My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)

Today is officially the first day of 2018. If you’re a normal person that means you probably spent last night partying with family and friends, and you’re now nursing a wicked hangover. If you’re a geek like me, however, you spent last night the same way you did the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that: watching the annual New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon on T.V.

Just in time for this decidedly antisocial tradition is the release of a new anthology, Test Patterns, packed to the gills with original weird fiction inspired by classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy shows like The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.

Now available in both paperback and ebook from Amazon.com (hint, hint), Test Patterns features my new story “I Am Become Death.” It’s about a WWII army photographer haunted by the destruction he documented at Hiroshima… as well as by the shadowy thing he unknowingly brought home with him. This story is my attempt to filter some of TZ creator Rod Serling’s themes of paranoia, nuclear devastation, and the horrors of war through the lens of my own imagination.

Writing this story and then watching last night’s marathon got me thinking about how much Serling’s work has influenced me, and about how much I love the original Twilight Zone. In that spirit, I thought I’d share some of my favorite episodes. These aren’t necessarily the “best” Zones ever made, just my own personal favorites, the ones I could watch over and over and never get tired of.

Hoping to shine a light on some of the less frequently touted episodes, I specifically tried to avoid including too many of the really famous ones. Listen, I love “Time Enough at Last,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft.,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as much as the next Zone junkie (and if you’re thinking that I’m rattling these titles off now as a cheap way of including them in my list without technically including them in my list, well, yeah, you’re totally right) but do we really need to sing their praises yet again?

Even still, I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10, so I decided to do the same thing I did with my previous ranking of favorite vampire movies and add just one more. Going forward, I think I’m going to make that my default. In this case, at least, it’s fitting; nothing is as it seems in The Twilight Zone, not even the number 10.

Oh, one last thing: there are definitely going to be spoilers here. Sorry, but this show is almost 60 years old. If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, that’s on you.

Submitted for your approval, these are, in no particular order, My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)…

obsoletemanThe Obsolete Man

Aside from Rod Serling himself, arguably no person is more popularly associated with The Twilight Zone than Burgess Meredith. The inimitable actor starred in four episodes throughout the series’ original run, including the iconic “Time Enough at Last,” and even took Serling’s place as narrator in the TZ movie. It is this Zone, however, which may well be his finest hour. In a dystopian future, Meredith plays a librarian and a Christian, two things decreed “obsolete” by the authoritarian state, which has long since banned all books and outlawed all religion. The punishment for the crime of obsolescence is death, and in this cold, callous society, the only mercy left is in allowing the condemned a choice in their method of execution.

Not one to be underestimated, the librarian uses his sole remaining right to turn the tables on his oppressors, exposing the entire system as, itself, obsolete. Meredith’s performance is utterly captivating, as always, and the jagged, expressionist shadows throughout give this Zone a stark Orwellian style. Despite all the talk of god and faith, “The Obsolete Man” should not be misinterpreted as proselytizing for any one particular faith. Instead, it’s a passionate endorsement of religious liberty in general, as well as a confrontational rebuke against government and conformity.

littlegirlLittle Girl Lost

If this Zone wasn’t an influence on the movie Poltergeist, man, I’ll eat my hat. See if this rings familiar: A suburban couple awakes one night to the sound of their young daughter’s voice, but the child is nowhere to be found. It’s as if she’s simply vanished, but they can still hear her, calling to them as if from far away. After seeking help from a friend, they realize a section of wall in the house seems strangely immaterial; their hands pass right through its surface as if it were an open window. But to where?

Rather than being a portal into Stephen Spielberg’s computer-generated afterlife, this one turns out to lead somewhere far more astounding: fourth-dimensional space. The idea of higher spatial dimensions beyond the paltry three we humans can perceive—i.e. height, width, and depth—makes for mind-bending material to this day. Putting something this high-concept on mainstream television in 1962, the same time as such programs as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, is ample evidence of how far ahead of its time TZ really was. Brainy as this Zone is, however, it also has heart. When the girl’s father finally enters the fourth dimension, complete with trippy alien geometry, the terror any parent would feel at the thought of losing a child proves just as moving as the fortitude said parent displays in risking everything to save that child.

comewanderwithmeCome Wander with Me

There’s a long tradition in folk and blues music of “murder ballads,” stories in song form which unspool lurid yarns of love, death, and vengeance. Usually mournful in tone, many  are based on true crimes or long-held pieces of regional folklore, and I for one count them among my favorite genres of music. It should be no surprise, then, that the criminally overlooked “Come Wander with Me” would strike a chord with me. Pun intended.

In this exceptionally eerie and dreamlike Zone, a fast-talking rockabilly musician encounters a young woman (played by future counterculture mama-bear Bonnie Beecher) singing to herself in the middle of backwoods nowhere. The song—about a woman who falls in love with a wanderer even though she is betrothed to another—is hauntingly beautiful. Recognizing a surefire radio hit, the rockabilly kid offers to buy the rights, but the woman resists his advances. This song, she says, was meant for someone else. Pressuring her to teach it to him anyway, he discovers the rest of the lyrics are about the aforementioned wanderer killing his lover’s fiancé, only to be hunted down and killed in kind by the man’s brothers. When the rockabilly kid subsequently finds himself pursued by a pair of gun-toting hillbillies, it becomes clear that by trying to make the song “his,” the story behind it has become his as well.

livingdollLiving Doll

Long before Chucky and Annabelle, there was Talky Tina. One of the earliest examples of the “killer toy” trope in television and film, “Living Doll” is a fairly straightforward episode, wherein a sweet little girl receives an expensive new doll as a gift from her mother, only for her brutish stepfather to rage that it’s a waste of money. The doll doesn’t take too kindly to the man’s verbal abuse of his family and, when no one else is around, taunts him with threats of murder.

At first the man thinks his wife or stepdaughter is somehow playing a kind of twisted prank on him. So he tries to throw the doll away. But it comes back. So he tries to destroy it. But he can’t even leave a dent. Then one night, as he’s drifting off to sleep, he hears faint sounds in the dark, something like the whirring of tiny gears… or maybe the soft steps of tiny feet. While this all feels fairly formulaic now, “Living Doll” episode is still damned effective thanks to its ominous atmosphere, methodic pacing, and creeptastic imagery, not to mention June Foray’s chilling line readings as the voice of Talky Tina. Besides, I’m a sucker for evil doll stories, so this Zone was never not going to make my list.

iamthenightI Am the Night—Color Me Black

Killer toys, dimensional portals, and ethereal sirens are all well and good, but one of the things that always made The Twilight Zone special, and still sets it apart from its many imitators and successors, was its social conscience. Rod Serling  believed deeply in the power of stories to expose real-world issues and to inspire audiences to think in new ways. TZ got a lot of hard-hitting material past fidgety network censors by dressing it up in the fanciful clothes of science fiction and fantasy, but rarely did it attack any subject with such unapologetic, head-on aggression as it did in this episode.

Here, a white man known for helping the local black community is set to be executed for murdering a cross-burning bigot. There’s evidence that the murder may have been done in self-defense, but the white townspeople want blood and the sheriff just wants peace and quiet. On the day the man is to hang, the sky turns black over town. To some, this is confirmation that the man deserves to die. To others, it’s a sign that it was the bigot who deserved to die and that his killer should go free. Who is right? Who is wrong? Serling lets us squirm beneath the weight of sobering silences and ambiguous non-answers. By episode’s end the sky is still black, and the darkness is spreading. The only thing made clear is the fact that nothing is clear. No one is right. We’re all wrong.

willtherealmartianWill the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

This one is probably right up there with “Living Doll” in terms of being among the more popular Zones on this list, although it’s nowhere near as fondly remembered as equally classic episodes like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “To Serve Man.” And yet it is cut from very similar cloth. Set almost entirely in a single location, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” sees a pair of UFO-investigating police officers holed up in a small, snowed-in greasy-spoon, along with the diner’s proprietor and his customers, i.e. the six occupants of a now empty bus as well as its driver.

Wait, did I say six? Because there seem to be seven people here, not counting the cook, the driver, and the cops. With no one else around for miles, could that mean one among them is the alien from that UFO? Repeating many of the same beats as the more po-faced “Maple Street,” this episode is a coy study in how paranoia can drive people to turn on one other. But then it throws into the mix the same campy humor that made “To Serve Man” such a blast. From bug-eyed Jack Elam’s cackling, wisecracking performance as a man loathe to take any of this flying-saucer business seriously, to a final twist which is more zany punchline than shocking revelation—yes, one of the bus riders is a Martian scout, but it turns out Earth has already being colonized by Venusians!—it’s hard to find a Zone that’s as just plain fun as this one.

owlcreekbridgeAn Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an extraordinary episode of The Twilight Zone for a number of reasons. For one, it is almost completely devoid of dialogue; the story is told primarily through its visuals. For another, this is the one and only Zone that’s not actually a Zone. It is, in fact, an award-winning French short film which received honors from both the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars. It so impressed one of the TZ producers that he purchased the film for inclusion in the show’s final season (a move which also saved a boatload of money, natch), and it’s not hard to see why. It had much the same effect on me when my teacher screened it during English class in high school.

Based on a story by legendary author Ambrose Bierce, the film is about a Civil War prisoner facing execution by a group of soldiers. When the rope around his neck snaps, he escapes and begins a long journey home, evading his would-be executioners while suddenly finding new appreciation for the myriad wonders of life all around him, both big and small. Like all the best Zones, of course, there’s a twist at the end, and this one really punches you in the gut. I know I said I wouldn’t shy away from spoilers, but if you don’t already know how “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends, I’m not saying a word. You need to experience this story yourself.

agameofpoolA Game of Pool

Now here’s a Zones I was initially hesitant to spotlight because I figured it’s such a classic that surely it’s on most folks’ top 10 lists already. Then I Googled some other people’s top 10 lists and you know what? I think I saw it pop up maybe once. Once! How is that even possible? This brilliant gem of an episode takes something as minor and (if you ask me) boring as billiards and creates a riveting life-or-death conflict from of it, one where you’re constantly unsure which side to root for.

TZ regular Jack Klugman plays a pool shark who’s dedicated his life to the game. He can beat anyone, but the only player worth being proud of beating died years ago. Because this is The Twilight Zone, the legend obligingly returns from the grave (played by the great Jonathan Winters) and agrees to the titular game, but only if his opponent is willing to bet his life. What follows is a tense back-and-forth contest accompanied by a thoughtful discussion of what it truly means to be “the greatest.” When the final ball is pocketed, a new king is crowned. Our up-and-comer’s life is safe for now, but he’s unknowingly condemned himself in a different way, because once he does die, he must spend the rest of eternity just like his idol. That is, constantly being summoned to play other wannabes looking to prove themselves by beating a legend.

theskywasopenedAnd When the Sky Was Opened

Have you ever put an item down, then come back for it later only to find it’s not there anymore? You know you put it there, but now it’s gone. Wouldn’t it be worse if everyone around you said you were wrong and that the thing in question was never there to begin with it? And wouldn’t it be even worse still if that thing wasn’t a thing at all, but one of your closest friends? That’s the situation faced by three recently returned astronauts in “And When the Sky was Opened.” Or is it two astronauts? Or maybe just one? Or… wait… what astronauts?

Someone or something is erasing these men from existence. The world is forgetting them. A newspaper headline about the three of them is about only two the next day, then one. Their own parents are forgetting them. When one of them calls his mother, she claims to have never had a son. Worst yet, the astronauts are forgetting each other. When the first one vanishes completely, the second pleads with the third to remember their missing companion, only to be told time and again that no such person ever existed. What begins as an exercise in psychological dissolution—are these astronauts just going crazy, remembering people who were never there?—quickly spirals into existential panic—as each astronaut gradually disappears from reality, those left behind are stuck with the awful certainty that the same fate awaits them as well.

thedummyThe Dummy

Earlier I mentioned my weakness for “evil doll” stories. That weakness carries over to “evil ventriloquist dummy” stories too. The inherent horror in both these tropes, I think, stems from the Uncanny Valley, from the discomfort that arises when one encounters something that superficially resembles a human being, but which is nonetheless patently inhuman. Part of that is probably rooted in a fear of being replaced, as well as in a sense of being mocked. These horrors are especially palpable when you’re dealing with dummies because there’s so much in ventriloquism that is akin to madness. It’s the act of creating an alternate personality for yourself and pretending that part is separate from the rest of you, exacerbated even more by the fact that you’re giving it part of your voice and, by extension, your soul.

Who’s the real dummy, dummy? When TZ introduces us to an alcoholic ventriloquist beleaguered by a failing career and a growing suspicion that his dummy has a mind of its own, we already know the answer. Most “evil dummy” stories play out essentially the same way; what sets one apart from another is the quality of the execution and the strength of the ending. This one’s a doozy on both counts, boasting oodles of heart-stopping suspense, snappy dialogue, skewed camera angles, and one grotesquely surreal final twist that sees our sad-sack protagonist finally achieving career success, but not as the one pulling the strings.

twoTwo

I mentioned all the way back near the tippy-top of this list that my latest published story, “I Am Become Death,” (COUGH read it now in the anthology Test Patterns, available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com COUGH) was inspired by the most frequently revisited of TZ’s pet themes, namely the horrors of war. Rod Serling was a WWII veteran who found a positive use for all the psychological baggage he brought home in dedicating himself to creation rather than destruction. Through the Zone, Serling and his close-knit circle of writers appealed directly to millions of viewers, imploring them to condemn those ugly impulses which turn brother against brother and to beware the apocalyptic perils of nuclear armament.

Of all the depravities and degradations war is capable of, worst of all might be the way it dehumanizes those involved, turning soldiers into killing machines, and into machines to be killed. Enter “Two,” which features a before-they-were-famous double-header, with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery playing the sole survivors of a war that may or may not have wiped out the rest of society. The problem? They two both hail from opposite sides of the conflict. Despite having no reason to continue fighting now, breaking free of the conditioning war has ingrained in them is no easy task. Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this episode is almost completely free of dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s clear as day what what kind of war these characters are fighting, not just against each other but within themselves as well. And while the ending leaves civilization’s future decidedly unclear, it’s apparent that Serling & Co.’s faith in the better angels of human nature may be bent, but it’s never broken.

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A Yuletide Miracle: Test Patterns is Here!

testpatterns

Looking for a last minute present for X-Mas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule? Trying to decide what to get with all those gift cards you’re sure to get from unimaginative gift-givers? Well, fret no more; Test Patterns is finally available!

The debut anthology from Planet X Publications, Test Patterns features all-new original stories and poetry inspired by such classic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy T.V. shows as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Outer Limits.

My story, “I Am Become Death,” is about a WWII combat photographer who, after documenting the devastation at Hiroshima, returns to America only to find that some shadowy thing has come home with him.

Check out the full list of contributors below.

Table of Contents:

  1. “The Woman in the Forge of Saturday Night” by Joe Pulver
  2. “Evidence of Absence” by Scott Graves
  3. “I Am Become Death” by William Tea
  4. “The Judge” by Philip Fracassi
  5. “The Snake Beneath My Skin” by Sarah Walker
  6. “The Hands of Chaos” by Ashley Dioses
  7. “The Nomenclature of Unnamable Horrors” by Peter Rawlik
  8. “Golden Girl” by S.L. Edwards
  9. “Scenes From a Forgotten Diorama” by Brian O’Connell
  10. “You Can’t Go Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef” by Jill Hand
  11. “Abettor” by Ruth Asch
  12. “Work Group” by Pete Carter
  13. “The Cliffside Tavern” by Sean M. Thompson
  14. “One Evening in Whitbridge” by Scott Thomas
  15. “The Velveteen Volvo” by Nathan Carson
  16. “Outre Non-Limitations” by Frederick J. Mayer
  17. “The Kumiho Question” by Frederick J. Mayer
  18. “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time” by Can Wiggins
  19. “The White Terror” by Frank Coffman
  20. “Symptom of the Universe” by John Claude Smith
  21. “Sustenance of the Stars” by Scott J. Couturier
  22. “Alien Shore” by Rob Martin
  23. “Ye Hermit’s Lay” by Adam Bolivar
  24. “Bridge” by Don Webb
  25. “Balls” by Russell Smeaton
  26. “Call Me Corey” by Matthew M. Bartlett
  27. “Hero Mother” by Cody Goodfellow
  28. “Red-Eye” by Mark Rainey
  29. “Séance” by K.A. Opperman
  30. “Looking for Ghosts” by Duane Pesice

Yes indeed, this anthology is surely the perfect holiday surprise for that special someone you love. Or for the one you just kinda like. Or for the one you hate. Or for yourself. For anybody, really!

Art Inspired by… Me???

reset-art

Well, this is a first! I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of someone liking something of mine enough to be a “fan” of it, but I’m nevertheless amazed and humbled to know that a story I wrote (“Reset,” from the video game-themed horror anthology Terror in 16-Bits, which you can get through the Muzzleland Press webstore or Amazon.com, hint hint) inspired someone else to create something. If you’ve read “Reset,”you know all to well the critical moment this illustration depicts; if you haven’t, then you should probably get yourself a copy so you can find out all about it. Anyway, major props to Mat Fitzsimmons of Feral Teeth Press for making this image, and additional thanks to Terror in 16-Bits editor/publisher Jonathan Raab for bringing it to my attention. I love this so much!

Talking Splatterhouse on the Spooklights Podcast

 

Don’t “BE GARBAGE OF CESSPOOL HA HA HA.” Listen to the latest episode of Spooklights instead!

The new episode of Muzzleland Press‘ podcast is up now, and co-hosts Jonathan Raab and Tom Breen were gracious enough to have me on as a guest so I could ramble on incoherently about one of my all-time favorite video game series: Splatterhouse!

We also talked a little about my meager bibliography, the inspiration for my contribution to Muzzleland’s latest anthology Terror in 16-Bits (available now in paperbook and ebook format through Amazon or the Muzzleland Press webstore, nudge nudge), our experiences at NecronomiCon Providence, and how A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is woefully underrated.

spooklights

The Yellowed Page: An Appreciation of Vintage Paperbacks

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Paperbacks from Hell, the new book from Grady Hendrix (author of Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism), came out yesterday. Unlike Hendrix’s previous releases, Paperbacks from Hell is a work of non-fiction, although at times the absurdities it recounts make you wonder how they could be true.

How could Zebra Books flood grocery stores with all their garish, goofy skeletons and still be taken seriously for so long? How could Rex Miller take Chaingang, the 400 lb. homeless serial killer/rapist from the 1987 novel Slob, and reimagine him as a superpowered crusader of justice with a soft spot for puppies over the course of just a few sequels? How could talented writers like Ken Greenhall and Joan Samson remain obscure and unloved in an era when every yahoo with a typewriter could somehow land a gushing blurb from Stephen King?

Paperbacks from Hell is a smart, humorous, and affectionate look at the gory glory days of the ‘70s and ‘80s horror publishing boom. If you’ve enjoyed reading Hendrix’s blogs for Tor.com, ever spent an afternoon marveling over gorgeous and insane relics of vintage paperback cover art on Will Erickson’s website Too Much Horror Fiction, or regularly come away from used book sales with armfuls of William H. Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jensen titles, Paperbacks from Hell is an essential buy. Shit, I preordered my copy months ago.

Having spent all last night and most of today flipping through it, I can’t understate how much of a rush it’s been seeing all these forgotten names given ample limelight, not to mention gorging myself on the beautifully lurid artwork replete with evil dolls, killer crabs, and, yes, so many skeletons. It makes me want to hunt Hendrix down and give him a big, fat, sloppy kiss, because it almost feels like he wrote this book just for me.

I was born in 1987, the waning days of the horror boom. Even still, I grew up very much in its shadow. When you’re poor, you really can’t waste money such a luxury as new books, and I grew up poor. Being a voracious reader with an appetite for the dark and fantastic, I was left with few options other than whatever was cheapest, and what was cheapest were the battered ‘n’ tattered secondhand paperbacks I found at flea markets, yard sales, and the Salvation Army. It was either subsist on bottom-of-the-barrel books for bottom-of-the-barrel prices… or shoplift. I’m not too proud to admit I did plenty of both.

When I say “bottom-of-the-barrel,” though, keep in mind I don’t mean it as a knock on the quality of those books, more as an acknowledgment of how they were (and still are) valued (or not valued) by more “serious” literary types. Those typerwriter-haulin,’ Stephen King blurb-scorin’ yahoos I mentioned earlier? I poke fun, but I still respect the hell out of ‘em. Shit, I’d sell at least 50% of my working limbs for a Stephen King blurb. Maybe more.

See, here’s the thing: The bargain bin may be where the “bad” stuff lives, but it’s also where the purest stuff lives, the stuff that relishes being about ghosts ‘n’ goblins and doesn’t feel the need to “elevate” itself. Even better, it’s where the weird stuff lives. These are not New York Times Bestsellers. These are the curiosities that slipped through the cracks: splatterpunk sickos taking sex and violence to a whole new level, extraterrestrial orgasms that kill innocent housewives, horny werewolf ghosts, sadomasochistic nazi leprechauns, and, for some reason, a whoooole lot of incest.

Call ‘em crass. Call ‘em crude. They’re also some of the wildest, most imaginative stories you’re likely to come across. They don’t play by the rules, and that is often their downfall, but you don’t find ideas this outré if you’re playing by the rules. They may be crazy, but they’re also earnest, and that counts for a lot.

I grew up on a steady diet of this stuff (so now you know where to point the blame). For that reason, I have never and will never look down on any writer or publisher or subgenre of horror for being too strange or trashy or low-brow or unrefined. Ultimately, horror is supposed to be all those things; it’s the punk rock of literary genres, just one step up in the publishing hierarchy from all-out pornography.

Though no longer a penniless youth (which isn’t to say I’m not still broke, I’m just slightly less broke), I still buy a lot of used books. Not necessarily because I have to, but because I want to. Because I enjoy it.

I enjoy trawling overstuffed shelves and rickety milk crates at flea markets and secondhand stores. I enjoy hunting for secret treasures hidden under piles of James Patterson cast-offs. I enjoy finding old authors who are new to me, reading the outlandish back-cover copy of impossible-to-summarize pretzel-logic plots, and drooling over eye-popping masterpieces pieces of lush, pulpy cover art the likes of which you simply can’t find today. All those cut-outs and step-backs and shimmery holofoil; gotta love ’em.

I also enjoy the sense of history you get with used books. One of my favorite things to find in an old beat-up paperback is a “This book belongs to…” notation, or a library stamp, a dog-eared page, an inky smudged fingerprint, a bookmark, a note to self, anything of that sort; I like the idea of being another link in a chain that stretches back to god knows how many other people over the course of god knows how many years.

The yellowed page may be ugly, it may be ripped and brittle, it may even smell a little… off. But damned if it doesn’t hold little wonders just the same. Like VHS and vinyl, there’s just something magic about it.

Cheers to Grady Hendrix for paying tribute to that.

New Story Transmitting from Planet X!

planetxpublicationslogo

Greeting mortals! Today I’m happy to announce that a new story of mine, “I Am Become Death,” will be featured in the upcoming anthology Test Patterns, the premiere release of the newly formed Planet X Publications. I’m fortunate to share the pages of this exciting anthology with some truly amazing writers, many of whom I would consider among the very best voices in genre fiction today. Check out the table of contents for yourself below. This is going to be one hefty tome!

Inspired by such classic TV shows as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery, Test Patterns is a collection of richly varied tales, told in unique ways, employing provocative twists and surprises, and exploring the universal themes of humanity and self-discovery through the lenses of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Test Patterns is due out this Halloween. In the meantime, click here to reserve a copy of the anthology in either ebook format ($5), trade paperback ($20), or limited edition hardcover ($40), and help support an upstart independent publisher with a vested interest in high-quality strange and supernatural fiction.

Table of Contents:

  1. “The Woman in the Forge of Saturday Night” by Joe Pulver
  2. “Evidence of Absence” by Scott Graves
  3. “I Am Become Death” by William Tea
  4. “The Judge” by Philip Fracassi
  5. “The Snake Beneath My Skin” by Sarah Walker
  6. “The Hands of Chaos” by Ashley Dioses
  7. “The Nomenclature of Unnamable Horrors” by Peter Rawlik
  8. “Golden Girl” by S.L. Edwards
  9. “Scenes From a Forgotten Diorama” by Brian O’Connell
  10. “You Can’t Go Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef” by Jill Hand
  11. “Abettor” by Ruth Asch
  12. “Work Group” by Pete Carter
  13. “The Cliffside Tavern” by Sean M. Thompson
  14. “One Evening in Whitbridge” by Scott Thomas
  15. “The Velveteen Volvo” by Nathan Carson
  16. “Outre Non-Limitations” by Frederick J. Mayer
  17. “The Kumiho Question” by Frederick J. Mayer
  18. “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time” by Can Wiggins
  19. “The White Terror” by Frank Coffman
  20. “Symptom of the Universe” by John Claude Smith
  21. “Sustenance of the Stars” by Scott J. Couturier
  22. “Alien Shore” by Rob Martin
  23. “Ye Hermit’s Lay” by Adam Bolivar
  24. “Bridge” by Don Webb
  25. “Balls” by Russell Smeaton
  26. “Call Me Corey” by Matthew M. Bartlett
  27. “Hero Mother” by Cody Goodfellow
  28. “Red-Eye” by Mark Rainey
  29. “Séance” by K.A. Opperman
  30. “Looking for Ghosts” by Duane Pesice

Con Report: My First NecronomiCon (Part 2)

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Previously, I posted a summary of my first two days at NecronomiCon Providence (actually the two days before the con proper). TLDR version: Day One was awkward and uneventful, due mainly to my terminal shyness and a wicked case of imposter syndrome. Day Two started much the same, but took a sharp upward turn when I ran into fellow up-and-comer David B. Busboom, which helped make me fell less like an outsider. I’m happy to report the next three days followed the trend of skyward ascent, ultimately culminating in a peak of awesomeness that leads me to respond now to all the naysayers: NecronomiCon is alive and well, and if you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and/or weird fiction in general, I can hardly think of any event more deserving of your time and money.

There you have it, con organizers, an official endorsement from William Tea, a legend in his own mind. I expect payment in full by Monday morning.

Without further ado, let me tell you about my Necro weekend…

FRIDAY (8/18/17)

After indulging in two of the proverbial three S’s (a shit and a shower; sorry, but you don’t get a manly beard like mine from shaving), my bleary eyed self attended two panels; first, “Wereweird: Lycanthropy, Animism, and Animal Transformation in Weird Fiction” (with Stephen Graham Jones, Cody Goodfellow, Sonya Taafe, and K.H. Vaughan), then “Machinations and Mesmerism: How Middle European Fantasists & Romanticists Informed Modern Horror” (with Anya Martin, Jon Padgett, Steve Mariconda, Leslie Klinger, Sean Moreland, and Michael Cisco). God I’m such a nerd.

Sidenote: Not to get too far ahead of myself, but I think it speaks to how friendly and down-to-earth everyone at NecronomiCon was that by the end of the weekend several of the people mentioned above would go from being panelists I looked up to and saw as separate from myself to folks with whom I shared post-con meals and casual conversation.

Following that, the vendors’ room was open at last and howling for my hard-earned moolah. More importantly, it was beckoning me to find the Muzzleland Press table so I could pick up my contributor’s copy of Terror in 16-Bits, a new anthology of horror fiction inspired by classic video games, featuring stories by yours truly, Matthew M. Bartlett, J.R. Hamantaschen, Orrin Grey, Amber Fallon, Sean M. Thompson, Brian O’Connell, Alex Smith, Jonathan Raab, Jack Burgos, Richard Wolley, Julie Godard, Thomas C. Mavroudis, Adrean Messmer, and Amberle L. Husbands.

I was lucky enough to get to meet Bartlett, Thompson, Smith, and Raab in short order (we talked about the games that inspired our individual tales, among other things), and I also ran into both Steven Rosenstein (who co-hosts the Microphones of Madness podcast) and Scott Dwyer (who runs the weird fiction website The Plutonian). Dwyer was kind enough to hook me up with a free copy of Phantasm/Chimera, an anthology he edited and published on his own, and which features fiction from some of the most singular talents in horror and dark fantasy today, including the aforementioned Bartlett and Padgett, as well as Livia Llewellyn, Christopher Slatsky, Brian Evenson, John Claude Smith, Jason A. Wyckoff, Mike Allen, Clint Smith, Thana Niveau, and Adam Golaski.

Two more people I met in the vendors’ room and had memorable encounters with were Jim Dyer and Tim Vigil.

Dyer is the grandson of C.M. Eddy, Jr., a pulp writer who contributed to the legendary Weird Tales Magazine back in the 1910s and ‘20s and who was a close personal friend of the man himself, H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the two famously collaborated a few times, most notably on the notorious necrophilia tale “The Loved Dead” (which was so controversial it actually got issues of Weird Tales pulled from shelves) and an unfinished manuscript commissioned by Harry Houdini called The Cancer of Superstition. Dyer honors his grandfather’s legacy through his company Fenham Publishing, which maintains the rights to Eddy’s stories and keeps them in print all these years later for pulp junkies like myself to discover and enjoy anew.

Vigil, meanwhile, should need no introduction. How things should be, sadly, is not often the way things are, though. Despite being a highly influential comic book artist with an intense, surreal, hyper-detailed style reminiscent of Bernie Wrightson, Jack Kirby, and Richard Corben, Vigil remains mostly a cult figure to this day. He’s also one my own personal favorite illustrators of all time (as if my effusive praise thus far hasn’t already given as much away). Over the years, Vigil has done art for Heavy Metal Magazine, the Frank Frazetta-inspired sword-and-sorcery title Death Dealer and the zombies-in-Vietnam series ’68 from Image Comics, several titles from Glenn Danzig’s Verotik Comics, a whole bunch of damn titles from Avatar Press (including the long-running Webwitch, Threshold, and Raw Media Monthly), and even a couple Green Lantern and Wolverine books for The Big Two.

Despite all that, Vigil remains best known for Faust: Love of the Damned, a groundbreaking and controversial independent epic that took more than 20 years to complete, and which spawned some fantastic miniseries spinoffs (including the Stoker Award-nominated Faust: Book of M) and even a movie adaptation directed by Frank Yuzna (the b-movie maniac behind such cult classics as Bride of Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead 3, and Society). Almost aggressively, actively noncommercial, Faust is a gothic, brooding, philosophical masterpiece of antiheroic, genre-bending horror awash in explicit violence and graphic sex. It is without a doubt, the most iconic series to come out of the post-TMNT black-and-white indie-comics movement of the 80s. The same things which made Faust such an incredible piece of work, however, are big reasons for Vigil remaining so much a fringe personality. Of course, the man’s casually confrontational fuck-the-mainstream do-it-yourself ethos might have played a role in that, too. Gotta love it.

As you can tell, I have a huge amount of respect for Tim Vigil, so it was an exciting opportunity to meet  in person. We actually hit it off, if you can believe it, which directly led to an amazing experience I got to have on Saturday evening, but we’ll get to that soon enough. As of Friday, I was content to merely gush all over him like a swooning schoolgirl. I also commissioned an original piece of art from him (a rendering of Jack Kirby’s Etrigan) which I plan to be buried with when I die.

20915662_265576717262825_5069277433062088082_nFollowing that, I attended a few more panels: “Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (with Kij Johnson, Darrell Schweitzer, Peter Rawlik, Alex Houstoun, Tom Lynch, and Vincent O’Neil), “Women Directing Weird” (with Gemma Files, Andrea Wolanin, Heather Buckley, Izzy Lee, Diana Porter, and Gwen Callahan), and “Erotic Lovecraftiana” (with Paul LaFarge, Livia Llewellyn, Peter Rawlik, Sonya Taaffe, and Joe Zannella). Those last two were especially insightful and entertaining, with Erotic Lovecraftiana bringing out the ribald best in both the speakers and the audience, leading to discussion of everything from Lovecraft’s own sexuality to the pornographic pastiches of Edward Lee, to the fetishistic possibilities of Deep Ones not needing to breathe, to a sex-ed demonstration in which rubber tentacles stood in for the usual bananas. Nice.

After the con I met Jonathan Raab and a bunch of other people at a local pub for some artery-hardening bar food. While there I finally got to meet Jon Padgett, Tom Breen, and Scott R. Jones in person. I told Padgett how much I enjoyed his brilliant collection The Secret of Ventriloquism and we talked about the recent Dark Tower movie adaptation (which, dammit, I still haven’t seen) and the familiar experience of growing up as geeky kids made fun for loving books about monsters and alien worlds, only for us to age into adults and find the rest of the world now reflecting decidedly similar interests. Later, me, Jones, and Breen bitched about the state of U.S. politics, while Sean M. Thompson and I bonded a bit over our mutual affections for Goosebumps books and the old Nickelodeon T.V. show Are You Afraid of the Dark?.

Trump-bashing and ’90s children’s television, truly the kind of high-brow conversation you’d expect from us snooty literary types, eh?

I can’t believe I’m technically an adult.

SATURDAY (8/19/17)

Right off the bat, the first event scheduled for Saturday morning was one of the ones I had been anticipating the most. Horrorstor and My Best Friend’s Exorcism author Grady Hendrix presented a special preview of his upcoming nonfiction book Paperbacks From Hell, shining a light on all things good, bad, and utterly insane from the ‘70s and ‘80s horror novel boom. Though it was early morning, Hendrix sure as hell was the right person to wake my ass up, blazing a mile a minute through an enthusiastic, hilarious, and, frankly, loud survey of the trends, tropes, clichés and ridiculously lurid cover art that defined the era. The dude even sang a pair of original songs he wrote about cheesy paperback covers. It was a blast.

I got to say, as a nostalgic bargain-hunter whose personal library consists primarily of used books rescued from flea markets and secondhand stores, I’ve had the Paperbacks From Hell preordered since it was first announced. During the presentation, though, I got so excited that I actually went online with my smartphone and hunted down a few of the zanier titles Hendrix mentioned. I’m especially looking forward to getting my grubby mitts on William H. Johnstone’s Toy Cemetery, which reportedly features killer dolls, vampire-werewolf hybrid ghosts, and, of course, tons of incest. Be still my beating heart!

I attended a couple more panels later, including “Editing Horror (with Ellen Datlow, Peter Straub, Douglas E. Winter, Michael Kelly, Leslie Klinger, and Mike Davis) and “Teatro Grottesco: The Bleak Universe of Thomas Ligotti” (with Jon Padgett, Matthew M. Bartlett, Michael Calia, Michael Cisco, and Alex Houstoun). The former was especially eye-opening, not in the least because of the presence of ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW, as well as PETER FUCKING STRAUB and DOUGLAS FUCKING E. FUCKING WINTER.

Winter, if you’re unaware, edited two of the most essential tomes any horror fan should have on their shelf. First, in 1985 there was the World Fantasy Award-winning non-fiction book Faces of Fear (which includes must-read interviews with some of the all-time giants of the genre: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Charles L. Grant, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, William Peter Blatty, T.E.D. Klein, Michael McDowell, Alan Ryan, Whitley Strieber, David Morell, James Herbert, Dennis Etchison, John Coyne, and V.C. Andrews). Then, in 1988 there was the classic fiction anthology Prime Evil (which includes original, never-before-published stories by King, Straub, Barker, Campbell, Grant, Strieber, and Morrell, as well as stories by even more genre giants like Thomas Ligotti, Jack Cady, and Thomas Tessier).

Straub, meanwhile, is probably best known for his two novel collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House. The man has also won a frankly absurd number of awards over the years (including six Bram Stoker Awards, three World Fantasy Awards, one Locus Fantasy Award, and one August Derleth Award, not to mention numerous nominations) for such classic books as Ghost Story, Shadowland, Koko, and, my personal favorite, Floating Dragon. A gleaming highlight of my NecronomiCon experience was getting to shake Straub’s hand and tell him how much that novel meant to me, the impact it’s having on the novel I’m writing now, and the role his work played in making me want to be a writer to begin with. In all honesty, he probably hears that kind of thing all the time, but how often do I get to be the one to say it?

Naturally, I made a total fool of myself, babbling and shaking his hand no less than three separate times in the span of about two minutes.

It was worth it.

Less anxiety-inducing were my encounters with three talented artists who I managed to strike up conversations with: Nick Gucker, Liv Rainey Smith, and Yves Tourigney. I went home with art from every single one of them, because how could you not? Seriously, click Google their stuff and tell me its not eye-poppingly gorgeous. Tourigney in particular I had to hunt down; he and writer S.L. Edwards have been collaborating on a weekly webcomic called “Borkchito: Occult Doggo Detective,” which combines two of my greatest loves: paranormal investigator stories and doggo memes. Not only did I need to meet this mad genius, I needed to snag myself one of the limited-run print editions of the collected Borkchito!

As the day came to a close, I wandered back over to Tim Vigil’s booth to check on my commission and bullshit some more. As I mentioned earlier, we kind of hit it off earlier in the weekend. Even still, no way was I expecting him to say “Want to hang out later?”

One of my all-time favorite comic artists wanted to hang out with an absolute nobody like myself? Gah.

I somehow managed to put my inner fanboy back in his box long enough to say “sure” and suggest we grab something to eat. We went to a nearby restaurant and, over burgers and mac-and-cheese (classy artsy types, ain’t we?), we talked a good long time about the convention, his art, my writing, European horror movies, the current state of the comics industry, and porn. By the end of dinner it, he asked to read some of my stories and even offered to illustrate something of mine someday (like say if I ever put out a chapbook, hint hint).

My mind had basically blown out the back of my skull by this point. Fortunately, I was able to gather up enough pieces of my splattered gray matter to make my way back to the hotel so I could get ready for one thing I’d been waiting all day for. As part of the NecronomiCon festivities, the nearby Columbus Theater hosted a special concert featuring the bands Magic Circle, Beastmaker, and Coven.

20882366_266033790550451_8404608010217385461_nYes, that Coven.

The Jinx Dawson Coven. The “One Tin Soldier” Coven. The “Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls” Coven. That Black Sabbath-before-Black Sabbath Coven. The satanic-psychedelia occult-rock doom-metal prototype Coven. That fucking Coven.

Live.

In a beautifully restored 1920’s theater.

With two kick-ass modern-day doom bands opening.

Formed in 1968, Coven were one of the first rock bands to not just be associated with satanism and occultism, but to embrace and even enthusiastically flaunt such things. Their shows were half-concert and half-black mass, full of diabolic chants and theatrical rituals. Every single goth-rock witch-pagan, black-metal church-burner, shock-rock devil-worshiper, and doom-n-gloom bong-ripper on Earth owes a debt to Coven.

I’ll let you speculate which of those categories yours truly might fall into.

Honestly, this is not a band I ever actually thought I’d get to see live. It was a truly otherworldly experience. Icon frontwoman Jinx Dawson still knows how to dominate the stage; emerging from a black casket wearing mirrored mask, bathed in hellish scarlet light and surrounded by dark-robed druids, she demanded every last drop of the audience’s attention. And she fucking got it. True to Coven’s reputation, the performance felt as much like a transcendent, blasphemous, magic ceremony as it did a rock concert. By the time I got back to the hotel, my body was soaked with sweat, my ears were ringing, my head was pounding, and my godforsaken soul was at least 666 shades blacker.

Evil me then ordered cheesecake from room service and went to bed.

SUNDAY (8/20/17)

After weathering the demonic assault of Coven’s sinister occult rites, I felt like hammered shit, so I slept in on Sunday. This resulted in me missing a panel and a reading I was interested in, but, hey, them’s the breaks. Once I finally regained my strength and sanity, I emerged from the shadowy tomb that was my hotel room, hissing and recoiling from the light like a centuries-old vampire. The housekeeping lady may or may not have the sign of the cross as I passed.

I attended a few more panels on Sunday: “Small Press in the Weird” (with Cody Goodfellow, Derrick Hussey, Dragana Drobnjak, Mike Davis, and Dwayne Olson), “Faithful Frighteners” (with Richard Stanley, Bracken MacLeod, Tom Breen, Douglas Wynne, Izzy Lee, and Heather Buckley), “The Bleak Oblique: Aickman’s Influence on Contemporary Horror” (with Simon Strantzas, Michael Cisco, Paul Di Filippo, Jack Haringa, and Steve Rasnic Tem), and “The Future of Weird Fiction and NecronomiCon Providence” (with S. J. Bagley, Ellen Datlow, Sam Cowan, Ruthanna Emrys, and Michael Kelly).

I also ran around the vendor’s room like a chicken with its head cut off in a mad scramble to buy a few last minute items (I say “a few” here, when really I mean “a bank account-eradicating shit-ton”). Among the individuals I ran into while in the grip of this consumerist frenzy were author and con organizer Sam Gafford, German illustrator Fufu Frauenwahl, and artist/zinester Michael Bukowski.

I’d actually been looking for Bukowski on and off all weekend. He’s the prime mover behind the Illustro Obscurum zines, wherein he and some other artists bring to life the bizarre beasts and crazy creatures depicted in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, and more. Issues are often hard to get a hold of, because they comes in extremely limited quantities and often sell out fast. Thankfully, I was able to snatch up some of the few remaining copies Bukowski still had, including the Manly Wade Wellman issue, the Chuck Tingle issue, and the special Stories From the Borderland issue (which, for the first time in print form, compiles illustrations by Bukowski and essays by author/podcaster/grave-pisser Scott Nicolay, taken from the titular long-running blog series in which the pair rediscover forgotten gems from lesser-known pulp writers of yesteryear).

I also finally got to talk to author K.H. Vaughan for longer than three goddamn seconds, which proved a lot trickier than it sounds. Over the course of the weekend, our paths crossed many times but always when one or both of us was on the way to something else. Near the end of the final day of NecronomiCon,  we were able to sit for a while and properly get to know one another. I told Vaughan about my convention experience thus far and mentioned a few other cons I’m interested in checking out, and he pretty much sold me lock-stock-and-barrel on the upcoming 2018 Camp Necon. So, hopefully, you’ll be reading another rambling, long-winded con report from me about that event next year.

As the con came to a close, I ran into Sean M. Thompson and Scott R. Jones again, and they were nice enough to invite me along for dinner. Good thing, too. If it had been left to my antisocial ass, I probably would’ve ended up holing up in my hotel room, supping on cheap vending machine snacks. Instead, I accompanied them to a nearby restaurant, where we partook in that most holy of sacraments, delicious coal-fired pizza. Alongside Jones and Thompson, Cody Goodfellow, Alicia Graves, Liv Rainey Smith, Fufu Frauenwahl, Sam Cowan, and a few others were there. We talked about everything from Mick Foley’s infamous Hell in the Cell match to the politics of lady Ghostbusters to the cooking and consumption of human placenta. Y’know, typical chit-chat.

20914712_266221307198366_2915333657839673597_nGoodfellow, I should mention, is just as insane in real life as his fiction would have you believe. I first became a fan upon reading his novel collaboration with John Skipp, Jake’s Wake, back in the days when Leisure Books was still a thing. Seeing his mind work in-person was a great and terrible thing; at times he talks faster than light moves, his bearded pie-hole constantly overflowing with colorful anecdotes, philosophical asides, and outrageous factoids about fringe beliefs, such as the theory that human evolution is the direct result of ancient man engaging in brain cannibalism! At one point he briefly fell silent and spent a good five minutes staring off into space. When he returned to planet Earth, he brought back a fully formed story idea that was simultaneously deranged, ingenious, and way better than anything I could come up with in five days, let alone five minutes.

The pizza was damn good too.

After dinner, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Parting was, as the Bard once scribbled, such sweet sorrow. I was bummed to have to say adios to all the cool and kind and brilliant and funny and altogether amazing people I’d met over the course of the convention, but I was happy that I’d gotten to meet them, that I’d somehow stumbled my way into some great new friendships, and that I can look forward to seeing these weirdos again in the future.

I spent the next few days staying with some friends in nearby Massachusetts, where we hunted for seashells along the shore and visited infamous murderess Lizzie Borden’s resting place. Hard to imagine a more perfect way to cap things off.

As I returned to rolling hills of Pennsylvania, so to did NecronomiCon return to the eldritch bowels of New England’s witch-haunted underbelly. I do not mourn, however, because I know, just as Cthulhu’s alien priests know, that eventually the stars will be right once more. In 2019, the shadow of NecronomiCon will fall yet again on the winding streets of Providence, Rhode Island, and I will certainly be there, lending my own darkness to that mammoth shadow’s deepening tenebrous black.

Especially if there’s more pizza.