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It’s the Fall of 1994 in the small milltown of Belford, New York. The leaves are turning, the kids are going back to school, and the heat of Summer is giving way to a cool, misty season. It happens every Fall.
Only this Fall, people are disappearing into that mist. Some people are found torn apart, some people are found dead for no reason, and some people aren’t found at all. Other people see strange things in the mist: ghosts and campfire stories.
There’s something out there in that mist. Something old. Something that has slept for a long time, but has now woken up hungry. Maybe the people of Belford could resist it, but as the terrible Fall wears on, more and more of them start…changing. Acting bizarre and violent. In the end, only a small group of teenage defenders are left to make their stand.
I started writing Hometown when I was fresh out of college. During college if you want to count the half-finished stub of a story that I scrapped for raw materials. That first story had a bit of potential, but I was a few hundred pages in when I realized that I was meandering. I was just writing one creepy moment or scare after another with no real goal. What did I really want to say? Hometown was the answer.
I finished Hometown in 2004, or at least I thought I did. I spent the next year or so shopping it around to agents, trying to find a taker. Then I…well, gave up isn’t the right way to put it. I put it aside. I decided that the reason I wasn’t finding any takers was because my Writing Resume didn’t have enough credits on it. I wrote short stories and tried to sell them (sometimes I even succeeded), I came up with ideas for other books and started on them, all in the hopes that I would accumulate enough cred to get this book published. Even as this book sat on my hard drive and in binders on my shelf, it haunted me. It stood behind and overshadowed everything else I did. None of the other books got written, because a) they were being written for the sake of advancing this story, not for themselves, and no story will stand for that; and b) this was the story that my first twenty-two years wanted to tell, and they wouldn’t let anything else move forward until they’d had their say.
Even so, I can’t say that the delay has been all bad. In the time since I thought Hometown to be finished, it has grown. Both in length (it’s now rather Stephen King-esque) and depth.
When I first wrote Hometown, it was essentially a primal scream against my own hometown. You see, I grew up in a literal one-stoplight town in Central New York, an old-school company town where the economy revolved around the Mill. It was a place with four bars and no movie theater, where the closest thing young people had to a hangout was…uh…
Young people didn’t have a hangout. No arcade, unless you counted the games in the entrance hall to the bowling alley on the edge of town. No sports or clubs or other activities that weren’t connected to the school once you got too old for Little League and Pop Warner football. And the activities that were connected to school were put at risk every couple years when the citizenry would vote against the school budget.
When you grow up in a place like that, you only have a few options. Some people stopped caring. Booze, drugs – whatever they could import from the nearest city – and carelessly protected sex. My graduating class of 150 had about a dozen mothers or mothers-to-be in it, with no way of telling how many fathers. Another generation of quiet desperation in the trailer parks.
Then, of course, there were the people who actually liked it there. In a way, I pity them the most. I’ve been back to visit my hometown, and it’s dying. There’s only one Mill left, where there were four when I was a child. Sooner or later, it will shut down and turn my hometown into a ghost town. It’s only a question of when.
I can’t even hate the place anymore. Now it just makes me sad.
And then there were the people like me. There were actually quite a few of us – the people who were determined to escape, to get away, to get Out. Some had actual workable plans to get Out, some didn’t. It was the Out that was important. Like so many small towns, it was a place of little hope or opportunity that was probably dying even then.
It didn’t help that, as a rampaging nerd, I didn’t get much access to that fabled small-town close-knittedness that makes it all worth it (or at least bearable). I was deeply unhappy, and I got out as soon as I could.
There’s still a great deal of that in there. But it’s eleven years later, I’m thirty-eight years old, and I have some perspective. There are worse small towns than the one I came from, outcasts more lost than I ever was, and cruelty that I wouldn’t have dared attribute to my human villains for fear of creating unbelievable caricatures.
Which means I wasn’t finished with Hometown after all. It wasn’t just mine anymore. It couldn’t be. Belford, NY is no longer just Camden, NY. Its bullies are no longer just my bullies. They’re the bullies of every fat, slutty, nerdy, gay or wrong-color friend I’ve met since I got free. They’re the bullies of Jena, Itawamba and Steubenville. Belford is every small town that you have to escape in order to have a real life.
The only difference is that in those small towns, it can feel like the town itself is monster that you have to escape before it eats you alive. In Belford, that’s literally true…
Belford, New York. 1994. Snapshot of a place in time.
Pretty little town, nestled in a wooded valley in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Six churches and two graveyards (though one, a historical site that contains the earthly remains of Revolutionary War heroes, is no longer used). Liberal sprinkling of big, graceful Victorian houses. Tiny, neglected museum of local history. Town hall with your standard pretty white clock tower. Two scenic rivers that meet in the center of town – Shady River from the north, where it flows out of Black Lake, and the Silver River from the northwest. Heart of town is a park with a gazebo in the center.
Blue-collar town. Three thousand people, give or take. Centerpiece of the economy is Belford Wire, the copper-wire mill. The town’s other businesses include two supermarkets, a Jreck Subs, a McDonald’s, four bars, a print shop, three convenience stores, two pizza places, a diner, one “fancy” restaurant, two bar-and-grills, a newsstand, a florist, a Kinney’s Drugs, another – local – pharmacy, a video rental place and a bowling alley. Two local newspapers compete with each other to report the results of Saturday’s football game and the mayoral elections more thrillingly.
Pretty place, but not entirely happy. The northwest corner of town, cut off from the rest by the rivers, is known – appropriately – as “Rivertown.” Rivertown is one of those places that all towns, no matter how small, seem to have: the dumping ground, the “wrong side of the tracks,” where the town’s human refuse is left and forgotten and the houses – some once grand – are peeling paint and missing boards. But then, there are places within the purview of Belford – the outlying communities, the trailer parks, the isolated and all-too-often garbage-strewn lots where trailers squat in the woods – that make Rivertown look like Park Avenue. And while Belford is generally a safe, tranquil place to raise children, it’s a bad place to be young. No movie theatre, no arcade, no activities that aren’t tied to school once you get too old for little league baseball. The only real place for young people to hang out is The Java, a coffee shop whose owner established it for that very purpose, and the Iron Works gym. Instead, the youth of Belford make their own fun in the form of substances legal and illegal; and activities that, when engaged in by people who already have no hope for their future, produce a dozen babies a year at Belford high. And why do they have no hope for the future? Because when you live in Belford, you either get out when you leave high school, or you work in the Mill your whole life. And they know they’re not getting out.
A sleepy place. The pace is slow, little changes. But one day, in the gut of summer while old people sat on their porches and drank iced tea; while the mill workers sweated at the spools and cursed the heat; while the young children jumped into the rivers and rode their bikes; while teenagers drove their cars out to Black Lake and drank beer and swam and fucked on the beach in their sleeping bags when night fell, something woke up.
A lot has been written about the Belford Incident, most of it in tabloids, psychological journals, and classified military reports. And still, nearly twenty years later, no one knows what really happened.
Well, almost no one.
I’ve done my best to gather together all of the information extant on the Belford Incident. Some of it is stuff I shouldn’t have, but that doesn’t matter. Very few people are going to read this. Very few people would want to; very few would understand or believe.
No, I’m just doing this for my own edification; trying to get a glimpse of the big picture, to really understand what happened on that cool and misty fall back when Clinton was in his first term and the Republicans were making their Contract With America, when Forrest Gump was on the movie screens and hypercolor shirts were on every teenager’s back.
Maybe if I can understand it, it will haunt me a little less.
What all accounts seem to agree on is that it all began with those two poor dumb kids out parking on the shores of Black Lake. Lila and Jeremy. And I agree with that. But where they all get it wrong is in assuming that they were the start of something new, the first experimental stabs of a killer finding his rhythm, like Martha Tabram may have been for Jack the Ripper.
As far as I can tell, they were part of something old. Something woke up from a long, deep hibernation that fall, and it woke up hungry.
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About the Author
Matthew Keville wrote his first short stories in first grade, when the books on the shelves didn’t have the stories he wanted. The stories have been his constant friends since then, and they’ve carried him through some hard times. He grew up in a small town where you either leave at eighteen or live there forever. He elected to leave at eighteen. Now he lives in New York City where everyone is only working as a waiter or bus driver or stockbroker until they make it on Broadway. This makes him different and special, because he’s only working as a paralegal until he makes it as a writer.