Devil Trail Reloaded

Please enjoy the following short story, excerpted from my book Six Tales of Terror. Originally published in 2005 as a chapbook, it’s now available only on Kindle. When I sat down to write these stories, little did I know one, “Coed Terror in the Ivory Tower of Doom,” would in 2011 become the basis for the indie horror film Headline News. I intended them to be short, campy tales in the spirit of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, and used the card game Grave Robbers from Outer Space to randomly generate the titles, characters, settings, and creatures.

Devil Trail Reloaded

six_tales_of_terror_cover3If there had ever been a stranger sight at Camp Lake Totagatic, it was rivaled by the appearance of a black limousine that rolled over the gravel road and under the sign that arched over the main entrance as the sun sat low on the horizon. Birds chirped as the limo pulled up to an aging bunkhouse and idled for a moment, just before a bony woman wearing a black mini dress stepped out. Her stiletto heels sunk into the mud, and she checked the address on the card in her hand for the tenth time.

The bunkhouse door opened before the woman could raise her hand to knock, revealing a young man who was lean, but not muscular. Sunglasses hid his otherwise dusky eyes, and he leaned confidently against the doorframe.

“My name is Karina,” the woman announced. “Is this Camp Lake Totasomething?”

“Yeah,” the young man said in reply. “You can tell your driver that you’re at the right place.”

The woman turned and waved. The limo slowly pulled away in reverse and returned down the same road.

“Come in,” the man said. “My name is Dean. Dean Schuman.”

“You live alone at an old camp?” the woman asked. “I should have charged you more. This place creeps me out.” She swatted away a fly as she slipped past the young man and walked into the bunkhouse. Her heels clicked loudly on the cement floor.

“Actually, I work here,” Dean explained. “I know it’s lame, but it’ll look good on my resume, and my dad said it’ll build character. Anyway, the camp doesn’t open for another week. The only people here are me and the crazy camp counselor, Kincaid. I hope she didn’t see you on your way in, she’s a real stickler for the rules.”

Karina raised her penciled eyebrows and adjusted her swarthy hair as she looked around. Rows of bunks lined the walls, leading back to what looked like a smaller room. “Is that your room?” she asked, motioning towards it.

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What’s Wrong with the Suburbs? American Beauty and Desperate Housewives As Gothic Tales

There is a duality in American popular culture. On one hand, we idealize modern domestic life as safe, comfortable, and technologically advanced. On the other, we are aware that we’ve been unable to fully conquer our baser instincts. Writers and filmmakers often express this duality by criticizing a symbol of postwar American progress: the suburb. Carefully manicured lawns, safe neighborhoods, state of the art technology (for both security and cleanliness), and a car in every garage hold the promise of uninterrupted domestic bliss.

Yet the morning newspaper carries daily reminders that all is not right with the world. Despite ideal physical surroundings, dark human impulses remain. Murder, lust, betrayal, jealousy, and madness rear their ugly heads. Both the film American Beauty (1999) and the television series Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) tapped into this sentiment and portrayed the Janice-faced suburbs as a deceptively dangerous place.

american_beauty_posterWhile suburbs have technically existed for hundreds of years, the dramatic growth in modern suburbs began in the late nineteenth century as a consequence of rural residents moving to urban centers. As cities become overcrowded and began to experience high crime rates, congestion, and unsanitary conditions, the middle class sought refuge in nearby planned communities. These housing developments were meant to alleviate crowding, crime, and other inner city problems through strict zoning laws and community standards. Economic growth after World War 2  made it possible for millions of people to buy homes and seek out the “American dream” in the suburbs.

TV shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), and Family Ties (1982-1989) portrayed the suburbs as largely idyllic and ideal for domestic family life. Pretty moms and wise, handsome dads taught lessons and safely guided their children to adulthood. Not everyone agreed with this portrayal, however. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives suggested suburban tranquility and conformity had a dark underside. Both the film American Beauty and the television series Desperate Housewives further capitalized on this sentiment.

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My Favorite Haunted Places Along the Gulf Coast

As many of my friends and readers know, I spent the summer and fall of 2014 along the Gulf Coast. Not only did I find the weather beautiful, but I also found rich history and folklore. During that time, I was able to visit some pretty interesting places in cities like Naples, Florida; Pensacola, Florida; Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Here are some of my favorites.

Pensacola Lighthouse in Pensacola, Florida. Photo by Michael Kleen

Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum

2081 Radford Blvd. Pensacola, FL 32508
www.pensacolalighthouse.org (850) 393-1561

Pensacola Bay has long been a strategic harbor, and even today, it is used for military purposes. The Pensacola Lighthouse sits on the grounds of the Naval Air Station, home of the Blue Angels. The current lighthouse, located at the north side of the bay, was built in 1858 and lit in 1859. It is made of brick and stands 150-feet tall. In 1861, an artillery duel between Union and Confederate forces lightly damaged the tower. Today, some visitors claim to hear footsteps, heavy breathing, and their name being whispered. Others have had objects “thrown” at them in the keeper’s quarters. [Read More…]

Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Mississippi. Photo by Michael Kleen

Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library

2244 Beach Blvd. Biloxi, MS 39531
www.beauvoir.org (228) 388-4400

Otherwise known as Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home has an interesting history. It was built in 1852 by a wealthy plantation owner named James Brown. Jefferson Davis did not reside in the house until 1877, twelve years before he died. His daughter Winnie continued to live there until her death in 1898. The Jefferson Davis Soldiers Home opened on the grounds in 1903 and operated until the 1950s. It was home to around 1,800 Civil War veterans and widows of Confederate soldiers. Roughly 780 of them are buried in the cemetery located on the property. Several visitors have reported encountering someone who they assume is an actor playing Jefferson Davis in the gardens. [Read More…]

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Murder & Mayhem in Rockford a Macabre Look at Local History

Murder and Mayhem in RockfordMurder & Mayhem in Rockford by Kathi Kresol was published by the History Press (Arcadia Publishing) in November 2015. As a librarian and proprietor of Haunted Rockford Tours, Kresol is intimately familiar with the darker side of her city’s history. Now she has compiled some of those stories, both infamous and lesser-known, into a beautifully designed book sure to be enjoyed by readers interested in both history and true crime.

Murder & Mayhem in Rockford is divided into two parts, aptly named Murder and Mayhem. In part 1, Kresol examines nine murder cases, ranging from the death of a county sheriff to a man who murdered his own sisters. In part 2, she recounts five disasters, accidents, and fires, and ends with three chapters on Prohibition and the Mafia in Rockford from 1920 to 1933.

The events in the book take place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a few from the 1960s and ’70s. Kresol shows that Rockford has always been an immigrant melting pot, and despite its early industrial prosperity, has always been a violent place. The participants, victims and perpetrators alike, come to life on the pages.

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The ‘Burbs: An American Gothic Tale

A cul-de-sac in an unassuming Midwestern suburb is the setting for this classic dark comedy from the ’80s. Though underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) is one of my favorite movies and helped spark my interest in the unusual. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood.

Though on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delves deep into the American gothic and the double-sided nature of modern American society, a society that consumes true crime, horror, and paranormal books, movies, and television behind picket fences and manicured lawns.

On Mayfield Place in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and retired Lieutenant Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) suspect a family named Klopek, who live in a dilapidated house next door to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), are really satanists responsible for the disappearance of the house’s previous occupants, and later, an old man named Walter Seznick.

Ray Peterson is skeptical, simply wanting to enjoy a quiet weeklong vacation at home with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son. Strange events gradually convince Ray his friends are right, and they break into the Klopeks’ home seeking evidence of their crimes.

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My Favorite Haunted Places in Arizona

In early 2015, I spent several months at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona. While there, I visited several very interesting places, including the town of Tombstone. I love Tombstone for its history and authentic feel of being in the “Wild West.” Of course, such a storied history comes with its share of legends and lore. Ghost stories abound. Here are some of my other favorite haunted places in the Copper State.

Copper Queen Hotel

11 Howell Ave. Bisbee, Arizona 85603
www.copperqueen.com (520) 432-2216

Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona. Photo by Michael Kleen

Rising above the colorful tapestry of tightly clustered homes and businesses blanketing the Mule Mountains in southeastern Arizona, the Copper Queen Hotel stands as a gilded monument. For over 100 years, it has served as a social anchor for the former mining town of old Bisbee. I first stayed at the Copper Queen Hotel in 2009 while visiting friends from Phoenix. I had heard rumors that the hotel was haunted, but it wasn’t until I returned a few years later that I discover just how much. In the interim, the hotel had published its logbook of ghostly encounters from 2000 to 2008, and the book contains many interesting gems. [Read More…]

Brunckow Cabin

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
4070 South Avenida Saracino
Hereford, AZ 85615
(520) 439-6400

Brunckow Cabin in Arizona. Photo by Michael Kleen

Crumbling adobe walls sit on a hill overlooking the dry, meandering bed of a San Pedro River tributary. Ants and snakes burrow into the rocky soil, past the bleached bones of unfortunate prospectors and outlaws resting in shallow graves. At night, a cold chill descends on the desert floor of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Those who dare approach these ruins after sundown often report unsettling encounters with the unseen. Located south of Charleston Road between Tombstone and Sierra Vista, Arizona, the remnant of this small adobe cabin is known as Brunckow Cabin and has been described as “the bloodiest cabin in Arizona history.” After reading the tragic history of the cabin (and the tortured souls rumored to haunt it), I had to see it for myself. [Read More…]

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Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place

Mapping the Invisible Landscape by Kent C. RydenFirst published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.

Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.

Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.

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