Neal Privett

The October Selected Writer is Neal Privett

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by Neal Privett

Absinthe loosened the gears and made Steve Hayes finally put his money where his mouth was. After two glasses of emerald green dreams, he took the proposed bet and went willingly to spend the night at the old Harris House, despite an initial mountain of hesitations and apprehensions that had slowed his will a scant two hours before. Now he was on the way amidst the cheers and jeers of the Wednesday night pub patrons, half of whom were two sheets to the wind.

Hayes was going to prove that the old house was not haunted.

Spend the night there, you big-talkin’ bastard, they all said after Hayes proudly proclaimed that he didn’t believe in such rot. Spend the night…or shut the hell up.

Hayes never learned to shut up, so he reluctantly agreed to spend the night in the Harris House. He agreed with the unease that bubbled deep inside him concealed so that no one could see it. There was free flowing beer, and then absinthe in the back room, where Tyler Bloch, the well traveled doctor’s son, opened up a fresh bottle and after a few toasts; everyone was dancing with the emerald fairies on the night wind.

Tyler Bloch—with his handsome, chiseled features and collegiate sweater— seemed so confident and sophisticated. He toasted Hayes’ bravery with his damnable upper-class Boston accent and before he knew it, Hayes was staggering out into the streets, en route to the most haunted house in the entire state.

Maybe even the whole country.

It was supposed to be a house that was damned all the way to the termite-riddled center. A house where a father had gone mad a hundred years ago and chopped his family into rat-bait. It was a place where a series of young girls had vanished and had been found later with their grey flesh shriveled and the blood drained from their ravaged bodies. It was a house, devoid of life and light, where several other brave souls, like Hayes, had gone to investigate the spiritual phenomena that manifested itself in strange lights that appeared and disappeared in upstairs windows and unearthly groans of pain and horror that emanated from deep within the black recesses of the house on the darkest of nights. Those who had gone there had never been seen again. At least, that was the rumor.

Steve laughed to himself as he walked down the empty streets of the small town. Superstitious rot. He paused. He was setting himself up. The arrogant and bold hero who doesn’t believe what the locals warn him about. Bound to get taken by the haints. The challenging words of the local pub patrons came back to him. They’ll show ya, he smirked. They’ll get ya.

He found his car in the tiny lot adjacent to the old bank and in a few minutes was well on the way. The lights of town vanished behind him as he glanced one last time through the rear view mirror and the deep obsidian blackness of the surrounding woods closed in on him. The moonless night was so thick that his headlights barely cut through. He wiped the cold sweat from his eyes and pushed on into the soft October swirl of blowing leaves and dying stars.

The absinthe made his head feel as if there was a little man living behind his eyeballs that paid rent and threw wild parties. The little bastard jumped around and broke furniture and generally made his head throb and pulsate with weirdness. He blinked several times and rubbed his numbed face. The devil’s juice, he laughed as his brain sizzled.

Sometime later he found the road he was looking for, unmarked, and veering off to the right through the trees. It was a simple thoroughfare from some previous time; unpaved and littered with wet leaves that gently cushioned his tires. He followed the old road for miles, dodging potholes and wash-outs, until he came to a creek and a decaying bridge, as ancient as the road.

Hayes came to a stop and rolled his window down. It was dark enough that he couldn’t tell how far down the creek was, not even with his headlights, which probably meant that it was a really far drop if the bridge collapsed. He could hear the water roaring and rushing around great boulders below. He sighed and proceeded across.

He gritted his teeth nervously as the bridge’s support beams began to creak and whine with the unexpected weight from his second-hand Ford. He pushed harder on the gas pedal and the car bumped along over the decaying boards. He felt the car go down and bounce as one of the boards gave way. He suppressed a frightened cry as the bridge began to sway and almost tremble. But he made it safely to the other side and sped away into the night as he breathed a sigh of relief.

The road took him directly to the old house. It made sense, he muttered to himself—the one way in and out. Nobody cared enough to make a better road or even an alternate one. Who the hell else would want to live way out here, but a crazed killer and a bunch of ghosts?

His heart sank. There it was, straight up ahead, appearing out of the dark woods like a lost soul discovered by an unexpected visitor. Maybe the house didn’t want to be found, he thought. Maybe the ghosts didn’t want to be disturbed. Maybe they were perfectly happy way out here doing their own ghostly things and minding their own ghostly business. Maybe he wouldn’t be welcome. That was assuming there were such things. The sight of that old place could make a person at least consider the existence of ghosts, he thought. Then he rejected the idea.

Hayes popped the trunk and removed his sleeping bag and his flashlight. He could just tell the guys that he spent the night here and return tomorrow evening to tell a fabricated story of his eventless exploits. Or maybe he could just drive on to another town and forget this craziness. No, he was too proud. That was what brought him here, on this night…in the middle of nowhere.

Pride. The inability to back down—a character trait that had made him blow his money—had landed him in jail and almost caused him to overdose on booze many times through the years. And besides, there was a thousand-dollar prize, courtesy of the rich-boy Bloch, waiting for him when he returned…if he pulled this insanity off. All he had to do was bring back some photos of the house’s interior on his phone, a feat he couldn’t fake.

Where else would he find a photograph of antique chandeliers, a winding staircase, and a massive stone fireplace in the middle of the night on such short notice? No, he was trapped into doing this. He was too arrogant and he needed the thousand bucks. So here he stood in the weed ridden front yard with the spectral Victorian house looming ahead like a dark angel with hidden mysteries deep within her bosom.

Hayes sighed and trudged towards the sagging front porch. His high-beam flashlight cut a trail through the dark shadows. A cool gust of wind blew leaves all around the grown up yard. A bat flew overhead, chasing after its nightly feast of bugs. Hayes laughed at the cliché he had stumbled into. It was like those 70s horror sound effect records he listened to as a kid with all the lights cut off.

The wraparound porch creaked with his weight as he moved cautiously up the front steps. He took his time, stepping over the gaping holes that had rotted through the boards. A possum raced past and made him jump. He saw the curled tail vanish through one of the porch holes.

A cold shiver raced up his spine as he found himself before the looming front door. What waited on the other side was a mystery. And that was terrifying. Hayes took a deep breath. There wasn’t anything inside that wasn’t there in the daytime. That possum would be the most frightening thing he would encounter all night.

He smiled at his unease, as though he were whistling in the dark. He ran his hands across the door. It was hand-carved oak, faded and rough from the hard passing of time.

The Harris family probably had this shipped in from Boston, maybe even England. Great craftsmanship. The termites had had a go with it, however. His fingers found the tell-tale holes where the bastards had been chewing relentlessly. Leave a house unattended for long, and nature has a way of taking it all back. Once the door had been a very expensive addition to the residence. Now it was merely a decaying relic that hung limply on rusted hinges that looked as if they could give way at any second, sending the great door crashing down on top of him.

He hesitated, then double-checked his batteries and reached out for the brass knob. It felt clammy and cold in his hand. But maybe that was because he was sweating from the alcohol he had ingested or maybe it was also from a solemn unease that had been steadily settling over him since he left the pub.

Hayes was a big talker, all right. But now that he was anteing up, it didn’t feel so great. In fact, his churning stomach felt like it was going to explode and rupture. His heart was beating and quivering like a trapped rat inside his ribcage. He stood there with his trembling hand on the doorknob as the long seconds oozed by, not knowing if he actually had the power to open the door and walk inside…into the unknown.

“To hell with it,” he whispered. The knob creaked as he turned it. He pushed with all of his strength and finally forced the thick door open. One of the rusted hinges popped and snapped. The door lurched off to one side and hung there. Hayes tried to twist the door back into place, but the other hinge broke as well. He propped the oaken door against the wall and eased on inside.

It was like walking into a dark cave. At first, the flashlight’s beam barely severed the black strands of night that bound the enormous bottom level in mythic darkness. But after a few minutes, His eyes adjusted. He was standing in the front parlor that opened into a larger room. His range of vision ended there.

He took another uneasy step and the floor boards creaked loudly. The sound echoed throughout the house and the effect was completely unnerving. There was a thick coating of dust on the floor and the furniture, which, surprisingly was still there. The chairs, the large couch with the soft cushions that were now discolored and full of rat holes, were veritable antiques and likely worth something. Yet, nobody had bothered to come out here and claim the stuff.

He passed through the parlor and made his way into the living room. Everything was covered in thick nightmarish cobwebs that caught the dust. The web was everywhere; hanging down from the ceiling and draping the walls and furniture in great silken sheets that betrayed the deep time of the old house. He sneezed and coughed as he stumbled into a low-hanging web in the dark and struggled to remove it from his face. No sooner had he clawed the web away then he walked into another.

The room was large but suffocating. The spider webs and the thick darkness crowded in around him without mercy.

Hayes knew he didn’t belong here. No living person did. This was another dimension, another time and another place. He wanted nothing more than to leave…to hop into his car and brave again the dark road and the creaking bridge and make it back into town where there was light and bodies and beer. But he had promised to eke out a night’s occupation here and that’s just what he was going to do. He spent the next five minutes trying to convince himself of that fact. Besides, the guys back in town were probably keeping a sharp eye on the road to make sure he didn’t squelch on the bet.

Hayes dropped his bag to the floor in front of the fireplace. He shined the light behind him and saw his own footprints whispering from the dust, bold and ghostly, trailing along in hesitating steps. He glanced around and finally found an old pillow. He quickly dusted a clean spot on the floor and unrolled his bag.

It was going to be a long night.

There was nothing with which to build a fire, and he didn’t relish the thought of making his way back through the parlor and front room to scramble around outside in the dark for kindling. He pulled the edge of his sleeping bag up tight around his face and tried to close his eyes. The night was silent, yet alive with subtle noise that nonetheless sounded like dynamite going off in his ears. He heard a rat scurrying on the floor nearby. He patted his foot on the floor to make sure the beast rambled on about its business and didn’t come his way.

His ears picked up bugs flitting by on the stuffy air and spiders creeping around on their webs.

Just as he started to doze off, he heard something else from the rooms above.

Hayes opened wide his eyes and lay there with his heart beating an out-of-control, panicked rhythm. He tried to keep his breaths quiet and measured, but his lungs were forcing the air out in loud and painful gasps.

What had he heard?

Something had made a noise from somewhere in the dark rooms that melted into one another. And whatever it was ripped him from sleep.

He listened intently. His heart felt as if it would explode and his blood was turning to burning ice in his veins. His stomach hurt. This was crazy. What the hell was he doing here?


That sound again—a door closing upstairs. He heard it this time clearly. There was no doubt. God…who could possibly be here…in this house…in the middle of the night?

His mouth was so dry that his teeth hurt. He started to rise, but decided against it. He didn’t want to make a sound.

Lightning exploded in his brain as he heard another door open…and the tell-tale sound of footsteps as the upstairs flooring creaked with the weight of an unknown person.

Or thing.

Hayes told himself over and over, saying it out loud like a mantra, “Keep it together. Don’t panic!”

Something was up there, above him, moving about from room to room. But ghosts didn’t make the floors creak, did they?

He looked at his luminous blue watch. It was nearly one o’ clock in the morning. Visions of the old man who chopped up his family appeared in his mind and he pictured their bloody, dismembered corpses strewn all about the upstairs rooms. He imagined their futile screams in the night, the horror of their deaths at the hands of someone they trusted. The savage howls of dying children emanated from deep within the abyss and Hayes clenched his eyes together in an effort to perish those thoughts.

Sweet Jesus, he screamed silently in his mind. He tried to push those horrible thoughts out of his head. The sound came again. Someone was walking across the upstairs corridor and this time they weren’t stopping. They were coming slowly down the stairs. Hayes reached for his shoes. He quickly slipped them on, not bothering to tie them.

The stairs creaked softly. Hayes grabbed his light and rushed for the front door, but he came to a sudden stop just before the parlor entrance. A silhouetted figure was standing before the front door, staring silently back at him.

Hayes looked down at his flashlight and flipped the switch, but when he shined a beam of light into the foyer, the figure was gone.

The sound of creaking wood made him wheel around and he saw another dark figure rounding the bottom of the staircase, moving in a rapid, straight trajectory towards him. Hayes cried out and rushed for the door, but something moved between him and the exit, effectively cutting off his escape.

Without thinking, he wheeled around and bolted in the opposite direction, down a small hallway, towards the back of the house. Horrible, mocking laughter filled the house as he raced frantically down the hallway. He had no idea where he was going. Hayes was now a scared animal and the only thing he understood was the overbearing need to escape.

He heard their footsteps behind him; their voices…leering and looming as they called to one another in pursuit. Their words were demonic, otherworldly…a forgotten language. The hallway ended abruptly and Hayes turned to the right and found himself in the ruins of what was once the kitchen. He leaped around an upturned stove and some broken chairs, vaulting into the adjoining hall where a doorway appeared in the ghostly glow of his flashlight.

The footsteps behind him gave him no time to ponder. He threw open the door and plunged downwards into blackness. He slipped at the bottom of the steps and his heart sank as he realized that he had stumbled into the cellar. There was no exit down here.

He was trapped.

Hayes fell to his knees in the dirt, the fevered cries bubbling up inside him. He crawled behind the stairs. He shut off his light and waited in silence as the footsteps scrambled around the kitchen and the upstairs rooms above him. There were more of them now, he could tell. All searching for him. But did they see him open the door and come down into the cellar?

They seemed to be looking for him above. Maybe they didn’t notice that he was down there. Maybe he could ride out the rest of this damnable night until the dawn, and make his escape then.

Maybe…just maybe…there was a window or a side door hidden behind some clutter down here. Maybe he could escape yet. Hayes crawled from behind the steps and inched across the dirt floor in total darkness, feeling his way along. He had traveled several feet when his hand touched something. He ran his finger alongside the object, feeling its cold smoothness for a second before he flipped his flashlight on. He held the terrible object in his hand, examining it in the glow.

It was a human leg bone.

He dropped the bone and backed away. There were more bones in the flashlight beam…and a human skull, grinning back at him from the dirt. Hayes rose quickly and turned his light to the right and then the left. There was human ivory everywhere…and skulls with bits of fresh flesh and scalp still clinging to the bone.

Hayes had stumbled into a human slaughterhouse. He switched off the light again. The dark figures upstairs were no ghosts…they were something far worse. He knelt there in the cellar, trying to squeeze a useful thought from his panicked mind, wondering what he would do next…when he heard a scratching sound from the corner.

It sounded like an animal.

He hesitated, then with a burst of adrenaline; he switched the light back on and pointed the beam in the direction of the scratching sound.

His mind snapped at that very moment. His eyes couldn’t process what they were seeing. The cellar began to buzz and turn blue as he fought to remain conscious.

In the corner of the cellar…perched on a thick net-like web, was an unimaginable, soul-shocking horror: a giant spider…at least five feet across. The creature had an almost human face…with fangs that pushed through the brown lips like daggers and burning eyes that stared a bloody hole into Hayes’ brain. Those eyes sized him up and glowed as the creature tried to shield its terrible face from his glaring flashlight. The creature retreated up its web, towards the corner of the low ceiling.

The web stretched across that entire half of the cellar and Hayes noticed the dangling bits of bone and flesh that hung from the walls. He cried out, “What in God’s name are you?”

The thing let out a deafening screech that was part human, part beast…and he covered his ears, trying in vain to block the terrible sound out. The horrible mutation teetered back and forth on its web and studied Hayes with a confused, almost pained, look. Foam bubbled around its bug-like fangs as it opened and closed its mouth in protest at Hayes unexpected appearance.

All Hayes could do was scream.

The creature’s fur covered legs clicked as it crept a few feet closer, then reversed itself and backed further away onto the safety of its web. It screeched again in defiance of Hayes and before he could move, the upstairs door burst open and several black clad figures rushed down the steps. They were on top of Hayes before he could react.

They fell on him like ravenous dogs and wrestled him to the ground. The flashlight fell to the floor and the cellar was partially hidden in shadow as the struggle continued. Steven fought to no avail. His screams were silenced by a hand across his mouth and a solid punch to the back. Two of the black figures held him up while another stepped in front of Hayes and removed the black covering from his face.

A familiar voice appeared out of nowhere as the figure moved forward into the light.

The searing flash of recognition hit Hayes as he saw before him the very person who had toasted him earlier and sent him on this insane venture…Tyler Bloch. “Congratulations,” the doctor’s son laughed. “You have more guts than I gave you credit for. You actually went through with it after all.”

There was laughter all around him. “You’re all right, Hayes,” another voice jeered. Hayes recognized the man as another patron of the pub.

Bloch turned the flashlight on the creature in the corner. “Magnificent, isn’t she?”

The thing moved down the web, a little closer. It hung on Bloch’s words and waited in anticipation for something. Hayes tried not to imagine what that something might be. The thing’s face was brown like its spider body, but the flesh around its eyes and mouth was soft and man-like. Its nose had flared nostrils and was that of a human being. The beast had two dark eyes that reflected the light. Hayes wondered how a monstrous anomaly like this could have happened.

Bloch appeared to be enjoying the fear he created. “This is our goddess…no, not literally. We found her one day when we were messing around in this old house. We found her right down here in the cellar.”

The thing waited impatiently. It looked from Hayes to Bloch and bounced up and down on its web. Drool oozed from its open mouth and dripped from its ivory-like fangs. “We pretty much had the same reaction as you at first. She really scared the hell out of us.”

The beast in the corner growled.

“But we decided to keep an open mind about these things, Hayes. And you must as well. We can’t possibly understand everything in this world and just because we don’t understand it doesn’t give us the right to judge.”

Hayes found his voice all of a sudden. “What are you going to do, Bloch?”

Do? Why, we are going to feed our goddess…that’s what we’re going to do. You see, Hayes…we discovered that as long as we fed her, she would take care of us. We get to split everything we get from the victims. Money, cars, jewelry. It’s a nice little side business, Steve. Look around…all these bones. You would be surprised at how many people take a bet.”

Bloch gestured towards the web and the others dragged Hayes closer. He kicked and screamed and tried to escape, but it was no use. The masked men pulled his arms tight behind him until Hayes thought they would crack.

One of them grabbed the back of his head and shoved him into the web. Hayes screamed as his vertebrae started to crackle and pop under the strain of their hands. He could hear the click of the spider’s legs and felt the web trembling under her weight as she moved towards him. Then came the impact of something hard and sharp on the base of his skull. The stars exploded and everything turned to white hot heat as he felt the venom pollute his blood.

In another few seconds, everything went dark.        

Neal Privett lives on a farm somewhere in Tennessee, where he writes furiously, drinks too much coffee, and brews horror pulp in the barn. His work can be found in several anthologies, including The Fall of Cthulhu II, Hammer of the Gods, Swords and Planets, Riding the Dark Frontier, Through Clouded Eyes: A Zombie’s Point of View, and Pirates Versus Monsters. His stories have appeared in The Horror Zine, Sanitarium, Blood Moon Rising, Schlock!, Hellfire Crossroads, Sirens Call, and Cheapjack Pulp. And on Saturday nights, he can be seen on the local horror television show, Tennessee Macabre, which can be streamed online at wepgradio.com.