ENTER DEATH’S WAITING ROOM, IF YOU DARE…
I’ve got a few treats here for you today to help you creep into the Halloween spirit!
- First up, there’s quite a MixTape—October Creep—mostly pulled together from various soundtracks and other odds & ends. Now, it’s certainly not the type of mix your going to bump on regular rotation but give it a whirl and I’m sure it’ll give you the appropriate amount of heebie-jeebies this month demands. Oh, and I highly recommend watching the flicks these songs were featured in! They are definitely some of the best films of the horror genre.
- Up next is both the “book trailer” my friend Rich Stambolian and I put together, and the review I wrote for Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist. This novel and the subsequent ones in the series truly are some of the greatest and smartest horror stories I have read in quite some time. So be sure to check it out.
- And to conclude, I present a short story—All’s Hollow—which I wrote last Halloween for my own amusement. I hope you enjoy, so scroll on down to the end, and as always,
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A Mouthful Of Pennies Presents:
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Yancey, Rick. The Monstrumologist. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2009. 448 p. $17.99. 978-1-4169-8448-1
“Of Wolves & Worms: a review of Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist”
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
While never explicitly stated, the sentiments behind the above quotation from the concluding stanza of William Blake’s 1794 Poem “The Tyger” run central to the elements of true terror in Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist. This “young adult” novel seamlessly knits the ominous tones of American gothic authors such as H. P. Lovecraft and Flannery O’Connor with the grotesque visuals of modern horror cinema. Despite the fact that graphic descriptions of the blood-and-guts variety are featured prominently throughout this book, these details are not given for the purpose of mere sensationalism. Through his apparent dexterity of craft when concerning the English language and narrative forms, Yancey has written a carefully constructed story of intellectual horror.
“These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me…and the one who cursed me.”
These opening statements of protagonist Will Henry’s memoir sets a macabre mood that is subsequently maintained by the horrific events that occur throughout the novel. The details concerning a fire serves as a tragic, if subtle mystery in regards to the reader’s grasp upon the two main characters’ histories and the dynamic of their relationship; this fire has left young Will Henry an orphan now in the care of Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, under who he toils as an assistant. Dr. Warthrop, whose vocation provides the novel with its title, is an exacting man who is fanatically dedicated to his scientific pursuits, although, these investigations tend to be a bit more esoteric than those commonly associated with the average scientist. His discipline is in monstrumology: a supposed turn of the century field of study that today would likely be labeled cryptozoology.
This tale is set in 1888 within a New England city (where, as anyone who has visited Massachusetts, or Maine knows that a story of horror such as this must take place) called New Jerusalem. This is a city whose hours seem to perpetually alternate between dusk and the dead of night. In fact it is late one night that the adventure begins as a withered grave robber arrives at the Doctor’s door with a horrific discovery he has made while performing the duties of his ghoulish profession. The recently buried corpse of a young woman is hauled into Dr. Warthrop’s basement laboratory. Dead, but still clutching this cadaver with barbed fingernails is a monstrous creature with no head, a black lidless eye upon each muscular shoulder, and row upon row of sharp teeth set within a rictus that gapes open at its abdomen. This creature is Anthropophagi: a man-eater.
The awful unearthing of this beast is made worse by evidence that it was in the process of breeding as it choked to death upon a pearl necklace that adorned the young woman’s body as he devoured her flesh. These monsters are granted a certain depth through the author’s use of both literary and historical references to their existence by presenting quotations from Shakespeare, Herodotus, and Sir Walter Raleigh. It soon becomes apparent that New Jerusalem is to endure an infestation of these monstrous carnivores.
Yancey’s settings create as much tension as his monsters do. One particularly disturbing scene takes place within the oppressive confines of a mental institution, where Warthrop and his assistant investigate how the Anthropophagi—indigenous to West Africa—have come to arrive on the shores of the New World. The account of their journey reads like a thrilling novella of all its own, and is reminiscent to Bram Stoker’s portrayal of Dracula’s voyage by ship from the Carpathian Mountains to the coast of England; although, in terms of language, Yancey accomplishes this with a bit more brute force. The Novel’s climax situated within New Jerusalem’s cemetery is equally powerful and unsettling.
The author’s narrative techniques are a sophisticated element that ultimately keeps the reader tethered to these pages until their conclusion. Through the eyes of a modern writer (which, I assume to be Yancey himself) we are reading the memoirs of a man who purportedly died at one hundred and thirty-one years old, who is recounting his life at the age of twelve. These narrative layers add a texture to the work that serves to lure in the reader, just as Joseph Conrad had accomplished with Heart of Darkness.
The Science of monstrumology is presented along with other methods of critical thinking and scientific disciplines that were emerging around the turn of the century, such as the works of Nietzche and the study of eugenics. The callous outlooks often associated with these theories are presented through Dr. John Kearns, the monster-hunter who declares: “The only truth is the truth of the now;” “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so;” and “There is no morality […] but the morality of the moment.” In fact, it is this scientific approach to the villains that makes this a truly engaging book. Dr. Warthrop and his colleague Kearns consider these man-eaters to be just as monstrous as wolves and worms. They are simply part of the natural order of things. In terms of the predator/prey dynamic Homo sapiens just happen to fall under the rubric of the latter when concerning the Anthropophagi. Mature in its conceits, this book becomes all the more terrifying when the reader comprehends just how plausible these “monsters” truly are. As Kearns states, “ We do work ourselves into a tizzy about creatures like the Anthropophagi, but the world is chock-full of things that want to eat us.”
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The downpour had gone on for hours. As the afternoon lumbered on into evening and then further on into night, however, the storm had dwindled down to a steady drizzle, which served as a relentlessly irritating and tactile traveling companion to the bitter cold front that had suddenly swept through the city. That morning—after three pleasant weeks of abnormally warm weather—the temperature had abruptly plummeted. Terrence and Martin had both been waiting an inordinate amount of time for the bus—stepping side-to-side with the other damp commuters trying to get home but trapped by circumstance in the long line, moaning under tongue or sighing through the nostrils, periodically peering over their shoulders through wet, frizzy hair, down the long block in frustrated anticipation. More minutes passed. More minutes passed. More minutes passed. Each exhale was visible as a condensed mist, which made the curbside line resemble some human locomotive coming to rest at a train yard.
More minutes passed.
When the bus finally arrived with an asthmatic whistle and dusty whine of the brakes, everyone shuffled forward and boarded one-by-one. Terrence could feel the itch of violence in his brain as the diminutive Guyanese woman in front of him paid the fare with a methodical toss of individual nickels and dimes fished out from the deep pockets of her blue raincoat. The diamond stud of her nose-ring glistened as she watched the final two coins slowly roll from her palm into the slot. Terrence and Martin squeezed their way to the back, past the obstacle course tangle of jagged umbrellas, obnoxiously large bags, and sodden people who would not move. The bus was redolent of wet, longhaired dogs and steamed broccoli-infused flatulence. They took the only two vacant seats, which faced each other.
Once it seemed that the bus was full and ready to go, they sat idling at the curbside. The driver emerged from the crowd at the back of the bus and inserted a key into the panel that operates the lift designed for wheelchair access. Many of the passengers permitted a plaintive “Shit! You gotta be kiddin’ me?” to resound within the polite confines of their minds, but not Terrence. He said it aloud. Other than a chuckle from Martin, no one reacted.
The hydraulic lift delivered an obese woman in her mid-forties. She had sweat and rainwater dripping as one solution from her short, sandy hair, rolling past her temples and down the curve of her ballooned cheeks. Dark stains where sweat had saturated the salmon colored fabric of her blouse adumbrated her fat breasts. Dragging her aluminum walker over to the three—now vacant—priority seats left her gasping for oxygen. The blue, plastic seats gave a creak of complaint beneath her girth. With a look of slack-jawed bewilderment and disdain Terrence turned to Martin, who was preoccupied with rearranging the sideswipe of his black bangs.
“Y’know Marty, this fuckin’ city…all it takes to totally ruin public transportation is a little bit of rain and fuckin’ fat people.”
Martin sucked his lips inward and raised his eyebrows, glancing over at the subject matter. She did not seem to notice.
“Can you imagine,” Terrence continued with a grin, “what a man could do with an army of the obese?” He envisioned himself astride a black stallion with the cruel posture of some conquering Hannibal. Before the hooves of his steed, whip-driven hordes of corpulent soldiers with identical down-syndrome faces and imperial Roman armor waddled forward through a burning landscape.
Terrence laughed to himself as Martin said, “The entire campaign would have to be fueled on the promise of more sausages. A nitrate war!”
“Yeah, isn’t there some saying about how more important than any general in the army is the cook?”
Martin giggled out, “Isn’t that from a Steven Seagal flick?”
With a sudden jerk the bus lurched into traffic. The subject changed and they spoke idly of what programs they had watched on television the evening prior.
“…and then that pituitary retard goes back out with her…”
“…no idea why I still watch it. It’s like the eighth season and it’s terrible…”
“…she’s pregnant with a monster, so the black guy with the hammer…”
“…then he says, ‘I just work here, now let’s warm those bones of yours…”
Eventually they arrived at Terrence’s stop where they said goodbye with a finger-snapping pound.
“Aight, see you tomorrow,” Martin said as he fished through his bookbag for a magazine that detailed the newest releases in electronic entertainment.
Terrence maneuvered awkwardly through the crowd to the stiff air-assisted doors. They slapped closed behind him as he hopped to the curb. Tightening the collar of his jacket against his nape in a futile attempt to ward off the cold and slow-descending haze, Terrence walked off through the wet, empty streets. They were hedged in on either side by brick row houses and community drives; the vapor overhead alternately lit by the red, green, yellow of traffic lights changing within their set routine—locked in an obstinate cycle of transformation which paid no regard to the uselessness of their own color-coded symbols along this desolate avenue.
After several blocks Terrence decided that he should stop to pick up a boil bag of ramen noodles to eat for dinner, as he knew that—other than an assortment of condiments, a wilted bag of lettuce, and an outpost for a burgeoning mold colony—the shelves of his refrigerator were bare. He turned left at the next corner and walked uphill. After turning down two more blocks he arrived at a bodega that was cattycornered off the street in an old stone building that seemed as if it had once been a bank or perhaps a movie theater, but now had been sectioned off and sold to comprise this corner store deli, a locksmith, a Korean nail salon, and a business whose primary means of income was creating t-shirts for children’s sports teams.
As Terrence pushed the door a small bell tinkled to announce his arrival. He dragged his feet across the mat and ran his fingernails along his scalp, through the wet kinks of his short blonde hair. He stepped forward into the seemingly empty store, and that little urgent voice that inhabits our nerve endings and pulls strings within our intestines, vertebrae, and the muscles of our jaws screamed for Terrence to get out, turn around, run! It was not that Terrence did not notice. However, as there was no reason, this shiver of instinct was not allowed to register. The modern world had reduced that voice—which once ruled us like lightning—into a polite if uneasy guest attempting to get a word in to a busy host.
There was no one behind the counter, atop which sat a solitary pack of Newport cigarettes and a white book of matches. He walked down the aisle where he knew he could find the plastic packages of dehydrated sodium he planned on having for dinner. There was a whisper, followed by a whimper. At this point (with little intellectual recognition but a flicker of the hypothalamus and an ensuing spasm and squeeze of his sympathetic nervous system and adrenal-cortical system) Terrence turned on his heels and began to walk swiftly back down the aisle, past the pale and wilted vegetables, towards the exit.
“…fuck you goin’, muthafucka?”
With nervous civility, Terrence turned to ask, “Excuse me?” He was staring down the barrel of a shotgun. It was a 12 gauge from Mossberg’s 500 series. Terrence did not know this. Nor did he truly observe the figure pointing it his way: other than the caramel complexion around the wide eyes, the facial features were obscured below a black hood and a paisley patterned blue bandana; the tall frame rendered somewhat shapeless by a dark-grey trench coat stained with ash, mud, and rain; black, leather gloves gripped the shotgun. All Terrence did know was that a big gun was aimed at his face.
Slowly, Terrence stepped backwards—inch-by-inch. His palms raised, the mechanisms of his jaw worked with determined, but imbecilic repetition: open, close, open, and close. No words were formed: only a low and broken yammering. Coming around the corner of the aisle, from behind soft blue and green packages of sanitary pads, a small man stepped up to Terrence and abruptly slapped him across the face. Terrence was nothing more than a rigid doll when this assailant gripped the two halves of his open collar and yanked him towards his partner with the shotgun.
“Getch yer ass over there, whiteboy!” Although the small man’s grey complexion was certainly much paler than his own, Terrence could not at that moment find any humor in this irony, nor a point worth investigating dialectically. With a voice that was muffled beneath the bandana, the man with the shotgun ordered the other to “go get more duct tape.” Before the small man disappeared down the aisle he slammed a knife flat on the counter alongside the pack of Newports. The blade was a dull slate-grey. Terrence’s face stung and there was a red welt swelling over his pale, freckled cheek.
“Let’s go, Barney Rubble.” Palming Terrence’s nape with his free hand, the man with the shotgun marched him towards the rear of the store. Urged forward, Terrence focused on each clomp-clomp of the man’s brown Timberland boots against the uneven linoleum tiles. The bandana about this man’s mouth had grown moist from breath, and he appeared rather uncomfortable as he wiped sweat from his eye with the back of his glove.
At the rear wall, someone was slumped in the corner between a red plastic rack containing various greeting cards and a glass-front fridge stocked with forty ounce bottles of malt liquor. Terrence recognized the slim, huddled figure as the Bangladeshi man who worked there. He looked up from under his blue turban with sodden eyes, his crooked, nicotine stained teeth jutting outwards as he gasped with anxiety. He appeared to have been beaten somewhat, as there was a trace film of blood and snot about a nostril as well as speckled on the black, curled whiskers of his thick beard and his teal polo shirt. Bound at the wrists with grey duct tape, he pressed his balled hands against his own ribs and sobbed, “please.”
Terrence averted his eyes and focused in on one of the greeting cards. It featured a cartoon bear in blue, denim overalls clutching a tangle of colorful balloons. The word bubble above its round, fluffy head read “I’m sorry that you’re not feeling well right now.” Just as the small man announced his return with the sharp, rupture sound of tape being peeled from the roll, Terrence was shoved to the floor alongside the employee. To others, Terrence had always referred to this man—or, for that matter, anyone who happened to be manning the store at any particular time—as his mugabi-guy; as in, “I went to my mugabi-guy for a cup of coffee this morning.” Under the menacing eyes of the man with the shotgun, the small man bent low and wound the tape violently about Terrence’s wrists and forearms. Terrence noticed that this small man’s limbs and fingers had a slight twitch to their movements, reminiscent of an insect’s. This likeness was particularly so when he occasionally swiped with a crooked index finger at the thin, disparate hairs of his moustache, which did little to conceal the scar that formed after enduring corrective surgery on a harelip.
“Aight,” the taller man spoke in his muffled tone, “let’s put these niggas in the basement, finish up ‘n’ get the fuck up outta here!”
At this, the employee began to bellow and plead, “Please, no! No, please! Don’t put me in the basement! Don’t lock me in there! Please!” This plea’s rapid delivery, compounded by spittle and the odd angles his dense accent imposed upon the syllables, made one pause briefly before comprehension. He was panicked and attempted to scramble to his feet. For this he received the small man’s shell-toe between his ribs. He coughed, doubled over, and wheezed for breath. He continued with his entreaty, however, but now with only a shudder and a rolling whimper. Duct tape was placed over the employee’s mouth before the man with the shotgun hauled him up by the elbow while barking “Get up! Le’s go Papa Smurf!”
The small man opened the thick metal door that led to the basement and with a spastic wave of his hand motioned for Terrence to go down the steps. Terrence obliged, his head hung low and slick with perspiration. Behind him, the employee had to be dragged. He was flailing wildly and pawing desperately with sweaty palms at the wooden banister. Despite his mouth being sealed over, you still knew what his stifled, rough guttural moans concerned.
As he wiggled desperately under his captor’s grip, they both slipped. The man with the shotgun’s heel skidded and bounced off the edge of two steps before they both bowled forward and landed in a heap on the solid floor. Terrence slid down and remained still, pressing his back against the cold, cement wall of the basement.
It was dark down there; too dark to even begin to guess the room’s dimensions. The only light was that which descended from the open door above, and that served to illuminate the narrow steps and the desperate scene being enacted at their bottom and no more. Terrence was aware of the small man’s silhouette above as he shouted, “Yo D, you aight?” However, Terrence could not look away from the two men crouched before him at the cast light’s edge, where its periphery dissipated into the black: one, pleading with his hands raised, tears and saliva beginning to undo the adhesive gag; the other, rising, the bandana pulled free to reveal high cheekbones chiseled down to a scowling mouth, thick lips twisted with anger.
Sweeping his hands blindly along the floor, “D” retrieved his shotgun, raised the barrel high and slammed the thick butt into the forehead of the mewling supplicant at his knees. The employee’s neck and torso twisted hard before he slumped back with a wet smack to the floor. D paused, glancing over his shoulder into the palpable expanse of negative space. In an instant he whirled back to repeatedly batter the shotgun’s butt down against the prostrate employee’s skull. Each thrust was accompanied with a heaving grunt as viscous fluids splattered along the shotgun’s stock and across the cold ground.
Terrence could hear the moment when something solid cracked, splintered, and went wet. Even though that moment had come and gone, the grunts and thrusts continued. Eventually, with a final lunge and cracked growl, D stopped and allowed his arms to fall slack at his sides as his breath collapsed into a pant.
The gunman turned his back to Terrence and appeared to be watching something in the opaque distance.
No. He was listening to something.
“D! C’mon nigga!”
D turned around and calmly walked past Terrence and up the steps with the measured stride of a somnambulist. His eyes did not once flit in Terrence’s direction; nor did they seem to even notice the broken mess sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, spilling out within the shadows. Above, the door slammed, followed by the abrupt, metallic click of the lock.
Abandoned in the dark, Terrence sighed with a spasm to the muscles of his abdomen. His lungs felt constricted by his ribcage. Attempting to swallow the lump in his throat, he tasted the salt of his own tears, which rolled liberally from his blind eyes. Unaccompanied by the typical theatrics of weeping, Terrence was crying without making a sound, without moving a muscle. He felt cold.
Terrence heard something in the distance. A whisper? There was a clatter, as if a block of wood had been rolled along the floor at some far end of the room. Another whisper. Hushed and distorted through cracked static…a reply. Pointlessly, Terrence pressed his spine harder to the wall, as if there were a way through—a place safe.
He heard the clomp-clomp of heavy boots approaching, but they ceased inexplicably. No; they didn’t so much stop as they faded. Something lightly fingered at his ankle; or to be more precise, nothing lightly fingered at his ankle, for when he swatted down his bound limbs made contact only with the chilled slab of a concrete floor. Faint voices broken by a hiss. A nauseating gurgle, like a large cat gagging on a broken television. Inside, he felt cold; inside, he felt hollow.
With the brief, sharp jangle of a bell, the two thieves stepped to the sidewalk and began to walk briskly up the block. Although the drizzle still fell as an aimless haze, the cool, night air was welcomed. The small man swung a black, thirty-gallon trash bag over his shoulder as his little legs jerked forward towards their parked car—orange rust creeping up from around the wheel wells. The bag was entirely too big for the little that it held.
As he pulled the keys from the pocket of his loose, wrinkled jeans, the small man noticed a young couple passing across the street. The woman was dressed as a slutty Little Red Riding Hood: her red-checked skirt ending abruptly to reveal the pink of thick, goose-pimpled thighs; knees peeking out from white nylons, which descended into little black shoes; her breasts ludicrously pressed up towards her chin. From her gait you could tell both that she had more than a few drinks and that her feet hurt. The man beside her was draped in a loose-fitting approximation of a foppish pirate. His oversized tri-cornered hat, warped with rainwater, sagged over the black patch that covered his right eye. Huddled within each other’s arms, they continued down the street engaged in drunken flirtation.
It took the police two weeks to tie the missing person’s report with the young man seen being accosted on the bodega’s security camera. However, as the footage obtained was of poor-quality and set at a limited angle, it provided little in the way of clues as to what had occurred. The body of Zubayer Rahman was discovered the morning of November 1st. His face had been reduced to an unrecognizable, pulpy mass, and there were numerous scratches of various length and depth all along his torso. The whereabouts of Terrence Hughes remain unknown.