With award-winning, superstar editor Ellen Datlow’s “superb sampling of some of the most significant short horror works published between 1985 and 2005” Darkness being featured as part of the Humble Horror Book Bundle, we’re sharing excerpts from nine select stories over the next seven days.
Our first glimpse comes from “My Father’s Mask” by Joe Hill.
On the drive to Big Cat Lake, we played a game. It was my mother’s idea. It was dusk by the time we reached the state highway, and when there was no light left in the sky, except for a splash of cold, pale brilliance in the west, she told me they were looking for me.
“They’re playing card people,” she said. “Queens and kings. They’re so flat they can slip themselves under doors. They’ll be coming from the other direction, from the lake. Searching for us. Trying to head us off. Get out of sight whenever someone comes the other way. We can’t protect you from them — not on the road. Quick, get down. Here comes one of them now.”
I stretched out across the backseat and watched the headlights of an approaching car race across the ceiling. Whether I was playing along, or just stretching out to get comfortable, I wasn’t sure. I was in a funk. I had been hoping for a sleepover at my friend Luke Redhill’s, ping-pong and late night TV with Luke (and Luke’s leggy older sister Jane, and her lush-haired friend Melinda), but had come home from school to find suitcases in the driveway and my father loading the car. That was the first I heard we were spending the night at my grandfather’s cabin on Big Cat Lake. I couldn’t be angry at my parents for not letting me in on their plans in advance, because they probably hadn’t made plans in advance. It was very likely they had decided to go up to Big Cat Lake over lunch. My parents didn’t have plans. They had impulses and a thirteen-year-old son and they saw no reason to ever let the latter upset the former.
“Why can’t you protect me?” I asked.
My mother said, “Because there are some things a mother’s love and a father’s courage can’t keep you safe from. Besides, who could fight them? You know about playing card people. How they all go around with little golden hatchets and little silver swords. Have you ever noticed how well-armed most good hands of poker are?”
“No accident the first card game everyone learns is War,” my father said, driving with one wrist slung across the wheel. “They’re all variations on the same plot. Metaphorical kings fighting over the world’s limited supplies of wenches and money.”
My mother regarded me seriously over the back of her seat, her eyes luminous in the dark.
“We’re in trouble, Jack,” she said. “We’re in terrible trouble.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It’s been building for a while. We kept it from you at first, because we didn’t want to scare you. But you have to know. It’s right for you to know. We’re — well, you see — we don’t have any money anymore. It’s the playing card people. They’ve been working against us, poisoning investments, tying assets up in red tape. They’ve been spreading the most awful rumors about your father at work. I don’t want to upset you with the crude details. They make menacing phone calls. They call me up in the middle of the day and talk about the awful things they’re going to do to me. To you. To all of us.”
“They put something in the clam sauce the other night, and gave me wicked runs,” my father said. “I thought I was going to die. And our dry cleaning came back with funny white stains on it. That was them too.”
My mother laughed. I’ve heard that dogs have six kinds of barks, each with a specific meaning: intruder, let’s play, I need to pee. My mother had a certain number of laughs, each with an unmistakable meaning and identity, all of them wonderful. This laugh, convulsive and unpolished, was the way she responded to dirty jokes; also to accusations, to being caught making mischief.
I laughed with her, sitting up, my stomach unknotting. She had been so wide-eyed and solemn, for a moment I had started to forget she was making it all up.
My mother leaned toward my father and ran her finger over his lips, miming the closing of a zipper.
“You let me tell it,” she said. “I forbid you to talk anymore.”
Check out the Humble Horror Book Bundle which includes works from Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Joss Whedon, Joe Hill, Max Brooks, Robert R. McCammon, and Dan Simmons.
For more info about Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by Ann Monn.