“Devil on your back, I can never die”
by Margaret St. Clair
“Perhaps David really loves her,” Mother said indecisively. “We wouldn’t want our boy made unhappy, you know.”
Kate threw back her head and laughed. The lamplight glinted brightly on her long, strong teeth. “Of course he does,” she cried in her raucous voice. “Of course he does. Desperately, enormously. Otherwise, why would he want to marry her?” From the ceiling of the dim, raftered room came the obedient echo, “marry her … marry her …”
“Kate’s always been in love with her brother,” Lance said from the other side of the room. Lance was thin; David had never known anyone as thin as Lancelot. “She really must learn to watch out for it. Our family name’s Vlchek, not Volsung, Katharine.”
Everyone laughed. A bright glance of understanding, of shared, familiar mirth rippled from face to face. Only Kate, rumbling in her throat, refused to see the joke.
“No offense meant, Katharine,” Lance said with a touch of haste. “None at all. But it was agreed long ago that David was the only one of us who could pass for more than a day in the outside world. He has certain qualities which make him remarkably, outstandingly, attractive to the opposite sex. There’s no occasion for heartburning. Whatever it is he does, he does for us.”
“But if he really loves her—” Mother repeated, staring down at the worn greenish webs on her hands. “If he really does …”
It was time for David himself to speak. “I like her, yes,” he admitted. “More than I did any of the other ones. But that makes it all the better. As Lance said, whatever I do, I do for the family.”
“You’re a good boy, David,” Mother said with a smile. “What would we do without you? Year after year, you always provide.”
The others nodded in generous acknowledgment. David flushed with pleasure. What did anyone, even Elaine, matter when weighed against this?
“There won’t be any trouble, though, will there?” Minna asked anxiously. “You remember what happened two years ago.”
“No, no,” David replied.
“Not if David prepared things,” Kate said warmly. “Dear brown David. David is so clever. We can rely on him.” She came up to him and began rubbing her head against his sleeve, her eyes half closed. Pleased, he reached out and stroked the short stiff hair on the top of her head. He had always liked Kate.
“And she’s coming—?” Mother asked, getting up from her chair.
The nervous moment was always when they entered the house. Mother might air it, sweep, dust, polish—still it remained odd. That troublesome Gunning girl, two years ago, had sniffed and said it had a peculiar odor. But Elaine walked through the door without a murmur Positively, she seemed to like the house.
“You’re to help her dress, Kate,” David said, meeting his sister on the stair. “She said you had pretty eyes. But remember, don’t take your bandana off. We don’t want to frighten her.”
“I’ll remember,” Kate answered ardently. “Oh, David, she’s ever so nice. I like her, like her too.” Her throat throbbed.
“Good!” David gave her a little push. “Don’t forget.”
Everything was ready in the cellar. The black-draped altar, the black tapers, the big brass bowl. David felt gratitude invade him. Everything was going so well, with such seemliness, such decency. He hated inadequacies and scenes. The Gunning girl’s behavior had been an ugly blotch on an ancient ritual. But there would be nothing of that tonight. He felt a sweet inner surety.
Mother came down the steps while he was still kneeling. “I forget the henbane,” she explained. “Minna was worrying.” She took a fat-bodied flask of mottled greenish pottery from a cupboard. “David, you’re sure it won’t be too hard on you, giving Elaine up?”
“No. He—” David nodded in the direction of the altar—”likes it better that way.”
“I know.” Sympathetically she took his hand in her cold, indented one. “Dear David,” she said.
Elaine was wonderful at dinner that night. She ate, she drank, without urging, laughed at Lance’s jokes, seemed not to notice Mother’s hands. And how beautiful she was! Her arms were whiter than ivory, than parchment, against the black stuff of her dress, her mouth was dark wine, her hair shone like black satin on her head.
Kate, who was serving, was obviously enchanted with her. Once she forgot and rubbed slowly against Elaine, and Elaine, brightly, affectionately, smiled up at her.
Now came the delicate moment—delicate in spite of the henbane, which should have made Elaine responsive and suggestible—when Mother suggested that they go downstairs. But Elaine stood up quite as if one’s prospective mother-in-law always invited one to visit the cellar after a meal.
The cellar stairs had been mended since last year; that distressing squeak was gone. Solidly mother descended, gracefully Elaine followed her. Even Minna silent, the others trooped after them.
At the bottom of the stair Elaine halted. This was the place at which the Gunning girl, two years ago, had screamed and tried to run. It was certainly a delicate moment. (But then the evening would be composed of delicate moments, one after another, up to the piercing deliciousness of the last, most transcendently delicate of all.) Elaine turned her head to David. “How beautifully you’ve arranged everything,” she said.
Had her eyes widened a little before she spoke? David found himself wondering. She had spoken with the practiced graciousness of a royal personage; and like the queen’s loyal subjects the listeners behind had responded to her, looking at each other and smiling with pride, their eyes glistening as bright as those of bats. Or had the cellar’s traditional decor found her utterly without surprise?
David would have liked to ponder this point, but he had no time. Elaine was moving slowly toward the altar, and he felt the others pushing him after her by a pressure which was as much psychic as it was actual and physical. The train of worshippers moved across the floor in a slow, skirling dance, while the altar receded and space itself seemed to flap around them giddily. Then David and Elaine were on firm ground once more and facing the cress with the impaled toad.
The chanting came softly up to them. Elaine let her cape glide slowly from her shoulders to the ground. In the light of the black candles her skin shone like alabaster and as she drew her midnight hair down from its pins Kate (David could see her heavy body from the corner of his eye) gave a little skip and moaned deliriously.
Wonderful Elaine. He loved her, they were all in love with her. He felt himself flooded by an emotion that was only the more poignant because he could not be sure whether it was basically anguish or bliss.
The chanting grew louder. It was time. Half-stifling, David took over the role of celebrant. He was submerged in emotion, drowning in it. In the midst of his passion he clung desperately to the words and symbols of the ritual, and wonderfully, unbetrayingly, the rite mounted from climax to climax in the old vertiginous way.
There came the moment when he picked up the knife. “Kneel,” he said to beautiful, wonderful Elaine. And Elaine, smiling faintly, reached out and took the knife from him.
Did Kate gasp? No, there came no sound. And the strangest thing was that there was not the least change of emphasis, even when he knelt and she held the basin before his throat, the strangest thing was that nothing was in the least strange.
No, not even there was there strangeness. Whatever he had done had been done for the family. Year after year he had provided. Tonight, too, he would provide. The knife in Elaine’s hand was descending. Relaxed and gratified, David closed his eyes.
The Devil’s Graveyard
by G.G. Pendarves
Over the jagged spine of rock which crested the hill known as the “Devil’s Teeth,” in that neighborhood—the great reddened orb of a harvest moon rose like the eye of some gigantic Polyphemus peering down on that unhallowed spot with wide unblinking stare, eager to witness once again the triumph of deathless hate—to gloat with full-orbed vision on the resurrection of all that was evil and abominable.
Fremling and Radcliffe stood watching the rising of this ill-omened moon, the younger man with beating heart and a feeling of helpless terror which made his hands and feet icy cold, and the breath come short and quick through his nostrils. His nervous excitement was in strong contrast to the calm of his companion, who looked alternately from his watch to the heavy shadow cast by the hill—a shadow retreating gradually like some furtive guilty thing back into the bulk of the hill.
Fremling drew from his pocket a roll of parchment yellow with age, and consulted it narrowly.
“In half an hour’s time, according to this manuscript,” he said, “the outline of the grave should be distinct, and we shall learn the exact spot where Giles’ blood was shed. It is there that we must meet the demon-soul which possesses your brother’s body—and it is there alone that we can destroy it.”
A long shudder shook David’s body as he looked furtively round at the trees which encircled the open grassy space. He watched the inky shadow of the hill, until its sharp outline became hazy and indistinct and the whole scene swam in a pale mist before his aching eyes. For a moment he shut them to recall Maisie’s face—to nerve himself by the thought of her love and belief in him to face what was coming.
“Ah—h—h”—the low exclamation from Fremling made his heart stop beating; then his pulses throbbed furiously as he followed the direction of the other’s pointing finger.
A luminous red stain, its shape unmistakable and sinister, was growing momentarily more distinct there on the grass in front of them…not six feet distant! Every leaf and blade of grass or weed within that rectangular boundary gleamed red as blood and fiery bright.
Sir Donald picked up from the ground a short broad-bladed sword, worn and stained, its hilt encrusted with rubies whose fire outshone even the crimson glare of the grave itself.
“Dig…dig swiftly,” he commanded, putting the weapon in the young man’s hands. “Do not lose a moment—all depends now on your speed—before midnight that grave must lie open to the moon and stars, or we shall meet Giles unprepared and helpless.”
Urged and goaded by repeated warnings, David pursued his dreadful task. The red grass came up easily enough, being rooted in a light powdered soil of the same deep red stain as the grass itself.
As the last sod of that stained weed was cut up and tossed aside, Fremling drew David quickly back from the graveside, and as he did so a great tremor shook the whole place, and a tongue of fire shot with a hissing roar skyward from the uncovered grave.
When it died Fremling went forward and peered cautiously into the grave, beckoning David to his side.
Clutching the older man with icy hands, the other looked, and drew back with a gasp…a dark shaft had opened, reaching to unfathomable depths, in whose yawning chasm a far-off point of green light burned like an evil star of the underworld.
David recoiled with ashen face, while Sir Donald’s firm mouth set in its sternest lines.
“It is Gaffarel! Gaffarel the Mighty! Gaffarel and the Four Ancient Ones who come against us,” he whispered to his trembling companion. “This place is saturated with unspeakable guilt.”
His eyes closed for a minute as he muttered a few low indistinct words. Then taking from his pocket a small phial he turned to David again, and with a certain rare and fragrant oil he rapidly anointed the eyes, nose, and mouth of his companion and himself.
“I warn you,” Fremling said, “to wait in silence now for what shall come. Do not utter a syllable, or you will plunge us both into that devil’s tomb where Giles and his legions await us.”
Chill eddies of wind swept up against the silent pair as the midnight hour approached…the ground under their feet trembled with the thundering march of some invisible army…the sound of countless hoarse voices and echoing horrid laughter came faintly to their ears.
Fremling drew forth a rod of ancient ivory, carved with symbols of magic as old as the dawn of the world. Its tip gleamed with pale fire, and as Sir Donald traced on the ground the outline of the sacred pentacle, the rank grass burned fiercely in its wake, and within the fiery five-pointed star David and Fremling stood by the graveside waiting.
Strange flickering lights moved among the trees which hemmed them in. Shadows formed and re-formed in sinister array about them.
The chill of death gripped David’s heart, and he turned to look at his companion, standing upright and steadfast, his face raised to the midnight sky, his lips moving rapidly.
Suddenly all noise and movement ceased abruptly, and in the intense stillness, David nerved himself for the last supreme effort. To face Giles the Thruster—to defy him—to pit his own will against the awful power of the demon.
It was coming—coming! In every nerve he felt the dread approach of the Enemy. With cold lips he murmured over to himself the ancient words of power that Fremling had taught him, and with shaking fingers pressed a leaf of vervain to his nostrils.
There upon the open grave stood Giles, a gigantic shadow, his beckoning figure drawing David with irresistible lure.
Like one in a trance, David took a stiff step forward, but ere he could move again, Fremling advanced swiftly and interposed his own body between the monstrous Shadow and its victim.
At this, the baleful lights outside the pentacle drew closer, and dim forms were visible, bestial and uncouth, surging forward with horrid effort to pass the barrier of fire.
Fremling stood as though carved in stone; not a step did he give back, as with almost imperceptible movement Giles advanced upon him. There was not a hand’s breadth between them, when Fremling held up the fire-tipped rod, and in a loud clear voice commanded Giles to return to the place whence he came. Three times Sir Donald repeated the terrible name, which can command even the Ancient Four themselves, and slowly Giles the Thruster retreated—his hate powerless against the divine courage of his antagonist.
Inch by inch Sir Donald advanced—inch by inch Giles moved backward to the grave.
Sir Donald’s face was awful in its set intensity, his steady eyes fixed on the flaming eyeballs of the demon who opposed him.
Good and Evil matched in a colossal struggle for supremacy.
Back over the brink of the grave Giles was forced, and then with the swiftness of light Fremling raised the magic rod and plunged its blazing tip deep into the Thruster’s heart.
A great tongue of flame shot up from the fathomless depths of the grave, wrapping round Giles like a winding sheet of fire!
And in that same moment the phantom lights that pressed about the pentacle vanished utterly—the blazing star itself dimmed, and went out.
David gripped his companion’s arm convulsively as they waited.
The black clouds overhead were torn by a blinding glare, followed by crash after crash of thunder, shaking the solid earth.
Then came the rain, sudden and torrential—washing the evil of the haunted spot from off the earth, and Fremling and Radcliffe lifted their faces thankfully to its cleansing sweetness.
At last it ceased, the darkness lifted, and from a ragged fringe of cloud the moon shone dear and bright. Grass and trees glistened with the silvery sparkle of some enchanted forest.
How strangely altered was that sullen ring of trees! That ragged, haunted, desolate spot!
Not haunted now—quiet and lonely, perhaps, but not desolate.
A calm sweet peace brooded over the place; the threatening copse had become a friendly shelter from the storm, where the birds cowered and shook their wings, piping encouragement to one another as they dried their wet feathers.
The circle of grass was wholly green. No red stain now, nor gaping depth was there. Green and fragrant the weeds and long waving grasses shone in the moonlight.
by Michael Kelly
Everything was dark.
You’ve come back. For a time, after Carly, everything went dark and you went away. But now you are back for one last trick-or-treat.
Tonight, the moon is a bright, sharp sickle. Briefly, there is a strange indigo stillness, as if the world is holding a purple breath. But then a chill gust of wind brushes past and you think you hear peals of laughter or nervous screams, and you’re back, blinking into the void of your former childhood.
Everything is the same. Everything is different. Across the street is the parkette where you and Carly first kissed, each seated in a rusty swing, leaning sideways to touch lips, to touch hearts. Now, the leather seat of one swing hangs loose, flapping in the night breeze like a broken bat wing. Beyond the parkette, past the ancient climbing bars, is the slim trail snaking into the woods, the shortcut to school, now overgrown with creeper vines and impassable. Behind you, on the corner of the block in the little strip mall, is Gino’s Pizza, the iconic neon pizza sign sputtering, one pepperoni slice having winked out, the tang of salty grease in the air. Next to Gino’s is McClatchey’s Funeral Parlor, dark and shuttered like the coffins inside. Turning, you glance the other way and see the large gnarly oak on the Kelvin’s front lawn, more twisted than you remember, skeletal branches reaching across the road. You stand alone on the sidewalk, beside a silent hedgerow, tall and dark. October is the lonely country, you think.
You have shrouded yourself in a simple bedsheet. You don’t want to be recognized. Not that anyone is expecting you. Truth-be-told, you’re probably too old for trick-or-treating. Trauma ages everyone, even the young.
You remember that night. Some of it, at any rate. And this is what you remember.
That night was orange and black and filled with autumn: mounds of damp leaves like freshly-dug graves; sulphurous wood smoke trailing from red-brick chimneys; the pungent rot of grinning pumpkins on wooden porches; and capering ghosts and cackling witches scuttling along rain-slicked sidewalks. A time of innocence, you’d think. But it wasn’t. Not really. You’d survived the Summer of Sam. Then someone in Atlanta killed a bunch of children. Another kid had died in the woods near your school. There was cyanide in Tylenol in Chicago. Still … Halloween, and you quivered with anticipation, and for one glorious night you could forget the rest of the world. You could chance a few razorblades in apples.
And there was Carly, of course. And she was 13-years-old. And you loved her so. You knew it, with all your young, bursting heart. It was first love. The love like no other. The love that blooms fresh; yearning and trembling and scary. The love that hurts.
“Watch out for my girl,” Carly’s Mom had said. “Watch out for my little red,” she said, as Carly, smiling brightly, stepped off the porch in her hooded and swirling candy-apple red cape, a dervish of excited energy. And you could only gawp stupidly at such beauty, before stuttering “I—I will. With my life.”
You stood on the wet ground stamping your feet, grinning behind a tattered bedsheet, your heart pounding, as the wind sang a wet and gurgling song of knives and teeth. In love. You were in love. And now the night seemed endless, full of mystery and strange wonder. And you grinned and grinned.
Reaching out, you took Carly’s hand. She flashed a smile and did a skip, pulled you along. Her happiness stops you dead. Then you both raced along the wet leaf-strewn pavement, laughing, the capricious cedar-scented wind pushing you as you collected treats — and the occasional trick — from monsters and demons and ghouls in their haunted, spiderweb-bedecked houses. You could almost believe the monsters were real. After a time, your sack was heavy. You opened it, peered in at the chocolate bars, the bags of potato chips, the caramel candies, the bubble-gum. You looked up, and suddenly you were alone, and the mad grin slipped from your face. Where was Carly?
Then you heard the creak … creak of the rusted chains of the swing, and a sudden angry gust of wind blustered, and you saw a flash of red. Carly!
You sprinted across the street to the parkette, to the swing-set, and dropped your candy-laden sack. You pushed the sheet up off your face. “Carly,” you said, softly. “You scared me.” Then, “Don’t ever leave me.”
Carly planted her feet, stared at you intently, eyes sparkling even in the lonesome dark. “There’s nothing to be frightened off, silly,” Carly said, and leaned in and kissed you. Tender. You trembled.
“The Irving’s are giving out cans of soda,” you said. “They’re on Poplar Street.”
Carly scrunched up her face. “It’s all the way around the block.”
“We can cut through the woods,” you said. “Come out on Poplar.”
“Too dark,” Carly said. “Besides, I heard they found some bones in the woods. Human bones.”
You laughed uncertainly, trying to remember. “That can’t be true. Probably just a dead fox or something.”
Carly stood, held out her hand. “Okay, but don’t let go.”
And here … here your memory is … . You both stepped into the woods, holding hands, following the winding trail. You and Carly. You and Little Red. You remember joking about wolves. You moved along the dirt path, dead leaves crunching underfoot, clutching Carly’s hand. The wind had died. Everything went silent, tomb-like. Dark. So dark. You stumbled along the path, into the darkening woods. And something scraped your arm, tangled in your sheet. Something thin and skeletal. A branch. You shivered. Carly giggled. Nervous. And the wind picked up again, soft. But not the wind, no. A faint rasping from behind you, dry and ancient. Just the wind, you thought. Hurrying, you both moved further into the dark wood. If you could just get to the other side. It had to be close. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Crack! The sound of a branch snapping. Then another crack behind you, a crunching noise, like footsteps. Something moans. Carly gasps. The night, you think. The night is alive. Snap! Closer, closer. Then those thin and sinewy branches grab you. Not branches. Arms, and hands. Pulling, clutching, smothering. Carly is wrenched from your grasp, and there is a short scream, then an eerie blue silence descended, and there is a rapid dimming, and then everything went dark and you went away. And Carly was lost to the woods.
And now … now you’re like a ragamuffin, lost and alone without Carly. You don’t know why you’ve come back. Or even how. Penance of some sort, you guess. Closure. You’re not even carrying a sack. You’re just another ghost on a night full of ghosts, wandering lost.
You move down the sidewalk, following the imperious hedgerow to the end of the street. The wind blows, making the trees sing, mournful. The sky is dark and starless, the moon a glowing crescent like a lidded eye. You turn the corner. Ghouls and skeletons and witches pass you by, paying you no heed.
Then you are in front of Carly’s house. Don’t ever leave me, you’d said. A creak. And the front door opens and there — impossibly! — is Carly. She’s with someone, a sheeted figure, and she’s smiling, happy, coming down the porch steps, and if you had a heart still it would splinter into a million slivers to be scattered to the cruel October wind. Carly! Your mind is a wild tumult, dimming. She’s coming toward you. Her and her ghost companion. You lift your arm to wave, but it’s caught in the sheet, and how will she recognise you? How will she see you? Frantic, you tear at the sheet, pull it off, and the wind catches it and spirits it away. You wave, try to speak, but nothing emerges but a faint, muffled choking, as if your mouth is packed with dirt. And Carly and the ghost walk past you. You turn to go after her, to get her attention, but she’s laughing now, that joyous childhood Halloween laugh that drifts on October winds. She’s skipping, and her happiness stops you dead. You blink and the indigo silence returns, and everything darkens…
…and before you know it, you are at the trail entrance again, as the wind sings, as the chains twist and moan and creak, as branches crack and snap, and you’re staring at the tangle of vines and creepers and the darkness beyond. Impassable. But not for you, never for you, and you enter, and everything is dimming, and now you’ve gone away.
And everything is dark.
About the Authors
Michael Kelly is the former Series Editor for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He’s a Shirley Jackson Award and British Fantasy Award-winning editor, and a four-time World Fantasy Award nominee. His fiction has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and has been previously collected in Scratching the Surface, Undertow & Other Laments, and All the Things We Never See. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Undertow Publications, and editor of Weird Horror magazine.
G.G. Trenery contributed “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” to The Horn Book for November 1931. Otherwise, all of her known stories were in Argosy All-Story Magazine, The Magic Carpet Magazine, Oriental Stories, and Weird Tales, all from 1926 to 1939. Her last three stories in “The Unique Magazine” were published posthumously, as Gladys G. Trenery died on August 1, 1938. That sad event is lost among the deaths of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft from the previous two years.
Margaret St. Clair (17 February 1911 – 22 November 1995) was an American science fiction writer. Beginning in the late 1940s, St. Clair wrote and published, by her own count, some 130 short stories. St. Clair wrote that she “first tried [her] hand at detective and mystery stories, and even the so-called ‘quality’ stories”, before finding her niche writing fantasy and science fiction for pulp magazines. “Unlike most pulp writers, I have no special ambitions to make the pages of the slick magazines. I feel that the pulps at their best touch a genuine folk tradition and have a balladic quality which the slicks lack.” (more…)
About the Narrators
David is a 35 year old voice actor from Ogden, UT with 5 kids. He has a passion for all things horror, from gaming to books and audio and more. Listeners can also hear him on the third season of SCP Archives as well as occasionally on Tales to Terrify
James Barnett aka Jimmy Horrors is the creator/host/producer of the Night’s End podcast, a short story fiction podcast with tales of horror and the paranormal. Search for it wherever you get your podcasts. You can also catch other works of his at jamesbarnettcreative.com or the Night’s End podcast at nightsendpodcast.com
Simon Meddings is a freelance writer and scriptwriter, he is also an actor and has recently appeared in the horror film Polterheist directed by David Gilbank. Simon hosts the Waffle On Podcast all about classic television shows and films from around the world. Available on itunes, Stitcher radio and direct at Podbean.