Joe P Willie is an active duty Sergeant First Class in the United States Army, having served two combat tours in Afghanistan. As his first novel, Blood in the Woods (recently published by Hellbound Books), proves, he’s also a highly talented author that horror readers (and even non-horror readers) will surely want to keep a bloodshot eye on in the years to come. Sergeant Willie is also a screenwriter and producer whose first independent film, Welcome Home, Rougarou, wrapped shooting in December 2017. The film is currently in post-production with a scheduled release date of May 2018.
Blood in the Woods is based on true events. Yes, you have seen those words said about countless books and films. In most cases, these projects are so loosely based on one specific facet of a real-life event that saying they’re based on “true events” is almost a downright lie. In this particular case, large portions of the story are an autobiographical account of Sgt. Willie’s life, albeit with a few elements of 2005’s Hosanna Church scandal thrown in to create suspense and help ground the events on the side of fiction.
For those unfamiliar with those events, the town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana was shocked by the revelation of years of sexual abuse against children, bestiality, and animal sacrifice being carried on within the church by a faction of its own members and leaders, including the church’s pastor. The accusations were brought forth by the pastor himself, who would also later confess to allowing his own sons to be sexually assaulted by the other members of what he described as a “devil worshiping” sect within the church, but which the media would label as a “Satanic cult”. Neither description is quite accurate.
Older readers will also undoubtedly remember the wave of “Satanic Panic” frequently showcased by news outlets of the 1980’s, with most of the “blame” usually being thrown at heavy metal music (and the “subliminal messages” hidden within), violent horror films, and (for whatever reason, I’ve never understood) Dungeons & Dragons. Born from the fears of Christian conservatives and fueled by media propaganda, the “pandemic” was even the topic of a “very special” episode of Geraldo Rivera’s highly successful and controversial “talk” show in 1988. The episode even features an appearance from the era’s “poster boy” of evil influence….. “The Prince of Fucking Darkness”, Ozzy Osbourne. (Link included for interested viewers.)
Blood in the Woods opens in Sgt. Willie’s home town of Hammond, Louisiana in the summer of 1975. (Well, of course it does. A lot of this story is about him, after all.) Young Jerry Jones Jr. and his three friends, who happen to all be brothers, decide to venture into some nearby woods in search of a hidden graveyard so that they can brag to their friends and classmates about what “big men” they are for hanging out in such a place.
The graveyard quickly proves to be a doorway to terror for the boys. The nightmare begins with the boys finding the tattered remains of multiple dead crows. Some of the birds have had their eyes gouged out, while others are simply beheaded. Voices can be heard from the treeline close by. Jerry and the oldest of the brothers move in for a closer look. Within just a short distance, the boys come upon a group of cloaked figures gathered within a nearby quarry. Despite their attempts at silence, Jerry and his friend alert the figures to their presence. The cloaked figures give chase, but all of the children manage to escape on their bikes.
Jerry Jr. returns home and tells his father and his sister, Gayla, about what he’s witnessed. His father, Jerry Sr., is a “very” involved member of the church committee, and has heard a tale or two about just what goes on in the woods on the nights of a full moon. He knows all too well just what his son has stumbled upon and just who those cloaked figures were. Without revealing what he knows, he authoritatively warns his young son never to play in the woods again. Don’t get too attached to Jerry Jr. While nothing unfortunate happens to the boy, he’s barely mentioned again.
The timeline then moves ahead to 2008. A soldier returns to his hometown for the funeral of his best friend’s sister, Jaime, who was sadly killed in a car accident at a young age. He sits parked outside of the place in which he grew up and starts to recall memories of the girl who was lost, as well as dwelling on the belief that he would die before her. The loss of this connection to his youth, as well as the return to a place that holds memories both fond and fearful, will make him face the past that has haunted him.
The timeline shifts once more, this time back to 1989. As we soon learn, the soldier is Jody Jones, son of Gayla and grandson of Jerry Sr. The contemplative adult that we had previously met is now just a 9-year old boy with ADHD, much like the author himself. While “Jody” is often pictured as “troubled”, he’s really not that much different from a lot of young boys. Do remember, ADHD wasn’t as commonly diagnosed back then, so most kids dealing with these issues were generally labeled as “hyperactive”, “problem children”, or worse. Then again, there are those that will say that ADHD is nothing more than another bullshit excuse for the pharmaceutical companies to force more pills down your throat. You can form your own opinions on that argument on your own time.
Jody and his younger brother, Hunter, live with their mother in a trailer located on his grandparents’ property. His father has been out of the scene for some time now. The author paints a picture of a lower-income upbringing, a single parent needing assistance from her own parents just to survive. Despite these circumstances, Jody and his family live a very happy life; peaceful, outside of the boy’s occasional youthful indiscretions.
Jaime and her family had recently moved to Rhine Road, the fairly rural neighborhood that Jody and his family call “home”. Knowing each other from little league baseball games, Jody and Jaime’s brother, Jack, quickly form a bond that will make the two inseparable for years to come. However, like countless kids with too much free time and lots of space to roam free of parents, the two “blood brothers” also become the “terrors” of the neighborhood. They can often be found shooting street lamps with BB guns, setting off smoke bombs in people’s yards and mailboxes, or getting into other destructive, but generally harmless, forms of mayhem.
The first sign of impending trouble comes Jody’s way when a neighbor pays his grandfather an unfriendly visit. The man claims that Jody’s dog, “Rambo”, killed two of the calves on his property. He even claims that the dog tore the hearts right out of their cows’ chests. Jerry Sr. knows that the dog is not at fault. He knows just what, or whom, is behind the mutilations. Certain that similar events will recur on the next full moon, the dog is placed in an adoption shelter. That way, when the neighbor returns with the same complaint, there will be no argument as the dog is since long gone. Poor Jody, however, is not told the truth about why his dog must leave.
Indeed, more calves are slaughtered on the night of the next full moon. As expected, the neighbor returns, but is stunned and dismayed when he learns of the dog’s fate. Rambo eventually finds his way back to his original owners. However, the celebration is short-lived and Jody is forced to face what will be the first of many losses in the coming years.
Not long after, on the night of another full moon, Jody and his family are alerted to the sound of drums coming from deep inside the woods near their home. The family has no clue who or what is causing the sounds, but it’s more than enough to create unease throughout the house. The moment is a powerful narration of a child having to watch his family in fear of the unknown that is awaiting just outside their home.
After Jody and his brother have gone to bed, Jerry Sr. reveals to his daughter that “devil worshipers” have gathered in the woods of Hammond for years, much as Jerry Jr. witnessed all those years prior. He is sure to point out the differences between the “Satanist” and a “devil worshiper”. The “Satanist” chooses to indulge in all of the things that bring them pleasure, even though it may be thought as “sinful” or “impure”, as long as it brings no harm to others. The “devil worshiper” is usually a sick and twisted soul with no qualms about doing harm.. The Satanist, he says, does not kill in the name of his Lord, while the devil worshiper will kill and rape for their own depraved enjoyment (although they may still say that it is in the name of their chosen savior).
Jerry Sr. begs his daughter to keep her children close, informing her that a 12-year old girl was recently abducted from the nearby town of Albany. The young girl was indeed taken by the devil worshipers. And yes, they do intend to use her for sacrifice. An unsettling sequence from the viewpoint of the unfortunate girl follows, spending a good deal of time detailing the appearance and set-up of the sacrificial “chamber”, with its black, dripping candles and pentagrams painted in blood.
Life continues in fairly normal fashion for Jody and his family. That is, until the fateful day that another neighborhood friend named Justin talks Jody into searching for a tractor-trailer rumored to have been abandoned in the woods, conveniently near the home of the young girl that Jody has developed a “crush” on.
The trailer is found, swarming with flies and clouded in the overpowering stench of death and decay. It proves to be the scene of even further horrors when more slaughtered calves are found inside. The walls are adorned with symbols painted with blood, the floors littered with crimson-stained Styrofoam cups. Choking back vomit, they are alerted to the sound of footsteps and breaking branches coming from just a short distance away. The boys flee the scene, but believe they notice a shadowy figure watching from the cover of the trees.
The discovery of the trailer sets off a series of events taking place over the next few years that proves that not only were the boys witnessed, but that the members of the “cult” also know who they are and where they live. What starts with attempts to scare the boys (as well as their family and friends) into silence soon escalates into multiple life-threatening run-ins and instances, although Jody and his friends tend to make matters worse for themselves on at least one occasion.
Despite being filled with suspenseful, action-packed moments carrying dire consequences for Jody, his friends, and his family, Blood In The Woods is a “coming of age” tale at heart…. albeit one featuring bloodthirsty cultists and human sacrifice. Where Willie truly shines as a storyteller is in his ability to write believable child characters. From the way Jody and his peers talk, act, and think, some of the characters remind me of kids that I knew growing up. Or at least they fooled me for a brief time into believing that I did.
The time frame of the late 80’s and early 90’s fits in with my own pre-teen years (although “Jody” would be a few years younger than I was at that time), which makes the references to music, video games, comics, and movies of the era that much more relative and personal to my own life. The references to Mega Man and Swamp Thing struck a chord with me as I was obsessed with both as a child. Hell, I kinda still am.
As with the stories of most of our childhoods, there are the moments of genuine innocence between the children (as well as with their parents), as well as many moments of innocence lost. There are first loves and first losses. Jody grows before our imagination’s eye, hopefully making the reader nostalgic of their own childhood and the friends and family long since gone.
Willie tells the story with a very natural tone and pace, superbly setting the scene with lush descriptions of the neighborhood and the eerie, threatening darkness of the woods surrounding it. Even something as seemingly mundane as the moss growing on a long disused basketball hoop helps set the “mood” of not only a quiet road, but the possible danger waiting just in the distance.
But, hey… this is a “horror” site and that’s what you came to hear about, right? Well, don’t fret! Blood In The Woods offers up a healthy dose of scares and shocks, as well as a few side dishes of blood and gore that are sure to please most horror readers. A few folks do die, and more than a few animals are killed as well…. and not all at the hands of our devil worshiping psychopaths! The novel also features a few graphic moments of violence and sexual abuse against children, but these are not handled in an overly exploitative way. There’s also at least one gruesome moment that I’m sure any seasoned splatter film effects artist would love to attempt to duplicate on film.
However, most of the “horror” comes from the uncertainties that Jody, and those around him, must now face. This includes the “horrors” of life, such as having to say goodbye to those we love, as well as the “true” horrors of never knowing if someone is waiting right around the next corner, ready to jump out and grab you, and just what they will do with you once you are theirs. There is also the “fear” of not knowing if your loved ones will have to suffer by paying the price for you.
While Blood In The Woods is an exceptional work from a highly talented storyteller, the novel unfortunately does feature one highly noticeable flaw. Due to some failings from the editing staff, Blood In The Woods is the victim of multiple glaring typos, mostly within the early pages. An entire word has been omitted in one instance. I’m sure “Grammar Nazi” types will have a field day pointing out the errors. It’s a shame that an otherwise stellar work is marred by these oversights.
Blood In The Woods is available through Hellbound Books, and is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions. This one comes with a hearty (pun intended) recommendation, especially to horror fans with young children of their own. There is no doubt that the story will have you keeping a closer eye on them and to where they may venture off. More significantly, Blood In The Woods may have you reflecting on memories from of your own childhood, reliving long-lost moments with family and friends, and questioning if maybe someone was watching you from the cover of darkness.
Blood In The Woods is available in both paperback and Kindle version on Amazon. It can be found on the Horror And Sons’s Recommendations page: https://www.amazon.com/shop/horrorandsons
Also, be sure to keep an eye on this site for an upcoming interview with the author of Blood in The Woods, Sgt. JP Willie.