing familiarity.
Stranger still, the bottle had been manufactured so that it was sealed indefinitely in the sense that it had no entry point at its top – no stopper, cork or similar removable device – but was closed completely by the admixture of which it consisted overall. Yet it was certainly hollow, and if I held it to my ear and shook it lightly, I detected the sound of a liquid moving within its interior, and perhaps another sound that, surely, I imagined – a faint whining that reminded me of a beached whale.
The second object of interest from among my uncle’s personal effects was of a perplexing appearance and which I retrieved from a cloth bag tied with a leather binding. At first I thought it was some kind of rotting parchment made of snake or lizard skin rather than the papyrus used for scrolls or folios of yore. Upon hoisting it up with my thumb and forefinger it flapped open into a wider circumference that began to acquire a more familiar shape; and spreading it over a table top, I perceived that it was a mask fashioned in the manner of a human physiognomy.
There were apertures cut for the mouth and eyes, though it was bereft of any means of attaching itself to the face I supposed it was intended to cover. And this indeed led me to consider that it was not so much a mask as an effigy of some religious or ritualistic significance, perhaps designed to meet the perfunctory likeness of a forgotten deity or a primal totem. It was clearly ancient, like the bottle, and there was something absurdly realistic about its look that stirred in me vague recollections of something I could not, in fact, remember. More striking, however, was the sense of attraction it generated in me in terms of invoking a pertinent urge to lay it across my own face and let it sink into my features with its outlandish veneer. And, in fact, one evening after a particularly fervent day of research in the library, I succumbed to its allure and lay it over my face with more care and deliberation than I was aware of giving. I duly found myself infused with a condition of some considerable excitement of a kind I would rather not describe in any detail. Suffice to say that, in the aftermath of this episode, I felt thoroughly ashamed.
The idea of consulting Beckman had already taken root in my mind prior to commencing my research, the fruitless conclusion of which settled the matter once and for all. I would seek his counsel on several counts – namely, in analyzing the archaic cipher of the bottle; in considering the means by which we might extrapolate and investigate its contents; in identifying the material with which the mask was made; and, finally, in identifying its purpose, as well as its strange effect upon my character.
Round Three of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” can be found here.
This portion of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” (c) 2014 Alistair Rennie
Today would have been H. P. Lovecraft’s 124th birthday. Unfortunately, we simply don’t have the resources to bake all of you shoggoth cupcakes, so instead we’d like to offer you a treat of a more literary variety. Author Rand Burgess has asked a few friends–Brian Evenson, Alistair Rennie, Ann K. Schwader, Kyle Muntz, and Amanda Downum–to join him in a round-robin story, paying homage to “The Challenge from Beyond,” the 1935 weird tale that featured Lovecraft, C.L. Moore, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long. And, to keep the party going throughout the day, we’ll be sharing this new round-robin story in pieces, one author per hour, until all six pieces have gone live. So, without further adieu, The Book of Cthulhu presents, “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad, Round One.” Enjoy, and Happy Birthday, HPL!
You must understand that I did not, to speak frankly, see anything. But even what I did not see was enough to send me scrambling for the door. How can I go back into that place now, having heard what I heard, and afraid now of what I would see? I have been told, by those who have since visited, that the room itself is deserted, that the only sign that it was ever occupied is a pile of clothing in the corner—Beckman’s clothing no doubt, or the clothing perhaps of a thing that near the end claimed to be Beckman, that for a time wore his face. One man, more astute than the others, claimed to have made out on very close inspection strange marks on the floor and walls, as if the residue of a kind of oily moisture—nothing, he claims it is (for he is not as astute as all that). And perhaps now it is nothing, but of what dark passage does it serve to record? No, I shall keep my distance.
My awareness of Rudolph Beckman began in my youth. He was the neighborhood eccentric, half-mad but basically harmless. He was a man, my father used to say, always running after shadows. My mother had known him since she herself was a child, and remembered him as being different then, as a kindly if sickly young man. He was obsessed with books of the more obscure sort, which he claimed to have purchased in certain muddy back streets of Providence, down near the wharfs. He would carry these muttering past on his way back to his single room in Gilman House as we children watched him. If he caught our attention, he would tell them that yes, this time he was certain he had it this time—certain! What it was, what he was certain he had, we had very little idea.
Very young myself, I thought he was ancient though he must have been still shy of middle age. As my parents passed and I approached middle age myself, my own obsessions having turned morbidly but inexorably in the direction of darker knowledge, I found my thoughts returning to Beckman and wondering, rather crudely, what he might do for me.
I had, you see, received a legacy from my uncle that arrived in a small, weather-beaten trunk. It had been found within the hold of the steamer upon which he had been taking passage across the Adriatic when he disappeared. My uncle was a strange man himself, and I never met him. My sister talked of him often as a man who had gone astray, and I suspect he had a thirst for hidden knowledge to rival that of Beckman. When he vanished, the conscientious steamer captain (hoping surely for a reward) arranged for his trunk to be shipped C.O.D. to the address lettered on its side, which was the house on Angell Street built by my grandparents, then later occupied by my parents and finally given over to me.
It was the contents of this trunk that led me to visit Beckman. Half-remembering his old obsessions, I believed he might be able to make some sense of the contents. I myself was baffled by what I found there. Among the ordinary shabby effects of a man dedicated to itinerancy—worn but sturdy clothes, desert gear, a small well-oiled knife with a curved blade (used perhaps for shaving I naively thought at the time), et cetera—there were two items of note that suggested a more arcane turn of mind:
Round Two of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” can be found here.
This portion of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” (c) 2014 Brian Evenson
August 15, 2014
by Ross E. Lockhart Comments Off on The Children of Old Leech: Afterword
Today brings the final installment in our series of excerpts from The Children of Old Leech. We hope you’ve enjoyed these excerpts as much as we’ve enjoyed bringing them to you, and we sincerely hope that we’ve persuaded you to pick up a copy of The Children of Old Leech for yourself. And while this round is over, we will be back with more samples of Word Horde books, photos, reviews, and previews, so we would encourage you to stay tuned. So with the melancholic sense of a journey’s impending conclusion, but no regrets, we bring you a look behind the curtain with co-editor/publisher Ross E. Lockhart’s “Afterword.”
One of my first gigs in this crazy business we call publishing was writing the flap copy for the hardcover edition of Laird Barron’s first collection, The Imago Sequence. As I recall, I got paid in books for this, which is fine because I’d likely have spent any monetary compensation on books anyhow.
The Imago Sequence blew me away. I was already fairly well versed in the weird tale, and in the typical tropes associated with Lovecraftian pastiche, but Barron’s approach did something unexpected with the form, fusing the strangeness of supernatural horror with the stark naturalism of Jack London (whose “To Build a Fire” Barron himself classifies as Cosmic Horror), daring to deliver something different, a high-stakes carnivorous cosmos populated with tough, rugged protagonists more accustomed to inhabiting hard-boiled tales of crime or espionage than Lovecraft’s prone-to-fainting academics. Through this (at the time) unlikely combination, Barron managed to, in the words Ezra Pound once pinched from a Chinese emperor’s bathtub, “make it new.”
One does not read a Laird Barron story so much as one experiences it in a visceral manner. A tale like “Shiva, Open Your Eye” strips away a reader’s reason, flaying him, leaving him floating in the primordial jelly, innocent of coherent thought. “Hallucigenia” is, quite literally, a kick in the head. The painstaking noirish layering to be found in “The Imago Sequence” culminates in a ghastly, shuddering reveal of staggering proportions. And it is that sense of culmination one finds echoing throughout Laird Barron’s work, binding the whole together into a Pacific Northwest Mythos reminiscent of, but cut from another cloth entirely from, Lovecraft’s witch-haunted New England.
A handful of one-off copywriting gigs led to greater opportunities, and soon, I found myself working full-time for the publisher of The Imago Sequence, which led to my meeting Laird in the flesh at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga, NY. I found we shared a kindred spirit… and a taste for rare spirits and supernatural tales. Upon my return, I worked on the trade paperback edition of The Imago Sequence, and on Laird’s next collection, Occultation, where I not only wrote the jacket copy, but laid out the book, coordinated the production team working on it, supervised copyedits, approved those edits with Laird, and corrected the book (as a nod to Robert Bloch, I suppose you could refer to me as “The Man Who Corrected Laird Barron.”).
Shortly after Occultation landed, my wife and I embarked on a road trip up the West Coast, a drive where the scenery—stark mountains, tall trees, steep costal drop-offs—constantly reminded me of one Laird Barron story or another. Our journey brought us to Olympia, where we met Laird for lunch, talked martial arts and American literature, and I snapped a few photographs of Laird playing with our little dog, Maddie.
Somewhere along the line, both The Imago Sequence and Occultation managed to win Laird his first and second Shirley Jackson Awards, and I began working with Laird as editor of his first novel, The Croning, which he sent to me in bits and pieces over the course of a tough year, building it like a wall, brick by brick and layer by layer. With The Croning, Laird metaphorically opened a vein and bled words onto the page, and while a casual reader might not spot the author’s open wounds, the emotional wallop delivered by the book more than assures you that those wounds are not only there, but that they are raw.
I published Laird’s novella “The Men from Porlock” in my first anthology, The Book of Cthulhu, and his “Hand of Glory” in my second, The Book of Cthulhu II. And over the course of 2012, I worked on Laird’s third collection, The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All, reading stories as Laird finished them and sent them along. One of my favorites in the collection, the wickedly sardonic “More Dark,” managed to get me in trouble when I read it on my phone during a baseball game, prompting my wife to elbow me as I laughed—then shivered—at a situation that rode the train from bad to weird to worse to a downright Barronic level of darkness. The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All was the final project I worked on for its publisher, which might bring us full circle, were it not for the fact that this circle, like the sigil marking Moderor de Caliginis, is an open—and hungry—curve.
In 2013, I started my own publishing company, Word Horde, launching the press with Tales of Jack the Ripper, an anthology that included Laird Barron’s tour-de-force “Termination Dust,” a fractured narrative not only providing the thrills and chills expected from Barron’s oeuvre, but marking a new venue for his brand of cosmicism, a strange, savage, and sanguine land that Laird knows quite well… Alaska.
Not long after the publication of Tales of Jack the Ripper, Justin Steele, who had reviewed The Book(s) of Cthulhu and Tales of Jack the Ripper at his weird fiction website, The Arkham Digest, approached me suggesting this anthology. I receive—and say no to—a lot of anthology pitches, many of which are suggested as possible co-editorial projects, but I found the idea of honoring Laird, an author whose work has influenced and intersected with much of my professional career, irresistible. I approached Laird, asking for permission to let other authors play in his sandbox, and to my delight, Laird said yes. For that, Justin and I owe Laird a lifetime of gratitude. We immediately set to building a roster of our favorite authors, authors who we felt shared Laird’s vision of a ravenous universe, and an understanding of that terrible, beautiful thing that awaits us all.
There are no accidents ’round here. The editors of, and the authors included in, this volume have been inspired and affected by Laird Barron’s carnivorous cosmos. We’ve all gazed at mysterious holes, wondering where they lead. We’ve all found ourselves in conversation with a stranger, staring at a scar and wondering if it is, instead, a seam. We’ve all heard the voices whispering in the night, praising Belphegor, and saying, “We, the Children of Old Leech, have always been here. And we love you.”
If you value your health, sanity, and general sense of well-being, then you should stop reading this book right now. Close the cover, put it back on the shelf, and head on over to the non-fiction section. Pick up a book on fishing, or pottery, something safe. Anything but this book.
If you’re still reading you must be damaged goods, nothing to lose. Maybe you saw that I started with a warning and felt the need to prove me wrong, to prove that you like to live life on the edge, laugh in the face of danger, shit like that. Maybe the warning tugged at your curiosity, intrigued you enough to carry on. Just remember what happened to the cat.
I’m supposed to be writing an introduction. That’s what Ross wanted me to do anyway, but I owe some responsibility to my fellow man, and what we did with this here book, what we unleashed, well, it’s just wrong. I’m sitting here at my desk, a near empty glass of Lagavulin on the desk edge, the bottle in easy reach. Three feet from me, propped in the corner of the room, is a 12-gauge pump-loaded with double-aught buckshot. If that’s not enough I have two .45s and a recently sharpened hunting knife within reach, so no matter how it goes down, it won’t go down easy. But who am I kidding. THEY want me to write this. It’s part of the project. Until my part’s done I’m safe. At least I think so.
I should probably start from the beginning. Tell you how I first discovered this Lovecraft guy, and how reading his fiction kicked me off onto this whole “weird fiction” thing, but I’m sure you’ve heard that one time and time again so I’ll skip ahead a little bit. A few Cthulhu Mythos anthologies into my tentacle binge, I picked up Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound, and was pleased to see an anthology striving to avoid falling into pastiche territory. It was during my late night readings that I discovered my first Laird Barron tale. “Catch Hell” did something to me that only a few special stories managed to do: upon finishing I reflected on the story for a minute or two, and then turned back to the first page and immediately reread it. After the second read I walked over to my computer and ordered The Imago Sequence and pre-ordered Occultation. There was no question that I had stumbled upon something special, something dangerous. Who was this Laird Barron guy? He looked like a pirate, or a grizzled Viking warrior. His writing was a blend of genres that I loved. One part pulp, one part noir, two parts pure cosmic terror, blended smooth and seasoned with a literary skill that few possessed. I had found weird fiction for the connoisseur. If I had only known what I was getting into.
Flash forward a few years later, and I’m sitting here in my dimly lit office space, gulping scotch and wondering how I ever let myself get drawn into this mess. The light from my lamp is reflecting off my tin poster of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I let Clint Eastwood’s stoic squint and Lee Van Cleef’s predatory glare serve as reminders that I have to be tough, finish this up. The wind is whipping at the window and I find myself eyeing the 12-gauge once every few seconds.
In September or so I had a conversation with Ross Lockhart, the other man responsible for what we’ve done here. We were both huge fans of Laird’s fiction, recognized its power. By the end of our talk, the wheels were in motion. We were so excited, completely oblivious as to what the actual significance of the anthology would be.
Finding the authors to take part actually proved to be the easy part. Laird’s work is highly respected, and offers authors much to work with. Ross and I wanted to find some of the best writers of weird fiction and offer them a chance to play in Laird’s playground. They could use the more literal elements of Laird’s growing “Pacific Northwest Mythos” or utilize his themes. Pastiche was not welcome. We wanted the authors to use their own unique talents and voices in order to do Laird justice, yet not by simple mimicry.
The thing is, Laird’s fiction is powerful, and not just in the literary sense. Some theorize that there exists some fiction that has the ability to bleed into reality. The words serve a higher function, act as a sort of formula. When these words are read they open a gate to somewhere else, allow them to come over. What Ross and I have done is complete the formula, see? Laird’s works were the base, the true source of the power. With these stories we amplified it, radio towers strengthening the signal.
Ross experienced it first. He’d be out walking his dog in sunny California, or out at his local bookstore when he would see him. Only it wasn’t actually him? Ross would catch a glimpse, just enough for him to realize he’d seen Laird. When he looked back he would see Laird standing there, at the mouth of an alley, or the end of a row of bookshelves. And it was definitely Laird, his mug isn’t the kind you mistake for someone else. Ross was perplexed, he told me later, because he was sure he was seeing Laird. He looked long enough for the imposter’s face to split into a black grin, and then with a wink the not-Laird would duck into the alley or step away from the aisle of books. Ross thought Laird must have been playing some kind of elaborate prank on him, until I pointed him to one of Laird’s blog posts. Apparently some of Laird’s friends have seen this doppelgänger before, but never more than once. I know this spooked Ross, and he hasn’t been the same since. I often ask him if it’s happened again, but whenever I bring it up he goes pale, changes the subject. If I push, he firmly denies anymore sightings, but I have my doubts.
I figured it out. Ross thinks we are just putting together a good group of stories, tries to justify his weird sightings with lack of sleep and too much reading for the project. But I know better, the dots are all there, easy to connect. Several of our authors have confided in me that during the writing process they were fraught with night terrors, and even a few cases of sleepwalking. One author turned in his story in a daze, and swore to me that he doesn’t have a single memory of writing it. One could chalk all this up to writer’s stress, working in overdrive to meet the deadline, but that doesn’t explain what happened with our foreword. A certain big-shot author sent us a foreword, before disappearing. Nobody has heard from him since. Ross and I debated on using the foreword regardless, only to find that it had somehow been erased from both of our computers. Strange coincidence considering we both reside on opposite sides of the country.
And then there’s me. Being woken up in the middle of the night by whispers from friends long departed. Easy enough to pass off as echoes from dreams, but that doesn’t explain why I would find the dog cowering under the bed whimpering. Or the black, sticky footprints left across my kitchen floor, cellar door ajar although I always check the latch before heading to bed.
If you’re still reading this you must now know that it’s too late for you, too. You’ve started to twist the handle, and the opening of the door is soon to follow. You’re going to meet the dwellers on the other side. The Children of Old Leech will soon be whispering in your ear, and they will whisper the same thing they whispered to me: “There are frightful things. We who crawl in the dark love you.”
Today brings our final excerpt from The Children of Old Leech, and features a collaboration between father and son, a tale of riding the rails, and secret societies, and gangs, and girls and dogs and far, far stranger things: “Tenebrionidae,” by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay. Next week, we’ll be back with a little bit more, sharing the book’s introduction and afterword, as well as a gallery of photos. Until then, lie back, listen to the clacking wheels, and enjoy the ride. It is, after all, going to be a dark ride.
The whole room pulsed next and… altered, made no architectural sense. Missy barked and twitched her tail against the bucket and Dumont placed a hand on her back. He felt dizzy and fought the urge to puke. The doorway spun around him several times—round and round and round she goes, and where she stops—Ratch and Worm and Marlo stood. The two sidekicks drifted into place behind Marlo right away, assuming generic bully positions so fast Dumont was tempted to laugh. But Marlo had his K-Bar out beside his thigh and the other two each wore their general bulk as a weapon so no way was it time for wisecracks or laughter. The room no longer spun, only rocked a bit side to side in a seasick way as if whatever whirlwind torqued it had settled in overhead for now.
—Lookit the schwag bitch, Marlo sneered at him, spoke the words as a slow smoldering threat. His voice oscillated in tempo as if the distance between them were stretching and receding. Dumont felt another twinge of nausea and struggled to suppress it. Ratch and Worm sneered in their special fleshy ways but said nothing. Missy pressed closer against his thigh, hindquarters stiff with tension as she barked in bursts. He stroked her head to calm her.
—Are you sad because your girl ain’t here? Well you can go ahead an’ cry now ’cause she ain’t comin’. Little Miss Tigger. Turns out she don’t bounce too well.
Dumont didn’t much care to hear what he was hearing but he knew Marlo was s’posed to be big on head games. Didn’t mean any of it counted for a damn thing. If it did then he failed her just like he failed Hector, the kid younger than him at the foster home, what they’d done to him.
He could stand—he was taller than all but Worm—only that would likely take things physical quick, and they were three on one. Maybe they only came to threaten him, scare him into leaving town. They could threaten away. He’d been ready to leave anyway, only with Tigger. But what had they done to Tigger?
She told him about the Shadow Riders almost at the start, how she hooked up with Marlo till someone tipped her off he only wanted her for some kind of sacrifice. How she found it out Dumont didn’t know but the whole story confused him anyway. Tigger was holding some big pieces back, he could tell that easy. Made it all hard to follow but main thing was he could see she was scared. Way shit scared. Now she was missing maybe worse and the Shadow Riders were all up in his face.
He never dealt with Marlo or his crew himself before, only saw them from a distance and Tigger would whisper that’s them or sometimes their names. There were others, Crunch and Skurd, Arkansas Jason and Jimmy Whip, more whose names he could not recall. But Marlo was supposed to be their king or ruler or some shit like that, Ratch and Worm his left hand and right.
—Du-mont. That girl took something from me, Du-mont. Something she shouldn’a took. Did she give it to you, Du-mont? I think she did. Hey, we understand how these things can happen. It’s na-chur-al. Why don’t you just let us take a look in your pack Du-mont? We’ll take what’s ours and leave you with your mutt. No harm no foul, whadda you say?
Ratch stepped hands out toward Dumont’s pack. Although he seemed to move in slow motion Dumont didn’t try to block him, but he teetered sideways away from the Rider, his bucket seat tilting almost toppling.
Marlo started to say something like That’s it—and nod before he saw how Dumont slid himself several inches along the wall, bent to grab the bucket handle, then pushed up the wall all the way and with his sea legs at least half back beneath him swung the bottom of the bucket at Worm. Ratch was closest but Worm was the tallest so Dumont went for him first. The bucket with its half dozen rough crusted inches of lumpy concrete at the bottom took Worm full on the side of the head and he. Went. Down.
Missy lunged for Ratch and her teeth sank into his left calf above his boot so he cursed and stumbled back a step. Marlo jerked to his right, brought the K-Bar full up just as Dumont yanked back hard on the bucket only to feel the wire handle tear free from plastic. The battered orange cylinder tumbled away into the shadows and slammed loud against a wall somewhere off in the dark. Everyone looked surprised. Everyone except Worm, who lay staring at the dirt floor. Staring at it real close, like point blank close. Staring at his blood pouring on the dirt.
Dumont yelled to Missy and grabbed the guitar case, booked it for the exit. He felt a tug on his arm as if someone grabbed him and he yanked hard to get free. He heard Ratch pound after him several steps till Marlo shouted —Leave him, asshole! Get the pack! The pack!
Missy hit the doorless doorway ahead of him and staggered as she went. As he trucked through he felt himself swing up sideways on an incline a second, the whole room pitched over the major part of 90 degrees. His applicable senses all told him brace for the fall but he did not fall. Missy yelped ahead so he knew she felt the same still they both pressed on and came level again in three more steps. His stomach prepared to purge but he fought it down one last time, staggered forward anyway. Not now. Not here.
Marlo called from behind —Run sad punk. We’ll see you again. Run run run and we’ll all have some fun. Later on down the line.
Dumont ran. At least half a dozen blocks, Missy skittering always several feet ahead before Dumont felt the warm wetness on the fingers of his left hand and held it up to see first the blood dripping off them, then the red-streaked facing crescents of pink white muscle revealed in the deep slash across his forearm. He was leaving a trail but he didn’t stop to bandage himself till he reached the yard.