Sunday, November 18, 2018

EP Review: SHEER TERROR Pall In The Family (Reaper Records/Rebellion Records) by Dave Wolff

Reaper Records/Rebellion Records
Place of origin: New York City, New York, USA
Genre: Punk/hardcore
Available in 7” and 12” vinyl format (Reaper Records)
Available in 12” vinyl and limited edition CD format (Rebellion Records)
Release date: August 13, 2018
Sheer Terror, arguably the kings of New York hardcore, return with a new EP following a successful reformation involving a new full length, a series of reunions (including a spot on the This Is Hardcore festival), a live DVD and documentary and a box set of rereleased albums. For a band that stayed beneath the radar they amassed quite a cult following. Sheer Terror was infamous for their seething, satirical criticism and hymns to personal heartache, with a Celtic-Frost-meets-Discharge sound owing to their founding members, guitarist Alan Blake and lead vocalist Paul Bearer. The band is also known for recording their 1989 album Just Can’t Hate Enough at CBGB, with Prong’s Tommy Victor engineering. Their 1994 EP Old, New, Borrowed And Blue was co-produced by Type O Negative’s Josh Silver and their ‘95 full length Love Songs For The Unloved was co-produced by Victor. Bearer was a unique frontman and voice in hardcore. Blunt, discourteous and prurient with a dose of humor, he has been described as a cross between Fear’s Lee Ving and Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners. His personality showed most potently when Sheer Terror performed live. His one liners and jabs at the audience covered any topic he deigned to talk about, from NY punk to squatters’ rights (“I’ll give you a right, I’ll give you a left and I’ll give you a kick to the fuckin’ head”) Even Marky Ramone acknowledged his ability to work a crowd in the documentary that accompanied the DVD. It’s been a long time coming but Standing Up For Falling Down (released in 2014 by Reaper Records) was greeted with newfound popularity for the band, everyone involved was pleased with the new material and it seemed fitting to follow it with Pall In The Family. Released in August, Pall In The Family features a new lineup and Bearer’s distinct personality. Bringing fresh faces in revitalizes the band’s trenchant perspective and callous mindset. The four tracks composed for it sound not less but more embittered by experience, sounding like the logical progression from the classics I mentioned earlier. While listening to the EP I had to go back and listen to those albums again, then rewatch the documentary. After that, Pall In The Family took me back to 315 Bowery in the summer of ‘89 when the bands playing there were getting more attention than the bathrooms. Bristling with unrelenting umbrage, disenchantment and general animosity, Pall In The Family makes it clear that Sheer Terror is back. If this review made you want to see Sheer Terror live, their Facebook community page has show and tour information to look over. -Dave Wolff

Lineup:
Paul Bearer: Vocals
Johnny Eggz: Guitar
Gary Bennett: Guitar
Jason Çarter: Bass
Anthony Corallo: Drums

Track list:
1. The Moon’s Gone Out
2. Bohack’s, Wetsons, Tung-Bo & Me
3. North Shore Love Affair
4. Get Me Off This Rock
5. Heresy On The Monkeybars (bonus track)*
6. Blue Shadows Will Fall (bonus track)*
7. Salome (bonus track)*
8. There’s Always Room At The Pines (bonus track)**

* Originally appeared on the “Spite” EP, Reaper Records, 2011
** Originally appeared on the split 7” with The Old Firm Casuals, Pitchfork Label, 2016

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Film Review: Stephen King's Strawberry Spring (Crimson Productions) by James K. Blaylock

Stephen King's Strawberry Spring
Based on the short story by Stephen King
Directed by Carter DeCurtis and Morgan Gunderson
Release date: June 25, 2016
Stephen King’s Strawberry Spring is a well-intended short film. But of course it suffers from many of the traits of such a venture. Unfortunately not only does it fail to reach an audience but its sound issues make it hard to even care anyways. Not to tear a black hole into its creator’s heart, or anything, because I’m sure this was still a worthwhile learning experience. But next outing look a little deeper into your creation and pinpoint any hindrances, if there are any. Tweak those bad boys unto perfection. It’s always better to put in a little more effort than allow everyone see those frailties. Besides wouldn’t Stephen King demand nothing less of himself? I can just imagine him being a perfectionist. There you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly. -James K. Blaylock

EP Review: SANGUINARY TRANCE Wine, Song and Sacrifice (Independent) by James K. Blaylock

Independent
Place of origin: Austria
Genre: Black metal
Release date: June 14, 2018
Sanguinary Trance aren’t an easy lot to nail down, soundwise, or otherwise. And I think they like it that way, honestly. After all no one wants to be pigeonholed, nor typecast. Instead what you get here is a cavalcade of soundscapes knocking hard at your skull’s door, if indeed your skull had a door. Anyways that’s a whole other conversation for another time. Truly I can’t even tell you much about these guys besides the fact that they are without a doubt very uninhibited. You can just hear the freedom. Seems like there’s a mixture of everything within what seems to be chanting. Perhaps this is why they incorporate trance into their name. It’s extremely easy to get lost in their hypnotic music. Which by the way is a tightknit wall of purposely penetrating noise. I can only imagine what this might feel like to witness live. I could surmise that it would be nothing less than euphoric. Radiating such an intense atmosphere. Quite beautiful really. There you have it: the good, bad and the ugly. -James K. Blaylock

Track list:
1. Wine, Song and Sacrifice
2. Carvings
3. The Dionysos Whip

Photographer Interview: SLEVIN MORS by Dave Wolff

Interview with photographer SLEVIN MORS

How did the idea for your latest project Blood gestate, and what statement is it intended to make?
In 2013 I was experiencing a number of significant changes in my personal life. Photography was my primary source of artistic release at that time (and continues to be); a way to relax and unwind while being creative. Beginning in late 2012 and early 2013 I noticed my personal life was weighing heavily on my art and it started to feel stale and monotonous. At the time a great deal of my photographic art was being produced during group shoots because I was having trouble finding the time to put my own shoots together. This resulted in my images being visually uninteresting and dreary, even after I started producing my own shoots again.
After a lot of thought I decided that to break this cycle I needed to challenge myself artistically. Before I could challenge myself I needed to be honest about where I was. I invested a decent amount of time poring over my work from recent shoots and comparing it to my older work. This enabled me to set a baseline of where I was and help me plot a course to where I wanted to be. I created a short guide for me to follow for this project based on my assessment of my own work at the time.
These were the guidelines I used to create this project:
Personal - The subject matter needs to be something that plays to my interests.
Juxtaposition - The idea of combining contrasting subjects has always fascinated me.
Challenging - The subject matter needed to be something I had not photographed before.
Ongoing - The project needed to be something that could be shot indefinitely.
With the guidelines chosen I moved onto creating the actual project content. I tossed a few different ideas around but I ultimately decided on what has become the Blood Series. My main reason for choosing the Blood Series over my other ideas was because all my other ideas heavily involved other creatives and I wanted to make this a more personal project. Blood was chosen because of my personal love of horror movies and darker themes. I integrated both the juxtaposition and challenge guidelines by combining the blood with fine art nude photography. This gave me a contrast between the shock and horror of blood and the beautiful magnificence of the human figure. I challenged myself with nude art photography because it was something that I had not done previously and was somewhat scary for me. By keeping the concept rather simple I have been able to shoot this series on my own (and later with my wife Maria’s assistance) which has let me keep it going over the years.
The Blood Series helped me break free of my rut shortly after I started it. I have enjoyed the series and kept it going over the years because of my enjoyment. I have decided to keep the series nude for two reasons. First the contrast of bare skin and large amounts of blood is greatly diminished with the addition of clothing. Second the blood (in this case Special Effects or Hollywood blood) does not react the same to cloth as it does to the human skin. Ultimately the Blood Series has come to do what I needed it for and more.

The first edition of Blood will be limited to fifty copies upon its release. Whose idea was this and why?
Originally I didn’t want to limit the print run of the book but the first Kickstarter wasn’t successful so I revamped it. In order to get the print costs down I limited the scope of the book. Since it was going to be a small run only I decided to make it limited.

In what ways did the guidelines you established for your work help to improve it? How many ideas did you experiment with before deciding to work on The Blood Series?
The guidelines mainly helped me focus my thoughts. They also gave me specifics to address rather than just approaching it from a scattered set of thoughts. I didn’t really experiment with any other ideas for the series. When I was thinking about themes I reviewed my older work and thought about the work I’ve liked (and didn’t like) working on. I thought about what I’ve done that was difficult or challenging at the time I did it. And then how I could take that to the next level by adding more challenge to it.

What is the appeal you see of the nude female form combined with blood? What sort of an effect do you intend to have on people who peruse The Blood Series?
For me the idea was the juxtaposition of something beautiful like the human form combined with the potentially unsettling blood. Personally I find it all beautiful but a majority of people see that much blood and find it a bit disturbing. The series is also not just the female form as I have shot a male model for the series. I wanted it to be inclusive of all forms of the human figure, not just the stereotypical “pretty girl naked”. As for effect, I always want people to be both drawn in and repulsed by the images. I want the viewer to have a back and forth in their mind between "I can’t take my eyes off of it" and "I can’t look any more”. I feel that keeping a viewer interested in a single image and giving them something to bounce around within that image is what makes for great photography.

Do your viewers generally perceive your desired impact when it comes to human figures and blood?
I haven’t talked to too many viewers but those that I have fall into two categories. The first do have the intended reaction and the second seem to just find them beautiful.

How many editions of The Blood Series do you plan to release? How do you expect the first edition to be received by the local Goth communities?
Right now I am looking at only this single edition. I may release a second if there is enough demand for another. I will continue shooting images in the series but they may just be released as prints or in social media. When I would vend at the local Goth clubs the images were well received so I would expect the book to be well received. I’m not sure about the vampire community as much. I haven’t seen a lot of interest from the community as a whole.

How well received has your work been in the local Goth scene since you began vending?
Overall it has been well received, even outside of the Goth scene. I have had interest from people wanting to be part of the series and people wanting to own a piece of it. I think it’s pretty unique out there at the moment as a lot of photographers or models don’t use blood in their images that much.

How did you acquire an interest in photography in the beginning?
I think it was a combination of my parents, high school and my pursuit of art in general. I liked the technical aspects of photography and that it included more skills than just drawing to tell a story. On set as a solo photographer you need lighting, styling and color theory skills. You also need a good personality to interact and pose your subjects. And depending on what style of photography you go into you may also need thinks like prop and set building / design.

What equipment do you prefer to use when photographing shoots? Does it vary from short to shoot or according to what lighting and styling is involved?
I don’t really have a preference in brand but I use AlienBee lights most of the time because it’s what we have in the studio. Realistically I can shoot just about anywhere in available lights or with whatever I have on me. A lot of it can depend on what the final images are for or what the goal of the shoot is. When I used to shoot wedding or family portraits sometimes you were restricted in ways that could be challenging but you have to adapt and make it work.

How long have you and Maria been a photographer and model respectively? When did you both get your start?
I’ve been behind the camera off and on for over twenty years. Since getting back into photography about ten years ago I haven’t put my camera down. When I did get back into photography I started back into portraits and weddings but quickly grew into more fine art / fashion / modeling work. Maria messaged me about five years ago to inquire about having some photos taken of her and things grew from there. Since then she has modeled for me regularly in my projects and worked with many other photographers in the local area.

How many of your projects has Maria modeled for, and who else has she worked with over the years?
She’s modeled for every one of my major projects and quite a few for fun projects. I’d guess we shoot at least once a month or so on something.

Which of your major photography projects has Maria worked for?
I’ve really only done two major projects, the Blood Series and a new series that I haven’t published yet - Death Personified. Other projects we have done are one I wouldn’t consider major but either fun little shoots, artistic experiments or some stylized images. Things we do as the mood strikes.

Is Blood your first series with Maria to be published, or were there others published beforehand? Name some of them and indicate where they can be ordered online?
The Blood Series was my first self-published series. Maria and I have been featured together in numerous magazines over the years. I can’t remember for sure what our first publication was but I think it was Cynical Fashion magazine and was a winter queen feature. Together we have been in many different magazines but I think most of our images have been featured in Gothesque Magazine with Cynical Fashion. Sanctuary Magazine also featured us a few times.

Would you consider Maria an alt model or a goth model? What are the most significant differences between the two? How have the definitions changed since the 2000s?
I would consider Maria an Alt Model since she doesn’t do strictly goth shoots. I would consider a goth model someone who only shoots goth themes. Although I think most models today would be more alt than goth. I don’t think the goth scene is big enough to support specializing so much. Since the 2000s I feel like the alt subcultures have become more mainstream and fashionable. As a result they have melded into a single entity. The different subcultures are still there but they are harder to separate now.

What horror movies did you grow up with, and in what ways were they influential to your work?
I grew up watching everything from the classic Universal Monsters, The Twilight Zone and 80s gore (Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser etc). I think the Twilight Zone probably had the biggest effect on me. It helped me form my view of the world around me. I love the idea of things being just “off” or twisted. To this day I still watch them and always think in that twisted what if kind of way.

In what ways did those movies you cited help you form your world view? Did you watch underground cinema at that time, such as the movies of Romero and Fulci for example?
I feel like the Twilight Zone opened my mind to the unusual and strange possibilities the world has to offer. I’m not sure exactly how the others formed my views but I feel like they definitely influenced me. When I look at my work and the types of entertainment I enjoy you can see the marks of early horror, and the golden age of Hollywood all over. The black and white, the monsters and horror the glamour of old Hollywood all show up in my world.
I didn’t watch much underground or independent cinema until around my senior year in high school when I started working at a video rental store. Unfortunately in the mid 90s it was difficult to expand past the mainstream movie culture without connections. Once I started working in a video store I was able to expand into more independent and foreign films.

What were some of the movies you discovered while working at video stores?
I don’t remember a lot of specifics but I definitely was introduced to foreign films through movies like the Three Colors Trilogy and La Femme Nikita. I also had access to independent horror movies like George Romero’s. This was the mid 90’s so finding some of the older, especially independent or foreign, films was rather difficult since we only had limited print runs of VHS tapes. Home video ownership was very limited at the time to big blockbusters.

Were any of the movies you discovered at video stores, particularly of George Romero and other foreign/independent/horror directors, influential to you as a photographer? How about the television programs you mentioned watching?
I don’t think I can say one particular movie or film influenced me over others. I tend to learn from all movies/TV shows, even the bad ones. Sometimes I will watch movies that are visually beautiful but may be light on plot or story just so I can enjoy and deconstruct the lighting, color theory or camera movement. If I had to name a single influence that has had the most effect on my work it would have to be the portraits by George Hurrell and other Golden Age Hollywood photographers.

Do you regret that video stores fell by the wayside from the 2000s to the present? What characteristics of the video store has lived on in one form or another?
I wouldn’t say regret, but I definitely miss them in some ways. I think the availability of movies in a well curated store definitely had advantages over streaming services. The idea that anything is available on demand is amazing until you go looking for a particular movie and can’t find it on the streaming services. Most video stores that were around a while learned that you needed one copy of landmark films available and if it wasn’t they either tracked it down or you could go on a waitlist and pick it up when it came back in. With licensing today on streaming services it feels like there is a lot of things missing. You can always find the big blockbusters but finding classics, cult favorites or independent films is often difficult.

Would you ever consider expanding into filmmaking at some point in the future? If you did, would you consider it a logical progression from photography?
I used to do some videography a while back. I even made a small zombie film for a haunted house I used to work at. I left it behind though because it was too time consuming to film, edit and render. I still do some video work here and there but not that much and usually only for personal projects. I do think it is a natural progression to go between the two art forms. Many people do both I’ve found especially with the advent of things like YouTube and Vimeo and the ability to monetize the videos on those platforms.

Describe the haunted house attraction where you worked and the short film you worked on for it. Was it completed and released after you left it behind?
The haunted house was a small annual haunted attraction in a friend’s driveway. He had been doing it for ten years or more before I joined him. Together we worked to continue growing it over the course of five years or so. Eventually we shut it down when the markets crashed around 2008. I started editing together pieces of horror movies to promote and play at our haunt at first. Eventually we thought it would be fun to get friends and family together and make our own. It was a very short movie we played over the haunt to get people in the mood. We really only put it up on the Facebook page for the haunt. I still have a copy it but I don’t think I will ever share it out again.

How many personal projects are you doing video work for? Do any of them have a chance of being released to the public?
I’m not currently doing any personal projects with video. Usually I just make them for family and such. They aren’t intended for public viewing.

Is there anything you want to reveal about your new series Death Personified before it’s published? Is it going to differ in any way from the Blood Series?
It will be different but I am not ready to say more than it is my interpretation of different ways cultures had personified death throughout history.

How do you anticipate being remembered for your work? Do you want to be remembered for posing any kind of challenge to how people presently perceive art? Or do you express yourself as you feel and let people take it as they wish?
With the current state of art appreciation and social media I am not sure many artists will be remembered for long. Society has moved into an instant gratification mode and the length of time something stays in the collective focus is very minimal. I would like to see that change but it doesn’t seem as if that will happen anytime soon.

-Dave Wolff

Friday, November 16, 2018

Full Length Review: SERCATI Devoted, Demons and Mavericks (Worm Hole Death) by Dave Wolff

Devoted, Demons and Mavericks
Place of origin: Liège - Verviers, Belgium
Genre: Melodic black metal
Release date: September 1, 2018
The Belgian band Sercati should be of interest if you like black metal with psychological horror in the vein of The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast. Founding member Steve “Serpent” Fabry is hard at work developing the legend of a mysterious character known as The Nightstalker. An antihero of a sort, The Nightstalker is chronicled in print, on celluloid and by his bands Sercati and The Nightstalker. Devoted, Demons and Mavericks, the latest from Sercati, continues the legend along with a new book (The Nightstalker Newspaper -Tome 2) and film (The Nightstalker Case: Found Footage), all of which are available for purchase. According to Sercati’s official website, Fabry has had some formal education and worked in twenty bands. I’m coming into his story late but going by the new CD he seems to be putting his formal training and band experience to good use. While undeniably raw, with heavy distortion, rasping lead vocals and a primal attitude, Devoted, Demons and Mavericks feels like a well presented opus that takes itself seriously. Fabry approaches the material with all the seriousness of a conductor leading a symphony orchestra, and knows how to establish the setting to introduce his character to the listener. The introduction, nine tracks and outro take their time to convince you of their appeal rather than overwhelm you from the start. The other members have as much input as Fabry when it comes to constructing Sercati’s sound. Guitarist Simon Chandler and drummer Yannick Martin have had their share of formal training which they bring to the formula. Adding their experience to the writing and recording gives Devoted, Demons and Mavericks shades of thrash, prog metal and pagan metal. The flutes in ‘Under the Velvet Mask’, the keyboards in ‘Dream Devourer’, the acoustic guitars and keyboards in ‘An Appointment Between Hell and Heaven’, the inventive guitars in ‘Cathartic Bomb’, the chant section and lead solos in ‘Before the Battle’ and the Gregorian-like chants in ‘Fight to Dust’ are all fine examples of how these styles fit together, and how tightly they’re worked into the musicianship. Each song has something different to offer, which keeps things from becoming too redundant. The band’s site also has enough background information on the Nightstalker legend to familiarize you with it before you check the album out. -Dave Wolff

Lineup:
Steve “Serpent” Fabry: Bass, vocals
Simon Charlier: Rhythm guitars
Yannick Martin: Drums, backing vocals

Track list:
1. Countdown to Apocalypse (intro),
2. Shockwaves of the Countdown
3. Time of Loss
4. Under the Velvet Mask
5. Dream Devourer
6. An Appointment Between Hell and Heaven
7. Cathartic Bomb
8. Before the Battle
9. Fight to Dust
10. The Purgatory
11. Facing the Unknown (outro)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

EP Review: CRYPTOPSY The Book of Suffering - Tome II (Hammerheart Records) by Dave Wolff

The Book of Suffering - Tome II
Hammerheart Records
Place of origin: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Genre: Brutal/technical death metal
Recorded at the Grid Studio, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Produced by Chris Donaldson & Cryptopsy
Mixed & Mastered by Chris Donaldson at The Grid Studio
All music written by Cryptopsy
Artwork by Remy C, Headsplit Designs
Band Photos by Eric Sanchez
Release date: October 26, 2018
Brutality, thy name is Cryptopsy! When I was introduced to this band in 1998 with Whisper Supremacy I couldn’t believe how tight and fast they were, especially DM drummer extraordinaire Flo Mounier. I still don’t know how they manage to play that way or even dredge up the energy to continue until today. But fans are already raving about the improved songwriting, production, range and musicianship they display on their new EP The Book of Suffering - Tome II. Four a four track MCD it does its job leaving fans wanting more as they persist in redefining themselves and Canadian death metal. The band’s earliest incarnation formed in 1988 as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so after working together in one form or another they know themselves and one another enough to compare with Stateside bands like Suffocation, Origin, Malignancy and Cattle Decapitation. Chris Donaldson helps bring out the band’s greatest strengths on this EP, a sequel to 2015’s The Book of Suffering - Tome I. Mounier’s blast beats and double bass are impeccable as he charges his way through each inspired, resourceful progression and time change by Christian Donaldson. Olivier Pinard’s bass has a distinctive sound which you hear in the proper amounts. Matt McGachy’s guttural bellows and bloodcurdling shrieks demonstrate dynamism and the appropriate amount of control so he doesn’t ravage his throat while laying down the vocal tracks. The EP’s Bandcamp stream also includes the lyrics to each song, so there’s no room to complain about lyrical unintelligibility. All the verses are extremely well crafted and easy to follow through the turbulent hurly-burly of the compositions. The length of each passage and their phrasing show the vast extent to which Cryptopsy have grown as lyricists. This is an asset if you’re one of those thrashers who pays attention to the lyrics. I don’t want to reveal what the songs are about but they are engaging and make you feel what’s happening with each line. All around this is a must own if you appreciate brutality, technical prowess and sophistication in equal parts. Run, don’t walk. -Dave Wolff

Lineup:
Matt McGachy: Vocals
Christian Donaldson: Guitars
Olivier Pinard: Bass
Flo Mounier: Drums, backing vocals

Track list:
1. The Wretched Living
2. Sire of Sin
3. Fear His Displeasure
4. The Laws of the Flesh

Fiction: STORYTELLER by M Teresa Clayton

STORYTELLER
Fiction by M Teresa Clayton

"Black cats... unlucky, that's what they say about 'em. Don't let one cross your path." The old man was almost faced- down in his drink... "They say, if one steps in front of you, just turn around and walk th' other away. Whatever you do, don't look back!"
"Harry, what the hell is he talking about?" Someone shouted from the other end of the bar.
The dust covered bottles that lined up in front of the mirror had long forgotten how to reflect their sharp staggering images. The mirror itself was covered in a brownish yellow film from years of heavy smoke and the occasional thrown drink. There was a crack that splintered from the bottom, across the last third of the mirror and out the top. If you looked at it just right, tilting your head a little to your left and squinting your eyes slightly, it looked like an old woman hunched over, in silhouette.
The bar was long and ran the length of the room. Three tables, each one had a matchbook under one leg for balance, with mismatched chairs were lined up along the facing wall. There was barely enough room for a man to walk between the tables and bar stools. Maybe this was done on purpose. It stood to reason that you could get shit-faced drunk and still be able to stagger upright to the loo without once losing your footing.
Tess was a regular here. An attractive woman, she never seemed to sit on her stool, but rather perched there; her long legs pooling over the edge of the seat. She came in about ten every evening to mingle with the other well established members of this lonely loser's club. She always left alone.
Marv and Al were roommates living in the apartment above the tavern. They came in every night for exactly four beers each before politely excusing themselves and heading upstairs. It had been decided years ago that the two were much more than roomies, though it was never confirmed.
Burt was a large man. He held court every night at the far end of the bar. His seat was sagging from years of abuse from his ample backside. It was also the only bar-chair in the place, made of imitation black leather, with a swivel! He expounded on a multitude of trivia without much debate. It wasn't like Burt to ever sit quietly and listen to the jabber amongst the other barflies. He was a book of useless information.
There were several others who would stagger in on their way to another bar two blocks away. There seemed to be a tavern on every other corner in this part of the city and the drunks would work up a thirst meandering from place to place. Eventually they would have to find a comfortable spot to lie down and snooze it off. Park benches were definitely out of the question, as were sidewalks; loitering was breaking the law. However, on cold winter nights, it behooved a sotted soul to be carted off to the pokey for the guarantee of a warm shelf to lie on and a dried up cake donut with black coffee in the morning before they were shuffled back out onto the streets.
I was a newbie. Not new to drinking, just new to this part of town. This made my third visit to Harry's Hangout on the corner of Hample and McArdle Street. This tavern didn't look much different from any other on the north side of town, but those others didn't have Tess.
I was put out of the house by my, now pending, fourth ex-wife. Jobless and unmotivated, I managed to set up temporary housing at the shelter several blocks away. "Getting on my feet." I assured the man at the reception desk of what was once a cozy hotel lobby before becoming the Saving Souls Mission. Yeah, right.
My first wife ran away with my best friend, my second with my sanity, the third with her best friend and the fourth was making away with my soul. I didn't have anything else to save.
The only thing I made away with was two plaid shirts, one pair of jeans and one pair of underwear. I managed to get my shoes but totally forgot about socks. The young lady I was with that night barely got out alive.
"Black cats? What does this guy have against black cats?" the question on everyone's mind was finally thrown out there by someone at the bar.
The old man at the far table looked like death warmed over. He kept up his sermon on black cats all evening, stopping long enough to throw a glance Tess' way.
Who wouldn't want to look at her? She was stunning and definitely out of place here in Harry's Hangout. Still, she didn't really seem all that interested in me or anyone else here. Try as I might to make conversation she always gave me the standard two or three word answers. Definitely, not interested.
Harry hobbled his way down to Burt and replaced his empty bottle with a new cold one. Without so much as a word, Harry picked up two quarters from the bar top in front of Burt.
Turning to make his way back down the length of the bar to the cash-register he looked up at Marv and answered, "I have no idea, he's been babbling about cats for two weeks now!"
I asked Harry what the old man's name was.
"That's Charley." He grunted. "He must have got hold of somethin' bad about two weeks ago. He came in here one morning shakin', eye's lookin' a little crazy, and talkin' 'bout some kinda shape-shiftin' he saw the night before out back in the alley."
Something... bad? Did I hear him right? "Drugs?" I asked.
"That or somethin' worse." Harry chuckled. "He was never nothin' but a drunk so far as I know, but the story he told me was outta-this-world! Must be drugs or the man's brain just shorted out!"
"Superstitions!" Tess spoke out from behind her Gin- Rickey with a slice of lime.
Charley froze and stared at Tess for a moment then looked down. Did I see a hint of fear on his face?
"Something about a black cat, a woman, drums, and then she just vanished into thin air! Bam! Gone!" Harry shook his head, "I dunno, it was some sort of hallucination if you ask me."
"Is the whiskey goin' bad?" Al suggested.
"That man's insides are pickled in cheap alcohol!" laughed Harry. "It ain't the whiskey... no, this ain't nothin' of the drinking variety."
I looked over my shoulder toward the man slumped down in his chair. Charley. He seemed like any other drunk I'd ever seen, maybe he was just misunderstood. Lord knows I was misunderstood. We had something in common, so I ordered two shots of the cheap stuff with beer chasers. I had a story to listen to...
"Heard you had an encounter with a black cat!" I spoke as I sat down across from him, "Name's Jack, glad to make your acquaintance." I extended my hand for a shake. He just looked up at me and squinted his eyes for a moment.
"Yes sir!" he said after a long pause to size me up, "Cat- woman. That she was!"
"A cat-woman you say? I'm all ears, Charley... and I'm not superstitious... tell me about your black cat-woman." I prodded him.
"I'll admit I was sotted, but no more than usual and I don't do no drugs!" he assured me in a stern voice, pausing long enough to shoot Harry a look before he continued. "I'm not crazy either!"
I wasn't so sure, but I'd sit through anything at this point to cut the boredom. And, it didn't look like I was getting anywhere with Tess.
Charley's story started with a whispered introduction, "It was closing time and I knew I'd have to find a spot out back and hunker down 'till mornin'. There are a few guys who make it a regular habit to get some shut-eye in the condemned remnants of the garage behind the bar, but it was such a nice night and the moon was full... I decided to catch some Z's in the alleyway that night so I pulled some bags outta the dumpster and made me a pillow to lay my head on..."
Charley took a deep breath and coughed. Was it my imagination or was he aging right in front of me? I decided it must be the light, or lack thereof, back here in the corner.
"It was about three o'clock in the morning," he continued, "and I was staring up at the most beautiful sky I'd seen in years. It was so... peaceful..." He stopped and threw back the shot of whiskey, then wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "The full moon was casting odd shadows in the alleyway. Hadn't really noticed it before, but then, who am I but an old drunkard barely capable of noticing whether or not I've pissed myself."
Charley stopped and tilted his head as if he were listening for something. I watched him closely for a moment and noticed a small twitch run across his face.
"Charley, you okay?" I asked him.
"I'm fine," he assured me and went on with the story, "I had this edgy feeling, like you get just before someone hits you over the head and runs away with your last dollar. You get a sixth sense about things when you take to the streets."
Charley looked up at me for some sort of validation before continuing. "Though the alley was glowing under the moon's light, there seemed to be something moving in the shadows. I couldn't get a focus on it. It kept moving from one side of the alley to the other, crouched low, and coming closer."
I could see that Charley's hand was shaking. He hesitated, seeming to catch his breath, "I don't remember passing out there, nor waking up! It was more like I was hypnotized or somethin'. Again, Charley looked up. He didn't see me this time; he was looking in Tess' direction. I let my eyes follow his. Tess was still facing the bar seemingly disinterested with Charley's story. Harry was busily emptying ash trays. Marv and Al were silent and still. Burt was mumbling to himself about some war.
"I listened for some sort of clue but couldn't hear nothin' out of the ordinary..." Charlie explained. "I gotta tell ya, son, I was shaking like an old man with palsy! I could sense it, there was something coming and it was getting closer." Again Charley stopped to listen. His hand was shaking noticeably now.
I called over my shoulder for Harry to bring us another shot of whiskey. The story was getting interesting and I wanted the storyteller to relax and remember every detail.
Charley coughed hard a few times. I thought he might have actually spit up into his lap. Then he spoke, "Out of the blue I heard this high shrill scream. It didn't stop either. I wanted to cover my ears but couldn't move my arms. That awful sound would fade a bit and then come on strong again. Sounded like one of them hyenas at the zoo...or a cat being gutted...a cat...black cat..." he coughed again and slammed back his shot of whiskey.
The old man closed his eyes and when he opened them again I could see the popped blood vessels turning the whites of his eyes to red. He stared into space without batting an eye. I thought I'd lost him there. I waved my hand in front of his face and his lower lip began to tremble. He sucked in a long breath and looked directly into my eyes. "...then the screeching stopped cold."
Charley's eyes were taking on the look of madness, "She crawled slowly out of one of those darkened doorways and into the middle of the alley where she slowly crouched down like she was getting ready to pounce. She was staring directly at me. I couldn't move. I was afraid to move. I felt like a mouse being tested by a hungry cat."
"So, it was a cat?" I asked, "A black cat?"
"No ordinary cat, no sireeee..." he corrected. "A cat the size of a carnival pony! Biggest panther I'd ever laid eyes on and black as onyx." He sucked in another breath. "I could see her powerful shoulders twitch a little every time I exhaled. The moonlight reflected off the glossy shine of her sleek black hair. She flipped her tail carelessly to the left and then to the right."
He swallowed hard and continued, "Her eyes were reflecting the light like hundreds of sparkling emeralds... She didn't move for a long time; just kept staring at me."
I noticed Charley was sweating so much that it was now dripping off his chin and onto the table. He took a hanky out of his shirt pocket and wiped it across his forehead once, then folded it and wiped at his chin before returning it to its cubby- hole.
The room didn't feel especially warm to me. I looked to see if anyone else was showing signs of being hot. The room felt eerily distant. No one in the bar was talking. Perhaps they were listening to the story. Yet, no one moved to light a cigarette or to take a swig of their beer. The room looked unreal... staged.
I turned back to Charley and motioned for him to continue. He shook his head and took another rattled breath. "It was like watching a movie in slow motion as she got to her feet. It was hot as hell in that alley. I don't know if the night air had gotten warmer or if I was just hot from my incessant shaking. Gotta tell ya, pal, even my toes were vibrating."
There was a small thread of blood trickling from his right eye and gathering in one of the creases that ran down the side of his nose. I wanted to stop him but couldn't make the words exit my mouth. I felt like I was under his spell.
He shuddered once and gasped, "The air... I couldn't breathe. I was choking and I could feel something being pulled from my chest."
Charley put his hand up to his throat for a moment as if he was reliving it. "I kept thinking to myself, if only I could move my feet and run. I was frozen like a statue to the place where I was. The panther grunted out a couple of breaths... oomph, oomph, oomph, and then she threw her head up and stood on her back legs."
Charley shook his head and began to speak slower, more deliberately, "As she took one step toward me I noticed something happening to her skin, it was changing. It seemed...it looked like it was beginning to liquefy. Every step forward produced more and more of that black inky fluid."
The old storyteller's voice began to crack, "She was a huge beast standing there before me. Almost the size of a bear and then, in the blink of an eye, she morphed into the shape of a woman! I couldn't believe my eyes, she was beautiful!"
My eyes didn't leave the old man for a second, "Did you say... woman?"
I looked around the bar and nobody seemed moved. Not one sound could be heard from the otherwise talkative Burt. Everyone was in the trance, except for me. "What's going on here?" I shouted into the muted silence. "What is this all about?" The room seemed to be closing in around me.
I turned back around to Charley who was beginning to look very gray in the dim light of the room. I started to lean forward to speak to him when he began again. "She was a raven-haired beauty," he whispered as if he could see her standing right behind me. "Her skin was as white as alabaster; opalescent and almost translucent it was."
"I knew better than to touch her, yet my hand was reaching out for her in spite of it. She was so near that I could hear her panting and feel her exotic breath on me." Charley's hand was now at his chest and he was fingering the collar of his shirt. The sweat was still dripping from his chin onto his hand and running down his elbow and onto the tabletop.
"She danced... for me." He choked the words out. "It felt good... whatever she was doing to me there, didn't matter, it felt so good."
"Are you okay, Charley?" I asked him. "Do you need a glass of water?" I turned to see if someone was coming to help. No one moved.
"She danced and danced." Charley was breathing hard. "And she was using me. ME! She was sucking... the life... right out... of me!" The old man's eyes were rolling upwards and his mouth began to contort.
I jumped up and quickly made my way around the bar. I filled a glass with water from the sink for Charley and thought I must be in some sort of dream myself or something out of this world... and then I could hear it; the soft motor breathing of a cat's purr. Not a small house-cat purr... something... larger.
I froze. "Harry? Did you hear that? I asked over my shoulder. "Can anyone hear that?"
No one responded. The mannequins at the bar did not move. I found myself glued to the floor in front of the table as Charley stood up. "Charley?" I asked. "Sit down, take a sip of this and sit back down. You don't look so good."
The storyteller was getting paler and his face was becoming more drawn by the second. He was beginning to drool.
He coughed once more and wiped his chin with his hand again. "I heard music." He said. "Some sort of eerie low pipe sound and drumming. The drums were beating faster and then faster again. Her body was limber and bending into positions I didn't think the human body could conform to, but I don't think she WAS human. Not human at all."
His breathing was becoming labored. "The shadows seem to be dancing with her there in the alleyway. All the while, she was throwing her head back and writhing like a voodoo priestess before a sacrificial fire. I remember thinking that I might be the sacrifice that night, but she no longer seemed to even notice me there. She had what she came for."
He turned and looked one more time into my eyes before collapsing onto the bar-room floor.
The vacuum in the room seemed to be pulling at my chest and was becoming unbearable and then, at once, released me. The overhead lights flickered. Suddenly the tavern was alive again.
The lights flickered once more and Burt's engine roared to life. "Panthers don't come to the city!" he preached, "They keep to themselves up there in the hills; nothing down here for them, if they know what's good for them."
Marv and Al rose from their stools. Marv took his dollar bill off the bar leaving the change for Harry. "See ya, old man.
Time to go... morning comes early!" Al attempted a small wave and turned to follow his roommate out the door.
"SOMEONE HELP ME!" I shouted. Charley's eyes rolled under the loose skin of his eyes before they opened and focused on something behind me.
Harry was yelling into the phone on the back counter near the cash register. "Might be a heart-attack, hurry!" then slammed the phone back onto its cradle.
Charley coughed a couple of times and then his eyes fixed in their sockets. He was gone.
I stood up holding on to the back of my chair for support. It felt like my own legs had gone to rubber. "He's gone, Harry." I turned to see Harry's face a little paler; his eyes had that hint of craziness behind them.
Harry turned his head toward the spot where Tess had been sitting. She was nowhere in sight. Her drink sat on the bar untouched and there wasn't even the slightest hint that she'd ever been there.
"Where is she?" I asked. "Where did she go?" "Who?" Harry answered looking blank.
"Tess. Did she leave?" I inquired again.
"I don't know no Tess." Harry answered plainly. He had the look of shell-shock all over him. "There wasn't no girl here."
"Sure there was. She sat right here and this is her drink..." I insisted.
"No!" Harry screamed into my face. "NO GIRL!"
I could hear the sirens approaching in the distance. It wouldn't be long and the bar would be a bee-hive of questions.
"Harry... I saw her..." I whispered back to him, trying to make sense of all of this. "She was sitting right here... a dark haired woman, ivory skin, beautiful green eyes, long legs..."
Just then I saw it move, in the shadows near the back door; a large black cat running into the alleyway.
Three Months Later
"Hey Harry! Nice evening!" I greeted him as I stumbled through the door. "Marv... Al... How's everyone doing tonight?"
Al nodded and Marv beamed his yellow smile while asking Harry to set one up for me.
"Thanks Marv." I stammered. I was already three sheets in the wind by this time every night. This would be my last stop before I'd have to find a place to park myself and sleep it off.
Burt was expounding on the right to bear arms and how we needed to protect ourselves from E.T.'s because the government wasn't doing nothin' about 'em. "As a matter of fact, they are giving them food and shelter in exchange for uranium!" he quipped.
I took my shot of whiskey and beer chaser over to the back table and sat myself down in Charley's old seat. It was mine now. I was the storyteller.
I let my chin fall to my chest and let out a big sigh. It was almost time to close and I needed to get out back and dig for a bag of garbage to lay my head on.
I remember mumbling something to myself about black cats...