The Clown Oroborus by Alex S. Johnson

The Clown Oroborus by Alex S. Johnson

Reginald Snubb was a man in his late forties, bald except for two cottony puffs of hair that simply resisted the barber’s scissors–sheered, they would grow back in a fortnight, bigger and puffier than before. Other than that, and his prominent round nose, the roseate color of which appeared evidence of secret tippling, and a burgeoning double chin, he was reasonably good-looking, one might say well-preserved for his age. Even so, he was ashamed of his appearance, did most of his business by phone or email, and spent his time immersed between the covers of his favorite books. He loved books as much as he hated clowns. And he really loved books.

Clowns were a different matter altogether. There was something uncanny about them; they, in fact, anything to do with the circus arts, sent a bolt of terror up his spine. When McDonalds ads appeared on TV or before YouTube videos, he would switch channels, avert his eyes, try to focus on things that made him feel at home. Things that didn’t seem to jeer and leer at him through the screen. There were certain segments of town he avoided, and one block in particular–hell, one neighborhood–he took pains to circumvent. A dull pain would begin to throb at his temples when he got within five miles of the place, and flashbacks of harlequins in whiteface, mimes and figures on stilts shot through his mind with strobing intensity. He seemed to feel a ghostly kid-gloved hand close over his as he gripped the steering wheel tightly, trying not to steer off the road as he blurred his vision to ignore the looming billboard for the latest scary clown movie the studios kept churning out; and sometimes, when he was very tired and driving at night, he would see a pale face in the rear view mirror that simply wasn’t supposed to be there.

Snubb knew his fears were irrational, and that the effort to avoid clowns was limiting his lifestyle. Not only that, as a businessman he couldn’t afford to kick the clown dollar out of bed. A carnival was coming to town, and Snubb’s acreage was ideal real estate on which to erect tents, rides, a funhouse and all that kind of thing. Inevitably he’d get a call from the property manager, and if the carny credit was anywhere decent–better if they had the cash on hand–he would pretty much have to welcome the greasepainted mob to his turf.

Sitting with his shrink, Snubb explored different methods for overcoming his phobia. Finally, Dr. Strudel suggested aversion therapy–confronting his fears directly. The therapy might involve, for example, draping his study with circus posters, pictures of clowns, rubbing cotton candy into the doors and window frames, saturating his senses with the sights, the smells and–but he drew the line at whatever clowns might taste like.

“You’ve got to get beyond this,” Dr. Strudel said, scribbling furiously in a pink leather bound notebook. He peered over his half-glasses at Snubb, who was curled up on the couch in a fetal position. “It’s not healthy for a grown man. And no, I’m not suggesting you go out and lick a clown, for heaven’s sake’s. Be reasonable. Have some peanuts lying around, this kind of thing. Those little aluminum foil packets. So salty and tasty…”

“Maybe I could start by reading a book on the subject,” Snubb said. And thought: He’s right…those peanuts are delicious. The best thing about airplane food.

“Well sure, if you want to use the slow immersion approach.” Dr. Strudel scribbled some more in his notebook and drew his fingers through his Groucho-esque mustache. “But didn’t you get a call from your property manager today, something about a carnival coming to town?”

“I did?”

Dr. Strudel coughed and mumbled something into his dictaphone. “You should check your messages more often. You can use my cell if you like.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Snubb, his face draining of all its color. How did Strudel know these things? Had he babbled under hypnosis? Was the doc connected to some kind of… Snubb stopped the thought before it could unspool whatever paranoid delusion prompted it. Just as he tried to chop off the thought that succeeded that one before it had a chance to bloom. This notion, however, flooded his brain anyway.

Is it just my imagination, or does Strudel have an abnormally large shoe size? And why didn’t I notice that before? Does he have a cold, or is his…bulbous nose, which looks like one of those artificial cherries now…“I’ll go down to Barney’s Books today,” he said, abruptly unfolding his lanky body from the couch and rising. Just before he closed the door, he seemed to glimpse a child’s balloon scudding against the window glass on the third floor office, a pair of kohl-haloed eyes…

But books–now those were safe. He loved books. Books of all kinds. If he came upon something upsetting, he could simply close them. And so what if a book happened to contain clowns? Was even devoted to the subject? Snubb had gotten through Rabelais without incident, and the classical French author was all about the carnivalesque.

Two hours later, Snubb gingerly removed the volume from the medium-sized paper bag with the Barney’s Books logo stamped across it, turned on his study lamp, adjusted his reading glasses and began to peruse A General History of Clowns (Cherrynose Press, 2012).

The frontispiece depicted a fearsome-looking member of the tribe in full regalia, apparently boxing with an animated cabbage, along with this caption: “Joseph Grimaldi (18 December 1778 – 31 May 1837) an English actor, comedian and dancer, who became the most popular English entertainer of the Regency era, chiefly for his portrayal of the harlequinade role of Clown. Grimaldi’s whiteface make-up design were, and still are, used by other types of clowns.”

Fingers of cold fear traveled along his arms. He could swear he’d seen that face before. But where? He dropped the book on his desk, face-down, and thumbed his cell phone, scrolling through his messages.

Sure enough, there was one new message: 12:15 pm, Bartlett Properties.

Snubb decided to listen later. Although he knew this wasn’t brave of him, and certainly went against both the letter and spirit of Dr. Strudel’s counsel, he simply couldn’t stand to hear the saved call. Feeling like the lowliest form of a coward, he turned the book over and flipped to the first page of the text proper. And read this:

“Reginald Snubb was a man in his late forties, bald except for two cottony puffs of hair that simply resisted the barber’s scissors–sheered, they would grow back in a fortnight, bigger and puffier than before.”

Snubb refused to read of whatever horrors followed. There were a few possibilities: either he had become locked into a Julio Cortazar pastiche, his fate destined to match that of a character in one of the South American master’s fictional puzzle boxes, or he was going quietly insane, like some armchair-bound scholar in a Poe story. He glanced around him, but the study looked the same as it always had: muted brown wood, framed photos of ancestors who bore the same genetic curse he did–which comforted him and made him feel less like a freak–an enameled purple box he never opened which held family heirlooms, a hole punch, a stapler and a pencil holder, among other standard office supplies on his desk.

At least his immediate environment remained stable.

He wracked his brain for a solution to the dilemma he found himself caught in. It was as though the universe was pressing him to take on his darkest terrors head-on. He’d thought reading about clowns was the safe thing, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. He’d thought putting off the message was a prudent decision, given his state of mind. Now, though, his choices had shrunk, atrophied as surely and inexorably as his hair follicles–except for those pesky cotton puffs.

Snubb picked up the cell.

He found the message from Bartlett Properties, held the phone to his ear, took a deep breath and pressed “play.”

At first, nothing; then, the crackle of static, through which he faintly discerned the wheezing, underwater warble of a calliope. The honk of a bicycle horn, loud enough to nearly make him drop the phone. And a sly, insinuating voice.

His own.

“There’s no point in hiding from your legacy, Snubb. You know what they say in our profession–once a clown, always a clown. In your case, clowning comes naturally. You might say it’s in your blood.”

No! This was madness. There had to be some rational explanation. Snubb tried to rise from his chair, but an invisible hand–the same kid-gloved fingers that had closed on his while he drove around the dreaded downtown neighborhood–settled on his shoulder and pressed down.

“Take a look in the mirror, Snubb. A nice, long look. Don’t worry, I’ll be here to help you adjust. I’ve always been here. I’m you.”

Clutching the cell to his ear, Snubb walked out of his office, down a hallway that scrolled with circling spotlights of green, blue and red, as the calliope music rose, as his size 14 men’s shoes closed the distance between himself and the mirror at the end, right next to the kitchen.

He gazed for a while at his reflection. The cherry red nose, the furry orange eyebrows, the pink tufts that jutted from behind his ears. He looked down at his shoes, and the reflection seemed to wink at him.

So there was no Dr. Strudel after all–it was a ridiculous name to begin with. No property manager, no acreage to rent. The book was real enough, but then, any clown with a credit card could buy the ubiquitous history and take it home with them. In the end, it was just him–Snubbsy the Clown, a carny in denial.

The sheer absurdity of it all came at last into blinding focus, and as he began to laugh, he heard a chorus from the kitchen, and his study, and his living room, a chorus of echoes from his carnival fraternity.

Snubbsy laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks and smeared the greasepaint he applied every morning with automatic precision.

 

 

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Children of the Grave by Alex S. Johnson

Children of the Grave by Alex S. Johnson

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They tramped back from tomorrow into today, born aloft drops from a blinding sun, on rifle-cracks of wind, in the pits of black stars.

They came from cracked temples where sacrifice never slept, where green, mossy things little different from rocks formed long steps that writhed at night and died by day. They were the tomb-children, the beings of dark fancy evoked by witch-candle. Their eyes crawled with scorpion ghosts and they lived inside the cells of men, citizens of present time, flesh slowly unwound like a shroud.

By the churchyard they gathered, among the toppled granite crosses, faces stained with holy light. The priest who kept watch fingered his rosary and gazed up at the body of the Savior, who seemed powerless to do more than watch.

Once potential, hosts of golden wonders, deprived of air and succor, food and care, the bodies of the children faded away; but not their spirits. These took longer to disappear, to scorch emblems into walls and fences and even beneath the curious, quaint faces of the villagers, whom time had forgotten, who moved in a shrouded dream, scratched like the emulsion of black and white movies.

They drifted down from space in ships like glass coffins, wielding signs of peace in one hand and destruction in the other.

Deep in the earth, their shadows echoed with them, the bones waiting, quiescent, for a chance to hatch. And surfacing, ripening in the moist night air.

And they gave the bones blood. Not theirs, of course, since every final drop had been purged from their bodies; as they churned and chafed in shackles, crying out to no avail. Because their hurt went unheeded, crafted by the adults in whose power they remained locked.

The crimson nourishment they gave came from their hosts: the fiends of their fathers, the madcap jesters who amused themselves by crippling children. Those who had forged their death like pyramids, laying on brick upon another until the kids were lost, smashed under rock. Blind and dead, but their eyes still burned, and sometimes, late at night, the villagers saw them, peering out through the trees, or on the edge of the lake, or in subtler forms that flashed gently by as they tried to sleep. The bodies of the scorpions growing larger, until nothing could be seen of their once-innocent regard but cosmic blackness.

They left signs of their presence, diary entries of their wanderings discovered later in the crypts beneath the town, where shameful deeds had been done. Blood graffiti, cryptic feathers, semi-liquid offerings of flesh. They dropped hints, whispers in the ears of apple-cheeked old women, young, hearty men, hints of a coming nightmare. They wrote in curvilinear script, in hieroglyphs, in tongues of honeyed mist. Sometimes they chuckled from haybales as the harvest proceeded; sometimes they were only felt, as an absence, a sudden darkening, a sketch of terrible things that might yet be.

And the screams of the villagers rang among the hills, only to be stifled as the candles were snuffed, the mouths closed, the stitches lashed through the soft skin of eyelids. Their animals ran loose and free, especially the cats, who meowed in sympathy with the children. They understood the pain as only creatures with the wild in their veins could understand it. And they joined in the games, sometimes playful, sometimes cruel, the kids crafted from suffering and flesh and bodies and bone and hurt.

When they were done, giggling with glee that shaded into evil, they ascended once again, the tracks of the coffins etched briefly into the dark, as the wind shrieked and a storm gathered.

Only to be remembered as stories, legends, tales told by the fireside to the children of the grave.

 

 

The Girl in the Lake by Alex S. Johnson

The Girl in the Lake by Alex S. Johnson

Sam looked exactly–I mean, the resemblance was uncanny–like a little kid who’d woken up extra-early Christmas Day so he could get a sneak preview of the presents piled in front of the hearth. He was about to reach forward and touch the black streak on the pine’s bark when Jeremy cut in.

“Dude, maybe you should just take a picture or something. Shit looks toxic.”

Sam shrugged and withdrew his hand, wiping it off on the front of his t-shirt–made of hemp fiber, naturally–which was a blazing fluorescent green and featured a picture of a bear smoking a bong.

“I guess you’re right, Jer.” He shrugged off his small backpack, covered with patches from various jam bands, and set it on the ground in a bed of needles. “Then again, all this land is saturated with poison.”

Scott coughed. His dad was one of the biggest investors in Green Chemical, and besides, they were trespassing on private property. If his dad even suspected what he’d been up to, he’d wind up losing the last privileges he’d been able to hold on to, and spend every day till his 18th birthday locked in his room puzzling over the higher math. For some reason his dad and I got along fine, even though he liked to call me a “socialist wingnut.” But he hated Sam and Jeremy with a passion.

The sun was setting, shafts of amber light flickering through the pine forest. Beyond the clearing, Lake Soutaine cut a big bite out of the woods, a darker, evil shade of green. Two summers ago it had been pure blue, and not off limits. We used to go there all the time. There was even an ancient tire swing hanging over the water, but the rubber was flaked,  and covered with some kind of white fungus.

“You guys mind if I blaze one?” Sam asked. He passed his arm through the tire before anybody could stop him. “For old times?”

“Jesus, Sam…” Scott started. He slumped his shoulders with a defeated look. I could see in his eyes the flicker of rebellion begin to grow. “Yeah, it’s chill. Fuck it, you know? We’ve come this far.” Then he pulled his polo shirt over his head. Damn, he was cut.

“Don’t even think about it,” Scott added. I smiled. My friends could be dicks sometimes, but they were totally cool with my sexual preferences, and that pretty much trumped any of the crap they gave me. They were dicks to everyone, and to themselves. Sam retrieved a baggie from his pack and plucked a joint from the nest of sticky. “So you guys remember that little girl who disappeared a couple of years back?”

The air was growing cold, and I wished I’d brought my jacket. For some reason Scott was strutting around shirtless like the cock of the walk. I didn’t mind at all. Sam was oblivious as he flamed up the J and wrinkled his nose. It was some old school skunk. I could tell we were all getting a contact high. And just a bit of the paranoia. Which was perfect for Sam’s purposes.

I told you my friends were dicks.

“Let’s make a drum circle,” he suggested. Scott started to laugh, so hard he was choking and red in the face. “Are you fucking serious? Dude, you’re a walking cliche. Don’t we need a drum or two for that?”

“Figure of speech, dude.” Suddenly I think we all realized how long a day we’d had. It felt right to sit down, get comfortable and listen to a scary story. After all, the initial purpose of our expedition–Sam’s idea, of course–to investigate, document and blog about Green Chemical’s despoilment of nature, seemed more and more naive. Of course GC was taking a giant dump on the planet. That was a no-brainer.

“Her name was Tanya,” Sam began. “She was 11 years old when she went missing. You remember her mom going on TV and pleading with the kidnappers. But there was never a ransom note. The case is still open with the police, but most people think she’s dead.”

“Very sad,” I said. “She was a beautiful kid.”

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“That she was,” Sam agreed. “But I have a theory. Tanya loved swimming in Lake Soutaine. The day she went missing, the last time she was seen…” Suddenly there was a plop and splash from the lake, as though an enormous fish had jumped. My blood turned to ice. This wasn’t fun any more.

“I think we should get the heck out of here,” said Scott, standing up.

“Oh come on, dude,” said Sam. “It’s just a story. Anyway, my theory is that Tanya drowned. She was a great swimmer, but something got her. Pulled her down. A week later, if you remember, the county closed off this section of the woods and all of Lake Soutaine. I don’t think that was a coincidence.”

“You’re freaking us all out,” said Scott. “Besides, I might as well face my punishment now. My dad’s going to love this–staying out all day on a weekend before finals, stumbling in reeking of weed.”

“No one’s stopping you, dude,” said Sam. “How about you guys?” I shrugged. “Even if I wanted to go, I couldn’t. Basically paralyzed with fear. Please continue.”

“That’s the spirit! All right. So Tanya drowns, and obviously, she dies. But she doesn’t die all the way. The chemicals somehow reanimate her, turn her into a zombie. And she’s…”

“You’ve been reading too much R.L. Stine,” said Jeremy, who up to this point had been silent, his eyes glassy.

“Right behind you.”

I couldn’t move. I felt like some kind of morbid looky-loo at the scene of a traffic accident. Of course there was nothing there. Sam was making this all up; he’d admitted as much.

Because if he wasn’t, then the little girl standing behind Jeremy, half her face rotted off, shiny with algae and glowing like a halogen lamp, wasn’t just some kind of hallucination from the angel dust I suspected the weed was laced with. If he was reporting the empirical facts, as I now believed he was, the blood spurting from Jeremy’s neck stump now was as real as the crater Tanya had scooped from Sam’s face, and the sparks–like a handful of glitter–drifting in the girl’s blind eyes as she turned towards me with a lipless grin.

 

Free Fiction Friday: Burning from the Inside (Envy) by Alex Johnson

Burning from the Inside (Envy)

by Alex S. Johnson

Don’t stop–you’re almost there.

But the integument was sticky and hard to handle, and she was working from a medical textbook, the lines of type blurring, completely winging it, besides the over-reaching mental hammers from the blow.

Lines. She snuffled and the cocaine-flecked mucus dripped onto her tongue. A tingling, metallic sensation.

Chemical hammers smashed her brain when she needed more than anything precision, a hand that didn’t shake, eyes that didn’t flash with demons.

Just concentrate.

The “rock star” lay on the gleaming, sterile operating table, silent as Stephen in that Chris and Cosey song. But unlike Doctor John, Sondra wasn’t taking trophies simply to get off. There was much more to it than that. She was giving herself the face she deserved, had worked and sweated for. The well-padded industry audience expected a cynical indulgence, a vanity fair. Not Liquid Bambi, who reports in Billboard said was missing in action. When Bambi strutted down from the Vampire Room in glorious boudoir gear, they’d lose their shit.

Fat beads of blood on stainless steel, running into the grooves. Because her nose was acting up again.

More lines. Color within. Don’t stray from the path. You can do this thing.

Next week was the showcase at the Whiskey. Granted, she had paid–again, through the nose, as it bloody were–but that was the way the game worked these days.

If only she had the talent encased in the semi-conscious artist on the slab.

If you cut her, you will come.

Nice, Sondra, a good jest, but it won’t lift the face intact.

Screw this. She reaches and pulls. It’s a nice little moment, straight out of Les Yeux Sans Visage (which had just played at the Hollywood Forever cemetery).

Finally, the idol’s mask was free.

Dripping wet as sex, smeared with the red, red krovvy, but fully wearable once it had been cured. And a little juju, dark, rich, opiate bloodrush with the spirit of her great-grandmother howling inside, bent over backwards with the force of the loa as it pounded and pounded.

Sondra put it on. And gazed at her reflection in the metal. And sought a mirror to primp and preen before. And nearly vomited with the rush. It was everything, sex magic heliotropes blazing across the last stretch of land before the Pacific tide, salt, kelp, sacrifice. Where the sun went down melting the horizon.

She gyrated in her white lab coat and did a striptease, Doctor John’s Traveling Apocalyptic Nightmare, starring Sondra De La Guerre, late of New Orleans, West Hollywood’s finest.

Oh the stunning eroticism of her body, so lean and skinny her ribs ran like window slats beneath her breasts. She photographed so well.

She had thought and pondered and considered how to replace Bambi. It was easy in this town to find someone, or a few someones, brutal, degraded and greedy enough to kidnap the star from her Beverly Hills Hotel under some simple pretense and shuttle her out as an emergency–make way, make way–shove her into the waiting ambulance driven by an ex member of the Polish Mafia, gun the engine and burn rubber to the hole-in-the-wall porn store on La Brea where they carried Bambi’s limp body into a storeroom, tied her up and texted Sonda with the code.

Sondra could not wait for showtime.

Showtime

Backstage she ignored the ponderous critique that she might lay off the Bolivian until after the gig. Apparently glazed over with ennui, the label reps would regard her coldly, assessing her every move. If she stumbled on this one, her career, which had budded several times without flowering, was finished. Then she’d have to return in shame to her home in the Lower Ninth Ward and sell her skeleton to johns who liked their whores with a little less flesh on their bones.

Even behind the narcotics, she realized her secret plan was completely insane. Wearing the actual face of a real rock star to shock-start her own rocket to the top of the charts was madness maddened, and she would never get away with it. But. It had never been done before. Combining the cutting-edge aesthetics of an Ed Gein with Bowie body English, traces of the Runaways, a little Trent Reznor, a dash of Manson, Sondra’s performance would make headlines and focus the nation’s attention on her. Her, not that–admittedly talented–twat whose visage she’d snatched.

Industrial beat, rubber drums, the sh-sh-sh of digital cymbals. Floodlights. Flashbulbs. A strange, high buzz in her inner ear.

She grabbed the mic and tossed her long, raven-black hair, feeling spectacular now in a red vinyl jumpsuit that accentuated her curves and streamlined her gaunt torso. Right horrorshow. The Diva of her time.

The crowd was silent. Nobody said a word.

“How are you feeling tonight?”

More flashbulbs. Sonda blinked.

Something was wrong.

She felt the Bambi mask writhe and seethe against her skin. Hot filaments pierced her forehead, her cheeks, her eyes. She screamed.

She could barely hear the din of the audience. Sirens in the smoky distance. The crackle of police radios.

Bambi’s face began to devour her own. It burned like acid, like napalm. She smelled sizzling flesh and brought her hands up, screamed again with the pain as her fingers stuck to the mask and through to her skull and she pulled and it came away in flaming ribbons, tassels of fire…until the red bundles of her face muscles gleamed forth and she opened her mouth and a beautiful, sweet song poured out, but it wasn’t her own.

It would never be hers.

The limelight. The glamour. The accolades. All reserved for the real rock star, as the fingers of pain thrust down Sondra’s throat and opened her up, all the rotten green stuff within slopping out. The color of money, of jealousy, greed and envy.

Which was, in the end, her entire legacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Fiction Wednesday: A Date with Monsieur Baudelaire by Alex S. Johnson

A Date with Monsieur Baudelaire
by Alex S. Johnson

“Well, this is awkward,” said Giselle Duras (in French, of course, as that was her native language). She had shown up promptly to the small artist’s cafe in Montparnasse and now anticipated trekking the Walk of Shame known to other artist’s models who had been stood up by the distinguished and infamous author of Les Fleurs Du Mal.

Mlle. Duras was just about to collect her parasol and beat a quick exit through the kitchen when a thunderous voice called from just behind her. She started, blushed and brought her lace-gloved fingers to her mouth.

“Monsieur!” she said. “You scared me!”

“Sit,” he said imperiously.

She did as he instructed.

“I hope you weren’t planning to beat a hasty escape through that squalid kitchen. At best, you would smear your dainty boots with offal; at worst…” he shuddered and a grave look settled on his oddly handsome, square-jawed face.

Charles Baudelaire sat his tall black velvet hat on a seat beside him and, like a conjurer, produced a large package from beneath his cloak.

“Your beauty merits more than the baubles a handful of francs can summon,” he said with a grandiloquent sweep of his arms.

Mlle. Duras pushed her veil aside, revealing her pale skin and dark blue eyes, her delicate features and thin nose.  She examined the box. It was covered in black crepe with an oxblood ribbon. She thought for a moment there must be some error. It looked more like a consolatory gift given a widow than a romantic gesture. But as Monsieur was well known for his eccentricities in art as well as life, she suppressed the desire to call the gendarmes strolling the dank alleyway behind the kitchen. She mustn’t let her nervous fears overwhelm her.

Mustn’t.

“You are like a fair and fragrant rose, ma cherie,” Baudelaire added. Now he was laying it on a bit thick. But he was, after all, the celebrated author of forbidden works, and she was more than a bit curious what mysteries the box held within it.

He tapped the package with a long, cadaverous finger. “You reject my present?”

“Pour moi?” she asked, her eyelashes fluttering. His lips pursed to a thin white line uncomfortably close to a scar.

“You reject my present, you reject me!” he announced to the cafe in general. Two painters who were guzzling their lunch turned around and, upon seeing the great poet in their midst, turned green and left the cafe on their knees, bowing and kissing the floor where his boots had left muddy tracks spackled with clumps of snow.

“No, no, please,” said Mlle. Duras. “I am flattered and honored you would think to bestow such kindness on a mere model, especially on a first date.” She hoped he wasn’t like the other great poets she had met under similar circumstances, who expected, nay, demanded favors she was ill-equipped to bestow. She was saving herself for a nobleman, although she thought perhaps once that grim ritual had been executed, she might keep a poet on the side for sport.

Duras had been raised in a convent until released at the age of 18 into a world she didn’t quite understand, and soon learned that her knowledge of the scriptures, prayer and fasting was inadequate to the challenge of life in Paris in the late 19th Century.

Her fingers trembling, she plucked the bow from the package and proceeded to carefully unwrap it.

“Close your eyes,” said Baudelaire once the box lay bare.

She complied, terrified now.

She heard rustling and fluttering as he pushed the wrapping paper down flat on the flowered tablecloth and popped the box open.

“Et voila!” he said. “You may look now.”


 

Shortly after her date with Monsieur Baudelaire, Giselle Duras returned to the convent a nervous wreck, her mind shattered beyond any hope of recovery. The other artist’s models didn’t miss her, were glad, in fact, that “the neurotic bitch went home to Jesus.”

To her dying day, she would never forget the cloud of flies that swarmed up from the rotting head, one eyeball still intact, shreds of flesh clinging to the bones, the sickly-sweetish odor, and, worst of all, Baudelaire’s smile, accompanied by tender words, at the revelation: “One day you will be like that, my love, my indolent, catlike goddess. Your skin will shrink on your frame, your sockets will inhale your vision, and you will exhale the vilest stink that to my nostrils glorifies the odor of the grave over any perfume. Worms will crawl along your clavicles and tree roots will impale your soft tissue. Then you will bloat like a pregnant cow…”

She had barely been carried out the cafe door when another model plumped herself down in Baudelaire’s lap and, caressing him slowly, kissed him on the neck. “I’d be delighted to get a gift like that from such a fine gentleman as yourself,” she said, her nostrils flaring like a pig. She shifted her heavy buttocks against him.

“You too will be like this,” he said, after the stormy look of disappointment had passed. “My love, my goddess, my angel of the gutters.”

“Aw, you poets and your fancy talk.”

Review: Christmas, A Ghostly Gathering by Midnight Syndicate

by Alex S. Johnson

Midnight Syndicate has been a favorite of dark instrumental music fans for over 18 years, and now the Cleveland-based duo of Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka have wrought their monsterpiece.

Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering revisits those aspects of the Yuletide season familiar to Charles Dickens buffs, specifically the spooky and ooky parts. “A Christmas Overture” by Douglas sets the stage for the Syndicate’s magical ride, and you can practically see Jack Skellington whipping on the horses of his pumpkin carriage as they wind through the streets of a sleeping New England village, spreading the gift of grim.

Next up is a version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Sugar Plum Fairy” from the Nutcracker as one might imagine Italo-horror soundtrack greats Goblin playing it. Goosebumps galore ensue. This is followed by “Carol of the Bells,” composed by Mykola Leontovych, a holiday favorite haunted by choirs of lost angels.

Now we descend into “Night of the Krampus” courtesy of an original composition by Douglas. You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry, although you might want to scream and run for your life if this creature of German folklore, a sort of anti-Claus, spies you being naughty. This tune would make a fine accompaniment to a reboot of the old Hammer Films franchise–big breasted maidens hollering in terror, menaced by the Krampus, who is easily scarier than Frankenstein, Dracula, the Golem and the Wolf Man all stitched together in Peter Cushing’s laboratory.

And just when you think Christmas has become too genuinely frightening to serve as a context for hearthside cheer, “Angels We Have Heard on High” sing gently o’er the plains. But with the suspense built up from the previous songs, you might be wary of something dreadful hidden beneath their wings. Which is probably not “Greensleeves,” beautifully rendered here. Which is definitely “Up on the Housetop,” and whatever that might be, it means no good.

Fortunately, this chilling episode is succeeded by “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” although with the Danny Elfman treatment given this Christmas standard, they sound more like the League of Distinguished Gentlemen, gathered in a safe house somewhere in Victorian London as they work against time to foil a dastardly plot that threatens Western Civilization.

Midnight Syndicate 2015

Midnight Syndicate 2015

What’s this “Coventry Carol?” A thing to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. A song that could easily be titled “O Little Town of Deathlehem,” with none the wiser. Whatever is being born this day, it’s probably awful and best avoided for one’s mental health.

Similarly, “Little Helpers,” in another Douglas original, sound like nasty sprites with sharp claws and glowing red eyes, hopping up and down like psychedelic toads with deadly intent. They should be held at arm’s length if you can’t find a steel mesh net and some holy water. Seriously.

Ah, “Sing We Now of Christmas.” Nothing sinister here, right? A sweet, dark and somber rendition of the 15th Century French carol. So far, so not Satan’s coming round the bend. Yet. Suddenly we find ourselves swept into the heart of a “Winter Storm” (a Goszka original this time), and from there “Into the Stillness,” just shy of peaceful, a bit ominous actually…ok, something’s coming to turn the stillness into an abattoir. Could it be “The Parade of the Tin Soldiers?” For sweet little toys, they sound awfully like Stormtroopers from Hell. When, oh when, will it be “Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight?”

At last, it’s “Christmas at Midnight.” The chimney has been stoppered up to keep out the Krampus, with pots of boiling oil handy just in case he breaks through the barbed wire and armed guards. The children are shivering in their beds, wracked by nightmares, visions of big black spiders and rotting zombies dancing in their heads. Mom and Dad are with a therapist. And yet, despite all the horror and fear and creeping flesh, it seems we have all survived.

Just in time for the New Year’s Evil.

 

 

Free Fiction Friday: Bellamorte by Alex S. Johnson

Bellamorte

by Alex S. Johnson

Rising from her bath, Bellamorte took a moment to regard herself in the oval silver and jewel-framed mirror that stood in the east-facing corner of the tiny hut in the woods. Beside the fireplace hung the copper basin in which she’d heated the water.

Vanity, her good stepmother had called it. Self-regard, a sin for which the consequences were death. Yet, good as she was, Clarissa allowed it nevertheless.

She was convinced, bless her dear soul, that Bellamorte would eventually see the error of her ways and accept the true Savior.

Amazingly enough, all it took was a blush and a bowed head, simple words of a contrition she would never feel, for Clarissa to believe that her stepdaughter was headed down the true path. Give her time, and she would come around to righteousness.

Righteousness, yes.  For Bellamorte, this was her fine 18-year-old figure, droplets of water glistening in the firelight. Miniature echoes of her full breasts, womanly hips and dark thatch. Her waist-length, straight raven hair. Subtly Asiatic eyes.

Her younger sister, Donella, had not been as understanding. Donella clung to her prayerbook and her Bible like talismans. She lectured and read aloud from the volumes the village priest had given her.

Probably for a stiff price, smirked Bellamorte.

But Donella had been dealt with. Sternly, but more mercifully than she deserved. Bellamorte would never stoop to the cruelty of the priest and his kind.

She stoked the fire again with the poker and threw in a sprinkle of the rust-red powder from the pearl-colored sachet.

The fire snapped and sparkled. For a moment, a face appeared in a burst of grey smoke: the Lady of the Castle.

Her face was white as snow and her lips a rich scarlet. Long dark ringlets gathered on her shoulders.

Her eyes: terrible and beautiful at the same time, like the sweet tongues of Hell.

Fair Lady, I will be with thee soon.

Thoroughly toweling herself off, Bellamorte scooped a handful of the unguent–a clear gel that smelled of burning leaves, blood and opium–and carefully applied it, first to her forehead, then her shoulder blades, her breasts, and further south.

Her skin tingled, and at first a strawberry rash burst from the places she had touched. Then the rash receded and the slow bloom of ecstasy traveled in two directions: up her spine and down her flesh.

Deeper down. Crosswise.

Acorus vulgare, Verspertillionis sanguinem, Solanum somniferum, boiled together in oil. Indian Hemp and stramonium. To bind it, the blood and fat of night birds.

Then the charm was firm and good.

Outside the virgin snow spread across the countryside. Stars like diamonds studded the night sky. The moon was pregnant and about to give birth.

Bellamorte reached for the dress, a magnificent creation in violet: shot silk, with a ruffled collar, lacy puffed sleeves, low-cut decolletage, silver hem. She rolled the white silk stockings over her knees. Then the burgundy shoes.

The hut was ever so quiet.

Ever so peaceful.

And she looked and smelled and felt like Magic.

But she was losing time. The Lady was very strict about her new appointments, and Bellamorte did not wish to disappoint.

Gathering together her offerings of love, Bellamorte placed them in the wicker basket and covered it with a blue cloth. She plucked the half-eaten apple from the rude wooden shelf her grandfather had built and took a big bite. The sugar rushed through her bloodstream like living flame.

Now she would go.

She spun before the fire, counterclockwise, stamping out the rhythms of the Rede on the tamped earthen floor.

Bellamorte took one last look around the cottage. Her sister, stepmother and father, still as statues on the hay-stuffed cots. Three gifts for the Lady.

She pulled the thick woolen shawl around her shoulders and poked her head out the doorway, through the apron of cured leather.

Sniffed the air, the clean early-morning scent of nothing.

And bid farewell to the hut in the forest forever.