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Bruce Elliot Jones Writes


Been rolling the term around in my skull lately, think I’ve just about decided it’s wholly spurious. Some concept someone (probably not a writer) made up way back when that’s stuck with us, dogged us. Haunted some of us.

An elderly Monet, bed-ridden, fingers knotted grotesquely with arthritis, was dabbing at a painting propped on his chest one day when a dowager neighbor happened by, looked down at what was probably another take on lily pads and declared: “That’s marvelous! Especially considering your condition!” Monet reportedly looked her up and down with smug indifference. “Madam,” he replied evenly, “one does not paint with one’s hands.”

Poor analog or not, it’s my contention the same holds true with prose.

‘Writer’s block.’ Have noun and adjective ever been more damagingly coupled? The first valiantly cries, “Fluidity!” The second hatefully screams, “Inert!” Kind of an oxymoron when you think about it, and…

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Posted: June 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

Kong cover TODAY’S BOOK As mentioned in an earlier post, one of the nice things about the tie-in, or Photoplay book, is that they sometimes supply the author’s version of scenes otherwise excised from the original film. The Grosset & Dunlap 1932 edition of KING KONG might be a good case in point. Again, remember that assigned writer Delos W. Lovelace, though working directly from the film’s script, doubtless took some artistic license with his prose. Still, he seems to have honed fairly close to the British copy of the film, the only one that includes the majority of “lost” or missing scenes from the movie, including Faye Wray’s disrobing by Kong and the latter’s muddy abuse of natives and NY citizenry. The vaunted Lost Spider Sequence—perhaps even more lamented than LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT to effects fans—is included in the novelization. For the release of the last DVD of KONG before it went to Blu-ray, director Peter Jackson and his Weta crew recreated the scene in their effects shop with laborious stop-action patience and care if, admittedly, some guesswork, working off rare stills of the sequence and at least one of the original puppets, a Delgado sculpted styracosaur probably filmed but, like the spider pit, edited out of the Wallace-Cooper movie. It’s now believed that the styracosaur, not the brontosaur, is what chased the crew onto the log bridge to face Kong, and prevented them from exited again—trapped between two monsters, with more waiting in the pit below. I’ve watched the Jackson making-of footage carefully but am still unable to determine if an original script survives or that’s just a continuity script they’re consulting. If the latter, then the novel’s pit sequence becomes all the more valuable. I have no information on whether or not Jackson worked from the novel itself. I also believe the trapdoor spider puppet in O’Brien’s later The Black Scorpion (1957, Warner Bros) was used/intended for the spider pit scene in Kong; I’m no film historian so please feel free to disagree. Interestingly, Lovelace refers to the styracosaur as a “tricerotops” in his noveI. In 2005 several Lovelace versions were rereleased in paperback editions in tandem with Jackson’s remake of Kong, including one with a terrific new cover by old artist pal Thomas Blackshear–but if you missed those, I’m including a snippet from the original 1932 G&D hardback pictured here: “…AS DRISCOL STARTED ACROSS THE GIANT LOG DENHAM LOOKED DOWN. THE RAVINE WAS VERY DEEP, WITH A THICK DEPOSIT OF MUD AND SLIME AT THE BOTTOM. ALONGSIDE THIS REEKING DEPOSIT…WERE NARROW MOUTHED CAVES AND LONG, JAGGED FISSURES IN THE ROCK…AS THOUGH EXORCISED BY HIS POINTING FINGER, A SPIDER LIKE KEG ON MANY LEGS CAME CRAWLING OUT OF A CAVE…SOMETHING WHICH WOULD HAVE BEEN A LIZARD EXCEPT FOR ITS SIZE LAY WARMING ITSELF ON A SUNNY LEDGE. THE SPIDER MOVED TOWARD IT, THEN THOUGHT BETTER OF THE IMPULSE AND LOOKED ABOUT FOR SMALLER PREY. THIS WAS PROVIDED BY A ROUND, CRAWLING OBJECT WITH TENTACLES LIKE THOSE OF AN OCTOPUS. THE SPIDER CRAWLED TO THE ATTACK. BOTH OCTOPUS-INSECT AND SPIDER VANISHED INTO A FISSURE… …THE MEN ON THE LOG COULD DO NOTHING. TO ADVANCE AGAINST KONG WAS IMPOSSIBLE, TO RETREAT WAS NO LESS SO, FOR THE TRICEROTOPS, SIGHTING HIS OLD FOE, RUSHED TO THE END OF THE LOG AND BELLOWED A CHALLENGE… …TWO OF THE MEN LOST THEIR HOLDS. ONE WENT WHIRLING DOWN INTO THE DECAYING SILT AT THE BOTTOM. HE HAD NO MORE THAN STRUCK WHEN THE LIZARD FLASHED UPON HIM…THE SECOND MAN DID NOT DIE IN THE FALL. HE LANDED FEET FIRST, SINKING IMMEDIATELY TO HIS WAISTLINE IN THE MUD, AND SCREAMED HORRIBLY AS NOT ONE BUT HALF A DOZEN OF THE GREAT SPIDERS SWARMED OVER HIM…DRISCOL, LOOKING DOWN IN HORROR, FOUND HIMSELF MENACED. A SPIDER WAS CLIMBING THE HEAVY VINE WHICH HUNG IN FRONT OF THE CAVE…” So, according to Lovelace, Kong battled a triceratops, not a T. Rex, when rescuing Ann Darrow, and a giant spider, not a lizard, climbed the vine rope in an attempt to dispatch Driscoll. Lovelace taking liberties? Or simply working off scripted scenes not yet filmed? We do know that the bulk of KONG’S effects work was done after principle photography; perhaps Lovelace had already started the novelization. Until someone unearths footage from that dreaded spider pit (O’Brien considered it his finest animation), the mystery will endure…

Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

The title says it all.

Which is not to say this will be immediately apparent to everyone.

Or even that the authors themselves are aware of the clever double extenders that make the title equal parts blatant pulp (and I mean that in the bloodiest sense) and self-servingly kitsch. The book?s real intent falls so neatly between crass commercialism and apparent satire that the line is blurred. But blurring, it would seem, is the operant theme here.

The authors? peculiarly gathered concoction plays fast and loose not only with traditional literary form, but with that which makes literature readily available: publishing. For that reason alone it warrants our scrutiny. It?s easy enough to write the whole thing off as a sophomorically prurient exercises in money grubbing, sexually-charged egoism (as the clergy once said of Elvis); the trick is knowing when and whether these exercises are mere fodder for the gore-hounds…

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forgotten planet

This is probably—if pressed to the wall–my favorite SF novel, albeit biased with a veneer of  nostalgia.

Like Ray Bradbury’s MARTIAN CHRONICLES and Clifford Simak’s immortal CITY, this was a patchwork of previously published magazine short stories under various titles: THE MAD PLANET (Argosy Weekly, 1920), THE RED DUST (Amazing Stories 1927) NIGHTMARE PLANET (Science Fiction Plus, 1953) etc.  None of which detracts in the least from Murray Leinster’s ultimately explosive cohesion, THE FORGOTTEN PLANET.

Pictured here in a first edition 1954 Gnome Press publication, I’ve also included the 1956 Ace paperback because it was the childhood copy I fell in love with and because the mass-market  illustration has a lively, more evocative feel than Ed Emshwiller’s hardcover map design. This is the novel that kept me wrapped in after-school enthrallment at the bike stand while classmates filed by with curious glances and cocked brows; I just could not put it down. Even back then I was amazed some studio hadn’t snatched up the movie rights–am more amazed now than ever, when today’s CGI makes anything possible. The book has summer movie written all over it.

Burl and his tribe of primitives live on a planet shrouded in mists and lofty mushroom forests three times the height of man…and teeming with giant spiders and insects big as buses. It’s a nightmare world where every step may be your last, snared in a massive web or facing down a ravenous, ten foot beetle.  Empty and sterile ages ago, Burl’s world had been discovered in deep space by Earth explorers and approved for “restoration”: seeding ships showered microscopic life into empty seas, sewed barren landscapes with plant life for future human colonists. But a card was misfiled at Headquarters and the program inadvertently shut down—the planet lost–leaving the insect live to thrive and grow to monstrous proportions without natural enemies or containment. The crew of a lost survey ship, the Icarus, bore Burl’s early ancestors to the tortured little world–ship and crew now so long gone Burl and his huddled tribe don’t remember them. A savage in a savage land, protagonist Burl must endure a daily battle of fear and inbred superstition against the insect monsters, plagued by constant terror, ignorance and inner-tribal conflict…until the day he is struck by inspiration! Is it possible to fight back against the insect horde, become their equal, their master…even someday move out of the misted valleys into the forbidden mountains to seek his destiny and true identity?

Eons more subtle and complex with human emotion than its linear plot might suggest, THE FORGOTTEN PLANET’s headlong narrative so hypnotically involves, I defy anyone to quit after the first chapter…no, make that the first paragraph. Burl’s slow, soulful awakening to mature concepts of what it is to be human is handled beautifully and none of the battles between insect life and environment seems unbelievable or the least forced (Leinster did his entomology homework) scientifically improbable as they may be. Burl’s ultimate triumph becomes our own, his passage a litmus test for life. Deceptively simplistic, never preachy, it’s one of those rare books that survives on its own terms, can be enjoyed and appreciated—and I mean this—by young and old alike. It’s just that universally good.

Murray Leinster (the nom de plume of William Fitzgerald Jenkins) was a prolific writer of early sci-fi: SPACE TUG, SPACE FERRY, SIDEWISE IN TIME, OPERATION OUTER SPACE, THE LAST SHIP, etc. Born in Norfolk, VA in 1896 he served with the Committee of Public Information and the United States Army during WW l. After the war, Leinster took up freelance writing. In 1921 he married Mary Mandola who gave him four daughters. During WW ll he served in the Office of War Information. He won the Liberty Award in 1937 for “A Very Nice Family,” and the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Novelette with “Exploration Team.”

This Gnome Press hardcover may set you back a bit if you can locate one, but FORGOTTEN PLANET was in continuous paperback print for years throughout the 60’s and 70’s and perhaps beyond, so landing a copy shouldn’t be that difficult. Do yourself a favor and plunge headlong with Burl, female partner Saya and their primitive band of survivors into the swirling mysteries and unforgettable terrors of the planet forgotten. Your heart and imagination will soar!

TEN PAGES A DAY

Posted: June 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

This is a post from two years ago–I thought it was time…

Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

Mom died this week.

It had taken awhile. And taken its toll on both her and the entire family.

Yet it also seemed to happen very suddenly, catching me looking completely the other way. I can?t explain it better than that. When someone you?ve loved all your life is dying, time makes its own rules.

I hadn?t written anything worthwhile in weeks, maybe months. And I knew it. But I kept at it, mostly, I?m sure, for the solace of escape fiction can provide. But never really fooling myself. I have never been ?blocked.? As far back as grade school where Mom dropped me off every morning, I?d learned that the fastest way to beat the blank page was to get out of my own way, let myself fall into it: stop being the reality me and be another me. Now all I could think of was that Mom had…

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Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

Not so long ago I?d have met that question with the clarity and conviction of a long rehearsed answer: NO!

The very idea of writing fiction with a partner was antithetical to everything I ever knew, learned or enjoyed about the concept of writing. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent all alone in my room or the school cafeteria filling reams of spiral notebooks with fiction created by me, for me, without anyone but me. With nary a thought of even showing it to anyone else. I still treasure the memory of those days, writing for the pure joy of it without the hassle and ego-deflating strum and drang of agents, editors, publishers, et al. But now I tend to regard that time without the strawberry glasses of nostalgia, and the naivet of my youthful ideas about creativity.

In 2000, after some twenty odd (very odd)…

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Chapter Thirteen:  Mama Grace

 “Do you rent boats here?”

“That’s what the sign says, lady.”

A whisky voiced Cajun-French accent thick as the tan lines on his fiftyish face, wisps of greasy hair poking below both temples of his dirty yacht cap; thick and impatient in the patiently-impatient way only a southern Lower Louisianan can manage, and giving us more of his broad, red-striped T-shirt back than his sunbaked scowl, the owner of the boat rental place gave us his back as he wrestled mooring rope about a stain-weeping dock cleat.

It was a small dock, no more than twenty feet across, spoked with even narrower weathered slips, a tiny office bisecting the line of rental scuffs and skiffs rocking easily on oil-rainbowed waters. Clearly a tourist trap whose proprietor was just as clearly weary of tourists.

“How much?” I inquired companionably.

The fire-plug in the striped shirt and white clam diggers yanked a final grunt at the cleat and pushed himself straight, becoming more compactly beefy in the process, thick-fingered hands hanging apishly loose as if daring confrontation. “Well, now, that depends on the craft. And how long you’ll be wantin’ her.”

Katie and I looked out at the rows of bobbing “craft”, mostly 18-foot vertical bow fishing skiffs and 10-foot dinghies with crusty inboard Evinrudes or loosely fluffing sails. In between was the occasional squat, flat-bottomed fanboat, aircraft props or car engines mounted behind big rusty cage fans.

“…and where yer bound,” the fireplug added, squinting renewed interest now that he’d spotted Katie’s tight white shorts and halter behind me. He nodded gapped teeth, smelling money.

“Why is that germane?” I asked.

The fireplug turned back to me slowly, squinted me up and down one-eyed like Popeye accessing a new kind of insect. “Why is it what?”

“Because it depends on the swamp’s topography, right?” Katie smiled ingratiatingly, coming light and trim down the boardwalk.

The fireplug opened both eyes now. “Well, now that’s fer sure, little lady! You headin’ through a mangrove forest or down a wide, clean river? Cap’n McKenzie at yer service!”

Katie returned a helpless maiden look. “We’re not really sure, truthfully. Appreciate some solid directions from an experienced seaman. Maybe even a private guide if you do that sort of thing.”

“Lady, we do everthin’ here at McKenzie Rentals, private and otherwise! Best dang prices on the levee! Guide to where?”

Katie shaded the dancing glare from her grey eyes with a slim palm. “Actually, all we have is a name. Are you acquainted with a woman the locals call ‘Mama Grace’? At least I think that’s her name.”

The beefy grin went sour. “What you want with her?”

None of your fat ass business, I thought. “Just to talk,” Katie said.

The fireplug’s disappointment was palpable. “Aw, hell, she way to hell and gone from here. Lives in a damn mangrove swamp, cypress knees up to yer armpits. Need an airboat for that, extra can of gas, and even that might not get you through. Middle of freakin’ nowhere. You don’t want no part of that, trust me. How about a nice tour of the harbor?”

Katie placed her hands on her hips in a way that made her shorts twist one way, her breasts the other. Something about the pose made me simultaneously angry and hungry. “Would you take us?”

Cap’n McKenzie, attention flitting from Katie’s rack and her navel, back and forth, blinked awake and squinted again. “Us? Him too?”

“Me too, Captain.”

“What fer, ballast?

And before his laugh could build strength I cut in: “That’s funny, that’s great, I saw the movie too. You interested in serving as guide or not, assuming these things actually float.”

“I don’t mess with that voodoo crap. Even if I did, can’t recall the last time anyone saw the old witch, knew she was still alive. You want a nice tour around the bayou and orchid fields is what you want.”

“No, we want Mama Grace,” I told him.

He spit a boil of snot at the oil water beside me, turned and shook his head all the way back to the little office-shack with the alligator jaws pegged over the door. “Don’t mess with that hoodoo shit,” he muttered, “and I sure ain’t about to send two New Yorker lubbers into the marshes with one of my expensive airboats.”

“We’re from Texas!” Katie called, but only got the broad striped back.

We looked at each other, turned and headed back up the dock for the short hill, the curb and the Blackbird waiting behind it.

“So which is it?” I said.

“Which is what?”

“’Voodoo’ or ‘hoodoo’?”

She smirked. “Little of both, I’d guess.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Voodoo’s a religion—mostly Catholic now, actually—hoodoo’s a group of magical practices. They overlap a bit, both have origins in West and Central Africa. Much more than that I cannot tell.”

“Sworn to secrecy, huh? I thought Voodoo was Haitian.”

“Yeah, that too.”

“Hey, mon!” a high voice called down the way, “you and the missus lookin’ for some sure-nuf gris-gris?”

A handsome young black boy of maybe fifteen, with curly-to-wavy black hair, squatted barefoot at the edge of the dock in frayed jean shorts. Elbows on knees, he was paying out a length of fishing line with just his lighter-toned palms as he craned back to look at us.

“Thanks,” I waved, “not into drugs!”

Katie caught my arm, “They’re not drugs.” She turned to the squatting boy, who had already shrugged and gone back to his fishing. “Dime store gris-gris or the real thing?”

The boy craned around again. “Dime store?”

“You know, tourist.”

“Ah, tour-ris!” his accent not quite Creole but foreign enough, beyond our shores maybe; Haitian? “No, no. This genuine juju! De real tang!”

“And you sell it?” from Katie. “You follow hoodoo?”

“Me? Oh, hell no, lady, no way, I good Christian! You say before you lookin’ for de Mama Grace? I know where she be! Take you there, good price!”

I smelled scam. And from her barely concealed expression, I thought Katie did to.

“I thought Mama Grace practiced Voodoo.”

The handsome head bobbed, followed by a blinding white killer smile. “Overtop, like you say!”

“Overlap.”

“Dots it!” Good-looking kid, latter day Sabu.

Katie turned to squint at me a moment, turned back to the boy. “You don’t sound quite Cajun. Are you local?”

The boy wiggled a flat hand at the air. “Soam French, liddle Acadia, soam Haitian. Mostly Dahomeyan Vodun.”

“Where’s that?” I said.

“West Africa,” from Katie. “Can you really take us to Mama Grace?”

“Oh, yes. Very much fast! Good price! Gare-an-tee!” He grinned even wider, pointed over the oil sheen at a loosely moored, paint-peeling skiff. It appeared barely buoyant.

“Looks like it could use a paint job,” Katie told him.

“Oh, yes, doing thet tomorrow!”

“Manana,” I said.

“Dot’s it!”

“Your boat’s got water in her bow.”

“Jos bilge! From de rain!”

“How long a trip?” from Katie.

“Not long. Two hour?”

“How much?” from me.

The boy held up three fingers.

“What’s that?” Katie asked.

“Hon-red! American!”

“Forget it,” I said, and took Katie’s arm. “He’s scamming us.”

“No scam! Git you dare, bring you back one piece! Vvvvery dan-ger-ous, mon! I give bargain prize! You check ‘round!”

I glanced back at the skiff: two lopsided oars playing host to dragonflies. “Rowing?”

“No-no! Use motor. Outboard! Three hon-red! Pluz gaz!”

“Where’s the motor?” from Katie.

The kid grinned pridefully, pointed to the little office shack. “Rent!”

I rolled my eyes.

“One hundred,” from Katie.

The kid nodded vigorously. “Two sev-van-ty five.”

“One-fifty,” from Katie.

And it went on like that for a while.

* * *

The kid never stopped smiling after that, steering the noisy Evinrude with those glaring white teeth exposed, the outboard barely seen under a swirling skein of blue oil fumes even after we were several miles out in the swamp.

Katie and I sat forward near the bumping, wooden bow, shoes sloshed with bilge even though the kid had bailed it out before we’d left the dock.

“This boat is leaking!” I yelled above the engine whine, wind in my face, at least keeping off the mosquitoes.

“All boats leak,” Katie called back, her own hair bannering, “a little!”

“Uh-huh! What’s gris-gris?”

“Voodoo amulet!” she said. “West African, originally. Juju. Black magic fetish! Usually a small leather bag containing ritual objects—roots, herbs, stones! Charms!”

“For?”

“Warding off evil spirits, bad luck! Or to pu ta black magic spell on a victim!”

“Great!”

“Also a potent form of contraception!”

“Really?” I perked up. “Is there a patent on this, or is it an open market item?”

“Stick to writing, Elliot!”

“Yeah,” I nodded, “the way my ass is sticking to this wood seat! Do you think he’ll shoot us before or after he rapes us and throws us in the swamp?”

“He’s a kid, Elliot!”

“Got two hundred bucks out of you!

Something jarred the speeding boat under us; a quick bump that went clear through my spine.

I gripped the gunwales in terror. “What was that?”

“Gator!” the boy at the throttle smiled through a tornado of blue fumes.

I looked dubiously at Katie, who was staring hard over the side at the flat, rushing water.

“Nice!” I leaned toward her. “Leaky boat, dumped in the swamp and now Louis is back!”

She looked at my expression, suddenly burbled a laugh. “You forgot ‘rape,’” she called back.

“No, I didn’t!”

* * *

Mama Grace didn’t live in the swamp. She lived in a forest.

A mangrove forest of cypress and other swamp trees surrounded by an even thicker jungle of underwater plants and branches; it was either a miracle the boy steered the boat and growling outboard through them or he was just awfully good at his job. Or awfully familiar.

The old woman’s home wasn’t even visible when the kid finally cut the engine and pulled to the end of two canted pilings and a rickety parade of weathered, cracked and bowed planks that I assumed was a dock. A sort of dock that trailed and finally disappeared into the deep shadows of yet another tangle of mangrove forest. One look at the make-shift planks and pilings and I was certain it would be safer to swim the rest of the way, even with Louis’s brother patrolling the area.

The boy tied up the wobbly little skiff and started bailing again immediately. I looked down in horror to find we were already half-scuttled.

“Not to worry! You go ahead! Boat all bailed when you get back!” he ordered in uncomfortably low tones and pulled over the extra can of gasoline to refill the motor.

“You can come too if you like,” Katie told him.

He shook his head firmly without looking up from his bailing can. “No-no! Fine here! You go! I be wait-in!”

I just managed to help Katie from the rocking craft without tipping us both over the side. “And if he doesn’t wait?” I whispered.

Katie gave me a dismissive look, but she hesitated at the end of the dock anyway, withdrew a fifty from her purse, torn it in half and gave one end to the boy. “Other end when we get back.”

The boy nodded, took it without looking. He seemed to be watching the water around the boat, or maybe that was just my imagination.

We walked the fifty or sixty feet of dock, out of bright sun into cooler cypress shade, and discovered more dock boards—these hammered together vertically—after a fashion—stretching to a tarpaper roof that looked grown into the overhead foliage. An off-angle door gradually revealed itself among fiddlesticks and strangler vines. The leaning shack looked angry, as if it resented sitting there on its drunken stilts above the dark water and below the tangle of vegetation, as though it were being squeezed the two. A tall man in a long great coat, arms folded, corncob pipe jutting under horny nose and hollow face met us just outside the door, leaning back patiently against the jamb, thread of smoke circling a big slouch hat like he’d just stepped off an old pulp cover of The Shadow.

What?” he demanded, voice all gravel and whiskey.

“Sorry,” I apologized, “wrong address! We thought this was the White House!” Only I didn’t say that, didn’t say anything, just stood there beside Katie, who was holding the cat cage in her arms. Garbanzo hadn’t made mewl one during the entire trip; I was pretty sure he’d passed out from the oil fumes.

“Is Mama Grace in?” Katie ventured respectfully.

“No,” the man growled, “she’s down the block at the local salon getting a new perm.”

Katie blinked, glanced at me.

I felt abruptly insignificant in the very large and significant swamp stretching to all quarters around us as far as the eye could see.

“We’ve come to see Mama Grace,” Katie ventured.

The puffed stale smoke. “She yer Mama?”

For the first time since we’d met, Katie didn’t appear to have a ready response.

Somewhere in the ensuing silence, the man said: “She dead. Y’all git, now.”

I took Katie’s arm, “That is a very sensible idea!” right on the tip of my tongue. Sensible but not the right thing to say to Katie Bracken, who only dug in her heels stubbornly, jerking her arm from me brusquely. “Look, mister. We’ve come a long distance to see her! Very long! All the way from Texas! We’re tired and we’re thirsty! We intend to see Mama Grace. Who’re you, her bouncer?”

The man straightened an inch and I felt a wave of reproach but saw a crooked grin instead. “Bouncer. Pretty funny, are we?”

Katie’s heels remained dug. I had the certain feeling there was a roundhouse kick behind those heels, years of ju-jitsu behind them.

“To aim to see Mama Grace. To ask about the child.”

Smart woman.

If the man answered, “What child?” it would be an uphill battle. If he asked us to leave again it would look suspicious.

Turned out he did neither. Only, “Cat stays on the porch.”

I looked about me. There was a porch?

* * *

It was so dark in the shack it took another five minutes for my eyes to adjust to the scattered candlelight, a blessing considering I still hadn’t adjusted to whatever was making the smell. The first thing I saw, after we’d been seated at a little wooden table on what felt like constantly wobbling children’s chairs, were the alligator skulls. They appeared gradually, creeping out of the dark, ringing the black ceiling under festoons of cobwebs, bony heads hung upside down, glowing pale and grinning from the shadows, adorned with multi-colored bird feathers and dust-laden beads. The other…decorations…revealed themselves one at a time as my iris shrank: uneven dark wood shelves mostly, and mostly crammed end-to-end with every size bottle and jar known to man. Some held a reddish or, occasionally, a greenish-looking powder, others various colors and viscosities of liquid, some tall, some squat, all corked. The apothecary of Ed Guin. I began to look for signs of dangling human skin but saw none, only a few skinned and wrinkled animal hides. I’m almost sure they were animals. The smell came from a fat black rat hanging from a fat black hook in the fireplace, its fevered embers giving the rest of the shack a hellish orange patina. There were a couple of black alcoves, one of which may have held a bed or pallet; or maybe Mama Grace slept on the floor. Or standing up. Or hanging from the ceiling.

The man removed his long coat and floppy hat and turned to the warble-luminous andirons and became a scarlet-and-amber Mama Grace–as both Katie and I had guessed by then.

She gave us her bent backside for a good five minutes, poking at something murmuring liquidly in the iron pot.

“I don’t do sitt’ns no more if that’s why ye come. If yer government people I already showed ‘em the papers prove I own the place.” A woman now, clearly, from the white straggle of stringy hair draping bony shoulders, to the long-nailed skeletal fingers stirring a pot with what looked like a length of bone but I preferred to think was a ladle. A ancient woman, but with same whisky gargle.

“We’re citizens,” Katie said, hands folded primly atop the little table, pert figure constantly adjusting for the lean, “just like you.”

Smart girl.

“Citizens, huh?” She grunted disgust. “You ain’t nothin’ like me a’tall, and I don’t abide boot lickin.’ Kissin’ my skinny ass won’t git you a sittin, Miss-Prim-and-Proper!”

…or, maybe not.

Katie changed tact. Silence. Yes, smart girl. Cranky and mean, maybe, but Mama Grace was all alone out here on the dank ferns, and even a hermit, sooner or later, longs to talk to something besides the walls.

“The black boy bring you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” from Katie.

“How much?”

“Two hundred.”

Either an ancient throat being cleared or a cackle or both, I couldn’t tell. “Won’t see him again.”

Katie and I exchanged looks, owl-eyed.

“The answer to your question is ‘Yes.’ Now that’ll be ‘nuther hundred if you please.”

Some of the owl went out of Katie’s eyes. “Which…question?”

All of ‘em! ‘Yes,’ yer a sinnin’, both of ye! “Yes,’ ye’ll probably burn in hell fer it! ‘Yes, I don’t approve! And ‘yes’, you’ll likely get away with it! Most folks is layin’ together out of wedlock these days! First sign of the crumble of civilization! I don’t choose to live amongst it! Don’t think a sittin’ with me will absolve ya of it!”

Katie made that cute frown. “’Absolve’–?”

“Ye deaf? Fer sleepin’ together outside the law of God. Think I don’t get couples like you all the time? And one of ye married ta boot! Ain’t that why you come here, seekin yer future, find out if ye’ll succeed in yer carnality?”

Kate sat back in her leaning chair, nearly toppling herself. “They said in town you were prescient.”

“Said what?

“We’re not sleeping together, Miss Grace.”

“It’s Mama Grace!” the old woman spun on us, fiery of eye and snaggled of tooth, “and yer lyin!”

How can I describe her face sans the shadowed brim of the hat? I can’t. You had to be there. Suffice to say it was not a pleasant aspect the old woman presented. The term “child traumatizing” comes to mind. I believe I may have suffered a mild coronary, soiled my own self in some way, possibly both apertures.

If you really need a visual reference, I guess the old hag in Snow White would do. Got that image? Now, throw in a dollop of Freddie Kruger and a soupcon of advanced anal cancer and you’re close. I know it was just the weird light from the fire, but her face seemed to crawl, as if the maggots had arrived a day or so early.

“We are not sleeping together!” Katie insisted stubbornly, fearlessly, while I remained rooted motionless in my little chair, fighting hard not to swallow my tongue.

“I kin smell it on ya!” the witch sneered.

“Well, you’re honker’s off!” Katie shot back. “Maybe you should quit smoking that stuff!”

The old hag descended on her, bent closer, pressed lantern eyes into Katie’s face as she leaned back bravely. “Ain’t pressin’ wicked flesh, eh?”

“No!”

The hoary face turned to me, breathed something stale and mostly dead.

“Seriously,” I quaked, “I’m a virgin!”

The old lady pulled back with a still-accusing but softening gaze. “Wal…yer thinkin’ about it, then!”

“You can’t know that,” Katie defended, face flaming with fear or something else.

The crone threw back her white traces and cackled good and long this time. “Oh, can’t I? Wal, who can then, missy—you?” She thrust her beak at us again, sniffed above the little table. Finally shook her head. “Nah. ‘Tain’t you, Miss Satin Pants…” She jabbed a bony finger at me.”…it’s him!”

I blinked innocence. Me what?

She hobbled forward and got right in my face. “Wal, say something! You denyin’ you got it?”

She reminded me a little of my third grade teacher Mrs. Gruesome, whose real name was Grossman but nobody ever called her that.

I turned to Katie, mouthed: got what?

“Well, say something, ya dang doorknob!”

I turned back to the yellow, wormy face. “Are you going to put us in the oven?”

The old lady made a farting sound with her rubbery lips, turned with disgust and retreated to the fireplace. “I ain’t sayin’ Miss Britches there ain’t got some glow to her, I an’t sayin’ thet! But you, now—you’re the one’s all puffed up with the prescience. Didn’t think I knew what thet word met, did ye?”

Was I? I didn’t recall any puffiness.

“Skinny black kid?” from the hag, stirring. “Handsome as the Devil hisself? Smile out to here?”

“The boy at the dock?” Katie asked. “Yes.”

“And ye rented the motor from thet stubby, bow-legged sailor. Yeah. They’re in on it together, them two.”

I thought of the torn-in-half fifty in the boy’s hand.

The old woman hobbled to our table with two steaming cups of something from the black pot in what looked like hand-made leather cups. “How is it you two’re connected with the Robichou child? I know dang well ye weren’t here when she went missin’.”

“How do you know that?” Katie asked.

“Cause I know everybody round these parts, Miss Smarty Pants! Them that’s livin.’ And a few mebe thet ain’t!”

She sat the cups together in the middle of the table, grabbed a black cane from beside a torn drapery wall and leaned on it like a vulture waiting.

Katie reached for her cup. The cane slapped hard on her pale hand.

“Ow! Damn!”

“No sippin’ till you satisfy me! And no cursin’ in my house, thank-you! Now answer the question.”

Katie pulled her hand back, rubbed at the knuckles. “Mrs. Robichou contacted me some weeks ago about her daughter…”

“Why? Why you?”

“I’ve done work in paranormal activity and—“

“Good Christ, one of those.”

Katie gave her a dirty look. “I’m a fully credited graduate of—“

“What about you?”

I looked up with surprise; was it my turn? I’d been studying the surrounding plank board walls, which were coming into relief now. More gator skulls, some human (party favors, I was sure), twine or rawhide strings of chicken feathers, small animal bones, colored rocks, more feathers. More bones. Lots of bones. Definitely a bone thing going on here.

“Me? I’m…just along with Miss Bracken. Assisting her.”

Beady red eyes studied me. “’Assisting’…”

“Yes.”

The beady eyes narrowed. “There’s somethin’ else! What is it?”

I shrugged, abruptly cold under my sweat. “N-Nothing! Honest!”

The old woman pursed her wrinkled lips, making the hawk’s nose dip. Finally a vague nod. “Awright, then. You kin drink, now.”

We each picked up a leather cup. “What is this—“

“Drink!”

We both took a sip. Both wrinkled our noses. Katie gasped involuntarily.

The gargled cackle. “Smooth, eh? That’s the whiskey! Made it muh-self!”

“What’s the rest?” Katie coughed.

“Oh, bit of honey, bit of swamp root, drop or two of turpentine for antisepsis…”

I swallowed thickly, praying. “That all?”

“Couple squirts of shoat piss.”

“Jesus!”

“Don’t bring His name into it, and finish that there cup! I ain’t got all day!”

I breathed deep, jumped in.

The last swallow I hardly tasted. Probably the Draino. “Will it hurt us?”

“I’ll be one hundred and two come spring. Started drinkin’ that stuff when I got incurable throat cancer. Doctors gave me two months. That was two decades yonder. Him and his wife is dead. I’m standin’ here afore ye, all piss n’ vinegar!”

I belched involuntarily, felt a burning in my nasal passages.

The old woman nodded, “That’s jest the swamp root, let it steep a bit in yer gut.” Her table creaked as the old woman sat, stuck out a corpse-white hand. “That’ll be two hundred.”

“You said a hundred before!” from Katie.

“That was before I knew you had grit, and some true longin’. I don’t abide tourists.” She rattled her knuckles on the table. Katie drew a bill from her purse, pushed it across.

“I only takes Visa.”

When it was clear the crone wasn’t joshing, I reached for my wallet, handed her my card. She stuffed it in her deflated bosom, sat back and spread her claws to either side of her across the table. “All join hands now…”

It was like gripping cool sticks of leather. The big yellow eyes lidded shut, the fallen breast rose an inch as she inhaled once deeply. “No talk now. No sound but my own, understood?”

“Yes,” in tandem.

“Spirit of Amy Robichou taken from this earthly plane at the tender age of eight human years, we ask your permission to join and break bread with us at our humble table. We are sympathetic at heart and offer succor and friendship. Speak to us now, youngin,’ or give us some sign at yer convenience.”

Somewhere a loon called across the marshes; that sound that can lift the hairs on your nape.

“Rega flexus mur,” Mama Grace intoned. “Com sabon tore umbre.”

The short table scrapped my knees, the hard chair ached my butt.

The old woman’s hand seemed to grow colder in mine.

I sneaked a look at Katie but she sat reverently bowed, as if in prayer.

Then, without any noticeable breeze I could discern, the shack candles wavered and danced…winked out. The glowing remains of carbuncles in the stone hearth seemed to dim.

The old lady’s head went back.

And the voice that issued from the turkey throat was neither whisky, gargled nor entirely hers…

“…it is late…must be after midnight on a hot summer’s night. I can hear the frogs mating through the crack in the bedroom window. It’s very bright. Full moon. Everything glows like them black-and-white movies down to the Roxy. Someone near the garden, I hear footsteps. Mamma plantin’ moon ‘taters? Comin’ closer. Someone at the window now. Mus be brother Roger, comin’ in late and drunk. Got his bedrooms mixed up. ‘Roger you got the wrong winder!’ but he don’t listen…comes to my bed. How tall he’s got, big shouldered. Maybe he ain’t Roger, can’t see him clearly. ‘What in tarnation you doin’? Git yer hand off my mouth, it stinks of gin!’

He don’t listen. Picks me up, carries me like a feather to the window and I’m too tired to fight…gin stink making me so sleepy…if it is gin. Sound of crickets in the yard now mixed with frogs, must be near the swamp. Don’t he know the cottonmouths hunt at night? Where we goin, Mister? Why ain’t none of Pappa’s dogs barkin’?”

“…now I’m back in bed…musta been dreamin.’ No…not bed, a cushion or divan. Mamma git a new divan? No…no a car seat–back seat of a car…can hear the motor runnin…feel it movin.’ I know this car, think I know this car. Think. The man’s put somethin’ across my eyes…blind man’s bluff like at Sissy Watkins’ party…funny smells, familiar but…this ain’t no back seat! I’m all alone in the dark! In the trunk!”

“…think I slept a spell. Now someone’s taking me out, liftin’ me from the trunk…least wise I think  Roger? not sure…not sure it was ever Roger…”

…lost some time there. In another trunk. No…a little box. Cramped. No, not a box, a closet, someone’s closet. Voices…deep voices outside the door but…who? Can’t hear enuf to identify no one…”

…more time lost. I know ‘cause my legs are all cramped and achy and I’ve soiled myself. Can’t seem to wake up, why is that? If this is Roger having a joke it isn’t funny, Roger. Face all hot…sweatin’ little tickles on my cheeks. Or tears. I been cryin’…I been cryin’…I been’…”

Nighttime again…the swamp again, bullfrogs, wet grass. Someone carryin’ me. Still can’t see, blindfold. Awful thirsty. Terrible thirst, like snakeskin in my throat. Someone lifting me again…here we go, back in the trunk. Slam! Dark. Driving. Bumpity-bump. Swamp smell stronger…gotta be deep in the glades. Stopping now, good—my bottom’s sore. But legs feel better. Someone takin’ me outta the trunk…someone with a familiar smell…family smell? Ow. That hurts. Binding my hands, binding them tight behind me. I have to pee again. I’m getting tired of this. Wait ‘till Pa finds out. Binding my ankles too. Hey, that’s hurts, that’s too tight! This ain’t how you play the game!”

…lost more time there. Smell of saw grass and cypress. Jammies wet from the dew. But I can move my feet…cords loose at my feet! If I keep kicking…”

…I’m up! Standin,’ sore all over. Nothing but frog sounds. Run! The smart thing is to run, even blindfold! But I been chewin’ at that an it’s comin’ loose too! There–fallin’ down around my neck! Still can’t see much, just darkness out here in the glades, outlines of trees. Sound of my own bare feet runnin.’ Feel the sawgrass nippin’ ‘em  Someone shouting behind me now. Don’t answer, don’t dare answer! Run! Faster! If only I cud get my hands loose!”

…black water in front of me. Can’t go back. Best to get in, swim for it…they can’t track me in water! But slow…don’t make splashin’ sounds. If only I had my hands…”

…sound of a motorboat behind me. Lights spearing past me! Get into the mangrove! Run for the trees, little places where boats can’t follow!”

…lost time…everything like a dream…still moving through the water but up to my chest now…don’t know which way to turn, which way is back to land or even a dry hummock…Pappa took me huntin,’ what did he say?…moss side of tree means north? Black water up to my neck now…so tired…if the gators come now I’m done…something coming up on my right…too tired to look…”

…someone lookin’ down at me. Am I still in the water? Someone lookin’ down…someone in a boat. Stretchin’ out a hand to me. I know that hand…don’t I know that hand?”

…’My hands is tied!’ I think I said that. ‘Can’t take yer hand ‘cause mine’s is tied!’ grinning at me, can see  teeth, just  teeth. ‘Thas OK,’ a deep voice says…’jest relax now, honey…just close yer eyes…it’s all a dream’…got a hand on my head now, in my air…pushing…pushing…

‘Thas the wrong way!’Yer pushin’ me down!”

But under I go.

The water is warm.

And it’s nice not to struggle no more…almost relaxing. Likely even find peace here.

If it weren’t for so many questions…

There was a shockingly loud sound—clunk–that jolted Mama Grace wide-eyed from her trance.

Jolted me out of my own trance; the sonorous almost-little-girl voice having me near-mesmerized.

The old woman blinked angry eyes, scowled agitation. “Who done thet?”

Katie blinked confusion.

“Somebody done thet!”

I shrugged, looked around us. “It wasn’t me!”

Caught the old woman’s eyes and followed them to the center of the little wooden table before us.

Amy’s locket lay shining among the snaked coils of its chain.

 

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Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

A few readers have informed me that my short stories are?to put it politely??oversexed.? I?m not particularly concerned. When often accused of the same label, John Updike replied: ?Everyone?s interested in sex.? And who?s going to argue with him? But there?s another reason a few of these tales may appear overly titillating (what genius concocted that word!): some of them were written in my relative youth and published in what were referred to back then as ?men?s magazines.? I was asked to be sexy. Hey, I was young, and as Marilyn Monroe once modestly confessed: ?I needed themoney.? At least I was in good company; while I was churning out verbiage for a poor man?s Playboy called Escapade, some kid named Stephen King was simultaneously stomping the vineyards of the slightly classier Cavalier with his own early fiction. The following yarn, however sexy, has a…

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Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

Here sighs, plaints, and deep wailings resounded through the starless air: it made me weep at first. Strange tongues, horrible outcries, words of pain, tones of anger, voices deep and hoarse, and sounds of hands amongst them, made a tumult, which turns itself unceasingly in that air for ever dyed, as sand when it eddies in a whirlwind.

That was Dante. Specifically, The Inferno (Canto III, 22-31)

Here is Roger Zelazny in his foreward to Harlan Ellison?s From the Land of Fear, Belmont Books, 1967:

What does it take to be a writer and why? The quotation from Dante?contains the answer. There are these sounds, this tumult, turning in that air for ever dyed, eddying in a neat simile and beginning with that all important word ?Here.? Everybody hears the sounds, some people listen, and a writer, for some damfool reason, wants to put them down on paper and…

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Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

This is a story about loss. Something we all deal with, in our individual ways, every day. It?s hard not to think of loss in these times with so much of it around: Japan, Alabama, Louisiana, Joplin, recession, joblessness, Oprah Winfrey. Watching the HBO movie Too Big To Fail last night gave the word a whole new slant. Loss. Change the last letter to a ?t? and you have a completely different word with an almost hauntingly identical meaning.

They say ?every time you lose something, you gain something.? So why then does it?sometimes?hurt so much? Death is the elephant in the room here. Death of a family member, death of a close friend, death of a marriage?those are supposed to be the Big Three. I?ve experienced all in the exact reverse order, the last as recently as this week?a decades old friend with whom I shared both the…

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