I'm not just ranking my Top 20 Horror Movies and my Top 20 Horror Novels for you as I celebrate Halloween all month long here in the Land of Way. I'm also going to share some short fiction with you.
This is a story that is near and dear to me because while there are many things that I excel at in this life, fishing simply isn't one of them. I like fishing, so my shortcomings in this arena are difficult to shrug off. Maybe that's why I chose to write this tale, to convince myself that it could be worse. No, if I'm going to be completely honest with you, this is one of those short stories that was inspired by a particularly vivid nightmare. I imagine that many of my fellow writers who toil within the horror genre have translated bad dreams into grim yarns. Hopefully you guys will enjoy my attempt to do just that as much as I enjoy fishing.
Here There Be Monsters
by James Wayland
The pole was heavy in his hands. A salty breeze washed over him, threatening to dislodge his cap. It was chilly, but he was comfortable despite the fact that he was wearing nothing but a pair of cutoffs and a ragged tee shirt. He had kicked off his sandals earlier and the cold sand felt good beneath his feet.
Still, Barrett was starting to think that he was wasting his time. He reeled in the piece of squid he was using for bait and cast it out again. Despite all the weight he had added to his line, he still couldn’t get it as far out as he wanted it. The night sky was dark and the moon was presently concealed behind a rolling grey mass of clouds, but it was easy enough to spot the white slashes of foam where the waves were breaking. He wanted to loft his little clump of squid ten to twenty feet beyond those telltale flashes of white, but he kept coming up short. The long pole just wasn’t flexible enough to allow him to cast like he wanted to, no matter how many sinkers he used.
The big man grimaced, wondering if he should just call it a night. This seemed to be a waste of time. There was no one else fishing along the shore, at least not in this vicinity, though there was a lot of activity down at the pier. It was so far away that he could make out little more than lights and movement, but he was fairly certain that there was more action to be had there. He didn’t want to stand elbow to elbow with a bunch of fisherman, though. He wanted solitude.
Of course, if things had gone according to plan, he would have spent this night on a boat, fishing the deep waters of the Atlantic. Perhaps he would have taken a twelve hour trip, and that might have allowed enough time for the captain to guide the vessel into the gulf. Yet things had not gone according to plan and there would be no deep sea fishing this weekend. With that in mind, Barrett wanted to be alone. He wasn’t sulking, but he just wasn’t in the mood for company either.
Nestling the rod in the crook of his arm, Barrett eased his flask out of his hip pocket and took a pull. The searing heat in his chest was a welcome diversion, so he took another pull before putting the flask away. “Come on,” he said aloud, “Something has to be cruising along the shore. Have a bite to eat, why don’t you?”
He shook his head. It was a waste of time. An angler who did most of his fishing on various riverbanks, he was totally out of his element here. Charter fishing from a boat was one thing, but this shore fishing business wasn't working for him. He had spent a small fortune on this giant pole and the tackle that he needed to outfit it, but trying to fish the ocean from the beach was a far cry from booking a boat or working to land a mudcat or a rainbow trout from a riverbank.
No, Barrett didn’t know what he was doing, but he was pretty sure that he was doing it wrong. Hell, he wasn’t able to cast his bait out more than thirty feet or so, and the tide was sending it back to him in a matter of minutes despite all those massive sinkers and the weight they provided.
This was idiotic, and while he didn’t want to visit the ocean without doing a little fishing, this felt more like a misguided attempt than actual sport. Next time, he wouldn't let anyone spoil his plans. Next time, he would be out there in a boat, having fun while the captain and his mates did all the fretting. Cursing, the big man returned the pole to the crook of his arm and dug the flask out of his pocket once more. He took another deep pull. He followed this with another, and then another, draining it.
Well, shore fishing was a losing effort, but he was going to succeed at getting drunk. The scotch was already making him feel a bit too warm and fuzzy for his own good. Of course, Barrett was a man who could hold his liquor, and catching a little buzz while he fished was nothing new. In truth, the big man felt that fishing and drinking went hand in hand.
Feeling a little better now that a familiar fire was at work in his chest, Barrett let himself enjoy the view. The black water crashing into the sand was an awesome spectacle, an endless expanse of darkness that rose and fell, pounding the beach and then slithering backward before unleashing another attack. It was massive and hypnotic, timeless and fearsome, a sight that should make any man feel utterly slight by comparison. It was the sea, and on this cloudy night, it was one giant mass of darkness, thrashing against the beach and daring any man who stood beneath that starless sky to enter its warm embrace. Yes, it was an amazing sight, but there was something spooky about that black water thrashing at his feet. Barrett shivered, wishing there was more scotch in his flask.
At once, the massive rod in his hand bowed over. The big man stumbled toward the water, stunned. There came another fierce tug and he tried to reel. “Damn,” he muttered, sweat popping up on his brow. He pulled back on the pole, working the reel for all he was worth, but it was slow going. “Got something big,” Barrett exclaimed. “Got something very big!” He looked around, wondering if there was anyone approaching who could appreciate this stroke of luck, but he was still alone.
He tried to take a step back, but there was another tug, and this was one was hard enough to drag him forward. Instead of a step backward, Barrett took two big steps forward, stumbled, and fell to his knees. He nearly lost the rod, but somehow he maintained his grip and fought his way back to his feet. “Son of a whore,” he cried. There came another stiff breeze and this time he did lose his cap, but he was too involved in his struggle with whatever he had hooked to care. He continued to crank the reel, but the line was screaming and he knew that he was paying out more than he was managing to haul in.
Barrett tightened the drag and continued to fight, leaning back with the rod and digging his heels into the cold sand. Yet he was still giving ground, and soon that rolling black water was splashing against his ankles. “Come on, you,” he shouted angrily, working the reel. There could be no doubt that he had hooked something huge, something far larger than anything he had landed before, to include the monster catfish that he had pulled out of the James River when he was in his teens. He was practically a pup then, and the years had been kind. Barrett was much bigger and much stronger now, but he was still losing this battle. It felt like he was trying to reel in a Buick.
The pole was doubled over, but it hadn’t snapped, at least not yet it hadn’t, so maybe it was worth what he had paid for it. Yet despite all his strength, he wasn’t getting anywhere with this son of a bitch. He was still swearing and cranking the reel for all he was worth, but he was getting nowhere. Barrett was forced to take another big step forward and now the ocean was washing against his shins. The water was warm, much warmer than he had anticipated.
The wet sand gave him little purchase, and before he knew it he was taking another big step forward. The next wave to fall upon the shore struck him in the knees. A vicious yank nearly tore the pole from his grasp, but Barrett gritted his teeth and held fast, grunting as he pulled the pole toward his chest.
This was incredible! He was willing to bet that no one over at that pier had hooked anything like this tonight, but could he bring the damn thing ashore? Furthermore, did he want to? He had no way of knowing just what he had hooked, but even as he was pulled forward again, finding himself waist-deep in that monstrous black sea, he knew that he couldn’t let go.
“You’re coming to land, you bastard,” he howled, finally managing a step backward. He reeled furiously, and fought his way back, willing himself toward the beach. The next wave merely slammed into his knees whereas he had been standing in waist-deep water seconds before. The big man chuckled even as a big drop of sweat fell from his nose. “Getting tired now, are you? Well, there’ll be no rest for you!”
In response, there was a rumble in the distance that may have been thunder and a powerful splash from somewhere nearby. It may have been his fish breaking the surface, but he didn’t see anything. Still, he was encouraged, and he continued to reel like a madman, working furiously to bring the fish in. Perhaps it was merely wishful thinking, but he thought there was less protest from his reel as he toiled. Maybe the big bastard was wearing itself out, and surely he was making some serious progress as he labored. The muscles in his shoulders and back were beginning to ache and he was perspiring freely.
There was another splash, this one closer than the first, and he thought he saw the rolling black water offer up a plume of white foam some twenty-five feet ahead. “Yes,” he shouted. “Come on, damn you.” He pulled back on the pole again, feeling the line jerk to and fro as his catch thrashed in the surf. He was grinning now, eager to see just what he was working against.
Suddenly there was another mighty pull, as though the big fish was making one last attempt to escape his clutches. Barrett had allowed himself to relax just a little bit, and the wet rod slipped from his grasp. “No,” he shouted, lunging forward even as his pole hit the water. He was hefty, but he was also quick, and as he dove forward he found the reel with his right hand. Even as he submerged, closing his eyes to avoid the sting of the saltwater, he clutched his pole against his chest. The water receded as he struggled to his knees, leaving him in maybe two and a half feet of water. Undeterred, he was starting to reel again even as another wave slammed into him.
Barrett went to his back, refusing to release his grip on the pole. First, he was knocked toward the shore by that black ocean. Then, even as he fought to get his feet under him without sacrificing his grip on the rod, he was yanked away from the beach by the tide. He slipped beneath the surface again, clinging to the pole with all of his considerable might with his right hand while he clawed at the sand beneath him with his left, fighting desperately to right himself. Finally he managed to get his big feet under him, digging into the bottom with his toes as he stood.
He took a deep breath, his wet skin breaking into gooseflesh as a stout gust of wind assailed him. Now the water was nearly up to his chest, but he didn’t bother with trying to back up. He was too busy working the reel, raising it nearly even with his broad shoulders and trying desperately to regain any ground he had lost with his big catch. He had been through far too much now to lose it.
His beefy chest heaving, his muscles burning from exertion, Barrett fought. He cursed some more and he reeled even harder, his bloodshot eyes narrowing into vicious slants. Nothing mattered but reeling, so reel he did.
Soon he was rewarded with a splash some ten to fifteen feet directly in front of him. He caught a glimpse of a massive fish rolling on the surface. He was too tired to shout, but a triumphant laugh escaped him, and he did take a big step back then. He pulled the pole tight against his chest and took another big step backward, moving closer to the shore. Now he was standing waist-deep in that black water, fighting to land something huge that was getting closer and closer to the shore. Yes, the fish was big and the ocean was fierce, but victory was almost his.
This had Barrett thinking that shore fishing wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Whatever he had hooked, he didn’t doubt that it would be far larger than that enormous catfish he had caught in the James River. He had waited a long time to top that one, but he had a feeling that tonight he was reeling in something that could take a big bite out of that fish. He didn’t know what it was, and, in truth, while he was rather adept at inland fishing and could readily identify any freshwater catch, he wasn’t even sure that he would know what this thing was once he managed to bring it in. It didn’t matter. He was having a hell of a war out here beneath the night sky, and he had the biggest fish that he had ever hooked on the end of his line. He would find out what it was later. This would be a story that he would tell his grandchildren one day, and this would be a struggle that he would remember for the rest of his life.
He was tired, he was sweaty, and he was standing in the warmth of the ocean, but the smile on Barrett’s face was a testament to his current joy. He cursed merrily, cranking on the reel and watching as the fish broke the surface once again. Oh, what a catch, and now that big mother was hardly ten feet away.
The big man managed another step back even as the ocean receded and now the black water was even with his thighs. His nervous system came alive then, screaming of some eminent danger that he had yet to behold. Puzzled, Barrett ignored this powerful sense of dread and continued to work the reel. The fear grew stronger and the big man tried to swallow only to find that his mouth had gone dry. That's when a massive black shape shattered the surface of that black sea right where his catch had broken the surface mere seconds before, little more than a dozen feet before him. This creature born of darkness made Barrett’s catch appear to be woefully insignificant. It was true, the big man knew little about the fish of the ocean, but that huge dorsal fin and that conical snout were unmistakable.
Even as the strongest wave that he had encountered thus far plowed into him, Barrett’s rod was ripped from his steely grip. The shark had taken his fish, but that was of little consequence now. The wave had toppled him and a raw terror the likes of which he had never known was now hell-bent on consuming him. Barrett fought against the current and his raging nerves, digging his fingers into the bottom and trying to right himself. There was no use, he was knocked forward, his face pressing against the sand, and then he was dragged backward as the wave receded. His need to flee had never been greater, but the ocean was a cruel mistress and she had no intention of releasing him.
Finally, Barrett fought his way to the surface, laboring for breath amid that dreadful current. It was as if that black ocean was trying to pull him to his doom. Now the water was up to his chin, and he wasted no time in turning his bulk toward the shore. He had seen the shark for but a second and he didn’t know what kind it was or just how big it was. He only knew that it was incredibly large, several times as big as whatever it was he had been trying to reel in. Was it a man-eater? Was it ten feet long? Fifteen? Longer? He had no way of knowing and he didn’t care to find out.
As he tried to fight his way toward the shore, he felt a surge in the ocean. A swell lifted him upward, his feet dangling in the black water. He wanted to turn and look to see if the monster was upon him, but he was too scared to do so. He thrashed against the sea instead, screaming as something that felt like sandpaper brushed against his leg and another swell in the water forced him to his left. Barrett beat at the surface, trying to yank himself forward. Another wave pushed him toward the beach and he did his best to ride it, spreading his arms and raising his feet behind him. He glided through the water, gaining precious ground, but an instant later the current was hauling him backward.
“No,” he wailed, “No, damn you!” Then he was coughing as his chin dipped beneath the surface and he gulped down a mouthful of saltwater. He slipped under and the awful tide yanked him farther from the shore. He was beneath the water for so long that he became convinced that he was going to drown, but somehow he fought his way back to the surface, refusing to give up. He was a little drunk, but he was also a strong swimmer. He took a quick look ahead and saw that the beach had become little more than a band of white that was receding in the distance. He thought he saw his sandals, but he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter, he would never wear them again. The icy terror that gripped him had blossomed into something much worse. A terrible certainty had ensnared him, dousing his horror with anguish.
Now he did look over his shoulder, and somehow his eyes were able to discern the monster even though it was little more than a dark silhouette framed against a merciless sky and all that angry black water. The shark seemed to rise up behind him, appearing to tower over him, that horrible mouth stretching into a jagged grin as the darkness that surrounded Barrett finally enveloped him.