As with so many of my stories, this one didn't come from some upper-level consciousness decision. When I sat down to write it, I didn't have a clue that it'd be about a camping trip from hell, or that it would involve the devil in one of his classic schemes of collecting souls. No, this story just came all of its own, a piece at a time.
It was time to write a short story, plain and simple, so I sat down to do so. Sometimes when I do that, I know the gist of what story I want to tell. Other times, as with HELL'S HOLLOW, the words and stories just seem to come from some mysterious abyss within my own head. With no clear idea—heck, any idea at all—of what the story would be, I sat down, opened up my word processor, and almost immediately had an image of the inside of an old canvas tent being tested by a windy night. I could make up a story of where this image came from, but it would be a lie. I don't know where it came from any more than I know where my dog finds half the shit he shows up with in the back yard. It just came. These things happen...a lot. Poof, the image of that tent is in my head. Double-poof, I see that there are two dudes in said tent, facing each other down.
I began with the ending. Didn't mean to, didn't plan this shit out. When it comes to stories, I'm quite often like a cat with a laser pointer: I'm not entirely sure what that thing is, or where it came from, but dammit, it sure does look like fun, so I chase the shit out of it. Maybe I read too damn much, maybe I have an evil, suppressed personality hiding inside my head that likes to whisper some really screwy shit, but I'm truly not being facetious when I say that quite often these stories seem to set themselves up on their own and, for the most part, guide themselves along. That autopilot is the reason the story began with the end, then jumped back to the beginning. I just wish that autopilot stayed engaged through figuring out what the hell it was all about.
So here is my conscious, sane—stop laughing—part of my brain, stuck with the first part of a story. I knew that it would have to end with a showdown between two friends. I knew that they'd have to be in an old fashioned tent. I knew that even as they faced each other, they wouldn't be entirely sure why they were doing it. So I set to fulfilling all of the requirements for that ending. Step one: send those poor bastards camping.
Since I knew they'd have to be in an old tent at the end, I came up with the idea that this was a group of middle aged old farts trying to recapture their youth, thus using gear from said youth. And because it would be logical to assume that the two men in the tent had been through some shit before facing down, I sent along two more friends with them to act as fodder. And because I like characterization, and that little, hidden part of my brain that whispers things to me suddenly awoke again, I made one of the characters be a confirmed bachelor, but not at all sure if he was still happy with it. I also put in a thoroughly whipped boy, cause I thought it would be fun to kill him...I mean, I put him in for a contrast...yeah, a contrast it what I meant.
So off on the camping trip they went. That part was easy, a logical setup. But all it did was provide the pieces for the puzzle, I still had to figure out the puzzle itself. And here's where the real difficulty of the story showed up. Go camping, check. Set up camp, check. Those parts were obvious, as was even the small detail of the rituals along the way to that campsite. I decided to use the tried and true method of warning the poor saps of what was about to happen. It's been done a billion times before, basically in every slasher flick ever. The old redneck warns them not go down that there road, or not to go in that there house, or not to, ya know, poke Jason in that there head. But to change things up just a bit, I decided not to let my redneck be all that helpful. He simply shows up, says yep, you'll do, and saunters off. Fun times in the sun. Thanks for the warning, jackass.
So what now? What do we do now that the warning has been given? Travis-ism no. 159: When things need to start moving along, plug a guy.
To compound the horror, I deliberately had the poor SOB get whacked when he's pulling the steaks off the grill. They fall to the dirt, good meat wasted, and thus we have easily the most horrific part of the story. A wasted steak, I weep along with you. I'm sorry if I went to far with that one.
But, in all seriousness, killing someone is a very effective way of getting things moving. And if you'll remember, I made there be four friends because we needed some fodder, so I was simply putting Jeff to his proper use.
Much freaking out, running and hiding, trying to figure out what had just happened, all those things are obvious extrapolations of suddenly killing a character in front of other characters. What wasn't obvious was why. And that was the crux of it, really. I kept coming back to why this was happening. So I did what I often have to do while writing in this manner, without having any idea what the story is going to be before writing it, I took a break and walked around for a while.
Nutso serial killer? Been done before, and I wasn't feeling it. Cannibal? Yawn. Overly territorial redneck? Also yawn. But what it really kept coming back to with all of them was the fact that, in the end, I knew I'd have to have two of those friends trying to kill one another. Those scenarios didn't really help go to that end. They had to be forced into it, and that meant that they couldn't just run away from it. So that was the next logical step, forcing them to be stuck in that hollow. That was easily done, it was too steep to climb out, and when they went sauntering down the road—surprise!—the other piece of fodder we brought along goes up in a magical fireball. Escape: terminated.
Okay, so we have them trapped, they can't leave, we know that they'll have to end up killing each other. But why? Why will they have to do it?
I was stuck again, I couldn't figure it out, so I went on another walk. It just turned out that that walk lasted for six months. I really couldn't figure out a good ending for it, where to take it, so I left it for dead just after our family man went up in flames and turned my attention to other works. And then, out of the blue one day, I began to think once more about this story, and tried again to find some answers.
And the answer I finally found was a pretty simple one—whatever spell was over that hollow would only allow someone to leave if they made a sacrifice, if they murdered someone. Enter the notes from the good old redneck, enter them trying to kill good old redneck, enter good old redneck explicitly laying it all out.
And so I finally found all the pieces to get back to the ending from whence we'd begun. The two accept that they have to show down, and Kevin—that doubting bachelor—comes to believe that his life really isn't as worth living as his married friend's, so he selflessly allows himself to be killed.
So why the devil stuff? Why pass it all off on ole Lucifer? Was I trying to preach to you, the reader? I'm sure someone will think that, to which I must guffaw. I'm not saying that I don't share some of the beliefs and values touched on in this story, but I am explicitly stating that I don't share them all, and preaching had fuck all to do with why it shaped out the way it did. The devil was in the story for the sake of the story. I could have used Hades, I could have used Voldemort, I could have used the evil Santa from Futurama. What I actually believe has nothing to do with the choice. What did have to with the choice was the devil's reputation for having an appetite for souls. Who better to want to force someone into committing murder—a universally damning act—than that guy? Also helping matters along was the fact that The Devil Went Down to Georgia was playing at the time.
And so there we have it, the story is all told. Some lingering questions you might have: Was the redneck the devil himself? Yep. What would have happened if they hadn't killed each other? They would have burned up just as the devil said; it was no idle threat, but their souls wouldn't have been damned. Did Paul really damn his soul? You betcha, he actually wanted to kill Kevin. Did Kevin damn his soul for trying to kill Paul? Nope, I didn't want to make it insanely, overly explicit, but it should still be pretty clear that he purposely allowed himself to be killed, thus sacrificing himself for his friend. What happened to Paul after the story ended? I'm not entirely sure, but you'd have to think he'd have a hell of a time explaining why his friends were dead, and one of them by his own hand. Am I up for going camping with some old friends? You betcha, but I'm bringing Chupie along, and he'll eat a devil.