Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don’t know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.
Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans….
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Look at that! What a thing! Calloo callay! The cover of my very first traditionally-published novel. How shiny and bloody—and I didn’t have to lift a finger this time. That’s the incredibly talented Leo Nickolls up there with the dark devilly masterpiece, and you can find more of their stunning work here. I am a particular fan of the covers for For a Muse of Fire, Rotherweird, City of Crows, Damselfly, Anassa, Ariadnis, and, and . . . hell, you know what? I love all of them. I can’t believe they paired me with such an amazing artist.
Hi, I’m Sam. You might have heard of me, you might not. I’ve been creeping around the internet self-publishing fantasy since late 2012, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a bit of a deathmarch, plodding through the desert of obscurity with my wordslinger sixgun and a swig of water in my canteen.
Up until now, I’ve been doing all my own covers, dragging photo after photo into Photoshop and chiseling away at raw photos until I reveal something serviceable. If you know anything about book covers and commercial psychology you might say, “Gosh, that’s a bad idea, pardner,” and normally I’d agree with you, but after a lot of banging my head against the wall they eventually turned out all right. I learned a little something about commercial psychology, at least where it concerns book covers and literature marketing. For a while I even did covers for other authors on commission—enough to pay a few bills!
One of the things that I learned along the way, other than that the real treasure was the friends we made, was that whether it’s in the Kindle section of Amazon, or the fiction section of your local Books-a-Million, every single time someone picks up your book and skims it, that is a job interview.
You have walked into that person’s metaphorical office and you have sat down in front of them on a squeaky-farty leather chair and smoothed out your shirt, ready to be questioned and weighed, ready to demonstrate to that person why you deserve to earn that person’s money.
Your back catalog, the books you’ve already written? That’s your work history.
Your Amazon reviews? The blurb on your front cover, and the snippets of praise trickling down the back? That’s your professional references.
And your cover is your interview suit. Neatly pressed, squared away, laced up and gleaming. Four-in-hand cranberry tie, or razor-sharp makeup. It’s how you communicate your integrity, your fortitude, your competence, your cleanliness. It’s how you let people know I’m here, I know what I’m doing, I know what you need, and I know how to make it happen. And maybe a little glitter in your eyeshadow or colorful dress socks, as if to say, I might be a professional but I’m not boring stick-in-the-mud turtles all the way down.
So it’s nice to have that taken off my hands for a change. Instead of having to tailor my own outfit from scratch, Tor Books graciously took me to get fitted for a professional suit—and boy howdy, it turned out great.
When my editor, the talented Diana Pho, first described what she had in mind—a simple silhouette in strong colors like the one on Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol—I have to admit I was a little worried at first. While that style worked well for Malerman’s dirt-road supernatural thriller, evoking the old-timey gunslinger dime-novels like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Max Brand, I wasn’t sure it would translate well to a rock-and-roll dirty-south horror-fantasy like Burn The Dark and its sequels. To my astonished surprise, however, what we got was something more like Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds covers, with less of an avian bent and more of a Satanic tone.
Other than the three-quarters-turn Robin centerpiece and her blue hair and stony glare, I think one of my favorite parts of this cover is also one of its more subtle aspects—the vascular tree-branches worming into the image’s outer limits, insinuating both arteries and roots, evoking the central concept of the tree.
As I zoom out and look at the image as a whole, I’m quite satisfied with the heat and intimacy of it. The artery-branches enclose the viewer’s eye, fencing it toward the center of the image, and the warm colors lend the whole thing an almost biological claustrophobia, as if you were looking at the splayed-open chest of a body, and the organs inside. I’m really looking forward to seeing how all these reds and purples look on the book’s physical jacket.
S.A. Hunt is a non-binary U.S. veteran, speculative fiction author, and Winner of Reddit.com/r/Fantasy’s “Independent Novel of the Year” Stabby Award. They live in Petoskey, Michigan. Burn The Dark is the first volume in the Malus Domestica series.
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Excerpt from Burn the Dark:
OVERGROWN GRASS AROUND A lemon tree, shadowy front porch with no porch light. A rocking chair lurked in the gloom.
The girl in the video crept up the front walk of the tract house.
Hoo, hoo, hu-hu.
Halfway across the yard, she paused and turned to point the camera up into the branches of the lemon tree, the aperture whirring as she zoomed in on it.
A snowy owl perched in the masterwork of shadows some eight feet up, throat pulsing, hoo, hoo, hu-hu. The camera zoomed out as the owl took flight and left the screen stage right.
“Hello, honey,” croaked a subtle voice.
She whirled around and the world whipped to the left, revealing the front of the white tract house and its shadowy porch, arrayed with boxes of junk, chairs, yellowed and fraying newspaper. A tribunal of cats sat on their haunches all over the porch, fifteen or twenty of them: calico, tortoise-shell tabbies, midnight-blacks, two Siamese, an orange Morris with brilliant green eyes.
Someone stood behind the screen door, a smear of gray a shade lighter than the darkness inside the house.
At the top of the faint figure was the gnarled suggestion of a face. “What brings you round at this time of night, young lady?” An old woman, her voice kind but deliberate, with a hint of accent. British? Irish? Whatever it was, it wasn’t midwestern or southern.
Motionless cats reflected the streetlight with their lantern-green eyes.
Neva Chandler, said a voice-over from Robin. The self-proclaimed King of Alabama. Her voice was soft, introspective, an inside-voice that belonged more at a funeral than a YouTube video. Tinged with a faint southern twang.
The girl threw a thumb over her shoulder. “Ah, my car broke down. I . . . I was hopin’ I could use your phone.”
“Ah.” The old woman paused. She might have been folding her arms, but it was hard to tell. “I thought all you young ladies these days carried those—those cellular phones, they call them. With their tender apps and GPS-voices. Go here, go there, and so forth.”
“No, ma’am,” replied the girl. “I’m kinda old-school that way I guess.”
The old woman scoffed. “Old-school.”
“Well, if you’re going to come in, it would behoove you to do so, and get clear of the street,” the old woman said in a warning way, even though the girl was fully in her front yard by then. “It’s a dangerous place for dangerous people.”
The stoop leading up to the porch was made of concrete painted in flaking gray, and the porch itself was as well. Columns of wrought-iron curlicues held up the roof. At Robin’s feet was a china bowl with a few pebbles of dry cat food.
Stepping up onto the porch, she tugged the screen door open with a furtive hand. The old woman behind the mesh faded into the darkness like a deep-sea creature and Robin stepped in behind her, filling the video window with black.
Click-click. A dingy bulb in an end-table lamp burst to life, brightening a living room positively crowded with antiques.
A grandfather clock stood next to an orange-and-brown tweed sofa, tiny black arms indicating the time was a few minutes to midnight. Four televisions of progressive evolution clustered on top of a wood-cabinet Magnavox, rabbit-ear antenna reaching over them for a signal no longer being broadcast. No less than three pianos filled one end of the room, two player and one baby grand, all covered in dust.
All of a sudden the smell hit her, a wall of rotten musk. Boiled cabbage, farts, cigarettes. Dead old things, burnt hair, burnt popcorn. Cat shit.
Gangs of unlighted candles stood atop every surface, halfway melted into the saucers and teacups that held them. Lines of runic script decorated the windowsills and, apparently, the threshold of the front door between her feet.
Another cat sat on top of a piano, running its tongue down the length of one leg. Robin let the screen door ease shut. “I’m so sorry to bother you this time of night.”
Chandler shuffled over to a plush wingback chair and dropped herself into it, crumpling. She wore a pink bathrobe, with steel-gray hair as dry as haystraw tumbling down the sides of her Yoda face. A whisper of mustache dusted her upper lip. She could have been a thousand years old if a day.
An old glass-top coffee table dominated the space in front of the sofa and armchair. Occupying the center of the table was a wooden bowl, and inside the bowl was a single pristine lemon.
“No bother at all, my dear,” the old woman said, peering up at Robin with the baggy, watery eyes of a basset hound. “I’m usually up late. No bother at all.” As she spoke, she flashed black gums and the pearlescent brown teeth of a lifelong smoker. “Ah, the phone,” she wheezed, curling a finger over the back of the chair, “over in there, in the hallway, on the little hutch. Do you see it?”
The camera soared past the armchair and toward a doorway in the back of the furniture-crowded room.
As it did so, Robin softly interjected with a pensive voice-over. Sometimes when the witches have completely drained a neighborhood down to the bones and they’ve used it all up, all the—whatcha call it, the “life,” the soul, there ain’t nothing left to move with. They can’t migrate to a new town, they get stuck, and slowly wither away. They starve. They die from the inside out. The deadness slowly makes its way to the outside. Heinrich and I think that’s what happened here.
The old woman’s telephone turned out to be a rotary phone. Robin picked up the handset and pressed it against her ear, listening for a dial tone. She put it against the GoPro in her hand.
After a while they’re just a rotten corpse in a living-human costume.
Nothing came from the earpiece but a muted ticking, as if she could hear the wind tugging at the lines outside.
Death masquerading as life.
“So what is a beautiful young lady like you doing in a trackless waste such as this? This is a hobby town—there’s nothing to do, so everybody has a hobby. Painting model airplanes, collecting stamps, making meth, doing meth. Can’t be that, though. You’re not around to buy drugs.” The decrepit crone sat up, leaning over to pluck the lemon out of the bowl with one knobby monkey-paw hand. “No, Robin dear, ohhh, you don’t look like the others. You don’t look like shit.”
“No, ma’am, I don’t do drugs. I mean, other than medication.” Robin put the handset down. “I’m from out of town, visiting a fr—”
Chandler’s breathing came in phlegmy gasps and sighs, tidal and troubled. Sounded like she’d been running a marathon.
“How did you know my name?” asked the girl.
“Oh, honey, bless your heart,” said the crone, “I been expecting you all day.” She pricked the rind of the lemon with a thumbnail and peeled part of it away, revealing not the white-yellow flesh Robin had expected, but the vital and fevered red of an internal organ. “It took you longer to get here than I expected. But then Birmingham is rather Byzantine, isn’t it? I remember when I was a child, when it was all gaslights and horse-drawn carts, the layout was so much simpler then.”
Blue veins squirmed across the lemon’s surface in time to some eldritch beat.
The lemon had a pulse.
Lifting the thing to her mouth, Chandler bit into it, spritzing fine droplets of blood into the air.
Ferocious wet devouring-noises came from the other side of the chair, like wolves tearing into the belly of a dead elk. More blood sprayed up, dotting the wallpaper, the lampshade. The remains of the lemon’s rind dangled from the crone’s hand like a fresh scalp, bloody and pulpy.
Red dripped on the filthy carpet.
“My last lemon,” said Chandler, twisting slowly in the chair.
One twiggish hand slipped over the back, gripping the velvet and cherrywood. “I’ve been saving it for a special occasion, you know.”
Rising, she stared Robin down, eyes that flashed with a red light deep inside. Her teeth were too many for her mouth, tiny canines, peg-like fangs. The wrinkles across the bloody map of her face had smoothed. Her schoolmarm hair had gone from corn silk to black rooted in steel. “You think you’re the first to seek me?” asked the witch, her lips contorting over the bulge of teeth. The longer she spoke, the deeper her voice got, dropping in pitch like a toy with a dying battery. “My trees are composted with the rot of a dozen just like you.”
“There ain’t nobody like me, lady. I eat assholes like you for breakfast.”
The monstrous witch blinked. “You eat assholes?” She giggled, which coming out of her throat sounded like a horse.
“If you’re gonna be a witch-hunter like your friends, you need to work on your one-liners!” Chandler spidered over the chair, pink bathrobe flagging over her humped back.
“Shit!” Robin ran. “Shit shit shit!”
Darkness swallowed the camera, shredded by light coming in through the witch’s window blinds. The image went into hysterics as Robin pumped her arms, running through the house.
Tripping over something, she went sprawling in a pile of what sounded like books. “Goddammit! Aarrgh!”
The witch came through the house after the girl, her bare feet thumping the carpet, then bumping against the linoleum, meat clubbing against wood. “God won’t save you. You’ll not have me, little lady,” gibbered Chandler, invisible in the dark. “You’ll not have me, you’ll not have me.”
Robin pushed through the back door of a kitchen, bursting out into a moonlit backyard. Turning, stumbling, she aimed the camera at the house.
Shick, the sound of metal against leather. Robin drew the silver dagger.
The back door slapped open. Something came racing out, a wraith shrouded in stained terrycloth, the lemon-heart blood coursing down her chin and wasted xylophone chest—and then the old woman was gliding across the overgrown yard, reaching for her with those terrible scaly owl-hands.
“Hee hee hee heeeee!” cackled Chandler, instantly on her, shoving her into the weeds. Both went down in a heap and Robin lost the camera.
Whirling around, the video’s perspective ended up sideways on the ground, peering through the grass, barely capturing the melee in one corner of the screen. Neva Chandler landed on top of the girl’s belly cowgirl-style and raked at her face with those disgusting yellow nails, deceptively sharp chisel-points, laughing, crowing in her harsh raven-rasp of a voice.
Even though Robin was fighting with everything she had, she couldn’t push the old crone away. An astounding strength lingered in those decrepit bones. Tangling her fingers in the girl’s hair, Chandler wrenched her head up and down, bouncing it uselessly against the grass.
“Get off me!” shrieked Robin in her thin, high video-voice, thrusting the silvery dagger through the pink bathrobe and into the witch’s ribs—SHUK!
Time seemed to pause as the fight stopped as suddenly as it had started. Chandler’s arms were crooked back, her fingers clawed in a grotesque parody of some old Universal movie monster. Her face was twisted and altered by some strange paranormal force, her mouth impossibly open until it was a drooping coil of chin and teeth. Robin withdrew the dagger, releasing more of the black syrup. Then she plunged it deep into the old woman’s chest again, shuk, and twice, and thrice, and four times, shuk shuk shuk.
Black liquid like crude oil dribbled out around the blade of the dagger. The witch exhaled deep in her throat, a deathly deflating.
“Knife to meet you!” shouted the girl.
Not my best, said the voice-over. I’m learning, okay?
With a shrieking snarl, “Grrraaaaaagh,” the witch leapt backward—propelled, more like, as if she’d been snatched away by some invisible hand—and scrambled to the safety of her back stoop, cowering like a cornered animal. A stew of red and black ran down her sloped chin and wattled neck. “That won’t work!” she choked through a mouthful of ichor. Chandler had taken the dagger away, and now it glittered in one warped claw. “It’ll take more than bad puns and pigstickers to—”
Hands shaking, Robin produced the Gerber jar full of water and threw a fastball.
The jar went wide, whipping over the old woman’s head.
Glass shattered against the eaves, showering her with the contents. Chandler flinched, blinking in confusion.
“This ain’t The Wizard of Oz, honey, I ain’t going to melt. You was having more luck with the dagger.” She flourished the dagger as if she were conducting a symphony with it. “You want this back? Come get it, little girl!”
The witch-hunter reached into her jacket.
She whipped out a Zippo, the lid clinking open.
“What you got there?” The witch sniffed the arm of her bathrobe and grimaced. She looked up. “Oh hell no.”
Flick, a tiny flame licked up from the Zippo in Robin’s hand, brightening the backyard. “Get away from me!” the witch shrieked, trading the dagger to the other hand and flinging it overhand like a tomahawk. Robin recoiled. The blade skipped off the side of her collar, inches from her throat, a sharp pain just under her ear as the blade nicked her skin.
Chandler turned and ripped the back door open, scrambling through. Robin snatched up the GoPro and followed, camera in one hand and lighter in the other. She caught the witch just inside the threshold, touching the Zippo’s tongue to the edge of her bathrobe.
The terrycloth caught, lining the hem with a scribble of white light, enough to faintly illuminate the grimy kitchen.
“Oooooh!” screeched Chandler, tumbling to her hands and knees. “You nasty, nasty girl! You trollop! You tramp!” The witch stood, using the counter as a ladder, and fumbled her way over to the sink, smearing black all over the cabinets. Raking dirty dishes out of the way, Chandler disturbed a cloud of fruit flies and turned on the faucet. “When I get this put out, I’m going to—I’m going to—” She tugged and tugged the stiff sprayer hose, trying to pull it out of the basin.
Flames trickled up the tail of Chandler’s bloody bathrobe, but they were going much too slowly for Robin’s liking. She reached over and touched the fabric with the Zippo again. This time the alcohol on Chandler’s back erupted in a windy burp of white and orange. The flames billowed toward the ceiling, a cape of fire, whispering and muttering.
As Robin lunged in to ignite her sleeve, Chandler reached into the sink with her other hand and came up with a dirty carving knife.
She hooked it at the girl, trying to stab her and spray herself with the sink hose at the same time. Robin jerked away. The plastic nozzle showered the witch’s head with cold water, soaking her hair and running down her face, washing away the blood and oil-slime. Chandler maneuvered around, trying to spray the fire on her back, but all she could seem to manage was to half-drown herself and shoot water over her shoulder onto the floor.
“Help me!” cried the flame-ghost, water arcing all over the kitchen. “Why would you do this to an old lady like me? What have I ever done to yoooouuuuu?”
“You witches killed my mama!”
Flinging the refrigerator door open, Robin flinched as condiment bottles and a stick of butter clattered to the floor at her feet. Reaching in, she grabbed the neck of a bottle of Bacardi. The last bit sloshed around in the bottom.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Chandler shoved the fridge door closed, almost on Robin’s head. “HELP ME!” roared the slack-faced creature in the bathrobe. Her jaw had come unhinged, and two rows of tiny catlike teeth glistened wetly in the pit of her black maw. Her eyes were two yellow marbles, shining deep in bruise-green eye sockets. “HELP ME OR YOU’LL BURN WITH ME!”
Pressing her ragged stinking body against Robin’s, Chandler wrapped her arms around the other’s chest in a bear hug.
Prickly, inhuman teeth brushed against the girl’s collarbone.
Burn the Dark releases January, 2020.