First in a New Series: Scary Silents: “Häxan”

Since I’m always looking for ways to keep this blog as fresh as a livid corpse, I’ve lately been casting about for ideas on a new series to supplement my “Creepy Scenes” one (which will continue, don’t fret). Just two days ago, I had a moment of kismet when I ran across a Cracked article titled “9 Terrifying Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame,” and just like that, the fabled witchlight switched on in my head. So without further delay, I’d like to introduce a new series here on Goddess of Hellfire, “Scary Silents.”

I’ve always had a fascination with the very earliest days of cinema, particularly as it relates to horror film. There’s something so enthralling about the films that were made when the medium was brand new, when all the possibilities were first becoming apparent. There were limitations, sure, but oftentimes, limitations can be the spur to mad creativity, and that was certainly the case in many of the earliest movies in the horror genre. These films, many of them now nearing (or surpassing) a century old, have such a pleasingly otherworldly feel, with their shuddering camera work, their luminous black and white tableaus, and their broad theatricality. Watching the best of them, it’s easy to imagine that they seeped in from some other, creepier dimension, one of flickering lamplight and mystery. Obviously, some of the effects are crude by today’s standards, and much of the acting is necessarily exaggerated due to lack of spoken dialogue, but to me, that only contributes to their eerie charm. And some of them, particularly the non-American ones, contain some pretty shocking imagery for the time.

As is my wont, I’d like to discuss some of the slightly lesser-known films in the silent film oeuvre. Yes, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, and Un Chien Andalou are fantastic, but they already get a ton of ink and bandwidth, so I probably won’t discuss them here (although I may change my mind about that, who knows). I would like to focus mainly on excellent examples of the genre that perhaps haven’t been so widely seen and discussed.

To that end, in this first post I want to talk about the 1922 Swedish-Danish co-production Häxan, known in English as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages. If you’re curious, there was a Criterion Collection version that came out in 2001, or if you’re impatient like me, you can watch the whole thing (with English subtitles) right here:

The film is structured in four parts, and was actually conceived as a documentary. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen had done a two-year study of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, and sought to bring his knowledge to new audiences. For that reason, the first part of the film (comprising about fourteen minutes of runtime) is basically a short summary of both the history of witchcraft and the perceptions of Hell and the solar system common in the Middle Ages. This section of the film is illustrated with stills of woodcuts that will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval witch legends, which I would assume is most people reading this blog. Bunch of sickos, all of ya. *kisses*

Hey, there's a cockroach there, might wanna squash that.

Hey, there’s a cockroach there, might wanna squash that.

Anyway, it’s the second part where Häxan becomes more like a traditional film, with short vignettes reenacting various aspects of witchcraft in the medieval period, and then a longer story in the middle that dramatizes one particular case of an accused witch being brought before the Inquisition. This middle section is the best part, chock full of curses and flying ointments and torture and old crones mixing potions by moonlight from pieces of corpses pulled from the gallows, and anyone who’s read my novel Red Menace knows how much I love all this kind of old-school witchery stuff.

Damn, I think all the murderer's sweat boiled off.

Damn, I think all the murderer’s sweat boiled off.

About 15 minutes in, a witch pulls a grody corpse hand out of a pile of straw and pulls off a finger, sniffing it experimentally. Weird, but you do you, babe. She then pronounces that the thief’s corpse had been too long on the gallows, and that the old, stinky finger isn’t gonna be any good for the brew. She soldiers on, though, throwing frogs and snakes and other unidentifiable things into her pot.

A woman then comes to the witch for a concoction that will melt the heart of her beloved, a fat monk who is later revealed, in a shocking plot twist, to be one of the main Inquisitors. The witch makes a delicious potion of cat feces and dove hearts. But then the woman wants the stronger stuff, so the witch gives her a potion boiled with a male sparrow, which evidently makes it like EXTREME love potion. Also, as a kinda two-for-one deal, the witch gives the woman an ointment that will let her and the object of her affections fly through the air and make kissy-face among the clouds. There are some broadly comic moments as the woman imagines the porcine monk taking the potion and then chasing her around a table and out into the woods before macking the hell out of her.

Things get REALLY interesting in later vignettes when the Devil (played by the director himself) shows up and starts pulling all kinds of evil shenanigans. “The Devil is everywhere and takes all shapes,” a title card informs us after his scary ass has popped up in a monastery and begun screwing with the chubby monks therein.

Surprise, mothafucka!!!

Surprise, mothafucka!!!

There are some really lovely silhouette shots of a naked woman walking zombie-like across a moor after being called by the Devil. One of my favorite scenes included one where the Devil comes to the window of a sleeping couple and begins banging on the shutters to call the wife to him, going all GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE, HO with his big clawed hands. Delightful.

One particularly cool sequence occurs when the Devil summons his minion, a poor woman named Apelone, into her “dream castle” where he showers her with money and a sumptuous feast, then begins to claw his way through the wooden door. The stop-motion animation here is great, and the little Devil figure, with his creepy beaked face, is super well done. Very Lynchian, this part.

In the longest segment of the film, there is a family gathered around the bed of Martin, a printer who has suddenly fallen ill. One of the male relatives wafts a ladle of hot lead over the sick man, and then drops the lead into a bucket of cold water, since the shape the lead takes will determine whether the man’s illness was caused by witchcraft, obviously. The guy pulls the lead shape out and is all OH SHIT, Y’ALL, THAT’S A BEWITCHING ALL RIGHT, and the gathered women are like AWWWW, HELL NO. The printer’s wife, Anna, gives food to an old beggar woman who comes in, and the old woman stuffs gruel in her face like a pig and totally blows a snot rocket on the floor and also has the evil eye, so the lady calls in the Inquisition, yo, since this beggar woman is clearly the agent of the bewitchin’. Family members throw the old woman in a bag (with one of the older female relatives making a particularly amusing YEAH, GET HER!!! gesture) and take her away.

The next bit, we cut to the Inquisition in progress, where the ancient old woman (Maria the Weaver is her name) is getting her torture on while the gathered monks swig wine and harangue her to CONFESS, CONFESS! At first she denies any witchy doings, but then the pain is too much for her and she’s all OKAY, FINE, I BIRTHED THE DEVIL’S BABIES, YOU HAPPY NOW and yes, they are happy, because now Maria is gonna confess all kinds of scandalous shit that the monks get to listen to and write down for later, masturbatory perusal. Maria starts telling the monks about all the witchery, and there are extended flashback sequences of a sabbath. The scenes of the witches flying are pretty cool, I gotta say. There are more beautiful shots with the witches flying across the sky in the background while the silhouetted devil orgy goes on in the foreground. The imagery of the witches’ sabbath is really gorgeous and unsettling, especially the weird skeleton-horse thing that lopes into the frame at one point, and the potion that one of the witches drops a dead baby in. There’s dancing and some (tasteful) nudity, and ladies making out with demons and doing jigs all over a cross on the ground. The monks are listening to this raptly, all WTF THIS IS KINDA HOT YOU GUYS. Maria tells them about the Devil-butt-kissing ritual, and the monks laugh and laugh like twelve year old boys.

That's my fetish.

That’s my fetish.

Through some plot contrivance, the comely printer’s wife also ends up accused of witchcraft, because payback is a bitch. I think it happened because the youngest Inquisitor had the hots for her, so the other monks assumed she had bewitched him. For his sinful thoughts, the littlest Inquisitor gets a whippin’, and when the whippermonk stops, the younger guy is kinda like WHY DID YOU STOP I WAS TOTALLY INTO THAT. You know those monks are total freaks.

One of the monks tells Anna he will let her free if she shows him one of them there witchy spells, and I’m all DON’T DO IT, GIRL, IT’S A TRAP, even though of course she’s not really a witch and can’t do magic, so what the hell am I even saying. The monk then tells her that her baby will be alone in the world without her, and then the monks actually bring the baby to the prison to show her, because monks are just the worst. Meanwhile the other monks are listening in, waiting for her to do the spell for the first dude so they can later testify that she’s a sorceress for real. See? Trap. CALLED IT. So then she starts telling them how to make thunder out of the water, because y’know, baby and freedom, and then the main monk pokes his fat face through the window and is all like GOTCHA, GONNA BURN YOU ALIVE TOMORROW, LOL and Anna is all YOU MOTHERFUCKERS and starts beating on the one monk in the cell with her, as you would, so she gets hauled off too. Cut to all the monks packing up their shit and moving on to the next town, because their work here is done (that work being torturing the shit out of innocent women and getting their sadistic jollies, obviously).

The next chapter is kind of an overview of witch confessions, torture equipment, and so forth, and opens with a creepy image of a door flanked by two people wearing scary pig heads.

Furries were a known scourge of the Middle Ages.

Furries were a known scourge of the Middle Ages.

And then all these other people in scary animal heads come shuffling out of the door and to be honest it kinda freaked me out. This bit’s kinda uncomfortable, because even though they don’t show anyone getting tortured for real, they do show actual people in the contraptions and show how they worked with a very matter-of-fact, “like so” kinda vibe. “One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew,” the director says in a title card, and then there’s footage of a laughing young woman wearing the thing while the hand of someone off camera begins tightening it. And suddenly her laughing mouth starts looking more like YOOOOWWWWCCCCCHHHH!!! “I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute,” the next title card reads. Very droll, Mr. Director.

Then there’s a nun putting on a spiked belt as a weird sort of self-flagellation, then there’s a whole convent of nuns running around like lunatics. And then the Devil’s back, wagging his tongue at another nun.

No thanks, I use toilet paper, hurr hurr.

No thanks, I use toilet paper, hurr hurr.

The Devil reaches into a box and pulls out what looks like a big spiked dildo and hands it to the nun and she takes it from him, looking horrified, before the cut. In the next scene we see that it’s a knife, and I guess the Devil wants her to stab someone with it, but she’s all GET THEE BEHIND ME and flings the knife away, only to have the Devil pop up behind her and brain her with a club. This is kind of a weird movie, if you hadn’t noticed.

She gets up off the floor, all flummoxed, and the Devil cracks open the door and gestures to her, so she picks up the knife and zombies her way after him, lookin’ all pop-eyed and crazy. She goes to the altar and with the devil’s encouragement, pulls out one of them Jesus crackers and goes to stab it while Jesus appears all like NOOOO, DON’T DO IT, MY CHILD, but I guess she does because then all the other nuns file in and find her all zonked out and they look in her hand at the wafer and they’re all like SISTER CECELIA’S IN LEAGUE WITH THE DARK ONE, Y’ALL and the nuns freak out and scatter. Then Sister gets up and starts lurching toward them, and the Mother Superior is giving her a piece of her mind vis-a-vis consorting with evil, and the sister sticks her tongue out at the Mother. And then all the nuns start dancing around and laughing, because I guess the Devil got them too through the power of the nunly raspberry, and the Devil wags his tongue and happily surveys his handiwork. In the next scene, another nun kipes the baby Jesus statue off the altar and carries it to the Inquisitors and tells them they need to burn her at the stake tout suite because the Devil is making her do some bad shit. She then spits on the baby Jesus and screams that the Devil is RIGHT IN THE ROOM, YOU GUYS. Fade to black.

The last chapter is sort of from a modern perspective, with the director pointing out that poor old women were usually the innocent victims of these medieval wackos, and then enumerating all the ways a woman could “stand out” back then and get the fingers of the Inquisition pointed at her. Like here’s a woman with a hunchback, or who is blind in one eye, or otherwise looks kinda fucked up or diseased. And then the director says, via title card, that we shouldn’t think that the Devil is only consigned to the past, because the actress who played the old witch Maria in the film once told him that the Devil was real, and that she’d seen him at her bedside.

He called me out into the yard; apparently he had a new lawnmower he wanted me to look at.

He called me out into the yard; apparently he had a new lawnmower he wanted me to look at.

But he says that now we know that all of the so-called symptoms of witchcraft were simply physical or mental ailments, and he has an actress portray a few of these ailments as examples, including pyromania, sleepwalking, hysteria, and the like. It then goes into a discussion of witch’s marks, and shows a naked and prone woman on an altar with the devil’s claws touching her back in various places. Then there’s those Inquisitors, leering at a topless woman while poking at her for signs of those “insensitive” areas. Contrast that with the next scene, which shows a modern doctor poking at a woman’s back, understanding that such areas on the body are completely normal and merely a symptom of that good old feminine complaint of “hysteria.” (This WAS almost 100 years ago, y’all; they weren’t THAT modern.)

And then it’s kinda weird, because one of the doctors says something to the mother of the patient about “Y’know, it would be a shame if your daughter’s hysteria made her have a run-in with the police” (WTF) and then the title card says, “Poor little hysterical witch! In the Middle Ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.” I can’t really tell if the director was actually feeling pity with the women, or if he’s just being a sarcastic douche. That’s one of the downsides of silent movies, I guess; you can’t hear people’s tone of voice, and the text in silent movies doesn’t have emoticons.

Then, inexplicably, there’s a scene of a woman in a jewelry store totally pulling a klepto while the jeweler’s back is turned. So I guess that’s what the law thing was all about. The jeweler peeps in the ring box and is all HEY, THERE WAS ANOTHER RING HERE and the chick’s all I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN, WHAT ARE YOU ACCUSING ME OF, SIRRAH? Jeweler’s all, INTO MY OFFICE MISSY OR I’M CALLING THE FIVE-O, so she sheepishly goes into the office and hands over the ring she swiped. And then the jeweler’s all GIVE ME YOUR CARD IMMA CALL YOUR MOM even though the woman is like forty. The woman begs him not to contact her family, or else she will be “forcibly detained,” which doesn’t sound too good, and wait, weren’t there witches and devils and stuff just a few minutes ago? This is taking a turn into crazy town.

Anyway, she tells him she’s not well, and that her behavior is seemingly caused by something outside herself, and I suppose we’re just trying to draw parallels between the treatment of mentally ill women in the modern day as opposed to the days of the Iron Maiden, but it’s still a bit odd. And then the woman is like YEAH, I’M BROKEN, AND LOOK, HERE’S SOME OTHER SHIT I STOLE, I’M SO CRAZY, and probably showing your other pilferings to a guy you just tried to steal from isn’t the brightest idea, but she’s arguing for her life, you guys. Then she pulls out the pity card by saying that her husband died in the war and she hasn’t been the same since. And it totally works! See, we have compassion nowadays, not like those bloodthirsty medieval fuckers, and the jeweler lets her skate. I admit I actually did feel bad for her, so good on ya, jeweler guy.

At the very end, there’s a little recap of the medieval view on Hell and such, and the implication that it’s awesome we don’t really believe any of that silly shit anymore. He says there are no more witches on broomsticks, and then there’s a shot of a smiling woman piloting a biplane. YEAH, GIRL POWER! But wait, he says! Superstition is still rampant! There are still tarot readers and crystal ball gazers galore! We no longer burn the old and poor, but don’t the poor still suffer? Are we really that different? No, Mr. Director, we are not. Food for thought, my minions. Food for thought.

And because happy endings are not very Swedish and all, the final shot is of bodies burning alive at the stake, so that’s nice. I also enjoyed the ending title card that simply said, “SLUT” (which is Swedish for “end” or “out,” but don’t spoil my juvenile fun).

Until next time, Goddess slut. I mean out.

Slut.

HaxanPoster

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Ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials

Some scholars assert that the mass hysteria in Massachusetts in the 17th century could have been triggered by a common fungus.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

The events are familiar to most Americans and have been dramatized dozens of times on stage, page and film. The tragic episode was set into motion in 1692 by the strange behavior of two young girls, and snowballed into a panic of almost unbelievable proportions. The Salem Witch Trials, as they came to be known, lacked the staggering body count of many of the European witch hunts; nonetheless the series of events was sufficiently dire to cause many people then and now to question how such a thing could have happened.

An Overview of the Salem Witch Panic

It was February 1692. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams suddenly began displaying bizarre behavior akin to epileptic fits. They screamed and raved, twisted their bodies into strange positions, and complained that an unseen assailant was pinching and pricking them. Doctors were called to examine the girls, but no physical cause could be found for their distress, and what was worse, when word of the girls’ mysterious ailment spread through Salem village, other girls began behaving in a similar fashion.

At this point, authorities had raised suspicions of witchcraft, and Betty and Abigail obligingly pointed accusing fingers at a slave girl named Tituba, who they claimed had taught them spells for seeing into the future. Other accusations followed, and more “victims” came forward, accusing still others. When all was said and done, the hysteria had spread across three counties and resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people, twenty of whom were eventually executed for witchcraft. What possible reason could there have been for such a terrible tragedy to unfold? Many theories have been put forth, but Professor Linda Caporael, in 1976, suggested we need look no further than the Salem villagers’ breadboxes.

Hordeum_vulgare_Claviceps_purpurea_23-7-2009

Ergot a Poisonous Fungus, Catalyst for Accusations

In a 1976 article inScience, Caporael theorized that the initial catalyst for the witch craze — the seemingly “possessed” behavior of Betty, Abigail, and the other girls — could have been caused by a reaction to ergot. There are about fifty known species of the ergot fungus, but the one Caporael implicated in the witch panic was Claviceps pupurea, which grows on rye plants and can cause poisoning when consumed by humans or other mammals. If indeed the girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot, they could have experienced symptoms that were perceived as possession: Seizures, a sensation of itching or crawling on the skin, muscular contractions, nausea, and even hallucinations, triggered by an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is similar in structure to LSD.

Caporael argued that not only were the symptoms of ergotism consistent with those noted in the victims of the “bewitchment,” but that the area around Salem grew a great deal of rye, and that climatic conditions were favorable to the growth of the ergot fungus. It would not even have been necessary for all of the “victims” to have been afflicted with ergotism; a few cases might have started the ball rolling, and psychological and sociological factors could have accomplished the rest.

Arguments Against the Ergot Theory

Many scholars have disputed the claims that ergotism played a major role in the witch panic. Historians Jack Gottlieb and Nicholas Spanos, for example, contend that had ergotism been responsible for the accusers’ symptoms, we should have expected to see members of entire households afflicted, rather than just a few individuals here and there. They also argue that ergotism has other symptoms that do not correspond with the recorded behavior of the “bewitched” persons. Finally, they and other scholars have pointed out that ergotism had been a recognized malady at least since the Middle Ages; it even had a name, St. Anthony’s Fire. Anthropologist H. Sidley in particular doubted whether authorities in Salem in the 17th century would have mistaken the supposedly familiar symptoms of ergot poisoning with signs of supernatural possession.

Despite the voluminous research on the subject, the exact causes of the Salem witch panic are still murky. It is not controversial to speculate that the episode was probably triggered by an unfortunate cascade of converging factors—social, political, psychological, and perhaps pharmacological.

Additional Source:

Macinnis, Peter (2004). Poisons: A History From Hemlock To Botox. MJF Books. ISBN 1-56731-814-2.

 

 

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.

ThingBedBooks

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.

RedMenaceCoverBlog

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.

Another Scary Story for Halloween: “William’s Pond”

It’s the scariest day of the year, and if you’d like to spend some of this glorious holiday indulging in a bit of creepy reading, please take a few moments to read my 2009 short story, “William’s Pond.” It also appears in my book Hopeful Monsters, so if you like what you read, then why not go all out and purchase a copy today? Thank you, and I hope your Halloween is a haunting, howling scream!

UnderwaterGirl

The pond looked dark, even now, even in broad daylight. Muriel remembered it had always looked dark. She had always been afraid of it.

She waded through layers of dead leaves in her worn black flats, keeping her eyes fixed on the still water. The grass around the pond had grown long and wild; Muriel wondered if there were snakes. Her parents had always kept the house and grounds immaculate, and it saddened her to see the neglect, the desolation. Times had been hard for them, since she’d left home. And now they were gone.

A cloud passed over the sun, and in the ensuing grayness Muriel thought she saw a shadow flickering just below the surface of the pond. She stopped and looked harder, but there was nothing. Her parents had always warned her to stay away from the pond, and unspoken but understood in their stern, pale warnings was the knowledge that Muriel’s brother had drowned there, many years ago, when he was no more than a baby. But even if that hadn’t happened, Muriel would have stayed away.

Because when she was a little girl, she thought she’d seen things in the pond.

She scoffed at herself now, standing ankle deep in leaves, wearing a shabby black funeral dress whose cheap fabric stretched taut over her swollen belly. She was a grown woman, with a thirteen-year-old daughter and a second child on the way, a woman who had once been beautiful but now bore the marks of two failed marriages, abandonment, single motherhood. She was no longer the terrified little girl who had peered out her bedroom window under the maple trees and sworn she’d seen shadows moving beneath the water, shadows that looked like people with long, flowing hair. She had left that little girl far behind, perhaps still in this house with its memories.

So why was she still afraid?

“I’m not afraid.” She said it out loud, then reddened and turned to see if her daughter had heard her talking to herself. The house and yard were silent, but her words seemed to echo through the open stillness, coming back to her as oddly warped singsong, a children’s chant repeated like a mantra: Not afraid, not afraid, not afraid…

And she wasn’t, she told herself. She could walk right up to the edge of the pond now if she wanted to, just to show those shadows (those long-haired people who weren’t there) that she was brave.

With every step closer, the shadows seemed to move faster, more erratically. Muriel told herself that she didn’t see them. Instead she thought of her brother’s tiny white body, floating and lifeless, a shock of white against the night-black water. She hadn’t actually seen him drown all those years ago, but her parents had told her what had happened, and after that, she’d seen it every night, in her dreams. The baby’s bluish limbs splayed on the surface of the water, the blacker shadows milling below it, as though making a nest for the egg like little corpse. Muriel had seen it many times, among her many dreams.

She was at the edge of the pond now. The water chuckled and gurgled, then seemed to lunge at her feet with its icy black fingers. Muriel jumped back, then turned around and made her way quickly back to the house.

****

“Do me a favor and stay away from that pond, Angel.” Muriel found herself using the same tone of voice her mother had always used. She smiled, but it was a sad smile, edged with bitterness.

“I know, I know, my almost-uncle died in there.” Angel was only half listening, her head poking into the refrigerator, her tight jeans riding so low on her hips that the waistband of her underwear showed. Muriel had a sudden urge to smack the girl, but she restrained it.

“That’s right.” The fetus in her belly stirred, then kicked, and Muriel winced. Only another week or two, she told herself. She didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl; she’d decided to let it be a surprise. Not that it really mattered anyway; its father was long gone, just as Angel’s was. Her luck with men had been little short of catastrophic for as long as she cared to remember.

Angel was smearing jelly on a piece of bread already thickly spread with peanut butter. She sat at the kitchen table across from Muriel, squashing another slice of bread on top of the mess and then bringing the dripping sandwich to her mouth and taking a noisy bite. “Mom, how come you never brought me here?” she asked around a slobbering mouthful.

Muriel didn’t answer at first. What could she say? It wasn’t because she hadn’t gotten along with her parents; she had, even though she’d kept her distance since Angel was born. Was it the house itself that had kept her away, the stately but fading Colonial that had suddenly become a showplace after her brother’s death, the barren fields that had suddenly and copiously borne fruit, the pond with its lapping black life-taking waters? She wasn’t sure. “I suppose I just kind of lost touch with your grandma and grandpa over the years, sweetie,” she finally said. “You know how it is. They had their life, we had ours.”

Angel snorted. “Yeah. Some life.” Despite a face that was still pink and plump with childhood, the girl looked hard, and cynical far beyond her years. Muriel knew that the words were meant to make her feel guilty, and they did, although they made her angry too. She had struggled to give Angel the best life possible under the circumstances, and even though there were times when fate seemed against her, she felt she’d done a decent job. She couldn’t help but resent Angel a little for throwing her failings back into her face.

“I’m sorry.” Muriel wasn’t sure if that was entirely true, but she was too tired to argue. “I should have brought you to meet them. I should have done better.”

Angel shrugged, still chewing, then looked away, out the kitchen window toward the pond. “I wonder how deep it is,” she mused, almost to herself.

****

The baby, a boy, was born less than a week later. Muriel drove herself to the hospital, Angel silent in the seat beside her.

She named the boy William, after her drowned brother, and she brought him home to her parents’ old house and put him in the same room that the first William had slept in before he died. She didn’t know exactly why she did it, although she told herself that it didn’t matter, that her brother’s old room was as good as any other.

William the second was a very good baby, and slept most of the time; nonetheless, Muriel spent hours in the nursery with him, watching him sleep. Sometimes she would sit in the rocking chair by the nursery window and stare out at the pond, which now seemed darker and deeper than ever. Sometimes she thought she saw choppy little waves, disturbances in the middle of the pond, as if as school of piranha were attacking its prey just beneath the surface of the water. She saw this on several successive days, and on each day the disturbance seemed ever so slightly closer to the shore. She wondered if there was a large fish living there, or maybe an alligator.

Muriel moved her bed into the nursery, and slept directly beneath the window.

When William was nearly a month old, there came a night when Angel came to the nursery door, her eyes very white and shiny in the darkness. She was clutching a stuffed rabbit in her arms, just as she had done when she was very small. Muriel beckoned, and the girl came and curled up in the narrow bed next to her mother, deliberately keeping her back to the window. “I thought I saw something,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut tight, so the tears popped out through the cracks in the lids. “There was something out there, in the pond.” Muriel stroked the girl’s hair until she fell into a fitful sleep. Then she looked out the window.

There were so many of them—more than she remembered. And as she stared out at them, into their greenish eyes that glowed like fish scales in the night, she realized that she did remember what, all those years ago, had really happened to the first William, her baby brother. The memory was so clear that she didn’t understand how she could have ever forgotten it, how she could have ever believed that the boy had drowned, how she could have believed it so wholeheartedly that she’d had nightmares about it for many years afterwards. She remembered her parents’ chalk-white faces, fearful, horrified—yet was there also resignation behind those expressions, perhaps even acceptance?

The women had come out of the water and ringed the house, just as they were doing now. Their skin was white like fish bellies, and patchy with algae and what looked like barnacles. Their hair hung long and wet and ropy, framing their hideous faces, covering their sagging naked breasts. They were not smiling, but they gave the distinct impression of glee, and Muriel remembered thinking then that if the women opened their mouths, several rows of razor teeth would glimmer in the moonlight.

In a moment, Muriel knew, one of the women would step forward, only this single action marking her as the leader. As a girl, Muriel had watched from her second-story window as her parents stepped forward also, meeting the soaking hag halfway. Muriel could not hear what was said, if indeed any words had been spoken. The moon had been nearly full that night, its pregnant yellow form like a spotlight against the purple drape of sky, a stage setting for the horror unfolding by the pond. The fetid smell from the water was so powerful that it seemed to be oozing through the window glass.

Down below, in the yard, her parents were stretching their arms out to the woman, and at the end of their arms lay William, pink and writhing, his little face squinched up in consternation. Muriel thought she could almost hear him wailing, although it might have
been the wind in the eaves.

The woman took the infant from his parents’ grasp, and cradled it, tenderly, staring down at it with her iridescent eyes. The other women gathered around, craning their necks to get a better look. The leader, the one holding the baby, nodded once to Muriel’s parents, as if to indicate that everything was satisfactory, and then she turned her back to them, holding the baby tight against her slick white body. Muriel’s parents turned away also, and headed back
toward the house.

Muriel had kept watching from her window. And watching from the window now, a grown woman, in her old house with her own two children sleeping beside her, she shivered to think what she had seen then, after her parents had turned away. She glanced over at William the second, snoring in his crib, his tiny hands balled into fists on either side of his nearly hairless head. She could not bear it now, seeing both him and the memory of what had happened to her brother, superimposed in her mind like paintings on translucent paper. It was so horrible. And yet…

Muriel had seen those women in the moonlight, their scaly backs like eelskins. She had seen them all set upon her brother, the first little William, and even though she couldn’t hear anything, she could see their muscles working as they tore him limb from limb, see their jaws ratcheting up and down as they masticated the tender flesh, see the splashes of blood on their clawlike hands, rendered black by the light of the moon. And she could imagine the sounds of meat rending, of the women grunting with satisfaction and smacking their lips. Muriel saw all these things, and she never told anyone.

The next morning her parents told her that William had fallen in the pond and drowned, and they said no more about it. Muriel had simply nodded and kept silent. Perhaps he had drowned, after all. Perhaps what she had seen from her window had been a dream, nothing more.

The day after that, her parents received word that a distant relative had died and left them a substantial sum of money, enough to pay off all their debts and to make the farm prosperous once again. They were overjoyed, but their eyes were still haunted, and would
stay that way until Muriel left home years later. She could not remember a time when their faces were not hollow and furtive, when their glances did not quickly shift back and forth, constantly searching for something that Muriel could never see.

Angel stirred in the bed beside her, and Muriel held her until she stilled. Then she looked out the window again. The women were still there, a phalanx of corpse-white statues, their sopping hair unmoved by the breeze, their peacock-feather eyes raised to meet hers.

Muriel understood. They didn’t want the baby, not yet.

They wanted to bargain with her.

****

She tiptoed quietly down the stairs, wincing every time the wood creaked beneath her weight. She was afraid, but under the circumstances, quite calm. It’s almost as if I’ve been expecting this, she thought. In a way, she supposed part of her had been.

The moonlight looked almost like chalk where it fell upon the floorboards, and the moldy smell of the pond was like a thick fog. Muriel covered her nose and mouth with her hand. Through the downstairs windows she could see some of the women, silhouetted against the darkness, the moonlight giving them pale glowing auras.

Her stomach clenching, Muriel opened the front door and stepped outside. It was a warm night, but her skin was icy, and daubed with beads of freezing sweat. The leader of these horrible women, these water witches, was still standing slightly outside of the ring, closer to the house, and when Muriel emerged, the hag shuffled even closer through the long grass. Muriel noticed that the woman’s fingers and toes bore bluish membranes of skin between them, like frog’s feet. The sight made her gorge rise.

“You know us.” When the woman spoke, her carp-like lips barely moved. Her voice seemed deep and green and coated with slime.

Muriel opened her mouth to respond, but for a moment no sound came out; her throat had gone completely dry. She coughed, nervously. “I…I remember you,” she finally managed.

“Then you know what we want.” The hag’s eyes glittered like sapphires.

Muriel hadn’t known what she was going to say to the woman, but before she knew it, she was sobbing, begging. “Please,” she said, her vision blurred by the unbidden tears, her voice cracking. “Please don’t take my baby.”

The hag looked at her, the monstrous white face expressionless. “We would of course make it worth your while,” she purred. “Just as we did with your parents.”

Muriel recalled the sudden wealth, the farm’s startling prosperity after that horrific night, and for the briefest moment, she was tempted. Even though she also remembered those empty, haunted looks that had thereafter never left their faces, she couldn’t deny it. She was disgusted with herself.

The woman was still staring at her, and the others remained in their moveless ring, infinitely patient, as though the dawn would never come. And perhaps it wouldn’t, through some of their witchery; perhaps the yellow moon would hang there in the velvet sky until doomsday, until Muriel had finally consented to their desires.

“And what if I don’t…” Her voice hitched, her throat threatened to close, but she forced herself to go on. “What if I don’t give him to you?”

The lead hag’s expression didn’t change, but Muriel got the feeling that the air around her had grown thicker, heavier—it pressed into her nose and mouth, smelling like stagnant water and algae, creeping into her lungs and growing there like fungus. She gasped for breath.

“We will take the boy regardless,” the crone hissed through her white, grouper lips. “Had you given him to us willingly, we would have shown you our gratitude. Since you resist, you will incur our wrath, and the boy will die anyway.”

Muriel was shaking all over, but she tried to sound defiant. “All we have to do is l…leave.” She cursed herself for sounding as frightened as she was. It occurred to her that Angel might have awakened and could be watching the entire scene from the nursery window. She didn’t dare turn to look.

The hag’s lips pulled apart in what might have been a smile on a less inhuman face. Her teeth were small and triangular and close together. A piranha’s teeth. “Our curse will find you wherever you go,” she said softly.

Muriel shook her head, seeing the unending row of white witches’ forms as an indistinct blur in the silvery moonlight. “I don’t believe you,” she said, and the minute the words had come out of her mouth, the suffocating pond fog seemed to lift, and she could breathe again. A moment later she realized she was standing in the yard alone in the middle of the night in her bare feet, and that it was cold, far colder than she remembered it being. The grass was wet between her toes.

A moment after that, she was blinking awake, clear sunlight pouring in through the nursery windows, Angel snoring quietly beside her. Muriel lay very still, relishing the morning and the sensation of rebirth it brought, and then William began fussing and she got out of bed to tend to him.

****

When Angel awoke and came down to breakfast a little over an hour later, she seemed to have no recollection of the night before, or if she did, she was choosing to hide it. She gave her mother a cursory glance before sitting down at the table and tucking into a bagel and an overflowing bowl of cornflakes, all the while scanning the pages of a fashion magazine she held in her free hand.

Muriel watched the girl for a few minutes, William perched in the crook of her arm. “Angel,” she said at last, “it’s time for us to be getting back home. School will be starting in a few weeks, and I’d like to get this house put up for sale before too long.”

Angel barely looked up from her magazine. “Mm hmm. When are we going?”

“Today. There’s really no reason for us to stay around here, is there?”

“Nope.” Angel took a long swig of her orange juice.

William began to squirm, and Muriel moved him to her other arm. “We can stay in a hotel tonight, then tomorrow when we get back to the city we can start looking for another apartment.”

“Okay, whatever.” Angel drank the last of the milk out of her bowl, then left the dishes where they lay and stomped back up the stairs to her room. A few seconds later Muriel heard a door close up there, and then the muffled beat from her daughter’s old stereo.

Did she remember anything? Muriel wondered as she picked up the dishes, maneuvering William’s tiny body to accomplish the task. Perhaps the girl had rationalized the events away as simply a bad dream that seemed ridiculous in the sunlight’s cruel glare. Or perhaps
she had done what Muriel herself had done, all those years ago—completely blocked out everything she had seen.

After the dishes were washed, Muriel put William in his carrier where she could keep an eye on him, then proceeded to pack all of their things into her two battered suitcases. She hadn’t brought much; she hadn’t even intended to stay here as long as they had, though she knew there would be practical matters to be sorted out. She felt guilty that she hadn’t even contacted a realtor or the lawyers about the sale of the property, but then she mollified herself with the thought that William had come along early, and caring for him had been taking up nearly all of her time. This was true as far as it went, but she still couldn’t completely excuse herself. She sighed, resenting William’s father—and Angel’s, for that matter—for leaving her to carry the entire burden alone.

As she packed, she tried desperately not to think of the real reason for their swift departure. She didn’t want to think of it, of what would happen if what the hag said had been true—that the curse would follow Muriel wherever she went. But that was silly, wasn’t it? The women lived in the pond, and surely their influence couldn’t extend far beyond its parameters, could it? Besides, how would they even know where Muriel had gone?

As she folded her clothes and laid them in the suitcase, she noticed that her hands were trembling. She glanced over at William, who had dozed off in his carrier. His black eyelashes fluttered against his cherub cheeks, and his lips pouted outward from his sweet, fat little face. Muriel couldn’t imagine handing him over to those horrible women with their blue-metallic eyes and their dripping piranha teeth. She felt a wave of revulsion and hatred toward her parents for their cowardice, for giving the first baby William to the hags without even a single look back, for accepting the rewards the women bestowed upon them—guiltily, perhaps, but definitively. Why hadn’t her parents fought to keep their son? Was it simply fear, or were they also blinded by their greed, their desire for a better life? Muriel couldn’t remember despising her parents as much as she did in that moment, as she watched her own son sleeping in the early afternoon sunshine slanting through the windows, his tiny fists curled at his sides, his expression slack and peaceful. Yes, I’m afraid of them too, Muriel thought. Maybe even more afraid of them than my parents were. But they’re not getting William. Not this time.

****

By six that evening, they were all settled in a shabby but fairly clean motel room a few miles out of town, almost seventy miles from the farm they’d left behind. If Angel wondered about the abruptness of their departure, she didn’t mention it; the second she set foot in the motel room, she tossed her bags on the floor, kicked off her shoes, and flopped onto one of the two double beds, clicking on the TV with a remote that was bolted to the bedside table.

Muriel wanted to ask Angel if she remembered what had happened the night before, but she didn’t quite dare. The house and its black pond were still too close; she could feel the swampy, rancid tang of them still clinging to her skin. She could ask her about it once they were far, far away, once the place had been sold and hopefully razed to the ground, the pond drained and filled and forgotten. For a moment Muriel almost laughed, thinking of those fearsome water witches choking under tons of bulldozed earth, but then she envisioned the shifting pearly eyes of the hags, the sight of their algae-coated fingers reaching for the first baby William, the animal sounds of them tearing the child into bloodied scraps of meat. Muriel’s laugh dried up in her throat.

She fed the baby, then put him in his carrier and propped him up next to her in the second double bed. He’d been fidgeting and crying for most of the drive here, but now he seemed calmer, and stared at the flickering television screen with rapt attention for a little while, until his lids slowly closed. Angel likewise dozed off, fully clothed and still lying on her stomach on top of the covers. Muriel carefully leaned over and turned off the light above Angel’s bed, then pushed the off button on the remote. In the ensuing darkness and silence, she could hear the steady, comforting stream of traffic rushing by outside, as well as the rhythmic snores of her two children. Orange shafts of light from the streetlamps ringing the parking lot etched lines of fire across the walls.

Muriel was so tense that she thought she’d never be able to fall asleep, but she must have at some point, for some unknown span of time later, she snapped out of an amorphous nightmare to find the room in total blackness—the streetlights appeared to have gone out, and even the sounds of the traffic outside had utterly ceased.

Struggling to fend off the creeping panic, Muriel groped in the dark on the bed beside her, searching for William’s carrier. Her frantic hands met nothing but air, and with mounting horror she realized that the bed she lay on felt cold and strange, as if it were covered with slime.

She tried to cry out, to call to Angel, but her tongue seemed to have swollen, filling her mouth, and all she could manage was a strangled gasp. She turned over on her stomach, reaching up toward the light switch that she knew must be there, only inches from her fingers, but in the darkness she could get no bearings, and her hands simply waved blindly, futile, finding no solid purchase.

Panic had set in fully now—Muriel could feel it immobilizing her limbs, sending her rational thoughts swirling and screaming into the abyss. She was no longer in the motel room anymore, she didn’t know where she was, and William and Angel were gone. The smell of the cursed pond assaulted her nostrils and she gagged, rolling to escape it and falling, landing with a thump on one elbow, which made an upsetting crunch before sending shards of jagged-glass pain into the space behind her eyes.

Moaning, she reached out with her good arm and grasped something that felt like wet fabric—the bottom of a bedspread? She almost cried with relief. She was still in the motel room after all—maybe there had been a blackout, and she had awakened in the middle of it. She hadn’t been able to find William on the bed next to her, but it was very dark—she’d been half-asleep, disoriented.

Regaining her senses somewhat, Muriel used the bedspread to help haul herself into a sitting position. Her elbow was throbbing, possibly broken, but her relief was like a soothing tide, blotting out the pain almost entirely. It was still so dark that Muriel may as well have been staring at thick black velvet drapes hanging inches from her on all sides; not a speck of light penetrated anywhere, and the smell of the pond was still as heavy as syrup.

Sweating and cursing, Muriel pulled herself to her feet, and almost immediately went sprawling, unable to orient herself in a world with no visual cues. She finally stood upright, shakily, not daring to move a step. “Angel?” she called. Her voice seemed swallowed by the immensity of the darkness, but the sound was still so startling that Muriel’s heart skipped several beats.

“Angel!” Louder this time. The girl was a deep sleeper, Muriel knew that, but she was disturbed when she got no answer. She held her breath and listened hard in the blackness, craning her head toward where she thought Angel’s sleeping form should be, but there was nothing. She may as well have been the last human alive, floating in the vast nothingness of space.

And then, for a moment, she thought she did hear something—a rush, a sigh. Muriel flapped her arms desperately around in the blackness, nearly losing her balance again. The sound could have been her imagination, or it could have been Angel or the baby. Somehow she knew, though, in the depth of her gut, that it was neither of these things. She knew that something was wrong.

As she stood frozen in her dreadful certainty, there was another sound that could have been a laugh, and then a blast of frigid air rushed past her face—air that stank of the pond, a thick green rotten stench that brought the water-hags’ countless army clearly into her mind’s eye. She flailed again, almost falling, her elbow protesting with every movement. And her hands finally met something solid, slamming up against it with such force that she nearly screamed.

It was a wall, and Muriel leaned against it, pressing her palms flat against the textured wallpaper, silently thanking gods she had stopped believing in on that night when her baby brother had been taken away. Moving slowly, her heart thudding like a jackhammer in her chest, she felt her way along the wall until her fingers met what could only be a light switch. Crowing with triumph, she flipped it, then had to close her eyes for a few seconds at the sudden brightness.

Before she opened her eyes, she realized that the blackout theory was obviously incorrect. Her body felt as though it were filled with lead.

She opened her eyes, reluctantly. The wallpaper was just as she remembered, beige and speckled with tiny shards like diamond chips. It looked blurry this close up. Feeling as though she were in a slow-motion nightmare, she turned and surveyed the room.

The bedspreads and carpet, both an undistinguished shade of orangish-tan, were now spattered with an olive green, mucus-like slime, a stinking layer of algae-covered seaweed coating the surfaces like rancid frosting. The smell of stagnant water hung so thickly in the air that Muriel almost thought she could see the droplets.

Both Angel and William had completely disappeared.

****

Muriel could barely see through foggy tears of loss and rage. She drove as fast as she dared, barreling down the near-empty highway under a bowl of stars that seemed to shine down on her with mocking indifference.

She cursed herself with every filthy word she could imagine, banging her hands on the steering wheel until the skin on her palms split, until her fingers were slick with blood. Why hadn’t she believed them when they said they’d find her anywhere? Would it have made any difference if she had? And why had she felt as though she were being so brave when it was really her children’s lives she was toying with?

She had no ready answers to these questions, and it felt as though her whole body might explode in her frustration and self-disgust. What else could she have done? Stayed at the house and just let them take William, like her cowardly parents? She could never have forgiven herself if she did that. But she grimly realized as she drove that perhaps her parents had understood something that she had not—sometimes you simply had no choice.

Even though it had only been seventy miles to the motel, it seemed to take forever to get back to the house. Time seemed to be warping and bending in bizarre ways, making her entire perception skewed and dreamlike. She had no idea what time it was when she finally turned down the dirt road toward the farm. It was still dark, but at this point that didn’t mean anything to her—she remembered how the women could make it seem as though the night would never end.

The car tires crunched noisily as she steered toward the driveway, her body performing the function of driving with no input from her brain at all. She made no attempt to conceal her approach; the witches would be expecting her, of that she was certain. She was just as sure
of the fact that she would get William back, or die in the attempt.

There were no lights on in or around the house, and its rambling white structure hunkered in the darkness like a massive ghostly reptile tensing to spring. Just beyond the house, Muriel could see the edge of the pond, the moonlight peppering its gentle ripples. There was no sound at all except for the car’s engine, and when Muriel turned the key, the silence fell like a shroud.

She took a cursory glance around to see if there was anything that could be used as a weapon, but she quickly abandoned the search and got out of the car. Even if she’d had a machine gun, she doubted it would be much use.

Muriel had left the headlights on to guide her way, and as soon as she was clear of the car, she broke into a run, her sneakers crashing through dead leaves and shallow mud puddles. Her elbow felt huge, swollen inside her sleeve, but she tried to ignore the pain. As she stumbled through the yard, she thought she heard a splash, and the smell of the pond came into her nostrils like an intruder, a nearly solid wall of stench. She fought back her revulsion and pressed forward.

Muriel rounded the corner of the house at full clip, and now the pond in its entirety came into her view, huge and seemingly bottomless, its surface flat as black glass. The weeds and grasses at its perimeter stirred in the light wind, and their whispers soon resolved themselves into what sounded like words. Muriel skidded to a halt. She swore she heard a baby crying, very far away. “William!” she called, and her voice volleyed back to her with a sinister, watery tinge.

They came out of the pond like bubbles of acid, their reptilian heads emerging slowly and in perfect synchrony. Muriel watched, horrified but transfixed, feeling as though she was under a spell. Perhaps she even was. The hags’ dripping faces were now clear of the pond’s surface, and al of their eyes opened in unison, the moonlight catching the orbs so that they appeared to be a sea of fireflies or will-o-the-wisps. Muriel wanted to run away but couldn’t, wanted to plunge into the filthy water and tear the hags to pieces, but couldn’t. She could do nothing but stare as they rose from the pond, their scaly flesh sparkling wet, their long hair hanging in straight, shimmering ropes.

And then Muriel’s gaze focused at the middle of the pond. Her legs collapsed beneath her.

Angel was hovering there, her lithe naked body already beginning to bloat and go pale, her brown eyes turning coppery, glimmering in the dark like cat’s eyes.

William was squalling in her arms, his lungs gurgling with pond water.

Muriel tried to speak, but found she had no voice. Her knees dug into the ground, cold mud seeping through the fibers of her clothes. She reached out with arms that seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.

The woman approached the shore, their feet skimming lightly over the water, and soon stood in a well-organized knot in the reeds at the pond’s edge. Angel was afforded pride of place, directly in the center of the group. The other women backed away a respectful distance, giving her room. She held the baby and stared down at her mother.

Muriel shook her head, her lips flopping in futile rhythm. No, Angel, she wanted to say. How could they have done this to you? You can’t do this, not you. Not my Angel.

The girl seemed to have understood her mother’s thoughts, for her eyes flickered briefly, and she glanced down at William with what appeared to be uncertainty. But when she met Muriel’s gaze again, all semblance of the old Angel had disappeared. “They’ve given me power,” she said, and her voice, though seemingly choked with the filth and gravel and slime that coated the pond and everything in it, was as clear as a dagger sunk deep into Muriel’s heart. “They would have rewarded you. This is all that they asked for. Just this.” Angel held the baby out slightly—he wriggled and whimpered, and the women looked down at him with plain lust and hunger in their twinkling eyes.

“We could have been rich and powerful together,” Angel went on, her face a mask of mock regret. “You could have had other babies. Other girl babies. They only want the males.”

Muriel clenched her fists in the mud, trying to will away the vision of impossible reality before her, trying to convince herself that she was still asleep, back in the motel room or back in her old room in this house or even back in their old apartment in the city—anywhere
but crouching on the banks of the black pond that had stolen her childhood from her.

“I’m one of them now,” Angel said, clasping the baby closer to her chest. “William is going to make it official.”

“No…” Muriel managed to croak past the paralysis that stilled her throat.

The women were getting impatient now, eager to partake of the sacrifice of the living infant flesh seductively wriggling before them like a worm on a hook. From among the seething crowd came another voice, and Muriel recognized it as belonging to the leader, the woman she’d spoken to a million years ago, or maybe it was the night before. “It has come to this,” she said in her rattling frog-song. “It is your last chance. Join us now and you will be with Angel forever. Refuse us, and you will die like William, and like your brother before him.”

With the last scrap of willpower she possessed, Muriel raised her head and met the eyes of the hag with her own. A wordless look passed between them.

“The choice is made,” the leader said.

****

The van’s tires crunched up the dirt driveway, sending dozing bugs and lizards scurrying for cover. It was a hot day, midsummer, and the sun beat down like a punishment. Thin tendrils of steam rose from the surface of the pond behind the house.

A young man climbed down from the driver’s side, his hair shining like polished copper. A moment later he lifted a little girl—who looked no more than five, and shared her father’s new-penny hair color and soft, kindly features—down to the ground, where she immediately darted around to the passenger side to meet her mother, who was stepping out of the van with a wistful smile on her face. She scooped up her daughter and looked at the house’s crumbling but still grand façade. There was love in her face, and hope, glowing there like a beacon.

Muriel raised her head a little more above the surface of the pond. Her long algae hair dripped water into her opalescent eyes, but she barely noticed it.

The family had gone inside the house. Muriel gazed up to the second floor, to the nursery window where both Williams had once spent the whole of their short lives. For a second, she was sure she saw a little girl’s face behind the glass, staring back at her in pale, silent terror.

Muriel smiled and submerged her head again, clacking her sharp piranha teeth.

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.

RedMenaceCoverBlog

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.