So, I don’t generally do “horror” – it’s my least favorite of the various “Speculative Fiction” genre categories. I don’t have anything strong against it, but “fear” is not one of the primary emotions missing from my life. (I’m afraid of lots of things in real life, so I don’t get as much of a thrill from being scared in fantasy life.) Still, I thought I’d share this one example of my hand at horror. Here’s the story of what happened.
I wrote this about 5 years ago in response on a forum on the site RPG.net as a writing exercise. The exercise called for a short (under 1,200 words) vignette to the theme of “Southern Gothic Horror” that would be an introductory story in a hypothetical role-playing game set in the same genre. So… I live in the South, I figured, even if I’m an “outsider” here, so why not give it a shot. The result is a story that clocked in at about 1,150 words. It’s really more like a vaguely Lovecraftian tale set in a Southern Gothic setting, as opposed to a true “Southern Gothic Horror“, but I still think it’s an almost-decent bit of writing. Almost. (And there are bits that hint at and allude to themes consistent with the Southern Gothic genre.) Still, I think it could be cleaned up (and probably lengthened in the process to make it flow better) to make it more serviceable. Except that I don’t generally do horror in the first place, and so this is likely to sit on the shelf where it stands. Anyway, without further ado, I present to you:
Dispatch from the Harpston Herald
By: Stephen Watkins
Jeffrey remembered the first time he met the Right Honorable Reverend Lucas Shepherd, almost two years ago. The Divine Grace Episcopal Church was the center of Harpston, Mississippi, and the Reverend was the holder of the keys. The descendent of carpetbaggers who’d settled in the Atlanta area shortly after the First World War, Jeffrey Dobson had just graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism when he chanced across an obscure posting on a jobs website looking for a new editor for the Harpston Herald. He hadn’t expected to land an editor’s job fresh out of college so he was surprised when he got a letter offering him the position.
Harpston was one of those towns in the proverbial “middle of nowhere” except that, in Harpston’s case, it really was. It was fifteen minutes to the nearest state road—and anything resembling cell coverage—and another hour to any town sizeable enough to make a blip on the map. With a population of maybe a thousand, the first man that Jeffrey had met was the Reverend Lucas Shepherd.
“Harpston, Mis’sippi, Mr. Dobson,” the Reverend had said, “In’t like other towns. Folks ‘round here are private people, quiet people. Don’t do nothing ta rouse or rile them, an’ you’ll do just fine.”
If Jeffrey had just listened to him, maybe he wouldn’t be here, sneaking around the old Marwood Plantation. Maybe he wouldn’t even still be in Harpston. Careful for chiggers, Jeffrey pulled at a clump of Spanish moss that was threatening to tangle itself in his hair and crept forward, feeling his hand along the crumbling, moss-covered stone wall that marked the boundaries of Marwood Plantation. He sniffed to himself, the smell of fresh-turned dirt filling his nostrils.
Jeffrey thought he’d figured out soon enough what the Reverend had meant that first day. Few people were willing to talk to him, and it was a tough job filling even a single sheet of newsprint with newsworthy stories. But Jeffrey grew used to it. That was, until the sweltering heat of summer set in.
It was July last year when he’d first heard it. A sound, like someone—a little girl, perhaps—screaming in the distance pulled him from a light slumber. He thought, at first, that maybe it was a hawk hunting its prey. Except that hawks aren’t generally nocturnal. He’d asked around town about it the next day, but all he’d got for his efforts were quickly averted eyes, sometimes followed by a mumbled “didn’t hear nothin’”. It was the sort of attention he’d come to expect. So, he chalked it up to a fever-dream, and he would’ve been content to leave it at that if he hadn’t heard it again three weeks later. This time he knew he wasn’t dreaming, because it came earlier in the evening, while he was still working on the layout of the next week’s edition. Not ten minutes later, he saw through the window a procession of old, dented pickups, an El Camino, and a rusty Olds Delta Royale heading in the direction of the Marwood Plantation. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he didn’t look into it.
At least not publicly. Careful not to ask direct questions, quietly he began his own investigation. He stopped by the small town library and Clerk’s office to go through old records and checked through old file copies of the Herald to see if there was anything about the Marwoods. He turned up surprisingly few little, except for one tantalizing hint in an article dated from July of 1893. It told of Robert Lee Marwood, the oldest Marwood son, and Mabel Thomlin, his wife of three days, who were both found dead on the family plot behind Marwood Manor in an apparent double-suicide. He didn’t know what it meant, but he never mentioned what he found.
That had been a year ago. He hadn’t heard the scream again after that. Until tonight. Once again it was an unmistakable piercing cry that tore him roughly from his sleep. The moon was half-full, partially obscured by the branches of heavy-laden oaks towering over his little bungalow so that only a sliver of light streamed in through the tiny window in his room. He threw off his sweat-soaked sheets and rushed to open the window, hoping to catch some clue as to what was making the sound. The scream came again, echoing through the fens of live oaks. It was coming from the east, in the direction of the Marwood Plantation.
He raced to the door, and peered out into the gathering gloom. As expected, a procession of rusted, ill-maintained vehicles materialized in the sweltering mists, pulling off of dirt roads and onto the one-lane paved highway that wound through town. He waited for the cars to pass before creeping out into the night. He followed their softly glowing lights as they faded into the summer mist like will-o’-the-wisps. It was almost an hour later before he happened across the stone wall that marked the boundaries of the Plantation.
So here he was, slinking through the brush toward the rusted wrought-iron gate where a dirt road drifted its way onto the Marwood Plantation. He stopped suddenly as he heard voices carrying over the stone wall, whispering loudly, and harshly, to each other. A breeze played at the iron gate, making it groan. Jeffrey peeked around the edge of the wall through the gate at two men carrying shovels moving swiftly down a wide avenue lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. At the end of the avenue lay the decaying remains of Marwood Manor.
Jeffrey followed them, careful to stay behind the oaks and out of sight. When they reached the Manor, they cut off to the left to go around behind the old building. Jeffrey paused at the foot of the old house. He glanced up at the graying columns, their once-white paint peeling away, supporting the sagging portico. It was sad to think the descendents of the Marwoods still lived here to this day. He crept around the side of the house to the old family plot out back. There was the sound of digging; the argument continued.
“You know, Clyde, this won’t do. He needs a fresh body. This here worm food won’t do no more.”
The digging stopped.
“Well what you want me to do Billy? Who you gonna get?”
“I dunno Clyde. But you heard what he said…”
Jeffrey didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. The flat side of a shovel slammed into the back of his head, dropping him to the ground. The Reverend Lucas Shepherd loomed over his unconscious body. “Never mind, boys,” He called, “Problem solved.” He looked down at the oozing wound in Jeffrey’s head. “Didn’t I warn you, Mr. Dobson? Folks round here are quiet folks, private folks.”