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What Scares You?

     Trees frighten me.

     Let me clarify this: old New England trees scare me. There is something I find to be undeniably sinister about them. I see them as both cheerless and deadly. Tree worship is neither difficult to understand nor is it implausible to me.

     I can see elder gods and ancient spirits in the twisted branches and gnarled trunks of apple trees, in the swaying, whip-like branches of the weeping willows, and in the long, drooping boughs of evergreens.

     These trees are waiting for me to commit some sacrilege, to forget to show obeisance or to commit some other transgression – real or imagined.

     When people speak to me of their fondness for nature, of the desire they have to go hiking or camping, I can only nod politely while I hide my own shrieking horror. I know that the trees are waiting for me to stroll carelessly near them, or to fall asleep close to their roots.

     Yes, I say, the reason I wish to remain out of the woods is to avoid bears and mountain lions.

     But the truth is simpler and rooted in a far more primal seat.

     I know the old gods are in the trees, and they wait, as they wait for everything – patiently, and with the sure, terrifying knowledge that they will outlast me.

     When I write my stories and work on my scenes, I tap into this fear. I use it to propel myself along lines of thought I would much rather not travel, and I hope I use it well enough to frighten my readers.

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December 2, 1945

     On Sunday, December 2nd, 1877, Duncan Blood found a young boy sitting by himself on the North Road. While the boy could not remember how he had arrived in Cross, or where his family might be, he did know that his name was Herbert James Dower. He knew he was 10 years old, but not when he was born.

     Duncan brought young Herbert into town. As the police attempted to find the boy’s family, Herbert was placed in the care of Barbara Belford, a widow whose husband had been killed in the war between the states.

     Herbert’s family was never found, and he did not act – nor was he identified – as a runaway. He and the widow got along well, so they were both pleased when she was given permission to continue caring for him.

     As Herbert grew older, he took to walking to North Road and sitting down in the same spot where he had been found. But he only did so when the December 2nd fell on a Sunday.

     Soon, people began to wonder why he would sit there, and others questioned the man’s sanity.

     Herbert answered all their questions with a mild smile, and he told them he expected his family would be coming for him sooner rather than later.

     Some of the more ‘civic’ minded individuals in town sought to have him committed, but others respected the man and his peculiarity, arguing to leave him in peace.

     At dawn on Sunday, December 2nd, 1945, Herbert James Dower was seen leaving the home he had inherited from his foster mother.

     At 9 o’clock that morning, Duncan Blood found a young boy sitting by himself on North Road.

     The boy’s name was Herbert James Dower, and he was 10 years old.

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Indian Summer

     Alex Archer paused, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, leaving the ax head in the stubborn pine deadfall. The day was cloudy and warm for so late in October.  In Cross, Massachusetts winter usually arrived early and stayed late.

     With a sigh, Alex sat down on the floor of the forest, the sound of his brother’s ax ringing out among the trees, the smell of pine sap thick in the afternoon air. Through the trees, Alex caught glimpses of the soft, pleasant blue sky. Along his back and under his arms he felt his flannel shirt clinging to him. Down his temple, a trickle of sweat made its way towards his unshaven cheek.

     Mike’s ax stopped abruptly, and Alex looked up.

     Mike leaned on the handle of his ax, a grin on his flushed face, his strawberry blonde hair clipped short and damp with sweat.

     “Tired already?” Alex asked, laughing.

     Mike shook his head and sat down, resting his ax against a tree. “What time is it?”

     “A little past four,” Alex said, glancing at his watch. “Want to call it a day after these two?”

     He nodded at the pair of pines lying between them.

     “Yeah,” Mike said, “we can hitch up the team tomorrow and drag’em out in the morning.”

     “Sounds like a plan to me. Where do you want to eat?”

     “The Diner?”

     Alex nodded again, climbing back to his feet.

     “Might as well,” his voice trailed off as the sound of movement reached his ears. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mike rise cautiously, ax in hand.

     With the bear and mountain lion sightings, Alex thought, we’re a good two miles into the forest. A helluva long way.

     He reached out, working the head of the ax free from the stubborn pine.

     Out of a copse of fir trees, perhaps fifty yards away, an old man appeared. Wearing an orange vest over his clothes he held a Winchester rifle, an army surplus canteen slung on his hip. He waved as he drew closer.

     Squinting Alex recognized Lee, the caretaker of the cemetery. Alex relaxed, sighing.

     “Hey, Lee!” Mike said, waving back to the old man.

     “Boys,” Lee said, nodding. A smile broke his sharp features as he made his way through the underbrush. At nearly eighty the man still moved with confidence, his eyes always searching, head sweeping left to right, right to left in tireless vigilance. Lee stopped beside Mike.

     “How’s the hunting?” Alex asked.

     “Couldn’t tell you,” Lee said. “I just like to be out in the woods now. Miles and miles of forest on Duncan’s land. There’s nothin’ quite like it durin’ an Indian Summer.”

     Alex nodded. “Have you seen the Old Man around today?”

     “Yeah, out by the pumpkin patch, cutting some paths for the kids.”

     “Damn,” Mike said, “I love that old man.”

     “What old man?” a voice asked from behind them.

     Alex nearly jumped as he turned around and saw Old Man Duncan leaning against a thick white birch tree. Duncan stood shorter and stouter than Lee. He carried a pump-action shotgun in the crook of his arm.

     Alex opened his mouth to speak, closing it as the words died in his mouth upon seeing Duncan’s grim expression.

     “We’d best be gettin’ in,” Duncan said, looking out beyond them into the woods. “There’s trouble in the air.”

     “How so?” Mike asked, resting his ax upon his shoulder.

     “Just trouble,” Duncan said, lowering his voice, his eyes never leaving the trees. “It’s a bad day to be out and about.”

     Alex felt the curious, unpleasant sensation of someone watching him. A glance at Lee, then at Mike, showed they felt the same. In silence, the three of them hastened towards Duncan.

     Holding his ax with both hands Alex stepped over severed branches. He felt an urge to look over his shoulder, but he didn’t, trusting in Duncan’s judgment.

     The noises of the forest stopped, the sounds of the men’s haste to leave disturbingly loud. Alex felt uneasy and picked up his pace. His heart quickened and his mouth dried, his palms sweating on the worn haft of the ax.  With great discipline, Alex fought the desire to break into a sprint.

     The roar of Duncan’s shotgun, along with a shout to “Run!” shattered that discipline.

     Still clutching the ax, Alex hurtled past Duncan, the shot-gun bucking and roaring again. A sharper, quicker sound followed the echo of the blast.

     Lee’s Winchester, Alex realized as the weapon sang out twice more. Behind him Alex heard the pounding of feet, and he risked a glance.

     Through the soft, ebbing light Alex caught sight of Mike and Lee, and heard the blast of Duncan’s shot-gun and gasped at what he saw beyond the men.

     Alex slammed into the hard packed earth of the forest floor, his ax skidding along into a small briar patch. He scrambled to his feet, not believing what his eyes told him.

     Indians.

     Dozens of them. Young men with soft brown skin dressed in leather clothes, armed with war clubs and tomahawks.

     Indians.

     Lee’s Winchester barked again, further off, as did Duncan’s shot-gun. Thorns bit into Alex’s hand as he pulled the ax clear, blood welling up on his tanned hands. Lifting his ax, Alex looked behind him.

     Fear pumped adrenaline into his system as an Indian, probably not out of his teens, leaped over a dead elm. An angry shout broke free as Alex swung the ax at the club-wielding youth. The young warrior ducked the blow and tried to bring his weapon to bear.

     With the momentum of his swing, Alex felt his legs tangle in the underbrush and fell, back first, upon the briar patch. Ignoring the pain of the cuts, he tried to stand as the Indian stepped forward, raising his club for the death blow.

     Duncan’s shotgun roared and the Indian vanished.

     No blood. No body.

     Gone, Alex thought numbly.

     With his heart thundering, Alex rolled out of the briar patch. Lee and Mike, both pale  and panting from their dash, stood on either side of Duncan, who lowered his smoking shotgun. He nodded at Alex.

     “Indian Summer, boys.  When the weather’s warm and it should be cold,” Duncan continued, his eyes sweeping the forest, “then Indian dead remember the past, when the Trickster let them raid late in the season against the English.

     “Indian Summer’s not a good thing, boys,” Duncan said, motioning them to follow as he turned away. “Wasn’t then, and isn’t now.”

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December 1, 1908

     The box arrived on November 27, 1908, and James P. Harden was, according to his wife, thrilled.

     Annette Harden was not.

     While James was a successful lawyer and worked in a number of towns and cities in Massachusetts, he was also a collector of the rare and unusual. He went through maniacal phases, purchasing whatever he could find on a given subject.

     And, in November of 1908, his particular obsession was with the masks and costumes of Native Americans.

     The box that arrived on November 27 contained the complete ensemble of a Koskimo ‘Hami,’ or dangerous spirit, and he was ecstatic as he examined the contents. Satisfied that all elements were there, he rushed out of the house with it, intent on showing it to several interested people at a private Explorer’s Club which met at the home of Antonius Warde.

     When Annette awoke on the morning of the 28th, she was not surprised to find herself alone. James often traveled at strange hours to arrive on time for court appointments.  She did become concerned when he didn’t arrive for dinner, and by breakfast the next morning, the police were looking for him.

     Several other missing person reports were filed, and soon the police realized all were connected to the Explorer’s Club. The decision was made on December 1st to visit Mr. Warde and to see what, if anything, the man might know.

     Mr. Warde knew nothing for he, like the other members of the club, was dead on the floor of his library. The men were desiccated and seemed to have been dead for years rather than days.

     And while James’ clothes were present, he was not. Both he and the Hami costume were gone.

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Kayaking, 2011

     “How far into Massachusetts do you think we are?” Ken asked, slowing his kayak downto glide beside Tim.

     “Afew miles at least. Maybe even five,” Tim answered. The two of them kept asteady, leisurely pace as they moved along with the current of the Nashua River. Along either side of them, where the river narrowed, the banks seemed tohave grown higher, but Ken knew it was only a trick of the eye. The summer hadbeen dry with near-drought conditions. News reports, which Ken usually disregarded as alarmist, proclaimed that the dry spell would continue, andsomething in his gut told him the meteorologists were right.

     Asthe two men kept to the river’s center, wary of trees and snags lurking belowthe water’s deceptively calm surface, birds and squirrels called out from thetrees along the banks.

     “Do you want to pull up soon?” Tim asked. “Figure out how far we are from Cross?”

     “That sounds good,” Ken said, scanning the banks for a good spot. “What time are we supposed to meet your cousin again?”

     “Eleven,” Tim answered. “She said to just give her a call, and she’d pick us up.”

     “Cool,” Ken said, watching the landscape slipping past. The current was fast but not unmanageable. He and Tim were old hands at kayaking, and they had navigated through worse conditions.  Ken kept his eyes open for a grassy spot to pull up, but reeds and deadfall choked the banks, and he didn’t want a rough landing.

     “River’s pretty quiet for a Saturday,” Tim said.

     “It’s colder than hell out here,” Ken complained, glancing over at his friend.

     “Not that bad,” Tim said with a grin. “You’re out here.”

     “True,” Ken agreed. “But soccer season’s started, too.”

     “I keep forgetting,” Tim said in an apologetic tone. “Both girls playing this year?”

     “Yup,” Ken answered. “Brenda moved up to the under 14 league, but Sam’s still in under 12.”

     “Do they have games today?” Tim asked.

     “Yeah,” Ken said. “The ex is there this weekend. We’re splitting the games now.”

   “Still tough?” Tim asked, and the tone of his voice told Ken that the man already suspected the answer.

     Ken gave a short nod and asked, “How are you and Melissa?”

     Tim shrugged. “I think it’s almost done. She’s getting a little psychotic.”

     “How so?” Ken asked, glancing at his friend.

     “Little things. I’ll tell you more later. I think I found our spot,” he said, pointing with his paddle.

     Ken looked and saw a narrow path through the tall reeds. The path of slower water ran along to the bank where it widened into a stream, curled around a turn and vanished into the tree line.

     “What do you think?” Tim asked.

     “I think it looks alright,” Ken answered with a grin. Dipping his oar into the water, Ken guided the kayak into the opening. Tim dropped into place behind him, the two of them moving cautiously forward. As they neared the mouth of the stream Ken felt a slight current, and he smiled, pushing the oar a little deeper into the water.

     The stream wound its way lazily into a forest, young trees growing on the banks, their branches stiffening with the chill of autumn in the air. Ken eyed the leaves appreciatively, enjoying their varied colors and the way the wind scattered a few of them upon the surface of the water. As Ken and Tim continued on some of the leaves caught along the edges of the banks while the remainder made their way towards the river.

     Ken steered the kayak around a large branch and hooked to the left, where the young trees suddenly gave way to ancient oaks and elms. Giant weeping willows clung to the banks, their long branches swaying with the breeze and rasping against a chain-link fence that crossed from bank to bank and vanished into the depths of the forest on either side of the stream. A large, rusting ‘No Trespassing’ sign was secured to the fence above the stream, and the clearance for Ken to get under the fence without rolling the kayak was slim.

     He came to a stop and Tim nudged up beside him.

     “What do you think?” Ken asked.

     “Hold on,” Tim answered. He set his oar across his kayak, unzipped a pocket on his jacket and took a plastic bag with his phone in it out. Within a moment he pulled up his GPS. 

     “Well,” Tim said, “if we go about two hundred meters in and get out of the water, then it’s only a quarter mile to Blackfoot Road. I’m pretty sure that Anne can pick us up there.”

     “Sounds good to me,” Ken said.

     “Okay,” Tim said. He secured his phone and took up his oar again. “Lead the way, my friend.”

     Ken nodded and allowed the kayak to slide towards the fence. He kept to the left bank, where the chain-link was a little higher, and he bent low over the kayak, pulling himself ahead with careful strokes. Once he was clear, he maneuvered ahead to give Tim room to follow.

     With the fence separating them from the Nashua River, Ken felt strange. The forest around them sounded and felt different as if they had slipped into an older, richer time.

     “This place is great,” Tim whispered after a minute.

     Ken smiled and nodded. Taking a deep breath, he sighed and said, “So, two hundred meters?”

     “What?” Tim asked. “Oh, yeah. Yes, two hundred.”

     “Okay,” Ken said. 

     The stream widened and soon they were traveling along it side by side with several feet between them. Before they hit the two hundred meter mark, the stream took a sharp turn to the right and opened into a large pool dominated by a weeping willow. Shadows covered most of the surface, the sounds of fish hunting water-bugs loud in the stillness. Close by a turtle dropped noisily into the water as Ken and Tim steered the kayaks to a sandy patch of bank several feet beyond the weeping willow.

     “Wow,” Tim said as they climbed out of the kayaks, hauling them up onto the sand.

     “I know,” Ken said, looking around. “We need to remember this. It would be a great place to camp.”

     Tim nodded in agreement.

     “Want to,” Ken began, but a whimper cut him off.

     Ken glanced at Tim, who shook his head.

     The whimper came again, followed by a splash.

     Ken turned, trying to pinpoint the sound.

     Another splash rang out, followed by a deep, sorrowful moan.

     “I think it came from near the tree,” Tim whispered.

     Ken nodded and crept along the bank towards the willow. The splashing took on an odd rhythm while the voice settled into a melodic, plaintive cry. When he reached the willow, Ken pushed through the curtain of leaves and whip-like branches. The pool widened around a cluster of water-worn boulders, and Ken’s breath caught in his throat as Tim came through the willow’s veil behind him.

     Standing waist deep in the water was a pale woman. Her back was too thin, and she wore a faded gray dress that was shapeless, torn and ragged. Thin, wispy white hair hung in wet clumps to her back while stick-thin arms slammed something wet and limp against one of the boulders.  The steady cry came from her, the lament pushing itself deep into Ken’s chest.

     Tim let out a low curse, and the woman heard him.

     She twisted around to face them, her face sunken and her eyes a pale, milky white. What little color could be seen resided in her teeth, and they were coated with a film of green the color of algae. The woman’s mouth hung slack, the cry easing out like air from a tattered bellows. She held her arms out in front of her, a soaked jacket clutched in each narrow hand.

     “My God,” Tim hissed, “are those ours?”

     Ken looked hard at the blue jacket in the woman’s left hand and saw a tear. A small, inch-long tear he had put in his Northface jacket when they’d taken the kayaks off his SUV earlier in the morning. Ken glanced down, felt his stomach drop and twist into a terrified knot, and saw that he was still wearing the jacket, the tear glaringly apparent on the left arm.

     “You have got to be kidding me,” Ken whispered as bile rose to the back of his throat. Without taking his eyes off the woman, he said, “We need to get out of here.”

     Tim nodded, and the two of withdrew while the woman turned back to the rocks, her cries rising in volume with each slap of the wet fabric against the stones. Passing through the willow’s branches, Ken and Tim raced back to the kayaks. The horrific noises of the woman were a brutal reminder that they had witnessed something innately wrong.

     In silence the two men climbed into their kayaks, pushing off and launched themselves along with the current back towards the river. As they rounded the sharp turn which had led them into the pool, a loud crack rang out, and Ken snapped his head up in time to see a great oak crash towards them.

     The tree smashed into both kayaks simultaneously, driving them under water and into the soft, sandy bed of the stream. Ken found himself trapped, holding his breath as he tried to work his legs free. His face was a few inches below the water’s surface, and he could reach his wet hands up into the crisp autumn air to claw at the bark of the tree.

     Growing frantic, Ken looked around for Tim.

     His friend sat limply in his kayak, head and hair moving gracefully with the current.  Blackness edged Ken’s vision, and his lungs screamed for air. He looked to the left for something to grasp and then screamed out the last of his air into the cold water as the woman from the pool settled down on the streambed beside him. 

     With an expression of great sympathy, she watched him take in great gulps of water, her long-fingered hands gently brushed the hair out of his eyes, and she waited for him to drown.

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Giving Them Horror to Remember

           What makes a building scary? What makes it ripe for a haunting? Is it the structure’s location? Is it the history of the place?

           When the phrase ‘haunted house’ is mentioned, there’s a certain expectation on the part of the reader. The reader, rightly or wrongly, believes that the house should be a house. A home. A structure where someone once lived. Generally, this means that the building should have the appearance that we are familiar with. If it is an older house, it should be a Victorian, perhaps Edwardian. Should the setting be in the South, then we believe it should be a grand old plantation. Further up into New England, we expect farmhouses or cottages at the least. In the cities, we look for tenement buildings. Out west, entire towns of false-front buildings. And on the West Coast, we expect beachfront villas.

           But what about those in-between places?

         What if in the city it’s not an apartment building, but a rundown garage? Or if it’s the seacoast, why not part of a marina? In a New England town, why not an old store?

          Horror and terror shouldn’t be confined to stereotypes, no matter how comfortable that might make a reader feel. Because no matter how much they might enjoy the ghost story or terrifying tale, if it doesn’t push them, at least a little bit, then they’re not going to be moved by the story.

           Yes, a haunted Victorian is interesting. Yes, it could even be disturbing if there was the ghost of a cannibal in it.

           But can such a structure compete with an old corner store, if the same sort of tale was told in it? We expect something horrible to exist within the confines of a Victorian. How about the closed down bar at the end of the street? Do we really expect some hideous entity to be patiently waiting in the cellar? Or beneath the bar?

           No, we don’t. And it’s there –  when we challenge the reader’s expectations – that we will succeed in the main goal of storytelling: giving them something to remember and to reflect on.

           Scaring them is easy.

           Making them remember why they were scared a year or two down the road, that’s the real challenge.

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November 30, 1994

     She is referred to as the Flickering Woman.

     Celina Zaccardi lived in Boston, Massachusetts, making lace as a way to supplement her meager income.

     In 1911, she was one of many people to be photographed in the tenement buildings in an effort to bring to light the deplorable conditions of many of the Nation’s poorest citizens.

     When the image was developed several days later, Celina, along with several others in her building, vanished.

     And while none of the others – or their remains – ever resurfaced, Celina did.

     Or, rather, she did in a peculiar manner.

     On November 30, 1994, Celina’s picture was found in a sealed steamer trunk purchased at an estate sale. The buyer, Ms. Ann O’Mally, promptly framed the photograph and put it on her mantel. That evening, as Ann entertained friends, they all witnessed the arrival of Celina.

     It took place over a matter of 10 seconds, long enough for people to see her clearly as she sat down in an unoccupied chair. She looked confused as she adjusted her dress, prepared lace for more work, and then vanished.

     For 25 years Celina has flickered in and out of reality at various times, never remaining for any longer than 15 seconds.

     After the third event, Ann began a journal and managed to create a way she and Celina could communicate.

     Since the beginning of their conversation, Ann has remained in the same house, slowly creating a room populated only with items built prior to 1911. For while the world has seen a century pass since her disappearance, Celina has been gone for only minutes in her own.

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