The monsters live inside of Kate Woodson. Chronic pain and a host of autoimmune diseases have robbed her of a normal, happy life. Her husband Andrew’s surprise of their dream Maine lake cottage for the summer is the gift of a lifetime. It’s beautiful, remote, idyllic, a place to heal.
But they are not alone. Something is in the woods, screeching in the darkness, banging on the house, leaving animals for dead.
Just like her body, Kate’s cottage becomes her prison. She and Andrew must fight to survive the creature that lurks in the dead of night.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
An avid podcaster, he can be seen and heard on Monster Men, one of the longest running video horror podcasts in the world, and Final Guys, focusing on weekly movie and book reviews. His nostalgic column about the magic of 80s horror, Video Visions, is featured monthly at Cemetery Dance Online. You can find his short stories in a number of anthologies, including Chopping Block Party, The Body Horror Book and Fearful Fathoms II.
Living with his crazy and supportive family and two cats, he's happy to be close enough to New York City to see the skyline without having to pay New York rent. You can follow his travails at www.huntershea.com.
Read an Excerpt
Kate Woodson was dying, and her executioner was her own body.
Her doctors hadn't said as much the past few visits, but even she knew there was a limit to what a body could take. She had been in worse shape before. Much worse. Last rites and funeral arrangements kind of shape. Kate had come out of it like a modern-day Lazarus.
But she was tired. And hurting. And sick. Always so, so sick. She'd forgotten what it was like to wake up and not be in agony, muscles weak as a newborn's. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd just gone out of the house to go to a store or a movie with Andrew.
Though she wasn't dying today (fat chance, Grim Reaper!), Kate was still wallowing in the deep end of the misery pool. What made it worse was the shadow watching her from the kitchen. It moved out of sight every time she turned her head.
"I see you," she said from the daybed in the living room, her voice deep and scratchy.
She chuckled at the thought that the shadow was scared of her. Then she shivered with the realization that she was scared shitless of it.
"Call the cable stations that do all the ghost shows. We have a haunting in Sayreville, New Jersey." Andrew wasn't home to ask her what she was talking about. He was at work, in a job he hated, because of her. That job came with great benefits. Benefits they couldn't afford to lose.
Not that Kate would have told him about the shadow. He was already worried enough about her. She didn't need him thinking she was losing it mentally as well. Or worse yet, he'd blame it on the meds, making her feel like some kind of delusional addict. The few times he'd ascribed her behavior or thoughts to the pills had angered her so much, she'd worried she'd give herself a stroke over it. It was an extreme reaction, for sure. Kate was never one to hold things in.
Though she did hold back the fear that he might be right.
Besides, wasn't it better that the shadow was a hallucination, a construct of her bad feels, rather than an actual, lurking apparition?
She scratched the back of her shoulder, her wrist popping out just enough to make her see stars for a moment.
Yep, better it was figment of her imagination, a bit of spoiled gruel.
If the shadow wanted to stay in the kitchen, let it. She had other things to worry about. Like getting her wrist back in place. She grabbed it with her good hand and gave a slight twist. There came a tiny, muted crack, and all the bones were back where they belonged.
"That's better," she said to Buttons, her old rescue dog and constant companion. He lay beside the daybed, wheezing doggie snores. She let her hand slip over the daybed, fingertips grazing his head. At least with Buttons, she was never alone. A weak smile curled Kate's lips. She stared at the ceiling, consciously avoiding the kitchen.
She'd never even known what an autoimmune disease was until she was told she had one. Thinking she'd passed the ability to be shocked, she was both flabbergasted and devastated when she was diagnosed several years later with a second, more damaging disease. The rare Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and more common but terrifying lupus were a hell of a one-two punch. The old Kate who didn't suffer from unbearable fatigue, swelling, degenerating eyesight, digestive system breakdowns, heart problems, and a host of other horridness was a distant and ever-fading memory. Most days, it felt like she'd always been this way – broken, hurting, and scared.
Nothing in the vast array of pills on Kate's nightstand would make it all go away. With Ehlers and lupus, there were no cures. At best, the pills dulled the pain, controlled flare-ups, and in some cases made her feel even worse.
Kate checked the pill schedule she'd created on her tablet. It was time for one of her nerve blockers. There was her whole home pharmacy in all its bullet-pointed glory: fentanyl (an uber dangerous patch that she changed every three days and was killing people with alarming frequency), Neurontin, gabapentin, Percocet, Ultram, prednisone, and Tagamet for her stomach, which had been utterly demolished by the pills themselves. Monthly checkups were required to measure the damage the pills were doing to her liver and kidneys, heart and pancreas.
Andrew kept trying to get her to migrate her pills into one of those big plastic holders, the ones with a day of the week printed on each slot. But the only one that would be large enough to support her cache of pharmaceuticals could double as an end table if you attached some legs to it. The sheer size of it depressed the hell out of her. And it made her feel like a feeble, old lady.
Instead, she dumped her assortment of pills in a mason jar. She'd even tied a red-and-white checkered bow around the rim to make it pretty. Martha Stewart would have approved.
She dry-swallowed the yellow pill, screwed the lid back on the jar, and shifted her attention to the television. Turner Classics was having a Joseph Cotten marathon. Kate was partial to Joseph Cotten. She especially loved him in Portrait of Jennie. Her mother used to tell her she looked like Jennifer Jones, the mysterious woman who captures struggling artist Cotten's imagination ... and heart. What Kate saw in the mirror now was a far cry from Jennifer Jones. Her long, chestnut hair had gotten brittle, her eyes perpetually ringed by dark circles and puffy bags. It was hard to maintain her weight, so her cheeks had sunk, kind of the way she'd wished they would when she was a kid and thought Kate Moss was the most beautiful woman in the world. I was a stupid kid, she reminded herself. She'd give anything for some cellulite right about now.
Checking the channel guide, she was disappointed they weren't playing Portrait of Jennie today. Oh, but Niagara was going to be on after dinner. No one had ever told Kate she looked like Marilyn Monroe.
Then again, who did? Maybe that poor girl Anna Nicole Smith, and look what happened to her.
Kate had to pee, but her ankles, knees, and hips felt like they were on fire, the swelling pushing the limits of her reddened skin. She could see the bathroom just down the short hall, but it might as well have been in another state.
"Too bad you're not bigger," she said to the dog. "Like one of those Scottish deerhounds. I could saddle you up and ride you to the potty."
Buttons looked up at her with his sad, moist eyes. "But no, I had to fall in love with a beagle."
He licked her hand and snuggled his head back between his paws.
"Can you at least pee for me? You're very good at peeing."
His tail wagged but his eyes remained closed. He was tired and she was disturbing him.
The pill should take effect soon. Once it took the harsh edge off the pain, she could finally sleep. She'd worry about peeing later. The shadow would go right back where it belonged. Into the ether.
If she fell asleep now, she'd only miss Peking Express, not one of her favorites. A nice two-hour nap, or what she preferred to call a controlled coma, would have her waking up right around the time Andrew came home. Maybe she could get dinner started before he dropped his keys on the bowl by the door, which meant ordering up some grub on one of the many apps on her phone.
"But-But, you wanna veg out with Mommy?" she said, patting the daybed. Buttons jumped right up, taking his spot between her legs and the back cushion, always careful not to rest his weight on her.
Kate cut her gaze to the window, grateful she'd asked Andrew to keep the blinds shut before he left that morning. The sun was out in force today, or at least that's what the weatherman had said during the morning news. Kate hated sleeping with the sun on her face. It wasn't so much trying to nap under the sharp glare. She never had problems zonking out at the beach.
It was just a reminder of what she was missing.
Kate closed her eyes, visualizing the rebellious microorganisms in her body dying a slow, terrible death. Her brother, the motivational speaker, had told her that if she meditated on attacking the disease, she could cure herself without the need for medicine or surgery. He'd guided her through countless meditations. Yet she was still on a boatload of medications and had had over a dozen surgeries in the past five years. Still, she loved her brother and believed in him, so she kept trying. Maybe someday it would all come together and she'd rise from her sick bed and go skydiving. Or at least out to a nice restaurant with Andrew.
"Thoughts are physical, sis," her brother had said over and over. "If you concentrate on your intentions with a pure heart and clear mind, you can manifest anything."
"If the answer to life's woes is so easy, how come so many people are sick?"
"Who said it was easy? The Buddhists say it can take many, many lifetimes to even come close to mastering this."
"So you're saying I have no chance. I mean, it's not like I have a clear mind," Kate had said.
There was Ryker with his perpetual smile. "Maybe in previous lives, you've been working toward kicking some serious booty in this one. For all you know, this is your final exam."
"I flunked my finals in school."
"That's because you were always goofing around instead of studying."
"Well, I have plenty of time to study now, don't I?" "That you do."
Part of her felt it was all a load of crap, and perhaps that's why it didn't work as well as it should. She sabotaged herself.
Thoughts destroying diseased cells in your body? Yeah, right. But she had to admit, the meditation part was relaxing. And she wasn't beyond admitting that it might have helped her a few years earlier when she'd gotten that terrible virus that had almost spelled the end for her. When she was at her sickest and barely able to open her eyes, much less talk, Ryker had sat beside her bed, talking her through a visualization of the virus. She'd grown up a huge Star Wars fan (yes, she'd had her tomboy phase). Ryker told her to picture the virus as the Empire's TIE fighters. She chased the TIE fighters in her own X-wing fighter, her trusty droid riding behind her, both of them blasting the viral spaceships to smithereens.
She remembered the day Ryker had whispered to her, bringing her back to the big battle, and there were no TIE fighters left to blast. Within hours, she was up and asking for a cheeseburger, which she was promptly told she couldn't have.
Of course, the virus could have just run its course, but Ryker swore that she had defeated it through the power of her thoughts.
I'm thinking of one of those bamboo huts on the water in Bora Bora.
Even if she couldn't make one appear in her living room, it was nice to just visit. She was too tired to be pissed at Ehlers-Danlos and lupus today.
Settling into her pile of pillows, she thought she saw a gray shape flit from right to left out of the corner of her eye. She turned and stared at the spot in the kitchen where she thought it had disappeared.
It's not really there. Stop thinking about it and it'll go away.
Kate pulled the sheet up to her neck, reflexively snuggling closer to Buttons.
She shut her eyes, turning the volume on the television up so she didn't feel so alone. Voices. She needed voices.
"Keep an eye on me, But-But. I'm going under."
Buttons whimpered in his sleep.
* * *
"Wake up, sleepy peepy."
Kate felt something pressing against her head. She opened one eye, saw Andrew leaning over her, traces of his cologne on his neck.
"What time is it?"
"Almost seven," he said.
She painfully pushed herself up into a sitting position. Grandmas move quicker and more gracefully than me, she thought. "What time did you get home?"
He sat on the edge of the daybed. He'd changed out of his suit and into a Notre Dame T-shirt and jeans. Kate rested her hand on his chest, felt his strong, healthy heart pumping away.
"A little after five."
"Why didn't you wake me?"
He smiled. "I tried. You were out cold. I even checked to make sure you were breathing."
It was impossible to count the number of times her husband had had to fearfully hover over her and make sure she was, indeed, still among the living. According to Andrew, she was no Sleeping Beauty. When she slumbered, she either looked like she was in excruciating pain or stone-cold dead. She hadn't believed him until he took pictures and video to show her – mouth hanging open, cheeks hollowed, arm hanging over the side of the bed, her chest taking an interminable amount of time to inhale and exhale.
God, what she put him through.
She truly believed she'd survived everything and he'd never left her side because they were more stubborn than any ten mules combined. When things got bad, they took turns looking at the sky and saying, "Nice try, but it's not gonna work. You can't break me!" They refused to give up or split up. If her illnesses had given them one thing, it was stark awareness of just how tough they were, and how much they loved one another.
"You don't fuck with Jersey," Andrew had said many, many times, always with a wry smile.
She was so glad to wake up to him. Just his presence made the house ... lighter.
Rubbing crud from her eyes, she said, "I was going to order Chinese."
"Already taken care of. I got a pie from Milano's. And a salad, if we want to pretend we're eating healthy."
Her mouth instantly watered. After a dozen surgeries on her digestive tract, food was not her friend.
However, a thin-crust pizza from Milano's was something she could handle and a true slice of heaven. She and Andrew joked that she lived on their pizza, but they weren't far off.
Kate kissed him on the lips and quickly turned away, covering her mouth.
"You're the best," she said.
"Anything for my little crip."
People cringed when he called her that, but they could never understand. Everyone walked on eggshells around her. Andrew couldn't afford to do that, so they indulged in their fair share of gallows humor. If you didn't laugh, well, she'd done enough crying to fill a reservoir.
"Is my breath bad?"
He kissed her again. "Yep."
She swatted at the back of his legs when he got up – and missed.
Andrew wasn't wearing socks or shoes. Buttons trailed behind him, sensing food was coming. Andrew flipped the pizza box open.
"You want me to warm you up a slice?"
"I'll take it like that."
"Sure. But not too much."
"You can have my cucumbers," he said, grabbing the dressing from the refrigerator.
"Don't I always?"
He prepared her dinner on a folding wooden tray and placed it across her lap. Buttons sat looking up at her.
"No people food, buddy," Andrew said. He opened a can of dog food. Buttons didn't budge.
The dog loved Milano's as much as Kate.
Sighing, Andrew plucked a slice from the box. "Buttons. You want some pizza?"
The old dog bounded into the kitchen, nails skittering on the tile. He couldn't pull up fast enough and skidded into a cabinet. Kate nearly choked on her Pepsi.
"We couldn't have had a child that would end up being more like you," Andrew said.
"Lucky for that unborn child."
Not being able to have children had long since ceased being a sore spot for them. They'd gone from disappointment to sadness, grim acceptance to now, where it was just a simple fact of life. No sense bemoaning and gnashing teeth over what could have been. Besides, Kate couldn't imagine what it would be like taking care of a child now when she could barely take care of herself. That would have been just one more very big thing on Andrew's already full plate.
Andrew plopped next to her, holding pizza and a beer. He hit the Mute button on the TV remote. There was a commercial for a Jean Arthur retrospective.
Kate wanted to wolf down the slice, but forced herself to nibble. Her internal mechanisms did not take kindly to massive food intake.
"How was work?" she asked.
He popped open the beer. Foam ran down the sides of the can onto his lap. He just shook his head, sucking up as much as he could.
"I came, I saw, I left," he said. "It was a meeting kind of day, which means I got nothing done."
"Can't you just tell them you have real work to do and blow off those meetings?"
"I'm not sure if you're aware of this, honey, but in corporate America, accomplishing nothing due to a solid slate of meetings is classified as a job well done."
She snatched a stray cucumber from his salad and popped it in her mouth. "I'd go crazy in a place like that. There's no way I'd be able to keep my mouth shut."
"Which is why Fate glimpsed your future and said, 'Hmm, I better give this chick something that'll keep her from ever trying to work with people. I know, I'll strike her down with anything I can scrounge up that's incurable, therefore maintaining the careful balance between progress and stagnancy we've worked so hard to imbue in this thing we call business.'"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Creature"
Copyright © 2018 Hunter Shea.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What is the book about?
It centers around a very ill woman and her husband. They’ve been through hell and back, and the future isn’t so rosy. Needing a break, her husband takes a leave of absence and rents her dream Maine lake cottage for the summer. It’s everything she ever dreamed of…except she’s too weak and ill to truly enjoy it. She should be happy, but she grows more and more frustrated. They soon learn there is something lurking in the woods. At night, they hear howls and screeches, objects hitting the cottage. During the day, he finds odd structures in the woods and more and more dead animals. Something is out there, and it won’t let them leave the cottage. Soon, they know it will want to come inside and they have to somehow defend themselves against a creature that seems to have been born from the depths of hell itself.
What are the underlying themes?
Creature is about love enduring through life changing diseases, and the toll long term illnesses take on those afflicted as well as the ones who love them. It’s about fear in every form – real, imagined, childhood terrors, adult anxiety, the inevitability of death and uncertainty of the future.
Did you base your characters on anyone you knew?
Kate and Andrew are very much like my wife and me. My wife has been plagued with a host of physical ailments that have left her bedridden for years at a time. I’ve been a husband and caregiver for over two decades, and as much as you bond as a couple, it also breaks you down, splits you wide open and lets a lot of bad things come through. I told my editor writing this will be cheaper than therapy.
Who influenced you most in the writing of the book?
There can never be one influence with my writing. It all starts with my father who taught me to love reading and exposed me to horror legends at a young age like Stephen Kind, HP Lovecraft, William Peter Blatty, John Saul and so many others. I’ve been devouring horror books and movies every since I was in first grade. They are all a part of me now.
Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?
Two words are all you need to start. Both of these magic words were given to me by Elmore Leonard almost twenty years ago. Read. Write. Do no even attempt the latter until you become voracious with the former. The third word I like to add is Repeat.
Where did you write?
Everywhere I can. I realized early on that if I ever wanted to become a prolific writer, I couldn’t wait for the ideal time of the dream writing space. For instance, I’m writing this in the kitchen, the sound of football practice I the nearby field buzzing through the open window. Sure, I have a nice writing desk and corner of the house, but I spend a lot of time scribbling in the yard, my car, libraries, even airports. For me, I have to get the words down. I don’t have time to search for the ideal space to do it.
Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?
I always used to write with music, my headphones clamped to my head, volume low, horror and scifi movie soundtracks playing, urging me on. Over the past few years, I’ve mostly written sans music. Not sure why. Though I do love the It Follows soundtrack. If I’m ever stuck, I’ll pop that on and go to town.
Did you find it hard to write? Or harder to edit your own work?
That first draft is an uphill battle. It’s far easier to edit. I know I’ve already gotten the bones of the story down. Hell, I even typed THE END on the final page. Now I just need to go in and make it meaner and leaner. Editing is fun. So is writing, but at least with editing, you’ve already seen the light at the end of the tunnel. You just need to make it a little brighter.
What was it like to be edited by someone else?
I have been blessed to have only worked with phenomenal editors. Don D’Auria was my dream editor, and the fact that I got to work with him when we were at Samhain was a dream come true. I completely trust Don and will do whatever he says to polish that book. As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin. You have to be open to criticism and suggestion, especially if it’s from someone you respect and admire. I know I’m in good hands.
What are you writing now?
I’m actually trying my hand at ghost writing, penning a novel for a very successful author. Naturally, I can’t reveal any more information. If I did, I’d have to kill you. Then we’d both be ghosts.