Random Rejection: Weird Tales, “The Short Route”

It’s been a while since I reached into my giant stack of rejection (and a few acceptance) letters, so I figured it was time to totter off to random.org and ask them what letter I should choose. They told me “V”, but I already did the only V in my pile, so I asked them for a different letter and they told me “W”. As it turns out, nearly all my “W” rejections are from Weird Tales, or, as indicated in the scan below, “Worlds of Fantasy and Horror”, which is, uh, not quite as catchy a title as Weird Tales. (The astute reader will not be surprised to learn that this temporary title change involved the legal system.)

Anyway, I have got a ton of rejection letters from Weird Tales Worlds of Fantasy and Horror; evidently I really, really wanted to place a story with them, although I’m pretty sure I never managed it. Not even the good-but-not-irresistible Western/monster mash-up “The Short Route” was quite up to their standards:

WeirdTales_TheShortRoute

I’ve already posted “The Short Route” a few times before, so I won’t do so again. Instead―for those who are keeping score at home―I’ll post a list of all the stories for which I have rejections from Weird Tales. Ready?

  • The Short Route” (that aforementioned Western/monster mash-up, eventually published by the small press magazine Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium)
  • “The Laundry” (a carnivorous washing machine)
  • Love and the Tides of Darkness” (an angel and a demon, who were formerly an item, spar over the fate of a potential Savior of Humanity, who actually turns out to be a bit of a loser)
  • “Custer’s Last Hand” (a riverboat poker game goes badly awry)
  • Cold Turkey” (about the difficulties of quitting all your bad habits at once; this story eventually won a flash fiction contest sponsored by J.A. Konrath, although I’m pretty sure I never got awarded my prize of having a character in one of his books named after me)
  • Graveyard Apples after Midnight” (about the sort of bad things that can happen if you sneak into a cemetery and steal apples from a tree growing out of someone’s grave)
  • “The 66th Vampire” (about, uh, a vampire; as per Weird Tales, “We see sooooo many vampire stories”. You can see this one in the anthology New Traditions in Terror, edited by Bill Purcell.)
  • Underground with the Mouthless Girl” (exactly what it says on the tin)
  • Comfort” (a serving wench, a king, and a prince walk into a bar … this one was eventually picked up by the now-defunct Amazon Shorts program, and can also be found in my “Strings” duology; the story itself appears at the end of Shards, and it becomes a rather important plot point towards the end of Ravels)
  • “Grandpop’s Watch” (illustrating why one should take good care of one’s family heirlooms)
  • “You” (a man is stalked by a vengeful ghost around Halloween ….. or is he?)
  • The Patter of Little Feet” (a small statue of a spear-wielding goddess comes to life and wreaks havoc in a museum)
  • “The Stacks” (a trio of drunken gentlement stumble across the Akashic records and discover that learning about the future isn’t always a pleasant experience; like “The Short Route”, this was labeled “good but not completely irresistible” by Weird Tales)
  • Silkscreen” (a bereft woman replaces her family with dolls printed with their faces; I don’t remember if I sent Weird Tales the version with the original ending, or the version with the better ending that eventually appeared in the Canadian magazine Storyteller, but either way, it didn’t have a real fantasy element, so I never should have sent it to WT in the first place)
  • The Magician’s Finger” (a farmer’s plow unearths the finger bone of a magician who died trying to summon a demon; hilarity ensues; the result is “good but not completely irresistible”)

For the most part the rejection letters from Weird Tales were encouraging ones, along the lines of “we like this, but …”, often with a few helpful notes or comments from the reviewer. Given that Weird Tales is kind of, you know, legendary, I’m pretty happy to have received personalized letters. Obviously acceptances would have been better, but if one has to get rejected (and one pretty much does), one could do a lot worse.

Oh, and if you’d like an example of a “good but not irresistible” story, and don’t want to follow one of those links, perhaps you’d like to pay a visit to the Akashic records, AKA “The Stacks”.

It’s another late night at Keggers up near the airport, even though it’s Wednesday and Rob, Mitch, and Preston all have to go to work tomorrow.  But hey, it’s a special occasion, a celebration.  Two celebrations.  Mitch starts his new position as Assistant Documentation Manager tomorrow, and Preston’s divorce just came through.  Party!

Rob’s the designated driver, but envy (he wanted the assistant manager position; he wishes he could play the field again like Preston) prompts him to sneak a drink or two—maybe more—while the others are playing darts, going to the men’s room, making time with a couple of cute women (“You stay here, Rob, you’re married!  Ha ha!”), or otherwise distracted.

Rob’s lack of restraint is not lost on the bouncer when the three of them finally stumble toward the door.  The big guy plants himself in front of them and says, “Who’s the driver?”

Mitch and Preston shove Rob forward for inspection.  The bouncer sniffs his breath, looks into his eyes, and says:  “What you been drinking, pard?”

“Ginger ale.”

“Smells more like Scotch.  Why don’t you guys go have a seat for a few hours?”

An argument ensues, ending with Rob, Mitch, and Preston standing outside Keggers minus car keys.  “Good one, Rob,” Mitch says.  “Now how are we gonna get home?”

“Yeah, how?” Preston says.

Rob bikes, hikes, jogs, shoots hoop; the most exercise Mitch and Preston get is going to the refrigerator for beer during commercials.  Plus they’re both drunker than he is.  Advantage:  Rob.

“We’ll walk,” he says.

“Walk?” Preston says, horrified.

“Sure, it’s only five miles or so to Mitch’s place.  We’ll walk it, and he can drive the rest of us home.”

“Can’t you just call your wife to come get us?” Preston says.  He’s glancing up and down the road with big wide eyes, as if he thinks it might suddenly do a carpet-snap and shoot him into space.

“She’s sleeping,” Rob says.  “Besides, a little exercise will do you guys good.  Especially you, Preston. You’re totally out of shape.”

Drunkenly unable to think of a better plan, like calling a taxi, they accede to Rob’s leadership; and so the three of them begin a weaving odyssey along the grassy shoulder through the September night.

Two miles later.

For all the times that Rob has driven along this road, he never before noticed how lonely it is; there are very few houses, except for distant farmsteads with yellow windows.  Animal noises abound:  birds chatter, insects cheep, coy-dogs howl in the distance.

Preston is puffing like he just swam across the English Channel; Mitch has stopped to puke twice.  Rob, although a bit fuzzy-headed, is feeling just fine.  He’s been offering words of encouragement designed to make the others realize that he is the superior being.

Preston suddenly stops walking and flops down in the grass.  “I can’t make it,” he says, wheezing.  “You guys go ahead and come back for me.”

“Come on,” Rob says.  “We can’t leave you out here alone.  You might get eaten by an owl or something.”

“I can’t take another step.  You guys go.”

“Don’t be such a wuss.”  Rob grabs Preston’s arm and attempts to haul him to his feet, but he resists.  His arm, sweaty from the exertion of walking a couple of miles, shoots out of Rob’s grip; Rob goes over backward, tumbles down the embankment, rolls under the barbed wire fence, and ends up among the milkweed at the edge of the meadow.  His forehead hits something hard.

Darkness.

Darkness.

Darkness.

Preston’s voice:  “Is he dead?”

“Of course not, he’s still breathing.  Rob!”  Slap.  “Hey, Rob!”  Slap slap.

He opens his eyes.  Mitch slaps him a few more times anyway, so Rob gives him a shove and he falls over.  Rob sits up and finds the thing he hit his head on.  It’s a square piece of stone about the size of a shoebox, highly weathered, as if it’s been out in the elements for a long time.  A design is carved into it, a circle with rays coming out of it, like the sun.

Annoyed, Rob heaves the thing into the meadow.  It flies a short distance, lands with a thud, and rolls a bit through the tall grass before coming to rest.  Blood dribbles into Rob’s eye, stinging.  He blinks, wipes away the red stuff, freezes.

Suddenly, there’s a tower in the field.

A needle-thin obelisk, luminous blue, stretches into the sky.  The glow of its surface sheds a pallid light on the surrounding vegetation, giving it an unearthly grey cast.  Rob’s stare travels up, up, up the spire, searching for some clue to its origin; but the surface is smooth and featureless, and his gaze slips right off it.

He glances at his friends.  They are pelting each other with milkweed pods, paying no attention to him or to the tower, as if they don’t even see it.  Rob grabs their arms and pulls them toward the thing.

Now they see it.  He can tell by the shocked expressions on their faces.  After a hasty, whispered discussion, the three of them approach the spire and circle it warily, finding no blemish on its unbroken exterior.

Mitch, the drunkest, is the first to muster the nerve to touch it.  His hands disappear through the exterior.  He gets an odd look on his face and walks through the wall.

Preston and Rob exchange a glance.  Then Preston shrugs, puts on a lopsided grin, and trudges after Mitch.  Rob stands around outside for several minutes, waiting to see if the others come back.

They don’t.

Finally, he closes his eyes and takes three steps forward.  Passing through the wall is a little like getting a mild electric shock; it goes a long way toward sobering Rob up.

When he opens his eyes again, he finds himself in the center of a glossy marble courtyard.  It’s much bigger around than the tower was.  He stands beside a large reflecting pool; smooth ripples animate the inviting, silvery water.

Dozens of corridors, each big enough to sail a ship down, radiate from the circular chamber.  Their walls are towering shelves jammed with what look like rolls of paper.  He can’t tell how long the hallways are because they quickly vanish into shadow.  Strange symbols decorate the gaping archways; he feels as if he can almost read them, but not quite.

He sees distant spindly stairs that rise a hundred feet or more to a second level, an encircling balcony that hangs unsupported from the wall.  More hallways open from there; and another stairway rises from that level to the next, and the next, and the next, balconies so numerous and so distant that they run together and become indistinguishable.  The height makes him dizzy, which makes him queasy; he falls to his knees and splashes his face with water.  It’s icy cold and it tingles, like soda; it seems to soak into his skin, extending a cooling touch into his brain.

When he looks up and again regards the symbols, it is with a fresh understanding, as if the water has written a new alphabet in his mind.  This tower, like the stacks of a library, is a vast repository of knowledge; all the things that have ever or will ever happen can be found here, in the proper section, as described by the spidery lettering that graces each corridor.

So what’s he going to do with all this information?

The answer to that question suddenly hits him, and he heads off to the stairs on his way up, up, up.  It’s a long, breathless climb to the proper level; once there, he makes the mistake of peering over the edge of the balcony into the dizzying space below.  Vertigo seizes him and for several long moments he feels himself going over the railing and plummeting to the distant marble floor.

Instead, he vomits a stream of silvery liquid; the stuff found its way into his stomach, even though he didn’t drink it.  Feeling weak in the legs, Rob staggers away from the edge of the balcony and down a nearby corridor.  He walks some considerable distance, then pulls down a scroll and unrolls it.  It doesn’t contain writing; instead, scenes play out across it, like animated pen-and-ink sketches with sound and action.

He soon feels his alertness ebbing; maybe he’s just tired, or maybe it’s because he threw up the water.  In any case, it becomes a struggle to keep his eyes open, to stay on his feet.

Inevitably, it’s a struggle he loses.

A cold drizzle wakes him; oily grey clouds to the west threaten harder rain to come.  The meadow is hoary with frost, quickly vanishing; but Rob’s hands and feet and ears are just beginning to feel a chill, as if he’s only just stepped outside.

Rob sits up and looks around.  Cows mill about in the field, watching them disinterestedly.  There weren’t any cows last night.  Preston and Mitch are nearby; Mitch is up on one elbow, while Preston appears to still be asleep.  “You guys okay?” Rob calls.  Mitch nods, yawns, and stretches his back; Preston rolls over onto his hands and knees and coughs dryly for a few seconds, then complains of a headache.

“You’re hung over,” Mitch says.  He looks none too good himself.

Preston says, “Oh my God, we’ve been out all night.”

“Your wife is gonna kill you,” Mitch says.  They all know who he’s talking to.

“No,” Rob says, “she won’t.”

A distant bellow gets their attention; a bull has rounded a distant copse of trees.  The beast eyes them and paws the earth; moments later it charges.  A frantic race ensues; they achieve the fence shortly ahead of the bovine.  It paces back and forth just beyond the barbed wire, tossing its head and snorting.

They walk the rest of the way to Mitch’s condo, shivering in the drizzle.  They don’t speak.

Mitch quickly showers and shaves, then drives them to their respective homes.  Rob hurries in; there’s not much time, and Mitch is waiting for him in the car.  He passes Janelle in the kitchen; she’s sitting with a cup of coffee, reading the paper.  She hardly spares a glance at him.  “Spent the night out, did you?”

Rob doesn’t slow down.  “I know about you and Justin,” he says.  “We’ll talk tonight.”

She curses as she spills her coffee.

This is the first test of the Stacks, and they pass.

First things first.  Rob calls his broker as soon as he’s in the office, ordering him to buy two thousand shares of a penny stock he’s never heard of.  The broker advises against the investment; Rob thanks him and tells him to do it anyway.

There.  That takes care of retirement.

He’s not surprised when Preston walks by carrying a couple of lottery tickets.  Rob thought about doing that himself, but from what he’s heard, winning the big bucks is more of a headache than it’s worth.

The phone rings.  Janelle.  She begins to explain, but he cuts her off.  “I’m busy right now,” he says.  “We’ll talk tonight.”  He hangs up.  She calls twice more in the space of a few hours, then stops.

At lunchtime, Mitch sits down across from Rob in the cafeteria. “About last night,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“You saw it too, right?”

“Of course I saw it.”

“I did some checking on the Internet.  I think we were in the Akashic Records.”

“The what?”

“It’s supposed to store all the information about everything.  Some psychics claim they get their visions from it.”

“We’re not psychics.”

“I know.  But we were kind of drunk.”

“Are you saying being drunk is like being psychic?”

“No, but it’s an altered state of mind.”

“Lots of people get drunk,” Rob says.  “That wasn’t the first time I was drunk, but it was the first time I saw anything like that.”

“I can’t explain it.  Conditions must’ve been right for us to find it.”  He looks thoughtful.  “Or maybe it found us.”

This is all getting too weird and metaphysical for Rob’s tastes.  “What’d you look for?” he says.  “Preston, I think he looked up the lottery numbers.  I looked up the stock market in ten years.”

“You guys wanted to know how to get rich, huh?”

“Sure.  Is there something wrong with that?”

“You could’ve found out anything you wanted.”

“Don’t get all judgmental on me,” Rob says.  Silence.  “What did you look up, anyway?”

“How I’m going to die.”

Rob goggles at him.  “Why?”

“I wanted to know.  I think everybody does, deep down.”

“Not me.”

“I die in a nuclear war, fifteen years from now.”

After a moment Rob says:  “You’re shitting me, right?”

“I wish.”

“Come on.”

Mitch says nothing, just looks at him.

“The Cold War is over, Mitch,” Rob says.  “The Russians and the Chinese are bigger capitalists than we are.  Who would want to start shooting off nukes?”

“Fanatics.  Lunatics.  I don’t know who they were, I just saw the bombs.”

Rob takes a moment to digest this information.  “Is there anything we can do about it?”

“It’s in the Records, that means its already going to happen, right?”

“How should I know?  You’re the one who did the research.  What did Preston say about this?”

“I’m not going to tell him.”

“Then why’d you tell me, for God’s sake?”

“Just in case you and Janelle were thinking about having kids.  I thought you should know what was coming.”

“Well, considering that Janelle is sleeping with her boss, I don’t think kids are in the picture.  Thanks anyway.”

After a moment, Mitch says:  “Oh.”

Preston slides into the seat next to Mitch.  “I got Lotto, I got Powerball, I got Win-Four,” he says.  “What’re you guys talking about?”

They exchange a glance.

“The future,” Mitch says.

Rob finds it hard to work through the rest of the day.  The conversation with Mitch bothers him, as a discussion of Armageddon should.  He keeps thinking they should do something, but has no idea what.  Mitch is right; no one would listen to them, except maybe one of those supermarket tabloids.

He finds himself wishing Janelle would call again.  Not that he could discuss the Stacks with her, but … well, he’s not really sure what they would say to each other, but his first impulse after hearing Mitch’s story is to call her, just to hear her voice.  Maybe he’s made a mistake, being so brusque with her, brushing her off.

Still, he doesn’t pick up the phone.

Preston stops by Rob’s cube toward the end of the day.  “Is everything okay?” Preston says.  “You looked a little tense at lunch.”

“Everything’s fine,” Rob says.  There’s no reason Preston should have to know what Mitch saw.  “Did you say you had Win-Four?  That’s not much money next to Lotto and Powerball.”

“They’re giving away a truck.  Miriam got the good car, and I gotta get out of my Yugo before it kills me.”

Rob leans back and regards his friend.  “Did you look up anything else?”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

Preston shrugs.  “Nothing you’d be interested in.”

“Try me.”

Preston hesitates a moment, then says:  “Okay, well, I looked up a bunch of stuff about Egypt.  How they built the pyramids, that kind of thing.”

“How’d they do it?”

“Lots of slaves and lots of time.”  Preston sounds disappointed; he had probably hoped to learn about ancient, unknown machines, gravity-defying magic, maybe aliens in spacecraft carting around blocks of stone.  “How about you?  Find out anything interesting?”

Rob wishes he could say he looked up some obscure bit of information that has baffled the world for centuries; but that frankly didn’t occur to him, and now he’s missed his chance.  “I’ve never been much for history,” he says.

“There wasn’t something you always wanted to know?  Like who was Jack the Ripper, what happened to Amelia Earhart, where Flight 19 went?”

“Flight 19?”

“Never mind.”

Feeling more Philistine than ever, Rob says:  “So which lottery is tonight?”

“Powerball’s.  Lotto is Saturday.”  Preston grins.  “By Sunday I’ll be rich as the pharaohs.”

Rob gets home late because Mitch has to take him up to Keggers to retrieve his car.  Janelle is not home; a note taped to the refrigerator says she’s staying with her parents.  He calls her up and the first thing she says is, “How did you find out?”

“I heard a rumor.”

“From who?”

“Never mind who.  It’s not important.”  Pause.  “Why’d you do it, Jan?”

“Don’t make it sound like everything was fine and this is all my fault.  I tried to talk to you a dozen times, more than that even, and you were always too busy, or too tired, or on your way out to Keggers, and you could never stop and say two words to me.”

“Well, come home and we’ll talk about it.”

“Not now.  I need to be alone for a while.”

Silence.

Rob says:  “Are you leaving?”

“For the last two months you’ve been more interested in hanging out with the guys than with me.  You’ve been following Preston’s divorce like it’s a baseball game; and you ask if I’m leaving?  I’ve been waiting for you to announce you’re leaving.”

Rob is speechless for a moment.  He’d had no idea she was that in tune with what he was thinking.  And what can he say?  Can he tell her she’s wrong?

Finally he says:  “Well, I’m not leaving.”

“Neither am I,” she says.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Rob says; but she’s already hung up.

The next morning, as expected, Preston does not show up for work.  Around ten, Cecilia from Legal sticks her head into Rob’s cube and says, “Did you hear about Preston?”

“Yeah,” Rob says.  “Lucky bastard.”

Cecilia steps into his cubicle.  “What?”

“I said …”  Rob trails off, frozen by her expression.  “What are we talking about?”

“We’re talking about Preston’s accident.”

“What accident?”

“Didn’t you see the paper?”

“The kid threw it onto my roof again.  What accident?”

“Preston ran into a truck on his way home from work yesterday.”

“Is he okay?”

“No.  He’s not.  It’s in the paper.”

After Cecilia leaves, Rob heads for the break room, where there’s usually a newspaper lying around.  A tractor-trailer jackknifed on the highway and a number of cars plowed into it, starting with Preston’s.  In the picture, Preston’s vehicle is nearly unrecognizable, like a crushed soda can; two other cars are piled on top of it.  He was trapped for over an hour and bled to death before they could get him out.

Rob re-reads the story.  It stays the same.

But Preston is not supposed to be dead.  He’s supposed to win Powerball.  He’s supposed to win Lotto.  He’s supposed to be as rich as the pharaohs.

Rob goes to Mitch’s office, but Mitch isn’t there; their boss occupies the space instead, sitting behind the desk, talking on the phone.  The man’s normally sour expression has devolved into an absolute grimace.  He hangs up and waves for Rob to enter, then says:  “Have you heard from Mitch?”

“No, why?”

“He didn’t come in this morning, and he didn’t call.”

“Did you try him at home?”

“There’s no answer.”

“I could go to his condo,” Rob says.

“No.  I’m already down two people in your department, I can’t afford to have you leave.”

As if the world will fall apart if the technical writing department is understaffed for an hour.  “Something might’ve happened to him,” Rob says, worried that Mitch has done something foolish because of what he saw in the Stacks.

“I sure hope so,” his boss says.

The day passes with no word from Mitch.  After work, Rob swings by his condo.  He leans on the buzzer, getting no response; so he loiters outside until someone leaves the building, then darts through the door before it closes.  He pounds on Mitch’s door for a while, fruitlessly hollering Mitch’s name.  Finally he leaves.

When he gets home, there is a note from Janelle on the table.  It says, I thought we were going to talk.  I guess you decided you didn’t want to.  It is signed just with her name.  Not Love, Janelle, but just her name.

Preston is dead.  Mitch is missing.  Jan hates him.

Rob is alone.

He drives up Airport Road toward Keggers and parks beside the meadow where they saw the Stacks.  Most of the cows have returned to the barn; only a few remain in the field.  There’s no sign of the bull.

The animals look at Rob incuriously as he climbs out of the car and threads his body through the barbed-wire fence.  He half-stumbles down the slope to the bottom.  A few of the bovines, perhaps thinking he bears goodies, begin trotting his way as, keeping one eye out for the bull, he hunts for the sunburst stone.  It’s an ancient, mystical artifact, he has decided, the key to the Akashic Records.  If he can find it and return to the Stacks, he can get all this straightened out.  He can find out where Mitch went; he can find out if Janelle will come back.

At length he locates the relic.  It’s much the worse for wear, weathered down to a bare nub of what it was two days earlier; the star pattern is nearly obliterated.  The surface turns to powder when he rubs it.  He hesitates, then licks his fingertips.

It wasn’t the ages that wore the stone away, or the weather, or the touch of worshipful hands.  It was the action of heifer tongues.

It’s not an artifact.  It’s a salt lick.

Maybe if he goes away and comes back drunk, the Stacks will reappear; or would he need Preston and Mitch with him?  Would atmospheric conditions need to be the same?  The positions of the stars?  The flight patterns of aircraft?

Why did they see the Stacks?

“It’s a pretty poor thing, knowing the future,” Rob tells an approaching cow.  The bovine cocks her head at him, as if in sympathy; an airplane takes off, engines whining.  “You can only know part of it.  Take my friend Preston.  He’s in the morgue with a bunch of winning lottery tickets in his pocket.  Or my friend Mitch.  He found out something nobody in his right mind would want to know.  And me …”  Rob trails off.  As the noise of the plane abates, he realizes that the ground is vibrating slightly, that fast hoofbeats are approaching from behind him.  He turns.

The bull is only twenty feet away, coming fast, straight at him.

“Yep,” Rob says.  “It’s a pretty poor thing.”

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