About this title:
This lyrical tale of evil, loss, and redemption is a stunning addition to the Southern gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.
About the Author:
A Choir of Ill Children is the startling story of Kingdom Come, a decaying, swamp backwater that draws the lost, ill-fated, and damned.
Since his mother’s disappearance and his father’s suicide, Thomas has cared for his three brothers—conjoined triplets with separate bodies but one shared brain—and the town’s only industry, the Mill.
Because of his family’s prominence, Thomas is feared and respected by the superstitious swamp folk. Granny witches cast hexes while Thomas’s childhood sweetheart drifts through his life like a vengeful ghost and his best friend, a reverend suffering from the power of tongues, is overcome with this curse as he tries to warn of impending menace. All Thomas learns is that “the carnival is coming.”
Torn by responsibility and rage, Thomas must face his tormented past as well as the mysterious forces surging toward the town he loves and despises.
Tom Piccirilli is the author of twenty novels including The Cold Spot, The Midnight Road, The Dead Letters, Headstone City, November Mourns, and A Choir of Ill Children. He's a four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the International Thriller Writers Award, and Le Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
We move in spasms.
My brothers because they are conjoined at the frontal lobe, and me—because for me there is no other way to continue moving. They have three throats and three bodies, three intertwined minds and many feelings, but only one voice. They even have a lover, Dodi Coots, who sleeps at the foot of their king-size bed with the back of her hand brushing Sebastian's ankle. Her breath is tinged with bourbon and chocolate, a few strands of hair wafting against the corners of her mouth.
She does for them now what I always did for them—empties their bedpans, feeds each separate mouth, helps them into their fresh pajamas, gives them sponge baths, and assists them in brushing their own teeth, which remain white and perfect from what I can see.
They dream, sweating with their immense brow furrowed, and they tell me their fantasies in whispers. Each mouth forms a different syllable, framing an independent idea, with an individual limit of emotion. Sebastian is full of malice, Jonah with regret, and Cole speaks of love and nothing but love, no matter how hideous his words. They murdered a six-year-old child, or so they said. They're vague about it. On occasion they make it sound like they killed him, and at other times it seems they only discovered him. I can find no body or evidence, no reports of a missing kid, while I listen to their murmured descriptions every night, and still Cole speaks of love.
It's happened before. I once found a dead boy in the swamp.
My brothers face one another with no need to move their lips, conversing inside the single massive bald head and fractured mind. Silently they argue and debate and agree, lying on the bed, nostrils flaring and their hands sometimes flapping. Since birth they've stared into each other's eyes, sharing the same blood flow and coursing neurochemicals. They have only one epiphysis cerebri, also known as the pineal gland, which was called the "third eye" by ancient peoples who believed it to have mystical properties.
This impedes their mammoth brain's capability to produce the hormone melatonin, which regulates daily body rhythms, most notably the circadian rhythm of the day / night cycle. Their points of view are skewed by the endless intimacy and proximity. Only inches from one another's noses, breathing the mutually stale air, unable to see much of anything except each other's grimacing faces. As in blind children, they cannot differentiate between morning and midnight.
When they talk to me, they often speak in the first person, and it's sometimes difficult for me to discern who is saying what and whether they all feel the same way.
Dodi coos in her sleep. She sighs and purrs, stretching so that her thigh drips moonlight across the floor. Dead leaves brush against the window, tapping softly. She creeps upon my brothers and tastes each of them in turn, stiffly swabbing the bulging curves of their forebrain, sweeping across the trinity of their stunted, twisted bodies. Knuckles brush the headboard, and four sets of feet whirl and kick.
I force myself not to look and end up staring at the wall instead. As the moon descends it draws their writhing shadows into focus, and I see the amazing things she does with every pliable cusp and muscle as they utter her name with flicking tongues. A name full of bitterness, reluctance, and wonder.
Her mother, Velma Coots, gave Dodi to me in trade for digging some screw worms out of her two cows and fixing the roof of her shanty. The years of humidity and rain and Spanish moss bleeding into the wood had rotted it to tissue. My brothers and I are the richest men in the town of Kingdom Come, Potts County, and still the conjure woman found it necessary to pay me. The price didn't matter to her, I knew. Only the service and finality of exchange.
Dodi got into my truck holding a small bundle of dirty clothes in her lap and didn't say a word. I wasn't even sure she could speak until she woke me one night, between all of their legs, caged by their bones, hidden under all that flesh, and whimpering, "Jesus, help me now and at the hour of my death, you bastard."
It's not something you want to hear. Other men might have argued or refused Velma Coots, which is why she did not trade Dodi to anyone but me, and why I didn't dig screw worms out of anybody else's cows but hers. The conjure woman stood in her yard beside water elm and loblolly pine, with her chin jutting, waiting to see what might happen next.
I waited too. My father killed himself because he could not accept backwoods swamp water ways like this, even though he'd never left Potts County himself. He fought the tradition of his own past and paid his price for it.
I shook my head and drove off with Dodi. No matter what I had to do, I would not end up like my father.
We may have a sister too, but I can't be certain. Our parents never said anything to me about it, but there are odd indentations along the left side of my rib cage, pointed and with attitude, which could be a woman's features.
Or they could be bruises and welts that never faded from some childhood scuffle. Or knife scars from the drunken brawls in the back of barrooms. Or perhaps fingernail scratches from one of the roadhouse gals I can't remember. They are beautiful and unforgettable when the icy beer and triple boilermakers wear down the spiked edges of the world enough to become bearable for another minute. The middle-aged women slow dance with me across the wet floor of Leadbetter's, denying their anguish as we move, in spasms, out to the parking lot and into the back of my truck.
Jonah has fallen in love with Sarah, who is doing a student documentary about my family.
She's been staying in the house a couple of weeks now, along with her cameraman, Fred. She tries to interview me but thinks I'm only another witless Kingdom Come swamp rat losing my mind to 160 proof moonshine. She's got the high lilt of a Jewish American Princess straight from the Gold Coast of Long Island, but she enjoys passing herself off as an East Village bohemian.
There's a tattoo on her hip that peeks out whenever she stands on her toes to fix the cheap halogen lights and the aluminum parabolic reflectors, but I can't make out what it might be. It's not sharp work, and the colors already appear faded. Her navel is pierced, which I find sort of sexy. There's a slight scar around the piercing from where infection had set in. She's the kind of girl who might smuggle hashish in the binding of D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel. Sarah wants to be eccentric but just doesn't have the stomach for it.
Being around my brothers terrifies her, and she can't hold back her staggering nausea. Sebastian chuckles as she grows pale talking with them, doing her best not to gag but still turning a nice shade of green, swallowing down her bile. She talks about the Sundance Film Festival, repeating the words like a mantra.
Sebastian says those words too, all of their tongues flailing. My brothers speak as one, each mouth working like a pipe organ, playing a different portion of their communal speech. It's the way that brain works. The "ch" goes to Sebastian, along with the glottal noises, "uh" and "ooh," "ing," names of foreign countries and pronouns, anything that brings his teeth together.
Jonah gets the hisses, the "ph" and drawn-out orgasmic "eeeeeee," titles of symphonies and sit-coms, all the poetry.
Cole is left with the growls and hard consonants, the adverbs, numbers following ten, dirty words, colors, sweet nothings, and every predicate.
Trying to hold back her fear, Sarah does a fair amount of cocaine and leaves blood-spotted tissues in the wastebasket and sitting on the rim of the toilet seat. She has to be careful when she reaches into her handbag so that she doesn't cut her fingers on the razor blades. Every so often she gives such an implosive sniff that there's a loud, high-pitched whistle. She left her nose on some Manhattan surgeon's floor and didn't quite get what her father paid for.
Fred sets up the camera and plays with his light meter, taking readings all over the living room. He uses a Tiffen Black Pro Mist Filter No. 1/2 to knock the bite off glass, wet teeth, brass, and the harshness of my brothers' appearance. I watch him with a slight smile, which he gives in return, rolling his eyes as he spins away toward the bay window, playing with the blinds. He says, "Fuckin' freak shitkickers" loud enough for me to hear because he thinks I'm too stupid to consider it an insult.
I don't take offense, really, but it sets a smoldering fire in my guts, and I'm going to break his arm in two places anyway.
Jonah, who is remorseful, scowls and holds his lips apart, filling each syllable he gets to say with all his resentment. He forces Sebastian and Cole to wheel farther and farther around as they walk so he can get as close to Sarah as possible. He's making a hell of an effort. You can hear their joints popping, the odd slap of nearly atrophied muscle on muscle. Their legs are like contorted stems bending beneath their combined weight. Arms twine around each other's waists like they're about to break out into a bizarre Russian dance.
Jonah rubs against Sarah like an animal, which is exactly how she thinks of him and the others and me. She chokes back puke. We are generally beneath notice, but not beneath disgust, and when she finally gets what she wants down on film she'll wish us dead in the river.
I sit on the settee and try to look stupid without drooling. It's easier than it should be. She has a DAT recorder thrust into the middle of the room and a minicassette recorder on the table placed precisely equidistant from us both. She asks the same questions repeatedly, hoping to keep me talking long enough so that even if I don't give an adequate answer, I'll say enou...
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