Sunday, May 1, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapter 5) by TAS

THE SEVEN SEDUCTIONS
Chapter 5
(link to chapter 4)



Dawn’s disappearance was the juiciest piece of gossip the good people of St. Adalgar’s parish had had to chew on since her mother’s suicide ten years earlier, the details eked out with hearsay and generously spiced with rumor. Some of  the more imaginative chinwags served up fables of kidnapping, the white slave trade, or drug deals gone terribly wrong, all ending with the naive young girl brutally raped and left for dead in some Kansas cornfield. Others scoffed at such nonsense, insisting that Dawn had only hitched a ride with the bikers as far as the nearest bus stop on her way east to Omaha—or maybe west to Denver. A few of the cousins claimed to have seen her in Grand Island, working as a waitress at one of the big truck stops along the Interstate, though no one had actually spoken to her.
Nobody seemed to care what Gretchen thought.
Winter came early to the plains that year, cruel and harsh. Christmas and New Year’s fell and were forgotten, but there was still no word from Dawn. The implacable winds whipped the fallen snow into a killer storm that paralyzed the town and whited out the world beyond. Ranchers’ herds were decimated, buried under drifts as high as fifteen feet. Narrow country roads became impassable, and there were days when Harold could not get through with the mail for all his stubborn determination.
      Gretchen had never been more alone. Her anxiety deepened like the drifting snow outside, smothering her in a pall of despair. She kept to her room, in constant dread of her father’s temper, shivering through the night under a heavy pile of quilts, all but useless against the chill that gripped her heart.
Had the Nameless One abandoned her, too?
One day after Harold left for work, Gretchen willed herself to rise, wandering through the house as if in a trance, snooping through closets and cupboards. She found the Schwarzbuch where Dawn had hidden it, stuffed into an old Tampex carton at the back of the cubbyhole under the attic stairs. Clever, she thought, Papa would sooner shake hands with a leper than ever touch a woman’s rag, even a box of clean ones. The ruse had surely saved the black book from the flames.
Flipping distractedly through the musty pages, Gretchen wondered if there might be a way to call the creature and somehow make it tell the truth about what had happened to Dawn. She had no illusions about what the incubus would demand in return, and tried to convince herself that she was ready to pay the price, if only for her sister’s sake. 
Pandora’s Box had already been opened after all. The Nameless One was out there somewhere, loose on the world, and if Gretchen could distract it long enough, maybe Dawn would find her way home again and things could be like they had been before. But Gretchen did not know how to control the creature any more than she understood how her sister had conjured it in the first place. And what if things got out of control? There would be nothing to stand between the demon and its unholy desires except Gretchen’s own will to resist.
      She found the place in the Schwarzbuch, opposite the picture that had first captured Dawn’s imagination, an alarmingly graphic rendering of a tall, half-human creature with curling ram’s horns growing from its grotesquely misshapen head, taking a naked maiden from behind, skewering her on its gigantic, spiked phallus. Gretchen blushed anew at the sight, even as her eyes lingered over the lurid details of the scene. 
The spell itself was not printed in black Fraktur like the rest of the book, but hand-lettered in a pallid greenish ink. Part of the text had been calligraphed in bright crimson reminiscent of rubrics in a prayer book, but the words in red seemed to make no sense at all, like the transliteration of some strange, unpronounceable gibberish. Still, the coupled German rhymes were mostly simple enough for Gretchen to work out the rough sense:

Come, Nameless One, in this enchanted hour
And fill me with thy flame of darkest power.
From forth the brooding air and troubled dust
I conjure thee with all thy fearsome lust.
I call thee forth, who hauntest maidens’ dreams
And fills the night with weeping and with screams.
Come now from lightning and from lowering cloud
To lift the bridal veil and rend the shroud.
I call thee forth from shadow and from mist
At this the hour of our appointed tryst.
I summon thee with virgin’s blood and jism
To mark me with thine own unhallowed chrism.
Look down on me with all thy dark desire
And gather me to thyself e’er need require.
With groans of ruttish lust and seething sighs
In words Infernal thus I bid thee rise:

OGXNYX  CHCH B’WCHCHECH AGH N’HOR
CHCH B’WCHCHECH OGXNYX AGH N’HOR
OGXNYX AGH B’WCHCHECH CHCH N’HOR

Oh thou whose name shalt ne’er be known nor spake,
I beg thee now my maiden-flower to take.
To thee I give my willing flesh and soul,
To thee I offer every hung'ring hole
Like as a new-made bride her maidenhead
Unto her husband in the nuptial bed.
I pray thee in mine emptiness and need
To plough my field and sow me with thy seed.
Behold, to thee I open, bud and flower,
My womanhood now off'ring up as dowr’. 
Then cast thy shadow o’er my longing limbs
And use me as thou wilt for all thy whims.
Behold thy handmaid and thy slave withal
Thrice suppliant at thy feet, a willing thrall,
Before thee moon-clad now doth trembling stand
To wait thy pleasure and thy dread command.
Then hearken well from forth this vale of sighs
My three-fold prayer with which I bid thee rise:

OGXNYX  CHCH B’WCHCHECH AGH N’HOR
CHCH B’WCHCHECH OGXNYX AGH N’HOR
OGXNYX AGH B’WCHCHECH CHCH N’HOR

OGXNYX AGH B’WCHCHECH CHCH N’HOR
CHCH B’WCHCHECH OGXNYX AGH N’HOR
OGXNYX  CHCH B’WCHCHECH AGH N’HOR


There was something else at the bottom of the page, a few lines scribbled in American-style cursive with a pencil, so faint that the words would have been almost impossible to read in anything less than full light. Someone had taken the trouble to annotate the spell and leave a warning:

Blackest magic—very dangerous! Does not invoke the goddess’ guidance, or provide for a circle of protection. Never recite, chant, or read this summoning aloud without due precaution:

Now to thee, goddess, mother, maid, and crone,
Protection grant for me and all mine own.
Abide with me on this propitious night
And round me draw a ring of power and light
To guard me from the evil demons do
That this, my making, may be pure and true.

The text continued, but something was different; the writer’s hand appeared to be shaking, the words scrawled crookedly across the page as if in a terrible hurry, and there were places where the pencil had barely left an impression at all:

Avoid at all cost. The German text only summons the thing—but does not bind it. The demonic words may well enslave anyone foolish enough to speak them aloud and, in the end, bind them to the monster itself. The creature is deceitful and not to be trusted, whether summoned on purpose or through some thoughtless act. I write this in haste before I am discovered in hopes that these words may serve as a warning to others. Such evil makings are not worth the sevenfold bane that will surely return upon the one who casts them. Even now the pyres are lit and I can already feel the flames of Hell. My doom is sealed, for the curse has followed me and I can only pray that my daughters  . . .   

The words trailed off. What curse? Gretchen thought. Who had tried this spell before—and what had happened to them? Had Dawn stumbled into the same trap? Was she lost now, cold and alone somewhere amid the swirling snow, paying the terrible and mysterious price that had once so frightened the writer? Was there any way to save Dawn without the creature’s help?
“I have to do something,” she sobbed. “If I were just smart enough to understand what . . .”
That night she sat up in the bed, balancing the book on trembling knees, reading by the faint light of her bedside lamp.
Nun kommst zu mich, oh du mit Ohne Nahme, in diesem zaubern Ohr . . .” Gretchen recited in a flat monotone, struggling to keep the fear out of her voice. “. . . Und füllst du mich mit deiner dunkelst’ Kraft’ . . .
“I can’t do it!” She threw the book aside. “Nameless One, I need to talk to you.” Her voice quavered, barely above a whisper. “Please!” She spoke more firmly. “I’ll . . . I’ll give you what you want if you’ll just help me. I . . . I will, I swear . . .”
No reply.
She buried her head in her hands, whispering into the shell of cupped palms.
“I know I’m not a saint, I’ll never be that good or pure, and sometimes it’s all I can do not to give in and do things I know are wrong because it might be nice even once to feel something more than sadness, or pain, or guilt just for the crime of being alive. But I’m not the hopeless wretched sinner everybody wants me to think I am either. I’m too good to be evil, and not good enough to be good, and I’m just caught somewhere in the middle like my baby brother in Limbo. And now I want to do what’s right—but what if that means doing something really, really wrong? Help me, please! Tell me what I need to do!”
Still nothing. Only the high, lonesome keen of the wind outside.
“I know you’re there,” she said. “I know you can hear me, too. I’ve prayed to Jesus and Mary and Joseph  and all the saints my whole life, and I was never sure they ever heard me even once. But you have, haven’t you? Every night you’re there, watching me when I undress, listening to me when I pray, wanting me . . . And I’m old enough to know what that means now. I know exactly what you want.”
Trembling, the girl fumbled with the laces at the front of her nightgown, opening it just enough to reveal the graceful slope of her maiden bosom. “I’m here,” she said, “and I’m ready to make a deal.”
The air rustled faintly, growing warm around her.
“Nameless One?”
No answer came. Only a faint sensation on the naked flesh below her collar bones and on the tops of her breasts, like spatters of hot grease from a frying pan. Was he kissing her there? She shuddered, goosebumps rising along her arms. The air was suddenly cold again.
“Are you there?”
The lamp blinked like a guttering candle, flickering on and off a dozen times before dying, plunging the room into darkness. Gretchen’s first thought was that the storm had knocked out the power line to the house. In any case, for the moment, she was blind.
“Please! Is somebody there?”
 “My love!” The demon’s voice was a lugubrious death rattle tinged with lust.
Gretchen crossed herself, grimacing with disgust as disembodied fingers ran through her hair. “Please . . .”
“Why have you called me?” The Nameless One demanded. “Why do you tempt me so?”
Her vision slowly began to return.
“I . . . need to know about Dawn. I need to know if you can find her. Can you help me bring her back?”
“And what do you offer in return?” The words were visible on the troubled air, sound waves silhouetted by their own dark aura.
 “Myself.” The girl tried to sound brave.
“Truly?” Something tugged at the front of Gretchen’s nightie, slipping it further down, nearly exposing her chill-swollen nipples.
 “Yes,” she promised. “You can have me. I’ll let you have . . . everything—
The incubus made a sound that might have been the drawing in of a long ragged breath, full of unsated need and anticipation.
“ –but only if you help me.”
“Help you?”
“Find my sister.”
“Then give yourself to me now—”
“No,” Gretchen said. “Not yet. Only after Dawn comes home, safe and sound, sleeping here in this room—in this bed—beside me. Only after things go back to the way they used to be.”
“Foolish girl,” the demon hissed, “do you think the past can ever be lived again? No power in this world or in all the realms beyond can ever restore what was.”
“Do you come from Hell?” Gretchen blurted the question before she could stop herself.
“Do you?” The retort hung heavily in the silent gloom.
“What does that mean—no! I don’t care.” Gretchen moved to cover herself. “If you won’t help me, well, you can forget about me in that way—”
“And what of your pretty sister?”
“I’ll find her myself if I have to. I’ll run away to look for her. I’ll run away from you, too—as far away from here as I can get.”
“You?” There was hint of cruel amusement in the creature’s voice now. “No. In this you are mistaken.”
 “I’ll run away—I swear it! You’ll never find me. I’ll never give you what you want—”
“Then run,” the demon said. “I will delight in the chase, for whether you offer yourself freely or are taken unwilling matters not to me. I would savor the sweet essence of your terror as gladly as the p’roffered nectar of your love.”
“So you’re going to . . . rape me?”
“I shall never cease to pursue you—not till this world has been consumed and all that binds me to it is but dust. Even then, the promise you have made this night shall echo through the untold emptiness of time until it is fulfilled.”
 “What promise is that?” Gretchen whispered. “I said if you helped me—”
“Twice-foolish,” The Nameless One replied. “You had but to call the thought to mind and it was done—intend only to read the words and it was sealed. My shadow is upon you now and you are bound to me—forever.”
“I won’t let you—” She gritted her teeth. “—not ever!”
“Till now I have shown forbearance, awaiting the full ripeness of your body.” The creature traced a searing line along Gretchen’s neck, beginning just below the ear and down to the base of her throat. “But that time draws near and I grow impatient. This Perdition—this agony of abstinence—I can endure no longer.”
“Then go back to Hell,” Gretchen said.
“So that I might consort with your mother,” The Nameless One laughed, “as I did once here above? Do you not know that it was she who offered her own  second-born daughter in exchange for the birth of a boy-child? You, Gretchen, daughter of Catherine, daughter of Berthe, daughter of Flosshilde, were promised to me long before your sister read the words that awakened me again. You are mine, now and forever.”
“It’s a lie!” Gretchen screamed. “My mama would never—”
“Never—what? Who do you suppose wrote the words of warning upon the page of my summoning? Who cut herself then, thinking she could seal the book in her own lifeblood to keep it out of her daughters’ hands? Who opened her veins again and let that same lifeblood flow away, carrying her on the tide that washes up on the shores of Tartarus?”
 “You are nothing but evil—”
“No, child, you are mistaken: I am nothing but Desire, nothing but unanswered Urge, a boiling cloud of Lust buffeted by the wind, never unburdened of its longing, restless, unsleeping, burning with thirsts that can never be quenched, smarting with hungers that can never be sated. My fate is to know only that endless Want that neither flesh nor spirit can gratify.”
“I don’t care!” Gretchen crossed herself again with a faltering right hand. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I . . . I curse you!”
“Curse me? You? Do you not know that what you send out into this world—be it benison or malediction—returns upon you seven fold? Or do you think that I who am thrice-cursed a thousand times over cannot also curse—or  fear to do so?”
 “What do you mean? What are you going to—”
“I need do nothing,” the creature said,“for I can see the seed that has already taken root within you. Live as you will—grow up as fate intends—for you shall know my suffering in your own flesh. Desire shall drive you like the wind, even as your own remorse consumes you.
“Yes! You shall burn in the fires of your own making, dreading and lamenting the loss of innocence, all the while drawn by loneliness and curiosity like a moth to the flame of corruption and fleshly pleasure. Then, my love, you shall be mine. I will seek you out, perhaps appearing to you in the form of a man—a man to whom you would gladly offer yourself—”
“I’ll never do that,” Gretchen cried.
“A man of such beauty as you have never imagined—”
“No!”
“—or yet some man of hideous countenance who repulses you and fills you with loathing, a man who would take you, at first, by force—”
“I’d never let that happen! It’s not going to happen!”
“Three loathsome suitors do I see.” The incubus seemed to be fading away now.“Three such monsters will there be. And, fearing them all, you will flee from two, only to end in the arms of the third. He will ravish you as surely as the others intended, but you will take pity upon him, and freely offer yourself to him again.”
“I won’t believe you,” Gretchen said.

“Believe what you will.” The creatures voice was no more than a distant whisper, becoming one with the sighing prairie wind. “Believe what you will, my love . . .




Saturday, April 23, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapter 4) by TAS (a continuing serial)


THE SEVEN SEDUCTIONS
Chapter 4
(link to Chapter 1)
(link to Chapters 2 and 3




Sister Mary Chastity watched the young man down by the lake. Waiting in the same spot every morning for nearly a week, she had anticipated his appearance, gazing guiltily from the secret vantage of the guestroom window like Rapunzel in her tower, all the while reproaching herself for wasting time, for failing to concentrate, for acknowledging certain ideas, certain . . . stirrings.
Could it be him?
He was a beautiful golden thing, this boy, a Wagnerian demigod come to life, muscular and slim, strong and confident in the infinite potential of youth. He reminded her most of Rackham’s Siegmund, especially the plate where the young hero lofts Nothung, the enchanted Sword of Need, like a phallic salute to his lover Sieglinde.
Remember why you’re here, Sister.
      But there was something else about him—something more than his obvious physical beauty that caught her attention. An extraordinary self-possession, far beyond his—what? 18 or 19 years?—as in those paintings from the Middle Ages where the infant Jesus was portrayed as a miniature adult. She sensed it intuitively, though she had never even spoken to the boy. There was a profound calmness about him, a centeredness—like that state of bliss angels are supposed to exist in.
“Oh dear Lord,” she whispered, “chasten my thoughts and make me chaste that I may attend with full heart and mind to your will and to the task that has been set before me—”
—but, if it’s not too much trouble, could you wait on that till about 10:30? Thanks.
      Siegmund and Sieglinde. The text under the plate described the two of them stealing together into the spring night . . .
      “And that turned out so well for them,” she muttered.
      They became lovers, knowing full well they were brother and sister—
      On second thought, maybe the boy on the beach was more like Siegfried, fruit of that forbidden tryst. The man-child had slain a dragon, yet had never known the meaning of fear until he laid eyes on a woman. The handsome hero had rescued Brünhilde from her father Wotan’s encircling ring of magic fire, awakening the maiden from her long-enchanted sleep with a kiss. 
     The woman who had once been Gretchen could surely relate to that story.
Now she remembered how it continued: At first, the Valkyrie was terrified to discover that she had become mortal, but soon, as the text so euphemistically related, responded to Siegfried as a normal woman and offered herself to him . . .  
What does a “normal” woman do?What does a “normal” woman  feel? What does she want? “What do I want?”
There is a fine line between solitude and isolation, and Mary Chastity realized that she had been drifting in the wrong direction lately. It wasn’t a matter of being by herself—at 27 she was mature enough to understand that one can be alone without being lonely—no, there was something else, something she had been missing from the beginning. Seeing the boy had only heightened her awareness of the truth. We may value our independence, hold our personal space inviolate, delight in quietude, and yet, without other people to share at least some parts of our life, where do we find purpose in what we do?  Other people help us maintain focus on what is important to ourselves. Interests, passions, pleasures kept solely to oneself soon lose enchantment, and, ultimately, life that cannot be shared is empty and meaningless.
And yet, to live one’s life entirely for others, subsume one’s own interests and passions for the sake of people who don’t really care and will never truly understand. Where is the reason in it? Oh, she knew all the rote answers laid out neatly in the back of the catechism, explicated in torturous detail in a hundred moldering tomes extolling the transcendent beauty of celibacy and self-denial, the spiritual riches of contemplation and the glories of the life religious. But she was forbidden to question too deeply or imagine possibilities beyond the narrow confines of her calling. There was a carefully prescribed point at which reason would always be expected to defer to authority, inquiry content itself with the notion that some questions must always belong to the realm of mystery—though the obvious answers lay within plain sight a little ways beyond the rigid boundaries of doctrine, just like that beautiful boy on the shore, so near and yet so utterly out of reach.
What was it the Vocations Director had told her all those years ago, the day she first arrived at the convent? “The words cloister and claustrophobia come from the same Greek root, which means ‘to close.’ This is another way of reminding us that the religious life is not for everyone. Closing yourself off from the world doesn’t mean you can escape yourself. Do you understand what I’m saying, Gretchen?”
      “I think so, sister.”
      “Good. Here is a copy of The Rule of St. Benedict. It is the structure we adhere to in our order and in this house with, perhaps, a few minor modifications reflecting our own unique traditions.  I want you to read it, Gretchen. Familiarize yourself with it. It will help answer many of your questions . . .”
Because, God forbid, we can’t have people asking too many questions out loud . . .


Mary Chastity began to pace from the window to her writing desk and back again and back, like some metallic body caught between the poles of a powerful magnet, obedience and curiosity, duty and desire.
Come on! Focus! Stop wasting time!
One last look. She sighed heavily, resigned to reality, however reluctantly willing herself to sit down and work. The same piece of paper had languished in her typewriter for nearly a week now, the same half-composed paragraph still taunting her with its stubborn incompleteness. She tried to focus on the words, though by now she could recite them aloud from memory. It was the introduction to her thesis:

Intimacy is a form of expression, just as music or painting. It is a language that may be spoken poorly or fluently or not at all where stifling convention forbids. And like language, sex has its sacred and profane forms; it can be used for selfish—even cruel—ends, or it may be employed to nourish and to heal the soul. It can be sublimely uplifting or profoundly degrading, pure or corrupt—rather like the extremes of contemporary society.

      Mary Chastity inhaled sharply, breath hissing across the bridge of her teeth. She bit the inside of her lip, and began to type:

For the faithful, sex within the ideal context of marriage is no less than the sacred language of commitment, and those charged with teaching the subject in our schools would do well to regard themselves as language instructors.

“What’s wrong with me?” She yanked the page from the carriage and wadded it up. The whole undertaking was nothing more than a glorified snipe hunt, an ironic punishment from a Mother Superior who knew full well how the young nun struggled with her vows. Writer’s block had set in quickly, along with the dawning realization that she was out of her depth, woefully unprepared for the task of writing a book on the teaching of sex education in Catholic high schools—or any sort of book for that matter. If it wasn’t yet another test of her vocation, the whole thing was little more than a cruel joke at her expense.
“Dawn would be laughing her rear end off at me right now—if she were here. If she were—”  

The young nun sighed again, rested her head on the edge of the desk, and closed her eyes.


(Read chapter 5 here)



Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review of recent fiction by Deborah Harkness, Cari Silverwood, and S.J. Smith



A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Wicked Ways by Cari Silverwood
Peeper by S.J. Smith


A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

The first installment in Harkness' best-selling All-Souls Triology, I picked this up with great anticipation after hearing Maureen Corrigan's glowing review of the third volume on NPR. What I found was a rather tired, overly-conventional romance narrative that fails to inspire on virtually every level. Harkness' characters are little more than second-rate understudies right out of central-stereotype casting. Matthew is a brooding, moody man of mystery, tortured, often volatile, yet--so we are told--oh so irresistible, while Dianna is the fungible stock heroine; beautiful, spunky, independent athletic, in this case a dedicated historian and reluctant witch, and--of course--a woman who has not done much to explore her vulnerable, girly side, hence her potentially fatal attraction to a vampire. Their story is unbelievably dull, weighed down at every page-turn with a thick oily sediment of unnecessary detail: do we really need to know every thought that flits through the heroine's head as she contemplates what to wear on a date, every torturous aspect of meal preparation, or, for that matter, her reaction to every bite of food, every slosh-gurgle of rare wine or drop of cheap tea that happens to touch her lips in every restaurant and dining room in Oxford? 

There is some genuinely amateurish writing here, especially in the awkward, clunky way the author introduces new characters (out of the blue with a heavy freight-load of bewildering, mostly pointless backstory that neither enlightens nor endears). Poor pacing, gratuitous repetition, and a maddening narrative inertia make this virtually unbearable.

While Harkness endeavors to create a new paranormal mythology, she fails miserably at elucidating the real inner lives of her characters or endowing them with any great depth. Would it have been so difficult to do a little research into the very real and genuinely interesting aspects of contemporary Wiccan religion and ethics, the actual theory and practice of magic, as opposed to trying to force atmosphere simply by populating the story with a gaggle of "supernatural" beings? Are we supposed to be dazzled in this day and age by the mere presence of witches, vampires, or demons--even witches and vampires who attend yoga class and go punting on weekends? I've often criticized Anne Rice for some of her later self-indulgent tendencies, but I would gladly re-read all 1,000 pages of The Witching Hour, notwithstanding its cloying repetition, sprawling pointlessness, and ultimate lack of meaningful closure, than ever again bore myself to tears with a book like A Discovery of Witches or its sequels.






Wicked Ways by Cari Silverwood

Cari Silverwood has the makings of a great, entertainingly transgressive tale here. Wicked Ways is, at root, a dark, twisted re-imagining of the standard erotic romance, including all the familiar plot elements--everything from the earth-shattering, "like-nothing-she'd-ever-known" sex to the heroine's de regueur chronic plague of self doubt. All the stock players make their expected appearances: Zorina (Zorie) Brown is a strong, confident, self-sufficient and (of course) beautiful young woman, a university lecturer, not particularly sexually self-aware. . . that is, until she falls victim to the handsome, melodramatically villainous Reuben, a "mesmer" with the psychic ability to control the minds of susceptible women. Reuben and his entourage of sexual sadists draw Zorie into an orgiastic demimonde, repeatedly using her for their paraphilic kicks before quite literally tossing her into the trash. As she waits to be summoned again, the heroine is torn apart as much by cognitive dissonance as her fear of physical abuse, forced to admit that she enjoys what's happening to her, even as she fights, however vainly, to resist. Meanwhile, another mesmer, the enigmatically magnetic Mr. Black assumes the role of anti-hero, drawing Zorie to him with the idea of using her as a weapon to eliminate Reuben--and then, simply using her. (By far and away, the scenes with Zorie and Mr. Black are the most compelling in the novel--would that the author had taken greater, more imaginative advantage of this, and mined their powerful, complex relationship for its full dramatic potential.) There's even a 'sweet guy' in this troupe of romantic archetypes: the sensitive, caring Grimm--a librarian, no less!--who is willing to do anything for Zorina in spite of her seemingly erratic behavior and ultimate indifference. 

The author successfully puts her heroine into a state of sexual and psychological peril, and keeps her there, for the most part, throughout the story. This is not an easy thing to do; if handled ineptly, the heroine's response to conflict might easily betray her as a weakling, a crybaby or a pushover. The tension that Silverwood creates, however, is wildly uneven, going slack far too often to maintain a consistent interest. Her use of alternating POV characters from chapter to chapter should, theoretically, add a panoramic quality to the storytelling, as perceptive yet still more intimate than a conventional third-person narrative. Alas, the device here comes off as lazy, feeling like a sloppy attempt to avoid head-hopping, or, possibly, the desperate resort of a writer who can't decide which point-of-view to use in the first place. Where alternating POV ought to provide a richer sense of the individual characters' interior dynamics, Zorie's inner monologue seems to consist largely of shopworn phrases like "Damn him!" and "The bastard!" Ultimately, the author's attempt to tell an original story is hampered by the fact that none of her characters seem to have a single original thought in their heads.

Yet more unfortunate, for all the story's rich possibilities, the execution is muddled, bogged down by writing that is often simply awful, a clumsy, earthbound prose, frumpishly indifferent to style, weak, unpolished, dully conventional, enervated by the author's apparent addiction to the easy cliché. Too much of the book has the feel of an apathetically edited second draft. (When I find myself repeatedly screaming at a book like an exasperated Muppet, there's definitely a problem!) A catalog of missed opportunities and simplistic choices, the author ties things up with an annoying--and ultimately rather insulting-- coincidence. The story that might have effectively explored the difference between the romantic fantasy of the 'bad boy' and the nightmare of the truly 'bad guy' is diluted, melting into abject silliness, its potential for page-turning drama simply pissed away. Such a waste!

Three stars for the ghost of a good story. Sadly, not recommended.   






Peeper by S.J. Smith

If I was annoyed by Cari Silverwood's Wicked Ways, I was thoroughly pissed off by S.J. Smith's Peeper

At first glance, this is an homage to that particular vein of hard-boiled detective fiction in which the flawed hero must embrace his own inner darkness in order to overcome the very real evil that confronts him. The great American detectives almost always take the morally ambiguous route, with sexual temptation lurking in cheap hotels and dark alleyways, seldom more than a few short steps beyond the garish glow of the streetlamp. It is this inner conflict--this moral tension--that makes the detective more than a mere pulp-fiction construct, but a bona fide literary character--universally compelling.  

Jenks, the would-be peeper of the title is none of those things. An average Welshman of no extraordinary achievement or particular ambition, a man, perhaps on the brink of midlife crisis, Jenks has nothing better to do than emulate the hard-boiled heroes of his daydreams. Rushing in without a clue, he takes a case involving the retrieval of blackmail photos, only to find himself made a chump, entangled in a sordid web of intrigue with--what else?--an impossibly beautiful woman at its center. Jenks' moral compass spins wildly at times, though, always--tiresomely, boringly, predictably--returning to the True North of the 'beautiful, adoring wife' who waits for him at home, a character who seems simply too good--and far too accommodating--to be true.

The story is 'fleshed out' with a good deal of decidedly hot sex, which seems to be the whole point of the endeavor--not that there's anything wrong with that. Yet, in the end, what promised to be a darkly clever mash-up of detective fiction and erotica turns out to be little more than a practical joke at the reader's expense, a silly, juvenile, elaborately-contrived 'twist' rendering all that went before meaningless. Frankly I have NEVER read a novel that made me so angry, or left me feeling so manipulated or so cheated. (Who's the chump now?)  In the still-red glare of retrospect, this story has the feel of a petulant wave gift, and--far worse--a waste of time.  

Listen! If a writer is going to embrace the darkness and explore the transgressive, than they fucking well need to go all in and embrace the darkness! None of this cowardly, amateurish  backing out at the last minute--"Oh, sorry guys! I didn't really mean it . . ." Go all the way, hold nothing back, put your characters in genuine peril and keep them there until they figure out a way to overcome their conflicts. Otherwise, the exercise is about as worthless as a bowdlerized Dick and Jane story.

Smith's writing is competent--not great--clunking along like some rusty, superannuated family car that barely manages to get readers from point A to point B. Yet there are too many times when it feels as if the vehicle is taking us in circles, repeatedly covering the same bumpy terrain, always going right, never left, driving past the same landmarks, rutting up the same mundane, unnecessary details.  It all becomes extremely dull after a while. 

Yet another title I cannot recommend. 





Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapters 2 and 3) by TAS (a continuing serial)

THE SEVEN SEDUCTIONS
(chapters 2 and 3)
(link to Chapter 1 here)


2



Gretchen had grown up believing the world was flat, and in many ways it was true. The prairie of central Nebraska was God’s country, or so her father often claimed, a veritable paradise for farmers in its vast unmodulated evenness, as if the Almighty had used a screed to level out the land.
      The tiny settlement of St. Adalgar appeared on no map, for it was scarcely more than a wide spot in the road, too small even to be considered a hamlet.  Its tallest building—the tallest for miles around—was the grain elevator, a colossal spire of ghostly white concrete, rising majestically above the plain like some latter-day Tower of Babel. Looking south from its head house a keen-eyed watcher might glimpse the distant lights of Broken Bow at dusk, or, to the northwest on a clear afternoon, where it was said one could see all the way to the dunes of Cherry County. 
But it was the parish church on the other end of town that truly impressed, massive out of all proportion to its surroundings like a wonder of the old world magically transported to the American wilderness. It was an imposing vision of pale gray granite arranged in the heavy Romanesque-revival style, with a long narrow nave separating a lofty twin-steepled façade in front and a stately apse, curving like a fancy half-finished silo in the rear. The edifice bestrode the land like the behemoth herald-rampant of The Church Triumphant. Nothing of such magnificence had any business in so drab and empty a place.
An old brick convent had once stood proudly near the church on the edge of the prairie. Three-stories high and home to some fifty sisters in its heyday, the building had long-since been razed, with nothing but a crumbling cornerstone simply engraved “1899” to verify its history. The community had dwindled like the town around it until now only five elderly sisters remained to staff the school, to maintain perpetual adoration of the eucharist, to teach and pray, living out their days in a modest ranch house, originally built to replace the old rectory.
The settlement itself was laid out with the straight-edged precision of a chess board. In the middle—such as it was—between the elevator on the north and the church on the south, a cluster of simple white-frame houses, stiff and spare as in a child’s drawing, loomed up behind gleaming picket fences on either side of the road. A Co Op service station and a tiny general store attached to a feed and seed dealership were set on the far edges, looking out to the scattered farmsteads that dotted the landscape beyond. That was more or less all—except for the sparkling modern classroom wing of the parochial school that stood in the shadow of the church.
      Everything in St. Adalgar was in the shadow of the Church. It was a world as black and white as it was flat and featureless, where you were German Catholic or nothing at all, and nobody went for “all that modern stuff”; where “being smart” was a mortal sin and laziness tantamount to devil worship. In St. Adalgar you loved the Pope and your little school’s basketball team almost as much as you’d been taught to hate abortion or Protestantism. It was a place where old-fashioned “strict-Catholic” discipline was swift and sure, though nine times out of ten it would be the girls who caught hell for whatever temptation the boys led them into. Boys being boys could get away with almost anything short of getting a local girl into trouble, and even then, she would be the one wearing black at the wedding.
In St. Adalgar, more likely as not you would marry one of your distant cousins before you were 20 and have at least six children by the time you were 30, lest anyone think there was something wrong with you, attending Mass on Satuday night if only to avoid being gossiped about the rest of the week. In St. Adalgar you recited the rosary in your daydreams, followed the Stations of the Cross in German Wednesday evenings during Lent, and prayed to St. Joseph every night just before going to sleep, beseeching the foster father of Jesus to grant a restful night and a peaceful death. And when that death finally came with white pall and incense and Holy God We Praise They Name echoing to the rafters, you would leave the church one final time on your way to the parish cemetery half a mile beyond the town.
      There was nothing remarkable about the cemetery. A stranger driving past along the gravel county road might never notice it at all but for the simple wrought-iron fence marking its treeless perimeter, a half-acre of well-kept lawn surrounded by wind-swept wheat fields. The school children were taught to regard the place with reverence, and never to run or play among the grave markers, set out, much as the town itself, with bland exactitude like soldiers standing at stiff attention. This was holy ground, consecrated earth, a place reserved for those who had died in Christ, now waiting in sure and certain hope for the Last Day and the raising of the righteous. 
      Had the traveler slowed down for a closer look, their attention might soon have been drawn to the cheerless place a little way beyond the fence, a cluster of dusty graves, low-marked if marked at all, clearly set apart from the rest, etching the narrow strip of barren soil to the south. These were the lonely ones, those who, for whatever reason, had been cut off from the Communion of Saints, the suicides and unbaptized infants, buried quickly, with only the most cursory of ritual, befitting the embarrassment they had caused the living. For them there would be no hymns of resurrection, no incense or holy water or hallowed resting place, no ornate granite angels to watch over them till Kingdom Come; no respect for the dead, no solace for those left behind. 
Her mother had been taken to that terrible place when Gretchen was only 6, though no one would explain to her what had happened or why. The grownups spoke in hollow nervous whispers, their voices like distant muffled drums, barely intelligible at all. From time to time they would glance in her direction with pity and dread, offering their curt condolences without sympathy, as if, somehow, the whole thing were her fault.
“Do you think she understands?”
“Better she not know—not yet anyhow.”      
 “It’s awful, just awful. Why did—you know—why did she do it?”
“Couldn’t take it anymore. I mean, she must have lost something like—what?—fifteen in twenty years, miscarried mostly, a couple stillborn, trying so hard for a boy because that’s what Harold always wanted, isn’t it? And after all that, what does she have to show for it?”
“Doesn’t surprise me one little bit. After all, it’s in the breed—”
“Phyllis Ausslander-Eisen! That’s just unkind. How could you—”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming, Rose-Linda. And don’t talk to me about being unkind—”
“Shhh—not so loud, you two.”
“The baby was just three days old?”
“That’s right. It was very sudden.”
“And they didn’t have time to baptize it?”
“No. Buried in its mother’s arms. Poor little thing’s in Limbo.”
“I suppose that’s better than where she is now.”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
“So hard . . . so hard. Surely she wasn’t in her right mind?”
“They said it was pretty obvious. In the bathtub with her wrists—”
“Hush! Little pitchers, remember?”
“Who found her?”
“Dawny.”
“Oh, sweet Mother of God, no!”
“It was her birthday, too. 9, I think?”
 “Jesus, Mary and Joseph—”  
 “Such a cross to bear, and so, so young. How could life be so cruel?”
“You know what they say, God works in mysterious ways.”
“Bullshit! I think Cathy did this all by herself—”
“Christ, Phyllis! Whatever happened to ‘judge not’? Do you actually listen to yourself?”
“You’re one to talk, Rose—”
“Come on, you guys—remember?”
 “Well, all I’m saying is that she’ll have a tough row to hoe.”
“It’ll be hard, that’s for sure.”
“For all of them.”
“It” was referred to thereafter only as The Bad Thing, the shame of the family and, some said, the cause of its slow dissolution. Their mother’s name was never again to be uttered aloud in that house. All evidence of her existence was quickly erased. Clothes were boxed and donated to charity within hours of the burial, family photos expurgated from scrapbooks. Even the formal wedding portrait that had always made such a cheery centerpiece in the living room was taken down and thrown away without sentiment or ceremony. The picture was never replaced. Melancholy radiated from the empty space where it had hung, the stain of unanswered grief spreading out through the house like mold, infecting everything.
      The girls’ lives would be strictly regimented from then on. One or another of a dozen aunts would take it in turns to keep house for Harold and maintain a watchful eye on his daughters, teaching them how to launder and bake and mend, or when the time came, discreetly attend them in their first bout of cramps, initiating them into the universal sisterhood of “the monthly curse.”
From day to day, and hour to hour, the grownups would know the young ones’ whereabouts, allowing for no exceptions, tolerating no excuse. Dawn and Gretchen seldom saw their father in the morning, for he would be off before first light, delivering the country mail, or working the fields, helping neighbors with planting, or combining during the bustling harvest season. The girls were to return from school promptly at 3:45, chores were to be completed by 4:30 when Papa returned from his day; homework by 5:15, supper at a quarter to. And then, every evening exactly at 6 o'clock, whether in the pouring dark of winter, or the blinding glare of summer, Harold would lock the girls into their room for the night as they recited their prayers for him to hear.
He would have thrown away the key if he could, walled up his daughters in a high tower, or invoked a ring of magic fire around their bed—anything to keep the wicked world at bay. They were his last chance to get things right after all that had happened, and Harold, less guilty of pride than lack of imagination, could think of nothing else to do.
By the time Gretchen was old enough to imagine another life for herself it was not of knights or princesses that she dreamed, if she dared dream at all, but only the kind of average everyday normal her cousins and the other kids at school talked about and took for granted. Sometimes Gretchen thought it might be nice to have a room of her own, more books to read and free time to read them, maybe the chance to take piano lessons, or, better still, find a best friend other than her sister, someone her own age, whose parents would let them watch TV after school or allow them to stay up late on weekend sleepovers, talking into the wee hours, sharing their secret hopes and wishes. If Gretchen wished or hoped for anything, it was for leeway, a little space in which to laugh and play and simply be a kid—a little freedom to explore and ask questions without the answer always being no.
      Soon enough, the girl stopped dreaming, stopped imagining, stopped wanting anything beyond the narrow confines of the life she knew. What was the point of longing for what you could never have? And besides, hadn’t she learned that wanting always gets you into trouble?      


There was something different about the quiet inside the church. Silence itself seemed to echo in the long high-vaulted sanctuary, gloomy even on the sunniest of days, the century-old woodwork steeped in the cloying odor of incense that always reminded her of death. Coming into the church was like walking through a door between two unchanging dimensions, the desolate purgatory of “real life” on the outside, that arid realm of dusty gray and sundrenched amber stretching out to the lonely horizon as far as mortal eyes could see, and, on the other side of the door, a twilight world of petrified saints and flickering votive candles, whispered mysteries and gilded foreboding.
She had always hated Confession, dreading it the way some kids dread a trip to the dentist or the doctor’s office. Gretchen felt no less naked, kneeling there in the darkness, waiting to have her soul poked and prodded, cursorily admonished, chastened, and mortified. Things only got worse once puberty set in and Father Peitschender began to take a genuine interest in what she had to tell him. Suddenly, instead of ordering her to “get on with it,” the gruff old priest insisted on hearing every salacious detail of her latest impure thought or naughty dream, even going so far as to suggest a few additional particulars himself—the more graphic and steamy the recitation, the lighter the required act of contrition afterwards. Under Dawn’s experienced tutelage, Gretchen quickly learned to make things up and “make it good.” Like Scheherazade hoping to avoid execution, a good story could mean the difference between a couple Our Fathers or a whole Novena, and having to do a heavy penance in the church after school for simply “thinking about a boy” was hardly worth being late, as she would be sure to catch hell at home for fouling up her earthly father’s immutable routine.
      The usual penance tended to involve a lot of kneeling before the Host—the Eucharist wasn’t going to perpetually adore itself, after all. The hardest part—aside from staying awake—was trying to concentrate, and not let her mind wander back to the impure thoughts that had landed her there in the first place. Or the thing she dared never confess—the one sin that was unquestionably real in her mind.
      We’re kneeling, we’re kneeling, we’re kneeling, we’re kneeling . . . “Hail Mary, full of grace . . .” we’re atoning, we’re atoning, we’re atoning, we’re atoning . . . “blessed art thou among women, and blest is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . .” nine and a half more to go plus those three Our Fathers I still owe from last month. . . “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our—” please, just kill me now!
      Gretchen could never understand the concept of penance by rote. If prayer was a good thing that was supposed to be encouraged, why conflate it with punishment? What was the point of turning it into a chore? Were ten Hail Marys rattled off as a penance as worthy as one recited voluntarily and from the heart? Could the Blessed Virgin spot the difference? Did the Mother of God ever get tired of hearing people say the rosary like they were firing a machine gun, trying to get through it as quickly as possible, as if they needed to go to the bathroom or something? Nobody ever seemed to stop and think about what they were praying, or even why they were praying in the first place.
Barely past puberty, Gretchen was already quite the up-and-coming theologian.



3


“My kids are my property; they’re mine to do with the way I see fit as long as they’re living under my roof.” 
Gretchen was lying awake, late on a winter’s night, and could not help overhearing her father arguing about something with soft-spoken Aunt Rose-Linda in the kitchen downstairs. It was hard to tell what they were fighting about, based solely on his side of the conversation, though whatever twists and turns it may have taken before voices were raised, Gretchen was fairly certain it had begun as a discussion of Dawn’s latest act of defiance.
Black sheep of her gemeration, the family’s proverbial problem child, Dawn’s rebellious ways were all but preordained. Adolescent hormones struck early, potentiated by unresolved anger and grief, a psychic storm roaring from out of nowhere like a twister across the plains, leaving a path of devastation no less impressive. For Dawn, getting into trouble was a way of feeling alive in a world that only knew how to die. St. Adalgar had never changed and it never would. The place had been dying long before Dawn was even born, and it would still be dying by slow inches, years after she was gone.
In the meantime, she was determined to have some fun. Dawn was adept in that particularly Catholic form of sophistry, which argues that if one is going to be punished in any case, a half dozen sins are no worse than one. She was always looking for loopholes, exceptions to the rules that would in the end allow her to do whatever she happened to feel like at the moment. “If I’m going to Hell on a first offense, might as well go all in and live before I die,” she’d say.
      Never mind that she might drag her baby sister down with her.


At school the whole subject of sex could be covered in one five-minute lecture, artfully padded to fill out an entire hour-long assembly program in the pokey old gymnasium with its warped hardwood floor and the smell of moldy socks in a dairy barn. There were actually two assemblies, one for the boys and one for the girls, though, from what kids said, the content was exactly the same for both. The lesson consisted of four terse admonitions. (1) Sex is dirty. (2) Don’t do it until you are married. (3) Once married, do it only for procreation.  (4) Never, ever use any form of contraception or birth control. To violate any of these rules was a one-way ticket to Hell. No questions were allowed.
Of course, compulsively smart-mouthed Dawn had gotten herself and all the other girls into trouble one year by standing up in assembly and demanding some clarification. “I don’t understand, sister,” Dawn said. “If sex is so dirty and disgusting, why should I save it for my husband? Why does getting married suddenly make it all beautiful and clean? And what’s birth control anyway? If I don’t know what it is, how am I supposed to avoid it? Besides, sister, how would you know about this stuff anyway?”
Dawn was dragged off by the ear to the rector’s office. Harold was called in, and, as usual, in meting out retribution to one daughter, he thoughtfully included the other in her punishment. All the better to make Gretchen feel guilty about something she had not done and could not control. It was important that such lessons be learned at an early age.
And she had learned. Oh! How she had learned. Be silent. Respect authority without question, obey without thought. Never complain. Keep your opinions to yourself or, better still, have no opinion at all. Weep in private. Suffer on your own time. Let God’s will be done—God who in His wisdom put us all on this lowly plain to suffer, to know misery and pain on earth that we might be worthy of His bliss in Heaven.
On earth from then on, the sisters’ lives would be, if anything, even more tightly controlled than before, their comings and goings even more strictly monitored. Harold had a willing and well-established network of spies all around the countryside, for nearly every adult in the parish considered it his or her duty to keep a special eye on the Ausslander girls, considering the way they had lost their mother—not to mention that it offered a nearly perfect excuse to gossip without guilt.


It was her curiosity more than anything that led Gretchen into temptation, though fear would often keep her from the brink. Shame and remorse might threaten to engulf her guileless soul, but her natural inquisitiveness only grew more intense with time. Wondering more than wanting ultimately drew her into Dawn’s wayward orbit. Locked together in their room at night, lying wide awake for hours, bored and bitter, desperate for diversion, the sisters fell into a reticent alliance, bonds forged by mutual discontent. 
Dawn would smuggle forbidden things into their bed, starting with the romance comic book she “borrowed” from the drugstore in Sargent when she was only 10. Fashion magazines and lingerie catalogs followed, racy grownup novels, passed from hand to hand like prison contraband around the school, with all the “juicy parts” conveniently highlighted in Magic Marker. Then, more exotic and dangerous fare, cast-off copies of Cosmopolitan and Playgirl mysteriously “found” along the side of the road, pungent second-hand stroke books and seedy pulp softcore rags with articles like Housewife by Day, Streetwalker by Night, Swinging for Beginners, and Confessions of an ex-Nun: How I Kicked the Habit and Became a Porn Star. The sisters would peruse the magazines together, huddled under the covers, and Dawn would whisper excitedly about all the adventures she would have when she was old enough to “get the hell out.”
      One night Dawn brought a zucchini to bed, and showed her little sister “how to give head” with it. Later the girls took turns using the shiny dark-green dildo on themselves and each other as they imagined being with the Playgirl centerfold. Afterwards, they ate the evidence. Father P had a noticeable spring in his step all the following week, assigning them only five Hail Marys a piece in Confession—and Gretchen didn’t even have to lie.


Dawn had discovered the witch’s book when she was 11, rooting through the attic in search of something that might once have belonged to their mother—anything Harold could have overlooked in his fanatical purge of family history after The Bad Thing. She found it at the bottom of an old crate maked Property of St. Adalgar’s Convent, well-hidden beneath a dusty, cobwebbed stack of holier tomes, catechisms in German and English, a moldering Lives of the Saints, devotional handbooks describing the benefits of the rosary, jumbled with inspirational pamphlets recounting the miracles of Lourdes and Fatima, as well as a few popular “Catholic” novels like The Robe and The Shoes of the Fisherman, their well-creased paperback bindings breaking apart into loose chunks of dog-eared rubble, brittle yellowed pages slowly crumbling, covers half chewed by vermin.
The “naughty” pictures caught Dawn’s voracious eye almost immediately. The spell-book’s medieval-style woodcuts positively teemed with sex: visions of moon-clad rituals culminating in the appearance of strange otherworldly creatures, grisly scenes of sacrifice, and demonic intercourse.  The pages seemed to have been soiled along the edges, a dull rusty tinge, as if someone long ago had smeared them with blood. Crude protective symbols were dabbed on the front and back pages in the same ghoulish ink.
Dawn left the mysterious volume where it was for a year or two, not fully understanding at first what she had found. It was nothing more to her than a racy curiosity—and a rather creepy one at that. Even after sneaking it downstairs, she barely gave it a second look, put off by the old German-gothic Fraktur type. Still in its oil-cloth wrappings, the book languished at the back of the girls’ closet for yet another year or so, biding its time like a dormant creature, waiting on Dawn’s desperation, calculating her vulnerability before calling to her imagination. 
Until that night when Dawn sounded out the German without understanding, and spoke the long-slumbering words that set the demon free. She offered herself almost at once when it was clear what the incubus had in mind, going over the edge for the sake of a thrill. But when The Nameless One ravished her—filled her with its blazing ectoplasmic spendings— it left more than bruises and burns behind. Something of its own dark nature began to grow deep inside Dawn’s psyche, and  the young girl’s restlessness could no longer be contained.
      Soon, Dawn took to sneaking out with some of her older cousins, tearing around the countryside, heading east, always east, sometimes as far as Grand Island, wherever they could find a movie or a dance, or a parking lot full of older boys to buy beer for them or make out on the tailgate of a stranger’s pickup.
      It was easy to slip away late on a Saturday afternoon when the whole town was in church. St. Adalgar was one of eight far-flung mission-parishes in Father Peitschender’s charge, and he would make the circuit every weekend, arriving just in time to hold Confession for the grownups between 4 and 5 o'clock. Mass would begin at a quarter after and usually took about forty-five minutes, depending on how slow Sister Woglinde felt like playing the hymns on the battered old Hammond organ in the loft. Harold was head usher which meant staying after the service to count the collection and make sure everything was in order before locking up. Sometimes, if the Knights of Columbus were holding a fundraiser, he would be even later. By the time he got home, Dawn would be long gone, and Gretchen would be up in her room, pretending to be asleep.
      Harold never said a word about it. After figuring out what was going on, he simply insisted that the later his eldest daughter came home, the earlier the youngest would have to get up for chores all the following week.
      Genuinely half asleep, Gretchen would try to protest, struggling for words that wouldn’t end up making the situation worse. “It’s not fair! I’m not the one who—”
      “Not the one who what?” Harold demanded. “You got something you want to tell me?”
      “It’s just not fair . . .”
      “In this house I decide what’s fair,” Harold said, “If you have a problem with that, maybe you ought to take it up with your sister.”
        She did. But not the way Harold had hoped. Instead of confronting Dawn about her behavior, Gretchen made a deal with her, promising to “run interference” in exchange for the thing she craved most: books. Getting up so much earlier gave her the time she’d always wanted for reading, and she eagerly devoured everything her sister supplied: Nancy Drew mysteries, Harlequin romances, science fiction and fantasy—especially Anne McAffrey’s fantastic tales of Pern—even the occasional foray into horror with Stephen King, Dean Koontz or Anne Rice. And more questionable fare, musty paperback novels from another time, seedy cautionary tales of beautiful fallen women and the hard, tough-talking men who slapped them around—and more, or so the lurid covers seemed to promise. Between Dawn and The Nameless One, Gretchen soon amassed a secret library of surprisingly vast proportions, lovingly stashed away under some baby clothes in an old-fashioned steamer trunk, her special “hidey-hole” in the garden shed.
      For a while, the girls’ arrangement played out like an elaborate game of Keep-Away with Harold the constant unwitting “it.” And things might have continued in this way for one or two more years at least, if Dawn hadn’t lost her head. Perhaps it was the demon’s influence that stoked her insatiable hungers, her constant need for excitement, the thrill of the new in a world so much wider than she’d ever been allowed to imagine, but Dawn seemed to grow more wild and willful with each passing month.  
      And then she met a handsome Mexican boy in one of those parking lots. Rolando roared out of the darkness of a hot August night on a chopped Harley-Davison like an exotic hero in a sexy movie—the sort with subtitles that nobody has to read. Though he spoke little English, his powers of persuasion were undeniable, and Dawn, half-drunk and out of her head with lust, had no will to resist. They agreed to meet again as soon as possible. By mid-September, she was determined to “be with him forever” and had begun to work out an elaborate plan of escape.
      One Saturday evening in October as Father Peitschender elevated the chalice before the kneeling congregation, the thunder of a dozen huge motorcycles drowned out the altar bells, like a droning swarm of mechanical locusts. The riders barnstormed through town, heading north into the big empty beyond, their headlamps a constellation of tiny stars against the oncoming dusk. The storm passed, and the duly consecrated Body and Blood of Christ were distributed among the faithful—except for one, who seemed to have slipped out as the line for Holy Communion began to form along the center aisle.
      No one remembered seeing Dawn leave the church that night. No one ever heard her say goodbye.


      “Get up!”
      It was still pitch dark—a few hours before sunrise—when Harold kicked the bedroom door open.
      “Uhhhh?”
      “Where is she?”
      “Where’s who?”
      “Don’t get smart with me, girl.” He dragged her roughly out of bed, nearly wrenching her arm. “You know who.”
      “Dawn? No! I swear Papa, I don’t know.”
      “What’s this, then?” He jammed a piece of paper under her nose.
Dawn had helpfully left a note for her father.
      “Please, Papa! I don’t know anything about it. She never told me anything.”
      He was dragging her along by the arm, leading her downstairs and out into the back yard. They stopped in front of the garden shed. The old steamer trunk had been pulled out into the middle of the lawn.
      “Don’t know anything, huh?” He shoved her down to the ground beside the trunk.
      “These yours?”
      “Yes.” Gretchen bowed her head.
      “Yes what?”
      “Yes sir.”
      “Where’d you get them?”
      “I . . .”
      “Don’t lie to me, girl.
      “Dawn gave them to me.”
      “And did you ever think to ask your sister how she came by this stuff?”
“No—”
“No what?” He wrapped the side of her head with an open hand.
“No, sir,” she sobbed, recoiling from the sting.
      “I’ll tell you,” he barked. “She stole it! She stole all of it—every last stinkin’ piece of paper—and then she gave it to you. Do you know what that makes you?”
      “I’m sorry, Papa—”
      “It makes you—look at me when I’m talking to you!—it makes you a thief. It makes you guilty just as much as her.”
      “Please, Papa, I’m sorry! It won’t happen again—”
      “You’re right about that,” Harold said. “This foolishness ends right here—right now. First thing you’re going to do is gather up all that junk and make a big pile outside. Doesn’t have to be a neat pile—not for this—just make sure you don’t leave anything off. I’m going over to the machine shed and get some kerosene. Be done by the time I get back.”

      Watching her treasures burn through a watery prism of tears, Gretchen considered her life.  Dawn, at least, had some kind of say over hers—or so now it seemed. The younger sister had always been caught in the middle somewhere between her father’s anger and Dawn’s discontent, between missing Mama and resenting her for going away, between her father’s seeming indifference towards her and his never-ending war with Dawn, envying the life others had, envying the choices they seemed so free to make. That was what hurt the most, the feeling that all choices had been made for her in advance, all questions answered—the answer invariably no, and always with the reminder that it was for her own good. Sometimes Gretchen imagined that it was she who had been buried with her mother on that terrible day so long ago, and that this life was nothing more than the waking dream of a soul in Hell.


(read Chapter 4 here)