Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
February 20th, 1979.
“August 15th, 1975. That was the first time. You ever heard of cryptozoology? “The study of hidden animals” as it is officially defined, but often mixed up with talk of UFOs and aliens and other such crap. I must admit I’ve always been fascinated by urban legends; the Mothman of West Virginia, the Chupacabra in the south, hell even those old timey reports of freaks like Spring-Heeled Jack who was clearly just some madman in a costume. But I don’t go for the big ones, those sensationalised glory hounds like ‘the Loch Ness Monster’ or ‘Bigfoot’. Please. No, I’m fascinated more by those that are localised, you know, the ones that are first mentioned by some nut in some pissy little town as you get lost on the way to nowhere and that don’t suddenly have appearances all over the country. They always seem to have a kernel of truth hidden in them, and are most of the time far harder to explain away. Anyway, one in particular caught my eye that night as I trawled through old newspaper reports that my father had squirrelled away in the attic. He too had lived with a fascination for the inexplicable and had heavily researched legends and mysteries in the years leading up to his death. The paper I found was a yellowing copy of the Daily Journal of Elizabeth, New Jersey, dated October 12th, 1966. Highlighted by my father was a small paragraph, almost as an afterthought, reporting that two boys, Martin Munov and James Yanchitis had been harassed by a strange figure on their way home the night before. There was no real description, just a warning for anyone who had seen anyone strange in the area to report it to police. The article was titled “Who is the Grinning Man?’”
Mr Dennell pauses to take a sip of water from the decanter between us. My dictaphone whirrs softly in the silence.
“I wouldn’t have taken much notice, I mean, the ‘Grinning Man’? That’s got to be the worst name for a mysterious being since the Melon Heads of Michigan. But I found it odd that my father had been interested enough to keep the report. So I dug. It took me almost a month after his death to clear that attic of old newspapers and half completed scrapbooks, and in that time I found only one other mention of the Grinning Man, this time in a clipping from another ‘66 newspaper. It mentioned a fellow who claimed to have been stopped on the road by a tall man with a wide grin who conversed without moving his lips. Interesting as it sounded, it wasn’t exactly a lot to go on. Nevertheless, when we sold his house I kept both the clippings along with a few other mystery filled scrapbooks found buried in the mess. In the weeks that followed, I began to notice a nagging feeling, that same itch I get whenever something feels unfinished. Carol used to call it my ‘busy radar’ and used to complain that I was never happy unless I was working.”
He smiles, apparently lost in thought.
“Eventually it was pure coincidence that I truly started investigating the question of the Grinning Man. I was reporting on Hurricane Eloise for the New York Times in September 1975 and had been sent to New Jersey City to compare the damages to those suffered in New York. Fucking waste of time that was, sent to report on light floods that caused little to no property damage while my own city was smashed by the torrent. My busy radar hadn’t stopped itching. Finding myself with free time I recalled that the first sighting of the Grinning Man had been in Elizabeth, not ten miles from the city centre. On a whim I went in search of the two boys mentioned in the first of my fathers articles, doubting that they’d still live in the area but intrigued, or bored enough to find out. It took a while, but eventually I made contact with James Yanchitis, now in his early twenties, who agreed to meet with me. As I shook his hand outside a café that evening my first thought was how withdrawn he looked, as though he hadn’t slept a full night in a very long time. The story he told me was far more informative than the article had suggested. And far more chilling.”
Mr Dennell falls silent. After an extended pause he reaches into his pocket and places a little cassette player on the table next to my dictaphone and thumbs the play button. It is a poor quality recording, and the voice that crackles out of it is quite young. Throughout, Mr Dennell doesn’t say a word.
”We were walking home. It was dark, but the streetlights lit enough for us to see you know? I was nervous. Ms. Lloyd claimed to have been chased by a strange man in the area earlier that night and while Martin teased me about it I could see he was pretty freaked too. But I was the first to see him. Across the road and behind a fence was a tall hill that led up to the turnpike, and it was steep you know? Like, real steep. At the bottom on the other side of the fence was just scrubland, and in it was a figure. I remember hitting Martin and pointing at it. From what I could see it was a man, standing mostly in shadow, turned so that we were looking half at his back, half at his side. He was staring straight ahead, like at a house across the road or something. He didn’t move when I stopped Martin, but when I pointed at him… He turned. Slowly. As his bald head swivelled to face us I noticed one thing immediately. He was grinning. Leering. Like, really wide. He pivoted on the spot and stared straight at us, but his eyes were messed, massive and black. Fuck man we were frozen, it was terrifying. Martin was the first to move, he took a step backwards. The man didn’t move, just stared, arms limply by his sides. That was all we needed, we bolted, not waiting for him to climb the fence and come after us. I glanced over my shoulder once as we ran. It was like he hadn’t moved, but he was now on our side of the fence. Nor had his eyes strayed, staring at us. Or his grin. Wide. Terrifying.”
The cassette crackles for a few seconds more before falling silent with a click. Mr Dennell slowly reaches out and picks it up, placing it back in his pocket.
“Yanchitis struggled to say much more, but he did give me a basic description. Tall, well over six feet, wearing a dark green overcoat. But it was the face that was the most defining feature, the insane grin on a pale face that stuck into his memory and haunted him every night.”
As Mr Dennell pauses again I can’t help glancing around furtively myself. The room is empty, nobody but my interviewee and myself. The table between us is strewn with papers, all blank. The door behind is still closed and the light above illuminates the room brightly, almost harshly despite the late hour. Mr Dennell continues.
“I didn’t sleep much that night. My imagination was running rampant; all I could picture was the man Yanchitis had described. When I closed my eyes his grin followed me and in all my dreams he haunted me. But that was before I really knew what haunted meant. It happened two days later, as I pulled up to a gas station on the road out of New Jersey.”
By this point Mr Dennell is becoming increasingly agitated, his hands are twitching and his voice is increasingly strained, even frightened.
“It was dark, probably nine-ish, maybe closer to ten. I had just filled up and was climbing back into my car when I noticed something in the laneway beside the station. The lane was dark, but a streetlight at the other end illuminated enough for me to catch sight of a figure near the other side. It had its back to me, but I could make out that it was tall, taller than me and wearing a dark grey suit over a thin frame. It was bald, and even from behind I could tell that something was off, as though proportions were slightly wrong, or it held itself strangely. Even with a sense of fear growing in me I called out. I regret that probably more than any other decision I’ve made in my life. It swivelled, so suddenly and so quickly that I shouted out loud. Its face. Its face was wrong. White, long, with deep black holes where the eyes should be. But its mouth. It was grinning, a locked grin that was far too wide, far too big. No human could make that expression. Hands by its sides it grinned at me down the laneway, but made no further move. After a few seconds I glanced away, to look inside the station, see if there was anyone who could help. When I turned back, it had moved closer. I hadn’t seen it walk. I didn’t see it take a single step. In the second or so I had glanced away it had advanced at least ten feet, and now stood halfway down the lane in the darkness. Only its face could be seen, split in half by the blackness of the alley, and it was unchanged. Still staring, still grinning. I have never seen anything more subtly threatening. Or more unquestionably. I crouched, never taking my eyes off it, and fumbled for the handgun under the seat of my car. I couldn’t find it, and in my fear I glanced away again. When I stood, pistol in hand it was closer still. It stood, grinning, not twenty feet from me at the entrance of the laneway, face in total darkness but for the eyes boring into mine, the grin fixed and horrifying. I couldn’t help it, I yelled and fired my gun, the bullet hitting it straight bang in the stomach. The damn thing didn’t react, didn’t make a sound, didn’t even twitch as the bullet hit it. In terror I unloaded the clip straight in its chest. It was like nothing had happened. I lost it, I freaked out. Screaming and crying I leapt into my car, rammed in the keys and gunned the engine, tearing off down the road without even closing my door. I got one glance through the rear-view mirror. It was on the road, watching my car fading into the distance, its eyes unmoving and its grin frozen. I didn’t stop the car again until the sun rose.”
Mr Dennell’s glass hits the floor. He is frozen, breathing deeply, shuddering occasionally. I suggest that we take a break, continue our interview tomorrow, but he waves the suggestion away. He doesn’t seem to notice the glass shattered at his feet.
“Over the coming days and weeks sleep became a fantasy beyond my grasp. Every time I closed my eyes it was there, a ghastly spectre that inhabited my dreams and haunted my every waking moment. I began to see it everywhere I went. Never clearly, never for more than a moment, but it was there. A silhouette on my wall. A figure at the end of a dark street. A face glimpsed in every crowd. I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t concentrate on my work, so sure was I that if I let my guard down for a second it’d be there. The fear that it was following me became too much; I found myself hunting for it, desperate to catch sight of it for more than a second, to prove that it was real, to make sure I wasn’t mad. I became… obsessed, simultaneously frantic to find and terrified to encounter it. Carol could only watch helplessly as my terror consumed me. This continued for far too long, until eventually I found it again.”
A soft clinking can be heard as Mr Dennell shifts in his seat, his dark glasses hiding pain filled eyes from my sight.
“Three years had passed since my encounter with the Grinning Man. Three long years of insomnia and terror, of paranoia and isolation. I had long since lost my job, I would rarely leave my study, working feverishly into the night to uncover further clues on the spectre that haunted me. Only Carol stood by me, worried but faithful. Loving; more than I reciprocated and far more than I deserved. It was late, I was in the study; Carol was downstairs in the living room. I could hear the muffled sounds of the television leaking through the floorboard under my feet. A tapping at my window snapped me from my work. Three slow beats, too rhythmic to be natural. Tap, tap, tap.”
Mr Dennell beats the table with his knuckles for emphasis.
“I would have no doubt ignored it if it weren’t for one factor; I was on the second floor, with no trees near this side of the house. The blinds were down, I couldn’t see out. My heart began hammering as I edged towards the windowsill, pen still in hand, reaching slowly for the string to raise the blinds. Tap, tap, tap. I leapt back as it repeated, and it was a long minute before I steeled the nerve to approach it again. With a deep breath I grabbed the string and heaved the blinds open. Nothing. No bald face, no staring eyes, no fixed grin. Nothing. I fell back into my chair, unsure whether to laugh or cry with relief. What had I expected really? I seem to recall I laughed, chuckling to myself as my heart rate slowed. Until there came a piercing scream from downstairs. Adrenaline fired into my veins and I leapt to my feet as the scream came again. Carol. Without hesitation I wrenched the door wide and charged downstairs, calling out, shouting her name, wielding my pen like a dagger. Through the living room; empty. Down the hall; silent. Into the kitchen; into a scene of nightmare. The lights were on, bright, too bright, illuminating everything in perfect detail. The back door was open wide, the kitchen light spilling out onto the porch, cutlery was strewn all over the floor and Carol lay in the middle of the tiles. She was lying on her stomach, but she was face up. Her head had been turned until it faced fully backwards, her wide eyes staring straight at me and a grin on her face. A locked grin that was far too wide, far too big. She was dead, yet her eyes pierced me, the grin taunted me, haunted me and I screamed. I screamed and I screamed and fell to my knees, unable to move, to breathe, to think. Her face was burned into my eyes, merging with the mask of horror that already plagued my every living moment. I couldn’t approach her, didn’t dare touch the corpse that had once been my wife, my beacon of support. I turned and stumbled into the hall, crashing through the living room door where the television was still playing, filling the room with laughter. The sound consumed everything, laughter, constant, unchanging, driving me into a fit of blind panic. With a roar I leapt up, intent on smashing the infernal machine into a million pieces, but something stopped me. It was off. The television was black, dead. Yet the laughter still echoed through the room, growing louder and more unnatural with every second. I lifted the box and slammed it into the floor again and again, shattering the glass, splintering the wood and yet still the laughter did not stop. Hands bloodied, tears steaming down my face I plunged back into the hallway, tearing up the staircase to my study for the phone, desperate to call someone, anyone for help. The room was as I’d left it, desk messy, lights dim, blinds raised. Except that a face now stared through the glass. White, long, with gaping black eyes too far apart that locked into mine and didn’t waver. It was grinning, a fixed grin that was far too wide, far too big. No human could make that expression.”
Mr Dennell is in a frenzy, he strains and tears at the handcuffs that bind him to his seat. I grab my Dictaphone and leap to my feet as he manages to upturn the table, sending papers flying across the white floor of his cell, some fluttering into the two-way glass window behind me. Still locked into the chair bolted into the floor, it’s a long while before he calms down enough to continue, his voice exhausted, his tone dead.
“I couldn’t look away. It was there. He was there. As he’d always been. Watching me. His face was seared into my eyes, Carol’s face was seared into my eyes, denying me escape from the nightmare I had been plunged into. I would never be free of his torment. Unless I… I stood up again, locked my gaze with the demon. The pen was still in my hand… and I plunged it into my eye. First one, then the other. Agony raged as an inferno as I fell to the floor, succumbing to the blackness. But now I was free. Now I am free of ever seeing the creature again.”
Mr Dennell’s head slumps in exhaustion and his sunglasses drop to the floor. Then he begins to laugh. Slowly, quietly, growing louder and louder until he raises his head and stares at me with eyes that are no longer there. Black holes in a pale face twisted into a mask of insane laughter. I back away from the chair, from the man chained to the centre of the room, turning for the door. As I slam my fist into it I glance down at one of the blank pages that had been thrown to the floor. Not blank, just upside down. The other side was now revealed; a charcoal sketch of a face. It was grinning; a demonic visage; no human could make that expression. As the door was opened from the outside I stumbled out, throwing one last look into the cell I had just left. Mr. Dennell was still laughing manically, the chains holding him to his chair, the floor littered with hundreds upon hundreds of blank pages which were now revealed to be drawings, all drawings, all of one thing. A face. With a locked grin that was far too wide, far too big. I shuddered and slammed the door closed.
Credit: N. Harley