Lex Talionis by Russell Kirk

Tim Kirk
Art by Tim Kirk

lex ta·li·o·nis

ˈleks ˌtälēˈōnis,ˌtalē-/
noun
the law of retaliation, whereby a punishment resembles the offense committed in kind and degree.
Lex Talionis was written by Russell Kirk and first appeared in the Whispers II compilation. In addition to the magazine, Whispers published several hardcover books with Doubleday that were both collected stories from the pages of the magazine, as well as new stories. This tale by Russell Kirk is one of those new stories added to the hardcover.
Russell Kirk is incredibly famous. He is incredibly famous as an American conservative political theorist, who happened to also write horror fiction in his spare time. From Wagner’s tone in the intro to this story it seems like Kirk rarely wrote genre fiction, but when he did it was great and coveted. Wagner seems like a career criminal lucking into the score of this story with his buddy Stuart Schiff, editor of Whispers.
Fitting because this story read to me like a hardboiled noir. We follow Eddie, who seems to be recently out of jail. He was originally trained as a Catholic monk, but fell on hard times and into a life of crime. Atoning for his sins, he walks the streets of an unnamed city at night waiting for a sign from above. He mentions after being released from jail that he thinks of his last name being Cain. We get a sense that he sees himself as having some sort of righteous mission after leaving imprisonment to atone for his sins. (Hmmm, Kane walking the Earth? I wonder why Wagner liked this story?)
The city Eddie walks fits the tropes of a hardboiled, nameless American city. Buildings and parking lots are abandoned, the result of failed ‘urban renewal’, everything closes at sun down, churches included. That is of course except for the bars, the bars that are littered with the down and out and the criminal. Kirk is really getting in some of his political ideology with the state of things in this section. It is at one of these bars that Eddie bumps into former jail mate Butte. Butte was a bully that ran things to a certain degree on the block and is surprised to see Eddie. The last time he saw Eddie he had put him in an incapacitated state in the jail hospital.
Butte decides to bully and threaten Eddie into robbing an abandoned house with him. The family was recently murdered and a fortune is just sitting in the basement for the taking. Eddie sees this as a message from God and follows along.
I felt like Kirk expertly balanced me on the razor blade of uncertainty with this story. Is this a story of gritty noir with a constantly escalating plot, or is this going to be a horror story of a chosen one of God (Eddie) becoming a retributive hand against the sinner (Butte)?
Lex Talionis is the longest story in the collection and one of my favorites so far. It almost feels like this could be turned into a pulp novel series about the exploits of Eddie Mahaffy, now Eddie Cain. I would read it.
And for anyone keeping track, below are all the saints that Eddie prays to before his night on the town with Butte.
John Bosco: patron saint of illusionists
Gregory the Great: patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers
Rose of Lima:patroness of the Americas,the first person born in the Americas to be canonized as a saint
Augustine of Hippo: patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, the alleviation of sore eyes
Francis de Sales: patron of writers and journalists
Mary, Mother of Christ
Joseph the Worker: patron saint of workers, husband of Mary, mother of Christ
Thomas of Cantebury: aka Thomas Becket, saint and martyr
Elizabeth Seton: patron saint of seafarers, first saint of the United States

Episode 6 ‘The Fourth Seal’- And Behold A Pale Horse

Link to the blog entry where John Mayer talks about Wagner’s suspension from medical school. here

Link to ‘The Last Interview’ in Dark Troubador Magazine here Though I called it the last interview in the episode it is only one of the last. The last interview was done by Bradley H. Sinor for Horror Magazine Issue #5. You can read that interview on karledwardwagner.org here

Readers: Malcolm Mills, Laura Maxfield

Music: F. N. York

Billy Wolfe’s Riding Spirit by Kevin A. Lyons

ERThis story is a perfect example of the alternate markets Wagner looked into when assembling his collections. I honestly can’t see any editor besides Wagner finding a story in the September issue of Easyriders. Easyriders is a currently running magazine focused on the American made motorcycle- Harley Davidson, Indian etc. In addition to the motorcycle articles they included topless spreads of women, and stories. As stated in his introduction, “…finding good horror fiction becomes something rather like fishing a good trout stream..with effort and patience the results are most rewarding.” Nice catch on this one.

This is only the second published story by writer Kevin A. Lyons and Wagner predicts that we’ll see more from him down the line. Sadly, checking the Speculative Fiction Database and searching the web it appears this is the last story of his. Bill Wolfe’s Riding Spirit is short (possibly the shortest in the collection), predictable, and could have waited longer for some of its story beats to hit, however, the added flare of a dash of biker culture, and the main characters job, cleaning roadkill off the highway, give this story an original feel.

The story is a ghost tale about a biker (Billy Wolfe) who evades the cops late at night every full moon, burning rubber on his Harley through the Dell Water Gap. Fellow bikers and some ‘straight’ folks begin lining up to see him evade the cops every time he takes his ride. No one can figure out how he seems to appear from nowhere and disappear the same way. One day while cleaning up deer off the roadside the protagonist finds a cabin in the woods that answers all his questions about Billy Wolfe’s secret.

 

Sheets by Alan Ryan

 

Chry Carl Kochich
Art by Carl Kochich

Sheets first appeared in Chrysalis 5 edited by Roy Torgeson. Chrysalis lasted six years, and was ten volumes in all. Torgeson of Zebra books, wanted to use Chrysalis to stretch the bounds of sci-fi and launch the genre into the 80s. If Zebra sounds familiar it’s because that’s also the publisher Wagner worked with on the Robert E. Howard properties.

Sheets is the first story in this collection that I’d identify as being in the horror sub-category of weird fiction. Recently, weird fiction has been going through a renaissance and there has been much more of it on the market. It’s a genre parallel to horror that is growing and growing.

At the start, Sheets feels like an ordinary ‘literary’ tale about a man who leaves his job as a school teacher because of dissatisfaction. He’s found temporary holiday work at the NYC Macy’s by Herald Square in the bedding and sheets department. Ryan is spot on with his descriptions. Anyone who has worked in retail will recognize the customers, the co-workers, and the boredom. I was getting flashbacks of my years in the trenches at the Strand Bookstore. To alleviate his boredom, the protagonist decides to start memorizing all of the stock to pass time. He creates a system dividing the sheets into categories; Geometrics, Flowers, Sillies, and Butterflies. He then attempts to spend a week on each category memorizing all the patterns and colors. It is when he is exposed to this level of attention and concentration on the sheets that things begin to get weird. He begins to notice movement within the patterns.

I loved this story. It was a seemingly normal story that started skewing stranger and stranger. I almost wish the story was longer so the weirdness of the sheets had a little time to develop before the frightening conclusion. This story is from the beginning of Alan Ryan’s career and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.

A Serious Call by George Hay

G&SWagner pulled A Serious Call from the inaugural issue of Ghosts & Scholars, a chapbook dedicated to stories in the vein of, or essays on, M.R. James. Ghosts & Scholars ran from 1979-2001, when it ended its run at issue 33. The next year it relaunched as The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter focused more on essays than new fiction. The newsletter is still going today edited by Rosemary Pardoe! If you’re interested in back issues or subscriptions contact Rosemary at dandrpardoe@gmail.com.

George Hay, much like Wagner, was an editor as well as a writer. He had a substantial body of work editing fantasy and horror but really considered himself, as Wagner says, “an SF man”. I thought this was interesting because Wagner himself was largely involved with horror, I would call him “a horror man”. Despite my thoughts, in the genre community he is more widely known for his fantasy character Kane the mystic swordsman. I have a strong suspicion Wagner would scoff at my genre distinctions and simply call himself a gothic writer.

(I am going to reveal the ending of the story so if you don’t want it spoiled, read no further)

A Serious Call is short and sweet. The voice of the narrator is a bit stuffy and a bit conservative (scoffing at the Student Union) to my ear. He tells the tale of the night he decides to change his thesis. Originally it was to be on M.R. James, but after the events of that night, he quickly changed it to the sea stories of H. M. Tomlinson. The night in question he attends a lecture for the students by a visiting priest about the nature of contemporary Good and Evil. A bit comical, a bit frightening, a violent thunderstorm starts the same moment as the lecture. It becomes a theatrical event as the visiting lecturer battles the sound and fury of the elements, describing how evil has changed with the times. He finishes his lecture and immediately leaves the hall. As soon as he exits the building he’s struck down by lightning and killed. The brilliant twist in the last paragraph is the narrator describing what made him take the lecture to heart and steer away from the supernatural. The local newspaper lists the death as “an act of God”. There is a beautiful ambiguity in that for me. The priest was speaking about the devil and his hidden evils, so it makes sense that the devil would strike him down. The newspaper listing the death as an act of God creates a dissonance where in my mind that means the devil is God. It flips the world on its head and for a split second terrifies me. Whose world am I living in?

My Beautiful Darkling by Eddy C. Bertin

mijnEddy C. Bertin is a Belgian writer, the story My Beautiful Darkling was originally written in Dutch and was featured in his collection Mijn Mooie Duisterlinge named after this particular story. Bertin translated the story himself into english for the Year’s Best. No stranger to these collections, he was featured in the first three edited by Richard Davis, skipped collections edited by Gerald W. Page, and is back in this collection by Karl Edward Wagner.

The title of this story comes from Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire :

Lorsque tu dormiras, ma belle ténébreuse
Au fond d’un monument construit en marbre noir…

When you’ll sleep, My Beautiful Darkling
In the depths of a tomb built of black marble…

After opening with this quote the first two thirds of the story are a police recording of an older man picked up for masturbating in the middle of a fairgrounds. The police tape is his ravings about being a psychic of sorts who goes to fairgrounds to experience the emotions of others. He says, “The real fair was inside my head, spinning in all the rainbow’s colors against the bony insides of my skull. Emotions flapping on bat wings, opening up to me like beautiful dark flowers, shrieking their madness at me inside my head. I was alive!”, another allusion to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. One night by chance he detects another person like him, yet different in some ways. A chase ensues and the two of them end up in a secluded section of the fairgrounds. Without needing to speak the two communicate through emotions and the narrator is brought to ecstasy by this being, this Darkling named…Cathy. In exchange, we get the idea, she is draining his life. Time passes and the narrator gets weaker, Cathy becomes less and less interested until one night she does not show up at the fairgrounds. He is in a panic, racing around the fairgrounds looking for her and the fulfillment she gives him, when he is picked up by the police. Eventually his psychiatrist comes and calms down his raving enough for the police to move him to a cell.

The police tape ends and the last two sections are from the POV of the psychiatrist. In a very Psycho way he explains what was going on with the narrator and how it’s all based in repressed memory etc. At this point of the story I got upset, I knew there were only two pages left. To have the rug pulled out from under us as readers with a story explaining things away was not going to do it for me this time. Gladly Bertin didn’t disappoint as the psychiatrist cuts through the fairground after leaving the station.

“He stood still. Something was moving in the darkness there, a shadow moving forward. The hesitant, distant streetlamps threw a softly fearful light on the legs of a young women. She wore boots. She was standing on the exact edge of light and darkness, her face and the upper part of her body hidden in the shadows.”

 

The Well at the Half Cat by John Tibbetts

Eldritch Tales No. 5
Art by John Tibbetts

First published in Eldritch Tales No. 5, Half Cat was the first professional sale of fiction for John Tibbetts. In his intro to the story, Wagner mentions that he thought after reading it the author must be “one of that group of disciples of M.R. James, whose work, generally appearing in obscure prewar British editions, remains virtually unknown to most fans today.” Little did he know, Tibbetts was an American completing his Ph.D. in film and theater at the University of Kansas.

Sharing Wagner’s love of the gothic, Tibbetts sets his story in an old run down Inn in the English countryside. A young man, Frank Vincy, is starting a new chapter in his life and decides to renovate and operate the rundown Inn formerly known as the Half Cat. During the renovation Frank pries up the old boards covering the well. Shortly after, a mysterious couple arrives to stay in the half finished Inn. Normally Frank would tell them it wasn’t ready for lodgers yet, but something compels him to let them stay. As he falls more and more under the spell of his guests we learn they have a history with the establishment that involves that well.

There is an ambiguity to the two lodger characters at the beginning, and an implied power, the woman in particular, holds over Frank. There was something about it that really reminded me of Wagner’s own writing, especially his later work that dealt with power dynamics and power play. One drawback to the story for me was the point of view. In one moment we are outside with Frank and as he walks back in the narrator glides up to a balcony with the couple who are mid conversation. We can see the influence of film on Tibbetts, which is cool, but a couple times I was disoriented.

Speaking of film, this story was early on in Tibbetts career and he went on to be a prolific intellectual writing a multitude of articles on film, theater, and music. He has a ton of academic work on horror literature as well. If that wasn’t impressive enough he is also an accomplished artist and supplied art to genre magazines, and books. The picture attached to this entry is the cover he did for the magazine that Half Cat was originally featured in. Did I mention he was also a poet? Color me impressed Mr. Tibbetts.