Story by David Hann
Illustration by Tim Soekkha
“Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. All bullshit!”
Mark Wane took another swig of his beer after that outburst and looked challengingly at Marina Spelvin, who was sitting with him at the bar. She sighed gently and refrained from rolling her eyes, as only a true and long-suffering friend can.
Mark went on, “The public is jaded with that stuff. I’m jaded with it. Every bloody day I get ten scripts across my desk. You can guarantee that nine of them will be VWOZ.”
“Vwoz?” asked Marina, knocking back more of her own beer and motioning the bartender for two more.
“Vampires, Werewolves or Zombies. Anyone who thinks he can write a screenplay seems to think that’s what horror is about these days. I tell you, I’m sick of it. It’s all the same old stuff.”
“And the tenth one?”
“That’s normally some fanboy’s wish-fulfillment Mary Sue rubbish. The thing is,” he continued, finishing his beer and grabbing the next, “that we all know we screwed up. We gave the audiences too many vampires. Then we made them ‘good’. Now they have no value, no shock effect. Same for werewolves, and even zombies. Everyone knows we need a new big thing in horror, except the bloody scriptwriters who keep sending in the same old crap.”
“Any idea what the next big thing should be?” asked Marina.
“Not the slightest. I know what it’s not, but like everyone else, I’m groping for a new idea. First production company to get a new idea is going to make a killing. I…”
He was interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man at the bar. “May I join you?”
Marina gave him a gentle smile and motioned to a spare stool. Mark, temporarily thrown off track by the interruption, had nothing to say.
“I’m sorry,” said the man, “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You do have a rather loud voice, sir.”
Marina smiled and Mark, who couldn’t think of a suitable rejoinder, took a long pull at his beer.
“So, what do you think about Mark’s view on horror?” asked Marina.
“Oh, I totally agree with him. The modern horror film industry and the demands for more blockbusters, have destroyed what horror really means.”
“Good to have a smart man at the bar,” Mark replied. “But tell me, what does horror really mean?”
“Horror, true horror, is a fear of the unknown. By making your threat known you take away the horror. You just leave the audience with another teen romance violence film.”
“I like this guy,” said Mark, whose alcohol level had reached bonhomie. “So, what can you tell me about the future of horror?”
“I can show you,” replied the old man. “Come with me tomorrow and I will show you what real horror is. Should give you some idea about what a good movie could be.”
“Yes. Tomorrow is Saturday. I assume a producer like yourself doesn’t need to be at work on the weekend, particularly if he has no movies in production right now. I’ll pick you up here, outside the bar, at eight tomorrow morning. Do we have an agreement?”
“Yeah, why not?” Mark grinned. “I’ve got no plans for the weekend.”
“Good. I’ll see you then.” The old man got up from the table and began to make his way slowly across the bar to the front door.
“Are you crazy?” Marina asked once the man was out of earshot. “You have no idea who that guy is. This could be some sort of trap to rob you or something.”
“Him?” asked Mark, watching as the man shuffled out the door. “He must be at least a hundred. I think the bigger worry is him dying overnight. No, I’m going with him. It will probably be a lost cause, but you never know. Maybe the old boy’s got something to get the creative juices going. Then I can get the bloody scriptwriters to write something interesting and not that VWOZ crap. Do you know how much vampire rubbish I get these days? Well…”
Marina waved for two more beers and got comfortable.
Surprisingly Mark was in front of the bar at five to eight the next morning. He wouldn’t have been, but sometime the night before he’d set his phone’s alarm and left a message for himself. He couldn’t remember doing it, but he couldn’t remember getting home last night either, so he assumed there were several blank spots in his memory for the previous evening. His headache and slightly queasy stomach suggested he’d had a good night.
At eight exactly, a nondescript, though expensive-looking, brown Mercedes pulled up at the curb. The passenger window lowered, and the man Mark had met the night before leaned over into the passenger seat.
“Good morning,” he said. “It’s so nice to meet someone punctual these days. Please, get in.”
Feeling slightly wary (he did remember Marina’s warning), Mark slipped into the front passenger seat. A quick glance told him that the back seat was empty of any violent criminals, or anyone, actually.
“There is a flask with coffee in the glove compartment,” said the man as he pulled the car back into traffic. “It looks like you could do with some.”
“I could,” Mark replied, pouring a cup of excellent-smelling coffee. “Thank you for your time, and the coffee, Mr… I’m sorry, I never asked your name last night.”
“Howard,” said the driver.
Mark luxuriated with the coffee and the comfortable seat. “So, how do you know the horror business? Were you in the movies or something?”
“No. I used to write a bit, on the East Coast, but that was many years ago. I discovered then that if you describe something it loses its shock value. To be truly horrible something must be indescribable. To explain, or describe, is to take the magic away.”
“A bit hard to do that in the movie business, though.”
“Maybe. We have a long drive ahead of us. You might want to take a nap.”
Mark realized that was a great idea. The late night, the mild hangover, the comfortable car all conspired to make him feel quite sleepy. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift.
Mark woke sometime later. He had no idea how long he had been sleeping, but they had certainly gone some way. There was no city around them. They seemed to have left the paved roads behind too. The Mercedes was slowly making its way up a steep dirt road through a forest. Mark had never seen a forest like it before. It didn’t look right. The trees seemed to crowd in on the road, blocking any light except that coming directly overhead. They were tall, dark, and packed so closely together that he really did have trouble seeing the trees for the forest. Of course, Mark never spent time away from hotels or cities, so he guessed he couldn’t really tell.
“Ahh, awake, are you?” asked Howard. “I thought you were going to sleep for the whole journey. You almost did, in fact – we’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Mark shook his head, trying to clear the aftereffects of his nap and the night before. “Where?” he managed to ask.
“You know, I honestly don’t know the name of the forest. I just call it The Wood. Sounds more poetic.”
“I’m not really into poetry,” was the best response Mark could come up with.
“Indeed, you are interested in horror. The two are not necessarily separate, you know, but we are almost there.”
The dirt road flattened out and curved around a stand of particularly tall and dark-looking trees. In a small clearing beside the road, almost touching the trees at the back, was a small cottage. Not, as Mark almost expected, a log cottage, but a modern holiday chalet. Beyond the chalet, the road began to climb again and curved around the trees.
Howard stopped the Mercedes on the side of the dirt road by the cottage. “Here we are,” he said.
Shaking his head, Mark got out of the car. “A cabin in the woods. Bit clichéd.”
Howard got out of the driver’s side, much slower than the younger man. “Clichés exist for a reason, but, please, let’s go inside.”
Mark was reminded of Marina’s warning. The old guy seemed harmless, but maybe he had friends waiting to ambush Mark as he entered. “After you,” he said to Howard.
“Such a gentleman. Hard to find these days.” Howard walked, slowly, to the cottage, climbed the steps up to the wooden deck, and then reached the door. Mark was certain he could have done the trip five times in the time it took Howard to do it.
With a brief fumble for the keys, Howard opened the door and went inside, motioning Mark to follow him.
Mark considered his options. He decided that, if the old guy really had a plan to rob him, it seemed a bit complex to drag him all the way out here. He could have easily done anything while Mark was asleep in the car. With a chuckle to himself, he walked into the cottage, though warily.
The door opened into a sitting room. Two other doors led off. A brief glance in the direction of each showed a bedroom and a kitchen. There was, again, no sign of any violent desperadoes about to beat Mark and steal his worldly goods.
Mark grinned at himself and had a good look around the sitting room. There were three comfortable chairs, a coffee table, a fireplace, and a well-stocked bookcase. The furniture was mismatched as if it had all been bought at different times. If this was a cheap holiday chalet that made sense to Mark. No point paying for expensive stuff if you are only going to use it two or three times a year.
Howard had been going toward the bookcase, but then stopped in mid-stride. “Oh, darn,” he said. “I need one more thing from the car. Make yourself at home. It’ll only take a minute.”
As Howard shuffled his way out the door, Mark was more of the opinion it would take about ten minutes at the speed the old guy managed. He thought about looking at the bookcase, but if Howard had something there to show him, it seemed a bit mean to steal his thunder. Instead, he stood in the middle of the room and enjoyed the one thing he never got in the city – silence. The forest truly was silent. The only noise he could hear was a very soft whisper of a light breeze through the tops of the trees. That, and the next minute, the sound of a car starting.
Mark had lived in the city all his life. He was so used to the sound of cars that it took him a few seconds to understand what the noise meant to him in this place. Then it dawned. He raced out the door just in time to see Howard turn the car around and head down the road.
Mark grabbed a white plastic chair off the deck and hurled it at the car, not in any real hope of hitting it, but rather out of sheer anger. The chair fell short and bounced into the middle of the road. Mark seethed. The old bastard had abandoned him up here in the middle of nowhere. He’d pay for that. No one crossed Mark Wane. He’d set the police on him. No, even better, he’d set his lawyers on him.
He slipped his hand into his pocket to grab his phone and get the process started. Except, no phone. He checked his other pockets. No. No phone. The old prick must have taken it off him while he’d been asleep in the car. Why had he slept so long? The coffee? Maybe. This prick was going to pay alright. Well, no problem. There should be a phone or a computer with a net connection in the cottage.
A twenty-minute search showed that there wasn’t. He’d found some interesting things; old papers from the 1930s, plenty of books in languages he couldn’t understand, lots of canned food and bottled water, but no means of communication. He was truly cut-off from the rest of the world. No communication.
Mark felt the first signs of panic. He’d never been isolated like this before. He’d always had a phone, access to the Internet, people around. He had no way to get in touch with anyone now. He could be the only person left on Earth. He could be anywhere. He could be…
He forced himself to stop. Okay, so he had no communications, but this was the middle of the day, in the Twenty-first Century. Yes, it was a bit of a shock, but it was no big deal. Just some old guy playing a trick on him and reminding him that horror was all about taking us away from our comfort zone. Okay. Good trick. Good reminder. Now he’d just have to find a way back to civilization.
He walked to the door and looked at the road. They’d come up that road. Roads meant people. It must lead somewhere, back to another road, and back to the city. In fact, there were probably other holiday chalets on the road, with phones he could use. Easy, then. Go for a walk and find a phone or a road. Once he was back in contact with the rest of the world, he’d decide how to get his revenge.
He stopped in the kitchen and grabbed two bottles of water. Peevishly he grabbed another, drank half of it, and left the half-empty bottle on the kitchen counter. Best revenge he could get so far.
Back at the door, he looked at the road. To his left it climbed again, to his right, around the trees, he knew it went down. Which way? Well, that was easy. Down. No point doing any extra work climbing up the road. Anyway, they’d come from down, so down must be out.
He checked his watch. One-thirty or thereabouts. Plenty of time for a stroll down a hill. He left the door open and started down the road.
It wasn’t really a stroll. The road started to get quite steep in places, with a lot of curves and turns. He also discovered, quite quickly, that he had to keep his eyes down on the road to avoid the holes and rocks that seemed determined to trip him. He also had a very strong desire to stay as far away from the trees as possible. There was something about them that didn’t seem right. Their trunks twisted in ways he didn’t think trees should behave. The dense undergrowth between the trees shivered a little as he passed, but he could feel no wind. The darkness alongside the road and the silence began to get to him. He felt, spooked was the best word he could think of. Not scared, of course, because there was nothing to be scared of.
His foot connected with a rock and he cursed. In the silence, the sound seemed incredibly loud to him. It didn’t as much break the silence as crack it.
The silence. He stopped. Forests, as far as he knew, were supposed to have birds and insects. Those things made noise. There was none. Even the soft whisper of the breeze seemed to have vanished. Maybe a thunderstorm was about to begin. He’d heard somewhere that animals went silent before that. He looked up, at a clear blue sky. No thunderstorm. Just clear, normal-looking, blue sky. So normal, looking close enough to reach out and grab. Yet so far away.
Mentally he slapped himself. Come on. Keep walking. Find a house. Find a road. Tell Howard it was a great trick. He grinned as he started walking again. The old boy did know a thing or two about spooking people.
Still grinning, he rounded a curve and spotted his first sign of civilization: a white plastic chair in the middle of the road. Great, must be a house. He picked up his speed as the road flattened out. There was a cottage, a chalet, in a small clearing to his right. A very familiar-looking cottage.
It couldn’t be. Not the same cottage. The plastic chair where he’d thrown it. The front door wide open as he’d left it. He went inside. A half-empty water bottle on the kitchen counter.
He staggered to a chair in the sitting room and sat heavily. How? He’d been going downhill all the way. How could he be back here? What was happening?
He shook his head and sat up straighter. He was a rational man. This was the Twenty-first Century. He was sitting in a comfortable chair in a sunny sitting room. If it was impossible then it hadn’t happened. Clearly, he’d not been going down all the time. The road had a lot of twists and turns, and maybe some of the flatter bits were really climbing. He’d just wasted – he checked his watch: two fifteen – forty-five minutes walking around in a circle. Okay, give himself fifteen minutes to get his breath back and then go again. This time be careful and look for side roads. There must be one. Howard had driven him up here, so it should be reasonably obvious. Just have to pay more attention. God, he wished he had his phone. He wished he could hear some noise.
Breathe. He sat in the chair, looking out the door to the trees. Breathe. Just have to find that side road. No big deal. He sat watching the trees sway in the breeze. He hoped there was a breeze.
He checked his watch. Three o’clock. Okay. Time to go. He got up, grabbed another water bottle and headed back to the road.
Up or down? Down still made sense. Howard had driven in from somewhere down there, so that’s where he had to go.
With a sigh, Mark started walking down the road again. If he had been spooked last time it was much worse this time. The sun had shifted, and while there was blue sky overhead there was almost no direct sunlight on the road. The shadows of the trees seemed to smother the road, making it even harder to see the rocks and potholes. Mark slowed his pace, both to keep an eye on the road and an eye out for a side road.
He didn’t like looking at the trees though. They unsettled him. He was not sure why. There was just something about them. It was almost as if they were slowly squeezing into the road. As if the road was getting narrower. No. It was his imagination. Claustrophobia brought on by the stress. The road was as wide as it had been. Wasn’t it? It was flattening out anyway.
He came around a curve and stopped in shock. There was a white plastic chair. It was near the side of the road. He walked a little further, looked to his right and saw the cottage. Damn, he must have missed the turn again, but it didn’t feel like forty-five minutes.
He looked at his watch. Three-thirty. What? That made no sense. He’d been walking slower, and yet it had only taken thirty minutes? Had he somehow taken a different route? No, he’d been looking carefully for a side road and hadn’t spotted one. He could have sworn he’d been on the same road.
He walked slowly up the steps to the deck at the front of the cottage. He sat on the remaining plastic chair. The other was in the middle of the road. Except it wasn’t. It seemed to be much closer to the trees on the far side of the road. Could it have rolled over, maybe been blown by the wind? What wind? He hadn’t felt the slightest breeze when he was walking down the road, though the trees did seem to be shaking a little as if there was a breeze. So, there must be. Right?
He took out his water bottle and had a swig. It was warm. Terrible. Right now, he didn’t want his phone or some noise. He wanted a drink. A cold beer, or maybe something stronger. Maybe that would make things look right again.
Then he got it. It had to be a trick. One of those amusing TV things they did. Find someone mildly famous (he considered himself to be in that category) and play a trick on him. Get it all with some hidden cameras, and a crew somewhere close by. Have someone around to move the chair closer to the trees, for example. Howard had set him up. Maybe Marina was in on this too. That would explain how he’d met Howard in the bar last night.
He leaned back in his chair and laughed out loud. “Okay guys, you got me good. Well done. Yes, I’m spooked. Now someone bring me a beer.”
The response was silence. The same silence he’d been dealing with for hours. No applause. No one coming to congratulate him.
“Guys?” His voice sounded shaky, even to him.
He looked across the road to the chair. It seemed to be almost in the trees now. Someone must have moved it. Maybe it was on a string, with someone slowly pulling it into the trees. Somehow, he didn’t want to get close to the trees to find out. Well, there was another way.
He stood up decisively. If they were not going to come when he called, he’d make them.
He walked into the sitting room of the cottage. Where would he put a hidden camera? Corners of the room, where the walls meet the ceiling, that was his favorite. He pulled a chair up and stood on it to reach up into a corner. No, nothing there. He tried the other corners. Nothing.
The bookcase then. He pulled the books out. Nothing.
Inside the chairs. He ripped and found nothing.
In a fury he began to tear the sitting room apart. He destroyed the bookcase and the coffee table. He ripped the wallpaper off the walls.
Finally, he sank to the floor, exhausted and stunned. There were no cameras. This was no TV trick.
He looked out the door. All he could see of the chair was one white foot sticking out from the trees. The shadows had lengthened. The only spot of sunshine left was on the deck.
He checked his watch: five-twenty. God, it would be dark soon. He had to get out of here. He raced out of the cottage and down off the deck. He ran across the clearing to turn down the road. And stopped. There was no road. There were trees all the way across. He turned to look up the hill. No road. There were trees all around the cottage. He was trapped, surrounded by trees. He spun around and around, trying to make sense of it. His heart was hammering in his chest. This was impossible. It couldn’t happen. It just couldn’t.
He raised his eyes to the clear blue sky. Its normality mocked him.
Slowly, keeping an eye on the trees, he backed up to the deck and stopped there, standing in the last remaining pool of sunshine.
With all his strength, he shouted, “Howard! You win, Howard! I’m scared! You win! Come get me out of here!”
The response was the same soul-stealing silence as before.
Mark had no idea what to do. This went well beyond anything he’d experienced or even heard about, before.
He looked across the clearing to the chair, but it had vanished, taken by the trees. Mark knew he’d never see it again, though he had no idea how he knew that.
He began backing into the cottage. Somehow, he felt that staying outside was not a good option. He slipped inside and pushed the door closed. No knob on the door. You’d need a key to lock it, and he didn’t have one. Well, there was a bookcase, or at least the remains of one. Hastily he assembled a barricade to block the door, though he knew if he could destroy the bookcase it wouldn’t hold much.
What do to now? Wait. For what he didn’t know. Wait for morning at least.
There was noise now outside. A rising wind perhaps? No. It sounded like whispers. Like hundreds of voices whispering in an unknown language. Except ‘voice’ suggested human. This didn’t sound human.
He backed away from the door, all the way across the sitting room till he backed into the window on the far wall. Window! He leaped away as if stung and dived for a corner. With a shock, he realized that all the rooms had windows and no curtains. There was no place in the cottage where he couldn’t see out or be seen.
He risked a peek at the window in the door. The light had almost gone outside. The sun must be slipping below the trees. The shadows seemed to rush up over the deck and wrap themselves around the cottage.
Then, after the last sunlight had vanished, came the movement. In the dim moonlight he could see the trees moving, not all together, but individually. Each one seemed to twist and dance as the whispering grew louder.
Then he saw a new movement, a different movement. Something was coming out from among the trees. What? A red light. An eye? No, two. Three? A tentacle, or was it an arm? Whatever it was it was large enough to block the moonlight as it swept over the clearing. Then, a face? A beak? A mouth? Both?
Whatever it was, it was getting closer. A soft push at the door. The barricade held. Then a stronger push. The whispering rising in volume as the door started to give way.
With a huge shove, the thing pushed the door in. Mark saw it, standing on the deck, illuminated by the moonlight. Mark screamed. Then he laughed. Then he cried. Then he smiled. There would be a lot of screaming that night.
A forest service vehicle was passing the cottage the next morning. Alexis Fuentes, the driver, had almost gone past when her mate, Tommy Malone, noticed the door was torn off its hinges. They stopped and went in to investigate.
They found Mark Wane bloodied and beaten, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the sitting room. Despite his condition, he was smiling.
Tommy dropped to one knee and looked into Mark’s face. “What happened here? Can you describe your attacker?”
Mark’s smile got even bigger. “No. I don’t know. It was fantastic. It was indescribable.”
— ♦♦♦ —
A Game of Chess. By Mohan Pandey, Art by L.A. Spooner
After the mysterious disappearance of a famed author, Shelia’s husband convinces their friend Charles to help solve the mystery. Unfortunately, he will come to regret what Charles discovers.