On Wicked Ground: The History of the Werewolf and Urban Fantasy by Beth Noland

They have passed through time like they pass through darkness: strong, swift, and with a ferocious yet curious nature that have many of us transfixed. They scare us, tantalize us, and often have us shuddering in the middle of the night when we hear that lonely, yet unmistakeable howl that serenades the full moon. Does your heart skip a beat? Do you start to sweat? Are you scared? Werewolves have become part of our popular culture — a mysterious, yet appealing mix of strength, brawn, horror, and fierce animal nature leads to questions of its beginnings in history and its evolution in literature. The whole mystery that surrounds the werewolf, and shape-shifting in general, has become a staple in urban fantasy. It offers us a momentary dance with our animal nature and the ability to contemplate the inner workings of the animal psyche and our own.

The legends and stories of humans shape-shifting into animals can be tracked over time, spans numerous continents, and is embedded in countless cultures. From the werewolf’s deep beginnings in Indo-European mythology where warriors were depicted wearing the fur of the wolf to early modern history where wolf transformations are triggered by vampires, one of the earliest accounts of the werewolf was mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written around 8 A.D. As the story goes, Jupiter (popularly known as Zeus) decides to make an unannounced visit to Earth to check out a rumour of evil doings. King Lycaon, suspicious at the god’s arrival and angered at his peoples’ quickness to worship the visitor, devises a plan to prove whether Jupiter is a true god. Thinking he will have the upper hand, he makes the mistake of serving Jupiter a meal of human flesh, a deeply abhorred practice. Enraged, Jupiter changes the King into a wolf, although he still had some of his human traits. Though cannibalism was a practice that cut to the core of social custom, Jupiter chose the wolf form thinking that if Lycaon wanted to partake in this despicable deviation, he could do so looking like the wolf, a more palatable creature, so to speak, to be dining on human flesh. Thus from Ovid and King Lycaon, the word Lycanthrope is derived: a human able to don the form of the wolf or wolf-like creature either on purpose or as the result of an affliction, curse, or punishment.

The present idea of the werewolf we hold today — of one which changes with the cycles of the moon — is a more recent development from the late Middle Ages and is directly connected to colonialism, the influx in Christianity, and witchcraft. During this time, witches were being burned at the stake and on occasion people thought to be werewolves would also find their place on the pyre. Perhaps one of the most `notable’ werewolves to suffer this fate was Peter Stubbe of Bedburg in the Electorate of Cologne (Bedburg, Germany). After a lengthy and severe torture of being put on the rack and stretched and having his flesh ripped from his body with hot pincers as well as his arms and legs broken, he made many confessions regarding a 25-year killing spree that involved despicable acts such as eating women, infants, and children. Stubbe also admitted to devouring the brain of his son. Claiming that the devil had gifted him a magic girdle, Stubbe said that it was the girdle itself that allowed his transformation into a wolf. His body decapitated and placed at the stake, Stubbe was burned along with his daughter and mistress on October 31st, 1589.

But the girdle was not the only way to become a werewolf. The transformation through history has been attributed to many things, from eating the meat of the wolf to making a deal with the devil. Some said the ability was divine punishment, the curse of an affliction, or in some cases, wearing the fur of the animal. But despite all these possibilities of what might change a person into a wolf, the question that is begging to be asked is, are there any medical conditions for these transgressions? Could there possibly be some explanation regarding wolf-like behaviour that would explain the presence of the werewolf throughout history?

The answer: Yes.

The first condition, and perhaps maybe one of the most obvious, is rabies. Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system of warm-blooded animals. In humans, rabies comes in the symptoms of fever, sore throat, a cough, but then is shortly followed by more progressive symptoms such as seizures and hallucinations. Although when medical resources and knowledge weren’t as advanced, these symptoms could have been attributed to moderate illness, or perhaps the ‘onset of the transformation into a werewolf’. However, you take the rabies virus and put it into a wolf’s body, and you have an entirely different set of symptoms altogether.

During the rise of the werewolf, world Canis lupus populations were quite high and there are many reasons to believe that rabies would have been prevalent as well. Some say there were nearly 7,600 documented fatal attacks in France between people and wolves during the period of 1200 and. In wolves, rabies can cause a manic level, in which the wolf becomes highly agitated, significantly erratic, and very likely to attack and bite at random. Pair that with the strength, size, and physical prowess of these animals and it would make for a very scary and compelling argument for a terrifying monster. Enter in the onset signs of the infection in humans, and it leads one to wonder if the rabies virus may have helped to fuel the notion of the werewolf.

Another and perhaps less obvious condition is Hypertrichosis, in which the afflicted sprouts copious amounts of hair all over the body (also known as werewolf syndrome), or Porphyria, a sensitivity to light which leads to the eventual decay of facial features over time. There is also a clinical condition called Lycanthropy, when a person believes themselves to be a certain animal. It is no wonder with these medical conditions why people would believe in werewolves.

The werewolf has become a complex binary character that enables the reader to delve into the mysteries of the unknown. The beauty, allure, and most importantly, the sheer simplicity of being able to experience life as an animal — to do as an animal does, and perhaps to take some guilty pleasure in it — makes us appreciate the great literary character the werewolf has become. The ability to escape, to function as an animal, to contemplate our choices from the perspective of an animal probes the question: what would you do? In the werewolf’s animal nature, we are fundamentally exploring out deep-rooted desires of what becoming an animal involves, throwing away our obligations and morals, and embracing the nature of the beast.


The Winter Long (October Daye #8) by Seanan McGuire Reviewed by Emily C. Skaftun

  • The Winter Long (October Daye #8) by Seanan McGuire
    Reviewed by Emily C. Skaftun
    Paperback ISBN 075-6408083 DAW, September 14, 358 pages
    Also available as an e-book from DAW and an audiobook from Audible

If you haven’t been reading the October Daye series from the beginning, turn away now, little fish, this book is not for you. I do recommend you read them all: they vary in quality, but they are all quick reads, at the least, and though you may sometimes wish to wring Toby’s neck, overall I find the series compelling.

All this installment has as its back cover text is:

“Toby thought she understood her own past; she thought she knew the score.
She was wrong.
It’s time to learn the truth.”

This pretty much sets the stage for us to expect big reveals and the kind of surprises I don’t want to reveal too much of here.

Two people show up unexpectedly in this book. The first of these is Simon Torquill. Remember him? Sylvester’s evil twin, October’s number one nemesis, he of the fish-turning-into from book one. Simon shows up at Toby’s house, and she absent-mindedly lets him in, thinking he’s Sylvester. It’s only when his magic wells up—and when he tries once again to transfigure Toby—that she realizes her mistake. With May coaching her into even more new magical abilities, Toby’s able to win the battle, but she’s far from believing Simon’s claim that he is and has always been a friend. It doesn’t help that he’s under a geas, which literally prevents him from saying what’s on his mind.

The second unexpected person is someone we all thought was dead. I trust that leaves the field of potential candidates sufficiently wide open?

Toby has always held a strange position in Fey society: she’s a changeling, but manages to break all the rules and get away with it time and time again. She makes friends with all sorts of people who have no reason to love her and plenty of reasons to kill her. With each revelation we uncover a little bit more about her strangeness—and even more questions arise. Questions like, why does everyone Toby trusts keep major, life-changing secrets from her?

One legitimate reason is being placed under a geas. The central mystery of this book concerns finding out who is really behind things. If Simon and Oleander aren’t the big bads—and the fact that Simon is under a geas lends that idea credibility—then who is? Even Toby’s old pal the Luidaeg has been bound by this person, and when she accidentally violates the geas by letting a tiny bit of information slip, we find out that it’s someone powerful enough to mortally wound our favorite Firstborn.

Slowly, Toby is learning whom to trust. One of the joys of this series is watching her build up her own family, with Tybalt of course becoming an important part of her life. It took them long enough to recognize and admit to their love, that it’s really fun to watch them negotiate their sometimes-complicated relationship. Between him and Quentin, Raj and the Luidaeg, May and Jazz and even Danny the cab driver, Toby now has a lot of people she can ask for help. And she now does, at times!

The Winter Long begins with Toby in such a comfortable family life that it’s hard to remember that when we met her she had nothing. McGuire takes great pleasure, I think, in reminding us that in the blink of an eye she could have nothing again. If even the Sea Witch is vulnerable to this dark power, what chance does Toby have?

McGuire has noted that this book is the first one she’d plotted, the book toward which she’d been writing since book one. This definitely pays off, as so many threads are wrapped up that I had to go check the interwebs to make sure it wasn’t the end of the series. Rest assured, October Daye fans, there are more books planned and more mysteries to unravel.

Sarah Beauhall and the Bivalve Beat Down by J. A. Pitts

Littleton was a fishing town on the Washington coast—seventy-two houses in the several square miles between the highway and the open water. Nearly every job in town dealt with fishing and oysters. There were rumors that strangers disappeared around these parts and that was good enough for me to investigate. I was hunting necromancers—been following up on leads all over the region, but honestly I didn’t expect much.

I hated necromancers—monsters killed some of my friends and wounded my girlfriend. My crew, Black Briar, had battled the cult and wiped out most of them, but a few had escaped.

I pulled the Ducati in front of the Crack Shack, a dive bar and grill that had seen better days. I figured I’d ask a few questions, eat some local food, and poke around for a few hours before heading back home. My hopes were not high. So here I was, all alone with my bike, a couple of hammers, and my magic sword, Gram.
Working for Nidhogg—the dragon that ruled everything between Vancouver, BC, and Vancouver, WA, and as far out east as Missoula, Montana—offered me some perks and an extraordinary amount of backup if I needed it. Right now, I was just scouting. I didn’t expect anything too big to handle. I was Odin’s chosen one after all, a hot, dragon-slaying, berserker chick who understood the business end of her sword.

I stuffed my gloves inside my helmet before climbing off the bike. I left the hammers in my saddle bags, along with the .45 I’d picked up in my adventures. I distrusted firearms, especially when magic was in the area, but it was always good to have an ace in the hole.

Couple of old guys inside the bar were watching me from the window. Their eyes about popped out of their heads when they caught sight of my hair and the sword slung over my shoulder. Or so I assumed. Maybe they were just not used to seeing someone like me in their little town. Not hostile stares, more like the circus was in town.

At least I’d left the chainmail at home. Just my riding leathers. Likely it was the dyke on a bike that was confusing the locals. I smiled, thinking how the love of my life, Katie Cornett, had called me her “fierce warrior” as she lay in that hospital bed, recovering. I took a deep breath, stretching with my arms over my head, and twisted my torso to each side. It had been a long ride.

I could feel eyes on me from places other than the bar as I climbed the three wooden steps and pushed open the door. Once the door closed behind me, the feeling of threat fell away.

The place was really cute, in a fisher town sort of motif. There was a small stage in one corner with a huge wall-mounted television off to one side showing golf. The bar was empty except for a young woman who sat on a stool at the end reading a book. Over her shoulder was a window back into the kitchen. An old woman was moving back there, leaning over a grill. I’d been on the road since four and my stomach was growling.

The two old guys were at one of the four tables over to the right of the entrance. Beyond them was another room with a few tables and stacked boxes and a second exit out to a side parking lot. Somewhere there was a door to the kitchen, because I couldn’t see one out here. I walked across the narrow room and placed my helmet on the bar, nodding to the old men. The young woman slipped a receipt into her book and closed it with a grunt.

She looked up at me as she walked around the end of the bar, picked up a pad of paper, and slid the book she was reading off the edge of the counter and down beneath. I grinned. It was a bodice ripper, but with her piercings and the tatt on the inside of her left wrist, I was betting she would rather project an aura of mystery and chic hipsterism rather than let people think she would enjoy something as frivolous as a romance novel.

“What can I get you?” she asked, her voice cracking on the last word.

I guessed she was barely twenty-one, looked closer to nineteen.

“Breakfast menu and some answers if you don’t mind,” I said back, giving her my best smile.

She blushed a little as she handed me a laminated sheet. Eggs and oysters were the order of the day, it seemed. Of course, there were oysters in everything, even the steak and eggs, which I ordered.

“Gravy on the browns?” I asked.

“Best sausage gravy within a hundred miles,” she said, a shy smile making her eyes look happy.

I let her pour me a cup of black coffee and watched her smirk as I poured about a half a cup of sugar in it.

“Got any chocolate?” I asked.

She smiled and opened a little door behind the bar, pulling out a bottle of chocolate sauce. I added a spoonful to my mug and stirred it, watching the old men trying to watch me without being too obvious about it.

“What brings you out this way?” the young woman asked, slipping my order back to the cook.

I sipped my coffee and shrugged. I’d had worse. “Just following some whispers,” I said. “Got wind that there’s been some trouble out here since New Year’s.”

“You a detective or something?” the girl asked, her voice cracking again.
Was she nervous? I glanced back at the two old men who were diligently shoveling eggs and hash browns into their faces, eye contact a definite no-no. Interesting.

“No, nothing like that,” I said, sipping my coffee and watching the old men. “Just curious about odd things, if you understand.” Was I making them nervous? When I turned back, the girl was watching me, wide-eyed, her mouth open in a little circle like a guppy.

I smiled at her and she blushed.

“Guess you folks don’t see somebody like me around here very often.”

One of the old men grunted and mumbled something under his breath, and the girl winced. I sat my coffee cup down on the counter and folded my hands over it, letting the steam warm them.

“Heard that maybe some people had disappeared out this way. You heard anything?”

The girl busied herself straightening a stack of napkins that were in no need of help. “What did you say your name was?” the girl asked finally, watching me out of the corner of her eye.

“Sarah,” I said, holding my hand out for her to shake. “Sarah Beauhall.”

She sort of twitched, knocking over the napkins, but didn’t take my hand. Did she know me?

Suddenly there was a loud scraping of wood on wood as the two men scrambled out of their seats and grabbed their coats.

“See you at dinner,” one of the old men called. I glanced over and they were both heading out of the front door, struggling into their jackets.

“Tell your ma I’ll be out about her septic,” the other man said.

The slamming door was very loud.

Their meals were about half finished and they both had coffee in their mugs. I was not winning any friends so far.

I sat back down, settling my hands on the bar.

“Well, that was sudden. Was it something I said?”

She glanced up and shrugged.

“Folks get nervous around strangers,” she said, looking down at her hands. She started to take a step toward me, but glanced around. The bar dead-ended at a wall farther away from me. For her to get away, she’d have to walk past the end of the bar and well within my reach. I sighed.

“Sorry if I’m inconveniencing you,” I said, pulling a twenty out of my wallet. I laid it on the bar and grabbed my helmet. I turned to step toward the door but stopped when she called out.

“Alex,” she said, her voice shaking. “Alexandra, actually.”

I turned back.

She was standing at the edge of the bar with her hand out.

I watched her for a moment, noticed how her hand was shaking, and stepped forward, taking it into my own. Her grip was firm, if a little sweaty.

“Alexandra is a beautiful name.”

She glanced back into the kitchen where I saw the old woman watching us, then pulled her hand away from mine quickly, tucking them both into her armpits

“We don’t want any trouble,” Alex said, her voice shaking.

What the hell?

“Is that a sword?” the old woman asked from the kitchen. “I think that’s a sword.”

Alex waved at the old woman, “Hush, Munner.”

I motioned toward the bar, and Alex nodded. I stepped back and before sitting down again, slid the scabbard off my shoulder and laid Gram on the bar in front of me.

Alex let out a sigh and reached out, like she wanted to touch the sword, but she stood a good seven feet away. “You’re her, aren’t you?”

“Her who?” I asked, perplexed. Okay, I’d killed a dragon, been marked by Odin, and killed a few giants and trolls, but I was hardly a household name. Still…

“Of course it’s her,” Munner said, waving a hand in my direction and turning back to the grill.

Alex leaned against the bar, visibly shaken. “Wow,” she said, then nothing.

We sat there in silence for a while, Alex staring at me, and me getting more and more weirded out by the whole thing.

There was a clatter in the back, and Munner came around through the other room carrying a plate heaping with food and a second plate with toast.

“Fill the woman’s coffee,” Munner snapped, setting the two plates in front of me. “And get her some of the good steak sauce. The stuff your ma makes. Chop, chop.”

Alex jumped to, grabbing the coffee pot and filling my empty cup. Then she opened the cooler behind the bar again and put a bottle of some concoction in front of me along with a spoon.

“Tomato based,” she said, unscrewing the lid. “But it’s the best thing you’ll put in your mouth today, I guarantee it.”

Munner walked over and flipped the sign on the door to “closed,” turned the locks, and switched off the neon sign out front. Then she walked to the back where I heard the other door being locked. I began mixing the gravy into my hash browns while Alex watched me. Soon Munner was in the back, turning off the grill and scraping it down.

“Are you folks closed?” I asked, confused.

“We are now,” Munner called from the kitchen. “Dragon business takes precedence over filling bellies around here.”

I choked, spewing coffee onto the bar, barely missing my food. Would’ve been a shame, because that was some of the best sausage gravy I’d ever eaten.

I just watched them, shock and trepidation warring in my chest. Who the hell were these people and why hadn’t Nidhogg warned me to look for them? Of course, Nidhogg kept her secrets close. Maybe that’s why there was no one worried I was out here on my own.

Unless they were the necromancers and I was being poisoned.

I pushed the plate away and Alex smiled, catching the flow of my thoughts.

“It’s not poisoned,” she said.

I eyed the food, dubious, and she laughed.

“Jesus,” she said, grabbing a fork out from under the bar and reaching over to scoop up a glob of gravy-covered potatoes. She ate it without blinking.

“It’s a sin to poison something as good as Munner’s sausage gravy.”

Munner came over to the bar, with three shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey. She poured three shots and raised hers into the air. This was some strange shit.

“I’m glad the hoary old bitch finally sent someone out this way,” Munner said, her eyes filled with purpose. “We’re glad for the help.”

I picked up my glass and held it high.

“Whiskey is the water of life,” the old woman said, her words an intonation. “Let this enrich our lives and bolster our courage for what is to come.”

“Skål,” Alex said and downed her shot a split second after Munner.

I eyed them a second longer, muttered “Skål,” and downed the shot. They each set the shot glass down on the bar, upside down, with the sound of finality.

“Alex, let her finish her meal, but then I need you to take her out to the Gunderson place. Start there.”

Alex nodded, her face pale but set. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get your mother and the rest of the sewing circle.”

Alex nodded again and motioned for me to eat.

I sat there for a minute as the old woman shrugged into her coat and mud boots. “Try the pepper sauce. You won’t ever forget it.” Then she was out with a bang, a walking stick in her hand.

“Sewing circle?” I asked, picking up my fork.

“Bunch of old women getting in everyone’s business,” Alex said, rolling her eyes. “Living in the past, keeping to the old ways.” She sighed. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to meet you face to face.”
I guess the sewing circle was one of the clandestine groups that proliferated throughout the state, reporting into the Nidhogg’s network, helping her to keep tabs on the goings on in her protectorate.
But Alex, now that girl was like a puppy, watching me eat and practically vibrating with excitement. I was half convinced that she was flirting with me.

The steak was good and the steak sauce was heavenly—sweet and savory with a bite of peppers. At some point I’d have to bring Katie back out here for oyster hangers. She loved them. I ate as much as I could, but frankly, the whole thing was overwhelming. Alex insisted the food was on the house, but I left twenty by my plate just the same.

The Gunderson place was on the island. The bar backed onto a canal that separated the island from the true mainland. There was a sturdy bridge connecting the island, so we walked in the mid-morning gloom.

Which wasn’t unusual for this part of the country—overcast and gray was the norm. I was just glad I’d had a dry ride all the way out from Bellevue, and the day promised to remain so. No rain in the forecast until Wednesday at the earliest. For January I’d take it. Overcast helped to keep the heat in so it was hovering in the low forties. Clear skies would’ve seen the temperatures drop by at least ten degrees, and that was just uncalled for.

The Gundersons, Alex explained, were a retired couple who kept a house here as their escape-the-big-city getaway. Not sure why anyone would want to come out here for a vacation, but the world takes all kinds. Their house was cute, two bedrooms with a central great room and a good-sized pellet stove to keep the place toasty. With access to that kind of breakfast, and some decent coffee, I was beginning to think I could see the appeal of the place. At least until Alex led me to the back room.

Off the kitchen was a storeroom that looked like a Costco warehouse. The place was nearly as large as the master bedroom and there were enough supplies here to last the entire winter without power.

Unfortunately the place had also been used for something dark. I slid Gram from her sheath as soon as I felt the first tingling of dark magic. Someone had died here, and not quickly. Alex shied back, swinging her hurricane lantern between us. It was one of those rechargeable types that used LED lights. Put out some serious light. But Gram enhanced my vision and I could see things the lantern could not show.

In the back, next to a rack of toilet paper—so much toilet paper—someone had been nailed to the wall. There were arcane symbols gouged into the cement block, and the floor had a series of interlocked circles drawn with chalk, wax, and blood.

The runes that Odin had marked on my scalp tickled and I turned to see a second, less powerful set of markings. There were straps and cuffs attached to large bolts here, a place to bind someone without doing any permanent damage. Someone was really into S&M, or maybe keeping prisoners. The energy here was much older than on the opposite wall. Whoever had been shackled here had been for sport—a witness to the torture and murder on the opposite wall.

“Damn,” I breathed as the blackness throbbed in the room. Some seriously bad magic had been used here.
The ritual circle was bent at ninety degrees, though—half circle on the flat floor, half circle on the wall. Not sure how they’d done that without causing a break, but what the hell did I know about necromancy?

Two people had been tortured and questioned here. At least one of them killed. There had been blood harvested here for the magic it held, but more than that, there was a sadistic pleasure in the killings.

“Gundersons?” I asked.

Alex coughed once, and I looked back. She was struggling. I motioned with my head and she turned, leaving the room as fast as she could. I followed, giving her a wide berth as she vomited into the sink.
When she’d cleaned out the sink and rinsed out her mouth, I handed her a paper towel off the dispenser by the fridge.

“Not the Gundersons,” she said.

“You going to be okay?”

She nodded, dabbing at her forehead with a wet paper towel. “Two of their friends. Young couple come out here in the off-season for,” she paused, looking away. “More grown-up activities. She glanced back at me, her face a mask of scarlet. “They leave their kids with their parents and come out here for a few days of…” She trailed off.

“Bondage games?” I asked.

Alex gave one quick nod and ran the water in the sink, splashing it on her face.

“Not something new then? Wouldn’t be a surprise to the Gundersons?”

“I need to get out of here.” Alex turned off the lamp, set it on the counter and walked past me, brushing against me in her hurry to get out. For the briefest of moments a scene flashed through my mind. Something where Alex was in pain.

I followed her out and she was sitting on the porch, her head in her hands. I paused and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

She shrugged and let out a long sigh.

“Doesn’t get any easier.”

I slipped Gram back into her sheath and sat down next to Alex, putting my arm over her shoulder.
“So a lot of grown-up games out here, but why the killing? Any ideas?”

“Munner thinks they were mixed up in something, drugs probably. But we need to go out the back for the next stop on this nightmare tour.”

We crossed the garden and went through a gate in the fence. To the left there was a rather deep stand of trees, not much light in among the boles, not in this gloom.

“What’s that place?” I asked, pointing into the woods. My runes were tingling even more.

Alex was watching me, a strange look on her face. “You don’t seemed very phased by all this.”

I shrugged. “I’ve seen some pretty grim stuff.”

She averted her eyes and nodded. “Fair enough.” She turned and walked across the road toward another house. This one was smaller, likely a single bedroom. “You need to see the rest before we go into the woods.”

Definitely smaller than the Gunderson’s place, and not nearly as kept up. The place had been ransacked inside. There was blood flung onto the walls in every room. Black candle stubs coated the counters and tables, window sills and even the back of the single toilet. Hundreds of black candles had been burned in here, burned down to nothing.

And there had been an orgy in the middle of the house, a wild affair that reeked of magic and death.

“How many died here?” I asked. I looked back and Alex stood in the doorway, her face pale.

“Seven,” she said. “All teenagers. Lot of beer, weed, and sex.”

“You know any of them?”

She turned away.

The people who did this pulled as much magic from the sex as they did the blood. This definitely smelled like the same necromancy that had killed my friends. I didn’t need to stay in that house. At this point, I had no doubt about the necromancy going on here. I just needed to know where to find the sick bastards who were doing this and put them out of their misery.

I looked around, scouting the area, and noticed that Alex was watching me again. “You feeling okay?” she asked.

It was sweet that she was concerned. “I’m feeling fine, why?”

She just shook her head, muttering under her breath, and turned toward the wood. I pulled out my cell phone to call in the cavalry as I followed her into the woods. I was scrolling through my contacts looking for Qindra’s number when the world grew fuzzy.

Once we crossed the threshold under the boughs, the light dropped away to almost nothing. There was an oppressive feel to the place. There was something wrong all of a sudden and I felt the world shift. I looked over at Alex who was asking me something I couldn’t make out. Then the world started to melt and I fell to my knees, dropping my phone mid-dial. I reached for Gram, hoping I could get my hands on her before it was too late. I face-planted into the forest loam.

When I woke up I was standing calf deep in ice cold water and muck. I looked out at the open ocean, the tide back a dozen feet or more, and a field of thick mud between it and me. Everything was blurry, like maybe I was drunk, but that one shot shouldn’t have done this. And why couldn’t I move?

I rolled my head to the side and saw Alex, naked as the day she was born, standing on an escarpment to my right. Her feet were nearly level with my head. This would be a dry spot to stand when the tide came back in. Well, for her. Not for me.

Of course, that’s when the cold hit me and I noticed I was naked as well. Naked and tied to a pair of crossed beams. Now I was pissed off.

“What the fuck?” I asked, turning my head take in the rest of my surroundings. My gear was thrown in the muck around me including my Doc Martens. My jeans and other pieces of clothing had been cut off me. And damn it, I liked those jeans—wide enough in the hips without looking like clown pants. The Docs were going to be hell to clean with all that mud and crap caked into the stitching.

I raised my head to Alex and the world spun again.

“Surprised you’re awake,” she said, a mad gleam in her eye. “Of course, you took your sweet time passing out.” She was grousing. “Never saw anyone eat so much of Ma’s pepper jelly and stay upright as long as you did.”

Okay, note to self. Sausage gravy is sacred. Jelly was poisoned.

And it was really good, too.

I turned, looking toward the shore, and saw a semi-circle of old, naked women making their ever-lovin’ slow progress out to us. Well, mostly naked. The muck was deep and they were all wearing hip waders.

“Sewing Circle?” I asked, pointing toward the old women with my chin. I was trying desperately to ignore the pounding that had started in my head. There was something big happening and my runes were telling me it was bad.

“Yeah,” Alex said, her voice an explosion of anger. “Said I brought too much attention here and instead of letting me have you, she insisted that you needed to be sacrificed to appease the great Shen.”

I just stared at her. “The Great Shen? Seriously?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s the real deal.”

I studied her face, waiting for her to laugh. “Chinese, if you can believe it. No idea how it ended up out here, but there you have it. Best oyster beds on the west coast, and all it costs us is an occasional sacrifice to the great knobbly shelled one.”

She wasn’t laughing.

She shook her head and glanced back. “I would’ve kept you around a while, had some fun.” Her face flushed red again, only I noticed now it ran down her neck and across her breasts. Girl was either cold or very excited.

“Instead you get to be eaten by a giant oyster. Really does suck. I’ve seen this thing. It’s large enough to swallow one of our fishing boats.”

I looked out at the edge of the incoming tide, trying to imagine an oyster that large. The image was ludicrous. Imagine the eggs and hangers you could make with an oyster that size.

“Tide’s coming in,” she said. “As soon as it does, Shen will rise up and suck you in. I can’t imagine it’s a great way to die.”

“Drown most likely,” I said, watching the old women make their pathetically slow way out toward us. “What the hell is keeping them?”

Alex grunted. “Old age, I’d hazard.” She licked her lips and stared down at me. “I’m thinking it’s time for a new generation to take over.”

Great. Crazy and power hungry.

Alex squatted down, her knees to the side, thank goodness. I was not in the mood to see any more of her than necessary.

“They want to cut on you a little. Let your blood wash out into the surf when it comes in. But they are so damned slow.”

“How long do I have?”

“Thirty minutes tops,” she said, her voice resigned.

“What about the Gunderson’s friends?”

She smiled sheepishly. “That’s my house, actually.”

I just shook my head. Alex was the necromancers who’d escaped. Nice to know. Just wish we weren’t both naked in the middle of a stinking tidal flat. We’d be having a different conversation.

“Why necromancy?” I asked as the old women paused around one of the old rock outcroppings. As long as we were talking there was no cutting and no mighty Shen. My runes were burning and my mind was going a mile a minute. I just wished I had a plan.

I glanced back over to see Alex walking down the shallow path that curved around to where I was staked out. Her eyes dark and wide. The lust was clear on the girl’s face.

“I may kiss on you some,” she said, pausing on the last foot of dry ground and staring at me. “We could’ve had such a good time together.”

She was toying with a knife that I hadn’t seen a few minutes ago. What else was up on that damn perch? Was Gram up there?

I tried not to think about the fact we were both naked. That was just demoralizing. She was very cute, all the right curves, and a really sweet smile. But that whole murdering people for fun and profit thing was a definite downer.

“How long has the knitting circle been sacrificing people out here?”

“As long as we’ve been fishing these waters,” she said, stepping into the water and grabbing the knots that held my right arm to the wooden cross. “Munner always tied the strongest damn knots. Even large men haven’t been able to break them.”

I thought to Katie, stuck home recovering from near death and here I was going to die naked with this crazy, screwed up young woman drooling over me.

Alex trailed her hand down my arm and over my right breast. She sighed as she did it and my body arched like I’d been hit with a bolt of lightning.

“There is such power within you,” she said, dreamily.

I thrashed against the ropes as she chuckled quietly and leaned in, placing a soft kiss just above my belly button. Again the lightning flashed through me at her touch. This wasn’t natural. This wasn’t okay.

“Get away from her,” Munner’s voice cut in. Alex growled low in her throat and turned, the knife out, facing three of the old women.

“Let me cut her,” Alex said, the need strong in her voice. “Let me play with her a bit first. Why do you care?”

Munner looked at one of the other women, who turned her head in shame.

“She’s your daughter,” Munner said in disgust. “Will you let this go on? This abomination?”

My runes flared again, clearing away a bit of the fog that Alex’s touch had flooded over my body. Abomination? Which part? The necromancy or the girl on girl action? I really wanted to kill all of them, a very lot.

“The calling has already occurred,” Alex’s mom said, her voice a combination of fear and anger. “I will handle this.”

She strode forward, her great rubber boots squelching out and back into the muck as she closed the final distance toward me. She began to chant in Chinese, Mandarin I think, as she pulled a thin boning knife out of her left boot.

I struggled for a moment, but Alex placed one hand against my shoulder and I froze, my entire body shaking, but the surge of energy that ran through us set my ears to buzzing. I didn’t even feel the first cut that her mother placed down one arm, but when Alex jerked her hand away, the pain flared to life.
I screamed.

All in all she cut me a dozen or more times, each deep enough to keep blood flowing, but not deep enough to cause me to do anything stupid like die before the giant oyster god, Shen, showed up for his dinner.
I turned my head toward Alex, sweat covering my face as my blood dripped into the water that now rose up over my hips. Alex hovered near me as her mother washed her knife in the incoming tide.

The other women had gathered then, all on various levels of the escarpment. Their arms raised high, their nakedness no longer a joke to me, but terror. This was old age, this was power gone wrong, this was madness.

I’d lost my will, the bleeding had weakened me to the point that even the runes on my scalp had stopped tingling. I was numb below my sternum as the icy water continued to rise. Another five minutes or so and I’d be completely underwater.

Soon enough I was tilting my head backward, attempting to keep the waves from covering my nose and mouth. I was so cold that even the cuts had stopped hurting. I was minutes from death by drowning, if not exposure, when the voices behind me rose to a crescendo and Shen arrived.

Alex had not been lying. It was the biggest damned oyster I’d ever imagined. Bigger than my parents’ house. It rose above the waves, a two-story tall monstrosity of thick, wavy shell covered in dark lichen and great knobs of barnacles and other embedded detritus. Near the very top of the oblong mollusk there looked to be a boat anchor buried in the hoary shell.

Suddenly I felt the surge of water being pulled toward it as it sucked in the bay. Oysters feed by capturing plankton and other small bits of edibles, like human sacrifices it would seem, through its gills. If I didn’t drown, I’d be digested inside that huge monstrosity. I could feel the tug of that suction, being drawn taut against the ropes that bound me. Not sure how this sacrifice was supposed to work if I was tied up, but I was beginning to lose the ability to care.

Then between one great surge into the maw of that oyster and the next, the embankment behind me gave way and the old women tumbled into the sea, Alex among them. Shrieks echoed all around me as several women floundered in water over their heads. Most of them were making their way toward the shore, when I felt someone grab a hold of me from behind. It took me a minute to recognize Alex there, her knife flashing in the weak light, and suddenly I was cut free. Shen drew in another great suck and two of the old women were pulled out to sea. I tried to grab the cross beams but missed. As I fell beneath the waves I heard Alex screaming my name and saw her hurl something over my head.

The last thing I saw as I tumbled down into the surf was Gram spinning end over end, then I was caught by the ultimate sneaker wave. At the last moment, I drew in a deep breath and fell beneath the surface.
I smashed against the mighty Shen, feeling my skin tear along the rough shell. I flailed about, looking for something to grasp onto when the suction subsided. My foot connected with something soft, but solid, like maybe one of the old women who’d fallen in with me. What a shame. I kicked off, driving toward the surface.

My head broke across the top of the wave long enough for me to draw half a breath when I was sucked back under again. I tried desperately not to cough, but there was silt-filled water in my mouth and nose.
I opened my eyes, facing my death wishing I could’ve spent one more second with Katie, one more kiss. Just the smell of her, the feel of her in my arms.

A long chunk of driftwood floated before me and I grabbed it, stabbing it own into the mouth of the oyster. It shuddered and again the suction stopped. I kicked wildly back toward the surface and broke above it. This time I got two solid breaths before the world shifted.

The oyster, apparently not happy about its dinner fighting back, rose underneath me, its great shell creaking open.

As it closed over me, I saw a miracle. In its haste to eat me, it had drawn in several bits of debris, including Gram. I dove toward the blade, dove into the heart of the beast.

Then the world went black and my ears popped as we dove beneath the surface once again.
The runes on the back of my calf flared as my foot touched Gram—her mark, the day we were bonded—runes that matched those on her blade. I bent double, grasping for it as the muscle of the oyster pulsed against me. This wasn’t how it normally ate, but that didn’t mean I would live.

I was pressed up into the underside of the shell by the thick muscle of the main body. The world started to go from red to black when the pressure released and I felt a burning sensation flash across my legs. I looked down to see a glowing shape, long and thin, flames licking along its length despite being under water.

Gram.

I twisted, grabbing the end that wasn’t flaming, and felt a surge of power flood through me.

I don’t know how long I lashed around with the sword in that tight space before my mind began to grow fuzzy from holding my breath too long, but finally it gave up. The shell swung open and I was ejected at a rather high velocity back toward the shore, where I landed in a heap in the brackish water.

As I sat up, waste deep in water, and struggled to catch my breath, I looked around to see if the circle was going to attack me. Three figures were visible on the escarpment, Alex, her mother, and Munner. The others were making their way back to dry land, wading through the waist-deep water.

Back out to sea, Shen sat, the shell open and bloody water seeping over the rim of the lower shell. Maybe I’d killed it after all. There wasn’t a part of me that didn’t hurt, but the sweetness of oxygen was all I wanted to think about at that moment.

By the time I felt strong enough to wade to shore, Alex and her family were gone. The walk back into town was painful and slow, but I found a house fairly close to this end of the island where it happened no one was home. I broke in, found a phone, and called Qindra, Nidhogg’s witch. This had gone way beyond a simple scouting mission, or even a quick strike. No one had thought I’d run into a giant oyster sacrifice.

I stayed in that house, raided their fridge, and cleaned my wounds while I waited for the cavalry. It only took them three hours to arrive in mass. I didn’t ask what happened to Alex and her family, but Qindra assured me that they wouldn’t be hurting anyone ever again.

In the meantime she healed me the best she could and got some clothes that mostly fit me. I spent a bit of time over in Astoria at the hospital, getting some stitches and a tetanus shot. They also gave me a broad spectrum antibiotic just in case I caught something from the muck in the bay. Then Qindra had someone drive me home.

A few days later my bike was back in my possession and there were several large packages delivered. All my gear was lost, well besides Gram and what was on my bike. In the boxes were several pairs of jeans that fit me, a few t-shirts, a new set of riding leathers, and a small cookbook with recipes for oysters.
I gave the cookbook to Katie and left Qindra a voicemail with more colorful words than I’m sure she was used to hearing.

But I was home, another threat was dealt with, and I had spent a few days healing in the sweet arms of Katie Cornett. That was the best medicine of all.

The news reported breaking up a meth ring out in Littleton with several townsfolk arrested and several missing, running ahead of the law.

No one asked too many questions, and the locals were either too shocked by the loss of Shen, or so used to the Sewing Circle’s ways that they just never spoke up. Funny what generations of culture and social Darwinism will do.

I never heard about them finding a giant oyster. Story wasn’t reported anywhere, not even the conspiracy magazines you see at the grocery store. Either it escaped after all, or Qindra took care of it. I might ask her some day, but not today.

Today I was taking Katie out on the Ducati and heading someplace away from the water, maybe into the mountains, for something not seafood related.
••••
Pitts_avatarJ. A. PITTS resides in the Pacific Northwest where he hunts dragons, trolls and other beasties among the coffee shops and tattoo parlors.
He can be found online at www.japitts.net.

Animal Magnetism by Shannon Peavey

Seven days after the ghost crawled into her husband’s throat, Della called the magnetizer. Perhaps it was a long time to wait. She thought so—seven days without hearing his voice, seven days hiding him from polite company and missing the money he brought back in cab fares. But she’d never been the sort of person to rush into anything. Like sore throats and arguments between friends—sometimes, these things healed on their own.

But it hadn’t, and so she sat in an oxblood armchair working her fingernails under the rivets while Charles Parkhurst asked her husband to take off his facecloth and speak.

“You might not want to hear it,” Della said. “It isn’t very nice—”

“My dear,” Parkhurst said. He looked over the rim of his glasses and gave her a faint, disapproving frown. “I’m a physician.”

Della sat back. In the chair opposite, Harry reached behind his head and untied the gag they’d made from a dishtowel, red checked and stained from his morning coffee.

Parkhurst leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees, his eyes keen with anticipation. Harry opened his mouth and for a moment, no sound came out.

It hurt Della to hear him speak, that loud little-boy’s voice from a man’s throat.

“Madame tells me tie the line longer,” Harry said. He kept his eyes tightly shut, like he could pretend it was someone else speaking. “She says more slack in the line makes the spirits move better. Madame tells me be quicker about rattling the table. Rattle that table, John. Rattle that table so their kneecaps bruise. Give ‘em what they came for. Give ‘em a ghost, John. Rattle that table. Show them the dead are always with us. Madame says. She says, gotta give ‘em what they came for and—”

“That’s enough,” Parkhurst said.

Della hurried to Harry’s chair and slipped her fingers around the corners of his jaw. She wrenched it gently closed and the words cut off midstream, though she could feel them forming under her hand, his tongue working behind his teeth. She tied the dishcloth behind his head again.

“Well then.” Parkhurst got up and went to the back wall of his office. It was lined with bookshelves, but only a few books. The tools of his trade lay there on display, glinting metal and glass and sharp edges. Parkhurst passed his hands over a pair of brass rods, but did not pick them up. He pinged a fingernail against the side of a small glass tank.

Della put her hand on Harry’s shoulder. A muscle jumped along the side of his neck.

“Do you know how snails communicate?” Parkhurst asked.

Della said, “No,” just to be polite. She rubbed her thumb in small circles over Harry’s collarbone.

“A snail’s mucus transmits a kind of electricity—the kind that runs between the soul and the muscles. With one touch, a snail can form a sympathetic bond with another, allowing communication by thought as their electricities and spectral fluids mingle. Those bonds can last a lifetime.”

“I see.”

Parkhurst fell silent. He looked into the tank, tapping his upper lip with the pad of his thumb.

Della said, “Are you going to get rid of the ghost?”

Parkhurst shook his head. Slowly, like he was deep in thought, or had shouldered a heavy burden. “I cannot take your husband’s ghost away. Only he can do that.”

“Oh.” Della dropped her hands to her sides and curled them loosely into fists. She told herself: be calm. Harry’s being calm, so you be calm, too.

Harry sat still in his chair and his mouth was hidden behind the dishcloth.

“No, I cannot take the ghost away,” Parkhurst said. “But I can let you talk to your husband again.”

He turned away from the tank, back to face Harry and Della. A wet yellow snail curled around the tip of his finger. He smiled at the snail like it was a hundred-dollar bill and Della told herself—stay calm. “This isn’t why we came here,” she said. “We can’t live with this ghost.”

“Oh, I know,” said Parkhurst, and he made a little tut-tut noise with his tongue. “Perhaps I could make some progress in time, with deep somnambulic therapy. But that kind of thing takes many sessions. I don’t think that’s what you came for, is it?”

He looked at them carefully, from the tips of Della’s old pinched shoes to Harry’s secondhand suitcoat. Della flushed and said, “The snails will be fine.”

“Ah, wonderful,” Parkhurst said. “I think you will be surprised. The snail is such a marvelous creature—so complex in its simplicity.”

Della accepted the jar when the doctor handed it to her. Two snails sat at the bottom, munching leaves. “These will let me talk to Harry.”

“Of course they will.” Something in her face must not have been convinced. Parkhurst beamed and said, “Trust me. I’m a doctor.”

••

They wore the snails like fancy jewelry, tethered to leashes that tied around their wrists. At mealtimes, Della balanced leaves on her arm or sometimes let the thing onto her plate to clean up her salad.

Good food, Harry said through his snail, but under it came a feeling that wasn’t pleasure and fullness, but something lonelier. Della didn’t acknowledge it, because he wouldn’t want her to. Instead, she smiled and said, “Thank you.” Maybe he heard different words from her mouth and from the snail. She wasn’t sure exactly how it worked.

Snails didn’t lie. They weren’t like people. She’d already heard things about Harry that she’d never wanted to know—that she knew he never wanted her to know. She tried not to think about what her snail may have told him.

Harry opened his mouth for a bite of chicken, and the ghost said, “Madame, no, please I don’t want to.” Harry closed his mouth around the chicken and chewed. He took his water through a straw, so he could keep his lips tightly sealed.

Della said, “I think I’ve found some work downtown, answering phones. Just to get us by, until we’ve got everything settled.”

Harry nodded and gave her a smile, like he approved of her industry. Della’s snail moved on her pulse point and transmitted: (bleak acceptance. You ate the last stem of grass—your scraping radula bored a hole in your partner’s shell.)

“Oh, Harry,” she said, and he flinched. He opened his mouth as if to answer her, and the ghost blatted—”It’s not real, it’s not real, don’t they understand that none of this is real!”

The snails said, wish it wasn’t, and Della didn’t know which one of them had said it.

••

When she went downtown to work, Della left her snail outside in a small glass jar with airholes poked in the lid. Because it was natural for the creature to want some time to itself, she said, and because Harry wouldn’t want to know her thoughts while she was at work—it would be far too dull.

She parked her little black car outside the office and spent a moment reading and rereading the sign, the same name that had caught her eye in the phone book. Charles Parkhurst, Professor of Animal Magnetism and Spiritual Healing. It was a professional-looking sign, very neatly lettered.

Parkhurst had an appointment, so she waited outside his door until he was done. His waiting room was done up in shades of wine, bleached by the sun. A glass-cased frog skeleton sat grinning on the coffee table next to a three-day-old newspaper.

“So you see, Mrs. Quimby,” Parkhurst said through the door. “Though your disease may manifest itself physically, everything roots itself to a psychic cause, a mental cause. If your will was only stronger, you should be cured.”

The door opened, and Parkhurst ushered a young woman through with a paternal hand on her shoulder. She had very thin fingers and the yellow tint of jaundice around her eyes.

Parkhurst’s eyes widened when he saw Della sitting on his couch, but his smile didn’t flag. “Shall I see you again next week, then, Mrs. Quimby?”

“Yes,” the jaundiced woman said. She looked very tired—she put her fingertips to her temple and pressed—then smoothed a hair behind her ear, like it was only a casual gesture. “Thank you for your help, Dr. Parkhurst.”

“My pleasure, my dear.” Parkhurst steered her out the door and watched her go for a moment, squinting through the frosted glass. Then he turned back to Della. Della crossed her ankles and wondered if she should apologize for coming unannounced.

“I don’t give refunds,” Parkhurst said sharply. “If the treatment fails to cure, that’s not my doing. It’s always a failure of will, you understand? The patient must do their part.”

“I see.” Della stood and brushed invisible dust off her skirt. She regretted taking such care with her outfit that morning. As if it would make her more respectable. “No, we are very pleased with the snails, Dr. Parkhurst. Thank you.”

“You—are you really.” Parkhurst stepped around the end of the couch and seized her hand. The skin of his palm was warm and a little slick, like snailslime. Like she should be able to read his electricities, his thoughts with only a touch—but she looked into his eyes and they were blank animal eyes; she held his hand and felt nothing but a faint disgust.

“Yes,” she said, and couldn’t keep from saying: “it seems our will is very strong.”

“Come into my office, please. Tell me everything.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Della said. “But I came for something else, if you’ll hear it.”

“Oh,” Parkhurst said.

He dropped her hand and sat down at the end of the couch, sitting stiff and very tall. Gathering his professional dignity back around him like a coat he was used to wearing, though it didn’t fit well. “How can I help you?”

“I need to get rid of the ghost,” Della said. “During our first session, you said you couldn’t do it yourself. That only Harry could do it. But I don’t understand how.”

Parkhurst spent a long moment sucking on his teeth. “I thought you said the snails were working.”
“They are,” Della said. “But Harry still has a ghost stuck down his throat, and he can’t work. He’s miserable.”

She didn’t say: humans aren’t meant to talk like snails. Our relationship can’t survive that much honesty.

“Mm-hmm,” Parkhurst said. He tapped his upper lip. “Well, I could put your husband in a somnambulic trance, to help recognize the source of the imbalance in his electromagnetic fluids. It would be a revolutionary treatment—with my guidance, your husband could exorcise himself!”

“If his will is strong,” Della said.

Parkhurst smiled. “Of course.”

There was a sense of immense pressure in Della’s sinuses, a heat balled in her throat and behind the bridge of her nose. Some ghost that wanted to burst loose and wail about the unfairness of it all. She swallowed it down and said, “Thank you, Doctor,” because snails were honest but humans could be polite.

She turned to go.

“You’re leaving?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Let me put you down for an appointment.”

“Thank you for the snails.”

Parkhurst said something else, but Della walked out to the street and closed the door behind her and didn’t hear the specifics—only the low babble of his voice, vanishing into the noise of traffic.

••

When Della returned, she found Harry and the ghost in the kitchen conducting a séance. At least, she thought it was a séance. Harry had the window shades pulled down and all their power-outage candles burning in puddles of wax on the kitchen table. The good Thanksgiving tapers in their turkey candlesticks at his elbows. His hands were raised to the ceiling, his mouth open—and the ghost was wailing, absolutely wailing.

“Let me find your brothers sisters lovers in the afterlife, she says. Oh they’re just here. A face appears to me through the mist. They tell me: yes, they’re so happy. They don’t blame you at all. Everything is forgiven.”

His voice cracked a little bit, around the edges. It sounded like he had been talking a long time.

“Harry,” Della said.

Harry tipped his chin down and looked at her, though the ghost was still ranting. He blinked and Della thought: oh, the snail. She said, “Just a minute,” and ducked out the kitchen door to the front step, where she’d left the snail in its little jar full of leaves. It was so much quieter out there on the steps. The evening air still and cool.

Della held up the jar and looked at the snail through the slant of glass. It was hanging upside-down from the lid, slick little slime-tracks tracing the places it had been. It looked happy enough.

She popped the jar open and plucked the snail from the lid and clipped its leash to the tiny silver loop that was drilled through the top of its shell. “Free time’s over, buddy,” she said, and placed it on her wrist.

Help me, Della, help me talk to this thing, Harry said, at the same he was saying (alone and so small: the time you were one all by yourself in a black expanse of tarmac and there were no snails and it had just rained and everything tasted like wet oil).

“I’m coming,” Della said to the door.

“Oh Great Spirit, listen to us,” the ghost said as she walked back into the kitchen. Della went quietly to the kitchen table and sat across from Harry. Her aunt Lila had given them that table when they got married. It was small, just built for two. She reached across it and caught Harry by the elbows and brought his arms down.

“Hello,” she said, and then she stopped for a long moment, blanking on the ghost’s name. Which was so stupid, for all the times she’d heard it. It was something generic, something—

John, Harry said.

“John,” Della said. “Please, listen to me. I know you’re suffering. I know things were hard for you.”

The ghost quieted, just for a minute. Della didn’t allow herself to believe it was listening to her. And what to say next—when all she wanted to say was leave us alone, for God’s sake, leave us alone.

“Things don’t have to be like this,” she said. “You can move on—be at peace—”

The ghost said, “The wig she makes me wear smells like cat piss. She makes me stand in front of mirrors and calls me an apparition from the other side.”

He’s not listening, Harry said, and he said (going the wrong way: when a snail climbs to the top of a long stalk of grass and is too heavy and breaks it down and all the other snails fall down, too).

“I don’t even know what that means,” Della snapped, but heat rose to her cheeks anyway.

“Rattle that table, John,” the ghost said. “Rattle that table so their kneecaps bruise.”

“Stop.” Della flung up from the table and her chair screeched out behind her. “Please stop talking.”

The ghost talking, the snail talking—she wanted to scream, to make a noise loud enough to be heard over everything else. Instead, she got Harry’s checked dishtowel. She took his jaw in her hands, less gently than she had in the past. She clicked it shut and tied the cloth over the top.

The ghost was silent.

I’m sorry, Harry said, and with it came a feeling of deep shame and sorrow.

“We’ll fix this,” Della said. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it, all right?”

Harry nodded, and snuffed out the last of the candles with his fingertips. Della’s good Thanksgiving tapers were burned down to nubs.

“I’m going to go think about it,” she said.

Harry said nothing. When Della turned back to him, he was flaking off patches of pooled wax with his thumbnail and his expression was completely opaque, hidden behind the dishcloth. But the snail told her: (desperation: looking at a dish humans put out for you; knowing that it’s probably poisoned but being too hungry to care).

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Della said.

Harry shrugged. Her snail circled the little bone of her wrist and she felt: love you, love you, really do.

••

That night, she took the snail off and put it outside in its jar to enjoy the night air. Snails were nocturnal, after all.

And the house was quiet, edge to edge. Harry’s lips moved sometimes, under the dishcloth. But no words escaped him. And if he looked at her, like he was trying to communicate something strange and wordless——then she filled it in with guesses, and the things she wanted him to say. Just as she always had, before all this started.

They lay together in their bed and the moonlight swept in the window and slipped slanted over their legs. Only the sides of their fingers touched. Della felt for a spark between them, a flow of Parkhurst’s spectral fluid, but she felt only the warmth of their skin. If humans had ever spoken like snails, they’d lost the ability some time ago. Dropped it like fur, tails, a third eyelid—a superfluous reminder of something no longer needed. A burden of an earlier time.

Harry shifted and rolled onto his side. Carefully, Della reached over and walked her fingers up the thick cord of his neck, the lump of his Adam’s apple. She thought she’d be able to feel it under his skin, but she couldn’t. The ghost lay there sleeping, curled up like a kitten in a box —only a fragile layer of skin and cartilage to protect it. She could crush it in her fingertips.

She snatched her hand back and clutched it to her ribs, grinding her nails into the side of her thumb. The moonlight shifted over Harry’s legs. He didn’t wake—not even once.

••

Della woke in the morning and Harry was not there. She woke grasping for him, reaching over to his side of the bed—and he was not there.

She put on a robe and jammed her feet into slippers. No reason to be worried, not yet.

But then she went out onto the front step and found her snail-jar missing.

She spun back into the house. “Harry,” she said. Her slippered feet carrying her quietly from room to room though she wanted to stomp, to hear herself aloud in that quiet house.

He knocked on the table. The little table that her aunt Lila had bought for them. Della stepped into the kitchen and saw him, sitting there reading the sports section with his snail perched on the back of his hand and her snail munching a leaf on one of their plain-china breakfast dishes. He wasn’t wearing his dishcloth—he’d grown a messy little beard, all squashed flat in places.

Harry held up a napkin. The ghost’s writing was there—all illegible scrawl and a rough-ink sketch of a screaming face. But in the middle, Harry’s handwriting in blue pen: I have an idea.

She sat across the table. She wanted to take his hand, but it didn’t seem like the right time. “What are you going to do?”

He plucked her snail from the plate. It curled as he lifted it off the china and took the chewed-up leaf with it. He smiled at her—a bright, meaningless smile. And opened his mouth and dropped the snail into it.

His throat worked hugely as he swallowed.

The ghost made one abrupt cry, like the start of a word. And then it quieted.

“No,” Della said, rising from her seat—but she sat down again. She stayed very still, watching him and twisting her hands together. Parkhurst’s voice spoke in her head, saying your husband could exorcise himself. It didn’t bring her much confidence.

Harry was looking right at her, but he didn’t see her. She could tell. One of those long-distance looks, where the world in front of his eyes didn’t matter because everything he saw was inside. His lips moved, but she couldn’t interpret it.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. They should have solved it together, or maybe she could have done it—saved him from the invader, gifted him back his privacy and his personhood. That way they could have stood back afterward and thought, god, aren’t we better together.

Harry’s back curled—his shoulders seized. He hacked and choked, leaning helplessly over his hands. A string of spit dripped down to the surface of the table.

“Oh my God,” Della said. What to do when people were choking—she’d learned this once, in some sort of mandatory class. She sprang up and circled around behind him and wrapped her arms around his midsection, her hands in a little fist under his ribs. She leaned back and squeezed—released. Slammed her arms back against his gut again and thought, absurdly, that he’d lost a little weight since he’d been possessed.

And then she squeezed him again, digging her heels into the linoleum, and he hurked up a glistening black mass the size of a marble. Like a lump of hot tar. As soon as it hit the table, it started to move.

“Catch that thing, Della,” Harry said, his voice hoarse. As soon as he’d said it, he ducked back down, still heaving.

Della scrambled for a glass, a tin, anything. The little ghost was fast, wriggling across the pretty white-oak table. If Aunt Lila had only known. Della’s hands found the breakfast plate and she upended it over the ghost, trapping it before it reached the edge of the table.

Harry heaved once more and spat Della’s snail into his hand. He placed the snailshell delicately on the table and wiped his mouth with his knuckles.

“What did you say to it?” Della said.

“I don’t know. We didn’t talk like people. That thing doesn’t think like people anymore. I heard its story and I said it was hurting me. So it left. I think it was sorry.” His voice was his own again—not that high little-boy wail. Just quiet, considerate Harry.

“Sure,” Della said. She wasn’t sure if ghosts had sorry, or if snails had sorry. If they even needed it. Already she was forgetting the hideous-beautiful oneness of being a snail.

Already she looked at Harry and couldn’t quite remember the quirks of his mouth—the emotions they mapped to. It didn’t seem as simple, anymore.

“Thanks for—” Harry mimed something that was much gentler than what she’d done; more like burping a baby. “When I was choking.”

“Of course. Glad to have you back.”

The snail that Harry choked up had regained its senses and was coming out of its shell. The other snail on Harry’s hand crawled slowly towards his fingernails.

Della wondered if they were saying anything to each other; if they needed to say anything. It was pretty dark in there, huh. She reached out and plucked hers off the table by the shell. Held it up to the light—watched the way light shone halfway through its shell and made it glow. Harry watched her and said nothing.

She took one fingertip and swiped it across the snail’s slimy foot. Harry said, the snail said: (such relief: estivation. When it is very hot and we must sleep. And then, the first drop of rain.)

Della put the snail carefully into the bottom of the glass jar, cradled in leaves. Then she slid the jar across the table to Harry. He looked at her for a long moment, then smiled and unclipped his snail from its lead. He tipped it into the jar. Maybe later they would let the snails out into the garden. They could nibble roses and talk to each other about what a strange time they’d had inside the house.

From the bedroom, Della got a little locking box that had once held jewelry. Wood-sided, so no one could see what was inside. They finessed the tiny ghost into the box over the course of fifteen minutes, using another plate, a drinking glass, and the entire sports section of the paper. By the time it was done, Della was laughing again. She could look at Harry and not think: there was a time when we couldn’t speak at all. And there was a time when we spoke without needing words.

Harry hefted the box and squinted at its lid, a pretty mosaic with no ghosts in it. “What the hell are we going to do with this?”

Della shrugged and smiled, all teeth. “Doctor Parkhurst seemed very interested in researching this kind of phenomena, didn’t he. Maybe we should let him take a look.”

Harry reached for her hand. She hesitated, and then took it. Somehow she still expected to feel that bridge between their soul and their skin—a link connecting each to each. Now that it was gone, she wasn’t sure if she missed it. After all, a human could lie. A human could be polite.

And Harry liked to say: “Love you, Della.”

Maybe there was no reason to doubt it. She never had before. But she found herself analyzing the set of his wide, white grin; the cadence of his words. She said, “Love you too,” and he looked back at her just as carefully.

Neither one of us can tell, she thought. Even after all that—we won’t ever be able to tell, not for sure.
“I’m glad,” Harry said, and squeezed her hand hard.


Shannon PeaveySHANNON PEAVEY is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. Her fiction can also be found in Writers of the Future 29, IGMS and Daily Science Fiction. Contact her on Twitter @shannonpv.

January UFM Book Club-Mark of the Demon

Hello all!

The first Sunday of the new year is almost over, and it is time for us to check in with our book!

I know that we had a slow start, but I hope that everyone has had a chance to pick up Mark of the Demon!

I thought that I would open up our chats with a discussion about place. A great number of my friends are in New Orleans these past two weeks. Some for a wedding, some for a birthday party. We were talking about stories set in the heart of Voodoo country, New Orleans.

I think that Louisiana has such a wealth of dark corners, deep mysteries, secrets that no one knows, that it almost automatically makes for a great setting. My friend thought that New Orleans as a place has been over used.

While Mark of the Demon takes place in Beauluc, Louisiana and not New Orleans, I wondered if you readers had the same reaction to it? Are we tired of seeing stories set in the swamp lands of the Deep South or are we still intrigued- are the twisted, narrow streets of Louisiana, the swamps, the alligators, the voodoo curses, and the demon summoners enough to hold our interest?

While Mark of the Demon has a certain “could be anywhere” sort of storyline, I thought that it was very interesting that Diana Rowland chose to place her story there. And then to not set it in New Orleans was also an interesting choice.

What do you all think?

We can also open up to any other discussion about the story! Let’s start talking about it! What are your thoughts on the Symbol Man?
Let’s try to catch up with each other here on the main page for Urban Fantasy Magazine. Come talk books with me!

M.

 

A reminder! Next month, we will dive into Dirty Magic by Jaye Wells!

Down the Rabbit Hole with John Wiswell

John Wiswell’s work has been published in Weird Tales, Flash Fiction Online and SF Signal. His short story “Wet” was featured in the first issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine. I recently had the opportunity to pick his brain about craft, the nature of urban fantasy, and participating in top tier workshops.

LM: Worldbuilding is a balancing act between too much and too little detail. In “Wet,” the narrator’s immortality is never explained. Why not?

JW: When we tell our own stories, we typically ignore things that are common to us. The narrator has always been immortal and doesn’t care to explain it any more than I care to explain having brown hair. That they take this undying existence for granted is a theme of the story, and the reason for why they behave with such offhanded altruism. I’m very fond of stories that teach us about characters through what they don’t think is worth explaining; Nabokov’s Pale Fire is probably the ultimate example. In “Wet,” we need to know some of the rules of ghosts, and eventually what this ghost’s trauma is – we need to know it, so it’s what our narrator cares about, pursues and explains.

LM: That’s an excellent point. On that note, your narrator describes a sound by comparing it to GWAR, and he mentions one of their songs by title. Using specific pop culture references can be a risky move: some readers won’t get them. As a writer, what made this one worth it?

JW: GWAR was the first form of sound I could think of that was appropriately ridiculous and otherworldly. Then I couldn’t top it. That’s a terrible reason to exclude part of an audience, but there was a specific quirk to comparing the noise coming out of a little girl to the bombast of GWAR that makes the opening for the people who get it (and I left the stealth note about Satirical Metal for those who don’t). I’m obviously into [pop culture references], conjuring One Direction, snuff film, Twizzlers, pool noodles. I should ask – what did you think of the GWAR appearance?

LM: As a long time veteran of the gamer scene (I speak Thac0), I’m no stranger to GWAR, so using them in the story worked for me. The specific song mentioned at the end was one of my favorite touches: a last dollop of sentimental irreverence that so perfectly characterized your narrator.

Many urban fantasies are set in what is ostensibly the current “real world.” Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series comes to mind, with its frequent nods to specific anime & manga franchises. Do you think pop culture references are almost a necessary evil, especially given the genre’s target audience?

JW: I wouldn’t even call them an evil! I’m attracted to cultural references in fiction, Pop and otherwise, because they’re a natural part of expression in real life. We quote and reference and relive in every conversation, from arguments in the Supreme Courts over textual intent to a Jurassic Park joke during an uneventful car ride. Cultural fluency is one of the big things Urban Fantasy has over invented worlds, because you have to do so much groundwork establish Elvish before you can present the Epic Fantasy equivalent of an Elvis impersonator. In Urban Fantasy, your life experience has done half the world-building work already. The other half is in my hands, to remix those things you might already know about. It can be used to render the familiar in novel ways, or to render the unfamiliar relatable. They’re beautiful access points.

LM: How would you describe your writing process?

JW: You know how Eudora Welty claimed to have written “Where Is The Voice Coming From?” in a white heat? I love writing in a white heat. I’ll jot down a plot skeleton, often just the few key beats I need to get excited, what scenes must happen, and what absolutely must happen in them, but these are all appetizers for myself, to get myself excited about gushing words. “Wet” is so short that I only had a few notes – the ghost had to appear, had to disappear over water, and had to have a second incident of some kind regarding water later (which became the burning building rescue when I got to it). And I knew the ending. I subscribe to the Pixar dogma of knowing an ending so you can build up your payoffs.

Often I’ll keep evanescent things in my head, because either I’ll be so excited that the story starts on a train platform that I’ll remember it, or it can go. I’m a very excitable composer, usually playing music to block out ambient sound. I only wrote “Wet” to silence because it was the middle of the night and nothing else was awake to make noise.

LM: Do you use alpha/beta readers?

JW: Absolutely! It’s too easy to get too familiar with my own intentions, to experience the structure I expected. I’m blessed with both some very eager readers, and some very critical writers, who can look at my work from any angle I’m wondering about. “Wet” was actually only gone over by Michelle Ann Fleming (@Makani on Twitter), who talked me into seeing that it was close to done. Typically I’ll have more eyes on a project. Do you use alphas and betas?

LM: Always. My wife first. After her, some come from collegiate workshops, others from online communities (like LitReactor). And, of course, there are the other members of my Clarion West cohort. As a graduate of Viable Paradise, you’ve had some experience with by-audition workshops, too. Can you tell us a little about that?

JW: VP is an intense week-long writing workshop. It’s organized by James MacDonald and Debra Doyle. Everyone lives in the same hotel, eats together, and often winds up writing and sobbing together. You give a writing sample, and like most applicants I went with a novel excerpt, which gets critiqued in a roundtable with two pros and three of your peers. Being a peer, you’re also critiquing people’s work a good deal. Most days are packed with lectures; in addition to MacDonald and Doyle, we had master editors from Tor, Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, as well as Steve Brust, Steven Gould, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, all of whom put on some lengthy demonstration.

LM: What was the workload like?

JW: You are always going to something while working on something else, which is a bootcamp aspect a lot of emerging writers need. The beautiful thing, at least for my class, lies in how students wound up supporting each other. The staff – Mac, Chris, and Bart in particular for me- are very supportive, and will outright feed you if you’re losing your mind. But throughout, you’d catch a lot of students sharing ideas, helping let off the stress. It’s the best writing group I’ve ever had, and luckily it’s rolled over into sharing critique over e-mail. Our group still calls each other for crits.

It’s an intense week. With my health, I was only able to do half of what I wanted, and always hit bed far before most of my peers. It’s not easy if you have hard medical conditions, though they are very attentive and flexible. Coming away, I knew I was physically incapable of a Clarion-length workshop of any such intensity. But VP is also attractive for people who can’t take the month off for other big workshops. I couldn’t recommend it enough, for the luminaries you can learn from, and the wonderful people you’ll be working with for years after.

LM: Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?

JM: My advice is the same for any aspiring authors: write as much as you can, finish everything you can, and be unafraid to write an idea terribly, because you can always write another take on it afterward. The worst thing I did in my career was writing so little for two years until I had the “great” idea. That novel stunk because my writing stagnated in the interim. You get ready by consistent practice, and by finding people at your level or above it to help and work with. Then, a time of writing and critiques later, the ideas you wouldn’t have thought were great start making readers laugh or cry or sleep with a nightlight on. It’s worth all the work.

To read more of John’s work, check out his blog: The Bathroom Monologues or follow him on twitter at: @Wiswell.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.

Burn For Me: A Hidden Legacy Novel, by Ilona Andrews Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

  • Paperback (ISBN 978-0062289230) Avon Books, October 28 2014 – 400 pages. Also available as an e-book.

Burn For Me is the first in an addictive new series of romantic urban fantasy novels by husband-and-wife writing team Ilona Andrews. Like their Kate Daniels series, the Hidden Legacy series is written primarily from the first-person point-of-view of a strong, smart, snarky woman and set in a large, contemporary Southern city (this time, Houston) in which a history of magic use has changed the social structure. Similar to the Andrews’ Edge series, the romantic development in Burn For Me is given equal prominence with the fantasy adventure, rather than being relegated to a mere side plot. Put together, it’s a fast-paced, fun and utterly absorbing combination.

Magic was first introduced to Nevada Baylor’s world in 1863, when European scientists invented a serum that brought out people’s latent magic talents. Due to the many disastrous results, the serum was soon locked away, but not before it had been used to genetically modify a significant number of customers all around the world, from rich aristocrats to soldiers in various countries’ armies. Now, in twenty-first century Houston, the most powerful magic-users — known as Primes — belong to powerful and wealthy families (Houses) that have carefully interbred over the last century and a half for maximum magical abilities and financial gain. The various Houses feud violently with each other, arrange marriages with each other and together, essentially rule the world despite the existence of external political structures.

Twenty-five-year-old Nevada Baylor does not belong to a powerful House. Instead, she belongs to a fiercely devoted extended family that is struggling to survive the twin financial and emotional hits of her father’s recent death. Every member of the family, from her teenaged sisters and cousins to her fierce and dangerous grandmother, works for the family business … and the Baylor Investigative Agency is mortgaged to the hilt. That mortgage is held by House Montgomery. Nevada, who is both sensible and determined to hold her family together, tries to stick to the safe cases that she knows they can jointly handle. When House Montgomery calls in her contract though, she’s forced into a case that may well take her life.

Adam Pierce is a narcissistic, volatile Prime who has rebelled against his House and gone rogue, committing grand acts of arson and robbery that leave dead police officers and other victims in his wake. When House Montgomery is tasked with finding and bringing him back to his family before he can be arrested, they see it as an impossible task, likely to result in death for anyone who tries it. However, they also see a perfect, expendable scapegoat in Nevada and her tiny investigative company. According to the terms of her contract, if Nevada turns down the job, House Montgomery can call in her mortgage and take away both her family’s business and their home.

Nevada will do anything for her family – even sacrifice her life to save them. So she sets out to reel Pierce in, with the help of her nineteen-year-old cousin’s computer skills, her own intelligence, and a magical power that she and her family have kept secret all her life. She is a Truthseeker, able to read the truth of other people’s words. Unfortunately, her first attempts at catching Pierce’s interest succeed only too well, when Pierce fixates on her in ways that threaten her entire family. Perhaps even more dangerously, her hunt for Pierce puts her in the way of one of the most powerful and frightening magic-users in modern history, Connor “Mad” Rogan, who can wipe out entire cities with his powers. Rogan’s young cousin has been swept into Pierce’s wake, and Rogan is determined to use Nevada’s connection to Pierce for his own purposes. Soon, however, he has a second goal in mind: Nevada herself.

Cautious, practical and deeply ethical Nevada is horrified by her attraction to ruthless, amoral Mad Rogan. He may be physically appealing and extremely intelligent, but he’s also a man from a different social realm who will do absolutely anything to achieve his goals, even kill without guilt. Still, he almost never lies to her.

Their chemistry is intense, and the class issues between them are well-developed, but what really makes it all so much fun to read is that, while Rogan fits the usual paranormal alpha-male mold to a T, Nevada calls him on his bad behavior every single time. She may secretly fantasize about being carried away by him, but she’s far too sensible to let that actually happen. By the end of the book, readers may hope that she can be persuaded into giving Rogan a chance, but they’ll be cheering for Nevada’s intelligence and common sense all the way.

Nevada is a fantastic heroine throughout: smart, funny, self-aware and fiercely devoted to her family. The scenes between her and Rogan crackle with energy, and their banter sizzles. But the real joy of this book comes from her interactions with her big, loving, maddening family. The scenes where the whole troupe is together, bickering and driving each other crazy, are so funny that I laughed out loud again and again as I read. Every character feels real, and the interactions are spot-on perfect. The scene where Mad Rogan eats with her family was my favorite in the novel.

I can’t wait to see what happens in Book Two.

Welcome to the January 2015 issue

Happy New Year from Urban Fantasy Magazine.

Can anyone believe it’s 2015? I know I can’t. I was just a wee thing in 1989, when Back to the Future Part II came out, but the franchise quickly became central to my worldview. No one has ever driven up to my house in a time-traveling DeLorean, but look! We made it to the future!

This issue of UFM doesn’t have hoverboards or flying cars. Around here, we’re more into giant killer clams and psychic snails. We’ve got fiction featuring both of these: a Sarah Beauhall tale from John A. Pitts (if you like this, check out the novels from Tor!), and an emotional gem of a story from Writers of the Future winner Shannon Peavey. We’ve also got reviews of Burn for Me and The Winter Long, and a very interesting take nonfiction take on werewolves. We’ll be bringing you more in this series; look for an exlporation of fairies in next month’s issue.

In Back to the Future II, a Pepsi cost $50 and holographic Jaws 17 still looked fake, but one thing they didn’t predict was the kind of endeavor we’re currently engaged in together: the people of that 2015 read paper newspapers and sent each other faxes. Despite my lack of a flying car, I think we’re better off.

Welcome to this edition of the purely digital, entirely futuristic Urban Fantasy Magazine. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have!