EXCERPT: Blood Country by Jonathan Janz

The Raven #2: Blood Country

Genre: Horror, Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Publication Date: 10.18.2022
Pages: 316

Three years ago the world ended when a group of rogue scientists unleashed a virus that awakened long-dormant strands of human DNA. They awakened the bestial side of humankind: werewolves, satyrs, and all manner of bloodthirsty creatures. Within months, nearly every man, woman, or child was transformed into a monster…or slaughtered by one.

A rare survivor without special powers, Dez McClane has been fighting for his life since mankind fell, including a tense barfight that ended in a cataclysmic inferno. Dez would never have survived the battle without Iris, a woman he’s falling for but can never be with because of the monster inside her. Now Dez’s ex-girlfriend and Iris’s young daughter have been taken hostage by an even greater evil, the dominant species in this hellish new world:

Vampires.

The bloodthirsty creatures have transformed a four-story school building into their fortress, and they’re holding Dez’s ex-girlfriend and Iris’s young daughter captive. To save them, Dez and his friends must risk everything. They must infiltrate the vampires’ stronghold and face unspeakable terrors.

Because death awaits them in the fortress. Or something far worse.

CHAPTER TWO

The bikes were a godsend. Every time Dez had ridden as an adult, he wondered why he didn’t do it more often. Aside from being more expedient than slogging the eight miles on foot, biking brought with it the subtler pleasures he’d forgotten about, the breeze ghosting over his face, the edifying sensation of the handlebars in his grip, the gratifying blaze in his quadriceps as he worked the pedals. Even though the roads were gravel and somewhat of a grind, he resolved to travel on bike whenever he could, exposure to predators be damned.

Iris evidently disagreed.

She pedaled in grim silence, her eyes constantly strafing the woods and fields. In several places the gravel was shot through with weeds; even the blacktop was cracked by sprouted plants. Without people around to spoil it, nature had reclaimed the earth. Squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, foxes, even the occasional cat or dog darted across the road ahead of them. The birds that hadn’t flown south swooped and congregated on the roadsides, in the trees, on the disused telephone poles lining the roads. Many of these birds – crows, sparrows, finches, and a large onyx-feathered creature that might have been a raven – showed no fear at all as Dez and Iris rattled past on their ten-speeds, perhaps sensing on an instinctive level that the pair meant them no harm. Or maybe it was the bikes themselves that put the birds at ease. Dez had certainly never seen a monster riding one. Motorcycles, cars, and ATVs, sure, but not bicycles. Apparently, monsters considered themselves too cool for regular bikes.

They pedaled on, the countryside eerily silent. Twice they passed abandoned vehicles. The first was a pickup truck. It had once been white, but two years of dust, weather, and copious splats of bird shit had rendered its exterior a seedy farrago of colors. Since there were no dents or signs of trauma to the pickup, Dez’s guess was that its driver had simply run out of gas and had to hoof it.

The second vehicle was an overturned SUV, and this one did bear marks of a struggle. It lay diagonally across the road, its rear end crumpled. The dusty black paint was scarred by what might have been claws, and within the SUV he glimpsed wine-colored stains. Dez caught a flickering mental image of a family being dragged out of the shattered windows, and he was gripped with a bone-deep chill.

Dez and Iris pedaled past the macabre scene without comment.

They arrived at Buck Creek by two that afternoon, but rather than entering town, per Levi’s instructions they took County Road 1050. It was a shitty road, potholed and weedy, and the farther they advanced, the more primitive it became. When they reached the grain elevator, the gravel lane was so crowded by evergreens that Dez felt relatively safe. Iris not so much.

“I don’t like this,” she said, hunkering down beside him, their bikes resting just within the tree line.

“The town or the vampires?” he asked.

“Any of it,” she said. “Feels like we’re being watched. Kind of like when I get dressed with you in the room.”

At his open-mouthed stare, she chuckled softly and gave him a shove. “Come on,” she said. “Keep your bow ready.”

He slid it out of its holder. Toting the crossbow all the way through town would be cumbersome, but being beset by vampires would be worse. If one came charging toward him, he figured he could nail it, and the silent weapon wouldn’t draw others. If a horde of them attacked, they were screwed anyway, and he’d use the Ruger. At the thought of being eviscerated in this small town, he shuddered and moved a smidge closer to Iris. At least he wouldn’t die alone. They hurried past the grain elevator, paused at the edge of the road, then darted across it and took refuge in a stand of woods that bordered a residential area. As they sprinted, hunched over like soldiers attacking a beachhead, all manner of wildlife scattered before them.

Iris crouched beside a towering oak. “You see anything?” she whispered.

“It’s like a nature preserve,” he answered. “Even if there were vampires around, we wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the animals.”

Iris scanned the houses ahead. “The vampires are the ones with glowing orange eyes and fangs as long as your pinkies.”

“Thanks for that.”

“Let’s move. The sooner we find medicine, the sooner we can get the hell out this mausoleum.”

God, he thought. The town did feel like a mausoleum. They bolted out of the forest. There was a paved residential street followed by houses, most of them two stories, a few of them ranches. To Dez it looked like every small town he’d ever driven through or, when he was younger, horsed around in with his buddies. They crossed the road, hustled through a yard, the knee-high grass swishing against their legs, then ducked close to the first house they encountered, a stately white-siding-and-black-shutter affair where someone smalltown-famous probably once lived, an elementary school principal or the owner of a used car dealership. As they passed, Dez made sure not to look too closely. He learned long ago that details could humanize a house and remind him of both the world that was forever lost and the lives that had been taken. A swing set, a skateboard. Even something as innocuous as a muddy mitten or a candy wrapper had, for the first year after the world unraveled, snowed him under a blizzard of despair. It reminded him of Will, his little boy, who perished in the first massive wave of deaths.

Perished without Dez there to protect him.

Jesus.

He shook his head. Best to avoid dwelling on it. At least, as much as his traitorous mind would allow.

They crept past the first house, then hastened across a short expanse of yard. Moving this way was slower, but it was a hell of a lot more prudent than strutting around in the open the way people did in postapocalyptic movies. What those films missed was that it only took one. One glimpse from a cannibal. One noise detected by a vampire. One sniff from the Children, a race of subterranean creatures ten feet tall that Dez had never encountered but whose ferocity was legendary….

One mistake was enough. No matter how hardscrabble this existence might be, Dez had no desire to die. He glanced at Iris, a knife gripped at her hip. He studied the firm line of her jaw, her comprehensive blue-eyed gaze, and was damned glad to be by her side. They advanced to the next house. According to Levi’s diagram, there were four residential blocks before they reached the diminutive business district.

“Hey,” Iris said, and when Dez looked up he realized he’d been drifting. The look on her face was enough to center him.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

“Traveling with you is like walking my dog, Harry. The slightest thing, a butterfly, a bird, even a dandelion spore, and he’d be mesmerized by it.”

“I bet he was a good-looking dog though.”

“Golden Lab,” she said. “Much handsomer than you.”

Dez hesitated. “Did he…um—”

“Died of old age six months before the bombs flew.” “Good,” he said.

“Pay attention.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She gave him a smirk, then hauled ass across the street.

As they moved deeper and deeper into the tiny hamlet, a restive feeling grew in Dez, and not just because it was so damnably quiet. He’d heard that vampires seldom left their victims out in the open. They didn’t hassle with burial, but they did take the time to drag the bodies into ditches or hide the remains in forests. The reason for this had nothing to do with fastidiousness. According to Levi, who’d spent more time on the borders of Blood Country than any of them, it was because vampires had no desire to advertise their whereabouts. They wanted travelers to venture near their enclaves. Dez supposed when you were an alpha species, your reputation was enough to frighten off most visitors. No need to display a field of desiccated corpses to discourage them.

They progressed through more overgrown yards, the thistles and pokeweed waist-high in several places. The toe of Dez’s boot knocked something aside, and when he glanced down and discovered the object shrouded in a clutch of crabgrass, his chest tightened. It was a splintery wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toy, its blue paint all but flaked away. Dez’s son had loved to play with those trains, the two of them spending hours in the basement fitting the wooden tracks together and concocting stories about late deliveries and petty squabbles. God, what he wouldn’t give to play with Will one more time….

“Dez?” Iris said.

He looked up at her, expecting to find judgment in her gaze, but there was none.

Softly, she said, “Let’s keep moving.”

He snatched up the tank engine and followed her.

With Iris leading the way, they reached the business district. What there was of it. The first snatch of storefronts consisted of a pizza place, aptly named Buck Creek Pizza King; a real estate company; and an establishment that simply called itself The Rock Shop. Whether they specialized in ordinary rocks, rare gems, or were a money-laundering front for the mob, he didn’t know.

“See anything?” Iris asked from the side of her mouth.

“The Rock Shop looks intriguing.”

“Probably a guitar store.”

He hadn’t considered that. Maybe the new world was turning him into a literalist.

“The real estate agent,” she said, “they’ve got a recessed door.

Like, really recessed.”

He peered across the street and realized it was as she’d said. With the sun gliding west and not particularly brilliant to begin with, there was plenty of gloom there to conceal them. He started forward, but she threw out an arm to bar his way. She nodded ahead, and following her gaze, he detected nothing but a barren street. They remained that way, hunkered down in the bushes of a sea-blue saltbox house that looked like it’d been falling into disrepair well before the Four Winds. Dez shook his head at the ill-fitting name someone had given to the apocalyptic event. He supposed the virus contained in the bombs had been spread by the wind, but still. Four Winds was too poetic, too gentle for the madness and carnage the scientists had unleashed.

Iris relaxed a little. “Thought I saw a shadow up there in the window. Maybe just my imagination.” “Ready?” he asked.

They sprinted across the road and soon they were pressed against the windowless real estate office door.

“You’re sort of fast,” she said.

“You didn’t know that yet? After seeing me in action at the

Four Winds?”

“You look faster with clothes on.”

“Ah.” He’d forgotten that, with the exception of his tighty-whities, he’d been naked during their cataclysmic battle with Bill Keaton and his followers at the Four Winds Bar. The one that concluded with the place a smoldering ruin and God knew how many people dead.

“Where to next, Captain?” he asked.

“Captain,” she repeated thoughtfully. “I like that. One block over, the recessed door at a diagonal.” “China Moon?” he read.

“Doubt the buffet is open.”

He lowered his voice dramatically. “Unless it’s a human buffet.”

She looked at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Sleep deprivation?”

“You tossed and turned all night.”

Because you talk in your sleep, he thought but didn’t say. And because I can’t stop thinking about kissing you.

“Sure you wanna cross the road?” he asked. “We could just—” “The restaurant—” she pointed, “—is across from the pharmacy. From there we can see the storefront and make sure there’s nothing leering out at us.”

“Nice verb.”

“Traveling with an English teacher, I figure I better exercise vivid word choice.”

Former English teacher,” he said. “Nowadays, I feel lucky to string together a pair of coherent sentences.”

She nodded. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but….”

“Smart-ass,” he said, and they set off, Dez acutely aware of how vulnerable they were, how easy it would be not only to see them, but to surround them.

If the vampires came out before dark. Unfortunately, he’d seen it happen.

Could you maybe not think of that now? he wondered. Picturing a gory vivisection wasn’t going to scoot them across the road any faster, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to help Michael.

Oh yeah, he thought. Michael.

Finally, they ducked under the green canopy of China Moon and took a knee as close to the glass front door as they could.

BILL’S DRUG STORE, the yellow sign across the street said, though the B had been shattered, so that the pharmacy now read ILL’S.

She gave him a look. “Go ahead.”

“Too easy,” he said. “My jokes are more sophisticated and work on multiple levels.”

She smiled wanly and returned her gaze to the store’s façade.

The windows were intact, which could either mean the place hadn’t been pillaged or it had been converted into a stronghold. But with so many windows….

“Levi claims the front door’s unlocked?” he asked.

She nodded. “He went in there once, near the beginning.”

Dez nodded, the story coming back to him. Levi’s sister had been an asthmatic, so when her inhaler ran out, Levi had been dispatched to find a replacement. Buck Creek was the fourth small town to which he’d ventured, and it was here he’d found a cache of inhalers. Feeling guilty, he’d only taken half of them, but when he returned home it hadn’t mattered because his family had been murdered by cannibals. Dez hadn’t had the heart to ask if they’d also been eaten, and he supposed it didn’t matter. The point was, Bill’s Drug Store had been a viable source of medicine. But that was more than twenty months ago. To believe it hadn’t been raided since was naive.

“Three-story building,” Iris said, “so there might be apartments above it.” What remained unacknowledged was what might dwell in those apartments. Dez was grateful for the omission. “Guess we better go,” she said. “I don’t think we’re being— Holy shit.” She spun and stumbled backward, and when Dez whirled toward the glass door of China Moon, his crossbow was already out. He was a hair’s breadth from firing a bolt through the glass when he realized what he was looking at.

A cardboard cutout of Han Solo, his blaster drawn, his intense gaze fixed directly on Dez and Iris.

“Fuckers,” she said, hand on chest.

“We don’t know it was the vampires,” he said, lowering the crossbow. “Could’ve been anyone.”

“I mean whoever did it,” she snapped. “And why are you defending the vampires?” “Sorry.”

Fuck,” she said.

“Let’s head over there,” he said. Iris nodded, heaved a breath, and then they were rushing toward the pharmacy entrance, no sign of life around them, nothing except the increasingly brooding November afternoon. They reached the door and Dez muttered, “I’ll cover you,” and as Iris grasped the handle, Dez trained the crossbow over her shoulder.

She yanked the door open and slipped inside. Dez strafed the dimness with the crosshairs of the bow. As the door wheezed shut behind them, Dez became aware of a cloying medley of smells. There was the astringent tang of medicine he associated with pharmacies, but it was buried under less-pleasant odors. Rancid meat. Yeasty armpits. Animal spoor – were there rats in here? – and something worse. Something he associated with a hog farm at which he and a buddy had worked one summer. His buddy’s dad, who owned the farm, wouldn’t allow them near the slaughterhouse. But there was an old well in back. One into which something once fell…the stench growing more noxious each day…until they finally peered down into it with a flashlight to see what was causing the repulsive odor and stared straight into the maggot-infested eyes of an enormous bloated possum.

He fancied he could smell that possum now as he whispered, “Can you see?”

Iris didn’t answer. When she advanced past the registers toward an aisle of greeting cards, he added, “Darker than a woodchuck’s asshole in here.”

She brought a forefinger to her lips, so he shut up, but if he couldn’t see anything he certainly couldn’t shoot anything. Iris, evidently, was in favor of conserving their flashlights. For what he had no idea.

They progressed down the row, magazines on their left, greeting cards on their right. The scavenger in him wondered why Iris would’ve chosen the least utilitarian aisle through which to venture, but as they continued he realized that the days of lucking upon soup cans or boxes of ramen noodles were long past, that the only tactical move was to make their way around the store’s perimeter, keeping any potential threat on one side of them.

Good thing Iris had taken the lead.

They continued on, and as they did, Dez noticed a bizarre thing. The end of the world had been even messier than movies had depicted. Just about every store he’d encountered in the past two years had looked like bombs had been detonated in them. Shredded paper everywhere, blood splattered on the walls, in many cases body parts strewn about. But not here. Here the magazines lay neatly in their displays and even the greeting card envelopes, which in the old world had been frequently untidy, were symmetrically aligned with their cards. Iris glanced back at him, in her face the same disquiet worming its way through his guts. They moved toward the end of the aisle, the store growing duskier.

As they crept to the edge of a display, this one for gift bags and garish pinatas, Dez realized something else was bothering him too. In the mélange of smells burrowing up his nostrils, one was missing: dust. You entered any building these days, including the farmhouse in which they were currently hiding out, and the thick, chalky odor of dust was ubiquitous. To not smell it meant—

He heard a click, tensed, then realized Iris had switched on her flashlight. She shone it toward the wall they were approaching, where a paltry array of wine and spirits resided. They rounded the corner, and Iris aimed her beam down the long rear walkway of the store. A liquor display to his left. The section had been humble to begin with, but now there were only four bottles remaining: a pair of off-brand vodkas, a bottle of dirt-cheap wine, and a fifth of Wild Turkey. After a moment’s debate, Dez snagged the neck of the whiskey bottle and stowed it in his pack. Iris stared at him, and he offered her a crooked grin. Shaking her head, she started down the back walkway.

According to Levi, the pharmacy was inset in the rear of the store, and as they inched forward, Dez saw a yawning black opening appear. To their right were the main aisles, hair products dominating one, analgesics and sleep-aids in another; it pained him to discover the sleep-aids had been totally plundered. They passed a potato chip and soda aisle, another with mouthwashes and toothpastes. An end cap advertised FAMILY PLANNING, and Dez was unsurprised to find every box of condoms missing. The new world was a godawful place for a pregnant woman and even worse for a newborn. Pushing away the thought, he huddled closer to Iris, his finger off the trigger of the crossbow but ever ready to twitch in that direction. If a vampire struck, it would be instantaneous.

A few feet ahead, the back wall disappeared and the pharmacy began. Edging around the last few display items, he realized that there were no windows back here, no light at all save what filtered in from the front of the store. Iris crept around the corner, Dez close on her heels. She shone the light on the far wall, where they found three help windows, a waiting area, a machine that took your blood pressure, and to the far left, a single door.

“Stay ready,” she whispered.

Dez didn’t like the fact that this was an old-fashioned layout rather than the newer open-concept pharmacies. This one adhered to the style he’d encountered in his childhood, the undersized windows reminding him of the gatekeeper in The Wizard of Oz. As they approached, he feared a face would appear, only instead of a bushymustached guard informing them the Great and Powerful Oz was too busy to be bothered today, they’d encounter the alabaster leer of a vampire, its lambent eyes aglow and its fangs dripping slaver.

Fuck. Why did his imagination insist on betraying him?

Iris was almost to the door. Levi said it had been unlocked the last time he’d come, and when Iris twisted the knob and pulled, the door creaked open. She hunched her shoulders at the noise, and strangely enough, her fear reassured him. If someone as unflappable as Iris was terrified, there was no shame in him being scared shitless either. She glanced at him, then drew the door open farther – creeeaaak – and pushed through. She swept the light about the room. Dez expected a wicked face to whirl and snarl at them. But the space appeared empty.

The inner pharmacy looked as orderly as the rest of the store.

Not right, Dez thought. Something’s not right.

Whether Iris suspected that too, he didn’t know. She was already hurrying forward, her flashlight the only illumination in the stygian gloom. Dez remained right behind her, both to keep her safe and, if he was being honest, to provide himself a measure of comfort. Iris was one of the bravest people he’d ever met, and he’d found that braveness, like nervousness, could be transmitted.

“Alphabetical order?” she whispered, and it took him a moment to realize she was alluding to the drugs populating the abundant shelves in the twenty-by-thirty space. She stopped, Dez almost crashing into her, and fished a paper out of her jeans pocket. “Clindamycin,” she murmured, then moved to the left and began scanning pill bottles and boxes. “Caelyx…Capoten…Cialis…Clonazepam…dammit, it’s not here.”

“What’s the next one?” he asked. He knew it was his imagination, but the temperature seemed to have dropped. Slightly stuffy when they entered, it now felt as cool as it was outside, no more than fortyfive degrees.

“Amoxicillin,” she read.

“I’ve heard of that.”

“It’s one of the most common antibiotics,” she murmured.

“Cassidy is allergic to it.”

She crossed to the wall rack, where she honed in on the A-drugs. She riffled through the boxes, whispering their names, and at first the sound of her voice masked it, that other sound, the one he dismissed as imagination. Then Iris broke off, her posture expectant, and he heard it again. A furtive slither.

It came from above them.

Oh God.

He looked at her, and she looked at him, and he knew she was remembering what she’d said about apartments above the pharmacy.

Apartments and their inhabitants.

“Find the amoxi-whatever,” he breathed.

She painted the bottles with light and as she grasped each one, he could see how her hand trembled, how the flashlight jittered in her grip. He’d offer to hold it but knew he’d be even jumpier than she was. Besides, she knew what she was looking for, she—

The sound above them recurred, louder this time. Like more than one individual was stirring.

“Aciphex,” she whispered. “Adderall. Aldactone….” He fumbled off his pack, unzipped it.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“Find the medicine,” he hissed. He reached inside, located his flashlight, clicked it on.

The floor above them creaked.

“Ambien,” she said, her voice a bit louder. “Amitriptyline….”

He swung the beam around the room. There had to be another exit, an opening to the alley….

“Amlodipine….”

He swung the light right and left, but everywhere there were more shelves, more boxes and pill bottles. Dammit! They’d have to exit the same way they came in, which meant they had to beat whatever was upstairs to the front door. Dez shifted his flashlight beam, which jigged wildly now, to the opposite wall. Where are the stairs? he thought. Do the apartments somehow connect to the pharmacy, or do they lead to an exterior door?

“Amoxicillin!” Iris gasped. “It’s here!”

He rushed over to her, his backpack thankfully still unzipped. “Drag it all in,” he said. “Hurry.”

Iris bulldozed three good-sized boxes off the shelf, the pills rattling mutedly as the boxes tumbled into Dez’s pack. From directly above them, the floor screaked long and loud. Dez froze, his genitals shrinking, his breath held, and stared at Iris, whose eyes were as wide as he’d ever seen them. Then the thump of footsteps pounded the ceiling, and he growled, “Go! Go!”

They surged forward, threw open the door, which cracked the outer wall, then halted in the doorway. Rushing footsteps sounded on the store’s tiled floor. Deep, chortling laughter.

Oh Jesus, Dez thought. The vampires are in here.

Boo-graphy: Jonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels. He is represented for Film & TV by Ryan Lewis (executive producer of Bird Box). His work has been championed by authors like Josh Malerman, Caroline Kepnes, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe R. Lansdale, and Brian Keene. His ghost story The Siren &the Specter was selected as a Goodreads Choice nominee for Best Horror. Additionally, his novels Children of the Dark and The Dark Game were chosen by Booklist and Library Journal as Top Ten Horror Books of the Year. He also teaches high school Film Literature, Creative Writing, and English. Jonathan’s main interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children. You can sign up for his newsletter, and you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Jonathan Janz

Meghan: Welcome back, Jonathan. This has become so much of a tradition, you and me, that I can’t imagine Halloween without you. Thanks for joining us again this year. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Jonathan: Cheesy answer here, but I love taking my kids trick-or-treating. My oldest is a junior now, and my middle child is a freshman, so they do things with their friends now, but my youngest (Peach) is still all-in for trick-or treating. I love going with her!

Meghan: Do you get scared easily?

Jonathan: Yes. I have a deliriously overactive imagination, so I get scared pretty frequently. The things I’m most scared of involve something happening to my loved ones, but I guess most people worry about that. Some more obscure things that scare me are waking in the middle of the night and worrying someone is going to seize my hand. I’m also creeped out when I’m in the school alone (where I teach). Schools can be really eerie places.

Meghan: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and why?

Jonathan: My favorite horror movie is Jaws, but the scariest? I don’t know which one wins, but there are some that genuinely freak me out: The Taking of Deborah Logan, Lake Mungo, Hell House LLC, Smile, Gondjiam: Haunted Asylum, Host, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Hereditary.

Meghan: Which horror movie murder did you find the most disturbing?

Jonathan: You know one that really bothered me? I think it fit the movie, but it really hit me hard. In Summer of ’84, there’s a death near the end that really stunned me. I still can’t quite believe they went there, but I do think it was the right decision.

Meghan: Is there a horror movie you refused to watch because the commercials scared you too much?

Jonathan: Naw. If the commercials were scary, I’d be there. The only ones I don’t watch are ones I just know I wouldn’t dig from the stuff I’ve heard. Cannibal Holocaust and A Serbian Film come to mind. I’m not against them or anything. I just don’t have any interest in them.

Meghan: If you got trapped in one scary movie, which would you choose?

Jonathan: Weeellll, I guess I’d choose one from which I could escape? One that would be a lot of fun? So that being said, maybe Slaxx or Psycho Goreman? Or Love & Monsters, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Meghan: If you were stuck as the protagonist in any horror movie, which would you choose?

Jonathan: If survival were the goal, I’d have to choose a pretty resourceful one, so I’d say… Ash from the Evil Dead series.

Meghan: What is your all-time favorite scary monster or creature of the night?

Jonathan: Wow, great question. I love both vampires (when they’re ferocious) and werewolves, but if I HAD to pick one, it’d be the werewolf. I just love that concept.

Meghan:What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Jonathan: My birthday is right around Halloween (the 27th), so it’s always fun to celebrate both around the same time. I get to have my family with me even more than usual!

Meghan: What is your favorite horror or Halloween-themed song?

Jonathan: I love “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s just perfect.

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Jonathan: Hmmm… for that one, let’s go with Ghost Story. I’ve been re-reading it for an upcoming podcast and remembering all the ways it freaked me out. Straub made something permanent there.

Meghan: What is the creepiest thing that’s ever happened while you were alone?

Jonathan: I sleepwalked a great deal as a kid, so I woke up in some scary places. I remember waking up in a friend’s new house where they’d just moved in, and I was stuck in a pitch-black room in a maze of boxes for a good twenty minutes before I felt my way out. It felt like twenty hours.

Meghan: Which unsolved mystery fascinates you the most?

Jonathan: The stuff with alien abductions fascinates me. I’m sure most accounts aren’t true, but what if? Also, I’m really taken with the notion of ghosts, so any haunting piques my interest.

Meghan: What is the spookiest ghost story that you have ever heard?

Jonathan: I’ll go way back for this one. The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens scared the hell out of me as a little kid. My mom brought in home on album from the Delphi Public Library. It had sound effects, the creepiest music, and a really good narrator. I still get chills thinking about it.

Meghan: In a zombie apocalypse, what is your weapon of choice?

Jonathan: Got to be the crossbow (after I mastered it, of course). Or a sword. I’ve watched too much Walking Dead, obviously.

Meghan: Okay, let’s have some fun. Would you rather get bitten by a vampire or a werewolf?

Jonathan: Werewolf. You don’t HAVE to kill to survive. I’d have my family lock me up as a precaution. Then again, if they were MY kind of werewolves (who changed because of a strong negative emotion), I might be a danger to my family. So let me think about it some more!

Meghan: Would you rather fight a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion?

Jonathan: It would depend on the nature of the aliens, but I’d lean toward the former because the latter seems more invincible.

Meghan: Would you rather drink zombie juice or eat dead bodies from the graveyard?

Jonathan: Yikes! I guess the latter if they were seasoned properly *shivers*

Meghan: Would you rather stay at the Poltergeist house or the Amityville house for a week?

Jonathan: Amityville. The Poltergeist held too many terrors. Although I don’t like the way the Amityville House made him turn on his family.

Meghan: Would you rather chew on a bitter melon with chilies or maggot-infested cheese?

Jonathan: Yikes again! The former. No question at all. I’m not a maggot fan.

Meghan: Would you rather drink from a witch’s cauldron or lick cotton candy made of spiderwebs?

Jonathan: Is that code for something? I’m gonna assume no and go with the former.

Boo-graphy: Jonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels. He is represented for Film & TV by Ryan Lewis (executive producer of Bird Box). His work has been championed by authors like Josh Malerman, Caroline Kepnes, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe R. Lansdale, and Brian Keene. His ghost story The Siren &the Specter was selected as a Goodreads Choice nominee for Best Horror. Additionally, his novels Children of the Dark and The Dark Game were chosen by Booklist and Library Journal as Top Ten Horror Books of the Year. He also teaches high school Film Literature, Creative Writing, and English. Jonathan’s main interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children. You can sign up for his newsletter, and you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads.

The Raven 2: Blood Country
Three years ago the world ended when a group of rogue scientists unleashed a virus that awakened long-dormant strands of human DNA. They awakened the bestial side of humankind: werewolves, satyrs, and all manner of bloodthirsty creatures. Within months, nearly every man, woman, or child was transformed into a monster…or slaughtered by one.

A rare survivor without special powers, Dez McClane has been fighting for his life since mankind fell, including a tense barfight that ended in a cataclysmic inferno. Dez would never have survived the battle without Iris, a woman he’s falling for but can never be with because of the monster inside her. Now Dez’s ex-girlfriend and Iris’s young daughter have been taken hostage by an even greater evil, the dominant species in this hellish new world:

Vampires.

The bloodthirsty creatures have transformed a four-story school building into their fortress, and they’re holding Dez’s ex-girlfriend and Iris’s young daughter captive. To save them, Dez and his friends must risk everything. They must infiltrate the vampires’ stronghold and face unspeakable terrors.

Because death awaits them in the fortress. Or something far worse.

SHORT STORY: Adam Light

Adam Light has been one of my cheerleaders since I first began book blogging, and along with his brother, participated in the very first Halloween shenanigans – back in 2014 when this thing only lasted SIX days. Unfortunately, as happens, life kept getting in the way after his second Halloween appearance, and he was unable to share in the frivolities… until this year. He mentioned that he was going to write me a little story (the two of them each surprised me with stories in 2015) and I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear that. I have been a fan of the Light Brothers since I first started reading their stories and feel honored to share this, Part 2 of one of my absolute favorite stories by him (Tommy Rotten). Make sure you turn the lights off for this one… for dramatic effect. They are the PERFECT tale for the Friday before Halloween.

The Rottens

The Donnerly House languished in utter disrepair at the end of Cypress Lane, where once upon a time an opportunistic killer had taken a boy’s life, and started the legend of Tommy Rotten.

The boy, Tommy Rachen, had vanished without a trace on Halloween, and it was said that he now haunted the Donnerly House, and lured other children into his pumpkin patch to “rot” with him. Thus, the name.

The local legend had grown when a girl from a nearby home had disappeared on Halloween a few years ago. It had been whispered that Tommy Rotten had taken a wife. And now their tale’s woeful lesson gained traction not just in the neighborhood, but across the state, and beyond.

Carol Rotten only wanted one thing, a child. There was a growing divide between Tommy and her, a hole only the love of a child could fill.

Though she had sought out her new husband willingly enough, he had thoughtlessly pulled her over to this wasteland, and imprisoned her with him.

There was no escape, but in true death. She was content to stay in whatever state that passed for life she existed in now, but she needed some better company if she was going to be damned to rot with Tommy.

Tommy had sternly warned her that if she crossed back to the other side, she would not last very long, as the dead could never be reinstated into the world of the living, having long ago left their corporeal selves behind.

This was why he had drawn her to him, by tapping into the supernatural energy that flowed through the pumpkins that grew here, harnessing the power of his will to control the vines, and though the vines had taken her from that mortal coil, his love for her was also able to preserve her in death for eternity with him, here in their paradise of eternal life.

He had the power to control reality itself, but he stubbornly denied to use it for her benefit, claiming he felt horrible for killing Carol, and did not wish to take another child from its parents.

Carol understood this, and she loved Tommy with her very being, but she needed more. And she knew that Tommy was slightly power mad.

“My sweetest Carol,” he professed, “please understand that taking a living soul requires so much power that it nearly cracked the moon and scattered the stars the night you came to me.” He boasted, and paused for effect. “I also doubt you’d be able to live with yourself after taking a poor child’s mortal soul away from their poor mother.”

He eyed her, though maggots crawled in the empty socket like animated rice instead of eyeballs, which never ceased to make her smile. She never thought too hard about the fact that she probably appeared the same to him.

The moon and stars had not been in any danger that night, and he was well aware of it. He liked to exaggerate. Carol didn’t appreciate it much.

The pull of motherhood persisted like the tides, a power of nature itself, and though her longing consumed her, she resisted for as long as she could, hoping that some wayward child would seek her out.

After all, she wasn’t a killer.

Nor was she evil.

Was she?

She could no longer be sure it mattered either way now that she was dead.

Still, Tommy had taken Carol from her life, and damned her to an eternity of nothingness in his kingdom of rotted fruit, and his wormy company, which proved inadequate to long sustain happy feelings, much less love. She wanted a baby, and taking the child was the only way it was going to happen. She had to convince Tommy to help her.

There was no escape from this place. Tommy argued that she had wanted to be here, and no one should be alone, even him, and because of his loneliness, he had wrongly taken her. But she had been keen to come here, nevertheless. Though he had guilt over it, it was not so bad that it had prevented him from killing her.

After all else failed, she threatened to throw herself back to the other side, so she could just die. She knew there was a way to do it, and he knew she wasn’t bluffing.

The thought of losing Carol was too horrifying to seriously ponder. He simply would not allow it. So, reluctantly, he agreed to help her.

And then, a few days before Halloween, a young girl, no more than 10 years old, came strolling up to the fence.

Charity Crane knew the stories, but still braved the trek down to the old spooky place, and faced the Donnerly House with a challenging smirk on her rosy ten-year-old face.

She was far from brave, but she was intensely curious about Tommy and Carol. Their story held her in sway. They wanted a perfect child.

Charity’s own mother was not much company to her now that dad was gone. The woman had been drowning her sorrows in the bottle for nearly two years, and wanted little more in life other than getting plowed.

There were no friends, no hobbies for Charity. Nothing really caught her attention like the story of these ghosts in her very own neighborhood.

Charity came to the fence, willingly enough. The girl’s shining presence held sway over all things out there in the land of the living, or so it seemed. To Carol’s mind, Charity was the one she had known would come.

Together, she and Tommy watched the girl curiously poking around in the honeysuckle that draped the chain linked enclosure, trailing her fingers lightly, but with little trepidation, only interest bordering on awe.

“She must know about us!” Carol gleefully shouted

Carol was over the bloated corpse moon with delight.

“Of course, she knows about us,” he chided, “what else do you suppose brought her to the creepy old deserted house, if not the spooky tales of Tommy Rotten and his Undead Wife?”

He thought he was funny, but Sally didn’t. She felt ridiculed, mocked. If she had cheeks, they would have been red. If she had tears, they would have spilled over her cheeks in tiny waterfalls.

Carol went on, doing her best to ignore mean old Tommy’s blasé reaction. “I can feel her looking for us, Tommy! If only she could see us. Can we take her now?”

“Not now. Only on Halloween.”

“Dammit, but okay. Fair enough, Tommy.”

She twirled her way gracefully, carelessly, Tommy might have said, down the front steps, out into the pumpkin patch, over to the fence where merely

fragrant flowering vines and metal mesh – not to mention the veil between life and death, of course – lay between her and the curious child.

Charity was truly special. She was brooding and intelligent, shining with a brilliance that could be seen as a hopeful aura, and smelled a thousand times sweeter than the most fragrant flowers draped between them. At once, she knew there was a deep well of sadness inside the girl, and that was the moment their noses were an inch apart.

Carol could take this girl’s sadness and make her whole.

The time was almost right. It was nearly Halloween. This was evident in the plumping of the pumpkins. The moon had grown cheeky, as well. Indeed, it may even be in full blaze come the magic night.

Carol watched Tommy as he whispered, cricket calls in the wind, his hollow eyes reflecting nothing, showing only the nothing that was, and the worms that wriggled. She could see the transmissions from his toothless smile, the bottom jaw cracked and splintered down the right side, a delicate fissure that threatened to eventually give way, and then what?

Tommy and Sally were bound together in their postmortem fairy tale marriage, and soon they would make it a true family.

Halloween came floating around as it does every year. It was a cool, pleasant day, and it fell on a Saturday, so the kids had the run of the weekend for their special holiday. It promised to be a Halloween for the ages.

Carol and Tommy embraced in the pumpkin patch, and stared deep into each other’s souls. Unbeknownst to Carol, Tommy had held Charity in his sway from that moment she’d arrived at the fence until now. For this to work, it was necessary for Charity to be extremely suggestible, for a stubborn soul could fight them off, and it would be for nothing.

“Charity!” their voices in unison called to her. Sang to her in mellifluous tones, enchanting her thoughts with their silky vibrations prodding into the deepest space between one world and the next. “Charity, its’s time to come home.”

“Are you sure this will work, Thomas?”

He grinned lasciviously, but the reason for his mischievous demeanor remained hidden on that shining curved slab of bone, broken and sagging, cracked and moldering in a couple of places, jaw slightly askew.

“What makes you think it won’t work, Carol my sweet?” “Never mind. Just hold me.”

They embraced again on that night of mist-shrouded moonlight, through the veneer of Spanish moss-laden limbs, and spider webs dotted with tiny cocoons. Their voices in unison, blasted out from eternity and into the hallowed night.

Their light blazed through the Halloween night. It came through the house, the fence, the vines, the pumpkins, and finally through her and Tommy. Eldritch beams shone and coalesced into a bridge of light arcing across the black sky, down through the trees and out of sight.

Carol and Tommy locked bony fingers, and rode the beams together.

The bridge conveyed their spirits out of death’s palace, and into the living world, past the sign reading Sunny River Estates, the housing development where their precious child currently awaited their arrival.

In the diminutive house on Tallow Lane, Charity cowered in the corner of her bedroom, while her mother slept drunkenly in the tattered old recliner adjacent the front door, whiskey bottle and old tattered bible forgotten where they lay at her feet. She snored like an aging old hound as the vines crept into the house through a portal which had opened in the hall.

The vines crept along the walls, and slinked over to where the large woman slept. Then one of them inch-wormed its way up her nightgown, and up her ample bosom. It stopped, inches from her face, while more caught up.

Mother slowly stirred, and when she opened her mouth to yawn, the vines rushed in and filled up her lungs.

All afternoon, Charity had waited in her bedroom, knowing that something was going to happen, but unable to put it into words. She felt like she was about to die. Because she had nobody and nothing to really lean on, she felt as if she was nothing more than a ghost anyway.

And now, the monsters had come. They were here for her.

“Mama!” Charity tried to scream, but that single word croaked out maybe an inch from her sweaty face and died. She saw the vines, and two lumbering skeletons behind them, closely followed by eerily glowing pumpkins, as they all poured forth from the tunnel in her wall.

The vines enveloped her.

Charity fought and tore at the ropy attackers, but her strength was inadequate to the task. She weakened easily, and she was easily subdued.

She felt a sudden loosening, as if she had become unhinged and had fallen out of gravity’s hold, and into the air above her. She had screwed her fists into her eyes to shield her from this horror show, but she now quickly opened them, and wildly surveyed the scene. She screamed in horror as

Tommy and Carol Rotten materialized out of the opening in the wall in front of her.

Though Charity had initiated the contact with them, she had not really believed the Rottens were real, or that they could physically harm her or her mom.

But they had come for her, and they meant to kill her.

She had known her situation was about to get infinitely worse, and a gasp of terror and perhaps a bit of joy intermingled and caught in her throat, as the pumpkin vines knotted around her wrists and ankles, looped around her waist. Then, the vines gracefully lifted Charity into the hole in the wall with them. The tunnel through the wall impossibly stretched on and on, though the hallway should have been inches away, just on the other side of it.

She screamed as loud as she could, but her cries were cut short by the coiling vines, as they rushed in.

The two skeletal ghouls reached out of the darkness and grabbed Charity tightly and immediately the vines retreated back, releasing her to their masters and her new parents, the Rottens, to whom cruel fate had bequeathed her immortal soul.

Charity was transported then to her new life with the Rottens. She was reminded of a film, the name of which floated just out of reach. It was of little consequence, though. No part of her past life mattered any longer, now that she was dead.

Wanting only to curl up into a ball and cry, Charity was instead gathered into Carol’s dead, loving arms and held close to that awful, fleshless breastbone, and that new mother of hers hummed a sweet, lovely tune to her.

Though she had no ear to hear it, she did hear, and the wordless melody quieted her turbulent soul, just enough to ease her anxiety, if only for a fleeting time.

As she faded into unconsciousness, one thought came through with perfect clarity, just before she slept. She would bide her time, but one day she would have her revenge on the Rottens.

Boo-graphy: Adam Light writes stories both weird and horrifying. Most of his previous short fiction is now collected in Dreams for the Dying, published by Corpus Press in 2021. He is currently working on more.

Tommy Rotten: A Halloween Tale — Tommy Rotten lies immersed in a billowing blanket of fog, wringing his cold hands in elated anticipation. He is optimistic that this year someone will finally come. He fantasizes about the potential candidates that will come tromping through the neighborhood, roaming the night in their delightfully hideous homages to the serial killers and demons and ghouls – normally inhabitants of their nightmares – but tonight, Halloween, brings them endless delight.

Dreams for the Dying — Bad dreams don’t always evaporate in the light of day.

Some refuse to fade, forever haunting dark corners of consciousness:

The dread of an approaching headlight on a deserted road . . .
Swirling black clouds claiming the sky, bringing death and madness . . .
The cabin of a trucker’s rig, where a waitress lies bound and gagged . . .
A cursed soul in a moonlit pumpkin patch, desperate and lonely . . .


These are songs for the damned, poisons for the cure, and Dreams for the Dying.

For years, Adam Light has frightened and delighted readers around the world with his stories of horror and the bizarre. Fully revised to best represent the author’s original vision, these fearsome tales of the macabre are finally collected under a single cover for the first time.

SHORT STORY: John Boden

Anyone who has ever asked me for a horror book recommendation can tell you that somewhere in the list is something by John Boden. He is not only one of my favorite people (when we met at a con, he actually KNEW who I was – I will never get over how important that made me feel) but one of my favorite authors. Everything he has written has been… perfect. He writes characters that could be any one of us and puts them in stories that you feel like you’re experiencing along with the people on the pages. I absolutely can’t get enough. So when he reached out and offered to write a story for this year’s Halloween Extravaganza, there was NO WAY I was going to turn him down. He took this a bit further by telling me to select a few tropes he could choose from to create this bit of flash fiction. I was super excited… and also drew the BIGGEST blank EVER haha. What could I say? I asked the people in the Halloween Extravaganza 2022 Facebook group if they had any ideas and got a few things, but the only thing I could think about was how much I absolutely ADORE Carnival Horror and if anyone could write something to satisfy that need, it would be him. So… here we go. Let me know what you think?

The Pretender

The slight young man just stared at the faded and mildew dotted banner that sagged between the wooden poles at the edge of the old carnival grounds. He had walked there slowly and alone, without even paying attention to how much the town had changed in the few years since the last time he had made that trek.

Hometowns don’t change.They age but always manage to open their arms.

Cadamn was just such a town. A mile and a half along either side of the two lane paved road, with two alleys running behind the main street buildings and the back street, some of those having a small splinter off or access road but mostly beyond the houses that lined the alleys were just woods or derelict fields of high grass and weeds. The Friend family had lived in the house that squatted atop the hill as you came into the town’s west end. A large brick troll that stared down on the burg with window eyes and a bricked porch that jutted like a belly to the waiting earth. It had been the a great house for the family until things cracked and broke away.

A family can be just like a precious dish, that first drop can sometimes cause it to shatter, or just leave a single deep crack that will spawn others to join it over time. When dad left to start a new life with a new woman, that was the crack. When Mom stopped talking as much and began to take long walks alone in her head, when meals were forgotten and he had to step up to assure he was fed, that his clothes were clean and in decent repair, that was another. By the time he had managed to limp through school and see graduation within his reach, Jamie Friend had kicked the surname to the curb. He found it vile in the juxtaposition of the behavior of the man who branded tethered them to it and the terms definition.

“Just Jamie” was the answer whenever he was asked his name. Never any more or less. 

Jamie pulled his mind back to the present and focused tired eyes on the banner once more, CARNIVAL in large block letters, dimmed by time and sunlight. Generic. Punctuating the one word declaration was a cartoonish rendering of a man. A bearded man with a large open mouth, black as an eye socket but lined with tiny points under a porcine nose and flat eyes that were painted a bright red, the only real color on the cracked vinyl. Jamie took a step towards the entrance, which was anywhere, not like the hole in the rolled snow fence as when he was a kid. There was no barrier, nothing but the banner strung between the poles. Frayed rope ends batting against the wood in the slight breeze. Jamie took a step and stopped at the implied threshold. The high grass hadn’t even been cut down and there were no paths or bare spots from foot traffic. He felt a flutter in his chest as he scanned the grounds. The bingo pavilion was empty, The wooden tables and benches bowed by time and elements. A canvas for the art of bird shit. No old folks beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke gossiping as they waited for the elusive letter number combination that would land them a new electric skillet or  forty bucks.

The concrete building where the fire company had always sold their fundraising food during that one week in the death wheeze of summer was shuttered and silent. No waft of vinegar and hot grease. No odor of french fries and hamburgers. No one hollering and laughing. Just brittle abandonment and quiet. Jamie looked at the spot near the corner of the building where old man Stuckey used to sit with a bucket at his feet and his harmonica to his mouth and play and sing until the ride were stopped and the lights winked out. He would then lift the bucket of change and crumpled dollars and go to the fireman’s building window and hand it to the folks inside, always saying the same thing.

“If I ever catch fire, this is so you’ll put me out.” He’d chuckle and that one tooth he had would shine in the light. Then he’d walk out of the grounds and across the street to the little trailer he shared with his blind cat, Missa.

He died in that trailer the summer Jamie turned seventeen. By the time anyone missed him and they got into the dwelling, Missa had eaten his eyes.

Jamie walked through the weed-choked grass and looked at the buildings and the barren spots where once trucks of strangers would arrive and assemble metal monsters to care for the children of the town for the evening while the parents laughed and talked and ate and gossiped. Pied pipers with jailhouse tattoos. Magicians with Zippos and body odor. The laughter of the children was a thick ribbon that swirled around the carnival grounds for that one week every year. Until the year Jamie ran away. That year, the ribbon became a noose, the scrawny neck of Cadamn awaiting its embrace.

 Jamie had been in the Ghost Gallery…or whatever they were calling their fun-house attraction that year. He had been the only kid in the ticket line, he side-eyed the small clusters of kids and teens that dotted the perimeter. The old man at the door held out his hand for a ticket and Jamie noted that it was a prosthetic and not one of quality. The hand resembled a mannequin hand with lines drawn in black marker to denote where fingers should be. Jamie laid it in the upturned palm and waited while the man dropped it into his waist apron pocket. With his other arm he pushed open the door and winked at Jamie. “Don’t get scared now.” as he gave a small push with the plastic hand. A sharp edge gouging the flesh of Jamie’s shoulder. There was a bang and then darkness. A thick smell of mildewed cloth and dirt. That earthworms-after-rain fragrance of Autumn. Jamie wrinkled his nose and took a few furtive steps along the floor. His feet squished into something that gave like moist sod thick carpet, just enough to make one apprehensive about their foothold. Something brushed his cheek. A faint blue light flexed through the cracks between the boards of the walls. Pulsing in time with his breathing.

He heard a small noise to his left. Rattling. Laughter. A meaty cough. A voice, not speaking at full volume but sounding as though in another room, like when he would eavesdrop on his parents when they would argue/discuss. Jamie found his lip with his teeth and allowed them purchase, a salty taste as the blood came. He swallowed and listened harder. The voice was his father’s.

The best decision I ever made was to unshackle myself from that lot. That needy woman and that little leech. I was a mammoth mired in tar, I was. Horrid fate for a man. Barbaric.

Jamie took a few more steps and his hand found the doorknob on the wall before him. It thrummed in his sweaty grip and he turned it, pushed until the darkness was stained by the gauzy light from the new room. It was a kitchen. It was their kitchen. Jamie watched as his mother sat at the table and stared at its pocked and filthy surface. The cigarette between her fingers burnt to the filter and leaking acrid smoke into the hazy air. She drops it into the ashtray nearest her hand and has a fresh one in its place in a blink. Jamie sees that the table is full of ashtrays, or more accurately things that became them. Cups and bowls heaped with ash and bent butts. Plates full of dead lighters and skeletal burnt used matches.

There was no sound. As though watching a film, muted. Jamie coughed and his eyes watered.

“Mom?” He stepped forward, the toe of his sneaker bumping one of the table legs and causing ash to sift from one of the piles onto the floor. He followed it with his eyes and saw the linoleum was stained with great dark splatters. When the light flickered, the razor blades hidden in the gloom winked to life and twinkled like stars in the belly of night. The smoking woman stared ahead and her lips began to move. After a few seconds of silence, her voice followed but was out of sync.

Everything I have ever loved leaves, evaporates. Like all this smoke I eat it just is and then isn’t. That man left me with that boy who grew into a shadow. A cumbersome weight around my neck, as I stood on the deck and held my bow and knew…my shame was home to stay. Suckling and biting the nipple free. Swallowing it with the blood of any future I might have had.

Jamie slammed the door as he backed out of the room. Tinny laughter rose in pitch and volume from speakers nested above him somewhere. He felt dampness on his cheeks and knew why. He had always felt like his parents didn’t want him. Had held that close to chest like a medal or a surgery scar. But to hear it spoken aloud.  He tried to go back the way he came. The soft floor was tacky and he felt every step being argued with. He smelled garbage and smoke. Something tapped his back right below his shoulders. He turned and saw shining eyes in the darkness, gone in an instant.

He didn’t see the door before he met it with his nose. Hard enough to cause spots to dance before his eyes. He touched it with trembling fingers and they came away wet and dark. He touched his tongue. Blood. The speakers crackled and a new voice appeared. It was throaty and he smelled his Grandmother’s perfume as soon as he heard it.

He was playing on the steps, sliding down the railing and his father would catch him. It was a game. He got on and slid again too quickly and Paul wasn’t ready and Jamie hit the wall face first. It was an accident. Then the doctor had us hold him down and he cauterized the boy’s nose. They stuffed it with cotton and taped his face. He looked like a goddamn mummy for a few days. But let me tell you, Mary, the silence of those few days was sublime. That kid just never shut up or sat still. I won’t lie, Mary, there was times after where I thought about busting his nose again just for the peace and quiet.

From the speakers leaked the piano theme from The Young And The Restless. Not quite at the right speed. Slow and hobbled. Jamie smelled chicken noodle soup and cats. His eyes grew wet and he sniffed hard, the back of his throat slick with snot. He was only fifteen but he knew what he was hearing. Concrete proof of the suspicions he’d harbored for years. His father left to be free of him. His mother stayed put and left at the same time for the same reason. His Grandmother…all of them. He had felt bombarded by side-eye glances and smirky winces all these years and now he knew why. He had always known but now it was certain.

Jamie pushed the door and it wouldn’t budge. He kicked it and heard laughter from behind him. He turned and the wall of darkness met him. He tried to step forward but the shadows were solid, feeling like a cold stone wall. Jamie turned and tried the door again. The knob turned and the door pushed open with a groan. Jamie nearly tumbled into the room. The flickering light on hundreds of candles creating the warmth of a campfire in the small space. He took a moment to assess his surroundings. The room was barren save for the candles that sat on the floor, lining the walls, some in the necks of bottles, some melted to plates or in ornate candelabras. The far wall had a mirror directly mounted in the center of it. It was a tall mirror. Framed in a carved wood rectangle that was adorned with screaming faces and jeweled eyes that glittered and winked in the light. He stepped closer to it and as he came into direct view of its reflective surface, saw himself. He was the same poor postured skinny boy with the too-long hair and the unclear skin that had walked to the carnival what seemed like hours before. But where that boy’s blue eyes should have been were things that were weary and bled of color, set in bruised baggy wrinkles. Behind him, the carnival grounds were bustling with adults and children. Laughter and bright lights. Technicolor treats in tiny sweaty grips. Jamie turned to leave and the door was no longer. Nor the walls or any evidence of the attraction at all. Jamie stood still in the midst of mad commotion as people walked and ran to rides and games. He was an image super imposed over a scene. He turned to look back to where the fun-house had stood and saw only a rectangle of space  where it had been. Like a doorway cut into the very space itself. He took a step closer and saw himself in it. Behind his was a grinning darkness. Smoke swirled around him like serpents and his cheeks glistened with tears.  The reflection. Jamie held up a hand and offered a feeble wave before lowering his head as if in prayer.

Just Jamie, with a backdrop of carnival frenzy and fun, stared at the mirror from the other side, his stomach dancing.

He started the walk home with a feeling in his gut that he couldn’t quite reconcile. His other half in that funhouse realm of shadow, where secret lies were voiced, where barbed truths stood emboldened. That realm of slings and arrows and wounds that wail. Ghosts that slap and pinch. Jamie was uncertain which he, he was and which world was real. Maybe the worlds just turned and he came out on top for once. A restart, possibly. He looked up the small hill at the house, it was just like it had been the day of the funeral. He had sat in it’s emptiness for a long hour before he finally departed to see his mother’s shell on display.

Jamie mounted the steps to the back door of the house and paused as he looked up at the dim light in his mother’s bedroom window. He listened hard and heard the thin web of music waft through the screen.

He knows that all his hopes and dreams, begin and end there…

Jamie opened the door and was greeted by the stale waft of cigarette smoke and fried food. His mouth slid into a smile as he slipped inside.

Above and around, the night simmered and burned itself to feel.

Boo-graphy: John Boden lives a stones throw away from Three Mile Island with his wonderful wife and sons. A baker by day, he spends his off time writing or wasting time watching terrible horror films from the 70s and 80s. He likes Diet Pepsi, cheeseburgers, heavy metal and old country music, and often sports ferocious sideburns. While his output as a writer is fairly sporadic, it has a bit of a reputation for being unique. The books Dominoes, Spungunion, Walk the Darkness Down, and Jedi Summer are his doing alone. Detritus in Love, Out Behind the Barn, Rattlesnake Kisses, Cattywampus, and the nearly finished Black Salve… on those, he had assistance from Mercedes Yardley, Chad Lutzke, or Robert Ford. He’s easily tracked down on the Facebook or the Twitter and as rumors have it, a pretty friendly feller… honest.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Phil Thomas

Meghan: Hi, Phil. Welcome to Meghan’s HAUNTED House of Books. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Phil: My favorite part of Halloween is everything. When summer ends its kind of a downer, but with Halloween looming on the horizon, it seems to make everything better. To answer your question straightforward though, my favorite part of Halloween is the memories of the holiday growing up and the amazing times I had. My upcoming novel is actually set almost entirely on Halloween.

Meghan: Do you get scared easily?

Phil: No I don’t, which is why I like Halloween so much. It’s like chasing a high.

Meghan: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and why?

Phil: Honestly I think it might be The Conjuring. It’s unnerving on another level.

Meghan: Which horror movie murder did you find the most disturbing?

Phil: Pretty much anything in the Saw movie franchise.

Meghan: Is there a horror movie you refused to watch because the commercials scared you too much?

Phil: I have to say no. The scarier the better.

Meghan: If you got trapped in one scary movie, which would you choose?

Phil: Halloween 1978.

Meghan: If you were stuck as the protagonist in any horror movie, which would you choose?

Phil: Tommy Jarvis, Friday the 13th part 6.

Meghan: What is your all-time favorite scary monster or creature of the night?

Phil: If we’re talking monsters, then probably Dracula, or vampires in general.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Phil: Going to some haunted houses and haunted hayrides.

Meghan: What is your favorite horror or Halloween-themed song?

Phil: The Halloween 1978 theme. It encompasses the spirit of Halloween.

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Phil: I would have to say either Funland by Richard Laymon, or The Shining by Stephen King.

Meghan: What is the creepiest thing that’s ever happened while you were alone?

Phil: I once heard footsteps on my porch late at night. When I turned on the outside light, no one was there.

Meghan: Which unsolved mystery fascinates you the most?

Phil: The Jersey Devil. We need to find it asap!

Meghan: What is the spookiest ghost story that you have ever heard?

Phil: If we’re talking hauntings, then probably The Conjuring’s story.

Meghan: In a zombie apocalypse, what is your weapon of choice?

Phil: A double-barreled shotgun.

Meghan: Okay, Phil. Let’s have some fun… Would you rather get bitten by a vampire or a werewolf?

Phil: A vampire for sure!

Meghan: Would you rather fight a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion?

Phil: Probably a zombie apocalypse because they’re slow, and when it comes to aliens, they might have technology far superior to ours.

Meghan: Would you rather drink zombie juice or eat dead bodies from the graveyard?

Phil: Aren’t they the same thing? Ha! Probably drink zombie juice.

Meghan: Would you rather stay at the Poltergeist house or the Amityville house for a week?

Phil: Definitely the Poltergeist house. It’s one of my favorite movies.

Meghan: Would you rather chew on a bitter melon with chilies or maggot-infested cheese?

Phil: I’ll take the bitter melon with chilies.

Meghan: Would you rather drink from a witch’s cauldron or lick cotton candy made of spider webs?

Phil: I’d rather lick cotton candy spider webs. It might even taste good.

Boo-graphy:
Phil Thomas is an author and screenwriter from the suburbs of Philadelphia. He is a member of the International Association of Professional Writers & Editors and The Horror Writers Association. He is also the former co-host of What Are You Afraid Of? a weekly horror and paranormal show that lasted for over 150 episodes. The show still airs on Para-X radio on Friday evenings at 9:00 pm, where you’ll find interviews with wonderful guests such as Lloyd Kaufman, Katrina Weidman, Joe R. Lansdale, Grady Hendrix, Greg Bear, Daniel Kraus, and many more.

Check out his website and sign up for his mailing list so he can further control your mind, and please direct your angry hate mail to him here. You can stalk him on Twitter and Facebook.

His short stories have been featured in several anthologies, including Monsterthology 2, Nightside: Tales of Outré Noir, Coming Through in Waves: Crime Fiction inspired by the Songs of Pink Floyd, Books of Horror: Volume 3, Part 2, and the upcoming collection, Seven Doors of Fate, set to release in 2023.

His debut novel, The Poe Predicament, was published by Foundations Books on October 4, 2021 and hit the bestseller list.

Stuck in another time, Richard Langley just wants to find his way back home.

Richard is a former college professor, wandering a local neighborhood bookstore, where he stumbles upon the find of a lifetime: a signed copy of Tamerlane and other poems.

He is soon swept to another era. He is alone, confused, and his only mission is to get back to where he came from.

While struggling to adapt to his nineteenth-century environment, Richard meets a man he must help exonerate from false accusations in order to restore history’s original timeline and, ultimately, find his way back.

What Richard did not count on, was that man being the owner of the signature—Edgar Allan Poe.