Episode 07: "In the Distant Obscurity" – The Sheridan Tapes
CONTENT WARNINGS: Luphobia, cynophobia, sounds of howling wolves/dogs, terror, loud/startling noises and static, references to a car crash
[Footsteps, and something metal being dragged]
[Vultures fly off]
[Footsteps and dragging continue]
[Metal object clatters to a stop]
Okay, just check…
Good. No cell signal.
[Mechanical buttons pressed, computer beeping]
Nothing but a bit of AM radio. All quiet on the western front. Good. Good.
[Mechanical buttons pressed, eclectic motor whirs]
Alright… Beginning frequency sweep.
[Pulsing, swirling electronic tone]
Come on… I know you’re out there.
[Cassette player motor whirs, stops]
[A/C fan noise]
[Hum of conversation through door]
[Keyboard keys clicking]
[Sound of a car engine]
…And far away, at the horizon’s edge, he saw the flash of sails, the curve of a hull, and the sweep of a tall, proud bow — yet it sailed, keel above foremast, upon the air. He knew with a chill in his heart that he beheld the Fata Morgana: that ghostly ship sent to lure poor sailors to their doom.
“About and to port, master Wilkins,” he said, raising his spyglass towards that frail and tenuous image, praying only that he could keep it in his sights this time…
Wait, no — he wouldn’t have said Port. He’d have said larboard. “About and to Larboard, mister Wilkins,” he said, extending his spyglass towards that image, praying only that he could keep it in his sights before it slipped over the world’s edge and disappeared once more.
She’s been on like this for twenty minutes now. I thought I’d start checking the tapes before digitizing them, and Sheridan has certainly not disappointed. More early drafts of Below the Silent Deep. Real exciting stuff — for anyone but me.
I was about to toss this one out, but the chief came in and caught me scrubbing through. Let’s just say he did not approve. At all. So let’s do this properly: Detective Samuel Bailey, Oslow County Police Department, Homicide Division. Recording on April Twelfth, 2019 at 5:15 pm. Tape number — god damnit, it’s still in the player.
3-1-10-6-6. Going to tell me what the numbers mean anytime soon, Sheridan?
[Feeds the tape into the player]
[Hiss of static, then fades]
[Sound of a car engine]
The bright gleam of the late evening sun shone in his eyes,
burning as he stared, unblinking, at the mirage. He could see its rigging shivering in a wind no living soul could feel. Wilkins spoke in his ear, nearly shouting, but the captain did not listen: only kept his burning eye held fast upon his quarry. He felt a rough hand on his shoulder and shook it off, advancing further down the quarter deck. The ship, suspended in the air, was turning about — whither which way he did not know, but it seemed for a moment to be facing him. He caught a glimpse of the weathered and splintered figurehead on the bow, carved in the shape of a woman in white. As he watched, it seemed to raise its hand and silently beckon him forward. Someone cried his name, and he turned to look just as the deck disappeared below his feet. The cold waters of the mid-Atlantic embraced him with the cold, wet kiss every sailor knows as death. And then… Then…
Then nothing. That’s about all I’ve got. Pretty good though. I’m trying to get better at putting these passages on tape when they come to me… which is usually when I’m on the road. I don’t know exactly where that one will end up, but Captain Barrett will definitely hunt a ghost ship at some point. Just need to figure out where.
I really wish I had room in the van for one of those outline-boards Maria keeps talking about. It would really make writing these things go faster. Not that I can actually, you know, write anything while I’m driving, which is when I get my best ideas. It always has been. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time out here. Well, that and other reasons.
You ever stop to think how strange highways like this are? I’ve certainly spent enough of my life around them to notice. It’s no wonder there are so many urban legends about them: we all know that roads shouldn’t be here, not in places like this. They’re just… Rivers of stone, running through mountains and forests wherever we decide to put them. Strands of asphalt linking people together across hundreds of miles. They’re almost like… Connective tissue. Veins. A living thing, growing around and through forests just like this one. It spent thousands of years alone, only seeing a few dozen humans every year. Now, there’s a ragged wound cut through the middle of it, with hundreds of noisy, dirty cars rushing past on their way to somewhere else. And it’s worse at night. Whenever I’m out here, it feels like I’ve crossed some boundary that shouldn’t have been messed with.
[Faint sound of movement]
I mean, just look at those trees. Undisturbed by the ages, just watching as the tiny humans rush by in their little tin cans. They don’t look angry at us though, or even afraid — they just stay silent, knowing they’ll outlast us all. I used to stare at them as they flew past whenever we took a family road trip… at least, whenever I wasn’t annoying Kate. I knew about parallax long before I knew there was a name for it. Close up, the world rushed by in a blur, but in the distance, everything was almost perfectly still. Motionless. Timeless. And if I stared at it for too long, sometimes I started to see things. I’m pretty sure it was just some kind of optical illusion: the branches blurring out and making patterns that weren’t there. But sometimes, when I looked out the window and the sun was going down, I imagined I could see something running alongside the car.
It looked like a wolf, I remember. Some kind of dog, at least. Four legs. Dark fur. Long, hungry snout and deep, dark red eyes. Thinking back on it, it always seemed misshapen somehow. Its legs… Its front legs were too long for its body. I used to think it would be hard for it to run like that. Sometimes I wondered if it was actually humanoid, but ran on all fours like a gorilla. Whenever I thought I was getting a good look at it, the car passed a clearing without any trees, and it disappeared. So I convinced myself it was only my imagination. That was the simplest explanation, after all. Although… Knowing what I know now, I…
[Clack and clatter as tape ejects]
[Sighs with relief]
Oh thank God, it’s over.
[Chair scoots back]
[Door opens across room]
You getting out of here anytime soon?
Actually, I was just about to…
Great! Just wanted to make sure you’re still good.
Good for what?
Dude! Karaoke night! I know, I know, you hate karaoke, but you promised you’d come, so…
When Robert bought coffee for the office last week. He told you it was his birthday today and asked you to come.
Oh, uh… Right. And I said yes?
Yes, Sam, you did.
Oh. Yeah, I did, of course. Uh, go ahead without me, I just need to… wrap up a few things here.
Aren’t you done with your one cassette for the day?
Uh, Sheridan cut off mid-sentence on this one — I think there might be a B-side.
Fine. We’ll save you a seat, but don’t take too long or you’ll miss [singing] Bohemian Rhapsody.
Wouldn’t miss it for the world.
[Door closes behind Bill]
[Chair scoots back]
[Picks up tape]
Maybe this thing does have a B-side. I mean, I might as well check — I need to kill some time to get rid of Bill, anyways…
[Feeds the tape into the player]
Tape 3-1-10-6-6 (b-side)
[Hiss of static, then fades]
[Strange canine howling in the distance]
I don’t know if the mic is picking that up, but… I pulled off at a rest area near the PCT trailhead a few minutes ago. I was starting to get tired, so I set up the camping stove and started boiling water for coffee while I checked the map. I figured I’m about halfway to Klamath, give or take a few miles. I was about to start the van again when everything went completely silent.
For a minute I thought the stove had gone out, but then I looked closer and saw the flame was still on. The water was still boiling, but… it wasn’t making any noise. Then I heard…
[Another unearthly howl]
That! I heard that. Look, I know there are wolves out here, okay? Coyotes too. And I know what they sound like. I’ve had more than a few run-ins with both. But whatever’s out there, it’s not any animal I know… and it’s getting closer.
Come on Sheridan — Move. Go!
Okay. Just putting a little distance between me and… Whatever that was. No shame in not wanting to deal with hell-hounds in the middle of nowhere. Discretion is the better part of valor, or so I’ve been told.
[Something strikes side of van]
Gah! Keep it steady, Sheridan, keep it…
Oh god… They’re just outside, trying to run me off the road. Whatever they are, I can see them in the corner of my eye. Come on Sheridan, just keep driving and…
Shit. Okay, Lake of the woods is just a little ways up the road. Maybe I can get over the water and lose them. They’re still dogs, right? They need my scent to…
[Voice distorts and fades]
[Deep horn-like sound]
[Almost musical, harmonic static]
God, what a rush! Ha… Man, my hand’s still shaking. You must have heard that horn. You must have! I mean, it was loud enough to shake the windows, so it must have been picked up by…
[Gust of wind blows by]
Okay. I’ll start from the beginning. I didn’t put two and two together until I heard the horn. Then it all clicked. There’s this motif in a lot of European folklore… A common theme shared by a bunch of stories from all over the continent. Grant’s always trying to teach me more about mythology, so I probably read about it in one of his books… And probably against my will. I should give him a call and thank him for that.
No. Not a good idea. He already has a big enough head.
It’s called the wild host, or the wild hunt. There are hundreds of stories all across Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain about the same thing: a hunting party made up of the dead, chasing some poor unfortunate soul for prey. Guess that’s me, in this case. It was usually led by Odin or King Arthur or whatever the local equivalent was, but not always. Sometimes it was led by a warrior goddess, or the devil, or a dead lord. Really, there are as many variations as there are stories. The wild hunt is really just a name scholars came up with for the trend. But in almost all of the stories, the party was led by hunting hounds. Hell-hounds. I wonder… Was that what I saw when I was a kid? Was I being chased all the way back then? Or did I just have an overactive imagination? I mean, I did, but… You know what I mean.
Wasn’t imagining them now, though. Wish I was. I was doing almost 90 on the straightaways, but they were keeping up with me easily. I skidded out a bit each time they hit the car, but I managed to stay in control. Barely. I tried to take a closer look, but then I remembered my last accident and kept my eyes locked on the road. I didn’t dare to look in the rearview mirror, either. I’m not sure what I really would’ve seen, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have helped.
I started seeing signs for Lake of the Woods, so I tried to speed up. Looking back on it, my plan was kind of ridiculous — the wild hunt, if that’s what it really was, rides the storm clouds, high in the air. Maybe their dogs ran on the ground, but ghosts and gods certainly don’t. Whatever those hounds were leading — whatever had chosen me for prey — it wouldn’t have been stopped by a little bit of water.
Not that I had much choice but to run. Most of the stories said that those who ran were hunted to the ends of the Earth, but surrendering to the hunt usually ended worse. I’d rather not end up dead or any more cursed than I already am.
So I kept driving, going as fast as I possibly could. Or rather, faster than I could. This van is not built for high speed chases, that’s for sure, and I forgot to top off my radiator before I left. It probably ran dry somewhere up the grade, and I’ve been running on luck ever since. The engine started to hiss, and smoke began to pour out of the air vents. I tried to keep going, but thankfully it broke down completely before I asphyxiated on the fumes.
I barely got out of the middle of the road before the van lurched to a stop. I jumped out as soon as it did and ran as fast as I could down the road. I don’t know what I was thinking. The dogs kept up with me when I was going 90, but once again, what other option did I have?
There are absolutely no streetlights out here. Maybe one or two in the occasional intersection or rest area, but besides that… nothing. When it’s night, it’s really, really night, and you can’t see anything at all. The trees block most of the moonlight, and my headlights went out when the engine failed. I could just barely make out where the road was by the stars overhead. The hounds were still there, one on either side of the highway. I heard them moving through the trees, but I couldn’t see them. One of them growled low in its throat and I just — froze. Dead in my tracks. I turned towards the sound, trying to figure out where it was coming from. A sliver of moonlight broke through the trees, but all I could see was a patch of pale, hairless skin and the faint glint of the creature’s eyes as it watched me.
I stopped breathing. Fight or flight were both out of the question, so I just… Froze. I guess I was just hoping… No, I wasn’t hoping anything, I wasn’t thinking. I was just reacting. That’s probably why it took so long to realize the hound wasn’t moving either. It just stayed exactly where it was. I could tell it was staring at me though, and when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, I knew the other one was doing the same. But neither of them moved. Instead, they just stood where they were, waiting for me to run. And then I heard the horn again.
[Faint, harmonic static]
I don’t know why I call it a horn: it didn’t really sound like one. It was more like… a pure frequency. Like the ones Maria sometimes sends me when she’s messing around with the edits, warbling and rising and falling except… Well, this one didn’t sound like a digital noise. It was like… pure sound. A pure musical note, like what every instrument in history has been trying to reproduce. If that’s so, then none of them have come anywhere close.
The dogs whined when they heard it, almost sounding like they were disappointed before they turned and ran back down the highway.I stayed exactly where I was for what felt like an hour before I dared to even look. I was sorely disappointed. There was nothing there: no dogs, no hunting party floating through the clouds, not even the headlights of another car. It was just me, alone in the middle of the road.
I ran back to my van and locked myself in anyways. By then I was more awake than I wanted to be, so I didn’t need coffee anymore.
[Metallic objects shift and fall, clattering]
The whole back of the van is a total mess, and my laptop’s probably ruined for good: the kettle was still boiling when it fell over and poured scalding water all over everything. Thankfully I have everything backed up, but I’ll have to ask Maria what I can do with a boiled CPU.
[Gust of wind]
I’m not making it to Crater Lake tonight. Probably not at all, at this rate. Still… Worse places to be stranded, I guess. It seems like I’m safe now… though to be honest, I don’t know for sure. Those old stories are full of ways that people escaped or outsmarted the hunt, but it’s impossible to say which ones are real and which ones are made up. If any of them are actually real.
I’m still trying to figure out why they let me go. Maybe the hounds wanted a good chase, and I couldn’t give it to them anymore. Lord knows I’ve spent enough of my life chasing things I didn’t really want to catch. Or maybe it’s like I said — this road isn’t supposed to be here. It’s a liminal space: not in one city or the next, not totally civilized or completely wild. Just a river of stone. A ribbon of civilization passing through forests older than the human race itself. Places like this… sometimes they’re more than just unnerving. Sometimes, the barriers between the world we know and the ones we don’t dare to imagine get thin enough to let something through.
[Faint harmonic static rises]
[Clack and clatter as tape ejects]
What am I supposed to do with you, Sheridan?
This is the second time she’s talked about being chased by something. Though if these tapes are to be believed, “the wild hunt” doesn’t sound anything like the… Phenomena she encountered in Langlois. And I can’t exactly put either of them down as suspects without being laughed out of the department. Though maybe she knew someone was chasing her, just not who. Made her paranoid.
Maybe I shouldn’t be taking the tapes so seriously. Half the time I don’t even know if she takes them seriously. I mean, those sounds definitely didn’t come from any kind of dog or horn I know, but she also mentioned Maria Sol a few times. She probably did a bit of work on this recording, like she did with the one on Donner Pass. Still, it seems kind of odd that Sheridan would mention her if Sol was producing this. Seems kind of arrogant. Or maybe it’s meta, whatever that means.
I should try and track down Miss Sol for an interview — but that’s for next week. If ever. Right now I need to see if I can sneak out of here without Bill noticing.
[Chair scoots back]
Might as well take a tape for the road.
[Rummages through cassettes]
God knows I won’t have anything better to do this weekend.
[Footsteps start, then stop]
Maybe 2. Just to be safe.
[Rummaging through cassettes]