"Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner was first published in the small magazine Whispers in March 1974. Described by its author as "shot through with in-jokes and references which the serious fantasy/horror fan will recognize," (1) the story falls, I think, into the category of the roman à clef, that is, a fictionalized version of real people and real events. A roman à clef would seem an impossibility in fantasy fiction, but as long as you can accept that the people and events are really, really fictionalized, you'll be okay. One of the most famous stories of this type in genre fiction is Anthony Boucher's murder mystery Rocket to the Morgue (1942).
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database considers "Sticks" a novelette. I would call it a short story, maybe a long short story, but not so long that you can't read it in half an hour or so. I read "Sticks" in Masters of Horror and the Supernatural: The Great Tales, compiled by Bill Pronzini, Barry N. Malzberg, and Martin H. Greenberg (1981), in which it runs to nineteen pages.
"Sticks" opens along Mann Brook in the spring of 1942. A local artist, Colin Leverett, is on a final fishing trip before being drafted. In hiking down the valley, he finds patterns of stones laid out on the ground and, moments later, strange lattices of sticks everywhere he looks. Leverett comes upon a decrepit house and explores its interior. The walls inside are covered with "diagrams of the mysterious lattice structures," some "like a mad mural," others small, reminding Leverett of "cuneiform glyphics." (p. 307). The suggestion of writing is key to later developments in the story.
Leverett descends into a cellar seemingly too big for the house. It is constructed of "great blocks of gneiss that might support a castle." (p. 308) He wonders if the house was built upon a much older foundation. In the center of the cellar, Leverett discovers "a large tablelike bulk . . . . waist-high, maybe eight feet long and less wide." (p. 308) Feeling in the dark, he detects a groove along the edge of the slab, then "something cold and leathery and unyielding." (p. 308) It is at that point that a hand reaches out of the dark and grabs him. The face of his assailant passes through a beam of light. "It was a lich's face--desiccated flesh tight over its skull. Filthy strands of hair . . . tattered lips . . . broken yellowed teeth . . . and, sunken in their sockets, eyes that should have be dead but were bright with hideous life." (pp. 308-309) (2) Using his only weapon, Leverett strikes at the creature with his small, iron skillet. In so doing, he cleaves the lich's skull. Thus released, the frightened artists flees from the cellar, the sounds of pursuing footsteps lodged forever after in his memory.
"Sticks" goes on for eight more brief chapters, tying Lee Brown Coye's real-life experiences to local history, New England megaliths, colonial-era occultism, the Cthulhu Mythos, Wagner's own universe of Kane, and the small world of weird fiction. Coye is of course fictionalized as Colin Leverett, but August Derleth also shows up as Prescott "Scotty" Brandon, the editor and publisher of Gothic House books. H.P. Lovecraft is represented as well in the person of H. Kenneth Allard. There is a more obscure reference to the real-life local historian and author Andrew E. Rothovius (1923-2009) as the character Dr. Alexander Stefroi. On the whole, "Sticks" is creepy, but more than that, very clever in its construction. Lovecraft would have been proud and probably amused at what Wagner did with him as H. Kenneth Allard, of whom there is more than meets the eye.
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In "Sticks," the fictional Lee Brown Coye is contracted by the fictional August Derleth to illustrate the works of the fictional H.P. Lovecraft. The artist struggles to make his work suitably weird and macabre until he remembers the sketches he made of the stick lattices of a quarter century before. His depiction of those stick lattices is what drives the story to its terrifying conclusion. According to the afterword in Whispers, Lee Brown Coye began drawing stick lattices in his work in the early 1960s. At about the same time, he wrote about his experience in his newspaper column "Chips & Shavings," and he tried to relocate the site of that experience from a quarter century before. But do Lee Brown Coye's stick lattices really date from the early 1960s? And are they really based on what he saw along Mann Brook in 1938? The illustrations below tell a different story.
These two illustrations are from Lee Brown Coye's first book, The Seventh Ogre. The book was published in 1932--note the date next to Coye's signature in the first illustration. Note also the sticks motif in the background of both images. I'm not the first to point these out. Luis Ortiz made note of them in his biography Arts Unknown (2005). The point is that Coye's illustrations for The Seventh Ogre predate his fishing trip along Mann Brook by six years. In other words, he was drawing stick lattices long before he saw them around a decrepit backwoods house in Chenango County, New York.
Lee Brown Coye's tale of being grabbed by a hand out of the dark is a mystery. That it shall remain.
(1) Quoted in "The Terror of the Absurd: Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks" by Al Harron, from the website The Cimmerian, October 13, 2009.
(2) Lich is an old and very fine word for a corpse. It has been adapted to use in weird fiction and heroic fantasy, perhaps originating in the work of the "Big Three," Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom were fond of archaic words.
Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley