As with most things (everything?) Hobart-related, the idea came pretty last-minute. We should post something creepy or scary for Halloween. We thought about everything we've accepted and have scheduled for the next month or so, wondering if anything might fit, and then we considered grabbing something from the archives, a "from the vault" type piece. Finally, I looked at my pile of "to read" books and Stefan's Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone jumped out at me.
I hadn't known, until starting to read Your House Is on Fire and recognizing the town of Hemmersmoor, and looking at the copyright page to confirm, but one of the chapters is actually from an old issue of Hobart. One of my favorite stories of Stefan's (with the added bonus that one of our goals with the new site is to get some of these old print stories archived and available online), and if this one isn't appropriately creepy, I'm not sure what is. Even Entertainment Weekly thinks so: "If the forthrightly creepy title of this horror novel doesn't give you chills, then perhaps the Children of the Corn-esque plot will.
Rico's Journey Through Hell
In the fall of Helga Vierksen’s death, I was seven years old. She and her five children were clubbed to death in our village square, and their remains—what was left of them—were buried in a small lot in the cemetery outside the village. The cemetery was a windy affair, square and barren, and sometimes a few of us would approach it cautiously at night and watch little flames scurry over the graves.
That fall I should have been in school, but my parents had pleaded with the authorities, and it was agreed that I was to be given a year’s reprieve. I wasn’t allowed to be present during the talks, and I can’t imagine what they hoped might change me during that one year. I had a lot of time on my hands, since Alex and Martin, my two loyal friends, were now learning math and reading and geography.
Just outside of Hemmersmoor stood Brümmer’s tool factory. For reasons unknown, a huge window, not unlike a shop window, had been set into the wall just left of the offi ce entrance. The factory had nothing to offer the villagers, nor did the villagers come to the factory to shop. About twenty men worked inside the cream-colored building, and none of them could say why the window had been inserted or who’d come up with the idea in the first place.
Even stranger was the setup of the window. It was impossible to peer into the office because on the inside a kind of alcove had been built, and a set of doors shut out our gazes from what lay beyond that alcove.
The sides, top, and bottom of the alcove were angled, lending a false perspective to the display, as though you were looking through a short tunnel or doorway. The most astonishing thing, however, lived inside the window. Otto Nubis, the foreman at Brümmer’s, displayed his marionettes there, three or four at a time. This was not a gaudy display. The wooden people on the other side of the glass were not beautiful, their clothes shabby and discolored, their faces rough, serious, and more intimidating than the pictures of tortured saints in our church. They had a strange effect on my young mind: I feared them and yet couldn’t keep myself from returning time and again.
The monotony of my days was interrupted during only two months. In March and October, in a sandy lot next to Frick’s Inn, a small carnival set up its tents. We dreamt of Astro Blasters, the Galactic Loop, and the House of Primal Fear, but we were treated to shabby carousels and shooting stands where the BB guns were rusty and the barrels bent. Nobody ever won one of the five giant bears that dangled above those willing to pay.
While Alex and Martin were at school, I watched the carnies set up their tents. I knew the candy vendors and the mirrored maze, and I strolled past the groups of men and women who had fewer teeth and fingers than even the poorest peat cutters in Hemmersmoor.
One attraction I didn’t recognize. The red-and-white tent stood in back of the ship swings, and I saw a lanky man who looked old, but not in the way my parents did, standing in front, attaching a sign. “Ricos Reise Durch Die Hölle,” it read: “Rico’s Journey Through Hell.” I stood and gaped.
“What’s that?” I finally asked.
The man turned to face me. He wore a suit made from rough brown material, and his white shirt stood open at the neck. His skin was tough and wrinkled. He had a strong nose, a high forehead, and a chin with a deep cleft. Most impressive, though, were his eyes. They were watery and of such a light gray they seemed white. What could such eyes see? I wondered, and took two steps back.
“Who’s asking?” the man said.
“I am,” I said stubbornly.
The man, who I thought had to be Rico, laughed. “Do you have a name?”
“Christian Bobinski. Is that you?” I pointed to his sign. “What can I see in hell?”
“You can’t wait, can you?” Rico said. “But hell isn’t interested in you. You have to be eighteen to see my marvels.”
“Rubbish,” I said. “I’m old enough.”
Rico laughed again. “Come tonight after midnight. If you do, and if you do me a favor, I will take you through hell.”
Even at seven I knew that hell wasn’t supposed to travel in a tent, and yet I couldn’t find any rest throughout the day. I tied a tin can to my cat Melchior’s tail and watched him take off in terror into the woods behind our garden. When my sister Ingrid, who was ten and in fourth grade, came home in the afternoon, I slipped a frog into her dress, and my parents promptly sent me to my room and locked the door. My eldest sister, Nicole, slid a note under my door. It read, “I hope they’ve thrown away the key.”
Hell. What did Rico have to show me? I climbed through my window, jumped into the lime tree, and dropped to the ground. I had to find Alex and Martin.
They were at Alex’s house. The teacher had told them to collect colorful leaves and dry them between sheets of blotting paper inserted into the pages of large and heavy books. Now they were trying the method on lizards and blindworms.
“Hell?” Martin asked. He was wiry and the tallest of us. His cropped hair and eyebrows were very red, his face full of freckles. He was the son of the Gendarm. “And he’ll let you in?”
“If I do him a favor,” I said.
Alex’s lizard was still squirming, the tail twitching inside the Brockhaus Encyclopedia, volume A–D. Alex was Mr. Frick’s son, and he was sturdily built and his eyebrows were bushy and growing together above his nose. His older brother, Olaf, should have inherited the inn, but he had no mind for working behind the bar and entertaining customers, and had moved out with his young wife. He was now working in Brümmer’s tool factory.
Alex didn’t concern himself with the family feud. He immediately moved into his brother’s room. “What a fool,” he said, whenever the grown-ups mentioned Olaf, and each and every time he did his father slapped his face. But the inn was his small kingdom. He knew how to get us food whenever we felt hungry. He’d stolen liquor from his father too.
“Is he the devil?” Alex asked.
Rico’s Journey Through Hell seemed to be deserted, the entrance locked, but after my third shout, Rico appeared from the darkness and smiled. “I didn’t say you should bring them.” He pointed at my friends. “Are you scared?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. It didn’t seem likely, yet his eyes had fascinated me. I had to get a pair of them.
At midnight I met my friends behind Frick’s Inn. It was a Friday night, and the noise inside the pub would continue until the last drunk had been thrown out. There wasn’t any rumor, any gossip that escaped Alex. Whatever secret the people of Hemmersmoor thought safe, alcohol finally dug it up and shouted it out, and in time Alex told Martin and me.
“It’s the most amazing thing he’s ever seen,” he told us, about Jens Jensen, the peat cutter, who loved his Bommerlunder and who’d confessed many times to having sex with witches on the moor. “He saw the damned and their tortured souls, he says, and he says it could scare the devil himself.”
The carnival had closed at midnight, and we were safe from the gazes of adults. Only the carnies were still milling around the tents, and they didn’t look at us twice. What did they care about Hemmersmoor’s children?
“I’m not scared,” I said. “I want to see the souls.”
“Of course you do,” he answered. “But first you have to earn your journey through hell.”
“How?” Alex said.
“Not you,” Rico said. “Only this one here.”
“That’s not fair,” Alex said. “I want to see hell too.”
“You don’t have anything I want,” Rico told him. His eyes opened wider, their white color as sharp as steel. Alex shrank back.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Rico was tall, taller than my dad, taller than Jens Jensen. He was also thinner than anyone in Hemmersmoor. He still wore his brown suit, and I thought I could hear his bones clatter under the rough cloth.
“That’s between the two of us,” he said.
“We want to know,” Martin insisted.
Rico looked at him for a second, and then, with a graceful bow, pulled off his right shoe. Alex and Martin ran. They abandoned me in front of Rico’s Journey Through Hell. The air now smelled of sulfur, and Rico’s eyes quieted down. He put his shoe back on, to conceal his hoof.
“You’re not running?” he said.
“I want to see hell.”
“I’ll promise I’ll show you. But first bring me the soul of your sister.”
“How do I do that?”
Rico stooped and put a glass vial in my hand. “You steal into your sister’s room and sit down on her bed. You say the words I’m going to tell you, and when her soul appears on her lips, you catch it for me.” He pressed his lips to my ear and whispered the nine words it took to call the soul.
“Why didn’t you want the souls of Alex’s and Martin’s sisters?” I asked before we parted.
“They are coarse. Their souls don’t give any light. Your sister, now, she’s different. Your sister’s soul will shine.”
“Young one,” he called me back.
“You have to do it tomorrow night. We’ll meet here, and you shall see hell.”
I feigned sickness the next day and stayed undisturbed in my room. In the afternoon Alex came to visit me. “What did he want?” he asked. He was ashamed of running off the night before. I could see it. But his curiosity was stronger.
“Where is Martin?” I asked him.
“He’s at Anke’s house. He plays with her and Linde’s dolls,” he sneered. “What a coward. He’s a girl himself.” He sneered once again. “So, what did Rico want?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Do you have to sell your soul?” Alex asked.
“He is the devil, isn’t he?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I knew it. I knew it. This morning Old Frieda found two of her roosters dead. They had turned black, inside and out, and she said it was a sign.”
“Of course,” I said again.
“And Jens Jensen was found in a ditch, unconscious, and he claimed he’d fought with the devil, who’d come to take him.”
“Of course,” I repeated.
“They’re trying to shut Rico’s tent down, but some say they won’t take it up with the devil. They say they won’t touch him.”
“They won’t,” I said.
They didn’t. Rico’s tent stayed open, and everyone went to see hell’s wonders. As for me, I waited until Ingrid had gone to bed. At eleven I stood by her side. Cautiously I leaned over her face and listened to her breathing. Her eyelids fluttered from time to time, but she remained silent. I took my mother’s empty laundry bag and pulled it slowly over Ingrid’s face. Then I felt for her nose, pinched it shut and put my hand over her mouth. Ingrid awoke with a start and froze for a moment. Then she hrashed about. Her legs kicked out, her fingers tore into my face and scratched my cheeks. Ingrid pulled my hair and punched my nose. She twisted and turned, and I sat down on her chest and wouldn’t let her escape. Her body jerked a few times, then her fingers fell away and she lay motionless in her bed. I pulled the bag, which was made from oilskin, off her face and tied it carefully shut. Whatever it was Rico wanted from me, I had caught it in this bag.
My sister’s eyes stood open, but they remained without expression, dark, and without the faintest shimmer. I put an ear over her mouth, smoothed out her hair, and pulled the comforter over her body. But her right leg stuck out from underneath, and her foot seemed icy and green like spoiled milk. I took her big toe between my lips and sucked on it. Then I also stuffed her other toes into my mouth. I stuck my head under the comforter and under Ingrid’s nightgown. I lay on top of her body, as though I could warm her, put my head on her breast and kissed her neck. Nothing seemed enough.
When it was time to leave, I stuffed the laundry bag under my jacket and hurried out of the room. Then I climbed once again through my window and into the garden, full of fear that I might lose Ingrid’s soul.
Rico awaited me behind his tent. “Yes, you have come back. I knew,” he said.
“Of course,” I said.
“You caught it,” he said, but it sounded like a question.
“Of course.” I patted my pants’ pocket, in which I carried the empty vial. “Now show me everything.”
He nodded, but couldn’t take his eyes off me. Then he shook his head and pushed open the entrance.
"I want to see it,” he demanded.
“Later,” I said.
The walls were covered with paintings of the different chambers of hell. In one you could see sinners being stripped of their colorful clothes and pushed into vats of hot oil. Another picture showed naked sinners being cut open by hordes of devils and being hung from sharp hooks and roasted above great fires.
“Are you scared?” Rico asked.
“No,” I said. “Show me.”
He led me to several shelves of vials just like the one he had given me to capture Ingrid’s soul. They shone faintly in the relative dark of the tent. “These I keep before I toss them into my eternal flames,” Rico whispered hoarsely.
“What else have you got?” I asked.
Rico led me to a heap of bones, the remains of sinners who had died in hell’s fires. The bones were charred, blackened.
He took me into the farthest corner of his tent. “Here,” he said. “You can look directly into hell.” He pulled the large black cloth off a barrel and had me look inside. “It sits right above hell’s entrance,” Rico said. “Hell’s entrance is in Hemmers-moor.”
Fog and steam rose from the barrel, and as soon as I pushed my face over its opening, I could hear voices coming from deep below. The voices were mourning, lamenting their deaths, screaming in agony. “That’s hell,” Rico said. “Now you’ve seen it.”
“Yes,” I answered.
“I kept my promise,” he said. He flipped a switch and hell stopped moaning. No more steam rose from the barrel. The glass vials on the shelves stopped flickering.
“I kept mine.” I pulled the glass vial out of my pocket and handed it to him.
He stared at it intently. “It’s empty,” he said. “Didn’t you use the nine words I gave you?” His voice was coarse.
“Of course not.” I unbuttoned my jacket and handed him the laundry bag. “Words are not enough.”
His hands started to shake when he took the bag from me. “What is this?” he asked. Slowly he began to untie it.
The sky was hung with stars, the air, after Rico’s sulfuric tent, dewy and calming. Fall had retained a hint of warmth, and I walked home at a leisurely pace and without any disturbance. Shouting and angry voices came from Frick’s Inn, not unlike the noise that had emanated from Rico’s hell.
I climbed up the lime tree and jumped onto my windowsill. The house was quiet, my parents asleep. My bed was damp and cold to the touch.
They found Ingrid early the next morning, when they tried to wake her for church and couldn’t. For the rest of the day, our house was filled with visitors, mourners, and relatives. I was put in a black suit and wasn’t allowed to leave the house or attend the funeral the following week.