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  • Written by Tom Piccirilli
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  • Written by Tom Piccirilli
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Written by Tom PiccirilliAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom Piccirilli

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On Sale: June 01, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-553-90040-8
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Reader Reviews

Synopsis

This lyrical tale of evil, loss, and redemption is a stunning addition to the Southern gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.

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.

Excerpt

Chapter One

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 enough for her to splice the tape together into something worthwhile.

"Tell me, Thomas, what is it like living with a Siamese triplet?"

There is no such thing, of course--the term is a misnomer as she uses it, proving how ignorant she is of the situation. But I can't completely fault her for that. There's no way to comprehend it, even for us. "Oh, it's fine."

"Could you elucidate?"

I lean forward toward the recorder. "It's fine!"

Her grin is soldered in place, and her upper row of crowns look like they might snap to pieces at any moment. Her nose hairs are being burned away by the coke. "No, Thomas," she says through her teeth. "Elucidate doesn't mean louder, it means could you go into a little more depth about that?"

"About what?"

"Living with your brothers."

I lean forward. "We get along just fine!"

The minitape recorder makes a soft whirr as she swallows thickly. The pulse under her left ear throbs so wildly that it brushes her long gold earrings and gets them swinging. I must admit that Sarah is quite an attractive girl, and I realize why Jonah is falling in love with her despite her poor disposition. What I don't understand is why Sebastian and Cole aren't.

It's a good thing Fred is using the Mist Filter because Sarah's tongue unfurls and is very slimy. "Why do you sleep in the same bedroom?"

"It's my room."

"You have a gorgeous antediluvian mansion here that's enormous enough to fit five families under one roof."

I nod and tell her, "It's nice."

"Don't you need privacy? Why do you sleep in the same bedroom as your brothers?"

"I always have. It's our room. We watch over one another." Which is nothing less than the truth.

The edges of her nostrils are threaded with broken blood vessels, a sharp pink that is both revolting and somehow arousing. Her hair is plum-colored, breasts slightly too large just the way Jonah likes them. Perfect caps that are not too white or too large, and the tip of her tongue constantly works across the glossy upper lip. Her insincerity bleeds off her in a torrent now. Jonah's using his peripheral vision to stare at Sarah and somehow let his love be known. He's beginning to jitter and giggle in place, which means all three of them are. The pleasure in his mind is a delight for them all.

Fred tries to hold his rancor and derision in but can't make it. I see him coming apart inch by inch as the veins stand out in his muscular throat. He lets loose a bark of loathing and aims the camera at the window, searching for Dodi who's swinging from an old tire out front. He zooms in on her, trying to get beaver shots. "Sarah, I'm sick of this place and these freaks. Let's just get out of here and do the movie about your grandmother's Alzheimer's."

"No."

"It can't be any less engaging than this. Come on, an old lady dressed in pigtails and diaper, calling for her mommy? That's priceless material."

"The story's here."

"The retards are here, and we've got nothing to show for our time so far except a huge credit card bill. That car rental is costing us, and I've got to get the DAT back to the university by next Wednesday or Professor James is gonna throw a fit. I signed for this hardware, I'm responsible for it."

She tries to hold on, pressing her nails on top of the cassette recorder and shoving it closer to me. "Yours is one of the richest and oldest families in the town of Kingdom Come, but you seem to be ostracized by the community."

"They bring us pies sometimes."

"Pies?"

"Sour Cream Rhubarb, Mississippi Mud, Tar Heel Pie." Some folks do bring us homemade meals on occasion, but usually it's me doing the baking and giving food away to the men at the mill.

Though Jonah is irritated, Sebastian likes the way I'm screwing with her. He shouts out the names of more pies, using all their throats: Peach Skillet, Double Layer Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Kiwi Lime.

Sarah's eyes are almost spinning. The coke is really grooving in her system. She can't focus well, and I'm breaking down what little concentration she has left. If only she'd listened to me that first day when I told her we weren't interested in broadcasting our lives. She'd been in control then, so wonderfully sure of herself. Backing off the porch she had turned her attention to my brothers, who peered through the bay window and rapped on the glass with their many hands. Jonah, all three of them actually, begging Sarah to stay.

She's spoken with them at length but still needs me for the buffer. The tale cannot work without my support. The audience needs someone to identity with. This is, after all, a human interest story.

Table of Contents

“An insidiously powerful novel that creeps under your skin and then slowly tears you apart from the inside out. An addicting and compelling read, CHOIR will draw you in quickly with its lyrical prose and fascinating characters. If you like your stories dark, poetic, with a dry wit at their center, then Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children is for you.” –Ron D., Orleans, Ontario, Canada


“I don't read horror. I signed up to review this book by accident, unaware of the genre. I started it because I'd made a commitment, but I finished it because I couldn't stop. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes weird things. The matter-of-fact presentation of life and death in this old mill town from the eyes of the richest man in both wealth and trouble held my interest all the way through. The book pulled me into a world where nothing quite meets the guidelines of normal and yet the characters don't seem to expect it to. I enjoyed A Choir of Ill Children enough to consider branching out and trying some other horror writers. It may be horror is not at all what I'd come to expect.”–Margaret F., Fremont, CA


A Choir of Ill Children was really an interesting blend of horror, tenderness, and family loyalty with a touch of humor thrown in. When I first started reading I wasn't sure what to expect, but I couldn't put the book down, I had to see what came next. Tom Piccirilli has written a truly powerful story!” –Charlotte Z., Middleburg Hts., OH


“Tom Piccirilli has created a true horror. Kingdom Come and its ghastly inhabitants will scare the hell out of you. Thomas must be the playboy of the horror world! Murder and ghosts steal the show.” –Sherry C., Macon, GA


"A Choir of Ill Children is haunting and hypnotic, [it] secrets away the mind to the uncanny. Piccirilli’s world is beautifully strange and compelling. This one stays alive long after the end.” –Cliff S., Los Angeles, CA


“All I can say is ‘Whew!’ This book is like driving past a deadly accident. You look away and you have to look back again. It's the same with this book, you don't want to read the next disturbing scene but you can't help yourself, you have to keep reading. It is truly twisted, grotesque, macabre, ghastly, horrific, I could go on and on. Then in the middle of this horror, there are moments of very black, laugh-out-loud humor. Again, all I can say is ‘Whew!’” –Patty G., North Miami, FL


“Southern Gothic Horror that silently slithers out from the backwater bayous.
The hot, dank smell of fear, sex, mystery and death that oozes into every person, place or thing that stays too long in one place, clings to the reader until it finds its way into the darkest places, the hidden places, the most secret places of the soul. A book that will not let you go until it is finished.”–Linda H., Livermore, CA


“This was the most disturbing book that I have ever read. The author had such vivid detail and word selection around the story. Each chapter got harder to get through. You wonder if anything like this could actually exist.”–Priya J., New York, NY
Tom Piccirilli|Author Q&A

About Tom Piccirilli

Tom Piccirilli - A Choir of Ill Children
Tom Piccirilli lives in Colorado, where, besides writing, he spends an inordinate amount of time watching trash cult films and reading Gold Medal classic noir and hardboiled novels. He's a fan of Asian cinema, especially horror movies, bullet ballet, pinky violence, and samurai flicks. He also likes walking his dogs around the neighborhood. Are you starting to get the hint that he doesn't have a particularly active social life? Well, to heck with you, buddy, yours isn't much better. Give him any static and he'll smack you in the mush, dig? Tom also enjoys making new friends. He 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 a final nominee for the World Fantasy Award, the International Thriller Writers Award, and Le Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire. 

Author Q&A

Authors Discussion: Bram Stoker Award Nominee Tom Piccirilli talks with Christopher Golden

Garnering positive reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, as well as positive endorsements from noted authors, including Ramsey Campbell, Stewart O’Nan, and Graham Masterton, Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children is a unique blend of black humor, dark motivation, and tragic consequence.

Here Christopher Golden—himself the acclaimed author of numerous books, including The Boys Are Back in Town (Bantam Spectra, 2/04)—interviews Tom about his first Bantam Spectra release.

Christopher Golden: A Choir of Ill Children contains a hell of a cast of characters. From a fallen preacher who runs naked through the town to a self-mutilating witch to ghosts to a hard-boiled detective coming apart at the seams, you’ve created an outrageous group for us to root for.

Tom Piccirilli: Yeah, they’re all pretty strange and unique and hopefully lovable in their own ways. If any one stands out for me it might be Velma Coots, the superstitious backwoods granny witch you mentioned. She's so certain of her weird beliefs that she's willing to sacrifice herself, her daughter, or anybody for the greater good, even though she's not certain what that good actually is. She's a teacher to Thomas, his friend, his peer, but also his enemy. She spies on him, forces him to do things he hates, but she's a fiery lady who knows the world will always be filled with questions you can't answer.

CG: That’s a theme of the novel in itself, isn’t it?

TP: Sure. The world doesn’t always perfectly tie up. Sometimes you have to live with the fact that you got screwed over, that you didn’t get what you were after, that the cop fails to bring in the bad guy, or that a murder goes unsolved. You have to find your way through a world that isn’t always fair.

CG: In much of your work, the long-lasting effects of past mistakes, secrets, and misfortunes makes a deep impression on the present. Why is the past so horrific?

TP: I think “dramatic” is a better word. We only stand where we are now because of the journey we’ve taken up to this point—the pain we’ve suffered, the situations we’ve overcome. Regret and sorrow work on a much deeper, long-term emotional level. How we handle and deal with that kind of a burden or haunting is fascinating to me as a writer. It’s a wellspring idea, that one small mistake can cost you an incredible price for the rest of your life. It’s a predicament we can all relate to, since all of us would like to change something in the past.

CG: A Choir of Ill Children maintains several bizarre love/hate relationships between our hero Thomas’s brothers, his lover, and the superstitious folk who fear but need him. How do these contradictions augment the novel's atmospheric and bizarre story and setting?

TP: Contradiction and conflict are the basis for all good drama, and probably humor as well. A protagonist must have an obstacle of some sort that he tries to get past, whether he's successful or not. I liked the idea that Thomas was bound in any number of ways—to his family’s history, his town, and his own best friend who is loving but also bitterly jealous. Each of Thomas' relationships is based on a strange defiance of a kind. His own "wife" is a woman who never speaks a word in the entire novel, and yet in many ways she's the chorus. It's that sort of mythic quality that I wanted to instill in all his various situations. He is very accepting of his strange world, which gives the book its flavor and its humor. For that reason alone you need opposites to interact at some level to drive up the sense of unease.

CG: You never seem to judge your characters, no matter how weird or goofy or outrageous they act. Do you prefer to disturb the readers' notions of good and bad, the familiar and the freakish?

TP: Ambiguity is more interesting and more realistic, I feel, than clearly drawn lines between good and bad. Horrifying someone can be relatively easy—you can write about people dropped in boiling water or give graphic details of evisceration or some other ugly event. Without some emotional context, without really caring for the characters, those are just exercises in sadism. The gray area of our personalities and our sense of morality are where the disquieting and unsettling stuff really happens. It's when something occurs that you weren't expecting that the startling magic takes place. The biggest laughs too.

CG: You’re a New Yorker who has written, for lack of a better term, a southern gothic novel in the tradition of William Faulkner, Harry Crews, and Flannery O’Connor. There are many novels that deal with small town decadence, freaks, and family secrets. How would you say it was unique?

TP: The tone of the narrative voice is pretty different because I tried to distill "Southern sadism" as filtered through New York attitude. Thomas is a very confident man despite all the insanity and supernatural oddity that occurs around him. He's involved and controlled but highly accepting of all of life's magic, hauntings, murders, absolution, and heartbreak. It gives him quite an urban worldview.

It's important for me to not just say something but to have something to say, and say it in a fashion that makes it evocative. Some writers create scenes of folks at a dinner table just shooting the breeze and eating their food and its ten pages before something vital happens in the story. I feel a driving need to condense and get beyond all that, and it's what I find outside of it that's always been of the highest value to me. It's why my books are made up of provocative scenes stacked one on top of the other, because I feel the need to pressurize the macabre elements to come out with something pure and engaging.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“A gothic noir that mates Flannery O’Connor with Stephen King.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Awards

NOMINEE Bram Stoker Awards

  • A Choir of Ill Children by Tom Piccirilli
  • June 01, 2004
  • Fiction - Horror
  • Bantam
  • $7.99
  • 9780553587197

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