Play It Again | Campfire Horror by Michael Whitehouse


Throw another log on the fire. That’ll keep us warm for a while, keep the darkness at bay. Perhaps we should pass the time with another story by the campfire. Just long enough to see us through past midnight. I’ve told you stories before of ancient evils lurking in the woods which surround us, a malevolence which reaches out from the distant past to touch us here. In the present. But we needn’t delve into an obscure history of vengeful spirits or abhorrent monstrosities to find that these woods contain their fair share of secrets. A macabre fate may make itself known, even in these technological, modern times.

Take, for example, what happened not far from here just three years ago.

Now fame and fortune is something which fuels the creative heart. And at no time in our lives is that desire for the crowd, for an audience, more potent than during the rocky road of our teenage years. Many, take to the guitar, the drums, the bass or a keyboard, but whatever the chosen instrument, music provides an intoxicating creative outlet for the part of us which craves attention. The skills we learn, the songs we sing, surely they will lead us to stardom and glory. In our naivety, we assume this as our right, it is only a matter of time before we succeed. Before the world learns how special we are.

But when those teenage years pass and fame and fortune have proven more elusive than once thought, a quiet desperation slowly sets in. A fervent desire to hold on to youth, hoping that your band, your music, all your talent, will receive that magical piece of good fortune which will propel you towards your dreams.

Your twenties roll by, but you still feel young enough to be snapped up by a record company. Jobs, partners, hobbies - they’re all just distractions from what you were put on earth to do. Then, your thirties come, and age begins to present a problem. For the music industry is littered with talented acts, but most of them come to fruition when they are teenagers or in their twenties at best. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but they only prove that it exists. Sleepless nights and growing dread wash over you as a voice inside your mind whispers “time is running out”.

A few towns over from where we are now, one such band was struggling with this fact of life, the unerring flow of time. Its lead singer and leader was a man called Matt, he had always talked big to the other three members of the group, and had managed to keep them hopeful of one day landing a big fat record deal, complete with adoring groupies, and mountains of cash. Tommy was on bass, Jackson on drums, and Freddy on guitar. Up until that time, it had all seemed so simple, so right. When they were teenagers, playing gigs, their friends and a small fan base would cheer them on to unavoidable greatness. Heady days indeed, but in the end, the fruit of their efforts withered, replaced only by a malignant doubt and failure which clawed within. The good times were well and truly over.

But Matt was not quite ready to let the dream die. At 35, he still felt he had something relevant to say to the world, and believed with every inch of his being, that he and his band would soon reach their goal. A goal which he had continuously pledged to the other members for twenty years being just around the corner. Money was the real problem. To keep the band going until they made it big. For a long time they’d had a decent local following, so could play gigs and make just enough to scrape by. But even those faithful followers had now moved on to other things, to other chapters of their lives. And the music the band played, while enjoyable, was mired in the fashions of two decades previous.

The future was looking bleak, that was, until one day Matt received a letter. It read as follows:

“Dear Matt,
I have been a fan of your band for some time, and have been to several of your live shows. I’m sure you have noticed, however, that your fan base has dwindled recently. Luckily, I have found myself in a privileged situation. I have recently come into a large inheritance, and I’m wanting to set up my own record company. I’d very much like for you and your band to be our first signing. This would involve a record contract for three albums over the next three years, and a small promotional tour. If this is something that you are interested in, please contact me on the following cell number.

Sincerely,
A devoted fan.”

Well, Matt was delighted at this offer, and as quick as he had read the letter, he had dialled the enclosed number and spoke with this devoted fan. His name was Harry Schofield, and he seemed to be the real deal. He was willing to invest over a million dollars in the band, with 500K of that being split between the four band members. You can imagine how happy this made Matt. Finally, after all those years of struggling, it was really happening. All those gigs, all those songs, all that heartbreak. Now he had finally shown the doubters that they were wrong.

But as Harry Schofield continued on the phone, it became apparent that there was one stumbling block. As it turned out, Harry was only a part owner in this new record company, his older brother, Tomas, had to sign off on the deal before it could go through. Harry referred to Tomas as unusually careful with his business, and that the only way he would allow Matt’s band to be signed, would be if they auditioned for him. If it went well, then they would receive a concrete record contract within days.

And so an audition was set up for the band.

But it was an unusual one. Matt, Tommy, Jackson and Freddy were to go to Tomas’s house and audition personally for him. When Matt learned that this house was in these very woods which surround us, deep in the Southern portion, he began to grow a little uneasy. He and the band worried that it was some sort of joke, auditions were usually held at a venue or a practice studio, but here the band was being asked to venture deep into an isolated area, so that they could be evaluated by someone they had never met face to face, even spoken to, in fact. After several phone calls to Harry, these issues were reduced to a degree when, as a token of goodwill, he deposited four thousand pounds into their bank accounts as an audition fee.

At the sight of this money, the band knew that Harry, Tomas, and this new record company were the real deal. Who would pay that sort of money if they weren’t taking the process seriously?

And so the day came for the audition, and Matt and the boys drove out through these very woods, and finally, after an hour or so of wrong turns and nervous glances at each other, they found the house. It was impressive. The band had expected nothing more than a log cabin. But there in front of them in a large clearing, the house sat - two stories tall, with a well groomed lawn and clean, maintained grey stonework, as well as a large wooden porch out front.

It was Freddy, the guitar player, who found the note. A piece of paper lodged in a plant pot at the front door. He opened it and read it aloud to his fellow band members.

“Hey guys,
Unfortunately Tomas is busy today, but we’ve organised a compromise. Please make yourselves at home. You’ll notice we’ve set up a few cameras inside. Tomas has left strict instructions that you should switch all the cameras on and then play your best 30 minute set. Give it everything you’ve got, as Tomas is very particular about the act he wants to sign. He’ll be watching remotely, and should he wish to contact you he’ll give you a ring. Please do follow all of his instructions, as I dearly want to sign you guys to the new label, but I can’t do it if Tomas doesn’t agree. Thanks much, and good luck with the audition.

Sincerely,
Harry

P.S. The door is open.

Freddy thought this was a bizarre turn of affairs, and the others agreed. They had all thought they were there to play in front of Tomas, only now to find themselves performing for a camera. When they went inside, they found everything just as Harry had described. There were three cameras on tripods, staring vacantly at an empty space against one of the walls in the living room. Other than that, the place looked like a holiday home, a corner couch, TV, and a large bookcase to the rear.

The setup seemed a bit over the top, but Matt and the others were desperate for the contract to go through, and so they agreed to give it their all. They also agreed outside, that they would not say anything else about the strangeness of the situation near those cameras, as the feeling was that Tomas was watching, and they didn’t want to offend him and risk scuppering the deal.

And so, as per the instructions, Matt and his band set up their instruments and played. They played their hearts out as if performing for a crowd of fifty thousand. Finally, when the thirty-minute set was over, they put their instruments down, packed everything up and left the house, but as they walked towards their car, a ringing now came from inside the house. A phone.

“It must be Tomas,” Matt said to the group, and then rushed inside to answer. Freddy the guitar player went with him, and so they picked up the telephone inside the house, and they both listened over the receiver.

After a crackle in the line, a voice soon came. Thin and croaked. Matt thought that it reminded him of something, maybe from an old black and white film, as if speaking out of time. It was the cadence, the intonation, the music to the voice. It was sombre, like a funeral march, yet it spoke very plainly.

The voice said:

“I am Tomas. Play it again.”

Matt and Freddy didn’t know what to make of it. They asked which song Tomas would like to hear again, but the reply did not answer this, though it did come swiftly. Play it again. The voice said. Then the line went dead as if Tomas had hung up. Freddy figured that Tomas meant the entire set, and Matt didn’t want to miss the song Tomas liked the most, so it seemed sensible to play the entire 30 minutes through once more.

And so, begrudgingly, the band set their equipment up in the empty space of the living room once more. Then, they performed. Matt sang his heart out, Freddy played note-perfect, and the thumping bass of Tommy was driven forward hopefully by Jackson’s perfect timing on the drums. At the end of the thirty minute set, they all stopped and looked at each other, wondering what would happen now. If that was it, and if they should now head home and wait for the outcome.

The phone rang loudly. Once more, Freddy and Matt listened in. They asked the sombre voice on the other end of the line what it thought, but all it said was: “Play it Again.”

Confused, and a little dejected that their efforts had not been good enough, the band nonetheless pushed onward and played again. They thrashed through the songs, music they’d all written over the course of two decades. Their best, their brightest, their catchiest, their big hits, as Matt referred to them. When they finished, they were covered in sweat, and exhausted, for now, they had played an hour and 30 minutes of music and were starting to feel the strain.

Feeling now that they had surely done their best to win Tomas over, they were shocked when the phone rang, and that thin, croaked voice stated plainly: Play it Again.

This time, Freddy started talking, almost refusing. Saying that he could not see what good it would do, that they’d put everything into it already. There was a silence, the slightest crackle on the line, and then the voice spoke: Play it Again, before hanging up.

Freddy started questioning Matt about the entire thing, wondering if it was all some horrible practical joke, but Matt was as puzzled as he was, though not willing to give up just yet. Let’s do it once more, this could be our last chance at the big time! There was a desperation creeping into his voice, a sound which spoke of fear, a creeping disappointment that their dreams were once more to be dashed, perhaps forever.

Matt was a good leader, and he was always able to energise the band when they were feeling despondent. he had had two decades of practice at that. All those conversations of quitting, of ending the band, only to pull it back from the brink each time with a smile and a resolute belief. He managed it on that day too, and so they played again. Again with heart. Again with everything they had. And again, by the end of the performance, they were utterly exhausted.

They waited.

The silence was overwhelming, the only sound the distant call of some unseen bird deep within the woods outside. The atmosphere felt charged, like the breath before an oncoming storm. Anticipation has its way of sucking the life from the moment.

But the phone did not ring this time. It sat there, silent. The band members remained for a time, too tired to talk. Finally, Freddy suggested that perhaps Tomas and Harry were talking it over and that was why no one had called to let them know yet; but after an hour passed, they had lost their patience. It would be dark soon, and none of them fancied staying the night in a remote house out in the woods. Even as they stood there, the sky was greying above, promising to snuff out the light sooner rather than later.

And so, feeling dejected, they packed their instruments up and decided to head home. But just as they did so, Freddy had an inclination, he picked up the phone to see if he could dial out and get the phone number of the last caller. If they were going to waste the band’s time like that and get their hopes up, then he would give them a few choice words to take with them.

But when he picked up the receiver and tried to dial out, he realised that there was no dial-tone. It was as though the phone line had been disconnected. Silence met his ear. And then, a sound. The stillness was briefly, subtly broken. On the other end of the line, a mouth breathed shallowly. Yes, Freddy was certain of it, Tomas had never hung up, in fact, he was now sitting with his mouth to the receiver for some reason, close and present. The breaths moved in and out, with a rhythm of their own, but there was a quiver therein, a sort of nervousness, which sounded remarkably like twisted excitement.

Matt listened, then Tommy, then Jackson. Matt spoke several times, but the breaths continued and at no point did they break into voice. They stared at the cameras which still pointed at them, and Jackson observed that perhaps Tomas was watching them on the cameras as they tried to engage with him over the phone. Somewhere out there, a wide open eye accompanied that stuttering breath.

The band members became so unsettled by this, that they quickly got into their cars and drove through the forest. The trees passed. The dark pockets therein which have seen countless people come and go, come and go, come and go. Matt began to feel as though the forest had gobbled them up from the modern world, only finally to be greeted by the last wisps of sunlight as they broke through the forest’s boundaries and then to a busy road, and home.


You will not be surprised to learn that they never heard from Harry, or Tomas, ever again. No emails, no phone calls, and when Matt made some enquiries about the mobile phone number Harry had given him, the police informed him that the phone had been stolen and that the real owner was a woman.

Now, you’d be forgiven for simply thinking this a strange tale, unusual, but nothing more. Alas, that is not the way of such things as these. One week after their bizarre audition, Matt organised a band meeting to discuss how they would move forward. Tommy arrived. As did Jackson the drummer. And Freddy… But not Matt himself… No, Matt did not attend the meeting he had set. And he did not call or text as to why.

He would not answer his phone, nor message on social media. And when the band drove down to his house and knocked on the front door, no one answered, for Matt lived alone.

Eventually, Freddy and the rest worried that Matt had gotten drunk and fallen or hurt himself somehow in his home. After much persuasion, the police decided to act and broke into the house. The other band members were there when they did so, and they feared what they would find. But there was no stench of death, as one might have feared. No sign of a struggle. No sign of anything untoward. That was, except for two things. The first was that Matt had vanished, taking with him only the guitar on which he had written many of the band’s songs; leaving behind his dreams of being a famous musician with his band, abandoning such pursuits, and to my knowledge, no one has seen or heard from him again. The second troubling find was a small piece of paper left on the pillow of Matt’s bed. It read: “I like this one best. He can keep playing.”


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Michael Whitehouse: Play It Again | Campfire Horror by Michael Whitehouse
Play It Again | Campfire Horror by Michael Whitehouse
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Michael Whitehouse
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