Jeffrey Thomas is the author of such novels as The American (JournalStone), Deadstock (Solaris Books), and Blue War (Solaris Books), and his short story collections include Punktown (Prime Books), The Unnamed Country (Word Horde), and Carrion Men (Plutonian Press). His stories have been reprinted in The Year's Best Horror Stories XXII (editor, Karl Edward Wagner), The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #14 (editors, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling), and Year's Best Weird Fiction #1 (editors, Laird Barron and Michael Kelly). Thomas lives in Massachusetts.

Boneland by Jeffrey Thomas

In 1893, the Guests attempt their first contact with the human race. Families go mad. Parents commit suicide. A president is assassinated.

By 1918, in the bleak boneland of the 20th Century, human assassins commit atrocities and global wars are waged to sate the appetites of the Guests. John Board is a crime scene photographer, whose nightmarish images of human destruction are used as titillating entertainment. Board's future is tied in with these unseen, unfathomable forces — and so is his past. America is drowning in a sea of blood as flashbulbs click and movie cameras roll. The Guests are here to stay.

Boneland is a tale of a not-so-alternate history...a story of horror, science fiction, and the surreal by Jeffrey Thomas, acclaimed author of Punktown and The American.


•Imagine an alternate Earth in which alien beings known as Guests steer the course of human events…a world in which alien insect-based technology brings advancement…and all humans have to do to keep the gifts coming is hurt each other on camera for the Guests' enjoyment. As weird plots go, it's a doozy…and Jeffrey Thomas makes it pay off in every conceivable way. In this book, he shapes a weird science fiction premise into an allegory for contemporary society, bringing home certain universal truths by cloaking them in over-the-top bizarre imagery and incidents. It's the kind of weird scifi that Rod Serling did so well so often on The Twilight Zone, twisting reality almost beyond recognition to convey a theme that might be dismissed in another setting that's too close to home. In this way, weirdness acts as a filter that enables us to see more clearly by piling on layers of imagined oddities. Thomas does it so well that we get caught up in the story and its hero without much realizing—or minding—that we're learning a lesson in the process. – Robert Jeschonek



  • "The text is enriched with vibrant prose, entertaining characters and a humorous cross-pollination of events both real and imagined, all staples of Thomas' wonderful literary acumen."

    – LM Campbell, Horror Society




Pandora's Box


Chicago, Illinois, 1893

It was oppressively hot in the attic, but from one of its small windows ten year old Johnny Board gazed out upon the city of Chicago. The city, like a living picture mounted on the wall before him, looked ready to burst out of its wooden frame...too immense and powerful to be so contained.


Of Chicago, Rudyard Kipling said, "This place is the first American city I have encountered...Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again."


The city hugged the shore of Lake Michigan for twenty-four miles, as if only the lake could halt its spread. Close to the lake reared a congestion of tall structures, but from the lake's edge the city spread inland for over ten miles with an almost uniform flatness of roofs. This was an urban wasteland of mills and factories, offices and dwellings, blending together into one homogenous concoction of sooty brick. Above it all hung a gray pall of smoke from a forest of chimneys, smoke that stank of burning coal.


Of Chicago, German historian and economist Max Weber said that the "whole powerful city, more extensive than London – resembles, except for the better residential areas, a human being with his skin removed."


Likes veins and tendons, telegraph wires and railroad lines were interwoven through the city, communicating thought and product to other cities elsewhere across this vast and burgeoning country. Along the Chicago River floated heavily-loaded barges. And out there, there, Johnny recognized, lay the Union Stock Yard, where his father had worked up until two months ago, when he too had taken a train out of Chicago...perhaps headed for some other growing city. Johnny didn't know where that city might be.

In those stock yards, those slaughterhouses, how many animals at this very moment were having their throats cut, Johnny wondered. In the very streets of the city, strewn with uncollected horse droppings, animal carcasses lay bloated and rotting in the summer sun. Swarming with flies. So many flies that their buzzing was as oppressive as the heat.


Of Chicago, French novelist Paul Bourget had the impression that it had been formed by "some impersonal power, irresistible, unconscious, like a force of nature."


Johnny turned his head sharply. Had he heard a buzzing from the stairs behind him? A buzzing from his family's apartment, on the floor below?

No, just a train approaching near the house. Now rumbling past. The walls vibrated.

There weren't many flies down there, not clouds of them like there were over the animals left to putrefy in the gutters. But Johnny was still reluctant to go back downstairs. He had brought apples up here, their green skins turning brown in patches with their own encroaching decay. He had even peed in a mason jar that belonged to his mother.

His mother.

But he knew he must venture down there again. He knew he couldn't spend yet another day up here in the attic. He needed water again. He needed

Johnny crept away from the window, and around the corner to the stairs. He hesitated at their head, as if he expected to see some terrible figure awaiting him in the gloom at the bottom. But there was no one. No one. Stealthily, he began to descend.

The kitchen was silent and empty...empty except for the sound of a single fly, trapped buzzing against a window pane. Bright dusty sunlight filled this room...but the parlor beyond was murky, all of its curtains drawn.

Johnny cupped his hand over nose and mouth as he neared its threshold. The summer swelter had made the stench so terrible that he had begun to smell it in the attic, and he was surprised the family on the floor below hadn't yet complained. He both dreaded and hoped for them to investigate its source.

He took just several steps inside the room. But through its duskiness, he could make out the form at its center.

Johnny Board's mother dangled there, a kicked-over step ladder lying on the floor below her bare feet. She wore a thin nightdress, her dark hair in disarray. Her head was tipped forward, her eyes closed, her tongue protruding from between her lips and the area around her jaw discolored where the blood had settled over the past few days. Likewise, her slender arms shaded from milky white at her shoulders to very dark at her forearms and hands, as though she wore sheer black gloves.

("I hear birds singing, Johnny," she had whispered to him before he left for school. "Or maybe it's bugs." She was sobbing and laughing at the same time, crouching down and gripping his shoulders hard, too hard. "Bugs in my head...")

This was the first time he'd looked at her that he didn't burst into sobs. His sobs had been scorched out of him, his tears evaporated as if from summer dehydration. But still, his chest yawned open like a trapdoor inside him over which his heart hung on its own noose string. He was angry, too. Angry at his mother for leaving him. Angry at his father for leaving her. And angry at himself for not being strong enough to leave the house to fetch help that couldn't help, angry at himself for not bringing himself to touch her hand or to cut her down (as if, even yet, he might still save her). Angry at himself for going to school on that day, and leaving her here alone...

He heard another train coming, shaking the house, roaring like an animal into this great city that impressed so many writers as the first truly American city, bringing more supplies so that it could grow and spread even more. Like a disease...a cancer of coal smoke, slaughtered animals and sweating, bleeding, rutting human flesh...

Johnny saw a fly skitter across his mother's forehead, as if it sought some entryway inside her skull.


Lumbar Beach, New Jersey, 1900

From The New Jersey Herald:


Local Authorities Believe Insects May Have Been Dropped By Storm.

LUMBAR BEACH, May 22 - Local families awoke here yesterday morning to discover thousands of insects covering their yards and roofs, so thick in some streets that they had to be shoveled into barrels and burned. Lumbar High School science teacher Donald Book tentatively identified the insects as stag beetles, of the family Scarabaeoidea. The beetles have very pronounced jaws, and some residents report having been bitten in disposing of the pests. Mr. Book suggests that a storm might have swept in the profusion of insects, though the weather last night was clear in this region. Mr. Book also notes that the beetles are a flying insect, and may have been engaged in a mating ritual or mass migration.


For his seventeenth birthday, Johnny Board received a camera from his Aunt Marge...with whom he had been living for the past seven years in her cute little bungalow not far from Lumbar Beach.

The camera was a No. 2 Bull's-Eye, from Eastman Kodak. It was the first camera which could be loaded with film in daylight. Johnny would take this camera down to the beach to shoot the waves, and – often surreptitiously – those people drawn to the waves. On occasion he would succeed in getting some pretty teenage girl to pose on the sand with the ferris wheel of the boardwalk fairgrounds looming against the sky behind her.

On May 22, 1900, Johnny used his camera to take pictures of the stag beetles that carpeted the sand of the beach in rustling hordes, beetles in such abundance that the surf gathered them up until even the water became patchy with bobbing shoals of them. That day, a stag beetle bit the end of Johnny's shoe so that he had to pry it loose with a stick. The bizarre incident reminded Johnny of a newspaper story he had read the day after Easter. During the annual White House Easter egg hunt (originated in 1878 by James Madison's wife Dolley, the article added), stag beetles in great numbers on the White House lawn had caused the festivities to be broken up early. President McKinley himself was bitten by one of them on the thumb.


From The Ocean County Observer:


Latest Episode of Unusual Animals Appearing.

LUMBAR BEACH, June 30 - In another of many similar incidents across the country, and reported in England and France as well, residents have found great numbers of tadpole shrimp in their yards following last night's torrential rains. Donald Book, a science instructor at Lumbar High School, says the freshwater tadpole shrimp, also called triops, are a "living fossil" and describes them as "three-eyed, hermaphroditic, and cannibalistic." He suggests that perhaps they were swept up and deposited by the violent storm which cut through this town. An alternative theory Mr. Book proposes is that these primitive shrimp were not dropped, but spawned in abundance as a direct result of the rain. The eggs of tadpole shrimp can survive for even centuries in a dried pond bed until rains refill the pond and cause them to hatch. Whereas tadpole shrimp are normally two inches in length, according to Mr. Book, some of those collected here have been nearly five inches long. Mr. Book could not draw any clear connection between this and numerous other strange appearances of insects and crustaceans that have occurred over the summer.


In tidal pools near the ocean's edge, and even in a puddle behind his aunt's house, Johnny discovered several of these triops that the newspaper wrote about. The few stray specimens were too small to get a good shot of with his camera, but Johnny got down on his knees and actually scooped one of the odd, trilobite-like animals into his hand. Its centipede legs and forked tail against his palm gave him a shiver, but before he could sweep the animal off his hand it darted up his arm. Johnny leapt to his feet slapping at himself as though having a seizure. There was even a loud ringing or buzzing that he thought might be the little crustacean's angry voice, except that the sound seemed to originate inside Johnny's own head.

He didn't find the triops on him, could only assume that he had been successful in dislodging it. But he rushed down to the beach after that, tore off his shirt and socks and took a quick dip in the cold Atlantic.


From Today's Sunbeam:


Teacher Had Been Collecting Unusual Insects in Region.

LUMBAR BEACH, August 26 - In a scene that shocked police, Lumbar High School science teacher Donald S. Book, 47, was found dead last night in the basement of his Ulna Road home, apparently the victim of an extremely large tick that had been in his possession. When Mr. Book did not appear for his classes for two days, Principal Emmet Window became concerned and urged police to go to the teacher's home, where he lived alone. Mr. Book had been consulted over the summer regarding uncanny appearances of insects in great numbers, and had collected many samples from these scenes. The tick that police believe caused Mr. Book's death had attached itself to the back of his neck and was ballooned like the so-called "soft ticks," or argasids, found on dogs and livestock. The parasite, killed by police in the process of its removal, was nearly a foot in length, and the officers reported that while being removed it emitted a sound so loud they were caused great discomfort. The specimen will be preserved pending closer study. Also taken from the scene were a number of other ticks up to six inches in length, which had apparently been gorged on the blood of several rabbits found in their cage.


Accompanied by his Aunt Marge, Johnny Board attended the funeral of Donald Book, who before his graduation had been his favorite teacher at Lumbar High School. Mr. Book had been very supportive of Johnny's fondness for photography, and had been especially interested in the photographs Johnny had made of the plague of stag beetles back in May.

When it was Johnny's turn to kneel in front of the closed casket, he couldn't help but morbidly imagine Mr. Book in there with the remarkable tick still attached to the back of his neck, affixed so firmly to his spine that it couldn't be pried loose even by the undertaker, though he knew this wasn't the case.

Now that he had graduated, Johnny hoped to find employment with the Lumbar Woolen Mill where a friend of his already worked. His Aunt Marge wanted him to go on to college, but was unable to pay for this herself, and Johnny insisted on helping with her bills in return for all she had done for him since her sister had committed suicide. He was sure, however, that Mr. Book would have been disappointed with his decision, as well...

So in 1901, with a job and soon an apartment of his own, eighteen year old Johnny Board would become a man...America would enter the Twentieth Century...and – while waiting in line at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition – President William McKinley would be shot twice by Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz, dying eight days later.

Czolgosz would be borne away beaten and bloody (to be executed in Old Sparky not even two months after the shooting). Throughout his brief incarceration, the assassin – apparently insane – would babble that insects inside his head had urged him to kill the president.