Every life has moments that are worthy of recording. Mine just tend to be–bizarre.
For last Monday’s Fiction Reboot, I shared a humorous life experience about the trauma of kindergarten. But sometimes, the events that most influence us are not our own, or not only our own. Today I will talk about shared experience.
My YA series The Witchwood at Nob’s End is partly autobiographical in the sense that it takes place 1) in an underground house, 2) in a tangled forest, 3) near a graveyard, 4) on abandoned coal mining lands. Something about living underground next to a graveyard (at the level of your ‘late’ neighbors) fairly ensures an abiding interest in Gothic fiction. But the collective experiences I shared with my family, and particularly with my brother, provided the psychical landscape for the Gothic adventures of Ezra and Alex Kenning. Some of these experiences were quite bizarre, after all: My mother was chased by coyotes… My father heard the screams of hungry bobcats…
And my brother saw a demon.
Old Experience #2: Whole-Dark Awful Red-Eyed Things
I am no expert on demonology, though I expect the Asmodai have better things to do than frighten the wits out of eight-year-olds. All the same, I don’t take the following story lightly. It has certainly left a serious impression, even after the passage of time. Here is the tale:
It was a late spring afternoon, and my brother was outside playing hide-and-seek tag with his best friend. Playing tag at my house was a big deal; we are not talking a couple of yards strung together… we are talking many acres of forest near the Peabody Coal lands. They were close to the house, of course, but that didn’t make the terrain any less wild. Naturally, then, the hide-and-seek part took place in the trees and brush.
My brother was “it.” He had been searching the usual places, no doubt, but finally he wandered into the wood at the furthest edge of our yard. That’s where we piled the branches from last summer’s wood harvest (we heated with a fire-place). By spring, this pile had become trodden down, smashed by snow and ice. However, my brother noticed that it was ‘humped up,’ as though someone were underneath it.
“I got you! I got you!” he cried, and the brush pile moved. But what came out the other side was not his best friend.
The rest of this was told to me from the safety of the living room, after we had calmed him down (and he had stopped screaming). He said that the figure was, at first, the size and shape of an enormous dog. It was black, he said, and had glowing red eyes–not unlike, perhaps, the hound of Baskerville fame.
“It was just a stray dog,” my mother suggested. But he was adamant. It was NOT a dog. It was “whole-dark,” a black of blackest night. It was a nothing, no contour, no shape, no highlight. It was a black hole in the shape of a four-legged animal…except, he reiterated, for the glowing red eyes. It gave him a horrible, shuddering feeling–ice cold, a shiver in the soul. It was more than fear. It was worse than fear.
My father suggested it was a bear. We had bears in the area, after all, and that seemed to fit most of the criteria. We never saw it again, at any rate, and so it was largely forgotten. But not by my little brother, who still doesn’t enjoy talking about it–and not by me. That whole-dark, terrifying shape wafted its way into my brain, traveled like mist across my synapses… and waited for his cue to come back on stage.
Below, I give you two characters of ill-repute. The first is Eurick, the Jackwolfe of the Witchwood. The second is Nemeth, the horse-demon Asmodai of unfortunate memory. Both owe their genesis to the shared experience of an eight-year-old, playing tag in the woods.
“What is that??”
Ezra felt her skin prickle, and Frank started to growl. There was a gap in the curling fog—a gap slowly closing up with bodies. There, before them, was the most horrible creature she had ever seen. It was enormous—the size of an Irish wolfhound at least. It had high ridge-like shoulders, and the whole body was so horribly skinny that muscles stood out like ropes and bones like armor under a short, wiry coat. But worst of all was its head; it didn’t rise above the shoulder, but rather hung hyena-like on its long, downward-arching neck. Two dome-like black eyes with no pupils and no whites stared straight into them, and its jaw—which seemed hinged like a snake’s—had a skeletal, grinning aspect…and in that jaw, just under the snarling folds of tightly-stretched skin, were rows and rows of dagger-like teeth. Alex and Ezra felt frozen as they watched more and more of them step out of the mist.
[…]An enormous horse—at least she thought it was a horse—was charging up the hill. Its body was so black it was almost a hole in the air, an enormous nothing that no light touched. Its head was emblazoned with a single white streak like a bolt of lightening, and its eyes were sparking like fire. It snorted blue-orange flames as it pounded the dirt, and with a sudden lift it catapulted over Eurick and his pursuers to land nearly on top of Ezra herself.
“GRK—GRK—GRK!” Nemeth was chucking his almost skeletal head back and forth, and his mouth split wide to show off a double row of tangled fangs.
“Now, just wait,” Ezra choked, “I’ve never done a thing to you!”
Behind her, Sarah was nearly jumping up and down.
“You can’t reason wit’ it! It’s a demon!” she said, and suddenly Nemeth seemed aware of her presence as well. He swung his body around, and Ezra gasped—the spikes on his withers had opened—they had become spidery finger-bones, and stretched between them was the leathery webbing of bat wings.
“EEEEE!” Sarah squealed, and Nemeth opened his wings and his mouth, his neck stretching and stretching…
“RUN!” Ezra shouted at Sarah, and then, taking her own advice, she charged across the court. Sarah had disappeared through the doorway and away from Nemeth’s snapping jaws, but Ezra had lost her cover. The court was wide and empty—there was no place to hide.
Why, why, why??? Ezra demanded of herself. One stupid decision after another! Behind her, Nemeth’s body writhed to the right, and his weirdly jointed legs raked forward. Stone and gravel flew from his claws as he reached for Ezra’s retreating heels. His wings were open, but like a new night moth, they were still too weak for flight. He beat them across his back and wailed in hunger. The sound made Ezra’s legs feel like water, but she kept going. She had run from the jackwolfe. She had run from Jaydeun. But never had she run like this! Hell itself seemed to be following behind her, ready to swallow her up with fire and acid—and in truth, both of these substances were flaming and dripping from the creature’s open maw.
Stay tuned this week for the Fiction Reboot’s Author Interview. We will have poet Kim Roberts with us, discussing the power of words and unusual inspiration. We also look forward to a chat with Tessa Harris, author of The Anatomist’s Apprentice.