It was a folk tale, an urban legend. That’s what we told ourselves though it was scant comfort. I think I heard it first from my older brother’s friends on a night I was supposed to be asleep but, instead, had crept outside the living room door to hear how my elders conversed. There were three girls. I knew their names and something about them. And my brother and his friends, Peck and Billy. Billy was our preacher’s son and he was mean as Medea. He used to hold me down and call me ‘little girl,’ and let his spit dangle over my face, forcing me to watch it as it fell onto my own mouth.
My brother, Damon, is seven years older than me. He let his wolfish friends treat me like a figure of ridicule. He stood by. I revered Damon, and he knew it. This was 1965. We lived in the suburbs like everyone else. I was ten.
This night one of the girls had a story to tell. I think her name was Shelly Eliot. She was pretty, in a Diana Durbin way, and I believe my brother loved her at this time but thought she was out of his league. She probably was.
Shelly, in a breathless voice, was telling a story that she had been told. The once removed aspect of it made it both believable and slightly less harmful. These things only happened to other people, to strangers, to friends of friends, or kin of kin.
“She told me she was at home alone,” Shelly was saying. “Her parents were out of town and she was at home alone because her younger brother had gone to spend the night at a friend’s house. Anna (this name meant nothing to me and it seemed to mean nothing to the other listeners) said she had just watched Fantastic Feature. ‘Foolish of me to watch a horror movie before going to bed alone at home,’ Anna admitted.
“Anna confessed she was already agitated so that when the neighbor’s dog set up a din it spooked her further. She got up in her nightgown and crept to the window, looking out upon her backyard, which was separated from the neighbor’s by a ten-foot wooden fence. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim night but as things came into focus the dog’s caterwauling ceased abruptly. And it was then that she saw it. Or its head and shoulder at any rate. She said she saw him receding, walking away from her in the nighttime, the back of his elongated, thin head, and his bony shoulders, just visible over the neighbor’s fence. The wooden fence was ten-feet high! Anna screamed and her scream died away with an echo. Needless to say, for the rest of the night, she did not sleep. She sat up with a baseball bat beside her in bed and the poems of Anne Sexton in her shaky hands.”
There was silence when Shelley finished her second-hand tale. Then one of the boys, it might have been the horrid Billy, said, “Bullshit. That’s a story you make up to scare small children. Ain’t no small children here, Shell.”
“I only tell what was told to me,” Shelley said. Her tone was emphatic.
“Let’s wake your little brother and tell him,” Billy continued. “Let’s watch the little girl squirm.”
Like Anna I spent the rest of my night awake, after I crept back to my bed. Instead of poetry I read Mad paperbacks until dawn.
This would have been the end of it, for morning came and my fear dissipated like the dew, sending those black night-thoughts back into their shadow corners. This would have been the end of it if three nights later, had not my friend Eddie Main, told a similar story, this time something his cousin had told him happened to him. The cousin lived near Bartlett High School, seven miles east of us.
“The thing was taller than a man on stilts,” Eddie said. “And he was thin like a scarecrow. His legs were awkward, stiff things, as if he really had stilts for legs, and his movements were jerky and clumsy.”
I stared at Eddie, my mouth half open. It was like I couldn’t focus on what he’d said.
“What’s with you, Poindexter? You don’t believe me?”
“Don’t call me Poindexter. As a matter of fact I do believe you. I believe you wholeheartedly because I heard a similar story this past week.”
“Seriously. Happened a few streets over (this part was embellishment for effect—I had to make him see that this was more than coincidence). Killed a dog, we think. And was seen over the top of a ten-foot fence, moving off like a demon.”
Eddie thought for a moment. His eyes were wide. “Like a ghoul,” he said.
“A ghoul,” I repeated for no good purpose.
“These things pop up like mushrooms,” Damon said later when I related Eddie’s story. “Stop taking this crap so seriously. I think Shelley made hers up on the spot.”
“But the details were just like the story Eddie heard.”
“It’s always second-hand, Jim. These are urban legends. It’s like jokes. You can hear a new joke in Memphis, fly to Boston and that same night hear the joke in Boston. No one knows quite why but these things happen.”
This was, naturally, long before the internet, so, if what Damon was saying was true, it was as much a mystery as an ambulatory creature out of nightmare.
“But—it’s a ghoul, Dame,” I said. “Perhaps,” I added softly.
“A ghoul. Jim, stop being such a sissy.”
This stung. It always did. I never got used to it and I never could just shake it off with a laugh. Little girl. Sissy. Pansy.
A fortnight went by and we all forgot the purported sightings. Even Eddie didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He had just discovered The Patty Duke Show and she was all he wanted to discuss.
“She plays both parts,” he told me as if he’d understood E=MC². “And she’s so good-looking both ways, nerd or princess.”
“Yeah, she’s cute. But Laura Petrie.”
“You always say Laura Petrie.”
So, it came out of left field, when at a campout, someone new related a similar story.
There were six of us and we had pitched 3 pup tents in the vacant lot at the end of Bluefield Street. The ground was hard and cold and we had built a fire, lighting it with charcoal starter that Eddie had brought. Gary Gunther started it all over again.
“I’ve got a wild story to tell,” he began.
“You kissed Rita Ferguson?”
“Shut up, Poindexter.” He was speaking to Bobby Sullivan.
“This happened to George Jennie, you know, the half-Asian kid goes to Scenic Hills.”
“Yeah, I now George,” I said.
“George was coming home late one night from his job at the Esso station. He usually walked if the weather was nice. On this night, as he turned the corner to his street, Scotland, he saw in the distance, scuttling between two lampposts on opposite sides of the street, a giant with the head of a fox and long limbs that made him seem unbalanced. George said he thought the thing was going to keel over as it tried to go from shadows to shadows. He said it was twelve feet high.”
None of us slept that night but we did not admit it was from fear.
I took this information back to Damon the next day.
“Stop it, Jim. I told you to drop this. I explained to you how urban legends spread.”
“But, Dame, this is three sightings.”
“Three means nothing. You guys are crazed. Puberty does that to you. And why are all the witnesses young people, huh? Why not a cop or someone in authority? This is fairy tale right out of The Blob.”
This did give me pause and, in thinking about it, I hit upon the obvious next step of inquiry. I gathered Eddie, Gary and Bobby together and told them my plan.
“We have to take this to Old Yates. He used to be the sheriff.”
“Old Yates! Jim, the guy’s 100 years old,” Eddie said. “And doesn’t he have it in for you?”
“I don’t think he has it in for me. He just took my slingshot away because I was shooting acorns at his sliding glass door.”
The guys laughed. “I think it’s a great idea, Jim,” Bobby said. And, because Bobby’s support usually meant we would follow, the four of us visited Mr. Yates the next afternoon after school.
“What’s up, boys?” the cranky old man said, in greeting. “Here to get your weapons back?” He was stooped and his gray hair was wild where it wasn’t missing, and the sweater he was wearing had seen better days.
“No, sir,” I said, stepping forward. “We have a mystery for you. No one will believe us.”
“And you think I will? What gave you that impression, that I was a gullible old gull?”
“May we come in, sir?” I persevered.
“Alright,” he said, stepping aside.
The house smelled like my grandmother’s. And it was decorated similarly. Every surface held a framed photograph or knickknack, an entire army of glass figurines, numerous beer steins.
“Oh, guests,” Mrs. Yates said. “Shall I get some lemonade?”
“They ain’t gonna be here that long,” Sheriff Yates said.
“Ed,” Mrs. Yates said, and returned to the kitchen from whence she had come. We could hear her rattling glasses and opening and closing the fridge.
“Spit it out,” Old Yates said. No offer to sit. He rested himself by leaning on a walking stick.
I looked at my friends, took a deep breath, and told him a succinct version of what I have iterated above. Sometime during my recitation Mrs. Yates delivered a tray of lemonade and, when I was finished, my throat was parched. I downed my glass.
Old Yates fixed us with watery eyes. Then he shook his leonine head.
“I ain’t got time for such malarkey,” he said. “Now, beat it. Go tell it to someone who will listen. Maybe someone at Bolivar.”
In Bolivar, Tennessee there was a sanatorium for the mentally unhinged. We had heard about it all our lives, usually as part of a half-hearted threat. “Shut up, or you’re going to Bolivar.”
We left Old Man Yates, our behinds dragging.
“Maybe Damon is right,” I said as we walked back up Kenneth Street. “No adult’s seen this thing.”
“Ghoul,” Eddie said.
“This ghoul. Maybe it is just hysteria.”
A week passed and talk of the ghoul faded out. There was other news. Bobby had found a shack in the woods south of Kenneth Street, a shack with a bed, a mucky plank floor, a couple candle stubs, and some dirty magazines. Bobby said it belonged to Peck Withers and he took his girlfriend Winnie there when they were supposed to be at the movies. We tried to imagine that. All alone with Winnie Parker, blond, busty Winnie Parker, in a room with a bed, hidden from all eyes. We tried to picture Winnie naked but our imaginations were weak. We vowed to go back and pilfer one of the magazines.
It was about this time, that Mr. McPherson, a fireman and drunkard, crashed his car into the fire hydrant in front of his home on Kenneth, at one a.m., leapt from the car and stumbled into his house, his shirt-tails flying, his eyes wide, his face contorted in terror.
“It wasn’t booze that sent him into that fireplug and sprawling across his lawn. He says he seen something,” Danny Watermeier said. “He said it was a monster.”
The story from Mr. McPherson, as clarified later, went like this:
He had pulled the late shift, along with Curt Branson, who lived in Frazier. Curt was sleeping and Mr. McPherson was biding his time, watching the Late Late Movie, Red River. The firehouse dog, a Dalmatian mix because they couldn’t afford a pure breed, was in another room and, at some point, McPherson thought he heard the dog grumbling in his sleep. A while later the grumbling turned to a whine and then a quick, loud, desperate yelp. At this point McPherson hurried into the adjacent room but the dog was nowhere to be seen. The door at the south end of the room was open and the night air, with a bit of a nip to it, had entered the firehouse. “Ducky,” McPherson called. “Ducky, come here boy.”
McPherson thought he heard some light scuffling sounds outside the door and made his way through it. There he saw, by a dumpster, a side-view of a horrific figure, a good thirteen feet high, with a body seemingly bent and misshapen, and a face like an elongated demon’s. Its colorless hair was lank and sparse, its sickly gray skin mottled. It turned when it sensed the fireman’s approach and McPherson saw, for the first time, that the beast was holding the dead body of the firehouse dog. The dog was half-eaten and the giant’s face was smeared with blood. Instead of fleeing the creature made a hissing sound, dropped the dog and turned to face the fireman. He didn’t approach but he didn’t flee. Instead he stood and stared, his gore-fouled mouth half-open, rasping, like the mouth of an asthmatic.
McPherson backed away through the doorway. It didn’t occur to him to wake Curt Branson. Instead he exited through another door and jumped into his car, driving like a madman until coming to a halt at the fireplug in front of his home. Later, we found out that Mr. Branson had slept through the whole affair. McPherson stayed up all night, frightening his wife, who, for the first time in their marriage, asked her husband to have a belt of whiskey.
“I tell you I was as sober as a judge,” Mr. McPherson told Mr. Yates. His instincts, like ours, took him to the ex-sheriff’s house the next morning. Mr. Yates had called my parents and asked if I could join them at his house. This is how I came to hear the fireman’s story.
From here the sightings increased in frequency, some born of attention-seeking, some seemingly genuine. Old Man Yates called the current sheriff, Jock Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker was a handsome man of thirty-five. His hair was prematurely gray, but his face was as smooth as a child’s, and his general appearance one of vitality and good humor.
“Jesus, Sheriff Yates,” he said, after listening to the tales the first time. “This seems, well, highly improbable. Perhaps—“
But he had no perhaps. And, as more stories started coming in, he was forced to form a task force to try to get a handle on what was happening. What was happening?
Among my peers I was now something of an authority and I forgive myself, at this remove, for my swollen head. I admit I talked big.
The Leathers lost their cat. Two dogs, pit bulls, on Scheibler. Ken Wister lost his entire brood of hens. Rabbits, squirrels, even bats, were found gnawed. The pet population was dwindling and there were more nocturnal sightings. Guns began to pop up in many hands. Eddie’s father thought he caught the ghoul in his shoulder with his 30–06, as it loped away, in the fields near Summer Avenue, to the south. Eddie’s father said that it moved awkwardly but faster than one would think it capable of.
Jerry Moll’s story changed the shape of the legend: he said he saw the thing one moonless night as it slipped into a sewer hole. Mr. Moll worked with my father at Harvester. He retrieved his pistol and a flashlight and went after it. He found it a few blocks over. It was attempting to slink its enormous length upward through a grate. Mr. Moll fumbled with his pistol and flashlight, changing hands and then getting off a wild shot that ricocheted around the concrete pipe. The thing dropped and turned toward him. This time, instead of its passive stance aforementioned, it ran, hunched over, straight at Moll with great, scampering speed. Jerry raised his pistol and shot it directly into the thing’s abdomen just as he was struck across the face with one skeletal, long-fingered hand. Then it turned and ran, holding a hand over its midsection. “It felt like being hit by a hot rake,” Moll said, and his scarred face frightened us all for some time afterward.
Then the unthinkable happened. Kathy Hollander, age 11, was found in Bluefield Woods. She was bloodied and naked, though the police said they were unsure about sexual penetration. Her body bore marks of rough handling but had not ‘been chewed at,’ according to Sheriff Whitaker. We were all sick. My group of friends stopped getting together for a while. Suddenly, Gunsmoke, Mannix, Wild Wild West, Man from UNCLE, and The Rat Patrol, all seemed more important than wandering about talking about girls. Or monsters.
And that was the last we heard of the ghoul. There were still some sightings coming in but Sheriff Whitaker said they were untrustworthy and, after a few months, talk about the thing died away. Kathy Hollander’s death was un-officially listed as the one human death from the ghoul’s unlikely appearance. One theory I heard, which makes sense to me, is that the poor girl’s death had nothing to do with the ghoul, but the intensified nighttime hunts, her death engendered, forced the creature to go underground, or to go elsewhere. If so, no one will ever be charged with her murder.
The ghoul had gone as abruptly as it had come.
I tell you this here, forty years later, so that you will understand what is happening now. Its reappearance surprised even me; my memory of the first visit was still ripe in my mind, though it often seemed like a bad dream I had had as a child and outgrown. Again the early reports were all from adolescents. Perhaps the young have more sensitive antennae, or perhaps they have not yet learned to tune out the improbable.
Most of the adults from that first time have passed away. Raleigh was incorporated into the city of Memphis in 1974. Sheriff Whitaker was killed on a routine traffic check by a gun-nut motorist. Kathy Hollander’s parents moved to North Carolina. McPherson, the fireman, was relieved of duty and died by his own hand in 1978, leaving behind a wife and wall-eyed daughter. I believe Jerry Moll is still alive but I can’t say for sure. Most of my peers have scattered to the four winds. My brother, whom I looked up to in my youth as if he were a Colossus, moved to Maine. We are estranged now, by his choice. I stayed in Raleigh and married my wife, Faith, in 1985. By coincidence, she is Shelly Elliot’s cousin. We have two children, Chet and Phil, ages 5 and 7. They are now as afraid as we were back then. They crawl into our bed at night and want me to reassure them that there is no such thing as a 12 or 13-foot tall ghoul.
This I tell them. There is no such thing.
COREY MESLER has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, and 5 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is from Counterpoint Press. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart many times, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a 145 year-old bookstore in Memphis. He can be found at https://coreymesler.wordpress.com.