Lovecraft ezine!

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of participating in the Lovecraft ezine’s weekly pod- and videocast, as the kickoff event for the launch of Sefira and Other Betrayals.  As ever, I had a blast talking with Mike Davis and the other participants who were kind enough to give up a couple of hours of their Sunday afternoons and evenings to be there.  Here’s a link to the videocast, if you’re so inclined.  Our conversation embraced such topics as who will win in the inevitable fight among myself, Laird Barron, and Paul Tremblay; whom you should lay you money on in a battle between Godzilla and Cthulhu; and what Godzilla would sound like with a French accent.

Barron vs. Tremblay, or Godzilla vs. Cthulhu? (Painting by the ever-brilliant Bob Eggleton; buy a poster of the image here).

 

During the show, I mentioned a number of novels, collections, and journals that are worth a look.  I wanted to link to as many of them as I can remember, so here you go:

Dan Chaon  Ill Will

Glen Hirshberg  Nothing to Devour (also Motherless Child and Good Girls).

Laird Barron  Black Mountain

Nathan Ballingrud  Wounds

Carrie Laben  A Hawk in the Woods

A.C. Wise  Catfish Lullaby

Navin Weeraratme  Zeelam

S.P. Miskowski  The Worst is Yet to Come

Molly Tanzer  Creatures of Will and Temper (and Creatures of Want and Ruin)

Paul Tremblay  Growing Things

Vastarien

Thinking Horror Vol. 2

Robert Wilson  Ashes and Entropy

Ellen Datlow  Echoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sefira& Other Betrayals!

Today is the official release day for my third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals (which is available in paperback from Amazon here and in hardcover and paperback from the publisher, Hippocampus press, here).  Although I’ve been planning it for some time, this one took a while to arrive, in no small part because what was supposed to be the original, title story turned into an actual short novel in the writing, and then the other original story I decided had to be in it became a novella.  Thanks to everyone who’s been waiting for the book for your patience.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to include the book’s Acknowledgments page here, because you can never say thank you enough times for the good things in your life.  (I know, some of this is redundant, but what the heck?):

Acknowledgments

With this latest book of stories, I am reminded once again of my debt to my lovely wife, Fiona, for her love, support, and patience.  Thanks, Love, for all of it; here’s another bouquet of dark flowers.
The love and support of my sons, Nick and David, is a constant and ever-surprising joy. Thanks, guys; I look forward eagerly to the art you’re making.
Laird Barron and Paul Tremblay remain the brothers I never knew I had, their regular phone conversations one of the highlights of my week. They continue to do amazing work, which inspires me to try to do better in my own fiction. Nadia Bulkin, Michael Cisco, GlenHirshberg, Stephen Graham Jones, Sarah Langan, and S.P. Miskowski arepretty cool, too.
I continue to consider myself fortunate in my agent, the indefatigable Ginger Clark, as well as her assistant, Tess, and the film and foreign rights folks at Curtis, Brown. As the story notes indicate, I owe most of these pieces to invitations from editors, and I’m grateful for the support John Joseph Adams, Ellen Datlow, Nick Gevers and Jack Dann, and S.T. Joshi showed these stories by first publishing them. Thanks, too, to Derrick Hussey and Hippocampus Press for the fine work they did with my last collection, and for publishing this one.
Finally, thanks to you, whoever you are, for the gift of your time and attention (and in many cases, patience—I know this book has been a long time coming). You make books such as this one possible, and I’m grateful for that.

 

 

Also:  that Santiago Caruso:  am I right, or what?

A Couple of Happy Updates, Plus! Boskone

I’m delighted to report that the Russian translation of The Fisherman has won an award for best translated novel of the year at the “Most Terrible Festival” in St. Petersburg.  Bozhe moi!  Thanks very much to AST publishing, who brought out the novel in Russia, to Grigory Shokin, who translated it, and to everyone responsible for the book receiving its (and my) first non-English language award!

The Fisherman–Russian edition

In related news, I’ve done an interview with the Russian webzine, Darker, in which we talk about The Fisherman and my love for Russian literature.

I’m also delighted to report that my story, “Haak,” which first appeared in Mark Morris’s splendid New Fears 2 anthology has been selected by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in the eleventh volume of her “Best Horror of the Year” series, alongside some fabulous work.  I’m particularly pleased that this story, written for the inestimable Jack Haringa, continues to reach a wider audience.  Here’s the table of contents:

I Remember Nothing by Anne Billson
Monkeys on the Beach by Ralph Robert Moore
Painted Wolves by Ray Cluley
Shit Happens by Michael Marshall Smith
You Know How the Story Goes by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Back Along the Old Track by Sam Hicks
Masks by Peter Sutton
The Donner Party by Dale Bailey
Milkteeth by Kristi DeMeester
Haak by John Langan
Thin Cold Hands by Gemma Files
A Tiny Mirror by Eloise C. C. Shepherd
I Love You Mary-Grace by Amelia Mangan
The Jaws of Ouroboros by Steve Toase
A Brief Moment of Rage by Bill Davidson
Golden Sun by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt
White Mare by Thana Niveau
Girls Without Their Faces On by Laird Barron
Thumbsucker by Robert Shearman
You Are Released by Joe Hill
Red Rain by Adam-Troy Castro
Split Chain Stitch by Steve Toase
No Exit by Orrin Grey
Haunt by Siobhan Carroll
Sleep by Carly Holmes

Finally, I had a brilliant time this past weekend at the 56th annual Boskone, held at the Westin hotel in Boston.  It’s always a pleasure to see such friends as Paul Tremblay, Jack Haringa, JoAnn Cox, Brett and Jeanne Cox, Nick Kaufmann and Alexa Antopol, Vicki Dalpe, Grady Hendrix, Liz Hand and John Clute, Bracken MacLeod, Errick Nunnally, Chris Golden, and Ellen Datlow, but beyond that, the con organizers have really made an effort to expand their horror-related programming, and to include horror writers on more general-topic panels.  In addition, they’re made a commitment to diversifying their participants that continues to yield results.  It’s made Boskone one of the can’t-miss conventions for me.  Thanks to all who worked so hard at putting it on this year, and to anyone who might be thinking about the convention for 2020, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

 

 

Sons of Thunder! (An exercise in shameless parental promotion)

As a dad and a writer, I’m not sure there’s any pleasure quite the equal of watching your kids grow into artists in their own right.  It’s a thrill to be able to share what they’re doing, and to encourage anyone who’s interested to check it out and support it.  (Yes, this is one of those awkward, look-how-great-my-kids-are moments.  If it isn’t your thing, feel free to skip it.  No hard feelings.)

First off, my older son, Nick, who has been a police officer for some years, now, first in Baltimore and now in Lancaster (where he has yet to arrest Brian Keene, despite my repeated requests for him to do so), has recently broken into writing comics.  He has a number of irons in the fire, and first up is a comic called Crowns of Hebron, which is a retelling of the Biblical Saul/David story.  The first arc is set to run for five issues.  Should it succeed, he has several more arcs planned.  Right now, he’s set up a Patreon account to help fund the project; if you’re interested, I encourage you to kick in a little cash to it.  The rates are exceedingly reasonable.

Here’s an image from the first issue of Crowns of Hebron.

 

And while Nick makes his way into the world of comics, his younger brother, David, has expanded his musical activities to include joining local punk band, Interference 845, as lead guitarist and backup vocalist.  Last week, the band livestreamed a short concert consisting of covers of half a dozen classic punk songs including, “Search and Destroy,” “Harmony in My Head,” and “Amoeba.”  Today, at around 2:00pm EST, they’ll be livestreaming another half a dozen covers.  You can find them through their Instagram account, which is also the location from which they’ll be broadcasting today.  (I’m pretty sure the broadcast will be available for 24 hours after it’s first shown.)

 

 

 

Errata

I’ve known Ross Lockhart, the driving force behind Word Horde Press, which published The Fisherman, for about a decade.  When his wife contacted me the other month to ask if I’d write a little something for his imminent birthday, this is what I came up with:

Errata

by

John Langan

Most of the errors in my books are my fault, either to begin with, or because I wasn’t paying sufficiently close attention during the proofreading stage and missed something. The majority of readers are pretty forgiving of such slip-ups; although it seems there’s always going to be someone to e-mail me explaining the difference between “insure” and “ensure” or between “principal” and “principle.” (I can’t decide if they’re taking pleasure in correcting the English teacher, or if they’re English teachers overly conscious of the scope of their powers and responsibilities.)

Without doubt the strangest example of this kind of e-mail appeared in my in-box about a month after the publication of my second novel, The Fisherman. Instead of identifying the usual sorts of errors, this writer (a Mr. Jyotisha of Seattle) took me to task for something new. The typography of page 85 of my novel was, he wrote, an utter and absolute disgrace, rendering the text all but indecipherable. Whoever had been responsible for laying out the page, he went on, appeared to have done so on top of another piece of printed material, an error he could not comprehend in this day and age of digital everything. Lest I think he was engaging in some form of bizarre jest, Mr. Jyotisha had attached a photo of the offending page of his book. Without considering whether it might be safe to do so, I clicked on the file. (In my defense, if this was a form of phishing or other e-scam, it was pretty specific.)

The image was pretty much what had been described, the words of my novel printed over other text. The resolution on the picture wasn’t great, but it looked as if what lay beneath this section of my novel was a mix of words and images, the former elongated characters too narrow to be runes (though that was what they reminded me of), the latter sets of concentric rings scattered around the page. The effect of the under-text on the sentences floating over it was weird, difficult to describe. Where the long characters intersected my words, they seemed to pull them into bizarre, semi-abstract patterns that reminded me of pictographs; while the rings under my words seemed to bend them into one another, blending them into strange new lexemes.

I closed the file and reached for my copy of The Fisherman. I’ll admit, when I turned to page 85, I was half-expecting to find the jumble I had been looking at repeated, an error of such magnitude I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly have let it slip past me. (The perils of the same overactive imagination that had led to me writing the novel, I suppose.) In my book, however, the page was fine. The best thing for me to do, I decided, was to forward the e-mail to my publisher, Ross Lockhart, and see if he could work something out with Mr. Jyotisha, maybe send him another copy of the book. This I did, cc’ing Mr. Jyotisha in my e-mail to Ross.

As I didn’t hear from either reader or publisher, I assumed the matter settled. At some point thereafter, I must have deleted Mr. Jyotisha’s e-mail, because when I searched for it this past month, it was nowhere to be found. The reason I had gone looking for the message had to do with another book Ross had published, Orrin Grey’s new collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, which I was reviewing for Locus. (From what I read of it, it’s terrific.) When I arrived at page 94, I initially thought that the weird page layout was part of the story I was reading. For I’m not certain how long, I stared at the narrow characters branching among Orrin’s words, making them parts of odd figures, the circular distortions warping his sentences into long curves of letters that almost cohered into new words, before I connected what was in front of me and the e-mail I had received a little more than two years before. When the lightbulb glowed over my head, I set the book down and turned to my computer. I was thinking I would compare what was on the page of my ARC with the photograph Mr. Jyotisha had sent me. But, as I’ve said, I could find no trace of the message.

While mildly annoying, this wasn’t an especially big deal (nor much of a surprise: the number of e-mails whose deletion I’ve had cause to regret is embarrassingly [and frustratingly] large). Still, I thought I should drop Ross an e-mail, in case what had seemed a one-time printing glitch was in fact a sign of a more systemic and sustained problem. If nothing else, I figured he’d be amused by the coincidence of my encountering the same problem twice.

In the past, it’s taken Ross a little bit of time to answer my e-mails, usually a few hours, once in a while as long as a day or two. On this occasion, his reply chimed in my inbox within five minutes. The subject line read, “Skype?” The message itself read “Give me ten minutes,” which was followed by a number. I hadn’t known Ross to engage in any form of video-conferencing, which is to say, I hadn’t known him to engage in it with me, so I didn’t see anything too unusual in his request. I propped my tablet on my writing desk (these days, my desktop’s too old and unreliable for much beyond word-processing and basic internet surfing), opened Skype, and waited.

The video feed, when I accepted it, was poor. The picture kept freezing, then lurching into motion that was a half-second or so behind what Ross was saying. “John!” he said.

Hey Ross,” I said. “What’s going on?”

These books of mine,” he said with a laugh. At least, I think that’s what he said: a buzzing echo made him difficult to understand.

Yeah,” I said, “it’s pretty weird. Do you have any idea what happened?”

Ross’s eyes bulged, his face stilled. A long burst of feedback threatened to cohere into a sentence in a deep, rasping tongue. When the picture returned to motion, Ross was in the midst of speaking: “—from that church, or the one he found in the crypt beneath it.”

I’m sorry,” I said, “I missed the first part of what you were saying.”

Another blast of noise, this one sufficiently loud to make me wince and lean back from the tablet. Ross’s face was caught in a rictus of either manic laughter or rage. Then he was talking, his features calm: “—because Norway doesn’t have a formal extradition policy with the US, so he thought he’d be safe there.” He shook his head. “You can file that one under irony.

When I left to start Word Horde, I assumed I’d be okay, which seems pretty stupid, now. But at the time, I still didn’t believe what he’d told me, not really. I was more concerned about money. I had the job at the bookstore to help pay the bills, but that might not be enough, depending on what happened. Anyway, there was one night, my last month working for the two of them, I stayed late to finish the cover design and layout for a book I was pretty sure wasn’t going to be published. For a moment, I was positive there was someone staring at me through one of the windows. I looked up, and saw a face…”

A face?” I said.

I don’t know,” he said at last. “There was no way anyone could have been on the other side of the window, because we were four storeys up. At least, that was what I thought. Now…”

Wait,” I said, “what did you see?”

It could have been a mask,” Ross said, “made out of some kind of paper, vellum or something. The surface was faded in spots, smeared with dirt. There was moss growing on one cheek, into one eye. The other eye was dull, cloudy. The face was wrinkled…” He glanced away, exhaled. “All of it was…wrong. The worst part—” A humming buzz replaced whatever he was about to say next. The video feed stuttered, Ross’s face shuttling among half a dozen expressions. The sound went on for so long, I thought I was going to have to end the call. The connection righted itself in time for me to catch him saying, “—with a sacred book, any kind of textual mistake would have a real world effect. Think of this thing as a kind of errata made flesh or…whatever.

Like I said, though, I didn’t believe any of what I’d been told. I took the face at the window for a trick of the light, a consequence of too much time staring at Nick Gucker’s cover art. If a little part of me wondered whether there might be some truth to Jason’s story, I assumed I was safe. I mean, he was the one who’d removed the page from the book, not me.

I’m still not sure how he…transferred the thing to me. I did have to fill out some paperwork when I left. I flipped through the packet, but I didn’t read all of it. Who does? Maybe some page in there assigned the thing to me. How trite, right? I can’t believe I would have fallen for something so hackneyed, so clichéd. I mean, it’s a digital era: come up with something new. Whatever, it was a hell of a severance package.

It took me a while to figure out what was happening. I had to see that vellum face another—” Although his mouth continued moving, a low buzz replaced the next several sentences.

Ross,” I said, “I’m having trouble—”

The audio cut back in, Ross going on as if he hadn’t heard me (which made me wonder if the problems with the connection went both ways). “The idea was to disperse it,” he said, “spread it among dozens, hundreds of books. The effects on the individual reader would be negligible. As long as they weren’t exposed to more than one of the exits, they probably wouldn’t notice anything.”

Struggling as I was to assemble the fragments I had heard into a coherent narrative, Ross’s words sent ice water down my spine. “Wait,” I said. “These exits—what if someone saw two of them?”

That could be a bit of a problem,” Ross said with an apologetic smile. “Each successive exit has an exponential effect on the one before.”

I don’t understand what that means,” I said.

A tumult from the closet to my right made me jump out of my chair, heart leaping. The lower portion of the closet is crowded with stacks of books, overflow from my office’s five bookcases. Three of those paper towers had fallen over, in the process dragging a pair of brown slacks and a white shirt down from the clothes rack above them, pushing open the closet door. Shirt and pants formed a flat, headless figure that looked as if it had lunged out of the closet toward me. A coincidence, but unnerving all the same.

When I glanced back at the tablet, the screen had gone black. Ross’s voice said, “I’m really sorry,” and cut out. I pressed the power button a couple of times, to no effect. (Later, the repair guy in town would tell me the device was hopelessly dead, its circuits melted. “What’d you do to this?” he asked; I had no good answer for him.)

Since then, despite numerous attempts, I haven’t been able to contact Ross. He hasn’t replied to my e-mails, my Facebook messages, or my direct messages on Twitter, this despite him maintaining a relatively active presence on social media, posting pictures of his dog, his day job at the bookstore, the books he’s going to be publishing. I made an attempt to locate Mr. Jyotisha, which was no more successful. I couldn’t bring myself to finish Orrin’s collection, which is a shame, because what I had read, I enjoyed. But I couldn’t bear to open the book again, even if what Ross had told me was patently ridiculous, impossible. There’s a bookcase in the lobby of our local post office where you can donate and pick up used reading material. I contemplated recycling Guignol there, only to decide against doing so, my excessive imagination prompting me to place the book in one of my bookcases, between my copy of Laird Barron’s Occultation and M.R. James’s Selected Stories.

The same overactive faculty must be why I saw the face in the bathroom window two nights later, as I was rinsing my toothbrush. It was as Ross had described it: dun-colored, the left cheek and eye furred with moss, the entire surface mapped with wrinkles. He hadn’t mentioned the tremendous rage, the sheer hatred the thing projected through the glass—my addition to the text, I suppose. The window was empty almost the moment I registered the face, but the resulting shock was enough to send me hurtling out of the bathroom and upstairs to bed without performing my usual nightly duties, rinsing whatever dishes remain in the sink and setting up the next morning’s coffee. When my wife remarked on this the next morning, I didn’t know what to tell her. I’d seen a scary face at the bathroom window?

A day or so after that, I received an e-mail from Arley at Locus headquarters, asking if I’d like to have a look at a couple of Word Horde’s forthcoming titles. Something thumped in the hallway outside my office door. Heart in my throat, I stood to check it. Of course, the hall was empty. Although I had been eagerly looking forward to Carrie Laben’s first novel, I wrote Arley that I would have to pass.

For Fiona, as always, and for Ross, Happy Birthday!

El Charro

Recently, I conducted an interview with the excellent folks over at Circulo Lovecraftiano, at the end of which, they gave me a prompt and asked me to write a short short story using it.  As usual, what I wrote ran considerably longer than what I’m guessing they had in mind.  I thought I’d share the story here:

El Charro

He woke to darkness and the ammoniac odor of disinfectant, which failed to conceal the mingled reek of piss, shit, and blood. The right side of his jaw throbbed; when he eased his tongue towards the teeth there, fireworks of pain signaled that several, maybe all, were broken. He had a confused memory of something swinging toward his face—a chair? How? He had been at dinner with Phoenix and the others at the little fondita, discussing Fuentes and then…

Langan rolled over, the motion filling his jaw with hurt. He exhaled sharply, his breath torturing shattered molars. Tears wet his cheeks, blurred the dim scene in front of him. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. On the floor next to his bunk lay a figure whose white shirt seemed to glow in the dark. A black pool spread around its head in a liquid halo. Phoenix? Although doing so made the entire right side of his head sing with pain, his vision flare white, he pushed himself to sitting, gripping the edge of the bunk with both hands to keep himself from tipping off it.

Two of the four walls around him were rows of metal bars. He was in a jail cell—a first, in this country or any other. The realization was as shocking as the injury to his face, maybe more so. Based on the lack of light to which his eyes were still adjusting, morning was a long distance away. What had happened? With the exception of an elderly couple nearer its front, he, Phoenix, and the rest of the reading group had had the restaurant to themselves. The talk had been lively, mixed with laughter, the food delicious. Though there had been—at one point, they had heard something in the kitchen, a single sound midway between a laugh and a sob. Their conversation (What about Vlad, anyway?) had paused, then, when the utterance was not repeated, resumed. And that was it, until whatever had preceded the chair swinging toward—and presumably, into—his head.

From the floor, the figure in the white shirt groaned, the complaint oddly muffled, as if its mouth were full of half-chewed food. Squinting, Langan leaned forward. The darkness seemed granular, as if it were particles hanging in the air. It was a man—it was Phoenix. With the recognition came awareness that there was something wrong with the lower part of his face, something terribly wrong. His mouth and jaw looked misshapen, as if they had been crushed in a powerful grip. Black liquid—blood shone thickly on them. This was the reason his moan sounded stifled: it had to make its way out through the wreckage of his palate, teeth, tongue, and lips.

Fear clear, pure, and sharp washed through Langan. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Whatever he and Phoenix had been caught up in (where were the others?) it was bad. Why had Phoenix been brought in here and left in this condition? Another wet groan escaped him. Should Langan call for help? The corridors outside the cell appeared empty.

To his left, the cell’s two solid walls met in a corner whose darkness seemed denser, as if the particles of blackness were concentrated there. The form that emerged from it crept towards Phoenix with hands and feet on the floor, in a crab walk that was silent and oddly graceful. Its head was enormous, saucer-shaped, vastly out of proportion to the rest of its spindly body. Langan started, scrambled to the other side of his bunk, striking the wall to which it was anchored, his head flashing with pain. He pressed against the plaster, trying to force himself into it, away from the thing that circled to the other side of Phoenix and lowered its oversized head to his face. There was a lapping sound, like a dog at its water dish. Phoenix moaned, the complaint leaping several octaves to a scream as the lapping was replaced by a series of cracks. Langan’s feet scrambled against the bunk’s nominal blanket, pushing it onto the floor with a thump. The cracking stopped; Phoenix’s screaming dropped to a groan. Oh shit oh shit. The great saucer of a head raised to consider Langan, whose eyes were bulging from the sockets, whose heart was beating so fast his pulse had become a single, panicked thrum.

The creature coughed, a sound like an old man clearing his throat. “Gringo,” it said in a high, reedy voice, “you’re awake. Give me ten pesos.”

What?”

Thin, anemic laughter burst from the creature, and as it shook at its joke, Langan saw that it was a man; albeit, a skinny one, skin and bones with an emphasis on the bones. What he had taken for its flattened head was an enormous hat, a black sombrero. The man was dressed in a black jacket and black jeans, the jacket embroidered in silver designs: the costume of the charro; although he was barefoot. The brim of the sombrero obscured the top half of his face. His mouth was draped by a long, dense mustache that gleamed wetly: With Phoenix’s blood, Langan realized, the horror that had ebbed as he saw he was facing a man surging again. What is this?

They tell me you were speaking about el conde,” the man said.

About…? I’m sorry: my Spanish is not very good.”

The count,” the man said.

Who…?”

The son of the dragon,” the man said, “Vlad Tepes.”

Fuentes’s novel. “Oh,” Langan said. “Yes, we were. I mean, we were discussing a book. By a Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes. Maybe you know him, his work?”

I do not read,” the man said.

Oh.”

What were you saying about this book?”

It’s a sequel to Dracula—by Bram Stoker. About the vampire. It was the last book Fuentes wrote, before his death. In it, Dracula—Vlad moves to Mexico.”

Ah.” With the thumb and index finger of his right hand, the man reached into Phoenix’s mouth. Phoenix gagged, screamed. There was a snap. When the man’s fingers reappeared, they were holding something small and white—a molar. He popped it in his mouth. The tooth rattled against his teeth as he sucked it. Around the molar, he said, “And what does the book say he does after he moves?”

Through trembling lips, Langan said, “He takes away the narrator’s family. Except, the narrator already lost them. He was too self-involved, too blind to see what was happening in front of him.”

Blind.” Something in the way the man said the word raised the hairs on the back of Langan’s neck, stippled his flesh with goosebumps. Without knowing the reason why, he understood that he had just walked onto ice so thin his next breath might drop him to the black water below. But he could not stop talking, had in the extremity of his fear entered what his wife referred to as full-professor mode. “Yes,” he said. “Blindness is one of the book’s central motifs. I’m not sure if Fuentes had bats in mind—because of their association with vampires. Obviously. The narrator fails to register all manner of important details. Dracula himself wears dark glasses, behind which, his eyes are missing.”

Are they?” the man said, and Langan heard the ice beneath his feet creaking.

Yes.”

How do you think the writer, this…Fuentes, arrived at such a detail?”

Before Langan could open his mouth to answer, the man had leapt the distance separating them. Langan cried out, raised his hands in front of him. The man’s face pressed against Langan’s palms, his mustache a wire brush. The copper smell of blood filled Langan’s nostrils, with underneath it, a worse odor, that of meat gone rotten and riddled with maggots. Through the bars of his fingers, Langan saw the hollowed sockets where the charro’s eyes had been. Oh, he thought, oh no.

With a crunch, the man bit down on Phoenix’s molar. “When I was a young man, I took part in the charreada. You know this word? The rodeo, I think you call it. My specialty was the Jineto de Toro, riding the bull. I was not very good. The bull threw me, and then he did a dance on me. My bones…” The man snapped his fingers one two three four five six, a rapid-fire succession of pops. “Sadly, I lived. But I could no longer walk. I had no education, no family to take me in. So, I became a beggar. I sat outside churches and asked for money,” the man lifted his right hand, palm cupped, “¿puedes darme dinero por favor? I might have starved. A tightfisted bunch, the devout. My luck was better with the tourists. ‘Gringo,’ I would say, ‘give me ten pesos,’ and they would, sometimes even more. I could not believe it. On a good day, I did all right for myself. I would pick a place near one of the better hotels and be there before the sun was up. That was how el conde found me. He was on his way back to his room after a night out. I thought he looked drunk. Drunk tourists could be very generous. I asked him for ten pesos. He walked past me, then he stopped, turned around, and came towards me. ‘How would you like something much better than ten pesos?’ he said, ‘Better than one hundred, one thousand pesos?’ What else was I going to say but, ‘Yes, of course.’ I thought I might have to suck his cock, maybe let him fuck me, but I had done worse for less. I was wrong. With one hand, he grabbed my jacket and lifted me up into the air. With the fingers of his other hand,” the man held up his index and middle fingers, “he scooped my right eye from my head and licked it from his fingers. I screamed, oh how I screamed. He took my left eye, and then, in the dark…he made me into this.”

Absurdly, Langan said, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

The man tilted his head. “Gracias. Even for one such as me, there are good manners, eh?” He sprang off the bunk, back into the corner he had emerged from. Although his vision had adjusted to the lack of light, Langan could no longer see the charro. It was as if he had been absorbed by the blackness there. “In time,” his voice continued, “I found my way here. This jail has not been used in many years. There has been talk of replacing it, knocking it down and building something else in its place, but the talk has remained talk. For the moment, it belongs to the beggars. It belonged to the beggars: now it belongs to me.

El conde has not passed this way since the night we met. I have watched for him. Not literally, of course, but in other ways. There is much the two of us have to…discuss. When news reached my ears of a group of diners discussing Vlad Tepes, I thought he had made his return. Apparently, I misunderstood.”

We were just talking about a book.”

Yes.”

Will you let my friend and me go?”

Does the spider release the flies from his web? After all, food is food.”

But this was a mistake, you said so yourself.”

I have made many mistakes.”

Maybe there’s something I could give you?”

You will.”

That’s…” Before he could think better of it, Langan jammed his fingers into his mouth. The teeth in his upper and lower gums were a splintered line whose members shifted as his fingers prodded them, filling his head with pain bright as sunrise. At the back of his lower jaw, he found a molar reasonably whole and reasonably loose. He pinched it at the gumline and pulled. The pain was a furnace white hot. With a rip he felt in his throat, the tooth tore from his jaw. He dropped the molar in his other hand, spat the blood that spilled from the socket onto the floor, and thrust his fingers back into his mouth. The next tooth up was already broken in the gum, and slick with the fresh blood, but he was able to wrench it free, too. Tears poured down his face; snot streamed over his lip. He could feel the sounds he was making vibrating his throat, but could not hear them over the roaring of his blood in his ears. He tried for a third tooth, but his fingers kept sliding off its bloody enamel. Finally, he said, “Here,” and flung the teeth to the floor.

The charro hissed, the train of sibilance rushing over the floor, up the walls, across the ceiling. Langan flinched. For a moment, the sound surrounded him. When at last the charro spoke, it was with such anger, he seemed to be choking: “Freely given?”

What do you think?” Langan spat blood.

Freely given?

Yes,” Langan said, “yes, freely given.”

A pause then, with dull clang, a section of the bars swung out into the corridor—a door, whose outline Langan had failed to notice. “What is this?” he said. “What’s happening?”

There was no answer.

Can I go?”

Nothing.

He looked at the floor, to where his teeth had landed. It was bare. His head a raw, throbbing wound, Langan levered himself off the bunk onto legs so weak they threatened to drop him beside Phoenix. He bent towards the other man, grabbing for his hands. As he lifted them, Phoenix moaned. Still alive. Stepping backward, Langan dragged the man through the puddle of his blood, out of the cell. You weren’t supposed to move someone as grievously injured as this, but what was the alternative? He hauled Phoenix along the corridor, toward what he hoped was an exit.

Behind them, in the darkest corner of the cell, there was the clack and clatter of teeth rolling against teeth, a deep sigh of what might have been pleasure.

For Fiona