“The Hollow” by S.C. Jensen

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The lifeless eyes hung level with Ginny’s gaze. Blue nylon cord twisted around the thing’s naked body, diving in and out of the flesh like a hungry worm, so that she couldn’t see where it was tied. A mask of blood matted the fur on the tiny face and pooled in its ears. The rest of it was hairless. It looked a bit like a cat, but Ginny couldn’t see a tail.

Behind her, Bea made a sound in her throat almost like a laugh.

“I told you,” Ginny said. “I told you something like this would happen.”

The fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Bea blew out a cloud of steam in the crisp autumn air. It hung like a ghost between them. “This is bad, Gin.”

The sun sank into the trees behind their house. Rose-gold spears of evening light broke through the remaining leaves of the season and cast an otherworldly glow over the macabre scene.

Ginny reached out a tentative hand and recoiled quickly. The body was still warm. “I don’t what to do anymore, Bea.”

“Well, we can’t tell anyone.” Bea cupped her hands around her mouth and blew into them, trying to stay warm. “That’s for sure.”

“I didn’t do it,” Ginny said. She rubbed her fingers against her pants. A smear of blood stained the denim. “You believe me, don’t you?”

“They’re going to take you away, Ginny. You’re going to celebrate your sixteenth birthday in a straight-jacket.”

Silence fell between the girls until the air quivered with it. Ginny’s body shook with more than the cold; her heart hammered painfully against her chest. Spots swam at the edges of her vision, like ghost-lights. Will-o-the-wisps. An aura of light seemed to swell around her sister’s face. Ginny was afraid she would pass out if Bea didn’t say something soon.

“Go get the shovel.” Bea turned toward the tree. “I’ll cut it down. Mom’s going to be home soon.”

Ginny walked to the garden shed on legs like sandbags. She kicked each step forward, feeling the impossible weight of her body with every step. Bea was right. No one could know about this. They were just waiting for an excuse to lock her up. Voices rose, unbidden, to whisper in her ears. Maladjusted, delusional, unstable…

Her therapists and social workers said they were on her side, but she could hear the excitement in their voices when they talked to her mother. A very unusual case. Like her mental health was a sideshow they could observe from the front row, munching on popcorn and planning their next sabbatical project.

She heard the kids at school, too. Freak, psycho, bitch… Sure, she threatened to cut Bradley Schaeffer’s pecker off with a pair of sewing shears in home-ec. But Bradley had started to look at Bea the way he used to look at her. The way he looked at her before that night. Slut. Ginny wasn’t going to let that happen again. Not to Bea. Bradley would stay away from both of them from now on.

Ginny’s hand pressed against the weather beaten door of the shed. Her coat sleeve fell back to reveal a cross-hatch of raised silver flesh on her wrist. Ginny didn’t like to look at her wrists. Her limbs felt like they belonged to someone else, dull, heavy things she had to lug through life. The ghostly chains of her sins, hanging off of her, dragging her down. She pushed the door open with her hip and stepped into the frigid darkness inside. The shovel was there, just as she’d left it.

The thing was on the ground when Ginny came back. The frayed cord lay in a tangle at Bea’s feet, electric blue and unnaturally vivid against the dead flesh and dead leaves. Bea said, “Give me that.”

The girls trudged through the forest behind their house, single file. Bea held the shovel against her shoulder, like a rifle, and led the way to the Hollow. Ginny dragged the mess of meat and twine behind her. The creature deserved better, but she couldn’t stand to carry the body in her arms. The skinny limbs, red and wet and going cold. It was too much like—

“Here.” Bea stopped abruptly and stuck the blade of the shovel into a patch of churned up earth. “Put it next to the other one.”

Ginny released her grip on the nylon rope and took the spade from her sister. She pressed her foot into the top of the blade until she could feel the edge cutting into her foot through the sole of her shoe. She pressed until it hurt, but the blade wouldn’t pierce the frozen soil.

“Hurry up,” Bea said. “Mom’s going to be home any minute now.”

“I can’t.” Ginny threw all of her weight on top of the shovel. The handle dug into her ribs. “It’s rock hard.”

“Well put it in with the others.” Bea’s exasperated voice burst out in another cloud of steam. “You’re really cutting it close this time.”

Ginny eyed the fallen leaves at their feet. If you didn’t know to look for them, no one would ever know they were there. Little mounds arranged in a pyramid. The original on top and, supporting it—or maybe keeping it company—the tributes. Servants in the afterlife.

“The big one,” Bea said, suddenly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “It’s the freshest.”

Ginny’s heartbeat slowed. It struck with the great, anvil-clanging blows of a blacksmith. She forced her eyes to see the other grave. This one was easier to spot, even if you didn’t know to look for it. But after another good wind the raised earth would be completely camouflaged by the last of the leaves. With any luck, it would stay hidden until spring.

“Or do want Mom to find you like this?” Bea whispered. Something like glee tainted her voice. “She’d lose it. You two can be roomies in the nut house.”

Ginny pushed the shovel into the softened soil of the largest mound and flicked it aside. Something had gotten to the body, already, cold as it was. Black holes stared up at her from where the eyes should have been. Greying flesh sunk into the bones beneath the sockets. Teeth smiled up at her, liplessly. Ginny held her breath.

Like she was proving a point, Bea said, “There.”

Bradley Schaeffer’s face, what was left of it, glared up at Ginny accusingly. “I didn’t do it, Bea. I swear I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Bea’s voice dripped with scorn. “You never stand up for yourself, do you? That’s why I’m here.”

Ginny’s limbs began to weigh on her again. It wasn’t possible. Not this. “Bea?”

“Come on,” Bea said. “Tuck it in with him nice and tight.”

As if being moved by something outside herself, Ginny crouched next to the shallow grave. She tugged the mass of meat and twine through the leaves and, lifting it by the rope, lowered the thing onto Bradley’s chest. Bea was right. It suited him. She dropped the twine and the raw, naked body rolled. It caught in the crook of Bradley’s arm, like—

“Just like a baby,” Bea said.

Ginny’s legs began to cramp and she stood slowly. Without taking her eyes off the bodies, she dragged the shovel through the leaves and dirt she’d churned up. She pulled it over the pair like a blanket, gently. Tears stung her eyes and burned her cold cheeks.

“Good.” Bea’s voice cracked like a twig. “Now let’s go. The last thing we need is for mom to see you out here. They’ll put you away for sure, even if they don’t find this mess.”

“Stop saying that!”

“Come on, Gin. Wandering around the forest with a shovel, crying and talking to yourself. You look like a bloody lunatic,” Bea looked pointedly at the stains on Ginny’s clothes. “No pun intended.”

“I’m not crazy! You know I’m not. You’re just trying to upset me.”

“Upset you?” Bea’s mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. “That implies that you were settled in the first place. We both know you’re off your rocker.”

“Don’t you turn on me, too” Ginny whispered. “I need you.”

“I,” Bea said, “am not going anywhere. That’s your problem.”

“Tell them we were just out for a walk,” Ginny begged. “They’ll believe you.”

“Me?” Bea laughed, then. The harsh, joyless bark of sound shook the leaves off the trees. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

Bea’s face flickered in the waning twilight. Ginny had to concentrate to focus on her, like looking through murky water at a mirror. Bea had her dishevelled hair, her tear-streaked cheeks, her blood-stained clothes. They were identical, except for Bea’s cruel smile.

Then the cruel smile softened. Bea reached out and took Ginny’s hand, her damp fingers like ice, and led her back to the house. She said, not unkindly, “You really are crazy, you know.”

Ginny knew.
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This is my piece for the January prompt for 12 Short Stories. The prompt was “No one can know” at 1500 words. “The Hollow” came in just shy at 1498. I don’t technically submit this one until the 30th, so if you leave comments and feedback, I have time to apply it before the official due date! Please do. I am now awaiting my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, which will be arriving at midnight EST. I wanted to get this one out of the way so I can focus one NYC Midnight next week. Stay tuned for that one, too! As always, thanks for reading.

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Flash Fiction Friday: “The Foxhole” by S.C. Jensen

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Genre: Horror
Wordcount: 1154

Tobi crouched in the tall grasses that had grown up next to the old barn. The dun-coloured spears rustled in front of his face. He peered through them like a wary fox. A chicken feather, stuck to one of the strands, tickled his nose. Twenty feet away, more feathers littered the ground around the old well, like delicate white petals around an altar.

“I don’t see anything,” his sister whispered beside him. Her voice was as scratchy as the grasses, irritated. Irritating. He wanted to sneeze.

Tobi’s eyes fixed on the lip of the well. A sheet of splintered grey plywood lay propped across the mouth of the cistern. A chunk of ancient concrete weighted it down. To keep children and animals out; that’s what Mama said. Tobi had other ideas.

The plywood hadn’t moved. He was sure of that. A rusted twist of rebar, exposed by decades of prairie winds blasting against the concrete wall, made a perfect T with the edge of the wooden lid. It hadn’t budged an inch.

And yet something was different.

A dark patch blossomed against the light grey stone. Strands, like fingers, crept out from beneath the plywood cover. Tobi was sure it hadn’t been there before. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shifted the light with it. The dark patch glistened.

“There. Do you see it?”

Tina rocked back on her heels. “It’s wet.”

“Told you.”

“So what,” his sister said. A born skeptic, Mama called her. Typical first born. The pride in Mama’s voice came through in Tina’s confidence. “That doesn’t prove anything. It’s probably just condensation.”

Know it all, he thought. “Something is in there,” he said. “I’m telling you.”

“This is ridiculous.” She stood abruptly, breaking their cover and knocking Tobi on his ass in the process. She glared down at him like he was roadkill or something. Disgusted, the way only a teenage girl can be. “Why don’t you just admit that you left the gate open?”

“I didn’t!” He could hear the wheedling in his voice and he hated himself for it. “I swept the coop out, fed and watered them, collected the eggs, and I closed the gate, Tee. I swear I did.”

“Mama’s going to be pissed either way. You might as well fess up.”

Tina was probably right. He would be grounded until school started. Mama would never trust him with anything important ever again. It wasn’t fair. “Nobody ever believes me about anything.”

“Because you are a liar. You lie all the time.”

A born trickster; that was according to Mama, too. Just like your Daddy. Daddy, the good-for-nothing, layabout, joker. The story-teller. Capital L-i-a-r, Liar. “You can’t still be sore about your stupid doll.”

“You cut her eyes out and hung her in the cellar! Daddy gave me that doll.”

“I told you, that wasn’t me. Besides, it’s not fair. He never gave me anything before he left.”

“Is that why you did it?” The disgust in her eyes swelled and spilled out over the rest of her face. She hated him. Tobi had suspected so before, but now he was certain. “What’s your excuse for all the other stupid pranks and stories, then? I’m sick of it!”

It’s not my fault he left, he wanted to scream. But somehow the words wouldn’t come, because no matter how hard he tried he didn’t believe it. Tina backed away from him, stumbling toward the well as if whatever was wrong with him might be contagious. You fucking liar! Like father like son. Maybe it was contagious. Maybe it was a sickness. Because Daddy had always believed him.

…I heard a weird noise last night. I did too. There were green lights in the yard. I know, I saw them. I had the strangest dream. It wasn’t a dream, Tobi. Something bad is going to happen. It’s not safe for me here anymore…

There’s something in the well. I’m going away for a while…

Tobi stared at the dark patch of concrete. A downy white speck fluttered in the breeze where a feather had stuck in the liquid as it dried. The sharp white crescents of light reflected on the wet patch flattened and dulled. The patch didn’t disappear like it should. Instead of fading back into the light grey of dry concrete, the spot turned a dark, rusty red.

“Did you even actually forget the gate open?” Tina’s disgust escalated into rage. “Maybe that’s giving you too much credit. You probably let the chickens out on purpose just so you could—”

His sister’s voice faded into the background as he focused on the stain. The shape of a hand revealed itself on the surface of well with long fingertips trailing backwards, into its depths. If she would just turn around, Tina would see.

“—she’s got enough to worry about!” Tina was still going. “And you know we can’t afford to—”

“Tee,” Tobi said. “Stop.”

Tina stood in the midst of the feathers, her back to the well. Tears streamed down her face now. A rivulet of snot ran, like a tributary, into the tears and over her chin. Her angry eyes narrowed into swollen, red slits. “What?”

“I know you’re mad, but—”

“Stop looking at me like that,” she sniffed suspiciously.

“Just look behind you.”

“Don’t you try to scare me!” Her calf almost touched the well, but she couldn’t see. “I’m not falling for it again. I’m done with your stories, Tobi. Lying isn’t going to bring him back!”

The concrete block wobbled slightly. If Tina wasn’t crying so loudly, she would have heard it. She would have looked. The block jumped again and Tobi saw four raw, red fingers slide out from beneath the lid.

Tobi lunged for his sister.

So did the thing in the well. The plywood lid flipped back and, like a trapdoor spider, its red-streaked limbs shot out at them. Tobi jumped backward, staring in horror as the thing wrapped itself around Tina’s torso and yanked her over the edge. She didn’t have time to scream.

Tobi did.

Mama came running when she heard the commotion. She found Tobi standing behind the barn, surrounded by a flurry of feathers, like a fox in a henhouse. Speaking of which, the gate to theirs flapped against the barn door, for all the cats and coyotes and, yes, foxes, to waltz right through. And the lid of the well lay cocked into the grass; the old concrete block sat like a huge misshapen head beside it.

“Tobi, what’s going on?” she placed a hand on her son’s cold, rigid shoulder.

“You’ll never believe me,” he said.

Then Mama saw the blood; the cold seemed to seep out of his skin and into hers. “What have you done?”

Tobi’s hand absentmindedly floated before his face and he plucked a feather from his lip. He said, “I found Daddy.”

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Thanks for reading! Please leave your feedback, comments, and questions below.

 

 

 

Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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“The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle is one of the books that came up when I was reading up on Black Speculative Fiction Month last October. This wonderful novella is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of the most notoriously racist of Lovecraft’s oft-bigoted tales of cosmic horror.

Now, I have to admit that I haven’t actually read “The Horror at Red Hook.” Critics seem to almost unanimously agree that, while much of Lovecraft’s fiction has strengths that elevate it above the author’s ugly prejudices, “The Horror at Red Hook” is essentially without any redeemable qualities. And, I also have to admit, while I have studied Lovecraft, and actually do enjoy a handful of his tales, for the most part I find his writing painfully archaic and obtuse. Even while his Cthulhu Mythos has inspired some of my own fiction writing, I have had to force myself through the majority of his work. So, without any redeeming qualities, I doubt I’d be able to finish “The Horror at Red Hook” if I did try to read it.

Now, it’s hard to get around the fact that Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror writers of all time, even while modern critics are finally acknowledging and deconstructing his unapologetic asshatery. How much are we willing to overlook in the name of art? This is something that a lot of horror and science fiction writers are considering.

“Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes Stephen King, “as he had done for others before me…. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

And it’s true. It seem inescapable. Even for those who have never read Lovecraft, it is impossible to read modern horror that has not been in some way influenced by his writing.

Reading “The Ballad of Black Tom” has really made me think about how much harder it must be for marginalized horror/SF writers to reconcile this influence in a positive way. LaValle’s dedication in his novella is poignant. “For H.P. Lovecraft,” it reads, “with all my conflicted feelings.” But “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a perfect example of how such a reconciliation might be accomplished.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” revisits the world of Lovecraft’s Red Hook neighbourhood from the perspective of a black man, Charles Thomas Tester, living in Harlem in the 1920s. My understanding of the Lovecraft original is that it’s basically a screed against brown people, immigrants, people who don’t speak English, and especially brown immigrants who don’t speak English.

LaValle actually does an excellent job of retaining the bigotry of some of these characters, while looking at them critically through the eyes of Tommy Tester. The horrors that Tester experiences are as much a product of racism in 1920s New York as they are the more cosmic horrors that his counterpart and erstwhile employer, Robert Suydem, is courting.

Tommy Tester’s experiences as he moves from Harlem, to Suydem’s upscale white neighbourhood, to the immigrant centre of Red Hook demonstrate the horror of being an outsider, of being othered by society. It is only when Tester has been completely isolated, after his own personal horror and loss has released him from his sense of humanity, that he becomes Black Tom–embracing inhumanity as a path to freedom. Even still, the true monsters in “The Ballad of Black Tom” are all-too human.

Ruthanna Emrys sums it up nicely in a review for Tor. “The task of today’s cosmic horror—if it seeks to touch on readers’ real fears, and not simply reflect the squids of particular authors—is to connect the vast inhumanity of an uncaring universe with the vast inhumanity of entirely banal humans,” she writes. “This, LaValle accomplishes admirably. Cthulhu is a metaphor for us; we become, if we aren’t careful, a metaphor for Cthulhu.”

 

Horror Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke

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Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke was one of the short horror/dark fantasy collections I grabbed after researching Black Speculative Fiction Month last October.

From the publisher, Apex Book Company:

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke builds dark fantasy and horror short stories on African and African American history and legend, playing with what it means to be human.

White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It’s the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.

From the spectrum spanning despair and hope in “What She Saw When They Flew Away” to the stark weave of personal struggles in “Chocolate Park,” Let’s Play White speaks with the voices of the overlooked and unheard. “I Make People Do Bad Things” shines a metaphysical light on Harlem’s most notorious historical madame, and then, with a deft twist into melancholic humor, “Cue: Change” brings a zombie-esque apocalypse, possibly for the betterment of all mankind.

Gritty and sublime, the stories of Let’s Play White feature real people facing the worlds they’re given, bringing out the best and the worst of what it means to be human. If you’re ready to slip into someone else’s skin for a while, then it’s time to come play white.

 

And it is all it is cracked up to be. I enjoyed Let’s Play White so much that I couldn’t put it down, even when I knew it meant I wasn’t going to sleep. None of these stories is scary in a gory or violent kind of way, not really, although there is some of each peppered through the pages. What makes Burke’s collection so frightening is how human it is. The scariest parts of these stories are not the supernatural elements, but the human reactions to the supernatural. If you’ve ever wondered who you can trust in a changing world, the answer in Burke’s world is no one, except yourself, and even then you must be careful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of horror, and what makes a story scary, ever since I started reading the genre in earnest. And I think there is something about being “The Other” that is terrifying, on an existential level. This is why, I feel, the best horror of our generation is being written by Othered people: women, people of colour, LGBTQ writers, etc. People who write from the fringes of their society (this shifts depending on the society, of course) Burke does a wonderful job of illustrating this kind of fear, what I consider the real horror of the human condition, in her collection of short stories.

All of this comes to a head in the finale story, “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason,” the longest in the book, and certainly the most haunting. “The Teachings…” follows the titular character, a Hoo Doo woman who finds her way to Colored Town, Kentucky to save two young girls that might follow in her footsteps. The horror of “modern day” Colored Town in contrast to the Underground Railroad of slavery from a few generations earlier is an excellent reflection on the vulnerability of marginalized people in North America today. And you won’t be able to shake some of these images, I promise you.

Chesya Burke is a writer to follow, not just for the horror/dark fantasy crowds, but for anyone looking to slip into another person’s skin (and for some, to really feel what it is to be The Other) even for a little while. Her characters are deep, true, and wonderfully, unapologetically  human. She’s written some of my favourite women protagonists in a long time. Check her out!