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Great Canadian Horror
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Great Canadian Horror

By Husk
1 rating
rated!
rated!
Maybe it's the long winter nights, but Canadian authors can bring out the creepy like nobody's business.
Pontypool Changes Everything
Why it's on the list ...
Monster: zombies!
Method: complete mind job. Likely the strangest Canadian horror ever produced. Which makes it awesome.
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The Guardians

The Guardians

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

[ I ]
 
 
The call comes in the middle of the night, as the worst sort do.
 
The phone so close I can read the numbers on its green-glowing face, see the swirled fingerprint I’d left on its message window. A simple matter of reaching and grabbing. Yet I lie still. It is my motor-facility impairment (as one of my fussily unhelpful physicians calls it) that pins me for eighteen rings before I manage to hook the receiver onto my chest.
 
“I don’t even know what time it is. But it’s late, isn’t it?”
 
A familiar voice, faintly slurred, helium-pitched between laughter and sobs. Randy Toller. A friend since high school—a time that even Randy, on the phone, calls “a million years ago.” And though it was only twenty-four years, his estimate feels more accurate.
 
As Randy apologizes for waking me, and blathers on about how strange he feels “doing this,” I am trying to think of an understanding but firm way of saying no when he finally gets around to asking for money. He has done it before, following the unfairly lost auditions, the furniture-stealing girlfriends, the vodka-smoothed rough patches of his past tough-luck decade. But in the end Randy surprises me when he takes a rattling, effortful breath and says, “Ben’s dead, Trev.”
 
Trev?
 
This is my first, not-quite-awake thought. Nobody’s called me that since high school, including Randy.
 
“How?”
 
“A rope,” Randy says.
 
“Rope?”
 
“Hanging. I mean, he hung himself. In his mom’s house.”
 
“He never went outside. Where else could he have done it?”
 
“I’m saying he did it in his room. Up in the attic where he’d sit by the window, you know, watching.”
 
“Did his mom find him?”
 
“It was a kid walking by on the street. Looked up to see if that weird McAuliffe guy was in the window as usual, and saw him swinging there.”
 
I’m quiet for a while after this. We both are. But there is our breath being traded back and forth down the line. Reminders that we aren’t alone in recalling the details of Ben’s room, a place we’d spent a quarter of our youth wasting our time in. Of how it would have looked with the grown-up Ben in it, attached to the oak beam that ran the length of the ceiling.
 
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Randy says finally.
 
“Take that back.”
 
“I didn’t—it’s just—”
 
“Take that stupid bullshit back.”
 
“Fine. Sorry.”
 
Randy has led the kind of life that has made him used to apologizing for saying the wrong thing, and the contrite tone he uses now is one I’ve heard after dozens of defaulted IOUs and nights spent sleeping on my sofa between stints in rented rooms. But then, in little more than a whisper, he says something else.
 
“You know it’s sort of true, Trev.”
 
He’s right. It is sort of true that with the news of Ben McAuliffe’s suicide there came, among a hundred other reactions, a shameful twinge of relief.
 
Ben was a friend of mine. Of ours. A best friend, though I hadn’t seen him in years, and spoke to him only slightly more often. It’s because he stayed behind, I suppose. In Grimshaw, our hometown, from which all of us but Ben had escaped the first chance we had. Or maybe it’s because he was sick. Mentally ill, as even he called himself, though sarcastically, as if his mind was the last thing wrong with him. This would be over the phone, on the rare occasions I called. (Each time I did his mother would answer, and when I told her it was me calling her voice would rise an octave in the false hope that a good chat with an old friend might lift the dark spell that had been cast on her son.) When we spoke, neither Ben nor I pretended we would ever see each other again. We might as well have been separated by an ocean, or an even greater barrier, as impossible to cross as the chasm between planets, as death. I had made a promise to never go back to Grimshaw, and Ben could never leave it. A pair of traps we had set for ourselves.
 
Despite this, we were still close. There was a love between us too. A sexless, stillborn love, yet just as fierce as the other kinds. The common but largely undocumented love between men who forged their friendship in late childhood.
 
But this wasn’t the thing that bridged the long absence that lay between our adult lives. What connected Ben and me was a secret. A whole inbred family of secrets. Some of them so wilfully forgotten they were unknown even to ourselves.
 
 
Only after I’ve hung up do I notice that, for the entire time I was on the phone with Randy, my hands were still. I didn’t even have to concentrate on it, play the increasingly unwinnable game of Mind Over Muscles.
 
Don’t move.
 
It’s like hypnosis. And like hypnosis, it usually doesn’t work.
 
Everything’s okay. Just stay where you are. Relax. Be still.
 
Now, in the orange dust of city light that sneaks through the blinds, I watch as the tremor returns to my limbs. Delicate flutterings at first. Nervous and quick as a sparrow dunking its head in a puddle. An index finger that abruptly stiffens, points with alarm at the chair in the corner—and then collapses, asleep. A thumb standing in a Fonzie salute before turtling back inside a fist.
 
You know what I need? A week in Bermuda.
 
These were the sort of thoughts I had when the twitches showed up.
 
I need to eat more whole grains.
 
I need a drink.
 
The hand-jerks and finger-flicks were just the normal flaws, the software glitches the body has to work through when first booting up after a certain age. I had just turned forty, after all. There was a price to be paid—a small, concealable impediment to be endured for all the fun I’d had up until now. But it was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t a real problem of the kind suffered by the wheelchaired souls you wish away from your line of sight in restaurants, your appetite spoiled.
 
But then, a few months ago, the acceptable irregularities of the body inched into something less acceptable. Something wrong.
 
I went to the doctor. Who sent me to another doctor. Who confirmed her diagnosis after a conversation with a third doctor. And then, once the doctors had that straightened out, all of them said there was next to nothing they could do, wished me well and buggered off.
 
What I have, after all, is one of those inoperable, medically unsexy conditions. It has all the worst qualities of the non-fatal disease: chronic, progressive, cruelly erosive of one’s “quality of life.” It can go fast or slow. What’s certain is that it will get worse. I could name it now but I’m not in the mood. I hate its falsely personal surnamed quality, the possessive aspect of the capital P. And I hate the way it doesn’t kill you. Until it does.
 
 
I spoke to a therapist about it. Once.
 
She was nice—seemed nice, though this may have been only performance, an obligation included in her lawyer-like hourly fee—and was ready to see me “all the way through what’s coming.” But I couldn’t go back. I just sat in her pleasant, fern-filled room and caught a whiff of the coconut exfoliant she’d used that morning to scrub at the liver spots on her arms and knew I would never return. She was the sort of woman in the sort of office giving off the sort of scent designed to provoke confessions. I could have trusted her. And trusting a stranger is against the rules.
 
(There was something else I didn’t like. I didn’t like how, when she asked if I had entertained any suicidal thoughts since the diagnosis and I, after a blubbery moment, admitted that I had, she offered nothing more than a businesslike smile and a tidy check mark in her notepad.)
 
One useful suggestion came out of our meeting, nevertheless. For the purposes of recording my thoughts so that they might be figured out later, she recommended I keep a diary chronicling the progress of my disease. Not that she used that word. Instead, she referred to the unstoppable damage being done to me as an “experience,” as if it were a trip to Paraguay or sex with twins. And it wasn’t a journal of sickness I was to keep, but a “Life Diary,” her affirmative nods meant to show that I wasn’t dying. Yet. That was there too. Remember, Trevor: You’re not quite dead yet.
 
“Your Life Diary is more than a document of events,” she explained. “It can, for some of my clients, turn out to be your best friend.”
 
But I already have best friends. And they don’t live in my present life so much as in the past. So that’s what I’ve ended up writing down. A recollection of the winter everything changed for us. A pocket-sized journal containing horrors that surprised even me as I returned to them. And then, after the pen refused to stand still in my hand, it has become a story I tell into a Dictaphone. My voice. Sounding weaker than it does in my own ears, someone else’s voice altogether.
 
I call it my “Memory Diary.”
 
 
Randy offered to call Carl, but we both knew I would do it. Informing a friend that someone they’ve known all their life has died was more naturally a Trevor kind of task. Randy would be the one to score dope for a bachelor party, or scratch his key along the side of a Porsche because he took it personally, and hard, that his own odds of ever owning one were fading fast. But I was definitely better suited to be the bearer of bad tidings.
 
I try Carl at the last number I have for him, but the cracked voice that answers tells me he hasn’t lived there for a while. When I ask to have Carl call if he stops by, there is a pause of what might be silent acceptance before the line goes dead. Randy has a couple of earlier numbers, and I try those too, though Carl’s former roommates don’t seem to know where he is now either (and refuse to give me their own names when I ask).
 
“Not much more we can do,” Randy says when I call him back. “The guy is gone, Trev.”
 
There it is again: Trev. A name not addressed to me in over twenty years, and then I get it twice within the last half-hour.
 
I had an idea, as soon as Randy told me Ben had died, that the past was about to spend an unwelcome visit in my present. Going from Trevor to Trev is something I don’t like, but a nostalgic name change is going to be the least of it. Because if I’m getting on a train for Grimshaw in the morning, it’s all coming back.
 
Heather.
 
The coach.
 
The boy.
 
The house.
 
The last of these most of all because it alone is waiting for us. Ready to see us stand on the presumed safety of weed-cracked sidewalk as we had as schoolchildren, daring each other to see who could look longest through its windows without blinking or running away.
 
For twenty-four years this had been Ben’s job. Now it would be ours.

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Why it's on the list ...
Monster: ghosts, haunted house
Method: Pyper brings on the creep to one seriously effed-up house.
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The Thirteen

The Thirteen

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

ONE
 
The drunk at table eight was shouting something at the dancer. Paula couldn’t hear what it was over the music, but from his ugly expression she guessed it wasn’t nice. Then he threw something that landed on the stage in front of poor Rachel. A typical Tuesday night at Blondie’s.
 
Paula looked away, pretended not to see. Another asshole in the bar. She hated her job. Hated.
 
“What the fuck?” Andy said from behind the bar. “Go see what’s going on.”
 
“He threw something at Rachel,” Paula said. She and Andy had a sometimes thing, which she also sometimes hated. Today she could smell his cologne on her hair. Chaps. Right now she didn’t like his tone.
 
“I said go see,” he snarled, and turned his back to her.
 
Paula groaned and grabbed her tray, wet with spilled beer, and headed for the fray.
 
There were only about ten people in the whole bar. It was early, just a couple of hours into her shift. The man had been drunk when she’d got there, obnoxious, loud. She’d picked him out right away. When the first dancer came on, he’d shut up and Paula had hoped that would be it.
 
“Excuse me, sir,” she said. Even as she did she tensed against the inevitable transfer of his anger. His spittle.
 
Wet-eyed, he tried to focus. Paula had a horrible moment of bar clarity as she imagined this guy stumbling home to his family and picking a fight with his sober, half-awake wife. Keep your voice down, honey, you’ll wake the kids—
 
Shut the fuck up—
 
The man ignored Paula and lurched to his feet, yelling at Rachel to get her fat ass off the stage.
 
At Rachel’s feet was an olive. She must have stepped on it, because it was flattened and the pimento had separated. It must be what the man had thrown at her. Rachel’s face was red and her movements were choppy. Choppier than usual. Andy didn’t exactly run the A-list on the first shift.
 
“Sir,” Paula repeated firmly, “please take your seat.”
 
An ugly grin began on his mouth and gave up early. “What did you say to me?”
 
“Could you sit down, please? The dancer’s just doing her job.”
 
He was middle-aged—they always were—overweight, wearing a good jacket. Probably from out of town. Maybe his business hadn’t gone well. He pointed a fat finger at her. A wedding ring glinted in the stage lights. “And you can shut your fat mouth.”
 
He reeked of gin, usually a pleasant, juniper-bush smell. Not on him.
 
“C’mon, mister, please?” She tried to smile but she couldn’t do it.
 
“Aren’t you just a fucking crackerjack bitch . . .”
 
She stared at him, and for a moment his red-blotched, booze-slackened face disappeared. His eyes were clear and burning on her, his gaze steady. This time he managed his grin, and for an instant Paula felt as if she should duck.
 
“You should shut your mouth and get your fat ass home,” he said, not slurring anymore.
 
“Excuse me?”
 
She’d had enough, and turned away. The song was just midway through, the few patrons in the bar every bit as interested in what was going on off the stage as on. She raised her hand to try to signal Andy, and then Rachel screamed.
 
The drunk had grabbed Rachel’s ankle, catching it on a turn, and she fell to the hard stage floor with a terrible thud. Paula heard the air rush out of her.
 
That was it.
 
“Let her go!” Paula slapped her tray onto the nearest table. Nickels and quarters jumped wetly in the beery ashtray. It startled the drunk and he twisted his fat head on his fat neck to look at her. His eyes narrowed, whether to focus or to look mean, she wasn’t sure.
 
He was still hanging on to Rachel’s ankle. “If I want to watch some old cow take her clothes off I’ll stay home with my wife.”
 
Rachel groaned and tried to kick free of his hand. Her cheap strappy sandal came off and dangled sadly from her foot.
 
“Let go of Rachel and sit down—” Paula could feel bile rising in her throat; the smell of him, mixed with beer and sweat, was almost too much. He was her fourth bad drunk of the week and she was done. Fucking done. Her right hand clenched into a fist and she ached to use it. She said it again: “Let go of her.”
 
The drunk made his own fist and raised it. “Gimme a reason.”
 
Paula felt a rush of heat through her body—a tempting heat, a huge desire to lash out, to pound this man’s sweaty face. Her eyes closed as she drew her own fist back like a bow—somewhere far away she heard someone gasp and a titter of laughter hit him kid knock him to the floor. Then she thought of her daughter, Rowan. Twelve and at home alone, probably curled up in front of the TV, maybe homework in her lap, waiting for her mom to call on her break. She did not hit him.
 
She opened her eyes to see the drunk backed up against the stage, hands up, palms out, Rachel sitting up, sobbing and rubbing her ankle, just as Andy got there.
 
“Back off!” Andy shouted.
 
Paula’s fist was still cocked and she realized Andy was talking to her. Her arm dropped to her side. She laughed nervously. “Whoa,” was all she could think of to say.
 
“She was going to fucking hit me,” the drunk said.
 
“Sit down,” Andy said to the drunk, who was suddenly innocent take it easy buddy what kind of joint you running as if he had never grabbed Rachel, as if he’d never made a fist at Paula.
 
“Andy—” Paula started. He turned to her angrily and pointed to the back. “Get outta here. Dump your tray and change at the bar.”
 
“I’m not missing a shift for this loser,” she protested.
 
“You’re not missing shit, Paula. You’re fired.”
 
Her mouth dropped open. He had to be kidding.
 
“You’re kidding.”
 
Andy pointed again to the bar. “Go.”
 
She grabbed her tray and stomped away. Behind her she heard a guffaw. Her stomach got tight and she was momentarily thrown again, this time by fear. She hated herself for it. She set her tray on the bar carefully, and then she lifted the ashtray with her change from the puddle of beer and put that beside the cash.
 
She was at a loss. She’d stomped out of her fair share of jobs, but she’d never been fired.
 
“Paula, I’m so goddamn sorry,” Rachel said from behind her. Paula turned to find the dancer, an unlit cigarette in her hand, a man’s long denim jacket over her costume. Her eye makeup was smeared. “I’m going for a smoke. Bastards. Thanks for trying, Paula. It’s a sisterhood, eh?” Rachel popped the cigarette into the corner of her mouth.
 
She waved Rachel away. “Don’t worry about it. Go have your smoke.” Rachel stood a second longer, checked over her shoulder for Andy, who was in a firing mood. When she saw him walking very slowly towards them, she scuttled away.
 
When he was close enough, Paula said, “What the hell, Andy?”
 
“You were going to hit a customer—what’s that shit?”
 
“I didn’t hit him. You’re firing me for something I didn’t even get to do.”
 
He snorted. “I’m firing you for lots of reasons. That one’s just handy.”
 
“What?” she said, too loudly. “No way. No fucking way. I’m on time, I work hard enough. What are you talking about?”
 
Andy stepped back behind the bar and punched keys on the register. It popped open. He got some bills from under the tray. He held them out to her. They both looked at the money.
 
“Debbie’s hired back,” he said.
 
Debbie who?
 
“My girlfriend.”
 
Ah. He held out the cash. It was twenties, maybe five of them. A hundred bucks. She laughed softly and shook her head. Unbelievable.
 
“I quit anyway. This place is a dive.”
 
He handed her the money, not looking her in the eye.
 
Fuck you she wanted to add, but her mouth was too dry. She went into the back and got her jacket and purse. When she came out, he still wouldn’t meet her eye. She left by the back door.
 
She made it as far as the edge of the parking lot before it hit her. She was unemployed. Again.
 
Worst Tuesday at Blondie’s, ever.
 

 
Normally Paula took a taxi home after her evening shift, using tip money, but tonight she headed for the bus. Who knew when she’d have another job. Streetlamps were the only light on the road. Most of the businesses around there were daytime things, wholesale places and electrical shops that turned off their signs to save a buck. A traffic light half a block away flashed red.
 
The bus was empty, just her and the driver, who stared straight ahead when Paula got on and put her money in the box. By the time she’d sat down—at the back, where the losers sit—she was in full panic, full pity, full fear mode.
 
What would she tell Rowan? The truth seemed harsh.
 
Paula pictured Rowan in her school uniform and decided she couldn’t say a thing.
 
She was twenty-eight years old. She’d just been fired from a bar job. This was not how it was supposed to be. When she’d been a kid back in Haven Woods, bar girl was not on her list of life goals. She couldn’t quite remember what had been, but she could remember sitting for hours in a homemade tent with her friends, dreaming about who they would grow up to be.
 
Not bar girls.
 
A sisterhood, Rachel had said.
 
Six hundred in chequing, a hundred and fourteen in her wallet, courtesy of Andy’s hush money, and thirty in the coffee can at home. There was a brief moment of regret when she thought about her temper and how hard it was sometimes to keep it down. She had really wanted to clock that drunk
 
(but I didn’t)
 
She leaned her head against the bus window and watched as industrial turned into downtown, then into residential, across the railroad yard to the wrong side of the tracks. Home.
 
Every light in the apartment was on, as usual. Paula didn’t mind so much. When she was Rowan’s age, she was never left alone, never mind most nights.
 
She walked through the apartment, flipping lights off as she went until she was in the kitchenette. Supper things were still on the table, a plate scraped clean, knife and fork, a glass with milk slowly drying in the bottom and chopsticks.
 
Chopsticks.
 
On the counter beside the sink was a Styrofoam takeout container, empty. She opened the fridge. Two more takeout containers were in there, one with a serving spoon sticking out the top.
 
A brown bag in the recycling box was from Captain Wu’s, the receipt for eighteen dollars, which left twelve dollars in the coffee can.
 
Paula went to Rowan’s door, which was open just a crack, her Ariel nightlight glowing. Rowan still watched The Little Mermaid now and then even though she was getting too old.
 
“Ro?” Paula whispered. She could just make her out under the covers, all limbs and hair. A fierce love rose in her, as familiar as the panic and fear, but better.
 
She was about to give up and close the door; it was nearly eleven.
 
“Mom? How come you’re home?”
 
“Ro, did you have takeout?”
 
“Mmm, yeah. Delivery.”
 
“Where did you get the money?”
 
“From the emergency can.”
 
“Who said you could use that? That money’s for emergencies—”
 
Rowan sat up and rubbed her eyes. “It was an emergency. There was nothing to eat.”
 
Paula groaned. “Rowan! There was tinned soup. Tuna. Leftover casserole from Sunday—I know you don’t love it, but we can’t just have takeout whenever we freaking want.” She was trying to stay calm, but it was hard, thinking of the thirty dollars that had been in the can, reducing their total wealth now to
 
six hundred in chequing, fourteen in my purse, twelve in the can—
 
“Jeez, I’m sorry. I had homework. I didn’t feel like cooking.” Rowan flopped backwards and closed her eyes.
 
“Ro—” Paula started.
 
“I’m sorry, Mom. I have to go to sleep. Can’t you ground me tomorrow?”
 
“It’s not funny, Ro.”
 
She turned over onto her side and Paula could hear a change in her breathing. Then she spoke again. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad.”
 
Eighteen dollars. What was that? Bread and milk and eggs, maybe the paper.
 
“I’m not,” Paula finally said. “Not really. I love you.” She backed out of the room, remembering to leave her daughter’s door open just a crack.
 
In the kitchen she pulled the leftover takeout from the fridge and ate it with the chopsticks, standing up, not tasting it. Her throat was thick, wanting to cry, to freak out.
 
What was lower than bar waitress? Not too much.
 
Welfare, she guessed. Rowan’s tuition was paid to the end of the year, thanks to her mother, but after that she’d have to go to public school. She didn’t even have a car they could live in, although there was a beater for sale across the street. She passed it every day.
 
She threw the takeout container into the trash, then dropped to the sofa and picked up the remote. She turned on the TV to snow, then noticed a note taped to the back of the remote. She squinted to read it. You didn’t pay cable Mom.
 
She flicked off the set and soon she was asleep, dreamless except for one moment in the middle of the night when she thought she heard her mother calling her to get up. It was time for
 
 
It was a beautiful morning, but little of it bled though the frosted glass windows of the second-floor bathroom at St. Mary’s Academy for Girls. Rowan was with Nicki and Caleigh. Nicki had stolen a couple of cigarettes from her mother’s pack. They were all crowded into the last stall and Nicki was about to light one.
 
Caleigh had shoved gum in the smoke detectors. It was bright pink against the rest of the gobs of gum, some so ancient they had lost all colour.
 
Nicki flicked the lighter (also pinched from her mother) and held the flame to the end of the cigarette. It caught and flared briefly, like a firework. Rowan and Caleigh—children of nonsmokers—flinched and stepped back a little.
 
Nicki inhaled and coughed roughly, but not as much as a person might expect. Then she held it out to Caleigh. “Don’t just stare at it. Smoke it, dork.”
 
With a glance at Rowan, Caleigh put it in her mouth like a straw. She sucked on it once, then burst into terrible, deep coughs, as if she had lung cancer or something.
 
Nicki laughed, and patted her hard on the back. Thump thump thump. “You baby!” She took the cigarette back. “They keep you skinny. That’s why my mom smokes. She says if she quits she’ll put on, like, twenty pounds.”
 
Nicki held it out to Rowan. “C’mon.”
 
Rowan shook her head. Caleigh was still sputtering and looked sick.
 
“I don’t think so. It causes cancer.”
 
“Not the first time,” Nicki said.
 
“I don’t want to.”
 
Nicki drew on the cigarette herself and blew smoke out like a pro, holding in a cough that made her eyes water. “If you try it I’ll let you use my Friis bag for the city trip. My big one.” Grade seven and eight French students were going to Montreal for a weekend, to see an opera in French and to eat in French restaurants in order to have an “immersion experience.” Sister Claire was taking them. Everyone loved Sister Claire. Rowan would like to be Sister Claire, except for the nun part.
 
Nicki watched her with a half-grin, but Rowan wouldn’t meet her eyes. She stared at her feet, then the wall. “No way,” she said finally. “I’m not going anyway.”
 
“Really? Why not?” Caleigh said.
 
“It’s lame.” It cost five hundred dollars. “I don’t want to go.”
 
Nicki grinned slyly. “Can’t your mother afford it?”
 
“That’s none of your business, Sickie Nicki,” Caleigh said. “Get the money from your dad,” she said to Rowan. “That’s what I do when my mom won’t give me something.”
 
“My dad’s dead,” Rowan said. “He died in a car wreck when I was a baby. I’ve never even seen him, except in pictures.”
 
“Wow,” said Caleigh. “That’s kind of sad. My dad had a heart attack two years ago, but he’s okay now.” Caleigh looked at Rowan with a new sort of interest.
 
Nicki played with the cigarette. “Isn’t your mom a stripper? They make lots of money, you know. She should totally have the money.”
 
“She’s not a stripper, Nic,” Rowan said.
 
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being a stripper. I think it’s cool. I would love to have men staring at me because I’m beautiful,” Nicki said.
 
“They stare at strippers because they’re naked, not because they’re pretty,” Caleigh said. “Is your mom a stripper really?”
 
No!” Rowan was red-faced. “She works in a bar downtown. But gawd, she’s not a stripper.”
 
“But she’s poor, right? That’s why you’re not going on the trip—”
 
“Fuck off, Nicki.” Rowan stared her down.
 
“Whatever, Wittmore,” Nicki said, as she put the cigarette to her mouth for another puff. “If my mom was a stripper I wouldn’t lie—” It was as far as she got before Rowan pulled back and smacked her in the face. The cigarette hit the wall, and sparks and ash bounced off the tile.
 
The smack seemed to echo loudly in the bathroom. Nicki blinked, her mouth dropped open in total surprise, a red mark appearing where Rowan had hit her. There was complete, shocked silence for a split second. Then Caleigh screamed.
 
“You fucking hit me,” Nicki said.
 
“You have a big mouth,” Rowan said, surprised at how her heart was pounding, and also at how good it had felt to hit Nicki’s (smug) face.
 
Then Nicki’s chin started to wiggle and her bottom lip practically swallowed her top lip as fat tears plopped out of her eyes onto her pink cheeks. “You fucking hit me, Wittmore! You fucking did so!”
 
“Shut up, Nicki,” Rowan said.
 
Caleigh put her hands up. “I’m going to—” and then she ran away from them, leaving Nicki and Rowan standing like idiots, staring each other down while the cigarette burned between them on the washroom floor.
 
That’s how it was when Sister Claire came in, Caleigh trailing behind her, and all hell broke loose, shit hit the fan, everybody had a big fat crap sandwich.
 
 
Light burned through Paula’s eyelids, something wrong about that for sure, but there was something else too, a shoo-fly feeling, an irritation like an itch, pulsing.
 
She was not in her bedroom. The light was coming at her from the big window at the front of the apartment. Morning light. She was on the sofa in the living room, still in her clothes from the night before. She could smell beer very faintly. From her pants, most likely. Ugh.
 
The phone rang beside her head once more, pulling her completely out of sleep.
 
“Shit,” Paula mumbled, pawed towards the sound of the phone and hit upon the receiver, thumbing the button as much to make it stop as to answer the call.
 
“Hello?”
 
“Mrs. Wittmore? This is Candace Fines, principal at St. Mary’s Academy—”
 
“It’s Miss,” Paula corrected her, her voice froggy.
 
“Be that as it may . . .” Fines continued, her voice chilly.
 
Paula listened, anger growing inside her, feeling like the bitter taste of the last straw. She hung up the phone and dragged herself off the sofa and changed her clothes.
 
Rowan was in deep trouble. In deep shit.
 
shit shit shit
 
 
Rowan was sitting on the wooden bench outside the principal’s office when Paula came out. She looked up shyly, but with a tiny bit of the expression Nicki probably had seen right before Rowan clocked her.
 
The two Wittmore girls stared at each other. Paula kept her expression blank, both because she was unsure how she felt and because she was exhausted. It was only ten thirty in the morning and there had already been a disaster. Mother Teresa would have been exhausted.
 
“Get your book bag,” Paula said. “Do you have anything in your locker that you’ll need?”
 
Rowan’s eyes widened and the trace of defiance disappeared. “Need for what?”
 
Paula’s purse felt as if it weighed twenty pounds. She dropped it to the floor and sat beside her daughter on the bench.
 
“Need in the next two months. You’ve been suspended for the rest of term.”
 
Rowan gasped. “Because I hit Nicki?”
 
Paula nodded. “They have a zero-tolerance violence policy.”
 
“What about the smoking?”
 
“You were smoking?”
 
Rowan let out a frustrated sigh. “No. Nicki had a cigarette and was trying to make us try it. But I didn’t.”
 
“Is that why you hit her?” In truth she was still trying to digest the idea of Rowan hitting anyone. She’d never been what you would call an angelic child, but she’d never been violent. Rowan had always used her words when she was angry.
 
Rowan shook her head.
 
“Well, what then?”
 
Rowan stared at the floor, her hair covering her face, but Paula could still see her through the breaks in the curtain it made. She was frowning.
 
“Nicki’s an asshole.”
 
“Rowan! You’re not making this any better for yourself. Tell me why you hit her.”
 
Rowan shook her head and then shrugged. “What did Fines say?”
 
“She said, ‘Nicole and Rowan had a disagreement and Rowan struck Nicole in the face.’ And when I asked what the disagreement was about, she suggested I ask you, that it was personal.”
 
She put her hand on Rowan’s shoulder. “What was it about, honey?”
 
“Nicki said you were a stripper.”
 
It was Paula’s turn to be speechless. And when she didn’t respond, Rowan looked at her, concerned. “You’re not, are you?”
 
“No. No. Rowan, you know I’m not. I’m a waitress. Lots of women are waitresses—”
 
“Not here.”
 
Touché. Paula stood up. “Go get your stuff. I’ll meet you out front.”
 
 
Without discussion they took the long way home, down Cascade Street, past the library and the big Whole Foods that they went to around Christmas time. Neither of them was anxious to get back to the crummy apartment.
 
For most of the walk they were quiet. Then Paula said, “I’m still surprised you hit her, Ro. You want to talk about it?”
 
“No.”
 
Paula couldn’t help it, and laughed a little. Of course she didn’t want to talk about it. Neither did Paula, truthfully. But she had to say something.
 
She took a breath. “I wish I was a lawyer or a doctor or something great like that, but I got pregnant and had you, and I had to choose. I wanted to be your mother more than I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer.”
 
It was true, after a fashion. Paula had been lost in those days, heartbroken, angry. She had been only sixteen, practically a child and pregnant with one. Her father had just died. What had surprised her most of all was her mother’s solution. At a time when they should have needed each other most, her mother had sent her away, to the same school Rowan was now suspended from. Maybe it had been too much for both of them. Their house had become unbearably sad, grief seeming to echo off every wall.
 
Paula had been full of secrets that she couldn’t share. Sometimes she suspected that her mother knew that. But neither of them said anything then, and they had said nothing since about those days. Bad times, but a long time ago.
 
Rowan snorted, and that took Paula by surprise. “What?”
 
“Maybe it would have been better if you’d been doctor or something. Look at us now—we’re all broke and crap. We don’t even have cable any more.”
 
“Oh, please—”
 
“Maybe you should have gotten a better job or gone to a better school or something. Instead, now we’re stuck and you can’t even make it better!”
 
“First of all, I went to a very good school—the same one you just got booted out of. I don’t have to explain my choices to you, Ro.”
 
“Why? Aren’t you always asking me what I think about life and telling me to be honest? Well, are you a stripper? You could be, right? I mean, you had me and you weren’t married or even with a boyfriend—”
 
“Rowan! What does that have to do with anything?”
 
“I don’t know! I just wish—we were normal. I don’t have a dad, I don’t have a sister or a brother . . . I don’t even have a grandma! All the teachers call you Mrs. Wittmore and I don’t tell them you’re not married . . . but everybody knows—” Rowan’s forehead was sweaty, as it always got when she was upset, and her bangs clung.
 
“You have a grandmother, Ro. She pays your tuition, remember?”
 
“But I don’t see her,” she said, petulantly. “Is she ashamed of me?”
 
Paula reached out. “Rowan, of course not! She loves you. She’s just not . . . that kind of grandmother. Come on, you’re upsetting yourself. Let me take your bag—”
 
She jerked away. “No! I’m going home—you walk too slow!”
 
“Jesus, Ro—” she said, but Ro was leaving. She’d adjusted her bag on her tiny shoulders and was actually stomping away.
 
“Do you have your key?” Paula called.
 
She spun back to face her mother. “Yes, I have my key. Of course I have my key. I always have my key—I’m a latchkey kid!”
 
“You’re not a latchkey kid, Ro. You go to the lunch program.”
 
“I am at night!”
 
“Rowan, please—”
 
 
When Paula got back she found an envelope taped to the apartment door. Paula Wittmore was written in pencil on the front in Andy’s handwriting.
 
Paula unstuck the envelope, then let herself into the apartment. She could hear music, a little too loud, coming from Rowan’s room. She was grateful not to have to face her. Paula would have to say something about her job situation
 
(which did not bear thinking about just yet)
 
and they would have to plan for the days of school Ro would miss. She dropped her purse and tossed her jacket onto the sofa, where the blanket from the night before was still where she had left it. She took the envelope over to the kitchen counter, stuck her finger under the flap and tore it open.
 
The cheque was for five hundred dollars. Double what she was expecting. There was no note. Guilt money
 
(and she didn’t care)
 
and she noticed that the message light was blinking on the archaic answering machine.
 
Paula pressed Play.
 
“Paula? This is a message for Paula—” and even as she heard the voice, her heart nearly stopped in her chest, and everything else about the day slid off her.
 
“Dear, it’s Izzy Riley, from Haven Woods? I’m sorry to tell you, but your mother has taken ill. She’s in the hospital here. I hope you’ll come home. I know you and she haven’t been so close these past years, but she’d love to see you. And your daughter.”
 
Her mother was ill, badly enough off to be in the hospital in Haven Woods. That crummy little hospital. She and Rowan had been back home to visit only once, and Rowan had gotten so sick they had to go back to the city—there was no way she was taking her baby to the Haven Woods emergency room.
 
Her mother had come to see them maybe twice since then and actively discouraged any suggestion from Paula that she and Rowan come home.
 
And now . . . Izzy Riley.
 
Paula dropped to a chair beside the table and tried to take that in. Last time she’d seen Izzy she’d been standing outside the church after David’s funeral. Izzy had turned and looked over her shoulder just as the Wittmores got into their car. A quick glance and then she turned back to talk to someone. That was the last time Paula had laid eyes on a Riley.
 
Rowan’s other grandmother. Not that Izzy knew that.
 
She would go home. She and Rowan.
 
Her mother was ill: Audra was ill. Old Tex, the dog—he would be sixteen, seventeen? She pondered that, considered that he might be dead. The house would be empty.
 
Haven Woods, a million miles away from Blondie’s, St. Mary’s Academy; a million miles away from where she was now.
 
A million miles away.

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Why it's on the list ...
Monster: witches!
Method: Moloney brings a Stephen King-esque ode to suburbia, mixing in a little Rosemary's Baby for a bloody good time.
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Here After

Here After

edition:Paperback

You see the child in your peripheral vision, don't you? You hear the sweet voice, surely. You've got to follow it, find it, bring it home...now, right now.

The loss of a child is a parent's worst nightmare... Sound like a cliché? A dead metaphor? In Here After, Sean Costello galvanizes it again. Costello's first novel since 2002, Here After is a psychological/supernatural thriller whose laconic yet driven prose induces a claustrophobic atmosphere in the reader to match the one the protagonist is …

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Why it's on the list ...
Monster: forest nymphs?
Method: Not as horrific as some, but Wiersema adds true grief and hopelessness to this tale of missing children.
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The Killing Circle
Excerpt

Labour Day, 2007

I didn’t know my son could tell directions from the stars.

Corona Austrina. Lyra. Delphinus.

Sam leaves noseprints on the passenger window as we highway out of the city, reciting the constellations and whispering "South" and "East" and "North" with each turn I make.

"Where’d you learn that?"

He gives me the same look as when I came into his room a couple nights ago and found him sling-shooting a platoon of plastic Marines, one by one, on to the neighbour’s roof. "I’m a terrorist,"he had answered when asked what he thought he was doing.

"Learn what?"

"The stars."

"Books."

"Which books?"

"Just books."

With Sam I know I’ll get no further than this. It’s because both of us are readers. Not by passion necessarily, but by character. Observers. Critics. Interpreters. Readers of books (most recently the later, furious Philip Roth for me, and Robinson Crusoe, told in bedtime snippets, for Sam). But also comics, travel brochures, bathroom-stall graffiti, owner’s manuals, cereal-box recipes. The material doesn’t matter. Reading is how we translate the world into a language we can at least partly understand.

"North,"Sam says, his nose returned to the glass.

The two of us peer at the slab of shadow at the top of the rise. A square monolith jutting out of an Ontario corn field like the last remnant of an ancient wall.

"Mus-tang Drive-in. End of Sea-son. La-bour Day Dusk ’til Dawn,"Sam reads as we pass the sign.

He leans forward to study the neon cowboy on a bucking bronco that is the Mustang’s beacon, directing us in from the night roads.

"I’ve been here before,"he says.

"You remember that?"

"The sign. The man on the horse."

"You were so little then."

"What am I now?"

"Now? Now you’re a book-reading, star-gazing young man."

"No,"he says, grimacing. "I’m eight years old. And I just remember things."

We have come out here, widower and son, to watch the last movie show of the summer at one of the last drive-ins in the country. The last of the lasts.
Tamara - Sam’s mother, my wife - died eight months after Sam was born. Since then, I have found a parental usefulness in moviegoing. In a darkened cinema (or here, in a darkened corn field) Sam and I can find an intimacy without the dangers of talk. There’s something distinctly male about it. The closeness fathers and sons find in passive, mostly silent hobbies, like fly fishing or watching baseball games.

The guy at the admission booth pauses when he spots Sam in the passenger seat. Tonight’s main feature - a spooky Hollywood thriller currently raking in the last of the easy summer dollars - is R-rated. I hand the guy a bill that more than covers full price for two adults. He winks and waves us on, but offers no change.

The place is packed. The best spot left is in front of the concession stand, well off to the side. Sam wanted to try further back, but I know that’s where the high school kids go. Pot and smuggled rye, teenaged boys and girls and all the things they get away with. It’s not concern for Sam’s moral education, but the nostalgic envy that being so close to these crimes would cause in me that makes me stay up here with the rest of the respectables.

"It’s starting!"Sam announces as the floodlights cut out.

It leaves me to pull our chairs and mothballed sleeping bag out of the trunk with only the light of the commercials to see by. I slide along the side of the car keeping my eye on the screen. This, for me, is the best part of the whole drive-in experience: the vintage ad for junk food. A dancing hot dog, leering milkshake, a choir of french fries. And there’s something about the tap-dancing onion ring that always breaks my heart.

I set up Sam’s chair, then my own. Snuggle up next to each other under the sleeping bag.

"En-joy Our Fea-ture Pres-en-ta-tion!"Sam says, reading the screen.

The parked rows await the sky’s final turn from purple to black. A single honk to our right, a minivan rollicking with sugar-freaked little leaguers, brings muffled laughter from the vehicles around us. But there’s something nervous in these sounds - the bleat of alarm, the reply of hollow mirth. To make this impression go away I try at a laugh of my own. A dad laugh. And once it’s out, I inhale the familiar mix of gas fumes, popcorn, burnt hamburger. Along with something else. Something like fear. Faint as the perfume a previous guest leaves on a motel pillow.

The movie starts. A scene of introductory horror: a dark figure pursuing its prey through a field at night. Flashes of desperate movement, swinging arms and boots and jangling keys on a belt. Jump edits between the killer’s certain stride and the other’s panicked run, fall, then sobbing, crab crawl forward. A brief shot of hands dripping with what may be oil, or wet earth, or blood. A close-up scream.

We don’t know who this person is, this certain victim, but we recognize the context of hopeless struggle. It is the dream all of us have had, the one in which our legs refuse to carry us, the ground softened into black syrup, taking us down. And behind us is death. Faceless and sure, suffering no such handicaps.

We’re so close to the screen that to look at anything else forces me to turn all the way around in my chair. An audience of eyes. Looking back at me through bug-spattered windshields.

I sit forward again and tilt my head back. The autumn dome of night, endless and cold, lets me breathe. For a moment. Then even the stars crowd down.

"Dad?"

Sam has turned at all my fidgeting. I force myself to look straight ahead at the actors on the screen. Enormous, inescapable. Their words coming from every direction, as if spoken from within me. Soon the film becomes not just any dream, but a particular one I’ve had a thousand times.

I’m standing before I know I’m out of my chair. The sleeping bag spilling off my knees.

Sam looks up at me. Now, his face half in shadow, I can see his mother in him. It’s what gives him his sweetness, his open vulnerability. Seeing her in his features brings the strange feeling of missing someone who is still here.

"You want anything?"I ask. "Tater tots?"

Sam nods. And when I reach my hand out to him, he takes it.

We shuffle toward the source of the projector’s light. The blue beam and the glimpsed orange of matches lighting ­cigarettes in back seats - along with the dull glow of the quarter moon - the only illumination to see by. And the same dialogue broadcast from the speakers hooked to every car window.

It’s him.
What are you talking about?

The thing that lives under your bed. The eyes in your closet at night, watching you. The dark. Whatever frightens you the most...
Somebody opens the door to the concession stand and a cone of light plays over our feet. Sam runs to stay within it. Pretending that if he touches the unlit gravel before he gets inside he’ll be sucked into another dimension.

Which we are anyway. The Mustang’s snack bar belongs to neither Sam’s generation nor mine, but to whatever time it was when men wore ties to buy cheeseburgers. Just look at the posters on the walls: beaming sixties families stepping from their fin-tailed Fords to purchase treats for adorably ravenous Beaver Cleaver kids. It’s almost enough to put you off the food.

But not quite.

In fact, we need a tray. On to which I pile cardboard boats of taters, foil-wrapped dogs, rings so greasy you can see through the paper plate they sit on, as well as a jumbo soda, two straws.

But before we can leave, we need to pay. The girl at the till is speaking into the air. "No way,"she says, hang-jawed. "No way."And then I notice the cord coming out of her ear. The little mouthpiece thingy under her chin. "For real?"

"I’ll meet you where we’re sitting,"Sam says, grabbing a hot dog off the tray.

"Just watch for cars."

"They’re parked, Dad."

He gives me a pitying smile before running out the door.

Outside, after I’ve paid, the sudden dark leaves me blind. A tater tot leaps off the tray and squashes under my shoe. Where the hell did I park anyway? The movie tells me. The angle I’d been watching it from. Up a bit more, off to the side.

And there it is. My ancient Toyota. A car I should really think about replacing but can’t yet. It’s the lipstick and eye­liner Tamara left in the glove box. Every time I open it to grab my ownership certificate they spill out into my hand and she is with me. Sitting in the passenger seat, pulling down the visor mirror for a last-minute smearing. When we’d arrive at wherever we were headed to, she would turn to me and ask, "Do I look okay?"Every time I said yes, it was true.

I keep my eyes on the Toyota’s outline and stumble toward it, right next to the van of little leaguers. Quiet now. Their attention held by the movie’s suspense.

Why is he doing this? Why not just kill us when he had the chance?

The tray falls from my hands.

It’s not the movie. It’s what’s in front of my car that does it.

There’s our fold-out chairs. The sleeping bag.

Except the sleeping bag is lying on the ground. And both chairs are empty.

A couple of the minivan kids are sniggering at me, pointing at the unsheathed hot dog on the ground, the dixie cups of extra ketchup splashed gore over my pants. I look their way. And whatever shows on my face makes them slide the door shut.

I drift away from the Toyota, scuffing through the aisles between the cars. Slow, deliberate scans in every direction. Poking my head into the vehicles and noting the hundreds of North American lives in recreational progress–the dope-smoking kids, gluttonous adults, the couples slumped under comforters in the backs of pick-up trucks.

But no Sam.

For the first time the idea of calling the police comes to mind. Yet it remains only an idea. Sam’s been gone three minutes at most. He has to be here. What might be happening is not happening. It can’t be. It can’t.
"Sam!"

My son’s name comes to me from someone else. An alarmed third party.

"Sam!"

I start to run. As fast as I can at first. Then, realizing I won’t make it the length of a single row, slow it to a jog. A pushing-forty man trotting his way through the parked cars in the middle of the main feature, rubbernecking this way and that. It’s the sort of thing people notice. A teenager in his dad’s convertible wolf whistles as I go by, and the girls bunched into the front with him offer an ironic wave. Without thinking, I wave back.

When I finish zigzagging all the rows, I start around the perimeter of the lot. Peering into the shadowed fields. Each line of corn another chance of seeing Sam standing there, hiding, waiting for me to find him. This anticipated image of him becomes so particular that I actually spot him a couple of times. But when I stop for a second look, he’s gone.

I make it to the back of the lot where the light from the screen is dimmest, everything bathed in a deep-sea glow. The corn rows seem wider here, and darker. The roof of a distant farmhouse the only interruption on the horizon. No lights in its windows. I try to blink it into better focus, but my eyes are blurred by tears I hadn’t felt coming.

I thought you were a ghost.

I was a ghost. But ghosts don’t get to do things. It’s much better being the monster. The kind you don’t expect is a monster until it’s too late.
I bend over and put my hands on my knees. Sucking air. A pause that lets the panic in. The horrific imaginings. Who he’s with. What they will do. Are doing. How he will never come back.
I saw someone. Looking in the window.
Did you see who it was?
A man. A shadow.
I have already started to run back toward the concession stand when I see it.

A figure disappearing into the stands of corn. As tall as me, if not taller. There. And then not there.

I try to count the rows between where I was and where the figure entered the field. Seven? Eight? No more than ten. When I’ve passed nine I cut right and start in.

The fibrous leaves thrash against my face, the stalks cracking as I punch my way past. It looked like there was more room in the rows from outside, but now that I’m within them there’s not near enough space for a man my size to move without being grabbed at, tripped, cut. Not so much running as swallowed by a constricting throat.

How is whoever I saw going any faster than me? The question makes me stop. I lie down flat and peer through the stalks. Down here, the only light is a grey, celestial dusting. With my open mouth pressed against the earth, it’s as though the moonlight has assumed a taste. The mineral grit of steel shavings.

I teach my body to be still.

The thought occurs to me that I have gone mad between the time I left Sam and now. Sudden-onset insanity. It would explain crashing through a corn field at night. Chasing something that likely wasn’t there in the first place.

And then it’s there.
A pair of boots rushing toward the far end of the field. A hundred feet ahead and a couple rows to the left.

I scramble to my feet. Moaning at my locked knees, the muscles burning in my hips. I use my hands to pull me ahead. Ripping out ears of corn and tossing them to thud like another’s steps behind me.

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Why it's on the list ...
Monster: Serial killer!
Method: Pyper expertly turns the screws as his protagonist slowly goes insane. A good double-read with Stephen King's The Dark Half.
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