I am not going to say these are my ten favorite horror novels, they probably are not. These are ten horror novels I’ve read and have not been able to forget – ten books I think you will enjoy, and that I consider to be classics… you will find that I have cheated and there are actually twelve books… but I’m pretty sure you’ll forgive me…
In no particular order:
Skin – by Kathe Koja – I bought this at my first big horror convention, and I read it – in one sitting – on the train on the way home. Kathe has a way of drawing you into the world of very tortured characters, making you not only understand, but feel their pain… this is a very literary, very intense novel.
Fever Dream – by George R. R. Martin – One of my favorite vampire novels. A different setting, a different take on an ancient curse… not to be missed.
(Trilogy) Koko / Mystery / The Throat – by Peter Straub – here is where I cheat. If you read just Koko, you will not be disappointed… but to truly appreciate what Peter did here, you need to read all three. Imagine sitting through an entire year of history, or math – you finally grasp everything for the final exam, and pass… then come back the next year an learn the same subject – but find that everything you thought you knew was wrong… And then, in the third year? It happens again.
Boy’s Life – by Robert McCammon – Hands down my favorite coming-of-age horror novel. With a dinosaur.
Lightning – by Dean Koontz – I have read and enjoyed dozens of Dean’s novels, but this one sticks out for me. The detail was exquisite, and it may well be the most well-crafted time-travel novel of all time.
Something Wicked This Way Comes – by Ray Bradbury – This should come as no surprise to anyone… Bradbury was a master, and this is my favorite of his novels.
The Old Gods Waken – by Manly Wade Wellman – The first “Silver John” novel – I would have chosen The Lost & Lurking, but thought it best to choose the FIRST of these wonderful novels of the North Carolina mountains and their magic.
The Haunting of Hill House – by Shirley Jackson – The template against which haunted house novels have been modeled and judged all of my life. A wonderful story.
The Song of Kali – by Dan Simmons – This novel is very well researched and one of the darkest, most twisted tales I’ve ever encountered. Very few books give me shivers, but this one managed it.
Christine – by Stephen King – I am a huge fan of Steve’s work. I’ve read very nearly everything he’s ever written, and have loved most of it – all for different reasons. For some reason, this haunted car stuck with me, and I believe it might be the same reason The Mangler made my list of memorable stories. It should be ridiculous, given only the plot to work with – a car that rolls backward and gets younger… a creepy old ghost… but it is not. It is very real, and has some absolutely CREEPY moments… if it’s a King you have ignored – you should not.
For Halloween… something I wanted to share. Here are ten horror stories that I love, and that I believe everyone should read. They are diverse… but the one thing they have in common is that they stuck in my mind and would not let me go… Without further ado:
“Smoothpicks” – Elizabeth Massie – one of the most intense short stories I have read… left a serious mark.
“Blind and Blue” – Wayne Allen Sallee – the first of many stories by Wayne that I have not been able to get out of my head.
“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” – David Morrell – Befoer I knew he wrote Rambo, or read anything… I loved this.
“Scartaris, June 28th” – Harlan Ellison – I am not the huge fan of Ellison that most are, but I loved this.
“His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” – Poppy Z. Brite – one of the first things I read by Poppy… led to meeting her and selling a story to Love in Vein II
“The Encyclopedia for Boys” – Jeffrey Osier – a truly unforgettable story, and a beautiful example of tying horror to long-buried childhood memory.
“The Last Feast of Harlequin” – Thomas Ligotti – I had a hard time figuring out which of Ligotti’s stories to choose. This is one of my favorites.
“Fugue Devil” – Stephen Mark Rainey – I live in North Carolina. I will always have half my attention over my shoulder.
“The Alchemy of the Throat” – Brian Hodge – This is no sparkly vampire story. This is vampire fiction taken to a very deep level, emotionally and psychologically
“The Mangler” – by Stephen King – My absolute favorite example of suspension of disbelief. A story that works, scares, and then sounds ridiculous when you try to explain what it’s about.
I am a storyteller. For years now I’ve spent more time helping bring other people’s stories out than I have writing my own… and I’m okay with that, because I AM still writing… but tomorrow is my birthday. Instead of just stopping by and saying Happy happy… let’s interact. Below is a link to my Amazon page with almost literally everything I’ve written available… in the first comment will be a list of my books available through Kindle Unlimited for those people who subscribe, so you can find my books that are available for you to read for free. Most of my audiobooks are whispersync ready and can be had for a pittance beyond the eBook price. MANY of them are available in print, some for the first time just this year in trade paperback. What I want for my birthday is simple. Read something of mine. Tell me what you read, what of mine you have liked (or loved) (or even hated). If you have a favorite thing of mine, leave a review on Amazon, or Goodreads… sign up for the free signed copy giveaway on Goodreads for my novel Gideon’s Curse… buy “Remember Bowling Green” so I can donate the money to the ACLU… the thing that would make me feel the best on my birthday would be to entertain some people, and to feel as if I write – and I talk about that – and it’s of more than slight, passing interest to a few of the thousands of folks who follow me between this profile and my author page… Going to put this on my author page as well, and on my blog so it goes to Goodreads, and on Wattpad, where literally tens of thousands of people read my novel Heart of a Dragon for free, and loved it (from the comments) but could not ring themselves to pay the $2.99 or $3.99 to read the rest of the series… writing is a lonely profession… help a fella out.
Bloody Knife & Morning Star
By David Niall Wilson
Bloody Knife watched from his pony as the Calvary trooped by. Their uniforms glistened in the sunlight, and their weapons gleamed with the promise of glory and death. They were confident, and you could feel that confidence in the air, an aura that reached out from the golden haired demon that led them to permeate the entire column.
As guide, it was the Indian’s place to lead the way, but for the moment he only sat and brooded, watching as the spirits spoke to his soul. Custer turned once, nodding in his direction, an almost imperceptible acknowledgement of his presence, his part in the grand scheme of what was to come. Bloody Knife did not even twitch in response.
They called this golden-haired one “The son of the morning star.” It was appropriate. This was the dawning of great moments, new beginnings. The twilight and the birth of dreams. As the last of them glided by, a gaudy painting of arrogance and naiveté against a backwash of blue sky and the rising sun, Bloody knife dug his knees into his mount and slid off along the side of them like a shadow, leaving them in a small cloud of dust and making his way into the ravine ahead. His mind was focused, his concentration centered on what was to come.
It had been a chance meeting, a meeting destined by stars and dreams. Bloody Knife had been leaning against the railing beside a tavern called “The Smoking Gun,” idly sipping at his private bottle of whiskey and letting his mind wander. The bottle was as much for show as anything. Although he never drank to excess, it was a good idea to let those around him believe it to be his custom. There were reasons for everything he did, patterns shifting about him that only he could grasp.
It was such a pattern that had placed him there, just so, when his destiny had marched by. Golden hair flying in the stiff breeze, shoes shined and blue uniform so brilliant in the sun that it seemed to glow with its own, inner light, General George Armstrong Custer moved with the confidence of arrogance. He barely shifted his gaze toward Bloody Knife, but the sudden narrowing of his eyes, the slight hitch in the perfection of his stride, gave him away.
In a voice calculated for the proper volume, he spoke to one of his two companions. “I have come here for a purpose, gentlemen,” he announced. “The heathen Sioux are rampant, and it seems a strong hand is in order. Of course, they shall present no real threat to a well-trained regiment, but still, they seem to be proving difficult.”
Bloody Knife turned his own face away, still listening, but not wanting them to know it.
“You don’t know them red devils, sir,” the sergeant trotting along at his side puffed. “They’re slicker than shadows in them woods.”
“Rubbish,” Custer dismissed him. “Fighting men, trained properly, are the match for any situation, especially one involving uncouth savages. I expect to have this matter resolved soon, and to be called back to more important duties in the east. Let’s get some food, then we’ll talk about those guides…I’ll be needing to get through the ‘Black Hills,’ as you call them, as swiftly as possible.”
“Yes sir,” the man replied. He said no more, but in the tone of his voice, and the stiffening of his shoulders as he moved through the tavern door in his commander’s wake, Bloody Knife read worlds of doubt. This man knew. This man had met the peoples of forest and plain, had seen the light of his own death burning in their eyes. The other was a fool, but there was something more.
Letting his senses stretch, feeling the voices of the ground beneath him and the birds that floated in the skies above blending with his consciousness, he searched. There was an aura nearby, an aura of strength and purpose, an aura of power. It emanated from the interior of the tavern, and it brought a darkness, a dulling of the sight, such as he’d never experienced.
Calling out within the great mother’s spirit, he reached for her children, the spirits gone beyond, reached for their thoughts, for their aid. He could hear them speaking, just beyond the questing tendrils of his own mind, but he could not make out their warnings. All that would surface was an image, a glowing nimbus — a face — obscured by a green fire. It was surrounded by a mane of bright, golden hair, and from within it echoed the loneliness of a shattered spirit.
Shivering, Bloody Knife brought himself back to the present. He looked about himself, re-orienting his senses. Nobody had seen him in his trance-state, but it would not have mattered. He still held the whiskey bottle tightly in one hand, and they would have assumed what they believed to be the obvious.
That had been the beginning — the trail that wound back to the mother spirit, the path to inner light. It had been the moment he’d dedicated his life to reach, suffering the abuse of his own people, the contempt of the whites, and the scarring of his soul to achieve. It had been a moment of rebirth.
Slipping around the corner of the doorway, he’d stolen a last glance at the man, Custer. He’d scanned the handsome features, the arrogant tilt of the man’s head and the polished dignity of his demeanor. He was the one, there was no doubt. Never had he felt the spirit of those who would desecrate the land so intensely.
Within “The smoking Gun,” General George Armstrong Custer felt the weight of intruding eyes on his shoulders and spun his head quickly to the door. It was empty, but he would have sworn, had he not feared being considered insane, that the lingering image of a man’s form shimmered in that space. A dark man, an Indian. A heathen. The notion that such a man might pose a threat to an officer and a gentleman was ridiculous, and yet he felt a sudden chill. Shaking it off, he returned to his drink, and his plans.
As he rode out of the town and made his way toward the outskirts of the surrounding forest, where he would meet with the soldiers and secure his position as guide, Bloody Knife let his mind slide backward, leaving the mechanics of riding to the instincts of both body and horse, freeing his senses.
As a young man, life had treated him poorly. Half Sioux, half Ree, raised in a Sioux village, the taunts and challenges had been twice those imposed on the other boys. He had been beaten, whipped, stoned, chased and mocked, all with little time for respite. If it hadn’t been for certain events in his twelfth year, he might never have survived.
The tribe he’d been a part of was guided by the wisdom of a ancient, wrinkled shaman named Speaks With Spirits. It was to this man that his mother had taken him when, cut by a hail of stones from the other young men of the village, his head had bled profusely. The man had treated him without comment. At the time, Bloody Knife had been known as Running Dog, a name neither he, nor his mother, were pleased with, but which his father had insisted upon. Bloody Knife had known that the others of the village were behind this, that his father was secretly ashamed to name his son in this way, but there had been nothing he could do.
“Leave him with me,” Speaks With Spirits had said, and his mother had left immediately. The old man’s words were the law, and his powers were feared by all.
Bloody Knife had been in too much pain to give his fear much thought, and he’d followed meekly behind as Speaks With Spirits led him into his lodge. He’d known that others watched, and that tongues would already be wagging, but he’d been beyond caring. No one would think to harm him as long as he was in the presence of the shaman. He only hoped that the old man himself was not planning anything horrible.
Turning to him solemnly, Speaks With Spirits had gestured that he should be seated. He did so, looking about himself carefully, trying not to stare at the odd array of charms, potions, and animal parts. It was impolite to be curious, but impossible not to be.
Speaks With Spirits returned a moment later with a skin filled with some sort of liquid.
“Drink,” he said simply. “Drink, then sleep. Tomorrow, we will talk.”
That was all. Bloody Knife, then known as Running Dog, turned up the skin and took a long swallow of something syrupy, sweet, and then suddenly bitter. It had taken every ounce of control he could muster not to spit the foul stuff back up, but he had managed it, handing the bag quickly back to the old man, whose eyes were crinkled in sudden mirth.
And he had. Not a normal sleep. Long, deep, but filled with dreams — a journey such as he’d never known. Animals spoke to him first, blue-black ravens and otters with sleek fur, rabbits and bears — eagles. He listened as they spoke, and they flitted about him, surreal and insubstantial, whispering things he only half-heard, messages and instructions that would not stick with him, but that had re-emerged at various moments later in his life.
There had been men and women, as well. Their features, at first blending and shifting in and out with those of the animals, were insubstantial. They would coalesce, then disperse, then return in different patterns, confusing his mind and rendering it impossible for him to place them, one voice with one face. They were all voices, all faces, joining with him and teaching, communing with his own spirit and welcoming him in.
Speaks With Spirits was there, and yet he was not. His voice came first, chanting, rhythmic and powerful. As the sound went on, a warm glow flowed in and through him, and there was a subtle shift. The faces drifted away, flitted less often over one another’s features. It was Speaks With Spirits, one face, one voice, and his message was the only one that made it through, the only one not lost in the barrage of vision and confusion.
“You are chosen,” the voice had filled him, owned him. “You have the ears that spirits can reach, the eyes that can see beyond the veil. The great mother spirit of the earth rushes strong through your veins. What is mine, is yours. My gift now joins with your own, my life and destiny and yours are bound.
“There were powers before the Sioux, powers before the peoples of plains and mountains, before the whites and their fire-sticks, before even elk and deer. Our mother is the first, the greatest. The journey must be made back into her arms, the ascension to her realms. Your feet will take that path, your spirit will share the way with mine.”
There had been more. Much more. He had learned of spirits and the wisdom they could bring. He had learned of the earth, and of those who would desecrate her, removing the visions — silencing the voices of the spirits. All of this and more, and all in one, long vision.
Then he’d awakened to madness. He was wet — cold and sticky, and rising he found that he was coated in blood. Looking wildly about himself, it had registered that he was still in the lodge of Speaks With Spirits. The old one sat, legs crossed, above the position where he had lain. His head lolled at an odd angle, and the blood had run from the jagged cut at his throat down to pool on the ground where the boy, then Running Dog, had lain.
He rose numbly. There was a knife on the ground . . . dropped from Speaks With Spirits’ hands. The blood was pooled around the knife as well, and he reached out slowly, picking it up and staring at it in disbelief. He had slept. All he had done was to drink that foul potion, whatever it might have been, and …it was the manlan.
The voice, not exactly a voice, but a thought that was not wholly his own, had snapped out to fill in the gap in his knowledge, the name of the potion. He trembled. The manlan, vision drink. His mind filled slowly with a list of ingredients, a procedure he’d never known, a knowledge beyond his years and mind.
There were voices outside the tent as well. White Elk and Bear In Woods were calling to Speaks with Spirits, and they were impatient not to be answered. They prepared for a raid, and they needed strong medicine to guide and protect them.
Without thinking, or without thinking “himself,” the boy who was then Running Dog passed through the door of the lodge into the village beyond and stood, staring at the men. He held the bloody knife in his hand, still, and he stared at them with eyes that were different than those he’d worn before. Strong eyes. Pure and old. Wise.
“It is a bad day for a raid,” he said softly. His voice carried, despite the lack of force behind the words, and his eyes did not waver. Though the questions, the anger, and the disbelief warred within their eyes, White Elk and Bear in Woods turned on their heels and walked away. Others saw him, and they saw the knife. They whispered among themselves, but they did not come forward.
Speaks With Spirits had been powerful, old and wise in the ways of spirits and demons. If he was now dead, and this boy had killed him, then there was a power in him, as well. He was Running Dog no more — his identity branded into his soul as surely as the blood stained his hands.
He had walked slowly to the tent of his family, and he had taken up his weapons and his belongings without speech. His mother only stared, but his father — unwilling to face what was to come, turned and walked from the lodge without a backward glance, refusing to acknowledge his son further. It did not matter. There were new teachers within him, voices that came and went with the winds, energies and powers that beckoned from far lands and long roads.
He’d mounted his pony and turned to leave. There had been a tug on his leg, and he’d turned, almost, but not quite, swinging the knife. It was his mother, and her eyes were clear and proud.
“You must go to the Ree. I will follow soon. You must go to the lodge of my father and tell him who you are and what has happened. You must not return here.”
He nodded. It had been a beginning. He had never belonged with the Sioux, not truly, and now he knew that Speaks With Spirits had not, either. The old man had been of ancient stock, holder of secrets that made the eldest memory of the tribe seem the prattle of children. Now he was the guardian. The spirits spoke to him, Speaks With Spirits among them, and he had a destiny.
As the line of soldiers disappeared behind him, Bloody Knife swerved his mount and headed it off at a gallop along the valley, not leading them into the battle ground, as expected. Custer had other scouts — they would assume his death, which was in any case inevitable. He had one last trial — one last part to play.
He let his finger stray to his belt and the tiny silver horseshoe pendant he wore there. It was the only ornamentation he allowed himself. He would not dress as a Sioux — there was too much hatred, too much pain. He would never truly be Ree, despite his mother’s admonitions that me must stay with her, and with that tribe. Neither was he white. Nevertheless, he knew the power of talismans, and in the work to come, he’d invested greatly in the power of this one — one truly believed in by those he would stand against.
He was of the spirit. Symbols meant little to him, except in the powers they could contain. This horseshoe was the mirror of that worn around the neck of Custer’s subordinate, Major Reno. It would form the link — it would be his bridge. Custer would never believe in anything but himself, and in that power he believed all too much. Reno was different. He had seen defeat, had stared death in the eyes and lived with the haunting echo of that image for years. The spirits knew him by sight.
There were no trumpets to fill the air this day, despite Custer’s bravado. It was a bold plan, large and far-sighted in implication and implementation. He knew the odds, even as he disclaimed that there was any possibility of defeat. He believed that he had the answers, and that belief was a strong weapon, in and of itself.
He believed in Bloody Knife, as well. That was the fatal flaw. Every great plan has its weakness, every leader his Achilles heel. Bloody Knife had led him through the fabled holy black hills of the Sioux nation untouched. He had been there, breathing secrets and twisting dreams, since that day outside “The Smoking Gun.”
The Sioux hated Bloody Knife. Custer had no idea how deeply that hatred might run, but he felt it. His mind did not allow for the chance that the hatred was not reciprocated. The world was a steady procession of straight lines and set angles for the general. A man hated, a man loved, there was no middle ground, no gray area.
It was not Custer that Bloody Knife fought. It was not the Sioux. It was what each stood for in this senseless war. Change. Desecration of the land. Ignorance of the spirit of the land that provided all they needed, and ignorance of the mutual respect that could preserve this. Custer would not stop at the Sioux. He would not be happy until he had proven himself superior in intellect and battle to every “heathen savage” in the west.
The Sioux would not bend, but they might break. There was pride in them running deeper than sanity, in many cases, honor that shamed the whites they fought at every turn, but to no avail. They did not listen to the old ones any longer, though they venerated them. They did not seek to raid, or to count coup on their enemies, then to return to home and hearth for bragging rights. They sought destruction, annihilation. They were no different in this than the whites, and that was what Bloody Knife hated.
He slipped into a small copse of trees, and he pulled his mount to a halt, sliding off and kneeling quickly. There was not much time to work. He drew a small circle in the dirt, seating himself in it and pulling free the bag he wore at his side. From this he drew several herbs, which he sprinkled onto a pile of leaves and small twigs. After lighting them with flint and stone, he took free the small silver horseshoe from his belt and held it before him, closing his eyes and waiting for the sweet smoke to waft up and about him.
He could feel them gathering, the spirits of those who had gone before, the animals who had led him to an understanding of the land, wise men and warriors, mothers, daughters, and behind them all the whispered breath of the mother herself, the ultimate dream calling to his soul.
He concentrated, breathing deeply, pulling his essence within and redirecting it. His focus was the glinting silver horseshoe, the memory of golden hair and glistening steel, the whooping, rage-filled cries of the warriors as they mounted.
He had come to Sitting Bull in his dreams. While wrapped in the warm embrace of his three current wives, the Chief had seen victory. He had ridden as a demon through the lines of his enemy, counting their dead like the flies on a buffalo carcass and screaming his name to the skies. Victory and battle were the only visions the Sioux would respect in those days of horror and hatred, and Bloody Knife had provided them. The Sioux would ride.
Custer had been different. Bloody Knife had never feigned good will toward his employer, often being openly disrespectful. It was a ploy to gain respect, one that had worked. His prophecies had helped Custer on innumerable occasions, but never had they been offered directly. Always, he had made comments from the side, suggestions to the wind that were overheard and implemented. The battle to come was based on such comments.
“I had a dream,” he’d told another scout, aware that Custer listened nearby. “In my dream, there was a hill — a hill I know. It was the Little Bighorn, you know this place?” The guide had nodded solemnly. “I saw that hill run red, and from it, many spirits rose. They wore the colors and paint of the Sioux, and above them, burning bright, was a star — the star of the Morning…”
There had been more, and he had seen the effect of his words in the other’s eyes. Custer never said a word, but it was that very evening that he gathered his subordinates and planned to take off, with his own regiment, to the hill of the Little Bighorn. He outlined his plan carefully, and his eyes were nearly fevered with thoughts of victory and glory.
The smoke carried Bloody Knife up through the trees, up to where the fields beyond were visible, up to where the touch of the sun was a caress on his soul. He could see the hill in the distance, and he could hear the sounds from where the main force of the troops, led by Major Reno, were engaged, held in position, by huge numbers of the Sioux.
He could sense those forces pulling back, and he knew it was about to come, the battle was on. Custer would soon mount the hill, and Reno would begin to close in from the flank with his cavalry. It might be enough to turn the tide. It might change the vision. It could not be so.
The image of the horseshoe grew until it was a giant, panoramic view that super-imposed itself on the sky. He looked within the silver, looked beyond it, and he saw Reno, saw the man give the order to move and saw the lines begin to form behind him.
The spirits answered Bloody Knife’s call. They slid from tree to tree around the Major and his forces, rising from the earth, dropping from the trees. Always they were just out of sight, but they caught at the peripheral of each soldier’s vision, snatched at the sensitive ears and eyes of their mounts, grabbed at the strings that bound their hearts to their courage and plucked, bringing a trembling to the very air itself. Danger. Death.
Reno’s eyes were taking on a far-away, empty glaze. He saw the land before him, and yet he saw a different place. He saw his men, but they were not the men of that moment, but the men of another place, another time. Ahead his men saw the Unkpapa village and the line of Sioux warriors descending on them. Reno saw a road. Ahead was the fleeing form of a single man, “The Grey Ghost,” John Singleton Mosby, and he felt himself drawn into the vortex of that moment, reliving the madness.
He’d confronted the fugitive in a small town, chased him out onto the road, and victory was at hand. Then the bullets had begun to fly, from the trees, the bushes, raining down upon the road like hail. All around him his men were dropping, dying, screaming, and ahead the “Grey Ghost” laughed, flying into the face of time, dragging him through the blood and bodies of the fallen.
This wavered in and out of his vision along with the village, the advancing braves, his men. There were other Indians there as well, rising from the ground to stare at him in hatred, to stare through him, then to disappear. He raised his hand, screamed for a halt, for a dismount. He could feel the charge of the enemy as they approached, and yet he halted.
Skirmish lines were quickly formed as his men, staring stupidly at him as if he were a mad man, did as he ordered. They set themselves in a defensive posture, and they waited, leaving the plan, the General, and history to sort it out.
Reno leaped from his own horse, running madly about the lines, giving orders, some that made sense, others that were gibberish. He lost his helmet in the madness and picked up a stray straw hat, wrapping a cloth about his head as though to emulate the very savages they fought. Foam flew from his lips, and still he stumbled about. They could not die. He would not let them. His men would not die at his hand again.
Bloody Knife called to him, then, seeing that they would not advance, and he stopped still, listening to the air. Without further thought, he spun and ran to his horse, leaping back to the saddle.
“If you would save yourselves,” he cried, raising his arms high above his head as his horse pranced nervously, “follow me.”
The major turned and fled, and his men, one after another, slowly at first, then in force, followed. They were in a confusion, and the Sioux warriors falling upon them like an avenging tide took full advantage. They dragged the soldiers from their mounts, impaled them one after another in the constant barrage of arrows that blurred the air with shafts and feathers, death and screaming pain.
There was no chance. There was no hope, and with that black tide at his heels, the major fled to the trees, where Bloody Knife awaited him. The scout had risen. About his neck, he’d tied a starred bandanna that Custer himself had given him. He’d donned the bear-claw and clam-shell necklace of the Sioux shaman, carried at his side all these years, carried with secret pride and open pain. He stood alone in a clearing, sending his mind out to Reno and calling him forth.
The spirits whispered of the blood. The Little Bighorn ran red, and the blood was not of the Sioux. Men died, screaming and tortured, Indian children played with the wounded, stabbing and cutting, cat-calling and hounding. To a man they would die, their blood returning to replenish the land. The battle would make no difference in the end, but for that moment, that glorious moment, the last that Bloody Knife would know on earth, there would be a cleansing. There would be a return to what was animal in man, what was natural in nature.
As he stood, Reno roared into the clearing, eyes crazed and spittle flying from his lips. Seeing Bloody Knife and recognizing him, somehow, he leaped from his saddle and ran forward, dropping the reins of his mount and nearly stumbling to his knees.
“What has happened?” he cried. “Why are you not with the General? The attack, it is over — lost. We cannot break through. Why . . .”
There were a million questions swirling in the madness of the man’s eyes. Bloody Knife would have liked the time to explain himself, to teach what he had been taught, to pass on this legacy of responsibility, but it was not possible. It was time.
Even as the echo of the gunshot rang through the forest, he felt the hand of the mother’s spirit reaching out to draw him home. He saw the earth swirling away beneath him, felt the release as he broke free — broke into the realm of those he’d shared with so often, felt their embrace as they accepted him into the one whole, the spirit of the earth mother, Gaia, the purity of essence without form.
Major Reno staggered into the trees and somehow found his mount. He’d seen the eyes behind that gun — Sioux. They had followed him, even here, and they had shot Bloody Knife before he could answer. The major reached up slowly, running a gloved hand across his face. The Indian guide’s blood had spattered his features, his uniform, imbedded itself in his hair.
One moment the man had stood before him, the next his head had just exploded. Nothing. Where there had been eyes, eyes awash in wisdom and answers lost, there was a mist of red and pain. No screams. No staggering, bloody corpse. The body had dropped, headless, and Reno had run. Again.
In the distance he could still hear guns, screams. A momentary vision blotted the sight of the forest and he saw a hill, running deepest red, overrun with feathered hair and screaming, savage faces. There were no blue-shirted warriors on that hill, no cries of victory or glory. Only the red.
Mounting up, he headed back out of the trees and back toward safety at a full gallop, already planning his explanations. There would be no mention of ghosts, there would be no mention of Bloody Knife or visions of blood-soaked hills. There would be no glory. He had made history — history and glory are not synonymous. His head hung low, he rode to destiny.
I wrote a book a couple of years back titled American Pies – Baking With Dave the Pie Guy… it’s got a bunch of pie recipes, all tried, photographed, and described in detail – and a bit more… it all started with the question of whether or not you could make a pie from persimmons, something I loved as a child, and discovered because of my grandfather. The answer is yes… here’s the Fresh Persimmon Pie recipe from my book… which you should buy people for Christmas… just saying. Here’s the Amazon Link:
Fresh Persimmon Pie
You may have guessed by now that this is not just a book of pie recipes. There are stories behind each of the choices I made for my ‘baker’s dozen’. (The final pie was the American Pie – we’ll get to that, but you saw it on the cover of the book). As is the case so often in my life, my past met up with my present one night, and I started remembering, and thinking.
I grew up in southern Illinois. My grandparents lived in a very small town that had already started to die out by the time I first visited. The highway moved to the side and bypassed them. They had lived there for a very long time, having built several homes, and even a log cabin. My Aunt Lucile (We called her Aunt ‘Toole’ – though I don’t really know why) lived in the house next door, which my grandfather also built.
I spent a lot of time in Flora – that was the town. Some of the strongest memories and impressions of my life date back to those few small streets, the park outside of town, Johnsonville Lake where my grandpa took us fishing, and the railroad tracks we walked up and down that led out of town.
In those days, there were still a lot of trains. Sometimes you had to hurry to get off the tracks and out of the way as hundreds of cars rushed past, looking tall as large buildings and making so much noise conversation was impossible. In later years, my brother and I explored those tracks on our own, but when I was younger I went there with my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I remember as the finest man I ever met – and who I wish I’d been older while knowing so I could have heard, and understood, his stories. I’ve heard a lot of them second hand, and I’ve got pictures, records and the memories my mom has shared. I just wish I’d been a little more aware of just how amazing his life had been, so I could have soaked more in while I had time to spend.
He took my brother and I back along those railroad tracks because there were nut trees in small groves that he knew where to find – and in one small hollow down off the track, there were persimmon trees. My grandfather introduced me to a lot of things in life. He taught me to fish, to tie my own flies, to wrap a fishing rod and build it from scratch, and he taught me about a lot of food that I likely would not have known, or enjoyed.
He showed me how to make dandelion greens into something very much like spinach. He introduced me to fresh, home-made canned yogurt, gardening, raising earthworms, polishing stones and making jewelry. Out along the railroad tracks, he introduced me to persimmons.
They were different back then than what you’ll find in the grocery store these days. They were sort of like a game – you could win a treat, but you couldn’t win if you didn’t play. About a third of all the persimmons we picked left a bitter aftertaste…finding them just ripe enough was an art form and a shaky one at best. Still, when they were good, they were among the best flavors in the world, and I never forgot them.
One day we were in our local grocery, here in North Carolina, and there, in a carton, were persimmons. I got excited. I probably babbled about them. I know everyone reached the smile and nod point with me pretty quickly but it didn’t matter. They were there, and I bought some. As I ate them, day after day, I waited for that bad one – that bitter taste that had plagued the persimmon bliss of my youth. It never came. They were sweet, soft, and consistently good. Finally, I looked them up on the Internet.
As mankind has done so many times in the past, someone got tired of the ‘problem’ of bitter persimmons. They not only engineered new ones that were almost never bitter (I did find one bitter one late one night and almost laughed until I cried trying to explain why a bad taste in my mouth brought a good memory). They also managed to create persimmons without seeds. I learned, as I read, that they are also called Sharon fruit, named for the Sharon Plain in Israel, where some of the finest of this particular fruit has been grown. It does look a bit like a star inside when sliced (as you’ll see in the pictures). They are orange-yellow to dark orange in color and very sweet.
Anyway, after eating these newly rediscovered treats for a couple of weeks, I was sitting in bed thinking (almost always a mistake). What came to mind was …why have I never seen a persimmon pie? This led to the question of whether you could make a persimmon pie, and the inevitable Internet journey that led to the answer.
Of course you can. You can make a pie out of almost anything. I found several recipes for fresh persimmon pie, and I copied a bunch of them. Then I did what I usually do. I poked them, prodded them, talked about them, and generally procrastinated without doing anything. I, of course, did not regularly bake pies. I’ve probably baked a couple earlier in my life, but it was so far back I don’t remember. The question changed from ‘can you make a persimmon pie?’ to ‘Can I make a persimmon pie.”
As it turns out, again, the answer was – of course I can. Pie is like anything else … you can psyche yourself out and make it into some weird voodoo that only chefs, bakers, and grandmas can pull off with any skill, but the truth is; if you pay attention, take your time, and prepare properly, you can bake a pie. It’s not rocket science (though I have it on good authority that rocket scientists like pie.).
Once I got over the hurdle of deciding to actually bake the pie, things shifted into a higher gear. I was all business. I had my recipe. I was sure we had everything we needed in the kitchen, I mean, it’s full of baking stuff. I checked my list, and found that we did, indeed, have most of the ingredients for this particular pie right in our pantry. Of course, I had to buy persimmons.
The recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of fresh persimmons. Stumbling block number one. How many persimmons, exactly, in a cup? And also – looking at the recipe, I realized I had a bigger problem. You see, there was a picture of the pie they envisioned. It was flat across the top, maybe even a little sunken. It looked a lot like the pies in the supermarket, and that was not what I wanted to bake.
I pulled out the biggest measuring cup we have – it’s an Anchor Hocking Fire-King piece we bought at an auction when we spent our nights buying and selling antiques and collectibles on eBay. Another lifetime, it seems, after all this time. Anyway, the top line on the measuring scale said that it held four cups. It didn’t seem like much to me, and even with that measurement to sort of eyeball, it quickly became obvious that, depending on how they were sliced, the number of persimmons it would take to fill that cup was going to vary wildly. I bought a whole bag of them. I err on the side of too much fruit every time, and if there are leftover persimmons, believe me, you won’t be sorry when you taste one.
I gathered the ingredients, but not efficiently. My method was to put each of the things that I had to have in a different container (why? I have no idea) so I dirtied quite a few cups and bowls in the process. The recipe called for:
2 ½ Cups of ripe persimmons. (We used 5-6 cups in the end)
1/3 of a Cup of granulated sugar.
1/3 Cup firmly packed brown sugar.
2 ½ Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca…
What? Here we break down again. Cooking tapioca? I’ve had tapioca pudding often enough. What was it doing in a pie, though? I had to stop – mid-pie – and go back to the Internet. I also had to figure out why, exactly, I’d missed this during my quick inventory. I mean, the pie was half made, and I was missing something – maybe something important.
Here is one of the lessons I learned about pies. Fruit is juicy. (wow, what a revelation). If you just bake it in a pie, it bubbles out over the edges. It won’t hold together when you slice it. It’s more like soup, in fact, than it is like filling. Cooking tapioca is something bakers use to thicken the filling. Thankfully for my first pie, it’s not the only thing that will do the job. The more commonly used ingredient is cornstarch, and according to the cooking experts I found online, you could use about the same amount of cornstarch as you would tapioca and it would work just fine. That’s what I did. As luck would have it, we had cornstarch in abundance. This thickening process is one of the tricky things to learn, and may not work for you perfectly until you experiment with it. The recipes I found varied wildly on the amount necessary for several of the pies we made. Our results varied just as wildly, and while we didn’t come out with any bad pies, some were runnier than I’d have liked. This is where grandmothers have the upper hand with their pinch of this and handful of that. They just knew…and the reason they knew was they’d done it and done it and done it again.
1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon.
1/2 Teaspoon of grated orange peel.
1/2 Teaspoon of grated lemon peel.
Again…time for another break. Various recipes call for grated orange and lemon peels, or “zested” peels. What they don’t tell you is how in the world you’re supposed to get said grated peel, or why it’s there. I can’t tell you that I know why it’s there – other than flavor – but I can tell you how to get it.
First, wash the lemon, or the orange. You’d think that goes without saying, but I mention it because it’s something I think about. I once wrote a story that was published in an anthology about Holidays. My story? “For These Things I am Truly Thankful.” In that story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the history of things. The water in his sink, coming through pipes that ran beneath the ground, had been put together by plumbers with God knows what on their hands, had picked up silt and other things from the processing plant, the people there – etc.
I want to point out that the orange and / or lemon in question came from a grocery store, where it was groped by consumers, placed by a stock person, possibly coughed and sneezed on. Before that they were in a box, shipped from another country, and suffered all of those same things – along with bug spray and BUGS (which is why they spray). So…since you are using the outside of the fruit, wash it thoroughly.
If you have a potato peeler or a cheese grater, either of these will work fine – and even if the recipe in hand says “zest” – it’s all the same when it hits the pie. I happen to have a zester by lucky coincidence. I bought a fancy vegetable carving kit so I could have the tools to carve Halloween pumpkins, and, as it turns out, one of the things they sent (though I had no idea what it was until Trish told me) was a zester.
3 Tablespoons of lemon juice.
I know, I know. Get on with it, right? I promise that I will, but I have to tell you, the lemon juice confused me too. Now I know it’s important, and if it’s missing from a fruit recipe, I usually add it in for good measure. Lemon juice is a natural preservative. I’m sure you’ve bitten into an apple, or left one sliced and laying around longer than you should have. They get brown very quickly. The same is true of a number of fruits, and if the first thing you do is to slice your fruit, you chance the quick advance of decay while you are busy mixing and whisking and doing pie-baking things. You sprinkle the aforementioned lemon juice onto the fruit to keep it fresh – and it works. I can say that after 13 pies, it worked for me every time. You also get a slight citrus flavor from it, but not distracting. You actually – oddly – get more flavor from the zested / grated peels.
2 9″ Pastry pie crusts.
I use the boxed crusts you can find at the supermarket. I do not use the store brand, or any generic. If I get permission from the company (still waiting) I’ll let you know the brand name before I’m done, but suffice it to say the mascot giggles a lot. They are (hands down) the best. I will eventually branch into making my own crusts, I suppose, but my suspicion is that, though I might make one as good as the ones I use, probably I will not make one that is better.
The last ingredient is butter or margarine. You’ll see anything from one to three tablespoons in pie recipes, but here’s the deal. This is a pinch of this and handful of that thing, again. When all the filling is in the pie, you’ll spot the top of it with small dabs of butter or margarine. It melts down in and blends with the juice, cornstarch, and filling and it’s important so make sure you remember – right before that second crust goes over the top of the pie (I’ll mention this again when I reach that point, but I want to be sure you don’t forget. I did – once – and had to peel back the top crust and slide it in. A delicate job that could have ruined a perfectly good pie.)
Now it’s time to make this pie. Rinse the persimmons (see my note about washing fruit above). These have a weird leaf/stem that has to be cut out. It’s easiest to cut in a circle around it and pop it off the top. The recipes all called for the persimmons to then be cut into thin slices. Here is where I’ll make another comment. We did as they instructed, and the pie was actually very good. Persimmons, though, unless incredibly ripe, are kind of crunchy. If you slice the persimmons into, basically, circular slices, you’ll find them a little hard to cut with a fork when eating them, though they look really good in the bowl, and in the pie. I didn’t mind this – but I love persimmons. For better results, I think, I’d suggest almost dicing the fruit. Some recipes call for pulping the persimmons (boiling them to mush) but I don’t like doing this to any fruit – dicing will give you smaller, more manageable chunks.
Once your persimmons are cut, or sliced, and ready –put them in a medium to large sized bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice over them. Set this aside and find yourself another medium sized bowl. In this bowl, combine the two types of sugar, tapioca (or cornstarch), cinnamon, orange and lemon peels and stir them thoroughly. You need to mix up all the powders until you have them spread evenly so you don’t end up with pockets of cornstarch, or sugar on one side, and all the orange peels on the other. I use either a whisk, or a large spoon for this mixing. The spoon is good because you can use it to sprinkle the resultant mixture over the fruit.
Now, set aside your second bowl and get your pie plate ready. I recommend as deep a 9″ pie plate as you can find. I only use glass or Pyrex plates. Set the plate on a surface where you have some working room, and then get out your pie crusts. Unroll the first crust and place it over the top of the pie plate, then carefully press it down into the plate so that it shapes to the glass. The crust will extend out past the edge of the plate. At this point, take a knife and cut around the edge of the plate, trimming off the excess crust.
You can do what you want with this excess. They say it’s bad to eat it raw, though I’ve done that. The “Pie Bloke” over in the UK tells me it’s because there is raw egg in it. Trish suggests rolling it into balls, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, and baking it to make pie-crust cookies. We did that once, and they were okay, but nothing to write home about. The important thing is that you trim even with the flat top edge of your pie-plate.
When this is done you have a couple of choices. As you will see in the photos of my own persimmon pie, I chose to mix all of the ingredients in with the persimmons thoroughly, and then place them in the pie. The other method is layering, sprinkling in some of the ingredients, then layering persimmons on top of that, sprinkling more, etc. If you choose this latter method, don’t skimp. You need all the ingredients in the pie if you can manage it. The key is that the fruit should be coated in the sugar and cornstarch and cinnamon, and that it should filter down and fill the cracks between the fruit. As the pie bakes, the fruit will sort of melt into the rest of it, and combine. It’s a beautiful thing.
From here on out, it’s pretty easy. Don’t forget to dab in the bits of butter or margarine. Spread them out across the pie filling, but it doesn’t REALLY matter where you put them. Next you need to take that second pie crust, unroll it, and very carefully place it over the top of the pie. You have to get it centered so that there is excess sticking out over the edges of the plate.
There are tools for what I’m about to describe. I don’t own one. I have an old can opener with the pointed, triangular end on it. Not much good for cans these days, but you can use it here. Hold it with the top down. Press it firmly into the top crust directly above the flat glass edge of the pie plate. This presses the two crusts together and leaves a cool indentation. Right beside this, do it again, and continue this carefully all the way around the perimeter of the pie, until you’ve come full circle and the edges of the impressions touch. The cool technical term for this is crimping When this is done, once again, trim off all the excess crust and set it aside for whatever you’ve decided to use it for.
At this point, I usually stop and turn on the oven. It takes a while to preheat. This also brings me to another wide variance in the recipes of others. Baking time, and temperature. This recipe calls for setting the oven at 375° – and I have to say, on this first pie I probably got lucky. I’m convinced that the perfect baking time on most pies hovers on or around one hour. The best results I’ve had have involved starting with a really high temperature, and dropping it down after twenty minutes or so…but for this pie, set the oven to 375° and wait for it to preheat.
Next you need to cut vents in your top crust. This is another thing that you don’t want to forget, because, as I keep saying, step after step, it’s important. The vents let the pressure and heat from the fruit cooking inside release any built up pressure and gives the filling a place to bubble up and out if it gets too hot. I cut slits from near the center down in a star pattern. Some people cut sort of tear-drop shaped slits, and others try to get artistic and cut designs. The star was quick and easy, and it’s what I went with. Later in the book I’ll show you what happened when we tried to get more creative. In the end – I’m going to eat the pie…so I don’t need anything fancy.
At this point I slapped my pie in on the bottom shelf, as the recipe called for, and set my timer for one hour. It was a mistake, and I’ll explain that in a moment. While it’s baking you should look in on it now and then. Make sure the edges get a little brown before you pull it out, and make sure they don’t get too brown. Again, it’s something you learn to get just right over time.
But let’s get back to that mistake. Remember I said you had the vents in case the filling needs to bubble up and out? It does. It always does, at least a little. If you put your pie in on the oven rack, that fruit filling is going to sizzle and drip all over the bottom of your oven. This is not going to make people happy. It’s hard to get out, it bakes onto the inner surface of the oven like cement, and it’s easily avoidable. What you need to do is either to put a foil covered cookie or pizza pan underneath your pie pan, or to make something. That’s what I do, now. After Trish quit cursing at me, and showed me how, I started using a drip pan created by taking a couple of sheets of tinfoil and folding them. You fold one in half, just a bit wider than the pie pan. Then you take the other, fold it over and around the first forming a sort of cross. Crimp up the edges so that anything trying to run over the edge of your pie – won’t. Again…this is important.
Now, place your pie into the heated oven, set yourself a timer (I use the one on the microwave above the stove) and sit back to wait out the hour for your finished pie. When it’s baked, remove it carefully and place it on the stop top to cool. I think about an hour is perfect for cooling. Your finished product should look something like this:
If you did it right…shortly after this, it will look more like this:
And there you have it. I will include the full recipes for each of these pies at the back of the book (minus the commentary). They will also be available (for those who buy the book) as a printable recipe cards. These chapters are longer, but I hope not boring – and I know likely to improve your outcome. Learn from my mistakes…that’s why I’m here. Now, on to our next adventure, Fresh Pear Pie.
I am in the middle of a HUGE reorganization of all my writing files, backups, folders, books, stories… and more. I’ve rediscovered things I’ve lost, found things I don’t even remember writing… and it’s set in motion a great fixing and cleansing of things… One thing I have found is that I have written a LOT of articles, reviews, blog posts, etc… and some of it bears revisiting. Some of the comments in this post are dated – because it’s 2016, and the article was written in 2004…
It defines a moment in my career, and those who know my work know how I feel about Defining Moments…
Without Further Ado:
Some time in 1988, I’m not sure what month; I was sitting around with my good buddy John B. Rosenman. He and I were in a writing frenzy that year, and in years to come. We submitted to any market that surfaced on the horizon, and, having been at it longer than I had been at the time, John was very successful at landing slots in them. I was telling him about a story I’d sold to After Hours Magazine, and he told me about the premiere issue of Cemetery Dance. He showed me the magazine; its cover was a sort of grotesque, striking black and white illustration. I knew a lot of the folks being published in that first issue – others I did not know. I didn’t know Rich Chizmar, for one, and made a mental note that I should do so.
What followed was a period in my career where two men saw (literally) hundreds of thousands of words of my earlier fiction and turned it all down. Between Stephen Mark Rainey at Deathrealm, and Rich Chizmar, I probably produced two novels worth of short stories that were not quite right for their publications. Still, I continued, because they were encouraging. Rich, in particular, was an inspiration to me. I was publishing a magazine called The Tome, and though I was having successes of my own, I watched Rich go quickly from a solid start to the successor to Dave Silva’s Horror Show in literally only a few issues. Everyone was talking about Cemetery Dance, and this spurred me on both to improve my own magazine, and to write something that would catch Rich’s attention.
Oddly, when I finally did so, it was a story he’d already passed on. Somehow my tale, “The Mole,” stuck with him, and one day I got a phone call. “Do you still have that tunnel rat story?” he asked. That moment changed my career forever – I believe that. It was a sale I had coveted since the late eighties, and when it finally happened (that was the Fall, 1990 issue) it felt like one of those career-changing epiphanies. When that same story was reprinted in “The Best of Cemetery Dance,” I was in heaven. That was another first that Rich gave me – my first appearance in a book signed by myself and by Stephen King (thankfully not my last). I went on to sell a number of stories to Rich over the years and a novella, and he has always been encouraging to me – very positive and upbeat despite the curve balls life has thrown us both.
I have to say that when I first sat and leafed through issue number one of Cemetery Dance, I should have been more perceptive. He hit the horror business like a comet and we never saw him coming. After fifteen years and more than fifty publications, (Remember, this was written back in 2004) and with a future as bright as he wants it to be, Rich is the guy we should all be looking to when we need inspiration – and has always been there for me when I needed his support. Congratulations on 15 years of amazing accomplishments Rich. We still need to get together for golf.
I’ve posted this before, but my novel DEEP BLUE will be on sale at all outlets for .99 from now until at least the 5th of October. This is the book (don’t take my word for it, read the reviews) that was compared to King and Koontz… the big book that should have been my breakout (and still could be with your help) that came out from a small publisher… didn’t do well despite wonderful trade reviews… and still needs a wider audience.
The novel Deep Blue finds its origin in the novelette by the same name published in an anthology titled Strange Attraction. In Strange Attraction, all the stories were inspired by the “Kinetic” Art of Lisa Snelling, each author choosing one of the characters on an intricately detailed Ferris wheel sculpture. I was honored to be among authors such as Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe in presenting our separate visions of what lay buried behind her art. From the images presented, I chose a harlequin, hanging by a noose from the bottom of one of the Ferris wheels seats. I took the image, made it the wallpaper on my computer, printed it out and carried it around with me, and let it sink in. I could have written any number of stories that would have sufficed, but somehow I knew there would be more to this work, and so I waited.
The publishers of the anthology, Vince and Leslie Harper, invited me to have dinner with them one night when my mundane job took me to Washington DC. We met for Mexican food and went together to see the movie PI which, at the time, was newly released. On the way to meet the Harpers, I walked down into a shadowed subway, and I was assaulted by some of the most haunting saxophone music I’ve ever heard. It bordered the blues, walked down old jazz roads, and I never saw the musician. That set the mood for what was to come.
I reached the restaurant without further incident, and we spent a pleasant hour scalding mouths and stomachs with jalapenos and washing them down with beer. Then came the movie. I won’t go into detail about PI, but I’ll say it’s a black and white film, very surreal, filled with symbolism, and it left me visually and emotionally stunned. I parted company with Vince and his wife, found my way back to the subway and my hotel, and called it a night.
The next day, a friend of mine and I set out to visit The Holocaust Museum. I have always wanted to see it, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the images, the displays, and the words I would find in that short hour visit. I purchased a book of poetry written by the victims, and left with so much bottled up inside from those two days that I thought it would be the end of my sanity.
That night, I started to write. I started to write about The Blues, and how deep they might really get. I wrote about pain, not my pain, but the pain bottled up inside the world, as the pain had been bottled up inside me, and I wrote a way out. That was Brandt, his guitar, and his blues. The story, like the pain, refused to be bottled up in just the few lines of that novelette, and so I released it into the novel you now hold.
Everyone comes to their crossroads eventually – the defining moment of life. As Old Wally, one of the novel’s main characters tells us – “Crossroads, or the crosshairs.” Forward or back, but you can’t stay stagnant – that way lies madness. I give you . . . Deep Blue.
I wanted to tell you all about something you might not be aware of… well, two things, actually. You might not have been aware of this Historical Fantasy Storybundle and all the wonderful authors and books associated with it, and you might even be unaware of my novel, The Orffyreus Wheel, which is a dual-timeline novel covering an inventor named Johann Bessler, who may, or may not, have invented a perpetual motion machine a very long time ago – and the implications of such (basically) free energy source in modern times – the energy barons who would kill to shut it down – the visionaries who would fight to set it free. Those are not the point, though. The point is… Historical Fantasy.
I have always loved history. When I was a kid I took every course I could on the subject. I’ve read extensively. Early on, I discovered another way to learn – and I learned it from a novel titled Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts (whose books I ended up devouring). Historical fantasy, while bringing you magic, made up heroics and legends, ALSO (see the genre title) brings you history. A well-written, well-researched historical novel that draws you in leaves you with the satisfaction of a story that sticks with you, but also with knowledge gained through the reading of it… Margaret Atwood and (from this bundle) Jo Graham, can give you ancient Egypt with details you might never have known. Kenneth Roberts gave me the truth about Benedict Arnold, and so much more. I can’t begin to list the number of times a book, or a story, has gifted me with insights into history that I would have missed in a dry, classroom environment. The series “The Order of the Air,” by this bundle’s head honcho Melissa Scott, and Jo Graham, covers a period just prior to Hitler’s Reich, bringing you insights into air travel, technology, Nikola Tesla, and so much more.
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Go on… you KNOW you need some books.
My novel THE ORFFYREUS WHEEL is included in this amazing STORYBUNDLE curated by Melissa Scott. Historical fantasy has long been a favorite genre of mine because it’s allowed me to learn, and come at the past in different ways, and from unique perspectives. In my novel, you’ll meet a man who called himself ORFFYREUS and claimed to have invented the Perpetuum Mobile. He was never proven a fraud. On a parallel storyline, I try to show what I think would happen if such a free source of energy loomed on the horizon in full view of big oil companies and the world.
In this collection I’ve been able to bring together an extraordinary group of writers who draw their inspiration from Western history, in periods from Ancient Egypt through the Second World War. There are classics like the World Fantasy Award-nominated Lord of the Two Lands and the Nebula-nominated Death of the Necromancer, and newer novels like Daughter of Mystery and The Emperor’s Agent — and Stag and Hound, just released in April. What these novels have in common, across these very different periods, is a depth to and delight in their worlds, in the precise detail and pitch-perfect moment that not only propels the story, but makes it utterly, dazzlingly real.
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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Once, long ago, I was keynote speaker at a writer’s conference in the Lehigh Valley up north. I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about. I felt a little overwhelmed, because, at that point in my career, though I’d sold several novels and a handful or two of stories, I wasn’t sure I had the experience to speak on a subject that would prove useful. Then…I started talking (it’s a recurring theme…). What I talked about was the fact that my ideas don’t just come to me. Often – I live them. I told them this story – it didn’t happen exactly as I wrote it, but it was closer than reality should have allowed. The house – the church – the guy who looked like Charles Manson… so much of this I did not make up. Then I wrote in my buddy Wayne Allen Sallee – who was present that weekend, a weekend where I’d come to author Elizabeth Massie’s house for something we called Pseudocon – a writer’s retreat of sorts – a gathering of friends that I have to this day, though at least one has passed from us. Many of these people are authors I now publish. All of them have influenced my life, and my work. If you go to Waynesboro, VA and turn between the two silos and see a house with a car in the front yard – radio playing – beside an old church. Think twice before you ask for directions.
You Lookin’ For Herb?
It was getting dark, and the road ahead was fading quickly to shadows. Dave looked about himself nervously, hoping against hope that he’d see something familiar, something that would let him know he was on the right track. For about the thousandth time that hour, he cursed himself for forgetting to bring Beth’s phone number.
The Virginia mountains were no place to be lost at that time of night, especially when the only landmarks you could remember that might make everything all right were three giant grain silos off to one side of the road, and you could barely see the side of the road. It was not starting out to be the best night of his life.
In the seat beside him, Jo was squirming uncomfortably, trying to look unconcerned, but not doing a very good job. She was taking it like a real trooper. It was their first time away together, and they hadn’t been dating that long. His first fear had been that she’d be furious, and that their weekend would be ruined, all by his own ridiculous mistake.
The roads that turned off to either side were all numbered with identical signs. He knew that the road he needed was eight hundred and something, and since he couldn’t make out a thing along the roadside, he opted for the one that seemed to ring a bell. 813. It might not be the right one, but it was a place to start.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said, turning to Jo with a lopsided grin. “I can’t believe her phone is unlisted!”
“It’s okay,” she said, returning the smile, if a bit nervously. “Is this the road?”
“I’m not sure, but it looks familiar. If this isn’t it, we’ll come back out here, make our way into town, and I’ll figure something else out.”
She nodded, and he drove on down the dark, deserted road, paying close attention to the many potholes and the steep ditches. She had offered up her car for the trip, even letting him do the driving, and he had no intention of taking advantage of that trust.
On either side they passed farm houses, some showing lights, others seemingly deserted. Nowhere was there a sign of life or a familiar landmark, and after a couple of short miles, he had to admit that he was lost.
Just as he’d begun to look for a place to turn around and head back the other way, he spotted one last house on the right side of the road. There was a car parked in the front yard, its door open and the dome-light on.
“I’m going to pull in and ask whoever that is for directions,” he said with relief. “It looks like they just got home!”
Jo didn’t say anything, but he noticed that she was gripping the armrest on the door tightly and her lips were compressed in a very, very poor imitation of a smile. It didn’t help that there was an old abandoned church in the lot across the way from the house.
He stared at it, realizing almost immediately what seemed out of place. There was a “FOR RENT” sign on the door! A church for rent, and it came with its own small cemetery out back. Swell. How many gods could be in the market?
He pulled into the driveway behind where the other car was still parked, and he turned off the ignition.
“Wait here?” he asked.
Jo didn’t look enthusiastic about being left alone, but it was obvious that she’d rather be near the ignition and the gas pedal than walking into some strange country homestead and chatting up the locals. That was fine. Alone, he could hurry it along, find out where that damned road with the three silos was, and they’d be on their way. Once they’d finally reached Beth’s and gotten settled in, he was certain things would be fine. At least he hoped they would.
Crossing the unkempt yard quickly, lips twisted in a friendly smile, Dave approached the car. It was obvious now that, though the door was open, the dome light and stereo on, the occupant of the vehicle had no intention of getting out and going inside. Judging from the two flat tires on the closest side of the vehicle and the flowers growing up through the fender in front, it was more of a home addition than a vehicle these days.
Just as Dave was beginning to think that maybe Jo was right, maybe they would be better off just finding the place on their own, an arm slipped out from the car’s shadowy interior to dangle loosely over the door, which was slightly ajar, and a face appeared in the window.
If he hadn’t known the man was in prison, and that the idea was ludicrous, he would’ve sworn that the face belonged to Charlie Manson. Long, greasy hair dangled past thin, emaciated shoulders, and the eyes that stared out from the shadows of that car were feral – like those of a rodent, or some wild predator, gleaming at him through the darkness.
“Yeah?” the man said, and the dry, rasping sound of his voice, followed by a rattling cough, brought things back to reality. It wasn’t Charlie Manson, that was for sure.
“Excuse me,” Dave began brightly, holding out a hand that the other man ignored pointedly, “but we’re looking for the Lindbergh place – it’s a farm near here. I think we must have taken a wrong turn off the main road back there.”
He pointed vaguely back the way they’d come, trying without success to remember just which number turnoff they’d actually taken.
“You lookin’ for Herb?” the man asked, his eyes slightly unfocused. He acted as though he hadn’t heard a word Dave had said, and it was obvious that he was drunk, or stoned, or both. At least Dave hoped he was.
“No,” he answered slowly. “I don’t know any Herb – is he a relative of the Lindberghs?”
The man looked at him as if he were crazy. “Nope, don’t think so. He’ll be here in a little bit, though, you could wait.”
“But I don’t want to see Herb,” Dave burst out, exasperated. “I’m just looking for directions to my friend’s farm.”
“I don’t know these parts too well,” the man told him slowly. “You might go inside and ask – someone ought to be able to help you.”
Dave turned, giving Jo a “what can I do?” kind of shrug, and looked about himself quickly. He saw the church next door, its graveyard pointed directly at him and the “FOR RENT” sign hanging at an ominous angle on the door.
“Shit,” he said under his breath. He thanked the man quickly and headed for the front door of the place, hoping against hope that someone with half a brain would be inside, and that they could get out of this madhouse and back on the road quickly.
Just as he reached up to knock on the door, a breath of fetid air washed across his shoulder, and he realized that the man had slipped up behind him. An odd sound was filling the air – at first he thought it was just his head buzzing with the sudden burst of adrenalin brought on by the man’s sudden appearance – but it was more than that.
A piano. It was a tinny, off-key rendition of some sort of jazz tune, and it was coming from inside the house. Without a word, the man reached around him and pushed the door open, letting the music escape into the night.
Dave coughed quickly, backing up as the scent of the inner rooms hit him. There was a moldy, yellowed sheet hanging from the door frame like a curtain. The place smelled musky, like a huge litter box, or an abandoned barn that rodents had taken over.
Moving ahead of him, and thankfully pushing the nasty, rotting sheet out of the way, the man preceded him inside. With a deep breath, which he held as long as possible, Dave followed. There was a light just to the right – another doorway, similarly curtained to the first. It was from beyond this that the music was rolling forth, much louder now, still filled with so many discordant notes that he knew the instrument must be horribly out of tune.
Parting the “curtain” of the second room, he stepped inside and stopped cold. Seated across the room at a run-down, lop-sided old piano, sat what appeared to be a very greasy Little Richard impersonator. Dreadlocks hung down to shoulder length in back – greased or extremely dirty – and the man’s bony black fingers danced quickly over the chipped ivory of the keyboard. He swayed from side to side slowly, lost in the music – such as it was.
Then, with a sudden lurch, he stopped playing and spun his head over his left shoulder in a single, fluid motion, catching Dave staring and meeting his gaze flatly. There was no emotion in those eyes – no life of any sort, for that matter. No color. They were white, empty, blind eyes. Dave shivered involuntarily and glanced away, but when he gathered the courage to turn back, the pianist was gazing at his own fingers again. Dave couldn’t be certain what he’d seen, but the image of those milky-white orbs strobed in his mind.
“You looking for Herb?” the man asked quickly, not looking back again, or seeming to really care what Dave might be looking for.
Shaking his head, Dave answered. “No. I’m up here to visit some friends, the Lindberghs. They live down one of these roads, eight hundred something. I think the address is 870-B.”
The man continued to stare at him as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “You aren’t lookin’ for Herb?”
Holding his anger in check, Dave started to tell him again what he was looking for, but the first man cut in again.
“I know a guy named Wayne Lindbergh.”
“Great!” Dave cut in quickly. “Where does he live? Maybe he lives nearby, or he’s related?”
“Lived in Richmond,” the man said flatly. “Never been around here.”
Now anger was passing off into nervous fear. This was going from bizarre straight into late-night horror movie reality way too quickly.
“You don’t know where 870-B might be?” he asked, starting to turn for the door.
“This here’s 111,” the man at the piano told him slowly, as if dredging the numbers up from far, far back in the abyss he’d once called a mind.
About 555 short, I’d say, Dave thought. Aloud, he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just go and see if we can’t find it ourselves, then. The road has three grain silos off to the side.” He threw this in as a final hope, but no sparks flew.
“You can try the trailer park,” Manson said, pointing down the road one further than the turn off Dave had already taken. “Someone there can probably help you.”
“Great,” Dave said, backpedaling quickly and pushing aside the curtain over the door. It was time to get out of there and hit the road – quick. Next would come the chainsaws, or the axes.
“You sure you don’t wanna see Herb?” Little Richard asked as he turned away. “He’ll be comin’ by here later …”
That was it. Dave turned and lurched toward the front door, pushing the tattered sheet aside and slamming the outer door open with his palm. Somehow the Charles Manson-looking grease-ball had made his way back to the door at the same time. He leaned in close as Dave barreled out into the night and said, “We are a commune of musicians.”
Right, Dave thought as he hurried to the driver’s side of the car and slammed the door behind himself. Little Richard in there plays the piano, and you play the stereo out front, right?
“Did you find out anything?” Jo asked, taking in the expression on his face and the hurried, nervous movements he kept making as he started the car and backed out into the street.
“We aren’t staying for drinks, let’s just leave it at that,” he said, trying for a grin that never quite made it and turning to concentrate on the road ahead.
He drove to the next road, turned down it and headed toward the lights of the trailer park. Swell. More of the same, he was sure, but he had nothing else to try. In the distance he saw two figures walking down the road, both with hair down halfway to their asses. Shrugging, he pulled to the side of the road and asked about the silos.
“Oh, you mean 870?” the first of the two boys asked. They were both dressed normally enough – rock-group t-shirts and jeans, boots and leather belts. “That’s two roads back, you can’t miss those silos, once you turn off.”
Thanking them, Dave turned around once more and headed back the way he’d come. He found the Lindbergh farm easily enough, pulled in behind the other cars – everyone else, it seemed, had found the place in the daylight – and he and Jo went inside to join the party.
Everyone that was gathered there was a writer or an artist. They were the “Guests of Honor” at Out-in-the-BooniesCON, or some-such thing, a local SF gathering that would begin the next day.
After everyone was settled, Dave told the story of their harrowing experience on the next road down, and Beth’s eyes widened in horror.
“You don’t mean the ‘”Green'” house, do you? God, everyone wonders whether those guys are axe murders, or what.”
“One and the same,” Dave countered. “Not axe murderers, though, I don’t believe. They claim to be a commune of musicians.”
Everyone laughed, and after a few more drinks and a few more stories they all turned in for the night, the old house and its eerie inhabitants all but forgotten.
The convention had ended early, and after everyone had gathered back at the farm, Wayne and Mark convinced Dave to go back to the old Green house.
“Let’s go see those guys, man,” Wayne said. “What’s the harm? A beat-up piano, a few old sheets – maybe we could take a guitar with us and jam?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dave had grinned at him in exasperation. He was not kidding. Insane, probably, but not kidding.
So there they were, the three of them, the women having opted for something a bit less adventurous, like horseback riding, walking down the road toward the old house and its neighboring churchyard. Dave wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go there at all, but he wasn’t going to back down if the other two were going.
They made the expected wisecracks about the “FOR RENT” sign on the church, wondering which ancient god would take the owners up on it. Mark did a pretty good rendition of the slinking, clubfooted pace of a Romeroesque zombie, pointing at the graveyard and saying, “New God moved in, made us leave, He did. Said, no Christian God here, no Christian dead here, left us just like that, homeless.”
Dave’s laughter cut off midway through the first chuckle when they rounded the corner. The car wasn’t there. The weeds weren’t even pressed down where it might have been there before. He turned, eyes wide, and just stared at his companions, who were looking back at him like he was the lunatic.
“Maybe it wasn’t this place,” he said dubiously. He knew that it was. The angle on the old graveyard was just as it had been the night before. Moving as if he were in a trance, he made his way to the front door and made as if to knock on it. There was no need. The door stood a few inches ajar, hanging from one broken hinge that was half-rusted through.
Inside the sheets hung, just as he’d said, and he brushed his way past them both in a rush, heedless of the many spider’s’ webs and scuttling things that shot out in all directions as he passed.
The piano was gone, too. There was nothing in the house at all, in fact. Nothing but the smell, which he remembered only too well, dust, and a family of sparrows that shot out the window in a burst of sound and feathers, nearly stopping his heart.
“Telling the tall tales again, eh?” Mark observed, looking around the place and brushing a cobweb off his arm. “Commune of musicians?”
Dave staggered to the window, his face ashen, and stared across the lot outside at the church. Something else was wrong. The sign – the ludicrous, cockeyed “FOR RENT” sign was gone.
Then he heard it. It was faint, at first, winding its way through his senses so deceptively that he thought at first he was imagining it. It was the music, the awful, discordant piano music. The piano was gone, but the music lived on, it seemed.
“There!” he cried, turning wildly to where his friends were examining some dusty relics in the back corner of the room. “Do you hear it?”
Not waiting for an answer, he rushed back out into the yard. The music was louder there, coming from the direction of the old church. There were lights on, too, he saw, coming from the windows between the cracks of the old boards that held them shut. He stopped, his eye caught by a small pamphlet lying on the ground at his feet.
Picking it up, he peeled it apart carefully where the morning dew had glued the pages together.
The First Church of Light and Vision, learn the wisdom of the stars.
There was more, but he couldn’t quite make it out. It said something about the coming of a God, or a savior, or perhaps just a traveling evangelist. He couldn’t quite make out the name. It looked like HE..B. He turned to show his find to Wayne and Mark, but they were nowhere to be seen. Frowning, he returned to the old house, looking carefully through each room. Gone
“All right, man,” he said aloud. “This isn’t funny.” He figured they were outside, hiding and waiting for him, and he was in no mood to play their game. “Let’s just get back to the house, okay?”
No answer. He made his way into the yard again and something drew him toward the church. Maybe they’d just gone over there to check out the music. It could be that the graveyard extended to the other side of the church, that there was another house, which would explain the music. He started forward, watching every shadowy nook where his two friends might be lying in wait, and approached the old church.
As he drew nearer, it became obvious that they had somehow managed to get that piano into the church itself during the night. The music was coming from inside, and, against his better judgment, he moved to the door at the end of the building. There were plenty of cracks in the old wood, he could just look inside and see what was going on for himself.
Before he could bend down to have a look, however, the door burst open. Light flowed out and around him, surrounding him on all sides. Charles Manson stood framed in the doorway, his greasy hair actually combed back and braided and his arms spread wide. Where there had been dull, mindless oblivion in his eyes the night before, now they burned with a strange, wild light.
“I knew you would return,” he said, grabbing Dave’s arm and propelling him inside.
Across the room, Little Richard sat with his back to the two of them, dancing his hands over the keys of the ancient piano. This wasn’t what had captured his eyes, though. There was an altar at the front of the room, and on it a feast – or what appeared to be a feast – was laid out. Mark and Wayne stood there at the table, turning to meet his confused gaze with wide, feral grins. He saw that their eyes were alight with the same odd spark as Manson’s.
Wayne waved to him, and he saw what was in his friends hand. It was a leg-bone – a human leg bone – and the skin was rotted and flayed from it, black with dirt and maggots. As he tried to pull back, retching violently, Mark called out to him, slipping back into the odd, Monty-Pythonesque accent from earlier.
“I was wrong, Davey, so wrong. Herb don’t want the Christian dead to go, we have to get rid of them ourselves!”
As his head hammered to the wild, incomprehensible banging of the piano, Dave heard the doors crash shut behind him. There was another figure behind the altar, taller, darker, blending into the shadows themselves. As the light began to course through him, eating its way to his eyes, he felt the first pangs of hunger, and he moved forward, moved to the combined beat of piano and stereo – the car had somehow been parked to the left, behind the pews, and Manson had resumed his seat.
As he reached for a rotting hand, he began to wonder. He wondered what instrument he would play.
This story and many others are available in my collection: The Call of Distant Shores – many of the stories in that book, including the title story, are born of vivid memories.