Aaron Milstead’s short story “The Pickled Man” was such an easy and captivating read that I suggested to my twelve-year-old son that he read it as well. As I predicted, he devoured the story of Wilber Will’s World of Wonders that features a mysterious oddity floating around in a pickle jar. That night, at around two a.m., I awoke to a shadowy figure standing at the foot of my bed. I knew immediately that figure was my son and that he’d just had a nightmare featuring, not surprisingly, the pickled man. After putting him back to bed, I thought about the power of Milstead’s story. It had left an unsettling impression on my son—one that lies just below the cerebral surface—long after he’d finished reading it. It is the titillating payoff that you hope for when you read something particularly spooky. This is exactly what Black Lantern Publishing’s fifth issue offers its readers with its collection of short stories, poetry, flash fiction, and artwork, all within a macabre theme. Despite my recommendation to my son, this is not a collection intended for children. BLP offers an assortment of haunting contemplations that deal with the subject of death and ushers readers to a darker side of literature.
“Their Holiday Home” is Michael Martin’s 2011 Pushcart Prize-nominated short story. Mrs. Hessell, the flawless, fragile wife of a wealthy prince, plays hostess to a reporter (the story’s narrator) and photographer. The two are banking on an interview with the notoriously reclusive prince at his sixteenth-century family castle in Italy. Once within the confines of the ancestral home, set deep within the mountain range of the Dolomites, Mrs. Hessell, acting as docent, leads them on a bizarre tour. The men graciously indulge the mistress in hopes for the big payoff that’s apparently seated somewhere within her husband’s second floor study. The tour begins at an enormous fireplace set ablaze in the reception hall:
“When we arrived this time,” she bubbles with laughter, “a family of field mice were nesting on the mantelpiece. Can you believe it? The sweetest little things.”
I can picture it and I can imagine Mrs. Hessell’s adoring eyes and her gentle nurturing of the delicate little creatures.
“Juliano was upstairs,” she continues, “the Prince always goes straight to his study, but he must have heard me cry out with surprise. He rushed down here.” She shows me the route he took through the room, “to the mantelpiece and bit the heads off all the little mice.” She looks at me wide-eyed, her white teeth almost transparent in the blaze from the hearth. “Their tiny bottoms and tails fell on the floor,” she giggles. “Maria had to sweep them into the fire.”
The pair soon discovers that Mrs. Hessell has a darker agenda planned, which culminates as they finally reach the prince’s study and open the door. It is a terrifying discovery.
Not all of the writing chosen for this issue of BLP is fueled strictly by visceral fear. Erika Brumett subtlety and beautifully reflects upon a death that happens to occur one Halloween night in her piece, “The Wizard is Away”:
Days shorten. Shadows lengthen, eyes flicker
through flesh carved yellow. In the living room,
no living; in the trachea’s black hole,
no breath. The husk of scrubs, hospice leaving.
At the front door, a four year-old Dorothy,
Toto, and papa, in tow. To the dead,
behind the curtain, pay no attention.
For Baby Ruth bars, she gives ruby clicks,
heel-taps to trick time, to treat all of Oz.
Also of note: the short story, “The Poisoner” by Edward Alexander; “Winged Words,” poetry from Roman Belo; and a pen on paper drawing to accompany Brumett’s poem from the enormously talented artist Alex Pelayo.
Black Lantern Publishing, which began in 2009 as an online magazine, is now available four times per year as a print publication. Editor Rebecca A. Huggins has selected work for this issue that promises to get inside your head. Indulge in it. It is an irresistible journal full of the weird and fantastic that lingers with you, a bit longer perhaps, than you were prepared for. Just ask my son.
Having cautioned that Black Lantern Publishing is not for children, it should be noted that BLP has recently premiered their new imprint Crow Magazine. (Create. Read. Observe. Write.) This electronic magazine is available three times per year and is designed for middle and young adult readers.