John Reed is the author of four espionage novels, Thirteen Mountain, Dark Thirty, Shadow White as Stone and The Kingfisher’s Call. He has been a presenter at the Maui Writers Retreat and has been a staff instructor at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference since 2005. He has led workshops and retreats in Oregon, Seattle, and Mexico. His poetry has appeared in over 50 literary magazines and journals throughout the U.S. and Canada, and he won the New England Review/Breadloaf Quarterly’s National Narrative Poetry Competition in 1985. With a resume like that, Luna Review feels privileged to feature the first chapters of his upcoming novel, Mountain of Ashes due out in January, 2018 from ShadowSpinners Press.
“What cosmic currents can pass through the holding of hands
and the communication of bodies of two beings in love!”
–Dr. Robert Muller–
Mountain of Ashes: A Cosmic Love Story
by John Reed
A hundred feet down the cliff, Matt Thanos decided he didn’t want to die.
He let go the Harley’s handlebars and spread his arms, fingers clutching at the air. The bike executed a lazy turn below him, tires to the sky.
A flash of silver in the sun: his wife Emily’s funeral urn tumbled through the air beside him. Images of her filled his mind. Dark hair swirling around her face, the bottomless blue of her eyes. The sheen of black satin hugging her loins. In a second he would be dead, those images—and Emily—would be gone forever. Matt arched his back, body rigid—fighting gravity. Mist drifted around him, chilling his skin. His fingers brushed the urn. The roar of the water grew louder. The noise overwhelmed his senses. An icy torrent pulled him under and swept him down the canyon.
He opened his eyes. Darkness. He waited for pain. None came.
He must be dead.
He gasped for breath, chills shook his body. He sat up and flexed his arms. No broken bones, he didn’t feel any injuries. He should be dead. He had fallen hundreds of feet, been sucked into an underground torrent and then somehow tossed onto a rocky bank. His motorcycle leathers were soaked. But he was breathing. Lying on his back in total darkness. But he wasn’t dead, only frozen in panic.
Endless fighting with his wife and her mother had finally driven Matt insane. The pills they had given him had only made things worse. That was it: drug-induced madness—imagining all this. Crazy or not, he couldn’t just lie here. He was alive—with his memories of Emily.
Matt felt around him in the darkness. Cold, rough stone. He crawled away from the water, boot toes scraping against rock, bumped his head on an unseen wall. He convulsed, struggling to breathe. He stood and reached up, found only empty space above him. Stumbled to his knees, got back up and felt his way along the wall, sliding his feet on the stone, fighting to control the growing feeling of panic. Trapped in utter darkness.
The water’s roar echoed off the rock, deep and hollow as a cathedral. The sound grew louder, though he moved away from the river.
Then the floor was gone and he tumbled into space. The smell of rotting flesh surrounded him. He sank into a horrible, stinking ooze, He’d fallen on a mound of decomposing bodies. His hand touched a shape unmistakably a human skull. A scream tore from his throat. His chest heaved. Sweat popped out on his forehead. He clawed at the tangle of corpses, pushed aside leg bones, ribs, skulls. Amidst the clatter of bones came a metallic sound. He fumbled for it in the darkness: His wife’s urn, dented and scarred.
A whisper: “Matt, get up.”
His dead wife was calling to him. He felt the urn, clutched it, scrambled over bodies and bones and clambered out of the pit. Bile rose in his throat and he vomited, a convulsive expulsion splashing over his boots.
Matt set down the urn, wiped his face and brushed away tears. The smell of putrid flesh clung to his clothes. A beam of light—like a motorcycle headlight—slit the darkness on a distant horizon, reflecting off a waterfall roaring off a cliff to his left, the precipice he had stumbled over. His throat felt parched. The water drew him. He clambered to it, held his hands in the flow, scrubbed off the corpse residue, then scooped up handful after handful and drank.
He walked back toward the pit and picked up the urn. It felt cool in his hands. The cover was missing. A gust of wind, a back draft from the falls, hit him. His wife’s ashes were sucked out of the urn and enveloped him, blinding him, burning his skin. His motorcycle leathers were coated with it. He pawed at his eyes, scrubbed his cheeks raw. The faint smell of Emily’s perfume drifted around him.
“Emily?” Two images collided in his mind: His wife smiling softly as she twirled a lock of dark hair around her finger, and Emily, face contorted with rage, splashing his body with gasoline.
“Follow me. It’s your only chance.”
“My chance for what?”
Her voice held a tone of reasonableness. “You can’t go back.”
The pit lay in shadow behind him.
Matt ran toward the light, but it seemed to be getting no closer. At sea level you could see six miles, he knew, to the horizon. He could run six miles, his daily training run was ten. But now, with fear tightening his chest. he was fighting for breath. Still he ran. The light—Emily—was his only protection from the eternal darkness around him. If Emily was still alive—or had somehow been brought back to life—he must find her and put things right. All the laws of nature agreed that was not possible, but still he ran. By some miracle, he had another chance. He called her name as he ran across an endless alkaline desert,
Gradually, Matt became conscious of force pulling at him, drawing him forward, faster and faster. He had felt this force before. A pervasive visceral power pulling at his deep core, as the moon pulls the oceans of Earth. Emily must have felt it too, on that day—her last day.
He bent forward, hands on knees, panting to catch his breath. The headlight, if that’s what it was, seemed no closer. “Emily.” His voice rose in a helpless wail, calling her name again and again. This was madness. His wife was dead. Her ashes were caked on his body. Emily was gone.
He felt the force again pulling him toward the beacon. He dropped to his knees, and dug his fingers into the fissured earth. He would not go on, there was no purpose. He would just lie down and die, alone in this strange, unnatural place. He had heard the doctors talking in low voices “. . . not much left of this guy’s mind.” That was the only explanation for this horrible place. It existed only in his mind—or what was left of it. Not much left after all the pills they’d given him. Death was the punishment he deserved. He toppled face down onto the dry, cracked surface. Wherever the force was trying to take him, it would have to drag his lifeless body. This would be the end of it.
The voice a far-away, echoing sound. But it was unmistakably Emily. Even if it was only in his head he needed to believe it. He jumped to his feet, looked around him. His shadow slanted away behind him, the beam of light held steady on the horizon. “I’m here,” he said. He turned a full circle. Emptiness in all directions. “Where are you?”
“I’m with you,” she said.
Matt said, “I . . . went crazy after you died.”
“You’re not crazy. And you’re alive.”
“I took your ashes, got on the bike and headed into the mountains.”
“I was looking for the Raavacon center. Trying to find out what happened to you and your mother, to make some sense of—the time after. The coordinates were still on your GPS but there was nothing there. Just brush and rock. My mind snapped and I just started riding as fast as I could—almost as if the bike had a mind of its own.
But as he raced along the canyon rim, Matt explained, the bike suddenly veered toward the cliff. “It’s like the bike was trying to kill me—something was. And I was willing to let it. I don’t really know who, or what, pushed me over the cliff. Half of me wanted to live, the other half wanted to die.”
A shadow crossed the shaft of light in front of him, a row of men walking, heads down, trudging off into the darkness. Emily’s voice again: “Go straight ahead toward the light.”
The men slogged along, ignoring the man in motorcycle leathers running toward them. But as Matt approached, one of the men lifted his head. Matt recoiled, stumbling on the hard-packed ground. The man had no face. Where his eyes, nose and mouth should have been was a patch of pale skin.
Matt dodged the faceless man and ran again toward the light. Emily’s voice: “On your left there’s a hill. Go that way.”
“You have to trust me. Go straight up the hill.”
The ground rose quickly, soil becoming rocky and loose. Matt’s feet slipped, he fell to his knees.
“Get up,” Emily said. “Hurry.”
He looked around him. Total darkness now. He felt ahead with his hands. The rocks rose in front of him. He kept climbing, crawling on hands and knees.
“You’re almost the top, keep going. Can you see anything behind you?”
“No. Just dark.”
“Get up. Run.”
He jumped to his feet, crested the hill and leaped forward into the darkness. He tumbled forward over the peak and fell down a steep rocky face. The sound of the wind was gone now. A faint red glow blossomed around him. In front of him stretched a ravine running on endlessly between black stone walls. The floor moved—a mass of slithering creatures roughly the size of Rat Terriers. They swarmed across the rocks, neon tongues glowing, chrome teeth snapping. In fact, their squirming lizard-like bodies were chrome, shimmering silver in the faint pink light of their tongues.
Matt recoiled in horror, trapped on a narrow ridge, feeling the force pull him toward the insane clusters of monsters. He took a tentative step toward the lizards. Several bared their teeth, rose on their hind legs hissing and brandishing their claws.
“Emily, what should I do? What can you see?”
“Scream at them, run as fast as you can. There’s a tunnel a little ways ahead. They seem to be afraid to go in there.”
No choice but to trust her. Matt screamed and jumped into the glittering mass.
One of the creatures, larger than the rest, slithered toward him. He kicked it with his knee-high boot. It squealed and toppled back into the mass. Its comrades set upon it and tore it apart. A red-black slurry spread across the rocks. The creatures were on him, teeth tearing at his boots, clinging to his leather pants legs. He swung his arms, knocking them away with his gauntlet gloves. Their cries echoed louder and the smell meat and burnt metal rose around him. Another creature clamped its jaws on his hand, teeth penetrating the leather. He reached for it, yanked it off. A viscous mixture of blood and oil ran down his arm. He threw the lizard at the rock wall, crushing its head. It slid down the rock leaving a slick trail. His glove felt squishy with blood.
More of the creatures leaped on their fallen comrade, leaving a gap ahead of Matt. He dashed forward, lost his footing on the slimy floor and fell face down on the rocks. He covered his head with his arms. Teeth pulled on the back of his leather jacket.
Dozens of the shiny creatures clung to his coat. He struggled to his feet tearing at their bodies with his gloves. He felt one working its way inside his collar, going for his throat. He screamed, yanked at its tail and pulled it free. It twisted toward him, snapping at his face. He threw it against the rocks.
“A ledge, straight ahead,” Emily said. “Jump.”
He leaped into the darkness. The ledge caught him at the waist and sent him tumbling forward. The glow of the creature’s neon tongues showing the opening of a cave. He crawled inside and fell on the rocks panting for breath. The sound of rushing water came from somewhere far below him.
“You sent me straight into them, Emily.”
“There was no other way,” she said.
“You’re punishing me.”
“If this is your idea of help, you can go to hell.” A rueful chuckle. “Which is where I am already.”
He climbed to his feet and fumbled his way down the tunnel putting distance between himself and the metallic creatures.
The lizards were a shimmering, squirming mass behind him. His body still shook with the horror of their attack. The flickering light receded and he was again in total darkness, feeling his way along the rock.
Mountain of Ashes: Chapter Two
He fell onto the stones exhausted. In the blackness of the cave, faint images swam into his mind. A tombstone engraved with “Joyce Graves, Servant of Glory”. Emily’s mother. Emily’s car in flames, crushed against the pink granite.
On her last day on earth, their arguments had finally escalated into violence. Matt found her in his workshop pouring gasoline on his tools. “Emily, what the hell is the matter with you? You want to burn down the house?”
“Yes. You’re screwing Cynthia Gilbert.”
“Emily, she . . .”
“Means nothing to you?” She splashed gas in his face and fumbled in her pocket for her lighter. He slapped her. She threw the can at his head and ran out into the carport. Her car started and she squealed out of the driveway. He jumped on his Harley and went after her.
Her car swerved into the cemetery, crashed through the iron gates. A granite tombstone loomed ahead, jutting out of the snow. The car slammed into it head-on. He jumped off the bike, let it fall in the grass.
His wife’s body was crushed behind the wheel of her Nissan Sentra. Blood trickled from her mouth, painting her lips a ghastly red, staining her white silk blouse. He ran to her, pushed her hair, thick with blood, out of her eyes. She stared at the sky, face a frozen mask. The light faded from her eyes. He tore aside the airbag, hugged her to him, but she was beyond comfort. Gradually, the warmth in her body faded.
He pulled her closer, whispering her name, begging her forgiveness. A moment before, he had wanted her dead, now he prayed she would live. Sirens screamed. Three men in dark blue uniforms piled out of the ambulance and ran toward him.
They laid Emily’s body on a stretcher and rolled her toward the ambulance. One of her pale arms slipped off the gurney and dangled. He tried to call to the paramedics; could summon no voice.
The third paramedic knelt beside Matt and pulled out a hypodermic needle. As he bent closer, his face metamorphosed into a shiny silver mask. He bared a row of needle-pointed teeth. Matt jerked away and scrambled behind the tombstone. He peeked out a moment later. The man—the creature—was gone.
He spent a week in the hospital, heavily sedated. The doctors could find nothing, sent him home with bottles of pills. Matt stumbled through the next weeks, scarcely able to talk, certain he had lost his mind. Something had killed Emily, some malevolent power he could not understand. It had been his fault. He had driven her to run.
After Emily’s service, his friends drove him to the crematorium, held his arms as he watched her remains disappear into the fiery chamber. Pulled him back when he tried to jump into the fire after her. In the weeks that followed, he gave himself over to the pills
He stared at his watch. Almost noon—or was it midnight? What did it matter? In the pale light of the dial he caught a glimpse of his arm, coated with Emily’s ashes. The light faded and disappeared. The watch was dead, the blackness of the cave now total. Matt stumbled forward, arms outstretched before him.
Emily watched Matt stumble along, listened to her mother’s voice in her head: “Let him suffer,” Joyce said.
“He’s panicked. I’m torturing him,” Emily said.
“Break him. Make him agree to anything you say. That is very important. Remember what he did to you.”
“I’m dead, Mother. There doesn’t seem to be much point—”
“You do as your Mother tells you.”
Joyce’s voice faded, but her words echoed over all the years of Emily’s life.
An hour later—or was it two? Matt stopped, gasping for breath. Blackness in every direction.
His ear caught the faint sound of rushing water and his thirst returned. The river that had brought him down to this terrible place? Perhaps it would show him the way out. No way to tell which way the river lay. The idea of going down, following the water, terrified him. Instinct told him go up, get out of this hellish hole. The tunnel floor seemed flat. No clue which way to go.
The feeling of being utterly alone was so strong that he began to sob, choking back tears. Emily had tricked him, purposely lead him to the horrible chamber of lizards that had nearly torn him apart. Lead him to oblivion then deserted him. Punishment for his cheating. He deserved it. He wept, deep echoing sobs in the darkness.
She had been justified, he supposed, but he hadn’t planned on having an affair with Cynthia. A fantasy surfaced in his mind: The back seat of his Lexus. Cynthia reached between his legs, squeezed his manhood, moaned as his hand slid up her dress. He felt her wetness. A frenzy of lust overtook him.
Matt felt himself grow erect, unzipped his leather pants, his need for relief strong. Emily slipped into his fantasy now, black panties sliding down her hips, breasts thrust out. He touched himself, pulled his hand away. A glance around at the blackness. Emily might be up there watching. The urge faded.
Of course, Emily found out about the affair. They tried counseling but neither of them were ever fully present during the sessions. His wife became a cold, angry shadow of herself. He couldn’t bring himself to love her, even get close to her. She, of course, responded in kind. Finally, seeking vengeance, she burned the house down, tried to kill him.
Now, she was his only link to the outside world. He shouted her same. His voice came back, a hollow echo, cathedral-like. But there was no church down here. He took a few steps forward. His forehead collided with the rock wall. He staggered back. Blood trickled down his forehead. He wiped it away with a gloved hand and felt his way along the wall.
The rock felt smoother under his feet, as if someone or something had worn a path. Maybe it was the men with no face. Matt pictured a vast cavern peopled with the faceless creatures. Since there was no light, no need of eyes. Or ears. Nothing to hear but the darkness. No one to talk to. No need of a mouth. No need of a mind. A thought chilled him: He, Matt Thanos, was on that path. But somehow he had to keep moving though he was certain oblivion lay ahead.
A faint scuffling sound ahead of him, evolving into the sound of running footsteps. He flattened his back against the wall. The footsteps approached. A faint pink glow rose, showing another of the faceless creatures running toward him. Matt turned around to see where the creature was running. The light came from a bend in the tunnel, echoing now with the hissing and clattering sounds of the lizards. The faceless man was running toward them.
“No, stop. Not that way,” Matt cried.
The creature slowed and turned to face Matt, head tilted, an animal hearing an unfamiliar sound. It waved its arms pointing toward the blackness into which Matt had been moving. A frantic pantomime of fear: danger that way. What could be worse than the metallic reptiles toward which the faceless man was running?
Matt reached for the man, but he dodged away ran toward the ghastly pink light. The clattering sound grew louder. The faceless man, visible only in silhouette, leaped into the churning mass as Matt had done. His arms flailed for a moment, then disappeared under their bodies. Immediately the noise faded, the pink light dimmed.
Whatever horrors the faceless man had warned against, they could be no worse than the lizards. Matt felt his way along the wall, distancing himself from the horrible scene.
“Can we all sing ‘Love Me Tender’ by the King?”
I’ve known John Reed since I first attended SBWC in 2005 in what was his first Pirate Workshop. Over the years, the tears, the jeers and the beers, I’ve learned something about writing, but even more about laughter. There are several oft-repeated phrases that John bequeaths upon writers, hoping to steer them back to the mainland. Some favorites that I either overheard or were aimed directly at me:
“How far are we going to have to drive to get to the story?” Translation: Ditch the prologue and pages of flowery description and make the reader care about what’s important–fast.
“We’re getting pretty far from the Monongahela River…” Translation: The author has taken us on a long and perhaps pointless tangent from the crux of the story.
“I think we’re entering chrome lizard territory here.” The story has taken a turn into the weird and uncharted realms, beyond reality and perhaps even common sense.
“Are you planning on driving around the country to explain your story to readers?” The author has left out or withheld crucial details in their narrative to the befuddlement of those listening/reading.
“Some really amazing shit happens on page 257.” The novel is slow and plodding and the author foolishly believes readers will slog through hundreds of pages to get to the exciting parts.
If the Fabulous Baker Boys aren’t available, the Chrome Lounge Lizards are amazing.
Q & A
Luna Review: You’ve told me a couple of times that you hate science fiction. Is this a life-long grudge, or did reading my sci-fi novel and editing Stephen Vessels novels contribute to that viewpoint? Hard to believe that a man of your discernment would dislike Ray Bradbury or Kurt Vonnegut.
John Reed: It has to do with my life-long grudge against playing without a net. Need another moon? No problem. A slime monster materializes out of an amber cloud? Easy. Most of this crap just seems silly to me. Inventing weird environments with three purple suns seems too often to be a substitute for actual story telling. You and Vessels are interesting exceptions. Your ability to present a fully-realized world view, plus you strength in developing character make up for the ludicrous whimpering of less-gifted practitioners of the genre. As to Bradbury and Vonnegut, these men are gods. The trick, as Marianne Moore once said, is to create “imaginary gardens with real toads.”
Luna Review: You have written political thrillers and crime thrillers, but this new novel dips its toes into horror/fantasy. And you’re quite good at it. For all your talk of “chrome lizards” when discussing other writers’ albino alligators and such, you seem to have adopted some metallic reptiles into your own repertoire. Does this novel mark the beginning of a new phase of your writing?
John Reed: Thank you. I admit to using the term “chrome lizards” as a pejorative descriptor for science fiction. (Not as pejorative, perhaps, as “ice bridge”) but it amazed me how useful these creations became when I was developing forces opposing my hero, Matt Thanos. Throw in a couple of dwarf albino alligators and a huge orange spitting cobra (must resist the urge to make political connection) and you got yourself a damn fine action scene. It was all I could do to edit out a pack of towering titanium Tyrannosaurus Rexes. I’m not sure if this marks the beginning of a new phase, or my regression to fourth-grade attempts at humor. But, in a world where most major movies are aimed at 12-year-old boys, it might be worth serious consideration.
LR: Long before this preoccupation with novels, you were a lauded poet. I’ve noticed former poets like Denis Johnson have a distinct sense of description, use of language and rhythm in their novels that can be traced back to their roots in poetry. Do you think your poetic background has influenced your prose writing style?
JR: Yes. . . Oh, wait, perhaps a fuller explanation is what you’re after. I’ve attempted to employ, in Mountain of Ashes, the prose rhythms, the alliteration, the word plays—all the devices that pull you deeper into the sound and sense of the story. Whether I’ve accomplished any of that is for the critics to determine. And if those critics find otherwise, I cordially invite them the chew my Bermudas.
LR: Can you briefly describe to the layman (or laywoman), what this series of novels that you are contributing one book to is about? Are they connected in characters, theme, storyline, or anything specific? Stephen Vessels has a novel in this series too.
JR: Yes, he does. A couple of years ago, ShadowSpinners Press in Eugene,Oregon, hit upon this wonderful idea for a Labyrinth of Souls series. I think there are plans for nine books. The connecting themes are that each book must contain a labyrinth of some sort, and be loosely based on a Tarot card from Matt Lowes’ wonderful card game of the same name. I, of course, chose The Fool.
LR: Has teaching writing, lo these many years, taught you anything?
JR: Other than the inadvisability of “messing around with Jim,” I have learned three things: the secret to writing success is keeping everlastingly at it; all that counts is word count; purge your work of gerunds and adverbs.
LR: Uh, like “Everlastingly”?
JR: Probably wouldn’t hurt to eschew semicolons while you’re at it. And always include at least one reference to a song from the seventies.
LR: Makes sense, considering I met you in the halls of Shambala riding a horse with no name. Some professors believe that one can’t teach people to write well. If so, is the idea to make them suck less?
JR: I can get you up on the horse, but when it starts to buck, you’re on your own.
LR: I’ve noticed that some of your SBWC workshop attendees like Jack Eidt, Cat Robson, Rick Shaw, Christine Logsdon, Bob Beasely, Hector Javkin, Mary Hill, etc., have improved measurably as writers despite your best efforts… What the hell?
JR: There was one other guy you should mention—Max—somebody.
LR: Sounds like a purveyor of dubious doggerel.
JR: It‘s always gratifying to see students hit their stride and lay down some hot writing. I remind all of them, however, that they were by themselves when the pages were blank. And, therefore, most of their success is their fault.(see “keeping everlastingly at it” above.) Add to this the fact that many of the aforementioned writers tend to doze off during my most insightful pontifications—probably all that saved them.
LR: What? I was checking a text. In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you mention your favorite writers or favorite novels. Would you name a few?
JR: I spent my early years immersed in the Giants of the Golden Age: Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty. Later, as I gravitated to the world of espionage, I turned to Le Carre, Ludlum, Deighton, Conrad and Green. Now that the old Cold War spy is gone, I’ve turned to guys like Lee Child, Harlan Coben, John Lescroart, and James Patterson. Call me shallow and non-literary but I love the smokin’ heat of that action genre. Barbara Kingsolver, whom I love dearly (but in good, non-indictable way), is in a class by herself. As are James Lee Burke and Joan Didion.
LR: Who were the poets who influenced you to start writing poetry?
JR: Top of the list is Robert Frost, who wrote in relative obscurity for twenty years. Adrianne Rich, Marianne Moore, Auden and Eliot all seemed to have such power and grace. One rainy weekend stayed in little cabin on Bodega Bay, I listened over and over to an audio recording of The Waste Land, in the author’s own, oddly reedy, little voice.
LR: I’ve heard his reading of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Every time he says the word “time” (which is a bunch) his voice sort of cracks and it sounds like T.S. is calling in from the great beyond.
JR: It haunts me still. As does sitting in the White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas finally drank himself to death. I can still hear that ghostly baritone.
Astronauts and cosmonauts on the Space Station Reed get a trifle light-headed after a year in orbit.