In honor of this week’s Consternation of Monsters Podcast, I thought I’d take a look at the origins of the first story in the Consternation collection, “The Hocco Makes the Echo.”
Before I go on, however, you should probably read the story I’m about to talk about. If you’re already equipped with a Kindle account, you can download a free sample of the book which contains the entire story. If you don’t have a Kindle account, it’s easy as pie to sign up for, as Kindle offers a free app for a number of reading devices. If you have a smart phone or a tablet or simply a computer, you can use Kindle and get great deals on digital books. Check it all out HERE. Or, you can listen to me read it to you as part of the latest podcast HERE.
Okay, so you’ve gone and read or heard the story, and enjoyed the dickens out of it, I’m sure.
Guess what? Probably 95 percent of it is true. Maybe 94. Granted, a lot of difference goes down in that remaining, largely supernatural, 6 percent, but that doesn’t discount that the rest of it has a lot of basis in truth.
“The Hocco Makes the Echo” is a tale I wrote nearly 15 years ago, way back in October of ought ought. I did it as a writing challenge laid down by a group of writer friends, which was for each of us to write a horror story for Halloween. I think we had to have a deadline extension at one point, but we got our horror stories written before the holiday itself. Mine was probably an easier one to write because I didn’t have to make up much of the details at all. It was based on an incident that happened to me which had become one of the standard family stories that get trotted out every-so-often. The story itself had its origins nearly a quarter century before then.
When I was about 4-years-old, my father tried to teach me about the science of echoes in the driveway of my Papaw’s Wayne County Mississippi farm. Dad was all about science, and had indeed earlier taught me how to recognize Orion, both in the sky and on his home-brewed star maps, (which he originally created when I was in utero). So he would clap his hands to hear the echo of the sound from the trees. And he would shout various phrases into the trees as well. (I believe Hamburglar may have actually been one of the words he used.) Little me wasn’t buying into it, though. I can’t exactly recall my thought processes at the time, but the idea of sound bouncing off of trees making the echo just didn’t make logical sense to me. Instead, according to Dad, I proclaimed “The Taco makes the echo.” And stuck to my guns for the first couple of his attempts to prove otherwise. “The taco makes the echo.” Then some part of me realized that the word taco was already taken. We were, after all, living in San Antonio at the time, so I knew from tacos. I switched the name of the echo culprit to hocco after that, (pronounced “hocko”). “The Hocco makes the echo, Daddy.” And here’s the thing: I even knew what the Hocco looked like because I was staring right at it the entire time. The Hocco was, in fact, a the stump of a cypress tree, down in the boggy area between Papaw’s yard and the thick woods of the state forest beyond. The stump itself was probably three feet high and blackened with rot and moisture. Due to the way it was broken, the Hocco stump had two tall ear-like protrusions at its top, making it appear to my young mind like a tall black cat seated on its haunches, its back straight, listening. (My parents owned a couple of tall black cat wooden sculptures at the time, so I had a point of reference for tall skinny cats sitting like that.)
“The Hocco makes the echo, Daddy.”
Dad, for his part, was none too pleased that I wasn’t buying his science. And he did indeed walk closer to the woods (closer to the Hocco) and I, in turn, tried to climb on top of his head to get as far from the ground as I could get. He has since said that at the time he assumed I must have thought the Hocco was something very small, or many very small things, close to the ground, but it was only decades later that I let him in on the stump Hocco reality. (I wish I had a picture of that stump today, but it has long since returned to the earth. The illustration on the cover, however, gives you kind of an idea of how I saw it in my child’s mind.)
Of course the remaining events of the story, the last six percent, were largely fiction, though they were fictional elements within a nonfiction setting. The geography of Papaw and Mamaw’s farm house, for instance, is true to reality; including the bathroom in the center of the house, inconveniently just off the dining room. I also did own a book called Gateway to Mystery, which was a collection of abridged versions of classic stories. We also did tend to sleep in Mamaw’s back bedroom, in the brown-painted metal bed (a bedroom that appears prominently in Puppet Legacy, though that story flips the 94/6 nonfiction/fiction ratio in favor of fiction).
Write what you know–that’s the standard advice. So that’s what I did. Incorporating not only the base story of the father/son science lesson, but also elements from my Papaw’s farm which have always struck me as odd, if not especially horrific. For instance, I already discussed the various cement-block face etchings in the buildings of Papaw’s farm in my blog entry Album Cover. But the other major farm landmark I have not discussed here is the Creepy Tree. This structure existed then and still exists today, albeit in a new location.
The creepy tree, in reality, is exactly as described in the story: just two gnarled branches of wood, grown together, bolted to a post, around which Mamaw grew roses. It’s odd-looking to be sure, but isn’t truly all that creepy in real life (as can be seen in the photo). However, the fact that a nearly identical one existed on the property of Old Man Manning down the road (an actual neighbor, who was a fascinating character worthy of chronicle in his own right) was certainly a notable one. My dad noted it and also has said he could never get a straight answer out of Papaw as to the reason such structures existed on both farms. (Though, if you think about it, it could have been as simple as Mamaw noticing the Mannings’ homemade rose trellis during a visit, wanting one for her own yard, then putting Papaw to the task.) The fantasist in me, though, saw the two creepy trees as possible folkloric totems. And if such totems were present in both places, it must be for a reason. I had just the reason to plug in.
Now, I suppose a reader might ponder why the totem of the Creepy Tree, if assumed to be powerful, doesn’t seem to do much to stop the Hocco once it builds up a head of steam and decides to enter the house? It’s a good question. And there is an answer to it. Perhaps you don’t want to know it, though, so I’ll offer only a hint. It ties into one of the general themes of the stories of A Consternation of Monsters: belief is a powerful thing. There are also some fundamental questions that could be asked about the Hocco itself. I offer further hints below in green text (highlight it, if you dare): Is the Hocco an actual, physical creature, or is it an idea brought to life? Perhaps better still, which is scarier: dark, cat-like creatures in the woods who hunt using echo-location in the truest sense of the word, or entities that exist across the globe who feed on belief and can use its power to take on whatever form may be necessary to achieve the response they need in a victim (including those who may not initially believe)? Sound like any implausible monsters you’ve heard of?
The Creepy Tree, by the way, has another wrinkle in its tale. Not only did similar trees exist on my Papaw’s property and Old Man Mannings, but some time after my Papaw and Mamaw had both passed away, the Creepy Tree moved. Or, rather, it was relocated from its place on Papaw’s farm to my aunt and uncle’s home next door. It is now bolted to a new post in their front yard. Now quite likely my aunt just wanted the object, so associated with her mother and her mother’s roses, to be closer to her home by a hundred yards. But the fantasist in me finds it curious from a potentially folkloric totem standpoint all the same.
The Hocco Makes the Echo was the very first of my Aaron stories (also known as the Southern Parallels, to use their official title). While I didn’t intend it initially, Aaron Hughes (or whatever his surname happens to be from story to story) has become my literary alter ego. He’s now a character through which I can tell both fictionalized versions of events I experienced as well as events which I might have experienced had things gone a bit differently (much as the Hocco doing in Rob Hughes might suggest). In turn, Rob Hughes, being an analog of my dad, doesn’t stay dead for long. He’s turned up or has been referred to in most of the other Aaron stories, including one which was recently published in the Diner Stories: Off the Menu anthology.
Is there a master plan to the Southern Parallel Aaron stories? Sure thing. I’ll probably even wind up adapting some of them into podcast form in the coming months, being as how I only have 10 stories in A Consternation of Monsters itself. Publication plans are afoot as well, though.
Here is a short flash fiction sequel to “The Hocco Makes the Echo.” It’s a small section from a much larger piece.
Professor Riggs pointed at one of the layered blackboards of the lecture hall. On it was a barbell-shaped diagram he had drawn with chalk. There were arrows pointing into the spiraling mouth of the uppermost barbell and more arrows pointing from the mouth of the mouth of the lower one.
“Parallel universes,” he continued, “are also a factor in the Einstein-Rosen bridge.” He stabbed a fat finger in the direction of diagram. “Mathematically, the theory of black holes simply doesn’t work consistently without the existence of a universe beyond the black hole into which the matter and light that are pulled in from our universe must pass. Though science fiction would have you believe otherwise, these other universes are inconsequential to our reality because it’s not possible for us to have any interaction with them. One theory states that these universes exist all around us at different vibrational attunements. However, our most powerful supercollider could only muster up one millionth of the amount of energy necessary to open a gateway between them and allow us to see these realms. In other words, it can’t be done, so stop thinking about it.” There were chuckles from the students. Aaron only smiled.
“And beyond the impossible notion of communicating with or seeing into a parallel world,” Professor Riggs continued, “the idea that these parallel worlds would be mirror images of our own, with duplicate copies of each of us, is preposterous. Consider the genetic factor alone. We each came from an ovum fertilized by a sperm. It may have only taken one to do the fertilizing, but there were 280 million others attempting the same feat any one of which might have won the race had things gone a little differently. Factor in that this math would have been the same for your father, your grandfather and on back through the generations—each coupling a 1 in 280 million shot at producing your next ancestor in the family line. In other words, it took thousands of people and billions of chance fertilizations to make you who you are today. So to consider that there would even be one other parallel world where all the zygotes lined up and everything fell into place exactly as it did here, is truly, astonishingly, retarded.”