Review: Tales of Jack the Ripper

What better day to reanimate The Crimes of Heaven and Hell than Halloween 2014? I’m excited to have an announcement regarding the series to post soon, and of course, many new reviews. So, without further ado, let’s rock the darkness with a review of Ross Lockhart’s Tales of Jack the Ripper:

Jack the Ripper—the name claims one of our culture’s eternal enigmas, at first calling to mind images almost innocent, a magician-like figure in a top hat, almost campy enough for a neighborhood Halloween costume. Almost—because in a time when the Internet (a term itself becoming as problematic and borderline anachronistic as “TV”) makes every image that ever existed accessible in an instant, the photos of his victims still hold their own on the shock scale. If you’re over 18 and feeling cocky, Google an image search of “Mary Jane Kelly” and you’ll get shredded faces interspersed amongst nineteenth century photos of a woman in a dress along with a few color stills from the movie From Hell. You’ll also get the infamous crime scene image of a torn apart body lying on a bed. An appetizer of organs sits next to it on a side table. You can find all this with the SafeSearch on.

I find it odd that an enigma so deeply stitched into the dark side of popular history hasn’t had even more attention in movies, television, and books. Recently, however, editor Ross Lockhart of Word Horde has revisited the Ripper and his world in his anthology Tales of Jack the Ripper. The anthology brandishes nineteen razor sharp stories (including a few poems) from the horror genre’s most striking authors. With a knack for picking up on good pacing, Lockhart’s editing brings a heart-pounding rhythm to the sequence in which the stories are offered. From the opening poem “Whitechapel Autumn”, to “Silver Kisses”, the poem that is the anthology’s coda, the reader rides the blades of a host of shadowed imaginings about who the Ripper was, is, and may yet be.

All of the anthology’s stories put an original and intriguing spin on the figure of Red Jack. Some even more noteworthy include Ed Kurtz’s Hell Broke Loose, wherein the author explores the possibility of a connection between Jack the Ripper and the early American serial killer, the Servant Girl Annihilator. A major part of its force comes from the author’s skill in painting a historically detailed nineteenth century Austin, contrasting the affluence of the wealthy estate owners with the squalor of the booming red-light district that accompanied the city’s rise. Told from the point of view of a pharmacist’s son with an over fondness for whiskey and uncontrollable obsessions, the story treats the reader to exquisite character development and finely distilled horrific prose.

Another standout is Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Abandon All Flesh, wherein a young teenage girl finds herself enamored with the wax figure of Jack the Ripper in a museum. Her fascination with the murderer accompanies her coming of age and realization that young men are far less than they’re built up to be, with horrific results accompanying her insight.

Although many of the stories delve into the oft asked question about the Ripper’s true identity, a number of them also explore the identities of the victims and the effects of the famous episode’s legacy on future centuries. Laird Barron’s Termination Dust takes the Ripper motif to contemporary Alaska, and Something About Dr. Tumblety, by Patrick Tumblety, explores what life might be like for the infamous murderer’s progeny.

I encourage any fan of horror, history, and historical fiction, to pick up a copy of this killer anthology, well worth the read. As a bonus, check out an original piece of fiction by Lockhart, Pick’s Ghoul.

Blog Tour Interview, C’est Moi!

Here I am nearly a month returned from World Horror Convention 2014 and feeling like I just got back. I met quite a few interesting authors and new friends, and could easily spend all the time between this convention and the next reading and writing about their work. For now, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to a blog tour invitation from author Sydney Leigh. Syd’s quickly become an important professional contact for me, and a good friend. Her work has recently appeared in the anthology Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning, edited by Alex Scully and published with Firbolg Publishing. She will also have a review appearing soon in Shroud magazine, and has many other projects and publications in the works. I encourage horror fans to check out her work.

In the meantime, I’ll take this blog invite as a chance to re-introduce what I am up to now with the Crimes of Heaven and Hell series, as well as short stories and other writing projects.

What are you working on?

For new writing projects, I am mostly working on short stories now. This is due in part to my polishing Reigns the Wicked, the first full length novel of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell. Also, I am working on a possible enhanced edition of Slash of Crimson. I’ll announce more on the progress of both projects when the info is available. In the meantime, I’m enjoying trying out new ideas in short story form, experimenting, and submitting. I’m also just on the edge of starting a new, full length novel project, a stand alone horror novel dealing with the strange relationship between ghosts and murderers. Looking forward to getting into the writing rhythm on that as well.

How does you work differ from others in its genre?

My impression from those who have read my work and are familiar with other work in the horror genre is that they find mine both extreme in its violence, yet deep in its concern for character development. This can be a great combination for those who want more breadth and staying power than some work dubbed ‘slasher’ would offer. At the same time, this can put some readers off because there are many who want their slasher simple and like their suspense to preclude the possibility of any blatant violence.

I think there may also be something else different about the way I write. It’s hard to know about the impressions given by your own work, but over time it has come to my attention there might be something different about the way the characters interact. A kind of interplay of emotional and physical cruelty, juxtaposed with the joys and disappointments offered by survival and things the characters first thought of as “victory”–that interplay might be striking a different kind of chord.

Why do you write what you do?

I would say I’m trying to generate a certain kind of feeling in the reader—a mix of excitement, dread, and wonder. As love can be close to hate in that both emotions are extreme, I feel like the thrill of fear can be close to the ecstasy of success (which isn’t always related to survival). The horror genre lends itself well to characters facing these kinds of emotions. I also believe horror is a highly symbolic genre. A zombie ripping somebody to shreds can be an all-purpose balm of catharsis for any workaday problem. Downright therapeutic. I would also add that I unequivocally do not buy into the concept that the art causes the fetish, i.e., I don’t believe that violent works of art make people do violent things. People who already have a problem with violence may latch onto them as a company latches onto a logo—a dictator can co-opt an eagle or a rising sun, or a serial killer can co-opt a zodiac sign, each in the way a car company can use a ram or a jaguar for its branding. But the work of art itself is something else—I write that which is extreme because art is the place to do such in a way that offers insight, and because art can handle extremity.

How does your writing process work?

I try to write every minute of every day. Subtract everything else I am compelled to do from that.

Well, I hope there was something useful to glean in that. I’ll be passing the interview on to author Brent Abell next. Though it is only one person I’m handing it off to, I’m sure Brent, as intense and interesting a character as he is, will more than compensate. I also hope to have a review of the anthology Tales of Jack the Ripper, edited by Ross Lockhart, up soon.

New Review of Brian Keene’s THE RISING

The Rising

In reviving my Is that an Old Book? review series, I wanted to take a moment to look at a novel that breathed new life into the horror genre at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century and succeeded in becoming a contemporary classic. Before proceeding, it’s worth mentioning the idea behind this review series—the original description is linked here, however, in short, the idea behind Is that an Old Book? is as follows: The Iliad is an old book. Hrafnkels Saga and Genesis are old books. A book published in 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, is a new book, and reviewed as such.

First published in 2003, Brian Keene’s The Rising quickly became definitive for the renewal of what is popularly termed the ‘zombie craze’ in popular culture. While it may or may not be on the radar of those readers of the blog who aren’t horror fans, it is well known among enthusiasts for the genre as a seminal work of our century’s first decade. And yet, though this is one of my favorite reads, I have not generally approached it as a ‘zombie novel’. Perhaps because I am less experienced in that sub-genre of horror, but more so because it struck me as an original example of another sub-genre, the possession novel. Possession is a theme close to my heart and a concept with which I have much more familiarity. The Exorcist is a quintessential example, however, thinking carefully and outside the box, one could consider King’s Pet Sematary (the novel, making original use of the Wendigo as a creature whose spirit infects the dead) and John Carpenter’s film remake of The Thing (wherein an alien can take over and imitate the appearance of human bodies) as possession stories.

And so I pose the question, how does this possession novel, Brian Keene’s The Rising, remain so essential, relevant, and inspiring across such and broad landscape of stories as we have now, such a mass of stories with, at first glance, similar imagery?

Before going into further depth about this story’s possession themes, I’d like to address some aspects of its “zombie” tropes. I hear two general ideas put forth about what zombie stories have to offer their audiences as regards insight into contemporary life and culture. The first is that the zombies personify apathy and stupidity. People who are dead-within-life, hanging around at malls and letting their brains rot. The survivors are trying to stay “alive” and “vital” in a landscape of the numb-minded. The second is that zombie stories are really about how the living interact in a post apocalyptic situation. About how humans behave and treat each other when the chips are down and desperate acts are required for survival.

With regard to the first instance, I don’t see The Rising as engaging the zombie myth in this manner. Keene’s “zombies” are intelligent, and have the memories of the people who died. They reanimate because some kind of spirit has taken them over due to a scientist opening a rift in the fabric of space. This is why I see the novel as a possession story as much or more than a zombie story. Something intelligent and hostile inhabits these creatures. The chill delivered to the audience feels that much colder when the implications of this are considered. This difference sets it apart from any reading that the story indicts mass-humanity as mindless. And yet this alone isn’t what sets it apart.

As for a reading that emphasizes the way human beings react when faced with post-apocalyptic survival, I would agree that there are certainly elements of this at work in the story. Keene’s dexterous prose keeps action moving while always developing each character’s personal story. His ability to do this with unusual speed sets him apart from others in the genre. Characters pushing each other into the paths of zombies to gain access to shelter, trading food, ammunition, sex for an advantage, as well as showing bravery, generosity, and faith, all these situations factor into the novel’s themes. But they do not dominate, because Keene spends a deliberate and substantial amount of time developing the possessed creatures themselves as characters, as being from another place, a void nearly incomprehensible to the humans who encounter its minions. This takes the story further than standard post-apocalyptic tropes about law-versus-lawlessness, love and apathy, in a chaotic landscape.

So then what is it that truly sets The Rising apart from other novels in the genre and earns it a place as a historic work of fiction? One could say it’s Keene’s superior style, his combination of common slang with complex figurative language. One could say it has a ‘feel’, like a Dickens novel, Lovecraft story, or the world-shattering themes of Octavia Butler. But I don’t think it’s anything so vague.

Rather, I think The Rising has come to occupy its niche as a genre-changing novel for a very specific reason. The fact that the beings the desperate humans decide to call zombies are different than other creatures in other stories offers the first clue. The fact that they move fast, drive cars, shoot guns, speak fluently and are intelligent, this makes them different; but this idea combines with another theme in the tale that creates the story’s true meaning and message—which is that all the rules have changed.

The combination of the zombies who don’t play by the rules and the one thing that all the characters share is that their own rules have changed, this combination, and Keene’s ability to convey it, is what gives The Rising its influence. Each character, from a scientist, to a prostitute, to a soldier, has to recalibrate his or her entire consciousness to the universe that has changed around them, and each in their own way. All post-apocalyptic novels have some elements of this dynamic; few come up with a creature or catastrophe as original for its time. That originality creates an unfamiliarity that shocks the reader more than a typical ‘the government has collapsed let’s run for the woods’ story.

With each turn of the page, Keene swells this palpable shock, that the old rules, the old appearances, the old monsters, no longer behave the way they’re supposed to. If there is any floating signifier in this century’s first decade, “the rules have changed” is arguably chief among them. The Rising came out in a time just before real life economies nearly inverted, when what we call home and what we call work and all interactions across the planet went through earthquakes and shockwaves. Not only does success ride on finding a way to engage the new rules, but basic survival.

This year, 2014, Brian Keene will receive the World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award. This reflects his successes in authoring a plethora of written works in a broad spectrum of dark fiction subgenres. While taking moment to reflect his full body of work, I would invite those who are already familiar to revisit this classic the way one would play an amazing band’s early album while listening with fresh ears. I would also invite those who don’t normally read horror to have a look at this most jarring and intimate portrait of the psyche of a new century.

Thoughts on WHC 2014

Further to announcing I will be attending World Horror Convention this year, I thought I would add a short blog entry. The last WHC I attended was in 2008, in Salt Lake City, Utah. At that time I was totally new to the genre and just beginning to meet people. I attended the Bram Stoker Awards and various panels and parties and started to get a sense of the who’s-who among authors and publishers.

Between the last conference and this one I’ve published several short stories, a novella, and made connections with many new authors, editors and publishers. I’m looking forward now to reacquainting folks with whom it’s been too long, as well as finally meeting in person, folks with whom I’ve only interacted online—people like Ross Lockhart, Armand Rosamilia, Sydney Leigh to name a few, as well as perhaps getting to attend panels, hear readings with some of the more established writers in the genre (authors like Wrath James White and Brian Keene). Some of the attendees are also represented by the same agent, so it will be nice to meet them for the first time.

Why has it been so long since I attended a convention? I certainly didn’t stop writing in the meantime. There are two good reasons for this—the first is named Maddy Dee, the second Izzy Marie. They are my and Sarah’s two daughters and since Izzy’s birth in 2008 (the same year I attended my first WHC), we guided them through the first amazing and exhausting five years of their lives. Any parent out there knows the first five years combine moments of wonder with the sleepless carnivalesque. I couldn’t be a happier with these two budding personalities—Maddy who, at age seven, bored with the standard slopes, attempts to sneak onto the ski lift so she try the black diamond, and Izzy, who at age five informed the doctor that the shape on the vision chart was not in fact a “moon” but more specifically a “crescent.”

Well, forgive a dad if he’s highlighting the upside—any little luck is needed in the world’s constant barrage of its opposite. It’s a theme not lost in The Crimes of Heaven and Hell, and I hope to have more to say on the publication of book one in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I will be posting at least one more entry before heading off to WHC 2014, a review of a contemporary classic in honor of one of the best authors in the genre. Until then, it’s great to be a little less cloistered again, and working with my agent on the submission of a new manuscript.

–C.R.M.

The Amazing Allison Dickson — Review of STRINGS and Author Interview

I’m very excited to be reviving the Crimes of Heaven and Hell blog. I hope to have some exciting new prospects for the series in 2014, as well as continuing book reviews, interviews, and essays on all things literary and frightening. I have sometimes been pleasantly accused of being an ‘all business’ kind of guy, so in keeping with what I took as a compliment, let’s go straight to our review of Allison Dickson’s Strings and conversation with the author. Heave oars for the starlit abyss!

Review:

With Strings, Allison Dickson’s makes a strong debut in the mixed genres of horror and crime noir. The novel tells the tale of Nina Quick, a beautiful, young Midwestern girl sucked into New York City’s maelstrom of money, drugs, and organized crime. At the outset, Nina finds herself working in the “oldest profession”, as it were, turning tricks to pay off a debt to mafia boss Victor Cassini. And yet from the moment Nina enters the ramshackle gothic mansion of an eccentric billionaire to turn her last trick, the novel transforms into a kinetic combination of genres that offers the reader a smorgasbord of action, tension, and suspense, all painted against a background of the tastefully grotesque.

The tale’s strength lies as much in the subtlety of its character development as its sumptuous excesses of horrific imagery. Written in the third person, from multiple points of view, Dickson’s tale weaves an elaborate knot of identities, emotions and diverse souls, all converging on the tragedy incited by Nina’s fate in the Ballas mansion. She places her characters in environs with a detailed sense of setting—the interior of a Brooklyn brothel, a cavernous country Victorian house, and a high-meets-low-roller version of Atlantic City. Agile use of pathetic fallacy and stream of consciousness devices allow her to delve deeply into each character’s background without slowing the story’s pace.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story exists in its unity of theme—the strings of obligation that hold families together, the strings that hold people literally and figuratively prisoner to bad contracts and bad decisions, and—with hopes to not edge too near a spoiler—the ropes put to use by a rather original villain.

I recommend Strings to any horror fan who loves classic tropes with original twists, and to the reader of realism open to emotional intensity, over the top imagery a la Hieronymus Bosch, and a taste for the irony that often what holds human beings together can also, as it were, pull them apart.

This installment of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell blog features an interview with Allison Dickson. Keep reading to find out more about Strings, thoughts on the horror genre generally, and the beauty of stilettos and derringers.

Interview:

What first attracted you to the horror genre?

It’s funny, because I had an early attraction to the genre, but I also dreaded it. It was never fun for me, and actually it still isn’t. I remember watching horror movies when I was seven or eight years old, and they traumatized me. A well-made horror movie even to this day will fill me with a lot of anguish, and I will often be glad when it’s over. And yet, still, I’m always poking the things that live in the dark, tempting them to bite me. I don’t know why this is, though I’m wagering a pretty bloodthirsty creature lives in my subconscious. I remember scaring very easily overall as a kid, though, and I was incredibly gullible or at least willing to believe the worst that could happen. I’m not so much that way anymore. Over the years I learned to channel my fears into words, but the monsters and secrets that live in people, behind all the pretense, still fascinate me.

Do you distinguish horror significantly from other dark genres, such as science fiction and dark fantasy?

This is such a hard question for me, because I like inserting feelings of dread into everything I write, regardless of whether it’s sci-fi or mainstream, and I think that lingering dread or mounting terror is really the hallmark of horror. What ultimately sets horror apart from other dark genres, though, is whether that’s the primary aim of the story. You can put darkness into your sci-fi and fantasy, but they are still first and foremost sci-fi and fantasy stories that might be using horror devices here and there to build suspense. A horror story’s main aim is to horrify, and that element is carried throughout the story and it typically will not have a happy ending. At best, it will be bittersweet. The horror will linger with you. I first wanted to market Strings as primarily a psychological thriller, but that just wasn’t going to happen with all the “Junior” business between the pages. It’s a horror story with elements of crime and suspense, and I think it’s important to let people know that upfront so they can be ready for it.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Stephen King is probably my main master, but I have to say his son Joe Hill is really up there for me as well. Just finished his short collection, 20th Century Ghosts, and I haven’t been in such admiration of a collection since King’s Everything’s Eventual. But a lot of other authors have lent me a boatload of inspiration over the years. Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman very big favorites.

Were there any ‘real life’ inspirations for the characters in Strings?

All of the characters are amalgamations of people I have known over the years. With Nina I wanted to explore this thing I’ve noticed with a lot of women my age who never really grasped their true identities, thanks to being raised by overpowering parental figures who never let them have a voice. They kind of grow into these hollow cores roaming around in search of something, taking on the hue and temperature of whatever is influencing them most at the moment. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid to really look at what’s living inside them. In Nina’s case, there is a darkness living in her that I think she will eventually start to confront, for better or worse. With Madam and Ramon, it’s more an exploration of the other side of the coin, how people who do know themselves, perhaps too well, wind up embedding in these deep ruts. Once you reach a certain age, especially after you’ve done so many horrible things, can you release yourself form the bonds of your past?

What went into choosing the settings and locales for this story?

The New York setting was born namely out of a desire to have a country girl run away from home to the most glamorous place she could think of, and that had to be NYC. It’s just a beacon for a lot of desperate people looking for escape, and I think such beacons are often mirages. Atlantic City wasn’t originally part of my plan, but I have a fascination with places that are built specifically around human avarice and Las Vegas was too far away to be practical for this story, so AC it was.

The story features some classic weapons with an original flair. You don’t happen to collect vintage derringers or stilettos that double as jewelry?

I wish! I love the idea of a tiny, concealable weapon, because they add an element of unpredictability to a person, which feels necessary in a story like this for some reason. The Madam’s hairpins are probably my favorite thing ever, and one day I would love to have a set of them custom made to look how I envision them in the book. Not that I would plan to use them, of course . . .

With one novel published, what’s next for you?

The next big release is a complete 180 from this one. It’s a dystopian sci-fi about an agricultural-based apocalypse, complete with little psychic kids and shape-shifting locust swarms. It’s called The Last Supper, and Hobbes End Publishing is releasing it later this summer. But I actually do have a sequel to Strings in the works and hope to finish that one very soon.

Allie-Author2

 

In Memory of Patricia Lissey Moore

I recently received the final royalty payment for my currently out of print novella, Slash of Crimson. I donated this to a fund supporting author Tom Piccirilli’s cancer treatment. He is one of our finest living authors of dark fiction, crime noir, and what I personally would dub literary fiction. Those interested in donating to Tom’s fund can Paypal his fundraiser at PicSelf1@aol.com. I’ve always thought that humans are at their best when there is something they can do about a problem, and they follow through and do it.

Below, however, is an essay about a different kind of situation I recently experienced. While my blog is generally an adults-only environment, there may be a little more reader discretion advised on this entry, so please read on with that in mind.

When my mother had the stroke I was off in the woods with a friend, helping groom his land for an upcoming hunting trip. By the time I got back to Albany Medical Center, she was on life support in the ICU, right side of her face, along with most of the rest of her body, paralyzed. Her left eye was red, and offered a tear in place of the words her brain would not let her mouth form.

“A pontine haemorrhage has a slim chance for recovery.” A paraphrase of many sentences from many neurologists. Due diligence took a little over a week. I think it was just after the spinal tap he first showed up—

“Looks pretty bad,” he said.

“I agree,” I said, not yet seeing who had spoken. I was still looking at the current of drool dripping down my mother’s chin. The ventilator tube had chafed her mouth, a red sore smeared with ointment to accent the futility. She lay surrounded by screens and tubes. Liquids clear, pink, and yellow, some flowing in, some flowing out.

That’s when I remembered that I was supposed to be the only visitor in the room. I turned to my left, and there among the shadows and netted curtains, stood a slim figure in a black robe. The peaked hood stood crisp above his skull of a face.

“You look like a ninety-nine cent Halloween decoration,” I said.

“And yet it’s not the cost,” he said, “but whether you pay full price, that matters.”

Death opened his robe, pulled a flask out of his ribcage and handed it over. I took a swallow, and he snatched it back.

“Not too much,” he said. “All things in moderation.”

“From the guy who just said it’s all about full price.”

“That’ll be ninety-nine cents,” he said.

“You’re a jerk,” I said.

“Afraid not,” he said. “I’m the best friend you got.”

I turned back to my mother. While I had been talking to the Reaper, the nurse had arrived and vacuumed up the drool. Mom looked worse, mouth contorting with discomfort. It was as much as I could take for a night, so I went home for a rest.

But I did not rest because there was the matter of the living will. Clichés jostled around in my mind about our culture being kinder to animals than to humans. Thoughts of how we give them the gift of death instead of allowing them to lie around suffering sounded off like sirens. The best the law would allow me would be to find her living will and have her taken off life support. She had always been a bit disorganized, but I vaguely remembered her handing one to me a few years back, calling it something it wasn’t, as had become her habit. If I didn’t find it, and she couldn’t talk, I might not be able to do anything for her. She might lie that way for a year or more. At the risk of sounding like a callous brute, in my panic I knew I could do more for her with my hunting knife, involving less money and more love, if our culture had a saner outlook on…

I felt a shove from a bony elbow. “Snap out of it. Here, look what I found.” The Reaper was kneeling next to me, papers from the filing cabinet strewn across his black silk pajamas. He handed me a document with the words LIVING WILL printed across the top. A downloaded legal template signed by herself and a witness that clearly stated she did not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state.

“Well I suppose I should say thanks,” I said. “By the way, where’s the scythe?”

“Honestly, do I look like a farmer to you?”

“I was thinking more hunter-gatherer.”

“Really I’m a fall guy.”

“A-hole.”

“Heh. Best friend you got.”

My mother was born in the 1940’s—though I have always thought of her family as a bit fifties fabulous—lower middle class Italians with a restaurant near Long Island Sound. She went to Catholic School where she did well academically. She married a marine home from the early-Vietnam War era Pacific. In her adult life she swapped fifties-fabulous for seventies fabulous. I’m Okay-You’re-Okay astrology meets Wicca. A rainbow of pop-psychology books and magazines decorated our house as she sailed through her first divorce. Her education was taking her in the direction of social work but she never seemed to nail down a quality career path.

I had come along a few years before, and she cared for her kid, mind and body, best she could despite the impending economic and marital issues. I’ll spare the general audience the details of this and just say it fell somewhere between The Brady Bunch and Orange is the New Black. Somewhere between idealistic ranch house America and exquisite metaphors about what it’s like to have few choices and be blamed for having few choices.

I will offer two anecdotes about her life:

When she and her sister were teenagers, they enjoyed hanging out with their friends on a boardwalk along a beach on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. The sisters were two years apart. My mother was older, bright kid in the upper grades of high school, sister also a bright kid who had chosen to go to a public high school. Both girls liked hanging out with their groups of friends, but apparently the Rockwell painting of a teenage scene was less than ideal for the younger sister who wore prescription glasses and was being tortured à la an after-school-special on bullying. My mother advised her sister to get prescription sunglasses. She gave her sister money earned from her part time job to pay for the doctor’s appointment and the glasses he prescribed. Whether or not it’s beside the point with regard to our culture’s ethics, her sister rocked the prescription shades up and down the boardwalk, enjoying her improved social life, and tells the story with fondness to this day.

The second scene occurs forty something years later, when I was visiting my mother in San Francisco. She had moved there after her own father died to work as a nanny for a well-to-do West Coast family. She had always been a great driver, and zoomed around the Bay area in her employer’s Lexus. She also had a moped of her own. She could drive a stick and liked to speed, explaining it cleaned out the engine…

So when I arrived I was struck by how aged she looked. Three marriages, three divorces, a slew of not so great jobs in New England because she didn’t want to take me away from my friends when I was growing up, and a continuing struggle with a yet to be identified mental illness had taken its toll. The woman who had done everything she possibly could for an asthmatic kid on a short budget was now the one in need of protection. I had a decent job back in New York, but in my small apartment, without real equity of my own, there was little I could do for her economically. Still, I could visit when possible and look out for her however I could… …much to the chagrin of a shabby man in the BART station who approached her while I was buying us a train ticket. Keep in mind I am used to the New York City subway system which will challenge you on your post-apocalyptic survival skills at the drop of a dime (literally). So when I saw Shabby standing with his broad, beer-stained shoulders over my mother’s diminutive frame, her handing him cash, I reacted swiftly. I leapt between them, shove shove, and “What the fuck? What the fuck is this? You wanna fuckin’ die?” He outweighed me by fifty pounds easy, so I wasn’t holding back, he’d better let go of that… dollar?

My mother was tugging at me, whacking me with the proverbial purse. “Stop it! Stop it! That’s Victor!”

“Who the fuck’s Victor?”

“Victor carries my groceries. He does it every week, for a dollar.”

“I don’t see any groceries.”

Mom kinda looks away. “I didn’t have any cash last week.”

I turned to apologize to Victor, but Victor had decided to leave.

I felt a poke-poke from Old Bonyfinger. “Are you having violent fantasies?”

Glaring back at him: “You have a problem with violence?”

“Mais non, a vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.”

“What’s that, The Talking Heads?”

“Pierre Corneille—to win without risk is to triumph without glory.”

The next day I signed the pink form that allowed the doctors to take my mother off life support. I attached a copy of the living will. They transferred her to a quiet hospice at St. Peter’s in Albany. It’s the same hospital where her grandchildren were born, in the small city where my wife and I have made a home. My gig has improved somewhat in recent years and in combination with my wife’s efforts, we’ve managed to build a decent life for our two daughters. My mother moved to a senior’s apartment down the street to be closer to her grandkids, and enjoyed those five years with two little kids who adored her.

And yet even that small gift I was able to give back to her took everything I had—in the years leading up to my current situation, I watched her struggle, living with her sister for a while in New Haven until she’d become so unnaturally argumentative that I had to take a turn doing what I could to help her along. Her sister and I tried an intervention with her at one point—we brought her to a psychiatrist affiliated with Yale University who gave an initial diagnosis of hypomania, pending her agreement to more visits and treatment.

Fiercely independent, she did not agree to treatment. She continued to make her way working part-time until her social security kicked in. To give an example of the difficulty of the brain dysfunction that held her prisoner, let’s say she might be sitting quietly with the kids, giggling and playing a game:

“Would you like a cup of tea Mom?”

“What Earl Grey? Oh I can’t take this, you’re so Anglo-Teutonic. Oh my son, just because the pervs down in Washington won’t let the Connecticut Ice Queens out of the closet, doesn’t mean I can serve that empire. It’s all part of your condition. I’m going to call my attorney about this. They know what Wicca’s really about and I’m not just some Catholic casualty…”

“So should I get you some tea or not?”

I sat by her bed at the hospice as often as I could. For a while she opened her eyes, then they stayed closed. Her body looked contorted. A week of no food left one arm swollen, the other with skin tight against the bone. Her gums looked loosened where her mouth hung open, teeth crooked, monstrously devouring air like they were aware of their uselessness. The tracheotomy tube was still stuck in her neck, the minimal ration of oxygen underscoring the absence of the ventilator, feeding PEG, and blood pressure medication. Minimal oxygen and morphine were all she had left.

Knock knock.

Somebody was in the bathroom attached to her room. But how? I saw anyone who came in or out of the hospice room. Kind old folks who volunteered to read or bring you coffee. Kind nurses who ensured there was no interruption in her pain medication. Social workers who wanted to make sure everyone was okay. Commendable volunteers and staff, all of them.

But there was someone else in the bathroom.

Knock knock.

“Is this some kind of joke?” I asked. Night had fallen, I sat by her bed with the TV off. Her eyes which had gone from open to closed were now very slightly open. Slits of white lined with bloody vessels. Her arms getting bluer, her breaths distressed. What the hell was this?

I stepped to the bathroom door. “Who’s there?”

“You know who it is.”

“What, you’ve come to perform Extreme Unction?”

“I’m no priest.”

“What, you don’t have a religion?”

“I’m eclectic.”

“More like a flake, one with your supposed stature, saying people shouldn’t have a religion.”

“Sure they should. Maybe some things are truer than others, who knows. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all TMI.”

At this I felt something push against the door. I pushed back.

“So you’re just some nasty-ass functionary? A foul-breathed bureaucrat?”

I felt a harder push, accompanied by a wretched odor that made me dizzy.

“Far too impersonal,” he said. “I’m telling you, I’m a friend.”

The door burst open, knocking me back. The figure stepped out, a darkness bleeding against darkness. His bones burned like glowing yellow bile, his head hung to the side, jaw hammering against itself. His form nauseated as it moved forward. He had fangs that ripped strips of meat from his bones, dropped them down his throatless gullet only to tear them off again.

“What happened to the Halloween decoration?”

“Shut the fuck up,” he said.

Death smacked me with his reeking forearm. I went down with the wind knocked out of me and he picked me up again. He held me by my collar and slammed my back against the wall. He had horns on his skull and a tongue like a laughing snake that hissed as it stung me again and again. I retched on the floor, and he slammed me against the wall again. Behind him I could see my mother, face turned toward me but seeing nothing with her dehydrated slits of eyes. I had to do something, I pulled my leg back and kicked the rotted ribs, because that’s what you did, no matter what, you fought—

Because hard as she had it, my mother never stopped fighting. Sometimes she was right, when she was trying to get medicine for her kid—sometimes she might not have been, when my stepdad was trying to get us a better but more expensive apartment—but she never shied away from a battle when she thought there was even a shred of a chance she was being mistreated. Her brain had an illness that deceived her, but in her own coded way, she fought this, too. When I cleaned out her apartment, my aunt found a life insurance policy that was within days of being cancelled. There were a number of registered mail receipts indicating she had come close to losing it before. But each time she had eluded her brain’s prison warden and kept the account active. Though a small amount of money, it would be enough to cover her final expenses and maybe a little leftover to contribute something useful to the family left behind. As my aunt was sorting through this, inside a kitchen cupboard, among the kids’ plastic cups, I found (and almost threw away), a small, scribbled on cardboard box containing four wedding rings (wait, Ma, who was number four?).

Come to a poker game and win the jackpot with three royal flushes and a full house, and I might call you competent. Come to a poker game, play all night with a pair of deuces as your highest hand, walk away from the table ahead five bucks, and I will call you a winner. A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.

I peered over Death’s shoulder at the hospital bed, but my mother was not there. I kicked harder, again and again, but though the ribs shattered, there remained an endless cage of rot.

“Cease! Cease you little bastard, you would make this worse.”

His claws dug into my neck, blood and suffocation, my strength ebbed.

“What the hell did you do with her? Where did she go?”

“You little fool. You still don’t know what this is. You want to act, but it is not time to fight, but rather, to pick the right ally, the right friend.”

“The hell with you,” I cried. But my muscles slackened. The kicking stopped, and I felt my body slump on the windowsill.

“Finally,” said Death. He let go of my neck and stepped over to the bed. He slid his maggot-strewn bones beneath the sheet, took hold of the tracheotomy tube and slipped it under his jaw. He lay there, bleeding, broken, smoldering with pain, the wheeze between his ribs a millions souls wailing on a distant wind.

“But where is she?” I asked again.

Death raised his bony hand and pointed—

In the doorway stood a woman in a wedding gown. She had hair combed to the side, accented with flowers, and the veil pulled back. Her grin was full of wistfulness and curiosity. The hands clutching her bouquet held it loosely, and yet were full of strength. She looked young, beautiful, and intelligent. She didn’t speak, but her eyes conveyed love, excitement, and courage, delivered like a streak of glittering lightning in a gaze at once forever distant, forever close.

Rest in peace, Patricia.

PLM

Patricia Lissey Moore

1944-2013

SLASH OF CRIMSON FIRE SALE! Buck a book!

Hey folks… I’m adding an impromptu blog post on my novella SLASH OF CRIMSON due to its going on a temporary hiatus as of next week. How long that will be and whether it will change publishers is to be determined. I’ll go into more details in another blog post later in the week. For now, all of you who were putting off the purchase for whatever reason, well, now it’s merely a buck so there is every reason to check it out.

It has been a great pleasure working with Armand Rosamilia on this project. I’ve published in several anthologies he’s edited, and he always does a fantastic job offering a great deal on good fiction. I invite anyone to read and evaluate the quality of the stories in RYMFIRE EROTICA, for example, and see whether they are not a rocking, sexy, horrific, fun time!

There’s a lot more to be said on doings with upcoming publications I’ve got on the table, as well as REIGNS THE WICKED, Book I of The Crimes of Heaven and Hell, and I will be posting on these things over the weekend.

For now, pick up a 99 cent copy of SLASH OF CRIMSON and enjoy.

You have my infernal… ahem… I mean eternal thanks!

C.R.M.