Each week during our Kickstarter campaign, we will bring you updates from the project, including excerpts from both novellas. For the past three weeks, we presented the opening scenes from Phil Giunta’s novella, LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTERS, and Steven H. Wilson’s vampire tale, FREEDOM’S BLOOD.
One of the books we’re including in some of our Kickstarter reward levels is the speculative fiction anthology, Somewhere in the Middle of Eternity, published in 2014. This brilliant collection brings together thirteen imaginative tales of SF, fantasy, and the paranormal by Daniel Patrick Corcoran, Michael Critzer, Phil Giunta, Amanda Headlee, Susanna Reilly, Stuart S. Roth, Steven H. Wilson, and Lance Woods. Cover art and interior illustrations by Michael Riehl.
We’re proud to share Steven H. Wilson’s story, “Don’t Go In The Barn, Johnny!” complete with its introduction. Read on!
“Don’t Go In The Barn, Johnny!” Introduction
by Steven H. Wilson
There’s a barn—or there used to be—in the cornfield next to the house where I grew up in Clarksville, MD. I don’t know how old it is, or was. It stood until sometime in the 1980s. I know I have pictures of it somewhere.
Here’s the thing… I loved that barn. It stood, from my vantage point in the back yard of my parents’ house, right on the horizon line. The sun set behind it. When night came to Simpson Road, she came from that barn. At least, that’s how it looked to me.
It stands to reason that that barn was where Night spent the day, sleeping. Don’t know where she sleeps now that it’s been replaced by brick-and-vinyl palaces decked out in shades of builder beige. Perhaps the urban planners provided her with a condo under Section 8.
I’ll tell you a secret: I never went in that barn. It was abandoned the entire time I knew of it. The cornfield around it was one of my favorite places to play. We played hide and seek among the rows when the corn was high. When the corn was harvested, leaving the fields mud-caked and barren, I would go alone and pretend I was exploring an alien world on which some ancient disaster had wiped out all life. Cheerful cuss, wasn’t I? But I never went inside that barn, at least not that I remember. Some little voice in my head always called out, “Don’t go in the barn!” Well, after all, Night was in there, waiting to claim you. Truth be told, I was probably just afraid of snakes.
But here’s an update of a story I wrote in 1983, inspired by my beloved barn that I never dared enter, about Johnny, the wind, and how Night decided to take a bride… er, groom.
“Don’t Go In The Barn, Johnny!”
by Steven H. Wilson
“Don’t go in the barn, Johnny!”
The phrase had echoed in his head down through the years. They had taunted him with it, when he stared at the old building.
“Why not?” he would ask, and they would only say, “Because you’ll never come out again.”
Stupid kids. It was just an old empty barn. A barn on which the sun set every night, dropping, orange and swollen, behind the rotting, gray timbers. Once the sun entered the barn, night came. That was all. What was there to be afraid of?
But Johnny never went in… not then.
Johnny was afraid. Fascinated, but afraid. He couldn’t look away from the barn, but he didn’t dare go near it. The other kids picked up on this, and they made the taunt a condemnation of his fear:
“Don’t go in the barn, Johnny!”
Meaning, you won’t go in the barn, Johnny! You won’t, because you’re afraid. But what was there to be afraid of?
Blackness. Darkness. Death. A chasm of inky black that swallows you whole, swallows your soul. In the dark, you can’t see, you don’t know what’s touching you. You can’t see your own hands in front of your face, don’t know if you have hands anymore.
In the dark, you go mad. It steals your mind. It steals your soul.
So Johnny didn’t go in. Not then. Then he’d been afraid of the dark. That was before.
And now he drew his light jacket up around him and swore at the flashlight as it struck him. Its batteries dead, the useless instrument, lodged in his pocket and weighing his jacket down banged painfully in cadence against his hip as he ran against the fierce, icy wind.
Why had he carried it? Old habits. He didn’t need light. The night was perfect and black.
No moon shattered the darkness of the old road, nor paced him as he jogged. Only the wind followed him, chased him. Rude and forceful, it threw branches in his path, tossed dust in his eyes. It howled through old trees and shacks by the roadside, making Johnny wonder briefly if the wind had a voice it was even now struggling to make heard.
Everything was alive tonight, a paradox. The road and all around it was dead. The only sign of life and warmth the sweat forming a sheen beneath his hoodie and track pants. The wind sang in atrocious harmony with itself. The trees, old and cynical, laughed wildly at his youth.
But no bats cried for attention; no black cats dove for shelter in rotted sheds. No rats or possums came from the ancient, secret places to claim any portion of their meager rations.
Apart from himself, there was only one kind of life afoot tonight, the kind that was fit to live no other night, the kind whose existence depended upon belief, upon the imagination. Ghosts, phantoms, spirits, demons…you could only believe in such things on a night like this.
It was these kinds of creatures that Johnny preferred. He had grown up with them. They clung to the shadows, hid in the darkness, watching, waiting. He had always known they were there. He had been afraid. He wanted to know them, wanted to know what they wanted. But he didn’t dare go near the places they would be, the dark places.
It was talked about, Johnny’s fear of the dark. He slept with the light on. He wouldn’t go in the basement. He wouldn’t go in any dark place.
“Don’t go in the barn, Johnny!”
Oh yes, the other kids had noticed, of course. Kids notice everything. They haven’t yet been trained not to notice. They notice the dark things, waiting to feed. They notice who’s afraid of the dark things. Some kids, like Johnny, react to fear by staying away. Some try to make peace with fear by offering sacrifices. Give the darkness someone who’s afraid, and maybe the darkness will leave you alone. Maybe you’ll look strong.
They made Johnny a sacrifice.
It was just a closet at school, a closet with two doors that opened in two rooms. They’d gotten on either side and shut him in, holding the doors shut. An old school, with old doors, it didn’t have lights in the closets, or louvres in the doors. It was pitch black in the closet. Johnny was alone in the dark for a lifetime.
Thinking of it, he felt the rawness in his throat from the screaming. The bite of his nails in his palms. After a while, the wetness, as his nails pierced the skin and blood flowed. He’d begun to tremble and shake. His throat had closed up. His chest had seized in pain. He didn’t remember the teacher opening the door, or the ride to the hospital. He’d woken up on a table, with his mother watching him, eyes red.
It was a problem, now, his fear. His parents were scared, and the doctors had scared them more. It was a problem, so they’d fixed it. They’d fixed it with a new technique in deep brain stimulation. “Less invasive,” they’d called it. Surgery without incision. They hadn’t even had to shave his head, they’d just put him under and injected transmitters into his brain.
And now he wasn’t afraid anymore. Now he loved the dark, and everything that lived in it. The doctors had told his parents not to worry that he now stayed up at night, or when he’d taken up midnight jogging. “Carry a flashlight at least, Johnny!” So Johnny carried a flashlight, even after the batteries in it had died.
Now, Johnny lived for the darkness.
Though the ghosts of the dark still made him uneasy within himself, he felt truly alive in their presence. They didn’t speak. They didn’t show themselves. He knew they were there, all the same. Defiantly, silently, he would state the case for his kind of life to them. Always they would listen, offering him no understandable verdict. Perhaps the song of the wind held the answer, if only he could discern its music.
Ahead of him now was the barn, which he passed every night as he jogged the old road. In Johnny’s eyes a dignified residence, its original owner and its former bestial occupants were a century departed. Now it was a place for that which governed the night.
Its rotting planks, the gaping holes in its walls like worn holes in the knees of jeans, frayed and ragged, marked it a truly sacred place. He took particular notice of the song the wind sang about it. It was a different song than the song for the trees or the song for the road. It had no tragic tone of melancholy. The wind held no pity for this place, only the deepest reverence. The song proclaimed the untarnished beauty and withstanding dignity of the spirit within.
He’d passed the barn every night since he’d come home, since he’d started jogging this road. He had not gone inside. Despite his newfound love of the dark, the remnants of old fears had lingered, keeping him from within.
But tonight, the wind sang. Chilling, icy, it numbed his ears, squelching earthly sounds, but letting him hear in a new way. He heard the call from within the ancient walls, an alluring siren’s song. A generalized eroticism swept over and past him and drew him in.
Tonight, tonight he would go inside.
“Don’t go in the barn, Johnny! Don’t go…”
The voices of the past, of the earth, of the living, faded.
He would go inside.
He moved toward it. It was a masterwork of the horrible. In the radiant black-blue of the sky he could see the overgrowth, all of it dead, which blocked the path, warning away the living, the heretics who would not pay the homage this sacred place deserved. Sharp broomsage and wicked briars conspired together to protect their charge.
Ahead of him, the darkness had laid a trap for the unwary. A hole, a threatening pit of black, yawned before the maw of the building. Johnny halted, peering in. Was it bottomless, endless? Within it, was there a vacuum of blackness, waiting to dislodge his soul and claim it as a prize?
Fear flitted about him, darting like an insect, trying to annoy, to draw a reaction. A traveler, alone with no source of light, should beware such a hole, should fear it.
Fear held no power over Johnny. His driving need now was to enter the place of shadows, to discover the secret Night was keeping only for him. And so Night revealed the truth about the hole to him. It was merely a shallow pit of rotting timbers and blackish mud, a dugout place where once there had been a well, now filled. Her ebon veils had made it seem so much more. He knew, should she have so chosen, she could have made the pit bottomless. It could have swallowed him forever. Any other it would have swallowed, but Night wanted him to come further.
The song grew louder. Another voice had joined the wind in its chorus, a light voice, a voice from his oldest dreams. It touched his ears. It drifted, weaving and dancing, from within the barn. The song touched every part of his body at once, exciting every nerve. Ahead, through the black of the doorway, Night smiled seductively.
He caught the briefest, most furtive of glimpses of her… or was it a glimpse at all? Was it not something his eyes had witnessed, something objective, but just a phantom from his own subconscious? Seeing her, seeing her smile, he still could not describe her.
Whatever it was, it was enough. Now he new what was inside: inside was his goal. The shadows held her in waiting. He plunged into the massive cavern of the opening, almost leaping into the dark. He searched, not with his eyes–which were of no use here–but with his being.
In the corner was the voice, the one that danced on the wind. It beckoned from above, drawing his eyes upward. Night was perched atop the loft, waiting.
Night was not dark, far from it. She had skin like the milky surface of the moon and hair pale gold as the haze which adorned the moon on misty evenings. He realized that this was what he had expected. Her ethereal white robes blew around him on the wind, entangling him.
Night smiled. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
He was cold no longer.
In fact, he found he was uncomfortably warm. Night nodded, and he tore off his jacket, flinging it away. The weight of the dead light carried it to the corner. His t-shirt, slick now with sweat, he peeled off. He kicked away his shoes. The clothes were things of the day. He rejected them.
Naked he stood before her, and the dark reflected off his skin. He had not known dark could reflect, but it did, no doubt on wavelengths the human eye could not detect. But Johnny saw the reflection. In Night’s gaze his body was smooth and young and perfect.
She held out her arms, causing her robes to flow and billow and engulf him. He was lost within their folds, and she drew him closer.
And Night smiled.
There was no heat, only a passion cold, but fierce. Night, as incredibly old as he was young, drew him to her. He gave himself entirely, unthinking, un-sensing, only feeling in a way he had never known.
His breath grew short, and stopped completely. Night smiled.
As he woke, it was light. The wind had gone. He shivered, feeling the absence of true life around him. Straw pricked his naked flesh, and he felt the coarseness of the old floor boards with every nerve in his back and legs.
He wanted to get up, to stretch, but the girl was nestled against his shoulder. Her breath, even and perfect, tickled his neck and riffled his hair. Pinpoints of light shone through holes in the old walls and painted patterns on her ivory flesh. Just pinpoints, like starlight. Not enough to disturb her. Not enough to burn away the perfect flesh.
Last night, her flesh had been icy. To him, she now felt soft and warm. He pulled her to him; and together they slept, waiting until the time was ripe for them to come alive again. It was not so very long from now, before the other kind of life would walk: Ghosts. Phantoms. Demons. That would be their time, the time after the sun went away.
For now, Night had no place in the world. In this dead world.
In the daytime, they would try to find him, the living. They would not. He was not there, not in the light, no longer in the light. After days they would give up, the living would. After years, they would tear down this shrine, where Night and her consort slept the day through. It did not matter. They would find another place. Night slept in many places. Night never went away.
And he was hers.
Because Johnny wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore.
Somewhere in the Middle of Eternity is available in eBook and paperback from most online booksellers, but you can also obtain a copy by donating to our Kickstarter campaign for our double horror novel, FREEDOM’S BLOOD by Steven H. Wilson & LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTERS by Phil Giunta coming in November 2018 from Firebringer Press. Donate to the Kickstarter now!