De-Bait

The troll beneath the busy bridge
enjoyed fish as well as any lamb
and would sit on the nearby ridge
overlooking where the salmon swam.
Unrolling his long bloodless tongue,
he would pierce it with a sharp hook
and cast it out there, far, in among
the fattest fish in the murmuring brook.
His tongue would wiggle, like a worm,
and wag mockingly at the passing schools,
baiting them with each insulting squirm
and hooking many of those leaping fools.
How violent that easy brook became
with so many salmon jumping and splashing!
With each salmon the troll did claim
the flow became as whitewater, crashing.
Yet, there was one fish who, being wise,
warned the rest of his remaining kin
to not look up at the lure, nor to give a rise,
and instead to swim by with an easy fin.
He told them, “Do not take the bait.
Let the troll’s tongue wag all it wants.
We will not be like the others and sate
his appetite, or be caught by his taunts.”
And since none opened their mouths again
to bite the bait dangling overhead
the troll starved and withered, bone thin,
and the brook flowed gently, once more, in its bed.

Closing Bell

There were no golden toilet seats
accommodating Christ in his tomb,
nor does the Golden Calf present her teats
to feed greed, nor is there enough room
where you can stack money bags high
as stepping stones with which to ascend
to the heights of the Heavenly sky
by wealth, or the merits of a stock dividend.
To earn the yield beyond the Gates
or to sell for the profit of the Saved—
in the afterlife the going rates
have no value and have thus caved
to the pettiness of the old rat race,
nor can your stock broker’s insight
save you from that marketplace
nor can insider trading set it right.
Take the private elevator up for a view
within your tallest namesake tower,
but the downturn’s plunge will still take you
at the closing bell of that final hour.

Lesser Known Horror Classics

Halloween is approaching and there are lots of horror classics that people read for the sake of indulging the season.  As for myself, while I often revisit horror stories that have pleased me in the past, I really enjoy discovering horror stories that I have not read, particularly older stories that are largely neglected in this era of Stephen Kings and Clive Barkers (thought there is nothing wrong with either of those gentlemen).  For the sake of alleviating my own guilt at long neglecting the writers below, I have compiled a short list of short stories that are, for my tastes, in equal merit to the more celebrated icons of Horror. Many of these are in public domain, so you can read them online for free.  That said, there is nothing better than holding an actual book in your hand in the Witching Hours and reading by candlelight (or lamplight, if you must).

“The Phantom Rickshaw”, By Rudyard Kipling

A horror story and simultaneously a black comedy, this tale concerns a man who abused a young woman’s affections for ungentlemanly ends, after which he abandons her— rather callously— so that she dies of a broken heart. Just when the narrator believes his life is changing for the better (with a new fiancee), he becomes haunted by a rickshaw and the young woman who had only recently pined away. The story is at turns funny and tragic. While Kipling has become more well known for The Jungle Book, I am of a mind that he should be equally regarded for his other works, including his horror stories. He was, in terms of skill and imagination, equal to Poe, utilizing his understanding of human psychology and society to concoct excellent stories to please the most jaded reader.

“Strange Event In The Life Of Schalken The Painter”, By Sheridan Le Fanu

While many people are aware of Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal work “Carmilla” because of its themes of lesbian eroticism and vampirism, Le Fanu wrote several works of equally interesting topics, as well as macabre atmosphere. The abovementioned story is perhaps my favorite horror story that Le Fanu wrote. It is masterfully told, of course, with all of its lyrical writing, but what is most impressive about this morbid story is what it implies throughout the tale. Le Fanu was an expert of exactitude and could write so as to provide the reader with the scantiest clues to circumscribe what is happening within the story without forthrightly stating it. And the story is all the more powerful for what it withholds as much as for what it explicitly reveals.

“Toby Squire’s Will”, By Sheridan Le Fanu

A moral tale that is neither ham-fisted or tedious, “Toby Squire’s Will” is a story about morality (or the lack thereof) among several unpleasant characters. The cast of people are so unlikeable that the reader finds it difficult to favor any one side over the other among the contentious factions. The story is told very skillfully and with proper pacing that is never sluggish or bogged down in its own prose. As with all of Le Fanu’s works, it excels as an experience when read in silent solitude or spoken aloud.

 
“A Madman’s Manuscript”, By Charles Dickens

Perhaps the most well-known horror story penned by Charles Dickens (besides A Christmas Carol) is “The Signal Man”. Yet, “A Madman’s Manuscript” deserves more attention than it currently receives among the laudable literature of Dickens. It is written from the perspective of a man obsessed with a woman. Any reader with even a little bit of familiarity with the double-life that Dickens lived will wonder immediately if the narrator is not some wry caricature of Dickens’s own darker desires and latent madman. Even if it is not a fantastic story, it is interesting for its insights into Dickens’s brilliant, and neurotic, mind.

“The Ash Tree”, By M.R. James

While M.R. James is still read today by a large audience— more so than most other classic Horror writers except Lovecraft, Poe, and Stoker—the mention of his timeless stories is nonetheless justified. This is by far my favorite among his many excellent yarns, for it weaves together a story born of supernatural conceit and scientific rationalization. It is for the reader to decide which explanation best suits the misadventure of the subject in this story. Perfectly written with an excellent eye for detail, an ear for rhythm, and a discernment of diction, this story is both brief and bountiful in its atmosphere. It is a masterwork and deserves credit not only as a flight of fancy, but, contrarily, a pointed tale compelling with its plausibility.

 
“The Mezzotint”, By M.R. James

Although “Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is James’s most often celebrated story (or, at least, the most remarked upon), “The Mezzotint” is one deserving more recognition as well. Without saying too much, it is hard to believe the memorable Night Gallery episode “The Cemetery” would exist without this tale, for it is likely the inspiration of that excellent television episode. While not an actual page-to-screen adaptation, it is undoubtedly the thematic basis for that episode, at least in conceit.

“Twilight”, By Marjorie Bowen

I only recently discovered this lush, disturbing story by Marjorie Bowen. It is a beautifully written short story that is as decadent as Lucrecia Borgia herself (insomuch as the story is concerned). And like Borgia, the story takes a very eerie, nightmarish turn toward its final act, hinting at all of the debauchery which Borgia was accused of in her life (whether deservedly so or not). Bowen’s command of language and imagery has motivated me to seek her other stories wherever I might find them. Why she is not celebrated more, I do not understand.

“The House Of The Nightmare”, By Edward Lucas White

Despite its admittedly generic title, this horror story is memorable for many reasons. Oddly, while it is explicitly a ghost story, its truly horrific implications could categorize it loosely as Body Horror, much like his other, more famous story “Lukundoo”. A fear of pigs has never been more justified.

“The Kennel”, By Maurice Level

Written in a more Modern vein, and with a wry Black Humor slant on extramarital affairs that only a Frenchman could conceive and achieve without coming off as Melodrama, this story is full of sound and fury, but without signifying nothing. Atmospheric, briskly paced, and sly, there is no supernatural element in its design: only basic human nature and all of its darkening complications.

“Gavon’s Eve”, By E.F. Benson
An adroitly painted vista of Scotland folklore mixed with horror, this tale combines old mythical motifs with modern sensibilities for storytelling. Excellent descriptive passages. Excellent atmosphere. Benson is another unsung hero of literature.

“The Case of Lady Sannot”, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Widely known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle also dabbled in other genres. This story combines his love of the macabre with his love of human trickery and crime. A revenge story without a whiff of the supernatural, it excels on the merits of its narrative and its devilish ending. Like Maurice Level’s story, this one is concerned with human nature and the demons inside our hearts. Simultaneously, it is a case that would have pleased Holmes, if only in its criminal machinations.

“The Giant Wisteria”, By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman is best known for her psychological allegory “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which concerned itself with injustice toward Women. I must be in the minority because although I acknowledge “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a superior work, her story “The Giant Wisteria” is, in my estimation, a superior story. It is, of course, well-written, but not only well-written in its sense of craft, but its sense of restraint. Gilman does not reveal overmuch, nor wallow in melodrama. If anything, there is a sense of detached condemnation in the story rather than an explicitly vociferous pursuit of a message. Like the characters in the story, the writer pieces together the past events to reveal an act of terror as if a historian recounting a period of history. It certainly reflects on the suffering of Women throughout history, but does so subtly, without impairing the narrative.

Additionally, I would recommend anything by Lafcadio Hearn. The traditional Japanese tales he recorded for the sake of posterity are all excellent stories in and of themselves, but are also keen portals into the culture of Japan (if you happen to enjoy Japanese culture, as I do).

Firewall

How long did they believe their works would last?
How many hands would their scrolls travel along
through history to be read and rewritten from Alexandria’s past
so we, today, could benefit from that library’s innumerable throng?
None, it would seem, for though Man sought to ensure all,
Man also sought to destroy with fire to complete the raid,
and today we wish to believe our knowledge can endure all
with smart machines, yet there approaches a global fire, also Manmade,
and no firewall will save our cybernetic caches
of Science and Literature and Art
from being scattered in futile ashes
when we have scorched this planet to its heart.

For You

For you I would delve into the blistering sands
and face the sandstorms of ancient Egyptian lands,
dare the trek to Duat, realm of the bandaged dead,
where kas fly in spiraling flocks overhead
and I would worry bones against the Jackal-faced god
to find and raise you from that land, fleeing abroad.

For you I would walk beneath the onyx vaulted skies
of stone-cut Mesopotomia, where the ziggurats rise,
and I would drain the Euphrates River utterly dry,
digging deep for the caverns of Kur, where shades lie,
lorded over by Lion-headed Nergal, his furious roar
sounding as I raised you toward life once more.

For you I would sail to Styx-split Tartarus
and wager grim-grinning Hades to barter thus
as Orpheus had done, with Persephone’s favor,
leading you beyond Lethe and Cerberus, once again to savor
the warmth of sunlight, of happy life in the open air
of the Mediterranean—beyond Death’s dark lair.

For you I would ascend the lofty ladder to Heaven
and beg at the throne of God, arrayed by the Seven
of Seraphim and wash the feet of Christ, repenting my wrongs,
don a halo, a pair of wings, add my voice to their choir songs,
or be at peace in Purgatory, or even the hottest pits of Hell,
looking up at you as you fly beyond the luminous veil.

But this is not myth, nor a story, nor a happy ending,
and whether it be by prayers, sacrifice, or moral mending
I cannot exhume you from that echoing tomb of Time—
it is such an unwelcoming and distant chthonic clime.
What hope have I to rescue you from where gods, themselves, die,
buried in the Past, that dusty necropolis of sarcophagi?

The Wu Wei Weird Way

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Like a slowly winding waterwheel
that rolls with the river’s easy flow
without trying to grind the grainy meal,
this is the way I wish to know.

Like the moon which lights the nocturnal sky
with the gaze of the far-sunken sun
and pulls the tides from low to high,
I want to do as if not having done.

Like a bird that flies North to South
at the breeze of embittering seasons
and sings songs with an unfaltering mouth,
I wish to do without thinking of reasons.

Like a seed asleep in fertile soil
and drinking deep with its roots
while rain slakes the thirst of its slumbrous toil,
I yearn to grow my own unselfconscious shoots.

And yet in wanting to do as such
I know I will never achieve that state of mind
nor the “non-doing” that achieves so much
by leaving the ego, the self, the “I” behind.