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9.09.2017

Short Story: "A Shadow Over Hocking"


Blurb: Preston Moore and Eileen Farrow are spending a week away from their busy lives in the city, and they've chosen Hocking Hills, Ohio, as the place to go. The forest they enter into is a rather tame one compared to many of the world's wild places, but plenty of dangers still lurk in the shadows -- and on a moonless night, shadows may be all these two will find.



Among the rolling green hills of southern Ohio, two campers by the names of Preston Moore and Eileen Farrow sat in a clearing near the northern bounds of Hocking State Forest. They basked in the low light and warmth of a small bonfire, having left the cozy comfort of their cabin at the forest's edge in order to traverse the region's largely unspoiled natural territory. They were in search of a nonpareil location off the beaten path to watch the stellar skies, and the lesser light pollution meant that the skies above Hocking could dazzle.

It was at the behest of a mutual friend that they had traveled down from the urban Rust Belt in order to spend some time, a week, away from their bustling lives in the city, and it was here in these wild woodlands where they found their peace; as civilization lay just far enough to remain unheard, just distant enough to remain unseen. It was a place where one could breathe the brisk, fresh air without interruption, and where one could lend their ears to the whispering voices of the trees.

And it was on their third night that they encountered the haunt in Hocking Hills.

* * *

Sitting beneath a black moon sky, the two vacationers took in the hushed, restful ambiance of the natural world around them. The bonfire's flames crackled as they listened and observed, silent for an extended length of time. When at last one of them spoke, it was Eileen who broke the silence.

"Should we get going?" she asked her companion, standing slowly from her wooden bench. "Looks like a perfect night." She glanced upwards to study the star-studded heavens above them. "Are you sure it's safe, though? It's exceedingly dark out here -- I honestly can't see a thing beyond the tree line."

"It's after hours, but people frequently wander these grounds in the dark," Preston assured her. "Biggest thing is to tread carefully. Be on your guard, but it's a state park, and as safe as we're gonna get out here. Anyway, this isn't exactly a trek through the Amazon." He turned and began gathering their things, gently stuffing them into a couple of backpacks. Eileen snuffed out the fire, pausing afterwards to look at him.

"You underestimate nature," she told him, a cautionary edge to her voice. "More to the point, a threat doesn't have to be alive to be dangerous."

The two headed out into the forest, leaving the little glade behind as twigs and other brushwood snapped noisily under their feet. As they ambled onward out of the clearing and deeper into the woods, starlight became spotty as the leaves of the trees formed a dense contiguous canopy above their heads, and they had to rely more upon other senses as their flashlight-aided sight was limited.

A brief, quiet moment passed, and Eileen curiously cocked her head to the side. "So, if this isn't a trek through the Amazon, with its famed range of wildlife, then what is it?" Leaves crunched and crinkled, and another fallen bough cracked loudly beneath her weight. "A traipse through Hoia-Baciu? The Black Forest? Japan's Aokigahara? Oh, I sincerely hope not that last one." She grinned as Preston glanced back at her with an expression of intense confusion. "Just naming some of the world's most haunted forests," she winked.

"Well, try not to wake the ghosts as you flatten Hocking State Forest with your shoes," he quipped, repeatedly crouching down in an effort to dodge low-hanging branches.

Eileen reached out and hit him in the arm, and he smiled. "Excuse me, I'm following in your footsteps back here," she responded indignantly. "How far is it?"

"Not too," he replied. "The cliffs are less than a mile. I came across a few others that were closer when I scouted the area this morning, if we need to stop, but the views from them aren't particularly impressive."

"We should just try the closer ones," she suggested, with little hesitation. "It's treacherous terrain out here, and we're walking blind."

Preston nodded. "I didn't expect it to be quite so dark. I swear it wasn't this bad the previous two nights. You know, it's weird, though -- you get used to the city lights, always having a clear path ahead of you -- a world without them doesn't even occur to me after so many years."

"I hear you. But while we may be city dwellers, Preston, this isn't our first time stepping foot in the woods. Something feels different, feels off, about this place tonight." Eileen shivered. "I don't know."

"You mean something other than that there's no moonlight and it's completely pitch-black out here? Would give anyone the creeps. I share that uneasy feeling, however."

"It's more than that," she told him. "I don't know."

"Well, hang in there," he said gently, trying to comfort her. "We should be nearing the Cantwell area soon. Just let me know if you'd rather head back."

Before she could utter a reply, Eileen suddenly stopped. "Did you see that?"

Preston sensed that she had stopped walking and turned around, closing the small gap now between them. "Probably not. What was it?"

"It looked like movement -- back there, that way," she pointed to the left of them.

"I didn't see anything," Preston confirmed, starting forward once more. "Keep your eyes open."

A shriek came from behind him. He swung back around just as Eileen crashed into him, speaking madly.

"Something's in here with us, I'm sure of it now."

As she spoke, Preston tensed a little, startled by her reaction. He had forced himself to remain calm despite Eileen's sudden and fearful jumpiness, until a branch snapped close behind them, after which he grabbed her arm and legged it.

They ran as fast as the darkness would allow, suffering brief but frequent pockets of prickling pain as the low tree limbs got in the way of escape, and thorny ground flora caught in the threads of their clothes; none of which, however, dampened the effects of the adrenaline pumping through their veins and propelling them forward. The two could almost make out a dirt path not far ahead, and they hurried towards it.

Emerging from around a slight bend, they came face-to-face with a large black mass that stopped them cold in their tracks. The mass was a figure, tall, and it stood unnaturally motionless; an absolute stillness so unnerving and at odds with a living body that it simply felt wrong to observe. It was clothed in black robes, and great, deer-like antlers protruded from its hooded head. It reached out to grab hold of one of them, but reflexes quickly kicked in upon seeing the creature and they jerked back, within the same second having reversed their course.

Preston, immediately feeling faster on his feet, huffed out a heavy, frightened breath. "I'm thinking now that this might be more Windsor," he hissed, referring to their earlier comparisons of famous forests. But when he looked behind himself, he found, to his utter horror, that Eileen had vanished.

He skid to a halt, searching frantically. He called her name, but received no response. At a loss, he continued onward, away from the antlered figure.

He heard the screech of an owl somewhere in the distance, and nearly stumbled when he crossed onto the dirt path. He caught himself and kept running, trying to see through the darkness and locate Eileen. Without warning, something slammed into him from behind, and he toppled over. He thought he saw feathers before they quickly disappeared from his peripheral vision. But once he glanced up, it was to look once more into the face of death.


Author's note: This story was originally a 1,000-word flash fiction project, and I had initially intended to keep it that way, but I sort of drifted away from that as it underwent some major revision and gained a bit more detail and description, adding up to an extra 500 words or so (which, depending on who you ask, could still be considered flash fic). Thank you to my betas, PoiSonPaiNter and Ashley B., for their help and feedback during my early revision stages! :) You guys rock!

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On another note, this is totally set in a real place. The setting is one that, if you don't know anything about it, it won't -- that is, it shouldn't -- take away from your understanding of the story aside from there being a few strange names. But if you are familiar with it, it's a fun little extra. With that said, the setting was pretty much for my own enjoyment lol.

If you'd like to learn more about it, however, it's a place in the US state of Ohio, an area called Hocking Hills. Within that region, you'll find some of the best natural scenery Ohio has to offer, including Hocking State Forest and State Park.


Hocking Hills on Google Maps

Cantwell Cliffs, the "Cantwell area" briefly mentioned and the campers' destination in the story, is located in the northern, more isolated part of Hocking Hills. I've only been to this part of Ohio once at this point, and never to Cantwell Cliffs, so my geography may be a bit off. ;) You can learn more about this place at their website, www.hockinghills.com.

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Also, other forests that got shout outs were:

  •  (obviously) The Amazon rainforest in South America, famous for its massive size and biodiversity.
  • Germany's Black Forest, which, aside from being gorgeous, has been the setting or inspiration for many a fairy tale, including those by the brothers Grimm.
  • Japan's Aokigahara (also known as the Suicide Forest, or Sea of Trees), historically home to ghosts of the dead in Japanese myth, and, sadly, today one of the world's most popular places to commit suicide.
  • And lastly, England's Windsor Forest, the location of the ghost known as Herne the Hunter. I had to give a shout out to Windsor, as Herne was my main source of inspiration for the creature/figure described in this story. You'll notice they share some similarities. 😉

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