Trembling With Fear 07/26/20
And lo, the day came to pass and the summer holidays began. School was finally out …
All that time! Wonderful time so far spent reading a number of YA/teen books brought home – in order to be able to recommend when I go back to work – and adding to my own more adult pile with some more purchases, the latest being The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, Ramsey Campbell’s Hungry Moon and T C Parkin’s Salt Blood. The latter purchase happening after not just retweeting a Ginger Nuts of Horror review post – but reading it. I am so easily sucked in!
I would also like to give a few folks on twitter a shout out here in thanks for making life considerably more bearable over the past months. In the writing world we are all part of networks, those contacts you think will help you widen your audience. But it’s a mistake to regard them in such a clinical fashion. These contacts have become friends, they have shared poetry and humour and strange recipes. They have become family. And in this two-way process, which is what it should be, I have discovered talents which need to be shared on a bigger platform.
In a group which feels like a bizarre version of The Waltons, is the head honcho, writer and reviewer S.D. Vassallo. Daily checking in on this family, he has bound us all together in a unique way. Find out more about him and read a great free story, at https://sdvassallo.com/. Other amazing writers/reviewers/poets/artists and downright good people are Cindy O’Quinn, Kim Nappi, Steve Gomzi, Tracy Robinson, Brad Proctor, Laurie Bark of LOHF, Toni, also LOHF, Ellen of Imaginarium, Wayne Fenlon, and Brian amongst many others. In amongst these is also Max Stark, I’ve seen some amazing photography work of his, and I would love others to view and respond to it. Check out these here and here, then go look for some more. And if you recognise the face in the latter portrait, then I would also urge you to follow up on the man himself. Shane Douglas Keene is a natural poet, his words speak to the soul and deserve a wider audience.
This is the good side of our industry. Now to a more worrying aspect. Occasionally we hear of reports where publishers have not been paying authors or fulfilling customer orders, etc. We aren’t always aware of issues in the industry here at Horror Tree. I know Stuart does not want to give a platform to those who treat their authors or customers in such a way. If you are having issues with a press/publisher and see them on our pages and think we should be alerted, please give us a shout. I’m always open to DMs on twitter, Stuart and Horror Tree can also be found there and you can contact Stuart directly here as well. We’re also over on Facebook. Never feel isolated if you have a problem, get in touch and if we can’t help directly we can try and find someone who can. As I said above, this industry is not just a business, it is a family.
Still with publishing, but on the more positive side. TWF contributor, Mark Anthony Smith would like to give a shout out to Red Cape Publishing’s latest The Place Between Worlds & Other Stories by P.J. Blakey-Norris, available here. I know Mark has achieved success with this company and this is his way of giving back. If you’ve enjoyed working with an indie press and you’d like to recommend them and sing their praises, drop us a line. And don’t forget our Pandemic Book Launch Roundup on Fridays either.
And finally before we get to TWF, here’s another personal shoutout, this time to indie writer Keith Anthony Baird who pulled the whole Diabolica Britannica charity project together. His novelette, Snake Charmer Blues, is the tale of a small town murderer with big plans and will be available on Amazon soon.
Very Short Story time! Are you sitting comfortably, good. We have two responding to the challenge set by Robert Lupton last week. First up, Alyson Faye:
‘Black dress. Red lipstick. Mani/pedi. Open casket.’
And from Steven Holding, we have Switchblade:
‘Beautiful girl. He follows. Dark alley. They enter. Sharp knife. Short scream. She leaves.’
(Note: I’m now thinking about gathering these together and putting them to a vote at the end of the year!)
The main event at Trembling With Fear opens with Thy Serpent by Will H. Blackwell, Jnr is a delight in imagery and tone. I remember when it was submitted, the author queried if I was comfortable with his use of punctuation as he had played with it to a certain extent to create a specific effect. I was more than happy to leave it in as he put it as it certainly does add to the tone of voice, gives a clear and more direct indication of the voice of the main character. The ritual of snake-handling is one that I have long found fascinating and here, it is used to show not faith, but manipulation. How trickery can be employed to gull people but then – with that unfortunate incident -does that hint at something truly more supernatural, and somewhat displeased?!
Da’s Sad by Steven Holding is a mini pause for reflection and illustrates how fine the line can be between something horrific happening and the decision to walk away – this time. Makes you wonder how close to danger we have been sometimes.
The King’s Candle by Mike Rader is a ghostly little historical horror. Deft use of one name and setting and it tells you everything.
And as a bonus this week(!) you get my drabble, Cocktail Hour. A vampire, a werewolf and a zombie walk into a bar …
Enjoy the stories and send us yours!
A quick anthology update. The artwork is in! I’m actually on vacation this week so while I’m trying to have everything uploaded in my free time, most of this week is being spent with the family so it will likely be one more before proofs are ordered. We’ll see! (I’m updating this on Wednesday so WHO KNOWS what may have happened since this was written.)
Today’s featured short story also has artwork that was delivered directly from author Will Blackwell himself. Usually, we try to grab pictures we can fully snag the rights to though this one was photographed by Blackwell so I felt we could work around our standard rule.
In publishing news, this week we sadly saw Gehenna & Hinnom officially close their doors. However, with bad news come good as well as Apex Magazine has relaunched their Kickstarter with the fantastic news that they’d be returning!
I hope you’re all having a great weekend!
Thy Serpent by Will H. Blackwell, Jr.
I went on a dare from fellow biology-graduate-students to experience, first-hand, the snake-handling ‘magic’ taking place in the old wood-frame church—standing alone—so far out in the woods no-one was sure of its formal address. It was here the ‘holy-ghost folk’ held their, allegedly religion-based, serpent-handling rituals.
I think I was ‘chosen’ by my ‘colleagues’ because, in addition to studying snakes, I was considered [given a relatively ‘indoctrinated’ upbringing] to also know something about ‘The Good-Book.’
I entered, hesitantly, through the rusty-hinged pine-door to a limited corridor of pews, creaking oak-floors, and rows of seemingly hollow eyes—that followed my every movement down the aisle. ‘Outsiders’ were surely a rarity here.
The electronic Wurlitzer was playing (sans organist) a prelude of hymns—clanking like some honkytonk-piano in an old-west-movie-saloon—complete with scale-runs and trills.
Old-West? No! This was deepest ‘Appalachia’—a mountain-valley where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina adjoin—an area where some of the ‘old ways’ still held sway (including the phenomenon of ‘shape-note singing’ in backwoods churches, a practice brought over from England in the Eighteenth Century to assist with singing-pitch in congregations unskilled at reading regularly-scored music).
In any case, I was here for the ‘serpents,’ not the ‘shape-notes.’ So, I took a seat up-front, where I assumed the ‘herpetological theater’ [my name for it] of the main-service would take place.
Soon, deacons emerged from the chancery, bearing the cages of snakes. After a suspenseful minute or two, ‘The Right Reverend’ made his solemn, commanding entrance.
The presence of the encaged ‘serpents’—these ‘low, vile, born-of-the-devil’ creatures (obviously, intended objects of scorn!)—was supplemented by hissing sounds, emanating from speakers probably connected (like the Wurlitzer) to a generator out-back. The accompanying noises were very likely, I deduced, housecat-hisses (prerecorded—perhaps while someone pulled their unfortunate tails).
The snakes were local timber-rattlers and copperheads—a few of their harmless brethren added in for good measure, and poked measuredly with rods to get them ‘riled’ and the congregation ‘snake-entranced.’ One smallish garden-snake was released, for effect—a few ladies gasping, the gentlemen acting brave—then retrieved, before significant disquietude set-in.
I noticed amid sporadic gesturing of male-congregants that a few had atrophied hands, or missing fingers. I’m wondering, coal-mining accidents?—or maybe, snakebites from former ‘handling?’
The copperheads were noted for willingness to strike. The rattlesnakes, potentially more deadly, were less aggressive—remaining in cage-corners, coiled, rattles lifted in warning.
As known by some, the acutely poisonous among these snakes were ‘milked’ prior to the church-service. It was rumored that church-income (congregants being poor) was largely from sale of snake-venom, to undisclosed laboratories producing expensive antivenom—a potentially ‘valuable service’ (no pun intended). The small amount of venom still ‘in the snakes,’ by the time the ‘religious-rituals’ began, was unlikely to cause much harm—and anyway, The Reverend and his handlers had, doubtless, built up immunity to small ‘injections.’
Reverend and his deacons were grimly, uniformly dressed—plain, black attire—looking much like undertakers—no accident, this ‘effect,’ I reasoned.
Reverend, his wife now beside him, started the service by holding out his hands to the willingly-captive audience. His hands bore scars—probably from handling-mishaps. A snakebite can be ‘wicked,’ even without venom (as I know from study of non-venomous river-snakes).
The arms of the ‘charmed’ congregants were extended to heaven in support and supplication—the crowd moving forward. Whatever money given, was now tossed inside a circle-of-candles surrounding the altar; it was believed, the more ‘tithed’ (rarely amounting to a lot), the greater the protection of the pastoral family and his handlers from ‘the serpents.’
However, there was assumed to be a ‘higher protection’ in play here as well. Quoting loosely from ‘The-Book-of-Mark,’ Reverend proclaimed, in his short but intense, preliminary sermon, “If one is truly filled with the Holy Spirit, one can drink poison, or pick up serpents, without danger, or even fear of harm!”
At this point, Reverend drank a vial of reddish-purple fluid (looking toxic, but probably just cayenne-pepper, with food-coloring, mixed in water). For a moment, his face reddened and he began to sweat—quickly, though, recovering! The crowd “ooo…ed” in amazement.
He then reached in a cage and retrieved a docile, old rattler [a ‘pet,’ I assumed], and lifted it before the rapt audience—placing it back in the cage, so as not to disturb any ill-tempered copperhead.
He next brought forth his infant son, lowering him gingerly into a cage, professing “the purity of young children”—that “snakes would leave innocents unharmed.” The child was almost blue with cold; I’m thinking, they must have ‘chilled him down’ prior to the service. Snakes will typically not strike a cold object, if gently brought in proximity. The crowd “ahh…ed” approval.
“All here present are protected by their belief, be it strong enough!” Reverend confidently asserted—this, “promised by word from God himself!”
Paraphrasing more scripture [from The-Book-of-Numbers—I think!], he continued: “The hand of The Lord touches the serpent. By his hand, the harm of serpents is removed from us; they are rendered powerless!”
Two of the ‘believers’ (pre-selected, no doubt) were then allowed to handle another elderly rattler—probably defanged, and quite harmless.
The service proceeded triumphantly, The Reverend gaining (perhaps too much) confidence for the ensuing ‘Fire-and-Damnation’ part of the sermon: “Ye must continue to follow the narrow and righteous path, and never bear false-witness to any, or to God [I’m thinking, Hmmmm!]. Let your life be held-straight, as the mighty staff of God—and never broken—like this!”—He slammed one of the ‘snake-poking rods’ to the floor, breaking it in two! (The crowd “ooo…ed” again). I’m wondering, is this like Aaron (in Exodus) doing a ‘throw-down’ in front of the Pharaoh?
Reverend continued: “If your ‘being’—your precious soul, bequeathed by God—be thus broken, a horned-viper (taking liberty with a passage from ‘Isaiah’) will take root in your life; its fruit will be a fiery, flying serpent that will ultimately consume you!”
Here, The Reverend seemingly over-reached himself! One segment of the broken-rod appeared to develop a triangular head—pointed ‘horns’ forming above two, slit-like ‘snake-eyes.’ The body of this rod-segment suddenly became swollen, forming spirals-of-scales—the posterior end remaining as a short, but now labile, tail. The ‘creature’ was taking on the visage of an Arabian horned-viper [at least, based on what I know about snakes] and began undulant, arguably ‘devilish,’ movements. The crowd knew this was not part of the ‘script,’ a few screaming in dismay—some mumbling, unintelligibly—perhaps a version of ‘speaking-in-tongues.’
The viper-snake, all-at-once, elongated—lifting off the floor in a tall ‘S-shape’—making shockingly loud hisses, then strange, growling/shrieking sounds (Certain snakes can, in fact, emit low ‘growls,’ but nothing like what I was hearing). The area just below its head quickly expanded into a hood-like, almost ‘wing-like,’ structure—the snake now morphing into something resembling an enormous king-cobra! The crowd became authentically frantic, in the presence of this ‘demon serpent,’ possibly loosed upon them by the wrath of God!
The giant, surreal ‘snake’ began rotating, like an un-manned, high-pressured garden-hose—swinging wildly around—spitting/spraying ‘venom’ toward the crowd—but more dangerously, into the candle-flames, explosively setting fire to the altar, and soon to the entire interior of the church!
The situation went quickly beyond control!
Reverend and his entourage ran out the back—knocking cages over—frightened pet-snakes crawling after them. The parishioners (and myself) fled, chaotically, out the front-door (knocking it off its hinges); some sustained minor injuries (I got a ‘head-lump’ from the careless swing of an elbow).
The ‘tinderbox’ church—now in total, ‘blasphemous,’ venom-accelerant-aided conflagration—burned rapidly to the ground, while the congregants stood outside, at a safe distance, watching in disbelief. Prayers and cries for mercy could be heard—one gentleman exhorting that, ‘he knew he deserved the vengeance of God’s vicious serpent!’—not actually, though, confessing the source of his guilt.
The crowd finally dispersed in despair and disarray, over the awful, inexplicable, things they had witnessed. Whether their faith was forever shaken by the experience—or whether it made them more fervent in their belief—I really don’t know. I never saw any of them again.
The church—though some towns-people said it was well-insured—was never rebuilt. The practice of ‘the snake-ritual’—not long after the all-consuming blaze—was completely, and most sternly, outlawed!—at least in this region of Appalachia.
I will never understand everything that happened that day—which parts were orchestrated, like some insane ‘magic-show!’—and which may have been, unexpectedly, quite possibly, supernatural!
In any case, manifestly shaken and awed, I found myself—from that point on—simply grateful to still be, essentially, as I was before the bizarre and terrifying ‘service!’
I never again undertook any such whimsical, risky ‘pilgrimage’—the singularly peculiar ‘biology scripture lesson’ [whatever it may have been!], of that horrific event, permanently seared into memory!
Will H. Blackwell, Jr.
Will H. Blackwell, Jr. is a retired professor of botany (Miami University, Ohio), presently living in Alabama where he continues research on aquatic fungi. His fiction has appeared in: Belle Rêve Literary Journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Disturbed Digest, The Drabble, FrostFire Worlds, Outposts of Beyond, Raven Cage Zine, Scifaikuest, Shelter of Daylight, Trembling with Fear, and 365 Tomorrows.
As always, it amazes him just how little seems to stand in-between them: a single sheet of thin fragile glass.
Each day, at the same moment, he gazes through the window, silently observing the activity unfolding upon the other side. A happy family; mother, son, father, daughter, full of laughter and joy. Living the life that he wishes to have.
Upon these occasions, he and the man stand almost nose to nose, his white teeth gleaming, grinning as their eyes meet.
For a fraction of a second, he thinks about killing them all.
Then, upon reflection, changes his mind again.
Steven Holding lives with his family in the United Kingdom. His stories have appeared both online and in print. Most recently his work has featured in the collections ‘TREMBLING WITH FEAR YEAR TWO’, ‘SPLASH OF INK’, and the anthologies ‘MONSTERS’ and ‘BEYOND’ from Black Hare Press. He is currently working upon further short fiction and a novel. You can follow his work at www.stevenholding.co.uk
The king’s candle
The breeze swished the curtain again. The flame flickered at my bedside. Damning my servants, I rose to shut the window, glanced at the candle, and froze.
Eyes watched me from the flame. Eyes boring into my soul. The smell of death in the curling smoke.
The tongue of flame became a tongue, flecked with moisture. It lashed out, touched my icy skin.
“Why are you so cold, Your Majesty?” a woman whispered.
I heard a voice that wasn’t mine. “Who are you?” I hauled on the sash beside me. Nobody came.
“Henry, your wives yearn for you in Hell.”
Mike Rader is a pseudonym used by Australian author and poet James Aitchison. As J J Munro and Mike Rader, Aitchison writes horror and noir crime. As James Lee, he writes Asia’s biggest selling horror series for middle readers — Mr Midnight — which has sold over three million copies. His work can be seen at www.flameoftheforest.com
A vampire, a werewolf and a zombie staggered into a bar. It was Cocktail Hour. The barman poured their usual drinks a Vampire, a Werewolf and a Zombie.
The vampire drank the zombie, the werewolf indulged in the vampire and the zombie downed the werewolf.
“Here you go, gents,” said the barman, turning round and placing their drinks on the counter, only to be confronted by their mangled bodies. Every week it was the same.
“Why not try something new?” he asked. “How about a Mummy?”
The pub door opened and a bandaged figure shambled in.
The barman groaned.
Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative prose and poetry and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. The latest is the charity anthology, Diabolica Britannica alongside Tim Lebbon, Adam Nevill and with a foreword by Ramsey Campbell – please consider purchasing to support NHS Charities Together.
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Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative prose and poetry and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her longer work includes the folk horror novels, The Five Turns of the Wheel and Reborn, and the novellas, Bottled and Paused. Her novel, The Woodcutter, is due for release via Brigids Gate Press in 2023. Her dark poetry has been published in her collections Lilith Rising (co-authored with Shane Douglas Keene), Foundlings (co-authored with Cindy O’Quinn) and Metallurgy, as well as the HWA Poetry Showcase Volumes VI, VII, VIII, and IX and Black Spot Books Under Her Skin. She can be found supporting indie authors at HorrorTree.com via the weekly Indie Bookshelf Releases. She is an active member of the HWA and can be found at https://stephanieellis.org, on Twitter at @el_stevie, Instagram stephanieellis7963 and also somewhere on Facebook.