Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

A Study in Shadows

A year-long study—on the belief in the invisible—was conducted by Dr. Brandon Harrow, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Shadewood University.

These are some of his raw findings.

• • • •

One of Dr. Harrow’s survey groups included a church known as The Dawn Triumphant. The congregation believes we are living in a time of punishing darkness.

Half of them were told to sit in a bright room for an hour and speak to their gods. The other half were told to sit in a dark room and do the same.

After a month, every single member of the latter group reported hearing a voice. They called out to Him and received His word in return. When asked by Dr. Harrow to describe the experience, they provided the following descriptions: “It was less like a sound and more like an undersound,” and “It hurt to hear. I felt like my ears were bleeding,” and “It was like fifty voices all babbling at once but crushed into one voice,” and “It didn’t sound like anything. But it felt like something. It felt like the air does when a train rumbles by or a big dog growls.”

If you talk to the dark, Dr. Harrow concluded, the dark talks back.

• • • •

Dr. Harrow visited his hometown of Hemlock Haven, Indiana, a place that was unexceptional except for its stained history.

This was where Phineas Hook grew up. He was a pale boy with white hair and pink eyes and skin so thin, you could see the blue creeks of his veins running beneath it. The other children teased him for his appearance. They called him a monster.

On October 31st, he proved them right and killed them with a hunting knife he carried around in his candy bucket. One child after another had their throat or belly slit. Their bodies were abandoned on sidewalks and porches, thirty of them altogether, before Phineas was apprehended by the police in the town square while sitting on a bench and eating a bag of Red Vines.

Ten years later, Dr. Harrow enlisted the help of some local parents. He told them to tell their children that Halloween was canceled. Because Phineas Hook had escaped from the psychiatric ward outside of town. On the anniversary of his killing spree.

The police were looking for Phineas—that’s what the parents were supposed to tell their children—and they would certainly find him. But for now, everyone needed to stay home.

The night would still be fun, the parents should promise their children. They invited over all of the neighbors and they gathered in their costumes in the basement of the Meyerson’s home, where they danced to the “Monster Mash” and ate candy and bobbed for apples and shoved their hands into a cold bowl of spaghetti and pretended it was guts.

But then something happened. A terrible boom sounded as the door at the top of the stairs swung open and hit the wall. Everyone went quiet.

From above came a creak of shifted weight. And then a rasping sound that could have been breathing or could have been a knife drawn from its sheath. And then a doom, doom, doom, doom sounded as someone slowly and heavily descended the stairs.

When the Pale Man—Phineas Hook himself, with his wild white hair and blood-red eyes—lurched into view with a blade in hand, all the children began screaming at once.

The children did not notice that the adults were laughing, that they were saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay—it’s just a joke.” The children did not understand that the pale man was in fact Dr. Harrow, his skin smeared with white makeup.

One girl leapt into a toy chest and pulled down the lid on her hand so hard, it severed the fingers. Another pissed himself and began babbling in tongues. Another fainted and gashed her head on the corner of the coffee table. And another ripped open the sliding glass door and ran off into the night, never to be seen again.

That is the horror of belief, a term Dr. Harrow employed as a central thesis. There are no ghosts or demons or werewolves or boogeymen. There is only the mind and its many stains and weaknesses. Any horror without is a mere reflection of the horror within. A human horror.

• • • •

Here is a story Dr. Harrow enjoyed telling his students.

A mother walks into the bedroom to wish her daughter goodnight. But she finds the girl pale and shivering. “Whatever is the matter?” the mother asks, and the daughter says, in a whisper, “I think there’s something under my bed.”

The mother says, “I’m sure that’s not the case,” but nonetheless indulges the girl by getting down on her knees and lifting the dust ruffle and peering beneath the box spring.

And it is here, in the shadows beneath the bed, that she spies a face. A pale and shivering face that seems to belong to her daughter, who says, in a whisper, “I think there’s something in my bed.”

The wonderful thing about the story, Dr. Harrow says, is its duplicity and moral confusion. Is this the victim? And that the predator? Or . . .

Are they both the monster?

• • • •

Every corner of the country has its own myths. The witches of New England. The aliens of Area 51. The Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Harrow wondered if he could create a myth somewhere and observe its subsequent evolution.

In this spirit, The Roof People were born.

The Roof People were souls lost to a kind of purgatory, and they inhabited the roofs and attics and fire escapes of homes, spying spitefully on the living.

They looked like people in the same way that a page of newspaper resembled itself when wet. Smeary, torn, translucent.

He only needed to find the right subjects in the right neighborhoods, and he felt certain that the story would catch like a hungry fire.

• • • •

This is the mirror test.

Every day for a month, Dr. Harrow asked people to step into the bathroom and stand before the mirror and knock at it five times.

One focus group was asked to conduct the experiment with the lights on—the other, with the lights off.

The focus group with the lights on indicated no response.

But among the focus group with the lights off, the following curiosities were reported:

Three responsive knocks that shook the very house and made plaster dust rain down from the ceiling.

A sudden crack in the mirror that wept blood.

A message written in what appeared to be the fog of a fading breath that read, “DARK DARK SO DARK IN HERE.”

The appearance of a specter in the mirror has been described as a hag clothed in gray and bloody rags. Her hair was like dirty cobwebs and her mouth was a moist black gash, and when she opened it, worms and centipedes twisted out.

Three members of this focus group offered no response, because they have gone missing.

• • • •

A colleague—Dr. Claude Horner in the English Department at Shadewood University—offered up his own children as test subjects.

He fondly described his son Jack as a “little sadist” and his daughter Jenny as “scared of her own shadow.” The two of them, on a nearly daily basis, were engaged in a kind of war. Jack would leap out of a closet while wearing a demon mask. Or Jack would sneak into his sister’s room and rearrange her dolls and supply them with notes that read, for example, “BAD DREAMS.” And Jenny would then run crying to the nearest parent. She slept with the light on. And she wrapped her cotton sheets tightly around her, mummifying her body, the only opening a blowhole for her mouth.

They seemed an ideal pairing.

In the living room of their home, Dr. Harrow kindled a fire in the hearth and turned off the lamps and asked the children to gather near, and in the uncertain light, he shared with them the story of the Roof People.

Then he waited. And watched.

• • • •

Dr. Harrow investigated further the Dawn Triumphant. One of their churches burned to the ground with the congregation still inside. In the ashes of the pulpit a bible was discovered. The cover was molten and rippled leather. The pages were a cancerous yellow crisped to charcoal at the edges. And the script inside had changed, as if refined by the hellish heat. Everyone referred to it as the Black Book, and it is now considered a sacred text.

All hail Mammon.

And if you read it, you will die.

All hail Astaroth.

Was it because the book itself is stained? Or that it possesses a particular, spell-like arrangement of letters? Would you still die if you read its reflection in a mirror? Would you die if you merely heard its contents spoken aloud?

All hail Eligos.

These were some of the questions Dr. Harrow set out to answer.

All hail Legion.

• • • •

One night, Jenny Horner heard a scraping and a mewling at her window. And she threw aside her sheets and leapt up and ran down the hall and found her brother breathless.

The air in the room was cold, and she concluded that he had done it. That he had climbed out on the roof, had clambered over to her window, had scratched the screen and whimpered like a sad animal, before racing back this way.

“No,” he said. “It wasn’t me. I swear. It was . . .” (and here he paused dramatically and pitched his voice low) “. . . the Roof People.”

“I hate you,” she said, and threw her stuffed animal (Beary Bear) at him.

The next night the same scenario played out. Jenny heard a howl and a thump at the window. She rose from her bed and marched down the hall, calling out her brother’s name in a fury.

But when she pushed open the door to his bedroom, she found the bed empty except for the impression of his head on the pillow. The window was open and the curtain fluttered with the chill air. “Jack, I know you did it. I know you’re the Roof People.” She waited, but the night gave nothing back. “Jack?”

She called for her parents then—and the boy was found in the garden below, his leg twisted the wrong way and his neck broken from the fall.

Since that time, every night in the window, Jenny claims to see a smeary version of his face. He is watching her sadly and covetously, because the horror he tried to conjure claimed him.

• • • •

It wasn’t long ago that the janitorial staff at Shadewood University discovered Dr. Harrow at his office desk. The cause of death is unknown, but his charcoal hair had turned white and fallen out in a messy halo around his head. And his teeth, torn from the roots, were arranged in a ciphered design.

Before him, on a pad of paper, the following was written in a shaky, spidery script:

The peer-reviewed journal, the Monmouth Quarterly, to which I submitted my latest findings indicated my work was lacking something essential. Personal responsibility. My disconnect from the fieldwork indicated an absence of risk, a cavity in my scholarship I had to remedy.

So I entered the men’s restroom on this floor and checked the stalls to make certain I was alone. I turned off the light. I took a deep breath and knocked four times on the mirror, hesitating before I brought my knuckles down for the fifth and last time. I instantly felt a vertiginous sensation that reminded me of an occasion from my childhood. On a winter’s night, I was traveling with my parents when the station wagon hit a patch of ice. I was asleep at the time, but I awoke as the car spun into the ditch with a terrible lurching.

Just like that, upon knocking at the mirror for the fifth time, I had suddenly no sense of up or down or left or right. I only knew I was someplace else, and the someplace else was wrong.

When I finally found my focus and my balance, this is what I saw. An inversion. A backwards, inside out, upside-downness.

The place where the mirror hung was now a square patch of wall. And everything else had become the mirror. So when I looked around, I could see a million different versions of my face, all of them screaming, “Forgive me, forgive me.”

Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy is the author of four novels—most recently, The Dark Net—three story collections—including Suicide Woods—and a book of essays titled Thrill Me that is widely taught in creative writing classrooms. His sci-fi trilogy—The Comet Cycle—will be published in 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and has been optioned by the Russo brothers (Avengers: Endgame). He is part of the new Dawn of X-Men at Marvel and writes both Wolverine and X-Force. He has also written for DC Comics and Dynamite Entertainment and is known for his celebrated runs on Green Arrow, Teen Titans, Nightwing, and James Bond. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Esquire (where he was a contributing editor), GQ, Time, Men’s Journal, Outside, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review. He wrote two seasons of the audio drama—Wolverine—produced by Marvel and Stitcher. The first season, “Wolverine: The Long Night,” was listed as one of the top 15 podcasts of the year by Apple and won the iHeartRadio Award for Best Scripted Podcast. His other honors include the Whiting Award, an NEA fellowship, the Whiting Award, the Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, and Best American Comics.