A decade dead, Jacob Campbell is a preservationist, providing a kind of taxidermy to keep his clients looking lifelike for as long as the forces of entropy will allow. But in the Land of the Dead, where the currency is time itself and there is little for corpses to do but drink, thieve, and gamble eternity away, Jacob abandons his home and his fortune for an opportunity to meet the man who cheated the rules of life and death entirely.
According to legend, the Living Man is the only adventurer to ever cross into the underworld without dying first. It’s rumored he met his end somewhere in the labyrinth of pubs beneath Dead City’s streets, disappearing without a trace. Now Jacob’s vow to find the Living Man and follow him back to the land of the living sends him on a perilous journey through an underworld where the only certainty is decay.
Accompanying him are the boy Remington, an innocent with mysterious powers over the bones of the dead, and the hanged man Leopold l’Eclair, a flamboyant rogue whose criminal ambitions spark the undesired attention of the shadowy ruler known as the Magnate.
An ambitious debut that mingles the fantastic with the philosophical, Dead Boys twists the well-worn epic quest into a compelling, one-of-a-kind work of weird fiction that transcends genre, recalling the novels of China Miéville and Neil Gaiman.
Skyhorse Publishing, under our Night Shade and Talos imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of titles for readers interested in science fiction (space opera, time travel, hard SF, alien invasion, near-future dystopia), fantasy (grimdark, sword and sorcery, contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, alternative history), and horror (zombies, vampires, and the occult and supernatural), and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller, a national bestseller, or a Hugo or Nebula award-winner, we are committed to publishing quality books from a diverse group of authors.
“A macabre, madcap picaresque full of fast-talking corpses and philosophical skeletons. Squailia's super-charged prose swings from bone-crunching action to meditations on the meaning of life and the mysteries of death. It's an exuberant mashup.”
Brendan Mathews, author of The World of Tomorrow
“Exquisite worldbuilding alongside a mix of humor and philosophy
This underworld is a fascinating city.”
“If Neil Gaiman wrote an episode of Deadwood without the swearing and all the characters were already dead, it might read a little like this. I was utterly charmed.”
Robin Riopelle, author of Deadroads
“A cheeky read and full of the quirky characters that keep my heart beating, Dead Boys gave me the fantastical journey I’ve been dying (har) to read.”
Women Write About Comics
* * *
Holding out both of his leather-palmed hands for balance, the gentleman corpse known as Jacob Campbell thrust a boot into Southheap. Infinitesimal bits of burnt plastic, chipped wood, and styrofoam plinked down the slope. When no landslide followed, he staggered forward with all the grace of a marionette operated by a novice.
"Chin up, now," he said to himself in a tight-throated voice, "just put one foot in front of the other, and you're all but guaranteed not to spend eternity in pieces."
For years, Southheap had hulked in the distance through the window of his Dead City flat, so huge, familiar, and featureless that he gave it no more thought than the sepia skies. Even when he'd planned this journey, it hadn't occurred to him to wonder where all this garbage had come from, much less why a population obsessed with scavenging had tossed it all aside. Now that he'd spent the bet- ter part of a week watching it slide and skitter beneath his weight, he knew more than he cared to. With every step, Southheap spilled its grotty secrets between his feet, threatening to break or bury him, or both, if he dwelled too long on what he'd seen.
The surface of this colorless mound had been dumped here one bucket, one barrow-load at a time, that much was obvious. But its core, he'd realized during the past few days, had been deposited by the whims of the river over the course of centuries. Whenever she flooded, Lethe toyed with the structure of Southheap as surely as she reordered the city below, and no dead man knew how or why.
Jacob trod on a trove of moldering newspapers that crumbled into sand and ink at the touch of his sole. He tottered backward, finding his footing a moment before the scree shifted. Trembling, he watched a shelf of garbage tumble down toward the river's edge, exposing a curved talon of iron rebar that would have impaled him had he trusted that step for a moment more.
"I should've sent a damn debtor," he whispered. So far as he knew, no one who could afford this trip made it themselves, for reasons that became clearer every hour. He'd made up his mind, however, that his business here was too important to entrust to a hired hand. Despite the danger, he meant to begin his quest as he hoped to end it: with his own hard-won strength.
As Jacob picked his way toward a remnant of the spiraling path that debtors of old had built to dump their barrows of trash, he heard a clanging from the city below. They were ringing the hour in the crumbling minaret near his flat in the Preservative District. It was four in the morning, though it looked, as ever, like a hazy afternoon. He tallied five days and fourteen hours since he'd left the comfort of home, a length of time that might well have sent him spiraling into despondency had its echoes not been accompanied by his first glimpse of the fortuneteller's dwelling.
Just beyond the edge of the path, an upended water tower was half-buried in a mound of debris, and beyond its rusted curve lay a view of the River Lethe unparalleled in the city proper. Jacob, despite his unmoving lungs, gasped.
Its purplish waters were wide and slow-moving. The motionless corpses that floated on its surface were surrounded by glittering shoals of refuse and roiling rainbows of oil. There, past the bobbing shape of a claw-footed bathtub, was the stretch of river-bend where he'd thrashed out of the mud and onto his newly lifeless feet nearly a decade ago. With this unexpected glimpse of his point of deathly origin, it all came rushing back: how, after days of toil, he'd propped his numb body up on one palm, then another, only to lose his purchase in the slippery mud and splash face-first into those amniotic waters, where the whole humiliating process began anew.
Dazed by the memory of his quickening, and by that of his death that lay in hiding behind it, Jacob took a single thoughtless step.
One was enough. His arms windmilled, too wildly, too late, and he fell backward, landing with a crash on the lumpen cushion of his overstuffed knapsack. Scrabbling at the surface of Southheap, he screamed for help to no one, then bit off the sound as the ground beneath him gave. The underworld blurred and tumbled, all beige skies and thundering rubbish, and all he could think was how close he'd come before the end.
For there could be no question that his quest was over. He could hear the rush becoming a roar behind him as he somersaulted onto his belly. Riding a cresting wave of detritus, he saw a thin wall of scrap metal approaching and jammed his hands down and to the left. With inches to spare, he tumbled away from that serrated edge and thumped into the gray-green curve of a rotting featherbed.
Keening in gratitude, he lifted his head to witness the cascade thundering past. His spine would have snapped in two, and his crumpled halves would have been buried for the rest of time, or at least until the next flood. He fell back onto the mattress and shuddered: if anything could be worse than spending an endless existence buried in a landfill, it would be lying in the mud at the bottom of Lethe, watching his body deliquesce.
The bells seemed to speed up as he lay inert, thanking the starless sky. An hour passed, then twelve, then twenty-four. Finally he sat up, checking his arms, then his legs, then the rest.
Somehow he hadn't broken so much as a toe. It was a miracle. No: a blessing.
He tugged the plastic vial from a pocket in his knapsack and pressed it to his shrunken lips. He'd never been so sure of the rightness of his path. Now if only he could stay on it — and stay vertical!
Hampered by the grip of his rotting musculature on his bones, he resumed his ascent, twice as carefully as before, but without any undue worry. In life, such a setback might have distressed him, even sent him into a panic, but in the underworld, the time he'd lost was utterly insignificant. Like any other corpse, Jacob had no need for rest or nourishment, and any occupied hour was a relief so long as his body remained whole, mobile, and suitably preserved.
He spent another seven such hours regaining the ground he'd lost. Giving his full attention to his footsteps, he was surprised at how well-tended the interrupted path became as it led to the seer's door. Someone had packed it down, forcibly and recently. Stepping lightly now, he rubbed his reupholstered palms together, the high-pitched scrunch of their leather soothing his mind.
"Greetings!" he cried, jerking one hand over his head, but as soon as he'd had a good look into the murk of her chamber, he choked on his prepared speech. From the roof to the rust-bitten curve of the floor, the room was packed with filth-encrusted children's toys. Quilts and blankets spewed moldy down onto jacks-in-the-box with broken springs. Board games missing their pieces served as tables for eyeless dolls. In the center of the candy-colored sprawl sat the seer known as Ma Kicks, her body so thoroughly ravaged by time that Jacob felt a professional ache at the sight. From forehead to foot, her skin was full of holes, flashing elbows, cheekbones, and knuckles alike. Her face was a soiled handkerchief askew on her skull, incapable of expression.
"My name is Jacob Campbell," he said, steadying himself enough to bow. "I come with a gift — and an uncommon question."
Ma Kicks still hadn't moved, but at the sound of his voice, something within her did. Startled, he staggered backward, fixing his attention on her belly.
She must have been near her ninth month of pregnancy when she'd died. Since then, her womb had given way, and from its dark cavity two tiny, skeletal feet emerged, dangling over the edge, kicking into the open air.
"What's that?" she whispered, bowing her head. "Oh. All right. If we got to, we got to." Looking up, she seemed to notice Jacob for the first time. "Strange. Strange agent you are. What's your name, now?"
"Jacob," he said, uneasy at repeating such simple information.
"Jacob Campbell. May I be so bold as to —" "Why'd you come?" Her hands drifted with maddening languidness toward her baby's feet.
"As I said, I came to ask —"
"I don't mean what for," she said, her voice as slow as molasses. One decimated hand found the child's toes and slowly wiggled over them. "Coochee-coo," she murmured, then looked up again. "I mean why you. Everybody sends somebody. Nobody comes up here himself. That's the whole point."
"The point of what?" said Jacob. Had Ma Kicks been away from the company of corpses so long that she'd gone mad? Or had she always been this way?
"The point of leaving." She was playing pat-a-cake now, at the tempo of a dirge. "They send servants, the servants don't want to small talk. And it's quiet that gets us through the years."
Jacob steeled himself and stepped into the doorway. "What I have to ask is too — too personal to entrust to a proxy. Both for me and for you. I'm not here to speak to Ma Kicks."
For the first time, she seemed to give him her full attention, her hands plopping into her lap. Even the baby's restless feet were still.
"I'm here," he went on, "to ask a question of Clarissa."
Her body stiffened. Jacob grabbed the flaking corner of her doorway, suddenly fearful that he'd gone about this all wrong.
"That — that's what they called you, isn't it? In the days when you worked beneath Dead City's streets?"
Her head was shaking, as if palsied. She seemed unable to speak. He could think of nothing to do but press on.
"When you worked in the Tunnels, with that traveler known to every citizen as —"
Then the chamber exploded in a din so abrasive that both of them ducked.
"Remington!" she roared over what sounded like a jackhammer atop the hollow drum of the room. "I told you not to play up there!" Hustling Jacob out of the way, she stomped onto the path that curved up and around the water tower. Stunned by her sudden animation, he followed behind, striding uneasily onto the percussive roof.
There, leaping to and fro with that utter lack of coordination that is the hallmark of a recent immigrant to the Land of the Dead, a teenaged boy as pale as milk was at play. In his hand he held a gutless tennis racket, which he swung with savage ineptitude at the trio of blackbirds flapping and diving at his head, trying for his eyes. The boy's freckled face was seized in an expression of amiable surprise, and his body, clad only in blue jeans, was so perfectly unblemished that Jacob couldn't imagine how he'd died.
"Didn't I tell you to keep off the roof?" scolded Ma Kicks, snatching the racket from his hand and whacking it sidewise into one of the blackbirds. It tumbled down the side of Southheap, squawking in protest. Its partners, impressed by her aim, flapped away, and she aimed the racket at Remington. "Didn't I tell you, now?"
Jacob was still struggling to assimilate the change in her demeanor, to say nothing of her sudden increase in volume.
"But, Ma," said Remington, his voice an earnest alto, "those big birds were picking on a little one! They picked him right apart." Ma Kicks tossed the racket off the roof, and Remington turned to Jacob, as if they were old friends. "This little crow, you should have seen him go. He caught a beetle all on his own, and then those three big guys swooped down and tore his belly open to get it out. Well, he pecked the biggest one of them right in the eye, and then two of them held his wings in their beaks while the other one tore them off, like kkkkt!" As he swung his bare arms through the air to illustrate, he lost his footing and slammed onto his back, sending a thunderclap through the roof of the chamber.
Ma Kicks paced close to Jacob, leaning close. "This little fool don't heed a word I say," she said, in a conspirator's whisper. "Crawled straight up here from the river and had his mortis on my doorstep, and now I can't get rid of him."
"That's — quite the predicament," said Jacob under his breath. It occurred to him that Ma Kicks had taken a sort of surrogate, a child who could act where hers could not. He wondered if the bond of motherhood, if nothing else, might stir her from inaction.
"Where did that little crow go, anyway?" Shoving himself onto his bare feet, Remington stumbled around in a circle, and as he turned his back, Jacob saw the jagged wound that had caused his death. The back of his head had been obliterated by a shotgun, and nothing remained but gleaming bone.
"That's why I call him Remington," murmured Ma Kicks. "Dummy crossed over with his brainpan clean as a mixing-bowl. Big toe stuck in a shottie's trigger-guard. Came up the Heap using it as a walking stick. But since he left his brains behind, he don't remember a moment of his life. Boy's halfway between an idiot and an angel, but the idiot half is on my last nerve.
"Aw, Remy, put that bird down!" she cried, staggering off the roof in disgust. "Nasty things got diseases even a corpse could catch."
Remington bounded up to Jacob, thrusting his cradled hands out before him. "See, look at him! He's scrappy. And little. I think he's like a kid crow."
The crow and its wings, stunned by the shock of division, lay perfectly still in the boy's cradled hands. "Let's sit down here," said Jacob, clearing a space in the rubble and depositing his knapsack by its side, sensing a rare opportunity to win the seer's favor. "Put the crow down, if you would, and we'll see if we can stitch him up." With nimble, practiced gestures, he pulled out several plastic canisters, selecting a needle and a spool. "The thread's black, you see, so it will blend right in."
"Will his wings work?"
"No way to know unless we try," said Jacob, teasing the skin loose from the wing-stubs with a dental tool. He glanced at Ma Kicks, who was watching them sidelong. "I rarely work with postmortem severance, but since the incident was recent, there's hope."
As Remington stared in mute fascination, Jacob told him to retrieve a film canister full of paper clips from the knapsack and straighten two of them. "We'll fix the wings to the body with those," he explained as Remington fumbled with the cap. "I'll have to jam them into the muscles to keep them in place, but it won't hurt your friend. He's past all that now."
"How do you know how to do this?" said Remington, popping the cap open, spilling paper clips everywhere.
"Not to worry, I'll pick those up in a moment. I know how to do this because this is how I earn my keep. I'm a preservationist: I apply cosmetic, medical, and taxidermic principles to the business of keeping long-dead corpses looking like they were only just living. I don't get many crows for clients, though; I fix people. Although my first client, believe it or not, was a rat named Japheth."
"A talking rat?" said Remington.
"Not that I noticed." Jacob dipped his needle into the skin at the crow's shoulder, then through the wing. "I named him myself. His situation was rather similar to that of your friend: he'd made his way out of the river, and some citizen, in spite or ignorance, had stomped on him. As a result, his front end worked, but his little bottom dragged on the ground, and as he passed by the spot where I'd been sitting since my mortis passed, I found him so pitiful that I determined to fix him using the basic skills of taxidermy, a hobby of mine in livelier times.
"I had a theory I was eager to test, you see. Some of the corpses I'd seen on the streets were like you: they had bodies like living folk, with muscles and organs intact. But some — forgive me, Clarissa — were more like Ma Kicks, little more than skeletons dressed in skin."
"Hell, I know what I look like," muttered Ma Kicks, keeping an eye on Remington while she reached absentmindedly into her womb.
"So what was the theory?" said Remington.
"Since the corpses who were only skin and bone seemed to move just as well as the fleshy ones," said Jacob, testing the flexibility of one reattached wing with his fingers, "I came to believe that bones are the engine driving the motion of the dead."
"Bones are the engine," whispered Remington, as if he might be quizzed on this point.
"To prove this theory, I experimented on little Japheth, who didn't object. With the pocket-knife I'd brought with me from the Lands Above —"
Excerpted from Dead Boys by Gabriel Squalilia. Copyright © 2015 Gabriel Squalilia. Excerpted by permission of Talos Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Gabriel Squailia is an author and professional DJ from Rochester, New York. An alum of the Friends World Program, they studied storytelling and literature in India, Europe, and the Middle East before settling in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts with their partner and daughter. Squailia's first novel, Dead Boys, was published by Talos Press in 2015.
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