Waiter, there’s a cross in my horror.

I’m a person of skeptical bent, which means I remain dubious of most any and all faith claims as fact. But my mind postulates that without religion and myth, two of the things I enjoy most in life, namely supernatural horror and fantasy, would not exist. What creature of the night or flighty god of fancy does not owe something to a mythological predecessor?

Perhaps that explains my continuing fascination with theology and mythology, which to me are much one and the same. Asked to concisely define mythology, Joseph Campbell answered, “Mythology is what we call someone else’s religion.” Mythology today has come to be equated to “a fiction,” whereas I prefer to think of it as Campbell put it, “symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time.” Myth is storytelling with meaning. It can carry truth, and it carries on today.

In the past,  as often as not, supernatural horror did not come without the inverse supernatural good. There was kind of a karmic balance. That’s changing somewhat in this modern era, and can particularly be seen with vampires. Anne Rice writes about vampires that can be fond of crosses, taking away the Church as antagonist and leaving the vamps to a carnal, dark underworld of their own making. In fact, being a vampire these days seems more of a sleek, sexy lifestyle with a couple of social glitches and hang-ups than being a curse. An American Werewolf in London (best werewolf movie EH-ver) dispensed with the notion of silver bullets. What seems to be happening is that the mythology surrounding the core ideal is stripped away, leaving just the creature. Sometimes that mythology is reimagined and replaced with a more modern interpretation, which can be a lot of fun. Or it can result in plain, unadulterated Evil, like sparkly vampires. Regardless, that is the nature of myth for each new age. It is never static. The novel I am currently working on carries many theological and religious overtones, drawn from a variety of  sources. These are our metaphors for relating to the universe.

I doubt supernatural horror will ever be completely free of religion, any more than man will. Like horror and fantasy, religious myths adapt and move with us too, and give birth to new ones. There is a natural progression. Scientology comes to mind as a recent example.  In many respects, belief in alien life is only the transference of belief in gods to belief in gods with space suits. Religion, in one form or another, will continue adding flavor to our cups of horror for many moons to come. We are hard-wired for it.

For my part, not all religions are built equally, though, and some make for more entertaining storytelling than others. The aforementioned Scientology is prebuilt for sci-fi. Given its creator wrote science fiction, perhaps that is not really surprising. It gives me pause that its faithful don’t quirk an eyebrow at this. But then again it makes sense–our myths come from our storytellers. Modern storytellers tend to be entertainers; L. Ron Hubbard went the extra mile to establish a new religion. The Mormons took us to space with Battlestar Galactica. Star Wars carried a quasi-Eastern religious feeling with the Force, until Lucas went and screwed that all up with “midi-chlorians.”   And the Roman Catholic Church gave us rich tradition and the cross which was the bane of evil for hundreds of storytelling years and remains so today. Catholicism is the standard foil for many a horror flick. It’s filled with awesome pageantry and ritual, making for great storytelling and visuals. It’s played such a huge role in history, both positive and negative, its influence on myth and faith is found across the globe. Modern day Protestantism, in comparison, is just damn boring. They don’t do flashy.

It’s also trendy to cast the man of god into the dark role, which may be somewhat a product of our age, but something the Church has lent itself to both historically and in current affairs. After all, when your local preacher gets busted for porn or theft, they’re guaranteed to make headlines. You can’t preach a higher standard and not expect to be excoriated for it when you yourself fail. Stephen King’s werewolf in Silver Bullet was the town preacher and the Da Vinci Code stirred the Catholic conspiracy pudding to such a degree some people thought it was real. But it’s good, even refreshing, to have an unspoilt (even if troubled) man of the cloth now and again. Father Karras and Father Merrin from the Exorcist come to mind. I liked those characters. I may not be a person of by-the-book faith, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positive metaphors there to be used, one that most often involves sacrifice or atonement.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing fantasy and horror reestablish themselves in today’s culture. When it comes to fantasy, I credit a lot of that to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films. Being a fantasy and horror lover is no longer equivalent to being a social pariah, as a rash of new book series and movies will attest. It has begun to enter television media now, with HBO launching Game of Thrones last year (a personal fan favorite for me), and networks airing Once Upon a Time and Grimm. And forget Disney, these are shows with something of a darker bent–as is right and proper.

No matter how they are used, these are powerful themes and archetypes used to build the fantastic metaphoric tapestries that spring from our imagination and express the depths of the human mind, and I welcome them.

 
Advertisements

A Feast of Frights

A Feast of Frights became available on Amazon this weekend. PB, $16.99. A kindle edition should be out before long. You can find the book here:

http://www.amazon.com/Feast-Frights-The-Horror-Zine/dp/0615594476/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334463604&sr=8-1

From the publisher: From the pages of The Horror Zine-the critically acclaimed online horror magazine-comes A FEAST OF FRIGHTS FROM THE HORROR ZINE edited by Jeani Rector. Featuring dark fantasy, mystery, pure suspense and classic horror, this book from The Horror Zine is relentless in its approach to basic fears and has twisted, unexpected endings. Come and find out what terrifying things can creep out of The Horror Zine to make your skin crawl. A FEAST OF FRIGHTS FROM THE HORROR ZINE contains fiction from such renowned masters of the macabre as Simon Clark, Graham Masterton, Joe R. Lansdale, Scott Nicholson, Cheryl Kaye Tardif, Joe McKinney, Susie Moloney, Tom Piccirilli, Ed Gorman, Trevor Denyer, and Jeff Strand. This book has amazing articles from John Gilmore, Deborah LeBlanc, Earl Hamner, Kasey Lansdale and Tim Lebbon, and a Foreword from horror great Ramsey Campbell. Here you will also find other deliciously dark delights from morbidly creative people who have not yet made the big time…but will soon. Each tale and poem, every article and artful rendering is a dark delicacy of its own, making this a true Feast of Frights!

My story Midnight Passage appears in this anthology. Very happy to be in there with so many other talented writers.

Missy ~ Winter Guardian

Burial Day Books originally published this short vignette.

I wouldn’t say it is my most polished piece, but it does hold a special meaning for me. Missy was as real as life can be, and so was her death. I can’t begin to explain the bond she had with me, and I’ve never experienced anything like it since. The exception to the story is I can’t ever recall Missy growling at anything for any reason; but then, I don’t ever remember being seriously threatened, either. It’s hard to imagine life without a dog, but nothing has ever come close to Missy, so this is my homage to her. I’ve thought about developing the story more, perhaps into a novelette, but that will have to wait for a later day.

~M

MISSY

Do you believe we are sent guardians to protect us in this life? I do.

Mine was a German Shepherd named Missy. That’s why I pulled out this old photo album, to show you her. Here, see? That’s her. That’s me standing there in the snow all bundled up in blue. Hell, I must not have been more than four when this was taken. Really towers over me, doesn’t she? She was with the family before I was born, and I never thought to ask where or why they got her. She was just another part of my existence. Father. Mother. Brother. Missy. It was as natural as I could imagine. Who can say why she took to me, but there was no denying that from the moment I came into the world I was hers, and she was mine.

Missy wasn’t a cuddly dog. She wouldn’t even let other members of the family touch her with her knowing. That was only for me. She followed me to the school bus stop at the bottom of the hill every morning, and she was there when it belched me back out safely home. During the summer she followed me on all my adventures with my friends. We would sometimes play hide-and-seek with her, but of course that was a joke unless the others hid with me. They were nothing to her. I was everything. And I’m sad to say there were times I grew annoyed with her, because she was always right there. Given my youth I didn’t always fully appreciate what I had until it was lost.

The trouble started in the winter of 1977. My friend Steven and I were caught up in the space bonanza that was Star Wars. The movie hadn’t reached the theater in our small town until late that summer, but it resonated to our very cores. But it wasn’t science fiction that would rule that winter, but something darker, something of nightmare.

Missy was an outdoor dog, by and large, and my dad left the board off the entrance to the crawlspace leading under the house during the winter so she could escape the cold. But there were nights, cold nights when I felt sorry for her, that I could sometimes convince them to let her stay in my room. It was the first snowfall of that year, and we all knew it was coming, and so Missy was posted prone at the foot of my bed. Her eyes were closed but her ears were pricked, tiny radars on constant alert. The powder didn’t start to fall and blow until well after dark, and I lay in bed watching it until sleep took me over.

I woke to a low rumbling sound, rising and falling. It took me a moment to realize it was Missy growling. Her body was tense, her eyes fixed to my bedroom window with teeth bared. I had never seen her growl or threaten another person or animal that way. But at that moment she looked the breed, fierce and protecting. I wasn’t really afraid as I peered out into that invisible black and white nothingness beyond the window, because I was inside and Missy was with me, but at the same time I was afraid, because something was out there, just outside the window. Something dark against the darkness, and it moved. I screamed. Father rushes into my bedroom, but it is too late by then. Something dark is gone.

I told my Father the next day that something was outside my window. I don’t tell him it was a thing dark and wretchedly evil, because I knew adults don’t believe in monsters. We still go to look, though. You couldn’t dismiss the possibility of a prowler, even in a small town like ours. The snow didn’t stop until early that morning, but I could still see the tracks there in the snow, long slender treads topped off with severe talons. But Father can’t see them, not at all. I tell him something moved outside the window. He tells me it was only the branches of the maple tree. But Missy knew they were there, and her muzzle, which now showed the first signs of age, lingered over the prints, nostrils flaring and drawing in the essence of what had been. And when I showed the tracks to Steven, he could see them too, because children believe in monsters.

Three days passed without incident. Almost enough time to forget, almost enough time to convince yourself that maybe you had imagined it. Those three days the sun hovered ineffectually in the sky while the air remained bitterly cold. The deep snow that had freed me from school glazed over with a paper-thin coating of ice, so your feet crunched through it each time you took a step. Those three nights Missy refused to come inside and stay with me. And I knew why. During the day I could almost convince myself that I had imagined it all, yes, but at night I knew she was outside, watching and guarding. Waiting for the dark thing to return.

That third night, the night of the silver moon, the plenipotent moon, it did. I could hear its footfalls, driving through the crusty snow as it approached my window. I could see its dark form moving against the white dark outside, brushing underneath the tree and knocking snow from brittle branches. Its mouth, fanged and awesome, hissed against the glass, its breath frosting the pane. Its eyes swirl, vast reflections of silver light split through with yellow and red. It wants me to come outside, and I can feel it drawing me, rising me from my bed, because monsters have power over children we can’t explain. Its claws screech along the windowsill in anticipation.

Then it is hit by a fast, growling mass that lunges into its dark body, tearing and shredding. Pulling out chunks of darkness that drift and dissipate into the chill air. The spell on me breaks, and I am afraid again, but not afraid because Missy is there to protect me. The unspeakable is driven back, howling a sound drawn from the cold depths of space and time, as it is forced away by Missy’s relentless attack. Then its silvery ominous eyes part, watery pools that sift down to the snow ready to claim its own.

My parents believe Missy tangled with another dog in a fight that night. It took her a two weeks to recover. One eye was swollen shut, and she had a pronounced limp in her hip the rest of the winter. She seemed tired and old.

Four years passed. A few years older for me, a quarter of a lifetime for Missy. The gray hairs around her muzzle were prominent now, and most of the color had faded from her once black nose. But she stayed with me, always as much as she could. And I was wiser. The past was only the nightmares of childish dreams, and I sleep through the winter nights in peace, because I know there are no such things as monsters.

Winter caught us hard that year and off our guard. The snow came that night in heavy wet clumps. Father forgot to remove the board from the crawlspace, and the next morning we found Missy dead in the back yard. Too cold, Father said. Too cold and too old. I cried. I cried as if I had lost my best friend, and I had. And I cried because only I could see the tracks tipped by daggerish talons surrounding her body, and how they had retreated, one foot dragging, away through the snow.

That was seventeen years ago. A child’s nightmare and an older child’s sorrow. Time dampens memory, it eases fear and hurts. And I had forgotten. Almost. I’m a grown man now, not a child, and I don’t believe in monsters. Not until a few nights ago, when the snow fell hard and sticky. Until I saw something dark outside my window in the snowy black space, breathing and hissing.

That’s why I bought a dog, another German Shepherd. She’s over there on the floor asleep now, even though I know, right this moment, it’s outside. Don’t get me wrong. She is a smart, good dog as far as the breed goes, but she is no Missy. We don’t belong to each other, we only live together. And I’m afraid now, and more afraid because Missy is not here. And now there, do you hear? The claws dragging across the windowpane. See how its silvery eyes beckon?

It wants us to come outside.

VICTIMS TO BLOOD

This is the vampire tale before it was converted for the Pathfinder Chronicler competition.

The body crumpled like an old sack of laundry in the vampire’s grasp. He licked his lips and stared into the fast dwindling light of his victim’s eyes. This passing of life never failed to captivate his attention. The vampire suspected, during these brief moments of sobriety after feeding, that once he had been like this man in his arms. But that was long ago, and the vampire could not remember if it was so. When the life had at last passed out of the body, when all tension had eased from the cooling muscles, the vampire let the husk fall to the ground. One more, perhaps two, and the bitter cold and ice prick pain would be driven back for another night. Then the vampire would sleep, awaken to new, graving pain, and the cycle would begin anew.

“Tommy!” cried out a small voice.

The vampire’s head snapped up, a cat startled over its kill. Here in the gloom, back in a narrow driveway between two houses, it was very dark, and the night encompassed the vampire in a Stygian pitch. The buildings, as most of the neighborhood in this part of town, were old and in disrepair. Paint peeled and flaked off the housing sides like dead leaves from a tree. Behind the houses at the end of the drive sat a splintering, squat split garage with grimy, cracked windows. The vampire felt comfortable here amidst the crumbling facades and smell of age. It had been here he discovered the man taking his garbage out. He hugged one wall. Chips of faded yellow paint stuck to his frazzled cardigan. His dark eyes scanned the driveway entrance. The small voice called out again, and the vampire’s blood hummed.

A young girl, her ebony skin darker still in the night, took several tentative steps into the deeper dark. She called, more softly this time, “Tommy?”

The vampire watched her from beneath the dark brown locks of hair that spilled down his forehead. The moonlight cast her form in perfect silhouette, and she glided up the driveway as if she were no more than shadow. Her approach became more cautious the deeper she plunged up the drive, her arms and hands spread out in front as her eyes strained to find the way. The vampire could see her clearly now, watched her pale nightgown trail the ground ever so slightly about her. He could smell her in the air, like a touch of jasmine. And he could smell her young, fresh blood. There was something else there as well, something the vampire had encountered night after night, victim upon victim. So familiar he was surprised it stood out to him. Death. The breaking down and virtual corruption of living tissue that kept these mortal beings alive. This child was sick. The vampire could see her life slipping away through this world, water through a sieve. Her time, like time for all the living, drew near. She came closer still, brown eyes skittering from side to side.

“Tommy, c’mon out. Where are you?”

She was nearly on him now, but still her young eyes could not pick out his form from the deep opacity. She turned in a slow half circle, feet shuffling, eyes searching, ears listening. The vampire could see the vein pulsing in her neck and could hear the rhythmic thud-thud of her heart. His sharp tongue, black and dry, flicked over one canine tooth. She was small, but enough to keep back the pain for a time. And her time was soon. It fulfilled the natural order of things, and his body howled for him to take her. He prepared to snatch her just as the girl, sensing some presence, spun and faced squarely towards him.

“YAAAH!” she squealed, fallings backwards on her butt. She scrambled to her hands and knees to stand up. “Jeez, mister, you scared me! Holy crud! What’re you doin’ out here?”

The vampire hesitated.

“Are you a friend of Mr. Johnston?”

The vampire glanced back where the corpse lay folded in darkness and wondered if that had been Mr. Johnston. He had friends once, didn’t he? Or was that the dream? Sometimes, though, it felt as if it must have been real. The young girl looked at him, brave, but he could hear how her hopeful heart now beat faster with the fear of the unknown. Then the vampire, unaccustomed to being addressed, did something he had not done in many, many years.

“Yes, we were close for a short time.”

The words felt strange on his lips, the sound of his voice that of an old friend from another time, another world. But the vampire found it pleasurable to speak, and the words and thoughts so disused came easily to him while the dead man’s blood was still alive within him.

“Ah,” she said, nodding her head as if that explained everything. “My name’s Angela. What’s yours?”

Name?

“Marcus,” the vampire replied at last. And perhaps, once, in that forgotten time, that was true.

“I’m looking for my cat, Tommy,” Angela explained, looking around now with better night-grown vision. “Sometimes he gets locked out at night, and I want to find him so he don’t get hurt. Sometimes Mr. Johnston would leave food out for him. He’s all black, with one white paw. You seen him?”

“Little girls should not be out so late. It is dangerous.”

How long had it been since anyone faced him with such fearlessness, such unassuming guilelessness? Ever? This child was too young to see her danger, to feel the fear that others felt when near him, when his dark eyes looked into theirs. Even if they didn’t know what he was, they understood what he meant.

“I only live a block down. Besides, I’m almost seven. I can take care of myself.” Angela’s eyes looked the vampire over. “You the one better be careful, white dude walkin’ round at night. Jake and his gang, they’ll be all over you they see you out here. Mom says they’re just cheap hooligans, but that they’re still dangerous.”

“I will bear that in mind. We had best take you home now, though.”

“What about Tommy? That’s why I was lookin’ for him, cuz Jake might catch him just to be mean to him like they did to our neighbor’s dog.”

“Your animal will return. Come, now, you must go home.”

The vampire nudged the girl back towards the entrance, his fingers touching lightly upon her shoulder. He could feel the vibration of her blood coursing beneath his touch. Already he felt the cutting, piercing cold pain crawling back into his extremities and his conscious mind fraying ever so at the edges. Soon that cold would begin to burn and his lucidity crumble into a single pressing desire to feed. The little girl’s heart continued to beat in his head, a gentle and constant thud-thud that stimulated his senses. His lips couldn’t help but quiver in delicious anticipation. The vampire squinted his eyes as they stepped out into the moonlit yard.

“Which way is your home?” the vampire whose name might be Marcus asked.

Angela pointed with one golden painted nail, and they silently set foot upon the sidewalk in that direction. The vampire kept his attention focused sharp on the concrete as it passed beneath him, his eyes peering into the many cracked canyons and around each weed blade that poked up through the weathered substance. The thud-thud grew stronger, more persistent, with each passing step.

“You wring your hands a lot,” Angela said, her voice chiming in the vampire’s ears. “I have a grandma who does that too. She says it helps keep her hands warm and improves her circ’lation.”

The vampire glanced over but said nothing.

“So you stayin’ with Mr. Johnston? I know he helps lots of people out, like when they don’t have a job and stuff. Mom says he does it cuz it’s his Christian duty.”

“Yes, Mr. Johnston was…very kind to me.” The vampire recognized the duplicity in what he was saying, and was surprised to find himself troubled by it. But how could he be as guileless in turn with this child as she was with him? She could never understand. The vampire realized then that he would be disappointed with this child’s rejection, this child he did not know, when she realized the truth of his own existence. He would miss her when she was gone. As much as he could miss anything, as all his past experience was a fog. Once, he imagined, he had been a man of culture.

Angela skipped along beside him, and bent over to pick up a dandelion.

“I’m so glad it’s summertime. I hate the winter, don’t you? I don’t like cold weather. And there’s no school in summer neither.” She paused. “But I kinda like school, too, cuz I get to see my friends. Least when I’m not sick.”

The vampire glanced at her again. So the girl knew her condition. Would that make things easier on his mind when his splintering thoughts had coalesced once more and her body lay before him? Or would he remember her at all?

“What illness do you suffer from?”

“Leukemia. I could die from it, but Mom doesn’t like to talk about that.”

“Everything has its own time,” replied the vampire, his tongue traveling about the inside curve of his lower lip.

Leukemia. Cancer of the blood. It mattered not to the vampire, who was already a walking infestation of disease and decay. He had drunk the sick blood of many people, absorbed their taints along with the sweet nectar, before he was left the next day a dried out dirty sponge. He was the plague in walking form. This girl would soon enough know what death was, when her mortal shell had shed its hold to this existence. Mortal. What did that really mean after all? Did he not live after his own way, fueled by the same forces that drove the warm-hearted? Was his role any different than that of wolf to lamb, vulture to carrion? And would not his existence cease without feeding? Were they not both, in their own way, victims? It had been long seasons since the vampire had pondered such thoughts, as thinking had become more and more difficult and the time his brain could rally together a cohesive whole became briefer between each kill. But the girl, this fearless girl and the way she spoke to him, had rekindled something buried within and the vampire fought this night to keep his thoughts aright, to savor the moment. Even so, he could feel his ability for thought and speech sloughing away as the needles of numbing pain shot through his extremities and hunger pangs twisted his gut.

“Are we near your home yet?”

“Yep!” The gold fingernail flashed in the moonlight once more. “Right over there.”

The vampire gazed about them. The street and surrounding areas were empty of people. The vampire leaned his head back, the stars glittering like silver beads in his dark inky pupils, before returning his attention once more to the girl. Her body was a tiny furnace, the only source that could relieve the cold that now felt like millions of needles piercing his very being. Perhaps he could take just enough of her to melt the cold away for a little while and still spare her life. No. No, that would never be. Once he started he would not stop. Everything had its own time, its own purpose to fill.

“Here we are,” announced Angela.

They had stopped before one of the many unremarkable time-neglected houses along the street. This one had a porch with steps that might once have been painted green leading up to battered screen door. The vampire could see that the screen was torn and shredded, damage form the feline friend the girl sought no doubt. Beyond that a heavy oak door stood slightly agape, and around it spilled the soft ambiance of television light.

“Thanks for walking me home, Marcus. I keep tellin’ Mom white people are okay. If you see Tommy, tell him to come home.”

The vampire, teeth grinding, clenched his left fist tight and pointed with his right. “Go inside now, child, and never come out at night alone again.”

“Sheesh! You’re worse than my Mom! See ya!” And she ran and bounced up the steps.

Her heartbeat grew fainter and fainter in the vampire’s ears, and when the oak door shut, he was left only with the cold fire worming its way deeper and deeper into his body. His thoughts dissipated, words lost in mad scrambles until they became words not at all but animal hunger. The vampire stood, motionless, watching the young girl’s house, his instinct telling him to go knock on the door, trick her out, feed, when he felt something brush against his leg. He looked down to see a black cat bearing a single white paw winding itself between his legs. In an instant the cat was in his grasp, and his teeth sank in around the soft black fur. Moments later the vampire let the carcass fall to the ground and took one step towards the house.

He stopped then, and looked at the corpse on the ground. One word, less than a whisper, escaped his lips. “Angela.”

The vampire turned away and disappeared into the night.