I grew up a shy, homely nerd in a small town in Kansas. There wasn’t a ton of stuff for me to do in my community and my strict Chinese parents wouldn’t let me go out much anyway, so I spent the majority of my childhood sheltered up in my house, reading books or spending hours in front of the television. The few times I was forced outside, I often encountered various degrees of racism, which only further made me not want to interact with the real world.
On the Halloween of the year that I was six, I was supposed to go trick-or-treating for the first time with my older sister and cousin. I had a mouse outfit that I wore that morning to class, and the costume was quite appropriate for my personality, considering that I suffered from severe shyness. Unlike me, my older sister and cousin were born beautiful, and they were confident and unafraid to wander the world. The minutes before we were supposed to leave for the night, I complained that I didn’t want to go, and not wanting to drag a sorry mouse along with them, they left without a fight.
I felt sad when the door closed behind them. Although I was relieved that I got my wish, a part of me hoped that they would have tried harder to make me go out with them. However, even at a young age, I had become accustomed to spending time by myself. I pushed the conflicted thoughts out of my mind, and I retreated to my room to read a book that I had purchased a few weeks before through a school book order program. That book was the children’s horror classic, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz.
That night, I stayed up late, reading the book cover to cover. I loved the spooky chills the stories sent down my spine, and the book made me escape into another world, a world that was far more interesting than it would have been for me to shyly follow my sister and cousin around our neighborhood.
It amazes me now that I can still vividly recall my favorite story in the collection, which was the tale of “The Green Ribbon.” I can still see the main character’s straight black hair, her large pensive eyes, and the green ribbon around her neck; and I still remember the secret of the ribbon. The book was my first taste of dark literature.
Reading was always a big portion of my youth, and perhaps it was the combination of feeling like an outsider, being a homely girl in a house full of beauties, and encountering small town racism that made me an introverted, moody individual. Thus, I was always drawn to darker stories. After In a Dark, Dark Room.., I eventually moved on to R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps collection. I had every single Goosebumps book, and I displayed them proudly on a shelf in my room. I had read every one of them, and it was as if I was gobbling them up, never really satisfied, always wanting the next book to collect and read. When I got out of elementary school, I moved on to the romantic horror fantasies of The Night World from L.J. Smith, and after that, I was finally ready to read the master of horror, one of my writing idols, Stephen King.
When people meet me, they are surprised when I tell them I write horror because they cannot seem to grasp what makes me want to write dark stories. I tell them that the reason I write horror is not only because I love dark prose but because I am passionate about the exploration of the good and bad within a human being’s psyche. For me, the best kind of horror is not the “jump out at you”-type of scares but the examination of our biggest fears. Loss. Death. Pain. Etc.
Horror literature and movies provide an escape from the true menaces in our realities, and I don’t know what I would have done as a child if I did not have my spine-tingling stories. As In a Dark, Dark Room…, Goosebumps, and The Night World proves, scary stories, like Halloween, can be enjoyed at any age.
TERESA LO is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is currently a cast member on PBS’s movie and television review show Just Seen It, and she has published three books, Realities, The Other Side, and Hell’s Game. She received a B.A. in History from the University of Kansas and a M.F.A. in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Coalition of Asian-Pacifics in Entertainment, and she is the Social Media Chair of USC’s Women of Cinematic Arts. For more information, please see her website www.tloclub.com
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/teresalowriter
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Read an excerpt from Hell’s Game.
They shouldn’t have been out that night.
It was Halloween in Deer Creek, Kansas, and everyone knew not to go out on Halloween, at least, not once it got dark. The stores sold costumes, candy, and decorations for the holiday, but everyone in town who wanted to trick-or-treat or dress up celebrated the evening before because there was a curfew in place. It stated that all Deer Creek citizens must not be out on October 31st once the sun set, and if anyone was found violating the curfew, then they could be fined or face jail time. No one really questioned the law because it had been around for decades, and staying in on the holiday was just what people did.
Until that night.
Jake Victor’s black Mustang roared through town, the streets completely empty, the night chilly and smelling like autumn leaves and dry grass.
Jake drove while staring straight ahead, deep in thought. Although he was not model-perfect, he was handsome. He had nice dark hair. Big brown eyes. An All-American look. He was incredibly popular even though he wasn’t from a rich or influential family, but he was a terrific athlete and a nice, charismatic guy that everyone seemed to like.
Dressed as an angel, Jake’s beautiful blonde girlfriend, Ashley Gemini, rolled down the passenger window, and she climbed half-way out, laughing at the freedom of being alone in public, laughing at rebelling towards a stupid rule created by stupid old people.
“It’s Halloween, bitches!” she screamed in the air, which whipped through her wavy hair. Her pretty blue eyes sparkled as she took in the sight of Deer Creek’s Main Street. There were little Mom-and-Pop shops, a bakery, and a post office, and the storefronts were quaint and inviting. It really was a picturesque view of small town, Midwestern life.
Jake glanced at Ashley, concerned. “Ashley, get down from there,” he said. He felt awkward reprimanding his wild girlfriend, and sometimes he wondered how they had lasted two years as a couple. They were so different, personality-wise, which was the main reason they fought, but on the other hand, they were also incredibly attracted to each other. Ashley loved how he was the epitome of the tall, dark, and handsome leading man, and Jake liked her classic features, her blonde hair, and her crisp blue eyes. People in town speculated that one day Jake was going to be a professional football player, and Ashley was going to be his supermodel wife.
Ashley ignored him and continued to let the wind play with her hair.
“You excited, Ronnie?” Ashley’s twin brother Ashton asked from the backseat. He was tall and lithe. The definition of a blonde pretty boy. He sat with his arm wrapped around his girlfriend Kristin Grace, and she sat in between him and the redheaded dweeb Ronnie Smalls, who smiled nervously. He held a camera in his lap, and his nervous, sweaty palms soaked into the plastic of its exterior.
Ashton, Kristin, and Ronnie crammed together in the backseat of Jake’s Mustang, with Jake driving and Ashley in the passenger. The five sixteen-year-olds were informed of the Legend of the Gateway to Hell by their parents and other elders in the town, but that didn’t stop them from being out at night. To them, the warnings were myths, the level of danger as close as what one would feel while listening to a fairy tale. In fact, it was the legend itself that made them sneak out of their houses once the stars emerged.
“What do you think a “Gateway to Hell” is exactly?” the petite Kristin asked, and Ashton gazed at her warmly. Besides her sweet personality, he loved how exotic and delicate her features were. She had big, almond-shaped dark eyes. Long black hair. Thin limbs. Her mother was Chinese, and her father was of British-descent. Unlike Ashley, Kristin was unaware of her beauty, and he found that quality to be alluring.
Ashton turned to Ronnie, and in a serious tone, he said, “I hear that the Gateway is where the Devil comes out to snatch the souls of the wicked.”
Ronnie gulped, and Jake looked into the rearview mirror as Ashton winked at him.
“You’re so full of it, man,” Jake said. He smiled to show he was kidding, but inside, he was worried that he and Ashley were crossing the line with Ronnie, an outsider to the group who wanted so desperately to break into it.
“Oh, yeah?” Ashton asked before he took a swig from his can of beer. “What do you think it is?
“My Mom told me that people started that story when she was little. A group of kids got hurt when fooling around at the cemetery on Halloween night, and Mayor Hercules went berserk,” Jake said.
At the sound of Mayor Hercules’ name, Ashton made a face. Mayor Hercules was tall, thin, and frail, and no matter the season or occasion, he always wore fitted suits. He reminded Ashton of the ghost from Poltergeist.
“Ugh, that guy,” Ashton said. “He’s always standing up in church and complaining about something.”
Jake shrugged. “That’s what my mom told me—that he started this whole curfew.”
Ashley climbed back into the car, the adrenaline rush making her giddy. “Were you guys talking about Mayor Hercules?” she asked.
“We were talking about where this Gateway to Hell business started,” Jake said.
“Ah, are you scared?” Ashley asked as she reached over to touch Jake’s strong jaw in a flirty manner. “Don’t be. That feeble old fart loves to start trouble.”
Jake tried to suppress a smile, but Ashley always had a way with him.
She turned to Ronnie. “I’m glad you agreed to take the pictures. I can’t wait to rub them in everyone’s faces.”
She smiled at Ronnie, who smiled back, happy to win her approval. A few days ago, she had asked him to document her plan to expose what a joke the Halloween curfew was, and this surprised him. When she added that if he came out that she would allow him to sit at the cool table with them, he was ecstatic. For the longest time, he didn’t think that Ashley Gemini even knew his name, let alone that she wanted to spend time with him. He felt so honored.
Little did he know, the only reason she asked him was because she knew he was good with a camera and that he was desperate enough to do whatever she wanted. She had no intention of ever letting him into her inner circle, but she wasn’t going to share that detail until November first.
Ashley reached back, and her brother handed her a small bottle of vodka, her favorite drink. “God, after we’re done, I totally want to bash some mailboxes,” she said.
“I’m in!” Ashton said. Ronnie anxiously looked from side to side. This wasn’t what he had signed up for, but he didn’t want to look like the killjoy of the group. He glanced over at Kristin to see her reaction, but she seemed to not have an opinion either way.
“I don’t have a bat,” Jake lied. In actuality, he had one in his trunk, but he didn’t want to bash any mailboxes. That was immature, and Jake didn’t like to get into trouble. Ronnie breathed a sigh of relief in the backseat, and he hoped that Ashton hadn’t heard him.
Luckily, Ashton hadn’t. He was too focused on his sister, who nearly choked on her vodka when she heard Jake lie. “You’re such a liar!” she shrieked, knowing fully well that Jake carried a bag full of sports gear in his trunk.
“I am not…” Jake said. From the backseat, Kristin watched Ashley and Jake bicker, and it made her upset. Jake was a really nice guy, and it pained her to see Ashley talk to him in such a way. Their relationship was a strange one, very hot and cold. One moment they were lovey-dovey, so gooey that one wanted to yell out, “Get a room!” and then the next moment, they were mean and nasty.
“Yes, you are,” Ashley said. “You didn’t even want to come out tonight.”
“We could get in a lot of trouble.”
“Oooo…. Are you sccaaaaaaaaaared?”
“I’m scared of going to jail. This curfew’s a big deal.”
“You’re scared of the Deeeeevvvvviiill! Coming out of the Gaaattteewaaaaay!” Ashley said as she put up two fingers to her head like horns. Jake looked at her, completely disgusted.
“You’re ridiculous,” he said.
She laughed and turned her attention to the side mirror, where she gazed at her reflection. “This town is so retarded,” she muttered as she fixed the halo that was coming out of her hair. “I can’t wait to get out of here someday.”
“My Mom says the same thing as Jake’s mom. They only have the curfew because it keeps us safe,” Kristin said. She knew she sounded lame, but she wanted to defend Jake. He looked at her in his rearview mirror, and he smiled. She blushed, and she prayed that he didn’t see her.
Ashley rolled her eyes.
“This whole curfew is set just to control everybody,” Ashley said. “The adults in charge take advantage of the fact that people here are like zombies. They don’t think for themselves. Everyone in this town is such a stupid piece of shit!”
“Watch the language!” Ashton teased.
“It’s true!” Ashley said.
“So are you ready to see the “Gateway?”” Ashton asked Ronnie. He thought it was funny to make him squirm.
“I’m ready,” Ronnie said. He wanted to sound tough and confident, but he sounded like what he was, a scared nerd trying to fit in with the big dogs at school.
Jake glanced in his rearview mirror at Ronnie, who wore a letterman jacket like Jake and Ashton did even though he was not on the varsity football or basketball team. Only the varsity players and the varsity cheerleaders were given jackets by the Booster Club, but Ronnie had gone to the store by himself and purchased his own. The jacket cost him over six months of wages from his part-time job working with his dad as a janitor at the hospital, but he thought it would be worth it. The store didn’t have one in his size, so he bought a large, which engulfed him and made him look like he was ten-years-old. He didn’t care though. He would do anything to be cool like Jake, his former best friend from childhood who had risen rapidly on the high school social ladder. Years ago, he had left the geeky Ronnie behind to get either bullied or ignored on a daily basis, and he had never looked back.
Jake’s vintage Mustang pulled into the cemetery’s parking lot, and Ashley stopped looking at her beautiful reflection in the passenger mirror to squeal in delight. “We’re heeeeere,” she sang. Ashton perked up, Kristin and Jake appeared stoic, and Ronnie’s jaw tightened. He tried to smile, but his awkward grin only amplified his fear.
“So, we’re really going to see the Gateway to Hell, huh?” Ashton said as everyone climbed out of the car. Kristin and the boys looked casual in their letterman jackets, but Ashley stood out in her beautiful costume. She wore a tight white dress and expensive feather wings, and if one did not know any better, they may have confused her as an actual creature of Heaven.
Until she spoke.
“I can’t wait to say hello to Satan,” Ashley said with a wicked smile.
“What do you think the devil would look like?” Kristin asked, scared and serious.
“I bet he’d have a goat’s head and a human body,” Ashton replied. He and Ashley put their fingers up to their heads to resemble goat horns, and they laughed hysterically as they baaahed. Kristin and Jake stared at the twins as if they had gone crazy.
Ronnie walked slowly as they moved closer to the church. He stared up at the cloudless sky, at the bright stars and the full moon that shone above him. The air smelled like dry grass and evergreen trees, most likely from the forest surrounding the cemetery. The temperature was cool, not too cold but slightly chilly from the night breeze. On any other evening, tonight would be quite beautiful, but tonight, it was eerie and silent. It was as if even the animals and the crickets knew better than to be around.
The cemetery had a four-acre spread of land, and the old church sat right in the middle. With its two empty windows and a heavy metal door between them, the front of the church looked like a sad face, begging them to walk away and leave it in peace.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” Ashton said. He stared upward at the church’s pagan cross that rested on the frame of the roof.
“Let’s go home,” Kristin said, and Ashton put his arm around her. It surprised him to find that she was shaking.
“Awww, are you scared?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should be here,” she replied.
Ashton looked at his watch. “According to legend, The Gateway is supposed to open at eleven. It’s ten thirty now. You’re safe,” he said as he lovingly planted a kiss on her forehead. She smiled, still petrified even in the safety of his embrace.
“You should go down there and take pictures,” Ashley said to Ronnie, motioning to the church. Jake shot her a warning glance.
“Really?” Ronnie asked with a tremble in his voice.
“Yes, really,” she replied. “You’re supposed to take pictures of everything so that we can show people how stupid the curfew is. So far you haven’t been taking pictures of anything.”
Ronnie awkwardly snapped a photo of Ashley, and she stared at him, annoyed.
“That’s not what I asked you to do,” she snapped, and his face reddened as bright as his hair.
After a few painful moments of watching the two of them, Jake sighed. “This is stupid,” he said. He really questioned why he had agreed to do this. What if the cemetery’s groundskeeper appeared and threatened to call the police? Jake really couldn’t afford to get into any trouble. He didn’t want to ruin his future of getting a college scholarship and getting the hell out of Deer Creek.
“You’re not taking tonight’s rebellion seriously,” Ashley barked.
“Let’s go home,” he said. “And stop trying to get Ronnie to go into the church. He doesn’t want to.”
“Yes, he does.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Yes, he does. Ask him.”
Ronnie stared at the two of them. He felt like he had to choose between his Mom and Dad in a divorce proceeding, and he didn’t know what to say.
“You don’t have to,” Jake said, and Ronnie stared back at him, unsure if this was a test. He looked to Ashley.
“Really?” Ronnie finally asked. Jake was annoyed that Ronnie only cared about receiving her approval.
She stared back at Ronnie cruelly as Jake looked on. “You don’t have to go inside the Church, but if you don’t, then bye, bye popular table.”
Ronnie’s shoulders deflated.
“Think of tonight as your initiation,” she added.
Ronnie continued looking defeated.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Jake said, but Ronnie felt that he was lying. Maybe Jake would allow him to cower away, but Ashley wouldn’t. It was bad enough if he lost the privilege of sitting at the table with them on Monday, but he knew that if he didn’t go up to the church, she would also tell everyone what a pussy he was. People would mock him even more than they already did, and he shuddered at the thought of that.
“Can we go?” Kristin asked. “My Mom’s probably realized I’m not in my room by now.”
Ashton and Ashley stared at Ronnie, hard. He looked so frustrated that he was about to cry.
“No one can be a part of this group without being initiated,” Ashley said, hoping to give him a boost. “And this is your initiation. If you don’t do everything I say tonight, then you’re not in the group. I want my damn pictures, and you promised to give them to me.”
Ronnie remained silent.
“Oh, come on…” Jake said. He was ready to go, and he had had enough of this nonsense. He pulled out his keys and turned to walk back to his car. If the others weren’t going to follow him, then they could walk home for all he cared. “I’m leaving now. You’re welcome to stay, but you’d better find your own way back.”
The twins knew Jake would never be cruel enough to leave them so they ignored his threat and focused on Ronnie. Ashley looked like a snake about to devour, while Ashton appeared to be nothing more than her twin cronie. “We all were initiated in some way or the other,” Ashley lied. She looked to her brother for confirmation. “Tell him, Ashton.”
Ashton shrugged his shoulders. Why not? He’d play along because this all seemed harmless enough.
Ashley smiled. “Kristin agrees too. Right, Kristin?”
Kristin looked to Ronnie and Jake and then to Ashley and Ashton. She didn’t know what to say.
“Umm…” she said, trying to stall. She hated lying.
Ashley rolled her eyes. Kristin’s conscience really annoyed her sometimes.
“I’m going!” Jake yelled as he held up his car keys, but he had only taken three steps before he had stopped.
“It’s almost eleven,” Ashton informed.
“Make a decision already, Pencil Dick,” Ashley said.
“What did you call me?” Ronnie asked. His cheeks flushed bright red. He had heard exactly what she had said. She had called him the nickname that the bullies at school had branded him with, a name that filled him with shame. Every time he heard it, he thought about the day he had received it, that day when the bullies had attacked him in the locker room shower.
“Nothing,” Ashley said with a cruel smile. “All I’m saying is that if you don’t go into the church after eleven, then you can return to your old status and kiss being our friend goodbye. I don’t need your stinking pictures. I’ll take them myself.”
She walked up to him and snatched his camera. It hung on a breakable cord around his neck, and she made sure to make a big show out of taking photos of everything around her.
With his jaw hanging, Ronnie stared at the twins, the embodiment of high school cool. They were beautiful, they were rich, and they were popular. Everything he wanted to be. He then glanced at the church, the symbol of his initiation into their circle of popularity.
“Go into the church,” Ashley said as she bore into Ronnie, “And I promise you that no one will ever call you Pencil Dick again.” She returned the camera to him, and she spoke as she gently clasped the strap back around his neck. She gazed into his eyes, and he shifted as he felt an erection form. His cheeks flushed again, but luckily no one else noticed.
“Do you promise?” he asked, his voice choking where his words came out like a whisper.
“I promise,” she said.
Kristin and Jake looked at one another. The way Ashley spoke made them believe what she was saying was true. Maybe Ronnie did have reason to enter the church. He had something to prove and something to gain.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Ronnie finally said, and Ashley smiled.
“You made a good choice,” Ashton said, hoping to alleviate the situation. Jake put his keys back into his pocket and stormed over, upset. It was already 11:02.
“Fine. Just one picture and let’s go!” Jake said.
Ronnie nodded and got his camera ready, and Jake watched as he took his first step towards the metal door. As Ronnie approached, it was as if a light came on inside of the building, which made the windows flicker like the eyes of a Jack-O-Lantern.
Something was wrong.
Panicked, Jake ran forward and screamed out, “Don’t go in there!”
Ronnie stopped. “What?” he asked, confused. Just seconds ago, Jake had given his consent.
“You don’t have to do it!” Jake replied.
“Of course I do…” Ronnie said, dropping his camera, letting it dangle from his neck.
Ashley glared at her boyfriend as Ashton and Kristin stared back, mesmerized by the scene.
“Tell him, Kristin,” Jake said. “We were never initiated. This is all a mean trick created by Ashley. Ronnie, Ashley’s not going to let you hang out with us just because you go into the church.”
“Is that true?” Ronnie asked, and Ashley glared at Jake.
“Jake’s lying,” she said. “All of us have done something like this. It’s a rite of passage. He’s the only one telling you otherwise because he doesn’t want you to hang out with us. He told me this afternoon how he felt sorry for you ever since you were kids. He thinks you’re a wimpy baby, and I personally think you’re better than that.”
Ronnie’s eyes grew wide.
“Is that true?” he asked Jake. His eyes watered and a lump stuck in his throat.
“You don’t have to go into that church,” Jake said, avoiding the question.
“He thinks you’re pathetic and weak,” Ashley said.
Jake looked to the ground, and Ronnie noted that he didn’t deny her claim.
“Is what she saying true?” Ronnie repeated. “Do you feel sorry for me?”
Jake wasn’t good at lying, but he should’ve lied then.
Instead, he stood quiet.
Ronnie’s lip quivered. At first it seemed as if he was going to cry, but to everyone’s surprise, he exploded with anger, the years of pent up frustration boiling over towards his former friend.
“I’ll show you, Jake!” Ronnie screamed, and he marched up to the metal door of the church. He grabbed the heavy handle, a bar that rested across the door.
“Ronnie, don’t!” Jake yelled as the eyes of the church glowed red. Ronnie’s hands gripped the metal, and evil laughter echoed from inside.
“See?” Ronnie said, triumphant. “I did it! I’m the only one who was brave enough to touch the church.”
“You’re supposed to go inside and take pictures. Not touch the door handle, jackass!” Ashley said. Jake stared at her and Ronnie. Was he the only one who heard the laughter?
Ronnie let go of the handle, and he looked at the sinister-looking building in front of him. His initial courage had vanished, and he felt his palms sweat. He wiped them against the sides of his jean pants.
“Are you going to move or what, Smalls?” Ashton said. Kristin clutched at his arm, and she stared at Ronnie. Her eyes said it was okay to not go in, but her mouth remained shut. She looked as if something was eating away at her.
Ronnie looked to Jake, who motioned for him to leave. “Come on, Ronnie,” Jake said. “I’m going to take you home.”
Jake started to walk away, and this bothered Ronnie. It was as if he just assumed that he would follow him like a dog. Ashley smirked as Ronnie’s face returned to its defiant glare.
“So what’s it going to be, Smalls?” she called out. The vodka in her system really fueled the evil inside of her.
Ronnie turned his back to the group, and he put his hands on the handle. The laughter inside roared, and a fire erupted behind the windows. Kristin’s eyes widened as she saw it.
“Oh my God,” Kristin whispered as she and the rest of the group stepped back, appalled.
“What’s happening?” Ashley said.
Ronnie whimpered as his hands tried to release the handle. He felt his flesh burning, and when he looked down, he saw they were sizzling like hamburger meat on a grill.
“What’s that smell?” Ashton asked.
Ronnie screamed as smoke erupted from his hands. With all of his might, he tried to let go of the handle, but it was as if an unseen force was pushing them down onto the burning metal. Tears streamed from his eyes.
“Help me!” Ronnie begged. “Help me!”
Jake ran up to the church, but his body smacked up against an invisible force field. Ashley, Ashton, and Kristin watched, horrified, their jaws dropped, their bodies frozen.
The laughter became a sinister whisper, chanting words from a language that no one knew.
The grip on Ronnie’s hands released, and the heavy metal door flew open. Before he could move, giant black hands that were as gnarled as tree trunks flew out from the church and yanked him inside, into a wild party of flames. He screamed as the door slammed shut.
“What have I done?” Ashley whispered as her eyes filled with tears. Behind her, Ashton held Kristin tight against him as she trembled, and Jake fell to his knees in shock.
Then, as if nothing had happened, the eyes of the church returned to nothingness.