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A Restless Night of North Woods Gothic

November 28th, 2004

I went to Maine to visit Dan and Emily’s new farm. It looked a lot like the house in Brownfield. I wore out my welcome watching horror movies late at night, and went out the next morning looking for other entertainment.

I explored a huge, used bookstore scattered with Maine boondock hip kids. There was something wrong, something eerie that I couldn’t put a finger on. The bookstore occupied a warehouse made of galvanized metal, on the shore of a wide, empty lake, surrounded in cedars and scattered with reeds, a la the Carry Ponds, north of Mt. Bigelow on the AT. The shelves overflowed with seventies paperbacks; more surrounded them in cardboard boxes on the floor. The walls were adorned with vintage horror movie posters. Every time I turned around, I spied a nook I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to stay, I wanted to keep looking, but I was afraid.

Then as I passed by one of the horror posters, it opened up and engulfed me. Suddenly I was inside a ghastly black and red cartoon where ghouls tore open bodies spilling sheets of blood and screams, and just as suddenly I was back in the bookstore, shaken and pale. One of the hip kids, a black-haired, much-pierced girl with a pile of art books in her arms, stared at me darkly. The fog was lifted. This place was haunted. Either this girl was a slave to the ghosts, or she was one of them.

“Keep away from me!” I shouted. “I’m getting out of here. How do I get out?” I whirled, and for just a moment could see a row of windows in the near distance between the shelves, with the lake beyond. Then someone walked past them carrying a box of books, and in their place was nothing but wall. “No,” I whispered. I whirled again. An exit sign gleamed sickly orange. I started towards it, but the room was so vast, it was so far away. Before I had gone ten steps there were three of the hip kids between me and the door.

They closed on me. The cartoon wash of blood and blackness rose, the surroundings faded, and charcoal-rendered ghouls replaced the hip kids. I stopped. I took a breath. “This isn’t real,” I said. “You have no power over me!” I lashed out with my will, expecting them to fall away like torn-down curtains. Nothing happened. They laughed, and rended each other with their claws, gushing watercolor gore as if to mock me. I growled and struck out again with all the force that I could muster. I was free.

I stood astride my bike, one foot on the pedal, at the end of a road through a pine forest. Before me loomed the doors of a sprawling victorian manse made of brown stone. There was no one in sight, and no sound either.

The doors were open; I rode through a cobbled courtyard, up a steep, curving ramp into a long hall, and on along broad corridors into other rooms. The place seemed a museum; there were plaques on pedestals and things with dates in glass cases. It was almost as if it had been designed for a bike–nowhere were there more than three steps at a time; at these I merely stepped off the bike for a moment, hoisted it up by the bar, and rolled on.

I heard a voice somewhere among the corridors–a man’s voice, angry. Suddenly I knew I wasn’t supposed to be here. The house wasn’t open today, and in any case if the caretaker caught me riding a bike through these ancient halls I would be in more trouble than I wanted. I dug into the pedals, jumped effortlessly down a flight of steps, popped up over a threshold and rolled effortlessly out through a pair of french windows onto the grounds. The sky was overcast. The house curved away from me, thousand-gabled and brooding, like the house at Mandalay from Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

The man was still coming. I could hear him ranting about trespassers. I sped away into the wood…

…and found myself walking the grounds of the Tufts academic quad with notebook and pen in hand, surveying the assembled troops, reviewing our assets and preparing strategy for the defense of the Hill against the siege of an undead army.

I called together the leaders of my allies: Michael Purpura, Andy Lucas, David Purpura. Among us we commanded perhaps five hundred, against a number twice that many. Our assets included an eight-foot celtic cross of solid bronze we called the Sacred Talisman–a magical artifact with the capacity to turn living men into zombie servants, or to seize control of already-animate dead. Michael warned we shouldn’t lean too heavily on its use, as it only had a percentage chance of success. We had also acquired a supply of black-wrapped recurve bows, along with sheaf upon sheaf of bronze-headed arrows–so recently, however, that nobody had had the chance to practice with them. These we agreed to reserve for the second wave, so as to be familiar with their style of attack, as well as to allow our archers what time we could for target shooting.

The siege began even as we clasped hands to part. Our enemies were skeletal men carrying spears and clad in black and red; each unit was commanded by a robed figure with blazing eyes, somwhere between the Skeletal Mage of Warcraft fame and the Lich from Final Fantasy 1 (8-bit Theatre). Our own forces fought with short, greek-era gladia, and were clad in muted green.

Battle ranged all across the upper campus, among the gothic archways and ruined cobbles of a Tufts more akin to the ancient manse I had left behind in the woods only moments ago than to the place of learning I had known in waking. We drove them back with heavy losses; in the lull before they came again I took up a bow. I notched an arrow (it clicked against the string, as modern plastic notches do), lined up my eye with the shaft, as the bows were not sighted, took careful aim, and let fly at a dark spot on a tree the men had used as a target. A near bull; perhaps an inch below the center. My next shots were more hurried, not nearly as close: I had heard the shout that the second onslaught had been sighted. I gave orders to my archers, but before we could get in position the enemy appeared. In the chaos I pierced one of my own men through the shoulder. He looked back in anguish–I knew him. Someone from high school. Jake McDonnell? No time for guilt or memory, they came on thick.

Just as we gained hope of casting the first group back, another appeared along our flank. Through a doorway they poured, like ill-made puppets, shambling–I could see their leader in the rear, his smile ghastly, his staff agleam with unholy light. I shouted warning; the men faltered, not knowing who to face. I notched an arrow and fired, deathly calm, holding the bow flat, the string at my hip. The arrow caught the first of the newcomers square in the chest.

Then I realized my mistake. They were not attacking. They had been turned! The talisman was working!

I cursed my own incompetence, and woke.

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