Trembling With Fear 12/18/2022
Hello, children of the dark. The end of the year is fast closing in, and I hope it finds you in a fine state. For those who celebrate Christmas, may your tree be bright and your homes merry next weekend.
Next week – next Sunday, in fact, our regular Trembling With Fear day – is Christmas Day, so our humble publication will defer to the much bigger beast of the Christmas Special for the final issue of the year. Yes, final issue of the year. I know I keep saying it, but WTF 2022! Where did you go?
It’s that time of year when many reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going, and for my part I am leaving 2022 in somewhat of a better state than I entered it. This here publication is a big reason behind that; I feel more and more like I’ve found my tribe, my community, you children of the dark. I love reading what your imaginations bring forth, and I find it really inspiring, so thank YOU.
As for what 2023 holds for me, I have one very concrete plan: I’ll be in Derby, England, in mid-February for the UK Ghost Story Festival. I’ll run a couple of workshops – one on writing spooky drabbles, and one on giving and receiving feedback on writing – and I might even get to slip into the interviewer’s chair for some of the main sessions. It’s promising to be a HUGE event – more than 50 individual things over four days, encompassing workshops, interviews with writers (Michelle Paver! Laura Purcell! Emma Stonex! CJ Cooke! Dan Schreiber! Stephen Volk!), and theatre performances – so if you’re anywhere near the area, I’d love to see you. And if you’re on the other side of the pond, there are a couple of virtual events happening to kick it all off, including a discussion of Asian ghosts to launch the Unquiet Spirits essay collection. Check out the official website for speaker details, and get your tickets over here.
For now, let’s turn to this week’s menu. Our Trembling main course has James Kowalczyk encounter *something strange* in the basement. This is followed by three delicious quick bites, all continuing that theme of household dread:
- RJ Meldrum ponders the loss of a pet
- Finbar Hussey is kept awake by a knocking, and
- Mike Rader has a very different take on the term “nuclear family”
If these stories inspire you to get writing, you’ll find details on how to submit to us over here. Remember, we’re still CLOSED to short story submissions – full transparency, we’re scheduled well into the new year so it will be a while yet – but are always seeking drabbles of exactly 100 words.
Over to you, Stuart.
For those who celebrate the holiday season. Happy holidays! For those who don’t. I hope you have a wonderful season and some time off of work or school. I’m currently in between MBA classes and, at the time of writing this, chewing on my fingernails to find out what my most recent grade is. I’m also getting a surprising amount of writing in!
‘It sounds like we’ve got a few more new writers joining Horror Tree soon as well as our new specials coordinator. We’ll be doing the full slate of introductions quite soon!
As mentioned last week, we’re exploring new hosting. This will occur in January of 2023, we’re also hoping to launch the new layout (very similar to the current one with more features) also in January of 2023. Not much new to report on. More is coming!
- If you’ve got any features or areas that you’d like to see Horror Tree add, please reach out!
- We’re currently making a major push for more author interviewers! If you love to talk to authors, please reach out!
For those looking to support the site, we’ve recently launched a Ko-Fi and always have our Patreon going.
As always, I hope you had a great weekend.
Beast Mode, by James Kowalczyk
“You’re afraid?… Punk.” That was my friend Carmine’s favorite refrain whenever I hesitated to accompany him on one of his “adventures”. It usually worked. Growing up in my neighborhood in Brooklyn back then (before it was completely gentrified), the last thing you wanted to be was known as punk. Looking back now, I should have just said: “yes, I’m a punk” and walked away.
As far back as I can remember, the empty lot on my block had always been there. And the corner house next door changed residents regularly. It wasn’t until years later, that realtors discovered the reason for the revolving door of occupants. There was no shortage of speculation among the neighbors.
“I heard the wife has hairy palms and sleeps in a coffin. The cops came and evicted the whole family,” old lady Bream was fond of repeating to whoever would listen.
“The whole batch of those kids are deformed in some way. They keep the youngest chained to a radiator in the basement,” Stanley Sr. told my father one time.
In school we’d swap outrageous stories just for fun. If the family had kids, they never went to our Catholic school, so that opened a host of narrative threads. It was always Carmine who took the lead at lunch.
“I saw three dogs coming out of the back with blood all over their snouts, just the way you see on those animal shows about the jungle predators.”
“Bullshit,” was always my reflexive comeback. Though in the back of my mind I would always wonder if it wasn’t at least half-true. I think part of that was Carmine’s vocabulary and storytelling skill that sold it. Our other friends would just listen, wide-eyed.
“And then a kid with one eye came out and chased them with a stick across the empty lot, growling and yelling some foreign language- I think it was Latin for some dark pagan ritual stuff.”
These sessions usually ended with one of us rolling our eyes and going to play in the schoolyard. After graduation we drifted apart but because me and Carmine both went to the same high school we remained close friends. We’d ride our bikes all over the neighborhoods looking for something interesting and new. The house on the corner seemed to lose its appeal after eighth grade. Until Carmine saw something he couldn’t explain.
We’d been playing wiffle ball in the empty lot toward the end of summer because the corner house was empty and held no threat of weirdness- or so we thought. I fouled the ball back and it rolled down the steps leading to the cellar of the house.
“I’ll get it,” Carmine said quickly when he saw that I didn’t move for it. He tiptoed over the rubble and over to the decrepit steps and went down without hesitation. I think he had been just waiting for an excuse to go down those steps. We knew there was nobody living there as it had been put up for sale and it was rumored that it was going to be razed by the city.
“Hey, the door is open,” he said. “I’m going in. Are you coming?” I didn’t respond quick enough and that’s when he asked the magic question. And because at the time I did not want to be a punk, I followed my friend into the cellar.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Carmine was already ten steps in front of me. The light splintered in from the disjointed brick of the foundation above us. The unpaved ground was uneven and I could see an old-fashioned grape press mounted on a concrete base to my right. Other than that some lumber planks of various lengths lined the bulging walls.
As we made our way further toward the back I kept calling out to Carmine. He didn’t seem to hear me. But I did hear him. It sounded like he had turned a corner as his voice was lower “Holy shit, there is a locked off area! I wonder what’s in there?
“Wait for me,” I said. But there was no response. At least not for a few seconds. Then I heard what sounded like piles of wood being moved around. I quickened my pace, using the wall to steady myself. “Carmine?” I yelled. No response. The slime on the wall seemed to crawl over my hand. When I turned the corner, there seemed to be a smell of something like a campfire. I kept moving, calling out for my friend. The smell became sharper and seemed to cut my nostrils. I put my hand over my nose and suddenly hit a door. It was off its hinges with the lock still attached above the door knob. I made the sign of the cross before I called out Carmine’s name again. No response.
I entered the room and quickly saw the flames of a fire leaping out of a meal garbage can. Then I heard the scream. I froze. I looked around for a piece of wood. I began walking further into the room, toward the fire. I felt my heart beating. I was holding my breath. To my left, the room widened and I moved that way. Suddenly, I heard a rustling sound behind me. I stopped.
The light from the fire illuminated only about three feet around me. But that was enough to keep whatever it was at bay. I called out Carmine’s name again. Nothing. Then I heard another sound, heavy claws scraping on the ground getting closer. It came from behind me. I could see the shadow in front of me and I felt my blood run cold. I felt dizzy as I began to pray. My hands began to shake. I spun around with the piece of wood raised up. And… nothing.
I knew I had to find Carmine. No way I could tell his mother I didn’t know where he was. That motivated me to keep going even though I wanted to run. I turned around and went down another passageway.
I saw what looked like a poster of a baseball player on the wall up ahead. As I approached I could discern a chair and a ragged couch in an alcove. The scent of toast hit my nose. Then a voice.
“You hungry?” It was old man Aldo. He was the homeless guy that surfaced every once in a while. Back in the day, before the term “homeless” emerged, these types of guys were a mystery and some neighborhoods seem to have at least one.
“No, I’m looking for my friend Carmine,” I said, kind of freaked out that I was talking to him. When I was about six years old I was always terrified of him.
“He went that way,” Aldo said, gesturing toward the fire I had passed earlier. “Not good.”
The curt response with an ominous tone made me want to ask him why he had made himself comfortable down here when he knew there was definitely something else down here too. He seemed to read my mind.
“It stays on that side of the fire and I stay on mine.” I nodded my head. That made sense. I’d learned in Boy Scouts that most animals feared fire. Then again, there were always exceptions to that. I knew in that moment I would have to turn back and go where I heard the scream.
“I gotta go,” I said to Aldo. He just looked at me. I left without a word.
There was less light seeping in from outside. Feeling along the wall I made my way back to the room where the fire was. I grabbed the piece of wood I’d had before and raised it over my head. Beyond the meal garbage can I could see another smaller room. I moved around fire. The entranceway was smaller. I crouched down and squeezed in. I couldn’t see anything. I could hear my own breathing. I saw a pile of debris covered with a piece of lumber in the corner. I moved toward it, holding my breath as I reached to lift up the wood. I thought I heard breathing.
The snout emerged first. Between its jagged fangs I could make out Carmine’s face. Then it was gone.
James Kowalczyk was born and raised in Brooklyn but now lives in Northern California with his wife, two daughters and four cats. He teaches English at the high school and college levels. His fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous online and print publications.
He’d had her since she was a pup. His constant companion, she stayed as close as possible. Sometimes he forgot she was there, she was so quiet. The only reminder was the occasional little toot followed by a toxic odor. He didn’t mind, it was almost reassuring.
But, in the way of things, the time came to say goodbye. He stayed with her at the vets until she left. Heartbroken, he went home. He sat on the couch, feeling empty. There was a tiny noise next to him, followed by a noxious smell. He understood; she was still with him.
RJ Meldrum is an author and academic. Born in Scotland, he moved to Ontario, Canada in 2010. He has had stories published by Sirens Call Publications, Horrified Press, Trembling with Fear, Darkhouse Books, Smoking Pen Press and James Ward Kirk Fiction. He is an Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association.
Facebook profile: https://www.facebook.com/richard.meldrum.79
The sudden knocking of bone on glass startled me awake. Again, I can see the ethereal shadow dancing behind the drawn curtains.
At first, it was a blessing to have you back, my dearest Marian, to be so suddenly taken was cruelty. But it has been months since you first appeared in our window, a translucent reflection.
You have grown withered, terrifying… Your pleading knock to enter haunts me.
Now I can only hide from your inky gaze. I cannot sleep. The knocking never ends. I thought my wish was granted, but now I fear I may soon join you.
Finbar is an Irish horror fanatic and author-for-fun who has recently begun writing short stories. In his day job he is a graphic designer and by night is a pallid ghoul hunched over his computer tapping out spooky stories and devouring horror movies.
The huge cockroach has two human hands with nails painted scarlet. It scuttles across the floor, its face an oval of miniature human beauty with black bulbous luminous eyes.
“I am here,” the insect whispers huskily.
The old man reaches down, plucking his lover from the bare boards. “Our union cannot be,” he says, tears misting.
“I have born your children,” the roachwoman reminds him.
“That was before the nuclear holocaust.”
“If only the radiation had changed you too, my dear,” the roachwoman laments.
A soft patter sounds as glossy black childroaches emerge from the plaster. “Daddy, daddy,” they call.
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Lauren is a writer with various hats – journalist, copywriter, content marketer, fiction – and considers herself a storyteller at heart. She writes gothic and folk horror and is currently working on a novel set in the world of the Victorian occult. It’s the supernatural and the occult that really give her goosebumps, and a good ghost story or vampire tale with a rising sense of dread will always pique her interest (and yes, Midnight Mass hit many of her buttons). She also has a developing fascination with folklore, the old ways and our fast-changing relationship with the natural world; this sneaks into her writing, too.
In The Real World, Lauren has more than 20 years’ experience as a professional content creator. She’s established and led global content teams and editorial strategies, including setting up content newsrooms for some of the world’s biggest brands. She was a music editor for a daily newspaper in her native Australia (a good gig and the beach remain her happy places), though she’s been London-based for 16 years and works as an editor, proofreader, marketer, and writing coach. She’s also a mental health advocate; her Substack, How to Be Self(ish), tracked her year of sabbatical and self-care, and she continues to write it irregularly as a mental health companion.
You’ll find Lauren haunting south London, where she lives with her Doctor Who-obsessed husband and their aged black house rabbit. You’ll also likely find her hosting Writers Hour sessions for the London Writers Salon a few times a week.