Author’s Note: While winter storms keep so many of you huddled indoors during this first week of the New Year, here’s a new tale of terror to warm your ghoulish little hearts. In fact, this tale is very much about warmth…light…hope: and their opposites. It’s a story about an executioner, a serial killer, and a monster who is very, very afraid of the dark. NoSleep Podcast did a wonderful adaptation of this tale, one that I highly recommend, but for those of you wish to read along, here it is…
“Have any plans this Christmas Eve, Wilburn?”
I gave Carolyn a faint smile. “Just a quiet evening at home.”
“Alone?” she prodded, tongue passing over her lips.
At that moment, the phone rang. Glad for the interruption, I lifted it off its hook.
“Glad to hear you, Wilburn. It’s Governor Guffey. Everything going well over there?”
I glanced through the one-way mirror into the death chamber. The chair was still empty, its straps hanging loose and limp, but that wouldn’t be for long.
“They’re still readying the prisoner, sir. I expect we’ll be ready to begin the execution in five minutes.”
“Good man!” A faint, drawling chuckle. From the sound of it, Governor Guffey had been hitting the spiked eggnog early this Christmas Eve. “I’ll just stay on the line, if you don’t mind – you’ll let me know when you’ve juiced him, won’t you?”
“Of course, Governor, of course.” I glanced again into the death chamber and saw that two guards were already hauling the prisoner in. “Now look, sir, I have to help – ”
“Because as you know, there are a lot of honest citizens in our fair state who will enjoy their holiday festivities all the more knowing that one less monster is abroad…and I do look forward to making a public statement on television shortly, to that effect. Think of it – the Jonesville Ripper executed on Christmas Eve! A true holiday headline – a holiday miracle – don’t you think?”
Another slightly tipsy chuckle. I chuckled along this time, secretly clenching my teeth. I didn’t have any journalists to preen over me after hours – I just wanted to get home before the roads iced over and here I was, wasting time with empty chit-chat. “Oh, for sure, sir! A Christmas miracle, indeed! Now, Governor Guffey, I have to get off the phone and help the boys with the prisoner. I’ll hand the phone to another corrections officer, if you don’t mind?”
I put the phone into Carolyn’s hand. She made a face at me and I pinched her cheek before leaving the anteroom and heading into the death chamber. Checked my watch: 8 PM. We were a little behind schedule, but that was all right.
“Glad you finally made it here, Wilburn,” one of the guards panted. “We’re having a bit of trouble with our friend here.”
“Didn’t you sedate him?” I asked. Mr. Waylon Stacey Carver – otherwise known as the Jonesville Ripper – was not in the best of spirits. He had always affirmed, in spite of all the damning evidence, that he was innocent of all ten murders – innocent, too, of whatever had happened to that young couple, Corey Ross and Karla Hicks, whose disappearance had been attributed to the talents of our local butcher as well. Now he was a raving mess, sweat pouring down his cheeks, thrashing madly as the guards shoved him into the chair and began strapping down his limbs.
Carver’s mad, bloodshot eyes suddenly settled on me as I knelt to secure his feet more tightly. I hesitantly met his gaze, while tightening the leather straps another notch.
“No more bedtime stories for you, Wilburn,” he said softly. “No more little tales of terror. I suppose that you’ll miss torturing me as well.”
He was referring to several rather peculiar conversations that we’d had over the course of the last few months – conversations in which he’d pressed me for details on what the electric chair was like, what it could do to a man’s flesh, while in return he’d told me all the death row nightmares that he suffered as he waited for his final hour. I won’t deny, it was interesting stuff. I knew, and told him, of how a prisoner’s hair would sometimes catch on fire, or an eyeball would burst from its socket, dangling crudely on its owner’s cheek. He would shudder and look sick, but he couldn’t stop himself from wanting to hear more. He really couldn’t – I saw him try and fail. Then he would tell me about his nightmares.
I never knew that a man’s own imagination could torture him so horribly, could turn an empty cell into a suffocating tomb of awful expectation. I guess that I’d always thought – hoped? – that the immanency of death would give life a poignant sweetness: make it seem dearer, somehow, for its loss. But the nightmares that Carver told me of were like a slow poison, fouling up even those last months of precious life so that the chair must have come as an awful relief of sorts, even though he still violently resisted even this relief. Humans are perverse creatures, aren’t they?
“At least the nightmares will be over, Mr. Carver,” I said, looking him in the eye.
“What was it you said to me over and over again?” he asked hoarsely. “The electricity lights up their insides? That’s all it is, isn’t it? Light? And light doesn’t hurt, does it?”
“That’s right.” I straightened, standing over him. “Think of it as light. Then it won’t be frightening, see?”
He started to cry. I guess he was thinking about all those stories I’d told him of what would happen to him once I pulled the switch. Oh, he knew it would hurt. I settled the saline-soaked sponge against his forehead and strapped the leather skullcap tightly over the crown of his head before nodding to the other two. “He’s ready.”
“Enjoy the lightshow, Wilburn!” Carver called out with a shaky laugh. “And thanks for keeping me company these last few months.” For a convicted serial killer strapped to an electric chair, he was certainly considerate. Was it my imagination, though, or was there a look of eerie, vindictive malice on his face? I felt his eyes follow me as I left the death chamber and entered the control room where Carolyn was still on the phone with Governor Guffey. Snatching the phone from her, I told the Governor, “We’re ready to proceed, sir.”
“And let me tell you, young lady, when you get to be my age, you appreciate even the smallest – wait, who is this? Is this Mr. Wilburn?”
“Indeed, it is, sir. We’re about ready to juice Mr. Carver, sir.”
“Then godspeed, good Mr. Wilburn!” Governor Guffey declared, still a bit discombobulated by the sudden interruption.
I watched Carver intently through the one-way mirror as I gave the nod for one of the guards to pull the switch. They had dutifully covered his face with a black cloth, but as the electricity surged through him and as his body almost lifted like magic from the seat, I could almost imagine the face behind the cloth working like a single, straining muscle, while a bloody foam began to spill from beneath the veil, covering the front of his shirt in a crimson stream. Even in the antechamber, I could smell something like rotten meat held over a furnace. My God, I thought, my mouth dry, eyes wide.
The prison doctor went to Mr. Carver to check his pulse and cursed loudly, burning his fingers on the smoking flesh of the prisoner’s arm. Then he screamed at us, “You idiots, he’s still alive! – you didn’t run a high enough voltage! Do it again and this time get it right!”
“Still alive…” Carolyn stared at that burning, suffering heap of twitching flesh in the chair while I pulled the switch one more time myself. He lifted again, his hands and legs kicking and shaking as though in the throes of some alien joy, and then he slumped down, more heavily this time, obscured in the fog of his own, rotten-smelling smoke.
“It’s done, sir,” I said into the phone. No need to tell him of our grotesque little fumble. A detail like that would never make it to the ears of the public anyway.
“Let me thank you, Mr. Wilburn, for your services to the State,” Governor Guffey intoned, taking a long sip of something. “And let me wish you a very merry Christmas.”
“A merry Christmas to you as well, Governor.”
Just as I hooked the phone back into its cradle, Carolyn snuggled up to me, a stray finger brushing the hair from my forehead. “Now, what was that you were saying about a lonely Christmas Eve?”
“I was? Did I say that?” I stammered, caught off guard.
The two other officers laughed. “Lay off him, Carolyn! You’re making the man nervous!”
She visibly pouted. “You have a secret girlfriend, don’t you, you tease?”
“Now, Carolyn, you wouldn’t be jealous, would you?”
The truth is that after witnessing something like that, a man needs a little time on his own to relax and sort his thoughts out. It wasn’t that I hadn’t overseen an execution before – this was in fact my fifth – but this one was different. Governor Guffey had called it a Christmas miracle. I guess that’s what it was. The stars seemed a little brighter up there in that swallowing black vastness they call Heaven. There would be a lot of folks in Jonesville who would be sleeping easier tonight, too. Nothing like the execution of a monster to get the endorphins flowing, you know?
I had an apartment in town, but I figured that it was a special night – Christmas Eve, for god’s sake! – and I was in the mood for a little company. Poor Carolyn – not her company. I took a detour off the highway and from there, turned down a long gravel road deep into the forest, feeling the familiar crunch of dirt beneath my tires. As I finally pulled up in front of a ramshackle cabin and turned the engine off, I thought that I saw a faint movement through my rear-view mirror – the dark ripple of a shadow – but when I turned around, heart pounding with apprehension, I saw no one outside. With a little laugh, I climbed out of the car, heading towards the front door of the cabin. That eerie look that Waylon Stacey Carver had given me before I’d pulled the switch on him had actually succeeded in getting on my nerves – here I was on my night off, already imagining things! They say that it’s bad luck for an executioner to look his prisoner in the eye – perhaps I’d better start taking that old superstition seriously.
With a six-pack in hand, I unlocked the door to the cabin and stepped inside, switching on the light with my elbow.
“I’m home!” I called out cheerily, setting the beer on the living room table and shouldering my coat off.
If the torn, bloodied thing that I had created, hanging from hooks and wires, had something to say in reply, I didn’t hear it.
I was in an irrepressibly conversational mood, however. “Did you miss me?” Cracking open a beer with the flat of my thumb, I ran my eyes over the silent, mangled remains of the late Corey Ross. Quite recently deceased, too. He had been alive the night before, after all – nothing dead could make the sounds that he had made last night. Especially when I had told him that the Jonesville Ripper would be executed tomorrow and that soon the police would be calling off their dogs. Once and for all.
Of course, that was a bit of a tormenting lie on my part. Until the cops found the bodies of Corey Ross and his girlfriend Karla, they would never officially close the case. But with Carver in the ground and my own resolution to keep my – ah, proclivities – under control for a good long while, the likelihood of the police putting their energy into finding two presumptive corpses was slight at best. My location was perfect, too. I had bought this dilapidated cabin rather cheaply under a fake name, deliberately choosing a location far removed from the site of my earlier murders. Not that the cops would be doing much poking around in the near future anyhow. As far as they were concerned, the Jonesville Ripper was dead and buried – another shocking entry in the annals of crime, but one finally laid to rest.
Another man might have been bothered by the thought of someone else taking credit for his handiwork. Not me. I was never in this for the headlines – I found little pleasure in their crude attempts to describe my art. The Jonesville Ripper? Really? I didn’t rip apart my victims – I remade them. I illuminated their darkness. I filled their emptiness. I gave them light.
Take Corey Ross, for example. A month ago, he and his girl Karla had a little car trouble not too far from my cabin and out of the kindness of my heart, without a thought for my own pleasure, I offered to drive them to my place so that they could use my phone. I was hoping to keep the conversation to a minimum, but I couldn’t help but notice that every time the boy looked at me, his eyes didn’t reflect anything back. Not the lights on my dashboard, not the dull gleam of the setting sun. They were like dead pennies. Like it was all dark inside. Let me tell you, it gave me the creeps but it was also fucking tantalizing.
“You all right, sir?” This kid Corey asked politely, turning his lightless eyes on me. “Want me to turn up the heat? You’re shivering.”
When we got to my place, I felt a bit better, but I couldn’t keep from casting sidelong glances at him while he and his girl Karla stood in my living room, waiting patiently for me to show them the phone. This Karla didn’t interest me. Her eyes were bright and boring; she didn’t have that frightening, appealing darkness.
“Did you say something?” I asked Corey.
“No.” His mouth said. Yes, his eyes said.
I nodded and smiled at them.
“Okay, then,” I said.
Karla asked where my phone was and I led her to the door of my basement. She didn’t know, of course, that it was a basement until I had kicked her legs out from under her, sending her flying down the narrow stairs into the darkness. There was the snap of bone, a little shriek of agonized pain, and then silence. From the narrow bar of light that illuminated the basement, I could see her sprawled, silent form.
Corey came running and almost tripped and fell down the basement stairs himself, like a damn fool. I caught him by the arm before he lost his balance.
“Gee, thanks, sir – what happened to – ”
He stopped talking when I struck the back of his head with my trusty pocket flashlight. And when he awoke a few hours later – well, he couldn’t speak, he could only scream. He was too full of my light.
For a month he had been with me, trussed up and hanging from the ceiling of my living room – and oh, how he shone. It was like those men sitting in the electric chair, but more intense, more perfect: watching their insides cook and their hair lift and smoke, I could imagine, but I couldn’t see the electricity light up their dark insides. I did to Corey what I had done to the others, though with some additional, shall we say seasonal, refinements that made him all the better. I cannot presume to know what it feels like to have so much brightness within you, so much light, that the grease of your heated brain drips down your twitching cheek – but I can tell you with perfect confidence that it feels like warmth itself to see it.
I’m hardly alone in my love for light and hatred of the dark. Why else, in the depth of winter and its long nights, are there so many holidays centered perversely around light? Oh, sure, the store clerk must have wondered why I needed so many yards and yards of stringed Christmas lights. “No tree can hold that kind of weight!” he chuckled derisively.
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” I said with a wink. After all, he didn’t know about the various clamps and needles that I would be using to fasten and stitch them into place. But he shouldn’t have been so bewildered – I was there for the same reason that the rest of his customers were. We all need something to keep us warm and to keep the darkness at bay on these long winter nights, don’t we?
I seated myself comfortably on the couch, beer in hand, and began to play with the switchbox connected to the lights, watching the blood-stained bulbs flicker to life, illuminating the gleaming white of bone or the exposed crimson of muscle. The lights that crowned his head fascinated me most. I had worked on him for weeks, but I had saved his eyes up for last – those dark, beckoning eyes. My long, thick wires of electric light that entered his cracked skull and that I had, with considerable care, managed to weave past the thick, difficult matter of his brain – that had fixed him. As I gazed at his torn sockets, I saw the protruding lights gleam merrily back at me. He had begged me to stop as he felt my light replace the darkness of his brain – but I hadn’t stopped, I couldn’t be stopped, until it was complete and his darkness was gone.
I wondered in passing whether Waylon Stacey Carver had guessed during that long, awful minute when he had been half-alive, half-dead, whether he had realized that I had been the one who had adjusted the dial just enough so that he wouldn’t die too quickly. Just enough so that he could feel the light before flickering out. The thought made me burn with pleasure.
It was while I was playing with the switch that I thought I heard something – a sound like the buzzing of a fly or a faint rattle. Then – it was very brief, but I could not help but notice it – the lights in my cabin dimmed and flickered.
Like I said, it was as brief as a blink, but I didn’t like it. Shivering, I got up and checked the plugs for all my lamps and of course my Christmas lights, but they were all fine.
It’s strange how electricity has a way of making a place seem haunted. When you’re in the business of electrocuting living men, as I am, you start to notice spooky things – popping sounds that don’t make sense, little plumes of smoke, smells that you can’t quite place, mysteries that prison guards puzzle out for hours during their cigarette breaks, with little resolution ever reached. Something about my living room and about the hanging thing of light and blood that I had created had that same haunted air about it. It was unsettling, but as long as the light held, I gave it little thought.
So I breathed a sigh of relief when the electricity seemed to stabilize – and then it happened again. Except this time it was worse. This time, the darkness was absolute for a good ten seconds. I don’t know what thoughts were going through me at that moment, all I know was that I was fumbling desperately in my pocket and, when I found my pocket flashlight, my fingers slippery with sweat, I turned it on and shone it desperately around. The little beam of light illuminated the broken, hanging body, the windows, my case of beer, but it wasn’t enough – not nearly enough. The darkness was overwhelming – and I shuddered in it.
And then – again – the lights returned and my body was flooded with a panicky relief. I laughed aloud, thoroughly unnerved. I had gotten as bad as Carver had gotten during his last few months of life on death row, with his nightmares of entombment and lightlessness. But God, I hated the dark.
As the lights flickered tentatively again, I figured I’d better head outside and see if there was something wrong – if a tree had fallen on the electrical wires or something, I don’t know. I felt like I had to do something. Staying inside and watching my home alternate between light and darkness…it was chilling me to the bone.
My coat warmed me momentarily, but the minute I stepped outside, I found myself surrounded by gales and eddies of snow. A freak blizzard had descended upon the little town of Jonesville and had already covered the forest that surrounded my cabin in a thick blanket of impenetrable whiteness. The long branches of the trees were covered with ice and already thick drifts were accumulating around my house, some already nearly a foot deep.
I stared out into the darkness that lay beyond the edge of the forest, at the expanse of falling snow and long shadows, feeling for the first time in a long while the way I had felt when the night terrors of childhood had assaulted me. It was a mixed sensation of helplessness, confusion, and awe: I sucked on my fingers, trying to warm them, hoping that the feeling would pass.
It was while I stood there in an idiotic stupor of dread that I remembered it: that shadow that I’d seen through my rear-view mirror. That little slant of darkness. That had been the trigger that had started this insidious train of paranoia. But what exactly had I seen? No one had followed me by car, that much was certain – not in this weather. Was I only imagining things?
An awful thought occurred to me – I tried my best to push it away, but it was irrepressible. Karla: Corey’s girlfriend, the one I had pushed down the stairs, the one whose legs had splintered, and whose neck had (I thought) broken in the fall. I had taken her body and had dropped it down into the deep, abandoned well in my basement. I had assumed that she’d been dead – how could she not be dead – but the truth was that I wasn’t fond of visiting that basement with its dark corners and cobwebs and hadn’t really checked on her after disposing of her. After all, even if she were still alive, there was little chance that she could have escaped a well, right?
I looked out again towards the forest, towards that bleak, silent darkness. I wished that I could see some beauty in those long shadows, some inkling of comfort. Even as a kid, I’d never been able to figure out whether it was the emptiness of the dark that terrified me or the idea that it wasn’t empty – that there was something hidden within those shadows. Were the monsters in the shadows, I had wondered, afraid of the dark too? Oh, how I had hoped so. There was some comfort in that thought.
It was when I turned to head back inside that I saw it again: that same dark, slanting shadow through the window. Before I could fully register what I was seeing, or thought I saw, the lights again flickered and went out, leaving my cabin as dark as that forbidding forest.
I think I stood there for a full minute in the freezing wind and snow, frozen not with the cold but with sheer, uncomprehending dread. Fumbling for my flashlight, I shone its thin, wavering beam, but it really only extended a few feet past where I stood. At last, my steps heavy and unwilling, I headed towards the door as stealthily as I could, my eyes fixed on the dark window where I had spied that shadow. All the while, my imagination raced with awful, tantalizing possibilities. What the fuck would someone who had broken their legs and crawled out of a basement well almost a month ago even look like by now? I remembered her hideously sprawled legs and the broken, sideways jaw and felt my own lip curl.
I should have strung her up like I’d strung up that lovely young fellow of hers, I thought. I should have brightened her dark insides.
As I felt my way back into the living room, flashing my light this way and that, I took a moment to study Corey’s mangled body, his open wounds and exposed, naked guts. Had it only been the shadow of his corpse that I had seen through the window? That certainly made more sense than the horrific image of a vengeful Karla climbing out of a 40-foot-deep well. I put my hand on the wires that held Corey up, studying him to compare his shape to the shadow that I had seen – and that’s when I heard it from behind the door that led to the basement. The rattling little cough.
What is happening is impossible, I told myself. Impossible. It makes no sense. And yet its impossibility somehow made me all the more convinced that what I feared was the truth. Trying to repress the trembling fear that seized me, I clutched my flashlight and headed towards the basement door. After a pause, I opened the door, and forced myself to look down into that narrow corridor of darkness that led deeper down into a more absolute realm of lightlessness. And I forced myself to go down those stairs and all the while I heard the winter storm buffeting the walls of the cabin and tried to put out of my head the image of that broken body, sprawled spider-like at the foot of the stairs, now crawling towards me with its crooked, lop-sided jaw and sightless eyes – once bright, now dark as a doll’s eyes.
One of Waylon Stacey Carver’s last remarks the day before his execution kept echoing in my memory. He had said it to me during the end of our last visit, after I had told him how he would smell after his roasting, and warned him that he would probably smell himself when the electricity penetrated him. Smell his insides cooking, you understand. I liked explaining these things to him; I liked seeing how he reacted to what would happen to him. Usually, he would tense up and blink at me and I could sense his very being recoil from me in terror, but this time he just looked at me and grinned a little.
“You know, Mr. Wilburn, I’m right scared of what’s about to happen to me. But I’m more afraid now of enduring another night like the ones that I’ve been through for this last year. Oh, the Chair is bad, I don’t doubt it – but the worst thing in all the world is the darkness and the silence and what a man’s imagination can put into it. I’ve been seeing things – remembering things – from my childhood that I never wanted to recall. I’ve dreamt of things, too, that I never knew before: things that must have crawled up from the depths of some Hell that I only wish was part of some childhood memory. I think that we’re all afraid of the dark, but I think that most of us can ignore it, block it, shut it out. I once could, before I came to this awful place.”
I listened to him and knew that I had never had that luxury. I was born with my fear, my darkness; it had always been a part of me.
“The light will make it all better,” I said softly. “You won’t be dark inside anymore.”
I don’t know whether Carver ever realized that I was guilty of the crimes that he would go to the Chair for, but he looked at me funny when I said that, kind of like that last malignant look that he gave me before I pulled the switch. Now, as I went down into the narrow darkness of the basement, his words returned to me and I felt all the rage of embittered despair. In spite of all my precautions, all that I had done, it had come to this. The outer darkness had left the forest and had come into my home – come for me.
I directed my flashlight this way and that, looking for any sign of life, listening for another rattling cough, if that was indeed what I had heard. I didn’t even notice how close I had ventured to the circular edge of the well until I was right up against it. Though I tried to shine my light down there to see if I could make out Karla’s corpse, my flashlight couldn’t penetrate into that deep, swallowing darkness. It was like dropping a penny into a pool of black ink.
I turned away, feeling dizzy, and just as I did, my flashlight’s beam fell on what had been behind me. One glimpse of those two mad, unblinking eyes and I had seen enough to feel my very nerves turn to ice. In my terrified haste to back away from their awful light, I lost my balance and tripped over the low brim of that uncovered well. Cursing in a low, panicked breath, I heard my flashlight fall and shatter as I desperately clung to the edge, trying to pull myself up out of that darkness. But the edge was too cold, too slippery, and my fingers were too wet with slick, terror-stricken sweat. I lost my purchase on the edge and, with my own scream echoing in my ears, I fell deep into the well.
And fell. And fell. My drop into darkness seemed to last for an eternity. I saw nothing but infinite darkness, felt nothing but an occasional bruising collision with the well’s narrow stone walls. I must have hit my head and fallen into a faint, because I remember awakening and feeling a breathless panic as I opened my eyes and saw nothing. I put my hand out and felt the wall of the well only three feet away from my face. I tried to move, but my legs were twisted, shattered.
Feeling about for my flashlight, I found its broken, plastic fragments but, like me, it was beyond repair. There was no light left from that source. I looked up, but could see nothing but infinite darkness. The old terror began to build in me, the terror that had made me sob every night into my pillow as a kid, but now it was overpowering, maddening, all encompassing. There was no way out, no escape – I was trapped, absolutely. I heard something awful laughing and it was only when I put my hand to my throat to stop myself from shaking that I realized that I was the one laughing.
I listened, wondering if I would hear Karla above me moving about, if it had indeed been Karla that I had seen. Had I seen the two eyes of my crippled victim, or had I only caught the silver gleam of the tools that hung on the wall of my basement – the pliers and knives that I had used to transform Corey into a being of light? I leaned back, listening, trying to comprehend what had happened – and as I did, I felt the shape of something beside me.
There are some horrors that the mind can accept, can graft into its existing store of knowledge – and there are others that shatter the very process of thought, the very concept of wisdom gained by experience. And as I felt the broken face of Karla beside me and realized that she was absolutely and utterly dead – as I heard the wind above me howl, rattling the unsteady foundations that entombed me with a sound that seemed for all the world like a woman’s rattling cough – as I realized that all along there had been nothing to fear, nothing, nothing at all, and as I laughed with an insane, joyous relief, my mind began to fully comprehend my new reality at last and my laughter turned to a choking scream, a plea for help from someone, anyone, even the monsters that hid themselves within the darkness, even the darkness itself.
But, for the first time that evening, the wind and the darkness did not reply.