Tag Archives: Southern Horror Fiction

THE NEIGHBOR

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Merle Shiflett loves pick-axes.   He has a special one that he sanded down so that his hands fit perfectly around the middle. He loves to stare at their handles and let his fingers trace down where they are thick at the top and then slope inward like a woman’s calf. When he wraps his fingers around his favorite pick-ax, Merle is always reminded just how magical and wonderful the world can be.

Merle Shiflett loves it when the doorbell rings.  Because that means visitors.  And Merle Shiflett loves visitors, too.

Especially when he knows they’ll be staying forever.

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WRITING TIME!

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Took yesterday off.  Gonna have fun swimming with the kids this afternoon, but for now, I have my music going.  The house is quiet.  It’s time to get cracking on that chapter and get this novel done!

SOUTHERNISMS

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I grew up in a small town in Virginia. When I went to college and took a poetry class, we read a poem about someone sitting on the porch, sipping sweet tea out of a quart jar. We spent the entire class discussing the symbolism of using a quart jar instead of a glass and what statement that was making about Southerners.

I listened to all the stuff they came up with and shook my head. Then the teacher called on me (I guess expecting me to come up with some great epiphany), asking about the deep meaning behind using a jar instead of a glass and what that meant about being Southern.

I happened to be the only Southerner in the class.

I just shrugged and said, “We do it because it holds more.”

The professor wasn’t amused, but sometimes a quart jar really is just a quart jar.

DIGGING

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DIGGING

Tim Price fully expected to go to Hell when he died. And he did. But it was a very pleasant surprise that there were no demons with pitchforks. No brimstone. And no devil.

Tim was just sitting in a narrow hole, deep in the ground, with his dead, all-too vocal grandfather. Far above him, he could see the blue sky and clouds. Maybe that was supposed to make him wish that he had led a better life so that he could stand in the sunlight or something cheesy like that.

“And here I thought that churchin’ didn’t take, boy. You was worried about some guy in a red suit that likes skinny dippin’ in fire,” his grandfather said with a soft laugh. He had a smug look on his face, and Tim just wanted to slam his fist into it.

You gotta rattle a few teeth, sometimes … Isn’t that what Tim’s father had always said?

His father had never hit him. Instead, his dad had just spent most of his time in a chair, propped up in front of the television. He died of a heart attack in that chair. As a child, after it had happened, Tim had often envisioned a heart attack as a bulbous, rippling, reddish thing creeping around the house, hiding behind the furniture to spring on people.

He’d cried at his father’s funeral. But he wasn’t sure why. His father had never done anything with him. Maybe he had known he’d miss the habit of his father–that constant presence in the chair. The guy had never held down a job but had smiled at Tim and encouraged him from time to time.

Now, in the hole, Tim heard a sound that wasn’t from a memory–digging.

For some reason, Tim remembered how, when he was a kid, he and his grandfather would fish. The night before every Saturday fishing trip, they’d dig for worms–the large, fat ones he always called nightcrawlers. He remembered how the flashlight’s waxy, yellow beam would cut through the darkness. And how the bats would squeak above his head, calling to each other and pinwheel through the night sky after bugs.

“Memories be the music of the soul–” the old man said.

The digging sounds grew louder.

“Things are fine. They’re smoky,” Tim replied suddenly, needing to hear something besides those muffled, scratching noises.

That’s what Aunt Myrna had always said. Things is smoky. She’d sit in her robe on the porch and grin with tobacco-stained teeth, puffing on her cigarette. And she’d rasp out in her gravely voice, “Things is smoky.”

She had hopes for Tim, had always told him that he’d do great things with his drawings and maybe become a famous artist.

As a child, he’d watched her grow weaker. Her eyes had dark, smudgy circles around them that she tried to hide under cakes of makeup. She was just sagging skin wrapped around bones. He thought that she’d just laugh her wild laugh and end up splintering apart.

But she didn’t start off that way. The cancer worked away at her, like how her brother, Uncle Larry, used to take his knife and cut slivers out of a piece of wood. A little here. A little there. Like how something was now digging, scraping the dirt away, handful by handful.

“There ain’t no way–” Tim stopped himself. Ain’t no way? He hadn’t talked like that since he’d been a teenager. He could still remember his mother in the kitchen. Her kitchen always smelled warm, like fresh-baked bread.

“If you talk like a little street hood, then that’s all you’re going to be. You’re smarter than that, Timothy,” she had said that day.

She had worked two jobs to make sure Tim had enough money to go to college. In return, he had graduated and received a nice little square of paper with his name on it. It was weird that four years of college had essentially been mashed down into a handful of letters on a piece of paper.

But the robbery business was just too good. He needed the money. No, he just liked money.

That is until he had broken into the wrong house–the nice one with the crape myrtle trees out front and the grandfather clock in the dining room–and gotten shot in the chest. He had to admit, when he’d stepped out of his body and moved on, he had been a little bit afraid of Hell.

There was, however, nothing to be afraid of because there was no devil.

He heard more dirt fall and could see rotted fingers pushing through the dark brown earth, like the thick, swollen nightcrawlers he used to catch with his grandfather.

“You was always right, boy. There ain’t no devil,” the old man said. “It’s all as clear as Judas. Your grandmama hated when I put things like ‘at. But this ain’t about religion. Not anymore. Living’s all about religion, but being dead . . . it’s a whole different animal than God and ‘postles and grape juice. She hated when I’d say that, too–”

The things started to crawl through the dirt toward Tim. And he saw one was his aunt. Her face was just a skull filled with sharp teeth. His father and mother were behind her. And Uncle Larry. All of them pushed through the dirt, clawing at him.

“The living, they shape us when we’re alive by giving us memories and guiding us this way and that. Ain’t so with the dead. ” The old man laughed, showing how own razor-like teeth. “When you down among the dead, boy, they judge you and we have. And then they shape you. We will. You see, boy, that’s what teeth are for down here. And well, there’s more than dirt to dig through. There’s you.”

LOST & FOUND

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LOST & FOUND

4:50 p.m. I just woke-up, and my foot is missing. I’ve looked in the most obvious place, of course, but it’s just not there. Darlene’ll be here at 5:00. Shit.

4:53 p.m. My hand’s missing now; it disappeared somewhere between the bathroom and the bedroom. It’s usually hard to miss those things. I have to stay calm. There’s bound to be a reasonable explanation. WHERE’S MY DAMN HAND??? Calm. Yeah, calm. Have to stay calm . . . calm–

4:59 p.m. This is not a dream. Right now, I’m crawling on the freaking floor looking for my legs. I know they just didn’t get up and walk away. Jesus, I must be going nuts. The doorbell? No, nobody’s there. It’s only the dog down the street barking. I hate that hairy little son of a bitch. One more minute. I just have one more minute … until … 5:00.

Maybe she’ll be late. No, that’s her. Always miss prim and proper. Always getting things her way. She’ll be on time. Never early. Never late. On time. Like clockwork. You can tell when it’s her because she always taps on the damn door with that cutesy little knock. Knocking out some tune. She’s a real Ice Queen, that Darlene. She thinks everything’s about her. But it’s about me. It’s always been about me.

Ice Queen. Wait. Yeah, that’s right. I put everything in the basement because the pantry’s too full. That girl last night, she was a real keeper. I had to keep every piece of her. It’s all about me. She’s mine to keep. Her legs. Her hands. I’m much more of a leg man. Hands do make the best keepsakes–they use up less freezer space. Yes. I remember now. Everything is tucked away safe and sound. Just the way I like it.

There’s the knock.

5:01 p.m. Hi, Darlene.

A SONG FOR MISS CLINE

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Today feels like a short story day …

A SONG FOR MISS CLINE

Uncle Ephraim has this weird habit of digging up the bushes in front of the M. Lauder Bank. Dead people can be crazy like that
sometimes. Hell, everybody’s a little crazy I guess.

I keep hoping that someone’s like me. You know, not dead. But I think whatever got Momma and Ephraim got to the town, too.

Miss Cline is dead, but she thinks it’s always Valentine’s Day. Every day, she gathers up all the valentines she’d made herself and
then sets them out again. Like clockwork, after the last one’s on the mantle, she pets her cats. They died some time back, locked in
the house, but she don’t notice. She just strokes their bony backs, rubbing the fur bald. There’s not much left to her face now, but she
don’t notice that either.

I feel bad for them cats. And her.

Other dead ones, like Hugh Crafter, ain’t that different from what they were when they’d been alive. Hugh still cleans all the time.
When she was alive, Momma would always say that it was pointless for him to clean his shack of a house. She’d say, “Bathing a
dead dog still gives you a dead dog. He might smell nice for a few minutes, but he’s still dead.”

I keep our house clean. But the smell’s still there. I guess Momma was right.

The snow’s setting in. If I don’t get out tonight, I won’t. The world’s a mean place is what Ephraim used to say when he
was alive. Real soon, I think it’s gonna get a whole lot meaner.

More of them dead ones are in front of the house.

Watching me like I watch Miss Cline. Except their eyes are a whole lot meaner. The ones that got eyes, anyway.

Ephraim’s on the porch. I can hear his boots creaking against the loose floorboards, making a long whine kind of sound. Momma’s
in the back bedroom. She hadn’t made a noise for a few days now. I don’t go into her room no more. I don’t want to see what’s left.

When Ephraim and Momma took sick, I stayed with them.

Back when she was alive she always said I’d never leave her. Said there was no reason to leave. Family was family. And you
cain’t never trust no one like family.

Miss Cline’s got music on tonight on some kind of wind-up record player. I haven’t seen nothing like that in a long time. It’s a soft
kind of music, like a love song.

I’ll wait for you forever … and I’ll never let you go. You’ll always be mine … Always … Always … And I’ll take care of
you, just know …

And I can hear Ephraim on the porch. He’s scratching at the door like a hungry dog wanting in for supper and I can hear him whisper real soft, like he’s singing to the music.

… And I’ll take care of you …

Food’s gone. No heat. No power. But that ain’t the storm. Hadn’t had power for a long time. Up here we lose power a lot. But the city … there’s always the city.

I make myself go out the back door.

The snow keeps sliding softly down and I feel it all over me, little bits of cold digging into my eyes. As the wind spirals by, the
snowflakes swirl like ants swarming on a dead thing. It’s hard to see. Everything’s all grey. No colors. It’s easy to get turned around in the dark. In the snow. I could go back home. Go through the motions. Pretend.

But that look in their eyes … and the smell … I’m not like them. And they’re starting to get that.

I kind of want to break something. Just so I can hear some noise. Hear something to remind me I’m not dead. That I’m not them.

And then I do hear something in the woods. I hope it’s just wolves. I hope I didn’t wait too long. But I promised Momma I’d take care of her.

… Always … Always …

Behind me, the boot prints I made are being filled up with fresh snow. I bet Miss Cline is still listening to her song.

Always … Always …

I just keep going, trying not to look back.

And I’ll take care of you …

If I make it a little farther, I should be able to see lights from the city. I want to see those lights. If I cain’t … No, if their power’s out, then there’ll be fires. There’ll be something, little lights like fireflies stuck out in the grey. I almost start laughing. Used to catch them things when I was real little. As a kid, I felt bad when I put them in a jar and woke up the next morning and they was all dead.

I’m crawling up the hill now, slipping and sliding every which way. Gonna go as fast as I can. But I’m gonna see them lights. I’m gonna see them. Momma used to take me up here when I was real small. Then I look.

Lights.

I’m laughing like an idiot until I feel a hand on my shoulder that’s colder than the snow.

And I think of Miss Cline and her cats.

… until the world ends …

Got a feeling that Momma ain’t been in her room for awhile. Maybe she just wanted to see the lights, too. Then I hear a voice, real
soft like the snow.

“… and I’ll never let you go …” Momma says.

… Always … Always …

THE WOLF AT THE ATTIC DOOR

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With October’s chills and strange things lurking just around the corner, I thought I’d post a story I wrote a few year ago. Parts of the story later grew into scenes of the novel I’m working on now.

THE WOLF AT THE ATTIC DOOR

“There’s a wolf at the attic door. It’s growlin’ in the dark and waitin’…” My father’s voice is the biggest part of him. It booms through the church sanctuary and worms its way up into the attic. It’s what wakes me up.

“… clawin’ and scratchin’… dark things don’t want in, ya see. Dark things are always a-wantin’ out—”

The dark is nice. I can feel it around me and I want to go back to sleep, to slip back to where I was before. Warmth, that’s what I want. But I’m not going to find it in the attic while I’m sprawled on the old sanctuary table. This do, in remembrance of me. As my hands slip down, I can feel the words etched into the side and I remember how I used to play under it while my father wandered through the empty pews on Monday mornings, meticulously checking the hymnals for pencil marks and torn pages.

Churches are different on Mondays. here are no amens and no music. No singing. They’re silent and hollow.

“… each of us got that hungry part that tries to fill us up … “

My father smiles sometimes. Mainly when he’s putting on his show in the pulpit as he calls it. You have to make a show or no one listens. At home, he’s always different—like a church on Mondays. Every time he talks to me, it’s like he’s reading a eulogy for someone he never really liked.

My mother tried to cover the old sanctuary table with a fancy tablecloth when it broke the first time. I was seven back then and I’d play under it and feel the cloth tickle against my arm. It was a whispery kind of touch.

“… that thing lurkin’ under our skins, it’s in anybody. Any man can give into that wolf …”

Sitting up on the table, I notice the jack-o-lantern next to me. It’s one of the few things I ever did with my father. It’s our ritual. Yellow candlelight fills its triangle eyes and leaks out its jagged mouth.

“… once you open that door … once you give into that hunger . . . “

The girl tonight was nineteen and a year older than me. She fought and she cried.

“… hunger … in the end, we got to remember that everything’s hungry.”

She was beautiful and I used to watch her when she’d swim down by the river after dark. Someone else did more than watch. He cut her. And she fought him. I couldn’t move. The man with the knife carved a jack-o-lantern’s zigzag smile across her perfect throat. And I was too late to save her, but I saw his face. I knew him and he knew me.

“… and we’re always too scared to call that wolf by name, to throw open that door and call him out …”

I wasn’t. Not by the river. I said, “Dad.”

You’ve stepped into the grown up world, Levi, the hungry world, he said yesterday by the river. He hit me in the face until the world became blurry and then held my head under the water. But drowning takes a long time.

“… hunger …”

Water’s always hungry. It sucks you down and doesn’t want to give you back. But my father brought me back here after I died. He tucked me away in his attic. Everyone thinks I killed that girl and the others. What he’s saying down there is an apology and that I ran off.

My father used to say that superstitions are just insurance against dark things.

“… in the old days, they carved pumpkins to keep evil away … when the veil between the living and the dead is thin like …”

It is tonight.

“A face to frighten and a candle to hold the dark things at bay … “

But there are other voices now and they’re louder than my father’s. I can hear them—the girl my father killed tonight and all the others. Their bodies left down by the river. Their voices are so soft, so cold. Like the water. And I can understand the one word that they whisper–hungry.

“… as long as we’ve got that light burnin’, that bit of good, we can keep that ole wolf away. He can try to scratch and paw and claw … But as long as we have that light, he’s locked in that attic … we’re safe … “

And I think about the girls and feeling their icy hands on my shoulders. And feeling their wonderful cold sinking into my skin. They are just voices, but I want to feel the girl’s wet hair against the side of my face. She’s beautiful with her rotting skin and the branches tangled in her clothes. They’re all beautiful. Waiting here for a night like tonight. For someone like me.

“Hungry,” they whisper, soft like old fabric.

And my father’s voice makes me smile now. “… you see the dark it’s got teeth and nails and it’s … “

Hungry.

The little flame in the jack-o-lantern flickers. When I peer in through the eye, I can see the simple white candle and the pools of wax it’s floating in. Just a little insurance against the dark, my father used to say. Something to keep the hungry dark away. To keep us safe.

I lean over to the jack-o-lantern and blow out the candle. Then I reach for the door.

I’m so very, very hungry.