In this chilling twenty-first-century companion to the cult classic Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, Ellen Datlow again proves herself the most masterful editor of the genre. She has mined the breadth and depth of ten years of terror, collecting superlative works of established masters and scene-stealing newcomers alike.
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A New Decade of Modern Horror
By Ellen Datlow
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2016 Ellen Datlow
All rights reserved.
A wig covered his bald scalp. His face was a patchwork of skin joined together by ugly black stitches. Mr. Punch told him that, given time, the resulting scars would be scarcely noticeable. Eventually they would almost fade away and leave only thin lines that could not be seen except under an extremely bright light. But as Sogol examined his own features in the mirror, tracing his fingers over the threads that held the flesh together, he found it difficult to believe that what he saw would ever again resemble his old familiar face. His reflection was like a mask, dead and expressionless. Sogol tried to remember that Mr. Punch had told him this was to be expected and that nerve-to-muscle control would take a few days to return, yet he had not really been prepared for the reality of just how ghastly he would appear in the interim. He poked a fingernail into the skin but felt nothing. It was like touching another person.
A gigantic industrial estate with narrow walkways, corridors and alleys. The squat, square buildings are made of concrete. They are rundown and dismal. Many of the windows are broken. On the flat roofs there are crooked TV aerials and grimy satellite dishes. They look like bizarre scarecrows and are framed against an orange-coloured sky. Subsidence and age has made the structures lean together. Flights of twisted stairs link one level to another.
Sogol sat on the edge of the camp-bed. Its mattress was soiled and hollowed in the centre, a reminder of all those who had been here before him. Mr. Punch's "clinic" offered the most meagre hospitality, despite the exorbitant cost of his special type of treatment. Those who went under his knife did so in the knowledge that the gentleman was a criminal, possibly even insane. But still his patients came. There was nowhere else for them to go. This horrible little building with its dusty windows and peeling paintwork, hidden away in a run-down ghetto estate, was a recondite Lourdes where one offered up hard cash in exchange for miracles.
He'd heard rumours about the celebrities that had passed through here. Film actresses who, beyond the help of lighting and make-up, even of face-lifts or plastic surgery, had extended their shelf-life by more than a decade by utilising the services of Mr. Punch. One did not approach him. There was no way to contact him. Mr. Punch would call on the telephone offering his services to those he knew were most in need. Celebrities of course. Only ever celebrities who could afford the fees he charged. And then his black ambulance would call in secret at an appointed time.
In Sogol's case it was after the car accident. The TV company had paid a lot of money to hush the thing up. This was, after all, right in the middle of filming the episode that was going to be next year's ratings triumph. Only Mr. Punch could repair the damage that Sogol had suffered in the crash; only Mr. Punch could reconstruct his monstrously burnt face in time.
Sogol coked up to the eyeballs, driving a sports car, a bottle of scotch with just a dribble left in it lying beside him on the passenger seat, and a hairpin bend on the hillside road ... leaving behind some woman ... who meant nothing to him ...
Three days ago. Strange to think it had only been less than a week.
The interiors of the dismal buildings are not homes. They contain no dwellings. Inside one would find a series of strange rooms cluttered with all manner of what appears to be junk: pot plants, framed pictures, coat stands, mounds of clothes and painted backdrops.
"You cannot leave," Mr. Punch had told him in a letter passed to Sogol, "until your treatment is complete. You must follow my instructions in each and every detail. If you fail to do so I cannot be held responsible for what might happen to your face."
Sogol had groaned at this statement and crumpled the letter in his hands. He was desperate to leave this anonymous ghetto in a town whose name he could not even recall. God knows in the past he had spent time in enough sleazy hotels in pursuit of fame, playing bit parts where he might be called to the set at any moment in order to wander in front of the cameras and utter a line or two of dialogue. But that was before he had struck it big, before his face was known to everyone he met, before he'd graced the cover of gossip magazines, before interviews with him were sought by all the TV chat-show hosts.
But if he left now people would turn their heads in horror, not in awed recognition, as he passed them by. A man with a cracked face. A freak. A refugee from a sideshow who happened to bear a passing resemblance to a famous TV soap opera star.
Sogol, winner of three prestigious awards for best leading male role, one of the most highly paid actors on television, a man whom the public adored, a man who was witty, charming and handsome. Handsome above all, but now reduced to this intolerable, pitiful state of existence.
There are dusty corridors within the structures of immense industrial estate. Faded TV schedules are pinned to the walls. The same programmes are broadcast at the same time day after day, night after night. The same films, the same episodes of soap operas, the same documentaries, the same panel games and quiz shows. In the photos accompanying the text all the celebrities wear fixed smiles. Their eyes are open too wide as if they regard the camera with fear.
Sogol made his way along the passageway outside his room. At the end was the payphone that he was permitted to use. Mr. Punch had banned mobile phones from his clinic. He confiscated them from patients as soon as they were admitted.
"No distractions," Mr. Punch had explained, "no stress-inducing conversations. Complete rest. If you must make an urgent call, then there is a telephone available. Calls are monitored, however, for your own benefit. Unnecessary exploitation of this service will result in the connection being terminated and the privilege withdrawn."
Up in the corner of the middle of the passageway, in the angle between the far wall and the ceiling, was a surveillance camera. It moved through an arc on its wall-mount base in order to keep Sogol in its line of sight as he passed by. He cradled the receiver between his ear and shoulder, and dialled the number with his right hand as he scanned the little black phone book in his left. Just then he felt the beginnings of a dull pain well up around his forehead and along his jawline. A sure sign that the nurse would soon be making her rounds with the drug trolley; strange that he was now marking time by the effects of painkillers wearing off.
"Ketch Entertainments." The sound of a bored, unfamiliar female voice came down the line.
Ketch what? Had Sogol heard her right?
"Put me through to Joey," he said through stiffened lips, "tell him it's Sogol."
There was a pause and some tinny muzak played as his call was transferred. After a few seconds Jackson spoke.
"Hi Joey, it's me."
"Sogol? Where the bloody hell are you?"
What was his problem?
"Where do you think I am, you idiot? Still in the clinic of course."
"What clinic? Why haven't you phoned in? I've gone half-crazy sorting out the seaside shows that have had to be cancelled. You've lost us a lot of money. If you think you're still represented by this agency think again."
Had Joey lost his mind? What was this? His idea of a joke?
"I'm having my face reconstructed here and you're acting like an arsehole ..." Sogol hissed through his teeth, but in mid-sentence the line went dead. There was a loud click and then a droning, recorded voice said:
"This call is terminated. Please return to your room at once."
Sogol replaced the receiver and then tried to dial again. However before he'd even completed entering the whole telephone number, he heard the same recorded instruction.
"This call is terminated. Please return to your room at once."
Sogol looked back over his shoulder. The surveillance camera was trained on him. Right now someone was doubtless watching him on one of the pictures from a bank of CCTV screens. Watching and waiting to see whether he would comply. I'm not being treated like some nobody, Sogol thought, I'm not standing for this anymore. I'm Sogol! I'm not in prison!
Just then a set of double doors at the end of the corridor opened and two huge men clad in three-quarter-length black coats and bowler hats strode purposefully towards him. They looked like undertakers rather than orderlies. Nevertheless, rather than displaying any sign of his being intimidated, Sogol advanced to meet the pair. But within moments, despite his screams of protest, his arms were pinned behind his back and he was frog-marched back along the corridor and thrown into his room. They locked the door behind them once they left. Neither of them had uttered a word to him but had been cold and silent, going about their business of restraint and coercion in a mechanical, indifferent fashion. Had the situation required it, Sogol was sure that they would not have balked at actually beating him into submission.
Within the structures with the twisted TV aerials on the roofs one can hear sounds. They echo along the corridors coated with peeling paintwork. There is laughter without any humour in it; shrill, cold laughter. And it is accompanied by a series of groans. The groans seem to come from weakened lungs and throats. When the groans falter there is a horrible tittering, like that of a demented child, and then they begin all over again. This goes on for hours and hours. Finally, the sounds are suddenly replaced by the dim hiss of static. This lasts for a few seconds and then the whole process repeats itself without cessation.
Sogol was perched on the edge of the camp-bed waiting for someone to come and attend to him. He'd pushed the summons button over and over again but the nurse had not responded. Was he being punished for his actions? He knew that it was long past the time he was due his medication. The flesh beneath the skin of his face itched unbearably, as if it was infested with spectral bugs, and despite the consequences Sogol could not stop scratching. He felt nothing; the outer layers of his facial skin were as numb as before, but at least it brought some temporary relief further down. Perhaps the bugs stopped crawling when they were sure that he was still alive.
He'd taken off the wig and sat there staring at the shoddy thing as he turned it over repeatedly in his hands. It was made of rough, artificial fibres and the brown fake hair was held together by a mesh that rested next to the scalp when worn. Mr. Punch had advised him that Sogol's own hair would begin to grow back within days but there was no sign of bristle on his skull, simply the same bald mottled patchwork he discovered when he'd awoken after the operation.
Up in the corner of the room was a fixture that he couldn't remember having seen previously. It was a dusty old light fitting with a bulb screwed into the socket. Underneath was a small rectangular panel that was covered in a thick layer of dust. Sogol got up to examine it more closely. He scraped away the debris to reveal the words "On Air" etched into its glass front. The bulb above the lettering was coloured a deep red.
Perhaps Mr. Punch had it put there as a tribute to his patients, in recognition of their celebrity status. It was a weird thing to do since in every other detail he had made no similar gestures. How could he possibly consider this seedy flea-pit as suitable for the glitterati? What matter that such an absurd concession had been made when compared to the grubby cells and corridors, the lack of proper heating and basic facilities?
Outside, in the corridor, he could hear the sound of the nurse finally making her rounds with the drugs trolley. It rattled like a jar of nails as she slowly wheeled the thing along the uneven linoleum. Sogol banged ferociously on the door, in an attempt to attract her attention. He began shouting at the top of his voice that he demanded she see to him first and that he was suffering terrible pain.
"I'm next, you old bitch! I'm next! I'm dying in here!"
A grille in the door opened and through the latticework her thin, doll-like head hoved into view. The nurse wore an old-fashioned mobcap. She looked at him with small black eyes, devoid of emotion.
"Stage fright, eh? Stage fright?" The words came from a toothless hole ringed by a gaudy mess of smeared lipstick. Saliva oozed down out of it onto a flabby chin dotted with hairs. "Open wide, ugly. Open wide for Nurse Judy."
She thrust two green-coated pills through the interstices and dropped them. Sogol scrambled to the floor and then swallowed them eagerly. When he looked up, the grille was closed again and he heard her continuing her rounds, whistling a discordant melody.
After fifteen minutes had passed the two grim-faced orderlies entered his room, picked Sogol up from the floor and slung him onto the bed, strapping him down to it. They left the door open, on purpose it seemed, and he stared at the aperture with dry, unblinking eyes. There were moments when the uninterrupted light affecting his retina turned everything into a hazy fog of white blindness.
There is an old television set dating from the 1930s or '40s. It is housed in a four-foot-tall wooden cabinet with a ten-inch-high flickering blue screen on the front. In a darkened, derelict room a shadowy figure with a patchwork face silently watches the display. The signal that the device is receiving is an image of a long out-of-date test card. In the centre of the image is a circle with vertical lines that thicken from right to left. Outside the circle is a black space that fills the rest of the screen. Written in white lettering on the space are the following words:
Above the circle are a logo and a slogan: "Shallaballah," "Television is the New Afterlife." Right: "Delayed images (ghosts) may appear on the black or white strips." Left: "Reception reports may be sent to Mr. Punch. College of Professors. Eng. Div., London N.19." Underneath: "Test Transmission."
Accompanying the visual broadcast is a monaural sound; a four-frequency tone that ranges from a very low droning whine to a very high shrill pitch. It is played on a continuous loop. The individual watching and listening to the broadcast is humming to himself, and he eerily mimics the noise coming from the television set's speaker, as if hypnotised.
Sogol heard footsteps and murmuring voices from outside in the corridor. It sounded like someone was conversing with the nurse and he was certain that he heard his name mentioned, though exactly what they were discussing was too indistinguishable to make out. When she came into the room she was carrying an old suitcase which she set down on the end of his bed. The nurse opened it, and took out items of stage make-up, foundation, powder and natural skin colourings, as well as a small set of scissors and tweezers. She began to cut and unpick his stitches from his skin. Once she'd finished she applied some of the make-up to his face, doing her best to mask his blemishes and wounds.
A TV studio with a set designed to look like an operating theatre from the 1930s or 1940s. The cameras that the operators are using are as out-of-date as the mock surroundings. Each device requires not only someone to point the lens but also someone else to wheel it around at the base as it closes in on a shot. At the operating table are life-size Punch and Judy puppets in white smocks, masks and gloves. Their movements are stiff and awkward although Punch tries occasionally to caper. Judy passes surgical implements over to him as he tinkers with the exposed brain of a man whose skull has been sawn open. Punch makes incisions in the man's frontal lobe with a scalpel and inserts a series of wires into the holes. The wires are connected to an obsolete television set next to the operating table. The TV is switched on. During the operation a camera draws closer and on the screen next to the table the heavily made-up face of the man being operated on can be seen quite clearly, though the image is grainy and slightly distorted. His eyes are open. They move from side to side. Not once does he blink.
During the operation Punch and Judy quarrel with each other. Punch throws Judy to the floor and changes the channel on the TV set, moving a frequency dial until it's tuned into a station showing a programme in which the patient on the table is the star.
Sogol wandered along the corridors beyond his own room. The effects of the drug had worn off some hours before although he still suffered from stiffness in his legs and back, making him walk with a shuffling gait, like that of an elderly man. It seemed that his treatment was over, for a note left in his room had advised him that he was to be released after a final interview and examination by Mr. Punch.
Excerpted from Nightmares by Ellen Datlow. Copyright © 2016 Ellen Datlow. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction Ellen Datlow,
Shallaballah Mark samuels,
Sob in the Silence Gene Wolfe,
Our Turn Too Will One Day Come Brian Hodge,
Dead Sea Fruit Kaaron Warren,
Closet Dreams Lisa Tuttle,
Spectral Evidence Gemma Files,
Hushabye Simon Bestwick,
Very Low-Flying Aircraft Nicholas Royle,
The Goosle Margo Lanagan,
The Clay Party Steve Duffy,
Strappado Laird Barron,
Lonegan's Luck Stephen Graham Jones,
Mr Pigsny Reggie Oliver,
At Night, When The Demons Come by Ray Cluley,
Was She Wicked? Was She Good? M. Rickert,
The Shallows John Langan,
Little Pig Anna Taborska,
Omphalos Livia Llewellyn,
How We Escaped Our Certain Fate Dan Chaon,
That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used To Call Love Robert Shearman,
Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8) Caitlín R. Kiernan,
Shay Corsham Worsted Garth Nix,
The Atlas of Hell Nathan Ballingrud,
Ambitious Boys Like You Richard Kadrey,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great collection of short horror stories. A couple of the stories will make you feel uncomfortable.
This is a perfect collection for fall / winter, with some stories being creepy, some disgusting, and some bone-chilling! Some of stories were amazing, but some were lacking quality and were a little boring. Overall, not too bad of a collection but I would’ve preferred a better mix of strong and mediocre stories – now most of them seemed mediocre. I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.