The town bristled with thorns of emerald and ruby as the throngs that lined the winding hillside streets exhaled plumes of smoke up to the black sky like so many larval dragons. The gutters and lampposts were wound with the weedy spiked snakes, that grasped that town, like so many others, at the end of every year, thorns twinkling in a technicolor parody of the stars above. The same strings of candied light garbed the conical steel cages which dotted the sidewalks. The boy had crawled between the ribs of one of these trees at the behest of his cousin. The inside of the Christmas tree was lit up pure white, fewer shadows than heaven. His uncle’s voice rang out above the din of the crowd, and the pair quickly emerged from hiding before their chaperones could catch on to where exactly they had slipped off to, just barely dodging the adult’s gaze as they emerged from the wreathed cage. His uncle made a bad joke about them being ninjas appearing from nowhere, and they walked with him towards the heart of the crowds which had gathered along that crook of the main road which wound diagonally across the mountainside town. The streets were clear. It had not snowed that year.
It is obvious to anyone who has spent even a single evening in one, that the towns of Appalachia represent a distinct entity from any other aspect of Americana, if it is indeed correct to include them under that umbrella at all. Despite being nestled between the very vertebrae of the Christ-haunted south, they are all cryptically pagan. They all have peculiar local rites, cosmologies, strange gestures and turns of phrase which occult meaning from outsiders. They have their churches, their one God, and then 5% extra. Sometimes this excess was in the form of a very incorporeal being that defined the town’s existence, such as The Mothman a demon that had taken his toll in tragedy, only to then paradoxically ripen that loss into a magnet for tourist’s money as the legend grew through the decades. These stories and rituals seemed to grow out of the ground here, piercing their way into the world like the mountains themselves once did millennia ago, not by chance, not by design, but the irresistible, immutable, immemorial processes of the world itself. The boy liked to think of this more along the lines of them each having “their thing” their mascot so to speak, like the superheroes or dinosaurs that dominated the decor in his peers’ rooms, or the UFO’s that adorned his own, but beneath the surface the fun he felt wandering roots that were concerned with neither merriment or piety. Flatwoods had its monster, Moundsville its buried giant, and his uncle’s town had its gaudy Christmas parade.
His love of flying saucers had started with the B-movies he used to watch with his father, which were less overtly scary than most of the cartoons he watched, yet it was haunted by something they lacked: The fear of something real. Behind the grimacing rubber masks and plywood spaceships bandied about on fishing lines, behind the overacting women an overacted patriotism was a loaded shotgun trained on the head of everybody involved with the films, from the director to the guy being cooked alive in the foam rubber monster suit. Those movies were made by the first generation to see man become God. Godzilla was nothing more than a scapegoat used to pretend the horror which permeated that black-and-white age came from some external, monstrous, elemental force and not from the very science which claimed to have driven the demons from the earth.
The films influenced him into the habit of putting down some of his spending money on dog-eared ufology books in thrift shops. Books like The Andreasson Affair, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Street’s The Invaders, and others opened him up to something else that was, as far as he was concerned, “real.” In fact, not only were UFOs cool and real but totally impotent in his daily life, unlike the miraculous God he heard about in church, who expected obedience in exchange for wonder, a deal the adults in his life were all too willing to take. The saucers were happy to play whatever role he wanted depending on his mood that day, unknowable intelligences from beyond the stars, enlightened saviors from a higher plan come to help humanity to ascend, heralds of the antichrist they warned him about in Sunday school, they could not only fit into but confirm whatever he wanted to believe. The people who made those monochrome creepshows needed to externalize what man was doing to himself, and the saucers were there for them. He had just wanted to believe in something, anything, beyond the stifling sameness and timid placidity of a church-going middle class upbringing, and they were there for him too.
The crowd murmured and winced at the wind. The last gasps of the freak winter-hurricane that had ravaged Florida and flooded much of Georgia were beginning to caress the streets. There had been some concern about the squalls that were spinning off of that monster raining on the parade, but the conclusion was that the tradition would pass just under the wire unscathed. Everytime the boy heard the news in the car or at the breakfast table it seemed like all there was were storms, fires, draughts. His obsession had always been an escape from the impersonal menace of the news, or church, or what happened between his parents, but on top of everything else the newsmen were beginning to talk more and more about strange things in the sky as well.
The floats began to arrive, each more gaudy than the last. The local beauty-queen-turned-church-granny and her paper mache snowman who had both been making this yearly circumambulation of the city for half a century waved down at the crowd. The volunteer fire department slid by, miming a rescue of a gingerbread man from his smoking, and impressively staged, gingerbread house. There was a sudden stir among the crowd that snapped the boy’s admittedly drifting attention back onto the proceedings. A herd of spindly, jagged, black figures had emerged from around the flanks of the floats, seemingly out of thin air, quickly overtaking them and converging from either side of the street into a cohesive troop ahead of the foremost. They were supposed to be monsters or devils of some kind. They half stumbled, half goose-stepped closer at a speed that seemed out of synch with the precarity of their gait. The men in these costumes were clearly on stilts, as the figures each stood nearly twenty feet tall, and their arms had also been given the appearance of being proportional to such a giant. The scale only became more imposing as the details of the giants became clear. They were draped in what looked like filthy animal hides in an almost mummy-like fashion, which was oddly appropriate considering their gait. Their ragged dress here and there revealed a skin like a great continuous scab, coal, or maybe tree bark soaked in a rainstorm. Several of them had gigantic, haphazardly stitched leather sacks slung over their shoulder. The sacks squirmed and screamed.
A scattershot mix of applause and gasps, children’s nervous exclamations and adult’s laughter, overtook the gathering. The tar-black skin of the monsters seemed to fold and slough over itself as they moved, pitted, goosebumped, and occasionally interspersed with long, wandering hairs. The faces were sheer and featureless masks of bone, vaguely pointed at the top, entirely solid and smooth without even holes for the wearer to see out of. The masks looked like they were struggling to grow out of the tar, like the sallow folds of flesh ringed around the broad tubular necks were, despite the grotesque laxity of their flesh, grasping to pull them deep back inside the chest cavity. The heads had seams across them like those on the top of a skull, and glistened under the streetlights in a way that was eerily biological. The most disquieting thing about them was that as much grotesque depth as there was to their appearance, their “bone,” the movements beneath the skin, did not fit. They were loose, baggy but with precise and natural motion beneath. They looked like ill fitting costumes being worn by real twenty foot tall men. The phantasmagoria followed the preceding floats and slinked off into the night. The boy could vaguely place what type of idea it had referencing, a lot of European countries had a sort of inverse of Santa that would punish or kidnap the unruly child as part of the Christmas mythos. Really out of left field, but undeniably the most impressive leg of the procession so far.
Momentarily, the fatman himself rounded the bend. The town Santa was if nothing else, an incredibly fat man. The boy had sat on his lap during another visit to his uncle a few years previously, despite the fact that the man’s gut left him virtually no room to do so. The thing that was most disgusting about him however, was his teeth, large, yellowed, and gnarled. When he spoke it always came with an almost inaudible smack that made the boy cringe. Sometime after the first encounter he had an incoherent nightmare that this Santa had come down the chimney and started rambling in slurred dream-speak about how the family needed to eat their dog as part of Christmas, but the boy knew this was not the man’s fault. He’d had similar dreams about his grandmother after all. Santa’s float stopped for Kris Kringle to give a little speech like he did every year, a saccharine preamble for the finale float when the local children’s choir and cheerleading squad would put on a joint performance to end the night. Santa opened his jagged mouth with a hearty HO HO HO and started slinging bad puns. Suddenly, the choir float behind him, which was supposed to stop during his speech, smashed into his own platform at a decent clip. Plastic snowmen and penguins were catapulted into the crowd like missiles. Santa was launched facefirst forward over the side of the street-barge, 12 feet down to the cobblestone street below. He felt his teeth break before the rest of his face did.
The renegade choir float kept pushing forward against what was in front of it, with all the terrible, idiotic strength in its unmanned engine. Santa’s float rolled forward as his howls of incoherent agony were drowned out by the screams of the multitude and smashing of steel. The float started raining ornaments, elves dove off then the sides or fell to the ground clutching broken limbs. The wrecked heap kept sliding forward and its skirt devoured the broken Santa as wheels kept crawling forward, mearing him across the sidewalk as it smashed through a department store window like an ocean liner hitting an iceberg. The hulking mass had finally ground to a halt. The brave and altruistic in the crowd rushed forward to aid the dozens injured. The soiled Santa hat sat listlessly in the street in the center of the casualties. His uncle had run with them some ways up the road once the danger became truly clear, heading vaguely in the direction of the car, then standing around talking to 911 on his phone along half of the town. The choir float looked totally empty, and from here the boy could see no sign of the youths on the ground amidst the huddled howling people. He looked away from the accident and his uncle out across town down to the river. The river bubbled bright orange, distorting the town’s multicolored lights in the time-lapse of a rotting jack-o-lantern. Impossibly tall figures skated across the flickering waters like Christ strolling the sea of Galilee, disappearing into the black bristling woods on the far shore.