by John Hornor Jacobs
So far I’ve progressed through five of the seven ages of Halloween. I’m forty now, a father of two girls, and broaching the midpoint of my life. But I think back on the forty Halloweens I’ve seen and it’s important to remember the stages, those watermarks toward adulthood and beyond.
No other holiday marks your progress through life like Halloween does.
The Surly Teenager
What follows agrees with the spirit of Halloween more than the actual idea of it, as if the restless ghosts and demons loosed upon the world invested themselves in one age to cause mayhem and havoc–the surly adolescent. Desperate to be adult, they put aside all things Halloween, but by this abrogation, they embody it. They become truly frightening, reckless, and wild. Dress in blacks and greys and browns, ski-masks on their heads, they fill sacks with toilet paper, shaving cream, and eggs.
The more daring siphon vodka or whiskey from their parent’s bar into empty water bottles and filch cigarettes from the local drug store. The most daring carry condoms for the best and remotest of all possible night’s outcomes.
They roam the streets on October 31st, the leafless trees above them scrabbling at the overcast sky, mindless but for hormones and the gossip fueled existence of schoolmates, a pack of miscreant dogs. They meet girls and laugh and smoke and take hesitant puffs from cigarettes and worry if their father will smell it on their breath when they finally make it home, but that is hours away because, after all, it’s Halloween, and the liberties the parents allowed them when they were candy fiends still holds some sway.
They laugh in alleys, and keep away from suburban-lighted areas. They pair off, more likely than not, boy to girl, girl to boy, and explore each other’s bodies but really testing what it feels to be adult, alcohol and tobacco on their breath. But the time grows short, and the girls might let them put hands up their shirts, but they’re damn sure not going any further…and the night grows old.
They take up their bags and walk with bright steps to the house of the girl they like the least, not present – author of some perceived slight – and wreath its single, enormous oak tree with roll after roll of toilet paper tossed in white ghostly arcs. They dress the car standing in the drive with shaving cream, never knowing that the cream will permanently mar the paint-job and send one man on a course toward litigious vengeance. No, they have no idea any of the trouble that follows them. They’re just revel in the sound of eggs smacking almost silently on the front door and bricks, bright silent explosions of albumen and yoke.
This was me. Stupid me.
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1878, Rheinhart Plantation
The black thing walked from the forest and took the shape of a man. Wilhelm watched it through the window, from his sickbed.
At first the creature shuffled, a thing of gristle, all angular joints and thick sinew. It moved erratically, in a herky-jerky fashion that reminded the boy of a circus performance; each limb’s movement was prolonged, drawn out, as if for dramatic effect. The legs lifted, paused, wavered, and then placed themselves, each one moving independently of the others. It was hard to tell if its appendages ended in hands, or hooves, or claws. Even in the slanting afternoon light, its features were indistinct, blurry. The creature moved into the stubble of the empty field and stopped.
The boy thought it might be wildschwein—one of the vicious boars that foraged the dark wood and edges of fields—until the thing shifted. Its skin became mottled, rippled, and then faded back to black.
It rose. The black creature looked as though its spine had cracked and reorganized itself, and a man stood where the creature had. But it was still black. Still inhuman. And faceless.
It turned and looked at the boy.
How he knew it perceived him, the boy couldn’t say. The entity’s head remained featureless, like an ebony mannequin’s. Wilhelm’s breath caught in his chest and he could feel the impeding frenzy of coughs building. With it would come the blood, at first just flecking his lips, then a fine spray that would speckle his handkerchief, drip on his dressing gown, soil his linens.
Der Erlkönig, he thought, remembering.
He had started coughing in the winter and never stopped. To ease the tightness in his chest, the Rheinhart servants began placing boiling pots of water in his room at night. The steam would fog the windows and in the morning, the boy would be able to hear the farm come to life around him: the clucking of the chickens, the braying of mules being harnessed, the screeches of peafowl, the clatter of pans and cutlery in the kitchen. But he would not be able to see it.
By spring, his mother moved him out of the room he shared with his brother and into the small bedroom at the back of the plantation house, near the sleeping porch. He’d cried and thrashed and tried to talk her out of it, but she stood pale-faced at the door, tears streaming down her cheeks, and shook her head. Wilhelm fought as the servants entered the room and began bundling his clothes; he swung his fists wildly, but he’d already lost enough strength to be easily winded. He hit one serving man’s back with his small, hard fists, but the man ignored him except to pull his shirt over his mouth and nose. His younger brother, Karl, watched from behind their mother’s skirts as the burly servant grasped Wilhelm’s arms, turned his face away, and drew the crying boy out of the room, down the hall and stairway, and firmly placed the boy in a vacant servant’s quarters, behind the kitchen. He cried then, and hated.
At night, he dreamt of killing his brother, and his mother, for banishing him. For abandoning him.
He grew weak and pale.
One morning his father had come to his new room, bundled Wilhelm in a blanket, and carried him through the house with a blank expression. The boy watched, partly bemused, as he passed through the house in his father’s arms, staring up at the vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers as they passed overhead in a strange procession. His father placed him in a harnessed carriage and drove east at a furious pace until they came to a wide, massive river.
They boarded a ferry, their horse nickering, the carriage swaying on its wheels. After an hour of stevedores straining against the Mississippi’s current, they gained the eastern shore. That evening they pulled into the courtyard of a beautiful building, a place strewn with light and laughter and fine gentlemen and ladies walking on the grass, the smoke from cigars wafting on the evening air like a warm memory. The sign read Gayoso House, although the building, to the boy’s eyes, seemed palatial.
“Where are we?” he had asked.
“Why? You mean why are we here?”
He nodded. His father jumped down from the carriage and handed the reins to a stable attendant. When his father lifted him, again, the gentlemen and ladies turned to look. Wilhelm felt his cheeks grow red. He coughed into the blanket as quietly as possible.
“Here,” said his father, handing him a handkerchief. “Cough into this. It’s very important.”
“Why are we here?”
“I’m feeling better. I’ve stopped coughing. See?”
“Yes.” His father carried him across the lawn and into the hotel. He set Wilhelm down in an ornate chair in the lobby as he paid for a room. Then he lifted him again. The boy was growing accustomed to staring at ceilings.
That night, silent men came into his darkened bedroom and touched him with cold hands. With soft, papery voices, they asked him to cough and listened to his chest. They frowned and regarded him solemnly, eyes devoid of hope.
Consumption, they called it, as they spoke with his father in hushed voices. His father’s face grew somber and even paler than before, and he glanced at Wilhelm and smiled at him, weakly.
Wilhelm’s breath came in short gasps, and his eyelids felt leaded and heavy. He closed his eyes.
When he awoke, it was still night and his father sat beside him, reading by lantern light.
“What are you reading?”
The boy fought the cough building in his chest. He didn’t want his father to pity him.
“Will you read to me?”
“It’s in German.”
“Memaw taught me some. I know a few words.”
“I’ll translate. How’s that?”
Wilhelm nodded and nestled further down into the bed.
“This is Der Erlkönig, a poem by a man named Göethe, written a long time ago. It’s a story about a father and his son, traveling home on horseback through a dark forest. The boy is sick, and the father is frantic to get him home. As they ride, the boy becomes delirious and sees a frightening man in the woods.”
His father began to read, haltingly at first. Sometimes he’d sound out the German and then translate.
My son, oh why do you look so afraid?
See Father, don’t you see the Elf king is there?
The Elf king, Elf king with crown and cloak?
My son, it’s a wisp of mist.
He paused. “How much of this do you understand, Wil?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Enough. It’s scary.”
His father smiled. “Very scary to me. And very sad. I’m sorry I never taught you how to speak or read German.” He rubbed his eyes. “I should stop. The ending might be too frightening for you right now.”
“No, it isn’t. I just don’t understand everything.”
“Let’s see if I can explain it.” His father shifted in his chair. “The man can’t see the elf king, only trees. The Erlkönig promises things to the dying boy, the love of his daughter, if only the boy will come with him. In the end, the boy dies. The poem doesn’t make it clear whether the boy is hallucinating the Erlkönig or if he’s really there, stealing away the child’s life.” He bowed his head for a moment, then pulled a pipe from his vest, packed it with tobacco, and lit it from a match. “I don’t know why I’m reading this to you at all. Maybe it was on my mind.”
“I thought elves and fairies were good. At least in all the stories Memaw read me they were.” Wilhelm coughed again, and his father looked at his pipe, turned, and set it down in a crystal ashtray.
“What is good?” his father asked. “In the old wives’ tales and stories they steal away children and raise them up to be kings and queens of distant lands. The grumpkins help cobblers mend shoes and find lost jewelry for young ladies. But those are children’s stories. The interesting thing about the Erlkönig is that he’s not some sweet little fairy. He’s a monster. And monsters make for good stories.” His father smiled wanly. He passed his hand over his eyes and yawned.
After a moment, his father took Wilhelm’s small hand in his warm large one and squeezed. Then, he lifted the book and continued reading. It was the last time the boy felt truly happy, lying in a Memphis hotel room as his father read to him about a dying boy.
But now, the creature—the awareness—cocked what passed for a head and stared at him. Wilhelm, at that moment, didn’t think monsters made for good stories at all.
The entity took several long, sweeping strides—seeming to flow across the field—and suddenly, it was at the window, filling the frame.
The boy gasped and then began to cough. He felt wetness on his lips. Blood.
When he regained control of his body, he realized it was cold now, with the upright man-thing peering in at him. The morning’s warmth had vanished, and Wilhelm shivered and tried his best to hold back another coughing fit. He felt blood dripping from his lower lip onto his dressing gown.
For long moments the boy and the thing matched gazes—watery blue eyes staring into an eyeless, blank face—and then the thing broke the gaze by stepping into the room. Through the window, through the wall, it was as if one second the creature stood outside and then as the boy blinked, it moved through glass and wall to loom above him at the foot of the bed.
I’m going to die, thought the boy. Having lived for months with the terrible knowledge of his disease, the boy was strangely nonplussed by this realization. Something ripped in my chest when I coughed and now my lungs are full of blood. I’m going to die now, and Death is here to collect me.
“What?” He hesitated, because the Death-thing did wear the shape of a man. He could be a man. “Who are you?” the boy asked.
The black figure stood absolutely still. For a moment the child thought it was just an illusion of shadows, the dying afternoon light playing strangely on the walls of his sick room. But then the thing cocked its head again and the illusion was broken.
I come before. I prepare the way, it spoke directly into his mind. I am the herald. All you know will pass.
The boy looked at the figure and began to tremble. He breathed, short quick breaths, chest tightening, and he could feel blood in the back of his throat, burbling and popping.
You are dying.
The boy nodded. This thing spoke what everyone else ignored for so long. For an instant he was grateful to it for being honest, stating the situation so simply. His mother danced around the obvious for months and his brother, Karl, avoided him totally. His father was always traveling, taking grain or cotton to market. The serving woman who brought him food, emptied his chamber-pot, and washed his soiled linens, she wore a bandana around her face and couldn’t meet his eye. Even when he cried.
As he looked at the creature, he felt an overwhelming hatred for his family, those who had put him aside to die. And the burning feeling in his chest, the itch that would erupt into a frenzy of bloody coughing now, felt like a warm rage suffusing his being. His body was learning to hate.
Would you serve and live? Or end this suffering and die?
The words thundered in his mind. Something was offered here that went beyond words, went beyond his comprehension.
The black creature moved, filling the room with darkness, even though the sun streamed through the window.
Rise, then, if you would serve.
The boy began coughing again. More blood dripped from his mouth, but now the pain burned with something more akin to lust.
As he drew himself up in the dark thing’s shadow, the boy could feel himself hardening, becoming recalcitrant and cold and strengthening, becoming ever stronger. Becoming something…else.
If you would serve, take up your father’s sword.
The black thing turned, stepping through the wall, back into the field.
If you would not die, remove your mask.
The boy watched as the figure flowed back across the barren fields toward the dark wood.
If you would not be weak, consume the strong.
It was gone.
Wilhelm Rheinhart stood panting in the gathering darkness, blood dripping from his lower lip. He remained still for a long time and then, squaring his shoulders, opened the door to the long hall and walked out of his sickroom.
He found the old sword—his father always called it a gladius—in a cabinet in the library. The leather-bound books spanned to the ceiling, muffling the clank of the sword as he drew it from its short scabbard, its edges as sharp as when the sword had been issued to his father in the War Between the States. A short wide blade, a stabbing blade, it lay heavy and inert in the boy’s hand.
His mother sat in the parlor, at the piano, when he found her. Holding the blade flat, the boy came up behind her and drove the sword into her back with a violent movement, piercing her heart. She arched her back and drew in one surprised breath, and never exhaled. Pitching forward onto the keyboard, her body made a jangled, minor chord. The flounces of her dress discolored with blood.
Turning, the boy walked from the room, face hard.
He found Karl in the kitchen with a serving woman. His brother ate raw sugar from a bowl, dipping wet fingers into the brown stuff, smiling at the serving woman who looked on.
Wilhelm chopped once with the sword, driving the blade deep into the woman’s neck, then roughly jerked it out. Thick arterial blood sprayed across the kitchen. Her eyes bulged and blood frothed at her mouth. She toppled onto the floorboards near the stove.
Karl swung around from where he sat at the kitchen table and stared at his brother, caked in gore. He opened his mouth and brought sugar-rimed hands to his face, his eyes wide. He began to scream.
“Goodbye, brother,” Wilhelm croaked as he drove the sword through Karl’s open mouth. The scream died to a gurgle. Karl skittered on the end of the sword, vibrating as his body, with instincts of its own, tried to shake itself loose. Karl flopped backward onto the table, eyes vacant, body slack.
After Wilhelm cut his brother open, he ate Karl’s heart with great wrenching, tearing bites, chewing each mouthful until he could swallow it, the salt and iron of the blood making him gag, so much so that he thought he might vomit it up in a clotted mess. He managed to keep it down, his aching jaws working strongly, the muscles grinding in his blood-smeared cheek, until it was finally gone.
Afterward, Wilhelm swooned, standing uneasily in a growing pool of blood. He cried, weeping like a boy alone in the woods, weeping for what he’d lost, and for what he’d gained. Tears streaked his face and, after a while, he started to feel a burning in his chest again.
Wilhelm stood and looked around at the kitchen in amazement, the sword slipping from numb fingers. It fell to the floor with a clatter. The sobs coming from his chest were so loud it took a while for Wilhelm to realize they were his own.
When his thoughts finally turned to his father, he made his way out into the night, the cicadas whirring their night-songs, the oaks throwing up black branches against the canopy of starry sky.
The thing that had once been a boy wiped his tears and moved forward into the night, into the dark wood, looking for his master.
John Hornor Jacobs is a novelist, among other things. His first novel, Southern Gods, was published in August 2011 by Night Shade Books. This Dark Earth will be published in July 2012 by Gallery/Simon & Schuster. The Incarcerado Trilogy, comprised of The Twelve Fingered Boy, Incarcerado, and The End Of All Things will be published by Carolrhoda Labs, a groundbreaking new imprint of Lerner Publishing, in 2013, 2014, 2015 respectively. He’s represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.