I say this story was written in 1988 but I wouldn’t quote me on that.
It was written in the 1980s, I’m sure. It has the tone of my ’80s fiction – bleak sketches usually set in a rural back road or bar. I worked the night shift at our local newspaper and afterwards, we night-shifters would venture out in search of a cheap watering hole or, if not a bar, a convenience store with cold beer, and off we’d go, into the hinterlands, because it was there a beer-drinker was not likely to be pulled over by the boys with the blue-and-red lights on their cars.
Out there in the rural dark – the real dark folks don’t see these days because cities are too lit up these days – I found a mysterious tint to the world, what Yeats might have called that rosy afterglow of the realm which lies beside this one, visible only to young children who have not had their senses dulled by maturity and experience. Except this glow was of a darker variety, and I wonder if Yeats could have appreciated that, given his musings about the nature of the new messiah.
To me, there were mysteries to be discovered in the unyielding dark of the countryside, mysteries to be glimpsed not articulated but sensed in the way you know to stay out of that abandoned house in the woods, the one that looks something terrible might have happened there years ago, resulting in it being scorned by humanity. Your ability to sense hidden dangers depended on your willingness to believe.
Which is what this story is about.
When I was a kid there were mysteries in the world, things we did not understand and places we had not seen. But we wondered about them. There might be jungles and dinosaurs on Venus, or spindly, water-starved creatures struggling to survive on Mars. Who knew what lay in that jungle heart of darkness, or the deep ocean trench? Were flying saucers winging overhead, always when we’d left the camera sitting on the table by the front door?
But as time went by and we learned more, the world began to grow smaller and the mystery fade, replaced with cold facts (or hot facts in the case of Venus, a roasting hell hole of carbon dioxide). Poor Mars became an icy desert with air so thin you could not reasonably call it air. Flying saucers became swamp gas and ocean trenches were filled with nothing but silt and a scattering of weird, glow-in-the-dark shrimp.
Think “Excaliber,” and the world of magic giving way to a world of men.
I liked life better when I didn’t know so much about it, just as I liked my friends better when their thoughts weren’t paraded across a panoply of social media. Didn’t we all get along better before we found out so-and-so voted for that evil bastard Trump?
The lack of knowing every stinking detail about every stinking thing – and the curious imaginings that filled those gaps – made life magically delicious, to borrow a breakfast cereal jingle. And that’s what this story is about, in a darkly roundabout way.
Maybe there’s still a bit of mystery – and magic – left in this world.
Lord, I hope so.
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Animal: Revised, updated and enhanced with additional content, “Animal” asks the question, “If larks, and katydids, can dream, then can I?”
Billy Stafford would rather be home, in his bed, grabbing a few winks because tomorrow will bring a special challenge at his job and he’ll need his wits about him and. …
And here he is, at Earl’s Tavern and Package Store, listening to Bob Decker go on and on in a drunken stupor about crazy things – monsters in a lake, or Bigfoot, or UFOs. Worse, he’s forcing Billy to get drunk with him, which means tomorrow Billy will wake up with a headachy brain fog and everything will be for s**t.
Across the bar, two men are teasing the lady bartender about something they’ve got in their Jeep, something they shot out in the woods that day, something that nobody has ever seen before. Billy thinks Bob should be talking to them, not him. It’s all a crock of you-know-what and truth be told, Billy just wants to go home and sleep.
He finally disentangles himself from Bob and heads out the door, and the night should have ended there. But it doesn’t.
Because he sees something.
In the Jeep.
Del Stone Jr. is the winner of the International Horror Guild Award for best first novel. His work has also been a finalist for the IHG, Bram Stoker and British Fantasy awards, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novella “Black Tide” and short story “Crisis Line” were optioned for film.
About this book: “Animal” is a 3,555-word short story and was written in 1988. It has never been published. Copyright © 2022, Del Stone Jr.
The book’s total length is 5,691 words.