THE LIGHTS ON CARSON'S HILL by Ray O'Bannon
I think I've got a problem here. And I probably should have seen it coming from the beginning, but I just wasn't paying attention. Nothing new there. I mean, this was hardly the first time I've ignored everyone's warning and proceeded to do something spectacularly stupid. But I should have listened to Eddy and stayed clear of Carson's Hill.
Eddy ran the gas station on the edge of the tiny village where I had rented a cottage. My ambitions as a photographer had led me out here into the countryside, where I hoped to find the sort of subject matter that resonated within the viewer, spoke to their soul. I thought I'd find it here someplace, in the weathered boards or hiding behind bags of grain at the feed store, clinking those empty bottles in the alley behind the little tavern, pretending to be the wind. I wanted to capture the soul of this place with my camera. And then I wanted to return to the city with the sort of photographs that just completely blow people away, y'know? Well, maybe I should have just stuck with doing wedding portraits.
After moving my things into the newly acquired cottage, I had walked up and down the dirt streets of the little town, which was an entire three blocks long and two blocks wide. The weight of the camera around my neck gave me a sense of preparedness, a sense of being ready. But nothing caught my artistic attention, so I found myself drifting into the gas station for a Coke. As I opened the screen door and stepped inside, I noticed the usual sort of pop machine and potato chip racks standing in a corner to my right. To my left stood Eddy, a tall leathery man in oil stained coveralls. He had been leaning over the splayed guts of a Buick carburetor, scowling at the various pieces. But now he was scowling at me.
"Pop machine. Thing's busted, just takes your money. Wadda ya want?" He stood staring at me as though defying me to answer incorrectly.
"Coke?" I stammered weakly. He seemed satisfied at that, and bent down to open a small cooler beneath the counter. Wiping most of the grease from his hand onto a rag that wasn't much cleaner, he pulled forth a Coke and held it out towards me. His gaze now fell on the camera hanging around my neck.
"You a phodey grapher?"
It took me a moment to realize he meant 'photographer', and the way he was now glaring at my camera made me tremendously reluctant to respond.
"Whatcha think you're gonna find to take pictures of around HERE?" he asked, his scowl deepening.
"Well, sort of just whatever speaks to me creatively..." I trailed off feeling like a complete idiot.
"With a Canon T70?" He continued to glare at the camera for a moment. "I'd think you'd wanna have somethin' more like a T80 or maybe a Nikon D100."
I just stood staring for a moment, and then Eddy smiled as he pulled himself a Coke from the cooler, and we spent the next hour chatting about how Digital compares to 35mm film.
We were grinning over a joke as I prepared to leave, but then something I said caused the scowl to return to Eddy's bristly face.
"You say you rented a cottage? Not that little yellow one out past Harker's Road, the old Dawson place?"
The little house was indeed yellow, although a good portion of the paint had long since flaked off, and the name Dawson was still visible on the side of the rusty old mailbox. "I guess so."
"Ah geez" mumbled Eddy.
What really drove me nuts was that Eddy wouldn't explain. It was as though his reaction had slipped out before he could catch himself, and now he felt embarrassed at having said anything. "Just a bunch of kid's stories 'bout ghosts and such, nothin' you need to go worryin' about." And Eddy's smile was back, but it looked a little forced. "It's a nice little place, you'll do fine out there." Making my way home, I looked up to watch an ugly grey storm cloud devouring what was left of the day.
I saw the lights for the first time a few nights later. My cottage sat a short distance outside of the little town, within easy walking distance but far enough out to feel secluded. The windows in the back of the house, where my computer was set up, faced the empty overgrown fields behind the cottage. Beyond the fields, perhaps half a mile away, was a small hill with a large dead tree standing in the center. As I looked up from my monitor screen, intending to rest my eyes for a moment, I noticed something odd out there in the darkness. There seemed to be a faint green light floating around out there in the night. Puzzled, I walked around to the back of the house and stood gazing into the darkness. Yes, there was definitely a light floating around out there. My rational mind began insisting it was someone with a lantern, but I couldn't image what anyone would be doing out there with a green lantern. Before I could consider it further, the light seemed to shimmer oddly and then fade to nothing. I remained standing there for quite a while, gazing into the night, wondering what I had seen. Eventually I returned to the computer, but my dreams later that night were unusually vivid and unpleasant.
Over the next several weeks I noticed the lights many times. Rather than a single light, there would now appear three or four at a time. They would float around the little hilltop, never straying far from there. And of course I had considered the obvious by this time...what incredible photographs this would make! I didn't care if it was ghosts or just kids with lanterns at this point (although I certainly began to care later). All I was interested in was getting the shots. The first few dozen photos I took from behind my cottage captured vague images of the dim green lights in the distance, but I quickly realized this wasn't what I was after. I didn't want some blurry smudge glowing in the distance. I wanted to see up close what these lights were, wanted to capture the eerie green glow they cast across the hillside, wanted to take the viewer out to that ancient dead tree to experience this odd nocturnal spectacle. But that's where the situation started to really bother me. You see, every time I started out across that overgrown field, ever single time, the same thing happened. The lights would seem to shimmer for a little while as I advanced, and then fade into nothing before I could get anywhere near them. Every damn time.
For a while I tried to just focus my attention on what I had come here for, and roaming around the little town provided a wealth of interesting photographic subjects. But I just couldn't seem to concentrate and capture good images. Nothing here had any real visual impact compared to those weird green lights, and I began to realize how much this whole situation was beginning to bug me. Also, my frequent bad dreams were becoming full-blown nightmares lately. I must have looked a little worn down by the time I reached Eddies' screen door, because instead of handing me a Coke, he pulled a couple of bottles of beer from the cooler and motioned for me to follow him into the back office.
"You been having problems out there at night, ain't ya?" He scowled across the cluttered desktop.
"Well, there are some kids with lights playing around on the hill some nights" I admitted. And I started telling him how puzzled I was that these kids could see me coming out there across the darkened fields, and douse their lights before I got near. But an ironic grin was spreading across Eddy's face as I spoke, and he finally interrupted me with a snort.
"Ain't no kids. It's them damn fairy lights. Ain't nobody told you yet?" Eddie smiled grimly at my blank expression for a moment, and then continued. "I 'spose it's best if you hear it from me, since I seen 'em once or twice myself. See, everybody around here knows about 'em, we just don't discuss it much. Ain't wise to talk much about it."
Eddy explained how the distant hill was named 'Carson's Hill' because that was the name of the man hung from the ancient tree at its center. It had all happened more than a hundred years ago, so the details were seldom agreed upon by anyone. All that was officially recorded in the county records was that Fredrick H. Carson had been hung on Halloween night. The local folk, however, had all heard since childhood about how Fred Carson had been a horrible, miserable person. His three sons had all died under mysterious circumstances, and eventually his wife perished as well. The farm became overgrown, and strange rumors began to spread around the village. Although lights were no longer seen in the Carson farmhouse, people said Carson could frequently be heard chanting in the night, his voice spilling from the darkened windows. And some claimed the old man had summoned something unnatural into existence, something bad. When the villagers found Carson's body hanging from the huge old oak tree, they also found a second nasty suprise. His entire farmhouse had vanished. Not a single board remained to show that anything manmade had ever stood there. And whatever had happened that Halloween night was said to be the cause of the fairy lights that were seen from time to time ever since.
Eddy finished his tale with a warning that made my blood run cold. "I'd stay clear of it! Folks say it's fairies comin' to sanctify the ground, or make the seasons change or some such, but I think it's something evil. Ain't natural at all, and if I was you I'd just stay clear of it."
His words echoed through my mind as I returned to the cottage, and I should really have just listened to him. But that night there were at least seven lights dancing around out there on the hilltop, and this time I was able to get a little closer before they shimmered into nothingness. The photographs showed enough to confirm my impression. These weren't lanterns being held by children. It seemed the children themselves were glowing.
They were still far too distant to be seen clearly in the photographs, but I had witnessed and recorded what seemed to be the glowing forms of children dancing around on the hilltop. I was growing desperate to get a better look at them, and felt I might finally have the chance if I just kept trying. You see, the lights had seemed brighter as autumn had deepened across the countryside, and Halloween was now only three nights away.
I was much too nervous to bother carving a pumpkin, something I usually looked forward to. But I picked up plenty of candy bars at the grocery store before sundown. And when the handful of local children came knocking, I enjoyed my traditional prank of opening the door as fast as possible and loudly screaming "GOTCHA!" Any little monster brave enough to still be standing there was rewarded with several candy bars, and I found myself having a pretty good time as the evening wore on. But as the village grew quiet and the hour grew late, I began feeling tremendously uneasy. I sat staring out the back window into the darkness of Halloween Night. The darkness is always somehow different on Halloween, have you noticed that? It's not something I can explain, but I've always been aware of it. Anyhow, I sat staring out across the empty fields, knowing the lights would be appearing at any moment. And I couldn't help being eager to race out to greet them.
I knew Eddy might be right. The lights might be something bad, but what if they were something wonderful? What if Eddy was just reacting like most folks, suspicious and afraid of anything they didn't understand? It was so easy to cast the unknown as 'evil' when it might actually be something positive, something magical and amazing. Wouldn't it be remarkable to photograph actual fairies? So of course my mind was made up, and it was just a matter of waiting for the lights to appear. When they finally arrived, there were at least thirty of them.
The tall weeds choking the field made progress slow and difficult, but I began making my way out into the darkness, stopping every now and then to photograph the incredible glowing spectacle out there on Carson's Hill. As I grew gradually nearer, the individual forms became more distinct. The glowing children were dancing around the base of the old dead tree, waving what appeared to be branches as they capered about. I made it as far as the center of the field before a wave of apprehension hit me. Should I really be walking over there? Wasn't this perhaps a little bit crazy? But I also considered it the photo opportunity of a lifetime, and knew I'd never forgive myself if I chickened out now. I turned to look behind me, and took comfort in what I saw. My little yellow cottage sat watching from the edge of the field, a warm light twinkling from the window of my computer room. And beyond it the little village nestled in the darkness, windows twinkling here and there as a few restless souls stayed up late watching horror movies. I decided it wouldn't really take long to race back to the security of the cottage if anything bad seemed likely. And having reassured myself that I wasn't really all that far from town after all, I continued onward.
The glowing forms weren't shimmering or fading as I drew closer. If anything, they were glowing even more brightly, their outlines becoming more distinct as I approached. I was now too amazed to even stop for photographs, feeling somehow certain I'd be getting close enough for plenty of photos before this incredible night had passed. And that's when my foot snagged on a large rock, and I fell face first into the mud.
I was relieved to find myself uninjured as I rose unsteadily to my feet there in the darkness. The camera was covered with mud, but I felt hopeful it might still function. I continued towards the hillside, my eyes now focused on the ground in front of me, watching for any other large stones or branched, hoping to avoid any further mishaps. I didn't look up again until I had reached the foot of Carson's Hill. And I wish I hadn't looked up then.
They were about the size of children, and they had two arms and two legs each. But beyond that there wasn't much resemblance. The limbs ended in savage looking claws, and their short spiky tales wagged hideously as they pranced about. Each had a number of stubby but sharp looking little horns covering the top of its head, and their faces reminded me of bats. They seemed, however, to have more teeth than a bat would have. I could now see they were in fact holding branches as they circled the dead ancient tree. But the ends of the branches had been sharpened, and the glowing creatures were stabbing the lifeless body that dangled from a rope tied to a tree branch high above. I think that's when I screamed, because that's when the creatures all stopped dancing and turned to stare at me.
As I spun around frantically, racing away from the hillside in a mindless panic, I think my life may have flashed before my eyes. Because I could suddenly clearly remember a time when I was eleven years old, and had just begun to be fascinated by stories of the supernatural. I was sitting in the school library, reading a collection of folk stories, and had come upon some very old illustrations of Fairies. To my great suprise, I learned these creatures were only sometimes known to be frail little winged creatures. They were often said to be monstrous, and were rumored to appear in a great variety of shapes and forms. Several of the illustrations made me oddly nervous at the time, as though they were looking more directly at me than a drawing should be able to. So yeah, it's not like I hadn't been warned.
The tall weeds that had slowed my progress now seemed to want to prevent my escape as I plunged through the darkness. I glanced back to see the glowing shapes diving into the field, racing to catch me. Any doubt of their intentions was settled by the horrible chattering sound they were making as they tore through the overgrowth. I glanced forward to see my cozy little cottage waiting there in the distance, and beyond it the sleepy little town still twinkled in the night. But as I lunged forward, wanting only to be inside, wanting only to be safe, I noticed something peculiar. My little yellow cottage, and my car, seemed to be shimmering oddly in the moonlight.
As I continued scrambling madly through the field, the cottage continued to shimmer, and then both it and the car began to fade. By the time I got out of the field, there was nothing but a bare space where the house had been. I was so terrified that I simply raced onward, heading for the little town a short distance away. But that too began to shimmer and fade, until there was nothing left of it except Eddy's gas station there on the corner. I thought I saw Eddy silhouetted in the office window for a moment, as if he were looking out into the darkness, and then the gas station followed the rest of the town, shimmering away into nothingness.
I stopped running and just stood there. The camera hanging against my chest felt like a sarcastic friend, laughing at me for my futility. "Well, chum" it seemed to say, "aren't we the clever pair? Really gonna knock 'em dead in the city, aren't we?" And then the horrible chattering reached my ears again, and I spun around to see the angry crowd of little glowing monsters spilling out of the weeds, racing across the open space where my cottage should have been. And I don't know where to run to now, don't know what I'm gonna do, and ah geez I think I've got a problem here.