Fiction Pick of the Week: "Dark Air"

A trip to the country turns into nightmare beset by mysterious creatures and body transformations.

"When we went over to look at the creature, it was mostly flattened. It looked like a crow, except the feathers had fallen off its back. Underneath, the flesh was scaly and pink. The exposed skin was split in half by a row of translucent spikes. The spikes were moving slightly, pointing first in this direction, then in that. The smell made me wrinkle my nose. It was an oddly sweet smell to find outdoors, like an open vat of lollipop flavoring."

Irina

In a series of diary entries, a woman explores her terrifying relationship with a vampiric count.

"The first thing I saw this way was me. I was in bed beside him, and began to drift into sleep. When my eyes closed I saw myself, dozing. My hair was silver and gold on the moonlit pillow and my mouth was smeared with his blood. I opened my eyes and he was leaning over me, studying me. I asked him what was the matter."

A Murder

A farm family is beset by body horrors, crows, and the appearance of a mysterious figure.

"I wish some flood would cover me and bring me peace and comfort. Every day I miss my mother. My heart seems to have been torn from my chest, just like my father’s. Sometimes I go up to her sewing room when Janna is busy with our father. I close the door so that Fig can’t follow, and I sit in the armchair that no one ever used, the one our mother draped swatches of calico over when she didn’t have anywhere else to put them. The room is full of Mother’s smell, lavender and starchy cloth, and the hyssop that flavored her tea. It has also retained her silence, the atmosphere of quiet contentment that she exuded when busy with her sewing. Her ancient Singer sewing machine seems to dominate the room, its black enamel and fussy gold lettering giving it an air of slightly pompous authority as it perches on the battered oak desk. The dressmaker’s dummy occupies one corner, iron hoops and wooden moulds in the shape of a lady’s torso, its head a shrunken knob. The window opens outward, and you can climb over the windowsill and step out onto the roof."

Field Recordings

Cemetery field recordings reveal terrifying audio messages.

"One night, listening back, she heard the crunch of shovelling. Nothing to worry about, the priest said. Simply gravediggers. She had not realised the cemetery still bore room for fresh dead; she imagined dough cut to the shape of the cemetery and a coffin-shaped cookie cutter pressed into it to calibrate the number of remaining graves."

The Mary Celeste Mystery Tour

Transcribed logs from the mysterious voyage reveal terrors of the sea.

"Yesterday was the worst day of my life. The captain said we would be entering the sea of sirens and, if we looked carefully through the mists, we would be able to see the mermaids, but he warned us, grievously, to take great care against being hypnotised by the sounds of the sirens for their sighs and whispers were said to be sensuous and would entice our souls to Hades. Mother and I looked at each other with dread in our hearts as we went up on deck. Mist was all around and nothing could be seen. We heard the mermaids singing. Songs so soft you could feel your heart melt. I held Mother’s hand and realised that the longer I held it the colder it became."

The Open Palm of Desire

A single father's life is complicated by his son's new friend: a severed hand.

"That decided it—we would walk away. Let some other dad deal with the fallout of their kid digging up evidence of, what? A murder, maybe? A ritual dismemberment? The Mob torturing some poor fool before sending him to sleep with the fishes in the East River? My mind reeled at the possibilities. Whatever the case, getting involved was the last thing we needed, especially with me battling Mo for custody. I could see the headline in The Post: LET’S GIVE THE BOY A HAND! Her lawyer would have a field day."

Dial Tone

An unsettling story of murder and telemarketing; originally published in 2007 and recently anthologized in The New Black, edited by Richard Thomas.

"There is a noise—the noise teeth might make biting hurriedly into melon—punctuated by a series of screams. It makes me want to tear the headset away from my ear. And then I realize I am not alone. Someone is listening. I don't know how—a certain displacement of sound as the phone rises from the floor to an ear—but I can sense it."

Deluge

Horror--physical and psychological--grips a cockroach-infested Navy ship.

"I reached down and slapped his hands, sent his pals flying. The roaches were scuttling around, I was trying to step on them, when Thurman’s foot shot out. His toe-claw speared me in the leg between my calf and shinbone. I fell to one knee, gripping the wound. Thurman stood up and started shouting at me.

YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM TRAVELING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND

Strangers unleash a mysterious mantra upon a weary traveler.

"From his glove box he pulled a laminated flyer no bigger than a bookmark. I took it with hesitation and studied the print. The first sentence said DID YOU KNOW HOPE AND DESPAIR ARE SISTER AND BROTHER AND YOU THEIR DISTANT COUSIN? There was a picture at the top of two people tugging a rope. There was a woman and a man and they looked like hieroglyphic people who had been locked in eternal struggle."

The Skin Thing

Space colonists live in fear of a horrifying creature.

"The Skin Thing dragged itself along on two great stalks that looked like elbows. Imagine a person, out prone on the ground, that drags himself by fits and starts. The elbows strove to gouge the earth, as sharp and tall as circus poles, and they levered the body along by great drags. Its head stuck out eyeless, oblong as a horse’s. Behind the elbow-things it used to drag itself across the ground there stretched, like a laundry sheet strung out for drying, a tensile wall of thick pink skin."

Topology of a Paranoid Critical Town

A daycare pickup becomes a surreal look into nature and human development.

"In the middle of the landscape, a pile of toys rises from the earth to form a tower. Children approach it in a perpetual stream, grabbing toys, as many as they can carry. They run off with their arms full, toys spilling from their tiny ravenous bodies. The pile keeps growing and growing. The father remembers seeing the President on television once, back when television was still a toy. When I grew up during the Depression, the President told the Nation, my only toy was a wood plank full of rusty nails, which I had to share with sixty-six brothers. Bullshit. What politician ever knew how to share? The father watches as a group of children forms a circle around the base of the pile, holding hands. They are wearing nothing but loincloths."

The Wenceslas Men

An isolated apartment sitter sees apparitions of mysterious beings.

"And then, after a few days, I returned to the living room, to sit in the blank and quiet night and watch them pass in darkness. And after a few more nights, I crept closer to the curtains. One night, having left them closed, I peeled one back as the last of them passed. I watched them proceed down the street in their own strange strides, walking steadily, not turning a corner, not entering some structure, not vanishing in mid-air."

The Revolution Room: Station One

A horror/mystery story about heart removal, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Chinese food bags.

"It is not easy to remove a heart with a spoon from the chest of a man, nor is it clean. The spoon was purchased 48 hours earlier from the Bed, Bath & Beyond on 9th Street. The Nicole Miller Moments 5 pc Flatware Set was $24.99. The salad fork, dinner knife, dinner fork, and soup spoon were disposed of. Only the teaspoon remained.

The Mud Man

After a gardening mishap, a meticulous, harried family man finds himself being replaced by a grotesque clone; from the author of Red Moon.

"He, the mud man, stands in the middle of a shallow crater. His joints issue a series of blistery pops like pitch pockets boiling out of a log thrown on a fire. Clods of dirt fall off him and patter the garden, freckling the daffodils and hostas. He has all the calm of a tree, the breeze rushing around him, bending the loose vines and leaves hanging off him like hair, carrying a smell like worms washed across a sidewalk after a hard rain. The mud man seems to be staring at Thomas, though it is hard to tell as his eyes are hollows with black scribbles in them, like the insides of a rotten walnut."

The White

A research assistant experiences hallucinations while working in Antarctica.

"You hear a strange sound. It’s loud and insistent and returns again and again. You listen to it for a while before you realize it’s the sound of your own breathing and the moist rhythm of your heart. At night it ceases when you are no longer paying attention and the white steals into your 2 ½ x 1½ meter space in the housing unit. The room is barely larger than a coffin. Inside it, you could just as well be dead. You haven’t told Dr. Lubin. It’s just your heart falling quiet, leaving the job of keeping you alive to the white that surrounds you, infinitely greater than your tiny red. Who are you to deny it? After a while your heart starts up again, and that’s when you become aware that it had stopped."

Sky Saw [Excerpt]

Cerebral horrors from the inimitable Blake Butler.

"The tone had been appearing on the air for weeks. Its tone contained all possible timbre: every sentence ever crammed into each blink. Sometimes the tone would last for several hours, sealing the air against all other motion. It always hurt. It made Person 1180's blood go numb. It made the books fall off the bookshelves and land opened to certain pages, though when she tried to look the words would melt or disappear. No one could say what made the tone or where it came from. Tax dollars were purportedly at work."

Miriam

A widow meets the acquaintance of a mysterious, frightening young girl.

"Miriam ate ravenously, and when the sandwiches and milk were gone, her fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection on its wearer. 'That was very nice,' she sighed, 'though now an almond cake or a cherry would be ideal. Sweets are lovely, don’t you think?' Mrs. Miller was perched precariously on the hassock, smoking a cigarette. Her hairnet had slipped lopsided and loose strands straggled down her face. Her eyes were stupidly concentrated on nothing and her cheeks were mottled in red patches, as though a fierce slap had left permanent marks."

Marooned In Andromeda

After a mutiny aboard a spaceship, three men are cast off on a mysterious planet with dangerous inhabitants.

"Now they were driven along a ravine in which ran a rapid stream. The ravine grew deeper; and sheer cliffs, increasing in height to a hundred feet or more, hemmed it in on each side. Rounding a sharp turn, the men saw before them a broad space of level shore, and above the shore a cliff that was lined with several rows of cavern-mouths and little steps cut in the stone. Dozens of pygmies, of the same type as their captors, were gathered before the entrances of the lower caves. An animated chattering arose among them at sight of the cavalcade and its prisoners."

The Devil In Kansas [Excerpt]

Surreal samples from Ohle's latest novel, presented by Ben Marcus: a man's life in a world beset by aliens and their mysterious ways.

"Moe works in a grasshopper mill, a windowless hangar-like building on the outskirts of town. A cavernous, warm room, actually a huge incubator. Thousands of football-sized grasshopper/alien eggs lay row upon row under lights."

The Picture In The House

After being caught in a downpour, a traveler takes refuge in the home of a twisted old man; Happy Halloween.

"As the man mumbled on in his shocking ecstasy the expression on his hairy, spectacled face became indescribable, but his voice sank rather than mounted. My own sensations can scarcely be recorded. All the terror I had dimly felt before rushed upon me actively and vividly, and I knew that I loathed the ancient and abhorrent creature so near me with an infinite intensity. His madness, or at least his partial perversion, seemed beyond dispute. He was almost whispering now, with a huskiness more terrible than a scream, and I trembled as I listened."

I'm Waiting

A woman makes a companion from spoiled soup in this weird tale from the "Queen of Russian horror," Anna Starobinets.

"I moved, but a week later I'd already started fretting. After all, I did have a responsibility. I was constantly wondering how it was getting on there without me. Completely alone. In the plastic bags."