For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Shambling Mound
Trigger Warning: Self-Harm
Jack and his mother live on a dusty ranch outside of town, just barely scraping by. When a mysterious stranger offers them five magic beans for their last cow, Jack sees potential for fame and fortune. But a little personal growth can be hard to handle.
Poverty and drought wracked the town of Spriggins. Fields lay fallow and thick clouds of dust clung to the air. Outside of town, Jack and his widowed mother lived in a ramshackle house on what was once a bustling dairy farm. Thanks to the depression and cruel chance, their herd had been reduced to a single cow. Each morning, Jack’s mother milked the cow and gave the milk to Jack to sell at the market. But one dry morning, Jack’s mother returned to the house in tears with her bucket empty.
“Jack, the cow won’t give any milk! It’s the feed, she’s gone too hungry for too long. The poor thing is nothing but skin and bones!”
“Useless goddamn animal!” Jack’s eyes flashed with anger.
Jack stormed across the room and snatched the bucket out of his mother’s hands as if to confirm for himself. Cowed, Jack’s mother shrank before him. Although Jack still had a young man’s lanky build he was strapping and strong, with big hands and a terrible temper. He towered over his mother, face reddened.
“That’s it, if she won’t give us milk then I’ll take her to market and sell her instead!” Jack said.
“Jack, no, please! That cow is the very last of your father’s herd. If we just hold on for a little longer, get her some proper feed, she’ll start producing again!”
Jack sneered. “If there was any meat on her to speak of, I’d already have her head on the chopping block! The old man left us with nothing. No, I’ll take her to market and get what little I can to keep this place scraping by.”
Jack noosed the old cow and led it out of the barn. Tired and skinny, with rheumy eyes, the beast was reluctant to go anywhere. With some pulling and abuse, Jack got her trotting along behind him on the road into town. He always resented the long and dusty march to market, especially when carrying a heavy bucket of milk. Travellers and especially traders often used the road in and out of town. If he could, Jack would just as soon deal with one of them and get the sale over with. In the meantime, he occupied himself with curses and recriminations for his lowly place in life. Reduced to selling this worthless animal for enough coin just to keep food on the table.
Jack was so lost in his bitterness that he failed to register the trader coming up behind him. A man shaded by a large hat and coat sat on a wagon drawn by two weary horses. Furniture and crates and an impossible number of odds and ends cluttered the wagon, junk for the trader to sell. The man’s clothes were ragged and covered in dust. Hearing the clip clop of hooves, Jack turned to see the wagon suddenly appear. The man tipped his hat
“Good morning,” the trader said.
“What’s so good about it?”
“Apologies, my lad, I did not realise you might be feeling poorly. Where, might I ask, are you going with that animal?”
“I’m going to market to sell the useless beast.” Jack gave the cow’s rope a hard yank.
“I’m heading in the same direction, mind if I travel beside you for a spell?”
“It’s a free country.”
For a short while, the trader reined his horses to keep pace with Jack and the plodding cow. He quizzed Jack about the town ahead, where the best place might be to get a room, or a drink, and whether the people were friendly or might be in need of this or that. Jack answered in a sullen tone, swiping flies and dust away from his face.
“How much further aways is it?” The trader asked.
“Too damned far for my liking.” Jack gave the cow’s leash another hard yank, drawing a bleat from the animal.
“If you’re tired of walking, perhaps you and I could make a deal?” The trader said. “I’ll buy the cow off of you. If you’re willing to trade, that is, I’m afraid I don’t have any coin.”
“Trade what? We don’t need any more junk that I’d have to sell anyway.” Jack eyed the load filling the trader’s wagon.
“No, no, I have something much better than any of that. Better than coin!”
Reaching into his coat, the trader withdrew a glass container. As he held it up to the sunlight, Jack could see five small, green, squidgy objects rolling around the bottom of the jar.
“What the hell are those? Beans?” Jack said.
“Magic beans! With these, your family will never go hungry, and you will have the opportunity to find fame and riches beyond your wildest imaginings!”
“With beans? Come on, now!”
“Let me ask you, boy, you’ve always done as you’re supposed to, am I right? You’ve worked hard, tilled the land, taken care of your stock? You’ve honoured thy mother and father, gone to church on Sunday, and avoided wine and loose women?”
“More or less,” Jack answered the question darkly.
“And where has it gotten you? That I ask, where has your hard work and the preacher’s pretty words gotten you? It’s gotten you here. Hot and dusty and low with nothing but a scrawny cow to your name. I’m giving you a chance to better yourself, grow something new entirely. But you’ve got to seize it! You’ve got to take the chance.”
“I don’t know about all that.” Jack hesitated.
“Tell you what, this is a one time offer, take it or leave it. I’ll give you the beans and you give me the cow to sell. But tonight I’ll be staying at that inn in town that you recommended. If tomorrow morning you’re not satisfied that everything I’ve told you is absolutely true, then you come and see me and I’ll give you back your cow, or whatever price I manage to sell it for in your market.”
It didn’t quite end there but the trader continued to convince and cajole. Standing beside the dusty road, Jack didn’t want to keep walking. And the trader painted such a picture of what might be possible, Jack began to feel he’d be a fool not to trade for the beans. If they didn’t work, he could always take it up with the trader tomorrow. Eventually, Jack tied his cow to the back of the trader’s wagon and accepted the jar of beans.
“This had better work,” Jack said.
“I promise you, by tomorrow the results will be undeniable!”
Jack returned home with the jar and its five beans in his pocket. His mother was surprised but hopeful to see him home so soon without the cow.
“How did it go? How much did you sell her for?”
“I met a trader on the road, he didn’t have any coin but he traded me the cow for these magic beans.”
Jack produced the jar and held it up for her to see. Jack’s mother couldn’t control her reaction in time and her face fell.
“Oh, Jack, beans? For a whole cow?”
“Magic beans!” A voice in the back of Jack’s head had already begun to taunt him that he had been fooled, so he reacted even more angrily than he might have otherwise. “He promised me we’d never go hungry again, and they’d bring us money and fame!”
Jack’s mother struggled with her expression. Swallowing hard, she managed not to cry as she slowly backed away.
“Okay, Jack, I’m sure you know best.”
As Jack’s mother retreated to her room, Jack sat at the kitchen table. He rattled the beans around in the jar. Eventually, he opened the lid and tipped them onto the table. It occurred to Jack that the trader hadn’t told him what he actually had to do with the beans to achieve fame and fortune.
The beans were dark green and shaped like kidneys, and gave the impression of overstuffed pillows. Jack didn’t recognise exactly what kind of bean they were but neither did they strike him as particularly unusual. He prodded one with his finger and found it strangely heavy, dense, in spite of its small size.
By the time evening rolled around, Jack decided that there were only two ways to deal with beans. You could plant them or you could eat them. His mother had emerged to potter around doing chores as Jack pored over the beans. Their cupboards, however, were bare. Jack called out to his mother in a rough tone.
“Mother! Cook these beans for my supper,” Jack said.
Jack’s mother boiled the beans with water from the well. She served them to her ungrateful son on a plate with a pinch of salt. Jack still didn’t have total confidence in the beans but he ate them one after the other. Nothing changed immediately, he didn’t look or feel any different. Shortly after, Jack went to bed. Dreams of riches, women and stardom consumed his thoughts as he drifted off to sleep.
Jack woke up late that night with a terrible pain in his stomach. He felt like he’d swallowed a whole nest of snakes that were now roiling and squirming over one another, and nipping at the limits of the prison they found themselves in. Grunting, he struggled to roll over so he could light the candle beside his bed. He lurched to his feet and carried the candle to the bathroom, hunched over in pain.
Their outhouse was outside but the farmhouse had a bathroom with a wooden tub and a small basin filled with water. A dull mirror was nailed to the wall above the basin. Jack set the candle beside it and rinsed his face. His stomach folded over and he let out a loud groan. Touching his stomach through his undershirt, he found it swollen and hard.
“The beans, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten them all,” Jack moaned.
If he could throw up, Jack thought he would feel better. Bending over the basin, Jack hacked and retched. His stomach and chest ached but nothing came out of his mouth. Something, however, tickled the back of his throat. He coughed and tried to clear it but couldn’t. He could feel it scratching behind his tonsils.
Leaning forward, Jack opened his mouth as wide as it would go. In the mirror, by candlelight, Jack could see something green in the back of his throat. Green leaves and tender, twisty shoots, like the vine of a beanstalk.
“What is that?” Jack’s breathing laboured.
Using two of his fingers, Jack reached past his teeth and tongue to probe the back of his throat. The vine felt slippery and touching it made him retch but he managed to pinch it. Jack started to pull, and pull, until the vine unwound from his mouth. Getting a better grip, he wound it around his fist and kept pulling. He could feel it wriggling all the way down his throat and tugging at the ball in his stomach. Finally, something snapped and the rest of the vine came loose, twice the length of one of his legs and covered in leaves. Little beans budded on the vine as well. Jack folded over the basin, gagging.
“What is happening?”
Jack had pulled the vine loose but the act seemed to have upset the other vines in his stomach. His guts squirmed. Movement began to radiate outwards, under his skin, itching and hurting. It felt like worms tunnelling through his chest.
Jack grabbed his bed shirt and ripped it off. Candlelight flickered, stretching shadows across his torso. Jack recoiled. In the mirror, he could see dark, snaking lines moving just beneath his skin. Leaves were pulled along as vines grew through his flesh. He had to do something or he would be consumed from the inside out.
Jack’s straight razor rested beside the basin, along with a comb and shaving brush. The blade itself was old and dull. Jack unfolded and lifted the razor to his chest, breathing hard, able to see his heart pumping beneath his ribs.
A vine writhed beneath the skin like a shadow. It itched terribly, and set his nerves on fire. Jack pushed the tip of the razor into his skin. His instincts told him to pull away but he pushed harder and the metal bit into the skin, cutting, and cutting deeper. Blood ran down the blade and onto his hand as he gasped with pain.
The vine sought freedom through the cut, and its tip wriggled through the blood and split skin. Slick red and green, it unwound and scented the air. Leaves budded and unfurled from its sides in super speed, like pages flipping through a sketchbook. Blood dripped off the vine and into the basin, turning cloudy and dissipating in the clean well water.
Grunting and crying out in pain, Jack grabbed the bloody vine and started to pull. He could see the vines and leaves being yanked through his flesh. It wound between muscle and bone and just beneath the surface of his skin. When he could stand no more, Jack sliced the vine in half as close to the skin as possible and dropped the remains on the floor.
Jack’s stomach rolled. More vines grew beneath the skin of his midsection, chest, and his arms. They looked like animated tattoos. Starting to panic, Jack began to cut away at other parts of his body. He inflicted more slices on his chest and sides and arms. He pulled vines free and hacked at them, littering the floor with bloody bits of plant. Blood dripped off his chest, splattering the area around the basin. The water in the basin itself turned misty and pink.
Vines continued to grow, and tender shoots probed the self-inflicted cuts. Pressure built in Jack’s skull. It felt like something shoving against the backs of his eyeballs. Jack mistook it for a headache brought on by stress but then a touch of green showed in one of his nostrils.
“No! That trader, I’m going to kill him for this!”
The beanstalk grew from Jack’s nostril, winding around and around on itself once it hit the open air. Jack grabbed it and pulled, careful not to snap the vine but desperate to get it out. He could feel it tearing through his sinuses and up the back of his throat, making his eyes stream water. He choked and gagged, pulling out another length covered in snot and spit and blood.
Pressure kept building, and Jack felt a splitting pain in his jaw. Leaning into the mirror, Jack pulled his cheek aside and looked. He could see one of the teeth in his bottom jaw wiggling, as if it were loose and being manipulated by invisible fingers. With a sharp lance of pain, the tooth suddenly popped free. Another green shoot sprouted from the puckered gap underneath. Something burned at the corner of Jack’s eye and the tip of a vine shoved through one of his tear ducts, winding its way down the side of his nose.
“No, help! Help! Mother, help me! Mommy!”
With a sudden convulsion, Jack bent over and retched again. More beanstalks exploded out of his mouth. At the other end of his spasming digestive system, he felt a sudden weight in his pants as if he’d crapped himself. More vines wound down his legs and curled around his penis and testicles, leaves brushing the sensitive skin. Jack let out a muffled scream. Vines exploded through his ears, his nostrils, and right through both eye sockets, deafening and blinding him. Blood splattered the bathroom floor. More vines ripped their way through the cuts Jack had inflicted on himself but where there weren’t already open wounds the beanstalks sprouted like needles through the skin instead. They wound and wrapped around his arms and chest, his shoulders, becoming thick and shaggy with leaves and budding beans. From within the erupting vines, Jack’s screams became wild, frenzied and animal.
The agent followed the signs arrayed along the dusty roadside. Hand painted with messages like ‘HALF-MAN, HALF-PLANT’ and ‘SEE THE SHAMBLING MOUND’. His Ford motorcar rattled down the drive and he pulled to a stop in front of the farmhouse, which looked as if it had recently had some repairs done to it. A couple of plumpish cows wandered the yard.
Checking his tie, the agent got out and walked to the front door. He put on his best Hollywood smile before knocking. After about a minute, Jack’s mother answered the door with a dish towel tossed over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, if you’re here to see the Amazing Plantman you’ll have to come back. We have showings at one and five PM.”
She went to close the door but the agent caught it and held it open. “I am here to see the plant, ma’am, but I’m also here to see you if you’ve got a moment? I have a business proposal I’d like you to hear.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I guess you should come in then.”
Jack’s mother led the man to the kitchen and offered him coffee, which he declined. He already felt too warm in his grey suit and collared shirt. Several new appliances and bits of cookware filled the kitchen. By the sink was a large bowl brimming with dark green, kidney-shaped beans gleaming with water.
“I just finished washing them, I harvest them every day and feed the excess to the cows,” Jack’s mother explained, catching his eye. “They’re quite meaty. Even if the money stops, we’ll never go hungry again. Would you like to try one?”
“Uh, oh, no thank you, ma’am, thank you,” the agent said. “It’s only you here?”
“You can call me Barbara,” she said. “My husband passed away, and my son-, well. You mentioned you had a business proposal?”
“My name’s Arthur Edmunds, ma’am, Barbara. I represent an entertainment consortium who would like to bring your attraction here to a wider audience. Take them, and tour them all around the country! Maybe the entire world!”
“I don’t know, we’ve been doing fairly well for ourselves even out here, outside of town. Traders pass by all the time, and even in the middle of a depression people will pay for a bit of novelty. To give them something to talk about besides their troubles.”
“No, no, we’re talking fame, ma’am! Real fame, and wealth like you’ve never imagined!”
Barbara thought it over for a few moments. “I suppose you’d like to see him first, wouldn’t you?”
Barbara and Edmunds left the house and headed out toward the barn. The old dairy shed had been converted into a kind of showroom. Circus posters covered the sides of the building. Barbara and the agent pushed through green strips of material dangling across the entryway and felt the temperature drop. Inside the barn was dark, with rows of benches lined up in front of a large pen.
“He’s kind of shy,” Barbara said.
Edmunds had been told what to expect, and if he hadn’t believed the plantman was for real then he wouldn’t have been there. Still, his jaw dropped as the creature shambled out from the shadows at the back of the pen. It could have been a man in a costume, but Edmunds knew instinctively that’s not what he was looking at. The creature was hulking, head and shoulders taller than a normal man. It had a humanoid shape, with arms and legs and a torso, but was covered in a jungle of thick vines and bushy leaves. It moved like an old man or a man in pain. It had no face, just another bushel of dangling stalks sprouting from where its head should have been. Arms raised, they were thick with wings of vines covered in those same beans Edmunds had seen back in the farmhouse kitchen.
“Amazing, can it-, can it do any tricks?”
“Some people say they’ve heard him speaking, but I’ve never heard it,” Barbara said.
“Let’s go back to the house and discuss contracts.”
Jack’s mother and the agent turned and walked away, pushing back through the strips of material. The wretched plant creature staggered to the edge of the pen, feeling blindly for the barricade. From deep within the leaves came a choked, muffled voice.
“Help-, me, please, help me.”
Sean: I must be on a fairytale kick, because it was only a few weeks ago I put out my own take on Little Red Riding Hood and now it’s Jack and the Beanstalk. This version of Jack is a little bit outwardly abusive but I’ve never seen why he was regarded as the hero. It’s the story of a young man, an incredibly stupid one let’s face it, who lucked into the purchase of some genuinely magic beans when by all rights he should have been cheated. Who then breaks into a man’s house, robs him, and then murders him when he tries to get his stuff back. Okay, look, I’m all for eating the rich but there’s just not a lot of nuance in the original telling.
Calling back to another couple of earlier stories, Two Heads Are Better Than One was another earlier fairytale from me although not based on any other story. And the very first one I released for All There in the (Monster) Manual was also set during the Great Depression. That’s what I was thinking for the setting of this story at least, although I decided not to date it too specifically.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Hook Horror