Alas, my blog has been silent for a month, yet not because it has fallen off my mind, rather, I have just been focusing on fiction, finishing the upcoming book (yes, it is taking a bit of time–I can only say because we are working hard to make a fine product), taking care of a busy month with my family, and not shirking time in the depths of the woods and in the city, both of which are essential fuel for my psyche.

Hopefully I will have at least one book review up this month, and then plenty more fun once SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES is out. A full length novel will follow after, and I promise a good storm before which these recent weeks have been the calm. Until then, enjoy November’s beautiful decay.

Beauty’s Edge–The True Nature of Jack Ketchum’s OFF SEASON

Some of this blog’s readers are already familiar with my book review series Is that an Old Book? in which the scope of books I review spans years, decades, centuries. Essentially, I consider anything written since 1970 a relatively new book. This installment features Jack Ketchum’s amazing novel, Off Season, one of the finest and most disturbing tales ever typed.

I have recently been considering writing an essay on the role of wilderness in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I then began spinning the ideas into a longer piece on the aesthetics of New England horror. I decided I didn’t want to focus on any one writer so much as consider the way the region’s landscape is treated in a variety of works that take place there. I was going to reach back to include pieces by writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson (all of whom include horrific elements in their writing) alongside more contemporary names like Joe Hill and Stephen King. Keeping in mind, however, an emphasis on the story’s geography rather than the author’s, I decided to begin with a review of Jack Ketchum’s pivotal gem, Off Season.

First released in the early 1980’s, when Twenty-First Century catch phrases like “slasher” and “extreme horror” were not so familiar, Off Season has worn a number of different skins in its publishing life. The version discussed here will be the Leisure Books edition, which includes an afterward by the author that describes the novel’s editorial history, along with a bonus short story titled “Winter Child” that well complements the book’s main feature.

Off Season tells the story of three young couples from New York City who are spending a week in northeastern Maine. Carla, a successful editor, has gone ahead of the rest, to finish a professional project. She rents a cabin in the “off season”, a time when the region’s already sparse numbers of summer tourists have returned south. She finds the cabin an ideal place to get work done and enjoy some nature into the bargain. Her five companions join her on a Friday evening, and much of the novel’s first act focuses on the dynamics among these friends, a well-paced narrative of their struggles with love and with careers. One of the companions is Carla’s sister Marjie, with whom she enjoys a certain closeness, even if Marjie hasn’t shared her career success and lives a generally less stable life.

Unknown to the cabin’s tenants, along the nearby coastline, there exists a cave inhabited by humans of a most bizarre ilk, namely, a family of cannibals. They are a partial-echo of the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean, a group of humans whose forebears existed within a civilized culture, but have incrementally changed into something feral and alien to all known ethics. Ketchum draws a deft genesis of this family, how they grew from the shadowy roots of a lighthouse keeper and his wife and children, how they starved on a remote island after a storm, and how this starvation brought on a taste for human flesh that began to be handed down through generation after incestuous generation.

With the group of couples arranged on the altar of their isolated cabin, the cannibals mount a vicious attack. They sacrifice their victims to their stomachs even as the siege still rages. Structurally brilliant and deceptively subtle, Ketchum dizzies the reader with this abrupt turn from a nearly “emo” novel about love and success, to a blow-by-blow account of a horrific massacre. To this point, the reader has become invested in a set of conflicts and intrigues among the couples—Carla’s romantic entanglement with an egocentric actor named Jim, Marjie’s relationship with good-hearted yet economically struggling Dan, and writer Nick’s regret at losing chances with both sisters and ending up with catty and self-doubting Laura. All of this is in full swing when the shadow of murder arrives, interrupts, and forces all to bow.

The cannibals attack ruthlessly, employing means of exhibitionist torture as they bring down their prey one at a time. At this point, to many, the story arc may seem like the conventional pattern of a slasher film—an isolated group trying to survive psychotic killers in an enclosed space. And yet this is an artistic ruse—for even within the novel’s concise economy, Ketchum writes scenes from the points of view of the killers that juxtapose alien and frightening streams of consciousness with the terrified thoughts of the victims. We have an author well aware of what prose can do that film can’t, and he uses inner monologue to great effect. Thoughts intersperse well with action, and bloody butchering and grotesquely violent erotic gestures meld into something beyond scary to eerie and uncanny.

The family of cannibals includes men, women, and children. They are wild and know that fear struck in a victim can tenderize the meat. But these tribesfolk have their own fears—their distant, semi-forgotten origin on the island with the lighthouse haunts them. The sea itself breeds strange feelings in them when they are near it. They know what guns are and that though strong, fast, and vicious, they are well aware of their own mortality.

I want to emphasize this point when discussing Off Season as a novel of New England, not because it doesn’t have broader appeal and themes, but because it is one of the more useful ways to discover its hidden beauties and conceits.

It happens I grew up in Bangor, Maine. I lived a bit in Brewer, a bit in Orono, and went to college in Portland. My father’s family has been living in the region for generations, up and down Maine’s coast. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I spent most of my time experiencing a “classic” small town life. Growing up in that area, I also became very aware of a writer named Stephen King who lived nearby and was having some success. His presence and his works certainly influenced my life and my interest in literature. I have written a bit about this in another blog post in an essay about The Shining and a micro essay that began to discuss thoughts on the concept of wilderness. Suffice it to say here, that while I enjoy much of King’s work and note its importance, I take from it an impression of its concerns with “small town” culture that is very different from what I would call “wilderness themes”. Many of King’s horror stories strike me as Norman Rockwell paintings with vampires and ghouls. I recognized, growing up in Bangor, how this evolved. Yet there was another kind of feeling the northern landscape gave me that did not echo the kind of fear instilled by King’s aesthetic.

Though I lived and went to school in a small town, my father owned an old log cabin on an isolated lake near the Canadian border in Washington County. This is the same county in which Off Season takes place.

To get to this cabin, one had to drive north to Lincoln and then further northeast to the Grand Lakes region. At the time there were no roads to the lake on which the cabin was built, so we had to unpack the pickup truck, repack the boat, then head another seven miles in across a lake, a stream, and another lake. Once there, a wood stove served for cooking and heating, and we slept on bunk beds with the mice and the spiders.

As kids we had a lot of fun there to be sure—the lake boiled with fish at the time, the coves were alive with critters from tiny frogs to colossal moose. On a clear night the weather treated us to crystalline starlight and occasionally Aurora Borealis. All plenty of fun, even idyllic. I was often allowed to bring a friend, and there were certainly glimpses of paradise, and to revive the earlier King aesthetic, touches of Stand by Me wistfulness.

But there was also another feeling in those woods. If it was not a clear night, when the cabin’s lanterns went off, a pitch blackness descended like none I have experienced since. I lay in the top bunk feeling irksome drafts between the logs and hearing owls’ cryptic hoots and humans’ wheezy snores. Although I was blinded by the darkness, there was plenty of activity going on that didn’t care about this particular creature’s downtime. I did not sense then the awe of nature’s beauty, its majestic eagles or its shiny starlight, but rather sensed its completely impersonal continuum. The feeling that scuttled up my spine with the spiders instilled a sense that nature was not just arbitrary about me, but arbitrary about being arbitrary—it could just as soon oppress and attack as be beautiful and serene. It could just as soon change my place in its hierarchy as leave me in it. It had no concern for my ethics on the one hand, and yet could easily produce something that cared deeply about what to me would be an aberrant and horrific new order. That blinding and crawling darkness whispered that the version of nature we were enjoying with canoes, sunsets, and ducks, was a skein mounted for a puppet show. A human version of nature. The nights lying in the darkness hundreds of miles from hospitals and police taught me a different version. And there were many times when I would wake up to a bright day and that feeling would not subside. Paddling through sun-cooked weedy shallows run with leeches, it felt as if the light teetered on the same edge of an alien order as the darkness.

Early in Off Season Ketchum gives his own description of the landscape in Washington county, citing (and this is my paraphrase) the way the pines look a little shorter, the scrub boggier, with hints that the north’s longer winter will be arriving early. He gives a palpable sense that the arctic is not far away, and that because of this the land has been a little mutated, a little deformed by its harshness. He hints at this in a way I have rarely encountered in a writer describing the region. I must also interject here—there are many more famous, and for lack of a better word, “hip”, American wildernesses—The Rocky Mountains, Alaska, southwestern deserts, to name a few. But here is where Ketchum’s descriptions include another critical element from his choice of settings, namely the region’s economy. He describes how the region’s poverty causes the architecture to be a bit stunted, and how the tourism of the southern parts of the coast visibly tapers off that far north. Even today I can say that the coastal economy struggles due to not holding the attraction other more “popular” wilderness destinations do. Most of my New Yorker friends much prefer a trip to Alaska or California.

And so wilderness—be it a physical wilderness, cultural wilderness, or in this case both—makes its own rules. Ketchum gives this accurate portrayal in contrasting the culture of the young couples with the culture of the cannibals. In this rendering, he makes good use of what many would call extreme violence. I would argue that one cannot generate the kind of feeling I had in that cabin long ago, that grand feeling of vulnerability coupled with the desire to survive, in any other way.

In his afterward, the author reveals that Off Season’s original publisher backed away from the project after coming under fire from media critics. He cites an article in The Village Voice that wrote off the novel as too heavy on torture and even as pornographic. This is unfortunate, for while I would force no work of art on an unwilling audience, I think we risk a great deal in not giving “extreme” works of art the same consideration with regard to complexity as we would others simply because of their aesthetic. I remember going to the Sensation art exhibition in 2000 at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition Mayor Giuliani tried to ban, and there looking at photographs of car accident victims and sculptures of school children with genitalia for noses and thinking to myself, whatever one might think of horror novels, they aren’t any more potentially offensive than this. Perhaps all of these works have a purpose, and in the right setting, the chance for insightful impact.

In the back of the Off Season’s Leisure edition appears the bonus short story, “Winter Child”. In his introduction, Ketchum describes the permutations of its development, how it might have been part of another novel or stand on its own, and how either way had a connection to the cannibal family from the coastal cave. This story, too, takes place in Washington County, and features the arrival of a pretty and mysterious young girl at a widower’s farmhouse. The widower’s son tells how her father adopts the girl, brings her into their cozy yet obscure rural life. Of course the son’s foreboding is ultimately correct—but by then, particularly after having been in the mind of the cannibal women in the edition’s first offering—the careful reader has experienced uncanny glimpses of how ethics can fall away in the world’s empty places. Echoes sound of the landscape’s secret and ominous warnings, as in Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows and The Wendigo. Like a diabolical twist on Wordsworth’s sublime, Ketchum weaves a vision where the reader can taste the nature of the land and the nature of the mind in an environment not locked-in by the customs we’ve learned since birth. He offers instead a glimpse of an open continuum, tethered to the familiar neither by light nor darkness, a humanity frightening in its monstrosity, and more threatening by the possibility of its alien sense of beauty.

Carl R. Moore lives and writes in upstate New York. His collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, including novellas Slash of Crimson and Torn from the Devil’s Chest, makes its debut this year from Charon Coin Press.

Canto II: Revelation, Part 7

When Nate returned to the apartment, Gillings was passed out on the kitchen floor. He dragged the man into the hall stairway, and by the time he showered, gathered his gear, and headed back out, the vagrant had vanished.

The vision in the tavern’s basement was enough to make him wonder at his own sanity, and despite knowing better, he considered buying a bottle of whisky, seeking out Gillings in his shack, and trading all responsibility for the chance to ride a wave of oblivion as long as it lasted.

It never lasted long enough, though, and whatever the origin of what he’d seen, it was his dragon to slay, to the benefit of all Littleneck’s residents, including the heinous old oxygen fiends from the church. He wondered if they’d say thank you next time they haunted his dreams.

With the echo of the old man’s derisive chant of Yuh bum! Yuh goddamn bum! ringing in his head, he made sure he had an extra magazine for the .44, then hopped in the car and rolled into the fog. Driving around to the back cove, he unchained the Boston Whaler from where he’d locked it to the pier.

Before transferring his gear to the boat, he texted his new so-called deputy that everything was a go for the yacht. To his surprise, the deputy confirmed, feeding a shred of confidence as dropped into the thirteen footer and took a final inventory. He double checked the gas feed was ready and the craft’s very specific armaments loaded. He’d borrowed them from a tuna fisherman friend, and hoped the makeshift mount would be stable on his small craft. If that detail held, it awaited merely to be ignitioned and throttled.

* * * * *

A heavy wind kicked up that evening as Nate boarded the Star Garnet along with the other guests. The steel gangplank smacked against the water taxi’s hull. The man who offered to help up local journalist Macy Delrayne had a hand covered in a caste. Nate pretended not to recognize him, and was happy when the journalist made the small talk.

“I’m told you’ve a very unusual work of art aboard,” said Delrayne. “May I see it?”

“It’s in the Captain’s Lounge,” said the man. “Through the back, then follow the length of the bar around front.” He indicated the yacht’s rear deck, where a U-shaped bar was taking heavy splashes of sea-foam. Its strings of white lights flickered with the crashing waves. The barkeep, dressed in a nauseating combination of caterer-meets-deckhand vest and shirt, was doing all he could to keep his bottles upright.

Most of the guests looked like tourists from some inland hotels and resorts. A frigid scene on a colder than usual summer night, and many glanced at the skiff like they wished they could catch a lift back to shore.

But another thug the first called ‘Big D’ materialized from the pilot house, pulled up the ladder, and waved the water taxi off.

“Not to worry, please, there’s naught to worry,” said Groves, who emerged from behind the second bodyguard. “Although we’ve a bit of a gale blowing, I’m sure we can find something to keep you warm. Wade, Dennis, could you please escort our guests to the bar?”

Nate clambered along with the other guests behind the guards who led them back to the U-shaped bar. Once the group of them were either leaning against it or holding on to one of the stools riveted to the deck, they closed a metal gate that had previously been left open.

“Don’t want nobody overboard, know what I mean?” said Big D in a thick Brooklyn accent. It was a flimsy cover, but he clearly didn’t care in the first place. He chuckled over some private joke with Wade, who leered at Nate as he made his way up the deck, as if to say he’d be back.

By then nobody was bothering to order anything from the man who himself looked like he was about to tether himself to the steel vent-pipe he was already holding onto. One guest, a gentleman with patches on his sport-jacket who’d been staying at one of the upscale health spas, was retching over the side of the boat, while others seemed to be trying to get their cell phones to work.

Nate scanned the length of the yacht, stern to bow, and picked out the “Captain’s Lounge” as being a large, glassed-in chamber that extended from the right front of the pilot house. It looked to be the size of a lengthy dining room, with white-gold track lighting along the edges of door-sized glass panels.

At the far end stood a steel object made of a girder, pulley, and arm cross-hatched with iron bars. It was a crane with a giant hook on the end. The base protruded from a raised dais, and faced a set of double glass doors that opened directly onto the horizon so that whoever stepped out would drop into the sea.

Macy Delrayne, who’d been mingling despite the deck’s queasy tilt, slid up beside Nate, tablet and stylus in hand. “What do you think that is?” she asked. “Some type of fishing equipment?”

“Of a sort,” said Nate. He turned to her with finality in his smile. “Note the locations of the life jackets,” he said, pointing out where a pair hung from a cord beside a fire extinguisher case.

He glimpsed the woman’s face turn pale as he turned away and moved up the deck to meet Groves.

 * * * * *

“I call it Lure’s Allure,” said Groves with a smirk.

The guests assembled in the Captain’s Lounge were soaked and pale. The seasick man wrapped himself in a wool blanket and crouched like an old clairvoyant crone, rocking back and forth in anticipation of witnessing an unfortunate vision come to pass.

“Are you sure that thing’s safe?” called the local assessor. He looked like he was beginning to sweat his bribe money, making a calculation of risk-versus-reward.

“But of course it will,” said Groves.

“Hooks through my harness,” said the girl beside him. It was Diana Fields, standing among Groves and his men like a magician’s assistant. She wore a silver sequined dress that cut in a low V in the front and back. Her figure could fool the unknowing that its dimpled muscles came from the art of a dancer rather than a life of amphetamines and alcohol. Just above her hips, a thin leather belt followed the shape of her pelvis. Twisting around, she thumbed a pair of steel rings stitched just above it, anchored in the taut flesh on either side of her spine. “All about balance,” she said.

Canto II: Revelation, Part 6

Jeb waited at the bottom. Nate saw him standing in a cone of light cast from a single coiled bulb. He was Jeb, the tavernkeeper, but he was also something else—naked to the waist, his arms looked elongated. He held his left hand thrust forward, its fingers stiff with spines on which Tiny had landed.

The tavernkeeper threw out a right hook and further impaled the fisherman’s chest. Though pale and scaly, Jeb’s torso had taken on a musculature unequal to his age, and his bones looked overlong and deformed. Carrying Tiny’s shocked, quivering body like a half-gutted fish on a spit, he turned and walked deeper into the cavernous workshop.

Harpswell lit more bulbs with a switch on the wall. Nate had to keep back in the shadows, though here the stairs turned away from the concrete wall into an open room, giving him a view from a high vantage.

A trough ran the length of the floor, the type used at the seafood processing plant to feed shellfish along the assembly line. Except this one looked thrice the usual width, and instead of being fed by hoses, appeared to run directly into the harbor. The dark, foaming water surged with each wave of the incoming tide. Nate could see a large shadow emerging from the opening in the wall. Jeb was walking toward it, dragging his freshly killed quarry.

Van Garing had fallen in behind him, dress hanging half off her shoulders, mucked with brine, while the ax dangled by her thigh.

When they reached the mouth of the trough, Jeb climbed up and straddled it. The muscles on his crusty naked body went taut as he hefted Tiny’s corpse and hung it in the trough.

The shadow that slithered through the opening reached the light and Nate shuddered, nearly giving way to vertigo and tumbling from the top of the stairs: a great, shell-encrusted tail, nearly fifty feet long, was quivering its way in with the tide. Where a crustacean would have had spidery legs, the thing had human arms, half swimming, half pulling it along. Its end, where a head would have been, showed a great, gaping circle of a maw. Rows of teeth wound inward in a spiral, disappearing into a cavity of pitted and scabrous cartilage.

Just as the thing reached Jeb’s position, Van Garing hacked off Tiny’s arms. She pulled them from the trough, and Jeb lifted the remainder of the corpse high over his head. The creature’s maw rose up with a third of its length like a gigantic cobra. Foam glistened on its mottled shell and the stink of submarine decay and rancid blood filled the room.

“Cold skin to cold stone, Malgro-Malgron, Lord of Death and Depths, accept our sacrifice!” Van Garing was crying out as Jeb shoved the corpse into the creature’s gullet. The serpent shook its length, exoskeleton clanging against the trough’s steel walls as it swallowed down the fisherman’s body.

As soon as the last of Tiny’s flesh had been devoured, Jeb turned and began himself to climb into the beast’s mouth. Dizzy with what he had seen, Nate at first mistook it for another offering in the frenzy of their ritual. Twisting inward, as if his body fit the corkscrew weaves of the beast’s teeth, Jeb cried out with pain until he was inside the mouth up to his waist.

At that moment the beast clamped down. One more gasp as the thing’s outer jaw bit into the tavernkeep’s midsection like a belt made of teeth. Then his eyes milked over and his own mouth grew fangs. His claws grew longer and the entire serpent began to dance its mutated length in the salty stream, arms fluttering over its fins and bony plates, preening and rolling with the swelling tide as Van Garing cried out: “We live, we live and hunger, and we shall hunt the Star Garnet tonight!”

Canto II: Revelation, Part 5

When Nate turned, he saw a slim, dark haired figure standing on the porch. Diana Fields yawned and stepped down the rickety steps in a pair of flip flops and jeans. Her hair was damp from the shower, and she’d tied her t-shirt in a twist exposing her midriff, as if to make up for the absence of the retched upon negligee.

“That was kinda hot,” she said.

She smirked with her glossy lips and gave Nate a languorous once over with her wide brown eyes. “You’re not in bad shape for your age,” she said.

“Probably old enough to be your father.”

“Just barely.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty,” she said, leaning against the post, slippage of her jeans making the point she wore nothing underneath.

“You know, your mom talks a lot about how she’d like to see you off at a good college.”

“Does she? How quaint. I’m staying here.”

“Not a lot for a young person to do around here.”

“There are ways to get money.”

“Apparently. Wanna tell me where you met this yachtsman?”

“You mean Grove? He met me. Got an ad online.”

“Right,” said Nate, looking down at a lake of a puddle that held both their reflections in a swirl of gunpowder and blood.

“If I was awake, I’d a’ gone with them,” she said.

“You really oughta think twice about that.”

“Nah, it’s okay. Thanks, though. Puttin’ a little fear in them doesn’t hurt. It’ll keep things polite when I meet Grove at his party.”

At that moment a whimper sounded from the trailer, then a baby’s full on bawl. “Well, there she goes,” she said.

“Di, the baby!” came Maggie’s voice from inside.

“What, you couldn’t tell? Guess the stretch marks aren’t so bad when you have ’em young,” she said. She gave her hips one more swagger as she headed inside.

 * * * * *

 Nate thought it over on the drive back to town. If the Earl Groves was moored off Littleneck Harbor, he’d make a good target for whoever had been taking down the ships. The yacht wasn’t much bigger than the doctor’s sailboat, and the thing had no trouble making a ruin of that. He wondered if they were targeting a certain kind of craft on purpose, or if it was all just plunder.

He parked the car and crossed over to Jeb’s Tavern. The door was locked and the windows were dark. Odd for Jeb to be closed again. He was crossing back over to head to the batter house when he saw Ray Gillings’ lanky figure stumbling down the hillside, carrying a trash bag.

“Hey Ray, can you come here a minute?”

Ray shook his head, changed his stumble to a run. Nate sprinted ahead of him and took him by the elbow outside the library.

“What’s in the bag, Ray?”

“I was gonna show you I swear, just not yet, not ’til I was sure.”

“Open the bag, Ray.”

A gust of cold wind whipped across the wrinkled plastic, as if to reinforce the haggard man’s reluctance. Nate took hold of the twist, and when he released it, the arm hung out to the elbow.

* * * * *

 “I’m not going to arrest you,” said Nate when they were back at his apartment. “But you’re going to tell me everything, and you’re going to stay here while I go out and talk to a few people. Cooperate, and when morning comes, we’ll reassess.”

Gillings was nodding nervously, looking out the window at the harbor, then back at the front door which Nate kept bolted.

“See, it was Harpswell,” he said. “Jeb’s kitchen guy. I used to fall asleep sometimes, up at the cemetery, you know, they got those awnings on some a’ the crypts, keep you dry, you know? I used to fall asleep up there and I began seein’ Harpswell comin’ around a few months ago. Woke me up once, sayin’ he was doin’ a favor for Jeb, and I better skee-daddle if I every wanted back in the tavern. But he kept comin’ and goin’ with these bags. So the other night, know what I did? I snatched one while he was fillin’ a grave.”

“Filling a grave?”

“Well, refilling,” he said, looking at the door again. “You know, like after he dug up the body.”

Nate nodded. He’d kept the arm in the trash bag and put it in the freezer. According to Gillings, it had come from the grave of a man who’d died the spring before in a construction accident. Harpswell had more in his mother’s trailer up the hill.

“Is that where he lives?” Nate asked.

“Far’s I know,” said Ray.

“Indeed, well, listen now, you’re not technically under arrest, but you can’t leave, got it?”

Ray nodded his shaggy head.

“All right,” said Ray. “There’s beer in the fridge. I gotta knock off for an hour before I head out later.”

His gaunt prisoner nodded, popped himself a beer, and went back to looking out the window.

Nate went in his bedroom, left his door cracked open lest her heard Gillings getting up to something he shouldn’t.

But the deepness of his sleep took him by surprise. A heady nap dominated at first by a velvety void. He couldn’t resist letting it envelop him, when all at once he found himself standing at the base of a high hill. The air smelled like fresh rain, and bars of sunlight pierce amber clouds like golden lances.

“Come on now, youngster,” said the old man he’d seen outside the Nazareth Baptist Church. “You’re not still upset I called you a bum, now, are yuh?”

Beside him an old woman lifted an oxygen mask from her face—“Heh, heh, a fuckin’ bum, ya called him a fuckin’ bum,” she cackled.

“Now give him a chance, Mrs. Aikens, we’re here to give him anothah chance.”

“Well he bettah get in step,” said the crone, hitching her skirt, grabbing her oxygen tank, and heading up the hill.

Nate looked at the top where he saw a cross standing amid a heap of skulls—except they weren’t skulls, they were heads, he recognized Maggie’s, and Tiny’s, and another, another he didn’t want to look at—they were all heaped at the foot of a dark figure nailed to the cross.

“Reverend Selman,” said Nate, his heart thumping, drumming harder and harder in his chest. “Is Reverend Selman here?”

“Of course he’s not here,” cried the old man. “Yuh bum, yuh goddamn bum, of course he’s not here, ’bout time yuh woke up, yuh bum!”

Nate leapt out of his twisted blankets, gasping for air. He heard Gillings pop another beer, then stumbled out into the other room, groping for his coat.

“You okay?” asked Gillings.

Nate checked the clock—he’d only been out forty-five minutes. Not great, but good enough, if he could shake off the dream. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine. Just remember our deal, I’m headed out, you’re staying here.”

“Yeah, okay man, I’ll be here,” said Ray. “And um, Nate, could you just make sure you lock that door?”

* * * * *

When Nate arrived at the tavern, he found that Jeb had finally reopened for the evening. The regulars hadn’t shown up yet, so he took a seat at the far end of the bar. He pulled a copy of Homer’s Odyssey from his jacket and removed the folded pages of notes from where they marked Book IX. The book was his, and the notes were copied from something he’d found on the evening’s investigation. He’d only been reading a few minutes when Tiny showed up. The burly ex-fisherman was drunker than usual, having trickled some kind of loan out of Maggie and her girl under the pretext that he’d helped the constable protect them.

“Yeah, must say we make a pretty good team,” said Tiny.

Nate grinned, raised his scotch. “To teamwork,” he said.

“Gonna pay your tab there, Deputy?” asked Jeb.

“Pay it when I’m good ’n’ ready,” said Tiny.

“I can get his beers,” said Nate.

“No,” said Tiny, standing up and shoving back his stool. “Get my own damn beers. You and I’s on a par now, Constable. ’Tween the two of us, we’ll have this town back together in a jiffy.” He tried to snap his beer soaked fingers, but only made a sloppy, flatulent sound.

Harpswell chuckled, snatched the empty glass then swabbed the bar with the edge of his grease-stained Darth Vader t-shirt. “You’re a deputy like I’m Jabba the Hut,” he snickered as he walked back to the kitchen, belly jiggling.

“What, you think it’s funny?” said Tiny. “You guys think you’re so tough? You think you rule this town and all the souls in it?”

At this Jeb turned away from the cash register and glared at the old fisherman. “Rule them? Rule them did you say? Why would I rule what I’d rather get rid of?”

* * * * *

Once Tiny had stumbled out, Jeb reached for the bottle to pour Nate another scotch. “No, no more tonight,” he said. “Just a coffee.”

“Why not take one on the house,” said Jeb, pouring him a glass and pushing it toward him.

Nate blinked: had he ever seen Jeb pour anything on the house? “No, really, I have some work to do.”

“What work?” said the dark eyed old man. “What are you doin’ all this work for? You used to edit your pages and drink up, nice and quiet and regular. What you want with all this work for?”

“I’m the constable now.”

“Nevermind that horse manure, I’m tellin’ you to drink up and worry ’bout that nonsense tomorrow.”

Nate had never seen Jeb so involved and insistent. It was unsettling.

“Well, I suppose I’ll be going then,” he said, placing a twenty on the bar. “And count out the change, if you wouldn’t mind.”

* * * * *

 After Jeb counted his change, Nate stepped back into the street. But instead of heading toward his apartment he slipped around the tavern and down an old graying pier. Ropes tied decades before cut into the collapsed pilings. Held together a repair at a time, the rickety contraption made a makeshift stairway of rotted planks that curved around to where the muddy cove met Jeb’s back door.

High tide was coming at two o’clock that night, and it was just after twelve. Nate waited there about an hour before he picked out voices. Dim lights cast from the buildings streetside made nests of shadows along the deepening water. The voices were coming from there, where the kitchen’s back balcony hung over the basement door. Nate stepped off the pier onto a small beach of broken rocks, glass shards, and seaweed.

Tucking himself against the tavern’s damp concrete foundation, Nate listened to the figures talking in the shadows:

“Of course he doesn’t appreciate you,” said the woman’s voice. “But we appreciate you.”

“Exactly how much?” was the Tiny’s answer, followed by a hiccup.

“Come inside with us and find out.”

It was Ariel Van Garing’s voice.

Beside her, a silhouette Nate took to be Harpswell, was nodding.

“That a fact?” said Tiny.

“No, this is,” said Van Garing. She pulled the fisherman toward her and kissed him. Her thin dress was so dampened by fog and drizzle, she was de facto naked.

Everyone knew Tiny was a fool for all of his addictions, but so far he’d at least understood the price. The old salt stumbled inside, kissing and groping as he stepped. Nate had to wonder if he knew this time whether the bait was worth the hook.

Checking the magazine of his .44, Nate noticed Harpswell was carrying a sizable pistol of his own. He dangled it beside his leg as Tiny fumbled with his prize, too drunk to notice. As they stepped inside the basement, Van Garing picked up a hatchet from where it was stuck in a beam. Nate considered a move, but they were on Jeb’s property, and hadn’t done anything yet.

Following them inside, Nate inhaled an overpowering sweet, fishy odor. They were stepping through a kind of workshop lined with peg board and rusty tools. The hallway felt artificial, like the new concrete wall to the right had been put up hastily to cover something up.

By the time they rounded the corner to the second stairway it was too late. Harpswell kicked Tiny’s legs out from under him. Van Garing slipped out of his embrace and bludgeoned his head with the back of the hatchet, knocking him down the stairs.

Canto II: Revelation, Part 4

Nate looked up when he heard the huffing and wheezing. Tiny was running toward him, his hulking body heaving and sweating as he barreled across the street.

“Nate, ya gotta come with me, ya gotta come,” he wheezed.

“What is it?”

“Up at Maggie’s place, they come for ’er daughter, ya gotta hurry.”

“All right, get in the car,” he said, slipping into the driver’s seat and letting Tiny ride shotgun.

The old Pontiac’s engine roared to life, they pulled onto 15 and sped inland to Vick’s Trailer Park. Tiny pointed them up the puddle-pocked dirt road and Nate inserted his sedan between the black Lincoln Town Car that was parked in the driveway and the front door that was hanging open.

When they burst in the kitchen, a tall, black-t-shirted man in expensive jeans was leaning his muscular torso over the diminutive woman.

“You better put that away and let me in there,” he said.

Maggie’s hand shook as it clutched the meat cleaver. “Stay away from her! Get outta here and stay away!”

“You wanna tell me what’s going on here?” Nate asked.

The man pivoted on the heels of his leather boots. He was tall, bald, and tan, had four inches on Nate—but if he was leaner in the middle, they were of a size in the shoulders and arms.

He looked Nate up and down and snickered. “Better head out the way you came, Captain Ahab.”

“That’s Constable Morgan to you.”

Nate stepped forward, inserting himself between the thug and Maggie. “Tiny, take her in the living room,” he said.

The drunken man nodded, still huffing over his sweat-soaked shirt. He coaxed Maggie over the filthy shag carpet to the sagging couch.

“Look pops,” said the thug. “I got no beef with you. Her girl Diana’s a grown woman. She made a deal with my employer and I’m here to pick her up.”

“Who’s her employer?”

“Earl Grove.”

“I’m supposed to know the name?”

“No, but his yacht’s in your harbor, and he’s made an arrangement with the young lady, so if you’ll excuse me…” The thug gave Nate’s shoulder a shove. It was sudden enough to drop him to the linoleum, though he was fast enough with his foot to trip the goon in the living room doorway, bringing him down.

Both men were up in a shot, face to face.

“Maybe we should have a word with Diana,” said Nate. He turned to Maggie: “She here?”

“Yeah, but she can’t talk right now.”

“Why not?”

Maggie pointed down the hall, between slanted walls of the trailer’s warped paneling. Nate saw an open bedroom door, weak lamplight cast across a bed with a slight crescent of a body lying across it. She wore black lace negligee that was enough to make him blush, that is, if it lace wasn’t streaked with vomit.

“Little too much partyin’ last night,” said her mother.

Nate turned back to the thug. “I think you’d better go and tell your employer Diana’s not up for it tonight.”

The thug shrugged. “No big deal,” he said. “We’ll refresh ’er in the car. Now step aside.”

Nate ducked the left hook and spun away from the right that was meant for his kidney. The man was accurate, he gave him that, just slow and too much on the fists like most punks his age. Nate threw his elbow into the man’s throat, cutting off his breath long enough to stomp the side of his knee.

“Learned that one in the Navy while we were in Pusan Harbor. Military’s a career move you might consider. Good for a young man without direction. For now though, I suggest the direction of the door.”

Before the thug had caught his breath, Nate took him in a choke hold, dragged him to the rickety plank of a porch, and dumped him in the puddled gravel.

His partner was already out of the car and pulling his pistol from is gray sharkskin blazer. He aimed at Nate’s stomach and gave him the stone-cold eyes that told him he didn’t give a hell. The feeling was mutual. Nate pulled the .44 from his coat pocket and shot him in the hand.

A splatter of blood and broken pistol landed in the puddle beside t-shirt man, who’d finally caught his breath and was up on his knees.

“I suggest you start driving. Closest hospital’s an hour-and-a-half away. Make a tourniquet first, then get your ass in gear.”

But the thug had already pushed his partner into the passenger seat. He gunned the engine and screeched from the driveway.

Canto II Revelation: Part 3

The detective thought of Morgan’s fact-finding caveat as he loaded the HydraSport with supplies. Prudent, so long as it didn’t lead to indecision. He flipped the switch on the extra spotlight, made sure it was working, and checked that his pistol was loaded and ready in the shoulder holster. If his new deputy knew the kind of ordnance the he was packing, he might not have considered his warnings necessary. He placed the AA-12 automatic shotgun in the gun rack, twenty round drum mag already loaded. The thing wasn’t only a beast, it was waterproof, so he could keep it within easy reach without worrying about it getting soaked. Every shot was a titan of stopping power, and all twenty rounds could be unloaded in seconds.

Randall started up the engine and headed out of the harbor. He had at least two hours before dark, and had a hunch the party of doctors from Long Island wouldn’t be taking the warnings about the disappearances seriously enough to stay onshore.

He opened up the throttle and turned east toward Gatlin Island. He picked up the sailboat with his binoculars, its crew on deck enjoying martinis in a moment of clear sky.

A woman he hadn’t seen among their party that morning in the coffee shop was lounging in a deck chair. The bottom half of her bikini looked extra white against her tan. She wore nothing on top of course, and the middle aged man who came out of the cabin and kissed her took a moment to stop and admire his apparent trophy.

Randall did not dwell on speculation. Instead he moved the binoculars over to the boat’s low wake, looking for anything that might be trailing it—a small craft, fast or slow moving, any possible contact in its proximity.

He saw none, only the small whitecaps brought up by the stiff breeze. One of the crew put the sail up, and the craft began to tack its way back to Littleneck. The clouds had moved in front of the sun and the light had grown a shade dimmer when he saw it—a flutter against the surface of the water behind the boat.

He saw a fin next, a large one, but then something else—he recognized the shape, but no, it couldn’t be. The detective wiped his palm over his face and looked again. He saw something following the sailboat, though he could identify neither it nor the strange raindrop-like stipples that danced across the water.

Randall picked up the shotgun and drove the boat closer. He got within vocal range of the boat’s deck, but he no longer saw the thing in the water, only the tan, silver haired doctor holding the bikini-clad woman against him and looking irate.

He considered playing the cop card and coming aboard, but instead rounded the sailboat’s wake and headed toward the island as if he were on a routine patrol. He cut back across the point, was crossing a wind sheltered cove, when he picked up the shape again, moving fast beneath the surface.

The greenish-white form appeared to slither more than swim. Forty-feet long at least, like no whale or shark he’d ever seen. The serpentine tail made giant S’s, fins flaring like blades down its body. By intuition, Randall steered the boat broadside, was standing like a cannoneer about to unleash his battery—

—when between the scales, on a girth thick as an old oak, sprouted human arms. They danced beneath the surface, wriggling among the fins. The fingers extended their jagged nails like claws. He realized then it was the dozens of fingers he’d seen stippling the water behind the sailboat.

The thing’s head was hood shaped, flaring outward like a cobra’s. Paler than the thickly scaled body, it too had arms where its back spread outward. Randall was just picking out what the shape signified when his world flipped over—the entire monstrosity reversed its position in the water. One second it was gliding beneath, the next second dancing across the surface like a giant insect.

The displaced waves splattered over the Hydrasport’s deck. He fired the soaking shotgun on full automatic, aiming for he realized was a human torso attached to the serpent’s body.

From the torso extended a vein laden neck and pale faced head. Its hair hung in a mane of dark spines, and its fanged mouth stretched grotesquely too wide for its skull. Randall realized too late he’d emptied the drum clip into its scales, blowing off one of the arms, tearing a fin, but failing to even slow it down. The thing let out a wheezing, water-choked howl, as if it were mocking his tactics.

Three of the arms took hold of the cabin’s roof. They tore it away along with the steering wheel and throttle. The overwide maw lunged at him before he could reach another clip. Its fangs clamped into his chest, while steel strong hands tore his left arm off his shoulder.

In a last moment of consciousness, he was being dragged through the water as his blood and life fled in a flood of icy pins and needles. He was caught in the spines of the thing’s hair. As his body spun, he glimpsed the horror-struck doctor’s face, his mistress screaming, and the ghoul-green mass of scales ramming through the sailboat’s hull.

 * * * * *

“They don’t want you to officially ID him, but you were his deputy so they want a report from you.”

Nate squinted at the unzipped body bag. Randall’s jacket and flak vest still partialy covered his chest, but his legs had been shredded into strips of red meat. He’d seen the body of a man mauled by a bear once in northern Quebec, and it had the same absence of dignity. The torn legs and missing arms together made him look like some morbid parody of an infant.

“Did he have any keys on him?”

“Yeah, he had a key-ring from his belt.”

“Let me borrow them.”

The Trooper insisted on following him to Randall’s hotel room and shadowing him as he searched through his notes. “I’ll let you copy them for your report, then I’m taking them, and we’re done.”

* * * * *


Two hours later, the state police car pulled away from the shipping office where Nate copied the documents. Nate headed over to Jeb’s Tavern where for some reason the door was still locked at two when it normally opened at noon. Nate sat on the sagging, bleached wooden bench, pulled out his flask and the copies of the notebook he’d taken from Randall’s room and began reading:

The inscription on the rocks was a type of charm, a spell, as it were. Professor noted not in true runes. When asked if typical, Prof. K. answered no. When asked why, said not protection. When asked what, said a summoning, a conjuring. When asked what, not sure, something erased, scratched out. Why? Perhaps scratched out afterward, perhaps something taboo to those who understood.

There was more, a sketch of that pattern of inscriptions found on an island a few hundred miles down the coastline. Mahannis was one of the furthest out, least populated.