Recap #222: Tales for the Midnight Hour by J.B. Stamper Part 1
Title: Tales for the Midnight Hour
Author: Judith Bauer “J.B.” Stamper
As part of my attempt to start off Year Three on the right foot, I’ll be reviewing one of my favorites of the Point Horror collection. Though this book was originally published back in 1977, which I believe predates the inception of the original Point Horror line. Nevertheless its three follow-up books were published under Point, as were the two reprint collections (which are the copies I own).
Much like “Short & Shivery” these tales were a big inspiration on some of my earliest attempts at fan fiction. I adapted “The Furry Collar” and “The Velvet Ribbon” as two DC Comics fan fics which you can still read online on fanfiction.net and DeviantArt.
The one story I’ve ever read by J.B. Stamper before I got this collection was her short tale in the first “Thirteen” collection. My only real problem with J.B.’s writing is she tends to abuse ellipses too much at the ending of some of the stories, not helped by her blatantly stating the obvious and making it hard to take the final shock seriously. [Wing: Oooh, she’s the predecessor of Dove’s nemesis, R.T. Cusick!]
THE FURRY COLLAR
Our nameless protagonist tries not to think about her best friend anymore. Not after what happened to Susan…
During Christmas vacation, the protagonist stayed over at Susan’s house while Susan’s parents were out of town visiting friends. Susan didn’t want to be alone in her big, gloomy house and the two girls managed to have fun together. Around midnight they decided to go to bed, and Susan broke out this really gorgeous velvet robe she got as a Christmas gift. It was colored blood red and had a thick furry collar; it made Susan look like she came out of a Dracula movie or something.
However, Susan’s house was much bigger and darker than the protagonist thought. The two eventually ran up the stairs to Susan’s room, feeling like something was behind them. In the safety of Susan’s room, the girls began to feel silly and laughed wondering why they were so scared.
That’s when they heard the noise.
It sounded like someone was sharpening a knife on an emery stone or something. Susan laughed again, saying she’d heard the sound before on nights like this and figured it was a loose shutter or something. Yeah. [Wing: A loose shutter. Really. Because those two things totally sound alike.]
Still the sound persisted, that SCRRITCH SCRRITCH noise. The protagonist noticed the odd look in Susan’s eyes as the sound continued, and before she could do anything Susan bolted from the room and turned the lights off behind her. From inside the bedroom, the protagonist could hear Susan’s footsteps moving down the stairs followed by the SCRRITCH noise. Susan’s footsteps slowed as she reached the final flight of stairs, like she didn’t want to go further. But then the SCRRITCH sound ceased.
However, the protagonist was gripped with a sensation of fear preventing her from turning the light back on. She thought it would be safer to wait until Susan returned. Hell, she’d wait for Susan’s parents to come back the next day if need be. The darkness of the room was more of a comfort than the unknown darkness outside.
Finally, the protagonist began to hear footsteps heading back up the stairs. She thought it was Susan, but they sounded too heavy, almost deliberate. Like someone wanted her to know they were coming. The protagonist decided the one thing they could do was wait for the door to open. Then she’d stick her hand out. If she felt the furry collar of Susan’s robe, everything would be okay. If she reached her hand out and felt something else, well, that’d be it wouldn’t it? [Wing: That is some kind of logic, I guess. Alternatively, you could get yourself some sort of blunt weapon and put yourself in a spot to hit if someone comes near you. Surely Susan will, you know, identify herself if she doesn’t find you right away.]
The footsteps seemed to take forever to get to the room when the door finally swung open. The protagonist stuck her hand out and was immensely relieved to feel the furry collar of Susan’s robe…
And then her hand trailed up further to the bloody stump where Susan’s head used to be.
[Wing: I’m pretty sure this book is the first place I ever heard this story, and I do love it, even though the girls are ridiculous just to make the “surprise” land at the end.]
THE BLACK VELVET RIBBON
The old man kept the room locked for years. Dust covered everything, especially the thing on the floor by the bed.
When he was about 40 years old, he’d met his wife. She was the girl with the black velvet ribbon around her neck, and she was breathtaking. He remembered, during their autumn wedding, how she marched down the aisle in her white dress with her white veil and bouquet of white flowers… but there was the black velvet ribbon. The guests whispered about how it clashed with her all white ensemble; a dark blot on her pristine image.
The husband didn’t care at the time, but as weeks passed the black velvet ribbon started to prey on his mind. He repeatedly asked his wife why she never took the ribbon off. She’d give the same answer.
“You’ll be sorry if I do, so I won’t.”
Still they remained happy for a time, but the black velvet ribbon began to erode that happiness. The husband couldn’t get it out of his mind, could never convince her to take it off. One day he finally tried to pull the ribbon off, but noticed for the first time the band had no beginning and no end. It seamlessly circled around his wife’s neck. He told his wife he’d take the ribbon off if she wouldn’t, and again she gave the usual answer.
Now the ribbon was mocking him. It drained the life out of the room. It “Made a funeral out of sunlight.” One night the husband reached his limit, and while his wife slept he cut the ribbon off with a pair of scissors.
Her head promptly rolled off the bed onto the floor, saying “You’ll be sorry” over and over again.
Two decapitation stories, one after the other, may not be the smartest way to start a collection.
[Wing: I want them all to be decapitation stories now. I really enjoy most of the variations of the ribbon around the throat story. I love when authors really play up a creepy setting, too. Which is not what happened here, but still.]
The boy hated the boarder for many reasons. He hated losing his playroom, he hated how his family was dependent on the money the boarder gave them every month, and he hated the way the boarder looked at his mom every morning and snickered with that awful, leering laugh. [Wing: And yet, apparently not a reason to find a new boarder.]
His parents weren’t sure where the boarder got his money or what he did during the day out of the house. But the boy could hear pretty much everything the boarder did in the next room. He wondered if the boarder could hear him too. He hoped not. Because tonight was the night the boy was finally going to learn what the boarder did for a living.
Multiple nights the boy could hear the boarder getting up and leaving through his window, and this time the boy was going to follow him. It was dangerous because the boy had to make sure he kept a far enough distance without losing the boarder’s trail. He opened his own window and climbed up the rain gutter.
From afar the boy watched the boarder leaping from rooftop to rooftop. On his first jump the boy quickly had to flatten himself to make sure the boarder didn’t spot him. He had to stay three houses behind the boarder. After a while the boarder reached the end of the houses on this block and was quickly making his way to the row of stores. Because the roofs were flatter, the boy had to hide behind the chimneys so he wouldn’t get caught. [Wing: I love how the whole traveling via rooftop thing is totally normal.]
The boy watched as the boarder took out a length of rope and a metal hook and began to make his way down one of the chimneys. Quickly the boy realized the boarder was a thief looking to rob the stores by entering via the old fireplaces. Realizing this man was a robber, the boy hated the boarder even more.
Upon closer inspection, the boy noticed the knot on the rope wasn’t a very good one. He began poking at the knot, thinking about how much he loathed the boarder. He kept poking and getting angry when oops the knot came undone and down went the hook.
The boy heard the boarder fall down the rest of the chimney. At first he thought the boarder was dead until he could hear the man start to panic. He listened to the sounds of desperate struggling, of the boarder frantically trying to climb back up and failing to do so.
Oh but gee it’s getting late, time to go back and get some shut eye.
Six years and three boarders later, [Wing: Definitely makes me think the boy has been killing boarders all this time.] the boy was now 18 and started renting the room from his parents. He joked he did “Night work” to pay for it. One morning he came across an unusual article in the paper, about the discovery of a body in an old chimney. Reports believe the man was a burglar trying to break in through a bricked-up fireplace… [Wing: I can’t decide if this ending is worse or the one I immediately leapt to, which was him burning alive.]
THE TEN CLAWS
A long time ago a village was terrorized by an unseen killer. At first, only farm animals were victimized, each found with ten jagged holes torn into their throats. Some sheep, some cows, a few pet dogs, all bled to death.
No one could figure out what kind of creature was responsible while more animals died. Neighbors began to suspect each other as hysteria spread and wild rumors circulated.
The villagers finally decided to do something when the town drunk was found dead the same way as the animals. No one was particularly sad this guy died, but they were afraid the monster would go after them next. Some men in the village formed a posse and elected the Harmon brothers as the leaders. Robert and John Harmon lived on the outskirts of the village with their dad and senile grandma. Dad Harmon feared losing his boys to this mystery monster, but the brothers weren’t afraid.
Well, maybe just a little.
The brothers knew the pattern to the deaths, that they happened every five nights. Well it’d been five nights since the town drunk died, so Robert and John decided to go on watch. Armed with their guns they reached the outskirts of the forest and positioned themselves on the road between the village and the woods. Keeping themselves at shouting distance, the brothers figured the monster would have to get by one of them to get to the village.
Their father begged them to come home alive, and their grandma said nothing as they kissed her goodbye.
During their guard, the boys hypothesized on what kind of creature they were dealing with. Maybe it was a giant bird or a burrowing weasel type of thing. Stuck with their horrible thoughts, the brothers nevertheless took their positions. Robert was calm and cool, armed with a gun and machete, while John was nervous. He wished he was back in his house. He wished he could just sit down for a moment and try to relax, try to calm down…
The moment he sat down, ten claws dug into his neck.
John screamed and Robert ran towards him. As Robert got closer, John yelled for his brother to swing the machete behind where he heard John’s voice. Robert did so and swung his machete in the dark, hacking something off. He heard something large begin to scurry away while John grew silent before he began to babble. He grabbed Robert’s hand and placed it on his neck, so Robert could feel the clawed fingers stuck in John’s neck. Robert severed the hand clean off, and it was still digging into John’s skin.
Removing the clawed hand, Robert tied a handkerchief around his brother’s neck to stop the bleeding. John was led home, and while their dad was upset over his son’s wounds he was relieved both were alive.
As Robert and their father tended to John, none of them heard or saw the grandmother enter the house to nurse the bloody stump where her hand used to be.
[Wing: Yay! I love this type of story, where the monster is really one of them all along. (Yes, a lot of them are basically werewolf stories.) I love the big cat version, too. I really want to know more about grandmother here, and what she was getting up to before all the local killings began, and how she became this monster, etc.]
THE JIGSAW PUZZLE
Lisa loved exploring old thrift shops and junk stores looking for straaaange and interesting things to buy. So far, this old store hadn’t piqued her curiosity too much until she noticed the box on top of the bookcase. Using a stepladder Lisa was able to acquire the box, which was cardboard and covered in an accumulation of dirt and dust. While most of the picture was obscured, she could wipe off enough dust to read
THE STRANGEST JIGSAW PUZZLE IN THE WORLD
That certainly got Lisa’s attention, and she decided to spend the evening working on the puzzle.
[Wing: Lisa and I are alike in this because I have a mighty curiosity about that puzzle now.]
The store owner, Mr. Tuborg, couldn’t remember ever seeing this box and wondered how Lisa noticed it, but took her money and wrapped it up for her just the same. Lisa stopped at the local deli to get provisions for dinner and rushed back to her apartment, anticipation making her giddy. Luckily the box, though old, was sealed tight with tape so hopefully all the pieces were inside.
Lisa opened the box and dumped out all the faded but clear pieces. She caught a glimpse of what looked like a woman’s finger before she started separating the pieces. Lisa focused on separating the edge pieces first and began to make out little details on the puzzle’s picture. Some of them seemed to feature a wallpaper pattern similar to the wallpaper in her apartment. Maybe the puzzle and the wallpaper were the same age.
By 6:30 Lisa had all the pieces separated. She made a sandwich and quickly got back to work, eager to finish her project. After completing the border, Lisa worked first on the wallpaper area of the puzzle determined to see if it was indeed the same pattern found in her room. They lilac pattern in the puzzle was a perfect match.
Around 8:30 Lisa got up because her back was stiff. Outside her window night had fallen, and she grew uneasy. Lisa lowered the window shade and began to pace, trying to think of something else to do. But all she could think of was finishing the puzzle.
Lisa grew more uncomfortable as the rest of the puzzle’s details began to fill out. Like a chair remarkably similar to one in the corner of her room. Lisa gained some comfort when she saw the window in the puzzle was open and showed a clear moon, while the shade was still drawn down on her’s. But then she made out a pair of legs in the puzzle. A young woman’s legs. She ran a hand down her own legs and was suddenly gripped with a tingling sensation as though something was crawling on them.
Remembering the words on the box, Lisa stood up and felt cold. Standing, looking at the puzzle from a different angle, she was shocked. The picture was identical to her room save for the window. The bookcase was in the same position, and even the table legs were the same. All she had to do was complete the space in the middle and beneath the window.
Lisa contemplated throwing the puzzle away, but the terrifying thought of what it would reveal was nothing compared to the anxiety of what might happen if she DIDN’T finish it. She feared waiting and not knowing, thinking it would bring a worse calamity. [Wing: LISA, MY LONG LOST TWIN, HOW YOU DOING. This is how I feel about leaving stories unfinished.]
She worked on the rest of the puzzle, making out the person inside was working on a puzzle too but she couldn’t make out the image. Lisa could make out who was working on the puzzle, recognizing the red sweater and look of horror on the blonde woman’s face. HER face.
Still, Lisa looked back to see the window in her room was covered while the window in the puzzle was open. All that was left for Lisa was to put in the two pieces beneath the window. Separate, she couldn’t make out what the pieces made. But inserting them into the puzzle, completing it, Lisa wasn’t prepared for the ghastly, inhuman visage leering through the window in the picture.
Nor was she prepared for it when she turned around. [Wing: Absolutely chilling. I’ve never read this one before, and I like it.]
(Unfortunately, Stamper ruins this ending with the last line “Lisa screamed… the face… it was there, too.” LIKE YES WAY TO STATE THE OBVIOUS. Although this one did freak me out when I was younger.)
It was during the days of the California Gold Rush where you either work hard or die trying, girl.
Billy, Jeremiah and Dusty were friends who thought they could make it rich by mining gold in the mountains, but came up empty handed and were planning to head back to the city. This night they were taking shelter in an old cabin. While coyotes howled outside the wooden abode, Dusty was worried. He didn’t like the idea of taking shelter in this abandoned cabin because they had no way of knowing why the previous owners left. Anything could’ve happened to them. The other men mocked Dusty and told him he was more than welcome to sleep with the coyotes.
As the three men slept, the coyotes continued to howl in tune with the wind when Jeremiah woke up. He’d forgotten where he was for a moment when he realized something had woken him. Not the wind or the animals, but the sound of breathing that appeared to drown out all the other noise. He turned to Billy near the fireplace and assumed he was the one making that noise, but it wasn’t him.
Rather, it was the thing floating above Billy.
Jeremiah’s blood froze at what he saw. A face… nothing but the hideous face of an old woman… was hovering over Billy’s body. The short gasps of breathing were coming from the hag’s face. Jeremiah could see the lips opening and closing with the breathing.
Jeremiah screamed at Billy to wake up, and as he did Billy could make out the horrifying features on the woman’s face. It was covered in welts, blisters, and wrinkles. Her hair was like a tangle of snakes and her eyes glowed with pure hatred. [Wing: Medusa? Is that you?] Billy tried to scream when the face breathed deeply into Billy’s mouth and disappeared. As the face vanished, Billy fell back down. Jeremiah ran to his friend and was horrified to learn Billy was dead.
Panicking, Jeremiah yelled at Dusty to wake up so they could escape. Dusty didn’t initially believe Jeremiah until the face appeared in front of him. Jeremiah screamed at Dusty to keep his mouth closed, but it was too late. Like with Billy, the face breathed into Dusty’s mouth and he fell over dead.
Jeremiah tried to run from the cabin when the face appeared in front of him. Fearing she would breathe death into him as well, Jeremiah clamped his hands over his mouth and tried to run past the apparition before he choked on his screams. He watched as the door swung through the immaterial face and kept on running.
Running for what felt like forever, Jeremiah was sure he could hear the face’s toxic breathing all around him when he collapsed on a flat rock. Thinking about Billy and Dusty’s dead bodies, he wondered who the face belonged to. Was she the wife of a dead prospector? An evil spirit feared by the local Indians? Or was this the true face of death? Is there any escape for him?
Then Jeremiah feared what would happen if the bodies of his friends were discovered and he was blamed. He had to get out of the mountains and fast. Luckily, Jeremiah was able to make out a stagecoach coming up the mountain and flagged it down. The driver allowed Jeremiah in, for the only other occupant was a young woman. How fitting that after escaping the gruesome hag Jeremiah found shelter with a lovely lady.
The younger woman smiled and said nothing as Jeremiah fell asleep again, but awoke sometime later feeling a similar sensation. What was that noise? That breathing? Oh dear God it was coming from the young woman! Jeremiah crouched as far as he could into the corner of the stagecoach as the woman asked what was wrong. Her breathing intensified, drowned out every other sound Jeremiah could hear until he couldn’t take it anymore. He jumped out of the coach…!
And fell to his death down a steep cliff.
The coach came to a stop and the driver inspected the frightened, traumatized woman. This was her first trip into the mountains and she’d never seen that man before in her life. She had no idea what scared him so much.
You’re not gonna like this one, Wing.
Hugo Hoogen was a solitary man who lived a solitary existence of his own choosing. He worked as an accountant during the week, and on the weekend he watched TV and sorted through his mail. This was just fine for Hugo, who didn’t care much for the company of other people. He was fine on his own.
You see, there were times when Hugo felt strange. Being alone for so long, he sometimes didn’t recognize the sound of his own voice. He wasn’t used to talking as much since he rarely had someone to talk to. He’d usually eat in a restaurant and make small talk with the waiters and waitresses to clear up this problem.
One morning, Hugo was gripped with a horrifying sensation. When he looked in the bathroom mirror, he was certain the person looking back wasn’t him. Hugo didn’t believe this person was him, that these weren’t his features. His eyes, his nose, his mouth, he was certain he looked different.
Hugo thought maybe this was a trick of the light in the bathroom altering his reflection. But looking at himself reflected in his cereal spoon, the reflection, though distorted, was still the stranger. And unfortunately, Hugo had no pictures at all of himself to prove what he really looked like. Not even on his driver’s license. [Wing: …how? Is this a before driver’s licenses had photos story?]
Thoroughly worried, Hugo gained momentary relief when his neighbor Mrs. Reynolds addressed him by name. So maybe his face had changed back. Only, once he got on the bus to go to work, [Wing: OH, wait, does he just not have one at all? That makes more sense.] he looked in the mirror at the front of the vehicle and still has reflection was different.
No one said anything to Hugo as he entered work, but he was convinced he was walking around with the face of a stranger. He got up several times to inspect himself in the bathroom, but every time his reflection looking back was alien and unknown to him.
This problem went on for days as Hugo was haunted by this stranger that had invaded his life. A stranger only he was aware of. It was on Friday that Hugo was finally able to look in a mirror and see himself. The stranger had vanished and Hugo’s face was his once more.
He was so happy he didn’t notice the odd look Mrs. Reynolds gave him as he left his house.
And he didn’t think it odd how quiet it suddenly got in his office when he went to his desk.
And oh, Miss Rose the head clerk was in a good mood as she jokingly asked why he was sitting at “Mr. Hugo’s” desk.
And then slowly Hugo Hoogen stopped laughing as his mind spiraled into madness.
Who are you?
[Wing: Eh. Weird and kind of boring, but a plot like this takes more time and writing skill to develop.]
THE EGYPTIAN COFFIN
The security guard was on his first night in the Egyptian wing of the British museum, after spending several months guarding the Viking room. He sat his fat body down on a bench and looked around at all the strange artifacts. The stone slabs, the urns, the sculptures of men with animal heads, and the mummified bodies. The guard figured he’d have plenty of fun in this exhibit like he did in the Viking wing.
Oh sure, they couldn’t prove anything. Couldn’t prove he scratched that curse word into the Viking stone, or stuck that old cigarette in the fake Viking warrior’s mouth. But they were on to him and that’s why they transferred him.
The guard hated museums, always had ever since his bitch mom dragged him to them when he was a kid. But the only job he could get was as a late night security guard in a place like this, so he managed to find a way to enjoy himself.
He got up and looked at a wall painting covered in hieroglyphics and depictions of people with animal heads. One of them was a monster with a crocodile head. The guard wasn’t impressed as he read the descriptive plaque about the “Scale of Judgment,” how in the Egyptian afterlife a man’s life is weighed against a feather (the symbol of truth and justice). It said the man would be judged by the gods who wanted a report of his life on Earth. If he lied and the feather outweighed the heart, he’d be devoured by the crocodile-headed being.
The guard looked at the painting of the crocodile-man and took a step back when a voice asked if he was scared. He practically jumped as he turned around to see the assistant curator of the museum. The curator apologized for scaring him, and the guard said he’s not scared of this junk. And he wants to know why the curator sneaked up on him like that. The curator said he was walking normally, and isn’t it YOUR job to be on alert Mr. Hotshit Guard?
Oh, and by the way, this stuff isn’t “Junk.” It’s one of the best collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. The guard’s still not impressed by all this JUNK. Steamed, the curator tells the guard to watch himself. They know what he does and would’ve fired him if they weren’t short-staffed. The curator says the guard shouldn’t disturb anything in this room. The Egyptians greatly respected their dead and don’t appreciate it when people mess with their shit. They knew a thing or two about magic…
It was in one ear and out the other as the guard waited for the curator to shut up and leave. Muttering to himself once he was alone, the guard took out a stick of chewing gum and inspected the display on Princess Takheb. Looking at the painted lid of the outer coffin, the guard seemed to become lost in the black, almond-shaped eyes of Takheb until he bit his tongue while chewing. Removing the gum, the guard looked for a place to throw it out when he saw the smaller coffin near Takheb’s. It belonged to her son, Pedikhons.
Laughing to himself, the guard smugly took the chewed gum and placed it inside the coffin. On the back of the smaller mummy’s clothed head. He laughed even louder until he had the sensation he was being watched. Turning around, the guard’s gaze zeroed back in on the eyes of Takheb’s coffin lid. He tried to move away, but found himself sinking deeper and deeper into those black eyes. He couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of the face on the coffin, when suddenly the black eyes closed. The guard looked down and saw the open coffin. He began to yawn, feel tired. Maybe he could rest for just a minute…
The guard closed his eyes, then opened them again to see the inside of the coffin lid as he lie in the case. There was another face drawn on the inside of the lid, but instead of the passive gaze on the outside, Takheb’s visage had eyes glittering with pure rage. The guard closed his eyes once more and began to dream as the coffin lid sealed him inside the case.
And somewhere a crocodile-headed man waited for him.
If you want a preview of what’s in store for him, well…
That’s it for this round, and we’ll explore the other nine come July.
Out of all of them, my favorites have been “The Furry Collar” and “The Face.” That scritch noise scared me a lot when I was younger and I enjoyed the mystery behind who or what the Face was.
What’d you think for this first half Wing?
[Wing: Most of these were pretty familiar, but some I hadn’t heard or read before, so that was fun. I love little stories like this, but mostly when it comes to oral storytelling because the storyteller can add a lot of atmosphere to them through the performance. They don’t work as well on the page.]
Are you still planning to do the rest of the stories in this book? It says they’re coming in July but I don’t see them (or at least it didn’t pop up in a search).
Anyway, this might be a nitpick, but what always bothered me about “The Furry Collar” is the opening, because it shows the narrator survived the experience, which doesn’t make sense when you think about it. So the murderer apparently decapitated Susan, then took her body and walked all the way up the stairs, put the body next to the door, opened the door, and then… apparently just wandered off I guess, because we know the narrator survives. I guess it’s conceivable the murderer tried to kill the narrator and she got away somehow, but then it feels cheap to not have that explained. Honestly, it would’ve made more sense if that opening part was removed, both for this reason and also because it sort of gives the plot away.
Jude will be continuing this, so keep an eye out. That is a very good point about the narrator and The Furry Collar being the first story.
So first off, I promise the second part is coming soon. My mistake is that I keep trying to schedule too much during baseball season when I clearly don’t have the energy with my job at the stadium.
On “The Furry Collar,” I always assumed the reason the narrator survived is because whatever was going on in the house, they were never a target to begin with. It was implied the noise they heard was something Susan had been familiar with so it felt like she was always the intended victim regardless if the narrator had been there.