Short Story: “Thank You For Using Forced Honesty Assassinations”

This is a flash-fiction story I wrote that was originally published in From the Asylum, a good online mag that has been defunct for over ten years now. It’s rather short, so if I managed to place it somewhere as a reprint it wouldn’t fetch much. So instead of leaving it indefinitely on the shelf, I figured I might as well share it here.


Joel was sitting at a table with his co-workers in the company cafeteria—listening to Simmons’ humorless anecdotes about his daughter’s biker boyfriend—when the stranger in the dark suit approached him.

“Joel Pritchard?” the stranger asked.

“Yes,” Joel said, and immediately knew something was wrong. He had intended to respond with “Who’s asking?” The stranger’s voice had somehow pulled that simple “Yes” right out of him.

“Joel, do you care for most of your colleagues at this table?”

“Not…really,” he said. He wrenched his stare from the stranger’s gaze just long enough to make pleading, wordless eye-contact with Lawrence, who sat beside him. Lawrence gave him a clueless shrug and the stranger went on with his questioning.

“What of Mr. Daniels?” the stranger said, pointing to the grayed VP who sat across from Joel. “Or, specifically, what do you think of his wife?”

“She’d probably let us all screw her at the same time if we asked her to. She wouldn’t even need to be drunk.” He shuddered and tried to break the paralysis that fixed him to his chair. He heard Daniels gasp. The old man beamed his anger across the table and it stuck to the side of Joel’s face like hot tar.

“That’s all?” the stranger prodded.

“The money spent on inflating her tits would’ve been better spent on fixing her teeth—what the hell is this?”

Asking that last question left Joel’s throat sore. The words had been heavy and jagged, like he’d coughed up a giant, broken stone.

“Have you ever tried to kill a man?”

“No.”

“Have you ever given serious thought to killing a man?”

“Yes.”

“Someone at this very table?”

Yes.”

“Who?”

Joel hoped his withering voice would break before he could say the name.

“Lawrence.” In his periphery he saw his friend’s mouth drop open.

“Why Lawrence?”

“I got drunk one night and told him that I had tried to rape one of the admins at the company Christmas party six years ago. I was afraid he might tell someone.”

“And for that, you seriously contemplated killing him?”

Joel was reduced to nodding now.

The stranger’s mouth spread into a flat smirk. “Safe to say you’re pretty off in the head, huh Joel?”

Another nod.

“Likelihood of you keeping your job after this?”

“None,” Joel said, his voice strained and croaking.

“Likelihood of you killing yourself in the very near future?”

He sighed, exhausted. “Very high.”

The stranger gave a satisfied nod that indicated the end of questioning. He looked at the other men sitting at the table, offered them a polite valediction of, “Gentlemen,” and then left.

***

“Would you agree or disagree that our agent met your expectations?” the customer service operator asked.

“Definitely agree,” Simmons said. “He was even better than I expected. How did he do that?”

“Well, I’m not at liberty to discuss our agent’s methods, Mr. Simmons. But I’m glad to hear you were happy with the experience. Customer satisfaction is our number one priority. If you’re ever in need of our services again-”

“Actually, while I have you on the phone, I was wondering if you have any sort of preferred customer discount.”

The operator laughed. “Are you a man who collects enemies, Mr. Simmons?”

He smiled and looked out the living room window. A growling motorcycle pulled up in front of his house. Neither of its riders wore a helmet. The teenage girl on back of the motorcycle dismounted and gave the blond, heavily-tattooed driver a long, open-mouthed kiss before walking up the driveway toward the house.

“Nuisances more so than enemies,” Simmons said.

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New Short Story Published in Devolution Z

The July 2016 edition of Devolution Z is available on Amazon now, either in Kindle format or paperback. My short story “TMI” appears second. It’s a story about the voices of history and the dead–specifically the ones located under and around a long bridge in Louisiana–and the modern outlets they can find in order to be heard.

Thanks to the Devolution Z staff for publishing the story.

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New Short Story Published in Fantasy Scroll Magazine

It’s been a while since I’ve sold a story, and it always feels good to see your work pay off, so many thanks to Iulian Ionescu and the other editors and readers at Fantasy Scroll Magazine for finding my story “The Genie and the Inquisitor” worthy of publication. For any who’d care to read it, it’s available now in Issue #10 of Fantasy Scroll Mag, so feel free to use either of the preceding links to check the story out. Much obliged, in advance.

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Today’s Short Story: “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” – Philip K. Dick

Details can be vital to a story. Details allow worlds to feel lived in, characters to breathe. But details needn’t be intricacies.

In Philip K. Dick’s science fiction short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” the details enrich the story’s future, planets and technologies with plausibility, but eschew needless complexity. This isn’t to say the story is “simple” (hardly) or basic, just that it’s direct. I’m also not saying that complexity and intricacy are inherently bad. They can be misplaced, however. Or abused to mask story flaws, like an overly complicated cologne might be an attempt to overwhelm your sense of smell, trying to hide that the fragrance simply isn’t appealing.

Reading “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” I was struck by the small details that fleshed out the universe where this story takes place. The extended age of the lead character, the casual mentions of artificially extended youth, the unsurprising existence of a “robot doctor.” (I love that it’s just called a robot doctor by the way; no need to give it some futuristic, acronymic name. Just call it what it is.)

One of the best compliments to pay a story–in my opinion–is that it displays an earned confidence. Confidence in itself and in the reader. “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” has much that makes it well worth your time. From the computer’s humorously frustrated personality to the protagonist’s heartbreaking psychological erosion, it is layered and interesting even as it moves with brisk efficiency.

“I Hope I Shall Arrive” soon can be read in the short story collection that shares its title.

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Today’s Short Story: Stephen King’s “One for the Road”

Image from "The Secretary of Dreams" published by Cemetery Dance

Image from “The Secretary of Dreams” published by Cemetery Dance

At this point, almost any horror story featuring vampires is a reclamation project. I don’t need to rehash it here, but what the hell, I’ll do it anyway.

Vampires have become many things. Stylish, moody, desirable, heroic, even enviable. But they haven’t been proper horror villains–at least not consistently–for a long time.

Partly due to the setting, I think, the vampires in Salem’s Lot weren’t black-garbed, urbane charmers who happened to drink blood, but monstrous sub-humans with a hunger so unchecked they’re likely to kill off or convert their entire food supply before they realize what they’ve done. Salem’s Lot is not a perfect novel, and isn’t Stephen King’s best, but it still might be my favorite of his. Vampirism as presented in this novel isn’t merely a burden or disease; it’s not something you can struggle against. Its communicability seems less bite-related and more like it’s riding on a general miasma of malfeasance that has settled over a small town already nurturing its share of unpleasantness.

In short, what came to Salem’s lot was classic, old fashioned evil. A level of evil so incontrovertible and palpable that even after the head vampire is killed, Jerusalem’s Lot is rendered a permanent ghost town. There’s no going back to the way it was. And it’s not just about the heavy death toll, damage, or the lingering presence of a bloodsucker here or there. “The Lot” is effectively cursed. In King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “effectively cursed” becomes “literally cursed,” which might be why I’m a little bit biased against that story. Salem’s Lot doesn’t need a backstory featuring an ancient, Lovecraftian presence as the forgotten source for all of its future perils.  All it needed was the pestilence of vampirism to turn it into a fallout zone. And that’s how it’s presented in King’s short story “One for the Road,” from the Night Shift collection.

Dread Central broke the news last week that “One for the Road” is being developed as a short film. This gave me incentive enough to make “One for the Road” my short story read and write-up for today. The story is strong, but flawed. The opening is straightforward enough: in one of The Lot’s neighboring towns, a desperate man comes barging into a bar just before closing time. A blizzard rages outside, and the man, an out-of-towner who had underestimated the Maine winter, has accidentally run his car into a snowbank–wife and daughter still inside–near Salem’s Lot. The man thinks the biggest danger to his family is the unforgiving cold, but the two older locals know better. There’s a reason why the Lot was abandoned, after all, and why people who venture into it tend to go missing.

“One for the Road” does a good job of selling the recent history of Salem’s Lot effectively. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you’ll have a clear enough idea about what transpired within it to understand the threat faced by the protagonists of this short story. The idea of living within short driving distance of a town known to have been overrun by vampires, a limited but unknown number of which may still be lingering there, is chilling. And I’m an unabashed sucker for a horror story set in snowy conditions. Top all of that with a no-frills premise and you can understand why I would call this a solid micro-sequel to my favorite Stephen King novel.

But, again, the tale has its flaws. King’s first person narrator gets sidetracked by wistful remembrances of deceased wives and the history of the bar that don’t add color to the setting or characters, and show up just in time to temporarily stifle the story’s momentum. There are also a few too many instances of clever dialogue that don’t mesh with the urgency that should be present in the story. When our hapless out-of-towner, Lumley, scared for his family and demanding answers, imprudently but understandably grabs one of the two men who can help him by the shirt, the latter man responds, “Mister…I think your hand just ran away from your brains, there.” In a vacuum, or in a more fitting story and moment, that’s a pretty good tough guy line. But with these characters and what’s at stake, it feels stilted. Lastly, King’s affinity for stand alone, on-the-nose closing lines gets the better of him here, and he wraps “On the Road” with a pair of superfluous sentences that are a little too clever and don’t match the established voice of the narrator.

Still, if nothing else, the simplicity of the story keeps it moving briskly enough to give little time for significant missteps. When the seemingly doomed impromptu rescue mission gets underway and the vampires start making their presence known, dread and the sense of inevitability become all that matter or exist in the story. Things escalate quickly, and the vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot are once again shown to be deceptive, gluttonous monsters.

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Today’s Short Story: Ramsey Campbell “Call First”

Ramsey-Campbell-Call-FirstHis mind was backing away faster than he was…”

That’s one hell of a line (well, hell of a half of a line). Lean, efficient, and brilliant. As a horror writer, you sometimes face the issue of trying to come up with yet another semi-fresh way of saying, “this person is really, really scared.” It’s easy to overthink it, overdo it, and often harder to just summon a direct, fat-free line like this.

“His mind was backing away faster than he was…”

I won’t spoil what has the character’s mind retreating too fast for his feet to keep up in Ramsey Campbell’s excellent, compact short story “Call First.” But I will say that the rest of Campbell’s horror story is as terrifically composed and confident as the quoted line above. Call first begins with a “mystery” that is less mystery than curiosity born of annoyance. The story very easily could have been derailed by lingering on the insecurities and idiosyncrasies that prompt the protagonist, Ned, to put himself in the kind of perilous position that characters in horror stories often wind up in. Sometimes an author goes overboard in trying to sell you on why a character behaves a certain way, particularly if that charcter is doing something that will put himself or herself in danger.

Campbell keeps it moving, obeying the show-don’t-tell “rule” of writing without cluttering the story with junk details. Here’s Ned; here’s where he works; here’s what’s eating at him; here’s what he decides to do about it; here’s the result. Even as the claustrophobic conclusion creeps nearer, Campbell keeps the story focused and tight.  By the end, the story provides a swift, coldly creepy answer to the element of the mystery that is at once the most mundane and the most vital. Again, I’m not here to give away too many details, but by the end it’s apparent that of all the questions surrounding the mystery that stirs the story’s progress–“who?” “what?” “why?” and so on–the criticality of one renders the others unimportant. It’s an effective way of reinforcing the writer’s right to leave some questions unanswered.

“Call First” can be read in Ramsey Campbell’s collections Dark Companions and Alone With the Horrors, or in various other anthologies. Go find it and treat yourself.

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Published Short Stories

Here’s a select list of some of the stories I’ve had published.

“TMI” – Devolution Z Magazine – July 2016 issue

When I was very young, my parents let me host a Halloween party, which, of course, meant that they had to put in a lot of the work by putting up decorations and buying atmosphere-establishing music, while I “helped” by mostly being in the way.

The record they bought featured some appropriately haunting music and sound effects. At one point, a man’s voice on the record cried out, “Don’t cross the bridge! Don’t cross the bridge!” Nothing before or after that point in the record made any mention of a bridge, or provided any context for his warning. It came out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, and that made it so much more frightening for me.

One of the earliest short stories I wrote as an adult was based on this single line that stuck in my memory. I remembered one long drive across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, when a heavy rain reduced visibility, that felt particularly tense, and tried to replicate that feeling in a story. Unfortunately, this was when I was just starting to take writing seriously, so the story wasn’t very good. Since then, I’ve improved and had the fortune of having some stories published, so I decided to try my hand at a haunting bridge-crossing again, this time switching the setting to the Atchafalya Basin Bridge, which my family crossed at least twice a year when I was a kid. I also updated the story to feature a handy, horrifying phone app.

“The Genie and the Inquisitor” – Fantasy Scroll Magazine issue #10

Same old story: man meets genie; genie offers man three wishes; man presses genie for answers that cause the situation to turn quickly, and turn ugly. I’d been sitting on this story idea for a long time, even though it isn’t terribly complicated. Nonetheless, I didn’t sit down and actually write it until the summer of 2014 when I was out of state visiting relatives. After three or four rewrites and touch-ups, I sent it out into the world, where it found a home at Fantasy Scroll Mag.

“Giving Grounds” – Arkham Tales issue #8

I know some writers who hate the question of “where do you get your ideas?” I love it, even though sometimes the answer is relatively uninteresting or embarrassing. The idea for “Giving Grounds” sprouted (pun unintended, probably) from a throwaway joke from an episode of Family Guy of all things. I’m not a huge fan of the show, but there was an episode where the family was sent to live in the south in the Witness Protection program. Inside their new home, the son finds a hand inside a jar and says he’s going to plant it outside to see if a human grows. Because I’m a horror writer, my mind immediately latched onto the interesting, grotesque idea of growing a human being through traditional agriculture. And so from a lowbrow animated sitcom, a grim, serious short story was born.

Miss Branson Calling” – Pseudopod

This is the first story I ever sold that was based on a nightmare. I actually used to work with the lady Miss Branson was based on. An eccentric chain smoking, overall harmless elderly woman who coughed like she had a lagoon in her lungs and had skin that seemed like it might disintegrate at any second. Based on the comments, many of the Pseudopod fans didn’t care much for this one, but I think it’s a solid effort at trying to draw fear from something that’s more melancholy than aggressively terrifying.

Will Erickson over at TooMuchHorrorFiction recently coined the term “Heartbreak Horror,” and I think that term fits this story.

“Thanks For Using Forced Honesty Assassinations”  – From the Asylum

Damn shame that From the Asylum is closed, because they housed some excellent stories during the years that they were open. I had been trying to break into their ranks for a while before they finally accepted this flash fiction piece. I really like this story, short as it is. I can’t remember where the idea came from, but I love the ambiguity of the ending.

Civilized Monsters” – Pseudopod

I received a lot of comments about how graphic this story was, which sort of surprised me. I actually tend to think myself a bit squeamish and don’t think I lingered on any exceedingly gruesome parts here. Could it be that I’m mistaken? Me? Perish the thought. Can’t remember where I got this idea from. If I could go back and touch up some parts here and there I would, but I still like this story, particularly the ending.

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