AUGUST 6 '22 RELEASE
Rowan Vane, a wannabe writer with the confidence of a leaf in a hurricane, is on a soul-searching vacation with his damaged family in Hell’s Gulf – a ramshackle, no-horse stain on Florida’s reputation.
You might be forgiven for asking why he’d go there, but forgiveness isn’t much of a commodity amongst the denizens of this godforsaken place – they’ve a bit of an axe to grind.
With a history as dark and pungent as its waters, this bit-too-quiet beach town in the navel of nowhere is patrolled by a delightfully xenophobic sheriff who sees ‘foreign agents’ arriving on every rotten jetty.
This picturesque town boasts abandoned ghostly ruins, unusually amorous sea life, mutant creatures and dastardly deeds that form the stories of the town’s affable alcoholics.
Oh, and something’s been killing the people here for decades.
Yes, folks, Hell’s Gulf really has it all. All you need is a little imagination.
Fortunately, Rowan’s brought his along with all the bells and whistles.
And some fishing tackle.
Trailer #1 - The TD Studios Cut
Trailer #2 - The Carlson Cut
“You there! Young man! Are you brave enough to take a gander at Calico Jack’s Strange Findings?” The man boasted a mid-Atlantic accent, which smacked Rowan like a paddle after hearing so many Southern drawls over the last few days. “Take the lady in if you must – but hold her tight! What you see might make you water yer pants and clear yer poop deck! Braver men than you have run screaming in terror from the licks of Hell that are my Strange Findings!”
“He’s all talk,” Heather whispered to Rowan. “But if it’s your first time, it might be fun.”
Rowan chewed the last of his squid and tossed the stick in a nearby trash can. Hiding a smile, he walked up to Calico Jack, who peered wide-eyed down at him. “How much?” Rowan asked.
“Ten buckaroos,” Calico Jack declared.
“Jesus, ten dollars?” Rowan blurted, wishing he could sew his mouth shut.
Calico Jack laughed. “When all’s said and done, young man, you’ll be payin’ twenty dollars to erase the horrors from your mind.”
“I’m sure,” said Rowan. But he forked over the bill and stepped through the canvas flaps, giving a thumbs-up to Heather, who waved daintily.
The flaps closed around him. It was pitch black underneath the tents. All the noise from outside had died entirely. Rowan blinked and circled in place; he couldn’t tell when his eyes were open or shut. He breathed in the odor of sweat-stained cloth.
“Welcome to the gullet of terror, young man,” Calico Jack’s voice boomed from all around him. “Here you will see things that will make you question your very being, your placement on this planet, and the long-standing dilemma of ‘Are we alone in the universe’. If you turn to your left, you shall see the first piece of evidence…”
Rowan had no idea where “left” was supposed to be in the darkness, but a lightbulb suddenly switched on behind him, and he spun around to see a tank holding some mummified brown animal. Upon closer inspection Rowan saw it was a shriveled primate’s body fused to the scaly tail of what he guessed was a tuna.
“Some say a line of our distant ancestors split off and took to the water,” Calico Jack explained. “And some say they still rule the seas, emerging from the depths only to frighten their land-dwelling cousins. But sometimes, they slip up, and let themselves get caught…”
For the past six years a corpulent lady by the name of Marjorie Adler (affectionately and not-so-affectionately nicknamed “Large Marge”) had manned the bar (or “womanned”, she preferred). She lived in a trailer home that had dropped anchor right behind the building, cleverly hidden behind the vast apothecary’s shelf of alcohol she worked in front of. It was fruitful work, as booze served a thirst no man could fully quench. Despite working all night, every night, Large Marge still managed to get her requisite eight hours of sleep – four a.m. to noon – then wake up and get ready for the day.
The month of March was usually slow for her, the weather not quite warm enough to send the throngs of working men into the shade of the bar each night, craving a drink before bed. Still, she scoffed at the paltry profits she’d acquired for the day, sitting in the double-digits.
“Shitfire,” she muttered, staring down at her phone.
The withered old man at the table gave a chuckle. “That thing gettin’ your goat? Could never figure ‘em out meself. Fingers are too big for the buttons.”
“This here’s a touch-screen, finger size ain’t a problem,” said Marge, showing him the screen.
The man didn’t look towards it, but he laughed again. “Sheezus. The things they come up with these days…”
“These’ve been around for a while, Gerry,” Marge explained, rolling her eyes. “‘Course, by your standards, transportation shoulda’ stopped with the horse-drawn carriage.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s the stuff!” he cackled, rocking on his stool. “Dependable, them horses was. And when they dropped off a load o’ road apples, you could warm your hands on ‘em, I remember. Got me through plenty a winter back in those days…”
“You gonna order another drink, or you just gonna hold onto your empty glass and spout nonsense?” said Marge, flicking her wrist towards him.
Gerry rapped his shotglass, a twisted smile marring his face. “Well, now that you mention it...I think I’m gonna hold onto this empty glass and spout nonsense.”
Marge gave a hefty sigh. “Go home to your wife, Gerry.”
“Amazing customer service!” Gerry wheezed. “Such respect to your elders. Sheezus, what’s this crazy world come to, where an old man can’t even get a drink without gettin’ lynched to high heaven!”
“Well at least gimme the lot for the walk home,” he said, motioning to the half-empty bottle of bourbon sitting on the table.
“No, that’s against the law.”
“Law schmaw. Law this,” he spat, sticking up his middle finger. But he slid off the stool and staggered towards the front. “You haven’t seen the last of – no, wait, you have seen the last of me, yeah, that’s the one, see if you can survive without my business...” He continued to rant under his breath as he disappeared into the darkness.
The sun had completely set, rendering the woods’ interior a muted purplish gray. Some sort of cricket emitted a long, unbroken trill. The forest floor was littered with needles and dry leaves, which jabbed the bottoms of his feet; he cursed himself for not bringing a pair of shoes. But ahead, sitting off the trail, was the unmistakable figure of a porta-potty.
Rowan moseyed up to it, set his fishing pole against its outside wall, and turned on his phone light before entering.
As expected, its interior was cramped and dark and smelled sour with waste. But a full roll of toilet paper was more than enough to convince Rowan to drop his bathing suit and sit.
After a minute, the pressure had lifted, and Rowan exhaled, savoring the soothing emptiness inside him. He felt better about fishing, and Heather, and his brief brush with success at the creek mouth. No matter. I’ll try again tomorrow. I have every opportunity to try again. He flexed his legs, readying himself to stand.
“AAAAAAAARGH!!!” Something had latched onto his left buttock, and he could feel its weight as it pierced his skin with brutal points. Rowan jumped forward, crashing into the locked door, his ass lit with searing pain. “WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK –” He slid on the slippery floor, fresh blood pouring down his upper thigh – his first thought was of some horrible infection in his ass, induced by fecal bacteria – he groped for the lock, his left leg cramping –
An echoing rattle welled up from the hole, and with it came the sounds of gripping, sliding claws on plastic.
Rowan wheeled around, his phone light illuminating the porta-potty, and from inside the toilet seat emerged a reptilian head, scaly and squared, with glowing orange eyes and peglike teeth, studded with flecks of dried shit.
“AAAAAAAAAAA!!” Rowan pounded on the door, which burst open, causing him to fall out. His swimsuit still around his ankles, he yanked them up and waddled as fast as he could, one hand on his butt, his phone light a white blur against the darkened forest –
The thing was chasing him, he could hear its feet pounding against the leaves...he shot a glance behind him and saw something long and low to the ground, the color of asphalt – he smelled the encroaching odor of stale piss –
“NO NO NO NO NO NO,” he blubbered, forcing himself to accelerate past the pain – he emerged onto the beach, his momentum carrying him far past the sand – and he tripped and faceplanted into the shallow water.
“Steaks’re up!” Jerome cut in, toting a heaping platter of smoking cuts. “Had to grill ‘em a bit longer, but they should be safe now. Right – now, who gets the eyes?”
Rowan, whose stomach had been churning from the morbid conversation, suddenly perked up. Get the what? He must have misheard; his head seemed to have descended further into that haze. But the crowd devolved into another chatter before one of the red-haired twins stood up.
“Mr. Matthias Cantrell gets one. For that bee-yootiful story.” Matthias grinned and bowed his head at the boy.
The other twin rose. “And Ralphie – he is, after all, ‘the man of the hour’.”
“Uhhh…” Rowan snapped his gaze back and forth as the locals looked at him with wide smiles. Their faces seemed to swish about in basins as his vision darkened at the edges. He blinked hard, trying vainly to clear his head. What’s going on? I stopped drinking a while ago...how much more will it do to me? But as he struggled with his own thoughts, a golf ball-sized, steaming eyeball on a plate was set in his lap.
It stared up at Rowan, gray with a catlike pupil, and Rowan stared back. “Uh,” he said again, looking up at the locals again, who now seemed amused, as if they didn’t expect him to actually do it. But as he surveyed the crowd, he saw Heather, no trace of a smile on her face, watching him with vested interest.
His addled brain cooked up a brilliant idea.
I’m gonna do it. For her. Show her I’m not a pussy.
His inhibitions expunged with his shame, Rowan clutched the eye in his fist and transferred it to his mouth.
It was much harder than he expected, like biting into a gumball – a squirt of juice shot through his mouth – but ignoring the taste, he stood up and dipped his head back, and the fleshy mass slid down his throat with an exaggerated gulp.
The crowd burst into cheers as hands reached over and slapped his back, but it was the sight of Heather’s jaw dropping in astonishment that sealed his sense of victory. He felt great. His blood was liquid joy, his mind was parting clouds, and the jubilant crowd was a symphony of mirth in his ears.
A video editor by trade, Nick Carlson also harbors a strong passion for horror writing. Alongside a self-published novel and anthology contributions, he regularly pens short stories for the horror entertainment site Chilling Tales For Dark Nights.
Nick's love of the genre coincides with his fascination with the natural world and its more unsavory denizens. He’ll willingly free-handle spiders and snakes (and give you a biology lesson to boot), and whenever he finds himself on the beach he’ll reel in stingrays and man-sized sharks from the sea...but it’s the safe and speedy release that he cherishes the most.
On top of all that, Nick is an avid hiker, classical composer, and organist.