In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.
The October Country
…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…
— Ray Bradbury
Children of the Kingdom by T.E.D. Klein
“On a certain spring evening several years ago, after an unsuccessful interview in Boston for a job I’d thought was mine, I missed the last rain back to New York and was forced to take the eleven-thirty bus.”
It’s hard to believe that T.E.D. Klein, once the editor of Twilight Zone Magazine and one of the most widely-heralded voices in horror literature, is now almost a forgotten name. His novel The Ceremonies is one of the few legitimately brilliant novels of the dark fantastic of the 20th century, and his collection Dark Gods is as good as anything produced in the genre.
Children of the Kingdom is, for my money, the finest of the four novellas in Dark Gods. It showcases Klein’s superb sense of storytelling, as well as his fine musical sentence style. Few genre writers use the language this well (John Keir Cross and Michael Chabon come to mind). And where other writers are often in a hurry, Klein has no qualms with long, twisting paragraphs that set a gentle but ever-quickening pace.
Children is told by an unnamed narrator who is helping his grandfather, Herman Lauterbach, move into a new apartment in New York. After some searching, the narrator and his wife settle upon the Park West Manor for Adults.
“The lobby wasn’t much of an improvement. Like most lobbies, it was dim, depressing, and cold. The rear wall was lined by a mirror, so that, on entering, my wife and I found ourselves confronted by a rather discouraged-looking little couple approaching from across the room, the woman frowning at the man, no doubt for some trifling thing he had just said, the man glancing with increasing frequency at his watch.”
Park West is certainly a bit shabby, and a tour of the building reveals various oddities, including a basement washer/dryer room which, according to the superintendent, is consistently vandalized by children in the building. But all in all, Park West seems an improvement over Old Herman’s current quarters, and so the move is on.
Herman, it turns out, is pretty good at making friends, and upon one particular visit our narrator is introduced to Herman’s new friend, Father Pistachio, an immigrant priest from Cuba who has written a book on the Gospel of Thomas.
“Pistachio gave me a short course in human history…According to his theory, the first men had evolved in the warm volcanic uplands of Central America, somewhere in the vicinity of Paraiso, Costa Rica–which was, by sheer coincidence, his own home town. For eons they had dwelled there in a city now gone but for the legends, one great happy tribe beneath a wise and all-powerful queen. Then, hundreds of millenia ago, threatened by invaders from the surrounding jungle–apparently some rival tribe, though I found his account here confusing–they had suddenly abandoned their city and fled northward.”
The tribes fled across the continent, spreading throughout the Americas. Interwoven through this story, Father Pistachio includes all sorts of other legends, myths and partial histories, cherry-picking as he sees fit. An odd man, this Father Pistachio, but harmless.
What Klein pulls off so successfully is the interweaving of different storylines. Disconnected strands don’t seem to have a singular purpose: the vandalizing of the Park West laundry room; Father Pistachio’s schizo version of history; the constant complaints from other residents that street crime is on the rise.
And then, with a masterful sense of timing, Klein yanks all the strands at once. And we see the knot: every strand coming together.
A city-wide blackout throws everything into chaos. Our narrator is visiting Herman, but when the lights go out his grandfather is down in the basement picking up laundry. Our narrator ventures into the unlit halls and down the pitch-black stairs in search of the old man.
Fearful in the dark, he optimistically recalls that in the horror movies of his youth, there were two things victims never did: they never cursed and they never uttered brand names. In a wry bit of humor, the narrator descends the stairs muttering Fuck and Pepsi-Cola to ward off the baddies.
“Somehow, though, I doubted that these words–or any words, in any tongue–would still be so effective. Magic wasn’t what it used to be.”
Outside, our narrator can hear the sounds of the city coming apart. It sounds at first like a grand party, like Mardi Gras. But all over the city mobs are seen running through the streets, looting and attacking women. The following day, when the power has returned, people from all over New York will tell similar tales about bizarre looking men with pale flesh.
“…unsubstantiated rumors, the Times called them–of roaming whites glimpsed here and there in the darker corners of the city, whites dressed ‘oddly,’ or undressed, or ’emaciated’ looking, or ‘masked,’ terrorizing women of the neighborhood and hiding from the light. A woman in Crown Heights said she’d come upon a ‘white boy’ thrusting his hand between her infant daughter’s legs, but that he’d run away before she got a look at him. A Hunts Point girl swore that, minutes after the blackout began, a pack of ‘skinny old men’ had come swarming up from the basement of an abandoned building and had chased her up the block.”
Klein does a brilliant job of working in so many suggestions, so many hints at a larger evil lurking in the dark. The calm tone of the story, though, is what sells it. Father Pistachio’s schizo history, it seems, is repeating itself again. The invaders have come to the heart of civilization. A lost tribe that swells up from the dark.
And though the “invasion” seems only momentary, and the following day order is restored, our narrator is now forced to live with the unsettling truth that the world is not what he once believed. And that there may be more to come, as in the closing pages he catches a glimpse of one of the “white men” in broad daylight.
“It must have realized that I’d seen it–surely it heard me cry out–for at that moment, like two exploding white stars, the hands flashed open and the figure dropped back into the earth, back to that kingdom, older than ours, that calls the dark its home.”
More October Stories
For the month of October, you can download
Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door
In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.
Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…
Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.
I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?
Except a little sleep…