[Note: This short piece originally appeared in Pendragon (now defunct) but it’s been almost 8 years since it saw print, so I thought I’d throw it up here.]

“Cups! Get your cups here! I’ve got flagons, tankards, skins, and steins! Cups! Get your cups here!”

The old man pushed his cart down the cobblestoned street, his wares clinking and banging together. The sun was just dipping below the city skyline, long and ominous shadows reaching like grasping fingers along the walls and ground.

He stopped outside a tavern, the sign swinging back and forth declaring its name as The Knight of the Burning Pestle. A few younger folk were lounging outside, pipes clutched in teeth. The mayor, in his infinite wisdom, had recently declared smoking inside verboten, citing fears of fires. Most people thought it was because he couldn’t stand the smell of pipe smoke, while he did enjoy taking in the local color at every opportunity.

“What’s that you’ve got there?”  one the smokers asked, pointing to the canvas that covered a number of the cup-maker’s wares.  Given the weapons they carried and the clothes they wore, the old man took them to be adventurers or mercenaries. Wasn’t much difference between the two when you got down  to it.

The old man smiled, resting against the handles of the cart. It was obvious he’d been a large man once in life, and his frame still possessed a large portion of that strength. “Oh, just a few trifles,” he said. 

He pulled aside the cover, revealing a variety of goblets. Each was unique in their grotesquerie, stylized as a severed head, but with gemstones where the eyes were to be. In most cases the lower jaw was missing, having been worked into the base of the drinking vessel.

“You made these yourself?” a woman asked. From her robes and the staff she carried, the old man marked her as a mage.

He nodded. “Took me a long time to get it right, too. Skulls make for a piss-poor vessel you see. All those holes. It’s not just where the eyes were either. There’s the ear holes, the place where the nose used to be, and you have to seal the bottom part neatly too, otherwise all the wine runs out. I found the trick is using something to seal all those little holes. Resin works pretty well, and I found a way to make it stand up to alcohol as well.”

“What? You expect us to believe that those are actual skulls? Ha!” the biggest of the group laughed. His hand rested on a massive broad sword, and his beard was tangled with bits of food and bone. “If that were true, old man, I’d have you killed for a murderer or worse.” He scratched at his beard. “Of course, you could just be a graverobber. That’s almost as bad.”

The old man shook his head. “Oh no, I’ve acquired all of these over the years from the bodies of those that have crossed me,” he laughed. “Ever heard the tale of King Latimer the Friendless?”

A slender man, a lute slung on his back, nodded slowly. “I heard he abdicated his throne ten years ago. There’s rumors he went away, looking to perfect a secret technique and vowing to return to his kingdom when he felt the time was right. Honestly, we’re better off without him. He was a tyrant and a despot of the worst sort.”

The old man grinned, drawing a silver-runed axe from under the cart. “Friendless? Hmm. I suppose. But I did finally figure out how to drink wine from my enemies’ skull, and let me tell you, there are few things as sweet as that.”

The screams that rose that night heralded the return of King Latimer, and that night he earned the new appellation of Skulldrinker, his legend and his infamy echoing down the centuries. 

The Blazing Chief by [Matt Spencer]
Cover to The Blazing Chief

Matt Spencer wraps up his Descembine Trilogy in spectacular fashion, wrapping up the trials and tribulations of Rob Coscan, Sally Wildfire, Sheldon and the rest.

The first part is a bit bloated and drags in places, with the feeling that Spencer had so much he wanted to cram into the book that I’m a little afraid to see what was left on the proverbial cutting room floor. The worldbuilding and detail is highly original, eschewing the typical fantasy standards of elves and dwarves, or their urban equivalents in ghosts and werewolves and vampires. The downside to the originality is that at times stumbles with weaving the backstory into the narrative. If a writer says “vampire” or “werewolf” or “zombie”, you’e got a pretty good idea as to what to expect. But Crimbone? Or Spirelight? It’s going to take a bit to get into it. As a result, there are a number of infodumps that come across as intrusive and overwhelming and wishing Spencer would get back to the action.

And that is where he truly shines – when he cuts loose and lets the action (and blood, and gore) flow. There’s a Robert Howard-esque feel to the violence, less of following each sword stroke and parry, and more for a visceral sense of action and motion. And yes, I’m going to admit a certain bias to that. Some of the gore and viscera at times borders on the gratuitous, as if Spencer is letting out his inner ‘80s splatterpunk self, but it fits with his barbarian type characters – grinning through a veil of blood from their foes.

Spencer also has a more clear-eyed view of his characters this time, the fact that what is viewed as typical heroic (or even superheroic) actions can well be viewed as sociopathic behavior by others, and how some people can be the shining knight and the bloodied berserker all rolled into one. As a result, some of the villains feel like they walked straight out of a death metal album given how how black and gore soaked they can get (looking at you Balthazar).

This is definitely fantasy through a dark lens, at times bleak and hopeless, but it never (in my opinion) goes full grimdark. There are still innocents in this world, and the sides aren’t exactly black on black and at most, the heroes stay a light grey throughout, even when they find themselves at odds with each other.

If you are looking for a fantasy trilogy that’s going to kick you in your teeth, then yeah, this is what you’re looking for.

You can grab a copy at Amazon.

4 poems… by me?

Yeah, I guess that did happen.

Punk Noir Magazine

Matthew X. Gomez has previously appeared in SWITCHBLADE, PULP MODERN, GRIMDARK and ECONOCLASH Review. His first collection of short fiction “God in Black Iron and Other Stories” was released last year. The last poem he had published was twenty years ago in a college newspaper. He lives in Maryland with his wife, two kids, and three cats.

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New from Down & Out Books is ECR #7.

EconoClash Review #7 edited by J.D. Graves

Contains my short story “Death and the Mountain.” What happens when friends find themselves on opposite sides of a war? What happens when both happen to be the children of Gods? What happens when the burden of eternity proves too much?

Anyway, really happy that this story that I wrote back in the beforetime of 2019 gets to see the light of day.

Go on, treat yourself to a Quality Cheap Thrill.

https://downandoutbooks.com/2021/04/16/new-from-down-out-books-econoclash-review-7-edited-by-j-d-graves/

God in Black Iron: A Review

Posted: October 6, 2020 in Uncategorized

Cameron gives his very biased opinion on “God in Black Iron and Other Stories.”

Mangled Latin

Look, let’s get one thing clear here. There’s no way I can be an impartial reviewer for this book. Matt Gomez is a longtime personal friend, and I’ve seen every one of these stories in their infancies, toddlerhoods, adolescences, and now in their full adult statuses. I’ve pushed and pulled at some of them because they were good but could have been better, marveled at how good they were even in rough drafts, and provided as much positive critical feedback as I thought I could do. For this to be anything other than a five-star review pushing my friend’s book like I’m trying to get Jimmy hooked on caps it would take an Act of Congress and a future of lifetime imprisonment. Even then I’d probably say “Fuck the police” and rate this thing five stars, trusting that he’d send me a file in a cake so that I could…

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Gabriel Hart‘s debut book “VIRGINS IN REVERSE & THE INTRUSION” contains two novellas united by main characters and a general theme of dissolution and debauchery, a slow dive into altered perceptions driven by drink and loss and lack of purpose.

The narration is raw and unforgiving and that in itself could be off putting to some, but it is one of the strengths of the narration that Hart keeps the lens of the action centered on Caleb. In a lot of ways it reads as an ode to Generation X cynicism, and wouldn’t be out of place next to Bret Easton Ellis’ “LESS THAN ZERO” or Douglas Coupland’s “GENERATION X” even as it comes a few decades later than both. It’s a book where the narrator lets the actions of others drive him, or he lets himself be driven by his own addictions. This isn’t a love letter to alcohol, but nor is it truly a warning, as there are echoes of Kerouac in Caleb’s listless drifting, and yeah, a bit of Bukowski as well.

The second half especially reads as a meditation on the connection between alcoholism and spiritual possession, and what does it mean when someone gets black out drunk. Are they truly no longer in control of their actions? Have they let some other entity inside having abdicated all control? Or are they just letting their inner asshole out? Anyway, this isn’t escapism fiction, but rather a look at everyday grime and grind of life when you’re down and out.

Early review from Matt Spencer. TL;DR? “Overall, if you want some fast, fun short-fiction with sharp teeth and some true gems in the mix, look no further.”

Musings of a Mad Bard

Matthew X Gomez’s literary heart and soul is in good ol’ fashioned rollicking pulp fiction, or more accurately its modern evolution New Pulp, a literary movement he’s more than lent his hand in codifying and legitimizing in his stint as an influential magazine editor. His own aptitude, budding craftsmanship/artistry, and infectious enthusiasm for the form are all on full display in these twenty-two tales. He knows the ins and outs of what makes the form tick at its essence. There’s not a dull entry in this collection of tales, which run the gamut from cyberpunk, paranormal noir, sword and sorcery, and in at least two cases, that last one’s crueler, tougher, more defiant and unpredictable younger brother Grimdark fantasy. There were also more than a few tales that stood out as true showcases of what Gomez has to offer, some of which genuinely caught fire for me in, y’know, that…

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Cover for “God in Black Iron and Other Stories” out September 29th

Wow, it really has been a while since I’ve knocked the dust off this place, hasn’t it? Well, truth to tell, I’ve not had much to share, and I’ve not been writing nearly as much as I might want to be. Not necessarily due to lack of time, but well… 2020 has been a drain, all right? I do have a few pieces still coming out this year (two next month!) and a few more slated next year, so it’s not like I’ve completely dropped off the indie lit circuit. The stories included have previously appeared in such venues as PULP MODERN, ECONOCLASH REVIEW, SWITCHBLADE, and STORYHACK.

Interior illustration by Ran Scott for “A Long Journey’s End”

Anyway, it’s not all a loss as I finally got around to putting together a collection of previously published short fiction, pulled some older pieces I’ve published in this space, and included a piece that never saw the light of day (outside a few editors’ slush piles). It’s a pretty broad selection of speculative fiction with some cyberpunk/noir, sword-and-sorcery, Weird Western, steampunk, and yeah a sprinkle of urban fantasy. All told, it’s twenty short stories of varying lengths and I’m pretty happy with how it’s coming together.

The cover is by Luke Spooner/Carrion House who did the covers of Broadswords and Blasters and Ran Scott was kind enough to lend his talents for a few interior illustrations.

Digital comes out September 29th (you can preorder below) with hard copy to happen once I finish these last few edits and get Amazon to play nice with the upload (figure close to the 29th as well). Any word of mouth would be deeply appreciated as well.

Right, this week’s challenge. Write a 1,000 word story (give or take). Parameters? Go here and get four elements to include in your story. You get one week to write it, post it at your online space and drop a link in the comments. Easy right? Yeah. Genre doesn’t matter.

So get to writing!

My answer to the challenge I posted last week. I ended up with Hardboiled Space Opera, and this is the kind of thing I came up with. Over the wod limit and hardly my best work, but its also the most I’ve written recently, so there’s that I guess.

Malachi sat in the spaceport bar of Copernicus Station, a half-filled glass of chilled vodka in front of him. His smart glasses told him it was “morning,” but that didn’t mean much in a stable orbit around a gas giant being mined for hydrogen and helium. He blinked when his commlink chirped, and his virtual assistant popped up in front of him, a diminutive hologram named Clara who perched herself on the edge of the bar. She’d opted to go for the standard secretary look this morning, hair in a bun, horn rimmed glasses, skirt falling exactly at mid-thigh, the first few buttons on her blouse undone. He’d tried to adjust the settings so that she would appear the same every time, but either they were buried so far down in the system settings as to be impenetrable or she’d deliberately moved them to somewhere else in her operating system.

“Drinking this early?” Clara asked, peering at Malachi’s glass over her glasses.

“Early?” Malachi asked. “I’ve been up for… what,” he checked his heads-up display, “four hours already. It’s a mid-day aperitif.”

The bartender, a four-armed, vermilion skinned Karaxxian looked over at in his direction, but Malachi waved him off. He’d have to remember he was in a public space and pitch his voice accordingly given only he could see Clara and her voice was being piped directly to the subcutaneous speaker implanted behind his ear.

Clara sniffed. “If it weren’t for me, you’d be nothing more than a dissolute degenerate.”

Malachi regretted getting her the thesaurus upgrade, and not for the first time. “Yeah, yeah. So are you just going to bust my balls for having a drink?”

“Not at all. You have a client.”

Malachi blinked. “You couldn’t have led with that? So what’s the case?”

“Missing person. Client says she’s looking for her daughter.”

Malachi wrinkled his nose. “Isn’t that what station security is for?”

“According to her, she already went to them. They’re processing but… well, you know how it is,” she replied.

“Yeah, yeah.” He finished his drink. “Send me the details.

“Adriana Baraxan. Human. States that she is a pilot for an independent cargo hauler.”

“So a smuggler,” Malachi interjected. It wasn’t a judgement statement, only an observation.

“Probably,” Clara conceded.

“What does she want?”

“She didn’t state a reason. Says she’s only willing to discuss the case in detail in person. Maybe she doesn’t trust the station’s network security.”

“Huh.” Malachi scratched at the stubble on his chin. “So she’s smart. Okay. Let’s go see what she wants. Did she give a location?”

A map popped up on his overhead. He recognized it as leading to a green space with a great view of the planet they were orbiting. “Interesting. Public space, but with enough space to make it hard for someone to eavesdrop. Seems our client knows what she’s about.” Malachi nodded in professional approval. “When did she want to meet?”

“Fifteen minutes from now.”

Malachi swore under his breath. He’d have preferred a bit more time. Time to go back to his one room square of an apartment and change his clothes at least, if not take an actual shower. No joy there though. Instead, he tapped his device against the contact pad at the bar and tipped his bartender before stepping out into the thoroughfare outside. The park was a short walk away, easy to get to without having to hop on the maglev. The stations’ gravity was enough to keep him balanced, but he’d grown up on a terrestrial world. Looking up to see the void of space and the looming giant of the planet instead of blue sky always sent a shudder down his spine.

He arrived at the park with about five minutes to spare.

“So where’s the client?” he asked.

“Ah, of course. Here is her location.” A golden halo appeared over a woman sitting on a bench. Malachi approached from an angle where he would be clearly visible to her as he walked up, hands buried in his pockets. The woman had the pale, nearly translucent skin of someone who spent all her time in her space. He could tell, even though she was sitting down at the moment, that she’d be taller than him if she stood up, and her body would have the elongated look of a person unaccustomed to normal gravity. She wore simple enough clothing, black flight jacket over a blue high-necked shirt, black flight pants. She wore her dark hair close cropped and held a tablet on her lap, scrolling through… something. New feed maybe. Contract list more likely, if she was what she said she was.

“Captain Baraxan?” Malachi didn’t offer to shake hands.

“Ahh. You must be the detective. Malachi, isn’t it?” She turned off the screen on her tablet and stood up. Like he’d guessed, he had to stare up a bit to meet her eyes. “Thank you for meeting with me.”

“Private investigator,” he corrected her. “What can I help you with?”

She flipped the tablet so that it was facing him. She touched the screen and an image popped up of an older man, graying temples, sagging jowls. One of his eyes was brown and the other a brass colored orb. “One of my partners has gone missing. I was able to track him down this far, but, well, the man has gone to ground. He owes me a considerable sum of money and I would like to have a rather involved discussion with him about it.”

Malachi snorted. “I’m sure you would. What’s his name?”

“Harrod.”

“Just Harrod?”

“We did business. That’s all. So do you think you can find him?”

“Clara?” Malachi asked, tapping his implant.

“Already on it boss.”

“Who’s Clara?” Baraxan asked.

“My not-so-silent partner,” Malachi replied.  “She helps with the leg work.”

Baraxan frowned. “Is that the woman I spoke to earlier?”

“Yeah, let’s go with that,” Malachi replied.

They stood, awkwardly, in the park, watching the space craft silently dock and depart as they drifted in high orbit above the swirling clouds of the giant planet planet below. Malachi had to repress the everyday panic of knowing that only a thin amount of material separate him from the vacuum of space, and that if any part of the delicate system failed, all he would have to look forward to was an agonizing death by asphyxiation as the oxygen levels depleted on the station.

“Okay, boss, I’ve got a hit on some of the public cameras,” Clara piped in his ear. “But you’re not going to like it.”

“Yeah?”

“He’s down in Yellow Sector.”

Malachi bit back a curse. “Any idea when he got on the station?”

“There’s no record of him in the public Customs reports,” Clara confirmed. “How ever he got on the station, it wasn’t through official channels.”

“Okay,” Malachi said, addressing the captain. “I’ve got a bead on where he is, but I’m going to have to go in and verify.”

Baraxan raised a delicately thin eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“He’s in Yellow Sector. Think of it as the local bad neighborhood. There isn’t much in the way of video surveillance down there, which means he’s gone to ground. Someone looking like he does though… well, someone is bound to have seen him.”

“Very well. I shall accompany you.”

Malachi gave a short bark of a laugh, then realized she was being serious. “I don’t know that’s such a great idea,” he said. “Yellow Sector types can be a bit rough.”

The captain gave a small smile. “I’m not unused to the coarser types, detective. Lead on.”

Malachi felt the difference as he entered Yellow Sector. There were no outside view ports and more graffiti and the air felt closer, stuffier. He led, Captain Baraxan trailing behind. They’d stopped at his office so he could pick up his sidearm, an air compressed needle gun, the tips dipped in a paralytic. Nominally non-lethal, though a shot in the neck could lead to asphyxiation. He’d offered to give the captain a weapon, but she declined. He wondered if she concealed a weapon under her bulky jacket, but decided it would be impolite to inquire.

They entered the Cosmic Joke, a speakeasy run by an acquaintance of Malachi’s named Jules. Jules had the coal black skin and heavy, compact build of a Politanian… a denizen of a world known for its high gravity and brutal solar radiation. He waved at Malachi when he saw him enter. Captain Baraxan hung back, checking out one the holographic displays projected into the middle of the space.

“What’s with the navy with you?” Jules asked

“Huh?” Malachi asked.

“The spacer over there. You telling me she isn’t military?”

“Civilian captain,” Malachi corrected him.

Jules made a noise in the back of his throat. “Could have fooled me. All right, what can I do for you?”

“Looking for someone. Someone in particular.” He pulled up the image of Harrod, broadcast it on top of the bar. “Have you seen him?”

“Funny you should ask. He was here, what, two days ago? Said he had something to sell and was looking for a buyer.” While he spoke, Jules poured two glasses of chilled vodka and pushed one across to Malachi.

“You know what it was?” Malachi asked.

“No. He wasn’t asking me, which means it wasn’t drugs or booze.”

“Who was he talking to?”

“You know Warrix?” Jules asked.

“Yeah, I know him,” Malachi confirmed, before downing the rest of his vodka, a pleasant numbness spreading through him. “Wish I didn’t. Thanks Jules.”

“Yeah, no worries. On the house, okay? Just don’t get yourself dead.”

Malachi rubbed at the back of his head. “Yeah, wasn’t on my to do list, don’t worry.”

As he walked back over to Captain Baraxan, Clara piped up in his ear. “I don’t have to tell you what a catastrophically bad idea this is, do I?”

“Nope, you don’t. Got a pretty good idea already,” Malachi replied.

“You’re going to go through with it any way though aren’t you?”

“Yep.”

Clara ran through her new thesaurus, Malachi recognizing many of the terms as being synonyms for stubborn, stupid or both.

“Any luck?” Captain Baraxan asked.

“Your boy Harrod has been meeting with a local crime boss, name of Warrix. Anywhere else, he’d be small fry, but he’s a player here. We, uh, have a history.”

“Do I want to know?”

Malachi shrugged. “I might have shot him once. Okay, twice.”

“Hmm. Where can we find him?”

Malachi shook his head. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? I mean, I get that Harrod owes you money, but you can’t spend it if you’re dead.”

“Do you want out?” The captain stared hard at Malachi, and he realized she was weighing him, deciding what kind of person he was. To his surprise, he decided he cared.

“No,” he said, somewhat to his own surprise.

He led them out of the Cosmic Joke and down into the service tunnels that made up the bulk of Yellow Sector, passed the makeshift shelters and jury-rigged habitations of those poor souls who couldn’t quite afford either regular station housing or a ticket off. He knew where Warrix would be, down in a disused security station, surrounded by his men, secure in his territory. Warrix’s guards spotted them long before they got close, but no one challenged them, which means Warrix wanted to talk to them. Or wanted to personally kill them. Malachi figured it could go either way.

“Well, if it ain’t my least favorite detective,” Warrix boomed from his translator speaker mounted on his hover chair. The boar headed sapien was restricted to the chair, his spinal cord having been severed when Malachi shot him. “Got a lot of nerve coming down here.” The various degenerate scum that made up his court laughed and chuckled along with him.

“I’ve got business with you,” Captain Baraxan said, stepping forward. Malachi tried to pull her back but she flowed around his clumsy grasp, leaving him with nothing but air. “Man named Harrod. I’m looking for him.”

“Hey, Harrod, someone’s here to see you,” Warrix called out.

One of the men threw back the cloak he’d been wearing, an evil grin on his face, his brass eye gleaming in the low light.

“Hello, Captain. Me and Warrix here came to a bit of an understanding, see? So you and the detective can just walk on out of here.”

Captain Baraxan tilted her head to one side. Malachi wondered how big of a mistake he’d made. Then she moved.

A metallic ribbon dropped from the sleeve of her jacket and she flowed through the room. The ribbon sliced through the air, parting Harrod’s head from his body. Weapons were out and firing, and Malachi dived behind a column, keeping his head down as charged blasts ripped through the air. He spared a glance out, fully expecting to see the captain’s lifeless body, but the shots fired at her bounced off an invisible field, sparks flying up as the protective shield she wore deflected the attacks. Malachi saw Warrix trying to guide his chair out of the area, so he lined up a careful shot and caught him in the side of the neck. The chair careened to one side, nearly dumping its occupant on the ground before coming to a soft stop against a wall.

Most of Warrix’s people had the good sense to know when they were overwhelmed and fled the captain and her ribbon blade, and she had no interest in pursuing them. With the room cleared, she stooped down and collected something from Harrod’s body.

Malachi looked around at all of the bloodshed, feeling sick to his stomach and realizing he was at least partly to blame.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Captain Baraxan. Kilvarian Navy Intelligence. This scum,” she kicked Harrod’s corpse, “was attempting to sell stolen information.”

“What kind of information?” Malachi asked.

She turned and left the station, and Malachi knew he’d never get the answer he wanted.

Later, back at the Cosmic Joke, Jules tried to ask him what happened.

It took three vodkas to get the story out of him.