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Infernal

Looking into the mirror, my eyes were bloodshot. Of course they were bloodshot, what did I expect having only slept four hours in the last three days? It was getting to be a pattern and it was starting to take a toll on me. My fluff of a ragdoll cat, Jekyll, stopped midway through weaving himself around my ankles and looked up lovingly at me—his soft mew broke my trance.

“I’m coming Jekyll, you’ve got to let me brush my teeth!” My toothbrush hung lazily in my mouth and I found it difficult to keep from drooling on my clean pajama top—thank god I was single. I caught my eyes again in the mirror before I turned the hot water handle, rinsed off my toothbrush, and spit. There was blood in the sink again, Jesus—was I falling apart? My toothbrush made a hollow clunk as it hit the bottom of the toothbrush holder. When I opened the medicine cabinet, I was greeted by the same rainbow of pill bottles that was waiting for me every night. I emptied Tuesday’s compartment into my hand and tossed the array of antidepressants, vitamins, and sleeping pills back with a handful of water that I splashed up from the spigot. Here I was thinking that these were supposed to make me feel better, but the last few days had proven they weren’t working.

The water splashed down on Jekyll—that was when he let out a pitiful cry and jetted out of the bathroom. I sighed, it was laborious and made my back creak; my shoulders stung with the pain of exhaustion. For a moment, I could have sworn I caught a whiff of smoke, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared. I hastily closed the medicine cabinet, but as the mirror swung closed with a snap, I looked back up at my reflection and my eyes succumbed to my exhaustion. It lived on my face as the puffy purpling bags under my eyes—a desperation for sleep, filled the void within me. When I finally opened my eyes again, I caught a glimpse of something over my shoulder in the mirror, I felt myself start, but before I could even think I had spun around to face—nothing. Just empty space. It felt like the entirety of the Kentucky Derby was stampeding across my chest, the wind was knocked clean out of me. There wasn’t anything there. You’re seeing things, Lorna. Dr. Mason said hallucinations were a possible side effect. Calm down.

I shuffled out of the bathroom and flicked the light switch off behind me. Just seeing things. My feet scuffed the floor in my outrageously fluffy panda slippers and I flopped down into the tangled mass of plush blankets and nest of pillows I had made for myself. Jekyll made his usual rounds after hopping up on the bed, being sure to step down with what seemed the weight of a small child on my stomach before he settled contentedly between my ankles and I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

It couldn’t have been more than a few hours later when I jerked awake, my tangled hair at the back of my neck soaked in sweat. I had been startled awake by a loud crash that had come from my bathroom. I yelled out at Jekyll, with what I’m sure was more than a few choice swear words, but he stood up at my feet, stretched, and answered me with a trill. My breath caught uncomfortably in my chest and it churned relentlessly with the loud thud of my accelerated pulse. My eyes burned with exhaustion as I made a feeble attempt to see through the inky blackness of my room. I still hadn’t let out that breath. It didn’t feel safe to, not yet.

“Hello?” I heard how shaky my voice was as it came out of me. Yes, Lorna—the killer stalking around your house is totally going to answer you and tell you that they’re there. I reached over to my bedside lamp—CLICKwhatCLICK, CLICKwhy isn’t my lamp turning on? Rummaging through my nightstand drawer revealed a dusty flashlight, prayer aided it being brought back to life despite the likelihood of corroded batteries. If I was going to be murdered in my own home, I would rather see it coming. My bare feet met the cold laminate flooring, a shudder ran through my body, and I felt around for my slippers. My spotlight was fixed on the open bathroom door and I felt as if my eyes were bulging right out of my skull. Any moment, I was sure that I would see someone dashing from the shadows and persistent nausea met that paranoia with gusto.

By the time I had padded silently over to the bathroom door, I felt silly—the emptiness glared back at me like an innocuous April Fool’s joke. I don’t know what I had expected to be there, or what I would have done if there had been something there, for that matter. My exasperation gave me a false confidence and I was just about to turn to go back to bed when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the shower curtain rustle and heard the rings clatter against the tension rod. If I had known how to juggle, I might have caught the flashlight as it leaped out of my hand. I rolled my eyes at my apprehension and snatched the flashlight off of the floor. You’re way too high strung for your own good. It had to be the meds playing tricks on me. None of this was happening; no doubt, waking up in the morning would have me feeling foolish.

Just then, another calamitous crash came from down the hall and any renewed spirit I had gathered drained from me altogether. My knuckles must have turned white due to my vice-grip on the flashlight. Get it together Lorna. My other hand felt for the baseball bat that I had stashed behind my bedroom door. My palms were so sweaty that it felt as if they had been slicked with butter; suffice it to say, it made gripping the bat with any security quite difficult. After abandoning the flashlight on the dresser, I hefted the baseball bat over my shoulder and peeked out of my bedroom around the corner. Without the benefit of the flashlight in my hand, I struggled to see through the darkness of the hallway, but I had decided that if there was someone in my home they were going to get a fight.

I stepped down the hallway in silent trepidation, the clatter of drawers opening, closing, then opening again, and then a cacophony of silverware clattering to the floor. Each step brought me closer to the sinister orange glow that bathed the walls with flickering shadows. Another step and a sudden crash of my metal barstools caused me to jump so high I could have sworn my head brushed the ceiling. Paralyzed in fear, I grasped the baseball bat tightly to my chest and pressed myself against the wall, as if trying to make myself smaller. Go, Lorna, just go! I forced myself off of the wall and gripped the bat with new conviction, a surge of adrenaline propelled me forward and into the kitchen.

What I saw myself come face to face with was enough to elicit the kind of scream that clawed its way out from my gut. A figure of a man being devoured in flames stood hunched amid the destruction and spreading fire in my kitchen—wherever the flames danced upon his skin, the flesh hung off of him in charred strips. His black eyeless sockets turned to me, but my eyes were fixated on his twisted features, where the fire had melted his face it sagged off his jaw and exposed the charred bone beneath. I clutched the bat feebly as he rose to stand upright and began to slowly amble toward me.

My feet carried me backward, mirroring his footsteps and I saw that each step revealed scorched floorboards; I continued stepping back, unblinking, the heat dried my eyes, they began to burn. I heard a hiss at my feet but stumbled over Jekyll before I could register he was even there. The man lunged toward me and in a knee-jerk reaction, I swung the bat off of my shoulder with as much force as I could muster. I was stunned to find it only caught air on its way through the man’s form and adopted a fast-burning flame. The baseball bat burned like a torch as it sunk into the drywall on the other side of the figure. The flames spread up as if fed by gasoline and rage and before I knew it they blanketed the ceiling above me.

The man was unfazed by my assault, his arms still reached for me. Without hesitation, I scooped up a growling Jekyll and scrambled clumsily back through my bedroom door and slammed it behind me. He was squirming violently in my arms, his fearful anticipation brought his claws down hard into my shoulder, but I held him tighter as I witnessed that same orange glow filter in under the gap of my door. Shit, shit, shit… Smoke rose from under the door, flames soon followed and I felt the sharp edge of my bedside table bite the back of my bare thigh.

Fire consumed my door as if it was comprised of nitrate film—what the fuck—I couldn’t open my window fast enough and doing so while holding on to my wrathful ragdoll was practically impossible. He spit angrily at the combusting monstrosity that stepped through the curtain of fire that used to be my door. Fuck this. I gave my window a good shove and it let out a loud whine. Jekyll was the first through, but before I could follow an excruciating pain shot through my leg—and then I fell and everything went black.

When I came to, I was laying on my back and could feel the hard chill of the sidewalk beneath me. I could hear someone call, “she’s awake,” but I could only see blackness and the outlines of two people above me.

“Miss—,” I heard a deep husky voice and I knew it was addressing me, but I didn’t know how to make my body respond to it. “Miss—Jones?” Another figure appeared above me, and they all slowly came into focus. A police officer was addressing me abreast the two EMTs who then disappeared from my view—when I tried to sit up, they jumped to help me, and the dull ache in the back of my head became more pronounced.

Ten minutes went by and my eyes were still dry from being overwhelmed with smoke. I mindlessly clutched my singed and shaken blackened mop of a cat, his claws clung tentatively to the blanket I had draped over my shoulders. I was surprised they had found him at all. The cold curb bit at my exposed legs, but the heat radiating from the blaze behind me reminded me that I much preferred the cold at this very instant. I could hear as my roof cracked and caved in under the burden of the fast-moving fire. The insurance company is never going to believe this… I’m so screwed.

“Are you alright to speak with me now, Miss Jones?” The police officer was back to ask his questions. He probably thinks I did this myself. I blinked repeatedly until I was able to break my gaze away from the darkness across the street. When I finally was able to look up at him, I saw he was looking at me as if I were an escaped mental patient—the 911 operator had sent everything but the kitchen sink after a neighbor had called to report a scream and smoke coming from my home. I’ll have to find out who it was so I can thank them.

“What was it you said was the cause of the blaze?”

“I—I’m not sure.” It wasn’t entirely a lie if I didn’t know what the hell I had just seen in my home, was it?

“What happened right before the blaze broke out?”

“Sleep, I was sleeping, my cat woke me up and I was headed to the kitchen.” I still wasn’t technically lying.

“The ambulance is going to take you to the hospital to treat you for smoke inhalation and those burns on your ankles.” I had already had enough strange eyes on me tonight, so the idea of being under the watchful eye of strangers made me shiver. Even though I knew I would soon be laying in a hospital bed with a nurse dressing my wounds, I started to feel sick. It was a deep, relentless, twisting anxiety that told me the burning man may have gone up in flames with my home, but that it wouldn’t be the last time I saw him.

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Interview with Horror Author Laird Barron

Recently, Puzzle Box Horror had the privilege of speaking with horror author Laird Barron about his life, his work, and his influences. Laird, an expat Alaskan, is the author of several books, including The Imago Sequence and Other Stories; Swift to Chase; and Blood Standard. Currently, Barron lives in the Rondout Valley of New York State and is at work on tales about the evil that men do.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing?

Picture of author Laird Barron
Photo Credit: Ardi Alspach

I started writing as a kid. I was into science fiction and fantasy–Star Trek, Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings. The typical pop culture stuff in the 1970s. When my family relocated from the suburbs to the wilderness, things took a darker turn. I enjoyed telling stories to my younger brothers. We spent many a winter night alone with snow and wind pressing against the cabin and our parents off to town. My siblings were particularly riveted by the spookier tales. Eventually, that translated to my writing horror. I experimented with high fantasy and various kinds of science fiction. Ultimately, it became clear that my affinity for the macabre outstripped everything else.

Has growing up in Alaska influenced your writing at all?

She left a mark. With rare exceptions, I didn’t write about Alaska until more recently. I’d gained distance but needed time. The geography and climate have always strongly influenced my work. Alaska was all about rough edges and extremes. The weather, the people, the swing between months of light and darkness…

I haven’t been back since ’96, but I dream of it often. It’s a lot of psychic pressure heaving against the bulwark of a dam. Past few years, I’ve vented more of it into my stories. Still haven’t decided how I feel about that turn of events except to acknowledge what’s done is done.

The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron book cover
The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron book cover
Occultation by Laird Barron book cover

You’ve written a wealth of short stories. Do you have any favorites?

Over time, a writer’s career reveals a sort of fossil record of their obsessions. Twenty years on, I’ve published enough stories to see them as delineating several different modes. The crime/noir mode; the contemporary weird mode; the science fiction/fantasy mode. First person posthumous… Most of it horror-inflected. Which is a roundabout way of saying, it’s tough to objectively determine a favorite or most “successful” piece of work because there’s a real apples and oranges element. But…

Personal favorite: “Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees.”

Best: “Parallax.”

Creepiest: (and for me, creepy is paramount) A forthcoming story I sold to Ellen Datlow called “Tiptoe” for her Shirley Jackson tribute anthology—When Things Get Dark.

Are there any anthologies or magazines that you are particularly excited to have been published in?

I’m grateful to every last editor who has made a place for me in their magazines and anthologies.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction set the tone for my career. It was, and might still be, the Holy Grail for writers tilling the science fiction/fantasy/horror fields. The heavyweights were featured there since 1949. King’s Dark Tower was serialized in those pages. Zelazny and Bradbury wrote stories for the mag. I’ve only become more aware of the importance of selling my first handful of pro stories to Gordon Van Gelder—two of which were cover novellas. There are world-renowned bestselling novelists who moan and groan to this day because they were never able to crack the ToC. So, yeah, a big, big deal.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction June cover
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction May cover

Penning introductions and afterwords for collectors’ editions of Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan; Jim Thompson’s Pop 1280; Peter Straub’s KOKO; and Michael Shea’s The Autopsy & Other Tales.

I’m also proud to have work reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s anthologies. You’re doing all right when Ellen takes an interest in your writing.

What scares you the most?

The declining state of the world should be enough to scare anyone.

What/who are some of your major influences?

Now, there’s a topic. My blood type is labeled “the ecstasy of influence.” I break down this incomplete list into three stages of life.

Adolescent: DM’s Guide, especially Appendix N; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Robert E. Howard; Roger Zelazny; Stephen King; Clive Barker; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Service; Louis L’Amour; etc, etc.

Adult: Shirley Jackson; Jack Vance; Karl Edward Wagner; Robert Parker; John D MacDonald; Anne Sexton; Peter Straub; Michael Shea; Charles Simic; Mark Strand; etc, etc.

Old Man Winter: Livia Llewellyn; Stephen Graham Jones; John Langan; Paul Tremblay; S.P. Miskowski; Kelly Link; Aimee Bender; etc, etc.

Blood Standard by Laird Barron book cover
Black Mountain by Laird Barron book cover
Worse Angels by Laird Barron book cover

We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

Like plenty of other people, I’ve my share of regrets. Career missteps aren’t among them, happily. By the time I started publishing, I’d spent twenty-odd years preparing for the day. I’d done my research and had a clear vision of the writer I wanted to be. That and some career advice from Gordon Van Gelder put me in a decent position.

A sentiment I carry from childhood? If you want to make art, make art. If your family and friends are supportive, wonderful. If not, fuck ‘em. The world pays lip service to pursuing your dreams, but the cold reality is that lots of people will act as living roadblocks to your dreams. The worst of the worst will profess to hold your best interests at heart. Don’t let them steal your fire.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re currently working on?

I’m working on a dark fantasy/horror novel and a handful of stories for upcoming anthologies. If all goes well, I’ll also hand my agent the next horror collection late this year, or early 2022.

If you’re interested in learning more about Laird Barron, check out his website at www.lairdbarron.wordpress.com. You can also follow the author on Twitter (@LairdBarron) and Goodreads (@Laird_Barron). Finally, to purchase books check out the author on Amazon.