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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Excerpt: The Humans in the Walls and Other Stories by Eric James Stone

Sept 9, 2020
329 pages
Publisher: WordFire Press LLC
Genres: Anthologies, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction
From award-winning author Eric James Stone comes 
27 tales of science fiction and fantasy, ranging from hard SF to fairy tales, from humor to horror—including one never before published.

Supernatural beings, uploaded brains, psychic powers, space colonies, alternate timelines, aliens, superheroes, and giant AI starships that pay little attention to The Humans in the Walls.

Each story contains special commentary by the author.

Hugo Award-winning author!

“Eric James Stone is a genius.”—Brandon Sanderson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Mistborn

Excerpt: First story in the collection
P.R. Problems 
What annoys me the most about vampires and werewolves is their good P.R. Not that I want a return to the days of villagers with pitchforks and torches, but all the romantic attachment to predators who hunt and kill humans makes me sick. 

So when a cannibalistic serial killer started leaving the gnawed-on bones of his victims in public places, did the media label him a vampire? No. A werewolf? No. 

The press called him the "Grove City Ghoul." 
Those reporters had obviously never heard of fact-checking. 

First, we ghouls are carrion eaters, not predators -- hyenas, not wolves. Sure, we like to feast on human flesh, but we find bodies that are already dead and eat them, after they've had a chance to decay a bit. For some inexplicable reason, people seem to think that's more grotesque than the actual killing by vampires and werewolves. 

Second, a ghoul wouldn't just gnaw on the bones, he would eat them. Besides being nice and crunchy, they're a good source of calcium. That's why ghouls never suffer from osteoporosis. 

We ghouls just have bad P.R. And the serial killer wasn't helping. 

But what could I do about it? I worked as property manager for a high-rise apartment complex. Vampires might whine till daybreak about how their undead lives sucked, but it was vampires and werewolves who got the really cool jobs, like private detective or radio talk-show host. My crime-fighting experience was limited to stuff like catching the Nelson kids from apartment 4C spray-painting graffiti in the parking lot, while my radio experience consisted of listening, not talking. 

And that's what I was doing the morning after the police found the sixth victim's bones: listening to the news on the radio while I mopped the floor of the lobby. 

I was relieved when Olga Krasny from 8A came in the front door. Olga worked the night shift as a nurse, and from what I heard on the radio, all the serial killer's victims either worked or went to school at night. Each victim except the first had been taken the night after bones from the previous victim were found, which meant another victim would have been taken last night. 

"Hey, Mr. Ahsani," said Olga, "my kitchen faucet has the leaky again." 

If I were a vampire or werewolf, the moment would have been filled with sexual tension. Olga would be a slinky Swedish nurse rather than a stout Ukrainian one, and "my kitchen faucet has the leaky" would be a euphemism for passion and desire. 

"I'll come take a look when I finish here," I said. In this case, a leaky faucet was just a leaky faucet. With 48 apartments in the building, something was always breaking somewhere. Vampires and werewolves, I was fairly certain, didn't mop floors or fix faucets. 

To my surprise, Olga's kitchen faucet did not, in fact, have the leaky. But she wasn't trying to seduce me -- she was merely wrong about the source of the leak. The water was coming through the wall under the sink from the kitchen of apartment 8B. 

I knocked on the door of 8B and waited for Harvey Tanner to respond. Harvey seemed like a nice, quiet young man -- which was how the neighbors of serial killers inevitably described them on TV after they were arrested. 

That didn't mean anything, of course. My neighbors would probably describe me the same way, and I had never killed anyone. 

I knocked a couple more times, but there was still no answer. Under the lease agreement, an ongoing water leak was sufficient reason for me to use my master key and enter without the renter's permission. So I did. 

As I got to the kitchen, I could smell the faint but tasty aroma of rotting human flesh. I might not have enhanced senses like a vampire or werewolf, but my ghoulish nose was pretty good at sniffing out potential food. 
I wondered for a moment if maybe Harvey had died somehow, but then I remembered I had seen him yesterday, and what I smelled was more decayed than would happen in less than 24 hours. 

I walked over to the sink and opened the cupboard doors so I could access the water shutoff valve. I turned off the water to stop the leak, and that's when I spotted the scraps on the floor -- 3 strips about an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide, slightly rounded like cheese that had been through a grater. 

I sniffed at the scraps. 

They were not cheese, but they were quite tasty. 

Maybe Harvey had accidentally grated bits of himself while cooking dinner, but I had my doubts. Unfortunately, I didn't think about the fact that those scraps might be evidence until after I ate them. 

I burped and considered what to do next. I couldn't call the police without any evidence, so I decided to see if Harvey had any skeletons in his closet. Literally. 
All the apartments in the building have two bedrooms. Harvey lived alone, so I wondered what he used the extra bedroom for. I opened the door. 

The room's windows were covered so that no light came in from outside. I flicked the light switch and was startled to see a young woman, gagged and tied to a folding metal chair in the middle of the room. 

She swung her head up to look at me, her eyes wild with panic. 

Then someone grabbed me from behind and shoved a chemical-smelling cloth over my mouth and nose. 

One of the more ridiculous myths about ghouls is that we are undead creatures. Just because we hang out around graveyards a lot doesn't mean we're undead. We're merely going where the food is. Would you assume someone was Italian just because he hung out around a pizza parlor? 

Of course, in this case, the disadvantage of not being undead was that after struggling to breathe, I sank into unconsciousness. 

When I came to, I found myself in the same room, sitting on a chair. A piece of towel had been stuffed into my mouth, held in place by more cloth tied around my head, but I had to work hard to keep myself from gagging on the gag. My wrists were bound tightly together behind the back of the chair, and my feet were tied quite thoroughly to the bottom. 

The young woman was watching me from her chair. It would be hard for me to free myself without showing my true nature, and I was afraid that might freak her out. On the other hand, she had been kidnapped by a serial killer, so how much more freaked out could she get? 

I want to make it clear that just because I can transform myself into a hyena does not mean I am a "were-hyena." We ghouls have a long and proud tradition of being able to morph into hyenas. (You can look that up on Wikipedia, although the article is inaccurate in many other respects.) And unlike lycanthropes, we're not infectious. I really don't understand what the werewolves have to be proud about. Anyone can become a werewolf, just by being bitten by one. Essentially, lycanthropy spreads like rabies. We ghouls, on the other hand, reproduce in the normal human fashion. My family can trace its lineage back to the ancient Persian Empire. 

In all modesty, though, the ability to become a hyena isn't very impressive. It's useful for feeding, because those hyena jaws are strong enough to bite through bone, but hyenas really don't get a lot of respect. Take The Lion King, for example: the hyenas don't even get to be the real villains, merely minions for an evil lion. Thus Hollywood continues to perpetuate the stereotype that carrion eaters are of lower status than predators. 

After a few minutes of struggling with my ropes, I decided that transforming was my only option. I could only hope that if the young woman told anyone about my ability, they would attribute her story to hysteria. 

I shape-shifted into my hyena form. Since it was smaller than my human form, the ropes loosened as I transformed. As soon as I was free, I changed back to human. 

From behind her gag, the young woman made a half-choking cough of incredulity. 

I knelt by her chair and set to work untying her. "Don't worry, I'll get you out of here." 
Before I finished, the door opened. I rose to my feet and turned to find Harvey pointing a gun at me. 

If there was one thing that the P.R. about vampires and werewolves was not overhyping, it was their magical resistance to harm. I envied that. It wouldn't take a wooden stake through the heart or a silver bullet to kill me: plain old lead bullets would do the trick. I raised my hands in surrender. 

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ahsani," Harvey said. "But I couldn't have you running to the police. People might get the wrong impression." 

"People already have the wrong impression," I said. "They're calling you a ghoul when you're actually a serial killer. It's very bad P.R. for--" 

"I'm a vampire hunter, not a serial killer," said Harvey, still pointing the gun at me. 

"What?" I said. 

He motioned with his gun toward the girl. "Go ahead, check her pulse." 

I put my fingers to her throat. There was no heartbeat, and her skin felt cool to the touch. "You really are a vampire," I said. 
She glared at me. "So what? You're a--" 

I stuffed the gag back into her mouth. "So why haven't you killed her yet?" I said as I backed away from her, which took me closer to Harvey and the door. 

"I don't want the meat to go bad," he said. 

"It's much better when you slice it off fresh." 

I didn't bother to express my disagreement verbally. There's no accounting for taste. 

"Fortunately," he said, "vampires stay alive a lot longer than humans after you start cutting chunks off them." 

"How do they taste?" I asked. 

He smiled. "Much better than chicken." 

For a moment, as I stood next to Harvey and we both looked at the vampire, I thought he and I could come to a culinary arrangement. I could eat the bones for him, at the very least. I guess the serial killer mentality made him taunt the police by leaving the bones lying around for people to find, but it really wasn't very smart. 

However, before I could say anything, he added, "Vampire flesh isn't really human anymore, so it's not like I'm a ghoul." 

Being looked down on by a serial killer was the straw that broke this ghoul's back. In one smooth motion I transformed my head into my hyena form and tore out Harvey's throat. 
Hey, we may not be hunters, but that doesn't mean we're not dangerous when provoked. 

After I untied her, the vampire and I looked down at Harvey's body. 

"I suppose I should call the police or something," I said, "and let them know the serial killer is dead." 

"Are you kidding?" said the vampire. "Let's just leave him and get out of here." 

If I left the body for a few days, sealed up in this room, it would get nice and ripe. And unlike my usual food, it wouldn't taste of formaldehyde. My mouth watered just imagining the meal. 

"Let's go," I said. 

As we got to the living room, she grabbed my hand and pulled me close. My heart beat faster. 

"I've heard that werewolves are the greatest lovers in the world," she said. 

I was about to express my annoyance at yet another example of good werewolf P.R. when I realized what she was implying. And despite being so dumb she couldn't tell a hyena from a wolf, she was very good-looking. "Yes," I said as I embraced her. "Yes, we are."

About the author:
Eric James Stone is a past Nebula Award winner and Hugo Award Nominee. Over fifty of his short stories have appeared in venues such as Year’s Best SF, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and even the scientific journal Nature. His debut novel, the science fiction thriller Unforgettable, published by Baen Books, has been optioned by Hollywood multiple times. In 2003 he attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, and his first publication came the following year in the Writers of the Future anthology, which he credits with jump-starting his writing career. He also attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Eric spent five years as an assistant editor for the online magazine Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. 

Eric lives in Utah, where he works a day job as a systems administrator and web programmer. He is married to award-winning author Darci Stone.

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