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It was a dark and stormy NIGHT

October 25, 1998

As fright night approaches, Times staff writer Bettijane Levine asked some local authors to conjure tales with the creepiest starting line of all: 'It was a dark and stormy night . . . '

Close the windows, lock the doors and turn off 'Jerry Springer.' These stories are way more strange.

ALONE, AGAIN / By MARK LEE

It was a dark and stormy night as I sat alone in the innermost chamber of my mansion. I could hear the grumble of distant thunder, then a creaking sound outside the door, as one of my bodyguards shuffled down the hallway.

The mansion was hundreds of years old, and a score of madmen had lived here before me. Their pain and rage had been absorbed by the walls, and no amount of new paint could conceal the smell of decay.

I was alone. My only child had been sent off to a distant land. My wife was a pale wraith who haunted the stairways at night. Lately, I had heard rumors of a ghoul wandering through the countryside, drooling and gibbering as he feasted on the companions of my youth. Only I could break this spell. Only I could reach out to someone whose blood was still red and warm. I rang the bell, and she appeared in an instant.

"Monica?" I whispered.

*

Lee is the author of "The Lost Tribe" (Picador USA, 1998).

LAST WRITES / By DENNIS ETCHISON

It was a dark and stormy night. No, I thought, a bubble of blood on my lips. There was no time to get literary about it.

I touched my mouth and then the wall, trying to scrawl the words in blood. This would be my last and most important work, the one that counted . . . the name of the monster who killed me.

I needed more red ink. There was plenty, coursing out of the two tiny holes in my neck and down my arm. I found the strength and raised my hand again.

It had to be legible. For my wife.

I could write "I love you," but she knew that. The name was more important--so the police could stop him.

How do you arrest a vampire? Cops don't carry holy water or stakes. Even with a death sentence, he'd be back to kill again. And next time it might be my wife. . . .

There is only one person who can protect her, I realized. Someone who is neither alive nor dead, but undead. Like the one who did this to me. But one who would come back from beyond the grave to keep her safe.

I could do it. The infection was already in me.

Let it happen now, I thought. Let me die and be reborn, before he gets to her.

I tore at the puncture wounds, releasing the last of the blood in a rush. To end it quickly so I could rise again.

While I waited to die, I lifted my hand and wrote the name of the one who finally killed me, who finished the job and set me free to watch over her. I scratched the words in shaky red letters, praying they were large enough for her to read, before I blacked out.

My own name.

*

Etchison is the author of "Double Edge" (Pumpkin Books, 1998).

SLEEP / By GARY BRANDNER

It was a dark and stormy night. So dark you can't see the hand in front of your face. You can't see it because the hand is gripping the back of your neck. It begins to squeeze. And squeeze. And squeeeeze. The night turns darker. The storm rages stormier. You try to cry out, but only muffled grunts escape your parched lips.

You turn your head. Ah, there. Now you see the face. The pale, threatening face looms over you, eyes glowing, teeth bared. And then the terrible, croaking voice, close to your ear, roaring like thunder: "Are you going to get up and go to school, or do I have to drag you out of bed?"

*

randner is the author of "The Howling" (Fawcett/Gold Medal, 1990).

UNFINISHED GHOST STORY / By WANDA COLEMAN

On the prerequisite moonless, dark and stormy night, there was a lull in the rainfall. An ancient kerosene lamp smoldered in the window of Apartment 18, half-concealed by toile and heavy velvet.

Who burned kerosene these days? He had been checking the weather for months, nearly as closely as he'd been checking her door. He knew every splinter in it, had stealthily, in wee hours, laid his ear to it, heard her movements, the rustling of her long, dark skirts, the low contralto of her laughter. He had inhaled the aromas from her kitchen until his stomach ached. He knew the fragrant oils she rubbed into her skin. He had counted the footsteps of her remarkable visitors who arrived one at a time yet never returned. And only on nights like this.

Her name was scratched off the mailbox. The other tenants didn't know she existed. His questions to the management company went unanswered, news of tenants confidential. One office clerk asserted Apartment 18 had been inexplicably vacant for years. That report fed his compulsion. Why, he wondered, did her visitors arrive promptly at 10 p.m. and leave at five minutes after midnight? Why were they always old men, as grayed, as rheumy-eyed as he? And why, when they left, did they seem decades younger, spry and happy?

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