We are at it again! Kicking off the year with a brand-new campaign: Full Steam Ahead!
Yes, we are funding more books. Yes, we would love if you would check them out, maybe show your support. But don’t think you have to do it blind. Here is a taste of A Cast of Crows, a Poe-inspired steampunk collection created in conjunction with the Tell-Tale Steampunk Festival.
The other two books funding through the campaign are Grimm Machinations – the sequel to Gaslight & Grimm, bringing you even more steampunk faerie tales; and Grease Monkeys: The Heart and Soul of Dieselpunk, an anthology that takes a look at the mechanics that keep the tech running, but more on those later.
Over the course of the campaign, we will be sharing these excerpts so you can get to know our authors’ style.
The Souls of Misbehaved Boys
Based on The Adventures of Pinocchio
A boy in ashy rags and secondhand shoes shivered on the corner of Stratemeyer Alley. He blew into his cupped hands to warm his fingers, while he gazed the length of the alley, seeking. Despite his obvious destitution, he risked much venturing out after midnight in Appleton Corner. Criminals in this part of New Alexandria traded in more than money and contraband. Even an undernourished urchin offered potential riches in his pale flesh and brittle bones. The boy knew this, of course, and the tip-tap of passing footsteps sent him retreating into the nearest doorway’s cloaking shadows. After the pitter-patter faded, the child returned to the curb, his rangy body a scarecrow in the quavering gaslight.
His wide, watery eyes scrutinized the gloom. Seconds produced minutes which accumulated, as they must, into an hour. The boy slumped to the cobbles, his back against the sooty brick of a tenement building. After a time, he tented his legs, rested his head on his knees, and sobbed in the posture of lost boys everywhere. Denied a lifeline in the midnight desert of stone and fog, he dozed, tumbling into an irresistible slumber born of fatigue of the heart as well as the body—a thin and shiftless sleep where he saw his mother’s sad face in his dreams, defined forever by her pleading eyes, the only beauty he’d ever known.
The bray of a donkey echoing along the alley snapped the boy alert.
He bounced to his feet, eyes wide, in wonder at a silver shimmer that repelled the night like a fallen moonbeam. The illumination tumbled shadows along the alley until they assumed the shapes of their material counterparts: a pack of twenty-four donkeys drawing a broad coach driven by a pale, plump man with a cherubic grin. The donkeys all wore leather children’s shoes tied to their feet, so their hooves made little noise upon the cobblestones; straw bound by rags to the iron coach wheels muted their passage too. Only the beasts’s snorting breaths and the Coachman’s wheezing chuckle gave voice to the assembly, creating the impression that the coach sailed out of the night itself. Spirits lifted, the astonished boy whistled and waved.
Lamps dangled from hooks flanking the driver’s seat. They bobbed and scintillated until settling as the coach stopped. The Coachman’s doughy face glistened in the lamp glow. Produced by no ordinary oil, the light fringed everything it touched with a hazy glimmer. From the coach, a multitude of young eyes observed the boy, whose joy faltered upon seeing so many youths like him packed in tight. Though the crowded boys welcomed him with cheers, he saw no room at all left to join them.
“Hello, lad,” the Coachman said. His voice whispered like a cat’s hiss, like a mother’s good night kiss, like a secret hurriedly breathed into one’s ear. “Do you know where my coach goes?”
The boy nodded, too intimidated to speak.
“Excellent, yes, excellent. So there are no misunderstandings, let me hear you speak the place.”
The boy parted his lips and blurted his answer: “The Land of Toys.”
“Ah, correct, accurate, right you are.”
His voice unlocked, the boy spoke more readily. “They say that in the Land of Toys every day but Sunday is a Saturday.
Boys spend all day playing, and there are no teachers, no… parents. Is it true?”
“Most positively true, indeed. Now, young master, what is your name?”
“Bron, sir. Bron McMartin.”
“Such a stout name! Well, Bron McMartin, do you wish to travel to the Land of Toys? Not every boy is meant to make the journey. Do you wish to leave behind your old life for that wonderful place with these other fine, young lads?”
Bron hesitated, awestruck by the donkeys, the coach, and the Coachman himself, but mostly by the crammed-in boys garbed in so many different styles of attire they formed a patchwork quilt of youth that seemed to hail from every part of the world.
He frowned. “There’s no room! How can I ride with you?”
The Coachman chuckled, like bells dampened in felt, as if he didn’t fully exist in Bron’s world. “I always have room for one more. You shall ride right here with me.” He patted the space beside him on the driver’s bench. “But only if you really, truly wish to go to the most marvelous land in all the world. Is that your heart’s honest desire?”
Bron nodded. “Yes, yes! It is.”
“Climb on, then, Master Bron.”
The Coachman offered his hand.
A faraway voice reached Bron’s ears: No, Bron, don’t! Get down! Get away! The unknown voice drifted to him from the far end of Stratemeyer Alley. Run! The coach is not what you think. It’s bad, Bron! Very bad!
Bron glanced at the alley mouth, but the oily glow of the coach lamps bleached away everything beyond their reach. The driver’s welcoming hand waited. The boys in the coach urged Bron to board. The impatient donkeys tamped their feet. Their eyes frightened Bron. They resembled the eyes of the old dock horses where his father worked the ports on Muhheakantuck Bay, sad, worn-out horses with their ribs showing on their last days before being sent to slaughter. Their eyes reminded him of hungry dogs that scavenged food in the gutters; of his mother’s eyes on nights his father came home reeking of drink; of her eyes on the last night Bron saw her before she vanished, or ran away, or went home to her family in the South, or was kidnapped by pirates. He didn’t know which of his father’s explanations to believe, but none altered the sorrowful look on her face that pitied him in his dreams.
Get away, Bron! Run!
Footsteps joined the anonymous voice now.
“The Land of Toys is only for the cleverest boys.” The Coachman lowered his hand, prelude to withdrawing it. “I won’t take one who doesn’t genuinely wish to go.”
“Oh, but I want to go. I do! I do!”
Bron boosted himself onto the coach step, grabbed the driver’s fleshy mitt, and hoisted himself onto the seat.
“Huzzah! An excellent choice made by an excellent bo—”
Interrupting the Coachman’s words came a solid shadow caroming between him and Bron. It latched itself to the Coachman’s shoulders then erupted into a flurry of thin arms and legs beating the man about the face and throat. The thock-thock of wood striking flesh filled Bron’s ears as the shadow-shape pummeled the driver. Its torso clanked and spit blasts of wet air.
“You dare strike me?” the outraged Coachman cried.
He lashed back at the shadow-figure, his hands tangled briefly by the coach reins, but then he seized his attacker in his massive, pulpy grip. Held motionless in mid-air by the Coachman’s outstretched arms, the shadow-fighter resolved into a most unexpected thing: a marionette! A carved, wooden head, arms, and legs sprouted from its iron-and-brass torso, which breathed steam from valves along its ribs. Bron knew marionettes from the street fairs his father took him to, leaving him alone for hours at the puppet theater while he drank in the beer garden, but he’d never seen one like this. It wore clothes like those of the Italian immigrant children Bron’s father despised and seemed to act all on its own.
“Put me down!” the marionette said in a boyish voice. “You won’t steal any more boys.”
Bron searched for a puppeteer pulling strings and speaking for the effigy from a nearby rooftop or ledge but saw no one. With one hand, the marionette grasped its left ear, formed of brass rather than wood, and cranked it rapidly, sending its wooden nose jutting out to strike the Coachman square in the face. The more he cranked, the more the nose hammered the man until his expression crumpled with a pained grunt.
“Oh, you insolent pest,” the Coachman cried. “I’ve had my fill of you. Stay out of my business!”
He hurled the artificial boy to the alley stones then lashed the reins and spurred on the donkey team. They trampled the poor marionette, snapping its joints, denting and cracking its iron-and-brass body, spilling gears and rods from within, and splintering its limbs beneath their hooves despite their soft shoes. The coach wheels trundled over it, further crushing it under their weight.
The pleading voice sounded again: Jump, Bron! Before it’s too late!
As the coach accelerated, Bron saw a boy and a girl, a few years older than him, rushing after the coach. They waved their hands and yelled for him to flee. The vague shadow of an adult followed them. Get off the coach! Don’t go!
The pleas planted seeds of doubt in Bron’s head. They sprouted fast through the happy singing of the boy passengers and the feline humming of the Coachman. The coach rolled out of the alley onto the verge of a place Bron didn’t know, a part of the city he’d never seen, or perhaps a space altogether different, one between New Alexandria and the Land of Toys. The warning voices, the snap of splintering wood, and the cracking of brass echoed in his head. A mournful donkey glanced at Bron, who thought of his dream mother. Menace writhed now in the Coachman’s expression, devoid of its former warmth and welcome. The round-face man curled his vermicular lips in a terrible grin of smug satisfaction.
“We’re on our way now, boy,” he said.
His altered face spoke of unknown dangers more than pleasures and filled Bron with the same chill his father’s intoxicated eyes sent along his spine the nights he came home late from the pub. He wished to escape that fear. The chance that it might travel with him even to the Land of Toys proved too much to bear. Bron leapt. His body burned, as if the light of the coach lamps peeled itself from him, then he struck hard cobblestones and tumbled into the gutter.
The coach rolled on, its passengers belting out a happy child’s song. The donkeys’ braying faded. The Coachman laughed, then all of it—the boys, the donkeys, the Coachman, the coach, and its realm of glimmering light—blinked out of existence.
James Chambers received the Bram Stoker Award® for the graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe and is a four-time Bram Stoker Award nominee. He is the author of the short story collections On the Night Border and On the Hierophant Road, which received a starred review from Booklist, which called it “…satisfyingly unsettling”; and the novella collection, The Engines of Sacrifice, described as “…chillingly evocative…” in a Publisher’s Weekly starred review. He has written the novellas, Three Chords of Chaos, Kolchak and the Night Stalkers: The Faceless God, and many others, including the Corpse Fauna cycle: The Dead Bear Witness, Tears of Blood, The Dead in Their Masses, and The Eyes of the Dead. He also writes the Machinations Sundry series of steampunk stories. He edited the Bram Stoker Award-nominated anthology, Under Twin Suns: Alternate Histories of the Yellow Sign and co-edited A New York State of Fright and Even in the Grave, an anthology of ghost stories. His website is: www.jameschambersonline.
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