Read The Painted Darkness Online

Authors: Brian James Freeman,Brian Keene

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror

The Painted Darkness

Advance Praise for

“Brian Freeman’s evocative tale about the dark corners of an artist’s imagination is elegant and haunting. This beautifully designed book with splendid illustrations by Jill Bauman is a pleasure to read and a joy to hold.”

—David Morrell, New York Times bestselling author of The Shimmer
“Spooky stuff!”

—Richard Matheson, New York Times bestselling author of What Dreams May Come and I Am Legend

“The tone and building dread reminded me of classic Stephen King. Great velocity and impact, and super creepy. Don’t go in the basement!”

—Stewart O’Nan, New York Times bestselling author of The Night Country and A Prayer for the Dying “The Painted Darkness is a dark, terrifying, and deeply moving gem of a novella. Brian Freeman managed to both scare me and move me to tears.”

—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Keepsake

“Wonderfully reminiscent of the quiet horror of Charles L. Grant, The Painted Darkness takes readers on a gently chilly walk through the forest of fears both conscious and subconscious. With Straubian lyricism, Brian Freeman evokes not only the irrational terrors of childhood, but addresses the roots of creativity and the vital importance of art. A very impressive achievement.”

—Bentley Little, award-winning author of The House and His Father’s Son

Copyright © 2010 by Brian James Freeman A Conversation with Brian James Freeman Copyright © 2010 by Norman Prentiss Roundtable Discussion
Copyright © 2010 by the respective authors Interview with Ray Bradbury: “We Have Too Many Inventions!” Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan R. Eller

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Cemetery Dance Publications 132-B Industry Lane, Unit #7 Forest Hill, MD 21050

First PDF Edition
ISBN-13: 978-1-58767-208-8 ISBN-10: 1-58767-208-1

Cover Photograph of the Winter Forest Copyright © 2010 by Cover photograph of the Boy in the Rain Jacket Copyright © 2010 by

Cover Images Assembled by
Desert Isle Design
Interior Design by
Kate Freeman Design


For Kathryn…
Acknowledgements to come. The world is but a canvas to the imagination. —Henry David Thoreau
A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.

There was something awesome in the thought of the solitary mortal standing by the open window and summoning in from the gloom outside the spirits of the nether world.

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
ust start at the beginning,Henry’s father once

told him, and the rest will take care of itself. These words of wisdom came during the waning hours of a beautiful March day when Henry was five years old—a day that began with a gift from Mother Nature and ended with the little boy running home as fast as his legs would carry him, bounding through the snowdrifts and dodging the thorny branches lining the path through the woods.

Once inside the safety of his family’s home at the end of Maple Lane, Henry fell to the hardwood floor in his bedroom, exhausted, his skin scratched, the wounds burning like they were on fire. His hands were bruised and bloody.

Henry crawled under his bed and closed his eyes and he prayed like he had never prayed before. Not the type of praying he did at bedtime every night as his mother watched, and not the generic prayers he said every week in church with the rest of the congregation. For the first time in his life, he was directing his message straight to God Himself, and Henry’s request was simple: please send a mighty angel to undo what had been done.

An hour later, the room grew dark as the sun vanished behind the mountains to the west, but Henry hadn’t moved an inch. Exhaustion and fear wouldn’t allow him. He still wore his yellow rain slicker; his clothing was soaked in sweat; his face was damp with tears. The snow melting off his winter boots had trickled across the hardwood floor, forming a puddle of dirty water.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Henry heard the house’s front door open and close. A few minutes passed, but he didn’t dare move. He held his breath as he listened to the floorboards creaking through the house. The footsteps stopped outside his room and Henry almost couldn’t bring himself to watch as the door swung open.

A pair of heavy work boots crossed the room, every step a dull thud, and Henry let out a small cry. The boots stopped. The man’s pants were stained with grease and grime and bleach. He took a knee next to the puddle of melted snow and, after a brief moment, he reached under the bed with his weathered, callused hand.

Henry grabbed onto the giant hand and his father pulled him out in one quick, smooth motion. He hadn’t turned the lights on yet, but there was a bright beam of moonlight creeping past the curtains, slicing the bedroom in half. Henry stared into his father’s big eyes, which seemed to glow in the sparkling light. His father was a bear of a man, but he gently lifted Henry and sat him on the bed like someone moving the most delicate of antiques. Henry sobbed while his father rocked him in his enormous arms—and for a while, this did nothing to make the little boy feel better.

His father whispered: “It’ll be okay, Henry. Just start at the beginning and the rest will take care of itself.”

And Henry, still shaking, told his father what had pushed him to the brink of his sanity that beautiful March afternoon: a series of events so terrible he wouldn’t allow himself to remember them once he grew up. He did his best to describe what had caused him to run as fast as he could through the woods and to hide under the bed, as if the bed might protect him from the horrors he had witnessed, as if the misery chasing after him wouldn’t be able to find him in the dark. As if the monsters would leave him alone there.

“Son,” his father said when Henry had finished, “the monsters don’t live in the dark corners waiting to pounce on us. They live deep in our heart. But we can fight them. I promise you, we can fight them and we can win.”

Henry listened to his father’s words, which were soothing and comforting and wise. Then his father suggested he get a piece of paper and some crayons. His father said, “I know something that’ll help you feel better.”

Henry did as his father instructed, and before the night was over he would be repeating a mantra:

I paint against the darkness.
Those words made Henry feel strong in a way he couldn’t describe. The words opened doors within his mind; they set him free and gave him courage to face the night.

But in the end, would that courage and his father’s wisdom be enough to truly save Henry from the monsters he feared so much? Or had he just delayed the inevitable?

The answer to those questions wouldn’t be determined for another twenty years.
The Blank Canvas in the Farmhouse Attic
hese days Henry has no memory of the

events that led him to hide under his bed when he was five years old—and because of that his father’s advice has a different meaning for him.

Whenever a blank canvas is staring at Henry, he hears his father say, just start at the beginning and the rest will take care of itself, and then the path into his troubled imagination becomes clear enough for him to paint his demons and worries away. Normally this process is second nature to Henry, like breathing, but today something is wrong.

Henry’s hand caresses the silver crucifix dangling from his neck—a nervous habit he developed as a child—and he repeats his father’s words while the grandfather clock downstairs ticks off the hours, but the canvas remains blank.

Whenever Henry closes his eyes, all he can see is a stone wall blocking the path he must follow to the images. The wall in his mind is not giving an inch, no matter how hard he pushes.

The strength of the wall worries Henry as he stands barefoot in the attic of the old farmhouse on this blustery winter afternoon. Today’s creative block is lasting longer than any he has ever experienced; the wall has never been so tall and thick before.

Occasionally Henry paces the room, but mostly he stands facing the canvas, prepared to paint when the inspiration comes. The floor is rough, but that’s part of the process. He doesn’t want to get too comfortable.

The attic is long and narrow with small windows at both ends, a low ceiling, and no lighting at all—and that’s fine with Henry. He has never used anything other than natural light to see his work. He has even painted by the light of the moon when the lunar cycle allowed. And sometimes, when the images in his head just become too much for him to endure in the middle of the night, Henry will come here to paint in the dark.

When he’s painting, Henry travels into an extraordinary world of his own creation and it doesn’t matter how bright or dark or hot or cold the room is once he crosses the threshold from reality into his imagination. He is immune to the problems and concerns and realities of the outside world. Only the images that need to escape his mind—which are often a byproduct of his fears in the real world, although he’s not always aware of their significance—matter after he has traversed the familiar path to the fantastic lands of his own creation.

But today Henry simply stands in the attic, waiting for inspiration to come. His wife, Sarah, and their three-year-old son, Dillon, aren’t home, so the house is deathly silent, with the exception of the grandfather clock and the growing fury of the winter storm.

Occasionally, Henry will stare at the snow falling on the slate roof shingles beyond the attic window. Sleet taps on the glass. The branches hanging from the big tree in the front yard are catching ice, growing heavy and bending at their tips. The gravel driveway leading to the winding country road is grayturning-white. The brown grass of the lawn is still showing, just a little, but not for long. The heavy, dark clouds above aren’t moving fast; this storm will dump a lot of snow tonight.

The family’s blue minivan, which would normally be parked in the garage under that big tree, is currently in Pittsburgh, along with Henry’s wife and son. Dillon loves car rides, but the visit to Sarah’s parents was not planned and Henry hasn’t spoken to his wife since the van drove away the night before. He silently watched from the attic window as they left.

The fight with Sarah was sudden and unexpected, like most bad things in life. Henry had just emerged from the cellar where he was taking care of their ancient steam boiler’s twice-a-day maintenance cycle when Sarah looked up from the onions she was chopping and said:

“Henry, you were up there in your cave when I left for work this morning and you’ll still be there when I’m fast asleep in our bed. Do you realize that?”

Henry stopped. He was in a hurry to get to the attic to continue his work on his newest painting—yesterday there had been no creative block at all, only the thrill of creation—and the only reason he was even in the kitchen was to get to the cellar. His fear of what might happen if he forgot to maintain the boiler every twelve hours was stronger than his fear of leaving his artwork unfinished.

“I’m not working that much,” he replied.

In the corner of the kitchen, Dillon stopped playing with his toys and watched his parents with wide eyes. Above him was one of the kitchen windows. A dead rose vine scratched across the glass in the wind. The roses were beautiful during the summer when they covered the east side of the house, crawling up a large trellis to the roof, but Henry found the sight of the lifeless vines during the winter to be disturbing.

“Oh, Henry, that’s bullshit,” Sarah snapped. “Where have you been going in that head of yours lately?”

Sarah had never cursed in front of Dillon, but Henry still didn’t quite comprehend how upset his wife was. He just wanted to return to his painting, the one of the princess in the dungeon. The painting was calling him to the attic. The painting wasn’t completed yet and he couldn’t leave the work half-finished. That simply wasn’t possible. Henry opened his mouth and said….

Now Henry shakes his head. He doesn’t need to remember what he said; thinking about the conversation makes him uncomfortable. Last night was the first time he and Sarah had ever fought so seriously that she decided to pack up Dillon and visit her parents for a while.

This development worries Henry—and he knows that worries are one of the big reasons the stone wall is blocking his path into his imagination. Worries always cause him creative problems, but they can also unleash some of his most innovative efforts. They are, unfortunately, a double-edged sword.

Just start at the beginning, and the rest will take care of itself.
Henry barely hears the words as he stares at the blank canvas perched on the easel. He finds his attention drifting to the window and the huge tree pregnant with ice. There’s a darkness spreading across the world.
The darkness growing inside the house might be worse, but Henry doesn’t notice it yet. He’s too distracted by his creative troubles. Yet the darkness is there, and it’s even colder than the night wind, and it’ll be calling for Henry very soon, much louder than any painting ever has.

he small brick house on Maple Lane

was the center of Henry’s childhood universe. His mother worked odd jobs from home until he was old enough for school, but once Henry was able to climb the stairs of the beat-up yellow school bus every morning, she returned to work at the hectic emergency room in the hospital in Pittsburgh.

Henry’s mother often arrived home late at night, sometimes not even until the next morning, so when the dilapidated bus dropped Henry off after school, he was met by Ms. Winslow, the elderly widow who lived next door. She would look after Henry until his father—one of the maintenance men for the Black Hills Community School—was finished with his work, usually after six o’clock.

Henry spent some of each afternoon watching television with Ms. Winslow, but he always found his way to the backyard sooner or later. The yard was simple and square, surrounded by evergreen hedges and bordered by the woods between his home and the Slade River—and Henry was a young boy with a big imagination, so the enclosed area could represent a million things in a million places on any given day.

With a baseball and a glove, the hedges encircling the yard became fences and Henry was the center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They always won the World Series thanks to his homerun in the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven.

With his toy gun holstered in his pocket, he was a cop on patrol or a soldier in a war zone. Either way, he was heroic and often suffered several dramatic flesh wounds until the triumphant moment he conquered the bad guys and saved the day.

With a mini-football in his hand, he became the running back and quarterback and wide receiver for the Steelers, leading his team to yet another Super Bowl victory. There was very little defense in his imaginary games.

But sometimes the yard wasn’t big enough for Henry’s imagination, and on these days he would sneak off into the woods behind the house, usually when Ms. Winslow was supposed to be watching him. She tended to get caught-up in her soap operas—her “stories” was what she called them, which always made Henry laugh, although he wasn’t sure why.

On the days he felt the urge to roam, Henry would flip a bucket on the concrete patio where his father’s grill idly gave witness and he would peek through the kitchen window. This vantage point gave him a clear view of the living room without bringing attention to himself so he could make sure Ms. Winslow was really caught up in one of her shows or maybe even napping with her head slumped to the side.

If she was sleeping, he could always tell: when awake, she was very involved in what she was watching. Her curled, gray hair would bounce as her head shook; her wrinkled hands would point things out to the people on the other side of the screen; and sometimes she would even shout, her voice carrying throughout the house.

Once Henry was certain the coast was clear, he crept across the lawn, as if there might still be an authority figure waiting to ambush him, and then he pushed through the bushes that sometimes served as the outfield fence for his baseball games. Past the threshold there were deer trails leading deeper into the woods, through the heavy undergrowth and the towering trees. Out in the woods, his imagination could truly run wild.

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