A Walter Ulric Story
By Ian Wilson (Rated PG)
The screen of the infrared camera cast a grey green light from the car’s dashboard as my partner, Conrad LeFontain, and I munched on doughnuts and coffee and chatted about current events in the little West Virginia hamlet. The camera focussed on a closet door in a child’s bedroom. The parents had hired us to put an end to whatever was terrorizing the poor kid at night.
“I still say it’s true,” said Conrad.
“Get outta here,” I replied. “The Corn Man ain’t coming back.”
“He could, and you know it.”
“Conrad, the Corn Man can’t come back unless someone invites him.”
“And you and I both know there’s someone around here who could- who would!”
“But we don’t even know who that is.”
Everyone in North Fork, West Virginia knew about the Corn Man. Some folk thought it was just a tale told to scare children. I knew better; the Corn Man is real, and his cult was real. They say that back in the old days, folks in a neighboring town called Crooked Horn used to perform blood sacrifice to the Corn Man to ensure good harvests. The town is deserted now; a big fire back in the 60’s wiped the place out. No one has dared to live there since. I see it as my duty to keep the Corn Man and his minions from ever entering our world again, but he has his own adherents still.
“Show time,” said Conrad, gesturing to the digital clock.
3 AM: the Devil’s hour. The time when most people enter their deepest sleep. The time when the veil between our world and the world of darkness is thinnest. The hour when evil is most active. We stared intently at the night vision monitor waiting for any sign of movement. The closet door opened slowly. A long, thin, hairy hand reached out from the blackness toward the bed. Conrad and I leapt from the jeep and ran into the house.
Normally, for this situation I’d have my revolver (affectionately referred to as Miranda) out and ready. But we were dealing with a child inside a residential home. Not a good place for guns.
We ran up the stairs to the kid’s room as quickly as we could. There it was, sitting on the headboard of the bed; a large, simian mass of hair, its long, gaunt hands grasping the sleeping boy’s head, draining his life-force from him. I aimed my water gun and shot a stream of holy water at the creature while my partner chanted verses from the Psalms. The thing hissed like a viper and leapt toward the closet. I shot another stream as it was making its escape back to the closet. The parents busted in, switching on the light.
“What happened?” asked the mom, a petite brunette.
“Took out the trash,” I replied, smiling confidently, and holstering my water gun. The kid woke up, blinking his tired eyes.
The mother rushed to her son’s side and hugged him tight.
“So it’s gone? It’s not coming back?” asked the father.
“Not if we have anything to say about it,” replied Conrad.
Conrad then opened the closet door. Despite the light being on, the interior of the closet was pitch black; definitely a hell hole. Hell holes, as I’ve explained before, are openings to a dark dimension I call the Outside. They sometimes open up in old houses that have a troubled history. Sometimes they’ll be in the basement, or a closet or a storage room. One time I found one in a kitchen cabinet. They’re openings for black magic and malevolent entities to enter our reality. Such was the case here; what we were dealing with was a night-devil.
Conrad set about performing the ritual for closing the hole; this involves blessed salt and Latin chant. I could see the corners of the darkness beginning to close inward. The hole was vanishing. Suddenly, a black, hairy arm thrust out of the darkness and grabbed me by the vest, yanking me into the hole. Conrad grasped my arm. I could feel the night-devil’s claws sinking into my flesh; I felt like I would be ripped apart. Finally Conrad’s grip slipped.
“WALTER!” he cried as I fell into the darkness. Down, down, down I fell into the depths. I emptied my squirt gun into the thing. It howled in agony and finally let me go. The door had closed behind me; I stood alone in the Outside.
I looked around. I’d read about the Outside. I’d sent quite a few critters down there, but I’d never seen it for myself. I was in the middle of a forest. All the trees were black, or nearly black. The foetid scent of rot and decay permeated the fog that enshrouded the place. The bestial cries of the various beings that inhabit the Outside pierced through the trees on occasion; other than that, the woods were utterly silent. There wasn’t a lot of light; just enough to see where I was going. I started walking; it didn’t matter what direction I went; one way was as good as another. I knew I couldn’t stay in one place or whatever was out there would probably find me.
Eventually, I came to a clearing in the trees. Train tracks cut through the thick forest. I thought it was a bit odd to find train tracks down here, but since I’d never been here before, I didn’t really know what to expect. I walked slowly along the tracks, figuring that they’d lead somewhere; maybe a way out of this place. A train whistle blew somewhere in the distance. After a while, the trees cleared and I found an old train station, standing out in the middle of nowhere. I stepped up on the platform as the train pulled up. I stepped cautiously into the train, not sure what to expect.
Several people sat in the car: an elderly woman knitting; a young man in a hospital gown; a cop in a bloodied uniform; a man dressed in cowboy garb, his black hat shielding his face; an elderly man reading a book and smoking a pipe; and a girl of about 16, soaking wet and wearing nothing but a crop-top and denim shorts. The old man I recognized as Hezekiah Van Til, a deacon at the Presbyterian Church. Problem being that Hez died almost a week ago.
“Howdy,” I said.
“Oh, howdy Walter,” said Hezekiah. I was sad to hear about his death, being that he was a decent sort. He was dressed in the standard uniform of Appalachian men of his generation: plaid shirt and overalls, topped with a wide-brimmed hat. I sat down on the seat next to him and shook his gnarled hand.
“Hezekiah, you’re supposed to be dead.”
“That would be correct,” replied the gentleman. “We’re all dead, though some of us here ain’t realized it, yet.”
The girl across the aisle crossed her arms and looked uncomfortable.
“Then where are y’all going?” I inquired.
“Same place you are, I reckon,” replied Hezekiah. “The next stop.”
I squinted at the man, confused.
“But I ain’t dead yet.”
“That can’t be right,” said the deacon, narrowing his wrinkled eyes. “Everyone on this train is dead.”
“Not him,” said the cowpoke. “He’s a live one.”
I looked over at the man, his blue eyes seemed to be looking into my soul. The man stood up and mozied over to us. Shoulder-length hair cascaded down from under a ten-gallon hat. He wore a black leather vest over a blue, button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, stained blue jeans and riding boots. A gun belt wrapped around his waist, a revolver nestled in the holster.
“It ain’t your time yet, Walter,” he continued.
“Who are you and how do you know my name?”
“My name is Elior,” said the mysterious man. “I’m what you’d call a guardian angel.”
“I thought angels wore togas and carried swords.”
“Sometimes we do.”
“If he ain’t dead,” said the cop, “then what’s he doing here?”
“That ain’t your concern, John.”
“I would like to know where this train is goin’,” I said.
“It’ll take us to the Sexton’s house,” said the angel. “He’ll help us get you back to where you belong.”
“How do I know for a fact that you’re really my guardian angel?” I inquired.
“Walter, you’re an expert in the occult, and a werewolf yourself. If I were lying, you’d know it. Your senses are strong enough.”
I nodded. I sensed nothing from Elior, other than a calm, peaceful presence. If he was a devil, he was doing a darn good job of hiding it.
“How do I get back to the land of the living?” I inquired.
“We’ll worry with that when we get to the Sexton’s.”
I nodded. Clearly, Elior wasn’t the sharing type.
The whistle blew as the train rolled to another stop.
“That’s our stop,” said Hezekiah.
Hezekiah, the elderly woman, and the cop all stood up and made their way to the exit. Elior indicated we should follow. Hezekiah paused and turned to the girl.
“Come along then, let’s be off,” he said.
“No,” she replied. “I’m not ready.”
“It ain’t that bad, sweet pea,” the older man said with a smile. “You’ll be alright.”
She shook her head and a tear ran down her face.
“Suit yourself,” said Hezekiah.
We stepped out onto the platform. Hezekiah and the elderly woman seemed to be full of joy. The train whistle blew a long sharp note, and the engine chugged its way down the tracks, leaving a cloud of grey dust behind it.
“Come on, Walter,” said Elior.
We all stepped off the platform onto a gravel pathway leading to a large, gothic-style house. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the property. A man stood at the gate, dressed all in black: black frock-coat, black shirt, black tie, black pants, black shoes, black hat. He was tall and gaunt, and his face reminded me of Boris Karloff. Elior tipped his hat to the man. Hezekiah shook hands with the man as he entered the gate.
“Howdy,” I said.
“Welcome,” replied the man.
“This is the Sexton,” said Elior. “The keeper of the dead.”
“Have you always looked like Boris Karloff?” I asked. I’ve never been one for subtlety and have an ironic sense of humor.
“I have looked like many things to many people at many times,” replied the Sexton.
I nodded. I had the sense that he was old; older than anyone I’d ever met. I don’t believe he was the same sort of being as Elior. He was probably higher up the chain of command.
“You don’t belong here, do you?” asked the Sexton.
“Not yet,” replied Elior. “We need to get him back to where he does belong.”
“I see,” said the Sexton. “Follow me, please.”
The Sexton led us up the gravel walk and ushered us into the big, old, gothic-looking house.
I stared into the closet my partner had just been dragged into. The hole had closed and there was no way to get it open again. Walter was Outside, now.
“W-where did he go?” asked the little boy.
“He… he went Outside,” I replied, my voice trembling.
“Beyond our knowledge. The realm of darkness.”
“Will he come back?”
“I don’t know.”
The parents were too stunned to speak. They wrote me a check to pay our fee, but I didn’t care. I went back to the jeep in a daze. Walter was gone. Just like that. Was he dead? I didn’t know at the time. I started the engine and drove back to the farm, not noticing or thinking about what I was doing. I sat in the gravel drive for a while, thinking about what to do. I didn’t want to tell Betty that her son might be dead in an alternate dimension; after all she’d been through with Walter’s father dying, it seemed too cruel. But she had a right to know.
I reluctantly staggered into the house and flopped down at the kitchen table. I stood up again and opened the door to the liquor cabinet. Taking a bottle of Perry Wankle’s moonshine, I poured myself a shot and downed it. I placed the bottle back in the cabinet; I needed my mind sharp. I then placed the kettle on the stove to boil. Betty entered the kitchen just as it whistled.
“Have a good night?” she inquired. “Shouldn’t you be out saying morning prayer or exercising? Where’s Walter?”
“You might want to sit down,” I said calmly. Her face was awash with fear. I could practically read her thoughts: What happened to my boy? Is he alright? Did those things finally get the better of him? I told her the painful truth in the most compassionate way I could. I sounded like one of those announcers on the radio, reading a script, reassuring them that this was only a test of the emergency alert system. But this wasn’t a test.
It wasn’t an unpleasant house, if a bit dull. The walls were mostly unadorned, but for the ornate molding around the corners. A few Persian-looking rugs lay here and there. A fire crackled in the fireplace. The Sexton led us up a creaky staircase to the next floor, and down a long hallway. It seemed to me like the house was bigger on the inside, but I figured it was some sort of trick.
We came to a door at the end of the hall. The Sexton produced a key and unlocked the door, and led us into a large, mostly empty room. Hand-carved wooden chairs sat here and there. A writing-desk in the corner. A large, round mirror hung on the wall. The frame looked like it was made of ebony, and carved with various symbols.
It’s said that mirrors can see into the spirit realm. According to Maxim Adamik’s Guide To Practical Magic, mirrors can act as portals to the Outside, but I never thought that there were mirrors in the Outside.
“There it is,” said Elior.
“There what is?” I asked.
“The mirror. It’s your ticket out of this place and back where you belong.”
“Just like that?” I asked. “Like Alice in Wonderland?”
“Not precisely,” said the Sexton. “You may speak through the mirror, but you may not pass through it bodily.”
I nodded. I supposed from what he just told me, only non-corporeal spirits could pass through mirrors.
“What do I do?” I inquired.
“Just say the name of someone in your life,” said Elior. “They’ll appear and you should be able to speak to them.”
“If they are near a mirror at the time,” added the Sexton.
I shrugged and thought about who I should call.
“Julia Crowfeather,” I said.
The mirror grew cloudy for a moment; my reflection all but disappeared, replaced by a small bedroom. A sheriff’s deputy uniform lay arranged on the bed. Julia entered clothed in a flowered robe, her hair wrapped in a purple towel. She removed the towel, and started to untie her robe. Elior elbowed me hard in the ribs.
“Uh, Julia!” I blurted.
Julia yelped like a scalded cat, and spun around to face the mirror.
“W-Walter?!” she exclaimed in surprise.
I smiled crookedly. This was possibly the third most awkward morning of my life.
“Walter, what are you doing?” she snarled, looking like she was going to rip my throat out.
“Well, I-” I didn’t get to finish that sentence, because Julia’s roommate (and my ex), Cassandra, rushed in, armed with a frying pan.
“Julia, what’s the matter?!” she squeaked.
Julia gestured to the mirror. Cassandra’s jaw dropped like an anvil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
“Hi, Cass,” I said, smiling awkwardly again.
Cassandra uttered an expletive.
“Language,” I said, mockingly.
“How- how?!” sputtered Cassandra.
“Okay, I can explain.”
“You better,” said Julia, putting her hand on her hip.
“So I was killing a monster over on Oak Street, when the darn thing dragged me into the Outside. So now I’m stuck out here, and I need to get back before something makes me into its next appetizer.”
“I don’t believe this,” said Julia.
“Well, it’s true! How do you think I got into this mirror?”
“There are hundreds of mirrors in this town; why’d it have to be mine?”
“Of all my friends, I figured you’d be most likely to be near a mirror right now.”
“Oh, so it’s because I’m a woman!”
“I told you he was a chauvinist pig,” said Cassandra.
I wrinkled my nose.
“Look, you can call me as many names as you like, the point is, I need to get out of here and I need your help.”
“Okay, how do we get you back in?”
I thought about it for a moment.
“You’ll have to get Conrad and Father Steve, go to Devil’s Junction and have them open a hell hole at midnight. I’ll be there.”
“Okay, I can do that, I think.”
“Alrighty, see you at midnight.”
The image faded and my reflection returned.
“Alright, let’s saddle up,” I said, turning to Elior. The angel nodded, and we left the mirror room, and descended the stairs to the foyer.
“May the Almighty bless and guide you,” said the Sexton as we left the house.
I waved at him, thanking him for his help, and we walked down the gravel path into a dark forest.
Jim Craig’s face was a mask of Scottish stoicism as his wife comforted his weeping sister. His daughter wiped the tears from her face.
“Is there no way to get him back?” asked Mr. Craig.
“If he’s alive, maybe,” I replied. “Of course we run the risk of accidentally inviting something terrible into our world.”
Jim nodded, his face remaining the grave, stone image.
“I will do everything that I can to try to contact him,” I said.
“I know you will,” said Jim.
I stood up to leave.
“Where are you going?” asked Katherine.
“To the presbytery to talk to Father McKay.”
“Not without me,” said Katherine.
I looked at her quizzically. She never showed very much interest in Walter’s work, or Walter, for that matter. Until now, I had assumed that they simply didn’t have enough in common to build much of a relationship.
“He’s my cousin,” said Katherine. “I owe it to him to try and get him back.”
I nodded. While I’d had a rather dysfunctional family growing up, we’d always rallied round when one of us was in trouble or danger. Walter’s family was no different.
We made our way out to the jeep. I started the engine and we drove out the gravel drive and onto the old two-lane road to town to town.
As we approached the door of the presbytery, I could hear the sounds of rock music emanating from the dwelling. I rapped loudly on the door. The music ceased. Father McKay greeted us at the door, a flying V guitar strapped around his shoulder.
“Oh, hey Conrad, Katherine,” he said amicably. “What can I do for you?”
“I didn’t know you still played,” remarked Katherine.
“Uh, yeah,” replied the priest. “I like to stay in practice.”
“He and Walter had a band,” Katherine told me.
I squinted at her. This wasn’t a side of Walter that I had seen yet.
“Walter plays an instrument?”
“Walter sings?!” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“Yeah. The band didn’t last long, though. We only had one gig,” Father McKay added. “Turns out the world wasn’t ready for heavy metal Byzantine chant.”
I stood there looking incredulous for a moment.
“Where is Walter, anyway?” asked Father McKay. “Don’t tell me he ended up in the Pokey again.”
“No, it’s worse than that. Can we come in?”
“Of course,” replied the priest, inviting us into the presbytery.
We walked through the silence of the dark forest, not saying a word.
“So, if you’re my guardian angel, why haven’t we met before now?”
“We have,” replied Elior. “You may have just seen me in other shapes.”
I turned around to look at the angel; but instead I saw an old man; a man who’d given me a lift when my motorbike broke down. I blinked.
“Huh,” I said.
“And that’s just one of them,” said Elior.
A twig snapped somewhere in the woods. We paused, looking around for the source of the noise. Nothing stirred in those ancient trees. Suddenly, a weighty form descended on me from above, shrieking like a fox. I wrestled with the monster on the dusty earth. I could hear more of them howling through the forest toward us. What looked like burning coals flew through the air from satanic slings. I heard the report of Elior’s pistol as he shot the demons. I finally grasped my knife, and slashed the thing that had held me. It squealed like a pig. I stabbed it a few more times before it fell limp and melted into the ground like a puddle of black oil.
My clothes were stained with black blood. A little holy water would take that right out when I got back to the land of the living.
“Goblins,” I spat.
“I don’t think those were accidental. He knows you’re here.”
“Who?” I inquired.
“The Corn Man.”
We continued on through the dark forest toward whatever point corresponded to Devil’s crossroad in my own world, carefully looking and listening for any more signs of trouble.
The priest rubbed his face in his hands.
“So you’re telling me you don’t even know if he’s alive or dead?” he inquired.
“That is the case, yes,” I replied.
Father McKay gave a long sigh and sat back in his chair.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“We could open a hell hole,” I offered.
“Too risky,” said Father McKay. “We open one of those, there’s no telling what horrors might come out. Besides that, if we do find him, there’s no guarantee it’s actually Walter.”
“How do you mean?” asked Katherine.
“You remember hearing about Frankie?” asked the priest.
“Yeah,” replied Katherine.
“She fell down a hell hole back when Walter and I were in high school. The thing that came back up wasn’t Frankie; it looked like her, it sounded like her, but it wasn’t her. It was a changeling. It killed three people before Walter and I sent her back to where she came from.”
“Oh yeah. I remember hearing about that now.”
There was a long, mournful silence.
“Well, we can’t just sit here and do nothing,” said Katherine.
“Katherine, I don’t know what to do,” said Father McKay, running his hands through his red hair.
“There may be some means of determining if he’s still alive,” I offered.
Just then, my cell phone began to ring. I picked it up; it was Deputy Julia.
“Deputy?” I said.
“Conrad, Walter is in danger!”
“How do you know that?”
“He just… contacted me.”
I felt the thrill of hope stirring my veins; Walter was alive!
“How?!” I asked.
“Through my mirror,” replied the deputy.
“The mirror; of course! What did he say? Is he okay?”
“For the time being. He told me he needs us to open a hell-hole at Devil’s Junction at midnight tonight. He’ll be there.”
“Check, so will we.”
“Over and out,” said Julia.
I hung up the phone as a wry smile spread across my face. “Walter is alive.”
“Yes!” said Father McKay, pumping his fist.
“Is he okay?” asked Katherine.
“For the time being. We need to open a hell-hole at Devil’s Junction at midnight tonight.”
“That is a can-do, good buddy!” said Father McKay.
We came to a broad field full of corn. Scarecrows stood in various places throughout the field, their limbs swaying ominously in the breeze. I could see what looked like mountains in the distance. I also saw what I thought were the towers of a city, standing ominous and foreboding.
“We’re getting close,” said Elior. “This is the most dangerous part of the journey.”
I remembered that the Corn Man’s henchmen took the form of living scarecrows. To my horror, I realized that we were walking right through the middle of his realm, surrounded by his minions.
We walked down the gravel road through the middle of the field. Beads of sweat formed on my brow. I looked around. One of the scarecrows had left its perch. My keen eyes scanned the field for any sign of movement.
“Walter, look out!”
Elior grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the way just as a sickle sliced the air right by my head. Elior drew his gun and shot the creature in the chest. It fell to earth. The stalks of corn rustled as a horde of scarecrows lurched toward us, wielding agricultural implements as weapons.
Midnight had finally arrived, dark and cold. Julia and Katherine stood by as Father McKay drew occult designs in chalk on the pavement. The universe is made according to precise geometric patterns and formulas. Science knows this, but religion has known it for far longer. Holy places around the world are made according to these formulas; what we call sacred geometry. But there is an unholy side as well. A subversion of these patterns can summon evil entities, and open portals to the Outside. Ordinarily, Father McKay and I would never even dream of purposefully opening a hell hole, but we had no choice. I placed some crystals in the middle of the circular design to attract and focus the dark forces. It was now complete.
The priest and I then began chanting the incantations in Ancient Hebrew, opening the world of the living to the world of the demonic. The occult designs were swallowed up by a deep, black hole in the pavement.
I drew my bowie knife and sliced through the flannel cloth that served as the scarecrow’s skin, but the thing kept on coming. More gunshots rang out as Elior emptied his revolver into the demonic horde. I came in with a wide slashing strike and decapitated the creature, but even that didn’t stop it. I jumped out of the way as the scarecrow’s pitchfork thrust forward. I dodged a wide blow from another scarecrow’s garden rake, the tines sharpened to deadly spikes. I came in with an upward slash and sliced off the monster’s arm. Elior, meanwhile, had paused to reload.
“Walter, look out!”
One of the ragged creatures moved in for an attack with his scythe. I picked up the fallen rake and blocked the blow. I then swept the scarecrow’s legs, and repeatedly struck it with the implement, ripping the thing to shreds. I spun around, ready for another attack, when I saw something strange; a circular object hung in the air above us. I looked up at it, and realized the truth; it was a hell hole! Julia had come through for me!
“Elior, gimme a boost!” I said.
I stepped into the angel’s cupped hands and he raised me up until I reached the rim of the hole. I could feel the leather fingers of the scarecrows’ hands wrapping around my legs and pulling down. My grip slipped, but Julia reached down and grabbed my hand just in time.
“Don’t you dare let go!” she growled, as though the thought had actually occurred to me.
I heard Elior’s revolver firing over and over again into the onrush of infernal creatures.
Steve grabbed hold of my other arm, and the two of them drew me out of the pit. Julia threw her arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek.
“Thanks for the lift,” I mumbled, relieved that not only was I finally safe and sound in the world of the living, but also that Julia wasn’t angry at me anymore.
“I’m just happy you’re alive!” exclaimed Julia.
“Me too,” I said.
We all stood up and went to our respective vehicles. I got in the passenger’s side of the jeep as Conrad started the engine.
“I could sleep for a month,” I said.
“Too bad,” said Conrad. “We got to work in the morning.”
I muttered an expletive. “We’re taking the day off.”
I came home to the enthusiastic greeting of my relatives. It was good to be alive.