Thursday, October 29, 2015

The City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler (The Fourth of a Series to Get You in the Mood for All Hallows)

My final offering for you in honor of All Hallows. Enjoy the tale, and if you liked my stories, please share them with friends on your own social media. Thanks to everybody for their support, encouragement, and allowing me to entertain you.

The City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler

by Alan Loewen

It started with the discovery of a new bookstore.

I’m not talking about one of the modern ones that have all the latest drivel from the major publishing houses; not the ones that publish books so banal you forget them seconds after reading the last page. I refer to the more uncommon type of bookstore that has its books stacked willy-nilly about the place pungent with that delightful aroma of old tomes, those small shops blessed with histories and personalities.

The owner was one of those elderly men so commonly found in those antiquated bookstores, store owners not so much motivated by the bottom line of a financial statement, but by the passion of their first love. Their checkout counters groan under the weight of books stacked without evident order and the proprietors hover over their treasures like dragons guarding ancient hordes.

The owner looked up at me as I entered. He smiled, nodded, and after a quick question as to whether I was looking for something specific, he went immediately back to his own reading.

I had two hours before I had to arrive at my meeting, and for me, a bookstore served as the best diversion one could find.

How can I describe this place? Shakespeare’s sonnets stood next to a beautiful portfolio of Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s Le Carceri. Milton, Lewis, Poe, and Frost shared space with Bunyan, Lovecraft, Burroughs, and Coleridge. Yes, I indeed was in heaven. Around me stood the wisdom of the ages in all the glory of the Written Word.

And as I worked my way toward the back of the store, my eyes fell on stranger and more beautiful books. All twelve volumes of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough shared shelf space with an amazingly hale copy of Michael Ranft’s De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulus; the latter bound in pale leather strangely unpleasant to the touch. The further back I walked, the more exotic the books became with titles speaking to me not only in English, but also in Latin, French, Russian, and a few scripts that I confess I have never seen before.

A Latin copy of The Keys of Solomon fellowshipped with The Lost Book of Enoch. In one dark corner, I found some shards of ancient clay bearing a script of a language unknown to me that left me strangely disquieted with their mystery.

Then I saw a true marvel. Alone, in a stained, aged barrister’s bookcase, a book stood behind a shield of glass leaning against the back of the case with its cover toward me.

Embossed with letters of gold on the rich, dark brown leather that formed its binding, I read The City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler.

“That book is not for sale.”

I jumped from the sudden fright. The shop’s proprietor stood at my shoulder, cautiously observing the book as one would watch a lion caged in a zoo.

“Then,” I said, collecting my composure, “why do you have it on display?”

The old man smiled. “Because it is free.”

My jaw dropped. Just for the sheer elegance and beauty of the book’s manufacture, regardless of the contents, I estimated the book worth far more than I could ever afford.

“Free?” I asked, my voice going up an octave in surprise. “You mean it?”

He nodded, never taking his eyes off the book.

Eagerly, I approached the bookcase but could find no method of opening the glass-framed door. I was about to ask the owner what jest he was playing when I suddenly noticed the reason for my difficulty.

“What is this?” I asked. “The glass door is locked from the inside.”

The owner nodded solemnly. “Yes. The book waits for its reader.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“It’s quite simple. Lovers of reading come to my shop looking for books. This book looks for its reader. Someday, that woman or man will appear, and when it does, the book will accept them.”

I felt my patience grow thin. “Please, sir. I am not a rube. I appreciate the story, but I am a man of reason, and …”

And then I heard an audible click.

I could feel the blood run from my scalp to the soles of my feet. Slowly, I turned. Through the glass, I saw the inside latch standing in its unlocked position.

“Oh,” I heard the old man whisper. “You poor soul.”

I stood as one struck. Then—almost as if my hands had a will of their own—they reached out to lift the glass door and slide it back into position. My fingers wrapped themselves around the tome and pulled it out. Trembling and hugging it to my chest, I turned and left the store and returned to my own home where I read the book from cover to cover without stopping to eat or sleep.

Within its pages, I learned of Sarkomand, the city that everybody desires even if unable to put a name to their desire. I read the thirty-one chapters and discovered what one may find there. I learned of the even more fearsome toll required to walk its ancient streets.

I am leaving now. I am going to be gone for a while, maybe a long, long time and though I have no idea who may find this—indeed, I have no hope at all—if I do not return, please—I beg you—please go to a little-used bookstore that sits on the back streets of the little town just north of my home. Ask the man sitting at his counter about Sarkomand and how you might find it and help a lost traveler return to his own home and hearth.

And if by chance you explore the darker corners of the store and you see a lone book sitting by itself behind the glass of a barrister’s bookcase, and should you hear the click of a latch then for all that you hold dear, turn and flee and never return. For should you reach for the book with trembling fingers and read it, especially the new final, thirty-second chapter that prominently features my own name and what happened to me there in that memory-haunted necropolis, the next edition will undoubtedly be one chapter longer revealing your own dark tale within the streets of Sarkomand.

--The End--

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Child of Sorrow (The Third of a Series to Get You in the Mood for All Hallows)

Releasing this a day early as I will be gone all day to attend to family matters. Child of Sorrow was written back in the mid-1980's and to the best of my knowledge has never been made public. I trust you will enjoy this little pastiche of detective noir mixed with a little of The Bad Seed.

Child of Sorrow

by Alan Loewen
In honor of author Donald Gow

Occasionally I’ll take the three hour drive upstate to visit Deven Giles, sit in his den, and sample coffee and brandy while solving the problems of the world. Though you may think it unusual for a Philadelphia police detective like me and a stage mentalist to be good friends, we complement each other very well.

You see, like me, Giles’s good at what he does. In fact, let me be honest. He’s better.

He has the ear. Let him listen to somebody and he can almost tell you what size boxer shorts they wear. His stage show is talky, but he creates quite an impact. He would have made one great detective.

Anyway, with our similar interests and strange tastes, Giles and I help each other out. Giles helped me crack a case involving a serial killer who liked to send CD’s of his taunts to the police. Giles gave me several valuable clues through nuances in the maniac’s raving and in less than a week, I had an AttaBoy in the local papers.

I promptly returned the favor by saving Giles's life from a particularly nasty admirer with a penchant for multiple personalities and demon worship.

So tonight, after almost a year since my last visit, Giles tempted me to join him in sampling some wine from a private vintner. Though I’m more of a bourbon man, I like Giles's company enough to occasionally drink from lead crystal.

His den, buried deep within his Victorian-style home, brings up mental pictures of a nobler time. His bookshelves cover the walls and the light from the fireplace doesn’t quite illuminate those on way up near the ceiling. Interspersed with the books are skulls, Japanese puzzle boxes, and other bizarre little bric-a-brac.

That's another reason I like Giles. He has a flair for dramatic atmosphere.

The evening went like so many others in the past. Wine, a cigar or two, reminisces about past adventures, and rambling conversation between people who know and like each other so well is the lifeblood of people like Giles and me.

After an hour or so, Giles had me sampling my third glass of something he called Bragge, something, he told me, like the mead the Vikings drank before they went off looting and pillaging.

I need mead like I need another bullet in my leg.

With one ear I was listening to Giles chatting about a new stage routine while I enjoyed touring the literary museum that made up his library. The English, French and German titles ranged from esoteric subjects on alchemy to lycanthropy to mysticism. My gaze stopped at a small, framed picture set at eye-level on one of the shelves.

"Who is this little beauty?” I interrupted. “I've never seen her before."

The camera had captured a little girl that I guessed to be eight to ten years of age. Her hair glistened with black highlights that set off the deep green in her eyes. Dressed in a light blue pinafore, she looked like a fairy heroine from a child’s story book.

Giles smiled. "That's Faith Winters, my goddaughter," he answered. "I took it at her tenth birthday party almost a year ago."

“I didn't know you had a godchild,” I said. “I didn't know bachelors could be a godparent. Who's her father?"

Giles sighed and refilled his glass. "Stephen Winters … an old friend from college days and a stage mentalist by profession. He married right after graduation. One year later Faith was born and Winters’ wife died of complications."

Giles got up from his overstuffed chair and walked over to the picture. He took the frame from me and stared at it for a moment. "I love this little girl as if she was my own daughter," Giles said with a strange, sad smile. "And her own father worshiped her. With a devoted father and godfather I'm surprised she wasn’t spoiled absolutely rotten. Two months ago I got the shock of my life when the police called to say that Faith was in hospital in a coma and Stephen Winter was dead.”

He took a sip of his sweet wine looking at me over the edge of the glass. “Would you like to hear the story?”

I nodded and plopped down into one of the leather chairs. “I’m all ears.”

Giles swirled the glass looking into its amber depths as if he was using the wine as a mirror for his memories. “As I said, two months ago the police called to say that Faith was in some hospital’s I.C.U. and Stephen Winter was dead.”

"Afterwards, when I rushed to the hospital to check on Faith, I heard the story.

“Stephen was found in his office with a pair of scissors buried in his chest. His little girl was on the floor beside him in a deep coma.

"Incredibly, the scissors held only Faith’s fingerprints. The idea that a ten-year-old had murdered her father was unthinkable, but we couldn't discover anything more until Faith woke up.

He sighed and looked up at the ceiling, reliving the memory.

"Faith's coma perplexed the doctors,” he continued. “Normally, a coma victim has a flattened EEG. Faith's EEG showed patterns similar to REM sleep. Her eyes moved rapidly under her eye lids and obviously she was dreaming. Nothing we did could awaken her."

I drained my glass and set it aside. "So you had a little girl stuck in a strange coma. And then?"

"After Stephen’s funeral I received his estate in his will, including guardianship of Faith. Evidently, there were no surviving close relatives.

“I wasn’t surprised to receive guardianship of Faith. That is, after all, the usual role of a godparent. But I felt guilty. Here I was a guardian for a child that I couldn't help.

"Three days later, with no improvement in Faith's condition, I finally got around to opening Stephen’s home safe. Inside were tapes, a log and even a video cassette. What I discovered shocked even me.”

Giles shook his head and replaced the photograph on the shelf. He returned to his overstuffed chair and kept talking, unconsciously swirling the wine in his glass as he spoke.

"It seemed,” he said, “that Stephen was doing research on hypnosis and lucid dreaming using Faith as a subject. Evidently, his interest in mentalism exceeded the entertainment variety.

"Using Faith as a subject was obvious, though disturbing. Children do make the best subjects for hypnotic research. Faith is a bright and imaginative child, all-in-all the perfect hypnotic subject. Stephen thought the research harmless and for several months worked with Faith to achieve a deep hypnotic dream state.

"According to Stephen’s records, a hypnotic dream state is reached when the subject can create and operate in a dream world of their own creation. In the trance the subject cannot determine the difference between reality and dream. The dream world is incredibly complex and taps into the deep subconscious."

I looked at my friend in astonishment. "And Winter did this to his own daughter?"

"Successfully,” he nodded, “and with each session Stephen was reaching more unimaginable accomplishments. After one month he could induce a deep dream state in Faith with a simple phrase.

“Faith's dream world was a simple one that all little girls fantasize about. It was basically talking animals, royalty and castles. Boring stuff to us adults, but mesmerizing and seductive to a little girl."

"And is Faith still trapped in her dream world?" I asked.

"No,” Giles stated firmly. “In the tapes I found the simple procedure to awaken her, but it needed to be specific and stated in her father's voice.” He smiled, but it held a shadow of bitterness. “I came up with an ingenious solution. I used the audio and video tapes to reconstruct a recording of her father's voice so we could awaken her. By this time Faith had been in a constant dream state for three weeks.

"The day we chose to wake her, two nurses, Faith's doctor, and I sat around her bed. I put the tape cassette into the player and turned it on. Once again, Stephen Winter spoke words of command to his daughter.

"It said something like, ‘Faith, you will now waken from your dream. When I count from ten to one you will become wider awake until you are fully alert'.

"As the tape began to count backwards, Faith began to twitch and moan. I was concerned, but her vital signs remained stable. When her father's voice reached number three, she was beginning to scream in insane fury!

"At the number two, it took all of us to hold her in the bed as she called down curses on her father for stealing her from the kingdom. I tell you, John, it made our blood run cold. Even though ten years old, she had the strength of an adult. But the manner in which she spoke! She had a vocabulary far beyond a ten-year old child!

"When we had sedated and calmed her down we discovered piecemeal what happened on the last morning between her and her father. From what we understand, Stephen was concerned over Faith's growing addiction to her dream world and was taking her out of the trance for the final time. Faith, or more correctly, what Faith had become, did not want to leave her fantasy kingdom for everyday humdrum reality. Before she was fully awake, she stopped her father permanently.

He sighed again, drained his glass, and put it on the small table next to him. "Children are not perfect regardless of what doting fathers and godfathers may wish. Faith’s dream world was the product of a child's ego, and what she described was a narcissistic, violent horror where her subjects obeyed her every whim.

"Time in Faith's dream world moved much faster than reality. In her kingdom she had matured to some semblance of adulthood, but adulthood without restraints or morals. Somehow she deduced adult concepts and ideas and expressed knowledge on many subjects unusual for a child. Not every ten-year old girl can speak fluently on politics, animal husbandry, court procedure and pagan religion, but Faith--an adult woman in a child's body--could.

"And where is Faith today?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.

"Since she awoke two weeks ago, she is gradually being introduced back to the real world, though reality is a concept now open for debate."

I waited for a moment staring into the fire, hoping that suddenly Giles would laugh and say what a fine, frightening story he made up. Instead, he merely stared into the fire along with me, his eyes sad and troubled.

Something in the way he told his story wasn't clicking. No matter. Everybody has rights to their secrets. The mantel clock chimed midnight.

"Time to go," I sighed. "Your turn to visit me for once. First Tuesday night in December?"

Giles smiled back at me. "Of course, and it's your turn to furnish the beverage. And please remember that bourbon from the liquor store discount rack gives me heartburn."

"Beggars and detectives can't be choosers,” I said smiling, glad for the break in the atmosphere. “I'll see myself out."

I closed the door to the den behind me and walked to the front door, my footsteps muffled by the heavy carpet. At the front door, I suddenly stopped and snorted in disgust at my forgetfulness. I had left my hat behind in the den.

Quickly returning, I went to gently rap on the door of the den when I heard the voices.

"You need not be concerned," I heard Giles say, his voice muffled through the door. He spoke in a strange, placating tone. "I assure you my friend would not have hurt you."

"One can never be certain," said the other voice, thin and high. "I am familiar with assassins and their ways. There is more to your friend than one can see. Maybe we should consider killing him?"

I shut my eyes and took my hand away from the door.

"No," I heard Giles say firmly. "That is not the way here. There is no one here who wishes you harm."

I heard further movement from within the room.

"I overheard you talking to Doctor Bell on the phone yesterday," said the child's voice. "Tell me. What is a 'sociopath'?"

"Nothing, my dear," came the reply. "It is just a term doctors use. The hour is late; it is time to return upstairs to your bed."

I silently headed for the front door letting my hat remain behind. As my brain whirled with frightening possibilities, I felt sorrow for my old friend. Spoiled children can be murder to raise.


Quatermass vs. the Aliens (The Second of a Series to Get You in the Mood for All Hallows)

Note: The following story is an example of cross-over fan fiction between the cinematic worlds of British Professor Bernard Quatermass and the world of the popular Alien saga starring American actress Sigourney Weaver. This story fits in between The Quatermass Experiment (aka The Creeping Unknown) (1956) and Quatermass II (aka Enemy From Space) (1959) where Quatermass’ predicted invasion becomes a reality. The aliens are of the same ilk as the alien antagonist from the 1979 film, Alien. The characters of Quatermass and the Alien are copyrighted commodities and are used here for entertainment purposes with no financial benefit.

Quatermass vs. the Aliens

Alan Loewen

Ian groaned and stretched, trying to get the muscles in his back to relax. Ilkley Moor stretched out around him as far as he could see, its flat expanse interrupted by rocky outcroppings that broke through the ever-present heather. The sun was setting and the moor was no place for a man to be at night, even with Ian’s years of sheep-herding experience.
Ian shook his head and decided to head back to the little village of Helmdale and grab a pint at the Slug and Lettuce. He would look for the lost sheep tomorrow when daylight would make the moor safe to travel again. With my luck, he thought, the fool creature is stuck in quicksand and I’ll never find it.
"Come along, Sawyer" he said to his dog, but the dog had his back turned toward him, looking intently at the horizon.
"Come now," Ian said gruffly. The thought of a pint or two under his belt was making him impatient. The dog looked at him, whined and went back to staring intently at the horizon.
"What’s the matter, boy?"
The answer came suddenly. The eastern sky lit up with a dull red glow and Ian swore in terror as the glow coalesced into a fireball and streaked toward him. With a roar, the fireball swept over his head while his dog cowered under his feet.
Though World War II had ended twelve years ago, Ian remembered the sights and sounds of the buzzbombs and V-1 rockets the Nazis had used to turn London into rubble. Instinctively, he fell to the ground face-first, practically on top of the howling dog. Behind him he heard a dull thud and the ground shook.
Ignoring the dog, Ian staggered to his feet, stunned to discover he was still in one piece. A half-mile away, he could see the turf of the moor blown outward with the impact of whatever had flown over his head.
Weighing his options, Ian paused for a moment and then walked toward the crater. Sawyer simply turned tail and headed toward home ignoring the impatient calls of his master.
Within ten minutes Ian stood at the lip of the crater. At the bottom, cushioned by the soft turf of the moor, lay a cylindrical object. Ian sucked on his bottom lip as he pondered the problem. This was like nothing he had ever seen or heard of before.
Ian abruptly recalled last year’s fiasco when that one scientist had sent a rocket crashing into the ground near Wimbledon. Quatermass. Yes, that was the man’s name. And the rumors were saying that Quatermass had almost unleashed a horror on the world that made Hitler look like Saint Swithin.
Ian turned on his heel and walked rapidly toward Helmdale. Whatever it was that lay in the pit, it looked like trouble to him which meant somebody else was going to have to deal with it.

* * *

“Professor Quatermass!” yelled Peter Marsh, waving at the figure that turned when he called. Professor Bernard Quatermass, silhouetted against the silver rocket that stood poised on its launch pad, stood dressed in a beige overcoat and Trilby hat.
Quatermass turned back to his contemplation of the rocket, a silent figure among the rush and mumble of humanity that worked around him.
“She’s a beauty, sir,” Marsh said as soon as he was close enough for Quatermass to hear him above the racket. He squinted at the morning sun shining through the clear blue English sky. “I say, you’ve certainly the day for it.”
“There should be a man in that rocket,” Quatermass said, his words clipped in frustrated anger. “I can’t believe there are so many cowards in the government. I had men beating down my doors begging to be on that ship.”
Marsh wisely kept silent. Since last year’s disaster with Quatermass’ first launch and the return of the alien-possessed astronaut Victor Carroon, public opinion toward manned space exploration was definitely negative. Most of the public had seen the destruction of the thing that Carroon had become when it had crawled into Westminster Abbey during a BBS televised special on the building’s reconstruction. Just a month ago, Harold Macmillan was swept into the office of Prime Minister with a promise to keep public safety a higher priority than man’s exploration of the final frontier.
Quatermass had not taken the news well. On October 4th and November 3rd of 1957, just four months after Quatermass’ debacle with his first rocket launch, the Soviet Union had successfully launched two unmanned probes, the latter containing an eleven pound dog. The United Kingdom wanted to share in that glory also, even as the Americans pushed ahead their own space program, yet no matter how eager the Parliament was for a spot in the history books, there were to be no men or women leaving earth’s surface until it was discovered exactly what threat they would face outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
Frustrated, Quatermass looked at the silver rocket balanced delicately on its launching pad. No matter how sophisticated the instrumentation and sensors in the payload, they simply had no capability to creatively deal with situations like a human astronaut.
There was a honk of a car horn and Quatermass and Marsh turned in curiosity. A Daimler Majestic, its pristine chrome covered with mud as it bumped over the rough broken ground, came to a halt. The left-hand driver’s door opened and an overweight man eased his bulk from behind the wheel.
A government man, Marsh thought, you can identify them from a mile away.
The man huffed and puffed, stumbling over the ground. “Are you Professor Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group?” he asked when he caught his breath.
The professor simply gave him a withering look and nodded.
“I’m Denis Bruce with the Department of the Interior,” he said while mopping his forehead with a large white handkerchief. “It seems there’s been a problem and I’ve been sent to fetch you.”
“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it and not going to be the one to take the blame for it,” Quatermass shot back.
Bruce held up his hands in a placating manner. “Please, professor, I know your feelings about the government’s decision about space exploration.”
“Do you?” Quatermass responded coldly.
Bruce ignored the rhetorical question. He looked uncomfortably at Marsh and back at the professor.
“This is Peter Marsh, my senior engineer,” Quatermass said impatiently,“Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of him.”
“Well, sir,” Bruce said in a rush, “it appears that a Soviet satellite has landed in our back yard.”
“What?” Quatermass and Marsh cried out in unison. Bruce motioned for them to be silent and, after furtively looking about, continued in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Hush now,” he said. “This is all top secret. It seems some shepherd found it up on Ilkley Moor. Actually saw the thing fall! But, anyway, we got a call from the owner of a local pub telling us about it and said they were sending some men up to guard it until the government could get up there and get their bloody rocket back!”
Bruce smiled. “But it’s not ours, so it has to be the Soviets. We want you, professor, to come and take it apart for us.”
The professor took all of three seconds to make up his mind. “It will be an intriguing opportunity.
Quatermass turned to his assistant. "Marsh, get Blake and Matthews. And bring along only the necesary equipment, we’ll use the bigger stuff when we get the thing back in our lab.”
“I will get two helicopters here in one hour,” Bruce said. “Two Bristol Sycamores. They’ll get us to the crash site in two hours.”
“There will only be me and three men,” Quatermass huffed.
“No,” Bruce said. “We’re taking soldiers with us. They’ll make better guards than shepherds and farmers.”
“Call the pub back and tell them not to disturb the crash site,” Quatermass said. “I don’t want anybody trying to obtain souvenirs.”
“Well,” Bruce replied. “that will be somewhat difficult. For the last two hours we’ve been unable to ring up anybody in the entire village. The lines must be down.”

* * *
The Bristol Sycamores were noisy and cramped. Holding a total of six people, the leading helicopter carried Quatermass, Marsh, and Blake and Matthews, Quatermass’ two assistant engineers. Completing the crew was the pilot and Major John Kent, the British officer in charge of securing the crash site. Behind them, in the second Bristol, rode five of Major’s men along with its pilot.
The waiting was making the Professor impatient even though the helicopter was cruising over the English countryside at its highest speed. Blake and Matthews simply enjoyed the scenery, but Marsh felt out of sorts. Even though a rocket scientist, he detested flying. It always made him ill. He was content to build them. Just don’t make him fly them when he was done.
“We’ll have to work fast,” Quatermass shouted at him over the roar of the rotors. “When we get there, we’ll only have about three hours of daylight left so we will have to learn as much as we can in a small amount of time.” He smiled; a rare sight on Quatermass’ face.
“We’re lucky it fell on the moor,” he continued, “but it will take some time to get a truck up there to take it back to the laboratory. Several days possibly. We’ll have to practically build a road to it.”
Marsh nodded his understanding, terrified that he would be violently ill if he even attempted to speak. Blake and Matthews suddenly started pointing at something on the ground below them and spoke excitedly amongst themselves. Marsh hazarded a look outside the window and saw the flat expanse of Ilkley Moor under the light of the evening sun.
The moor stretched out like a gray mat of heather and moss interrupted by rocky outcroppings. Following Blake’s finger, Marsh saw the small stone circle known as the Twelve Disciples, a Neolithic survival far older than the followers of Christ. The history of the moor was ancient and the moor was older still.
Major Kent turned in his seat and tried to yell above the sound of the engine.
“Professor,” he yelled, “We’re approaching the crash site.”
Eagerly Quatermass craned his neck in an attempt to see below. As they approached the crater, the large black object inside it was easily visible from the air.
“Professor!” yelled Marsh, but Quatermass interrupted him with a wave of his hand.
“I know what you’re thinking, Marsh,” Quatermass responded. “Whatever that is it looks far too large for a Soviet satellite.”
Major Kent tugged on Quatermass’ sleeve. “I can’t see any of the townspeople” he said. “I was told they would be guarding the satellite until we arrived.”
Quatermass simply shrugged in response.
Within minutes the Bristol Sycamores had made a gentle landing on the moor. In spite of his impatience, Quatermass could do nothing until the Major’s men had first left the second helicopter to make a large perimeter around the crater. When they received the signal that all was secure, Quatermass was the first to reach the crater where he stared down at the object lying below him.
While he waited for the Major and his engineers to join him, the professor made a visual scrutiny of the object. Over thirty feet long and ten feet in diameter, it was the color of newly dug coal. There were no external markings. There was also no sign of heat damage that Quatermass would have expected to see on a satellite that had just made a fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
“What on earth is that?” Marsh asked finally reaching Quatermass’ side.
“I don’t think Earth had anything to do with this, Marsh,” Quatermass said. In spite of the Major’s protests, Quatermass slid down the side of the crater to stand beside the object.
Slowly, the professor walked around the mystery until he found an open portal on the far side of the ship. A circular hole five feet in diameter, Quatermass paused only for a moment until he simply walked in, ignoring the Major’s shout of caution.
“Marsh!” the professor called from inside. “Bring me an electric torch from the helicopter.”
Marsh ran back up the crater’s side while Kent, Blake and Matthews stood outside the portal while Quatermass made a preliminary inspection.
There was enough sunlight coming through the portal that Quatermass could dimly see what was around him. Strangely, the interior of the craft was as featureless as the exterior. However, to his disgust, the professor saw the interior was spotted here and there with copious amounts of some gelatinous slime. Cautious, remembering what they had found aboard the spaceship that had carried the doomed Carroon back to Earth, Quatermass carefully backed out of the craft and ordered Blake to get specimen bottles.
Within fifteen minutes, the professor had several specimen bottles filled with the clear slime. Then they heard yells for the Major.
Running up the edge of the crater, they saw the Major’s men were gesticulating wildly at some point beyond the perimeter. One of them, yelling wildly, ran up to them, pale and almost incoherent in his fear.
“Man, get a hold of yourself!” the Major thundered. The frightened man gulped and assumed a stance of attention.
“Sir,” he gasped. “I saw something outside the perimeter so I thought I’d take a look. It’s … It’s a monster, sir.” The Major glared at him in skeptical anger. “I think it’s dead,” the soldier continued.
“Well, then,” the officer said sarcastically. “Maybe we’d better go have a look at this here dead monster of yours.”
They followed the soldier over the moor to where his comrades stood over some large dark form almost concealed in the heather.
“Mother of God!” the Major said after a moment of shock. “What is it?”
Professor Quatermass sucked on his lower lip while Marsh looked away from the thing in horror. Blake and Matthews kept back without comment.
The professor carefully went to his knees to get a closer look. Whatever it was, the creature was vaguely humanoid. It appeared to have a carapace of some jet black material and Quatermass truly could not tell if he was looking at some madman’s nightmare of the devil or a weird amalgamate of machine and creature.
It would easily have stood some eight feet tall and its elongated head ended in jaws of teeth that gleamed like polished steel. Between its open jaws, a smaller set of jaws appeared. There was copious amount of slime around the double set of mouths answering the professor’s question as to what he had seen in the spacecraft. Six short tubes of unknown purpose jutted out from the creature’s back, three on each side of the spine. It’s six-fingered hands were armed with talons that looked as sharp and deadly as its teeth.
The thing had a gaping wound in its chest and some viscous yellow fluid had sprayed out covering the heather under its body.
“It’s been shot,” Quatermass said.
“Spread out,” he ordered the soldiers. “See what else you can find.” The five soldiers looked to the Major who simply nodded. With guns at ready that fanned out among the heather.
“Marsh,” Quatermass ordered. “Look at this.” Carefully he pointed at the yellow fluid that must have passed for the creature’s blood. Where it had sprayed, it had simply dissolved the heather as well as the igneous rock underneath.
“Incredible,” Marsh said. “Whatever that substance is, it’s eaten its way a good distance into the ground through solid rock.”
“Just make sure you don’t touch the stuff,” Quatermass said. “I’d hate to see what it can do to human flesh. What type of creature is this that has acid for blood?”
One of the soldiers approached them with a double-barreled shotgun in his grasp. “I found this, just over there,” he said. The Major took the gun and broke it open expelling the two spent cartridges. “Slugs,” he said. “That’s probably what killed our monster here.”
He cocked the shotgun closed and looked around. “But where’s the man who fired it?” he asked.
“I think,” Quatermass said as he stood and brushed the dirt from his pants, “that we’d better see the fine people of Helmdale and find out what went on here.”
“Then we had best move quickly,” the Major said. “We only have two hours of daylight left.

* * *
“I’ve radioed headquarters,” Major Kent shouted at Quatermass above the roar of the helicopter’s rotors. “They’re having trouble believing me, but when I told them you were involved, they took my story a little more seriously. We should have military backup here within the hour.”
The Major grinned. “It seems your name has become synonymous with monsters from outer space.” The professor ignored him, looking for the village of Helmdale where they might get answers to their questions.
They had left behind one of the Bristols, Blake, Matthews, and three soldiers to secure and investigate the site. The remaining pilot, Major Kent, Quatermass, Marsh and two soldiers sped over the moor toward the village.
“Do you think there may be more of those creatures, professor?” Marsh asked.
“Most likely,” Quatermass responded. “Postulating its size and the interior space of the craft, there could have been close to a dozen of those creatures in there. There is one thing that bothers me though …” Quatermass was interrupted by the pilot who shouted and pointed below at village of Hemldale.
Helmdale was a typical, picturesque English country village. From the air, the houses that made up the village were loosely clustered around the small store and the pub. To the west stood a fairly large country church that was clearly well past its prime. Incongruously, there were two wrecked cars in the middle of the one narrow street, but there was nobody to be seen. Helmdale appeared to be a ghost town.
The pilot sat the helicopter right outside the village on a small patch of pasture sending a small herd of sheep bawling in terror.
The two soldiers, rifles at ready, were the first to exit followed by the major with his sidearm. Quatermass followed the military men toward the town while Marsh walked by his side. The Major had given the pilot orders to return to the air base for more men. The sound of their helicopter disappeared quickly in the still evening air, leaving the five men standing at the edge of the little village.
Marsh felt uneasy as they entered Helmdale. Quatermass, as usual, was nonplussed or, at least, was master of his own emotions. Quatermass could be so coldly logical at times that he barely seemed to have any normal human reaction beside irritation when he experienced setbacks of his scientific projects.
The houses seemed empty. Nobody responded when the soldiers knocked on the doors. As they approached the wrecked cars they finally saw their first human being. However, the man sitting in the driver’s seat of the Renault Dauphine was beyond any capability to give them a proper greeting to the village of Helmdale.
Quatermass examined the driver quickly and shook his head at the Major’s unasked question. “This man died on impact,” Quatermass explained. “However, look at the other car.”
Quatermass pointed to the skid marks on the left side of the road. “It looks,” he explained, “that the driver of this car swerved to avoid something and drove right into the path of the Renault, killing its driver instantly.”
“But where’s the other driver,” Marsh asked nervously, looking around at the vacant houses.
Quatermass shrugged. “You can see the car doors are all locked and the broken window glass is inside the car. I can conjecture that after the impact, the driver locked his car doors to protect himself, but somebody, or something, broke through the glass to carry him away.”
“Carry him away?” Marsh asked.
“I have to assume so,” Quatermass replied. “There’s no body and no blood.”

* * *
The Slug and Lettuce was a traditional village pub, except this one had its doors blockaded and furniture had been piled up at the windows. There was no response to the calls of the Major.
Apparently, the blockade had not worked. The two soldiers crawled over the rubble where it had been forced. Within moments, they scuttled back outside.
“There’s another one of those dead monsters inside,” the one soldier reported, his voice shaking with horror, “as well as five or six townspeople.
“Sorry, sir,” the other soldier continued, “but, there were no survivors.”
The Major swore and turned his back on the pub to face the village church that stood at the far end of Helmdale. Though evidently run down, its impressive bulk and looming bell tower overshadowed the little community.
Quatermass stood at the Major’s side and gently cleared his throat. “If you discreetly look at the second floor window in the building on your left, I think you’ll see we are being watched.”
The Major stiffened and slowly, nonchalantly looked in the direction Quatermass had mentioned. “Private,” he said softly to the soldier standing next to him. “There’s a man looking at us through the curtain in the window over there. I want you to go to the backside of the house.” The Major motioned the other soldier closer. “You and I are going to enter the house and see if we can clear up this mystery.”
The first soldier strode down the street and turned to go between the two houses. In his peripheral vision, Marsh could see the figure back away from the curtain as the major and the other soldier walked toward the front door. The Major didn’t knock, but tried the door knob. The door was locked. He nodded and the other soldier kicked the door open and, guns drawn, they ran into the first floor.
“Here! Here!” came an angry voice from the second floor. “There’s no call for the likes of you to come bustin’ down my door like I’m a common criminal.”
Quatermass and Marsh walked through the front door which lay in shambles. The Major and the soldier had already bounded up the narrow staircase and Marsh could hear them talking to somebody in loud and angry tones.
The scene in the second floor bedroom would have been ludicrous if they had not already had their fill of strange scenes in Helmdale. A man in his mid-fifties sat in a chair surrounded by two military rifles and a large box of British army hand grenades. His hands were up and he was being covered by the private’s rifle as the major asked the man in chair questions. As Marsh approached, he saw another aspect of the strange scene before him. The man sat because he simply could not stand. Both pants legs were pinned up at the place a normal man would have had knees.
“I lost ‘em at Dunkirk,” the man said proudly, “for queen and country. Not,” he added, “that a veteran’s pension can make up for the loss of ‘em.”
“What happened here?” Quatermass said, approaching the man.
“Monsters!” the man replied. “This morning some of me neighbors went up to the moor to look at some machine that fell out of the sky. Then, about four hours ago, I was having a spot of tea when I heard this crash at me window.
“I looks outside and here’s this big black thing from the devil’s own boudoir dragging John Trencher out of his brand new car that what smashed into poor Joe Gies! The thing tucks John up under its arm like he was wrapped sausage and runs down the street ignoring the people screaming and hollering all around it.
“I opened my window and I hear Ian Malory screaming about the men on the moor being attacked by a pile of these devils. Then I hear more screaming and people running into the Slug and Lettuce. That’s when I gets me souvenirs from the war for comfort.” He proudly pointed at the army rifles and the case of grenades at his feet. I just hid out here while the men fought the bloody things. Then about three hours ago, it gets all quiet and when I finally get the urge to take a good look out the window, I see you gentlemen standing quite pretty out in front of the pub.”
He gave a gapped-tooth smile and rubbed his bristly chin. “By the bye,” he said, “me name’s Jack Treppins.” He slapped his thigh and winked at the Major. “Lost ‘em for queen and country, I did. I even got a medal.”
“Mr. Treppins,” Quatermass asked. “Where did these monsters go.”
Treppins shrugged. “I wasn’t too keen in lookin’ out the window while that fracas was going on. As far as I’m concerned, they’re probably halfway to London by now.”
“Do you have a phone?” Quatermass asked.
Treppins shook his head. “I got a phone, but service isn’t dependable around here. The phone’s been out since this morning.”
“We’ve got to explore the rest of the village,” Quatermass said, turning to the Major. “Making a presumption these things won’t travel at night, I think they’re probably still here somewhere.”
“Well,” Treppins interrupted. “If you’re going to do some exploring, than maybe you better take some of these.” Treppins grabbed two hand grenades and thrust them at the major. “Go ahead,” he said, “they’re good British issue.”
The Major shook his head and took the two grenades. “Let’s go,” he said.

* * *

The other soldier who had been sent to guard the back of the house was no where to be found. They found his rifle laying the ground, but the private seemed to have vanished like most of the townspeople.
“The question here is where did those creatures take the surviving townspeople and your soldier,” Quatermass said to the frantic Major. “There are five bodies in the pub, but surely there were more defenders in there.
“And there’s no body here, so your soldier has got to be somewhere.”
Marsh interrupted. “There’s only one building big enough to hold all those people.” He pointed toward the church.

* * *

The front door of the church opened into the base of the bell tower and had been firmly nailed shut. A small sign had been posted stating the church had been closed due to unsafe conditions. Walking around to the side of the stone building they finally found a small open doorway leading into the dark interior of the church. The private’s hat lay right inside the door on the floor.
The church sanctuary was filled with shadows. The setting sun had barely enough light to send through the dark stained glass windows. A thick layer of dust covered all the woodwork and pews.
“Look,” Quatermass said, kneeling down to get a better look at the floor in the fading light. “Somebody’s been dragging something here. The marks lead off toward the wall.”
Following the signs in the dust, they came to a stairway in the floor that went down into complete darkness.
“The church crypt,” Quatermass said coldly.
The Major stared into the darkness. “We have to find out if there are any survivors down there. My man might still be alive as well as any remaining townspeople.” He holstered his gun and unclipped the two grenades from his belt. “Here”, he said, turning to the other soldier and holding them out to him. “Keep these for me.”
The other soldier reached for them, but a sudden hiss from behind the Major startled them all. Before the Major could turn completely around, two jet black arms grabbed his legs from out of the shadow in the stairway making him fall on his face. The grenades, pins still unpulled, rolled to Quatermass’ feet. The soldier yelled and tried to grab his commanding officer to prevent him from being pulled into the crypt, but over the Major’s prostrate form, an elongated head from nightmare hissed again, revealing gleaming teeth three inches long. It stepped over the Major and grabbed the soldier, falling backward with him into the stairwell. Before the stunned officer could regain his footing, he too was pulled into the darkness.
Quatermass, with an agility born of terror, scooped the grenades off the floor. “Marsh!” he cried, “Run!”
They ran back toward the exit, but were blocked by the horrible silhouette that filled the doorway.
“Professor!” Marsh yelled. “The tower!”
They ran through down the aisle toward the alcove that composed the base of the bell tower. Marsh, running ahead of the professor, slammed into the front door only to be reminded it was firmly nailed shut and too stout to be forced open.
Quatermass looked back from where they had come to see two creatures stalking them over the church pews. He grabbed the door that separated the alcove from the sanctuary and slammed it shut. “Marsh!” he said and pointed at the narrow stairs that led up into the tower. At that moment something hit the sanctuary door making the wood bulge and crack.
Marsh leapt to the stairs and began to climb. Quatermass, stuffing the grenades into the pockets of his overcoat followed closely behind. Pursued by the sounds of cracking wood, they ran up to a landing where the tower narrowed into a square of stone walls measuring five feet by five feet and the stairs ended at a narrow metal ladder.
Moaning with fear, Marsh scurried up the ladder, the professor at his heels. Finally reaching a trap door, Marsh shoved it open and pushed himself out into the bell room of the tower. There was a final crack as they heard the door below them finally give way. Quickly, Marsh helped the professor up into the open and slammed the trap door shut behind them.
The small room at the top of the bell tower had large open spaces offering an expansive view of the surrounding countryside and Ilkley Moor. A large cast iron bell weighing at least three tons, took up most of the room’s space. Looking down, Marsh saw the exterior walls of the tower were composed of slick stone that offered not even a toehold for escape. They were trapped.
Though breathing heavily from the exertion of the climb, Quatermass struggled to his feet and, much to Marsh’s horror, opened the trap door to look down. Quickly, he slammed the lid down again. “They’re coming up,” he said. “I only see two.” He stumbled against the bell. “Wait a minute,” he said thoughtfully to himself, looking at the bell with great interest.
“Marsh!” he suddenly ordered. “Get over to the far edge of the tower and flatten yourself against the floor.”
“What are you planning on doing?” Marsh asked.
Quatermass pulled a grenade out of his pocket. “I plan on getting us out of here alive.”
Marsh, unable to comprehend what the professor was planning, lay on the floor while Quatermass went to the far side of the bell. Taking only one precious moment to access the situation, Quatermass pulled the pin and jammed the grenade between the bell and the wood bracing which held it suspended. As the professor let go of the grenade, its handle fell away, but still remained firmly jammed in place.
Quatermass practically dove on top of Marsh, and as they saw the trap door on the far side burst open and metallic, black arms grab for purchase, the bell tower was rocked by the explosion of the grenade. Shrapnel sprayed outward, but away from the two men, protected by the bell and its bracing. The wood that held the bell, unable to take the strain of the explosion, cracked and bell suddenly fell to the floor and through it.
Hanging on to the shuddering tower as the bell fell thirty feet to the floor below, Marsh understood the professor’s plan. As it fell, the bell took the creatures with it, scraping them off the side of the bell tower’s interior as easy as a wiper removes rain from a windshield.

* * *

Marsh and Quatermass spent an uncomfortable thirty minutes clinging to the summit of the shattered bell tower. Afterwards, they sat in a military trailer while sipping on steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
“Most of the people had already gotten away,” an army officer was telling them. “having fled into the surrounding countryside. Sadly, we found far too many of them in the church crypt, but I can’t go any further as that information has been classified.”
Quatermass simply sighed and stirred his hot chocolate.
“However, I can tell you that it seems there were only four of those things. The townspeople killed one on the moor and another in defense of the pub. Your ingenious method of using the bell took out the other two. It seems we’ve seen the last of them.”
Quatermass shrugged. “I’m afraid that’s not true,” he replied. The officer and Marsh blinked at him owlishly.
“What do you mean, sir?” Marsh asked.
“That craft we saw on the moor was not equipped for space flight,” the professor said, looking into his cup. “It was meant for entry into our atmosphere only. And it was designed for a one-way trip.”
Marsh swallowed hard.
“Our examination of the alien bodies will tell us much, but not what I firmly believe is the truth. Whatever sent those creatures to us, believed them to be expendable. I believe those creatures were sent here to test us.” Quatermass drained the last of his cup and stood up.
“Let’s go, Marsh. I think we may have a full-scale invasion to prepare for.”

~ The End ~

Monday, October 26, 2015

Nightmare (The First of a Series to Get You in the Mood for All Hallows)

I think I am dreaming. Please. Let me be dreaming.

Intolerable, all-encompassing pain forced me immediately awake. An endless blasted landscape under a murky yellow sky stretched all the way to the horizon. Unable to move my head or even my eyes, I saw through my peripheral vision that my arms had been lashed to a thick wooden board and my feet dangled inches above the rotted soil. I hung motionless in that hellish landscape, unable to do anything but stare straight ahead.

No! Not this! I’ve been crucified!

The pain became even more intense and I felt within my ragged clothes things crawling around and inside my body. Something small and black scampered across my face momentarily blocking my vision.

My head suddenly flopped down like a marionette with its strings cut. Looking past my undulating ragged and straw-covered clothing, I saw thousands of mice pouring out of my pants legs to drop to the ground below, spreading out over the landscape like a black plague.

Actual crucifixion would have been a mercy.

I am a scarecrow and the mice that inhabit my body left it to feed.

They are returning

Please. Let me be dreaming.

Then I Must Be A Fool...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Where I Recommend Classic Literature to My Sons

I came across this letter I wrote to my two oldest sons back in January, 2010. They were required to read classic literature for school, but found most recommendations boring. I thought I'd help.

Dear Brendan and Christopher:

Okay. Here's the skinny. You guys have to read a lot of books and so as a guy who has been where you are, let me recommend the good classics:

First, here are the classics with a lot of action:
  • Beowulf  The hero rips Grendel’s arm off with his bare hands. That's cool. He slays a dragon. That's even cooler.
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer. Two separate books. LOTS of monsters. Treachery. Mass battles. Revenge.
  • H. G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The War of the Worlds.
  • Jules Verne wrote a pile of stuff, almost all of it good. I cannot tell you how many times I have read Journey to the Center of the Earth.
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville is heady stuff, but still good. Dark and moody, but entertaining. Captain Ahab loses a leg to Moby Dick. He tries to get it back. Not a smooth move.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped.
  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker (and it is awesome). You can try reading The Lair of the White Worm, but Stoker was actually screaming insane at the time and it shows. I mean, come on ... wereworms?
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan and the Pellucidar and Barsoom series.
  • Have you guys read Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huck Finn yet?
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. Most of the world dies from a plague of super measles. Lots of stuff going on. Very depressing. Great for ruining a good mood, but great story.
  • Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Very short. Very dark. I have read it countless times.
  • Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Rabbits. They are not cute.
  • Ayn Rand wrote some interesting books. Anthem would be the one you would like the most as it is very, very short, but rather mild in the action department. It would probably take you an hour to read it, if that. However, I'm a huge fan of The Fountainhead but it's not an action tale as much as a philosophical novel.
  • The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. Christopher would especially like the sarcastic humor.
  • The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson is about a man in a remote part of 19th century Ireland trying to protect his house from subterranean monsters only to discover it is the house itself that is his enemy. Yes, it is a classic. Genuinely frightening.
  • The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James are two of the most intelligent ghost stories I have ever read. They are both classics and both very short and very dark.
  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath are as close to Dungeons and Dragons as you are going to get in the arena of classical literature. He also wrote Elidor. Be aware that Garner is not a happy man and it shows in his work. There are lots of monsters and lots of suspense and action, and though the good guys win, the cost they pay in emotional scarring makes you want to redefine the word 'win.'
  • The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H. P. Lovecraft is high fantasy. He meant to rewrite it before he died, but even in its rough form, it's a darn good book. You'll learn real quick that Lovecraft liked cats. I have read this about five times.
  • My Side of the Mountain is a 1959 book by Jean Craighead George and is about a kid who runs away from home in New York and becomes sorta like a mountain man. I liked this book growing up. Don't get any ideas.
  • The Peralandra Trilogy, by C. S. Lewis was his try at science fiction. He did a good job literary-wise, but his science was awful. Nonetheless, they are good books, each one being very different in theme and location.
  • Any book by Ray Bradbury. The guy couldn't write a bad book if he tried.
  • The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. Some people like it, some don't. I liked it.
  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Some boys find themselves stranded on a deserted island and decide to be boys. High body count.
  • Shakespeare is not an easy read, but Hamlet and Macbeth are awesome plays. Ghosts, witches, duels ... great stuff.
  • H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines.
  • The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.  I read it once a year.
  • Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. Also, The Great Divorce is good.
  • Confessions, by Saint Augustine.
  • The James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small. I think Mom has them all. It's about an English veterinarian. Stories made me both laugh and cry.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. This was the first self-help book I ever read and it changed my life. Serious.
  • Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer. A true story about a pile of people who decide to climb Mt. Everest. A lot of them die. Horribly. Real nightmare fuel here.
  • A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe. Though fictional, it is a story about a man who endured the Great Plague when it struck London which is not fictional.
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Books not to read:
  • Any book where the author has a Russian last name. Unless you're feeling suicidal.
  • Any book by a Victorian woman except Wuthering Heights which is really quite good if you like dark, passionate stories about revenge and every character is barking mad.
  • Any book recommended by a teacher of literature.
This should keep you guys going for a long time. Enjoy.