“Devil’s Stone/Little Frankie” Folk Horror by Billy Stanton

"Devil's Stone/Little Frankie" Folk Horror by Billy Stanton

Devil’s Stone, the boundary marker on the furthest edge of what constitutes Chasteborough, was crowned by a thin layer of pure white snow. It had been an unseasonably cold March and the snow had come at its peak, around the second week of the month, and hung about determinedly ever since, refreshing itself with brief and furious flurries whenever the previous bounty began to melt. Now, as April dawned, the highest ridges of the hills still rippled down in banks of mottled grey slush and the black woods were outlined with a glistening halo. Still, the evening skies kept also their strange nocturnal shades of orange and purple-blue.

Devil’s Stone had gained its name on account of a scrap of folklore that also appears in many other forms across many other parishes of England. As it goes locally, the stone had supposedly been dropped by the slovenly Satan in the fifteenth century as he trundled a wheelbarrow of menhirs across the hills to launch at the newly constructed spire of Chasteborough’s church. Most of the rocks had missed their target when eventually thrown and ended up in Knapp’s Stream by the water meadows; the Dark Lord evidently had very bad aim. The Devil had been seen a lot around the town in the Middle Ages—indeed, the entirety of England then appeared to be his stomping ground. He had apparently lost interest and moved on since. 

Little Frankie Sharpend had twice slipped out of sight of his parents and miraculously made his way to the stone by himself in the eight years which made up his short life. The first time, he had been found and bought back to town by a couple of elderly hikers; the second, his parents had worked on their suspicions of repetition and found him sheltering from the rain in the woods beside the stone. When he went missing again, this time towards midnight on a Thursday, Devil’s Stone was thus the first place the search party went to look. Stuart Sharpend, his wife Simona and their immediate neighbours fanned out across the trail that led up and across St John’s Nook, the deceptively named eminence which stretched out towards the boundary marker, with watchmen positioned on either end of the line to peer into the darkness of the fields and the trees as they passed by for a tell-tale flash of red. Little Frankie was always dressed in a bright red coat now, just in case he went runaway again. 

All the way up, Stuart Sharpend was a mess. He wore a puffed gilet over a flannel shirt and both items were near-soaked with tears. Not once on the track did he raise his eyes from the ground; instead, he hung his head and let others be his lookout. He whispered continuously that things felt different this time, that this time it didn’t feel like Little Frankie would be found so easy, that this time he was looking to be long and solid gone. This irritated the others at first, and Simona had some sharp words for her husband, but in the end, they simply ignored him and let him gibber on. They were too busy concentrating to pay him too much mind. 

The group reached the stone at about two-thirty am. In the dark, it looked more like a squat gargoyle fled from the church’s gutters than an obelisk.

Simona led them around the hill in a coordinated pattern, calling out for Frankie, but there was no response and no glimpse of red. Before they reconvened they covered every inch of long grass and gorse with their torch beams. Stuart had worsened by their return and was found wailing with his arms wrapped around the stone. He turned on Simona as soon as he looked upon her. His voice was like cyanide.

“Why did you leave the back door open, woman? Why would you? Who leaves their backdoor open in Chasteborough?”

Simona looked at him without pity. 

“We’ve gone at it with our own hands. Now we call the police. Now we let the bunglers have a go to see if they can rescue their good name.”

Stuart told her that he knew by her words and icy tone that she was black-hearted and that she didn’t seem to care much that their son was gone. She replied that she cared a lot, but had been bought up to be practical-minded. Valerie from number twelve bent down and stroked Stuart’s hair and let him sob into her wool cardigan. She was the only one who seemed to be on his side. The rest had apparently developed skin like a rhino’s hide from living in the town so long and watching the endless parade of nightmares and the incomprehensible roll-on by year after year. They seemed inured from too much pain even when their own lives were penetrated by the horror. That was indeed how it was all over; the town lived by apathy and half-interested gossip until it leapt into a fervour when the culprit of any major crime was finally caught. That was when the townspeople let something show; then they had a target for their buried frustration and despair at the way things were; then they had their scarecrow to set alight. At least a couple of members of the search party secretly hoped that someone had taken Little Frankie so that they had someone to hate again. Stuart and Valerie weren’t Chasteborough-born; they were from elsewhere and they weren’t the same. 

There was no phone reception on the Nook, so Simona told the rest of the group to take Stuart back home and call the police as soon as one of them could pick up a decent signal. She would stay on the hill overnight and wait to see if her boy appeared. Valerie tried to talk her out of this, but Simona swung her canvas bag from her shoulder and showed the other woman that she had filled it with a sleeping bag and plenty of blankets. Valerie still nominated her husband to stay with Simona in case whoever might have taken Little Frankie was hiding out in the hills. The child-snatcher would probably want to kill any witnesses or people looking for him, she figured. Simona didn’t fight her on this point. She’d been having sex on-and-off with Valerie’s husband for almost a year. She’d be glad of this particular company.

Two hours later, Simona and Richie Clare slept together in the woods looking out on Devil’s Stone. Their love-making was almost mechanical, not like usual, most likely because of the frigidity of the night and because Simona kept an eye out the whole time for that bright coat amongst the trees. This turned out to be, however, the night that her second son, Albie, was conceived, although Simona herself would never be certain on that point, for she had also acquiesced to Stuart’s desperate and dismal advances two evenings previously.

Valerie gave Stuart two of her prescribed sleeping pills when she finally managed to get him into his bed. She slept in the guest room, not Little Frankie’s room, but was continually up and down as the night stretched towards dawn as she thought she could hear Stuart moving around every so often, rooting around in his room for something, but every time she went to check on him, he was in a dead sleep and drooling heavily on the pillow.

Eventually, she broke one of her own sleeping pills in two and took a half to try and encourage herself towards a temporary oblivion. 

She’d been prescribed the pills because she’d always found it difficult to sleep in Chasteborough. The town was not particularly large and the pubs did not stay open late for the most part, but there seemed to be roving gangs of giggling and bellicose men who prowled the streets throughout the nighttime hours regardless. Whispers went around that half the local population of post-adolescent young men and middle-aged homeowners were caught up on the cards via a long-running underground high-stakes poker circle which moved regularly between various back alleys, the living rooms of empty rental properties and the backs of shops. The pills usually served to knock Valerie out to the extent that the noise invigorated her dream state and turned the rovers in to jolly laughing fae-folk.

The police didn’t call on Stuart until around nine in the morning, when beams of weak grey workaday light were well established throughout the house. It transpired that the rest of the search party had told the attending officers not to bother with Stuart until he’d slept his way into a state more equitable to conversation.

Valerie opened the door to Sergeant Teller and his men and led the way into Stuart’s room, where she shook the sleeping man awake. He was weak and groggy and not at all friendly in his tone. He’d heard bad things about Teller. Who hadn’t?

“We’ve been communicating with your wife,” the sergeant told him. He was a very large man with heavily-tattooed arms and fingers as thick as railway sleepers. “We’ve got a team out with dogs already. They’re going all over the hills. Besides that, there’s officers on door-to-doors.”

“Has anyone seen anything?” Stuart asked, pulling the duvet up to cover the slight trembling of his body.

“No. We’re hoping it’s the door-to-doors that are most useful though. A small lad like him wouldn’t have taken well to the cold up there last night.”

“Why say that?”

“Reasons of realism and practicality, Stuart. Be optimistic but clear-eyed. Hopeful but never foolish.”

Stuart looked at him. “My wife always bangs on about practicality and realism too.”

“It’s the Chasteborough mentality. We’re proud of it. Yorkshiremen think they’re the paragons of common sense, but they’re wrong. They’re just dull and small and misty-minded about their dales behind it all.”

“It seems to me that Chasteborough’s really got more madness in its mind than most places.”

The sergeant shrugged and told Stuart he’d check in with him again shortly.

Stuart stayed in bed the rest of the day. In contrast to his pessimism the night before, and with Teller’s blasé judgement ringing in his ears, he was more inclined to believe that his son was alive and likely to reappear soon. He couldn’t tell if he was simply being wilfully contrary or not, but the thought comforted him anyway.

Teller returned three times throughout the afternoon and evening, but the news was never positive. The door-to-doors had been useless and the police trackers, eventually joined again by Stuart’s neighbours, had picked up no trace or scent. 

Simona remained absent. Valerie stayed and at midnight gave Stuart another one of her sleeping pills. He slept hard again and dreamt about the boundary stone.

In his dream, the Devil, a slender humanoid figure with long flat feet like spades that ended in a single point and a curled black tail akin to a pig’s, sat on the stone and rested his chin in his palm as he watched scarlet clouds float on by over his head. His was a repose of total relaxation and he wore all the time a tiny little smile. The Devil’s expression reminded Stuart of a ranch owner surveying his land, his strong head of cattle and his men-at-work, with the sort of serene pride that only arises at the very end of a man’s life, when there is nothing more that he can do to improve his generous lot. The image of this dream stayed fixed in Stuart’s mind; the only movement came from the long grass in the breeze and the languorous drift of the clouds. The vision hung about until morning.

Valerie again took half a pill an hour after Stuart and dreamt of fleeing the town with him in the back of a freight train, like a couple of dustbowl hobos. She awoke when the train derailed and sent them both rolling down a hill back towards the Sharpend home. 

When Valerie drew back the living room curtains the following morning, she was greeted by the sight of five or six television news crews setting up camp in the street and intrepid journalists traipsing towards the window through the neat flowerbeds. Although there appeared to be little reason for it in particular, somehow the national media had come together overnight and decided that this was the missing child story that they were going to focus on this year.
Valerie tried to keep Stuart from these perfidious clutches, but he was intrigued by the circus upon waking and decided to speak to the gathered masses. Unfortunately, nearly everything he had to say only served to exacerbate the morbid curiosity and faux-hysteria that the press and rolling television news services were trying to drum up in their consumer base.

In his first conversation with the national channels, Stuart told reporter Jemima Copper, the face of ITV Factual, that Little Frankie had been drawn to the hills as if by a magnetic force for his whole life. Stuart outlined the two previous disappearances, where the boy had been found at Devil’s Stone, and explained that on many other occasions, the child had attempted to toddle out of their front door in the direction of the eminences which showed at the end of their row of terraces, only to be stopped by himself or Simona. He also told Jemima that Frankie frequently peppered his parents with questions about the hills, seeming entirely puzzled as to the reason for their existence.

The reporters, as is their fashion, ran with all this and scoured the archives for every bit of salacious or gory detail that they could find about Chasteborough. The town had long been a source of far from prurient interest for many, Valerie knew, due to the frequency and oddity of the many crimes committed there. It was always seen as a dangerous place, and a deeply insular one, but the half-whispers and careless slurs now became an all-consuming fire of judgement that cast Chasteborough as the new Sodom and Gomorrah, the entry point to Hell and a toll station on the road to the bleak future that awaited so many of the rest of the country’s doomed settlements.  The hills became ‘the moors’, with all the associated baggage of horrors that came with that nomenclature, and theories abounded about Little Frankie being led from his home by the ghosts of other murdered children or a serial killer being at work again after escaping justice due to innocents being fitted up for his murders. The religious and overly credulous decided that the name of Devil’s Stone conclusively demonstrated that the spot was a site of Satanic rituals which had ensnared the child.

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By day four of the non-stop coverage, an ice cream truck had come and parked at the base of the Nook, blaring a tinny Greensleeves and serving its ware to day-trippers. Locals too began to make a packet renting out their spare rooms to reporters and ‘investigators’. The restaurants boomed; the cafes boomed; the shops boomed; the B&Bs boomed; the souvenir photography hawks, caricature artists who set up on the high street and wannabe-hardmen offering protection services boomed. For two weeks, Chasteborough became the center of the universe: where the tabloids ran with any and all tattle-tale, the broadsheets ruminated on what the town and the case said about England and all of us. 

For these two weeks, Stuart did not see Simona hardly at all. She stayed camping out with Richie Clare. The only exception came a couple of days after the disappearance, when she had dropped by the house to collect the family’s tent, some changes of clothes and the rest of the camping gear. She barely spoke to Stuart, but told Valerie that she still half-expected Little Frankie to turn up at the stone, which was why she was staying there, but that she also expected her hopes of this to begin to dwindle as the days went by.

Richie also did not attempt to contact his spouse. From this gesture, all became clear for Valerie. She attempted to seduce Stuart a couple of times as a result of this revelation, slipping into the thinnest of her nightdresses and forgoing her dressing gown as she put him to bed, and even once going so far as to climb in beside him, but Stuart only kept his eyes fixed upon the hill at the end of the terrace which showed from his bedroom window. 

Indeed, this staring became the main occupation of his time. Between morning, afternoon and evening, Stuart would move from the bedroom to the garden, where he could see the smaller rising of the Turnover, to the front room’s view of the Nook and then back again. The reporters stopped coming because they couldn’t make him talk any more. The audience at home began to suspect that the man was having some sort of breakdown due to guilt. He became the primary suspect in Little Frankie’s disappearance and many began to think themselves foolish for not suspecting the obviously dodgy father from the very beginning, what with his torrents of rubbish about magnets and the supernatural draw of the hills.

The last time Stuart spoke to his favourite journalist, Jemima, all he told her was that he was “going down the road feeling bad, Lord, Lord.” She had no idea what he meant by this for certain, but eventually decided that the man was crying out to God for clemency.

Sergeant Teller came and picked Stuart up when the public pressure on him became too strong, but Stuart wouldn’t talk no matter how hard the veteran officer went. Teller started easy, talking to Sharpend as if they were old friends, but he ended up accusing him of every perversion he’d ever encountered in the course of his duty. When Stuart still didn’t respond to this provocation, Teller hit him once and then again and again in the places where the bruises wouldn’t show. He completed his performance by dropping down and hissing in his victim’s ear that he knew he was the very Devil himself and that he was going to goddamn chase him and his black hellhounds all the way back down into where they’d crawled up from. 

Teller then sent Stuart home to recover from his injuries as he knew the man wouldn’t go telling stories about his treatment. Teller, too, considered him gone because of guilt. He figured that Sharpend’s senses wouldn’t recover until he’d been found out, and maybe even sentenced, if ever. As a cover, the sergeant told Valerie Clare, the murderer’s carer or whatever the hell she was now, that the marks had occurred when a member of the public had got to Stuart at the station when his back was turned and he apologised profusely. He didn’t care if she believed him. It would be best if she was scared of him too.

Simona came back to the house for the second time when she realised she had not had her period. She appeared at the door with a bag from the pharmacy, disappeared into the bathroom for a short while, and then came out to enquire about Stuart’s wellbeing. Valerie didn’t lie and told her that all he did was stare at the hills and repeat the same phrase, that one about going down the road.

Simona told her that the phrase was from a song, or maybe many songs, that she’d heard it cropping up a lot. Stuart had probably heard it when he watched John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath on television the year before. Some old hillbilly sang it in that, she remembered.

“I ain’t gonna be treated this old way,” Simona said. “That’s the next line, the end of the verse. I ain’t gonna be treated this old way.”

“Me neither,” replied Valerie. 

Simona quickly tried to work out how much she knew. She decided probably all of it, and that it was best to be practical about the whole affair. The other woman might appreciate some home truths by way of explanation.

“Richie told me that he doesn’t think he should be with someone so lacking in glamour”, she said. “Because of his position, the other men judge every aspect of his life. Now, there’s not much glamour to go around in Chasteborough, as you know. But he said I had a ‘school gates’ version of it and that’s apparently better than nothing. You should have tarted yourself up more. That’s all it would have taken to keep him. You’re not bad looking, you know, and you have a nice enough figure.” Simona stopped and tried to puzzle something else out. “You can sleep with Stuart, if you want.”

“I tried,” Valerie replied.

Simona laughed and looked at the nightdress draped drying over the radiator. “Next time you try, ditch that entirely. Just go in with it all out and act the woman of the world. As it stands, that’s probably your best shot.”

Valerie slapped her as hard as she could. Simona didn’t like that and decided to make sure that the other woman didn’t try something so stupid again. She punched Valerie in her nose and smirked as the woman doubled back, a thin dribble of blood flowing over her lips.

“Don’t be so damned churlish”, Simona lectured her. “Life doesn’t even have to change that much. We could swap husbands for all it matters and have a better time of it that way. But don’t hit me, Valerie. I’m Chasteborough and you’re not. Remember that.”

“Life’s already changed, Simmy,” Valerie spluttered, for some reason lapsing back into the use of an old expression of affection. “Little Frankie’s gone. Did you forget? That should concern you more than Richie. You should be here with Stuart, not me.”

“I’m concerned, Val. I’m real concerned. I’m out looking. You two are hiding.”

“You’re camping. With my husband.”

“Let’s not get onto that again. There’s still a part of me thinks Frankie boy will turn up at that stone, despite what I said last time I was here. It just seems a matter of time. I gotta stick it out, even if I end up laying roots in that rotten place.” 

She kissed her old neighbour on the forehead and left. Valerie retired to the armchair and wept. 

The media began to lose interest as the fourth week since the disappearance progressed. By week five, they’d had enough. Developments were too few and the opinion piece writers had exhausted every avenue of attack and counter-attack on the story, the town, the people involved, the grisly new tourism trade, and the behaviour of the members of their own industry. Chasteborough’s spare rooms began to steadily empty and the media circus packed up and left behind patches of dead yellow grass in the parks where they’d hitched their wagons and staged their sideshows.

Simona Sharpend and Richie Clare stayed on the Nook and didn’t look likely to return anytime soon. Bob Willeford reported back to Valerie that he had seen her husband stocking up in town and that he looked like a different man. He had grown a long ginger beard and taken to wearing what appeared to be a frayed cowboy hat in order to shield his eyes from the spring sun. In addition, he must have shed about seven or eight pounds and looked as lean as a good steak. No longer was he the picture of modern English professional success, in his three-quarter length zip fleece, but now more like some grizzled mystical moonshiner.

Valerie, perhaps deciding to take up Simon’s advice after hearing this, and wondering where that question of glamour and appearance had got to, decided to swap and marry Stuart. She knew it wouldn’t be an official wedding, what with them both still being married to other people, but it would be enough for her, and screw the thought of that church she still occasionally visited on a Sunday morning.

Stuart, more responsive than he had been but still curiously vacant and prone to only talking occasionally about very minor and immediate things, agreed to it and they performed a small ceremony themselves under the oak tree in the back garden at night, so that no one else could see them. They read vows to each other and promised not to forget the past, but to use it to forge a brighter conjoined future. They both understood that they were a more suited pairing than they had been with their previous spouses, if only because they were, as Simona had said, not Chasteborough, and thus, much better than those that were.

The finger of suspicion started to lift from Stuart and point more toward Simona, for those still interested in the case. Her decision to abscond from society and ‘hide out’ in the hills, where she could possibly engineer her own vanishing if a manhunt for her began, was now seen as the real actions of a guilty party. It beggared belief that one would camp out there for so long otherwise. Besides, Richie Clare was up there with her and wasn’t a new relationship reason enough to try and shed the burdens of a previous life, even if that shedding meant resorting to the horror of infanticide? It certainly wasn’t unheard of.

Stuart, meanwhile, responding as well as he could to the new limitations on his consciousness, decided to make the best of it with Valerie now that they were somewhat freer. Thus began a golden period in the lives of this unfortunate pair, perhaps the only time in their lives when they were ever truly happy.

They began by shutting out all the light in the old Sharpend house. Curtains were drawn and newspaper pages were taped across the windows that didn’t have shades. The idea was to block out Chasteborough, this evil place that still held and imprisoned them, and to create their own world within the walls of their home. They redecorated, repainting everything, each room being dressed out in a new bold colour: the kitchen became as green as the stream by the water meadows; the master bedroom a princely purple; the living room they made the colour of the imagined Mediterranean in summer; the bathroom became as red as the same region’s volcanic clay and the spare room’s yellow shade was inspired by Valerie’s favourite gladioli. The only room they left alone was Little Frankie’s, which was locked and left for the boy’s return.

Every morning, either Valerie or Stuart woke early and cooked the other breakfast. They ate pasta in thick green pesto, then followed that at lunchtime with sausage sandwiches or an omelette and finished the day with stews or casseroles full of local garlic and mushroom.

Valerie decided it would be fun if they gave themselves up to the feral nature of original humanity and they began to forego clothes, not showing any shyness about their aging bodies. They washed rarely, because they realised that they so enjoyed each other’s natural scent, and made pallets on the floor of whatever room they favoured that day. Soon, they began to follow no schedule at all: they slept when they wanted and morning simply became when they woke and night when they started to feel tired. Stuart read Valerie stories, old adventure stories by Verne and Stevenson, or the English fantasias of Grahame or Carroll, those writers who’d similarly created their own worlds outside and inside of their own. Then, when they ran out of material in the house, Stuart wrote his wife new stories, trying his hand at imitating their favourites. Valerie soon followed suit, composing her own songs or adapting others, with rhythms that she drummed out on the upturned living room ottoman, and words that were inspired by Stuart’s readings. ‘The Ballad of Lonesome Nemo’ became a favourite, as did ‘Toady-Went-A-Courtin’’ and ‘The Lament of Sailor Sole’, the latter inspired by the lead character of Stuart’s seafaring fantasies.

The world became, for the first time for both, a wondrous whirl, a shapeless and fluid intermingling of dreaming and reality, a treasure chest whose contents they had made by hand and which they plucked individually each morning with fresh joy from an ever-expanding pile.
One day, perhaps because bliss is made not to last except in the great hereafter, or because when one flees from something one sometimes inadvertently manages to gather the strength to face it, Stuart seemed to wake from his daze and decided to go looking for Little Frankie.

Valerie was both saddened and made glad by this change. She regretted the passing of paradise, as is only natural, but knew that her husband was doing what he should in looking for his son, and that, if found, the boy would be a welcome addition to the wonder of their home. He would forget his obsession with the hills, she thought, when he entered the beautiful world that they had created. 

Stuart left the following day, carrying a pack of provisions and a blade. Valerie had questioned the weapon, but not too much as the heroes of their favourite stories often took with them something for protection, and besides, her second husband had insisted. He didn’t know what was up there waiting for him. The knife he took was a switchblade, a souvenir he had smuggled back from a family holiday in Spain; a calf was carved into the wooden handle and the metal had a maker’s mark in the shape of the sun.

Valerie watched Stuart’s outline climbing the Turnover from the back garden until his own red coat disappeared amongst the thickest woodlands. She went back in the house and tried to read The Mysterious Island, but she gave up after she only managed four pages in an hour, and sat for the rest of the day staring into space and trying to picture what could be happening to her man.

The truth of it was that, for Stuart, the day was a tough if mundane one. As he trudged across the open hilltops and through the patches of woodland; followed the footpaths across the property of various landowners and skirted the edges of bubbling ponds, the only thing that struck him as unusual was that the whole lot seemed quieter than usual. There were no tourists or hikers- not that there ever were many when there wasn’t a tragedy to entice them- but also no animal life. It was as if the hills had been un-wilded. He didn’t even catch a glimpse of Simona and Richie’s tent, the one that she had taken from the old family home, as he made it over the Nook.

He was not disheartened to not find Little Frankie on his first day of searching. He had rather been expecting this to be the case. Tomorrow, he would cross back the way he came and fully scour the area around the Devil’s Stone. Then, if needed, he would push on beyond the hills as they pertained to Chasteborough; push on out of the county entirely if so needed. He bedded down on The Gleaming, the eminence so named due to the sun, when setting or rising at certain times of the year, bathing the hollows in pools and rays of the most glorious orange-gold light. Tonight, however, all was entirely black.

When Stuart awoke, with the deep brown woods still silent, he breakfasted on some coffee and biscuits and set off back towards the Nook. He took a different route than he had on the way out, trusting in the old map he had found in the hallway cupboard, but again saw and heard nothing of his son or anyone else.

It was as he came back towards the Stone that it began to happen. First, there was the mass of vultures that met Stuart as he  came through the small valley towards the rise of the Nook. The birds looked cruelly at him as he approached and stood in a formation that guarded the sight of whatever they had gathered to prey upon from him. Stuart was perturbed, even frightened, by the sheer number of these scavengers, but the eventual shock of their morning meal was worse.

As Stuart finally made it close to them, they parted somewhat to reveal the mass in their middle. Within the circle were two deer, almost entirely stripped of their hide and divested of their organs, as if a trained hunter had been working on them for several hours, and cleanly decapitated. The heads, wearing haunting expressions of frightful surprise, were about six feet from the bodies and a number of the birds were pecking around the eye sockets and line of severance to get at lumps of raw flesh. Beside the heads was a pyramid of large rocks which Stuart did not remember seeing before.

A whole mess of vultures, somehow in England. Stuart fled up the Nook, scrambling and slipping on the slick dewy grass. As he stepped onto the hilltop, the world seemed to waver and tilt, as it does for a vertigo sufferer at the top of a tall tower. Stuart struggled to keep his footing; his progress was slow and strenuous, with his brain seeming to pound against the inside of his skull.

The Devil was on his stone, just like in Stuart’s dream. He carried the same look of dreamy satisfaction; the same long feet like spades; the same pig’s tail. Scarlet clouds rolled by overhead; the hill smelt like a rotting graveyard. 

The Devil grinned, jumped from his seat, slid towards another large boulder a few feet from the boundary stone, lifted it over his head, and threw it with tremendous force. It went spiralling up and up and away. A few seconds after it disappeared entirely, there came an enormous crashing sound from the direction of Chasteborough.

“If I had my way,” said the Devil to Stuart, “I would tear this building down.” He laughed. “I’ll settle for the spire on the house of the philistines.”

He turned to go and then leaned in close to Stuart’s ear. His breath smelt like sulphur- what else?

“That stone was Frankie.”

He laughed again and went. Stuart, lost to the world, lost to sense, collapsed by the boundary stone. 

Richie Clare found him first. He called Simona over and they both stared down at his prone body for a long time.

Eventually, Richie spoke.

“It’s time, no?”

“Not by ourselves,” Simona said to him. “Let him go back and you tell the others he was here. People will have seen him coming up. Exaggerate, lie, tell tall tales. Say you saw things you didn’t.”

Richie, understanding, nodded and they both walked back to their tent in the clearing across the way. 

It was never clear to Valerie exactly how Stuart Sharpend made it back to his home the following day. He arrived in a near-catatonic state and finally collapsed in her arms on the doorstep. She put him to bed, as she had weeks before when Little Frankie first went missing, and this time he didn’t awaken the following morning. Valerie knew this meant the news was bad but did not know how. She pondered and again went into her reveries, but her imaginings of what had befallen her husband could not touch the nature of the terrors he had truly seen and the half-answers he had received.

As if in memoriam of their past bliss, she again abandoned her clothes while she waited patiently for Stuart to come to and tell of his experiences, and spent her days reading the adventure stories and dreaming to herself on the living room carpet. She was neither happy nor unhappy, but this state of being was the natural one to her now.

The mob came five days after Stuart returned to the house, or six days after the spire on St Botolph’s Church had collapsed and sent reverberations like an earthquake through the town. Perhaps it was this fright that had so raised the spirits of the townspeople, but it was more likely that this was simply the moment where Chastebrough finally decided, as it so often had in similar circumstances in the past, to release the pressure valve and seek out the channel through which it could expunge all that was festering within itself.

Richie Clare had, indeed, helped the process along by spreading the word across town that he and Simona had seen Stuart on St John’s Nook digging a hole and then dragging a heavy black rubbish bag towards it. The story, considering the original circumstances of the disappearance and search, made little sense, but enough people had seen Sharpend setting out in the direction of the hills, and enough frustration and anticipation had built amongst a large section of the population, that Richie’s yarn was accepted as gospel, and the suspicion turned again for the final time away from the couple camping on the hill and back to the father.

When the mob arrived at the Sharpend house, they were already carrying a noose, which was held by Bob Willeford and two other neighbours at the front of the group as if it was the ceremonial headpiece of a parade, and dozens of pots, pans, guitars, drums and kitchen utensils.

They smashed the windows of the house and climbed inside. Finding Valerie naked, they clothed her in Stuart’s suit, which hung over her much too large, and forced her screaming and sobbing out into the street.

When she was outside, the orchestra sparked to life. The rough music was really not music of any sort; instead, it was a random cacophony of beaten steel and iron, ricocheting madly up and down the street, joined with random hoots and shouts, cries and chants, all of them vicious and designed to puncture the woman as harshly as a bayonet. She was pushed between members of the crowd, between people she half-recognised as their faces became contorted masks of hatred and those she didn’t know at all; she was kicked and spat on, her hair pulled and a cigarette put out against her back.

After a few minutes of this treatment, when she was finally faced with the straw effigy of herself that wore a wig of singed brown hair and a dress that Richie had taken from her wardrobe, with a clown-like smear of red lipstick daubed across her ‘face’, Valerie fainted. The crowd decided that they had had enough of her and went for Stuart.

He still did not wake, even though they burst into his bedroom and threw his body down the stairs, where it bounced against the wooden floor as it was half-caught by the people below.

“Child-killer!” they yelled, as they carried him out into the street. “Adulterer! Child-killer! Adulterer! Scum, scum, scum!”

People threw stones at the body; they sometimes hit members of the group who were carrying Stuart, and these members peeled off from the mass to strike back at the careless hands who had launched the projectiles. 

The rough music again crashed through the street as Stuart was placed in the back of Bob Willeford’s car. Richie Clare climbed into the front seat. Simona was already waiting for him. They smiled at each other and then at the victim in the backseat, who was still asleep but bleeding from gashes and cuts across the head, chest and arms. There appeared to be nothing left in Stuart’s body; he seemed as empty as a corpse, but the slow rhythmic rising of his chest revealed that he still had some degree of life in him. Simona burst out laughing as they set out towards the Nook. The car was rocked and buffeted by the crowd, who jeered and bellowed at the killer within. Richie tried to drive on slowly, but it eventually became too much. The car shook one more time, about two miles from the Sharpend house, and then died, its engine giving out with a pitiful whine. They were not far from the woods which backed onto the railway tracks.

Hands grabbed at the door handles, trying to wrench their way into the vehicle. Richie looked at Simona and shrugged.

“Give them what they want.” 

She reached into the back, unlocked the door, and let the mob have at him. Stuart was dragged from the vehicle, his head rebounding with a sickeningly thick thud against the base of the car and then the tarmac, and lifted high. The people became like a twisting serpent, a long line in double file, which followed the body as it was carried into the woods. Silence descended upon many of the people, except for the drummers, including Sergeant Teller, who beat away at their instruments. A couple of singers at the back of the procession sang in hushed verses a song of their own composition, pertaining to be the last words and testament of the shameless murderer Stuart Sharpend, who bragged to the gallows of his conquest of his neighbour’s wife and the killing which had opened the way to the worst of their debaucheries. 

When they’d stomped through the mud to the grove in the woods, the crowd stopped and waited for Richie and Simona, who arrived far in the rear of the rest. As they arrived, the noose was slipped around Stuart’s neck. The crowd bristled with excitement but tried to keep its composure. 

“He was my man and he did me wrong,” said Simona, as she looked at the curled and pathetic body in front of her.

There was no more hesitation. Two men- the local tree surgeons- carried Stuart up, tied the rope around a heavy branch and pushed him to his death. The crowd below thought that he would die without comment or acknowledgment on his part, but just as the death rattle sounded, the man’s eyes burst open and he looked at them all as if they were dust.

“I’m going down the road feeling good, Lord, Lord”, he said. “I’m in the heavenly band and you’re doomed to Chasteborough, where Satan’s won and the spire has finally fallen. If I had my way, I’d tear the whole town down…”

Then his eyes closed, his face went white and he died, a rictus grin spreading across his face. The mob turned jubilant, laughing at the temerity of the child-murderer to speak of Heaven and lecture them as the forsaken, and began again the rough music, twirling and dancing until the full moon rose above their bacchanalia and they returned to the warmth of their front rooms. Simona and Richie, for the first time in weeks, slept in the bed in the Clare house as Valerie, still unconscious, lay sprawled across the pavement outside.

The following day, after being teased with stories of what had happened the previous night, Valerie went to the grove, carrying her own noose and coughing and spluttering. She found Stuart’s body and spent a few minutes crying at the sight of his battered, lifeless face. She thought of what she had lost; that she had tasted paradise and then been forced to relinquish it. She too cursed Chasteborough, just as Stuart had done, and spat on the awful place. She climbed the tree and then joined Stuart as his false-bride, who was truer than any other. He was her man and he had done her right. 

Little Frankie Sharpend was found three weeks later, just after he turned nine years old, sitting in a pew in the collapsing St Botolph’s Church and singing Samson and Delilah. He never spoke of where he had been, or asked after Stuart, seeming to accept Richie Clare as his one and only father. He did, however, become an increasingly sullen and withdrawn young man as he grew, and fled Chasteborough as soon as he was old enough, eventually becoming a minister in some obscure sect of Christianity devoted to a back-to-the-earth philosophy that did not exclude apocalyptic yearning as a precursor to the arrival of the promised land.

The people of Chasteborough used their proceeds from the whole sorry saga to take holidays on far-flung shores or to build extensions to their homes. They felt nothing, even when Little Frankie re-appeared. The Devil never again made a visit to the stone which bore his name. 

Billy Stanton is a London-based working-class writer and film-maker, originally from Portsmouth. His short fiction has appeared in Wyldblood, The Chamber, Horla, Rural Fiction Magazine, Tigershark and the ‘New Towns’ anthology. He co-runs the ‘Noli Me Tangere Short Film Festival’. His blog is: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com

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2 thoughts on ““Devil’s Stone/Little Frankie” Folk Horror by Billy Stanton

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