Have a Horrible, Horrible Christmas

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a widely acclaimed seasonal classic.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a widely acclaimed seasonal classic.

REALLY!!!

No not really, but Christmas time is a great occasion for storytelling and all those stories need not be about nutcrackers and sugar plum fairies. In fact, if you step back and take a close look at some of the tall tales that circulate on these longest of winter nights, you will find that quite a few delve into the darkness of men’s souls. From Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, innovative storytellers have been more than willing to celebrate the Yule time with a grisly tale. And guess what……they have been very successful at capturing our attention.

My Story

Recently, Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds posted a Christmas Flash Fiction challenge. In this quest, he suggested that interested participants write a 2,000 word horror story about Christmas. To put things in his own words: “The holidays are in fact ripe with horror — meat and candy, mythological creatures who spy on you, winter hellscapes, animated toys. So many options for terror!”

My response ran a little over the suggested 2,000 word limit, but here it is anyway, a dark Christmas tale from the Canadian North Woods.

Le Loup Garou (the French-Canadian Werewolf)

a Short Story by Henri Bauhaus

The old timers said that the winters in the spruce forests of Northern Ontario were not as cold as they used to be. According to these elderly gents, there once was a time, when the Wendigo River would freeze solid as a rock from Thanksgiving till Easter. The frigid winter would even solidify Jim McKenzie Falls, a twelve foot high rock ledge that ran the breadth of the northward flowing river. They also often lamented that on some nights it would get so cold that your spit would freeze before it hit the ground.

But there was no need to tell Sam Wiggins that…for he learned all about the awesome North Woods winter, the hard way. The unfortunate event took place on an icy December night, when the trees of the forest were going snap, crackle and pop, as the temperature plunged well below zero. So cold were these solstice nights that not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Sam’s boss man, Patrick Munster, had given Sam and his crew both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off. But in the year of our Lord, 1925, Christmas fell on a Sunday, so for the Monday following the most revered holiday, Mr. Cargill expected all twelve loggers to be present and accounted for at 8 a.m. at the Wendigo branch of the Tamarack Paper company. It mattered nil that Monday was Boxing Day and the Feast of Saint Stephen was nigh. To the delight of the paper bosses, Christmas had conveniently fallen on a weekend and come hell or high water Patrick Munster was going to get a week of work from his hardy gang. before the new year rolled in.

The loggers had put in a good day on the Friday before Christmas, so Patrick gave the whole crew the latter part of the day off. The earnest penny-pincher even had a modest cash bonus for all the men, including the ones, who had only been on the crew for just a few months. It had been a good year for the Tamarack Paper Company and the seasoned foreman had been given a small wad of cash and told to disperse it evenly among the crew. Patrick did so without fanfare or keeping even a token amount for himself, an unselfish decision that was rare amongst the company foremen.

Not only did Patrick know the woods well, but he also understood the ways of his men very well. For he knew that sooner or later many of them would end up in the same tavern and that one of the first subjects of conversation would be about their Christmas bonuses. When the subject did come up, Ole Patrick wanted it to be known that his crew got the best bonus possible. For his Christmas kindness, the old Irishman knew that he would reap the benefits in the springtime, when the work gangs were just getting together for the upcoming year.

With only an hour or so of daylight left in the gray, December sky, Sam and several of his fellow loggers headed straight for the Laughing Loon Saloon, which was located just a few doors down from the office of the paper company. From the twelve man crew, only Sam and two of his buddies, Gil McHall and Emit Harding, made it through the front door of the busy drinking establishment.

Once inside, they were promptly seated by an overworked barmaid, who quickly set the trio up with a round of O’Keefe’s Ale and a couple shots each of Seagram’s Canadian Whiskey. Sam lead the first toast.

With glasses raised he said: “Here’s to the overworked lumberjack and the cheap-ass timber company that can’t afford more than a couple days off for its dedicated employees.”

“Aye, aye,” said Gil and Emit in unison, as they clanked glasses together.

“And here’s to the two month furlough we got coming after the New Year,” said Emit, as he raised his second shot glass. “May God rest our weary bones.”

This time Sam and Gil chipped in with a hearty, “Hail, hail.”

After setting their empty shot glass on the round wooden table, each man instinctively started sipping their brew.

“So I hear you plan to spend the winter break up here on the river,” said Gil.

Sam responded. “You got that right. The company offered me some part-time employment and a bed in the bunkhouse until we get going again in the spring.”

“No shit,” said Gil. “Whatcha goin’ to be doin’?”

“Repairing snowshoes, sharpening axes and shit like that,” said Sam.

“That won’t last very long,” said Emit.

“I hope not,” said Sam. “Cause I was planning to set out some traplines, so I can catch me a bunch of snowshoe hares and maybe a lynx or two.”

“There’s always money to be made, ain’t there,” said Gil.

“One way or another,” said Sam, as he took a moment to down the beer from his heavy, glass mug. Then Sam summoned the barmaid, a sweet young lady named Heidi, who was aged somewhere around 30.

“You guys want another round,” asked the shapely lady, as she whirled by the table.

“Just the ale,” said Sam.

“No more whiskey,” inquired the barmaid.

“I’ll do another shot,” piped in Gil.

“Me too,” added Emit.

“One more shot all around,” asked Heidi, as she lay her hand on Sam’s shoulder and swung her long blond braids near enough the tired lumberjack, so he could catch a whiff of her spruce shampoo.

“Hell….make it two,” said Sam. “We got a lot to talk about tonight.”

“Be right back,” said Heidi, while swooping up the empty shot glasses and placing them on her circular tray.

Then she left the table and disappeared behind the bar.

“That’s one foxy lady,” said Sam, as he watched the barmaid fix up a new round of drinks for the hard-working timber cutters.

“You can look all you want to,” said Gil. “But that lady’s spoken for.”

“I can dream, can’t I,” replied Sam.

“No harm in that,” said Emit. “Just don’t get any nutty ideas as the night rolls on.”

“Don’t worry ’bout me, I’m headed up to Moose Crossing for the holiday,” said Sam.

“You ain’t goin’ up that ways tonight, are you?” asked Gil.

“I was kind of thinkin’ of it,” said Sam. “You have a problem with that?”

“No way,” said Gil. “It’s just that it’s a good five to seven miles on a three-foot snowpack.”

“I can handle that,” said Sam.

“Just checking,” said Gil.

“You’re not going to pass on some nonsense about the Loup de Garou,” said Sam.

“You mean the French-Canadian werewolf,” asked Gil.

Just then Heidi returns with the next round of drinks and sets them on the table.

“Here you go guys.”

“Thanks Heidi,” said Sam. “You’re a real sweetheart.”

“Just doing my job,” said Heidi. “By the way I didn’t overhear you talking about le Loup de Garou, did I?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Emit. “That ghastly creature, which only comes out on the longest nights of the year.”

“There’s no such thing,” said Gil.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” replied Heidi.

“You’re pulling my leg aren’t you,” said Gil.

“I used to think like that,” said Heidi.

“What changed your mind?” asked Sam.

“A few midnight stragglers with the fear of death in their eyes.”

“Here at the Laughing Loon,” inquired Emit.

“Every winter, one or two show up with some weird tale about being followed by a strange creature. I used to pass it off as some drunken nonsense….but I just can’t do that no more.”

“Why’s that?” asked Sam.

“Some of them were stone cold sober!”

Heidi walks away leaving the three men to their drinks.

One hour later, Sam, Emit and Gil were outside the Laughing Loon strapping on their snowshoes, which had been left out in the snow, while the three men were inside drinking.

“You’re not serious about trekking up to Moose Crossing night,” asked Emit.

“Sure am,” said Sam. “And I hope you’re not serious about that French werewolf bullshit.”

“Of course not,” said Emit. “It’s just the night is turning into a real cold one and a lot can happen in five miles of night walking.”

Sam finishes lashing on his webbed walking contraptions and then stands upright.

“Don’t worry, Emit. I know where I’m going. Besides I got a rising full moon to guide me.”

“I’m sure Sam can take care of himself,” said Gil.

“Alright then,” said Emit. “See you bright and early on Monday.”

With those words, Sam left his two companions and began following a packed snowy trail down to the banks of the Wendigo River. The rising moon cast its rays across the frozen tributary, creating a spectacularly beautiful scene that rivaled the best paintings ever done. Sam reveled in the beauty of the wintry, nocturnal scene, for the white bark of the river birches sparkled in the moonglow with an eerie iridescence, unlike anything that Sam had ever witnessed.

About half way to Moose Crossing, Sam heard some heavy breathing that seemed to be coming up the trail from behind. At first, the solitary walker thought that there was another person out on the trail……after all it was a popular path that connected the two wilderness outposts.

But every time Sam turned around, there was nothing visible.

Another mile along the river trail and the breathing seemed to be closing in, so Sam increased his pace….not a good idea on a sub-zero December night. Soon, Sam came to a top of a knoll, where the snow was particularly deep and the shoeing was overly strenuous. Naturally, Sam stopped to catch his breath. It was at this juncture that Sam noticed a pair of green eyes glowing in the dark forest and he thought he could dimly make out the condensation of someone exhaling amidst the thick cover of spruce trees.

In no time Sam resumed his march through the December night, but now a new urgency pumped his body full of adrenalin and pushed him onwards to his final destination at an alarming speed. The heavy breathing did not stop, as Sam kept his eyes fixed forward…..too terrified to turn around.

As the trail descended from the small knoll, Sam used the downward slope to propel himself forward underneath the frozen canopy. Another incline and Sam was sweating profusely, as he made his tired legs lift his long, wooden walking aids along the snowy path. Each step seemed harder and harder and instinctively Sam knew he would not last long in this arctic environment at his present pace. If the phantom behind did not get him, his overexertion would. There was no way out.

Then at the top of the next hill a glimmer of hope appeared. It was the glow of an occupied cabin that seemed to be situated about a mile in front of him. Sam did not trust his own eyes, but he had no choice….And that was to propel himself forward, as best he could, and hope that his vision was real and that he would reach the place of human habitation before being consumed by the spirit behind him.

The last mile was the most physically excruciating and mentally terrifying minutes that he ever experienced in his 45 years on the planet. The breathing from behind got heavier and heavier. At times it seemed like the breath of the monster was all around him.

Finally, Sam was a hundred yards away from the lighted cabin. He couldn’t believe it. It seemed so real that he could smell the woodsmoke pouring out the chimney and he could barely distinguish the muffled sound of human voices. They were joyous sounds like those that might come from a merry party.

At last, Sam reached out for the metal latch that kept the cabin door closed tight and separated the warm heated interior from the frigid night. Sam wholly-expected the whole building to be a figment of his imagination, but it wasn’t, as he released the latch and stumbled across a finished maple floor with his snowshoes still attached to his feet.

Immediately, the joyful banter turned to dead silence. The first thing Sam noticed was a huge fire burning in a fireplace that was located to his right. Directly, in front of Sam was a long bar with a banner hanging from the ceiling that said: “Welcome To Hell”. The bartender had a bright red, painted face and two horns emerging from the sides of his head. Worse of all he had an uncanny resemblance to Jim McKenzie, the brave logger who had died ten years before in a logjam right above the waterfalls that now bore his name in honorarium.

When the bartender spoke, Sam passed out.

Immediately, a small crowd gathered around the exhausted logger. A woman splashed her drink in Sam’s face and he came to.

Sam looked at the bartender and blurted out: “You’re Jim McKenzie and you’re dead.”

Immediately, the sounds of laughter filled the one-room cabin.

“No sir,” then the bartender paused for a few long seconds. “I’m Doug McKenzie, Jim’s older brother. Even though Jim passed away ten years ago, people still get us mixed up. It happens all the time.”

“What the fuck is going on here?” said Sam.

Another loud burst of laughter passes through the twenty or so people gathered in the lonely cabin.

“Welcome to Hell Night!” said Doug. “We do this once a year right before Christmas.”

Slowly, Sam surveys the room and notices that all the people are in costume, most of them quite dreadful.

“You’re kidding me,” said Sam.

“I kid you not,” said Doug. “But I do have one question for you.”

“What’s that?” said Sam.

“What caused you to come bursting through the front door with your snowshoes still attached to your feet?”

“I was being followed by the Loup de Garou,”

Another deathly silence swept through the room.

Then the fire flickered and one of the windows fogged up from the outside. A few seconds later another window fogged up, as two wolf-like eyes could be seen glowing outside in the night. And they seemed to be looking into the cabin.

Then the eyes disappeared and faint footsteps could be heard leading away from the cabin.

When things returned to normal, Doug leaned over and spoke to Sam.

“That ain’t no werewolf!”

“Then what the hell is it?” asked Sam.

“It’s a ghost wolf,” said Doug.

“A what?”

“An appearance by a ghost wolf is rare,” said Jim. “But when they do appear, they always take somebody back with them.”

The End

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The Modern Day Fairy Tale

Little Red Riding Hood, from wikipedia, im
Little Red Riding Hood, from wikipedia, photo by Krakin

Strange Inspiration

One might think that recent Hollywood feature productions would be the major inspiration for my latest short story, a take on Little Red Riding Hood. But a much more likely influence are the cartoons that I saw as a youth, especially the Fractured Fairy Tales segment occasionally aired on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. For some strange reason unbeknowst to me, fairy tales never seem to lose their timeless qualities.

Other Toons

Growing up in the sixties, I was a great fan of Saturday morning cartoons. In fact so popular was the medium that some animated programs, the Flintstones and the Jetsons come to mind, were shown during prime time hours. However, when dealing with the adaptions of fairy tales to the TV medium, Rocky and Bullwinkle were not the only culprits. Influences from the Grimm Brothers, Hans Chritian Andersen and other folklorists would occasionally appear in other venues as well, such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Betty Boop and  etc. And then there were the feature films that Walt Disney made, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which were really forerunners to recent releases like Snow White and The Huntsman and The Brothers Grimm.

Snow White, Then and Now

Snow White as portrayed by Ginnifer Goodwin in the ABC series, Once Upon a Time, from wikipedia
Snow White as portrayed by Ginnifer Goodwin in the ABC series, Once Upon a Time, from wikipedia

Snow White, the cartoon character

 

My Literary Effort

My literary effort is entitled A Forest Tale and it is free this week at Smashwords. I wrote it for an anthology at Bette Noire that was devoted to the modern retelling of old fairy tales. The story was rejected in the final round, but it did receive a nice letter from one of the reviewers, (a rarity in my literary experience). The story is set in royal China and characters include a lady in red, a big bad wolf, a pompous king, some hunters and a diplomat from a faraway land. So here it is for your own reading enjoyment.

To Be a Good Storyteller You Need To Fib A Little Bit

Puppets of Pinnocchio in Istanbul, from wikipedia, photo by maurice07
Puppets of Pinocchio in Istanbul, from wikipedia, photo by maurice07

True Storytelling

Pinocchio may have been ridiculed in the old Italian folk tale, but if he was alive today, he might have a bright future as a fiction writer. Fact may be stranger than fiction, but some of the best storytelling comes from stretching a tale just a wee bit…unless, of course,  your name is Jack Kerouac and  you have a wild-eyed and revolutionary friend like Neal Cassady.

Or you can go for the big one that got away, which is kind of what Carlo Collodi did when he created his serialized children’s story, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Not does the story of Pinnocchio reveal an important moral lesson for children (Yes your lies will catch up with you eventually), but also it may transmit  a more sinister truth to those authors who pine for a bigger audience. And that is sometimes it is the bigger falsification that wins over the most fans. Where would be today without such irrational classic of literature, as Jack and the BeanstalkAlice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels or Harry Potter.

A woman scolding
A woman scolding

Little Fibs

Sometime,s it is the little fib that is most effective. In fact, there are a thousand places a struggling writer can ramp up a placid scene with stretching the action a wee bit. One of the first places that comes to mind is the bedroom, where there may be an encounter going on between two consenting adults. A little fib here can go a long ways in enhancing a story. But don’t limit your simple lies to the bedroom, for the sky is the limit with this aspect of storytelling. One of my favorite short stories to illuminate this point is The Three Hermits by Leo Tolstoy. Towards the end of the story, three fisherman pursue a boat, where a pious bishop is a passenger. The scene reveals that the three men are running across the water, “as though it were dry land”. All in all, this final scene of the story uses humor, a touch of fantasy and a biblical metaphor to make a point about faith in Christianity.

fish story

The Whopper

If you want to make a really big impression, why not go for the story, so far flung that nobody will believe it. This may sound like bad advice on the outside, but in reality it is some of our most preposterous tales that have eventually evolved into our most cherished fireside stories. By skewing all relationships to reality, the author can open the door for scathing satire, ridicule and contempt. To the novice this writer, this might be dangerous territory, but when done correctly, this type of treatment can turn a mundane take into a story for the ages.

 

 

Will The Short Story Survive

USS_Annapolis_ICEX
USS_Annapolis after surfacing through three feet of Artic ice, credit: photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, U.S. Navy

Over at Absolute Write the subject of short stories came up and there was a link to an online site that had an interesting premise as a title, “Why Book Publishers Love Short Stories.” Here’s the link, if you want to go there and share Alan Rinsler’s optimism. Alan is an editorial consultant in New York City and here are a few of  his observations about the current status of publishing vis-a-vis the short story.

There’s a robust market for books of stories,

Literary journals publishing short fiction,

Book publishers take chances on new writers,

Short story collections can sell very well,

The short story as dress rehearsal.

Had enough?  I have and those are just the sub-headings; there’s a lot of comments and opinions still left in the article. My first reaction was this guy’s off his rocker; everybody knows short stories don’t sell, but then just the other day I was in the local independent bookstore, where they list and display all the best selling books for that particular store and the number one book was Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout. And it’s a collection of short stories and it’s been at the top of the list for months.

OK!  First, let me explain a few things. I live on the coast of Maine and that’s where all these stories take place – in Crosby, Maine. But still Ms. Strout is also doing pretty good on the NY Times Bestsellers list and I think she picked up a Pulitzer Prize for fiction too boot. Not bad for a collection of short stories.

400px-Titanic-bow_seen_from_MIR_I_submersible
Titantic bow as seen from MIR 1 submersible: credit NOAA

And then there’s Jimmy Buffett’s collection of short stories. That book is called Tales from Margaritaville. And if you think the title has just more than a faint resemblance to a song of a similar name you’re right. Being a famous songwriter didn’t hurt, but seems I remember somewhere that not only did Tales of Margaritaville make it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list, but so did his A Pirate Looks At Fifty. Quite a feat because both books were at the top of the list at the same time. (no it wasn’t a tie, one was fiction and the other was non-fiction). The last somebody fulled a stunt like that was over a hundred years, back at the turn of the century when Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain did the same thing. Now that’s a pretty good accomplishment for a pop star and if you think Buffet’s writing’s a fluke check out his reading list. It’s available if you thumb through the Pirate book.

Don’t forget about the short stories that became a movie. That list includes Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rear Window based on a It Had To Be Murder by John Michael Hayes and the Pit and the Pendelem by Edgar Alan Poe.

So now that I think about it, the short story might be a little more important than one realizes. Even though only a few of the big NY magazines still pay good money for a short, they still  act like a proving ground for mainstream fiction writers.