Ghoul, fiction by Corey Mesler

It was a folk tale, an urban leg­end. That’s what we told our­selves though it was scant com­fort. I think I heard it first from my old­er brother’s friends on a night I was sup­posed to be asleep but, instead, had crept out­side the liv­ing room door to hear how my elders con­versed. There were three girls. I knew their names and some­thing about them. And my broth­er and his friends, Peck and Bil­ly. Bil­ly was our preacher’s son and he was mean as Medea. He used to hold me down and call me ‘lit­tle girl,’ and let his spit dan­gle over my face, forc­ing me to watch it as it fell onto my own mouth.

My broth­er, Damon, is sev­en years old­er than me. He let his wolfish friends treat me like a fig­ure of ridicule. He stood by. I revered Damon, and he knew it. This was 1965. We lived in the sub­urbs like every­one else. I was ten.

This night one of the girls had a sto­ry to tell. I think her name was Shelly Eliot. She was pret­ty, in a Diana Durbin way, and I believe my broth­er loved her at this time but thought she was out of his league. She prob­a­bly was.

Shelly, in a breath­less voice, was telling a sto­ry that she had been told. The once removed aspect of it made it both believ­able and slight­ly less harm­ful. These things only hap­pened to oth­er peo­ple, to strangers, to friends of friends, or kin of kin.

She told me she was at home alone,” Shelly was say­ing. “Her par­ents were out of town and she was at home alone because her younger broth­er had gone to spend the night at a friend’s house. Anna (this name meant noth­ing to me and it seemed to mean noth­ing to the oth­er lis­ten­ers) said she had just watched Fan­tas­tic Fea­ture. ‘Fool­ish of me to watch a hor­ror movie before going to bed alone at home,’ Anna admit­ted.

Anna con­fessed she was already agi­tat­ed so that when the neighbor’s dog set up a din it spooked her fur­ther. She got up in her night­gown and crept to the win­dow, look­ing out upon her back­yard, which was sep­a­rat­ed from the neighbor’s by a ten-foot wood­en fence. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim night but as things came into focus the dog’s cat­er­waul­ing ceased abrupt­ly. And it was then that she saw it. Or its head and shoul­der at any rate. She said she saw him reced­ing, walk­ing away from her in the night­time, the back of his elon­gat­ed, thin head, and his bony shoul­ders, just vis­i­ble over the neighbor’s fence. The wood­en fence was ten-feet high! Anna screamed and her scream died away with an echo. Need­less to say, for the rest of the night, she did not sleep. She sat up with a base­ball bat beside her in bed and the poems of Anne Sex­ton in her shaky hands.”

There was silence when Shel­ley fin­ished her sec­ond-hand tale. Then one of the boys, it might have been the hor­rid Bil­ly, said, “Bull­shit. That’s a sto­ry you make up to scare small chil­dren. Ain’t no small chil­dren here, Shell.”

I only tell what was told to me,” Shel­ley said. Her tone was emphat­ic.

Let’s wake your lit­tle broth­er and tell him,” Bil­ly con­tin­ued. “Let’s watch the lit­tle girl squirm.”

Like Anna I spent the rest of my night awake, after I crept back to my bed. Instead of poet­ry I read Mad paper­backs until dawn.

This would have been the end of it, for morn­ing came and my fear dis­si­pat­ed like the dew, send­ing those black night-thoughts back into their shad­ow cor­ners. This would have been the end of it if three nights lat­er, had not my friend Eddie Main, told a sim­i­lar sto­ry, this time some­thing his cousin had told him hap­pened to him. The cousin lived near Bartlett High School, sev­en miles east of us.

The thing was taller than a man on stilts,” Eddie said. “And he was thin like a scare­crow. His legs were awk­ward, stiff things, as if he real­ly had stilts for legs, and his move­ments were jerky and clum­sy.”

I stared at Eddie, my mouth half open. It was like I couldn’t focus on what he’d said.

What’s with you, Poindex­ter? You don’t believe me?”

Don’t call me Poindex­ter. As a mat­ter of fact I do believe you. I believe you whole­heart­ed­ly because I heard a sim­i­lar sto­ry this past week.”

Seri­ous­ly?”

Seri­ous­ly. Hap­pened a few streets over (this part was embell­ish­ment for effect—I had to make him see that this was more than coin­ci­dence). Killed a dog, we think. And was seen over the top of a ten-foot fence, mov­ing off like a demon.”

Eddie thought for a moment. His eyes were wide. “Like a ghoul,” he said.

A ghoul,” I repeat­ed for no good pur­pose.

These things pop up like mush­rooms,” Damon said lat­er when I relat­ed Eddie’s sto­ry. “Stop tak­ing this crap so seri­ous­ly. I think Shel­ley made hers up on the spot.”

But the details were just like the sto­ry Eddie heard.”

It’s always sec­ond-hand, Jim. These are urban leg­ends. It’s like jokes. You can hear a new joke in Mem­phis, fly to Boston and that same night hear the joke in Boston. No one knows quite why but these things hap­pen.”

This was, nat­u­ral­ly, long before the inter­net, so, if what Damon was say­ing was true, it was as much a mys­tery as an ambu­la­to­ry crea­ture out of night­mare.

But—it’s a ghoul, Dame,” I said. “Per­haps,” I added soft­ly.

A ghoul. Jim, stop being such a sis­sy.”

This stung. It always did. I nev­er got used to it and I nev­er could just shake it off with a laugh. Lit­tle girl. Sis­sy. Pan­sy.

A fort­night went by and we all for­got the pur­port­ed sight­ings. Even Eddie didn’t want to talk about it any­more. He had just dis­cov­ered The Pat­ty Duke Show and she was all he want­ed to dis­cuss.

She plays both parts,” he told me as if he’d under­stood E=MC². “And she’s so good-look­ing both ways, nerd or princess.”

Yeah, she’s cute. But Lau­ra Petrie.”

You always say Lau­ra Petrie.”

Lau­ra Petrie.”

Poindex­ter.”

So, it came out of left field, when at a cam­pout, some­one new relat­ed a sim­i­lar sto­ry.

There were six of us and we had pitched 3 pup tents in the vacant lot at the end of Blue­field Street. The ground was hard and cold and we had built a fire, light­ing it with char­coal starter that Eddie had brought. Gary Gun­ther start­ed it all over again.

I’ve got a wild sto­ry to tell,” he began.

You kissed Rita Fer­gu­son?”

Shut up, Poindex­ter.” He was speak­ing to Bob­by Sul­li­van.

This hap­pened to George Jen­nie, you know, the half-Asian kid goes to Scenic Hills.”

Yeah, I now George,” I said.

George was com­ing home late one night from his job at the Esso sta­tion. He usu­al­ly walked if the weath­er was nice. On this night, as he turned the cor­ner to his street, Scot­land, he saw in the dis­tance, scut­tling between two lamp­posts on oppo­site sides of the street, a giant with the head of a fox and long limbs that made him seem unbal­anced. George said he thought the thing was going to keel over as it tried to go from shad­ows to shad­ows. He said it was twelve feet high.”

None of us slept that night but we did not admit it was from fear.

I took this infor­ma­tion back to Damon the next day.

Stop it, Jim. I told you to drop this. I explained to you how urban leg­ends spread.”

But, Dame, this is three sight­ings.”

Three means noth­ing. You guys are crazed. Puber­ty does that to you. And why are all the wit­ness­es young peo­ple, huh? Why not a cop or some­one in author­i­ty? This is fairy tale right out of The Blob.”

This did give me pause and, in think­ing about it, I hit upon the obvi­ous next step of inquiry. I gath­ered Eddie, Gary and Bob­by togeth­er and told them my plan.

We have to take this to Old Yates. He used to be the sher­iff.”

Old Yates! Jim, the guy’s 100 years old,” Eddie said. “And doesn’t he have it in for you?”

I don’t think he has it in for me. He just took my sling­shot away because I was shoot­ing acorns at his slid­ing glass door.”

The guys laughed. “I think it’s a great idea, Jim,” Bob­by said. And, because Bobby’s sup­port usu­al­ly meant we would fol­low, the four of us vis­it­ed Mr. Yates the next after­noon after school.

What’s up, boys?” the cranky old man said, in greet­ing. “Here to get your weapons back?” He was stooped and his gray hair was wild where it wasn’t miss­ing, and the sweater he was wear­ing had seen bet­ter days.

No, sir,” I said, step­ping for­ward. “We have a mys­tery for you. No one will believe us.”

And you think I will? What gave you that impres­sion, that I was a gullible old gull?”

May we come in, sir?” I per­se­vered.

Alright,” he said, step­ping aside.

The house smelled like my grandmother’s. And it was dec­o­rat­ed sim­i­lar­ly. Every sur­face held a framed pho­to­graph or knick­knack, an entire army of glass fig­urines, numer­ous beer steins.

Oh, guests,” Mrs. Yates said. “Shall I get some lemon­ade?”

They ain’t gonna be here that long,” Sher­iff Yates said.

Ed,” Mrs. Yates said, and returned to the kitchen from whence she had come. We could hear her rat­tling glass­es and open­ing and clos­ing the fridge.

Spit it out,” Old Yates said. No offer to sit. He rest­ed him­self by lean­ing on a walk­ing stick.

I looked at my friends, took a deep breath, and told him a suc­cinct ver­sion of what I have iter­at­ed above. Some­time dur­ing my recita­tion Mrs. Yates deliv­ered a tray of lemon­ade and, when I was fin­ished, my throat was parched. I downed my glass.

Old Yates fixed us with watery eyes. Then he shook his leo­nine head.

I ain’t got time for such malarkey,” he said. “Now, beat it. Go tell it to some­one who will lis­ten. Maybe some­one at Boli­var.”

In Boli­var, Ten­nessee there was a sana­to­ri­um for the men­tal­ly unhinged. We had heard about it all our lives, usu­al­ly as part of a half-heart­ed threat. “Shut up, or you’re going to Boli­var.”

We left Old Man Yates, our behinds drag­ging.

Maybe Damon is right,” I said as we walked back up Ken­neth Street. “No adult’s seen this thing.”

Ghoul,” Eddie said.

This ghoul. Maybe it is just hys­te­ria.”

A week passed and talk of the ghoul fad­ed out. There was oth­er news. Bob­by had found a shack in the woods south of Ken­neth Street, a shack with a bed, a mucky plank floor, a cou­ple can­dle stubs, and some dirty mag­a­zines. Bob­by said it belonged to Peck With­ers and he took his girl­friend Win­nie there when they were sup­posed to be at the movies. We tried to imag­ine that. All alone with Win­nie Park­er, blond, busty Win­nie Park­er, in a room with a bed, hid­den from all eyes. We tried to pic­ture Win­nie naked but our imag­i­na­tions were weak. We vowed to go back and pil­fer one of the mag­a­zines.

It was about this time, that Mr. McPher­son, a fire­man and drunk­ard, crashed his car into the fire hydrant in front of his home on Ken­neth, at one a.m., leapt from the car and stum­bled into his house, his shirt-tails fly­ing, his eyes wide, his face con­tort­ed in ter­ror.

It wasn’t booze that sent him into that fire­plug and sprawl­ing across his lawn. He says he seen some­thing,” Dan­ny Water­meier said. “He said it was a mon­ster.”

The sto­ry from Mr. McPher­son, as clar­i­fied lat­er, went like this:

He had pulled the late shift, along with Curt Bran­son, who lived in Fra­zier. Curt was sleep­ing and Mr. McPher­son was bid­ing his time, watch­ing the Late Late Movie, Red Riv­er. The fire­house dog, a Dal­ma­t­ian mix because they couldn’t afford a pure breed, was in anoth­er room and, at some point, McPher­son thought he heard the dog grum­bling in his sleep. A while lat­er the grum­bling turned to a whine and then a quick, loud, des­per­ate yelp. At this point McPher­son hur­ried into the adja­cent room but the dog was nowhere to be seen. The door at the south end of the room was open and the night air, with a bit of a nip to it, had entered the fire­house. “Ducky,” McPher­son called. “Ducky, come here boy.”

McPher­son thought he heard some light scuf­fling sounds out­side the door and made his way through it. There he saw, by a dump­ster, a side-view of a hor­rif­ic fig­ure, a good thir­teen feet high, with a body seem­ing­ly bent and mis­shapen, and a face like an elon­gat­ed demon’s. Its col­or­less hair was lank and sparse, its sick­ly gray skin mot­tled. It turned when it sensed the fireman’s approach and McPher­son saw, for the first time, that the beast was hold­ing the dead body of the fire­house dog. The dog was half-eat­en and the giant’s face was smeared with blood. Instead of flee­ing the crea­ture made a hiss­ing sound, dropped the dog and turned to face the fire­man. He didn’t approach but he didn’t flee. Instead he stood and stared, his gore-fouled mouth half-open, rasp­ing, like the mouth of an asth­mat­ic.

McPher­son backed away through the door­way. It didn’t occur to him to wake Curt Bran­son. Instead he exit­ed through anoth­er door and jumped into his car, dri­ving like a mad­man until com­ing to a halt at the fire­plug in front of his home. Lat­er, we found out that Mr. Bran­son had slept through the whole affair. McPher­son stayed up all night, fright­en­ing his wife, who, for the first time in their mar­riage, asked her hus­band to have a belt of whiskey.

I tell you I was as sober as a judge,” Mr. McPher­son told Mr. Yates. His instincts, like ours, took him to the ex-sheriff’s house the next morn­ing. Mr. Yates had called my par­ents and asked if I could join them at his house. This is how I came to hear the fireman’s sto­ry.

From here the sight­ings increased in fre­quen­cy, some born of atten­tion-seek­ing, some seem­ing­ly gen­uine. Old Man Yates called the cur­rent sher­iff, Jock Whitak­er. Mr. Whitak­er was a hand­some man of thir­ty-five. His hair was pre­ma­ture­ly gray, but his face was as smooth as a child’s, and his gen­er­al appear­ance one of vital­i­ty and good humor.

Jesus, Sher­iff Yates,” he said, after lis­ten­ing to the tales the first time. “This seems, well, high­ly improb­a­ble. Per­haps—“

But he had no per­haps. And, as more sto­ries start­ed com­ing in, he was forced to form a task force to try to get a han­dle on what was hap­pen­ing. What was hap­pen­ing?

Among my peers I was now some­thing of an author­i­ty and I for­give myself, at this remove, for my swollen head. I admit I talked big.

The Leathers lost their cat. Two dogs, pit bulls, on Scheibler. Ken Wis­ter lost his entire brood of hens. Rab­bits, squir­rels, even bats, were found gnawed. The pet pop­u­la­tion was dwin­dling and there were more noc­tur­nal sight­ings. Guns began to pop up in many hands. Eddie’s father thought he caught the ghoul in his shoul­der with his 30–06, as it loped away, in the fields near Sum­mer Avenue, to the south. Eddie’s father said that it moved awk­ward­ly but faster than one would think it capa­ble of.

Jer­ry Moll’s sto­ry changed the shape of the leg­end: he said he saw the thing one moon­less night as it slipped into a sew­er hole. Mr. Moll worked with my father at Har­vester. He retrieved his pis­tol and a flash­light and went after it. He found it a few blocks over. It was attempt­ing to slink its enor­mous length upward through a grate. Mr. Moll fum­bled with his pis­tol and flash­light, chang­ing hands and then get­ting off a wild shot that ric­o­cheted around the con­crete pipe. The thing dropped and turned toward him. This time, instead of its pas­sive stance afore­men­tioned, it ran, hunched over, straight at Moll with great, scam­per­ing speed. Jer­ry raised his pis­tol and shot it direct­ly into the thing’s abdomen just as he was struck across the face with one skele­tal, long-fin­gered hand. Then it turned and ran, hold­ing a hand over its mid­sec­tion. “It felt like being hit by a hot rake,” Moll said, and his scarred face fright­ened us all for some time after­ward.

Then the unthink­able hap­pened. Kathy Hol­lan­der, age 11, was found in Blue­field Woods. She was blood­ied and naked, though the police said they were unsure about sex­u­al pen­e­tra­tion. Her body bore marks of rough han­dling but had not ‘been chewed at,’ accord­ing to Sher­iff Whitak­er. We were all sick. My group of friends stopped get­ting togeth­er for a while. Sud­den­ly, Gun­smoke, Man­nix, Wild Wild West, Man from UNCLE, and The Rat Patrol, all seemed more impor­tant than wan­der­ing about talk­ing about girls. Or mon­sters.

And that was the last we heard of the ghoul. There were still some sight­ings com­ing in but Sher­iff Whitak­er said they were untrust­wor­thy and, after a few months, talk about the thing died away. Kathy Hollander’s death was un-offi­cial­ly list­ed as the one human death from the ghoul’s unlike­ly appear­ance. One the­o­ry I heard, which makes sense to me, is that the poor girl’s death had noth­ing to do with the ghoul, but the inten­si­fied night­time hunts, her death engen­dered, forced the crea­ture to go under­ground, or to go else­where. If so, no one will ever be charged with her mur­der.

The ghoul had gone as abrupt­ly as it had come.

I tell you this here, forty years lat­er, so that you will under­stand what is hap­pen­ing now. Its reap­pear­ance sur­prised even me; my mem­o­ry of the first vis­it was still ripe in my mind, though it often seemed like a bad dream I had had as a child and out­grown. Again the ear­ly reports were all from ado­les­cents. Per­haps the young have more sen­si­tive anten­nae, or per­haps they have not yet learned to tune out the improb­a­ble.

Most of the adults from that first time have passed away. Raleigh was incor­po­rat­ed into the city of Mem­phis in 1974. Sher­iff Whitak­er was killed on a rou­tine traf­fic check by a gun-nut motorist. Kathy Hollander’s par­ents moved to North Car­oli­na. McPher­son, the fire­man, was relieved of duty and died by his own hand in 1978, leav­ing behind a wife and wall-eyed daugh­ter. I believe Jer­ry Moll is still alive but I can’t say for sure. Most of my peers have scat­tered to the four winds. My broth­er, whom I looked up to in my youth as if he were a Colos­sus, moved to Maine. We are estranged now, by his choice. I stayed in Raleigh and mar­ried my wife, Faith, in 1985. By coin­ci­dence, she is Shelly Elliot’s cousin. We have two chil­dren, Chet and Phil, ages 5 and 7. They are now as afraid as we were back then. They crawl into our bed at night and want me to reas­sure them that there is no such thing as a 12 or 13-foot tall ghoul.

This I tell them. There is no such thing.

meslerCOREY MESLER has been pub­lished in numer­ous antholo­gies and jour­nals includ­ing Poet­ry, Gar­goyle, Five Points, Good Poems Amer­i­can Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has pub­lished 8 nov­els, 4 short sto­ry col­lec­tions, and 5 full-length poet­ry col­lec­tions. His new nov­el, Mem­phis Movie, is from Coun­ter­point Press. He’s been nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart many times, and 2 of his poems were cho­sen for Gar­ri­son Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a 145 year-old book­store in Mem­phis. He can be found at https://​coreymesler​.word​press​.com.

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