The Essential Lucas Mangum: Dark Descents, 1

Hi folks, I’m Lucas Mangum. I’m an author of dark fiction with several books published by independent presses. At this stage in my life, I’ve noticed my work has a variety of recognizable themes and motifs. With some heavy revisions, putting them together could almost form a sort of meta-narrative. Now, I’m not deluded: I don’t think I’ve originated archetypes or motifs, though I do believe I’ve made them my own. While listening to an episode of the Weird Studies podcast in which they covered the Sun Ra film Space is the Place, I thought it’d be fun to pull out essential passages that best represented this overarching narrative.

The first of these is excerpted from the first chapter of my debut novel FLESH AND FIRE, which you can get a FREE digital copy of by subscribing by email to this blog, or by signing up for my newsletter on my store page.

It depicts the protagonist Chloe falling into the abyss and meeting the demon who brought her. The descent into the pit has always intrigued me. Death of the hero, whether real or symbolic, often comes before the ultimate victory or resurrection, which is all well and good, but I want to know what happens down there in the dark. Is it necessary to descend? If so, why?

In FLESH AND FIRE, her fall is orchestrated by a demon who’s mistaken her for a resurrected lover from the past. Her ultimate revival is also at the hands of another. My reasoning for this is simple: I often struggle with the idea of free will. Do we have it? I’m not sure. Sometimes, I think our actions are mostly up to fate, our programming. It’s in moments where we reject our programming, that we grow and become something better. Chloe, who I clearly see as the hero even though we spend more time in Todd’s head, embarks on her journey due to influences of forces outside herself. Todd, too, acts in ways he believes he’s supposed to act due to the people who’ve guided him. They’ve both been programmed and their story won’t end happily unless they do things contrary to how they’re wired.

This passage is one of the earliest examples of me showing what I call the Engines of Ruin, hands of fate that push us toward destruction, masquerading as choice.

Flesh-and-Fire

If this is dying, Chloe thought, I’d like to do it again sometime.

The brightest light she’d ever seen washed over her, burning brilliant whitish yellow. Blinding, but soft, it reminded her of the sun, finally showing its brilliant face after weeks of rain and starless nights. It brought warmth, security, and a deep sense of euphoria, better than the greatest high, more intense than her strongest orgasm.

Moments ago, she’d been in her room, sinking into the bed below, as if it were a cloud. Her vision blurred and her surroundings fell further away. She gave each of them one final glimpse, pausing the longest on the Yamaha DX7 keyboard, upon which she played all of her music, and the photograph of her and Todd smiling drunkenly as they held each other in the parking lot of the Black Horse Pub.

As she slipped away, she only regretted not being able to tell him goodbye. Maybe even apologize. She settled for humming the melody to “Blissfully Damaged,” a song he’d written for her. Maybe doing so would, through some kind of clairvoyance, allow her to commune with him in her final moments.

The poison killing her now had also destroyed their relationship. She’d been clean for a while, but it hadn’t lasted. Once he’d seen he couldn’t help her, he’d run away. She didn’t blame him. He didn’t really know everything. He didn’t know about the dreams, or the monster that pursued her in them, or how she sometimes even saw and heard the monster when she was awake. She’d never told him and because of this he just saw her as an addict, no matter how much he’d loved her.

Now she’d never be able to tell him.

Now she was dying.

And she accepted it.

Embraced it.

She knew only the light and a euphoric sense of floating. She hadn’t expected this; she hadn’t expected anything. No undeserved reward, no cruel and unusual punishment. Only sleep. Whatever this was, this was better. As she glided through the sea of bright warmth, a soothing swish, like the gentle splash of waves on a beach, accompanied every movement. The place had a smell, too, sweet and strong. Like Mother, she thought, without understanding how she knew.

Natalia, her father’s only true love, had cast a shadow over their lives. She’d died while giving birth to Chloe, and existed only in photographs and Les’s stories. A mythic figure. Unreal in her legacy and tragic in her absence. Thinking of her brought a wave of sadness that broke through Chloe’s ecstasy, like a wind chill on an otherwise warm day. The next thing she knew, she was falling into darkness.

In the inky surroundings, the cries of countless others assaulted her ears. Some of them human, some animal, she could only interpret them as full of agony and fear. Underneath, a dry, gritty sound. Bone against bone, a chorus of grinding teeth.

Her heart hammered like a machine gun. No longer dying, desperation took hold.

As she fell, hands clutched at her from out of the darkness and she screamed. They tore at her clothes and kneaded her skin, pulling her out of the chasm and moaning like diseased animals. She saw only glimpses of the rotting, scaly things as they tore her black dress to shreds.

She twisted and kicked in their clutches, preferring to fall than to be groped. She clawed through a forest of bulbous hands. Something primal was awake within her, a violent will to live as old as the universe itself. Rather than pull away from the creatures and back into the pit, she dove into the tangle of limbs and reptilian bodies. She bit and scratched. She drove forward until she fell again. This time she tumbled down a spiraling wet shaft. She reached the bottom, wounded and bleeding, not yet broken, happy to stand on solid ground.

Dirty crimson light illuminated her surroundings. Pointed rocks grew from above and below. Somewhere nearby, waves crashed against land. Behind her, wailing and gnashing of teeth. The rocks along the wall jutted out like gnarled tree branches. Gray rags hung on them, along with something like hair. Some of them moved. She realized then what they were as the skeletal limbs reached for her.

“Help me,” one rotting mouth said, “please…”

Sobs fell from her mouth as she backed away, her cries echoing in the massive cavern. She turned and ran toward the sound of the waves but in front of her, she heard more bellows of pain. She stopped and looked around. Water splashed upon the shore, blood red in the dirty light. The dome of the cavern gave way to a sky full of swirling fire and black smoke. Panic surged through her, beginning in her heart and spreading like wildfire on a dry field throughout her body until a scream burst from her lips, joining the chorus of terrified, suffering voices. Like them, she had nowhere to go.

A lean, shadowy figure emerged from the blood-red ocean and put his face into the light. Deep angry scars marked his cheeks and brow. His eyes burned with something like rapture. She knew him. He was the monster of her dreams, her rapist and lover, her imaginary friend, her angel and demon, but this was no dream. Every precise detail overwhelmed her senses: the wet jagged earth digging into her feet; the stenches of burning hair and rotted meat filling the air. She had entered a new reality and he had brought her here. She thought of how she had felt guided tonight, by something outside of herself, to buy the heroin, to shoot enough to overdose, and she understood.

Samael approached her, reached out his hand like he was blessing a martyr, and she knew she was destined for pain.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 14 – Free Serial Novel

The Devil was waiting for Windom in the clearing beside the highway, some twelve miles outside of the Tennessee town of Yester Castle. In the blue-gray dusk, the magma bubbling under the Devil’s cracked skin glowed hot and bright, but it was the stink of meat hanging from his cape that drew Windom’s attention.

Windom turned off the highway and met the Devil thirteen paces into the field. The Devil’s lips spread. Windom couldn’t quite call the expression a grin.

“Windom,” the Devil said, voice distorted like wasps lived in his voice box, “I see you’ve once again emerged victorious. When will they learn?”

“When they’re all dead, I reckon.”

“And I reckon there will always be others. Men such as yourself are too dangerous to be kept alive and anyone on earth who meets you learns that all too quickly.”

“I find out who keeps putting out these hits, could take him out and just hide for a while, catch a breather.”

“I’ve never seen you as the type to want to catch a breather.”

“All this running and killing gets old, all I’m saying.”

The not quite smile of the Devil widened. Eyes narrowed into slits. A gnarled claw rose from beneath the cape, stroked his chin. Gave the illusion of considering something, but Windom guessed Old Meat and Magma had already made up his mind about whatever was on his mind.

“Perhaps a side job would provide a nice diversion for the time being. The ones trying to kill you could be…placated…for now.”

“Wish you would do that more often.”

“Then what hold would I have on you.”

If the Devil was to be believed, Windom was one of his sons. Didn’t matter much to Windom. He’d grown up never knowing his father. All he knew was that he’d been born with the abilities to draw deadly powers from symbols that just appeared in his mind, to confuse people to the point where they would remember nothing of their interactions with him, and he didn’t seem to age much. He could be one-hundred-seventy, could be one-eighty. He’d stopped counting at ninety-nine, and he didn’t look much older than forty-five. Didn’t hurt much either.

Windom snorted. “What’s the job?”

The Devil reached over to the side of his cape and unhooked a dripping strip of meat. With his other hand, he caressed Windom’s cheek, slipped a finger inside Windom’s mouth and pried open Windom’s jaws. He held out the meat and placed it on Windom’s tongue. The blood trickled over Windom’s palette, sweet and buttery, a kick of spice, hint of bitterness. Old Meat and Magma used a killer marinade. Windom closed his eyes, closed his mouth and let the meat dissolve.

As the juices leaked into his cheeks and gums, a symbol burned in his mind’s eye. Angry red flames encircled each line. Animals danced in a spiral: a hawk; a wolf; a lion; a fish; an octopus. They moved, disappearing into the symbol’s center and reemerging at its edges. The symbol grew in size and brightness until it blinded him. He gagged on sulfur and vomited light. The light split into two wormy appendages and collected into twin orbs of flame. The orbs became square-shaped; the lights dimmed, revealing levitating books with rugged, parchment covers. One bore the fiery symbol. The other was titled The Cosmic Heart. Windom’s job, his mission revealed itself to him as he dwelt on the tomes.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 12 – Free Serial Novel

The books became her life. She ate less, slept less. Sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night to start reading again. She read at work, at school, in bed, and on the toilet. She stopped seeing friends. She stopped going to see Ruthanne.

Jake started coming around less and less. The last time she saw him, he said he could tell he wasn’t wanted, told her to call him when she’s ready to come out of her cave. She wanted to stop him at the door, throw her arms around his neck and say, “Of course I want you. Please don’t go.” Instead, she stood and watched him leave. Once he was out the door, she opened The Cosmic Heart and started reading again.

She never stopped to cry for his absence. Never stopped to think about what her obsession was doing to her life. She just kept reading.

Katie believed that within their pages, she could find some kind of meaning. A cure for cosmic ills? Nothing so dramatic, but she hoped to at least find something, some nugget of wisdom, some piece of magic to help her get her thoughts in order. To help her make sense of what had happened to her family. Maybe help her find out what happened to Melissa. Maybe find out what really happened to her father, somehow.

She supposed this was what it was like when someone began to explore a religion, particularly if they were someone who expected a religion, a faith, to fix them somehow. Like alcoholics who swore off the sauce and gave their addiction to a higher power. Like a CEO who loses all his earthly gains and decides to reject materialism altogether, throwing himself into Eastern thought. Like the child whose family is killed by drone strikes, and grows up to be radicalized, a killer for their god. All different degrees of mad devotion. She wondered where she lay on the spectrum.

Something swam behind the veil. She couldn’t see or hear it—couldn’t even see the veil, really—but she knew it was there. Just. Out. Of reach.

The only things that remained from her life before the books were the dreams. Everything on fire, spiraling into that unfathomable black hole.

Three months after she obtained the books, a call from Ruthanne woke her from a midmorning nap. Hearing her therapist’s smooth, clean voice brought Katie, not just out of sleep, but also back from the brink of disappearing completely into her own head.

“Ruthanne, hey, how are you?”

“Concerned about you. I haven’t heard from you since before the funeral.”

“Yeah…”

“Is everything okay?”

The question, standard enough, something people asked each other all the time, carried great magnitude. How Katie answered it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Despite that…

“I, uh, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe I should schedule another appointment.”

And so they did. The next morning Katie entered Ruthanne’s office, comforted by its familiarity. The smells of cinnamon and chili powder. How the building’s temperature never dipped below seventy-two degrees or above seventy eight. She crossed her arms and plopped down in the waiting room, feeling at ease for the first time in months.

She made it a point not to bring the books with her. She wanted to have her head clear for the conversation. Hoped Ruthanne would serve as the perfect sounding board for everything she had been going through.

A door opened and Ruthanne padded down the hallway. She always moved in slow, purposeful strides, feet soft on the ground. Her skin always had a glow to it, like a serene energy pulsed somewhere within her. Katie sometimes wondered if Ruthanne’s catlike manner of movement was all part of an act, something to make it seem like Ruthanne had it all figured out when she was perhaps more damaged than Katie, or any other client. The glow made it seem like more than an act though. Something like that was hard to fake.

Katie knew very little about Ruthanne’s personal life. Once she looked Ruthanne up on Facebook, but most details were hidden from people who weren’t friends, and Katie couldn’t bring herself to send a friend request to her therapist.

Ruthanne smiled and it held a warmth Katie felt she didn’t deserve. When Katie examined the last few months of her life, she saw a woman who had isolated herself, engaged in selfish pursuit of answers while neglecting people who only cared about her. Deserved or not, Ruthanne’s smile Katie even more at ease. She felt okay admitting her own faults around Ruthanne, and part it was because of that smile. So welcoming, so soft. On the way to the office, Katie hadn’t been sure how much she would tell Ruthanne. After that smile, she decided she would confess a good portion.

They said their hellos and Ruthanne led Katie back to the room where their sessions took place. Katie sat in the corner seat of a teal sofa and Ruthanne sat across from her in a flowered armchair. Ruthanne rested a legal pad on her knees, but she seldom wrote in it. For the most part she just listened. Only time she scribbled something down was when Katie said something pivotal, profound, something they could return to later.

Ruthanne waited for Katie to talk. It was a ritual, in and of itself. Sometimes Katie started talking immediately. Sometimes it took almost a minute. Other times, Katie just wanted to scream and beg Ruthanne to talk instead. This time Katie led with an apology.

“I’m sorry I haven’t set an appointment in a while. It’s been a hard few months.”

Ruthanne’s eyebrows raised, imploring Katie to continue.

“The funeral was a nightmare. I had some kind of attack.”

“Like a panic attack?”

“I guess…I mean, I’m not sure. I thought I saw my father in the woods outside the church and…I don’t know. Jake and Dale said when they found me I was just screaming.”

“You said you saw your father?”

“I thought I did. My memory of that day is kind of foggy.”

“I can understand that, but you’re okay now though? No more attacks?”

“None.”

“What about the dreams?”

“They’re still happening. Pretty much every night, whenever I actually sleep anyway.”

“Are you not sleeping?”

“Not a lot. I got these books the day I was cleaning out Dad’s house. They were intended for him, but, you know.”

Ruthanne’s expression grew somber. Right on cue, but genuine.

“Did the sale of the house go okay?”

“Yeah, some developer bought it. Not the ideal buyer, but I just wanted to get rid of it, really.”

Katie stopped talking, let several beats of silence pass. She worried they were getting off track by talking about the house.

“So, these books,” Ruthanne said, as if reading Katie’s mind.

A nervous laugh escaped Katie and she covered her mouth.

“Basically, they’ve been my life for the last few months. I can’t stop reading them or thinking about them.” Ruthanne frowned. “They’re religious texts. I mean, sort of. More like, I don’t know, esoteric mythology or something. I never heard of them until they showed up at Dad’s house.”

“What are they called?”

Katie told her.

“Never heard of them either. Can you describe the symbol?”

“I can draw it.”

Ruthanne handed her the legal pad and a pen. Katie sketched a rough version of the symbol, about the size of her hand, its points and angles exaggerated, the animals mere impressions. She handed back the pad.

“I’ve never seen that before,” said Ruthanne.

“Yeah, I’ve tried occult message boards in every seedy corner of the internet you can imagine and haven’t come up with shit. It’s very obscure. The book explains it—and The Cosmic Heart’s—obscurity by saying people who share the wisdom without permission would be killed.”

Ruthanne laughed. Katie didn’t.

“You don’t believe any of this, do you?”

Katie kept a straight face, said nothing. Ruthanne took a heavy breath. Worry creased the therapist’s features. She wrote something down.

“Anyway,” Katie said, “my brother’s girlfriend went missing the day I got the books. I found my sketch of the man who assaulted me and my mother in her room. Maybe it’s all coincidence, but I don’t know.”

“Did you tell the police?”

“Of course.” Katie peered out the window. Several cars zipped by on the street below. Sunlight reflected off the window of a nearby building and made her eyes water when she stared for too long. “I guess I’m just looking for answers.”

“We all are,” Ruthanne said. “Especially in difficult times. You’ve had a tumultuous year.”

“I think the answers are in those books.”

“Like their message may help all of this make sense? Sure, I can appreciate that.”

“More than that. The books have these rituals and…”

“You’re thinking about trying them?”

“Well…”

“I wouldn’t recommend that.” Her voice hardened. Katie had never heard Ruthanne take such a tone. “When people are in a fragile mental state, dabbling in the occult, hell any religion, can have an adverse effect on your ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. I did a thesis on it.”

“Maybe, I don’t think I’m so fragile.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“Except, you did.” Ruthanne’s lips pressed together. Katie gave a dry laugh. “You want to talk about the difference between reality and fantasy? I never told you everything about the day my mother and I were attacked. That woman my father was with, the one the man who kidnapped us wanted back? She was someone from Dad’s past, someone who died and came back.”

“Katie…”

“At least that’s what he told me, and what choice did I have but to believe him after seeing a photo of her standing next to him when he was twenty-two. So, yeah, it’s safe to say, my ability to tell between reality and fantasy is a little skewed.”

“Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I have to ask.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. No, I’m not suicidal, homicidal. I don’t own any guns and I’m not fucked up on drugs.”

“I’m worried about you.”

Katie tried to focus on the comforting scents of the office, on Ruthanne’s kind face, even though the jaw was tight and the eyes bore into Katie. She needed to regain her composure. She hadn’t come here to fight.

The session’s time ran out without any other words spoken. This was becoming an uncomfortable pattern in Katie’s human interactions.

Katie handed Ruthanne a check and said, “I’ll call you.”

As she marched down the office stairs to her car, she wondered if she would ever see Ruthanne again.

New Free Serial Novel – Blood and Brimstone

Well, gang sometimes you gotta know when to admit defeat. I’ve learned over the last year that I don’t yet have the reach, or the temperament to run a Patreon. But the good news is that the content I was posting there is now going to be available here for free! You can still donate to me if you’d like, but it’s not a requirement.

The entry that follows is the prologue to Blood and Brimstone, an apocryphal continuation of the story begun in my debut novel, Flesh and Fire. I would strongly encourage familiarity with the material before you embark on reading this tale. Otherwise, you may be a bit lost. Flesh and Fire is available on Indie Bound, Amazon, and wherever else books are sold, as part of a flip book with a zombie novella by Jonathan Maberry. Now, without further ado, I’m happy to present the opening chapter of Blood and Brimstone, entitled “Land of Shades.”

———-

Hell wasn’t so bad before the Christians came down. We didn’t even call it Hell back then. Of course, it was no Heaven (assuming there is a Heaven, and my guess is, if the zealots are here, there isn’t). It was simply the Place of the Dead, the Land of Shades. Not so different from the Land of the Living, really, just darker, a bit grayer. It was them, in wrath borne out of disappointment, who brought the fire, and made everything burn. Their philosophy: if they can’t have their promised salvation, then all must suffer.

I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Windom. I’m one of the Devil’s sons. He has many children. Not for the reasons you may expect. He harbors no delusions of undoing God’s creation. He just likes to fuck. Fuck, and gamble, I’m told. I’ve never actually met him. He’s not what you’d call a present father.

But that’s all right. I’m provided for. There are homes across the world, run by a select few for the sole purpose of sheltering Satan’s children. The place I grew up is right outside Texarkana, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Imagine that. A bunch of demon hybrids coming of age among truck stop churches and pornographic megastores. Oddly fitting, I think.

Well, anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. How the Christians ruined Hell.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. This is no epic, so in media res is out of the question.

It all started with a doomsday preacher who was born of a virgin a little over two thousand years ago. His primary message, like those spoken by other prophets of doom, was double-sided. The end was nigh, and there would be a great day of reckoning, but for a select few, salvation was promised. Now, this fella was unlike others of his kind in that his message really caught on. Matter of fact, it still resonates with a great number of living souls, and I kind of understand why. It’s hopeful. People like hope. It’s the most powerful drug there is, and one of the few legal ones. Some of you reading this might even be on this particular strain of hope. I don’t fault you for it. Somewhere along the chain of evolution, guilt and shame entered into the equation. You, as a species, started feeling bad about doing what came natural. Well, according to this doomsday preacher, all your perceived wrongdoings could be taken away, you just had to (get this) believe that they would be taken away, and just like that: there you went into the arms of the Lord.

Unfortunately for this fella, the religious establishment didn’t much care for his message of forgiveness. For them, only strict adherence to religious law (which, if you think about it hard enough you’ll see, keeps them in control of your life) is the only way to salvation. What he was preaching, well, that could really screw with the power dynamic. So, they had him killed. Crucified. Fucking nasty, even for the ancients.

When he died, he came here. Crossed the Ruin into darkness just like everybody else. I guess he was disappointed.

Now, I don’t know if he was the Son of God, but somehow he brought fire to this place, and this fire was not like the fire in the living world. These flames never went out, and as more of his followers came down, they joined him in torching everything, and if a shade got caught in one of these fires, they either suffered or turned into a fucking demon.

That’s what happened to my father. Some say that in life he was a great warrior. Others say he was a hedonist. I imagine he was a little of both. Like I said, I don’t know all that much about him. There’s a lot I don’t know, I reckon. Relatively, I’m not very old. Something like seventy is my guess. I can’t be a hundred percent sure, because, well, after my fortieth, I just stopped aging altogether. Since I stopped aging, I stopped counting, but I think my guess is accurate.

So, that’s that. That’s how Hell became, well, Hell. At least that’s how it’s been relayed to me by the old timers. I’m telling you all this so that you’ll have context for the tale I’m about to tell.

It begins with a girl, and no, it isn’t that sort of story, though she was very pretty. Sweet, too, I suppose, but also, maybe just a tad too curious. Of course, I can’t blame her. Given how her story begins, well, let’s just say if the same thing happened to me, I’d want answers, assuming I didn’t know what I know: answers only exist to raise further questions. Such is our fate: to die wondering.

But I’m not here to share a philosophy. I only wish to tell you a story. After all, stories birth our dreams, and our dreams make the fire bearable.