Title: 13 More Tales of Horror by Various
Summary: A terrifying journey into horror – thirteen tales guaranteed to fill you with fear. What are the mysterious creatures stalking the woods at night, and who will be their next prey? A chilling game of cat and mouse! Who is the mysterious party guest in the frighteningly real costume? Each breath he takes is death. Isn’t it lucky that the beautiful ring is so cheap? It’s all she wants for her birthday. Only this gift drives Kate out of her mind… Thirteen master storytellers invite you on a rollercoaster ride through the imagination. How much can you take?
Note: As Dove requested, I’ve updated my template, because we now apparently call the Bad Guys Muffin Man. Hey, it makes as much sense as most Point Horrors.
I’ve read this one before, mostly because Dove threw it at me and told me I would love the first story, “The Cat-Dogs” by Susan Price. She was not wrong. I remember enjoying this collection a lot more than I did 13 Tales of Horror (Part One, Part Two, Part Three), but we’ll see if that is actually true.
I will not be doing counters for the stories, because last time I find it annoying with short stories. I originally planned to do this in two parts, but I forgot how long each short story recap is, so instead we’ll break it into three parts.
[Dove: I adore this set of stories. It’s the absolute best of all of the Thirteens (Tales, Again and More). I knew I could get Wing to read them with The Cat-Dogs as the opening story.]
[Wing: Should I be worried that Dove knows how to manipulate me into doing what she wants? Probably.]
The Cat-Dogs by Susan Price
Note: There is a bunch of animal death in this story.
(Thought it might be interesting to include a little bit of info about the authors, who aren’t always the typical Point Horror authors: Susan Price is an English author who has been publishing childrens and young adult books since the 70s. I’ve not read any of her other work, but it looks like she writes some Viking-based historical fiction/maybe fantasy, which I think look very interesting. They also have titles with the word “wolf”, so I’m disappointed they aren’t werewolf stories.)
Ah, the whole reason I’ve read this book before. It’s a good place to start, and the first line is damn good: The cat-dogs had eaten everything except a beak, a pair of web-footed legs, and some white feathers.
Liz finds the duck’s remains in the kitchen-garden, which is a big area, walled in, with neat vegetable plots and gravelled paths. This sounds like a very British thing to have. She covers up the death, kicking the feathers about and tossing the beak and legs over the wall onto the motorway. She’s certain the cat-dogs ate the duck because Tom, the neighbour’s Alsatian, was too well trained to attack the poultry, and the farm cats weren’t a match for the flock of mixed birds. (Do geese, ducks, chickens, and turkeys really flock together like that on a farm? I don’t like birds, except as food, and have no idea if this actually happens. Dove? You’re a bird weirdo. Thoughts?) [Dove: I’m more of a wild/small bird fan. I did used to live on a farm, but we only had chickens, who recognised my mother as alpha (or whatever the bird version of that is) and followed her everywhere. Once they even followed her to my primary school when she picked me up. So… birds = not very smart = could be true?]
[Wing: … I want to write about were-chickens and their human alpha now.]
Liz feels guilty about the cat-dogs, even though her father has never once blamed her for the damage they do, because she’s the one who brought them to the farm. They’ve done more than just attack the poultry, though; they harry the cows and chase the sheep, and have even managed to kill a lamb. So basically these weird cat-dogs are badass. (Which is good, because I can’t stop picturing this atrocity. [Dove: yeah, if that had been the cover art, very few books would have sold.]) Liz brought them home about a year ago; most of her walk home from school is along a solitary road that has woods on one side and a nature reserve on the other, and she found them along a narrow, winding path through the overgrown parts of the woods and up to the edge of a lake. There she found a sack of weird little animals that someone tried to drown. Back then, she thought they were just kittens, because they looked more like kittens than cat-dogs, gingerish, tabby, snub-nosed, and a little odd.
When she gets them back to the house, the adults boggle at them, because they do not look fully like normal kittens, and her dad even tells her it would have been kinder to let them drown, but Liz is determined that the mother cat in the barn will take care of them along with her own kittens. This — does not work out. The next morning, all the black and white kittens are dead, their bodies covered in bites, their fur matted with dried blood, and the ginger kittens are still alive. Liz thinks rats killed them, but her dad (Mr Bowyer) disagrees, though he doesn’t argue. Her mother (Mrs Bowyer) is too busy to really worry about it, because animals die on farms all the time. Which is true. She’s more focused on turning their show-farm into a haven for ancient breeds, which is kind of adorable. They’re working on getting sheep from Iceland, and already have black Tamworth pigs, Gloucester Old Spots, Clydesdale Shire horses, Shropshire sheep, Aylesbury ducks, and Indian game fowl. I know nothing about any of these breeds, except the Clydesdales, but am legitimately interested, and kind of want to live on a farm like this.
As the ginger kittens grow, the adults really stop believing they are cats. Mr Bowyer in particular watches them. Their teeth and noses are more like dogs, but their coats are like ginger tabbies. They all have either bright green or yellow eyes, which is a cat thing, and bushy tails, but Siamese markings, black ears, legs, and tips on their tails. And they have retractable claws, which is very much a cat trait. They mew and squeak like cats, but bark, too (though more like foxes than dogs), and Mr Bowyer points out they hunt like wolves, working as a group to herd the poultry where they want it and then attacking from several directions.
Liz watches them do it, and is suddenly disturbed by them, the depth of their intent, how sinister their movements are while they hunt. CREEPY. I love it.
On their first hunt, they would have successfully killed one of the ducks, except that Mr Bowyer steps in because he doesn’t want them to learn they can hunt the poultry. TOO LATE, SIR. Liz still thinks they’re beautiful, and ends up naming the cat-dogs after that. Everyone else picks it up, too, but everyone else hates them because they’re upsetting the animals, and then start killing things.
Mr Bowyer is frustrated, because if it was a commercial farm, he could kill the cat-dogs by either putting out poisoned bait or trapping them, but because it’s a show farm, the tourists bring their dogs and children to play. He can’t even go hunt them at night with a shotgun because he might wing a courting couple. So basically, people are sneaking onto the show-farm at night to have sex. [Dove: Headline reads: DOGGING TURNS DEADLY!] [Wing: *dying*] Oh my god, people, that is ridiculous and delightful.
They finally get permission to import the sheep, so Mr Bowyer heads off to London to meet the Icelander bringing them three animals of a breed that has been unchanged for a thousand years. Which is pretty fucking amazing if you think about it, and now I want to go live in Iceland awhile, learning about their damn sheep. Good job, Price. Your story intrigues me.
Liz is super excited to meet the Viking and his viking sheep, and says “He vill be six feet vie mit lonk blont hair unt a hat mit horns!”
I am so into that. Why is that not who shows up? Bring it on, hot Viking.
Liz is also excited to spend one night alone at the farm with just her mother and enjoys scaring herself a little with all the things that could happen when they’re alone on the farm. It’s nice and creepy and fun. The next morning, she walks the farm before the staff and visitors arrive, as she always does, and thinks about how the big farmyard with tall buildings on all sides becomes a fortress until she unlocks the gates.
This morning, she finds Tom dead, and this is the part of the story I hate. Tooooooom. Dog deaths in stories are generally a Do Not Finish moment for me, but I pushed on because I liked the rest of the story so much. (I regularly use https://www.doesthedogdie.com/ to check media.) He’s been pretty badly mauled, and runs to get her mother. Mrs Bowyer is a bad ass and closely examines the body; Liz feels like a coward because she can’t get any closer. Oh, Liz. You poor thing. [Dove: I block this out every time I read it.] [Wing: I cuddled my dog after recapping this. Well, not difficult to do, because she spends most of her life trying to climb into my lap anyway.]
Mrs Bowyer puts his body into a shed and turns over the bloody earth because they have to keep things nice for the tourists. She’s shaken by all of this, and frustrated or angry, but not at Liz. When Liz asks what killed him, Mrs Bowyer is gentle when she points out that only the cat-dogs could have taken an Alsatian. They are big, solid dogs that can fight pretty fiercely.
Mrs Bowyer tells Liz she can stay home from school if she wants, but Liz is feeling cowardly for not looking at Tom, so sets off to go, but she doesn’t even get halfway through the woods before she turns back, because she can’t face the noisy school. She’s also obsessively thinking about the cat-dogs, because they run in the woods now, and if they could take down Tom, a big dog far stronger than Liz — she freaks herself out and hurries back home.
Mr Bowyer shows up that afternoon with the Icelandic sheep, which are small and have shaggy grey-brown wool. The ram has big curly horns. They sound adorable. And smelly, because sheep. Sven, alas, is not the big Viking Liz pictured. He’s about five eight with mousey-brown hair that is balding at the front, and he has a nice, shy smile. He’s also in his late twenties, and seems much younger than Mr Bowyer. His English has an American accent.
Sven is a vet, and they rope him into looking at Tom’s body. From the bite marks, Sven thinks he was attacked by other dogs, and they explain cat-dogs to him. The more they tell him, the uneasier Sven looks. (And the more they sound like cat-foxes, not cat-dogs, to be honest.) Finally, he bursts out that they are skoffins. They have no idea what he’s talking about.
They return to the house, and he explains that in Iceland, there are many lonesome farms, and may foxes. Apparently in Icelandic, the word fox is the same for devil. My super brief research reveals that djanki has been used both as a name for the devil, but also as a name for the arctic fox, and Dick Ringler in Bard of Iceland: Jonas Hallgrimsson, Poet and Scientist argues that the fox meaning is probably secondary, and that the name for the devil was transferred to it because of its cunning and predatory nature. (I realise that I have now down more research for this one reference than most PH authors do for their entire book.)
ANYWAY, a vixen will sometimes come to the farm and mate with the tom-cat and then go have her babies in the wild. Mr Bowyer thinks that is impossible, but Sven keeps going with his story. The babies of the vixen and tom-cat are called skuggabalders (my god, Iceland has AMAZING words), and they are fierce, clever animals, and very dangerous.
Sven goes on to say that sometimes a female cat from a farm mates with a dog-fox, by which I think he actually means a skuggabalders. However, they really need to stop calling them dog-foxes, because NOWHERE DOES HIS STORY ACTUALLY CONTAIN A DOG. The skuggabalders are the offspring of a wild fox and a tom-cat, and the skoffin (the dog-cat) is the offspring of a female farm cat and a male skuggabalder. The kittens are born on the farm, and those are called skoffins, and farmers kill them as soon as they find them and never let them grow up, because they are supposed to be even more clever and fierce than a skuggabalder.
Mr Bowyer still claims that the fox and the cat can’t mate in the first place because they are different species. And he has something of a point, except: there are plenty of animals from different species that mate. Some well known hybrids include the liger (a lion/tiger mix), the mule and the hinny (a difference I was literally debating offline just a few days ago: a mule is the cross of a female horse and a male donkey, and a hinny is a cross between a female donkey and a male horse — apparently they make different sounds), and the Bengal cat (a fertile breed that was developed from cross the Asian leopard and the domestic cat). Eventually, Sven convinces them, and Mr Bowyer decides they are going to go lamping, which is when you take a lamp or torch out at night and shine it — if you catch an animal, like a fox or, he assumes, a skoffin, in the light, it freezes and you shoot it.
Liz goes with them with Mr Bowyer’s support (because she wants to run the farm later) and Mrs Bowyer’s concern (they are hunting the skoffins for a reason, after all). They head into the woods, and the going is tough, and they are loud. Liz opens a little bit of the lamp so she and Sven can see to walk, and Mr Bowyer makes her cover it immediately because it’s ruining their night vision. When she covers it again, the darkness and silence wraps around her, because she can’t see a thing now that she’s destroyed her night vision. I love that moment of utter darkness, and the fear that comes with it.
Sven whispers her name behind her. She can’t see anything when she turns, so she uncovers the lamp, hiding the light from her father with her jacket. UM. LIZ. I’m pretty sure he’ll see the light ON SVEN if he looks. Sven is trapped knee-deep in a clump of brambles and nettles, not doing very well because in Iceland, there are no woods. Never mind, can’t live in Iceland. I need the creepiness of deep, dark woods.
Once they get him out of the briars, they realise they’ve lost Mr Bowyer. While they’re trying to decide what to do, they hear a shotgun blast in the distance, and take off for it. It sounds farther away than her father should be, and Liz is lost and worried. She gets separate from Sven, falls, hears “a sound that went through her like an arrow and had her hugging the ground like every other terrified animal in the wood. It was a twisting, wailing shriek.” That’s kind of delightful.
She sits shaking and terrified for many long minutes, then finally gets her torch and reconnects with Sven. The skoffin circle them, black shadows against the darkness, movement they can barely see and never catch in the light, and Sven wants to get out of the woods immediately. The skoffin keep screaming (“a shriek that might have come from a tortured baby”). Sven explains they are trying to panic them, make them run and scatter.
Sven again says they need to get out of the woods, and though Liz wants to find her father, she leads him toward the main path — or at least where she thinks the main path exists. Eventually, she asks why her father doesn’t answer when they shout for him. Sven thinks he’s dead, though he won’t come right out and say it.
Though the woods are only small, they end up very lost in them, with the skoffins circling and sometimes darting close enough the light catches the red shine of their eyes. Finally, Liz recognizes a line of reddish stone as part of the ruins of the abbey. The main path is just on the other side of the ruins, and it takes them straight to the farm — but it continues through the wood. Sven is doubtful that going through the woods more, even on a path, is a good idea, but Liz says it is the only way. Except you came into the woods via a different path, so … technically that’s not true. Whatever, she’s right that it is the fastest way.
The cat-dogs get ahead of them into the abbey, cutting off their way to the main path, and Liz and Sven run back toward the woods in different directions, and the cat-dogs get between them. Liz runs around the ruins toward the well, and from somewhere in the ruins, she hears Sven shout. The cat-dogs leave her alone for a moment (because they’re eating Sven, Liz, get out of here!), but as soon as she starts for the path to the farm, one of them comes for her, snapping at her “playful as a puppy”, its teeth and muzzle stained. With blood. From eating people. Like your father. Oh, Liz.
Another appears behind her, and she runs toward the farm, swinging her torch at the one in front of her. It dodges the blow and bites her forearm, dragging her down with more weight than she ever imagined possible. The other cat-dog grabs her jacket; both the fabric and her skin start to tear. She manages to fight her way free, and runs into the ruins of the abbey. She bangs into things because she can’t see, and eventually lands on a body — Sven, with his throat ripped out.
She realises her dad is dead and Sven is dead, and she’s the only one left. All those foxes and all those cats across the country, and skoffins could be hiding amongst them anywhere, clever and vicious. (I fucking love the skoffins, you guys.)
She tries again to run, but slams into the abbey wall, and skoffins drag her down.
Well that is fucking depressing as hell, and I love it. Actual deaths, delightfully terrible and smart monsters, deliciously creepy setting. Fabulous story. Five torn jugulars out of five.
[Dove: Not sure whether I love this book because so much of it is set in England, or because the opening story is completely badass. Probably both.]
[Wing: Is this the England sequel to 13 Tales? It feels like it.]
The Piano by Diane Hoh
(Diane Hoh really needs no introduction around here, considering she wrote Dove’s beloved Funhouse, the recap we used to kick off this adventure. We generally adore her. (Though guest recapper Dade took on The Train so we didn’t have to.) Let’s see if her short stories continue to hold up; I really liked “Dedicated to the One I Love” in 13 Tales.)
Laura sits on a piano bench cracking her knuckles while her stepmother shrieks at her. Her stepmother is a tall, skinny woman with dyed red hair and pencilled eyebrows who sits around eating chocolates all the time and shouts at Laura. Laura doesn’t understand why she doesn’t weigh a ton. Because that’s not how fatness works always, jackass. Already we’re not off to a good start.
Sally was 25 years younger than Laura’s father, who has died, and whines at Laura that she’ll never be as rich and famous as her grandmother if she doesn’t practice. Laura is bitter that she has to practice so much, exhausted from it, and annoyed that Sally wouldn’t let her go to a rock concert. She thinks all she ever does is practice so she can win a scholarship to the Academy of Music in London.
Laura finally gets ready to play when the piano plays a scale on its own and then bursts into “Long, Tall Sally” and then “Black-Hearted Woman.” Laura thinks this is a message about how terrible Sally is. Laura maybe needs to take a moment here. She asks the piano why her father ever married someone like Sally, and the piano plays “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Laura agrees with this, and mourns her dead dad and his foolishness when it came to Sally. He even left the house to her after she spent all his money, and so Laura can’t actually throw Sally out.
The piano plays “Tell Laura I Love Her” next, and Laura tells the piano she loves it too. Is this the first love story we’ve had between a main character and an inanimate object? Laura really does love the piano, even though she hates practicing so much, which is not the piano’s fault. It is old and dark, with “thick legs embellished with grotesque carvings of animal heads.” Where did this piano come from and can I get one?
Oh, apparently it was handed down from her grandmother, who was a world-renowned concert pianist who suddenly, mysteriously died at 34, leaving all her wealth to Laura’s father, who was only 10 at the time.
After spending the fortune (because of course she’s a gold digger, of course she is), Sally wanted to sell Laura’s piano because it’s an antique, but while he was alive, Laura’s father stopped her, and shortly after her death, Dr Lakis-Tabouli, Laura’s piano teacher, told them he thought she could be famous like her grandmother. Sally said nothing else about selling the piano, and instead created a demanding practice schedule for Laura. She plans to get rich off Laura.
Laura’s feeling very maudeline and whiny, thinking about how it was nice that someone loved her (she means her piano, of course), because of course Sally doesn’t love her, and she doesn’t want her to, and the only boy she likes, Craig Nevins, only has eyes for Susannah Jeffries who, of course, is also Laura’s number one competition for the scholarship.
Laura plays “You are My Sunshine” for the piano, and the piano answers with “You Light Up My Life”. This is getting weird.
Sally finally notices that Laura isn’t practicing her competition songs. Laura explains the competition to the piano, but if she’s been practicing for it for so long, wouldn’t the piano have heard some of the details at this point? Laura’s not even sure she wants to go to the conservatory, but knows it is the only way she’s going to escape Sally. The piano plays “I’d Do Anything for You” from Oliver! and I am sad it’s not “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” except I’m guessing there is no “that” that the piano won’t do [Dove: Whereas I am delighted, because I’d Do Anything is one of my favourite songs of all time. I was lucky enough to speak to Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger) before he passed away. I’m very proud of this.]. Laura says it’s sweet of the piano to support her, but the only thing that could be done is to get Susannah out of her life, and that’s too much for even the best piano to do.
Laura, I think you’re going to eat your words shortly.
Sally goes out for dinner with friends, and Laura sneaks out to walk in the woods like she does often at twilight. For the first time, she sees Susannah riding in Laura’s woods. Laura is furious, and envious because she, too, once had a horse (Schubert, because of course Laura would name her horse after a famous composer. She clearly has no other interests), but, shocker, Sally sold him off.
Laura starts to turn around to avoid Susannah when she notices that Susannah is going to cross an arched wooden footbridge that spans a brook far below. Laura knows the bridge isn’t strong enough to hold them, but when she tries to call a warning, her voice doesn’t work. Sure enough, the bridge’s wooden supports buckle under the weight, and then, with a staccato burst of sharp, cracking sounds, the bridge breaks and dumps Susannah and her horse into the water far below. Susannah lands first, and the horse slams on top of her, breaking her bones, crushing her skull.
Well damn, Hoh, that’s pretty brutal. [Dove: Yep. I love the way they throw out the rules for the Thirteens. Yes, we’d like deaths please. Real ones. No fake-outs. — Done. — What, what?] [Wing: Right? I really like this book for its use of actual, often brutal, deaths. Such a difference from typical Point Horrors.]
Laura goes back to the house and calls an ambulance, and we cut to the next day when Laura goes directly to the music academy after school. Craig is the one who tells her that Susannah is dead, and tells her the competition is hers, hands down, so to speak. That would make more sense if someone had lost their hands, but whatever.
Nona Scoppetone tells him he’s being horrible, and surely Laura’s not thinking about the competition now. Laura, of course, is thinking about the competition. She’s also well aware that Craig is starting to pay attention to her now not because she’s suddenly more interesting, but that she appears more interesting now that Susannah is not around to compare Laura to. Gross.
Gower Bent asks Laura if Drake’s Woods, where Susannah died, is near Laura’s house, and Laura agrees that it is, but doesn’t volunteer that she witnessed the accident or is the one who called the ambulance. She keeps telling herself that what happened was Susannah’s fault for crossing the bridge, just like Sally has told her, and there’s no reason for Laura to feel guilty at all.
The competition is held as planned, and Laura wins. Later that night, she tells the piano that she doesn’t feel anything, though she’s waiting to feel wonderful; really, she hasn’t felt anything in a long time, and she guesses that she’s just too tired.
The piano plays “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” (I have to say, if a piano tried to talk to me this way, it would fail miserably; I am terrible at name that tune.) When Laura says she does, it plays “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Laura scolds the piano for making a joke, and it plays “Yesterday,” “Misery,” and a reprise of “London Bridge is Falling Down” and then a rousing rendition of “Happy Days are Here Again.”
Laura is shocked into silence, and then immediately starts talking. UMM. Not really how being shocked into silence works, Hoh. She starts to work it out, that yesterday she was miserable, and the bridge did fall and make better days for her, but — but how could —
The piano doesn’t answer. She tells it that she didn’t want Susannah dead, but admits that it’s true, her life is better without her, because she won the competition and Craig asked her out on a date. She wants to go. Laura, you are a jackass in so many ways.
Laura again says taht Susannah’s death is her own fault, she shouldn’t have been in their woods, and she shouldn’t have tried to take the big Arab horse over the footbridge. Really, I feel sorriest for the horse in this story.
The piano tells her to “Let It Be” and she says she will. (Modern version would have used “Let It Go” Y/Y?) [Dove: Great. It’s back in my head again.] [Wing: *winning*]
Turns out, though, that Sally won’t let her go on the date because the competition is only the first step, and she needs to keep practicing, especially because it was her father’s dream for Laura to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. This works on Laura because she feels guilty about his death; the night he had the heart attack that killed him, she was on a date with Craig, dancing, because she asked him out that time; he only had eyes for Susannah even while dancing with her. She thinks that if she’d been at home, she could have helped her father and he would have lived. That’s pretty harsh, kid.
Two weeks after Susannah’s funeral, Craig keeps asking Laura out, but Laura can never go. She grumbles to the piano that Sally is ruining her life, and she’ll never be rid of her. The piano tells her “We Can Work It Out” but Laura says they can’t, because she’ll never leave her own house.
Awhile later, Sally brings her a sandwich before she leaves for dinner again, and starts to choke on the sandwich she’s eating. The piano plays the theme from Jaws, and Sally turns first red and then a sickly purplish hue, and her eyes bulge. Laura freaks out, asking what she should do, and again the piano tells her to “Let It Be.” When she says she has to help Sally, she just doesn’t know how, the piano plays “Long, Tall Sally,” “Misery,” and “Let It Be.” Laura sits at the piano, forcing her mind to go blank until Sally is finally still, and the piano plays “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz.
Laura is not pleased with the piano, but is relieved that she’s finally free. She tells the piano that it’s not her fault no one ever taught her first aid, someone should have shown her and never did. How can she be blamed?
She’s allowed to stay in the house by herself because she’s seventeen, and it turns out that her father had a secret trust fund for her that was only payable to her on her stepmother’s death. Dove, realistic or nah? [Dove: Incredibly unlikely. It would make it so much more believable if there was simply a trust that she didn’t know about (rather than a secret one), that was payable on her stepmother’s death OR her 18/21/25 birthday, whichever happened first. That would have made it instantly plausible. Otherwise you’ve got money simply sitting there, doing nothing, for potentially decades. It makes no financial sense and no decent professional would advise this.] [Wing: Though I do wonder if the “secret” part was more people not telling Laura anything than it actually being a secret trust, the rest of Dove’s point stands.]
Laura hires a housekeeper and puts a small, cheap headstone on Sally’s grave. She talks to the piano about how she’s dating Craig now, and they’re going on a double date with Nona and Gower that night, and the next night to a concert in the city, and she and Nona are going shopping for a new wardrobe, and on and on. She’s so pleased she starts playing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and keeps talking about how her life is going to be so much better and so different now.
The piano slowly plays “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and she reassures it that she loves it too, and she’ll be back to playing again, but not now, there are too many other fun things to do. She’s going to keep it tuned, though, and has a nice man from the village lined up to do that so it won’t get rusty. The piano plays “Don’t Ever Leave Me” which was Laura’s mother’s favourite song.
Laura asks if it really thought she would keep practicing after Sally was dead. The piano repeats “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” Laura scoffs that she’s spent 10 years on the bench, and now she’s going to live her life, and the piano will just have to wait for her. It then sullenly plays “What I Did For Love” and she tells it she’s grateful, but how can it think she’ll keep to the horrendous practice schedule without Sally. “I Should Have Known Better,” and Laura tells it yes, it should have, and she has to go because she doesn’t want to keep Craig waiting. I’m sure this is going to go exactly how you think, Laura.
Sure enough, the piano plays a wild, chaotic version of “You Belong to Me.” Laura snaps that she does not, she belongs to herself for the first time in her life, and then the piano plays the Jaws theme again and lunges at her, pinning her against the wall.
AMAZING. MOVING PIANO.
They have a fight that consists of Laura shouting how much she hates being cooped up with only the piano as a friend, and it plays “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” when Craig shows up and rings the doorbell. Laura begs to be let free so she can go out with him and she promises to come back and play later.
We then switch to Craig telling Nona and Grower that even though Laura is gorgeous, she’s as nutty as her grandmother (fuck you, Craig), and since he can hear the piano playing, she must have forgotten all about them. How come he can hear the piano but not her shouting? Nona says she heard the grandmother died sitting at the piano, and Craig heard that she bought the piano from some Hungarian gypsy, because of course this is going to be some sort of gypsy curse. Fucking racist storytelling, damn.
You’ll be shocked to know that the grandmother took the piano everywhere with her after she bought it, and the second she announced her retirement so she could devote herself to her family, she died sitting at her piano, her fingers bloody stumps from playing nonstop. Fuck ableism and racism in this story.
Laura tries to climb under the piano, but the miniature animal heads carved on the legs come to life and start biting her. She’s bloody and wounded, but manages to escape, and then takes an axe to the piano. Once it is in pieces, she goes racing off to catch up with her friends.
Because I’m sure they’ll be super excited to see you after you’ve been fighting with the piano and are all bloody and must look a mess.
The piano rebuilds itself to an icy, evil version of “Tomorrow” from Annie.
Liz has to die, but Laura lives? Fuck that. You let me down, Hoh. You let me down. One broken piano out of five.
[Dove: Do you still want that piano?]
[Wing: Obviously. It kills people for me.]
The Devil’s Footprints by Malcolm Rose
(Malcolm Rose is a British YA author who mostly writes mysteries and thrillers where the protagonist uses science to save the day. So … this is going to go well, I’m sure.)
After years of prayers, Devon finally has snow for Christmas 2004, and it continues through January, and in February, the weather turns even colder and the River Exe froze solid. On 8 February, they learned who actually answered their prayers.
Darren is holding a fancy dress party at his house, and he’s left his front door open so his friends could come straight in, but they keep ringing the doorbell and waiting out in the cold, because they are idiots. The last two to arrive are always Jaz and Sam, and since they are always late, Darren knows them despite their costumes (Batman and a decidedly female Robin — so you mean Carrie Kelley or Stephanie Brown, who were female Robins in the comics?) Jaz points out that someone has taken their costume seriously, because there are imprints of a hoof in the snow leading up to the door, about the size of a donkey’s, but with five or six claw marks, and clearly made by an animal walking on two legs. That is dedication. Darren is impressed, and Jaz says of course he’ll get to the bottom of it, because he’s dressed as Sherlock Holmes for the night.
Darren’s parties are apparently always “different”; the standard booze, noise, and dance aren’t enough for him, so he organises a post-nuclear holocaust party where everyone dresses as diseased mutants and bizarre virtual reality computer parties. Darren’s events sound fun, but he comes across as a proto-hipster with his attitude. [Dove: But he was a hipster before there were hipsters. This is like dividing by zero.] [Wing: I’m trying to break the universe.]
Inside the house, Brian is in control of the lighting, heating, music, and lasers. That sounds like an interesting mix. There are Super Mario Brothers and a Sonic, and the gorgeous Kelly came as herself. Many people are wearing masks or hoods, so Darren isn’t sure who is whom, but he can’t find anyone dressed as half a donkey or an upright goat.
Darren takes Jaz and Sam to get a drink, and Brian tells Darren to beware because there’s a noxious substance in the room — it’s Darren’s alcohol. Apparently, Brian is the household computer, and Darren’s parents programmed him to say stuff like that. Soooooo, Darren is basically a knock-off teenage Tony Stark. Awesome.
Darren takes off to try to hook up with Kelly, who is new at school, and very popular with everyone. She’s very mysterious, too, and has not had her first boyfriend at their school. All the guys want to be the first. Darren dances with her for awhile, but she responds in a very bland way to all his overtures, never putting him off exactly, but not encouraging him either. In time, he gets thirsty and his eyes are sore; he goes to get a drink and tells Brian to turn up the AC because the air is stale and smoky. Brian detects someone vomiting in the cloakroom and increased heart-rates and shortness of breath in several guests, and adjusts the air flow accordingly. Shouldn’t he already be doing that if he’s meant to be managing the house?
Darren catches a glimpse of a furry back, and tries to follow it to see the costume of the guest who left the hoofprints, but loses them in the dancers. Another guest tells Darren he saw Kelly going off with someone in a goatish animal mask that was pretty evil looking, and then asks for painkillers for his headache. Darren takes the guy upstairs to get the aspirin, and then ducks into his bedroom and asks Brian to find Kelly in the crowd. So fucking creepy, Darren. Brian can’t find her anywhere else in the house, so says she must be in the lounge, where he can’t scan due to the low lights. Darren has him turn up the lights just enough they can see people dancing, and they find her dancing. Brian says she is dancing alone, but Darren doesn’t believe that. He then has Brian scan for someone in a goat costume, but Brian finds no one, nor anyone with a goat-type mask.
Darren is starting to feel weird about the party, the choking atmosphere, the disappearing goat, the way Kelly keeps ignoring him — and more than that, too. He can’t seem to immerse himself in the revelries, he feels responsible for the event and his guests. Darren throws himself into the party to try to enjoy himself, dancing with a bunch of people, drinking, but can’t shake his weird feelings, and then sees Kelly go upstairs with the goat. Kelly doesn’t look back, but the goat sneers at Darren. The costume is brilliantly done, Darren thinks, from the realistic animal fur to the tail between its legs, the two small horns from the forehead, and the evil mask.
Brian once again tries to tell Darren to beware because there is a noxious substance in the room, but Darren cuts him off. He goes outside to clear his head, and the cold hits him like a sledgehammer. As much as I hate cold weather, I do love that moment of shock when you step out from a warm building into icy weather. He examines the footprints again, and decides they look elaborate and authentic, except for the weirdness of the claws.
Once he gets cold, he goes upstairs to his bedroom, describes the hoofprints to Brian, and asks for a pattern recognition search. That’s a pretty impressive search, if it can work off a mere description. Brian finds nothing in his encyclopedia. Darren has him search all his memory space, and he finds an old newspaper article from the London Illustrated News dated 24th February 1855. It reports that on 9 February, the Exe estuary was frozen, and villagers found strange footprints covering the down, all perfect impressions of a donkey’s hoof, clawed and walking upright, and the people of Devon thought they’d been visited by Satan himself.
Darren’s curiosity is piqued, even though he doesn’t believe in the devil. He tells Brian they need to get a closer look at the guest in the goat costume; Brian still claims there is no one there. Darren has him pull up surveillance of the stairs from about twenty minutes ago. They watch people go up and down, until Darren finally spots Kelly. She looks terrible, struggles to climb the stairs, and is alone, no goat with her. Darren is shocked, but convinces himself there is a malfunction, and tells Brian to perform a self-test. Brian goes offline for four minutes to do so, though he keeps the music and lights going downstairs, which means he’s not fully offline, but okay.
When Brian comes back online, his test found no malfunctions, but the goat guest still does not appear on the stairs. Darren has Brian search for Kelly, and he finds her in bedroom five, but can’t detect any signs of life.
Sure enough, Darren finds her dead in the bedroom, sprawled on the floor, eyes red and hair dry. Thick yellow stuff burst out of her mouth and her face is gray and lifeless. Darren runs to get help from Sam and Jaz, and tells them they have to stop the party because Kelly is dead. They don’t believe him, of course, until he takes them upstairs and shows them. They retreat to his bedroom so he can also show them the article and the video without the goat image.
Brian’s notified the authorities, as he has been programmed, and tried to reach Darren’s parents, but could not. The police won’t be there for an hour, though, because they are dealing with many similar incidents. So … all sorts of deaths then? Brian has locked the doors because no one can leave until they arrive.
Sam suggests they stop the party and tell the others what is happening. They agree not to mention the devil, but do want to warn people not to go off with someone dressed as a goat. They then realise that the goat man may be locked in the house with them; Brian says there is no goat man, and starts to tell them the cause of her death, but Darren cuts him off.
They go downstairs and tell the guests someone is dead, and they start making jokes about the game Cluedo (Mrs White in the library with the lead pipe), until it becomes clear that Darren isn’t joking. Apparently, the goat was last seen with Super Mario, and he’s dead in the downstairs cloakroom.
Once everyone is gathered in one room, Darren shows them the stuff Brian found, and a girl dressed as the fairy freaks out because everyone the goat talks to dies, and he talked to her a few minutes ago on the way to the loo. She said she thought he was drunk because he kept talking about his last visit and spawning or something, and last time, with the cold he brought hunter, and this time, his breath brings death.
As she’s talking, she breaks down, her whole body shuddering, and then she chokes, vomits bile, and writhes on the floor. She rubs furiously at her eyes, wheezes, and dies.
Darren is terrified, but thinks a lot of things very quickly, including that the last visit was apparently 150 years ago, and his parents are out celebrating the founding of a business 150 years ago, which became a pesticide factory. Therefore, if the devil spawned the old firm, then the devil’s poisonous breath must be coming from the pesticide factory.
Brian agrees, and says he detected it earlier and tried to notify him. It is an airbourne poison, a methyl isocyanate that is leaking from the firm. The gas escape and condensed on all the cold surfaces, and now that it is warming up a little, it is evaporating slowly and that is why everyone is ill. Brian has done all he can, which is to close the windows and reduce the temperature to minimize the concentration of the vapour, but several lethal doses have settled in the house already.
Then the goat starts laughing. It joined them in the room without them even noticing.
The personification of evil, the creature’s stance was roughly humanoid but the body was pure animal, with no hint of its sex. Its wide, hairy midriff gave way to bowed and twisted goat’s legs that ended in hooves. The chest was matted and muscular. Its ample neck supported a long face with a straggling pointed beard. The sneering, convex mouth revealed uneven yellow teeth. Above it, there was an ugly flattened snout and upward-slanting eyes. They were deep-set, angry and black. On either side of the face, fleecy ears jutted out. And from the top of its head, two curled stubby horns protruded. The creature smelled of death.
He breathes on them a couple times, warm stinging air from his putrid mouth, and then passes through the locked front door as if it wasn’t even there.
The newspaper only has a few inches on page two about all the weird footprints, because the bigger report is about the hundreds of death in the area, and thousands of casualties from Plymouth to Bristol. An unnamed worker claims there is no way three failsafe devices all failed and that someone must have sabotaged the controlling computer.
Nothing surprising in here, but a solid, fun story that kept me entertained. Lesson: always listen to your creepy AI when it tries to tell you about a noxious substance. Four cloven-hoofed devils out of five.
[Dove: Also, bonus points for reading this in 2016 and laughing at what the 90s thought 2004 might be like.]
[Wing: Fair point.]
Softies by Stan Nicholls
(Stan Nicholls is a British fantasy author best known for his series Orcs: First Blood.)
We open on an unnamed teenage boy in a green baseball cap, blue jeans, black Nikes, and a nerdy t-shirt that says “gravity – don’t take it for granted.” He has a bear with him with artificial yellow-orange fur that is wearing a red silk ribbon tied in a floppy bow at his throat. They go into a shopping mall and the bear growls at the air. The shoppers ignore them. They shop a bit, and then head off toward the town centre. They pass a woman talking to a pink polka dot giraffe and nod politely.
Piers hates wedding receptions, and is angry that Mr T refused to come with him. He’s a reporter, and he’s been assigned to an endless round of fetes, christenings, supermarket openings — anything but the story he actually wants to write. He’s already gotten quotes from the groom Alan Richards, who is a minor local celebrity because he’s on a second division football club.
A panda offers him a drink, and he spills orange juice on its wrist. He takes his drink outside and finds the photographer fussing with the bride and groom, and the four dolls who are bridesmaids. Then a man brings him his tape recorder, which he forgot inside, and introduces himself as Matthew Richards, the groom’s nephew. Matt is not going to be a footballer like his uncle, but wants to be a reporter. I think Matt and Piers might be flirting, but I’m super bored by this story. Matt is leaving, and Piers escorts him over to pick up his Companion from the weird separate space they keep for Companions.
Inside is full of dolls, pandas, teddies, koalas, dwarf trolls, gorillas, hulking shadows, and they are all still and silent. Piers finds it utterly freaky, and wonders if they are always like that when people aren’t around.
Matt calls for his Companion, a bear named Rufus, and he slowly turns toward them. Piers has never felt so uncomfortable around Companions, as if he’s interrupted something intensely private and they despise him for it. Piers gives Matt his phone number in case they want to talk about Matt becoming a journalist (riiiiiiight, or maybe in case they want to hook up), but also because he thinks Matt is having a problem with Rufus similar to the one Piers has with Mr T.
Next we skip to Cora and Jerry talking about whether they have overdone things with the flowers in their new baby’s hospital room. They’re waiting for the baby’s Companion to arrive. A doctor arrives with a smartly dressed man with a briefcase, a nurse wheeling a cot containing a bundle wrapped in a pink shawl, a doll carrying roses, and a large bear. The man with the briefcase reads the bonding ceremony of the child and the Companion “as friends, consorts, and soulmates for as long as they both shall live.”
Karen Grace Taylor is bound to her Companion in the eyes of the law, and Crystal shall serve, support, and protect her charge at all times. Everyone applauds except for Vanda, the doll, and Chad, the bear. (They are Jerry and Cora’s Companions.) Karen’s new companion is a tiny panda. It is the happiest day of their lives.
Back to Piers, on the unhappiest day of his life. Everyone knows teddys can be grumpy, but Mr T’s moods are really getting him down. The bear skulks around the garden miserably a lot, and Piers decides to confront him. When he comes inside, he does, and Mr T eventually talks about how frustrating it is being a Companion, how he has a mind of his own, and how he wants to do things he wants to do, not always things that Piers wants to do.
When Mr T tries to leave, Piers grabs him and begs Mr Thumpy not to leave, and Mr T is furious. He tells Piers to take his filthy hands off him and to never call him that name again. For the first time, Piers realises how big and powerful Mr T is. In the middle of this tense moment, Matt calls, because he needs help, something bad has happened and there is no one else he can call. Piers agrees to help him, and when he gets off the phone, Mr T is gone.
Piers arrives at Matt’s house to find two men carrying Rufus out on a stretcher. They’re from the Companions Recovery Service. Rufus was apparently attacked by a gang of thugs, probably because he mouthed off to them. He’s been super grumpy lately. Matt’s sister, Emma, was there, too, and called the police who caught one of the gang, but she’s off with her Companion, a doll who got a little cut up.
Piers knows a Detective Sergeant at the police station where they took the guy, and he pulls some strings to get in, even though they don’t normally let reporters interview prisoners. They aren’t charging Nicholas Barker, though, because there are no witnesses. Nicholas wants to talk to Piers because he wants the press to know about his theories about the Companions. The Detective Sergeant also tells Piers that there have been a lot more attacks lately on Companions, and all they can do is get people for damage to property. Since the Companions are living creatures, or at least animate creatures who communicate, that’s some shit.
Nicholas mouths off awhile, and then says he doesn’t have a Companion. Piers is shocked by this because usually people who don’t have Companions are disabled in mind or body and unable to cope. The worldbuilding here sucks. Fuck off with that noise. [Dove: Agreed re worldbuilding. If you look at this world using its own logic: Companions are barely rated as sentient, you would think the government would assign the disabled Companions as a cheap way around providing care.] Nicholas, though, got rid of his Companion, turned him in to the town hall. He wants Piers to tell the public about the dirty Companions and how terrible they are.
Piers next visits Rufus and Matt at the Royal Infirmary for Companions. Emma is there, too. Piers and Matt talk to a doctor about how, over the past few years, there have been a lot of Companions in from organized attacks, and no one is taking it seriously.
Next Piers talks to Murray Baxter, his editor. There are way too many characters in this short story. Murray doesn’t want to print any of Piers’ stories about the Companions because they are too outlandish. Piers swears to come up with some actual proof. As he’s leaving, he talks to a couple other reporters about a woman who went to open a garage door, leaving her Companion seat with the car running, and then the car slammed into her and crushed her. Best guess is that the Companion got itself tangled in the accelerator, and it is a sad, bizarre accident.
Right, right, “accident.”
Next we skip back to the Taylor family, who have just died in a burning house, but their Companions got out, not a single mark on them.
Piers meets up with Matt, and Matt tells him that a bear passed a note to Rufus while they were on the street, and Matt later found it torn up in the trash bin (though only torn in half, fail, Rufus). He taped it back together: in blue ink, it has 12 followed by 17 Gance. It takes a moment for Piers to figure out it is an address, Gance Road.
At midnight, Piers and Matt go to the address, which is an abandoned warehouse on a derelict street. They sneak around back and then inside, and find a hundred or more Companions of every kind. Piers looks through the infrared camera, but doesn’t dare click the shutter to actually take a picture.
Rufus leads the meeting, talking about the time of their deliverance drawing near and how they have suffered long enough. This is all a very poorly handled metaphor for slavery, isn’t it. There’s shouting, Piers takes photos under the noise, and Piers and Matt sneak out, thinking they made it without being seen, but Rufus and Mr T come to the door and watch them turn the corner.
Piers goes home to develop his photos in the darkroom he set up in his spare bedroom. (Those days before digital photography, when you had to wait on photos and very well could end up dead because of it, at least in a Point Horror.)
He finishes around 2 a.m. and is just about to go to bed (with no thought for the fact Mr T isn’t home) when Matt calls him and says that Rufus isn’t home and Emma is gone, too, along with her Companion, and her room has been torn up like someone was looking for something.
Piers promises to come help and hangs up, and that’s when Mr T comes over and tells him they know he saw them. Piers tries to reason with him, but Mr T attacks him with a knife. Mr T then burns the photographs and cries while he mourns Piers, because they did have good times.
Weirdly paced story, way too many characters for a short story, and while the worldbuilding is interesting, the whole thing falls flat. Also, a pretty badly handled metaphor for slavery. Zero murderous stuffed animals out of five.
[Dove: Yeah, the world doesn’t seem consistent within itself. Also, didn’t really like any of the humans so it was hard to get invested.]
[Wing: Same. That’s mostly because there are too many characters and we hop from place to place, but also, Piers is annoying as hell, and he’s the one we spend the most time with, so that didn’t help. I don’t think we’re meant to be super sympathetic toward any of the humans, but mostly I was just bored.]