Hey spooky friends.
I didn’t mean to ghost you.
As you know, I’m always on the hunt for weird stories, new and old, especially if I’ve never heard of them before. Shortly after our last book club meeting, I got a tip about a very curious library. With an excellently weird collection. And.. a couple unexpected secrets.
Long story short, I’ve been trapped in this library ever since, trying to find my way out, reading as I go.
What was that? Sometimes, and I know this sounds crazy, but I think the books are talking. To me? To each other?
Ahem. Back to the reason that you’re here. Let me tell you about the strange, dark horror story that I read this week.
“The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones, a short story published September 2016 on Tor.com. There’s an illustration that goes with the story, by Keith Negley, and I swear, it’s looking straight into my soul.
Hopefully it’s the only thing doing that in here.
“Coming home at two in the morning, Velcroed into my old racing shoes that have the clips worn down to nubs—dull little nubs my pedals know like a ball knows its socket—I could pretend that life had never ended. That I was still me. That I hadn’t run Doreen off on purpose. That I wouldn’t run the next Doreen off just the same.”
“Taking the bike paths home each night after work, though, it reminds me that I wasn’t always like this. There was a time. It was college. I was on the racing team. The university was buying us the latest bikes, sleek things, bullets with wheels—we weighed them in grams—and the sponsors were supplying us with the same shorts and helmets and gloves and glasses the pros wore, and every day my legs were pumping, pushing, pedaling. That was the only time I hadn’t started pulling out blocks, as it were. If college had lasted forever, I’d still be out riding, just zoning out at forty miles per hour, choosing the line I was going to take, just like Coach was always saying. You have to choose your line.”
It’s a Tuesday night, 2am, and a chef is biking home from his restaurant. We learn a bit about his life, how he recently blew it up, and he explains that, this is more or less how it goes for him.
Except for when he’s riding his bike.
Now, one thing I’ve learned about writing, is that a story can be seen as kind of a contract with readers. In the very beginning, one way or another, explicitly or subtly, authors tell us where they’re going to take us.
And when I went back to read this story a second time, I was struck by the way that Stephen Graham Jones does it here, in this short intro.
Zooming out from the chef a bit, we learn that “Motorists were bullying bikers, bikers were kicking dents into fenders and doors.”
And this tension has escalated beyond any reason, in my opinion.
“the hikers had been sabotaging the trail against mountain bikers. Deadfalls, rocks, the occasional spike. Helmets or no, riders were getting hurt. And now it had come to town. For five nights in a row, there’d been driftwood from the creek dragged up onto the trail.”
Who has time for that? I often say this jokingly, but I really mean it here: read a book. Get a hobby.
And not just to keep other people safe from you.
Because it’s a lot harder to have your throat ripped out and your blood drained when you’re at home, baking muffins.
“Two guys, young, floating in the shallows where the creek turns west. On the shore was the large piece of driftwood they’d been trying to dislodge, to drag up across the trail. One of them was floating facedown in the water. The other was on his back.”
Our friend chef comes across them in the middle of the night, and considers reporting it to the police, but… he deserves to go home. That is also messed up! What? He assumes someone else will find the bodies in the morning.
It’s a throwaway thought and it didn’t really catch me the first time, this blatant disregard for human life, but it’s weird, right?
Anyway, he sleeps, wakes up, sees the bodies on the news, and then notices something weird in the background of the video. “a pair of cycling glasses, hanging by their elastic band from a small, bare sapling pushing up through the dank brush. And these glasses, they weren’t for the sun. They were clear. The kind you wear when riding at night, when what you need is a gnat-shield, goggles to keep you from tearing up, to keep the world from blurring away.”
What’s also weird is that he doesn’t feel any danger. He came across two violently murdered people, in the middle of the night, alone, on a dark bike path, and he’s not at all worried about himself.
In fact, he’s so not worried, that the next night after work, he takes the bike path again.
“In the alley at two in the morning, my clothes steamed at first. It always made me feel like I was just touching down in this strange atmosphere, my alien fabric off-gassing, adjusting. The bike lane away from the restaurant was as empty as I’d imagined.”
Instead of fear, he feels exhilarated. He leans back, lifts up his arms, and feels like a kid again.
“A mile into it, right at the bend where the creek turned west, I stepped my right foot over the top bar, rode sidesaddle on my left foot, and looked behind me, at the rooster tail of mist I was leaving.
It was stupid. It was wonderful.”
He comes to a stop, walks off the path to check out those cycling glasses he saw on the news video.They’re old, like a decade old, but they aren’t thrown away. Someone put them here.
And as he’s playing detective, he realizes that there’s someone there.
Someone riding a black bike, wearing a black suit, black gloves, black shoes.
Chef holds out the goggles, figuring they must belong to this night rider, but instead of grabbing them, the person snarls and he whips away.
“When he looked back, his dank black hair was plastered to his white face.
And his eyes—they were all pupil.
Like smoke, like a whisper, he faded once he made the dry concrete.
For maybe ten seconds, I considered what had just happened.
And then I saw it for what it was: An invitation. A challenge. A dare.”
Chef jumps back on his bike and chases the stranger.
“We took the turn—on the road, not the path—up into the canyon maybe ten seconds apart, him running the beginning of the red light, me catching the end of it, leaned over too far for wet asphalt but I didn’t care anymore. My left pedal snagged on the blacktop, hitching the ass-end of the bike over a hiccup, but the tire caught somehow, and I rode it out. Watching my line. I was watching my line.
It led straight to him.”
But the mysterious cyclist is so fast, seemingly inexhaustible, and after chasing him for miles, chef has to stop. Stop and throw up, because he’s pushing himself so hard, too hard. He loses the stranger, and heads home to pass out.
And when chef wakes up, “There’s a shadow stretched out through the open doorway of his bedroom.” It’s him. The night rider.
And now, let’s take a brief pause, and say: if you want to read this story unspoiled, stop here, go read it, and come back. I think you’ll enjoy it either way, so it’s up to you. But, there will be spoilers from here!
Ok, back to chef. “Keeping the blanket around my shoulders, I stood, shushed over into the doorway, for some reason superstitious about stepping directly into his shadow. Like it was a well I could fall into? Like that blackness was going to leech up through the print of my bare feet?”
“He looked up to me, and his face, it was cut stone. Harsh, angular, pale. And those eyes. I’d been right, last time: The pupils or irises or whatever, they were blown out. There was hardly any white.”
He looks past the man, down the hall, and sees that his front door is still locked. Again, this is a super weird situation, unsettling at best, extremely dangerous at worst, and chef goes:
“I know what you did to those kids in the creek. Before they were in the creek, I mean.”
Ballsy! If you think this person is a serial killing bike rider, is it smart to accuse them of crimes when they’re in your bedroom?
After he says it, he considers that maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea. He keeps talking, because the stranger says nothing, so chef just keeps talking.
“You don’t ride in the sun, do you,” I said. It wasn’t really a question. “And the stores are only open in the daytime. So you can’t—you can’t update your gear.”
Again, the stranger says nothing, but chef can tell that he’s listening. He offers the stranger his own cycling glasses, and they have a little moment. I think.
“He looked up to me for what I knew was the last time. I knew it was the last because there was a grin spreading across his face. No, not a grin. A sneer.
What he was saying was that he was fast. The fastest.”
And they maybe, almost become friends, except that chef catches a glance of a sharp, yellow tooth, and he takes a step back, and the night rider is gone in a flash.
3 nights later, chef’s ex calls, just to talk. And there’s a note of hope. Until she says “Be careful. Those two kids who died.”
He gets off the phone, “What she’d said, though. It was a challenge, wasn’t it?”
It’s sometime in the middle of the night, and he gets his bike down, and heads out. Just him and the creatures of the night. He’s gliding through the darkness, the only light from his headlight, and he takes his eyes off the line in front of him. Just for a second.
And suddenly, he sees a huge piece of driftwood in the path, right in front of him, clearly there on purpose.
He thinks fast, and he pulls his bike up and hops over the driftwood, and then he skids, because there’s two more pieces of driftwood, clearly set up to severely injure riders.
He and his bike go off the path, careening into the woods. And when chef looks back, “The night cyclists’s white face looked back to me.
His white face and his red mouth and chin. His deep black eyes.
The night cyclist had hit the tree with his back, hard, and an instant later his bike’s seatpost, still extending from the bike itself, had jammed through his sternum.”
And then they hear noises, and it’s some friends of the dead boys from earlier, who had come to mess with some riders. The night cyclist had gotten one of them, and the remaining 2 had gone for weapons.
They don’t know that chef is now there, and technically armed with his kitchen knives.
And I’ll warn you, this gets a bit violent and bloody. You know that guy who earlier was talking to his ex about hanging out at the restaurant?
Well, that same guy surprise attacks one of the friends with a paring knife to the jaw. Eugh. And then the other, gets it in the stomach, and then, the night cyclist drains his body of blood. Yep, right there. Through the ankle.
When the dudes are dispatched, chef asks the night rider what he is.
“He lowered his teeth to my skin, his eyes never leaving mine, and I understood what he was offering.
Eternal youth. Night rides forever. Going faster than I’d ever dreamed.
He was offering to share the night with me.”
He says no, but he offers the stranger his bike. Awww, making friends!
Chef sticks around, and eventually, someone else shows up on the path.
“When the couple got to me, the pregnant woman yelped, stumbled back—I was standing in the gore of three more college kids, both my knives dripping, bug-eyed under the clear glasses, my face spattered with blood—and, and this is why I love the world, why I’m going to cook Doreen’s favorite meal tomorrow, just take it to her: The man, scrawny and useless as he was, he stepped in front of her, to stand between her and the monster I looked to be.
“There’s no compulsion to hide the bodies,” I said to them like a joke, spreading my arms as if to showcase my night’s work—words and a gesture that would be on the national news by morning—and then I bowed once and stepped back into the darkness, and came out onto the path a half mile later, walked up onto the plank bridge, my knives cleaned and in their roll again.”
That is some pitch black horror. I love it.
And can I tell you something else that I love? Without ever once using the word “vampire”, Jones cleverly uses language throughout the story to say it instead.
Listen to just this handful of references that I caught as I was rereading:
I was trying to mask the scent of all those other women with garlic and turmeric.
You wouldn’t think a couple of non-lifers that low on the food chain would change the dynamic of a kitchen that much, but dishes, they’re our lifeblood.
Tonight the creek was going to be lapping at the concrete of the trail again.
I hadn’t had any accusations for her to feed on
Feed yourself first, right?
It felt like the mountains were bleeding out.
Two miles into it, blood in my throat, I had to stop.
How well done is this story? Oh, and remember what I said at the beginning, about how well Jones introduces where this story is going? Chef chose his line.
If you’re looking for deep character building, or an action-packed vampire story, this isn’t that. But it is a cool interesting take, and if you haven’t noticed, I do love stories with a theme of friendship. And people with damage. And mysterious strangers.
That said, Doreen, girl, you need to run. This is not a safe situation.
If you have read it, what did you think? If you’re a reader of vampire fiction, where do you think this fits into the vampire canon?
Okay friends. Stay spooky and stay safe. And if you go outside and stumble upon bodies in the middle of the night, please, tell someone.