Until May 23, 2023, my collection Stains of Atrocity: Twenty Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy is a FREE ebook to download at Amazon. In case you don’t remember or don’t feel like scrolling down, Stains of Atrocity’s twenty horrific tales vary in style and extremity–some are mild, some are off-the-walls, some are even funny–but each aims to leave an unusual, dark, and lasting impression. It begins with “Silence,” a surreal haunting about a woman who visits a strange house and then quietly loses the people closest to her, and it ends with “Mandy Schneider Makes Friends,” a taboo-breaking account of three psychopaths who form an alliance and then torture a group of campers and their chaperones. Arranged into five sections or “blots” that might stain your psyche in different ways with the atrocities they depict, the stories explore distorted responses to tragedy, strange connections that form when people give in to chance, political anxieties acted out through rent flesh and spilt blood, miraculous feats paid for with massacres, and a crime that lives on in a place and in people devoted to human violation.
Okay, that last bit was borrowed from what you’ll see when you go to Amazon to get your free copy. If you want a more inside scoop, read my post here. My point is that, though I’m pretty consistently weird, I cover a broad spectrum of horrific affects, so there’s a good chance you’ll like something. And even if you don’t, what have you got to lose? It’s FREE!
This post provides some generally spoiler-free commentary about the stories in Stains of Atrocity, comments I left out of the book in order to keep it from getting any longer (and more expensive–now, the e-book is $2.99, and the trade paperback is $19.99). As for the book as a whole, I take the business of horror seriously. This book wants to horrify and offend you, to stretch your mind with the surreal and the grotesque until your assumptions break. If the sensation is always pleasant, I’m not doing my job. Prepare for twenty flavors of the outré and outrageous.
Blot One: Stains of Loss
After a roadside mishap, a woman visits a strange house to seek help. Later, the people around her disappear inexplicably. This story, one of the oldest in this collection, has long been a personal favorite because I find the sadness of the protagonist’s surreal predicament scary. This version differs from previously published versions: it includes expansions from the award-winning screenplay adaptation.
“House of Butterflies”
Two sisters meet at their uncle’s house to prepare for their mother’s funeral and discover that their family is the target of a bizarre supernatural phenomenon involving… butterflies. Another older story, this one is mostly the same as earlier published versions. I’m fond of the imagery—never seen anything quite like it—and like that the characters are American royalty, from a echelon of culture I rarely touch.
An entity called The Grizzle Man tells a woman she will kill her neighbor, and she becomes obsessed with the idea of doing it. The protagonist’s psychological perspective makes everything feel off, even to me. This story is previously unpublished, and like all seven previously unpublished stories in Stains of Atrocity, it is relatively new.
“David Langley and the Burglar”
A burglar fantasizes about hurting the people he robs while his latest mark tries to comprehend the supernatural force that ensnares him. Maybe the title should be “The Burglar and David Langley” because the first half is from burglar’s perspective, the last from David’s. The surreal convergence of the ending, however—if it works for you—is what the story is really about.
Blot Two: Stains of Collusion
A truck driver feels drawn to a boy he sees in a car on the highway, and the boy seems just as drawn to him—but their attractions take a violent turn. Readers who don’t get the (unsubtle) references to Lolita and Poe-via-Nabokov will get less out of the story, but an early reader in such a position still liked it. The final section is stream of consciousness, but it’s accessible. Previously unpublished.
Supernatural lizards descend upon a popular nightspot in downtown Louisville and cause a frenzy of murder and mayhem. This story’s goal is fun, assuming you can take your fun with some extreme gore infused with questions about color that might be connected to race. Of course, I am also thinking about all those reptilian conspiracies out there. I provide a sort of cameo.
“The Long Flight of Charlotte Radcliffe”
A young woman falls back into the clutches of her abusive uncle. Charlotte takes a long flight, but this story is very short. For readers who don’t pick up on layered references, I think the story is mostly about the ending. However, “Charlotte Radcliffe” is a nod toward Charlotte Brontë and Ann Radcliffe, and the story is thinking about the history of tales about women in peril and a radical direction for the future.
“Jar of Evil”
A scientist of sorts captures the essence of evil in a jar, drops the jar, and chases it, hoping to catch it before it starts the apocalypse. Humor masks horror here, and narrative style overpowers narrative content. Nevertheless, if you’re able to step out of the protagonist’s warped perspective and envision what he’s actually doing, the sickness will shine through the silly veneer.
Blot Three: Stains of Allegiance
All the stories in this section are previously unpublished.
“Dinner for Two”
A young man obsessed with online exposure decides to commit and stream a mass shooting, and one of his followers, enchanted, decides she’ll join him. The very real-world horror and apparent cheapness of life in this story will likely make it one of the book’s most difficult to take. I developed the lead characters first in two short scripts (one award-winning, one kept private). Terrifying people.
A group representing different minorities decides to strike back at the white supremacist terrorizing their neighborhood, but the murderous bigot refuses to die. I imagined this story as a kind of inverted slasher, with the emphasis on the “good guys” hunting the unstoppable bad guy instead of the reverse. While the tale offers suspense and gruesome violence, much of it is tongue-in-cheek.
“Around Your Neck”
A psychic gets pulled into a plot involving murder, human trafficking, and a supernatural “familiar” with a taste for slaughter. Although there’s not much mystery, this one ended up with a neo-noir-ish edge that pleases me. Marty the psychic and Vorzien the monstrous familiar are characters I’ve already used in a feature screenplay and might use again. This point is not a spoiler about who/what dies when.
“Food for Flies”
A white couple with racist tendencies accidentally (?) kills a brown young man, and after they dispose of the body, swarms of flies appear with a gruesome agenda. This story is the most recent in the book. Some readers will find one of its scenes to be the most disgusting—but a couple of early readers found said scene to be hilarious as well, so hey, find out for yourself. Call this one “body horror.”
Blot Four: Stains of Will
As I mention in the book’s brief foreword, the last eight stories will make more sense (which isn’t to say they’ll make sense) if you read them together. The stories in this blot relate to the universe I’ve built around a character named Dr. Allen Fincher and his book The Alchemy of Will, a universe reflected in my novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines as well as my story collection Leaping at Thorns.
“Blood and Feathers”
At the dawn of the 20th century, Dr. Allen Fincher confronts Dean Elijah Eagleton at Harvard about nefarious activities. After a display of power, Allen lays out a plan for cooperation and human sacrifice. This story plays in a weird register, more dark fantasy than horror but plenty horrific if you think about what happens and what it portends. The middle is pretty goofy, making the whole rather unbalanced.
“Kindertotenlieder” (Songs for Dead Children)
In a reimagining of “Pied Piper” tales, a town ends up with a glut of babies that couldn’t belong to their mothers’ husbands, who are off fighting World War Two, so they turn to a woman with mystical powers for help, unaware of the price they’ll pay. The story features Matilda Roan, a key player in several Fincher tales. I’m very fond of the imagery.
“Year of the Wolf”
A man lets a friend kill him so that his essence can travel back to the 1943 Pacific Battle of Tarawa, where he takes the form of a monster that hunts both sides. The man in question is Louis Jardin, a Fincherverse regular. His friend is Matilda Roan. To me, the story stands out because it’s supernatural historical fiction that climaxes with a scientific oddity made grand. The teeth recall “Silence.”
“The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies”
A boy with access to arcane powers summons creatures from fiction and catches the attention of a mentor who leads him toward more destructive goals. This story connects to a lot of other fiction, my own and others’, and links the Fincherverse with TR4B, which I’ll get to in a moment. At its heart, though, it’s a sweet story about an imaginative boy who gets a taste for killing.
Blot Five: Stains of Curiosity
The stories in this section all relate to crimes committed by two boys at a house known as TR4B. In the aftermath of those crimes, the house has become a place of supernatural distortion, which makes most stories about it rather surreal. I wrote about the original crimes in an unpublished novel, Curiosity, twenty years ago, but I wrote these tales knowing no one has read it. Curiosity remains a theme.
“Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion”
A young woman travels to a house notorious for the crimes committed there in order to have a medical procedure, and she ends up on a surreal journey between life and death. This story is about pain, giving up, and becoming something you’d never have imagined. I think it’s either poignant or gibberish. The… surgeon?… is from “Heart on a Stick,” in Leaping at Thorns, but you don’t need to know that.
The mother of boys who committed unspeakable crimes in their house takes a hallucinatory walk through her basement that transforms her. For the most part, this story begins in a shaky but traversable perspective and then dissolves into surreal imagery, but it still manages to shed light on “Eternal Recurrence” while presenting a dark character arc.
A young man and woman who met on the internet visit a house famous for atrocities committed there and find themselves trapped in a bizarre and deadly game. Even though the imagery is extreme, and the storyline is mind-bending, this story shows that even TR4B can be a little silly. The tale probably works better if you know about Schrödinger’s cat and/or Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection.
“Mandy Schneider Makes Friends”
A budding psychopath meets two older boys, brothers famous for rape and murder, and after a bizarre initiation, the three turn their attention to a group of campers and their chaperones. Previously unpublished, this story is the most extreme in the book, also the longest. It is the one most likely to get me accused of being a terrible person. In the foreword, I advise you not to read it. Here, I’ll say that—if you can handle it—you might find that it’s quite good. But I don’t think most people can handle it.
A pleasing consensus so far about my novel Crazy Time is that it’s pretty darned surreal: one reviewer calls it “not just a horror novel, but a surreal world,” which makes my heart race a little. I was certainly going for effects I think of as surreal, but now that I’m accepting the surreal as part of my brand, I’m thinking more about what makes the surreal tick and how I feel about Surrealism in general. For help, I went back to a text I hadn’t read in more than 25 years, André Breton’s The First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). The reread made me realize that, although I agree with many of Breton’s fundamental points, having explored a century of writing since his manifesto, I simply can’t agree with one thing: his concept of Surrealism! So, I’m going to do a few things. I’m going to say what I have in common with Breton. I’m going to say why I break with his Surrealism and propose a way of approaching the surreal informed by more recent thinking. To exit, I’ll make a few notes about how I attempt the surreal in my writing. I am not seeking a revisionary manifesto-level performance here; I just want to get some thoughts out.
So, to begin, Breton struck me with his wit and insight; we have a lot of snarky things in common, not merely a love for Matthew Lewis’s forever-iconoclastic Gothic novel The Monk (11). Here are two major points from his manifesto that I can’t deny:
“The realistic position… appears to me to be totally hostile to all intellectual and moral progress. It horrifies me, since it arises from mediocrity, hatred and dull conceit” (5). Don’t get me wrong. I love some (R/r)ealist art. However, an insistence on the realistic combined with the uppity assumption that the best works hold a mirror up to “nature”–whatever that means–is about as dull as that Hamlet reference.
“In the realm of literature, the marvellous alone is capable of making fertile those works which belong to a lesser genre such as the novel…” (11). Okay, now Mr. Breton’s being a little snooty about the novel, but he mostly means realistic novels, and in any case the good point here is what he says about the marvelous, meaning the fantastic, the supernatural, that which stretches the imagination rather than relying on regurgitation of the quotidian… this stuff is what makes for the richest lit, not the pretension to capturing “life as it really is”–whatever that means. The marvelous opens doors to new possibilities. An attempt to nail down life within imaginatively bereft boundaries denies more possibilities than it allows.
So, Breton looks to counter realism with the marvelous, acknowledges the Gothic already does that to an extent, and wants to go further. What he wants is more psychologically involved, more opposed to conventional thought. He complains, “We are still living under the rule of logic… in our day, logical procedures are only applicable in solving problems of secondary interest” (7). His primary interest is in what lies beyond the merely rational, which stretches the purview of the traditional Gothic (and of contemporary horror), and in that, he and I are allied.
To go beyond the rational, Breton turns to “the omnipotence of dream” to access “the superior reality of certain forms of neglected association” (19). He gives “thanks to Freud for his discoveries” (7). The Surrealist turn to dream associations as an alternative to rational associations is incredibly productive. The marvelous permeates dream. Moreover, dream and the dream-like involve connections among words, images, objects, concepts, and experiences that unseat rationality as the only possible way of constructing and understanding worlds. The ruling regime of the rational is tyrannical; dream is liberatory. “Liberatory” is as far as I’ll go, however. I can’t agree with Breton about any “superior reality,” and though I’ve read and enjoyed more of Freud’s work than is healthy for any individual, I can’t link Freud to anything like what Breton eventually calls “absolute truth” (28). My rejection of Freud comes not merely from his myopia with regard to human diversity, nor merely from his limited understanding of how dreams might actually operate. The main reason is simpler. The notion of truth, especially an absolute one, and the notion of a superior reality–notions prized by both Freud and Breton–are not notions I, having survived in the postmodern condition, find tenable. Surrealism’s dreamy alternative to rationality points to a plurality of thought models, a plurality of realities, not a higher, “omnipotent” truth. Breton refers to madness and madmen several times, perhaps inadvertently positing mental illness as a third thought model to go along with dream and rationality. In one of several definitions of the surreal, Breton claims, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, seemingly so contradictory, of dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak” (10). In the absence of absolutes and confronted with pluralities, I must revise and extend Breton’s claim into one of my own about what constitutes surreality. I believe in the concurrence of these two states, seemingly so contradictory, of dream and reality, in dreams as realities among other realities that expose the fragile illusion of a single, rational “real.” That process of exposing illusion creates a surreality, so to speak.
I suppose I might seem hypocritical by making the surreal superior in its faculty for exposing rationality’s claim to monolithic truth as illusion. Yet I am not saying rationality is an illusion, inferior to dream or to that which would expose its claim to being the singular reality as false. Rationality, too, is a reality among other realities. The surreal is a leveler that destroys claims to singularity and the absolute with unexpected associations, of which dream associations are exemplary. The surreal unsettles by disrupting hierarchical relations, but otherwise, it doesn’t play hierarchical games.
Breton holds up automatic writing as a process likely to achieve surreal effects. It allows the writer to channel thought while staying ahead of rational calculation and self-reflection, and in that, I can’t argue with its validity as a leveler. I don’t have much interest in it, though. I find the concurrence of different thought methods–such as rationality, dream, and different manifestations of psychosis–far more productive, and frankly, I think calculated effects work out better (I believe calculation, perhaps combined with other types of association, lies behind the most effective early Surrealist art as well). Here are some ways I calculate for the surreal in Crazy Time and other writings:
Broken causality. Realistic narratives, and even most narratives that indulge in the marvelous, rely on chains of cause and effect to tell their stories in ways that make enough sense to keep readers comfortable (and paying). A causes B, which causes C, and so on, until the story reaches a logical and satisfying conclusion. To create the surreal, I break causal chains, withholding causes, supplying effects that have unclear or distorted connections to their apparent causes, etc., failing to provide sense and comfort. When rational, causal explanation is unnecessary, very strange things can happen. Writing seminars will tell you that you have to provide logical reasons for the things that happen in your stories and clear motivations for characters’ actions. I’m saying you don’t, but I’d add that causality shouldn’t be broken all the time. The broken stands out when it disrupts the unbroken.
Unresolved multiplicities. The flip side of broken causality, which is an absence of conventional narrative logic, is an abundance of causality, or multiple explanations for events and behaviors that coexist simultaneously, in tension with each other, while none has clear priority. This multiplicity is not the same as having multiple theories in suspension until a mystery is resolved. This multiplicity proves to be unresolvable, and it works best when at least some of the explanations in play are irrational, absurd, or all-out batshit crazy.
Uncontrolled resonance. Repetition always involves difference, and as elements in a story repeat and transform, we tend to like to infer causal connections that motivate the repetition and spur the transformation, but such inferences can be difficult or even impossible. I tend to repeat words, phrases, images, and events, sometimes with premeditation and sometimes without, so that all the instances of the recurring elements resonate (often eerily) with each other. The resonance can accumulate into a theme, but it’s surreal when it prompts a reaction along the lines of, “Why the hell is this showing up again here, now, in this context?!?”
Unreliable physics. So-called “nature” is supposed to follow laws. The core physics class I took in college was called “Space, Time, and Motion.” We talked a lot about smart people who formulated some of those natural laws, which we expect to function in a way that keeps the universe more or less rational and orderly. Ergo, breaking those laws–having space, time, and motion misbehave–can produce surreal effects. Perhaps I should have titled this bullet “unreliable science.” Unreliable biology can produce rather surreal effects as well, but that might fall mostly under…
Imagery, imagery, imagery. Breton devotes space in his manifesto to making fun of the tediously detailed imagery of realistic writers. I take his point, but I nevertheless think that, while much great writing aspires to the condition of music, surreal writing aspires to the condition of painting (or graphic arts). By the time they learn to read, most people have prejudices about how “real” things appear to their senses. Describing people, places, things, movements, sounds, smells, etc.–but especially visual images–that fall outside most people’s understanding of the real provides a challenge to complacent thought. It can also accomplish the surreal at its most twisted, majestic, beautiful and/or sublime.
“Surreal” is a word tossed about in a way that often simply means bizarre, unusual, or weird. Breton helped popularize “surreal” and “Surrealism” with much more specific ideas. Rereading him, I know I can’t call myself a true Surrealist in the 1920s meaning of the term, but if you will accept my modified understanding, I’d be happy to call myself a centennial Surrealist, still working to overthrow the tyranny of logic in 2022.
Kirkus Reviews refers to my novel Crazy Time as having “a side of romance,” which gave me a jolt when I first read it. I don’t write romance! I don’t read romance, and romantic comedy is the one genre of film I categorically avoid. I respect romance writers quite a bit, as theirs is a competitive market and the industry standards have a significant learning curve, but that’s just another reason why I’m not one of them… except… I did put a love story pretty near the center of Crazy Time. Since Crazy Time is crazy Biblical anyway, I’ll echo the Song of Solomon and say it’s one of those “love is strong as death” love stories, if not “love is stronger than death,” as the verse is often misquoted. My novel is primarily the story of Lily Henshaw, secondarily the story of Lily Henshaw’s relationship with Burt Wells, her boss who becomes her lover, as well as someone who protects her and whom she must protect on her quest.
I introduce Burt with the flames already kindled, at least on his side: he and Lily have had a long employer-employee relationship, and he has long been attracted to her, but he has always behaved appropriately. She is aware of his feelings but has never made a move beyond friendship, but when her life starts falling apart, she finds she can turn to Burt, and she does, repeatedly, and he is there for her, even when doing so gets him in trouble (even leading to his arrest at one point). He stays by her side through behaviors and events that would make almost anyone abandon her, and he believes the impossible when she needs him to. After they become intimate, a horrific incident makes Lily’s apartment uninhabitable, so she goes to stay with him—and realizes they are now a couple. Her reliance on him becomes something more, and when, in time, he needs her, her response is passionate. That’s all I’ll say. Read the book to find out whether my lovers achieve the ending romance novels are supposed to have.
Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say one thing more. That Lily and Burt are an interracial couple (Lily white, Burt black) becomes important in several ways. First, there’s the arrest I mentioned: Lily has just been assaulted, Burt arrives to help moments before police, and when the police arrive, they arrest him basically because he’s black, despite Lily’s objections, which leads to other plot developments. More important, though, is Lily and Burt’s battle against the corporation Mansworth Futures and Securities, which is very, very white. They treat Burt dismissively and, later, violently… I’ll sum up by simply saying that in the “working world” to which Lily Henshaw becomes “ambassador,” race is a concern that Lily’s choice of partners helps to highlight.
So, the romance storyline serves multiple functions, but mostly, it raises the emotional stakes, and it makes the characters more compelling. Their need to survive might make you turn the pages, but their need for each other—that might make you hold your breath.
Referring to my novel Crazy Time’s opening chapter, in which the protagonist Lily Henshaw and three friends are menaced on the highway, a recent Readers’ Favorite Book Review summarizes, “Two men in a pickup truck pursue and engage them in a brutal and deadly game called Crazy Time.” The reviewer is correct in that the two men, who call themselves Earl and Rob, are playing a game, and Earl does call what’s happening “crazy time,” but I never thought of what they’re doing as a game called Crazy Time, which would make the title of my book the name of a game (among other things). I may not have planned that dimension of the title, exactly, but I’d say it’s appropriate, as ideas related to gaming run throughout the book. Earl and Rob treat their assault on Lily and her friends as if it has rules to follow, beginning with the recitation of a kind of nursery rhyme and ending with murder, and they have lots of fun along the way, using a cell phone to take video of the proceeding, presumably so they can savor the event again and again. For them, the novel’s opening horrors become a digitally mediated gaming experience.
Lily’s nephew Donnie is inseparable from his handheld video games, but otherwise, no one in the novel is involved with literal “games.” A game is at the story’s heart, however. Lily goes through so many traumas that she concludes she’s suffering from a curse like in the Book of Job, which she understands as centering on a bet, or game, between God and Satan, who basically play to see how unimaginable suffering will affect a person. Lily refuses to be a passive participant and does all she can to become a real player, trying to learn the rules from a psychic, a Satanist, and others. To take an active role, she discovers—about midway through the book—that she must go to a skyscraper that houses a shady company with mysterious connections to the supernatural forces destroying her life.
I don’t want to drop significant spoilers about the second half of the book, but since video games were very much on my mind as I crafted it, I’ll make a few comments. First, about illustrations: there are five images in the first half, five in the second, and two out of the second five show elevators. The skyscraper’s elevators become crucial to both story and structure because Lily arriving at a new floor of the building generally means facing a new challenge, after which Lily must go to an elevator (often at the end of a chapter) to go to another floor for another challenge. Yes, I’m saying floors of the skyscraper are like levels of a video game. Some of them even have boss battles. Near the end, there’s a reference to the video game God of War that I expect that game’s fans to enjoy.
So why this emphasis on games? Perhaps, in the tradition of the film Funny Games (either version), the malefic and/or irrational forces that treat Lily’s suffering as “play” trivialize and dehumanize her, and by extension people like her, and maybe by extension all people, revealing the brutality of the universal order. But maybe it’s more interesting to think about the phenomenal successes of The Hunger Games (which I knew prior to Crazy Time) and Squid Game (which I encountered after), both of which rely on video game narrative conventions, and both of which use games in their stories for social critique. Such stories suggest that we’re taking our games more and more seriously, relying on them to express ourselves and to interpret our lives. These games are about survival. Lily might not want to play the game of Crazy Time that Earl and Rob initiate, but to keep herself going, she learns what every visitor to Las Vegas knows: you’ve got to play to win.