Last Dance

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by Alex Ebenstein

Easy. You have to confess.

John took one step inside the crumbling brick walls with Mark’s words echoing in his head. Before John could register that the High Altar had been replaced by a torture table, his hand absently searched for the stoup of holy water. Never mind he was a lapsed Catholic. Never mind the church had been abandoned many years earlier, and if the basin still existed it’d be on the far side of church by the front door.

When John gave up on his search and finally laid eyes on what should have been the High Altar, he wondered about Jesus. Might he have preferred getting his limbs stretched past the breaking point on ‘the rack’ over being nailed to the torture device hanging on the back wall? Perhaps if what Mark and Yvonne said was true he’d get a chance to ask.

Once he looked past years neglect and rot, St. Mary’s Catholic Church was damn near a carbon copy of John’s hometown parish. The manifestations of torture devices were not what John expected to find when he broke into the boarded-up church by way of the priest’s quarters along the east side, but they were in line with his usual brand of hallucinations. What a psychologist might call demented.

On the other side of the table, an Iron Maiden stood in place where the Tabernacle should have been. Seeing that was a bit of a revelation to John: the interior of the church was lit. He’d left Mark and Yvonne outside to trip in the pale glow of the moon’s sliver—they refused to come closer than the edge of the road—while he took their flashlight to guide him inside. But now, that beam bounced lazily around the church, all but forgotten thanks to the red-tinged ambient glow surrounding him. A quick glance around the room revealed no obvious source or working lights, but John didn’t much care given the situation.

He took a step down from the raised platform, intending to head to the far side of the church and his destination, but the organ to his left caught his eye. The pipes reflected the ethereal light inside the room, but the reason why turned John’s normal grim-set line of a mouth into a grin. There was no gleaming silver metal, but rather lengths of gray-pink intestines hung from the ceiling to the floor, glistening with bodily juices as though just removed from their owners.

As much as he wanted to examine them closely, John would not let himself. He didn’t want to ruin the illusion—but also, what if it all was real?

The side chapels, which made the arms of the cross that was the church building, held no interest to John. He continued through the center of the cross, down the main aisle between the rows of pews. John could not see the confessional yet. There wasn’t much to the decrepit church besides the impossible additions made possible by his altered mind, but the building was long, and the dusky red glow was not quite enough to let him see the whole way. No matter; John knew where the confessional would be, same as most other rural parishes. He thought he could walk there with his eyes closed.

With that thought in mind, John stuffed the flashlight into his jacket pocket and let both hands dangle at his sides. A distant memory of running wild through church as a child, his mother whisper-shouting at him to stop, his hands out at either side to slap the pews as he flew past. In the present, John did the same, racing down the aisle, catching glimpses of rusted metal tools and implements instead of hymn books, narrowly pulling his hand back when a row of pews became a row of spiked chairs.

John reached the end, close to his destination. His thoughts briefly turned to Mark and Yvonne, what they might be doing or seeing outside. The first people he saw when he drifted into Woodville looking for work, standing against the outside wall of the only bar in town, sharing a smoke. King and Queen of the high school dropouts, full of ignorant charm and an aptitude for acquiring designer drugs. Not a whole lot different from John, aside from their complacency with a dead-end life. John rarely strove beyond his means, but he was a roamer, only stopping to accrue enough resources to get on the move again.

They were John’s only friends in the weeks since, hanging out to do drugs and not much else. Such was the case a few hours ago. Mark procured some chemically inventive pills known on the dark web by a derivative name John couldn’t recall, something like eyeopener.

As they waited for showtime, John asked them about a local legend he heard while working at the paper mill: a haunted church. The two shared furious whispers, debating something for a minute before coming back to John.

“The church isn’t haunted,” Mark had said. “That’s just a rumor someone started to keep people out. To hide the truth.”

Yvonne chimed in, still whispering. “It’s where you go to meet your maker.”

John scoffed but played along. “What if I don’t believe in a god?”

“Then you will,” Yvonne said.

“We should check it out then,” John said.

Steadfast refusals melted under the heat of John’s conviction and persuasion. Still, they would show him the church, and no more. When they arrived, the drugs started to hit. John tried once more to get them to come along inside, but they kept their shoes planted on pavement. Recognizing a lost cause, John asked what the rumor said he needed to do to meet his maker.

Mark said, “Easy. You have to confess.”

Reaching the west side of the church where the interior vestibule doors hung from broken hinges, John was surprised and a little disappointed to see everything looking like its normal rotten self. Then he realized the thing he mistook for an easel was in fact a Judas Cradle and his butt clenched reflexively. For the first time since entering the church John shuddered, then turned to the confessional along the wall.

The last time John made an honest and earnest confession he was thirteen. The priest, Father Martin, was a decent man who liked to drink more than he liked to fear monger—which was a lot—and had fallen out of favor with the parishioners for somehow being too old-school for Catholics. After John confessed his litany of awful and detailed sins, Father Martin gasped. He then laughed a mirthless, unholy sound.

“I can’t do anything for you, boy, and neither can God,” the priest had said. “You’ll be dancing with the Devil in the pits of Hell before long.”

John left that confession un-absolved and left the Church for good. He never told his mother what happened, and she never forgave him for abandoning the Church. At first, John was embarrassed. Then, he became emboldened. What was the point of it all, anyway? Heaven never interested him. Why would he want to spend eternity with the most inane, boring people from earth? Sure, Mark and Yvonne were a couple of burnout dipshits he’d forget the moment he left Woodville, but at least they were more fun than the stuffed shirts he’d find packing the pews on Sundays.

Staring at the confessional now, John felt his heart pounding in his skin, as though he’d see the fleshy shell of his body ripple with each thud were he to look close enough. Sure, his hormones were out of whack from the drugs, but could he actually be afraid?  

John swallowed against the desert in his mouth, stepped into the right booth, and closed the curtain behind him. Except—

The curtain was not fabric, but rather swaths of human skin stitched together. He could feel it. Taut and leathery.

It’s real??

Suddenly inside the booth felt too close—a coffin. The walls vibrated as if made of visual sound waves. The screen to his left formed ever-changing mathematical patterns, pulsing at him like a cartoon sound box, though no one spoke.

John squeezed his eyelids shut. He needed to focus. None of it was real. It was a trip. Only a trip.

The motion around him stopped. Through peered eyes everything looked old and rotting, but normal.

He laughed uneasily, then noticed a discolored prayer cheat sheet pinned to the wall.

“Confession. Right.” He laughed again when he saw the scribbled correction on the sheet.

John read the altered version.

“Bless me, Satan, for I have sinned—”

The screen dissolved to reveal a crimson, swirling cloud that simultaneously tugged at John and exuded immense heat. But instead of rushing wind or crackling fire, John heard what sounded like a swarm of a thousand bees.

The collective buzzing spoke to him, asking a single question.

“May I have this dance?”

End

Alex Ebenstein is a maker of maps by day, writer of horror fiction by night. He lives with his family in Michigan. He has stories published in Novel Noctule, Tales to Terrify Podcast, The Other Stories Podcast, and Campfire Macabre from Cemetery Gates Media, among others. Find him on Twitter @AlexEbenstein.

No Body, No Miracles

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by Corey Farrenkopf

Everything smells of incense. You know it’s from the censers, the burning frankincense, but you also suspect the scent is there to cover something. Like the innumerable skin cells shed by parishioners, a bad septic, something buried beneath the pulpit that’s been rotting for years. This is what you think about when you kneel in the pews for Friday mass, knees sore from the imitation leather and stiff boards. You’re wearing a light blue button down shirt, a navy tie, the same uniform you’ve worn the last four years of middle school. The stained glass window to your right, where you spend most of the hour staring, is laced with spiderwebs. Each week you watch as more of the crimson and sage rectangles are devoured. The incense might also obscure the fact the janitor doesn’t get paid well, and therefore is inattentive.

Your bet is still on the buried corpses.

You and Mark joke about it. “Every church has a crypt, right?”

“All the good ones,” you reply.

“No body, no miracles,” Mark says.

“And what’s the point of church without miracles?”

You and Mark are not particularly religious, especially after nine years of parochial school. No one, with the exception of the two diehard Christian Science chicks who are sick more often than they are in class, believe in God. Repetition beats it out of you. Mass multiple times a week. Bible study. Theology class. Rainy recess hours of cheaply drawn cartoons depicting Jesus strolling through sandy towns, puppet pals following him, singing hymns of the right and just. More than anything, you blame the puppet pals for pushing you away from God.

Or weekly confession, that too.

“Are you going to tell him about masturbating again?” Mark asks.

“I can’t think of any other sin this week. Haven’t killed anyone. No stealing,” you reply.

“I can’t believe you tell him that. What’s he say?”

“Father Peters doesn’t really comment, just tells me to do three Our Fathers for each time.”

“That’s a lot of Our Fathers,” Mark laughs as the line edges forward.

You and Mark haunt the back of the line, trailing the rest of your classmates as you snake towards the screen-windowed confessional booth at the rear of the church. If you didn’t already know what was inside, you would have thought it was a broom closet with two doors, but you’ve spent enough hours kneeling within, the candle in its crimson holder glowing besides your head, to know what’s up. Only the vaguest mutterings seep out, leaking back to the rest of the class. No one wants to be overheard. No one wants their classmates to know what they do after dark, with whom, for whom. Masturbation is one thing, but your class has some real weirdos. You can only imagine the dark stuff they get up to when no one’s looking.

When one of your classmates finishes up, they walk into the body of the church, skirting the pews, moving toward the altar to kneel before the tabernacle, ready to recite the appropriate amount of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. You assume most lie about how many they are supposed to do. Everyone kneels, bables a single prayer, then retreats from the carved Jesus hanging above them. You and Mark have spent many hours waiting for him to open his eyes, to really tell you of your sins, what Hell is going to look like, but he stays silent. No one likes to spend that much time with him, contemplating what those prayers are meant to save you from.

“I’m going to ask him about it,” you tell Mark.

“What?” Mark asks.

“The crypt. Who’s buried in it.”

“You sure you want to do that? Sometimes it’s better to not talk about our jokes.”

“But it’s not a joke. Someone has to be buried down there. It explains the smell, that dead fug hanging around.”

“A lot of things explain the smell. There’s no crypt,” Mark says before turning away, eyes ahead, waiting his turn.

You feel bad you took things to a place too dark for Mark’s liking. You always do this, push the joke from a comfortable place into an uncomfortable one. You’re silent as you wait, stepping closer to the confessional with each classmate shed from its innards. Eventually Mark takes his turn in the box. You hear his voice drift through the wood, the priest muttering something within. Mark leaves the gathered gloom, closing the door behind him. You try to smile as he moves into the church, loafers clacking over the stone floor, but he doesn’t look at you, his skin pale, lip clenched between teeth.

Ok, that was weird, you think as you open the confessional door.

Things are as they usually are. The red glass candle. The leather kneeler. The screen woven in the pattern of tiny crucifixes.

The shadow of Father Peters is just beyond, inarticulate. You imagine him smiling. You don’t like to imagine him smiling.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession,” you say.

“So what’s it going to be today?” Father Peters asks. “More masturbation?”

“Not this week,” you reply, knowing the way to get answers from him. “No, I want to confess to trying to get into the crypt. The one beneath the altar. I know I shouldn’t be doing that, but I just can’t help it.”

There is silence on the other side of the screen.

You count your breaths.

“I can’t fault you,” Father Peters replies. “Every child wants to know what’s in the crypt.”

“So there’s really a crypt?” you ask, disbelief coloring your words.

“I’d call it more of a burial hall. Crypt makes it sound tiny,” Father Peters replies.

“That’s nuts.”

“Would you like to see it?”

“See…?” you hesitate, stomach souring, the joke rolling far past your point of comfort. It’s usually you that takes things too far, that makes people uneasy. You don’t like it when it’s reversed.

“Yes. I think you will, as penance for all you’ve done this week, and all the weeks  before. I’ve let you off too easy,” Father Peters replies.

Then there is the sound of the confessional door opening on the other side. Light plays over your face, your own door yanked open, Father Peters smiling down at you from beneath his thick mustache. He reaches into the booth, wraps his fingers around your biceps, and pulls you from the kneeler.

“This is the only proper penance,” he says as he half leads, half drags you into the church, towards the altar, the glass door you’ve never been permitted to enter. You catch Mark’s eyes as he kneels before the tabernacle. They go wide at the realization of what’s going on, where you’re being shepherded. You try to call to him, but you’re pushed through the doorway, the scent of frankincense swelling. “Maybe those below will have something more to say on the topic. It could be illuminating. Life changing.”

He plucks a lit candle from a metal wall sconce and hands it to you.

Your hands shake as you receive it.

“I’ll be back in two hours,” Father Peters says as he opens the final door, a door that shouldn’t be there, nothing but darkness on the other side, a staircase only visible in its culminating step. “And be careful with that candle. I don’t have any spare matches.”

He nudges you inside and closes the door.

You drop down the stairs until you hit a damp stone floor. There is no longer the smell of incense. There is must and rot and something far worse than anything you and Mark ever joked about.

Father Peters didn’t say how many Our Fathers you needed, so you start at one, then two, then three, praying the words will keep whatever lingers in the dark out of the candle’s flickering light.

End

Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Southwest Review, Catapult, Tiny Nightmares, Redivider, Reckoning, Wigleaf, Flash Fiction Online, Bourbon Penn, The Arcanist, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com

New Voices in Horror With J.A.W. McCarthy

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Joe Sullivan: When did you realize that dark, speculative fiction was the space you wanted to explore as a writer?

J.A.W. McCarthy: I can’t remember a time when what I was writing wasn’t dark and speculative. I remember stories I wrote as a kid that involved sentient sunflowers, teens squatting in mausoleums, couples who somehow become conjoined. They were all awful and will never see the light of day. I’ve always loved horror movies, but it might have been The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder that woke up that part of my brain and made me recognize my own dark heart. I don’t believe it’s classified as horror, but when I read that book at age eight or nine I was as terrified as I was fascinated. I’d never seen a kid’s book that dealt with child murders and the supernatural. I remember thinking I wanted to write about stuff like that when I grew up.

You’ve gotten some excellent publishing credits in a relatively short period of time, and then a few reprints on top of that. How long have you been writing with the aim of placing your work in pro and semi-pro markets? Do you tend to write for calls more often than not?

I put writing aside for many years until 2017, when I got an idea for a short story I couldn’t shake. Short fiction was always a challenge for me, but for whatever reason at that time I decided to give it a go. To my amazement and delight, that story, “Until There’s Nothing Left”, sold pretty quickly to the anthology The Misbehaving Dead (and it went on to be reprinted by Kandisha Press in Graveyard Smash, and will be appearing on a podcast later this year). Then the next story sold just as quickly, and I made my first pro-rate sale in the next few months. I took a Lit Reactor class in 2019—my first writing class since college—and met some really cool writers, which lead to meeting my critique partners; my work would not be nearly as strong as it is today without them. Every success emboldened me to aim higher, and I started submitting to publications I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of getting into. There has been a lot of rejection, but many satisfying acceptances too.

As for open calls, I tend to not write for those. The few times I’ve done it, I’ve gotten some pretty crushing rejections and ended up with stories that were so specific that they had to be shelved then reworked. I think one of the only times I had success with writing for an open call was for your Paranormal Contact: A Quiet Horror Confessional. That call really spoke to me, and I knew it was something I wanted to write whether Cemetery Gates accepted it or not.

I read your story “Those Who Made Us” in LampLight, not long after we’d accepted a story from you for Places We Fear to Tread. It’s easy spotting a writer who’s ready for a new challenge in their nascent career. Everything they put out is imaginative and polished. Rereading your LampLight story, I think the line: “I discarded too many hearts that bore the scars of shameful deeds and long-buried cruelties.” is an excellent microcosm of your style. There’s no question here, I just want to give you a space to talk a bit about your debut collection with us.

Thank you for pulling that line—it’s one of my favorites. Human cruelty—intended or not—is a major theme in my work, which is why my debut collection is named “Sometimes We’re Cruel (and Other Stories)”, after a favorite story that was originally published in Nightscript V in 2019. It will contain six reprints, and six new stories involving lovesick ghosts possessing body parts, a cult that reduces their corporeal form, and a childhood hazing ritual that results in decades of repercussions. Lots of women battling the darkness that’s infected their world as well as within themselves, and a few who are happy to let the darkness run them. I am so excited to share this collection with everyone this summer, and thrilled that Cemetery Gates is giving it a good home. 

You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a novella. What themes are you exploring with that story? What whispers of stories and books reside in your head beyond that?

I’ve got a couple of novellas going right now, both close to being finished. I usually don’t work on multiple things at once, but I got the idea for the second one in a flash of inspiration and had to run with it.

Both stories are very personal. The first explores aging, memory, and black mold, with plenty of body horror. The second is about a not-quite-human woman who sells merch for a nomadic band and her experiences on the road. It wouldn’t be my work if it didn’t include all the viscera of being human (or not-quite-human). Beyond the novellas, I’m challenging myself to write shorter. I’d like to write more flash fiction. My first flash piece, “With Teeth”, just debuted in Twisted Anatomy, the new charity anthology from Sci-Fi & Scary. That TOC is stacked with amazing authors, the book is affordable, and proceeds go to two great causes. I hope everyone will check it out.

https://www.jawmccarthy.com/

Twitter: @JAWMcCarthy

Man of The Cloth

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by Joanna Koch

Forgive me if I’m not doing this right. I’m not exactly Catholic. Never been inside one of these little boxes. It’s not as cozy as they look in the movies; more claustrophobic, like a coffin. Kind of musty and dead-smelling under the incense, if you want me to be honest.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Honesty.

I’ll do my best, but let’s be clear about one thing. I won’t call you Father.

Nothing personal, of course. I’m told you’re a fine, respected man of the cloth. Beautiful phrase, “man of the cloth.” Man is a succinct word, an open-mouthed vowel nestled between twin hums of satisfaction. Of and the rhyme their bookended uncertainties, linked by a small glut of whispery consonants. The phrase almost stops on the sharp cough of the “C” in cloth; it’s abrupt, then smoothed out by the airy tenderness of the last note. That sound lacks finality, though, doesn’t it? Lips remain parted with expectation. Another syllable is implied, as if the last breath is a prelude.

Maybe every last breath is a prelude. I’m sure I don’t need to ask if a man of the cloth believes in the afterlife.

Speaking of breath, it’s awfully warm in here, don’t you think? Kind of hard to breathe with that heavy door pulled tight, its dark layers of stain soaking up the light, and the humidity from nervous sweat and repentant tears swelling the wood. What’s this thing made of anyway? Oak? Poplar? Or something unceremonious, like sawdust and pulp glued together, an imitation of wood covering a false veneer?

No, I don’t mean anything by that. Sure, sure; I’ll get to my sins in a minute. First, I want to talk about yours.

We were the same age when you told me you wanted to become a priest. The same age I am now. You remember how much I laughed, don’t you? No? You must remember how fast I stopped laughing after everything you said next. Yes, it’s me, though not precisely alive and well.

You’re one to talk. From my perspective on this side of the screen, you’re much more of an imposter than me. I’m the real deal.

No, I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m not going anywhere. Neither are you, notwithstanding your ingenious disguise. Go ahead and try the door. You’ll find it quite snug and impenetrable. Tight as a corset, one might say. You should know about those, unlike most men of the cloth.

It’s no use beating on the door and making all that racket. No one can hear us. Out there, beyond this heavy door, no time has passed since I entered. We’re in our own little world now, our own cozy tandem coffin. You and me, for better or worse, the way it was meant to be. Man and wife for eternity.

What’s that? Well, if you’ll stop yelling and kicking like a lunatic, I’ll tell you what I want.

That’s better, my love. No need for hysterics.

You see, I thought things were going to be different after I—you know. After you found me. I expected more guilt. Imagine my surprise, when the tears, forensics, and clean-up ended, and you threw out all the beautiful things I’d bought for you and kept my clothes instead.

You gave me no choice. Guilt is the conduit that binds us. You might as well have been the one who put the plastic bag over my head, tied the rope around my neck, and garroted it tight. What an ugly way to die; face purpled, eyes bloodshot and staring, hairline hemorrhages cracking my skin, my nose and ears leaking blood. What a shame you had that image burned into your memory.

Speaking of asphyxiation, are you finding it harder to breathe? Maybe you want to loosen that collar a bit. It looks foolish on you, anyway. You can’t hide behind the façade of clerical vows. Those are reserved for real men. And being corporeal, unlike me, you’ll quickly suffocate in here if you don’t comply with my demands.

Good, isn’t that better? Doesn’t that cool stream of honest air unburden your desperate lungs?

The rest of it now, and no crying. First the ceremonial clothing, then the false fabric of your changed hide, the cloak of lean muscle and overactive sweat glands that make you smell wrong to me. Take away everything that’s not intrinsic biology. I want you all stripped down to the woman I lost.

No illusions in here. On each side of this screen, something withers and combines; the opposite of cellular fission. Flay the strips of your hirsute skin; start with your face. Yes, the edge of your rosary will suffice in place of a knife. You remember how to dress a rabbit: pinch the skin between two fingers and make a slice. Now there: work your thumb underneath, peel it down; lower, over your scarred chest. Cut again where the fat of your breast is missing. Dig deeper to reveal the root of the gland. Wipe the blood away. I need to see.

Deeper, please. Yes, that’s the way. Sink the sharp edged cross into the bone. You must be somewhere underneath this falsified flesh, waiting for me.

Why yes, I feel the heat, too. It’s merely my excitement to find my lost wife. Get out of the way with your mockery. Don’t leer at me with your naked skull exposed. She never smiled thus. She never laughed with white teeth clattering amid a garish flood of red.

She’d never rattle as you do against this pitted screen and force her way through like a ghoul. Get back. Let go of my throat. I refuse to call you that.

We wrestle. We crash. Wood splinters. Air rushes over your shredded face. You inhale, and something more than biology lends your body movement and breath. Your exposed arteries throb with the strength of innate certainty. Your red blood cells and potent marrow argue solemn truth: spirit makes flesh, and not the other way around.

Call on your god to name me as the anomaly. See if I care. I’ll suffocate as you pray. I’ll burn as they call you Father. Unwilling witness, I’ll haunt this altar beneath your knee. Beware, lest my purple visage, pockmarked by combusted veins flickering in votive light, lashes out to strike tinder from our tandem coffin, and ignites.

End

Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. A Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands and The Couvade, their short fiction appears in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror 5, Not All Monsters, and many others. Find Joanna at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.

The Church on Bethel-Cannon Road

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by Elford Alley

No time to react. Before he realized he wasn’t alone, they pulled him from his bed and tackled him to the floor. He could hear the rip and pop of duct tape, too many knees and arms bearing down on him to escape. Hands and feet tied, they carried him out the door and heaved him into the back of an idling truck.

            Jim knew what would happen next. He knew the second he hit the floor in his bedroom. They were taking him to the church on Bethel-Cannon Road. In the back of the truck, he tried to sit up, but a hand pushed him down and a terse voice advised him not to move. He couldn’t see with the tape across his eyes, but he could hear the voice.

            “Eric, man, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t even see her at the party!”

            Silence. Jim called out to his friend twice more, before the crushing boot to his stomach caused Jim to ball up, coughing and heaving. He remained that way, curled in a ball, knees to his chest, as the truck rumbled and shook down one dirt road after another. It stopped briefly, and he heard the screech of the opening gate, the one that cut off access to the church. The truck rumbled across the cattle guard and onto the narrow road weaving through the tall East Texas pines.

            The truck lurched to a stop, sand and gravel rock grinding under the tires. Eric patted the truck.

            “Time to go, Jim.”

            Again, multiple hands gripped his clothing and pulled him out onto the ground, the gravel stabbing into his right side. He knew where they were. They ripped the tape from his face. His hissed in pain and blinked as his vision focused. Jim could finally see the masked figures standing over him. He knew them, from their builds, from their masks. He’d accompanied them here many a time, bringing others to the church on Bethel-Cannon Road.

            “I didn’t do anything to her! I swear! You know me! You all know me!”

            They said nothing. He knew they wouldn’t. He never said anything either. Not until they gathered at friend’s house afterward, huddled in a basement or on a back porch with beer to celebrate justice done. Righteous punishment dealt out in the wake of the law’s failure.

            But what was happening now? Jim didn’t understand. They dragged him this time, across the gravel lot and up the four well-trodden steps, the warped wood creaking with each step. They were at the entry way. The church had been abandoned here in the woods for at least 75 years. The door always open, now a dark void that threatened to swallow him. The low hip roof with worn away shingles and exposed wood looked like the scaly back of a snake. No steeples. No crosses. The white paint only remained in a few small portions shielded from wind and rain, otherwise the entire building was exposed wood, a drained shade of gray.

            They brought him inside and slammed the door shut behind him. As Jim struggled out of the duct tape on his wrists, he heard the clink of a chain being run through the two door handles, and the snap of the padlock. Jim heard the truck tires spin in the gravel as they left. He freed his wrists and unwrapped the tape from his ankles and legs.

            Jim could see the interior now, through the shafts of moonlight entering the multiple holes in the roof. Only two strategic beams running from the floor to the ceiling kept the roof from collapsing completely. Pieces of ceiling tile clung together and dangled. The floors were worn and busted, dotted with holes that exposed the carpet, the linoleum underneath, and finally the original wooden flooring. The sour rank of mildew entered his nose.

            He stood up. Looking ahead, he could see the empty pulpit, with only two pews remaining in the entire building. In the furthest, he could see a woman. Her hair was white, pulled tight in a bun, and she had a threadbare, patchwork shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

            “Hello,” she said. Her voice was light, with a slight crack. “Take a seat.”

            Jim stepped toward her, when he reached the pew behind her she instructed him to sit. He did.

            “I didn’t do it. What they think I did. I didn’t.” Jim said.

            “I can be the judge of that. I’m fair, aren’t it?”

            “Yes.” Jim said. He had never seen her. He had no idea it was a her.

            She turned around. Her face round and pale, with dark lines of wrinkles around her nose and mouth. Her chin jutted forward and her eyes were tiny orbs deep in her face. A pair of cheap reading glasses rested on her nose. She removed them and gave a thin smile. She leaned toward Jim, and he leaned away.

            Her hand grabbed his jaw, a vice of steel. She yanked his head toward her, pulling him off the seat. He stood on shaking, half-bent legs while she examined his face, scanning him with her tiny eyes, pursing her mouth until it was only a thin line.

            “You have nothing to confess?” She asked. She released her grip. He fell back against the pew.

            “No,” he gasped. “No. I was there; I was at the party but I didn’t see her! There were so many people there, why did they bring me here? Why me?”

            She stood up and walked around the pew to stand closer to Jim. To inhabit this decayed wreck, to be the judge they brought others to, he didn’t expect to see a small woman in a black and white striped button bouse, in blue slacks and bare feet. She removed her shawl and folded it, resting it on the pew seat.

            “You are innocent of the crime.” She announced.

            “Then I can go?” Jim asked.

            She shook her head.

            “But I didn’t do anything!”

            “That’s the case for many of them. But you still have something I need. I won’t take all of it. I will leave the important parts to the stars. But I need your shell.”

            Jim scooted back and stood up slowly, gripping the top of the pew with his right hand. “My shell?”

            “I need form. This one has done well enough. She was accused as well, but she did it. Poisoned the whole lot of them. My, my.”

            She started to walk to him. Jim begged himself to run, the push past her and flee. Her weak shuffle gave way to a confident stroll, each deliberate step closing the gap as she lowered her head and shoulders, stalking the young man down the space between the pews.

            “But I’m innocent!” Jim cried. “I don’t understand.”

            “I know. But would a starving dog spare a wounded squirrel out of kindness? Kindness can only be sustained with full bellies. I am sorry. Truly.”

            “This is a house of God!” Jim said.

            “Is that what I am?” She asked. “I can’t remember. I was here when they built this place, and it was here I found purpose. And you will too.”

            Jim found himself backed against the wall. He pressed against it, hoping somehow it would give way and he could sprint into the woods. But this was her woods too, wasn’t it?

            The woman brought shaking hands to her mouth, rolling arthritic fingers inside, and pulling at the skin until it tore and fell away. He watched her grow taller, but realized her feet now dangled off the ground. He could see something dark and scaled, bending and flexing like a serpent, running from her back and into the floor. She removed her old shell, preparing herself for new form. The screams died quickly in the old church on Bethel-Cannon Road.

End

Elford Alley is a horror writer and playwright. His work has appeared in the anthology Campfire Macabre and his play Ghosts was produced at the Capital Fringe Festival. You can pick up his short horror collections Ash and BoneFind Us, and The Last Night in the Damned House on Amazon. He lives in Texas with his wife and kids, and a murderous Jack Russell terrier named Margot. You can find him on Twitter at @ElfordAlley.

Ugly Lies and Painful Truths

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by Gabino Iglesias

Welcome back, everyone! So by now you have decided what route is the best for you: self-publishing, indie press of whichever size and reach, or agent and a Big Four. I told you last time we were going to start transitioning to indie press stuff and other small things that apply to everyone equally. That’s why today we’re going to talk about some painful truths about publishing that you should keep in mind regardless of the path you choose. Here are some of the most important ones:

“Your book will find its audience.”

This is the biggest load of bullshit in publishing. It’s usually said by people who have no idea how publishing works and by writers who don’t sell books. There are hundreds of thousands of books published in this country every year. If yours doesn’t make noise—and by this I mean if YOU don’t make noise—your readership will be your mom, a few friends who read, and some random person who buys it because one of your good friends told them about it. You can call that finding an audience. If that’s your goal, feel free to stop reading now. If you want more people to read your work, then keep reading. No one audience will discover your book, and if they do, we’re talking about a dozen people (no, you don’t get to call yourself a “cult author” because you failed to develop a readership). Companies like Apple and Nike don’t need to advertise because they’re already known…but they still do it. They plug their stuff and tell people about new products. Authors like Roxane Gay, Stephen King, and Don Winslow don’t have to be active on social media because they’re already selling books, right? Nah, they still do it and they know that getting new readers still matters. You should do the same.

“Having a persona is being fake.”

Another dumb take, but at least this one often comes from ignorance and not willful stupidity. Yes, I said often, not always. Having a persona means that you understand the things you want to share with thousands of strangers online and the things that, for your safety and peace of mind, you’ll keep to yourself. You know the amount of shit women have to put up with, right? Well, would you call women fake for not sharing their address with the world? Yeah, I thought so. Also, remember that because you decided to be a writer/public figure it doesn’t mean your family and friends made the same decision. Maybe you don’t want to tell the world about some health issue or your religious beliefs or some family drama or your sexuality. That doesn’t make you fake or less you. A persona is deciding what parts of you are meant for public consumption and which are private. That’s it. There’s nothing fake about that, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep your family or some element of your identity or even your address or phone number out of the discussion.

“You’re a writer, not a marketer” and “Plugging your stuff just feels…ugh.”

You became a marketer the moment you decided you were going to take your writing and try to sell it to readers. Also, plugging your work is how you tell the world it exists. A writer who hates promotion is like a singer who hates their own voice. You’re a writer and the writing always comes first, but if you want to sell books, get comfortable with the idea that you’re now also a marketer. Yeah, it sucks, but so do a lot of other truths. Now get with the program and sell some books.

There are no guarantees.

There are no quotations marks around that one. They’re not there because few things are as true as that. You can work super hard and get nothing. You can hustle every damn day and never get lucky. An agent, a good advance, readings across the country, literary awards, a Netflix deal: whatever your dream is, you’ll have to hustle for it…but there are no guarantees that you’ll get it. Yeah, that sucks, but it’s no reason not to try. If you don’t try, then I can guarantee you shit won’t happen. The one thing we don’t talk about is luck. I know superb writers who are publishing with indie presses and kinda sorta making a go of it. I also know mediocre writers living in mansions and collecting fat advances. That’s life, folks, and it’s no different in publishing: luck plays a huge role. That said, luck likes to find you working, so get to it.

Writing is the alpha and the omega

Everything I’ve talked about happens because of and after the writing is done. Writing is everything. Writing always comes first. Writing is what brought you here and what will take you there regardless of where your destination is. Don’t get caught up in the marketing and forget the writing. Don’t let the hustle to sell and to develop an audience ever get in the way of writing. We’re done for today! Stay tuned. Next month will discuss the realities of indie publishers. No go write something awesome.

Generation Dread Submissions

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Submission call for Generation Dread edited by Gabino Iglesias.

Cemetery Gates, Death’s Head Press, and Night Worms are putting together a YA horror anthology with stories written by teenage writers to shine a light on the next generation of horror writers.

Here are your guidelines:

-Word Count 1500 to 3000 words

-Deadline: June 1, 2021

-Payment: $100 scholarship

-Rules: Only topics featured in YA books, no racial slurs.

-Ages: All writers between 15-19 years of age are encouraged to submit.

-Stories and questions can be sent to iglesiasworkshops@gmail.com

-A parent or guardian will have to co-sign the acceptance contract if the writer is under 18.

-No poetry, art , or nonfiction.

-We strongly encourage LGBTQ+, disabled, and young writers of color to submit.

Paranormal Contact: A Quiet Horror Confessional

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Paranormal Contact: A Quiet Horror Confessional is an anthology of first-person narratives, many of which blur the line between contemporary horror fiction and autobiographical recollection. Each story is an encounter with the supernatural–while the experiences with ghosts and otherworldly entities may be sometimes subtle, they are often hair-raising, and at times, genuinely disturbing.

The paperback is now available here!

The eBook is now available here!

TOC:

“With You” Jessica Ann York

“Memento Mori” Jude Reid

“The Chaise” Ali Seay

“To That Which We Cling” Beverley Lee

“Model Village” Jacqueline West

“Never the Ghost You Want” Nicholas Day

“The Ghost in the Hole in the Wall” Sonora Taylor

“Sweet Revenge” Chad Lutzke

“The Rum Keg Girl” Melissa Ashley Hernandez

“The Intruder” Stuart Hardy

“When Things Get Weird, Leave” Corey Farrenkopf

“Herein, the Dusk of Time Which Awaits Us All: An Account of the Astral-Afterlife” Eric J. Guignard

“A Dark Legacy” Faith Pierce

“Turnpike Mary Answers Prayers” Trisha Wooldridge

“Barbasol and Menthol” Zach Friday

“Noose” John Lynch

“Those Other Somethings” Scott J. Moses

“Lights” Donyae Coles

“The Second Reflection” J.A.W. McCarthy

“By the Wreck of Peter Iredale” Tyler Jones

“A Bad Idea” Shane Douglas Keene

“Stay With Me” Rachel Derman

“I Just Want to Be Free” R.J. Joseph

“Footsteps in the Hall” Elford Alley

Further Contact

“Rust Belt Requiescat” Joanna Koch

2022 Anthology Preview:

“Love Smoke” Tim Meyer

Turn the Lights Off on Your Way Out

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by Mark Allan Gunnells

February 29th. A rare day, one that only existed once every four years. Kirk didn’t know if that was significant or not, but he thought it was at least noteworthy.

David walked up behind the chair and placed a hand on Kirk’s shoulder. “Hey, wanna go outside?”

“What for?” Kirk asked, eyes glued to the iPad balanced on his thighs.

“To look at the stars. You know, while we still can.”

Kirk finally tore his gaze from the screen and looked up at his husband. “I don’t know if I want to.”

“You’re watching it online. What’s the difference?”

“The difference is huge. Watching it on the tablet doesn’t seem quite real. Like I’m watching a movie or something, and eventually the credits will roll and I can get up and return to normal life. If I go outside and see it for myself then there’s no filter, no pretending. It will be really real, and I don’t know if I can handle that.”

Walking around the chair, David squatted down next to him and gently turned the iPad over on his lap. “I know you’re scared. I’m scared too, but I would feel a lot better if we were scared together. I don’t want to go through this alone.”

Tucking the tablet aside, Kirk leaned forward and kissed David then two of them remained still with their foreheads pressed together for a moment, clasping hands like two children lost in a fairytale forest.

“What do you think is happening?” Kirk asked, his voice trembling.

David pushed up and pulled Kirk to his feet as well. “Come on, let’s go do a little star-gazing. It’ll be romantic.”

They put on coats though the night was mild and left by the backdoor, stepping out onto the small open patio. Kirk remembered when they’d first bought the house two years ago, they had talked about how nice it would be to sit out on the patio at night and look at the stars. They’d never done it, however. It was one of those things you said because it sounded good but never quite found the time for. Like volunteering at a soup kitchen or watching Downton Abbey.

But if they were ever going to do it, now was the best time. Now was the only time.

David took a seat on one of the white deck chairs, head tilted back. “There’s something kind of beautiful about it.”

Kirk sat in the chair next to him, but he kept his head down, looking at his own hands. He couldn’t quite bring himself to lift his eyes to the expansive night sky. “I don’t know how you can say anything about this is beautiful.”

Reaching across and taking Kirk’s hand, David smiled at him. “The mysterious is always a bit beautiful. It’s like love. No one can really explain it, no one knows exactly how it starts or ends, and that’s why they write so many songs about it. The mystery of it adds to its beauty.”

Kirk found himself returning his husband’s smile, despite what was going on around them. Or more to the point, above them. “Suddenly you’re a poet.”

“I’ve always been a poet. Remember when I used to recite that ‘beans are good for the heart’ ditty?”

Kirk laughed, kissed David again, and finally felt strong enough to turn his gaze heavenward.

Something was definitely wrong, that was noticeable almost instantly, but he mused that if you didn’t know what you were looking for, it may take a few minutes to pinpoint the problem. Kirk had never been into astronomy so his knowledge of constellations was a layman’s minimum. He did recognize the Big Dipper, or maybe it was the Little Dipper. It was a Dipper nonetheless. However, some of the other constellations were obviously missing. A lot of them actually. Even as he watched, two of the stars on the Dipper’s handle flared and then sputtered out, like dead bulbs.

The phenomenon had first been noticed three hours ago, stars simply winking out of existence in the sky. Scientists were baffled, and actual astronomers using their most high-powered telescopes could not figure out what had happened to these stars. Almost as if they had simply ceased to exist.

Talking heads filled the TV and internet, all offering theories and speculations, but the raw truth was that no one knew what this meant. The stars had started to disappear in more rapid succession, like a bomb’s timer where the countdown sped up the closer it got to detonation. Many, even some of the talking heads, proposed that this was a precursor of the end of the world. It had been pointed out time and again that each disappearing star was the end of some world, and the earth itself was one such light in the darkness of space, and it was likely only a matter of time before we were extinguished as well. Of course, the loony fringe floated ideas of extraterrestrials and intergalactic space ships, dredging up stories of Area 51 and the foo fighter phenomenon from World War II.

David pointed up. “Look, I think that’s Sirius blazing right there.” Even before he finished the sentence, the star in question blinked out. “Or it was.”

From the other side of the seven-foot high privacy fence, Kirk heard the sound of children’s laughter and he could smell the earthy smoke of the Peterson’s fire pit. Mike and Sheila must be out there, letting their kids stay up late. From the sound of the children’s high-pitched giggling, it seemed they didn’t know anything was wrong, lost in the simple joy of getting to be up past their bedtime.

Kirk envied them.

“This isn’t like the movies led me to believe it would be,” he said.

David titled his head. “How do you mean?”

“In the movies, when people know the world is about to end there are riots and panic and chaos. But it’s like everybody’s just hunkering down and waiting.”

“Well,” David said, “do you feel like rioting or do you just want to be with the one you love for as long as you can?”

Kirk squeezed his hand, the only answer required.

As he stared up at the rapidly emptying sky, David said. “To answer your earlier question, I think God is closing up shop.”

“What?”

“Inside you asked what I thought was happening, and that’s what I think. God’s had the universe open for business for a few billion years, and now he’s tired, getting ready to flip the sign from OPEN to CLOSED. And what do you do on your way out? You turn off all the lights as you go.”

“More of your poetry?”

“That was more of an allegory, I think.”

Above them, the remaining stars began to wink out one after the other. A chain reaction, a domino effect, leaving the black sky as void as a bottomless pit.

Kirk squeezed his husband’s hand again. “You were right, there’s no one I would rather be here with than you.”

David leaned toward him, placing a hand against Kirk’s cheek. “Listen, there’s something I want to tell you while there’s still time. You have been – ”

THE END

Mark Allan Gunnells loves to tell stories. He has since he was a kid, penning one-page tales that were Twilight Zone knockoffs. He likes to think he has gotten a little better since then. He loves reader feedback, and above all he loves telling stories. He lives in Greer, SC, with his husband Craig A. Metcalf.

The Farthest Corner

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by Michael J. Moore

You realize you’ve made a mistake as soon as you spot the girl in the back of the van. She’s sitting in the farthest corner from the driver’s seat, hugging her legs with her head between her knees so she doesn’t look like much more than a set of shins with blonde hair. Then your eyes dart back outside, past the fat man in dirty coveralls, past the yellow house where the meanest dog on the block lives, and they take in the gray afternoon sky one last time before the door slides loudly on its track, and slams shut. There are no seats in the back of the van, and it’s just grown silent aside from the sound of the rumbling engine which is causing the carpeted floor to vibrate beneath your feet. The only windows on the vehicle are located up front and on the backdoors, but the ones in the back are so dark they make the outside look like night.

The inside smells of grease, just like Dad’s workbench in the garage, but there’s no toolbox in here. As far as you can see, it’s completely empty aside from you and the girl, who doesn’t look up, but appears to be around the same size as you. The walls are lined with black paneling, though, so it’s too dark to make out much detail.           

Your jaw trembles before you becomes aware of your heartbeat, which seems to be drumming inside your ears, Whump-Whump-Whump-Whump, the way it does when you play tag during recess, or sprint across the gym in P.E. The way it does when you lay back on the dentist’s chair while he shoves screaming power-tools into your mouth without a bit of reserve. The way it did last summer, when the dirty worker at the carnival locked you in the steel cage just before the ride began. Only then, it was a good kind of fear you were experiencing because adults had never spoken to you about rides the way they have about getting into cars with strangers.

You feel a growing warmth beneath the surface of your eyes because you need to get out of here, and you need to get out now. You scan the door and spot a latch, which is the same color as the rest of the interior. Taking a breath and clenching your jaw, you tell yourself not to cry, but before you can stop them, tears explode out of you. They pour down either side of your nose, wedging between your lips, and salting your tongue as you pull, pull, pull on the door only to discover what you already know.

“It’s child-locked,” the girl’s voice causes you to jump. It’s low and so deplete of joy or even hope that as it drifts into your ears, it causes your stomach to flip. “It won’t open from the inside. Neither will the backdoors.” She doesn’t look up as she speaks, just continues to stare down at the space between her white shoes.

You hiccup and sniff as you ask her why they’re child-locked, but before she can answer, one of the doors in the front opens, letting in light and the sound of a passing car with loud rap music coming from its speakers. You glance over to see the fat man climbing into the driver’s seat, causing the van to rock.

“Why is it child-locked?” you repeat, this time it’s directed at him.

He doesn’t answer, though, or even acknowledge that you’re here. Just shuts the door, shifts the stick on the steering-wheel, and pulls out onto the road. As soon as the van’s in motion, you lose your balance and topple right onto your ass, where you sit and cry even though you know it won’t do you any good.

The problem is, what else is there to do? The man isn’t just fat, he’s tall and though you can’t see much beneath his giant beard, even his face seems massive. You’re barely even nine, and small for your age. You couldn’t fight this guy in your dreams.

Your birthday was last month, and you had been hinting for weeks that you wanted a cellphone, pointing out that because your older sister has one, you two could text each other if you did too. But Dad knew what you were up to, and one night at the dinner-table, he told you, “A phone’s a lot of responsibility. Give it another year, why don’t you?”

You consider standing to stare out the back window. To watch your neighborhood disappear. You could try to wave down cars behind you, but you know they probably won’t see through the darkened glass. So instead, you sit here in the middle of the van, your palms flat on the carpet to keep you from tipping over, and you think of posters of missing children taped to walls in local stores. Your lips harden, and you’re about to break into another fit of crying when the girl in the corner speaks again in her terrible, low, solemn tone.

“How’d he get you get into the van?” She still doesn’t look up.

You blink and you blink, and then you reply, “He said he was—he said he was making a—”

“A calendar,” she interrupts. “The son of a bitch. I hate him.”

He must have used the same line on her, but it’s comforting to talk, so you carry on anyway. “He said he gets pictures of a different kid every month, and you get to be the star that month. He was gonna take me home and get my parents to sign a contract, and I’d be February’s star when the calendar came out. He said—”

The van comes to a stop at a streetlight, and the fat man turns in his seat and says, “Are you calling me a liar?”

Sniffing, you tell him, “No.”

“Good. You are gonna be February’s star, but only if you start behaving back there. No more crying.”

“He’s lying,” the girl says. “He’s not making a calendar. He’s driving to the woods.”

The fat man turns and puts the van back into motion as you ask the girl what he’s going to do in the woods. In response, she asks if you’ve ever shot a gun.

“A gun?” you repeat. “Why would I—”

“Ssshhh. Don’t say it again, just listen to me. There’s a revolver where I’m sitting. If you peel the carpet up, there’s a compartment with a jack and lug-wrench, and that’s where he keeps his gun. You gotta be quiet when you get it out, or he’ll stop the van and then it’s over.”

At first you don’t respond, just let her words replay in your head, until finally you ask with a trembling voice, “How do you—how could you even—”

But before you can finish, she looks up and you nearly jump out of your skin. You cover your mouth to keep from screaming, because where her eyes and nose should be, there’s only a giant hole. It’s the size of a baseball, with sharp pieces of skull reaching for each other from its edges. A tangled mesh of brain-matter is draped over the bottom, and more blood than you’ve ever seen in one place is pouring over her mouth and chin, down her neck.

“I was October’s star. He shot me in the back of my head, and the bullet destroyed most of my face on its way out. There’ve been three more since me, and none have been brave enough to go for the gun.”

You’ve never even dreamt of anything as terrible as her, so you close your eyes as tight as they’ll shut. So tight that the friction might start a fire on the bridge of your nose.

The girl says, “Maybe you’ll be the one to finally stop him, but if not, there’s a place for you in the woods with the rest of us.”

Finally, you open your eyes, and the girl is gone, replaced by the emptiest space you’ve ever beheld. The fat man looks back briefly as you scoot to the farthest corner from the driver’s seat. When he returns his attention to the road, you wedge your fingers under the carpet and slowly peel it up, praying that he won’t notice.

End

Michael J Moore is a Latinx author from Washington state. His books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award, the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington, the psychological thriller, Secret Harbor and the middle grade horror story, Nightmares in Aston – Wicker Village. His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies, journals, newspapers (i.e. the Huffington Post) and magazines (i.e. the Nation), on television (with acclaimed newsman, Carlos Watson) and has been adapted for theater and radio.  Follow him at twitter.com/MichaelJMoore20 or https://instagram.com/michaeljmoorewriting.