Leaping Under the Covers of the Peritoneum

Extreme, often intimate stories–horrific, bizarre, scary, offensive, funny, absurd, disturbing, or just plain WTF–in turns or all at the same time–when am I going to produce a by-the-rules book that will lure in readers by targeting their comfort zones with words that don’t explode? Not any time soon…

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As I write this post, the first goal of which is to show off amazing cover art by Aaron Drown Design, I am getting ready to travel to Las Vegas for StokerCon, the Horror Writers’ Association’s major convention, where I will see print copies of my new short story collection Peritoneum as well as new editions of Leaping at Thorns and Reel Dark for the first time. (For more about the new Reel Dark, see “REEL DARK in the Spotlight,” and for even more about Peritoneum, see “Inside the Peritoneum.”)

 

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As I’ve already posted, Reel Dark has new stories by Michael West and Alexander S. Brown, and since the book’s first edition had very limited exposure, all of it is new to almost everyone, so I’m excited about it. The collection of award-winning authors as well as newer voices spinning tales of movie mayhem is destined to please lovers of dark fiction. Yes, I’ve got a story in it, but unlike the other two books I’m talking about here, this one ain’t about me. I’m showing off a collection of other people’s work, stories and poems I really like, and I’m darned proud of it.

 

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Like the new edition of Reel Dark, the second edition of Leaping at Thorns is bigger than the first, with one tale added in each of the three sections. (Unlike Reel Dark, these stories are all me.) To the “Complicity” section I’ve added “Silence,” about a woman who keeps losing people, literally, after she has a surreal experience in an abandoned house. To “Entrapment,” I’ve added “House of Butterflies,” in which flesh does more than crawl–it flies. To “Conspiracy,” I’ve added “Kindertotenlieder,” about a twentieth-century Pied Piper whose storybook vengeance is even more horrific than the worst version you’ve read. With these additions, the book provides an even better view of the self-obliterating drive toward darkness that binds all the stories together. With the stunning new cover and support from Seventh Star Press–and with the first edition’s enthusiastic reviews–I’m looking forward to Leaping at Thorns freaking out a larger audience.

So what, then, of the newest addition to the bunch–the one with the guts on the cover and the hard-to-pronounce title, Peritoneum? It’s a different kind of animal. In a very small circle of friends I’ve been calling it a Winesburg, Ohio on acid, not because it’s about small-town life (although a significant number of stories focuses on a suburban house… especially its basement) but because the stories share characters and inform one another. In fact, although I published a few stories separately, and a few stories only relate to the whole tangentially, I wrote the vast majority of these tales to stand alongside the other tales. That design makes this book very different from Leaping at Thorns, which has some interrelated stories that nevertheless stand alone. In Peritoneum, I hope you’ll enjoy reading stories individually, but you’ll get a lot more out of them if you read them together. The volume starts with “The Family Pet” and “Blood and Feathers” because they introduce elements that run throughout the book, and it ends with “The Birds of St. Francis” and “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies” because they tie a lot of those elements together.

Don’t let me mislead you. I don’t promise that the stories make sense when you read them all together. Sure, they make more sense. Some of the WTFs in “The Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion” get answered in the next tale, “TR4B,” and even the comical scenario of “DNA” gets backstory work in “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies.” HOWEVER–my goal is to offer little eddies of revelation in a greater sea of insanity, where sense and reason fail more often than they succeed. Lots of horror stories have endings that explain the horrors and box them away. Many of them are good. Few of them scare me.

What scares me is the breakdown of sense, the failure of perception. As a result, my stories and the perceptions inside of them tend to break down. Sometimes, I couch the breakdown overtly in terms of the supernatural and/or mental illness and/or drugs (especially in “Patrick’s Luck,” “The Road Thief,” “The Long Flight of Charlotte Radcliffe,” and “Door Poison”), and sometimes I just let them unwind by their own devices. My hope is that the stories, while not always conventionally satisfying, will disturb you on some level–move you to feel afraid, amused, bewildered, and so on–and result in entertainment, albeit of a brooding and uncomfortable sort.

Oh, I worry about things. “Blood and Feathers” has two endings, neither of which is a resolution… “Year of the Wolf” pivots around quotes from an obscure World War Two documentary as well as a scientific curiosity… “Juicy the Liar” opens with a line about eating pussy… I thought of “Bubble Girl” as YA until readers started seeing all kinds of crazy sex stuff in it that I thought was buried well under the surface… “The Broom Closet” goes beyond nasty… much could go wrong in the reading of Peritoneum. But without that possibility, I’m not sure it could really go right, either.

Southern Haunts 3: Fantastic Flights, Historic Hurlyburly

Southern Haunts 3: Magick Beneath the Moonlight is a short-fiction anthology that delivers a delectable range of witch-tastic events and images, successfully indulging fantasies of magical power and a fetish for the history of things weird. [For the rest of my review, keep reading, or for an interview with the book’s co-editor Alexander S. Brown, go here.]

Leaving the most familiar questions about whether so-and-so is or isn’t a witch in the background, and saving the typical witch-hunts for Yankee territory, the stories in Southern Haunts 3 presume the existence of magic and focus on the power’s whats and whens. From these whats and whens readers get a sense of a where, the American South, which is both horrific and mystical. As a result, this collection of stories stands apart from typical witch-horror while affirming, in the Southern Gothic tradition, that regular old “realistic” storytelling doesn’t quite get one of the U.S.’s most culturally diverse and historically troubled regions.

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While I’m conflating all the mystic goings-on in Southern Haunts 3 as witchery, the collection’s editors and authors are careful to distinguish among types of magic and related spiritual traditions, naming the book’s primary whats distinctly as voodoo, hoodoo, and witchcraft. “The Apartment House,” for instance, provides a series of bizarre and violent tableaux—death by books is my favorite, but a detailed flaying deserves mention—and ties them together with a lesson on the laws for practicing voodoo the right way. In “La Voyante,” a knowing character explains to a writer looking for a new creative outlet that voodoo isn’t the only game in town:

“No, we talkin’ ’bout Hoodoo. Between the ‘hoo’ an’ the ‘voo,’ there’s a worl’ of difference… though we do tend t’ use a bit of both in these parts.”

Often gesturing toward the diasporic and creolized origins of so-called “pagan” spiritualities tied to hoodoo and voodoo, the stories in Southern Haunts 3 provide a nuanced enough view to add an S to the K in the subtitle, making it a less elegant MagickS Beneath the Moonlight (not a suggestion—the actual title is much better!). Indeed, as the main character of “In the Dark” learns, some magic needs to be practiced only in the day, so “moonlight” isn’t even a consistent feature of proper witchery. Magic refuses easy limits, and while it can be as elegant as the kindly title character of “Granny Wise,” it can also be as ugly as characters’ habits in “Dances with Witches.” The collection tells us that all these magics might fit in a book, and they all show up in the South, but they won’t all fit in a proverbial box. The box mentioned in the title “The Priestess’s Trunk,” then, provides an apt metaphor: you might try to contain and understand mystical forces, but magic will always find a way to push beyond easy categories and simple expectations.

Despite the diversity of magical types in Southern Haunts 3, magical power almost always serves one end: payback. While the book draws its power from many veins, it directs that power primarily toward fulfilling fantasies of justice and vengeance (for comments on this focus from one of the book’s editors, see the interview). The first tale, “Granny Wise,” based on a historical figure, sets the mold: a witch serves locals as a healer, but the price of her services includes righting wrongs. In most tales that follow, witchcraft, as a means for payback, either doles out a kind of cosmic justice against evildoers (as, for example, in “Live Big”) or serves as means for a witch to get some vengeance on (as in “Vengeance,” “The Jar,” “Tell Me Where He Lies,” and “Without Xango there is No Oxalla”). The most salient motive for mystical vengeance in Southern Haunts 3 relates to the South’s legacies of racism, slavery, and lynching. In “The Untold Tale of Wiccademous,” searching for the story behind cursed woods leads the would-be storyteller into a cosmic trap forged from these legacies. “Cursed,” set in the 1920s, takes a more direct look at magic providing justice for a lynching that earthly courts would ignore, and “The Shadows” answers a nineteenth-century slave-master’s murder of an innocent man with a curse that takes “life for a life.” While magical means of achieving racial justice help to advance the book’s Southern identity, magic also serves as an equalizer for women who suffer under the arbitrary rule of despicable men. The mystic in “Secrets of the Heart” learns that her husband’s religious hypocrisy too easily stands in the way of his devotion to her, a betrayal she does not suffer lightly; likewise, when a violent husband crosses “The Bone Picker Witch,” he opens the door for some of the book’s nastiest moments. In most cases, mystical vengeance is overwhelming and horrific, but the justification that goes with it makes rooting for magical victory a source of grim pleasure.

While the fantasy of supernatural justice is fun to indulge, it recurs a little too often within the selection of tales, and the stories that rely on it less end up being my favorites in the book. “The Witch of Honey, Kudzu, and Coyotes” shrouds its title figure in mystery, making her more like a force of nature than a person practicing a secret art. Going further with an interest in storytelling that runs through “The Untold Tale of Wiccademous” and several other tales in Southern Haunts 3, “The Witch of Honey, Kudzu, and Coyotes” opens with an interrupted story that persists in the narrator’s imagination “like a hollow, unformed thing” alongside

“a boy missing from everyone’s memory”

Broken stories and memory gaps make magic powerful enough to reshape thought and perception, reweaving reality’s fabric; as a result, this tale can explore fresh and compelling territory. Likewise, “In the Dark” focuses on the perils of exploring the unknown. A bit rambling in structure, this tale brings its unwise protagonist in contact with strange verse, talking birds, and a host of disturbing images—my favorite is a buck with centipedes pouring from its mouth—that again signal a link between magic and distorted perception that can change the rules for what a story can do. Fans of more transgressive and gruesome horror fiction will likely count “In the Dark” and “The Bone Picker Witch” as favorites along with “Docta Bones,” in which the title character inverts Granny Wise’s benevolence by requiring much harsher payment for the gods’ services, and “Dances with Witches,” which places a human appetite for evil in parallel with a bewitched landscape’s. Chilling acts and images become the main products of witchery: questions of justice and the natural order become secondary to experiencing the full horror of the weird.

A volume about magic and the South invites thinking about cultural and regional history, and with stories set in (or focused on rediscovering) the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, Southern Haunts 3 does a great job of putting together views of the past (and thus it meets its goals–see the interview). As a Southerner, I wonder about the present. Where is witchcraft in the contemporary South? How do hoodoo and voodoo continue to inform life not just in old New Orleans, but also present-day Atlanta, Richmond, and cities in between with “modern” feels that contrast with the antiquarian interests that dominate this book? The book covers solid ground, but by sticking mainly to historical subjects, it might miss some opportunities for innovation.

The opportunities included, however, add up to a satisfying read. Moody, atmospheric, and drenched in regional detail, Southern Haunts 3 gives readers an entryway to the South’s mystic history, places and times to explore with equal amounts of dread and delight.

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Southern Haunts 3: Magick Beneath the Moonlight,

Table of Contents

  1. “Granny Wise,” by H. David Blalock
  2. “Live Big,” by Tom Lucas
  3. “The Priestess’s Trunk,” by C.G. Bush
  4. “The Witch of Honey, Kudzu, and Coyotes,” by Diane Ward
  5. “The Untold Tale of Wiccademous,” by J.L. Mulvihill
  6. “Vengeance,” by Linda DeLeon
  7. “The Jar,” by Robert McGough
  8. “La Voyante,” by Elizabeth Allen
  9. “Cursed,” by Melodie Romeo
  10. “Secrets of the Heart,” by Louise Myers
  11. “Tell Me Where He Lies,” by Greg McWhorter
  12. “Shadows,” by Kalila Smith
  13. “Docta Bones,” by Melissa Robinson
  14. “In the Dark,” by Jonnie Sorrow
  15. “The Apartment House,” by Della West
  16. “Without Xango There is No Oxalla,” by John E. Hesselberg
  17. “The Bone Picker Witch,” by Angela Lucius
  18. “Dances with Witches,” by Alexander S. Brown

Inside the Peritoneum: A Brain in the Gut

Peritoneum, Horrors by L. Andrew Cooper
(Coming mid-May, 2016)

 

Back Cover Info:

Snaking through history—from the early-1900s cannibal axe-murderer of “Blood and Feathers,” to the monster hunting on the 1943 Pacific front in “Year of the Wolf,” through the files of J. Edgar Hoover for an “Interview with ‘Oscar,’” and into “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies” for a finale in the year 2050—Peritoneum winds up your guts to assault your brain. Hallucinatory experiences redefine nightmare in “Patrick’s Luck” and “Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion.” Strange visions of colors and insects spill through the basements of hospitals and houses, especially the basement that provides the title for “TR4B,” which causes visitors to suffer from “Door Poison.” Settings, characters, and details recur not only in these tales but throughout Peritoneum, connecting all its stories in oblique but organic ways. Freud, borrowing from Virgil, promised to unlock dreams not by bending higher powers but by moving infernal regions. Welcome to a vivisection. Come dream with the insides.

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Contents

  1. Prologue, The Family Pet: Steven Marks awakes one morning to find his older brother Gordon in the back yard doing terrible things.
  2. Blood and Feathers: Dr. Allen V. Fincher recruits Elijah Eagleton from Harvard through a show of unnatural power, so Eli must show power of his own to prove his worth. Slaughter abounds.
  3. Leer Reel: Obsessed with Dr. Fincher, Louis Jardin describes life at the Whispering River mental hospital, especially the ritual murders and his ability to spy on people who read his writing.
  4. Year of the Wolf: Matilda Roan sends Louis Jardin, who becomes a wolf-like creature, into the World War 2 Battle of Tarawa, where he hunts soldiers on both sides before being destroyed.
  5. Interview with ‘Oscar,’ circa 1962: During an interview with an FBI agent, Oscar describes the fate of a small town known for harboring sinful lawbreakers in 1862 Kentucky.
  6. Patrick’s Luck: A family receives “help” at the Whispering River mental hospital, only to find they have become part of colorful and deadly experiments that evoke hallucinatory violence.
  7. Juicy the Liar: Matilda Roan inducts her new friend Melia into the Fincher circle, exploring cunnilingus, battle strategy, and a flying car.
  8. DNA: A survivalist’s well-trained son awakes in a giant aquarium filled with office cubicle dividers. Armed with a clipboard, he must face absurd monstrosities and find a way out.
  9. Lizard Chrome: An army of lizards that drain colors from what they touch invades a trendy city gathering place.
  10. David Langley and the Burglar: A burglar-philosopher, who wants to graduate to murder, breaks into a man’s house and discovers the man stuck to his ceiling.
  11. The Long Flight of Charlotte Radcliffe: A woman attempts reconciliation despite her traumatic past with her Uncle Henry, but he is once again trying to entrap her.
  12. The Road Thief: A boy loses his mother when a spectral man-shape menaces them on the highway. Years later, the man-shape reappears when strange people invade his workplace.
  13. Rudy Haskill’s Plan: Rudy performs an experiment involving the internet, a man, a woman, and mismatched fantasies.
  14. Jar of Evil: A jar of pure evil gets out of the lab and could infect the city!
  15. Bubble Girl: A group of kids discovers a little girl floating in a protected bubble on the playground. Is she a ghost? What mysteries does she hold?
  16. Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion: A young woman goes to a notorious suburban house (TR4B) for an unusual medical procedure and ends up on a nightmarish journey.
  17. TR4B: The “Horror Mother” revisits the basement where her sons Steven and Gordon committed atrocities and faces supernatural tortures.
  18. Door Poison: A young couple visits notorious TR4B and enters a colorful but deadly video-game-like experience involving a floating head and a giant syringe.
  19. The Birds of St. Francis: Oscar meets with the Fincher circle (Elijah, Melia, and Jake) and causes history-changing disturbances involving the birds in Central Park, New York.
  20. The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies: Young Tim hunts the giant albino penguins from Poe/Lovecraft until Elijah recruits him—then his parents seem like better targets.

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In Peritoneum, mass murder becomes a backdrop while cannibalism is a matter for casual conversation. Stories take place at different historical moments, but since some characters see the distant past as well as the future, anachronism permeates their thoughts. Characters can often hear each other’s thoughts, too, so perspectives become… cluttered. Endings do not flow from beginnings but erupt from nightmarish hints of possibility; cause and effect have lost explanatory power. Natural order—the order you would expect to find in a story—churns and dissolves. Peritoneum is such an unnatural book that I think I can fairly call it, as a whole, insane.

Surrender to insanity. The book wants to disturb you, to strike at your brain through your guts, to make you feel and think in unnatural ways. Peritoneum experiments with your insides by doing things you think it shouldn’t. Most horror at least gestures toward the forbidden, usually taboos related to sex and violence, and my stories do not hesitate to mention the unmentionable, both in passing and in graphic detail. The language is harsh; the imagery is harsher. Whether you prefer the fairly realistic narration of “Prologue: The Family Pet,” the reserved dialogue of “Interview with ‘Oscar,’” or the hallucinatory assault of “Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion,” you will encounter an array of people—dead, dying, suffering, enjoying—and situations that refuse the types of answers you expect while providing other, darker answers.

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Answers don’t always appear where you expect, either. While Peritoneum refuses many of storytelling’s natural orders, it develops its own systems, connecting its stories to one another in ways that make them interdependent. “Eternal Recurrence” and “TR4B” pick up on the characters and setting from “The Family Pet” and weave in and out of one another; “Door Poison” and “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies” share a setting with “TR4B,” while “The Broom Closet” also connects to “DNA” and to “Blood and Feathers,” which shares characters with “Leer Reel,” “Year of the Wolf,” and especially “The Birds of St. Francis,” and so on. Fitting the stories together doesn’t create anything like a linear narrative or complete picture, but just as the type of bubble that appears briefly in “Blood and Feathers” seems finally, and inexplicably, to get its due in “Bubble Girl,” mysteries get bigger according to their own internal logics, threatening to explode.

The explosion and dissolution of bodies, minds, and relationships—family losses lead to madness and slaughter in “David Langley and the Burglar” and “The Road Thief”—make most of the stories pretty grim, but you’re allowed to laugh, too. The line between funny-weird and funny-ha-ha tends to vanish along with rationality. I hope you don’t take “Jar of Evil” or “Juicy the Liar” too seriously, although they may be too sick, infuriating, or off-key for actual laughter. When I put my arch-evil characters in a flying car, I am not wearing a straight face. Likewise, I giggle at the mayhem in “Lizard Chrome” and the machinations in “Rudy Haskill’s Plan.” I find the video-game inspired levels of “Patrick’s Luck” and “Door Poison” amusing, although I feel guilty admitting it (sick, sick, sick). Although the ending is ambiguous at best, I even feel some triumph in “The Long Flight of Charlotte Radcliffe,” for the eruption of insanity on that airplane is at least a pretty solution to one of the heroine’s problems. Absurd, irrational styles of narration have their outlets. Insanity isn’t all tragedy, all the time.

While Peritoneum has many ties to my other work, especially the conspiracies of Dr. Allen V. Fincher (and his friends Eli, Jake, Tildy, Louis, Melia, and Oscar), it is a universe unto itself, held together by a membrane of concepts and themes. The universe is like our own, I believe, in lacking coherent sense and values, but it fills the void with nightmares, an example I encourage you NOT to follow. Do not take anything in this book as advice. Do not emulate the characters or seek to replicate the impossible events. Instead, digest the nightmares as you will, making the experiences of insanity parts of yourself, and then lift your brain from the sewage into whatever light remains for you to imagine.

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REEL DARK in the Spotlight

Have you ever been afraid of the movies? Not afraid AT the movies–any good horror film should give you chills–but scared that the movies themselves could somehow darken your world?

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Get ready to be shocked out of your seat. After a limited release in 2015, Reel Dark is back in 2016 with this stunning new cover by Aaron Drown Design and two new tales, Michael West’s sojourn into apocalyptic soundscapes “Ave Satani” and Alexander S. Brown’s love-song to late-night horror-hosts “Grotessa.” In all, it’s a collection of twenty authors who in prose and poetry combine elements from across genres–horror, sci-fi, and noir, of course, but also the western, comedy, and others–in order to show us the mayhem the movies might work on the world.

Here’s the lineup:

Russ Bickerstaff, “24 per second: Persistence of Fission”

Hal Bodner, “Whatever Happened to Peggy… Who?”

Alexander S. Brown, “Grotessa”

James Chambers, “The Monster with My Fist for Its Head”

L. Andrew Cooper, “Leer Reel”

James Dorr, “Marcie and Her Sisters”

Sean Eads, “The Dreamist”

JG Faherty, “Things Forgotten”

Amy Grech, “Dead Eye”

Jude-Marie Green, “The Queen of the Death Scenes”

Karen Head, “Amnesia”

Jay Seate, “It’s a Wrap”

Caroline Shriner-Wunn, “Confessions of a Lady of a Certain Age” and more poetry throughout the book!

Rose Streif, “Caligarisme”

Sean Taylor, “And So She Asked Again,”

Pamela Turner, “Rival”

Jason S. Walters, “Low Midnight”

Mike Watt, “Copper Slips Between the Frames”

Michael West, “Ave Satani”

Jay Wilburn, “Cigarette Burns”

This house makes strange noises

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This house makes strange noises when I’m alone,

And when the wind blows it chills skin and bone.

I may be six-one with Y chromosome;

That won’t stop murder from haunting my home.

Big men, too, are easy prey when they’re prone.

 

An old foundation will happen to groan

But not with such purpose, not at a drone,

Not as if counting by some metronome:

This house makes strange noises.

 

I can’t escape the dark, nor the unknown,

Nor the ways loneliness the senses hone

As through my memory harsh spirits comb

Brandishing sins with hot vengeful aplomb,

Calling to me with my flesh to atone—

This house makes strange noises.