Tim Powers may not have appeared in Black Static as yet, but Nate Southard has. I’ve heard good things about Southard, but so far this very brief story from #20 is the only sample I’ve seen of his work.
Plotwise there’s not much to it, just one of horror fiction’s more popular narrative gambits, the stranger returning to his home town to confront an ancient evil from years back (e.g. the characters coming back to Derry in King’s It). The prompt for this return is the funeral of the unnamed protagonist’s friend Chris, who was brutally murdered – ‘somebody had torn him apart, just ripped him open and stretched his insides from one end of his trailer to the other, stretched him out like taffy’.
The protagonist suspects more than he’s telling about how Chris died, and so before commencing his journey back home he stops to purchase and prepare the ‘ugly stick’, a baseball bat in the head of which he hammers nails.
The story gets filled in by means of flashbacks, recalling a time when Chris and the protagonist took a man out to a ravine outside of the town of Dawson, there to kill him as a sacrifice to the creature that lives in the ravine. The protagonist couldn’t kill the man and so Chris had to, and later the protagonist ran away from the town, seeking to make a life for himself elsewhere.
And now it’s guilt that is driving him back, the feeling that in some way his desertion was ultimately to cause Chris’ death.
The picture that emerges is of a rite of sacrifice, similar to that in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or, going back further still, the sacrifice of Andromeda and others in Greek mythology to the sea monster. The monster is contained by this blood tithe, the sacrifice of one for the many, and Chris and the protagonist were the ones charged with ensuring the sacrifice was made, only the protagonist deserted his post.
The Dawson he returns to isn’t doing very well – ‘Dawson has died a slow death, eaten up by a cancer you and Chris were supposed to treat.’ The only person he meets, a bartender, is so beset with hopelessness that all she wants to do is die, a wish the protagonist can grant with his ugly stick.
The monster – signified by the smell of honeysuckle and hordes of beetles – has grown in the protagonist’s absence. There’s a fear on his part that when it has drained Dawson dry it will spread to the rest of the world and nothing will be able to stop it.
And so the protagonist prepares to do battle, with ugly stick in hand.
On the surface there’s nothing much here, but the strength of the story lies in how Southard portrays the monster – ‘a black thing out of a child’s nightmare’ – and the lack of any explanation for its existence, any attempt to rationalise what is happening. But you could also make a case that the monster is not the cause of Dawson’s woes so much as the embodiment of the economic troubles and despair that have beset the town, a cancer sucking away at the life of Dawson and warping the lives of its people.
The way in which the story is told in the second person enables us to identify with the protagonist, to bond strongly with this man who is driven by his feelings of guilt and need for atonement. There’s a powerful grief at work here, empathy for the things that have been lost and awareness of his own responsibility for some of that. He and Chris were the creature’s keepers, their job to either feed it or kill it.
And now the man has come back to do better than he did before, to put things right or die in the trying. It’s all the universe can expect of any of us.
‘You cock back the stick and swing.’