Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"The Thicket" Excerpt

I readily admit I'd been avoiding working on my erotic horror novel "The Thicket" for the simple reason that plotting is always my downfall. I think I'm a decent writer and an expert at atmosphere and character development, but I am always lacking in how things should get done. I'd stalled for some time on "The Thicket" and was frustrated until I came across a disk that had the old version of it I had written back in 2004-2006. I had put it aside for some unknown reason and decided to change the storyline so began the manuscript all over again. What a mess. I ended up with the convoluted mess I'd been working on the past year or two. So, I re-read this older version and decided this was what was missing. It has atmosphere. It has psychology. It has the rich dark damp autumn-forest that I wanted in the novel. It has plenty of supernatural and loads of darkness. I've decided to re-edit this one and punch up the sex (this version wasn't written for erotica but just plain old horror).

I'd love your opinion on whether this one has the flavor of a good dark atmospheric horror novel. When I read it, I feel like I'm in the woods with her, so I think that's a really good sign. It was motivated by a stay in the woods in West Virginia one October and it practically wrote itself on my laptop as I sat in the woods at night and shivered. I love laptops--they make it possible to write anywhere in any mood.

This scene is where the lead character (who grew up under the cloak of a family curse in which the thicket -- woods of the mountaintop -- housed a phantom that liked to steal McBride women) decides to go into the thicket at night and face the family fears that were fed to her and the local's anxieties and prove that she can come and go and no one stole her.

Admittedly, this was never edited, but I kind of like it as it is...

The single light of the lantern swinging in the blackened woods should have alerted anyone within miles that someone was haunting the ridge line at 2 a.m. But it didn’t.

If no one was around to see it, did the light even make a glow?

One of the many confounding questions riddling Savannah’s busy mind as she set forth into the heart of her greatest fear; the thicket.

Exactly what the fear was specifically, she didn’t know. She only knew that if she didn’t face it, didn’t investigate it, didn’t challenge it, it would be as if she returned home a coward.

Realizing her vulnerability, standing with a lantern in the middle of completely silent woods, Savannah realized her greatest fear. It wasn’t The Phantom of the Thicket. It was being completely and utterly alone. A hysterical laugh bubbled up in her throat. She truly was alone in life. Why not in the woods? No family. No home. No job. Completely adrift. What could the woods possibly offer her already fragile situation to unsettle her anymore than she already was?

If her family closet was filled with skeletons, these woods contained their flesh.

She needed answers to so many burning questions. How did the missing McBride women end up in a secret cemetery? Where had the cemetery gone? Who was the Scottish gatekeeper of this woodland asylum? Was there anything out there watching her? Lurking after her? Planning her capture? Or, were the secrets more of the variety that small towns breed; incest, greed, fear, religiosity?

If she were to fall victim, it would be now. Standing in October in the center of His woods. Alone, vulnerable, and without witnesses. If she wasn’t “taken” this cold and still night, she could forever banish the “what if’s” that always clouded her life. As the last living McBride, it was her solemn responsibility to end the madness and the secrets.

And yet, if nothing happened what would that mean for her? That all that set Savannah apart from the locals wasn’t true. She was as common as any of them. To finally have an answer to the puzzle was almost a death of sorts. The end of an era of belief and stories passed down. Then again, she was the last of her lineage and not likely anytime soon to procreate, so perhaps it was best it died here and now with no one left to breathe life into the legends.

The air was still but cold and more encouraging than her curiosity. It prodded her on when she would have rested and gotten her bearings. What kind of bearings did she hope to find in these unfamiliar woods? This path seemed different than the others she had tried to follow in the daytime, and yet it was so black outside that her whole world was reduced to a 5-foot circle of golden lamplight. The path sat dry and crumbly, filled with brown leaves and the forest itself was a vacuum. No wind. No shuffling creatures of the night. The most activity was that which was going on inside her head.

One foot found its way in front, sometimes stilted and awkward. The leaves were moist on their undersides, making a precarious effect as she tried to find firm ground. It was familiar and yet awkward. So many years had passed by since she ruled these mountain hillsides, and she was like a seaman too long from a ship. She’d get the rhythm eventually, but now she felt very much like a landlubber.

In all Savannah’s imaginings about conquering her fears of these woods, she had never considered the more practical logistics, such as how she would find her way back.

Dressed in a down jacket with a sweater beneath, wool gloves, a wool cap and a thick scarf, she could theoretically stay until sunrise and find her way down naturally, but she was too committed at this point. It had gone beyond conquering fears and gone into the realm of conquest. Everything inside her pulled her forward toward the right, heading in which direction she couldn’t guess. North? East? The lantern held up to a nearby sycamore tree gave an indication of moss growing in the direction of north, making her bearings eastward. But, knowing nothing of these woods, that held no significance.

The path opened up wider now and the lantern picked up more of the distant flora. The underbrush was dying back in preparation for winter, some evergreens remaining aromatic and lush, and a smattering of violently colored trees put on garish displays. Even outside of her lamplight they glowed. Underneath her feet, the steady crunch of browning leaves, the moldy smell made for vivid memories.

As much as autumn should have brought terror to heart, it was, in fact, her favorite season. It comforted Savannah to see the woods dying back for the winter to expose all its secrets in its bare branches.

Still, the smell of rotting leaves she associated with fear. Her parents’ fear. The smell of the world coming to a halt. Doors bolted. The outdoors offering nothing but anxiety for her mother, knowing that autumn was The Time. When others loved the hearty taste of chili, the musky smell of pumpkins warming on windowsills, the sound of trick-or-treaters rushing to the doors, her autumn had been one of eating a bag of miniature candies and listening to the silence on the porch. No one dared come to their home. Even their rural route was taboo.

All that time, trying to avoid “the talk” that she knew her mother wanted to have with her, but couldn’t find the words to voice. Her mother would raise a brow and study her quietly at the supper table, then glance at her husband scowling over his food and decide not to speak. It was always there, always waiting to be sprung, but somehow Savannah had managed to keep diverting attention away from the time of year, her age, the fact that she was becoming a woman, that her cousin Abby had disappeared before her. And, the inevitable talk never came.

Just when she should have received a talk about the birds and the bees, she managed to avoid the talk of Him altogether. Clocks ticked on the walls. Silence penetrated the walls of their home. Tensions remained high. Muscles tightened and poised. Supper gulped down quickly. No one really wanted to make it real by talking about it, but consequently by not talking about it they left an air of mystery that was too much for a young mind to avoid. Nightmares began. Strange fears of things like silence gripped her and Savannah found herself always in the company of a radio or TV blaring. The silence seemed to denote everything that was unsaid. Everything that was undone.

Just like the silence in these woods.

Slowing down as the path began to descend a bit and twist to the south, Savannah stopped, lifted the lantern, noticed how quickly the fuel was being used, and had to make a decision.

Go back? Go forward and run out of light? Turn the light out and try to walk by the nearly completely darkened pathway? It wouldn’t do to be caught with no light to get out, should she need to.

Savannah blew out the lantern, clutched it firmly in her left hand and let her eyes ease into the darkness. It was painful at first, squinting, trying to make out shapes, smelling the molds and the sickening sweet scent of rotting wood that lined the pathway. Like an opaque blanket, the night seemed to fall over her, around her, encasing her. The black void was so dense, it felt as if it were pressing against her. Cold wet air smothering her.

This must be what claustrophobia is like.

Somewhere in the distance some leaves tumbled along the pathway. A limb creaked overhead. A few stray acorns dropped from high above, plinking against limbs before bouncing on the ground. A current of wind picked up the bushes to the left of her, startling her. An unusually warm pocket of air brushed her right cheek. She felt the overwhelming sensation of something standing just behind her to the right. But, she would not give into her mind’s images. She clutched the lantern, refusing to check behind her. She knew from her experience with panic attacks, if you give in to your mind’s imagings, you’re gone. She would not let her senses make her hysterical. If something was there, she certainly would have heard it approach.

The more she tried to ignore the nagging feeling, the more she noted that the wind and the sound over her shoulder seemed to be blocked by something. Something solid. Something unavoidably there. Her face received a light breeze, but her backside complete stillness. A shiver spontaneously seized her back muscles and she twitched, allowing the cold to enter her.

Now she’d done it. It’d be impossible to get rid of the rigors when she had let the cold get a grip of her. She curled in on herself, tucking her arms in closely, the lantern dangling dark in front of her. The harder she shivered, the more she felt a tickling at her neck, as if the hairs were standing on end.

Her eyes moved to the right, but without turning her head, there was no way of confronting this thing. Her mind rushed with the possibilities. She could dash off quickly, running down the path from which she had just ascended. No, that wouldn’t work. She would only run into dark woods and likely miss the path and fall down like some godawful heroine in a bad horror movie. Besides, the simple act of her dashing off would spark whoever, whatever it was into pursuit.

Savannah cleared her throat. Held her breath. How could someone possibly come up behind her without sound? Her senses were way too sharpened to have missed it. She took one step forward and rested silently, barely breathing. Waiting for a response.

Her nose caught the faint scent of smoke and spices. It was distinct. Familiar. She lifted her arm, smelled her jacket sleeve. It wasn’t herself. No lingering odor of her Jack O’Lantern that rested near the coat hook. No sounds. No one moving. Still, the sense of something solid behind her was so strong she could barely hold down her rising hysteria. Now that it was deep in her mind as fact, there was no turning back.

If she turned and faced someone, something, then what happened next? A confrontation alone in the woods? The longer she stood there with something over her shoulder, the more chance contact was going to be made. She shook her head. She was becoming like the locals, frozen in place, frightened by some unknown thing. Wasn’t that what she was always ridiculing them for? Surely none of them had ever been brave enough to enter these woods on the other side of Doak’s Creek. But she had.

No, she came into these woods to no longer be a victim. It would end here. It would end now. No more wondering in the back of her logical mind “what if?” Although she hadn’t given the story credence, nor had she accepted it as complete falsehood.
She would know, and she would know tonight.

“Hello?” She asked. “I know you’re there. If you come out, I’ll light the lantern, and we can talk.” Was that her voice? She sounded quite hysterical, nearly laughing as she spoke aloud. It was ridiculous to talk to one’s self, and that was what she had just reduced herself to.

Savannah pulled back her shoulders as she did when she grew tall enough to look her father in the eye, and turned on her heel, facing down the dark void behind her.

There was definitely something there. Something so dark that none of the brush could be seen, nor the bottom part of what looked like a cedar. The shape of a man. The height of a man. The breadth of a man. She could see the frantic glint of bushes moving back and forth behind it, but still there was a colorless blot in the center of them.

She took two steps back and lifted her darkened lantern in a shaking hand. The more she stared at the black shape, the more it seemed to be the only thing remaining still in the stirring woods. The trees swayed, making aching groans. The bushes brushed back and forth, whipping and lashing at each other. Her hair flew about her face. The chill penetrated her down jacket.

With two palsied attempts, Savannahgot the lantern lit, holding it up before her face as if warding off some evil spirit.

The dark spot evaporated into a gnarled bare tree trunk, one that had split in a storm, leaving it a good 5’ tall.

She chuckled to herself, lifting the lantern, inspecting the rough edges. She placed the lantern on top of it and walked around the small space between the swishing bushes and inspected the ground for footprints.

Completely satisfied this was the culprit; she leaned back against the stump and observed the tree trunks rising around her like guardian soldiers.

Or prison bars.

Her pulse took a few minutes to slow down, the giddy feeling began to lift. Now, she was back to the basic facts. She was alone in the cold woods in the middle of the night. Completely without any weapon. Completely lost. She had entered preparing to stay all night if need be and show that after one full night in the woods, nothing bad had happened to her.

“There is no phantom.” She called out with excited relief, running a hand through her hair, feeling a leaf that had gotten caught in the silky tendrils. She began to pull it out, but her attention was caught on a movement just outside the periphery of her lantern’s light.

“I told you never to come in these woods again, Missy!”

That voice.

She squinted into the dark recesses, but with the lantern so close, it was impossible to discern exactly where he stood, other than that he was off to her right.

“Sir? Is it you? The man with the walking stick?”

The man with the walking stick.” He mocked lightly. “You haven’t the brains of a local. Jesus, woman, are you bent on getting yourself lost in these blasted woods? Have you no sense at all?” He growled in a faint Scottish burr.

“Apparently not, sir.”

“I’ll lead you out again.”

“No.” She replied, “That is, I’m planning on staying.”

“The woods aren’t your personal playground, Miss McBride.”

“No, I don’t see them that way.”

"Then, just how is it you see them?”

“A bounty. A mystery. A blessing. A curse.” She rambled, “I don’t know.”

“Well, we haven’t all night to figure out your philosophy. Come on, out and to the right.” He muttered. She could almost imagine him waving her on.

Savannah grabbed up her lantern, realizing it wouldn’t solve anything for her to spend the rest of the night in the woods in this man’s company. It would defeat the entire purpose of her being there alone. Facing things alone. Finding answers alone.

The lantern waved before her as she made her way through a widening path. She could feel his footfalls before her, hear the poke of the stick into the hard ground. But, she could not see him, other than to know by the sounds where he was on the pathway, perhaps 15’ ahead of her.

“I didn’t mean to trespass.” She called out, hoping to engage him in any conversation that would bring insight into his identify without making him retreat into his cave-like demeanor. “These woods are very beautiful. I’m into botanicals. I like to collect mushrooms and pinecones and all sorts of things that are left on the forest floor.”

“No need to cross the stream.” He called over his shoulder. “You have all the same things in the woods near your home.”

Savannah heard him step wide over something and as she approached, realized it was a boulder half buried in the ground. She climbed over it with her long-legged stride, and as her foot hit the ground she realized there were no footprints on the path from where he had stepped over into the soft ground. She saw her own slender sneaker print in the drying mud, but nothing else. She stopped, bent down, fingers touching the earth.

Where are his prints?

“Come along, Missy. Don’t have all night.”

“Are these your lands?” She snapped herself back to attention and tried to pick up her pace, starting to feel he was moving away from her, as his footfalls were further and further ahead of her.

“Sir?” She called out, nearly panicking. “Sir?”

No more footsteps. No more sounds. Complete silence. She rushed up quickly, fearing that perhaps she was further into the woods, even more lost, that perhaps he led her the wrong way? Perhaps he fell off a cliff?

Perhaps he was never here?

Perhaps he is the phantom?

A waft of warm air passed by her face, leaving the trailing scent of spices and familiar, autumnal scent. She brushed her fingers over her jaw, looked about her with the lantern, and cringed inwardly.

If he wanted to take her away, wouldn’t he have done so the first time she met him in the woods?

“Hell,” She snorted, “He’s way too young to be a phantom for over a hundred years. He’s a living man.”

"I may not be a phantom, missy, but what I am is an angry man. I don’t take to trespassers at any time, and most especially in the middle of the night, so move it on. Now!”

His voice sounded as if it were overhead. She stared up into the darkness above the lantern light but made out nothing. She felt a puff of warm wind again and then it went still.

Savannah rushed forward with the lantern, brought back to reality by his words and realizing how embarrassing it was that for even a moment she considered he might be the phantom. That the phantom actually existed? Her only real threat now was the very mortal one of trespassing on an angry impatient man’s land.

All at once she stumbled to a stop with the familiar feel of land ending quite abruptly. Standing on the edge of the precipice, she swung the lantern over her feet and realized she was on the bank of Doak’s Creek. The border to her property.

Once again the stranger had come out of nowhere, this time in the middle of the night. What was he doing in the woods? Could he see her light from his home? Where was that home?


Savannah turned to look back, biting her lip, deciding what to do. She didn’t want to leave her goal unfinished, and yet she knew it would be impossible to get past the strange thicket guardian. Her lamp flickered, the light dimmed, and then all at once it went out. Over her shoulder she could see the barest moonlight in the field behind her mother’s home, but inside the edge of the woods where she stood it was inky black.

A heavy thud followed by a rush of crashing footfalls alerted her. Something was bounding through the underbrush, slapping at it, cutting through it sharply, with a great deal of weight and urgency.


Savannah tossed the lantern over the creek, backed up a few feet and then did something she hadn’t done since she was a teenager, she leapt down off the edge of the 5’ incline and over the creek onto the mossy shore, one foot dragged behind, plinking into the icy water.

Sore and afraid, she rolled onto her side and gazed up at the bank, sure that whatever was piling towards her like some godawful invisible giant on a hunt, would surely show itself by now. Her heart beating erratically, her breath coming in shallow puffy gasps, she ignored the ache in her knee and stared above her, waiting.

Nothing, except for the lingering scent of autumn spices and wood pines and a warm breeze brushing over top of her and soothing her frantic body.

It was familiar. It was comfortable.

It was absolutely insane.

If it were some sort of phantom she was experiencing, something supernatural in the woods that had followed her, brushed up against her, chased her out of the tree line, then why would she feel safe? Protected? Almost cherished? She should be terrified, but she was not. She should have been running, but she was fascinated.

There was only one way to get answers, and as much as she had been avoiding this option, it was way overdue. She would have to make a trip to the town’s museum/train station down the mountain, on the riverfront, and ask the cloistered historians about the family curse. It bothered her greatly to admit that, although she knew basically about the phantom, she knew very few details. The stories she overheard from locals and kids at school all varied and none were consistent. Her parents certainly weren’t a font of knowledge on the subject, considering it was never spoken of until it was time for her to go to college. Before that it was simply addressed as “You may not go out in October alone. Ever. It’s not safe.” And that was that. When she was planning on college, her mother gave her no other options except to go out of state. She didn’t want to go at the time because her father had passed on and she worried about her mother being alone, but she also was tempted by the prospect of being an anonymous person in the crowd, someone with no history, no legend.

Dusting herself off and gathering up her battered lantern, Savannah turned and made her way towards home with a renewed sense of having defeated the legend and now hoping to expose it to bright light and scrutiny.


  1. You are an excellent writer!
    I loved it. Just one thing, he is sexy right?You will make him tall, and strong and maybe with green eyes? Oh, and a good kisser!

  2. I enjoyed this Autumnforest and that is one thing I definitely got from it is the atmosphere of being with her in a haunted forest! I loved the sentence "To finally have an answer to the puzzle was almost a death of sorts." Isn't that the truth? What would our lives be (at least for those of us who like to explore) if ALL of our questions are answered? Luckily I don't think they ever will-maybe not even close! I find the theme of a family curse in this fascinating as well-thanks for posting this -like I say I think you have the atmosphere 100 percent and would love to read more -best to you as always my friend!!

  3. Georgina;
    The man in the woods she suspects is her love interest's father. He's always been very secretive about the man, but he has too many of Jack's features to not be his father. Her love interest has deep wavy dark auburn hair and bright green eyes and full lips, a cleft in his chin, dents in his cheek when he smiles, the hands of a carpenter, and can kiss her pants off! He has to--after all, this is an erotic horror novel.

    Thanks. I'm so glad for the feedback. I liked the line about if her family closet was filled with skeletons these woods held their flesh. I can tell by the style of my writing at the time that this was a scene I had actually written in the woods at night on my laptop. I'm going outside at night now that it's cooler and do my writing under the swaying huge mulberry tree with some candles and lanterns glowing. I think I can maintain the feel.

    The big twist with this horror novel is that, although it seems her family is horribly cursed and something awful is going to happen, there's a big twist in how it turns out... Chills and shivers!

  4. Good stuff!

    I love that picture as well.

  5. What an excellent talent this is. My personal favorite:

    "She knew from her experience with panic attacks, if you give in to your mind’s imagings, you’re gone."

    So true. So true. Though the whole thing was really good too.

  6. Stephen;
    I take that as a high compliment. I have to admit that when I love the subject and I'm immersed in it, it's as if I'm channeling it from another dimension. I love character development and atmosphere so much. It probably explains why I enjoyed Shirley Jackson so much.

  7. WOW! You know this appealed to me with the ghostly/phantom aspect, but I LOVE haunted history stories. How far along are you? I hope all these comments of glowing praise will help motivate you to get back on it. This was EXCELLENT!!! Thanks for sharing this part of yourself!

  8. Hey Courtney;
    I'm completely in love with this older version of "The Thicket." It was actually a completed manuscript, but I need to go back through and insert the erotica part of it. I think it balances nicely with the dark side of the story and it's important to the storyline, as well. I'm thrilled that ya'all seem to like it. I know it's exactly the kind of thing I like to read. I hope to have it ready for submittal by the end of the year. That's ambitious, but I also am confident that (like that scene) much of it needs little editing. It came out of me like a wellspring at the time and now that our nights are chilly here, I can take the laptop into my creepy (Halloween-decorated) yard and continue the same feeling in my descriptions.

  9. Applause! :)

    I absolutely love what you've done so far!

    You have a gift (that has already been readily apparent in your blog entries) of story-telling in a fluid and vivid manner!

    Keep it up!

  10. D;
    (blushing) Thanks. I have to admit it's nice to have a blog to write on and have people read because I've been writing all my life, but no one in my family or my friends has ever really wanted to read what I write. They either hate reading (I know a lot of people who are too practical for reading, i.e. German) or they simply don't have time to read my stuff. I've never know if I just write the way I like it, or if others like it, so that's a great compliment.