Thursday, November 14, 2013

Excerpt from "The Alternation of Night and Day"

Coming this winter in paperback and Kindle edition from the JSH Book Club: The Alternation of Night and Day!

It's a story set in 1936, with an Irish boxer from Louisville named Danny O'Corbin who seeks an occult solution to his personal and career problems. The quest takes him to New Orleans to meet a man who, he's been promised, can help him become a more powerful being.

More details on the book, and how to win free copies, will follow in the weeks to come!

The science fiction epic Solar Station A, originally scheduled to be the next book club installment, has been postponed a few months. One of the good things about calling the shots of your own book distribution is the ability to extend your own deadlines infinitely, or even just throw up your hands and say, "you know what? It'll be out when it comes out." The other upcoming novel, Matilda Heron, will also appear early next year.


Helen Ward and the Benny Goodman Orchestra played on the truck radio. "Just like the sting of a bee, you turned the tables on me..."

Daniel munched from a paper bag of salt-boiled shrimp he'd bought from a roadside vendor, and gazed around at the swampland. Trees heavy with Spanish moss, with exposed roots and tentacles, lurched against each other like drunken Arsenal teammates covered in mud after a football game in the rain. This sort of scenery was new to him; except for a childhood visit back to his ancestral home of Waterford, he'd rarely left Louisville in his life. And even then, it was to visit other big cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis. In this rural setting, feelings of anxiety were welling up within him, and he couldn't say exactly why.

Ahead on the left he saw a group of people and some sort of commotion. A man was holding onto another man, and forcing him down into the swampwater to drown. The rest of the mob, many of whom were women, were cheering and joyous about it.

Daniel started to hit the gas, but then found himself hitting the brake. He pulled over.

Being an exceptional fighter sometimes made Daniel feel obligated to step in and help others whenever he saw them being attacked and bullied. It made him feel to good to help people in this way, but it also made him feel like an intruding busybody. He often tried to come up with a philosophical stance that would make him feel more comfortable with the contradiction, but he never succeeded.

"Hey!" cried Daniel, flinging the truck door open. "What goes on here?"

Everyone stopped and turned to look at him in surprise. The man, still holding into the other man in the water, said something but Daniel couldn't hear it.

"Let him go! I said let him go!" Daniel shouted as he strode up, and then in a quieter voice as he got to the water's edge: "What the bloody hell are you people doing to him?"

Suddenly everyone burst out laughing, including the man being drowned.

"I'm being baptized, brother," he grinned.

Daniel was stunned. He'd never heard of someone being baptized in a swamp. His own baptism had occurred when he was a baby, and took place in the baptismal font at the door of the Cathedral of the Assumption.

"Come and join us! Have you been baptized?" called out the attacking man - who Daniel now realized must be a Pastor - who motioned with his hand for him to enter the murky water.

"Thanks anyway," mumbled Daniel, "I'm not really a religious person..."

A cloud crossed the Pastor's face, both literally and figuratively. "Oh, son, thou hast let thy prideful ways bring you down to the level of man's world and not God's world, haven't you?"

Daniel hated it when people talked that way. Just because people said "thou hast" in the day of the King James Bible didn't mean Jesus talked like that, and there sure wasn't any reason to talk like that now. No wonder so many people can't tell Shakespeare quotes from Bible quotes half the time.

"Maybe some other time," Daniel said nervously. "Look, I'm really sorry to have disturbed you..."

"Thou fool!" the Pastor suddenly intoned melodramatically. "this night thy soul shall be required of thee!"

Daniel just stared back.

"That's Luke 12:20," said one of the women, cheerfully and helpfully.

The free-floating irrational fear in Daniel's head, simmering before, now came to a full boil. He felt his face go flush and his temples go numb. It became difficult to breathe. Daniel struggled to sort out the mental and physical components of it, but his mind was racing too fast for his thoughts to monitor themselves. At that moment, all he wanted to do was run - preferably all the way back to Louisville - and this was a sensation he'd never had before.

Shaking, he turned and hurried back to the truck without another word. The women in their white dresses waved to him as he sped off.

Daniel turned the radio on and off a number of times. He tried to eat a shrimp and then spat it out the window. He thought about happy things and then thought of unhappy things, trying to flip the dials and levers of his nervous system until he came up with a combination that calmed the overwhelming anxiety. Finally he felt his blood pressure go down enough to breathe freely, and decided it must be the shrimp making him feel weird. He tossed the bag out the window. Through his rear view mirror he could see vultures had come from nowhere and swooped down on the discarded shrimp in an instant.

He turned the radio on again. Harriet Hilliard's "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" was playing. He turned it off again.

The marshlands gave way to a wide grassy expanse of small farms and houses, some of them quite nice. Not at all the sort of neighborhood you'd expect a voodoo priest to be living in. Daniel studied the directions on the back of the placemat. Gray house with a big cactus out front, it said. And minutes later, there it was. A fancy two-story farmhouse, painted Confederate gray, with a tractor tire painted white in the yard, a very tall humanoid cactus standing within it.

The truck crunched gently into the peastone driveway. Could this really be the place? Aside from the cactus, it seemed so... normal. Daniel stepped out of the truck and walked up the steps of the veranda. A ceiling fan of a type he'd never seen before, with wide brown blades like leaves or insect wings, slowly rotated above him.

His hand was poised to knock on the door when a black woman pulled open the curtain on its window. He flinched with surprise, then felt embarrassed for having done so. He heard a series of locks, chains and bolts being undone, then the door opened.

"Hi, I'm Daniel O'Corbin. I'm here to see Joachim", he said, pronouncing the name phonetically.

Her face made no expression. "Joachim will be with you in just a minute," she replied, stressing the name and pronouncing it wa-keem. "Come in. Sit down."

The house was like a bewildering carnival inside. The walls were covered from top to bottom with all sorts of pictures and strange items. Pieces of tree branches and palm fronds were affixed to the walls making patterns. Newspaper clippings in French, some of them in little gilt frames. A hideous rag doll was nailed to a doorpost. Other dolls, some made of twine and sticks, others of corn shucks, also hung on the wall with beads draped around them. Ornate multi-sconces held scores of candles that smelled of camphor and oranges.

Daniel saw some Catholic icons displayed on a shelf, and stood staring at them as a stable factor in the room's rococo chaos. This worked fine for a bit, until he realized there was a dried, shriveled, human finger with a long yellow fingernail resting on the shelf as well. Daniel decided perhaps it was best to just go across the room and take a seat.

The woman wheeled a tea caddy into the room. Daniel stood up courteously. She placed two teabags in a delicate china cup and poured the water over it, then turned to leave.

"Oh, thank you, Miss, ah..."

She turned and stared. Daniel waited for her to take the hint to introduce herself but it wasn't coming.


"I, uh, didn't get your name," he smiled.

"You can call me Variola," she said stonily. "Joachim will see you shortly."

Daniel sat down and shifted uneasily in his chair. He felt like he was waiting at the doctor's office. Except the doctor's receptionists were a lot nicer and they had better tea. Daniel wasn't a tea drinker anyway. What was this stuff? He reached for the tea package. Oolong. Oolong? Daniel had never heard of such a thing. He was starting to feel like there were a lot of things he'd been ignorant of, and was about to get an education.