Warren Rochelle Brings LGBT into the Happily Ever After

Back in college, I was lucky to have the talented Warren Rochelle as my Creative Writing professor. In the years since, he has published several fantastical novels, and now he has released his first collection of short fiction.

The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Tales consists of fairytale stories that are inclusive and bring LGBT representation to these types of narratives. I feel that sort of thing is extremely important, as does the author. Below is an essay he wrote talking on that subject.

Gay Themes and Characters Matter in Fairy Tales
by Warren Rochelle

Back in Fall 2019, as I was working on completing the manuscript for The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories, I found, on my office shelves, a modern fairy tale collection I hadn’t read. In this collection, gender roles are questioned, challenged and often reversed or even discarded, feminist values are asserted, women are empowered and have a choice as to whom they marry or not, and not all princes are charming. Princes and princesses have no problem challenging traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.

They were a pleasure to read.

But I found myself left out, an Outsider. No characters like me. No LGBTQ+ people. The copyright was twentysomething years ago. Now, it’s 2019, and as I write this introduction, there are a number of published collections of gay-themed retellings of traditional fairy tales and of gay-themed original fairy tales. Is another one needed?

The “kill the gays” trope persists.

LGBTQ+ people are still the Other. We are still going to court so we can buy a wedding cake. Exclusion is still preached. Full human rights aren’t a given in too many places. If, as critics have argued, “fairy tales project utopian visions,” then we need to be present in this vision, if utopia is fully human.

These tales of the fantastic are my act of writing us into the story. All have gay protagonists, and all are love stories.

I believe love, in its myriad forms, is the most powerful force in the universe. Indeed, love is probably an essential part of the very fabric of the universe. Love is certainly essential to being human. Speculative fiction offers powerful metaphors and symbols to explore love, to interpret the human condition, to make sense of the human experience. Magic is a glimpse into the mysteries of existence. And love is a form of magic.

Yes, “happily ever after” is the traditional ending for fairy tales and yes, all too often stories with LGBTQ+ characters end in sadness. But I wanted to go beyond this familiar conclusion to a more human one. These stories acknowledge that happiness—even the possibility of happiness— comes with a price, and sometimes one must be willing to give up everything. I choose to end in hope. Happiness? Possibly. Love? Absolutely.

The lovers are many things, including gay. It would have meant so much to me growing up to have gay people in the stories I read and was told. It might have possibly changed the shape of my life. I’m sure that LGBTQ+ people are present in the tales that are the core stories of our culture but they have not been openly portrayed as LGBTQ+. I want LGBTQ+ people to be unmistakably visible and present and active. I want them to be fully human.

It’s September 2020 and I am writing this short essay at the request of a former student, the talented horror writer, Mark Allan Gunnells. As luck would have it, when I was working on the final proofs of this collection, just before publication, I came across an article in The Pink. News, by Lily Wakefield, about the work of a Cornish writer and scholar, Pete Jordi Wood. As Wakefield note, “Most people have never heard of a queer, traditional fairytale but [Pete Jordi Wood] has revealed that this is not because they don’t exist, but because they were erased by a homophobic academic … By the 1900s, a group of academics began to compile the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, “a catalogue of the world’s folklore …” During this process, Thompson evidently decided to leave the stories with queer characters. Thompson, it seems believed them to “Unnatural Perversions” (Wakefield)

So, yes, fairy tale retellings are needed for diversity and equality and for stories that are metaphorically true. The fight isn’t over. Reading these stories, I hope, will make a difference.
So, here we are in plain sight, warts and all.

Once upon a time…
Adapted from the Introduction to The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories (JMS Books 2020)

If you are interested in buying a copy of The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories, it can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Wicked-Stepbrother-Other-Tales-ebook/dp/B08J6PWLWC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=5CUSE9GNK1CE&dchild=1&keywords=warren+rochelle&qid=1600775617&s=digital-text&sprefix=warren+rochelle%2Cdigital-text%2C426&sr=1-2

Ron Rash Returns

Ron Rash is one of my favorite authors and I believe one of our greatest living storytellers. I am thrilled that he agreed to allow me to interview him for the second time.

He recently released a new collection, In the Valley, which I have read and think is an amazing piece of work. I wanted to focus this interview specifically on this collection, touching on several of my favorite stories.

I’ve heard you say that the short story form is your favorite and America’s greatest contribution to literature. What is it about the short story form that you think makes it so potent?

I think part of it is it gives us much of the pleasure of poetry and its conciseness and visual rhythms (deliberate word repetitions that come across like a verbal refrain) as well as sound rhythms, that’s certainly part of it. Also at the same time, I think the reader has to come away from the story maybe not having every question answered but with a sense that the story is complete, that whatever the writer was trying to convey has been conveyed. A sense of fulfillment of narrative expectation.

“Neighbors” which opens the collection is a powerful story. When you first came up with the concept, did you already know the ending, what Rebecca would feel she had to do to survive in her community?

I had a sense of it. That story is a little more interesting in the sense that usually I don’t have any idea how a story is going to end, but with that one I actually knew. I’d heard of an instance somewhat like that, and I saw the terrible irony. The reason I put it first in the collection is I wanted it to be a warning shot, this is what might happen in our country today if we’re not careful. We could get to that kind of tribalism. I think what’s interesting about writing about the past is that people can be reading about the 1860s and thinking how primitive and different these people are from us today, and you as the writer hope the reader has this moment where he or she says, “Oh, he’s talking about NOW.”

One thing that struck me about “When All the Stars Fall” was how well drawn and 3 dimensional the characters felt, an impressive feat for such a short story. Do you have any particular techniques you use when creating character, or do you simply let them come to life on the page?

I let them come to life pretty much. I just try to make them believable, and I think part of that is for the artist not to judge the characters. Eudora Welty said we should never condescend to our characters, and I agree with that. It’s about character development, and they seem real to me. The surprise in that story for me was the son. When we find out what he did, the bullying. To me that was a moment where our feelings about him, and his feelings about himself, really get taken up to another level. By the end of the story, particularly with one of the final images, you realize what he wants is what anyone would want, and he makes a decision with regards to how he’ll get it. At a terrible price and accepting a darkness in himself. No one is entirely good or bad, and I really believe that. I don’t give readers easy answers.

“L’homme Blesse” is one of my favorites in the collection, a truly haunting story. When did you first become interested in the ancient cave paintings, and do you feel they are examples of man’s innate need to tell stories?

I remember when I was a kid and being moved by the power of them. At seven or eight years old, I saw pictures of the paintings and found them kind of spooky because they are in these dark caves. I also think they hit us on some kind of deep, genetic level. If you are European, those were created by your ancestors. I’ve been rather obsessed with the images, and so far when I’ve been in France I haven’t been able to get to those caves, but I want to visit them the next time I’m over there. And yes, there seemed to be a need even 25,000 years ago to tell stories, rather for religious or artistic reasons. But I do think it is interesting that for whatever reason there seems to be something in us as human beings that we need to express to the world. And those paintings are very sophisticated. Anyone who thinks of them as primitive should really study them and you’ll find these are techniques that artists like Picasso and Monet were later exalted for.

In “Flight” you present a character who does some, shall we say, questionable things, but you also give her a backstory that doesn’t make you condone her actions but at least understand her better. Can you speak a little about how important the concept empathy is in your storytelling process?

Yes, that is one of the parts of storytelling I find most interesting. Not that you can a hundred percent understand another person, but you can imagine what that person might feel. I would also say that if we don’t have empathy, it leads to tribalism if we think we can only understand our own culture. In some ways, the idea of empathizing with those different from us has gone a bit out of fashion and I think that is dangerous.

“Last Bridge Burned” is a beautiful tale that talks about how even the smallest kindness could have profound effects for someone. Does that reflect a personal philosophy of yours?

Yes, because in my own life there have been people who through small kindnesses had huge ramifications on my life. I can remember when I was about ten years old, I went with my uncle to bale hay. I wasn’t really all that much help, but I remember how good it felt that my uncle had asked me to help. Then the next morning, I heard him come into my room when he thought I was sleeping, and I heard a jingling and he put something on my bureau. After he left I got up, and saw that he had left a few quarters and dimes for me for helping. It wasn’t a great deal of money, but it is something I never forgot. And outside of writing, I am personally trying to be more kind toward others even in small situations. For instance, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I try to be understanding. What do I know? That person could have just found out that a loved one had died. I fail sometimes at always being understanding, but I do try.

“Ransom” is a killer story that starts off feeling like a traditional horror story then takes an even more heartbreaking and unexpected turn. If you can do so without any spoilers, where did the germ of this one come from?

I think it started off out of simple rage about what the pharmaceutical companies have done. Essentially they’ve been responsible for a lot of this country’s addiction crisis. And my nightmare is that it is underreported. And I’m angry that for the most part they have gotten away with it. No one went to jail, despite the fact that they knew what they were doing. They had the research. I think where that story really works is that by the end we feel sympathy for both the characters. I didn’t want to give any easy answers, because that’s not the way things are in real life. For me, the story is a true tragedy.

Is it true that in the title story, “In the Valley,” you went back and added the section about Ross losing his family to the 1918 flu pandemic after COVID hit?

Yes, I was still working on the revisions of that story and I had had a sense of Ross’s backstory, but I decided to really emphasis it. I knew something had happened to his family, but I hadn’t specified what it had been. Could have been a fire or anything. Then when the current pandemic hit, using the 1918 flu pandemic just felt right. The main reason I wanted to write this story was because I wanted to tell Ross’s story because I always felt he had one that hadn’t been revealed in the novel Serena.

Without giving anything away, Ross in the novella shows a level of self-sacrifice that is almost epic in a heroic sense. Did you do that intentionally as counterpoint to the Serena character’s rather all-consuming self-interest and selfishness?

Yes, but I also think that the zeitgeist influenced that. Shakespeare said, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” To counter that, I think a lot of my stories feature characters who make attempts to make things a little bit better, doing the best they can.

I want to thank Mr. Rash so much for taking the time to speak with me. I recommend everyone try his work, and In the Valley is a great place to start. You can purchase it here:

Interview with Author Brock Adams

Brock Adams is a hell of a talented writer. I first discovered him through his novel Ember which blew me away, and quickly followed it up with his short story collection Gulf, which was equally impressive.

He has a new novel out now, Apocalypse Yesterday, and I dare say it might be the best thing I've read from him yet. The premise is genius, but he doesn't coast on the cleverness of the premise alone. He gives us great characters, genuine relatable emotion, and wonderful structure and pace.

I was thrilled that he agreed to let me interview him for my little blog.

The premise of Apocalypse Yesterday is so clever and fresh. What was the initial germ of the idea?

There were a couple of early sparks that got the gears rolling.

One is the scene in Dawn of the Dead (the remake) when they are playing a zombie sniping game on the rooftop: someone calls out a celebrity, and the shooter tries to guess the lookalike zombie and shoot it. I thought, If there is a zombie apocalypse, all our celebrities might be zombies. A great opportunity for fiction fun, and it led me to zombie Lebron, zombie Trump, and others.

The second was a Photoshop contest on College Humor years ago where the topic was something like “Realistic Headlines.” The newspaper read: “Zombie Apocalypse Begins. Absolutely Everyone Prepared.” Because of course we would be. With all the movies and books and video games, we know the rules, we know how to survive—yet the characters in these works are always caught off guard. I wanted characters who were not only ready, they were psyched to kill zombies.

The last kernel of inspiration comes from something I think about often: How do you know when you’ve reached the high point of your life? Most of us don’t, and that makes it easy to keep going. If you were certain that you’d already passed the high point and the rest was downhill, how could you go on? That is Rip’s central dilemma in Apocalypse Yesterday.

Did you outline or plot the novel beforehand, or simply dive in and see where the characters led you?

Pretty much dove in. I knew how things were going to proceed until about two-thirds of the way through, but I hit a wall at that point—a wall that took two years to get over. That was mostly because I thought the book was going to be much longer than it ended up. When I realized that my sticking point was not the end of the beginning, but instead the beginning of the end, things began to come together.

I did follow the characters, and I was surprised to see where they ended up, particularly in regards to who dies, who survives, and how. I had written a couple of synopses for editors (always tough for me—how am I supposed to know how the story’s going to go before I’ve written it?), but when the actual novel came together, I found my initial ideas didn’t fit with the characters at all. I really believe you can’t force your characters into a plot; you have to make them real enough that they take the lead.

The characters are so colorful and distinct. Did you have any particular favorites to write?

Davia is fantastic. Don’t tell my wife, but I’ve kind of got a crush on Davia, even if she doesn’t actually exist.

Were any of the locations, such as the water park, real or based on real places?

Spanish Shanty is pretty closely modeled after Panama City, FL, where I grew up. The Beach is Panama City Beach, and the water park is based on Shipwreck Island, where I often went as a kid. The economic disparity between the two cities in real life doesn’t exist as it does in the novel, but the disdain that people on one side of the bridge have for people on the other side is totally real. Tyndall Air Force Base is just across the bay from where I lived, so we saw the jets fly over constantly and occasionally saw the pilots in town. Oh, and Bungalow: it’s based on Bayou Joe’s, where at fourteen I got my first job washing dishes.

Having the story take place in a world where zombie movies exist and you make references to them and shows like The Walking Dead, not to mention your inclusion of real-life political figures, lends the whole thing a metafiction vibe that makes it all feel all the more plausible thus making suspension of disbelief easier for the reader. Was that intentional on your part?

I have always thought it weird that the people in zombie movies don’t watch zombie movies, so I avoided that trope. I didn’t want the world of the novel to be that different that our world, and in my first burst of inspiration, I found myself writing about zombie Lebron, so I figured I’d just go all in with our world. This was great until the COVID outbreak, which happened late in editing—too late to change anything. Now I realize that the characters really do live in a different universe; otherwise, they’d be prepared for a pandemic, and all responses would be colored by their experience with the coronavirus. Now that it’s out, I’m glad it takes place in a world without COVID. We can all use a break.

There is an underlying poignancy to the story that almost works on a metaphorical level, speaking to the very human tendency to get so caught up in past glory that you can’t embrace the present and plan for the future. Was that always in your mind as a theme or did it develop as you wrote?

It was. I mentioned the weird sensation of waiting for the high point of your life and wondering if you’ve somehow missed it. It can lead you to look back at your past and glorify it. I used to think of things I’d done—a bike race I won, a great trip I took—and wonder if that was it. That was the high point. It’s taken the onset of middle age to kind of take a step back and enjoy the present. Having a family helps a lot, and I think that’s part of why Rip and his friends struggle so. They have no one but each other and nothing to look forward to, so it’s easy to get lost in nostalgia.

You mention in the Acknowledgements that you had trouble with this one and actually put it aside for two years. When you returned to it, was it hard to get back into that world? And once you committed to returning to the tale, how long did it take you to finish?

I didn’t have too much trouble getting back into the world because I did two reads before I began writing anything new: once just to refresh my memory, and another read with significant edits. When I was happy with what I had and ready to start writing again, I will admit it was a bit daunting to put pen to paper. The scene where Mo is looking for his family in the burning hotel was the first I wrote in two years, and I was scared I might have lost it. But I put the characters in front of that building and let them do their thing, and before I knew it, the words were flowing.

The full draft was done in about a month, and after another month of revisions, I let my wife read it. Another month or so of revisions based off of her comments and later my agent’s comments, and it was ready to go. So three months—if you don’t count the two years that I’d put it aside!

What can fans expect from you in the future, if you are at liberty to discuss anything you may be working on?

I’m in pretty much the same place I was with the first draft of Apocalypse Yesterday. I’ve written about fifty thousand words of a dystopian work with elements of magical realism, but I’m completely stuck and have done nothing for over a month. I’ve got my fingers crossed, though. Maybe this means there’s just two years of stewing between me and my next book deal!

A huge thank you to Brock for taking the time to talk with me, and for all those interested in Apocalypse Yesterday (which should be all of you), you can purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08477X73C/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i1

Brick at the Stonewall - Free Fiction

Feel moved to share another piece of fiction. This story, "Brick at Stonewall," was written for an LGBT flash anthology that I didn't make it into, but I really like it and feel like I accomplished a lot in a very brief tale.


Phil didn’t mean to kill the cop. He’d intended only to observe the Stonewall Riots, to use the time displacer he’d invented to witness an iconic part of LGBT history. However, he’d gotten caught up in the melee and smashed the brick over the cop’s head.

Running into an alley, he’d used the displacer on his wrist – which looked like nothing more than a watch – to bring himself back to the present.

“Carl,” he called out before noticing this bedroom was unfamiliar, not the one he had shared with his husband for the past three years.

“Did you say something?”

Phil turned to find a strange woman, a fat toddler on her hip, standing in the doorway. He’d never seen her before…and yet she was so familiar. He was about to ask who she was but then the name came. “Yolanda?”

“Dinner will be ready in ten,” she said then walked away down the hall.

Phil felt his memories shifting, a new timeline paving over the old. Because of the murder of the police officer, the Stonewall Riots hadn’t become the rallying cry for a new LGBT movement. Instead it had caused the community to become even more reviled. More strict laws, heightened bigotry. No progression to allow gays in the military, no marriage equality. No Ellen, no Will & Grace. Homosexuality was still a crime and mental illness, and Phil himself was deeply in the closet.

He had to go back and fix this before it was too late, but when he looked down his wrist was bare, and then he couldn’t remember what he was looking for in the first place.

With a sigh he went to have dinner with his family before going out to the park to troll for anonymous dick in the public restroom.


I don't do a lot of poetry but sometimes I like to dabble in it. This one I wrote recently for a flash fiction challenge. Didn't make the cut, but I still think it's a nifty little poem, so I thought I'd share it here.

By Mark Allan Gunnells

Gather round the campfire kids
And let me tell you a tale.
A story of witches wicked and devious,
Spat from the bowels of hell.

They look just like anyone else,
Innocent and pious and pure.
Yet their insides are black as tar and night,
A rot for which there’s no cure.

By moonlight at the witching hour
They concoct their hexes and curses.
Enchantments and Satanic rituals
More powerful than any churches.

They stalk the woods, gathering herbs,
And enthralling all they encounter.
They can steal your mind or enslave your heart
With their evil potions and powders.

Yet I have been blessed by Almighty God
With a power of my very own.
I can see past their disguise of innocence
And recognize their blackened souls.

They cannot hide from my scrutinizing gaze,
I see the unvarnished and unfortunate truth.
The cavorting devils they really are
Behind their masquerade of sweet youth.

And that is why I’ve called you kids
And bound you around this fire.
To others you are just carefree children,
But I know you are all liars.

You are the devil’s impish spawn,
Creatures of sin and spite and shame.
So now that I’m done with my campfire tale,
It’s time to throw you all in the flames.

Guest Post from Rick R. Reed

Rick R. Reed, who I interviewed on this blog not long ago, has a new book out called The Man from Milwaukee, and since I was lucky enough to have read an ARC of the novel I can tell you that it is exceptional. I wanted to have him on my blog again to talk more specifically about the book.

It’s the summer of 1991 and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has been arrested. His monstrous crimes inspire dread around the globe. But not so much for Emory Hughes, a closeted young man in Chicago who sees in the cannibal killer a kindred spirit, someone who fights against the dark side of his own nature, as Emory does. He reaches out to Dahmer in prison via letters.

The letters become an escape—from Emory’s mother dying from AIDS, from his uncaring sister, from his dead-end job in downtown Chicago, but most of all, from his own self-hatred.

Dahmer isn’t Emory’s only lifeline as he begins a tentative relationship with Tyler Kay. He falls for him and, just like Dahmer, wonders how he can get Tyler to stay. Emory’s desire for love leads him to confront his own grip on reality. For Tyler, the threat of the mild-mannered Emory seems inconsequential, but not taking the threat seriously is at his own peril.

Can Emory discover the roots of his own madness before it’s too late and he finds himself following in the footsteps of the man from Milwaukee?

Rick was nice enough to share with me where he got the idea for this particular story:

"As a writer, the question I get asked more than any other is, 'where do you get your ideas?, If I’m grumpy, I might snap, 'From the dollar store—a buck for a dozen,' but usually, I do try to satisfy the questioner’s curiosity in a sincere way.

"Why write a book centered around serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer? The first reason that springs to mind if I’m honest is that I’ve always been fascinated by true crime and serial killers in particular. Before you get the wrong idea, I am about as mild-mannered as they come. But the psyches of twisted people have always fascinated me because I think we’re all a combination of good and evil, of angels and demons, of secrets we might not want anyone else to know. Now, for most of us, those things are, of course, not in line with homicidal leanings, but I think we can all agree that life is comprised of both shadows and light, for all of us.

"My main character, Emory Hughes, is one of those people. He is the main character of the book and it’s through his unreliable eyes we see the arrest of Dahmer and why he tries to contact him in prison. He’s surprised when Dahmer writes back to him, but believes they share a bond—they’re both self-loathing homosexuals who would change if they could. In Dahmer, Emory Hughes sees a kind of peer or friend. This is how twisted his mind is and how great his hatred toward his own homosexual leanings are.

"After the book describes this sick fascination shortly after Dahmer’s arrest in July of 1991, Emory writes to the killer for the first time:

Dear Mr. Dahmer,
You don’t know me, although our paths might have crossed one night on one of your visits to Chicago. But I doubt that. I’m sure I’d remember if you and I had ever been in the same room.
I wanted to take a moment and write to let you know there’s one person out here who understands what you’re going through. I fight my own demons, day after day, and know that sometimes our best intentions get crushed under the weight of needs we have no way of understanding, let alone escaping, try as we might to be good.
I know.
I know what a horrible thing it can be to be compelled to do things you know are wrong, evil, but for whatever reason, you’re built to be unable to resist these needs. I have them. To some degree, I suspect we all do. Yours are much worse than the average person, yes, but that doesn’t mean you wanted to feel the things you felt. Things that drove you to do what the papers say you did…
Anyway, if you get this letter, I’d love to hear back from you. I know right now the whole country hates you and gazes at your face with horror. But I don’t. I see a young man like myself, confused and full of pain because he can’t help being who he is.

Fascinating, and I appreciate Rick taking the time to talk with me about this. I think this is a book of extraordinary complexity and beauty and I hope everyone checks it out. You can get the book at either of the following two links:

If you want to know more about Rick R. Reed, here are some links to satisfy your curiosity:
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/rickrreedbooks
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/rickrreed
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Rick-R.-Reed/e/B000AP5H2G
Blog/Website: http://rickrreedreality.blogspot.com/
Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/rick-r-reed

The Best Ghost Tour in Savannah - A Short Story

For the past week, I've been in serious pimp mode promoting my new novel 324 Abercorn. Since the novel takes place in Savannah, I thought it might be fun to share with people the first story I ever wrote set in the city. This was written in the early 2000s, right after I made my very first visit to Savannah with some friends of mine. In fact, I made myself and my friends the main characters of the tale. I actually published this story three times, in two different magazines and an anthology, but it has never appeared in any of my collections. Hope you enjoy.


“We’re gonna be late,” Mark said, checking his Scooby Doo watch again. Tiny ghosts floated across the face, the hands creeping toward 9:30.

“We’ll make it, I’m sure it’s just around the corner,” Kasey said, her eyes darting between the map in her hands and the street signs. They were currently walking down Lincoln, about to intersect with E. Congress. “If either you or Robin want to take over navigation, I’ll gladly give up the map.”

Mark was more than happy to let Kasey play the role of unofficial leader of the trio. This was the first time in Savannah for all of them; it was well after dark; all the streets looked alike; and they’d already missed the first two walking tours they’d tried for.

It seemed a rocky start to their vacation, and yet Mark was certainly having the time of his life. It was different; it was exciting; it was fun. It was an adventure.

“I think this is it,” Kasey said as they turned left onto Congress. One of Savannah’s many squares lay ahead of them, little islands of nature and rest in the midst of the historic district. “And we’ve got one and a half minutes to spare.”

“Then why are we the only ones here?” Mark asked. Many tourists strolled the streets a
round the square but no group gathered for the start of a tour.

“This is Reynolds Square,” Robin said, indicating a sign at the square’s entrance. “The brochure said the tour started in Johnson Square.”

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Kasey said, unfolding the map and scrutinizing it once again. “I was positive this was it.”

“The streets move around,” Mark said with a certain amusement in his voice. “Just when we think we know where we’re going, these fuckin’ streets rearrange themselves.”

“You read too many horror novels,” Kasey said. “Okay, I’ve got it now. We’re in front of Reynolds Square on E. Congress. Warren Square is two blocks to our right, which means Johnson Square is two blocks to our left.”

“Damn, how many squares does this town have?” Robin asked, adjusting the straps of the backpack she carried around like a beloved albatross.

“I’ll take Whoopi Goldberg to block,” Mark said as they headed off to the left.

It was already past 9:30 so the trio quickened their pace. Up ahead, Mark could see another square, a large phallic stone monument thrusting up from its center. He exchanged a high-five with Robin when he saw the sign announcing they were entering Johnson Square.

His joy abated somewhat when he noticed this square was also deserted. The three wandered over to a bench near the center of the park and sat down.

“Where the hell is everybody?” Kasey said. “This is the right place.”

“Maybe the tour started already,” Robin said, rubbing her feet.

“We’re only ten minutes late,” Mark said, looking down the nearby streets. “You’d think they’d still be close.”

“Maybe no one else showed up for the tour,” Robin said, “and the guide left.”

“Well, shit,” Kasey said. “We’ve been walking around for an hour and missed all three tours. How pathetic is that?”

“Oh, come on,” Mark said. He was sitting in the middle and placed an arm around both of his friends. “We’ve still had a good time, took our own little tour of Savannah.”

“Yeah, and my feet are killing me,” Robin said. “These shoes were a mistake. How ‘bout we head back to the car?”

All three got very quiet, and Mark could see that they were all thinking the same thing. Kasey was the first to give voice to it.

“Did anyone happen to pay attention to where we parked the car?”

Of course, Mark knew they hadn’t. They’d been running late to catch the first tour at 8:30 and had found it nearly impossible to find a parking space. Kasey had finally spotted one, risking an illegal U-turn to secure it, and they’d rushed into the historic district without bothering to check what street they’d parked on.

Mark threw his head back and yelled at the intersecting branches above them, “We’re never getting back to the motel!”

“Excuse me; are you here for the ghost tour?”

The voice was low and gentle, coming from behind them. Mark turned to find a man in his early to mid-thirties, light brown hair—a little too long and curling at the ends—large brown eyes and a pouty mouth. He wore a plain white T-shirt with kakhi pants and sneakers. His skin was pale, luminous in the darkness.

“Yes,” Kasey said. “We thought we missed it.”

“Not at all,” the stranger said, a small smile touching his lips. “I’m just running late is all. Got unavoidably detained. I was afraid everyone would have left.”

“We were actually just about to leave,” Mark said. “Luckily, we were too tired to get off the bench.”

“I hope you’re not too tired,” the stranger said, his smile widening. “If you’re going to go on this tour, you’ve got more walking to do. My name is Jonah, and I’m your guide through the spirited streets of Savannah this evening.”

Jonah did not offer his hand, but he did bow slightly, and his manner immediately put Mark at ease.

“So Jonah,” Mark said, “you don’t mind giving a tour for just the three of us?”

“Oh no. Why, I once gave a tour to just one tourist. It was probably the best tour I’ve ever given. No children crying for their parents to carry them, no lovebirds in the back loudly sucking face, no stragglers forcing the rest of the group to slow our pace. Just me and this charming older gentleman who was enraptured with everything I had to say.”

“I know the feeling,” Kasey said with a bright smile. “Are you a native of Savannah?”

“Can’t claim that honor,” Jonah said. “Moved here about twelve years ago. I’ve been giving tours for ten years, and specifically ghost tours for five. I love this city. It’s a great place to live, the kind of city you’d hope to die in. And if the subjects of my tour are any indication, even the dead can’t bring themselves to leave this place.”

“Well, we gonna see any ghosts tonight, you think?” Mark asked.

Jonah said nothing for a moment, one corner of his mouth turned up in a secretive smile, his eyes twinkling with an amused mischief. “You never know,” he said finally. “The spirits of Savannah are all around us; you might just glimpse one or two if you keep your eyes peeled and your minds open.”

“Okay then, let’s go glimpse some ghosts,” Mark said, clapping his hands like a small child. This was just his thing, ghosts and goblins and horror tales; that was the stuff that got his blood pumping.

“So, it’s thirteen dollars a piece, right?” Kasey asked, digging her wallet out of her purse.

“Don’t worry about that now,” Jonah said, holding up a hand. “We’ll fool with money after the tour.”

“Sounds good to me,” Robin said. “So, where do we start?”

“Well, right here,” Jonah said, spreading his arms. “I want you guys to start by just looking around you. I mean, really looking. Take it all in, Savannah. The grand houses, the hanging moss, the atmosphere. Forget the cars and the tourists and the evil Starbucks that sprout up like poisonous mushrooms. See the city for what she truly is, a lovely older woman with all her youthful beauty still intact.”

Mark looked around him as instructed, Kasey and Robin doing the same. Savannah was indeed a glorious city, with the air of a place untouched by the grinding momentum of time, a land frozen in a simpler, purer period. Mark found it wasn’t at all difficult to look beyond the cars parked on the streets, the random strobe-flash of tourists’ cameras, the electric lights shining in the darkness. There was so much of the past still visible and vibrant—houses built centuries before and lovingly maintained, trees that had seen Civil War soldiers marching past them, even the quaint horse-drawn carriages that carried lovers along the streets of this magical city.

“Do you see?” Jonah whispered, eyes closed and breathing deeply as if absorbing the very essence of Savannah into himself. “Can you see the past? Can you feel it, alive and active? The past is not dead, it is not dormant; it exists even now, through a sheer curtain. We can see the outline of shapes behind the curtain, make out images. And if we reach out, we can push the curtain aside and see clearly what lies beyond, step into it even. That, my friends, is Savannah’s curse.”

“Curse?” Kasey said, her voice hushed, a church voice. “How can you say this place is cursed?”

“Yes, it’s beautiful,” Robin said, staring intently at a strand of moss hanging like Mardi Gras beads from the branch of a nearby tree.

Mark opened his mouth to add something but found no words adequate.

“Oh, it is a curse,” Jonah said. “Cursed by Dr. John M. Harney in the early 1820s. Harney had run a local newspaper in Savannah, The Georgian. It was not a success, and Harney became bitter. He ended up selling the paper and leaving the city. Before he did, he published a curse in The Georgian, a curse which still rings in the ears of Savannah. The curse goes: ‘Cursed be the winds that blew me to your strand, your houses are board, and your alleys are sand! Now to finish my curses upon your ill city, and express in few words all the sum of my ditty, I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is far the worst of all curses—to remain as you are!’”

Silence enfolded the square as if someone turned off the world’s sound. The hum of tires on pavement, the murmur of the passing crowds, the twittering music of birds and insects in the night—all melted away, leaving behind a quiet as perfect and complete as death. Mark was hesitant to even let out a breath, afraid to disturb the serenity of the moment.

His eyes widened as he truly began to see. Yes, this place was cursed; its evidence was all around. All the trappings of modern society—the cars, the streetlamps, the grinding music from open windows—seemed ethereal, ghostly, easily dismissed as a madman’s hallucinations. It was the relics of the past, the buildings and trees that had stood for centuries, that were the most solid, that were the most real. It was clear that this place, this beautiful city, had changed little since Mr. Harney had dealt out his curse.

“Let the ghost hunt begin,” Jonah said, breaking the silence.

Mark swayed on his feet, unbalanced and dizzy, while Robin gave her head a vigorous shake, her lovely brown ringlets dancing about her face. Kasey put a hand on the back of the bench to steady herself.

“I guess we’re even more tired than we thought,” Kasey said with an uncertain chuckle.

“It will get easier,” Jonah assured. “Once the tour really gets started, your fatigue will be forgotten.”

“I, for one, am feeling rejuvenated already,” Kasey said, sidling up to Jonah. “Lead the way; I’m right behind you.”

“Like a little bitch in heat,” Mark whispered to Robin and the two laughed.

“Well then,” Jonah said, taking Kasey’s elbow like a proper gentleman and leading her from the square, “I believe we may find our first ghost in Wright Square, which is about four quick blocks south of us.”

“Wait a sec,” Robin said, fiddling with the straps of her backpack again. “You mean to tell me that this tour met in Johnson Square just for us to walk four blocks to a different square for the tour to actually begin? Fuck this shit; I’m going to the Krispy Chick.”

Kasey shot a wilting glance over her shoulder.

“This is a walking tour, after all,” Jonah pointed out. “Just more opportunity to take in the beauty of Savannah.”

Without a word, Mark slipped Robin’s backpack off her back and slung it over his own shoulders. The four left Johnson Square and headed down Bull Street.

Kasey stayed by Jonah’s side, laughing and tossing her fashionably-short blonde hair and swatting the tour guide playfully on the arm and shoulder. Mark hung back a few steps with Robin, keeping an eye out in case they passed the car. Mark was indeed getting a second wind, enjoying being in this strange place with all the worries and responsibilities of his normal life far behind him. He worked with Robin and Kasey, and all of them were dissatisfied with their jobs and their lives. This trip was more than a mere vacation for them; it was an attempt to keep their sanity.

It took the group only a few minutes to reach Wright Square. Mark thought Wright looked very much like Johnson, only this square had a monument with large stone columns in the center. A greasy looking man with flowing gray hair trailing behind sped through the square on a bicycle, forcing Mark off the walkway.

“That’s Crazy George,” Jonah said with an affectionate grin. “He’s one of Savannah’s more colorful living residents.”

“Well, I certainly hope the dead residents are more courteous,” Robin said.

“Oh, the dead are always more courteous,” Jonah said. “Our pettiness and pointless cruelty dies along with our bodies.”

“So you’re saying you believe the living are more monstrous than the dead,” Mark said, nodding. “Interesting concept. Hell, maybe ghosts feel like we’re haunting them.”

“Such a cynical view,” Kasey said.

“There are always exceptions, my dear,” Jonah said, running a finger lightly down Kasey’s cheek. “Shining beacons of light in the darkness.”

Mark exchanged a knowing glance with Robin, and Robin muttered, “Smooth,” under her breath.

“Now then,” Jonah said, clapping his hands together, “here we are in Wright Square. This square was actually the site of a historical event over two hundred and fifty years ago. Do any of you know what that event was?”

“Birth of Cher?” Mark ventured.

Jonah made a point of ignoring the comment and continued; “In the year 1735, the first woman ever to be hanged in Georgia was hanged right here in Wright Square. Her name was Alice Riley.”

“What was her crime?” Mark asked.


“Who’d she kill?” This from Robin.

“Her employer, William Wise. She was one of his house servants, and rumor has it also his sometimes lover. Some theorize Alice was a witch, others that she was merely a vindictive servant tired of a life of servitude. All that is known for certain is that she murdered Mr. Wise; she never denied it. And in 1735, she hung from the gallows here in the heart of Savannah, forever a footnote in history, earning the infamous title of ‘First Woman Hanged in Georgia.’”

“I’m guessing her story doesn’t end there,” Kasey said, eyes darting from one patch of shadow to another.

“Not at all,” Jonah said, placing a comforting arm around Kasey’s shoulders. “Many believe that Alice’s spirit did not find peace when the noose snapped her neck. Some say she wanders this city still, restless and searching. Perhaps even watching over her descendants.”

“So Alice had children then?” Mark asked.

“Just one…a son. Born in Alice’s jail cell and ripped from her arms just before she was led to the gallows to pass from this life into the realm of legend.”

“Wise’s child?” Robin guessed.

“That is the commonly-held belief, but it is mere speculation. Truth is there was another servant to whom Alice was also…linked. Richard White, he was actually Alice’s accomplice in Mr. Wise’s murder. The two ran off together into the woods that surrounded Savannah at that time. They eluded capture for several days, but captured they eventually were. White was hanged immediately, but Alice confessed her condition and a doctor confirmed that she was with-child. It was decided that her death sentence would be postponed until after the birth of the child.

“For nine months, Alice sat in a dingy cell, her belly growing full and ripe. The jailhouse, a small wooden building, stood just on the edge of this square. Everyday of that nine-month sentence, Alice had to look out the window and see the gallows that waited patiently for her, waiting for one life to begin so that another could end. An exquisite form of torture.”

“Wicked cool,” Mark said with a smile.

“I think it sounds awful,” Kasey said, wrapping her arms around herself.

“I agree,” Jonah said. “Alice’s punishment far exceeded the severity of her crime, in my opinion.”

“Well, she did kill someone,” Robin reminded. “Whatever her reasons for it, she was guilty of murder.”

“I am not saying she did not deserve to be executed. I am not one of those liberal nuts who spout all that ‘Turn the other cheek’ nonsense. I’m a strict “Eye for an eye’ type of fellow. However, death is one thing. The kind of living death that Alice was subjected to is quite another. Nine months to contemplate her fate, nine months of imagining her death, nine months of feeling the life growing inside her, a child she would never get to name or raise or sing lullabies to. The pain and fear she must have known, the oppressive weight that must have sat on her shoulders, threatening to crush her, and then the final horrible moments when they snatched her wailing baby from her arms and led her to the gallows.”

Jonah’s eyes had taken on a misty, distant cast, and his breath was coming in harsh gasps. His cheeks were flushed and he pulled Kasey closer to him.

“Jonah, are you okay?” Kasey asked.

And then it happened. Not all at once, not a sudden transition. Something gradual, subtle at first then gaining momentum. Mark did not even notice it until Robin spoke.

“Is it me or is it getting darker? Did all the streetlights go out?”

“The cars,” Mark said, looking at the streets outside the square. “There were cars parked against the curbs; now they’re gone.”

Kasey reached out and grabbed Mark’s arm, unconsciously digging her nails into his flesh. “Look,” she said, pointing toward the center of the square. “Tell me I’m crazy; tell me I’m not seeing that.”

Mark turned his gaze to the square’s monument. Only the monument was no longer there. In its place was a large wooden structure with rickety wooden steps leading up to a high platform. Above the platform, suspended from a sturdy beam, was a rope with a noose tied at its end.

“What’s happening?” Kasey asked in a strained, high-pitched voice. Hysteria was clearly audible just below the surface.

Robin and Kasey huddled close to Mark, grasping his hands like children lost in a dark fairytale forest.

“Do not fear,” Jonah said, his eyes losing that far-away sheen. He stepped toward the trio but halted when they cringed back. “I apologize, I did not intend to bring you here.”

“Where exactly is here?” Mark mustered the courage to ask.

“Well, here is still Savannah, that much has not changed. The when, on the other hand, has changed considerably.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Robin said, taking a bold step toward Jonah. “And don’t give me riddles.”

“Again, I am sorry,” Jonah said. “I let my emotions get the best of me. It was a mistake, my bringing you here, but now that we are here, we cannot leave until we bear witness.”

“Witness to what?” Mark said.

In answer, Jonah stepped aside and directed his attention to the center of the square. Across the way, a group of people in peculiar, old-fashioned clothing were exiting a wooden building that Mark was sure had not been there earlier. At first Mark thought the group was comprised solely of men, but then he noticed one woman who walked in the midst of the men. One woman with her head hanging down and her hands bound behind her.

“Alice Riley,” Mark said in a whisper.

The three stood frozen, transfixed, unable to turn their eyes away from the scene playing out before them. Torches were lighted around the gallows, casting an ever-dancing orange glow throughout the square, not so much illuminating anything as painting everything in a garish Halloween light.

The group reached the gallows, and one of them led Alice Riley up the wooden steps and instructed her to stand at the front, just under the rope. The noose was fitted around her neck, and only then did she look up. When she did, her eyes honed in on the trio. She met each of their gazes for several seconds, and when her eyes fell on Mark it sent an icy chill up his spine, a chill he was certain he would carry with him until the very last days of his life.

A trapdoor beneath Alice’s feet suddenly gave way and Alice plummeted toward the ground below. The noose around her throat prevented her from hitting the ground, however, the rope tightening and efficiently snapping her neck. Mark heard the terrible sound even from across the square. Without the cacophony of modern society, sound carried great distances with crystal clarity. That sound, the brittle twig crunch, he was also sure he would carry to his grave.
Alice dangled like some macabre piñata, Death’s pendulum, while the group of men gathered around. Only then did Mark realize he and his friends were not alone. Men and women in the same peculiar dress were all around, walking closer to the gallows. It was a public spectacle, Alice’s execution, perhaps an entertaining night out on the town for these people.

“I want to go home,” Kasey said, her voice wet and muffled with tears. “We’ve bore witness, now I want to go.”

“Yes, it is time to go,” Jonah said solemnly. “Pity we can only bear witness to the past and not alter it. But that is just maudlin conjecture. Here, feel the past slip away like silk through your fingers. Feel what was melting away and what is building itself around you. Close your eyes and let yesterday become today.”

Mark did as instructed, still clasping his friends’ hands with desperate ferocity. The ground seemed to sway beneath him and his stomach lurched as if taking a steep hill in a fast car.

And then he heard it. A blaring car horn and some indecipherable but angry words shouted in the distance. He opened his eyes and trained his gaze immediately on the center of the square. The gallows were gone; the peculiarly dressed group of onlookers was gone; Alice was gone. Instead was the monument with the stone columns. The streetlamps were back, glowing with renewed vigor. The small wooden prison was replaced by a large stone building of unmistakable modern architecture.

Mark dropped to his hands and knees, retching and gagging. Kasey crumpled to the ground next to him, weeping softly into her hands. Robin was the only one who managed to maintain her feet, but her skin had gone ashy and her upper lip quivered.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Jonah said, standing over them. “That was more of a ghost tour than any of you bargained for, I’ve no doubt. I should not have even given a tour tonight, but my sense of responsibility is too strong I suppose.”

“How’d you do that?” Mark croaked. “Are you some kind of warlock or something?” The question sounded ridiculous even as it left Mark’s lips, but no more ridiculous than the events that had just transpired.

Instead of answering Mark’s question, Jonah said, “I think in light of what has taken place, we will forgo the remainder of tonight’s tour.”

Jonah turned and began walking away from them, out of the square. Mark watched him go, mute with shock, until the guide disappeared in a particularly deep pocket of shadow. Mark and his friends remained huddled together on the ground for some time before finding the strength to get up and search for the car.

* * *

Mark awoke at around noon the following morning. It had taken them an hour and a half to find the car last night, the three of them searching in silence, not yet ready to discuss the strange tour they had taken. When they finally reached the motel, they’d fallen into bed, Kasey and Robin sharing one and Mark taking the other, all without a word.

Mark stretched, wishing he could lull himself into believing last night had been a dream, but he knew it had not been. He experienced a brief flutter of panic when he saw that he was alone in the motel room, but then the bathroom door opened and Robin stepped out toweling off her damp hair.

“Morning,” Mark said, throwing back the covers. “Where’s Kasey?”

“Went to get some coffee. How are you feeling this morning?”

Mark shrugged. “I thought it would all seem less bizarre and scary in the light of day, but…”

“It’s just as bizarre and scary now as it was last night,” Robin finished.

Mark started and Robin squealed when the door to the motel room burst open and slammed against the far wall. Kasey rushed in, sloshing coffee from a paper cup all over the threadbare carpet and waving a crumpled newspaper in her right fist.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Robin said with a sharp edge in her voice.

“Look at this,” Kasey said, laying the paper on Mark’s bed. The paper was opened to the local section and Kasey was gesturing wildly to an article in the far left corner. The headline read, “POPULAR GUIDE KILLED IN ACCIDENT.” An eerie quiet filled the room as they all read the article.
“Jonah Simpson, age 34, was killed at approximately 9:25 last night when he was struck by an automobile. Mr. Simpson had been giving walking tours of the historic district for ten years, and for the past five years had been the guide of what many tourists dubbed ‘The Best Ghost Tour in Savannah.’ In fact, Mr. Simpson had been on his way to lead his final tour of the night when a Ford Bronco…”

“It can’t be, can it?” Kasey said, her voice breaking. “It must be a mistake.”

But Mark knew it was no mistake. A small black-and-white picture accompanied the article. Despite its grainy quality, he clearly recognized Jonah.

“A ghost tour from a ghost,” Robin mused, sitting down on the bed.

“Should we tell anybody?” Mark asked.

“Oh yeah, great idea,” Kasey said. “Everyone will think we’re loonies.”

“But something happened to us,” Mark said. “Something…otherworldly, something supernatural. We can’t just forget it, can we?”

The three looked from one to another then back at the photo of Jonah Simpson. No, Mark knew none of them were likely to forget what had happened. Not as long as they lived.

Thanks folks! If you enjoyed this tale and want to read more about haunted Savannah, you can purchase my new novel here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08B4YJGZK/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0

Come Inside 324 Abercorn

It's finally here! The release of my new novel, 324 Abercorn!

I am beyond excited to finally offer this one to the world at large. 324 Abercorn combines many things that I love. The haunted house tale, which is perhaps my favorite subgenre of horror. The city of Savannah, a place I love and visit with my husband every year. Colorful and interesting characters, which I feel ground a story and give it life beyond just the plot.

One of the most delightful aspects of writing this novel for me was that I vicariously got to live in Savannah for a year, at least in my imagination. I wanted to utilize the city, using real locations and recognizable landmarks. I thought I'd share with you some photographs of the real locations.

Blow are a few photos of the house that inspired my fictional house. I feel in love with this place on a ghost tour we took several years ago, and that was the genesis of what would become the novel:

Here is the Massie Heritage Center, which served as inspiration for the Maverick Heritage Center in the book:

My character Bias lives in an apartment in a building that used to be the slave quarters behind a grand home. I based that on these apartments:

One of my favorite characters in the novel is Harold (aka drag queen Titty Titty Gangbang), and we first meet him in the Colonial Park Cemetery:

My main character Brad first encounters the character of Bias in the Book Lady bookstore:

Several other Savannah locations are used in the novel, including Bonaventure Cemetery, Forsyth Park, and the Savannah Theater:

So there you go, just a little glimpse into the real places that helped shape my novel 324 Abercorn. I hope you'll give it a read.

The novel can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/324-Abercorn-Mark-Allan-Gunnells-ebook/dp/B08B4YJGZK/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=324+Abercorn&qid=1593775840&s=books&sr=1-2

Short Story: These Hands

My friend Tim Baxter-Ferguson held a contest on his Facebook page where people submitted photos they had taken, and he would do a painting of the photo that got the most "Likes." He enlisted other artists to do works inspired by other photos that received a lot of virtual votes. Most of these artists work in the visual medium, but I asked if I could do a short story based on one of the photos. The photo selected for me was of an older woman's hands, and below is the story I was inspired to write.

By Mark Allan Gunnells

Pearl had never made a house call before, it wasn’t standard procedure in her line of work, but these were unusual circumstances and therefore standard procedure didn’t apply. Unusual circumstances, and a special client.

Of course, Pearl would be lying if she didn’t admit the extra money she was being paid for this personal visit didn’t play a factor, but she liked to think she’d have done this for free. She liked to think so, and sometimes believing something helped make it true.

She followed the directions of her GPS and pulled up to a small brick Ranch-style house in a slightly rundown neighborhood near the interstate. As Pearl stepped out of her car, the Rusty Rocket she called it, she took a moment to look up and down the street. This house was definitely in the best shape, maintained by someone who took pride in their home. The neatly trimmed lawn stood out in stark contrast to the overgrown weedy jungles on either side of it.

Somewhere nearby she could hear a baby crying, dogs barking in call-and-response, and the hum of traffic on the interstate. The day had started overcast, but the sun was beginning to break through as the clouds tore apart like old cotton and drifted away. Pearl realized she was stalling, part of her wishing she had not taken the call this morning that brought her here.

But here she was, so with a deep steeling breath she walked up the steps to the front stoop and rang the bell.

The door was opened almost immediately, as if someone had been waiting just on the other side. The middle-aged man who stared at her through the screen door had thinning hair and a noticeable paunch hanging over his belt, and his eyes evinced suspicion and repugnance more than any words ever could. Pearl was used to these looks, but not usually while she was working.

He’s not my client, she reminded herself. He’s the one who called, and he made his feelings quite clear over the phone, but he’s not my client.

“Mr. Edwards,” she said, forcing a smile that she hoped looked more natural than it felt. “I’m Pearl Vincent.”

The man snorted. “Can’t believe I invited a psychic to my house.”

“Palm reader,” Pearl corrected.

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, I don’t simply know things, don’t get visions or anything like that. But I can look at the lines on a person’s hands and tell things about them. Where they’ve been, where they’re going.”

“All a crock, if you ask me,” the man said, but he opened the screen door and stood aside, allowing her to enter the house.

Pearl stepped inside, choosing to take the high road and not respond. She had become accustomed to skeptics and even outright hostility. It still stung, but she could deal with it.

“So Mr. Edwards, where is your mother?” she asked.

He didn’t say anything for a moment, and she wondered if he was going to change his mind and tell her to leave, but then he went over to the coffee table and picked up a short stack of bills and brought it back over, holding it out to her as if the money were a dead rat he was anxious to get rid of.

Pearl took the money and discreetly tucked it into her purse, not bothering to count it.

“You need to understand that I don’t want you here. I think you and everybody of your ilk are just con artists and swindlers.”

“So I gathered, Mr. Edwards.”

“My mother insisted, however, and I can’t exactly say no to her right now. I mean, how can you deny the request of a dying woman?”

Pearl watched the man struggle to hold back tears, and despite his rudeness, she felt nothing but sympathy for him. She’d lost both her parents within a year of each other in her 30s, so she understood the pain he was feeling, and how sometimes the only way to deal with that pain was to lash out at others.

He wiped at his damp eyes and said, “She’s down the hall, last door on the left. She asked to talk to you privately, but I want to make one thing clear. The money I just gave you is it, don’t try to weasel any more out of her.”

“Mr. Edwards, I’m only here to help.”

“Oh, really? Just out of the goodness of your heart? In that case, I suppose you’ll be returning that payment, huh?”

Pearl didn’t answer.

“That’s what I thought,” the man said with a flap of his hand. “Just go. Quicker you get it done, quicker I can get you out of my house.”

Pearl left him in the living room, making her way down the short hall. She hesitated outside the bedroom door, wondering if she should knock or simply let herself in since she was expected. Ultimately, she settled on a combination of both, knocking on the door even as she opened it and stepped inside the room.

The room was shadowy, shades drawn down over the two windows and the only light coming from an art deco lamp by the bed. Not the kind of bed one would expect to find in a private residence, but an actual hospital bed with rails on either side. The old woman sat up, looking frail and somehow shrunken under the covers. Her wispy hair showed her spotted scalp through it, as if it weren’t actually attached to her cranium but instead a bit of cloud hovering around her head. She had an IV plugged into an arm, feeding her something from a full bag. Morphine? Pearl wondered.

The woman’s eyes were clear, however. Clear and sharp.

“Mrs. Edwards?” Pearl said, unconsciously speaking softly as if in a library or a church.

The woman nodded. “And you must be Madam Pearl?”

Pearl felt a blush creep into her cheeks. The sign out front of her house caused her some embarrassment. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, something to make herself sound more spiritual. She regretted it almost instantly, but by that point the sign had been paid for and she couldn’t afford a new one.

“Please, just call me Pearl.”

“And you call me Edna.”

A chair had been pulled close to the bed, and Pearl had a seat in it. She wasn’t sure how to start, never having been in a situation quite like this. “So,” she said at last, “this is rather unusual for me.”

“I’m sure,” Edna said with a weary smile. “You know, I first noticed your sign last year. I would pass it on my way to the market. I wasn’t driving by then, of course, but my son Rick would carry me back and forth. I always wanted to ask him to stop and let me get my palm read, but I knew he would think it was silly. I spent so much of my life worried about people thinking I was silly, prevented me from doing a lot of things I wanted to try. But if there’s an upside to dying, it’s that you stop caring what other people think. So I insisted Rick call you and offer to pay whatever it took to get you here, as I can’t really get out anymore. I figured it was now or never. By this time next week, I doubt I’ll be here.”

“Maybe …” Pearl started, but let her words trail off.

Edna took a shaky breath. “You know there’s really no hope when the doctors let you go home. If there was even a chance, they’d have kept me in the hospital, but when they tell your loved ones to bring you home and make you comfortable, you pretty much know the end is nigh, as they say. I have a hospice nurse that comes twice a day, but she does little more than manage my pain and keep me company.”

“I’m so sorry,” Pearl said, knowing the words were inadequate but knowing of nothing else she could say.

Edna waved away the words. “I’ve made peace with it … sort of. Resigned, I guess you’d say. I’ve decided if my time is limited, I’m going to spend it doing exactly what I want to do.”

“Sound philosophy, if you ask me.”

“So, how about we get to work? Life’s short and only getting shorter for some of us.”

The old woman laughed at her own joke, but then grimaced as pain seized her. Pearl started to rise, but Edna waved her back into the chair.

“What can you tell me?” Edna asked, holding out her hands.

Pearl took a moment to study those hands. They were so wrinkled that it looked almost as if Edna wore stretched-out and ill-fitting gloves. They appeared to be strong hands, not knotted or twisted with arthritis or anything of the sort, the nails perfectly manicured and painted a muted shade of pink, but the wrinkles spoke of a long life, the way growth rings could identify the age of a tree. Tentatively, Pearl took one of the hands into her own, and the skin felt paper thin under her touch, like the most delicate parchment stretched over the bones.

“What do you see?” Edna said, the last word slightly slurred so that it came out as shhee. Pearl suspected the pain medication pumping into her veins made it hard for her to stay alert for long periods of time, so Pearl decided to get right to it. Time was precious, and in this case there was precious little to waste.

“I see a lot,” she said, tracing the many lines and folds of the skin. “A long life is full of paths taken, journeys and adventures. Oh, here I see that you experienced some great pain and loss when you were quite young.”

Edna’s lips stretched tight, in a wistful smile or swallowed pain Pearl wasn’t sure. “Yes, my mother passed when I was only five. Leukemia. I don’t think my father ever really got over it. You know, looking back I have very few specific memories of the woman, it’s more an impression of warmth and kindness, and I certainly remember that feeling of emptiness that came when she was no longer a part of my life. A hole that left room for other joys to fill it as I grew up but which never completely closed.”

Pearl nodded but remained focused on the palm, trailing a finger down one particular line. “Looks like in your mid-teens you took a trip that changed you.”

Now the curl of the old woman’s lips was definitely recognizable as a smile. “The summer I was sixteen my father took me on a week-long vacation to New York. It was so exciting. I had never been out of this little town before, and my first glimpse of a big city opened my eyes and mind to so many possibilities. And I met a boy there, also on vacation with his family from Salt Lake City. Their rooms were on the same floor as ours at the hotel. That boy gave me my first kiss, and I think I even fell in love with him a bit. Sounds silly, I realize, a boy I barely knew and whose name honestly I no longer remember, but he made me feel like a woman for the first time in my life. Not a little girl play-acting as a woman, but a real honest-to-goodness woman with passions and dreams. We promised to write, and we did for a few months before that petered out. Anyway, I was different when I got home from that vacation. More confident, more determined. And people noticed. They couldn’t put their finger on what exactly was different about me, but I was taken more seriously and no longer treated like a frivolous, flighty girl.”

“This love line,” Pearl said, “suggests you found your soulmate late in life.”

“That would be my Patrick, gone these last five years. I was in my later thirties when we met. I had almost given up on the idea of marriage and family. Oh, I wasn’t unhappy. I had my work as an accountant with the law firm. I had enough money to be comfortable, my own house, and I traveled as much as I wanted. Still some nights as I ate dinner alone, I could admit to myself a bit of regret that I didn’t have anyone to share my life with. Then Patrick moved to town and opened the bookstore on the corner of Main and Cyprus. I went in to find some Dickens, and I ended up finding the love of my life. We were married less than a year later, and Rick came along a year after that.”

Pearl smiled at the woman then looked back down at the palm. “It seems that – ”

Edna reached out and placed her other hand on top of Pearl’s, so that Pearl’s hand was sandwiched between both of Edna’s. “What comes next?” Edna asked, her voice quiet and trembling.

Pearl frowned. “I’m sorry?”

“What’s next? After all this, once I shed this frail body … what is waiting for me on the other side?”

Pearl froze. Of course, she should have known this was why she’d been called here. Some people came to her asking if she knew when they were going to die, and she would always politely inform them that even if she did, she wouldn’t tell them because no good came of that kind of knowledge. But the woman before her knew her expiration date lay just around the corner, and she wanted to know what lay around the corner after that. Despite a long, happy journey, she was afraid to let go for fear of the next journey.

Pearl studied the palm again, brows furrowed in concentration. When she spoke, her voice was firm and assured. “It’s peaceful, and it’s beautiful. And Patrick will be there.”

Relief flooded Edna’s face, and Pearl got a glimpse of what that countenance must have looked like when she was a young woman visiting New York and getting her first kiss from a boy whose name she no longer could recall but whose impact on her lasted a lifetime.

“Thank you,” she said, sinking deeper into her pillows. “I just needed to know.”

Pearl patted the old woman’s hand then gently placed it back on the covers. “Of course. Now I’m going to let you rest, Edna. It really was a pleasure to meet you.”

The woman mumbled, perhaps another thank you but the words had gone soft around the edges. Her eyelids fluttered as she drifted off to sleep. Not the final sleep, though that would come soon, but Pearl hoped the sleep would be restful and that the woman would dream of her dear Patrick.

Quietly, Pearl left the room, closing the door behind her and making her way back down the hall. Rick stood in the living room, arms folded across his chest. He didn’t seem inclined to speak, so Pearl started for the door. Halfway there, she paused, considered, then reached into her purse. Pulling out the sheaf of bills, she held them out to Rick.

The man looked from her face to the money then back to her face. “What are you doing?”

“Just take it back,” Pearl said. “This one is on the house.”

Rick took the money, his expression slack. Pearl turned back for the door, but behind her Rick said, “I heard what you said to my mother. Is it true? Is it really peaceful and beautiful?”

The man’s skepticism seemed to have dropped away, replaced by a naked and desperate hunger.

Pearl smiled at the man and said, “I like to think so.”


Interview with Author Rick R. Reed

I've been following Rick R. Reed's career since the 1990s, and I find him a fascinating and talented man, and am pleased to have been able to interview him for my blog.

MAG: Do you remember at what point in your life you realized that writing was what you truly wanted to do?

RRR: I don’t remember a specific point. What I do remember is always having a love for STORIES. I can remember sitting on the kitchen counter and I must have been about four years old and my mom reading to me (probably one of the Little Golden books). It wasn’t long before this love extended into my own imagination. I think I wrote my first short story when I was about six years old, something about Christmas and puppies. Some of my horror readers might be surprised at my choice of subject matter! But I’ve written almost my entire life. It’s almost as much a part of me as any of my physical attributes.

MAG: Do you recall the first story you ever wrote? If so, tell us a little about it.

RRR: Well, I mentioned the puppies and Christmas above. The first story I really recall, where other people appreciated it, was when I was in fifth grade. I wrote a very long story about a young girl being kidnapped by a mysterious stranger and abducted into the woods. My (wonderful!) teacher at the time allowed me to read the story, in installments, over the course of a week or so to the class. I remember them being enthralled and I credit this experience to defining me as a storyteller.

MAG: What writers influenced you during your formative years?

RRR: I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was a young teenager, starting with Carrie and then reading almost everything he ever published, right through to present day. So, he has to be a powerful influence, if only be osmosis. I’m also much inspired by Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, both celebrants of the dark side of human nature. And, of course, I have to mention Flannery O’Connor for her stripped down prose and quirky worldview.

MAG: What was the first story you ever published?

RRR: Truthfully, the first story I ever published was a porno story in a gay magazine called STALLION, probably around 1987. My first novel, OBSESSED, followed three years later. I’m much prouder of OBSESSED because I still think it’s a thrill ride of a story and it was published by Dell, in their short-lived but innovative horror line called Abyss.

MAG: Tell us a little about how you got your first novel published?

RRR: I had written OBSESSED over several years as a young advertising copywriter in my twenties. And the serial killer, coincidentally, in OBSESSED was, you guessed it, a copywriter. I sent it out a lot and accumulated lots of rejections (this was in the days before things like eBooks and print on demand—you really only had a few outlets for mainstream fiction). Warner actually picked it up, but wanted me to change it so much that I reluctantly turned them down. I couldn’t compromise my vision that much.

Finally, I entered into what would turn into a months-long correspondence with Stephen King’s agent, who were kind enough to always respond to me. Either they saw something in me or wanted to get rid of me so they finally said, “Look, we simply don’t accept unpublished writers. But there’s an agent in Brooklyn who’s up and coming. Why don’t you send her your manuscript? I did and she was great for quite a while and got my first two books contracted by Dell and sold in translation in Russian and German.

MAG: As a gay man, how important was it for you to include LGBT characters in your early work?

RRR: I not only include LGBTQ characters in early work, but pretty much in all my work (the only exceptions are OBSESSED, HIGH RISK, and my sole foray into YA horror, DEAD END STREET). I know a lot of people don’t agree with the old adage, “write what you know,” but I do. I don’t think the adage means write solely from autobiographical experience at all. I think it means writing from your essence, your heart, the richness of your own viewpoint and experience. LGBTQ characters speak from my subjective experience. I know their truth. And, as marginalized communities, I want to be a truthful voice for all of us.

MAG: Penance is a novel of yours that I found particularly strong and compelling. For one of your main protagonists, you used a priest fighting demons of his own. In some ways, that was a controversial choice. What made you go that route?

RRR: A theme I’m fascinated by is the existence of evil. For the most part, I believe we’re all broken to various degrees, some way more than others. That said, I think most of us are not bad people, but simply people who make bad choices, people who do bad things. None of us know what another’s reality is—we can’t imagine the inner workings of their minds. What seems evil to you or me might seem perfectly rational to someone else. Or maybe they even realize that what their drawn to or what they do is evil, but they fight it, but have a strong compulsion, regardless of what their conscience is telling them. The priest in Penance is the other side of the coin from the evil man who’s our villain, exploiting and killing children. The priest has the hope of redemption, of grace. Our villain does not. He’s too far gone.

MAG: You did a follow up to that novel, Moving Toward the Light. Did you always know you would return to that world? If not, what made you decide to go back?

RRR: I didn’t ever plan on a sequel, but when I wrote that story, it was by request from an editor who was doing an anthology, Shattered Lives and Broken Dreams, based on The Crow mythos, brought to life by James O’Barr (editor and author of the original graphic novel) and also in the movies. Using the characters from Penance to tell a story of revenge from the grave seemed a natural choice. And the anthology is one I’m proudest to be included in, along with the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Iggy Pop, Andrew Vacchs, Alan Dean Foster, Nancy Collins, and others.

MAG: At a certain point in your career, you left behind your horror routes and began to explore gay romance, a transition that I think you made beautifully. What were the factors behind that move?

RRR: Honestly, I think my horror roots were part of my worldview at one time. Writing about horror helped me deal, perhaps subconsciously, with some trying aspects of my life, like failed love and believing I’d never be worthy of being loved fully. When, almost 18 years ago now, I met the man who would become my husband, I realized that love from others and love of myself was possible. And I wanted to translate that joy to the page and tell stories of how redemptive the power of love can be.

MAG: Have you found there is crossover in your fans? Do fans of your romance go back and read your horror novels?

RRR: Not as much as I’d like! Many romance readers don’t want anything to do with horror and are, frankly, scared and depressed by it. And many horror readers look down their noses at love stories. Of course, there are people, and I include myself in this group, that enjoy both genres, wanting their reading tastes to match shifting moods and interests and I’m very grateful to them.

MAG: This summer you have a new novel coming out, The Man from Milwaukee, which returns you to your horror roots. This one takes place in the 90s and deals with a closeted young gay man who feels a kinship with Dahmer and begins to write him letters in prison. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration behind this one?

RRR: I actually wrote the first chapter a long time ago as a short story for yet another anthology, Contra/Diction, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. That story always felt like I needed to write more about its weird main character, Emory Hughes, who’s so full of self-loathing because of his homosexuality that he identifies in a way with Dahmer, who’s just been arrested at the start of the story.

I want to thank Rick for taking the time to talk with me and share a little bit about his work and his career. I encourage everyone to check out his work. You can find all he has to offer, including the just re-released Big Love on his Amazon page: