Nilhollow—six-hundred-plus acres of haunted woods in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens—is the stuff of urban legend. Amid tales of tree spirits and all-powerful forest gods are frightening accounts of hikers who went insane right before taking their own lives. It is here that Julia Russo flees when her violent ex-boyfriend runs her off the road . . . here that she vanishes without a trace.
State Trooper Peter Grainger has witnessed unspeakable things that have broken other men. But he has to find Julia and can’t turn back now. Every step takes him closer to an ugliness that won’t be appeased—a centuries-old, devouring hatred rising up to eviscerate humankind. Waiting, feeding, surviving. It’s unstoppable. And its time has come.
Praise for the novels of Mary SanGiovanni
“A feast of both visceral and existential horror.” —F. Paul Wilson on Thrall
“Filled to the brim with mounting terror.” —Gary A. Braunbeck on The Hollower
“Nightmarish and vivid.” —FearZone on The Hollower
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"You know, I read this article online the other day that said that black holes can move. They just, like, bounce around the universe, all random, ya know? And if they bounce our way and get close enough even just to wobble the revolutions of planets around the sun — BAM! We're all hoovered into nothingness."
The herald of this revelation, one Todd Mackey, scratched at the day-old strawberry-blond scruff on his chin and jaw. He squinted through the early morning haze, which bent the rays of the rising sun in odd angles through the forest surrounding the campsite. He and his brother Kenny were only into the second morning of their "guys' weekend" and already he was feeling unusually and uncomfortably enveloped by the trees, with their mantles of needle-green. Down there on the ground, with the forest growths and thicknesses far more pressing an issue than galactic vacuums eons away, Todd didn't much believe in, understand, or care either way about the movement of black holes; it was just talk. But he needed it, to forget the bad feeling he had. He wanted conversation, however inane.
The Nilhollow area of the Pine Barrens was Kenny's idea. He had told Todd the spot would be perfect — cool, quiet, and best of all, pretty much all to themselves. Unlike a lot of the rest of the Pine Barrens, Todd didn't know much about the Nilhollow part of it, other than what little he and his brother had seen online on camping websites. He knew it encompassed some six-hundred-plus acres, maybe a mile square (although math was never really Todd's bag) in a central area of Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, somewhere within the neat borders of Mt. Misery Pasadena, Glassworks, and Butler Place Roads. Like the rest of the surrounding forest, it was comprised of mostly pitch pines, bracken ferns, and just enough sand in the soil to remind him of the Atlantic Ocean not too far away. Despite the extensive hiking trails in the surrounding areas to the west and south and its location amid a prominent forest of the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, Nilhollow was difficult to damn-near impossible to find on any of the Pine Barrens, Brendan T. Byrne, or even old Lebanon State Forest maps. There were no nearby campsites out there, and the closest place to park was still going to be quite a hike from the road. It would be an adventure, Kenny had told him, and Todd was always up for an adventure.
The stories they heard from campers and locals in the Burlington County diner they stopped at along the way proved a little strange, but neither brother was inclined to put too much stock in them. Most of it was typical Weird NJ–style, clichéd stuff about cursed grounds, unexplained hiker deaths and disappearances, lights in the sky, that sort of thing. There were some even more bizarre stories, too — some of the missing people turning up inside-out and hanging from trees — but those were told in the same vein as the urban legends about UFOs and Lenni-Lenape spirits, and were not something the brothers were going to let stand as a deterrent. Hell, Nilhollow's unmonitored wildness, with its almost forbidden paths and their dark history, was at least fodder for campfire conversation.
However, for Todd, actually being there and feeling the place around him had gotten under his skin a bit more than he'd expected. Something about Nilhollow was just ... all wrong. He could see why ghost stories might have gotten a foothold there.
For starters, the brothers had discovered the first morning that hunting was a waste of time, because animals went to great lengths, or so Todd was convinced, to avoid the area. That might have been due to a pervasive and lasting smell, faint to the boys but maybe stronger to the wildlife, of dead things rotting in wet, dark places, underneath thin shrouds of forgotten earth.
Shadows were too long in Nilhollow, and seemed to shift and dart with an anxious and aggressive purpose of their own. In the day, no birds chirped in the trees; no crickets chirped at night. It had taken him a while to notice, as is often the case when perceiving the absence rather than the presence of something. Once he did, though, he couldn't un-notice it. That was not to say there were no sounds at all; that was another problem, and one that had wreaked havoc on his sleep the night before. In the silvery hours just before dawn, while he lay awake in the darkness, there certainly were sounds, and they seemed to come from all around the tent — strange, sad, high-pitched crying alternating with deep bass warbling, like nothing Todd had ever heard before.
His brother, who slept like the dead, had heard nothing.
The worst of it, though, was that from the moment Todd had set foot on the path that led to the clearing, he had felt the off-kilter quality of the place, as if the whole area was shifted slightly off-track from the rest of reality around it. It was a kind of natural unnaturalness that felt ... old. Very old — older than any Lenape tribes or their burial grounds, possibly older than human souls. It gave him the sensation of being watched, too, by someone or something as distorted and changing as the leafy shapes and shadows, as looming as the trees. But more than just being watched, it made him feel touched somehow, even pressed down on, which in turn made him feel sort of violated and at the mercy of the Barrens around him. He wasn't the superstitious or even really the imaginative type, nor did he scare very easily; Todd dealt with the world in terms of what he could see, hear, and touch, not what he felt. So the fact that he sensed those things as distinctly as the clothes on his body, a tangible thing he could not just ignore, made him all that much more uncomfortable.
Kenny claimed he felt nothing. Todd wasn't sure that was entirely true, but he didn't push it. Kenny had an annoying habit of deflecting his own fears and insecurities on others if people called him out on them, and Todd just didn't feel like arguing about it.
"No fucking way. Bouncing black holes? Come on, man." Kenny, who had given up any aspirations of bagging so much as a rabbit that weekend, stretched out on his back in his sleeping bag and lit a joint. Todd grimaced; years of athletic training, workouts, and good eating made the idea of smoking up seem like such a waste, but Kenny grinned defiantly at him. Neither said anything about it. The brothers were close; their summer's-end camping weekend was tradition, their catch-up time before Kenny's fall semester started, so personal quirks were put aside. Nothing got in the way of their weekend.
"It's true, man," Todd said, a small grin in return finding its way to his lips. "They move around, sucking up stars and planets and rocks and shit as they go — just bouncing around the universe like giant Dustbusters."
"I thought like, gravity kept them in place or something."
"There is no gravity in space, dumb-ass. That's why things float out there."
"Then how do you explain why the planets don't just go flying off into space? What keeps them going around the sun?"
"Centrifugal force, man."
"Caused by gravity," Kenny said triumphantly.
"Whatever. That's only because there are things that are bigger and more powerful, like the sun, for the planets to go around. The black hole is the most powerful thing out there — and if there's nothing bigger to keep it in place, then hell yeah, it's gonna move." A little impressed with his own train of logic, Todd looked at the jagged slivers of sky visible through the treetops. It was pearlescent up there, soft-looking. And it seemed very far away, like the light at the end of a long tunnel. "One could be heading right this way now."
Kenny scoffed and rolled over onto his side. "Doubt it. So what's the plan for today?" Todd shrugged. "I dunno. Hiking? Supposed to be cool, I think. In the sixties, maybe."
Kenny nodded. The brothers were silent for a moment, and then Kenny's face lit up.
"Let's look for the vortex. We can hike there."
"The what, now?"
"The vortex. Well, paranormal researchers would probably call it a vortex, but it's not — not in the traditional sense. It's more of a chasm."
"Uh, meaning what? What's the difference?" Todd frowned at him. Already he didn't like where this was going.
"Well, a vortex is usually, like, a portal to the spirit world, right? A place where the veil between life and death is thin or torn through. Could be magnetic forces, pockets of gases coming up out of the ground, or hell, just people tripping their asses off. Damned if I know. But there are usually reports of all kinds of stuff near a vortex — ghosts, UFOs and little gray men, eerie lights."
"That sounds like a lot of bullshit," Todd said. It didn't, though. Not here in these woods, with the trees leaning in to listen and the heaviness of the air breathing down his back.
"No more than your bouncing black holes," Kenny went on with a sideways grin. "I'm just saying this isn't a vortex like that. None of that stuff the websites or even those old folks in the diner were talking about. It's a different experience. It's — Don't look at me like that, man. I'm serious. It's just this place in the woods where they say the land started to go bad. Makes people see things, hear things. Makes people do things, too. Crazy shit, man."
"I didn't know you were into that paranormal shit," Todd said. He was stalling. The more his brother talked, the worse an idea hiking out there seemed.
Kenny shrugged and looked away. "Didn't say I was. But I've heard a few things. From ... friends. Friends of friends."
"Oh yeah? Who?"
"No one you'd know." He had an odd, flustered expression on his face, a look unused to being there. "Figured it might be something to do to kill a few hours, at least."
Todd raised an eyebrow. There was more to that story, whatever it was, but he wasn't sure he wanted to know the rest, and Kenny clearly wasn't interested in volunteering it. It did suggest, though, that maybe Kenny knew more about the nature of this place than he had let on.
Kenny continued. "They say it's a hole, like this little chasm —"
"I thought you said it was a vortex."
"I did. Psychic vortex. Physical chasm. Try to keep up." Kenny knocked the glowing head off the tiny remains of the joint and poked at it until it went out. "So what do you say? The Nilhollow vortex-chasm?"
"I don't know."
"It's just a hike."
"From the middle of nowhere to ... deeper into the middle of nowhere. Why are you so dead set on going?"
Kenny squinted at him through a ray of sun. It cast an odd expression over his features. "Why are you so dead set against it? Scared?"
Todd scoffed. "I'm not afraid of a hole in the ground."
"Okay, then. So strap on your balls and let's go."
A low whine echoed through the trees as the brothers squared off. Todd could tell that even though Kenny would never admit it, he felt as strongly about going as Todd felt about the wrongness of those woods, though he couldn't imagine why Kenny cared so much. Nevertheless, the dynamic with Todd and his brother had always been that the desire to act always seemed to overrule an inaction, whether the motives were shared or explained or not, so finally, Todd agreed.
"Well, let's go then," he said to Kenny, gesturing off toward a wild and pathless tangle of woods. "You're wasting daylight."
Kenny grinned. Todd couldn't tell whether it was relief, excitement, or nervous energy that flooded his brother's features. It may have been a little of all three.
Todd found that as they got ready to go, his anxiety about their surroundings began to wane. For that, he was glad. He supposed the distraction of actually doing something, of taking charge of himself in his environment, restored some sense of control. They yanked on their hiking boots and loaded up their backpacks with water, Power-Bars, knives, and other essentials, secured their food in a bundle that they hung from a nearby high tree branch, and then headed away from the campsite. By the time they'd gotten their sleeping bags rolled up and bundled inside the tent, he found he was even kind of looking forward to finding his brother's ghost chasm, or whatever it was supposed to be.
"You know," Kenny said with a grin as he led the way down a sloping path toward some shadowed underbrush, "some say this chasm bounces. It's like your black hole, right here on earth."
Todd laughed, shoving his brother lightly. "Yeah, whatever. A magical, bouncing black hole in the ground."
Kenny shrugged, the mirth suddenly gone from his features. "That's what they say."
"So how do you know how to find it?" Todd asked.
Kenny glanced back at his brother with a knowing smile. "Those friends I mentioned."
Todd shook his head. "Still think this is bullshit," he muttered, but Kenny didn't answer.
For a while, the only sound was the crunching of the underbrush beneath their feet and of Kenny humming softly out of tune to himself; they'd gone off-trail through a dense expanse of pines, and the deeper they went, the more it seemed Kenny was going out of his way to find the hardest route to get there. It was maybe half an hour or so in before it occurred to Todd that Kenny was leading them without a GPS or map. He seemed to know exactly where to go, as convoluted as it was. At least, Todd hoped his brother knew where he was going. He'd mentioned those friends again, but Todd knew most of Kenny's friends from school and around the old neighborhood. He'd never heard any of them talk about the Pine Barrens, let alone Nilhollow. Furthermore, he couldn't imagine even the combined brainpower of any of those potheads could provide so detailed a set of directions to such a remote location that Kenny would be able to find it without a map or compass or anything. So who were the friends, exactly, with such intimate knowledge of the place? Todd was just about to ask him when they broke through into a small clearing littered with dead pine needles and cones. Kenny stopped short and Todd, who had been watching the unfamiliar ground beneath his feet to avoid a spill, nearly plowed into him.
"What?" he asked, waiting.
Kenny exhaled with what seemed to Todd to be a mixture of relief, satisfaction, and awe, and dropped his backpack.
"Here it is," he said with uncharacteristic reverence. "The Nilhollow Chasm."
The Nilhollow Chasm wasn't a hole, exactly; it was more of a jagged tear in the earth. As they approached, Todd saw that it only ran about six or seven feet long and was no more than three feet wide. Peering in, though, he suspected it ran pretty deep — so deep, in fact, that beyond the jutting rocks and tumbles of dirt was nothing but black. He thought that if he were to drop a quarter down there, he might never hear it hit the bottom. That idea was followed immediately and inexplicably by the thought that if he were to drop anything down there, something from beneath the earth might very well reach up and grab his arm, sinking shining black claws into his skin and muscle, and drag him in. He might never find himself hitting bottom, either.
It was a crazy thought. Stupid. Still, he took a step back from the edge.
"So," Kenny said, spreading out his arms to indicate the breadth of the area. He stood right on the cusp of the chasm, inhaling that stale air deeply. "What do you think?"
Todd looked around. At first, nothing struck him as being any stranger than where they'd set up camp. When he looked closer, though, he saw it — a subtle difference in the healthiness, the naturalness of the surrounding flora, as if the essence of Nilhollow's weirdness started right where they stood. Along the circumference of the clearing, the branches of the trees grew twisted in painfully odd angles, with most of the bark a rot-gray color. The pines and oaks there were sparser, an odd, washed-out gray-green not indicative of life or vitality but rather of illness or poison. That was the impression they left on Todd — a kind of unwholesomeness, a landscape barely able to fight through its strangled existence. The surrounding brush was strange, too. Had they just tramped through all that? How hadn't he noticed how ... infected everything looked? The thin grass, pale yellow in some places and nearly colorless in others, clung to the ground in clumps like fists determined to claw their way to that chasm. From beds of desiccated ferns, odd thorny bushes grew, black and talon sharp. There were no sounds of bugs or birds, no frogs, no crunching of leaves beneath anonymous hooves or paws. There was nothing but a silence heavy with expectation, a silence so dense as to almost be a low hum. It seemed as much inside his head as out, a heavy, cottony feeling that dulled his thoughts. He felt tamped down, in a way. Run through. He swayed a little where he stood, aware in the periphery of his mind that something ... someone ... something had changed. It hurt his head, though, to try to focus, to bring any kind of sharper awareness to himself and his surroundings.
Excerpted from "Savage Woods"
Copyright © 2017 Mary SanGiovanni.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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