A steady stream of cold air pummels my upper molars as I recline in the dentist’s chair, my arms tightly wrapped around my middle to hold myself still. The air and the scraping send pulses of ice and fire through the nerves in my teeth, and every muscle in my body stiffens; my shoulders and neck feel like rocks.
“All done!” The dentist says. “But I did find a cavity that we need to fill.”
I stand up, steady myself, and walk over to the receptionist’s desk to make my appointment.
“How about Monday, April 24th to have that filled?” the receptionist asks.
The date sounds familiar, but I’m not sure why. I check my appointments on my phone, and it looks like that day is open, so I take it.
“Great! Just remember that we send lots of texts and reminders. Some people find it annoying. You can opt-out if you want.”
“Thanks,” I say, relieved to be leaving for now but dreading next week.
The volume on my phone is turned up because I’m expecting a package any day, and I have to hear the doorbell alert system chime. With the volume turned up, though, my appointment reminders make me jump from my seat every time they come in. At least five times a day, I see “Appointment Reminder: April 24th.” These alerts are synchronized with my email, so the messages make additional pinging sounds, which won’t go away.
I’ve counted how many reminders I’ve gotten in one day, over the past two days: ten. That’s too many, but I don’t opt-out. I like getting the automated birthday texts from the dentist, but every time I see the Monday, April 24th date, I shiver. Not because I have to get a cavity filled. There’s something else I should remember, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Over the next two days, I get twenty more alerts, but when I look carefully at the messages, I notice something I didn’t see before. The reminders say, “Monday, April 24th, 2:30 a.m. @ Hyram Lake.”
I couldn’t possibly be getting a cavity filled at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday, and Hyram Lake is not the dentist’s address. When I finally try to opt-out, there isn’t a link.
During the weekend, the reminders come in at all hours of the day and night. I spend hours deleting them with a sinking feeling in my heart—like I’m supposed to remember something else, something soul-aching and important.
I set my alarm for 1:45 a.m. Sunday night.
The lake is smooth this time of day, a flat extension of land, almost like a solid patch of desert, shrouded by fog. The water in the air pulls at the loose strands of my unkempt locks. At 2:30 a.m., the appointment reminder goes off: Hyram Lake, Monday, April 24.
I look out over the water, hoping to remember, but dreading how deeply I’ll feel the mist that rises.
A shape, somewhat familiar, materializes, walking towards me in the fog, and my breath catches in my chest. I recognize it—the shape of my brother. Flashes from that fateful day hang in the air: he told me he would dive to the bottom of the lake; he said he’d return in precisely one year; when Mom and Dad asked, I said he’d drowned; they’d said they weren’t surprised since he was hell-bent on self-destruction and they were tired.
He stops walking, and we look at each other once more, holding each other’s gaze; a wide cavity grows. His form shifts, and wings like those of the ancient eagle shark spread, filling the void. Turning, he disappears into the fog.
Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here:
We're starting a new thing here at Timber Ghost Press--true encounters with the paranormal. Along with flash fiction and horror-related articles, we will start sharing terrifying tales that are true from readers like you. So if you have personally encountered a ghost or experienced something paranormal and would like to share, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us all about it. Who knows, maybe your story will end up on our site. Below you'll find a chilling tale from Nathan D. Ludwig from his time in South Korea.
I Didn't Look
Nathan D. Ludwig
Before I go any further, I just want to state this clearly from the beginning.
I don’t believe in ghosts.
Even after I experienced what I’m about to tell you, I still don’t.
There’s a good reason for that. And I will tell you why.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was in the blissful, ecstatic ignorance of my early twenties. Gainfully employed in the United States Army as a broadcast journalist. My job was basically Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam. Except I was in South Korea. And there wasn’t a war on. At least not in that part of the world.
It needs to be said up front that I’ve always hated long hallways. Especially when they’re dark. Too many doors to walk past. Too many portals to the blackness to trigger your mind into a mild panic. I hated having my back to one. Or to any doorway in general. I always felt eyes on me, no matter the time of day.
So of course, my “office” had one of the longest, blackest hallways I’ve ever been in.
The Armed Forces Network television and radio station on Camp Walker in Daegu. Roughly halfway between Seoul and Busan. They changed the AFN name from Armed Forces to American Forces to make our job of propaganda sound friendlier.
The station was on top of a hill in a lonely, quiet part of the base. A virtually brand spanking new facility built on top of the old one that had been around since the Korean War. It was a significant walk from my barracks, and I never looked forward to the long, silent trudge to work.
I had the dubious honor of being the early morning DJ for the radio show that everyone listened to. From the lowliest private to the starriest of generals to the Korean populace at large. It sounds like a sweet gig, but I was on the air Monday through Friday from five to ten in the morning. Sure, I was off work by two in the afternoon, but it also required I be there at four-thirty in the morning. I am not a morning person. Never have been, never will be. I still have no idea how I survived the military in the first place.
Me being the ultimate procrastinator meant I rolled out of bed at four fifteen and dragged my ass to work by four thirty. Still half-asleep, still hungover on weird dreams. A nice little perk was that I could get dressed at my leisure once I was there. I started the show in my pajamas (sweatpants) and gradually changed into my BDUs over the course of about three hours.
That’s because there wasn’t another soul to be found anywhere near the station until eight or nine in the morning. Unless I had a guest to interview, which was rare. And on this particular day there were none to be had.
It sounds like an introvert’s dream, I know. And I was indeed a hardcore introvert and an antisocial wallflower to boot. But the quietude there was something on a different level. It was not comforting at all. It didn’t help that the entire place was carpeted and sound-proofed, either. You couldn’t hear a grizzly bear break-dancing in the room next door. So just imagine the paranoia-inducing silence that set in when you abided all by your lonesome there.
The smooth, low droning of the international news feed we left potted up overnight acted as a safe bed of inconsequential sound. Associated Press reports, Paul Harvey, Soldiers Radio and Television (SRTV) newsbreaks. The usual lineup of ASMR for old people. It was welcoming to hear when I stumbled in at zero dark thirty, but quickly grew to annoy me as my showtime crept closer.
I tried to psych myself out with the stories I had heard about the place. I have no idea why. I have always been one of those people who insists on seeing if I can scare myself even though I know when I arrive at that psychological destination, all bets were off for a good night’s sleep.
The stories. One of the old Korean civilian engineers, Mr. Park, died in the old station in the middle of some random workday. I was informed that he still lingered there in the new station since it was rebuilt on the same land that belonged to the old station. He would creep up on you in the early morning hours, standing behind you. Sometimes just staring at you, other times breathing down your neck and whispering things you struggled to decipher. My peers would tease me that Mr. Park would be waiting for me on my first day at the helm.
I didn’t experience anything on my initial outing to Top 40 land, but you know how the power of suggestion goes. If someone implants an image in your head, it lives there rent-free despite your objections of logic and sanity.
All show long I looked into that dismal hallway, that murk, and visualized the ghost of a little old man stopping right in front of my doorway to watch me do my show. His eyes never leaving me. Judging? Waiting? Plotting? I didn’t know. I just knew being watched was enough.
But Mr. Park never came. Never passed down the hallway. Never stopped to stare and watch me as I was on the air.
Until he did. I think it was him. I’m not sure.
I don’t remember what day it was or what month after all these years. What I do remember is exactly what happened like it had transpired mere minutes ago.
Within the handful of moments leading up to the start of my show, I was reviewing my show prep. Current affairs, useless trivia, and bad jokes a lot of disc jockeys rely on to keep a show going. Eye-rolling stuff, but if you have a horrific case of ADD like me, it works in a pinch to keep you from rambling and repeating the same points over again in between song stretches.
In hindsight, I never heard the front door open. More importantly, I never heard it slam. It was a signature of that place. You could hear someone entering from a mile away. The clicky-clacky front door handle jiggled unmistakably whenever it was jostled, no matter how gently. Several seconds after that came a loud SLAM that could be heard by a corpse. If you somehow were deep in thought or had headphones on when someone handled the doorknob, the loud metal slam of said door closing was your second and final warning someone was with you.
None of that occurred before I saw it.
While I skimmed over an endless list of gag gift suggestions, weather anecdotes, and obscure sports scores, a short, elderly figure walked past my office and continued down the black hallway to somewhere in the back of the building. Into further dark.
I saw it plain as day out of the corner of my eye, as well as you can see something without actually seeing them head on.
I know what you’re thinking. And I have answers to all of those questions.
Some of them you won’t like.
The corner of my eye, you say? How could I say I saw what I saw if it was only the corner of my eye? A good question.
At four forty-five in the morning, barely a half hour removed from sleep, how could I know?
I tell you this not out of pride, but necessity. In my early twenties, my introverted nature meant many things. One of them was that I never did drugs. Also, I only drank on the weekends. Waking up with a hangover on a Wednesday at four in the morning quickly became something I grew tired of as a new arrival to Camp Walker. The paramount sport of the overseas American soldier is binge drinking. A sport I was uninterested in mastering past a few tries.
Even though I was definitely not a morning person, I was awake. Crabby and grumpy. But awake. Completely, acutely, aware of my surroundings.
I saw it.
But I didn’t look.
Many nights awake in bed since then I’ve thought about what would have happened had I looked right at it.
Would it have looked back?
Would it have stopped to look at me?
What would its eyes look like? Feel like?
The occurrence was so quiet and so fluid that I was not frightened as it unfolded.
Like anyone, I thought that someone had just come in early to work on something. A rare thing, but absolutely something that happened. Mr. Kim, our current civilian engineer was older and shorter than anyone else who worked there and my first instinct was to assume he had arrived to fix a signal or fiddle with some unfortunate equipment that required repairs.
After a few moments of not hearing anything at all in the back, I decided to investigate. Maybe Mr. Kim could use a cup of coffee? A good morning welcome certainly wasn’t out of the question, either.
I glanced at the clock.
I had time.
I don’t know why, but I left the hallway light off as I shuffled down it and toward the back area of the station. There were a handful of darkened, larger rooms back there filled with radio and television equipment.
All the lights were still off. A living, breathing soul could not readily be observed from where I stood in any direction.
Then it started to slowly creep into my mind. Someone was there. I just couldn’t see them.
“Mr. Park, is that you?”
No. Not possible.
I turned on every light and searched every room in that building in a mild, controlled frenzy. Half-waiting for some wide-eyed, open-mouthed specter to leer at me through the ink of the early morning shadows covering that place.
The back door was even heavier and louder than the front door, which is why no one ever used it. I didn’t hear a single peep from it the entire time. No one could have left from there, either.
My show was about to start. The first hour was Metal Before Dawn. My favorite part of the morning. But all I could think about was what was in there with me at that moment.
I made a modestly hasty retreat to my studio office. The public awaited my radio-ready voice and some bracing metal tunes.
Just as I crossed the threshold to my office, warm breath bristled the hairs on the back of my neck. It felt like a tired, ill wheeze. Sounded like it, too.
I slammed my office door closed out of sheer reflex, my mind squirming from the foul air that caressed the back of my neck.
It didn’t feel safe in there, but I felt like I could do the show without wigging out.
And so, I did. Metal Before Dawn kicked off my five-hour stint as the music gatekeeper for everyone within radio earshot. But the thing in the hallway was firmly in my brain. Where was it now? Was it still standing out there, looking through the door and right at me? To say I was at my best that morning would be a lie. I lost my train of thought more than a few times and my gaze remained on that door almost the entire time I remained in there. Its color and shape is still burned into my vision after all these years.
Halfway through my show, the usual suspects came in for work. My peers, my superiors. Ready to tackle the command information stories of the day. Oblivious to what I had to deal with that morning.
As the day went on, the mundanity of workplace chatter smoothed out any haunted places that may have lurked in that building. The light of day helped a bit, too.
Another concern you might have would most likely be if one of my co-workers had played a spooky prank on me. The kind that defined unchecked masculinity far from home. Scare the new guy.
I had been the butt of this kind of terrifying joke beforehand.
This was not that.
I didn’t tell anyone of what had happened that morning. Every now and then on random days, someone would ask if Mr. Park had paid me a visit in the lightless hours of the morning. I would always smile meekly and just say “Not that I know of.” The boyish shrug I gave after that seemed to end their inquiry, as if they were disappointed I didn’t die of fright from the station’s urban legend. The blunt curiosity of testosterone at its finest.
It absolutely bothers me that no one ever approached me and laughed “Gotcha!” or confessed during a slow part of the day or at some random weekend get together that they had in fact been the one there that morning and they were trying to see if I scare easy or even just casually mention that they had been there that morning to work on something early.
I was stationed there for another year. Not a single person ever fessed up. In the nearly twenty years that have elapsed since then, not one email or Facebook message came my way announcing that I had been got.
It was all quiet on that front as that station was when I walked in that morning, expecting it to be another day in the Army in South Korea. Listless, uneventful, and undemanding.
I kept doing the morning show for some weeks after it happened. Every day I went straight to my office and immediately shut the door. Remaining in there until life had returned to join me there around eight or so. No bathroom. No coffee. I bunkered up in there and kept my eyes fixed on that door. I couldn’t see what crept down that hallway anymore and it made the work bearable.
I wish what happened next was made up. I really do.
About a month after the incident, I received a phone call to my barracks room.
This was especially significant since I kept little company in those days. Any telephone activity involving me usually started on my end.
Also, it was two in the morning. My family knew the time zone difference like the back of their hands. It couldn’t be them.
I answered with annoyance in my voice, but it rapidly turned into quiet, hitched fear.
No one responded to my impatient hello. But I could make something out.
It was the newsfeed radio signal that was always left on at night when everyone had gone home.
Someone was calling me from the station.
“Hello?” My voice sounded like a meek child expecting a scolding.
No voice ever manifested itself through my phone except for that potted up radio feed. Informing me of the time and weather in Afghanistan while something just stood there, looking at me from across the base.
I hung up the phone with a reflex slam, just like my office door when the thing’s breath touched my neck.
I wasn’t able to sleep knowing that the station was not empty. Something waited for me. It knew where I was and that in a few hours I would have to come to them.
That one thought scared me more than anything in my life before or since.
Later that day, I called in sick. Something about a stomach bug. I made it convincing enough to stick.
Shortly after, I requested to be taken off early mornings. It took some tactful, tactical filibustering, but I was able to slide into the lunch hour show that followed mine. Ten to one every day. It was such a relief to not have to watch the door the entire show.
After I made the change, I experienced anything like that morning again. There were moments I felt eyes sliding up and down my back. Like something was behind me. Elusive. Watchful. But I was able to handle it.
I turned my lunch hour show over to the new guy on the block and left Korea with a hopeful heart and the future on my mind. Signature afflictions of an early twenty-something know-nothing.
Though I was stationed in another country and safely removed from whatever remained in that place, I still thought about it often. Was it still there? Standing there, waiting for me. There were many odd hours at my new accommodations in Arizona where I would glare at the phone, waiting for a call to come from someone that wasn’t there.
As with anything, my fear lessened with time. It still lingers, but it has become manageable. Like mourning the loss of a lover that takes shape into a distant memory you trot out and reminisce over like a shoebox of bent photos and worn letters.
I still don’t believe in ghosts. I told you I was going to get back to that.
I’m not kidding.
But why? Why after all of that do I not believe?
Because I didn’t turn to look.
Because I didn’t actually see its eyes.
So, then it’s not real. I can just pretend it didn’t happen.
I can say I don’t believe because if I had turned, if I had looked, I would have to say I believe.
So now I can explain it away. I have the luxury of saying it was just a really weird thing. A moment. Pass it off as an odd occurrence. Use it as a litmus test story at parties and family gatherings. See who believes and who does not.
But I know.
And so do you, I wager.
And because of that, I have to say I don’t believe.
Because I didn’t look.
Nathan is a writer and filmmaker as well as the founder of the GenreBlast Film Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, VA. His debut novella is "Love Potion #666" and will be published by D&T Publishing in 2022. He resides in Richmond, VA with his wife and their two daughters. He enjoys Warren Zevon, independent pro-wrestling, and a good spicy ramen.
Follow Nathan on Twitter and Instagram.
I open my eyes, and I’m no longer in the alleyway but in a drafty, dark place. After the haziness leaves my mind like a lifting fog, I blink, and the place—an attic—becomes clear. Cobwebs blanket the downward sloping rafters, and a pale light comes in through a small window behind me, illuminating the dust-covered floorboards.
“Take off your clothes,” a man demands, drunkenly, words slurred and slow. He comes out from behind the brick support beam in the center of the room.
I push myself up to a sitting position—a sharp pain shoots from my head down to my toes. I wince and touch the back of my skull to find my hair soaked in what I guess to be blood.
“No,” I mumble.
Dusty boxes are along the walls, knick-knacks and other garbage are strewn about on the ground, and a set of stairs, leading down to a closed door is beyond the brick pillar.
I slowly stand. The room spins, and I grab a rafter until the vertigo passes.
“Do it,” he says, nearing. Floppy ginger hair covers his forehead, a patchy orangish-red beard splotches his pasty face; he wears an oversized flannel shirt and torn jeans and mud-caked boots. He holds a lead pipe. My black blood is dry on the end of it.
“No,” I repeat.
He raises the pipe, inspects it as if it were something he just found and looks at me. “You want this pipe again? You want to bleed some more? And, not just from your head, if you catch my drift.”
Too much is happening at once. I shake my head, clearing away the fog. “You don’t want me to do that… You don’t want to see me naked.”
“Don’t tell me what I do or don’t want. I’m letting you undress yourself as a courtesy. I could’ve stripped you when you were passed out,” he says.
“Fine.” There’s no other option.
I pull the long-sleeved sweater over my head, letting it fall to the ground. His eyes grow wide, and his lips part when the deep scars lining my body like fissures are revealed. They begin near my waist and slither up my stomach, weave around my breasts, curl over my shoulders, and stream down my arms and back. They splinter off like pleading branches, forming ancient, unknowable patterns.
“Wha—” he starts, swallows, starts again. “What happened? Those scars…”
“My father,” I say flatly, an image of my birth flashes across my mind.
“I'm so sorry, so… very sorry.” He said, tears streaming from bleary eyes, saliva dripping from an open mouth. “I shouldn't have, I shouldn't have trusted them, the Ancient Ones, shouldn't have… shouldn't have made the— the deal… ”
He knelt before me; a meat tenderizer held above his head.
He looked down at me—
“I mean, my real father,” I correct myself, unsure why. Another image burns into my mind.
The tenderizer came down fast, but as it neared my head, his wrist jerked, hitting the floor. His eyes widened, releasing it as if it were red hot.
Stumbling back, he fell onto his ass.
The ground shook.
A pressure-filled the air, tingling with palpable malevolence.
A deep gurgling resonated from everywhere, nowhere; inside and out. Spoke words he couldn’t understand, but I did.
The pact granted life, not the destruction of life. No harm could come to me, an Ancient One’s offspring.
Suddenly, fiery pain shot through my veins, ignited bone and muscle, boiled flesh… Simmered, cooled, leaving scars…
He protected me then, but not since I've grown into myself.
“What?” he says, confused, becoming angry. “Fine, whatever…” He shakes his head. “I don’t care… Just, just take off your pants.”
“Just do it!” He slams the pipe against the rafter again.
I refuse again, wrapping my arms around my chest.
“I’ve had enough of your sass, girl, just do what I say!”
“Then I’ll make you,” he says and grabs my arm, wrenching it from my body—stops when the room trembles, and the pale light coming through the window vanishes.
“What happened to the light?” he stutters.
“I said, no.”
Like smoldering embers, an undulating glow emits from beneath flesh, ascending the depths of the scars. In the faint, red-orange light, his jaw slackens. He stumbles back, dropping the pipe, clanging on the ground.
It becomes brighter, strengthening, radiating heat and tangible energy. Stifling warmth swells within the room. He perspires through his flannel, his hair drips with sweat.
“Stop,” he says, backing into the brick pillar.
Flesh peels back, hissing with steam, revealing what the scars truly hold…
The world beyond, the shapes, sigils, the sounds of a place that’s only a needle prick away.
There’s no blood, no innards; there is nothing inside for a person to enjoy, to ravage—tar-filled valleys, steaming skies of pestilence; wavering monstrous aberrations, rising from umber soil, intertwined at the core of what shouldn’t be.
“No, please, stop!” He collapses onto his knees, covering his face with his hands.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” I ask.
Black tendrils eject out from within, wrap around him. He turns, trying to grip the pillar, his nails scrape and claw but quickly rip from skin. He receives what he demanded.
He's inside me.
The steaming flesh crawls its way back over the gaping hole, like a million insects over bark.
I wait as seams cauterize with scarred symbols, seal, cool…
Then, it’s done, and I’m as whole as I’ll ever be once more.
I grab my sweatshirt, dust it off, and slip it back on. I walk to the door, find it unlocked, and leave the attic, the empty house, returning to the city, to the alleys.
About the Author: Micah Castle is a weird fiction and horror writer. His stories have appeared in various magazines, websites, and anthologies, and has three collections currently out.
While away from the keyboard, he enjoys spending time with his wife, spending hours hiking through the woods, playing with his animals, and can typically be found reading a book somewhere in his Pennsylvania home.
Follow Micah Castle below:
Grandpa’s house had too many rules. Kevin’s parents would diligently remind him of those rules every time they visited.
“Don’t look at the neighbors for too long. Don’t wave to them. Don’t play outside after dark. Keep the windows and doors closed at all times. All the windows and doors. Keep all the lights on at all times.”
The list continued, but Kevin got tired of hearing it. Why did they insist on leaving him here at all? He hated it. Who cared about “maintaining the perimeter,” anyway? Whatever that meant.
Besides, what was the point of being on a farm in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t explore?
They pulled off the highway onto the even quieter backroads and drove another hour to the farm. The sun was setting as they approached the farmhouse.
“Looks like we’re staying the night,” Mom said. Dad nodded in brief assent.
Kevin saw a few tall, dark figures walking among the stalks of corn not far from the road. The neighbors.
Kevin never saw their faces.
“Close your eyes, Kevin,” Mom cautioned. “We’re almost there.”
Kevin sighed and did as he was told. They bumped down the rest of the road and came to a gradual stop. The doors opened and closed; Kevin felt Mom grab him out of his seat and huff as she carried him into the house.
She chuckled and said, “Sweetie, you’re almost too big for me to carry anymore. You can open your eyes now, baby boy.”
Kevin opened his eyes to take in the vista of musty old orange furniture and brown shag carpet. There were so many paintings on the walls that it was almost difficult to see the faded wallpaper beneath. The paintings in Grandpa’s house had always creeped Kevin out. Kevin thought it had something to do with all the red and black streaks that dominated the frames. Supposedly Grandma had painted them. She must have been a scary lady, but Kevin wouldn’t know because he couldn’t remember her.
“I’m not a baby, mom.” Kevin sniffed and rubbed his nose.
“You’ll always be my baby, honey.” Mom grabbed Kevin up in a big bear hug.
Mom was always calling him some pet name. Kevin wriggled himself free of her hug and looked up as Grandpa shuffled into the room. Kevin was always reminded of the cowboys in old movies when he saw his Grandpa.
“Y’all’re cuttin’ it close,” Grandpa grunted as he closed the door behind Kevin’s parents.
A heavy lock clicked and Grandpa placed a metal bar across the door. The grown-ups talked about how they were getting closer, even during the day, and some other things that Kevin didn’t understand or care about. Grandpa’s voice sounded different than Kevin remembered, and he smelled like he hadn’t showered in a while. But, his parents didn’t seem to notice, so Kevin decided it didn’t matter.
“Grandpa, can I go read in my old room now?” Kevin asked as he tugged on his grandpa’s belt.
“Sure, kiddo. Head’n up there,” Grandpa said, then he squatted so his face and Kevin’s were level and winked.
Strange. He’d never done that before.
Kevin couldn’t be sure, but it looked like something was swimming around in Grandpa’s eye. Grandpa turned back and ushered Mom and Dad into another room. Kevin ignored the discomfort he felt at the wink and strange behavior and hurried up the stairs to “his” room. The room was actually the attic of Grandpa’s house. As he opened the door from the stairs into the attic room, he noticed a draft of air and that the lights were off. That also had never happened before. There was a light on in the closet, and as Kevin turned to call to his parents, he noticed the window was broken open, with the boards on the floor.
BANG! Something hit the closet door from the inside at the sound of his voice. The beating on the door continued, and Kevin heard his Grandpa shout from inside the closet, “GET OUT NOW KEVIN! RUN!”
Tall shadows moved in the darkness of the room towards where Kevin stood at the head of the stairs.
Kevin tumbled down the stairs in his hurry to obey his Grandpa’s command. He looked at the opening to the attic as the light in the hall began to flicker.
If that was Grandpa in the closet, then who was down here with Mom and Dad? Kevin thought. A hand that couldn’t be human gripped the edge of the doorway, the light continued to dim. Blackness spread from the hand on the doorway to cover the walls in a web of writhing veins. The black tendrils choked the light even further as they seemed to drain the warmth from the space. Kevin screamed again for his Mom and backed away from the hallway. He could still hear banging from the closet upstairs.
Kevin could not tear his gaze away from the inky figure struggling through the door above him and backed up until he felt his Mom’s shoes. He turned and looked up at his Mom, but he couldn’t see her face. The lights flickered out, and all Kevin saw was a pair of eyes as black as the void.
The world turned cold as Kevin screamed.
About the author: Jesse White is a Georgia-based author who dreams of the American Southwest. An avid reader of steamy romances, mindless poetry, horror fiction, and bad puns, Jesse also loves writing the same. Jesse is a Gemini sun/Libra rising.
We are very excited to announce we have signed author, M. Regan! She wrote a novella that pulled us in with the very first words and never let us go. 21 Grams, will come out in July of 2021.
21 Grams: In the bowels of an unassuming, ever-moving funerary parlor, a mortician known as the Operator hides a fearsome machine called the Godwin, rumored to have the ability to resurrect the dead. It runs, like a soul does, on logos: on words. And in exchange for those words—for a client’s life story—the corpse of their choosing might yet walk again. Careful, though. Words bear weight, so one must choose them wisely. Author M. Regan delivers a harrowing and beautiful glimpse into a world filled with desire, darkness, love, and loss.
M. Regan: M. Regan has been writing for over a decade, with credits ranging from localization work to short stories to podcast scripts. Fascinated by the fears personified by monsters, they enjoy dark fiction, studying supernatural creatures, and traveling to places rich with folklore. Find them on Twitter and Facebook at MReganFiction.
Stunning vistas, remote wilderness, death-defying shootouts—all are elements of the western novel. Western novels entertained readers worldwide, hitting their peak in the mid-20th century; however, the genre itself has suffered a steady decline since.
Despite the decline, the western didn’t die. Publishers continued to offer western books, and Hollywood producers continued to make western films. Yet, despite the decline in popularity, the western genre survived in crossover fiction. Common themes lent themselves across multiple genres, including science-fiction (think Firefly) and horror (what I’m here to talk about).
There are some fantastic authors out there that can mash genres with mastery. Some tend to be difficult (I’ve never seen a meat-punk, cozy mystery). Some are easier. This bring us to westerns and horror—they go together like rum and coke.
In my opinion, the easiest piece of the puzzle is the setting. Westerns are often set in small towns or the wilderness/frontier. This is important because these places are isolated. Isolation is a common theme found in a lot of different horror novels. Look at The Shining by Stephen King. A small family left to tend a hotel in the Colorado mountains, denied easy access to town due to the snow. Or, following the cold theme, we could look at Ronald Malfi’s Snow, John Carpenter’s The Thing. All of these stories take place in settings that are isolated from society. Why is this important?
Isolation adds tension. Isolation invigorates the conflict. It ups the ante with the fact that the characters have to rely on themselves and what they have at their disposal. The protagonist can’t call the cops or emergency services to help them. Food, water, and other supplies could be an issue. The setting can add a man vs. nature element that can provoke strong emotions with your readers.
Westerns embody this setting with gusto. It was the forte of the genre. What would True Grit be without the vast Indian Territory? Even when the western is set in a town, the town itself is isolated from the world. Therefore, they make perfect places for horror stories because the characters can’t rely on outside help to arrive soon. Communication was very limited during the period, and getting news in or out was a process.
Let’s take this a step further—the genre of post-apocalyptic horror and westerns are basically cousins. The frontier town and the post-apocalyptic community share the same feel. For example, they both have a lot of dirt. Westerns are dirty and gritty. Think of any western film you’ve watched. Now imagine any post-apocalyptic film. The characters are always just as dirty. Remember, cleanliness is a luxury in both settings.
They also share the isolation I mentioned earlier. With the expansion of the West, most people were situated in the East as the explorers, pioneers, and frontiersmen blazed the way. With the post-apocalyptic piece, most of the population will have disappeared, or at very least, found pockets to live in. This leaves your character a chance to get out and explore the wilderness with little chance of running into anyone. This leads to my next point—suspense.
Every meeting with other people in either setting is dangerous. You don’t know if the people out there are other explorers, simple travelers, bandits, murderers, or cannibals ready to eat you and wear your face as a mask. Keep that in the back of your mind as you spin your tale.
Post-apocalyptic horror aside, westerns work great as horror because of their familiarity. Cowboys and the Old West have carved out a home in almost everyone’s imagination. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; show someone a picture of a man on a horse with a ten-gallon hat and gun, and there’s a good chance that they can associate that image with cowboys. It’s in that familiarity that you can use to put the reader at ease. We like to find things familiar when we read, even when it’s a fantastic science fiction adventure. Authors use themes, images, symbols to find familiar ground with the reader. Once you’ve set that familiarity with the reader, you can start ripping it away with the horror.
Westerns and horror are making a big comeback these days. Take a look at Death’s Head Press and their Splatter Punk line or movies like Bone Tomahawk. Combining the two genres makes perfect sense, and when done well, can create a rousing, creepy tale.
Horror works because it shakes our foundation of reality, but we can’t shake that foundation until we’ve built it. Let the Old West be that foundation, and have fun with it. Now go write and submit us some horror westerns!