Dust jacket by Vincent Chong
-- While the sun blisters a dying world, a mutant spider battles a squad of toy soldiers and a plastic cowboy on his last ride...
-- A gangster, a sheriff, and a mysterious traveler face an army of mechanical vampires burrowing up from hell itself during a wild Montana storm...
-- In a desert poisoned by atomic radiation, an abused boy stands between a rampaging giant and the hunter who would make him a grisly trophy...
-- Beneath a full Arizona moon, a drifter faces a pack of merciless human animals and the werewolf who butchered his sister...
-- In the American West, a legendary gunslinger delivers a cursed bounty to the one-horse town where his partner’s ghost awaits.
Tales of hardboiled horror and Twilight Zone noir. Cross-genre blowtorches with bad guys and worse guys. Love stories both dark and bittersweet. A brand new novella and extensive story notes. You’ll find this and more in the fifth collection from three-time Bram Stoker award-winner Norman Partridge, an author Locus calls “one of the most dependable, exciting, and entertaining practitioners of dark suspense and dark fantasy... emphasis on the dark.”
In Lesser Demons, Partridge explores the kind of fiction that made him both a horror fan and a writer. Using the shotgun prose of a crime novel, the title story draws a deadly bead on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. “The Iron Dead” introduces Chaney, a monster-hunting pulp hero with a mechanical hand built in hell. “Carrion” cuts a mean swath through Robert E. Howard territory, while “The Big Man” explores dark shadows of American life never imagined in the atom-age horror movies of the fifties.
Part celebration, part reinvention, Lesser Demons only serves to underscore RevolutionSF’s verdict: “Norman Partridge is the finest writer of short horror fiction going.”
Trade: Fully cloth bound hardcover edition
Limited: 250 numbered copies, including a bonus chapbook short story, signed by author
Table of Contents
- Second Chance
- The Big Man
- Lesser Demons
- The Fourth Stair up from the Second Landing
- And What Did You See in the World?
- Road Dogs
- The House Inside
- The Iron Dead
- A Few Words After
From Publishers Weekly:
“Considerable inventiveness, an uninhibited sense of the gruesome, and vigorous pacing make this a collection of B-movies for the printed page…”
“In the afterword to this collection, Partridge credits his lifelong love of fantasy and horror for a versatile writing style that has garnered three Bram Stoker awards. Before that remark, 10 finely calibrated, genrebending tales display his broad range, from dark detective fiction to equally dark western yarns…his gift for twisting genre conventions in surprising new ways is unsurpassed.”
From Stomping the Yeti:
“A showcase of pulp heroics, sharp prose and dark horror, Lesser Demons delivers the American blend of horror quickly becoming synonymous with the name Norman Partridge… Fantastic prose with a distinctive structure that reads smoothly; Stories that recall the pulp adventures of the past while delivering a second layer of commentary; Small town American characters that are recognizable and relatable.”
From Dark Scribe Magazine:
“Partridge’s new collection from Subterranean Press is a tantalizing mix of hard-boiled noir and supernatural otherworldliness, combining the genres and styles that cemented his love for words into a unique style all his own. In this book you’ll find more than a hint of The Twilight Zone bumping up against the staccato prose of crime fiction and the gleeful insanity of drive-in monster movies. Each of these stories borrows liberally from these influences and more, yet they all stand strong as complete and original works of their own.”
From Famous Monsters of Filmland:
“Lesser Demons is a collection of stories that really can’t be categorized. Mr. Partridge is able to combine the best of The Twilight Zone, classic monster movies, detective and western fiction into a group of tales that hit hard and stay with you long after you close the book.”
From San Francisco Book Review:
“The collection certainly targets readers of horror fiction, but Partridge’s fantastic characterization and great story-telling will appeal to a variety of readers. One particular story, ‘The House Inside’, should not be missed by anyone.”
“With ten stories and an afterword by Partridge, the reader is getting more than his money’s worth here. Partridge has a strong style, rarely going for a cheap gross-out when a more sophisticated terror is possible, but his images will certainly stick with the reader long after the book is closed.”
From Stomping on Yeti:
“His fiction is pulpy and raw, full of overambitious simile and metaphor that shouldn’t work but always does. He writes about sheriffs and soldiers, the kind of hard nosed men who do what needs to be done because, hell, someone has to do it.”
From Jeffrey Ford:
“Norman Partridge writes with the economy and power of a Noir master. His new story collection, Lesser Demons, displays his unique ability to give a reader all the kick-ass pleasure of pulp suspense and action along with vibrant, complex characters and deep insight into the mythic hearts of distinctly American Nightmares.”
From Ellen Datlow:
“Norman Partridge pulls no punches whether he’s writing hard-boiled westerns, contemporary noir, or monster tales—often combined. His stories will take you on a helluva ride.”
From S. T. Joshi:
“Norman Partridge has such a wealth of talent—a prose style of wondrous luminosity and grace; a narrative drive that carries the reader inexorably to the spectacular climax; an ability to convey violence and gruesomeness without the least suggestion of crudity or exploitation; and an imagination that opens new worlds to all who venture within his realm—that it will be engaging to chart his course in the future. Lesser Demons is one more building-block in what will be an impressive body of creative work that Partridge will leave to the future.”
From Joe Schreiber:
“Norman Partridge writes as if the devil himself had a sawed-off shotgun pointed at his head. In Lesser Demons, he goes drag-racing hellbent-for-leather across the rich and bloody drive-in graveyard of pop culture that he claimed years ago, digging up Lovecraftian horrors and ’56 Chevys, bloodthirsty spiders and atomic-age giants with real human hearts. I loved this book.”
From Duane Swierczynski:
“Any new book with the name ‘Norman Partridge’ on the front is cause for celebration. But hot damn—Lesser Demons is my favorite Partridge yet, fusing hardboiled, horror, pulp and suspense in bold new ways that should be illegal in some states. You need this book. You need this book now.”
From Laird Barron:
“Norm Partridge is an extraordinary storyteller and his welding of noir and horror has created a signature style renowned for its lean, sinewy power. Lesser Demons is a brutal and unsettling collection from an author who has begun to cast a long shadow across the field.”
by Norman Partridge
The whore wouldn’t take his money.
That didn’t matter to Durston. He took what he wanted anyhow, and he took it the way he pleased. Now she was over on the other side of the bed with her back to him, her shoulders heaving the way you’d expect. Making those little mewling sounds the way whores do.
All of a sudden Durston wanted to hit her again. That’s how angry he was. Bottled up in this tinderbox whorehouse, flatbacked on a sodden excuse for a bed in the shadows and the midnight heat. Just him and her and a bottle of mescal.
And the dead man, hanging there in the rafters.
The dead man, scuffed bootheels swinging over top of them as they lay together in that bed.
Pitch Dunnigan twisted in the dark, the rope around his neck groaning in a way the whore never could. Durston didn’t have to look up to see his dead partner’s face. Didn’t have to suck wind to smell the stink of the leavings that had stained the dead man’s britches as the rope snapped taut around his gizzard, didn’t have to listen to hear the bitter words that scalded Pitch’s rotting brainpan—words that’d never travel the bellows of breath thanks to a hemp noose.
For another man, that last thing might have been a small favor afforded by the hangman’s tool. But Durston wasn’t another man. Pitch Dunnigan’s words found him as sure as a tick finds something that’s warm and pumping blood. Durston heard the dead man the same way he saw him, the same way he breathed him… with no need for quiet or mescal to aid his visions, and no need for the goddamn light of day.
But the night could only stretch so far. The gunman knew that.
He’d done what he’d come here to do—dead man be damned—and he wouldn’t linger in some whore’s bed now that he’d put backside to the deed. Soon enough there’d be other deeds that needed doing.
The first splash of morning light found the cataract glass set in the window. The floor took up the light the same way it took up dirty water, drank it between splinters and cracks. But the light that made it past the floor streamed across the sheets and found Durston and the whore… and then it made higher ground and found the polished Mexican spurs attached to Pitch Dunnigan’s swinging heels.
And so came the start of another day.
Durston swung his ass out of bed. He dressed, grabbed mule-ears and pulled on his boots. That done, he snatched a knotted rawhide pouch off the nightstand and holstered his gun.
He walked to the door, putting his back to the room. Didn’t make much difference. Behind him, the hangman’s rope still complained, and the whore still moaned. That was just the way it was. Durston understood that. In life, there were some things you just had to choke down until you could get shed of them… like a twisting rope, a moaning whore, or the forty double eagles scarred by a sheriff’s knife that lay silent in the rawhide pouch fisted in Durston’s right hand.
The man at the bar looked like something you’d see in an old mirror. Must have been he was some kind of cripple. Durston didn’t know exactly what kind, nor did he care. What he cared about was untying the knot around the rawhide pouch.
“Want to settle up for the woman,” Durston said, “and the room.”
The barman’s cheeks went sallow, like someone had wiped his looking-glass face with a rag. “That ain’t necessary, Mr. Durston. It’s on the house.”
The gunman grinned. Sure, that’s exactly what the cripple would say. He’d heard the stories. Everyone had. About the gunsmith down in Denver who’d blown his brains out after Durston paid him with those scarred double eagles, and the gentleman gambler who’d slit his own throat in a plush indoor privy after winning a pot seeded with same, and the woman over in Silverton who’d stolen a few of those twenty-dollar gold coins from Durston’s rawhide pouch while he slept like Rip Van Winkle.
The fate of that bitch wasn’t something you’d want crawling around in your brainpan, not even in the light of day. But Durston could see it in there, wriggling around behind the looking-glass man’s rheumy eyes. That’s why Durston had known the man wouldn’t accept his coin before he even put tongue to the offer.
Not that Durston intended to pay the man.
In truth, that wasn’t what he intended at all.
Still, this thing had to go a certain way. Durston untied his poke. Tipped a scarred double eagle into his callused hand. Slapped it on the counter like he was driving home a nail.
“Please, Mr. Durston. There ain’t no need—”
“Yes. There is.”
Durston grabbed the man and yanked him over the bar the way you’d yank a dead cornstalk from a field. The scarred coin hit the floor rolling, but it didn’t roll far. Durston snatched it up and jammed it into the man’s pocket, and the cripple’s looking-glass face clouded over as if Satan himself had steamed it with a sulfurous breath.
The man dug into his pocket with shaking fingers.
Again, Durston’s coin hit the floor.
Durston stared down at it.
“All right,” the gunman said. “If that’s the way you want it.”
He snatched up the scarred double eagle. The damn thing was wet. So were the cripple’s britches. Mr. Looking Glass had piddled his pants like a child, but that didn’t matter to Durston any more than the whore’s whimpering had mattered. There wasn’t a hard yard of difference between those things. They were less than piteous to a man like Durston, just so much chewed cud in the mouth of the world.
The gunman’s fingers curled around the wet coin.
The pissed-on cripple started bawling like a kid.
To hell with that, Durston thought.
To hell with that.
Durston took his time.
Ten minutes later came the sound of busting glass.
Wasn’t the looking glass-man that went to pieces, though. Was the big plate-glass window that fronted his saloon. And what did the damage? Why, that scrawny little bastard going through it head first, of course.
Durston’s palms hit the batwings and he stepped outside. Busted glass crunched under his heels. Looking Glass lay there among the shards, red cracks jagging across his bruised face like he’d been shattered but not quite broke to bits. Durston didn’t pay the cripple any mind. He didn’t bother to watch the twisted little bugeye crawl away, didn’t bother to note the smear of blood he left behind any more than he’d linger over a trail left by a slug.
His attention was directed elsewhere. Already, folks were running up the street towards the sheriff’s office. Stepping off the boardwalk, the gunman watched them go. Women, kids, men… Durston wasn’t worried about any of them. He never worried about anything that showed its back as soon as trouble reared up on its hind legs and snorted. Just wasn’t worth his time.
But it was comical to watch. Men trying to look like they meant business while beating a hasty retreat. Kids who wanted their first look at dark doings getting yanked along by their mothers. And the women… why, the women were the best. Durston enjoyed watching their asses as they fled. All that gingham and calico pumping in furious motion. Why, one gal looked like she had a couple of bushels of apples hidden up under her skirts. Durston could almost hear a clock ticking in his head as she hurried up the street.
Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock….
It was quite a sight. For about half a minute.
Then another sound caught Durston’s attention.
A sound he couldn’t ignore.
A twisting rope.
The sound came from behind, just above Durston’s left shoulder. He smelled the familiar stink as he whirled, knew what he’d see even before he laid eyes on it. Pitch Dunnigan, hanging from the saloon’s second floor balcony. Stretched gizzard gone to black, bloated tongue and face gone to purple, all except those stark staring blue eyes that spoke every word locked up in the dead man’s brain.
Durston clutched tight to his rawhide pouch. He told himself that this vision of his dead partner was no more real than a mescal dream, but that little message was denied by his eyes, and his ears, and even his goddamn nose, and Durston’s guts stretched as tight as newly strung barbed-wire as a result. Because Dunningan’s corpse was right there, hanging in front of him. Durston couldn’t deny that. It was part of the reason he’d ridden two hundred miles to this place, part of the reason he’d come with those forty double eagles scarred by a sheriff’s knife knotted in a rawhide pouch.
That goddamn sheriff.
That goddamn Ed Hauser.
Durston meant to make that bastard pay. Only that wasn’t right. The bastard had already paid, and then some. What Durston wanted was something different. What he wanted was—
Right at his heels. A couple of deputies—the same two that had brushed off Durston the day before at the sheriff’s office. One of them yanked Durston’s pistol from his custom rig before the gunman even sensed that the man was behind him. The other took hold of Durston’s shoulder and spun him around like a kid’s wooden top.
Both deputies were big. They were a pair of prairie farm-boys, the kind Hauser always hired. But they didn’t surprise Durston. He’d made his play, and just as he’d hoped it had come to this.
“Like I told you boys yesterday,” Durston said, “I want to see Hauser.”
“You’ll see him pretty damn quick,” one of the deputies said.
The other one didn’t say anything.
Leastways, not with his mouth, he didn’t.
Durston spit a tooth on the café floor, but that didn’t slow Hauser down any. The big man chewed heartily, the dull percussion of his powerful jaws offset by the precise sounds of knife and fork working over the rare steak that covered three-quarters of his breakfast plate. Not the kind of sound you’d expect to notice but there was really no way to avoid it—the café was empty except for the sheriff, his corn-fed deputies, and Durston down there on the floor.
“You want to talk to me so badly, well, here I am. Get to talking, Mr. Durston.”
“You’re a hard man to see.”
“Not so hard if a man’s willing to make a real effort.”
Durston had to grin at that, and though it felt like hell he was glad there were enough teeth left in his head to do the job.
“I’ll give you this, Durston. You don’t take no for an answer. Though I’m certain Dan Wagner wouldn’t think much of your method of gaining my attention.”
“Who the hell’s Dan Wagner?”
“He’s the man you tossed through that window.”
“Man?” Durston guffawed. “Crippled little shitstain is more like it.”
Hauser laughed, swallowing the sound with a bite of steak. Durston spit. There was more blood in the saliva than he liked. When he looked up, the square-headed German was staring down at him, or maybe Hauser was staring at that red spit-blot on the floor. Staring, forking Mexican eggs into his mouth. Quickly. Mechanically. Like he was feeding a furnace.
One thing was sure—this bastard didn’t let things slow him down much.
Neither would Durston.
He reached into his pocket, took hold of the rawhide pouch.
“Take this back,” Durston said.
“That’s what you want to see me about?”
“Then you just raised a bushel of hell for nothing.”
“No, Mr. Durston. You’re the one who needs to listen. You were paid for services rendered. You betrayed your partner. I strung up Pitch Dunnigan and watched him kick. That’s the story, entire>.”
“You know there’s more to it than that.”
“I’ve heard some empty-headed talk, but I’m not much interested in fairy tales. The way I see it, it’s simple: I gave you cash on the barrelhead; you sold out your friend. And that’s the end of it.”
“I know damn well good enough what I did. That’s not why I came—”
“But that’s all there is to it, Mr. Durston. The rest is embroidery. If you want to salve your guilt in superstitious wallow, that’s your choice. But if that’s the case you’re as much a fool as those cowards out there who ran from your miserable shadow.”
Durston stiffened. By God, he wouldn’t take this. To be talked to like a half-shingled idiot by this smug bastard, when Durston knew Hauser had done something. Exactly what, Durston wasn’t sure. But something… something had been done… and it had to be Hauser was the one who’d done it. Couldn’t be any other way.
Durston dumped the gold coins on the floor. Shiny tails, scarred heads. The sound of the sheriff’s knife working over the steak scraped against the silence, blade slicing against that china plate the same way the big German’s Bowie had worked over the coins.
Behind Durston came the inevitable sound of a twisting rope. Then the familiar stink washed over him, and—
“Put your money away, Mr. Durston.”
“By God, I won’t.”
“Believe me, you will.”
“But these damn coins. The way you marked them with that Bowie knife—”
“Maybe I wanted people to know what kind of a man they were bartering with.”
“And now those people are dead.”
“That’s what folks say, but folks say all sorts of things.”
“Yeah. Sometimes they even tell the goddamn truth.”
Hauser shook his head. “Look here—you got fifty gold pieces, Durston. Judas Iscariot got thirty pieces of silver. He ended up at the end of a rope the same way Pitch Dunnigan did, only it was his hand got him there… his hand and his brain. If you can’t stand the fit of your skin with that money in your pocket, that’s not my affair.”
Durston boiled. “My skin suits me just fine, dammit. This ain’t got nothing to do with me. That’s not why I’m here. I came for answers.”
“I believe you’ve had them.”
“And I believe I haven’t had a single goddamned one.”
Durston gained his feet. The corn-fed deputies were right there with him, but Durston didn’t care. Sheriff Hauser mopped up eggs with a tortilla, took a bite and chewed. He stared at Durston, not saying a word. As far as the sheriff was concerned, there were enough words hanging in the air already. And then Hauser took up his knife and fork, and the sound of those tools working across that china plate made it seem that the sheriff was cutting up his own words, and Durston’s.
That was when Durston realized that words didn’t matter.
The way he saw it, they never did.
There was a clutch of woods outside the town. That was where the deputies took Durston. They’d used their fists on him the first time around, so this time they used their feet—kicking his ribs with scuffed boots, going to work like kids bent on stoving in a busted-down chicken coop.
Durston tried hard not to squawk like a fox-gnawed hen, but there was only so much a man could stand. The grunts started low and deep in him, and by the time they reached his throat he knotted them into sharp whistling gasps, but those boys knew how to kick, and where, and they sighted down the spot where Durston’s complaints were born and they kept on working, clubbing muscle and bone with more of the same bound up in hard leather boots.
Soon enough screams crossed Durston’s lips. It went on like that for a while, until Durston didn’t have a single scream left in him. Finally, he curled into a whimpering ball. That was when the deputies stopped. But even minus punishment, Durston couldn’t keep from wincing. His guts were bucking something awful, threatening a foul surprise.
It came soon enough.
Durston’s bladder let loose, and he pissed himself as he lay there in the dirt.
“Well, hell,” one of the deputies said. “Look at him.”
They didn’t say more. The deputy who’d spoken tossed Durston’s rawhide pouch in the dirt, and then both men turned away and followed a path through the live oak grove. Gnarled shadows twisted across Durston from the trees above, and sunshine found him too, but it seemed that the shade fell in all the wrong places. The gunman couldn’t stop shivering.
It took awhile, but soon enough Durston realized it wasn’t the shade that made him shiver.
Was a sound up in the branches that did that little trick.
The groaning of that goddamn rope.
Durston pounded the ground with a fist, but he did not waste a single moment thinking of Pitch Dunnigan. No. He thought about Ed Hauser instead. Thought about that bastard sitting there, eating his goddamn steak while he lectured Durston on the workings of the world.
Talking about superstitious wallow and fairy tales and embroidery. Talking about Judas Iscariot and the fit of Durston’s skin, for God’s sake. As if the whole goddamn deal had boiled up from Durston’s own guts, as if that was where Pitch Dunnigan lived now that he’d drawn his last breath.
Durston nearly laughed, thinking of the things Hauser had said. He rolled over and stared up into the tree. Goddamn right. There was Pitch Dunnigan. Right there. Not squirming around in Durston’s guts. Not locked up in his brain. He was right there, hanging in that goddamn tree.
And maybe Durston was the only one who could see him, but that didn’t change the fact that the bastard was there, any more than it changed the fact that there was more to this deal than a strung-up specter. All Durston had to do to prove that was look down in the dirt, because there was the rawhide pouch. Right there. The gunman snatched it up, heard gold coins dancing inside. Those twenty-dollar coins were real enough, and Durston knew what they had done and what they could do, just as he knew the identity of the man who’d scarred them with a Bowie knife.
Goddamn right he knew. Durston untied the pouch, spilled coins into his hand. There was no denying them. They weren’t ghosts hanging in a tree. There was no explaining them away. They were right there, goddamn it. Right there in his goddamn hand.
It took until twilight, but Durston managed to get his two feet under him. That it took him some time to do the job was okay. It gave him a chance to think things through. And Durston did have some thinking to do, because he’d not be broken by another man’s fists or boots. He’d not be broken by the stink of his own piss fouling his clothes. Those things might nail down the corners on another kind of man, but they wouldn’t nail down the corners on a man like Durston.
No. Durston saw that clear, the same way he saw his life. With some things, you just had to tighten the cinches and ride on through. With some things, there wasn’t another way to play it, not if you wanted to get where you were going. So you boxed up those things the same way you boxed up the things you did in a whore’s ten-by-twelve room, and you locked them in there with the shadows where no one else could see them.
And, hell. Things go the way they go. You ride on through. You get where you’re going, and to hell with the rest of it.
That was Durston’s way.
Pitch Dunnigan twisted above him in the darkness.
Durston sat listening to the sound of the rope.
He waited as night came on.
When it closed around him, he was all done waiting.
The sheriff’s house was a good bit out of town, but so were the woods where Durston had taken his beating. It took him awhile to close the distance between the two, what with the shape he was in and the fact that Hauser’s deputies had taken both his horse and his pistol.
But by the time the moon hung high in the sky, Durston had a stolen mount and a dead man’s sawed-off shotgun, which were all the tools required to run the play he had in mind. Now all he needed was to get Ed Hauser at the other end of that street howitzer, and Durston didn’t think that was going to be a problem. The way he figured things, there was only one place a man like Hauser would be when the wolf’s hour rolled around.
Durston crept down a neat little path that forked away from the sheriff’s back door.
One-handing the sawed-off shotgun, he yanked open the door to Hauser’s outhouse.
The sheriff’s head jerked up, moonlight shining in his startled eyes.
“How in the hell—”
“Was easy to figure, really,” Durston said. “Steak, eggs, tortillas… a man eats a breakfast like that, he’s sure to end up on the shitter before the night is through.”
Hauser started to rise. “Listen here, you crazy bastard—”
Durston lashed out. The shotgun split one of Hauser’s cheeks like an overripe plum, and his ass found the shitshaft hole as quick as could be.
“I won’t stand for that kind of talk,” Durston said.
Hauser shook his head dizzily and didn’t say another word.
“I’ve come to finish our business,” Durston explained, reaching into his pocket for the rawhide pouch. “Now, you put out your paws and get them open. You’re taking back these coins, and then you’re going to goddamn well tell me if there’s anything else needs doing to square this deal.”
“There’s nothing I can tell you, Durston. And if you think any different you’re a damned fool—”
“I warned you once.” Durston said, and again he lashed out with the shotgun. But Hauser was ready for him this time. The sheriff’s big hands flew up and closed around the twin barrels just as they cracked against his skull. With the bag of gold coins clutched in one hand, Durston only had five fingers wrapped around the stolen weapon, and Hauser was a powerful man and a frightened man, and his big hands grabbed that gun for all he was worth and he wrestled it toward him, and—
Durston’s trigger-finger jerked.
Both shotgun barrels cut loose.
Muzzle-flash illuminated the outhouse for one brief moment.
In that moment, half of Hauser’s head disappeared. So did a good piece of the wall behind him. The sheriff’s body jerked bac
- Vincent Chong
- Norman Partridge
- 280 pages
- United States
- Out of Print