Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Category: Sorrows Hill

Posts and articles about the Sorrows Hill historical/steampunk fantasy series

“Where Angels Tread” – Fantasy Free Read

All right, boys and girls! It’s Monday, so that means a new fantasy free read. This one is “Where Angels Tread,” a bittersweet little story from the historical fantasy worlds of Sorrows Hill.

When the Reverend Henry Chilton sees the angel, he drops to his knees sobbing with joy. The half-scribbled sheets of tomorrow’s sermon fly from his desk, floating down on a summer-scented breeze from the open window, and his teacup, caught by an unwary elbow, shatters into porcelain shards on the floor.

He was writing the sermon when a sound like the rustling of pigeons in the rafters made him look up. And there was the messenger of God, settling demurely onto the top of his bookcase, dangling bare white feet over his head.

The angel’s translucent skin is luminous and perfect.   Fair hair tumbles over the bones of its classic face. And the wings — God, the wings! Think of the blinding white of swans, the sweet softness of doves.   Those wings are muscular and functional, and they drape the angel’s shoulders like a velvet cloak. Chilton’s mouth is an O of fascinated delight.

Kneeling among the fragments, trousers soaking in cold tea, the Reverend Chilton raises his eyes skyward and gives thanks. Finally, finally: so long he’s prayed, so long he’s waited!

Tears slip from the reverend’s eyes. Ever since he was a child he’s wanted to see an angel. When he got to seminary he prayed till his throat was raw, begging God’s favor for just a glimpse of one of those celestial heralds.   And now, after all these years, all these tedious postings to backwater towns and Sunday after Sunday of earnest sermons to indifferent flocks, success! A visible mark of God’s own grace.

“Reverend? Reverend, you’ve got a visitor.” A sharp rap on the door rips Chilton’s attention from the angel.

“Who is it, Mrs. Reedie? I’m busy with the sermon just now.”

“A young man, Reverend. He says he’s come all the way from Richmond to see you.” Mrs. Reedie’s voice drops. “Quite well turned out, he is. Shall I have him wait?”

Chilton glances at his other visitor. The angel cocks its head like a listening dog.

“I said, I’m busy, Mrs. Reedie. Tell him to come back after supper.”

The housekeeper’s sniff is audible through the door. Ignoring the staccato tap of her heels down the hall, Chilton turns back to the angel.

“So sorry, holy one. As I was saying — what have you to tell me? How am I so blessed on this day?”

The angel regards him blandly and preens a wing. Chilton draws a breath and tries again. “How may I serve you? Only speak –”

“Reverend Chilton?” The doorknob rattles.

“For the last time, Mrs. Reedie! I am busy!” snarls Chilton.

Scuffle of footsteps; gasp of outrage. The door flies open on Mrs. Reedie’s furious face, and a young man shoves past her, closing the door neatly behind him.

“Don’t you remember me, Reverend?” he asks.

Chilton swallows. Something in this gorgeous young man’s lean face and long narrow nose , the curl of dark hair on an expensive white collar, tickles his memory.

As the silence stretches, the young man’s mouth twists.

“Laurence Shandy, Reverend. I’m Laurence. It’s been twelve years.”

The silence turns leaden. Chilton forces a smile.

“Laurence, yes, of course! You’ve grown up. Doing well, by the look of you. I wondered what had become of you.”

“Did you?” asks the young man silkily. His hand slips free of his pocket. Sunlight gleams along the barrel of a tiny pistol. “Couldn’t you guess?”

“Put that down.” Chilton backs a step or two. “Laurence, put that gun away . . . you moved to Richmond, didn’t you? That’s what it was, your father took up a new post at the hospital in Richmond. Isn’t that right?”

“No.” The gun trembles in Laurence Shandy’s fingers. “Twelve years, Reverend Chilton . Twelve years in that hospital. Locked ward. I tried to kill myself. Tried to escape to kill you. I prayed, I wept . . . I remembered every moment of what you did to me. And what you said about me, after.”

God, yes, Laurence Shandy. Big mouth boy with a rich, angry father. The only way Chilton had got out of that one had been to assert, again and again and again, how the lad was crazy, possessed maybe, misconstruing his pastoral ministrations like that.

“But, “ Shandy continues, “You always said, if you pray hard enough for long enough, God hears. And so it is.”

“What — ” whispers Chilton, eyes on the dancing barrel of Shandy’s weapon, “what did you pray for, Laurence?”

“I prayed for justice.” Shandy’s finger tenses on the trigger. “And an angel to guide me.”

The shot sounds a little like a cork popping.    Blood flowers on the front of Chilton’s good shirt as he topples to the floor. On a rustle of heavenly wings, the angel rests its fabulous head on Laurence Shandy’s shoulder.




Soledad City: Building a Fantasy World

stfrancisWhen you’re building the world for your fantasy characters to live and play in,  it’s easy to become overwhelmed by choices.  You can build a brand new universe, borrow heavily from our own human history and legends,  or blend your fantasy world into the one we know. Even there, there are virtually endless choices:  use a real place and time, create a new setting that exists side by side with ours, or borrow the trappings of our world to create a new one that echoes it.  You can see variations of all these strategies in the work of people like JRR Tolkien, Charles de Lint, China Mieville, Charlaine Harris and many others.

I think the most satisfying fantasy stories are the ones that do take place in a heightened version of our “real” world, because they suggest that there really might be magic lurking just around the corner – and you never know when you might meet it.   What’s fascinating, terrifying and wonderful is what happens when the everyday meets the very strange.  That’s a timeless theme, one that’s visited again and again in countless legends, myths – and fantasy novels.

So the fantasy universe of the Moon Road is set in the deserts of the Southwestern United States. Partly that’s because I’m a Westerner living here in Baja Arizona where you can drive to Mexico and be home in time for lunch.  And partly because these deserts have always held a whiff of strange magic that draws travelers and seekers and lost souls from everywhere.

The Moon Road stories take place in two eras, today’s West and the Old West of history and legend, somewhere between the Pacific Coast and the Rio Grande.  In the urban fantasy stories,  Soledad City is a modern metropolis blending elements of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.   People living in and traveling to Soledad come from “real” places such as New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago, though.

Between Soledad and the Border is the Rez,  home of medicine woman Nettie Chubai and various characters of the People.  And far out in the desert, another key location is Holland’s Truck Stop and Cafe, where strange comings and goings take place and people cross paths in unexpected ways.

The Old West of Soledad figures in the historical fantasy stories featuring demon haunted gunman Sixkiller, shapeshifting bounty hunter Harry Longman, and Sixkiller’s mysterious Boss.  Alongside actual towns like Tombstone and Bisbee, the characters in Sixkiller’s time of around 1870 frequent Meridian, a fictional mining town, and the saloons of Agua Dulce, which is a composite of every Mexican border town in every Western you’ve ever seen.

The legends, the lore and the cultures of the Southwest inform every story I’ve ever written about Mama Silva,  Largo, Adam Voss, the Bone Angel and the rest of my large cast of characters. Skyscrapers,  empty desert roads, cactus and moonlight over the mountains – it all comes together in a new and different fantasy setting.  I hope you’ll  stop by – and  visit again and again.

Oh yeah – that language lesson I mentioned:

In Soledad City Spanish is spoken by many characters.  Here’s a quick guide to frequently used phrases:

Bruja/Brujo – witch

Curanderia – a healer’s shop

mijo/mija – my son/my daughter – often used as an endearment

Mi tia – my aunt ( which is what everyone says about Mama Silva)

La Migra –   the border authorities

You have to admit,  it’s much easier than Dothraki.  Stay tuned.

“Let the Serpent Judge” – Coming to Orthogonal

Let The Serpent JudgeBehind the pulpit the air smells like sawdust and the dry bitter odor of the snakes. From the darkness underneath their cages, you listen to the slow, purposeful rustlings in the straw and count time by the color of the sunlight spilling past the cross painted on the window.

Now it’s lemon-gold and slanting low. He ought to be here in the next few breaths. You grin, testing the newness of your mouth. The long sullen night is behind you now. When he walks through that door, you’ll be ready.

My fantasy/horror story “let the Serpent Judge” is appearing in  “Criminal Variations,” the fall issue of Orthogonal Magazine. Orthogonal is a nifty new addition to the fantasy publishing sphere, with a lovely (and disturbing) webpage that features the first issue, themed “The War At Home.”

Orthogonal bills itself as the “pop-up restaurant of literary speculative fiction.” With five strange stories by Sara L. Johnson, Michael J. Deluca and other gifted authors, “The War at Home” ranges across time and space, lingering in the mind long after you’re done reading.

I’m thrilled that “Serpent,” a tale of abuse, treachery and retribution set among the snake handling cults of Appalachia, will (I hope) be one of those stories too.

Get “The War At Home”  now from Amazon and Weightless Books.  And stay tuned for the release date of  “Criminal Variations.”

The Making of “Black Dog”

My short story “Black Dog” is out  today – nothing like starting the New Year right with a bit of black magic from our friends the Merchant clan. You can read it here, or download your very own copy from Issuu.

“Black Dog” has its roots in a story my mother told me when I was a child. She grew up in southern West Virginia, a hill woman to the core, and i grew up on tale after tale of Appalachian witching, ghosts and wicked souls. The story had to do with a mysterious black dog that appeared after someone died. It showed up at the house during the wake, then at the graveside, and then it went away – and no one ever knew whose dog it was or where it came from.

That story wove its way into other kinds of tales, too, of witches and their familiars, and the eerie stories of strange people in old houses. Joss Merchant and his clan of witches and black magic traffickers came later, when I created the world of Sorrows Hill, with its connections to mid 19th century Appalachia, the world of Faerie and the present day.

Magic runs through the members of the Merchant clan, however hard they try to avoid it. And they do try. This story introduces the granddaughter of the great witch Joss. We’ll see more of her later on.

Through my design site Luna Blue Studios I created the cover art and package for this story, and published it on Issuu. Of the various magazine-style publishing sites I’m most partial to Issuu, even with its drawbacks (which I’ll talk about in another post). Issuu’s publications have a worldwide reach and are very easy to create – a good combination for making visually rich work available to a wider audience.

What did you think of Black Dog? If you like it, please share! And sign up here as a fan to get updates on new stories and other updates from the worlds of Sorrows hill and the Moon Road.

Black Dog: A Sorrows Hill Story

Preacher Said

preachersaidgraphicPreacher said

That humpbacked beast called sin waits just at the edge of sight.

If you turn your back he’s on you

Just like that green slime thing we saw that time on the midnight movie.

Preacher said

You got to pray and pray and pray some more.

Pray for the armor and the sword!  Pray for the strength to prevail!


Well I think I saw that old beast out back in Mama’s garden just last evening.

Under the shadows by the willow tree come twilight

I squeezed my eyes up sideways and I saw him, dressed up just like Sunday in Preacher’s tail coat.

Even had a Bible flapping in the wind.

Wrapping arms around Mama

Till Pappy come round the bend in the old post road.

Two Magicians is Out in New Myths

“Two Magicians,” my flash fiction story from the Sorrows Hill series, is now out in the December issue of the online fantasy/horror mag New Myths.  This little story introduces readers to Daniel MacKenzie, the sorcerer born of a Highlands lady and a kelpie from the deep waters of the loch. I’ll be developing Daniel’s story more in these pages in the coming months.

It’s a story born of many influences, musical and legendary as most of my fantasy tales are.  For anyone interested in learning more about the core inspiration, listen to Jethro Tull’s lovely song, “Kelpie.”

Read Two Magicians on New Myths here.  If you like it, let me know.

Bridie’s Song: September Fantasy Free Read

Introducing Harry Longman, a bounty hunter with a secret whose story will be continued in the coming novella Longman’s Ride.

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