Trembling With Fear 7-30-23

Hello, children of the dark. As we start to reach our fingers into August, my world is full of two things—well, three, if you count the fact our beloved elderly bunny familiar has been very poorly of late. 

August is my birthday month. I grew up having winter birthdays in Australia, and was excited at the prospect of a summer birthday when I moved to London. Seventeen years later, and I don’t think I’ve had a sunny birthday even once? Put your best weather vibes out there for my birthday, please! I mean, I’ll officially be in my mid-40s after this one, so anything will help!

But much more importantly, it’s only two weeks until I run my first chunky online writing day. I’ve partnered with Alex Davis (read the Horror Tree interview with Alex here) to create “Writing the Occult”, a soon-to-be regular series of events bringing together writers and experts about various occult matters. The idea is to help writers working in these areas to explore, ask questions, and learn more to spark ideas for their writing works. 

So, on Saturday 12 August (incidentally a few days before the aforementioned birthday), I’ve gathered a handful of amazing humans to talk all things witches and witchlit for Writing the Occult: Witches. You’ll meet:

If you’re witch-curious, meet our speakers over here and grab a ticket. I’d love to see you there – and make sure you let me know you’re a TWF-er on the day! I love to meet our contributors and readers IRL.

Speaking of witches, a quick shout-out to Horror Tree’s own Holley Cornetto. I’m in the midst of reading the first book in the Trailer Park Witches series she’s created with S.O. Green, and it is GREAT. Keep an eye out for my review on this site, coming sooooooon.

But for now, let’s turn to the reason you’re here: it’s time for this week’s offerings on the TWF menu. For this week’s short story, Gregory Von Dare heads to the weekly poker night in the basement. This is followed by three delicious quick bites:

  • Harrison S Foreman has some sight challenges,
  • Engilbert Egill has a cold case breakthrough, and 
  • Ceferino Ruiz has a creepy teddy bear.

Finally, some reminders for your creativity:

  • You’ve only got a few days left to submit to our summer special. Get your summer shorts and drabbles in by the end of July via our submissions page, and our lovely specials editor Shalini will review and make her choices for our summer special edition.
  • We are, as always, looking for your darkly speculative drabbles. We publish three every week, and try not to publish the same writer twice within a month, so we’re always looking for new voices. Why not give it (advance pun warning) a stab?

Over to you, Stuart.

Lauren McMenemy

Editor, Trembling With Fear

We made a LOT of progress on our Trembling With Fear physical release. I’ve finally pulled my weight being out of the MBA class and did just about everything I can on pushing it forward with 2-3 small changes over, so we should see some real finalized progress in the next week or two. Super excited! I’ve also but the time your reading this should have hit and passed the half way point for all of our other stories that are in the queue. So much reading!

For those who are looking to connect with Horror Tree on places that aren’t Twitter, we’re also in BlueSky and Threads. *I* am also now on BlueSky and Threads. Though, no promises on how active we’ll be on either until after this semester.

If you’d like to extend your support to the site, we’d be thrilled to welcome your contributions through Ko-Fi or Patreon. Your generosity keeps us fueled and fired up to bring you the very best.

Stuart Conover

Editor, Horror Tree

Gregory von Dare

Gregory Von Dare has been writing for many years and is a published journalist, author and dramatist. He loves sci-fi, mystery and horror stories, and rarely sleeps soundly.

The Dead Man’s Hand, by Gregory von Dare

Every week, we played poker in James’ man-cave basement. He had done it up right with oak paneling, a stone fireplace, a fridge for cold beer, a casino card table and a 60 inch plasma TV. Watching football on that big screen was like being in the stadium. Better, really—no icy wind blowing up your pants. 

After a lot of searching on craigslist, eBay and elsewhere, James had found an antique card table for his basement. It was octagonal, made of expertly joined dark wood. It had a top of shamrock green felt that looked almost new. There were drink holders built into the table, where we put our beers. Each player had an ashtray for cigars, and a small drawer where he could hold his reserve chips. Or lucky charms.  

One night in late autumn, with a chill rain pounding outside, we gathered for our Wednesday night poker marathon. James had a crackling fire going in the basement when we arrived and each of the players hung their coat or jacket on a wooden peg near the fireplace to dry. 

As I stood warming my hands in front of that aromatic fire, Paul Durkin, the youngest and newest member of the fraternity, inspected a shadow box James had put on the wall behind the card table.

“Never noticed this before,” said Paul. Inside the shadow box were five cards, a poker hand, fanned out on a green felt background, like you would do after a final call when you showed your cards and won or lost. The cards were: two black eights, two red aces and the Queen of Spades.

“It’s the dead man’s hand,” I said, not turning away from the fire. 

“What’s that mean?” asked Paul.

I turned around and gestured toward the table. “I can’t believe you don’t know about this. Sit down and I’ll tell you.” 

The boys knew I was a history buff, so they eagerly took their places at the table. I sat down last and looked at each one of them in turn. There was Paul, blond and beardless, an Army veteran and honest cop. A good man to know in a pinch. Next to him was Ben Gottlieb. Benny was shorter, swarthy, and older than the rest of us. He owned our local hardware store. If you brought in an old bolt, screw or nail, or a scrap of antique plumbing, Benny had a match for it. Like James and I, he had been with this card game from the beginning. James himself was a dispatcher for our town’s quarry and had the broad-shouldered build of a lumberjack but a patient, gentle demeanor. Horton Smith, tax accountant, was next. He was a thin man with a thin mustache who wore a bow tie seven days a week. Across from me sat David Wittacre, the real estate guy. Dave dressed like a million dollars even when he was broke; he had a slight limp from a rogue case of polio when he was a kid. Lastly, there was me, William Bamton Charles. They called me Bam-Bam after that character on the Flintstones TV show. I didn’t like it, but what can you do? Boys will be boys. I edit our local newspaper and try to keep away from the bile and fury of current politics. Not easy in a smaller town.

“Whether or not you remember the history of the Old West,” I said, “you have probably heard of Wild Bill Hickok.”

“Oh yeah!” said Paul, smiling. “Wild Bill. What a guy.”

“And you may know that card playing was a big part of most men’s lives in those days. Not penny-ante poker like we play here. There were high stakes games going in every bar, brothel and boiler room all across this country. Riverboats too. But especially out west. A man could win or lose a fortune in a matter of minutes in one of those games. And not just money. Guys put up the deeds to their property, to their gold mines, to their farms and ranches. All on a game of five card draw poker.”

Paul frowned. “But what about those cards in the box? The Dead Man’s Hand?” He pointed to them.

“A little background,” I said. “The presence of big money and little oversight lead to a good deal of cheating. Professional gamblers were adept at handling a deck of cards and were known as ‘card sharps’. They practiced for hours every day like magicians and they could control the cards with amazing ease. Accusations of cheating were common and so were the gunfights that followed.”

I should add that while I related this tale, James had broken open a new deck and began shuffling it with a riffle motion. He looked up and smiled slyly when I mentioned the card cheats. It was thought that James had some skills in card manipulation himself, but since no one ever went home up or down more than twenty dollars, we didn’t really care. It was worth the price of admission to that male paradise in his basement.

“So,” I said, “back to Marshall Hickok. Wild Bill was a fanatical card player and semi-professional gambler. He had a fight with a brown bear that damaged his left arm, but left him able to shoot with his right. A sit-down game of cards was to Wild Bill’s taste ever since. Hickok had been involved in some games where big money and acres of prime land changed hands. He had also been part of deadly gunplay when someone didn’t like an opponent turning over four aces when they thought that they had it won with four kings.”

“But what about those cards in the box?” Paul asked again, impatient as ever.

“I’m getting to that.” By now several of us had lit cigars and with the smoky atmosphere and that antique card table, you could almost imagine yourself at a poker game in the old west. 

“House will deal the first hand, as usual,” James said, spinning out the cards to the various players. “Five card draw. Jacks or better.”

“There was a little town in the Dakotas called Deadwood,” I said. “There had been a gold strike in the Black Hills nearby and a small mining camp grew into a wild, lawless town almost overnight. Some say that the local business owners sent for Hickok with the idea of naming him Sheriff or Marshall. But Hickok knew there was more money in cards. Especially when the miners came galloping into town with their sacks of gold dust and got stinking drunk before they hit the gambling tables. 

“Hickok was canny enough to sit facing the door when he played cards. That way, he could see trouble coming. But on this occasion the only seat at the table in Charlie Utter’s bar was facing the rear wall, putting his back to the door. He reluctantly took the chair and began playing. Now, the day before, a troublesome, bad-tempered fellow named Jack McCall had been in a game with Hickok and had lost big; lost everything he had. According to reports, Hickok asked McCall to quit the game before he lost his last dollar, but the stubborn miner would have none of it. When McCall was cleaned out, Hickok offered him some money to buy breakfast the next day and McCall took it, but felt insulted. He left the bar in a fury and the men in Utter’s saloon knew there was trouble brewing.”

In our game, the first hand had been dealt, but no one touched their cards, caught up in my story about Wild Bill.

“The next day, as I mentioned, Hickok was in Charlie Utter’s bar, playing poker, his back to the door. At some point, Jack McCall rushed in, drew his gun, a Colt single-action Army .45, shouted something profound like ‘take that’, and shot Wild Bill in the back of the head. The bullet detoured through Hickok’s brain and exited out his left cheek, lodging in the wrist of Riverboat Captain William Massie, who sat across from Wild Bill, now deceased.”

Paul said, “Well that’s a great story. No, really. But what about those cards?”

“After the men in Charlie Utter’s saloon had disarmed McCall and wrestled him to the floor, the other card players discovered that Hickok had been holding two pair: two red aces and a pair of black eights. His hole card was the Queen of Spades. Ever since then aces and eights has been known as the ‘dead man’s hand’. Over the years, men have suffered all kinds of misfortunes after getting the dead man’s hand in a poker game. So, those are the cards in James’ display. A reminder of what fate has in store for gamblers.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Paul with a crooked smile. “So that was the end of Wild Bill. The dead man’s hand! Wow. Gives me the creeps.” Paul looked at me, frowning, his eyes narrowed down to slits. “You don’t believe that do you? That you can have bad luck just from being dealt a poker hand?”

“Not directly, no. But there are a lot of strange coincidences in life and as you get older, you begin to wonder. Is it coincidence, or fate, or destiny? I can’t say.”

“Could we play poker?” asked Horton Smith, his long fingers twitching.

We all picked up our cards to see which way the wind was blowing; what the gods of gambling had sent to each of us this time. 

Paul stared at the rest of us. “That’s not funny,” he said sharply.

“What’s not funny?” asked Benny Gottlieb, squinting at his cards through thick glasses. 

With a serious and troubled look, Paul turned his cards over and fanned them out. He held aces and eights, with the Queen of spades high.

“Holy shit,” said Dave Whitacre. “The dead man’s hand. That’s stunning. I mean what are the odds?”

Paul fixed James with an angry look. “The odds are low when somebody cheats,” he said.

Before any of us could respond, Paul got up from the table, yanked his coat off the peg, and bounded up the stairs. A few moments later we heard the house’s back door slam and, distantly, a car start.

James raised his right hand, “I swear I had nothing to do with this. A new pack of cards, I shuffled them up right in front of you guys and dealt ‘em out. Swear to God. That’s the whole story.”

We were quiet for a long time. You could hear the rain lashing the basement windows. 

“You know,” said Benny, “I don’t feel so much like playing anymore.” He also pushed back from the table and left the house.

“Yeah,” said Horton Whittacre, “me too.”

When it was just the two of us, me and James, I asked him to spill the beans. Had he dealt a fixed hand to Paul, just to spook him?

“No,” he said. “You got to believe me, Bam-Bam. That kind of mean joke is not my style.”

“Yeah, Jimmy, I do believe you. But it sure knocked the stuffings out of tonight’s game, didn’t it?”

“Sure did,” he replied. “Look, I’ll call Paul tomorrow and apologize to him. Not for cheating but for not keeping him here. The cards can do strange things sometimes, you know?”

“Yes they can. Calling Paulie is a good idea. We’re all friends here and when he cools down a bit, he should be all right. See you next week.”

“Yeah,” James said. He looked so sad, so bitter about what had just been a quirk of fate, a one-in-a-billion coincidence. Or was it?

The next morning, our Chief of Police called me with the news that Paul had been shot and killed overnight at a routine traffic stop. He pulled over a drunk driver who rolled down his window and drilled Paul three times in the chest with a .45 automatic. As I wrote his obit, I decided not to mention the dead man’s hand. No one would believe me.

Contact, by Harrison S Foreman

My vision has been on the decline of late. My optometrist said contact lenses should help to correct the issues, blaming society’s overindulgence in blue light as the culprit. 

A wet contact sits on my fingertip like an upturned jellyfish. I lean over the backroom sink, nearly close enough to the mirror to kiss myself, praying it will slide in with ease.

There, manning the hollowed blackness of my pupil sits a tiny figure. It waves at me. My body freezes in shock as my mind races and heart thumps. An impulse shoots down my nerves, and I wave back.

Harrison Foreman

Harrison Foreman is a Museum Coordinator at Forest Lawn Museum with a MA in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and BAs in Creative Writing and History from UCF. Harrison was a contributing researcher for the exhibition catalogue, Grand Views: The Immersive World of Panoramas, he was was co-curator of Bob Baker Marionette Theater: 60 Years of Joy & Wonder, and will be a panelist at Afterlives: Reinvention, Reception, and Reproduction biennial conference later this year. Recently, Harrison has gotten back in touch with his creative writing roots (more specifically, horror) by writing, editing, and co-starring for The Talegate Podcast, where he and his fellow host interview characters from folktales, urban legends, and cryptozoology.


He watched the old man come out on the porch as he did every morning to smoke and drink his coffee. He had been watching him for weeks, building up the courage to strike.

After ten long years, he had finally found the monster that had broken so many souls; he had connected at least fifty bodies to that creep. 

He walked down the hill towards the cabin of death. Never before had he felt such fear and pain in his heart. The painful memories came flooding back to him.

He entered the cabin and saw him there: “Hey, Dad.”

Engilbert Egill

Engilbert Egill is an Icelandic poet and short story writer living in Vestmannaeyjar with his fiancé and their two daughters.

Mr. Berries

Ever since my son brought Mr. Berries home from a garage sale, the brown and white stuffed bear has given me an uneasy feeling. Everything about him puts me on edge. 

He sits on my son’s unmade bed, slightly askew, as if he knows the minute tilt makes his faded smile seem far more sinister.

His lifeless eyes, surrounded by aged, matted fur, seem to follow me no matter where I am in his room. Occasionally, I will catch him blink when he thinks I’m not looking. 

I shut the door and I see his paw move slightly, waving goodbye.

Ceferino Ruiz

Ceferino (or Cef) is an author based in the Midwest U.S. Heavily inspired by authors such as Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Shel Silverstein, he spends much of his time writing horror fiction and poetry. His stories range from the fantastical to the macabre and everything in between. When he’s not lost in the dark corners of his mind, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two boys.

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