Lance Woods began his writing “career” in 1967 by penning a one-page episode of the Batman TV series at age 5. His published works by Firebringer Press include the short stories “The Gravest Show Unearthed” in the anthology Elsewhere in the Middle of Eternity (2016); “Dead Air” in the anthology Somewhere in the Middle of Eternity (2014); and Heroic Park: A SuperHuman Times Novel (2012). He also performs with Prometheus Radio Theatre; is a founding member of both the Cheap Treks comedy troupe and The Boogie Knights filk group; and has had two comedy-mysteries – Breeding Will Tell and Murder Case – produced by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. In the real world, he has worked for more than 25 years writing in the comic-book industry, but if he told you what he did, he’d have to bore you.
“The Gravest Show Unearthed” is one of 14 fantastic tales that can be found in Elsewhere in the Middle of Eternity, a speculative fiction anthology that collects stories from several new voices in the genres of SF, Fantasy, and Horror.
THE GRAVEST SHOW UNEARTHED
by Lance Woods
“No one will believe your claim that the murders were committed by a vampire…since that would ultimately expose you as the one who unleashed me.
“That is the only reason I did not snap your fat neck when I wrapped my hand around it and lifted you off the floor. Now, toss the stake over there, please.
“Thank you. I will try to set you down gently. Your, ah, corpulence makes it challenging, even for one of my strength.
“Go on. Catch your breath. Revel in it. Wonder why you are still alive. I understand your impetuousness, sir, and I forgive. One aspect of my character that has been omitted from history and legend is that, as ruthless as I could be towards my enemies, I was also quite generous to my allies. Unintentionally, sir, you have become one of those allies and earned my gratitude.
“You appear skeptical. It is true, though. Even a man with my powers must forge alliances from time to time.
“’From time to time.’ I believe that is the expression you use. You will forgive me. I have not spoken your English in…seven score and ten years, I believe. If this is the year eighteen hundred and sixty-four, and I was last imprisoned in seventeen hundred and fourteen…yes, one hundred and fifty years I languished before you ‘rescued’ me.
“Note, sir, that I use the word ‘languished’ to describe the dormant state in which you found me. I was neither asleep nor ‘at rest’, as so many fools believe when they look upon what appears to be my lifeless remains. No, when one carries my curse, a stake through one’s heart is not a death sentence. It is merely a terrible pause. You see, I no longer have a soul as you know it, so it does not descend into Hell and suffer the poetic torments described by Dante. No, if there truly is a God, then He has devised an even greater torment for me.
“He lets me remain awake. That is my Hell.
“Whenever I have been ‘slain’, my eyes close, and my body degenerates nearly, but not quite, to dust. I neither move nor breathe. Nor do I slumber. I hear the pounding of nails or wrapping of chains outside my coffins, the torrents of earth raining down upon the lids, the scraping of mortar upon stones as my crypts were sealed. I am completely aware of the passage of hours, days, years, centuries…
“Many times, I wished that someone had thought to cremate me. I believe that total obliteration of my body is required to end my curse. That never occurred to those who preferred the more dramatic act with the stake.
“Or, perhaps, they deliberately kept me intact because they somehow knew that I would suffer more.
“The solitudes lasted for eternities. But in my case, they were never eternal. Someone always found me. Some unearthed me by accident while excavating to construct a new manor or village. Some never believed the warnings of their elders and made the mistake of seeking me out deliberately to personally see if such a monster actually existed. I never disappointed them.
“I trust I did not disappoint you, sir.
“The enthusiasm in your booming voice penetrated my coffin through the first hole your servants made in the wall of the old abbey. Your panting now reminds me of how you breathlessly told those ignorant peasants what you claimed to know about my history, how I came to be sealed behind that wall, and how you tracked me down from nothing more than a story overheard in some Irish public house during your last visit to Europe. I listened as you urged them to work faster, harder, to be careful not to damage anything as they loosened and removed the stones. Your consideration touched me deeply.
“Until I heard the sheer joy in your voice as you told those around you of your plans to exhibit my remains in your museum, with the stake through my heart intact. You began openly calculating how much money you would charge people to look upon my corpse. Thirty-five cents?
“And they call me a monster.
“With every motion and vibration that followed—my transport from the crypt across every bump and hole of the city’s streets to the hold of that sailing vessel, every pitch and roll of the voyage therein—the stake moved infinitesimally. By the time the ship made port, I prayed—figuratively, of course—that we would hit rough seas, and that the ship would be tossed enough to knock the stake from my heart and allow me to revive … and feed.
“But then I remembered that I had done that before on an earlier voyage so, rather than betray myself to anyone who might remember the incident, I decided to wait.
“And as I waited, as you prepared me for your exhibition, I listened. In the weeks that followed, I heard your voice constantly, barking orders to your builders to construct a special exhibition space, informing your other minions of how you desired to—what is the English word?—advertise my arrival.
“Eventually, I heard a new world of voices speaking English in ways that were unfamiliar. They all belonged to your customers and to curious members of the press. I heard them whisper, gasp, and even scream as they listened to your wildly embellished tale of my life and death in faraway Wallachia.
“When they were not commenting about me, I heard them speak of other things. Much was said about the war now dividing your nation. This interested me greatly, being a warrior myself. They spoke of whether a man named Lincoln in a white house could end the bloodshed.
“What a pity that would be.
“Hmm? Oh, I am prattling on, yes, but one misses the sound of one’s own voice when one has not heard it for a century and a half. I promise not to bore you much longer, sir.
“In any event, I am sure that you—certainly not your constabulary—ascertained what happened a few nights ago. The clumsy charwoman you entrusted to clean your museum became curious after dusting my closed, upright coffin. She opened the lid, but was not prepared for what she saw. She jumped upon viewing my corpse, but failed to release the open lid. That shook the coffin enough to finally release the stake, and end my hunger. She was a piquant appetizer to the vast buffet I have been discovering on your streets.
“I thank you, sir, for making that possible, and I know that I may count upon your discretion after I leave you this evening. As you demonstrated, you cannot destroy me, and you cannot possibly recruit assistance without sounding like a lunatic. Perhaps the authorities would think you mad enough to have drained the charwoman and the others of their blood, and strong enough to have torn their heads from their bodies to delay their identification.
“You understand now why you must remain silent. But your silence will not go without reward.
“This brings us to our … transaction, which I am still willing to conduct despite your attempt to destroy me. I thank you for complying with my earlier demands regarding my coffin. I found it in the location I requested, in good order. You have graciously released something I cannot live without, and now I gratefully do the same.
“I raise my hand thus and … she enters.
“I apologize for spiriting your beautiful wife from your home last night, but it was necessary to guarantee your presence and cooperation here tonight. As you can see, she is completely unharmed and unspoiled. Do not be dismayed by her vacant gaze, or her inability to speak. She will return to her normal, charming state once I am safely away, and she will remember nothing of her time with me.
“I regret that I cannot offer you the same relief, sir, but I want you to remember me, and that it was you who spread this banquet called America before me – all in the pursuit of thirty-five cents.
“I also regret that you will have to go to the trouble and expense of removing those lovely signs and banners I have seen hanging outside your building and around the city:
“‘Come Marvel at the Magnificent Corpse of the Legendary Warlord Vlad the Impaler at the American Museum!’
“Thank you, again, for bringing me to New York, Mister Barnum. Good night.”