Darkness, Digital Cover Reveal

Just when you thought it was safe to go on the Internet…

Cover by Jim Agpalza

It’s been years since true crime author Niles Highsmith and his brother Leon disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Left to pick up the pieces, Dana can’t seem to break free from the dark web cultists and their strange gods. As personal tragedies pile up, the world itself begins to fracture. The dark web isn’t just on the Internet anymore. Its influence spreads through the world’s darkest corners, whispering in the ears of elite and deplorable alike. Though pockets of resistance rise, time is a flat circle and nothing is what it seems.


Do stories haunt you?

This one haunted me. Gods of the Dark Web remains my most widely read and reviewed book, but the extreme violence and mean spirit of it unsettled me so much that I never wanted to return to its world again. Still, a lot went unsaid by the time I reached its final page. What happens to Dana after her uncomfortable encounter with Niles, the book’s protagonist (though not a hero)? How did all this start? What are some of the big picture consequences?

Despite the book’s success and the narrative’s plethora of unanswered questions, I moved on, writing messy attempts at epics with We Are the Accused and Extinction Peak, the transgressive but ultimately hopeful Saint Sadist, and the brutal fun of Pandemonium with Ryan Harding. However, as our world became a more frightening place every day–reaching the nightmarish peak of 2020–and I teetered on the verge of a mental relapse, the world I’d allowed my readers to glimpse in Gods, a twisted mirror of our own, haunted me.

I wrote Darkness, Digital over the course of a year. First, calling it Spidergod and attempting something larger in scale, something akin to Hellraiser meets The Matrix. That first draft petered out and I ultimately scrapped it, deciding to salvage what I could as short Dark Web-related stories, but soon, a through line emerged in the narrative. I found a way to collect these pieces into a new novella. Darkness, Digital: Gods of the Dark Web 2 is the result.

The book, this whole series, is a nightmare, one freakish simulation in a web of freakish simulations, a perfect reflection of this moment we’re all having. And yeah, I said “series,” so you can expect more of these, and a lot sooner than the three years that have passed since the first book’s publication.

Darkness, Digital will be out VERY soon. Others will follow.

One and Only, Chapter 4 (the rest of it)

Okay. Here we are. The last of chapter 4 in my ongoing serial novel ONE AND ONLY. You can read previous chapters (and the other sections of chapter 4) right here. Getting chapter 4 right was a real bear! I think that’s because it’s a big turning point in the story. A moment where separate threads start to come together.

The clip above is from what, in my opinion, is the most explosive two minutes of television. Not just wrestling television, but ALL television. It’s a breaking point in one of my favorite slow-burn heel turns in wrestling. Bret Hart, after being screwed out of the championship multiple times, loses his mind on pretty much everyone, shoving promoter Vince McMahon and saying “shit” on network television in the process. It all ends with a brawl between four of the promotion’s top stars at the time. The goal was to build excitement for the pay-per-view for the following weekend, Wrestlemania 13.

That’s not what I’m doing here. I won’t end this chapter with a prompt to buy the rest of the book if you want to see what happens next, though I admit that I considered it. What I am thinking about is big buildups that lead to the next act. I think that’s where we are here.

Let’s do a quick recap. Mason (who’s scenes thus far are in the first person) has unknowingly brought his girlfriend back from the dead. It’s his fault she’s dead and though he performed a necromancy ritual, he’s still sure that he failed. His late girlfriend Marybeth has indeed come back from the dead, and she’s not alone. Something monstrous has overtaken her. Because dead girls make for bad hosts, this same monstrous thing has now jumped into the body of Caroline, a friend of Mason’s, after dispatching two police officers and three of Caroline’s friends. One of those murdered friends is Amber, sister to indie wrestler Aldous the Blade, who’s just won the championship and wants to know where his sister is. Things are about to come to a head, folks, and this big confrontation will lead us into the second part of the story. The underworld portion, if you’re following Dan Harmon’s story circle, I guess.

4

Mason’s father was having a very bad night. He was having a very bad week. Hell, it was more than that. He was having a very bad second act. While the little girl playing on the race track that he’d built on the living room floor earlier that night gave him plenty of reason to be grateful, the void left by the death of his wife made its presence known more times a day than he could count. On top of that, he now had to worry about Mason. That boy was losing his mind as far as Miles Bell was concerned. The worst part was he couldn’t exactly blame the poor guy.

Yes, losing Donna to cancer was a real gut punch. But he saw it coming. Something about adulthood helps you expect bad shit to happen. You learn that you’ll soon know more dead people than living. At Mason’s age, though, shit like what happened to Marybeth just wasn’t supposed to happen. Still, he wasn’t exactly crazy about how Mason had handled it. Digging up her corpse? Performing some half-assed ritual? What the hell was all that? He knew his boy was weird, but there was weird and there was… whatever Mason was. Bizarre? Unhinged? Sick? He didn’t care to think of his son in those terms at all.

Most days, he felt like completely falling apart, but then he looked down at little Sheila. Running her little Hot Wheels around the racetrack. Making all kinds of cute coos and sighs. Occasionally looking back at him with the most loving expression. A deep love embodied there that he just didn’t feel like he’d earned.

Life could be beautiful, even in spite of the pain. Even in spite of … he cast a glance at the stairwell. He shifted in his seat and fought the urge to check on Mason again.

5

I had to go on foot. It was a lot slower than driving and a hell of a lot slower than astral projection. But still, I could feel the earth under my feet, the vibrations of its resistance. The worst part was I didn’t even know exactly where I was going. I had to stick to side roads and dark wooded paths. When I found what I was looking for, I wished I hadn’t.

One corpse, blackened and still smoking, lay in the middle of the trail. It smelled like overcooked hamburger. Another lay beside it. It was a girl I recognized. One of the twins, Farrah or Felicity. Her neck was bent at an unnatural angle, all the way backwards, so that the back of her head was nearly flush with the skin between her shoulder blades. Her eyes were frozen open in an expression of agonized horror. Her hands were claws, clutching for a life that had long ago left.

I got the awful notion that this was all somehow my fault. I had no proof. It was just a feeling, but it was a strong feeling. It felt like knowledge. Was this what religious people meant when they talked about faith? A strange certainty contrary to evidence? It was this unproven certainty that kept me from calling police. I’d be in deep shit if they so much as suspected my hand in this. I wasn’t sure how they could, but I was sure they would.

I scanned my surroundings. My heartbeat accelerated like the fist of a frustrated door knocker. I saw nothing in the darkness save for gray outlines of trees, but I knew I wasn’t alone. Someone had killed these two poor girls. I glanced down at the still smoking body. Whatever did this couldn’t be too far away.

I checked my phone and saw I wasn’t too far from the road. Spooked out of my mind, I headed for it. At least beside the road, I wouldn’t have dense woods on all sides. Deep shadows from which anything could jump out at me. No room to run.

When I reached the road, my feet stuttered to a stop. The wreckage of Caroline’s car lay before me. It looked like someone had smashed it like a beer can on the head of a frat boy. My guts plummeted. My pulse throbbed between my ears, heavy and sounding so much larger than something that could possibly be contained inside me. I felt the sight of my friend’s crashed car in my neck and shoulders. It weighed me down so heavily that my legs buckled, and I could hardly breathe. My hands and knees pressed into the pavement. I hardly felt the pain.

The sounds of approaching footsteps broke through the numbing despair. They belonged to an imposing shape.

6

Aldous “The Blade” Armstrong approached the broken-looking kid kneeling beside the smashed-up car. He still wore the championship belt around his waist. He still stunk and his blood was still up from the match with Trashcan. The sight before him made him shake. He recognized the car but didn’t want to believe his instincts. It was Caroline’s car. Amber’s friend Caroline. Where the hell was Amber?

He thought he recognized the kid as he walked past but didn’t take time to look closer. More than anything, he wanted to check the car. Make sure no one was inside. The way it was all wrecked, he didn’t think anyone could’ve survived whatever had happened.

The kneeling kid was whispering something Aldous couldn’t make out. He tried to ignore it, but the sound of it skittered across his brain like so many spiders. He looked about the car, the repeated whispers never stopping. The frame was bent and twisted. All the glass was blown out. Across the mangled hood, something dark glistened in the moonlight.

“Jesus,” he muttered. He turned to the distraught kid. “What happened?”

The kid didn’t look up. He just kept whispering nonsense. Aldous used the toe of his boot to nudge the kid in the forearm.

“Hey, kid.”

The kid looked up. Aldous definitely recognized him. Went to Amber’s school. Miles or Manny or something. Or maybe Jason. Mason? His eyes were wide and jerky. His lips were moving, but he’d stopped speaking. After looking Aldous over, he frowned.

“What are you supposed to be?”

Aldous was taken aback by the comment at first, then remembered he was still wearing his gear.

“I’m a wrestler. I came from a show. What happened here?”

The kid’s confusion faded. Even in the darkness, Aldous see the color drain from the kid’s face.

“I don’t know. They’re all dead.”

Something squeezed the Blade’s heart.

“Who? Who’s dead?”

The kid pointed behind him.

“Two girls. Back in the woods.”

“Who? Do you know them?”

“Twins. Farrah and Felicia or something. And this car … it belongs to my friend Caroline.”

“Jesus fuck. Was there another girl with them? Amber?”

“I don’t know,” the kid said, sounding like he had glass in his throat.

“Fuuuuck,” Aldous said. He ran for the woods, leaving the kid, broken by the road.

7

I didn’t have the will to follow the wrestler into the woods. I hardly had the will to rise to my feet. What a coward. What a fucking joke. I had it in me to shove my girlfriend off Sunset Cliffs. I had it in me to try bringing her back from the dead. And I couldn’t bring myself to do anything now. Something was very wrong here and it went beyond a bad car wreck. The inkling that this was somehow my fault had become an absolute certainty by this point.

I shifted and slumped. Faced the woods. There was nothing there to see, but it beat staring at the wreckage of Caroline’s car. I didn’t like the way the blood shimmered on the ruined hood. I didn’t like how fucked up the car was despite no sign of impact. Maybe it was a hit and run, but all sorts of alarm bells were going off in my head telling me this was something so much more. Something big and monstrous.

I peered into the darkness. The trees stood like towering, gray skeletons, their branches like witch’s claws. I could no longer hear the wrestler’s footsteps leading away from me. I wondered if he’d reached the bodies yet.

That was Amber’s older brother. I’d heard a little about him. Amber was kind of a bitch most of the time, but I didn’t want her to get hurt. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. If only I’d been able to bring Marybeth back… maybe I could bring back everyone who’d died tonight. Maybe … maybe … maybe …

From deep in the woods, I heard a scream. It seemed to go on forever. It grew louder and louder. Whoever was screaming was headed my way. And fast.

The body flew by me. It flew like a projectile of hard flesh. It crashed into Caroline’s car and plopped to the pavement beside me. It was the wrestler. He lay there twitching and bleeding from the mouth.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

I faced the woods, unable to look at the dead wrestler. Even though I was afraid to see whatever had done that to him, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had to see. This was why people in horror movies didn’t run right away: they didn’t really believe what was coming. They didn’t even really know what was coming. I sure as fuck didn’t and I couldn’t move because I had to see it. I had to see it to believe and I hoped that I’d believe in time to run.

When it came for me, it wasn’t what I expected.

It was Caroline. She was levitating, her feet three inches from the ground. Her eyes were glowing electric blue and her hair was blowing back though there was no breeze. I spoke her name. Her features twisted and she cocked her head.

“Oh,” she said. “You must mean this body. Why don’t you try looking closer?”

“What?”

“You never were a smart one, were you?”

The levitating fiend groaned and then something happened which I can’t possibly explain but I fucking swear to you it happened. Caroline split into two. From the top of her head to her genitals, she tore herself apart, but before I knew it, after much bulging and twisting and churning, she reformed herself into two women. Caroline stood on the right and a half-liquified corpse stood on the left. When the girls spoke, they spoke as one.

“It’s me,” they said. “Your one and only.”

Turned out I was a necromancer after all.

That Time The Undertaker Possessed a Guy

You can’t talk about horror and wrestling without talking about The Undertaker. Over his 30 years (!) in the business, I imagine he’s the guy most people think of when they consider moments where horror and wrestling intersect. He’s a 6’10, undead mortician with mannerisms borrowed from Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. He’s been “killed” more than once (including a truly ridiculous moment where his storyline brother Kane put him in a burning casket). Yet, he kept on coming back. While he admittedly evolved his gimmick to become more human as the business became more grounded, he still had a strange, dark aura around him. Indeed, until very recently, he never gave out of character interviews. Nowadays, you can’t get him to shut up. He’s even appeared on Joe Rogan.

One of my favorite Undertaker moments is in the utterly insane clip above where he straight up possesses a backstage interviewer in order to play mind games with his opponent Randy Orton. You can’t make this stuff up. Wrestling is often ridiculous and absurd, and I think fiction could benefit from trying a similar approach. We writers take ourselves too seriously oftentimes, and that’s fine, but also, if we’re crafting fantasy worlds where normal rules don’t apply, why not go full-on mad with it? Have your character possess someone. Why not?

With the release of my book PANDEMONIUM, I’ve been thinking a lot about times where wrestling and horror intersect. It’s a truly whacky book, full of comic-book violence and all sorts of wild characters. The Undertaker’s storied career has run the gamut of what can happen when horror tropes invade professional wrestling.

One and Only, Chapter 4 (continued but not concluded)

As I mentioned in the previous entry, last week sucked. It sucked so bad that I only managed to post part of ONE AND ONLY, Chapter 4. Basically, I was high AF on allergy medicine, I terminated a professional relationship with a friend (it was the right decision, but still hard), and I found out a cat I rehomed will soon need to be put down. Though I still wrote every day, I could seldom put down more than a page worth of material. Everything was clouded. Focus was limited.

This week has been slightly better, but I’m still far from 100%.

On the flip side, I got completely caught up in in the game DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB. I finished playing today and my awe has not gone away. It’s a truly extraordinary game. Even if you’re not a gamer, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s exactly what I want to see in terms of interactive storytelling. It employs the sorts of tonal shifts that really get me excited about art.

On Tuesday night, while recording the show I co-host with Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne, I got a bit heated when we discussed so-called “cancel culture.” Getting things off my chest that I’ve more or less stayed quiet about the last 3 years felt good. This isn’t damage control or anything. People who know me know that I’m kind. I don’t need random people on Twitter to think so. I also don’t think I said anything unkind. Being an artist or someone who cares about the arts often means you hold free expression sacred. I want more diverse voices in art and (maybe especially) politics. Even those of people with whom I disagree. That should be a given, but it is not.

I’d like to tie all of this into today’s chapter of ONE AND ONLY (you can catch up on previous chapters here). I think it’s important to focus your thoughts into what you’re writing that day. Make each moment revolve around your narrative like planets around a star. That said, it’s not always possible, and it’s equally important to let go and embrace chaos, too. Everything began as chaos and to chaos we will return.

This isn’t the rest of the chapter because, like I said, I’m still not 100%. But it’s more of it. I’ll try to post more between now and Monday. Fingers crossed. Thoughts and prayers. Jack off on a hyper-sigil. Whatever works!


3

My astral journey took me to Caroline’s house in Quincy Ridge. I drifted, unseen, to her bedroom window. The room beyond it was dark. I tried to get closer to the glass, tried to will myself through the glass, but couldn’t quite manage it.

She wasn’t in her room. Out with friends, I guessed, but wasn’t it late? It was a school night, after all.

I drifted downward toward the picture windows that looked into the living room. The lights were on and her father was pacing. Her mother was sitting on the sofa, face buried in her hands. Something was very wrong.

I tried again to press into the glass. I tried calling out. The house kept me out. My voice would not speak. Panic fluttered through me. Someone’s powerful hand took hold of me. I rushed back to my body. It was like waking from a dream, only if I were hungover. Everything felt heavy. My eyes snapped open.

Dad was leaning down over me. His hand squeezed my shoulder hard.

“Dad, what the—”

He released me and took a step back. The darkness of my room obscured his expression.

“I thought you were having a nightmare,” he said.

I sat up and shook my head.

“It wasn’t a bad dream. I think my friend’s in trouble.”

Even in the dimness, I detected his frown.

“What are you on about?”

“I… Maybe it’s nothing.”

He stood there breathing heavily. Matching my breaths. We were both at some end. We’d run out of rope. I knew he hated that he had to take care of me like this. I hated that he thought he had to take care of me like this. Like I couldn’t take care of myself. But I would take care of Caroline. Wherever she is, whatever’s going on, I had to find out and help her.

I had to go looking for her, even if it meant disobeying my father. Even if it meant scaring him and breaking his heart anymore than I already had. Some things were just worth the risk.

“If there’s something you need to tell me,” he began.

I took a deep breath, did my best to sound nonchalant.

“I’ve been trying to reach Caroline. She’s probably just out with friends, but I … I don’t know. I just want to talk to her. With everything going on, I just feel, well, really alone.”

Dad took a step forward and touched my shoulder again, more gently this time.

“You’re not alone, okay. You got me. You got Sheila.”

I knew he meant well, but he didn’t understand anything. He hadn’t been my age in so fucking long, there was no way he could hope to understand what I’m going through. Sure, he’d buried my mother a couple of years back, but he knew she was sick. She’d been sick a long time. It sucked, but it was the way life was. Me, I was trying to fix things that I had fucked up. At least with trying to resurrect Marybeth. With Caroline, it wasn’t my fault, I just wanted to help a friend. He had no idea what that was like. He didn’t really have friends. He only knew how to be a parent. And he wasn’t even good at that.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound appreciative.

“You’re going to be okay.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He gave me a hug, and I hugged him back. I waited to hear his footsteps fade away from my door before I prepared to sneak out of my house.

Visual Novels & Tonal Shifts

I’ve spent a good portion of this week playing DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB. It’s a game that came out about four years ago in the visual novel genre. For those not in the know, a visual novel is a game that’s designed like one of those old “choose your own adventure” books. It’s an interactive story, complimented by art and visuals, but the graphics are a lot simpler than traditional games.

This game has completely absorbed my imagination. You play a high school boy who joins a literature club at the urging of his female friend Sayori, only to find it populated by three other ridiculously cute young women. The apparent object of the game is to woo one of these girls with your poetry, but there’s an important twist. DOKI DOKI isn’t a dating sim, it’s a horror game. And when the horror comes, my GOD. It doesn’t jab you in the face or kick you in the gut. It takes a pipe wrench to your kneecaps and puts a slug in the back of your head.

I’m not finished with the game yet, but with its darker elements now in gear, I’m even more engrossed than I was before. The tonal shift is so dramatic. The structure of the story, so surreal. It’s a wonder why such dramatic changes aren’t used more often in art.

I have my suspicions about American audiences wanting their serviceable, formulaic stories. Art that doesn’t challenge them too much and never makes them feel unsafe. I’ve nothing against that sort of thing, BUT I think it is important to challenge ourselves sometimes. It’s important to step out of our comfort zones. A dramatic tonal shift in the story your telling can be a huge boon for that story. I’m not sure if I can find a way to do it in my free ongoing serial ONE AND ONLY, but it is something I want to keep in mind for it, and future projects.

From what I understand, Asian cinema has been employing these dramatic tonal shifts for a while now. Outside of the original FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, I can’t think of any American movies that have embraced this technique.

I think the reason that a shift in tone or genre can be so effective is that life is not one genre. So, even if your story is pulpy and larger than life, a dramatic tonal shift will affect your audience in a visceral way. It will make your unreal work seem more real, at least on a primal subconscious level, because the change will mirror the changes present in life. Life has moments of tenderness, horror, somberness, joy, and laughs. Oftentimes, these moods shift with little warning. Sometimes when the change comes, it takes a pipe wrench to your kneecaps and puts a slug in the back of your head.

That’s not always the experience I want with my fiction–I like a good Marvel movie like anyone else–but it’s something I’d like to see more often. More irreverence. Weirdness. Tonal shifts that take you in a whole new genre. That’s the shit that sings to me.


Some of you may remember that I have a Twitch channel that I mostly ignore. After I’ve played through DOKI DOKI, I’ll probably play it again and stream the experience there. Playing visual novels is probably the most comfortable way for me to use that channel.

One and Only, Chapter 4

I’ve been posting a new chapter of my book-in-progress ONE AND ONLY each Monday. It’s a genre I’m jokingly calling Splatter Romance. Though I coined the term, there are precedents. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3. FRANKENHOOKER. HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT 2. DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAINDEAD). I think horror with a strong romantic element makes for a compelling narrative. We’ve all been in love and we’ve all been scared. It’s something we can all relate to.

However, I want to emphasize the irreverent splatter of the aforementioned films. While some good movies have come out of the so-called “elevated” horror movement, I do sometimes worry that the genre has lost its sense of fun.* Cartoonish gore and dark humor were, for a long time, staples of the genre. So much so that I spent most of my teens not watching comedy because, frankly, I was getting it from horror films.

Now, despite this, I don’t think this book has found its humor yet. Maybe it has and I’m missing it. Maybe it hasn’t and I’ll find ways to bring it out in its second draft.

Then again, a teen who’s bad at magic bringing his girlfriend back from the dead despite her wishes and only to yield disastrous consequences is situationally funny. At least I think so.

Anyway, here’s part of chapter 4. Due to a truly hellish couple of days (notice I didn’t blog yesterday), it’s not ALL of chapter 4. I will post it little by little throughout the week. After all of chapter 4 is posted, I will edit the first four chapters, collect it into an e-book, and release it on Amazon next month. I’m following the comics model with this book. An 8-12,000 word “issue” every month until the novel is done. Expect this to be a 10-issue miniseries. 2020 the squeak-quel is shaping up to be just as nasty as its predecessor, but I still maintain that this will be a year of me trying new things.

If you are not caught up on the story of ONE AND ONLY so far, you can see the archived, preceding chapters that here.

*There are obvious exceptions to the rule. Shoutout to movies like BLOOD QUANTUM, FINGERS, CRAWL, and THE POOL for keeping horror fun.


FOUR: UNTITLED

1

Dad hid my keys and started driving me to school again. He picked me up as soon as classes let out and drove me straight home. He set a curfew and checked in on me every hour throughout the night like he was a tech on the psych ward, I his unsafe patient. Worst of all, he kept Sheila from me. If I were unstable enough to try bringing my girlfriend back from the dead, I couldn’t be trusted alone with my little sister. I’ve never been so miserable.

After three days of it, I called Caroline. She’d always been a friend, and even though talking to her again had caused the fight which led to the end of Marybeth’s life, I thought if I could reach her that she might make me feel better. The call went straight to voicemail. I tried again.

Her phone must be off, I thought. Unless she’s ignoring me. I pushed the thought away. There was no reason she would be. She’d even told me after Marybeth’s fall that I could call her if I needed anything. Perhaps I should’ve called her sooner. Maybe then, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I was in. No botched necromancy ritual, and I don’t get grounded for life.

Not to mention the Curry family would still have their fucking Pomeranian. I’m lucky I didn’t get E. Coli or something from eating that damn thing. I got up and paced my room for the fourth time that night and probably the twentieth time that week.

“I need to get out of here,” I said to no one. But my ass wasn’t going anywhere. Of course, maybe my ass, my corporeal form, didn’t need to leave. I hadn’t pulled off astral projection before, and God only knew how badly I’d fucked up at necromancy, but maybe I could get this shit to work this time. Maybe I could get out, see Caroline. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her or anyone, but at least I’d be out of my fucking room.

2

The first time I tried it, I lay in my bed, the very same bed I lay in now. I tried to relax without falling asleep. I focused on her. Where I thought she might be at that time. I imagined leaving my body, watching it from above as my true self drifted across the room. I imagined these things, but I could not make these imaginings manifest. They remained neutered and numb like unclear images behind glass or beneath water. Rippling and unsteady. Blurry.

I was much younger then. Young and dumb. Woefully inexperienced.

I approached my bed now, a failure again, but disallowing myself to think of these failings. This was a new experience, initiated by a new me. The me that failed to project years ago and the me that failed to bring Marybeth back from the dead were gone now. I could do this. I just had to concentrate and believe that I could.

I lay on my back and closed my eyes. I breathed, but only through my nose.

I didn’t think about why I wanted to see Caroline. Doing so would conjure my failures. A failure could not do what I aimed to do, and therefore, the failure had no place in this moment. Instead, I focused on Caroline. Where I thought she might be. I imagined leaving my body, watching it from above as my true self drifted across the room. I tried to relax without falling asleep.

When I began to sink, I thought I was losing consciousness and nearly broke my concentration to tell myself to wake up. Some primal instinct kept me from doing this. Something I was dialed into. It was the same thing I thought I’d been dialed into the other night by Marybeth’s grave. I didn’t pray that it was for real this time or allow myself to wonder. I simply told myself that it was.

I sank into the bed, and then I was ascending.

ONE AND ONLY, Chapter 3

THREE: THE BLADE

1

Aldous Armstrong put the finishing touches on the black, curved blade painted across his eyes and took a step back to examine himself. His eyes were intense. His hair blond and gelled into a sharp point. His torso looked cut to shreds, nearly unrecognizable from the flabby, pale body he used to see in the mirror. After spending hours a day in the gym and eating a diet consisting strictly of fish, eggs, and fruit, he’d sculpted himself into a new form, erasing the malleable weakling he could hardly stand to look at. He was Aldous “The Blade” now. Tonight, he was supposed to win the belt. Everything had led to this.

He checked his phone one last time. The message from his sister said Caroline had just picked her up. They were going to get some beer, then come check out his show. He didn’t like them breaking the law and wished she would just let him pick up beer for her. She never listened. An hour had passed since the message, and she hadn’t sent him a follow up to let him know they’d arrived safely.

His thumb hovered over the screen to type a reply, ask her if she was here. Someone knocked on the bathroom door.

“Hey, Blade,” the guy on the other side said. He didn’t recognize the voice, but Sal the promoter had new volunteers every show. “You’re up.”

“All right,” Aldous said. “Coming.”

He set down the phone and opened the door.

2

“What are you doing, Caroline?” Amber called from the road. “We’re gonna be late.”

Caroline ignored her, walking deeper into the woods, though the apparition had long disappeared. It was no apparition, she told herself. It’s Marybeth.

She pushed aside a flimsy branch and ducked under a sturdier one. Every step down the rocky path sent painful vibrations up her legs. She took out her phone and switched on the flashlight app. Newly illuminated, the dark woods didn’t look real. It was as if the trees themselves were ghosts, too, and not just the girl she was following.

A bird took off overhead, its wings moving with heavy grace. It sounded like an owl. Her footsteps made heavy, lonely sounds. The girls on the road, still calling after her, but not daring to give chase, sounded far away. To see how far she’d wandered, she risked a look over her shoulder. She could still see the outline of her car. Its headlights. The three dark shapes of her friends on that lonely country road.

“Caroline,” someone said.

Their voice was a whisper. Caroline shined her phone in its direction. The light reflected off of two dark eyes, looking almost like distant stars. It showed a gaunt form, hunched over in the woods. She peered into the shadows for a better look.

“Marybeth?”

“It’s me,” she said, holding out her arms. “Please help.”

3

“And action,” the kid behind the camera said, a slight tremor in his voice.

Aldous didn’t recognize him either. Another new face. He hoped the kid knew what he was doing. Aldous was about to cut a legendary promo. He couldn’t have the footage all shaky. He paced while the camera rolled to stay in character. The interviewer, longtime friend Julie Blazer began.

“Aldous ‘The Blade’ Armstrong. Tonight’s the night. You finally get your shot at the Broken River Wrestling championship. What’s going through your mind?”

“I’ll tell you what’s going through my mind!” he hollered. “Tonight’s the night, yeah, just like you said. I’ve waited my whole life for this. The dreaming. The training. The fighting. It’s all led to this: the Blade, one on one with Trashcan Tommy for the Broken River World Title. What’s going through my mind? I’m hearing Trashcan’s words as he stood over me a month ago while I was handcuffed to the ring post, kneeling in a puddle of my own blood. He said I’ll never get a chance at his belt. He said even if I did I’d never beat him. Well, Trashcan Tommy, I’ve got my chance tonight, and you may think I can never beat you. You may think that because Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris will be in your corner, but I’ve always had the odds against me. I like having the odds against me. I’m gonna take on Black Metal Steve. I’m gonna take on Doom Dog Harris. And then, what then, Trashcan Tommy? It’s gonna be just you and me, and you know that, one on one, you ain’t got a chance of holding onto your championship. It’s coming home with the Blade, yeah!”

“And, Blade, you said last week you wanted to dedicate this match to someone special. Do you want to say who it is? Are they here tonight?”

He thought of the message from Amber and how long it had been. He hoped she was in the audience tonight with her friends. If the young cameraman had everything set up correctly, this interview would be on a live feed for people in attendance.

“This match is dedicated to my sister, Amber. She’s here tonight, and she’s gonna watch me win, yeah!”

4

Caroline approached Marybeth with her arms outstretched. In the shadows, the other girl’s features were difficult to make out, but Caroline could tell there was something terribly wrong. Had she been buried alive? Had she been embalmed alive? No way could she have lived through the fall off the cliff, yet here she was, very much alive. She glistened with a thick liquid.

“Marybeth, what happened to you?” Caroline asked.

She almost asked if the other girl was okay, but she knew better. The reaching hands of Marybeth looked gnarled and bony, like skeletal claws. But Caroline kept approaching her. If her classmate and friend was sick or hurt, she wanted to help.

As she drew closer, an offensive odor wafted toward her. It stung her nose and made her eyes water. It reminded her of stagnant water and bad food. She realized, too late, that the smell was coming from Marybeth. The girl who’d been the love of Mason’s life was decaying at an incredibly fast rate. Clumps of skin turning into hot honey and falling like wet rags around her feet. Caroline’s bottom lip quivered. Her bladder threatened to let go. Her feet locked into place against the advice of every voice in her head.

“Please, no,” she said in a quavering whimper.

Marybeth’s melting hands grabbed fistfuls of Caroline’s hair, pulling her into a noxious kiss.

5

The Blade tromped to the ring, fists balled at his sides, head lowered like a bull ready to charge. Cheers filled the audience. He was old school, born in the wrong era. The wrestling business had gotten away from itself in the last few decades, becoming less and less serious, more and more winking at the camera. When he walked down the aisle, he aimed to project believability. He was an artist and as tough as a five-dollar steak.

He stopped at the bottom of the ramp and surveyed the scene. An audience of a few hundred, standing room only. They were packed into Heathenish Brewery, known for its IPA and grimy, underground hip hop shows. The wrestling fit in perfectly because the promotion treated itself like a shoot, keeping kayfabe like one of God’s commandments. It wasn’t WWE because it was real as fuck.

He looked for Amber’s face among the crowd. Tried to spot her friends, too. He didn’t see them, but maybe he’d missed them. He didn’t take more time to look. It was time to hit the ring. He leapt onto the apron and grabbed the ropes. He reared back his head and screamed his trademarked war cry. People yelled along with him. He was the babyface. People were ready to watch him win.

The lights went down. A grimy dubstep song played over the PA. Trashcan Tommy sauntered out with Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris in tow. They made for an intimidating sight, like the Road Warriors of old with a twenty-first century facelift. Spiky helmets topped their heads. Their cut torsos glistened with water and sweat. As they approached, the Blade paced the ring, never taking his eyes off his opponents.

Mikey Clegg was the referee for the bout. He was a wiry kid, but Blade thought he was super-cool. Knew a lot about the business. His house was full of memorabilia from the old days. Bills from defunct promotions like Mid-South and Stampede Wrestling covered the walls of his room. He even had a replica of WCW’s big gold belt hanging above his bed. Blade liked shooting the shit with him. Now, though, it was all business. All theater. Each actor playing their part.

The trio of heels climbed onto the ring apron. Mikey stepped forward waving his hands and pointing to the back. He was yelling that he wanted Black Metal and Doom Dog to head backstage, so they wouldn’t interfere in the match.

The Blade stepped forward, putting his hand on Mikey’s shoulder.

“Let them stay,” he said. He pointed to the bejeweled belt around Trashcan’s waist. “For that, I’ll take all three of em on if I have to.”

Right on cue, Black Metal and Doom Dog slipped through the ropes, coming at Blade full steam ahead. The Blade put out both his arms for a double clothesline, dropping both heels to the canvas. Black Metal got up first. The Blade hugged him for a belly-to-belly suplex, slamming him to the mat. While he rolled out, Doom Dog swung for him. The Blade ducked the blow and grabbed Doom Dog by the nape of his neck, aiming to throw him out of the ring. Before he could, Trashcan attacked from behind, clipping the Blade’s knee.

The bell rang. Shit was on.

6

“Caroline, what the fuck?” Amber said. She was now standing on the edge of the woods. “You better not make me go in there after you.”

“I think you’re gonna have to,” Farrah said.

“Hey, fuck it,” Felicity said. “She wants to go exploring the woods at night, that’s her prerogative. Let’s go watch some pro ‘rasslin’!”

Amber and Farrah flashed her angry glares.

“What?” she asked. “I’m just sayin.”

“I’m not going in there unless you two come with me,” Amber said.

“Or if you’re crazy like Caroline?” Felicity said.

“What the fuck, bitch?” Farrah said. “That’s our friend.”

“And I’m your sister, so?”

“Are you two coming with me or not?” Amber asked.

The twins exchanged glances. They nodded and followed Amber into the woods.

“Caroline,” Amber called out, switching on her cell phone light.

No one answered. The others called her name, too.

“Where do you think she is?” Farrah asked.

“I wonder if a bear got her,” Felicity said.

Farrah backhanded her on the upper arm.

“There aren’t any bears around here, dipshit.”

Something crashed in the nearby shrubbery. It sounded like an old, dead tree fell over with a series of splintering cracks.

“What was that?” Farrah said.

“I’m betting a bear.”

“Shut up about the bears,” Amber said. “Caroline! Where the fuck are you? This better not be some fucked up joke.”

The woods settled in the wake of the fallen tree. The silence made Amber want to turn and run back to the car. It was the sort of calm that only preceded a storm.

“I think we should go back to the car,” she said.

“What? Why?” Farrah asked.

Felicity was already on her way back.

“Just … this doesn’t feel right,” Amber said, brushing past Farrah.

“But what about Caroline?” Farrah pleaded. “What if she’s in trouble?”

“We’ll call somebody,” Amber said. “We’ll wait by the—”

Before she could finish, Felicity’s feet lifted off the ground.

7

The uppercut lifted The Blade into the corner. Trashcan was a snug worker, but the Blade hardly felt a thing. He made it look good though, buckling against the corner and kicking his legs into the air. Trashcan grabbed the Blade’s throat in a mock chokehold. Mikey yelled in mock outrage, counting toward a disqualification loud enough for the jeering crowd to hear. Trashcan released the hold at nine and walked away to work the crowd while the Blade collapsed to his knees in mock weariness.

It was an Oscar-worthy performance, and he hoped Amber was there to see it.

Trashcan stomped back to the corner to resume doling out punishment, but the Blade surprised him with a single-leg takedown. The small crowd erupted as the Blade tried to transition into a leg-bar. When Trashcan squirmed to the ropes, allowing for a break, the crowd booed. They were buying in, Blade thought. They were true believers already, but him and Trashcan were just getting started.

The Blade let his opponent stand. Trashcan threw a roundhouse. Blade blocked it and countered with one of his own, spilling Trashcan to the outside. Blade hit the ropes once, twice, then went for a dive. Trashcan moved. Blade caught himself and spun back into the ring. He made a beckoning gesture at Trashcan Tommy. Trashcan gave him the finger. He went to leave the ring in pursuit, but Mikey grabbed him and yelled for him to stop. The Blade feigned outrage, gesturing at the retreating Trashcan and yelling.

The Blade backed away as Mikey began to count Trashcan out. As planned, Black Metal and Doom Dog hit the ring. Doom Dog kicked Blade in the gut. Black Metal lifted him in a fireman’s carry and dropped him for a Death Valley Driver. They subsequently rolled out of the ring, leaving Blade laying.

Outside the ropes, Trashcan spread his hands and conveniently agreed to come back inside. He slipped through the ropes and onto Blade for a quick cover. One. Two. Blade kicked out. Trashcan pulled him into a sitting position and clamped on a painful-looking, but safe headlock. It was time to build heat.

8

At first, no one knew what the light around the levitating Felicity was. When it began to crackle, when her screams of surprise and fear became cries of agony, Amber could tell her friend was on fire. Suspended in the air and burning like an effigy.  Felicity’s screams were soon joined by her sister’s and by Amber’s, too. The woods seemed then to fill with screams. A chorus of pain and terror, far too loud and layered for three voices. Soon, Felicity stopped screaming and dropped, smoldering, to the rocky path. This brought fresh screams from her friends.

Amber backed away from the crispy corpse while Farrah drew closer.

“Don’t,” she managed to mumble.

Farrah had no reply. She just kept approaching her dead sister. Her screams had turned to whimpers. Mumbled words of grief that Amber couldn’t make out, but she imagined their meaning. She had no sisters, only her brother Aldous the Blade. She remembered the time he’d been in an awful car accident. He was sixteen and had just gotten his first car, a red Audi. Someone t-boned him at the intersection of Beacon Hill and Swamp Rd. The Audi was totaled. Aldous was almost lost, too. She remembered how scared she’d been, watching her big brother in the hospital bed, wondering when the machines would flatline to indicate the end of his life. That pain she’d imagined could not compare to what Farrah felt now. Amber’s had been imagined, her fears never realized as Aldous made a miraculous recovery, mounting a comeback like the wrestler he’d soon become. Farrah’s agony was all too real.

Amber took another step back and bumped into something. It felt human, soft and feminine. She spun.

“Caroline?” Her friend was standing there, saying nothing, wearing a blank stare. Amber’s tone sharpened with worry. “Caroline?”

Behind her, Farrah commenced pathetic wails of grief. The remains of Felicity smoked like hamburger left too long on a hot pan.

Caroline’s lips twitched. She still hadn’t spoken. Her eyes were hard and expressionless.

“Caroline, what’s going on? Where’s that girl? We have to get the fuck out of here.”

All of this spilled out of her mouth like loose M & M’s from candy machine. In response, Caroline touched Amber’s chest with two fingers. It looked like a light touch. It was a light touch. But somehow, Amber was now barreling backwards. She crashed into Farrah and the cremated remains of Felicity crunched beneath them. The girls screamed, flailing and smacking each other as they scrambled to their feet.

Farrah reached hers first and sprang for the car. Something yanked her back onto the corpse of her twin. Amber got up and ran, her friend’s screams dying behind her. She hated herself for doing this, leaving her friend to die, but she wasn’t a goddamn superhero. No way she could fight the … whatever the fuck in control of Caroline’s body.

By the time she got out of the woods, they had fallen silent. All she heard was her own ragged, rushing breath as she piled into the car and shut the door behind her.

Fuck. Caroline had the keys.

Amber looked back toward the woods. The killer in the guise of her friend stood on the edge of the road. She held the keys and jangled them tauntingly.

NO!” she screamed. “GODDAMN IT!

She considered leaving and running, but maybe if she kept the doors locked, she could be safe. Maybe… Caroline dropped the keys and raised her other hand. She looked as though she meant to clap.

“Oh my God, what the fuck, what the fuck?” Amber whined.

When Caroline’s hands came together, incredible crushing pain enveloped Amber.

She died before she could realize the car had collapsed on her.

9

It was time for the Blade to make his comeback. Trashcan Tommy whipped him into the ropes, setting up a pop-up powerbomb. Blade telegraphed the move, diving over Tommy’s head and hooking his legs under his opponent’s arms. The sunset flip drove Tommy back-first to the mat. Tommy rolled back to his feet. Blade was there to meet him with a clothesline. Tommy jumped up and met another clothesline. When Tommy got up a third time, Blade kicked him in the gut to set up the Blade Runner, which was a variation on the old Stone Cold stunner.

Before he could apply the move, Doom Dog slid into the ring. Took a swing at Blade, who ducked it and gave Doom Dog the Blade Runner meant for Trashcan. Black Metal Steve was next, attempting a tackle, which Blade sidestepped, sending Black Metal sailing out of the ring.

Trashcan had regained his bearings and wrapped his right hand in what looked like brass knuckles but was actually made of foam. Trashcan swung. Blade blocked it. Kicked Tommy in the gut and successfully hit the Blade Runner. He covered Trashcan Tommy for the one-two-three. The bell rang. New champion.

As the Blade raised the belt in the air, he scanned the audience once again and wondered where Amber was.

12/29/2020

I got off to a slow start this morning. By the time I got the little guy off to preschool, it was time to log into work. But I said I’d blog every day, so blog every day I shall. Today’s is late.


Sometimes, wrestling is really silly.

Sure, it’s usually always silly, but there are times where it crosses into some kind of bizarro outsider art. A good example of this is the April 10, 2000 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, an episode where co-heads of creative Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo attempted to “reboot” the promotion. It’s some truly odd stuff, full of inside baseball and alliances between former enemies. You can check out some highlights from it here.

Other times, it becomes silly in hindsight. Take, for instance, this rap performed by the entire WWF roster in the 1980s.

While I do think it can be detrimental to your art to try and be silly on purpose, it can also be beneficial to lean into the inherent silliness of what you’re doing. Believe in yourself, brother!


Speaking of fully diving off the deep-end, self-awareness be damned, I finished listening to the audiobook of CAT MAGIC by Whitley Strieber. It’s a great book written by someone who’s developed an unfortunate reputation for being a little kooky. The thing is, it doesn’t read like a crazy person wrote it. I’ve read plenty of stuff by crazy people. I’ve even written a book while wrestling with insanity myself.

No, CAT MAGIC doesn’t read like the work of an unraveled mind. It’s a fun horror story about a battle between a coven of witches and a fundamentalist Christian cult in a small New Jersey town. There’s plenty of theological debate and fascinating insight into paganism within the book’s pages. There’s so much that I wonder if Mr. Strieber wrote the book while he was having a spiritual crisis of his own.


Tonight, I’ll be doing a test stream with friends (and excellent authors) J. David Osborne and Kelby Losack. We’ve got a secret thing in the works that I think will be really fun. All I’ll say about it is it involves movies, occultism, and Twitch.

I found out yesterday that I wasn’t storing my videos on my Twitch channel. Total n0ob mistake. Thankfully, I’ve only done two streams so far, but I’m kind of sad to know those are lost forever. I had a lot of fun thinking in public about creative decisions I made while writing the first chapter of ONE AND ONLY.


PANDEMONIUM, the book I co-wrote with Ryan Harding, has been out for two weeks. It’s doing pretty well, but can definitely do better. If you got some money or gift cards this past holiday, then you could do worse than this grabbing this one. It’s a horror novel themed around the world of hardcore wrestling, and a tribute to the Dario Argento-produced DEMONS movies. It’s got a ridiculously high body count, and for what it’s worth, it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. Hope you’ll grab a copy.

This week, I’ll be working on my collaboration with Splatterpunk Award Winner Wesley Southard.

Our nightmare year is almost over!

Streets of Rage

If you haven’t seen the DEMONS films, I highly recommend doing so. The first one is the best, but DEMONS 2 and THE CHURCH also have some great highlights.

What I like about them is their apparent lack of structure and notable character arcs. They simply put interesting people in frightening situations and let the action play out. It’s not a bad model if you’re a writer who finds yourself bored to tears with blueprints like The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat.

A good example of a book that employs this free structure is KILL FOR SATAN by Bryan Smith. Ryan Harding and I took a similar approach with our new book PANDEMONIUM, letting instincts and logic drive the narrative, rather than contriving a connotational psychodrama to show what our book is really about. Sometimes you just need to have fun. Cut loose and follow a natural progression, rather than attempt to manipulate the narrative. I think it worked out well.

One of the things we did in the novel that we didn’t see much of in the films we hoped to emulate was spill the action out into the streets. I understand why the movies didn’t do it. Every scene costs money in that business. When it comes to writing a book, your budget is limitless (not so much in publishing, but that’s probably another blog). We agreed that the action should spread from the primary location because that was something we’d always wanted to see more of in those old movies.

Also, I love old beat ’em ups like Sega’s STREETS OF RAGE. The fourth entry in that franchise came out this year and was a total godsend for me, who had just gotten back into gaming. While it lacks the splatter and demonic element of our book, STREETS OF RAGE 4 (and its predecessors) have an anarchic spirit that just works. It doesn’t have much in the way of story, because it doesn’t need much in the way of story. If you’re thinking about it too hard, you’re doing it wrong! I like to think PANDEMONIUM works in much the same way.

This is my roundabout way of saying a couple things.

First, if you are a writer, and you’re struggling with finding some heavier theme or subtextual underpinnings to your plot, maybe try scrapping those ideas altogether. Just let the action play out. Follow logic and instinct. If there is something weightier underneath everything, it will shine through without you ham-fisting it and insulting your reader’s intelligence.

Second, I’m officially launching my Twitch channel today! Join me at 2:00 pm, central time. I’ll be playing STREETS OF RAGE 4 and taking your questions about books, games, wrestling, Italian horror, collaborating with another author, and a whole lot else! While I intend to do a lot more than simple gaming with the channel in the future, I want to start with what’s familiar. So, come hang out with me this afternoon. You’ll be glad you did.

Amityville Man Cave

“What the fuck is that?” Deena said. 

“It smells like … Axe Body Spray,” Stephanie said. 

“Okay, so, I didn’t smell that five minutes ago, did you?” 

“No. Why are you so freaked out?” 

“Well, there’s something I didn’t tell you about this house we bought.” 

“Oh, no! What?” 

“It used to belong to Neckbeard.” 

“So? I’m sure lots of neckbeards have owned houses.” 

“No, not just any neckbeard. I’m talking about Neckbeard McDudebro.” 

“Oh, no. Him?” 

“Him.” 

“But isn’t he just an urban legend?” 

“Does that smell like an urban legend to you?” 

“No, it smells like Axe Body Spray.” 

“That’s because he’s here. This is the house of Neckbeard McDudebro and we are standing in his man cave!” 

“Why the fuck didn’t you say something?” 

“Because you wouldn’t want to buy the house if I did.” 

“You’re goddamn right I wouldn’t have!” 

“Ugh, the smell is getting stronger. I’m sorry, Stephanie.” 

“Sorry? In the span of a few seconds, I just found out ghosts are real, and my girlfriend is a fucking liar. I don’t think sorry is going to fix things. God, that smells awful. We need to get the fuck out of here.” 

“I don’t know if he’ll let us leave.” 

“Why the fuck did you want to buy his house so bad?” 

“Because it’s a nice house, and I don’t believe in ghosts.” 

“Well, actually,” a disembodied voice began, “I’m more of a poltergeist. Are you two going to scissor for me or what?” 

“Neckbeard?” both women said. 

“That’s right, bitches. Welcome to my house. Now you must do what I say. Because I’m dead, I’m no longer under your oppressive matriarchal rule. Now, boobs or get the fuck out.” 

A set of milky eyes opened on the wall in front of the women. Lips took shape and curved into a smile. 

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Stephanie said. 

“No, I think he’s serious.” 

“Well, he’s not getting boobs, so I’m getting the fuck out.” 

“Wait a minute. Fuck him. It’s not his house anymore. He’s not getting boobs and we’re not going anywhere.” 

Several seconds of silence passed. Then, 

“Well, if you won’t do what I say and you won’t leave, I’ll have to move furniture around and make scary sounds.” 

“Is that it?” Deena said. 

“What do you mean? Doesn’t that scare you?” 

“Not really.” 

“Deena, what are you doing?” 

“I don’t believe in ghosts and we’re tired from moving. Maybe we’re just imagining you.” 

“I’m real.” 

“I don’t know, man. I’m exhausted. I’ve hardly slept for days. Neither has Stephanie. I think you’re just a bad hallucination.” 

“Yeah,” Stephanie said. “And come on, moving around some furniture? Making scary sounds? We’ll just tell each other it’s the house settling or some shit.” 

“Like earthquakes. This is California.” 

“You can’t deny me. Boobs or get the fuck out.” 

“Sorry, man. You’re just an urban legend and not a very good one.” 

“But wait! The Axe. Surely you smell me. And my face on the wall. Surely you see me.” 

“I don’t see shit,” Stephanie said. “How about you, girlfriend?” 

“Nope. Just some weird shadows.” 

“But the smell, the smell!” 

“What do you think, Steph?” 

“I think that stink is just left over from when you were still alive. Even in death, your smell lingers, but you don’t. You’re gone. This is our house.” 

“But not this room. This is my man cave.” 

“You know what I’m thinking, Steph?” 

“What?” 

“I think these walls would look really good in pink.”