Do you enjoy being scared?
I do. I love the feeling of a cold chill creeping up my spine as I sit in a dark theater watching a good horror film. I still sit around campfires with friends while we tell ghost stories, but for sheer fun, nothing beats curling up in my recliner and turning the pages of a suspenseful novel or short story collection.
Books are the great passion of my life. Written words have opened my mind to countless new worlds. Sometimes these are bright and sunny, but other times they are dark and menacing, filled with monstrous fiends waiting in the shadows for their prey.
Sometimes they triumph over their intended victims, other times they don't. For me it's this awful uncertainty that gives good horror its compelling edge. Like real life, one never knows from one crisis to the next whether the forces of good or evil will carry the day.
Short stories have long been my favorite form of fiction. I love them for their directness and simplicity. Whether I'm reading O. Henry or Edgar Allen Poe, nothing beats a tale woven together with a few thousand words. Unlike the novel (which I enjoy as well) there is no room for fat or fluff, just the basic elements of well-crafted writing: a protagonist, the person, force or entity they struggle against, and a slow climb through mounting tension to the climax.
It's a sad fact of modern life that the art of writing short fiction is dying. News stands in the 1940s and 50s were filled with publications like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories of Science Fiction. Nowadays such works are hard to find, save for a few holdouts like the excellent Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which can still be found in magazine racks across North America. However, for the most part the public's reading choices consist of specialty periodicals and books about the real world.
Not that I have anything against factual writing; far from it. History, science and philosophy are among my favorite subjects, and I enjoy catching up on them in the pages of a book or article. But the little boy in me longs for those days when I would go into the local drug store with a buck in hand and enjoy the delicious agony of deciding which periodicals to spend it on.
In those days (the 1970s, in case you're trying to guess my age) comics were kept in revolving metal stands at the local pharmacy or five and dime, not wrapped in plastic bags and put on display in specialty shops. Most were slightly bent or dog-eared from being read in the store by those unable to afford the cover price. Not every kid had a quarter in those days, you know.
There were plenty of superhero titles, just as there are today. But there were also offerings like House of Mystery and The Witching Hour from DC as well as Monsters Unleashed and Weird Wonder Tales published by Marvel. Each issue had three or four stories, and at least a couple of them would make me afraid to turn out the lights that night.
Alas, those days are no more, and the once bright flame of short fiction has become a dull glow, in danger of being snuffed out forever. As my own humble attempt to keep that fragile fire burning, I offer the stories in this book. Each is a trip along a dark path. As you turn these pages you will creep down those trails, dense fog clinging to you as you make your way through a forbidden forest towards an unknown destination. Enjoy the journey.
As for me, I'm done writing for now. I have a mug of coffee, a comfortable chair and a John Saul novel to keep me company. It's going to be a good night.
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Double Dragon Publishing
September 30, 2008
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Excerpt from Midnight Gallery by Bill Wilson
Theater of Souls
Sweat rolled down Joe Morgan's face as he awoke. The ceiling fan bathed him in a warm breeze, but did little about the heat in the tiny apartment. The temperature outside had topped a hundred degrees earlier in the day, but it was cooling now that the sun was down.
Joe had spent the last several hours snoozing in his thrift store recliner after dozing off in front of the TV. Sometime during his sleep he had knocked over his half empty can of beer, and it lay in a puddle of liquid on the floor beside him. He glanced down at it, cursed, but left it lying there. It blended in well with the old newspapers, dirty dishes, porno mags and other debris that littered the soiled carpet.
As he stood, his arm tore loose from the duct tape it had become glued to during his nap. He had used an entire roll to patch the ancient, cracked vinyl chair, but stuffing still leaked out in several spots. "Shit!" he yelled, rubbing the tender flesh. Then the urge for a beer hit him. "What a miserable life," he muttered as he headed to the fridge.
His place was full of vile odors. Together they blended into a foul potpourri that would remind a visitor of a cross between an old gym, a sleazy bar and a clogged, festering urinal. Fortunately, Joe rarely had visitors. The hooker that hung out on the street corner paid him a call every Saturday night, but rarely for more than a half hour. Years past her prime, her services were neither elegant nor offered with a smile, but her fees fit his budget. Joe was a man with expensive tastes but limited means.
He grabbed a semi-cold can of generic brew from the ancient refrigerator, popped the top and slurped as he walked back to the chair. He glanced at the wall clock; it was almost midnight. The ancient timepiece was as old as everything else in his home.
Everything, that was, except for the handsome wood frame that held the newspaper article. It was bought new at an office store on the other side of town. He had spent half a day and a small fortune in bus fares to make the trip.
He looked at it on his return to the recliner, reading once again the headline: ACCUSED SERIAL KILLER RELEASED. Beneath it in smaller letters read, D.A. blames technical snafu, STILL SAYS Morgan Is Guilty. He grinned showing twisted, yellowing teeth. Stupid cops! The way they screwed up the evidence procedures was his big break. His case never got past the grand jury
That didn't change the truth, of course. He had killed those girls, all five of them, ages nine to seventeen. The murders were the climax to a series of misdemeanors and otherwise petty felonies that stretched back more than forty years.
His methods were as simple as they were effective. He lured them into his car with promises of candy, drugs, a ride home, whatever. Then he took them out of town to an abandoned shack where he tortured them for days. He told each that he would let them go if they did as he said, then forced them to commit the most degrading acts his mind could come up with.
His promises of freedom were lies. When he was done with them he buried their poor, shattered bodies along the river. He laid them to rest within a few feet of each other, and that was a mistake. They were found on a Saturday morning by a group of Boy Scouts out hiking for the day. In his haste the night before he had buried his latest victim with her forefinger sticking out of the ground
He thought he had been careful, but had left clues that pointed right to him. In the end, though, the state's case wasn't strong enough to withstand the defense's attack. Hiring a good lawyer had cost him every penny he had saved for decades, but in the end he walked.
The detective who had picked him up still watched him, waiting for him to nab another girl. But Joe was too smart for that; the memories of those times were enough to get him off. As long as he behaved himself he had nothing to worry about.
He lit a cigarette and sat in the recliner, staring at the TV screen, his face souring when he saw it was some late night preaching show.
He looked out the open window to his left. His place was on the second floor, and across the street on ground level was an old theater that had been boarded up for years. Back in the 70s it showed porno flicks 24/7, but the coming of VCRs and the Internet killed its customer base. It had sat unoccupied for years, slowly decaying.
He had looked at the building less than four hours ago, just before falling asleep in the same spot he currently occupied. The sign under the marquee was smashed into pieces. There was litter piled against the front entrance, just beneath a huge NO TRESPASSING notice.
But now it was brightly lit and spotlessly clean -- hell, it was more than clean, it looked new. There was a blonde in the window selling tickets. Customers were streaming in. They looked like shadows, their forms dark, their features impossible to make out.
He stared at the sign. It said, TONIGHT ONLY, THE TWILIGHT THEATER PRESENTS: TAB GARCIA, THIS WAS YOUR LIFE!