If you’re going up into the back country, I have just one word of advice for you. Watch out for the Conjure Man.
Now, don’t you look at me like that. I’m not fooling. The Conjure Man isn’t just some old haint story. He’s for real. They say he lives up in those piney woods somewhere. They say he talks to voodoo gods. They say for a price, the Conjure Man can make you sick, or he can make you well. He can lift a hex, or he can place one. And if the inclination takes him, some even say that the Conjure Man can raise the dead. I’m telling you the God’s Honest truth. Don’t you doubt me on that.
Alright, I’ll tell you the story. But you keep this to yourself, understand? This is a story I never told your momma, not in all the years we’ve been married. I’ve never told it to anyone, and when I get to the end you’ll understand why.
Right after the war, I became a drifter of sorts. I stepped off the troop ship in New York with a clean uniform, a fresh shave, and a train ticket in my hand. My obligation to Uncle Sam was over. Hot food and a warm bed were only a rail-ride away. I should have been happy. Thing of it is, I wasn’t.
I don’t know really how to explain it. I just didn’t feel right. Maybe I was heart-sick. That’s what they used to call it in my grandpa’s time. All that death and suffering in the war, all that mud and blood and pain, it just made me feel hollow inside. I didn’t feel like me anymore.
I had a drink while I thought it over. One drink turned into many. The more I thought on it, the more I realized I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t stand the thought of my momma and my dad seeing me like this, all hollowed-out feeling. It’d be worse than if I’d died in the trenches.
The next morning, I exchanged my ticket south for a ticket west. For the next two years I wandered from city to city. I worked odd jobs, got into scraps, and spent more time in jail cells than I care to remember. A good portion of the time, I was drunk. Believe me when I say that I’m not proud of the fact.
One sober day, I started to think about going home. I still didn’t feel quite right, and I still couldn’t forget some of the things I saw in the trenches. But I figured I owed it to my family.
A few days later, I stepped off of a train in Texarkana. I began to hitch-hike home. Not many people had cars back then, but those that did would usually give you a ride if you needed one.
Anyway, the closer I got to home, the more I started to have second thoughts. I still had that hollow feeling inside, and I was picturing the hurt it would cause my momma to see me like that. My cold feet eventually got the better of me. I left the road, and started walking off into the piney woods.
I walked around those woods a good, long while. I figured it would help me clear my head. I’m not sure how long I was out there. All I know is that by nightfall, I was lost.
I sat down against a tree trunk. Stumbling around in the dark would only make things worse. I decided to wait for sunlight before trying to find my way again. It wasn’t long before I was asleep.
Now I grew up around here. I heard all the same stories you did, from all the same old-timers. I knew all about the haints, hags, and boo-daddies that supposedly haunted those woods. I just didn’t believe in them. I’d been around plenty of dead people by then. I knew sure and well that the dead couldn’t hurt you. It was the living you had to worry about.
So when a strange sound woke me, a living man is what I was ready to face. Before my eyes even opened, my hand was already on my bowie knife. It was a trained reflex, one that had saved me from German sappers and common hoodlums alike.
The moon was brighter than when I fell asleep. I was surprised at how well I could see. I looked around. Behind one of the bushes, I spotted a large silhouette. It was a man, I was sure about that much. But something about him didn’t seem right. The man was trying to walk straight through the bush in front of him. Thing is, there was a clear path off to the side. If I could see it, I knew he must have seen it.
I drew my knife out of its sheath. Maybe the man was drunk. But if so, what was he doing way out there? I slowly climbed to my feet. I held the knife behind my back, out his line of sight. I didn’t want to stick him. But I also didn’t want him to see it coming if I had to.
I called out to him. I waited for an answer, but he didn’t say anything. He just kept trying to walk through that bush. I started to think that maybe he was simple. I was getting ready to call out to him again, but all at once he broke through the bush. He stumbled towards me, and I finally got a good look at him. And I screamed.
The man’s head was nearly split in two, like he’d been hit with a hatchet. I told you before, I’ve seen plenty of dead people. I knew right away that this man was dead.
I shoved my knife into his chest, right below the breastbone. When you stab a man, you can feel the blood spilling out of the wound. It covers your hands. I’ll tell you this now, boy. I’ll tell you the God’s Honest truth. The man didn’t bleed.
I let go of the knife, and I ran. I ran as fast and as far as I could before collapsing from exhaustion. As soon as I had the strength, I got up and ran some more. Some hours after daylight, I found the road. I started along it towards home. I still had a some ways to go, but being on the road again helped drive away the panic. I knew what I saw in those woods. I knew it wasn’t just nerves. I’d seen a walking dead man.
© D. James Davis
D. James Davis is a longtime fan of Robert E. Howard’s work. That Hollow Feeling is a tribute to Howard’s “piney woods” stories, of which Davis is especially fond. One of Davis’ short stories will be appearing in Groanology: Amusing Monster Mash-Ups Unleashed from Library of Horror Press. Until then, you can read more of his work at www.djamesdavis.com.
If you enjoyed this story, read Robert E. Howard!