Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Art Is the Devil

It was Charlie Sheen night at the Hyaena Art Gallery. One actor’s implosion was every other man’s meat. And Kristy had to admit she wished she’d been in on it, despite her automatic sell-out reservations.

This was one hilarious, legitimately badass show. In retrospect, she was kicking herself for not having even tried.

Art was supposed to be provocative and fun. Otherwise, what was the fucking point? Excite the eye, and you excite the soul. Everything else was pretense.

These super-cool artists had brought it: all the absurdity and pathos, indictment and entitlement, sincere mockery and star-loving devotion that such pop culture work demanded. Hyaena had set the bar high, in the lowest way possible. And that was a beautiful thing.

“I like the one where he’s flying in his underwear, drinking coffee and shitting missiles that blow up the world,” Drea said, lighting her cigarette on the sidewalk outside, less than twenty feet from the door, in flagrant violation of Burbank law.

Across the street was the distinctive neon sign of the Safari Hotel, where James Gandolfini menaced Patricia Arquette in True Romance, one of Drea’s favorite all-time films. They’d already spent twenty minutes discussing how cool that was. How insanely cool it was to be in the place where shit actually happens.

So far from South Dakota, where carving dead presidents’ heads into mountains was the state’s last great artistic achievement. The place from which they’d escaped, heading west to Los Angeles, in the prime of their lives. To take their own shots at greatness.

“I really liked Charlie as Aladdin Sane,” Kristy said. “And not just for the Bowie reference.”

“The one with the huge cock and machete was gorgeous.”

Kristy laughed. “And the demonically-possessed one was soooooo realistic.”

“I bet he’s a really fun guy to hang out with, if you’re not a hot woman.”

“Which pretty much rules you out.”

“Rules both of us out, baby,” Drea said, flashing her best friend a wink. “Charlie Sheen would fuck you in a second.”

“Yeesh.”

“Just sayin’.”

Traffic was slow on Olive Ave. at 10:30 on a Friday night. Most of the standing-room-only crowd had dispersed an hour ago, once the media frenzy had been sated.

So when the clankity black 1962 Cadillac hearse pulled up out front, they were the two eye-candiest women on the pavement.

Kristy, pale and lovely, a lithe redheaded sprite in a bright green summer frock. Drea, bursting out in voluptuous dark starlet splendor, like a young Jennifer Connelly in a blood-red contour-clinging dress.

Together, they looked like the world’s best Christmas present.

The shotgun window of the hearse rolled down, and a bald creepy man’s face poked out through the gap, sporting thick black eyeliner and matching pointed goatee.

“Look at you,” he said, appraising them both. “Out here, wasting your time.”

“I’m enjoying my time very much, thank you,” Drea said. “What the fuck do you care?”

The bald man snickered. That was the only word for it. “You think this art is transgressive?”

“It’s fun,” Drea said.

“It’s really good,” Kristy added, cheerfully defensive.

“Sure. For lightweights. Have you ever seen real art?”

“My friend makes real art,” Drea said, pointing with her cigarette, free hand balling into a fist. Always a red flag with Drea.

He cast Kristy a dismissive glance. “Yes, I’m sure her Ken doll with the word ‘Winning’ writ large in Elmer’s glue and glitter was a big hit with the crowd.”

Kristy bristled under his black-eyed gaze. Her Barbie-art diorama phase in junior high was kind of embarrassing, yes; but she’d learned a lot from it. And fuck him for pegging her there.

“Excuse me, you dime store Satanist prick,” Drea said, and it was his turn to bristle. “If this show is so stupid and shitty, then why are you here?”

“I think you’re jealous,” Kristy said.

“Of this?” He let out a mad scientist laugh from the Vincent Price School of Cartoon Villainy. “Oh, please.”

“No, really,” Kristy persisted. “What, so you’re a ‘real’ artist? Where’s the line to get into your show?”

“And why are you rattling around in that clunker?” added Drea. “Trolling other people’s parties on a Friday night?”

It was fun to watch his ego try to contain itself. It was so clear that he wanted to explode like one of Charlie Sheen’s ass-bombs.

Hollywood egos were like that, they’d found. Intensely superficial, fronting all the time, with a whole lot of unresolved damage underneath.

Kristy and Drea knew all about unresolved damage. They had just decided to not let it turn them into assholes. Made a pact to hang onto their souls. Keep their feet on the ground.

And always, always back each other up.

From the driver’s seat of the hearse, two pale, sleek, elegant feminine hands reached out to firmly massage his shoulders. He groaned, eyes rolled back, then centered himself.

“Thank you, Vale,” he said, and the hands withdrew. “You always know just what to do.”

Kristy and Drea threw grinning what the fuck looks at each other, turned back to Little Baldy, eager to see what happened next.

“My new show,” he said, with a great mustered air of dignity, “is about to debut.”

“How exciting for you,” Drea said.

“But we’re throwing a little pre-launch party tonight,” he continued. “A midnight premiere.”

“Well, have a nice time . . .” Kristy said, turning away.

The driver’s door opened.

And the driver emerged.

“Omigod,” Drea said. And something in the way she said it told Kristy she might want to turn back around and see.

The woman driving the hearse was unearthly in her beauty, an easily six-foot Bettie Page, white angel face framed by black devil hair, the bangs straight across the fierce penciled-in eyebrows and bright blue shining eyes. Her nose, cheeks, lips and chin were so perfect in symmetry that she almost had to be sculpted by the finest porn star plastic surgery techniques.

As she rounded the front of the hearse, runway-walking toward them, her body in motion was almost not to be believed. The girls were both gym fanatics, and roughly as taut as could be; but this woman looked like a superhero drawing, a fanboy jackoff hallucination of what femininity ought to be.

Or fangirl jackoff, for that matter.

Drea was not gay—she had guy-cravings, too—but when it came to otherworldly Amazon women like this, the part of her brain that was 100% dude went into total sexual how-can-I-nail-this overdrive.

Kristy could clearly see her friend fighting back the drool. Wiped the corners of her own mouth, just in case. Took a drag off her smoke. And stepped forward, to Drea’s side.

She’d almost completely forgotten about the creepy guy, watching, until the woman’s too-perfect breasts were obscured by a pair of postcard-sized invitations.

And then the woman named Vale was upon them.

“He’s a genius,” the driver said, looking them each in the eye. “And believe me, I know genius when I see it. You should totally come.”

“Um,” Kristy said, taking the invitation in her hand. The words ART IS THE DEVIL briefly distracted her from staring.

“Fuck Charlie Sheen,” Vale continued. “That’s the shallow end of the pool. This town is crawling with dead ends, false hopes, and empty promises, right?”

“Well, yeah . . .” Drea said.

“So when you find something real, that cuts through the bullshit, and speaks to the highest, smartest part of yourself, you want to fight for that vision.”

“Well, sure,” Drea said. “But . . .”

Kristy finished the question.

“Why’s your guy such a douche?”

It was a moment of truth, and Kristy half-expected a slap in the face. But instead of getting defensive, Vale just laughed, as if delighted by the challenge.

“He’s not really a douche,” she said. “He’s just run out of patience with facile Hollywood dogshit. He’s so sensitive, and his work goes so much deeper, that it kills him when otherwise intelligent people make do with lowest-common-denominator tripe. Never knowing how much better it gets.”

“Fair enough,” Kristy said. “So what’s his great vision?”

Vale brought her index finger to her own lush red lips, as if to say shhh. Kissed the finger. Then reached out to dab that lipstick kiss on the tip of Kristy’s nose.

“Boop,” she said. “Only one way to find out.”

And with that, Vale turned and went back to the Caddy, leaving the girls to watch her stunning ass in something like shock.

While the creepy genius lit a black cigarette, let the smoke plume out slowly in unreadable thought balloons.

• • • •

Five minutes later, Drea was behind the wheel, hopping the Olive entrance onto the I-5 South, heading downtown.

“Fuck yeah, I wanna see his stupid show!” She was ranting, stomping down hard on the gas, pushing her leased Prius from 20 to 80 in the time it took to merge. “He better be fucking transcendent, is all I gotta say.”

Remain on the 5 for another 6.5 miles,” said her dashboard GPS.

“I found his website,” Kristy crowed from the passenger seat, diddling her iPhone. “Max Apocalypso. Right there. You can’t say he’s not subtle.”

“Max Pretensalypso.” Kicking her speed up to 90.

“I was thinking more Missed Testocalypso.”

“Or Baron Von Blowme.”

Kristy laughed. “I bet he wears sneakers with IHEARTSATAN666 scrawled across them in magic marker . . . ooo. Ooo. Wait.”

“What? You find some ‘real art?’” She sniggered.

“No.” Kristy was transfixed by her screen. “Or yes. But none of it’s his.”

“What, he’s a plagiarist? HA! That fuck!”

“No. It says . . ” Scrolling. “It says he’s pulled all of his art off the internet. That’s why all the Giger and Bosch. And here’s a direct quote: ‘The enormity of my work is such that it can only be experienced firsthand. These are installation pieces of epic scale. To move inside them is to truly immerse yourself in . . .’—I’m sorry, this is funny—‘. . . in the intimate gnosis of never-ending Hell. Soon, all of you will know its glory.’”

Drea laughed. “Sounds like truth in advertising to me. Except for, you know, that last part.”

“Yeah.” Kristy got thoughtful. “But the thing is, I kind of know what he means. Like, pictures of the monsters and props at a really good haunted Halloween Spook House are not nearly as cool as walking through the Spook House itself. And you don’t wanna give away all the scares and surprises. That takes half the fun out of it.”

“Yeah . . .”

“So maybe he’s not a total douche,” Kristy continued, speculatively playing the thread out. “Maybe that’s just part of his act. Trying to see how many people he can get to hate him.”

“Well,” Drea said, “he’s off to an excellent start.”

“Maybe Elvira was right, and he’s just a misunderstood genius. Maybe he’s got a thing about show biz. Like, maybe his daddy’s a huge movie star who used to bang his little ass whenever the starlets ran out.”

“Yeah. Wow. Could be.” Drea snorted, contemptuous. “Why are you trying to rationalize his behavior, all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know.” Kristy laughed. “Maybe I’m trying to justify wasting our time, checking out his pompous crap.”

Exit I-5 in one mile,” said the GPS, as Drea impulsively pushed it to 100.

• • • •

It took another ten minutes to negotiate the downtown Los Angeles labyrinth, follow the robot voice to one faceless gray industrial monolith out of a trillion.

But they found it. Or at least found the address on the postcard: entrance lights on, no one standing outside. It was a desolate building on a grim industrial stretch, and there was plenty of parking out front, which led them to suspect that maybe poor ol’ Max E. Pad wasn’t getting the sophisticated turnout he’d hoped for.

His hearse was right there, though, in the gated lot to the left. So there was no mistaking that this was the place.

“Okay,” Kristy said. Are we sure we wanna do this?”

“Well, we’re here,” Drea said, pulling up to the curb.

“What if she’s not even there? Like, she was an actress he just hired to drive him around, try to lure in pussy?”

“If he could afford to hire a woman like that, and get her to testify that hard on his behalf, without breaking character, then he could probably afford to fuck her. At which point, what does he need us for?”

Drea left the engine running as they thought about that.

“You think she’s really fucking him?” Kristy asked.

“I hate to even consider it.”

“I know.”

“That said, I’ve never seen so many ugly men nailing beautiful women as I have in Hollywood. So he must have money.”

“These lofts aren’t cheap.”

“So let’s say she’s an actress, and she’s part of his show . . .”

“The only good part, so far.”

“What if this is some Satanist cult thing, and he’s just trying to recruit us?”

Drea cackled. “Then he’s shit out of luck.”

“Are you packing tonight?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Me, too.”

“Okay, then.” They high-fived, hugged each other with their seat belts still on, which was kind of hilarious.

Then unfastened themselves, and got out of the car.

• • • •

Drea waved hi to the security cam as Kristy rang the bell. The response was almost instantaneous. Buzz, click, and they were in.

The stark foyer was lit in cold blue, punctured by irregular, shifting stabs of glaring white and strobing red. The walls were painted in high-gloss black, reflecting the light while seeming to disappear behind it, so that the veneer pulsed at a low hum with nothing but nothingness beyond, creating a thirty-foot square box inside infinity.

“That’s a cool effect,” Kristy said.

As the door slammed shut behind them.

At the far end of the room was a glowing doorway, lined in Kubrickian blinding white. A dark silhouette stood neatly at its center, facing them, the white and red lights landing everywhere but there.

Above it was a neon sign that said:

DEATH WILL BE YOUR GUIDE

“Woop-dee-do,” Drea said. “Oh, that’s classy . . .”

“Shhh . . .”

As they advanced toward their shadow guide, their own footsteps echoed back at them from hidden speakers throughout the room. It was a slick Sensurround trick; made it feel like invisible others were approaching from behind, ahead, to either side. They found themselves glancing nervously over their shoulders.

“They must have directional mics at floor level,” Drea said. “That’s smart.”

“This is creepy.”

“Yeah. Shit!” Getting into the spookhouse thrill.

Ten feet from the glowing doorway, Death’s silhouette began to back into the corridor behind it, still facing them. For the first time, they could clearly see the black robe and hood that entirely concealed it.

Could see the Steadicam rig attached to its torso, straps also black. And the high-end hi-def camera aimed straight at their faces, with what looked like a very wide lens.

“Oh, really?” Drea said, this time straight to the camera. “If you wanna use this footage, we’re gonna have to sign release forms, okay? I’m SAG eligible! I get paid for this shit!”

“Not to ruin your shot or anything!” Kristy added helpfully.

“They try to rope me into working for free, his new name’s gonna be Max I-Punch-Your-Dick, Yo.”

“I think they got the message. You wanna look scared for a second, just to be nice?”

“Fuck that.” Drea flipped the double bird. “You want my cooperation? You gotta earn my respect. And be nice to my friend.”

Kristy knew better than to argue. Not being an actress, she put on her best “I’m really scared” face for the camera, then giggled, embarrassed.

As they entered the doorway of light, it suddenly surged to a painful intensity. They yelped, blinded, blocked their eyes with their hands.

And passed over to the other side.

• • • •

Blinking and cursing, the first thing Kristy noticed was the sound: a low, near-subsonic whoom that rattled her fillings.

“DAMN it!” she yelled, could barely hear her own voice.

Then she saw Drea, three feet ahead, sticking fingers in her ears and laughing. “Are you SEEING this shit?” she hollered, as a thudding human heartbeat pummeled their guts from hidden speakers.

The corridor splayed out before them had been designed to resemble a forty-foot long walk-through uterus, walls and ceiling organically curved and glistening with gel. The whole thing was sculpted out of foam latex—an insane amount of it, maybe $20,000 worth—with little veins and moles and pulsing polyps running all the way through.

And prosthetic human arms, jutting out from either side. Dangling or groping from the walls, as if entrapped behind them. Total monster movie shit.

Some were cut off at the wrist. A few of them twitched. It had a Hellraiser vibe; a movie they both loved. And not cheaply done, either. This guy clearly had a budget.

“COME ON!” Drea roared.

“OKAY!”

“LET’S SEE WHAT ELSE THEY GOT! I BET THE STUPID HEAVY METAL STARTS UP ANY MINUTE!”

They pushed forward through the haunted canal together in single file, just out of reach of the grasping fingers, footsteps utterly drowned out by the sound. Kristy sped up enough to take her friend’s hand, feeling stupid about how skeeved-out this was starting to make her.

From above, unevenly spaced lights went from bright to dim in sequence. And fog machines spritzed just enough to clarify the beams, amp every shadowed motion.

Thirty feet in, the light turned red above their heads. The flesh of the walls and ceilings sickened, went dark and greasy, began to sag and ooze and drip.

While the arms went from animatronic foam latex to something cruder, shrink-wrapped and glistening, bony and rotten to the eye.

That was when the bad smell kicked in.

Kristy and Drea had met in eighth grade biology class. Formaldehyde and frog—that baby pig they’d co-dissected—preceded weed, douche, cheap teenage perfume, and burning Barbie hair in their earliest shared memories.

It was coming from one of the arms, where the shrink-wrap had torn. They both saw it at once.

There were dead maggots in the hole.

“We gotta go,” Kristy choked.

And turned around.

Too late.

• • • •

The first cloaked figure through the doorway of light was easily seven feet tall. Even from thirty-five feet back, Drea could see its hooded head nearly scrape the ceiling, rapidly advancing toward them.

The next one was even larger.

And both of them had large curved blades—less machetes than scimitars—that glistened in the light. They did not look like props.

If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. She let go of Kristy’s hand, dug into her purse.

Kristy was screaming, and that was okay. Let it out, baby, she thought. Fighting her own panic. Fingers closing on the object she sought.

Flicking off the safety before it even came out of the bag.

She couldn’t shoot around her friend, so she whirled and took out the Steadicam Operator of Death with one shot to the body and another to the head. The robed figure fell backwards, spraying, inches from the curtain at the end of the hall.

The camera, she hoped, was undamaged. They would probably want that for evidence, later.

“COME ON!” she bellowed, turning back to make sure. Got a whiff of the pepper spray Kristy was unleashing, and started sprinting as fast as she could in the opposite direction.

Pushing deeper into Hell.

• • • •

Kristy didn’t carry a gun—didn’t like them, was uncomfortable with them—but right now, she wished she had an AK handy to mow those fuckers down.

As it was, these closed quarters would put a serious hurt on their asses, the closer they got to the fog of pain she’d just unleashed behind her.

She took off after Drea, saw the curtains ahead, saw the dead body she would have to vault. Could hear the gunshots, slightly louder than the shrieks from behind her, all overwhelmed by the heartbeat from the speakers.

From which, God help them, heavy metal now emerged.

• • • •

Drea wasn’t about to run through anything her bullets hadn’t softened up first. So she fired through the curtain, going left to right, squeezing one off to either side, then two straight down the middle.

Please be dead, she prayed. Whoever’s out there, please be dead as of now.

And the good news was—as she passed through the curtain—that there were two very surprised-looking black-robed motherfuckers on the floor before her, bleeding. Only one of them still moving. And not very well.

The bad news was the one she missed.

Who gutted her, three steps in.

• • • •

And this is what Kristy saw, as she passed through the curtain, less than ten seconds later.

Vale’s beautiful face.

Drea, sagging from behind.

There was a scimitar sticking out of Drea’s back. Then there wasn’t. Drea buckled, no longer held up, gun firing at nothing as she dropped to her knees.

In the time it took Kristy to scream, the sneering Amazon kicked her dying friend out of the way, grabbed Kristy by the hair, and yanked her painfully forward.

“This is real art,” the woman hissed in her ear, wrapping around her from behind, bringing the wet blade to her throat.

As all earthly Hell splayed out before her.

Max Apocalypto style.

• • • •

The installation’s nightmare piece de resistance had been constructed at a forty-five-degree angle: a long, sharp ramp upward that filled the width of the warehouse, entirely gobbling Kristy’s view.

The centerpiece was an enormous five-pointed star—massively spotlit from above—rendered entirely in dozens of meat-packed mannequins, laid out foot to head, at least fifty feet in diameter. Their cracked plastic exteriors swarmed with flies, visible even at a distance.

The circle that encased them was most certainly drawn in blood.

The center of the Sigil—Satan’s special pentagram—held a Warhol-like print of Max Apocalypso’s face: glowering, ten feet tall. Just to clarify that it was all about him.

And filling the space outside of this frame were dozens of bodies—most of them dead, the rest emaciated and squirming—crucified upside-down, like fighter planes about to crash, metal spikes driven into their hands, bellies, and feet.

Above it all, in neon letters ten feet high:

ART IS THE DEVIL

WELCOME, SATAN!

Then the faithful filed in from either side, chanting indecipherably along with the death metal dirge. Maybe twenty in all. Most in robes. A few in jeans and t-shirts, probably crew, weirdly twice as scary for their absolute normalcy. Like this was just another non-union gig, with some psycho-killing afterlife points thrown in.

Finally, the Master of Ceremonies stepped before her, resplendent in robes that cost ten times as much as the net worth of her whole family tree put together, with an unctuous grin that was too much to bear.

Kristy took it all in. Assessed her odds. Wished there were only some way to take them all down with her. Wished she could somehow tell Drea how incredibly sorry she was.

Then emptied the pepper spray over her shoulder.

As her throat sawed open, and her vision went gray.

• • • •

“GAHHH!” Vale screamed, face and lungs on chemical fire. She let go of the fire-hosing red-headed chippie she’d just murdered and dropped to her own knees, blind and vomiting. They hit the floor in pluming unison, everyone else pulling back from the fumes.

“Where’s my fucking Steadicam?” Max roared.

“Barry’s dead!”

“Jesus FUCK! Can’t you people do ANYTHING?”

“SORRY, MASTER!” several bellowed as one, scurrying to retrieve the rig or somehow make this right.

Max stood at the center of the chaos he’d created, desperately tried to figure out how to pull a save. He was surrounded by halfwits, his buzz utterly blown, along with the rest of his inheritance.

He’d thrown the last half-mil of his piece-of-shit sitcom-producing daddy’s trust fund money into prepping tonight’s event. Had spent years cultivating this invocation—this ultimate expression—in his head. Hired dozens of artists to help realize his vision. Disappeared the ones that failed. Fitting their bodies—or pieces thereof—into the greater work.

The Empty Waiting Womb of Life and The Grasping Passage to Perdition were mere pre-game warm-ups. Important pieces, in their own right. But nothing but foreplay, to Max’s way of seeing.

This was the one all Hell was waiting for. His ticket to its inner circle.

And there was Vale, puking and screaming on the floor. No help at all. So much for his right hand.

“Lord Satan . . . !” he began to pray, and Vale screamed again, worse, rolling onto her back before the two dead girls and the pathway back.

The pathway burst into flames, as did all the walls surrounding them.

And Vale’s perfect belly stretched, expanded, ballooned, in far-from-immaculate conception.

Max recoiled at the sight, as the temperature spiked, a super-heated 100-degree salvo that squeezed the sweat from his pores before he even knew what hit him. His pivoting gaze swept across the Sigil writ large. His own face at the center, suddenly melting and morphing.

The mannequins, beginning to stir.

Vale’s next scream did not seem to even come from this earth, and Max reeled back just in time to watch her super-impregnated belly blow open like an all-meat Jiffy-Pop tray.

And two taloned hands shredded up through the hole.

Satan, rising.

All the way up from Hell.

• • • •

The Devil wore a splendid black tux for the occasion, though his flesh was the exact color of the blood and gore that caked him as he snapped Vale’s spine and ascended through the hole. It was as if there was a mechanized platform rising beneath him in an elaborate Broadway show, bringing him up to stage level.

A big entrance, after all, was the mark of a pro.

Vale’s intestines were draped over his shoulders like garlands. He took a bite, just for shits and giggles, then tossed them off in a casually grandiloquent gesture that left his arms extended wide, as if to the welcome of applause.

Of course, everybody still alive was screaming in terror. He took that as a standing ovation.

As the rest wavered, paralyzed by fear, he stared straight at the host of the party, who had dropped to his knees in whimpering worship.

Satan took a hankie from his upper breast pocket, wiped away the spatter, arranged his dark bangs just so.

Revealing his true face, at last.

He looked just like Charlie Sheen.

• • • •

“NOOOOO!!!” Max screamed, as if his soul would burst. But even that was not the worst.

Dude?” the Prince of Darkness said, head cocked in jaunty contempt as he stepped out of Vale’s still-screaming carcass and strode forward, cupping Max’s chin with one massive palm, forcing Max’s tear-filled eyes to rise and meet his fiery gaze.

I hate to break this to you, but . . . that was the most pretentious piece of shit I’ve ever seen.”

Max started to scream again, but the Sheen-faced Satan squeezed his windpipe shut, throttling it down to a peep, and leaned in close.

Shhhh,” he hissed, breath like pussy and sulfur. “You had your chance. Now let me show you how it’s done.”

The Devil snapped his fingers, and the death metal stopped. In its place, a blistering flurry of dissonant horns raked the air, with salvos of polyrhythmic drum and bass underneath.

With that, Satan’s Big Band materialized behind him—a ten-piece, brass-led orchestra of the damned, framed by flames—and launched into a blistering funked-out 7/4 jazz groove. All playing at cranked-up virtuosity pitch, like the crazy-ass demons they were.

Lesson #1,” Satan said. “WHERE’S THE FUN? Where’s the zazz? Are you kidding me, Ace? Don’t you even know what a fucking party is?

Max tried to answer, but his eyes and tongue were bugging out of his skull.

What you built was like a meat locker still-life. So static. So pompous and stagy. So full of itself. It’s embarrassing to think that’s how little you know me, for all your so-called ‘devotion.’

Satan Sheen painfully twisted Max’s face back toward his diorama, which was now anything but static. The mannequins all crawling en masse down the ramp.

The dead, awakening, and tearing themselves free.

It was at this point that the crew began to panic, try to figure out how to escape. Turning this way and that, it was almost like dancing, inside an infinite circle of flame.

Lesson #2, and this one is important,” Satan said, loud enough to be heard above the saxophones and screaming. “Never kill people who are cooler than you are.

“Because that always just pisses me off.”

• • • •

Kristy and Drea woke up on the floor together. Each in their own pool of gore. They were dead, and then they weren’t; but the first thing they did was turn to check on each other.

Kristy saw the band behind Drea—the hot horned trumpet player who was wailing his balls off, the couple of cloaked crusaders bursting into flames behind them—then focused back on her blood-drooling friend, who grinned as she rose up off the floor.

Drea was drawn to the undead hordes pouring off of that forty-five-degree angle and diving straight into Max’s lackeys. Limbs were being torn lose and strewn.

“LET’S GET IN ON THIS SHIT!” Drea howled.

“WOOOOOOO!!!”

Locking coal-red eyes and sharp-toothed grins, they leapt into the mayhem.

And lo and behold, just a couple feet away, the closest still-warm body was Vale: the official poster girl for talking the talk, then feeding them straight to the slaughter. It was amazing that the chick was neither dead nor demonized: in a halfway place of inescapable total pain, rent asunder at the midriff.

“Let’s see what you look like without that face,” Drea said, brought her fresh claws to the task.

“Looks like an ugly skull that won’t stop screaming,” Kristy noted, squeezing Vale’s fake boobs till the saline geysered. “WHEEE!!!”

All around them, people were dying, and that was utterly fantastic. Fuck these people. They completely deserved it. Kristy’s dying wish was being granted one severed head at a time, one desiccated corpse in a victory dance, one mannequin swarm stripping the key grip down to his essential skeletal frame.

And then there was good ol’ Max himself: choking and weeping on his knees, like the little bald bitch he was, as his Epic Work was undone before him. But he’d finally delivered on that whole ‘intimate gnosis of never-ending Hell’ thing. At least he sure looked like he was in Hell.

The devil girls couldn’t see who was pinning him there till the tall, handsome man turned to face them and beamed.

Ladies . . .” he said, as they both shrieked with glee. And before they could state the obvious, added, “Yeah, yeah. I like to tell Charlie that he looks just like me.”

“OMIGOD!” Drea said. “Did you see the show at Hyaena tonight?”

Satan chuckled. “I did. It was hilarious.”

“Wasn’t it great?” Kristy gushed.

Way better than this one, I’ll tell you that!

“WOOOOOO!!!” whooped the devil girls, delirious, as the last standing twig in Max’s broken soul went snap.

I’m kinda liking the afterparty, though. You want to thank your host personally?

“Ohhhhh, please,” Drea moaned. “We would like that very much.”

“Is there any part of him,” Kristy asked, “that you’d prefer we not thank?”

Leave the eyes in the head, if you could,” Satan said. “So you’ll always know that he’s still watching.”

“Oooo,” Drea cooed.

He’s gonna be stuck like that forever, after all. We wouldn’t want him to miss a goddam thing.”

“We promise,” Kristy said, as the meat-drenched mannequins crawled up close to bear witness, surrounded by the dozens of leering corpses Max had made. Satan’s jazz band propelled them, dialed the music in tight, made even the flames and shadows dance.

It was, she saw, a moment of staggering perfection.

“This is real art,” Kristy informed Max, looking him dead in the eyes, then bloodily carving one word across his forehead with one razor-tipped index finger.

The word, of course, was WINNING!

And everybody laughed but him.

John Skipp

John Skipp is a Rondo Award-winning filmmaker (Tales of Halloween), Stoker Award-winning anthologist (Demons, Mondo Zombie), and New York Times bestselling author (The Light at the End, The Scream) whose books have sold millions of copies in a dozen languages worldwide. His first anthology, Book of the Dead, laid the foundation in 1989 for modern zombie literature. He’s also editor-in-chief of Fungasm Press, championing genre-melting authors like Laura Lee Bahr, Violet LeVoit, Autumn Christian, Danger Slater, Cody Goodfellow, and Devora Gray. From splatterpunk founding father to bizarro elder statesman, Skipp has influenced a generation of horror and counter-culture artists around the world. His latest book is The Art of Horrible People.