October 7, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
One of the side effects of taking college classes while in high school (other than saying things that alienate strangers like “when I was taking college classes when I was 16…”) was that since most of my college classes only met a couple days a week I had a lot of effectively free time. My school’s scheduling system didn’t allow for a part-day assigning of some place holder like study hall – they tried that the first semester and one particularly thick-headed teacher assumed I’d been skipping her class for 40 days in a row and demanded my suspension.
I worked out a deal with the school however – I’d spend my free time in “the writing lab”, a little room off the main library which was intended as a resource for students who wanted some help with their writing, either fiction or essay writing. In the two years I was staffing the lab, I think i might have had four people come for help. I had a lot of time on my hands and a free Apple IIe to use in my own writing (a partial Cyberpunk novel I’ve never dared look at as an adult, some poetry and short fiction). In addition to having direct access to the book storage room where they kept the various novels currently (or formerly) assigned in English classes (which is how I got a copy of “Johnny Got His Gun”) I had ample time to just read for pleasure.
One of the books I have a clear recollection of is A Treasury of American Horror Stories (1985). It was a collection of 50 stories, one for each state in the U.S. I picked it up initially because it had an H.P. Lovecraft story that wasn’t in The Dunwich Horror and Others, which I had read recently. Looking back on it now I’m amazed how many stories I recognize (and it would be a good read for people looking for stories covered by HPPodcraft) that I don’t remember reading at all and frankly I might have skipped or have somehow forgotten.
Included to represent Indian a, this is the tale of a security guard at a shipping company depot in rural Indiana, across the Ohio from Kentucky. Our protagonist is Taylor, “too young for Korea, he’d pulled a high number during the Vietnamese shindig” who “liked guns and liked excitement of the low-key variety” which lead to a carrier in private law enforcement, including his latest job, a Thanksgiving holiday temp work, covering the overnight security detail for Coleman security. Oddly enough he’s heard that Coleman has a lot of trouble keeping guards at the site but the one he encounters napping in his El Camino is new himself but he has heard similar stories.
Things get strange almost immediately – Taylor sees a man skulking about the edge of the property, hear where to his car is parked:
Five yards, four, three. He could see the fellow clearly now, hand in his pockets, shouldered hunched into the old khaki raincoat, a bald-spot on the top of his head.
“Take your hands out of your pockets, real slow, and turn around.”
Slowly the figure took his hands out of his pockets. The bare fingers that protruded from the ends of the overcoat seemed very slender, very pale.
It turned around, and Taylor shone his flashlight in its face.
He didn’t scream, but he wanted to.
There was no face.
The man then suddenly vanished, leaving only a faint scent of cherry in the air.
(A tall white-skinned man, with slender fingers and no face? That is something that you don’t see in horror these days 😉 )
Taylor checks in with is dispatchers, mentions he saw a “spook” but insists it was some sort of prank. We know this isn’t the case as soon after he again experiences another strange manifestation, hearing a woman crying out in agony. Shaking off a feeling of apprehension, he followed the moaning back to its source, a swampy area just outside the property, hidden behind some reeds. Peeling back the reeds he discovered a body:
[It was] the corpse of a young woman. A pale, mottled, decayed thing whose long fair hair was entangled in the weeds, and whose hands still clutched something long and dull and metal that it had plunged into its chest.
Taylor shuddered., the light shaking in his hands, the odd, sweet smell very strong.
The thing could have made no sound.
Even has he watched, it straightened, and the eyes rolled open, and flashed moonlight into his.
Taylor screams, fires his shotgun, and runs like hell.
After fleeing back to his car, Taylor attempts to calm himself and checks in again with dispatch, though failing to mention he had discharged his weapon or saw anything unusual. Over some coffee liberally cut with bourbon, Taylor considered three possibilities: 1) someone is playing a prank on him or trying to scare him off; 2) he was imagining things or having an LSD flashback; 3) there really were “Spooks”. Taylor theorizes it is the first option – someone wants to scare off the guard here in perhaps to steal something valuable.
Out of the night comes exposition in the form of a pickup – it is Stahl, a Coleman dispatcher arriving early for work. He invites Taylor to join him for some coffee and a chat… so long as Taylor sets down his shotgun.
Stahl tells Taylor this land used to be part of the the nearby Army base, and back after World War Two they’d built a secret research facility by the old barracks on this side of the base. The site was used to covertly manufacture nerve gas but there was a terrible accident and many people died. But not all… Stahl had been part of the National Guard unit that helped in the clean-up (wearing full suits) and they had found survivors who had been effected by the gas, who attacked them with their bare hands or whatever they could find: “it was… like a horror movies, or a picture of Hell”. Many of the dead were buried nearby in fact. Stahl also mentions that the gas had been scented with cherries so that leaks could be quickly noticed.
Taylor, on edge, continues his patrol around the grounds and his periodic check-ins until dawn and encounters nothing new. Taylor decides that the prankster must have given up and gone home. He then prepares to do just that, after being startled by a “winged-thing” which turns out to be a miraculously intact newspaper dated November 22, 1949… “32 years ago to the day” (wooooohhhhhoooooo)
Taylor dozes for a bit in his car when he is awaken by footsteps coming from the woods. It is a young woman wearing (eye-roll) strangely dated clothing and asking for a ride back into town. Taylor inexplicably just assumes this is a hot, possibly very friendly local girl looking for a, um, ride. The definitely alive hitchhiker then admits she can’t remember how she got to this spot and then grow suddenly very quiet. Taylor, after mulling taking her to breakfast, suddenly notices what we’ve all already assumed, that her perfume is familiar…
…a very faint, sweet scent. Fruity.
Her face contorted, maniacal, her teeth bared like a beast.
Long pointed nails streaking for his face.
Taylor screamed and lashed out. The impact of the blow flung her across the seat, against the half-latched passenger door, as he jammed the car into gear, still screaming.
The story concluded with Taylor, several hours later, stopped by a State Trooper who asks why his face is so badly scratched. FIN
So, why did this story catch my eye? It’s a pretty standard ghost story, after all, and not one that breaks any new ground. Well, friends, it is time for a confession. When I read it, I thought the various “spooks” weren’t ghosts but rather some sort of nerve-gas animated zombies or vampires or something. I don’t know why I thought this – the story seems clear – but teen-aged me imagined the story was a lot more off- beat than it actually was.
Whatever the reality was, my imagined cherry-scented rage zombies got me to read a whole bunch of other stories in the book, which we will cover tomorrow…