People think because I write scary stories, that means I must be some kind of twisted bastard who spends all of his time sitting around dreaming up horrible things and the truth is that’s only half right. As a person, I am generally a pretty cheery motherfucker. I’m always cracking jokes and I’m usually the first one to remind others not to take things too seriously.
So why does every story that I write resemble a sleep aid-induced nightmare a mad man might have after eating a lot of weird cheeses? The simple answer? Because horror is how I make sense of the world. Let’s be honest; it can get pretty dark out there at times and whenever I come across something particularly disturbing, writing about it is basically my security blanket.
I try to give the horrors of the real world a narrative. I put them in the form of a story because that way I can control them. More importantly, I can reason with them. Of course, there are some things that are so inherently fucked that I can’t let them go, no matter how much I write about it. Like with the case of infamous hitman Richard Kuklinski or, as he’s better known, “The Ice Man”.
Kuklinski’s specialty was “making them suffer.” And how he did this was simple: He would abduct his target, incapacitate them with either chloroform or sodium pentothal, and then drive them deep into the Pennsylvania wilderness. Next he would strip his victim naked, bind them in wet rawhide, and then cover them in cow’s blood before leaving them at the mouth of a secluded cave that Kuklinski had discovered when he was just starting out as a hitman.
As with most of the caves in this part of Pennsylvania, Kuklinski’s cavern was home to a particularly nasty variety of Rattus Norvegicus, which is Fancy Pants for “rats.” Big fucking rats. How big? Picture a big rat… They were bigger than that.
Knowing that rats were omnivores and scavengers by nature, Kuklinski discovered that he could get these big fuckers to eat just about anything as long as it stayed still enough; hence the wet rawhide. He would wrap his victim up with strips of it until they were completely immobilized. He would then leave a camcorder on a tripod — a nice one with motion-detection and a night-vision lens — there to record the whole thing, so the client who had ordered the hit could appreciate the process in all its gory detail….
As the rawhide dries, its grip on you grows tighter and tighter until you can barely breathe, which is almost a blessing by this point because at least you can’t smell the stench of the rats as they begin to approach you. At first, only a few of them will venture forth to start nibbling on your arm or an ear. It’s painful, but nothing you can’t survive. Then the others realize you’re not going anywhere and, all at once, the rest will swarm you. They go for the softest parts first: eyes, lips, genitals. You want to scream, but every time you try, one of them digs inside your mouth and starts to chew on your tongue.
But here’s the part that I could never quite swallow: Kuklinski claimed he had kept copies of the camcorder footage in a box stashed in a hidden storage compartment in his house. But when the FBI raided the home after his arrest, no such box of tapes was found. The storage compartment itself was even noted on their search-invoice, but FBI officials insisted that they never recovered the tapes in question.
Of course, the FBI is infamous for denying that this sort of stuff exists (they’re the same agency that claims there’s no such thing as snuff films and we all know that’s a bunch of bullshit). But it’s been years since Kuklinski was first apprehended and with all of the publicity that his trial received, I found it hard to believe that these tapes had yet to surface in one form or another.
I mentioned as much in an email I wrote to true-crime author Philip Carlo, who had written a book about Kuklinski called The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer. I had reached out to him, hoping that I might receive some semblance of closure on the matter. Carlo had sort of skirted over the issue of where the tapes could have ended up in his book and I was desperate to hear his theory on what really happened to them.
I didn’t expect to get a response but figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. Carlo had spent countless hours interviewing the Ice Man shortly before Kuklinski’s death in 2006, which made him my last best hope for any sort of real answer. Still, I was more than a little surprised when I opened my inbox the next morning and saw that I actually had a reply.
I had gotten Carlo’s email from his personal website, but that didn’t mean there still wasn’t a possibility I was being trolled. Though, in the end, the lure of learning more about the Kuklinski cave tapes was simply too much for me to ignore. I called “Polly” that afternoon and she answered on the first ring.
“Hi, is this Polly?”
“Yep. Joel is fine.”
“Joel. Right. I like that name. Are you Jewish?”
“No, actually my mom named me after Tom Cruise in Risky Business.”
“Oh, I love that movie.”
“Yeah, so did my mom. That’s why I’m named after a fictional pimp.” Polly chuckled at this, but the sound was slightly forced. “So… you said something about a question you wanted to ask me?”
“Yes, I was wondering if you would be willing to watch something for me.”
“Is it a tape of Kuklinski feeding people to rats?”
There was a pause on Polly’s end and then she said, “As a matter of fact, it is.”
Polly let out another forced chuckle, followed by an uneasy sigh. “I wish it was. Shortly before Richard died, he told my father about a cabin out in the Pennsylvania wilderness that he owned under a fake name. One of his false identities that the authorities hadn’t discovered. He told my dad where the cabin was and asked him if he would go there and retrieve a box from underneath the floorboards. Kuklinski requested that my father then burn the box’s contents.”
“And inside that box were the tapes the FBI claimed they never recovered…”
“Just one tape. What I’m about to tell you never made it into my dad’s book for obvious reasons, but anyway…before he was apprehended, Richard decided that keeping such an extensive video record of his crimes was too risky and that he needed to destroy the tapes. Though, not before he edited together a short mix of his favorite moments which he then recorded onto a single VHS.”
“You’re fucking with me, right?”
“I assure you that I am not. My father could never bring himself to watch the tape in question. He knew what it was because Richard had told him and the true-crime writer in my dad must’ve stopped him from destroying it like he’d been told to do. For years, my father managed to resist the urge to watch it. Then about three weeks ago, he called me up in the middle of the night, sounding terrified. He’d had a nightmare, he said. He told me about the tape and he confessed that a close friend recently convinced him to watch it and now he couldn’t get what he’d seen out of his head.”
“That’s a fascinating story and all but, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you telling it to me?”
“Because that phone call was the last time anyone has heard from my father. He’s been missing for almost a month now and I’m running out of options. I don’t wanna tell the cops about the tape because I’m worried what they’ll do. The fact that he withheld it from them is enough to put my dad away for years but this tape is also the key to finding him.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because he told me. That night he called, he said that if something happened to him, the tape was the key and that I needed to watch it.”
“You have it?”
“Yeah… Problem is I can’t bring myself to look at the damn thing. I want nothing more than to find my father but you didn’t hear how he sounded that night… The absolute fear in his voice… There’s a big difference between writing about such things and actually seeing them with your own eyes. And if HE couldn’t handle what was on there, there’s no way I can. When I read your email and saw that you were curious about the tapes, it was like a sign. Something was telling me that you were the perfect person to ask.”
“And what exactly makes me so special?”
“Well, you know the context for starters. Plus, I read some of your stories that you linked in your email. This seems like the kind of thing that would be right up your alley… No offense.”
“None taken.” As apprehensive as I was about all of this, there was no denying that Polly had a point. I’d sent that email hoping to find out what might have happened to Kuklinski’s tapes and now here I was, being offered a more detailed answer than I could’ve ever hoped for.
“You have a pen?” I asked.
“Here’s the address to my P.O. box…”
Polly said she would overnight the tape to me and sure enough, the next day I received a package containing an unmarked VHS. Thankfully, being the AV nerd that I am, I had a working VCR to play it on. Still, there was a moment before I inserted the tape when I almost decided not to do it.
I won’t lie; I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of watching giant rats eat people alive. I may love horror movies, but I’ve never been a fan of the “torture-porn” subgenre. Most of the films that fell under this heading were made to appeal to the lowest common denominator and even the genuinely “good” ones weren’t fun to watch.
Plus, I was kind of hoping I would go the rest of my life without having to see another real snuff film, but clearly that was asking too much. And of course, there was no way I could resist at least checking the tape to see what was actually on it. Remember, at this point I was still pretty sure that all of it was an elaborate prank. So finally I gave in, inserted the VHS, and hit play.
A green inferred shot of a cave filled the screen. My heartrate immediately doubled as I saw a man lying there at the mouth of the cave, bound in straps of rawhide. This was really happening. I was watching a mix of Kuklinski’s greatest hits.
A handful of large rats emerged from the darkness beyond the range of the camera’s infrared lens and one of them began to gnaw on the man’s nose. He let out a startled yelp that became a mortified scream as the man finally realized what was about to happen to him.
Something caught my eye then and I hit pause just as the rest of the pack began to swarm the man. There, in the green-tinted darkness beyond the cave’s mouth, a hunched silhouette was just barely visible. It was a squat bulky figure that looked to be about the size of a small bear and I rewound the tape to when I initially spotted it, just to make sure that what I was seeing was really there.
I fast forwarded through the rest of the tape, noting that this same mysterious shape appeared with each new victim and every time this thing simply stood there in the darkness, watching the rats devour the body in the foreground.
By the time the video ended, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to tell Polly. I called her anyway, simply to let her know that I had watched it, but got her voicemail. I left a message and then sent another email to Philip Carlo’s contact-address, updating her. I received an automated response a moment later informing me that the email address did not exist.
I was a bit baffled by this and on a whim, I decided to check the return address on the package the tape had been sent to me in. As I lifted the box, a thin white rectangle fell out onto my lap. I had been so anxious about watching the tape that I apparently failed to notice the unmarked envelope which had accompanied it.
The envelope contained a plane ticket to Pennsylvania and a business card for Philip Carlo. A set of coordinates was scrawled on the back of the card in blue pen. I plugged the coordinates into Google and was directed to a secluded patch of wilderness in the middle of Bucks County, PA. The treeline was too thick to see below it but I assumed that this was the location of Kuklinski’s secret cabin.
Fuck that, I thought. This ain’t my first scary-ass rodeo. I know a trap when I see one.
That night, I dreamed I was being chased by a large figure that turned out to be a human-shaped golem made of rats and I awoke with a nagging feeling that something was there with me in my bedroom. It was the same something that I had seen lurking in the darkness on Kuklinski’s tape. Whatever it was, it was here with me now and it knew what I had seen.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep another wink after that. The whole next day, things just felt off. I kept seeing large rats scurrying past my peripheral vision, which was especially unnerving while I was trying to drive, and the whole time I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. All of this could be chalked up to simple exhaustion but that night, I still couldn’t sleep.
Somewhere around the third hour of lying there, staring up at my bedroom ceiling and pretending that I couldn’t hear the distinct squeaking of rats in my walls, I realized that I never had a choice. I was going to Pennsylvania. The next morning, I redeemed my ticket and booked a flight for later that same afternoon.
By 11:00PM that night I was in Bucks County PA, parking a rental car in the lot of the local wilderness reserve. Kuklinski’s cabin was pretty secluded and required another two-mile hike on foot. I had considering getting a motel room and waiting until morning to make the journey, but the thought of spending another sleepless night listening to phantom rats scratching at the walls was reason enough to suck it up and go now.
Besides, I didn’t want to stay in Bucks County a moment longer than I had to. The whole flight here, I’d been trying to suppress an intense sense of foreboding. It felt as if, with every second, I was growing that much closer to some terrible and certain doom. Maybe not my own (The latex Wizard had already told me how I was destined to die, though that’s a story for another day) but someone’s and that simply by coming here, I would be partially responsible for their demise…
Of course, I was also exhausted from lack of sleep by this point and all of that could have just been good old fashioned paranoid delirium. Either way, I had made sure to purchase a powerful LED flashlight on the way into town, which greatly reduced the difficulty of my night hike.
Using the GPS app on my phone, it only took me about an hour-and-a-half to locate the small corrugated-steel bungalow, but that was still ninety minutes of wandering through unfamiliar woods at night by myself. The whole time, all I could think about was that game Slender and for the first time in my life, I regretted playing so many goddamn video games.
The cabin was a tiny single-room hut that looked as if it had been built from a prefabricated kit. The door was unlocked and the first thing I noticed when I entered was a large map taped to the back wall. The map was a detailed satellite-image of the woods and the cabin’s location was clearly marked in red. Someone had sketched out a path leading from the cabin to a rock formation roughly half a mile or so deeper into the woods. Scrawled beside this stone landmark were the words: RAT CAVE.
The map was taped above a small cluttered desk, the surface of which was buried in several stacks of manila folders. I began to flip through one of the folders and found that it contained an Anthropology essay about the Susquehanna tribe that used to inhabit this part of Pennsylvania. The focus of the essay was a legend they told about a powerful cave-dwelling demon the Susquehanna called “Dak-Tuku.”
It was customary for Susquehanna warriors to make some form of blood sacrifice to Dak-Tuku before going into battle. The ritual had several levels of potency, the most effective and consequently most brutal of which involved kidnapping one of your enemies and leaving them bound at the mouth of a cave. At this point, Dak-Tuku would take the form of a thousand rats and then proceed to devour the victim alive. If Dak found your sacrifice suitable, he would show his appreciation by granting you “the strength of a bear and skin made of stone.”
I took a picture of the map with my phone and was able to locate the cave with little difficulty. It didn’t look like much at first, but then I got closer and the smell hit me; a potpourri of musky fur and long decayed flesh. The first thing I noticed was the stained dirt just outside the mouth of the cave: a long dark person-shaped smear across the ground that was the result of so many dead bodies rotting away in this one spot that the soil had been permanently tainted.
I made sure to step around the stain as I entered the cave and pulled my t-shirt collar up over my nose and mouth to combat the intensifying stench. Here I paused and peered into the darkness, searching for the spot where I had seen the mysterious shape in Kuklinski’s recordings. I scanned the cavern walls with my flashlight and my heart skipped a beat as the beam revealed a large pile of bones which had been swept off to one side of cave’s inner entryway.
I heard someone coming towards the cave as I approached the bone-pile and instinctively ducked behind it. Something told me I didn’t want to know who it was. They were dragging something with them as they approached… Strike that; dragging someONE with them.
The bound man had a large belly and was bleeding from a cut on his bald head. As the other man dragged him closer to the cave, the bound man began to scream through his gag and I had to clamp a hand over my mouth to keep myself from letting out my own startled yelp.
I couldn’t get a good look at the other man, but at the time, I assumed it was Philip Carlo (though it couldn’t have been him, as I later found out). The man set his bound victim down at the mouth of the cave and then backed away while muttering, “Forgive me…”
Something emerged from the darkness to my left and began to slink past me on its way toward the cave’s entrance. It was a rat the size of a small bear. Its elongated face was withered and hideous and a pair of long pink fangs protruded from its upper lip, similar to a sabretooth tiger. Which made sense because, judging from the intricate patchwork of lines on its face, this thing looked to be several million years old.
At first, I thought the rat monster was vibrating but then I realized that this was just an optical illusion created by the swarm of “smaller” rats (which were still fucking huge, as far as rats go) that were crawling across the massive creature like an army of drones tending to an anthill.
As the giant rat grew closer to the cave’s mouth, its horde of drone-rats began to disembark and started toward the bound man squirming in the moonlight. I couldn’t watch the rest. Though being stuck where I was, I couldn’t help but listen to it. When the muffled screams finally ceased and the wet tearing sounds had quieted to a minimum, the other man said…
“Does my offering of flesh please you?”
The giant rat responded by rolling onto its back and exposing a pale belly lined with large gray nipples. Dropping to his hands and knees, the man crawled past the army of smaller rats still devouring his offering and started inside the cave. As he reached the massive beast, the man began to suckle on one of its nipples with the intensity of a newborn calf.
I had to look away again and just barely managed to suppress the urge to vomit. When the sound of suckling finally stopped, I looked back to see that the man’s eyes were now glowing red. With a primeval grunt, he suddenly stood and bolted out of the cave. The smaller rats finished their meal and then returned to crawling across the surface of their much larger master as it rolled onto its side and then stood, lumbering back into the darkness.
As badly as I wanted to be out of this godforsaken cave, I was worried that if I left too soon I would run the risk of bumping into whatever that man had become and so I forced myself to wait another five whole minutes before I finally started back towards the car. It was close to a three-mile return hike in pitch-black woods and I was almost positive something was following me the whole way.
I kept glancing back over my shoulder, each time sure that I was going to see a pair of red eyes staring out at me from the darkness. After what felt like several eons, I finally found my way back to the wilderness reserve’s parking lot and climbed inside my rental car with a content sigh.
All I wanted to do now was sleep and that realization was enough to make me smile. I had witnessed some horrific things tonight but with my newfound understanding of the situation came a profound sense of peace. Now that I knew the story, I could control it.
As I slid the key into the ignition and started the car, a pale fist suddenly plowed through the driver’s side window, shattering it in one loud blow and showering me with safety glass. The fist became a hand that wrapped around my throat as the red-eyed man from the cave screamed into my face, “It IS you!”
His grip on my throat tightened as I reached into my jacket pocket.
“The terror that permeates your flesh has called you to him! He must taste your fear!”
I held up the large serrated hunting knife I had purchased along with my flashlight and jabbed it at the man’s chest, but the blade simply glanced off his skin, the tip of it emitting a small spark as it made contact with his exposed flesh. It was like trying to stab a stone.
By this point, my vision was beginning to blur from lack of oxygen. The look of panic on my face made the man smile and he let out a high pitched scream of what can only be described as crazed glee as his grip on my neck continued to tighten. Finally, it came to me: Motherfucking Ninja Scroll!
I stabbed the knife through the man’s red glowing eye and dug the blade down to the hilt as his delighted wailing suddenly became a painful shriek. The man’s grip on my throat loosened and I threw the shifter into reverse as I slammed down on the gas. The car shot backward so fast that I almost drove straight into a tree.
The man pulled the knife free of his face as I shifted into drive and floored it out of the parking lot. I drove as fast as I could down the bumpy, unpaved access road, but that was only about 20 mph, which was just slow enough that the unnaturally fast man was able to chase after me for a good 10 minutes before I finally lost sight of him.
After that, I made it back home without further incident and have been sleeping regularly ever since. With a bit of research, I discovered that the real Philip Carlo never had a daughter named Polly and Carlo himself died in 2010. I guess that’s what I get for asking questions without doing my research. But all of this did teach me a valuable lesson about storytelling: There are some plot-holes that should never be filled in.