The local writers who competed in The Bulletin’s second annual Halloween Fiction Contest gave staff story reviewers quite the fright.
Authors who submitted entries offered a variety of short stories, including tales featuring murderous maniacs, indescribable monsters and supernatural characters. Limited to 650 words, these entries are never-before published, original work written by Central Oregon residents. The winner, Robert L. Perrine, will receive a $100 cash prize for his story, “Mr. Wolf.” Tamara Marnell, the second-place finisher, gets a $50 cash prize for “The Haunted Library.” And Emily Burnham earns honorable mention for “The Dog.”
First place: ‘Mr. Wolf’ by Robert L. Perrine
This is Perrine’s second year entering the contest. He snagged second place last year with the lyrical, candy-filled “Witch’s Delight.” “Mr. Wolf,” however, features a growing sense of dread, hair-raising detail and supernatural surprises.
“‘Mr. Wolf’ is a bit more typical to what I write,” said Perrine, 37, whose other work has been published in various literary journals. “This one is still kid-friendly, but I definitely wanted something that was a little scary, like a real monster and some real danger to (the protagonist). … I want to emit emotion out of people and connect them to the work.”
Perrine said he primarily wrote “Mr. Wolf” for readers ranging in age from 8 to 12 — the same demographic for which he wrote his first novel, “The Bookshop and the Junglest,” which was released last year.
Working close to The Bulletin’s contest deadline, Perrine wrote the first draft of the story in an hour and revised and polished in another session. While some writers are “planners and plotters” who chart out where a story should go before they begin writing, Perrine is a “pants-er,” or someone who “writes by the seat of his pants,” he said. He wanted to write about a little girl, her stuffed animal, Mr. Bear, and a monster climbing into her room, but he didn’t know what would happen.
“I thought maybe Mr. Bear would save her,” said Perrine, adding that a childhood sock monkey named George served as inspiration for the teddy bear.
“Stories are rarely well-behaved things, and it wanted to pull in the direction of … maybe she is more of a dangerous monster than Mr. Wolf is. It was just what the story wanted. … I love seeing what these characters do.”
Second place: ‘The Haunted Library’ by Tamara Marnell
Tamara Marnell accomplished two firsts with “The Haunted Library” — it’s the first time she has published a short story, and the first time she has written horror.
“I tend to write romantic comedy,” said Marnell, a Redmond resident who is presently writing a modernization of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” that she has set in Bend. She is also serializing the romantic comedy “Lizzie Bennet’s Diary” on Wattpad, an online reading and writing community.
“Writing horror was a stretch,” she said. “Usually my intention when writing romantic comedy is to make people laugh and feel good. This is the exact opposite — to make them feel creeped out and uneasy.”
“The Haunted Library” is about a fateful encounter at a campus library, but there is nothing romantic nor comedic about the meeting between the Killer Poet and the college student narrator, who’s ducked out from Halloween festivities by curling up with a book after-hours.
“Hey, pretty girl,” the Killer Poet says early in the story, wearing clothes that looked stolen from the “Titanic” wardrobe and ripped with dull scissors. “What’re you doing here all by yourself?”
Marnell, 30, said she didn’t set out to make the story a twisted, “Gone Girl”-style romance, yet the Central Oregon Community College librarian did want to set a spooky story in a library to amuse her co-workers. She also liked the idea of using a single phrase — “I like the quiet” — to bookend the story. “I thought it would be fun to write a story that is sandwiched by that line. I really love stories where there is a line where you think it means one thing but, after a few revelations, the exact same line has a completely different effect.”
Honorable mention: ‘The Dog’ by Emily Burnham
Emily Burnham, 33, reimagined a scary story she heard as a kid while growing up in England.
“It’s interesting how those kinds of stories translate,” Burnham said. “You have the same kind of scary stories we have in the UK, you just have slightly different changes to them.”
Last year, Burnham, who lives in Bend, joined a small writer’s group with her husband and a friend. Around Halloween last year, one of the group’s early writing exercises involved writing a story about a haunted house in as few words as possible, she said.
“I thought it would be fun if … I could give (the story) a little bit of a twist to see if it would hold that same fear as it did when I was a kid,” Burnham said.
When The Bulletin’s Halloween Fiction Contest returned this year, Burnham revisited the story which she titled “The Dog.” She added about 50 words and polished it. As the public relations and communications manager for the Council on Aging of Central Oregon, Burnham is no stranger to the editing process. Burnham also began working on a novel about a year ago that has morphed from fantasy to “dark fiction,” she said.
No matter the piece’s length, however, word economy reigns supreme.
“There is a tendency to think we need a lot of words in order to set the scene,” Burnham said. “I actually think some of the scariest writing is when there are gaps and silence left in the story to allow your imagination to wander.”
In the ending of “The Dog,” a revelation leaves the reader hanging.
“The real horror is what happens after you stop reading,” Burnham said.
Kaylee squished her slight body against the wall and pulled the covers all the way to the bridge of her nose, so that only her pear-green eyes and the very tip-top of Mr. Bear’s pink head poked out.
“Did you hear that, Mr. Bear?” Kaylee asked in a shivering whisper.
Mr. Bear was quiet, though Kaylee felt he was putting on his bravest face.
There was a sound though — a flesh-chilling scrape tracing down the windowpane like a skeleton’s caress across a chalkboard. Kaylee dared a glance toward the window, and there, just behind her black cat curtains, Kaylee saw a shadow looming in the darkness, hulking and undulating as it shifted its weight from one foot to the other.
Kaylee tucked beneath her blanket, which was patterned with cute smiling bats, and hugged Mr. Bear’s small plush body. “You can’t let it get me, Mr. Bear,” she said in a trembling voice. “You have to keep me safe. That’s your job. You have to do your job, okay? And I know I could call Daddy in, but Daddy wants me to be a big girl now, so it has to be you.”
Mr. Bear looked at her through glass eyes. His pink face, purple nose and curlicue smile were brave and filled with love. She gave him a squeeze, taking all his courage into herself. Feeling a little less frightened, Kaylee pulled the covers down just enough to let her curly black hair and speckled green eyes peek above the covers.
The black cat curtains moved, pushing into the room. Kaylee’s heart froze in horror as her breath caught in her throat. A fur-covered limb, dark as pitch, thrust below the hem of the curtains, crashing to the carpeted floor with a bone-jarring thud. There was no shatter of glass, no cracking of panes. At the tip of its paw were five long black claws curled to points that looked sharper than any of Mama’s knives.
“Mr. Bear!” Kaylee shrieked, but that was all she could get out.
Before she could tuck back beneath the safety of her covers, the creature’s gnarled, lupine head pushed into the room, growling and snarling. Ebon shards of fangs dripped with foamy black saliva. The awful beast squeezed its massive body through the window frame like a ravenous hellhound shimmying through a too-snug dog door. The beast’s back legs gave a final lunge, and Kaylee found herself staring into the monster’s murderous black eyes. The horrible wolf-thing stood, heaving and snorting, in the moss-green glow of Kaylee’s Frankenstein night light.
Kaylee screamed — screamed with all the breath in her tiny chest — but almost no sound came out. In her head, her shrieks were terror-filled alarm bells keening through the darkness, but her ears reported only gasping, terrified wheezes.
In the glow of the night light, Kaylee watched the awful creature rise on its haunches to wail a bone-curdling howl into the tiny room. She squeezed her eyes shut, and in her left arm, Mr. Bear made an “oh no” face as Kaylee’s hand rose in defense against the wolf-thing. A small teal sphere of light flew from her split-pea-green fingers. The orb shot across her bedroom and hit the wolf-thing right on its raven-black nose, landing with a pop. The room went quiet as the beast disappeared.
Kaylee climbed from her bed and padded to the middle of the room. She picked up a small, teal stuffed wolf, squeezing it in her green witch arms.
“Well hello, Mr. Wolf,” she said with a smile. “I’m so glad to have you. Mr. Bear was getting lonely.”
“The Haunted Library”
By Tamara Marnell
I like the quiet.
I like the calm of the university library on a chilly autumn evening, the sounds of muffled whispers and fingertips on keyboards. I like to sit in my favorite armchair on the second floor and watch the sun set over the campus quad, turning the golden trees black against the fiery sky.
Mary doesn’t get it. This afternoon she made a dramatic entrance in a sexy wedding dress splattered with blood, holding a bouquet of black lilies and a hatchet.
“Why aren’t you dressed up?” Mary asked.
“I am,” I said. “I’m dressed as a college student.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “You’re gonna go to the library again, aren’t you? Come on, it’s Halloween! The one day a year we get to go wild and wreak havoc!”
But I’m not the wild type. I don’t enjoy going out to hunt for guys. I don’t like guys. Not since … Anyway, I prefer to spend the evening with a good book.
The sky is dark now, and the library is empty. The intercom crackles. “May I have your attention, please. The library will close in five minutes.”
I ignore the announcement. The staff never see me here. I zip up my hoodie and burrow into my armchair.
A nasal voice startles me. “Hey, pretty girl. What’re you doing here all by yourself?”
A man leans on the back of my chair. There’s something creepy about him. Maybe it’s the tangled, greasy hair. Or the cheesy getup. He looks like he stole a costume from the set of Titanic and ripped it up with dull scissors.
He says, “It’s dangerous to be here on Halloween. Haven’t you heard of the Killer Poet?”
I don’t like the way he grins at me. I hug my book close.
“Back in the nineties, the Poet murdered three girls here. He cut their throats with an aluminum bookmark.”
“As if,” I scoff.
The man leans close. His breath stinks of alcohol and rot. “The Poet still haunts this place. Every Halloween, he trolls the library for new victims. Girls who are pretty, and weak, and all alone … just like you.”
I look down to avoid the man’s leering eyes, and I see the tattered book of poetry in his hand. A bookmark gleams between the pages. Metallic. Sharp. Bloodstained.
Over the intercom, a calm voice says, “May I have your attention, please. The library is now closed. Thank you!”
The man grabs me with icy, gnarled hands.
I scream, but no one can hear me. No one will walk by. No one will see me.
The man pushes me down. He covers my mouth and unzips my hoodie.
Then he yelps and lets go.
Ah, he saw it. The gash across my throat, where the Poet slit it twenty years ago.
The man stumbles back. He falls to the floor, dropping his silly props. What an amateur costume. The real Poet wasn’t greasy. He was charming and kind. So kind … until he killed me.
I reach out to steal the man’s life, like the Poet stole mine.
The man clutches at his neck, but there’s no point. He can’t breathe. He can’t scream. He’s trapped, and weak, and all alone.
The intercom fizzles. “May I have your attention, please. You will die now. Thank you!”
The man struggles to get away from me. He claws at the carpet desperately. His grimy nails bend and break.
His fingers close around his bookmark. He throws it at me. Distracted, I release my hold on him. He gasps for air and runs down the stairs. He sprints for the doors, out into the dark quad.
That was foolish of him. Mary haunts the quad on Halloween. She does so love to wreak havoc.
The man’s blood-curdling screams fill the air. The hatchet thuds once, twice … ten times. Then all is quiet.
I like the quiet.
By Emily Burnham
Our dog won’t stop barking.
Ever since my brother Jamie disappeared, the dog has been staring and growling at nothing. Today he’s running around the living room, yelping at the ceiling.
The phone rings. “Take him outside,” mom says.
I yank him out into the backyard, and he spins in circles, panting and stopping to brace at the house, then spins again. The wind picks up and a cloud moves over the sun. It gets dark and cold.
He stops dead still, then turns and takes off in a sprint, tail between his legs as he runs.
I look up at the house. In my bedroom window is a boy with a pale face, staring at me with his mouth hanging open. At first, I think it’s Jamie. His hair is matted against his head. It’s blonde, just like Jamie’s. But there is something wrong with his face. It’s sideways, bent from the neck.
I can’t move, and my ears start to buzz. The boy in my bedroom window just stares his lopsided stare.
Then, slowly, he smiles.
I scream until mom comes running out. Her face is white and streaked with tears. She still has the phone in her hand. I point up at the window, at the boy who is still smiling with his gaunt face and red-rimmed eyes, but mom doesn’t look. She just clenches me in a hug that keeps getting tighter.
Jamie didn’t smile like that. And he didn’t have purple bruises all over his neck either.
My hands are still shaking.
The dog hasn’t come back, even though it’s getting dark, so I walk around the block with his leash, calling his name and whistling as loud as I can. But soon, it’s too dark and I have to come home.
I tell mom I can’t sleep in my bedroom tonight.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she says. “Just get into bed and close your eyes.”
But the room is too cold, and so dark, especially right there in front of the curtains. I pull the covers over my head so that I can’t see the shadows within the shadows. Shadows that look like a boy with a crooked neck. I hear the tap dripping in the bathroom.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
I listen to the drops until I fall asleep.
I wake up in the pitch black to the sound of shuffling under my bed. It’s OK. It’s just that the dog has come home — this is where he always lays, right underneath my bed so he can lick my hand while I’m asleep. I reach down in the darkness, as I always do. He gives my hand a quick lick and then backs away, probably tired after his adventure around the neighborhood. At least he’s not barking anymore. I try to fall back asleep but the dripping of the bathroom tap is too loud.
The room is even colder as I roll out of bed, landing lightly so as not to frighten the dog. He gives my ankle a lazy lick as I fumble in the darkness trying to find the end of my bed, then the door. I pull it open and edge into the hallway, running my hand along the wall to feel for the light switch. There. I flick it up, and squint in pain at the brightness. I can hear it louder now, the tap dripping.
I push open the bathroom door and see a pool of red on the floor.
There, hanging by the neck from a rope above the sink, is the dog.