Burning The Middle Ground
L. Andrew Cooper
BURNING THE MIDDLE GROUND is a dark fantasy about small-town America that transforms readers' fears about the country's direction into a haunting tale of religious conspiracy and supernatural mind control. A character-driven sensibility like Stephen King's and a flair for the bizarre like Bentley Little's deliver as much appeal for dedicated fans of fantasy and horror as for mainstream readers looking for an exciting ride.
Brian McCullough comes home from school and discovers that his ten-year-old sister Fran has murdered their parents. Five year later, a journalist, Ronald Glassner, finds Brian living in the same house in the same small town of Kenning, Georgia. Planning a book on the McCullough Tragedy, Ronald stumbles into a struggle between Kenning's First Church, run by the mysterious Reverend Michael Cox, and the New Church, run by the rebellious Jeanne Harper. At the same time, Kenning's pets go berserk, and dead bodies, with the eyes and tongues removed from their heads, begin to appear.
The thunder and lightning had ceased, and now the only sounds were oscillations of downpour and quiet. Jeanne lay in bed. Her body hummed with exhaustion. When her eyelids sank, giving in to comfort, she pulled them open, refocusing on the sounds of weather and pushing herself to think. Winston Beecher and his friend Ronald had seemed more interested in her take on the morning’s events than the sheriff. When Winston dropped her off in front of her house, he told her that she could call him on his private cell phone if she needed anything. He said, “For official police business, of course, you call 911 or the station number, but if you just want somebody who’s got a, you know, open mind, you call me up on this number.” He handed her a scrap of paper with the number on it. “You hang on to that.”
The scrap of paper sat on the nightstand next to the cordless telephone. If she used it, her involvement in this – and she was sure there was a “this” – would deepen. Maybe it would be okay if she learned nothing more about the dead body, okay if she avoided the implications of that word, “ritual,” which her mind had attached to the dead body’s mutilations. Maybe there was a logical explanation for what had happened to her. Maybe she had left Jake Warren’s office, taken a walk in the cemetery, tripped on something, and hit her head. Of course, she didn’t have any bruises on her head, and she never took walks in cemeteries, but somehow, things might come together and make some sort of non- sinister sense, and then she would….
Jeanne fell asleep.
She woke up gasping, arms flailing, desperate for the air that her dream of drowning had denied her. Sitting up, she found herself in her own bed, safe and away from the mud and water she had woken to this morning. She planted a hand in the center of her chest and monitored her heart rate’s decline. Closing her eyes, she forbade tears.
Her eyes reopened. Bright green numbers on her alarm clock broke through darkness with the numbers 8:19. Her ears searched for sounds of rain and found a quiet disturbed only by the faint rumble of an engine. To be audible, the car had to be close, either in front of her house or in her driveway, a visitor. Twilight glowed around her bedroom window. She reached over and switched on the lamp by the phone. Hoping she’d have time to change before she heard the doorbell, she rolled out of bed, crossed to the window, and peeked through the blinds. She saw a blue sedan by the curb near her mailbox. Dark windows kept her from seeing the vehicle’s occupants.
She left the window for the closet and turned on the bedroom’s overhead light. Slacks and a plain, comfortable shirt would have to suffice for whatever visitor was coming. The sound of a car door slamming encouraged her to hurry through buttons and head for the stairs.
She turned on the hall light as she left her bedroom, and even though she could see well enough without it, she turned on the light in the stairwell, too. Halfway down the steps, she paused. Two tall, narrow windows, covered with translucent white drapes, flanked her front door. One of the draped rectangles framed a shadowy shape. Someone was standing by the door. She waited, expecting the bell to ring. It didn’t.
Her bare foot hovered over the next step. The shadow-shape in the window didn’t move. It was large enough to be a person, but it was indistinct. Whoever had been in the car had had plenty of time to reach the door. Why didn’t the bell ring?
Jeanne thought of the phone on her nightstand, the scrap of paper with Winston’s number. For all she knew, Winston could be the person at the door, the person who would, at any moment, ring the bell. Or maybe the shadow-shape in the window wasn’t a person at all, just some trick of light, and maybe the person parked in front of her house was going to a neighbor’s, so of course the doorbell wouldn’t ring, and maybe…
Maybe she should just go down the stairs, turn on the porch light, and see for herself. The hovering foot met carpet, and she descended another step and another, watching the shadow-shape and bracing herself with each movement for the jarring sound of the doorbell.
At the bottom of the steps, she stood directly across from the window-framed shadow-shape. It was still indistinct, distorted by the white drape. If she pushed the drape to one side, she might reveal nothing, or she could reveal a narrow man, someone tall enough to make the shape, someone facing her through the window instead of standing at the door.
Annoyed with herself, she crossed the foyer and flipped two more light switches. Bright bulbs filled the foyer and the front porch with yellow light. Verifying that she had, in fact, fastened the bolt on the door, she reached for the drape and pushed.
The porch light helped her see that the dark blue sedan was still on the street. She recognized it: she had noticed it in the parking lot of First Church last time she was there. She didn’t know for sure, but it was reasonable to think the car was Jake Warren’s. Jake Warren wouldn’t have parked in front of her house to go visit one of her neighbors. He was here for her.
Calling 911 to say that she suspected the car parked near her house might belong to someone who might have a desire to hurt her would be ridiculous, but she was nevertheless certain of danger, and she did have someone to call. She stepped toward the stairs.
The lights went out. No glow lit the top of the stairs: the lamp in the bedroom was out, too. She froze in place and took a deep breath. The door behind her was a way out – a way toward the blue sedan, toward whatever figure had made the shadow- shape in her window. For now, the door was locked, and Jake Warren or whoever had been standing at the door was probably still outside.
The stairs were another option. If the power had gone out, even the bedroom clock would be dark, and she’d have no way to read the scrap of paper with Winston’s number. If she moved carefully, she could find her way to the kitchen, to the flashlight she kept in the drawer by the sink. She started moving, feeling along the wall.
After a few steps, she turned back. Her long, pointed umbrella, the one with the duck-shaped handle, was in a stand by the door, easy to find in the dark. She could carry it like a sword, ready for defense.
With one hand gripping the umbrella and another moving along the wall, she made her way to the kitchen, found the edge of the counter, and used it to guide her toward the sink. When her fingers touched cold metal, they moved down and felt for the drawer handle. A floorboard creaked behind her.
She spun, umbrella out, swinging. Her weapon connected with something, and she heard a crash. The vase she kept on the kitchen’s center island fell to the floor. She heard the glass shatter but couldn’t see where it was. She pulled the umbrella closer to her body, ready to swing again. “If you come any closer,” she said to the darkness, “I will hurt you.”
No response. She waited to hear the creaking of another floorboard, any sign of movement other than her own. Nothing came. She was standing barefoot in the darkness on a kitchen floor now covered with shattered glass. She may or may not have been alone.
She bowed her head, said a silent prayer, and reached behind her, toward the drawer handle. Pulling it open by degrees, she listened for movement in front of her. She held the umbrella ready. The drawer squeaked, and she stopped herself from swinging at the darkness again.
Sensing that the drawer should be wide enough, she let her hand dip in and feel for the cylindrical plastic flashlight. She found it, wrapped her fingers around it, and held her thumb on the switch. She paused, collecting herself. In a single movement, she withdrew the flashlight, turned it on, aimed it in front of her, and jabbed out with the umbrella, hoping to take her blinded opponent by surprise.
The space before her was unoccupied. Fallen flowers lay on the floor, untrodden amidst sparkling particles of glass. She allowed herself to blink. Maybe she was being silly. Maybe the car wasn’t Jake Warren’s, and maybe this was a normal blackout, and maybe…
Something knocked her back against the edge of the sink, and in her surprise, both hands opened, dropping the flashlight and umbrella. The flashlight landed with a crack and went out. Before she could steady her footing, another blow hit from the side and knocked her down. Disoriented in the dark, she didn’t know where she had fallen. She didn’t feel glass beneath her, but depending on where she was, any move might have pierced skin.
She had no reason not to scream: “HELP ME!!!”
“And why would I do that?” Jake Warren’s voice answered. “Deacon Warren.” She didn’t know how he had gotten in, but that didn’t matter.
“Yes,” he said. “Good guess. Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m doing here?”
L. Andrew Cooper thinks the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Early in life, he couldn’t handle the scary stuff–he’d sneak and watch horror films and then keep his parents up all night with his nightmares. In the third grade, he finally convinced his parents to let him read grownup horror novels: he started with Stephen King’s Firestarter, and by grade five, he was doing book reports on The Stand.
When his parents weren’t being kept up late by his nightmares, they worried that his fascination with horror fiction would keep him from experiencing more respectable culture. That all changed when he transitioned from his public high school in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia to uber-respectable Harvard University, where he studied English Literature. From there, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, turning his longstanding engagement with horror into a dissertation. The dissertation became the basis for his first book, Gothic Realities (2010). More recently, his obsession with horror movies turned into a book about one of his favorite directors, Dario Argento (2012). He also co-edited the textbook Monsters (2012), an attempt to infect others with the idea that scary things are worth people’s serious attention.
After living in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, Andrew now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches at the University of Louisville and chairs the board of the Louisville Film Society, the city’s premiere movie-buff institution. _Burning the Middle Ground_ is his debut novel.