We had a marvelously terrifying basement in our house in Western Virginia, a perfect setting for a Halloween party.
The room at the bottom of the kitchen stairs was unsettling enough: a blocked-off fireplace, peeling vinyl flooring with a slick, unearthly sheen, flimsy paneling that hinted at having been hastily installed to hide bloodstains on the walls. It was damp. Always cold. The adjacent laundry room had spider-filled, broken cabinets, a cracked concrete floor, and an open closet which still held the dusty hunting clothes of a previous occupant. But the third and fourth rooms truly completed the Silence of the Lambs theme. Half-framed particle board walls, groaning metal ductwork, infrequent, naked light bulbs, uneven doors that had come from other houses. One of those doors had a padlock hinge, as well as a small, square window that looked into a pegboard workshop hung with cobwebs and jars full of rusty screws.
Our daughter was eight and I figured it was time that she had a proper Halloween party. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I had halcyon visions of a houseful of costumed kids, squealing with delight, bobbing for apples, telling spooky stories, and eating lots of orange and black food as well as plenty of candy. And games. Lots of games. At the heart of my plan was one special activity–one I knew they would never forget. It was called The Witch’s Autopsy.
The witch in the game is a scary, fairy tale witch, like the one who owns the candy house in Hansel and Gretl. An awesome, monstrous witch with a reputation for snatching naughty children. Pure monster. Pure fantasy.
We started the party with spooky stories and Halloween jokes that the kids had brought to share. Sitting in a circle in the dim and chilly fireplace room, we passed around a flashlight to hold beneath our chins as we told our stories. That part was very fun, and we shrieked and laughed a lot. I wish we’d stopped there, eaten pizza, bobbed for apples, and sent the kids home.
After setting the scene with haunted house sounds, we took the blindfolded kids into the laundry room for The Witch’s Autopsy. Leading them around the autopsy table, we told them–with dramatic effect, I might add–about the body parts that were gathered in the shiny metal bowls, and we helped them touch what was inside. What did they find in those bowls? Two peeled grapes for the witch’s eyeballs, a gnarled wig for her hair, cold spaghetti, oily gummy worms, and Jell-O for her guts, carved Spam for her heart, a handful of candy corn for her teeth, dry chicken bones for her bones. It was brilliant. And maybe a little too realistic.
My daughter and her best friend loved it, but the other kids, especially the younger boys, didn’t like it at all. A couple pulled off their blindfolds after the first bowl. One girl boldly identified the objects by their real names, refusing to pretend to be fooled. Several made it all the way through. But one boy, a dear little boy in a Roman soldier costume, began to tremble violently after touching the wig. He began to cry, and became inconsolable. His mother had to come downstairs to comfort him and take him back out into the daylight. Later, to help him feel better, she showed him what was really in the bowls.
Wow. I couldn’t have felt more like a wicked witch myself if I had just hauled off and spanked the poor kid. (You’ll be relieved to know that he’s a healthy and very happy guy today, enjoying his first year of college.)
What makes something thrilling to one person, and horrifying to another? I’m not sure. As a writer–particularly of horror–I don’t want to frighten anyone who doesn’t get a kick out of being frightened. Polite people sometimes apologetically explain to me they can’t/won’t read my work, or even watch scary films because they become too upset. I think I understand. While the kids at the party had been told at the beginning that The Witch’s Autopsy was all pretend, something–maybe the suspension of one of their senses–helped to breach and break the wall between what they believed to be real and what was imaginary. I’ll never forget the look of genuine terror on that boy’s face.
Inside of me, that wall between the real and the imaginary is deliciously fragile–flimsier than the paneling on our basement walls. I love for it to be knocked down, and often knock it down for myself when I’m writing or indulging in a marathon of Korean horror films. I want the fear to feel real. I want the real and the imaginary feel like one.
Do tell: Was there a particular Halloween where you experienced a real scare? Did you love it? Or were you scarred for life?
Laura Benedict is the author of Devil’s Oven, an Appalachian Gothic tale, as well as the dark suspense novels Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like Slices of Flesh (Dark Moon Books). She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict. She lives in the southernmost region of a midwestern state and is frequently told that she’s much scarier than she looks.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Laura Benedict is giving away one set of three novels, signed in paperback, Isabella Moon, Calling Mr. Lonelyhearts, and Devil’s Oven.
A lonely seamstress resurrects a shattered man from the depths of a mountain shrouded in mystery and violence. There are some uses for a needle and thread that shouldn’t be allowed.
Nice things said about DEVIL’S OVEN
“Haunting and poetic.” –David Morrell
“Devil’s Oven is stunning and lyrical and all kinds of creepy. Benedict taps into our childhood’s grimmest fairy tales, and takes them in a delightfully spooky new direction. [She] has graced us with a sophisticated and thoroughly grown-up contemporary nightmare. I won’t sleep easy for days.” –J.T. Ellison, bestselling author of A Deeper Darkness
Order DEVIL’S OVEN through Amazon, BN, or through your favorite independent bookstore.
Excerpt from DEVIL’S OVEN:
Ivy laid out the body parts on the table as though they were pieces of a puzzle. Her half sister, Thora, was down the hill, in the tidy house they finally built for themselves after living in the rusting hillside trailer for most of their lives. Ivy was a seamstress by trade, but she knew Thora wouldn’t understand what she was doing, why she would be stitching together a body she’d found in pieces up on the mountain. Thora wouldn’t understand that the body—the man—was a gift from the mountain. It was so much more than the bits of decorated pottery or dull arrowheads Ivy had collected over years of walking the mountain’s face. Devil’s Oven had taken her mother and father. Now it was giving something back to her.
She had been mushroom-hunting alone, as always. As she bent to inspect a clump of scarlet-headed false morels, she noticed a thick, rounded fingertip—a man’s—poking up from the earth. But she wasn’t afraid or disgusted. Even after she recovered the rest of the body parts from their small, absurdly shallow graves, she felt more wonder than fear. It had taken her days to find all the pieces. She brought them down to the trailer one piece at a time, secretly.
Never before had she touched a man’s body so intimately, bathing each part in the trailer’s tub with the same care she would lavish on an infant, drying it with thick towels she had sneaked out of the house. She had avoided toweling the most private parts, averting her eyes. Few of the clients who came to her to have their clothes altered or made were men, and Thora liked to tease her about the ones who were.
“You act like they’re going to bite you,” Thora said. “I’m right in the next room. What do you think they’re going to do?”
Time and again, Ivy told herself that she wasn’t really afraid of men. She had been friendly with a few boys in high school almost twenty years earlier, quiet boys like Tripp Morgan. The quiet ones never made fun of her badly repaired cleft lip, or the way she absently chewed her uncut blond hair when she was daydreaming, or her decades-out-of-date clothes that had belonged to Thora. They didn’t mock her to her face, at least. But there had been no dates, no parties, no special boy. Worse, she had begun to wonder if Thora was right when she said it was her own choice to be so shy, that she wasn’t bad-looking but was just too afraid to let a man near her. Was it possible that it was her own fault she blushed a fierce red each time she had to measure a man’s inseam, even as he held the end of the tape against his own inner thigh?
Looking over the body, Ivy knew she had to start with something difficult, something bold, like attaching one of the severed legs to the torso. Her slender hands trembled as she threaded a curved needle with nylon that matched his olive-cast skin, and coated the nylon with a pinch of beeswax. If she was going to get all of the sewing done that night, she had to force herself to be brave about touching the body in those uncomfortable places.
She was glad no one could see her as she clumsily shifted the right leg so that the ragged edges of the thigh and groin would meet. The curtains were pulled shut, but it wasn’t like anyone came near the trailer now, day or night. Not even Thora. The shabby building remained tucked against the side of the mountain only because Thora—stubborn Thora—had refused to have it demolished. Outside the curtains, a clear triangle of light illuminated the entrance to the old barn and nothing else. Their closest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away.
There were people who said they wouldn’t live on Devil’s Oven for love or money, but she could never be one of them. It didn’t matter that there were books written about the disappearances and murders that had occurred there since it was settled over two hundred years earlier, and that in the last century, the mountain had seemed to reach out and pluck twenty different airplanes from the sky.
Devil’s Oven was Ivy’s strength and nourishment. Her home and heart. What was there for her to be afraid of?
It had given her the man lying before her. He could hardly be considered a threat; he couldn’t even object if her handling of him was careless. He was dead.
As she sewed a sturdy baseball stitch—it would show a little, but only to someone who was looking for it—she was careful not to pierce the grey-white cauls that had grown over the wounds while he was buried on the mountain. The cauls were taut, as though the flesh and muscle beneath them were under intense pressure. She had run her finger over the one covering the opening to his left hand, tracing the fine, knobby veins woven into the thing like lace, imagining that she might feel a pulse or some movement. She felt only a tepid warmth, but that warmth had been like a faint promise of something to come.
It took her the better part of an hour to do the first leg, and the second took almost as long because it was harder to shift the body. The cauls had settled against one another, staying out of the way of her stitches. She was happy to find that the stitching held when she twisted and gently tugged at it. She rested for a while, flexing her fingers, which tended to stiffen when she did hand sewing. Realizing she had been working in total silence, she turned on the radio. The twenty-four-hour public station was all she could get on FM this late at night. It was playing a quiet symphony, something she didn’t recognize. She wondered what kind of music the man had listened to.
He was a handsome man. She had positioned his head on the table so that it faced her chair. His lips were full, the color of cherrywood, the sort of lips she had always imagined would be described as sensual. The morning she lifted his head from its dirt grave, she had accidentally touched those lips, but she had avoided touching them a second time. They had been soft, but firm, like the rest of his skin. This had been a man who cared about how he looked. His hair wasn’t too short. It was deep brown and wavy, long enough to have significant curls but not look feminine. He was clean-shaven, too. It seemed to Ivy that almost none of the men she saw in town were clean-shaven anymore. And those eyes. She couldn’t help but imagine that his perfect, heavily lashed eyelids might open, and she would find him looking up at her, puzzled yet grateful. What color were his eyes? Would he be able to see her? Would she be afraid then?
Finally done with the rest of him, she began to stitch his head to his battered neck. She thought about how different she was from him, how pale and thin and insubstantial she felt beside him. She pictured them walking down Alta’s Main Street together and gave a little laugh, a delighted sound that made the room around her seem brighter. They would be quite the sight! She, only five feet, five inches; he, like an exotic giant beside her.
People might stare, but it wouldn’t matter a bit to Ivy. She and the man would be happy. Life would be a dream.