The wooden clock mourns in dull bells as it announces the arrival of the witching hour. Around the fire, several dark figures gather, silhouettes stark against the light. Their faces are illuminated occasionally by the golden glow of the hearth, but are otherwise indistinguishable against the black night. The darkness is bracing, though, somehow. You settle in.
Hello, friends/black cats/storytellers! Welcome to our debut round of Tuataria Encounters—a new flash fiction project started by Skye to highlight some truly excellent (and sometimes bone-chilling) stories from around the server. From peculiar bots to seemingly unending roads, we were delighted by the entries we received and really wish we could highlight more of them, but we can’t wait to share the ones we’ve chosen with you.
THE PROMPT: Tell us a story, in less than 280 characters, about a chilling encounter set in a specific location, whether online or off. There are no requirements for the entity (or entities, or maybe the whole city is out to get them) haunting your protagonist—they can be based on ancient myths, urban legends, or even something you’ve always found curious in your day-to-day life. Remember: what usually makes these stories work is the way they turn specific, mundane motions into spooky things. The water’s just a little bit green-tinged in the lake you always pass on the way to work. The lights in the fast food place round the block are always flickering. Why?
As the fire flickers, a cough emerges from the darkness, and the stories begin…
These five stories were chosen by our three judges together, and are what we think great representations of stories that answer and interpret the prompt in extraordinary ways. Each piece is accompanied by the setting of tale (whether physical/geographic or online), a little author’s note, and a comment from a judge with a bit of our reasoning behind why we like a specific piece. The guest judges for our debut round are Lyserg.Z and BoedJ (Jonathan), along with Skye (that’s me!).
Willowisp // geographic
My city has a TON of indie coffee shops. Maybe this is why.
Skye: I think what really makes this one is the ambiguity of the whole situation. The images the story evokes are totally innocent on their own—twin baristas, cherry wood, red juice—but they make you feel SO uneasy when woven together. The repetition of “this one is different” also really helps to sell the story. That’s totally pure Arabica coffee, we imported the beans and everything. What do you mean you can hear screaming from the back?
will // geographic
My town has a tulip festival every spring, but it can be really REALLY creepy walking home at night when the streets are suddenly empty and dark. I can’t figure out where they all go so fast!
Lyserg: I can see and hear the “rides that whirl with empty seats”. You can also read it as having absolutely no supernatural elements to it except the narration does a great job at conveying the possibility of them.
illusemywords // geographic
The Oslo government wants downtown Oslo to be mostly car free within a few years. There’s been a lot of discussion about it, and I figured nature should get to voice her opinion.
Jonathan: I like how this isn’t about something spooky in us or from beyond our world — but rather our absence in this one. Nature is the natural, the romantic, but also a destructive force, and possibly even vengeful for what we have done to her.
I also like the ambiguity of the ‘we’. Who knows this supposed truth? Is there a secret group among us, colluding with nature?
SB#5726 (Cloud) // geographic
I live in a conservative area and there’s this huge Trump 2016 sign on a road I travel pretty often. It makes me uncomfortable every time I drive past it, so I decided to share the discomfort.
Lyserg: Haha, this is almost mean spirited, but in a way appropriate to this theme. Funny/mean extrapolation of a real story of a simple but upsetting object. Gets more upsetting when you stop to think about how electoral signs might have awkward big photos of people looking into the camera, and how that’d feel if they multiplied like that (but even moreso because of the specific real things this is referencing).
BananaBoat#5237 // geographic
Boston is known for being a small, walking friendly city. But it’s so confusing and hard to get to so many parts of it that it feels like you never stop walking or can’t get to where you need to be.
Jonathan: There isn’t really anything spooky about this, and yet… I like the mundaneness, the sense of a shimmer over the road which appears because of the context in which the story is read — without invoking any supernatural entities, simply with a few well-chosen words that make you wonder.
These three entries are personal picks from our judges! They didn’t get unanimous votes like the previous five did, but each of us chose one entry to highlight for reasons that you will get to read later on.
WittgensteinsCow // geographic
Angkot are short of angkutan umum (public transportation) and are called share taxis in English. They do not drive safely.
Skye: Part of what makes these stories are so compelling to me is the way they turn really specific cultural practices into spooky things. I’ve written a lot of papers in college about the purpose of fiction in culture, and one key thing that I keep circling back to is how the stories we tell inform and reflect who we are: our beliefs and hopes and anxieties. These are the ghost stories we’ve always known, passed on from our parents and rooted deeply in our own cultures, but they’re also uniquely ours because they’re told from a modern context. The fact that this story uses Indonesian names really speaks to my own upbringing in Malaysia. I sure hope that the supernatural entities in the angkut are friendly, though. Don’t wanna incur eternal damnation just by taking a trip to the store.
I also added a period to the end of this one, since Ev ran out of characters. You’re welcome Ev.
alipeli // geographic
This actually happened to me. My friend’s dead father kinda appeared to me in a dream or in ghost form to say that he liked that we are still friends. He dies when we were 4.
Lyserg: I like the nice more mundane ghosts.
A lot of horror stories are good at giving you a clever spooky punchline, or at twisting normal events into eerie ones, all with a certain type of entertaining maliciousness from the author. But some stories just have this purposeful naivety to them that makes it feel like “yeah, the author’s really just telling me about something that happened to them, with no ulterior motives”. I swear I know other people who’d have this kind of stories and a sort of mundane relationship with local folklore and ghosts… is that a Latin American thing?
streaky // online
bots ft doctor who monsters
Jonathan: I don’t get the Doctor Who reference (surprise, surprise), but still this has to be my personal pick. I’m biased as one of the bot coders, of course. Even without that bias, though, I like the fact that it takes place in our own little Internet community and puts a spooky twist on a phenomenon many people in it will be familiar with.
Addendum from Skye: This is based on the monster from a Doctor Who episode called ‘Midnight‘. The fact that I know about this specific episode despite not being into the series should probably speak to its renown and the amount of nightmares that it’s spawned on its own.
The wind picks up as the last person finishes telling their story. There is no applause, only the smell of pine and wood and something a little muskier, something you can’t quite pick out. The fire seems content, though, its embers lapping away at the remaining logs of firewood. The trees in the distant forest are hushed. You’re safe, for now. Probably.
Thank you for participating, everyone! You can view all the entries (all 33 of them!) we got in this rather extensively formatted doc that Lyserg’s compiled for us. This was an incredibly fun project that we’ll hopefully get to do more of in the future! Until next time, stay safe from the things that go bump when you turn off the lights, and DFTBA.