By Gail Roughton (Guest Blogger)
Has a story ever haunted you? I don’t mean as a reader. Or as a writer. I mean you, personally—that tale from the campfire at summer camp. “See, there was this guy with a hook where his hand used to be…” The whispered tales from childhood spend-the-nights, told under covers because it’s 2:00 a.m. and you’re supposed to be asleep even if it is a-spend-the night. “My Granny, she says don’t nobody go into Hoot Owl Holler, not ever…” The urban legends bandied about amidst shrieks and screams at a teen-age slumber party, without much regard to how loud it gets because you’re teenagers now and nobody expects you to be asleep at a slumber party. “Didn’t you know? There’s a man buried in Graceland Cemetery with a stake through his heart…”
I heard those tales, of course, and I told my share of them. But most of all, I read them. I read them in the most fitting location for such stories imaginable. I grew up by the banks of Stone Creek Swamp, squarely in the middle of the state of Georgia. Beautiful? Oh, yes. Deadly? Oh, yes. Not a place you’d care to get lost in. Don’t believe me? Try it and see. As a backdrop for tales of terror and suspense? Unequalled. The perfect place to produce a writer who always has a trace of—shall we say—the unnatural—in her stories.
But how to blend that trace of the unnatural into the natural? How to tell a story that takes the unbelievable and transforms it into the utterly believable? Ah. There’s the rub. A writer takes a little of this story, a little of that history, and blends it together in a new recipe. But why did that particular recipe pop into their brain in the first place? What made them even think of it?
In my case, it happens when things just—converge. See, I grew up with one of those urban legends. My home town has a very old, very historic cemetery. A beautiful place. They have tours every spring and every fall. And I grew up on the story of a man buried there with a stake through his heart. I don’t have any idea if there’s any basis in that story, I don’t even know if it’s a well-known story or one that only a few people bandy about. But to the little girl who read Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker on the banks of Stone Creek Swamp, it was fascinating.
That little girl grew up and went to work in a law office. Actually, she’d planned to be a lawyer but knew she’d have to work her way through law school and figured being a legal secretary would be on-the-job experience, so to speak. (After she spent a few years in the legal world, she became terrified she’d turn into an attorney, and so kept her niche as legal secretary/paralegal and turned into a writer instead.) But I digress. During the course of this journey, she answered her boss’s phone one afternoon when said boss was out of the office. “This is Jim Smith from Graceland Cemetery.” (Not really, names changed to protect the guilty, in this case, that little girl who grew up and became a writer rather than a lawyer. Me.) “Please have him call me.”
No problem. I wrote the message right up. “Jim Smith, Graceland Cemetery, 555-5555. Has a vampire in one of the mausoleums and would like him evicted.” Don’t ask me why that popped into my head. Seemed like a good idea at the time. My boss came in, picked up his messages, read same, and hollered “What?!” out the door and we all had a good laugh. But that’s when it lodged in my brain, that a short satire, a “Night Court” sort of thing would be hysterical. What would happen if a cemetery tried to evict a vampire? From his own mausoleum?
Somewhere along the way, the whole idea ceased to be a satire and it damn sure ceased to be short. It became an obsession. How to showcase this story, these characters, this backdrop? Because by that time, it had become a family saga, set against the backdrop of the small city I knew best in all the world, flipping from 1888 Macon, Georgia to modern day Macon. Using real street names and business names and landmarks. A love song to my own heritage. And of course, being a love song to my heritage, it absolutely had to showcase Stone Creek Swamp as well, now didn’t it? I finished the first draft in 1993. It took me three years. I threw away more pages than I kept. And I thought it was wonderful. I put it in the closet (about all I did with any of my books for years) and left it there for about fifteen years. I pulled it back out and decided it wasn’t wonderful but it was pretty close and re-worked it a bit and put it back in the closet again. A few years ago, when I entered the world of professional writers and realized how amateurish my early work actually was, I pulled it out and recognized it was very, very far from wonderful. So I re-worked it yet again, from start to finish. And I used everything I’d learned in over twenty years of writing. More important, I used everything I’d learned in the two years since I’d been an actual published author.
And finally—I presented it to the world. My love song to Stone Creek Swamp. To Macon, Georgia. To the history that made me who and what I am. So come. Follow me. Into shades and colors you’ve never thought of before. Like The Color of Seven. Like The Color of Dusk. Follow me into Dark. The Dark Series.
Because the past, like evil, never dies. It just—waits.
Cain strode the river bank. His bare chest gleamed with oil. Amulets of gold and necklaces of bone draped his neck and shoulders. He paced in growing fury. Alone.
“Cowards!” he muttered under his breath. “’De fools! De stupid fools dare turn dere backs on me!” He stopped suddenly in mid-stride.
“Where are you?” he shouted, his voice echoing back into the trees. “Where are you, fools?”
They would pay. The whole town would pay. He swayed in concentration, moving among the seven fires burning in the clearing.
“Sebben. My color be sebben. Color be sebben … sebben … sebben….”
He knelt before the skulls of his grisly sentries, their glowing eyes powered by the demons imbuing them with sight. His demons. He’d call them forth, yes, and all their brethren, and send them streaming through the town, darting though open windows. Feasting till they burst.
He reached down and lifted two skulls high, one in each of his huge hands.
“Last chance, fools!” he shouted. “Where are you?”
“Here I am.” And almost instantly, from the opposite side of the clearing, the words repeated.
“And here. And here.” Shifting, ever-moving. “Here … and here … and here.” The voice, human, held silvery overtones of inhumanity.
Cain twirled around in circles, following the voice. A voice he recognized. Except he didn’t.
Because it was impossible.Wasn’t it?
“White man!” he shouted. “Dat you?”
“And here … and here … and here … here … here….”
Cain swirled in a dizzying circle as the voice cat-called, moving, floating, seemingly coming from all directions at once.
“Come out! Show yo’self! Like a man!”
A tall figure materialized directly in front of Cain. It smiled a terrible smile and curled its lips. Four incisors, honed to razor sharpness, gleamed in the mingled moonlight and fireglow.
“I’m not a man, Cain. Not anymore.”
Paul advanced toward him and Cain fell back, fear rising from the lower reaches of his stomach. It moved up his spine, accelerated and raced upward, leaving his body almost numb. This man was dead, executed by his demons. Dead! But wait! If dead, he belonged to the regions of darkness Cain ruled. Confidence rekindled. He could control this being. He halted his retreat and stood tall.
“You can’t do nothin’, white man! I made you! I control you! You does whut I says you do!”
“You keep right on thinkin’ that.” Paul smiled. His arm flashed out and caught Cain by the throat. His hand squeezed. Cain’s eyes bulged under the pressure.
Cain curled his fists, raining blows on Paul’s head and face. But Paul’s head didn’t snap back.
His lips didn’t split. He loosened the pressure on Cain’s neck a bit, allowing a trace of air to flow back into his windpipe.
“Who are you?” Cain croaked. “What are you?”
“You don’t know?” Paul released Cain’s throat, immediately grabbing both his arms. He threw him across the clearing like a sack of feed. The impact of landing knocked the breath from his lungs. He tried to suck in enough wind to stand and fight.
From nowhere, Paul fell on him again, hauling his bulk off the ground as though it weighed nothing. He tossed him into the middle of the clearing. Cain’s right arm landed in the center fire. His left arm twisted and bent beneath his great weight with a snapping sound. Cain screamed. He jerked away from the flames, trying to shift his body, his right arm a running river of agony. Fire fed on flesh.
Paul reached down and grabbed the charred skin, jerking and twisting. Bone snapped again as he hauled Cain free of the flames and loomed over him, wicked incisors coming closer, closer.
Cain felt the blood leaving his vessels, draining from the valves of his heart, the pit of his stomach, the chambers of his lungs, the smallest capillaries of his body. As it left, it burned, burned with an intensity so hot it was ice cold. Finally, the clearing held only dying moans and the wet, sucking sounds of Paul’s mouth.
Paul floated, then soared with an exultation unlike any he’d ever experienced. He felt the power of hot blood as it rushed throughout his body. Sated, he dropped Cain’s bulk to the ground like an apple core and laughed. He laughed and laughed until laughter turned to sobs. He raised his hands and wiped the blood from his lips.
He looked down at his hands, at the bloodstains gleaming black under the moon, and rushed to the banks of the river, down to the water. He leaned over and gazed into the slow-moving eddies of the river. Moonlight glazed the water, turning it to a shimmering mirror.
He stared at his reflection and curled his lips, showed his teeth. His hand flashed down, breaking the surface of the water. He cupped his hand and scooped water to his mouth, scrubbing viciously.
He was still perched on the river’s edge when his clean-up crew arrived at the scene to pick up the trash, engaged in an endless, repetitive cycle. Hand to river water, river water to mouth, scrubbing and scrubbing as though his lips would never be clean again.
Links to Gail Roughton’s books:
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