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Harrowing hauntings

Halloween spook-tacular short stories

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The Gift

Story by Brandon Barrett

Pierre wasn't expecting any visitors that night.

Opening hours had come and gone, and the last tour group of excitable schoolchildren had left before lunchtime.

But Pierre's Victorian-era home — which, it should be said, has doubled as The Museum of Supernatural Beings and Mythical Creatures since his father died a few years back — was no stranger to the odd late-night wanderer. It was a place best enjoyed after dusk, to say the least, and it tended to attract a certain kind of patron that preferred the cloak of dark.

But tonight's visitor was different.

There was no knock on the door to announce his arrival. Pierre couldn't even recall hearing the gentle plodding of footsteps that usually accompanied the mailman or Chinese delivery guy on their walk up the stone steps leading to his front door.

The man, quite simply, was just there, as if he had manifested out of thin air. Or, perhaps, Pierre thought, he had always been there, burrowed in the deep recesses of his psyche, lurking in the corner of one eye until deciding it was time to be acknowledged.

Pierre shook off this paranoid thought as a consequence of reading a few too many Stephen King novels under flashlight as a sulky teen.

"I'm sorry, sir, but we're closed for the evening," Pierre said, surprised that his words had only managed to rise barely above a whisper.

"I'm aware of your operating hours," the man said, not looking at Pierre directly, instead peering over the vast collection of macabre artifacts and dust-speckled leather books that cluttered the gallery.

"Is...is there something I can help you with?" Pierre asked nervously, noticing the rectangular protuberance from under the man's fraying pea coat for the first time.

"I have something for you," the man said, slowly turning to meet Pierre's gaze, his ashen eyes bracketed by deep bags.

Pierre flinched ever so slightly as the man reached into his coat, producing a small oil painting. He recognized the portrait's subject instantly: The Vampire Butcher of Bowman, a vicious serial killer who had terrorized the town decades before but today was forgotten by most of the locals, save for a few historians and true-crime junkies. When he was spoken about, it was always in hushed tones, behind closed doors, as if just uttering the murderer's name would conjure his return.

Pierre stared down at the painting, unsure of what he was supposed to make of it. The technique was remarkable, that much was for sure. The composition was precise, every brush stroke exactly where it was supposed to be. The deft play between light and dark reminded him of the chiaroscuros of the Dutch masters.

But there was no signature to be found on the canvas, so Pierre asked the stranger if he had painted it himself.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" the man asked, without a trace of emotion in his voice.

"Well, you see," Pierre backpedalled, "there are a lot of talented artists in this town, and I'm afraid my line of work doesn't afford me the time to learn all of their names."

The man turned away from the curator and began to thumb through an early edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula that Pierre was convinced he had locked under a glass case that was now laid open wide.

"Let me ask you this," the man started, "would you consider the vampire's bite an act of violence?"

Pierre had spoken on this very subject countless times before. Despite his museum housing relics associated with a wide range of mythical beasts — werewolves, elves, dragons and the like — it was the vampire that had always fascinated him the most.

"Vampires aren't scary, people are," he liked to say to packed lecture halls and coffee shops.

Pierre took his job as one of the country's pre-eminent vampire folklorists seriously — especially in recent years, when money-grubbing Hollywood producers and pale-skinned teenage heartthrobs had diluted the creature's image for profit.

"The bite is not a hurtful act," Pierre explained, almost absent-mindedly, as he continued to stare, transfixed, at the hypnotic painting.

"A vampire will kill at will if it so chooses. But the bite is more discriminate. It's an invitation, the chance to join the most exclusive of tribes, to turn outsider into insider. At its core, it's an act of love. A gift."

Pierre glanced up from the canvas, awaiting a nod of approval that would never come. He was alone once more, at least in the physical sense. His surprise guest was gone, departing as swiftly and mysteriously as he had arrived, although a distinct feeling of unease lingered over Pierre.

Who was that?

He tried not to think too much about the odd encounter as he went to bed, but strange and violent dreams racked his sleep. He awoke in the morning, feeling worn and ragged, knocking back a few espressos before making the short walk to the library.

Pierre was on a mission. He knew exactly what he was looking for, an old encyclopedia that religiously documented the most brutal and heinous crimes of the early 20th century.

Pierre rushed to a musty room in the back of the building that housed a small but not insignificant selection of rare and antique books. He purposefully scanned the shelves lined with desiccated tomes until he found what he was after: A Compendium of Horrors: True Tales of Terrible Crimes.

Hurriedly flipping through the book, Pierre stopped on a yellowing, dog-eared page.

Gustav "Gus" Gremner (30 October 1890 – 14 September 1938) was an Austrian-born serial killer, known as "The Vampire Butcher of Bowman," who committed ritualistic acts of murder, mutilation and disembowelment on a minimum of 24 young men and women between 1908 and 1937.

Gremner became known as The Vampire Butcher of Bowman due to the extensive mutilation and dismemberment he inflicted upon his victims' bodies, and because of his preferred murder method of biting and tearing into his victims' throats.

Described by the judge in his trial as "a truly despicable being" and "an affront to humanity," Gremner was found guilty of 20 of the 24 murders for which he was tried, and sentenced to death by hanging in May 1938. He was subsequently executed in September 1938.

Moments before his execution, Grember was asked for any final words. He looked down at the crowd of bloodthirsty onlookers who had gathered below, his vacant eyes suddenly ignited with righteous indignation, and bellowed out only four short words: "Death is a gift."

Pierre gasped audibly as the book fell from his hands and crashed violently onto the floor, a plume of dust enveloping the room. The same overwhelming sense of dread that had gripped him the night before had suddenly returned, except more intensely than before. He looked out the window to discover the sun had already set. It felt like he had been reading for mere minutes, but Pierre must have been so wrapped up he had completely lost track of time.

He sprinted out of the empty library and spilled onto the street, an undeniable anxiety rising within him. Every lamppost, every house, every person he passed along the way looked identical to the one before it, an endless treadmill of déjà vu.

Pierre worried he might never find his way home, but as soon as the thought struck, he noticed the dim lights of his living room.

Had he left those on? Pierre wondered, palms sweaty, temples booming.

Out of breath, his damp shirt clinging to his back, he approached the house tentatively, fearing what was inside. Pierre stopped for a split second at the door, wondering if he should knock, overtaken by a strange sense that the house he had grown up in was no longer his.

The heavy, oak door creaked open before he had the chance to knock.

"I hope you don't mind I let myself in," the man must have said, although Pierre was certain he never saw his lips move.

Crookedly hanging on the wall was a new painting, this one much less polished than the first.

The brush stokes were messy, muddled, visceral. The work of a soul unhinged. Vivid reds and stark blues were slashed on the canvas, the oil still dripping and drying in place.

Pierre stood, mouth agape, in the kind of frozen paralysis one can only experience in moments of pure terror. The painting depicted a man with his throat ripped out, his entrails splayed on the floor.

He recognized the portrait's subject instantly.

"I have something for you," the man said, a knowing grin spread across his face.




High Beams

Story by Dan Falloon

"Prick" Katrine muttered to herself as she turned the ignition and all four doors of her hatchback locked shut with a click in perfect unison.

Uttering the cuss allowed her to release some of the pent-up annoyance that had been boring itself into her insides all day. She shifted the car into gear and began the long journey back from Lillooet to Whistler.

It was Jason's turn to come get their son, Ethan, for his week with the boy, who inherited her nose and Jason's stubborn temperament. She worried that at two-and-a-half, Ethan was starting to get an inkling that his parents weren't exactly living in marital bliss. After Jason lost yet another job about a year ago, Katrine kicked him out. He landed another job in an attempt to win her back, but it was on a ranch near Lillooet and, really, he was pursuing his drunken cowboy fantasies more than anything else. She was surprised they'd kept him on this long, really, after a spate of costly errors. They must be desperate for people, she thought.

Though they had an agreement that whoever picked up Ethan would be on the hook for transportation, here she was traversing the winding roads for a second Sunday in a row after leaving Ethan with his dad. Apparently Jason had allowed his new fling to take his pick-up to some party a few towns up the night before. He still hadn't heard from her. He pleaded with Katrine to bring the boy to him anyway and she relented. Ethan travelled well, constantly finding something to amuse himself on the side of the road without fussing much. She couldn't really afford the trip, but thankfully Jason had agreed to cover the cost of the next two. In theory, anyway.

Katrine checked her gas gauge and noted she was almost empty — she would have to put a 20 into the gas tank to get home. She cruised down Highway 99 before seeing flashing red and blue lights up ahead. The darkness slopped over them as she approached the one-lane bridge and moments later, she saw the cop car's headlights.

She probably had the right of way, but tried to defer to the police vehicle on the other side. Being tight for cash, she'd put off replacing her all-season tires with winter ones until Friday, when her bank account, essentially an empty reservoir, would be momentarily refilled. She was supposed to have made the switch a week ago and opted to avoid doing anything to raise the officers' ire or, really, their attention. Especially since they'd just pulled someone over.

The pristine white vehicle with its unavoidable markings crossed the bridge and veered slightly to the right, back to the proper side of the road. Prepared to begin the move forward, Katrine mindlessly darted her gaze to the rearview. At the split-second of contact, or so it seemed, a beam of blinding light bounced back and charged into her pupils as a squeal of tires irritated her ears. She flinched, blinking aggressively twice as to squeeze the unwanted brightness out of her face. An engine revved behind her and, startled, she tapped the gas to satisfy the driver behind her.

Halfway across the bridge, she glanced in the mirror again. Nothing but blackness. Nothing but her own illegal tires clipping over the lumber below.

Thinking whatever impatient traveller behind her had found a different route, Katrine breathed deeply, calming herself. She drove her car through town and began to approach the outskirts when a sudden ping of whiteness caught her eye again in the rearview mirror.

She kept to the speed limit in town, hoping the psycho would pass her and she'd be done with it.

But after realizing she was not in the clear yet, her fingers clasped the steering wheel with intensified vigor. A couple yellowish sets of lights puddled into the peripheral vision on her right as she guided her car toward the enveloping darkness of the forest ahead.

The road almost immediately started to twist and turn. Knowing her car handled well, Katrine depressed the gas pedal in the hopes of losing the vehicle behind her — it felt like it was pursuing her.

Feeling the adrenaline coursing through her veins, she tried to lock herself into the mindset of a racer, maximizing her speed and tackling a highway she knew well.

But it seemed the driver behind her had much the same mindset, keeping near enough that the whiteness of the tailgater's lights flooded Katrine's vehicle's interior. She knew the other car was close, but couldn't tell how close —did she have a couple feet of wiggle room or would the slightest decrease in speed result in a rear-end collision sending her careening in God-knows-what direction and into unknown terror?

That's when she felt the impact of a tap on her back bumper. In shock she steeled herself — she knew she was in survival mode.

As though gravity's pull concentrated itself on her right foot, she hammered down on the accelerator, directing her tires to hug the road's contours, finding as straight a line as she could — even if it meant slipping into the oncoming lane.

With her pursuer, in what she could now clearly identify as a pick-up, unable to move with quite as much stealth, Katrine realized she could put some distance in between the two vehicles. She tapped the brakes to round a hairpin turn, her quick flick of the steering wheel sending pebbles skittering into the ravine.

But after rounding the corner, her car started to labour, sputtering as it worked to bring her up the climb — she was nearly out of gas. As the top of the hill approached, she knew she wouldn't be able to go much further.

The car seemed ready to give out just at the peak, but with a decline ahead, she stomped the accelerator and prayed the Earth's pull would help her from there.

There was no place to pull over. No side road to try to hide on. And her pursuer was coming at her fast.

Halfway down the hill in a desperate act she pushed her foot on the brake and shut off her headlights.

She grasped to her right and yanked up the emergency brake, hoping the impact of smashing into her car would halt the pursuit. She turned the key toward her, releasing the locks. With trembling fingers, it took her a couple of precious seconds to detach her safety belt and untangle what was normally supposed to protect her. As the lights peeped over the top of the hill, Katrine's fingertips pulled against the door handle and she hurtled herself into the highway. Sprawling into the ditch, the lights declined down the hill. She braced herself for whatever smashes and screams she might cause and put her hands over her head, praying whatever debris flung loose would somehow avoid her.

Nothing came.

No strained squeal.

No smash.

No footsteps in her direction.

Katrine peered out from the ditch and caught sight of the brightness down in the valley. Almost immediately, the light compressed into a thin beam and with an intense flash silently shot its way into the sky, leaving Katrine quivering in perfect blackness.




A Mumuration

Story by Cathryn Atkinson

"Why an exorcism?" asked Chris.

"I prefer delusional consistency over delusional inconsistency," Whelan replied.


Whelan ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.

"The whole thing is crazy — but I wanted to go with a crazy I understood," he said.

"I'm Catholic."

"You are?" asked Chris.

"Sort of."

Lawrence drained his lager.

"But Graham killed himself with a syringe. He wasn't possessed by a demon," he said.

"It's not a demon, it's a ghost!" said Hen.

"That's not helping, dude," said Chris.

"Dude? Dude? Fuck you!" Hen said.

"This is bullshit," said Lawrence.

The three turned on each other. Whelan gave them a minute and then raised his hand.

"Everyone has moved out and I can't pay the mortgage on my own. This is Whistler," said Whelan.

With this universal truth, the arguing roommates fell silent. Then Hen spoke again.

"We can't live there with all that crap happening," she said.

"That's why I booked the exorcism," Whelan said.

"And he's in there now?" asked Lawrence.

Whelan nodded.

It had been five horrible days. Whelan's newest tenant Graham turned out to have a heroin habit no one knew about, and now everyone knew about it because he was dead. He had been living in the house for three months; an economic migrant originally from the city, Graham had been chucked out of his job in the oil patch and instead mixed Slippery Nipples for well-oiled customers in the Land Rover Bar.

Graham's roommates also didn't know he was depressed; he was one of the funny guys, the sort who always had a filthy joke ready and hit on women unsuccessfully simply to be amusing. Even the women laughed. He was never cruel, never stupid with it. Total charm. He was easy to live with, too. The TV would be turned to the news when he wasn't working, and he'd be sitting in the recliner, feet up, watching it. Never a bother.

But on the previous Friday, Graham finished his shift, and walked in a storm alone for hours. When the rain stopped, he came home and told Whelan about a huge flock of birds that caught his eye.

"They moved in absolute unison. I've never seen something like that before," said Graham.

"It's called a murmuration," said Whelan. "You don't see them as much these days."

"Why not?"

"Fewer birds. They're disappearing," said Whelan.

Graham thought for a moment.

"A murmuration," he said.

Then he went into his room and pushed a needle full of air into his arm.

The embolism took him out immediately but he wasn't discovered for 12 hours. Whelan found him when he went to find out why Graham hadn't come down to check up on a hurricane he had been following on CBC. Whelan had never seen a body before but he knew the light had gone out.

The surviving roommates sat around all afternoon Saturday, trying to make sense of it. Whelan told them it was the saddest thing he'd ever seen. As the evening descended, he realized the lights had gone out in the house, too, but he was not unduly worried. He chalked it up to a power outage. They came back on, but flickered. And flickered. And flickered. It didn't stop.

It went downhill from there.

Whelan had bought the end unit in a pricey townhouse complex and was paying down the mortgage via the incomes of young workers. He was desperate. Days later at the Land Rover Bar, sitting with what remained of his household, he tried to reason with them and explained how he was handling the problem.

"Nobody cared about the flickering lights," said Whelan, tapping his fist on the table.

"I did," said Hen.

"But then the birds..."

Hen shivered.

On Saturday night, in the dark, a sparrow hit the living room window. It happens. Then an owl did it 15 minutes later. By Sunday morning, 40 birds were dead. All manner of species were represented in a mosaic of mortality, including birds that never flew low enough to hit the plate glass —two eagles, a northern flicker, 17 gulls, a buteo. Everyone stayed up all night because the impact of the birds made it impossible to asleep. The slaughter lasted two days, 92 birds.

"I was OK with the gulls, but the others? Some were endangered species!" said Chris.

By the time the first turkey vulture smashed to the ground at 11 a.m. on Sunday, the stink had started. Hen lost it and bolted from the building with no clothes or possessions. She was three months pregnant and susceptible to smells. This one was a cross between musty compost and rotting flesh. Hen also saw symbolism in her name and the situation – it was she who first connected it to Graham.

Chris, while not exactly her partner, was the father of the Henling and immediately followed her. Both were now sleeping on a friend's pullout couch.

Whelan talked to the neighbours in the townhouse complex. No one else was experiencing the problem. This was when he first thought Hen might be on to something.

Lawrence lasted until late Monday. He liked Graham and was still convinced he'd never hurt a fly, let alone 14 Steller's jays. The stink was less pleasant, but he'd lived with worse. It was the maggot infestation that finally got him.

When the door slamming and wall thumping began on Tuesday, Whelan decided to resurrect his lapsed Catholicism and reached out to Father Jameson. Losing no time, the priest had agreed to come Wednesday and now Whelan was sitting in the Land Rover Bar, telling them the good news with considerable anxiety. He first pleaded with them and then threatened them for breaking the tenancy agreement. They all told him he'd broken his end of the bargain because dead birds and maggots were not part of the deal.

"Father Jameson is in there now," Whelan said.

"After he's finished, can he read my tarot?" asked Chris. Hen smacked her non-lover.

At first, Whelan didn't know how to reply since he would have said the same thing himself just days earlier.

"It's a plan," he said. "Let me know when you have a better one. Father Jameson is a man of faith and that is good enough for me. He's an experienced man in these things."

Father Jameson stood in the living room of Whelan's townhouse, his hand over his nose, contemplating what he'd agreed to do.

He knew what was expected from a solid exorcism; his former bishop had been trained at the Vatican and had run weekend workshops. There were other, more qualified priests out there, but he was confident he could handle it. He was also certain everything could be explained scientifically.

He unpacked the items needed to carry out the job, blessed himself, and ruminated about his life. He had doubts of a deeply personal nature.

Father Jameson preferred to work with the impoverished, not mortgage holders. He'd gone into the priesthood because he'd been dumped by the woman who he'd referred to as the love of his life, someone who used him badly. Sick in his soul, he started to treat other women the way he had been treated until one day he found himself lying too much to someone he actually liked.

He stepped away from everything. He decided to take his co-dependency and offer it to the universe instead of one person. The church was happy to have him. Jesus was his new trauma bond partner; it worked for him. He felt almost ethical again.

Father Jameson had done an exorcism before, at a nursery school in Etobicoke — a seemingly possessed teacher. He gave her some holy water to drink and she lapped it up like it was Chardonnay. He then knew it was a false emergency, even if the school hadn't. Demons don't like holy water. He suggested psychiatric treatment and the installation of a water cooler.

And it was true; all had been well, with zero reports of levitating toddlers. Shortly after, he was moved to the coast, a transient among transients.

"If evil has invaded your house, only faith can overcome it," Father Jameson told Whelan. They prayed together. The secretly lapsed priest hoped the secretly lapsed parishioner wouldn't notice his skepticism.

The birds had stopped flying into the windows of the townhouse and the maggots were gone by the time the priest arrived, but the smell lingered. There was the odd knock. The odd flicker. Father Jameson slowly walked around the main floor of the house and then went up the stairs. He walked down the hallway, looking at every inch of the ceiling and walls as he went along. Graham's room was at the end.

Father Jameson readied himself and went in. He smiled and was about to pull the top off the bottle of holy water when he stopped. His eyes followed something remarkable around the room.

"Oh! How beautiful!" he said aloud.

It was 5 p.m. when Whelan and the others returned to the townhouse. He had convinced them to accompany him, meet Father Jameson and make up their own minds.

The priest told him that it was like clockwork, that dealing with bad spirits was like dealing with a hangover, all you needed was time and a willingness to ingest a spiritual painkiller. All ghosts were souls in pain. It was comforting, to Whelan, to be able to turn to someone who still believed. It gave him hope and he told Father Jameson this.

"Hope anchors the soul," said Father Jameson.

"You truly think so?" said Whelan.

The priest thought for a moment.

"Sure, it's in the Bible," he said, all the while understanding that hope is not a positive thing or a negative thing. It is only a wish.

Whelan, Hen, Chris and Lawrence stood silently on the threshold of the house in the fading light. Whelan put his key in the door and turned it.

When their eyes got used to the darkness they saw that the TV was on but the sound was down. It was the news. Father Jameson was sitting, watching it in the recliner, feet up. His back was to the four roommates.

"So. How did it go?" ventured Whelan.

The recliner straightened up and turned slowly around. Whelan could just about make out a white object in the priest's lap.

"Come closer," said Father Jameson, caressing the dead swan.

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