Gather round, readers! It’s time for a Halloween tale that will send a shiver down your spine. This one comes courtesy of East Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale, who grew up in the towns of Mount Enterprise and Gladewater and today lives in Nacogdoches. Lansdale has an affinity for all things creepy and camp. To take a milder example, one of his novellas (1994’s Bubba Ho-Tep) finds Elvis Presley and a man who believes himself to be John F. Kennedy chasing down an undead Egyptian mummy. Born for Trouble, the sixteenth book in his Hap and Leonard mystery series, will be published in March.
As a kid in the 1960s in a sleepy rural community, Lansdale had a lot of time to kill. He spent much of it getting into trouble with his friends along the Sabine River, a slow-winding, moss-draped, five-hundred-plus-mile stretch that traverses the Texas-Louisiana border. A Texas Monthly writer once compared this overlooked waterway to “a giant water snake slithering through an ancestral dream,” which certainly fits with the mood of this story. We’re excerpting it with permission from the book Viva Texas Rivers! Adventures, Misadventures, and Glimpses of Nirvana along Our Storied Waterways, edited by Steven L. Davis and Sam L. Pfiester. The book is forthcoming on November 15 from Texas A&M University Press and available for preorder now.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I went down in the deep woods and along the banks of the Sabine River on a regular basis. We went there to fish, to camp, to hang out, and in that special teenage boy way, be stupid. From time to time, as part of a Boy Scout excursion, or on our own, we cruised down that long, mud-brown river in boats, inner tubes, and rafts.
The Sabine is a long and narrow river, but it has a sense of mystery about it. Jack Kerouac called the river and its banks the Mansion of the Snake in his famous novel, On the Road. He called it an “evil old river” and said, “We could almost hear the slither of a million copperheads.”
Had he listened better, he would have heard the cottonmouth water moccasins as well, the snake that we as kids, and I admit as an adult, were most frightened of. I have heard snake experts say how they are not aggressive or particularly dangerous, and I take them at their study and salute their expertise, but from time to time we had them climb into our boats or rear up in surprise—the surprise belonging to both the snakes and us—along the river banks where we treaded, toting fishing gear and camping supplies. Fortunately, we all had a spring in our step and the ability to temporarily levitate in a snake’s presence, so therefore, none of us were bitten.
Certainly, there was nothing more disconcerting than to be floating along in an inner tube, legs dangling down through the hole in the tube, looking up to see several moccasin heads poking out of the water near us, swimming along on the muddy current with remarkable swiftness, causing us to wish we were in boats, or better yet, on shore, or perhaps home in our living rooms.
At night, the river and the woods were a crawling black velvet of sound. Things unseen moved along the river bank, slithered or crawled or pranced between the thick growths of trees that ran for miles. Sometimes the splashes were quite loud and you could hear the water ripple, and if the light was right, you might see those ripples in the moonlight, but rarely the instigator. Alligators maybe, though I never saw any back then, except for a dead one in the back of a pickup at a feed store. Still, I knew they were out there and heard splashes that had to be attributed to lizards of the economy size. Alligators were a rarity at that time, due to overhunting, but since those days, they have gained considerable ground and can now be seen in ponds and lakes and crawling along the shores of the Sabine, dipping into the water like scaly submarines.
Other animals moved through the woods as well. Possums and coons, wild hogs, bobcats and such, maybe even panthers, though that’s a much-debated topic. There were those who believed Bigfoot prowled the river bottoms, and even some suggested something more sinister, a companion of the Devil himself, the goat man. The goat man supposedly lived near what was called the Swinging Bridge, which was a dilapidated cable bridge that had formerly been used by the oil companies before the oil played out and towns along the river went from being overnight boom towns to being overnight mud holes or sleepy bergs inhabited by a lingering collection of oil field workers, prostitutes, and poor people, Black and white and lost all over.
Creatures like the goat man seemed to always have some sort of mischief in mind, lingering like one of the Billy Goat Gruff family under the swinging bridge, seemingly on an endless mission to grab someone and drag them to hell.
He was supposedly ripe with a stunning stench that was due to his habit of bending over to pee on his beard. He caught you, you were doomed, because he would kill you slowly and horribly and drag your soul off to hell, said soul reeking of goat urine.
In short time, I learned that the mythical goat man couldn’t match the cruelty of human beings. Bad things happened down there in the bottoms and along the river from time to time. There were people who lived on or near the banks of the Sabine who were fine folk, and there were others who were not. That old river could carry blood just as easily as hope.
But sometimes, just the night and what naturally lived there were enough to send a thrill up your spine. I remember going with friends down into the dark depths of the woods, alongside the river, and the mystery that I felt is as fresh in memory as the aroma of baked bread. We were teenagers with first-time car licenses and nothing much to do but ride the roads and explore, talk about girls and how tough we were. Once, cruising a black-top road and later a road made of red clay and scattered gravel, we parked in a clearing where lightning or a careless camper had caused a fire and blackened the earth.
From there we walked through a growth of trees to an old cemetery that one among us knew about, had discovered while hunting, perhaps. Through the trees, you could hear the nearby river gurgle and flow, splash at the banks, wandering on down to the Gulf of Mexico.
I remember us using flashlights to look at the dates on the tombstones. They were old, and a number of the mossy stones leaned out from their graves or were tumbled onto the earth, grass having grown up around them like pesky nose hairs.
Many of the graves had caved in. Some had fragments of wood inside them that may have been the remains of ancient coffins. I remember flashing my light into the open graves, expecting to see bones, but I did not. I know it was then that the idea of being buried went out of my head. I would rather be cremated. My ashes carried away by the wind, or washed away by the rolling river, carried all over the world by the tides. I found it far more appealing than being a plug for a hole in the ground. My corpse withering, my coffin dissolved by rust, worms growing fat on my flesh, animals happily gnawing my bones.
One of the times we came to the cemetery, one of our group brought a recorder. A device that would be crude by modern standards, with a spinning tape and heavy buttons that required determination and strong fingers to activate and stop.
Recorded on the tape was the heart-wrenching sound of a dying rabbit, or at least an imitation of one. The noise a dying or injured rabbit made was of the sort that could cause the backbone to shift and the contents of your stomach to curdle.
We turned out all the flashlights, and then the recording was turned on. The plaintive cry of a suffering rabbit filled the air, and as we sat there, bright eyes gradually appeared around the perimeter of the cemetery. The owners of those eyes were unseen, and I can’t honestly tell you what sort of critters they belonged to. I could imagine slinking coyotes or red wolves—or at least their dog-mixed descendants—licking their lips. Hot little eyes like golden cigarette tips burning holes through black velvet. Gradually the eyes came closer, and when we could stand it no longer, flashlights were flicked on. It was as if the owners of those eyes were made of shadows. They disappeared into the trees and undergrowth so fast, there was only a slight rustle and a sensation of having imagined it all. Our lights couldn’t find them.
On one occasion when we were there, planning to camp but soon forgoing the idea due to the eeriness of the location, we left so quickly I forgot my transistor radio. Turned out the woods were too deep for radio waves anyway. Only static buzzed in my transistor. I placed it next to a tombstone, and it wasn’t until I was home, woke up late in the day, that I realized the radio had been forgotten.
I saddled up my ’64 Chevy Impala and drove out there, bringing a cane fishing pole, weights and sinkers, hooks and worms I dug from the backyard. I had an aluminum chair with me, a cheap thing my mother had rescued from a dump somewhere, cleaned up and put on the front porch for a while, but eventually for some reason, it ended up folded and leaned against a tee in the backyard, along with an old washing machine and a fire pit for trash. I thought if I had to go out there and look for my radio, I might as well fish a bit, maybe bring something home large enough to eat.
When I arrived at the cemetery, I located the radio immediately. Where at night the cemetery was mysterious and scary, in the day it was merely sad. I knew without consciously considering it that I would never go back, and I knew too I never wanted anyone to play that dying rabbit tape for me again. Imitated or not, it gave me the willies and made me feel a bit less than human.
I placed the little radio in my car and drove down the road a short distance, parked, grabbed my fishing business, draped the lawn chair over my arm, walked to where the river widened and so did the bank. I had fished there a few times before with some success, and I liked the spot. You could sit and look out at a sandbar that was more of a small island. I made up stories in my head about being on that sandbar, unable to reach the shore, trapped there by raging waters.
I sat for a long time, not really worrying about catching a fish but enjoying having time alone with my thoughts.
Sunset on the river, the big orange orb swelling like a paint spill, tumbling its dying light onto the river, was a beautiful sight. Purple stains streaked the sky above the descending orange sun, and shadows clung to the trees like black crepe paper.
And then I saw something strange. Across the narrow river, backed by the dying sunlight, a great black cloud rose from the trees and climbed high to the sky like a flying ink blot.
The cloud moved through the trees, headed in my direction. It was more disturbing than the cemetery at night, with the eyes all around and that horrid rabbit sound. It wasn’t until too late that I realized what it was.
It was a great wad of mosquitoes, rising into the night sky in search of prey. That would be me. The cloud moved across the river. I hastily gathered up my stuff and headed out. The cloud moved faster and there was a buzzing sound and I began to move more swiftly. Then the buzzing sound was louder than before, and I began to run. I couldn’t hang onto the chair or the fishing goods. I let it all go, sped through the dying light toward my car.
Instantly, I was being poked and blood-sucked by an endless number of miniature winged vampires. That cloud was so thick, it was as if a dark bag had been pulled over my head. I swatted at them. I could feel them go wet in my hands, but when one was squished, another took its place. They seemed like an infinity of insects.
It was so bad, I veered toward the river, stepped off the bank and into the water. I went up to my waist, but still they came, swarming around me, biting my face, neck, the top of my head. They buzzed in my ears. They slipped up my nose and into my mouth.
I held my breath and ducked down into the water, washed the ones on me away, but when I came up, their comrades were there. I ducked again and came up with handfuls of mud that I slapped on my face, the top of my head. I waded back toward shore. I had lost a shoe. I started to run, the lack of one shoe giving me a feeling that I was running with one muddy, socked foot in a trench. The other shoe squeaked and squirted water.
The mosquitoes came with me. They continued to attack my face, but now they were biting me through my shirt. I could feel them moving under my hair. The way I was leaping and running and slapping, I must have looked like a clown act at the circus.
I made it to my Impala, jerked open the door, and slipped inside, splashing water and mud across my seats, dripping the same from my sock and single shoe onto the floorboard.
That wall of mosquitoes covered the windshield, and soon all the windows were darkened, and then the night came down full and moonless, and it was darker yet. I think the night and the car finally deterred them.
I had itchy bumps forming all over me from the mosquitoes. I turned on my lights and turned around and drove out of there, alongside the river for a while, until the road widened and drifted through a split in the trees. The road was red clay there, hard and polished by heat and time, and finally I broke out of the bottom land and onto a black top, greasy looking in the pale starlight.
I remember those roads and those mosquito bites like it was yesterday. My face bumped up and was red, and my eyes nearly swelled closed. I remember too that I never went back for my fishing goods, or that lawn chair. At least I went home with my transistor radio.
Excerpted with permission from Viva Texas Rivers! Adventures, Misadventures, and Glimpses of Nirvana along Our Storied Waterways, edited by Steven L. Davis and Sam L. Pfiester, Texas A&M University Press.