Episode after episode, HBO’s Lovecraft Country presents us with an American history framed by monsters both real and literary. Inspired by the chilling tales of the television series, we asked for your take on historic monsters in a short story contest we called For The Love Of The Craft. We were looking for thoughtful, creative, and terror-invoking tales under 750 words. And you all delivered.
We had over 400 stories (!) to comb over, keeping us up at night with creatures from your nightmares. Some stories were squarely in the real world, with wholly human terrors. Others were creeping tales of the unknown, of the cosmic horrors that spanned the beginning of slavery, the civil rights movement, the disco of the ‘70s, all the way through present day. The competition was impressive.
It is with great pleasure that we announce Donyae Coles’ “Sunless Halls” as our winner! “Sunless Halls” is the story of a protagonist terrified of being seen as they attempt to do what’s best for their family, but the question is … seen by whom? As our winner, Coles is the recipient of a $5,000 prize and one mentorship session with Jonathan Kidd and Sonya Winton-Odammten (co-executive producers and writers on Lovecraft Country), as well as having their story published here, on The Root. If you’re up for a scare, check out “Sunless Halls” below, with illustrations by Josh Lees.
Skritch, skritch, skritch, The sound of scraping, clawing filled the hollow space where nothing at all should be but it was. It always was. Survivable she reasoned. If she was quick. And she would be.
She turned to the cradle where Jackson slept, his fist curled by his head. She kept his crib in the center of the small bedroom, as far away from every wall as she could. They came through sometimes, when they were hungry enough.
She took a last look at her afro. It would be gone soon, the tight curls replaced with loose ones. She could sacrifice it if it meant she wouldn’t have to worry about sacrificing anything else.
She focused on her closet, she had to be quick. She pulled out a blouse, skirt, heels. Carefully she folded it all and put it in her shoulder bag.
She looked at her reflection once more, the fitted shirt was fine but the sweeping bells of the pants were too dangerous. She bent, tucked them into her socks. Mrs. Estelle lived on the first floor, the most dangerous, in the back, she’d have to be quick. She picked up her bag and left the room.
Paul waited in the living, dressed for work. She should be back before he was late. He stared at the floor, a spot between his spread boots.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said, his eyes still on the floor. “I can go. I’ll go before work.”
“No, Paul. This is our only chance. I gotta get down there early and you know what they’ll think of you. And I can’t go with this.” She shoved a finger at her hair. “They’ll think I’m a Panther.”
“Lisa,” he started. Skrrrrrrritch, and he stopped. Handed her a roll of bills. “Be careful.”
She nodded, pulled her bag around her neck, slipped out the apartment door and into the hall.
Dawn was an hour away. Near but not near enough. Lisa clutched her bag and took a step forward.
Sharp tipped paws skittered behind her as she walked to the stairs but she didn’t turn. Had lived there long enough to know not to look back. Kept walking. Passed through the doors to the flickering lights of the stairwell.
Under the steps the shadows swam and shifted as she walked past, quickly but not running. Running drew too much attention. She felt something swipe at the air, lazily, as she passed, saw something twisting, turning, climbing in the corner of her eye. She kept going.
She reached the bottom and exited into the hall of the first floor. The scratching sound of them filled the hall.
She hustled to the door. Knocked on it hard.
Nothing. She tried the knob. Found it locked.
“Mrs. Estelle?” she called, pounding again, the sweat starting to bead down her back. Skritch, skritch, skritch, the sound came, louder, closer. They were coming through the walls, drawn by the knocking.
The door swung open. Bright light spilled into the hall and the sound of something clawed scampering back filled her ears for a moment.
“Thank you for doing this,” she stumbled over the words, following the old woman into her kitchen.
“Thank me by getting that baby out of here,” the old woman said. Every light in her apartment burned bright.
Lisa settled into the chair. The comb already sat over the flame. Mrs. Estelle made quick parts and Lisa closed her eyes as the first sizzling touch took her curls.
The old woman worked and the sun rose as she finished. Lisa changed her clothes. Left as quickly as she had come. Caught the bus to the other side of town. She walked up to the building she had seen the ad for in the paper the night before. A red sign proclaiming “Apartment For Rent” still sat in the window. It would be all right, she was sure. She had the money, she looked the part.
She knocked on the door.
A white man. “Can I help you?”
She pointed at the sign, smiling. “I’m here about the apartment.”
“Sorry, already rented out.” And shut the door in her face.
She walked across the street, sat down at the bus stop. She watched silently as a white couple made their way the the door. They pointed at the sign. The man shook their hands and took them in.
Many horror stories attempt to subvert your expectations, to twist reality and make you question the world around you. In “Sunless Halls,” Donyae Coles went a step further, withholding the definition of what a monster is, and the reader’s perception of reality, until the very end. The protagonist exists at the crossroad of life and monstrous horror; the same type of nightmare that the characters in HBO’s Lovecraft Country live in.
Catch up on episodes of Lovecraft Country streaming on HBO Max.
This article is a sponsored collaboration between HBO and G/O Media Studios.
Danny Lore is a writer and editor of SFFH. They’ve written and co-written original and licensed comics (Queen of Bad Dreams, Quarter Killer, James Bond, Ironheart), as well as having published stories in Fireside, FIYAH, Nightlight and A Phoenix First Must Burn. And, yeah, Lovecraft Country is the only show they’re watching weekly right now.