Coming June, 2017 (cover art by Daniele Serra):
Until then, enjoy Alessandro Manzetti’s Bram Stoker Award-winning Eden Underground collection:
Coming June, 2017 (cover art by Daniele Serra):
Until then, enjoy Alessandro Manzetti’s Bram Stoker Award-winning Eden Underground collection:
Coming December 2nd:
Stay tuned for more information, blurbs, and interior artwork by Aaron Dries himself.
Until then, check out other books featuring Aaron Dries and Mark Allan Gunnells:
If you came here to read short stories about tranquil lakes, run to the nearest exit.
JM: Congrats on winning the Bram Stoker award, Mercedes. What does it mean for you as an author?
MMY: Thank you so much, Joe! This was my first nomination, and winning for my first nom simply blew me away. It’s validation for me. I have three small kids at home and I’m always trying to fit my writing in where I can. Writing is my own little luxury that is just for me, my own selfish pleasure, and I constantly feel torn spending that time on myself instead of doing something for somebody else. This award means that readers are aware of my work. It means they took the time to read and to vote, that my work was weighed, measured, and found valuable. It’s one of the most touching experiences of my life.
JM: So how was the weekend of Stoker Con? Any highlights?
MMY: I had such a wonderful time! I get over stimulated easily and have difficulty with noisy crowds, so I especially appreciate quiet moments talking with people I enjoy. My highlights were getting to meet friends I previously knew only online, and getting to experience them as real people. This person orders everything without onions. This person has a grin that lights up the room. This person has the most compassionate heart I’ve ever seen. Being with my tribe was the highlight.
JM: What thought went through your mind just before they read your name? What was your initial response when they read your name?
MMY: Oh my goodness! As I said, it was my very first nomination, and as cliché as it sounds, I mean it from the bottom of my heart when I genuinely say that I was exceptionally honored to be nominated. It was a competitive category with talented writers, and never in my wildest dreams did I expect to win. What was going through my mind before they read my name? My fingernail polish was peeling. I was so engrossed on trying to fix it that I completely missed my name. I didn’t hear it. My friend Amelia took my hand and said, “Mercedes, you need to go up there.” And I said, “Why?”
I didn’t have a speech prepared. I was wearing six inch red heels because I was just going to enjoy my time sitting at the banquet. It was such a wonderful, otherworldly, genuine moment. I lived out everyone’s nightmare of being a complete geek onstage, and it was one of the most touching and beautiful moments of my life.
JM: How did folks respond after your win? Any special moments?
MMY: People were so supportive. I was surprised by how many people not only read the story, but remembered it and would bring up certain things about it. It’s only been a few days and it’s already opened several doors for me. It’s like insta-street cred. A special moment for me was one of my readers who ran up, scooped me up in a bear hug, and actually lifted me off the ground (I was 6’2” in those heels. No easy feat). The genuine excitement and joy that others had on my behalf was such a gorgeous thing.
JM: So what’s next for you?
MMY: I’m hard at work on the next two books in the BONE ANGEL trilogy. I’m also an editor for Gamut magazine, which is a high tier, neo-noir magazine that will be opening to unsolicited submissions this fall. The pieces we’ve already accepted are simply stunning. I have pieces coming out in some very cool anthologies, including GUTTED: Beautiful Horror Stories. I can’t wait for that anthology. The talent lined up for that is unreal. I’m also working on putting a poetry collection together. There are several intriguing projects going on, and I’m loving every second of it.
We’re very excited to announce that we’ve signed Paul F. Olson‘s Whispered Echoes collection for paperback and eBook formats. Paul’s collection is available as a limited edition from the mighty Cemetery Dance Publications, but this book needs to be read by the entire world, and that’s our main goal going forward. Paul’s 30 year experience as a professional author and editor is truly witnessed through these words.
Paul F. Olson has been a professional writer and editor for more than thirty years. He is the author of the horror novel The Night Prophets and Alexander’s Song, a novel of dark suspense, along with many short stories, essays, reviews, interviews, articles, and other works. His earliest stories have been reissued in the 2016 collection Whispered Echoes, which also includes the new 36,000-word novella “Bloodybones.” In the 1980s, he published and edited Horrorstruck: The World of Dark Fantasy, a non-fiction trade magazine for horror fans and professionals. Teaming with David B. Silva, he co-edited the anthologies Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror and Dead End: City Limits. He and Silva also created the award-winning newsletter Hellnotes, which they edited together for five years. Following Silva’s death, Olson joined with Richard Chizmar and Brian James Freeman to edit the tribute anthology Better Weird. The father of adult twin daughters, he currently lives in Brimley, Michigan, not far from the shores of Lake Superior.
The following story received an honorable mention from Tales from The Lake Vol.3 editor Monique Snyman. ©TracyFahey
The Crow War
Have you ever driven through Ireland on the back roads? I don’t mean on the antiseptic motorways that cut an indifferent grey swathe through fields, rivers and forests alike, but the strange little B-roads, the C-roads and the unmarked, pitted little boreens with their stone walls and cratered surfaces. If you do—if you make this long, bumpy and sometimes perplexing drive in the summertime, you will see the truth of the small towns laid bare. Ireland has always been a land of a hundred kingdoms, in spirit, if not in geography. Each parish or village or town has its own behaviours, dialects, traditions, and of course, its festivals. In the summertime you can’t miss the festivals. As you drive down these roads, lurching slightly through the potholes and stopping for the odd sheep, there are many reasons to stop off in the little towns that dot your route. You might pause to fill up some petrol or to buy limp, pre-packaged sandwiches, sweating under their plastic containers, or simply to check the success of your navigation of the last few unmarked crossroads. And when you do, you’ll see the tell-tale signs—a dirty string of bunting over the main street, the trailer of a lorry abandoned in a public square, a forlorn tootle of music played across a crackly PA system, or an excess of children running around, high and angry on sugar. Look a little closer and you’ll always find a banner. Some will be intelligible and self-explanatory—‘Annual Summer Charity Fete,’ ‘The Horse Fair,’ ‘Vintage Steam Threshing.’ Others will be infinitely more arcane—‘The Long Ropes Weekend,’ ‘The Scarecrow Festival,’ or ‘The Glass Boy Championship.’ They’ve been going for years, since before anyone can remember although in some villages the natives would be hard pressed to remember the origin. But when the summer is on the cusp of shifting and becoming something darker, when the nights begin to encroach on the day, you’ll find the strangest festival of them all on a little boreen in County Clare. You’ll follow a tiny road with savagely buckled tarmac, a bright, mossy stripe of grass sprouting up the middle. It’s the road to Bive, and what lies down it odd beyond imagining... What do I know about it, you might ask? Ah, I know all the celebratory rites in the little towns. I’ve travelled criss-cross across Ireland for years as a salesman, with my bright smile, my bulky suitcase and my battered car. I’m the last of a dying breed, as I visit and talk and sell my way around the country. I know all the dips and turns of the roads. I know the local stories that are only whispered around family fireplaces. I can smell where I am by what’s cooking, the packet and tripe of Limerick, the coddle of Dublin. I can tell the seasons as they turn by the festivals that straggle over the midlands. So. Bive. Bive’s festival. I want to tell you about that one. Well, I could tell you all about it, but it would be a lot more fun to show you. So let’s leave the motorway on this sleeping Sunday. The sun is climbing high and weak in the sky, and the late summer chill has started to melt into a bright but windy day. Come down the road now. Feel yourself relax, free from the competitive snarl of the motorway, that eye-aching glare from the never-ending ribbon of pale grey. Drive slowly. Look around. And as you drive, you start to notice things again. On either side are fields of corn, their surface a smooth surge of yellow in the breeze; other fields are dark green velvet with grass, cows lying flat in the deep, luscious shadow of the hedgerows. Then the light dims, turns a cool and grassy green as trees start to meet above you, above the road. Their branches sway together, a glossy yellow-green dappling the road underneath. This is the plantation that grows thick and fertile around Bive. You turn a corner and there it is—a dusty sign that says: ‘Welcome to Bive,’ with a little symbol of a black bird in the corner. It’s not a big town, but it’s got a lovely market square with a central monument like a Gothic church spire, and a comfortable cluster of colourful houses and shops on the main street. All around the town huddle the long coniferous trees of the plantation, their branches now waving slightly in the breeze. It’s a real, old-fashioned country town. I like to read the names over the shop doors—there’s ‘O’Malley Butchers,’ with a glassy-looking plaster pig’s head in the window, beside it is ‘Flynn’s Cobblers (and Key Cutters)’ with its smell of hot metal, and ‘Reilly’s Grocery Store’—no…wait, it’s gone. In its place there is an antiseptic mini-version of a bland, white-lit chain supermarket. I pause and sigh. This happens more and more every year, another little family business gets eaten up, the shop owners die and their children put out their hands for money. The last time I was in Kilkenny, I didn’t recognise the place. The familiar, family shops were gone and in their stead a range of expensively-plain restaurants, all lower-case fonts and no visible menus. I’m rambling. The point I was making is that although the rate of invasion is a lot slower in the country towns, it still happens, steady and relentless as the tide coming in. Even in Bive. But let’s not get melancholy over the inevitable. We’re here for the festival, after all. And what a festival it is! As you drive towards the main square, you see figures starts to move around it, and the set-up for the festival begin to blossom among the trestle tables and the parked cars, their cluttered boots spilling out a muddle of boxes and tablecloths. Bunting is being strung up by two large men on twin stepladders. There’s a PA system being set up in the corner, with an unhappy-looking teenage boy whispering ‘one-two’ softly into the microphone, face flaring with self-consciousness. That staple of the festival, the tea-marquee is majestically rising into the air, as figures strain against the ropes. So far, so normal. But I promised I’d show you something odd, didn’t I? The surprise is that everything is black. The marquee. The bunting. The tablecloths. Even the people’s clothes. Draw closer. There’s a reason for it. Look at the details—the shape of the napkins, the pennant that flaps from the top of the marquee. Everything has the crow emblazoned on it. This is Bive’s annual ‘Battle of the Crows’ festival. Bive means ‘crow,’ in Irish—it’s spelled ‘Badhbh.’ Back in the olden days, Badhbh was a fearsome war goddess who most commonly appeared as a large black crow. You might know her better as the Morrigan from the Táin saga, and that famous illustration by Louis Le Brocquy—the giant, brooding, hunched figure of the crow goddess. Sometimes Badhbh would appear before a battle, wailing like a banshee, as a premonition of death. Once the battle starts, she would circle around, causing confusion, swaying soldiers to her side. But round here she’s Bive, the Anglicised version, the crow, the emblem of the town. Even as I’m explaining this to you, a small child runs round the square with the buzzing energy of an escapee. He is wearing a crude crow mask behind which his eyes swivel, fast and excited, as he watches the Hallowe’en pageantry of the square unfold around him. “Hello stranger!” I turn and smile. It’s Joe O’Malley, the butcher, instantly recognisable by his purple birthmark that streaks a jagged path down the left side of his face. We shake hands. He is still strong and stout, but his body seems somehow lighter, more depleted. ”Good man, good man,” he says, still pumping my hand up and down. ”Great to see you. Your usual spot is free over there.” He drops my hand to point over beside the tea-tent. I smile over at the ladies carrying jugs and kettles. They’re the ones you want to make sure remember you when it gets warmer and thirstier into the afternoon. Ramble round now, take it all in! The doors to the chapel have opened, and spilling out in a raggedy line from the doors to the square come the throng, their voices gradually gaining volume as they leave their subdued church-tones behind. The band, who have assembled behind us, strike up a downhearted folk air. An instantly-remembered call rings out behind me, the fair-cry of the vendor on the refreshment stand—“Apples, pears, lemonade and chawk-late.” She slurs the words together as she calls again, automatically dragging out the last word in a plaintive tow-tone descant. “Apples, pears, lemonade and chawk-late.” She used to walk around with a kind of wheelbarrow stall, I remember. Now she sits heavily at a table, her body thickened and her face more sunken, almost indefinably older. I’ve set up my own stall, selling crow masks and black plastic rods with feathers to the children. These were made by a group of women in Cork who make batches of them for me every August. Here, look at this one. Prime quality, that. Look at those feathers—real ones, you know, they gather them up and sew them on. At this point I put one on and chime in my call perfectly between the pauses of the old lady’s refrain. “Crow masks here!” I shout. I waggle my head so that the feathers glint in the sun. ‘Get your crow masks here!’ It’s now late afternoon. Everyone has turned out for the festival. The square looks like a strange and gigantic funeral has camped down on it. The blank pennants wave overheard. I am chatting, selling, happy. My trestle table is nearly empty, and I am satisfied to notice a black, sticky ring round the mouths of everyone under ten—my liquorice stock has sold well. There is a candy-floss machine that whips sugar and food colouring to create an endless stream of edible storm clouds. A solid ring surrounds the trailer in the square, where the local, black-clad band of musicians keeps churning out relentlessly mournful folk ballads. I recognise the elderly man who plays the melodeon. He sees me too; his salutation is an upward jerk of the head and a wink. I nod back. If events follow their usual pattern, I’ll be seeing him later. My right hand slips down to touch that other bag by my feet. There is a thin, high, squeal. I look up, distracted. The children have started to run in a complicated circling motion around the square. They scream and squawk their way through the crowd, frantic for sweets, for fun, for games. And there’s no shortage of games. The most popular one is a version of Halloween apple-bobbing, where the children with their crow beaks, try to peck liquorice sweets out of a hillock of fairy-dust. The air is punctured with their squeals of victory. I smile and watch them flock around, happy and excited. Of course in the old days everyone would be playing—small children, large children, teenagers, even some adults. I am saddened to see some of the older children sitting on the grass verge of the square, faces twisted into deliberately bored scowls. They are flipping through small electronic devices. Their thumbs move rhythmically, tap-tap, slide, tap-tap. They sit side by side and never interact. Occasionally one of the tiny children will run out of the crowd to brandish a prize or a sweet at an older sibling, but the only response they get is an irritated twitch as earphones are removed, a sneer, and a quick, plunging motion as the earphones are replaced. The sun is starting to sink in the sky, basking in the reflected glow of the late afternoon warmth. The air itself is heavy and golden. It glitters palpably on the corn fields behind and infuses the scene with a rich, pastoral glow. I draw in a breath of warm bodies, sweet candyfloss and flattened grass and wait, contented and expectant for the Battle of the Crows. And yes, here it comes. The six o’clock bell chimes, low and deep behind me. In the air is the faintest stir and crackle of noise, like a saucepan being scraped. The big golden sun is resting almost on the skyline now, streaking the fields with streams of yellow light. Now there is a rustling, a staccato burst of rough noise. In the square the children divide in two and line up on either side, pulled into place by adult hands. Their oversized crow masks and their small bodies with sticking-out tummies make them look like giant, confused birds. Heads bend over them, whispering caution. The bell strikes again, and again. On the third toll we start to see them, first a few, then more and more until a mass of dark shapes start to cloud the sky, trailing black lines of birds string out across the sky from the horizon. The children run to each other across the green, tapping one another on the head with the plastic feathered rods. Fourth toll. Their shrill screams are drowned out by the flickering blanket of crows overhead blocking out the sunlight with their beating wings, filling the air with their relentless, discordant cawing. In the shadow, I give a sudden quick shiver, a goose walking over my grave. The crows are flying home to the plantation, to roost and caw and circle over it. They are right overhead now. Fifth toll. The sky is thick and dark with movement. We stand, together but separate on the green, heads tipped back, eyes and ears full of the spectacle. The sixth bell tolls. As the bell-stroke dies in the shattered air, some old people cross themselves, the rest simply roar. Everyone on the green shouts out together, a wordless yell at the sky. I shout too, feeling the noise fill me, something primal, deep, thrilling. The sound is almost unbearable as it fills the world, the dying tones of the bell, and the sound of open throats calling together, the dense cawing of the crows. And then, abruptly, it is over. The crows have passed overhead, settling like a whirling cloud on the silhouetted trees on the skyline. The children, already bored, are pulling off their masks. Two of them continue to fight, trying and failing to land blows with the light, bendable rods. Parents start to tug them towards the nearby cars, calling to the bored teenagers. The Battle of the Crows has been fought again, a timeless ritual, its origins unclear, but still enacted year after year. “Another one down,” says the old woman behind me. She sniffs and rubs her hands together. “Aye,” I agree, my hands beginning the practised dance of repacking the few remaining masks for a Halloween market. Smooth, fold, wrap and stack. I am clearing the last few from the table when I hear a long, low whistle. I look up. It is the old man from the stage, his melodeon now in its case, resting on his knee. He nods at me, and jerks his head towards the hills behind. I hesitate and then nod abruptly. I’m going, of course. I always do. My bags are packed up in the car. The sunset is a tie-dyed burst of yellows and oranges at the bottom of the sky, and the dusk is falling. I accept a Styrofoam cup of tea gratefully and sip its scalding contents. It’s grown colder now. I close my eyes and sense the tingling warmth of the tea sending hot fingers into my stomach. I sit on the bonnet with the old lady from the stall. A group of young boys—possibly her grandchildren— are packing up her wares. She offers me a bar of chocolate. The taste is rich and milky on my tongue, almost too rich for someone who hasn’t eaten all day. I swallow hard to quell a sudden surge of saliva, a feeling of nausea or anticipation. The sun is sinking fast, now, exhausted, into pillows of dark cloud. It’s time to go. I push myself off the bonnet and pick up the last bag of merchandise. The old lady grunts. “Are you off then, so?” Her eyes are shrewd in their pocketed wrinkles. “Aye.” I am non-committal. “Good luck to you then,” she says quietly. I feel her gaze on me as I walk out of the market square. Time to go. It’s also time for me to leave you now. You’ve seen the festival, eaten the black sweets, watched the children play-fight. It’s been lovely. But the sun is down, and it’s time for all visitors to leave Bive. Wait! Don’t protest. I’m a visitor too, I know, but I have something they need now. I get to stay. There’s no need to be angry with me. I don’t make the rules. I wish you a safe journey home, back onto the motorway and beyond.
My feet find the remembered path. The crunch of pebbles beneath me is crisp and reassuring. Between steps I strain to listen, but I can’t hear any other movements. They’re probably all there ahead of me. It’s dark now, the pressing dark you only get when you’re walking among trees, when darkness brushes your face from a black void. I keep one hand up beside my face. The wispy, damp strokes of the leaves feel clammy, like wet feathers on my skin. It can’t be much farther ahead I think, and then almost instantly, I see the yellow light of windows ahead. I step into the clearing. The huge shape of the barn looms overhead, its roof blurred and deformed by the huddle of crows roosting on top, drawn by the warmth within. I step inside, and instantly there is a low crackle of conversation, interlaced with the melancholy sound of the melodeon. I look around. There aren’t many people there—about fifteen people, all drinking beer or homemade cider; the air is heavy with the scent of it. Their faces are animated by the flickering glow from the old hearth in the corner. One corner has a curtain over it, its heavy folds absorbing the light within the dense fabric. I see faces I recognise, O’Malley the butcher, the old man with the melodeon, and even the vendor I shared a cup of tea with an hour ago, a lifetime ago. She moves towards me. “Do you have them?” “I do.” I hand over the bag. She opens it and smiles. “Lovely work, as usual.” I turn to the old man with the melodeon. “Grand evening,” I say. He nods. “Good to have you here.” He runs a twisted arthritic finger over the shining surface of his instrument, and then looks up. “We need to get cracking now. Do you have them?” I jerk my thumb over to where the vendor is carefully unpacking my bag. She slowly draws out two crow masks, and gives a sharp, admiring intake of breath. If the children’s masks were well-made, these are splendid, beautiful objects. One woman in Cork has spent months on these; they’re made completely from crow feathers, stitched with gold thread, with jet beads of decoration encircling the eye holes. Someone stamps the ground loudly with a heavy boot, one, two three. Immediately the old man with the melodeon begins to saw out a searing, plaintive air, a song of longing and elegy. Heads nod in rhythm. A man stands up—he’s the farmer who owns the land, as far as I remember. Everyone stops speaking. The music softens, quietens. He opens his mouth and shouts, “Bive! Bive! Bive!” The small crowd echoes him. There were once other words, but no-one remembers them. The curtain parts and there are two men, both stocky, both middle-aged, both wearing the special crow masks. A cracked bell rings, a sharp ting-ting of sound. The figures turn to each other and start to fight. One launches himself at the other, a solid block of body hitting body. Both fall to the dirty floor. A roar goes up, a mass of shrill and deep voices, shouting. Some are chanting. Others are shouting encouragement or just plain shouting, thick, wordless yells. The air is heavy with the spoiled-fruit smell of cheap drink. The masked figures sweat and grapple on the floor before us. I stand with the others, watching the fight, but what is happening is like a film projected onto a more compelling image. Instead of the small crowd, the thin shouts, I can see clear as light the earlier years, those wonderful, terrifying years of mass fighting. Then, the barn seethed with young men, stripped to the waist, their crow heads dangerous and sharp as they struggled. I remember the dark patches of blood on the floor and the screams of the women. I am seized by nostalgia so powerful it brings tears that blur my vision at the edges. I bring an arm over my eyes. It’s an ugly, low fight. They pull at each other, and claw at each other’s bodies. Blood is already running down their chests from scratches and slashes. They stumble to their feet, collide, fall again. Their wrestling is weaker now. I can hear their exhausted pants as breath tears from their throats. They grab each other, locked together as their razor sharp beaks slash wickedly at each other’s arms and heads. One mask starts to slip, and the opponent sees his chance. His beak rips a cruel red V in the hollow of the neck, and blood pulses and spurts from it like a hose. He flops to the ground, no sound, just a thick throaty gurgle of blood as he twists below me, head coming to rest beside my feet. Underneath the glossy black feathers with their sleek oil-gleam is a shock of grey hair, a sightless red eye turned upwards and a livid purple birthmark that drips down, from eye to mouth. A thin cry goes up from the crowd, a small shout of victory that dies almost as soon as it begins. The door is opened with a squeal of rusted hinges, and the crows fly in, thick, fast and hard. They flock around the limp figure on the floor, and their sleek heads dissolve into a blur of pecking and pulling. The faces of the others are blank as they stand, enthralled. I wind my coat around me and walk outside. I stand outside on the edge of darkness, and stare at the flicking lights of the town at the bottom of the hill. Down there, people are talking, going to the pub, watching television; it is another place, another time, centuries away. I am still holding a soft mass of feathers in my hand. I think of the lined face of the old vendor, the arthritic hands on the melodeon, the lurid purple birthmark under the crow mask. In another year this will all be gone. I shrug and release the feathers into the cold breeze. They spiral and flicker in the wind gusts, dipping and swirling, a dark benediction raining down on the town below. In a few hours the sun will be up and it will be time to go. I breathe in deeply, and inhale the cold fetid air that smells like autumn, of all our autumns coming, dark and inevitable as time itself. BIOGRAPHY: Tracy Fahey writes short fiction that is concerned with ideas of uncanny domestic space and its various intersections with literature, art and folk-tales. Since taking up fiction writing in 2013, she has had short stories accepted for publication in anthologies by US and UK presses including Fox Spirit Press, Hic Dragones Press, Dark Minds Press, A Murder of Storytellers and Hydra Publications. Her debut collection, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, will be released by Boo Books in 2016. Her author website is www.designingtracy.wix.com/tracyfahey.
The following story received an honorable mention from Tales from The Lake Vol.3 editor Monique Snyman. ©ChantalBoudreau
Come Into Her Garden
I didn’t think I’d be able to convince Syl to move to the city, a move I needed to make for the sake of my career. She would spend hours labouring away at her vegetable and flower gardens that surrounded our little country home. I was never allowed to touch them, though. Sylvia said I had a ‘black thumb’—everything green that I tried to nurture seemed to shrivel up and die. So I stayed away from her babies, respecting her wishes. I never thought in a million years she would agree to abandon them. I guess she loved me more than I realized at the time. On the other hand, her willingness might have been because of our dismal failure at conceiving a child. Living in the city meant living closer to the fertility specialists and if it came down to it, being there would give us better access to fertility treatments. That’s the only reason I can figure she would agree to move to the brownstone we would be renting, sight unseen. She didn’t even know about the little patch of gardener’s paradise out back, at the time. She had always told me how much she hated cities. They were too dirty and dingy and dead. I had fallen in love with the brownstone the moment I walked through the front door, maybe even when I initially spotted its elaborately carved exterior with the wrought iron detailing. Met by the high staircase to the second floor, I had immediately wanted to make the move, bewitched by its architecture. The brownstone was reasonable spacious for city-dwelling and reeked of history. I’m not sure if my excitement had been contagious, but Syl had given me her approval based on my word alone. I had glanced out at the back, and noted that there was an overgrown swath of greenery that she could perhaps reclaim and tame. I hadn’t thought much of it, but once Syl had seen it, she was keen on the idea. She had always loved a challenge, and while it wouldn’t offer her the natural expanses of our country home it was certainly better than nothing. Actually, I think once we were there, she enjoyed it even more that her country gardens. The little plot behind our new house had an intimacy that the larger plots and open spaces couldn’t offer. She had loved the bounty of the country, but this tiny Eden had seduced her in a way nothing had ever before. It all started when we first began moving in. I was helping to unload our belongings, and she had wandered into the back after exploring the lower level of the house, to decide where we would put our things. “Mort!” she called, a cry of delight. “You have to come see this!” Mort was short for Mortimer. I had been saddled with my grandfather’s name, a family tradition. Syl had suffered a similar fate, named after her great aunt, Sylvia. I wandered into the back lot to find her knee-deep in foliage and pushing away mounds of overgrown shrubbery. She looked back at me with flushed cheeks and a broad grin. “I found an antique plaque, mounted on the wall here. It’s a green man—a nature spirit who will oversee my garden and keep it fertile.” I hadn’t noticed it while on my initial tour, hidden by the out-of-control greenery. Once Syl had uncovered the spot on the wall, I had to admire the artistry. The plaque was some sort of gold-tone metal, bronze or brass I would guess, but decorated with very intricate bas-relief that had been carefully coated with a variety of green enamels. The image was the face of a man, formed from a mixture of leaves that had been intertwined and woven together. She clearly adored it, but I found it creepy. I laughed nervously. “A garden guardian—that’s great. Maybe he can help you whip this place into shape.” I reached over and touched a gnarled and mossy twig. “Right now, it’s a mess.” Syl swivelled to face me with a frown, her hands on her hips. “Mortimer Darius Flemming, I called you out here just to look, not to touch. You agreed you would keep your ‘black thumb’ away from my garden. I don’t ever want to see you handling anything out here again. Remember your promise.” I raised my hands with a smile and backed towards the door. “Okay, okay, all three names—you mean business. Consider me gone, and if I ever come back I won’t lay a finger on your precious plants. Cross my heart and hope to die.” I did as I was told and stayed out of the garden, no touching, but I didn’t stop observing. There was a terrace on our second floor that looked out over the little back lot. I would sit up there during my leisure hours with a book, occasionally watching her poke and preen the foliage. She often hummed and murmured to herself as she worked, trimming away the overgrowth, planting new seedlings or wrestling weeds from the soil. Syl was as happy as I had ever seen her, despite other disappointments, our childlessness forgotten as long as she had something else to nurture. That was until the winter months were upon us and she was forced inside by colder weather. Syl’s mood shifted, dimming until it was as grey as the skies outside. Those months also happened to be when our trips to the specialists began, along with the first of our fertility treatments. When they proved unsuccessful, the change in Syl worried me regarding her mental stability. No longer just dismal, now she was suffering from earnest depression. It was like a dark, soul-sucking cloud had enveloped our world and it did not lift for even a moment until the spring. Relief doesn’t describe what I felt when the snow melted, the earth thawed, and tiny green buds began emerging out in Syl’s garden. I saw little of her until sunset most days, but when I did see her she wore a smile and she moved with lighter steps. I caught her humming to herself again and I was thrilled when I actually heard her laugh for the first time in months. I didn’t think much of it, far too pleased that her garden was restoring vitality to her soul. One weekend, I was sitting on the terrace in the sun with a book in hand when I heard her giggle. I glanced away from my murder mystery and peered into the back lot. Perhaps the glare from the bright sunlight had deceived me, but I could have sworn I saw someone else there, a masculine form mostly obscured by the thickening brush. Puzzled, because we rarely had guests, and curious to see who it was, I put down my book and wandered downstairs. As I approached the back door, I saw a flurry of green move past the window. Was it just the leaves on some of the shrubbery shaking violently in response to a particularly strong gust of wind? I peeked through the frosted glass and I was sure I saw a man dressed in green standing behind Syl, his hand on her shoulder. I flung the door open quickly, but not quickly enough. He was already gone. Syl started at the sound of the door, and turned to look at me. Her eyes seemed unusually bright and her cheeks rosier than normal. She beamed a smile at me. “Oh—hello, Mort. Come to see my garden? It’s still growing but look at how lush it is already. It’s going to be absolutely beautiful by mid-summer.” She glanced over at the green man plaque. “I guess it pays to have the blessing of a nature spirit.” “It’s lovely, Syl, and I have no doubt that you’ll make it even better,” I agreed. “Was there someone here? I thought I heard you talking and I was almost certain I saw a man here.” Syl laughed and turned away from me again. “You should stay out of the sun, Mort. You’re seeing things. I’ve been by myself, and talking to myself since I came out here this morning. I’ll try to keep my prattle down to a whisper. I suppose we don’t want our neighbours thinking I’m crazy.” Syl had never lied to me before nor would she have any reason to do so, so I had to take her word for it. Nevertheless, it didn’t feel like she was telling me the truth and when I had followed her gaze to the green man plaque, a chill had run up my spine. From that point onward, I listened for that suggestive giggle coming from the back lot every time I sat on the terrace. With each instance, when I peered down into Syl’s garden, I caught sight of that silhouette partially concealed by the bushes. Each time, I also snuck down to the back door and opened it with one abrupt motion, hoping to catch Syl’s visitor there. I would pretend to be coming out to get a look at her progress, a little embarrassed at my suspicions. I couldn’t shake a queasy feeling in my stomach that she was hiding something from me—something involving the green man. She would play innocent, laughing and shrugging and directing my attention to the newest blossoms or any changes she had recently made, but it was almost as if she considered my presence an intrusion. Call me paranoid if you wish. I sensed a rift developing between us, and I didn’t like it. She was less amorous and no longer invited any romantic advances from me. I’m sure to some extent it could be blamed on our lack of success at conceiving a child, even with the help of fertility drugs, but I had this idea that there was more to this new coolness. I started to believe the garden was in some way replacing her need for my affections, competing with me, and I was helpless to fight it. I had promised her I wouldn’t touch her plants and I would keep my word. The frustration and uneasiness had me on edge. Then one day, after sprinting from the terrace to fling the back door open, I got a really good look at the man who had been visiting my wife in secret, and I know he saw me in return. I had been mistaken when I thought that he was dressed in green. In fact, he wasn’t really dressed in anything at all. The colour came from the leafy tendrils encircling his body. Various vines—including draping strands of ivy, fern fronds and mosses, flowers and leaves, bound to him by an assortment of grasses—covered him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Wearing this natural camouflage, he had only to step back into the foliage that grew throughout the back lot to disappear. “Who was that?” I demanded. I didn’t doubt myself at all by that point. I was quite aware of what I had seen and Syl wasn’t about to convince me otherwise. “What are you talking about? There’s no one here? The only way to get out of this garden would be to walk past you. Is something wrong with you, Mort? Is it stress at work? Something else?” Syl shot me a quick glance over her shoulder before turning back to her work. I saw the deception in her brown eyes, shadowed by the sunhat she always wore while gardening. “You’ve seemed so tense lately. Maybe you need to take up a hobby to get your mind off of other things.” I knew if she was choosing to lie to me, no amount of questions would yield truthful answers. I muttered something incoherent, a fractured and insincere apology, before stepping back into the house. I had recognized the man from the face on the plaque. I just wanted to hear her say it to confirm my beliefs. The man in her garden was the green man, in the flesh and fully formed, with all of his anatomy intact and only nature as his veil. I felt threatened, betrayed, and I wanted to scream and punch things. Something told me my wife was in love with him. That night, I had difficulty sleeping. I tossed and turned, and when I did drift off my sleep was shallow. I awoke part way through the night to quiet moans, sensual ones. My tired, groggy brain did not register the situation fully at first, and I thought perhaps that Syl had finally shed her recent reluctance to be intimate, offering some sort of invitation. I put out a hand to caress her, but her side of the bed was empty. A question chilled my blood and I was suddenly very awake. Where was she? I realized that the sounds were coming from outside, the door to the terrace open because of the summer heat. Slipping quietly out of bed, I tiptoed over to the terrace, a knot in my gut as soon as I recognized the fact that those sounds from Syl were coming from her garden. While we had no exterior lighting for the back lot, there was a full moon high in the sky that night, so when I peered down below, the garden and all of its contents were lit up by a silvery glow. I could see movement. Syl was sprawled on the soil amongst her precious plants, not seeming to care that this position might put some of them at risk. The figure of a man, no doubt the one I had seen there with her repetitively in the past few weeks, crouched over her and I could tell by the way they writhed and panted that this was no innocent encounter. Syl tilted her head back and moaned softly each time her lover shifted atop her. What I could see of her expression suggested pure bliss. She had never looked that way during our love-making. A burning, heart-wrenching rage began eating away at me, consuming me with jealousy. I wanted to run down to her garden and catch them in the act, but I knew what would happen if I tried. I would fling the door open and he would step away from her, disappearing into the foliage as he always did. It would leave me standing there looking the fool, while Syl would deny everything, suggesting she was out for an innocent night-time stroll in her garden, by herself. Inside, she would be laughing at me, the cuckolded man who could do nothing to prove that he had been deceived. No, that wasn’t the way to handle this. I needed to find a means of producing proof. Perhaps I had to come up with a way to lure the green man into her garden while I was there alone, so I could trap him and confront him. I’d bring a camera to capture confirmation of his existence and once I had evidence in hand, I could challenge Syl when she denied that she had been with him. I came up with a plan, intending to put it into action while Syl was out at work the following day. I pretended to be sleeping when she returned to bed, when in truth I was plotting how things would go when I met with the green man. I went to work in the morning, as per usual, but I begged off sick halfway through the day so I could return home while Syl was out. Once back at the house, I started gathering the things I needed: a camera, her widest sun hat, and one of the long flowery jackets she would wear to protect her skin from the sun. It was big and flowing, large enough to fit me despite my bulk, and shapeless enough to disguise my masculine form. From behind, wearing her things to disguise me and kneeling beside the garden, I could not be easily distinguished from my wife. One would have to get close enough to touch me to tell the difference. I walked into the garden and crouched next to the largest bed, placing my camera on the rock edging, my back to the plaque with the green man. I had no intention of touching any of her plants. Unlike Syl, I kept my promises. I waited several minutes, pretending to garden, before anything happened. My patience was eventually rewarded when I felt a hand upon my shoulder. I veered around, grasping at the arm that held me, making a grab for the camera at the same time. I never did get that picture. Instead, I froze, staring at the nature spirit who stared at me in return. The moment my hand connected with the greenery covering his wrist, I could see something was wrong. Some of the leaves and flowers that ornamented his skin began to shrivel and curl, the fern fronds drooped, the vines and grasses sagged. His emerald face took on an air of revulsion and horror. I should have snapped a picture right then and there, with both of us immobile, but the shock of the moment stole my senses. Instead, the second I could move again, I leaned away from the green man and let go. He stepped back into the shrubbery and was gone. I kicked myself, my opportunity lost. Covering my tracks, I snatched up the camera, returning it to its place. Then I shed Syl’s gardening things and went upstairs to read a book and wait for her to come home. I couldn’t concentrate on the story, unable to stop thinking about my encounter with the green man. My heart raced. While I struggled to follow the words, I was distracted by something new, a horrible sound coming from the back lot. I have to believe that Syl’s theory about my “black thumb” held true. My curiosity piqued by the sound—part groaning part wailing—I had to investigate. Watching from my perch on the terrace, I observed the green man lying at the centre of her garden, writhing and twitching in terrible pain, his leafy body slowly withering into a brown, brittle mass. When there was nothing left of him but a blanket of papery, colourless flakes, a stiff breeze scattered him to all corners of the lot. The green man was no more, and the pieces of him that remained could not be identified as belonging to him. They just looked like common dead plant debris. I worked hard not to behave differently around Syl when she arrived home, carrying with me the constant knowledge of my victory over the rival for her affections. She came into the house in tears after her first trip to the garden. When I casually asked her what was wrong, she led me out to the garden and pointed out the green man plaque. The brass had corroded, the enamel had blackened and cracked. Shards of the plaque had fallen away, leaving little that still resembled her lover. I told her I would look into having it restored, although I knew I would never follow through on the task. I didn’t want to take any chances that restoring the plaque would somehow bring him back. She was glum for a while, but her sadness did not last as long as I was expecting it to. It turned out that this was because she had a new distraction. In a month’s time, Syl surprised me with something that made her forget all of her troubles. She was pregnant. To those who were none the wiser, this was no doubt the result of our fertility treatments. I knew better. Syl hadn’t let me touch her in weeks. The fertility treatments had nothing to do with her conception. It was the green man who was responsible for that. I’m likely the only one, other than my wife who knows the truth. As the new life grows within her, she has become cheery, her lost love all but forgotten. She is more amorous towards me now than she was before he took her in the garden, and she is a far better lover for that experience. I like these changes and part of me forgives her betrayal, because of the revitalized joy it has brought both of us. But part of me is equally fearful, and prays every day that this baby will take after his or her mother, rather than its sire. Otherwise, I cringe at the thought of what will happen to the child—the first time when cradled in my arms—we make contact, skin to skin. BIOGRAPHY: Chantal Boudreau, an accountant/author/illustrator, lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. A Horror Writers Association member, she writes horror and fantasy, with more than forty stories published to date, including several novels in three series. Find out more at http://chantellyb.wordpress.com .
Joe Mynhardt: Congrats on winning the Bram Stoker award, Alessandro. What does it mean for you as an author?
Alessandro Manzetti: Thank you very much, Joe, it was unexpected and wonderful. It means reaching a significant milestone in the career of a writer. It will also be an incentive to continue to work hard and to improve. I have to thank all colleagues who voted for me and who appreciated the work I have done during these years. But I’m still walking on clouds, so I can’t tell you more.
JM: So how was the weekend in Stoker Con? Any highlights?
AM: StokerCon was a great opportunity to exchange ideas with other authors and to plan new projects and collaborations. HWA has done a great job organizing many panels, readings and other interactive activities which allowed everyone to have new experiences, learning a lot from the know-how of great writers and editors. I think that some new projects, like the Horror University, are something really innovative, useful and exciting. From what I have experienced first hand, StokerCon can be defined as the crossroad of the horror genre – a must.
JM: What thought went through your mind just before they read your name?
AM: I thought I would have gladly applauded a winning colleague, and finished drinking my glass of red wine. I was not expecting more than this.
JM: What was your initial response when they read your name?
AM: I looked into the eyes of my wife, Sanda, for a moment, got up from the table and tried to reach the stage, which seemed to be several miles away, almost unreachable. I was out of breath, and tried to contain the emotion to do a little speech to thank everyone. When I mentioned my country, Italy, which for the first time won such an important award, the thunderous applause moved me greatly. Something that I will never forget.
JM: How did folks respond after your win? Any special moments?
AM: They were all amazing, supporting me heartily. I felt I had new wings on my back, and that they put them on me. The most exciting moment was receiving the embrace of many colleagues during the party after the ceremony. I was surrounded by sincere smiles by many fantastic people who shared this special moment with me. And even a few bottles of champagne…
JM: So what’s next for you?
AM: I’m working on several new projects, both fiction and poetry, and I hope to continue to deserve the respect of my colleagues and not to disappoint my readers. I still have inside me the endless lights of Las Vegas, which continue to turn on thousands of ideas in my head. You know, this is a magic moment. I thank the HWA for this fantastic experience, and to Crystal Lake for having chosen to publish my weird, bloody Eden.
Artwork by Ben Baldwin.
The following story received an honorable mention from Tales from The Lake Vol.3 editor Monique Snyman. ©ErikHoffstatter
Lieng crept along the edge of the bed, her tiny feet sinking into the fluffy carpet. Daniel stirred and rolled, wrapping the duvet around his leg. The little girl stroked the feather in her hand and brushed it against daddy’s protruding foot. No reaction at first. On the second stroke, he twitched and moaned. Lieng giggled. This was fun, tickling her dad while he slept. She observed the shape of his feet. They were not beautiful. “I say wake father nicely,” Miya whispered, peeking through the bedroom door at her rebellious daughter. It’s been four years since she left China and married Daniel, but still she struggled to grasp the English language. “I am!” Lieng said. “What are you two plotting?” Daniel asked with a yawn, a grateful smile stretching across his thin lips. “Our daughter was ticking you with feather again,” she said, scooping Lieng into her arms. Daniel double blinked. “You were tickling me again, you sneaky little foot monster?” He reached for Lieng’s foot and put extra emphasis on the ling, hoping that Miya would pick up on her error. She could be sensitive at times when corrected, and Daniel tried his best not to sound patronising. As he tickled his daughter’s miniature feet, Lieng screamed, rolling and twisting in her mother’s arms like an overgrown worm. “That is enough, go and eat your breakfast,” Miya said, ushering the girl out of the room. Her eyes lingered on her movement as she ran. Lieng’s steps were too long, she lacked a womanly sway and Miya did not like it. “Come here, beautiful.” Daniel said, pulling his wife down onto the bed with him. She was eleven years younger. He stroked her velvet skin as she nestled into him. “I’m so grateful that your aunt arranged our rendezvous, even though I had to travel all the way to China to get you.” He remember he had very little going for him before meeting Miya, except for his job, where he performed reasonably well. At thirty six, he still lived at home with his mother, and most of his evenings were spent with a bottle of scotch, drinking and wondering if this really was everything life had to offer. He could hardly believe his luck when Jing-Mei, his Chinese work colleague, asked him to visit China with her for two weeks and meet her niece. Daniel dreamed of seeing the Great Wall of China and if he could bag a wife in the process? What was there to think about? “Me as well. You know how unhappy I was in China. Now I live in England with you, we have a beautiful daughter and a nice home. I will always love you for this happiness you gave me.” Miya said. Daniel kissed her sweet lips, inhaling the jasmine scent from her raven hair. He did not believe her. He knew how this looked. He knew what everyone at work thought. She married him for money. “Is your mail-order bride ready to be picked up yet?” They teased him. So what? They were only jealous. Whilst they watched their whale-like wives snore, he had a beautiful young woman to have sex with every night, and love? That’s something he could only hope for. “Do you think Lieng is beautiful?” Miya asked him, interrupting his thoughts. Daniel turned on his elbow, not quite sure how to interpret the odd question. “Yes, of course she is. Why do you ask?” Miya’s eyes rested on her palms. “I mean more in her motion. Like she walks?” “I don’t really know what you mean, honey.” Daniel said, confused. He knew Miya descended from a very traditional family and was raised in a strict manner, but when she came out with strange stuff like this, he was truly lost. As much as he tried, Chinese customs were wasted on him. “Never mind. I show you what I mean later. She’s ready, I think.” Miya continued. “Ready for what?” Daniel asked. “You’ll see. I’ll take Lieng to visit her aunt now. Meet us there for lunch?” “Okay,” Daniel said, trying to sound confident. He climbed out of bed, dressed himself and pondered Miya’s bizarre words. He really ought to double her English lessons. Jing-Mei’s detached house towered in the distance. Daniel admired the architecture and wished he could generate enough money to purchase such a luxurious property. He tightened the scarf around his neck and approached the building, wading through layers of thin snow. The woman could barely speak English, yet she drove a brand new Mercedes and lived in a friggin’ palace. The rumour was that she married a rich English guy, but then he died of a heart attack two years later and left everything to her. Some people have all the luck. Perhaps one day, when she popped her clogs the house would pass onto him and Miya. That probably wouldn’t happen, though. Chinese people live for hundreds of years. He knocked on the front door and waited, wondering once more about the meaning behind his wife’s strange words that morning and what bizarre Chinese tradition lurked within… Lieng hummed a tuneless melody as her aunt soaked her tiny feet in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood, massaging and softening the skin. She reached for the clippers and started trimming the girl’s toe nails. “Do you like auntie’s pedicure, darling?” Miya asked. Lieng nodded, not sure what pedicure meant. Jing-Mei produced a roll of bandages, several metres in length and soaked them in the mixture, too. Miya opened her handbag and pulled out a funny looking pair of shoes, passing them to Jing-Mei. “Are you ready to try on auntie’s special shoes, honey?” The child smiled and nodded once more, eager to look beautiful for her mother. “There will be some pain, darling, but you must be brave.” Miya said. Jing-Mei remained silent. She’d illegally performed this procedure on young girls many times in China. She slowly curled Lieng’s toes under, but then pressed with great force downwards, squeezing the sole of her foot until the toes broke. Tears of pain poured out of the child’s eyes as she began to scream. Miya stroked her daughter’s hair in a weak attempt to comfort her. “You must be brave, honey! This will make you beautiful. You will walk very elegant after this. Be brave! No boy will find you attractive otherwise.” The toes cracked even louder on the other foot. Jing-Mei knew the next part was crucial and even more painful. She ordered Miya to hold the girl tighter in Chinese. As Jing-Mei held the broken toes against the sole, she drawn it straight down with the leg and broke the arch of the foot, too. Lieng yelled as hard as she could, but her pleas were subdued by the rag Miya placed in her mouth. “There, there. The worse is over now,” she said. Lieng slipped into unconsciousness, her suffering too much to bear, and Jing-Mei wrapped the soaked bandages around the child’s broken feet. She started at the instep, carrying over the toes and under the foot, then around the heel—pressing the freshly broken toes into the sole. At each pass around, she tightened the binding cloth, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold under the arch and pressing the toes underneath the sole. Daniel heard the echoes of his daughter’s screams through the door. He kicked it down and barged inside the house, running from room to room—disoriented and frightened for his daughter’s life. What the hell was going on? What were they doing to his child? The rooms were all empty so he sped up the stairs. As he entered one of the bedrooms, he collapsed to his knees at the sight of his unconscious daughter and her lotus feet—the smell of herbs and animal blood still lingering in the air. “What in God’s name have you done to her?” He sobbed through his fingers. Miya glanced at her defeated husband, his distress twisting her face into a puzzled grimace. “A Chinese tradition, a mark of beauty. We’ve only just begun…” she answered. BIOGRAPHY: Erik Hofstatter is a schlock horror writer and a member of the Horror Writers Association. Born in the wild lands of the Czech Republic, he roamed Europe before subsequently settling on English shores, studying creative writing at the London School of Journalism. He now dwells in Kent, where he can be encountered consuming copious amounts of mead and tyrannizing local peasantry. His work appeared in various magazines and podcasts around the world such as Morpheus Tales, Crystal Lake Publishing, The Literary Hatchet, Sanitarium Magazine, Wicked Library, Tales to Terrify and Manor House Show. ‘Rare Breeds’ is due to be published in March 2016 by KnightWatch Press.