Debut Novel Review: Witchbane by Morgan Brice

The cover art for Witchbane at left, with "Morgan Brice" in the upper middle, and the title for "Witchbane" in the center. The blog tour dates are April 23rd through May 4th.
Welcome to the Witchbane Book Tour!

Want your shot at a $25 Gift Card?

Enter the Witchbane Giveaway!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Or you can enter the contest here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Seth Tanner and his brother Jesse’s fun evening debunking local urban legends ends with Jesse’s gruesome murder. Seth vows revenge on Jesse’s killer–too bad the murderer has been dead for a hundred years. Seth uncovers a cycle of ritual killings that feed the power of a dark warlock’s immortal witch-disciples, and he’s hell bent on stopping Jackson Malone from becoming the next victim. He’s used to risking his neck. He never intended to risk his heart.

Paranormal Romance’s New Name is Morgan Brice

Urban Fantasy isn’t my usual genre of choice when it comes to consumer media. I walk in the shadows of the fabled heroes of the Time of Legends. I tread the same paths through the stars as the dark, malignant cosmic terrors who stalk lurid and unnameable through the sleeper’s dreaming mind. However, if a certain author pens a certain type of Urban Fantasy under certain auspicious conditions, I won’t be far behind. That is why I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of Morgan Brice’s debut novel, Witchbane.

The unquiet voices of a section of Sci-Fi/Fantasy clamoring for a more inclusiveness. It is not an illusion, nor is it merely a figment of the populist imagination, that Sci-Fi and Fantasy are evolving genres. Readers are now active participants and allies of the LGBTQ community. That community is finding a voice of its own as more and more genre writers embrace inclusiveness and make attempts at writing for an audience of non-white, non-CIS-gendered readers. Though it is difficult for outsiders, it is possible to write sensitively to that audience in a genuine way that is also an engaging read to anyone interested in picking up the piece.

Disclaimer: if you do not favor novels that include a very nontraditional relationship, I suggest finding something else to drink your coffee with. Witchbane is not traditional Urban Fantasy. I think it only fair to warn you that if you give Morgan Brice’s novel a miss because you don’t like the idea of two guys madly in love with each other, you are missing out.

The cover art for Witchbane features two rugged looking men on a glowing blue effervescent background with "Witchbane" at the bottom.
Men in shirts is the new sexy. Say “Hello” to Seth and Evan!

The Review: Witchbane

Technology and Magic

Witchbane is not just an Urban Fantasy. Brice explores the depths of fear and paranoia faced every day by victims of domestic abuse. We live in a world where anyone can be exploited, and anything can be found online. Everyone could be a predator hiding in plain sight. Current technology and the ease with which we trust our information to the “ether” to is used to ratchet up the characters’ anxiety. Brice is careful not to bog her novel down in pseudo-scientific jargon. There is just enough commonplace technology necessary to keep the story moving and keep the anxiety at maximum overdrive.

And of course, don’t forget the magic. When it comes to magic in urban fantasy, we readers want to see magic users dealing with the constraints of their art and talent in a mundane world. Brice delivers. Her depiction of magic verges on the GrimDark. There’s enough blood to hold your attention for sure. Witchbane is certainly not a Horror novel. Brice does not force magic on the reader either. Magic, like technology, is a tool in Brice’s novel. Magic is great for performing small tasks, or riding into combat hell bent for leather. When it comes to Brice’s villains, blood magic is used to court dark forces. Hopefully we’ll get to see more glimpses of that heinous warlock in forthcoming material.

A Spark of Truth In Fiction

Brice has a knack for creating relatable characters, even to those who have no experience in a homosexual relationship. People of any gender identification could fall prey to an abusive partner. Many people will be able to relate to a veteran coping with civilian life.

In addition to Brice’s characterization, the novel is grounded in the reality that life is hard for homosexuals, even in a progressive Western society. Brice reminds her readers that finding meaningful connections is even harder for members of nontraditional sexuality. This is especially true in a world where at best no one is interested and at worst those minorities are aggressively disliked and marginalized.

Though heterosexual and married, Brice does not call attention to her outsider status. Brice’s language has a normalizing quality that does not break the fourth wall. She uses masculine words to describe body parts and sex organs, like “cock” and “asshole”, much the way any gay man may use them to describe a sex with a partner.

Brice’s novel clearly demarcates the relationship of her characters as that of two gay men. Brice carefully balances the work of crafting a good piece of fiction with maintaining authenticity and sensitivity. She is not simply a woman author writing about two men getting it on. Her characters are tender, endearing, and human. They are full of the same misgivings and disquiet that might be found in any new relationship that blossoms under untenable circumstances. Hopefully, Witchbane will find a place in the hearts of all lovers of paranormal romance regardless of gender identity.

A Hot Romance

In the midst of all these things is a steamy, adrenaline-fueled new love that any avid reader of hardcore romance will not want to miss. Brice literally takes both characters all the way. This was new territory for me in a lot of ways. I felt Brice handled the love scenes tastefully. I felt the language normalized the actions of the two characters. Brice shows attention to detail, and the scenes leave the reader as breathless as the characters themselves, swept away on rolling waves of passion and compassion. Masculinity is an equal part of both characters. Neither of them can be said to be wearing the pants of the relationship.

There is no shortage of meaningful plot either. A palpable sense of threat hangs over the pair as they make a mad dash to end a filthy evil. Spirits and ghosts, supernatural allies, and ritual sacrifice are part and parcel of Witchbane. Brice brings a love of ghost stories, supernatural encounters, urban legends, and folklore to Witchbane, filling out the novel’s pulse-racing story.

Conclusion

Those looking for a great romance that spares no hapless bystander will find lots to look forward to in Witchbane. There’s enough magic and mayhem that even the GrimDark readers will find it satisfying. Brice’s novel is a refreshing take on both the romance genre and the urban fantasy genre. Urban Fantasy and Roman are two genres in both large-scale and indie publishing that tend to be so traditional they might as well have a problem with the color of the Starbucks cups at Christmas. Brice introduces us to a world of new devilry to rival any good pop-corn-popping urban fantasy series. Witchbane is  a gorgeous love story. Her two beautiful characters that can best be described as so very real, so very human, and so very fun.

A new-found love will roar its way through scenic Richmond, Virginia. You can pick up Witchbane in the Muscular Shirtless Man section of any big-box bookstore! Don’t forget to get your Kindle edition here, or get your hands on a physical copy on Amazon.

About the Author: Morgan Brice

Morgan Brice is the romance pen name of bestselling author Gail Z. Martin. Morgan writes urban fantasy male/male paranormal romance, with plenty of action, adventure and supernatural thrills to go with the happily ever after. Gail writes epic fantasy and urban fantasy, and together with co-author hubby Larry N. Martin, steampunk and comedic horror, all of which have less romance, more explosions.

On the rare occasions Morgan isn’t writing, she’s either reading, cooking, or spoiling two very pampered dogs.

Watch for additional new series from Morgan Brice, and more books in the Witchbane universe coming soon!

You can find Morgan Brice on Facebook in The Worlds of Morgan Brice Facebook group. Her Twitter is @MorganBriceBook. You can see what’s new on Gail and Morgan’s Pinterest page.

Blog site: https://morganbrice.com

Print Length: 244 pages

Publisher: Darkwind Press (February 19, 2018)

Publication Date: February 19, 2018

ISBN-10: 1939704685

ISBN-13: 978-1939704689

From Ink to Page: The Horror of Dan Henk

A still of a close-up of a skull with Dan Henk's name in large letters.

There are those for whom the primal, base instincts of our nature is not hidden beneath a waxy façade of normality. For many of us in the culture, business, and obsession of tattoos, we wear our demons on the outside. There are few in the tattoo industry who have not been astounded by the unique compositions of Dan Henk, resident tattoo artist at Third Dimension Tattoo and now the proud owner of Abyss Art Studio.

From magazine art to comic art, Henk has made a name for himself in the tattoo industry, and has undoubtedly left his mark on the world of Horror. Known for his brushwork photo realism in black and gray and astounding illustrations, Henk is an artist of many faces.

Drawing on a lifetime of love for horror and science fiction, Henk tried his hand at a different vision. In 2015, Henk published his first novel, The Black Seas of Infinity with Permuted Press, adding the written word to his already stunning repertoire of macabre artwork.

Henk truly lives in the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in his collection of short stories, Down Highways in the Dark…By Demons Driven. Down Highways cements Henk’s name among the cannon psychological and gruesome horror masters.

Cover art for Dan Henk's short story collection. The cover features an almost nake woman laying on her chest an stomach on a highly textured background. Dan's name is large at the top, with the title embossed in red.
Cover art for Dan Henk’s collection of short stories, Down Highways in the Dark…By Demons Driven

Take a Trip Down the Road With Dan Henk

Down Highways In the Dark…By Demons Driven

The Horror genre has been preoccupied with exploring the depths of depravity that exist within every human being. Those who write and revel in the cathartic practice of fictional horror are neither the most frightening nor the most threatening among us. Men and women of keen awareness and heightened senses tend to be the most adept at accessing the most base and primal aspects of the human soul.

Time to take a ride with one of them…

Slasher Mayhem

I would normally say, “Where to begin? It was all so good!” and that is still entirely true. But in this instance, I actually do know where to begin. I read “Christmas is Cancelled” first. In fact, I read it before I even got my hands on the collection itself. I met Dan at the Star of Texas Tattoo Expo in January of 2018. With Christmas still fresh in everyone’s mind, it practically called out to me. Dan kindly handed it to me.

Daily I am reminded that the nicest people I have ever met are usually head-to-toe tattoos.

“Christmas Is Cancelled” is like nothing you’ve ever read before. A timeless legend will meet a fate of endless horror that nothing can stop. It was the first time I’d read an indie author who could raise the hackles within just a few pages. The punk rock side of my brain delighted in the violation of a subject that’s usually off limits. It was a delightful display of abject decrepitude. However, Henk’s work is darker than that. Beneath the fun veneer of gruesome slasher horror lays primal disgust.

Henk does not limit his environs. Nowhere is safe. Just try to stand downwind of Henk’s characters/victims. You don’t want to get hit with the perpetual pink spray. Henk handles gore in this collection the way an artist might splash paint across a blank canvas. Blood splatter is merely part of the whole package.  Anyone can kill a character, slowly, violently. Henk dispenses with gory pleasantries. He vastly prefers dismantling characters bit by bit, not with a knife or axe, but with the slow unraveling of the mind.

Psychological Horror

Throughout Down Highways, Henk explores the depraved depths of the human mind. Henk reveals the demons that lay at the heart of even average-looking individuals. The humanity Henk describes spends their entire lives trying to hide the disgusting evil that lurks behind their masks. They roll lidless eyes and flick their lizard tongues while they drool honeyed words to distract and dissemble. Ultimately, the most evil among us hide in plain sight. Henk takes this theory to the next level in “The Small Spaces in Time”, which truly deserved a place in Dark Regions Press’ 2017 publication, Nightmare’s Realm.

The author also examines the impact of trauma on the young mind. Henk traverses the dangers of extreme conservatism that drives youth to rebellion simply to survive their hostile upbringing. Previously, Henk turned this introspective on governmental control in The Black Seas of Infinity. In Down Highways, he turns this examination toward the nuclear family. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in “Dr. Seuss is Dead”, “The Beauty of Ignorance”, and “Down Highways in the Dark”.

At the heart of each of these stories is a sense of whirling through time and space, as powerless to act upon the events around us as we would be drowning in an undertow. Henk’s characters find themselves lost in sweeping vistas of anarchy as they blunder their way through horrors of the soul.

In this respect, this author pays homage to the great master of psychological horror, H.P. Lovecraft.

Sweeping Vistas of Anarchy

Henk expounds on Lovecraft’s ability to build mind-bending expanses of supernatural horror. Lovecraft was only just beginning to find his own voice when he died. It is the welcome burden of authors who followed him to carry on that work. Henk details every single one of his stories with needle-point precision, the mark of a great author and a great tattoo artist. Exposition is balanced with dramatic, awe-inspiring landscapes for Henk’s characters/victims to plummet through. Everything is stunningly painted. Henk can blind his reader with inky blackness, or stop the heart with autumn light.

Setting is important in Henk’s work in the same way setting is important to Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers. Though many of Henk’s stories start out in Suburban America, they don’t stay that way. It is not long before the landscape turns vile and threatening, even if that landscape is a backwoods trailer house away from encroaching civilization, or a sprawling cityscape.

Even the most mundane settings do not feel safe and inviting. Each new scene holds a different sense of hostility and vague threat. Henk capitalizes on feelings of fear of the unknown. As his characters traverse the universe of the mundane or of the mind, Henk reminds us that traveling to new places holds a special kind of paranoia. Even if escaping the present setting is vital for survival, there is a sense of distrust. The previous place might be untenable, but it was a known evil. We see this in “Down Highways” especially, and also in “The Small Spaces In Time”.

All of these things are merely tools in Henk’s cabinet (right beside the Nitrile gloves Dermalize Pro). Our fear of the unknown is punctuated by the fear of what follows us back.

We Are Not Alone

Part and parcel of the Lovecraftian horror legacy is the soul-crushing knowledge that we are not alone, that we have never been alone in the universe, nor even on this planet. “The Beauty of Ignorance”, “Oh The Horror”, “Down Highways”, and “Eye Deep In Hell” explore the possibility that our planet harbors secrets that are better left undiscovered.

These stories do not fall into the mythos camp of those who fight back against the cosmic forces of evil. Henk’s characters are powerless to escape or change their fate. Doom is waiting around every corner. Henk and Lovecraft share an existentialism that scoffs at the idea of reclaiming meaning for the human soul in this collection.

“Oh The Horror”, “Eye Deep in Hell” and “The Beauty of Ignorance” explores the malignant presence of beings that we cannot–dare not–explain. Only once does Henk touch upon the possibility that these powers from outside might be useful. Ultimately, no matter how you toy with the powers from outside, no matter how hard you struggle, for Henk’s characters, there is usually no escape.

Conclusion

Dan Henk proves he is able to tap into that place in the heart of readers that even we would keep safe, and he plows through it. He drags it up and forces you to peer into it. He paints lavish landscapes of cosmic horror that Pickman himself would be proud of. If you value your reputation as a reader of the weird, do not miss Dan Henk and Down Highways in the Dark…By Demons Driven.

About the Author

Dan Henk throws horns from a darkened room full of items we'd all better just ignore. He is heavily tattooed.
Master tattoo artist at Third Dimension Studio and owner of Abyss Art Studio, Dan Henk.

Dan Henk splits his time between Third Dimension Tattoo in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania and his new studio Abyss Art Studio in Long Beach, New York. Having met the man and knowing a little bit of his own story, Third Dimension’s theory that he might be a cyborg is sounding pretty plausible at this point. He also teaches Muy Thai.

Dan is shopping around for literary agents for his current work, The End of the World. You can find Down Highways In the Dark…By Demons Driven from Permuted Press on Amazon. The long extension of Dan’s will exists online at his official website, on Twitter at @DanHenk, on Facebook, and on Instagram at @danhenk.

Dan Henk is a horror author and artist of the highest order, and we have not heard the last of him.

Photo Album: Sherwood Forest Renaissance Festival

Off To The Renaissance Festival

Texas has no shortage of excellent Renaissance and period festivals. There’s the Texas Renaissance Festival (TRF) in Plantersville in the fall, and in the spring there’s Scarborough Fair in Waxahachie (we have a town called Waxahachie–but you have to say Wax-ay-hae-tch-ee like a Texan or you might as well not say it). But if you’re in the Central, South, or West Texas, Sherwood Forest is a pleasant compromise.

Sherwood Forest Renaissance Festival

Sherwood Forest Renaissance Festival is nestled between Austin and Houston on scenic Highway 290. Year-round camp grounds for season-pass campers and small-scale campers make it convenient to stay for the weekend. In 2018, Sherwood started March 3 and continued through April 22.

Sherwood is no small affair. Though it has grown since it’s inception, Sherwood strikes a beautiful balance between casual weekend fun and the commercialism synonymous with TRF. Almost every attraction available at TRF will eventually make its rounds at Sherwood, attractions like Arsene the Magician, Rondini the Magnificent Escape Artist, Tartanic, Sound and Fury, and the fire dancers. Of course, there are some things you can only see at TRF. Cast in Bronze can only be seen at TRF, and I believe there is also a different group that does Birds of Prey. Adam Crack was also not billed this year when we attended, though he was present in 2017.

Sherwood Forest is one of the only Renaissance Festivals in Texas to feature an all-day theatrical event. Sherwood boasts a wonderful cast for a park-wide theatrical event that includes a court dance, plots between the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, a contact joust, and of course, the daring and dashing Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

Between the attractions and the theatrics, there truly is something for everyone at Sherwood. That’s why we chose Sherwood Forest for our annual Swordplay UTSA Alumni Retreat. We lovingly refer to ourselves as “the Fencers”.

The Fencers

We first started attending Texas Renaissance Festival back in 2008. Our group has changed a lot since then. Many of us have married and divorced. Despite the general upheaval, the core of our group that is still in Texas tries to get together once a year to carry on our Renaissance Festival tradition. We’ve been disdaining TRF. It’s far too big now, and too far away for day-trippers. Sherwood is practically next door, so off we went.

This year saw a good mix of campers and day travelers. The Austin-ites made our regular trek. One of our girls was able to come all the way from Denver. We even had a good smattering of little faces along for the ride.

In honor of our shared love of period clothing and fireside violin–I know, very specific–I put together a photography project of our time at Sherwood. Regretfully, I’m not in any of the pictures. Don’t worry. I had a great time behind the camera this year. Special thanks to Jeremy and Lidia for the use of their Canon Rebel T5i with EFS 55mm-250mm lens. Photos were edited in Adobe Photoshop CC 2017.

For the purposes of privacy, I have left out pictures of the kids.

Photo Album

A minstrel at Sherwood Forrest in a tunic bearing the French colors of blue and yellow plays a guitar in front of the jousting arena to the delight of onlookers before the French and the English square off in one of the first scuffles of the day.
A minstrel on guitar. He wears the livery of the French, whose king stood with us and gave us the scoop on the Great Rondini.

 

The Court Dance

The Princess of Sherwood takes the arm of one of her ladies in a contra dance with the rest of the court.
The Princess of Sherwood dancing a contra dance (that seemed mostly accurate) with her ladies and gentlemen of the court.

 

One of the crown princes of Sherwood Forrest dances with a lady of the court at Sherwood Castle.
One of the crown princes dances at court. I can’t remember which one he is.

 

The Princess of Sherwood Forrest Festival enjoying the dance, clapping, singing and laughing with her subject. The Queen Mother looks on behind her. The Princess wears mostly period-accurate gown, wimple, and headband.
The princess enjoying the dancing and merriment.

 

The Queen Mother of King Richard looks on expectantly in her traditional yellow and purple gown and wimple as the court dances at Sherwood castle.
The Queen Mother looks on as if expecting something.

 

A band of merry minstrels perform for the court at Sherwood Forest.
Merry Minstrels perform for the court. I chose this one out of the other pictures of the minstrels I got because this is the only one I had that didn’t also include the bathroom sign.

Around the Park

The daily parade through the main roads of Sherwood came through after the dance. A little fella in a short tunic and beret cap carried the sign for Dublin Harpers.
After the dance, the parade came through the main thoroughfare. This little guy carried the sign for the Dublin Harpers, one of the many live music attractions at Sherwood.

 

A costumed goblin in realistic goblin makeup is part of the parade. He throws the heavy metal horns for the camera.
One of the best things about Sherwood Forest is the wide array of costumed performers, not to be outdone by the costumed patrons of Sherwood.

 

A very convincing vampire costumed patron of Sherwood posed for us by the castle. His wings were controlled by his arm movements. He unfolded them for the picture. I tried to make this particular image look like a still from Nosferatu, or one of Francis Ford Coppola's stills from Dracula.
I took some creative liberties with this one. The gentleman unfolded his wings for us just outside Sherwood castle after the parade.

 

Under the pergola outside Sherwood Castle, the core of the Fencers pose for a picture in the King and Queen's thrones.
From left to right: Lidia Plaza, Zarissa Cline, Jeremy Shoemaker, Kelsey Moore, Alicia Wright. Sherwood Forest Friends for life!

 

At Sherwood, Heather Terpstra as Lady Loki stands with her entourage for a picture in front of one of the many vendor shops.
Heather Terpstra made an appearance at Sherwood the weekend we attended. Her entourage includes Joffrey Baratheon, Twig the Wood Elf, Medieval Lady Loki (Heather), Ste-ven the Executioner and William MacKenzie the Younger. It was so nice meeting you, Heather! Follow her on Instagram at @another_lady_loki  !
The Great Rondini escaping the chains and manacles draped across him by a group of volunteers from the crowd that her hand chosen to be the meat shields taking his barbed jokes.
The Great Escape artist, Rondini, only moonlights as a master magician. In reality (according to the King of France) he’s a sixty-year-old bounty hunter. Does the man get any cooler?!

 

The Joust

A competitor in the joust astride his horse at Sherwood.
One of the joust competitors, the rider for the English, fires ups the crowd.

 

The competitor for Saxony (I think) fires up our side of the crowd at the joust of Sherwood.
The second rider, the rider for Saxony (I think), fired up our side of the crowd, prompting the outburst of “Huzzah Y’all!” that now encapsulates this state’s love of Renaissance Fairs and our own colloquialisms.

 

Our Herald for the joust amuses the crowd with tricks on horseback. He managed to jump up into the saddle with both feet. This one's an action shot, taken right before he stood up.
Our Herald amuses the crowd with horseback antics. I called this image “Lost Cause” because I had so much trouble with it during edits. It was fully blown out and I could never angle the sun correctly. I settled on this one, I admit.

 

The rider for the English barrels down on his opponent during the Joust at Sherwood.
Next came the full-contact joust. Check out one of the comments below to learn a little more about the joust!

 

The hand-to-hand combat of the joust, with Saxoy (I think) beating England into the ground with a huge mallet.
After the mounted portion of the joust, the opponents squared off for hand-to-hand combat. The gladiators did a good job on this one. Also, you can see there are differences in this composite. I used a different canvas texture, hoping to achieve the appearance that the image was old and had been deteriorating. This is one of the first I worked on, before I established a workflow and theme. I kept it this way because I liked being able to see my progress as I improved my workflow and balance in my composites.

As We Wended our Merry Way

Kelsey sitting in an oversized red chair at Sherwood while Jeremy and Zarissa shopped.
Kelsey Moore sitting in the Big Red Chair. Because why not?

 

A living statue in gold paint gives Zarissa a gentlemanly dip for the camera at Sherwood Forest.
Zarissa gave a dollar to the living statue, who apparently also read Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, or at the very least saw her TED talk. You might say to yourself, “She did a good job on this one”, but I had to really rework the structure of this image because the camera’s ISO was not set for the distance I was shooting at, and quite a bit of extra stuff was going on behind them.

 

The Swordplay UTSA Alumni on a bridge at Sherwood Forest.
I went with a more earthy, foresty feel for this composite. You can see the veins of a leafy texture behind my friends. I reworked this image quite a bit, as it was one of my first. I went back to the image and added techniques I had used in later composites. From left to right: Zarissa Cline, Kelsey Moore, Lidia Plaza, Alicia Wright (behind Lidia) and Jeremy Shoemaker.
Tom the Blacksmith from Custom Iron Works heats up a piece of iron in his forge at Sherwood.
Tom at Custom Iron Works heats up a piece of iron that he is using. I suppose I should back up a bit. We searched that entire park for a corkscrew. There was a bottle of mead with our name on it back at camp that we couldn’t get into. Hence the corkscrew. Tom had never made a corkscrew before, so he decided to whip one up for us. According to Tom, he had never spiraled the metal before. This was all new for us. Blacksmithing iron has been a practice since the middle ages, and Tom uses those same practices to make everything from kitchen utensils to decorative hardware.

 

Jeremy holding his new corkscrew at Sherwood Forest. Thanks, Tom!
Here is the finished product. We were all proud of Tom for creating this piece. Just looking at it, you would never know he had never done that before. Jeremy took it back to camp to test, and we found it to not only be an excellent conversation piece, but fully functional. Jeremy went back the next day to thank Tom and buy some drawer handles to compensate Tom for the free corkscrew.

 

Undead faun at Sherwood Forest. The deer skull used for the mask is bleeding from the black eyesockets. The horns are tipped in blod. The photo is in black and white with spot colors of red for the blood and black and red fur. Amazing!
I like to leave my readers feeling comfortable, so here is an undead faun from Sherwood. I was incredibly adult as I stood there and shot this picture. I am actually really anxious around these kind of costumes. The mouth had been closed as he/she/it approached. As I took the picture, the maw slowly opened. A departure from the rest of the album, as this was shot on the second day with my iPhone 6s.

See You Next Year

I would like to thank the wonderful cast, crew, servers, costumed patrons, and performers of Sherwood Forest Renaissance Festival for an unforgettable weekend retreat and another great UTSA Swordplay Alumni reunion! See you all next year!

Them Rats! Oooh-Wa-Ah!!

Ghost’s New Front Man Makes His Debut

*If you want my opinion on Ghost as a band, I will state it in a different post.*

It is no surprise to myself and the screaming throng of Ghost fans that a music video emerges so soon after the announcement that Cardinal Copia inherited the mic from Papa Emeritus III.

“Rats” marks the first studio single to drop since “Square Hammer” in the spring of 2016. “Rats” debuts Cardinal Copia in the penultimate role as front-man extraordinaire.  In the opinion of this humble reviewer, “Rats” is everything we have come to expect from Ghost and so much more.

“Rats”

In addition to dropping the single on Sirius XM Octane last Thursday, Ghost released the official music video for “Rats”. “Rats” speaks to the higher production priority we saw with “He Is”. The video looks more like what you would expect from an actual music video. Where “He Is” tells the Jim Jones-esq story of Papa III leading a cult, “Rats” takes a look at the motion of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and spins the fabric of that video into something far more perverse than Jackson ever dared to approach. The combination of the 80s throwback and Ghost’s own flair for the dramatic will leave fans either loving it or hating it.

Ghost's new front-man, Cardinal Copia, points the tip of his cane at the viewer outside a diner amid corpses strewn in the streets and blood splashed everywhere. He's of middling height with black hair and a waxen face, a mask, like the Papas before him.
Cardinal Copia, welcome indeed! Do you know how hard it is not to write “Papa”?

Sprinkled throughout the video are finally shots of the band members that were lacking in “He Is”. The Cardinal dances an eerie, spastic, version of “Thriller” mixed with a bit of “Singing in the Rain” and “Coyote Ugly”. Veteran fans of the band will remember the  80s-style progressive and classic rock parodies that marked the band’s first EP, “If You Have Ghost”.  However, “Rats” transcends those parodies. Like “Square Hammer”, “Rats” is an arena opener (and if you all don’t like me saying it, then here it is from the mouth of Forge to Loudwire). It’s every 80s hair metal band music video you’ve ever seen on Metal Mania, only the breaks make more sense. Pinpricks of purple light recall the band’s promo for “Rats on the Road”, but is also distinctly pop.

Throwing the pop-ish aspects into sharp relief is the juxtaposition of the Cardinal’s dance and the corpses piled in the streets, with people in haz-mat suits removing bodies in bags. The music is also heavier, using a fraction of the synth used in Meliora. “Rats” favors the harder rock base, which is exactly what Forge was going for.

A Nameless Ghoul on guitar shreds his life away in a graveyard lit with purple and white light, like an old 80s video. Ghost band members wear masks to disguise their identities
A Nameless Ghoul shreds for us as in the days of old.

The overall video is a masterwork of pop parody, hair metal perfection, and the darkness promised to us when this album was only in the works. “Rats” is the evolution of Ghost, a natural evolution that speaks to the “New Blood” foretold by the Sister of Sin and Papa Nil. We were given the groundwork for this, and the expectations were set. This is Ghost! True fans will look at the band and realize that nothing has changed. Gatekeeper fans and purists are looking for a band narrative that doesn’t exist and never did. More on that in a different post.

Ghost and Lyrical Genius

Then there’s the lyrics to the song. “Rats” recalls the band’s latent talent for producing songs that are both strikingly familiar and strangely alien. Add this to Ghost’s knack for inventive lyrics. “Rats” is a huge detour from the band’s third original studio concept album, Meliora, designed to be performed and listened to from beginning to end as a full “church” service. Veterans who remember Ghost performing Opus Eponymous and Infestessumam will be pleased with the return to the bands roots–as it were. Songs like “Secular Haze”, “Ghouleh/Zombie Queen” and “Elizabeth” all reference progressive and surfer rock styles, yet are nothing anyone could say they have heard before. Ghost is every music genre, and yet they can be categorized into no specific genre of metal or rock at all. Lyrical content has a lot to do with it.

Poetically, “Rats” is something we’ve never seen from Ghost before. Even if you look at “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” as lacking some of the straight narrative style of Ghost’s songs, or “Spirit” and “Deus in Absentia” as “preaching” a particular message, the structure of the lyrics for “Rats” is entirely different. Each verse is only a few lines long, ended with a repeated two lines varying only in stressed syllables. Without the music, it reads like a poem by Poe:

(from Genius Lyrics)

[Verse 1: Cardinal Copia]
In times of turmoil
In times like these
Beliefs contagious
Spreading disease
This wretched mischief is now coursing through your souls
Never to let go
Never to let go

[Refrain: Cardinal Copia]
Them rats! (rats–rats–rats–)

[Verse 2: Cardinal Copia]
Into your sanctum
You let them in
Now all your loved ones
And all your kin
Will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God
Never to forgive
Never to forgive

[Refrain: Cardinal Copia]
Them rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)
Rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)
Rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)
Rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)

[Pre-Solo: Cardinal Copia]
This devastation left your cities to be burnt
Never to return
Never to return!

[Guitar Solo: Nameless Ghoul (Fire & Aether)]

[Post-Solo: Cardinal Copia]
Them filthy rodents are still coming for your souls
Never to let go
Never to let go!

[Refrain: Cardinal Copia]
Them rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)
Rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)
Rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)
Rats! (rats–rats–rats–)
(Aaah whoah)

[Outro: Cardinal Copia]
They’re still coming after you
(Aaah whoah)
And there’s nothing you can do
(Aaah whoah)
They’re still coming after you
(Aaah whoah)
And there’s nothing you can do
(Aaah whoah)
Rats!

In verses one and two, there is a longer fifth line before the repeated last two lines. In verses three and four, the longest line is the first line before the repeated last two lines. Each first line of the repeated line is in major, and the second line is in minor.

Cardinal Copia dances slowly and luridly in the front window of the destroyed diner, dancing amid corpses, rats, trash and blood.

A nameless Ghoul on piano with his arms outstretched. An interesting camera angle, as it is down and facing forward, projecting the line of sight down the same hallway Papa Nil inducted Cardinal Copia.
The mirror action of Cardinal Copia and the Nameless Ghoul on piano I found to be extremely striking. Of course, you’ll recognize the Ghoul performing in the same hall that Papa Nil inducted Cardinal Copia into his role.

Since I had to listen to the song about six times to get the lyrics and to get the images, I think I’ve made a little bit of a discovery.  “In times of turmoil, in times like these, belief’s contagious, spreading disease,” reminds me of the ease with which a few demagogues can disseminate ideas–be they true or false–over the internet, and how all of us have become carriers of these digital pathogens, playing into the hands of influencers. The lyrics also speak to how difficult it would be for us to stop–or how difficult it would be for someone to stop us.

“Rats” and Ghost Ideology

Of course, the idea that the human race at large behaves like rats or carriers of disease is not new to Ghost. The lyrics of “Year Zero” asserts,

“Since dawn of time the fate of men is that of lice/Equal as parasites and moving without eyes.”

Like rats, we continue our behavior because its what we’ve been programmed to do. Where “Year Zero” spoke of the coming of the Dark One hiding among us, waiting to emerge, “Rats” declares that the damage has already arrived. Cardinal Copia seems to be celebrating this devastation, leading a group of zombie back-up dancers that follow him as if he were the Pied Piper. The dancers, like the congregation in “He Is” are willing subjects, followers of the Plague Bearer who, like any audience at a metal show, are prepared to go forward blindly to do his bidding. Like the deranged pastor in “He Is”, Cardinal Copia revels in being our glorious leader. In the video, he even dances with an umbrella like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds from Singin’ In the Rain.

Cardinal Copia stands under a black umbrella that he will later dance with as he is showered with water from a busted water main.
Cardinal Copia imitates, in my opinion, the movements and dances of Dean Kelly and Debbie Reynolds from Singin’ In the Rain

Like the congregation in “He Is”, Ghost continues to play on the symbiotic relationship of metal band and audience, the way the band imbues the crowd with energy, which is fed back to the band. This speaks also to Ghost’s rising fame, popularity, and prominent billing in recent years. Ghost has come a long way since 2010, and “Rats” is proof of that ambition.

Conclusion

According to a Nameless Ghoul, Ghost’s fourth album, Prequelle, will be a return to a darker theme, and Forge mentioned in his interview with Loudwire that the coming album and “Rats” will add sincerity to the spectacle. I think it’s safe to say that “Rats” is sincere in its respect to Ghost’s previous works as well as sincere in its motives. Ghost seems to have taken a step back (and that’s probably true in a lot of respects), but have also plunged forward.

Cardinal Copia's outstretched hand blocks the view of his waxen face.
In one fluid motion, Cardinal Copia beckons us forward, and draws us in by force of will, part of an incredible dance sequence that was difficult to capture.

If there was any doubt in your mind of Ghost’s continuing genius, dispel it now. “Rats” is an 80s throwback done so well that I can’t even criticize it for that. “Rats” does everything correctly, and even those who are displeased with the new direction can appreciate how important this video is to the evolution of the band, and after all that’s happened, evolution is exactly what this band needs. This band needed an arena opener, a fresh start, something to bring newness to the band that is sure to also delight veteran fans, something to announce that Ghost is always going to be rising, taking over, spreading it’s contagion of thought and spectacle. After Meliora, “Rats” is a celebration of a return to Ghost’s original purpose, a celebration of the changes they have wrought and the changes they will continue to affect.

Watch the Video!

There is so much to look forward to from Ghost! Prequelle is set to drop June 1 of 2018, and Rats on the Road tour has already begun! If you have not yet, make sure you watch the video for “Rats”, and judge for yourself whether or not Ghost is as Ghost has always been, or if the changes we’ve seen in the last few months are irreversible.

Metal Review: “The King Wants You”

Ladies and Gentlemen, Constant Followers, and fellow Metal Heads, I come before you humbly today not as your usual purveyor of nerd news, but to bring you the word of the King Himself! That’s right, I am no mere hawker of wares on the Twitter street corner today! Today I come to you as herald of He is Who More Than Myself to inform you that we are at war!

“The best of the greatest,
The greatest but few,
The soon to be heroes,
the King wants you!
The King wants you!”

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_cHOXYkC3U[/embedyt]

A Review of Avatar’s New World Premier: “The King Wants You”

The founding of Avatar Country is upon us. On the heels of Feathers and Flesh, Avatar wasted no time solidifying their next claim to metal fame, Avatar Country, the band’s seventh studio album. So far, this album, like Hail the Apocalypse, recalls the bands roots in Vaudevillian animated humor of the early Twentieth Century (you can see where I’m coming from if you go watch “The Statue of the King” here). Avatar Country also pays homage to the greatest metal bands of the 80s, drawing on everything from Iron Maiden to The Scorpions as inspiration for their latest video, “The King Wants You”, released yesterday December 19, 2017 ahead of their album release January 18, 2018.

Seriously. If you can’t see Judas Priest and White Zombie in this video, then I don’t know why we’re here.

Johannes Eckerström proves himself to be as capable an actor in front of the camera as his vocal range is on stage. Eckerström reprises his role of The Clown, though this time he comes to us as the official herald of the “Ruler of All Things Worthy of Being Ruled”. His signature black and red iconography greets us again as he not only addresses the assembled Citizens at the rally at the gates to Avatar Country, but appears in a laser-haze in the palm of a giant robot like freakin’ Bruce Dickinson in the red coat of the Trooper meets Ozzy Osbourne’s Iron Man.

Johannes Eckerström appears in the palm of a large robot (you thought my assessment was just exaggerating).
The Clown of Avatar Country, the frightfully dubious herald played by Johannes Eckerström.

Like, some troll on Facebook literally said, “I’ve only got one King, and it’s King Diamond!” Well, I have news for you, man. Many bands take their ques from King Diamond, and I haven’t seen anything quite like King Diamond that wasn’t Mercyful Fate in a long time. It was like King Diamond had a baby with Rob Halford in a crazy love triangle with all of KISS.

In this episode of Avatar Country, the Kingdom is under attack by a vicious enemy that I imagine a young Adolf Hitler might have enjoyed in a post apocalyptic, thinly-veiled dystopian future. Our enemy hurls energy canon balls at us from outside the walls. Even as The Clown delivers his urgent, but not exactly inspiring, speech to rally the brave men and women to their King, the walls are bombarded with these energy mortars. The King moves to retaliate, though his alienation of a subject who doesn’t conform to his ideas of a Citizen may lead to his ruin.

There is a lot going on in just a few short minutes: The Clown rallies the forces; The King energizes the barriers protecting the City with his Axe; The King realizes a grievous error; a mother and father lead their son to safety; and a young couple head off to do battle for their King.

A young Goth couple prepares to meet their destiny as soldiers for the King. They look uneasy, afraid. They don't know if this is the best course of action.
A young Goth couple prepare to meet their destiny.

The video has a decidedly Dio-esque feel to it. Like the kings of Power Metal that came before, the video’s depiction of a dire situation for the country should inspire the masses to run forward and greet whatever fate will give them. However, the lyrics of the song leave one with a growing sense of unease and hesitation. Unlike Bruce Dickinson, who urges his soldiers onward to glory, Ronny James Dio warned of the dangers that lay ahead in the darkness. The powerful imagery of the king pacing the battlements recalls Iron Maiden while the lyrics carry the same warning from Dio wrapped in the ironic lyrics fans have come to expect from Avatar. Eckerström sings, “A chip on my shoulder, Everyone’s getting older. Heroes die young, that’s fine. I’m still a child inside,” while our young couple makes up their minds that though they have no idea what to expect, their future is intertwined with the King’s, and go to battle they must. Eckerström alternates between his place on the stage and a television screen, screeching his urgent message under the banner of the ruler while undermining his own propaganda with lyrics that recall “Get In Line” and “Vultures Fly”, songs that criticize those who aggrandize fighting and dying to make their king (or their daddies) proud, ironized in sardonic anger and flayed alive on the fields of Wacken Open Air 2015.

Those looking for Eckerström’s signature screaming will be sadly left out on this video. However, much like “Paint Me Red”, “Let It Burn”, and “Smells Like A Freak Show” showcase Eckerström vocal talent, “The King Wants You” is a less playful, though certainly less angry, side of The Clown. Eckerström has already proven that he can scream with the best of death metal, channel Brian Johnson, and probably out-Phantom the Phantom of the Opera in a single song. “The King Wants You” merely reminds long-time fans that the front-man of Avatar refuses to be typecast. The rest of the band, especially drums and guitar–and whatever Henrik Sandelin is doing on that big bass–remains technically solid, versatile, and surpasses anything being passed off in the mainstream American metal market as true musical talent, where just about everything can be performed by one person in a studio and scab band members could back up vocals on tour and hardly anyone would bat an eye as long as the fangirls have something to look at. Avatar’s lyrics and subject matter tackle worldly issues. Dictatorships, martial law, mental illness, and societal breakdown continue to dominate Avatar’s material, providing loyal fans with the traditional anger and sense of rebellion. Metal Evolution host Sam Dunn asserted that dissatisfaction with the world we inherited from a previous generation characterized the exemplary bands of early heavy metal. However, I myself assert that this anger has since degenerated into oversimplified, sweeping generalizations that amount to “I’m 20. You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve been through.” Note that I’m not directing that at any band in particular.

The couple from earlier, realizing the end is near, look upon each other for the last time.
Fate is cruel.

The video proceeds like Mad Max meets The Five Armies with a barbaric, almost Viking-looking army (Avatar is Swedish after all) meeting a more advanced, organized battalion of armored troops, and the outcome is sadly predictable. Instead of the rebellious anger of “Get In Line” and the irony of “Vultures Fly”, “The King Wants You” is a cautionary tale. Avatar explores the ramifications of a leader who does not tolerate diversity among his subjects, and the folly of doing battle against a foe with a technological advantage. “The King Wants You” does not just criticize the mentality of those who choose to follow their leaders blindly to fight and die in wars they know little about, but also examines the heartbreaking reality of war on civilians and the ease with which colorful, targeted marketing from mainstream media can convince average citizens to give up their lives for the State.

Conclusion

Though Avatar has a long history of iron grit and cold, gray imagery, that cloud has broken to reveal a kaleidoscopic range of emotions, following a natural progression for the band’s concept, all while maintaining a core rhetoric that explores themes of exploitation and tyranny through Vaudevillian comedy and the animation styles of the early Twentieth Century. The effect is the manufacture of the most downright disturbing visuals. Avatar Country has evolved into the band’s current state. Even if the concept has changed visually, the band has remained true to its form. Eckerström is not destroying the world with a music box as he does in “Hail the Apocalypse”. However, “The King Wants You” carries the same emotional weight, perhaps more so, of previous videos.

Fans are looking forward to the release of Avatar Country along with the tour to follow. You can find out more about that tour on the band’s official website, and don’t forget to purchase band merchandise.

And if someone wants to get me an Avatar Country Coat of Arms Hoodie, I will not look a gift horse in the mouth.

 

Ghost Is As Irreverent As Ever: He Is

The embosed word "Ghost" with upside down cross for a "T" hovers above as in previous videos, shining in gold.
Opening title to Ghost’s latest music video, “He Is”

Ghost Takes it to the Next Level

Ghost is back to show their friends, fans, and enemies that there is no drama that can stop this dynamic band from doing what they do best: attempt to topple the establishment and open the eyes of the blind sheep that follow that established order. Ghost reveals that they are as steadfast and irreverent as ever with this one! At last, a long-awaited music video has arrived to accompany the song featured on Ghost’s third full-length studio album, Meliora, the controversial song that Ghost performed at the Grammis to the chagrine of everyone in attendance, “He Is”.

“He Is”

“He Is” has a turbulent existence. It was languishing in demo for a while, but was finally written for Meliora in tribute to the lead singer of The Devil’s Blood, Selim Lemouchi, a close friend of each member of Ghost, who sadly took his own life in March of 2014 at the age of 33.   A Nameless Ghoul speaking on behalf of the band to Loudwire said that there were various personal meanings to the song, but ultimately it’s about “an expression of faith to “the great beyond””.

Though the song has a deep meaning that those outside of Ghost’s immediate circle may never understand, clearly “He Is” embraces some kind of faith. Papa Emeritus III returns in all of his romantic glory, a glory he has spent the last three years cultivating in everything from the way he makes enigmatic eye contact with those in the front row (I was so lucky to be drawn into those mismatched eyes myself), his more than sexual gestures, the way he will take a random girl fan’s hand and holds it (why not me, Papa!), and the rekindled inclusion of “Monstrance Clock” at the end of every set.

Papa Emeritus III reclines in a dazzling suit of white and gold, holding a white rose close to his nose. He glances up, seemingly surprised to see us here.
Papa Emeritus is ready to receive you in the opening of Ghost’s latest music video, “He Is”

Though Ghost and Papa Emeritus have always been seductive, Meliora took that concept to the next level. Meliora was meant to be listened to as a full service, with each song representing a section of a mass or church service itself. There are processionals, recessionals, hymns, and worship songs. “He Is” on the outside, is a worship song. It moves slowly, seductively, inclusive of all, and offering comfort and salvation inside a dark faith that is both ironic and twisted. The video, released Thursday morning at 11:59 PM, illustrates it far more clearly. Though Ghost’s performance of the song at the Grammis presented him in papal regalia, Papa’s role in “He Is” is far different than even his stage performances.

Join Him: Ghost and Satire

Like Ghost’s previous single, “Cirice”, heralding the album’s debut in 2015, “He Is” is set in yet another worship scenario. In one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever seen from this band, Papa first embraces the small children, hinting at what is to come. The children run to embrace him in what can only be described as cherubim baptism robes. They know him. They trust him. They love him unconditionally. Zev Deans, the director for “He Is”, drew on a statue of Michael Jackson as inspiration for Papa’s outfit for this video.

Papa, on a black background, is flanked by a girl and a boy, hugging either of his legs. He is dressed in a white coat and suit and spreads his arms wide to embrace them.
Papa Emeritus III embraces the youngest of his flock. I wish those were my children.

This is also what makes my following remarks so disturbing.

Papa greets his congregation in a white suit emblazoned with gold buttons and aviator sunglasses in a blindingly bright church under stained glass. I’m not kidding about the blinding. Bright lights from behind make it almost impossible to look directly at him. Notice Papa’s outstretched arms, his palms turned up in the photo above. Papa is well-known (in all of his incarnations) for grandiose gestures both on stage and in videos. Though his gestures tend to make great theater, this one is clearly meant to be an imitation of Christ on the cross, as Christ has his hands turned out to be nailed to the wooden rails through his palms. Despite the obvious jab, I have never laughed harder at a Ghost video.

Papa Emeritus III eschews his black papal robes and tunic for a white suit jacket and aviator-framed sunglasses. He stands in his black and white skull makeup under stained glass, lit from behind by large lights. A choir stands behind him in bright pastel robes, singing the chorus.
Papa Emeritus III looking very Jim Jones in his white suit jacket and aviator sunglasses. Notice our evangelical pastor retains his makeup.

Hilarity aside, though (who doesn’t look at all of this and laugh?) perhaps what is most disturbing about this display is Papa is specifically portraying evangelical ministers. The evangelical leader Jim Jones comes quickest to mind. He was the leader of the People’s Temple and later responsible for the mass suicide of 918 of his followers, 300 of which were children, in his self-titled city state of Jonestown in Guyana in South America, removed from American intervention and cut off from the outside to prevent Jones’ hold on his followers from slipping. Papa’s embrace of the children, then, is frightening as hell when you consider the magnitude of Jim Jones’ influence over his people, who were able to not only convince themselves to join God alongside Jones, but to believe in Jones so much, that they, to a man, decided to bring their children to meet God too. It is no surprise either, that Jones’ idea to take his congregation directly to God came as the United States government closed in on him to liberate his followers.

Jim Jones, the evangelical pastor turned cult leader, speaks to his congregation. Notice the white jacket and aviator sunglasses.
Jim Jones was the leader of the cult called the People’s Temple, and established a cult base in Guyana called Jonestown.

 

With this imagery, Ghost plays with both the seductive nature of Jones’ charisma, the seductive power Ghost, and Papa Emeritus (and arguably all celebrities, but especially evangelical ministers), have over their fans during a “ritual”. As the video progresses, Papa speaks to his congregation in escalating fervor and violence. His faithful beg to be presented to him. They fall on their knees before him and rejoice that he bestows his grace on them. He incites them to speaking in tongues, clearly a representation of of an evangelical Christian pastor.

Papa Emeritus III, dressed in similar fashion to Jim Jones, takes his place before a willing congretation, dramatically posed, with pink and purple difused lighting bathing the church in a wash of warmth and comfort, while the minister himself wears skull makeup.
Papa Emeritus addresses the congregation like an evangelical minister.

Fan interaction at a Ghost concert is paramount to their success, and Ghost is so far the only band to successfully make their fans a part of the overall performance. They openly take advantage of the seductive power of the performance and their fans’ willingness to partake in the act. As I mentioned earlier, Papa III has been known to wade out into his fans and grasp the hand of a lady of his choice, much the way Papa Jim Jones does in the video. In the video, a select few of the congregation are presented to Papa, whom he incites to some sort of violent reaction, though it’s open to speculation about what that reaction is to. At a Ghost ritual, or any metal concert, violent, sympathetic reaction is common. The crowd bangs heads, forms a circle pit, and depending on the show, otherwise descends into chaos. A Ghost ritual finds mostly devoted females (myself among them) clamoring to get closer to Papa. Notice Papa has a much more gentle touch with the women than he does with the men of this video. I’ll get to the significance of that in the next section.

The Sisters of Sin are another example of fan interaction, where two “nuns” with Ghost emblems wander down the front row and hand out the unholy sacrament and blood of Satan. I actually got to partake at their show in Austin in April of 2016. It’s wine and communion wafer, but the fact that Ghost as a concept espouses anti-Christian rhetoric through pro-Satanic “rituals” turns the entire idea of the Eucharist on its head, especially when accompanied with the song, “Body and Blood”, which, when performed is nothing short of irreverent. This draws a lot of criticism, as you can well imagine. Ghost’s purpose, though, is not to turn people into God-haters, but to point out how ridiculous the idea of the Eucharist is, how it operates only as a form of mass hysteria: it only works if everyone believes in it, ironizing the mob mentality it requires to be an active member of an organized religion. Unlike most Christian rhetoric that relies on the belief of the flock, Satanism emphasizes the development of the self, the individual, and Ghost has taken it upon themselves since their inception to open the eyes of their followers.

For a more in-depth look at the tradition of satire in Satanism, director Zev Deans has the director’s cut of the video and behind-the-scenes footage here.

Ghost As Sexual Awakening

I mentioned earlier that Papa Emeritus III pays particular attention to the ladies. Not that Papa has not always paid attention to the ladies. However, Papa III does not merely invite the sexually awakened to follow in his wake like Papa II:

Papa Emeritus II sits with a young female who is naked except for a pair of black underwear and a Ghost emblem. She has black stars censoring her breasts.
Papa Emeritus II from the music video “Year Zero” from second studio album, Infestissumam.

Papa III is by all accounts, “the one lascivious”. In “He Is” Papa III is responsible for the sexual awakening of his female followers. By the end of the video, he performs a strange baptism on all the girls who are sexually of age.

Papa Emeritus III and his female follower embrace in a brightly shining pond. She stares into Papa's eyes after receiving a sort of strange baptism. She emerges from the water soaking wet, shocked, with erect nipples and breasts plainly visble.
Papa Emeritus and a female follower, in bright pastels, complete the baptism ritual of awakening.

Each of the girls is dunked into the bright baptism pool, fully submerged. They go in dry and smiling, and they come up visibly shaken, shocked even, changed. Their breasts are clearly visible under their shifts. They stare at him in utter disbelief. Before they were too awe-struck to touch him. Notice the girl’s hand on Papa’s shoulder after her dunking, a lover’s touch.

This does a couple of things: it is yet another example of Ghost’s rhetoric of freedom through individuality and shared sexual experience. Since Ghost is the antithesis of a religion that enslaves women through sexual suppression and repression, then Ghost is the religion that frees them. Sexual awakening and sexual power have always had a major role to play for Ghost. Another thing this does is reinforce the previous dangerous imagery of the evangelical minister. Jim Jones and other cult leaders, including Charles Manson, often separated the females from the males, ostensibly to protect their sacred bodies, but more often than not so as to keep the women and sexually mature girls for themselves, with always their choice of virgins to “liberate”. Notice Papa does not baptize any men in this scene.

General Observations

First, this is the only music video of Ghost’s that I have ever seen in which the entire band is not present. Ghost is a packaged deal. You do not usually see Papa Emeritus unaccompanied by the Nameless Ghouls. There has been some drama with the band behind the scenes. I do not spread or perpetuate rumors, and I do not speculate about the absence of the band. There are those better qualified than I to write on the subject of the band’s absence from this video.

Second, Ghost has come a long way from the low-budget stage productions and music videos of past Ghost albums, namely Opus Eponymous and Infestissumam. Though always in keeping with the band’s theme and concept, music videos have always been straight forward and conceptual. For example, “Secular Haze” has the feel of being broadcast from a local access evangelical television station.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyQZ13jobIY[/embedyt]

“Year Zero” only has two scenes in which “plot” actually occurs.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkBt7yLXyDk[/embedyt]

With the coming of Meliora and Popestar, we see a rise in animated, artistic videos, such as “Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Square Hammer”.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyYA8FlfBd0[/embedyt]

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6A-IoOEPbUs[/embedyt]

And then of course there are videos like “Cirice” and “He Is” in which there is a clear story and what Zev Deans, director of “He Is”, refers to as a “punch line” which is meant to convey criticism as opposed to simply offending anyone (though that does not really matter).

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0Ao4t_fe0I[/embedyt]

Third, Papa retains the black and white skull makeup marking him as the third incarnation of Papa Emeritus for the video. Papa always has a place in Ghost videos. Notice in “Cirice” that Papa III is played by a small child in the talent show. Papa usually always plays himself in one form or another, and in this, “He Is” is no different. However, it gives the video’s message an edge of irony. You do not serve just any evangelical prophet, you serve Papa Emeritus III. Ultimately the bright pastels and lighting is a lie, a criticism of the highest order of the ridiculousness of evangelical liturgy.

Fourth (I’m sorry!), but the idea of the sexual awakening is not sexually liberating. I feel that the unfortunate result of Ghost’s message is that sexual awakening and sexual growth does not serve the women of Papa’s following, but it serves Papa in much the same way as the evangelical cult leaders that Papa imitates in the video monopolized the female bodies of their followers. In every instance of female sexual awakening, Papa is at the center of it, even with the music video for “Monstrance Clock” in which a young, sexy woman can be seen towards the video, meant to embody the spirit of “Coming together”. Papa and Ghost is the center of this awakening, and it exists only to further romanticize the band. Ghost enjoys a singular coed fan base that is largely due to the power and seduction exuded by Papa in all of his incarnations, even his nasty first incarnation. In my opinion, I feel that to call Ghost “woke” to any feminist idea of sexual liberation grossly misses the point of feminism in which females own their own sexuality as opposed to only being sexualized for a male agenda. If anything, Ghost undermines this and has done so ever since it’s inception. If Ghost were to reverse this, it could be classified as yet another part of their rhetoric, but since they don’t reverse the undermining of female sexual power through individual ownership (which is clear from their depictions of women in their videos), no assertion can be made to me that Papa’s vow to invite sexual freedom to his female followers and promote the enjoyment of sex for all of Ghost’s followers is anything more than sensationalism. Know it, see it, own it, recognize it, and take it for what it is. I do not enjoy Ghost less for this. It’s part of the romance of the band, and part of its allure.

Conclusion

Ghost is one of my favorite bands. While it’s saddening to see that the full band was not part of the video for “He Is”, it is heartening to see that Ghost is still committed to criticizing organized, evangelical religion that preys on the faith of it’s followers for the sake of a privileged few instead of bringing a community closer together for the sake of the many. Ghost embodies the spirit of individualism, pushes boundaries, encourages conversation, and above all, preaches tolerance through a rhetoric of allegory and satire with decadent spectacle that goes back to the days of Faust. There is Satanism and theater at work in Ghost. Those who tell you otherwise do not understand Ghost.

Though Ghost offers a clear ironic message in “He Is”, it cannot be mistaken for anything but the satire and theatrics the band presents and, unfortunately, continues to undermine feminist individualism (though it is not weaponized and certainly is not meant to be undermining in a way that subjugates. It just doesn’t do its job that well).

The music video for “He Is” is available to watch on YouTube. Spread the Word!

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hMaHDTw-pI[/embedyt]

 

Experience Stephen King’s IT in Virtual Reality

For the select few cities lucky enough to receive this gem from San Diego Comic Con, slip into your big girl panties and don’t chicken out on the ultimate introduction to the new IT film, set for release September 8, 2017! The exhibit is free and open to the public, but for us Austin-ites, it was only here for two days! I had heard about it by mid-week but couldn’t land where it was actually taking place until 5 o’clock yesterday. If you missed it, Austin-ites, I’m dreadfully sorry. IT has since moved on.

I would like to preface this write-up by saying I am the least qualified to bring you a run-down of this virtual reality sensory overload. I have a history of reacting badly to horror related events, like haunted houses, haunted hayrides, the Halloween aisle at Party City–all of the Spirit Store…

You get the idea. From almost my earliest memories, I have been absolutely afraid of horror in person. So it was with some trepidation that I talked myself into making the hour long drive up from South Austin to the Alamo Drafthouse at Lakeline Mall to stand before the mere 45 foot long tube of nightmares.

An old retired school bus has been rendered filthy and blackened as if by age and grime. At the tail end of it, the logo for "IT" is scrawled in red paint. Screens on the side of the bus previewed the latest trailer for the film
The FLOAT simulation is a mobile virtual reality experience, first exhibited at San Diego Comic Con, and now on a limited tour ahead of the release of the new IT film.

I almost got back in my car and left.

Outside, a line formed, mostly of people leaving the theater. The experience didn’t open it’s doors until 7, which meant those leaving the new Annabelle: Creation showing were able to catch it on their way out. The folks in line ahead of me spoke in animated tones, having seen the four-minute clip of Georgie’s final moments before Annabelle. Some are calling that clip the best part of going to see the latest installation of the Annabelle franchise, but that’s neither here nor there.

I'm standing in along the profile of the school bus, which has "Derry High School" stenciled on the side of it like the school bus from the film. Blood and grime spatters the sides.
See, proof I went to a scary exhibit. Alone. Like a big girl.

I signed the waiver saying I don’t have any medical conditions and took my place in line. This was to be me no real film footage, but rather a cinematic adventure that lasted only about 12 minutes at the most. An excellent aperitif to anyone going into the theater and a night cap for those leaving–if one dared.

Upon entering, you are bathed in strobing light pulsing over a pair of sliding double doors at the end of the space (roughly half the size of the bus). Normally I would have been nauseously afraid, being at the end of the line, a prime target for any other haunted house exhibit. But this was nor ordinary haunted house. The strobing light gave the cramped space the impression of being bigger than it was. Fog–dare I say it–floated from nozzles at our feet. All around us were the haunting, anxious sounds of the sewer we “Losers” found ourselves standing in.

Scott Wampler got a few shots of the interior of the space on his write-up at birthmoviesdeath.com. I’ve taken the liberty of showing them off here. Credit goes to the photographer. This was the same exhibit I went to yesterday.

Scott Wampler stands patiently waiting for the double doors to slide back.
Fellow Austin-ite Scott Wampler at birthmoviesdeath.com snapped this shot of the doors of the “pipe” we all stood in. I stood with about six other people during my visit, so pictures were impossible. Credit to the photographer.

In the same room as the sliding double doors, a backlit floor representing the floor of the “pipe” we were standing in. In the streaming “water” lay the scattered “remains” of the children lured into Pennywise’s lair. George’s boat was easily recognizable, along with a shoe and a Frisbee.

The backlit floor looked as close to streaming sewer water as you could get without getting your feet wet. "Debris" littered the "water", including Georgie's boat.
Scott Wampler and the folks at birthmoviesdeath.com snapped a shot of the floor of the “pipe” we were standing in.

 

As we stood in the “pipe” listening to Pennywise “approach” and laughing in a strained manner, a cold rush of air blasted us out of nowhere. We all got quiet, then laughed it off nervously, anticipating the sliding doors, which did eventually slide open after the last of the exhibit group before us exited the bus. Our “tour guide” surprised us with a good-natured “Boo!”

Stepping inside the back half of the bus was an altogether different experience than the “tube”. Red light flooded the “cabin”, and two rows of high-quality cinematic motion chairs greeted us. We adjusted our headsets and headphones. Be wary. As soon as the headset goes on, the event starts, so be quick, and don’t take it off. Remember to turn your chair, and look around. Some of the scenes have images that take place around and behind you. Don’t be afraid to move around. And don’t sit on your cords.

Obviously you can’t take pictures of the exhibit. I won’t reveal any scenes or events. None of it was “spoilery” in any case. Nothing you haven’t seen in the trailers. The motion of the VR environment and the movement of the chair make for an adventure rarely had even in the Capital of High Tech Entertainment. Prepare to have your spatial orientation tested, along with your mettle. From the fog floating around our feet, to the motion of the chairs, everything floated. VR is an excellent medium for voyeurism. You are not part of the reality so much as you are on a journey through it. You still live through the experience of someone or something that is not yourself. There you are in the chair, already suspended, and constantly in motion. Your lack of control over the situation is just one part of the cosmic fear you will experience on this exhibit. You are alone in the headset. You came with friends, but none of them can save you. This is the essence of IT. In the end, each of the Losers, though in company, journeys into the sewers alone to face their own particular fears. Pennywise just happens to be the face of them.

I will say this. Bill Skarsgard is the end-all-and-be-all of Pennywise. Tim Curry’s camp is a thing of the past, and in the past is where it shall stay. Bill Skarsgard frightens with his gravelly accent. He seduces with friendly tones. He invites you with open arms. You want to go play with him. What could possibly go wrong? Bill Skarsgard and Tim Curry both offered their victims the promise a good time; an empty promise, with a cold grave, but each went about it in their own way, and each were successful. If you look at it that way, you won’t be disappointed with Skarsgard as the new Pennywise. Like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Tim Curry will go down as much-beloved and fondly-remembered as Pennywise (and still a favorite!), but no longer King Clown.

They assured us we were being recorded. I’m waiting for video to surface of me talking to Pennywise like an old friend before gradually changing my tune.

Myself standing outside the FLOAT exhibit, too jangled to go back in. Later I would wish I had.
My nerves were so jangled after that, I could only be on the highway for a few seconds before I nearly had a panic attack. I took the back roads back to Mopac and sped all the way home.

I should have gone back through a second time. The event was free, so there is no cost prohibition. I did not ask if I could go back through. At the time, once was enough for me. But I had one eye open through all of it, and kept my back purposefully to Pennywise for a lot of it. His voice followed me. The balloons…

The exhibit’s next stop is Miami. If you are in any of the upcoming towns, I strongly urge you to go step inside and let Pennywise take you for a literal spin.

The front of the exhibit in partial opacity with FLOAT: A Cinematic VR Experience as the title. Upcoming tour dates are Miami August 14, Philidephia, PA the 18th through the 20th, Chicago, Illanoise the 24th through the 27th, Toronto, Canada August 30th through September 3rd, and heads back to Los Angeles, CA September 8 (film release date) through September 10th.
The upcoming tour dates for FLOAT.

 

Stephen King’s IT: Trailer #1

A large, glowing pair of letters, I T, are emblazoned on a blood splattered black background.
IT’s new title and logo is a throwback to the old logo released on the cover of King’s novel in 1986.

Let’s all be real for a second. The first two glimpses we had of IT thus far have only been teasers. Here we are two months out from the release of the film, and we get our first real trailer, a full two-minutes and twenty-three seconds.

And quite honestly, the hype is starting to get to me.

Falling Back In Love With IT

For those of you just joining us, and who’ve managed to live under a rock for the last seventeen years, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s enduring novel, IT, is getting a reboot. There are some notable changes to the costume, characters, and nature of the monster from the mini-series, which starred Tim Curry as the clown aspect of a monster haunting the small town of Derry, Maine.

There are those of us who spent our childhood terrified of clowns thanks to Tim Curry’s performance in 1990. Then, there are those of us whose love of horror and the weird is encapsulated in this iconic horror character. For those whom this fear is enduring, I feel for you, because the rest of us are going to go see IT in theaters. In the dark. With our closest friends.

IT was both a bright spot and a turning point in my childhood. My twin sister and I were die-hard horror fans. By the age of 14, she and I had been renting–because that was a thing!–and reading horror stories and films that required a parents’ presence. Our parents never censored our reading, and my mom handed over her ID in irritation every time it was asked for.

“I don’t understand why I have to be here,” she would say, “They can watch whatever they want, but if it gives ’em nightmares, they ain’t sleepin’ with me.”

Callous, yes, but I appreciated it. It made me feel in control. The bright spot was that, as a young teen, I knew that at any point I could make my own decisions about what I read and saw, and I never let anyone make those decisions for me. As result, I’m now quite sensitive as an adult to how my step-son feels about some content. We don’t force violent or explicit content on him (we have small living situation and only one TV), yet we don’t actively monitor what he is watching (unless there is sex, of course. Jeez yall.).

My best friend, conversely, was having every step of her existence monitored because it was believed that her “bad behavior” was linked to what I was doing. If anything, her bad behavior was linked to the negative attention she was getting at home. The only time her parents paid any attention to her was when she was doing something wrong. I became the house pariah. If I got to watch horror movies in my house, she didn’t in hers. If I got to go to metal concerts, she didn’t. If my mom bought me a book, and I let her borrow it, her parents took it and gave it circuitously back to my parents, who handed it right back to me with a sideways smirk, more aggravated that they had been brought out into public after six p.m. than by anything someone else thought I had done wrong.

My friend was trying to live through me, and IT became our best-kept secret. IT was one of the few films we thought we got away with. There was little sex, and most of the horror was supernatural. No slicing and dicing (unless you count Henry Bowers). IT the miniseries was largely harmless compared to the novel, which my friend never made it all the way through–at least at the time.

The cover art for the novel features Georgie's paper boat resting beside a sewer grate, through which green claws emerge to grasp at the surface.
Cover art for Stephen King’s 1985 novel, IT

I read the book at an age where many parents would have slapped it out of my hands had they known exactly how graphic it was. As sharply adult as the contents were, I did not put it down. I read it four times, twice in the summer before high school. My sister read through it the first and second time with me, but after I began it the third time, then the fourth time, she put it down in favor of other King novels, The Tommyknockers, Misery, and Carrie. I had read The Eyes of the Dragon in middle school, and I would go on to read The Green Mile, but IT will forever be cemented as my gateway drug to Stephen King.

The turning point was certainly the content. Up to that point, IT was the hardest novel I had ever read (and I had been reading adult novels for a year by then–none of them “age-appropriate”). Though it would be several years before I attempted anymore hardcore adult books (Brian Lumley), I found that I learned something about human nature every time I read it. I learned that all bullies come from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually their home. I learned that our parents can be very dangerous to us. I learned that abuse is not love. I learned that sex is not love–and I probably learned a lot about sex. I learned that some people are born evil, and some are made that way by circumstance and hardship, but that no evil is excusable. I was more afraid of the way Tom treated Bev than I was of the wolfman in the old house. I was more afraid of Bev’s dad than I ever was of Pennywise. I learned that even a bully like Henry Bowers was nothing compared to the serial killer in the making that was Patrick Hocksetter, and I learned how satisfying it can be when a truly bad character gets what is coming to him. I learned about the soul-crushing grief of a losing a child. Thanks to IT, I learned about Lovecraft’s weird tale before I had ever even heard his name, and that set the stage for further reading, which has led me to this point in life, where everything we touch seems to be connected to Ol’ Howard in some way, and though I was not truly introduced to Lovecraft through King–I have Brian Lumley to thank for that pleasure–the essence of Lovecraft’s danger from the Outside is tangible in IT.

I learned a lot when I read that novel, and like the Losers Club, I will say that I learned far too much about life, sex, and fear, and I learned it far too fast.

Trailer Break-Down

Our first two introductions to Andrés Muschietti’s take on this much-debated favorite were teasers. Each of them featured iconic scenes that those who favored both the miniseries and the novel would have recognized: Georgie’s end, and the venture into the sewer in the Barrens. Who could have guessed that a clown emerging from inside a sewer drain could have come to represent so much fear and anxiety when King wrote it? Who even gave that any consideration? Up until IT, I was just afraid of that flatworm from season two of The X Files. Who could have thought that it could be so much more frightening than just a campy clown with a balloon? Bill Skarsgard thought so, and his portrayal of Pennywise thus far has left nay-sayers in dismay and die-hards in confusion. The departure of the campy Pennywise is having the same effect the departure of campy Batman did, and not everyone is pleased. I am not one of those people.

Bill Skarsgard in Pennywise costume and makeup taunts Georgie, tempting him with his own paper boat. The character is shrouded in shadow, revealing only his slightly glowing eyes and riktus grin.
Pennywise offers Georgie his boat back from his hiding place in the sewer, a new take on a classic scene that is cemented in the minds of all horror fans.

The new Pennywise is much closer to the novel version, with a dingy silver suit and jester’s ruff. He’s less loquacious than Tim Curry’s character. The Pennywise of the novel had always disappointed me a little because he was nothing like Tim Curry, but I think ol’ Pennywise is about to be redeemed. The makeup is far more severe. I love those bucked teeth! I love that crazy hair! I love how gross he gets in standing water! There was never a hair out of place on Tim Curry’s head at any time, but Bill gets down and dirty like the filthy monster that he is!–not Bill himself, duh you guys. Have you all seen Bill Skarsard? Bill’s hot!

The scene in which Pennywise kills Georgie is important to the entire story for two reasons: 1) it gives Bill the motivation he needs to unite the Loser’s Club against the monster stalking Derry; 2) the monster uses Georgie a number of times to lure Bill into a trap. Like the novel and the miniseries, Bill is going to have a large part to play in Derry’s future.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise crouches in standing water at the feet of his puppet, the corpse of little Georgie. He is laying or crouching in standing water as Georgie floats above him. Only the top of his soaked head and glowing eyes are visible.
Pennywise uses Georgie to lure Bill into a trap.

Beverly is going to be an interesting character from what I can see in the trailer. It looks like Bev and Bill have a lot of chemistry, and that would not really be terribly off base. Bev and Bill had chemistry in the novel as well. I had more to add to that, but I’m afraid I’ll divulge too much of what’s to come. Read the novel. There are only a few places where you will slightly regret this single life choice.

Bev is not the only female character Pennywise targeted in either the miniseries or the novel, but Bev’s character was unique. Her father abused her mercilessly. It’s almost as if Bev were being groomed for Pennywise, weakened, but Bev surprised It. She fought back. I have more to add to this as well, but again, it may be giving too much plot away for those who haven’t read the novel. So go read the novel!

In each instance in the trailer, Pennywise can be seen targeting specific Losers, not as a group. Not only does this increase the tension for each of the flashes of scene presented, Pennywise is at It’s most frightening when It targets a lone child. Remember in the miniseries when Pennywise threatened Bev in her bathroom. It only sent her a nasty “love note” in the drain, and disappeared as quickly as her father approached. Pennywise’s true power lays in sneak attacks, scare tactics, and a long end game. Pennywise has no power over the average human adult, and the average human adult is only too used to letting things slip under the radar as long as they are not themselves affected. The good people of Derry, as we see in many of the trailer’s scenes, and as Bill asserts, are content to let the matter drop, even as their own children start to disappear.

Bill Skarsgard dressed as Pennywise seems to lean into Bev's window, grabbing her by the throat.
Pennywise surprises Bev in her home.

All in all, I think this trailer, combined with the teasers, has been most enlightening. According to The Verge, there is going to be a lot that derails from the novel and the miniseries, and that is totally fine. Remember that the miniseries was IT Lite, a shallow, bare-bones representation of the book, focused more on giving you the willies about clowns than remaining true to the unique, fully-flensed, robust characters of King’s novel. “The film will also add plot beats and scenes that don’t appear in either the novel or miniseries. It will, however, still use the town of Derry to help illustrate just how deep Pennywise’s influence runs,” writes

Not sure how I feel about referring to the main villain as “Pennywise” considering that was just one of It’s many aspects. Also I’m not too keen on the film setting, but that’s a hold over for nostalgia. In the novel, the Losers grew up in the 50s, and were in their thirties during the adult scenes, which were set in the mid 1980s. Director Andrés Muschietti is giving the story a more contemporary feel, having the Losers grow up in the 1980s, making them my age for the adult plot. This might infuse the story with new blood, and I will more than likely be able to identify with the characters in the story–I assume. Granted, I never had any trouble identifying with the children in the novel despite a 30 year age difference.

I cannot wait to see how this pans out, and I can’t believe we have to wait until September.

Success or Failure: The Nature of a Stephen King Novel

Stephen King’s novels are defined by their characters. No single King novel adaptation has been worth its salt if it is anything but driven by the characters that King worked his bum off to create. This is arguably why the original IT fell a smidge short as a King adaptation, and this where others of his novels excelled, such as the film adaptation of The Green Mile, which adhered close to the plot of the novels and focused its energy on the characters of the novel, which might have been easier than, say, The Langoliers, or IT due to it’s setting. It’s hard not to concentrate on a single aspect of cinema when almost the entire story is set in a single cell block. This is going to be a major challenge for Nikolaj Arcel and his cast as they navigate and condense the boundless realm of The Dark Tower.

Whatever Andrés Muschietti has in mind for the film, it’s success or failure will hinge on his ability to bring not only the monster to life, but the children as well. Stephen King’s cast of characters represented the power of acting in numbers to effect real change. The Losers learned that family and love are not always bonds of blood. There are going to be scenes in the novel that illustrated this that will never see the silver screen. There are also going to be scenes whose lessons were clear in the novel, but were so disturbing in nature that I certainly never want to see them brought to the screen. The genius of King is what he does to the psyche. The genius of those who adapt his works is doing the same thing with fewer child murders. Muschietti will have to find some other way to fill in those gaps for scenes that won’t make it past the FCC.

Conclusion

It cannot be denied that if this film strives to only be a monster movie, it will fail. IT was not a novel about a scary clown. IT was a novel of courage, vengeance, love, and resistance. The monster was merely a universal force to be reckoned with. The true terrors of Derry were bullies who went unchecked; apathetic, abusive, and overprotective parents; and the dreary malignancy that settles on small towns like Derry; and no matter how far we run away from the monsters of our childhood, they have a horrifying way of dragging us back.

I am wholeheartedly looking forward to the new IT. Whether it lives up to the reputation the film is building for itself remains to be seen.

For now, though, we float on.

 

The Bonds of Blood: A Review of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

I was beyond honored to receive an ARC of Scourge to review. I have been a fan of Gail Z. Martin since her debut novel, The Summoner, and for every year since I have not missed a release. Waiting for another novel from Ms. Martin is like waiting for the latest season of your favorite show. You’re not sure how it could get better. It just does, and with each passing episode (or page) you become more heavily endeared to the characters and settings. Getting into the rich worlds of Gail Z. Martin is a privilege I hope everyone will take advantage of.

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Spoiler Free Review

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst has everything the adventurous seeker of a swashbuckling good time could hope for: forbidden magic, a household of undertakers unwillingly drawn into a war they cannot see for a purpose they cannot hope to understand without further aid, a rich cityscape woven into a larger world map full of corruption to be overcome. While the Valmonde brothers fight for their lives and livelihood on the ground, the Lord Mayor of the province of Ravenwood plays a dangerous game of political intrigue, holding a loose-canon blood mage in the palm of his hand the way a desperate man clutches the stock of a gun, full of amazement at the raw power and afraid to use it. Unknown to all is an even more elaborate game that not even the Lord Mayor is privy to, and over it all is yet another rich pantheon of guild gods and goddesses that demand loyalty from their artisan worshipers, driven before a frightening pantheon of Elder Gods that will not be denied.

The Valmonde brothers, Corran, Rigan, and Kell, are worshipers of Doharmu, the only Guild God of the Bakaran League who doubles as a Guild God and an Elder God, the only god that requires no sacrifice because all must go to Doharmu in the end. As Undertakers, the Valmondes perform the ritual rights of burial, sending the souls of good men, women, and children on to the After, and sending the scum of the earth to the Void where they belong. The Valmondes are Martin’s most endearing family, held together by ties of family and blood that even the worst tragedy cannot tear apart. When Rigan discovers the grave magic of his order is fueled by more than ritual, Rigan must find a way to control the dangerous weapon his being has become before he loses control entirely, or else forfeit his life to the witch hunters in Lord Mayor Machison’s employ. Corran fights to defend his home and brothers and friends from vicious monsters attacking the city that seem to spring from the ground. Corran soon discovers the city’s guards seem more interested in stopping the hunters than protecting the people from the monsters, and behind it all is the cruelty of a blood mage worthy of any GrimDark tale. Between the fight of the Valmondes and the Lord Mayor’s machinations are the innocent people of Ravenwood. Gail Z. Martin stretches her legs as a mastermind of political intrigue with a cast of characters whose greed knows no bounds, and gives voice to one of her most vile monsters.

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst offers the reader a popcorn-popping page turner that will brook no interruption!

No Holds Barred! Spoiler Alert!

Do Not Proceed If You Haven’t Read It!

WAIT. WHERE AM I?

Scourge has something for everyone from casual readers to veteran scholars of epic fantasy. Though Martin isn’t known for gross sex scenes and even her horror scenes lack a little bit of brute force (this isn’t the creepy death-ridden landscape of Deadly Curiosities) Martin has surprised me of late with a few characters that make me question my moral compass. Vedrand Pollard from the Ascendant Kingdoms was the start of the trend. To this day I can’t quite figure out if I hate him or not. Lord Mayor Machison, for all that he ends his reign of terror on a down beat, also seems to only be doing the best he can with what he has. Sure, Machison has zero conscience and doesn’t see himself for the butcher that he is, but that’s the beauty of his character. No one, no matter how awful they are, considers themselves to be wholly evil. They will always find a redeeming quality in themselves. Though Machison will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, he is not at first prepared to sell his own people out wholesale. Machison is at war as much with himself as he is with his rivals, and Martin’s walk with Machison down the dark road of utter insanity and desperation that culminates in Machison’s final fall from grace leads me to wonder: when the Hell did we wander into GrimDark country?

For those who are unfamiliar, GrimDark is a genre of fantasy that may or may not include protagonists whose moral compass points due south and and whose monsters make better heroes than the beautiful people. Those who understand GrimDark will understand why I don’t entirely hate Pollard and why Machison is easily the most compelling character in Scourge.

Unseasoned fantasy readers may find Martin’s political intrigue hard to follow at first, but with Machison at the rudder, you’ll soon get your bearings.

Oh. now that’s just not fair.

I have so little to criticize in this latest gem from one of my favorite authors, for whom I am a legacy reviewer and would be happy to continue writing reviews as long as she keeps writing novels! But for the love of all that’s GrimDark, not Blackholt!

Haha! You thought I was gonna talk about Kell. Well…I can’t talk about Kell…I’m not crying, you are!

I tried to make my peace, but I cannot leave this alone! Blackholt is easily one of Martin’s most vile bad guys. Pentreath Reese might have been a mad man–and a vampire!–but he was at least partially on a leash. Blackholt is a loose canon. He works on a cash-only basis but to Blackholt, wealth is immaterial. Preservation of the balance is Blackholt’s sole motivation, though it cannot be denied he’s married to his work. Martin let go of the leash a little with Blackholt and has proven yet again that the monster is truly at his worst when he speaks.

It is Blackholt’s treatment that left me in agony. One can only hope that this is not the last we have heard of a monster as powerful as Blackholt, and if that is the end of the blood mage, I hope that the next time we get a gruesome character as unstable as Blackholt, we get to hold onto him a little longer. There was a great potential of emotional depth and depravity that is hinted at but never followed through with.

I know…I’m weird. I like the bad guys. I’m sure I’m alone in this. For all that he was a shade of black that I want wrap up in like my favorite sweater, he was the bad guy, and he got what every bad guy deserves, and no one can say it was not satisfying to see the Valmondes in their moment of triumph!

Back In The Safe Zone: Closing

It is my sincere hope that we have not heard the last of the Valmonde brothers as they strive to pull Ravenwood, and the rest of Darkhurst, back from the brink of destruction. Scourge is a bright beginning to an all new realm that combines the familiar comfort of The Summoner and the Winter Kingdoms with Martin’s latest work in the realms of urban fantasy with her Deadly Curiosities novels. Gail Z. Martin is a veteran author with an on-going bibliography that, Oj and Ren willing, shows no signs of stopping.

You can pre-order Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst here!

Stock photo of Gail Z. Martin, author of Scourge.
Gail Z Martin is the author of Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

Gail Z. Martin is the acclaimed author of The Winter Kingdoms Novels, The Fallen Kings Cycle, The Ascendant Kingdoms, and The Deadly Curiosities novels, as well as the author of several collections of short fiction from her various worlds and realms. She released the Essential Social Media Marketing Handbook in 2017, and is an anchor author for several anthologies. You can find her on Twitter @GailZMartin, disquietingvisions.com, and the Ghost In the Machine podcast to name just a few of the ways you can find out more about this talented, prolific author and brand manager.

Want to get in on the goods and get to know Gail, join us at The Shadow Alliance on Facebook. DM me at @SquealingNerd on Twitter to get you an invite! We still have a few t-shirts and tote bags!

I designed the -shirt for fantasy author Gail Z. Martin's grassroots marketing group, the Shadow Alliance. It is a digital composite design that utilizes some of the effects of her cover art for The Summoner, runes, and text that reads, "Gail Martin's Shadow Alliance. Forged in Iron and Blood, Straight Outta Edgeland".

 

Dark Corners Presents: An Excerpt of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

A full moon on a twilit sky highlights "The Hawthorn Moon: A Sneak Peak Event" on the banner for Gail Z. Martin's book tour artwork.
Gail Z. Martin’s book tour event, The Hawthorne Moon.

Dark Corners is proud to host Gail Z. Martin on her Hawthorn Moon book tour this sweltering summer. This year, we’re featuring one of Ms. Martin’s latest offerings, Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel

An Excerpt from Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel

By Gail Z. Martin

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Chapter One

A HEAVY IRON candleholder slammed against the wall, just missing Corran Valmonde’s head.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Try not to make her mad, Corran.”

Rigan Valmonde knelt on the worn floor, drawing a sigil in charcoal, moving as quickly as he dared.

Not quickly enough; a piece of firewood spun from the hearth and flew across the room, slamming him in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt in pain.

“Keep her off me!” he snapped, repairing the smudge in the soot line. Sloppy symbols meant sloppy magic, and that could get someone killed.

“I would if I could see her.” Corran stepped away from the wall, raising his iron sword, putting himself between the fireplace and his brother. His breath misted in the unnaturally cold room and moisture condensed on the wavy glass of the only window.

“Watch where you step.” Rigan worked on the second sigil, widdershins from the soot marking, this one daubed in ochre. “I don’t want to have to do this again.”

A small ceramic bowl careened from the mantle, and, for an instant, Rigan glimpsed a young woman in a blood-soaked dress, one hand clutching her heavily pregnant belly. The other hand slipped right through the bowl, even as the dish hurtled at Rigan’s head. Rigan dove to one side
and the bowl smashed against the opposite wall. At the same time, Corran’s sword slashed down through the specter. A howl of rage filled the air as the ghost dissipated.

You have no right to be in my home. The dead woman’s voice echoed in Rigan’s mind.

Get out of my head.

You are a confessor. Hear me!

Not while you’re trying to kill my brother.

“You’d better hurry.” Corran slowly turned, watching for the ghost.
“I can’t rush the ritual.” Rigan tried to shut out the ghost’s voice, focusing on the complex chalk sigil. He reached into a pouch and drew a thin curved line of salt, aconite, and powdered amanita, connecting the first sigil to the second, and the second to the third and fourth, working
his way to drawing a complete warded circle.

The ghost materialized without warning on the other side of the line, thrusting a thin arm toward Rigan, her long fingers crabbed into claws, old blood beneath her torn nails. She opened a gash on Rigan’s cheek as he stumbled backward, grabbed a handful of the salt mixture and
threw it. The apparition vanished with a wail.

“Corran!” Rigan’s warning came a breath too late as the ghost appeared right behind his brother, and took a swipe with her sharp, filthy nails, clawing Corran’s left shoulder.

He wronged me. He let me die, let my baby die— The voice shrieked in Rigan’s mind.

“Draw the damn signs!” Corran yelled. “I’ll handle her.” He wheeled, and before the blood- smeared ghost could strike again, the tip of his iron blade caught her in the chest. Her image dissipated like smoke, with a shriek that echoed from the walls.

Avenge me.

Sorry, lady, Rigan thought as he reached for a pot of pigment. I’m stuck listening to dead people’s dirty little secrets and last regrets, but I just bury people. Take your complaints up with the gods.

“Last one.” Rigan marked the rune in blue woad. The condensation on the window turned to frost, and he shivered. The ghost flickered, insubstantial but still identifiable as the young woman who had died bringing her stillborn child into the world. Her blood still stained the floor
in the center of the warded circle and held her to this world as surely as her grief. Wind whipped through the room, and would have scattered the salt and aconite line if Rigan had not daubed the mixture onto the floor in paste. Fragments of the broken bowl scythed through the air. The iron candle holder sailed across the room; Corran dodged it again, and a
shard caught the side of his brother’s head, opening a cut on Rigan’s scalp, sending a warm rush of blood down the side of his face.

The ghost raged on, her anger and grief whipping the air into a whirlwind.

I will not leave without justice for myself and my son.

You don’t really have a choice about it, Rigan replied silently and stepped across the warding, careful not to smudge the lines, pulling an iron knife from his belt. He nodded to Corran and together their voices rose as they chanted the burial rite, harmonizing out of long practice, the words of the Old Language as familiar as their own names.

The ghostly woman’s image flickered again, solid enough now that Rigan could see the streaks of blood on her pale arms and make out the pattern of her dress. She appeared right next to him, close enough that his shoulder bumped against her chest, and her mouth brushed his ear.

’Twas not nature that killed me. My faithless husband let us bleed because he thought the child was not his own.

The ghost vanished, compelled to reappear in the center of the circle, standing on the bloodstained floor. Rigan extended his trembling right hand and called to the magic, drawing on the old, familiar currents of power. The circle and runes flared with light. The sigils burned in red,
white, blue, and black, with the salt-aconite lines a golden glow between them.

Corran and Rigan’s voices rose as the glow grew steadily brighter, and the ghost raged all the harder against the power that held her, thinning the line between this world and the next, opening a door and forcing her through it. One heartbeat she was present; in the next she was gone, though her screams continued to echo.

Rigan and Corran kept on chanting, finishing the rite as the circle’s glow faded and the sigils dulled to mere pigment once more. Rigan lowered his palm and dispelled the magic, then blew out a deep breath.

“That was not supposed to happen.” Corran’s scowl deepened as he looked around the room, taking in the shattered bowl and the dented candle holder. He flinched, noticing Rigan’s wounds now that the immediate danger had passed.

“You’re hurt.”

Rigan shrugged. “Not as bad as you are.” He wiped blood from his face with his sleeve, then bent to gather the ritual materials.

“She confessed to you?” Corran bent to help his brother, wincing at the movement.

“Yeah. And she had her reasons,” Rigan replied. He looked at Corran, frowning at the blood that soaked his shirt. “We’ll need to wash and bind your wounds when we get back to the shop.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

They packed up their gear, but Corran did not sheath his iron sword until they were ready to step outside. A small crowd had gathered, no doubt drawn by the shrieks and thuds and the flares of light through the cracked, dirty window.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” Corran said, exhaustion clear in his voice. “We’re just the undertakers.”

Once they were convinced the excitement was over, the onlookers dispersed, leaving one man standing to the side. He looked up anxiously as Rigan and Corran approached him.

“Is it done? Is she gone?” For an instant, eagerness shone too clearly in his eyes. Then his posture shifted, shoulders hunching, gaze dropping, and mask slipped back into place. “I mean, is she at rest? After all she’s been through?”

Before Corran could answer, Rigan grabbed the man by the collar, pulled him around the corner into an alley and threw him up against the wall.

“You can stop the grieving widower act,” he growled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Corran standing guard at the mouth of the alley, gripping his sword.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial did not reach the man’s eyes.

“You let her bleed out, you let the baby die, because you didn’t think the child was yours.”

Rigan’s voice was rough as gravel, pitched low so that only the trembling man could hear him.

“She betrayed me—”

“No.” The word brought the man up short. “No, if she had been lying, her spirit wouldn’t have been trapped here.” Rigan slammed the widower against the wall again to get his attention.

“Rigan—” Corran cautioned.

“Lying spirits don’t get trapped.” Rigan had a tight grip on the man’s shirt, enough that he could feel his body trembling. “Your wife. Your baby. Your fault.” He stepped back and let the man down, then threw him aside to land on the cobblestones.

“The dead are at peace. You’ve got the rest of your life to live with what you did.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, as the man choked back a sob.

Corran sheathed his sword. “I really wish you’d stop beating up paying customers,” he grumbled as they turned to walk back to the shop.

“Wish I could. Don’t know how to stop being confessor to the dead, not sure what else to do once I know the dirt,” Rigan replied, an edge of pain and bitterness in his voice.

“So the husband brought us in to clean up his mess?” Corran winced as he walked; the gashes on his arm and back had to be throbbing.

“Yeah.”

“I like it better when the ghosts confess something like where they buried their money,” Corran replied.

“So do I.”

The sign over the front of the shop read Valmonde Undertakers. Around back, in the alley, the sign over the door just said Bodies. Corran led the way, dropping the small rucksack containing their gear just inside the entrance, and cursed under his breath as the strap raked across raw shoulders.

“Sit down,” Rigan said, nodding at an unoccupied mortuary table. He tied his brown hair into a queue before washing his hands in a bucket of fresh water drawn from the pump. “Let me have a look at those wounds.”

Footsteps descended the stairs from the small apartment above.

“You’re back? How bad was it?” Kell, the youngest of the Valmonde brothers, stopped halfway down the stairs. He had Corran’s coloring, taking after their father, with dark blond hair that curled when it grew long. Rigan’s brown hair favored their mother. All three brothers’ blue
eyes were the same shade, making the resemblance impossible to overlook.

“Shit.” Kell jumped the last several steps as he saw his brothers’ injuries. He grabbed a bucket of water and scanned a row of powders and elixirs, grabbing bottles and measuring out with a practiced eye and long experience. “I thought you said it was just a banishing.”

“It was supposed to be ‘just’ a banishing,” Rigan said as Corran stripped off his bloody shirt.

“But it didn’t go entirely to plan.” He soaked a clean cloth in the bucket Kell held and wrung it out.

“A murder, not a natural death,” Corran said, and his breath hitched as Rigan daubed his wounds. “Another ghost with more power than it should have had.”

Rigan saw Kell appraising Corran’s wounds, glancing at the gashes on Rigan’s face and hairline.

“Mine aren’t as bad,” Rigan said.

“When you’re done with Corran, I’ll take care of them,” Kell said. “So I’m guessing Mama’s magic kicked in again, if you knew about the murder?”

“Yeah,” Rigan replied in a flat voice.

Undertaking, like all the trades in Ravenwood, was a hereditary profession. That it came with its own magic held no surprise; all the trades did. The power and the profession were passed down from one generation to the next. Undertakers could ease a spirit’s transition to the realm beyond, nudge a lost soul onward, or release one held back by unfinished business. Sigils, grave markings, corpse paints, and ritual chants were all part of the job. But none of the other undertakers that Rigan knew had a mama who was part Wanderer. Of the three Valmonde
brothers, only Rigan had inherited her ability to hear the confessions of the dead, something not even the temple priests could do. His mother had called it a gift. Most of the time, Rigan regarded it as a burden, sometimes a curse. Usually, it just made things more complicated than they needed to be.

“Hold still,” Rigan chided as Corran winced. “Ghost wounds draw taint.” He wiped away the blood, cleaned the cuts, and then applied ointment from the jar Kell handed him. All three of them knew the routine; they had done this kind of thing far too many times.

“There,” he said, binding up Corran’s arm and shoulder with strips of gauze torn from a clean linen shroud. “That should do it.”

Corran slid off the table to make room for Rigan. While Kell dealt with his brother’s wounds, Corran went to pour them each a whiskey.

“That’s the second time this month we’ve had a spirit go from angry to dangerous,” Corran said, returning with their drinks. He pushed a glass into Rigan’s hand, and set one aside for Kell, who was busy wiping the blood from his brother’s face.

“I’d love to know why.” Rigan tried not to wince as Kell probed his wounds. The deep gash where the pottery shard had sliced his hairline bled more freely than the cut on his cheek. Kell swore under his breath as he tried to staunch the bleeding.

“It’s happening all over Ravenwood, and no one in the Guild seems to know a damn thing about why or what to do about it,” Corran said, knocking his drink back in one shot. “Old Daniels said he’d heard his father talk about the same sort of thing, but that was fifty years ago.
So why did the ghosts stop being dangerous then, and what made them start being dangerous now?”

Rigan started to shake his head, but stopped at a glare from Kell, who said, “Hold still.”

He let out a long breath and complied, but his mind raced. Until the last few months, banishings were routine. Violence and tragedy sometimes produced ghosts, but in all the years since Rigan and Corran had been undertakers—first helping their father and uncles and then running the business since the older men had passed away—banishings were usually uneventful.

Make the marks, sing the chant, the ghost goes on and we go home. So what’s changed?

“I’m sick of being handed my ass by things that aren’t even solid,” Rigan grumbled. “If this keeps up, we’ll need to charge more.”

Corran snorted. “Good luck convincing Guild Master Orlo to raise the rates.”

Rigan’s eyes narrowed. “Guild Master Orlo can dodge flying candlesticks and broken pottery. See how he likes it.”

“Once you’ve finished grumbling we’ve got four new bodies to attend to,” Kell said. “One’s a Guild burial and the others are worth a few silvers a piece.” Rigan did not doubt that Kell had negotiated the best fees possible, he always did.

“Nice,” Rigan replied, and for the first time noticed that there were corpses on the other tables in the workshop, covered with sheets. “We can probably have these ready to take to the cemetery in the morning.”

“One of them was killed by a guard,” Kell said, turning his back and keeping his voice carefully neutral.

“Do you know why?” Corran tensed.

“His wife said he protested when the guard doubled the ‘protection’ fee. Guess the guard felt he needed to be taught a lesson.” Bribes were part of everyday life in Ravenwood, and residents generally went along with the hated extortion. Guilds promised to shield their members from the
guards’ worst abuses, but in reality, the Guild Masters only intervened in the most extreme cases, fearful of drawing the Lord Mayor’s ire. At least, that had been the excuse when Corran sought justice from the Undertakers’ Guild for their father’s murder, a fatal beating on flimsy charges.

Rigan suspected the guards had killed their father because the neighborhood looked up to him, and if he’d decided to speak out in opposition, others might have followed. Even with the passing years, the grief remained sharp, the injustice bitter. Kell went to wash his hands in a bucket by the door.

“Trent came by while you and Corran were out. There’s been another attack, three dead. He wants you to go have a look and take care
of the bodies.”

Rigan and Corran exchanged a glance. “What kind of attack?”

Kell sighed. “What kind do you think? Creatures.” He hesitated. “I got the feeling from Trent this was worse than usual.”

“Did Trent say what kind of creatures?” Corran asked, and Rigan picked up on an edge to his brother’s voice.

Kell nodded. “Ghouls.”

Corran swore under his breath and looked away, pushing back old memories.

“All right,” he said, not quite managing to hide a shudder. “Let’s go get the bodies before it gets any later. We’re going to have our hands full tonight.”

“Kell and I can go, if you want to start on the ones here,” Rigan offered.

Corran shook his head. “No. I’m not much use as an undertaker if I can’t go get the corpses no matter how they came to an end,” Corran said.

Rigan heard the undercurrent in his tone. Kell glanced at Rigan, who gave a barely perceptible nod, warning Kell to say nothing. Corran’s dealing with the memories the best way he knows how, Rigan thought. I just wish there weren’t so many reminders.

“I’ll prepare the wash and the pigments, and get the shrouds ready,” Kell said. “I’ll have these folks ready for your part of the ritual by the time you get back.” He gestured to the bodies already laid out. “Might have to park the new ones in the cart for a bit and switch out—tables are
scarce.”

Corran grimaced. “That’ll help.” He turned to Rigan. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Kell gave them the directions Trent had provided. Corran took up the long poles of the undertaker’s cart, which clattered behind him as they walked. Rigan knew better than to talk to his brother when he was in this kind of mood. At best he could be present, keep Corran from having to deal with the ghouls’ victims alone, and sit up with him afterward.

It’s only been three months since he buried Jora, since we almost had to bury him. The memory’s raw, although he won’t mention it. But Kell and I both hear what he shouts in his sleep. He’s still fighting them in his dreams, and still losing.

Rigan’s memories of that night were bad enough—Trent stumbling to the back door of the shop, carrying Corran, bloody and unconscious; Corran’s too-still body on one of the mortuary tables; Kell praying to Doharmu and any god who would listen to stave off death; Trent, covered in Corran’s blood, telling them how he had found their brother and Jora out in the tavern barn, the ghoul that attacked them already feasting on Jora’s fresh corpse.

Rigan never did understand why Trent had gone to the barn that night, or how he managed to fight off the ghoul. Corran and Jora, no doubt, had slipped away for a tryst, expecting the barn to be safe and private. Corran said little of the attack, and Rigan hoped his brother truly did not remember all the details.

“We’re here.” Corran’s rough voice and expressionless face revealed more than any words.

Ross, the farrier, met them at the door. “I’m sorry to have to call you out,” he said.

“It’s our job,” Corran replied. “I’m just sorry the godsdamned ghouls are back.”

“Not for long,” Ross said under his breath. A glance passed between Corran and Ross. Rigan filed it away to ask Corran about later.

The stench hit Rigan as soon as they entered the barn. Two horses lay gutted in their stalls and partially dismembered. Blood spattered the wooden walls and soaked the sawdust. Flies swarmed on what the ghouls had left behind.

“They’re over here,” Ross said. The bodies of two men and a woman had been tossed aside like discarded bones at a feast. Rigan swallowed down bile. Corran paled, his jaw working as he ground his teeth.

Rigan and Corran knew better than most what remained of a corpse once a ghoul had finished with it. Belly torn open to get to the soft organs; ribs split wide to access the heart. How much of the flesh remained depended on the ghoul’s hunger and whether or not it feasted undisturbed. Given the state these bodies were in—their faces were the only parts left
untouched—the ghouls had taken their time. Rigan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself not to retch.

“What about the creatures?” Corran asked.

“Must have fled when they heard us coming,” Ross said. “We were making plenty of noise.”

Ross handed them each a shovel, and took one up himself. “There’s not much left, and what’s there is… loose.”

“Who were they?” Rigan asked, not sure Corran felt up to asking questions.

Ross swallowed hard. “One of the men was my cousin, Tad. The other two were customers. They brought in the two horses late in the day, and my cousin said he’d handle it.”

Rigan heard the guilt in Ross’s tone.

“Guild honors?” Corran asked, finding his voice, and Ross nodded.

Rigan brought the cart into the barn, stopping as close as possible to the mangled corpses. The bodies were likely to fall to pieces as soon as they began shoveling.

“Yeah,” Ross replied, getting past the lump in his throat. “Send them off right.” He shook his head. “They say the monsters are all part of the Balance, like life and death cancel each other out somehow. That’s bullshit, if you ask me.”

The three men bent to their work, trying not to think of the slippery bones and bloody bits as bodies. Carcasses. Like what’s left when the butcher’s done with a hog, or the vultures are finished with a cow, Rigan thought. The barn smelled of blood and entrails, copper and shit.

Rigan looked at what they loaded into the cart. Only the skulls made it possible to tell that the remains had once been human.

“I’m sorry about this, but I need to do it—to keep them from rising as ghouls or restless spirits,” Rigan said. He pulled a glass bottle from the bag at the front of the wagon, and carefully removed the stopper, sprinkling the bodies with green vitriol to burn the flesh and prevent the
corpses from rising. The acid sizzled, sending up noxious tendrils of smoke. Rigan stoppered the bottle and pulled out a bag of the salt-aconite-amanita mixture, dusting it over the bodies,
assuring that the spirits would remain at rest.

Ross nodded. “Better than having them return as one of those… things,” he said, shuddering.

“We’ll have them buried tomorrow,” Corran said as Rigan secured their grisly load.

“That’s more than fair,” Ross agreed. “Corran—you know if I’d had a choice about calling you—”

“It’s our job.” Corran cut off the apology. Ross knew about Jora’s death. That didn’t change the fact that they were the only Guild undertakers in this area of Ravenwood, and Ross was a friend.

“I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon with the money,” Ross said, accompanying them to the door.

“We’ll be done by then,” Corran replied. Rigan went to pick up the cart’s poles, but Corran shook his head and lifted them himself.

Rigan did not argue. Easier for him to haul the wagon; that way he doesn’t have to look at the bodies and remember when Jora’s brother brought her for burial.

Rigan felt for the reassuring bulk of his knife beneath his cloak—a steel blade rather than the iron weapon they used in the banishing rite. No one knew the true nature of the monsters, or why so many more had started appearing in Ravenwood of late. Ghouls weren’t like angry ghosts or
restless spirits that could be banished with salt, aconite, and iron. Whatever darkness spawned them and the rest of their monstrous brethren, they were creatures of skin and bone; only beheading would stop them.

Rigan kept his blade sharpened.

———————————————————

Scourge is available for pre-order on Amazon and at your local purveyors of fine parchment products.