December 5, 1900

     Luke St. Germaine and his wife Olivia emigrated from Montreal to Cross in 1884. They worked a small parcel of land for Duncan Blood, and kept to themselves, except for Sundays, when they would ride into town to attend services at the Catholic Church.

     By 1899, the St. Germaines were a known quantity in Cross. People would nod hello, and Luke and Olivia would do the same. Most nights, when the weather was pleasant, Duncan could be found sitting on the porch of the couple’s small home, enjoying a pipe and conversing easily in French.

     On Wednesday, December 5, 1900, Luke was found frantic in his field. He was clad only in an undershirt and pants, his feet bloody and raw as he snapped at his horses and urged them on.

     Around him, a better part of the field had been transformed into churned earth.

     When he questioned as to what had occurred, he motioned towards the house, refusing to waste breath on explanations.

     Olivia was on their bed, a soft smile on her lips and her eyes closed. She wasn’t breathing, nor was there any heartbeat, but the woman didn’t seem dead.

     A letter beside her, written on vellum and in beautiful script, said, “Monsieur St. Germaine, her heart is in the field. Find it, and she will be yours again.”

     Luke worked himself to death in the fields, and when he passed, his body and Olivias were placed in a crypt erected by Duncan.

     The crypt stands beside the field, and within it Olivia is still perfectly preserved beneath the glass lid of her coffin.

     Her heart remains hidden, and no one knows how it was done, who did it, or why.

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The Horror of Shirley Jackson

     One of my favorite dedications by an author is the one written by Stephen King for his novel Firestarter. In it King states that the book is dedicated, “to Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice.”

     If you have ever read any of Shirley Jackson’s books or short stories – The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House to name a few – you know that King spoke the truth. The subtle terror Jackson wove through her stories was enough to leave you wondering if you were mad, if she was mad, or if you even existed at all. You doubted everything you saw, whether it was the tranquility of the New England village you drove through on a Sunday afternoon, or if you should really accept a cup of tea from a neighbor.

     Shirley Jackson was, in a word, magnificent.

     Not only was she a master of terror (and for an excellent explanation of the difference between terror, horror, and the ‘gross out,’ please read Stephen King’s On Writing and Danse Macabre, two excellent works on both the craft of writing and horror in literature), she was also a master of humor. There is a pair of books about her family and their time in Vermont. The two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, are pieces that show the breadth and depth of her abilities.

     Shirley Jackson’s works are subtle, with plots and characters that are believable enough to keep you thinking for decades, which I feel was the point.

     Stephen King was absolutely correct when he said she never had to raise her voice. It’s up to us to listen for what she’s saying, and to try to understand what she means with each carefully chosen word.

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Plowing Through Writer’s Block

     I despised high school.

     It was a difficult time in my life. I was physically small, and extremely underweight. Difficulties at home, undiagnosed physical and mental ailments, and a generally poor attitude all contributed to the misery of my high school experience.

     Aside from my few friends and teammates on the wrestling team, there was little I looked forward to when I went to school each morning. That ‘little’ consisted of the high school’s English Department.

     I attended a private, all boys Catholic high school due to familial connections, and the teachers of the English Department were the balm to my teenage angst. Teachers like Mrs. Starrett allowed me the freedom of the classics wall-locker, where I could take whatever book I wanted to read so long as I brought it back (and I did, just as I followed her advice about holding off on reading Deliverance until I was older). Mr. Sudowsky injected humor into the mind-numbingly dull translations of the Aenid and Iliad that we read (long before Robert Fagles gifted us with his own translations). And, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Richard White taught me how to get through writer’s block.

     Those of us who write all fear it. That terrible, hideous entity lurking like one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods in the recesses of our minds. It causes us to doubt ourselves, and our own abilities. And Mr. White had one simple, elegant solution:

     Write through it.

     It doesn’t matter if you turn out four pages of schlock. Write through it.

     Is your character as thin as the paper you’re writing on? It doesn’t matter, just write through it.

     So that’s my advice to anyone out there who’s struggling. Write through it. Look at the table, describe it. Again and again and again. Hell is repetition, but it also makes you better.

     So, if you have writer’s block, write through it.

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December 4, 1731

     The Clemence House sits on the back corner of Town Road, a squat, ugly building first constructed when Josiah Clemence settled down in 1691.

     There is a foul air to the home, one that makes some people ill merely by standing in its doorway, and some far more delicate souls refuse to even set foot onto a single portion of the land it contaminates.

     Rumors, passed on from one generation of Cross resident to the next, speak of horrific acts carried out in the upper room, and of foul meals cooked in the hearth. Parents and children whisper the same stories: of indentured servants and Abenaki Indians vanishing in Josiah’s house; of sobs and screams that erupt from the earth whenever a shovel is thrust into it.

     Josiah Clemence was a tall, slim man, a hawk-nosed individual who would be cast as a cartoon villain in today’s society.

     But there was nothing cartoonish about the violence he visited upon others.

     He whipped a man to death in his yard for the theft of an apple, and strangled a young Abenaki woman for refusing to wed him.

     On December 4th, 1731, it is said that Josiah fell down in his own home and broke his neck, a sight witnessed by a trio of men from the Honorable William Shirley, King’s Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

     Josiah’s body, however, was not found in his house, but rather it was outside in the pig sty.

     Only one resident of the town knows the truth of Josiah’s death, and Duncan Blood refuses to share the exact details. When pressed for information, and only when he’s had a drink or two too much, he’ll simply state, “I fed him to his pigs, but even they wouldn’t eat him.”

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December 3, 1945

     Albert and Agnes Thornsson emigrated to America with their parents in 1942, having slipped out of Denmark while Germany was tightening its grip upon the country.

     Their father and mother were a hardworking and industrious couple, and by 1944, they were able to purchase a small farm in Cross. They worked the land together, with the help of their children, and Albert worked the late shift at the factory in Boston helping to provide necessary goods for the war effort.

     In the spring of 1945, people were found in Boston with their right arms severed at the shoulder. Most of the injured died from their wounds and others remembered nothing of the incident.

     By the fall of 1945, people in Cross noticed they didn’t see the Thornssons around any longer.

     At the end of November 1945, it was reported that the parents had stopped showing up to work in the middle of August.

     The Thornsson Farm was located on North Road, near the border of Cross, and on December 3, 1945, Duncan Blood led a group of residents out to the farm to check on the family.

     Neither of the elder Thornssons could be found, but Albert and Agnes greeted them at the door, and they invited the guests to stay for dinner.

     There was, according to Agnes, a roast in the oven.

     Duncan asked if they could speak with the parents first, and the children were happy to oblige them.

     Together, the brother and sister led Duncan and the others out to a long, low shed, and they gestured within it.

     Neither Duncan nor the others needed to look.

     They could smell.

     The shed stank of rotting flesh and a glance inside showed the severed remains of the children’s parents and a fresh collection of limbs.

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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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