At one point, my friend Brian DiPaolo and I considered making a website devoted to his character “Johnny Sniper.” Johnny is–well, he’s hard to describe, but if I had to do it in one sentence, I’d say he’s your archetypal all-American soldier (with violent jingoistic tendencies). I wrote this story in anticipation of the site, but it never materialized. Brian has kindly allowed me to publish it here.
The original draft had a lot more swearing and nationalism, as I tried to capture the cartoonish Johnny of Brian’s comic strips. I cut a lot of it in revision. It’s now more of a World War II-era horror story, very similar to Robert E. Howard’s efforts in the horror genre.
The “plot” for this story was inspired by a short Hellboy fan-film by Aaron Antaloczy, which you can see here (requires Quicktime).
This story gets rather gross. You’ve been warned.
“Get a hold of yourself!”
The slap echoed off the cave walls. The tall, slender soldier fell to the rocky floor with a whimper.
His attacker, a thick-muscled man with short blond hair, reached down to grab the victim’s shirt.
“You damn pansy,” said the blond. “I’m gonna–”
A fist smashed into the blond’s jaw. He found himself next to the thin man on the cave floor.
“You idiots,” said a voice. “If you don’t cut that shit, I’m going to kill you both and leave you here.”
The blond glared, then fell silent. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“Sorry what, Private Rider?” the other demanded.
A hand reached out of the darkness toward the thin man. “Come on, Collins. Quit your crying and get up.”
Collins took the hand and was quickly pulled to his feet. “Thank you, sir.”
Rider got up, rubbing his jaw. “So what do we do now?”
“We need to get out of here,” Collins said. “Fast!”
“What about the captain?” asked Rider.
The third soldier walked into the aura created by their flashlights. He wasn’t as tall as Rider, but he wasn’t short, either. His face was broad and marked by numerous scars. The square chin was rough with stubble that was never shaved clean, yet never seemed to grow into a beard. He wore the expression of a man who had seen too much but was ready for more.
“I don’t think the captain gets to weigh in on this one,” said the soldier.
All three men regarded the object across the room. A dark mass lay huddled against the cave wall. Around it was a pool of deeper darkness–blood.
Once, this thing had been Captain Fernando Ortega of the 82nd Airborne–a strong man, a man to have next to you in a fight.
But what was once Ortega was now a shapeless blob of mangled flesh. It was barely recognizable as the captain. The stomach and intestines had been ripped out and strewn all over the ground, like the stuffing of a doll torn apart by a dog.
“So what happened to Cranmore? And Newt?” Collins whispered.
The third soldier was silent. “I don’t know.”
After more than two years in the war, the man called Johnny Sniper had seen more than his share of what men will do under desperate circumstances. He had seen hatred in the eyes of his fellow soldiers as they butchered helpless Germans; he had seen the unspeakable things the Germans had done to French villages.
But now, Johnny’s steely nerves were shaken. It had started when his company ran into a group of Germans ravaging a village. They were SS and so they’d put up a decent fight, but the Americans had chased them out of town. Ortega and his men had pursued them into the forest, and they fought a few more skirmishes; each time, both companies lost several soldiers, until each group had been whittled down to a handful.
When they lost the Germans’ trail, Ortega considered heading back to the Allied camp. But Johnny picked up the trail again, which led to a cave in a small canyon. All they had to do was wait for the Germans to come out of the cave.
The company waited until twilight, but there was no sign of the Germans. Finally, near dusk, Ortega decided to take a detachment of soldiers and investigate–including Johnny. Shortly after entering the cave, they lost track of Ortega and Cranmore. Minutes later they heard a bloodcurdling scream. Rushing through the darkness, they found the captain–or what was left of him.
Johnny didn’t like it. The Nazis were bastards, no question, but they wouldn’t do something like this. Ortega had been torn apart. No man or men could do it, not with knives or bayonets. There had to be some sort of animal in the cave.
“We’d better get out of here,” said Johnny. “Collins, can you get us out?”
The tall, slender soldier–a smart fellow, but not the best man in a fight–had panicked after seeing the captain’s corpse. He was still trembling, but the tussle with Rider–that dumb thug, Johnny thought–seemed to have straightened him out, for the time being.
“I don’t know,” Collins said. He pulled out his map and they shined their flashlights on it. The map shook in Collins’ hands. He took out his compass.
“I took a reading right before we came in,” he said. “But now…that’s queer.”
“What?” Johnny said.
“The compass–it’s not working,” he said.
“Maybe it don’t work underground,” said Rider.
“Maybe your brain doesn’t work underground,” Collins muttered.
“You want another one?” Rider said, shaking his fist.
“Goddamn you assholes,” said Johnny. “What’s wrong with the compass, Collins?”
“It could be the cave,” Collins suggested. “Maybe there’s some magnetite in the rock.”
“Maybe there’s some magnetite in your brain!” said Rider.
“That doesn’t make any sense, dumbass,” Collins shot back.
“What did you call me?” Rider said, stepping toward the other.
“Quit it, you idiots!” Johnny said. “Forget it then. Let’s just choose a direction and go. But keep your eyes open.”
Their progress was slow. They used only one flashlight at a time to save their batteries. The cave was deep and surprisingly complex. Rider, who was from Montana, had gone spelunking a few times, but that didn’t seem to help them much now.
They moved through the darkness for what seemed like hours. Finally Collins, who had the sharpest eyes, cried out. “I see light!”
Sure enough, there was a small patch of white against the blackness ahead. They moved quickly toward it, keeping the flashlight on the floor, watching for sudden crevices or pits.
They found themselves in a large cavern. The light turned out to be a shaft of moonlight that shone through a crack in the ceiling.
“Damn,” Rider muttered. “Not the way out, I guess.”
Collins was looking at the map. “Maybe if we could get up there, I could get a look outside and figure out where we are…”
“Don’t be an ass,” said Rider. “That’s thirty feet up if it’s an inch. And it’s too small to crawl through.”
“Well fine,” said Collins, folding up the map. “At least it can serve as a vent. I’ll start a fire.” He kneeled on the ground and cleared out some of the long, narrow rocks that cluttered the floor. Then he took off his backpack and rooted around for the timber he’d saved for just such an occasion.
“Well, screw this,” said Rider. “I’m beat.” He dropped heavily to the ground.
“What now?” said Johnny.
“I sat on something,” Rider said. He felt around under his rump and grabbed a rough, sharp object. Johnny shone his flashlight on it.
It was a bone.
“Ugh!” Rider cried. He dropped it like a hot potato.
Just then, Collins’ fire flared and lit the cavern with a red glow.
“Mother of God…” Collins whispered.
The floor wasn’t covered in rocks.
It was covered in bones.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Collins mumbled. Rider was reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
“Shut up, you two!” Johnny hissed. He had noticed that among the bones were many pinpricks of bright light– reflections against something metal. He bent down to examine the nearest one.
It was a helmet. Not a military helmet–at least, not a recent one. Johnny picked it up. It was big, and seemed to be made from bronze. A long crescent of steel protruded from the top and ran down the back of the helmet. Some wispy, crumbling bristles of hair still clung to the crescent.
“What is that?” Rider asked.
Johnny walked over to Collins. “You’re the brain,” said Johnny. “What is it?”
Collins tore his eyes away from the grim spectacle of the bones. “It looks like–like an old helmet.” At Johnny’s glare, he added quickly, “Obviously. It looks like a Roman soldier’s helmet, actually.” He took it from Johnny. “Look here, there’s some Latin–oh my.”
“It says ‘VIII Legion.'”
“Sir–this is a real helmet–a helmet from ancient Rome. It must be worth a fortune!”
Their curiosity–and greed–surpassing their horror, all three men started rooting among the bones. They discovered more Roman-era helmets, as well as helmets that appeared to have belonged to Visigoths, Vikings, and Crusades-era knights. There were also a number of swords and countless pieces of armor scattered among the bones.
“What is this place?” Collins asked.
Then Rider screamed.
Rider had been searching a corner of the cavern not touched by the flicker of the campfire. There, in a jumble of flesh and slimy bones, were the corpses of the Germans they had chased into the cave.
Rider was backing away, shaking his head in horror. He bumped into Johnny and screamed again.
Johnny slapped him.
Collins had retreated to the campfire and was sitting before it, gazing into the flames. Johnny shone his flashlight into the mess of gore and offal.
“Damn,” he said.
“What is it?” Collins cried.
Gingerly, Johnny reached into the mess and pulled out a round helmet. He held it into the light.
“It’s one of ours,” said Rider.
Johnny nodded. “Cranmore,” he said, pointing to the initials carved into the inside of the helmet.
“Oh God, oh God,” Collins murmured. “We have to get out of here!”
“How?” Rider cried. “How, goddamn it? We don’t have any idea where we are!”
“Shut up!” Collins screamed back.
“For the love of Christ, if you assholes don’t shut your pieholes, I’m gonna–”
“Shhh!” Rider hissed.
Johnny glared at him. “What?”
Rider’s eyes were wild. He held a finger to his lips.
Johnny listened. At first he couldn’t hear a thing. Then, faintly, he heard a small, rhythmic sound–a soft, slow shuffle.
“What the hell is that?” Collins whispered. He was getting hysterical. Johnny gestured warningly at him, then pointed to the tunnel the sound was coming from. He unslung his machine gun and pointed it at the tunnel. Rider and Collins quickly did the same.
The shuffling sound was getting louder. Slowly, a shape began to appear from the darkness of the tunnel. It was about the height of a man, but its shape was vague.
The thing edged closer. The red glow of the campfire began to reflect off its surface. It seemed to be wet, as if covered in slime.
As the thing shambled into the cavern, Collins screamed.
“It’s the captain!”
Before the men could fire, the thing stopped at the lip of the tunnel. It hung back, just out of the aura of the dying campfire.
There was no doubt: it was Ortega. Johnny could see wisps of the man’s uniform, including several of his medals, which were now embedded in the pinkish-red flesh of his body. The captain had been horribly transformed; the flesh of his chest and shoulders was bloated and heaved up around his neck, making it appear as if his head had half-sunk into his body. His mouth had widened and his eyes bulged, giving him a frog-like look. His one remaining arm hung uselessly at his side.
But the worst were his guts. They hung out in front of him, glistening and dripping. His organs and other internal parts seemed to have burst outward, leaving his torso a hideous mess.
Johnny was frozen. His finger pressed against the trigger of his gun, but he somehow couldn’t pull it the extra millimeter to fire.
Johnny was a practical man. He didn’t believe in ghosts, witches, vampires, or any of the other folktales he had been told by his grandmother as a child. Back then, they had enraptured and terrified him, but as he had grown older, he had dismissed the tales as superstition. But now, as he faced the shambling thing that had once been his commanding officer, he felt all of that childish dread come flooding back.
It was Collins who broke the silence. “What are you?” he whispered to the thing.
There was silence for a moment. Then, the bloated corpse began to make a gurgling sound. It bubbled up from the general region of the thing’s head. It was a hissing interrupted by wet belches, like a pudding boiling in its pot.
And then it spoke. Each word came out long and slow, barely above a whisper, accompanied by a hissing gurgle. Not a word of it made any sense to Johnny.
“What the hell is it saying?” said Johnny.
Collins had turned pale. “It’s Latin,” he said.
“So what’s he–it–saying?”
“It says…it says it is…its name is…Hedrath…and that it’s a–a spirit of the earth?–that collects…that collects–”
“What?” Rider snapped.
“It collects the souls of those whose courage fail them,” Collins finished. He was backing away from the fire, his machine gun in front of him.
The thing was still talking.
“Oh God,” said Collins.
“What?” Johnny demanded. “What’s it saying now?”
“It lead us here…and the Germans…it’s done this for thousands of years…it’s very, very old…oh God…” Collins was backing toward the other side of the cave. “It says it’s going to–”
Johnny noticed movement in the shadows behind Collins. “Look out–!”
The thin soldier had backed into the corner where the bodies of the Germans and Cranmore lay. Suddenly, the pile of gore surged behind Collins and, like a wave of blood and bone, it rose up and engulfed him.
Collins’s scream was choked off as blood and offal rushed into his mouth. The thing wrapped itself around him and seemed to squeeze. There was a loud crunch as Collins’s bones snapped.
Rider screamed. He suddenly remembered his weapon and fired dozens of rounds into the pile of gore that had engulfed Collins.
Johnny was swinging his gun around to help when something grabbed his ankle. He looked down to see a pink tentacle–Ortega’s intestine–wrapped around his leg.
He was yanked off his feet and crashed into the rocky floor, scattering the bones. His machine gun bounced into the darkness.
Rider was still screaming and shooting at the blob, which was now convulsing around the remains of Collins, like some obscene form of chewing. The bullets ripped into the thing but, given that it was literally a walking wound, they had no apparent effect.
Meanwhile the intestine was slowly dragging Johnny toward the Ortega-thing. Its guts were now a writhing mass, like the underside of a squid. They seemed to be taking on some strange, alien form or substance, as if they were no longer true intenstines but actual tentacles.
Suddenly another intestine-tentacle shot out of the beast and whipped around Rider’s neck. Johnny cried a warning, but in an instant the tentacle had yanked Rider bodily off the ground and hurled him halfway across the cavern. Johnny heard Rider’s neck snap.
The tentacle was still dragging him toward the Ortega-thing. Johnny remembered his knife and pulled it out of the holster on his thigh. With a quick slash he cut the intestine, which recoiled and thrashed about like a halved worm.
Johnny got to his feet. He spotted a machine gun and leapt for it.
The Ortega-thing had finished dragging Rider’s body toward it. As Johnny watched, it pulled the corpse into its guts and enveloped it, just as the other thing had done. To Johnny’s horror, the thing began to grow in size.
He heard a sickening sound behind him and spun to see the other creature crawling toward Ortega. His fingers tightened around the machine gun, but he had no idea what to do. The campfire was beginning to flicker out. Shadows almost as hideous as the things that cast them danced wildly on the cavern’s walls.
Johnny felt his mind slipping into madness. How many times had this scene played out? How many warriors throughout history had stumbled into this cave, only to meet the “Hedrath” and be absorbed into its hideous form?
The two blobs met. They flowed into one another, limbs and guts writhing with loathsome ardor. The stench in the cavern was beyond description–a miasma of decaying flesh, excrement, and curdling fluids.
Then Johnny saw his chance.
To his right was a small tunnel, different than the one they had come in by, which was blocked by the monster. Johnny had no idea where this one led, but it was his only shot. He began to edge toward the tunnel.
Just then, the Hedrath lurched and reared. Before Johnny’s eyes, the pile of bloody corpses began to climb toward the ceiling. Two broad, stumpy legs, composed of countless bones, appeared at the bottom, followed by a torso, gory arms with tentacled fingers, and a hideous head, from which peered a dozen eyes.
The huge, lipless mouth began to quiver. “Johnny Sniper”–it spoke in English–“these others were but tiny morsels compared to the feast which you shall provide. For while their fear was great, they had only a little way to fall. But the fear of one such as you must first surmount your great courage. We have not fed on one such as you for a thousand years…”
Johnny dove for the tunnel entrance. The thing’s arm shot across the room, extending rapidly on an endless supply of offal, and its hand blocked the tunnel.
Johnny tumbled backward, dropping his gun in the process. He landed on his face and inhaled the dust of old bones.
“And now, Johnny Sniper,” said the Hedrath, “I will feast on your fear.”
Johnny pushed himself up onto his knees, coughing and hacking. As he did so, his hands closed on something: the hilt of a long sword. It looked ancient, and unrecognizable runes ran along the hilt. Yet while the blade’s surface shone dully, the edge was still sharp after untold ages.
The thing towered over him. Johnny didn’t move. He felt his heart flutter in his chest. His mouth went slack, and his eyes glazed. The thing made a sound vaguely analogous to human laughter. The laughter seemed to grow in proportion to the fear that welled up in Johnny’s heart.
And Johnny realized he was going to die here, in some cave in France, eaten by the ancient byproduct of some long-forgotten European race–so far from his native land, where the flags fluttered proudly in the wind–
Johnny realized he was still holding the sword. Even as the beast loomed over him, its gut-tentacles squirming toward his face, he gripped the sword in both hands and, with an effort, got to his feet.
“Looks like you weren’t scary enough,” said Johnny.
The Hedrath hesitated, confused.
Johnny struck. He swung the sword in a huge arc, hacking deep into the side of the thing. It let out a terrible wail–the sound of a hundred men screaming–and stumbled back.
Johnny stumbled with it, the sword still stuck in its guts. He yanked it out, spraying himself with muck in the process. Then he struck it again.
The Hedrath screamed. It strove with its tentacles to grab Johnny, but now that he had regained his courage, it could do him no harm. He hit it with the sword again and again, and at some point the screams turned into cries of fear and despair.
After each cry for help, the thing uttered a name Johnny’s ears couldn’t interpret, but the very sound of it nearly made him lose what little sanity he had left. Driven by a strange impulse he began to strike even more, stabbing, slicing and jabbing with the sword. Gore splashed over his uniform and thick blood coated his arms to the shoulder.
Finally the creature fell back, landing on the last embers of the campfire. Its center burst into flame, as if it had contained some volatile gas. A horrid stench arose, mixed with screams so loud and piercing they seemed to be a physical presence in the air.
Johnny turned and ran. He stumbled into the small tunnel entrance and kept running. His only thought was to get away from the terrible screaming behind him. He ran for what seemed like hours but could have been mere minutes. He tripped over rocks and holes, yet somehow managed to avoid falling into a pit.
Then he was running through clear fields in the dying moonlight, the long grass whipping at his boots.
He came to a river and collapsed on the bank. He tore his bloody clothes from his body and hurled them into the rushing water, letting its currents take them away forever. He lay down, his body half in the river, its purifying waters cleansing the blood from his skin.
There was a high wind, and it seemed to him that it still carried the screams of the dying thing in the cave. The Hedrath would come for him, he knew–it would ooze through the tunnel and crawl through the fields, smearing its blood-slime on the grass, to kill him…
Then the world went dark, and Johnny knew no more.
“Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph,” said a voice.
“Shhh!” hissed another voice. “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“Sorry, Father, but Jesus,” said the first voice.
Johnny opened his eyes. At first, all he saw was blue–bright, beautiful blue, the color of a jewel, of the Mediterranean sea, the color of a blonde’s eyes when she smiled at you…
Two shadowed faces came into view. “Lieutenant, sir?” asked one of them. “You okay?”
“Johnny? Are you all right, son?”
Johnny’s eyes focused. He recognized the round, youthful face of Flannery, the company chaplain. The other was the grizzled mug of Frank Durth, a staff sergeant.
“Dear God, Johnny, what happened to you?” Durth asked.
“Please, Sergeant,” said Flannery.
“Sorry, Father. Johnny?”
Johnny tried to sit up. He groaned with the effort; every muscle responded with a sharp ache.
“Johnny,” said Durth, “Where are the others? Where’s Ortega, and Cranmore and Collins and Rider?”
Johnny squinted as he tried to recall the previous night’s events. “In…the cave,” he said. “I…” He scratched his head. “I…”
He felt a thought come into his mind–it hovered at the periphery of his memory, a small thing that cast a great shadow, making his heart race and his head swim. He felt himself pitching backward, but the two men caught him.
“Forget it,” said Durth. “Whatever happened, he’s in no condition to talk about it.”
“So what do we do about the cave?” Flannery asked.
“Well, after that cave-in, there’s not much we can do. We looked for another entrance and called their names. I guess…I guess we’ll just have to go back to camp. Maybe Johnny will remember something later. Go get the medic. We’ll need a stretcher.”
Flannery nodded and left. Johnny watched Durth through slit eyelids.
“I know you’re still awake, son,” Durth said. He squatted and leaned close to Johnny. “I know you’re white, kid. No one will blame you. But can you tell me what happened?”
Johnny looked at him. He tried one last time to remember–but when the thing tickled at the edge of his consciousness, he felt his mind recoil, like a hand reaching for a flame.
He shook his head. “Sorry, Sarge. I…I can’t remember. I just know it was awful.”
“I bet it was,” Durth said. He eyed the lieutenant closely. “You’re made of tougher stuff than I, Sniper. You’re tougher’n anyone else in this whole damned army. I know it and you know it. If whatever was in there scared you this bad, then by God, forget it. We’ll pack up and head out pronto.”
Johnny could only nod. He felt peaceful, now that he could let his memory wall off the events of the night before. As the medic dressed his wounds and prepared him for transport, Johnny Sniper drifted off into a dreamless sleep.