Posts Tagged ‘horror’

In 2 weeks my latest novel THE DEVIL’S WOODS releases (Tues, Dec 3rd), and the reviews are starting to come in.

Here’s a glowing book review from Shattered Ravings.

The Devil’s Woods is currently on sale for a limited time through my publisher Samhain Horror.
 
Here’s what others are saying:
 

The Devil’s Woods is an awesome horror novel, filled with nerve-wracking suspense and thrilling action!”

—Jeff Strand, author of Wolf Hunt

“Brian Moreland’s fiction is taut and spellbinding, often blending varied themes to form a dark genre very much his own.  From his WWII occult thriller Shadows in the Mist, to the haunting chiller The Devil’s Woods, Brian’s work is at once versatile, original, and deeply engaging.”  

—Greg F. Gifune, author of The Bleeding Season

 

The Devil’s Woods is a force of nature. A complex, chilling foray into the darkness of a forbidden land, and man’s tortured soul.”

—Hunter Shea, author of Swamp Monster Massacre and Sinister Entity

 

“In Dead of Winter, Brian Moreland showed why he’s one of the strongest new forces in horror fiction. In The Devil’s Woods, he proves he’s as versatile as he is talented. The Devil’s Woods is fantastic–a terrifying and emotionally-involving read from cover to cover.”

—Jonathan Janz, author of The Sorrows and House of Skin

 

“Brian Moreland has created a new horror classic bursting with bloodshed, chaos, and truly disturbing creatures. Prepare to travel down a dark, terrifying, and twisted path that is The Devil’s Woods. Backwoods horror at its finest!” 
                                        

—David Bernstein, author of Damaged Souls and Amongst the Dead

 

“Reading anything by Brian Moreland makes me understand how much harder I have to work as a writer to generate the level of chills he can deliver.”

Kristopher Rufty, author of The Lurkers and A Dark Autumn

 

Witching House for Widget

Today, I’m thrilled to be releasing my latest novella The Witching House. This is a book that I wrote last fall while staying at a secluded cabin in the woods of East Texas. The story is set there in the present day and was inspired by the old 1970s horror flicks I used to love. The Witching House is about a small group of adventure-seeking couples who decide to explore an abandoned old house in the woods that’s been boarded up for forty years. The house is rumored to be haunted because it’s where a coven of witches had been massacred back in 1972. You can read the prequel in a FREE short story called The Girl from the Blood Coven.

Below is an excerpt.

“Witchcraft, sacrifices, an abandoned house and a thing that has hungered for decades set the stage for this must-read expedition to The Witching House. The best advice anyone could offer a visitor is: Don’t go in the attic, don’t go in the bedrooms, but don’t, under any circumstances, go in the basement. You won’t come out the same…if you come out at all.”

John Everson, author of NightWhere and Violet Eyes

The Witching House represents Brian Moreland at his frantic, bloody best. He takes a clutch of highly-sexed characters and their dark secrets, plunges them into a historical house of horrors, and gleefully throws away the key as all hell breaks loose!”

—Frazer Lee, author of The Lamplighters and The Lucifer Glass

The Witching House starts with fear, moves into terror and ends with a horrific explosion of sensory delights.”

—Maynard Sims, author of Stronghold and The Eighth Witch

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 Excerpt from THE WITCHING HOUSE

“White Ceremonial Magic is, by the terms of its definition, an attempt to communicate with Good Spirits for a good, or at least an innocent, purpose. Black Magic is the attempt to communicate with Evil Spirits for evil purposes.”

—Arthur Edward Waite, The Book of Black Magic, originally published in 1898

Present day

The house that ate people stood within a coven of pine trees like an ancient god being worshipped. The high branches touched its shingled roof with reverence. Towering three stories, the rock house was far from being a flawless god. The moss-covered stones that cobbled its walls were pocked from years of rot and abandon. Fungus and creeper vines had spread across its facade, leafy tentacles invading cracks where boards covered the windows. The glass within their frames had long ago shattered.

The Old Blevins House, as it came to be called, was set miles deep within the East Texas forest and rumored to be haunted. The stone dwelling became a backwoods legend spoken over campfires and around beers at the roadhouse in Buck Horn, referring to it as “that house in the woods”. If anyone foolishly talked about ghosts or witchery, they were sure to spit the ground and cross themselves. Deer hunters wouldn’t dare hunt these parts. The deer wouldn’t come here either.

Otis Blevins, the caretaker of the property, knew all the house’s secrets because he had witnessed his family’s bloody massacre as a child. Now, decades later, the house often spoke to him in whispers and played violent memories inside his head. Some folk called Otis Blevins crazy, but he wasn’t. He just had a special bond with this house that ran deep as blood.

At age forty-seven, Otis now lived on a pig farm ten miles away but still looked after the stone house. On this dewy morning, he checked the front door to make sure it was still locked. The padlock was badly rusted. He made a mental note to stop by the hardware store and buy a new one. As the caretaker walked the perimeter, he noticed that some of the symbols painted on the clapboards had smeared after last night’s storm. He shook his head. East Texas got too much rain this time of year.

Otis pulled a paintbrush out of a mason jar of hog’s blood and repainted a symbol of a triangle with stick-figure arms and legs. He heard scratching from the opposite side of the clapboards—something angry clawed at him from within the house. Whistling, Otis walked around the corner. The scraping nails followed him as he painted the same symbol on every boarded window. The scrapes turned to pounding. The house was in a foul mood this morning. Or maybe just hungry. The caretaker ignored the incessant knocks against the wood and performed the tasks that the house had given him.

When he was done, Otis returned to his truck. In the back, a large hog was pacing in a cage, making all sorts of grunting noises.

“Easy there, girl.” Otis opened the cage and snapped a leash on Bessie’s collar. The sow hopped off the truck and snorted against Otis’s leg. He patted her pink head and then walked her to the back of the house where a long chain lay coiled on the ground. He was mighty upset that it was Bessie’s turn. Otis loved this pig. The house reminded him that he had alternatives, if he was willing.

The caretaker hooked the chain to the sow’s collar and backed away. Tearing up, Otis sat in an old rocker and chewed a wad of tobacco as he waited. Not long after, the chain began to uncoil and went taut. The pig squealed and struggled to run as she was dragged into a dark hole near the house.

Otis left after that. He hated the sounds the house made when it fed.

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“Dead roads are bad omens,” Sarah Donovan’s grandmother used to say when Sarah was a little girl and her family traveled down a road littered with road kill. “You’ll find nothing good at the end of a dead road.”

Today, while riding through the backwoods of East Texas with her new boyfriend, Dean, and another couple, Sarah had counted a dead coyote, two mutilated armadillos, what might have been a possum, and buzzards feasting on a deer carcass. The carrion eaters took flight as the white Range Rover passed them and wound its way through the cloying pines.

Sarah’s nana, who was in to everything New Age, had preached that the universe always gives you signs if you watch for them.

Is this road trying to warn me? Sarah wondered. She looked at her boyfriend. Does this mean our relationship is doomed?

Dean seemed oblivious to the signs all around them. As he and his friends, Casey and Meg Ackerman, passed around a thermos of coffee and talked over strategy, Sarah remained quiet in the front passenger seat. Since they had left Dallas at dawn, she had seen a few truck stops and small towns along the way, as well as the occasional farm, but now mostly her view was empty road and endless trees. Civilization had dropped off since they turned off I-20 into what Dean called “redneck country”. In the backseat, Casey tried to be funny, mimicking the dueling-banjos tune from Deliverance, as if “redneck” meant inbreds. Dean was quick to correct Casey that inbreeding hillbillies were in Tennessee and West Virginia, not Texas. But rednecks were territorial and carried shotguns, and they lived by the creed “Don’t mess with Texas”.

It wasn’t the thought of encountering inbred hillbillies or gun-toting rednecks that had Sarah spooked. It was the legions of spiky pines, spruce and cedars pressing so close to the road. These weren’t the benign oak and pecan trees that stood in small clusters around White Rock Lake where she walked her dog on weekends. Out here, the trees crowded together, their branches intertwined in a constant battle for space. Choking out the gaps between the trees, thickets of brush and briars left no room for a hiking trail. Sarah’s father, the incurable nature lover, had taught her about things to watch out for in the wilds. Even from the moving vehicle, Sarah could spot the copses of stinging nettles and poison ivy that infested the overgrown forest. If only she had inherited her father’s love of exploring the untamed wilderness she might have been thrilled about where Dean and his friends were taking her.

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The Witching House ebook is available for Kindle, Nook, iPad, Kobo, Sony eReader, and more. Also available through Samhain Horror or you can download a PDF to read on your computer.

“Dead of Winter by Brian Moreland is an exceptionally well crafted horror novel that tells a gripping story of dark religious doings, a horrific serial killer, and a sympathetic Inspector, in a dark and fascinating historical setting of 19th century Canada. The atmospherics are outstanding and the story offers plenty of surprises right up to its shocking and violent conclusion. Highly recommended.” 

– Douglas Preston, co-author of The Monster of Florence and Cold Vengeance.

 “A frightening and chilly romp through a winter wasteland, Dead of Winter will freeze your soul! Sharply written and scary as hell, this one is a must-read for all horror fans. I am in awe of Brian Moreland.”

– Ronald Malfi, author of Snow and Floating Staircase

Readers who enjoyed my first novel SHADOWS IN THE MIST have been asking when will I release my latest supernatural horror thriller. Well, I’m happy to announce that DEAD OF WINTER is now available in paperback and as an e-book for all you Kindle, Nook and Ipad readers out there.

DEAD OF WINTER  is a historical story based partly on true events and an old Algonquin Indian legend that still haunts the Great Lakes tribes to this day. It’s also a detective mystery and, for lovers of gothic romance, the story even has a couple of love triangles thrown in for fun. The story takes place near the end of the 19th Century at an isolated fur-trading fort deep in the Ontario wilderness. The main character is Inspector Tom Hatcher, a troubled detective from Montreal who had recently captured an infamous serial killer, Gustav Meraux, known as the Cannery Cannibal. Gustav is Jack-the-the-Ripper meets Hannibal Lecter. Even though the cannibal is behind bars, Tom is still haunted from the case, so he decides to move himself and his rebellious teenage son out to the wilderness. At the beginning of the story, Tom has taken a job at Fort Pendleton to solve a case of strange murders that are happening to the fur traders that involve another cannibal, one more savage than Gustav Meraux. Some predator in the woods surrounding the fort is attacking colonists and spreading a gruesome plague—the victims turn into ravenous cannibals with an unending hunger for human flesh. In Tom’s search for answers, he discovers that the Jesuits know something about this plague. My second main character is Father Xavier, an exorcist from Montreal who is ordered by the Vatican to travel to Ontario to help Tom battle the killer causing the outbreak.

Here are 3 chapters to give you a sneak peek of what’s to come. Enjoy!

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Part One

Predators and Prey

1

December 15, 1870

Manitou Outpost

Ontario, Canada

It was the endless snowstorms that ushered in their doom. Each day and night the white tempests whirled around the fort, harrowing the log houses with winter lashings. At the center of the compound, the three-story lodge house creaked and moaned. Father Jacques Baptiste chanted in Latin and threw holy water on the barricaded front door. Above the threshold, a crucifix hung upside down. No matter how much the Jesuit priest prayed, the Devil would not release its grip on this godforsaken fort.

Something scraped against the wood outside. Father Jacques peered through the slats of a boarded window. Tree branches clawed violently at the stockade walls. The front gate stood open, exposing them to the savage wilderness. It also provided the only path of escape. If by chance they made it out the gate, which way would they go?

The priest considered their options. Beyond the fort’s perimeter, the dark waters of Makade Lake knocked plates of ice against the shore. Crossing the frozen lake would be a dead man’s walk. Last week, two of the trappers fell through the ice. The only way out was through the woods.

Father Jacques shuddered at the thought of leaving the fort. The trappers had fortified the outpost to keep the evil out. They hadn’t counted on the savagery attacking them from within. He prayed for the souls of the men, women, and children lost in the past few weeks. Last autumn, the French-speaking colony had been twenty strong. Now, in midwinter, they were down to four survivors and not a crumb of food to split among them. How much longer before the beasts within completely took them over?

“Forgive us, oh Lord, for our fall from grace.” Father Jacques sipped the holy water. It burned his throat and stomach like whiskey. “Cast out these evils that prey upon us.”

Behind him, the sound of boots approached from the darkness. The priest spun with his lantern, lighting up the gaunt face of a bearded man. Master Pierre Lamothe, the fort’s chief factor, wore a deerskin parka with a bushy fur hood. His eyes were bloodshot. He wheezed.

The priest took a step back. “Are you still with us, Pierre?”

The sick man nodded. “Just dizzy, Father. I’m so damned hungry.”

Father Jacques knew the pains of hunger. Each passing day it pulled his flesh tighter against his ribcage.“We’ll find something to eat soon, I promise. Here, take another sip.” He offered the bottle of holy water.

Pierre took a swig and winced. Seconds later he stumbled back, rubbing his eyes.

“The burning will pass.” Father Jacques grabbed his wrist. “Remember our plan?”

“Yes… check on the horses.”

“We must hurry. Now may be our only chance.” They removed the barricade from the door. A long staircase led down from the second floor to the snow-covered ground. “Bless me, Father.” Pierre raised his shotgun and stepped out into the blizzard. He all but disappeared in the white squall. The only parts visible were his hood and the outline of his shoulders. Father Jacques nervously watched the fort grounds. At the surrounding cabins, wind howled through shattered windows and broken doors. When Pierre reappeared at the stables, the priest released his breath.

Please let the horses still be alive.

The chief factor pulled a horse out. The poor animal was so thin its hide sunk into its ribs. As Pierre threw a saddle on its back, he raised two fingers, signaling that a second horse was still inside the stable.

Father Jacques closed the door and clasped his hands. “Thank you, oh Lord.”

Someone tugged at his cassock. He looked down to see a small, French-Indian girl. Pierre’s daughter Zoé had tousled black hair and large brown eyes that had kept their innocence despite the horrors they’d witnessed these past few weeks. The girl held a tattered Indian doll to her chest. “I’m afraid, Père.”

Father Jacques touched her head and gave the most comforting smile he could conjure. “Don’t worry, Zoé, the angels will protect us. Here, you need to bundle up.” He fastened her fur parka, pulled the hood over her head.

“I want Mama to go with us.”

“I’m sorry, Zoé, but she’s too sick. She would die out there. You, your papa, and I are going to ride out to the nearest fort. Then we’ll send help back for your mother.”

The girl frowned. “Noël says you’re lying!”

Father Jacques glanced down at the Indian doll. One green eye stared back. The other eye was a ragged hole. Since Zoé had stopped eating two weeks ago, she suffered from dementia. She spent most of her days whispering to her doll. Father Jacques wanted to rip its head off. He squeezed his fist. “Noël is just afraid like the rest of us. Now, pray for forgiveness for speaking to me in that manner.”

“Sorry, Père.” Zoé crossed herself and bowed.

“Now, drink.” He gave the girl the last of the holy water. She drank it and winced as if it were castor oil.

Outside, the horses whinnied. A shotgun fired.

Father Jacques dashed to the window. He searched the fort grounds. A saddled horse ran in circles. Where was Pierre?

Behind the wall of whirling snow, more shots were fired. Then came a scream. Pierre stumbled out of the mist. Blood spouted from the stump of his shoulder. He was missing an arm.

Peering out the boarded window, Father Jacques screamed at the sight of blood gushing from Pierre’s shoulder. As the wounded man stumbled up the front steps to the lodge house, the white mist rolled in from behind and swallowed Pierre. His scream was cut short.

“Papa!” Zoé ran toward the barricaded door. “Let Papa in!”

“No, move away from the door.” Father Jacques grabbed her hand and backed away.

Outside, the storm wailed. Snow blew in through the cracks of the boarded windows. Footfalls charged up the staircase like thundering hooves. Something rammed against the front door. The hinges buckled.

Zoé shrieked.

“Back to the cellar!” The priest pulled the girl through the dark corridors of the lodge house. Behind them, the front door crashed open. Terror stabbed Father Jacques’ chest with icy pinpricks at the shattering of windows and splintering of wood. Growls echoed throughout the lodge.

They’re inside!

Zoé released a high-pitched shriek.

“Stay quiet, girl.” The priest led her down the cellar stairs. The swinging lantern slashed the darkness with a pendulum blade of light. Scratches and streaks of crystallized blood glistened on the steps and walls like a gallery of agonies marking the descent to hell.

They ran into the dark cellar. Father Jacques brought down an iron bar across the door and shoved crates against it. He took the child’s face in his hands. “Hide, quick.”

The girl crawled inside a nook stuffed with fur pelts. She hugged her doll to her chest. Father Jacques pulled a deerskin blanket down over the nook so Zoé was fully hidden. “Don’t come out no matter what you hear.”

A raspy voice whispered, “Father…”

The priest aimed his lantern at a row of beds. The storage cellar had been converted into a makeshift hospital. In three beds lay twisted corpses. In the closest bed, an Ojibwa woman was lying beneath the quilts. Wenonah Lamothe, Pierre’s native wife. She was too delirious to know that her husband was dead. Her skeletal head rolled back and forth on the pillow. Teeth chattering, she coughed clouds of frosty air. Her long, black hair now had streaks of white. Her skin, normally reddish brown, had turned fish-belly pale, with white scabs and ghastly blue veins. She looked to the priest, her bloodshot eyes pleading him. “Help me, Father.”

“I’m sorry, Wenonah.” God had failed her. Failed them all.

The Jesuit picked up a silver cross with a daggered tip. “I cast out all spirits of Satan.”

The woman tied to the bedposts growled like a wolfhound.

Father Jacques stood at the foot of Wenonah’s bed. Her thrashing body smacked the headboard against the wall. She laughed and moaned, blue tongue licking her lips. She kicked off her quilts, thrusting her hips upward, spreading her bony legs for him. Remaining steadfast in his prayers, the priest raised the holy dagger over the Ojibwa woman’s chest.

Wenonah glared with fiery eyes.

Zoé yelled, “Mama!

“Stay hidden, child.” Father Jacques stumbled back as a wave of emotions coursed through him. Anger. Fury. Rage.

Hunger.

His stomach ached for something meaty. Raw and bloody. He sniffed the air, his keen sense homing in on the nook where the girl was hidden. Beyond the scent of animal furs, Father Jacques inhaled the salty aroma of blood pumping through a heart.

Eat the girl! growled a voice inside the Jesuit’s head. Eat the lamb’s sweet meat.

“No. No. No.” He slammed the cross-dagger into a post. “I am a disciple of God. He gives me strength! Lead me not into temptation, oh Lord.”The wave of hunger passed. He chanted faster.

Shrieks echoed from beyond the cellar door. Feet stomped down the stairs. The doorknob rattled. Nails scraped the door, clawing to get in.

Father Jacques backed away, praying the barricade would hold. Even if it did, without food and water they couldn’t last another day in the cellar. We have to escape.

He went to the back wall, climbed up a stack of crates. With a crowbar, he tore planks off a tiny window. Snow blew inward, stinging his face. The mist had cleared. He could see the stables and the open front gate. The square portal was too small for Father Jacques, but not the girl. Tears welled in the priest’s eyes as he realized his last hope had come down to the fate of a nine-year-old girl. “Come, child, now!”

She climbed out from her hiding place, hugging the doll to her chest.

The priest kneeled, taking Zoé’s hands. “There’s still a horse in the stables. I need you to ride out to Fort Pendleton.” He pulled a small diary from his coat pocket. “Give this to Brother Andre.” He stuffed the journal into a trapper’s fur-skinned pack along with her doll.

“No, I’m not leaving…” She started to cry.

“You must, Zoé! We won’t survive down here another day.” He pulled the pack onto her back, fastening the straps around her waist.

“But what about you, Père?”

“You’ll have to go on your own.”

From the bed Wenonah rasped, “Zoé, wait…” Her wrist stretched one of the ropes. “Come here, my child.”

“Mama.”

“No, Zoé!” Father Jacques grabbed the girl just short of her mother’s gnarled fingernails. “Don’t touch her.” He carried Zoé to the back wall. She sobbed and jerked in his arms, reaching for her mother.

He stood her on a crate and shook her. “Listen, child! We need you to be strong. Go now, or you’ll never see your mother again.”

“But I’m afraid to go out there.”

“Remember the story about the lost children who came upon an angel?”

She nodded, sniffling.

“There are angels in the woods, and they will protect you, but they are leaving now, so you must hurry.”

The beasts wailed inside the cellar’s stairwell. An axe blade chopped through the door, cracking it.

The girl screamed and ran up the crates.

Father Jacques helped her out the window. She dropped down to the snowy ground.

“Hurry, Zoé!” He watched her run across the snowfield.

The axe blade smashed through the door. Dozens of white fingers tore at the hole. The priest held up a cross. “God is my savior!”

Another growl issued, this one from inside the cellar. He circled, searching the shadows until he spotted broken ropes at Wenonah’s bed. She now moved in the darkness just beyond the lantern glow. Her bones made popping sounds. The last stage of the change.

The priest stepped toward the row of beds. He barely made out the woman’s spindly shape hunched over, feeding off the flesh of a dead man. The crunching and tearing sickened Father Jacques and at the same time beckoned him to join Wenonah in the feast.

No, stay righteous! The Jesuit coughed. He stumbled to his altar and opened his holy book. The words blurred. His vision spiraled. Inside his stomach, the hunger grew, cold and burning, clinging his flesh to bone, filling him with a hollow emptiness, then turning—Yes!—spreading through him with a sweet rapture known only to saints and angels. “I am a shepherd of death…”

The cellar door crashed open.

Father Jacques raised his arms and smiled as he turned to face the ravenous horde.

2

Ontario Wilderness

The oncoming blizzard roared like a phantom bear. A boreal wind whipped through the forest, shaking the pine branches. Searchers in fur parkas steered three dogsleds through the white squall. Huskies barked at the cracking whips. The search party fanned out between the trees, sleds racing one another.

Riding in the lead sled, Inspector Tom Hatcher clamped his black lawman’s hat against his head. Frosty wind raked his face. Snow blinded his vision. He leaned inward as pine branches brushed the right side of his body. The British detective felt out of place in his two-piece suit, necktie, and gray overcoat. While the hunters carried rifles, Tom gripped his trusty pistol.

If Father could see me now, Tom thought, out in the Canadian wilderness dogsledding with a brigade of fur traders. And if that isn’t crazy enough, I’m following the guidance of a native woman.

Jostling and jerking in his rickety seat, Tom watched the Ojibwa tracker’s long, billowing black hair as she deftly drove the sled through the trees. Anika Moonblood was like no woman Tom had ever met. She only stood about chest-high to him, but she was feisty, and the way she moved through the wilderness was downright preternatural. Her light brown face, with high cheekbones and sparkling green eyes, reminded Tom of a wildcat. Like a puma or lynx. He might have found Anika pretty if it weren’t for the hardness of her face. He had yet to see her smile.

Anika pulled the reins on the dogs. The huskies yelped as the sled skidded to a stop in the deep snow. She hopped off and crouched at the crest of a hill, her deerskin clothes almost blending with the trees.

Tom scanned the woods and saw what the tracker had found. Footprints. The inspector snapped on his snowshoes and climbed upward, raising his knees, awkwardly plowing through the drift. He stepped up beside the tracker. “Any sign of Sakari?”

Anika pulled strands of black hair off a branch. “She was taken upstream.”

Tom scanned the frozen landscape. A legion of snow devils spiraled across the pure white dunes, spinning upward and catching the fierce crosswinds. Endless snow froze against his cheeks. Vision diminished to twenty feet. A familiar parasite of foreboding gnawed at his stomach as the afternoon sun was swallowed by gray clouds.

“The blizzard will soon be upon us,” Anika said.

The inspector spoke over the wind, “Let’s push a little further.”

“We go the rest of the way on foot.” The tracker trudged forward, her slender frame fading into the white mist.

The other sleds caught up. Tom glanced back at the pale faces of the searchers, a mixture of British soldiers in red greatcoats and Scotch laborers bundled in hooded fur coats. The lower halves of their faces were covered with scarves, and their eyes were shielded by goggles made of caribou bone with two tiny round holes. The native goggles made the white men look like Indian fur trappers. Even though Tom couldn’t see their eyes, he sensed their fear. They had been searching for the missing woman for over an hour now, and the blizzard only seemed to be getting closer. It wouldn’t be long before the snow completely covered the trail.

Tom briefly looked at Percy Kennicot, offering the clerk a gleam of hope. Ice crystallized on the man’s mustache. He and his Cree Indian wife, Sakari, had ventured out into the woods on horseback, headed toward Manitou Outpost. The horses had gotten spooked. They separated briefly. Kennicot heard his wife scream, followed by an animal growl. Percy had searched the evergreen forest but found only Sakari’s fallen horse, its throat slashed. The killer had carried off Percy’s wife into the woods.

Tom had told his men to be wary of a rogue trapper in the area or possibly a band of cutthroat Indians. None of the searchers seemed to like that he was in charge. To the soldiers and fur traders, Tom was the newcomer. The man from the city. But they were all scared ever since colonists from Fort Pendleton had started to go missing in the woods. A few weeks ago, a French Canadian hunter had been found disemboweled. Whether the colonists liked Inspector Hatcher or not, he had been hired to track down their killer.

As Tom snowshoed through the woods, he wondered if leaving behind his city comforts had been the right decision. Montréal had been cold, but the interior of Ontario was constantly below zero. The blizzard’s endless breath seeped into his bones. White wisps puffed out of his chapped mouth. His cheeks and nose were numb, and he feared frost bite might eat away his face.

How long can we survive out in this godforsaken weather?

The rest of the search party, all colonists who spent their lives enduring such brutal winters, seemed to handle the cold just fine. He now envied their heavy fur parkas and otter skin boots. Just keep your body moving, Tom.

The inspector led the search party forward, doing his best to keep Anika in his sights as the swift tracker crept like a wraith in the fog. She stopped and waved them over.

Tom quickened his pace to catch up. She showed him a faint blood trail. There were more tracks, too. Deep impressions in the snow. They followed the tracks until they reached the frozen stream of Beaver Creek. They halted.

“Great Scott!” Tom said.

Suspended in the ice was the butchered body of Sakari Kennicot. But only the upper torso, it seemed. She had been disemboweled. Several ribs were exposed. And one arm had been completely severed at the shoulder.

Percy Kennicot ran ahead of the pack, brushing past Tom. The dead woman’s husband fell to his knees and wailed like an animal.

Seeing the remains of Sakari Kennicot, Tom’s mind flashed to images from his last case in Montréal: butchered bodies of women being dragged up from the harbor. Nothing but skeletons strung together by grey sinews. It was the grisly work of the most formidable killer Inspector Hatcher had ever tracked.

The Cannery Cannibal.

Just two years ago, Inspector Hatcher had worked in Montréal alongside British and French Canadian detectives to solve the case of the century. For over a year, the Cannery Cannibal had terrorized the harbor city, abducting dockside prostitutes who sold their bodies near the cannery district. The twisted things the killer had done to those girls. The way he butchered them, carving the flesh from their bones. The hair and skin on their heads had been left, as if the Cannery Cannibal couldn’t bring himself to cut up their faces. He left that meat to the fishes when he dumped the women’s skeletons into the water. Inspector Hatcher had found traces of white powder caked in the eye sockets.

While trying to think like a killer, Tom had spent numerous nights imagining the cannibal carving up these women like a butcher flaying meat off an animal, leaving behind a skeleton with the woman’s head intact. It was only later, after he found the killer’s dockside lair, and final victim, that Tom discovered the beast made up the women’s faces like the powdery visages of Renaissance queens.

Now Tom gripped a tree, trying to erase the memory. The wind shook clumps of snow off the nearby branches. He sensed he was being watched. Catching his breath, he scanned the forest to see if the Cannery Cannibal had somehow followed him to the backwoods of Ontario. But that was impossible, because the notorious murderer was rotting away in prison, awaiting his eventual hanging, if not already dangling from the gallows.

3

Montréal, Quebec

The Laroque Asylum loomed like a fortress for the damned. Its stone walls were powder gray with chinks and cracks from years of brutal winters and internal suffering. Built in 1790, the asylum had been designed to separate the insane from the civilized. A private kingdom for the mentally ill.

Father Xavier Goddard stepped out of his stagecoach onto the cobblestone driveway. Snow flurries swirled around his black robes. He endured the biting wind as he covered his bald head with a black fur cap. Wearing the Russian mink furrowed the brows of his fellow priests, who wore the typical cleric’s hat. But the fur cap was an heirloom from his Uncle Remy, who’d sailed the high seas with the French Navy and brought the expensive cap back from Siberia. Despite its contrary image to the priestly vow of poverty, the mink hat was a daily reminder of his cherished uncle, while keeping Father Xavier’s bald head warm during Quebec’s harsh winters.

The Jesuit turned to his apprentice, Brother Francois, who climbed out of the coach, gazing up at the towering asylum. The young man was wearing a black cassock buttoned to the throat and a black soup-plate hat, while Father Xavier wore the black cassock and white collar of an ordained priest. Each Jesuit carried a small case, much like a house doctor’s medical kit.

Father Xavier gave his apprentice a fatherly look. “Francois, did you pack everything I asked?”

The layman patted his duffle bag, and his eyes brightened. “Oui, I’m ready to see how you work.”

The young ones are always eager at first, Father Xavier thought. He scrutinized the man’s delicate features and innocent eyes. Maybe Francois will be different than his predecessors.

“Let’s get started.” Father Xavier ascended the steps.

Francois followed. “How long will the ritual take?”

“Hours or days. Depends on the willingness of our subject to cooperate.”

The asylum’s enormous front door opened with a heavy grate. A short, stocky man hobbled out using a cane. “Top of the mornin’, Father, thanks for comin’ so quickly,” he said in a thick Irish accent. With his smudged cheeks and crooked teeth, the warden of Laroque looked like some Cretan who had spent years on a pirate’s ship. He had stringy red hair and scraggly mutton chops. A grubby hand jutted out. “Me name’s Warden Paddock.”

Avoiding the hand, Father Xavier stared at the doorway. He got a cold feeling from more than just the gale that swept along the St. Lawrence River. A coven of ravens landed on the rooftop, squawking. “He knows we’re here.”

The warden’s eyebrows knitted together. “I beg your pardon?”

Father Xavier said, “Never mind. Take us to Gustave Meraux.”

“Aye, aye, right this way.” Warden Paddock and Francois entered the white stone fortress. As Father Xavier was about to cross the threshold, something shrieked from behind him. He turned around. Down the hill, a steamboat cut through the cracking ice that covered the St. Lawrence River. Across the river stood Mount Royal, the three-crested hill from which Montréal got its name. The sky above the harbor city had turned pink with streaks of orange.

Feeling adrenaline coursing through his veins, Father Xavier smiled. “A beautiful day to face the Devil.”

The two Jesuits followed Warden Paddock through the main corridor. They passed a set of red-coated soldiers standing guard with rifles. The warden unlatched an iron door then led Father Xavier and his apprentice down a set of winding stairs.

“We currently have one hundred and seventy inhabitants,” Paddock said. “There have been so many crazies coming in lately, that we’ve had to build additional cells down in the undercroft.”

“Warden, I am only interested in the one you sent me for,” said Father Xavier.

“Aye, Gustave Meraux arrived two weeks ago, and ever since, has wreaked nothing but havoc among the inmates.”

At the bottom of the stairs, the undercroft tunneled beneath the old fortress.

Torches illuminated an arched ceiling and metal bars. In between the cells, water dribbled down moss-covered walls. Father Xavier’s shoes splashed through puddles. He winced at the foul smells of urine and defecation. Francois covered his mouth with a handkerchief.

“We’re still working on the sanitation,” the warden said with embarrassment. “We are understaffed at the moment. Several workers quit since Gustave arrived.”

Moaning issued from many of the cells they passed. Most were shrouded by the sepulchral darkness. Inside one half-lit chamber, a fat man with a massive head emerged from a corner. “Feed time! Feed time!” He pressed his cheek against the bars, his bulbous tongue licking the air.

Father Xavier reeled at the prisoner’s brown teeth and atrocious breath.

“Not yet, Mortimer. Six-thirty is feed time. Six-thirty!” Paddock banged his cane against the bars and the fat man retreated. The warden shook his head. “My apology, Father, but they have to learn routine or the whole place becomes a madhouse.” He laughed at his own joke.

From somewhere down the tunnel echoed a cackling scream.

“That’s Gustave,” the warden said. “The craziest of them all.”

The high-pitched laughter made Father Xavier shudder. As a boy, he had once seen a group of gypsies at a carnival. One of the performers, a fire breather wearing clown makeup, spewed out long tongues of fire then cackled at the crowd. The ominous laughter had made young Xavier sprout gooseflesh. The priest’s fist tightened around his duffle bag. He quickened his steps. “Tell me what you know about Gustave Meraux.”

The warden, hobbling on the cane, did his best to keep up. “I’m sure you two have heard of the Cannery Cannibal.”

Father Xavier nodded. The past two years had been a time of darkness for Montréal. The Cannery Cannibal had haunted the harbor, killing thirteen women, most of them prostitutes.

Warden Paddock said, “Gustave earned the name Cannery Cannibal, because he took the women back to the cannery where he worked, cut them up, cooked their meat and innards, and stored them in little tins. He’s a bloody sicko, that one.”

As they reached a barred door separating this chamber from the next, Father Xavier took a deep breath. “Your report stated that Gustave has given you reason to believe he is possessed by the Devil.”

Paddock’s keys jingled as he searched through a large key ring. “Upon his capture, Gustave has been the source of many bizarre occurrences. The prisoners on either side of his cell were found dead. One gouged his own eyes out. The other rammed himself into a wall until he bludgeoned himself to death. And our rat population has doubled. They seem to be drawn to Gustave’s cell like he’s the bloody Pied Piper.”

Francois said, “So the cannibal has become a man with ungodly abilities?”

“A man?” Warden Paddock gave a nervous laugh as he tried different keys in the door. “I don’t think any of us comprehend what he’s become.”

Father Xavier said, “But you are sure he embodies a demon?”

“I come from the moors of Ireland, Father. I know the Devil when I sees him.” He slipped in a key that fit. “Ah, here we go.” The barred door creaked open to an even narrower passage. From the darkness echoed the cackle of damnation.

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