A few years ago, as the editor of NRA Family, we ran a little contest: We asked our readers to guess which of six creepy campfire tales was a work of fiction. One of those six spooky stories was mine, a little piece called "Radio in the Cabin." It was a great deal of fun—and if you stick around, there's a twist ending—but there was one little problem with "Radio in the Cabin": It was too scary, and some of the details too raw, for an audience likely to include children.
This is what really happened.
November 2011, somewhere in Stephen King territory:
I am standing on the splintered wooden porch of a hunting camp lodge, watching as darkness and snow fall together in mounting piles of deep silence. There's a smell of wood smoke, of cigar smoke, of fine single-malts; it could be any decade in any century. Tomorrow, for the first time, I will be joining my father's friends for their yearly ritual, a whitetail hunt deep in Maine's timber country. Tonight, I will dine with them in the main lodge of this little hunting camp in the middle of the woods.
I am the first woman to be invited to join my father's crew. In fact, as far as the proprietor knows, I am the first woman to hunt this camp despite the fact that it's been here for 70 years and more. He leads me inside to show me a wall of photographs that lead from one end of the main lodge to the other, documenting the countless hunters who've come here over the decades.
"Look, here's your father," he says in a rich Downeast accent. I look, and there he is, younger in the photo than I am now.
"Isn't that also my cabin?" I point to another snap on the wall, further down, black-and-white this time. Standing in front of it are a man and a woman, dressed in what appear to be late-1940s styles.
Have you ever looked at a picture and felt that the person in it was looking right back at you? The man's eyes burn into the camera lens, beady and black as a rattlesnake's. The woman has a small bruise at the point of her jaw, visible even in monochrome.
"Ayuh," he murmurs, his smile collapsing. "That it is. That man actually built all these cabins."
"And her?" I ask. "Was she his wife?"
"Was," he says ominously. "Until she disappeared one night. Everyone knows he killed her, but they never did find a body. Lot of woods back there," he continues.
Oh my, that's cheerful, I think. But then it's time for dinner, and time for bed. As the lone female, I don't have to share accommodations: I have a cabin to myself. It's adorable. Well-built and cozy, it isn't any more than 15 by 15 feet, just enough room for a full-sized bed, a radiator and a bedside table with a great big ugly lamp. About 15 feet from the porch is a sharp drop-off, 50 feet straight down to the Carrabassett river.
Between the soft rushing of the river and the fatigue of the day, I fall asleep immediately. Until ...
ZZZOT! ZZOT! HSSSHHHSSSZZZOOOT!
A loud burst of static, as if I'd tuned a radio in between two stations ... and turned the volume way up. I lever out of bed as if electrified, panic shredding my sleep. Where could that noise possibly be coming from? I don't have a radio in here. I reach up to turn the light on, only to feel the lamp vibrating madly between my fingers.
In the original published version of this story, I left something out. What I heard coming from that lamp wasn't just loud static. There were words in it, and none of them were printable. Think of every vile, obscene word ever used to describe a woman, and that's what was coming from that lamp, loudly enough to hurt the ears of someone who's been shooting for a long time.
In fact, now that there's light, I can see that the lamp is jittering back and forth on the shelf, the volume of the buzzing, spitting, hissing static causing it to move. There must be a radio in it, somewhere, I think. I run my hands over it, not finding a button or switch anywhere, and the sound just gets louder. And louder. And then the sound stops, and the murmuring of the Carrabassett fills the silence once more.
I spend some time wondering about the incident the next day, sitting with my back against a dead tree and a rifle on my knees. This part of Maine is quite remote, and many people maintain ham radios just in case they're ever isolated by a bad snowstorm. The roof of my cabin is tin. Perhaps some atmospheric anomaly has caused my cabin to pick up someone's powerful ham radio signal. Someone who really, really, really doesn't like women.
That night, I get back into bed and eye the lamp warily. It really is hideous; it looks like someone's high-school shop project gone tragically wrong. Easily 18 inches tall, it's designed to resemble a pellet stove and has a little flickering light in its belly. I poke at it a bit, and am shocked to realize that it's made of solid metal, and a sturdy one at that. Iron, perhaps. It weighs at least 10 pounds, possibly more. I reach up and turn it off, and fall quickly to sleep. Until ...
ZZZOT! ZZOT! HSSSHHHSSSZZZOOOT! The loud static and the epithets in the static. It sounds like a man's voice.
I am upright in an instant. I grab for my phone, not the lamp, and use it to light my way to the wall socket. With an unceremonious, unlovely grunt, I unplug it roughly.
ZZZOT! ZZOT! HSSSHHHSSSZZZOOOT! The loud static and the curses in the static. It's still happening.
I grasp the lamp, pick it up, running my fingers over it, trying to find some switch or flap where there might be batteries powering this mad little thing to life. There aren't any. Louder and louder, the lamp vibrates in its fury, flinging curses.
And then it says my name.
I drop the lamp. It makes a dent in the wooden floor of the cabin when it hits, but it doesn't stop telling me what I am, what I do, where I come from and where I ought to go.
Shuddering with fear, I make a decision. I pick the lamp back up, the sound vibrations making it writhe like a living thing in my hands. I open the cabin door and take three agonized strides to the edge of the cliff behind my cabin; from here, I should be able to pitch this cursed and cursing thing right into the Carrabassett. I'll pay the owner back later, I think.
The lamp is still hissing its imprecations, loudly enough that I wonder how the rest of the hunting party hasn't woken. Shaking in terror, I shove with all my might and send the lamp arcing out over the water six stories below. It shrieks in rage all the way down.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I snarl, wiping a shaking hand across my lips. "You're right about that. Thing is, you're dead and I'm alive.
And I'm not afraid of ghosts.
Postscript: Remember the twist that I promised? The winner of the contest we ran on NRA Family was Serena Juchnowski. As the winner, we published her campfire story, which she dubbed The Spirits of Farnam Manor. Eight years later, she's a regular contributor to NRA Family and NRA Women ... how's that for a happy ending?