The Quiet Box

The Quiet Box is a short Christmas horror story I wrote last year for Kendall Review’s (kendallreviews.com). Due to a quieting in all writing activity lately, I never got a chance to write a cosmic yuletide terror tale for 2020. This will have to do for now. Enjoy…

***

“What is it?”

The last of the wrapping paper stripped away, Timmy flipped the empty box in his hands. Dyed black and dotted with what looked like stars, it seemed to be an ordinary cardboard shoebox.

“It’s a quiet box.” Grandpa’s voice cracked. The left side of his face drooped from palsy and he slightly shook all the time. Timmy only saw his Grandpa at Christmases. The change in his health from the previous year was noticeable.

Timmy shrugged. “What’s a quiet box?”

“Grab that egg timer.”

Timmy retrieved the timer from under the tree, one of the cooking gifts given to his Mom from the new boyfriend, Carl. Without need for further instruction, Timmy set the timer for one minute and placed it in the star-speckled box. He closed the lid.

Tracking the time on his phone, he waited. There was no sound. Timmy was surprised, the cardboard top of the box fit loosely, some sound should have escaped. But the room was noisy, filled with conversations of adults, crinkling of wrapping paper, and the excited chatter of his cousins.

Timmy ran to his room retrieving his alarm clock. Carl hated it, the buzzer obnoxiously loud. He set the alarm to go off in two minutes and put in in the box.

Silence.

After five minutes, Timmy opened the box. The clock’s shrill alarm buzzed loudly. Everyone in the room stopped talking; aunts, uncles, cousins, and Carl angrily glaring at him.

Timmy turned it off.

“Sorry.”

He put the lid back on the box and slid it under the tree. There were other toys with which he could play. He nodded at his Grandpa, giving his best effort to appear grateful.

His Grandpa smiled. Timmy couldn’t tell if he winked at him or if it was just a tic.

***

After his Mom and Carl had gone to bed, Timmy snuck out of his room tiptoeing past their bedroom door into the living room. In the dark, he approached the Christmas tree and turned on its lights. He liked how the blinking colors lit the dark room.

Timmy found the quiet box under the tree. It struck him that it could be the last gift he would receive from Grandpa. He studied the box, curious to how it worked. The edges were frayed and the corners were slightly ripped. It definitely wasn’t airtight.

Opening the lid, he inspected the inside. Similar to the exterior, the threadbare cardboard was dyed black dotted with yellow stars in random constellations.

Timmy spied Carl’s phone on the coffee table. He grinned. Taking the phone, he placed it inside the box and closed the lid. Retrieving his own phone from a pajama pocket, he dialed Carl’s number.

Listening intently, in the still of the house, he couldn’t hear the ringtone. Timmy giggled imagining Carl frantically searching for his phone by having his mom call the number to listen for the ringer.

Timmy turned off the tree lights. He would resume figuring out how the box worked tomorrow. Maybe his Grandpa knew. Timmy made a mental note to call and ask him. He would need to do it soon. Timmy bit his lip thinking about the time his Grandpa had left. He wondered how it felt to know that time was so short.

Treading lightly, he made it back to his room ready for bed. It had been a long day. He took out his phone placing it on nightstand.

Timmy was surprised to find the phone lit, the call duration timer displayed. The call he made to Carl’s phone hadn’t rung through. Someone had picked up.

Bringing the phone to his ear, Timmy listened. The connection was strong, but he couldn’t hear anything. In fact, he heard nothing. He increased the volume, but there was only silence on the other end. It was strange, a deeper kind of quiet than he had ever heard. There was no ambient noise, no static, no background reverberation.

It was an absence of sound.

Timmy kept the phone hard to his ear as he put on his slippers. It was tricky doing it one-handed, but he couldn’t bear to miss the perfect silence fed to him from the other end.

He left the house out the backdoor, not bothering it to close it despite the December cold. Walking through the backyard, he entered the woods. The trees had long since lost their leaves, the starlight from the cloudless sky was bright enough for him to find his way.

Timmy found the gap in the chain link fence that divided the woods from the interstate highway. Keeping the phone to his ear, he snuck through. One of his slippers came off, snagged on a jagged fence barb. He left it behind.

Scrambling down the embankment, he stood on the highway shoulder. From around the corner, bright headlights suddenly blazed. A truck barreled toward him. Timmy could feel the rush of displaced air as it passed and the heat of its engine. The truck didn’t slow. It didn’t see him, the brush at the point where the highway bent hiding him from view of oncoming vehicles.

Keeping the phone to his ear, the sublime silence continuing to gush, Timmy took a step into the road. Serenaded by the sounds of nothingness, he thought again of his Grandpa. It would be his last Christmas and he hadn’t gotten him a gift.

Sometime soon Grandpa would hear the quiet. It would be all there was at the end. Timmy only wished he wouldn’t be alone when that day came. He now knew what gift he wished to give. If he only could.

Timmy took another step onto the road.

He looked up. The sky fit loosely above, the horizon dissolving into corrugated black edges.  The stars looked tired, drops of paint mistakenly spattered on a faded canvas. He looked in between the stars, into the vast open spaces, searching for the quiet.

And he listened to that still, dark emptiness. Listened to it until the lights came and took him.  

Vastarien #4 (Vol 2, Issue 1) – Book Review, Professor Nobody, and Other Notes

The tri-annual literary journal VASTARIEN describes itself as source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas. Its issues are an eclectic mix of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, artwork, and other hybrid pieces. VASTARIEN differentiates itself from the other horror/sci-fi/weird publications in the market with a focus on philosophy and experimental forms. See Christopher Ropes’ “Singing the Song of My Unmaking” in Vol 1, Issue 1 as example, a combination poem, fictional narrative, and confessional biography exploring the depths of clinical depression.

VASTARIEN issue #4 continues this tradition. In “All the Stage is a World” by Forrest Aguirre, a university student makes an unfamiliar cross-town trip to attend a off-campus play required for class. The play is absurd, the performance and its motivations unclear. Without giving away too much of the ending, in reading this, I was reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s story “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” where (speaking through the character of a like horror author Professor Nobody) Ligotti differentiates two types of horror writing. He argues that there are “stories that are just stories”—that is spun tales with a coherent plot, characters, and theme. Typically, in horror a monster is used as a device to represent some human fear (death, aging, insanity, isolation) in a fashion to make us “squirm and quake”. In contradiction, the good Prof. Nobody continues, there is also the story that doesn’t seek to confront our fears at a metaphorical arm’s length as a way to delude ourselves into thinking we have any measure of control over a horrible world; but rather a story that pulls back the lens to reveal the indifference of a universe in chaos. The universe in its many dimensions doesn’t consciously conspire to threaten us with mundane horrors, but instead is simply deranged. The highest law is disorder: existence as nightmare. So does “All the Stage is a World” linger, the horror not in the performance changing the world in some sinister way, but in the implication that the performance changes nothing, only dispels the illusions of  coherence.

Another stand out story is “In the Way of Eslan Mendeghast” by Farah Rose Smith. The imagery featured is rich and darkly beautiful. The writing is top-notch, language flowing and poetic. Again, the focus is not so much of a structured narrative, rather a frightening peek into an absurdist void.

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Vastarien Art by Dave Felton

“Vanpool” by C.M. Muller is an anxious and claustrophobic tale. The characters are unnamed, as is the suburb where it is set, but these ‘story’ details aren’t important. Told from the perspective of a child, there is the looming sense of the unknown existing beyond the confines of the home. Of course, as children, what did we know of where our parents go every day? Certainly, this mystery is traumatic, a daily ritual of abandonment. And who are ‘parents’? How does a child validate their creator’s backstory and origin? Not armed with the proper perspective or life experience to understand, there is little that can be done to alleviate these anxieties. And what of us? What assurances do we have of any ‘intelligent design’ of the universe in which we, ourselves, inhabit?

The two non-fiction essays are focused on horror authors Mark Samuels (essay by David Peak) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (by Gwendolyn Kiste). While I wasn’t familiar with either author, both essays proved to be illuminating. Like any story, allowing the writer to guide me forward, I ended up finding found both pieces interesting and relevant.

VASTARIEN’s other non-fiction entry is “Effigies of Former Managers” by Matthew M. Bartlett, a character study of his former bosses. Okay, *wink*, it’s fiction—one of those stories that for whatever reason I only wish were true. A group of character vignettes done in his ineffable style, it’s not a Leeds story (the fictional town that is the basis of Creeping Waves, Gateways to Abomination, etc), but is written in a similar vein. Like his collection of Leeds’ finest, Bartlett defines his middle manager wretches through a series of compulsive quirks which are so consuming to drive the humanity from them. If we can be defined as animals gifted with a ‘divine spark’, these characters are cursed by a doomed lodestone. They are haunted meat puppets, unconsciously possessed by their ghastly obsessions (and then nailed to the ceiling).

“Venio” by Gemma Files is the most ‘story’ story in the issue. It names its characters, flushes them out, and has a well-defined plot. It’s an invasion story with a Ligottian bent: a fantastical intrusion not into the world, but rather the sanity of its characters. By contrast, “The Lord as an Active Shooter” by Fiona Maeve Geist is a largely philosophical piece. Told in the second person, it explores the collision of gun culture with our evolutionary reflex of superstition in a parabolic way. I think Professor Nobody would approve of both tales.

Other stories include the fableist “The Curse of the Biblical Magi” by Sepehr Goshayeshi, the cosmic horror “Aharesia” by Natalia Theodoridou, the weird ritualistic short, “Burger Shop” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, the body horror “Rat King” by Lia Swope Mitchell, and the satirical “Ageless Agelasts” by Rhys Hughes. Poetry includes “Orchid Architecture” by the prolific K.A. Opperman and the creepy “The Sisters” by F.J. Bergman.

For full disclosure, my own cosmic horror flash story, “Silhouette Golems”, is a part of this issue. I’m the worst judge of my work, so I’ll leave it that I am honored and thrilled to be published alongside such talented authors. Thanks to Jon Padgett for publishing and for creating a publication dedicated to Thomas Ligotti in the first place.

VASTARIEN is available at Amazon, however, it also can be ordered direct from the Grimscribe Press website. If anyone is interested in checking this or any other issue, please consider buying direct as more of the proceeds will go to the publisher. At the time of this review, the price of the ebook is actually lower at Grimscribe Press, so this is one virtue that will save you money. Of course, if you are absolutist in the belief that virtue must be accompanied with pain, you can certainly take the savings and buy another issue.

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Silhouette Golems – New story in the upcoming issue of VASTARIEN

I am happy to announce my short story Silhouette Golems will be in the next issue of the  literary journal VASTARIEN.

If there is one current publication that I would wish to have a story placed, it is VASTARIEN, a publication inspired by the writings of Thomas Ligotti. Many years ago I stumbled upon a copy of The Nightmare Factory, a compendium of many of Ligotti’s stories, which I felt an immediate and strong connection. More philosophical and atmospheric than gory or scary, this was my gateway into cosmic horror, although Ligotti’s stories stand out in their own unique category. Reading the first three issues of VASTARIEN, to have one of my works appearing here is definitely a high-point in my writing career so far.

Edited by the co-administrators of the longtime message board Thomas Ligotti Online (Ligotti.net), Jon Padgett and Matt Cardin, VASTRIAN is a tri-annual publication of weird fiction, non-fiction articles, poetry, and other literary hybrids. I am honored to be included in Volume 2, Issue 1 with many indie authors that I read and follow such as Matthew Bartlett, Gemma Files, C.M. Muller, Farah Rose Smith, Kyle Opperman, and Jayaprakash Satyamurthy to name a few (see full Table of Contents below).

The current issue can be pre-ordered now (click for link). It will be available to ship and available on Amazon in the next few weeks. However, buying direct or through a Patreon plan can help support VASTARIEN, as a greater percentage of the proceeds will go to the publication.

Thanks to Jon Padgett and Matt Cardin for bringing my Silhouette Golems to life! Looking forward to reading the issue!

PATREON LINK HERE.

SUBSCRIPTION LINK HERE.

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And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.

THE STARS OVER CASPER, TEXAS — honorable mention, Weird Christmas Flash Fiction Contest

My 350 word short holiday story, THE STARS OVER CASPER, TEXAS, received an honorable mention from WeirdChristmas.com‘s inaugural holiday flash fiction contest. You can listen to my story and 11 other weird flash fiction stories from the contest results episode of the podcast (mine starts at 12:41), or read it in the comments section. So, what is my story about? I think the host’s introduction to it says it all, “…a mix between Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Ligotti”. So, that’s going in the Author Bio; heh, heh.

Thanks to Craig at Weird Christmas for running the contest. He has committed to doing it again next year, so get your stories ready (only 350 days until the 2019 deadline). Also, thanks to Brian Earl (twitter- @XmasPastPodcast) from the Christmas Past blog for his reading of my story.

S.E. Casey

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CLICK FOR STORY LINK

VASTARIEN, Vol 1, Issue 1 – Book Review

The Thomas Ligotti inspired collection VASTARIEN kicks-off with the one act play, “The Gods in Their Seats, Unblinking”  by Kurt Fawver. More accurately, it is an account of play, the playwright and actors vanished and possibly fictional themselves. The traditional roles between actor and audience quickly dissolves. Who are the real performers? Are audience and actors interchangeable? Redundant?

An excellent, thought-provoking story, it not only kept me interested in the narrative, but also in the larger philosophical questions posed. It is said that good art makes the audience an active participant, which is certainly the case here. Perhaps the placement of “Gods in Their Seats, Unblinking” (great title too) as the first story is a subtle hint to which VASTARIEN aspires. In this literary journal, there is a bleeding of fiction, meta-fiction, and nonfiction—the lines between reader and writer blurring much like the participants in Fawver’s play or Ligotti’s own metaphoric twilights and nebulous skylines.

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Vastarien Art by Dave Felton

Described as a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti, as well as associated authors and ideas, VASTARIEN focuses on the thematic elements and dominant subjects of the horror master. While this may sound a bit antiseptic and scholarly,  each author brings their own creativity and spirit to their chapter. This is not an echo chamber of a Ligottian ethos or a mimic of his style (unlike the many Lovecraft pastiches out there). Simply put, these are works that occupy a similar rebellious space of existential anxiety and escapism.

Some of the fiction highlights for me are “Nervous Wares & Abnormal Stares” by Devin Goff. A bucolic town is dismantled board by board, shop by shop, the rural niceties a cover for the strange and sinister. Jordan Krall delivers an unsettling, disorienting tale of the crumbling reality of madness in “My Time at the Drake Clinic”. Also, Christopher Slatsky’s mockumentary “Affirmation of the Spirit: Consciousness, Transformation, and the Fourth World in Film” expertly walks the fine line of fiction masquerading as the real.

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Vastarien – Art by Dave Felton

VASTARIEN’s half dozen nonfiction essays are highlighted by the simply named, “Notes on a Horror” by a psychologist using the alias Dr. Raymond Thoss. This piece provides a penetrating look into the world of trauma and treatment. Written for the layman in four digestible parts, the author makes the case of how Ligottian themes can be used to both conceptualize pathological dissociation associated with such things as PTSD, and how they can actually reconnect a patient to the world. Given how many dismiss Ligotti’s worldview as simply antinatalistic and pessimistic, I found this a compelling demonstration of how Ligotti’s work can relieve and even heal. For someone who has taken much comfort and solace in Ligotti’s words/worlds, I am glad to see this concept eloquently explored.

Finally, closing the collection, is Christopher Ropes’ “Singing the Song of My Unmaking”. This hybrid piece sums VASTARIEN as it is part poem, fictional story, and confessional autobiography blended into a coherent whole. It’s a fitting closer where dissociation, depression, and the dissolving of reality play out under the threatening clouds of engulfing nihilism. A emotional story that will stay with you long after reading.

VASTARIEN is a must read for the Ligotti fan. I found this dedicated journal gave me insights into his works that I hadn’t before. Also, to see what Ligotti inspires in others was something I hadn’t anticipated and gave me much to contemplate. For those who may not be familiar with Ligotti, there is a lot to enjoy here, nothing too esoteric or ‘inside’. The different pieces, while certainly challenging, are never out of reach, written both for the neophyte and Ligotti-phile. The inclusion of starkly personal works, too, make this an accessible book. An exciting beginning to the VASTARIEN journey. Congratulations to editors Jon Padgett and Matt Cardin of ‘Thomas Ligotti Online’ to make this project come to fruition. Looking forward to Issue 2!

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Vastarien Art by Dave Felton

Vastarien, Vol 1, Issue 1 on Amazon: Click for Link

Vastarien, Vol 1, Issue 1 on Goodreads: Click for Link