Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Category: Sorrows Hill

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

“Where Angels Tread” – A Sorrows Hill Story

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

Characters Cross Paths in Many Ways

Readers of my flash fiction “Glitter Girl” have met the world weary witch Adam Voss.  “Glitter Girl” was told in Adam’s words as he met the pretty rich teen who thought what she wanted was a spell for love.

I wrote that story a while ago, but I’ve always liked the narrator and his cynical take on love, witchery and power. So a few weeks ago he got his own name and backstory, and I’ve been working on giving him more of a role to play in the goings on of the Moon Road universe.

“Run With The Moon” is a new short story that brings together Adam and another new Soledad City character, Velocity Girard.

You’ll see more of her in the upcoming novel “A Patch of Cool” and other Soledad stories. I’m also working on a short piece that explores Velocity’s backstory – stay tuned for that.

Soledad City isn’t meant to be a catchall for every magical creature in the world, but the desert really is a strange and wondrous place, well represented especially in Terri Windling’s lovely, lovely book The Wood Wife. (Read it!)   I hope this little story captures a bit of that wonder.

Black Dog: A Sorrows Hill Story

Bitter air, and owl wings crossing a white harvest moon: a good night, they said, for the wake of a witch, and the Devil coming to claim his own. I stood on the porch, and sniffed the air for brimstone. But not a glimpse of Satan did I see, and so I followed the visitors into my grandfather’s fine old house on the side of Hart Mountain.
The people from town wore gracious black and mouths pinched up like peach pits, and the darting of their eyes said it was fear not love that brought them here to pay respects. Who’d pass up the chance to say they saw Joss Merchant dead?
Or to stare and point at Mama and me. Back and forth in that cold house, you could hear the old folks whispering: how Joss Merchant turned crookbacked from his ugly magics, shaking hands with Old Scratch late of a winter evening; how lightning from an open sky took him, just like that, in that upstairs room he had, where the walls were painted red so you couldn’t see the blood.
I ghosted through the dining room, picking up bits of talk like crumbs.
“It’s true! You ask any of the old ‘uns. Devil dogs. Cats. Ravens and such. I even heard tell of a horse once. Creatures come round whenever a witch dies. That’s how you tell, ain’t it?”
“Carlie, that works down to the funeral home — she told me Rev’rend John come by when they was embalmin, asked could they put some cemetery dirt in old Joss’ shoes, to keep his soul down. But don’t say I told you –”
“You think she’ll stay on? The daughter I mean.”
“Joss’ girl and no mistake. Look at her, skirt too short and her mouth too red.”
“What’s it been, twelve, fifteen years since she took off?”
“Look at that little gal — she’s the spittin image of her granddad.”
“Makes you wonder who her father is, don’t it?”
“Old Joss was wicked all right.”

“You think?”

Mama just sat down in the big chair and gave them the cold smile that said she was strong. That crimson smile stayed plastered on her face, even when the preacher lied a prayer to comfort us. Fat man stuffed like a sausage into his shiny black suit: his face gleamed with sweat and his eyes rolled white in his head when he promised us that the deceased was locked in the arms of God.
I waited till the prayer was done, and then I went to have another look at my grandfather.

In the parlor the coffin was laid out, black wood gleaming under the lamps. Grandfather’s head was pillowed on plum-colored satin, and his long white hair spread around him like frost on window glass. On the mantel stood a photograph of him when he was young, with black hair and a hooked hard nose that made me think of hawks, and eyes that seemed to watch me as I walked.
Mama had that black hair and eyes like his, and I took after Mama, people always said. So maybe my nose had a humpback like the nose in the picture, and maybe my cheekbones were high and fierce like his. A harsh face for a girl to have, but tonight it made me proud.
I never knew him, never knew he was alive until the day that he was dead. Mama hauled me out of school that morning and into her old Ford truck, driving fast into the mountains with her face set and hard. And all that she would say was this: your grandfather Josselyn Merchant has departed this world.
Now I wished I’d met him, maybe just once. He didn’t look the kind of grandpa that would cuddle you on his lap and read you stories. But maybe he’d have been the kind who’d tell a girl what kind of trouble kept his own daughter from speaking his name till he was dead. The kind who’d tell a girl what to do with that fierce face she inherited. I tucked myself into the shadows by the door and nibbled on a teacake, as the parade of frigid smiles and taut faces passed me by.
“There you are, dear!” Lavender and paisley, and dry lips smelling of gin: a spindly, ancient woman sprang upon me like a spider, gathering me into her arms. I suffered the hug unmoving, staring past her at the photograph of Joss Merchant in his prime.
“I knew him all his life,” the woman chattered, pulling me sideways into a corner. “If things had been just a little bit different, I’d have been your granny.”
I glanced into the coffin as I passed it, a quick look at that papery cheek with its preservative sheen. The artificial stillness made me shiver. The old woman smiled.
“Ah, Joss, “ she said. “Death won’t keep him down. He always said so.” Her eyes brightened. “Once, when he was so sick he was like to die, he told me, Tabby — for that’s my name, Tabitha McBride — don’t you worry, he said. I’ll go on. Lucifer takes care of his good tools. Look for me in other eyes, he said, for I’ll be there, no matter if this body’s in the ground.” Tabitha McBride beamed at the photograph. “He had magic, Joss did; oh, such magic he made in this house!”
“Who are you?” The teacake was dry in my mouth. She’d known him. Known his magic and his power.
Tabitha gazed hungrily at the cold face in the coffin. “Why, I was his disciple, his acolyte, his slave, when he wanted me to be. I did anything he asked. Even after he married that lowland woman of his. Well, that didn’t last, did it? I took care of her.” She laughed, and the sound of it skittered up my back.

“But that’s neither here nor there. “ One twiggy finger tipped back my chin. Her eyes bored into mine. “You are so like him. Are you the one to hold his soul? Is he there, inside your head?” She leaned in, breath hot on my cheek. “Joss! Joss! Speak to me now!”
The curtains bellied out as if caught in a storm wind, and the lamp on the side table flickered, throwing shadows across the face of my grandfather, so that he seemed to smile. A chill snaked through the room, and in the hallway somebody gasped. There was a heartbeat of silence, and then conversation picked up again, in that hushed strange way people talk around the dead.
I took another look at Tabitha McBride’s mad eyes. Jerking my arm free of her fingers, I bolted for the door. I flung open the door and quickstepped out onto the porch, breathing deep of clean bitter air.
The mountains stood sharp beneath the moon and frost sparkled in the brown leaves along the walk. I hung over the porch rail gasping, my mind a-swim with too much knowledge. My skin prickled with the chill; my neck crawled, like spiders creeping in my hair, and all of a sudden I knew I wasn’t there alone.
Piece of shadow bigger than me, a great black dog with ice white teeth sat on that frosty ground, plain as morning in the light from the parlor window. I stared at him, and he stared back.
A stinging coldness settled all around me, that had nothing at all to do with this October night. I never screamed for Mama, though I was always scared of dogs. I just stood there growing roots, as this great animal scanned me over with a pair of black bright eyes just like the ones in my grandfather’s picture.
Then he grinned, and I could feel his smile all the way through my soul. “Goodbye, Granddad,” I said.
The mist flowed up pearly from the creek bed and faded him clean away.
They never found a footprint. And no one ever had a dog like that.


Preacher Said – A Sorrows Hill Story

Preacher 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.

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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