I recently sold my third horror novel THE DEVIL’S WOODS to Samhain Horror. This is a novel that I had started 24 years ago in college. After publishing two novels, DEAD OF WINTER and SHADOWS IN THE MIST, I decided to revisit my old college project and rewrite it from the voice that I write in today. It was originally titled SKINNERS, but since that title was already being used in the horror genre, I changed my book to THE DEVIL’S WOODS. Below you can read the premise and opening chapter.
Fear wears many skins.
Deep within the Canadian wilderness, people have been disappearing for over a century. There is a place the locals call “the Devil’s Woods,” but to speak of it will only bring the devil to your door. It is a place so evil that even animals avoid it.
When their father’s expedition team goes missing, Kyle Elkheart and his brother and sister return to the abandoned Cree Indian reservation where they were born. Kyle can see ghosts that haunt the woods surrounding the village—and they seem to be trying to warn him. The search for their father will lead Kyle and his siblings to the dark heart of the legendary forest, where their mission will quickly become a fight for survival.
British Columbia, Canada
Lake Akwâkopiy Cree Indian Reserve
Five days after the tragedy, Jon Elkheart returned to the forbidden forest. With a vengeful glare, he challenged the looming wall of aspen, spruce and vine-choked pines that guarded this unsacred land. The only entrance was a trail that disappeared into a black hole inside the jungle-thick brush. The darkness within Macâya Forest was an impenetrable void, a shadow world of shape-shifters, and yet its mysteries beckoned him.
There are places in the world where lost spirits never rest, Elkheart thought with a coppery taste in his mouth. And man is considered prey. Standing by a lake at the edge of the rainforest, he peered through the scope of his assault rifle, searching the woods for sudden movement. He listened for the slightest snap of a twig or brush of a leaf. The June morning was still and windless, as if all of nature sensed what he was about to do.
You should turn back. You can’t do this on your own. The scholarly part of Elkheart understood this logic. As an archaeologist, he had always put his research first, above all else. Until this last mission went haywire. Now the guilt and anger pumping through his veins would not let him rest. You have to go back in there, spoke a voice that was not ruled by logic. You have to find Amy.
“I’m here,” he whispered, noticing that his legs did not want to budge.
Elkheart looked up at the sun creeping over the mountains. Clouds drifted across the valley, as if shielding the forest from the approaching light. Soon only the tips of the branches pierced the white smoke. Stretching out his arm, he turned a small video camera toward his face. “June 10th, 7:00 a.m. My name is Jon Elkheart. I am a professor from the University of British Columbia. I am also one of the last surviving members of the Lake Akwâkopiy Cree band. Most of my people abandoned this reservation years ago. Those who stayed behind have suffered nightmarish visions from a forest that has haunted our reservation for more than a century. A week ago I led a documentary film crew and four mercenaries into Macâya Forest, an uncharted patch of rainforest located at the northeastern tip of the reservation.” A heaviness burdened Elkheart’s chest as he remembered that tragic night. The screams and gunshots echoed in his mind and guilt twisted his guts. “My crew was slaughtered by something that attacked us from the woods. My assistant, Amy Hanson, was taken alive. I’m going back into Macâya Forest to search for her. I pray the spirits of my ancestors will guide me.”
Never enter Macâya Forest with impure thoughts, Grandfather Two Hawks had warned. You must call in your animal spirit guide and enter with the heart of a warrior.
Elkheart blessed a large knife with an elk-horn handle. Grandfather had given him the hunter’s blade on his thirteenth birthday after killing his first elk. He had eaten the slain animal’s heart and earned his name. Now, Jon Elkheart dipped two fingers into a coffee can of elk’s blood and wiped red streaks across his cheeks, as if a mask of war paint could channel the ancient warriors of his tribe. The ceremony did nothing to settle his nerves. He faced the mouth of the forest where few men had survived before him. “This time I will not run.”
Nervous whimpers broke the silence. Elkheart’s German shepherd pressed against his leg. He stroked his dog’s bristled neck. Should have left him back at the cabin. “Scout, run on home.” He shooed the dog. “Go on.” But Scout refused to leave his master’s side. Elkheart sighed. “You’re just as foolish as I am.”
Taking a deep breath, Elkheart sheathed his knife. He gripped his M4 Carbine. The semi-automatic assault rifle had belonged to one of the mercenaries who had died for this mission. Trying not to think of the soldier who had been decapitated, Elkheart turned on a flashlight that was attached to the barrel. A long beam pierced the dripping gray gloom that shrouded the rainforest. Wary of every sound, he passed through the threshold. His dog followed.
As Elkheart crept down the narrow path between spiky pines, firs, and cedars tangled with spruce, ghostly voices filled his head, pulling his thoughts in every direction. His Cree ancestors would not give him peace until he returned to these unsacred woods and exposed its secrets.
A blanket of dew covered the bracken and surrounding leaves. Only splinters of sunlight lanced the dense canopy. The morning fog drifted between the trees, making visibility even more difficult. Elkheart could only see a few feet around him.
Scout sniffed along the ground a few feet ahead, a silhouette in the haze. They weaved between trees, crossing cold-water creeks and climbing up fern-covered hills. The darkness faded into a gray gloom, as the morning sun finally filtered through the tops of the trees.
Untying his green parka, Elkheart loosened the hood to cool off. Sweat soaked his black and silver hair. Slightly winded, he inhaled the pine-scented air. A branch shook above him, dropping pinecones onto his shoulders. He jerked the rifle upward. An owl swooped from its perch and disappeared into the mist.
Elkheart released his breath. Okay, stay alert. Be ready for anything.
Steadying his rifle, he stepped through a thicket. Large fern leafs and dangling vines made his efforts difficult. Only the twisting path separated the trees and underbrush enough to travel through the woods. To venture from the trail would be like wandering into an uncharted jungle.
The fog thickened. Smokey plumes circled his feet, covering his boots and the moss-covered trail. Scout began to fade in the mist. Elkheart bird-whistled the German shepherd to come back. Elkheart’s heavy backpack burdened his spine. Easing the pack off, he leaned against a tree. Scout sat on his haunches, watching the forest.
Fishing into his backpack, Elkheart retrieved his video recorder and a bottle of Stoli. The vodka had been a birthday gift from Wynona, his…what? Ex-girlfriend? No, their relationship had never been that formal. Ex-drinking partner was more fitting. “Friends with benefits,” his students would say.
Studying the clear liquor, Elkheart felt a brief tightness to his chest, remembering the drunken, lust-filled nights he and Wynona had shared before the whole mess started. He still loved her, still caressed the empty spot in his bed where she once slept. But some pasts just couldn’t be healed. And Wynona’s wounds ran deep as canyons. Letting her image fade, Elkheart swallowed a gulp of vodka. He glanced around warily, thumbed the camera’s record button.
“So far, so good. I’m about a half mile deep and all’s quiet.” Elkheart paused to listen to the forest a moment, turning his camera toward the surrounding trees. “For over a century, my people have feared Macâya Forest. The landscape here is different from the woods that surround the reservation’s compound. Here, the trees tower to enormous heights and intertwine with one another as if trying to conceal something the land never wanted man to discover.” He gazed up at the giant trees, the sacred elders, wondering if they were listening. He felt as if eyes were watching him. “I’m about a quarter mile from the strange ruins my team and I discovered before their deaths. I only got a glimpse, but what I saw was beyond belief. I should be there shortly, where I hope to find Amy. If I come across what killed my crew, this time I’m prepared.”
Elkheart hit the stop button. A strong wind blew along the trail, and the fog began to swirl. He half expected an ancient trickster to emerge from it. Or a threat much more real.
Elkheart rubbed the antler handle of his knife, drawing courage from his spirit animal. When that didn’t work, he drank another fiery gulp of vodka. He then slipped his backpack over his shoulders, grabbed his rifle and stepped toward the swirling fog. Scout sniffed the trail a few feet ahead.
As Elkheart grew closer to the ruins, his asthma kicked in. The fifty-year old professor started wheezing. Fear paralyzed him as questions rolled through his mind.
What the hell are you doing here? Why is revealing the secrets of this forest worth more than your life?
Part of him wanted to return to Vancouver with the evidence they had found. He had plenty of artifacts and footage to open up an investigation. He would be on CNN and every major talk show around the world. Time and National Geographic would cover his story. He would finally be respected in his field, and more importantly, earn the respect of his three grown children. But Elkheart couldn’t leave Amy behind. He took another step, a warrior’s vengeance surging through him. He jerked his rifle at a sudden sound. Low, huffing grunts.
Elkheart tensed, raising the rifle. “Shh, boy.”
The shepherd silenced, but remained poised to attack.
Ahead, something lumbered through the pines with heavy footfalls that sounded like a grizzly. But this predator had run off all the bears from these woods.
Remain still. Wait it out. It’s only passing.
The heavy footsteps tramping over damp earth echoed off the pines.
Scout watched the path, waiting for his master’s command to attack.
Elkheart remained still, holding his breath. Out here, the slightest gasp could be heard a great distance. The asthma tickled his lungs like centipede legs.
The unseen animal lumbered away, its thundering footfalls and cracking branches growing softer.
The wind carried the beast’s familiar stench, stinging Elkheart’s nose, and memories filled his mind: images of a moonlit night, gunshots firing, his crew wailing as their shredded bodies flew through the air. Amy screaming as the thing dragged her off.
Now, Elkheart’s lungs clenched up. He groped for his inhaler, sucked in.
Somewhere beyond the trees, the beast stopped walking.
Elkheart fought to control his wheezing, pumping several gasps of asthma medicine into his lungs. The centipede legs abated and he finally silenced his panicked breathing.
The snapping of branches rushed toward him.
Scout turned and barked.
The predator circled them, staying hidden within the fog.
Elkheart hugged his rifle with shaking arms. Staring through spiky branches, he aimed at the forest. God, the beast’s right here! Behind the fog! His heartbeat quickened as he realized he was about to see the thing in the light.
“Come on! Show yourself!”
A cacophonous roar erupted from within the forest.
Barking, the German shepherd dashed into the mist.
The dog’s growling soon blended in with the roar of the unseen beast. Branches cracked, or were those bones? A fatal ripping followed by a canine yelp.
A long, drawn-out shriek echoed across the valley. Branches snapped. Snarls filled Elkheart’s ears. He raised the rifle and fired a three-round burst into the fog. The shots whizzed between the trees, their final reports echoing across the valley. At least one bullet hit something solid.
The forest grew silent again.
Was it dead?
Elkheart flattened against a tree, watching the mist swirling with the wind. He dug through his backpack. Pulled out the vodka bottle and a jar that contained a rag soaked in kerosene. He stuffed the rag into the bottle, allowing a long strip to hang out. I will not back down. Holding the flame of his lighter beneath the wick of the Molotov cocktail, Elkheart advanced along the path. The forest remained so dead calm he could hear his own heart hammering his chest.
From somewhere in the infinity of trees a twig snapped.
Elkheart stiffened. He listened for the faintest sound. The surrounding pines, like silent observers to this game of cat and mouse, offered nothing.
Another twig cracked, this time sharper.
He lit the wick of the Stoli bottle and threw it toward the sound. The make-shift bomb exploded against the trees, torching two of them. A tall shadow beyond the flames roared and lumbered back into the fog.
Elkheart gripped his gun, backing away. The research couldn’t end like this. Not after all his work. Twenty years of expeditions. Who would be left to warn the ignorant world? He had to escape. He was the last Cree descendent who knew enough to expose the secrets of Macâya Forest.
A woman screamed.
“Amy!” Elkheart left the trail, running between the evergreens toward her crying voice. Branches clawed at his clothes with wooden talons. The girl’s moans echoed off to his left, then shifted to his right, and then strangely, back behind him.
He stopped, confused. “Amy, where are you?”
Her crying changed to mocking laughter, and then Elkheart’s heart seized as he realized he had been tricked. He tried to fire his rifle, but it jammed. He tossed the gun and pulled out his knife. He challenged the fog, “Show yourself!”
From above, hot, blistering air heated Elkheart’s scalp. Something wet and sticky hit the nape of his neck, oozing down his back. He tilted his head up toward the tree and saw a large mouth with a rack of fangs. A shadowy thing was hanging upside down from the branches. Its hands gripped Elkheart by the throat, lifting him high into the air. He released a warrior’s howl and stabbed at the beast with his knife. Elongated fingers noosed around his throat, choking off his air. His dangling legs kicked the tree. His beloved knife fell from his limp hand. As the forest went black, Jon Elkheart heard the lost spirits of his ancestors calling him deeper into the cold and visceral darkness of Macâya Forest.
My shrink says the best way to face your fears is to go back to your roots. To return to the time before innocence was lost. Before a child’s mind witnessed something so horrific that it was forever scarred. The moment of trauma is where the healing journey must begin. But I fear if I dig up my past, the horror will be there waiting for me.
Detective Alex Winterbone
From the novel The Ghosts of Winterbone
by Kyle Elkheart
“Fear wears many skins…” a raspy voice whispered into Kyle Elkheart’s ear while he was sleeping. Cold fingers touched his cheek. “Kyle, wake up…”
He opened his eyes to the dark and saw the blurry outline of someone standing over him. Before Kyle could react, hands gripped his throat, choking. He jerked up in bed and swung blindly, but his fists struck nothing but air.
The hands released his neck. A shadowy shape backed away, merging with the darkness that concealed Kyle’s bedroom.
“Who’s there?” He pushed a set of buttons on the wall, hoping to turn on the lights. Instead, his TV flashed on a channel with white noise and the automatic curtains began to open. Gray light poured in through the high-rise apartment windows. Kyle’s visitor retreated with the shadows to the far corner of the bedroom. Then, like so many mornings before, the ghost sank into the wall.
It’s just another bad dream, Kyle tried to convince himself as he rubbed his aching neck. The feeling that someone’s icy hands had gripped his throat wouldn’t go away. More and more, his nightmares were crossing over into the waking world. Usually Kyle heard noises or saw movement out of the corner of his eye. This was the first time his haunter had tried to physically harm him. What the hell’s happening to me? Kyle lay back in bed, staring up at the ceiling.
At 6:00 a.m. the alarm radio blared and a DJ spoke like he was high on Starbucks. “Goooood morninggggg, Seattle! You’re waking up with Rowdy Roscoe! Forecast for today is fog and rain! The weather may be gloomy, but you don’t have to be—”
Kyle hit the off button, groaning. He started to call his shrink to tell her about the nightmare that had awakened him, but then hung up. He already knew what Dr. Norberg would say: “The ghost is a figment of your imagination, Kyle. Keep journaling and we’ll talk about it on Tuesday.”
He got up and went to the bathroom sink. A reflection with mussed brown hair and a three-day beard stared back at him. He couldn’t believe that last night he had gone out onto the balcony, looked over the rail and imagined what it would be like to free-fall out of his miserable life. He had two voices battling inside his head—one telling him to jump, the other urging him not to give up. After nearly teetering over from vertigo, he had stepped away from the edge and gone back inside. This morning the memory frightened him. What the hell was I thinking? But last night had been a turning point. Kyle was determined to get his life back on course before his shrink sent him to the nuthouse or his haunter convinced him death was the best option.
“You’re not going to waste another day,” Kyle said to the man in the mirror. “No more feeling sorry for yourself.”
He started his wake-up routine with twenty minutes on the treadmill. Streamers of rain trickled down the floor-to-ceiling window. Living in a corner apartment on the fifteenth floor, he had a spectacular view of downtown Seattle and the main harbor, Elliot Bay. Another gray storm enshrouded the seaport city. “Great,” Kyle muttered. He had planned to drive to Lake Union and go kayaking. “Another day trapped indoors.”
As he was doing pushups, he thought he heard a knock on the wall. Footsteps echoed from another part of the apartment. A door clicked shut. What the hell was that? No one lived in his three-bedroom apartment but him. Grabbing a baseball bat, Kyle hurried to the living room. The apartment was quiet now, except for a clock ticking on the wall. He checked the front door. The two deadbolts were still latched. No sign of a break-in. He searched his office and closet. Empty. As he stepped back into the hallway, another sound, like a book falling over, issued from behind the closed third bedroom door. He crept down the hallway, gripping the bat. He listened at the door. The thought of going in that room got his heart racing. This door had remained shut the past two years. He placed his fingers on the knob, then paused.
I’m imagining things again.
Swallowing hard, he turned the knob and pushed the door open with the bat. The smell of paint and turpentine brought back a flood of memories. He struggled to breathe. His trembling hand flipped on the light. The extra bedroom was an art studio with wall-to-wall oil paintings of seaside landscapes, harbors and Seattle skylines, all painted as if seen from a far distance. An unfinished painting of Mt. Rainier sat on an easel. The room was covered in layers of dust.
Venturing inside, he checked behind the door. Empty. Then he checked the walk-in closet. The walls were lined with canvasses and shelved painting supplies. Kyle sighed, shaking his head. Thunder rumbled outside and a heavy rain slapped the windows.
It’s just the storm.
As he was leaving the room he glimpsed a shelf on the wall full of seashells, colored crystals and other knickknacks. In a silver frame was a photo of himself with his late wife Stephanie on a beach in Maui, holding up handfuls of shells. Her auburn hair blew sideways across her face. Her smile almost knocked him to his knees. God, he had loved her.
He rested the photo in a drawer, closed it and left the room.
Today was going to be different. Instead of moping around and watching TV, Kyle was going to get back to his writing. He stepped into his office and fired up the computer. The screen flashed to a desktop image from the movie The Shining: Jack Nicholson’s crazed face peering through a broken door. “Here’s Johnny!” the computer said as it completed its boot up.
He sat at his computer, eager to write the next chapter of his latest Detective Winterbone novel. Kyle’s brain was electric with remnants from last night’s dream: visions of shadowy woods and a village haunted by ghosts. His dark muse had finally returned from her silent crypt. His eyes locked onto the screen, and he typed as fast as his fingers would move.
More pounding startled him. At first Kyle thought his haunter was back, but he traced the pounding to the front door. Kyle peered out the peephole. It was Eric.
“Shit,” Kyle whispered, debating whether to answer. The two hadn’t spoken since their fallout a year ago.
“Kyle, I know you’re home. Open the door.” His brother knocked impatiently.
“Hold on.” Kyle unlatched the deadbolts and opened the door. “What the hell? It’s six-thirty in the morning.”
“I’ve left a dozen messages.” Eric barged into the living room, his soaked shoes and umbrella dripping water onto the carpet. At six-three, he was taller than Kyle and built of solid muscle. Once a star high school quarterback, Eric had been blessed with looks and charisma, which he now used to his advantage as an M and A lawyer at Nelson, Fairbanks and Koch.
Eric had a suspicious gleam in his eyes. “How’s my big brother?”
Kyle crossed his arms. “Writing. What’s up?”
Eric removed his trench coat without being asked to stay. As usual, he was wearing a silver Brooks Brothers suit with a power tie perfectly knotted. “Can we sit?”
Kyle’s heart plummeted as he recognized the somber tone in Eric’s voice. “Shit, something’s happened to Shawna.” Kyle had visions of his sister’s dead body on an ER gurney somewhere. Another OD, this one successful.
“Relax. Shawna’s fine,” Eric assured. “In fact, right now she and her latest freak boyfriend are crashing on my futon.”
Kyle released his breath. Thank God their sister was all right. He couldn’t go through another scare like last year.
Eric’s face remained grim. “Listen, I received a strange call yesterday from Ray Roamingbear.”
Kyle, Eric and their younger sister, Shawna, had been born on a Cree reservation in British Columbia. Their mother, who was white, left their alcoholic father, Jon Elkheart, and moved them to Seattle. It had been a turbulent time in Kyle’s life, because he had been close to his Cree father. In the past twenty years, Kyle had been back to the reservation to visit a number of times. Eric and Shawna, who were estranged from Elkheart, hadn’t been back once. Whenever their cousin, Ray Roamingbear, called out of the blue, it usually was to share bad news about their father.
Kyle braced himself for the worst. “What’s the news?”
“Last month Elkheart went on another drinking binge and disappeared. He didn’t tell anyone he was leaving or where he was going.”
“Shit.” Kyle felt a mixture of fear and disappointment. Every couple years their father, an archaeologist and chronic myth chaser, called asking Kyle to wire money to help fund some expedition or, when his father went through a bad bender, bail him out of a drunk-tank. “Does Ray have any clue where Dad went?”
“Nothing.” Eric went to the fridge and helped himself to a bottle of Evian. “Ray thinks Elkheart took off to South America on another one of his treasure hunts. My bet is he’s probably passed out again and doesn’t know where the fuck he is.”
Kyle stared out the window at the drizzling rain and the fog shrouding downtown Seattle. “The last time Dad and I spoke he said he had quit drinking and started going to AA.”
“Elkheart called you?” Kyle thought he heard jealousy in Eric’s voice. Talking about their father had always been a sensitive subject.
“Yeah, last summer.” Kyle gazed at a bookshelf that had a framed photo of himself with his father on one of their camping trips. “I went to visit him for a weekend at the reservation. Dad looked great. Happy for once. He had a new university job and a steady girlfriend. He’s been making an effort to turn his life around.”
“Elkheart never asked me up for a visit,” Eric grumbled.
An awkward silence fell between them. There had to be more to the story, because Eric wouldn’t have bothered to visit otherwise. Eager to get back to writing, Kyle wished his brother would cut to the chase. “Any other news?”
“Yeah, Ray said that he and Grandfather Two Hawks are the last tribe members living on the reservation. And check this out…with Elkheart M.I.A. or whatever, you, me and Shawna are the last descendents of the tribe. Ray and Grandfather have something to pass on to us. Something our father was supposed to give us years ago.”
“Did Ray say what it was?”
Eric shook his head. “He said we have to come up to Canada to find out. He invited us all to visit the reservation. Shawna and I have already agreed to go. She’s bringing what’s-his-face, and I’m taking Jessica.”
“I thought you were dating Stella.”
Eric laughed. “Man, you’ve been out of touch. I see Stella when I’m in Portland. There’s Rachel in Vegas and Kristen in L.A. Jessica’s the one I’ve been dating in Seattle.”
Kyle shook his head. “I don’t even bother to keep up anymore.” He ushered his brother toward the door. “You guys have a great time in Canada. Send me a postcard.”
“Actually…” Eric cleared his throat. “We were hoping you could break away for a few days and go with us. Maybe even fly us there in your plane.”
And there it was—the sales pitch Kyle had been waiting for. “I can’t. I’ve…” Kyle looked down at a stack of unedited chapters on the coffee table. “I need to focus on finishing my book. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”
“What better place to write than a remote cabin?” Eric flashed the smile he used to win over clients. “The fresh mountain air could do wonders for your writing. Think about it. This is a chance for all three of us to travel back to our childhood home. Reconnect with our Cree heritage.”
Or find out why we’re all so screwed up. A week in the mountains with his brother and one of his bimbo girlfriends was not a selling point, but Kyle did miss his sister and was slightly curious as to what his native relatives had for them. There was also the off chance that their father might show up, assuming he wasn’t rehabbing at a hacienda in the Mexican desert.
Kyle remained on the fence.
Eric switched his tone to begging. “Come on, it’s been ages since the three of us did anything together. We’ve all had it pretty tough since Mom passed away. It would be good for all of us if we made this trip a family vacation.”
Kyle gave his brother a sideways look. “Since when did you start caring so much about doing things with me and Shawna?”
“Since we almost lost her last year. If you won’t go for me, at the very least go for Shawna. She needs her brothers to steer her in the right direction.” Eric walked up and put a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “What do you say?”
Kyle looked around at the apartment that had grown tomblike since his wife’s death two years ago. His shrink had diagnosed him as borderline agoraphobic. Except to buy groceries or go kayaking alone, he rarely ventured outside. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten together with his siblings. Lately, Kyle’s only company had been the ghost that walked the apartment at night, whispering strange phrases into his ear. A vacation in the mountains might be just the thing. He sighed. “Okay, you win. When do you guys want to leave?”
His brother grinned. “Tomorrow at the crack of dawn.”
THE DEVIL’S WOODS is now available.
My website: www.BrianMoreland.com
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