By Mark Slade
A friend of mine named Hal Pressman called and said, “Hey, Walt! You gotta come over here and see this!” He hung up with a chuckle, not even giving me a chance to say I was working in the garden with Marci.
She noticed the perturbed expression on my face.
“Who was that?” She asked, rising from the ground and dusting dirt from her bare knees.
“Good grief,” Marci said, exasperated. “What does he want?”
“He wants me to come over to his cottage.”
“You were just there yesterday.” Fuming, Marci added, “Watching Porky Pig cartoons for twelve hours, I might add.”
“Popeye,” I corrected her.
“What’s the difference?”
There was no arguing a point when a person has no interest in the subject of their outrage.
Marci continued. “When the University job starts you won’t have as much time for Hal. Because what little time you will have will belong to me.”
“I know,” I whined.
Marci had hammered home that statement since Coleman University hired me to teach Film studies last month.
“Why is he obsessed over cartoons?”
“Animation,” I corrected.
“Whatever it’s called, Walter, a grown man shouldn’t be watching that stuff as much as he does.”
I shrugged. “He’s writing a book.”
“So he says. I think he’s just lazy. Weird to quit a good job managing one of the biggest resorts in the country,” Marci said. “He does know you have a wife, doesn’t he?”
“Marci, what can I do?”
“You can say no. That you are spending the day with your beautiful, charming wife.”
Marci sighed, rubbed my back affectionately.
“But you won’t.”
“The man is lonely. After Debbie left him, he went to pieces. Finally, he’s back to normal—”
“Whatever normal is for Hal,” Marci said.
“No wonder she left him.. He’s so obsessive. I don’t know how she stood it for six years. All those VHS tapes of those old weird cartoons—”
“I didn’t mind… most of the time. It was all I could do to get him off the bottle,” I said. “I feel I have to keep an eye on him “
I knocked once and the oval shaped door sprung open. A small, pear shaped man with tiny black eyes looked left, then right, his lampshade haircut jostled sporadically in time. His rubbery lips spread wide across his face in a huge smile.
“Hey!” Life appeared behind those usually dull eyes. “You came!”
“Of course I came, Hal,” I barked at him. “I didn’t have a choice.”
A serious expression momentarily danced across his face.
“How do you mean?”
I sighed heavily. “Nevermind.”
Happiness brightened him. “Well, don’t just stand there in hundred degree weather. Come into the air conditioning, you big lug.” He guffawed, stood to the side to let me inside his very small cottage.
The place was a mess.
Hal was always a packrat and a hoarder. One of the many problems his ex-wife had with him. Not engaging her in conversation, was one. Not showing affection, another. Terrible with money, and not very interested in sex, was capped with anger in Hal’s voice. The list went on and on, as part of a teary, drunken confession Hal carried on with me last year.
Boxes and boxes were stacked everywhere. Books piled on the love seat, unwashed clothes scattered on the main sofa, as well as bags and packages of junk food, discarded remnants of food on the linoleum floor as well as empty water bottles on the window seals.
“Jesus, Hal,” I said, covering my nose in hopes to muffle the awful, dank smell offending and possibly burning off my nose hairs. “You could invest in some Air Wick candles.”
“Oh, that smell isn’t coming from me,” he said very seriously.
“All the dirty clothes and rotting food, I’m sure of it.”
“The clothes aren’t dirty. I just washed them. And the packages on the floor are from a ripped trash bag.”
“Why didn’t you sweep it up?”
“I did. Tossed the trash in a new bag, was getting ready to take it to the dumpster when you knocked. I sat the bag on the floor and… well. You see it.”
“At least put the clothes away,” I told him.
“I did. I leave the bedroom and they’re back on the sofa again.”
I gave him a disappointed look.
He said with childish enthusiasm, “That’s not why I called you over.” He walked to a small staircase, glanced over his shoulder and motioned for me to follow. “Down here. I got something to show you.”
He scampered down those narrow steps. Reluctantly, and much slower, my feet gingerly pummeled the loose boards. An unshaded bright bulb lit the basement, nearly blinding me. All I saw were more boxes and a cot with a piss stained mattress and a very old fake Christmas tree missing the plastic limbs.
Hal went directly to a cupboard built into the wall, breaking up the dull visual of gray brick and mortar. He flung the door, turned to me with the biggest and shiniest Kool-Aid smile I’d ever seen.
“This,” he said breathlessly. “I can’t believe I am sharing this with my best friend.”
An endearing sentiment, but overstated in my opinion. I liked Hal very much. I didn’t consider him my best friend at all. My best friend was living in New Mexico at the time. Karen, my sister. We were always close. So close, rumors in our highschool unbounded unfavorably about us.
“Okay, Hal,” I held my hands palm up. “Take it easy. This wouldn’t be that box of vintage Blue Films your Dad had in his collection years ago?”
“No,” he said calmly. “I sold that to the Carver museum of Film and Television Institute two years ago. I told you that already.”
“Oh. So you did,” I feigned a smile.
Hal reached into the cupboard with both hands. He pulled out a bunch of papers, causing dust to swirl around his face.
“You’ve heard of Nat Grimwood, right?”
I thought about it. “Yeah. I think so. Cartoonist in the 1900s?”
Hal nodded. “Yep. What else?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, Hal.”
“Political cartoons. Comic strips like Funny Tales, about a monkey and a crocodile. Mrs. Winston, a socialite in New York City, Crikey and Spitfire, boy and girl trouble makers—”
“Okay, okay, Hal,” I interrupted impatiently.
“Hold on. You need to hear this. Has to do with what I found.”
He walked over with the dusty photo albums and brittle pieces of yellowing paper. He shoved them in my arms
“Hey,” I protested
“Carry these upstairs and I’ll bring the rest.”
“The rest?” I struggled to keep all of what was in my arms because the weight and awkwardness of the paper sizes
“Oh, yes,” he giggled maniacally. “There’s more, Walter. There’s more.”
I did as he said, dumping the photo albums and papers on top of the piles of clothes on the sofa. My arms were grateful. Thirty seconds later, Hal stumbled into the living room and dropped a few sheets of Cels on the floor.
Animation celluloid, if you are unfamiliar with the term, are transparent sheets on which objects are drawn or painted for traditional, hand-drawn animation. Actual celluloid (consisting of cellulose nitrate and camphor) was used during the first half of the 20th century, but since it was flammable and dimensionally unstable it was largely replaced by cellulose acetate. With the advent of computer-assisted animation production, the use of cels has been all but abandoned in major productions.
I stared at the brittle transparencies.
They should have crumbled or caught fire decades ago.
On the three sheets, I found myself glaring at, consisted of a semi-realistic black and white ink drawing of a hideous little devil climbing out of an ink jar, his clawed fingers gripping the rounded sides. His pointed ears set back on a rounded head, little pug nose flared, furrowed brow on tiny slit eyes, and upturned lips tangled in two fangs revealing a sardonic, evil smile.
“A little Devil,” Hal laughed heartily.
Momentarily, I shifted my eyes from the drawings to glance at an overly happy idiot smiling from ear to ear.
“The Grimwood Devil, buddy!” Hal exclaimed. “I found the comic strips he drew for the Southern Daily and for three years published in thirty newspapers all over the world.”
I blinked a few times.
“Nat Grimwood,” I said.
“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”
It was great. But my mind was still foggy.
“Aren’t you going to look at them?”
“The Cels? The cartoon strips?”
“I will, yes. I have a question?”
Hal tugged at his plastic gloves. I hadn’t noticed he was wearing them. He must’ve slapped them on before I got to the basement. Anyway,he dropped to his knees, picked up a cel and examined it carefully. Several seconds passed before he answered me.
“What’s the question?”
“How did you come by all this?”
Hal glanced at me, then back to staring at the cel.
“Chance, I assume.”
“There’s no way you just stumble onto an important find like this “
“I didn’t exactly stumble on this,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I nodded. “Do tell.”
“I read Grimwood may have owned this cottage.”
“Well, obviously, Walter. I found all this,” he waved his hand across the pile of drawings that lay at his knees.
“How did you surmise he owned this particular cottage out of all the cottages in the city, or even in this remote area?”
“I Researched it. Hey, are you interested in helping me write a biography of Nat Grimwood?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “I don’t mean baking a cake. Of course a book. I’m almost done with my Guide to the Greatest Animated Shorts book. I talked to Maurice. He’s really into publishing all the Animated Film book ideas I have—”
“This is really happening?”
“Yeah. This is a thing.” He stood, went to a desk I didn’t know he had because so much junk was sitting on it. He removed his laptop, and showed me the email exchange between him and Maurice Ben, Publisher at Pinnacle books.
“I’m impressed, Hal.”
“Thanks, buddy,” he chuckled. “Whadda ya say?”
“A book?” Marci said, wide-eyed. She was in the kitchen preparing lunch, two bowls of salad sat on the counter already, and Marci was in the middle of making the second ham sandwich.
“Yeah. Apparently, this is going to be his third book,” I said.
“He never said anything,” she said. “Nothing on his Facebook, or his Instagram. You wouldn’t know, you don’t do social media,” she held her fingers in the air to mimic quote marks. “Why didn’t he say he was published?”
“I asked him that,” I poured my Fiji water into a glass of ice, and grabbed her a can of Tab. “He said he was embarrassed to tell anyone, apart from me, that he was working on one.”
“Is he getting paid?”
“Yes, Marci,” I flashed a smile. “He showed me the statement. Royalties. Um, not too shabby. Not enough to pay the mortgage, he can, however, pay his Electric bill.”
“Hmm. You get to spend more time with your bestie than with your wife—”
“Marci.” I warned her.
“—While writing a book, making a prestigious name for the family, I might add.” Marci drew closer, studying my dour face. “Why do you have that look on your face?”
“Well,” I said slowly, still clutching to a thought. “While I was looking through the drawings, holding them in my hands…”
“Okay.” Marci scoffed.
“I could feel heat from the paper. Each drawing felt warmer and warmer…I thought I heard a voice.”
Marci stifled a giggle. She found her composure, and asked, “What did it say, Walter? This voice?”
“Yes?” She held her hands in the air.
I cleared my throat. I didn’t want to say it, but Marci goaded me.
“Walter, you can’t leave a girl hanging.”
“Flesh.” She repeated.
“Oh,” she said, after another study of my face. She’d become concerned. “Walter. You look haunted.”
“I feel haunted,” I said.
“Maybe you should tell Hal you don’t want to work on the book with him.”
“I can’t do that, Marci. I promised.”
She nodded. “Don’t bring your hauntings home.” She said sternly, slightly fuming.
I didn’t like the ultimatum. Still, she had a point. I smiled and kissed her on the cheek.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay. And you are going to write this biography of a cartoonist with him,” Marci looked at me incredulously as she handed me a ham sandwich.
“Oh,” I handed her a yellowing sheet of paper with a pen and ink drawing of a hand holding the little devil by the nape of his neck, skin between a forefinger and a thumb. “Hal said you can make copies of this drawing for invitations to our Halloween party.”
She laughed and cried out, “How cute! Oh, that’s very sweet of him. Walter, you are silly. Feeling haunted?” she tsked, tsked at me. “This is cute. Thank Hal for me.”
“You can thank him yourself. Come with me tomorrow to his cottage—”
“No, thank you—”
“You’ve never been, Marci—”
“And I don’t plan to. You know I don’t like Hal very much, Walter.” She waited, then added: “He creeps me out.”
I was tasked with researching Nat Grimwood’s life, while Hal traced the evolution and dates of his newspaper cartoons and the only animated film Grimwood made, based on his first successful strip, the Grimwood Devil. Online, I really only found bits and pieces, a wikipedia page that contradicted some online sites. I also found one book that had been written about Grimwood.
Written by animation students, Ferlin Klusky and Deedee Brinin, the mid eighties. The two of them ended up as a couple until Ferlin’s suicide just before the book was published. The book has been out of print for years, still I wanted to track down a copy, which proved difficult.
The University Library helped quite a bit. With an interlibrary loan from a very small Library in Omaha, the dogeared book arrived with several pages looking as if they had been chewed up. Also, I found pages with burn marks, and the smell of sulfur, piss, and shit, which forever invaded my delicate nose hairs.
What I found out about Grimwood was that his birthdate was sketchy at best. Three different dates were given in the book, online; which I do not trust at all, and a side note in a little known/little seen hour long documentary made for British television about fellow cartoonist and animator–Winsor McCay. November 13, 1871 in Queensfist, South Carolina. April 2, 1868 in Buffalo Springs, Georgia. And July 10, 1874 in Richmond, Virginia, is what he’d told people, and that was from the documentary.
He also said on numerous occasions his family had owned Virginia’s oldest newspaper in America, Chesterfield Carrier. His mother had been a successful actress and singer, from the famous Jolene family of Artists and performers.
It was a lie.
His mother, Maggie Grimwood, was an unmarried housekeeper for Joseph Dale, a Virginia lawyer who was possibly Grimwood’s father. They lived in a tiny shack behind the Dale residence, a three story mansion. Dale paid for Nathan’s art lessons at Richmond Art Institute. From Art School to his first job at Charlottesville Daily in 1907, until 1915, he drew political cartoons, and later drew his most popular strip, Grimwood’s Devil.
Basically, every strip began the same way. A realistically drawn hand dips his pen in an inkwell and when the pen rises, a semi-realistic black devil is sitting on the tip. Three panels of hand trying to stop the devil from causing chaos, either in panels already drawn—-such as the devil disturbing a wedding, or in Grimwood’s own life—such as eating his sandwich or taking flames from the fireplace and trying to burn Grimwood’s house. The last panel always ends with the hand stained with ink, holding the devil by the nape of its neck and placing it back into the inkwell, the other hand ready to screw the top back on.
So popular was Grimwood’s Devil, he followed Winsor McCay into animating his first and only completed film in 1914, using two plots from the strip, the hand stopping the devil’s hijinks of eating the sandwich and jumping out the apartment window to ruin a wedding. The four minute animated film played to huge box office numbers, making Grimwood quite a bit of money, but cost him his job at the Charlottesville Daily.
I went to the University Library where they still had archival materials of the Charlottesville Daily from 1908, scattered through our months of January, September, and December in years 1909-1911, and one paper dated February 3, 1915 showing headlined Editorial about Nat Grimwood, disputing a rumor Grimwood’s Devil was coming out the newspaper and terrorizing readers and their families, neighbors and friends. The Editorial went on with this note: “We at the paper sincerely apologizes for the trouble, if any of the fantastically, nonsensical events actually occurred”. It ended with the announcement that Bat Grimwood would be leaving for other opportunities.
Grimwood died of suicide in 1917, after discovering he had no more money for his second animated film. His throat had been smashed, and his fingers chewed to be bone. The police closed the case, rules as a suicide, and declared Grimwood had been practicing self mutilation. No weapon was found.
As I was reading the biography written by Klusky and Brining, the pages dissipated into dust.
I went to see Hal to tell him the progress I had made in my research and possibly bring up the weird suicides connected to Grimwood. Hal didn’t answer the door. I was a little confused, because we just traded texts less than ten minutes prior. I pounded on his door. I sent more texts and even called his phone.
“How odd,” Marci said. Almost as an afterthought she added, “I’m printing out the Halloween invitations. You think fifty is too much?”
“Oh, it gets odder,” I said.
I caught her at the computer, she’d been scanning some pages. Her eyes grew bigger when she looked up at me.
“Walter… look at you! Your clothes are in tatters!” Marci jumped from the swivel chair and ran to me.
She hugged me and I winced.She pulled away, softly touched my cheek.She asked what happened.
Slowly, I began revealing the events of the afternoon.
“I went around the back of the cottage—”
“You climbed a fence!” Marci interrupted as she burst into laughter.
“I… climbed a fence, yes.”
“Crawled through a tunnel of briar Holley.”
I pulled my shirt up to my neck, showed Marci the long scratches all over my back.
She rushed to the bathroom, and returned with a jar of salve. “Tell me all about this strange incident with Hal while I fix you up,” she said, dipping her hand in the jar.
I had to break a window to get inside Hal’s cottage.
I found him completely naked, balled up in a fetal position. A can of lighter flud sitting beside him and a drawing of Grimwood’s Devil. His whole body was covered in scratches and bite marks. He was shaking, weeping and sobbing, whispering to himself.
“Hal? What happened to you?”
Took him a long moment to recognize me. He sobbed uncontrollably as hugged my neck.
“Walter, Walter, Walter,” was all he could manage.
I helped him to his feet, and into some clothes that hadn’t been torn to shreds. We sat on the couch after I shoved some books to the floor.
“Tell me what happened, Hal,” I said.
He wiped his tear-stained cheeks with open hands, shook his head. “You won’t believe me,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter, Hal,” I told him. “Just tell me, please. I’m very concerned for you.”
“They’re after me, Walter.”
“Them,” he pointed to a black and white drawing of Grimwood’s Devil.
I also saw a large black spot on the floor near the fireplace. A pile of blackened ashes and tiny pieces of paper surrounded the open folders Hal kept Grimwood’s art in.
“Yes,” he choked back a sob. “I’ve been burning Grimwood’s drawings. Tearing them up. Even the Cels.”
“Why? Why would you do that!?” I screamed. “We need those for the book—”
“To hell with the book!” He squealed. “I don’t give a damn about that book, Grimwood, or Grimwood’s Devil. Listen to me, Walter, I-I-I know you won’t believe me. I… know–no one is going to believe me. Those things—” he pointed to the last remaining drawing of Grimwood’s Devil, lying there on the floor. “They come to life. They come to life and they attacked me. You know, you know my clothes, they-they ripped them up! That awful, horrible smell, that comes from them! The trash… Oh, God. They love to dig in the trash. All my vinyl records, they broke them. I-I was playing Neil Sedaka… Made one of them really, really angry…” he stopped talking, twisted his head around violently. Turned quickly back to me. “Please help me. Walter, take me somewhere safe.Away from… them.”
He broke down, covered his face with his hands as he wept.
“What did you do?” Marci asked, hanging on to my every word.
“I took him to the hospital,” I sighed deeply. “After the nurses and doctors settled him in, and I explained to them, the Police eventually, I found Hal outside his house, naked on the lawn.”
“Did they believe you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Better than what he told me. They asked me if I thought Burglars had been there and assaulted Hal. “That would have been a better than what he told me. More believable.”
“I admit,” Marci said. “That’s a very strange story.”
“You’re not going to like mine either.” I told her. “I went back to Hal’s cottage.”
Frightened, Marci touched her lips with a hand.”Oh,Walter. Were there burglars there?”
I shook my head no.
I’m not sure why I went back. I felt compelled to. Maybe a part of me believed Hal. If what he told was true, I needed to find out for myself.
In the midst of the turmoil and confusion, we forgot to lock the front door to Hal’s Cottage. I pushed the door with a hand and it swung open. An awful odor, the smell of death–a body that had been decomposing for months–hit me right away. Dread filled my every being.
Cautiously, I walked inside. I stood just outside the threshold and surveyed my surroundings. I held my breath.
I heard the whisper.
Then small, hollow pounding of running footsteps. I jerked my head to the left. Nothing. I jerked my head to the right. Nothing. Again, I heard the whispering.
Hollow pitter patter followed.
“What the hell?”
Suddenly, I was on my face. I hit the floor with such terrible force, the wood floors bloodied my nose. Something had swept me off my feet and I felt a burning sensation on the back of my left ankle. I looked over my shoulder and saw a black lined drawing of a little devil crawling up my leg. His tiny taloned fingers dug deep into my pants; shredding the fabric of my jeans, and taking long strides of skin with them.
The cartoon devil, the thick black inked devil from Grimwood’s newspaper strip, was attacking me!
I screamed, rose up to my knees, using the palms of my hands for balance. That little devil had slid from my leg, tumbling to the floor. I rolled over and saw the horrible little thing was rushing towards my face with a sharpened taloned index finger. I quickly spring to my feet. The devil just missed my left eye. Grumbling under its breath, the terrible thing swiped at the air and spun around to catch me in the back of my ankle.
I squealed like an injured animal.
It’s one claw was embedded deep into my skin. It swung back and forth to avoid drops of blood draining profusely from my wound. I stumbled around, shaking my leg, trying in vain to rid myself of the three inch murderous cartoon character.
He started climbing me, using his claws as if he was using a mountaineering blade. Screaming, I swirled around and around. In the meantime, his claws were shredding my clothes and causing several small wounds. I fell flat on my face.
The devil was on my back, clawing and biting my shoulder. Shrieking, I reared my head back and felt the creature take a bite like it was an apple.
That’s when I saw the can of lighter fluid lying on its side, a puddle of clear liquid leaked onto a drawing of the little devil. To the right of it, just a few inches, was a lighter. I reached for it with my right hand. As if that little fucker knew what I was going to do, it hopped to the floor and clamped its tiny sharp teeth onto my index finger. Shrieking again, I waved my hand around like a mad man. The little devil wouldn’t budge. So I grabbed the lighter with my left hand, rolled the wheel once and a flame sparked just enough to catch lighter fluid and the drawing.
The little devil let go of my finger just as it caught ablaze. This time there were echoes of its shrieks. Right before my eyes, I saw the devil’s body fizzle into a charred carcass, and explode into a pile of sulfur as it hit the floor.
“My God,” Marci said,shocked, half-believing my story.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell you,” I said. “I see in your eyes you aren’t sure if you believe me.”
“Walt, I don’t know… has to be… true? Look at the state of… you?”
“I know,” I sighed. “I almost don’t believe it myself.”
Both our eyes shifted to the printer. Several sheets of white bond paper lie in the tray, all bearing black and white drawings of Grimwood’s Devil.