A special treat for Valentine’s Day (as it were), author Mark Allan Gunnells has a new collection out, TALES FROM THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT, which you can pick up for your Kindle for the unbelievable low price of only $2.99 right now. Fifteen skin-freezing tales of terror! What could be better on a cold February night?
Even better: Here, for your reading enjoyment, is one of the stories from TALES FROM THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT, “Acts 19:19 Party.” A FREE story, a cautionary tale of sorts about the wisdom of trying to censor books. With several Richard Laymon paperback cameos. A fun story, and more than enough to induce you to pick up TALES FROM THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT now, while it is available for the low, low, low price of $2.99! Enjoy!
ACTS 19:19 PARTY
By Mark Allan Gunnells
“Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together,
and burned them before all men…”
“You’re going to a book burning?”
Jacob winced at the term. “It’s not a book burning. I told you, it’s an Acts 19:19 party.”
Tracy cocked an eyebrow and pursed her lips, what Jacob had come to think of as her I-know-bullshit-when-I-smell-it expression. “A party, huh? And what exactly will you all be doing at this party? Chips and dip? Pin the Tail on the Donkey?”
Jacob sighed, feeling suddenly weary. He and Tracy had been friends for eight years, but ever since Jacob had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, things had been strained between them. He had seen the Light, and Tracy still had scales on her eyes. It wasn’t easy being a Christian in tenth grade.
“We’re gathering together in the field behind the Church to sing hymns, share fellowship, and…”
“And burn some books. If you’re going to do it, at least have the balls to say it.”
“It’s not like you’re making it sound. The Bible instructs us to purge from our lives those things that are unholy and wicked.”
Tracy leaned back in her chair, pushing her lunch tray aside, as if this conversation had robbed her of her appetite. “And just what are some of these ‘wicked’ books that you guys will be purging?”
“Well,” Jacob said, “a lot of copies of The Da Vinci Code, some Stephen King, John Saul, Richard Laymon—”
“Jacob, you used to love Laymon’s novels.”
“That was before I was saved.”
“Before you were brainwashed is more like it,” Tracy said, looking at Jacob as if he were a stranger and not her best friend since second grade.
“I’m trying to lead a pure and righteous life. You just don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t. You used to have a mind of your own; now you let those stuffed-shirts down at that Church do all your thinking for you.”
Jacob grunted in frustration then said a silent prayer for patience. He wanted to get through to Tracy, help lead her out of the wilderness and back onto the path of salvation, but she was a stubborn one. “Tracy, if you’d just come with me to one of the services, you’d see what we’re all about.”
“No thanks,” Tracy said with a snort. “I don’t hang with book burners.”
“I keep telling you—”
“I know, I know. It’s a party. Seems to me like you’re trying awfully hard to make it sound less Nazi than it really is. What’s that quote from Heinrich Heine? ‘Whenever books are burned, men also in the end are burned.’ Well, I don’t want to be around when you guys light the match.”
With that, Tracy grabbed her backpack and stormed out of the cafeteria, leaving Jacob alone at the table. He felt like crying but held it back. Although he’d never exactly been Mr. Popular at school, since joining the Church he’d lost the few friends he did have. Everyone but Tracy. And now it looked like even she was deserting him. He thought he could feel judging eyes weighing on the back of his head, and the discordant music of mean-spirited laughter filled his ears.
But no matter. He had God, and what better friend could a person have? Tracy might not understand, but he knew that it was right to rid himself of those nasty books he used to devour like candy. And like candy rots the teeth, those books had been rotting his soul.
But tonight, at the Acts 19:19 party, he would free himself of them.
* * *
In the center of the field behind the Church, a circular indenture had been dug out in the ground and filled with sticks and twigs. A match was lit, and a bonfire blazed into the night, crackling like something alive, something hungry for the pages that would soon be fed to it. The wind was blowing the smoke to the south, so everyone congregated on the north side of the bonfire. As people arrived, they piled their books atop an old wooden picnic table.
Jacob showed up with an armful of Richard Laymon paperbacks. He was ashamed to admit how much he’d once enjoyed these books. When he thought of the violence, the sex, the depravity that was housed between their covers, it sickened him. The novels were a bitter reminder of just how deeply he’d been sunk in sin. He would be happy to watch them burn, searing away that old godless life, paving the way for a closer relationship with the Almighty.
The spring night was warm to begin with, but the heat from the fire made it stifling. Jacob felt sweat trickling down the sides of his face, and he stepped back away from the fire, looking around at everyone who had gathered for the Acts 19:19 party. There were about a dozen people, all of them adults except for Jacob. No one else from the Church’s youth group, but Jacob had long suspected most of them attended services just because their parents insisted and not out of any genuine desire to be there. Sometimes when sitting in Sunday school, Jacob felt he was the only one in attendance with a sincere heart.
“Can I have everyone’s attention?” Pastor Monroe said, stepping up onto one of the picnic table’s benches. Gradually everyone quieted and turned toward Monroe. “I just want to say how gratifying it is to see so many of you here for our little party. I see Brother Carter has brought along his guitar, so I’m sure they’ll be some singing before the night is through. Sister Opal has made a batch of her famous oatmeal raisin cookies to keep our tummies full. And the fire behind me will help us unburden ourselves of all the immoral literature that once shackled us to this world, acting as a barrier between us and our Lord.”
There were a smattering of “Amens” and even some applause. Jacob smiled up at Monroe. Back lit by the fire, the flickering light dancing across his face, he looked like some Old Testament prophet, delivering the Word to the masses. Monroe, with his steadfast conviction and unwavering devotion to God, was a role model for Jacob, someone to be emulated and admired. Jacob could only hope to one day achieve even a fraction of the Pastor’s piety.
“I’m particularly happy to see young Jacob in attendance,” Monroe said, and all eyes turned to look at the teenager. Jacob blushed, uncomfortable at being singled out this way. “Too many of today’s young people are slaves to their passions, prisoners of the flesh. Everywhere they turn, society is telling them it’s okay to be sinful, it’s right to be decadent, it’s cool to be hedonistic. Too many parents ignore the admonition ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ coddling their children and allowing them to do whatever they want. There are no limits for the young anymore, no boundaries, no rule that cannot be broken. That is why it warms my heart to see a young man who has dedicated himself to doing the will of God, who has given his life over to Christ. Welcome, young Jacob. You are a shining example of what all young people should strive to be.”
Jacob’s blush deepened, but he found he was a little less uncomfortable with the scrutiny of the congregation. Instead, he felt proud that Monroe recognized his striving for purity, but he reminded himself that pride in excess was also a sin.
Monroe stepped down from the bench and walked over to Jacob, clamping a firm hand on the teenager’s shoulder. “Jacob, why don’t you do the honors of getting us started?”
“Sure. Grab a book and toss it in.”
With the unselfconscious grin of a baby that doesn’t yet know of life’s pain, Jacob approached the picnic table, the books scattered across its surface, just waiting to become fuel for the fire. Which one to start with? He spotted a Clive Barker hardcover sitting opened at the end of the table. Barker not only wrote some truly twisted tales, but he was also a homosexual. Jacob thought this would be a great book to start the party. He reached out, but a sudden gust of wind snapped the book closed right on the backs of Jacob’s knuckles.
“Ow!” Jacob yelled, snatching his hand back. “That hurt!”
“You okay?” Monroe asked.
“Yeah, just caught be my surprise, I guess.”
Monroe took Jacob’s hand and frowned down at it. “Hmm, left quite a welt, and I’d almost swear those look like teeth marks.”
“That’s silly,” Jacob said, but there was a nervous edge to his laughter. He reached back for the book and it jumped off the table. Jacob knew that was impossible, that the book must have been sitting too close to the edge and simply slipped off, but it had looked like the book actually hopped onto the ground.
“I’ve got it, Jacob.”
Monroe leaned down to retrieve the Barker novel. He held it out to Jacob, but before the teenager could take the book, Monroe suddenly jerked it back and slapped himself in the side of the face with it. Some of the people nearby snickered, perhaps thinking the Pastor was playing some kind of joke, but then he did it again, harder this time. The book smashed into his nose and blood gushed out, running down his chin and dribbling onto his shirt. The laughter died instantly.
“Pastor?” Jacob said, taking a step back. “What are you doing?”
There was a dazed look in Monroe’s eyes. He mumbled something that sounded like “Help,” and then he slammed the book into his mouth; there was the crunching sound of breaking teeth. Jacob saw that the muscles in the Pastor’s arm seemed to be straining, and he realized dully that Monroe was trying to hold the book back. But that was crazy.
What happened next was even crazier, and it happened so quickly that Jacob’s numbed brain had little time to process it.
Two men from the congregation stepped forward, as if to help Monroe. Suddenly a copy of Stephen King’s thick novel, The Stand, flew off the table and smacked one of the men in the back of the head. He stumbled forward and fell right into the fire. His screams were high-pitched and deafening. The other man whirled to see who had thrown the book, and a copy of The Da Vinci Code hurled itself toward him, latching onto his neck. The man reached up and tore the book away, but a chunk of his throat came with it. The man made a rattling sound as blood bubbled from the hole in his neck; he fell to his knees and keeled over into the fire. The book, lying on the ground, flapped its pages, and Jacob thought it was chewing. Meanwhile, the Barker novel continued to assault Monroe. The Pastor’s arms were now both by his side, but the book remained in the air, pummeling his face until Monroe backed into the fire himself.
The mass paralysis that had held the group in place suddenly broke, and people began screaming and running back toward the Church. The piles of books on the picnic table became animated and airborne, whizzing through the night like missiles, striking people and knocking them to the ground. A John Saul novel came speeding toward Jacob’s face. He held up an arm to block it and felt the blow all the way up into his shoulder. The book circled back for a second try, and Jacob dropped to the ground and scurried underneath the picnic table. A few of the books came in after him, pelting him like hailstones as he covered his head with his arms.
There was pandemonium in the field, screams filling the air and blood seeping into the ground. Jacob looked out from his makeshift shelter and saw Mrs. Opal lying on her back while a half dozen books took turns bashing her in the face. She wore a mask of blood, and her forehead had a caved-in look. She wasn’t moving. Mr. Anton, the Choir Director, stumbled past the table, shouting to God to deliver him from this evil; he was covered in books. They were latched onto his face, his arms, his legs, his back. He rushed forward and seemed to leap into the fire, like a man diving into a river to escape a swarm of bees.
A few more books found their way under the table. Jacob felt something sharp stab into his shoulder, pain exploding in a white-hot flash. He glanced over and saw a copy of The Queen of the Damned, and it was biting him. He grabbed a hold of it to pry it loose, but the thing was strong, and it refused to let go. With his head unprotected, two hardbacks smashed into either side of his head like cymbals. He had to get out of here, make a dash for the Church. If he stayed where he was, he’d end up like either Mrs. Opal or Mr. Anton.
Jacob crawled out from under the picnic table, intending to sprint across the field and take refuge in the Church van if he couldn’t make it to the actual building itself. He had gotten only a few steps, however, when he was suddenly surrounded by his Laymon novels. They circled around him, flapping their pages like bats’ wings. He swatted at one and the paperback bit off his pinkie finger at the second knuckle.
Jacob howled like a wolf baying at the moon, and his hot blood splattered to the ground like a crimson waterfall. He felt the books snagging his clothes and tugging, and he was suddenly being lifted off his feet, carried through the air toward the bonfire. He tried to struggle, to twist out of the books’ hold, but they held fast until he was directly above the fire. Then they let go, and he plummeted into the flames, which reached up like arms to embrace him.
As the fire consumed him, and he smelled his own flesh cooking, his last thought was of the quote Tracy had recited that afternoon: “Whenever books are burned, men also in the end are burned.”
The books gathered around the bonfire, slapping themselves open and closed with a sound like applause.
story © 2014 Mark Allan Gunnells