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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Cults of Death and Madness (The Book of Ancient Evil, Book 1) by John Hass + excerpt

I walked a fine line with Cults of Death and Madness, between keeping everything accurate from a historical perspective, and with making stuff up to conveniently suit the story. Mostly I kept to the facts where I could find them.

Some events take place in real places of late 1800’s India, such as Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hyderabad. I hope any reader who lives in these places or just knows better will forgive any inconsistencies. Keep in mind this is an alternate reality and will have differences from the India of our own world. The city of Bandagar within Hyderabad, for example, is as fictional as the story itself.

Cults of Death and Madness is a prequel to my novelette Damned Voyage which appeared in Writers of the Future volume 35. One reader of that story suggested I was guilty of giving in to the “great white saviour” character where Shaw and Singh’s relationship was concerned. I have done my best to address that in this prequel while still keeping the elements of racism and white privilege from that time period historically accurate. To this end I have had friends of Indian background review the story and provide feedback. In the end it is up to you, the reader, to say if it’s been handled well.

Cults of Death and Madness (The Book of Ancient Evil, Book 1)
by John Hass
December 15, 2021
Genres: Horror, Paranormal Fantasy
WordFire Press
Trade paperback ISBN 978-1-68057-232-2
Ebook ISBN 978-1-68057-233-9
Hardcover ISBN 978-1-68057-234-6
336 pages
A hideous idol. An ancient slumbering evil. A murderous cult.

1878—Doctor Archibald Shaw arrives in India with lofty intentions. He wants to make a difference in the world. As a young doctor and new officer in Her Majesty’s British army, he wants nothing more than to help the local people while distinguishing himself in Queen Victoria’s foreign service.

In short order, though, Shaw finds his basic concept of the world turned upside down. It begins with an ugly idol, and an evil from the dawn of time waiting to return to this world. This elder god still sleeps…but fitfully, and a cult long thought destroyed has come back to awaken it. They will kill anyone who gets in their way.

Everything Shaw once believed true dissolves around him, and he grasps at straws to keep his own sanity—including the desperate friendship of one young orphan boy. Will it be enough to keep him alive?

Shaw begins to realize that the fate of all humanity rests in his hands.

Chapter 1
Bombay, India – April 10th, 1878

Dear Mother,

The HMS Agincourt is close to completing its journey, bringing me across the no man’s land—or ocean as it were—between England and India, old life and new. Incredible to think a mere decade ago this voyage would have taken months rather than weeks. There is surely no better symbol of modern man’s ingenuity than the Suez Canal—I do know I’ve gone on at length about that subject earlier so shall curb my enthusiasm accordingly.

Currently I stand on deck watching the shores of India draw closer. In less than an hour I shall disembark in Bombay and begin this first great adventure of a lifetime, though I admit to a certain amount of trepidation mixed with the excitement. The usual unease which comes from facing the unfamiliar. I know little of this country other than what is reported in the papers, and from the boy’s adventure stories I devoured as a child. In truth I question the accuracy of both and must allow my own experiences to inform me.

Leaving London and all I’ve ever known was the first great step on this journey but walking down that ramp onto foreign soil will be the greater. There is a finality in the action, an emphasis on the fact that home is far away and it shall be years before I see England again. When I do I suppose the shores on that end will have become the foreign ones.

An interesting thought, comforting somehow.

In any case, everything has led to this point. Medical school. My officer’s commission. Uncle Freddy’s invitation. In short order I can begin serving God, queen and country in my station as doctor. This is where I shall make my mark in life and distinguish myself. I feel that.

I’d best close this letter, Mother, if I hope for it to make the return voyage aboard the Agincourt. Tomorrow I shall start a new correspondence along with my new life. Which seems most appropriate.

I miss you greatly, Mother.

Your son,

Doctor Archibald Shaw


With a deep inhale of humid air Shaw disembarked from the ship, hot Indian sun beating down though it had barely begun its journey into the sky. Early morning and the day held a promise of great heat and greater mugginess.

A single bead of sweat—the first of many--rolled down one side of his face.

On the dock the thick traffic of people going about their regular business buffeted him on all sides, like a ship on the ocean. All around they spoke in a rapid dialect of which he couldn’t understand more than a word or two, and that only while focussing intently.

Deep breaths, he counselled. Keep taking deep breaths.

The salty tang of sea water and stronger smells of fish from nearby market vendors filled his nose. Women passing, carrying the catches of the day in huge bowls and baskets balanced on their heads brought the smells that much closer.

It was a near claustrophobic experience.

With one brisk, semi-conscious motion Shaw smoothed his uniform jacket, forcing those fruitless emotions away with the same movement. A train travelled from here to his final destination in Hyderabad province—or so he’d been told before departing England—but was at a loss on how best to find it. Signs should have indicated a direction, or would have back in London at least. Following a group of like-minded people headed in the same direction was also out, with people moving in every possible direction.

“Should have asked on the ship.”

Now he would need to interrupt one of the people rushing past, and hope someone could give directions. A second problem presented itself, pushing the first aside: how exactly was he to retrieve his luggage and transport the heavy trunk from ship to train?

Fish out of water, that inner voice whispered. Fish out of water.

It was an anxious reflex from the uncomfortable fact of not knowing what came next, or even the best way to discover those next steps. It hadn’t occurred to him to ask about these details in his correspondence with Uncle Freddy and now—

“Shaw?” A voice called from the sea of people. “Doctor Shaw?”

A man, ten years or so senior to his own twenty-seven, appeared from the crowd as if he’d always been there, navigating without any apparent effort. He was tall, thin and wore the same blue doctor’s uniform Shaw had dressed in that morning. Only where Shaw wore the full uniform, including helmet, sabre and sidearm Tranter revolver, this man wore none of those fixtures and stood much more natural and at ease.

No doubt Shaw presented a picture of the far too eager, green recruit, which was all true. There was little point denying the lack of experience, or that he was indeed eager to make his mark serving as doctor in her majesty’s foreign army. When Uncle Freddy had offered the position to replace a doctor at the outpost he commanded Shaw had jumped at the chance. Being a new doctor, and new officer to boot, meant there wouldn’t be a lot of other opportunities coming along. This was better than anything that could honestly be expected.

“Yes, I’m Archibald Shaw.”

The man held out a hand, lop-sided grin splitting his craggy features. It was obvious he’d been in the country for some time, judging by his tanned skin and ease with which he weathered the passing mob. Even wearing his army uniform among all the dhotis and saris didn’t seem out of place. Meanwhile Shaw felt as if a shining beacon were on him.

He shook the man’s hand, returning the smile.

“Lawrence Lassiter,” the man said. “Don’t mind the alliteration. My mum was a fan of the romances, thought it would make me into some sort of latter-day Mr. Darcy. I’m afraid she was a tad disappointed to find I was bereft of any suave flair. Poor woman had to settle for her son being just a doctor. Crushing disappointment, I’m sure.”

Shaw’s head swam at the amount of information in that one phrase and struggled for some reply. “You’re… from the base?”

“Well, we call it an outpost, though I’ve heard some of the newer lads call it a station. Take your pick. I suppose base would work as well if you could get others to adopt the naming.”


“To answer the question though, yes, I am from the outpost. A doctor like yourself, in case the uniform wasn’t a giveaway. The commander himself asked me to come meet you.”

“Unc—?” Shaw broke off, realizing by Lassiter’s raised eyebrows it was too late.

“Ah, so Commander Armstrong is your uncle then?”

Shaw gritted his teeth but nodded. Uncle Freddy had stressed in his final letter against letting it be known any relationship existed between them, but there was no sense denying it now. He’d violated that in his first ten minutes off the ship.

“Not an actual uncle. More an honorary title for a family friend. He and my father grew up together.”

“Ah, I have a couple of those myself. Sadly none that were able to lend much of a hand in life. Well, your secret is safe with me. It does explain why a young doctor and new officer, with limited experience as either, was given a position here.”

A protest perched on Shaw’s tongue but he swallowed it knowing Lassiter was correct. He had to wonder on the man’s ability to guard that secret though. It appeared every thought which popped into his head came out his mouth… Then again, Shaw could hardly throw stones on that matter himself just now.

“No need to look so glum. I’ve got nothing against nepotism, providing the person being nepotized can do the job.” Lassiter gave a wink. “I’m assuming you’ve actually had medical training?”

“Of course!” Shaw glared.

“Well then, there we go.” Lassiter let loose a braying laugh, closer to donkey than human. It matched his gregarious personality.

Shaw relaxed again, even managing a smile in response. He’d been drawn in by Lassiter’s effortless camaraderie and without realizing had been put at ease among the crowds and unfamiliar surroundings.

Lassiter pulled out a watch, glanced down and returned it to his pocket. “Plenty of time to get to our train, but still, best be off.”

Shaw’s eyes darted toward the top of the ramp which he’d so descended minutes ago. The ship’s stacks billowed clouds of steam which dissipated in seconds.

“Oh, your luggage will find its way to the train as if by magic. No need to worry about that, Archie.”

Shaw opened his mouth to protest the use of so odious a nickname, then noticed Lassiter’s teasing grin. This was the sort of man who pushed a point to see if he could get a rise out of someone. Not through any malice or ill-will, but a joker nonetheless. Mischievous. Years of experience in boarding schools told Shaw the usual way to deal with a character such as Lawrence Lassiter was to simply ignore him, but given he was embarking on a new life he threw caution to the wind.

“I want to thank you for meeting me here. Larry.”

“Larry is it?” Lassiter let out another braying guffaw and clapped him on the back. “Oh, we’ll get along just fine I think. Come on now, this way to the train.”

Lassiter led a route through the crowd with ease, casting occasional glances back to make sure Shaw hadn’t been lost in the sea of people. Every couple of minutes he would beckon to Shaw with his right hand, the left casually inside his jacket pocket.

How could this man be so comfortable? Lining either side of the street were vendors selling fruit, nuts and spices. Animals, including one unhurried cow, wandered among the pedestrians. Newspaper distributors with piles eight feet high on their bicycles pushed through, ringing bells to clear their path.

“Just kidding on that magic,” Lassiter turned and continued backward a few steps while others detoured around him. “I tipped a few of the local lads to get your belongings from ship to train.”

Shaw’s first reaction was to ask about the trustworthiness of these lads but didn’t want to sound like every other non-Indian he’d read comments from in the papers—or those he’d spoken with on ship for that matter.

“Don’t worry,” Lassiter said with another wink, as if reading his thoughts. “They don’t get paid until the luggage arrives in one piece.” Then the man turned and was off again, speaking casually over one shoulder. “A quick run down, Shaw. We operate one of the more modest hospitals in India, but quite vital to the Hyderabad area. Six doctors, plus our attendant staff. Somewhat off the beaten track but a good place to be most of the time.”

“Most of the time?”

Lassiter waved one hand as if the thought were a fly buzzing his face, not even breaking stride to look back. Meanwhile Shaw struggled to keep up without bumping people or poking them with his scabbard, weaving around those who didn’t swerve first.

Why had he been in such a hurry to disembark? The voyage by ship had been pleasant enough, relaxing, but most of the journey across he’d been anxious for it to be done, to get to the final destination. Now eagerness had transformed to unease. This world was so different, so busy and bustling, about as… well, foreign as things could get.

“No,” he muttered, pushing the thought aside.

Comfort only led to complacency, and there was no progress when one was complacent. That was a state of mind for later years, seated by a fire to pen his memoirs. Wasn’t change one of the reasons he’d come to India? To force himself out of complacency and the mundane. Too easy back home to rely on others for support. No. Better to embrace this discomfort, take the press of unfamiliar people, the physical closeness of those he didn’t know, and the utter strangeness and unfamiliarity of his surroundings. It was a reality of this new life and he would need some time to get used to it.

Still, at the moment, it felt as though he trailed his father at the zoo, afraid to lose sight of the man… Not that his father had ever taken him to the zoo or anywhere else. A damp sweat broke out under the uniform, increasing that discomfort he’d resolved to embrace.

Lassiter slowed.

“Is it always like this?” Shaw gasped, forcing himself to catch up.

“Nah.” Lassiter looked around. “You’re lucky you arrived on a slow day.” Another laugh and he turned to the route once more.

With a deep sigh Shaw pushed onward, wondering how much Lassiter was pulling his leg.

About the author:
John Haas is a Canadian author, born and raised in Montreal before moving to Calgary, where he lived for twelve wonderful years. Now he lives in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, but still misses seeing those Rocky Mountains in the distance.

John has been writing for most of his life, but only became serious about being published in the last decade or so. In that time, he has published twenty short stories in various venues, including Writers of the Future volume 35. His first three novels have also been released—The Reluctant Barbarian (2017), The Wayward Spider (2019) and The Unavoidable Quests (2020), a fun and humorous fantasy trilogy.

Currently he is hard at work on the next novel of Shaw and Singh’s struggles against the forces of darkness. His goal is to become a full-time writer (rich and famous would be nice too, but not the main goal).

He lives with his two wonderful sons who continue to give him motivation, support and time to write.

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