bed sheet phantom

Boo.

What follows is an article I wrote for a skeptic journal a dozen years ago. I re-discovered it a couple of days ago, brushed it off and prettied it up, and present it here. Enjoy.
Physicist Costas Efthimiou, a professor at the University of Central Florida, offers a theoretical glimpse that purports to put to rest the notion that the dead walk among us in spirit form: According to the laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton, it is impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without also falling through the floor. As a physical being, I know for a fact that I cannot pass through a floor, and I have walked into enough walls and doors to assume that I will have no chance of ever passing through, even if I were approaching Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.
There are, however, several issues with his theories, foremost the idea that Newtonian laws pertaining to the physical world somehow apply to entities that do not exist in the corporeal realm. If ghosts are, as often hypothesized, beings constructed of memory, energy, and/or other non-physical materials, how then can we reasonably expect them to be bound by the same laws that us mere mortals by nature must adhere to?
The article then abruptly takes a sharp turn and notes that, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, approximately 1 in 3 Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and that it is possible to communicate with the dead. The impression I was left with, as a reader, was that the writer of the article really wanted to make the point that individuals who believe in the paranormal are rubes; an act of pseudo-intellectual elitism that served no good purpose at all.
Nearly every culture on Earth embraces some sort of belief system about the afterlife; why is this so? My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how much science advances our understanding of the Universe and our place within it, no one as yet has been able to answer the biggest of all questions: Where do we go when we die? I think the question for most people is so staggering, so terrifying, that the average mind can’t comprehend the notion of our consciousness simply ceasing to exist. I certainly can’t, and believe me, I’ve tried. Or is it all just a matter of ego – is it a way of saying, “Hey, it’s ME we’re talking about here. I simply can’t accept the fact that when I die, that’s the end of the story.” Unable to accept the idea that the world keeps turning without them, many people need to believe that there is something amazing, something special, that was built just for them to ride out eternity.
So we create afterlife archetypes that conform to our particular sets of sensibilities, primarily that good people go on to a place full of happiness and joy, where they can spend eternity with all the people they loved on Earth, and the bad people move on to eternal punishment in the burning lake of fire, or something equally nasty. Is it possible that the ideas of Heaven and Hell are natural, physical constructs? It’s highly doubtful; history has proven time and again that good and evil are often highly subjective views of morality, and that nature rarely, if ever, makes a judgment call based on the moral qualities of an individual’s personality.
I believe that we, as humans, build our own ideas of existence beyond death from the twin factors of fear and justice. Not knowing what happens after we leave this physical realm, we still attempt to control our destinies and in this attempt, we create afterlives we can accept, that make sense to us. Also, we all want to be rewarded and remembered for the good things we have done, but we also desire that the guilty be punished, if only for the fact that by comparison, we look that much better. Never underestimate the power of humans to sandbag the next guy, especially when the possibility of eternal damnation is at stake.
And then there’s ghosts. The world in which we live is often a difficult and dangerous one; it can also seem quite unfair although that is again assuming that nature understands or even cares about the complexities of fair and unfair, of right and wrong. Many people die before we believe it is their time, and many good people often die in horrible and senseless ways; conversely, lots of truly awful people live long lives. In our uniquely human sense of cosmic justice, is it unreasonable to think that for those people, their earthly journey is not quite over? Not really. As moral creatures, we by nature feel that every person’s life has to have meaning and purpose and we are not very adept at accepting the idea that sometimes bad things just happen. I think that for many of us, it is more comforting to believe that the person who was taken by bad circumstance has been able to linger and exact some sort of spiritual revenge on those who were responsible for their misery, or even that since it wasn’t their time, they have nowhere to go and are stuck here on Earth in some sort of limbo. We take comfort in the idea that those who have left us are still around, that they’re watching over us or guiding us from beyond, that they miss us and still think about us.
It has been suggested that some ghosts and hauntings are the manifestation of guilt and anxiety; in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the story’s protagonist is not taunted by the person he murdered; rather, it is his guilt for the murder that haunts him and eats away at his sanity until he confesses his crime. Perhaps the only thing that is truly haunted is the mind and imagination of the individual who experiences the phenomena. If enough people are empathetic to the idea of the spiritual manifestation of the dead, particularly in a place where one could logically conclude that many people died horrible and unnatural deaths (battlefields, prisons, hospitals, sanitariums, mental institutions, etc.), it is entirely possible that there may exist a sort of shared psychological experience. However, this idea is by no means all-encompassing when attempting to explain the widespread reports and experiences of such phenomena.
Studies have indicated that people who are inclined to believe in ghosts stand a better chance of encountering one than people who don’t believe and if a person visits a location that is known for paranormal activity, then they already have a set of preconceived expectations before they even enter the area. Many years ago, I spent a summer working at a toy store in Northern California that had achieved a large amount of notoriety for having been haunted and in knowing this, I experienced a number of events that I immediately ascribed to the ghost which was said to be in residence. However, my mindset was not entirely objective: I like to believe that spirits do exist and since I was already aware of the alleged haunting, I was predisposed to believe that anything weird that happened was automatically due to the ghost and nothing more conventionally explainable.
And now, ghosts are big money: several cable networks run documentary series that show paranormal investigators plying their trade in places that, as previously mentioned, should be rife with paranormal activity. These shows run the gamut from earnestly sincere to the downright goofy, and I’m sure each have their devoted followers. That said, we faithfully watch them all, week after week, in hope of that one piece of evidence that will answer the question, once and for all. Maybe next week.
Many towns, at least the more touristy ones, offer local ‘ghost tours’ which, depending on the area, can be sort of fun, in a kitsch way, and you might even learn some history. As for ghostly encounters…individual results may vary. The demand for otherworldly thrills has also impacted the venerable Winchester Mystery House; again, in my early days, I worked briefly as a tour guide at the house. In those days, we were strictly forbidden to even suggest that  there might be spooks about; however, the attitude seems to have changed, because now the house hosts midnight tours, seances, and proudly proclaims itself to be haunted. And maybe it is, but I never experienced anything more than a freezing, drafty old house in San Jose in February.
Whatever the case, the chances are strong that we will probably never really know the answer of what happens until we actually die and so far, no one has come back to tell us about it. Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest illusionist and skeptic there ever was, on his deathbed, promised to make a spiritual return if it was at all possible, to prove once and for all if there is existence beyond our physical world, and this is a man who made passionate sport of exposing and debunking mediums, spiritualists, and cold readers.
For the sake of transparency, my wife and I live in a house where things happen, and the community in which we live is next door to a large Catholic cemetery. We have each been grabbed or touched, shadows have passed in front of light sources, unseen weights have settled down on our bed at night, and we often hear footsteps – heavy, human, footsteps. Something plays with one of our cats, in much the way that a child would. We had a team of paranormal investigators visit our home for two overnight sessions, and they produced evidence that can’t be readily explained away. One evening, the team dropped by to go over evidence from the weekend’s investigation, and during that conversation, footsteps directly overhead resulted in an impromptu investigation.
So, here we are, at the end of this, and I have no answers. The skeptic in me says that every bit of evidence has to be rigorously examined, while the believer in me wants to, well, believe. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’m sorry to have left this unresolved, but perhaps in the next life we’ll see a conclusion to the story.

hornIt was doomed from the start, man. There had been six of us, and we were the masters of the universe, bulletproof and straight up gangster. You know the names already. What matters, what you have to understand, is that when we started that thing, we meant to do good. To be good, and to inspire others to do good, too.

We wanted what everyone else wants: respect, friends, love. We wanted to take the love to the people, to show them that there was nothing to fear, no reason to hide, that we weren’t the monsters so many of them thought we were. And for a while, it worked.

I was the face of the movement. I never bought into the whole ‘Sad Clown’ mindset; I felt that this life of mine should reflect the joy, the gleeful chaos that ensued whenever I walked into the tent. That’s what I was all about. Fucking joy, even if I wasn’t always feeling it. So there’s my mug, all happy smiles and arched eyebrows, bald cap over a bright green monk’s cowl. You know me. You’ve seen the posters and I know you watch the news.

So we would assemble, faces already in place, and we’d go in to the hospitals. Find the terminal kids and give them some laughs. That’s what most of us did, anyway. Captain Fancypants and Sparkles would slip away and find the place where they kept the good drugs, the serious narcotics, locked up. It’s not like it is now; in those days, it was just a closet, sometimes marked, sometimes not. Moe had huge pockets inside those baggy pants of his, and that son of a bitch could empty a pharmacy in seconds flat. By the time the pharmacist realized they’d been hit, we were already down the road and besides, who’d suspect a clown?

Then, and this is the important part, we’d take the drugs to the people who needed it. Not the junkies or the dealers, but the good people who were in serious pain and couldn’t afford a hospital visit or a costly prescription. Yes, we stole, but we did good with it. So much good. The problem is that the more we saw of the people in need, the angrier we got with those who held the purse strings, who kept the stuff out of the hands of the needy and in the hands of the entitled. We were like Robin Hood, but with rubber chickens instead of bow and arrow.

We eventually came to realize that the hospitals were small potatoes, that if we really wanted to make a difference, we’d have to hit the manufacturing facilities where the meds were made. So that’s what we did. I won’t bore you with the details of the plan, but it was brilliant. I thought it was, at least.

We hit the plant at midnight, figuring no one would be there. We were clowns, for Christ’s sake; what did we know about security at major pharmaceutical companies? Basic tools, nothing else, aside from the duffel bags. I had no idea that Twitch brought explosives, or why. What the fuck, why bring bangers on a night raid? I thought he’d left that behind in favor of Clown Life. Twitch always had that nervous energy about him, even when he was in makeup. Edgy, like an electrical current was running through him. So we break in through a side door, find our way to manufacturing and holy shit, there are mountains of boxes of pills, everything you could imagine, and a ton more that you couldn’t. I head straight for the antibiotics, knowing that there were folks up in the hills who needed them badly, so badly.

Working quickly, we filled our pockets and bags while Bananahead kept a lookout. The thing was, we didn’t know there was a night watchman. It wasn’t his fault. I didn’t think it was our fault either, but I know better now. These guys come through the door with flashlights in hand, maybe with guns drawn or maybe not, and the whole damn thing went sideways. Bananahead loses his shit and starts yelling about power to the people and fuck the system, like we’re the goddamn Weathermen or something, despite us all being in our goddamn clown suits. The guards didn’t know what the hell to do. They were laughing, but at the same time they knew something was wrong because it’s the middle of the damn night in a drug company warehouse and there’s five goddamn clowns screaming at him, screaming at each other, and then one of the clowns pulls a giant lighter out of his pants and sparks the fuse on a stick of dynamite and next thing you know, there’s blood all over the place and the night is wrecked, just fucking wrecked. It’s gone to shit, like Reservoir Dogs in greasepaint.

We’re standing there in a daze, and the poor security guards are dead, so obviously and violently dead, and scattered all over the place, Bananahead is covered in blood and gore, and Captain Fancypants is sitting on the floor, head in hands, weeping and sobbing like a baby and next thing I know, the night is filled with the screaming of sirens. The door is kicked in and suddenly Twitch is just gone, his head explodes in a spray of pink and red, and Sparkles is thrown backward by the force of a shotgun blast and then it’s just me, all the rest are dead, and all the guns are pointed at me, and they’re all shouting and all I can do is stand there, shit-the-pants terrified, but this goddamn smile painted on my face makes them think I’m getting off on this and I’m shouting and they’re shouting, and when I try to take a step my shoe squeaks and I slip in a puddle of someone’s blood and land on my ass, which sets off the whoopee cushion and I realize then that it’s all over, that my life’s work is ended, my passion dead, because of this.This hopeless, stupid mess.

I wanted to help people. I wanted to spread laughter and hope. I’m lost. My friends are dead, and I’m going to prison for a long time, the big vacation, and for a moment, everything stops and I’m reminded what my old friend and mentor, Dingles, told me, so many years ago.

“Kid, no matter what you do,” he said, dead serious with the stink of grain alcohol on his breath. “Don’t ever do no shit that’ll end you up behind bars. Bad things happen to a clown in jail. Permanent things, awful things. Trust me, I know.” He had shivered at the recollection, and a silent tear had slid down his painted face. He didn’t think people could see when he cried, and most couldn’t. But I could, every goddamn time. No one hurts quite like a clown.

I can’t go to prison, I know I won’t survive, that no mercy is shown for Red Nosers like me. I have no choice, this is my destiny, right here, right now. I say when is when and enough is enough. Looking back, I never had a chance; this life, clown life, chose me from the very start. This is who I am, what I am. I pull my knife and slash my own throat, real fast. The spray erupts from me like seltzer from a bottle. As the life drains out of me, I hear the cops laughing.

Life is good.

happiness-07All along the boardwalk, happy people and happy families wandered, enjoying the warm late summer sunshine that carried with it the faint but unmistakable light of the approaching autumn. The air was saturated with the smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels, and children scampered around their parents, playfully shrieking with the sense of unfettered freedom that only comes with the very young, a freedom that would be lost soon enough to the vagaries of adulthood. The parents knew this, as all adults do, and quietly mourned the loss of innocence that would one day fall upon their children, as surely as it had fallen upon them.

Music rang out softly from cleverly concealed speakers; 70s pop from bands whose names few remembered, but lyrics everyone knew, their contagious catchiness declaring with anthemic earnestness that happiness was only a heartbeat away, just one more kiss away, that her magical spell was working so well, and that all would be right on a Saturday night. A slight breeze off the ocean wafted past the revelers as they took in the sights and the sounds of one last weekend before the weather turned.

The town’s autumns were its best kept secret; known locally as “Second Summer,” it was the delicate span of two to three weeks after labor day, when all the tourists had gone back home, and the town again belonged to those who lived and worked there. The pace slowed, rules relaxed a bit, and a cheerful glow enveloped the strand along the beach. This was the time in which, as if by communal agreement, nothing happened, as per the unwritten code of the tourist towns across the country. In the absence of Them, all that remained was Us.

Hands held, arms around waists, moving at a pace that spoke of neither hurry nor worry, everyone just happy and content to be here, to be sharing the quiet joy of Fall, and even if something was lightly fouling the air, a faint whiff of what, decay maybe, it would pass soon enough and be as quickly forgotten. Except that to some, the smell was growing stronger, more pungent. More wrong.

A gasp arose from somewhere in the crowd, the sound repeating as others turned to see, a susurration of shock whose echo grew louder, instead of diminishing. Children cried, their mothers and fathers drawing them close with iron-gripped hands, shielding their eyes from what they had already seen, could never un-see, their childhoods crashing down around them like milk bottles in a rigged carnival game. The throng of people parted, not unlike the Red Sea, at the sight of the woman among them.

The woman, if she could even be called that anymore.

She staggered along the promenade, this ruined wreck of a human being, oblivious to the multitude staring at her. Barefoot, shambling toward an unknown destination, each step leaving a bloody smear on the ground, gangrenous toes the dark purple-green of putrefaction, the hem of her tattered sweatpants as filthy as the feet beneath them, the knees torn through and crusted with dried blood, suggesting a lifetime spent on her knees; a torn, sleeveless cardigan hung open, making no secret of the nakedness behind it, the awful, shameless bruising and open sores weeping sickly yellow pus and blood, and the arms, the terrible arms with countless scratches and scars, suggesting that she might have been a cutter, but even worse, much worse than that, were the blackened track marks that flowed down from the crooks of each arm, the wounds that had never closed, homemade tattoos unidentifiable now but staining the flesh for ever more.

But the left arm, it must have been a trick of the light, certainly that if nothing else, because the left forearm…the skin was rotting away, the radius and ulna brownish-white and exposed like a dirty secret for all the world to see, ragged flaps of desiccated skin and tendons hanging loosely, hardly any meat to cling to, just empty air, the hand, if indeed it was a hand, flopping limply at her side and wrapped in a towel soiled and dripping, no tissue to give it life, to give it motion. As the horror of the arm attempted to lodge itself in the minds of those who saw it, they were powerless as their eyes went to her face, which was perhaps the worst of all.

Her hair, which may once have been strawberry blond, was a dirty, matted mess, hanging in her face, but not enough to cover it, not nearly enough, for her face was a tattered roadmap of self-hatred and abuse of many types. Blood vessels had bust like fireworks in one eye, leaving the sclera red and angry, while the other eye, its pupil dilated, wandered about, searching everything, focusing on nothing, blood leaking like awful tears from the depths of a hell beyond comprehension, her nose partially eaten away, scarcely more than a diseased crater in the middle of her face, yellow-green snot hanging in thick ropes, her occasional sniffles doing nothing to stem the tide of mucus running into and out of the hole where once had been a mouth, where once had been strong, white teeth, but now was home to rotting, ragged stumps of black and brown, lips chewed to shreds as though incredible pain had been sustained.

Her shoulders slumped, betraying any sense of height, and such was her appearance that her own mother, had she been there that day, would have failed to recognize her. The woman’s ruination was so complete, so absolute, that nothing of her humanity remained. Dragging a leprous foot behind her, she slouched onward, humming a song to herself, a discordant but familiar tune, so quietly that none of those nearest her, who cleared a broad path, could have heard it. Had they chanced approaching this malignant, walking nightmare, they might have learned something about her, but none there on that awful day were willing to cross the line between caution and foolishness which, as it turned out, made no difference whatsoever.

The sniffling got louder and she stopped in her tracks, body shuddering and trembling as though current was passing through it. Suddenly, explosively, she sneezed, the force of it doubling her over and as phlegm spattered the horrified faces around her, the sneeze caused her to violently void her bowels, a vile torrent of toxic shit staining her pants and cascading down her leg.

Screams erupted as those covered in her mess caught the smell, as though all they had seen had been abstract until they were spattered in her filth, that they were shocked back into reality. As the people scattered and ran, frantically clutching their children, the woman coughed slightly and pitched forward, her swollen, distended abdomen disgorging an impossible amount of black bile onto the ground, her face landing in the puddle of vomit. With death, the last of her muscles gave way, and a reeking lake of dark waste soon surrounded her, her wretched destruction complete.

In the distance, a siren wailed. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, the woman’s purpose had been served; the poison that had exploded from her orifices and leaked from her pores, had reached nearly every soul on the boardwalk with absolute efficiency.

It had begun.

desktop-1430323952“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” — Hunter S Thompson

This past weekend, Epic Steph and I went back to the Museum of Death for our second visit. We’d gone earlier in the year for my birthday, but this time we were grizzled veterans, bringing friends who’d never been. That first visit had been on a Monday morning, just after the museum had opened; this time, it was a late Saturday afternoon. Packed but silent, save for the one woman who was there with family, obviously drunk. Whatever.

Having already seen the sights, I contented myself with observing the other guests, and looking, really looking, at the hundreds of photos that line the walls. This time, I saw that all the victims in all the photos bore one common trait: they died alone. Even if there were two or three together, they died alone. Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Abigail Folger, Albert Dekker, the sad sacks of the Heaven’s Gate comet cult, the incomprehensible nine hundred and eighteen of Jonestown, the suicides, the executions, the murders…no matter how many were there, each of those people went to death by themselves: their final breath, their final pulse, a desperately personal act as they made their way to the other side.

Even the Serial Killer Gallery, the first exhibit in the museum, stands as testament to the loneliness of the deviant mind. Artwork by Gacy and Ramirez are poor attempts at portraying an alienated inner landscape few of us can really understand. Here and there are the random teams, Toole and Lucas, Bianchi and Buono, but even in those cases, it was the loneliness of alienation that bonded these people together. This is no attempt at justification; just an observation that these were some profoundly fucked-up people who had trouble relating to most others and acted out in abhorrent ways.

Leaving the museum, we ventured up Hollywood Boulevard in the waning light of the fall afternoon, the setting sun seeming to light the street on fire as the city’s night shift emerged. The boulevard fascinates me; tourists make pilgrimages here every day of the year, seeking that magic that might have once lived here, but has long since fled. Graumann’s Chinese is owned by some big company that has set retail kiosks out in the courtyard, the souvenir carts covering the very signatures and handprints that bring people there in the first place, while poorly-costumed geeks wander the crowd, demanding money for photos no one wants, while a guy selling five-dollar t-shirts calls a girl a fucking bitch because she doesn’t return his aggressive flirting.

Across the street is the El Capitan, a former movie palace that’s been restored to its former glory by Disney. It’s beautiful, but in a cheap and tawdry way because it’s just another cynical way for Disney to pimp itself, but it stands in stark contrast to the ugliness, the desperation, the despair of Hollywood Boulevard. All the other storefronts are cheap souvenir shops, luggage shops, food stalls, ‘naughty’ costume shops, strip clubs, liquor stores, and on and on, foul, dirty, untended, uncared for. One would think that with all the tourism, someone would step up and take back at least this block, reclaim it as a tourist destination and make it pretty, clean, photogenic and worth visiting, but it’s painfully obvious that no one has given a damn about this place in a very long time.

Lining the star-embedded sidewalks are the legions of the homeless and the addicted, the lost and the lonely, hustling a buck to get through the night, the stink of urine rising from the sun-baked street makes me think of Times Square circa 1976, wondering which of the countless, wound-up Travis Bickles wandering the street, lonesome and unloved, alienated and alienating, will be the next to snap, and how many they’ll take with them.

We see two prostitutes inside the Roosevelt, and my friend tells me that the dark-haired one will die tonight, and I have no problem believing that. The words are spoken without humor, an honest, genuine gut-hunch that I’m in no position to argue, because when night falls on the Boulevard, anything is possible and the darkness is absolute. It’s then that I realize that all of this, the hustling, the squalor, the stardom, the death, all of this – it’s all a monument to loneliness, the uncomfortable silence that falls between friends, between lovers, between family members, that which drives people apart and away, sending them scuttling into the dark corners of their homes, the streets, their hearts,  their minds, fighting the thoughts, the voices, the need, the desire, the desperation, the despair, the longing, the heartache, the past, the future, until there is no fight left, the will exhausted, the battle lost, and the curtain finally falls.

Black-and-white-forest-1024x640She came awake gradual, eyes fluttering open lazily, confused to find herself standing, rather than lying down. She breathed deep, taking in the rich smell of earth, and this more than anything brought her to wakefulness. Not really standing, but upright, vertical, with dirt beneath and on all sides of her. The hole in which she stood was small enough that her knees hit the side and prevented her from sliding down. Checking quickly, she found herself naked, the soil soft and cold beneath her feet. She craned her neck, saw nothing but darkness overheard. She knew that up there, somewhere, was the sheet of plywood that kept this makeshift tomb closed. High enough that she couldn’t reach it, might as well be high as the moon for all it mattered.

She worked to fight the fear that was kindling in her heart, knowing that eventually she would be pulled out, roughly. This was the story she’d heard countless times, the story she’d told around so many childhood campfires, delighting in the thrill of the story, so long as it was happening to someone else, the friend of a friend, or the cousin of someone down the holler, not even caring if the story was true, secretly hoping it wasn’t but she knew, everyone knew, that sometimes folks went missing and they had to end up somewhere, and this was that place, that awful place, where bones hung from trees and the wind made them sing and ain’t no one ever come back from that.

She could feel the walls pressing against her; breath quickening and not a sliver of light to be found in the darkness surrounding her. She could smell the richness of the earth beside and beneath her, could hear the things that crawled and slithered through the soil, sightless in the eternal dark. Packed earth, cold and mean, compressed against her as she clawed, desperately, trying to climb through it, even as her frantic scrabbling brought rivulets of dirt down upon her, raining down into her eyes, her open mouth, tasting it on her tongue as panicked reality constricted her chest, straining her already overworked lungs, blood vessels and capillaries in full flow as adrenaline coursed through her veins, desperation taking the place of reason, bleak resignation not yet lurking on the near horizon.

She tried to slow her breathing, to take control of this most desperate situation, believing beyond reason that she could fix this, make it better somehow, make it all better, if only she could slow down and breathe. Little by little, she could feel herself relaxing, her respiration deeper now, less shallow, as she fought the greasy slick of terror that had settled in her mind.

She felt herself becoming lightheaded, and that’s all it took.

Being lightheaded meant suffocation, that much she knew, and the panic came raging back, a crazed bull rampaging through her chest, hammering against her battered ribcage, setting off another adrenal surge, more vicious this time, demanding its due like a demon rooked in a bad deal. Frenzied, she renewed her clawing at the dirt, determined to get out of this crypt, or die trying.

Heart beating so hard she heard it in her ears, she felt a fingernail crack and break as she dug frantically at her earthen tomb, the sheet of plywood too far overhead to reach, knowing that even if she could touch it, too much weight sat upon it to be moved. The narrowness of the hole pushed her into full panic, as small flashes of light sparkled like distant fireworks on the periphery of her vision. I’m dying, she thought to herself calmly, curiously, without emotion. The very thought was a crooked comfort, a sly, winking con man of a thought, the promise of salvation at a price because there was always a price, you goddamn well better believe it, but dying also meant release, not just from this damnable life, but from the daily reminders of choices made poorly and failures too many to number.

I’m dying.

And as it will, the acceptance of this simple fact caused the panic to ebb, subsiding like the tide on a distant shore, rolling back to the sea.

She was dying, her grave already dug, weary tears of understanding tracing clean lines down her filthy cheeks, which inexplicably turned upward in a graceful, grateful smile. This was the end, the end of everything, and she knew without knowing that her grave would go unmarked, that none would come to mourn, but the pain would be over, and that was worth everything. It didn’t matter, she would die as she had lived, filthy and unloved, stripped of warmth, denied happiness, and bereft of simple human dignity. She welcomed Death with weary arms and a loving heart, happy to be shut of all pain and heartache the world had put on her, that she had invited upon herself.

I’m dying, thank God.

storyWell, here we are again. Another year over and done, and a brand, spankin’ new one just ripe and ready for the plucking. Or so it would seem. Honestly, I’m just happy to see 2015 in the rear view mirror. It wasn’t a terrible year, but it was overstaying its welcome by around September. And now we prepare to take another trip around the sun, 2016 promises to be a good year, to eat all its vegetables, and to not make too much of a stink over an upcoming, dreaded milestone.

So yeah, I took a few months off, because I found myself at a point in which I felt I had little of value to say. Do I now? I dunno, but I feel like writing again so, you know, there’s that. And there’s also a renewed sense of purpose and direction, fueled by encouragement. Who’d have thought?

I was looking at my overall sales for Unworthy, and found that it’s doing some business. I’ve sold copies in the UK and Australia, which just has me shaking my head in disbelief and happiness. For such a uniquely American story, I guess there are some themes and ideas that cross the various cultures. And while neither Mr Fincher nor Mr Zombie have yet reached out for the film rights, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, yeah?

I digress.

I’ve begun work on a new novel, and I’m pretty stoked about it. While I’m far too superstitious to give up the title or what it’s about just yet, I will say that this will be a far more personal story, and I can already see that we’re going to be swimming in some very dark waters (sorry Mom, I’m just wired this way).

So stick around, won’t ya? I promise I’ll be better at keeping in touch (like we’ve never heard that before), have some updates along the way, an excerpt or two, and maybe even some awesome news.

Stay sick, and keep reading scary stories. And hey, if you’re reading this and happen to have read Unworthy, drop me a line or leave a review, would ya? We’d sure appreciate it.

Cellar LightWe had to put Gramma in the cellar. We told ourselves it was for her safety, which was easier than admitting it was for our own.

Her ‘spells’ had been coming on more often, and with greater…passion. I guess that’s the word for it. There was no talking to her then, once she got it in her head that she was, well, once she got it in her head, is all.

We’d considered the attic, but there were too many chances for problems. She could have fallen or jumped out a window. Neighbors (not that there were many left) could have seen her up there and called the authorities, in some noble but misguided effort to help a crazy old lady they didn’t understand. And honestly, the noise wasn’t as bad when she was in the cellar. Call it callous, call it selfish, but you don’t understand. You can’t understand.

So yes, we decided, as a family, to put her down there. Because we couldn’t control her anymore. Because we love her. Because we deserve some goddamn peace. How the hell were we supposed to know what would happen? I built a bed, a solid pine bed, just for her. I sank the posts two feet deep into the earth of the cellar, so she couldn’t move it around. We put down a nice rug and made sure no drafts could get in.

She wanted her candles, but we knew better. Pa ran some basic electric down there, so she could have light to read her Reader’s Digest and bible stories, and we made sure to take her meals down every day. A hefty lock on the door helped us sleep at night. Routine settled in.

Days turned to weeks, then months and seasons rolled by, and we almost began to believe we were a normal family again. Except when Gramma had one of her spells. During those times, Pa and I dutifully took the van for the four-hour round trip up to the city, to fetch a playmate for Gramma. A playmate, for God’s sake. There wasn’t enough craziness in our heads to call it what it really was, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. Because it was the crazy that kept us afloat, kept us from coming completely unglued, kept us from calling the authorities, kept us from admitting that we were doing bad things. Really bad things.

That’s the power of family: It kept you doing things you knew were wrong, knew were bad, because there’s this bond that says family is more important than anything else. So you abide, and God only knows the depths to which you’ll sink to preserve that goddamn bond, even if it drives you to do the Devil’s work. Damn our souls.

So yeah, we took the van to town, and cruised skid row, looking for some poor drunk with one foot already in the grave. It’s a public service, we’d tell ourselves in the quiet, dark parts of the night. We’re helping those poor souls on the road to salvation. Because what they had to endure, we desperately hoped God would show them mercy, just as we knew He would have no mercy on us. We deserved no mercy, no salvation; we’d damned ourselves from the outset, booked our passage to hell because of family.

Gramma had come from the old country, making the passage across the ocean in the windowless hold of a wooden ship, with hundreds of others, all piled atop one another, with not enough room for all to sleep at the same time, taking shifts standing while others lay on raised planks, the floor covered in vomit, piss, and shit, all for the sake of escaping to the Promised Land, enduring Hell on earth as shipmates died from exposure, pneumonia, infection, beatings, and God knows what else, while those that lived choked on the stench of death and sewage in the hot, rolling chaos of the ship’s steerage hold. Food was scarce, causing some to shatter long-held taboos out of desperation.

Occasionally, a mate would open a hatch in the deck, allowing sunlight to stream in, fresh sea air mingling with the unspeakable reek emanating from below deck. When land was finally sighted, the dead were gathered up and unceremoniously dumped overboard, their tattered clothing and meager possessions long gone to the wretched horde, half-insane in the darkness of the hold.

Out of this waking nightmare came Gramma, not knowing that even then she was carrying the sickness in her gut like a despised parasite. Even at her tender young age, she came out of the darkness and brought with her a viciousness that few would ever live to see, and fewer still would ever believe.

Gramma, in her better days, would tell us her story, over and over, like a record stuck in a groove, as though we’d never heard it before, wanting us to understand the sacrifices she’d made, the things she’d had to do, to provide for us, to give us a chance in this place. To make us understand that we were beholden to her, forevermore.

So Pa and I would find a lost soul and bring it home. Send it down the cellar stairs, where we assured it that there would be food and drink, and a warm, safe bed. Our challenge was to get the door closed and bolted before the screaming started. Before the wet, tearing sounds found their way to our ears and burrowed into our souls, an ironclad guarantee of a sleepless night, fraught with images best left to a slaughterhouse.

Later, after Gramma’s hunger was sated and she was asleep, we would descend the stairs with the buckets and clean up what remained, thankful for the earthen floor of the cellar, into which the blood and other fluids had seeped, which fed an army of beetles and worms that kept Gramma fed and satisfied until the next time she had one of her spells.

I tried not to look at Gramma; we’d given up on trying to keep her clothed ages ago. Anything we tried to put on her would end up stained and shredded, as though the fabric on her skin was a sacrilege she couldn’t abide. The sight of her, covered in sores and filth, made my heart ache, despite the monstrous things she did. Her skin sagged, a testament to her years, its elasticity long since lost to the brutality of gravity and time. She stank of a dangerous musk that ran deeper than simply an aversion to bathing; though alive, a pervasiveness of decay floated about her like a dark and awful cloud. Stray teeth, blackened and jagged, glistened when she licked them with the remains of her tongue, chewed upon so much and so often that it had given up any hope of regrowth.

The madness of Gramma had forced Ma to flee while I was still a child, her teary eyes beseeching us to run with her, far from the grasp of Gramma, all the while knowing we would never, could never, leave her, not until the old woman died, which wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She’d already passed her one hundredth birthday, and seemed hell-bent on outliving all of us, despite the sickness that had ravaged her brain.

Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop her, short of a silver bullet,” Ma had wept, her breath hitching in her chest on that last night, rain coursing down her face as she stood in the doorway, taxi idling a few yards away. I remember her eyes then, soft and pleading, heartbroken and miserable, hating herself for the abandonment, but determined not to fall under the wheels of this inherited madness.

Those words resonated in my mind down the years that followed, as I scoured the land around our property for metals, slowly finding bits and pieces of what I sought, knowing that I could simply steal what I needed, but knowing too that, despite all the wrong I had done for the sake of Gramma, I couldn’t do the one wrong that might deliver us from her. By and by, I’d put together enough to melt down, the last of it coming from a small crucifix I’d found on the roadside, its tiny Christ shedding tears of pain and joy in his last torturous hours on this earth. I shaped the blob of metal carefully, burning my fingers time and again as I bled to make it absolutely perfect, leaving part of myself in it, as if a sacrifice was demanded as a means to this particular end. I carefully tapped the slug into a brass casing, already set with gunpowder and primer in place.

While Pa slept fitfully upstairs, I retrieved his rifle from the hiding place he didn’t know I knew about, and made for the cellar. Before opening the door, I racked my bullet into the chamber. I descended the stairs carefully and quietly, so as not to disturb Gramma.

Who is that?” she grunted, her words slurred, as if she weren’t accustomed to using the language, instead recalling it from distant memory.

It’s me, Gramma,” I said quietly, keeping myself in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see the rifle or, at the very least, not know what it was. “Just come down to tell you we’re making dinner. It’ll be here soon.”

You’re a good boy, Henry,” she said, her voice taking on a timbre and tone that I’d not heard in ages, sounding much like it did before she got so bad. Through my tears, I knew it was a trick of my mind, not to be taken seriously or given any semblance of meaning. Because while I knew I was doing the right thing, there was a still, small voice inside of me that thought I was doing bad, committing evil, despite the evil I sought to put down.

You abide by family no matter what, the voice said. At the end of it, family’s all you have. This was Gramma’s voice, echoing down the years. I knew its refrain by heart, and yet it caused tears to well up in my eyes as I shouldered the rifle.

I love you, Gramma,” I said quietly, my teary eyes sighting down the barrel, my finger on the trigger. I gently squeezed the trigger, just as I’d been taught.

The shot rang huge in my ears as the rifle’s recoil slammed it into my shoulder, instantly numb and deaf. Gramma slumped against the wall of the cellar, legs askew with no inclination toward modesty, the right side of her head blown to vapor, and I watched the last dim light leave her cataract-clouded eyes. A voice from the doorway above broke the silence.

You did good, son,” Pa said, his voice calm, without a trace of judgment or sorrow.

I watched our house burn from the rear window of the van as we drove away, into the cold light of a new day, the road stretched out in front of us.

Somewhere out there, I knew, Ma waited for us.

WindowShe sits in the window, a vague silhouette softly backlit from an unseen source. She sits there, day in and day out, looking out across the garden and over the fence at the streets of the town, always observing, but never participating. She stares without seeing, listens without hearing, as the rest of the world passes by, rarely glancing up.

The woman gazes out, recalling a childhood full of promise, full of possibility. She thinks of a time in which love was light and nothing hurt. A recollection of love unfettered, of proud teachers and adoring classmates. Ribbons and trophies, a precocious interest, a mangy stray, the slip of a knife. The curiosity of a child, with an adult’s desire to make something hurt. A horrifying discovery, a tearful admission.

A distant memory of a parent’s anger, remorse, for having brought such a thing into the world. The slam of a door and tires screeching off the curb, an engine revving off into the distance, not seen again. The unbearable knowledge that they left because of her. The lash of a belt, the loneliness of a childhood locked in the broom closet. Because she is mean, awful, terrible. Because she escapes and keeps on doing it. Because she cannot help herself.

She dreams from the window, remembering a time when she would go for rides in cars with boys, their voices filled with promises of everlasting love as their bodies made mad lunges toward things best left unmentioned. Desperate for their love, dying for it, she remembers the bitter anger in their voices as she pushed eager hands away, feels again the sting of hand on cheek. The salty taste of anguished tears as promises gave way to hurtfulness, showered and pelted by gravel as yet another car pulled angrily away, stranding her.

Abandoning her.

Discarding her.

The woman in the window thinks of the time she finally gave in, to the hot, beer-laced breath of an aggressive young man, deciding to go through with it only to give herself the illusion of having had a choice. She remembers her fingernails clawing into the grey upholstery, a thin trickle of blood from where she’d bit her lip in pain, the tracks of tears slowly descending her face. His anger at her awkwardness, his wicked words at her inexperience, his hand raised, illuminated in the moonlight, seeking to punish her for his hasty fumbling and quick expiration.

A hand in her purse, clutching the pommel of an old familiar friend, the glint of light on steel, the violation of penetration, red on grey, red on the windows, the dashboard. The sound of her laughter, as though coming from someone else. The feeling of absolute, electric life, of ultimate power, and ultimate release. Walking home that night, feeling a joy to treasure forever.

She was home long enough to pack a bag, and long gone before first light, taking the first bus to anywhere, still desperate for the love she now understood would never be hers, but taking solace in the knowledge that there were many more things for her to feel, things that were close to love, or at least close enough.

She remembers the infinite lights of big cities, the wee twinkling of small towns, and the world of possibilities that lay within all of them. She remembers a bathtub, anchored to the floor by iron claws, filled with the glorious red, splashing around like that woman she’d read about in another time, in another place, feeling life seeping into her very pores, filling her senses, overloading her mind.

The woman in the window feels every moment, every sensation, as though they happened yesterday. The garden far below her window grows lush and wild, fortified with the essence of long-gone lovers, each and every one of them holding a special place in her heart, each one a notch on the wrought iron fence that contains them.

In the still of night, the woman hears voices, interrupting her solitary vigil. She recognizes them, recognizes them all, and tries to understand their rage, their anger, their hateful words, their spectral threats. Of late, they appear nightly, screaming their pain at her, their outrage at the desecration she visited upon them. She usually bears them no mind, allows them their indignant ramblings, but tonight they find her weak, find her vulnerable. The rantings of the dead fill her mind, her heart, her very being with their sorrow, an emotion for which she has no understanding, having abandoned such things a lifetime before.

Tonight, the woman in the window stands, and pushes aside her chair, moves it aside and walks calmly to the other side of her sitting room and turns her back to the wall. She pushes off with her feet and launches herself at the window, legs pumping madly, hitting the glass with her feet off the ground, but while the window cracks, it does not break. She is cut and bleeding from the impact as she returns to the wall and propels herself, again and again, at the stubborn window.

On the fifth attempt, she finds success. The glass gives way and she sails out, weightless in the night, her arms out in front of her, as if in flight. Bits and shards of glass accompany her, and she believes she flies among the stars, that heaven and earth were made just for her. Then the ground beckons her, invites her closer, and she sees the wrought iron flour-de-lis that sit atop the fence-posts rushing to meet her, and in that last moment, the woman in the window understands.

She smiles.

 

You gotta start at the shoes. This here, right at the beginning, is where most people screw up. They think, “Oh, the head, the wig, that’s gotta be the first step,” but I’m here to tell you, they’re wrong and I guaran-goddamn-tee they ain’t here to argue the point. Everybody’s got their own ways of luring these creatures into the work chamber; myself, I tell ‘em there’s cancer babies that need balloon animals. Clowns eat that shit up and hey, don’t judge – the end more than justifies the means with this much at stake. You’ll see; we’re playing for keeps here.

Once you’ve got the thing strapped to your work surface, bring out the bone saw. Don’t take it out beforehand, unless you want to panic-fight Bozo, and ain’t a sane man on Earth wants to do that. That said, you want to keep it awake as long as possible, so never underestimate the importance of tourniquets. Keep buckets handy.

After tying off your tourniquets just above the ankle, go ahead and use the saw, below the tourniquet, to separate the feet and shoes from the body. Never attempt to remove just the shoes – there is far too much evil stored inside those oversized clodhoppers. Just dump the shoes and feet in the acid barrel and all’s well and good. The acid won’t destroy the evil, but it’ll keep things in check while you deal with the Satan spawn on the table.

This is the point where the costume needs to be removed. Just cut the damn thing off, sure as shit it ain’t being reused. Taking care to not let those fluffy pompon buttons touch your skin – that shit’ll burn you down to the bone. If it hasn’t started screaming yet, you’re doing great. Now, tie a tourniquet good and tight just above each elbow. If you want to use the saw, that’s your choice but me, I find the cleaver easier. More satisfying. Don’t fart around with the arms; just get ’em off and into the barrel, nice and quick. The subject may be going into shock, so be sure to keep smelling salts handy.

If it’s still conscious (and it damn well better be), the subject may be pleading, honking, for its life. This is a common ploy: do not fall for it! Deception is their stock in trade and don’t ever think that just because you’ve got its hands and feet that you’re free and clear. The worst is yet to come – all you’ve done so far is slightly minimize the risk.

At each step, be sure check the restraints. Safety is key here, so don’t let your guard down. It’s about to get all kinds of serious.

By now, you should have a reasonably docile and alert subject, a bit messy, but with minimal honking. Double-check the tourniquets and try not to get seltzer water on your shoes. This is the calm before the storm. Approach the thing from either side, making sure it sees you. Eye contact is critical at this stage; use tape or staples to ensure its eyes are open. Myself, I picked up an antique Ludovico device at old Doc Brodsky’s garage sale in Nacogdoches, and I use that. To each their own.

Using a finely honed scalpel, remove the hair by cutting along the scalp line. The subject may attempt to distract you by claiming it to be a wig, but don’t fall for it. This is simply a stalling tactic meant to put you off-task. Take care to keep blood and seltzer from getting in its eyes, and put on the chainmail gloves. Efficient and confident strokes are needed here; you don’t want to spend too much time this close to a clown. Last thing you want is one of these things in your head and that’s just where he’ll go, if given half a chance.

Now comes the moment of truth, that which you have spent all these bloody hours working toward. Grasp the nose firmly with one hand – do not be shocked if it honks – and with the other hand, cut away the nose as quickly as possible, keeping eye contact as much as safety will allow, while repeating the words, “Where are the clowns, there should be clowns, well maybe next year,” over and over.

Though a cunning and savage beast, the clown will never suspect that its nose, that bulbous red beacon of unrestrained evil, is the ultimate goal. It is within this seemingly innocent symbol of clownhood that the souls of its victims are kept, and this is why we do what we do. Remember that movie where Mork played a doctor with a clown nose? Think about that, let it soak in real good. Once you have grasped its nose, expect the subject to go thoroughly ballistic, screaming and honking and flailing about under the restraints.

Once you have successfully removed the nose, place it upon the table and strike it repeatedly with the Sanctified Squeaky Hammer of Ultimate Truth. This will release the souls contained within, resulting in a torrent of anguished cries of the tormented ones are finally given the freedom that all souls deserve, as they ascend to their heavenly reward. You know that scene in that Indiana Jones movie where the Nazis open the God box and all them spirits came out and made the bad guys’ faces melt? It looks exactly like that. I heard somewhere that Spielberg got to watch a disassembly once, and wrote that scene as a result. Makes as much sense as anything.

Now, you should have a half-dead pile of meat without menace. Carefully untie the tourniquets and let the monster bleed out. I’ve seen cases where even after all this, the clown still had some fight left in it, so stay vigilant and keep the restraints in place. Leave it as a message to some and a warning to all: No evil goes unpunished.

Okay look, I know I said I’d write, and the cold fact is that I didn’t.

I’m sorry.

There were the holidays, then my car took its final dive and that had to be dealt with and, you know, life sorta got in the way. In the midst of everything, I found I was being psycho-stalked on another social media platform, while getting nasty notes through WordPress, and that sort of thing…well…it hurt a bit, particularly since it was coming from people I know. Yes, they were hiding behind fake names and other faces, but really, it was idiotically simple to track it to them. Anyway, I’m not popping in to fan the flames of anger in the fragile minds of bitter trolls, so it ends here. Onward and upward.

The happy news is that Unworthy is selling. People are buying it, and while it hasn’t immediately swept the planet as I’d quietly hoped, people are reading it and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. For that, I am profoundly appreciative, and encouraged to continue with this writing thing.

I’ve begun research and writing on a new novel; I have no idea how long it will take, but I know that I want to take my time to treat the subject matter with the appropriate respect that it deserves. A while back, I posted a short piece called The Temple, and the novel will be a continuation of that. I’m really excited about it and even have a title but I’m not ready to talk more about it at this point. Suffice it to say, the main theme is something to which my generation has had an enormous amount exposure, with which many of us are sadly, intimately familiar.

Yes, it will be another horror story, because that’s the genre I love, and the area which best suits the things I want to say. I know that not everyone likes horror, and that’s okay. I just want to say the things I think are important and hope that it connects with whoever takes the chance and reads it.

To those who have read Unworthy: Thank you. Seriously, thank you. If you liked it, if it spoke to you, do me a favor and tell someone. Write a review at the site where you bought it, even if it’s just a few lines, because it matters. It really does.

So that’s the news from here. Nothing earth-shaking, but I’m okay with that. Take good care.

See you on the dark side.