horror

Steal this novel idea!

Book of Revelation art

End of Days, per the Book of Revelation

While reading some dire prognostications about artificial intelligence the other day I came up with an idea for a novel I have no interest in actually writing.

Specifically it was this passage from Tim Urban’s article (see link above) that got me thinking:

What we do know is that humans’ utter dominance on this Earth suggests a clear rule: with intelligence comes power. Which means an ASI, when we create it, will be the most powerful being in the history of life on Earth, and all living things, including humans, will be entirely at its whim—and this might happen in the next few decades.

If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time—everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us. Creating the technology to reverse human aging, curing disease and hunger and even mortality, reprogramming the weather to protect the future of life on Earth—all suddenly possible. Also possible is the immediate end of all life on Earth. As far as we’re concerned, if an ASI comes to being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth

So the idea is this: it turns out that all that crazy Book of Revelation-type prophecy was basically right all along about the End of Days. It’s just that John the Evangelist was tripping balls and had no clue what machines looked like, so his batshit writing obscured the fact that was he was really describing were hyper-intelligent machines vying for control of the Earth, and that the Anti-Christ and Jesus he saw in his visions were actually God-like AIs. As the singularity happens some astute scholars figure this out but of course not quite in time to prevent it. Chaos ensues. The central question of the novel is that if machines have replaced God what prompted John’s original vision? And if there is another, non-artificial God out there lurking in the cosmos, how does it stack up against the machines?

I have no interest in actually writing this. In fact it’s kind of a rip-off of the movie Prince of Darkness, a terminally goofy (if under-appreciated) horror flick that also hinges on mixed-up Biblical prophecy.

So feel free to steal the idea! I only ask you let me know what you do with it.

Horror fiction submission

Earlier this week I dashed off an 800-word flash fiction piece in a sudden fit of inspiration.

“Frankenstein’s Monster” features a man compulsively dreaming about a woman from his past. He worries this might start to affect his marriage (“I gave a wife… I love her very much,” he insists). So he goes to a quack “specialist” doctor to receive a new-fangled dream treatment. Unfortunately for our protagonist he experiences some ugly unintended consequences.

My target market for this piece is Every Day Fiction. They’re far and away my favorite online market, combining a skilled editorial team with a solid online format and plenty of opportunities for commenting and sharing. The latter is HUGE for writers in this day and age. In fact, old-school static pages have soured me on a number of other online venues, including hackwriters and Bewildering Stories. I am submitting primarily for visibility, after all. If a publication isn’t optimized for the modern web user it’s usually not worth a submission.

If EDF rejects “Frankenstein’s Monster” I’ll probably look to a specialty SF/horror market next.

Evil never looked so good

Black Sunday movie posterMario Bava’s Black Sunday is regarded as one of the most influential horror films of all time. It’s the H.P. Lovecraft of gothic horror movies. Its look and feel have inspired legions of imitators, derivatives and spiritual descendants.

Netflix has been recommending this movie to me for a while now, but I didn’t take the plunge until I read Dave’s review at DVD Infatuation. His view?

From the opening sequence, where we witness Asa’s execution (which also features the film’s most graphic scene: the Mask of Satan, with several long spikes attached to the back of it, being hammered onto the poor girl’s face), it’s easy to see why Black Sunday is considered a classic of the horror genre.

There is nothing complicated about this movie. It opens with an accused vampire/witch, Moldavian Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), being condemned to death by her brother. Because Asa is an eeeevil,* unrepentant harpy, she curses her brother and all her descendants before beseeching The Prince of Darkness for assistance. The Prince of Darkness answers her call with a wicked rain storm, and the peasants are unable to burn her at the stake. Why they can’t just burn her when the weather breaks is anyone’s guess.

In any event the Inquisition buries Asa in the family crypt, where she waits to exact revenge from the beyond the grave.

Sure enough, a pair of bumbling doctors on their way to a conference [INSERT JOKE] bring Asa back to life. Thirsty Asa promptly sets her sights on the lithe neck of her great-great-grandniece Katia (also played by Steele). Mayhem ensues.

Narrative complexity is not Black Sunday’s strong suit. The movie is built on strong visuals. It uses its monochrome palette to maximum effect in portraying its bleak, moody setting. Francis Ford Coppola found Black Sunday so visually striking that he recreated some of the shots in his own Dracula adaptation. This is a fantastic example of the atmosphere a skilled director can create with limited resources. I found quality even more prominent coming on the heels of the latest Godzilla movie.

In terms of acting, Barbara Steele’s dual roles steal the show. Asa is of course more fun to watch than Katia (when hasn’t pure eeeevil been more fun than naive virtue?) but Steele is convincing in both roles.

Director Mario Bava ended up as something of a one-hit wonder. Black Sunday was his directorial debut. Nothing else he made matched its critical or box office success. Black Sabbath (also available on Netflix) was probably the closest he came to recapturing the magic before his death in 1980.

* Sometimes one “e” is just not enough.

Crash and burn!

Sad to report that “State of Grace” crashed and burned at Bewildering Stories. On the plus side it was not a form rejection. I actually got some great editorial feedback on the piece. There is also a promotional option available for “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell,” which I plan to explore in more depth later this week. So all is not lost. They did ask me if I had anything else for them to consider (which I appreciated). There’s just nothing else ready to go out the door at the moment.

I intend to go back through the story with the editor’s comments in mind. With any luck I can improve the piece and get it accepted somewhere else.

Flash Fiction Online submission

As part of my ongoing quest for increased visibility, I submitted my flash horror story, “First Corinthians,” to Flash Fiction Online. In an earlier post I described the story thusly:

“First Corinthians” is about a little girl speaking to the exorcist trying to throw a demon out of her sister. It actually takes place apart from the exorcism itself, while the exorcist is taking a break. This isn’t blood and guts horror. I’m trying for something more cerebral – maybe even philosophical. The story is about faith and God and how one copes in the apparent absence of those things. What if God didn’t exist but the Devil did? Pretty horrifying stuff, methinks, albeit in a much subtler way.

As usual, updates to follow.

New short story project

I’m still waiting on a decision regarding “Like Killing A Mockingbird” from Every Day Fiction. In the meantime I dashed off a first draft of a new short story. Its working title is “First Corinthians.” It, too, is a flash fiction piece. Unlike the abovementioned story its genre is horror.

Why did I decide to do horror? Probably has a lot to do with all that True Detective I’ve been watching.

“First Corinthians” is about a little girl speaking to the exorcist trying to throw a demon out of her sister. It actually takes place apart from the exorcism itself, while the exorcist is taking a break. This isn’t blood and guts horror. I’m trying for something more cerebral – maybe even philosophical. The story is about faith and God and how one copes in the apparent absence of those things. What if God didn’t exist but the Devil did? Pretty horrifying stuff, methinks, albeit in a much subtler way.

I would love to share a bit of the first draft but I plan to try and publish this online and most e-zines ask for first electronic rights. For now suffice it to say that this project exists. I will update as things progress. I am setting my first draft aside for a few days so I can come back with a fresh perspective.

Virgil Price, Paranormal Detective

It’s a hell of a thing, to watch a man die.

Not least with a wooden stake sticking out of his chest.

He lay there on the linoleum taking sharp, shallow inhales, blood trickling from the corners of his mouth. At regular intervals he let loose with an awful, hacking cough that sent bits of bloody sputum flying from his lips.

I lit a cigarette.

“Fools rush in,” I whispered. “Where wise men never go. But wise men never fall in love. So how are they to know?”

No sooner did I finish then he coughed again. This time in a staccato rhythm that sounded remarkably like an attempt to communicate.

***

The client promised me five hundred dollars plus expenses to find the man who killed her sister.

She knew to come to me because her sister died ex-sanguinated with her throat torn out.

Her hair was scarlet, her lips fire-engine red. She had fair skin and stood snuggled up inside a fur coat like an Arctic vixen. Underneath she wore a black dress on account of being in mourning. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses with big, square lenses and thick frames, as if she rinsed her mouth with gimlets each morning and had made an enemy of sunlight over it.

She appeared as a starlet who was just now passing out of her prime: a tall glass of youthful beauty and hard life lessons.

She passed me a set of glossy crime scene photos and her card. The name Lucy Lamour ran across the top in looping script. I pocketed the card – didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten the glamor shots. “How did you find me?”

“Ad.”

“UFO ENTHUSIAST?”

She shook her head. Loose red curls bounced affably. “SPECTER.”

“You must be desperate.”

“I suspect you’re about the only person who wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”

“I suspect you’re right.”

I offered her a cigarette and she accepted. After we lit up she laid out the facts.

Sis was the kind of gal who liked to dress up fancy and meet dark, handsome strangers in cheap hotels. The kind of hotels where the silverware’s always got a thin film of grease on it and half the letters in the vacancy sign are burned out on account of it always running. Drove their mother to an early grave, Lucy claimed.

I assumed she (the mother) had stayed there.

A month back a hotel maid found Lucy’s sister stone dead and stark naked atop a stripped bed, her throat ripped up like a wolf had been at it. The maid spent the morning hysterical, roaming the corridors and accosting guests in her native tongue until a travelling salesman who sometimes bought dope in Tijuana had the good sense to call the cops.

“The police said it was a crazy person,” Lucy explained, “because of the way he’d been at her. They said they’d never find him because of the way she lived.”

“They’re half right.”

“Will you help me?” There was a note of desperation in her voice, perhaps a hair too sharp to be completely genuine.

I folded my hands in my lap. “Mind taking your glasses off, Lucy?”

She slipped them off her face and set them on the desk. The eyes underneath were a healthy, vital blue.

On account of the fact she didn’t explode I took the case.

***

People wonder how I got into this line of work.

My Pop was a mean drunk with a bad habit of whaling on my mother. Me too, once she collapsed.

One night loaded on Wild Turkey he shot my mother through the throat with a .25 automatic. Would have been the end of me, too, except he was dead drunk and ten feet away when he pulled the trigger. Instead of piercing my brain the bullet looped around my skull and went out pretty much the same hole it went in. “Halo pattern,” the doctors call it. A one in a million shot. That’s Pop for you. For his trouble he earned himself a one-way trip on Old Sparky. That they didn’t let me watch is the one true regret of my life.

Ever since the work’s come pretty natural, seeing things that go bump in the night and all.

***

A lot of vamps think they’re smart on account of their age.

The truth is most are liable to give themselves away with an outmoded fashion sense. It ends up you never really see much of the smart ones. They only come out to snack. Consequently most fall rather short of well-socialized.

So it is with Lothar.

I waited for him two hours on the crumbling headstone across from his grave, marked with a gothic cross worn round at the edges.

I occupied myself smoking, depositing the butts in a neat pile at my feet. Some might call that “desecration.” But they’re assuming the dead want to rest in peace.

It was just shy of four when Lothar came creeping back through the rows of headstones.

He’s more Max Schreck than Bela Lugosi. Tall, thin and ugly. He’d gone bald about a century ago, but still sported tufts of long, white hair along the sides of his head. His fingernails had turned to claws about fifty years ago. He wore a moth-eaten burial suit with an upturned collar.

A pair of dulled, yellowed fangs poked out from beneath his lips. Blood trickled down his chin.

“What’s the rumpus, Lothar?”

The vamp laced his claws together.

“Decent meal?”

He shrugged. “Virgin. Too sveet.”

“Blonde or brunette?”

Lothar licked his bloody lips. He’s partial to blondes. Something to do with his Germanic upbringing. He left the Old Country years ago on account of some political trouble. Said he followed in the footsteps of Fritz Lang. Even claimed to have met Lang once. According to Lothar they talked about a cigarette girl’s legs, then briefly the subtext of THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE.

“I’m sure you’re eager for a good day’s sleep,” I said, “so I’ll cut straight to it. I’m working a case for a sweet looking redhead. Think Rita Hayworth coming off a bender. As you can imagine she’s not the kind of woman I’d like to disappoint. Any of your pals get carried away lately?”

Lothar shook his head.

“New guys learning the ropes?”

He thought for a moment. “Sqveaky.”

“How do you go and get a name like that?”

“Eating mice.”

“Mayhap he developed a taste for raw strawberry blonde?”

“I vould not know. I avoid ze young.”

I couldn’t blame him.

Lothar was all right, for a vamp. He helped me out of a jam a few years back. More importantly he ate in moderation. The way an old hand like Lothar figured it the less corpses with holes in their necks the better. Particularly for vamps, which had a tendency to get dug up and beheaded when public outrage escalated. He preferred to leave his victims alive, and detested those who got carried away.

Hence his willingness to pass a little sanguinary wisdom my way on occasion.

“Whereabouts does Squeaky flop?” I asked.

He told me.

***

It’s a myth that they all sleep in coffins.

Lothar did on account of his aristocratic sensibilities. But most freshly-made vamps are content to hang upside down in a closet. Squeaky hung his cape in a tiny, unfurnished studio. The building was something of a charnal house. On the ground floor a neon sign advertised rooms for rent. The second “o” was out. Sometimes I think the staff breaks them on purpose. For atmosphere.

I came by in the early evening when I was pretty sure he’d be out, snacking on rodents or redheads. Whichever hit the spot.

I wasn’t angling for a confrontation just yet. I’d settle for a glimpse of how he lived.

A crusty old geezer manned the front desk. He didn’t say boo to me. Here they let you do what you like. Any way else would be bad for business. Which made it the perfect place for a novice like Squeaky to flop.

I jimmied the lock on his door without any trouble.

It was a small, unfurnished room that stank of tobacco and cheap perfume. The lack of furnishings were the tell-tale sign of a newly-made vamp. A little older and they turned into bon vivants, collecting piles of antique furniture and bad art.

But for whatever reason most new guys preferred the closet.

A misshapen, roughly-circular stain sat in the center of Squeaky’s.

Messy eater. Another tell-tale sign of a newbie.

I left a card on his bloodstain. Figured maybe he’d come calling.

***

Where interspecies relations are concerned Noir’s the best game in town. A seedy little parlor drenched in harsh, red light that belonged on a submarine somewhere. A place where dolls who liked playing damsel in distress met guys who enjoyed chomping down on lithe, fair-skinned necks. The madame was a fat, unpleasant woman showing far too much skin. Aside from weight her defining feature was a birth mark the color and shape of a gunshot wound.

It sat square in the middle of her left cheek and I could hardly take my eyes off it.

“You look like a cop,” the madame said.

“I hate cops,” I answered. Which was the truth.

“What’s your pleasure then?”

I passed her the photo Lucy gave me. “Ex-wife. Skipped out on me and the baby. A little birdie told me she’s into the rough stuff now.”

The fat madame looked at the picture and frowned. “You’re sure you’re not a cop?”

“Sure as can be.”

The madam squinted hard at the photo. She held it out. Studied it at arm’s length. “To be honest I can’t tell which it is.”

“Which?”

“Lucy or Linda I mean. They’re so much alike. They could be sisters.”

I reached for a cigarette. “Sisters, eh?”

The fat lady looked up. “You’re sure you’re not a cop?”

***

I drove to the address on Lucy’s card.

It was a small apartment on the top floor of a low building. The front door stood unlocked, open a crack.

Her place was small but well-furnished. Leather chairs and a lot of dark wood. I found her in bed with the covers thrown over her.

Underneath she was naked. Not to mention dead.

Her hair lay across her face like tiny ribbons. Her lipstick was still moist. It had smeared from the right corner of her mouth back across her cheek.

He bled her out, just like her sister. Her throat was torn out and her bedsheets soaked through.

I sat down on the edge of the bed. Lit a cigarette. “I’d like to think you didn’t deserve this,” I said. But in a drawer buried beneath a pile of lingerie I found a check for five thousand dollars. An insurance payout for a policy on Linda Lamour, made payable to Lucy.

I set it on the bed beside her corpse. “You deserved it all right.”

A time-honored scam. Squeaky charmed Linda and killed her. Lucy collected.

A smooth hustle, considering it’d take a cryptozoologist to track down the killer.

Lucy’s mistake was greed. Rather than split the payoff and ride into the moonlight together she preferred to play for all the marbles. All she needed was a chump happy to sit up nights for five hundred dollars, plus expenses.

And as luck would have it SPECTER magazine was just the place to look.

***

There was only one thing left to do.

I went back to Squeaky’s pad the same time as the first. Again I jimmied the lock. Again I checked the closet. The bloodstain was still there on the floor. My card was not.

I waited inside with the door shut, clutching a 12-inch length of birch sharpened to a point.

It was hours before he came back. While I waited I thought about redheads. How they never get ink like blondes or brunettes. I dozed off and ended up dreaming about Lucy and Linda feeding on either side my neck, soft scarlet curls kissing my cheeks as they ate.

A noise snapped me out of it.

All of a sudden there was Squeaky standing in front of me, and before I even really thought about it there was the stake sticking out of his chest, a dark stain spreading across his shirt.

He had straight black hair that ran the length of his face. Pale blue eyes. Soft features, like a porcelain doll. He wore a black peacoat over a white collared shirt and dark slacks. A sad, sad creature.

He frowned, looked down at the stake and took a step back.

I moved forward.

Squeaky shuffled back, back and back and right and right as I advanced. Blood bubbled at his lips and who knew if it was his. Finally he backed all the way into his barren, unfurnished kitchen and collapsed in a heap.

Already I felt like all kinds of hell.

***

“Never trust a redhead,” I said, recalling that imagined sensation of soft, scarlet hair kissing the skin along my throat. Was Squeaky thinking the same?

I pulled the blinds, picked up my hat and set it on my head. Grabbed my coat off the chair and slung it over my back. Straightened my tie.

“Enjoy the view,” I said, not meaning it cruelly.

Vamps have a weird thing about the sun. Most of them kind of miss it, and I suspect a psychiatrist would have a lot to say on the subject. ‘Specially if he were billing by the hour. For Squeaky it was the least I could do.

I tossed my cigarette in the sink.

“See you on the other side, kid.”

I left and didn’t look back.

(I found this going through some old files on my PC. I like it but to me it reads more like a writing exercise than anything. That’s why I never submitted it. Still, I had a lot of fun writing this story. Maybe some day I will self-pub it at the .99 cent price point. For now here it is for free.) 

“Mathematics can be magic”

Atrocity Archives cover

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

“Charlie had this great idea for a novel: ‘It’s a techno-thriller.’ The premise is that Turing cracked the NP-Completeness theorem back in the forties! The whole Cold War was about preventing the Singularity! The ICBMS were there in case godlike AIs ran amoke!” – Ken MacLeod, Foreword to The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross writes fascinating stuff. The basic premise of The Atrocity Archives, MacLeod writes, “is that mathematics can be magic.” I would classify the novel as Lovecraftian horror/fantasy, though that still doesn’t quite do it justice (reasons to be found below).

The gist, in brief: given the proper combination of mathematic and occult knowledge, one effectively becomes a modern day wizard. This can involve manipulating objects or people around you. It can also involve knocking on the doors to other dimensions.

Stross describes it thusly:

This isn’t the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back –see Al-Hazred, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, Poe, et cetera. The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics–computerised or otherwise–draws them forth. (And you thought running that fractal screen-saver was good for your computer?

The Atrocity Archives and its companion piece, The Concrete Jungle, are sci-fi/horror novels for nerds. They relate the adventures of on Bob Howard, IT flunky cum secret agent. See, someone has to keep any eye on all the Great Old Nasties from beyond the dimensional pale. In the UK that’s the Laundry (us Yanks have the Black Chamber). Howard, like most other Laundry employees, got his job after becoming a little too interested in certain obscure mathematical theorems. Now he spends his working days struggling to both navigate the Civil Service bureaucracy and thwart many-headed threats from other dimensions.

This is Lovecraft meets Fleming meets Dilbert. For Bob middle management is every bit as frightening as the Lovecraftian horrors lurking in Dimension X.

I’m not going to spoil details about plot points. By now you should know if The Atrocity Archives is a book for you (hint: you may be drooling all over your tablet). Don’t waste any more time reading reviews. Just wipe your mouth and go get it on Amazon.

In defense of Chernobyl Diaries

I rather enjoyed Chernobyl Diaries. I was appalled to see that it had a measly 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even that turkey Paranormal Activity 3 managed a 68%.

The premise: a handful of backpackers take an “extreme tour” of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town that housed workers that staffed Russia’s doomed Chernobyl reactor. Their guide is Yuri, a swarthy (if likable) Spetznatz trooper turned tour operator. After wandering around creepy-ass Pripyat for a while, the gang discovers Yuri’s van won’t start. So they’re stuck. Overnight. And to make matters worse, they start seeing and hearing signs they’re not the only ones overnighting in the abandoned city…

Chernobyl Diaries is all about atmosphere. The plot is relatively uninspired — irradiated cannibal mutants stalk hapless victimsWhat this flick has going for it is Pripyat:

Pripyat

Pripyat

Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat panorama

Pripyat

Soviet officials ordered the evacuation of Pripyat about 24 hours after the Chernobyl reactor melted down. Wikipedia has a fairly chilling translation of the evacuation order, which it cribbed from a National Geographic special:

For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.

Chernobyl Diaries effectively leverages on this history for the first half of its running time. In fact, some of the creepiest scenes are of Yuri simply leading the backpackers around the abandoned city. This makes for a far more compelling film than a handheld camera pointed at an eight-year old’s bedroom. Or watching blankets rustle in a suburban home. It also offsets shortcomings in plot and characterization. That’s more than you can say for most horror gimmicks (ahem–found footage).

Many horror films live or die by atmosphere. Chernobyl Diaries is one of them. I’m not saying this is a great movie. It might not even rate as average. But it’s certainly not abysmal. It deserves far more credit than it’s gotten.

Paranormal Activity 3 = unmitigated lameness

paranormal activity 3 screencap

The face of unmitigated lameness.

On one hand I give the Paranormal Activity franchise a lot of credit. It’s made oodles of money with the simplest of gimmicks. Perhaps even more impressively, it’s proven people will pay good money to watch a movie where nothing much actually happens.

I had the misfortune of watching Paranormal Activity 3 the other night. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure I should qualify that. I watched part of Paranormal Activity 3 the other day

I gave up at about the half hour mark. Mostly because nothing much had happened, unless you can count a spring-loaded wife as a plot point. Granted there were some bits about a kid talking to her “imaginary” friend, and at one point some dust did fall on something that could possibly be construed as a ghostly shape. But at the end of the day it takes more than a couple scare chords and an ambiguous video artifact to offset a half hour of unmitigated lameness.

Is it fair to bash a movie I gave up on a third of the way through?

Absolutely.

A horror movie can be many things. Boring is not one of them. In order to be boring a horror movie must fail on a fundamental level. Other examples of things that were fundamentally flawed:

Fortunately, watching Paranormal Activity 3 does not directly threaten one’s financial security or personal well-being. It’s just not very much fun. In fact, about the only fun I had during Paranormal Activity 3 was trying to convince my girlfriend we could make a better sex tape than the couple in the movie (she didn’t go for it). Also realizing director Ariel Schulman is the brother of that guy from Catfish.