short fiction

Rooum

ghost month 2014

Originally published in August, 2012

Rooum (1910)

Oliver Onions

Available on Librivox as part of the collection Widdershins

There is something about early 20th century ghost literature that just scares the crap out of me. I’m not sure what it is. I think, though I’ve not spent a lot of time thinking about it, is that where modern audiences are into horror for large scares and big lead-ups, the ghost stories of the M.R. James generation are about slowly mounting terror and quiet desperation.

I’ve not heard of Oliver Onions prior to reading this piece, but I wonder what the rest of his work is like. I should give him a more thorough reading in the near future. While his language and semantics are dated (but really, is that fair?) his work has this creeping quality that really drew me in.

Onions’ ‘Rooum’ is the tale of a man haunted by someone or something that only he can see- at least at first. The titular Rooum is a man who seems to be wandering from place to place, though it becomse apparent by the end of the story that perhaps it’s more like he is running from place to place. Rooum is an odd man with an odd appearance- the narrator refers to him as a piebald. A water witch, a dowser, he is a man of unmatched skill with heavy equipment but little understanding of the physics of his work.

Rooum’s drifting from job to job is caused in large part by his belief in a ‘thing’, the Runner, that is following him. This conviction, or possession, becomes so large and his sense of alienation and isolation (as explained by the narrator, though assumed by the narrator may be more accurate) eventually leads to his own destruction.

I think that it is Rooum’s desperation that makes this story so effective for me. Whether or not the Runner exists is almost not important. What is important is that he or it exists for Rooum, and it is his fear that extends to the reader.

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The Constable of Abal

The Constable of Abal

Kelly Link

Accessed here

Dark fantasy works with dark themes, but it doesn’t necessarily imply a piece that’s heavy or slow. While dealing with the subject of ghosts and death (including the death of self, in a way) ‘The Constable of Abal’ actually feels almost whimsical at times. I will admit that I truly enjoyed this piece.

Ozma’s mother is not what is generally called a nice person. Zilla collects the souls of the dead and places them on ribbons for the upper class women in the city as well as telling fortunes and engaging in low level blackmailing. However, Zilla crosses a line that causes them to flee to the city of Brid. Finding herself in the household of Lady Fralix Ozma is forced to give up the life that she was so happy with. By the end of the story, perhaps it is Zilla that had to give up the greatest part of her being-only to truly find herself again.

I wouldn’t call this one cute but there is a lightness to this piece that I liked. More fantasy than horror, it is a fairly light read for this genre-but it’s a solid piece. Link’s writing is smooth and effective. Not every ghost story needs to be heavy, and this one was a nice change from the pieces I’ve been reading for this month.

The Stars are Falling

The Stars are Falling

Joe R. Lansdale

What does it mean to be dead?

When does death occur? Is it the moment when physical life as we know it ceases, or is it when the person we know as a person ceases? Is it possible to haunt your own life?

The men who went to fight in World War I had no way of knowing what they were facing. World War I and the Civil War may have had the greatest lasting impacts on the way that the world processes both war and death. In the case of World War I, the technology changes were radically beyond comprehension for a great number of people, and the Civil War literally reworked the way that Americans comprehended death. The very act of dying changed, we came to see a new definition of a ‘good death’, and as a society we even had to start changing how we handle our dead-the American habit of embalming our dead can be traced in large part back to that particular war.

It is not surprising, once you start reading the accounts of trench warfare, to understand why pop culture would eventually name the men who fought in World War I the Lost Generation. Whoever it was that went to fight, they were not the men that came back home. Set in the early Interwar, Lansdale’s piece poses a question: is it possible to come back from battle alive?

This is not the conventional ghost story. There’s no specters, no hauntings in the traditional sense. However, Deel is fully aware that he died somewhere on the front line and he is just waiting for his body to catch up with what his soul actually knows. Maybe because I’m from a military family, or maybe because I know people who left their souls overseas when they ended their service, but this was a very hard story for me to read. The story falters a little from a slightly unbalanced narrative style, but I think that sometimes the extreme difference between locales (Lansdale is much more effective at showing Deel’s time in the trenches than at telling us his issues at home-so it can come across as a little surprising that he takes the actions that he does) sometimes makes his actions that much more understandable.

The Forbidden

The Forbidden

In the Flesh

Clive Barker

The tulpa is my absolutely favorite horror theme, hands down. I adore it. I’m not sure what my stance on Slenderman’s take over of the idea; I mean, if Slendy keeps it in the public eye more power to him I guess.

I have a confession to make though; I much prefer the film adaptation of this piece. I’m not sure why, I found the original to be compelling enough. It had that definite Barker weirdness that I adore so much (which is why I keep reading him). The idea of the thoughtform, that which we pump so much energy into that it becomes a reality, is dealt with in a much more direct format-it has to be, if it’s going to do in 30 or 40 pages of read time that an anthology presents as opposed to the several hours of screen time.

Eventually this piece would go on and become a movie called Candyman-which seems to have spawned one of those villains that everyone who has seen him remembers for years after. You have admit, Barker does villains with a certain dark grace. The Forbidden tells the story of Helen, a grad student who sets out to record graffiti for her project on urban legends. She stumbles across odd examples in a labyrinth of decaying apartment buildings.

One of the things that stands out to her is the way that the nonsensical repeats itself throughout these examples, and she comes to realize that there’s more going on than just street art. However, further examination may be dangerous to the entire community as well as herself.

This short stands out to me for several reasons. First, like I’ve already said I’m pretty much going to like anything that involves a thoughtform. A villain literally thought into existence? It appeals to the quasi-postmodernist in me. It’s the hyperreality come to life. Literally. Second, Helen’s struggles with her research ring true to me. It’s not as though everyone in academics act like her colleagues, but research can sometimes be brutal for reasons other than just complexity. I know that’s true for every field, but I did find myself sympathetic towards a fellow sociologist/social scientist.

Lastly, the funeral scene at the end is just creepy as all get out. Barker has taken a tendency that everyone has whether they really want to admit it and shoved it right under our faces. If the mother seems to be enjoying herself a little too much, it’s because she probably is. It’s a detail that seems to get overlooked (probably deliberately) throughout fiction, but people like to be the center of attention. It’s probably the only time this woman will ever be noticed by her community. It makes for a freakish and surreal scene enhanced by the realization that she’s probably just being more honest than a great many other people.

In the Flesh

In the Flesh

In the Flesh

Clive Barker

Sin’s one of those tricky issues. It’s sort of like fruit flies, regardless of what you do, it just doesn’t leave. The concept of original sin, or the original source of sin is one of those themes that will be tackled until the end of time-mainly because humans by definition are selfish creatures who will continue to put the needs of self and in-group before the needs of others.

This is just one of the realities of society. It’s harsh, but it’s true (though you can admittedly spin it to a slightly harsher extant than my conflict theory leanings tend to). This is one of the realities that horror likes to play with-what makes people do bad things. A lot of times the answer is something like revenge, love, sheer nastiness…but it’s still not addressing why sin’s present in the world in the first place.

So how does an author like Barker, known for his love of tearing apart human motivation, handle the presence of sin in the world? Essentially, it’s a cycle-we sin because others before us have sinned. We are, quite literally, paying for the sins of our fathers (and brothers and everyone else). In the Flesh is pretty typical Barker with nightmarish imagery and that theme that runs through his work-that your desires are probably going to mess you up.

I think that the first climax of the story is the most effective, and frankly, I would have stopped there and attempted to answer the story’s main question-why do we sin-earlier in the story. But then there’s a reason that Barker’s name is on the book and not mine, so there’s that. Two men are imprisoned in the same cell-one who has, prior to this point, been interested only in finishing his sentence and going home. The newer of the two has deeper ties to the grounds and is attempting to reconnect-literally-with family history. In true horror style nothing quite works out.

However, our main character does get the answer to why we sin-and the answer is pretty bleak. It’s not predetermined step by step, but you’re going to end up doing bad things. The idea that we will keep replicating the same patterns is pretty bleak, to be fair, and one of the main arguments against both sociology and sociological horror. Sorry, life’s just nasty.

A Second Helping of Creepypasta

sundaylegends

 

Marchers in the Woods

When I was young, in the Boy Scouts, I went to summer camp in a remote spot on the Mason Dixon line. It was fameous for being on the route of the South’s retreat from the defeat at Gettysburg.

There was a story that there was a lost patrol that still marched through there, on moonless nights. Anyone they noticed would be conscripted to join them.

It was one of many campfire stories we told, and I might have forgotten all about it, except for or one night. I woke up to the sound of drums in the woods.

The camp was silent. I cracked open the flap and froze. On the path a troop was marching through a low fog. Most were wounded, all wearing civil war uniforms, rucksacks, carrying muskets slung over the shoulder; as they marched a single drummer ticked off the time.

I tried not to even breathe as they marched by. Finally the last soldier came into view, and something about him really sent a chill through me. Just as they were about to go out of sight his head whipped around, and I thought our eyes met for a moment.

Soon after my family moved far away from Pennsylvania, and I convinced myself it was all a bad dream. I moved back here last month, and have been hearing drums late at night.

The new moon is soon, and I figured out what was disturbing about that last soldier. He wasn’t wearing a Civil War uniform. He wore a Boy Scout uniform.

 

The Hunter

 

There was a hunter in the woods, who, after a long day hunting, was in the middle of an immense forest. It was getting dark, and having lost his bearings, he decided to head in one direction until he was clear of the increasingly oppressive foliage. After what seemed like hours, he came across a cabin in a small clearing. Realizing how dark it had grown, he decided to see if he could stay there for the night. He approached, and found the door ajar. Nobody was inside. The hunter flopped down on the single bed, deciding to explain himself to the owner in the morning.

As he looked around the inside of the cabin, he was surprised to see the walls adorned by several portraits, all painted in incredible detail. Without exception, they appeared to be staring down at him, their features twisted into looks of hatred and malice. Staring back, he grew increasingly uncomfortable. Making a concerted effort to ignore the many hateful faces, he turned to face the wall, and exhausted, he fell into a restless sleep.

The next morning, the hunter awoke — he turned, blinking in unexpected sunlight. Looking up, he discovered that the cabin had no portraits, only windows.

 

No.

 

Coffins used to be built with holes in them, attached to six feet of copper tubing and a bell. The tubing would allow air for victims buried under the mistaken impression they were dead. Harold, the Oakdale gravedigger, upon hearing a bell, went to go see if it was children pretending to be spirits. Sometimes it was also the wind. This time it wasn’t either. A voice from below begged, pleaded to be unburied.

“You Sarah O’Bannon?”

“Yes!” the voice assured.

“You were born on September 17, 1827?”

“Yes!”

“The gravestone here says you died on February 19?”

“No I’m alive, it was a mistake! Dig me up, set me free!”

“Sorry about this, ma’am,” Harold said, stepping on the bell to silence it and plugging up the copper tube with dirt. “But this is August. Whatever you is down there, you ain’t alive no more, and you ain’t comin’ up.”

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Joyce Carol Oates

One of our deepest social fears is getting what we want.

Opening the door and facing our strongest desires manifested is the surest way of freaking us out. There’s a reason that one of the most stereotypical curses you can throw into a piece is may you get what you wish for. Most of the time what we want isn’t what we think we want, but we’re too busy or too afraid to pick apart our desires to get at the basis of our longings. We stick with the surface because the surface is easier.

So then we do open the door one day and look at our desire smack in the face and it scares the everloving crap out of us. Joyce Carol Oates has long been one of my favorite horror authors, because she’s so capable of writing creepy, unsettling fiction without telling the reader, here, right here is that thing that’s supposed to scare you.

Connie is a young creature full of the desires that young creatures tend to be full of. However, she’s also at that age where she’s beginning to be aware that the world is not the shining thing she thinks it is and that’s part of where her tension comes from. Connie knows that she doesn’t want to be like her poor, sad, plain sister and she suspects that she’s pretty enough to be set apart from her. But then she’s slammed with the realization that the world is in fact not a toy-that she is probably the toy herself for all of the reasons that make her special. Who the stranger is doesn’t matter all, what matters is that this is the twisted end to the road she’s put herself on.