Readers who are unfamiliar with the anthology Screams from the Dark may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.
* * *
"The British saw the Hudson as key to their strategy. If they could control it, they could split the colonies, divide and conquer them. As plans go, it wasn't a bad one. It failed because their army was defeated at Saratoga, which initiated a series of events leading to them losing all of the state down to the City, where they remained until the end of the war. Before news of the loss at Saratoga spread, the British had sent thirty ships sailing up the Hudson. There were a few thousand soldiers on them. The idea was for these men to meet up with the British forces marching south along the river from their presumed victory at Saratoga. On their way, the British ships would create a diversion and perhaps more. They got off to a promising start, destroying a couple of colonial forts on the lower Hudson, capturing one right across from West Point. A little bit below Wiltwyck, the fleet received word of the defeat at Saratoga. With this message, their mission became pointless. To say the least, they were not pleased. Since Wiltwyck was the closest settlement, they visited their displeasure on the city. First, they subjected what was then the state capital to bombardment by their ships' cannons. Last I heard, one of the older buildings uptown still has a cannonball lodged in its basement wall. Fortunately, the city's residents had gotten wind of the ships' approach and had largely abandoned it. Once the cannons were done, the fleet sent several landing boats full of soldiers to shore. Reports vary as to how many redcoats set foot on Wiltwyck Point, with some claiming six hundred, others a thousand, and others still more. For the purposes of this story, the exact number doesn't matter. What does is there were at minimum hundreds of them marching on the city, which was lightly defended, most of the able-bodied men off fighting. The British shot at the handful who showed up to confront them, then set fire to the city. Over three hundred buildings, houses, barns, businesses, and places of worship burned down. The soldiers retreated to their boats, returned to their ships, and sailed for Manhattan, thus concluding their final, spiteful military success in this part of the Hudson Valley.
"Among the soldiers who came ashore that day was a captain, Amos Black. He brought with him a pair of diminutive figures, whom the other troops referred to as Captain Black's little gray fellows. They were part of a group of five such fellows under the captain's command. As soon as it had become clear to the British that the battle against the colonists was not going to be over soon, they had sent across the Atlantic for Black, who was housed with his gray fellows separately from the rest of his regiment. Upon their arrival in New York, the six of them were billeted in a repurposed barn not far from Harlem Heights. From there, they were deployed on select missions, most of which were secret. None of the regular soldiers cared for the captain and his associates.
"As the British troops fired on Wiltwyck's defenders and set torch to its buildings, Black and his two companions kept to the rear. He was a striking figure, a small, narrow man dressed not in the scarlet and white of a regular soldier, but entirely in black, with the exception of an emerald neckerchief. It was as if he was wearing his name, the troops joked. Only when the British were climbing back into their boats did Black take action. Before joining the rest of the landing party, he turned to his undersized companions, uttered words no one could make out, and pointed at the burning city. The little gray fellows turned and sprinted toward it. According to one observer, they ran more like dogs, or wolves, than men.
"In the following days, there were a series of terrible murders in and around Wiltwyck's smoldering remains. Men, women, children, old, young, all were victims. They were killed sorting through the charred wreckage of their homes and businesses. They died attempting to recover what vegetables were left in their fields. They met their end on the road out of Wiltwyck to Hurley, where the majority of the city's residents had relocated. These were savage acts, bodies torn open, entrails strewn around them. Popular suspicion fell on wild animals, a pack of wolves, drawn to the devastated city and made bold by its ruin. There were organs missing from some of the victims, but what was remarkable was the lack of any substantial amount of blood at the sites of the crimes, which pointed to creatures other than wolves. A couple of young men who had spied on Captain Black ordering his undersized companions to remain behind made the connection between those strange figures and the outbreak of murders. The young men—they were boys, really—assembled a group to locate the little gray fellows and put a halt to their attacks. Its numbers consisted of men too old, too young, and too unwell to fight in the Continental Army, as well as a pair of ministers and a widow who had assumed the running of her farm after her husband had been struck down by a British musket ball at the Battle of Long Island.
"Together, these men and women tracked the gray fellows to a barn on the road to Hurley. They circled the barn and attacked. A ferocious fight ensued. Although bloated with blood, the gray fellows were fearsome contestants, terrifically strong, inflicting horrific damage on their assailants with the fangs filling their wide mouths, the claws on their long hands and feet. They killed a full third of the party, and of the rest, no one went uninjured. Finally, the widow—whose name was Emma Dearborn—struck the head from one of the creatures with an axe. For a short while thereafter, his companion continued the fight, then leapt through the ranks of the attackers and fled. The group bound up their injuries, burned the remains of their foe, and set off in pursuit of his fellow.
"For six days, they chased him through the Catskills, occasionally drawing within sight of the gray fellow, though never close enough to do more than waste a musket ball on him. At last, his trail disappeared on the shore of a lake. Assuming he'd hidden beneath the water, the members of the party stationed themselves around the lake and waited for their quarry to emerge. Another four days passed, at the end of which, they decided the gray fellow had either drowned or escaped. A careful search of the surrounding woods failed to turn up any sign the creature had slipped out of the water and through their ranks, so they concluded he had chosen his end in the water rather than at the edges of their knives and axes. They warned the few people living near the lake of what they had pursued into it, advised them to keep an eye out for anything unusual, then returned to Wiltwyck and their separate homes."
"How did your grandmother know this?" I said. "I'm familiar with the burning of Wiltwyck; they reenact it every other Fourth of July. But the rest of it…"
"She'd read about it," Doris said, "at the Woodstock library. One of her responsibilities was the local history section, whose shelves contained all sorts of things, personal journals, albums of old newspapers, unpublished manuscripts. She read all of them, in part to figure out how to catalogue the holdings and in part to learn more about the place she and Morfa had chosen to call home. Among the papers she examined was a handwritten document titled Concerning the Terrible and Strange Events of October 18–November 2, 1777. Fifty-six pages long, it was the work of Emma Dearborn, the widow who'd beheaded one of the gray fellows. During the winter after the battle with the creatures, she set down her account of it. There was no record of the means by which the manuscript found its way to the library.
"When she reached the description of Captain Black's little gray fellows, she recognized the pair as blodsuger. How was that possible, right?"
"Mormor's grandmother had come to Denmark from Finland, Lapland, where she had been what the Danes called a heks, the Finns a noita, a witch. She had taught Mormor about the nisse, how to distinguish among them, the proper ways for dealing with the more dangerous varieties. Of course, my grandmother didn't imagine the lake behind her and Morfa's house was the lake from Emma Dearborn's story. It would have been too great a coincidence. But she shared the details of the widow's narrative with my grandfather. His father, a blacksmith, had passed along the same and similar folklore to him. As the one who went off fishing, he was more likely to encounter the remaining blodsuger, assuming there was any truth to the tale she had read and the creature had remained in its watery hiding place. Telling him was a precaution of the same order as reminding him to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes when he went hiking on Overlook Mountain. She didn't expect he would meet any of the reptiles on the paths he followed, but better to be prepared for something that never came than surprised by it shaking its rattle at your feet. The only thing neither of them had anticipated was discovering the blodsuger in the middle of such a ferocious storm. It was the way of life: you made your plans, and God chuckled at them…."
"Blodsuger" by John Langan
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Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous Edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor Nightfire, 2022) is an ambitious attempt at a state-of-the-art horror fiction anthology. It includes over two dozen original short stories and novellas of high quality.
I have already blogged about two stories that demanded my undivided attention:
My notes on the sublime "The Ghost of a Flea" by Priya Sharma can be found here.
An initial response to the gruesome, non-supernatural "'The Father of Modern Gynecology': J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813–1883)" by Joyce Carol Oates is here.
The reader will find my thoughts on six other stories below.
* * *
"Children of the Night" by Stephen Graham Jones is an amusing joke. Tol, the organizer of a Montana cryptid group searching for Bigfoot, gets his prayer answered.
In The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, John Clute reminds the horror reader that answered prayers are "wishes which are fulfilled in a fashion which punishes the wisher, the biter bit...."
While no sardonic genie or monkey's paw grants protagonist Tol's wish, there might as well have been.
The Bigfoot in question has been killed by a big rig on a lonely mountain highway. Tol single handedly gets it into the back of the family minivan. (It never occurs to him to alert fellow team members.) Then he begins examining the body.
The author's droll conceit turns out to be that creatures of the night might wisely go in disguise on their errands. When Tol begins to "peel the onion," the reader knows it will all end in tears.
* * *
"Three Mothers Mountain" by Nathan Ballingrud also deals with the cost of answered prayers. Tom and his younger brother Scotty lose their father in a car accident. Maddened by grief, their mother mails his wedding ring to the three mountain witches who live above their North Carolina town, Toad Springs. There the ring is planted in a garden. The boys do not get their father back. They get a father-thing instead, a physically corrupt simulacra that wins their mother's single-minded devotion.
So one day Tom and Scotty set out for the witches' mountain cabin, determined to wreck everything.
The path darkened as they walked. Tom no longer had a sense of what time it was, and he felt a flutter of fear in his gut. Common sense told him it couldn't be any later than two o'clock, two thirty at most. And yet the light filtering through the trees seemed diffuse and weak. This might have been due to the sun pursuing its course above them, and it might have had something to do with the heavy tangle of branches crowding them from either side, but he knew instinctively that the cause was something else: they were entering the Witch Wood. Darkness was an animal, and this is where it lived.
Ballingrud's craft is faultless in "Three Mothers Mountain." The emotional eloquence allowed to each character, the meticulous scene-building orchestrated at kitchen tables in two very different houses, the stoicism ultimately displayed by Tom when facing the consequences of his path, are testament to a writer able to convey every shade of horror.
The witches whispered, and then Mother Ingrid said, "Well, perhaps we can do something. Your mother paid. Will you?"
Thank God, at last, a window. Yes, he would pay. Yes. "Yes."
"You'll have to make friends with the dark," Mother Margaret said. "Do you have the heart for it?"
"Don't fret," said Mother Agnes, staring at his little brother. "The sweetest things grow in the dark."
* * *
As it begins, "Sweet Potato" sounds like another Joe R. Lansdale organ solo.
....Though he had a good retirement plan, Tyler hadn't expected his job to end so abruptly, the boss having gone to prison for ass-fondling and grubbing money from the public trust. But there it was. She went and the business went, and now here he was, out in the wilds of unemployment, living off his considerable savings (thank goodness), and submerged way down deep in the cold-ass nothing.
Dreaming for a while was so fine. No alarm clock, living in pajamas. What he liked best, at first, was that things that seemed silly in real life seemed fine in the dream world. He could be an old-fashioned hero in his dreams. Much younger, washboard abs, a baseball-bat dick, and balls like grapefruits. Carrying a sword, brave and relentless, six foot five and forever young. And then, one night, down in a dream, there was a soundless shift.
But after the early jokiness, a barbed and complicated tale unfolds. Tyler, unemployed and dangerously idle, figures out his increasingly strange waking and sleeping life is the product of something that finds him of use.
"Sweet Potato" carries a warning for men uninterested in the everyday world and its responsibilities.
Visiting a friend from work, who was also out of a job with time for the coffee shop, Tyler said, after their conversation began to falter, "Have you ever had a dream that seemed real?"
The friend, gray and heavy with lips like two red earthworms, rocked back in the booth and sipped his coffee before answering.
"Of course. Though mostly they don't make sense when I wake up. But now and again, they feel real, could be real. Some of the most outlandish dreams seem real at the time."
"Just for curiosity's sake. Have you ever felt something in a dream come back with you, being there when you woke up?"
"No. Though I've heard of it. Some people believe your soul lets go sometimes and comes right out of you when you breathe awake. One moment you're breathing asleep, the next, you're breathing awake."
"If you believe in that sort of thing. Maybe a piece of your soul. Or something worse. A demon. A succubus, which is a kind of sex demon that rides in and out on your essence while you dream, fucks the shit out of you and takes your energy, borrows your soul, and finally keeps it. They can be created by your subconscious, or they can be night riders."
"Loose souls looking for a place to light. A place to suck the energy out of. Men can be incubuses, you know."
"I don't know."
"Male sex demons. The succubus in reverse. I think succubuses and incubuses can switch-hit when it comes to sexual matters. You might even have to put Scotch tape over your dog's asshole if one of them is around."
"I don't have a dog."
"That's one less worry, then."
"How do you know all of this?"
"I read a lot. I found golf too tiring."
"Well, I could use a sex demon actually," Tyler said.
"I wouldn't mind one either. But it might be like that old saying about how you have to be careful what you wish for."
* * *
"Knock, Knock" by Brian Evenson is a story about two moral monsters, uncle and nephew, pitted against each other over ownership of a house and its land. In their contest, murder does not resolve conflict, it simply raises the stakes and increases the horror.
....You killed the bastard once, he told himself. Now all you have to do is kill him again.
* * *
"Bitten by Himself" by Laird Barron is a perfunctory story. It begins in a
promising mode: a North American frontier scout and mountain man named Chick Poe, prone to wallowing in his own crapulence as a way of life, stumbles upon his doppelganger in a forest clearing one night. They fight and he is bitten, infected with rabies.
From there the tale's missteps and wrong turns commenced. Rather than pursue the rich potential in the story's historical setting, Barron decided to pad the remainder with solipsistic winks, smirks, and reverses.
This is a disappointment for readers who appreciated the riveting if uneven 2013 story "The Beatification of Custer Poe."
But it is an even greater disappointment for readers who thrilled to the sheer storytelling skill seen in stories like "Mysterium Tremendum" (2010), "The Men from Porlock" (2011), and "In a Cavern, in a Canyon" (2015). (Speaking for myself, I found it hard to sleep the first night after I read "Porlock.")
Compared to those sublime stories, "Bitten by Himself" is dully soporific.
* * *
"Blodsuger" by John Langan is about the longest story in Screams from the Dark, and is probably the most satisfying. The story's formal elegance is admirable: two people meet at a community social event in the Catskill mountains of New York state. The older protagonist, Doris, tells the narrator the beautifully articulated story of a horror from her adolescence. Langan tells the entire story in dialogue between these two people at a picnic table in a barn.
"Blodsuger" places horror outdoors, on the land and imbricated in the region's history. Doris is not the victim of answered prayers; she tells the story of her "attempted rescue" of herself, and the way the outcome taught her to know better in future.
The excellence and eloquence of "Blodsuger" is staggering. It reminded me of several earlier Langan stories that have rewarded rereading: "On Skua Island" (2001), "Mr. Gaunt" (2002), and "What Is Lost, What Is Given Away" (2016).
Langan's stories allow the reader to luxuriate in a horror-filled region made strange by narrative distance.
4 July 2022