In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:
Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.
So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…
A Bad Place to Meat
by Mary Sloat
The ham house was ceilinged with hundreds of hooks and its soot-coated walls, even after fifty years, smelled sweet and burnt. But it was not the scent of summer bonfires on the beach or the warmth of a winter hearth, rather it was the reminder of long-dead animals that even now might be creeping back to the place of their cure.
How could something from so many years ago linger so strongly in the present?
Of the six outbuildings on my dad’s property, the ham house alone had haunted my dreams since I was a child. Nothing happened to me inside those smoky walls. Instead, I suffered from the certainty that what lay in wait for me inside was the same thing that pursued me into my dreams.
Today I felt like a child again as I set about doing one of the most adult things of all—preparing Dad’s farm for sale. Could a forty-year-old be an orphan? Now when the beast visited my dreams and the door bulged with the force of its struggle to escape, I would have only my own strength to rely on. My feet would plant on grass slippery with nighttime dew as my arms strained to hold the door closed. Each morning, I would awake to aching limbs and splinters in my hands. If it ever truly did break free, I no longer had a parent to come to my aid, an extra pair of arms to hold the door closed.
Not everything about the beast turned my legs to jelly. No, there was one feature alone, a pointed reminder that I was made of meat and sinew and easily punctured. Its tusks.
My fear of sharp objects was a rational worry with an irrational horror that somehow a passing knife might leap from its owner’s hand and plunge into my gut, my heart, my neck, as if I could draw pain like a magnet. I froze at the sight of a gleaming point, so all the implements in my kitchen were dull. When I was gifted a new set, I threw away the paring knife curved like a claw, unwilling to keep something so obviously meant to maim.
Dad would have been pleased by the painters’ work, how the outbuildings shone a gleaming white. Even the ham house. Even the small turret set into its roof, formerly blackened by the smoke that spent years escaping through its slender slits.
I tied a bandanna over my face against the years of accumulated dust and dirt as I swept, washed, and dusted the interiors of all six buildings. Except the ham house.
I pulled on an old pair of Dad’s leather gloves, so well-used surely his fingerprints had been worn into the tips. Wearing them felt like he was holding my hand again as I sorted and donated hundreds of tools from all of the buildings. But not from the ham house.
The old red barn was packed with the wholesome scent of hundreds of hay bales, food for the winter so no animal would go hungry. I retied the trellis of yellow climbing roses by the back door, a gorgeous, scented welcome for any prospective buyer. I knew how much smells created associations. When I smelled lilies, I remembered my grandmother’s garden. When I passed a woman on the street wearing fragrant lotion, I was transported back to London. And when the scent of smoked meat caught me unaware, I trembled.
A sound reached me on the breeze.
I’d been all over the farm and seen no kittens. Where was it coming from?
I followed the sound, stopping when it stopped, waiting for another cry to guide me closer. In front of the ham house door, the sound was louder, insistent.
I have to get Dad, I thought, then I caught myself and blinked back tears. Whatever was inside, I would have to face it alone.
The doorknob was cold in my hand. I cracked the door a few inches and the hinges groaned with a warning as the loathsome smell snaked out and I began to shake.
“It’s okay,” I whispered gently as if to a small child. “You’re okay.” The door opened wider, but my legs were threatening to disobey any order that didn’t include turning and running.
The window in the corner allowed streaky sunlight to deepen the shadows. Dad had used the building for storage rather than for smoking meat like the former owners. Mildewed lumber was stacked along one wall. Dingy twinkle lights looped across several hooks in a macabre display of cheer. Old boots lined the back wall as if waiting for someone or something to step into them.
The sound drew me toward the window where a wooden box sat beneath a coating of smoky dust. Were kittens trapped inside? As a child, I had chosen the box for the lock and key that came with it. My dream diaries were long gone and the lock was broken, dangling loose and rusty, except for a shiny chip like it had recently been struck.
All I had to do was rescue the kittens and get out, but first I needed to make it to the window. Leaving a trail of footprints across the filthy concrete, I scanned the room, squinting at shadows, taking the last few steps at a run.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, crouching in front of the box. “You’re okay.”
I lifted the lid.
Instead of kittens, grey smoke crept through the opening with the noxious smell of something dying but not yet dead.
The smoke weaved through the room, thickened and thinned with a pulse swirling at my feet and I forgot I had the option to leave. As I stood frozen with dread, the smoke formed into the shape I knew as well as my own. Red eyes glinted above dirty white tusks. Its wide body was covered with sparse hairs and held up by four improbably thin legs.
I could move now, but it was too late. It stood between me and the door.
“Greetings,” it said in a scraped raw voice. It had never spoken in my dreams. “Back for more?” The blood rushed to my skin, preparing for the assault it knew was coming. Those tusks were shiny as if newly sharpened and I had nothing with which to defend myself.
Looking everywhere but at its flashing red eyes, I tried to speak around the lump in my throat, “I don’t know what you mean.” The back of my shirt was drenched with sweat.
“But you do,” it snarled. It shook the tiny links of a chain around its neck. “I’ve earned every one,” it said in a voice that grew into a roar. The creature seemed to suck the air from the room to expand to twice its size.
Backing quickly, I bumped into a sawhorse holding my childhood saddle. A memory of wild joy and abandon flickered through my mind. I was galloping in a field, my pony and I perfectly in sync like we were flying.
The beast bellowed, swinging its giant head and a sharp point sliced my arm. I cried out in shock and in pain. It had never hurt me before. In my dream, I always woke up right before it reached me. As blood poured from the cut, the beast shrank back to size, sniffed the air with its blunt snout, and growled, “I know what you’re thinking. In your dream, you always make it out.”
Wrapping the bandanna around my wound, I discovered something surprising. Because I had been cut, I no longer feared being cut. It was the anticipation of experiencing unbearable pain that had twisted my gut. Now that I had, there was really nothing more of which to be afraid. Or so I reasoned.
I straightened. Better to be gored in the front than in the back. Better to see what was coming than to be hit from behind. Better to avoid any more pain at all if possible.
It pawed the ground and snorted.
“Come on,” I shouted, stomping the floor and sending clouds of black grit into the air.
Leaping into the saddle, I kicked the sawhorse to life. In that moment, I believed it would move and it did. The beast was almost upon me when my mount bucked and I heard the sound of wood striking meat followed by a plaintive squeal. Reining in the sawhorse, I discovered the beast had been flung into the air and caught by one of the hundreds of hooks on the ceiling.
It hung helpless, legs peddling weakly. I dismounted and wiped my bloody hand on my pants. Upon closer inspection, I observed its jutting brow was beaded with sweat. Experimentally, I touched the point of a tusk. It was dull. Interesting. I pressed harder and still it failed to cut me.
A feeling of exultation swept over me. It could no longer hurt me. Standing nose-to-snout, I watched as its movements slowed, its eyes dimmed.
Tearing my eyes from the hanging form, I saw bits of blackness coming loose from the walls. Those bits began to move faster until soon a blizzard of black dust was swirling throughout the room. The smoke house soot swarmed the beast’s hanging form as if remembering its former purpose. This was a dangerous place to be meat. In seconds, the soot had stripped the beast’s skin, leaving only fat and muscle.
From the door, I watched as what remained of the creature quickly darkened, dried, then shriveled into nothing until only its collar hung from the hook.
The ham house door closed softly behind me on now-silent hinges.
I was covered in soot. I had never felt so clean.
Mary Sloat is a writer who feels most alive when writing twisted tales of magic, horror, and death. She has written short stories and is now working on her debut novel.
This concludes the Jon Meyers Gothic Prize award-winning short fiction series. Be sure to visit The Dark Forest‘s front page to re-read these four amazing stories.
We’ll see you at next year’s Gothic Prize!