Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Hunters Three: An Experimental Story

The Hunters Three
by Alan Loewen

Ryan Laughman steered his Mazda CX-3 past the wrought iron gates and whistled in surprise when he saw the mansion. Trained in strategic thinking, he visually absorbed the scene and filed away his assessments. The building served as a beautiful example of the Gothic Revival, probably from the late-18th century. Built for its aesthetics and not practicality Ryan knew the owner would have money and lots of it. He also noticed two other cars parked near the entrance, a Jeep Renegade and a Lexus CT 200h. The former had to be driven by a man who enjoyed the outdoors, but the latter? Possibly a man or woman who had a practical need for speed.

He parked his car next to the others and ascended the steps. The door opened before he could ring the bell. "Mr. Laughman? Welcome to Dark Oak Manor. May I see your letter of introduction?"

Ryan reached into his front coat pocket and pulled out a letter typed on foolscap. "I believe this is what you wish?"

The butler gave it a cursory glance. "Thank you, sir. Would you kindly follow me? Dr. Lascaris will meet you and our other two guests in his library. Refreshment is available."

Ryan followed the servant into a hall of bright chestnut and mahogany, past a grandfather's clock of impressive antiquity to a set of pocket doors. Sliding them back, Ryan took in a vast library brimming with books. Two men stood at either side of the room pretending to ignore each other as they feigned interest in the various knick-knacks aesthetically littered about. Both men looked up when Ryan entered.

"And what may I get you in the arena of liquid refreshment, sir?" The butler asked. 

"Rum. Straight up. No ice," Ryan said.

As the butler turned to the small bar, Ryan took in the other two guests. The one stood tall and thin, the other man heavy set, but muscular. Ryan smiled.

"You, sir," he said to the thinner of the two, "drive the Jeep Renegade parked outside. I perceive that you are a hunter."

"You have the advantage over me," the man replied. "May I ask how you have deduced that?" 

Ryan pointed to the book in his hand. "You are holding an excellent copy of Theodore Roosevelt's The Wilderness Hunter that you found on the shelves. Probably 1st edition. From all the books available for your perusal here, the topic must be dear to you. You also are drinking Jagermeister, more from tradition than desire as the taste is horrendous and therefore acquired, yet still fancied among hunters. You also sport a tan showing an active outdoor life."

The man smiled. "Bravo, good sir. You are a regular Sherlock Holmes. What can you deduce about our companion?"

Ryan glanced at the man. "A man of disciplined action and we shall leave it at that." Ryan did not mention that the drink the man held remained untouched as if he was prepared for sudden action and wanting to be unhampered by the effects of alcohol. Also, he carried his left arm away from his body just a fraction of an inch more than his right, undoubtedly to make room for a sidearm in a three-piece shoulder holster.

The door opened, and an elderly man entered. "Gentlemen," he said. "Welcome." The man wore a dark blue velvet smoking jacket. His poise spoke of money and his face and voice, though friendly, conveyed an aura of authority. "As you know from your respective letters, I am your host, Dr. Beatus Lascaris." He turned to the butler. "Thank you, Silas. That will be all." With a barely perceptible nod, the butler excused himself from the room.

Dr. Lascaris turned back to his three guests. "As promised in your letters of invitation, you each will receive $5,000 in cash simply for coming and listening to my request. Yet if you stay, may I assure you much, much more in financial gain. Please be seated."

Ryan took a seat in an overstuffed leather chair while the thin, tall guest sat on the couch. The other guest remained standing.

"Have you introduced yourselves to each other? No? Then allow me the honor." He motioned to the man seated at the couch. "Allow me to introduce Mr. Riley Parks. Mr. Parks is best known for his skills in tracking an exotic type of prey and eliminating them from the earth."

Riley raised his glass. "And, retired, good sir. Though I have no idea why you called me here, it is unlikely you will be able to call me back into that particular service."

Lascaris smiled. "I think I can offer you a hunt that will be the crowning achievement of your career,  Mr. Parks, but more on that later."

He gestured toward Ryan. "Mr. Ryan Laughman," he said. "An interesting example of a self-taught strategist and a master of game theory. Presently you make a living for yourself playing game tournaments, board games that require a level of sophistication and professionalism not many other players can claim."

Ryan nodded in agreement.

"And finally, may I introduce Mr. Wesley Lowe, not," he paused in emphasis, "his real name. Let us say that Mr. Lowe recently lent his services to a worldwide cabal and he has since left their employment and now works as a free agent."

"An assassin," Ryan said quietly.

Lowe visibly tensed. "Best to say," he said, his calm voice belying his visible tension, "an assassin of assassins. I rid the world of those who would kill innocents."

"My apologies, sir," Ryan said. "An ethical assassin more akin to a knight of old or, a better symbol, a samurai."

Lowe relaxed. "An apt description," he said. Lowe raised the drink in his hand to gain their host's attention. "Before we continue, a quick question." He turned to Parks who sat on the couch, a neutral expression on his face. "By your introduction, Mr. Parks is a former hunter of exotics. I would like to know what he once hunted."

Riley spoke up. "With all due respect, I do not think you would believe me."

Lowe smiled grimly. "Try me."

Riley smiled and took a sip from his glass. "I hunted werewolves." He locked eyes with his questioner as if daring to challenge him. Lowe merely shrugged and took a seat in another leather armchair.

"So," Ryan said, "Dr. Lascaris you have gathered together an honorable assassin, a hunter of cryptids, and a master of strategy. Pray, what do you wish us to do for you?"

Dr. Lascaris laughed. "You do not, what is the expression? Beat around the bush? I have asked you to come and work together for a common cause that will save the world.

"I want you to kill my wife."


"You play a dangerous game, Lascaris," Lowe said sharply. "I told you I do not hunt innocents and with that statement, you removed yourself from that category." He stood up from his seat. "I can kill you five times over and you would screaming your lungs out in Hell before your body hit the floor."

Lascaris raised his hands slightly. "Maybe I should explain in greater detail. I assure you that my wife is far from innocent. Please be seated and allow me to explain."

Warily, Lowe regained his seat. "Please delight and entertain us," he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. 

"Each of you is here for a logical reason. You, Mr. Lowe, are a trained killer and my wife is a direct threat not just to me, but to the world as a whole. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but soon I will show you proof of my claims.

"I asked Mr. Parks to join us because my wife is not human. Again, give me the gift of time. I can prove my assertions to all of you beyond any doubt." He motioned to Ryan. "And I am particular need of Mr. Laughman because my wife resides in a place that has its unique wards and guardians."

"Not human?" Lowe asked. "You're asking us to take much on faith."

"Well," Dr. Lascaras responded, "Let's ask Mr. Parks." He turned to the hunter. "Sir, do monsters exist?"

Riley paused only for a moment. "Yes," he said. "They exist. I have killed a number."

Lowe snorted in derision. "And since you're retired I suppose you've killed them all?"

Riley shrugged. "I retired for personal reasons."

Lowe pointed his finger at Ryan. "And you? What do you make of all this."

Ryan paused a moment as if gauging his response. "The question of monsters is of no importance to me. I deal with strategy. If I feel that the good doctor has a legitimate stake in the game, I am willing to assist him to reach a satisfactory ending. However, I stress that his claim must be legitimate."

"Then, gentlemen," Lascaris said, "since you demand and deserve proof allow me to provide it. Would you kindly follow me to the basement? And Mr. Lowe, please feel free to determine in what order we shall go down the stairs." He turned and slid the pocket doors open. "The cellarway is to the right."

The three men followed their host into the vestibule to a large oak door. "The house is old," Lascaris said, "and the stairs are steep. We will first walk through the wine cellar into the cellar proper. That is where my proof stands."

He turned to Ryan. "And I understand Mr. Laughman that you are quite the expert in fine wine. I have a 2013 Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva and should you and the others stay for dinner, I would be delighted to open a bottle for you."

"Most generous," was all that Ryan said.

The cellar stairwell was as steep as Lascaris had warned, the ancient brick giving way to cold, damp, rough-cut stone. At the bottom, they walked through the racks of wine bottles to another door. Lascaris flipped on an electric light switch, opened the door, and walked through.

A blast of cold, damp air struck the three men following Lascaris, making them stop in surprise. A small naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling barely illuminated the room beyond. Their host did not pause, but walked to the center of the room. He turned and motioned to the wall on his right. "Here," he said, "is my proof."

Lowe entered first followed by Parks and Laughman. The trio stopped as the far right wall came into view.

The far wall had a hole in it, one that was completely black, ten feet high and large enough for four men to walk abreast rent the far right wall. A cold, damp wind poured from it carrying with it an unpleasant aroma.

"What is this?" Ryan asked.

The doctor looked at the glowing portal, his face unreadable. "It is a portal my wife created," he said calmly. "And it is through that my wife went taking my son and daughter with her."

"Where does it go?" Lowe asked.

Lascaris shrugged. "I believe it goes to the ruins of a basement in Istanbul in Turkey. In history, the city was originally known as Byzantium and later, Constantinople. It is not a random event that my wife fled back there."

"And you want us ..." Riley began to say.

"Yes," Lascaris interrupted. "I want you to enter that portal, search for the horror that called itself my wife for sixteen years and kill it. Also if possible, bring my children back to me. They might still be redeemable."

* * *

Back in the library, Lascaris poured stronger drinks for everybody without asking. 

Lowe was the first to speak. "Now here will be an interesting tale," he said. "You have my attention."

Lascaris sat down his hands clasping his glass of whiskey so tight, his knuckles had turned white. "Here is the short version first. My wife is an efreet. Do you know what that is?"

Ryan spoke up. "They are creatures from Islamic mythology," he said. "Living on the Plane of Fire, they are part of the Jinn, but that is all I know."

Lascaris nodded. "You are correct. Allow me to enlarge your understanding. The Lascaris bloodline can be traced back to Constantinople in the 6th century. During the reign of Justinian the First, my ancestors were tasked to rid the Byzantine Empire of specific creatures that were inimical to the reign of the good emperor. You see, the jinn existed long before the Prophet Muhammad appeared. Not all the Jinn were evil, but the jinn known as efreets hated the human race.

"My forebears were successful in their attempts to purge the efreets from the empire, but the efreets cursed my family line. I am the last of the Lascaris name." He took a gulp of his drink and paused for a moment. "However, the efreets came up with a more creative way to enact their revenge. One of them assumed human form, wooed me, and I married her. Her deceit was so subtle and so clever, I never knew I had a monster under my own roof." He paused again. "She gave me a daughter as well as a son to carry on the name, but little did I know they were monster hybrids. A month ago when she revealed to me what she was, she created the portal you saw below, mocking me, and saying my living with regret served as a far more suitable punishment than outright death. But there are laws in effect that govern the efreets and their interaction with this world. She seeks to circumvent those laws with our children. She hopes to use their hybrid status as a way to bypass the safeguards that have been in existence since the creation of the world and allow a new race of evil to destroy the world and upset an eons-old balance."

He looked up from his glass. "So what say you? Will you help me save the world and perhaps save my children?"

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Strange Case of the Magical, Flaming Bunny

The following story is true, but I feel a need to set the record straight as my friends who know the story have told and retold it, and it has taken on a perverse life of its own. By their telling, the listener will mentally picture the graphic on the left. The truth is far more mundane.

Allow me to explain.

Having always been interested in magic and prestidigitation since the age of six, in 1975 I embarked on a quest to become a professional stage magician. Residing in Philadelphia at the time, I had ample opportunity for shows and eventually covered all of Philly and a small chunk of New Jersey and Deleware. In late 1976, I moved to south-central Pennsylvania and decided to add a rabbit illusion to my expanding repertoire.

Now magicians prefer one of two breeds of rabbits to work with: Polish Miniatures or Netherland Dwarves, two kinds that are quite small, can sit comfortably in a tiny box, and remain quiet and docile. Heading off to a local rabbit breeder, I told the gentleman my need. He nodded sagely and went off to his barn returning with a tiny black bunny with a white bib and one white foot.

I named him Antares and immediately began training him for my show. He turned out to be an amiable soul, and we worked together very well. In my presentations, I would walk on stage with two wooden boxes, show them empty, and when nested together there would be a small puff of smoke and flame, and to the delight of my audience, I would reach inside to produce Antares.

He became a huge hit.

Unfortunately, the rabbit breeder that sold me Antares did not exactly tell me the truth. Instead of a Polish Miniature or a Netherland Dwarf, Antares was a New Zealand Giant, and he began to grow.

And grow and grow.

Eventually, my finale would consist of me carrying one box in my left hand and practically dragging the one containing Antares in my right. Occasionally, an ear or leg might pop out that would somewhat destroy the illusion, but the presentation of a live rabbit from a ball of flame covered many an error.

However, Antares was retired after one show where the illusion did not work as well as it should.

Little did I know on that fateful night, that the interior box where Antares was concealed had sprung its latch and Antares' little furry butt was sticking out of the box. When I ignited the flash powder, I regret to say that his hair momentarily caught on fire and with a scream, he leaped out of the box and began running around the stage being followed by a trail of smoke. And if you never heard a rabbit scream, be grateful. It will set your teeth on edge.

Fortunately, the act of jumping out of the box put the flame out immediately, and it was a matter of moments for me to catch the frightened rabbit, beat the smoke out of his derriere with my hand, and with a grimace I held him up for the audience to see.

There was no applause for me that night.

Antares was retired immediately, and there was no harm done to him. Aside from some burnt fur, there was no damage to his skin, and he continued being the Lapine friend whose company I enjoyed for years. There is no need to report me to PETA or the SPCA.

Today, I call myself retired from performing magic, but it does not take me much persuasion to come out of retirement. So, I continue to do the occasional odd show for family-friendly non-profits, but I no longer work with rabbits or fire.

I have better peace of mind that way.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Magic of The Book House (Dillsburg, Pennsylvania)

At 11 North US Rt. 15 in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, there is a small bookstore that looks inconspicuous on the outside, but like any location steeped in magic, it is bigger on the inside than the outside. Its aisles teem with books and if you are like mea person of substanceit is difficult to walk through the aisles without leaving spilled books in your wake. 

And that is not a complaint. The Book House was invented for browsing and you will spend many hours exploring its depths contemplating treasures you never knew existed. Larry and Joanne Klase have operated The Book House for 43 years and they are quite used to bibliophiles being lost in contemplative wonder as they wander open-mouthed through the store's narrow aisles.

Of all the bookstores I visit The Book House is my favorite and I have modeled my fictional bookstores (Strange Streets and The City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler) on the store's reality:
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 City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler)
I would encourage you to allow yourself a number of hours when you make your pilgrimage to Dillsburg. It's an investment of time you will not regret. However, best to call them first to make sure the store is open. They do have regular hours, but as the proprietors run the store themselves, sometimes life's realities may rarely force them to temporarily change their hours: (717) 432-2720. If you have any questions about their stock or are looking for a certain work, you can email them at ljsbookhouse AT earthlink DOT net.

Tell me this isn't Heaven!

You will spend a lot of time here

A very small sample of their classics 

They have thousands of paperbacks

Just one of their aisles teeming with treasures

Classic SF and fantasy

Comics, pulp fiction, and RPGs

And they have the odd treasure other than books

Need A Reading List for 2019?

I read continuously from all genres and all arenas of nonfiction. In my 64 years I've read some stinkers, but I've also read some that have delighted me no end. Some, like The War of the Worlds and Journey to the Center of the Earth, I have reread dozens of times.

What follows is a list of books that are my favorites and I would encourage you to seek them out and spend time with them yourself. They range from science fiction to fantasy to dark fantasy to horror. Some are in the public domain. Some like Forsythe's Bishop's Landing will be almost impossible to find. I have omitted the books everybody knows such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the first three books in the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series which are also favorites of mine, but almost everybody has read them.

So let me introduce you to some old friends of mine. They are guaranteed to entertain. I have listed them in alphabetical order by the author's last name. Links are for works in the public domain.

  1. Blackwood, Algernon - The Willows (horror)
  2. Forster, E. M. - The Celestial Omnibus (fantasy)
  3. Forsythe, Richard - Bishop's Landing (horror)
  4. Gansky, Alton L. - A Ship Possessed (J. D. Stanton Mystery Series #1) (thriller/horror)
  5. Garner, Alan - Elidor (fantasy)
  6. Garner, Alan - The Moon of Gomrath and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (fantasy)
  7. Hodgson, William Hope - The House on the Borderland (dark fantasy)
  8. Holdstock, Robert - Mythago Wood (The Mythago Cycle) (fantasy)
  9. Keene, Brian - Scratch (horror)
  10. Lewis, C.S. - Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (fantasy)
  11. Lovecraft, H. P. - At The Mountains of Madness (science fiction/horror)
  12. Lovecraft, H. P. - Call of Cthulhu (horror)
  13. Lovecraft, H. P. - The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (fantasy)
  14. Lovecraft, H. P. - The Dunwich Horror (horror)
  15. Machen, Arthur - The Three Impostors (horror)
  16. Merritt, Abraham - The Moon Pool (fantasy)
  17. Rawbone, J.M. - The Bunker (horror)
  18. Sarban - Ringstones (dark fantasy)
  19. Stoddard, James - The High House (fantasy)
  20. Verne, Jules - Journey to the Center of the Earth (science fiction)
  21. Wells, H.G. - The War of the Worlds (science fiction)
  22. Williams, Charles - Descent Into Hell (dark fantasy)
  23. Williams, Charles - The Place of the Lion (fantasy)
  24. Wilson, Michael R. - Huntsman: The Hunted Mage Trilogy (Volume 1) (historical fantasy)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

When Authors Get Their Ego In The Way

I have made a decision to not identify the author or her book in this review because authors of this ilk have fragile egos and in the current literary atmosphere we find ourselves, social justice warriors and their followers are not happy until they have destroyed their opposition. Disagreement is no longer allowed, only scorched earth.
At the last World Fantasy Con in Baltimore I was given an uncorrected proof of a collection of stories from an author that had the following blurbs: 

Wow! This is gonna be some book!
Looks like I'm going to read prose that will make angels weep with jealousy!
So to say I was excited about this author would be an understatement. Let’s be honest. Endorsements, as you’ve just seen, are ones that put the book on a high pedestal. 

(Sigh) Allow me to assure you that King, Koontz, and Straub are in no danger of losing their titles as writers of horror and though the author described may be leaving her footprints on the path of the luminaries listed, unless she decides to make some dramatic literary changes to her style, she will never catch up, let alone reach the end of the trail. 

The collection consists of twelve stories. Some are solidly dark fantasy. Only one or two have anything to do with the genre of horror. Others? … more like a stream of consciousness that has little to do with the actual art of storytelling. The elements of a story are the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution. The first two elements in this collection are always present. The plot at times can be a little muddy as there are times the author is so in love with her prose, she loses the plotline. 

Conflict? Some of the stories have a discernible conflict, especially when she wants to use the story as a bully pulpit (more on that later). 

And resolution? Some of the stories have one. Others just simply end. 

But the worst part of the collection are two stories that, with ham-fisted effect, she lets loose on anybody she disagrees with politically or socially. If you have any other opinion, let me assure you that she sees you as an unredeemable monster incapable of human affection. Her damnation is relentless and as subtle as a crowbar. 

My problem is not with her politics or social observations. My problem is not that the author addresses her issues in her stories. Great literature deals with social ills and political observations, but when you use your story to shame your reader who may disagree with you, one who is a captive audience and has spent money to read your work, the end result is not that you have made your point or changed the reader’s mind. 

The end result is something that I will have only done four times in my sixty-four years on this planet: throw away a book because it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and its purpose is not to entertain but to bring a "message" that is actually an insult. It is nothing more than the author's temper tantrum over life refusing to go her way.

There are issues, viewpoints, and paradigms I very strongly believe in and as an author I address many of them in my own stories, but the difference between me and the aforementioned author is that I have a great sense of respect for my readers and that I am deeply grateful when somebody buys one of my books, even if that reader may be opposed to something that I hold dear or even defines me. I am not so in love with myself that I actually believe I can use my prose to beat home a point and that I have even earned a position where my reader should even bother to listen to me. 

There are so many books in this world. I regret I wasted a few evenings on this one.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A Review of Thom Ryng’s The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow is a fictitious play that featured in the short stories of Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933). In the stories, the play, written by an unknown French author in the late 1800s, drives its readers to despair and madness upon reading the second act.
No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect. (From Chamber’s short story, The Repairer of Reputations)
Any author’s effort to recreate the play would automatically fail. There is no author so talented as to write a play that would drive its reader insane, but I have been impressed with two attempts. James Blish attempted to create the play in his short story, More Light, and Lin Carter followed his lead in his own short story, The King In Yellow: A Tragedy in Verse building on Blish’s attempt.

In 1996, author Thom Ryng released his own interpretation of The King in Yellow and in 1999 produced the play at the Capital Theater in Olympia, Washington.

I would have dearly loved to see this play, especially to see how Ryng adapted some of his stage commands such as the slow melting of the palace colonnades in Act 1 as well as describing the voice of the Phantom of Truth (His voice is insistent and grating, almost buzzing like the sound of insects in the night).

And as a script to be read and enjoyed, Ryng does a good job. Though not as ethereal and mystical as the attempts by Blish and Carter, the appearance of the Stranger and the final appearance of the King in Yellow carry with them a clear sense of otherworldliness and the play communicates clearly the message implied by Robert Chamber though I confess finishing the second act did not drive me into madness and despair. Or at least I do not think it did.

It would be interesting to see how the H. P.Lovecraft Historical Society would interpret Ryng’s play, but it is my opinion it would fail as a film. Possibly an audiobook that left the scenery and cast appearances to the imagination of the listener would be far more effective, but I genuinely believe Ryng’s play would be best suited for anime. The animators would be able to capture all the stage commands visually and Japanese anime has always been effective in portraying atmospheres that are horrific and foreboding.

Until then, we will be content with Ryng’s script and hope for bigger things.

You can purchase The King in Yellow, by Thom Ryng here.

You can read Chambers' series of short stories legally here (they are in the public domain).