BizarroCon 2018 in 2019, January edition!

Due to a bunch of totally inconsiderate bridezillas hogging our venue with their wedding plans, we didn’t get to have a BizarroCon in November like usual. Since this simply would not stand, and nobody wanted to wait another whole year between them, it was decided we’d have one in January instead. To be followed by ANOTHER in November as is right and proper, getting us back on track, because Edgefield is OURS goshdarnit and we’ve got DIBS.

Anyhoo! Despite the change in schedule, despite the holidays, despite further complications caused by key figures moving house or being otherwise caught up in job-stuff and travel-stuff and general demanding life-stuff, the team rallied like champs and we had ourselves another amazing convention. One of the best yet, imho, actually. (edit note: despite and including some controversy; more on that later)

As has been explained often and elsewhere, of all the cons I’ve been to, this one is THE con, the weirdo family reunion to end all family reunions, a community of the weird joining together in heart and in spirit and in glorious shared chaos to build something awesome together. Things happen here. Organic, natural, peculiar, wonderful things. Connections are made. Bonds are formed, and reinforced. It’s love and creativity and gonzo energy. It’s being with your tribe, being reminded you’re not alone in your weirdness, maybe feeling at HOME and understood and accepted and appreciated for the magical oddball that you are.

Now, there, and look, I started off with how it’s already been explained often and elsewhere, but still had to go and try and explain it again. When that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be giving you the rundown, the lowdown, and the scoop on this particular BizarroCon.

I take my duties as chronicler fairly seriously because I am gifted or cursed with an exceptional memory, and because I’m one of the rare non-drinkers. Some of these folks rely on such writeups and reports to piece together their weekends out of a blur of exhaustion, smoke-haze, alcohol, and lunacy. I’m here to help. You’re welcome.

This will of course not include every detail, partly because I’m old and tired and have cats at home so I commute back and forth each day instead of staying at the hotel and partying unto the wee small hours. Therefore, some stuff does go on to which I’m not privy, and only hear about later. Yet I will do my best to cover as many highlights as I can (and as many highlights as are fit for more public consumption; some inappropriate hijiinks DO go on that are perhaps best kept in a what-happens-at-Edgefield discretion).

For me, the official kickoff was when my pal Doug Blakeslee arrived at our place on Thursday afternoon. He helped me load up my stash of baked goods – I’ve established myself a tradition of bombarding everyone with cookies and such; figure it’ll help folks get at least something besides booze into their systems, and the less they have to spend on food, the more they can spend on books and beer and things that really matter. This year, I’d made a surplus during my holiday baking extravaganza, then supplemented those with rocky road cake bars, glazed mixed-fruit mini-muffins, and ‘rice trixy treats’ which are just your basic krispie treat but with trix cereal thrown in.

The overall weather was more in our favor than it has been in some years – most notably the unforgettable BLIZZAROCON deep freeze – but the wind from the Gorge was still quite a wowser. Danger Slater was half-convinced the giant trees were going to blow over onto the Ad House and crush us all during readings. The building was shaking. Windows rattled. In the main hotel itself, exterior doors occasionally whammed open and shut on their own, admitting blasts of cold air.

The brief welcoming introductory Opening Ceremonies were followed by another recently-established but strong-holding tradition: the Pickle Party, brought to you by Pickle Princess extraordinaire Lisa LeStrange. Which party, in addition to an assortment of pickles and pickle-related substances (some to haunt one’s very nightmares, such as the pickle-scented play-doh! eew!), included beer tastings courtesy of Ross E. Lockhart and brewmeisters Jason Rizos and Cameron Pierce, as well as some whiskey samplings with Michael Allen Rose. And whiskey pickle jello shots. We know how to party or what?

Plus, Jeff Burk tried yet again to kill people with peppers. I recall one moment when, as he leaned forward proffering a teensy bit of something evil-colored on a toothpick, he looked like nothing so much as an Alice in Wonderland character, some wicked pepper imp. Oh, my dears, the reactions. The redness. The sweating. The swearing. The crying. The agonized dance-in-place contortions.

It was in the middle of this I first met in person the lovely Leigham Shardlow, who was trying most earnestly to tell me how much he enjoyed my work and that Spermjackers From Hell changed his life, but he was in such a state – I believe he would have literally been on fire if not for his cascading tears – that he kept having to interrupt himself to holler across the room FUCK YOU JEFF I HATE YOU! I will always remember it fondly. I better, because I don’t think Leigham will.

Kevin L. Donihe continued his own flirtation with peppery death, though by now they’re way past flirtation. He gets to third base and beyond with peppery death. As was pointed out by a certain wicked pepper imp, one of those peppers (a shade of hot red that would make the devil himself say “whoa hey tone it down”) had a stinger. A STINGER. Like the curled barb of a scorpion’s tail.

I do love you people, but some of you, wow, some of you are maniacs for sure. Or maybe that’s why I love you. It’s sure a big factor!

Also that evening, Vince Kramer and I bonded with enthusiastic newcomer Ian Kappos over Tarot cards, and also over the coincidental fact that my plaid shirt and Ian’s plaid boxers nearly matched (there may or may not be photographic evidence). This is not the first time someone’s shown me his shorts upon first acquaintance, but this time it wasn’t a three-year-old proud of his new big-boy Superman underpants. Now that I consider it, though, you get a lot of that around here. Underpants and beyond. But, more on that subject when we get to the Showdown.

Overall attendance this time was down somewhat from previous cons, what with the schedule change and other reasons and all. I think we had maybe 90 total? It did make for more room in the Ad House; we weren’t completely packed in like rush hour commuters. I was glad to have the chance to meet in real-life many online acquaintances, such as John Urbancik, Bob Ford, and Austin James … I was delighted by the surprise appearance of Kelli Owen, whom I hadn’t known was planning to attend … remembered this time to track down Charles Austin Muir to sign the book of his I’d picked up at KillerCon … and as always, was just generally happy to hug the heck out of anyone who’d let me.

Friday morning started early; I got in on Mary SanGiovanni’s workshop, which began at 8:00. The subject was on choosing the right words, how to use the right ones for genre and setting, character, mood, rhythm, sound, etc. It turned out to be more discussion than lecture, a fun and lively time. Our three hours just flew by! For the record, by time-stamp, the first time The Professor mentioned boobs was at 9:20 A.M. See? She’s not fixated!

(side note: at one point, Brian Keene came in to bring her tea, and on his way out smooched me atop the head in passing … Skipp has also smooched me atop the head … is this a Thing and I just haven’t realized it? not that I’m complaining; I don’t get many smooches of any variety, so I never quite know what to do)

After the workshop, I hurried over to the Ad House to catch some readings. The typical mix ranges from gonzo silly to glum serious, and this year was no exception. Jeff Burke and Kevin L. Donihe wasted another half an hour of our time with Dinosaurs Attack! and Merle Haggard’s autobiography. I shared my reading slot with the eloquent Robert Devereaux, who read from his disturbing story, “Little Miss Ultrasound.”

As for me, I read from “Censered,” my story in the new And Hell Followed anthology. It was so-so, IMO. My first public reading in a couple of years, since the surgeries and the dental prosthetic and being able to more or less talk again. I managed not to spit all over the place and my teeth didn’t fly out, but I wish I’d chosen a shorter piece without so many s-sounds and plosives. Definitely need to get back in practice.

Then I attended the BWA meeting, where we talked bizarro biz, and my mouth up and volunteered me to compile a bunch of my previous book reviews to possibly post on Bizarro Central. I spent half the week after the con scouring through my backups, past issues of The Horror Fiction Review, my blogs, and Amazon. And I *still* didn’t get them all. I know for a fact I’m missing several. Even so, the resultant compilation file was some 730 reviews, making a document about 250k words long. I mean, okay, this goes back fifteen YEARS, but jeez, that’s a lot.

Also amusing/daunting was the moment when, as I was smacking the table waxing melodramatic about how I’ve pretty much damn near single-handedly kept the HFR afloat all this time (see what happens now that I can finally talk again, after nearly two years of enforced mushmouth partial muteness?), I looked around the crowded room and realized I’d reviewed something by almost every person there. In some cases, multiple books. In Carlton Mellick III’s case, more than twenty books. My mind, such as it is, reels. And not just from sheer volume. Many of those books, let’s face it, are pretty dang bent!

For dinner break, Doug and I went over to the Power Station, where I attempted coffee and clam chowder and only made a little bit of a mess because of how my lips don’t fully work right anymore. Thus caffinated and fortified, we fought the icy super-wind back to the Ad House for the Friday night Eraserhead Press party.

One of the highlights of that particular party is the special Bizarro Beers, brewed to go along with several key new releases, bottles with book cover labels. There’s talks by the editors and brewmeisters, the authors are each presented with a bottle, the souvenir pint glasses are unveiled (this year’s with art by the awesome Andrew Goldfarb, who also did the program book), beers can be sampled, and books can be bought.

(note: sometimes supplies are limited and books can only be bought if you’re damn quick; I intended to snag a copy of Jennifer Robin’s latest for my daughter but they available ARCs were all snapped up before I had the chance!)

Then, each of the authors performed. Not just read, no, this is never a simple matter of readings. We had the howling transformation of the Grindcore Werewolf, professional actor coaching, a fire-and-brimstone frogbutt sermon, manly war-nipples, NUNCHUCKS, and more! After that was live music with the Slow Poisoner, accompanied by John Skipp on the bongos, but, being old and tired and having a half-hour drive to get home, I once again sadly skipped staying any later that night.

I needed my sleep, because Saturday is The Big Day, when the magic really happens. It begins with the traditional breakfast/brunch buffet, with spicy sausage and thick peppery bacon. Other stuff too, fruit and eggs and french toast and whatnot, but oh lordy that bacon!

While the hotel staff was setting up for panels and such, I replenished my cookie trays and hung out for a while at the Ad House for the art show. Since the book I’m currently working on is a deep-sea chompy chompy, I tried to sell Andrew Goldfarb on the idea of anglerfish and other such critters; I figure bioluminescence and black velvet and toothy weirdness in his signature style would … well, okay, would bankrupt me damn fast but what the hell!

Also in attendance, the amazing Liv Rainey-Smith with her woodcuts and prints and pins, doing some cool stitchery on sheepskin … Peter Dale instructing students in digital coloring (and nekkid furries) … and Jim Agpalza, some of whose latest book covers are liable to give online booksellers absolute fits.

This year, due to some scheduling adjustments, much of Saturday’s programming took place upstairs in Edgefield’s ballroom, and personally I thought it worked out much better. We had half the room set up for panels, the other half for the ‘book nook,’ and people could wander between them as they pleased without feeling like they were interrupting. It made for an open, convivial atmosphere. The panelists having microphones helped, though I did have to confiscate the bullhorn because it seemed like the only button anybody ever could find on the dratted thing was the one clearly labeled SIREN and they were always surprised when they pushed it and – imagine! – the siren went off.

The workshop instructors offered pro tips on writing better books, then we had panels on hooking your reader, bizarro theory, advanced self-promotion, and bringing your reader there (I even got to be on that one, though again as with my reading, I was pretty out of practice).

Meanwhile, back in the Ad House, more reading blocks were going on, but I missed out on those and parked at panels all day, roaming the book nook in between. Somehow, I’m not sure how, I didn’t actually BUY anything this time (well, part of that how has to do with being staggeringly broke), but Caleb Wilson gave me a copy of his new one, Polymer, and it’s my current nightstand read … and Ross E. Lockhart slipped me an ARC of Carrie Laben’s upcoming A Hawk in the Woods.

I also signed some copies of Spermjackers From Hell (which, apparently, sold out again!), Dead Bait 4 (in which I have a story!), The Raven’s Table, and White Death (I had one left at home, which I brought in for my gal Dr. Q!). Also gave away some audiobook download codes for that one, since it was the 131st anniversary of the deadly blizzard that inspired the story.

Then they shooed us out again to re-set the room for dinner, which gave us a chance to zip down to the car and retrieve the boxes of centerpieces. I totally forgot to take any pics of them, but the theme I went with was, because we were having the con and the awards in January for a change, these would be our “winter Wonderlands” (cue Foghorn Leghorn, “it’s a joke, son, a joke, get it?”). Yeah whatever; they were pretty.

Now, in years past, few events have ever been able to compare with the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, but I gotta say, Grady Hendrix’s live Paperbacks From Hell performance seriously was one of the best things I have ever seen. He’d already proven himself funny and cool on an earlier panel, but when he took us on that trip through horror publishing history? Phenomenal. It was nostalgia and education and entertainment all in one. Like the Schoolhouse Rock of the genre. Should be recorded. Should be on Netflix. Required viewing for fiction classes. Really, truly, legitimately terrific from start to finish.

During this, the also-traditional fajita feast was going on, and then it was time for the Wonderland Awards. Ross E. Lockhart introduced presenters Cameron Pierce and Danger Slater, and the winners were Laura Lee Bahr for Angel Meat (Best Collection) and Brian Allen Carr for Sip (Best Novel). Splendidly done and so well-deserved!

(though, Laura Lee Bahr would have the rush of her victory somewhat rudely interrupted not long after, when her penalty for recusing herself as a Showdown judge was to be zapped in front of everyone by Sauda Namir’s wicked violet wand … but she also took home one of my centerpieces as a consolation prize, and we loved her appearance in one of Sunday’s film festival pieces, so hopefully it all came out positive).

And then, oh, and then, it was time for the main event, the ULTIMATE BIZARRO SHOWDOWN!!!

After Sauda and Michael Allen Rose made me cry in public, that is. See, they’re our host and hostess with the most and mostess for the Showdown, and every year they outdo themselves with excellence in costuming, but this time they designed their outfits inspired by a Viking epic I’d written for their anniversary book. I was speechless, beyond stunned, and am honored beyond belief. Plus, they looked GOOD. Not that they ever don’t look good, but they looked REALLY REALLY GOOD. I cried like an old auntie at a wedding. I’m misting up again now just writing about it. Told Sauda later that this must be her revenge for the time I made her cry with the dolls, so now we’re even, right?

Anyway! Back to the ULTIMATE BIZARRO SHOWDOWN!!!

Now, yes, okay, there’s been some serious negative flak and fallout from this year’s event. As of this writing, I’m still mulling things over myself, having seen from the reactions of others that I perhaps underestimated the degree of discomfort. Will get to that in a bit though. All I can really say right now is from my own perspective. Indeed, all I can really say ever is from my own perspective; I certainly can’t and don’t speak for anyone else or in any official capacity.

But, yeah, later. On a happier note, for a while now Doug and I had been trying without much success to explain the Showdown to some of our friends. When, honestly, there IS no explaining the Showdown. Words fail. It’s different every time, you never know what will happen, it does have to be experienced to be believed. Finally, our friend Wade attended to see for himself, and now, at last, understands why we couldn’t adequately describe the weirdness.

Just as I will fail to adequately describe it here. Can’t be done. First off, our host and hostess introduced the esteemed panel of judges – Gina Rinalli, Brian Keene, John Skipp, Jennifer Robin, and Robert Devereaux (well, first off they zapped Laura Lee Bahr, the poor dear!).

There were, as I recall, sixteen acts in all, beginning with Jeff Burk formally announcing his and his cat Squishy’s 2020 presidential run. He even had a box brought in that turned out NOT to contain Squishy herself, but for a fleeting moment there, I believed him, the brat.

Some performances hearkened back to previous years … Ross E. Lockhart extended a heartfelt apology to a literary critic he’d unfairly maligned, while Michael Smith carried on the political theme as Mayor of BizarroCon and then won his own real-life campaign for local office.

Another recurring theme in the zeitgeist this time around – it’s uncanny the way these things tend to happen, independent of one another – proved to be music. We had a “How Bizarre” dance number, audience participation Air Supply, Garrett Cook’s ukulele torture, a maple-syrup-scented rendition of O Canada, an appearance by hip-hop megastar Young Stepdad (sponsored by Mtn. Dew Baja Blast).

Must give special mention here to one of the musical numbers, my personal favorite act of the evening. Admittedly, at first, when Danger Slater stood up there in a green bodysuit with green goop slathered on his face, and pulled on a frog hat, I felt a momentary dread that he and amphibilingus preacher David W. Barbee were about to get up to something unspeakable. Instead, though, Danger led us all in the most heartbreakingly adorable singalong of Rainbow Connection … the entire ballroom, arms up, hands swaying back and forth … it was so unexpected, so sincere and so sweet! Made all the sweeter, to me, by that earlier moment of dread.

However, the night also had its majorly uncomfortable episode, and I suppose I can’t put it off any longer. New Deadite author Chandler Morrison did a reading/performance from his upcoming book, which involved a threesome with an aborted fetus. Graphically acted out, with a fake penis and a fetus doll and everything. Even I, Edward Lee fangirl that I am, found it squicky and uncomfortable, though I was under the impression that was kind of the point.

Turns out, many others felt it was way too much. That it went too far, crossed the line. Some also interpreted it as having racist elements due to the color of the fetus doll … this was a surprising bit of news to me; I hadn’t seen it as a “brown” baby at all, more purple and grey and bloody and dead … not that that’s any sort of a decency defense either. Or that there was real nudity and real ejaculation, neither of which was the case. But yeah, it was very graphic, and in the days since the convention has stirred up considerable controversy.

I did mention to Jeff later that night that the new guy was going to do just fine, but that was before I learned how powerfully negative an effect it’d had on much of the audience. As a Deadite author, if that’s the kind of stuff he’s writing, I stand by it … compared to other extreme horror works of atrocity and grossness, he’s got the stuff to run with the big names. For the Showdown, however, as opposed to say the Gross-Out, I can see how it might’ve been out of place. I sincerely hope everyone’s concerns are heard, respected, and addressed.

For now, I’ll leave it at that because this is my con journal and I’m sure the matter will be discussed elsewhere. Indeed, as of this pre-posting edit, it’s being discussed vigorously, and will no doubt continue to be for quite a while.

So! Moving on.

Another common theme for the Showdown this year appeared to involve bribing the judges. With cash, with a sack of gold-foil chocolate coins, with beverages and other, ahem (*squints at John Skipp*) consumables. At one point, while ranting about redistribution of wealth, Maxwell Bauman strode to the judges’ table, picked up Brian Keene’s unfinished whiskey, and downed it.

If you know Brian Keene, you would understand. Even those who had only just MET Brian Keene would understand. The collective gasp of the crowd caused an ear-popping pressure change in the room. Mary SanGiovanni nearly fell off her chair (and you could see it in her eyes, the frantic calculations as to how much bail money was going to be). We’re talking sheer magnitude here, hitherto-undiscovered levels of chutzpah.

But he just up and DID it. And he survived. No wonder, then, that at the end of the evening they gave him a special “Biggest Balls” judge’s choice award. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t even remember what the rest of his act included, something about being shirtless and humping the microphone stand, I think …

Speaking of which, being shirtless that is, we did have quite a few shirts and some pants being shed during the performances. This in part goes back to what I mentioned before about underpants … I’ve seen more people in their underpants since meeting this crowd than I ever did before. Not to mention the occasional bare bottom and various other bits.

Karl Fischer even had the first row of tables chuck oranges at his bare bottom. And there we were expecting something to do with blackbirds! Furthermore, John Wayne Communale’s choice of briefs was interesting; even from the front of the room, close scrutiny was required to be sure he was wearing any at all (okay maybe it wasn’t *required* but … again, moving on, change of subject)

Technical difficulties plagued a couple of the performances, computer issues for one and a pesky stackable obelisk for the other, but in both instances the participants rallied well and pressed through. Some attention-hog diva named Chazzz craved the zappy wand such that Sauda had to fit it with a special attachment.

By the end, there were oranges everywhere, and gummi fish, and maple syrup (though, as was pointed out, at least the Canadian contingent had been polite enough to bring a tarp!). The judges once again had their work cut out for them. In addition to the “Biggest Balls” award, and two Honorable Mentions (Sam Reeve and John Wayne Communale), third place went to Danger Slater, second to Andrew Goldfarb despite the stubborn obelisk, and first to Cameron Pierce, aka Young Stepdad.

For the second time in a row, the previous champion did not show up to defend the title and deliver the ceremonial garment – we’re all looking at *you*, Shane McKenzie and Gabino Iglesias! – and so a new one was obtained, a very fetching crimson-and-gold cape with matching crown. The second place pinata of goodies was cracked at the after-party, where presumably third-place first-loser wore the required shameful disguise kit.

I say presumably, because once again I wimped out and went home to get some sleep, lingering only long enough to grab the rest of the centerpieces (one went home with Laura Lee Bahr, the other, with two big shiny silver ornament balls on top, was hastily dubbed a trophy for Maxwell Bauman). I’ve since disassembled them and saved the decorative bits with my craft stuff because I may have a slight hoarding problem.

A few hours of sleep later – well, *I* slept; others who are younger and fitter and livelier may not have done – and it was Sunday. The last day already, too soon, much too soon!

The breakfast buffet was back in the smaller Barley Room like usual, but as is also usual for Sunday morning, the turnout was much smaller. Those late nights taking their toll; some attendees wouldn’t reappear until well past noon. Ah well, more biscuits and gravy for the rest of us! If the bacon is a big draw, the biscuits and gravy are a close second.

Much of the day was occupied by goodbyes and farewells as people with various travel arrangements had to head out. Doug, driving back north, was among them and left just after breakfast. The two scheduled panels for the day flowed naturally into each other – Expanding the Bizarro Audience, and Forming Bonds on the Fringe. How do we find our fellow weirdos out there in the wider ordinary world? How do we encourage and be fearless about flying our own weirdo flags? As I mentioned to my mother some days later over the phone, I’ve always been this way, but kept a lot of it stifled and muffled for so long, and it’s been such a glorious liberation being with others who fully understand, embrace, and appreciate all that wacky shit.

The final few hours before Closing Ceremonies were occupied with the film festival, hosted by John Skipp and capably run by tech wizard Lori Bowen. Skipp spends all year assembling a lineup of the craziest most brain-bending stuff he can find, then gleefully shares it with the rest of us.

A few of the selections featured familiar faces; Laura Lee Bahr as a put-upon housewife who’s finally had enough in “The Eagles Are a Country Music Band,” and Michael Allen Rose and Sauda Namir appearing in a wickedly witty commentary on social interactions called “Spoons.”

There was musical mutilation and medical evisceration, photography and fame, bleeding for art, a summer-camp slasher classic … even the commercials … I loved the commercials … that so-very-80’s pizza-pigskins whatever it was? and the shrimp-fest? Show of hands, who’ll all flinch from now on whenever they see a Red Lobster ad?

Last but by no means least, Brian Keene treated us to a screening of Mike Lombardo’s feel-good holiday romp, “I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday,” and basically ruined Christmas for everyone forever. It was striking and powerful, far more emotional than I’d expected. And that KID! Wow, he was good. Excellent job all around. A pity we won’t be seeing it on the Hallmark Channel any time soon …

Only a couple dozen stragglers were left by then for the brief Closing Ceremonies, which were followed by a return to the Ad House for another Bizarro Con tradition – Kevin L. Donihe gettin’ up to some lunacy. Last year was a ghost hunt. This year, he taught us the deeper mysteries and truths behind hide-and-seek. Then, after learning even more about various folks’ undies, most of them hied off to the Soaking Pool.

And me? Still no Soaking Pool for me. That freezing wind, for one thing … yes, I understand the pool itself is nice and hot, but eventually you gotta get OUT of it. For another, even after my drastic post-radiation weight loss, I like everyone too much to subject them to me in a swimsuit (or undies!) just yet.

So, I rounded up my cookie trays (they had been pretty well reduced to crumbs, broken bits, and old maids), gathered my stuff, did my own quick round of goodbyes, and headed for home. My kitties were very glad to see me, even if I slept for a solid thirteen hours and only dragged myself out of bed the next day because of appointment reminder phone calls and a maintenance visit to fix our garbage disposal.

But it was the GOOD kind of tired. The kind of exhaustion resulting from enjoying an energizing, replenishing weekend in that mad whirl of fun and creativity with like-minded weird souls. Overall, even with its difficult moments, I had a grand time, I love my Bizarro family, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Five thousand and some words later, if you’ve read along this far, thanks; I hope it was enlightening and informative, or at least entertaining. I hope it brings some fond memories or even fills in a few blanks, and that I haven’t forgotten or missed too much. I know I did miss out on some things, like the whole egg mystery, whatever that was … and someone sneakily adding a Coldplay patch to Jeff’s jacket … though I was there for the resolution of Chazzz’s missing wig.

In conclusion, hey, buy my books! I’ve got a new one, an Edward-Lee-approved sequel to his Lucifer’s Lottery, coming in May from Deadite Press … Lakehouse Infernal, it’s called, and it’s … well, it’s demented, it’s total shameless Edward Lee fanfic throughout, it’s nasty and blasphemous and violent and gross, and I had the best time of my life writing it.

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LAKEHOUSE INFERNAL

Coming in May 2019 from Deadite Press!

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Lake Misquamicus was no major vacation destination, no tourist attraction. Just another Florida lake, quaint and quiet, almost obscure. A few campgrounds and cabins surrounded it, a lakehouse or two.

There were places to rent rowboats and Jet Skis or go parasailing. There were a couple of little general-type stores for ice and firewood and picnic supplies, a couple of bait shops, a clam shack, a seedy bar where the handful of resident regulars and the occasional adventuresome camper might go for a few beers. The local celebrity was a horror writer / filmmaker who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time squirting presumably fake bodily fluids on busty models.

Quaint, quiet, almost obscure.

Ground Zero for six billion gallons of blood and bile, pus and filth.

Without warning, out of nowhere, all at once, whoomp-there-it-is.

The stink of it, the abattoir stench! Rotting meat and raw sewage – and not just any raw sewage, this was raw sewage from Hell! The unholiest of excrements! Quite possibly the shit of Satan Himself!

The humid, fuming heat of it! No more cool clear refreshing lake temperatures here, but somewhere between bathtub and hot spring, almost sickly-steaming.

The color, no bright special-effects corn-syrup red, but churning maroon and crimson streaked with the vilest greens, yellows, and browns. The slopping wet fleshy sound of it lapping the shore, lapping like mouthfuls of tongues, sometimes lapping with mouthfuls of tongues!

Oh, it was disgusting, it was a violation of every sense, a violation of sanity, a nightmare made real. It was fundamental beliefs turned inside out, knowledge shattered, a forced re-examination of science and natural laws.

In Edward Lee’s Lucifer’s Lottery, a diabolical spell of transference swaps the contents of a Florida lake with that of a reservoir in Hell.

In Lakehouse Infernal, this Lee-approved sequel, we return some years later to those not-so-scenic shores. Witness the effects on the ecosystem! See the exciting wildlife! Meet the charming locals and demonic denizens!

Never mind the quarantine, the military checkpoints, and the wall; there’s always a way for the determined. Such as a quintet of college kids looking to celebrate Spring Break, and a group of holy rollers hoping to confront the forces of evil. Or the unlucky, like the hapless pilot who’s about to put his guardian angel to the ultimate test.

Seriously, Lakehouse Infernal is the coolest, ball-bustingest, most outrageous, and most ENTERTAINING horror novel you’re likely to find in a long time. And lemme tell ya, if you like the gross-out thing like I do, this story’s a veritable Whitman’s Sampler. Morgan gets it, she knows the market, and she’s not writing Little Bo Peep, she’s writing a gross-out party about a lake full of sewage from Hell!” — Edward Lee, from the Introduction. 

CAGED — now available!

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Available on Smashwords!

His business cards read: “Nathaniel Caron, Psychic Advisor.” Gifted (or cursed) with the ability to perceive emotional energies, he’s something of a loner more by necessity than choice. Aside from a few close friends and a string of failed or on-again/off-again relationships, it’s pretty much him and his big fuzzy bastard of a cat. Even in his quirky neighborhood, he’s regarded as something of a curiosity. A harmless weirdo, according to some. A con artist taking advantage of gullible old ladies, according to others. He makes his living doing spiritual readings and counseling, with the occasional missing persons or lost pets case thrown in.

Several years ago, though, Nathaniel helped track down a monster. A human monster, a child-abductor, Warren Sigmund. He’d take his victims to an old barn, lock them in cages, do terrible things. One of the children he seized was Tina Pascal, daughter of Nathaniel’s closest friend, police officer Jack Pascal. On an awful day ending with gunfire, Warren Sigmund was shot twice. Brain-dead, in a coma, confined to a care facility ever since, Sigmund was no longer believed to be any kind of a threat. His recently reported death would certainly seem to confirm that. It’d be impossible for Warren Sigmund to be up and around.

Yet, now Tina insists she’s that seen ‘the bad stranger’ she remembers from when she was little. The care facility appears to be hiding something. Other patients there have had strange experiences, talking about hauntings and malevolent forces. Nathaniel’s never been 100% sure either way about ghosts, but the more he looks into it, the more he has to admit, the impossible’s starting to seem pretty possible after all.

Available on Smashwords!

Bonus Book Review!

Title: If You Died Tomorrow I Would Eat Your Corpse

Author: Wrath James White

Publisher: Clash Books

Website: http://www.clashbooks.com

Torture, mutilation, cannibalism … there isn’t anything Wrath James White can’t make seem sexy. Seriously, we’re talking the very depths of agony and atrocity, pain and suffering, and yet you read it (or hear HIM reading it) and on some level you just have to be thinking, “damn, that’s hot.”

I knew this based on his previous works already, so I thought – silly girl – I was prepared for his poetry collection. I wasn’t. No one could be. I mean, whoa. This book should be sold with a safeword. His poetry, like his prose, is pure primal elemental passion. Calling it ‘erotic horror’ or ‘horror erotica’ would make everything else with those labels look tepid and milquetoast by comparison.

The introduction alone is titled “Poems To (bleep) To,” though acknowledges they aren’t ALL love poems. Even the ones that ARE love poems are that special Wrath kind of love; not much in the way of hesitant kisses and murmured sweet nothings here. Others are death poems, with eviscerations and dismemberments. Many are both, in that powerful and effective combination striking right to the nerve centers.

When supernatural aspects appear, they are of the hungry kind, the brutal kind, werewolves and vampires, wicked demons. A couple of pieces are not poems but short stories; the longest of these appears to be untitled and is sheer torment of another sort, the torment of memory and loss.

If you have the kind of relationship that could withstand it, this book would make one doozy of a Valentine’s Day gift. Of course, it might also be a quick way to discover you DON’T have that kind of relationship (if things go spectacularly wrong, you might discover you now have no relationship at all, or a special new relationship involving restraining orders or something).

**

Autumn Book Blowout!

Hey! Need books? I still got books! Books books books! I can sign ’em and stuff! Contact me! Make me an offer! Will bundle! Free US shipping! Bonus grab bag books thrown in! Let’s deal! Great gifts; holidays are coming! Tell your friends! Please oh please I am so very broke and need the shelf space! Books books books!

booksale

Naughty and Dice (rpg supplement) $15
The Horned Ones (cave monsters) $10
His Blood (non-sparkly vampires) $10
Silver Doorway series (fantasy for younger readers) $20 for the set
Trinity Bay horror — Black Roses (incubus), Gifted Children (creepy kids), Changeling Moon (shapeshifters) $8 each
Fossil Lake anthologies (all sorts of wacky weirdness) $8 each or $25 for the set

Edited to add: MURDER GIRLS (college housemates become serial killers), last three copies, out of print, $15, snag one while they last! ONLY ONE COPY LEFT! Sold out!

In fact, I’ll sweeten the deal with a special treat … the first ten orders over 20 bucks, I’ll throw in a FREE Audible.com DOWNLOAD CODE for the awesome AUDIOBOOK version of my pioneer blizzard snow monster horror novel, WHITE DEATH, narrated by Matt Godfrey!

wdcov1

Email me at christinemariemorgan@gmail.com … limited quantities remaining!

Bonus reviews!

Title: A Biography of a Chance Miracle

Author: Tanja Maljartschuk

Publisher: Cadmus Press

Website: cadmusmedia.org

I’m not sure how to categorize this book. It seems to stretch languidly across many genres, like one of those paintings where a lady in a rowboat reclines and dangles her pale fingers in the pond amid lily pads and flowers.

There are paranormal elements – searching for the truth behind tales of a mysterious flying woman who may or may not be an angel. There are political elements – it’s set in Ukraine, beginning during the turbulent post-war years, with indoctrination and rebellion and clashes with a deeply flawed system. There are psychological elements – the main character, Lena, is a difficult misfit even as a child, and grows into a troubled would-be activist and crusader, seeking to do something meaningful with her life.

The entire experience of reading it was both enthralling and somehow distressing. Lena’s difficulties in school and with her family, the dysfunctional friendship with a girl she calls Dog, relationships with roommates and boyfriends, her efforts to seek change, her inner issues … compelling but uncomfortable … it’s hard to like her, and hard not to. A complex challenge.

Bureaucracy is the main evil, an all-too-familiar one cast here into an unflinching spotlight. Anyone who’s felt like they were getting a runaround from government agencies will be readily able to relate to the sheer frustration of an obstructed, broken system. It’s well-written, a fascinating peek into history and a part of the world many might not be aware of. Weird and surreal, yet subtle.

**

Title: Borderline: a Cloud Lands story

Author: Hannah Steenbock

Publisher: Buhsteppe Verlag / Frauke Mobius

Website: http://www.hannah-steenbock.de

I was unfamiliar with this writer and this world, but after reading this short story / prequel to the longer works, I’d be interested in learning more. It’s fantasy on the face of it, a fantasy world with warring kingdoms and dragon riders, but this particular tale is on the small-scale personal level.

Ylanda and her dragon Rakild are doing a routine solo patrol of the mountains that form a natural barrier between the Western Kingdom and their sworn enemies, the Carmine Empire. It’s a brisk, cold, clear, winter’s day. But some hunch prompts Ylanda to have Rakild go hunting for game, and the hunch soon proves valid – a sudden bad storm sets in, forcing them to seek refuge in a cave before the punishing weather kills them.

Nor are they alone for long … another patrolling dragon rider gets caught in the same plight. Problem is, this other rider turns out to be a Carmine. With each team stricken by various injuries, with no firewood and little in the way of food and water, an unlikely truce has to form if any of them are going to survive. They’ll have to work together, help each other. They might even have to question the propaganda of their respective nations, and figure out where true loyalties should lie.

I had no trouble grasping the concept of the setting, the bonds between dragons and their riders, and the political situation. I liked all the characters and want to find out what happens after. This didn’t feel like one of those fantasy novels bogged down with excessive info dumps; the writing style is clean and smooth and brings the pertinent details in naturally. It’s been a while since I’ve read within this genre, but I found this a refreshing and fun change from my more usual gory fare … and I’d expect more dedicated fantasy readers would have no complaints.

**

An Update on the Update page?

Imagine that! Trying to get back to maintaining this site a bit more regularly. This past year or so has been a slogging hell of hospitals, medical procedures, body horror, stress, and hassle. But, now I need to try and get my act more or less back together.

Part of this whole experience resulted in a GoFundMe, out of which developed two chapbooks written partly for folks who kicked in at a reward level: Greater Than Gold (sagas) and Fuck Cancer (stories). I have copies of both available and would be glad to send them out to whoever helps cover postage; email me at christinemariemorgan@gmail.com .

What else is new? Well, I recently finished a new book, an extreme horror novel titled Lakehouse Infernal. It is, with his kind permission, a sequel to Lucifer’s Lottery by Edward Lee. He even wrote me an intro! The manuscript’s currently in the hands of a certain publisher, so, fingers crossed.

My historical horror pioneer blizzard book, White Death, is now also available on audiobook, read by the fantastic Matt Godfrey. The first anniversary of Spermjackers From Hell is coming up in a couple of weeks. My Viking collection, The Raven’s Table, is going strong, and by now I almost have enough stories for the follow-up, which I’d like to call The Wolf’s Feast.

The “Anthologies” page here has been brought more up to date, including several to be hopefully released soon. I’m still a regular contributor to The Horror Fiction Review, and will be adding some non-horror reviews here in the next week or so; watch this space.

The combination of medical conditions and financial fallout thereof have severely limited my abilities to attend much in the way of events, or do fun stuff like readings and panels. But I will be at KillerCon this month in Austin, TX. And BizarroCon, which moved to January 2019.

I’ll also be putting together another inventory reduction sale here pretty soon. Need shelf space and money. So, stay tuned for that as well.

 

Bonus reviews — Mellick double-feature!

Because “The Horror Fiction Review” can’t get too overloaded with Eraserhead books, sometimes I’m left with reviews to post on my own. So, here are my takes on a couple of recent works by the unstoppable juggernaut that is Carlton Mellick III!

The Big Meat

Not only is this guy the fastest and most prolific writer you’ll ever see (well except maybe for whoever cranks out all those butt-smut books), he is hands-down flat-out THE BEST when it comes to taking even the weirdest scenarios and extrapolating / world-building until it all makes sense. The ultimate “what would happen if …” whether we’re talking what would happen if it suddenly started raining candy instead of water, or what would happen if an entire civilization lived on a dog, and even weirder.

This time, he takes on the kaiju genre, in which giant monsters stomp cities in the best Godzilla tradition, and manages to do something I’ve never seen before, leaving me both surprised that I’ve never seen it before, and impressed. Instead of the focus being on the action and destruction, it’s the aftermath (though fear not, there are some flashbacks to the stompy chaos too!)

Because really, think about it, what happens after the monster is defeated? Presuming that it doesn’t wade back into the ocean or something. When it’s killed, and suddenly there’s this ginormous corpse to deal with. How do you handle cleanup of something that size? What do you DO with it? What if it starts to rot?

Read this book and find out! Get the up close and personal experience with Kevin, a young survivor who’s just signed on with one of the crews, and take the nasty inside tour. You’ll also never look at those Magic Schoolbus or Timer videos about journeying through a body the same way again.

But it’s far more than just a slog-fest through decaying parasite-infested innards … something even weirder is going on, a strange secretion that affects anyone who comes into contact with it. For Kevin and his crew, a bad day at work is about to get a whole lot worse.

*

Stacking Doll

Billy Joel’s song, “The Stranger,” describes how we all have secret inner faces we keep hidden, and how shocking it can be when your own mask slips or you get a glimpse of someone else’s inner self. Okay, fair enough, good start … but “The Stranger” has got nothing on this.

Secret inner faces? Barely scratching the surface compared to complete entire different entities hidden within. Forget multiple personality disorder, too; we’re talking drastic physical differences to say the least. What would it be like to fall in love with someone for whom this is a literal reality?

What would it be like to fall in love with someone who’s a stacking doll? A nesting doll? With each layer opening to reveal someone else inside?

All Benjamin, a normal human, knows is that he loves Ynaria and wants to marry her. Never mind the objections of his friends and her parents. Never mind the cultural differences (side note – my absolute favorite parts of this book were where things got into the Matryoshkan culture and how things work; I absolutely adore that sort of stuff and it’s one of the many areas where Mellick consistently knocks it out of the park).

Before a wedding can take place, though, Ben and Ynaria must go through the Trial, a tradition in which the prospective pair are to show their inner selves. In their case, it’ll be a bit more one-sided, but they’re determined to go through with it anyway.

And boy, is Ben in for a series of surprises … not all of them pleasant … some of them downright dangerous … it’s the ultimate getting-to-know-you experience, the ultimate lesson in how you can’t really know a person from surface appearances … the ultimate lesson in what love really is.

*

Alan Baxter’s HIDDEN CITY

hc_baxter

 

I’ve encountered my share of urban fantasy over the years, both as a reader and a gamer … but in all that time, I’ve never seen it done like this! Urban fantasy without elves and orcs, without werewolves and vampires, without wizarding schools or secretive mystic cabals … but modern magic wielded by ordinary people.

It’s a different kind of magic, too. Actually, it’s several different kinds of magic. This isn’t your bell-book-candle formulaic kind of deal with wands or rituals. It’s handled almost more like psychic abilities, or superpowers, where each individual is going to have his or her own particular type of gift. I love that approach, and here it works extremely well here.

So, you’ll have your talents who can heal, or make illusions, or enhance technology, most of them fairly minor. Some work together, some mostly operate solo but maintain their connections among the weird community. For the most part, they keep things fairly low-key. This isn’t big epic Dr. Strange-scale cosmic arcana … at least, usually it isn’t.

Steven Hines, our main character, self-describes as a ‘citymage.’ He is linked, on an intense and intimate level, to the city of Cleveport, attuned to its activities and moods as if the city itself is a living being with which he shares a telepathic/empathic bond. They can communicate, help each other. But it comes at a cost. His travel options are severely limited, for one. For another, Cleveport is very much the jealous type when it comes to his other relationships.

He is allowed to have friends, though, including his childhood BFF Abby Jones, now a police detective. Although she doesn’t understand (or much want to) the whole magic thing, she recognizes it can be useful in solving certain cases. Like the one she’s got now, with several inexplicable deaths with connections to the talented community.

You might think this was gearing up to your classic buddy movie, Alien Nation with a magic twist, that new Will Smith one, whatever. And you wouldn’t be far wrong, but you also wouldn’t be fully right. As our main two undertake their investigation, events across the city are already building toward a crisis, and other characters are being pulled in.

A beat cop finds himself dealing with spates of seemingly random violent attacks and bizarre transformations … a young mage is scared and on the run after her boyfriend’s overdose … a mob boss is unhappy with gone-awry shipments of a magic-specific drug … pretty soon all of Cleveport is basically going nuts, and it’s up to a small group of mismatched heroes to try and save the day.

Action-packed from start to finish, layered with levels of subtle but deep backstory, lively, fast-paced, gripping, and fun, Hidden City is a definite winner. I’m thinking Netflix series. Somebody should get on that.

**

Publisher: Gryphonwood Press

Website: http://www.gryphonwoodpress.com

https://www.alanbaxteronline.com/books/hidden-city/

Masque of the Rue Paule

(In honor of Poe’s birthday, and because I haven’t updated in a while, here’s a fun little mash-up that originally appeared in Icarus Magazine 🙂 )

 

MASQUE OF THE RUE PAULE

Christine Morgan

The pestilence had long devastated the country. No intolerance had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Hate was its avatar and its seal — the blindness and the ignorance of hate.

But the Queen had summoned to her presence many hale and light-hearted of her court, and retired to an extensive structure of her own eccentric yet august taste, amply provisioned with wine, security, and all the appliances of pleasure. There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.

It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth episode of this season, while the ratings raged most furiously abroad …

Oooh giiirl!” rang out a voice. “You’ve got she-mail!”

There then appeared upon a wall of the dressing chamber the glorious image of the Queen herself, Rue Paule, their generous Prospero, their benefactor, the Queen before whom all lesser queens bowed and to whose throne they hoped some day to aspire.

They, these lesser queens, turned at once with great eagerness. Each was in varying states of disarray, half-clothed and partially cosmeticed, in mid-preparation for that day’s games. They numbered half a dozen now, each having won through while others had been eliminated one by one from the festivities.

Who’s ready for a gay and magnificent revel?” the Queen’s image asked, shaking out tresses of flaxen curls over an off-the-shoulder black gown. “A voluptuous scene of unusual magnificence?”

Some queens squealed, danced in place and patted their hands in quick little claps … some said, “Hell yes!” and “Gay revelry? Bring it on!” … and some watched with silent predatory intensity.

Among them were:

Aloof, tall and lean, angular as a fashion model, with cheekbones that could cut diamond and eyes that never quite made contact with those of another.

Kallie Entay, by contrast, was hot-blooded and curvaceous, a fiery Latina with a spicy accent and a loud, raucous laugh.

Mo’Jo, of the dark chocolate skin and impressive bustline, was a queen-sized queen with a queen-sized attitude to match.

We’ll see whose true colors come shining through,” the Queen continued, “and who’s just a horse – that’s horse — of a different color.”

Here were also:

Viva Vavoom, the oldest remaining in the contest, called herself ‘the camp dowager’ and favored cigarette holders and rhinestone glasses.

Cutie Pebbles, baby-faced and chubby-cheeked enough to live up to her name, had a high and breathy way of talking that often annoyed the others.

And, last but by no means least, Zoenne. Her body was spectacular, and she knew it, making the most of showing it next-to-naked at every opportunity.

So,” said the Queen, “it’s time to find out who can go monochrome … and who can go home.”

The image vanished. Moments later the chamber door opened. In stepped a bald man of elegant aspect and impeccable attire. His complexion was warm caramel, his features aquiline, and his body moved with lissome grace.

Hello, hello, hello,” he said. His voice was identical to that of the Queen, for this was the Queen, this was their Prospero, this was the one and only Rue Paule in person.

Hi, Rue,” chorused the queens, ranging from simpering to sultry.

Are you ready for today’s challenges?”

Nods and murmurs of agreement answered this.

He snapped his fingers. At once, two more men filed in, these scantily clad and of delectable physique – bronzed, muscular, and oiled. The reactions of the queens were, as always, approving and appreciative.

The men carried between them a large cloth-draped easel, which they set on the floor. They then passed out to each of the queens a notepad and marker, and went to stand at parade rest nearby, the pose causing considerable prominence of package.

Our mini-challenge,” said Rue, “is about masks. We all wear them, don’t we? For some of us, drag is our mask. But, today, we’re playing a little game I like to call ‘Who Is That Masked Man?’ Behind this drape are numbered headshots of twenty famous, or infamous, gay celebrities. Their faces have been covered with masks, except for the eyes. You’ll have one minute to study the pictures and write down your guesses. The queen who correctly identifies the most will be our winner. Clear?”

Again, they gave murmurs and nods of agreement.

Do the eyes have it?” asked Rue. “Your time starts … now!”

He whisked away the drape, revealing the masked headshots. It was of course his own guiding taste which had given character to these masqueraders, much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm.

The queens stared at the eyes that were all that was visible. Their markers flew, scribbling on the notepads. At the end of the minute, Rue declared they must put down their pens.

One by one were the masks removed, the faces revealed. There were of course Oscar Wilde and Anderson Cooper among them, George Takei and Ricky Martin, and other icons past and present.

And, in the end, with sixteen of the twenty correct …

The winner is Kallie Entay,” Rue said.

The five other queens made congratulations, in varying degrees of sincerity, as Kallie preened. “Puerto Rrrrrrrico!” she cried in victorious celebration.

Following this, the proceedings of the day were to move on to the main challenge. Rue signaled again to the men of delectable physique.

With still as much appreciative approval, the queens watched as they crossed the chamber. There, in a glistening display of taut flesh and manly prowess, they moved aside one of the walls. Thus revealed was a closed corridor into which narrow Gothic windows looked from the right and left, an imperial suite of rooms.

Rue Paule faced the queens. A stack of flat objects in his hands made brittle, crystalline clicking noises as he deftly manipulated them like a magician about to perform a card trick. “Each of those windows is of stained glass, whose color varies in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opens.”

You mean,” said Aloof, “that each room’s a different color.”

That at the eastern extremity is hung …” Here, Rue paused, and his as well as many other glances slid along the bodies of the men. “… well hung … for example, in blue, and vividly blue are its windows.”

He held up one of the flat objects, which the queens now saw was a pane of stained glass such as might be found in a window. It was, indeed, vividly blue.

The second chamber is purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and there the panes are purple,” he said. “The third is green throughout, the fourth furnished with orange, and so on. The fifth is white, the sixth violet.”

As he spoke, he fanned out the rest of the panes like a poker hand.

Once again, time is of the essence,” Rue said. “This will test your charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. You’ll have one hour to come up with an outfit suitable for a masked ball. You can use your own wigs, shoes and undergarments from your wardrobes; everything else must come only from your assigned room.”

We can only dress in one color?” asked Cutie Pebbles, eyes wide. “Only that color?”

That’s right.” He smirked ever-so-slightly at their dismayed expressions. “The one who proves she can best stand out … and blend in … will be the winner.”

Stand out?” echoed Kallie. “How are we supposed to stand out when we have to wear the same color as the room?”

Don’t you give me no orange,” Mo’Jo said.

Purple and violet?” Zoenne frowned. “What’s the difference?”

Green is my faaaavorite color!” trilled Viva, wildly fluttering her lashes.

I hope I don’t get blue.” Cutie bounced up and down, chewing her knuckles.

Kallie Entay,” Rue Paule said, “since you won the last challenge, you’ll decide the order in which everyone picks their colors. You first.”

Well,” said Kallie, her accent thick, “since green is my favorite color too … I’ll take green. Sorry, Viva. But you can go next.”

Viva grinned. “Honey, I hate green. I knew you’d take it just because I said that. I’ll have violet.”

Kallie flashed her a tight, catty scowl, then recovered. “Aloof can pick now.”

White,” said Aloof.

No,” remarked Zoenne with a sarcastic eyeroll. “The ice queen picks white. Who would’ve guessed.”

Zoenne,” said Callie. “Your turn.”

I’ll take blue.”

Two colors left, and two queens,” said Rue. “Kallie?”

Aw, hell, purple or orange?” Mo’Jo snorted. “Fine. Whateva. Cutie can choose. I don’t care.”

No, you should choose,” said Kallie. “Mo’Jo.”

With a disgruntled sigh, the queen-sized queen examined both options. “So I can be a pumpkin or a eggplant. Let’s go eggplant.”

Which leaves orange for Cutie Pebbles.” Rue handed over the final pane of stained glass. He started toward the door, then paused. “Oh, and there’s just one more thing …”

In again came the two men of delectable physique. They rolled between them on its casters a tall clock, ornately carved from ebony.

The queens glanced at it and each other in concern. They knew there were many who would have thought their Queen mad, though they felt that she was not … they knew that to hear and see and touch her was to know that she was not.

Yet, here was this clock, its hands ticking the circuit of its face.

Like none of you ever saw a big black clock before.” Rue laughed. “But this one has … a special twist.”

Just then, the minute-hand reached the hour. The clock began to chime. Its sound was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that it struck a brief disconcert of the whole gay company.

The giddiest queens grew pale. The more sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie.

At the final stroke of the clock, its cabinet opened and a queen emerged with a toss of hair and the flourish of long, shapely legs.

Ballyhoo, bitches! I’m baaaack!” this seventh queen announced.

Among the rest fell a sudden shock and consternation. There arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise.

Sh’Devila will be rejoining the competition,” Rue said.

Some, with monumental effort, pasted upon themselves fake smiles. Others turned to their friends, whispering in terror, horror and disgust.

Oh, hell no!” Mo’Jo said.

There are matters of which no jest can be made,” whispered Aloof, her gaze focused elsewhere.

Viva gaped in exaggerated outrage. “I swear, she’s like herpes! You can’t get rid of her!”

But Rue had gone to Sh’Devila and gave her a final pane of glass, this one blood red.

Thank you, Rue,” she crooned.

Rue indicated the clock. “It’s now five past the hour. The next time this clock chimes, you’ll know you have five minutes remaining. Gentlemen, start your engines. And may the best … woman … win!”

He stepped aside as the queens rushed for the corridor. At the entrance it became a bottleneck of shouldering and struggling, not shoving and slapping but each still doing her best to gain every possible split-second of advantage. They swarmed to their rooms, finding them by way of the stained glass windows corresponding to the panes they’d been given. Doors banged open. A frenzied clamor commenced.

To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked Rue Paule, taking in the arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments, the delirious fancies and madman fashions, a multitude of dreams.

Half an hour to go,” he warned them when that span of the interlude had passed.

A light laughter pervaded the assembly. They smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made vows that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion.

Yet then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies, there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

Five minutes, ladies,” called Rue.

In the apartments beat feverishly the heart of life whirlingly on, until there was an uneasy cessation of all things. Then the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers were slid open, that the queens one and all beheld each other and were revealed.

What little Zoenne wore was, in fact, as blue as the room in which she stood, and drawn from the furnishings and accoutrements therein. In that manner she had abided by the rules of the competition, but far more was the hue of her own skin the centerpiece. A single silken ribbon twined its way about her face and body, covering, if barely, the minimum required by decorum, and fastened at one hip with an ornament made of the pane of stained glass.

By contrast, and despite her earlier misgivings, Mo’Jo looked nothing like an eggplant in her extravaganza of purple. She had gone for divine royalty southern belle, complete with lace-edged parasol and hoop skirt. Her cleavage was a jiggling and canyonesque expanse. Instead of a mask, she’d opted for a hat, a broad-brimmed bonnet laden with lavender blossoms, and a lacy veil.

Kallie Entay, in the green room, twirled so that her flamenco skirt flared in a lavish of flounce and ruffle, exposing leg to the waist and emerald heels that would have made the Wizard of Oz come out from behind that curtain. More flounces and ruffles adorned the lowcut neckline of a green sequined leotard. Her bronze-blonde wig was teased high, held with a spangled comb that had begun the day as part of a decorative lampshade; the materials of this also adorned her elaborate carnivale mask.

As orange had been deemed the most difficult and least desirable color, Cutie Pebbles might have had her work cut out for her. To pursue a theme of fire seemed the obvious choice. It may have been from an awareness of this that Cutie sought to surprise, creating instead an orange poppy fairy princess, with tulle tutu, organza wings, and her trademark orange hair upswept in a fantastical flower-bedecked arrangement. Petals encrusted with glitter and rhinestones formed her mask.

Ice queen, Zoenne had said of Aloof, and perhaps in response to the intended jab had Aloof chosen her costume for this monochromatic masquerade. A frost-white wig in a sharp wedge cut framed her face, half of which was hidden by a mask of elaborate snowflake design. A stiff, sheer fan rose up behind her head as if spun into a web of ice by winter spiders. From her shoulders flowed a satiny sheen, beautiful but exuding the coldest of chills.

Viva Vavoom went flapper in violet, with a fringed and beaded sheath dress that did its job perhaps too well; when the very intention of the style was to make even a grown woman more resemble a curveless boy. She had the rolled stockings and unlaced ankleboots, the wristlet gloves, the lacquered flapper bob, and a beaded headband from which sprouted feathered plumes. And, perhaps in violet violation to the rules, she sported her familiar vamp’s cigarette holder.

The pane of glass which Sh’Devila had been given was red, but the room to which it went was appointed entirely in black; only the window itself was of this deep blood red. She chose for effect a blood red wig, coupled with the simplicity of a black domino mask and the ubiquitous classic little black dress, which molded to her hips and booty like a coat of paint. Had the skirt been any shorter, those observing might have mistaken it for a belt.

In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited.

You all have a fine eye for color and effects,” said Rue Paule, upon finishing his inspection. “But it’s time to disregard the decora of mere fashion for something bold … something fiery … conceptions that glow with barbaric lustre.”

The queens quivered with anticipation.

For tonight’s runway event,” Rue continued, “you’ll once again draw upon your charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to bring us your best Poe couture. You’ll be presenting your creations to myself and my panel of judges, including our special guests: Usher, Detective C. Auguste Dupin, and the one and only Lenore.”

At this, many great excitements and agitations fell upon the queens, these names known to them but none more so than that of Lenore, the rare and radiant maiden second only to the likes of Cher and Beyonce in the firmament.

Several more times anon would strike the ebony clock, which stood in the hall of the dressing chamber. And then, for a moment, all went still, and all was silent save the voice of the clock. The queens were stiff-frozen as they stood. But the echoes of the chime would die away — they had endured but an instant — and a light, half-subdued laughter floated after them as they departed.

There was in another part of the structure another chamber, this one boasting a cascade of lights and a stage, a promenade. A high table sat overlooking this, where the judges waited in comfort and luxury for the evening’s thrilling revelry.

Then did the musicians strike up a stirring melody upon their instruments, as the divine figure of the Queen appeared, a goddess, perfection in womanly form. Flaxen hair curled in a mane of flawless coiffure, glinting with a rainbow of gems. A rainbow as well was her gown, rainbow and metallic, in all the colors of the seven rooms from before, and all other colors as well, colors never before seen or imagined.

Prospero!” sang an unseen chorus.

Pestilence past the lock,

Stop the show at the chime of the clock.”

As they sang, Rue Paule owned the runway in confidence, in sexy and powerful strides. Each stride sent shimmering ripples through the fabulous gown, which winked and sparkled.

She stopped center-stage and bestowed a luxuriant smile upon the judges.

“Santinato,” she purred. “How’s the nitre treating your cough?”

Santinato, in the motley of a harlequin from parti-striped tights to the conical cap, raised his glass of Medoc in salute. “Rue, you can wall me up in your vaults any time, darling.”

And, joining us from gay Paris,” Rue went on, “Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin.”

The dapper French detective blew her a kiss. “Enchanté.”

You stay,” said Rue, regarding him with considerable flattery and favor. “Usher, so glad you could make it.”

The successful and multi-talented black entertainer arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted her with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, might at first be thought, of an overdone cordiality. The nature of his malady displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations, a morbid acuteness of the senses.

Hello, Rue,” he said.

New album coming out soon, I hear?”

That’s right. Collaborating with Snoop Dogg and Hopp Frogg. It’s called Tamerlane, and it’ll debut in January.”

Looking forward to it.” The Queen then directed her sumptuous gaze upon Lenore. “My angel. Rare and radiant as ever.”

Likewise,” Lenore breathed, in her ethereal voice.

How is Guy DeVere?”

He sheds no tear, but my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise.” A faint, flickering hint of emotion crossed her face, and she added, “Until my next single, of course.”

Adele and Taylor Swift better watch their backs.” Santinato said, and the judges shared a knowing laugh.

Now,” said Rue, once again commanding their attention. “Earlier, my girls were challenged to come up with masquerade attire that they’d design within one hour, using only the materials found in their individual color-themed rooms. Here are the results.”

One by one, portraits of the seven queens were put up for the judges’ inspection.

They were next challenged to bring their best Poe couture to tonight’s runway.” Rue took her seat at the high table. “Let’s see what they’ve come up with, and may the best … woman … win! First up: Cutie Pebbles.”

There was a jingling and a tinkling, a rhyming and a chiming, as Cutie undulated onto the stage. A belly dancer clad in bells, she wore them silver, golden, brazen and iron. They clamored on her wrists and bangled her merry bosom. They girded her waist, slung very low at her hips. A tiny jeweled bell bounced in her pierced navel as her rounded little belly rippled … keeping time, time, time, in a sort of runic rhyme. Other bells ringed her ankles as she, barefoot, swayed and shimmied the length of the runway.

Tintinnabulacious!” Rue declared.

Certainement rings my bell,” said Dupin.

Mo’Jo strutted out, head high and sassy for all it apparently had an axe embedded in it. On one side, her hair was meticulous; on the other, it matted tangled and clotted around the tinfoil axe blade. Half her face was beautifully made up, with dramatic eyeshadow and thick lashes … the other half coursed with crimson sequins and fake blood. The theme continued in a scarlet silk sash, sequin-studded, spreading down her ample figure. In her arms, she carried a stuffed black cat with a white blaze of fur upon its breast. One of its eyes gouged from the mangled socket so that cotton batting protruded.

That is one nasty piece of pussy,” Santinato said.

Such a spirit of perverseness,” remarked Lenore.

Next we have … is that Zoenne?” said Rue, arching an eyebrow.

With slow and measured steps, someone in a hooded executioner’s robe moved down the runway toward the judges. Gloved hands emerged from voluminous sleeves, grasped the sides of the robe, and suddenly flung it aside to land in a coarse heap of fabric.

Beneath was Zoenne, a fetishist’s vision in stiletto-heeled boots and strategically-placed vinyl, zippers and chains.

But this alone was not what made the judges whoop and hoot with astonishment and mirth – from her groin there hung a long pole tipped with a curved silvery crescent; this device swung back and forth, arcs sweeping wider with each arrogant side-thrust of Zoenne’s hips.

Never did I think that the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition could look so good,” C. Auguste Dupin said.

There’s the pendulum,” said Santinato. “Are we also going to see the pit?”

Zoenne turned a thonged backside toward them and winked over her shoulder.

Good thing she didn’t do ‘The Conqueror Worm,’” Rue said. “Now, welcome back to the runway: Sh’Devila.”

White-apparelled, the mould-spotted cerements of the grave a tattered winding shroud that trailed in wisps and tendrils about her, came Sh’Devila. Her hair fell wildly in distressed ringlets. Her face was grey-pallored, the eyes shadowed and lustreless. Her lips drew back in a ghastly smile, the teeth of such prominence so as to stir the madman’s urge and lead his hand to the tools of dental surgery. Elongated nails, chipped and splintered, clawed from the fingered ends of hands dark with mortuary earth. “Ballyhooooooo,” she cried in a banshee’s shriek.

Ah-ah-ah-ah buried alive, buried alive,” said Santinato.

Reminds me of my sister,” added Usher, not without a wince.

Next up is Aloof … and my, my, once upon a midnight dreamy!”

The strapless full-length gown of obsidian velvet caressed Aloof’s sleek and stately lines. The plunging decolletage was trimmed not in marabou but in a brocade of black, silver and indigo silk threads, worked into a pattern of birds in flight. As she neared the end of the stage, suddenly there came a tapping, her shoes gently tapping on the runway floor. She spun, raising up her arms in a graceful allongé to extend wings of gauzy black feathers attached along their undersides in the manner of the goddess Isis; also like Isis were her dramatic eyes heavily outlined in deepest kohl.

Usher whistled low. “I’d quoth that!”

Kallie Entay wore a golden wig frizzed out into an immense afro, large beetle-shaped gold earrings, and sunglasses with oversized yellow lenses that were both bulged and faceted so that they resembled the eyes of an insect. Her gold lamé skirt clung to her hips, jet-black spots near the small of her back and the hem suggesting a skull or death’s-head. It was as if the carapace of some fabulous golden scarabaeus had gone into the making of the dress, its iridescent wings layered to form a translucent short cape that tied at the base of Kallie’s throat.

One of the Solid Gold-Bug Dancers,” Santinato said.

Looks like everything’s been heaped promiscuously into that treasure chest.” Usher grinned.

Last up, Viva Vavoom,” Rue said.

She emerged in a simple brown faux-fur coat, knee-length and in the style of the 1940’s. Her platinum blonde wig was tucked into a bright red snood, secured at the crown of her head with a bow and ornate paste-ruby heart-shaped pin. Her pumps were also bright red, her stockings seamed up the back. When she shrugged out of the coat to sling it over her shoulder, it was to reveal a vintage lace sheath dress worn with a wide red belt and another faux-ruby in the form of a brooch. Glamorous though it was, the theme was rather less than immediately apparent.

Dissemble no more,” Dupin said.

Oh, I see it now,” said Usher. “The disease has sharpened my senses, not destroyed and not dulled them.”

Thank you, ladies.” Rue gazed benignly upon them all. “While you untuck and enjoy an Amontillado cocktail in our Interior Masquerades lounge, the judges and I will deliberate.”

She then gathered her advisors and courtiers, and for a time they gave discourse and opinion, until the Queen signaled for silence.

I’ve heard enough,” Rue said. “Bring back my girls.”

The queens returned, lining up along the stage’s lower edge. Rue, their Queen, their Prospero, addressed each in turn.

Aloof, your raven was quaint and curious, not to be forgotten. As last week’s winner, you also have immunity. You’re safe.”

She ever-so-slightly inclined her head and moved to stand at the back of the stage.

Viva Vavoom,” Rue said, and sighed. “You brought us more of the same, again. I know you love your vamp look, and it does work for you, but any queen who hopes to follow in my footsteps needs to shake it up with some variety now and then. I’m sorry, my dear, but you are up for elimination.”

Pressing her red-lipsticked mouth into a tight line, which unfortunately showcased the creases around it, Viva swallowed thickly and nodded.

Kallie Entay from Puerto Rrrrrrico … still enjoying yourself?” asked the Queen.

Oh, absolutely, Rue! Why? Am I bugging you?”

Rue chuckled. “You’re safe. Zoenne, it’s been mentioned before that you’re coasting by on having that spectacular body, but tonight you showed us something we’d like to see more of … your creativity and humor. Condragulations. You’re safe. As for you, Mo’Jo, the axe was a garish and ghoulish touch. You’re also safe.”

Zoenne, Mo’Jo and Kallie joined Aloof, while Rue’s attention fixed on Cutie. Nervousness must have made her tremble, the susurration of the bells made a soft, musical sound.

Cutie Pebbles … In today’s challenges, you surprised and delighted. You brought us your cute and playful side, but you also brought the sexy. You’re this week’s winner.”

Cutie squealed, jittering her hands, and the bells rang for her joy. “Eeee, thank you, I love you Rue; I love you too Lenore, you’ve been my idol forever!”

Sh’Devila,” said Rue, once Cutie had pranced, jingling, to stand with the others.

Rue,” said Sh’Devila, already with a petulant scowl.

Your little black dress was nothing to write a purloined letter home about, and your premature burial left us cold. I’m sorry, my dear, but you are up for elimination.”

The two of them took their places, preparing themselves.

Two queens stand before me. Ladies, this is your last chance to impress me. The time has come for you to lip-sync for your life.” Rue savored the words with decadent ferocity. “Good luck … and don’t fuck it up.”

The music began, a driving R&B beat, Usher’s Fallin’ The House.

Sh’Devila spared Viva a moment’s pitying sneer – poor ol’ white bitch got no hope was what the look seemed to say. Her own lip-sync routine turned out, however, to have less to do with lip-synching, and more with aiming a lot of booty-shaking and droppin’ it like it was hot at Usher.

Viva, meanwhile, somehow dug deep and found her inner bodacious babe. She moved as if excited to fury, with violent gesticulations. She whipped off her snood and tossed her platinum curls in a wild frenzy. Anything was more tolerable than Sh’Devila’s derision; she could bear that mockery no longer. She brought it louder and louder! Hark! Louder! Louder!

When the song ended, her heart must have been pounding so vehemently the judges could hardly fail to hear it. Her breath heaved. Gasping, she turned to the judges, knowing that come what may she had given it her utmost, and lip-synched for her life.

Viva,” said Rue. “You may call yourself a dowager, but you just proved there’s plenty of life in that old queen yet. Shante, you stay.”

Her lashes fluttered, not as an affectation but in a rapid effort at blinking back tears. She pressed shaky fingertips together and dipped a grateful nod at the judges, silently mouthing, “Thank you.”

Sh’Devila made a disgruntled noise somewhere between a huff and a snort.

Rue took a slow breath and released it with a shake of her head. “Sh’Devila. Your second chance didn’t make it to a last-minute reprieve. This was your final hour. Now your time’s up. Good luck, my dear. Now … sashay … away.”

It was not so much sashay as stomp, with a dismissive flip of her hand. Then she was gone.

Once again,” said Rue, “six queens stand before me. Ask yourselves, who has what it takes to go the distance, and who’s run her course? And remember … if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an A-men up in here?”

A-men!” chorused the queens and judges alike.

Then let the music play!” the Queen commanded.

And it did, and they danced, and when the ebony clock next struck the hour it held no dominion over them … not then, and nevermore.