As a boy, I believed in monsters.
I was convinced that if I said “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror, a hideous witch-woman would reach through the glass with nails sharp as splinters. I considered it a fact that the Devil lingered at shadowy crossroads and went to dance halls in disguise, where he’d ask the prettiest girl to dance and reel her across the floor while spectators stood terror-stricken at the sight of the Devil’s goatish shanks, until the girl fainted dead away and the Unclean One vanished in a puff of brimstone.
There was no falsehood I wouldn’t swallow, no quilt of lies you couldn’t drape over my all-too-gullible shoulders. But for a boy like me—chubby, freckled, awkward; growing up in a city where the erection of a new Kmart occasioned our mayor to announce, “This marks a wondrous new chapter in our town’s history”—imagination was my greatest asset. Not to mention my defence against a foe worse than the most fearsome monster: loneliness.
My ally against that foe was my uncle Calvin. If I told him there was a bottomless pit in my basement, he’d say, “Tell me, Jake, is the air denser around the mouth of the pit than in other areas of the basement?” Cocking an eyebrow: “Do ominous growling sounds emanate from this pit of yours?”
Uncle C was the ideal nursemaid for my paranoid fantasies. His knowledge of urban legends and folklore was encyclopedic—with the added bonus that he seemed to consider most of it true.
“Hey,” he’d say, “did you know there are crocodiles living in the sewers of our fair city? The poor suckers get smuggled up from Florida by dumb tourists. Sure, they’re cute as a bug’s ear when they’re six inches long.
But when they grow up and get nippy? Ba-whooosh, down the porcelain mistake eraser. They get fat ’n’ sassy down there in the pipes, where there’s plenty to eat if you’re not choosy. Every year a couple of sanitation department workers get gobbled up by sewer crocs. The press bottles it up, unscrupulous snakes that they are, but it’s a fact you can set your watch to.”
Uncle C would fiddle with the beads of his bracelet—each an ornate pewter Cthulhu head, mouths and eye sockets sprouting tentacles—and offer a wistful sigh. “And that, Jake, is why owning a pet is a big responsibility.”
Once, when I was six or seven, I became convinced a monster lived in my closet. I told my dad, who did what 99 percent of adults do when their child makes this claim: he flung my closet door open, rattled coat hangers and shoved shoeboxes aside, making a Broadway production of it. “See? No monsters, Jake.”
But monsters make themselves scarce when adults are around, only to slither back after dark. Every kid knew this to be an unshakable fact.
Uncle C arrived for dinner that night, as usual— Mom invited him every Sunday. He got an inkling of my worry as I sat picking at my Salisbury steak.
“What’s the matter, hombre?”
“We have an unwanted visitor in a closet, apparently,” Mom informed him.
“But we’ve established that there’s no monster,” my father said. “Right, buddy?”
“Ah,” said Uncle C. “I have some expertise in this area. Sam, with your permission?”
Mom turned to my father and said, “Sam,” in the tone of voice you’d use to calm a jittery horse.
“Of course, Cal, as you like,” my father said.
My uncle pedalled home to his house, returning ten minutes later with a tool box. Once we were in my bedroom he motioned to the closet. “I take it this is its lair?”
“Closets are a favourite haunt of monsters,” my uncle explained. “Most are harmless, even good-tempered, if they have enough dust bunnies and cobwebs to eat. Do you clean your closet?”
I assured him that it was hardly ever tidied unless my mother forced the chore on me.
“Good, let them feast. If they get too hungry they’ll crawl over to your clothes hamper and eat holes in your underwear. No need to check the seat of your drawers for confirmation, as I can see by your expression that yours have indeed met this cruel fate.”
Calvin cracked the tool box and pulled out an instrument—one that today I’d recognize as a stud finder.
“It’s a monster tracer,” he said, running it over the closet walls, making exploratory taps with his knuckles. “There are token traces of ectoplasm,” he said in the voice of a veteran contractor.
“Monster slime, in layman’s terms. What does this monster look like?”
“Hairy in some parts, slimy in others.”
“What’s its shape? Like a snake, or a blob?”
“A blob. But it can stretch, too, so it can look like a snake if it wants.”
“We’re dealing with a hairy, slimy blob with uncanny stretching capacities.” He gripped his chin.
“Sounds like a Slurper Slug. They’re common around these parts.”
“Correct, but we’re not talking your garden-variety slug.” He laughed—actually, he exclaimed ha-ha.
“A little paranormal humour for you, Jake my boy. These peculiar and particularly gross slugs infest closets and crawl spaces. You haven’t been keeping anything tasty in your closet, have you?”
“That’s where I put my Halloween candy.”
“Slurper Slug, then, guaranteed. They’re not dangerous, just revolting. They could make a mortician barf his biscuits. If you let one hang around he’ll call his buddies and before long you’ve got an infestation on your hands.”
He rooted through his tool box for a pouch of fine red powder. “This is cochineal, made from the crushed shells of beetles. It’s used in containment spells.”
He laid down a line of powder in the shape of a keyhole
“This,” he said, pointing to the circle, “is the trap. The Slurper Slug will traipse up this path, see, which gets narrower and narrower until the Slug gets stuck in the Circle of No Return. There it will turn black as night and hard as rock. Now, you’ll have to pull one hair out of your head to bait the slug trap.”
I plucked a single strand, which my uncle laid softly in the trap.
“Go ask your mom if she has any chocolate chips.”
I went down to the kitchen to find my folks engaged in a hushed conversation. My father’s shoulders were vibrating like twin tuning forks.
“Chocolate chips, huh?” Mom said in a Susie- Cheerleader voice. “I’ve only got butterscotch.”
By the time I got back, the closet was shut. My uncle instructed me to lay a trail of butterscotch chips along the door.
“The sweetness will draw that Slug out of hiding. Now listen, Jake, and listen carefully. If you peek inside the closet, the spell will be broken. Under no circumstances can it be opened until tomorrow morning. No matter the sounds you may hear dribbling through this door, you must leave it closed. Do you swear this to me?”
“Yes, I promise.”
“By the Oath of the White Mage, do you swear it?”
When I admitted I didn’t know that oath, he stuck out his little finger. “The pinkie variety will suffice.”
I linked my finger with his and squeezed.
“Cross your heart and hope to die?”
“Stick a needle in my eye,” I said solemnly.
I awoke to sunlight streaming through the window. I crept to the closet and opened it. Just as Uncle C had said, the keyhole was now only a circle and in the middle sat an object that was dark as night and hard as rock.
My uncle was taking off his boots in the front hall when I stormed downstairs.
“The trap worked!” I told him, dragging him up the stairs to show him the blackened slug.
“Pick it up,” he said. “It may still be a little warm but it won’t burn you.”
Queasy warmth pulsed off the slug, or so it felt to me.
“It’s not every day that you can hold a monster in your palm, is it, Jake?”
That lump of obsidian would rest on my nightstand for years. Then one day I noticed it sitting between my Junior Sleuths magnifying glass and a dog-eared reissue of Stephen King’s Carrie, the one with the art deco cover. Opening the drawer, I swept the volcanic rock inside, embarrassed that I’d once been fear-struck by anything so infantile as a snot-ball slug in my closet. . . .
An hour later I took it out and put it back where it belonged.