Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 21, 2024


 "A Cabin in the Woods" by John Coyne  (from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July 1976; reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock's Anthology #2,Spring/Summer 1978,  edited by Eleanor Sullivan [the hardcover edition was titled Alfred Hitchcock's Tale to Take Your Breath Away]; in Modern Masters of Horror, edited by Frank Coffey, 1981; in Alfred Hitchcock's Tales of Terror, edited by Eleanor Sullivan, 1986; in The Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, edited by Edward Gorman, 1988); and in Coyne's collection A Game in the Sun and Other Stories, 2018)

John Coyne (b. 1934) burst on the horror scene with The Piercing in 1979, followed by seven more best-selling horror novels through 1990, including The Legacy and Hobgoblin (which was influenced by both Dungeons and Dragons and his father's stories of his native Ireland.  Although he was a "brand name" horror writer, much of Coyne's latter work  was influenced by his love of golf and his experiences in the Peace Corps.  He has published three novels and three non-fiction books about golf, and has edited at least six books about the Peace Corps.  Coyne served in the Peace Corps between 1962 and 1964, and currently edits the website PeaceCorps/  Coyne is also the author of three advice books on higher education.

 Coyne has not published many short stories, although a number of his stories have been reprinted in prestigious anthologies.  "A Cabin in the Woods" was Coyne's second published short story.

Michael is a best-selling author anxious to get away from the city.  He and his wife bought a five-acre lot in the mountains by a peaceful lake and have arranged to have their dream getaway home built.  Hiring a local architect to design the place, Michael and Barbara wanted the place to feel completely different from the city.  The green, unfinished lumber used and the paneling used in the house came from trees harvested in the nearby woods.  The foundation and the fireplace that covered one entire wall was from boulders the came from the area.  Michael had hired two local craftsmen and he and they spent the winter building a 40-foot dock to harbor his two boats; the pier was constructed from hand-sawn local timber.  The spacious deck faced east to take advantage of the morning light.  This was a place to relax, to get away from it all, a place to be proud of.

Construction done, the winter over, Michael is ready to enjoy his new spacious cabin.  He arrived early in the week, ostensibly to work on the final galley corrections for his latest book, in reality to enjoy the quiet and solitude before Barbara joined him on Friday and they opened the cabin to guests for the first time that weekend.  That morning while shaving, he notice a bit of mold on the raw wood on the bathroom wall.  It pulled off easily, and he threw in the trash.  A bit later, while putting away some of the stores her had bought for the weekend, there was the same gray mold on the shelf in one of the kitchen cabinets.  Again, it was easy to pull off.  Michael then thoroughly cleaned the cabinet and the bathroom wall with soap and water. and thought no more of it after he had made an extensive search of the cabin and found no further mold.

Michael cooked himself breakfast and went to the deck to eat it.  As the mist lifted, he saw that the new dock was covered with the same grayish mold.  The entire 40-foot deck.  He grabbed a shovel and cleared off the mold, then washed the deck with detergent.  Again, he searched the cabin for signs of further mold but found none.

He drove to the offices of his architect in town.  The architect was mystified about the mold.  (And perhaps he didn't believe Michael.)  The architect put him in touch with a professor of mycology at the local college, who was a bit baffled.  From Michael's description, the professor was able to identify the mold, but averred that it should not be growing this fast.

Arriving back at the cabin, there was mold growing on the boulders that made up the foundation of the cabin.  Again Michael removed them.  Now there was mold growing elsewhere in the cabin; it took Michael three hours to remove all the mold and to sanitize the cabin.  By then it was after three and Michael, tired from all the work, Michael fell asleep, waking just before sundown.  The mold had taken over much of the building, covering the floors with a soft, spongy, gray mass.  It covered the walls and spread to the ceiling.  It began to take over the furniture, the bathroom sink, and the toilet.  Opening the door to the cellar, Michael found the entire cellar area be full of  mold.  The mold grew so heavy oin the deck that the deck supports collapsed.  The mold again appeared on the dock.  Michael could see the mold growing and moving from beneath door toward him.

Michael doused the entire cabin with gasoline and set it on fire, then had to shovel his way to the door to escape.  When he got to his car the mold had inched closely to the vehicle and began to touch his tires.  

As his dream escape home was consumed by fire, Michael drove blindly away from the horror.

Back in the city, he tried to explain to Barbara what had happened.  shaken and fearful for his sanity, she held him close.

But the nightmare was not over...

A strange but effective tale, one that was not the ordinary fare for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "A Cabin in the Woods" palpably moves to an effective and terrifying conclusion.  It has the flaws of an early work, but Coyne's sure hand with the narration easoly overcomes them.   Neither the reader nor the protagonist has any explanation for the mold or why its consumptive growth happened, nor do we need to know.  Explanations here are superfluous.

It would be more than two years before Coyne published his next work of fiction, the best-selling first novel The Piercing.


  1. Yes, coming up with a rational explanation might hurt what came before it. Better to leave it alone.

  2. Finally, a story you reviewed that I've actually read! And, I have read Coyne's THE PIERCING, too! Fine choice!

  3. Fungi tend to disquiet us. AHMM always was open to the occasional horror story, till Cathleen Jordan's editorship, when she dipped into horror more readily than her predecessors or Linda Landrigan since. C.B. Gilford was often good for a horror entry in earlier decades...I liked his "The Forgiving Ghost" a lot, my introduction to his work.

  4. Perhaps the weakest editors of AHMM, Jordan, and of F&SF, K. K. Rusch (who did have Edward Ferman standing over her) were those at each magazine most receptive to horror...rather sad, that. Well, Avram Davidson was almost as willing to publish horror, and F&SF has never been altogether w/o horror content