Under Twin Suns Edited by James Chambers

I received Under Twin Suns: Alternative Histories of the Yellow Sign as a Christmas present and read it in only a few days. Unfortunately, January and February were busy months, and I couldn’t finish my review of this anthology until now. In the time since I read Under Twin Suns, it made the final ballot for the 2021 Bram Stoker Awards. Congratulations are in order for the editor, James Chambers, publisher, Hippocampus Press, and all the authors. The Bram Stoker nomination is a well-deserved accolade for this fantastic collection.

I’m an avid fan of Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow. I’ve written a few tales loosely connected to the King in Yellow, and I even took a trip to visit the author’s grave in Broadalbin, New York. Suffice it to say, when I first heard about Under Twin Suns, I was excited by the prospect of an anthology consisting of King in Yellow-inspired stories. My excitement only doubled when I found out some of my favorite authors, such as John Langan, had tales included.

Per the advice of James Chamber’s introduction, I read this collection from front to back. It’s a testament to the quality of the work in Under Twin Suns that I was able to do that with no issue. I often find that anthologies have ebbs and flows, like a novel, and some stories prove to be more or less engaging based on your mindset while you’re reading. Occasionally, you may even skip a tale to revisit. There wasn’t a single story in Under Twin Suns that didn’t hold my interest. I read each one and moved right to the next until I was finished.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite tales in this collection below, but I wanted to note again that each work included in Under Twin Suns is great. These stories are just the ones that resonated most with me on my first reading. “Robert Chambers Reads The King in Yellow” by Lisa Morton is the first tale, and I loved the meta nature of it. “The King in Yella” by Kaaron Warren felt like a modern take on Karl Edward Wagner’s “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” “The Yellow House” by Greg Chapman ramped up to a stunningly insane climax. “Freedom for All” by JG Faherty felt topical as it dealt with a conspiracy theory driven cult. “Y2K” by Todd Keisling gets props for bringing David Bowie into the King in Yellow mythos. “Veiled Intentions” by Linda D. Addison was an excellent poetic inclusion. Lastly, “The Exchange” by Tim Waggoner was a perfectly Twilight Zone-esque story with a wonderful ending.

If you haven’t read Under Twin Suns yet, I highly recommend you pick up a copy. That said, be sure you’ve read at least “The Yellow Sign” and “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers before you dive into this anthology. I’m sure you can still enjoy this collection if you’re not familiar with those tales, but you’ll get a lot more out of each author’s work with some prior knowledge of The King in Yellow. If you need a taste of Chamber’s prose before picking up his work, you can check out this video, where I read an excerpt from his story “The Yellow Sign” while visiting the author’s final resting place.

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Itchy, Tasty: An Unofficial History of Resident Evil by Alex Aniel

Don’t let anyone convince you Twitter is all bad. Thanks to @MiskatonicL, a Twitter friend who shares a mutual love of horror, I discovered Itchy, Tasty: An Unofficial History of Resident Evil. I’ve been a Resident Evil fanatic since 2002 (the first movie led me to the games). The mix of horror, monsters, and action hooked me, and I quickly purchased and worked my way through every available entry in the series. To date, I’ve played twenty-three of the twenty-eight released games. The ones I missed were either not released in the US, non-canonical, or repackages of games I’d already played in another form. Suffice it to say, I know my Resident Evil games, but I was still surprised by how much I learned in Itchy, Tasty.

For those who don’t know, the phrase “itchy, tasty” comes from the diary of a person turning into a zombie in the original Resident Evil. Fans of the series fondly recall the first time they read that haunting tome. I was amused to learn that in Japanese, the phrase is “kayui uma,” but due to the words being homonyms in that language, the phrase can mean “itchy, tasty,” or an odd assortment of amusing other things such as “delicious porridge,” “itchy porridge,” or “itchy horse,” to name a few. I was also amused to learn that the voice and live actors in the first Resident Evil were, essentially, a hodgepodge of English speakers with no voice acting experience pulled in off the streets of Japan.

While I knew the name Shinji Mikami, the director of the first and fourth Resident Evil games, prior to reading this book, I was delighted to discover the names of Kenichi Iwao and Noboru Sugimura. Iwao was the writer for the first Resident Evil, and Noboru Sugimura wrote most of my favorite Resident Evil games after the first one. As a writer, I loved learning more about the people who created some of my favorite characters and scenarios. Sugimura in particular, was responsible for the story of the original Resident Evil 2, which I consider an unsurpassed masterpiece.

In addition to learning new bits of information about the development of the Resident Evil games, I experienced continual waves of nostalgia as I was reminded of things I’d forgotten. For instance, Capcom had decided to release Resident Evil games exclusively for Nintendo’s GameCube for a short time. As a kid, I didn’t have a GameCube, but my brothers had one at my dad’s. As a result, I spent most of my weekends and summers at my dad’s playing Resident Evil Remake, Resident Evil Zero, and Resident Evil 4 (which were all exclusive to GameCube for a time). I was also reminded of playing Resident Evil: Outbreak and Resident Evil Outbreak: File 2. These were the first online games I ever played, and I had to use my uncle’s PlayStation 2, which had an online adapter, to connect with other players during a short visit to his apartment in Philadelphia over the summer of 2005.

I don’t typically review nonfiction, but I thought, since the subject is horror related, I’d make an exception for Itchy, Tasty. If, like me, you love Resident Evil, I’d say this book is a must read. I’d even highly recommend it if you’re just a fan of gaming, as you’ll learn a ton about Capcom’s history. This book provided me a much-needed break from fiction, while also supplying me with inspiration as I learned about how the various creators at Capcom worked around countless challenges to release my favorite games. In Itchy, Tasty, Alex Aniel wisely chooses to focus on the period from 1996 to 2006, what old school Resident Evil fans tend of think of as the golden age of the franchise. That said, I’d certainly be interested in a follow-up book covering 2006 to the present.

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The Fellowship of the Ring 20th Anniversary

On December 19th, 2001, I attended a screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with my mother and her friend, Pasquale. My mom occasionally read me Tolkien at bedtime, and she’d showed me the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, which I loved, a few years before. My favorite character was already Strider because I loved him in the books (I now have a cat named after him). I remember being excited for the release of the film, and my father had already bought me the first action figure I found from the movie, a Legolas that sits on a shelf behind me as I write this. Despite my anticipation, there’s no way I could’ve known how profoundly The Fellowship of the Ring would shape my life.

To understand Fellowship’s influence on me, you’d have to start by recalling the days following 9-11. While I didn’t lose anyone, I was at an age where the events of 9-11 profoundly impacted me. The year before, I’d started to mature rapidly due to the passing of my grandmother, and 9-11 only increased my explosion toward adulthood. Over the course of two years, I discovered anyone in my family could be gone at any given second, and my country could be attacked at random by terrorists. Nightly news coverage and chatter kept 9-11 at the forefront of my mind. Making things worse, New York was only about a two-hour drive from my hometown, and I’d been there several times with my dad. This wasn’t a tragedy in a far-off land. This was next door. Suffice it to say, I was living in a world of fear. Thankfully, the Fellowship of the Ring allowed me to escape all that for three hours.

As a quick aside related to 9-11, while sitting in the theater waiting for The Fellowship of the Ring to start, I got my first full glimpse at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The previous summer, I’d tried to watch the teaser trailer online, but I couldn’t get it to completely download over dialup. The trailer I’d been unable to view had been one in which Spider-Man captured a criminal’s helicopter in a web between the twin towers. Raimi recut the film to edit out the twin towers. This holiday season sees the return of the first big screen Spider-Man villain, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Dafoe’s Goblin returns to theaters almost twenty years to the day from his first appearance as the character. It’s fascinating how many things come full circle.

But I digress. This essay is about The Fellowship of the Ring. I remember being enthralled with the film from Galadriel’s opening words, and, because I was a huge fan of the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, I geeked out over the brief shot of Bilbo in Gollum’s cave during the film’s introduction. To this day, I’ve never felt as fully transported to another world as I did during that viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a magical experience where I felt like I entered Middle-earth and journeyed alongside the nine companions. The Fellowship of the Ring fundamentally impacted my trajectory as a person. I went home so excited about the Lord of the Rings that I almost immediately dove into The Two Towers. I had to know what came next. After that, I finished The Return of the King. Ironically, it was a movie that truly started my love of reading.

That wasn’t the only impact The Fellowship of the Ring had on me though. I became obsessed with storytelling. Soon, I was creating my own fictional worlds. At first, my invented realms closely mirrored Middle-earth, but as time went on my work matured. Eventually, my Tolkien obsession led me to writing an unpublished fantasy novel, The Swords of Fellowship, while earning my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. The Swords of Fellowship was directly inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and it was my attempt to put my own spin on Tolkien’s ideas.

In the years since that first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring, I’ve returned to the film regularly, albeit in a slightly different form. I received The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition DVDs for Christmas in 2002, and I’m certain I’ve watched those disks more than any other DVDs I’ve ever owned. At this point, I’m sure I could recite every line by heart while watching along. The film never ceases to evoke tears from me when Boromir redeems himself by fighting to protect Merry and Pippin, and when Sam rushes into the water after Frodo. And my pulse always pounds faster as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli charge off to hunt orcs at the end. Truthfully, I enjoy every moment of this film, and it always allows me to escape whatever issues or troubles I’m having, just like when I first watched it.

This reflection has already gone on longer than I intended, but if you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll indulge a few more of my thoughts on this movie’s impact. My best friends in life all feel the same way about this movie as I do. In fact, three of us decided to get the elvish word for friend tattooed on our arms. I’d wager that most kids near my age feel the same way about The Fellowship of the Ring. It came along at a perfect time to help us escape the horrors of 9-11 and showed us a world where good hobbits triumphed over dark lords. So, cheers to The Fellowship of the Ring on twenty years of being a perfect fantasy film. As the hobbits say, “may the hair on your feet never fall out.”

The Christmas We Get, We Deserve by Jeremiah Dylan Cook

I wrote this story as a Christmas gift for my father in 2020. He’s a veteran of several musical Christmas shows at our local coffee house. With his permission, I’m sharing the tale as a 2021 holiday treat for all.

 

The Christmas We Get, We Deserve

by Jeremiah Dylan Cook

I finish tuning my guitar and strum each string to confirm my adjustments. The sound is crisp and true.  Outside the windows, the snow starts to pick up. The inflatable Santa Clause just beyond the door has a thin white layer hiding his ruby red outfit. Passing vehicle traffic slows with every minute.

The middle-aged barista, Mary, deposits a cup of water on a small table next to me. “Doesn’t look like we’ll get many folks tonight.”

“It’s the holiday season. You never know what can happen.” I respond, not really believing my own words. I’d been playing a Christmas show at the Cozy Mug for two decades, and there’d been some good times, but the crowds had gotten thinner each of the last five years. I wasn’t sure if I’d be asked back next December.

“You can start whenever you’re ready,” Mary says.

The seasonal music cuts off, leaving the room in silence. I think of the Cozy Mug as intimate in my head, but in truth, the place is tiny. There are only six small, round tables filling the space in front of me.  One is occupied by an old lady wearing a babushka. She uses her index finger to peck out a response on her phone. Stools line the left wall, with a window looking out at the street. A young couple trades a phone back and forth. The boy, with neon green glasses, makes a shocked face at whatever the girl, whose head is half shaved, has shown him. To the right, Mary stands flanked by tall canisters of coffee and a glass case of pastries at the counter. She passes the time by scrolling through her phone. The door, with snow-covered Santa just outside, is opposite where I’ve set up.

I tap the microphone in front of me. “Hey, everybody. My name is Magic Marvin, and I’m so glad you could be here. In honor of this festive time of year, I’ll be playing Christmas tunes tonight. If you know any, feel free to sing along. And if you’ve got any requests, don’t be afraid to shout the titles at me. I might even know some.”

The couple turns to regard me with suspicious expressions. Green glasses guy whispers something to shaved head girl, and they exit. As they pass Santa, they both give him a quick sucker punch. Snow puffs off his rotund form as he rocks back and forth.

Undeterred by their departure, I start “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty. My fingers work their way through the chords as I strum out the tune. I’m surprised at how effortless it feels tonight. I close my eyes and sing, “underneath, the missile toe, we go. We gooo.” I get lost in the music. “It’s Christmasss all overrr, againnn.” I slip into the groove. It’s the only time all my worries, doubts, and fears fall away. As the song comes to its end, I let the last reverberations of the guitar linger in the air.

Someone claps loudly, and I open my eyes. A well-dressed, lanky man, with shoulder-length blonde hair parted in the middle of his forehead, applauds. I’m struck by a strong sense of déjà vu I can’t explain. He collects his coffee from Mary, drops several bills in her tip jar, and sits one table over from the old woman, who is still engaged with sending a text.

“Thanks,” I say.

The man smiles. “No problem. You don’t happen to know “Run Rudolph Run” do you? I love me some Chuck Berry.”

“Sure!” I work my way through the rocking intro to the requested tune. “Out of all the reindeers, you know you’re the mastermind,” I sing.

The newcomer’s foot taps along to the rhythm as I work my way through the song. The old lady glances up as a dapper-looking African American man, wearing a ship captain’s hat, enters the Cozy Mug. The same déjà vu I’d previously experienced rears up again. He orders a coffee from Mary, tips well, and joins the other gentleman. They nod along as I finish the final plucks of the requested ditty. Both men applaud.

The newest arrival speaks up. “Good cover. You don’t know “Thank God It’s Christmas,” do you? I dig Freddie Mercury, and it’s been ages since I heard that one.”

“I do. Let’s see if I can remember how it goes.” I work my way through an acoustic cover, finding the song little by little. It starts to come back to me, and I progress faster. My deeper voice alters the piece, but I make it my own by the time I reach the end.

Applause erupts again, and I notice a new person who’d managed to sneak in while I was playing. At the table closest to me, a man sits with short, cropped hair, a mustache, and a flamboyant yellow jacket. His t-shirt says a single word in bright red font: Flash. He sips a coffee, and I look back to see Mary’s tip jar overflowing. I’m struck again by déjà vu, but instead of focusing on it, I consider my next song.

The man in the yellow jacket stretches his legs out. “That was good. I liked your version quite a bit. Know any John Lennon? “Happy Xmas” seems an appropriate choice.”

“Certainly.” I launch into the old familiar tune without much effort. This is one of the most oft-requested songs I play for this time of year. While I’d thought I’d lost my taste for the number after repeated performances, I find myself enjoying the process of playing it again. It helps that the entire audience, the old lady included, seems to be loving the song as they nod and sway.

The group joins in for the finale, singing, “war is overrr, if you want ittt.”

Another applause follows. It’s the loudest yet. I now count six people in the establishment. A new person somehow joined our fun mid-song. I’m not sure how I could’ve missed him coming in, but he sits at the table in front of the duo who arrived first. While all the others have been familiar, I’m shocked by this guy’s recognizability. He must be a huge Beatles fan because he’s obviously modeled his appearance after the late, great John Lennon. The circular glasses, white suit, and long hair are uncanny. Before I can comment on his look, he stands up.

In a British accent, he says, “Not bad. But what about a true classic like “Peace on Earth?” The one Bowie and Bing Crosby did together.”

I nod my accordance and begin as the Lennon imitator grabs a coffee. The song is an old favorite of mine, but I’m not sure the traditional duet works as well with only my voice performing. If the group’s bothered, they don’t show it in their enthralled expressions. When I’m done, the room claps again, and a pair of men walk out of the snow into the Cozy Mug and join in the adulation. The new arrivals are both older men. One wears a blue sweater vest over a white dress shirt, his thin hair is combed back. He sits by the old lady. The other man has his silver hair gelled up in a fashionable look that makes him appear decades younger than he is. At a glance, his eyes appear mismatched, and when I focus on him, I realize his left pupil is larger than his right.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you it wasn’t nice to stare?” The man asks playfully.

I’m shocked to hear another British accent in my small, Pennsylvanian town.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. “But you look, well, you all look remarkably familiar. Mary, is this a prank?” I look over at the barista.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know who any of these folks are, but they tip well.”

“I’ve got another big tip for you if you can give me a double macchiato.” The man with the strange eyes sits next to the gentleman in the yellow coat. “Hello there, Freddie. It’s been a while.” He looks back at me after greeting his friend. “I’ll forgive the rude gazing if you can play my favorite holiday song.”

“If I know it, I’ll play it.”

“It’s called “I believe in Father Christmas,” and it’s by Greg Lake.”

“Of course, I know that. It’s one of my favorites too.” My fingers work through the intricate opening tabs, and I lose myself in yet another Christmas classic. The tune passes in a blur as I realize it’s almost over already. “I wish you a brave New Year,” I sing as the song reaches its final crescendo.

Yet another visitor enters the Cozy Mug, leaving the storm. He sings, “the Christmas we get, we deserve.”

I let the song end, having been beaten to the final line. This time there’s no doubt in my mind. I’m staring at a young Greg Lake. I survey the room again. Tom Petty sits with Chuck Berry just over from Bing Crosby and an old lady who has no clue who she’s with. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are seated directly in front of me, and John Lennon sprawls out by himself, enjoying the fact that no one else is at his table.

Greg Lake walks toward me, smiling. “Now, I’ve got a request. I want to hear a Magic Marvin original. Don’t you have a Christmas song?”

A shiver runs through me. I’d written a Christmas song eight years prior, just after nearly ending my life in a fit of despair over a hard breakup with the woman I’d thought was my soulmate. I’d never told anyone about the song, and I’d certainly never played it live before.

“We’ll join you for the chorus,” Greg Lake adds, standing next to me at the front of the Cozy Mug.

The other musicians all get to their feet and make their way to us.

“Mary,” Bowie calls. “Won’t you be a sport and record this for Marvin?”

The barista smiles and pulls out her phone. She angles the camera toward us and backs up to capture everyone. When her device is ready, Mary gives us a thumbs up.

For the first time ever, I play my Christmas song out loud.

 

Christmas Future

I finish tuning my guitar and strum the strings to confirm I’ve got what I want. The sound is pitch-perfect. Outside, it’s a clear, cold night. I smile at the thought of trudging through the blizzard to get home last year.

Mary deposits a tip cup next to my water on the table in front of me. “Packed tonight, isn’t it?”

I scan the room. Each table is overcrowded with strangers looking eager for my show. The stools are just as packed. More people file in through the doors. Mary’s new assistant works the counter.

“They’re just here to see if any ghosts show up,” I reply. “But I’ll give them my best show.”

“Ready when you are.” Mary pats my arm and turns around.

The seasonal music cuts off.

I tap the microphone in front of me. “Hey, everybody. My name is Magic Marvin, and I’m so glad you could join me tonight. Most of you are probably here because of a video I posted last Christmas. I know everyone and their mother told you that I must be a genius with deep fakes and computer forgeries, but I’ve never even been able to do basic HTML on my own website.”

The crowd chuckles.

I take a quick sip of water and continue. “Last year, I was visited by some friends whose Christmas tunes I’ve played for years. Maybe they were only great impersonators? I don’t know what the truth is, but what I do know is that after that video was uploaded, my Christmas song shot up to number one in the country for a week, and now you’re all here because of it. And if that isn’t a Christmas Miracle, I don’t know what is. So, how about I play that tune for you?”

The crowd erupts into cheers, and I start my guitar intro. My fingers work their way up the neck of the guitar as I progress from chord to chord. In the back, just outside the doors, I spot the faintest wisps of seven smiling musicians from holiday’s past standing by the inflatable Santa.

End

Happy Holidays

The Blood-Inked Comic Book

The link below contains a free PDF copy of Jeremiah Dylan Cook’s short story “The Blood-Inked Comic Book” for Bram Stoker Award consideration in the Short Fiction category for 2021.

PDF Copy of The Blood-Inked Comic Book for Stoker Award Short Fiction Consideration

“The Blood-Inked Comic Book” was published on June 8th, 2021 by Castle Bridge Media in Castle of Horror Anthology Volume 5: Thinly Veiled: The ’70s. The synopsis for “The Blood-Inked Comic Book” is as follows: While in police custody, Thomas Roy, a comic book writer, details how the band Smooch collaborated with Astonishing Comics to produce a blood-inked comic book that warped his nephew into a demonic creature. This story is also currently available for free on Kindle Unlimited at https://www.amazon.com/Castle-Horror-Anthology-Thinly-Veiled/dp/173647264X. For any additional information, you can follow Jeremiah on Twitter @JeremiahCook1, or you can contact him at Jdcook1991@gmail.com.