Thursday, October 6, 2016

Reviews for #Horror Fiction, #Weird Fiction & Even A #Poetry Collection


I’ve wanted to get this put together since August, but I was sidetracked by a rush of inspiration, completing three new short fiction pieces within about a five-week period.  Considering the funky way the year has gone, I just had to strap in and ride them to completion.  That said, there’s more story ideas (and a new longer piece started about three weeks ago) bubbling underneath, but before locking in with fiction again, I believe it’s time to deal with some of the wonderful books I’ve read this year.

Shall we? Oh, before we get started, there are links EVERYWHERE!  Please click on them for maximum pleasure...or, well...

Let’s start with  

 One of the key elements in any Scott Nicolay (Ana Kai Tangata) story is a keen sense of frisson.  He magnifies this aspect by diving into the mind of one of the characters on such a level as to bring the reader fully into the story on multiple levels.  The staging of his tales runs the gamut of possibilities, some of which include starting off with the character already steeped in a bad situation and we’re at that point where something needs to change (“after”--though, of course, then the really weird stuff kicks in), or putting the character in a situation that gradually escalates into uncertainty (“Noctuidae”), while distorting the world around the character in such a way that ‘normal’ is no longer a part of the narrative (many of his tales; perhaps most of his tales, including the two noted in this sentence).  In Noctuidae, we spend the duration of the terrifying tale in the mind of Sue-min, who is on a hike with her boyfriend, Ron, and Ron’s friend, Pete.  She doesn’t like Pete.  We don’t like Pete.  The core of the tale takes place in a cave, at night, after Ron goes missing.  The frisson rubs hard as the circumstances deteriorate to a point where the possibility of rape hangs in the air like a clothesline draped with soiled laundry, all while something indescribable looms outside the cave.  The moments in-between are fraught with tension, fear, and exhaustion.  The creature might seem the bigger peril, but for much of the tale, Pete is right on par with it.  Toward the end there’s a beautiful moment that tapped the valve on the tension I was feeling, finally able to breathe again, though a few paragraphs later, I realize it was only the loosening/readjustment of a noose before having the chair kicked out from beneath me.  Hope may play a role in the motivations of the characters, but ultimately, hope is the lie they’ve succumbed to in this powerful tale of truly weird and truly human horrors heightened to unbearable.

Happiness.  We all want it, but our paths are distinctly different in what exactly happiness is, and how we attain it.  Benny’s got issues, but perhaps these issues have been made static by medication meant to help, yet only really stalling any- and every- thing in his life.  Benny is already afraid of living--of life itself, really--until an incident at his therapist’s office, and a friendship to make Kafka smile changes things for him.  Perhaps Stag in Flight is a love story.  Perhaps it’s a mad fantasy, a twisting of the fabric of reality as triggered by Benny’s mind.  Perhaps it’s about one man achieving a form of unexpected, surreal happiness. 


Using taut lines and clipped language, not unlike what a chorus of insects sounds like, Miskowski (Knock Knock + the just released, Muscadines, which I also will be reviewing at a later date) shows us once again why she is one of our finest writers with this absurd and, in a way, beautiful tale.  Stylistically, the story ‘feels’ like it’s from another era, yet the focus keeps it firmly in the here and now. 

Since I dig insects, the excellent artwork by Nick Gucker appeals to me.  It is grotesque and, as with the tale, rather beautiful.   

Join Gary, his older sister Abby, and their mother, Martha, as they look to enjoy a relaxing afternoon swimming in the pool at the recreation center.  Seems everybody else has the same idea, so the pool is overflowing with bodies. 

Just another normal day in the middle of a hot summer, right?

Far from it…

Fracassi expertly layers other characters and a gradually tightening thread of anxiety into the seemingly joyful setting, relayed to the reader mostly through the mind and eyes of Gary.  Some of the anxiety is palpable, as his sister is dragged into a real-life situation fraught with menace.  Even beyond that, though, the tension twists into a knot…and then normal is shown the door...and horror takes the reins.  What happens as things escalate to a breaking point is wild, shocking, unexpected…and brilliantly imagined as Fracassi takes us to a place where…well, let’s just say, what he introduces to the situation has curious influence over many, and is hungry, so hungry. 

Fracassi’s previous chapbook, Mother, crawled under my skin with a truly unnerving finale.  With Altar, he does it again, with a master’s touch.  Definitely a writer I will be following.  

Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters was a debut collection that put him firmly on the literary horror map.  Horror from a different angle.  Writing that sings. 

The Visible Filth follows Will and his girlfriend by default, Carrie, as well as his actual love interest, Alicia, her new boyfriend, Jeffrey, and Eric, “a plug of muscle and charisma,” who turns into an asshole when he drinks too much.  That drinking leads to a bloody fight at the bar Will works at (and where Eric lives upstairs), after which Will finds a cell phone left behind by a group of college kids.  What the cell phone contains infects both Will and Carrie, and sets a harrowing row of dominoes tumbling, ending in a place so bleak and shocking it knocked me sideways.  Actually, replace dominoes with cockroaches, as they’re scuttling around everywhere in this horrific tale. 

Seems Ballingrud had fun writing this tale, leisurely mounting the terror until it’s almost intolerable. But as with everything I’ve read from him, he writes it with such shimmering precision, one cannot look away.  Even if one really, really wants to.  It’s all rather mesmerizing. 

Perhaps with his words, he’s infected the reader, just as the cell phone did to poor Will.


Intermission (a break between chapbooks and collections): How about some poetry?

The poems in The Operating Theater dissect with unflinching clarity what it means to be human; a human who feels too much.  It’s a condition that constantly breaks down like-minded souls, yet we find a way to push through, rise above the waterline, gulp fresh air…before dipping back down into the depths of pain.  These poems are raw, extremely  visceral (“Holy Father Violation”), devastatingly heartbreaking (“The Right Time to Move On”), and even brutally fucked up, guilt-driven, no reason spared, all reason splayed open, all contemplation laced with poisonous self-emasculation (“The Loser Manifesto: Notes From Dirt”—really, this one’s hard to read, more an uncomfortable experience like…like remember the first time you saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Frank Booth came on and placed the oxygen mask over his face and…yeah, that’s the kind of discomfort wired into this one).  Much of this poetry acknowledges a religious/spiritual foundation, and much of it is apparently born of autobiographical experiences.

Whew!  After reading this collection, I am emotionally wasted, and gleefully so.  Gleefully?  Yes, because when art digs this deep, there’s a kind of understanding, a pact made with readers willing to go along for the ride: we are here and we hurt, but we find strength in our art, and in those who are brave enough to never turn away, no matter how deep the blade slices into the soul of existence. 

Ropes recently released a chapbook, Complicity, that I look forward to reading soon.

Excuse me for this, but it’s what popped into my head when I went to put some words down about Michael Wehunt’s fabulous debut collection, Greener Pastures.  I was inspired in…well… Read on.

Drop a cube of sugar in the tall glass of iced-tea.  Place a long spoon into the glass and mix gently.


At first, the sweetness is only a promise, a suggestion at the back of your thoughts, where expectation resides.

Sip again.

There it is, the promise touches the tip of the tongue.  You close your eyes to allow no outside distractions.

Such joy.  Such relief.

But then the flavor changes.  Expectations disperse.  You realize sweat is beading on your forehead. 

You open your eyes. 

The tea is stained with something red.  Something that can only be blood.

You pull sharply away from the glass, wondering if it is chipped.   A quick observation negates the thought. 

From behind you there is laughter.

When you turn to see who would be so cruel, you are confronted by a mirror.

Your mouth is a splayed-open wound, yet when you wipe at it with the sleeve of your shirt, most of the blood disappears.  A couple more swipes, and your mouth is suddenly sealed shut.

Screaming is no longer an option…

Yeah, well.  This is a lot like what many of the tales in Michael Wehunt’s debut collection, Greener Pastures, feel like to me.  He easily draws the reader in, a thread of loss being one of the major linking devices—we can all relate to loss--and subtly, irresistibly tells his tales.  My favorite one is “Onanon,” which explores Adam’s family history via an infected text, curious photos, and a mysterious woman who seems to have been there for much of it.  What it all reveals, well, I’ll leave that for the hive-mind to figure out…just read it.  The title tale is road-weary when it starts during the graveyard shift at a diner, then veers into a really dark place between the gaps.  I was reminded of the best work of Dennis Etchison, which brought a smile.  Wehunt isn’t a one-note writer, though, as the nerve-wracking found footage circle within a circle construction (and constriction, really) of the “October Film Haunt: Under the House” can attest.  

An excellent debut from a writer I look forward to reading more from.  The writing is crisp, drawing the reader in, passing the reader a tall glass of iced-tea.  Go ahead, have a sip…

As a matter of fact, if you want a taste of what Wehunt can do, and perhaps my inspiration for ordering the book, check out “Birds of Lancaster, Lairamore, Lovejoy” and tell me that doesn’t make you want more.

What Michael Griffin brings in his debut collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, is a deep imagination tethered to the quiet side of horror and weird fiction genres.  Yet in saying that, weird and horror might just be touchstones, as his real strength is characterization.  Nobody, I repeat, nobody does relationships, couples in all stages of their time together, like Griffin does.  He’s particularly adept with couples who’ve got some years under their belt, like in the masterful “Far from Streets,” which I’ve previously reviewed and consider a modern weird fiction classic (and is included here).  Another high point for Griffin is his use of pacing.  I think it shows Griffin has confidence in his abilities as a storyteller, putting trust his instincts.  Layering with finesse.  Atmosphere is key as what I’m saying is Griffin brings a jam-packed writers' toolbox, and uses everything for optimum impact.  With his exquisite explorations and word-building, he’s painting a big picture, even as it might be intimate, as in the outstanding short (mystery leading into hallucinogenic terror into...?) novel that ends this collection, “The Black Vein Runs Deep.”  That intimacy, especially in this tale, is brought to the forefront as the reader occupies Colm’s mindspace as he contemplates possible connections with Adi, as well as the underlying mystery.  It’s good stuff, honest, never backing away, before the reality Griffin has built tumbles into a fantastical place…that might just be an illusion.  Or is it cosmic and epic?  The ambiguity leaves the reader contemplating what exactly just happened…in a satisfying way.  The harrowing between-death (post-death?) tale, “The Accident of Survival,” left me disorientated, perhaps because I could relate to the confusion the narrator was experiencing.  “No Mask to Conceal Her Voice” carries on with a different kind of disorientation as Hollywood train-wreck, Lily Vaun, looks to kick-start her derailed career, accepting an invitation to be in a film by the strange director, Leer Astor, leading to a surprising revelation in the finale. 

All of this combines to introduce the readers to a writer who has a full grasp of his talents, yet also invites speculation on where he will go next.  Griffin is one of those writers whose storytelling demands a large canvas.  I can see many novels in his future.  No matter what, more Griffin will always be welcomed by this reader. 

(Muzzleland Press) <---of note: Creeping Waves is only $5 on the site until Halloween.

Matthew M. Bartlett made a major impression with many readers (including this one) with his debut collection, Gateways to Abomination, a rare self-published book that left a huge impact.  Creeping Waves plays off of the ideas incorporated in Gateways, primarily the thread of the insidious WXXT radio station, as well as his two other chapbooks published in the interim, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts and Anne Gare’s Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue, and combines, expands, and refines it all.  I think of the GtA and CW much as I think of Evil Dead and Evil Dead II.  Like the original Evil Dead, GtA is raw, but sets a striking foundation upon which the second book uses as a springboard, and furthermore, Bartlett’s writing has grown into a real force.  Much like the second movie, Creeping Waves plays up the gruesome, the horror…and the humor.  The meatier tales (though often laced with worms—just…just read the book) have real weight, but one cannot discount the slighter in-between tales, as they add character and depth to the all-around reading experience.  “Night Dog” is corporate horror that pushes latter-stage Ligotti, or perhaps Mark Samuel, right off the page.  It’s harrowing and unflinching, especially when our narrator witnesses the transformation of CEO Wren Black into…something truly nightmarish.  (I may have said too much, yet the ride is full of witty writing, so you’ll want to take it anyway.)  “Rangel,” which I reviewed before, messes with memory and loss before it stumbles into a bizarre celebration of Boschian proportions. (Just read my full review HERE.)  “The Egg” is absurd and shocking and contains “chickens and eggs and flesh and love” and a whole lot of crazy shit!    

I didn’t read this “collection” as a straightforward collection.  It’s more like a mosaic novel (thanks for this, Nicolay), where all of the pieces, the shorter and often humorous and/or curious pieces, help to create an overall atmosphere upon which the longer pieces reach in and drag you through the abattoir of horror.  The tone, the setting, it is all woven together with the skill of a spider, and the mind of a diabolical mad scientist.  Wicked, brilliant, and always entertaining, Bartlett brings the goods and then some with this phenomenal…collection? Mosaic novel? Satanic songbook?  er…whatever the hell it is, it works!

This was fun.  It always is, but I am going to attempt to write and post reviews more consistently, as opposed to letting things stack up.   I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did writing them.
Also: all of these reviews will be up on Amazon and Goodreads soon, probably next week when I get back to the states. 
That's it for this one.  Now...go out and purchase the books I've included here (at least the books still available, as a couple were limited--and write your own reviews. 
These writers deserve your attention.

Painting by Andre Martins de Barros.  This is pretty much exactly how I feel right about now... 

Friday, September 16, 2016

An Interview With Yours Truly.

Well, that says it all right there, up in the subject line.

This'll be a quickie, though I must utilize this blog in a better way, and more often, y'know?  Yes, you and I both know this. 

The exceptionally cool Gwendolyn Kiste asked me some questions, I gave her some answers.  It's up on her website.  This was fun and I hope you enjoy it...and perhaps it inspires you to purchase some of my books, even the latest book, which isn't linked with the other books, because it's not on Amazon yet, but will be soon.

(Yes, by all means, click on the links, they'll lead you places.  Not Alice in Wonderland down-the-rabbit-hole places or, well...maybe, maybe some of them will...)


Next post, oh yes, one much sooner than a month down the road--within the next two weeks, damnit--I will be doing an overview of some of the books I've read this year.  Some reviews and what-not. 

Yes, it's finally going to happen!

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Beauty of Death: the Origin of "Rotten Apples."

A few days ago, up-and-coming writer of dark, strange fiction, Daniel Braum, invited me to write a post for his blog about my tale in The Beauty of Death anthology.  We'd been discussing the anthology on Facebook and I mentioned the origin of my tale, "Rotten Apples," which piqued his interest.  So, click HERE and find out the origin for yourself.

While I'm here, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Daniel and I share the TOC in this massive anthology with...well, here's the whole list of talented writers: Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Edward Lee, John Skipp, Poppy Z. Brite, Nick Mamatas, Shane McKenzie,Tim Waggoner, Lisa Morton, Gene O'Neill, Linda Addison, Maria Alexander, Monica O'Rourke, John Palisano, Bruce Boston, Alessandro Manzetti, Rena Mason, Kevin Lucia, Colleen Anderson,Thersa Matsuura, John F.D. Taff, James Dorr, Marge Simon, Stefano Fantelli, K. Trap Jones, Del Howison, Paolo Di Orazio, Ron Breznay, Mike Lester, Annie Neugebauer, Nicola Lombardi, JG Faherty, Kevin David Anderson, Erinn Kemper, Adrian Ludens, Luigi Musolino, Alexander Zelenyj, Daniele Bonfanti, Kathryn Ptacek, Simonetta Santamaria). As a first anthology from Italy's Independent Legions Publishing, it's a knockout.  You can purchase a copy HERE via Amazon.

Also of note, Braum's debut collection, The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales, was published recently.  It's one I look forward to digging into, probably in September, as I'm wrapping up reading some chapbooks and collections and even a novel or two, many for inclusion in a blog post that will be full of reviews.  I'll get that together after finishing a couple more collections.  I'm in Rome for the summer, which means write write write...and catching up with reading, too!  I need this.  Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah.  Braum's collection can be ordered HERE (print), and HERE (digital).     

I'll be back sooner than later with that post with reviews, as well as some details from the three tales from my new chapbook, The Wrath of Concrete and Steel, which is available HERE via the publisher, Dunhams Manor Press, and soon from Amazon, too!

Until then...Rock On and Stay Weird...or something, what the heck?! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Wrath of Concrete and Steel. New Chapbook, Pre-Order Info.

That's right!

The Wrath of Concrete and Steel is my new chapbook from lovely Dunhams Manor Press.  It contains three tales clocking in at close to 23k words.  What's it all about? 


I do not want to be pigeon-holed as a writer who does this or that and only this or that. I would like to think no matter what I do, the tales are distinctly John Claude Smith tales, just as when you read a tale by Laird Barron or Joe Pulver or Damien Angelica Walters or--you get my drift--those writers use words in ways that are distinct to them and their tales, and I for one am interested in wherever their muse leads them.  Unexpected places are welcomed.  Anyway, my point is, I believe many think, though what I write may qualify as literary (it has been said; really!), a lot of what I write is also...let's call it 'loud.'  Weird...yet also Horror and, yes, the Horror is with a capitol 'H' and is quite appropriate.

It can get messy and graphic, but that's not all I want to do. 

With these tales, there's perhaps a more subtle strain. (Okay, 'subtle' is a matter of perception; I know the last tale is, yet it's also got the freaky horror element. I know the first tale is, but it has its...moments...)  I think they are more subtle, yet distinctly me with moments to please those who've enjoyed what I've done before, while also appealing to those who might be looking for something less...harsh?  Sure, why not?

I am honored to have received this blurb from one of the true special talents in the Weird fiction genre, Mr. Christopher Slatsky, whose Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales is an astonishing debut collection.  He wrote:

John Claude Smith creates these dense atmospheres filled with decaying streets and dilapidated cities in all their splendor, and he does so in prose that gleams like a freshly stropped razor.

That is downright beautiful, eh? 

In the same email, he also wrote a bit about each tale, which I hope he does not mind I post here.  I was going to get into them myself, but this works juuuuuuust fine, yes indeed.

All three stories are wonderful symphonies of grotesque body horror and the threat of urban decay spiraling into a deliriously poetic squalor. They all piggyback and complement each other quite well despite being unique tales on their own; a melancholy strain running through The Land Lord and The Wounded Table—the former with the sadness of addiction, the latter with the pain of love; and the pitch black humor of The Wrath of Concrete and Steel, with its horror as absurdity, like a grinning skull behind a phantoms brightly colored mask, or voracious sewer systems…

Oh, damn!  I'd buy that.  How about you?  Ha, I read that line, 'grotesque body horror' and think many who've read my tales are thinking, but that's what you do, JC?  But these are...different. Trust me on that. Or buy the chapbook and see for yourself. 

I should just shut up now and leave the pre-order link, eh?  (Why, yes, JC, please do!)
The link is for DMP, but the book will also be on Amazon, so be on the lookout there as well.
Link--> The Wrath of Concrete and Steel

I will probably do another blog post digging into each tale, but for now, I'll roll with this and the exquisite cover art below.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Numbers of the bEast...An Appreciation of XPULVER!

A spontaneous post inspired by the flood of mad words being tossed in the direction of the one and only Joe Pulver today, Saturday, April 16, 2016. 

I'll post my tribute (or whatever it is), then post a link so you can check out more of the tributes by some wonderful writers for one of our Masters.


(for Joe Pulver)

It’s 2:30 A.M.
It’s always 2:30 A.M. at the Bohren & der Club of Gore.  It’ a place, not a band.  A distortion in reality.  A yellow dream, soundtrack of slow jazz.  
Doom jazz. 
This is how you spend your Saturday nights. 
Waiting for her.
You’ve just stumbled home from the club.  You’re not even sure how you made it home.  The door to your rathole apartment is ajar.  You push it open, slumping against the wall as you enter.  Lights flicker, could be the TV.  Perhaps you left it on, but what of the door?  Were you so stupid as to have left the door open?  So anxious to leave and blot out your existence in the bottom of a shot glass? 
Then you see her, the girl of your dreams.  The flickering light caresses her as you wish you were doing.  Just as suddenly, she’s gone.  Was she really there?  Perhaps it’s just a hallucination because you’re drunk.  Again.  But she laughs, you hear that much.  In a sustained, slow-motion flash of light, you see her lips, only her lips, and want to kiss them. 
But all she does is laugh. 
All you do is want. 
Head-nod wrecking ball drop and awaken at your regular table at the club.
Cassie dances on the stage, slipping out of something barely there in the first place. 
That something is your dream. 
The tattoos on her flesh move as she does: a winding hallway, a door ajar, flickering lights… 
At the center of her torso, you see the woman’s face just beneath the ample swoop of bosom and desire.  A place where the sweat tastes like nectar.  Not even that could distract you as you stare into the woman’s eyes at the center of Cassie’s torso.
The woman stares back.
You make the swift decision to rise from your seat and approach Cassie.  She undulates, rolls her body like the unfolding, incoming tide, and the woman speaks. 
You cannot make out her words as the slow, doomy jazz ricochets like lazy shrapnel all around you.
You move closer and Cassie twitches. The woman on her torso winks. 
Whispers again.
You lean in closer, so close…
Two goons grab you by the arms.
“Watch it, Mustache Boy.  Don’t touch the merchandise.,” Goon # 1 says.
“Pervert,” Goon # 2 says, then turns to Goon # 1 and says, “Mustache Boy.  Priceless.”
“But she was whispering.  Whispering to me.”
“Yeah, yeah, she whispers to everybody.  You’re nothing special,” Goon #1 says.
“Nothing special,” Goon #2 reiterates. 
And the woman’s face on Cassie’s torso starts to laugh.  In a sustained, slow-motion flash of light, you see her lips, only her lips, and want to kiss them. 
But all she does is laugh. 
All you do is want. 
Head-nod wrecking ball drop and awaken at your regular table at the club.
This is how you spend your Saturday nights.  Your Sunday nights.  Your Monday, Tuesday, WednesdayThursdayFriday nights. 
Waiting for her.
You pick up the cigarette that’s never eaten by the ash at the end not in your mouth and take a deep drag.  Smoke fills you but does not warm you. 
Just like her.
The woman.
The woman you’re waiting for.
The woman you will never, ever kiss…

…but that’s not where this tale will end. 
You reach into the thick caterpillar resting above your lip and it hands you a red pencil.
“No, that’s not how it ends at all,” you say, and get to work.
Here's the link to Mike Griffin's blog, where he's collecting the posts. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Little Bit About My Weird Tale, "Those Who Dwell In The Periphery."

I haven't written a blog post in...too long.  With the publication of a new tale, let's rectify that (new tale?'ll see).

Writing fiction is a strange process.  I don't have a set method, though I do have certain modes of attack I like to use while writing tales.  There's even different approaches when writing short fiction and novels--and all the gangly beasts in-between--with lots of overlap, but still, I have no set process, yet.  I may never have one perfected, but it doesn't really matter as long as I keep writing and stories keep getting completed.   Daily word counts may help, but being with the words on a regular basis is what works best for me, because word counts happen when I am writing all the time.  Consistency, that is the key.   

The point is, with a still formative and/or flexible process, some tales take only a few days, perhaps a month or three.

Other tales take...years.

Then there's "Those Who Dwell In The Periphery."

"Those..." is one of my Portland, Oregon tales.  What does this mean?  A strong element of the mysteries of nature serves as catalyst for the weirdness.  But...I lived in Portland over ten, eleven years ago.

Yes, the initial version of this tale was written that long ago.  It also had a different title, "It Is Not Time."  I even sent it out for possible publication back then, but it was always rejected, because it had yet to become the tale it is now. 

You see, some tales require time...and a willingness to revise and revise and revise.  I enjoyed the core ideas within the tale, and much of it has remained as it was initially written, but there were key elements that didn't quite click, especially with the ending.  And the title, haha. (The tale had three other titles before I sent it to Jordan Krall for the second issue of Xnoybis magazine.  I remember changing the title within a week or two of sending it to Jordan to what it is now, what it was always meant to be.  The previous titles: "It Is Not Time," "Fair Warning," and "Behind the Peripheral.")

Many older tales, I like to leave them back there.  They are a part of my history, not something I need to dwell on now, as I continue to move forward with what I do as a writer.  "Those..." wouldn't leave me alone.  I really enjoyed the tone, the voice of the narrator, and most of the ideas, as noted above, and the 'reveal.'  Perhaps because the tale was Weird and not just horror, I found myself repeatedly drawn back to it instead of letting it be and leaving it back there, in the dust of writing ideas never perfected.  (You know about those, dear writers: check your files and tell me how many pieces of tales and even mostly completed tales await your participation, just to get them wrapped up.)  But it took dipping into the tale over the years and tweaking this, revising that, to find it.  To finally lift the veil off an idea and set it forth as it was always meant to be seen.

I've written on this blog about another tale I had published by Krall's Dunhams Manor Press, "Dandelions."  It's similar in a way, a story from back then that was closer to what it needed to be, even though I tore it apart and stitched it back together, a process to make Dr. Frankenstein proud.  It was also a Weird tale.  The older tales that touch on this stick with me.  I suppose that's telling me something, eh?

How about another connective thread, this time between stories?  My tale, "Strange Trees," from my debut collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me, also dealt with the fictional anthology within "Those..."  I had mapped out a few more related tales and the mysterious circumstances of deaths and disaster that haunted the anthology.  It's a really good idea, a collection of tales for a fictional collection, that in reading this now, makes me want to go back and--no, no.  Maybe.  No. 

Moving forward.

(Another weird aside--look, I haven't written one of these in a while, so I'm shaking off the rust.  The original title for "Strange Trees" was..."Shadows and Tall Trees."  Yes.  Like the U2 song...and the magazine.  I don't know if Michael Kelly remembers, but a few years back, before there was the magazine, I had submitted "Shadows and Tall Trees" to him as he was the editor of...some other magazine or, well, let me see: 12-04-2004 I sent it off to Chizine.  Michael Kelly [now head of Undertow Publications, who publish the annual Year's Best Weird Fiction anthologies, amongst other high-quality books] used to be an editor there and rejected it, but it was a really good response, according to my notes...and he mentioned liking the title and how it would be a good one for a magazine... So there ya go!  A bit o' weird fiction history, haha...)

Okay, moving forward for real now...

You can read the final results in the just released Xnoybis issue two.  I share the TOC with a truly exceptional array of writers.   Purchase a copy before they are sold out, as it's limited to 100 copies. 
Here's the link:

And here's the cover:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"The Perfect Pumpkin." Your Favorite Halloween Tale. You're Welcome... :-)

Yeah, it's kind of a tradition now.  An annual treat...
I don't write many tales around holidays, but this is one and it usually gets...interesting responses...ahem. So, without further ado, let's get to "The Perfect Pumpkin," and you can let me know your take on it, too.


The Perfect Pumpkin

by John Claude Smith



     “If it wasn’t a week before Halloween, I’d be scared crazy.  But I know you well enough, Danny, to know that you like to tell stories, and I’ve already heard this one a dozen times over the last two weeks.”

     “But it’s true, Melinda.  Cutter’s farm is where old Dr. Ranier does abortions, or at least did them.  Look, it’s perfect: it’s just far enough out of town as to be kind of anon … anonymous.  He used to be a doctor, a…a baby doctor—”


     “Yeah, yeah, an obstetrician.  And he was disbarred—”

     “That’s for a lawyer.”

     “Well, shit, Brainiac!  He lost his license and moved out here, about ten, maybe twelve-years-ago, and since he’s not really a farmer, he has to have some income, so he—”

     “So he sets up office as a country abortionist—”

     “And the babies are supposed to come back to haunt anybody who trespasses—”

     “Stop!  I’ve heard enough.  He must be doing some farming now, otherwise, where’d all these pumpkins come from?” 

     “I dunno, they must grow wild.  Creepy stuff, eh?”

     “Just nightmares or rumors.  Made-up stories meant to scare teenagers from having sex, and in this case, ‘cause of the abortionist slant, getting pregnant and all that.  Kind of a gruesome safe sex message, don’t you think?  And isn’t that what all horror stories made primarily for teenagers are up to, anyway?  Just like in the movies, if you’re a teenager and you have sex, the boogeyman’s gonna get you—ooooOOOOOoooo, I am  so frightened.”

     With whiplash precision, she shifted her attitude from mockingly scared to salaciously seductive, easily distracting him.  “Danny, oh, Danny, bab-eeeee...” She purred the last syllable, long and languid.  She grabbed his crotch, squeezing hard, whispering something nasty and oh-so-enticing in his ear.  As his penis turned to steel, his brain turned to mush.  

     Having gotten his attention, she let go and backed away.  “You gonna help me get a perfect pumpkin from this patch or not?”

     “What about my—”

     “Later, big boy, when we’re out of range of any sexually oppressed boogeymen disguised as abortionist farmers.”

      Danny Cruise peered out at the fog-mottled field, wispy tendrils like plumes of thickening smoke eerily weaving through the pumpkins, looking like a congregation of ghosts…or a herd of monstrous beasts lashing the pumpkins with writhing tentacles.  His imagination sprang back to life with a potency that unnerved him while coinciding with the deflation of his penis.  Melinda Harner, his girlfriend, folded her arms across her burgeoning bosom, trying to fend off the October chill.  She peered at him, obstinate in her quest to obtain the perfect pumpkin.  Now that she had spotted what she claimed was the most perfect pumpkin for miles around, in which she would carve the winner in the school contest, something that brought a wee bit of fame in a small town like Bloomfield, she was dead set on obtaining this pumpkin, and only this pumpkin.  No other pumpkin would suffice.     

     Danny hopped over the barbed-wire fence, ragged metal tips ripping two fingers.  He winced, put the stinging fingers in his mouth, and sprinted toward the fog-embraced pumpkin patch.

     “Which one did you want?”  His voice seemed not to carry, trapped in the puffy white shroud of fog.   But it did carry, and she responded

     “There,” Melinda harrumphed, pointing to his right at the perfect pumpkin for her to carve a masterpiece.  Her voice hit Danny with the force of a thunderclap; goose bumps tickled his flesh. 

     After having heard about the fat, perfect pumpkins in this patch, as well as the sordid recent history of the farm via whispers in the hallways at Lincoln High, anxiously retold by Danny mere minutes ago, Melinda knew she had to check it out.  Her nature was competitive and she was always looking for that special edge.  If this patch actually had the perfect pumpkin she coveted, she knew the edge would be hers.  No horror stories were going to stand in her way.  

     “Here?” he said, pointing at one of the dozen or so seemingly perfect, unblemished pumpkins in the direction she had pointed.  How could she even tell the difference?   

     “No, there,” she bellowed, the volume almost knocking him over again.  It was cold and he was tired and if he didn’t really love her, he’d already be anywhere but here with a space heater melting his icy flesh and thawing out his freezing blood. 

     Without speaking, he pointed, and she shook her head, yes--thank God!  He pulled out his switchblade and cut the coarse vine, trying to disengage the pumpkin.  After a brief struggle he was victorious, but noticed he’d smeared blood all over the ragged stem.  

     He plucked it from its roost, amazed by its weight.  It was about as big as a slightly super-sized basketball.  Not huge, but its heft made his arms ache.  She better be really appreciative for this, he thought, and ran back to the fence.  He handed the pumpkin to her so he could hop over the fence again.  

     “Careful, it’s heavy,” he said, as he put it in her eager hands.  She grunted and agreed.

     “Damn!  For its size, that’s gotta be the heaviest pumpkin I’ve ever felt.”

     Danny braced himself and leaped, this time with even less grace, catching his foot and plopping down hard on his butt.  Melinda laughed at his awkward predicament.  He frowned at her.

     “What?  I do this favor for you and you laugh at me now, ‘cause I’m cold and tired and…”

     She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead as he brushed the weeds out of his hair and clothes.

     “Carry this, would ya?”  More insistent than requesting, already handing him the pumpkin.

     “I’m just your slave—”

     “Slave to my beguiling charms.”  She put on the act, puppy dog eyes and pouting lips on full display. 

     They started the two-mile trek back into town, their pace brisk, trying to keep warm.

     “It’s probably cursed.  Probably why I tripped up going over the fence.”

     “You’re just clumsy.  There’s no curse for takin’ a pumpkin.  No dead babies gonna haunt you.  I’m just gonna carve a winner out of this one.”

     “That stuff is true.  I mean, all that about Dr. Ranier doing abortions and stuff.”  He put his fingers in his mouth again, balancing the pumpkin against his chest.  Apparently the cuts were deeper than he’d thought, and continued to bleed profusely. 

     They both fell silent for a handful of minutes, purposeful strides taking over as the night grew even colder.  The overcast skies portended rain and they just wanted to make it home before it started. 

     And then Danny stumbled, dropping the pumpkin.  Not hard, catching it before it really hit the ground, but enough to have it land with a leaden thump on the dirt.

     “Damn it, klutz!  Do you need walking lessons or what?”  Melinda was beside herself with anger, squatting to inspect the pumpkin.  All this for naught, she thought; all this for naught.

     “Shit, Melinda.  It’s not like I meant to—”

     “You bleedin’ on it?”

     “Yeah, cut my finger on the fence, bled on the stem.”

     Melinda scooted away from the pumpkin, inexplicably alarmed.  “How can that be?  The pumpkin’s got blood comin’ from inside.”

     They both watched as a thin line of blood trickled from a miniscule crack at the bottom, where it had hit the ground.  The red liquid pooled in the dirt.

     “T-That’s impossible,” she said.  “Can’t be any blood comin’ from inside a pumpkin, only pumpkin, seeds and all.  You must have bled a lot more than you thought.”

     She forced a smile, obviously in denial of what she was witnessing.  More blood seeped from the crack. 

     Danny pulled out his switchblade and approached the pumpkin.  He knelt before it, not really sure what he was going to do, but feeling safer with the knife in his hand. 


     With suddenness, curiosity took over, and he plunged the knife into the thick hide of the pumpkin.  Blood gushed out, mixed with another unknown fluid that diluted the crimson tide, along with stringy pumpkin guts and pumpkin seeds, spattering the dirt and his shoes.  He pried with the knife and his fingers, pulling the pumpkin apart. 

     “Oh, Christ!”  He moaned in revulsion at what he saw. 

     Melinda squealed, “What is it, Danny? What is it?

     The pumpkin had split wide open like a cracked egg.  Danny jumped to his feet, hands dripping wet.  An intolerable stench was belched from within the split pumpkin, forcing him to cover his face with his sleeve, while Melinda openly retched, dry and empty.  She was on her feet as well, fingers digging crescents into Danny’s arms.  He didn’t feel a thing.  They both just stared in horror and disgust.

     Within the womb of the pumpkin, entwined within a network of ripped veins, a ruptured clear sac, and pumpkin guts and seeds, two large yellow eyes, like jaundiced moons devoid of pupils, attempted to blindly seek out the source of intrusion.  It probably did not see them, thought Danny, as his stomach roiled like a fist-sized hurricane, battering his insides. 

     It was a fetus, a mutation of inconceivable ugliness borne of nightmares and rumors and curses made real. 

     “Oh my God, Danny…Danny!  Melinda cringed, teetering on hysterical.

     The obscenity, skin stained with blood but otherwise as orange as a healthy pumpkin, turned itself in the direction of Melinda’s voice, the tiny holes where ears should be steering it in their direction.  Gurgling noises emanated from its throat, wet sounds and orange spittle passing by its lipless slit of a mouth. 

     “We need to go--now! Melinda, beside herself, doing a nervous dance of desperation.  She wanted away from here posthaste…or sooner!       

     “Wait,” Danny said.  “I think it’s trying to…say something.”

     Melinda pulled harder on Danny’s arm, afraid to leave without him, the night and clouds and vast darkened landscape uninviting despite her urgency to run as far away from here as possible.   

     C’mon! Let’s go!

     The sound that rose from the baby’s mouth unhinged the muscles in Danny’s legs.  He slumped to the ground, transfixed by the fetal abomination squirming and convulsing and hideously alive within the pumpkin.  Melinda tumbled with him, but not for long.  He scrambled to his feet and dragged her to hers, his feet pounding the dirt like a chorus of hammers, matching the freight train rhythm of his heart.  His swiftness almost lifted Melinda into the air as one would a kite.   The utterance, repeated again and again, insistent, scarred the night with its cawing message, resonant and haunting, cursing both of their ears forever. 

     One word, only one, but Danny and Melinda would remember it until the day they died. 

     “Daddy,” it screeched, it begged.



There ya go!  Did you like that?  Icky enough for ya?  Heheh...

Shameless Self-Promotion:
There's three books by yours truly ready for your perusal this Halloween.  Check the blurbs and reviews and rock 'n' roll, folks. Buy one, buy all.  Riding the Centipede is my latest, a true wild ride, the best thing I've as yet had published, though The Dark is Light Enough for Me and Autumn in the Abyss bring the weird/horror/or-just-plain-Dark goods, too.  Just click on the titles and check 'em out!  Thank you!

The Dark is Light Enough for Me

Autumn in the Abyss

Riding the Centipede

Anyway, enjoy your Halloween, everybody!

Perhaps this Great Pumpkin creature is a relative of the pumpkin baby in my story, eh?  Well...
Art courtesy of Phill-art.