I delight in stories that deliver more than meets the eye at first glance. I love to read them and I love to write them. In films and shows such as It Follows and The Twilight Zone and in the work of Robert Aickman things are often very much more than they first appear. The Serpent’s Shadow is also one of those kinds of stories.
It is Christmas week. In Mexico, 1987. At first glance all might appear as a slasher set up or a horror tale with familiar tropes. There are teens in peril. “Ugly Americans” are where they should not be. A killer is on the loose.
Wander a little further along the road and you might find these tropes you spied are taking on new iterations, or are even being subverted.
Readers of my Cemetery Dance short story collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales will recognize and enjoy the Central American setting, the prose, and the “quiet horror” slow-burn pace of the book. However, there are scenes in The Serpent’s Shadow that veer into the most brutal and bloodiest territory I’ve ever depicted.
David is a working class teenager from the USA on a family vacation who finds himself caught in a supernatural power struggle for the future of the resort city of Cancun. He learns of the hard life of the local people and the remnants of the Mayan civilization in the shadows and corners of the tropical paradise.
A chance encounter and a star-crossed, sun-soaked day draws him to a beautiful young woman, Anne-Marie, who triggers otherworldly visions in him when they touch. What role does she play in the secret war for the future of Mexico they find themselves mixed up in? Who is the mysterious and deadly White Lady murdering tourists? What strange, otherworldly things wait in the jungle?
Mayan and Mexican forces are wielding powers they do not understand in their battle for the fate of the jungle, the direction of the growing tourist city, and the future of the entire Yucatan region and beyond.
The Serpent’s Shadow can be purchased via your favorite bookseller or here direct from Cemetery Dance.
Here is an excerpt from the book if you’d like to have a look. The set up is this is where David and Ann-Marie enter the jungle for the first time and have a life changing strange encounter…
Person after person emerged from the jungle. They moved along the sac be in single file, stepping in unison until the first person in line, one of the young women I recognized from the trail, reached the foot of the pyramid and stopped. About a dozen people were in front of Ramon. He looked ridiculous with all that green paint slathered on his face and back and chest and in that feather headdress. He shouted something in Mayan and the young woman began to climb. The line followed her up the steps. People kept filing out, one by one, feeding the procession. I had no idea how far it stretched.
“Look at everyone,” Anne Marie said.
“Ramon said there were forty or fifty families living around here,” I said.
“I think there are more people here than that,” she said.
“Come on. Let’s just split,” I said. “We can go down the other side.”
“Why would we want to do that?” Anne Marie said. “They’re sharing this with us. We should be honored. If you’re gonna bail, just go ahead.”
That stung. She was fascinated by their ceremony and my first reaction was to run. I took her hand and squeezed it.
This was my last chance to play it safe. I knew this was danger. Scared as I was I did want to see. To see with her.
“Uh, I was just, you know, looking out for you.”
“I don’t need looking out for,” she said.
We watched the line of people move up the pyramid. After a few minutes the young woman from the trail reached the final step. She climbed onto the pyramid top, walked past us to the temple, and disappeared inside without acknowledging us. Six or seven people followed exactly the same way. The next person, another young woman, followed and stopped right outside the temple. The next stopped an arm’s length from her. Ramon was the next up. Green paint from his face was in his stringy hair and headdress. With a smile and a nod he directed us to stand in the line. Anne Marie complied and moved to an arm’s length away from the last person. They had left room for me. Ramon nodded, directing me to stand next to her. I didn’t move. Anne Marie looked at me with unabashed confusion. I didn’t want to see her expression turn to disappointment so I shuffled into line next to her. Satisfied, Ramon strode to the temple opening and disappeared inside.
Ramon called out in Mayan from inside the temple.
Everyone responded by joining hands. The woman just outside the temple held the hand of the person standing just inside. Anne Marie was hand in hand with the Mayan girl next to her. She held her other hand out to me. A Mayan guy was next to me, his arm outstretched and his hand open. His other hand grasped the hand of the girl on the step below him. The chain of people continued down the pyramid, across the sac be, and into the jungle.
“Come on. What are you waiting for?” Anne Marie said.
I had a feeling that something was about to happen. That nagging feeling that I had forgotten something was back, spreading uneasiness through my bones. I just knew that if I joined hands with everyone I was going to be a part of whatever it was. And I yearned for it. As strange as it was I yearned to be a part. I put my right hand in the hand of the guy on the step. His hand was strong and was no stranger to hard work. He held onto me as if he were gripping an important tool and he kept adjusting his grip as if afraid he might accidentally lose hold. Then I reached for Anne Marie’s hand with my left. Her fingers closed around mine and a chill of excitement ran through me.
I stood there in the line not knowing what to do with myself, like during one of those moments of silence at an assembly back in high school or a silent prayer in temple. I was never able to focus on what I was told to or pray. My mind would always wander and run wild like it was doing now. I thought of how the guy’s hand sort of felt like Dad’s. And how much it meant to Dad bringing us on vacation. I thought of Anne Marie standing outside the club last night. Of her leg against mine when we were sitting outside the ruin at the hotel. I watched the smile on her face slowly growing as she watched me. I thought of how good it felt to be close to her. How good her skin felt. I wanted to feel her chest against mine and her arms wrapped around me.
She blushed and a big smile erupted on her face. I smiled too and a laugh escaped me. She attempted to chastise me with a stern look but the blush never left her face.
I looked to the sky and listened to the breeze rustle the tree tops, to the insects and birds, and the sounds of the people on the stairs shuffling in place. I had been sure something was going to happen when we all linked hands. But nothing had happened.
A little pop resounded from inside the temple, barely audible above the everyday noises. I felt it more than heard it. I thought someone had opened champagne or something vacuum sealed. I listened for it again and heard a faint hiss like air escaping a tire. Then Ramon screamed.
The guy holding my hand squeezed tight. The chain of people tugged and we all lurched toward the rectangular door.
Ramon yelled in excitement. A horrible smile spread on the face of the woman next to Anne Marie.
My arms spasmed. I felt a shock in my right hand. The jolt shot through me and out my left hand. As quickly as it had come, the sensation had gone. I stood there trying to recall the feeling in my body but only an echo remained. I wondered if I had really felt anything other than a charlie-horse from standing with my arms up.
The hiss grew louder then abruptly stopped. Ramon let out a tortured cry, all trace of his excitement gone.
The woman standing just outside the temple stumbled backward and fell, pulling the person inside down with her. The woman next to her tried to keep a hold on her hand but she fell too and their hands came apart. The line shifted. Everyone lost their hand holds.
Ramon stepped outside the temple entrance, his form and flailing arms a green blur only visible for a flash before he stumbled back into the dark. All along the chain, people were letting go of each other and breaking their silence. The sound of their tense conversations joined the din of the jungle.
Ramon stumbled out of the temple again. A big green snake had its jaws clamped over the bottom of his face and his neck. Its long body floated in the air next to him in defiance of gravity. It looked like one of those tree boas but all grown up and thick as my leg. Ramon swatted at it and stumbled in circles.
Feathered wings unfolded from the snake’s back with a whoosh. They were red, red as Ramon’s headdress. With each undulation of the snake’s body the wings grew a little larger; yellow, then blue feathers appeared among the red as they opened. One summer Dad showed me a butterfly crawl out of a cocoon and pump blood into its new wings; this was like that only it was happening much, much faster.
People were screaming. In the corner of my eye I saw Anne Marie crawling into the temple. I knew something horrible was happening but I couldn’t look away. The way the snake moved, the way its body cut the air was of profound importance that was eclipsing all other thoughts. Looking at it filled me with calm. Despite the erupting chaos all I wanted to do was watch its green scales catch the sunlight.
The two women who had fallen crawled to their knees and bowed their heads in prayer. Another woman spun with Ramon ignoring his muffled cries as she tried to dance with him. The snake whipped its body and knocked into her. She lost her balance and stumbled backwards over the edge of the pyramid.
Ramon’s hands found the snake’s head and tried to pry it off his face. A rivulet of blood ran down his neck, a red-gray streak in the sweat and green paint. As he struggled to free himself the snake’s wings extended fully. The symmetrical arc of bright red and yellow and blue feathers began to vibrate then became a grayish-purple blur that buzzed and clicked like the flying fish we had seen this morning. The snake rose higher. Ramon’s feet lifted off the pyramid top. The whirs and clicks intensified as the snake struggled for altitude. Then it opened its mouth and let Ramon drop. He fell to his knees, clutched his face, and flailed his other arm blindly.
The thing hovered above him with its head facing me. I didn’t get the sense it was seeing me or could even see at all. Its eyes were solid black and struck me as something that belonged to a deep sea creature or something that lived in the dark.
Ramon let out a sob and cried, “Why?”
The snake lunged at him and he rolled to avoid it. It snapped at the space where he had been a second ago. Then it snapped at the air wildly. The inside of its mouth was black. Unnaturally black. The black of space, I thought. The black space between the stars. A loud hiss was coming from its open maw. Something about the horrible sound brought my wits back to me and I backed up and lowered myself onto the first step of the pyramid. I wanted to run for cover but found I still could not look away.
The snake flew in small circles above Ramon, gracefully moving through the air like a fish through water. Tendrils of black smoke trailed in its wake. The smoke was wafting from its body and floated sideways, not up like smoke should.
The hiss grew louder. Patches of skin on the snake’s back were turning black. It twirled and corkscrewed and rose higher. Black patches on its belly were crackling and bubbling. I thought it was burning but there wasn’t any fire, only the black eating away at it and the thick smoke that lingered too long in the air. A long piece of skin starting at its head peeled away and fell off exposing muscle and bone. The two women who had been praying sprung to their feet and tried to catch it. They leapt into the air reaching for the snake, ignoring its lunges in their direction, but only captured handfuls of emptiness.
Skin fell off its head and tail and back but it continued snapping and lunging even though its bones and half its skull were exposed. With a mighty heave it thrust itself skyward but its buzzing wings went still and it stopped rising. Feathers crumbled to dust. Black patches spread over the last bits of green scales. It jerked and rolled as it fell, a withered black shape against the sky; then it was only black dust raining down on the pyramid coating Ramon and the worshippers and me.
I carefully stood and approached the temple to find Anne Marie. Ramon looked up at me as I passed him. His face was marred with gashes. Tears and blood were running down his face. I’d never seen such a deflated, defeated look before in my entire life. The man was weeping. Everything about him screamed confusion and pain.
I felt eyes on me. Anne Marie was standing in the rectangular opening to the temple, watching, cool as could be, Ramon’s loose-leaf binder tucked in the crook of her arm. The two Mayan women were looking past Ramon and me to her. Framed in the square doorway she looked magnificent and regal. She was just Anne Marie in her hiking clothes but she surveyed the chaos with such poise. Standing there like that it wasn’t hard to imagine her as an image from one of those stelae come to life.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” Ramon said in between deep, heaving sobs. “I did everything right.”
The women looked to him then back to Anne Marie, their eyes open wide and fixed on her.
“Santa Muerte te llama,” Anne Marie whispered.
Saint Death calls you.
She had spoken so softly. So quickly. I wondered if she had even said it at all.
The two women grabbed Ramon by the arms and began to drag him. It was such an act of violence I felt a pang in my stomach. Without any compassion, they towed him to the other side of the pyramid and disappeared over the edge.
DANIEL BRAUM is the author of the short story collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales from Cemetery Dance and more.
Braum’s stories are full of rich settings spanning the globe and explore the tension between the psychological and the supernatural. Many of his stories he calls “strange tales” intentionally adopting the term used by Robert Aickman.
His work has appeared several times in Cemetery Dance magazine and in places ranging from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet edited by Kelly Link to the The Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow.
The Serpent’s Shadow is Braum’s first novella and appears for the first time in print from Cemetery Dance Publications.
He is the host of the New York Ghost Story Festival and the Night Time Logic reading series. Find him on his You Tube channel, on social media, and at his Night Time Logic column here on Cemetery Dance online.