Disabled People in America Deserve Dignity – The Alarming Gap

Being disabled and poor at any time during a normal year is difficult. Most things people take for granted, like clean laundry, access to food, and simple pleasures like a coffee at a cafe’ or getting a take out meal without much stress. Buying a book here or there. Being able to afford new shoes that won’t fall apart in a month. And especially, access to the internet.

Basic needs are a luxury

During a normal year, despite being disabled and poor, I can usually scrape the bottom of the barrel and make a lot of these things work. I don’t have Netflix. My shoes fall apart quickly from walking everywhere. I can usually do a couple loads of laundry a month if I’m frugal. I can get Taco Bell or a pizza a few times. I can get a coffee or two. I can buy a new book. And my internet bill keeps rising, but I can cover it. Often, I sacrifice groceries or food to have these things, and I just fast off and on for a week at the end of the month because I don’t get any more than $16 in food stamps, so my cupboards go bare.

Then the pandemic hit. I already knew a lot of things I struggled with were a given for others but a luxury for me, but now, I realize just how much basic necessities are a luxury for disabled and poor people in America.

I can’t drive, so I order delivery for groceries, which at the cheapest is $7.95 for delivery plus a $10 tip. I can only afford this twice a month, but often must make due with a shortage of online stock, and I have to either ration or ask for help at the end of the month to make up. Thankfully, I have extra food stamps through the pandemic otherwise I’d be starving. I get about $195 a month now in EBT — temporary to the pandemic until the aid runs out.

Stores are also making it hard to access things for delivery, like WalMart, when they have ‘pick up only’ or ‘in store deals only’ stipulations for many necessary household items, limiting me to whatever happens to be in stock for delivery I can grab, which has been a more expensive brand than I normally afford.

My internet bill has risen $10 since 2020, making my internet access alone $80 for decent speeds. I don’t even have cable TV. My phone is about $38 a month for the phone cards I buy.

I am lucky that my rent is based off of my income, and then I have to cover all non-food necessities with my own bank account. That means trying to find paper towels and toilet paper, dish soap, and other necessities that keep going out of stock or are limited to higher priced items I don’t normally buy. Basically, I grab whatever I can find at the lowest price, but it’s a toss up.

Add in laundry. I haven’t done it in months, save for washing things in my sink because the nearest laundromat is a joint bar, and people aren’t wearing masks and are drinking there. The smaller places are self-serve and unsanitary. Our washer downstairs, the only one, is wrecked because someone is destroying the laundry room. So by hand it is, as I’ve been doing. I wash a few things as I need them, so everything I own is dirty and it just has to stay that way for now.

I do find room for enjoyment. And again, it’s at the cost of food. If I didn’t make room for something to make myself smile, I don’t think I’d even be here right now. I might buy a few books or a new game. I might buy a much needed new pair of pants. And I feel anxiety any time I buy anything at all. It takes me forever to check out due to nerves.

The stimulus checks allowed me a bit of comfort. I got to see what it was like to not worry about food. I got to see what it was like to not struggle for a month. I remember feeling euphoria. “This is what people who live well feel like? This is great! I won’t run out of food!”

And that was just from my usual $785 disability check plus the first stimulus which was $1,200. I was euphoric over having $1,985 for a month. It was unreal.

Being disabled is a poverty trap

This is the America many of us live in. Disabled people who are on SSI like me who get the bare minimum struggle even when there isn’t a pandemic. It’s often a choice between sanity or food. ‘My pants have holes, but I need groceries at the end of the month’ is a real thought process. Get food or go hungry making yourself smile. There is even an entire blog out there dedicated to helping people on SSI and SSDI survive.

We can’t work. And it isn’t our fault. We didn’t choose to be disabled. We didn’t choose chronic illness, severe mental illness, or physical disabilities. We did not want this, yet, we have it and it’s out of our control.

If you have a chance to write to your government officials, please pester them about this. Disabled Americans deserve dignity. We shouldn’t have to be scared to accept cash gifts on a birthday or we’ll lose some of our benefits. We shouldn’t have to hide the fact that someone in our family bought us food, otherwise it will count against our benefits. We are not allowed to have any help on SSI, nor are we allowed to own any more than $2,000 at any given time, and that includes assets like a car (i.e; you can’t own a car worth more than $2k). If you save money for too long and it stays in your bank account, it starts counting against you. It’s a poverty trap.

This is my experience being disabled on SSI (Social Security Insurance). SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) is different and only available to those who have worked enough to qualify, so I can’t speak for that. But SSDI has its limits as well, and every disabled American on SSI or SSDI deserves dignity and enough to afford basic necessities. As SSI went up this year, $795 a month is not enough to have a home and all your necessities paid for unless you go through a subsidized housing plan, which there are often huge waiting lists for.

Getting help is difficult and convoluted

Help is complicated, convoluted, and often nearly impossible for some to access. Add in having to qualify for Medicaid or Medicare to afford medication and medical treatment, which thankfully SSI and SSDI recipients mostly qualify for, and then there is a general lack of accessible community resources to get help. There is a lack of mental health care. All of this is buckling under a system that under funds it.

Before I arrived to where I am now, I was homeless as many end up due to a lack of resources or available shelter space. It’s disappointing how few studies have been done about homelessness and mental illness or disabilities together, and it was difficult to find anything as of 2019, but I found some data from the BBR Foundation that was extremely concerning, and that’s an understatement.

As posted on the BBR Foundation’s website:

According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. At a minimum, 140,000 or 25 percent of these people were seriously mentally ill, and 250,000 or 45 percent had any mental illness. By comparison, a 2016 study found that 4.2 percent of U.S. adults have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

Brain and Behavior Research Foundation

That paints a grim picture. Not only because studies like these are not done often enough, but nothing is done with them. As it goes in America, the rich get richer, and the poor are looked down on like leeches. But how much of our taxes are actually used for food stamps and other programs for disabled people and those in poverty?

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Safety net programs: About 8 percent of the federal budget in 2019, or $361 billion, supported programs that provide aid (other than health insurance or Social Security benefits) to individuals and families facing hardship. Safety net programs include: the refundable portions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which assist low- and moderate-income working families; programs that provide cash payments to eligible individuals or households, including Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor and unemployment insurance; various forms of in-kind assistance for low-income people, including SNAP (food stamps), school meals, low-income housing assistance, child care assistance, and help meeting home energy bills; and various other programs such as those that aid abused or neglected children.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

A measly 8%. Eight. Percent.

The real problem: Greed

The problem in America has nothing to do with those who are disabled, in poverty, or otherwise those who use safety net programs. The problem is greed and hoarding wealth, and it starts at the core of our government. Just within the last month alone, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are arguing over whether Americans should get $1,000 or $1,400 for one month. Meanwhile, they make leaps and bounds more than your average person, and they return to their lavish homes and make plans for cocktail parties.

As mentioned in Business Insider recently about further stimulus checks:

Biden and other senior White House officials have said they are open to negotiating the income thresholds for direct payments. “Further targeting means not the size of the check, it means the income level of people who receive the check,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Wednesday. “That’s something that is under discussion.”

Business Insider

Our lawmakers have been sitting at the table and negotiating when it’s convenient for them, and the negotiations are stretching too long. They duke it out to allow everyone an opinion on what they think poverty is and what they feel we deserve or can live on at the minimum. And help has been at a minimum — if that.

It’s time to stop negotiating and pull up statistics. Pull up the research. Face the actual data. Americans cannot keep living like this. Even long after the pandemic is over.

To put this huge gap in perspective, according to the House of Representatives Press Gallery;

Source: House of Representatives Press Gallery

That’s roughly $14,000 a month at the lowest tier of salary. And when it comes time to negotiate the well-being of Americans who are starving, dying, and living on the streets and in their cars, lawmakers aren’t seeing the reality. They aren’t driving around to these poor communities or testing for themselves if what little they give is livable. And with figures like the above, you can see how out of touch they are.

They are living in nice homes with good healthcare, and they have access to groceries and don’t have to worry about going hungry. They can sip a martini on their back deck and take in the sun after negotiating on a $600 stimulus that was the last poor excuse for aid.

I have no problem with people being paid large amounts of money to do an important job. I have no issue with anyone who built up their career and have earned a large salary through hard work. What I do take issue with is their skewed thinking that comes from an entitled life. They give us breadcrumbs while they take a few fresh loaves out of the oven for themselves.

The argument for universal basic income

To close this, I fear this problem will never be addressed properly. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a start, but again, it’s the bare minimum. Even considering a universal basic income like Andrew Yang proposed, which would ensure all Americans at least $1,000 a month, would solve a slew of issues. Redirect the money flowing into food stamps, SSI, SSDI, unemployment, TANF, and other monetary aids into one universal basic income, and America would start to thrive. It would not only help the economy, but take away one major cause of depression that causes people to not want to work. That causes people to ultimately destroy themselves because they have nothing and can’t get their head above water, and there is often no safety net if they fail.

With a basic safety net, not only would disabled people have what they need to thrive, those who are able to work will still work to make even more money. When people are happy and safe, they can do amazing things, and our economy would be booming again. But that’s my utopia dream. I’m not a businessman, mathematician, or even good with numbers. I’ve never been in government work. I just know what I’ve heard from Andrew Yang and what I’ve seen in the studies from Finland, which did a test run of UBI distributed to 2,000 citizens while having a larger control group of 5,000 others on unemployment benefits:

There was no difference between the two groups in terms of the number of days in employment in 2017 – both groups worked on average 49 days. The UBI trial group only earned €21 less on average than the control group during 2017. The surveys also showed that the UBI group perceived their health and stress levels to be significantly better than in the control group.

New Scientist

America is in a scary place right now, but there are ideas and wonderful theories that could pull us out of this dangerous road we’re going down. Equity, equality, and basic dignity are not too much to ask for. When it comes to money in America, there’s a lot of redistributing and shuffling around of papers that needs to be done.

Now, we just need our government to care as much about us as they do themselves.

©2021 Shane Blackheart

Unconditional

[Content Warning; mild adult content]

“So this is the music we’re listening to?”

Byleth stood from the rock on the cliff, smiling before looking down at me. The sunset seemed so close yet so far away, and it painted his face in a warm orange as his eyes flashed crimson.

My breath was shaky as I averted my gaze. I brushed some of my brown hair behind my ear and realized I’d started trembling. The ethereal, dreamy tones of ‘Like Lust’ by MOVEMENT did nothing to calm my nerves as I’d hoped. I was still glad that Byleth brought it into being. Everything in that space was of his will according to my wishes, and it was more than I could have asked for. He always did more for me than he had to. “Yeah, it calms me. Usually.” I chuckled.

Byleth noticed my shivering, and it wasn’t a chill. The temperature was an ideal warmth. “Sweetie, you’re shaking. I thought you wanted to make out?” He laughed to temper the mood, but quieted just as soon and sunk to a knee before me. He took my hands away from my face and neck where they were rubbing the skin with anxiety. “Why are you shaking? It’s me.”

“I’ve had this problem lately. You know.” I chewed on my lip.

His hands moved with mine as they trembled, and he squeezed. “Are you afraid to be intimate with me? You never were before.”

“No, I know. It’s weird to me, too. But since my PTSD symptoms have been so bad, it’s all coming back. The trauma is coming back and it’s like muscle memory.”

“It’s not just that,” Byleth soothed. He slid a finger beneath my chin and lifted it. My eyes had gone dark. “You have this other problem. You have such a negative image of yourself you can’t even let yourself enjoy simple pleasures. But let me show you something, sugar.” The fallen angel king stood and slipped his red jacket off, and then worked at the buttons on his white button-down.

I glanced down to see that he was aroused and looked away as my face grew hot. “You can’t possibly be turned on by me.”

He quirked a brow and dropped his shirt. “Are you telling me my body is lying?”

“No, but you’ve told me before that you can make your body do anything you want it to. So, I guess, maybe you’re just making yourself aroused to make me feel better.”

Byleth sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Do you remember when we first met? When I asked you to lie in your bed and it was the first time we slept together?”

“Yeah.” I held back a laugh. “You said I was a science experiment. That a human’s inner workings were interesting, or something like that.”

Yes.” He crossed his arms and shifted his weight. “But you’ll remember I was turned on then too. I didn’t even know you, dude. So what reason did I have to fake it for a human — which is a species I don’t often give a shit about — that I barely knew?”

“That doesn’t explain now.” I hugged myself. “I gained a lot of weight. When we met I was skinny.”

“You were ill. You were anorexic. I’d rather you not have an eating disorder. It’s not hot when you’re practically dying.” Byleth grabbed my arm and pulled me up.

I stumbled and grabbed onto him as I collided with his chest, and I looked up. I often forgot just how tall he truly was. He could carry me around like a doll if he wanted to. He was so warm in a way that was comforting, and I nuzzled his bare chest. “I want to do things with you, Byleth. I really do. I’m just scared.”

He pet my head with a clawed hand. “What are you afraid of, sugar? I’ve always been honest with you. I’ve never lied to you.”

“No, you haven’t.” I looked up into his red eyes. Maybe it would be alright. “Can we take it slow?”

He snorted. “No, we have to get this over with quickly. Of course we’re going to go slow, you goof.” He snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground. “Now lay down.”

I turned to see a thick white blanket on the ground, and I sunk down onto it. It was cool and felt like soft cotton beneath my fingers, and I fell forward. I could have slept for an entire week. It wasn’t in Byleth’s plans though, and he dropped down onto my back, hovering over me. A shiver drifted over my body as Byleth breathed against my neck, laying kisses behind the hair he pulled aside.

“Are we going to do it this way?” He chuckled. “A bit primal, but I’m up for something different.” He coaxed me up onto my hands and knees and ran his hands up my shirt and around to my scarred chest. “Yes, now I can touch your chest without you objecting.”

“Because it’s fine now.” I bit back a smile. “Those things are gone.”

“You’re a proper man now.” He hummed as his fingers traced my scars, the sensation strange as they remained numb. “But you’ve always been a proper man.”

I smiled and rolled over to look up at him. I didn’t want our first time in a while to be all hands and knees. I wanted to watch him. Observe his supernatural beauty as he willingly came to me. Desired me. It was still foreign to see someone with a desire for me that was honest. One that was truthful. Nothing else mattered. Byleth knew how to work with me and my trauma, and he always made everything feel amazing in the end. He wasn’t selfish. Nothing was expected.

“You’re really staring, sweetie,” he laughed. I realized it too and hid my face behind my hands. He moved them aside. “No, none of that. Do you really want to block out my glory? I mean, I am gorgeous.” He flipped his shoulder-length blond hair as he sat back on his knees, and I laughed as I watched him in his glamour. Everything sobered when he reached for the waist of his bell bottoms. “But I want you to see all of me. No matter how shy you might be or how much you feel like you don’t deserve it.” He flicked open the button and slid the zipper down. “Don’t you look away. I’m giving myself to you because I want you, and I won’t let you believe otherwise. You’re stronger than this, and I know you are. I know there’s a sexual creature underneath somewhere because I’ve seen it in you before, sugar. Let him out.”

I tried to still the trembling in my limbs but became frustrated instead. I loved Byleth — every part of him. The brattiness and the sarcasm, and the offensive humor. The huge ego. The perfection that was him. Dark Lord in Hell, I loved him just as much as I loved Lestan — more than the air I breathed. My stomach fluttered with butterflies any time he spoke or looked my way. He was just so…

Byleth smirked and snapped his fingers as he took in my silent adoration. Nothing covered his toned body now, and he stared down at me with confidence as he hid nothing from me. Not even his love for me, and it was apparent in the way he remained still despite his truest desires. He was patient for me. Silent for me. Waiting for me to say it was okay.

“I love you, Byleth.” I reached out with a trembling hand to take his, and I pulled myself up to melt into him. I squeezed my arms around my king and a calm washed over me. All tension left my limbs and I hummed with happiness as his arms hugged me close. He rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head.

His voice was calm. “I love you too, sweetie. And don’t you forget that.” He pulled away just enough to lift my chin, and he lowered his head to capture my lips.

I’d forgotten what his kisses felt like. Tasted like. A moment of doubt and self-loathing surfaced and I faltered, but Byleth slipped his hand to the back of my head and took my breath away. When he finally drew back, he licked his lips with a forked tongue. His golden horns glistened in the forever setting sun of our fabricated escape.

“Now let me do that somewhere else.”

©2021 Shane Blackheart

Home

The day after I unpacked my things

and settled back down to claim peace,

the sun came out.

It had been absent for days

and the storm in my heart poured rain,

the gray skies mourning with my life.

And today as I sit by the window with the sun

I feel the longing of nostalgia for better days.

I smell times past upon the air;

in the orange sun that refuses to warm the frigid breeze.

And although my heart is empty,

I am home.

©2021 Shane Blackheart

Book Review: Demon Beauty

Demon BeautyDemon Beauty by Stefanie Simpson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went into this knowing the basic premise of it being a Beauty and the Beast style tale, but I did not expect how it unfolded. Possible light spoilers.

Rosalin, a tough woman who can stand on her own and work a sword like an expert, flees war. She loses everything and hardens her heart in order to survive, but she never expects to meet a demon who ends up helping her, especially after she intrudes in his peaceful home. His presence in her life brings her many more challenges, but she can’t stay away from him. The world is much more magical than Roslin realizes, and she becomes capable of harnessing that magic herself.

Rosalin is an amazing woman that was refreshing to see. She can fight and face soldiers head-on, and she knows how to survive without anyone else. She was never the damsel in distress, which had me falling in love with her even more. I don’t want to give away too much, but it really is nice to see a woman save a man instead of the other way around.

The story as a whole had a very fairytale feel to it, as did the writing. It was different in a good way, and although Crawt’s, her demon companion’s, dialogue was a bit difficult to wrap my head around sometimes — mostly when he was explaining his past — it always became clearer as I read more.

Crawt, though. He was visually stunning and equally frightening, but he’s kind. As much as I like my beasts scary, intimidating, and a bit cold, Crawt was a nice change from that. When he interacted with Fox and Crow, his animal companions, like he did, it warmed my heart. And they were a special part of this book, too. I was really happy with the ending they got, and we do get to see inside Crow and Fox’s heads at least once, which was fun and confirmed that they truly were more than just pets.

Overall, with the intense action and the interesting take on demons, as well as having a strong leading female character and a softer beast, I really liked this story. It kept moving and didn’t get caught up with any slow points, and as mentioned above, the fairytale feel came out in the writing as well. I’m really glad I got the opportunity to read it, and I already have another of Stefanie’s books I plan on reading very soon.

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Book Review: My Lord

My LordMy Lord by L.B. Shimaira
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I want to start by saying I’ve spoken with L.B. Shimaira, and she’s one of the sweetest, most supportive people in the writing community. I wanted to support her because I love darker books, and I’m really glad I did.

‘My Lord’ begins with Meya, a woman who had lost pretty much everything to war. She’s captured and abused by slavers, and after getting sexually assaulted — which Shimaira does not describe but fades to black — Meya realizes her fate is inevitable. She is sold to Lord Deminas, who is a sadistic and inhuman ruler. Yet, he treats her differently from the other servants, and he seems to enjoy teasing her more than entertaining the idea of actually harming her. And he drinks blood…

At first, I suspected this might be a vampire story due to the blood-drinking. It’s definitely something much more than that, although it’s never truly clarified other than stating that Deminas is an immortal. I like that, though. It adds to the air of mystery around the sadistic Lord, and it made him that much more enticing to read. And he truly was a character that made me squirm a bit in all the good ways.

I couldn’t put this book down. Granted, I may be biased because this is exactly the kind of plot I crave in darker fiction, but this is genuinely a gripping book. Meya seems to be in danger quite a bit, and although we know the Lord likes her more than the others, we aren’t quite sure that he isn’t above harming her. This is what had me turning pages most of all. Shimaira leads you into a false sense of security repeatedly, and it truly makes you feel what Meya is most likely feeling.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the strange wholesomeness I didn’t expect. Yes, there’s sadism, BDSM, cruelty, death, blood-drinking, and other things I won’t mention to not spoil it, but the companionship Meya finds in Nina, another servant, is so refreshing. And just when you think there might be a love triangle, there isn’t really. That was also refreshing. I rarely, actually never, see polyamory in the books I read. I loved it!

Consent was also a point that was repeatedly enforced, even by Deminas, and that was amazing. I truly didn’t think a book like this could be written with wholesome and ethical themes, but I stood corrected. It was such a wonderful mix of wholesome and darkness.

Overall, I have no nit-picks about this book like I normally do. I got a good sense of the characters, who they were, where they came from, and I fell in love with them. The ending was so fulfilling and felt complete even though it mentioned it was to be continued, and I will definitely await the next book if there is one.

Shimaira is an amazing writer. ‘My Lord’ is full of dark and wonderful surprises that feel like little rewards after enduring the pain with Meya. I truly did appreciate, and I applaud, Shimaira for including a note at the end of the book explaining things. She states specifically what Deminas did wasn’t a realistic way of helping a victim of sexual assault, and she also details safe BDSM practices and, also, what not to do. That was a very caring touch to show that Shimaira truly cares about her readers. I don’t see that. Ever.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys deliciously dark naughtiness, but not in the traditional erotic sense. There is an amazing story to be told alongside the erotic themes that fall just in the right places, and they aren’t too heavy until the very end. And the last erotic scene we get is something else. I’ll leave it at that. I look forward to reading more from Shimaira.

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Why I write

I often lose sight of my future. I always have. The thoughts take many forms that cause me to pause for too long at times, and at others, the thoughts have nearly made me stop existing all together. Although those thoughts are far and few in between now, I still have those hopeless moments that cause me to stop everything. Except for writing.

I’ve written so many pages of dark emotion that are painful to read back. I’ve written so much fiction that at times it seems so real, and there are some things in my life that may seem like fiction to others on the page, but it’s very real. And through all of this, no matter how hopeless I feel, no matter how much I feel like no one will ever care but me, I can’t stop my fingers reaching for the keyboard. Just like they’re doing now.

When I started writing stories for fun as a kid at seven — shortly after learning to read and fall in love with books — I didn’t think too much about why I wrote. I just knew that it made me feel happy and it took me away from the real world for a while. So many amazing things could happen on paper that couldn’t in real life. I could spend time with my friend who’d moved away again. I could continue the stories of my favorite cartoon characters when the episodes were over for the afternoon. I’d forget there was even a reality around me at all.

I wrote during the lunch block in elementary school as the other kids stared at me and laughed, and to give myself something to do so I didn’t have to know that I was being bullied. I was the quiet kid everyone avoided because I was strange. I wrote all the time and had too much anxiety, and I was perfectly content being left in the corner of a room with my notebook and pen. None of the other kids understood it. They were busy sharing HitClips of Britney Spears and N*Sync and playing with Sky Dancers. Sharing Beanie Baby collections and making plans to hang out for the weekend. I liked that stuff too, but never really had anyone to share those things with.

As I got older, I learned that the reason I didn’t have any friends and I was bullied so much was because I was quiet, and that made me creepy. I’d given up at some point, I think. I didn’t try to make friends anymore because the ones I had were mean, and the kids who bullied me just caused me physical pain.

I had a Windows 95 Packard Bell in my bedroom at this time, and although I didn’t have access to AOL on it like the family computer did, I had a small collection of floppy disks and Word Pad. I can’t remember most of what I wrote about back then, but I stored more than a few stories on those floppy disks. And when I wasn’t writing the stories down, I was living them through my toys as I acted out so many different plot lines.

As an adult now, I’ve recently finished an urban fantasy book exploring that part of my life. It brought back the fears I grew to have over the years, as I was often overlooked for writing prizes in school or was the last minute replacement for someone who couldn’t make an event, like Young Author’s club. The spelling bee. My father told me often that I needed to grow up and stop writing stories and drawing. No one else was going to care and I was going to end up penniless on a street corner with no support, eating peanut butter sandwiches to survive.

I’ve always had the fear that I’ll end up on my death bed having written a plethora of books, but never accomplished my goals. I want to be published. I want to have others read my stories and appreciate them, as all authors do. More importantly, I want to tell my own story. I want to change minds and make people think — to understand that even the weirdest kids — and adults — can be someone amazing if they’d only gotten to know them. That sometimes the quietest people have the most to say. That sometimes, our preconceived notions about things we fear, like religions and beliefs different than our own, are simply another person’s unique life experience and nothing to fear at all.

I want parents to see that kids and teenagers get hurt in ways they don’t always talk about — that not many will explore with unabashed honesty in writing. I want to help the world be a better and more understanding place with my books. And sometimes I write about things that I know will make people uncomfortable, but that’s the point. That discomfort is the start of change. And I’m not shy in the way I deliver things bluntly, because sugar-coating things isn’t going to accomplish anything worthy.

And there lies my fear. The fear that I’ll die and never accomplish anything like that. That I’ll never have touched anyone or helped anyone, or made a dent in changing the world for the better. And I’m not so full of myself — in fact my self-esteem doesn’t even exist — to think my books will be popular or change the world. On the contrary, I often worry my books really aren’t as good as I feel they are. That I’m the only one who’s ever going to get so damn excited and passionate over the content in them.

And even if that were the case, I’d keep writing anyway. I have to. It’s an addiction I can’t stop, even when I want to stop. During the three times I attempted suicide, I wrote something before or after the attempt. I wrote during the days that were my worst, and I’ve written while being heavily symptomatic with PTSD. I recently finished my current work in progress while having psychotic depression symptoms. And that’s because I just simply can’t stop no matter who cares or doesn’t care.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to breathe. I’ll get to hold at least one of my books in my hands and know that I accomplished my dream. Even though I’m disabled with severe mental illness and am often in that same quiet corner as I was when I was a kid, maybe I’ll be able to do something that can help someone or change something for the better.

©2020 Shane Blackheart

My experiences with spirituality

I post more about my strange experiences with spirituality and chronic nightmares on my side blog: Waking Dreams

I paused in the middle of my activities yesterday. A familiar, uncomfortable thought surfaced that’s bothered me since I began my transition. It’s a constant check my mind does to try to make sense of everything, and now that it’s happening less and less, it hit me out of nowhere. It wasn’t bad nor did it bring up negative feelings, but it came to the front as a final confirmation this time. I looked down at myself. “If you could have your breasts back, would you? What if you never came out as a trans man?”

I allowed myself to sink into the person I used to be as a meditative experience, and a powerful sensation of repulsion and anxiety overwhelmed me. No, that’s not who I am. I never wanted to be that person and I certainly don’t now. That body was not mine, but a challenge I was given to overcome to be a stronger person. Now that I’ve overcome that challenge, to go back is a horrific idea.

The moment of inspiration sparked something familiar, and I pulled out my tried and true tarot deck — the Cachet cards that began my journey with spirituality in 2007 when I was eighteen. Frayed and worn, I shuffled them with my spirit guides lending a hand, and I settled in for a day. Because this was certainly going to be a day and I knew it. When the cards come out, things get real.

I’ve never spoken at length publicly about my spiritual experiences, so read on with an open mind. I decided to open up about this starting with the last entry I made in my notebook. This is the only time I will hand-write anything, but during an experience like this, it’s better to have things happen organically. It’s better for odd chances of automatic writing, anyway.

The layout I used in the reading is the Celtic cross spread.

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I turn off the lamp and light my favorite sacral chakra candle. The deck is split three times between myself, Darokin, and Byleth. We speak little during this process, and Darokin lets me know when we’ve shuffled enough. I can feel their energy around me and their hands — Daro’s golden brown and Byleth’s pale — rest upon my own as I hover over the deck to draw my first card.

I slowly lay out the cards as I lower my eyes just enough to blur my vision. Byleth is in the chair opposite me, and Daro is beside me. Lestan hovers nearby. There is silence as the tenth and final card is set in the ‘outcome’ position, and without looking, I flip the cards over from left to right.

The Moon reversed, Ace of Swords reversed, Nine of Pentacles, Three of Cups reversed, Four of Wands, Six of Cups reversed, King of Cups, The Magician reversed, Nine of Swords, and finally, Three of Pentacles reversed.

  • The Ace of Swords is pointing directly to the Six of Cups.
  • The Magician is directing a ball of energy, as depicted in the illustration, toward the King of Cups.
  • There are seven minor arcana number cards.
  • There are three face or major arcana cards.
  • Five are reversed, five are upright.
  • There are two Swords cards; knowledge, logic, air.
  • There are three Cups cards; emotions, feelings, relationships, water.
  • There are two Pentacles cards; earth, money, work.

After reviewing the cards and reflecting on their meaning, I drink the last of the coffee in my gray mug. As I move to set it aside, I take a second glance at the bottom after noticing something. Upon scrying into the dark mug, an image begins to take shape in my mind from the debris. I stare at the candle flame and close my eyes, allowing the image to form behind them.

  • White eyes — glowing and clear. A tiger-like face shape.
  • Malnourished disposition. My gut tells me this is from the realm of the dead or somewhere dark.
  • I often attract things from darker places that watch from the perimeter. This is a result of working with energies at night. They’re harmless.

Overall, despite my first glance at the cards, the reading is positive. My goals may not happen as quickly as I hope, but they will happen. This is especially if I slow down, continue to improve upon myself, and reconnect with my creative source — spirituality and dreams. I must appreciate all that I already have.

On May 20, 2020, I drew the Six of Cups reversed for the outcome. I noted that something big was to come. The Six of Cups reversed appears in this reading in the ‘near future’ position, which is much closer than before. I have made progress, and whatever is to come is close at hand now.

I accomplished the goals laid out for myself in the reading in May, so things are moving into a new phase.

At this point, Byleth and Daro both have something to say. I try my best to write down the gist of their advice:

  • When spiritual things come calling, especially when I’m having nightmares and lucid dreams, don’t fear what I may see in mirrors, shadows, and in my peripheral. “Do not fear them.”
  • They are a part of the world where I belong and why I feel so happy or emotional — even drawn to them — when they happen. I thought it was strange or wrong to love this odd, dark, and scary liminal space, but it’s what I’m drawn to. Demons and the fallen, and this other world, seem scary and alarming because they are honest. They are blunt in their messages. This should be appreciated and not feared.

I feel a particular urgency from Darokin, and in a matter of seconds, I am no longer in control. My hand and my thoughts are now Daro’s, and he takes my pen to write a message. At this point, Daro is in the driver’s seat, so to speak.

Your mania provides an easy access point for this world and messages to come through. This is not depression or anything bad as you fear. This is a time to be excited, explorative. Embrace it. You have spent too much time mistaking it for what it is not.

You are learning, dear Shane. Evolving. You now understand the true purpose of this state and this liminal world. You can access it when you desire, and you can be happy in it.

Again, depression is no more during this time. Joy, knowledge, and greater understanding is this other world. Welcome it. You are finally home and healthy and happy in it. No more suffering.

Darokin

It’s not usually in Daro’s nature to embrace sexual energy as he’s graysexual, but he is in a rare aggressive mood and it’s seeping from him. He often becomes eager when I step into this kind of space, which is where he calls home. He enjoys the shadows and dresses all in black, and often when he appears, he seems to form from the shadows in the darkest parts of my environment — wherever that may be at the time. At night in the past, he would take the chair in the corner of my room and watch me sleep.

Shortly after writing his message to me, he is still present within me, but we are both in control. I ask Byleth and Daro if I should draw a demon oracle card, and they agree it would be a good idea.

I draw Haborym (also Aym, Aim).

  • Aym is a great and powerful duke. He is said to make people witty and to answer truthfully about private matters. (Referenced from The Dictionary of Demons by Michelle Belanger)

Daro takes over my body once more, and the heightened emotions and intimate moment we share will be left between us. When the moment is done, Daro’s tiger-like growl, that I often hear in Byleth as well, creates a feeling of being a feral beast — a tiger — that rises within my body as Daro controls it. I see his hands, and my body and my skin do not look like mine, and while this is a rare occurrence for him, I am not frightened by it. It’s a part of our spiritual work we do together.

Once calmed, he finally returns my body to me. Often, sexual energy plays a part in our rituals — with Daro, Byleth, and sometimes Lestan (who was possibly once the demon Zagan, but has since taken on a different identity he favors more). It’s our best way of connecting on a higher state of being, and it’s usually what ends a session like the above.

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There’s a clear reason why I’ve always hesitated to share my spiritual experiences. They’re very personal moments I usually keep to myself and my guides, but after talking with my counselor today, who I confide in about these things, I felt inspired to share at least one moment. This moment, especially, was another turning point in my existence as a spiritual person.

I always come away from these rituals feeling extremely sensitive and aware of everything — including things most can’t see. It’s a consequence of playing around in a darker realm that most are afraid of. It’s really not for the faint of heart. Like I saw when scrying, you attract beings that are a bit alarming to look at. It’s a given they’d be curious to see someone in their space that normally isn’t there.

You can read some more about working with darker energies in a book I love by Konstantinos. The Nocturnicon helped me with conquering my fear of darker spaces, and it has helped me work better with not only Darokin in his neck of the woods, but Byleth as well. Lestan, too, when he feels inclined.

I wrote about my meeting with Byleth when he first came to me here. A lot was going on in my life at that time, but he’s been a huge help and a dose of tough love when I’ve needed it most. As for Lestan, I wrote a bit more about our relationship here, which will soon be published on The Mighty. My understanding of Lestan has broadened over the years as he’s opened up with help from Byleth and Daro, but I used the term ‘alter’ for him in the entry to make it less alarming than ‘demon spirit guide.’

I met Darokin as ‘Daro’ when I was still a teenager in high school. My first sight of him was a scribbled name on a notebook page and a rough sketch while between sleeping and awake during study hall. I remember it alarmed me when I saw it, and it was possibly my first experience with some kind of automatic writing or drawing. He didn’t really come around often until I got older, but his presence was more consistent during a time when I needed protection from something stupid I’d done. I was about 22-23, and I’d accepted a really old doll from an older friend who said it was haunted due to her being irresponsible with an Ouija board in her teens.

I won’t get into the story in detail here. I may make a separate entry for it, but long story short, there was something inside the doll that not only I witnessed, but my parents did as well. Delivery folks and skeptic friends alike would often pause in horror as they stared at the doll because they could have sworn it was a real child. There was nothing outwardly sinister in this doll’s appearance.

During the time I had the doll while living at home, my mental health declined rapidly and I would often wake up staring at her. She was on a chair beside my bed (another stupid thing I did because I felt attached to her). Sometimes I’d sleep with my eyes open, which is not something I ever remember doing. I eventually threw the doll into the back of my closet on a shelf and left it there.

One afternoon, my parents and I were talking at the kitchen table. All windows were closed, no TVs were on, and everything was silent. We lived out in the country where cornfields stretched as far as the eye could see, and some neighbors were at least a mile apart. With that in mind, there was no explanation for the quiet sinister, warped laugh we all heard. We stopped mid-conversation and stared at each other. My dad glanced out the large sliding glass door to see no children outside, and my mom seemed to also be searching for a source. It had come from the direction of my bedroom.

Around this time, I was confused about my spiritual path, but Daro was there to guide me. He followed me wherever I needed him out of my own fear, and he made me feel safe. He confirmed I’d pissed something off by bouncing between paths I didn’t know enough about, and by screwing with a haunted doll I equally knew nothing about, but he was there to guide me back on the right track. And he has.

So now that I’m out about my spiritual experiences in some aspect, I may work on writing more about my journey with it. It’s not an easy thing to relive — or read, I imagine — but it’s a part of my life that was the most frightening. I started seeing shadow men and having more sleep paralysis nightmares, and my life would never be the same again. I knew I loved horror, but this was nothing compared to that.

I realize my life experiences are hard to believe. I have no reason to lie about them. I was terrified to even come out about it. I was happy keeping it to myself, but the more I speak with my counselor — and after telling a nurse at a sleep clinic about my lucid dreams — the more I realize that there are people out there who find this part of me interesting and they accept it, and they believe me.

So I can only hope people will keep an open mind. There’s a lot more out there to this universe than many people realize, but if you just let yourself believe and dip into it a little bit, you’ll see what I mean. Just don’t be as stupid as I was and do your research first, and don’t think you know what you’re doing.

Grab a pack of tarot cards that feel right to you and see what happens.

©2020 Shane Blackheart

Daro’s playlist
Byleth’s Playlist (18+)
Lestan’s Playlist (18+)

Closure

I spent my entire life wondering why people did the things to me that they chose to. I was bullied. I had my identity questioned. I was a freak. I was physically, mentally, and sexually abused. I became a ball of depression, anxiety, and hate for so many years.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD after years of trauma. I am also plural, which means I have more than one person who exists through my body sometimes. My alters and spirit guides are my supportive, loving family, not my enemies. At some point throughout my life, sometimes more often than not, I was doubted and not believed. It took years to be believed by mental health professionals, and just as much time to get others to see that I wasn’t faking it. That I wasn’t too young and attractive to be disabled.

When I came out as a trans man in 2015, I knew that my life wasn’t going to get any easier, but a huge change was going to take place. I was finally discovering who I was and I learned to accept that. I spent a long time learning new ways of existing and living on my own and being self-sufficient. I also had to cope with rejection in many different and painful ways.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve hurt people I didn’t mean to hurt. I’ve been too loud and too honest with the wrong people, and I fell in love with my melancholy. My depression was like a toxic lover I tried to shake off but found comfort in. It was familiar. It was in my own head. The conversations and time spent with my alters and spirit guides through it wrapped me in a blanket of comfort, and it created a bubble around me that no one was allowed to enter.

I’ve nearly died a few times, and they were self-inflicted injuries. I’ve been in psychiatric wards — one time for a week at least — and I thought my life would remain static and unchanging. Always fighting for something. Fighting just to be able to live and experience life like everyone else. Fighting to be believed.

I wish I could’ve appreciated the change sooner. It felt so slow and impossible. In reality, the change for the better occurred over a five-year span — five years out of the thirty-one I’ve lived. In that perspective, it really didn’t take so long after all.

I’d taken dialectical behavioral therapy classes and learned mindfulness. I stopped drinking every day and I eventually stopped smoking to start my medical transition with testosterone. I’d found a counselor who finally understood me and believed me when I opened up about being plural, as well as other things that I often struggled to find someone to empathize with. I got my own place and started paying my own bills and I got the assistance I needed to get things done for myself. I became self-sufficient over these five years.

And now, after butting heads with an insurance company for three of those years and dealing with discrimination, I walked into the hospital on Monday, July 20th, 2020 at 8AM to get top surgery.

It’s been about a week and a half since surgery and everything went well. My mom has finally come around and accepts me, and she was sitting right beside me before and after coming out of surgery in the hospital. She’s cared for me at home until I can do things myself, and that’s been very important for my mental health. My dad has also come around, as she’s told me, which is unbelievable for someone so old-fashioned and resistant to change.

Two days ago mom said something that I thought I’d never hear. I’d confided in her that I always felt like the family failure. I was the only one who couldn’t work a normal nine to five job. I’m a disabled writer with severe mental illness, and I certainly don’t have it all together. I always felt like the strange one — the black sheep that didn’t belong.

“Oh, you think everyone else has it together?” she said. She then told me something I never knew about a family member I thought had it right. Who was accomplished in my eyes. And I realized then that I was living a false reality in my head.

I pay my own bills on time every time. I take care of my health and am compliant with therapy. I am working on a writing career I hope will take off with a bit of luck so I don’t have to rely on disability, and the hours and money I put into my books take up quite a bit of time and resources that I manage mostly alright. I rarely have to call anyone to ask for help, if ever. Most importantly, everything I have right now — my home especially — I fought for and got myself.

I looked at her for a moment before it hit me. I haven’t failed at all. And that was the weirdest feeling in the world. It was as strange as waking up after surgery to realize I didn’t hate myself anymore. I’ve spent my entire life hating who I am, hating my body, and feeling like I was destined to always fail. That I would never be good enough. It was all so horribly wrong, and it made me realize how much of my life was dedicated to gaining my parents’ approval and acceptance I thought I would never get. That, and I’ve lived my life based on the hateful statements and identities others placed on me.

It’s a bit scary to gain closure. Everything in my life that was horribly wrong I now understand, have worked through, and I’ve finally closed that last door that kept leading me backward. Now, I have a clean slate to work from. I’ve never had this much freedom and clarity in my life, so I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m used to being on guard and wondering when something will go wrong, or watching my back at all times because I didn’t know who was going to hurt me or abandon me next. Now, I don’t really care about all of that stuff. I realized it really doesn’t matter.

With this blank slate, I’ll lay out who I am now. I’m an artist, a writer, and a gay trans man. I struggle with mental illness sometimes, but I have my head family — my alters and spirit guides — to get me on the right track again. I have an amazing and supportive healthcare team and a family that accepts me. I have a few close friends, but that’s all I need. I’m single and mostly fine with that, as being single is what allowed me to find myself in the first place. I am self-sufficient and most importantly, I’m safe and in control of my own life.

I have to stop looking back. None of that defines who I am now. What matters is living in the present and making plans for a future I once thought I wouldn’t see. And I have so many things I want to do if we survive this pandemic.

 

©2020 Shane Blackheart

Book Review: Forgotten Lives

Forgotten LivesForgotten Lives by Tristan Shaw

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Forgotten Lives by Tristan Shaw is a collection of short stories ranging from bizarre to horrific, and throughout all of the strangeness, there is dark humor to be had. This review contains many spoilers as there was much to critique, and it’s also a bit long due to this.

I enjoyed the campy feel of “The World’s Tallest Dwarf,” similar to reading short story collections like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” The story is essentially about a dwarf who works in a carnival freak show, and he’s left to do cleanup work while others perform. A newcomer, Sergio, is ‘the world’s tallest dwarf.’ He takes over our narrator’s, the main character’s, tent and slowly gains favor, and everyone leaves the main character behind. The narrator is treated progressively poorer and is an outcast. I wish there was more of a reason for this. Was Sergio something more than a dwarf? How did his actions cause everyone to despise the main character? It’s an interesting story, but I’m left with too many questions.

In “Hagiography of a Corpse,” a man is killed for failing to have a license to wear shoes while living in an unnamed banana republic. Over time, his corpse is lifted and carried across the land, gathering many people to protest the injustices of a hateful president. A military general is even so intimidated that he flees ‘on a jet ski.’ Eventually, the president loses his mind due to the corpse being thrown through his office window, and he gives power to the corpse.

At this point, the story’s humor was getting a bit on the ridiculous side, but that may just be because it’s not my kind of humor.

In “Waiting,” Sophie, a young girl, is raised by her grandparents due to her mother leaving to go on various trips. Upon returning, the mother starts spending more and more time at night looking up at the stars. She confides in her daughter an alien secret, and that they are going home soon. The daughter rides with her mother out into a field, and they gaze up at the stars sitting on the car.

I liked this story a lot more than the previous one, but I still have many questions. Was the mother truly an alien? Did the mother a have mental illness and it caused a delusion, as it was mentioned she wasn’t supposed to even drive? This story has a lot of promise and I feel it should be expanded upon.

“The Society for the Preservation of Vice” is exactly as it sounds, a story about a society of deviants trying to preserve vice. It was clear, and especially upon the mention of the man’s name, that this was reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. While I appreciated that, there were a few things in the story that lost me, such as the popular horror trope of Satanists dawning black robes, sacrificing virgins, and drawing evil pentagrams. This is a trope I heavily dislike and am tired of seeing, so my opinion on the story is tainted by that. Some may enjoy it where I did not.

In “A Gourmet’s Confession,” a gourmet finds himself suffering from a loss of taste. This leads him to try cannibalism, and he finds he’s able to taste again. So proceeds his gourmet adventures with human flesh written as a last letter.

There are a few jokes in this one that were a bit much, and while I’m not easily offended, others may be. Although the gourmet’s character is an awful, selfish one, comparing a loss of taste as being a worse tragedy than the bombing of Hiroshima or the loss of a woman’s only child was… we’ll just leave it at that. Taking that out, this was a good read.

In “Nostalgia,” a German man, August, leaves to become a mercenary. He’s known for his fine ability of dismemberment but is also described as a kind man who is loyal and diligent in his duties. He comes down with a case of nostalgia, and a doctor sends him home for a cure.

This had a very Twilight Zone feel to it. It was a well-rounded and complete story, and definitely quite odd, especially in the way the doctor practically beat his patient after failing with leeches to cure his ailment, but it fits with the darkly humorous theme and era (1600s).

In “The Adventure of My Uncle’s Murder,” a Sherlock Holmes style adventure unfolds as our main character becomes taken with the detective’s stories. They follow the path of their uncle’s murder and, due to their interest in police matters being solely based on literature, they end up on a wild goose chase.

I was lost on the foreign words for clothing pieces I didn’t understand. I would’ve had to look up a few definitions as the clothing wasn’t described in any other way, so this took me out of the story. There were also a few word choices that didn’t fit right, which caused me to pause in question. Overall, it was an enjoyable story despite the nuances.

In “The Spirit Photographer,” Vivian makes a living by fooling people into thinking she can photograph their dead family members. A quick bit of editing with a personal photo and the family has, what appears to be, a spirit photograph. One particular couple, however, wanders in and asks for a picture of their son, Knut. Vivian begins to see that ghosts are indeed real, and there is something about Knut.

I’m still wondering what happened to Knut and why the parents took forever to return for their photograph. I think it hinted at self-harm or abuse for the child, but I’m not sure. It was written in the form of journal entries, so this could be why we have questions. While I did enjoy the story, there were too many things unanswered.

“A Final Masterpiece,” I think, is an essay about an infamous theater performer, Evzen Svoboda. I’m not sure why this was included in the book since it doesn’t seem to be fiction, as it has reference notes throughout and at the end. It was genuinely shocking and strange in nature which fits the style of the book, but not knowing whether it was a genuine essay or not, I tried to look up some cited sources. I was mostly led to confusing foreign articles. At this point, I skimmed because I was unsure of why it was here and it read like a well-researched report in a book of otherwise fictional tales.

At last, “Eternal Glory” is about Tiamat, who watches helplessly as Inanna chokes to death on honey and dies, and after a time, seeks out a philosopher to tell him about his death, which is odd because as Tiamat is identified in this story as male, according to studies, Tiamat was a goddess. That aside, the philosopher mocks Tiamat and is put to death. This starts a war, and Tiamat ends up taking his own life. I’m assuming the characters are the goddesses Tiamat and Inanna, and not just people named after them, but I’m not familiar with much of their lore.

I had difficulty getting through “Eternal Glory” as it just isn’t a genre I’m a fan of. There was a war happening and then eventually Tiamat kills himself, which was ironic, but beyond that, this one lost me.

Overall, I feel that while the book started off rather well, regardless of leaving me with many questions for a few of the stories, it seemed to drag near the end with an essay thrown in before a story about a Babylonian war. The last two did not feel like they fit the overall theme of the book.

I encourage the author to continue writing, but to better organize and choose which stories should go in a collection. Strange and weird definitely go together and can cross genres if done well, but overall, while I understand the general theme of weirdness and dark humor, some of the stories left a lot to be desired.

As always, I give many kudos to the author for writing a book and putting it out there. There is always the chance that a particular book is just not for me, and others may enjoy it where I did not, but I highly recommend the author take more care in future books to be sure to answer the important questions posed by a story. I appreciate the chance to review this book and wish the author nothing but the best for their future.

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Book Review: The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows

The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows (Vampire Series of Extreme Horror)The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows by Todd Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book in an extreme horror series about vampires, and as in the last book, these aren’t your ordinary vampires. This adds to the uniqueness of the series, and it most definitely stands out among other vampire stories because of its gruesome nature. I believe Todd Sullivan has hit upon something great for those who can handle a bit of gore. This review contains spoilers.

Hyeri is hellbent on killing her uncle, Sa-Hak, and for good reason.

As little girls go missing, Hyeri scours Korea for the man who traumatized her. Meanwhile, Min Jae, a member of the Natural Police employed by the Gwanlyo, an organization of vampires, is out for Hyeri’s head for breaking the Gwanlyo code. A human, Seok-Jo, who is to become paramount to both of them, is wasting away in his apartment when his daughter is targetted by Hyeri’s predator uncle.

These separate stories dance around each other as they all find a common goal, although nothing turns out as expected. Min Jae never saw himself working alongside the Man Killer, and his target, Hyeri, and neither of the two imagined a half-golem could even exist, let alone fight alongside them for his daughter’s life.

Linking them all together, however, is a dark and sinister force that has taken hold of Sa-Hak, the predator. The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows can give power to a human not unlike immortality, and while this demonic entity enjoys being entertained by the cruelest of acts, hence targetting Sa-Hak for its amusement, it has its limits. And it messed with the wrong people.

In the beginning, our reintroduction to Hyeri is a great reminder of how ruthless she is. Sensual, sadistic, and powerful as she seduces a man and lures him into her arms, only for him to desire her so much he chases her, but is quickly crushed by an oncoming bus. I was really glad to see her as a main character in this book because she was my favorite in the last.

Although Hyeri has great power and it’s been many years, she still experiences the fear of her uncle that trauma would impose on anyone. This was a realistic touch that I appreciated. Although she’s done horrible things to others, it really made me sympathize with her regardless.

I want to take a moment to point out Todd’s wonderful ability to invoke a feeling of repulsion with descriptions, especially right in the beginning. He really has a talent for this, and that’s part of what really makes this book come alive.

As the story progresses, there is at least one action scene where I genuinely thought Hyeri was done for. This is when Min Jae shows up to make an attempt on her life for the first time. Her uncle is in the fray as well, and it was also a surprise that this initial confrontation happened so quickly. This was also a sign that the characters were certainly going to survive, and I couldn’t put the book down.

Again, as in the first book, Todd Sullivan really projects a thorough knowledge of Korea to progress the story, and it fully immerses the reader in the atmosphere. While I don’t personally know much about Korea, I did find it easy to become immersed with the characters due to the little details, such as building descriptions, city names, and right down to brand names in a convenience store.

Later in the book around chapters fourteen through fifteen, things shifted once more to add in Seok-Jo’s story, and I was beyond excited. I was definitely taken by surprise at this turn of events with him. The progression with Seok-Jo becoming a figure of half-stone half-man, a half-golem, seemed out of nowhere, but considering his past with an ominous stone garden embedded deep in his family’s history, it all worked together.

The fight at the end of the book was intense, blood-soaked, and full of gore promised by the series. The delivery was satisfying at the end of it, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when Min Jae got his own bit of revenge on Hyeri for her taking his foot earlier in the book.

While the first book was great and I really enjoyed it, this second volume is very engrossing and truly shows Todd Sullivan’s talent! I didn’t have any major, or even minor, complaints as I read through it. I was extremely impressed with how well it was written and how fast it sucked me in, and I highly recommend it to all who love horror. I am looking forward to more from Todd Sullivan, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to review “The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows.”

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