The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation

NOTE FROM RICHARD: This story was originally published in the Shallow Creek anthology. I am sharing it here so that you might read it this Halloween season and get a shiver, or perhaps a flush of excitement, or maybe have some strange epiphany about the state of our existence. Whatever your reaction, I hope you enjoy the story!

How it is still standing, after all this time? That can be debated.

Perhaps it was built in the shadow of a huge oak tree that shades the structure, protecting it, the occasional acorns raining down on the wood and metal roof, creating a ripple of percussion in the otherwise quiet forest. Maybe it’s the animal fat that is slathered over the frame, the sinew wrapped around one board after another, dried now, creating a bond, that might be cemented even further tomorrow, or the next day. Or it might be something else entirely—an illusion, some sort of glimmer of technology rippling under the building, a line of gold running through the tiny house, as if a motherboard had been pressed into the rotting wood, a surge of electricity running over it all, then fading as the sun pushes through the dense foliage. Whatever is happening here, the old man standing in the doorway holds a flickering presence, both daunting in the shadow and void he creates, but vulnerable in his sickly thin appearance, an old flannel shirt barely covering his pale flesh and bony arms,  dirty jeans leading down to black boots that are grotesquely oversized, the only bit of joy his shockingly bright hair in a rainbow of colors, as well as a red bulbous nose in the center of his face. He grabs the sphere and rips it off, leaving behind a gap where a fleshy proboscis must have once resided, flinging the spongy crimson ball to the forest floor, where it bounces into a pile of leaves and disappears. He turns and heads back into the residence, the nose back on his face, a bit of magic here, the illusion continuing.

When the acorns fall again, he begins weeping, muttering the name of a long lost love under his breath, his sobs turning into a rasping cough, then to something darker—something wet. Other random noises emanate from the hut—sometimes from him, and sometimes from the dozens of jars that line the walls, shelves full of clear glass, and a curiosity of items. As he rolls about on the cot, transferring white paste and powder to the dirty sheets and blankets, the tension in his stomach builds until he leans over and vomits up a long stream of tangled balloons, in a shocking mix of rubber iridescence. Mixed in with the puddle of primary colors is a smattering of glitter, a few chunks of some glistening meat, sawdust, and a handful of marbles, that go rolling across the floor.

In the jars, there is much more.

A tiny heart floats in a yellowing liquid, somehow still beating. Next to it, a bowl filled with Yoyos, the strings dirty, crusted with brown stains, a meaty smell lifting off of the faded toys. In a large glass mason jar there is nothing but hair—long blonde strands, several puffs of dark, curly tightness, and brown clippings in a number of lengths, all mixed together.

It doesn’t stop there.

A little glass music box is filled with glittering metal—rings, and necklaces, in silver and gold, some plastic, some onyx, all inlaid with memory, and trace amounts of DNA. Next to that is a large clear vase filled with toothbrushes in a variety of colors—some brand new, or nearly that, others worn down, the bristles frayed, handles bent and faded, the edges worn away from use. There is a jar filled with flickering fireflies, humming and buzzing in the night. A clay bowl is overflowing with little rubber balls that mix and mingle, vibrating with hate and sorrow. A gilded cage toward the back of the little room is filled to bursting with tiny birds, in a cacophony of pigmentation—chirping red, twittering blue, gasping black into the encroaching night. There is so much pain gathered here, and the sobbing form lying on the floor knows exactly what he’s done, the role he has played in all this sadness.

As the darkness settles in around the humble abode, the hut goes quiet, a crinkling of leaves buried under snapping sticks, the tall shadows outside standing in a semi-circle around the building, their long necks, and slender arms extending in ways that are hard to rationalize. Six of these elongated figures hold court in this desolate forest, chittering to each other, a dull glow seeping from their myriad eyes. Their skeletal frames rise nearly to the top of the encroaching trees, their oval heads brushing up against the green leaves, bent over in worship, or perhaps just to get a closer look.

Inside, he stirs, swallows with some effort, a coil of madness unfurling in his gut, the time for his departure at hand. He has played host for so many years now, and a series of black and white photos unfurl in front of his watering eyes—cracking jokes in grade school, sent to the corner of the room, a dunce cap on top of his head; sitting at a bar sipping beer and telling stories, as the women eased in closer, the laughter slipping from their blushed lips, their eyes crinkling with happiness; the television cameras bearing down on his face, as he cavorted for their amusement, the children at his feet filled with wonder, the ache in his gut swirling around and around.

He knows they are here now, returned. But the price he had to pay, it seems exorbitant, out of balance with what he has reaped, what has been sowed. In the beginning there was no length he wouldn’t go to in order to get back what he loved. But over time the cost grew, and expanded, one more task, one more item, until there was no turning back.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

And that pound of flesh has been taken. Over and over again.

To what end?

Eventually, it was inverted. Not the death of one for the good of many, but the opposite—the death of many for the good of one. Or the few.

Or so he thought.

As the ripples of his actions scattered across the globe, and beyond, the man with the funny shoes and the sparkling eyes wept into his trembling hands. And the worm in his belly squirmed with a heady anticipation.

They were going home.

*****

Somewhere in the dark, millions of miles away, and yet, entirely on top of this event, so very distant, and yet, essentially, filling the same space, a massive pair of hands are busy creating. They are moving quickly, a blur, and yet, upon closer inspection, moving infinitely slow. There is a vast tableau in front of this being, spilling out in every direction, the great presence surrounded by satellites of life, motes of dark energy, electric fields riddled with animation—so many sights, sounds, and smells.

Taking a deep breath in, it exhales into its fists, a flurry of feathers circling like a fixed tornado in blue and white, spinning round and round, forming a murmuration of life and movement. Off to the left several hundred bluebirds scatter into the never-ending darkness.

The hands reach out into the ether and conjure up a handful of dirt, packing it in tightly, then reaching up as if to find a lost memory, pulling twigs, and berries out of nothingness, pushing the wood, and red juice together, tugging here and there, eventually opening its massive hands to spill out a herd of deer, some antlers budding, others fully formed, the creatures standing on tepid legs, then dashing off in excitement, and fear.

Holding one giant hand over the other, its fingertips sprinkle dust and droplets of water over the cupped hand below, and a squirming starts to spool and twist in the palm of the mighty being—dark green, the smell of algae and seaweed swimming up into the air, one tentacle after another pushing out of the mass, growing faster and faster until it overflows the hand that holds it. With a sigh and squinting eye, a handful of sharp teeth are shoved into the wriggling creature, an undulating mass of tiny bulbous eyes crammed into the middle of the rippling mass. When it surges again, it is released into the darkness, a singular monstrosity, destined for a distant planet, an ocean with unlimited depths.

This has been happening for a long time, it is happening now, it will happen for all of eternity.

It bends over and snaps its fingers, lighting a fire at its fingertips, the flames licking at what must be flesh, trying to cajole the flickering light, a difficult task, the smell of meat cooking, an earthy wood burning sweet and smoky, the sinuous form leaping out of the gesticulating hands before it is complete, before it becomes what was planned. But this is life, this is creation—intention, and then chaos.

With a long, steady blow a wind leaves its massive lips, a funnel of cool air whirling about in the space before it, swirling and taking on mass—long, leathery wings extending—the creator narrowing its gaze, shaking its head, trying to manipulate the shape, as a beak elongates and talons scratch at the air, first one winged beast, then two, doubling in number, released with frustration, scales and needles spilling behind them, this experiment another failure.

Only two, it thinks. It could have been worse.

And in its anger it makes a fist, pounding what would have been a table, a surface, if such things existed here, but it finds resistance nonetheless. And in that singular gesture, a spark of atoms spills out of the clenched fingers, a sickly yellow cancer spreading out and over the trembling knot of digits, the tiny flashes of light and oozing sickness taking on a microscopic form, expanding and then contracting, breeding in and of itself, and when its presence is noticed, fully formed, it disappears into the ether, death wandering out to claim its stake—seeking out weakness, and feeding on misery.

It pauses for a moment, this rippling form, taking in a deep breath, its many forms shifting as a wave of emotions washes over it. Calm, collected, legs folded, hand on knees. Then its head tilts back its eyes ablaze, as a deep laughter builds up from inside tinted flesh, feet to hooves, and then nubs bursting from a cracking skull. It inhales and its pale flesh expands, running a hand over its bald head, an expanding belly, a gleam in its eyes, a smile upon its fleshy face. And then its arms double, then triple, a third eye upon its forehead, a glitter of gold sprinkling down like rain from a cloud, a clash of symbols, and then silence.

It was all things, it is all things, it will be all things.

It goes back to work.

It focuses for a moment on mankind—and pulling a sack of what might be seen as marbles out of the darkness—it spills the assortment of spirits upon a false ground. In a flurry of activity, the shapes ping off of each other—a clacking sound, and then a great sigh, a moan of contentment, and then a cry of fear and loss—as it manipulates the dozens of entities with a deft touch and a sharp eye. They shiver into life. A push here, a pinch there, a whisper to this handful, cupped up close to its mouth, and then scattered back on the floor, a sparking of blue and green, and flash of red and orange, a singular white orb spinning and hovering all by itself, while a solitary black sphere sits in one place, vibrating with anger and vengeance.

It scatters the bulk of these new beings out into the universe, some seeking light, others wallowing in the endless darkness. It picks up the only one left, the obsidian globule, bringing it close to its trembling eyes, the hard shell cold in its grip, a shallow pulse of warm light buried within, that sparks white, sparks yellow, flashes a momentary glow that makes its creator smile.

It is given a name now, it is shown how to bring joy to the world, the children, it is told of how other life might exist far beyond its reach, and it warns of how such power and knowledge might corrupt, eventually.

And then it is set free.

It is born unto the Earth.

It will hear laughter in the form of innocent children.

And it will make decisions—both horrible, and inspired.

Such is life.

*****

At a very young age Edward Carnby had the first in a series of visions that would transform and define his life. And because he believed what he saw, these moments had great power—to alter his future, and those around him as well.

Some say that the tall shadows were nothing more than a fever, a flu when he was lost in the woods, a sickness that caused the boy to lie in bed for weeks on end, a cancer in his bones that would cause a slight limp in his gait.

Others can confirm what was there in the forest—too many concrete details kept in their fluttering minds, in metal tins at the back of closets, in safe deposit boxes, the keys rusty and lost long ago. There is no real way to explain away the tiny knobs, levers, and bits of heavy black rock that was melted into odd shapes. Found downstream, in the back of caves, and buried deep in an assortment of fields—the materials they were made of cannot be found anywhere on Earth.

But there may be a third explanation here as well.

Three moments, three wishes.

What happened?

At the age of 12 Eddie used to wander the woods in search of arrowheads, empty wasp nests, tree bark curled into sheets of paper, and bright blue robin’s eggs—some intact, others cracked open, and empty. He was fascinated by the offerings nature presented to him. He might find a field filled with budding flowers—in yellow and purple, with hints of red. He might see in the ponds, lakes, and creeks a variety of silver-backed fish swimming in schools, some with a wash of shimmer and a stipe of color—perch, trout, bass, and carp. And sometimes he found death—that egg cracked open with a bit of fluff and bone inside, a singular eye gazing up; a skeleton riddled with a sour stench inside a thorny bush, the red of its fur faded and damp; now and then just a splash of blood, and a bit of sinew, nothing left but a stain, with buzzing flies marking the expiration.

It all fascinated him—life, death, and everything in-between.

It was on one of these hikes that he found the shadow child, a thin trail of smoke leading up into the sky, a dent in the earth, and a smattering of flickering metal across a field of puffing dandelions. There was an echo in his head, his ears filled with the sound of cascading water, and at the same time, entirely quiet.

When a baby bird falls from a nest, the story is that it shouldn’t be touched, that any kind of interaction with human flesh will taint the creature, the mother bird pecking it to death, sensing only trouble, and danger. This is not true. But that doesn’t mean the action goes unnoticed, that the bird is not aware, that the gesture is not recorded—for future action, good or bad.

Of course Eddie bent over and touched the clear gel, the shadow pulsing within it, the strange form lying prostate in the dirt, a hum of some machine winding down, the smell of oil and plastic burning. It was unlike anything he had ever seen.

He thought that there were words slipping from the form, some sort of plea. As he knelt in the field, in the itching grass and moist soil next to the fading silhouette, it was in his nature to touch it, his hand slipping through the glistening form, a gasp from them both, a ringing of bells, a stinging across his flesh, a triggering of some alarm, his body suddenly covered in a sheen of sweat. It was electric, it was liquid, it was a marking in self-defense by the creature lying beneath him.

Pulling his hand back, the shadow dissipated, the remaining gelatinous shape seeping into the earth, Eddie’s hand held up high in front of his flickering gaze—glowing red, then absorbing into his flesh, around him the metal and plastic smoking, melting—reduced to ash, the wind scattering the detritus to the far corners of the field.

Standing up, it was all gone. No smoke, no fragments or evidence—just an empty field, the sound of wildlife slipping back into focus. They boy swallowed hard, and turned in a circle. He walked the field, pushing aside long grass, sending dandelion seeds flying, but nothing more. He was unable to see the remnants, his vision distorted forever, altered in some crucial ways. It would be much later when others would find the strange remains.

He looked to the sky, asking for an explanation, wishing for something more. He was eager to learn, to grow, to comprehend.

That would be a mistake.

Later that night he would take a very long time to fall asleep.

The next day the memory would fade, and he would forget it had every happened.

Mostly.

Almost.

But not quite.

It would be twelve years down the road at the ripe old age of twenty-four that he would revisit this moment, in an entirely different way.

Standing in an alleyway outside a local bar, smoking a cigarette, and thinking about a girl that was inside playing pool, Eddie noticed a gathering of shadows down by the trashcans and dumpsters. For a moment he thought it was some local boys he’d had trouble with in the past—simple folk that had no aspirations, often offended by his lengthy conversations, the attention of blonde and brunettes alike stirring up something close to a primal, territorial rage. But it wasn’t those kids.

In an instant, Eddie was on his knees, one hand help up, inspected by the shifting shadows, a glow spilling into the night. His mouth open as if to scream, but nothing came out. His vision was watery, shimmering, a darkness descending upon him like a ratty blanket, the smell of smoke and burning plastic filling the air, and before he passed out, a sharp pain in his gut. They would hardly leave a mark. The only evidence of this moment was a tiny red dot—something a mosquito, or spider, might make.

When he wakes, there is only one thought in his head.

Wait.

Don’t go.

Hold on.

It is fading fast, the memory, but he has glimpsed something extraordinary, and he wants to see more.

And he will. In time.

In the coming weeks he will get sick—a fever of 103; a horrible rash that creeps across his skin in mottled hues; nausea that causes him to vomit into the toilet with a violent upheaval, the blood and mucus dotted with tiny flecks of metal, all triggering some deeper knowledge that he is afraid to truly recognize.

And then it is gone.

The hosting is complete.

His work only beginning.

The third time will cement their relationship, ten years later, as he sits in front of a mirror, putting on his makeup, the lights on the dressing table bright yellow, a smile splitting his face, as he glues on the red nose, pulls the wig on tight, a wriggle of anxiety in his gut.

There is a woman, Gina.

She is everything he has ever wanted in a woman—long blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, curves hidden behind modest dresses, and an easy smile that fills his gut with mating butterflies.

For Edward, this is the love of his life, a relationship that has bloomed over the last couple of years, through cups of coffee, dancing at local watering holes, seeing her out in the audience at his shows, smiling with glee.

For Gina, these are merely coincidences, a Venti Mocha on the way to work with a nod to the strange pudgy man in the corner booth, a night out with the girls at the only place to dance for miles, a visit to the television station to laugh at the clown, a bit of a local celebrity, kept as a safe distance, after all.

In the shadows of his closet, there is a murmuring, a beckoning, and Edward, soon to be Krinkles (and only Krinkles) answers. He stands in the back of the tiny space and nods his head. He listens to what is offered. And it is set in motion.

It will spill out into the future.

Look close, and see what it becomes.

See what you want to see, as Krinkles does.

The truth is a slippery fish.

*****

When the tired old man leaves the hut once again, they are waiting. Patient for so long. With all of their technology, their abilities, and their desire, they cannot walk the earth in shadow, for the eyes of the planet are upon them. They have been seen, and they have been hurt.

But their work here is done now.

And in a blink, they vanish.

In a distant laboratory the worm is removed under bright lights and a sterile environment. It is placed into a container where later it will be downloaded, dissected, and documented for the benefit of them all.

In the living room of quaint little cottage, just on the edge of an entirely different set of woods—not far from a rippling stream filled with colorful fish, and a field overflowing with blooming flowers and dancing grass—Edward sits and smiles. He rocks in his chair, sipping a cup of chamomile tea, comfortable in his soft new flannel shirt, his faded jeans, the windows open, birdsong slipping in, the television quietly playing black and white shows from his childhood.

He laughs.

When the woman enters the room, he takes the plate with the ham and cheese sandwich on rye, a bit of Dijon mustard slathered on there, rippled potato chips, and a dill pickle on the side. She kisses his forehead, and he thanks her, saying her name. It’s a recognizable name. When she enters the kitchen her skin flickers, the tapestry that is tightly wrapped over her metal frame, plastic shell, and colored wiring dissipating for a moment.

On a wall to the left of Edward is a large mirror. There are days he stares at it, thinking he sees a shimmer. But most of the time he is content. He thinks of his childhood, his career, the woman he loves, and while parts of it feel thin at times, a headache forming if he looks at it too closely, he is grateful.

Behind that mirror there may only be a wall.

Behind that mirror there might be men watching Edward, taking notes, and nodding their heads, smiling in the darkness, their work a success.

Behind that mirror there could be elongated shadows, stretching to the ceiling, hunched over, chirping in the gloom, eyes glowing.

There may not be a mirror at all.

Edward may lay dying in that first forest, his dark deeds finally absorbing the last of his humanity, death a welcome respite.

The jars, the bowls, the DNA—perhaps they were stolen in secret, nobody harmed (especially not the children), saving an alien race from a plethora of sickness and disease.

Or maybe it’s something much worse.

In the expanding corners of a never-ending universe, the creator smiles. Its work here, is done.

50 Films to Know Me

I’m not saying these are the best movies ever (though many are favorites), and I have divided this up into ten different categories, but I thought it might be fun to share this with you all. These are movies that shocked and amazed me, films that horrified and inspired me, work that has influenced my writing. I hope to see your head nodding as you read down this list, but more importantly, I hope you find a few movies that you have NOT seen yet. Maybe those films will provide you with some entertainment, terror, wonder, and excitement. ENJOY!

ONE: A24 FILMS

  1. Hereditary: Scared me to death in theaters, and also later, at home. Wow.
  2. The Witch: Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? I would.
  3. Under the Skin: What a haunting arthouse flick. Scarlett at her best.
  4. Enemy: A paranoid thriller that will shock and surprise. That ending!
  5. Ex Machina: A great SF/AI film that asks what it means to be human.

TWO: NEO-NOIR

  1. Blade Runner: Quite possibly my favorite movie ever. Set the bar high, still holds up.
  2. Mulholland Drive: My favorite Lynch, the truth is shocking, the movie so stylish.
  3. Memento: Entirely backwards! And with short term memory loss, that’s trouble.
  4. Seven: What’s in the box! Such tension, great acting, tons of atmosphere.
  5. No Country for Old Men: Such a creepy bad guy, in Anton Chigurh. Lots of emotion.

THREE: STUDIO GHIBLI

  1. Howl’s Moving Castle: Has always been my favorite, my first. So weird and cool.
  2. Spirited Away: So strange, very original, definitely creeped me out at times.
  3. My Neighbor Totoro: Such a sweet film, but not without the oddities. Lots of heart.
  4. Princess Mononoke: An epic film, with so much to root for, great characters.
  5. Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind: War, environment, and lots of drama.

FOUR: COMEDIES

  1. Caddyshack: Classic, hilarious, great cast, lots of lines to quote.
  2. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure: I know you are but what am I. So funny, and weird!
  3. Rango: Totally cracks me up, not just for kids, adult references, surreal at times.
  4. Fast Times at Ridgemont High: No shoes, no shirt—no service.
  5. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Something about the dry humor just cracks me up.

FIVE: CULT CLASSICS

  1. Repo Man: Always the first thing I think of when I hear “cult film.” Plate of shrimp.
  2. Donnie Darko: Such a dark, strange film, but a compelling one, for sure.
  3. Ghost World: A great graphic novel, and film. Excellent cast.
  4. Clerks: Starting to show its age, but so many great lines. Early Kevin Smith.
  5. Rocky Horror Picture Show: Hopefully you first saw it in theaters with all the props.

SIX: THRILLERS

  1. Silence of the Lambs: A classic, with an excellent cast.
  2. Leon, the Professional: Definitely not formulaic. Lots of heart. Breaks the mold.
  3. The Game: It’s an older flick (1997) but the head games—wow. So good.
  4. Cape Fear: I like De Niro’s version, he’s so damn creepy.
  5. The Prestige: What a game of cat and mouse, has us guessing to the end.

SEVEN: TRANSGRESSIVE FILMS

  1. Fight Club: The first rule about fight club…had to list this one. Great book, too.
  2. Requiem for a Dream: What a dark, bleak, insane film, the ending unbearable.
  3. Trainspotting: Likewise, what a downward spiral this one is. Trippy.
  4. Oldboy: A wild ride, and then the ending is just so…shocking, in so many ways.
  5. Kids: So screwed up, but it still sticks with me. Unsettling. Dark stuff.

EIGHT: EDGY DRAMA

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Just breaks my heart every time.
  2. American Beauty: A haunting film about so much—love, intolerance, lust, loss.
  3. The Machinist: Christian Bale at his best, so surreal, and the ending!
  4. Shutter Island: Love Lehane’s books, this story really takes us for a ride.
  5. The Usual Suspects: Love the way this story is told, another intense ending.

NINE: SCIENCE FICTION

  1. Alien: Set the bar very high, inspired so many other films. Great franchise.
  2. Arrival: When you understand what’s going on, it breaks your heart. I always cry.
  3. Interstellar: Another one that crushes me at the end, such a great ride.
  4. Inception: The layers and layers and layers—goes so deep. That ending!
  5. The Matrix: I mean, another trendsetter, still holds up, great effects.

TEN: CONTEMPORARY HORROR

  1. Black Swan: I like the mix of lust and danger, good casting, too.
  2. The Ring: Still freaks me out, and it was kind of ahead of its time.
  3. Get Out: Another film that breaks the mold, so much paranoia, and tension.
  4. A Dark Song: Love the rituals and authority, and then that ending! Whoa.
  5. Spring: A romance! And so much more. Very original. Touching ending.

“Ring of Fire” Makes Preliminary Bram Stoker Award Ballot!

 

I’m thrilled to announce my novelette, “Ring of Fire,” has made the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award in the Long Fiction category.

This was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever written. I knew going in that pairing horror and lust was going to be difficult—not echoing Hellraiser, avoiding anything that came across as misogynistic, as I didn’t want to alienate the reader. I was inspired by Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, as well as The Warren, by Brian Evenson, and a few movies at A24 I don’t want to mention, to avoid spoiling it. I also knew that I wanted the ending to be optimistic, but the entire epilogue was a surprise.

Here are a few kind words that reviewers had to say about the work:

“’Ring of Fire’ by Richard Thomas—which tackles ‘lust’—is by far my favorite story in this collection and, in my opinion, the most skillfully rendered. First of all, like all the other stories, Thomas doesn’t give us a clichéd horror story about someone’s sexual urges leading them to a grisly death. However, this is Richard Thomas we’re talking about. I knew he wouldn’t lean on cliches going in. Instead, he tackles the intersection of loneliness, guilt, shame, grief, the desire for companionship, and, yes—sexuality. But sexuality through the lens of longing for companionship, for physical comfort and belonging, for intimate connection. I’m not going to say anything else about this story, except that lots of folks claim to write “science fiction/horror” blends, but few get it right. Thomas gets it extremely right in this.”
Cemetery Dance

“‘Ring of Fire’ is undoubtedly the most ‘horror’ of all the stories in this anthology, an unsettling pot-boiler that seethes with atmosphere and dread. Following a lone researcher at a facility in some unknown snowy location, Richard Thomas is the master of withholding information and creating mystery. It is always as much about what we do not know than what we know; what he refuses to say, as what he says. Our narrator for this story is straight-up unreliable, and the world around them is unreliable too. As we progress, however, and notice these disturbing deja vu moments, these chimes of coincidence, we begin to piece together the deeper narrative of what is happening…Richard Thomas plays with us, and our expectations, capturing the kind of paranoia of Blade Runner and mixing it with the existential dread of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are sci-fi elements here, but they are subtle; our narrator seems to barely grasp them, describing his processes and encounters with unease and uncertainty, the vocabulary of a man at his wit’s end. This story is about lust, yet Richard makes sex conspicuous by absence, all the while amping up the pressure-cooker of sexual tension until we are, like our protagonist isolated in a lone facility, about to implode.
STORGY

Wish me luck! Fingers crossed!

Award Eligible Work

I have a few stories that are eligible for various award nominations—Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, etc.

“Ring of Fire” is a sf/fantasy/horror hybrid, set in an isolated arctic location. It’s novelette length, inspired by Annihilation, The Warren, and various A24 films. This was a real challenge to write, but I think it’s some of my best work to date. There are a number of threads that run through this story, and an ending that genuinely surprised me. It’s dark, but not without optimism.

PRAISE:

“’Ring of Fire’ by Richard Thomas—which tackles ‘lust’—is by far my favorite story in this collection and, in my opinion, the most skillfully rendered. First of all, like all the other stories, Thomas doesn’t give us a clichéd horror story about someone’s sexual urges leading them to a grisly death. However, this is Richard Thomas we’re talking about. I knew he wouldn’t lean on cliches going in. Instead, he tackles the intersection of loneliness, guilt, shame, grief, the desire for companionship, and, yes—sexuality. But sexuality through the lens of longing for companionship, for physical comfort and belonging, for intimate connection. I’m not going to say anything else about this story, except that lots of folks claim to write “science fiction/horror” blends, but few get it right. Thomas gets it extremely right in this.”
Cemetery Dance

“‘Ring of Fire’ is undoubtedly the most ‘horror’ of all the stories in this anthology, an unsettling pot-boiler that seethes with atmosphere and dread. Following a lone researcher at a facility in some unknown snowy location, Richard Thomas is the master of withholding information and creating mystery. It is always as much about what we do not know than what we know; what he refuses to say, as what he says. Our narrator for this story is straight-up unreliable, and the world around them is unreliable too. As we progress, however, and notice these disturbing deja vu moments, these chimes of coincidence, we begin to piece together the deeper narrative of what is happening…Richard Thomas plays with us, and our expectations, capturing the kind of paranoia of Blade Runner and mixing it with the existential dread of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are sci-fi elements here, but they are subtle; our narrator seems to barely grasp them, describing his processes and encounters with unease and uncertainty, the vocabulary of a man at his wit’s end. This story is about lust, yet Richard makes sex conspicuous by absence, all the while amping up the pressure-cooker of sexual tension until we are, like our protagonist isolated in a lone facility, about to implode.
STORGY

“The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation” is a clown story, in four acts, and is a similar blend of sf/fantasy/horror, but much shorter, with an open-ended finish, influenced by Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. I experimented with some POV shifts and timeline leaps (backwards and forwards) as well as an ending that is up to interpretation.

PRAISE:

“The final story, The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation, by Richard Thomas, feels like the culmination of the entire collection. I am biased as a huge fan of Richard’s work, but he genuinely pulls out all the stops in this Lovecraftian tale. It is a dark creation story, delving into the origin of all myths. Richard peels back the layers, gives us an almost glacial sequence of images that lead to revelation, like the atom-bomb episode of the third season of Twin Peaks, yet he condenses that extended form into something comparatively microscopic—the prose is so controlledAt the end, we are left with a sense of the entirety of what has happened, something bargained, something lost, something dark and terrible learned. Richard may not be as prolific as Stephen King, but his work is just as memorable.

The Mindflayer

If you would like a PDF of either story, please PM me, or drop me a note to richardgthomasiii@gmail.com. Thanks!

How The Witch and Get Out Helped Usher in the New Wave of Elevated Horror

Did I ever tell you about this article I wrote for Nightmare? “The H Word: How The Witch and Get Out Helped Usher in the New Wave of Elevated Horror“. ENJOY!

“If you haven’t seen The Witch (2015) and Get Out (2017), you must have been living under a rock. The former was a breakout title for A24 Films, becoming the fifth highest grossing movie they’ve put out to date (with over $25 million dollars in earnings). And the latter was nominated for several Golden Globe and Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Two very different films, they both took chances at the box office—with their stories, images, themes, settings, and overall experiences. By garnering financial and critical success, they opened the door for a slew of experimental, edgy, divisive horror films.”

Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eleven. I’m IN IT!

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eleven, edited by Ellen Datlow, is out today. LOVE that cover art. It includes work by Laird Barron, Joe Hill, John Langan, and Gemma Files, among others, as well as “Golden Sun,” a novelette I co-wrote with Kristi DeMeester, Michael Wehunt, and Damien Angelica Walters. Pick up your copy today!

Burnt Tongues Out of Print, Copies for Sale

As you may or may not know, Medallion Press went bankrupt. I bought the last 15 cases of Burnt Tongues, the anthology I edited with Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke, Survivor) and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes, Pet Sematary). So it’s now out of print. I’m going to be selling signed copies for $10 + $3 shipping. USA only. Outside the USA shipping will be more. Sometimes MUCH more. But do inquire. It’s an edgy, dark, weird anthology. Transgressive fiction. If you have a book club and want to order multiple copies I can give you a greatly reduced cost (say 50% off). Email me at richardgthomasiii@gmail.com if you have any interest.

FULL TOC:

Live This Down Neil Krolicki 11
Charlie Chris Lewis Carter 29
Paper Gayle Towell 41
Mating Calls Tony Liebhard 55
Melody Michael De Vito, Jr. 77
F for Fake Tyler Jones 89
Mind and Soldier Phil Jourdan 109
Ingredients Richard Lemmer 123
The Line Forms on the Right Amanda Gowin 141
A Vodka Kind of Girl Matt Egan 155
Gasoline Fred Venturini 163
Dietary Brandon Tietz 187
Invisible Graffiti Adam Skorupskas 207
Bike Bryan Howie 217
Heavier Petting Brien Piechos 225
Engines, O-rings, and Astronauts Jason M. Fylan 247
Lemming Terence James Eeles 255
The Routine Keith Buie 281
Survived Gus Moreno 293
Zombie Whorehouse Daniel W. Broallt 305

The Seven Deadliest RELEASES TODAY!

Out today! Pick up your copy now. Reviews have been great. And I think my novelette, “Ring of Fire” is one of the best stories I’ve ever written. Edited by Patrick Beltran and D. Alexander Ward, with an introduction by Mercedes M. Yardley.

Throughout history, there have been certain moral evils so entangling, so alluring, that they routinely give birth to countless other evils in the hearts of human beings. From antiquity, these “capital vices” have been known as the seven deadly sins.

Now, from the editors who brought you Cutting Block Single Slices and Shadows Over Main Street, comes an all-new novella anthology featuring seven dark fiction authors at the top of their games, each writing passionately about one of The Seven Deadliest sins. Inside these pages:

  • John C. Foster spins “Gilda,” a yarn about Avarice;
  • Bracken MacLeod takes us on the road to Wrath with “A Short Madness”;
  • Kasey Lansdale’s “Cap Diamant” teaches us the steep cost of Pride;
  • Brian Kirk lays bare the Jealousy hidden beneath affluence in “Chisel and Stone”;
  • Rena Mason reveals a new and terrifying guise of Sloth in “Clevengers of the Carrion Sea”;
  • Richard Thomas examines Lust in his dystopian “Ring of Fire”; and
  • John F.D. Taff feeds us the darker aspects of Gluttony in “All You Care to Eat.”

These dark tales from a cabal of highly regarded and award-winning authors hold nothing back, so turn the pages and feast your eyes. The Seven Deadliest sins await you.

REVIEWS FOR RING OF FIRE

Ink Heist: “There are two things in this overview of his story “Ring of Fire” that should make you sit up and take notice. One of them is making a reader like a bad person, and the other is magical realism. As to the first, he’s a fucking master of it. His protagonist in Disintegration was a very bad man who commits some heinous and horrific acts throughout the book, yet all the same, I loved the hell out of him. I think that was because of Richard’s authorial voice and his alacrity with backstory, but I don’t know. Read it and see for yourself. And when I think of magical realism and the movement we call neo-noir, his is a name that pops instantly, unbidden, into my mind. The man has a marvelous eye for curating such material and a fucking exemplary ability to write it. So yes. If you aren’t yet excited about Richard’s inclusion in a book about the Seven Deadly Sins, get that way. When Mr. Thomas is in the mix, it’s always a good indicator that you’re in for one hell of an unexpected venture of discovery.”

Mother of Horror, Sadie Hartmann: “Lust was the next sin represented in the story, RING OF FIRE by Richard Thomas. I very much enjoyed how the author chose to unpack this story’s secrets slowly and methodically. It was fun for the reader to guess at what was going on and to have some theories as to who the protagonist was in the context of the world at large as well as his object of lust, Rebecca. I admit, my theory was correct. I loved the ending/epilogue of this one—great dystopian/sci-fi story that reminded me of a Black Mirror episode.”

AE Siraki: “Richard Thomas deals with Lust in “Ring of Fire,” in which the protagonist is obsessed with a woman, Rebecca. It’s a very trippy story and at first I thought that one or both of the characters were [redacted] meant to look like [redacted], but let’s just say things took a turn in a much more Alien-like direction and that fans of sci-fi horror will really get a kick out of this one. Thomas explains in his afterword that he wanted to do something different with his pairing of lust and horror, and rest assured, he has pulled that off.”

MORE TO COME.

Cover Reveal for The Seven Deadliest Anthology

Here is the cover reveal for The Seven Deadliest, edited by Patrick Beltran and D. Alexander Ward, for Cutting Block Books. It features seven novelettes from an amazing group of authors—John F.D. Taff, Bracken MacLeod, Rena Mason, Brian Kirk, Kasey Lansdale, John Foster, and myself.

Yes, of course I GOT LUST! It’s titled “Ring of Fire” and was inspired by projects like Moon, Brian Evenson’s The Warren, Annihilation, and others.

It also has an amazing introduction by Mercedes Yardley, who said it is, “The most compelling exploration of [the seven deadly sins] that I’ve ever read.” And cover art by Francois Vaillancourt.

It’s out May 7th and I think this is some of my best work to date. You’re going to want to pick this up for sure.

Interview with Brian Hodge (Part Two): It’s All the Same Road in the End

Part Two of my group interview with Brian Hodge continues, with his second story in The Best Horror of the Year—quite the accomplishment. Read on!

“It’s All the Same Road in the End”

(Originally in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow.)

QUESTION ONE: You begin with a cool, mysterious opening, then you proceed with a lot of backstory about the grandfather. Often, we are advised to not go too far into backstory, but in this case it really worked. Why did you decide to include so much, in a sense risking taking us out of the story? (And presume an editor/teacher would urge us to cut. So feel free to include any decisions you thought might be “breaking the rules.”) I’m wondering how you felt confident that it worked, and why you thought that as well.

ANSWER ONE: I don’t think you risk taking the reader out of the story when the past is so vital to the present that, without it, there wouldn’t be a present at all. It’s all the same story in the end, too. With this one, everything hinges on the events of fifty-odd years ago, so it’s imperative to understand what happened, or as much as the modern characters know of it. The reader has to know what drives them, what haunts them, what pulls at them and repels them. Without that, they’re just going through a set of prescribed motions that aren’t fully motivated. And even though Old Will, the grandfather, isn’t an active character, it felt important that he still be a presence and, ultimately, his voice be heard. History is repeating itself, generationally speaking … it’s just that nobody realizes that until it happens.

So the key is marbling the past throughout the active present, and optimally at the point at which its influence becomes most relevant, rather than front-loading things too heavily. Or trying to show things strictly chronologically. The onion metaphor is good here. You keep peeling those layers back. The past and the present continue to unfold together, and you see the membranes of connective tissue.

QUESTION TWO: How do you manage to make all that backstory interesting and “in the moment” even though it’s all memory? Are there techniques you suggest we try to avoid info-dumps but still feel vital to the story?

ANSWER TWO: I’ve addressed some ways of handling backstory in earlier questions, but another thing that occurs to me is that I try to render it in such a way that, instead of being dry, inert data, it’s more interactive for the characters. Like, it’s provoking some sort of emotional reaction or an intellectual conundrum, or it sets up a conflict in values. Anything like that. Ideally, you make it clear that this past stuff is something that strongly impacts the characters’ lives here and now. When it’s clear that what happened then matters to what happens now, or what happens next, it’s going to be more compelling.

QUESTION THREE: If you don’t mind, how long did this take you to write and edit? Do you plan it all out ahead of time, or pants through? Some writers might dance with a short story for months or more, how did this one unfold for you?

ANSWER THREE: I don’t remember how long it took, exactly. Somewhere between two and three weeks sounds about right. I didn’t plan everything out in advance, but I did have a decent idea of the general arc. With just about everything I tend to fall somewhere between plotting and pantsing. Like, I’ll have a sense of story or character arcs, and have in mind certain milestones, but there’s still room to figure other stuff out and surprise myself along the way, as most everything else develops more organically.

QUESTION FOUR: How much pre-planning and sketching do you do for characters in short stories? Do you give them more, or less, or different treatments than in a novel? For example, one brother starts out kind of a mama’s boy talking to her all the time, and the other seems more independent, yet their roles seem to invert at the end. Did you fully “know” these brothers, or did they evolve as you wrote?

ANSWER FOUR: It varies, but I give them a few paragraphs in my notes, at least, and more for characters in novels than in shorter works. I like to feel I know them well enough to get rolling, and then, as with any relationship, get to know them better as we spend more time together. That way, they have their own autonomy. They’re open to surprising me instead of being puppets that always have to do what I say. Like, with Young Will, the younger brother, I had no idea he was going to stay behind until right before he did.

The ideal place to reach—and it happens more with novels than with shorter stuff, because of the duration and investment of time—is where the characters start meeting you halfway and doing some of the work. I can usually count on it happening around 60 or 80 or 100 pages in. Sit down at the desk in the morning and it’s like calling a team meeting: “What’s everybody up to today? Really, you’re sure? Okay, I can get on board with that.” And off we go. That’s a great place to get to. Everything feels so warm and alive then.

QUESTION FIVE: Regarding planning out a story…do you know you want to leave clues like the photo of the woman, the cattle call of the song as you wrote this, or did you pepper those in later, after a draft or two? We thought those types of clues were the primary reason we found the backstory interesting, little compelling bursts of weird and unsettling clues. Really, really well done.

ANSWER FIVE: None of those were later drop-ins. All of that I knew about before I ever started writing anything. That’s not to say I never go back and weave elements in later. But in general, I like to do as much of the heavy lifting upfront as possible, so that the revision process is more about refinement and pruning and fine-tuning things to as high a degree as I can manage. That’s just the way I work, what works best for me.

QUESTION SIX: Where did the idea of this story come from? And the woman, the hag, or alien, or Baba Yaga, or whatever she was—is that based on a story you heard, legend, myth? Ditto for the calling/culling song.

ANSWER SIX: It came from what turned out to be a Photoshop manipulation of an old picture I found online, tarted up with a caption that it was the last photo taken by some folklorist who went missing. But it was really evocative, and totally sparked my imagination, so I kept it around on my hard drive for a few years until I felt ready to use it as the springboard for something that could go way beyond what the caption suggested.

The cattle call? That’s a real thing…an ancient thing, actually. The Swedish word is kulning. You can find examples of it on YouTube. I first encountered it at the beginning of a compilation CD of Nordic folk music called Wizard Women of the North. And other places since then…like black metal artist Amalie Bruun, who records as Myrkur, did it at the beginning of her 2017 album, Mareridt. It’s a lovely sound, and I would imagine it’s quite haunting at a distance, lilting over the fields and through the trees. I thought it would be an obvious reference point for the descendants of Swedish settlers in the area—they’re hearing something that’s sort of like it, but not really, and they can tell something’s wrong with the woman doing it, because the intensity of it is absolutely terrifying.

QUESTION SEVEN: There were some haunting moments in here that really were dependent on setting and sensory details. This is always important in my work. I’m thinking of how you show Daisy, the meteorite, and how they change after touching it. Is this a conscious choice, and do you consider yourself a maximalist? A choice of genre? Just your style? Or do you pick the moments to unpack and slow down, to immerse your readers? (Or all of the above! LOL). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of setting and sensory detail, especially in horror.

ANSWER SEVEN: A few years ago I began regarding the dichotomy of minimalist and maximalist as personally irrelevant, and started thinking of myself as a muscularist. Yeah, it’s a made-up word. I guess it was in a review, although I don’t remember of what, or where I saw it, and someone used the phrase “tight, muscular prose” to describe whichever work of mine they were covering. And I really liked that. I liked the metaphor of words as muscle tissue. It was also appealing because I’m avid about working out, with an emphasis on things like functional fitness and strength and movement.

If you think about a well-toned body, you recognize that muscle density isn’t the same everywhere. In some places it may be very lean; in other places it may be bigger and bulkier. It’s what it needs to be according to its function within the whole system, and ideally, going from one area to another, it’s all nicely contoured. There’s a visual flow.

So if you apply that metaphor to prose, then you start thinking about the functional fitness of lines and paragraphs. If you have something that’s necessary but easily conveyed, or transitional, you keep it streamlined. But if you need to, say, take the reader inside an intense emotional state, or weave various setting and sensory details that work together to create a mood or atmosphere, which in turn affects the psychological state of the reader, you go heavier, and build up a passage that flexes harder, so it can hit harder.

Ideally, too, whatever the word volume is, it’s tight and compact, not flabby. Even before the muscularist term occurred to me, I was already thinking of the later revision process, looking for more words to cut, as sweating off ounces. My ultimate goal is that, however many words there are, they all survived, and are there, for a reason.


Visit Brian at his WEBSITE or TWITTER or AMAZON.