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Book Excerpt: HE HAS MANY NAMES

Chapter 1: The Oralia

I’d been trying to get ahold of my agent for months. I was beginning to think she was dead. Then she called, at dawn, sounding like she’d run up a flight of stairs. “Noelle, drop whatever you’ve got going on tonight.”

Box wine and ramen, done.

“A publisher wants to meet with you at the Oralia Hotel. It’s super swanky and upscale. So doll yourself up.”

I hung up and spent more time putting my pitch together than my outfit. I got ready at the eleventh hour, ruined a zipper in my panic, and did my makeup in a series of swift strokes right before my Uber pulled up.

I scooted into the middle seat nervously adjusting my necklace in the mirror. It was a bib of emerald laurels mom had given me for just such an occasion. I have no idea how much it set her back, but it was priceless on waitress’s salary. And…I had it on backward. I unlatched the bib, flipped it around, and struggled to get it back on.

“You know what you look like with your good bag and cheap shoes?” I muttered in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. “You look like a rube.”

“What was that?” My driver squinted through the mirror.

“I was just wondering if you could go a little faster.”

•••

The Oralia was hard to pick out of the skyline. Its bricks were so black it blended into the storm, but there was no missing the hotel when facing it dead on. Spotlights shot up the columns, like something off the poster for a silent film. The entrance was made of dark marble tiles separated by a grid of gold. A golden maze-like pattern ran up the side of the building. The balconies started on the third story.

I walked inside and a bellhop stepped forward. “Welcome to the Oralia. May I take your things?”

I handed him my umbrella and kept my briefcase to myself.

I strode past chandeliers that looked like pipe organs, gorgeous gargoyles, and a giant clock that assured me I didn’t have time to appreciate the art deco architecture.

It felt like I was rushing through the set of a Busby Berkeley film. Big buxom sculptures grazed my case, water fountains sprayed my forearms, and ballroom music beckoned me in.

The archway between the lobby and the check-in counter featured a gilded recreation of the entrance: a skyscraper lit from the bottom up. Behind the front desk was a smaller version of the same thing.

From the stained glass stars to the bright red carpeting, the lobby screamed Golden Age Hollywood. Even the name Oralia meant golden. I felt certain that this was one of the last bastions of elegance and class from an era when there was still tinsel in tinsel town.

I scanned the plaque on the counter to confirm my suspicions.

And… The hotel was founded in 2008.

The concierge didn’t notice me. She was face deep in a paperback. I leaned over to see what it was. I couldn’t catch the title, but I caught the hunk of beefcake on the cover.

At this stage of my career in publishing I was in the retail sector, working at an establishment whose name rhymes with Yarns and Global. The hardest part of my job was when I had to tear the covers off of the romance novels that weren’t selling. The publishers didn’t want them. They just needed to know we weren’t giving them away, so they had us send back the remains. I felt bad for the male models on the covers, all their bench presses gone to waste. I felt worse for the women on the back, smiling with their eyes so full of hope, yearning to be loved.

I daydreamed writing romance under a penname, giving single women the bearded billionaire bondage experience of their dreams. I’d like to say it was artistic pride that kept me from doing it, but really, it was fear of not being able to pull it off. Romance wasn’t my area of expertise.

The concierge felt my eyes on her. She buried her guy-candy in a drawer, folded her spectacles, and stood up.

“May I help you?”

I gave her a nervous smile. “I’m here to see Matilda MacDonald.”

The concierge pointed to a vampish figure on a couch in the corner.

Matilda wore a black pants suit that was all pleats and leather, with no undershirt. The Pradas she’d kicked up on the footrest were patent leather with heels that went on forever. She wore her jet-black hair in a pixie cut. Topping off her look was an armored ring that ran the length of her index finger.

Matilda swiped at a phone in an embroidered leather case. In her clutches, it looked like a forbidden text filled with spells for calling up the dead.

I extended my hand. “Matilda MacDonald?”

Matilda extended the hand with the armored ring. “Noelle Blackwood. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

I held my briefcase to my chest. “The pleasure is mine. Publishers never reach out to mid-listers. Who do I have to thank for floating my name in your direction?”

Matilda smirked and took her seat. She reached into her bag and slid a book across the table. “I trust you’ve heard of Barkley Carver.”

Barkley Carver, his name always made me think of trees, especially since there were evergreens on the covers of all of his books, including this one Out on a Limb.

Cover artists used tree lines as visual shorthand for shallow graves, which fit since all of Barkley’s stories started with hikers discovering a body. Barkley filled his fictitious funeral plots with the segment of the populace that made up his audience: upper-class white women; the same ones the media turned into saints whenever they went missing, say while jogging through the woods. This is why the mystery section of every bookstore looks like a forest mural.

Barkley took this theme a step further by working it into each of his titles: Fruit from the Poison Tree, Shake Like a Leaf, and A Tree Falls Silent.

I flipped the book over to find the same portrait Barkley Carver had used for the last twenty years. The author stood proud in his bomber jacket, full flight suit, and helmet. He leaned on the nose of a fighter jet and looked to the sky in big aviator shades.

Matilda signaled to the bellhop. He set a storage bin on the table, and flipped it open.

I peered inside. “What’s that for?”

Matilda nodded at my luggage. “Your briefcase, your coat, your phone, and a smart watch if you have one.”

I tapped my luggage. “What about my manuscript?”

Matilda drew a piece of paper from beneath the table. “Think of this meeting as less of an acquisition and more of a commission. Go ahead put it in.”

“Then I suppose you’ll want my Wi-Fi glass eye and fiber optic hair extensions?”

Matilda rolled her eyes. “Would you be so kind?”

Joking aside, Matilda wasn’t going to pass anything my way until I gave up my phone, so I did, and the bellhop left with the bin.

Matilda slid the piece of paper across the table. It wasn’t an offer. It was a nondisclosure agreement. I skimmed far enough to get to the part where I realized Matilda’s proposition wouldn’t start until I’d signed.

I drew a squiggle and slid the agreement back. “Why all the secrecy?”

Matilda swapped the agreement for a manila folder. “This offer is for you alone. Barkley and I, we’re not like other publishers. We don’t take submissions. We seek out talent and your name, Noelle, has come up several times. Your screenplay for The Identity Thieves just made the blacklist. Script readers gave it their highest marks, but do you know why it will never get made into a film?”

I shrugged. “Because it doesn’t have the words ‘fast’ or ‘furious’ in the title?”

Matilda nodded. “Because it can’t be retooled to fit an existing franchise, yes, just like your first manuscript couldn’t be softened into teen lit, and your last one couldn’t be sold as fantasy or horror. Your work defies traditional branding. Now that’s where we come in.”

I shook my head. “What is it with the royal we? I thought you only published Carver’s titles.”

“Oh we do, but we publish 5 Carver titles a year. We’d like to ratchet that number up to 15.”

“Those are James Patterson numbers.” I slouched into the sofa with an underwhelmed sigh. This was all starting to make sense. “You want me to ghostwrite for Carver. You know, serial killer thrillers aren’t really my forte.”

Matilda leaned forward and tented her fingers. “Barkley chose you because he wants to explore a new direction.”

I cocked my head. “He’s read my work?”

Matilda pushed her armored ring back and forth. “You know that paranormal investigations podcast you’re on?”

Ohhh. “So he’s heard my work.”

“We’ve listened to all nineteen episodes.”

“Then you know I’m just the token skeptic, there to make the show seem balanced.”

“Maybe that’s why they hired you, but you’re the star of the show. Every week you break down all of their supernatural pseudo science into simple psychology.”

Turning a screw into my skull, I quoted myself. “Stimulate the anterior insula and you too can see a ghost.”

“Have you?”

“Of course. We’re hardwired to see faces everywhere.”

Matilda raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“I’ve seen them in wallpaper, marble tiles, even a chain length fence when the light hit it just right.”

Matilda cocked her head. “And you never flinched?”

I shrugged. “Our ancestors had to spot predators in an instant. So sometimes we see face where there are none, the Virgin Mary on toast or a cloud shaped like Donald Trump. It’s just a glitch in evolution.”

Matilda nodded recognizing this talking point from the podcast. “People don’t hallucinate that much, do they?”

I nodded. “Oh yeah. No need for drugs or schizophrenia. With enough anxiety people will see all sorts of things.”

Matilda leaned forward. “Are you speaking from experience?”

“About anxiety or hallucinations?”

Matilda tilted her head back and forth.

“On the podcast, when I said part of my writing ritual involved speaking to my characters like they were actually there-“

Matilda perked up. “Walk ins you called them; imagined figures that felt like they were literally in the room.”

“I was being hyperbolic to prove my point.”

Matilda feigned a smile. “Still, you’re clearly qualified for this, so much so that Carver is eager to lend you his name.”

I looked down at my boots, still wet from the walk. “Yeah, but isn’t that cheating?”

“It’s collaborating. He’s the architect. You’re the engineer. He draws the blueprints. You build the house.”

“And how extensive are Carver’s blueprints?”

Matilda tapped the manila folder with her pen. “He’s written a ten-page synopsis.”

“So it’s a sketch on a bar napkin?”
Matilda shrugged. “It’s bare bones, but think of how much freedom that’ll give you.”

I waved my hands in the air. “Yeah, but it’s Carver’s name on the building. How does that help my career?”

Matilda leaned forward. “Right now, your name, with your following in the paranormal community, might get you into a local bookstore. Carver’s name will get you that prime checkout counter space at a national grocery chain.”

“Were you a real estate agent prior to your career as a publisher?”

“I’ve been many things.” Matilda smiled and passed the manila envelope across the table. “This one little book will earn you royalties for the rest of your life. It’ll buy you time to get your own magnum opus in print.”

I shuddered. “I could always put it out myself.”

Matilda pursed her lips, feigning optimistic approval.

“It’s true, as a group, self-publishers are taking bigger bites out of the e-book pie, but as individuals most of you are starving. Anonymous reviews don’t have the sway of syndicated columns, podcasts don’t have NPR’s listeners, and trendsetters don’t have the influence of traditional publishers. Go ahead and throw your book at the wall, see if it sticks, but when readers have so many options they prefer established brands.”

I unbuttoned the top button of my blouse and let out a low sigh. “How does this bestseller factory of yours work?”

Matilda raised her eyebrow, knowing she had me.

“You’ll stay here, in the Oralia, until you’ve finished a draft. We’ll comp the room, the pay-per-view,” she tilted her head back and forth, “and room service within reason.”

I looked toward the concierge. “Why put me up here? Doesn’t Carver trust anyone to keep his secret?”

Matilda bit her lip to conceal her smile. “It’s something new we’re trying. Think of yourself as an artist in residence. The Oralia isn’t old, but it was built by people who remember when this town was filled with magic. Soak it in.”

I scanned the lobby of the creepy hotel that was to be my home.

“This is starting to sound a lot like a Stephen King story, one that didn’t end well for the author in it. Is there any kind of advance?”

Matilda produced an attaché case and took her time entering the combination.

The locks clicked open and she slid the case across the table. It was lined with stacks of cash. They were twenties, but more money than I’d ever seen.

Matilda slammed the case shut. “This will be in a safe behind the counter. Send us a draft in one month and management will be authorized to hand it over.”

“One month?”

“It’s how Carver wants it done. It’s in the contract. Think of it as a writing marathon.”

I reflected on my first semiautobiographical novel. I labored on it in my twenties, sold it for pennies, and watched it barely make back the advance.

I looked back at the cash. “All that for one month’s work?”

Matilda nodded.

“When can I check in?”

Matilda slid another document across the table. “Right after you sign on the dotted line.” Continue reading Book Excerpt: HE HAS MANY NAMES

The Ultimate X-Files Halloween Marathon

No October is complete without a healthy X-Files binging session, but rather than trying to plow through all 11 seasons might I make some recommendations?

S11 E8 Familiar

In 2018 The X-Files went full creepy pasta with one of its darkest episodes to date featuring a kids show icons that bears more than a passing resemblance to Slender Man, a Satanic Tinky-Winky, and the creepiest song on this side of Elm Street. Despite those modern trimmings this episode is classic X-Files. Mulder and Scully investigate a small town murder only to find themselves in the middle of an angry mob fueled by black magic.

S11 E4 The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat

Mulder and Scully meet a man who claims he’s been their partner throughout the entirety of the series and that he’s been erased from their memories by a weaponized version of the Mandela Effect.

This episode asks is reality subjective? Does it bend to the whim of whoever perceives it? Are shadow forces conspiring to alter our collective memories? Are there alternative universes where every possible outcome is happening, or is the Trump administration full of shit about everything?

Great line, “Confuse the Twilight Zone with the Outer Limits? Do you even know me?!”

I’d argue this is the funniest episode of the series. I’ve played the alien ambassador segment near the end of the episode out of context for dozens of my friends. It always gets a laugh.

S10 E3 Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Werewolf movies like American Werewolf in Londonfollow a tight formula: person gets bitten, feels emboldened by their newfound animalistic confidence, gives into their instincts, comes close to hurting someone they love, and chooses to go out in a blaze of glory. This episode puts a fresh spin on the formula by asking: What would happen if a cryptozoological creature got bitten by a human? Would it have a sudden compulsion to put on clothes, get a job, and exaggerate about its sex life?

Rhys Darby, the “Swear Wolf” from What We Do in the Shadowsgives another brilliant comedic performance, as does X-Files super fan comedian Kumail Nanjiani.

This episode is a must watch for fans of Charlie Kaufman’s Human Nature, or Kaufman films in general.

S9 E13 Improbable

What better way to memorialize the late great Burt Reynolds than to watch the episode of The X-Files where he played God? Reynolds, as God, tries to lure a serial killer to the light by using numerology to explain the forces that govern the universe. This is one of the better Mulder-less episodes giving the intuitive Agent Reyes a moment to step into the spotlight.

This episode is worth watching for the scene where God explains the heap of compact discs in the trunk of his car. “I love all music, but I prefer the stuff that lasts.”

So classy.

S7 E12 X-Cops

Hot on the heels of The Blair Witch ProjectThe X-Files took a stab at the found footage genre by using the format of network sibling Copsto do it. Mulder and Scully are investigating a monster that preys on mortal terror. They run into a patrol officer with a film crew in the back of his overturned squad car. Soon the agents find themselves giving the public a window into the paranormal.

S6 E15 Arcadia

Mulder and Scully are sent undercover to investigate a disappearance in the scariest place yet: a gated community. Mulder doesn’t take the assignment all the seriously, playing the role of husband with adolescent enthusiasm. “Women get in here and make me a sandwich.”

In the X-Files community there are “shippers” and “non-shippers.” We shippers spent years wanting to see Mulder and Scully in a relationship. Here we’re taught to be careful what we wish for.
“Mulder, whoever taught you how to squeeze a tube of toothpaste? Toilet seat, third warning.”

“Scully, the thrill is gone.”

S5 E12 Bad Blood

When Mulder drives a stake through a suspect’s heart Scully arrives to find the suspect’s fangs are fake. Now the agents have to get their stories straight.

When TV shows last too long they inevitably do an episode exploring the Rashomon effect. Several characters recount the same event from their own slanted perspectives. Usually it’s one of the weaker episodes relying on the same tired formula. Here it’s one of The X-Files strongest.

Scully sees Luke Wilson’s as a tall dark and handsome man of the law. Mulder sees him as a buck toothed hick who says, “Y’all must be the guv’ment people.”

This is one of the funniest episodes of the series and a great initiation episode for people who’ve never seen the show.

S4 E2 Home

A lot of people think NBC’s Hannibal was the most hardcore show on network TV. Hannibal, please.

This episode is of The X-Files is the stuff of legends. Fox refused to air it upon its completion. When it did air (late one Halloween) it was the first episode of the show to be broadcast with a “Viewer Discretion” warning. This hour of television veers into dark, hard R rated, David Fincher territory, featuring: tumor encrusted mutants, death traps, and something under the bed that you’ll have to see to believe. If you’re composing a list of things you can’t believe were shown on network television start here.

S3 E20 Jose Chung from Outer Space

Usually The X-Files took the alien abduction phenomenon of the 90s deadly seriously. Here the series lets loose and makes fun of all the abduction lore clichés.

This is The X-Files at its most meta and self referential: from the stop motion Cyclops in the sputtering UFO, to the chain smoking aliens, to the brilliant send up of regression hypnotherapy’s power to “unlock” memories.

Featuring Charles Nelson Riley as a Kurt Vonnegut-esque satirist and Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as men in black.

S3 E4 Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (or just Clyde Bruckmanon streaming)

Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate the murders of a string of psychic mediums. The agents find themselves disposed by the local authorities when Mulder runs afoul of a TV Psychic the locals have called on for help. Mulder happens upon his own psychic, a man who came to his abilities obsessing over the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. To make things stranger it turns out the killer may be a medium himself. It’s psychic against psychic in the final mind bending confrontation.

Honorable Mentions:

S6 E14 Monday

It’sGroundhog’s Day with Mulder and Scully and a bank robbery.

S6 E2 Drive

When Break Bad series creator Vince Gilligan told AMC he wanted Bryan Cranston for the role of Walter White the network was hesitant. At the time Cranston was known as the quirky father from Malcolm in the Middle. Gilligan used this episode of The X-Files to change AMC’s mind. In it Cranston plays a desperate man who forces Mulder to drive him at a constant speed for fear that something in his head will explode.

S2 E4 Die Hand Die Verlezt

The X-Files has done several episodes exploring the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, but this is the episode where the show went all in. It has everything: a summoning ritual in the woods, repressed memories of cult activity, and a Satanic teachers association.

S5 E5 The Post-Modern Prometheus

Mulder and Scully wander into the plot of a 50s B-movie, complete with a dramatic lightning, a mad scientist, and a Cher impersonator.

S6 E6 How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

It’s Mulder and Scully versus pop psychology when ghosts try to convince them to kill themselves on Christmas Eve.

S2 E20 Humbug

The agents investigate a series of murders in a traveling freak show. This episode is notable for appearances by Jim Rose, the Enigma, and Michael J. Anderson from Twin Peaks and Carnivàle.

S4 E7 Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man

“Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap perfunctory gift that no one ever asked for.”

The X-Files puts a dark spin on Forrest Gump by inserting the Cigarette-Smoking man into a series of historical assassinations.

S2 E24 Our Town

The agents investigate a meat processing plant with a secret ingredient that certainly isn’t love.

S5 E10 Chinga

When Stephen King writes for The X-Files you better believed he’s going to tell a story about a cursed doll. “Time to play!” Continue reading The Ultimate X-Files Halloween Marathon

The Red Devil Halloween Pail

I was sitting up in bed flipping through an issue of Nintendo Power when Dad knocked on the doorframe.

“Hey buddy, I got something for you.”

Dad reached into a shopping bag, took great care to unwrap the paper around the item, which he set on the mattress. It was a Halloween pail in the shape of a red devil. The devil stared at me from the edge of my bed. He was odd, unsettling, unlike anything I’d seen at Target. He had paint strokes and tiny imperfections signifying he hadn’t come off of any assembly line. A bubble in the shellac had created a wart on the end of his long sharp nose. His horns were tiny nubs with photorealistic ridges. His toothy grin was framed in the classic Satanic goatee. His angry eyebrows were raised so high they nearly touched his hairline. As for his glowing yellow cat eyes they felt like they were watching me.

Without thinking I scurried up my headboard. “He’s creepy.”

Dad wore a Cheshire Cat smile. “I know right?” He held the pail in his hand like he was preparing to recite Shakespeare. “I was told this handcrafted papier-mâché devil is one of a kind. I saw him in a shop window and immediately thought of you.”

“A red devil reminded you of me?”

“Definitely. It’s something in the eyes, that twinkle of unrepentant malevolence.”

I crossed my arms. “Gee thanks, Dad.”

“You’re welcome. You see I do notice these things.”

I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t in footy pajamas anymore. I was past going out in a plastic smock with a picture of who I was supposed to be on it. I was way beyond Halloween pails. I was seven, old enough to know the true meaning of the season was to maximize sugar intake before winter hibernation.

“You realize I’ll be using a pillowcase like everyone else.”

Dad shielded the devil’s long bat-like ears from such slander. “No way José!

“This impulse item didn’t come cheap.”

I shrugged. “You can use him.”

Dad pointed a finger to the idea bulb blinking above his head. “What if you put the best candy, the king sized bars, in the pail, and put the run off in the pillow?”

I tilted my head back and forth. “How about the other way around?”

Dad feigned confusion. He held the devil pail so as to whisper in its pointy ear then held its mouth up to his ear as if it was whispering back. “He agrees to your terms, but there’s a caveat.”

“A what?”

“A provision entitling your father to 10% of your take.”

I shook my head. “We haven’t learned percentages yet.”

“5?”

“Fine.”

We shook on it, Dad kissed me on the forehead, and I went to sleep. The next night we had a very profitable Halloween indeed.

The Halloween Haul

I dumped my pillow out across my bed. I was type A even back in the day. I had a system for organizing my sweets.

The candy bars were split into subcategories those with nuts, those without, those with a cookie crunch, and those with nougat (the cornerstone of a notorious breakfast).

This was when neighbors didn’t care if children had fatal food allergies. “Here, have a Salted Nut Roll you’ll be fine.”

It was only after I’d sorted through my best bars that I decided to sift through the fun-sized pile of shame.

I flipped the devil pail over and dumped the cast offs on my pillow. I shivered as a chill moved up the back of my neck.

That’s when I notice the strange oddities among the Jolly Ranchers, candy buttons, and Sixlets. It seemed as though some of the items I’d put into the pail that weren’t candy, toothpaste, dental floss, and the like, had come out different.

Where there were raisins were now sponge capsules that grew into dinosaurs when you added water. Bookmarks had become Garbage Pall Kids trading cards. A religious booklet titled Trick or Truthhad become an official Ghostbusters Ghostblaster noisemaker.

“Great Cesar’s ghost!”

The Ghostblaster was no small find. It was a limited edition promotion item exclusive to Hardee’s. Dad and I had driven around the city trying to track one down not knowing they’d already recalled them because they contained choking hazards. My little heart was broken, yet somehow someone in the neighborhood was giving them away like they were nothing. How could I have possibly mistaken this Ghostblaster for a religious text?

Had I mistaken each of these items before I’d cast them into the pail of shame? No. No way my neighbors were that cool. Something sinister was happening and it had everything to do with that creepy hand crafted pail.

I held the devil pail so that we saw eye to eye.

“Where did all this cool stuff from?”

I noticed something I’d missed the first time I looked at this devil. His eyes were uneven. A stoke of red paint made one eye smaller than the other. If I didn’t known any better I’d say he was winking.

“Was it you who turned the toothpaste into a tube of fake blood?”

The pail felt heavier all of sudden, like something inside it was shifting. There was a terrible cramp in my hand and a strange sensation like that of an icepack wrapped around my wrist. Before I knew it I was bobbing the devil pail up and down as if to make it nod.

Dad knocked on my doorframe. “Knock knock.”

I dropped the pail and swept the changed items into my pillowcase. “Why say, ‘Knock knock’ when you’re already knocking and why knock when you’re already in the room?”

Dad scanned the X-Men posters for an answer. “Because I can.” His attention turned back to the bed. “Alright, you remember our little deal? Dad skims 5%.”

I half nodded. “I remember saying we haven’t learned percentages yet. Does five percent mean you want five items?”

I offered one strawberry granny candy, a box of Good and Plenty, lemonheads, Bazooka bubble gum, and a roll of Smarties. All candies I could comfortably part with.

“That’s it?”

I glared. “I have altered the deal. Pray that I don’t alter it any further.” I said in my best Darth Vader voice.

Dad cocked his head. “Daddy’s going to need some chocolate.”

I scrapped my haul together and lay on top, knowing full well what was coming.

Dad chuckled. “Oh I’ve got the key to this particular fortress.”

Electric tickle signals surged through my sides and before I knew it I’d rolled onto the floor cackling. Dad kept the tickle torcher going long after I’d left my mountain of candy unguarded. “This is the only way you’ll ever learn.”

“What’s going on here?” Mom spoke over dad’s shoulder.

“I’m teaching a very important lesson on why you shouldn’t weasel out of deals.”

Mom made a serious face. “You do realize that contract law is Mommy’s forte so if anything…” Mom moved into position. “I should be teaching this lesson.”

That’s when I felt her fingers beneath my armpits. I kicked like a frog on it’s back. With both of my parents tickling I went into convulsions.

That’s when a pew-pew-pew emitted from my pillow.

“What was that?” Mom perked up.

The Ghostblaster went off again.

I tried direct their attention toward the hall. “The smoke detector?”

Dad stood up. “Sounds like it needs new battery. I better change it or it’ll be doing that all night.”

Twilight Treasures

That night I stayed up putting objects into the devil pail. I tapped the brim like a magician, flipped it, and retrieved something awesome.

I dug through my desk doing an inventory of things I could part with: rubber bands, paperclips, foreign currency my grandparents had left me. I dropped each item into the pail and felt the weight shift, like an invisible hand plucked something out and slid something else in its place.

Birthday cards came out as Playboy bunny stickers just like the ones in the vending machine at the roller rink. Loose yarn came out as friendship bracelets. Erasers came out as finger monsters. A fist full of pencil shavings came out as a bag of bang snaps: little explosives wrapped in cigarette paper that popped when you pelted at the ground.

It became clear that the larger the item I put into the pail was the cooler the item that came out would be. The devil pail took a yo-yo and upgraded it into a military grade slingshot. It took a pair of dull edged scissors and upgraded them into a bonafide switchblade. It took a stack of Chuck E. Cheese tickets and upgraded them into a wad of cold hard cash.

When I was done rummaging through my closet for sacrificial objects I gathered up my bounty of silly string, throwing stars, and firecrackers and stuffed it all into my backpack. I lay awake thinking about all the showing and telling I’d be doing on the playground.

Impromptu Parent Teacher Conference

Principle Simonson withdrew the contents of my backpack an item at a time for dramatic effect. He was trying to impress upon my parents the sheer volume of contraband their son had gotten his hands on.

“One set of brass knuckles.”

I couldn’t help but marvel at how the knuckles had retained the red coloring of the Swingline stapler they were born from.

“One, is it, a pairof Nunchucks?”

There were two candles mom wasn’t getting back.

Principle Simonson shot my mother a nasty look as he set the next item on the desk.

“One deck of pornographic playing cards.”

In hindsight, what little I can recall of the deck was not pornographic, not as I’D define the word today. They were tasteful hand painted pin-ups. The kind of bathing suit beauties one might see painted on the nose of jet. There was no nudity, but the nevertheless I was really going to miss them.

I was going to miss everything Principle Simonson was confiscating: the whoopee cushion, the fart spray, the candy cigarettes, and prop fingers. These were gifts I’d given to myself.

This felt like one of those Christmas dreams when my parents got me the thing they’d sworn Santa couldn’t fit into his slay. One minute I was driving around the lawn in a miniature motorized DeLorean and the next I was waking up with nothing.

Mom crouched down to my level. “Honey you have to tell us where you got all of these things?”

In the second grade I didn’t know anything about my Fourth Amendment right prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, but I knew enough about my Fifth Amendment right not to implicate myself.

Mom put her hand on my wrist. “Honey, I need you to tell me if someone gave them to you?”

I hadn’t meant to nod, but my chin had betrayed me.

“Who honey?”

I assumed these enchanted items had come from a “what.” It hadn’t occurred to me that there might actually be a “who.”

I didn’t know how to put the reality of the situation into words so I sat there with my mouth open while mom rattled off her questions.

“Did they tell you not to say? Were they a stranger? Did you meet them on your way home? Did they say they’d hurt you if you told? Did they ask you to go anywhere with them?”

I shook my head, but there was no derailing mom’s train of reasoning. Someone had tried to enchant her son in the ten minutes it took him to walk home. Dad’s default cocksure grin flattened as mom detailed a worst-case scenario. It was clear to her that stranger-danger had made its way to our little town. They agreed that I’d be spending a few extra hours in the extended day program after school until dad could pick me up on his way home.

•••

That evening dad put the devil pail on the top shelf of the laundry room closet between the turtle wax and Christmas ornaments.

Worse still I was grounded. I wanted nothing more than to serve out my penance gathering items and tossing them into the pail. I’d stare at my mother’s ceramic figurines and wonder what they’d become once they’d touched the devil’s tongue. I wondered how many fountain pens dad really needed or if mom would notice if one little piece of China went missing.

I’d always wanted a pair of X-Ray specs, fake vomit, and trick dice.

No matter. The pail was out of reach and there was no way I was drudging the stepladder from the garage without drawing attention. I’d have to bide my time until a growth spurt kicked in.

•••

That night I dreamt my parents were bound and gag, heading down a conveyor belt into a fiery furnace shaped like the devil’s mouth. Their eyes plead for help, but I just stood at the levers waving goodbye to care. To my parents’ credit, they were teetering back and forth, trying their best to roll off the belt, but they just could coordinate very well. They heat was already making them sweat. Mom was sobbing, trying desperately to chew through her gag to get out one final plea, but it was too late.

There was the faintest of shrieks as the furnace belched a giant fireball. A tire cut path through the smoke. A blood red mountain coasted through the haze, dipped off the conveyor belt, and rolled right between my legs.

When I awoke the devil pail was sitting upon my chest staring at me with those glowing yellow eyes. I had no clue how it got there, but I knew it was hungry.

•••

Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.

Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.

Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.

Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?

Pre-order my novel HE HAS MANY NAMES today!

Get 15% off He Has Many Names this month only!

Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.

Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.

Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.

Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?

Pre-order my novel HE HAS MANY NAMES today!

How Being A Writer Makes the Ads I See Weird

When I was researching He Has Many Names, a story about the devil and a sleazy hotel, I Googled my share of strange things. Most of the story takes place in a forest-themed fantasy suite. As the suite’s interior decorator I had to fill the space with the right furniture. Now I can’t scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing ads for live edge redwood coffee tables, cherry blossom desk lamps, Styrofoam stalactites, moon shaped lanterns, and vine-themed sex swings.

My research queries ended up in my cookies and swapped information between all my logins. My inquiries into the etymology of the devil, his many forms, and the Satanic panic of the 1980s follow me like toilet paper on the bottom of my boot.

Thanks AdChoices but no I’m not interested in BlueDevil Head Gasket Sealer, Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, or New Jersey Devils apparel. Try harder.

When Searches Go Public

In 2006 a large number of AOL’s users search history leaked online. The 2013 documentaryTerms and Conditions May Apply shows what happened when several anonymous users were identified by their search terms.

One AOL user in particular had a most intriguing search history. He’d looked up “How to kill your wife” multiple times along with “decapitated photos” and pictures of “murder victims.” Alarmist headlines dubbed him the scariest user on AOL and several armchair sleuths set out to unmask him.

Eventually the documentary filmmakers caught up with Jerome Schwartz and pressed him to see if these search terms were his. He admitted to looking up all of them and a slew of other macabre things. Turns out he was writer for the TV show Cold Caseand these search queries were research for his work.

In the documentary Jerome speculates what would happen if a government algorithm had flagged his searches and the FBI came knocking. I’ve joked about what would happen if the feds confronted me with my search history going so far as to turn the scenario into a short story. If these invasions of privacy become the norm a lot of authors are going to need alibis (this is why I write in public). #WriterProblems.

The New Abnormal

I have a feeling AdChoices will damn me to awkward public encounters for years to come.

I’ll be scrolling through FaceBook when someone will catch some strange shit in my border columns.

“A rhinestone codpiece, shackles, and a gimp mask? I had no clue you went in for all that.”

“I’m writing a scene set in a bondage club so those keep showing up.”

“And the adult sized Winnie the Pooh costume with the open butt flap?”

“Oh well, I am into.”

My Killer App Idea

What if there was a browser extension that recognized the online behaviors of writers and adjusted searches, ads, and results accordingly? And no I don’t mean constantly showing us ads for Grammarly or Scrivener. I’m talking about ads that are fine tuned to enhance the research process be it the intricate procedures that make up your characters’ careers, deep dives into the mythology you’re drawing from, or visual inspiration for the buildings that fill up your plot of the astral plane.

If our cookies spread our data from one site to another wouldn’t it be nice if the cookies contextualized the data as it went? The app could let sites know when we’re looking for home décor and when we’re looking for props for our settings, when we’re shopping for apparel and when we’re putting costumes on characters.

If advertisers have to mine my data they could at least draw the right conclusions from it.

Until they do I’ll just keep an ad blocker running. Continue reading How Being A Writer Makes the Ads I See Weird

A Poem to Pitch a Novel

Here’s a pitch for my new novel He Has Many Names in the form of a poem.

An aspiring author
A predatory publisher
And a Faustian bargain
A month to pen a novel
In total exile
Confined to an art deco hotel

A forest themed suite
A woodland nightmare
And a shadow figure
An obsessed writer
A paranormal investigation
Through the fourth wall and back again

A meta mystery
An unreliable narrator
An unseen string puller
A lure, a trap, a plan
A pagan has-been
And a satanic showdown

All of these things and more
In the new novella:
He Has Many Names Continue reading A Poem to Pitch a Novel

5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

When struggling writer and paranormal podcaster Noelle Blackwood gets the opportunity to ghostwrite for a bestselling thriller author, it seems almost too good to be true. The only catch is that she has to stay at The Oralia hotel until she’s done. Method becomes madness as she falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her own story and the demons it awakens. He Has Many Names is a fresh spin on the Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil story in the age of artistic desperation.

•••

WRITING FROM A FEMININE PERSPECTIVE TAKES NUANCE

In the first draft of He Has Many Namesmy editor wasn’t sure if the hero was a man or a woman. The protagonist was named Noelle but she spoke with the stock phrases one might find in a detective film. I’d just been writing a mystery and the lingo had rubbed off on Noelle.

When asked to make Noelle more feminine I didn’t want to emphasize what she was wearing or file her jagged edges down. Characteristics we identify as feminine like gentleness, tolerance, and sensitivity don’t fit Noelle. The Hollywood studio scene has hardened her. This doesn’t mean she’s stoic, like many women written by men, just that she’s tired embodying all those things people in her field consider feminine.

Leza Cantoral gave me great notes on Noelle’s voice. It helps having a female editor.

Noelle has traits that aren’t traditionally feminine in horror fiction (especially in films). She’s skeptical of the supernatural, ambitious to a fault, quick-witted, a tad catty, a bit jealous, and extremely resourceful.

SinceHe Has Many Namesis a story about storytelling from the perspective of a writer I thought it would be fun for Noelle to comment on what audiences expect from women in stories (especially in film). A producer once told Noelle she shouldn’t write herself into her own stories because she’s not very likeable. They want women to be sympathetic and vulnerable, but so resilient they never waste time whining or sulking. They want women to be gorgeous yet so modest as to be unaware of their beauty. They want women to be driven but not competitive.

I thought it’d be cool if Noelle acknowledged those contrasts before telling the audience she’s not going to write herself like that.

IF YOU PROMISE A DEVIL DELIVER ONE

The title He Has Many Namesis a direct reference to you-know-who.

Who has horns on his head?

Who has skin that’s very red?

Who has a beard on his face?

Who keeps souls in a case?

Horns on head, skin that’s red

Beard on his face, souls in a case

Must be Satan, must be Satan

Lord of the dark realm

In the first draft the entity haunting Noelle was something else entirely. I thought I was being clever setting up Satan and then hitting the audience with a sucker punch, but it was a let down. While the final draft retains many of its twists the true devil makes a grand entrance. Make no mistake Hell factors heavily into this story.

As much as I wanted to play with the audience’s expectations I forgot the “Chekhov’s gun” rule of storytelling: if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act it ought to go off in the second. In the same sense: if someone speaks of the devil in your first act the devil better rain brimstone down on everyone in the second.

CENTER EVERYTHING AROUND THE THEME

When I started writing He Has Many NamesI had a good concept: horror writer is sequestered in a haunted hotel room, but no clear theme, no thesis statement to leave readers with, no enlightenment to go with my entertainment.

The theme presented itself in the second draft (which was more of a reimagining than a mere edit).

He Has Many Names is about creators’ relationships with their audience. Be it a writer contemplating what horror readers are looking for or a devil pondering the quality of worship their reputation hath wrought. It’s about creators using art to take control of their lives only to then lose control of their art.

Once I knew the theme it informed every storytelling decision I made from then on.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO META

At a certain point in He Has Many Namesit’s revealed that the story we’re reading is the one Noelle is submitting to her publisher. This is shown in a scene where Matilda McDonald, the publisher, tears everything we’ve just read apart. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written and I tried to replicate that scene one too many times later on.

I’d over-complicated the story by including references to Noelle’s imagined ending, an alternate scenario that pandered to the psychological thriller twists readers had been conditioned to expect. It was my way of playing with the readers’ expectations while promising them that this story was going someplace different.

The problem with Noelle’s prophetic ending is that it made her an utterly unreliable narrator. While it’s clear that Noelle is taking artistic license in describing these events I didn’t want the reader to feel like she was bullshitting them. So I made some adjustments. Noelle references the alternate ending, but assures us we’re reading the one that’s based on actual events.

NOT EVERY SCARY STORY NEEDS TO END WITH AMBIGUITY

Some of my favorite scary stories leave readers wondering if anything supernatural happened at all. For great examples of this type of horror check out Paul Tremblay’s ambiguity trilogy: Head Full of Ghosts,Disappearance of Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World.

He Has Many Namesstraddles the line between psychological and supernatural horror but ultimately it picks a side. I thought about ending the story in such a way where the reader had to sift through clues to suss out what happened, but decided it would be more rewarding if suspicions were confirmed and given a hard “yes.”

I wanted to reward attentive readers for paying attention, while giving everyone a big bold note to go out on. Without spoiling everything I chose a grandiose conclusion over an ambiguous one. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

Why the Ghost Hunters Need to Hire Me

Every reality show needs a villain: a Simon Cowell, a Gordon Ramsay, a Donald Trump, a personality that makes everyone on set nervous. Someone who flies into fits without notice, hurling insults, criticism, and sauce pans at everyone.

Every Bachelor needs a bad bitch that calls out the bumps on the other contestants’ lips. Every courtroom needs a judge who threatens to use her gavel as an enema. Every Jersey dinner table needs a host who’s willing to call a guest a “Prostitution whore!” Demented divas give delicious sound bytes. Give them a 15-second spot and they will make an impression. It’s these villains that get viewers tuning in.

Conflict is the heart of drama and good television thrives on it. So why do so many Ghost-hunting shows have so little of it? For all their dramatic tone they are light on actual drama. As Ghost Hunterswraps up on the SyFy network and looks for a new home for its 12th season might I make a suggestion? Hire me to be your villain.

My background as a horror author makes me uniquely qualified for investigating the paranormal, and my background as an asshole (ask anyone I’ve dated) makes me ideal for reality TV. I could be your Spencer Pratt, your Puck, your Omarose.

As a purveyor of paranormal potboilers I’ve researched my share of supernatural lore. I know the long told legends, the urban myths, and the natural explanations behind them. My research has left me with an entrenched sense of skepticism. Continue reading Why the Ghost Hunters Need to Hire Me

The Apple Watch Ritual

The following is inspired by the surge in instructional rituals circulating the net. Each ritual is a complex variation on the old Bloody Mary game. They take Creepy Pastas and urban legends and invite readers to participate in them. They’re good for a shiver, but they feel like they’re missing some modern flare. My ritual fixes that.

The Apple Watch Ritual

Is your Instagram feed filled with before and after photos of friends in loose fitting clothes? Are you tired of looking for reasons to stay in during swimsuit season? Or do you just want the kind of definition that attracts attention?

Well I know a way that’s guaranteed to give you results overnight. I’m talking washboard abs, bulging biceps, and a beefed up badonkadonk. It’s the ultimate workout ritual. All you’ll need is a pair Apple Watches, the drive to succeed, and a fresh corpse.

Warning:this ritual could exhaust, severely injure, and perhaps even kill you. It will most definitely void your Apple Watches’ warranties.

The Ritual

Park outside of a funeral home right before it opens. Have an Apple Watch on a charger mounted to the dashboard. You’ll also need a layer of Under Armor beneath your funeral attire, a pair of running shoes on the passenger seat, and a Teddy Bear.

Set up an Apple ID for the watch on the dashboard. Open the activity app on your phone, tap Sharingand make sure the watch on your wrist is following the one on the dashboard.

Wait for the funeral director to open the doors and for the grief stricken to start pilling in. Smear a scoop of Vapor Rub beneath your eyelids (not in your eyes, that will cause severe irritation). Check the whites of your eyes in the mirror as the menthol does its thing. Once your eyes are as red as the devil’s dick you’re ready to make your entrance.

Yes, you’re going to be crashing a wake.

Enter the funeral parlor cradling the Teddy Bear. Find the next of kin and insist the deceased made you promise they’d be buried with it. Now pay your respects. The bear is there to give you the opportunity to tie the Apple Watch around the body’s cold pulseless wrist.

Important! You’ll need to make sure the body is buried with a Series 3 (or higher) Apple Watch. The Series 3 introduced built in cellular allowing it to function without a phone.

You will also have to begin the ritual immediately after the body is buried, because the watch will only have an 18-hour charge.

Find a place to submerge your wrist: a sink, a toilet bowl, or a font of holy water. Dip your watch under and press the power button until you see the Apple symbol come on. When the watch face shows up say, “Hey Siri, message (say the Apple ID of the deceased).” Then recite the following incantation:

To the cadaver in the casket
Sinking into a grit
Of roots, worms, and maggots
Hear my unholy writ
I challenge thee to a Satanic circuit
Of upside down cross-fit
So that I may feel the burn
Of the bottomless pit

When you feel the watch’s haptic engine vibrate you’ll know that the ritual has begun.

The Rules of the Ritual

The Apple Watch has an activity monitor. Tap it and you’ll see three rings: one red, one green, and one blue. The red ring represents the percentage of your movement goals for the day. This is based on how many calories you intend to burn. Usually you set this by entering your height, weight, age, and gender, but not today. Today you’re making a necromancer’s wager. Your goals will be determined by the thing you’ve awakened.

The green ring represents your exercise time. Apple has prescribed 30 minutes for everyone, but just remember this is a competition, just because you’ve hit thirty doesn’t mean you’re anywhere near done.

The blue ring represents the time you spend standing. Apple recommends you get up and move around for a couple minutes at least twelve times a day. This should be the easiest goal to hit seeing as how you’ll have no time to sit.

Warning: If you fail to close your rings before your crypt bound competition bad things will happen.

Keep this in Mind

You will find that your watch’s sensors are a lot less forgiving than on days you’re not conjuring dead things. The watch will know when you’re standing and when you’re just lifting your wrist. It will know when you’re running and when you’re just swinging your arms. If you open the Workout app and scroll all the way down to Otheroption your watch will no longer give you credit for simply running the timer down.

Run Like Hell

You will have to run like the world is caving in behind you. Run until you’re raw and sore, until your toes are open blisters, and your shoes are pooling with puss. Once it feels like the soles of your sneakers have eroded, your skin has shed, and your exposed musculature is touching down on molten magma, then you’ll know it’s time to check your watch… And run some more.

Consider the fact that your competition is clawing at the lid of a coffin with 300 pounds of resistance. Consider the fact that the dead’s will to return to the surface is greater than your will to get fit. Consider the fact that if you stop moving something with a swollen tongue will quiet literally be licking at your heels.

Take a breather for a little too long and you’ll see what beast mode really looks like.

Commit to Infinite Reps

Once your lungs feel like they’re going to overdose on oxygen, your heart feels like it’s stuck on vibrate, and you stink like a skunk on meth, stagger into a gym and park your ass at the weight rack.

You will have to lift until you can see your veins, until you grind the lifelines from your palms, until your arms pull a mutiny and refuse commands from your body. Then you’ll have to find another muscle group and push it past the point of exhaustion.

If it feels like you’re struggling beneath the weight of the world then you’re doing it right.

Another thing to Keep in Mind

The Apple Watch doesn’t wait until you’re asleep to reset the activity monitor. It does it at midnight.

Remember when enchanted the Apple Watch will function better than it was programmed. You won’t be able to buy yourself a few extra hours by screwing with the Timesettings.

Don’t Lose

If you haven’t closed your rings and crushed your crypt bound competition you will face consequences, literally, face to milky-eyed face.

If you lose your muscles will atrophy instantly and your bones will turn to jelly. You’ll collapse into a heap. If you’re lucky your lungs will weaken and you’ll pass out from exhaustion. If you’re unlucky you’ll be awake when teeth begin gnawing on your skin, pealing the flesh from the muscle like fried chicken.

Sure, this is a worst-case scenario, but what are you willing to risk to get as jacked as a super hero? Continue reading The Apple Watch Ritual

Goodbye KillerCon 2018

It turns out there is such a thing as summer camp for adults, a place where friendships are founded on a mutual love of monsters, where ghost stories are on tap 24/7, and according to Jeff Burk Dinosaurs Attacks trading cards are still in fashion. Thanks to camp director Wrath James White KillerCon was the summer camp I’d always dreamt of attending. It was a place where kids weren’t shamed out of wearing Hellraiser t-shirts, where all the counselors swore (especially Matt Shaw), and telling dirty jokes meant you were developing healthy social skills (at least that’s what Edward Lee told me).

Instead of a dining hall we had a continental breakfast, followed by a blindfolded tasting of freaky foods and a hot wings challenge. Then Michael Allen Rose, a saintly gentleman in a Nine Inch Nails tribute band, passed around Jeppson’s Malört to help us wash it down (type #MalortFace into Instagram to see just how refreshing it is).

Instead of fireside hymns our camp gathered around a keg of beer. Instead of a talent show we had a gross out contest. And our prayer circles, well, they looked a little different.

The panels with Brian Keene, Matt Shaw, and Lucy Taylor gave me an invaluable peak into the bloody inner workings of the publishing industry. It was a hoot to sit in on readings by Joe Lansdale and his daughter Kasey Lansdale.

I was blown away by Nate Southard’s shrewd then outspoken performance as he weaved through the audience throughout his reading.

It was treat to working the conference floor with Rose O’Keefe and Max Booth III (congrats on the Hulu pilot, btw).

Thanks to Leza Cantoral and Christoph Paul the ClashBooks reading was easily one of the best experiences of my life. I was happy to share it with such sketchy individuals as Brendan Vidito, Charles Austin Muir, Jeff Burk, and of course Wrath James White… and I’m pretty sure Sam Richard was the attendee of honor (seeing as how he got an exclusive lap reading from Brendan Vidito, I mean I’m not saying I’m like supes totes jelly or anything, but… lucky).

Killer con was all of my summer camp dreams come true. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how sweet, charming, and utterly disarming horror authors can be. I can’t wait to come back next year.