Interview with writer M.D. Neu

Writer M.D. Neu joined me to talk about his upcoming novella, The Reunion, and writing gay fiction.

MDNeu pic

You have a novella, The Reunion, coming out later this month – a creepy tale for October. Tell me about your story.

The Reunion came about several years ago based on a larger game some friends and I played.  After the game ended I decided to write a reunion with a majority of the characters coming together one last time. The story takes place twenty years after the events of the game and was only meant to be a final goodbye.

Originally the story started out as a small 3000 word short that I got accepted to TallTaleTV.com (you can hear the short here: http://talltaletv.com/?s=The+Reunion ) but as I played with it over time the story got larger and more detailed.  I continued to work the story expanding and changing the characters.  Also, I added some new elements to round out what happens and make it creepier.  The one thing I never changed was the paranormal and ‘creepy’ aspect. In fact I amped it up. When the novella comes out on Oct 23rd (thank you to NineStar Press for accepting the story) it will be a full 21,000-word short story. You can pre-order it here: https://ninestarpress.com/product/the-reunion/ . I’m proud of the final product and I hope folks enjoy it.

Here is the summary of the story:

It’s been twenty years since the quiet Midwestern town of Lakeview was struck by tragedy.  But every year on the anniversary of the event Teddy returns home for ‘The Reunion’. Lakeview, like Teddy, has secrets and not all mysteries should come to light.

TheReunion cover

You have a passion for speculative and paranormal fiction with gay characters. Is representation a big motivating factor for your writing?

As a gay man who grew up with little queer representation in media I wanted to change that as a writer.  When I was a kid if you saw a gay character on TV or in the movies they were always there for shock value (remember the lesbian kiss on Roseanne, or Ellen coming out on her show, the media and people went nuts) or they were tragic characters (Philadelphia ring any bells) or campy fun.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love campy.  I love over the top gay. I love Drag Queens.  I love, as Harvey Fierstein once said, ‘Sissies’.  And I love the beautiful gays we see on TV now. But that isn’t only who we are.  We’re everyone.  We’re everywhere.  We’re from every walk of life, and I wanted… no I needed to show that in my writing.

In ‘The Reunion’ the main character, Teddy, dresses in drag and he lived with his partner, Lane.  They have a son, Nate, as well. Teddy is also a hairstylist. Did I hit some stereotypes, yes, but what I want people to know is that wasn’t the intent.  Teddy is based on two people from my life, a friend who passed away (hairstylist and drag performer) and my mom who also passed away (she was a hairstylist).  That is where Teddy comes from so he may be a bit of a stereotype, but for me that’s okay because I’m honoring two important people in my life.

Also, in this story I wanted to introduce a trans character. Issues of acceptance are so important these days that I absolutely wanted to include a member of the trans community and I hope I do her justice.

Lastly, why I think representation is so important is I remember reading Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’ in the 80s  (the book came out in the 70s) and for it’s time the gay undertones were very much there.  However, it was never mentioned and it kind of hurt, because I got to see two men raising a daughter.  Sure it was all shades of messed up, but think about it, had anyone every done anything like that before in a high profile wildly successful novel. I don’t think so.

Sorry, I know I got on a bit of soapbox, but your question was important and I wanted to really explain things.

Do you have any recommendations of things you’ve enjoyed reading that have done this well?

I mentioned Interview with a Vampire. I think did a good job for its time.  There is a lot of new stuff coming out that I think approaches the subject well, however, a lot of it is romance and erotica, which is great, but for me I want to read things that aren’t romance or erotica. I want adventure and to be frightened.  I don’t mind aspects of romance, but I don’t want that to be the focus. There is another author I know. JP Jackson’s new book, Daimonion, is excellent. The queer undertones are there and it’s not a romance, which makes it a nice change.  I’m sure there are tons of others, I’m just not thinking of any at the moment.

Like me, you’re a fan of vampires and I think you have a vampire book coming up too. What’s appealing about vampires for you?

Oh, my gosh I love vampires. Yes. My debut novel, The Calling, is all about vampires, as well as a nerdy shy, not very attractive gay man.  It comes out Jan 1st 2018.

For me vampires represent the fringe of society.  Some can pass as ‘normal’, but they don’t fit in and they never will.  Vampires had to learn to work within the confines of society, but because they are different they have to live in the shadows and hide.  Throughout history they’ve always been there, but for most people they have no clue.  Vampires either hide or fit in and hide that way.  You see where I’m going with this, right? Vampires are the perfect metaphor for queer society.  The other thing about vampires I find so appealing is, of course, they are sexy as hell (well at least mine are).

What are your biggest writing influences?

My biggest writing influences, wow I have a lot.  I love Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, Harvey Fierstein, Anne Rice and Kim Stanley Robinson. All these people have shown us various worlds that I find exciting and appealing.  I can only hope that my works can stand in their company.

Thank you for having me.

M.D. Neu is a LGBTQA Fiction Writer with a love for writing and travel. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose, California), he’s always been fascinated with what could be. Growing up in an accepting family as a gay man, he always wondered why there were never stories reflecting who he was. Constantly surrounded by characters that only reflected heterosexual society, M.D. Neu decided he wanted to change that. So, he took to writing, wanting to tell good stories that reflected our diverse world.

 When M.D. Neu isn’t writing, he works for a non-profit and travels with his biggest supporter and his harshest critic, Eric his husband of eighteen plus years.

 Links:

www.mdneu.com

https://twitter.com/Writer_MDNeu

https://www.facebook.com/mdneuauthor

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Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Dreamquest of Vellitt Boe cover

Weird fiction novella inspired by Lovecraft’s dreamlands story, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. When her student, Clarie Jurat, goes missing from college, Professor Vellitt Boe of Ulthar Women’s Collage goes on a quest to find her, through the dreamlands and out into the unfamiliar waking world.

I love the premise of this story—a weird fiction odyssey with an older woman protagonist, redressing the complete absence of women in Lovecraft’s original, and a switch around of what is strange and other, with Vellitt coming from the dreamlands and braving the waking world for the first time.

The story didn’t hook me at first. The beginning set-up section feels a little clunky to me, but once Vellitt’s journey begins, I love the descriptions of the dreamlands from her perspective and the stories of her adventures as a younger woman. The story retraces some of the journey taken by Randolph Carter in the original, and he features a little, but there’s a lot that’s new, and it’s all from a very different perspective. The later section, when Vellitt reaches the waking world and discovers it for the first time, is excellent. For me, that’s the high point of the story. There’s a sense of strangeness about details that are usual to us, but also a sense of relief that the fickle gods are not breathing down her neck.

Vellitt is a well-realised character and a nice change for a speculative fiction protagonist. Kij Johnson focuses more on the fantasy aspects of the setting, rather than the horror. If that’s your thing, it’s definitely worth a look. Features obligatory cat appreciation, though not to quite the degree Lovecraft takes it.

(There is a minor queer character in this book, but not enough to stick it under my Queer Book Club heading. I occasionally do other reviews, particularly horror/weird fiction. Just a heads up.)

Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom coverI’m reading a bunch of horror and weird fiction and not so much queer fiction at the moment. (If only I could combine the two more often.) As I’m editing some at the moment and want to get in the right head space, I’ve been hunting down modern Lovecraft inspired stuff, particularly written from the point of view of marginalised groups. I may post more about that in general, at a later date. For now, here’s a review of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which was recently voted a Hugo finalist.

The novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. The original is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most racist and xenophobic stories, so LaValle has taken it and switched it, with Tommy Tester, a black hustler from Harlem as the main character. The story is split between Tommy Tester’s point of view and that of the original Red Hook character, the white Irish police detective, Malone.

I love the premise for this and I love the first half, where Tester hustles on the edge of the occult world, passing dubious items across New York’s different neighbourhoods, using his guitar case as transportation. Tester wants a different life from his parents, who broke themselves working hard manual jobs for white men. When Tester meets Robert Sudyam, a wealthy occultist, he’s invited into the heart of Red Hook’s occult scene.

The story plays with ideas of otherness and monsters. The original Lovecraft story is invested with a powerful sense of alienation and Lovecraft’s trademark fear of the unknown. LaValle challenges the whole concept of the unknown in his story—showing the neighbourhoods he frequents as homes and communities, rather than seething pits if horror, as Lovecraft saw them, and celebrating the diversity within.

When police brutality and corruption pushes him to the edge, Tester embraces his monstrous identity and uses his power for revenge. The story poses and doesn’t resolve the question of what is the right way to live under the sort of systemic abuse Tester and his parents experience and I think that lack of resolution works well for the tone of the story.

I think the retelling is successful, both as weird fiction and a way to explore these themes, but the second half for me was a bit weaker. It focuses on Malone, but is often omniscient. It felt a little distant and not quite as intense as I’d hoped in the horror sections. Saying that, it’s still a good story, but the first half is much stronger. It’s also satisfying to see writers being uncompromising about the broken aspects of early spec fic writing, whilst also paying them homage; it’s a tricky balance and I think LaValle gets it right.

Gods and Insects Playlist

Simon_Renard_de_Saint-André_Vanitas

Vanitas by Simon Renard de  Saint-Andre, Public Domain

I know a lot of writers like to work to music. I tend to write best in silence, which is not very exciting. I do occasionally put together playlists for inspiration (and procrastination). However, I get to be extra lazy here, because my friend has made an amazing one for me, to go with one of my vamp novellas. Here’s the gothtastic playlist for my second vampire novella, Gods and Insects, in all its glory, courtesy of Johnny Truant.

Gods and Insect Playlist on 8Tracks.

As 8Tracks has a weird licensing thing outside the US, here’s a track list, in case anything skips (it does for me, in the UK).

  1. Spellbound – Siouxie and the Banshees
  2. Nocturnal Me – Echo and the Bunnymen
  3. Kill Your Sons – Rozz Williams
  4. The Fix – Bloody Dead and Sexy
  5. The Sanity Assassin – Bauhaus
  6. Figurative Theatre – Christian Death
  7. Radiant Boys – The March Violets
  8. Man on Fire – Silent Scream
  9. His Box – Dalis Car
  10. Lion King – Ghosting
  11. Day of the Lords – Joy Division
  12. Ruins – O. Children
  13. Cernunnos – Faith and The Muse
  14. Penance and Pain – Soper Aeternus and The Ensemble of Shadows
  15. Sebastiane – Sex Gang Children
  16. Sharp Fangs, Pale Flesh – Coliseum
  17. The Drowning – Christian Death
  18. My Kingdom – Echo and the Bunnymen

 

 

Gods and Insects: New Gothic Novella

gods-and-insects-cover-9by6-thumbnailMy new gothic horror novella, Gods and Insects, is out today. This is a sequel to Love is the Cure. To celebrate the new release, I’m offering the first book free for 5 days (until next Tuesday).

If you’ve read the first one, this one is a little bit different: it’s all from one point of view, Asher’s, with a more traditional narrative structure, and more than twice as long. Asher is the youngest vampire from the first book. This new book follows his ill-fated attempts to find his place in the vampire world. There’s more horror, freaky blood trips, gay and bi characters, a trans vampire (yay). At its heart, the story is a tragedy, and a fall (in the biblical sense).

Here’s the first chapter of Gods and Insects to whet your appetite. You can buy the ebook on Amazon (and download the first one for free until next Tuesday). There will also be a paperback edition to follow soon. I hope you enjoy the read.

1.

I should have fed before my shift. Now my skin is on fire with the need, my nostrils full of the scent of my co-worker’s blood, as I try to keep my distance in the enclosed space of the coffee shop counter. The tick of the clock on the wall echoes round my head, mocking me. Still forty minutes to go. And then I have to feed somehow. I botched the last one four nights ago; lost control of the guy I was feeding from. I’m no good at mind tricks. He tried to run and I had no choice but to—

The door opens to the night and the swish of tyres through the spring shower. My eyes are drawn to the man who enters. I can tell he’s one of my kind straight away. He has that presence the older ones have, somehow bigger than his physical body, straining against the limits of geometry. And the absence of the animal scent that mortals have, which most people don’t even notice. He joins the queue behind two drunk students and a weary looking woman in surgical scrubs and a coat. My eyes flick to him constantly, as if magnetised.

When it comes to his turn, I’m on my guard. He walks up to the counter and flashes me an amused smile, dark eyes twinkling. His skin is light brown, his black hair short, and he looks a little older than me. He has killer cheekbones. Even in this confined space, he moves like a dancer. He pulls a note from his pocket and that simple gesture is elegant, the rise and fall.

“So it’s true,” he says softly enough that only we can hear.

I’m not sure what to say, but I don’t want to look like a fool. Images of Sebastian and Kerrick flash through my mind, spattering blood across my thoughts. My creator and his other child. I try to push this fear aside, these violent memories. They can’t all be monsters. We can’t all be monsters.

“What?” I ask, trying not to show my nerves.

“One of our kind working in a coffee shop.” He chuckles and I bristle.

“Can I get you something?” The irritation sounds in my voice, but at least it hides my fear.

“Why don’t you choose for me? It doesn’t matter what, after all.” He gives me a conspiratorial grin.

I turn and prepare the machine to pour a double ristretto, the most expensive drink I can make. My tiny piece of revenge. His eyes bore into the back of my neck, as the dark liquid trickles into a cup at an agonising rate.

When it’s finally done, I place the cup in front of him and risk eye contact. His eyes are a rich dark brown. Permanently amused.

“When do you get off?” He slides the note towards me.

I try to read his face for some clue to what he wants from me, but he seems so relaxed. “Half an hour.”

“I’ll wait for you.” He lifts the cup to smell the coffee, eyes full of humour. His amusement doesn’t seem malicious, but I’m pretty sure I’m the joke.

I go through the motions for my last half hour, my eyes constantly flicking to the back of his head, as if I’ll find answers there. Contrasted against the dark of the night outside, the harsh electric lighting seems to spotlight me, picking me out for scrutiny. I wonder if he can see my hunger written across my face, as my co-worker nudges past me to clear the tables. If I could just taste her— I force the image back, though it seems more real to me than my surroundings. I can control this.

He’s sitting in one of the far booths, facing away from me, staring out into the night. That presence he has, I wonder whether I have it too. I’m sure it’s just the older ones. I’ve no intention of returning to Sebastian or Kerrick to ask them for advice. Kerrick offered me this escape from him, this chance to make my own way. At the time, I’d been afraid to be alone, but now I’m determined to make it work. I got this job far away from Spitalfields and Kerrick’s other haunts. Far away from Kensington, and Sebastian’s sphere. Somewhere central and neutral, where I thought no one would ask questions or even notice me. But clearly there’s nowhere to hide.

When I’m done for the night, I untie the apron from my waist, fold it into my satchel, and grab my coat from the back of the shop. The visitor is still waiting for me in the same place, his cup of coffee untouched. He turns as I approach.

“Sit yourself down,” he says, with that same sparkling smile. He gestures to the bench opposite.

It’s getting close to 2am. I work the night shift, of course. The graveyard shift.

“I’m Xavier.” He offers his hand. He has the trace of an accent, though I can’t place it.

His handshake is brisk and business-like and I try to ignore the pang of loneliness that hits me with his touch.

“Asher,” I say, though it’s right there on my badge. I slide into the booth.

He tilts his head to one side, examining me. “You don’t look like an Asher.”

“I changed my name when I left home. It used to be Alex.”

He nods. “You look more like an Alex.”

I stifle a sigh. This again. “You mean, I look Greek.” Kerrick and Sebastian both held fantasies of gods and heroes from ancient times, and somehow I was in them. It seems to be an obsession with these older vampires.

He shrugs. “There are worse things to look. Don’t be sorry for your roots. I’m from that part of the world myself. From Venice, originally.” Venice. That was the accent. “Long time since I was there,” he continues. “But you’re quite new. Who made you?”

I tense at the question. Was this information I should share freely? There were so many rules, and I hadn’t paid enough attention to Kerrick’s lessons. Or, rather, some of them had overshadowed the others.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he says in answer to my silence. “I’m just curious. I heard a rumour one of our kind was working in a coffee shop off Tottenham Court Road. I wondered, how does such a thing happen?”

I’m a rumour. Perhaps other vampires have seen me too; perhaps they were here and I didn’t notice. I feel on display in this glass box with the night pressing in all around. But I force myself to answer. “I needed a job.”

“Alex, this isn’t a job for one of our kind.”

“Asher.” I shouldn’t have told him my old name.

He waves his hand as if it’s nothing. “As you like. Asher, where’s your creator? They should be taking care of you. You should still be by their side.”

“Kerrick,” I say. There’s a flicker of recognition on his face. He has enough mastery of his emotions to hide whatever else he’s thinking, but I can guess. “George Kerrick made me. But I left him.”

“Ah,” he says, and revolves his cup around. “Well, that’s a hefty legacy.”

“You know him, then?”

“Everyone does. I don’t know him well. Just by sight. He keeps his own society.”

Beyond Kerrick, and Sebastian’s little closed, incestuous world, I’ve never met any others of our kind. But the way he talks makes me think there’s a whole lot more of us. I suppose it was just a matter of time that they’d crawl out of the woodwork.

“Maybe I could find you work,” Xavier says.

I shift in my seat, my skin prickling. Why does he want to help me; why the interest? I take a breath to steady myself. “What kind?”

“Something better suited to your nature.”

I’m not sure what that means. All I’ve seen of our nature is violence. Xavier doesn’t seem like the violent type. Then again, neither did Sebastian.

“These are dangerous times, Asher. Ancient powers are on the move. You need the company of your own kind. Do you even have a safe haven?”

 I live in a shared flat in Stratford, above a seedy club. It’s a dive. Barely habitable. I don’t even have my own room. My dad said he would send me money, but it hasn’t arrived. I keep checking the cash machines, hoping the balance finds its way a little further into the black. I don’t want to beg. I want him to think I’m doing okay.

“You need to learn to guard your thoughts, as well,” Xavier says. “Those of us who’ve been around a while, we tend to pick things up if you think so loud. Listen, I’m going to a club. Why don’t you come? I’ll get you in.”

I look at my watch, trying to focus on that and not my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know how to refuse him, or even if I want to. I don’t even want to think in case he hears me. I stare at the second hand ticking away, paralysed with indecision.

“Plenty of time, yet,” Xavier says smoothly, as if I haven’t just frozen. “Besides, they have rooms if we get stuck at dawn. It’s a special club.”

In the bright light of his smile my worries appear foolish. Those eyes of his warm me through, relaxing me. I want to trust him. I’m sick of being alone, sick of the frail existence I’ve built for myself, so insubstantial I could knock it over with a breath.

“All right,” I say. His smile grows into a satisfied grin.

***

The club is walking distance from work, in Soho, but it’s easily missed. There’s a little gateway in one of the buildings. No signs. It’s been recently painted in black and gold. We walk through the entrance into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by high buildings. Neat little topiary bushes sit about in pots. A gold plaque by the door says ‘Varney’s’ in a modern italic script.

“Just a little joke.” Xavier gestures to the sign. I must look blank, because he says, “have you never heard of Varney the Vampire? I guess you’re pretty young.”

“Twenty-one,” I say.

“Jesus. You weren’t one for gothic literature in your mortal life, then?”

“I don’t really read much.” I shift awkwardly, my hands in my back pockets. I always end up feeling like a dumb kid around others of my kind.

“Don’t worry,” Xavier says. “I was an ignorant fuck in my mortal days, as well. I just happened to be living in Renaissance Venice, so I couldn’t help but fall into some culture now and then. Cheating, really.”

Ignorant fuck. His words sting. He smirks and this time the joke’s at my expense.

“The owner of this club is one of us. Nathaniel Hook, he’s called. Did your creator explain the rules about young vampires?”

I shake my head.

Xavier brings his thumb and forefinger up to the bridge of his nose and massages it. “All right. Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t really be out without your creator, not among other vampires. I’ll vouch for you tonight, say you’re under my protection. You don’t have any quirks I should know about?”

My mind races for an answer, but in the end I shrug. “I don’t think so.”

“Funny feeding habits? Propensity to fly into violent rages?”

I shake my head. I’m not sure if he’s joking now.

“What are you good at?”

I shrug again. “I’m fast. Strong.” My list falls short.

“You don’t have a bloody clue, do you? Never mind. Perhaps it’s too soon for you to know. Follow my lead. You can trust Hook. Be careful of the others.”

I follow him through the anonymous black door. A bulky bouncer nods to Xavier as we enter. On the other side is a modern looking bar buzzing with people. They all seem to be mortal, including the bouncer. The smell of their blood overwhelms me.

Xavier puts an arm on my shoulder, and pulls me closer. So close I can smell the sharp tang of his cologne, feel his body press against mine. Bolstering me against the pull of that scent. I realise how alone I’ve been.

“This is just the public section. The club is out back,” he whispers hot into my neck.

We pass the bar which stretches the length of the room. It’s carved from golden wood, cut into waves and polished to a shine. A small man leans at the end, watching us approach. He has a long face, with a long nose, and, as I draw near, I realise he’s one of us. That strange trick of space and presence again.

“Hook!” Xavier exclaims. “Good to see you. This is my friend, Asher. I’m showing him the sights.”

Hook smiles at us with his thin lips and looks me up and down. “He seems a little fresh, my friend.”

“I’ll vouch for him.”

“See that you do. Welcome to Varney’s, Asher.”

“Thanks,” I say, and he gives me a brief nod.

We go through a door behind Hook, marked ‘Private’, into a cloakroom dimly lit by a red bulb.

“What does he think I’ll do?” I ask.

“Lose control,” Xavier says. “Act inappropriately with the guests. But I think you’ll be all right, as long as you stick with me. Okay?”

“Yeah.”

“When you meet someone new, just bow your head and keep your eyes on the floor. Don’t address them as you did with Hook. Most of our kind are very concerned with seniority and good manners. Do you understand?”

I nod, a lump rising in my throat. I’m no longer sure I want to meet anyone. I’m not in the mood for bowing and scraping. It sounds like the sort of game Sebastian would enjoy.

We go through a set of double doors. My feet sink into thick carpet. The light is golden, glistening from chandeliers and wall sconces, all electric, but with a muted tone. It shines off the gilt-edged decoration and furniture. I can’t help but think of Sebastian’s beautiful antiques.

The place is nearly empty. A middle-aged woman reclines on a couch in one corner. She wears a colourful patterned robe and a turban, and fingers a long string of beads around her neck. With the other hand she smokes a cigarette in a long holder. Two men lean against a small bar in the corner, regarding us. They’re both smartly dressed in suits, their ages difficult to guess, perhaps somewhere in their forties. They nod at Xavier and I look down as he’s told me. His hand presses against my back, guiding me to a couch on the far wall.

“Good,” he says, his breath against my ear. I crave that closeness. “You’re doing fine. It’s very quiet tonight.”

We sit on the couch. The woman in the corner is watching us with interest. Xavier smiles and nods at her, a respectful gesture of acknowledgement, but he doesn’t seem to want to engage. His focus is all on me.

“Have you fed?” he asks.

I shake my head, ashamed, picturing my last victim running across the park, me driving him down to the ground, before he could escape. He’s not the first I’ve messed up. I’ve tried so hard not to kill like Kerrick. Each victim is etched in my mind, a tally marked across my soul.

He strokes my cheek with his hand. “What did they do to you?”

I meet his eyes. I don’t have the words to tell him my fear and I’m not sure I want to, but I feel the brush of his consciousness against mine. It’s the softest touch, not like Sebastian’s force. I soften and melt towards him. His arm wraps around me and I rest my head on his shoulder.

“Evening, Xavier.” It’s a woman’s voice. I raise my head to see, but it feels heavy; my whole body is like lead. It’s easier not to fight this strange, sleepy feeling, but to release myself to it. My eyelids flutter, allowing me a glimpse of the slender young woman in front of me. She wears a long deep blue satin dress, which drapes over her hips and flows down to the floor like water, pooling at her feet. Blonde hair falls to her waist. I don’t look up to her face.

“Do you have any guests tonight?” he asks.

“Of course,” she says. “Would you like a room?”

“I think that would be better,” he says. He turns to me. “Come on, little sleepy head. We’re going to get you something to eat.”

Somehow I rise. It’s as though I’m floating, pulled by an invisible string. I bob along beside him in the gentle stream he’s made for me. We leave the room, following the woman. The satin of her dress whispers to me, as we move along the corridor. She opens a door for us and ushers us in. The room is modern, a wash of pale cream with touches of red. It has a Japanese feel. There are no windows. A large bed dominates the room.

“We’ll take the room until tomorrow night, if that’s all right?” he says.

“That’s fine. Shall I put it on Mr Sforza’s account?”

“Yes.”

I sink onto the bed, the covers softer than anything I’ve felt. What’s he done to me? I can’t control my body, but my senses are amplified a thousand times. The cream blankness of the ceiling is comforting, as I stare up at it and imagine myself floating up to meld with the nothingness. The woman leaves us. The door hisses across the deep carpet and clunks neatly into place.

“Are you a messy eater?” Xavier asks me. He towers above me. I see Sebastian ripping chunks of flesh away with his teeth, blood pouring down his shirt.

“No,” Xavier says. “You need to stop thinking about that.” His consciousness holds mine a little tighter. “You’re afraid to feed. You must understand you need the vitality to function. Do you want to die?”

Once I did. Now, I’m not sure. Can he see that uncertainty in my mind? I can’t speak. He must know I can’t speak. My throat tightens as my panic rises.

“Shh,” he says. “Stop fighting me.”

I didn’t realise I was. I’m not sure how to control it. I sense him probing my thoughts. I imagine my mind like a flat blank plain, like the ceiling. A vast expanse with no walls. Everything fades bright white around me, until I’m floating in that nothingness.

I remain there for a long time, enjoying the peace of that empty space. The uncomplicated blank. Then there is red, a dribble at first, across the whiteness. It’s hot in my throat, as it blossoms into a bloody flower. I reach out with my mind and touch a petal. It’s soft-fuzzed and delicate. I stroke it, savouring the velvet surface.

Xavier’s voice comes from very far away, calling me back, and I float up into the room. There’s a man kneeling beside the bed, a mortal man. He doesn’t look much older than me. He smiles as I open my eyes. He’s holding his wrist out to me, two clean puncture marks where I’ve fed from him. I pull myself up onto my elbow and lick the wound. It heals.

“Thank you,” Xavier says, from behind me.

The man nods, and stands. He pads out of the room, barefoot. I roll over to find Xavier sitting beside me, leaning back against the bedstead.

“That was very nicely done,” he says. “The flower, and everything. They love that sort of thing.”

“I didn’t—” I begin.

“I controlled your panic, the traumatic responses you’ve learned. But you created the vision and he shared that as you fed from him. These are the things your creator should have taught you.”

“Who was the man?”

“One of the mortals, who visit here. They call them guests. Some people enjoy being fed from. They find it pleasurable. Hook provides a specialist service, in two different senses. A complementary arrangement.”

“They actually enjoy it?”

“Sure. Why not? It can be a rush for some of them. And, of course, there’s the thrill of danger.” His lips draw into a slow smile and I catch the glimpse of his fangs.

“Can we feed here all the time?”

Xavier shakes his head. “Sadly, not. Hook just can’t supply enough. He must be very careful who he invites here, for our security. And it’s not a good idea to depend completely on another for your sustenance. You make yourself a slave to them. Understand?”

I nod. “Just like we can’t feed from each other.”

“Not quite. It’s simply unwise to trust everything to others. That’s all I mean. What you said isn’t quite true. We can feed from one another and it isn’t always bad. There are different bonds we can create with our blood. But you have to be careful. My lover and I, we’re bound to one another. It’s a mutual bond, but created over a long time.”

I feel a pang at the mention of a lover. Stupid. We’ve only just met but I don’t want to share him.

“What did you do to me, before, when I lost control?”

“It’s a mind-trick, baby boy. Did you like it?”

“I’m not sure.” My confusion is real. I know, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I should fear this, but I can’t find my fear. I want to trust him so badly.

“Would you like to spend the day here with me? I’ll keep you safe.”

“Yes,” I blurt out, far too eager.

“Would you like me to teach you?”

I nod, too afraid to speak in case I spoil something. It’s too perfect. He’s too perfect.

“I need to make a phone call, Asher. Perhaps tomorrow night you can come home with me. I need to check. I share my safe haven.”

He slides off the bed and disappears through the door.

 

(c) Ambrose Hall, 2016

Sympathy for the Devil

For Halloween, here’s a little ponder on the dark side.

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Gustave Dore, Depiction of Satan (Public Domain).

What media taught me about bad guys is that they often rely on their brains instead of their physical prowess; they trust the wrong people and get burnt by it; they have spiky trauma and other mental health issues which they fail to deal with gracefully; they feel huge emotions not easily contained—their love will claw its way from the grave, their rage will topple nations; if you hurt the people they care about they will have their revenge; they’re sharp dressers; they’re camp or arch, and in other ways their gender and sexuality is unstable, non-standard; physically, they’re sometimes trapped between two states; they rail against social and moral hypocrisy; they’re kinky as hell; they’re often British, or at least European; some of them can’t breathe without a respirator. In short, these are my people.

I don’t know at what age I started rooting for the bad guys. Maybe it was Star Wars, bastion of kink and asthmatic villains, that tipped me over to the dark side. Maybe I gave into my anger because someone blew up my home planet and dropped a house on my sister. Maybe it was the villagers with pitchforks. I just know that increasingly, as I got older, the monsters and villains appealed to me.

Maybe all those subtle little hints that anyone who wasn’t Mr Macho Apple Pie White Guy was not the right kind of people wormed their way into my sense of self. And I stopped rooting for the right kind of people, because I wanted to fight for my side.

I’m not sorry that happened. It’s who I am, woven into my identity as much as any other aspect of my experience. When I see diversity of representation growing in mainstream media, it makes me happy. It’s fantastic that more kids can now see themselves being the heroes (though there’s plenty of room for growth there, clearly). But, while it makes me glad on a logical level, I don’t feel the connection I did with those twisted fuck ups I grew up watching and reading about. The world still feels like a dark and messed up place, and I’m not always sure it’s worth fighting for. With those new heroes, I feel no transgressive thrill as when a villain tips over the pillars of society with gay abandon, while chewing on some scenery and looking darkly fabulous. There’s no edge to it, no danger, no challenge to the status quo. Because, perversely, there’s power in knowing you’re someone’s worst nightmare. Maybe, at heart, I don’t want my people to be the good guys, I just want the bad guys to win.

 

Free Halloween eBooks and Giveaway

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This is a Halloween book promo I’m taking part in. 57 Halloween themed ebooks for free for the next 3 days (you can choose and download whichever you want from Amazon). There are various genres, from horror to paranormal romance, and you can sort them by genre at the top. There’s also a prize draw you can enter for a chance to win a Kindle Fire or Amazon vouchers. Click on image.

 

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle-coverThe one name in horror I’m recommended more than any other is Shirley Jackson. This is reckoned to be her best novel, so I picked up a copy. Here’s a review of a gothic horror modern classic for Halloween.

Published in 1962, We have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the two remaining Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat). They live with their Uncle Julian in the large old family home. The other members of the Blackwood family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar for dessert. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the shadow of guilt hangs over her. Suspicious of Constance, and resentful their late parents high-handedness, the local villagers treat the Blackwood sisters with simmering hostility. Then cousin Charles comes to stay, sniffing around the family safe, and their fragile, reclusive world begins to crumble.

The narration, from Merricat’s point of view, captures the paranoid, agoraphobic mood perfectly. Merricat is obsessive and painfully isolated from the outside world. She collects objects and performs her own form of magic, placing little fetishes about the family estate to ward off the sense of doom she feels. But Merricat’s paranoia isn’t completely unjustified. The hostility the villagers feel towards the family is real, waiting all the time to bubble up, and Merricat is acutely aware of that. The relationship between the sisters is close to the point of possessive interdependency—Constance does for Merricat the ordinary functions that she can’t cope with, whereas Merricat protects her sister from the threat of the outside using a mixture of her peculiar magic and impulsive violence.

The whole story, focused almost entirely around the once grand Blackwood house, is tensely gothic. Underneath Merricat’s idiosyncratic view of the world lies the truth, tantalisingly close. A masterful study in isolation, possessive family attachments and social resentment.

Nightmare: Queers Destroy Horror Review

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This is a special edition of Nightmare horror magazine, part of the Destroy series. I saw it recommended in this article, so I picked up a copy. The writers and editors are all queer creators, and much of the content has queer representation.

The first half is made up of horror short stories, some original, others reprinted. There are stories by Matthew Bright, Lee Thomas, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Sunny Moraine, Poppy Z. Brite, Alyssa Wong and Chuck Palahniuk. The collection takes a broad approach to what’s classed as horror, with a wide variety of styles and themes. The highlights for me were ‘Alien Jane’ by Kelley Eskridge,’ Bayou de la Mere’ by Poppy Z. Brite (now Billy Martin) and ‘Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’ by Alyssa Wong. The second half is made up of dark poetry, non-fiction essays and writer and artist interviews.

In Kelley Eskridge’s ‘Alien Jane’, Rita is disturbed but intrigued by the arrival of Jane, a new roommate in her psychiatric ward. It turns out that Jane has a rare condition where she can feel no pain. The story explores how their experience of pain sets Rita and Jane apart from the world, and how it shapes their lives. I found this one really haunting. It presents ideas that really got under my skin and lingered.

In Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘ Bayou de la Mere’, Rickey and G-man take a break from their busy life as restaurateurs to holiday in a small Louisiana town. But G-man’s Catholic past haunts him. Catholic guilt as horror—very relatable for anyone who’s had even a brush with the Church.

Alyssa Wong’s ‘Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’ follows Jen, a shapeshifting soul-eating young woman through dark streets and bad dates in New York. Jen has a very different approach from her mother in feeding her monstrous hunger. This is probably my favourite of the stories in the magazine; it takes everyday dating problems and inter-generational dissonance and amps them up to grotesque levels.

There’s dark poetry from Brit Mandelo, Joel Lane, Lucy A. Snyder, W.H. Pugmire, Schweta Narayan, Lisa Bradley, Amal El-Mohtar and Rose Lemberg. Like the story section, there’s plenty of variety of tone and style here, from lush gothic description to fairy tale quirkiness—I enjoyed it all.

The non-fiction section looks at the history of queer horror, queer representation in horror, and the ways that horror writing and being queer intersect.

A really diverse (in every sense), thought-provoking collection. Well worth a look.

Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Ian Andrews

the-pearls-that-were-his-eyes-coverAuthor Ian Andrews took time out to talk to me about his novel, The Pearls That Were His Eyes, the Cthulhu Mythos and the King in Yellow. If you like weird fiction, flooded gothic cities, and cosmic horror, you’re in for a treat.

Tell me about The Pearls That Were His Eyes.

Pearls is at its heart a story about unconventional love, and about the masks we wear. Almost every character in the novel undergoes a journey dictated and coloured by their loves; for some it’s a less pleasant journey than others. Passion isn’t always a positive emotion. I have always been fascinated by the act of wearing a mask and the potential significances that can have; the putting on of a game face to deal with a situation that our truer, naked selves may not want to face.

On the surface of it, it’s a political whodunit set in a mysterious, partly flooded city against a backdrop of upheaval and occult menace. I have heard readers say that they struggle to pin down the genre; there’s elements of clockpunk fantasy, historical thriller, murder mystery and a number of other themes all jostling to be heard.

But at its heart, it’s a love story. A story about the terrible, dreadful things that love can make you do.

It’s also, lest we forget, a story about the unconditional love of a man for his giant albino ape. Bisociation is both big and clever, and complexity is not a vice….

What were your major inspirations for the book?

The story wears its Shakespearean pretensions on its sleeve, though there’s a little mischief-making with the naming conventions too; our Miranda is clearly an Ariel, and Prospero bears more resemblance to the prince of Poe’s story than the Duke of Milan. Carcosa, obviously, is a key inspiration for Cittavecchio; the work of Bierce, Chambers, Wagner and latterly Detwiler and Tynes was foremost in my mind when I was putting together the backstory of the city and its inhabitants. There’s a lot of Venice in there too – predictably – much of the writing of the key sequences was done while in Venice for Carnevale, and I took a lot of late night walks along narrow, foggy canal side paths looking for the war of frogs and mice. But not perhaps as much as one might think to begin with – there’s a lot of old London in there too, especially in the Rookeries, and Amsterdam, and Thomas Ligotti’s City of Bells and Towers.

I have been reading a lot of Borges and Ligotti recently; it’s good brain food and good discipline for a writer.

I’ve always been fascinated with the commedia dell’arte; the almost cultish rituals and secrets that surround it and the idea of mask as character.

But as per the chapter headings, the real inspiration behind it is Eliot’s magnificent, enigmatic Waste Land – trying to recapture the sense of unfocussed background menace that Elio seems to just find lying around in the street. One must be so careful these days.

What is it about The King in Yellow and the Cthulhu Mythos that attracts you?

A deceptively complicated question. The Carcosa mythos appeals to me for many reasons – but if I had to pin down one for sure it’s the ambiguity. The recent upsurge of popularity in old Howard Phillips’ cosmology – especially the roleplaying games that have come out of his work – have led the Cthulhu Mythos, for better or for worse, down a road where there’s little mystery or awe left in it. Encyclopaediae and rulebooks capture, quantify and pin down like butterflies the creatures, mysteries and magic of the Cthulhu Mythos and I wonder if in doing so they have missed its fundamental point.

The Carcosa cycle, the so-called Hastur Mythos, is harder to pin down. It’s impressionistic, almost, in that it is far more open to the reader’s interpretation. It’s not about monsters and agendas and cults and pulp good versus evil – or not just about that anyway, once you scratch the surface. It’s far more about mood, emotions, sensation. When all is said and done, there’s a few fragments of a play, some character names and implicit assumed relationships, an occult threat, a sense of foreboding, a city that may or may not be lost and a handful of locations. The very paucity of detail means it’s easier to hang a story, a sense of menace and ambiguity, onto the skeletal framework. It’s not so tied to a single period as Lovecraft’s work; some of the best Carcosa fiction I have read has been modern.

There is a formality to the structure of the source material; like the commedia there are roles, defined by titles. The Last King. The Phantom of Truth. Cassilda and Camilla. They spark the imagination, encourage you to make your own connections. To wear the masks and try them out for a while.

Back in the Nineties, John Tynes wrote a number of essays (found in the excellent Delta Green: Countdown and elsewhere) about his take on the Hastur Mythos; about it being to do with the concept of entropy as expressed through civilisational and social models rather than Lovecraft’s blind idiot chaos. I find the idea of the King in Yellow as an anthropomorphisation or avatar of a universal principle of entropy expressed in human terms and working on human constructs profoundly more unsettling than any number of tentacle faced kaiju, for all I love them. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.

Tell me brother; have you seen the Yellow Sign? If you have not, I lack the words to explain. If you have, I do not need to.

Do you have any recommendations of other modern Carcosa Mythos or Cthulhu Mythos fiction?

It’s impossible not to start with the first season of True Detective. A triumph of storytelling and I admire the restraint of the director and the writer in not feeling it necessary to explain everything. That’s the essence of the Carcosa Mythos right there. There’s a short scene in episode five where the two leads are interviewing an old woman in a nursing home, and Rust Cohle shows her some of his sketches. Her reaction and her little speech is so chilling, so on the nail, that just recalling it now has made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You know Carcosa? You know Carcosa? Him who eats time. Him robes. It’s a wind of invisible voices. Brrr… Civilisational entropy; the rot setting into the soul. It’s all right there.

I’ve referenced John Tynes’ work above; there’s both his work for Delta Green and his writing in the Unspeakable Oath fanzine if you can get hold of it. He also released three chapbooks – Ambrose, Broadalbin and Sosostris – which shaped a lot of my early thinking about the Carcosa Mythos. His sometime writing partner Dennis Detwiler has done a lot of rpg-based work on Carcosa themes too – I’d recommend hunting down Don’t Rest Your Head and Insylum.

Even though it’s not overtly associated with the Carcosa Mythos I have to give a nod to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book, and a lot of the themes of alienation, loss of perspective grasp and what happens when the horror comes to you fit very well into the overall themes of the mythos. And also, once it has momentum, it’s un-putdownable.

There are some excellent recent collections of short stories on a Carcosa theme – Rehearsals for Oblivion Vol 1 springs immediately to mind – that gather both new takes on old themes and some of the classics like Karl Edward Wagner’s River of Night’s Dreaming and James Blish’s seminal More Light.

Last of all, I’d like to flag a recommendation for an episode of the TV anthology series Masters of Horror. Various luminaries of the horror genre each do an episode – and while some of them are genuinely awful, the episode of the second season written by John Carpenter called Cigarette Burns is well worth a look – the effect of watching his lost film and a lot of the story surrounding it is an elegant updating of Chambers’ lost and banned play.