Review of “Red Menace” in Morpheus Tales

 

C.M. Saunders has reviewed my novel Red Menace for Morpheus Tales! Give it a read, yes? Thank you.

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The Goddess Waxes Nostalgic About More Childhood Horrors

In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.

I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.

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The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.

The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?

I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.

The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.

Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!

And God bless us, every one!

And God bless us, every one!

By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.

Livin' the dream.

Livin’ the dream.

The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.

I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*

Mmmmm, Jiftastic.

Mmmmm, Jiftastic.

Until next time (burp), Goddess out.

Another excerpt from “Red Menace”

Hey kids, it’s me again, reminding you that my book Red Menace is available for your reading pleasure, both in ebook and print formats from Amazon, and ebook format directly from Damnation Books. Read the excerpt below! Buy the book! Read it, love it, write a review. Thank you, my lovelies.

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Paige’s eyes snapped open in the darkness. She didn’t know what time it was, only that there was no faint sign of dawn yet showing through the windows—and that Daniel was sleeping deeply beside her, his body heavily still.

Just before she had awakened, she was having a horrible dream where she was sitting in the balcony of a dimmed concert hall, looking expectantly at the stage below, which was bathed in the glow from the red footlights. An orchestra was arrayed on the stage, though Paige couldn’t see any of their faces because they all wore red hoods. The effect of the crimson light on the similarly colored hoods was unsettling, making the movement of the fabric seem turgid, liquid, like slowly draining blood.

At last, the orchestra raised their instruments as one body. The music stilled Paige’s heart for several beats. It was an infernal music, and in the dream, Paige thought of a story she had once read about a violinist who had sold his soul to the devil to be able to play like a virtuoso, only to send everyone who heard him spiraling into madness. Surely this orchestra was just as miraculous in their command of tone and timbre, in their deft manipulation of the snaking harmonies, but the miracle, if it was one, was of a satanic nature, just like in the violinist story, welling up from the darkest recesses of the soul. Paige wanted to scream but could not, wanted to cover her ears but could not move her arms. She was rendered motionless by the music, a stone carving from which a trapped consciousness peered out helplessly.

At the crescendo of the piece, just when Paige felt that she could not listen anymore, all the musicians upon the stage turned toward her in unison, the movement causing their hoods to fall back with soft and somehow obscene whispers that could still be clearly heard, though the din of the music carried on uninterrupted. Their faces were all white, grinning skulls, the black of their multitudinous eye sockets made even blacker by the wavering scarlet light, their expressions seeming to mock her.

She suddenly did scream then, feeling the stretch of her lips, the vibration of the sound in her dream-throat just as she would in waking life, though nothing emerged but silence. She just had time to glance down at the audience and see that they had all turned toward her too, accusing her with their skeleton eyes, and then she woke, her breath catching in her throat, making her cough. Daniel stirred a little but then turned onto his side and resumed snoring. Paige’s eyes struggled to identify familiar shapes in the darkness, a curtain rod or light fixture she could focus on so that she wasn’t seeing the endless parade of red-tinted skull faces peering at her with their empty yet somehow malevolent gazes.

As her heart rate calmed, she reflected on the sound that had surely wakened her. Even in the bare, few seconds after launching out of sleep, she heard a telltale echo throughout the house, the remnants of a solid sound that had not issued from her mind, however rattled. The sound could not have been very loud, or it would have woken Daniel also. Paige lay very still, feeling sweat pooling in the hollow of her stomach, straining her ears for the slightest noise.

An interminable stretch of time passed, and Paige began to think the sound had been a product of her fervid imagination after all. She closed her eyes, reluctantly settling back into sleep mode, but then she heard it—a tiny, slight wheeze, like the breath of a mouse behind the walls. Paige wondered what it could be, and as she frowned out at the surrounding darkness, the other sound came—the devilish music of the skeleton orchestra. She leaped out of bed and was halfway to the door of the bedroom before her brain even registered the movement of her body. Daniel was awake now too, his voice thick with sleep, calling her name, but Paige was already out the door and climbing the stairs to the attic room, two at a time. Some part of her must have instinctively known that the horrible sound was coming from the clock in the black room, but it was only now, as she reached the landing, that she became consciously aware of it. Just as she did, the chime came again—a deafening and doom-laden gong seemingly accompanied by the combined screams of all the tormented souls in hell.

The thought of that coffin-tall clock singing its malevolent song to the gleeful audience of that one red-windowed eye in the otherwise abandoned black room filled Paige with a horror that compelled her quickly down the hall and through the door of Helena’s attic aerie, not caring if the old woman thought she’d gone right off her rocker. She just wanted that fucking clock to stop.

Paige tore into the attic room, intending to march straight into the Red Death suite and smash the clock’s smug face with her bare hands; however, she stopped dead in her tracks at the strange sight of Helena, sitting upright and cross-legged on her narrow bed in a small circle of lamp light, her eyes closed, her ogre face bearing the serene expression of a stone Buddha. She was dimly aware of Daniel’s presence behind her, and she felt his breath upon her neck. As she stared at Helena, the echoes of the horrible chimes danced all around them, like whispering little caper-demons scurrying for the corners and concealing their evil laughter behind tiny, clawed red hands. Then, the chime came once again, full and resonant, seeming to shake the house to its foundations. Paige clapped her hands over her ears the way she had been unable to do in her dream, even though this had the awful effect of making the sound closer, more intimate, as if it was coming from inside her own head.

When the last of the chimes had finally died away, Paige cautiously drew her hands away from her ears, listening to the silence that now seemed like the world’s sweetest music. After a moment, she realized her cheeks were wet; the tears had spilled without her knowledge. She stared at Helena’s blissful figure, feeling exhausted, empty, and suddenly afraid.

The old woman’s eyes opened, and the fishy, white one twirled in its socket while the normal eye fixed on Paige, a shimmering jade-green jewel in the lamp light. Helena smiled her sunken smile. “I was afraid it wouldn’t work anymore,” she said.

Horror Selfies!

The Horror Writer’s Association is doing a “Horror Selfies” campaign to promote reading in general and the horror genre in particular. If you write horror, and I know I do, get on over there and upload your selfie! Read the rules first about what you can upload, though—the pic has to have some kind of promotional wording on it. You can’t promote your own work, but you can promote other horror writers or the genre as a whole. And there is a space to put in the title of one of your works. So toddle on over there and slap your pretty mugs on the internets! Here’s mine.

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Here are the Witches, Bitches!

IT’S OFFICIAL! My novel Red Menace is out today! And best of all, there is a SALE! If you buy the ebook version today (PDF, ePub, MS Reader, Mobi Pocket, or Palm formats) directly from Damnation Books, it is absolutely FREE!!! You heard me, FREE. Can’t get any cheaper than that, can ya? If you need the Kindle version, it’s available from Amazon right here, for the low, low price of $5.95. If you’re an old fashioned girl like me, the print version will be available shortly.

If you have a horror mag/blog and would like a review copy or to set up an interview with the Goddess herself, please contact me at hecate80@hotmail.com. And if you read the book and enjoy it, would you please be so kind as to write a glowing review on the website of your choice? Thanks ever so much. If you need further incentive, there is a short excerpt from the novel below the pic. As always, thank you for your support! Goddess out.

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Excerpt from Red Menace
©2014 Jenny Ashford and Damnation Books

As Paige pulled the lid up to close it, she noticed a slight shift in weight that she hadn’t noticed before. There was a large elastic-topped pocket on the inside of the lid, and there was something inside it.

By this point, Paige’s earlier trepidation had nearly vanished. She didn’t know what she had expected to find when she came barging into the attic, but a suitcase of moldy old jars was certainly anticlimactic and had largely put her at ease, even though she remained dimly aware of the clock and the window holding her in the beams of their disapproving glances. She hardly hesitated in pulling aside the worn elastic and sticking her hand into the lid pocket, drawing out what her questing fingers found there.

It was a canvas bag, about the size of a pillowcase, and very dirty, with a thin rope drawstring. It emitted an earthy smell from between its fibers, and in a flash of insight from somewhere seemingly outside herself, Paige knew what was in the bag, knew it as surely as she knew her own name. Once this realization had dawned, Paige pictured herself placing the unopened bag gently back into its pouch, then closing the suitcase, fleeing the suite and locking its door behind her. In reality, she watched in helpless horror as her hands, acting on orders other than her own, parted the mouth of the canvas bag wide, exposing its contents to the shadowy, crimson light of the Black Room.

Bones. A whole skeleton, it looked like, jumbled in the bottom of the bag like grisly puzzle pieces, marred with clumps of soil that released a pungent odor into Paige’s nostrils, putting her reluctantly in mind of burials, of the smell of freshly turned earth at Daniel’s mother’s funeral.

The skull was staring up at her with a half-jawed grin. It was a small skull, surely that of a child. It looked yellow and brittle with age, though a sudden shift in sunlight outside the scarlet window made it blaze momentarily with life, as though the red light had animated the face, furnished it with muscle and flesh.