Stroll Through the Graveyard

Saturday, July 16, 2022

A Lonely Column Holding Up the World: Konstantin Kanelleas's "Hyponeirisms"

 

Poetry is a multi-headed god, and right now, neither face is looking at the other. What I mean to say is that contemporary poetry, or at least the independent poetry that I care about, is in a state of tug-of-war between reactionary bards looking to the past and post-post-modernists obsessed with the present. These divisions include further separation: one group focuses on form and function, whilst the other is so often wrapped up in self. One can be called jaded and purposely obtuse; the other overblown and pompous. Of course there are those stuck in the in-between space, but the Janus head of self-made and often self-published poetry remains. 

Greco-Australian poet Konstantin Kanelleas seems to fit best with those poets trying to revolt against the modern world. His first book of verse, Hyponeirisms, feels like something that could have been written anytime between 1890 and 1930. It is classical in its elegance, plus timeless in its interest in subject matter outside of the id and ego. Take for instance the first poem, "Anthropogenesis." "To have been born is to have been initiated into the mysteries," it begins. What are these mysteries? They are the "liturgy of absent clergy," the "painted saints of asleep iconodules," and "The silent procession of one's awe." Life, in sum, is a darkened and silent cathedral or basilica full of inchoate things. 

To have been born is to have been handed tabula incisa. / It is to everlastingly carry these etchings / From the warmth of ancestral fireplaces to the cemeteries / Of summits crowned with newfallen relic snow. 

Similar themes run throughout Hyponeirisms. In "Elephant Graveyard Nocturnes," a pianist plays with air and makes impressions "rise like prayer." In "Banal Miraculosity," nature engages in wild eccentricity ("Horseshoe crabs tapdance on whale spines," and "Trodden olives anoint themselves") while, in conclusion, Abraxas is choked by Job. 

Kanelleas's best poems combine the two core components of his ancestral homeland: Orthodox Christianity and the pagan pastorals from the days of the Greek city-states. Hyponeirisms gets more noticeably Greek as it nears its end. "Byzantium's Windmills Come to Halts" remembers what was lost when Constantine's city fell to the Turks, while "Elegy for a Namesake" reflects on icons, burial, and death in a manner most profoundly Greek. 

Of all the poems, the ones that I liked the best are "Hellenostos (What Athens Has to Do with Jerusalem)" and "Absolute Monolith." The former is a mere six lines long, and yet it describes the entirety of existence. 

Transcendent concrete solidifies / Itself from avalanching slush. / Experience filters Truth to shadow, / True shadows filter experience crushed. / Three screeching furies shatter glass, / The temple veil is torn in two 

There is a temple. This much is true. Life has a natural religion, and this religion is ever-present. However, shadow play, caterwauling noise, and the cataclysms of truth and experience often keep the temple (i.e., natural religion) veiled from us. It is sad, but as "Absolute Monolith" shows, it sometimes takes an apocalypse in our lives to see past the veil at all. 

In "Hellenostos," Mr. Kanelleas muses on the most ancient of problems: Western culture. It has long been assumed that Western culture is the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem. And yet, as the poem asks, what do these two civilizations have in common? Athens bequeathed to the world great works of philosophy, demokratia, and incredible works of art and architecture. Athens has also long been a byword for the pinnacle of Western civilization -- the ultimate apex when a European people were free from the supposed tyranny of kings. However, this was almost certainly not the case. Democratic Athens did not last long in the grand scheme of things, and even the city's own intellectuals despised the politics of self-rule as tyranny of the mob. And what about Jerusalem? The holy city gave us Christ's eternal victory and the seed from which Christianity would come and conquer most of the Hellenic world. This last part provides the key conflict in "Hellenostos," i.e., the Greek world and the early Christian world were not destined to miscegenate and indeed fought frequently between each other. Achilles and Hector were but daemonic myths to Saint Paul, and yet, over time, Hellenic civilization became Christian, and the ideas of Plato and Aristotle found a comfortable seat at the table next to the Gospels. "Hellenostos" takes this history and personalizes it within the soul of a single Greek man. 

Hyponeirisms is better, more polished, and far more timeless than the vast majority of poetry composed in this day and age. This is a book that should and will be read years from now. There is no navel-gazing, although one could argue that it is poetry written for other poets. It is complex and intellectual. This is not a work suited for casual readers, although casual readers of poetry are as hard to find as a clean Waffle House bathroom. Mr. Kanelleas's book of poetry is meant to stir the soul, but also hurt the head. It is meant to be read and re-read. It is exceptional, and frankly, it is a blackmark on the entire cultural apparatus that  Hyponeirisms is a self-published work rather than something from a prestigious publication. 

Cheers, and here's to many more from Konstantin Kanelleas. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

God, Death, & Meth: Max Thrax's "God is a Killer"

 


By any measure, New Hampshire, aka the Granite State, is one of the safest places in the entire country. Typically New England, but with a solid libertarian streak embodied by its high rate of gun ownership and its pugnacious motto ("Live Free or Die"), New Hampshire is a swell place to live and raise a family. 

And yet, as with everywhere else, there is darkness just around the corner. The opioid epidemic, which claims as many Americans every year as most armed conflicts, has ravaged New Hampshire hard. Indeed, the Granite State has been called "ground zero" for the drug plague. The sickness is made infinitely worse by the state's neighbors: the similarly drug-ravaged Vermont, New England's crime capital, Massachusetts, and Quebec, the home of several well-organized drug gangs. The peace and tranquility of New Hampshire still shines through when you visit, but stay too long in Manchester, Portsmouth, or, God forbid, Nashua (aka, Trashua) and you will find the shadows. 

Author Max Thrax. Image via https://litreactor.com/interviews/max-thrax-noir-gets-itself-in-trouble


Such shadow play defines the new novel, God is a Killer. Set in rural Bentham County, New Hampshire (a stand-in for Belknap County), this short, sharp novel by author Max Thrax, one of the main dudes over at the great Apocalypse Confidential,  features a cast of unseemly miscreants, almost of all of whom would fit-in well in golden era crime novel from the 1940s or '50s. The main characters are the corrupt Sheriff Fitzroy and the wandering preacher MacDougall. Fitzroy specializes in breaking the law, especially when it comes to slinging meth to Appalachian Yankees. Fitzroy is in tight with the Stone Men, a 1-percenter biker gang that seems to use Fitzroy as protection in their ongoing turf war with another set of bikers called the Zapiens. MacDougall interrupts this cozy collaboration after breaking out of the federal pen in Berlin. MacDougall is the leader of the Nations, a bizarre, cult-of-personality commune wherein MacDougall is the head and husband of all members. The men are bound by destiny to collide. 

God is a Killer tells the story of MacDougall's homecoming in Bentham County -- his reclaiming of the ancient Causeway House, its owner Sarah Van Bommel, and the teenager Timmy. MacDougall's prodigal return is a bloody one, as he steals weapons and money from the Stone Men following a clubhouse invasion and shootout. This fact, along with planned construction over a historic cemetery, puts Fitzroy in a bind. He wants to help the Stone Men and himself, but he also wants to protect Sarah from her proclaimed husband and her irate neighbors. It is a no-win situation, and really no one wins in God is a Killer. The one lucky individual winds up with a whole lot of dead friends and an outlook on life that is devoid of happiness. 

This tight novel is told in a staccato style with many sub-chapter breaks. This can make the action hard-to-follow at times, but it also heightens the chaotic nature of the story. The writing has no filigree, and features characters that talk like real and really disturbed people. Everything in here is weird, from the crooks to the cops. Nothing is straight and narrow; all forest passages lead back to the same haunted woods. Thrax is a master craftsman when it comes to getting noir right. God is a Killer is a killer read, and yes, pun intended. Like the best of Jim Thompson or David Goodis, God is a Killer is about desperate people following their own twisting paths, all of which intersect in ways that leave blood and guts on the floor. It makes for stygian reading, and that is the whole point. 

God is a Killer is nothing to mess with. This is as good as crime writing gets, and I for one cannot wait for more from Thrax. 


Sunday, May 29, 2022

Zombie Apocalypse

 

 

I remember:
talking about killing zombies with my combat car.
You next to me, shotguns and sidearms blasting away.
All brains and all guts
evaporated in the morning mist.  
 
I recall:
joking with you about .50 caliber celebrations
and pretending to be sad.
You agreed that we would be together,
Hengist and Horsa of the suburbs.
 
I see:
you crawling on your belly, leech-like.
Cowered and cornered,
you are nothing like the zombies I expected,
but braindead all the same.
 
I wait:
for another you,
or maybe another battle more obvious.
But, until then,
no more delusions; no more daydreams. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

What's in a Name, Anyway?: A Review of Stephanie Yue Duhem's "Name and Noun"

 


Confessional poetry is the gateway drug of verse. Everyone, especially any semi-artistic person online or in school, will pen navel-gazing sonnets or couplets. I did as much on MySpace during the antediluvian age. It is de rigueur for art hos and art beaus. Most of it is dreck, but occasionally something good slips through the woodchipper. That something good (and very good) is Stephanie Yue Duhem's Name and Noun (2022). Published as a slick chapbook by British press Selcouth Station, Name and Noun is twenty-six pages of modern American poetry with heart, soul, and sometimes memes. 

Name and Noun is a strong showing for a poet trending upwards. One can read the progression throughout. The first entry, "blue light," touches on topics familiar to anyone who has ever sat through (suffered through...?) a creative fiction or contemporary English class. "blue light" enters the mind of a young Chinese woman as she grapples with the perils of identity. It is a poem about living in a country where you are an outsider. 

when baba learns to drive and speak english / years later he will say / sorry / i did not know about high beams or how / for years your dreams will be draped in blue / i did not know how to split infinitives / like tiny segments of road 

"blue light" makes use of road imagery, which in my low-brow mind may be a slight nod to the racialist stereotype of the poor Asian driver. Or it could not. Either way, one of the prominent features of the early poems of Name and Noun is the poet's relationship with her parents and their immigrant background. For instance, in "Star Anise," a scene of communal cooking feeds into worries about race, belonging, and the ever-present desire to appease one's elders.

first day on the job their wife is

chinese too just smile to please them

do not cuss just rise above do

not share the races of one-

time significant others while

their faces drop to the ground as 

if you are a pinch of pepper-

"break fast" similarly examines the poet's conflicted sense of self, with one being the good Chinese daughter and the other being the weird moonchild of poetic inclinations. "Neighbor's Boy" is likewise a snapshot of young life spent between fences that exist to separate and divide. 

The author, Stephanie Yue Duhem, looking like a serial killer 

Speaking of oddity, or at least weird feelings, the thoroughgoing element of Name and Noun is melancholy. "a witch named melancholia," which is my personal favorite of the collection, ruminates on sadness and its ability to bewitch without warning. The poet sees herself as lacking ("lack pretty / lack skinny / lack money"), and this feeling floats on, apparition-like, to "Remind Me" and "The Witch." The use of supernatural imagery is ironically rational to anyone who has ever suffered infinite sadness. The blues, melancholy, the downs -- they all often appear without warning, and as "The Witch" notes,

Such romance wafts in waxing waves,

sedating as the scented sea

which murmurs blessings out the caves

yet flushes green with mean envy.

Name and Noun features lots of play with text, as Ms. Yue Duhem mimics the capitalization preferences of e.e. cummings with the often cut-up presentation style best exemplified by the Vorticists and Futurists of the early twentieth century. (Name and Noun may look like a Futurist text at times, but it does not deal with similar subject matter, nor is Ms. Yue Duhem known for a love of fast vehicles, war, or Mediterranean strongmen.) Frankly, this style does very little for me. I looks nice and can work at times, but mostly it comes across as unnecessary art-for-art's-sake. Name and Noun could have been written in standard English and with proper punctuation, and never once would it have lost its power. Even saying that, one of the clever tricks that this chapbook pulls off is the transition between "oh the water" and "the bell-throat." "oh the water" ends with "to love," and the very next verse is "of the ocean" in "the bell-throat." Sea images permeate both, thus giving them an easy symmetry. 

Name and Noun is damn good. Ms. Yue Duhem writes openly and honestly without coming across as self-obsessed or maudlin. Her use of symbols and metaphors is top-flight, almost as if Name and Noun has a occult center that is too esoteric for small minds (see: me) to fully understand. One hopes that Ms. Yue Duhem continues down this path. I eagerly await her Aleister Crowley period, or at the very least her first chapbook-grimoire. 

Give this book a buy. Appreciate it. Savor it like 麻婆豆腐 during the summer's first rain. 

 


Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Chapter Excerpt from My Novella in Progress



 The following is an excerpt from the novella that I am currently working on for The Bizarchives. Please let me know what you think.

            Like a lot of ex-patriates living in the Orient, Inspector Clive Lewis felt like a man adrift. He was still quite young, and all the long-time Shanghailanders never let him forget his age. They, the well-heeled and moneyed financial managers and bureaucrats originally from London, saw Inspector Lewis as a novelty. The short, stocky policeman with the broad Yorkshire accent made them laugh, and not in a good-natured way. To the rich, Inspector Lewis was an uppity country bumpkin who had no business enforcing the law on them. Of course, they were all for him cracking Chinese skulls. That was his purpose, after all. In their eyes, Inspector Lewis and the Shanghai Municipal Police existed as a praetorian guard for the foreigners seeking all the benefits of the city with none of its darkness.

            Inspector Lewis therefore found himself in a sticky situation when, on the night of the 13th, he was dispatched to the home of Hugh Morrison. Morrison’s spacious mansion sat within spitting distance of the Bund and was well-known throughout the European community as the place to go for good alcohol and food. Morrison, despite specializing in the dreary business of machine parts, was a noted bon vivant beloved by all the right people in Shanghai. All the right people except for one, apparently.

            Inspector Lewis stooped down and inspected the corpse of Hugh Morrison. “Looks like he had a terrible fright before death, don’t you think?” Sergeant Grant agreed with the inspector’s assessment.

            “Makes sense to me that a man would look aghast as someone plunged that into him,” Grant used his pencil to point at the Italian stiletto standing straight in Morrison’s chest.

            “Quite right. Any word on suspects?”

            “Not one.”

            “Who’s in the house, then?”

            Grant flipped upon a small notebook and began reading off a short list of names. “There’s the housekeepers. A married couple from Wales. Both elderly. Claim that they slept through the whole thing. Another is the gardener. His name is Gomes or Gomes. I’m not too sure. He’s a Portuguese and his English is not good. He claims that he goes home to his apartment every afternoon at five. We don’t know yet when the murder occurred but seems like it happened late at night.”

            “Does this Portuguese fellow have access to the house?” Lewis asked.

            “Yes. He has a big ring o’ keys.”

            “We’ll have to keep him as a suspect then.”

            “Right. Talked to the cook, too. He’s another one that goes home, but he tends to stay much later seeing as Mr. Morrison likes…er liked…to entertain guests late into the night. He also has access to the home. The last on the list is the amah. She’s Chinese like the cook. She stays here. Has a room in on the ground floor near the kitchen.”

            “A nanny? I did not know that Morrison had a child.”

            “Few did,” Grant said. “The law says that Morrison is a bachelor. That is correct as Morrison never married the mother of his child. I got this information from everyone in the home, so I tend to accept it as true.”

            “An illicit dalliance, I see.”

            “More than that, sir. The mother herself is a chorus girl. A White Russian. Could be quite a scandal if the press finds out.”

            “It is up to us to make sure that they do not,” Inspector Lewis added. If there was one thing that the Yorkshireman knew, it was that the Shanghailanders expected to keep their dirt secret, and they expected the Shanghai Municipal Police to do it for them. Lewis expelled a sigh of exhaustion. He dismissed Sergeant Grant with instructions to investigate the exterior of the home. As for him, Lewis got down to businesses looking for clues inside of the home.

            The body of Hugh Morrison showed obvious signs of a struggle. The wealthy industrialist died with eyes as big as saucers, and a face partially blue and purple. Someone had tried to strangle him first, Lewis noted. He knew from experience that suffocating a man was hard work. Killing a man in general was harder than most expected. Inspector Lewis knew that from first-hand experience. He had seen death a lot in his life, from the hot furnaces of Sheffield to the battlefields of Flanders, but Shanghai topped them all. Nothing shocked him anymore after so many years spent patrolling the city.            

            Lewis used his handkerchief to remove the stiletto. The stamping on its blade indicated that it was indeed Italian, made and manufactured in the city of Brescia. An Italian stiletto was a rare weapon in Shanghai, where most crimes were committed with common hatchets or butcher knives. This information made Lewis think that the killer was a foreigner like Morrison, possibly an Italian. Lewis made a mental note to hunt down Morrison’s address book and scour it for potential suspects.

            The murder had occurred in Morrison’s private study. It was a large, spacious room with a vaunted ceiling. Half of the room was covered by bookshelves made of dark mahogany. The other half was decorated with expensive trinkets like globes, bejeweled cuspidors, and several lacquered boxes. Morrison’s body lay behind his glass-and-wooden desk.

            “Attacked at his desk, no doubt,” Lewis mumbled to himself. “Somebody he knew, I suspect.” Lewis studied the contents of Morrison’s desk. Everything seemed to be business related: invoices of shipments to and from Shanghai, a report from a factory in Liverpool, and a large ledger recording the costs and earnings from all of Morrison’s investments in Europe and Asia. The fact that these items were left intact and in plain view showed that the murder was not motivated by money. Something else, possibly something personal drove someone to murder Hugh Morrison.

            Lewis glanced at Morrison’s impressive library. Again, most of the books were related to the world of business. It seemed that the deceased industrialist had no interests beyond making money and having nightly parties. A simple worldview but not a simple man, Lewis noted.

            Without much thought, Lewis pulled from the bookshelf a book. Unlike its peers, the volume’s title intrigued Lewis simply because it was so out-of-place. It proved to be a large history of the English Civil War. When Inspector Lewis reached and removed the large tome from its place, he heard a subtle click. He knew what the sound was—it was the familiar noise of a locked door being opened. Lewis hunted for the door. He found it behind the bookshelf itself, as a section proved to contain a hidden compartment that swung inward. The knowledge stunned Lewis; he had read about secret passageways and hidden rooms in a million detective stories, but he always assumed that they were purely fictional. Here he found proof of their existence, and the knowledge intrigued him. Inspector Lewis entered the secret room.

            The room behind the bookshelf was no bigger than a confessional. It was entirely dark, too. Lewis groped around for some light. His outstretched hand managed to find the shape of a candle. He used his matchbox to light it. The lit and lone black candle revealed a barren room composed only of a cushion on the floor. The indents in the pillow were in the shape of a man’s knees. The secret room served some kind of religious purpose. It even had an altar.

            Except, judging by the pattern of dust on the wooden altar, a book was missing. For some reason, Lewis doubted that the missing volume was the Bible. 

            “Mr. Morrison is missing a book,” Lewis said to the first member of the household that he could find. It proved to be one of the housekeepers, Mrs. Welles.

            “A book?” she said with hesitancy. “I never knew Mr. Morrison to be much of a reader.”

            “His study says something else, and so too does the secret room.”

            “A secret room?” Inspector Lewis told her about his findings. The elderly woman swore up and down that she was unaware of such a room. Her husband said much the same. The rest of the house, from the surly gardener to the overly friendly amah, all agreed that they had never heard the deceased speak of a secret shrine. They all also said that, to their knowledge, Mr. Morrison and religion did not mix.

            “All he cared about were parties,” Mrs. Welles said. “I hate to speak ill of the dead, but I hated those parties. Lots of strange characters always coming and going.”

            “Strange how?” Lewis asked.

            “The chorus girls were one thing,” the elderly Welsh woman said, “but it was the menfolk who bothered me most of all. What a secretive lot! Never could get a straight answer out of them. All said they were in business, but none of them acted like Mr. Morrison.”

            “Please tell me more,” Lewis said.

            “What my wife means, sir, is that Mr. Morrison liked to entertain gentlemen. To our way of life, they were weird. Lots of them had beards and spoke with foreign accents. Some looked like rough customers. I come from the coal valleys, so I know hard men,” Mr. Welles said.

            “I think they’re all anarchists, myself. Probably blackmailing Mr. Morrison,” Mrs. Welles said.

            “I don’t know about that, Constance, but the American gentlemen is certainly involved in something obscene. Of that, I am sure.”

            “Who is this American fellow?” Lewis asked.

            “All I know is Mr. Morrison introduced him as Marsh. Said he came from Massachusetts. Cannot remember the name of the town.”

            “Do you know where I can contact this man Marsh? Also, know where I can contact all the men who frequented this house?”

            “Best to consult Mr. Morrison’s address book. I can show you where it is if you follow me.” Mr. Welles took Inspector Lewis back into the study. The old but hardy Welshmen made sure to avert his eyes from the corpse as he searched inside the desk for the address book. He found the object and handed it to Lewis. It was a simple brown leather address book, and, to Lewis’s surprise, it was relatively blank.

            “Thank you for your help, Mr. Welles.”

            “Anything for poor Mr. Morrison. Do you really think one of his friends did this?”

            “We must consider all possibilities. I can assure you that we will solve this case and achieve justice for the late Mr. Morrison.” Inspector Lewis typically avoided making such promises, but the warm eyes of the gray-haired butler reminded him of his own late father.

            The two men shook hands. Lewis found his way out of the house and into the streets. He and Sergeant Grant swapped information as they walked back to the stationhouse.

            “Something religious then?” Grant asked.

            “I’m not sure, but someone definitely took a book from that room. I don’t know which or what kind of book, but what I saw in that room reminded me of a medieval monastery.”

            “Never can have a simple murder in Shanghai, can we?”

            “I’m afraid not, Sergeant Grant.”

            After a half-hour walk, the two police officers reached the stationhouse. Grant stayed on the first floor to speak with the on-duty desk sergeant (a Chinese officer whose name Lewis never bothered to learn), while Lewis went up to the third floor. There he found the homicide bureau and his cluttered desk. After greeting the men on duty, and hearing a ribald joke from the irrepressible Scotsman, Inspector Robertson, Lewis sat down at his desk and began pouring through Morrison’s address book. When he was done, Lewis had a full sheet of paper with names and addresses.

            With list in hand, Lewis first cross-checked the names with Criminal Records. The Shanghai Municipal Police enjoyed quality intelligence, bountiful resources, and enough records on all the ex-pats of Asia to make them worried (that is, if they knew). The SMP’s Special Branch was even superior to their British ancestor, although Lewis knew better than to ever say that out loud, especially anywhere outside of the confines of Foochow Road.

            The first few names on the list generated nothing. The men seemed as clean as a whistle. This was not the case for one Aleksandr Sakolov. Lewis learned that he had a previous conviction in London for armed robbery as well as a similar charge in Riga. A note from the Special Branch told Lewis that Sakolov may or may not have converted to Bolshevism while serving in the Russian military during the Great War. A certain Inspector Lippincott wrote in bold pen, “SUSPECTED COMITERN AGENT. IS UNDER SURVEILLANCE.” The presence of Alexsandr Sakolov in Hugh Morrison’s address book lent credence to Mrs. Welles’s theory of radical intrigue.

            Another questionable customer was the American Jeremiah Marsh. The file recorded Marsh’s hometown as a certain Innsmouth in Massachusetts. The Essex County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Marsh on several counts of bootlegging and smuggling. A true descendant of his Yankee forebearers, Marsh apparently took to the sea aboard a tramp steamer after his last conviction. He then promptly abandoned ship for Shanghai. How he came to haunt the Morrison residence and why was unknown.

            The last two names on Lewis’s list troubled him the most, even though by all accounts the men were respectable representatives of their class. The first was a Captain Umberto Lucchini. Lucchini was one of the officers of Rome’s military mission to the Nationalist government in Canton. A decorated ace of Italy’s conquest of Libya and its war against the Austrians, Captain Lucchini was supposedly headquartered in the south, and yet he found time to frequent Morrison’s home in Shanghai. Lewis wondered to himself about whether Captain Lucchini knew anything about his country’s famous stilettos.

            Lewis found another military man on the list—Colonel Friedrich von Oppersdorff. Like Lucchini, Oppersdorff was attached to the Nationalist forces in Canton. His job, Lewis learned, was turn to Nationalist soldiers into Asia’s Prussians. Colonel Oppersdorff would know, as his file showed that he came from a junker family native to East Prussia. Two high-ranking military advisors frequenting the home of a British magnate was not surprising, as foreigners congregated among themselves in the International Settlement. No, what worried Lewis was the presence of these men in Shanghai, a city threatened by Nationalist expansion. The Municipal Council’s policy was to keep the Nationalists out of the city and far away from the wealth of the foreigners. Men like Lucchini and Oppersdorff’s threatened Shanghai’s status as a free city-state in the heart of China, and it was possible that they had an accomplice in Hugh Morrison. Worst still, all three hob-knobbed with the common criminal Marsh and the suspected Bolshevik agent Sakolov.

            What bound these men together? It was Lewis’s duty to find out.

            With plenty of sun left in an unusually bright day, Lewis hit the streets again. His plan was to pay a visit to Jeremiah Marsh. He figured that Sakolov already had an SMP tail, plus the wily Russian would likely be on high alert if he ever crossed paths with a stranger. Lewis knew from many years of surveillance that the bad guys needed to see their police shadows often, but more experienced bad guys had a preternatural ability to spot a policeman. Lewis decided based on this information, and he similarly believed that Marsh would be the more compliant of the two. A low-level smuggler would be easier to manage, Inspector Lewis reasoned.

            Jeremiah Marsh lived in the French Concession right by the Yangjingnbang stream that followed into Huangpu River. The location confused Lewis, as it was a better-than-average road in one of the cleaner parts of the settlement. Despite his background and reputation, Marsh was living well in China. Or so it seemed at first. Lewis learned after entering the address listed in Marsh’s Special Branch file that the American worked as a janitor at the location. He lived on the premises in a basement room. The porter who showed Lewis to it warned him that Marsh was most likely asleep, as he worked nights.

            “That is great news. We police thrive on surprise,” Lewis said after winking at the slightly stunned porter. When the other man left, Lewis pounded hard on the door. He received no answer.

            “Jeremiah Marsh? Open up. It’s the police.”

            Still nothing. Lewis struck the door several more times and repeated himself. This time there was a response of sorts. Lewis pressed his ear to the door and heard the tell-tale noise of running feet. Lewis unholstered his Colt 1908 and kicked the door at its hinges. The wood proved stout, so Lewis simply shot the doorknob to gain entry. While reaching through the bullet-made hole, a second shot, this one fired from inside of the room, rung out. Miraculously the shot missed wide, leaving the shocked Lewis unscratched.

            Lewis pulled the door open and fired into the dark room. Another shot responded, and again it missed wide.

            “Stop firing, Marsh!”

            “Go to hell,” a voice bellowed from the darkness.

            Marsh’s decision to answer gave Lewis a chance to find his range. The policeman narrowed his dominant eye to focus, trained his automatic on one corner in the room, and let off two shots in succession. He then took cover and waited for a return volley. When none came, he entered the room.

            Marsh’s living quarters were as disheveled as he proved to be. Lewis tripped over papers, empty whisky bottles, and stacks of pulp magazines. The same items were found scattered on the cover-less mattress and underneath its wire frame. Lewis wondered how the man ever managed to sleep.

            He found Marsh crumbled up near a corner dresser. One of Lewis’s bullets had entered the man’s chest right beneath the collarbone. It was a fatal blow. A quick check of Marsh’s pulse confirmed that the American was dead. Lewis groaned when he realized that he would have to return to the station to complete the necessary paperwork. After shoeing away curious onlookers from the building (most of whom were sleepy-looking employees of the night shift), Lewis got down to inspecting the room. It was the second death scene he had looked at that day, he realized.

            Unlike the Morrison mansion, Marsh’s quarters were miniscule. The bed and chest were it; everything else was clutter. The papers on Marsh’s floor were unimportant odds and ends—receipts, images torn from magazines and newspapers, and more than a few “Paris pictorials” that sailors loved to carry with them on long voyages. A sinking feeling came over Lewis. Yes, he had killed in self-defense, and was justified. And yet he still felt rotten for killing a man who owned so little.

            Just before ending his search, Lewis explored the standalone dresser. The top drawer contained only a second change of clothes. Marsh’s frugal attire matched his living arrangements, as the collar, shirt, and pants were both threadbare and dirty. His socks had holes in them as well. In life, Marsh cared little about comfort or amenities. Yet, in the bottom drawer, Lewis discovered something that Marsh clearly cared about.

            It was a book wrapped in a clean piece of cloth. Lewis opened it and found an old volume bound in black leather. The outside was bare and contained no information. The frontispiece, written in both red and black ink, claimed that the book was Unaussprechlichen Kulten by a certain Friedrich von Junzt. Lewis cracked the spine and saw indecipherable pages in Latin and German. He remembered the missing book from Morrison’s hidden shrine and wondered aloud if Herr von Junzt’s work was the book in question. Lewis tucked the volume underneath his arm and exited the room. His next stop was the building’s lone telephone, which he used to contact the desk sergeant on duty. Lewis waited until uniformed officers arrived, and then walked into the night.

            “What is this?” Johansen asked after Lewis slammed the book on his desk. Lewis knew that the workaholic Johansen would still be attending to his business well after five o’clock. He was right, of course. The Norwegian officer of the Scandinavian Company was one of the only men left in the barracks.

            “It is a book that I would like you to translate.”

            “In a city crawling with academics, you came to me, a humble soldier, with a request to translate what appears to be a very long book.”

            “You are the only friend I know who speaks German, plus you are one of the few men who I trust in this metropolis.”

            “Where did you find this book?”

            “Between you and me, it is evidence. I found it at a crime scene.”

            “Aren’t there guidelines about handling such things? You bringing this book to me feels like a violation somehow,” Johansen said.

            “It is, but what’s a broken rule between friends?”

            Johansen was one of the few full-time staff officers of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, the foreign colony’s auxiliary militia. Officially, Johansen was Lewis’s superior, as the SMP inspector was only a sergeant in the British “A” Company, and a reservist at that. And yet the two men had an easy friendship born of their shared backgrounds. The Yorkshireman saw a lot of himself in the soul and spirit of the fisherman’s son from Bergen.

            “Did this book have anything to do with your crime?” Johansen asked.

            “Possibly. I’ve investigated two deaths today. The first one was a murder where I noted that a book was missing. The second death, which I caused, included that book on the premises.”

            “Did you just admit to murder?”

            “Pure self-defense, chap. The villain shot first.” Johansen raised an eyebrow at Lewis, which caused the policemen to smile.

            “If you are suspicious, then call the police,” he said.

            “I see. Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich von Junzt. Printed in Dusseldorf in 1839. Rare book, I presume.”

            “What does the title mean?”

            “It means ‘Unspeakable Cults,’ or something like ‘Of Unspeakable Cults.’ It is in the dative case, or my German is rustier than I remembered.”

            “A work of the occult?”

            “So the title would suggest. Does you case deal with the dark arts.”

            “I don’t know yet.”

            “I’ll tell you what,” the Norwegian said, “I will give this a glance over tonight and tell you what I find in the morning. You can either stop by here or I will make a visit to your place of work this time.”

            “It is a deal, sir.” Lewis made a mocking salute to his superior. Johansen returned it.

            “Now leave me in peace. I need to finish something for the review board. I am trying to make captain.

            “Best of luck. Being a captain is quite an achievement, even if you’re nothing more than the leader of a handful of Swedes well past their fighting years. With that, Lewis left the barracks and made his way on foot to his apartment.

            Lewis lived along the Nanking Road. He made a decent living as an inspector, plus he was pathologically averse to spending money. As a result, he managed to find a full-time apartment in one of the International Zone’s better hotels. The mostly Chinese staff greeted him as he arrived. Lewis was polite, but curt. He tipped the bellboy a single British pound after he reached the fifth floor. His plan that evening was simple—write down his findings on the Morrison and Marsh cases, knock back a few glasses of whisky, and then sleep like a log. For him, sleeping was a rare pleasure. It also doubled as his pastime. At ten o’clock, after several hours of writing and drinking, Lewis turned off his lights and climbed into bed. He was asleep within ten minutes.

            At three o’clock, while Inspector Lewis slept soundly, a black-clad figure climbed its way up the face of the hotel. With unnatural speed and dexterity, along with movements more akin to a spider’s than a man’s, the figure climbed over the rough stonework until it reached the fifth floor. After moving northwards, the figure began moving west to east until it reached a single window. A brief paused followed before the figure disappeared completely only to emerge, mist-like, inside of the sleeping detective’s room.

            The figure began searching. It slowly opened drawers and rooted around in Lewis’s closet. The figure even dared to stand next to the sleeping policeman and inspect his body. Whatever it was, the object of the figure’s search was not found. Just as quietly as the figure had arrived, it escaped out into the night and climbed down the hotel like Count Dracula descending his castle.

            It was all over by 3:03 a.m.


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

My Rejected PASSAGE PRIZE poems

 


Come See the Contortionist

A liminal glow creates a chiaroscuro.

Peanuts and popcorn are a decoration;

foul minds and fouler bodies a desecration.

The masses, unwashed, have joined. 

 

The caged contortionist sighs,

as pain for pleasure is his job.

The applause thins each time,

but it is still there to keep him going.

 

Knees and arms bent to non-Euclidian angles.

Occult symbols from the rostrum.

Cracks of bone and the knotting of veins.

Every tooth sharpened to bleed dry his lips.

 

The contortionist dies a little each time

for his calling.

Ich kann nich anders

is his excuse for a life spent caged

 

and on display.

Watched by jackals,

he twists until he cannot be untangled.

The hoary man—the contortionist

 

of no reason and no faith.

Love and life all lost

to the phantom of talent.

And when they leave,

 

and when they stop coming,

all the contortionist will have is a ruin—

a temple defiled for profit.

The odd-shaped casket beckons with each performance.

 

 

Rapture with a Mummy

A pair of wadjet eyes

cast the corners in shadow.

Wood and linen

is ensconced under glass.

 

There I stand, amber-ready,

but more attuned to the sarcophagus

of a fellow friend

dismembered and housed in canopic jars.

 

The placard confirms that he was not a pharaoh,

but a nobleman of an intermediate period.

His life unrecorded by scribes—

only a corpse memory in a museum.

 

He and I, too misshapen shades,

stuck between better ages.

Thousands of years of life

just to wind up in a New England college town

 

with nowhere better to be.

One wandered among pyramids,

while the other stumbled between skyscrapers.

Lost, then found, then lost again.

 

Thoughts came aplenty that autumn afternoon

in the empty museum-mausoleum.

Just me and the dead,

Egyptian, Assyrian, and American.

 

But, above them all, was the call—

the reminder of mortality

and the necessity of memory.

Only greatness survives the end;

 

nothing humble survives the future.

So, while the mummy marinated in gloom,

I gesticulated to an unseen audience

and returned to the crypt of creation. 

 

There Will Be Blood to Drink

There will be blood to drink

in the near-dark.

Woods alive with specters,

and mountains turned to permafrost.

All shall be cold.

 

Hearts once warm will become ice.

Trees will conspire to deny oxygen.

Red rider death, on a white stead,

will stalk the hollow until

the babes mewl no more.

 

This vision, apocalyptic.

To turn a tide is unanswerable;

to tame the wilderness impossible.

They all wanted it, and so shall they receive it.

Abaddon, amen.

 

Open thy gates.

 

 

 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Hero of the Neighborhood Watch


 

What do I spy with my midnight eyes?

Creeps and creatures -- 

decadent and debauched. 

Every one of them tries 


to make a fool of me. 

To drape me in shame;

coat my calling in pitch. 

But, the fools only see 


the extinguished exterior--

the lumpy sad sack 

up all night,

feeling inferior. 


However, hidden is the spark of sleuthing. 

Genius of deduction; 

a true son of Sherlock 

capable of choosing 


the guilty from the good. 

Too bad few seem worthy.

Their crimes aplenty, 

fit only for the hanging wood. 


Some day will come the crimewave.

Murders and rapes;

arson and larceny.

They will ask to be saved. 


I will then, in that sweet hour,

climb down from the black parapet

and declare

"So sad, so sour." 


Thus always the vindication of heroes. 









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