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The Old Elm

     Henry Platt walked his dog Sharon down Edgewood Avenue, following the curve of the road around Edgewood Cemetery. Street lights tried to burn through the thick fog and Henry was pleased he’d worn his knit cap for the walk. The chill in the air was harsher than usual.

     Sharon pulled on the leash, nose to the pavement, head swinging back and forth. When she reached the granite curbing of the sidewalk she paused, then continued on. Henry glanced through the wrought iron fence and saw eternal flames, the memorials disturbing in their red containers and reflecting in the fog dampened headstones and markers. He couldn’t understand his wife’s fascination with cemeteries, in general, but Ellen seemed particularly obsessed with Edgewood. Lately, she’d even begun making a photo book about the cemetery on the computer.

     Henry shook his head and let Sharon lead him along the sidewalk’s edge. The dog walked on towards her favorite spot, a giant elm which had grown over and around the iron fencing, pushing some of the iron tops down and out towards the road.

     The tree, twisted by years of harsh New England weather, had thick roots which spread out and split the concrete sidewalk before it burrowed under the street. Henry hated the tree.  Ellen loved it.

     Sharon climbed the granite curbing onto the cracked concrete, nosing about the roots. She never ‘went’ on the tree, she just sniffed the hell out of it for some reason. Henry usually had to drag the dog away. Otherwise, she’d stay there all day. Henry stood on the broken sidewalk, his breath curling around him in the cold air. Henry looked at the tree, trying to figure out why Ellen liked it so much.

     The damned thing looks like it came out of a ‘B’ horror movie, he thought.

     The October wind had stripped the elm of its bright leaves and left the bare branches smothered by the fog. He looked at the gnarled stubs of severed limbs, amputations sealed with tar. The fog clung to the tree’s bark and twisted around the outstretched branches.

     Ellen had a picture of the cemetery when it was first set aside as a public burial ground in 1876. The tree could be seen in it. It was a hundred years younger, yet still ugly. The elm had grown for decades, its roots spreading out and feeding upon generations of New Englanders buried within the iron boundaries of the cemetery.

     He wondered how old the tree really was.

     Henry stepped closer to it. He looked at the old headstones nearby, that portion of Edgewood having had no new occupants for decades.

     “Bet it’s been a long time since you’ve had anything fresh, huh?” he asked.

     Sharon whined, brushing against his legs.

     “Ready?” Henry asked, surprised. In the dark, predawn of the morning he turned away from the tree, stumbling over Sharon’s leash and letting go of it.

     “God damn it!” he swore. He landed hard, cracking his knees and slapping his palms on the concrete. “Sharon!”

     Henry looked up and saw the dog. She stared at him, her leash trailing behind her.

     “What’ve I said before?” he asked her. “Don’t wrap that God damned leash around me.”

     Standing up painfully, Henry brushed his hands off on his khakis.  Droplets of blood smeared the fabric and had splashed against the ridged bark of the ancient tree. He shook his head at Sharon.

     “Christ, dog,” he muttered. He picked up the leash and turned to leave, tripping again.

     His head bounced off of an exposed root and Henry let out a groan. He tried to roll and get his feet under him but found he couldn’t. Bright white stars exploded in his vision as he sat up, head throbbing, spinning in the early fog. The pain in his head caused his stomach to churn, and he hunched over, vomiting his morning toast and coffee between his legs and onto the concrete. Henry closed his eyes as he retched again.

     He to spit the foul taste of bile out of his mouth as opened his eyes. Henry blinked away tears as he focused on what had tripped him the second time.

     A pair of thick roots constricted around each ankle. The bark pressed against his athletic socks and slowly cut off the circulation to his feet. Another root snaked out, wrapping around his left wrist. As the bark touched the exposed flesh images slammed into Henry’s mind.

     He was the tree as a sapling while Indians butchered one another by it, giving the elm its first taste of blood.

     Other scenes flashed by, each one agonized as it arrived, searing his thoughts before vanishing. Henry saw Puritans butchering Indians. Puritans murdering Puritans. Colonists killing redcoats. Redcoats slaying colonists.  Murder after murder, the tree calling the killers near, feeding upon the spilt blood.

     A son stabbed his father to death, burying the man near the tree, and laying the first marker in what would become Edgewood’s forest of headstones.

     All the while the tree grew, aged, and slept longer after each feeding.

     Yet Henry’s blood had awakened the tree.

     And the dark fluid had reminded the tree what it was to be hungry.

     A scream ripped out of Henry’s mouth as the tree dragged his right foot into a thin crack in the sidewalk. The leather and fabric of his sneaker ripped and Henry felt his flesh tear as well, bones crunching. He threw up again, the vomit drowning another scream. Sharon snapped and growled at the tree, scratching at the roots.  The tree ignored her as it pulled Henry’s hand in after his foot.

     Henry, his mind burning and shattering with the pain, struggled against the tree. He flailed with his right hand at the roots, the sidewalk. His thoughts became frenzied, the bones in his hand breaking with each powerful, yet futile blow. As his blood flowed into the earth and spilled onto the thirsty roots, Henry could sense the tree’s deep satisfaction.

     Blackness swarmed across Henry’s vision, and he collapsed against the sidewalk.

     Sharon watched for a moment as more and more of her master disappeared into the earth. With a last whine she fled for home, tail tucked, the purple leash is dragging through blood.

     The tree continued to feed, the fog still heavy as the last of its meal was pulled down. A few feet further down the sidewalk, beneath the concrete and a yellow fire hydrant, the tree wrapped a strong root around the hydrant’s automatic shut off valve and crushed it.

     Water exploded out of the ground, roaring across the asphalt of the road and the concrete of the sidewalk.  The headstones of the cemetery were sprayed, and the last remnants of Henry Platt were washed away.

     In the distance, police cruisers wailed in response to Ellen Platt’s frantic 911 call after the return of her blood splattered dog and the absence of her husband.

     The tree ate greedily, the old hunger awakened.

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November 23, 1891

     Li Mao worked as a waiter for the Boston & Maine Railroad, serving at the company’s leisure from his arrival in Cross, in 1857, until his death in 1891. Little was known about the man, other than that he was from China. He spoke enough English to work his job, and enough to collect his pay and to make regular trips into Boston and down to New York City, courtesy of his employer.

     Li Mao lived in a low basement beneath what would one day be Van Epp’s Bookstore in Cross, and he kept his own company. The only person he was known to speak with on a regular basis was Duncan Blood, and that was because Duncan – somehow – could converse in Cantonese.

     When Li Mao died in 1891, ostensibly while during a stop in Worcester, his landlord was informed via telegraph. The landlord reached out to Duncan in the hope that there might be something within the dead man’s belongings that might identify a relative in China, one to whom they could mail Li Mao’s effects.

     Duncan agreed, and when they entered the dead man’s room, they were surprised to discover a ready-made family – five skeletons seated around a table. Four children and one adult female were dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, but they were not Chinese. Nor were they even from the same bodies. According to the journal discovered by Duncan, Li Mao had spent nearly 25 years harvesting the bones he needed to create the family he had lost in China. Who the hundreds of bones came from, no one knew.

     Li Mao hadn’t been concerned with those he slew, only that the bones would fit into the family he was building.

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Setting the Scene

     The setting in a story is an essential element and can often be a character unto itself. Whether you feel the need to describe in excruciating detail the particulars of a room or are comfortable with stating only something as broad as the room’s generic name, the scene is going to play an important role for your reader.

     Everyone has a comfort level when it comes to setting the scene.

     There was a time in my early years where I felt it necessary to go almost to the thread-count of the sheets on the bed. Then, in a radical shift, I hardly described anything at all. Lines such as, “He walked into the bedroom and sat down.” were fairly common, and not entirely interesting.

     I like to think I’ve found a middle ground at this point, and that I’m adding enough to create a realistic scene.

     It’s easy enough to say, “He walked into the bedroom and sat down.”

     It’s a little more difficult to say, “Tom walked into his bedroom and sat down upon his bed, the old mattress groaning beneath his weight, and the smell of his own stale sweat fouling the air.” Now the reader knows several things about Tom: first, his mattress is old, and that for some reason he sweats. Enough so that it not only lingers, but he can smell it as well. And, as so many of us unfortunately discovered in our early teen years, just because we can’t smell ourselves doesn’t mean no one else can’t.

     With that sentence and that basic understanding about the room, we can fill out a little more about Tom. Does he have a glandular problem? Is he overweight? Is he so poor he can’t afford to wash his bedding? Or is he so ignorant that he doesn’t feel he has to?

     We, as authors, don’t need to delve too deeply into this, but it can be touched upon at any point past the bedroom, and it won’t take the reader by surprise. And, in the same breath, we don’t have to pass any more information along if we don’t want to. The reader has a feel for Tom’s room: his bed is old, and the room smells.

     We have given the reader enough, so they understand what’s in front of them, and they can make of it what they will.

     The scene doesn’t have to be everything, but it certainly must be more than nothing.

     As always, keep writing!

Nicholas

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November 22, 1946

     During the summer of 1939, it was decided by the board of the Cross Branch of Miskatonic University to expand the school’s Antiquities Department by constructing a second building that would be dedicated solely to that field of study. Issues with various permits, ownership rights, and other legalities prevented the work from beginning immediately.

     Groundbreaking on the project didn’t begin until late October 1941, and less than six weeks later, the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. With America on a war footing, the addition for the school was put on hold, and it was not resumed until 1946.

     On the morning of November 22, 1946, the construction crew excavating the cellar for the new building, struck a wall beneath the surface.

     The wall was carved from stone not native to New England, and it had been buried twelve feet below ground level. The lead engineer on the project, with the assistance of some of the faculty and staff of the school, determined there was a chamber beyond the wall.

     With hastily gathered archaeological equipment, the ad hoc team gained access to the chamber and was shocked to discover the mummified remains of an Orthodox Christian priest. Later analysis of his clothes and other items in the room showed he had been interned sometime in the late 1800s, and when his name was sent to the head of the Orthodox faith, it was learned that the priest had been a Syrian bishop.

     The Church requested the body be returned to them, but the school declined to do so.

     The Syrian Bishop remains beneath the Antiquities Building, a department’s silent protector.

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Dialogue is a Killer

      Dialogue is a killer.

     Stress the vernacular and local dialect too much, and you can leave a reader struggling to understand what the hell they just said.

     Make it too formal, and the reader will know they’re reading as they think, What? No one talks like that.

     Dialogue is a fine line, and while you can step over it here and there, you simply cannot walk all over it. There has to be a way to put your point across, and to keep your characters intact.

     I’m a New Englander. I know how we sound (hell, I know how I sound, and it’s a train-wreck). Some others out there in the whole wide world might know as well. We have our own curious statements, such as, “Down east,” and “ayuh.” We’re quite fond of sayings such as, “Passing strange,” and “you can’t get there from here,” or, “best to go back the way you come.” I can see Leominster, and know that it’s pronounced, “Lemon-stir.” And while it’s annoying to hear Harvard pronounced as “Hahvahd,” I know what someone means when they say it.

     Not everyone does.

     In fact, when you get down to the southern edge of Connecticut, you’ll hear more of a New York accent than you will a Boston. Out in the middle of the country, people talk slower than is polite (for a New Englander). Southerners and those from the West Coast are so relaxed, that when I first met some guys from those parts of the country, I thought they were all high they were so relaxed.

     The point of this long, and rambling little diatribe is this: we all know what we’re supposed to sound like, but more importantly, we all think we know what the rest of the country is supposed to sound like as well.

     If I say my character is from New Hampshire, and he or she speaks, a reader is going to imagine the nasally, clipped words of a New Englander who can’t seem to slow down enough for their own funeral. New Englanders, on the other hand, are going to imagine someone speaking exactly the way they should.

     If you have a character from Boston, you don’t need to write a line such as, “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd.”

     “Park the car in Harvard yard,” will work just fine. Everyone knows what folks from Boston like. Writing the dialogue in dialect or phonetically will break that suspension of disbelief that is so crucial to entertainment, and with the reader’s attention distracted, it will difficult to bring them back in.

     So, fight that urge to make the character believable by writing in dialect. Sure, you can drop a ‘g’ here or there. Adjust an apostrophe if you like. Just don’t mangle the English language. It gets abused enough as it is.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

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November 21, 1900

     Anyone from New England can tell you time runs differently during the winter. Some days are far too long, and some nights stretch on interminably. And while the days can be difficult, the nights are often murderous.

     November 21, 1900, Georgia Phelps survived a night abnormally long.

     Georgia lived alone in a small forester’s hut at the back end of the Coffin Farm. At the age of 30, she was considered an old maid, and she was pleased with the label. Marriage had never seemed particularly pleasing to her since she believed it would prevent her from enjoying her solitude in the woods.

     On the evening of November 21, Georgia noticed an absence of game from the nearby forest. None of the normal birdsong or animal cries could be heard, and the stillness was disquieting.

As she drank her after-dinner coffee, Georgia saw movement in the tree-line. It was a tall, slim manlike shape. She caught a glimpse of dark gray skin and orange eyes and curved swords.

     Georgia was a practical woman, and not one to doubt what she saw. She went to her gun cabinet, retrieved her lever-action rifle and its ammunition, and took up a position at the window in the front room.

     For 14 hours, she kept up a continuous fire, and when Duncan Blood and several members of the Coffin clan arrived at sunrise, they found 172 corpses. All of which were burned over the following three days.

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Why Horror?

     Regardless of what genre you write in – historical fiction, romance, literary fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, horror – you inevitably have someone ask you, ‘Why?’

     I get that a lot. Especially with horror.

    ‘Why horror? The world’s bad enough as it is.’

     And that’s why I write horror, because of the way the world is. When you turn on the news, which has connected us to the farthest reaches of the globe, you learn of the misery of others. This isn’t new, of course, we all know that there is suffering in the world. Television and the internet have merely joined forces to put an extremely human face on the plight of others.

     Horror lets you escape that by showing you something horrific that is identifiable, and controllable.

     Is the story too terrible to read? Put the book down. You know it’s fiction.

     That’s why I write horror. Especially supernatural horror. There is an element of control to the process of dealing with horror as a writer. I take the world as I see it (which is not pleasant) and I deal with it in my own way.

     I have a short story about racism, assault, and vengeance, three subjects which are difficult to handle when experienced in the real world. In my story, these are still difficult, but there is a supernatural element that enables one of the offended parties to exact revenge.

     Writing horror is a catharsis for me. Reading it can be as well. The popularity of horror as a genre waxes and wanes, as does anything, but Stephen King points out how we can measure the level of fear and stress in our society by the horror we produce.

     Look at the monster films of the 50s and 60s. We have radioactive beasts assaulting America and Japan. One of those countries dropped the bomb, and one of them had the bomb dropped on them. Is it any wonder that both the US and Japan would fear the A-Bomb? That they would fear the effects of it?

     So, when someone asks you why you write horror, tell them why. And if you like, tell them you write horror because it’s less frightening than reading the news.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

 

 

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