Hey spooky friends. Or should I say, spooky strangers? Strange spooks?
Whatever you prefer, thanks for coming back for another adventure in the endless library.
I spend my days in here just going through stacks, so many stacks. Some of the books are so old, or so read, you can’t even tell what’s on the spine. And some of them are so new, so recent, I can’t imagine how they got here. Who stacked all these books? And is anyone reading them? I seem to be here in alone, but…
This time, I read “Sour Candy” by Kealan Patrick Burke, published in 2015. I criticize a lot of book descriptions, but this one is spot on. Here, I’ll read it to you:
“At first glance, Phil Pendleton and his son Adam are just an ordinary father and son, no different from any other. They take walks in the park together, visit county fairs, museums, and zoos, and eat together overlooking the lake. Some might say the father is a little too accommodating given the lack of discipline when the child loses his temper in public. Some might say he spoils his son by allowing him to set his own bedtimes and eat candy whenever he wants. Some might say that such leniency is starting to take its toll on the father, given how his health has declined.
What no one knows is that Phil is a prisoner, and that up until a few weeks ago and a chance encounter at a grocery store, he had never seen the child before in his life.”
Did you just get chills too?? It sounds so creepy, mysterious, and weird – I just had to read it. Not to mention, one of my very favorite books turns on a similar concept – Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. And though these stories have basically nothing else in common, I’m fascinated and horrified by stories where the way a single decision, a word, a day, an act, a look can turn your entire life upside down, and totally change your perspective on reality.
And, heads up, I’ll warn you when we’re entering the spoiler zone, and you can proceed at your own risk.
“His life thus-far remained unpunctuated by drama beyond the typical expected of a man his age. He had a decent job at a respectable bank. He had more acquaintances than friends, but that was hardly anything new. He was moderately attractive (on a good day). Unremarkable.”
Who is this? Phil Pendleton, who is buying chocolate at Wal-Mart for his girlfriend, when he hears a scream. “So abrupt and so unexpected, his whole body jerks” and he thinks, “Jamie Lee Curtis had screamed like that in Halloween.”
And that horrible scream is coming from a little boy, in strangely old-fashioned clothing, and his beyond exhausted-looking mother. And as people try not to look at her, or the child, Phil thinks about how he never wants kids.
“His own childhood had been a train wreck, and rather than emerge from that endurance test better prepared for parenthood, he suspected it had probably ruined such prospects for life.”
In fact, he wishes his ex-wife was here right now, to look at this screaming, snotty, crying child, so he could rub it in her face – THIS is just a taste of the hell we would have been in with a child.
I know divorce is tough, but that seems excessive, Phil.
And maybe that touch of obsession is why, while the shoppers scatter and avert their eyes, Phil can’t stop staring, “drawn to the sad tableau as one might be to the interaction of animals in an enclosure.”
Woof. Phil. To his credit, he does feel a pang of guilt at thinking this, as he considers the poor woman with this demon spawn child.
“The woman might once have been beautiful,” he thinks.
Wait. Wasn’t that a line in something we read recently? It’s ringing some distant bell in my brain. Hmm.. I think it might have been “Sphere” and now I’m wondering if lines like that are specifically intended to cue us to a certain type of man, or attitude. What do you think?
Anyway, back to the woman: “The woman might once have been beautiful. All the elements were there, but appeared to have been sullied by hardship and filtered by distress. Her dirty blonde hair was in disarray, as if she hadn’t bothered to brush it after getting out of bed, or had, in some fit of rage or desperation, tried to pull it out.”
I love that line, especially the end of it. The author could have simply stopped after “her dirty blonde hair was in disarray, as if she hadn’t bothered to brush it after getting out of bed.” Right? But adding that, that, it also looked as if she had perhaps manically tried to pull it out before she came to the store. And she clearly doesn’t care… gives her another level of desperation.
“In contrast to her son’s rosy complexion, the woman was pallid and drawn, cheekbones pushing against her waxy skin like hangers beneath a sheet. She looked lost.”
At this point, with the staring, I think Phil is probably being rude. Not that this woman notices him; she’s too busy staring at the shelves of candy as if they held the secret to some elusive quandary.
The little boy shrieks again, loudly, and everyone is just.. Openly staring at the woman and boy. A manager shows up, and Phil says he’s going to leave. But he doesn’t, he stays and watches, and the kid looks right at him.
And screams again, scaring the manager, and Phil finally starts to feel a little awkward about watching all of this play out. Yeah, that’s fair, Phil.
But instead of leaving, he says, “Maybe someone should call an ambulance?” Phil, you’re holding a cell phone.
This strange scene keeps playing out: the woman finally moves, grabbing a bag of candy, ripping it open, and mashing the candy against her mouth. And Phil still doesn’t leave, and instead, for some insane reason, even though his hot girlfriend is waiting at home for him, he smiles and says, “Hey, kid.”
The store manager and the other shoppers have fled, the woman is just slowly, strangely chewing candy, and the little boy turns to Phil and hands him a piece of candy.
Okay, spooksters, pop quiz: a strange screaming child, in old-fashioned clothing, offers you a piece of candy from the Wal-mart floor. Do you eat it?
Gosh I hope your answer is no.
But when Phil’s girlfriend Lori asks him the same question as he’s driving home, he says, “Well yeah, it seemed like the polite thing to do.”
Does it? You don’t know this kid. Put it in your pocket, say thanks, and walk away.
But as he thinks back over the encounter, he basically just sums up it as, “you know, people of Wal-Mart!”
And suddenly, there’s an explosion of light and sound, and he’s been rear-ended at a stoplight, hard. “Hissing air through his bloodied teeth, he fumbled for the door handle, noticing as he did so the glass from both the door and windshield were gone.”
And he sees that the person who rear-ended him is the woman from the store. “She staggered free of the car and the haze of smoke, her lifeless gaze and the nasty gash running like red lighting from her hairline to the bridge of her broken nose making her look like something from a zombie movie.”
And she makes straight for him, her eyes fixed. “There was a madness in her eyes of a kind Phil had never seen before.” He worries that she’s going to kill him, but all she does is say, “Yours now”, best as she can through a bloody split lip, before she walks into traffic.
What just happened?
Paramedics check Phil out, and detectives show up to ask about the accident. When Phil mentions her kid, they’re confused; there was nobody else in the car, and the woman didn’t have any children.
And one of the detectives says, we sent a car to your home, where you said your girlfriend is? Well, Lori wasn’t there, but this kid you describe was.
What is happening??
As the detectives drive Phil home, he says there has to be some mistake, and he sounds like a crazy person. “Why would she drop him at my house? I mean, how did she even know where I live?”
He’s in shock, of course, and he starts to wonder if he is crazy. “The daylight had faded in time with all logic and sense, so much so that the back of the detective’s car felt like a padded room in an insane asylum.”
He wonders if it’s an elaborate prank. If Lori will open the door, laughing. He tells himself that he can explain it all. He can get the detectives to see sense. Something weird is going on, and it’s not his fault.
If you’re familiar with this type of story, you know where this is going, right? It’s not a prank. Lori isn’t answering the phone. And when he walks into his house, a little hand turns on the kitchen light, and a voice says, “I live here, Daddy.”
Now the detectives think Phil has really lost it. Because he still thinks he’s in the world where things make sense, the world of this morning, the one where he doesn’t have a kid, because he’s never wanted a kid. He’s ranting, because he can’t explain it, he’s angry, he doesn’t know this kid’s name, he’s never seen him before today, and he doesn’t have any answers.
Oh Phil. Detective Cortez sits him down and says, he’s a family man too. Having kids is hard, and he admits, sometimes he regrets having them. And he says that what Phil is going through, this denial of his child, is perfectly normal.
Oh no. As Detective Cortez explains, they checked the records; the boy’s name is Adam, and he was adopted by Phil and his ex-wife. They divorced, after Phil was neglecting Adam, and Phil only got custody because his ex-wife was injured in an accident.
“His head hurt. Everything hurt. His mind felt like weak tin being crumpled by a merciless hand. He knew this was all wrong, that something had happened to the fabric of his reality… worst of all, the overwhelming evidence presented to him brought with it the first seed of doubt.”
Ah, feelings like this are why I’m into horror. One of my very worst fears is being unable to see reality. I’m eternally terrified that there’s a fire in the kitchen, and I just don’t see it, because something changed in my brain and I can’t perceive what’s happening.
It’s like when you’re swimming underwater, and you get turned around, and the way the light is reflecting, you aren’t quite sure which way is the surface. That’s where Phil is right now.
He’s grabbing at straws, anything to disprove this – a DNA test, the store manager from earlier. But there’s a seemingly reasonable answer for everything – Phil was alone with the boy at the store earlier.
And at that, Phil breaks. Wouldn’t we all? Either that kind of magical power, to somehow change memories, change film, change everything in an instant.. Or that level of personal insanity.
“I think that before Mrs. Bennings crashed her car into me, that child was not a part of my life, that nobody I know had ever heard of him. I think he released Mrs. Bennings from her obligations on the condition that she find a replacement. Which she did. And now that she’s done, my world has been altered to accommodate him.”
Eerie. Is he right? Or is he having some kind of mental break?
Eventually, he goes to the kitchen and asks the boy, “How old are you?” “Don’t know.”
“And what are you?” Phil asked. The boy did not look up from his picture.
“I am a boy.”
Eugh. And then he opens the cupboard for a bag of potato chips, and
“All his food was gone, replaced by hundreds of bags of sour candy. Slamming the cupboard shut, he went to the next cupboard, in which he kept dried goods, pasta, flour, unopened jars of sauces, cans of peas and beans…and found that was no longer the case. More sour candy, crammed in there so tightly there was no way to remove one without causing the veritable wall of colorful bags to vomit onto the kitchen floor.”
He wonders “Is this how it’s going to be now? Am I a prisoner in my own home, in my own life?” and wow, I never thought that would be so relatable.
Phil eats a piece of candy, and this is where we really go off the rails. Oh, and super spoiler alert! While I don’t think spoilers ruin stories, I do appreciate that I had no idea where this book was going, until I got there. So, if you want to stop now, please go read the book, and come back. Ahem.
“And too late he realized that what he had put into his mouth was not candy at all, but a key.”
And he sees an absolute nightmare acid trip vision, let me just read a bit of it to you.
“Instead of his kitchen ceiling, he sees a deep crimson sky threaded with black veins, as if this world exists within the belly of some colossal monster and what he is seeing is its flesh lit from without by some alien sun. On the horizon, pulsing in the red light, enormous figures move, warring, tentacle limbs dangling, the blazing blue lights of their eyes like falling stars. He will hear them shriek as they die.”
Oh yeah, that’s right, we are on a surprise cosmic horror rollercoaster! It’s like the epic, trippy, kind of scary tunnel scene in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
But Phil’s journey isn’t quite as safe.
“He’ll draw his focus in closer, to the figures, their faces the elongated skulls of ancient deer, their horns impossibly long and tangled, twisting upward into apparent oblivion. The holes where their eyes should be reveal nothing, but he senses the age of the eldritch threat, as all six of them open their bony mouths at once and deafen him with the same scream he had heard from the child, only louder.
The sound costs him part of his mind.”
After this horrifying brain-breaking experience, he decides to play along with whatever the hell is going on, while figuring out how to get out with his life.
He plays the role of dad, taking Adam to the library, the museum, and letting him fill the kitchen with bizarre arts and crafts. But he plans, secretly, how to escape this torture. There’s no phone, no internet, no one to talk to besides this monster spawn child, and no fucking food except for endless bags of disgusting sour candy.
And despite how bad things have gotten, it’s only been 4 months, and Phil still has a tiny thread of hope. “With the last ounce of his energy, he was going to do everything in his power to make sure this never happened to anyone again. A feeble part of him was driven by the notion that maybe, just maybe if he succeeded in killing the child, it would end the cycle and reverse all that had been done to him.”
What do you think, spooky friends? Is there a chance?
The tension rises and we hit chapter 10, which is called “Sacrifice.” Uh oh.
Phil resolves the boy is going to die tonight. He smashes a chair, grabs a leg, and goes upstairs to find Adam.
As he turns up the stairs, he sees, out the window, “six of the robed, skeletal figures standing on his own, their eyes lost in inky shadow, their limbs.. Dark tentacles that whipped and snapped at the air.”
And then suddenly, they’re up in the attic, with him, and the boy, who says, “You ate the candy. You ate of her, and so her you will become.”
He kills the child, and experiences a giant, impossible feeling that he made a mistake. He was wrong about everything. Tomorrow, maybe, he’d see himself on the evening news for killing his son.
“Had he been so mad that he’d been seeing everything backwards? Had he been the monster and the poor child his victim? Had he been the one forcing his son to eat shitty candy instead of real food? In a situation in which every rational person is telling you a fact and you’re the one who denies it, doesn’t that make you the one most likely wrong? He’d been drinking a lot lately, convinced he was a captive in a supernatural nightmare. How likely was that to be the case when all was said and done? How much more reasonable did it seem that something had snapped deep within him and he’d been living a nightmare of his own creation?”
Oh my god, isn’t this why we read horror stories like this? What if? What if? What if?
He carries the child’s body downstairs and goes to the neighbor’s to call the police. He says he’s killed his son.. And the neighbor says, you don’t have a son.
He calls his ex-wife, who he never adopted a child with, and he calls Detective Marsh, who has never heard of Adam. And when he comes back into his house, the body is gone. His kitchen cupboards are full of food. He calls Lori, and he’s so happy to hear her voice that he cries a little.
He checks out the attic, and it’s back like it was. But then the phone dies suddenly. The door slams shut.
And the Elders materialized from the gloom. Six of them, as before, their bony skulls downcast, that tangled mass of their horns pointed directly at him.
“No,” Phil moaned. “No, no, no, I fixed it. I set it right.”
And then he saw himself accepting the first piece of candy from the boy in the grocery store. It was not candy at all, of course, but a seed, a seed which had taken root inside him and would soon give birth to new life, a life that would, once old enough, find another nest, another life to poison, and the process would carry on again until the time came for the attendant child to give itself up in blood sacrifice. And the ritual would begin again.”
“He screamed and clamped his hands down on his belly, felt the flesh beneath them begin to roil and heave and split. His ribs cracked and blood surged up his throat ahead of his organs, as, with his last breath, he felt a tiny tendril clutch his finger from within the gaping cavity where once had been his chest.”
The last chapter is one of the detectives, checking out the scene of the house fire that killed Phil Pendleton. It’s weirding him out, something doesn’t seem right, but he doesn’t know what.
He heads to a bar and tries to drown out that feeling. When his partner finally joins him 6 hours later, she yells at him.
“Maybe when you stop bringing your fucking infant son to bars, we can talk about my problems, but for now, you’re better off dealing with your own.”
What is she talking about?
“It was only when he went to the parking lot and saw that one of the boys had left an infant child strapped into the backseat of his cruiser that he finally got the joke.”
Dun dun dun…
And the cycle continues.
So going into this, I knew it would be creepy horror, but I had no idea we would also be dealing with the elder gods.
To be honest with you all, I haven’t read a word of Lovecraft’s writing.
I find myself both repulsed and drawn to cosmic horror, because it’s kind of gross, sometimes super gross, very dark, and at least from my reading so far, pretty ominous.
And now that we’ve plumbed the depths of darkness, I think I’ll be looking for a lighter read next time. It would actually be the harder challenge to find a darker one, I guess.
What did you think of this one, spooky friends? and strangers? Hello, if you’re new, welcome, and thanks for joining me on this spooky and strange tour of the endless library. Leave me a review and tell me what you’d like to be called. And the secret way out of this library, if anyone happens to know it.
Stay safe out there, stay sharp, and stay spooky.