Reviews at the end by co-Editor Alex Hofelich, read by Associate Editor Scott Campbell.
The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is a collection by Christopher Slatsky.
Wonder and Glory Forever is an anthology edited by Nick Mamatas.
Devil Gonna Catch You in the Corners
by Christopher Slatsky
THURSDAY, 8th March, 1849.—
It has been a trying journey over narrow deer-paths and rutted trails. Heavy branches of ancient oaks cast the way in shadow, yet I continue to write my thoughts in my diary—what Father mockingly refers to as “belles-lettres”. When I was a child, I kept a daily record during the two-month emigration from New-England to the Willamette Valley where Father had been hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company; as an adult, a mere two-days’ travel will not dissuade me from continuing to write. These valleys, these streams that break the monotony of impenetrable alder and oak forests make the wagon’s passage that much more difficult.
I have left home as my parents offered my services to Uncle Jon Sutton, who has taken ill and is convalescing in his isolated country estate. Being his only niece, it was decided to send me to assist with any daily tasks necessary to maintain his orderly domicile, while a nurse Marjorie attends to his health. I consider it fortunate I am bound for Uncle’s distant place and not condemned to settle somewhere like Mudtown, for the tales of that city’s squalor invite much hesitation.
I haven’t visited Uncle in years. He is something of a legend our in family, for he has the faculty to command an auditory response from any inanimate object—that is, he was once a renowned ventriloquist and quite popular thirty years ago. He has since retired to the unexplored wilderness.
I am not particularly pleased to have been taken from my studies at the recently built school, as Miss Chloe Clark is an exemplary educator, and neither am I inclined to be a chambermaid. Though frowned upon by my parents, I am proud of my schooling and wish to attain a teaching position. I miss the sweet embrace of my fiancé Matthew, but he understands I have a family duty to uphold. I am not a rebellious daughter. I readily obey my parents’ wishes.
The bracing air out here is invigorating; the black soil encourages the growth of tangled green that covers the land in such lavish amounts that I feel as if I’m within a faery tale. This is God’s country indeed. I am weary, but the driver insists my destination is just over the hill.
As we draw near Uncle’s home, I notice that the water pump I once frolicked around in my youth is gone. A hole is now in its stead. The pump must have grown soft with rot, for the remaining slimy rock foundation is split by lichen, and there is detritus where it once stood. Retrieving water from the gaping pit may prove an arduous task.
This is the first indication of my seclusion.
FRIDAY, 9th March, 1849.—
Uncle Sutton was most gracious on receiving me. He is still handsome, though a mysterious ailment has sunken his cheeks and furrowed his brow. His once resonant voice is now a despondent croak.
Nurse Marjorie has a kindness most beneficial to one of her profession.
I have been here less than one day, yet I already find the spacious house to be cold and impassive; the many unoccupied rooms give me alarm for reasons I am unable to articulate. Perhaps it is their advanced state of disrepair? The vines outside have pierced the walls, their growth evident as raised blisters beneath the wallpaper. An unpalatable gloom hangs over all.
Despite my reservations, I am quickly acclimated to my new station. Though not one to enjoy scullery work, I am an accomplished cook. This afternoon I prepare a supper of sorrel soup and skewered larks done to a turn, basted with sage butter. The birds have been provided by Daniel, the hunter Uncle hired to provide game and fowl and fish, as well as fruits and vegetables from the nearest town a day’s tramp away. I assume he is also the one responsible for chopping and stacking the monstrous pile of cord wood out back. He reluctantly introduced himself this morning. Daniel is taciturn, a roughly hewn man with a tobacco-stained bushy beard. His hands bear copious scars.
Uncle and Marjorie are appreciative of the meal—Uncle says he has subsisted on a diet of milk and hominy for far too long. Now he warms his aged blood before an oak and applewood roaring fire, imbibing a wine-and-honey concoction of his own invention, while Nurse Marjorie stands at his side. I would have preferred a cherry-bounce, as I find Uncle’s cordial disagreeable, lingering on the tongue in a most unpleasant manner.
SATURDAY, 10th March, 1849.—
This morning, conversation with Uncle Sutton is difficult. He is withdrawn, occupied by thoughts known only to himself. His gaze constantly rests on the window framing the darkness of the forest before the sun has sufficiently risen to banish the hoar-frost and pall.
When Uncle does speak, he is pertinacious, only interested in reminiscing about his ventriloquist act. I was not yet born during his fame, but the posters and many reviews my mother preserved over the years attest to just how enthusiastically his unique gifts were received. He continues to talk of performing throughout Europe and America, astonishing thousands with his skill in manifesting words from gentlemen’s pockets, gentlewomen’s teacups, or from the mouth of his moppet Fox-Faced Rannie, which he carried in a pocket.
I remember one yellowed, crinkled theatre bill boasting of his holding spirited colloquies with that ill-shaped doll.
I recall touching the wax and cloth figure, during the last visit to Uncle’s estate when I was but a girl of ten. Though not so long ago, my memories of that occasion are slight, and I retain an inexplicable air of anxiety on what transpired in this old home far from any village.
I ask Uncle if he still has Fox-Faced Rannie, perhaps exhibited with the other trophies and career memorabilia in one of the many rooms I’ve yet to investigate. But he becomes quite agitated and feigns his hearing is inadequate. Nurse Marjorie is silent and grim. I fear I have incurred offense.
A strange occurrence.
I enjoy the bird song from the woods as I prepare supper, but notice it is slightly queer sounding, as if mimicry is responsible for the tune.
I will speak to Uncle Sutton on this matter. I do not appreciate him practicing his auditory illusions in an attempt to frighten me. I am not comfortable attracting attention by malicious prank.
I find this odd however, as Uncle is in his study reading, while Nurse Marjorie prepares medicine. I cannot imagine how one could possibly project sounds through the thick walls and closed doors over such a distance.
But I am certain that birdsong is false.
A chill now resides within my breast. My demeanor is darkened. I will busy myself with peeling potatoes and gathering water from that foreboding well. The thought of chores illuminates my mood from black to gray. I have contracted a parching fever.
I never see any of the birds.
SUNDAY, 11th March, 1849.—
As there are no churches here to attend, I spend my morning exploring the house after my perfunctory duties are done. I have no hesitation in believing the Lord yet watches over me. The mellow waxing light further reveals the mansion’s age and flaws. The heavy damask curtains have lightened in the direct sunlight, the jabot darkened by decay. There are many floorboards in desperate need of repair.
Roaming this place brings memories. I recall one rainy day when Uncle entertained by vociferating from a closet. He then escorted me outside where a queer voice came from the heart of the woodpile. Back in the kitchen, words enunciated echoingly from the belly of a cast iron stove.
But that was long ago.
It is a curious thing, this ventriloquist talent. To think that it was recently perceived a malefic art, a divine throat spoken, or, conversely, a gift from disreputable imps and devils! But now ventriloquism is all the rage with the public—jugglers and conjurers readily demonstrate its charms. The menacing Carwin of literature has become a thespian, his art a puzzle to be solved. Something to scoff at, as freethinkers are wont to do with the story of Balaam’s ass.
Even so, despite my troubles with Uncle’s cleverness, I still retain an emotional thrill on hearing voices from elsewhere. It is a splendid diversion.
In my explorations, I inadvertently come across the room where Uncle has stored his dollhouses.
A brief explanation: Uncle was celebrated for the biloquist skill of making his speeches echo from various dollhouses he’d place about the stage. Each and every doll’s domicile delivered a variety of vocalizations—of children, of husbands and wives, of chickens and dogs, of dialects most unusual. He’d created a host of characters to interact with in his show, personalities that chattered from dollhouse to dollhouse.
Judging by the fresh paint and unblemished wood, Uncle has managed to carve several impressive structures during his convalescence. His carpentry skills remain unsurpassed; the woodwork is exquisite. Even now I look about the room and marvel at the hand-made craftsmanship, the meticulously designed appliques. Each house is attired in the architectural details appropriate to their era.
It is good that Uncle manages to busy himself with a pastime to cultivate his mind, as well as nurture his blood and muscles through physical exertion. His recovery has been a trying one, and I am pleased my visit has coincided with a lilt in his spirits—though I seem to have acquired an intestinal disorder. Such are the conditions one suffers when drinking well water in remote regions.
Several older dollhouses remain in a corner of the room. There are holes in their ceilings, paint peels from the exterior. I find sorrow in their neglected state, sobered by the inevitability of Time.
Those wondrous dollhouses have entered my sleep! I’ve taken to dreaming of living within those petite homes, supping from miniscule plates at tiny tables, sleeping on soft, delicate, inviting beds. I am small and happy and wander the halls freely.
I exit my blissful dream when I see something moving outside the dollhouse window. That moment of surprise jolts me awake. I immediately recorded these thoughts.
O, what wondrously crafted works!
MONDAY, 12th March, 1849.—
I have nothing of interest to document to-day.
TUESDAY, 13th March, 1849.—
To-night, while fetching water, I heard a child giggle my name within the well. I dropped the bason in surprise, but quickly became vexed and shouted into the hole, “I am not amused by your tricks Uncle!”
The child’s tittering ceased, though I retained a distinct impression someone was down there, squatting in pitch darkness, waiting for me to leave before he continued whatever games he was playing below. I couldn’t be sure of such, as it was too gloomy to see the bottom. It was a most disconcerting feeling, though I know it was only imagination made fervid by the falling sun thickening shadows between the trees, like a dark velvet sheet stretched across a proscenium arch as in one of the curtain-raising Black Art magic acts before Uncle’s shows.
In fact, if I hadn’t known they were sparrows returning to their nests for the night, I’d have said those pale shapes dancing in the air between the pine branches could have very well been bones held aloft by black clad assistants.
The thought persisted as I walked back to Uncle’s house across the wide field, the gloaming dispersing curious shadows over the ground. On returning to my room, I quickly wrote this entry.
WEDNESDAY, 14th March, 1849.—
Despite what I fear may be a touch of bilious fever, I decide to enjoy the fresh air. I cross over the field in front of the house and walk deep into the woods.
After an hour’s walk, I find an old round stone barn, reminiscent of a structure I’d once seen in Hancock.
I was unaware such architecture existed outside of New-England. Whatever its function, I am not convinced it is a barn; there are no ranches and no livestock in these parts which are uninhabited even by Indians or logging camps.
The entrance has collapsed, and grasses grow between the wreckage, reclaiming much of the ground. On further inspection, the building’s strange walls and high roof seem church-like in design. A large fragment of stone shows PRAYERS FROM UNOCCUPIED SPACES engraved into its surface. The words before and after have been erased by time and weather.
But I cannot fathom why anyone would build a round church in such a faraway place, nor what congregation could possibly have been compelled to travel through such a dense forest to gather for worship. I expect a sexton to make his appearance any moment now!
Father once told me they built round barns so as to avoid corners, for evil spirits and demons hide in the shadows of such places. “Devil gonna catch you in the corners,” he’d say to taunt me when I was a child. I am not aware if any churches have been raised with this superstition in mind. Perhaps I will ask Uncle Sutton.
I eagerly return through the woods, for that structure fills me with a rapturous fright, as if I am on a precipice yet unable to step away to safety. In my haste I pass the well. Nearby, a few feet distant, I discover a rock wrapped in twine. The cord dangles down into the well’s depths.
I withdraw the string from the hole and find it attached to a decomposed opossum, the twine wrapped around its soft bloated neck. Who could have possibly committed such a dreadful sin? I hold the hunter Daniel accountable with nothing to substantiate my suspicions.
Fortunately, there remains a large supply of water in a cistern beneath the house’s foundation.
THURSDAY, 15th March, 1849.—
My nightmare follows thus:
The ground is covered with many holes. I walk over the field towards the forest. In that certainty common to dreams, I sense that plumbing the hole’s depths will prove futile, for they have no bottom. I hear whispers emanating from the openings.
I pass by these ominous depressions, stepping gingerly so as to avoid slipping into their breadth. The nearer I draw, the more frantic the whispers grow. They repeat my name, “Charlotte! Charlotte!”
I see movement between the trees.
I move closer, so quietly I float above the grass and dirt and alder cones. I peer between a fan of branches.
Fox-Faced Rannie stands in a clearing.
I remain as still as a sparrow on a twig with a skulk of predators below.
Fox-Faced Rannie tilts his disconcertingly vulpine head, as if detecting the arrival of an unexpected visitor. “Big boys will grease our heads and swallow us whole!” he says in Uncle’s cadence.
I became very ill this night, vomiting with such severity that I fainted back into a sleep so profound no further nightmares could reach me. In the morning, when I went to clean away my sick, I found it wriggling with worms. Perhaps Nurse Marjorie has something to ease my discomfort.
Though still recovering from the nightmare, as well as a bout of quick step, I put on my cloak and go for a walk in the woods. I had hoped to acquire medicine from Nurse Marjorie, but she must be assisting Uncle, for I cannot find her anywhere in the house and Uncle’s bedroom door is tightly closed. Nobody answered when I knocked.
I normally cherish the landscape during these moments, when it reveals its refinery at dawn, those seconds the sky luridly divulges its magnificence, sun touching the tips of distant wooded peaks, forest magically transforming into a world much more splendid than it normally expresses on its dull face. But I am of a bilious nature; the odor of the mountain air aggravates my dyspepsia.
I find Fox-Faced Rannie swaying in a gentle breeze.
His tiny fabric jacket and trousers are smothered in a coat of moss. The cord around his throat is frayed and rotten. I looked to the branch from which he was hanged. The bark had grown over the twine in such a thick layer it must have been here many years.
I am perplexed as to why Uncle came this far to clamber up a tree to hang his moppet. I am disturbed as to why he committed such a deed.
I may inquire as to why he has done this, but do not wish to upset Uncle’s delicate constitution with frivolous investigations. I want to avoid angering him as I did before on mentioning the doll.
I return to the house. I take a path that keeps me from passing near the well.
FRIDAY, 16th March, 1849.—
I have nothing of interest to document to-day.
SATURDAY, 17th March, 1849.—
While preparing Uncle Sutton’s bed after a restless night’s sleep, I find a diary beneath a pillow. He is currently outside, taking his constitutional with the assistance of Nurse Marjorie.
I am ashamed to admit I peeked inside the book. It is a shocking and gratuitously carnal account of Uncle’s dreams and hallucinations. I feel rather ill on exposing myself to these lascivious musings. I will only record a brief excerpt of what I can recall; I am loathe to elaborate with such language:
Fox-Faced Rannie stands over my bed. He possesses the soft features of youth, plump faced and wide-eyed, but his tiny body is withered with age, spoiled and wrinkled as the overripe skin of an apple.
His prick is erect.
He hovers in the air at the side of my bed, moaning most disagreeably. A plaintive cry, as if my knee-figure has yet to master his vocal cords, heartily practicing for my benefit. I am paralyzed during this vision and pray the waking nightmare will cease.
Rannie grunts and squeaks. I recognize my own voice channeled from the depths of his belly.
I awake, but my words curiously distorted still resonate within the walls. I must be mistaken, for I hear “As the acorn is to stately trees, dollhouses are to sprawling mansions”.
I know not what this is meant to convey.
I close the diary and return it beneath the pillow. This is the gibberish of a man gravely ill, but I am not one to judge my Uncle’s physical and mental fortitude. I pray no unclean thoughts intrude my sleep to-night.
I haven’t heard any birds this morning. The forest has fallen silent. Marjorie is laughing outside, far too long and loud for my comfort.
I have confronted Uncle Sutton.
I broached the subject of his emulating birdsong, of frightening me by casting his voice into the well, of Daniel and the opossum; of the stone building in the woods; of Fox-Faced Rannie. I dare not mention the journal.
On hearing this, Uncle’s physiognomy altered most remarkably.
His countenance was tainted with malignancy, like that of the old man tormenting the Savior in Bosch’s Christ Crowned with Thorns. His incoherent response was the apoplectic rant of a deacon overwhelmed with the Holy Ghost.
I’ve noticed that Uncle lapses into these dreadful moods when the sun sets in the beyond, and the chill of night breezes brings the chorus of wildlife through the open windows. But my questions have made him far more agitated than usual at this hour.
His outburst is unprecedented in its passion. Sallow skin and sunken eyes attest to the progression of his disease. I must speak with Nurse Marjorie to determine if she too has witnessed Uncle’s strange fits. I pray she may provide succor.
SUNDAY, 18th March, 1849.—
It is late morning when I find Uncle in his study. He notifies me that Nurse Marjorie’s services were no longer needed. He has dismissed her.
He will not hear my protests, that I am untrained in any form of nursing. He ignores my pleas and resumes reading.
On returning to my room I hear a tumultuous din. It comes from the storage room filled with dollhouses. I run to throw open the door and find his creations have been shattered into fragments.
I don’t know who could have committed this act of vandalism and evaded notice. There are no other doors, and as far as I’m aware, only Uncle and I now reside between these walls. I am confounded as to how he could have left his study, destroyed his dollhouses, then escaped the room without my detection.
Curiously, only the old, dilapidated dollhouses remain intact. I now realize they look like small, round churches.
I desire nothing more than to return to my very own home.
I fear my prying into Uncle’s journal has forever poisoned my sleep. I dreamt this night of such repugnant images that I am hesitant to write them down. I am compelled to do so nonetheless:
Fox-Faced Rannie stands at the foot of my bed. His erection is coiled like a fiddle fern found in great abundance during spring in these parts.
His prick unfurls against his jaundiced, splotchy paunch, slaps against the navel as if it is a newly grown cunny.
Rannie is tall as a full-grown man, hovering just above the floor. Toenails sharp as the devil’s talons scratch at the wood.
His navel opens like a sopping cunt. A stench escapes from its fleshy depths.
Something moves inside.
Uncle’s voice projects from the maw, “Charlotte dear, big boys will grease our heads and swallow us whole!”
A malevolent face peers out at me.
I’ve hurriedly written this obscenity down. I hope I may return to sleep. These are not my words. Someone else has scripted this vile passage. I feel a corruption seething in my blood, in my soul.
MONDAY, 19th March, 1849.—
My heart is broken. Daniel returned from town early this morning, bearing a missive from my parents. My sweet sweet Matthew has hanged himself. Daniel does his best to console me in his rough and uncultured way, but I am inconsolable.
I cannot understand why the Lord has taken my love from me.
I awaken to hear myself concluding a sentence whose precise words escape me. Perhaps I’ve been repeating a litany in my sleep, for I sense I’ve spoken a prayer of sorts, unbidden, as if quoting a beloved poem.
I search the house. Uncle Sutton is nowhere to be found. I know not where he has taken leave.
I found a note in the study. It is written in Uncle’s trembling hand:
Daniel has gone far away. I know not where. I fear for Marjorie’s safe transition. I am no longer who I once was, and the new me speaks such atrocities. May the Lord preserve us from that which sullies the blank spaces that were once blissfully unoccupied.
Goodbye, dear Charlotte. Pray for me.
Despite my concern, I am exhausted and struggle with an aggressive fever. I relax in Uncle’s study and read until sunrise amongst the volumes of blotted sheepskin, moldering manuscripts, and bound editions. I’m distracted by odd sounds deep within the house. Unable to finish any sentences, I find myself plucking at the spines losing their stitch. Curiously, I no longer lament my dear Matthew’s tragic fate.
I will worry about Uncle Sutton to-morrow, for I can do little in my state. I dare not leave the house; the nearest haven of civilization would take me far too long to reach, and I must stay here in case Daniel returns with game, or perhaps even Marjorie, forgetting some item necessary for her work. I pray they will bring news of Uncle’s whereabouts.
I am filled with a strange apathy. I regret not becoming a rebellious daughter long ago. I’m no longer a meek girl; I am anxious to accept my independence. My waning health and the dimming sun send me back to bed.
SUNDAY, 25th March, 1849.—
Daniel the hunter has yet to visit again.
Marjorie has yet to return.
I’ve seen no other soul for many days. The larder is more than sufficiently stocked with jarred foods and canned meats. If necessary, I may stay for months. The house is covered with layers of grime and soot. I do not know why there has been such a hasty accumulation. My hair is tangled, my clothing clotted with filth. The wind whispers my name.
I am no longer filled with an acute longing to leave this house, to return to my studies, to go home again. I have little but sorrow awaiting me there. I look out the window as I prepare tea.
The oaks and cedars have formed a strangely circular pattern, as if aspiring to become curved walls.
A clump of bushes at the forest’s entrance suggests a wide entryway, the trunks beyond a sturdy door. There is a delicacy to the manner the branches and leaves and saplings spread, their varied colors interwoven to create side gables and many windows arranged in strict symmetry. The forest canopy is now a roof. A thought comes to me:
As the acorn is to stately trees, dollhouses are to sprawling mansions.
There is movement in the forest. I no longer believe those pale shapes I viewed several days ago to be birds.
I pray aloud. I am suffused with a sacred thrill on wondering how sweetly the Lord’s numinous pronouncements will saturate my soul with such great love. As my pitch rises, I hear my prayers emerge from deep within the forest, reflected back to me in a multitude of utterances.
I do not recognize any of the voices. Not even my own.
About the Author
Christopher Slatsky is a Weird Horror Fiction author trying to survive at that realm where “living systems exist in the solid regime near the edge of chaos.” He currently resides in Los Angeles.
About the Narrator
Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About Survivor, Hey, Want to Watch a Movie? and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts. Her most recent novel: Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private Eye is now available as both print and ebook. All her work can be found at christianaellis.com.