“I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” -J Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita
John Fogerty-Train of Fools
This train left the station
Quarter past midnight
A hundred souls taking their last ride
Each of them a traveler
Drifting through this life
Silent shadows passing in the night
Ride ride ride train of fools
One will take a journey
With eyes that cannot see
Nothing’s gonna get to him today
One will use her beauty
And take just what she please
She’ll lose it all when beauty fades away
Ride ride ride train of fools
Ride ride ride train of fools
One will be a rich man
At least that’s what he’ll say
Waste his life chasing after gold
One will be addicted
Chained to the devils cross
That one’s gonna die before he’s old
Ride ride ride
Train of fools
This one is a victim A lost and broken child Soon enough he’ll be a man to hate And those that point the finger We’ll also share the blame No one leaves this train judgment day Ride ride ride train of fools Ride ride ride train of fools
Rather than a fairytale, Stephen Coghlan’s: The Last Ride of the Inferno Train, is a unique cross-section of Christian, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Modern Mythologies. My quote at the beginning may not make much sense at the moment, but it will as the reader travels on the Coghlan’s Inferno Train. The last train bringing the souls of the damned into hell after the destruction of the earth and mankind.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!
The first gates of the inferno, Dante’s Divine Comedy
Coghlan does an excellent job of modernizing Dante’s Divine Comedy as we ride this nightmare train with the character the conductor, Charon has dubbed “Mr. VIP.” For those who have never read the Divine Comedy, I will give a basic summary of the Nine levels of Hell below
The train leaves Acheron Station, after having to wait for
more cars, and makes the steep descent into the bowels of hell. In contrast to
Alighieri’s Comedy, where the Poet Virgil is the guide through hell, he chooses
Charon, a figure from Greek mythology to be the conductor of the train. Either
way, it is interesting that a highly Christian text would choose non-Christian
figures as guides for sinners into the underworld.
In traditional mythology, coins are used to pay the ferryman
for passage to the underworld, else the soul is doomed to wander the earthy
side of Acheron for eternity as a ghost. Coglan twists the tale here. Instead,
Charon reaches in and rips out the heart of each passenger determining which
stop the passenger must alight (or be plucked). This is a nod to Egyptian
Mythology and the weighing of the heart by Anubis in the underworld.
In Egyptian mythology, when you died, you passed through the hall of Maat. Anubis weighed your heart against a feather while Ammut (with the head of a crocodile) stood by watching. If it was light, you passed. If it was heavy from the sins of your life, Ammut swooped in and gobbled up your soul.
As previously mentioned, Coghlan paints a dark and vivid picture of the nine levels of hell as witness by our narrator, Mr. VIP. I highly enjoyed the modern twists and gut-wrenching descriptions of Coglan’s version of hell. I included a link and a summary of the general description of the nine circles (levels) of hell.
1st Limbo-Unbaptized babies and virtuous
9th Traitors, Betrayers, Mutineers
In addition to his descriptions, Coghlan’s use of dark and snarky humor on the part of Charon I found highly entertaining.
“Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” A woman near the back of the care
Charon sneers, “Now, now, it’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”
But as the train finally derails in the lowest level of hell, Charon takes the arm of our narrator, guiding him towards his ultimate fate. Why was he special? Why was this the LAST ride of the train?
all, I hear the conductor sigh, “Well it’s retirement for me, whatever will I
do with myself?”
Humanity has ended, on the slope down into hell, this train
passed the forest of the suicides without stopping. Why? No one on the train perished
by their own hand. One man was responsible, our narrator. He unleashed the
ultimate weapon, the one we all dread, The firebomb that destroyed the world.
This has special meaning to me, having studied physics extensively and worked in the nuclear field on the power side of things. Reading about the Manhattan Project and the scientists who created the atomic bomb, their humility, fear and sometimes loathing at what they had done humbles me. These were some of the brightest minds not only of the time, but possibly ever assembled. They created this monster, this ultimate Frankenstein because they felt they had to. They knew that the Nazi’s had just as capable and brilliant scientists and the race was on to see who could get it first. It is truly terrifying to realize how close we came to losing the race. But then, like the creatures in Pandora’s box, once opened it cannot be merely forgotten and put back away where no one can access it. In a terrifying twist, it is not the brilliant minds who created it, who understand the power of what they have done that control this weapon. It is now the politicians and the warmongers, fingers twitching for more power. Eager to threaten to hit the button, not understanding the magnitude of what can be unleashed.
I have included the interview of J Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project
“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatements can quite extinguish,” he said two years after the Trinity explosion, “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” – J Robert Oppenheimer
At the end I have to ask myself, what is worse? The leaders eager for more power? Or we the people, who sit by indifferent and give it to them, thinking the responsibility for the consequences are someone else’s problem.
A fantastic and thought provoking read. I can’t wait to dig into some of his other work. I have included a link to his website below.
To preface this tale, I grew up in what is possibly one of the most boing parts of California imaginable, Victorville, CA. Just recently, we made the top 10 of worst cities in California in which to live.
I think this list is biased personally, how did we beat San Bernardino this year? Really?
Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time hiking, camping and exploring out in the desert. My mom and her mother came to Victorville in the late 1950’s when there was even less there. My grandmother and the rest of the family were migrant workers during the great depression in California. They had many intriguing tales that they had picked up over the years about the desert and why things were the way they were.
But one legend I remember hearing over and over as a child was the legend of the Four Skulls. My grandmother and later my mother always joked, because of strange occurrences at our house and in our backyard, one of the four skulls must be buried under the house.
This of course fired mine and my cousin Jacob’s imagination. We would dare each other at night to go out back and touch the tamarack tree (that’s where we were sure it was buried). On every adventure out into the desert we would speculate on whether we would find a skull and bring about the end of the world. I wrote more than one horror story based on this legend I heard growing up.
I don’t know to this day where my grandmother and the great-aunts came up with it. I have not been able to find it written down anywhere in an official version, but if any of my readers have heard this too, please let me know. I would love to compare notes.
The Four Skulls
As told to me by my Great-Aunt Verne
The white man encroached on the desert, digging holes and searching for gold, driving the first people from the land. There was continual slaughter. The white man’s leader sent a message that he wanted to make a treaty, to talk with the tribe and come to an agreement. Four warriors of the tribe left to meet where the river flows though the narrows.
It was a trap. The white man had the four warriors killed, and their heads removed. But the Shaman of the tribe was able to get the four heads back. He laid a curse upon the four heads.
Knowing the white man’s desire for gold, he had the four heads buried in the desert. The curse would be that as each one was dug from the ground, the woes upon the white man would increase. When the final head was pulled, it would bring about the end of the world for the white man. Once wiped from the earth, the first people would emerge again.
Thanks for reading. As previously mentioned, this is a legend my grandmother and great-aunts would tell me growing up. If anyone else has heard a similar tale, I would love to hear it.
Here is my stab at a horror story set in Dawson city during the Yukon-Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899. Miners were dropping like flies during the long, dark winters. Flu, scarlet fever, small pox and even just the brutal cold were killers. But the most lethal of them all was scurvy. While the British understood that giving their sailors lime or lemon juice prevented scurvy, the underlying mechanism, vitamin C was not understood. Potatoes were a great source of nutrients as well. Miners were known to give whole bags of gold dust in exchange for a good bag of potatoes.
But why don’t we let our imaginations wander? What if something more sinister were stalking this mining town in the subzero darkness? Enjoy the start of my story below.
“How many this week?” He
asked, eyeing the burlap sacks of bodies and coffins stacked inside the fenced
area, protected from the wolves and bears but not from the wind and snow
blowing off the frozen Yukon River.
“Fuck, at least 20. I’m
running out of wood for coffins. They’re starting to stack up in bags,” he
motioned to the pile inside the fence next to his shop with his gloved hand. “Can’t
believe how bad scurvy’s going ‘round this time and it’s barely December. We
ain’t even hit the real cold months yet. It’s not just smallpox, flu, consumptions,
or just cold that’s killing ‘em this year.” Joe the carpenter said they loaded
bags from the pack teams into the open bay of his warehouse.
“Are they sure it’s
scurvy?” The other man said, picking up a sack of potatoes and tossing it. “I’ve
heard rumors. Some people are saying its plague. Hear they’re dropping too fast
and too sudden for it to be just mere scurvy.”
“Nah, Frank. I’ve made
too many coffins in my time and buried too many idiots,” Joe said, pausing to
spit off to the side. “I know scurvy when I see it, and these men are rife with
it. Goes from working to hard, eating rotten potatoes and not having a good
woman in your life.” Both men laughed. It was a common joke here in Dawson
City. The lack of women in this gold-rush town in the Yukon.
“But have you seen their
necks? I’ve never heard of scurvy doing that before.” Frank said, rubbing his
own neck then his protruding belly.
“Scurvy can make people
do some strange shit. They pull out their own teeth and hair. The start to hallucinate
when it gets bad. Hell that really pretty blonde, Helena, that serves whiskey
at the Last Dog? You heard what her husband did to her?” Joe said.
“No, what?” Frank asked.
She coughed, subzero
night air clawing at her throat and lungs. She shuffled her feet and pulled her
dead husband’s jacket closer around her. She knew they didn’t know she was
there, standing in the shadows, listening. Otherwise they wouldn’t talk so
freely, but now she was tired of their gossip, she wanted them to just shut up and
They both looked up, jaws
dropping. “Sorry Mrs.—I mean Ms. Olsen,” Joe stammered. Of course, he would
remind her of her single status. No one in this town of hundreds of single men
wanted a young woman like her to remember she was a widow. “Please excuse the
foul language,” he said, tugging at his wool cap in the cold night air.
“Of course.” She replied
with a nod, wrapping her thick scarf closer around her face, as if it would
offer some protection from their scrutiny. The two men gaped at her for a
moment longer—all of the men in the town did. She stiffened her back, clenching
her jaw, knowing exactly what they were looking at. Her white-blonde curls
tucked as best as she could under her wool cap, her fair skin, courtesy of her Danish
ancestry. Her figure—while much little thinner than in times past—still tucked
and constrained by her corset and woolen dress, shrouded by the thick coat. She
supposed she was pretty, she couldn’t remember the last time she felt pretty
though. Here in this strange world she felt like some sort of freak on display.
At the saloon every night, men told her lots of things: pretty, beautiful, a
goddess. Wasn’t hard to be in a world with nearly no women. She drew a deep
sigh, thinking once more of her dead bastard of a husband and how she’d ended
up in this frozen hell.
She ignored the men, now talking
in much lower voices, occasionally pausing to stare at her once more. She trained
her eyes on the neat stacks of crudely constructed caskets. People dead too
late in the season to be put into the frozen ground. After three months, she
didn’t have to count her way to the right one anymore, or even dust the frost
off to read the name inscribed on the side, she knew the pattern of the warped
birch by heart.
She came here nearly
every night if the weather wasn’t bad. She came here to stare at the coffin and
curse his name. She swallowed hard against the bile in her throat. Too bad he
wasn’t still alive so she could choke him to death with her own hands for what
he’d done to her. Her belly ached in sympathy with her thoughts. She closed her
eyes and put her hand over her already flat stomach, made even smaller and more
fashionable by the tightly laced corset beneath her coarse woolen dress. The
bruises he’d left on her body had long since faded, but the memories of that
final fatal night never would. But why?
Why did he have to take that from me too and before he died leaving me in this
then the good people of this shitty mining town had the nerve to put my dead
baby in with the bastard.
Every night she
fantasized about wrenching open the casket and ripping the tiny mass from the dead
Without meaning to, she
began to listen to the conversation of the two men again. Probably because it
concerned her boss, Gus Bronstein.
“Speaking of women—have
to been to the new ‘parlour’ that’s opened?” Frank asked.
“Nah, have you?”
“No, but I walked by
there the other night, the old Lewiston place. It’s appointment only. Real
classy. Bronstein owns the building. He’s renting it out to this foreigner and
his gals. The gals are something else.”
“I may have to stop in,”
Joe laughed, he paused again. Helena saw him stare again out of the corner of
her eye. He adjusted his belt and looked her over. The hair prickled on the
back of her neck. She willed herself to focus on the wooden box.
“Yeah other than
Bronstein and the other saloon owners, I think you’re the richest man in town,
what with all the coffins.”
should leave. Before Joe gets it into his head to propose again. Helena
thought, clutching at her coat again. The pistol she wore at her side beneath
the dress digging into her hip.
“Helena? Helena? What you
do out here?” the low, soothing voice scolded from the darkness. A smile came
to her lips at the woman’s familiar broken English.
“You know ‘what I do’
Nellie.” She said turning her head as the elderly native woman hobbled toward
her, willow cane clicking against the ice. The wolverine fur of the woman’s
parka fluttered around her face, her dark eyes narrowed into tiny slits as she
examined Helena critically.
“It too cold for you. You
still too thin. Go in. Now. No keep stare at dead baby and bad man.” Nellie
motioned with her thick fur mitts, beading winking at Helena in the glow of the
Helena let out a long
sigh, looking down at the heavy boots that used to belong to her husband.
“You’re right. It’s cold. I need to get ready for work anyway.”
Nellie untied a large
leather pouch from a belt at her waist and handed it to her. “You still sad you
have no man, no baby. You find new one soon. Many men here. You young, pretty.”
“Sure Nellie.” Her
stomach roiled, thinking of the few times she and Charles had actually
consummated their marriage. She shuddered. I
don’t think I ever want to do that again. That was disgusting. She closed
her eyes as she continued to clutch Nellie’s arm. Don’t think about that now. You need to have your pretty fake smile on
tonight, get lots of tips so you can get out of here on the first steamer south
come spring. Go…somewhere.
She opened her eyes again
to see Nellie blinking back at her. How
did the woman always know what she was thinking? Was she a witch? If she was,
Nellie was definitely a good witch. I wouldn’t have survived the miscarriage
and fever without her. I’d be in a box with Charles. Helena shuddered.
“You drink tea?
Everyday?” Nellie motioned to the leather bag.
She gave Nellie’s arm a
squeeze, “Absolutely. Your tea is wonderful, Nellie. It makes me feel so much
better. I can’t thank you enough.” The old woman turned her weathered face up
to her, worn and cracked yellow teeth shinning against her brown leathery skin,
gripping her arm.
“It good for you. Make
strong. Able to make new baby when time right. Not so sad,” Nellie stopped
walking and motioned with her stick. “I go home now. You go work. Make sure you
“I will Nellie,” she replied.
“When I come see you, can I bring you anything?”
“I think about it. Let
you know,” Nellie said, waving her free hand and hobbling away on the path back
toward the village. She always said that, and Helena’s heart sunk as she
thought of the multitude of reasons why.
of Nellie’s village died of small pox from government blankets. I wouldn’t
trust white people after that either. Well, she trusts you. She just doesn’t
trust the stuff you want to bring her from the white people.
She shuddered again and
turned down the main street away from the river docks toward the saloons.
Though late afternoon, the sun had set an hour or more ago leaving only faint
traces of rose and violet to the west. Low music played here and there from the
multitude of hastily constructed wooden buildings along the icy gravel street,
but it would get rowdy later. As she passed the Golden Shovel, she paused as
she looked in the window. Black-eyed Sue, one of the young native prostitutes
gestured with a bottle of whiskey while she argued with a group of men about
what they were willing to pay for her services. Her slurred speech and the way
she stumbled about left no doubt in Helena’s mind the girl was already drunk.
people around here treat Nellie and her family like they’re subhuman. Hell, I
used to think of Indians that way until I came here. Who would have thought I
would be a widow at 21 with an old Indian woman as my closest friend after saving
my life? My mother would be horrified…if she were still alive. She’d be
horrified to see me, her college educated, well-bred daughter carrying a pistol
down the street of a mining town in the dark, on her way to work pouring
whiskey so men could stare at her. Well, it beats some of the other jobs around
Origin stories permeate almost every aspect of our culture, religion writing and art (whether you ascribe to religion or not). A familiar religious origin story from the Bible, when God said in Genesis, “Let there be light.” The Big Bang theory in physics explains the beginnings of our universe in a scientific way. In pop culture, there’s story of how Super Man came from Krypton escaping a dying/exploding planet. Or how Spiderman obtained his powers by being bitten by a special spider. Most recently, I read one about the Shoshone people of Death Valley being carried in a basket by the Coyote Spirit then escaping while he slept.
We as human beings have sought to ascribe meaning to our
origins since the dawn of time. Even the most cynical amongst us wants to
believe there is something magical and special to our existence on this hunk of
rock spinning through space and time. The purpose for our lives must move
beyond just chaos and random events. Even as science has wiped out or
eliminated the magic behind some of these myths and legends, we still want to
believe that magic exists, that there is a special force behind the chaos.
Backgrounds and origins stories in writing are also what
allow for well-rounded characters and story arcs. Typically, a protagonist or
antagonist’s origins drive their motivations, whether good or evil. A writer
quickly loses credibility for creating a character without a solid origin or
backstory. Even if the backstory is not explicitly stated in the story, it must
be hinted at or otherwise implied to help the reader understand the underlying
motivation for the character’s actions.
Mr. Nadeau’s story, the Last Race of Animals is at its heart, an origin story. He uses a blend of three different genres to achieve his goal. Set in his mythical world of Lythinall, a Queen Mother and bard spins a bed-time story, a “Fairytale,” after her precocious daughter demands a “grown-up” story. Nadeau uses the old Aesop’s tale of the Tortoise and the Hare to convey his origin story of the how the “Forest of the Lost” came to be. But the tale is turned twisted in more than the usual way.
Here is where we get into the cross-section of what it means
to be a fairy tale vs. a fable
Edward Clayton of Central Michigan University does an excellent job of expounding on who Aesop was, but also breaking down some of these timeless tales. As he points out in his essay; Herodotus, Plato, Aristophanes and Aristotle all make references to Aesop, but did so centuries after he was purported to exist. Aesop’s life story (as told) is fairly mythical, giving credence that he may not have existed as a single person, but more as an ideal. He was a slave who was born nearly mute and incredibly ugly, but then through his incredible intelligence and cunning was able to rise above his infirmity. Eventually due to his good deeds and intelligence he was granted the gift of speech. Meanwhile, it was eventually his over-confidence in his capabilities that led to his downfall. If you would like to read more about Aesop, please see my link to the article below.
But how does a fable differentiate from a fairytale? A fable
is per Mr. Clayton’s article is usually set in no distinct time or place. It (typically,
though not always) revolves around talking animals to convey a moral, usually
uses allegory and analogies and is relatively short.
Here is where Nadeau does an excellent job of meshing together the realm of the fairytale, the fable and the origin story. As mentioned in a previous blog, a fairytale, though it does teach morality, always incorporates an element of magic. Here Nadeau spins a tale where at one point in the past, when faeries dominated the land, they made it so the animals could talk. At some point, they left the world and their special animals. This gives a start, as to why these animals are special, and can reason and talk like us.
The talking animals are being hunted to extinction by the
humans that don’t understand that they are special and magical. The tortoise,
who is observant and wise, wishes to just lay low and stay in the forest,
watching the humans. The Hare wishes to leave, he’s confident they could follow
the faerie kind to someplace safer. There’s good foreshadowing from the very
beginning of the tale, where you get the feeling that staying in what is now the
“Forrest of the Lost” may not end well for the talking animals. Here is where
the fatal bet is made. The tortoise and the hare make the classic bet of racing
each other, with the caveat if the hare wins, the talking animals leave the
forest. If the Tortoise wins, the animals stay, but the hare must leave and
wander the world of men alone.
So we all know the traditional tale, through his arrogance
and overconfidence, the hare loses. Nadeau brings in a slightly different angle
here. While the hare is most certainly overconfident, that is not entirely his
undoing. He forgets that it is hunting season and is shot in the leg by one of
the human hunters. He manages to limp back to the finish line, long after the
tortoise has run the race. The tortoise, smug, because he knew all along that
it was hunting season, graciously allows the hare to recover from getting his
foot amputated before banishing him to the world.
But here comes the additional twist in the tale. After the hare
leaves, he smells smoke. Looking back at his once home, he sees that it is
ablaze. Retuning to look for his friends, he finds that they have all perished.
In the end, while he lost the race, and his foot he was
lucky to not have lost his life.
Nadeau’s story leaves things open ended for the reader. While
the hare was certainly wrong in being so arrogant and bullying to the tortoise,
was he really so wrong in wanting to leave the forest? Would the hare winning
the bet have led to a better outcome for the talking animals? Did the hare ever
go on to find the place where the faeries “stepped sideways into the moon?”
He has created a unique open-ended twist on the traditional Tortoise and the Hare fable. Can’t wait to read more on his mythical world of Lythinall.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, I plan on dissecting Stephen Coglan’s Last Ride of the Inferno Train next.
Admittedly, the first time I read Professor Cognome’s story Lowell’s Second Chance, from Kyanite Press’s Winter’s Digest I was about a bottle of wine in, under the stars in Death Valley enjoying the delicious feeling of tumbling down the rabbit hole. I decided I needed to go back and read it completely sober. My initial impression remains. Not really being a retelling of any particular tale, it’s as if Mark Twain decided to take a bunch of opium and then write his own version of a Mid-Summer Night’s Dream crossed with Alice in Wonderland. Cognome’s short story is a tribute to Francis Cabott Lowell, of Waltham, MA.
Mr. Lowell’s business model for his mill was unique for his era. In a time where there were few to no rights for workers, he recognized that a happy, well-cared for, educated work force actually led to a better profits, less turn-over, a more sustainable business and a better society overall. While he died fairly young, his son continued his legacy and built it into what is known as the “Waltham-Lowell Business Model”
There are many interesting links and studies done on his model of business. If you would like to read more, please check out the one I included, or even the one Professor Cognome included with his story, as I do not mean for this to be a business essay on Lowell, but on Cognome’s highly entertaining tale.
Cognome spins a visually appealing tale. Once into the realm of the fairies, it is the language that captures (and makes me think of Twain, by the by). Fairies “sipping moonlight from a blue forget-me-not blossom.” The “Biggie King” and his “Big Nasty,” and many more. At the risk of spoilers, I will keep my review brief. Marsh Pebble, a sly, powerful fairy is using her magic to attempt to kill the “Biggie King” in the hopes that if he dies, the “Big Nasty” (his mill) will go away and stop destroying their home. Flutterby, the fairy sent to deliver a message of warning about Marsh Pebble’s plan from the Fairy Princess, is not so convinced this is the right path. Cognome weaves a unique dreamscape as his hero and heroine come to a resolution one might not see coming. It’s a story that makes you set your expectations aside.
The seemingly simple tale speaks to a root problem of our time. Like a genie unleashed from a bottle that cannot be easily shoved back in, technology is not easily displaced once people get a taste of it. Whether it is the automobile, social media, or the realm in which I work, electricity; our society has benefited substantially from advances in technology. However, these advances are not without consequence to the world/environment in which we live. I think that we can all agree that no one wants to turn everything off and go back to the stone age. Technology has made our lives better on nearly every level. At the same time, how do we strike the right balance between advancing technology and conserving the world in which we live in? How can we convince governments, businesses and even people as individuals to take ownership of their decisions and how they affect the world around them? Who are the right persons to be the judges? We as human beings are incredibly short-sighted, and for good reason. Let’s face it, we’re also incredibly resistant to change. We often only change when forced to. Our lifespans in the grand scheme of things are short and narrowly focused on surviving.
In Cognome’s story, Marsh Pebble has taken it upon herself to be the judge, jury and executioner for the “Biggie King” and the “Big Nasty.” She’s thoroughly convinced that if she gets rid of him, all their problems will be solved. But as we see too often even in our society, if we eliminate one ill without completely thinking through the consequences, more will pop up, often like the hydra in Greek mythology, waiting with more heads to tear us to shreds.
Now this is possibly an over simplification, but you will get my basic point. Think back to the 1840’s. The world was killing whales tothe point of extinction for the purpose of fuel, perfumes, bones, etc. As the number of whales decreased and prices for whale oil and corsets went up, they started to look for something to replace it. What did they replace it with? Fossil fuels. Flash forward to now as we look around trying to find the next technology to supplant fossil fuels. I hope we take a hard look at what we come up with so a hundred years from now, they aren’t shaking their heads saying, “What were they thinking?”
Trisha Lea’s, The Wolf’s Bane from Kyanite Press’s Winter’s Digest is a fresh take on the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hoodthat falls in step with the current questions revolving around sexual identity and victimization that our society is struggling to come to grips with, as we try to right the wrongs of the past and possibly realize that we cannot. We can never bring back what has been lost to a victim, no matter what we do. How do we temper restitution with revenge? Will revenge actually bring peace for the victim? At what point does hate destroy the victim? Trisha’s short story asks all of these haunting questions.
I always enjoy it when an author completely flips the script on its tail, turning it around and making us question ourselves while we read it. Little Red Riding Hood is also one of my favorite fairy tales to analyze,thanks to a compelling book I read a few years back: Catherine Orenstein’s Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale.
The original oral tale of a young girl encountering a bzou or werewolf in the woods varies drastically from the version that Charles Perault first published in 1697 (titled Le Petite Chaperon Rouge). The subsequent version published by the Brothers Grimm (titled Rotkappchen) in 1812 varies even more. Throughout the centuries this tale continues to evolve with time and culture, being retold in various ways, from Tex Avery’s Little Red, to Nabokov’s Lolita, Red Riding Hood’s themes of the innocent young girl versus the evil wolf repeat itself throughout our literary and movie themes as we try to transfer our morality onto these two characters.
Catherine Orenstein’s book was written in 2002. If published today, Trisha’s tale, the Wolf’s Bane, would be the next logical step in the progression of the evolution of this tale, given the social context and time that we now live in (#metoo, sexual harassment, etc). As we look around our society and we struggle to come to grips with what masculinity or femininity really means, and we try to right the wrongs of the past and look forward to the future; Trisha flips the traditional script on who is the aggressor, who is the victim and the differences between redemption, peace, salvation and sheer revenge.
From the get go, Trisha paints Red as the hunter, the pursuer. The physical descriptions of Red’s “mane of auburn hair,” her faded maroon leather jacket, her wolfish grin as she closes in on her target puts Red clearly in the driver seat. She is no quivering, innocent little girl, waiting to be rescued. She is a woman, ready and willing to avenge the death of her beloved grandmother. The only thing I would have asked a little more for here is possibly more background of the death of Red’s grandmother, but given the pacing and the need of brevity in this short story, Trisha does a great job of painting a raw, gritty picture of a young woman bent on revenge, come hell or high water.
She does a good job of emasculating the killer. She paints him as haunted, tortured, ready for his death. “Tail between his legs.” Red is torn. She needs to hate him. The humanization of her grandmother’s killer destroys Red’s picture-perfect revenge scenario. She’s fantasized for fifteen years about this moment, killing the werewolf and completing the circle, closing the gap and finding peace. Instead it is the wolf who finds peace, and she is filled with bitterness.
As we continue to evolve as a society, women and men taking on different roles, questioning behaviors and responsibilities of the past, we will have to find a way to deal with wrongs in a responsible way. Can we help victims overcome their trauma without shame or blame? Can we find a way to work together not as opponents, but as people? Or will we let hate and bitterness consume us, convinced salvation lies somewhere else, as Trisha’s character does. She goes forward, looking for another victim, another kill to soothe the bitterness in her soul.
Thanks for reading my opinion on Trisha’s wonderful retelling of this old tale. I’m heading out on vacation leaving the constant shaking of Alaska for Death Valley for a week to go do some star gazing, but the next tale I plan to dissect will be Professor Cognome’s Lowell’s Second Chance
The genre of myths, legends and fairy tales is one of my favorites to read. I have enjoyed all of the above since I was old enough to check out a book at the library. When I found out that Kyanite Press’s Winter Digest was going to be devoted to this genre I decided to treat myself and settle in for some long nights by the fire in the Alaska darkness, reading one tale a night and analyzing it. Before you ask, yes, I am a total nerd. When I am not writing my own stories, I am reading others.
I decided to begin with The Black Hen Witch, by Hanson Oak. Hanson is one of my favorite authors I follow on twitter writing in the horror/noir genre, and so I was interested to see what he would bring to the realm of the fairy tale.
My original post was shorter and did not contain spoilers. This one does. If you have not yet read his story and are worried about spoilers, please stop here.
His tale is set in 1692 in Massachusetts. For those who are students of American Colonial history, something dark and sinister happened in New England that year. Something that haunts the American psyche to this day. While this craze would spread far beyond Salem like a fever, before it was done, more than 200 people would stand trial for witchcraft, and 20 would lose their lives.
We can look back with the lens of history and judgement and come up with theories as to what led to such horror. Some of it was civil unrest and war in the colonies leading to refugees taxing the local economies. Some scientists speculate that ergot poisoning caused mass hallucinations and hysteria. We also know that many of the accusations were born of jealousy, greed or fear.
Knowing the time and historical setting of the story, and that the premise was an innocent young girl wrongly accused of witchcraft who is thrown together with the “real” witch of the town of Black Hen, I wondered how Hanson might play on some of the above themes. I figured he would use one of the above, along the lines of more famous books set in Puritan New England, like the Scarlet Letter, the Crucible or even the young adult story, The Witch of Black Bird Pond.
I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong on every account. He took the story’s theme in a direction I did not anticipate at all.
Disney claims in their version of “Beauty and the Beast,” that it is a “tale as old as time.” I would beg to differ. Hanson reminds us that there is a much older tale, as old as Eden. He weaves this consistently throughout his entire tale playing on traditional literary archetypes, but twisting them in unexpected ways. It is the tale of parental expectation, and how we as children either disappoint, meet, or exceed what is given to us. Do we reject our parents or accept them? Do they accept or reject us? How does this shape our choices? In particular, Hanson digs into the angst between mothers and daughters. He uses the archetypes of the mother, the crone and the maiden in particular in this tale, but often turns them on their heads.
It is something as human beings that shapes our lives. We cannot escape it, literally fed into us with our mother’s milk. It repeats itself in almost every genre, myth, legend and tale. Go to any modern psychologist, and they will analyze at length your relationship with your parents to help explain how it shapes your present relationships and life.
He starts out by creating the characters who will become the parents of the protagonist, Charlotte. They are the embodiment of the worst of the human vices: greedy, callous, cold, vain. These two people become saddled with a child who does not meet their expectations. First and foremost, Charlotte’s not the strapping boy her wealthy father wanted to carry on his legacy. Secondly, she’s sickly and ugly; the anti-thesis to her mother’s famous beauty.
On some level, the reader can’t truly blame them. Unlike in modern-day America, where most people have children (I realize there are exceptions) because they want a child to love, in the historical era in which the characters live, children are merely tools to carry on their parents legacy. Birth control (beyond the “rhythm method”) was essentially non-existent and for the most part deemed heresy. Life was harsh in the colonies, mortality was high. Life expectancy was around 35-39 years of age, That’s if you made it to adulthood at all. Roughly 35-40% died before the age of 20.
Children were used as cheap labor on farms or were shipped away from their parents at a young age to learn a trade. Obviously written about an era before the “Women’s movement,” a daughter in Colonial America that couldn’t be wed or sent off to work would be considered a horrible burden. A drain on resources.
These two reject their daughter and treat her as sub-human. They stop short of absolute murder, but they do lock her in a damp dark room in the house, barely allowing her to thrive. They get their just desserts in the end. Her heartless father drops dead of a heart attack, then her cold, beautiful mother gets burned to death. I would love for it to have been stretched out longer, made more torturous. Kind of like Joffre in Game of Thrones, I just really wanted more suffering there. Having read some of Hanson’s other writing, I know he’s more than capable, but he was constrained by length. But that just tells you that Hanson succeeded in creating really great despicable characters (which I really enjoy reading). He did a great job creating a fitting end for both parents.
Back to our protagonist, Charlotte. She’s been shut away her whole life, however, someone is mysteriously leaving her food and whispering to her in the dark, making sure she continues to live. Charlotte manages to make it to adulthood despite her illnesses and lack of care from her parents, and seems to find love for a brief time from Christian, the Baker’s son, who she weds.
However, Christian seems to pull away from her not long after they are married to work for her father, and leaves her alone in her dark world of her room again. She’s alone, sick and lost once more.
Now at her lowest point, Charlotte is dragged out of her parents home and accused of being a witch. Her parents look on and do nothing. She calls out to Christian from the cart in which she is imprisoned, and he takes the hand of another woman and turns away.
She’s thrown in with Corta, the real “Witch of Black Hen.” This is where the tale twists again. Hanson does clever job here of spinning the maiden/crone archetypes at this point. Poor Charlotte, for most of the story, has been portrayed as almost a young crone. She’s ugly, sick, hideous, naïve. Meanwhile as soon as Charlotte strikes her bargain with Corta, the withered old hag turns into a beautiful enchanting young woman, something Charlotte has never been.
Meanwhile Hanson delves deeper into the Mother Archetype, and the Mother/Daughter hero’s quest arc in more detail with this twist in the tale. He explores much of the rage, love, bitterness and longing between mothers and daughters as Charlotte is offered a choice by the surrogate mother she never knew she had.
If you haven’t guessed, the mysterious person in the story who whispered in the dark to Charlotte and left her food, caring for her when no one else did, was none other than Corta, the real Witch of Black Hen.
This is where the story comes down to morality of good and evil. Who should get to choose who does the punishing? As previously mentioned, Charlotte is offered a choice. She can choose to give her heart to the Black Hen Witch, and in exchange, receive the answers about herself and her family that have been withheld her entire life. She can exact revenge for the treatment she’s received, or she can choose kindness and love. The question remains, which does she actually choose?
But first, we must answer the question, what type of mother figure is Corta? And what is the mother figure.
The Mother Figure
Carl Jung was one of the first to document the Archetypes in literature. They have been around since the dawn of time, and they repeat themselves throughout all cultures. I have included a few websites in this essay, one on archetypes in general, and one in specific on the mother. I also included an article from Psychology Today: Mothers, Witches and the Power of Archetypes; Dale M Kuschner 2016 (see link further down), which delves deeper into the negative aspects of the Mother Figure, but also explains the reasons behind these negatives.
The Mother figure can be represented in many ways. When she is positive, she is nurturing, loving, supportive. Sometimes the embodiment of wisdom, kindness, fruitfulness. In literature she may not always be represented directly as a mother, but as a guardian or even a goddess. Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, Mary, the mother of Christ, Ostara goddess of spring are all examples of nurturing loving archetypes.
Then she can be represented in literature in the negative: cruel, withholding, malicious, subversive. A witch, evil, destructive. Kali (Hindi culture), Pele (Polynesian), Hecate (Greek) were portrayed in such a light.
But Jung and others would argue that it is not so much that these characters are evil. They represent a side of stifled femininity that a traditional patriarchal society has suppressed and fears. They fear the powerful and untamable aspects of the feminine that they do not understand. Patriarchal societies have often created rules and laws to control the bodies and behaviors of women.
Mothers that neglect and or reject their children or act in ways that seem evil are not conforming with society’s expectations.
“…all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
Think about modern day America, and the extreme pressure on parents (and mothers in particular) to be perfect and give the best childhood to their children. What was considered acceptable behavior 30 years ago when I was a child would now potentially get a parent arrested for abuse, or at the very least incur the wrath of social media.
I’ll give a simple example. What is considered an acceptable age for a child to walk to school alone? My older sister and I walked by ourselves to the bus stop, by ourselves, from a very young age (I would have been six, she would have been eight). The bus stop was approximately a half mile away, across open fields of desert. We were often accompanied by our neighbors who were the same age. Meanwhile, my own mother was a “latchkey kid.” Her mom was raising her on her own with no support. She was home by herself from about the age of 7.
Now, depending on the state and laws, parents can be arrested for this.
But let’s get back into Hanson’s story and the concept of neglect and societal expectations of parenthood.
In the context and setting of Hanson’s story, while the village at large feels empathy for Charlotte’s situation, no one dares oppose the power her father has over the town by standing up for her. Meanwhile, in the context of time and place, Hanson has still done a great job of establishing Charlotte’s biological mother as merely a beautiful, empty-headed gold-digger with little to no feeling for anyone, let alone her daughter.
Yet the culture of that time would not label Charlotte’s mother as evil. It is a strange irony. She is behaving within the understood cultural boundaries of the time. There is no doubt from our modern perspective that Charlotte is being neglected and treated with unreasonable cruelty. But in the boundaries Colonial America it was perfectly acceptable. As previously stated, it is only when a person (or in particular a woman) strays beyond these bounds that they are labeled as evil, whether they really are or not.
Now we meet Corta, the Black Hen Witch:
“I was the Wind of the Woods, Spirit of the Forest, Shadow of Light, Babba Yagga, and so on. Now they call me witch”-The Black Hen Witch
Corta has been living in the woods, watching the town since its inception. Casting her magic, passing judgment, living outside the boundaries.
From Ms. Kuschner’s article in Psychology Today, I give you a quote which sums up Corta, and indeed any woman who does not conform to the societal norms of her time:
“Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).”
And here we come back to parental expectations once more. Corta, unlike Charlotte’s biological mother, chose Charlotte. She has been watching her since birth. One could argue that her expectations are even higher for Charlotte. Corta wants not only wants Charlotte’s love and obedience, but she wants a companion, someone with whom she can share her power.
But as they go through the town, Corta showing Charlotte the answers she seeks and enacting revenge on those who have hurt Charlotte, Corta becomes disappointed that Charlotte doesn’t share her joy and lust in the acts of vengeance. They kill her parents, and the priest who condemned her, all despicable characters, but Charlotte’s kind heart can’t revel in their demise. Then they come to the final answer: Charlotte’s husband, Christian.
Charlotte had already suspected that he didn’t really love her. That he only married her for her father’s wealth and business connections. Her heart breaks when she sees him turn away with another more beautiful woman while she is trapped in the cart, the townspeople demanding she be burned.
Here comes both the climax in the tale and the final truths about love versus hate and good versus evil. Corta almost has Charlotte convinced that Christian never really loved her. That he wanted this other woman, and betrayed her as a witch so he could be free to remarry. Charlotte asks to hear his voice and be near him one last time regardless. Constrained by their bargain, Corta is forced to comply.
This is where we find that Christian loved Charlotte all along. The other woman is his cousin, skilled in healing whom he brought from Boston to try to save Charlotte, but was too late to save her from the accusation of witchcraft.
But who actually accused Charlotte of witchcraft?
The accuser was none other than Corta herself. When she was caught, she accused Charlotte because she claims she didn’t think Charlotte could survive without her.
Now as this is a novella and Hanson didn’t have much space here to delve into the deeper background and psyche of Corta, this portion is rather open ended.
What if Charlotte had never been accused and Christian had been able to save her? Corta would have then lost her “adopted” daughter to her husband, possibly forever, and Corta would have been burned as a witch with no way to regenerate.
If Christian’s cousin had not been able to save Charlotte, and she had died a mere mortal death, Corta still loses Charlotte.
It is both her own selfish love of Charlotte and her image of being the lone savior to Charlotte that drives Corta motives and desires. She wants to be the only love of Charlotte’s life, with no competition. She wants to sever any connection to the physical world that Charlotte has and bind her only to herself. When Charlotte discovers the truth and lashes out at Corta, Corta becomes furious. She begins to reject Charlotte.
This is also where we feel Corta’s true depth and loneliness and realize there is more to Corta’s longing for Charlotte than we know. Charlotte recognizes the true love that Corta has for her (no matter how selfish it may be).
Here is another interesting twist in the tale. In our modern society there tends to be a focus on romantic/erotic love, to the detriment of all others. The ancient Greeks actually defined 7 different types of love. Psychology Today’s article on the subject describes these in detail, written by Neel Burton, MD: These are the Seven Types of Love, June 25, 2016
At end of the tale, Charlotte chooses to go with Corta, begging her true mother to love her and forgive her. The focus becomes the love between mother and daughter. This is defined as “Storge,” in Greek terms. It is related to “Phillia.”
Though that the same time, Hanson acknowledges Charlotte’s continued love for Christian. But it would not be deemed what our society would consider Romantic or Erotic love (“Eros” in Greek Culture). Their love is also more along the lines of “Storge” and “Philia” as defined by the Greek model in the referenced article.
Charlotte’s final request before relinquishing her heart to her true mother is that while the town be wiped from existence, Christian is to be spared. She loves Christian still, but is willing to let go and move on with Corta. The only remnant of the town that exists is the ancient oak tree that once stood at the center, that holds her heart, evergreen.
I really enjoyed this novella. This could easily have been turned into a full-length novel. Maybe Hanson could be convinced to do a novella on Corta, so that we can understand a little more of her origins, desires and motives. Where did she come from? What brought her to New England? Why did she choose Charlotte?
Thanks for sticking with me. If you liked my review, please sing up for my newsletter and checkout my review of Trisha Lea’s The Wolf’s Bane on my blog.
An steamy excerpt from a WIP set in the interior of Alaska
“Evelyn,” Zeke said. She raised her head and looked at him, eyes wide and still full of tears. “Would you like to stay here with me tonight? It’s a little late to be driving back to Anchorage or trying to get a hotel.”
“Yes, Zeke. Please? I don’t want to bother you, but I’m scared. I feel safe here with you,” she said, lips trembling.
“You’re not a bother,” he said, brushing a lock of hair away from her face. “Not at all. I’m glad you came to me for help.” While the thought of her in danger tore at him, her words made his heart swell. “How about I get you something to drink? Would you like a beer?” He motioned to the bottle on the coffee table.
“Sure,” she replied. “I’ll be right back, I’m going to clean up.” She ran her hands over her hair as she rose to her feet, petite body quaking.
“Take your time.” He said, going into the kitchen and getting two more bottles of beer. He grinned when she emerged from his bathroom. Ivory silk blouse neatly tucked back into her linen skirt. Ash blonde hair smoothed, skin fresh scrubbed. She kicked off her tan pumps under his coffee table and plopped down onto the couch beside him, wriggling pretty pink manicured toenails in her silky sheer stockings as he handed her a beer.
She took a swig and leaned against him, eyelashes making butterfly kisses against his bare skin as she blinked. Now that things were calm, he was painfully aware of her warm breath and that tiny perfect body pressing against his. With every inhalation, those pert breasts under the filmy blouse brushed against his side, ratcheting the heat in his own core a fraction higher.
“Thank you. I didn’t know where else to go. I was so scared.” She ran her fingers along the muscles of his chest. Zeke closed his eyes, savoring the sensation. His groin throbbed in time with the light stroke of her fingers.
A jolt coursed through him as her satiny lips brushed his neck. His eyes flew open wide and he jerked away.
Evelyn jumped back too, tears filling her eyes. “I’m sorry. I just—I thought maybe you—never mind.” She covered her face with her hands and started to rise.
“Wait, no.” Zeke said, snaking his good arm around her. arresting her flight. “You just startled me. I wasn’t expecting that.” He moved her hands away from her face. “I—I didn’t think you could want a guy like me.”
“Why?” she asked cocking her head to the side and wiping her eyes.
His laughter came out more like a harsh bark as he held up his metal claw. “Do I really need to answer?”
“Really?” she replied, eyes flashing. “You really think I’m so shallow that something as minor as that would bother me?” She motioned to his prosthetic arm. “I’m notlike Emily,” she said, face flushing red.
“Whoa, whoa. It has nothing to do with me thinking you’re shallow Evelyn,” he said, running a hand through his dark hair. “You’re amazing. I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you in the 6th grade, in your tiny pink sweater and jeans. I just thought a smart perfect girl like you could never want a big dumb jock like me. And now I’m—” His words trailed offas his dark eyes looked at the claw where his forearm and hand used to be.
“You’re what? You’re successful, handsome, talented, strong, sexy—you’re so many things Zeke. I wish you could see yourself the way I see you,” she replied, touching his cheek.
“I think I’m starting to.” He put his hand under her chin and pressed his lips to hers, savoring the sweet taste. She kissed him back, wrapping her arms around his neck, kneeling on the couch next to him so she could be eye level with his face.
He jerked his prosthetic arm back as the claw started to catch on the filmy lace of her top.
“What? What’s wrong?” She asked, cocking her head to the side.
“I’m just afraid I’m going to hurt you,” he said metal claw gleaming as he held it up.
She frowned, running her fingers over the stubble on his chin. Then her full lips curled up, the gleam in her eyes brought a fresh surge to his groin. She stood up from the couch.
“Come with me. Now,” she ordered, holding out her hand. He took it and allowed her to lead him into the bedroom. She stopped next to his bed and pushed him up against it with her tiny hands. Eyes huge as she craned her neck to look up at him, running her fingers over the muscles of his chest. She stood on her tip-toes, raining licks and kisses against his collar bone. He started to reach for her. She arrested his arms shaking her head.
“No,” she whispered. “Hands off. You’re not allowed to touch.” He obeyed, dropping his arms to his sides. His groin grew harder as she continued her inspection of his body with her eyes, lips and tongue. Clever fingers moved lower to the waist of his boxers, tugging them to the floor.
“Lie down on the bed,” she said, as she lightly cupped him.
He complied, erection standing up like a post. She hiked up her linen skirt and slid one gossamer stocking from a shapely leg, then the other.
“Hands over your head,” She ordered as she climbed on top of him, straddling his chest. Using the frail fabric, she bound his muscled wrist then his prosthetic arm far apart to the bed posts. She leaned over him, glossy hair tickling his face. Zeke’s pulse climbed as her sweet perfume filled his senses. Her lace panty rubbed against his abs as she squeezed with her thighs. Her lips brushed his as she whispered, “There. Now you don’t have to worry about hurting me. I’m in charge.”
She dismounted and reached for the light switch.
“No!” Zeke barked. “If I can’t touch you, I want to see you.”
Her lip trembled as she crossed her arms over her chest. “But I’m so—”
“Beautiful? Sexy? Perfect?” He asked, smiling.
“Small. Skinny.” She said, hanging her head.
“Not at all. Please, Evelyn. Take off your clothes. I’ve only been dreaming of this since I was eleven.”
Her trembling fingers worked the intricate buttons on the ivory silk blouse. She peeled off the gossamer layer to reveal a sheer lace bra clinging to her pert breasts. Next, she unbuttoned her skirt and wriggled it to the floor, nothing but the barest slip of ivory lace beneath. He longed to trace his finger, followed by his tongue, along that perfect curve outlined by delicate flowery stitching. She kneeled beside him on the bed, eyes huge.
“Aren’t you going to take your bra and panties off?” he asked, mouth dry, as her golden skin brushed up against his.
Her perky breasts strained against the sheer fabric as she leaned over him, voice almost a purr as she said, “You’ve waited this long. I feel like I should stretch out the suspense, make sure it’s worth your while.” His cock surged, entire being quaking as she flicked her tongue against his ear then let out her breath in a sigh.
She ran her fingers over the muscles of his chest, then trailed kisses toward his lips. She then worked her way back down to his navel, tracing his abs with her tongue.
“Zeke,” she panted against his skin as she crawled up his body again. “Do you know how hot you get me?” she asked as she nipped each of his nipples with her pearly teeth.
He gasped, body jerking, pulse pounding. “No baby. Why don’t you show me?”
She let one strap of lace fall from her shoulder, then the other. Zeke counted every rise and fall of her breasts as she inched her hands around her back, then finally unsnapped the frilly garment. Freeing those perfect peaks from their sheer prison, she threw it aside and smiled. With a wicked gleam in her eyes, she leaned over him, offering him one succulent pink nipple then the other. He craned his neck, suckling greedily. Her soft moans and whimpers as her body flexed above him sent new surges to his already hard cock.
She jerked back and he moaned with dismay. “Oh baby, please. Untie me. I want you.”
“No,” she said, lips against his ear as her hard nipples grazed his skin, setting his groin on fire. “You should have thought of that before you said you were afraid to touch me.” His breath came harder as she began to wriggle out of the lace thong covering her netherlips. His swollen erection pulsed at the sight of her bare skin with the neat strip of blonde hair at the entrance. She probed his mouth with her tongue, teasing, testing; while he strained to touch her. She pulled back again, eyes steady as she trailed her fingers along his lips.
“Zeke, would you like to taste me?
“God yes.” He choked out a reply. She turned her back to him and straddled his face, spreading her folds and lowering slowly. He opened his mouth and tongued her wet opening. Leaning over his body, she stretched and writhed as he found her hard little pearl with his tongue. He reveled in her sweet and salty taste and in her whimpers and cries as he worked her. Her breath was hot against his navel as she moaned, pressing her face into him. She clawed him with her nails gripping and tugging as he probed. Meanwhile, he worked one hand free of her restraints, then the other. Completely lost in her world of pleasure, she didn’t feel his hand grip her hip, pulling her closer, increasing pressure.
“Oh, oh, oh Zeke! Oh fuck!” She moaned as she quivered, rubbing against him as she began to peak. He sucked and licked harder, determined to feel her come against him. When she finally went limp against him, cries becoming whimpers against his skin, he sat up. Scooping her up with his good arm, he flipped her over onto her back and rolled on top of her. He smiled at her wide eyes and gaping jaw as she gazed up at him.
He kissed her neck, sandpaper-like stubble leaving a red mark against her flawless golden tan. She tangled her fingers in his hair.
“Please Zeke. I want you inside of me. Now.” She pleaded. He shook his head.
“Sorry. Now I’m in charge. Just relax Evelyn. It’s going to be a long night.”
As promised, a blog post about the interior of Alaska, the location of our cabin, and the inspiration for several of my stories. In particular, my work-in-progress horror story about the “People with Tails.”
Since the white man’s “discovery” of the land the Aleut’s call Alyeska, there has been an intense fascination with this broad expanse of wilderness. Most people who visit barely scratch the surface, never understanding the true scale and depth of Alaska’s land. They stick to the tour buses, enjoying the safety of what my husband and I call the “look, but don’t touch” Alaska. These tourists will never experience her harsh bite. They can’t comprehend that behind her glacial beauty, beats a cold and unyielding heart that has lured many to a premature end.
None understand this better than the native peoples who populated this vast land long before the Europeans set foot here. Many distinct tribes and cultures lived within Alaska’s varied terrain. The subject of the different tribes and languages could take up multiple blog posts and books. If you are ever visiting Anchorage, a great stop is the Alaska Native Heritage Center:
They break down the enormous state into the 5 distinct regions of tribal peoples. It is a great place to get a better understanding of how these people lived and thrived in Alaska
As mentioned, most tourists see the southeast of Alaska. they take a cruise from Seattle or Vancouver up the inside passage. They see the land of the Haida and the Tlingit. Tall trees and totem poles. Calving glaciers and orcas.
They might head further north to Anchorage, or Los Anchorage as some of us who live here call it. Alaska’s largest city of roughly 300K people might seem paltry to outsiders, but it is a behemoth considering almost half the state’s population lives in one city. There’s another joke about Anchorage, “Alaska, 20 minutes from Anchorage.” Tourists who only come to Anchorage haven’t seen the real Alaska, they just been brought here to spend money.
Some brave tourists venture into the interior, taking tours of Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Few tourists venture into the Eastern interior. Those who do might go visit Kennecott Mine, inside the boundaries of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest US National Park by area. A few more might make the drive up the Alcan, visiting the Canadian cities of Dawson or Whitehorse, then visiting Chicken and Eagle on the US side of the border, all remnants of the great Yukon/Klondike gold-rush. Gold is still actively mined in these regions to this day. For those of you who regularly follow my posts, you’ll know this is where the cabin is located, just outside of Chicken.
The interior is the land of the Athabascan. Most people would think that the North Slope/Arctic region would be the coldest, but that is not the case. Without the warming/cooling effects of the ocean, the interior experiences the extremes of weather. The Alaska interior holds the record low in Prospect Creek, AK at -80F (-62C for my friends on the Celsius scale). The record low in Chicken, AK is pretty close, at -76. The record high was at Ft. Yukon (north of Fairbanks) at 100F.
The native Athabascans adapted to their landscape and extreme environment and carved an existence out of the harsh beauty.
The fierce tenacious tribes of Athabascans that inhabited this region of wild rivers and harsh extremes were the Ahtna and Tanana.
The first attempts by Europeans to navigate and chart the copper river were met by fierce resistance from the Ahtna and Tanana. The parties disappeared, never returning.
It wasn’t until 1885, Lt. Henry T Allen and two other men set off from Portland, OR with explicit orders to map and navigate the Copper and Tanana Rivers and bring back information on the peoples living in the region. A link to information on this expedition is below.
The Ahtna, like all people have myths and legends. Legends of the Gguux (pronounced gookh) that pull people into the water to drown. Stories of the “Hairy Man” much like the Bigfoot or Yeti of other cultures.
But the tale I will spin for you is based loosely on the legend of the Cet’eani or “People with tails.” My husband has done a great deal of hiking and skiing in the back country of the Copper Valley and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park while his brother had a homestead in Slana. This story is loosely based on some of his experiences.
There are multiple iterations of this tale, as it varies depending on location, tribe and dialect.
A young hunter set forth from the village in late winter to provide fresh meat for his family. When he did not return, a party went out searching. They tracked his steps some distance from the village to a valley that was seldom explored. It was whispered that evil spirits dwelled within, lurking in caves and trees. Creatures with tails.
The hunters entered with caution. Coming over a ridge in the dark, they saw a bonfire in front of a cave. Creatures with tails frolicked in the firelight, playing a game, kicking the young hunters head to and fro. The hunters waited until the creatures retreated to their cave for the night. They sealed the entrance with rocks and lit it on fire. They went back to the village and warned others of what they had seen.
Knowing they had not truly vanquished the Cet’aeni, they made the valley forbidden, calling it the “Dark Land.”
Here is the beginning of a horror story inspired by the interior of Alaska where we have our cabin. Let me know what you think. I previously just published the very beginning. Here is the intro and the first Chapter. This is still a rough draft, but I am having a lot of fun with it.
The Headless Valley
Bryan took another swig of the Wild Turkey from the metal flask. Shoving it back into the cargo pocketof his camopants, he coughed and examined the track in the half-frozen sprucebog. He re-adjusted his pack; freeze-dried ash, willow and spruce needles crunching under his boots as he gazed into the mist.
Where’d that stupid fuckin’ moose go?
He mumbled to himself, breath making a white vapor in the early evening air. He gripped his rifle harder, fingers aching in the bitter chill.
Better not have fuckin’ lost it. Knew I never should have left my four-wheeler. He wheezed and blew a snot rocket, then tugged his camopants over his pot belly.
His head whipped at the sound of snapping branches further down the narrow valley.
It’s almost dark, but fuck it, I’m not going back empty handed after coming all this way. He said to himself, creeping along through the thick brace of willow and spruce.
A chill went up his spine and his skin prickled under his woolen shirt as he came into a misty clearing. A cave gaped in the hillside above. The dark opening like the slack jaw of a drunk whore with no teeth. A sensation of being watched intensified.
I—I should go back to Miss Penny’s old lodge. It’s late—I don’t want to hack up a moose tonight anyway. I’ll try again tomorrow. Plenty of dumb moose out here. Don’t need this one. He thought, guts churning as his eyes searched the thick mist.
The spruce bog came to life around him in the rapidly dimming light. Silence broken by the snapping of branches and crunching of leaves. Yellow eyes, standing a little shorter than himself, appeared in every direction. Dark shapes forming in the silvery shadows.
“Fuck you! I’m leaving!”he shouted, voice cracking as a stream of wetness trickled down his leg to his boots. Urine hot in contrast to the clamminess of his skin. He stumbled back, bumping into spruce trees, their spiny frozen needles clawing at his all-weatherjacket and pants. Willow branches whipped his face, knocking his knit cap to the ground and exposing his nearly bald head to the freezing air. Breathing hard, he continued to try to push his way back out of the clearing.
The yellow eyes grew larger as they drew closer. He fired his rifle, discharging every bullet. Gunfire split the air, mingling with the rising sound of branches cracking. Boot catching on a hummock of moss, he sprawled backward rolling against his heavy pack, limbs flailing like a turtle. The useless rifle flew from his hands. His final scream cut short as the yellow eyes hovered above.
slogged through the hard-packed snow, the Iverson’s cozy roadhouse long behind
her now. Heavy frost and snow graced the bare branches of spruce, willow and
alder. The skeletal limbs shuddering from time to time in the later winter
breeze. Her breath came faster, leaving frost around the mouth and nose of her
gray facemask as she focused on sliding one ski in front of the other. The
scraping sound against the snow as she built a steady rhythm echoed in the
otherwise silent boreal forest. As she found her stride, digging each pole into
the trail created by the arctic cat by Dick just a week before, she was able to
forget about the heavy straps of the pack digging into her shoulders, and the way
the belt pinched the tender skin of her hips as she dragged the sled along
looked up at brilliant azure late winter sky. The blinding yellow sun hung just
above the trees. Ice crystals hung in the air, creating a shimmering sundog.
She wanted to stop and admire the beauty, but she needed to keep moving. A
clear cloudless sky on a day like this meant one thing, a bone-chilling cold
night. The sooner she got to the lodge and got a fire started, the better.
she built a steady rhythm, her mind began to wander. At least I don’t have to break trail. Then she shuddered at the
reason why she didn’t have to break trail. Dick had made multiple trips to Miss
Penny’s old lodge in the last few weeks. First to retrieve her body after he
and Ulrik had found her mauled and delirious on the floor. And then another
trip last week to clean up the mess and lock everything back up.
Why did she come out here alone? Rosamunde
asked herself, chest aching not only from the subzero temperature as she gulped
air, hauling her heavy load, but from her thoughts of Penny’s death. Why didn’t she tell me she was coming out
here to look for Bryan? I would have come with her. Maybe I could have helped. She
closed her eyes for a moment, gliding along. She thought of the last entry in Miss
Penny’s old diary, dated the night she was probably injured. Her desperate
longing to find her son echoed in every word she wrote. It ate at Rosamunde
that the older woman had faced it alone. Not only that, there was the letter,
written on simple hospital stationary just before she died, asking Rose to come
out here and try to find his remains.
thought made her shudder. They had all grown up out here together at the lodge.
Though Bryan had sometimes made her life miserable, no one deserved to die like
that. And he wasn’t the only person she knew who had disappeared out here. While
Miss Penny had adopted and fostered scores of abused kids like Rosamunde, Bryan
was Penny’s only flesh and blood son. It had been two years since Bryan had
disappeared into the Wrangel-St. Elias back country on a hunting trip, vanishing
without a trace. Miss Penny had been crushed. The only initial clues had been
his sleeping gear left behind at the old lodge.
last September, the Alaska State Troopers caught some teenagers in McCarthy joy
riding in his four-wheeler. They led the police to where they’d found it parked,
out by a dry campsite, down by Dan Creek. Beyond that, the trail went cold
again. In such a large, uninhabited region, no one had the resources to scour
the back country for a young man everyone was sure was dead. Not to mention he had
been such an asshole when he was alive, no one terribly missed him anyway. No
one except for his mother.
rustling in the trees louder than the sound of her skis scraping along the snow
made her pause. Her hand dropped to her pistol at her waist as her eyes scanned
the frozen understory of the forest. A pair of eyes blinked at her, a furry
face blending seamlessly with the ice and snow. The large cat moved its head
again, giving away its location.
gripped her pistol. The lynx blinked again, eyeing her and cocking its head to
the side. She expelled her breath in a long white cloud that froze instantly in
the subzero air. The cat already had its dinner hanging limp in its large
jowls. The white snowshoe hare, the large feline’s favorite prey, had been too
slow today. The lynx eyed her again, then slinked away into the brace of spruce
and willows, padding gracefully on top of the snow with its huge paws that
acted as natural snow shoes.
forest grew quiet once more. She shook her head as a new chill went down her
spine. The hair stood up on the back of her neck and she looked around,
scanning the snowy wood for other signs of life.
You’re just spooked. Yeah, something
could be out there, just like that lynx, but you need to keep moving. It’s
going to get really cold as soon as that sun sets. You need to get to the old
lodge before dark. Edna said there’s plenty of wood, but you need to bring it
in from the shed. Still, why do I feel like I’m being watched?
adjusted her face mask and goggles against the brutal cold and checked her
compass in the alpine glow. Miss Penny’s
old lodge should only be a few more yards, she thought to herself, snapping
it close again and clipping it back to her jacket. The snowy boreal forest faded
into soft shades of violet, navy and lavender as the sun dropped below the tree
line. The black spruce trees casting long shadows all around, creating sinister
shapes on the gleaming snow. Doubt set in as she shivered, the sweat permeating
Why am I doing this? Following the
last wishes of an old woman who was probably hallucinating when she died? Rosamunde
asked herself for possibly the hundredth time today.
Because she loved you, Rose, the
voice in her head scolded. She was the
only person who ever loved you. It’s the least you can do after everything she
did for you.
thought back to the funeral last week and her encounter with Aaron, when he had
given her the diary.
there beautiful,” he’d said as she stood by the closed casket, gazing at the
pictures of Penny and all of the children she’d adopted or fostered over the
years, including herself and the man who spoke to her now, Aaron.
she had even turned around, her skin was already crawling at the tone of his
voice. “Hi,” she replied, wiping her eyes with a shaking hand as she took a
step back. Already he’d moved in far too close for her comfort. The smell of
his cheap cologne overpowering the heady scent of lilies and roses arranged around
he said, running a hand through his thin, fine brown hair. His beady blue eyes
scaled up and down her black sheath dress. “I know this must be tough for you, I’m
glad you were able to make it into town on such short notice.”
nodded, taking another step back as he made a motion as if to touch her arm. “Yeah,
fortunately they were able to get me on a flight down from Prudhoe, I’m on
leave for the next few weeks.”
listen we started going through some things Mary had with her, and I found her
old diary, and a note she wrote when she was in the hospital. It was addressed
to you. Looks like she wrote it just before…” His voice trailed off, and his
eyes slid to the casket.
nodded, tears filling her vision again. He pulled a brown leather diary out of
the sports coat of his jacket and handed it to her.
she replied, a chill going up her spine as his clammy fingers brushed hers. She
couldn’t explain why she found him so repulsive. Other women seemed to find him
charming. His date hovered nearby, glaring at the two of them, fluffing her
long blonde hair.
I should be going. See you around.” He said, managing to pat her shoulder. She
shuddered a little as he walked away then chastised herself. He’s never been anything but nice. Sure he
was really creepy as a teenager, but he seems to have grown out of it. She
shook her head at the memories. When she read the diary and the simple letter enclosed
within, she wasted no time making plans to travel out to the old lodge.
long sigh echoed in the air as she kicked off through the hardpacked snow as
she continued along, following the trail made earlier in the week. Under her
parka and multiple layers of gear, sweat trickled down the small of her back
and between the cleavage created by her bra despite the subzero air. Her
shoulders ached from the heavy pack, and the belt attached to her hips continued
to rub as she dragged the small sled through the ice locked boreal forest. Her
lips curled up in a relieved smile as the old wooden lodge came into view. Its
lower windows boarded up with plywood, but the fortunately wooden porch free of
snow. Probably from when Ulrik and Dick
came out to get her. Rosamunde thought, closing her eyes against tears.
Increasing her stride, she quickly crossed the small clearing to the large log
cabin. Dragging the sled up the stairs onto the sturdy porch, the warped wood
creaked as she eased her pack off her shoulders setting it down and looking
rubbed her aching shoulders and looked back at the trail she’d made to the deep
snow. At least I made it before dark, she
thought to herself she pulled her pistol from its holster and tugged her
headlamp on over her balaclava. She worked the combination lock on the front
door and heaved it open. Holding her pistol high, she entered and searched the
gloomy interior. Creeping through each room she listened for sounds of
intruders, either animal or otherwise. Satisfied that nothing was disturbed,
and everything was still securely boarded up, she went back into the main area
of the Lodge and lit the ancient propane lantern by the cast-iron wood stove.
lantern glowed to life, casting light and shadows around the room. She assessed
the pile of wood next to the stove.
Enough for tonight, and just to heat
this room, and I’ll need
to melt water too. She thought to herself, I should get more before it gets much darker. Who knows how cold it’ll
be tonight and tomorrow. And I’ll need more when I sled out to the service
cabin near Dan Creek. May as well get it now.
She dragged her pack and sled inside, pulling the sled with her food and rifle in the kitchen. She unlashed the rifle from the sled and set it on the rack next to the front door, taking off the safety. She unloaded the dry goods and her packages from the sled, so she could use it to haul wood. Next she wandered over to the other side of the wood stove where the bed platform set back in an alcove. The old wooden platform creaked beneath the weight of her pack. Her gut sank as she spied a sleeping bag with familiar initials embroidered at the bottom: BSC. Next to the platform on the floor sat a-half empty bottle of Wild Turkey. She picked it up with the tips of her fingers and moved it to the counter and the old kitchen. Rosamunde thought back again to the letter Penny had written on her deathbed, tucked into her old diary.
Brian really was here. I wonder why Penny thought I could find him when the
Maybe I can. They don’t really have
the resources to do it. And we all grew up out here. I know the places he might
go. So would Ulrik. Maybe I should have asked him to come along. She
grew warm at the thought of spending the nights alone out her with the tall
handsome dark-haired man she grew up with, who she’d idolized since she was a
girl. She shook her head. No, Ulrik hated
Bryan even more than I did, he would just try to talk me out of it anyway. But
even he would agree with me, this is the best time of year to cross the spruce
bogs. But to I really want to go out to “Headless Valley” alone?
Stop that, that’s just a story
Ulrik’s Nana used to tell us when we were kids. It’s not real.
She eyed the bottle of Wild Turkey again, thinking of Bryan’s constant run-ins with the Troopers and Penny’s desperate wish for him to get sober. She swallowed hard. She saved so many of us, me included, but she couldn’t save her son from his addictions. She deserved so much more. I should have told her how much I loved her. The thoughts swirled through her head as Rosamunde looked around the lodge, taking in the weathered logs and the well-worn chinking. Tears filled her eyes as she noted the cast iron pots, still hung from their familiar nails on the wall. The cabinets that Miss Penny’s father had made by hand still stood against the far wall, Rosamunde had come here just two—Or was it three summers—to help re-paint them. The door to the downstairs bedroom was closed, but she knew that room by heart, having slept many nights there, being rocked to sleep by either Penny or Ulrik or Keira after being rescued from her own broken home. Rosamunde turned back toward the door. Her guts clenched at the sight of the dark stain visible in the lantern light in the middle of the floor. Penny, that’s where she…
swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, then she squared her shoulders.
Get a fire built, then go get wood and snow for before it gets completely dark.
You can think about Penny, how she died, and Bryan and the plan to find his
remains later. Maybe you can even clean it up later tonight. It’s not like
you’ll have anything else to do other than read a book and sleep after it gets
dark. She drew a deep breath and
turned her attention to the wood stove.
and kindling loaded into the stove, she struck a match, then sat back on her
heels and watched it take hold, crackling and popping as it began to draw. Her
skin prickled on her arms, and she looked around the room, almost as if
expecting to see something watching from the shadows. Stop that, she told herself. You
already checked everything. Go get wood before the temperature drops more. She rose to her feet and went back into the
deepening twilight, taking a pair of old wooden snowshoes from the rack next to
the door and clicked on her headlamp. She made her way around the to the
woodshed on the south side of the lodge, dragging her sled again. She loaded it
with wood twice, floundering in the deep snow. She paused once or twice in her
work, certain she heard a noise coming up the trail. But all she could hear
when she focused was a distant howl of a wolf, or the light breeze rustling
through the forest. Otherwise all was still.
She deposited one load of wood next to the fireplace, then the other load just outside the door to the cabin. She filled buckets with snow and set them on and around the stove to melt. Then she went back out onto the porch, hanging the snowshoes on a hook outside. She glanced around one more time at the empty clearing around the cabin, the woods were nearly completely dark, faint stars beginning to twinkle in the clear cold night above. The antique Coca-cola thermometer next to the door already read 25 below by the light of her headlamp.
Damn, it’s going to be chilly tonight, and it’s not even six o’clock yet.
went back inside and bolted the heavy wooden door behind her. She pulled off
her face mask and goggles then her parka and snow pants hung them all on the
sturdy hooks next to the front door. She readjusted her belt with her pistol
over her fleece pants. She yanked off her boots and pulled a pair of thick
socks from her pack along with a clean dry T-shirt and sweater.
really need to get out of these sweaty clothes, she thought, shivering in the still chilly cabin.
The fire had warmed things substantially, and her pots of water were melting,
but still cold. I really want to wash up before I put on a clean sweater.
She crouched down to throw a few more logs into the stove and paused, hair
rising on the back of her neck.
is a noise coming up the trail, she
realized. She dropped her hand to her pistol at her
waist and glanced at the front window the Lodge, still covered in boards and
plywood. Why didn’t I think to remove the
boards? Her heart pounded faster as the pounding, sliding and heavy
breathing got closer. Hand shaking, she pulled her pistol as heavy footsteps
thumped against the wooden porch and the doorknob twitched.
there?” she shouted. “Identify yourself!”
up, Rosamund. It’s me, Ulrik.” A deep voice bellowed.
re-holstered her pistol and sprinted to the door, hands trembling as she rushed
to unbolt it. Ulrik stood on the threshold, stomping the snow off his heavy
winter boots. His two hulking malamutes sniffed the air behind him as they
wandered the clearing, investigating scents in the snow. She stepped back, heart
fluttering, breath coming fast now as she gazed up at the mountain of a man, gray-brown
eyes blazing as he looked her over through his winter gear. She backed toward
the bed platform, crossing her arms over her chest. He threw back his hood and
tore off his face mask.
the hell do you think you’re doing, girl?” Coming all the way out here?
Alone? This time of year?” He shouted, hands on his hips. His tanned high
cheek bones flushed.
heart sunk at his words. Then her pride flared at the implication in his
comments. Putting one hand on her hip she poked the air with the other.
you mean? You say that like I’m clueless. I’m just as capable in the backcountry
as you are. Hell, you taught me everything I know.” She shouted back. “I
have my pistol. I can defend myself against any predator, four-legged or
caught his breath at her retort, taking in her flashing hazel eyes and golden
hair in front of the fire as she stood her ground, defiant. “I–I’m sorry.
You’re right. I sometimes forget you’re not like the other women I’ve known, Little
Bird.” He said running his hands through his thick black hair. She pursed
her lips and her porcelain skin flushed a deep rose at the use of his personal
nickname for her.
blood ran cold and his hair rose on the back of his neck as a pair of yellow
eyes blinked on the dark bed platform behind her.
he said dropping his voice and easing his rifle off his shoulder. “Don’t
move. Stay perfectly still.”
pretty hazel eyes widened, but she froze in place. He closed the distance with
a steady slow stride as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He could now make
out a shape in the sleeping alcove behind her, crouched in the shadows. He
placed his rifle over her left shoulder, aiming for where the baleful eyes
still blinked out of the dark recess.
I count to three, drop to the ground, pull your pistol, okay?” He mouthed,
gazing directly into her eyes. She blinked twice while her full coral lips formed
the word “okay” in return.
Hope you enjoyed the beginning of my little story. My next blog post will be the legend for which this post is based, and some of the background information on this region of Alaska. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.