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Inferno:  New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
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Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

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Author: Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Tor, 2007
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Genres: Horror
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Synopsis

As stated in her introduction to Inferno, Ellen Datlow asked her favorite authors for stories that would “provide the reader with a frisson of shock, or a moment of dread so powerful it might cause the reader outright physical discomfort; or a sensation of fear so palpable that the reader feels compelled to turn on the bright lights and play music or seek the company of others to dispel the fear.”

Mission accomplished. Datlow has produced a collection filled with some of the most powerful voices in the field: Pat Cadigan, Terry Dowling, Jeffrey Ford, Christopher Fowler, Glen Hirshberg, K. W. Jeter, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lucius Shepard, to name a few. Each author approaches fear in a different way, but all of the stories’ characters toil within their own hell. Winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology, Inferno will scare the pants off readers and further secure Ellen Datlow’s standing as a preeminent editor of modern horror.


Excerpt

INFERNO

Riding Bitch

K. W. JETER

 

K. W. Jeter has written some very edgy novels, including Dr. Adder, The Glass Hammer, and Infernal Devices. He has also had a number of short stories published. His work defies classification.

A lot was still going to happen.

A He would stand at the bar, he knew, locked in the embrace of his old girlfriend.

"Probably wasn't your smartest move." Ernie the bartender would run his damp rag along the wood, polished smooth by the elbows of generations of losers. "Sounds like fun at the beginning, but it always ends in tears. Trust me, I know."

He wouldn't care whether Ernie knew or not. The beer wouldn't do anything to numb the pain. Not the pain of having a dead girl, whom once he'd loved, draped across his shoulders. Her left arm would circle under his left arm. When she'd been alive, whenever she'd conked out after too many Jäger's and everything else, she'd always wrapped herself around him just like that, from the back. Up on tiptoes in her partying boots, just blurrily awake enough to clasp her hands over his heart.

He would knock back the rest of the beer in front of him, remembering how he'd carried her, plenty of nights, when there'd still been partying left in him. He'd shot racks of pool like this, leaning over the cue with her negligible weight curled on top of his spine like a drowsy cat, her face dropping close beside his, exhaling alcohol as he took his shot, skimming past the eight ball ... .

Her breath wouldn't smell of anything other than the formaldehyde or whatever it was that Edwin had pumped her full of, back at the funeral parlor. And it wouldn't really be her breath, anyway, her not having any in that condition. He would gaze at the flickering Oly Gold neon in the bar's bunker-like window, and swish another pull of beer around in his mouth, as though it could Listerine away the faint smell in his nostrils. The dead didn't sweat, he would discover, but just exuded--if you got that close to them--an odor half the stuff hospital floors were mopped with, half Barbie-doll plastic.

"Those look like they chafe."

Ernie the bartender would catch him tugging at the handcuffs, right where the sharp edge of metal would be digging through his t-shirt and into the skin over his ribs.

"Yeah," he'd say, "they do a bit." Should've thought of that before you let 'em strap her on. "I wasn't thinking too clearly then."

"Hm?" Ernie wouldn't look over at him, but would go on peering into the beer mug he'd just wiped with the bar towel.

"I blame it on Hallowe'en," he would explain.

"Hallowe'en, huh?" Ernie would glance at the Hamm's clock over the bar's entrance. "That was over three hours ago." Ernie would lick a thumb and use it to smear out a grease spot inside the mug. "Over and done with, pal."

"Couldn't prove it around here." The bar would be all orange-'n'-blacked out with the crap that the beer distributors unloaded every year: cheap cardboard stand-ups of long-legged witches with squeezed cleavage, grinning drunk pumpkins Scotch-taped to the wall over by the men's room, bar coasters with black cats arched like croquet wickets, Day-Glo spiderwebs, dancing articulated skeletons with hollow eyes that would've lit up if the batteries hadn't already run flat by the thirtieth, everything with logos and trademarks and brand names.

"Why do you let them put all that up, Ernie?"

"All what up?" The bartender would start on another mug, scraping away a half-moon of lipstick with his thumbnail. "What're you talking about?"

He'd give up then. There'd be no point. What difference would it make? He'd shift the dead girl a little higher on his shoulder, balancing her against the tidal pull of the beers he would put away. The combination of low-percentage alcohol with whatever the EMTs would huff him up with, when they scraped him off the road and into their van, would wobble his knees. Hanging onto the edge of the bar, instead of trying to walk, might be the only good idea he'd have that night.

And not all the ideas, the weird ones, would be his. There would still be that whole trip the other guys in the bar would come up with, about the reason Superman flies in circles.

But everything else--that would still be Hallowe'en's fault. Or what Hallowe'en had become. That was what he had told the motorheads, back when the night had started.

No--Cold lips would nuzzle his ear. You've got it all wrong.

He'd close his eyes and listen to her whisper.

It's what you became. What we became. That's what did it.

"Yeah ..." He'd whisper to himself, and to her as well, so no one else could hear. "You're right."

 

"I blame it all on Hallowe'en."

"That so?" The motorhead with the buzz cut didn't even look up fromthe skinny little sport bike's exhaust. "What's Hallowe'en got to do with your sorry-ass life?"

He hadn't wanted to tell someone else exactly what. He hadn't wanted to tell himself, to step through the precise calculus of regret, even though he already knew the final sum.

"It's not me, specifically," he lied. "It's what it did to everything else. It's frickin' satanic."

That remark drew a worried glance from Buzz Cut. "Uhh ... you're not one of those hyper-Christian types, are you?" He fitted a metric wrench onto a frame bolt. "This isn't going to be some big rant, is it? If it is, I gotta go get another beer."

"Don't worry." Something he'd thought about for a long time, and he still couldn't say what it was. Like humping some humongous antique chest of drawers out through a doorway too small for it, and getting it stuck halfway. He could wrestle it around into some different position, with the knobs wedged against the left side of the doorjamb rather than the right, but it would still be stuck there. "It's just ..."

"Just what?"

He tried. "You remember how it was when you were a kid?"

"Vaguely." Buzz Cut shrugged. "Been a while."

"Regardless. But when we were kids, Hallowe'en was, you know, for kids. And the kids got dressed up, like little ghosts and witches and stuff. The adults didn't get all tarted up. They stayed home and handed out the candy."

"True. So?"

"So you've got three hundred and sixty-four other days, including Christmas, to act like a cheap bimbo, or to prove that you're a beer-soaked trashbag. Why screw around with Hallowe'en?"

"Dude, you have got to stop thinking about stuff like this." Buzz Cut went back to wrenching on the bike. "It's messing up your head."

He couldn't stop thinking about it, if pictures counted as thought. Didn't even have to close his eyes to see the raggedy pilgrimage, the snaking lines of pirates and bedsheeted ghosts and fairy princesses, and the kids you felt sorry for because they had those cheap store-bought costumes instead of ones their mothers made for them. All of them trooping with their brown paper grocery bags or dragging old pillowcases, already heavy with sugar loot, from the sidewalk up to the doorbell and back out to the sidewalk and the next house, so many of them right after each other, that it didn't even make sense to close the door, just keep handing out the candy from the big Tupperware bowl on the folding TV tray. And if you were some older kid--too old to do that stuff anymore, practically a sneering teenager already--standing behind your dad and looking past him, out through the front doorand across the chill, velvety-black night streets of suburbia, looking with a strange-crazy clench in your stomach, like you were first realizing how big and fast Time was picking you up and rolling and tumbling you like an ocean wave, head over heels away from the shore of some world from which you were now forever banished--looking out as though your front porch were now miles up in the starry-icy air and you could see all the little kids of Earth winding from door to door, coast to coast, pole to pole, stations of a spinning cross ...

No wonder these guys think I'm messed up. He had managed to freak himself, without even trying. Like falling down a hole. He tilted his head back, downing the rest of the beer, as though he could wash away that world on its bitter tide.

"So how's the nitrous setup working for you?"

Blinking, he pulled himself back up into the garage. Around him, the bare, unpainted walls clicked into place, the two-by-four shelves slid across them as though on invisible tracks, the cans of thirty-weight and brake fluid lining up where they had been before.

He looked over toward the garage door and saw the other motorhead, the red-haired one, already sauntered in from the house, picking through the butt-ends of a Burger King french fries bag in one hand.

"The nitrous?" It took him a couple seconds to remember which world that was a part of. At the back of his skull, a line of little ghosts marched away. An even littler door closed, shutting off a lost October moon. "Yeah, the nitrous ..." He shrugged. "Fine. I guess."

"You guess," said Buzz Cut. "Jesus Christ, you pussy. We didn't put it on there so you could guess whether it works or not. We put it on so you'd use it. Least once in a while."

"Hey, it's okay." They'd both ragged him about it before. "It's enough to know I got it. Right there under my thumb."

Which was true. Even back when he and the motorheads had been installing the nitrous oxide kit on the 'Busa, he hadn't been thinking about ever using it. The whole time that the motorheads had been mounting the pressurized gas canister on the right flank of the bike--"Serious can of whup-ass," Buzz Cut had called it--and routing the feeder line to the engine, all 1298 cubic centimeters of it, they'd...

Copyright © 2007 by Ellen Datlow


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