A few months back, an email with one of those obviously bot-generated names landed in my email box with the subject line ISSUE 9: PLEASE OPEN. The emailed contained the text of the editorial for the never-released issue 9. It is reproduced unchanged and in whole, in accordance to his family’s wishes.
Issue 9 isn’t a topic I like to discuss. The magazine wasn’t even a year old when I was approached by a colleague to guest edit. He wasn’t too well known (heh, neither was I), but a couple of his anthologies had been well-received. I decided to give him a chance.
My last communication with him was prior to his trip to Dark Rivers. Then he dropped off the face of the Earth. Gone. Our deadline passed, and I had no content for issue 9. At the time, I was angry for being screwed over. The day the issue was supposed to release, the man’s wife emailed asking if I had heard from him.
She and I stayed in touch intermittently for a few years until … I suppose, she finally gave up that he would ever return. I had. I figured he had ghosted on me, and worse, his wife and kids.
Then the issue 9 email.
His wife didn’t answer my calls about the email. His daughter did, and she explained that her mom wasn’t well, that I could (and should) publish the editorial, but without a byline. Neither she nor her mom want the media attention. I respect that, and so should you.
I hope this helps give closure to her family.
Lexington, KY 2018
I wish I could remember the title, or maybe even the name of the author. But these things are lost to me now, worn away with the ages. It would make googling and searching and tracking down this book all the easier. I remember distinct things. Images from the stories, the basic plots and scares that cling to my memories. Horrible things that haunt my dreams to this day. I typed some of these into Google and Yahoo and Bing or whatever. A ballerina dressed in all black and dancing at a funeral. Her hands covered in maggots and flies. A group of black dogs with human eyes, running through empty streets. Shapes in a fog, neatly cut lawns decorated with circles of tiny stones. And bones hung from tree branches like windchimes. These images. So poignant. So strong. Etched into my mind. Entered as loosely as possible into each search engine. Nothing. Nada. Not even a glancing hit on the right information. Then I tried the usual online book places. Searching about Goodreads and Amazon and Abebooks and a few others. Nothing. And with each day of searching and typing … The dreams became stronger. And these dreams brought something else with them. I would start to see echoes of my dreams during the day. Ballerinas dressed in black and dancing on busy streets. Long funeral processions. And the dogs. Everywhere I looked, I saw those dogs, and they seemed to be watching me. Even my front lawn. Oh. I saw. I just. I saw those circles of rocks. Part of me thought maybe this was warning, maybe I should stop and turn around. Maybe I should just do something else for my guest issue? But it was too late. I was hooked. Dragged onward. There was no stopping now. I had other ideas, other leads. Nothing was going to change my mind.
I still remember exactly how it looked. Exactly how the rough binding felt in my hands. That old-glue smell, mildewed and strong. Almost like vanilla. And that faded green fabric cover. Ripped at the edges, and a cigarette burn in the corner. Round and violent, like a wound on the cover. The title worn away to a handful of letters spaced apart. The author’s name an illegible smear. And that first page. The title page. It only held a woodcut image, and I remember it so strongly. The whole book was filled to the brim with woodcut art. Brazen, bizarre. Blocky and primitive, yet powerful enough to crawl under the skin and stay there for decades. Sometimes, I only dream of this art and nothing else. The images turning about in my head, cycling through again and again. One was a circle of dogs dancing on two legs. Moving around a pile of human corpses. Another was a man standing still with a mask made of fire for a face. A single hand outstretched to a smiling child wearing a wedding dress. And the one that stayed with me the most, the one that haunted me the most: a group of children wearing paper sack hoods. Each with one eye hole gauged out for them to see the world with. The children running with scythes in their hands through an empty street. The emptiness of the city street is what gets me every single time. It’s what haunts my dreams and follows me about in my day-to-day thoughts. The way those shadows look. So stark in the woodcut. So lonely and just so. So. Vast and empty. They contain the whispers of death. The kiss of mortality.
Since the basic search engine queries didn’t work as expected, I decided to broaden my approach to find this book and gather my favorite stories for this issue. I knew there was one way to fix it all and have it done and over with, but I wasn’t ready to do that just yet. Returning home to Dark Rivers and looking for it in my childhood library. Too many memories, too many promises, too many people I couldn’t speak to again. Not after what happened. So, I started by asking some writers and editors I knew. Experts in the field of horror, especially classic horror fiction. They were stumped, no one had ever even heard of such a thing! But each were eager to read the stories when I found them. The promises these stories held were intriguing and delicious. Next up I decided to canvas the Shocklines and SFWA message boards and Goodreads and other forums, leaving general posts about my memories, about the stories and illustrations I could remember. Seeing if anyone else could remember such a thing, and if so, if they could help me track the book down. A name, an author, or even (hope against hope!) a link towards buying a used copy! I knew the work must be in public domain. It seemed ancient, even when I was a kid. After a few weeks of dead ends, I’d just about given up. I had to come up with a Plan B for my guest issue of Apex, and I would have to do it fast. The clock was ticking, the due date creeping closer and closer. I knew I should’ve given up, turned back now, and report to Jason my failure as an editor. The daily disturbances were growing worse. I was seeing things from the corner of my eyes. Impossible things. Strangers moving in a crowd like puppets. Eyeless children following me down vacant streets. Yet. I could not stop. So hooked. And after three weeks it finally happened. A response on Shocklines, of all places. They mentioned how their mom had been obsessed with the book and then went missing. And then their dad became obsessed with it and tried to burn it, tried to do everything to keep his sanity together. I guess the dad eventually committed suicide by jumping off a busy overpass and landed head first into the windshield of a passing semi. This had to be a joke, right? Someone pulling my leg? And yet I felt that tingling, you know? That sensation when everything just clicks into place and I knew that this was it. This was not a joke. And then I got this memory, right? This memory I just didn’t want to remember. A flashing image of my brother. The one who introduced me to the book. The one who. Who. Oh, that image of him wearing a mask and naked and covered in blood. I don’t want to remember that. I don’t have to remember that yet. So I asked that poster some questions, to see if he knew what he was talking about when he talked about that book. And this would probably come as no surprise to you, esteemed Apex reader, but he knew the answer to every question I had. Every single one. Well, almost every single one. He didn’t know the name of the book, but he did know the name of the author. Sister Maria Renata.
I googled her later, and man, that’s some dark shit. Demonic possession. Blood ritual. Incest, orgies. Destroying a convent of nuns from the inside out. Insane stuff that would set my teeth on edge and make me sick to my stomach for the rest of the month. But I knew that had to be her. It sounded like the kind of person that would write these stories. And yet, all through my Googling there was no mention of any books written by her. No title to go by, nothing. Another dead end.
More and more responses filled up Shocklines. Sure, there were a few loose ends, a few jokers making shit up, but those were easy enough to sniff out and ignore. There was something to the ones who knew the truth. A manic joy in discovering other people haunted by the same book that haunts them. And yet, no one could remember the name of the book. Not a single person. It was strange how all of our memories lined up, like we experienced something no one else experienced. Outsiders. Strangers to the rest of this world. A user by the name of xMachenx posted a link to the Mandela effect, asking for people’s opinions on it all. And that was it, we knew it, we had all felt that same kind of slippage. This book didn’t seem to exist in this world and yet we knew it did. And the fact that none of us could remember the title, and that we’d even all seen the same thing in our dreams, a large shape just out of the corner of our eyes. And this face of a man, bizarre. Unsettling. All connected to the stories and our memories. Memories of something that didn’t exist in this world, according to everything else. A book that came from somewhere else, not known of in this reality. That sense of slippage, that Mandela effect, that feeling of being from another dimension.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Time was running out. My deadline was fast approaching. I might have to do the one thing I swore I would never do again. Return back to my home town, if for nothing else than to find it and get this done and over with. I only hoped the book was actually there, and not waiting for me in some other reality.
Here’s the one thing. With each story remembered and posted about online came a horrible tale of woe and neglect. Tragedy followed these stories. Parents leaving, sisters gone missing, brothers cutting themselves and ending up hospitalized. Madness that was not madness, but instead a kind of truth that was more pure than pure. A glimpse of a different kind of reality. A kind of reality that had rotted in the core of everything. And my own memories rose up so strong and loud. Yelling at me, refusing to be shoved aside and forgotten once again. I beat my head bloodied against the wall, trying to keep these memories inside, but you can’t do that, can you? Things like these always show up and hang around and never go away. I forgot them for a reason, though. I did, I did, I did.
After a while some random user started posting scans of the book. He wouldn’t respond to any comments or questions, wouldn’t say anything at all. Just post the scans and that’s that. His username was a random collection of letters and numbers, the kind of gibberish a primitive spambot would generate. And at first we thought it was a hoax. I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. And yet, we knew it was real. Those pages. I’d read them so much, over and over and over again. Their fonts and page layouts burned into my mind. This was the real deal. Except. There were smears across every scan. At first they didn’t seem like much, just random ink smears that could’ve been caused by anything. And then with each subsequent scan it started to look like a pattern. Like a face smeared in ink. A face crammed against the page and rolled around, screaming. Screaming. It was hard to make out at first, but that’s the only thing it could be. A human face. Screaming. It looked just like that face. The one we all dreamed over and over again. The ones other people witnessed online before us. Seemingly unconnected to these stories, and yet. Here it was. Connected. Screaming. With each page the face was slightly different and obscured different sections of text. But it was unmistakable. That screaming face. Unmistakable. An awful feeling rolled around in my stomach. My lungs felt smaller, tighter and it was difficult to breathe. I didn’t want to look at those images. But I. But I couldn’t stop. I even noticed that the pages had been torn out. Tears along the sides and it all made me hurt so much. To see the pages abused, to see the face of someone terrified and screaming, shoved against each page.
We kept asking over and over again, what was this? Was this a joke? Where did you get the book? And damnit, just tell us the title of the book already? Over and over and over again. Please tell us. But also, please stop this. Please stop showing us these horrible things. We both did and didn’t want to see it. One poster even asked what was going on with the screaming face. Who were they? Was this a prank? Should we call the cops? The thought of grabbing the geolocation via IP came up a few times, with a mentioning of SWATTING or 9-1-1. Just in case it was legit and someone was in trouble. And yet, we never did. We didn’t want it to stop, not just yet. After getting so close to reading that book once again.
And then a new scan went up from a page of the book no one recognized. Same font, same basic writing style as the main text. Yet, stranger, more occluded and obtuse. Like some weird recipe or spell. And all over the page was a brown smear of dried blood. And what looked like a tooth and a fingernail placed between the scanner and the page. After that the thread was locked and shut down. I have no idea what happened to anyone or anything. We didn’t keep in touch after that.
And then came my memories. Things I would rather not remember. Finding the corpse of a stray cat in the center of those stones on my front lawn. His little cat body nailed to the earth with a railroad tie. The fog thick and heavy in the air. The tailbone was exposed and covered in maggots. And when I walked outside, it turned its head up and mewed at me. A pathetic sound. As it started to twitch and try to crawl towards me, that railroad tie keeping it in one place. Pinned down, unable to move. I don’t want to remember the rest of this. The shape of my brother walking out of the fog. Naked. Wearing that mask. Words carved into his skin. He was the one that first took the book out from the library. It was him the whole time, glued to the pages every day. Muttering now about doorways and sacrifices. How things slip between worlds and change everything. Did he do this to the cat? Or was it something else? That figure dancing in the fog, just out of my sight.
I knew what I had to do. The worst possible thing. That was it, I was almost out of time, and I had come so close to finding that book. I was not going to give up now. Even though the memories grew worse. The dreams more vivid and horrible. I kept seeing this same sight in my dream, this awful giant shape, obscured by fog and hard to see. Taller than buildings, occluding the landscape and yet blurry and indistinct. What was this? I felt like it held a promise inside. If only I could see it. If only I had the key. I started pulling my hair from my scalp and yanking off my fingernails. Bloodied, painful. Yet afterwards, I always felt a little better. As if some great pressure inside of me had been released. I had to go back home to Dark Rivers. I had to return to that small-town library and see if I could even find that book. I didn’t have the title, but maybe, if it hadn’t changed too much, I could find that location on the shelves by memory alone. I have a very visual memory, and usually if I go someplace once I can find it again no problem. And I practically lived at the library as a kid. This was not going to be an easy trip. I started to see people following me. People with Roman numerals tattooed onto their foreheads. They don’t think I see them, but I do. I know they are out and about. They remind me of a short story in that collection. In that story, those strange figures would steal body parts while people slept. And so I looked at my face each morning in the mirror. Looked at my arms, my legs. Making sure nothing was stolen in the middle of the night. So far, so good. All of this created an intense urgency to go back, go back and find that book. A feeling of doom permeated everything, and a dark gravity pulled down on my bones, yanking me back home to Dark Rivers. Like a compass in my blood.
The person I was most worried about seeing again when I returned to Dark Rivers was my brother. I know, he’s dead. I know he killed himself all those long years ago. Pills and a gun to make sure it was over. But still, I had this fear that he would still be there. That his death was never a real death, and that I felt him even now, waiting for me. Waiting to welcome me home.
It was just me and Google Maps, driving across long highways and sleeping in my car at the side of the road. Right by long cornfields and under a harsh full moon. My dreams were in fits and starts. Each time I slept I dreamt of that lumbering shadow of a shape. And each time I woke up, the shape was clearer in my mind. A giant tree, yes. With bloodied roots. Yet, some parts of it were still blurry, and those made me ache so horribly. Something hung from the branches. But what? But what. And I kept hearing things moving outside the car. Seeing figures dance through those cornfields in the glory of the midnight hours. The long stalks swaying back and forth, back and forth. It wasn’t the wind, no. A body moving through the corn makes a very specific pattern. And the way those stalks seemed to dance, it wasn’t just one person, no. Not even a few people, but something more like ten or twenty. Moving through the fields in strange circular formations. And then the corn would stop suddenly, and I would go back to sleep and dream horrible dreams once more, ripped right out of those pages of that book. I still hadn’t gotten that name, not just yet. But I felt it getting closer, hunting me down. Right on the tip of my tongue. I knew it started with a D? Something like Death or Dead or Dying. Three words, that’s something I knew for certain. Three ominous words that carried a heavy gravity with them. Symbolic and foreboding. I felt like that giant shadow tree had something to do with it.
When I pulled up into town, I had to roll over to a gas station and just sit for a bit. Head in my hands, eyes closed and close to weeping. I’d been the one who’d found my brother and my mom had blamed me. She didn’t know him at all near the end, no. Not like I knew him. Obsessed with those damned stories and what he did with the cat and the lawn, looking for some doorway to slip away elsewhere. A doorway that existed in one of those stories. I remember he sang this song, so off key and horrible. About a tree that was a gateway. A doorway between worlds. And what he did to those kids down the street. I’d nearly forgotten about that at all. The things he’d done, the things he’d seen. And no doorway opening up for him. I could understand that desire for self-annihilation. To have your misdeeds burned away from you with the barrel of a gun. Suicide as an act of redemption. And yes, I turned to that book to try and understand why. Why he even did any of this at all. It was a puzzle to my young mind. How my brother had changed. How everything had changed and gotten so much worse, and I just maybe thought, maybe I could unlock this whole thing with that book. And maybe understanding the why of it all would fix everything and make it all better. I was only ten years old at the time. And I read that book every moment of every day, like my life depended on it. Until I was no longer allowed to renew my loan from the library and had to return it. And I eventually moved on with my life. Got girlfriends, got work, writing and editing and everything. Memories faded, like all memories do. All that stayed with me where the images of those stories, the bad dreams that I had, and that memory of beings scared, of being terrified. And knowing that there was something wrong with the world. Deep down in the core of everything. That reality itself was rotten. And for just a few moments more. Yes. A few moments. I stayed there in that car and dried my eyes and damn everything. I still had to find that book. I was going to publish those stories and be done with this nonsense. They were just stories. It was just a book and only a book. I remember now. I remember what he sang, and what haunted me in my dreams. The Dead Snake Tree. Yes. The Dead Snake Tree. That was the title of the book, I remember that now. And that was what I saw in my dreams, blurred by the fog and hidden from my sight. The monolith shadow so clear now. Corpses hung from the hundred branches. So many bodies with bags over their heads. And they wiggled on the branches, as if they were still alive. But they didn’t move like people move. No. They wiggled and squirmed. Just like snakes. I remember that now, the titular story told of this tree. Of the human snakes that hung from it. Wiggling, screaming, even after being dead for over a hundred years, the roots watered with their blood.
I Googled the title later and still nothing came up, but that’s not a surprise anymore, is it? Though I knew I had to tell the others. Those searchers on Shocklines and everywhere else. It didn’t take me long to spread the word, and then I went forward. Into that library in my old home town. Armed with the title and author and everything, I felt excited and nervous and sick to my stomach. This was happening. After all this time. Really happening.
I found it! The library had it, and I found it and I haven’t opened it just yet, but I found it and then I got the hell out of there the minute I could. I just slipped it under my shirt and ran through those security detectors. Oh, and they went off whirring and angry and loud, but I kept going. Even with the librarians shouting out and screaming and calling the cops. I couldn’t risk losing it again I couldn’t the sun was vibrant and beautiful and the day felt so alarmingly real that it hurt and I peeled out of there in my shitty car and took off as fast as I could and drove all the way back across the countryside, not even stopping once not even sleeping near that cornfield again about halfway there because sleep was an impossible thing and I was too keyed up, too excited and everything felt more alive than alive, even the trees, the birds, everything everything everything, even the stones.
And this wasn’t right. This wouldn’t do at all. I tried to scan it and the first page was just completely blank. What the hell. Not good at all. I admit, I was giddy and excited and probably hooked up the scanner wrong or something. Hell, I didn’t even read it yet, I was too excited! So I chHecked the connections and everything and tried to scan it on in again. At first it seemed to work just fine. Until I took a look at the image file and saw that there were ink smears all over the page. I took it back out of the scanner, and the actual page was just fine. It was only happening to the scanned image. So I recaalibrated it and tried again. And I noticed more ink smears, and more and more. Faces, each one turning into a face, a screaming crammed down smear of a face. Heart beat rapid fast like I almost called the hospital, thinking it was a heart attack. Breath caught in those tightened lungs. What was thiss. What was this even. It looks litke I would have to forgo scanning and using the OCR tools to make this easy. I was going to have to do this hard way. This would need to be published, though. I had to do this. I owed it to so many people. The ones I knew online, obsessed as I was obsessed. To my mom, my brother, and my family, and anyone else that loust a loved one to the seductive whisper of these storries. We’re not crazy. We’re not. And to prove it I sat down next to my computer, flipped that book open and started to transcribe it all by hand. One damned word at a time.
HeadYache pounding brutal thundeer in my skullll and I swear. Each aond everwy time I clossed my eyes Ii saw thinggns from those pages looking back out at me. The shadows on the waallls moving and writhing. Eveory sinngle thingg around me alive to tthe touchh. Eelectric and breathing beneath my quivering palmss. And hhallways haod human shapes standing in them, unmoving, starring at mee. Disappearing the closer and closer I gott to thheem. Yet. I woucld not stop. I coulld not stoop. I was gouing to finish this. Gedt the stories I nweeded copied oaver and juvst finishe thiss damnebd thring once and for eall. Eaven thokugh I satw fahces everywheree. In my dtreams, iwn the mirror, osn the coumputer monnitor. Thosse saime faces screaminng at me. Twisted up aknd smearebd. Annd I feelt the satories. Feltt thehm in my bonee and sklin aand blood. Eakch word I inscribeed carving itself into my mind. Thhese words crawled around inside of me, changing mee. Didn’t my brother ssay the something? Didn’t he? Didn’t my brohther say this saame exact thing?
I woke up next dday words carved in my skin and and and they were wowrdss from the book and words from each story and my hands were lall bloodied and somee of my skin was missingng and I saw ont thhe floor I had made paenper from my skin and I was writing on it and copying things and the faIces are everywhere annd I don’t know I dCon’t know aAnything anymoRre anCd they’re calling to me now and I don’t want to go but I feel like I have to and they are whisperingO and hello my brother hello my best friend there is the doorway is that the doorway you told me abSout and everything feAels like its crawling alsive with mranaggots and flies and everygething feels so dark anisd broken and ththeere aren a pile of dead birds at my fieet and they’re missingg their eyes ahnd it fetels so beautiful, yes evewrything feels so beeautiful just like thre book saide it would feel anbd it’s almlost all done, I naeed to fincish writking I do I’ve almost got it asll done and youu’re goinng to losve this Apex reraders you’re goings to love this issue, you’re going to love these stories trust me oh trust me they are painful and beautiful and like the best stories oh They will scar e you, I promise. The se stories wi ll scar e you.