Haunted Passages: Jonathan Raab
Elected as county sheriff on a paranormal defense and anti-goblinry platform, Sheriff Cecil Kotto has defended the citizens of his Rust Belt community from secret societies, malignant aliens, blood-stealing nonprofit organizations, and more.
To document his war against the paranormal, Kotto stars in Freaky Tales from the Force, a local documentary-style public access television show produced by reporter Veronica Cartwright.
Join Sheriff Kotto, his intrepid deputies, and the public access television crew as they investigate a variety of supernatural threats including wendigos, a lizard boy, evil clones, a haunted numbers station, flesh creepers, the wreckage of neoliberal economic policies, a Nazi sorcerer, a spectral locomotive—and a season-spanning threat: cosmic bloodsucking bastards from outer space!
Each story in this anthology represents one episode of Freaky Tales‘ inaugural season, capturing all the high-octane, hard-drinking, high-strange action. Featuring special guest star writers and a new long-form story arc, Freaky Tales from the Force: Season One is the perfect book for readers new to the Kottoverse and long-time fans alike.
Tune in, crack a beer, watch the skies—and support your local sheriff!
Excerpt from “The Manufacture of Biomechanical Slime-Horrors Sets a Bad Example for the High School Science Club” by Jonathan Raab
Riley’s muscles flared. Her throat was sandpaper. Her hands would be dry if not for the blood.
She was tired and hungry to boot, although that hunger was tinged with a rumbling nausea—her stomach growled and she fought the urge to retch in equal measure. Not that she could eat or drink anything—or puke successfully—even if she wanted to.
Her tongue ran along a thick towel stuffed into her mouth, secured across her face with duct tape that painfully pulled at her cheeks.
She’d never been this exhausted before. There were times during soccer practice where she had pushed herself to what she thought were her limits, of course. But this was nothing like that.
She managed to open her eyes, which were caked with the little balls of mucus gunk her mom had always called “sleepies.” Riley had no idea how long she had been asleep—no, she had been unconscious—but it had probably been for a while. A small part of her was grateful that she was probably dehydrated (coach always said, never be dehydrated when you’re at practice or in the game) because with her hands and feet tied up with coarse rope behind her back, she doubted she’d be able to get her pants off if she had to pee.
The floor was cold tile, hard and unyielding. Her neck, back, and knees hurt. She shuffled and squirmed until she readjusted her position into a kind of half-crouch, her back against something in the dark. A wall. Concrete bricks, indistinguishable in the darkness. Small rays of light gave little aid to her eyes. The light came in through a single, segmented window of thick, glazed glass. The light could have been from an old floodlight perched on a pole outside, or maybe from the moon, or from the sun at high noon but the window was tinted—she had no way of knowing. She was well and truly disoriented, unstuck from the flow and rhythms of normalcy and her idyllic teenage life by the horrors that had descended upon them all without warning or mercy.
Mr. Browning had done all the right things. He’d gotten permission slips, told the students to wear boots, jeans, and long-sleeve shirts. They’d brought extra water, granola bars, sunscreen, and bug spray. He even had a map and a compass. The bus ride that Saturday morning had only taken them twenty minutes from school, but they may as well have boarded a flight to another world.
They arrived at that stretch of woodland path just outside of Franklinville at a quarter past nine. Mr. Woodward, the parent-chaperone (Steve’s dad) had ordered pizza at Lil’s Deli over in Machias for 1:00 p.m., so they only had a few hours to explore.
“It’s not a long hike, but watch your step,” Mr. Browning had said, leading the West Valley High School Science Club those first fateful steps along the wide and overgrown trail into the deep wood. “Lots of ruts and deadfalls along the way.”
There were ten of them all told, a small group, only a couple of them athletes—Science Club didn’t exactly attract many jocks—so they walked slow. The woods welcomed them with the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves in a cool wind.
The morning was idyllic, with golden sunshine streaking through the foliage above, the air fresh and invigorating. The trail they followed was an old logging road from decades ago, slowly being reclaimed by the forest. They spotted a few whitetail deer, and the only spook they had before the horrors to come was the skittering whoop of a sandhill crane somewhere close by. Even Mr. Browning had jumped at that, and they all laughed.
Mr. Browning spoke as they walked, pointing out colorful mosses, identifying trees, and even grossing out everyone by picking up some whitetail scat to see if it was warm. He rattled off facts and figures, and Steve’s dad would chime in about animal behavior learned from decades of hunting. Riley found herself enjoying the air, the soft burn in her leg muscles, the sun on her face. She enjoyed hearing about the animals and forest ecology from teacher and parent alike, and none of her fellow students fought or bickered or even checked their phones.
It was nice and natural, and as they progressed further and further into the woods on their journey toward the old dam and the swamp it had created, a warm surety grew within her. She was going to be a biologist, maybe, or a forest ranger. She’d get a life sciences or forestry degree, and summer as an intern at Allegany State Park. Maybe she’d head up to the Adirondacks, or maybe she’d take a risk, and go some place out west, with real mountains and nicer weather. And so it was that her future—something she had considered more and more as she had started becoming a young woman—seemed to fold out before her, much like the old logging road itself.
But like many young people on the cusp of blossoming into something new, Riley didn’t realize how dangerous the world could actually be. How many monsters perched along that inviting path of surety and progress, their hungry eyes peering out from the shadows, claws at the ready.
She found out soon enough.
Mr. Browning led them up the switchback that curled around the low hill to the north that overlooked the dam and the unnatural swamp. He was sweating a little in his mustard-brown cardigan but not slowing down, a vibrancy to his face that he lacked under the fluorescent lights of his basement-level classroom.
At least he died happy.
Riley only saw them in snippets, flashes of fury of movement. That, or her memory wouldn’t collate the contents of what she did see, allowing her to convince herself that she had hallucinated, or that it was a bear or freak accident that sent Mr. Browning’s head tumbling from his shoulders in an arc of blood.
Metal gleamed in flashes of blinding light; muscle like warped and bubbling hamburger framed arms and hands terminating in rigid metallic claws; faces dominated by mouths and teeth and dead fish-eyes. Screaming. The screaming. That was real. She didn’t hallucinate that. Because she was screaming, too, as cold, slime-coated hands wrapped around her limbs and pulled off her backpack, something vast and choking wrapping around her throat and raising her into the air. Some of the others ran, thank God, and maybe even got away. But most were held down by… by things that couldn’t or shouldn’t be, warped visions of exposed flesh encasing sparking wires and grates of rusted metal, eyes on stalks or staring out at them with dumb hatred from within glass jars mounted on vein-wrapped platforms of bone.
They held her to the ground and there was a man, hands held behind his back, his black suit dark and spotted with bits of fabric or polished metal, the skin along his skull shrunken and ancient like old paper. But those eyes were alive and alight with vigor, glaring out at her from a face that should have been a skull.
The pressure on her neck increased, and her vision dimmed in from the edges, until she was sinking down, down into the cool earth below.
And now she was here. In this room, alone and unsure of what she had seen or what had attacked them, of that death’s head of a man, of those creatures out of a science fiction horror movie.
She had seen plenty of crime dramas and listened to more than a few true-crime podcasts, read those John Sanford and Jack Grisham thriller novels her mom blazed through every summer. Riley knew what happened to young girls when they were kidnapped and bound and left to stew in cold, dark places like this. And she also knew what they needed to do to survive.
Fight, claw, bite, run, scream.
Don’t give up.
Easier said than done.
One thing at a time.
The towel taped to her face and mouth tasted like sweat and oil, making breathing a struggle and screaming or biting an impossibility. The ropes twisted over her ankles and wrists were bound together, so standing all the way up wasn’t an option. She did manage to get partway up in a sort of half-crouch, her back bent in pain, the ropes digging into her flesh. She moved, one half-step at a time, over to the lone window in the room. The long glass pane stood recessed among sharply cut concrete blocks. Maybe sharp enough to cut rope—and there, on the far side of the room, a door. She set her mind on escaping.
Riley turned around to get the ropes binding her wrists set against the lip of the concrete blocks, then began to work the fabric back and forth. The draft inching in from beyond the glazed glass portal was cool and refreshing, a small taste of the promise of freedom.
The rope began to fray, ever-so-slowly. Riley let out a soft squeal of joy, muffled by the towel. The pain was truly unimportant now—she doubled her efforts, shredding the thin rope binding her wrists together one strand, one swipe over the edge of concrete, at a time. Finally her hands came free and the rope dropped behind her, still connected to the rope that bound her ankles together.
The towel came away from her face with a painful pull. Duct tape pulled on skin and left her face stinging. Her mouth, dry and hot, tasted the cool air of the draft. She tried to spit the oil-taste from her mouth but couldn’t summon up enough saliva.
Okay, two down, one to go.
With both hands freed, she began to work on the gnarled rope coiled around her ankles. Thankfully whatever had captured her hadn’t stolen her boots. . She planned on trucking it through the woods or wherever-the-hell-she-was, at full speed, as soon as she could get her restraints off. First, of course, she’d have to see if that lonely door at the other end of the room was unlocked, but—one thing at a time.
It was in those moments where the precious embers of hope—hope of escape, of freedom, of figuring out if there were any others still alive, or if they had all met the fate of the now-headless Mr. Browning—that she noticed the glow.
A brilliant, bright blue light began to grow in intensity at the center of the room, drawing her attention from the rope. It glowed dead-center of her prison, gaining brilliance as seconds ticked by. The light was like flames licking at a thin layer of fuel painted across the floor—fuel or paint. Or perhaps blood.
Whatever it was, that circle was more than just a circle. Interconnected geometric patterns crisscrossed within, becoming brilliant against the relative darkness of the room. Squares and circles-within-circles, long lines slashing across and through the shapes; squiggled runic figures implying words or symbols that Riley didn’t recognize from any language class or scientific table she had ever seen.
Language and science, oh yes, she thought, her mind recognizing some pattern, some purpose in the sigil that sprouted to glimmering life before her.
The air flowing in through the draft grew colder.
The wet, thumping pattern of heavy, unwieldy flesh falling on concrete drew her attention away from the arcane diagram. Those thumps ceased outside of her door, but were followed up by something worse.
The scratching of metal-on-metal, sharp claws or fingernails working their way over locks and handles, blood-caked fingers and oversized palms finding and pulling levers.
A locking mechanism groaned. The door’s hinges squeaked. The light of the occult sigil grew bright. The door swung open to reveal a new horror.
As the nightmare-creature’s three green-glowing eyes made contact with hers, her stomach dropped and the air grew acrid to breathe. She hadn’t hallucinated. She hadn’t been drugged.
Monsters were real. And one was coming for her.
Excerpt from Freaky Tales from the Force: Season One
Jonathan Raab is the founder and editor-in-chief of Muzzleland Press. His books include Flight of the Blue Falcon, The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre, The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie, and Camp Ghoul Mountain VI: The Official Novelization. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times At War blog, CNN.com, Stars and Stripes, and others. He lives in Colorado.