Haunted Reading

Julia Elliott


Last year in November I drove to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to read at the excellent Hub City Bookshop, which shares the ground-floor space of an old Masonic temple with several other businesses. Lest you forget the building’s legacy, embossed in the frieze work of the patio roof are the words Masonic Temple, which led me to envision occult rituals: Grand Masters spouting ancient chants while wagging sacred objects emblazed with skulls and crossbones. I remembered that a lunatic at a health-food store once informed me that mango juice was the key to eternal life and that Freemasons were shape-shifting reptiles who secretly ruled planet Earth. I can’t remember how he jumped from fruit juice to the reptilian elite, but I nodded politely and made a quick exit, clutching my baggie of bulk cashews.

As I walked the eerily empty streets of downtown Spartanburg the evening before my reading, I imagined good old boys morphing into slimy reptiles, conducting human sacrifices, and wallowing in bloodbaths, their scales glistening with gore. Did they have orgies too? I wondered, vaguely recalling an article from the Huffington Post about police breaking up a drug-fueled “sex party” at a Masonic temple in Michigan. Freaking myself out with lurid imagery was just what I needed to pregame before my reading, especially since I planned to read from “Rapture,” a story about a creepy slumber party where a Jesus freak granny comes downstairs to rave about the end times, terrifying two tween girl guests and levitating for a few glorious seconds at the climax of her visionary rant.

When I got back to Hub City, the writer George Singleton had arrived with a case of PBR. We drank and shot the shit as people drifted in for the reading, including a few of George’s college students, lured by the beer. After two out of three rows of seats filled up, Anne Waters, the bookshop manager, walked to the podium and gave me a fabulous intro. I took my post, opened my copy of The Wilds, and gazed out at the audience, trying to establish meaningful eye contact. That’s when I noticed that six preteen boys had somehow materialized on the third row. As I remember it, they all wore navy blazers, were the exact same petite size, and had identical shades of pale blond hair. They stared at me, expressionless, stiff in their chairs, hands in laps.

How had they gotten in? I wondered. Was there a secret back door? Did they slip in through a window? Were they prep school kids after extra credit or ancient immortal daemons summoned by the Masons decades ago, now taking the forms of preadolescent males, ready to close in on me when the reading was over and …

I had to pull myself together to read. I began my story about the weird slumber party. When Meemaw, the evangelical granny, began to speak, my voice slipped into a croaky drawl. At this, George, Anne, and a few others in the audience laughed. I glanced up, saw scattered smiles. But the boys in the third row stared at me with piercing eyes, their faces expressionless. I returned to my story. My character Meemaw began raving about the Book of Revelation:

Meemaw ate another Tootsie Roll and told us about the Whore of Babylon, who laughed like a monkey and slurped fornications from a golden cup. The Whore rode a seven-headed dragon barebacked and caressed the beast’s spine with her private parts.

Some audience members tittered, but again, when I glanced up, I saw only the haunting eyes of the boys in the back row, glowing like the eyes of the blond kids from Children of the Damned. Their facial expressions were merciless. I took a nervous glug of water and stared down at my book.

I had reached a graphic part, inappropriate for children so young, damned or not, but it was too late to backtrack, to skip choice lines, so I forged onward:

[Meemaw] described the filthy, outsized lusts of the Beast, who had a member like an oak trunk and who copulated with his harem of stinking she-dragons. Though the dragons were vile reptiles, they possessed the fatty teats of sows. Their young sucked blood from their mothers. They smacked their lips and had incestuous intercourse with each other until the world was full of dragons, so many dragons that swarms of flying serpents blotted out the sun.

I glanced up again. Now the boys looked horrified, eyes wide, mouths tensed into frowns. I felt terrible. Had I corrupted the innocent youths? Would they have apocalyptic nightmares? Or, if they turned out to be demonic creatures, would this passage inspire them to show me their true, terrifying forms? Either way, I had to finish my story. I read quickly, pushing through the narrative to the part where Meemaw levitates:

For about ten seconds she floated, her harrowed buttocks hovering one inch above the stained sofa cushion. And then the old woman fell to Earth. She sank into the couch. Her head wobbled on her neck as she fell asleep.

Although this was not the end of the story, this is where I stopped. I closed my book, took a sip of water, and braced myself for the Q&A. People asked good questions. I did my best to answer them as the boys in the back row drilled me with their glowing eyes, making me feel insufficient, shallow, stupid. If they were immortal daemons, armed with an eternity of knowledge, they probably scoffed at my ignorance. When the Q&A ended, I sat down at a table to sign books. I scrawled my sloppy signature, chatted with a book buyer, and then glanced up to survey the situation.

The boys had vanished. I hadn’t seen them exit through the front door, a few yards to my right. I hadn’t noticed them filing past me to access the back exit from the storage room. I hadn’t seen them slither through any windows either. Perhaps they hid among the shelves. Perhaps they’d floated up through the ceiling and out into the night. Perhaps they hovered in the sky outside or frolicked upon the mystic roof of the former Masonic temple. Maybe they’d swoop down upon me when I left, sink their sharp, childish teeth into my neck, and slurp my jaded blood, punishing me for giving a boring reading.

After I’d signed all the books and thanked Anne for hosting me, George walked me to my car, we chatted for a few minutes, and then he left. I stood in the empty parking lot, scanning the sky, the gibbous moon, the clouds that blocked the stars. For a second I thought I saw a luminous vampire child drifting above a clump of autumnal trees. But then I blinked. I saw only the shining sign of a local pub. I hurried into my car and drove through the dark night home.



Julia Elliott’s writing has appeared in Tin House, the Georgia Review, Conjunctions, Fence, Best American Fantasy, and other publications. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best American Fantasy, and Best American Short Stories. Her debut story collection, The Wilds, was chosen by Kirkus, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the Best Books of 2014 and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, is available now.

She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of the music collective Grey Egg.