PARADISE, MAINE by Jackson R Thomas (Book Review)

PARADISE, MAINE by Jackson R Thomas (Alien Agenda)

Darren and Vanis’ marriage has hit a rocky patch when they find out Vanis can’t have a baby. Vanis’ following depression results in a breakdown with their sex life and then Vanis comes home one evening to catch Darren on an online porn chat site, and their relationship deteriorates further. What better way to help their marriage heal than winning a break to the idealic Maine coastal town of Paradise.

Things really do improve, along with the couple’s sex life, and Vanis even rekindles her love for photography in the picturesque Maine wilderness. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the holiday could be a set-up and the married couple, like many before them, could be the entertainment for a deformed feral wildman living in the nearby woods!

Set on the coast in the Maine wilderness, PARADISE, MAINE a small town hiding a dark secret. Throw in a conspiracy and you’ve got a short, entertaining read for fans of Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum’s Dead River series. It’s my first time reading anything by Jackson R Thomas and there’s plenty of sex and gore to keep horror fans glued to the pages. I’ll be sure to check out Thomas’s other horror novel, THE BEAST OF BRENTON WOODS. If you’re a fan of fast paced horror fiction and you like a big dollop of gore, then you’re going to need this book. (Jack Bantry)

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Dan Henk interview

Here’s an interview I did recently with writer, artist and tattooist, Mr Dan Henk.

First, how did you become interested in the world of horror?

I’ve always been drawn to the dark side. My absolute favourite is sci-fi horror. I remember one of my earliest memories was seeing War of the Worlds as a kid, and that was the beginning of the end. The Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits quickly became my favourite TV shows. When we got a TV, of course, which wasn’t until I was in the 5th grade, but that’s another story.

What made you want to become a tattoo artist? Who inspired you?

I wanted initially to be a comic artist. A boyfriend of a goth girl who was a friend of mine owned a shop in Virginia Beach. He saw my art and offered to teach me. Even though I wanted to be covered in tattoos, I had this notion that they were all old-school based designs, and turned down the offer.  Years later, as a starving artist in New York City, another tattooist offered to teach me, and this time I jumped at the opportunity. I also knew the tattoo world better, with artist’s like Aaron Caine and Robert Hernandez breaking all previous notions of what could be done.

Do you work full time as a tattoo artist? Tell us about your studio etc.

I own half of The Abyss Fine Art Studio in New York, do a week a month there, with the rest of the month spent at Third Dimension Tattoo in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the spots in NY I tattoo all day every day. In PA, I tattoo about 3 days a week, with the rest spent on illustrating books and magazines or writing. In both studios I have private rooms, the walls decorated with art and horror.

You jet about to tattoo conventions. What do you enjoy most about doing the conventions? Do you have many lined up for this year? Do you book up in advance? Do you get a lot of repeat customers, etc?

For a while I was doing about 25 conventions a year. Mix that with all the guest spots I was doing, and I was away more than I was home. Now I do about 6 a year, with the random guest spot here or there. The novelty of them wore off, and at this point I’ve been all over the world and arrived on the decision that I’d enjoy exotic locations more if I didn’t mix in work. A few I still do all the time, like my upcoming one in Toronto. That said, I have many repeat clients all over the world and feel bad if I never travel to their area and tattoo them, so it’s hard to cut back too much. Not to mention, I’m friends with quite a bit of the tattoo community and enjoy seeing old friends.

You’re also a writer and an artist. You illustrated your next book, THE END OF THE WORLD. Tell us about the project. What’s the book about, etc?

I originally wanted to be a comic artist, even interviewing with DC, Marvel, and Image comics. Depressing interviews with all the majors (many of whom were on the verge of bankruptcy), convinced me a better form of expression for what I wanted to accomplish would be illustrated novels. In a way it was hearkening back to my pulp magazine favourites like The Shadow or Kane. THE END OF THE WORLD is my new novel, a loose sequel to my first book, and focuses on a small band of misfits trying to survive amid the fall of the US government. Anarchy rules the streets, and a conspiracy among the surviving oligarchy involves bringing back an ancient evil.

Where did you get the idea from?

I actually had the core of the idea when I was a teenager living with my parents. I used to do full page comic book storyboards and bring them to local indie comic artists for critique. So the core of the idea existed for years, going through several evolutions before it finally erupted in novel form.

Who’s publishing it and when’s it out? Any reasons why you chose Crossroads Press?

Crossroad Press is putting it out. I started with Anarchy Books, graduated to the larger Permuted Press, with a momentary slide into the nightmare that was Damnation Books. Not happy with the ever changing standards of Permuted Press, I asked other writers for advice. Several recommended Crossroad Press, and I have nothing but good things to say about them so far. It should be out later this year.

Will there by a print version?

Of course! There will be an audio edition as well.

What’s your writing process? I imagine you’re extremely busy with your art and working. How do you go about writing?

I actually I have more ideas than I have time to express! I write down ideas as I think of them on the “notes” app of my iPhone, and I’ve found that whenever I reach a block in the story I’m writing I pause, take some time out, and go for a run. That never fails.

Along with tattooing and writing you’ve done some awesome art, such as the covers you’ve done for me at Splatterpunk Zine. Why do I not see more of your art on book covers?

Ha! Good question! But on a serious note, I do a lot. I tattoo, own a shop, train in MMA 2-3 hours a day, write, paint, and draw. I just don’t have time to pursue more. I’ve done 8 book covers, 6 album covers, 3 magazine covers, and I don’t even know how many illustrations for books, magazines, bands, and clothing companies. I did a regular comic strip for Madcap Magazine for two years, and another for TAM for a year and a half, and put out an illustrated calendar for 4 years. I tend to always have more projects than I have time to get to.

 

What do you have planned for 2019?

My new book is coming out of course, and that’s my main focus right now. I sent a short story to Dark Regions Press, just won a boxing and a month later a Muay Thai fight, and started two podcasts with my shop, one focusing on artists and entitled Third Dimension Tattoo. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QWmCyMAg8E&t=1s  Another is on current social, political, and economic topics. It’s called Man in the Chair and you can view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3HjCQENC0s&t=219s
More to come I’m sure, but the year is still young!

Questions by Jack Bantry

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Glenn Rolfe interview 

He’s an interview I did recently with Maine horror writer Glenn Rolfe, who also runs the small press publisher, Alien Agenda.

Can you remember your first introduction to the world of Horror?

Sure, it was HBO when I was, like, 5. Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me, the Exorcist. Despite how fucking scared it made me (I slept beside my mom for three years!)  I couldn’t stop doing it. I couldn’t stop watching these horrifying images and stories. My parents got rid of HBO, but it definitely stuck in my brain somewhere.

What made you decide to start writing? 

The Leisure Books Horror Club. I fucking loved all those titles. Laymon, Ketchum, Keene…man, it was awesome. When Dorchester Publishing went down, I freaked. Shortly afterwards, my last band fizzled out, I was laid off at the time, and I needed some creative outlet. I’d written this idea for a werewolf story a couple years prior and cracked that open and just went for it.

You are prolific, what’s your writing regime? 

I just always have multiple stories and projects going. I’m totally all over the place. Sometimes I have to buckle down and make myself work on a certain story to hit a deadline, but more often than not I’m working on many books.

Where do you get your ideas from? 

Honestly? Everywhere.

BLOOD AND RAIN has just been released by Cemetery Dance. How did this come about? I bet you were over the moon. Are you still doing the paperback through Alien Agenda? 

Yeah. I spoke to a fellow author that has a book coming out with them and he sort of got the thing rolling from there. I heard back from their team and we were off and running. Richard Chizmar had read BLOOD AND RAIN when Samhain put it out and loved it, so that certainly helped. So Cemetery Dance has the eBook, and I put out the print edition through Alien Agenda. Working with Cemetery Dance at all is a mind-blowing thing for me. I’m honoured and humbled.

BLOOD AND RAIN is a fantastic book. Any sign of a sequel? 

Thanks, man. And yes!  The sequel is in the works (about 60% finished) and will be titled WAITING FOR DARKNESS. That will probably (if I can find time to get back to it) be out in 2020. BUT I keep saying that, and it keeps getting pushed back, so we’ll see. BUT it is coming.

What’s your day job? 

I work full-time at the front desk of a Hampton Inn. Been there 7 years and counting.

What made you decide to publish books? Did you start off self-publishing and move on to publishing other writers through Alien Agenda? How has it gone, so far..? 

It did start off as a way to put my “good” short stories together and get them out to the people that cared. I started with SLUSH. After Samhain Publishing went under, I wanted to rescue all the writers, especially the ones who had just had their first books published like Patrick Lacey and Somer Canon. I wanted to start that very month, but I didn’t feel ready or able to do it right. I fell much better about that now, but I’m definitely learning that I need to take it slow. I tend to rush, rush, rush. So it’s still very much a work in progress. Sales have been slow for the back releases (I re-published a book from David Bernstein and one from Mick Ridgewell), but the werewolf book from Jackson Thomas has done very well. Overall, I’m not satisfied, but I’m hoping to figure it out and get things moving. Patience is a hard thing for me.

What’s next for Glenn Rolfe? What future plans do you have for both your own writing and Alien Agenda? 

I have a limited-edition hardcover of THE WINDOW coming out late spring/early summer, and then I have two books to finish for later this year.  ASCENSION AGENDA, which is the novel follow-up to one of my Samhain novellas (BOOM TOWN) and until summer comes around, a vampire novel that I hope to have some news on in the coming weeks (fingers crossed).

On the Alien Agenda horizon, we just released the eBook of PARADISE, MAINE, the new Jackson Thomas title (and hope to put out the print edition in May). That will be followed in July by CELESTIAL SEEPAGE from Brian Fatah Steele.  Later this year, we’re hoping to unleash our first charity anthology, SURVIVE WITH ME. I’m trying to take the publishing thing a little slower and not cheat any of the players involved.  There’s talk of a couple other titles, but nothing more than that. At the end of the year, we’ll reassess things and adjust accordingly, and see where we want to take it from there.

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THE VENUS COMPLEX by Barbie Wilde (Audiobook Review)

THE VENUS COMPLEX by Barbie Wilde narrated by Doug Bradley (Comet Press)

“A man rises out of an abyss of frustration and rage and creates works of art out of destruction, goddesses out of mere dental hygienists and beauty out of death. It’s also about the sickness and obsession that is LOVE.”

I passed up on THE VENUS COMPLEX when it was originally released as I was already inundated with books to review, handing the review copy over to a colleague. Once I saw her review, I knew I’d made mistake and kicked myself. When I heard that an audiobook version had been produced, I jumped at the chance, and I’m glad I did.

Classical art lecturer Professor Michael Friday discovers that he has a talent for murder, and goes about creating the perfect serial killer, gearing the clues to impress and intrigue a fellow lecturer. This is a deeply involving book, and I found myself amused and disturbed in equal measure. As Professor Friday meticulously plans his murderous schemes, Barbie Wilde loops the reader in, effectively making them an accomplice in proceedings as we get to sit in the passenger seat watching a full fledgling psychopath being created. Despite his deplorable actions, you can’t but help him. He has a considerable wit and the ensuing cat and mouse game that unfolds kind of makes you want him to get away with it all. With twists and turns aplenty, THE VENUS COMPLEX is an all-encompassing thriller, hidden in which, is a most fucked up romantic subplot.

And Pinhead himself, Doug Bradley does a fantastic job of narrating, fully submerging himself in the character. As it’s written in first person, it feels more like a confession than a work of fiction. Bradley is a joy to listen to, and despite the dark subject matter, brings a sense of lightness to proceedings as Professor Friday rants against the world

Fans of AMERICAN PSYCHO, the Dexter series and the recently adapted for Netflix YOU, will lap up this stalker lit, as this similarly has you rooting for the bad guy. Reading this, it shows how easy a guy like Ted Bundy charmed his victims. Barbie has clearly done her research into the mindset of such twisted people, and it shows. Despite her past in the horror industry, it’s hard to believe that this is her debut novel. Clearly, THE VENUS COMPLEX has been brewing for some time, but it’s definitely worth the wait. (Review by Nathan Robinson)

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BULLY by JF Gonzalez (Midnight Library)

After the nostalgia and sheer brilliance of ANIMALS & MONSTERS I tucked into BULLY, a lesser known novel by Gonzalez. Danny Hernandez was a young kid. He was frequently out skateboarding with his best-friend Bobby Whitsett, when they are targeted by another kid, Raul Valesquez. Raul was real a bad one, a bully. He lived at home with his two older brothers and drunken prostitute mother. Then, one day, Raul was found murdered. His body raped and dumped in a pool.

Now, 29 years later, Danny Hernandez’s life is turned upside down when cop and old friend, Tom Jensen, knocks on his door, after doubts are cast over the original conviction and the case is re-opened. All wasn’t as it seemed on the quiet suburban streets of Los Angeles back in the summer of ‘77. Jensen uncovers a criminal underworld and he’s convinced Danny Hernandez is hiding something from his past. With the re-opening of the case life for both Danny and Tom will change forever.

JF Gonzalez is best known for his snuff classic SURVIVOR, but it’s some of his lesser known novels that fans should be seeking out. Like FETISH and IT DRINKS BLOOD. I would add BULLY to this group. It’s a book that should be discussed in the same terms as SURVIVOR. It will leave you with an uneasy feeling. We all know the evils the human race can inflict upon one another. It’s real horror where man is the animal, not some supernatural beast. JF Gonzalez is one of the best and BULLY had me hooked. I can’t recommend it enough. (Jack Bantry)

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CUTTIN’ HEADS by D. A. Watson (Book Review)

“Aldo Evans is a desperate man. Fired from his job and deeply in debt, he struggles to balance a broken family life with his passion for music. Luce Figura is a troubled woman. A rhythmic perfectionist, she is haunted by childhood trauma and scorned by her religiously devout mother. Ross McArthur is a wiseass. Orphaned as an infant and raised by the state, his interests include game shows, home-grown weed, occasional violence and the bass guitar. They are Public Alibi. A rock n’ roll band going nowhere fast. When the sharp-suited, smooth talking producer Gappa Bale offers them a once in a lifetime chance to make their dreams come true, they are caught up in a maelstrom of fame, obsession, music and murder.

Soon, Aldo, Luce and Ross must ask themselves: is it really better to burn out than to fade away?”

“Now let’s kill that fucking band.”

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed D.A. Watson’s previous efforts, which dealt with different themes in similar tones, and CUTTIN’ HEADS is no different. A group of friends in a bloody dire situation that continues to get worse and worse.

Public Alibi are a struggling, no hope band when from nowhere, the chance of a lifetime drops into their laps. A record deal too good to be true, offered by the enigmatic Gappa Bale, an enigma of a man overlapped in mystery upon mystery. What should be the time of their life, soon unfolds into a paranoid tale of death, destruction and everything else good and great about Rock n’ Roll.

The banter and interaction between the band members feels real. This is an area in which Watson succeeds in with his Buddy Horror. The friendship is honest and good. You can feel actual threads of history between the characters, the shared hopes and dreams, the bad times passed, and the dynamic humour that bonds them. Watson makes us care, too much sometimes. He gives us a group, makes them intensely likable despite their flaws and foibles, and slowly dips them into the frying pan fire as things get progressively dire.

Although the reveal is kinda obvious, this is a fantastic tale that is told well, and needed to be told and works well in the modern setting. Watson nicely weaves the legend of The 27 Club along with Robert Johnson’s supposed dealings at a cross road to secure his future, though temporary success.

CUTTIN’ HEADS is a solid read, different from most slash and stalk or Spooky McGhostface horror, definitely a slow burn, with the occasional stab just to make sure that you’re paying attention. Watson has hit it out of the park again. I can’t wait to see what he takes on next, as each story I read of his, breathes new life into an old trope. (Nat Robinson) 5/5

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Hans & Greta by Alessandro Manzetti & Paolo Di Orazio

HANS AND GRETA

by Alessandro Manzetti and Paolo Di Orazio

(Translated from Italian by Daniele Bonfanti. English editing by Michael Bailey)

***

Six hours to midnight, October 31st, Night of the Dead, a man’s scream sent all the crows on the roof to the air, shoving them toward a sunset drunk with red. Like a green sponge, the wood of Monte Vergine swallowed that voice, quintessence of blind rage, preventing the wind from carrying it beyond its borders of trunks, leaves, and bark pregnant with time.

Once again, the living trap had worked. The foliage an accomplice, an old silencer of what must not be heard. It had been doing that job for many years, its slender chlorophyll-painted fingers holding sounds and cries by their tails so that they could not run away.

Following the lightning-quick coordinated leap of the crows, all the animals fled from the house of screams, which – dressed in long ivy necklaces, outline smeared by the evanescent tulle of mist – remained unseen to the human eye.

Insects did not follow the other terrorized critters, possessed by the hot fumes of survival instinct; they stayed where they were, kept flying and crawling, their disciplined and slimy routine unchanged as nothing happened. They feared nothing.

Hans worked with chisel and cobbler spikes. He was late on his schedule and trying to hurry. Only a few hours until midnight. He could sense it coming, even with his eyes closed, that sweetish smell beginning to linger all around, so peculiar. Honey of death spread everywhere like flypaper for a day now dead and fucked, transparent wings glued to one another.

He was angry; haste had caused him to make another mistake, an inaccuracy. Meticulous as he was, he wanted to do a perfect job, and he couldn’t accept that sometimes his hands did not comply precisely with what his mind intended to create.

But then, a few adjustments were enough to convert the mistake into a flourish. The masks were turning out well, despite flies that wouldn’t stop harassing him; they ended up in his nose and mouth at every breath.

Were they eager to have what was meant for them, or were they trying to sabotage his work? Those bastards crowded the kitchen, a flying wall, excited like hyenas by the cooking meat, and by the dried cuts stored in the basement inside salt-filled tubs.

In the Steiermark forest, where he came from, those hungry buzzing bitches did not use to be so abundant, but Austria was something else entirely than the woods close to the Po delta.

Hans wasn’t worried about flies, though; his real issue was time. If he did not complete the masks of luck before midnight, his home and his life would founder into disaster.

The four heads he was toiling on – carving and scarring – were mummified; an ancient art learned in his old Salzburg. The grim and raw material was the loot of kidnappings and desecrations. Those corpses were the bread and circus of his pleasures, as well as the nectar of frenzy for his sister, Greta, incestuous lover and huntress of human prey. Hans dealt with flesh treatment and he officiated propitiatory rites; Greta handled human supply.

Muttering and whistling, while bones boiled on the fire with hacked limbs, birch twigs and garlic heads, Hans cut out eyes and mouths, carving new contours in the skin of the skulls, tribal arabesques, lightning bolts, hieroglyphics and fractals, tossing the scraps into the cauldron or chewing on them and sucking their juice as though they were ancient roots with aphrodisiac and psychedelic properties.

He had personally taken care of the beheading of today’s unlucky folks, destined to sneer like masks for the Night of the Dead: nests for flies, with nothing below their necks.

Greta – sister, wife, queen and concubine – always delivered corpses as well as living bodies for him to treat. He never dared ask how that witch could entrap children and adults alike, knocking them out without killing them, to bring them to him ready for sacrifice.

When, before the treatment, his Amazon raped the victims – either on the kitchen floor or over a fell trunk in front of the complacent and watchful eyes of the woods, dripping with hoarfrost and humors from the moldings of its stiff shafts. He would rush in to behead the prey, if he was male, to help his partner reach the apogee of orgasm, a salty, acrid, thick omega of perdition. The severing of their marrow caused spasms that made the victims wag and vibrate inside of her.

While the corpses quivered, trapped by Greta’s fleshy snare, she thanked her partner with that fiery gaze of hers, drooling bliss, then resumed working on those dead tissues, digging her nails into chest muscles or the buttery hips of today’s toy, still warm but tense like stone, insatiably scratching, tearing and coming.

That scene always drove Hans crazy, a very special kykeon oozing on his tongue, trickling in his mouth down from his head, through the cracks of his broken hypothalamus: a hermetic nectar into which he could dip while waiting for erection, illumination, the apparition of a psychotic pink-and-black Nirvana spreading his thighs, creaking like a cartilage gate.

No doubt, she knew how to reward his brother groom, through that slaughter of human flesh and blood put on display in front of his eyes, a spectacle that was every time delirious and unique.

But where was Greta now?

Hans was getting nervous.

The mummified, gaping heads were meant to contain small oil lamps, the eyes removed and sockets well-scraped to leave space for tiny flames. The cap of the skull dome sawed off to remove pulped brain and cerebellum, making room to hold a thick torch to turn the bone translucent, to radiate its cerulean glow in the heart of the Night of the Dead.

Closer every second …

The chisel work, anxiety, and that ever-swelling silence, made the carver’s testosterone seethe. Two of the four masks (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) were women, set on the table with their mouths open, ready to adorn themselves with the festival of flies. Yes, they were becoming stunning, thanks to the bites of those little bastards.

Greta was still nowhere to be seen, and Hans needed to screw one – Air or Earth – if he didn’t want to burst. The two dead whores were inviting him, staring at his pants. Hans knew his partner well enough: if she was late, the slut must be having fun with someone better-looking and cleaner than him, yet during the most important of nights: the Night of the Dead.

So, suddenly doing away with any doubt, he pulled his turgid tube of flesh out of his slacks and slid Air onto the table (she the most beautiful) toward him, setting her at the right level. The woman’s teeth were still white and shiny, but her tongue – not yet unrooted – dry like stale bread. Hans greased her mouth with lard, then he did what he desired, biting his lips whenever he brushed a chipped tooth.

The flies, who had entered her mouth before him, did not care about the man’s pain and his salty pleasure, about his primal hiccupping and grunting.

#

“Now remember, kids, be careful.”

“Sure, Dad. Don’t worry, we won’t be late.”

“Goddamn, Marcello, you’re drunk!” his wife screamed from the kitchen. “Come back inside. Don’t let them see you like that.”

He – a policeman devoured by the moths of depression and a disenchantment toward everything – was drunk indeed, swaying on his legs. But he loved little Giorgio, his son, who still managed to keep him hooked to something about his petty life.

The kid waited with trepidation in front of him, at the front door, together with his buddies, Vanda and Spaghetto, the anorexic and the fatty. Not even his own mother used his birth name anymore.

Marcello gnashed toward his wife’s voice. “Leave me alone, and shut that trap,” he grunted. Then, stealthily, he handed his service weapon to his son, winking. It had been alcohol’s suggestion into his ear: Give him the pistol. Give it to him.

After another glance over his shoulder, to check if his wife was spying on them, he approached the party, stooped with his hands on his knees and whispered, “That’s our secret, kids. Giorgio, you’ll become a great cop, much better than your old man. Keep it well-hidden, and use it to protect your friends if something happens. It’s the Night of the Dead, and you have to stay alert.”

“Oh … thank you, Dad! Sure, I promise.”

Vanda and Spaghetto – their heads hidden under brown bags with raw holes and openings to see and breathe – opened wide their marker-rimmed eyes.

“Cool!” they mouthed in disbelief.

Yep, that was the famous pistol; their friend had told them Iliads and Odysseys about it, perhaps.

“So, can we stay out until dawn?” Giorgio asked. “We’d make a nice load of treats …”

His two companions squeezed at his sides, waiting instruction. All around thirteen years old.

“Stay together, and do whatever you want,” the man gravely answered, “but don’t go toward the woods. Don’t cross the main road.”

“Marcello!” She again, sourer than before, pissed-off as always. “Don’t tell those kids to go into the woods. Are you crazy?”

“Are you getting deaf, too?” he screamed back, while Giorgio weighed the pistol in his hands. “Just what we needed … I’ve said just the opposite, nutgrinder. They must have fun. This is their night. Let them be,” and then, to Giorgio, “Hey, don’t let her see that! Put it away or your mother is going to kill us, this time.” He urged the boy, slurring his words and shoving the weapon into the boy’s coat pocket. “Clear off now, kids, before that shrew drags you inside to watch the telly and say prayers.”

“Later, Dad.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Marcello.”

“Good hunt … I’m going to have a sip, kids. Too hot, tonight … can’t believe it’s October.”

The three friends moved quickly away with their candy bags ready to be filled.

He shut the door, cursing and swearing at his wife.

More slaps were going to fly, tonight, and hard.

#

Giorgio was overjoyed. It was going to be a magic night. His father letting him go out with his pistol. With the pistol. His coat draped lower on one side, loaded with the weight of it in his pocket. The magazine was full, and for a second he feared that his heart – hammering with delight – could blast the bullets.

#

“Thank you, Mrs. Carla,” Spaghetto said, collecting a still-warm fruit tart in his bag.

“Careful with the main road, kids. Goodnight.”

“Thank you, madam. We’re safe tonight.”

“We’re going to Cristoforo. He’ll give us sausages.”

“And then Nicola and Sofia. They always have lots of candies.”

“Giuseppe has panettone.”

“That’s good! But where are we going after that? There are no more houses.”

“Then, we’re making a stretch on the main road.”

“But we can’t …”

“Guys, I’ve become a cop, did you forget?” Giorgio said in a serious voice, holding his breath and slapping his coat pocket.

Luckily, nothing went off.

#

At Monte Vergine, trick-or-treating always ended too soon, the hamlet hosting less than two hundred souls; and whoever worked in the fields usually went to bed at seven, and not even cannonballs could hope to get them up. Forget sausages and panettone. You risked some bucketful of water, or less noble liquids, if you were lucky.

But if you crossed the main road and cut across the woods, in half an hour you could reach Basometto, where you could even find a puny movie house – the Alcazar – with wooden chairs. It wouldn’t have been much faster by bike, as you had to go round the woods along the main road and then take one of the dirt alleys cutting through the country.

But even if you summed up the two small towns, it certainly was nothing like being in Mesola, thirty kilometers away from Monte Vergine, where Marcello worked at the miniature police station that boasted two computers, no less, with internet connection; more people there, and you could easily collect many bags of the good stuff.

Lucky guys, those of Mesola.

#

Hans was satisfied, but he felt tired, and old. He knew he was old, but he had to carry out the rite of the Night of the Dead, and so it would be until the last day of his dirty life. That much he knew as well.

Hans and Greta’s house of screams lit up at dusk, on October 31st, thanks to four human lanterns, scarred with marks and writings of war. The place was a wooden cabin with warped boards swallowed by creepers, the battered temple of hungry, tribal shamanic depravity; the crooked version of ancient, deep-rainforest Mesoamerican rituals, and adorned with four masks of death, and of the earthly reign, to keep at bay the angels and forces of good coming from each cardinal point, so as to preserve the siblings’ sadistic, incestuous, psychotic world, letting their fate run straight down the converging binaries of debased theosophies made of ghoulish libations and beheading violations. Abominations, protected by thick hems of darkness – the accessory tree crowns of bloodsucking roots and the solid fog of their souls, lost decades before in the Austrian forests – that made the house of screams disappear like a spell.

Ultimately, it was about survival, Hans thought, putting back in his slacks his by-now deflated fleshy tube, still dripping and coated in lard. And it was about the survival of your ancestral self, for people like them who had chosen to ride once again the stallions of basic, primal drives, while the world had forgotten its true origins – its refulgent, pure origins.

A few finishing touches, some precision cuts on those worthy skulls, then he would insert the lit lanterns. He drew cirri and triangles, polygons, stars, crosses, asterisks, swastikas, 666s, crescents, Egyptian eyes. The outlines of each writing joined in a honeycomb with all the others, shaping a cryptographic Babel where the assailing angels lost themselves every time, trying in vain to decode it. It always worked. The metal tip possessed him, carving charms as though driven by a heretic Mozart writing music and divinations on flesh and bone.

The marquetry multiplied until turning each head into a tridimensional screaming mosaic. No angel would dare face those masks for long. Not recognizing human features, threads of soul from the divine weft. They would be unarmed by those tragic engravings. Whatever grace could be poured down on the house by flocks of cherubs, seraphim and archangels, with their big hydrants, would bounce back in their faces, turning their halos upside-down on their heads. The time had not come for the reclamation of the house of screams, not yet, not with those masks keeping watch – so long as Hans and Greta continued mating, with each other and with the dead, to the beat of rolling heads, castanets of broken spines and overheated chisels, turning themselves into a steel cable, a link between that cursed earth and Lucifer’s oven below.

Time was running out. Night had fallen already, the wood of Monte Vergine slowing its breath, gasping with dirt in its mouth, and the trees there looked cut off, with their tops stuck right into the womb of darkness. Leaves of black silk and four-legged rustles, ratatouille of flying skulls printed on the bleak livery of circling moths, the metronome of silence, tick-tock, and then a roll of drums: a large pulsating heart among the bushes, a boar’s maybe, or that of some peeping Tom snagged in the shadows, his telescope at his neck and a half-empty rum bottle between his legs.

Hans loved to feel the chisel tip grooving the leather of skin and bone. A symphony hammered in C minor. A pounded requiem, monotonous like the abdominal voice of a cicada. The heads took pleasure with mournful masochism, and he, following the curves of the ornaments, felt the vibrations of the metal tip climb his arm, and from the joint to his jugular vein. He could not but relish in those electric discharges, stimulating his salivary glands as well as his prostate.

The engraver finished scraping the eye sockets, using the same spoon he and Greta used to eat the simple fruits of the earth as well as to scoop up their excrement, dropped in the corners of the house of screams.

He lit the small lanterns, carefully placed them inside the mouths and the socket hollows of the dead heads, then the torch through the polished cranial vaults. Finally, tired and sweaty, he dried his forehead and face with Earth’s blond scalp. She wasn’t beautiful like Air anyway, he told himself, his index fingers tracing the wrinkles of his brow for all their length, fingertips picking up the sticky drops of thoughts he did not dare to think.

He went out with the first two lit masks, placed them upon two bowls on the sides of the porch fence, then he went back inside, out of breath, and reappeared on the backyard with the other macabre couple under his arms; he set them upon two stones, one for each angle.

The wardens shone all together, now. They would guarantee another year of food and lust.

But what about Greta?

Where had the witch ended up?

“Could you say that again, madam?”

“Don’t you hear she’s speaking German, Spaghetto?” Giorgio explained.

“No, that’s French,” Vanda said.

“She got lost. Doesn’t speak our tongue. She can’t read the signs,” Spaghetto said, looking back at his friends and shrugging. “She keeps repeating dancing, dancing … there must be some farmhouse around here having a Halloween party.”

Ja! Dancing! Fuhn!” the woman exclaimed again, loud enough for the other kids to hear.

“Let’s go back, guys. They told us to keep away from the main road,” Vanda said, uneasy.

“Don’t worry, I have the gun,” Giorgio replied, checking out his coat pocket.

“Hey, don’t let her hear you,” the girl muttered, while they caught up with Spaghetto, still leaning against the window of the stranger’s Fiorino van pulled onto the roadside. Nobody passing by, the street was empty. The woman on the vehicle stared in a weird way at the kids’ eyes, cut out in the bags they wore on their heads. They stayed still, dazed by that sardonic gaze, kind and consuming at the same time. They had never seen anything like that.

Then, after some seconds’ silence, the woman resumed speaking and smiling, gesticulating. What the hell was she saying? Only three words were understandable: dancing, fuhn, and going.

Eventually fed up, the woman got out of her van and unmasked the three in a lightning-quick move, pulling the bags off their heads and leaving them gaping as they watched her strange attire: she only wore a white nightgown and was barefoot. It did not look like a party dress at all, but this was Halloween … perhaps they were all dressed like that; must be something cool.

Only grownups were entitled to cool stuff.

The woman crumpled the three masks and tossed them into the ditch, grumbling, “Don’t need!” then to repeat her lullaby – “Go, dancing. Fuhn. Eat all” – and she showed the kids a thirty-two-teeth grin while staying there motionless, waiting for a reply.

“Why don’t we go? To the party, I mean,” Giorgio whispered, excited, moving close to his mates and immediately getting an indignant glance from Vanda. “That would be awesome.”

“Are you nuts? We don’t even know where this crazy woman wants to go,” she said, crossing her arms and turning her back on the little cop.

But Spaghetto, after hearing the words eat all, began hopping around and nodding. “Well, what are we waiting for?”

The fatso was hungry, as always, and what little they had gathered until now was nothing, compared to what they could find at that party.

Was it really a party? Had to be … The woman kept saying dancing, fuhn, and now – to be even more persuasive – she was even performing dance steps and hugging an invisible partner. She moved with the grace of a workhorse, a real joke, but that wasn’t the point.

As soon as she got the kids curious enough, the woman opened the back door to let them climb aboard. She was offering them a ride to the party. Fuhn.

Giorgio was the first to get in.

Vell tahn, you balls!” the stranger said in her hoarse voice, foaming with ludicrous promises.

Vanda protested, stiffening. She wouldn’t have any of it.

“Come on, don’t worry,” the little cop insisted, winking. With the weight in his pocket, he felt ready for anything. Maybe that’s what it’s like, when you grow up.

Spaghetto did not need to be asked twice, though – he leapt into the van, its suspension creaking, and finally the girl surrendered too. Not that she had much of a choice; going back on foot, alone, in the dark, wasn’t exactly tempting. The wood, encircling the scene with its black edges, had always scared her. Bad stories were told about that place. She remembered the old nursery rhyme her gramma used to sing to her:

Monte Vergine’s tummy is empty.

Are you going to be its candy?

Listen to the little bird.

Never in the wood, never close.

The kids squeezed against each other on the backseat, shivering at the dampness stagnating inside the van, while the woman started full-throttle, speeding away in the gloom with the headlights off.

What the hell …

Vanda dug her nails in her skirt fea,ring for the worst.

Spaghetto’s face was suddenly red.

Giorgio kept his eyes on the woman’s nape.

Things had become too weird; they didn’t add up.

If she plays tricks, I’ll deal with her. Cop stuff, the kid was thinking.

The stranger seemed to know exactly where to go, as though she knew every single blade of grass of that area, even in the dark. Now, gravely, like a high priestess in full pagan rapture, she was whispering something incomprehensible, not addressing them; she no longer talked about dances and fun, and her grin had mutated into a hungry sneer. She looked like she was praying with her teeth clenched, while she kept the kids under control in the rearview mirror.

Hans, she repeated, rolling her eyes. Hans. Those frightful eyes.

Giorgio kept his cool; a grownup party would have been awesome, but if things went differently – if that lady wanted to do them harm – he could use the pistol, fix things up, and then, when it was over, contemplate his father’s smiling face as he downed a beer in his honor, just like he did with his crackpot buddies.

We have to party. I didn’t expect that, mate … you’re a tough guy!

But the van was going too fast. For a second, he considered firing a shot at the windshield, close to the witch’s ear, to scare her into stopping. Yep, that’s right: cops don’t kill people, unless they’re forced to.

But the woman kept rushing ever more, and the boy felt pressed against the door at every turn. Opening fire like that, he would have made a mess and … disappointed his father.

Stupid boy, you should have known better!

“Giorgio … the gun!” Vanda whispered into his ear.

The vehicle steered off the main road to take a dirt path. Finally, the woman turned on the headlights, and she kept pushing the gas pedal, racing through the trees. She was laughing, and still whispered: Hans, Hans.

Even if she did not mean to murder them, she must be a lunatic. She would have them dead momentarily. A witch, on Halloween night.

Then, Giorgio decided to act – the time had come to become a real cop.

Use it to protect your friends, if something happens, his father had said.

Right, Dad.

He went over the procedure with clear-headed precision, sing-songing his father’s instructions. His father had been drunk that time, too, when he decided to teach it all to him. Giorgio had never heard him talk so much as that day. Summer, a year before, with mosquitoes bringing it on.

Learn it like a song, so you’ll never forget.   

Where’s the safety?

The ear goes up, the ear goes down. Click-click.

No time to waste: the boy held onto the seat with one hand, drawing the pistol with the other, and raised it close to the woman’s ear, trained at the windshield.

Safety off.

The ear goes up. Click.

He took aim, trying to keep the barrel steady as it swerved on either side. He bit his lips counting to three in his head to ready himself to pull the trigger, but a pothole surprised him and a shot went off.

The woman screamed as though hit, and she lost control. The vehicle rose on a side, seemed to take off sideways then back with its four wheels on the ground, then shook and darted away, leaping some meters more, and crashed into a hollow with a final roar of its engine in Neutral.

Hans waited for Greta, growing more uneasy and furious by the second; but, even borrowing the wood’s ears, he could not feel her presence around there, in their territory; the presence of his queen, of the whore who was ruining everything, just this night. The Night of the Dead.

The masks worked in silence, modulating their dark tribute, flashing at times like unmoving comets. The animals were silent. Even the flies seemed turned into plaster inside their four sepulchers of flesh.

The only perceivable thing was the engraver’s breath, steadily puffing in the gloom, perhaps to blow it away this time. He needed to see her, right now.

Where the fuck are you?

Then, when the rosary of time reached the correct beads, Hans heard the kids’ voices and raised his head.

“Hurry up, Vanda. I told you we weren’t lost,” the little cop said, cheering her up. “See? That’s a house down there.” Giorgio forged ahead, shifting branches to reveal lights in the distance.

“That place is scary, here in the middle of nowhere. Let’s go back to the street. It can’t be far, someone will drive by and …”

“And we’ll get lost. It’s pitch black and it’s cold. Look, they even have Halloween pumpkins down there … They’ll let us in and phone home. We’ve got to call the ambulance for Spaghetto. He looked bad, his face all blue after the crash. Did you see?”

“Yeah, but what about that lunatic?”

“If I didn’t hit her head, she must have broken it … she went through the windshield, so I don’t think she’s … serves her right, anyway. If she isn’t dead, my father will deal with her as soon as he learns about this, you’ll see … he brought in notorious murderers, she’s nobody compared to them … but maybe you prefer going back there to check? Well, if you want it that bad …”

“Cut it out. Okay, but you go first.”

The two of them hurried, making their way through the undergrowth, sliding on their buttocks down a low escarpment, then following a track of grass flattened by the tires of a car, which led to the house. Closer and closer to the lights. Four lights.

“Wait! Giorgio!” Vanda whispered, suddenly halting among the knee-high brush.

“What’s up? Come on, let’s go, we’re almost there.”

“My God, do you see that?”

“What, where? That woman again?”

“No, look, those aren’t … they aren’t … pumpkins.”

“What are you talking about, Vanda?”

Approaching the house of screams, the stench of decay coming from the scraps of the bodies treated by Hans – littering the kitchen floor – squeezed the kids’ throats; they stopped a few meters away, rubbing their eyes because they could not believe what they were seeing.

Water, Fire, Earth, Air.

Disgust.

The four heads seemed to be grinning.

Air (the most beautiful of the two dead damsels) stuck out her tongue, slowly moving it like a snail.

Does she want to say something?

But no, it was just the cursed flies inside, lifting that lifeless piece of meat – bluish and rancid.

The dead cannot speak.

Vanda let out a cry, taking her face in her hands; those winged bastards, never sated, had come out Earth’s sockets to buzz around the girl’s red hair, doing their best to enter her mouth, nose and ears. A living, scented head – a delicacy.

Giorgio, his legs trembling like candle flames, aimed the pistol at the woods, which were stretching black stains over his sneakers.

How can the damned woods move?

He fired on that all-black nothingness, once, twice, but the shadow did not withdraw, beginning instead to coat him in a pernicious film. The shadow was shaped like a man, hairless, with reaching arms and a hand gripping the outline of a large knife; the tricks of the fitful human lanterns made it grow and grow, until they materialized a blade as long as the boy’s body, who took courage and spun around.

Stripped of his warping shadow, Hans showed himself, his gold incisors on display, his undershirt sprayed in blood, and the breath of someone who has just sunk his snout into the carcass of some stinky beast. He smiled to Giorgio, just like that crazy woman in the nightgown. He looked like her.

Hans, Hans. The witch again, that chanting voice, but where was she hiding?

She was there, too, somewhere, with her fetid trail of sweat and blood and her head half-cracked; the boy could hear her hoarse voice a few meters away – a voice he could never forget. Though it sounded somewhat different now. It sounded like someone chewing glass.

Goddamn, the windshield …

Almost trapped, Giorgio had no choice but shoot again – a nice spray this time, random, without even aiming, to deter the couple from getting any nearer so he could run. But this time the gun misfired, the trigger suddenly getting stuck.

The ear goes down or up? You always have to check, his father had warned him. If it’s stuck, you have to cock the hammer, and then you’ll hear how this beauty sings.

The man laughed out loud, moved closer, tilting his head on either side and whispering, Click-click. He was making fun of the little open-mouthed cop. When he came near enough to breathe in Giorgio’s face, Hans brought to his lips a coral cameo hanging from his chain – the embossed old woman head, maybe his mother, tenderly kissing him – then he grasped the boy’s neck with both big hands.

Giorgio awoke tied to a trunk, facedown, naked like a worm.

From that awkward position, he forced his neck muscles and managed to glimpse something beside Earth and Air’s mummified skulls; Vanda’s head glimmered in the dark, freshly cut, a cob stuck between her teeth, while her red scalp – still knotted in little braids – adorned Greta’s head as she kept chewing glass and sweating blood from her lacerated forehead. She excitedly approached that tender body, never touched by woman.

Fuhn.

About the Authors

Alessandro Manzetti is a Bram Stoker Award–winning author and editor of horror fiction and dark poetry whose work has been published extensively in Italian, including novels, short and long fiction, poetry, essays, and collections. English publications include his novel Naraka – The Ultimate Human Breeding, the collections The Garden of Delight, The Massacre of the Mermaids, The Monster, the Bad and the Ugly (with Paolo Di Orazio) and the poetry collections No Mercy, Eden Underground, War (with Marge Simon), Sacrificial Nights (with Bruce Boston), and Venus Intervention (with Corrine De Winter).

His stories and poems have appeared in Italian, American, and UK magazines and anthologies.

He won the Bram Stoker Award in 2016 and was five times a nominee. He was also nominated for the Splatterpunk Award 2018 and other awards. He edited the anthologies The Beauty of Death Vol. 1, The Beauty of Death Vol. 2 – Death by Water (with Jodi Renee Lester) and Monsters of Any Kind (with Daniele Bonfanti).

He is the CEO & Founder of Independent Legions Press, and an active member of the Horror Writers Association. He lives in Trieste, Italy. Website: http://www.battiago.com

Paolo Di Orazio is an author of horror fiction and comics books, whose work has been published in Italian since 1987, including novels, short and long fiction, collections and scripts.

In English he has published comics for Heavy Metal and short stories for the books Dark Gates (with Alessandro Manzetti; Kipple, 2014), My Early Crimes (Raven’s Headpress, 2015), and The Monster, the Bad and the Ugly (with Alessandro Manzetti; Kipple, 2016). His short stories have also appeared in The Beauty of Death Vol. 1 (Independent Legions, 2016), The Beauty of Death Vol. 2 – Death by Water (Independent Legions, 2017) and Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2 (Comet Press, 2017).

His short story “Hell” is in The Best Horror of the Year list by Ellen Datlow (2015).

His first novel translated into English, Dark Mary, will be released in November 2018 from Independent Legions. He is an active member of the Horror Writers Association and lives in Rome, Italy.

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