Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale has written novels and stories in many genres, including Western, horror, science fiction, mystery, and suspense. He has also written for comics as well as "Batman: The Animated Series." As of 2020, he has written 50 novels and published more than 30 short-story collections (maybe 40 by now) along with many chapbooks and comic-book adaptations. His stories have won ten Bram Stoker Awards, a British Fantasy Award, an Edgar Award, a World Horror Convention Grand Master Award, a Sugarprize, a Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, a Spur Award, and a Raymond Chandler Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been inducted into The Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and several of his novels have been adapted to film.

You can learn more about Joe HERE


by Joe R. Lansdale


It was a late spring, late afternoon, the sun starting to dip, birds calling from the trees, when they stopped at a little filling station just east of Nacogdoches, along the East Texas-Louisiana border. It was a ramshackle place with a little carport attachment with a grease monkey lying under a pickup truck, twisting a wrench.

Mary went inside for some snacks, and Monty and George stood outside.

“Man,” Monty said, “I’d love a cigarette.”

“Not a good idea with me gassing up the car,” George said.

“Actually, I’ve quit. I don’t have any cigarettes, but I think about it. I was looking at that sign for cigarettes on the door there, thinking about buying some Kools, but I’m not going to. I’m going to be strong. I think.”

George nodded, said, “What do you think about the King? Do you believe in it?”

“Well,” Monty said. “I know I’m enjoying myself. It’s a nice day, the beginning of the weekend, and we’re in the company of a beautiful young woman.”

“The King, do you believe?”

“I’ve heard about him all my life. Mainly old people. I don’t know if there’s much written about it or not. But I’ve heard of it. I’ve heard of the Goatman, too. It’s supposed to haunt the river bottoms.”

“That’s no kind of answer. Do you believe in it? That’s the real question.”

“Depends on what day you ask me. Say it’s on Wednesday, I believe in it, on Fridays, too. Rest of the time, except Sunday, I’ll say no.”

“What about Sunday?” George said, hanging up the nozzle, starting to screw the cap back on the gas tank.

Monty grinned. “I have mixed feelings that day.”

“But you add it all up, you got mixed feelings all over. That’s what you’re saying, aren’t you?”

“I’m saying mostly I don’t believe it, but sometimes, I’m not so sure. It’s like Bigfoot. Sometimes I believe in that. My cousin says he’s seen them around here, over in Louisiana. He seems reliable, takes it very serious. Always on the verge of capturing or killing one, or finding hair or blood or feces samples that will prove it for sure, but then it never happens. So, I think good people can con themselves, maybe even know it on one level, that they’re doing it I mean, but they can fool themselves.”

“You’re saying it isn’t possible?”

“I guess Bigfoot is possible. The woods are thick around here, anything could hide out there. But…”

“But what?”

“Wouldn’t someone capture one, get a good photo, shoot one, one would get hit by a car? And it wouldn’t always be one that gets up and runs off like in all the stories, but one that dies, just like any animal gets hit. Wouldn’t you think there’d be more solid evidence? Something more than stories of sightings, a few vague photographs. That film with a guy in an obvious ape suit?
It doesn’t seem likely, a bunch of eight- and nine-foot-tall monkeys running around and no one can find them. But the King, I don’t know. Maybe that’s a different matter.”

“How is that?”

“’Cause it’s a snake. That could be. There’s lots of snakes around here, and maybe there really is a King Cotton Mouth. That’s not so fantastic.”

“Yeah, but the King, he, or it, is supposed to be magical. That’s pushing it, don’t you think?”

“That’s the part I don’t believe, but a big snake, I can buy that. The rest of it, the magic business, that could have grown up around people seeing a snake like that. They might think it’s magical. Especially if it’s as old as they say. Who knows how long something like that could live. I hear crocodiles, other kinds of reptiles, can live a long time. Turtles, some of them, don’t they get to be like, I don’t know, four hundred years old or something? Still, I’m just talking about the possibility of a big snake. Forty feet of water moccasin, like the legends say, that’s a pretty tall order. That’s bigger than an anaconda, a python. Damn. Guess I’m talking in circles. It’s like I said, one minute I believe in something like this, the next I don’t. Mostly I don’t.”

“You don’t believe in the King, why’d you come?”

“I don’t know you believe in it either, George.”

“I don’t know what I believe. I’m curious, though. Mary, she believes in it, and she’s pretty darn smart.”

“Mary believes in astrology, numerology, and every dumb thing like that you can think of. She’s a good girl, and a smart one, but she believes stuff because she wants to, not because she ought to. Not because there’s any real reason. I will say this: I’d love to get her in the sack. I’d like to see she’s got red hair where it counts. I can believe that’s likely, me finding that out. But, the King? I don’t know.”

“So, you’re not really interested in this King business at all.”

“I’m curious about it. Some. Just not as much as I’m curious about Mary. Ever since I met her in the student lounge, well, I’ve been interested in her. She’s not interested, that’s all right. I like being with her. I’d like to get with her, if you know what I mean. I’m along for the ride, no matter what happens. What about you? You aren’t taking a folklore class?”

“Actually, I was hoping to get with Mary, too.”

“Georgie, we are scum,” Monty said. “Worse, we’re male.”

Mary came out of the store with a large bag, her thick red hair bouncing around her shoulders.
“I knew you were getting that much,” Monty said, “I’d have helped you carry it.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “You guys want something? I got some candy bars, some soft drinks, some moon pies. We get down in the woods, I got jerky, some bottled water. Some tins of stuff, nothing to cook though.”

“Moon pies?” Monty said. “Really?”

“I wouldn’t pull your chain about something like that. I don’t think it’s fair to joke about moon pies.”

“What kind of candy you got?” Monty asked.

“Oh Henry bars.”

“That works for me, honey.”

“George?” Mary asked.

“Nothing for me.”

Monty drove with Mary beside him, George in the back.

Monty said, “This snake business. I know you’re researching it for a grade, but why’d you decide on this?”

“You know how?” Mary said. “I’m interested in folklore.”

“That’s the college part,” Monty said, “but the way you’re going at this, it’s got to be more.”

“Personal fascination. Snakes interest me, too…. Really, that’s it.”
“What do you have to do to get this grade, besides bring us along to make sure you don’t get snakebit?” George said.

“Take some pictures of the area. I may talk to some old-timers about it, but I don’t know I need to. I’ve done a lot of research. I have a lot of notes, and recorded interviews Klaus Kaller did with folks around here. He was going to write a book, but never did. Died before he could really put his research together. There’s one article he did, and that’s it. A mention here and there. Maybe I’ll see something. Maybe I’ll see the King. I believe he exists.”

There was a pause, then Monty said, “Well, you believe in a lot of things. Short time I’ve known you, I got to say, you believe in a lot of things.”

Mary laughed. “So, because I believe in astrology, things like that, stuff you don’t believe in, you can’t believe in anything I believe?”

“A giant snake in East Texas that’s magical, that’s kind of hard to swallow,” Monty said. “Like I was telling George, I can believe in a big snake, but not a real big magic snake.”

“What about you, George?” Mary asked.

George shrugged. “I’m opened-minded about it.”

“I was talking to the man in the store back there,” Mary said. “He believes in the King.”

“Good-looking, long-legged young woman came into my store, wanted me to believe in a big magic snake,” Monty said, “I might say I did, even if I didn’t.”

“He said he knew men — hunters — who had seen it. He said he even knew someone who had died from a bite from the King.

“Lot of people die from snakebites,” Monty said.

“Not that many do, really,” Mary said. “Not these days. And it depends on the snake. But he said he knew a man when he was growing up, an old black man that knew the woods, went out to find the King. Was going to capture it, thought he could sell it to a zoo or something, make a bunch of money.”

“But it didn’t work out?”

“Oh, he found it all right. The King bit him. Bit him by spreading its mouth over his head. Bit him on either side of his neck, along the shoulders actually. From shoulder to shoulder, that’s a wide bite span. Bigger than a normal snake of any kind. He didn’t die right off. He got away somehow, made it to the highway and collapsed. His body was so swollen up, he looked like some kind of monster.”

“If it ever happened.”

Mary scrunched up her face. “You are a true skeptic, aren’t you?”

“I admit it,” Monty said. “I’m even a little proud of it. Makes me less gullible.”

“He said people in these parts, along the Louisiana-Texas border, the old-timers, ones grew up around the woods, they believe in the King. Oh, they don’t say it much out loud, but they believe.”

“The store guy said it out loud,” Monty said.

“I have a nice smile,” Mary said. “So he was agreeable.”

“I can believe that,” Monty said.

“The King,” Mary said, “he’s supposed to watch after things. The forest, the swamp. He protects this place.”

“Way it’s been going, he isn’t doing such a good job, is he?” Monty said.

“Could be,” Mary said. “But this part of the country, this stretch, it hasn’t changed much, not in hundreds of years. There’s still some of the big trees down there. They say there’s trees so big and tall and close together, they block out the sun, and there’s no undergrowth.”

“There’s big enough trees here, all right,” Monty said, “but I think the really old ones are gone, or there’s just a small stretch of the big ones left.”

“Maybe that’s all he’s in charge of,” Mary said. “You know, like old sprites and gnomes and such. They’re supposed to protect certain areas. Some have their own individual tree, or stream, or spot in the woods. Maybe that’s how it is with the King. A big spot, but just a spot. That may be why his area has been left unchanged while areas around him have changed.”

“Don’t those other spots have guardians?” Monty said.

“Maybe not good ones,” Mary said.

“I do know this,” Monty said, “water moccasins are territorial. More so than most snakes. And they’re aggressive.”

“That’s correct,” George said.

“How do we know how to find the King’s spot?” Monty asked.

“Klaus Kaller,” Mary said. “He drew a map. I got access to his research materials, found the map among his belongings. That makes it more interesting, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” Monty said.

They drove until it was dark, pulled over and turned on the overhead light, and looked at the map, the one Mary had found in Kaller’s research materials.

“I don’t know if this road even exists anymore,” George said, leaning over the back seat, pointing to what appeared to be nothing more than a fine line on the map in Mary’s lap. “It goes off the main highway, and it could have grown over. Maybe we’re out of luck.”

“One thing, though,” Mary said. “This highway, though it’s been widened, it’s been right here for over fifty years, and that’s when Klaus last did his work.”

“Over there,” Monty said, “that’s water, isn’t it?”

“I think so,” Mary said, looking out into the dark.

“I think it’s a kind of slough that runs alongside the road,” Monty said. “The slough is on the map. So’s the curve in the highway. It’s broader now than then, but there’s the curve. So it looks the same. Way the map shows this path, it’s just around the curve. We go there, maybe we can see it, or where it was.”

Monty drove back onto the road and they went around the curve and pulled across the highway opposite the slough and parked. There the woods were tall and thick and dark and there was the smell of pines and stagnant water.

They got out of the car with flashlights and looked around.

“If there was anything here, a path, a trail, I don’t see it now,” Monty said.

“Hey,” Mary said. “Look here.”

Monty and George looked where she was poking her flashlight through the brush. They bent and looked where she was looking. On the other side of the brush the undergrowth was mashed down along a winding path.

“This could be it,” Mary said. “The King, he’s supposed to have made the trail himself, with his body.”

“So he comes up to the road and goes back?” Monty said.

“I told you he had his domain,” Mary said. “Isn’t it fascinating to think he might be out there? That he sometimes slithers up to this spot, looks where the brush has grown up, raises up and looks over the brush at the highway…? There have been reports of that, a great snake looking out of the brush at night while cars drive by. Several motorists have reported it.”

“Uh-huh,” Monty said.

“Oh, you are a hardhead, aren’t you?” Mary said.

“Well, this could be a hunting trail,” Monty said.

“It doesn’t really look walked,” Mary said. “It does look mashed down, and it’s in the right spot, like the map says.”

“I guess the only way to find out is to walk down it,” Monty said.

“Or drive,” Mary said. “I got a machete in my pack. I thought it might come in handy. We could knock down this barrier of brush and drive down the trail. Least as far as it’s comfortable to drive. We could pitch our tent down there.”

“What’s the King going to think of that?” Monty said. “Did you think about that, Mary?”

“I did.”

“Wouldn’t that be trespassing on the guardian’s property?” Monty said.

“I suppose so,” Mary said. “But, I’m a kind of explorer. And I could get a really good grade.”
“George?” Monty asked. “What about you?”

“If you go, I go,” George said.

“Suits me,” Monty said. “Damn, I wish I had a cigarette. I was all right till we stopped, now I want one.”

The machete business was hard work, and Monty and George took turns at it, and finally Mary insisted she have a turn. It took about a half hour, but they managed to widen a gap in the brush that allowed them to drive the car onto the mashed-down grass and foliage. They bumped along nicely for about a half hour, and pretty soon the land plunged and the trees grew up tall around them and dripped shadows over the car. The moonlight came through the trees in pencil-thin bands and made it seem as if they were in a sack punched through with light and air holes.

“My God,” Mary said. “Who would have thought this was back here?”

“Someone must own this land,” Monty said. “To think someday they might sell the lumber to pulp wooders. Good God, those are some trees.”

After a while, they slowed, and Monty said, “We’re going to have to stop. We’re starting to bottom out a little, and the place is getting mushy. I don’t want to get bogged down out here. It’s a pretty good hike to the road, and then there’s no guarantee anyone will pick us up. Well, they’ll pick you up, Mary. I don’t know about me and George.”

Monty stopped the car and they got out. They looked up at the moonlight slipping through the trees.

Mary said, “Wow, those trees are tall. You’d think we were in Oregon.”

“When’s our guy, the King, supposed to come out?” Monty said.

“He can come out anytime,” Mary said. “But he likes the night.”

“Oh, good,” Monty said.

“I think we should pitch camp here,” Mary said. “Couple days, I can get my notes and pictures and be through.”

“You don’t really think you’re going to see the King, do you?” Monty said.

“You never know,” Mary said. “Not out here.”

“I say we sleep in the car,” Monty said.

“Hey, we got tents,” Mary said. “Let’s use them. I’ve always liked camping out.”

Monty slapped at a mosquito. “Yeah, great. Me, too.”

They opened up the car trunk, dragged out and pitched the three little tents they had rented and built a small fire and sat on the ground with water and jerky.

“I guess we could have brought some food to cook,” Monty said. “I wish we had now. You’re not eating, Mary.”

“I’m too excited to eat just yet,” she said.

“You know, we’ve talked about all kinds of things, but we’ve only known each other a short time, since the student lounge. We don’t really know much about each other,” Monty said. “What do your parents do, Mary? That’s a standard question, isn’t it?”

Mary grinned and the grin showed large and bright in the firelight.

“My mother is a housewife, my father works as a pharmacist,” Mary said. “What about you?”

“My father is a mechanic. My mother sells textbooks to high schools and colleges. They’re divorced.”

“Your turn, George,” Mary said.

“My father is in security. I don’t really know my mother. I’m not even sure who she is.”

“I’m sorry,” Mary said. “We hit a sore spot.”

“Oh,” George said, “I’m not sore about it at all. That’s the way it is. I’m just stating facts. I’m quite comfortable with who I am.”

“You’re not eating either, George,” Monty said. “Am I the only one that’s hungry?”

“I’m feeling a bit tense myself,” George said.

“Well, I’m not that excited,” Monty said. “I’m getting mosquito bit.”

“Get close to the fire,” Mary said. “Mosquitoes don’t like heat.”

“Problem is, it’s not that cold,” Monty said.

“It’s cold for a spring night,” Mary said.

Later that night, after they had gone to bed, Monty came out of his tent and sat by what was left of the fire, which was just heat from the coals. It was chilly now. In another week or two the days would be blazing hot and the nights would be as warm and sticky as a sumo’s armpit, but right now, this late, it had turned chilly.

Monty thought about starting another fire, but the idea of gathering wood in the dark was not that appealing, even with a flashlight. He had heard things moving around out there, and he thought some of those things might be snakes. If not the King, at least good old garden-variety-sized water moccasins.

He really hated those things. When he was a kid, fishing with his dad, one had climbed into their boat and slammed its tail against the side, making a thudding sound. His father had beat it to death with a paddle. It was a big one, five feet probably. Usually they didn’t get that long, though a five- or six-footer did happen. But this one, it was huge. Not just long, but as big around as a man’s forearm. His dad said it was old, too, because its markings had blended into a dark, near-patternless mass. What he remembered most about the snake was, after it was dead, his father had lifted it up with the boat paddle, and he could see that it had faded black bands across its yellow stomach, and its jaws were open, showing its long, nasty fangs.

His daddy told him, Son, that old cottonmouth moccasin is a nasty one. They’re the meanest snake there is. They’re born pissed off and they stay that way. And don’t get in their territory. They’re aggressive, and they’ll hold their ground.

“Not sleepy?”

Monty jumped.

It was Mary. She was standing behind him. “Damn, girl, I thought a snake had me.”

Mary laughed, sat down beside him on the ground. “I couldn’t sleep either. I was thinking about snakes, too. I think the King is out there. I really do. I mean, can’t you feel it? It’s different here.”

“Actually, I can. I don’t know if it’s the night or my imagination. But it does feel different, as if this is some kind of … well, fairy spot, lost in the woods.”

“And we’re in that fairy spot. That’s neat.”

“Unless something doesn’t want you to be here. I mean, I sort of feel like it’s not a happy fairy spot.”

“I thought I was the one that believed in fairies and demons and giant magical snakes?”

“What I’m thinking about are real snakes.” They talked a while longer, then suddenly they were kissing. They went back to Monty’s tent and made love. While they were in the midst of this joy, Monty heard a noise from George’s tent, which was next to his. A kind of rustling. But he ignored it. Mary’s charms were too inviting.

Mary and Monty drifted off together, but their sleep was interrupted when George jerked the front flap open.

He said, “I think you should come out here. Now.”

Monty, startled awake, looked to see George’s shape on his knees, holding back the tent flap. He thought, Uh-oh, I got the girl, and George is mad.

George looked at Mary, who was exposed from the waist up. She hadn’t made any effort to cover herself, didn’t seem bothered at all. “All right,” Monty said. “I’ll be right there. Just let me slip on some pants and shoes.”

“I’d do it quickly. Real quickly.”

Monty and Mary dressed rapidly, crawled out of the tent.

George had turned the car lights on, and they were pointing down an incline. They had stopped the car just in time. They could see it now. From the car it might not have been as noticeable, but out here it was. It was not exactly a pond, but it was swampy. Had they driven just a little farther, they would have bogged down for sure.

Another thing.

There were a lot of glowing eyes out there.

Monty squinted, looked closer, adjusting to both dark and headlights. The eyes belonged to snakes.

“My God, I didn’t think snake eyes glowed like that.”

George was at the car, the back door open. He slipped into the back seat, saying, “I think you might want to get in here.”

They did, Mary and Monty in the front seat. They sat there, looking through the windshield.

“My God,” Monty said, “there must be hundreds.”

“Thousands,” George said.

The moccasins lay coiled and still, but they lay with their heads thrown back, their mouths open, held almost straight up like a white flower awaiting a bee. It was the curious way water moccasins had of lying at rest, the insides of their white, puffy mouths giving them their cotton name.

“What are they doing?” Mary asked.

“Waiting,” George said.

“Waiting for what?”

“I think you know,” George said. “I think you know a lot.”

“What on earth do you mean, George?” Mary asked.

“The King. He exists. He’s out here. They’re waiting for him. Or word from him.”

“They’re all so big,” Monty said. “There hardly seems to be a one under five feet. But, I don’t see any one of them that could be called the King. I’ll tell you this, though. I don’t want to go back into that tent. I say we spend the night here in the car.”

“It’s like the legends, the stories,” Mary said. “The King sends his subjects, his minions out ahead of him before he comes. He takes his time. These snakes, they’re probably all around us, on all sides.”

“If that’s true, I say we drive out,” Monty said.

George laughed.

“What?” Monty said.

“The snake hunters, treed,” George said. “It’s kind of funny.”

“I’m not so tickled,” Monty said.

“We could see the King tonight, “Mary said.

“I think we will,” George said.

“You see, the emissaries, they’re waiting for his arrival,” she said.

“What’s emissary about them?” Monty said. “They’re here. They live here.”

“True,” Mary said, “but, it’s said that the King’s snakes can transform. That they can even take human form, move among humans.”

“Yeah,” Monty said, “well, okay. But why?”

“To protect where they live,” Mary said. “To see what goes on in the world of man. To make sure no one is trying to destroy their habitat, invade the King’s kingdom. People feared this place in the past, but now, the legends aren’t believed.”

“And they don’t know exactly where it is,” Monty said.

“That’s right, “ Mary said. “People only know the general position of the King’s domain. Except for us. We have a map. The only map, most likely. God … look at them.”

The snakes had begun to crawl toward the car. There were so many, they crawled and twisted amongst one another like thousands of fingers intertwining.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Monty said. “And, frankly, I’ve had enough. I say we drive out.”

“The King,” Mary said. “We can wait and see if the King comes.”

“Right now, I don’t care if he’s coming,” Monty said. “I think if he comes, he should see our taillights. I’ll turn it around and we’ll skedaddle…. Shit.”

“What?” Mary said.

“The keys. They’re in my tent.”

“Well,” Mary said, “I don’t think any of us want to go get them.”

“We stay here until daylight,” Monty said. “Long as we need to. Until they go back into the swamp there. Then I’ll get the keys. Damn, I wish I had a cigarette.”

“Look how they’ve parted,” Mary said. “Like the Red Sea. Like they’re making way for something.”

The snakes had piled up to the left and the right of the car like living waves; they were twisted up amongst one another, and the way they rolled and writhed, it appeared as if they were boiling.

“They creep me out,” Monty said.

“They’re beautiful,” Mary said.

“They are,” George said.

“What in the hell?” Monty said. Something large and dark was moving across the swamp water.

“The King,” George said.

“Oh, bull,” Monty said. “I’m sick of this. There are snakes, yes. But no King. And no human emissaries.”

“I believe there are,” Mary said.

“Me, too,” George said. “I believe Mary is right. That it is necessary to protect this spot. This wonderful spot. And to do that, it is important that the King send an emissary out into the world. To find the loggers who might come here. The builders. The curious. Even those who believe and love the King but are not of his kind. And then, there are the maps, of course. It’s not right that they are out there in the human world for anyone to see, for anyone to follow and find the world of the King.”

There was a moment of quiet.

Mary turned slowly to look at George.

But George wasn’t there. Or at least what she thought of as George wasn’t there. In his place was a large snake coiled on the back seat, thick as a man, six feet in length, his catcher-mitt-sized mouth wide open and white as cotton, two fangs like daggers, dripping venom.

George struck.

The strike caught Mary in the face, puncturing both cheeks.

The snake clung to her face for a moment, then pulled back and hissed. Mary’s head had already swelled and blackened, full of hemotoxin.

Monty jerked open the car door and leaped out. Then he realized what he had done. He had leaped away from George, the huge snake, the King, and had leaped out where all the others waited. Monty leaped to the hood, scrambled to the roof of the car, stood up.

George slithered over the front seat and slid outside through the open car door.

George lifted up on his powerful body so that his thick triangular head rose just above the roof.

“You,” Monty said. “You’re the King. You were among us all the time. But you got to be George, too? Right? Right? You wouldn’t hurt your old buddy, Monty, would you?”

George dropped down, slithered away. Monty let out a large sigh.

The moonlight disappeared as an inky shadow fell over Monty and the car.

Slowly, Monty turned.

The great body of the largest snake in creation was lifted up high above him, its head turned down toward him, its white mouth like a pale moon in the darkness.

Then Monty realized why George had left. He was merely an emissary. A subject. Monty looked up at the great triangular head, the glowing elliptical cat-eye pupils. He felt weak and insignificant, and in the presence of power and royalty.

“The King,” Monty said.

With a venom-dripping snapping movement so fast it could hardly be seen, the King struck.


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