Before I tell you about the Occult Triangle Lab, I want to tell you about bathtubs. When I was a kid, I would go to the Longview Public Library, where they had three or four of these big, oversized bathtubs with carpeting on the inside of them. You could grab your book, climb inside the bathtub and start reading. Shit was bonkers. It was like the library was making batches of bathtub kid gin. But the gin was stories.
There was a tub near one standalone shelf, which was dedicated to FOLKLORE AND LEGENDS. That was my tub. A lot of Native American story collections, a lot of big fairy tale picture books. But the books that got me were Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I read those books over and over, burning the illustrations of Stephen Gammell deep into my unconscious, which is high on the APA’s list of predispositions for becoming a serial murderer later in life. Then I realized that I could tell these stories to other kids when I went to YCAMP.
YCAMP was a summer day camp run by the YMCA, but it was sort of like ‘Nam. You got up early, you packed up all your gear, you sat with your gear against a long brick wall, you hauled your gear onto a transport, and you spent your day wandering around in the brush. The hikes were the best part. Hikes were spent in hour-long conversations, or telling every joke you knew. I knew the trails and routes as well as the counselors, so I usually walked at the rear of the group to make sure no one got behind. That’s where my storytelling began.
A big part of telling a scary story is lulling the listeners into a trance with long descriptions of normal, ordinary tasks, like cleaning a window, then building up the suspense little by little. Tension is your gravy, and you’ve got to learn to pour that gravy. But back then, it was also a lot of improv: since my memory was never perfect, and the audience I was speaking to was never the same, every telling was different. Sometimes I had to add pieces to entice kids who weren’t spooked, or make up something to cover for a forgotten scene. Sometimes I was caught with an audience who had heard all of my stories, and I had to make up a new one on the spot. For a long time, I had four core stories (with others slipping in and out of circulation): Springheel Jack, The Foot of the Bed, Harold, and my magnum opus, the long, difficult tour-de-force: The Wendigo.
Word must have gotten around, because I started getting requests. I usually ate lunch in the wide expanse of dirt near the camp, under a big birch tree, and kids started wandering out there, asking to hear The Wendigo. There was never any campfires at YCAMP to tell stories around, or even night, for that matter. Every day, it was burning hot, bright and dry. But I remember standing in the shade of that big birch tree, surrounded by two semi-circles of kids who had forgotten about the heat. I would tell them about the tracks in the snow, the black pines, the silence and the cold, and the wind blowing through those big, black trees. Lying under a cot in a hunting lodge, one man would hear the roof lift off the eaves and see the big white claws of the Wendigo lift his friends out one by one, until he was alone. Then the roof would come back down, and the wind would blow away into the trees.
There’s nothing like that electric silence, right after the story ends. Nothing like it.
Only after I took my first writing course in college did I learn the term “vivid and continuous dream” to describe what stories do to people, how they immerse you in another world with concrete details and a certain rhythm. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark made me want to be a writer, but it’s a different experience to be a storyteller with a live audience—the story feels alive, you feel alive, and everyone is breathing the same magic. The best audiences are always kids—they haven’t built up that patina of practiced cynicism toward the world and everything in it.
YCAMP wasn’t one of those wacky-happy-fun-songs-and-s’mores outdoor cults where you’re there for a full two months, sleeping in cabins. It was a day camp, and we didn’t have that kind of saccharine, Stockholm syndrome bullshit. But we did have a sense of history–a lot of the same kids showed up every year, and they all carried memories of the way camp used to be, what had changed, and who was gone now. I went there for seven years, and I saw it decline like Rome. The canoe-tipping in the river stopped, the fishing banks were abandoned, and the hiking trails changed. The worst part was when a veteran camper never showed up for the new year. It meant they had moved on, and there was an unspoken bitterness that they had left everyone else behind. Then came days when I realized that I was on my way out, too. But before those days came, before I started building up that patina of practiced cynicism toward the world, I would go out at lunch and sit under a big birch tree in the middle of the arid, burning expanse of dirt near the camp and tell Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
It was around the time that I stopped fitting in the bathtubs at the library that I stopped going back.
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