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The second time I heard about the night people was on an excursion with my friend Lyndon Harjula.  The first time I heard the mention of the night people was many years before and I probably would have thought it nothing more than a tale meant to frighten children if I had not gone to see an old Creek storyteller.  Lyndon had Muscogee Creek blood in his line. His grandfather was a full-blooded Combahee.  He had studied the Creek traditions and history to some degree and would be quick to recount many of the accounts of their heroic deeds or mysterious lore at the mere mention of the days when the Muskogee tribes reigned over the land now known as South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

[Program from Moundville Native American Festival.]

Being somewhat of a history buff myself, I didn’t mind Lyndon’s fascination with his ancestors.  On the contrary, I found many of the legends and myths to be quite intriguing.  And so it was that I accompanied him to Moundville to attend the annual Native American Dance Festival.

[Lyndon and me before we departed for Moundville and a camping trip to Bankhead National Forest.]

Moundville is located near Tuscaloosa close to the Alabama and Mississippi state line.  The name comes from the massive burial mounds of the ancient Mississippian culture that erected the pyramid-like structures to house their dead.  Students from the University of Alabama’s Archaeology Department in nearby Tuscaloosa had once excavated some of the bodies but this had stopped many years ago due to the pleadings of the Native Americans.  I now believe that there were other reasons as well.

The festival was like a trip to the past for Lyndon and myself.  We sat entranced by the drumming, dancing, and chanting of the participants as they all coalesced about the woods filling the air with a primal energy that invigorated the soul.  The dancers wore ceremonial dress exactly as their ancestors had worn for thousands of years.  But it was the elder Creek storyteller, whose face looked like it was carved from a tree and had the appearance of cracked leather, who stole the show.  He sat in the middle of a ring of attentive listeners recounting many legends and lore of the past with a voice that was like honey.

He told us many popular stories that most people don’t even realize have their roots in the Muskogee people.  The stories about Brer Rabbit who was a trickster and always played jokes on Coyote were favorites with the children.  Everyone felt proud at the telling of the famous exploits by Chief Tuscaloosa who was reported to have stood over seven feet tall and had outwitted Hernando De Soto the Conquistador.  And finally, he began to recite many old Muskogee poems.  After he would recite one in the beautiful Creek language, he would recite the English translation.  Each poem told where certain Muskogee traditions came from. It was about the eighth or ninth poem that reminded me of my initial hearing of the night people.  I knew that there had to be a connection in the story I had heard and the old Muskogee poem.

After the storyteller finished his performance I related to Lyndon that I had heard another story concerning the night people and that I wanted to speak with the old storyteller in order to learn more. He had made his way to the side of the gathering to get a drink of water and happened to be alone.  Lyndon and I approached him and I spoke first.

“Excuse me, sir.  I was wondering if you could tell us more about the night people?”  He looked at us with some interest.  There were very few white people who attended such gatherings and they were usually viewed as interlopers.  Although Lyndon did have some Creek blood in his line, he was all white to the appearance.  The silence was a bit awkward so I introduced Lyndon and myself.  “Forgive me for being so impolite,” I continued.  “My name is David Garrett and this is my good friend Lyndon Harjula.  We came today because Lyndon is part Creek.”  This seemed to soften him a bit to continuing the conversation.

“Why are you curious about the night people?” he asked.

“Because, I have heard of them before.  When I was a child my grandfather told me a story about them.  He must have heard of your poem and made up a story to scare us grandchildren,” I said thinking the old man would laugh at the story my grandfather had concocted.

“It is no legend,” he said looking hard at Lyndon and myself.  “The night people were real, and their medicines were real.  I would be very much surprised if your grandfather’s story didn’t ring of truth somewhere.”

I was shocked at the response and didn’t really know what to say so I replied with the only thought that came to my mind.  “If that’s so then I know where one of their burial grounds is.”  Upon saying this, the old Creek storyteller grabbed me by my arm and put his face very close to mine.

“If you know what’s good for you, you will stay far away from it.”

“Oh, I sure as hell don’t intend to go there,” I retorted feeling uncomfortable at his sudden behavior.  “I was just curious about what you know about the night people and thought you might like to hear the story my grandfather told me.”

“The only thing I know is that they were an older breed of man that was nocturnal.  They were strange people and had many strange ways.  They taught many secrets to our forefathers – many night things.  All Native American tribes still possess the sacred medicine of the grave,” he said gesticulating towards the large mounds that dominated the plain around us.  “Anyone who disturbs a sacred burial ground will have vengeance visited upon them.”

He didn’t say much more after that.  I found it odd that he didn’t want to hear my grandfather’s story.  Lyndon and I decided that it was probably because the night people’s burial ground was so taboo that he didn’t even want to have knowledge of it.  We did manage to talk him into giving us a copy of the poem in English.  The translation doesn’t do it justice but it goes:

 

In the days before the nations

Only one tribe walked the land

The elder tribe so old

The ancient breed that spawned man

We called them the night people

Because they shunned the light of day

But they taught us many secrets

Before they vanished and went away

They taught us how to whisper

And walk as silent as the wind

How to melt into the shadows

And that darkness was our friend

They taught us many medicines

And we heeded what they said

All except the one lesson

And that’s the medicines of their dead

We disturbed the sacred grounds

The graves where dead lay sleeping

They summoned up their anger

Through the night their vengeance creeping

They say that for every one disturbed

They take two in kind to keep

And then the score is settled

The dead return to sleep

The burial ground is sacred

For the dead aren’t what they seem

So respect the sleeping ancestors

And the earth wherein they dream

 

It sounded much more powerful in the Creek language. I don’t recall many of the Creek words but I do remember the Creek name for the night people – Nereestee.  It was that name by which I recalled the story imparted to me long ago as a child.  My grandfather had told me the story when I was only ten or eleven years old. I forget what prompted him to tell me the story but he had encountered the Nereestee first hand.

Once Lyndon and I got through talking with the old Creek storyteller we decided to leave Moundville.  The storyteller may not have wanted to hear the story but Lyndon was a different matter altogether.  No sooner had we shut the doors on his old pick-up truck than he said, “Well? Aren’t you gonna tell me the story now?”

I looked at Lyndon and laughed then said, “Well, I may not be any match for an old Creek storyteller but I’ll give it a try.  You know where Hilltop Road is in Greenwood?”

“Yeah, of course I do,” Lyndon replied.

“Well, Grandpa Brantley – that’s my mother’s dad – used to live down there when he was younger.  This was before he met my grandmother and got married.  Back then there weren’t that many houses along Hilltop Road.  It was mostly just woods.  But there were enough people for a church to be built.  The church was a small, one-room church where the people would meet on Sundays, Wednesday nights, and whatever other occasion brought them together; you know, weddings and socials and stuff.

“My grandfather was probably in his early twenties back then and he had moved down there to work on a lumber crew with a friend of his.  It wasn’t long before he became attracted to one of the girls who lived close by named Molly Crothers.  In order to get to know her, Grandpa Brantley started going to the church services.  As I said, there weren’t many people living around there back then and a good Sunday morning service didn’t have more than twenty people in the congregation.

“This went on for a couple of months and Grandpa Brantley and Molly began to ‘court’ each other, as Grandpa Brantley would say.  He would say, ‘You know you wouldn’t be here if Molly Crothers and I would’ve gotten hitched?  Strange things happen for strange reasons and if Molly hadn’t been killed then you grandchildren wouldn’t have ever been born.’”

“Been killed?” Lyndon broke in.  “How was she killed?”

“I’m getting to that.  Just hold on.  Anyway, one day Pastor Lufkin asked for volunteers to dig a well out behind the church. So, of course all of the men in the congregation volunteered to take their turn at digging the well.  But no one knew that the land just behind the church was the Nereestee burial ground.  And sure enough, they dug that well straight through the grave of one of them. Grandpa Brantley said that they thought the bones belonged to some kind of animal.  He also said that the skull looked like something between a monkey’s skull and a human’s skull but not either one.  It was really difficult to tell because they were in such a bad state that they crumbled to dust at the touch of your hand.  The men debated over what it could be but they finally agreed that none of them was a scientist so no one was really qualified to say.  He said the bones were discarded in the woods – what was left of them anyway.

“It was a few nights later, on a Wednesday night service, that the thing first showed itself.  There were about ten people at church that night.  Wednesday nights always have the least amount of people in the congregation.  Anyway, everybody was in the middle of singing Leaning on the Everlasting Armwhen all of a sudden Pastor Lufkin got this strange look on his face. He was standing in the front of the church up behind the pulpit so that he was the only one facing the back of the church.  It was a warm night and all of the opaque windows of the church had been opened to let a breeze blow through the church.  Pastor Lufkin’s attention was caught by the dark face and luminous eyes of the creature glaring back at him through the back window.  He unwittingly quit singing and just stared in shock at the thing.  This caused everyone else to fall silent and follow his gaze.  Upon beholding this ghastly being looking through the window, Mrs. Limberly screamed and the thing disappeared from the window.

“Everyone sat there in the wake of its disappearance and looked at each other with questioning expressions.  Finally, Mr. Harrington spoke up and broke the silence saying, ‘I ain’t never seen nothin’ like ‘at afore in my born days.  Any of ya’ll ever known of a critter fittin’ that description?’  But no one could answer that question.

“Grandpa Brantley said the thing looked like a cross between a man, a monkey, a cat, and a shadow.  That’s the best description he could ever come up with.  He said that if you had seen it you would understand and agree. But that wasn’t the last time Grandpa Brantley saw it.

“The people were frightened but they managed to get back into the spirit of worship.  After the service there was a dread pall in the air.  It was because everyone had to walk home knowing that the creature was still out in the woods lurking somewhere.  No one wanted to walk alone so everyone made sure their paths would go as far as possible with someone else.  Of course, Grandpa Brantley escorted Molly as usual.

“As they walked Molly was obviously scared.  Grandpa Brantley was too, but he couldn’t let Molly know that.  They tried to keep the subject on other things but it was impossible not to speculate on what the thing in the window had been.

“They were walking through a small hollow that followed a meandering creek.  The trees were thick about them and a warm breeze stirred the leaves.  There wasn’t much of a moon out but it was enough to see the trail by.  Suddenly, they heard the sounds of whispering coming from the woods around them.  It sounded like an empty, low voice that spoke a strange language.  Molly immediately clung to Grandpa Brantley with her eyes as big as saucers.  They picked their pace up and kept looking all about them.  The sound seemed to be coming from several directions at once.

“And then they saw it!  It was about fifty feet away moving through the tree line – in and out of the shadows.  Its eyes were illuminated just like cat’s eyes will do in the dark.  Grandpa Brantley said they glowed a luminous yellow color that scared the life right out of you.  The thing moved on two legs just like a man does but it never looked ahead of itself.  Its eyes stayed locked on Molly and Grandpa Brantley.  Needless to say they ran like scalded dogs.  Grandpa Brantley held Molly’s hand and kept himself in between the thing and her.  It never attempted to go directly towards them.  It could’ve easily done that.  It just moved along beside them whispering in that strange language.

“Finally, they came out at a clearing and the thing ran out of the woods for several hundred feet and stopped.  Grandpa Brantley and Molly kept running.  Grandpa Brantley looked back long enough to see the thing in the open.  It stared after them briefly, sniffed the air, and then melted back into the forest.

“Everyone from the church service reported the exact same experience that night.  The creature with glowing eyes hounded them all.  The only person who didn’t report the same experience was Dudley Boyd.  The reason he didn’t was because he was found dead the next day.  He had walked most of the way home with Pastor Lufkin and his wife and daughter, but Dudley eventually had to take a turn towards his home which left him walking alone.  He was found huddled underneath a pine tree as if he were an armadillo that had rolled itself into a ball for protection.  Erwin Duncan found him the next day when he didn’t report into work. When he rolled Dudley over, his face was frozen into a look of terror.  His eyes were wide open and his mouth looked like he was in the middle of screaming.  Ulysses said it gave him the willies just looking at Dudley’s face, much less imagining what Dudley could’ve beheld to cause such a ghastly expression to remain after death.

“Everyone who had been at the Wednesday night church service knew what had got Dudley.  People started gossiping and pretty soon the word spread all throughout Greenwood. People were nervous when walking at night and extra vigilant.  Several weeks passed and it was thought that the creature had wandered off to other locales. But this wasn’t the case.

“If there was any reason to go out at night most people had started taking precautions like riding a horse, using the main roads instead of trails, and carrying a firearm.  Grandpa Brantley was no exception.  He had gotten into the routine of riding his horse over to Molly’s and picking her up for church; he also kept his pistol close by.

“And so it was that on another Wednesday night the creature made another appearance.  This time it was little Hugh Daniels who caught a glimpse of the creature out of the window.  Pastor Lufkin was right in the middle of his sermon when Hugh yelled, ‘That monster’s out there in the woods again!’

“Everyone, including Pastor Lufkin, raced to the window to see.  Sure enough, those luminous yellow eyes were in the trees watching the church.  One of the men asked who all had their firearms and every man present responded that he did.  So it was decided that they should run out of the church and start shooting the thing.

“All the men gathered at the double doors in back of the church with their guns ready.  Someone counted to three and they burst from the church in a blaze of gunfire.  In a rather anticlimactic response, the creature just vanished into the woods.  The men wasted no time in giving chase.  Even though it was dark, the men divided and pursued the creature into the woods.

“Grandpa Brantley and Jim Thomas went off in the same general direction.  The next thing he recalled was seeing the creature dart in between the two of them. The creature went after Grandpa Brantley.  I’ve never heard my grandfather sound anything remotely like a poet but to hear him describe what it was like to stare at that thing face to face was like hearing someone read from Dante’s Inferno.  He said that it was like the gates of madness were thrown wide and he was staring into the gulfs of Hell.  The terror that overcame him was beyond words, though.  He would’ve surely died of fright just as Dudley had done if it weren’t for Jim.  Jim raised his gun and cracked off several shots but the bullets went right through the dark body of the beast as if it were going through fog; and one bullet struck Grandpa Brantley right in the side.  He began screaming in pain and this caused him to fall to the ground. His consciousness began to fade.

“Molly heard his scream and she recognized Grandpa Brantley’s voice.  The beast took off and Jim thought it had fled.  Jim rushed to Grandpa Brantley’s side.  He must have felt horrible knowing that he had put the bullet in his own friend. But that bullet, ironically, saved my grandpa’s life; and, tragically, it cost Molly her life.  While the men were in a confusion over what was going on with Jim and Grandpa Brantley, the creature was going after the hysterical Molly. By the time Bart Harrington realized what was going on with Molly it was too late.  He ran up to her and found she had died of fright just like Dudley Boyd. Her face was frozen in the same look of terror.

“Fortunately, Grandpa Brantley lost consciousness and didn’t see the expression frozen on Molly’s face.  She went to her grave without Grandpa Brantley looking upon her face again.

“It was Pastor Lufkin who called their attention to the well. The creature disappeared down it. The men thought they had the creature cornered.  Gus Thatcher kept a close eye on the well while a lantern was retrieved from the church. Cautiously the men peered into the well with their guns at the ready; but the well was found to be devoid of any trace of the beast.  The well was abandoned after that.  I guess it is still there in the woods.  The church is definitely still there.  Although the woods have grown up around it, you can still see the roof sticking up. It’s kind of eerie looking.”

“How did your grandpa know that the thing was Nereestee?” Lyndon asked me.

“What?” I replied.

“Well, your grandpa and all the other people obviously thought it was some type of animal or something they were dealing with.  How did he find out that the thing was a Nereestee avenging its disturbed grave?”

“Oh, that didn’t happen for many years.  He was telling the story at work to a group of coworkers.  It just so happened that one of the men was a Creek – full blooded.  The man told my grandfather that the people had disturbed the burial ground of the Nereestee.  He said that he knew the creature by the description.  He also explained that the reason only two people died was because only one grave had been disturbed.  That is their method – ‘for every one disturbed, they take two in kind to keep’.  So that is how he finally found out just what they had uncovered.”

“You say the church is still there?” Lyndon asked with a small grin on his face.  I knew what that meant; we were going to Hilltop Road.

[Lyndon before heading into the unknown.]

We pulled off to the side of the road at a wide spot and got out of Lyndon’s truck.  Both of us eyed the woods suspiciously.  There was an aura coming from the place that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something about the woods seemed – not right.  It was too quiet and still.  Lyndon looked at me and I understood that he was thinking the same thing.

It was possible to still see the top of the church barely peeking out from the tops of the trees some hundred or so feet from the road. I immediately thought that it looked like the woods were devouring the church and its tiny steeple was making one last valiant effort to make a break for freedom.

Lyndon finally broke the silence and said, “Is it just me or do you sense that the force of good has met a force of evil that it ought not to have met?”

“Well, that’s one way to put it.  But I wish you would have just kept that to yourself, Lyndon.”

“Oh, come on, David.  You’re not scared now are you?”

“I’m fine,” I shot back.  “You’re the one who said the big good versus evil bit, buddy.  Look, it is rather creepy and it’s broad daylight still.  Imagine coming out here at night.”

Lyndon chuckled thinking about it.  “I’d do it as long as I wasn’t alone.  There ain’t no way you’d get me to go to that church alone at night.”

Lyndon went back to the truck and retrieved his pistol. He slid it into the small of his back and covered it up with his shirt.  Then, he dug around behind the seat until he found the tire iron that was hidden there.  He handed the tire iron to me and smiled.  I took it and said, “I think you got the better end of this deal.  Trade?”

“I’m a better shot than you,” he said grinning.  “Let’s go.”

We locked the doors on the truck, crossed the road, and stepped into the gloomy overhang of the woods.  It wasn’t just quiet; it was too quiet.  It was an uncomfortably dead silence that seemed unnatural.  Nothing stirred except Lyndon and myself and that made our presence there more pronounced.  I didn’t like it because I felt we were intruding into an area where we were not welcome.

At first the trees were spread out and there wasn’t much undergrowth; but as we continued the trees became closely spaced and covered with vines.  Finally, I had to use the tire iron like a machete in order to clear a path to the church.

We got close enough to make out part of the church. It was small and would have already succumbed to its demise if it were not made of brick.  Long ago it had been white but now it was grayed and stained. The trees and vines grew around it so much that it seemed more a part of the forest than a man-made structure.

I continued to hack a path towards the side door as Lyndon followed close behind.  We didn’t say much and the sound of my thrashing the foliage filled the air.  I paused to take a breath and Lyndon took over the job.  He succeeded in getting us the rest of the way to the door.  Of course the old wooden door had become so rotten that it fell from the hinges and crashed to the floor when Lyndon pushed on it.  We stepped inside the one-room church and gazed at the tattered remnants of the small sanctuary.  Half of the roof had fallen in so that the sky could be seen through jutting and angulated timbers.  Part of the floor had rotted out due to the unimpeded weather that now found its way in.  A small sapling grew right in the middle of the room from the exposed earth below. It was rather sad to behold the state of decay of the church.

“Not much left, huh?” Lyndon said, his voice echoing in the empty room.  Apparently, the pews and alter had been removed long ago because there were absolutely no pieces of furniture to be seen.  Lyndon and I cautiously walked around what was left of the wood floor and examined the church.  Then, Lyndon turned to me and said, “Do you wanna go find the well?”

“Do you think we can?” I said thinking about how thick the woods were.

“I don’t know, but it’s worth a look around.”

“Why not?”

So, we made our way outside and had a look around.  Lyndon said, “Did your grandfather ever mention where the well was?”

[Me trying to strike a pose of discovery.]

I thought a moment and replied, “No, he never said; but, it had to have been in the burial ground.”  As I said this something seemed to change in the air and I really wished I wouldn’t have said the thing we were both thinking about.  It seemed like a rather taboo thing to say.  But, I had said it and there was no taking it back. Lyndon and I looked at each other and then we both turned our heads towards the woods out behind the church.

We hadn’t really noticed it before but there seemed to be something more sinister about the trees in that particular direction. It was the sort of thing that had been lying there in the back of your mind dormant, but always present.  And now that our attention was directed towards it, it grew like a massive, repugnant shadow over our minds.  I don’t know any logical way to explain other than we felt a presence there.  A presence that was more ancient and powerful than two men should ever encounter.

Companionship has a way of overcoming certain fears and Lyndon and I managed to force ourselves to approach that area.  There was no doubt that if the well were to be found, it would be in the direction of that atrocious group of trees.  We hacked our way towards the area that was, undoubtedly, the burial ground of the Nereestee; and, sure enough, we encountered the old well.

We probably would have missed it if it weren’t for the small, wooden cover and wench that had been built over the well.  It was rotten and falling over but it stuck up enough to let us know that there was a man-made structure beneath the vines and weeds.

Although the sun was shining, the well still had an ominous and shadowy appearance.  What little bit of sunlight managed to stream through the overgrown vines only managed to cast strange shapes and contours upon the dreadful well.  From where we stood it wasn’t possible to see down into its foul depths.  Neither of us took the initiative to step forward and peer into that dark and repellent hole.

It was at this point that I felt I had seen enough.  I didn’t have any desire to investigate the well any further.  Lyndon, normally the more adventurous one, felt no urge to touch the well either. We looked at it for a couple of minutes and then we decided it was time to head back.

No sooner had we turned around when the deadly silence of the woods was broken by a sudden gust of wind that roared through the crooked branches and twisted vines, stirring the leaves into a chattering clamor that caused the wooden structure of the well to fall over into the underbrush with a mighty and horrendous crash which sent Lyndon and me running back the way we had come.

I didn’t even bother to look back.  I don’t think Lyndon did either.  It wasn’t until we emerged on the road that we slowed down.  We were making for the truck but we pulled up short because there was an old man standing by it waiting for us.

He looked like he had spent his life as a farmer.  He was wearing coveralls, boots, and a straw hat. He looked like he had to be at least seventy-five or eighty.  His gnarled and weathered hands were curled about an old walking stick.  He watched with a blank expression as Lyndon and I ran out of the woods, almost like he expected us to come running out at that exact moment.

“You boys ought not ta go off in them woods.  There ain’t nothin’ in them woods worth seein’,” said the old man looking us up and down.

“My grandfather used to attend that church and we were just curious to look at it,” I said in way of an explanation.

“Must’a been a long time ago ‘cause that church ain’t been used since before I was born; and I been livin’ here my whole life.”

“Yes, sir.  My grandfather was about twenty then and he was born in 1904.”

“Yeah, well, all the folks ‘round here stay clear of them woods.  I’d advise you two boys ta do the same,” he said and started to turn to go.  He looked back with a gapped-tooth smile and said, “The way you two ran up outta there I expect you’ll take my advice.”

My curiosity was raised too much just to let the old man go without some further explanation.  “Wait a minute, mister.  Why does everyone stay away from these woods?”

“Bad things happen when folks go messin’ ‘round too much in there,” the old man said still turned as if to go.

“My grandfather told me a story one time,” I ventured hoping that if I divulged some information then he would do the same.

He didn’t let me finish, however.  He turned around to face us and held his hand up to silence me. Then, as he glanced at the woods warily, he said, “Not here.  Come over to my house and tell me your story.  Then I’ll tell ya what I know about them woods.”

We followed the old man less than a mile down the road until we arrived at his small farmhouse.  He bade us to sit down on the porch and said, “Would you boys like some ice tea?”  We both nodded our heads and the old man disappeared into the house with the screen door banging closed behind him.  Lyndon and I looked at each other and Lyndon said, “I know what you’re thinking, David.”

“What am I thinking, Lyndon?”

“Come on, man!  It was just the wind!”

“Bullshit, Lyndon!  You know it wasn’t no damn wind!”

“Sure it was…”

“You sure did run like it was the wind didn’t you?”

“I was only running because you were running.”

“Oh, please!  Give me a br…”  Our bickering was cut short by the return of the old man.  He handed us each a tall glass of ice tea and then he sat in an old rocking chair, removed his hat, took out a handkerchief and began to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“My name’s Abe Daggett.  What’s yer names?”  We introduced ourselves and Abe said, “What was yer grandpa’s name?”

“Loyd Brantley,” I said.

Abe thought a moment and then said, “I don’t recon I remember him.  Name sounds familiar, though.  Where abouts here did he live?”

“Uh, I don’t really know.  When he lived here he worked for a lumber company.”

“Silverman’s probably.  Tell me the story he told you ‘bout the church.”  So, once again I told the story as it had been told to me by Grandpa Brantley.  When I finished the story Abe sat silently looking in the direction of the old church and the woods beyond.  After several moments he spoke.

“That would’ve been back in the twenties.  We moved here back during the Depression.  When my family moved here the church was abandoned. No one went near it or had anything to do with it.  It was always a curious thing to behold, though.  Always seemed to be something strange about it.

“It was about 1945 when Ronald Griggs bought the property that the church sits on.  He built his house there where the Holbrook’s live now.  He also refurbished the old church.  He took all of the rows of pews out of it and used ta just store stuff in it. I think it was in ’47 that he decided to plant his garden.  He figured the best plot of land to plant a garden was out behind the old church, right smack over that burial ground.  Only he didn’t have any idea that there was a burial ground there.  No sir, it weren’t till he had done cleared the land and began tilling the soil that he started uncoverin’ strange bones.

“Ronald figured they was animal bones but they were just strange enough for him to ask Pa to take a look at them.  Course Pa didn’t know what kinda bones they was. He figured they was some type of animal too.  Ronald must not‘ve been too curious because he went right on with plantin’ his garden.

“That very night them creatures you described appeared ‘round here.  There wasn’t just one of ‘em either.  There was several of ‘em spotted in different places.  I saw one myself.  Just like you say your grandpa described ‘em.

“I was workin’ with Pa on our garden on the following evening when we saw one.  It was standin’ in the edge of the wood line watching us.  I can’t say how long it stood there before I noticed it.  I froze solid when I saw it.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been for those glowin’ eyes.  At first I thought it was a deer or some other big animal, but then it began moving and I could make out its shape.  It didn’t walk on all fours so I knew that it was somethin’ else.

“I called softly to Pa to get his attention and then I pointed towards the creature.  Pa and I both stood stone silent lookin’ at it trying to figure out what it was.  We stared at the creature for several moments and it just stared right back.  Finally, Pa told me to run inside and fetch his rifle.  We were both a might bit nervous and I didn’t really want to leave Pa alone outside with that thing but I sure was glad ta git away from there.

“When I got back Pa was still standin’ there lockin’ eyes with the thing.  It must‘ve been about 70 or 80 yards away.  I handed Pa the gun and just as he was gettin’ ready to take a bead on the thing another one stepped out of the wood line not more than six feet from the first one.  Pa didn’t waste any time then.  He squeezed off several shots but the things didn’t even budge.  I don’t know if Pa was talkin’ to me or to God but I remember him sayin’, ‘Heaven have mercy!  I know I hit ‘em.  I know I hit ‘em.

“After the sounds of the shots died away one of the creatures turned to the other and began whisperin’.  You might wonder how it was that I could here it whisper from 60 yards away, but I tell you it sounded like whisperin’.  And then one of ‘em gave out the most horrible scream I’ve ever heard in my life to this day.  It scared Pa and I so bad that we nearly jumped out of our skins.  Pa told me to back up slowly towards the house. He didn’t want to say it but I knew what he was gettin’ at.  Them creatures was about to attack us.  So Pa and I started easin’ backwards.  I ain’t never been that scared in all my life.  I doubt I could’ve moved if Pa hadn’t been there.

“We didn’t get far, though, ‘cause after that one screamed another one answered him back.  It sounded like it came from way away in the woods.  Then the two on the edge of our garden just disappeared.  Pa and I took off like lightnin’ to the house.  He locked the house up tight and we didn’t go out the rest of the night.

“The next day they found fourteen people killed all around here.  Every one of ‘em was found wide-eyed and frozen in fear.  Doc had the damnedest time explainin’ how them folks died.  But Pa and I knew.  So did a lot of other folks who seen them creatures that night. But, after that night, we never saw hide nor hair of ‘em again.”  Abe finished his story and we all sat there in silence for a few minutes just looking over towards the woods around the church.

It wasn’t long after that that Lyndon and I took our leave of the place.  We thanked Abe for the tea and he warned us again about the dangers of trespassing in those dark and foreboding woods behind the old church.  We promised him that our curiosities had been more than satisfied and that he need not worry about seeing the two of us back there ever again.

 

Back in Lyndon’s truck, he and I discussed Abe’s story. “Seven”, I said.

“What?” Lyndon replied confused.

“If fourteen people were killed, that means that Griggs fellow must have uncovered seven graves.”

“Come on, man!  Do you honestly think that old coot was telling the truth?”

“I don’t know, Lyndon.  I mean, there’s got to be something stranger than just a coincidence between the stories of that old Indian, my grandpa, and that old farmer. What do you think about all of it?”

Lyndon didn’t say anything at first.  He just scratched his stubbly cheek and thought a moment. Finally, he said, “The old man said that it happened back in 1947, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, why don’t you and I stop by the Bessemer Library and see if we can find any old newspaper account of the fourteen deaths? Surely that would have been big news.”

“You wanna see if Abe was telling the truth, huh?” I said smiling.  Apparently, Lyndon’s curiosity was as peaked as mine was.

“Look, right now I don’t know what to believe about all this; but, I’m gonna need more than a few old geezer’s fantastic yarns before I start believing that an ancient race’s ghosts are rising from their graves and killing folks.”

I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Lyndon did have a point but I didn’t share the same skepticism as he did.  The feeling that swept through me when that wind rushed through the leaves and caused the old well cover to crash down was still fresh in my mind.  I didn’t care what anyone thought; that wind was a message for us to get out and it was definitely of supernatural origin. I knew Lyndon felt the same way and he just refused to acquiesce.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I conceded.  “Still, it’ll be interesting to see what we can find at the library.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 12.19.17 PM

[Bessmer Public Library.]

The search turned out to be more time consuming than either of us imagined.  We spent the better part of the afternoon searching blindly before we finally broke down and received a tutorial on how to use the reference material available to us. Finally, several hours later, I found myself scouring through an entire year’s worth of newspapers on microfiche while Lyndon disappeared into other areas of the library.

Lyndon returned carrying a couple of books just as I found the article proving the truth of Mr. Daggett’s story:

 

Monday, March 24th, 1947

Greenwood, Alabama

 

Death of 14 Leave Experts Speechless

 

Fourteen people were found dead Saturday night in the rural town of Greenwood.  The mysterious nature of their deaths has yet to be determined.  Detective Clayton Hamilton of the Birmingham Police Department issued the following statement:  “Our department is currently investigating into the matter.  Details of the deaths lead us to believe that there is a connection even though the victims were found at eight different locations.  We are currently conducting investigations and are interviewing residents of the area for any reports that might help us in our search for explanations.” Detective Hamilton would not disclose any further information or details surrounding the strange nature of these deaths.

Some sources have reported that the victims were found in a most bizarre manner.  There were no marks of struggle, violence, or trauma.  The only peculiar thing to indicate that the deaths were not due to natural causes was the expression on the faces of the victims. Authorities would not confirm it, but, apparently, each person was found with their features frozen in the most ghastly expression of fear.  By the appearance of things, it seems these poor people died of fright.

Names have not been released and officials are remaining very closed mouthed about the investigation…

 

 

There were several more stories over the succeeding couple of weeks that tracked the story.  The names of the victims were eventually released and the authorities later confirmed the features of the victims.  The cases were never solved and the coverage soon faded from the papers. There was one excerpt that was worth noting, however:

 

Thursday, March 27th, 1947

Greenwood, Alabama

 

Mystery Surrounds Death of 14 in Greenwood

 

…numerous reports of hearing strange noises and at least two reported sightings of some strange creatures.  The identification of what exactly these creatures were is still unconfirmed, but authorities now believe that they were probably some type of wild animal…

 

 

“It would appear that the investigators were at a loss to explain things so they just chalked it up to wild animals,” I said to Lyndon.

“Well, it looks like the old guy was telling the truth, huh?”

“What do you say now, Lyndon?” I said grinning.

“Wait till you see what I found while you were searching the newspapers,” Lyndon said indicating the books he had deposited on the table.  “I found some books on the Muskogee tribes.  I had to look through a bunch but I finally found a couple of references to the Nereestee.”

“And?”

“Well, I found several medicines.”

“And?” I replied still looking confused.

“They’re like spells,” Lyndon replied, still not getting to the point.

“I know what they are, but so what?” I said with an edge of impatience.

“One of them is a medicine and incantation for how to perform a sanctified burial.  It must be what was learned from the Nereestee in order to conduct a sacred burial. And the other,” Lyndon said with the air of a magician about to reveal a trick, “is a medicine for blurring a curse.”

“Blurring a curse?” I said not quite taking his meaning.

“Don’t you see?” he said.  “We can make ourselves invisible to the curse.”  And that’s when the meaning of what he was getting at hit me. Lyndon wanted to go back to the burial ground and dig up one of the Nereestee.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, especially after what we had experienced in the woods earlier.

“Lyndon, there is no way in hell that we are going to go out in those woods again today and perform some Indian hoodoo then dig up an ancient grave,” I said matter-of-factly.  I simply wasn’t entertaining any argument to the contrary.

“Not today,” Lyndon replied.  “We have to go tonight.”

[Lyndon with his pipe.]

I won’t go into how it was that Lyndon talked me into doing it, but we spent the rest of the day planning, gathering equipment, and rehearsing the Muskogee incantations.  We had quite a time finding all of the ingredients specified by the shaman’s medicine in the book from the library.  At one point we thought we were going to have to find a stray cat and remove one of its eyes but Lyndon happened to remember a dead cat we had passed on the side of the road.  We must have appeared like a weird pair pulling over and tossing the dead cat into the back of the truck.

Our plan was to go out into the burial ground, cast the spell that would blur the curse of the Nereestee, dig one up, and wait for it to appear.  When it appeared we would photograph it and then we would rebury its bones and cast the spell that would sanctify its burial again.  If everything went smooth we could have it safely reburied before it could manage to seek out a victim.

We almost postponed our outing because of the brewing thunderstorm.  It was still quite a ways away but the sky was thick with dark clouds.  We decided to park further away and walk to the spot where we entered the woods earlier so as not to arouse Abe Daggett’s curiosity again. When we disembarked from the truck it was thoroughly dark and the wind was already picking up.  Muffled flashes of lightning could be seen buried deep in the far away clouds to the west.

“Looks like a thunderstorm’s heading this way,” I said hoping Lyndon would consent to back out.

But he merely gauged its distance and said, “Yep.  We better hurry before the rain comes.”

I don’t know what sort of foul possession we were under but we went through with it.  This time we had both come better equipped at least.  The rest of the night became one long crescendo of mounting terror.  I remember that the strains of that terror began the moment we left the road and entered the woods.

We both produced the flashlights once we were well within the coverage of the trees.  This time we had both brought firearms and machetes.  I thought about Grandpa Brantley’s story and how guns were useless against the Nereestee but there is still a certain level of comfort in having a loaded gun handy.

Once again the unnatural stillness of the place was pronounced – even more so with the building storm above.  Lyndon and I made our way in the same general direction we had traversed previously.  The two beams of light attempted to penetrate the oppressive darkness but they only served to cast charnel shadows off of the twisting trees.  Our nerves were as tense as piano wires as we progressed through the dense forest.

It wasn’t long before my flashlight revealed the husk of the old church rising out of the vine entangled gloom.  We passed it by and soon we arrived at the well.  We both stood aghast at what we beheld.  The wooden cover and wench, which had fallen and sent us running like two bats out of hell, was standing as we had first seen it. My heart was pounding like a jack-hammer as Lyndon said, “Maybe we only thought it fell.  You know, our backs were turned.”

“I guess so,” I replied in a trembling voice.  But I knew good and well that it was not true.

I have no rational explanation to offer for why we kept going.  I know for my part that I was terrified; I am sure that Lyndon was feeling close to the same level of fear that I was.  Whatever it was that propelled us, we kept going.  We did veer away from the well so as not to pass too close to its ominous structure.

It was at this time that an arc of lightning split the sky and briefly illuminated the surrounding woods.  We could see by that brief flash of aerial light that we now stood within the edge of the sinister and darker woods that we now knew to be the ancient Nereestee burial ground.  As we both realized this, the thunder finally caught up with the lightning and the terrific boom smothered the unnatural silence, causing both of us to jump in a spasm of fear.  The lag in the sound catching up with the light told us that the storm had not yet reached us.  Soon, though, the rain would arrive, and that was something neither of us cared to be caught in.

Lyndon removed his backpack and said, “Well, let’s choose a place to dig and then conduct the ceremony to blur the curse.”

“Lyndon, are you sure you want to go through with this?” I asked hoping he would admit the absurdity of the act we were about to undertake.

“We can’t stop now, David.  We have an opportunity to investigate a force that legends only hint of. To stop now would be the real madness,” Lyndon said as he removed his backpack.  I could not summon the energy to raise any serious debate.  Our senses had become numbed to rationality; and, although I still felt fear and adrenaline surging through my body, I could not resist the overwhelming urge to continue.

We surveyed the ground with our lights and briefly discussed likely spots to begin digging.  We were both convinced that finding a grave on our first attempt would be akin to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Finally, it was agreed that we should perform the ritual and then each would pick a spot and start digging at random.

We removed the various objects from our packs and the book we had checked out from the library.  Then, we began the incantations we had practiced earlier.  Initially, I thought I might feel terribly silly performing such rituals but this wasn’t the case at all.  Once we had begun I felt as if I were an inhabitant of an older and more ancient time.  The air began to hum with a force that began to infiltrate the oppressive aura that had previously saturated the woods.  At one point I turned to behold Lyndon transformed in appearance to that of an elder shaman mumbling and vacant eyed.  This illusion lasted but briefly before his appearance once again resumed its normal state.

As we concluded all of the steps and words in the ritual we both stopped, breathless and wary of its effect.  We stood speechless, looking at each other and then Lyndon retrieved his shovel.  I followed his lead and we both were about to start our random digging when we felt an irresistible urge to both dig at a certain spot.  Drawn as if by a divining rod to a spot no more than ten feet away we both set to digging.  The medicine undoubtedly caused this strange effect.

The thunderstorm continued to creep across the sky spitting bolts of lightning and rumbling great booms of thunder.  The rain remained at bay while Lyndon and I dug in the ancient soil where the Nereestee were buried in a time when men were first wandering across the Bering Straight.  It wasn’t long before the first bones were disinterred.  We tossed aside the shovels and resorted to digging by hand.  The fragility of the bones was made apparent by virtually disintegrating upon handling them. When the skull was discovered by myself we carefully removed the clinging soil from around it.  For several minutes we sat and looked at the alien yet vaguely familiar appearance of it.  The obvious feature was the large orbitals of the eye sockets.  The upper jaw protruded from the rest of the skull as if to suggest a short muzzle.  But it was the large canines that gave the skull the distinct relation to an ape rather than a modern humanoid.  Lyndon rushed to his backpack and returned with the camera we had brought along.  He snapped several pictures and then we decided to remove ourselves to a safe distance to record the emergence of the vengeful form as it made its appearance.

[Lyndon’s skull pic. It was the only photo on his roll to develop. The other pics are from my camera, except for the Bessemer Public Library – it’s from their website.]

The rain began to fall about twenty minutes later and still the hours ticked by.  Fortunately we had brought ponchos and we huddled underneath them and waited.  At just before midnight we began to grow doubtful of the entire ordeal we had allowed ourselves to become embroiled in. Our skepticism was progressively waxing and we resolved to wait but another hour before reburying the bones and leaving.

“Maybe it won’t appear for several days,” Lyndon ventured to explain.

“Maybe,” I said indifferently.  I was growing tired of the rain and the waiting.

“I mean, didn’t you say that it was several days before the creature appeared at the church?”

“That’s true,” I said.  “Who knows how long it will take for it to appear…if at all.”

“Should we perform the ritual of the sacred burial just to be sure?” Lyndon said.

“I guess…” I started to say but my comment was cut short by what I saw.  For at that very moment the Nereestee was emerging from its grave.  Lyndon and I both sat paralyzed at what we were beholding. The creature was lithe and moved with a singularly feline smoothness.  It was no more than a dark silhouette moving in the dim light of the flickering storm’s lightning.  It circled the grave several times and then it froze and turned to regard us.

The eyes gleamed in the darkness a sinister yellow glow that immediately caused the hair on my body to stand erect.  We were frozen in fear at the sight of the demonic creature standing before us.  It stood for several moments motionless and staring at the two of us huddled beneath our ponchos.  Then it started to move towards us.  I instinctively reached for the revolver I had brought.  I raised the gun to shoot it but Lyndon yelled, “Wait, David!”

Even if he hadn’t arrested my actions I probably wouldn’t have fired a successful shot due to the exaggerated shaking of my hands; not to mention the fact that my shot would have passed through its ephemeral body doing no damage.

Lyndon fumbled for the camera while I watched it grow closer and closer.  Just before Lyndon was about to snap a picture the creature stopped short and began to sniff at the air in confusion.  Then it began to pass back and forth before us as it grew visibly agitated.

“It’s working,” Lyndon said.  “The spell is working.  It can’t attack us.”

And it seemed to be true.  The creature desperately wanted to attack us but there seemed to be an invisible barrier keeping it at bay.  Then it stopped and began to speak the most abominable language I have ever heard. Its voice never rose above a whisper but it carried much further than a whisper that issues from a human’s throat.

Far away in the woods a voice could be heard.  It was that of Abe Daggett.  “Is ‘at you boys out there!”

After he made his presence known everything happened in a maddening frenzy.  The creature stood erect and turned in the direction of Abe’s voice.  Then it took off.  Lyndon quickly snapped a picture.  I told Lyndon to perform the burial ritual and then I ran to try and save poor Abe from the danger that was bearing down on him.

As I ran I yelled for Abe to run away knowing that it was useless for the old man to try to escape the swift moving Nereestee.  I ran through the woods with rain beating my face and the light from my flashlight swinging madly.  I could see the light from whatever Abe carried for illumination acting as a beacon for my destination.  I only hoped that Lyndon would complete the ritual in time.

The scene I beheld upon my arrival shall haunt me the rest of my days.  The lantern Abe carried lay on the ground.  At the edge of its light the Nereestee stood over Abe clutching him by the arms.  Abe was bent back in an unnaturally angulated fashion staring into the face of the creature. Abe’s face was distorted into the most hideous and fearful expression I have ever seen contort the face of a man. To this day I can’t look at Munch’s “The Scream” without seeing the face of Abe Daggett reflected back at me.  The Nereestee stared deeply into Abe’s face. Then the Nereestee’s face began to elongate and engulf the features of Abe.  For a brief moment their two faces were melded into a singular and grotesque parody of agony.  Abe began to moan and then scream.

I ran at full tilt and slammed into the thing crouching over Abe Daggett’s wide-eyed face. We rolled across the forest floor, crashing through vegetation. I rolled over and chanced a look but the Nereestee was gone. Then I fainted.

I awoke to Lyndon shaking me.  We found Abe still in shock, but alive and breathing. The second ritual had worked as well. The Nereestee was gone. We helped Abe get back home and left him in the care of his poor wife. He likely never fully recovered from the fright.

When the pictures were developed the Nereestee didn’t appear in the photo.  Lyndon still has the pictures of the skull we uncovered in the grave but we are reluctant to reveal them to anyone.  Most likely they would be branded a hoax but if they were taken seriously, an excavation of the burial ground would likely occur.

Over twenty years has passed since that horrific night. Lyndon called the other day.

“David, have you caught the news today?” Lyndon said with a tone in his voice that I hadn’t heard in quite some time.

“No, not yet.  Why?” I asked unsure if I was ready for what was coming next.

“They’re tearing down the old church on Hilltop Road.”

Hearing him mention that spot caused me to break out in a cold sweat.  “Why?” I asked after a moment of silence.

“They’re putting in a new subdivision over the burial ground.”

 

Recently, Kirsten and I caught the new Netflix documentary Devil at the Crossroads about the life of Blues legend Robert Johnson.

In June of 2004 I had to attend a class at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi for four weeks.  Keesler is located on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mississippi right down the road from Gulfport – a very popular vacation spot.

My weekends were free and I spent my time going for runs on the boardwalk, swimming in the ocean, playing some classical pieces on my guitar, catching up on reading, and writing a story churning around in my head. But one particular weekend a series of strange occurrences beset me and left me with a rather bizarre story to tell.

Friday after class I returned to my hotel room a little tired and decided to take a nap before dinner.  During this nap I had the strangest dream.  I was driving in a big convertible Cadillac down a country road when I came upon a black man running down the side of the road.  As I approached he turned and I could see terror sprawled on his face.  His wide eyes saw me and he thrust his thumb in the air indicating he needed a ride. I slowed down and noticed in his other hand he was carrying a worn guitar case.  I stopped to pick up the man and he removed his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow as he hurriedly climbed in.  He thanked me and introduced himself as Robert.  I started driving again and I noticed he kept turning to look nervously behind us as we drove and made small talk.  Obviously something was after him and he kept searching to see if it was behind us.  Finally, as we passed a sign which said Union Church, the dream ended with a large dog racing into the road ahead of us.  As I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the animal he screamed something about the hellhound.

I awoke from this dream with a start and was momentarily confused as to where I was.  As I regained my bearings I thought about the dream.  The dream was easily interpreted as a meeting with Robert Johnson, the infamous blues guitarist and native of Mississippi.  It struck me as a strangely vivid dream and my thoughts kept returning to the story of how Robert Johnson had supposedly met the Devil at a crossroads near Clarksdale or Rosedale in order to make a deal with Satan. Supposedly he had traded his soul for fame – it was an old myth which had been retold many times, in many different forms.  The story of Faust and Paganini were probably the most famous versions; but the Robert Johnson story had spawned similar stories about the members of Led Zeppelin and was recounted by other artists including Charlie Daniels.  There was even a movie made in the eighties called “Crossroads” about the legend in which the protagonist avoids losing his soul by playing an arrangement of a Paganini violin caprice on the guitar.

I went to get some dinner and thought more and more about the story of Robert Johnson.  The details were sketchy but the legend had prevailed.  Johnson had been an untalented blues guitarist who hung out with notable bluesmen Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, and Son House.  He left Robinsonville and returned home to Hazlehurst where he met Ike Zinnerman.  Zinnerman, an Alabama native like me, used to proclaim he had learned to play guitar by sitting on a tombstone in an old graveyard late at night.  Most people believe it was under Zinnerman’s tutelage Johnson became such a good guitarist.

But rumors began to spring up it wasn’t Zinnerman at all which caused Johnson to become so suddenly good.  When Johnson returned to Robinsonville his old idols took notice of his marked improvement and Son House began to tell of how Robert had met Satan down at an old crossroads in order to sell his soul in exchange for his blues playing abilities.

Robert himself never denied this rumor and, in fact, wrote several songs such as “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Cross Road Blues” that seemed to confirm the story.

Supposedly, according to another blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson, a person wishing to make such a deal with the Devil would sit at the crossroads about midnight and play their guitar until a strange black figure would arrive.  This black figure would, of course, be Satan himself.  Satan would take the person’s guitar, tune it, and give it back.  This would be the end of the deal and the person would suddenly possess supernatural skill and whatever fame and fortune they so desired.  But in all such tales there is never a satisfactory end and the poor individual who pays their soul usually is haunted by tragedy and pain.  In the case of Robert Johnson, he died of poisoning from one of two possible people in a jealous love triangle only a few years after tasting a little of the enormous fame he now possesses.

Just where this notorious and mystical crossroads is, is also a matter of some speculation.  Most accounts place it somewhere around Clarksdale and Rosedale in the northwestern corner of Mississippi.  But this doesn’t really seem to fit with Johnson’s sojourn back to his hometown of Hazlehurst.  Something in my dream kept gnawing at me.  It was the place name of Union Church – I had never heard of this place before in my life.

After eating I returned to my room and proceeded to peruse the road atlas of Mississippi.  I quickly found the cities of Clarksdale and Rosedale.  It took me a few more minutes to locate Hazlehurst off of I-55 and Highway 28.  And then I saw something which gave me a little bit of a shock – southwest of Hazlehurst was a town called Union Church!

Suddenly, the sign in my dream flashed back into my mind and I could see there was a number alongside the name of Union Church and the number was nine.  I looked at the map and calculated nine miles outside of Union Church coming from Hazlehurst would place the location of where the hellhound stopped the car in my dream inside of the Homochitto National Forest at the crossroads of Highway 28 and Highway 547.  For several moments I sat in bewilderment wondering what the dream could mean.  The similarity of the dream to the map was eerily accurate.

The dream and my following discovery on the map kept buzzing around in my head.  As I sat in my hotel room and strummed on my guitar I wondered how long it would take to get to the Homochitto National Forest.  I sat down with the map again and did a rough calculation of approximately 180 miles.  If I drove 60 miles per hour from Gulfport to Highway 28 and then 50 miles per hour on the smaller highway till I reached the forest, I concluded I should be able to make the trip in four hours pretty easily.  I looked at the clock and it was almost 6:30 p.m.  That would put me at the crossroads this very night at around 10:30 p.m.  Plenty of time to make it before midnight.

Before I had time to question the absurdity of my actions I had grabbed a few articles of clothing, some toiletries, the road atlas, and my guitar and was pulling out onto I-90 from Biloxi to Gulfport.

As I drove the two-door rental car along the coast I pondered just what it was I was hoping to achieve on this trip.  Would I really meet someone claiming to be Satan at the crossroads?  If I did have a chance to trade my soul for fame, fortune, and guitar virtuosity, would I do it?  I used to dream of being a well known guitarist but that had faded over the years. While I still enjoyed music and worked hard at improving my playing, I really had no desire to be known for my playing ability.  I still entertained dreams of being known for my compositional ability on the classical guitar but that too was secondary to my real passion – writing.  If I had to choose what posterity would remember me for it would be as an author of short horror and weird fiction.  Now, if I had the chance to trade my soul for fame, fortune, and writing virtuosity, I would definitely do it.  That’s how badly I wanted to be a well known author.

I recall the drive very well.  I grappled with the urge to smoke on the drive is why.  I used to be a very unusual smoker.  I never really was a true smoker by any stretch. I never smoked during the day for one. When I did smoke was when I had a few beers in the evening.  I would smoke when really bored or when stressed out about something, too.  I always exercised fairly regular to ward off the bad effects of smoking so I didn’t really over worry about my habit. I did want to quit completely because I knew it was unhealthy.  I had been doing pretty well on the trip so far at quitting but the drive was really boring.  Finally, I gave in to my desires and stopped to buy a pack of smokes.  After having the first wonderful cigarette I cursed my weakness and vowed to quit after I finished the pack.  I had done it many times before but this time it really stuck in my memory.  You’ll understand why in a moment; but first, let me tell the rest.

It was about 9:45 when I reached Hazlehurst.  I briefly entertained the idea of stopping and seeing one of the town’s Robert Johnson tourist attractions but decided it would take too long.  No, I was being driven by an inexplicable force and my only concern was my dream-revealed destination.

The rest of the drive was over quickly and I soon was entering the Homochitto National Forest.  The crossroads was immediately inside the forest and before I realized it I was upon the Highway 547 sign.  I stopped quickly and pulled over on the shoulder of the road staring at the sign which said Union Church was nine miles down the road.  I looked at my watch and it read 10:27 p.m.  I sat for a few minutes and smoked another cigarette. The traffic on Highway 28 was light – only an occasional car passed by.

I waited until there was no traffic coming in any direction and then I retrieved my guitar from the back seat and found a spot to sit. It was a nice night – hot but clear. A slight wind blew from the west which served to make the heat at least tolerable.  It was fairly dark but I could see well enough to find a dead log at the edge of the woods on which to sit.  I was close enough to the road to see it but hidden enough where passing cars wouldn’t notice me.

I opened my guitar case and pulled out my guitar.  I felt a little weird about the whole affair but I thought it would at least make for a good story to tell my friends.  At first I started playing some blues licks but I felt the need to play something a little more challenging.  So then I started playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for the Guitar.  This was a rather difficult piece I had been working on recently and it somehow seemed appropriate at the time.

I played this piece and then played a few others then took a break to smoke another cigarette.  Then I got up and walked around for several minutes and returned to the log to sit and wait.

It was getting close to 11:30 and I was growing bored of this whole ordeal.  I decided to play the Paganini piece one more time before calling it a night.  My attention was completely focused on my guitar when a voice made me jump and scared me so bad I dropped my guitar as I rose and retreated from the voice.

“Whatchoo doin’ out here this late at night, boy?”  I recovered enough to regard an old black man standing at the edge of the road about 20 or 30 yards away.

I really didn’t know what to say in reply so I made up a lie. “I’m just passing through and was getting sleepy at the wheel so I stopped to get some fresh air and wake up a bit before continuing on.”  Was this really the Devil coming to make a deal with me?  The old man sure didn’t look like the Devil to me.

“What kinda music you playin’?” he asked walking a bit closer.

“Oh, it’s classical music,” I said by way of explanation.

“Uh huh,” he mumbled as if not really caring.

“What are you doing out here this late?” I asked.

“On my way home.  My name’s Esau,” he said.

I introduced myself as I walked over to meet him and shake his hand.  “Do you want to tune my guitar?”  I couldn’t believe the words came out of my mouth as I spoke them.  It sounded so ridiculous and I cursed myself before I had even finished the sentence.

“Tune your guitar?” he said in confusion.  “Tune your own damn guitar, boy.  I don’t know how to play no guitar.”

“I’m sorry,” I said uncomfortably.  I produced a cigarette and lit it.

“Mind if I get a smoke from ya?” he asked.

“Not at all,” I said offering the pack and my lighter to him. He took a cigarette and lit it, took a long drag, and made a face as if he were relishing the taste.

After a moment he looked at me and said, “Well, I guess I best me moseyin’ along.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said.  I remember thinking if he were the Devil then he sure didn’t make me feel scared; and he sure didn’t seem to care about making any kind of deal for my soul.

“Well, it was nice meetin’ ya,” he said as he headed back to the road.

“Nice meeting you too,” I returned.  I picked up my guitar and began putting it back in its case. He made one last comment before getting too far out of earshot which completely changed the harmless little encounter into something I swear made me think he was actually the Devil.

“Thanks for the smoke, boy.  I’ll settle up with you when I see you again.”  This last comment struck me as so strange I couldn’t formulate a response.  Before I realized it, he had disappeared into the darkness.

You might well think this chance encounter was just a coincidence and his comment at the end meant nothing at all.  I would’ve dismissed it too if the story had ended there.  But it didn’t.

I had planned on spending the night in my car and heading back to Biloxi the next morning but I was too rattled to sleep – especially at the crossroads.  So I drove back that night.  I had pretty much convinced myself my imagination was running wild trying to attach some weird meaning to an otherwise harmless encounter by the time I reached Hattiesburg.

I smoked as I drove and promised myself that after this pack was finished, I would quit again.  The pack was getting low and just after I went through Gulfport I pulled the last cigarette out of the pack and nearly had a wreck at what I beheld.  The cigarette was a solid black cigarette with one white marking on the side – a skull and crossbones.

I had to pull over to the side of the road to catch my breath.  My heart was thundering inside my chest.  My mind reeled at the meaning of the cigarette and just how it could’ve gotten in the pack.  Did the old black man use some slight of hands or was he really the Devil?

It took me several minutes to regain my composure. I drove back to my hotel room and sat on my bed looking at the cigarette wondering what to make of it.

Finally, I decided it was the Devil I had met and he knew it wasn’t virtuosity on the guitar I wanted.  No, he knew it was virtuosity in writing I desired.  That was my passion; my weakness.  I also knew the deal would be made if I smoked the black cigarette.

I can’t say how long I sat there struggling over whether or not to smoke the black cigarette.  I won’t tell you what I finally did but one day you’ll know…one day, you’ll know.

 

My last horror collection I wrote is entitled The Other Side of Despair. It was inspired by my studies in Psychology as well as the classic weird stories of Robert W. Chambers that was The King in Yellow.

I was posting a link to the book in a thread and happened to see a review. It was refreshing to see someone get the book as I intended it!

Here is the review by Arnstein H. Pettersen with many thanks from me, sir! I’m glad yo enjoyed it:

Using the science and art of psychology to descend from the ledge chiseled by Lovecraft, further into that dyscognitive abyss.
(Also containing the short story collection that amass to the tale of ‘The Scourge of Wetumpka’, which firmly resides within the Cthulhu mythos.)

The horror genre often brings psychology into the mix as it plies its trade; dread does after all reside within the limits of our minds. Yet only rarely does one find an exemplar of the genre as The Other Side of Despair, where the matters of the psyche is at least nine-tenths of the tale. Its eclectic assortment of short stories persists in pitching the perceptions of the fantastical against the fabrications of the mind, leaving the reader lost for answers in a dilemma akin to that of figuring out which one initiated the (seemingly) etrnal cycle of causality between the chicken and the egg. And to present this dilemma as vividly as possible we have to gain a most intimate insight into the cogitations of the perceiver – or if you prefer the imagery: to observe the prancings of the Devil through the eyes that behold him. It is clearly no coincident that the stories consist mostly of monologues, excerpts of diaries, and personalized letters; ways of narration that are tightly bound to the core of the narrator’s world and interpretation thereof. Yet, despite their differences, they belong to a common literary universe, amassing the information of the individual story into something larger, perhaps even into something resembling answers.

The first monologue is titled ‘Shockley House’, and it is these 18 pages who serve as our introduction to the overall theme of the book. It details an attempt to research hauntings as a psychological phenomena – “Ultimately, it falls into the psychological realm because a statement of belief about witnessing something supernatural, […] is a statement about the psychological state of the person’s belief in what their senses have conveyed to them.” – where the researchers utilize a house rumored to be spectrally inhabited in order to coax their patients into believing the haunting to be real. It is a tale that goes to great lengths in attempting to give a scientific rationale for the phenomena, postulating that it is indeed made from mental fabrications; and much of it is, unexpectedly, quite persuasive. Yet, after wholeheartedly attempting to win the reader over to its logic – going so far as to make nearly testable hypotheses – the tale changes. The aforementioned dilemma begins to form as the rationale begins to shows its cracks, through which the fantastical seems to seep out into reality. The resulting horror results as much from the questioning of the world fabric as from the happenings themselves, making it a truly Lovecraftian experience despite lacking a common mythology.

The following short stories do an even greater job of muddling the dilemma, bringing such vagaries as shadows and dreams into the deliberation. Especially difficult is the tale called ‘Children of the Wasteland’, which bases its premise on Zhuangzi’s butterfly conundrum: “Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly […] unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened […] Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” (In fact, the tale is so convoluted that a tip is in order to facilitate the reading. It is not a spoiler and the reader will still have to do much puzzling to make sense out of that one. The hint is: Put to mind Brother Humphrey’s prayer.) Also, the tales are in a sense interwoven through a common world although the clues we are given to this lie discretely placed. The most obvious one is that several of the tales take place in Rathbone Asylum, but closer inspection will reveal others too. This is without a doubt one of the most intriguing works of horror which I have ever come across.

The bonus tale, ‘The Scourge of Wetumpka’ – which is quite some bonus since it covers nearly a hundred of the two-hundred and twenty-four pages of the book – has no connection to the tales of The Other Side of Despair. It is constructed from several short stories, each of which present its own part of the narrative; it builds upon H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, not to mention the works of several other authors who have continued his legacy, but most importantly it builds upon ‘The Colours from Outer Space’ to such a degree that the reader should be adviced to read that short story before embarking upon it. Indeed, this tale could be considered a continuation of the excellent tradition of fanfics (a tradition ancient compared to the term ‘fanfic’ and its modern stigmas, even predating our Current Era/Anno Domine), or, if one prefers to describe it as thus, it is a honorific towards one of the inspirations and thus co-creators of any current work of penmanship. Yet, it goes beyond this and brings to light obscure bits of history and actual conundrums, with notes carefully added with the information on what is accurate and what is embellishment, so as to avoid corruption of the facts. I was particularily fascinated by how little embellishment was needed for the author to connect the fictitious cult of ghouls to real historical events. In my opinion, this is a very welcome addition to the Cthulhu mythos. Also, since it consists solely of letters, clippings, recording transciptions, and similar, it would be an excellent piece of source material for game masters planning role-playing forays into the mythos universe.

Before ending the review, I’d like to note that David Maurice Garrett is not just a writer but also a musician (not to be confused with the violinist David Garrett) with currently six releases behind him, all of whom relate to the horror genre and Lovecraft’s works in particular. There is even a soundtrack for ‘The Scourge of Wetumpka’ among them. Whoever intends to delve into this book would clearly do well to check out these releases as well (the soundtrack in particular, of course).”

 

The story entitled “The Children of the Wasteland” that Arnstein mentions was featured on the Podcast Random Transmissions.

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I am super excited about one of my stories from The Other Side of Despair being featured on the latest podcast episode of Random Transmissions. This podcast is super cool and you should go and check out all the episodes!

Random Transmissions

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My new book is out! So, what exactly is it about? Ever since I was a teenager I’ve loved to read Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re not familiar with these revolutionary authors, well, frankly, you should be! Anyway, my love for their work spread into other authors within the genre of short horror stories. This genre also includes other short works that aren’t exactly horror, but overlap with it nicely – a better term might be short dark fiction, or even short gothic fiction. This includes stories that are weird, strange, bizarre, suspenseful, or scary. Think of most any episode of The Twilight Zone and you’re on the right track. This genre actually influences much art today. If you’ve seen the first season of True Detectives, there were numerous references to a work by the weird tale writer Robert W. Chambers. This work, called The King in Yellow, was actually the basis for my current book. It is a set of stand alone short stories that all share a common trope, or story arc thread within them. In the case of the King in Yellow it is a play called The King in Yellow that drives people mad. In my book, The Other Side of Despair, it is a mental institution that is the backdrop for the protagonist of each story. BTW, the title comes from a quote by the playwright T.S. Eliot: “Where does one go from a world of insanity? The other side of despair.” So, if you want to expand your mind by exploring the minds of the mad, check it out.

The Other Side of Despair

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My story “Shockley House” was published in this year’s Halloween anthology The Yellow Booke.

July 2

I now spend the majority of my day caressing the walls – they are so clean that the shadows roam freely over them. I just sit and hum, and sing, and listen to the things they say.

The wisdom in their whispers is earth shattering. I see so many things that I never saw before. I’m beginning to realize that this illness wasn’t something that originated in me, but was planted in me by the ones out there.

July 8

I can only paraphrase their messages to me. I now see that one must sometimes pass through the fire to emerge on the other side as a new creature. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes after being burned alive. Like a butterfly awakening from a cocoon after a long period of transformation.

I see now that my life encased in this place, encased in my neurosis, my disease, my isolation, was all meant to be a cathartic process. Now, thanks to the shadows engulfing me, I have been purged. Leached of my sickness and given a clear path out of here.

They showed me worlds that shimmer and places of abundant peace where my new form will roam free. Free to wander those other lands only hinted at in their dim, ghostly visions. I know now that my flight above the guitarist was but a prelude to a journey I’m now ready to take.

Across the vast gulf of space and time there are worlds waiting to be seen. But before I can mount up with wings, I must set right the wrongs leveled on me by Dr. Kaplan, Angela, and Jeff. My preparation for tonight’s dinner has been meticulous but I must not falter. I must face this last obstacle with resolution and a steel will. My new friends have counseled me and taught me and opened my eyes to so much new knowledge that I sometimes feel an amazing sense of awe at the things the shadows say.

June 24

Awoke again last night hearing that tune in my head. While I hate the song, I find myself humming it as I clean. I tried to go back to sleep but it was useless so I just watched the wall. As I watched I noticed that the shadow seemed to move. It wasn’t anything startling or even very specific. It was more like breathing. A pulsing to the rhythm of the tune playing in my head and my own breathing.

Now that I’m fully awake I know that it was the tune playing in my head that caused my own breathing to match it and that the shadow only appeared to be pulsing to the rhythm of my own breathing – just an optical illusion, right? But at the time I was certain that it was the shadow leading the whole thing.

I’ve become obsessed with the shadow on the wall and I actually caught myself just staring at it as I was sitting on my bed putting my shoes on.

June 27

I spent the last several days researching memory lapses and became quite overwhelmed with all of the information. I’m sure that the incident with the homeless guitarist wasn’t real. I believe I had an episode of dissociative amnesia brought on by the stress of my doctor’s visit.

I also believe that the hallucination with the man in the alley was of a dreamlike nature – a waking hallucination dredged up from my subconscious. The part that really has me perplexed is the tune he was playing. Did my mind concoct that too? Is the repeated playing of it in my head because I created it, or did I hear it somewhere else?

There’s now another shadowy spot that commands my attention. I can’t say if it’s a completely different spot or if it’s connected to the other spot on the opposite corner of the wall. I spend what seems like hours in my room cleaning the walls or just sitting on my bed humming that melancholy melody.

June 28

Angela called last night to see how I was doing. I told her about Jeff’s visit and how irritated it made me. She claimed to have no idea but I’m not so sure.

She seemed to be pleasant but now I distrust her and Jeff. I tried to be nice back to her but wound up making an excuse to get off the phone. I’m just so confused these days. I miss the times when we were close and could talk.

I had all of these conflicting emotions about the whole thing so I went to clean the wall and became so engrossed in the scrubbing and humming that I began to hear a chant. It had to be a figment of my imagination but it seemed so real.

The lyrics to the weird song were frightening to me too. But now I’m beginning to see Jeff and Angela for what they really are.

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June 21

I’ve made a concerted effort to quit washing my hands at least every hour but it’s so hard. The urge consumes me. It’s so bad that I feel I have to wash to release the pressure.

I found myself humming the melody to that damn tune while I was cleaning the kitchen and when I realized it, it scared me. I don’t know what happened or how to explain the incident in the alley, but I think it might have just been a dream. It’s so unlike me that it couldn’t have been real.

I started researching memory lapses and blackouts and I’m relatively sure that’s what happened to me. It’s the only reasonable explanation.

June 22

Last night I had a strange dream. At least I think it was a dream. I think it was like when you awaken in the night and you’re in that zone between sleeping and waking where you mix reality with your dream. I must have been dreaming about a mold or some other type of discolored spot on the wall that just wouldn’t come clean. This makes sense because I have such a fear of disease and filth that my nightmares tend to be about my inability to be clean enough or be healthy enough.

Nevertheless, when I awoke I instinctively looked to the wall where the spot was located in my dream and saw, to my horror, that there was in fact a spot on the wall. Groggily I arose and went to inspect the spot but it was only a shadow!

It was so weird because then I lay in bed and watched the spot wondering if I saw it in waking and unconsciously incorporated into my dream, or if I dreamed it first and then it just so happened that the shadow took on the shape of the spot in my dream?

June 23

Jeff came to visit today. At first I was so glad that he had made time to come by. Having my brother visit is such a rare thing that I was quite literally giddy. As it turned out, though, he’s about as much of an ass as Dr. Kaplan.

I knew the visit was bad the moment I let him in the apartment and he said, “Jen, you look terrible, are you getting any sleep? And this place smells like a swimming pool!”

I mean, what kind of greeting is that and how am I supposed to respond? Did he really expect me to be all cheerful and happy after he waltzes in here and starts in on me?

Things didn’t get any better from that point on, either. All he did was chide me for being such a recluse and obsessing over how clean everything is. He has no idea what I’m going through.

To be honest, I don’t even know why he came by. He claims that he was worried about me after he and Angela hadn’t heard from me in so long. He acts like it was my doing but it was he who put an end to Angela’s and my relationship. Does he really think I don’t remember that? And do you show your concern for someone by barging in their home and berating them about their lifestyle?

I was so furious by the time he left that all I wanted to do was work out. I figured a good sweat would burn off some of my anger. I went up to my room to change into my workout gear and noticed something strange. The place on the wall where the spot was in my dream was really discolored. At first, I thought it was a trick of the light, but as I got closer, I saw that it was true. There is something odd about that patch of wall.

I never did my workout. I wound up venting my anger into cleaning the wall.

June 16

My Health Anxiety began with my mother’s illness. I was only 8 years old when she found out she had Lupus. The disease affected her in numerous ways and she battled it for a long time. I was 17 when she died. When she passed away, I felt a ton of guilt. A part of me believed that it was partially my fault. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it was how I felt, nonetheless.

I became so familiar with her disease that I began to believe I was suffering the same symptoms. A rash on my face, fatigue, painful joints, headaches, hair loss – the lists goes on and on. And each time one of those symptoms popped up, I immediately knew it was the worst case scenario. I had my mom’s genes that meant that I, too, was destined to die of Lupus.

As each test came back negative, I refused to accept it. I just deftly attributed it to either the doctor’s error in accurate diagnosis, or the fact that I really had another disease.

Even today, I still believe that I’m carrying some new strain of a debilitating disease that leaves doctors baffled with how to categorize it. Logically, I know this is crazy. In reality, my days are consumed with worry and despair over my health.

June 19

I’m finally getting around to writing about my doctor’s visit the day before yesterday. I meant to do it right afterwards, but it has left me so exhausted that I’m just now feeling like writing about it tonight.

I made it to Dr. Kaplan’s office without incident. Even with the heat of summer, I still put on a thin wind-breaker and hold it tight about my neck as I dart to the doctor’s office trying to avoid any contact with the throng of humanity on the sidewalks and streets. Still, I managed to navigate my way there without brushing into anyone.

It wasn’t until I saw Dr. Kaplan that things went south. He was the worst and I don’t care if he reads this next time, although I don’t think I’ll be going back to that horrible man! We began with small talk, which was alright, and then he asked about my journal. I handed it over and waited while he read the entries. Then, he removed his glasses and hit me with the most condescending look. From then on it was horrible. He’s so judgmental it just gets right under my skin!

He began by telling me how I pushed Angela away by making her mother’s condition about me. The nerve! I did no such thing! And then he had the audacity to critique my daily routine and tell me it was unhealthy and abnormal! He has no idea!

Oh, there was more. More than I care to vent and fume over. I shut down after we had strong words and let him go on lecturing me while I just sat there seething. In the end, I walked out of there with a script in my hand for some medication called Lexapro that he wants me to try out. I don’t think so. Just some more crap to pollute my body and alter my mind.

But all that wasn’t the real bad part; I mean it was bad, but not bad in the same way. The thing that has really left me shaken is the man from the alley I encountered on the way home.

As I rounded Pikes Peak Avenue headed towards the park I passed an alley and heard this homeless man playing his guitar. Even though I was walking at a brisk pace, I found myself slowing down. There was something about the tune he was playing that was so captivating. It’s hard to describe now, but I just remember that it was so melancholy yet somehow soothing.

What happened next is really beyond my faculties of reason. I literally fell into what I believe to be a state of hypnosis. Somewhere deep in my mind I still had some type of awareness, but I was lost as if in a dream landscape.

The melody continued to wash over me as I stopped and retreated to the alley’s opening. Soft, dark waves of gloomy notes flowing one into the next lulled me into a trance. God knows how long I stood there and my eyes closed as I descended into the music. It was so sad, yet so beautiful. How could such a creature as this make such music?

I had the impression of floating high into the air – maybe it was an out-of-body experience; a dream-state roving composed of bits and snatches of sensations. Whatever the case, I beheld the city from high above as a hive of activity moving at high speed in blurry pandemonium while directly below me in a tiny circle of calm slowness I saw me and the guitarist alone with the music.

I began to descend ever so slowly while I watched myself walking towards the man. He was so engrossed in playing that I don’t even think he saw me. The music still came in soft, undulating waves as the haunting melody pulled me along. Closer and closer I descended still mesmerized by the song and watching the entranced me walking in a languid gait towards the filthy guitarist.

And then I saw, to my horror, that the real, physical me below was intent on approaching and touching the vagrant! But the part of my consciousness that was displaced – the rational me – was not going to re-enter my body in time to stop my hands from touching the horrible creature spinning that wicked, diabolical tune!

I strained with all my willpower to reach my body before it happened, but it was no use. Just as I reached my body there was mad mix of sensations. A chaotic swirl of noises and images and feelings all churned up into a quick torrent that sent a shock through my soul. As I came to myself, the first thing that hit me was the sadness in my heart. The song still swirled in the air about me. Through the hazy blur of my tears I saw that I had reached my hand out and was caressing the man’s face!

The most horrible part of the whole thing slammed into me then. The man quit playing and turned his face up towards me with the most saturnine smile I have ever seen. It was then that I beheld his face. He had four long scabs running diagonal across his face and my hands were caressing those grotesque, encrusted sores!

I screamed. I ran. I made it home, locked the doors, and then I must have showered and scrubbed my hands for hours. Even after that, I returned to the bathroom at least every hour to scrub my hands again and again and again. Just writing this makes me want to wash again.

As if that all wasn’t bad enough, now I have that cursed melody sounding in my brain over and over.

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