Bitter cold, it was, as I entered the roadside tavern—a mutinously archaic structure, rudely built, whose splintered wood shrieked with each passing gust of wind and whose hostile atmosphere attracted only the least savory of patrons. I had taken a liking to the place, to the world-weary travelers who occupied its rickety stools and the brand of smoky darkness one finds in such a highway hovel. It was, perhaps, my favorite haunt on October 31, this night of mischief.
And the night was a cold one, indeed, as the heat within the tavern failed to thaw that arctic hollow within my chest. I could feel my very bones creaking and grinding. ’Tis a pity, to be so old yet trapped upon this earth, to have suffered these many years and all these many Octobers without making an end of it. How I can hardly recall, now, the stony cliffs and crumbling castles of old Ireland, where I had spent my youth as a ragged boy whose knack for deception outweighed his innately limited sense of caution. My memories do begin to fail me, though, as the passage of time whittles them away. The uncanny turning of the years blurs vivid details into a streak of gray.
The prevailing spirit of the New England roadside is one of ineffable solitude and mystery. I find great pleasure in the superstition these wandering souls still cling to even in a modern and, I suppose, more scientific time. I may sit, particularly on a Halloween evening, and please myself listening to wondrous tales of ghosts and haunted roads, haunted taverns, haunted schools, haunted train tracks—all a kind of gloomy fancy.
Tonight I came into the tavern seeking these chilling delights, for it was yet another Halloween, and my light was growing dim. The flame had faded to the dull red glow of exhausted coals. I needed a new flame, and I needed a mark for this evening—one best chosen from among the scarred and forgotten barflies who dwelled in seedy motels and lived nomadic lives upon trucks and motorcycles. Here there were no families, no trick-or-treating children, no one in costume, and they all sat in the dusky light and drank as if it were any other evening of the year, but for the pervasive atmosphere of ghoulish enchantment.
I sat myself at the unvarnished bar and set my dying lantern beside me, ordered a whiskey, and proceeded in my second-favorite pastime of getting drunk. I listened to the men behind me betting on a game of pool, and the Hells Angels telling favorite ghost stories of nameless abandoned roads and old stone bridges across America. I saw truckers typing on their cell phones and pulling baseball hats low over their foreheads for a snooze.
The door swept open again, and a night wind beat its way inside with the woman who brought it through the threshold. She wore a leather jacket and black boots, her wild hair was threaded with gray, and her eyes were black as pits within a face carved as if from wood. She sat down at the bar, alone, two stools from mine, and she smiled when she ordered, a kind of toothy and devilish smile that revealed several gold fillings.
She drank some murky liquid clinking with ice, and she held the glass with a gnarled, suntanned hand that looked as if it were made of leather. “You gonna stare at me all night, honey, or you gonna pay for this drink?” she said with a smoker’s rasp, without turning her head toward me.
“That depends,” I said. “On what?”
“Your answer.” I took a sip. “Trick . . . or treat?”
Her laugh was like the wind huffing through dead leaves. She tossed a few bills onto the bar, which the barkeep snapped up and made disappear. “On second thought, I’m not taking no treats from you.”
I smiled. “Very well.”
“Tell me a good one, old man,” she said. She swilled her drink and finally turned to face me. Her irises were as black as her pupils. “A ghost story. That’s the real currency around here on Halloween.”
The clack of balls striking one another on the pool table sounded like a crack of thunder, although the night outside was clear and cloudless, with only the thinnest drape of mist. I had found my mark; thus did I decide to play my game with her. I sipped my whiskey in contemplation and replied, “I’ll have to think on it, but I’ll make a wager with you. Whoever’s story proves the more frightening pays for the next round of drinks.”
She laughed again, a grim sound. “And if nobody wins?” “If neither concedes to the other, we’ll simply tell another.”
She eyed me up and down as if I had said something terribly amusing to her. “All right. Who goes first?”
From an inner pocket of my overcoat, I produced an aged and faded coin, the images in relief smoothed and worn down but still visible enough. On one side, the St. Patrick’s farthing depicted the noted saint carrying a staff and driving the snakes from Ireland, and on the other, King David playing a harp. I held up each side to show her. “Let’s call this one heads, and this tails.”
“Tails,” she said. “Where’d you get that old thing?”
I flipped the coin, and it landed with a spinning rattle atop the bar. When at last it settled, we both leaned in to see which side faced up.
“Well, that’s me, then,” she said. After swigging the remainder of her drink, she pushed the empty glass away from her, swiveled toward me, crossed her legs, and leaned an elbow casually on the bar. At last, she spoke:
“Hear the one about the lonely traveler on the highway? On this highway, matter of fact. The traveler sees a light in the woods, and because he’s cold and hungry, and no cars’ve been by, so he can’t hitch, he sets off into the trees. All’s he can hear’s the crickets singing to the moon, and that strange unquiet you get alone in the forest with a darkness so thick you feel it. But he’s heading toward the light, which he sees now is coming from the windows of a little shack. Now, this is Halloween-time, and some years ago, so he don’t have a phone to call someone—but he’s just a lonely hitchhiker, who’s he gonna call anyway? As he’s coming to the house, he senses he’s being watched, and then he sees something that stops him dead: there’s faces all around that house, watching him. Faces with glowing eyes and mouths. And he thinks these here are ghouls, this place is haunted, and he should head back for the road—but then the door of the house creaks open, and a woman steps up, and she’s just an old woman, not a ghost or goblin or other fantastic creature of the night, so the man laughs and says he thought there was something sinister going on, pointing to the faces. ‘Those are just my jack-o’-lanterns,’ says the woman, and the man don’t know how he could’ve been so foolish. He comes closer, knowing now they’re just lit pumpkins, hoping to ask the kind woman for some food and drink, only when he gets up to the doorway, she says, ‘I think you will make a fine jack-o’-lantern,’ and he looks again and sees those lanterns aren’t pumpkins at all but human heads, hollowed out and filled with candles so their empty sockets and gaping mouths glow. He turns to run away, but he’s no match for the witch. She has her way, and damned if his headless body don’t walk a few steps before it dies.”
The barkeep appeared as if from nowhere, just then, and refilled her drink. She lifted it to him in cheers and threw it back.
“Very good,” said I.
She looked me over, gauging my reaction, but then her eyes lit on my lantern. “That a turnip?”
“Why, yes,” I said, lifting it by the handle and bringing it closer for her to see. The turnip had taken on the mummified guise of a dead man’s face, with a sharp gash carved in for a mouth and two slashes for eyes. Within that hollowed vegetable, the coals smoldered low and red, burned down almost to nothing.
“Who exactly are you, mystery man?”
“Would you like to hear about me, or would you like to hear my ghost story?”
She removed a cigarette from her pocket and lit it, filling the bar with a heady smoke; yes, this place was a revolt against modern norms and laws. No one seemed to mind. It was a last refuge of those who lived in the past. Her smoke drifted into my face, and she motioned for me to tell my story.
“In the twilight of a century long past, there lived a miserable drunk—a wretched thief and swindler, an insufferable and despised man. Each night, from dusk until dawn, he sat in the town pub and drank himself into oblivion.
“On his way to the pub one night, a fog-riddled late October night with sea salt in the air, he happened upon a grotesque and rotten corpse lying in the road. The polite thing, in this case, might be to notify the authorities of the body’s presence, but this man met the body with indifference and continued on his way. He was not far past the place where the body lay when he heard a rustle from behind him; he turned and in the full enchanted moonlight observed the corpse rise up to its feet. Horror! His own feet were rooted to the ground, and thus he could not dash away in fright.
“The corpse approached and proclaimed himself the devil, here to take the man’s soul to hell. One could not help but believe the walking corpse, for its eyes gleamed a feverish red, and its black lips split in a terrible grin.
“The man had only one request before he agreed to go with the devil: one last drink. Thereupon the devil did transform his appearance to disguise himself, and they went to the pub so the man could have his final drink. When they finished their ale, this man, so full of gall, dared to ask the devil to pay the bar tab; certainly, he would swindle his final drink for free. The devil, secretly impressed by the man’s audacity, transmogrified himself into a sixpence. Pleased with himself, the man snatched up the coin, but instead of paying the bartender, he placed the coin in his pocket where he was also carrying a crucifix. With this powerful symbol beside him, the devil could not escape from his present form.
“There is a reason this man had made it through his life on his skills of trickery and deceit, and thus he made a deal: he would set the devil free, but only if he would be spared his life another ten years. Naturally, the devil agreed, and the man enjoyed ten more years without disturbance.”
I took a sip of whiskey to quench my parched throat and waited for her assessment.
“Fair,” she said, “but no scarier than mine.”
“I disagree.” We both drank.
“Well,” I said. “I suppose it’s a draw.”
We both paid for our drinks and grew quiet with rumination while a game of cards erupted in fierce betting behind us; I recalled my youthful days spent cheating at such games and very much would have liked to join them, but alas, I had begun my duty for the night and it must be completed by morning, or the consequences, I feared, would be intolerable.
“So, next round?” said the woman, referring not to the empty drinks that sat before us.
“Let us venture outside to give our next stories the proper atmosphere,” I suggested. She looked at me, then at the door, turning over the idea—there is great reason to fear strangers in these lonely parts of the country—and nodded. We took our leave into the brisk night, pervaded with that chill silver mist that cast a kind of apparition over the distance. My lantern had diminished considerably and now gave off only the merest light, which hardly was able to filter through the thick, dried flesh of the turnip, and only its eyes and mouth now offered their failing glow. Despite the whiskey, I grew cold again, and with the lantern so near dead, my confidence soon doused itself as well. I had perhaps chosen a challenge with the woman this Halloween, having grown bored with spineless marks in the past, but now in the occluded moonlight I grew concerned that things would not go in my favor this evening. But no, such thoughts could never suit me; I always got what I needed in the end.
Beyond the dejected tavern lay a vast tract of black forest, rising gently in the distance into a gradual hill beyond which the horizon vanished in darkness and mist. Only the moon revealed the sharp contours of tall trees and wasted branches reaching their crooked limbs to the heavens as in desperate prayer. Dead brown leaves crackled where we tread as the woman and I slowly approached this wood, both seeming to lead the other closer and closer to its shadowed depths.
“Well, honey, I need time to think of another story—you go first this time,” she said, her voice brimful of smoke and a kind of self-satisfied and secret knowledge. She drew toward the wood, and I…Did I lead her there, or did I follow? Which of us was leading the other, I wondered, into those ominous trees? “The tale of the stingy man who bested the devil is not yet over,” I said. “Ten years later, the man was out walking alone through an apple orchard.” We reached the barrier of trees and continued creeping, together, into their dark embrace. “Once more, he found a putrescent corpse upon the ground, exposed to the sun and its dead flesh writhing with scavenging insects. He knew at once that this was no ordinary corpse, but the man did not attempt to run—he knew his time had come. The devil had returned, as promised, to collect the man’s soul, but never had it been in the man’s nature to capitulate without a final request: this time, one last apple.
“At first, the devil attempted to refuse him, but the man persisted. Thinking there could be no harm in granting him this particular request, the devil grudgingly climbed the nearest tree to retrieve an apple, and while he was within the branches the man carved a cross into the bark of the trunk, thus trapping the devil up the tree. And so he made another bargain; this time, he would release the devil only if the devil would agree never to take his soul to hell—and he agreed.”
We had ventured deeper into the dense wood now so that the light of the tavern had vanished behind us. Woodland sounds of owls, crying animals, and insects echoed through the quiet; these I did not fear, but the woman beside me, too, seemed unafraid, and this ignited my concern once more that somehow I had chosen wrong. No, no—confound these blasted thoughts—let her enjoy a final walk in the woods, for I would kill her yet!
The woman laughed with that voice like grinding tree bark and told me this story was even less frightening than the last. “Old age has made you mild,” she suggested.
“That isn’t quite the end,” I said, hurrying to the conclusion. “After a long life, the stingy man died alone, of old age. His soul was turned away from the light, and turned away, of course, from that seething pit of terror known as hell, as the devil kept his promise. Alas—the man would be condemned to roam in darkness for eternity, but that the devil offered him a burning coal to light his way.”
Ahead, through the gloaming, I perceived a distant light, as that of a will-o’-the-wisp floating incorporeally on the wings of shadow. We trod on leaves and brush, and ducked beneath low-hanging branches, each still leading the other, now, ever closer to that mysterious light.
“And lemme guess: he wanders still, undead, so watch out? Honey, there’s scarier things out here than that. Urban legend says there’s a killer in these woods. I heard tell each Halloween they find a burned-out body around here, like its insides spontaneously combusted. What do you think of that?” Her mouth curled into a terrible grin, and I wondered if she knew that she would be this year’s victim, and if so, how she could smile that infernal smile.
The blasted woman shook her head and hiked more swiftly now, directly toward that light, which beckoned like a gleaming beacon, and I hastened to keep pace. My lantern swung on its handle, emitting only the barest semblance of light now. Time was running out. It was rare that I ever let it get so low, and I knew I played a dangerous game in waiting until the very last moment—yet I had grown bored over the years, and I very much wanted to see the fear in this woman’s eyes before I killed her. I wanted to see the horror of her recognition when she discovered that I’d bested her. My pride, as always, prevailed over my sense of caution.
The light ahead of us, I saw, was coming from a house ensconced within the trees. It was a ramshackle construction of stone and wood whose planks were stained and rotting with fungus, the discoloration reaching up to the sharply peaked roof, and whose tall windows emitted their light. A harsh light, too white to be fire, filtered through the soft curtain of the fog.
Ahead of that ominous house, which seemed to repel me with a metaphysical force, I slowed my pace, and the woman did likewise. When she turned to look curiously at me, I fixed her with a terrible grin.
“Look upon this, here,” I said, holding aloft my lantern, which was perilously close to dying. “I require a new flame. It goes out each Halloween, you see, and I must relight it just before it dies or I shall be left in darkness.” I reached out for the woman—“The only way to light these coals is with the burning flame of a human soul.”
Now is when, in each of these many long years I have been playing this game, terror commonly flashes before the eyes of my mark. This woman, though, this maddening woman, simply laughed: an eerie, unnerving, and echoic sound that scraped the eardrums as with sandpaper or rough bark—a horrid, unbearable laugh of some terrible substance I can hardly describe.
“I know,” she said. “I know just who you are, Jack. Don’t you recognize me?”
We had arrived, now, at the house that emitted the white light into the forest from its tall and prominent windows, and around this woodland cottage did lay a dozen or more glowing faces, which startled me to see—but they were only jack-o’-lanterns, of course. My mind conjured up the witch from the woman’s story, and it was then that I noticed the jack-o’-lanterns were not, indeed, carved from pumpkins but from human heads, hollowed out, their eyes burned from their skulls, and shining internally with candlelight, which glowed a hellish orange from their sockets and their gaping mouths.
Worse still, I discovered with absolute horror, were the identities of these severed heads—for I recognized in each one a mark from Halloweens gone by, a person whose soul I had harvested for my lantern and whose burned-out husk of a body I had inevitably left behind in these very woods, to be found or devoured by animals. It was not possible! It was some magic the likes of which I had not seen in many years, to have preserved each head so well as my own lantern, which I have carried these many centuries of undeath.
There was, however, one pumpkin among the ghastly heads, and its carven face very much did mirror that borne by my tur- nip lantern—the selfsame horrid gash for a mouth, shrieking in terror, and the hasty slits for eyes.
“What is this?” I could only stammer. “What is this?” “That one I have carved specially for you,” she said.
I looked down upon my own lantern—alack! It was going out! The coal was turning black, and soon I would be unable to relight it and forced to spend the rest of my days, years, centuries, millennia, in perpetual darkness. Here it is, going out within a moment, out, out!—and my panic drove forward my hand to grasp the woman, whose neck I seized in my aged and clawed appendage. As I grasped her, yes, she began to light up with flame from within—her eyes and laughing mouth began to glow with her burning soul—but why, why was she laughing? Just now my mark should be screaming with torture as her insides are incinerated—but she was laughing, laughing while she burned!
And then she said at last—“You fool. I am the devil; I have no soul!”
I had only a moment to experience this shock, and she had only a moment to witness and relish in my horror, before my own trick backfired upon me, and all at once the flame was quenched from her and rushed, instead, into me, for I did still have a soul, the only thing keeping me here on this earth. My soul ignited into flame, and I felt, then, the growing heat, and the wretched burn inside that cold and blasted hollow where my heart should be, and the flames growing within my ancient, creaking body as they charred my skeleton to ash. You cannot fathom the agony of being burned alive from the inside out, of feeling your soul devour the body you inhabit—oh, it is torture, a torture I have inflicted upon innumerable individuals! I opened my mouth to scream and knew the flames leaped out between my rotten teeth, and my vision danced and flickered with those flames so that the woman grinned at me as through a film of fire.
“I have been waiting a long, long time to seek my revenge on thee, Stingy Jack.”
As I watched, her face began to rot; her eyeballs bulged from swollen, putrid sockets; her lips turned black with gore; her flesh bubbled, contorted, turned green with putrefaction; thus did she transform into an awful, laughing corpse.
“The devil does not like to be tricked,” she said with glee. My body crumbled as I was transformed into a flame.
The devil took this flame and placed it within that jack-o’-lantern that she had carved specially for me. I was a strange sort of formless consciousness within the orange gourd, and I wondered then, with mounting dread, whether the souls I took for my lantern remained somehow alive while I carried them in my lantern—if they were forced to experience all that I did, and live in anguish as a flame, alive, somehow, alive.
I did not have long to wonder upon this awful possibility, for the devil bent forward then and blew out my light.
And now, snuffed out but still existing, still existing, I am in a primeval and purgatorial darkness for all eternity—not dead, not alive, but a bodiless consciousness. Pity me, mortal souls, for though ye will die, and some will go to that wretched pit of despair that is known as hell, you will never face the terror and the endless madness of eternity as I will—I, Jack of the Lantern!
From Haunted Nights. Used with permission of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 co-edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton.