Category Archives: stories

“Wish You Were Here” [the playlist]

There’s not a lot more I have to say about “Wish You Were Here” that I didn’t already tell Christian Coleman in my interview – he even asked about the inevitable playlist. So I’ll just share the full list – a mix of tongue-in-cheek commentary on “third world democracy” and its hustlers from “Paper Planes” and mystical exoticism from “Voodoo in My Blood,” and the genuine emotion that nonetheless underwrites motivations in this story. Ultimately, that’s all I want from horror set in foreign lands: to at least remember that the foreigners are also people, who deserve to be just as well-rounded as the tourists.

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“Wish You Were Here” is part of Nightmare magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror issue, with original fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

“Paper Planes” – M.I.A.: All I wanna do is [bang bang bang] and [ka-ching] and take your money. Third world democracy, yeah I got more records than the KGB, so uh, no funny business.

“The Keepers” – Santigold: I walk by with smoke in my eyes, like we don’t know where we’ve been. That’s it, boy, just state your case, you’re just as wrong as you were then. We’re the keepers – while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.

“Voodoo in My Blood” – Massive Attack: Barely, barely grieving. Keep the front door open. Wipe that cheeky grin and come on down. [Fun fact: Rose is named after Rosamund Pike – partly because of this video! See if you can spot the other celebrities (they played couples in Hollywood movies) among the tourists!]

“Manifest Destiny” – Zola Jesus: You gotta help me out. You gotta make it happen for me. How will we survive? Just let your spirit rise and don’t worry about the rest. [This is the song I obsessively listened to while writing this.]

“Soccer Game” – Johann Johannsson (Sicario OST): [instrumental, but if you remember this ending scene in the movie – the soccer game punctuated by gunfire – you know exactly why I included it here]

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“There is a Bear in the Woods” [the playlist]

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is named after a Ronald Reagan campaign ad, from 1984. It’s a classic in high-strategy fear-mongering, and I recommend watching it while listening to the soundtrack to The Witch, for full horrific effect.

My story, “There is a Bear in the Woods,” is the first directly political (that is, about politics) story I’ve published that’s been set in the U.S. instead of Indonesia. One other is forthcoming, at this time. “There is a Bear in the Woods” is also the first to be set in the same universe as a series of to-be-written novels that is very close to my heart. Part of the reason I’ve stayed away from American politics is because I didn’t want to publically commit to writing these books. But now I am, so let me say a little about it, because I think it’s as good an explanation as anything else to what drove “There is a Bear in the Woods.”

I wrote the first version of these books – the trilogy now named after Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – from ages twelve through thirteen (1999-2000). They formed books 2 and 3 out of a series of 7 (“just a kid with a pad and a pen and a big imagination”), and they were an absolute mess that demanded suspension bridges for all the disbelief. But when I was in grad school I started toying with the idea of resuscitating and rewriting books 2 and 3. I don’t remember what spurred this decision other than the feeling that I had some thing here, some seedling of an idea, that I thought was worth saving. Many of the details have changed in the intervening years – obviously, I took a buttload of political science classes between points A and B – but at its core, the series is about the following:

An alternate-universe United States is dominated by a politically-corrupt, democratically-elected center-left coalition of parties, called the Alliance. Horrified by the morally-depraved decadence of the Alliance’s long reign, a radical deliverance church and a new conservative opposition join forces to oust the Alliance, and end up installing a tenuous and uniquely American fascist regime. Although the accidental fascists are the antagonists, it’s very important to me that they be kept sympathetic throughout – because otherwise, how would they have been voted in? And yes, because I’m a horror writer, there are a few BOB-like demons involved, but, as reflected in “There is a Bear in the Woods,” the demons came to take advantage of an opening that was entirely manmade.

This story is about a plucky grassroots campaign trying to put one of the would-be fascists, Rick McFarland, into Congress. They, of course, think they’re on a noble cause – literally, saving America. And then they have a fateful campaign stop…

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is in Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis.

“I’d Love To Change the World” – Jetta: I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.

“Aenema” – Tool: Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. Don’t just call me pessimist. Try and read between the lines. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t welcome any change, my friend.

“2+2=5” – Radiohead: Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights? It’s the devil’s way now. There is no way out.

[Note: What a perfect video, eh?]

“Coward” – Hans Zimmer: [Instrumental].

[Note: I rarely include soundtrack-like music here, but the combination of title and sound actually make this match perfectly with the appearance of “The Bear.”]

“Warning” – Incubus: All left standing will make millions writing books on the way it should have been.

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The number of the bEast is 999

When our old travel agent died, we asked the private investigators next door for a recommendation. They gave us the number of a Joe Pulver who they swore could get them to hell and back, by any means necessary. I figured that by “hell” they were talking about Kansas or Baghdad, and “any means” meant Amtrak or Greyhound. Turned out I was wrong.

I called Joe the first time about booking my boss on a round-trip flight to Los Angeles for a one-day conference. “City of Angels,” said Joe. “More like City of Demons.”

“Right,” I said. “Can we book a flight that gets in on the night of Monday the 21st, and then back on the morning of Wednesday the 23rd? Just one business class ticket.”

“You got it,” said Joe, even though I hadn’t heard any typing from his end. “I’ll be sending your confirmation shortly.”

It showed up in my inbox almost immediately. It was all wrong. It had my boss coming back from a two-day, $999 trip on Thursday the 23rd from a Los Angeles whose airport code was not LAX, but CRC. “Please check to make sure that you are happy with your itinerary. Let me know if you have any questions. BEST! !!”, he’d written. I quickly hit Reply.

“Dear Joe,” I wrote, “What is CRC? And it should be Wednesday the 23rd, right?”

His calm reply reassured me: “It’s a regional airport, not LAX. I made sure the return trip is confirmed for the 23rd. You should be all good now.”

My boss barely noticed when I gave him his itinerary. I thought all was well until he called me after landing, and the static was so loud I could barely understand his words. There was something about roads of glistening bone and seas of battered flesh and a pale yellow moon. I figured that he had forgotten to take his medication. I told him to eat some dinner and go to bed.  But two hours later he called again, hysterical, saying that people were chasing him and chanting.

“Are you at the hotel?” I yelled into the phone.

“The hotel was swallowed,” he replied. I thought I could hear a very old bronze bell, or something, tolling in the background. I tried to think of where such a bell existed in Los Angeles, but I don’t know the West Coast. “I was forced to flee. Oh God! The moon!”

So I called Joe, even though it was the middle of the night, and told him that we had to get my boss out of L.A. and back to his doctors immediately. “Please change the return flight to Tuesday the 22nd. I’m going to try to get him back to the airport.”

“No can do, sister,” said Joe. “He has to do his time, the time that was given to him.”

“He’s having some kind of breakdown! What if he hurts himself?”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Joe. “Put him in touch with my colleague on the ground in L.A. She’ll keep him safe. The name is C-A-S-S-I-L-D-A.”

I gave Cassilda’s number to my boss, and then he stopped calling. In fact I tried calling him on Tuesday the 22nd and it went straight to voicemail. I sent Joe an email, asking him who exactly Cassilda was and what she did. I’m going to be honest: I was afraid she was a hooker, and that my boss hadn’t even shown up at the National Conference of Auctioneers and Appraisers.

Fair Cassilda will be your master’s guiding superstar light in that dead City, Joe wrote back. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I repeatedly typed out “Dear Joe, what the fuck?” But for some reason I kept hitting the backspace and I eventually just decided not to send a reply at all. I paid our bills and re-organized my filing cabinet, and then went out and took a really, really long walk home. I collapsed into bed just before the rain started and when I woke up, it was Wednesday the 22nd. So said all the newspapers, the good morning TV anchors, my computer, the paper calendar from the Chinese restaurant. I sat down at my desk and put my head in my hands, convinced that something fundamental had changed, but not sure what. Once or twice I thought I saw someone watching me from the hallway, but I couldn’t seem to muster up the strength to get up and check.

Of course my boss didn’t come back that day. He came back the next, on Thursday the 23rd. Just as Joe said he would. He seemed better now. Calm. He took his coffee and read the paper and asked me, with great enthusiasm, if I’d be going to the fair tonight. “I hear it’s the talk of the town!” But we don’t have a fair. At least, we didn’t used to. “I’m taking Cassilda.”

This time it was Joe who called me. When I saw his number I crouched beneath my desk so my boss wouldn’t see me. “Just wanted to make sure you made your flight back all right,” he said. “The Storm is growing, so I hear.”

“I want to book another flight,” I whispered. “To wherever I was before.”

“I’ve already booked you. Sunday the 27th, back to Carcosa, the home of Truth.”

So I went home, packed my bags, sat on the stoop of my apartment, and just waited. From the hill where I lived, I could almost see the fizzling lights of the fair.

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“Pro Patria!” [the playlist]

In college I tried to argue that Peter Pan was a post-colonial fable. I based this on the scene where the revolutionary but already somewhat dictatorial Peter, having defeated the imperialistic Captain Hook, puts on Hook’s coat and hat, pantomimes a hook with his hand, and smugly smokes Hook’s pipe in the captain’s chair. For what it’s worth, my professor said she didn’t quite buy it, but that the essay was entertaining.

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When I first read Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” it was immediately obvious to me that the psychosis-inducing The King in Yellow needed to be transposed to the unique horror of the post-colonial setting: the fiercely-independent newborn state, warped by centuries of domination by a foreign culture, that more often than not grows up to have a very genocidal adolescence.

History is littered with evidence that “hurt begets hurt.” The great tragedy of post-colonial states is that so many of them are forged in the fantastical hope that humanity can overcome its base, Hobbesian instinct to shamelessly overpower the weak and the different. But as my protagonist in “Pro Patria!” knows, shaking off the bonds of colonial subjugation is incredibly difficult even after the imperial troops have retreated. Your society has become defined and delineated by the colonists’ caste system, your artificial borders are utterly absurd and meaningless, and you learned everything you know about power, leadership, and right-to-rule from your abusive oppressors (in this story’s case, resurrected by the arrival of the foreign treatise on power, The King in Yellow).

In the country I grew up in (Indonesia), like many others, leaders that held onto republican (small r) ideals of individual rights and social contracts and limits to state power were shoved to the side; the rest – the survivors – fell into the same “might makes right” tautology that justified colonial rule, and became proto-fascists, aided by a whole bunch of justifications: the people are too stupid to be free, these are Asian values, Communists are right around the corner. Incidentally, my dad (Farchan Bulkin) was one of those political scientists who ended up shoved to the side, which is part of the reason this horrible cycle is so personal to me. He died two months before Indonesia finally shook off thirty-three years of dictatorship – indirectly brought about by three hundred years of colonial rule – and never had the chance to see Indonesia become the messy-but-free democracy it is today. Colonialism is one of those historical sins that keeps on giving – resurrecting – no matter how fast you try to run from it. Sometimes, the faster you run, the faster it catches up.

“Pro Patria!” is in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver.

“Mezzanine” – Massive Attack: I’m a little curious of you in crowded scenes, and how serene your friends and fiends.

“Declare Independence” – Bjork: Print your own currency. Make your own stamp. Protect your language. Raise your flag (higher, higher). Damn colonists! Ignore their patronizing.

“The Glorious Land” – PJ Harvey: How is our glorious country plowed? Not by iron plows. Our land is plowed by tanks and feet, feet marching.

“Crumbs From Your Table” – U2: You were pretty as a picture, it was all there to see, then your face caught up with your psychology. With a mouth full of teeth, you ate all your friends, and you broke every heart, thinking, “every heart mends.”

“Living on a Thin Line” – The Kinks: All the stories have been told of kings and days of old – but there’s no England now. / Then another leader says, “Break their hearts and break some heads,” is there nothing we can say or do? Blame the future on the past, always lost in blood and guts, and when they’re gone, it’s me and you.

[Note: This is the definitive song about post-colonialism. So much so that I quoted it in my thesis. The British nationalists using this song as a rallying cry need help.]

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“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” [The Playlist]

As is appropriate for a story that’s a reworking of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is named after two songs centered on color: 311’s laidback, beachy “Amber,” and Hole’s angry, feminist “Violet.” I doubt that MRA types would like this story. In my defense, though, “The Colour Out of Space” practically demanded a feminist revision. It’s fundamentally a story about a cranky farmer who keeps his family increasingly isolated, then imprisoned, resulting in the deaths of all. There’s a neighbor who seems to check in a lot. Oh yeah, and something’s off about the water and the crops. And the woman locked in the attic is the crazy one?

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Nick Mamatas wrote a great essay about writing Lovecraftian fiction as a social outsider in Lovecraft’s Western Civilization despite Lovecraft being a “racist clown.” His conclusion: “we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.” My Lovecraftian fiction tends to be of this bent (see “Truth is Order and Order is Truth”). What I love about cosmic horror is its total blindness to any notions of society or morality or anything else humans might use to define themselves. Like the Arcade Fire song “Black Mirror” goes, “The black mirror knows no reflection/ it knows not pride or vanity/ it cares not about your dreams/ cares not for your pyramid schemes.” The colour out of space doesn’t care about Nate’s fixation with being the house’s final authority. It doesn’t care about the family farm. It doesn’t care about the lines of familial sanctity being broached by the neighbor. It doesn’t even care about Abby or her children. But in its willful, violent nonchalance, it (like death, and all great monsters) is the great equalizer. Or in this case, the great fertilizer.

“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is in She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles.

“Black Balloon” – Goo Goo Dolls: What’s the things they never showed you that swallowed the light from the sun inside your room?

“This Bitter Earth and On The Nature of Daylight” – Dinah Washington and Max Richter: This bitter earth, what fruit it bears. If my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose, then what good am I?

“The Hollow (Constantly Consuming Mix by Paz Lenchantin)” – A Passive Circle: Screaming “feed me here, fill me up again, temporarily pacify this hungering.”

“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” – Sufjan Stevens: When we are dead, we all have wings/ And when we receive to see a change at last.

“Insect Eyes” – Devendra Banhart: And the neck her head’s on is a tunnel of dawn, but darkness will come.


 

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“Seven Minutes in Heaven” [The Playlist]

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” is named, of course, after the terrible suburban teenager party game. Like my protagonist-narrator, I never played this game. Despite going to middle school and high school in Middle America (Nebraska), I always felt like too much of an outsider to get in on any of those Americana rituals of teenagerhood – culturally different, and an awkward, quiet, hyper-sensitive bookworm on top of that. When I felt defensive I deflected with anger: my father died when I was ten, and I knew about death and loss and suffering when none of my privileged classmates with their self-described charmed childhoods had any idea. Of course I had no way of knowing whether this was true, and I’m sure it wasn’t. But it’s easier to punch back if you feel like you’re the only person in the room who’s onto the truth. I even had a keychain that said, “If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention.” It was political, but it was more than that. Amanda Stone is a prototypical example of my type of character, and in case you’re wondering about the skull tattoos, think Tate in American Horror Story:
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“Seven Minutes in Heaven” was also inspired by several stories I had heard from different friends – one friend who, in Annapolis, commented that its Church Street looked exactly like the one in her hometown; another friend who, on an island off the coast of Sicily, stumbled into a cave that no one in town seemed to acknowledge existed – as well as Aickman’s story, “The Same Dog.” I wanted to hit that unshakeable deja vu, the creeping feeling that you’ve forgotten something critically important to the very meaning of your life. And like I always do, I wanted to put someone messed up, some injured animal I could recognize, at the center of this waking nightmare. (I’m starting to think that putting broken people in incomprehensible situations is just what I do.)

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” is in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas.

“Soft Shock” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Ever lasts forever / Hey, what’s the time, what’s the day, don’t leave me

 

“Nobody Likes You When You’re Dead” – Zombina and the Skeletones: If they could see me now, that little gang of mine, you can bet your ass they’d run a mile

 

“If I Die Young (Band Perry cover)” – Conexus: The sharp knife of a short life / Funny when you’re dead how people start listening

Because while I like the song, there’s no way Amanda Stone would listen to the Band Perry. Sorry. Amanda Stone would listen to a band whose musicians wear DBZ shirts.

“Take Me to Church (Hozier cover)” – TETRA: My lover’s got humor – she’s the giggle at a funeral, knows everybody’s disapproval / I was born sick, but I love it; command me to be well

“The Suburbs (Arcade Fire cover)” – Mr. Little Jeans: You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war / But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored

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“Girl, I Love You” [the playlist]

“Girl, I Love You” is named after a song by Massive Attack, but this playlist is an atmospheric and moody one. I also really lucked out that each song has a wildly appropriate music video (was I actually writing a story to explain the “Summertime Sadness” video?!). That’s probably because music helped this story along by creating an ambiance, but the plot itself was inspired by a Junji Ito comic, “The Will.” Said comic is about two teenage girls who hate each other so much that they kill themselves in order to curse each other forever, and end up haunting each other’s bewildered families. Seriously – track this down. And everything else Junji Ito creates, for that matter. It’s totally (and willfully) absurd, but one of my very favorite things in the whole world is horror stories that take place in an elaborately-constructed, socially-and-economically-considered universe. This is why I appreciate movies like Daybreakers and Pacific Rim – because you get to see snippets of the kind of day-to-day society the paranormal phenomena has wrought. Good golly, I love that stuff. Anyway, that was what I was trying to achieve with this story – in a world where supernatural curses are commodified, what the hell would teen girls with all their psychodrama do with such curses?

emotionally compromised teenage girl

 

Fun fact: every time I look at that gif I think he’s holding a gun, not a cellphone.

And while this was not written from experience, per se (and thank God for that), I did and do have a best friend who once called us blood sisters back in seventh grade. I was very emotionally compromised at the time, and I am pretty sure that I owe that friendship my life. Shout-out to Lindsey, for whom the story is dedicated.

“Girl, I Love You” is in Phantasm Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington.

“Girl I Love You” – Massive Attack: Girl I’m back in Spanish town, ain’t no trouble coming around, you promise you will never let me down, if you love me that much you will stick around

“Ghosts (Modwheel Mood Remix)” – Ladytron: There’s a ghost in me who wants to say “I’m sorry” – doesn’t mean I’m sorry

“Summertime Sadness (Cedric Gervais Remix)” – Lana Del Rey: I just wanted you to know that baby, you’re the best

“Strawberry Gashes” – Jack Off Jill: Watch me fault her, “you’re living like a disaster,” she said kill me faster with strawberry gashes all over, watch me lose her (it’s almost like losing myself), give her my soul, and let them take somebody else (get away from me)

“In The Dark” – The Birthday Massacre: All these broken pieces left unglued should never find their way into the hands of someone like you

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