(published in 1999)
JULY: Finding evidence of the devil in northern Wisconsin is proving more difficult a task than I had imagined. This is truly a strange area: miles and miles of lonely, tree-lined roads winding by an endless string of taverns. I often reflect on what an old drinking buddy once told me: “There is a law in Wisconsin that mandates a minimum of one tavern for every thirty miles of roadway.” In my travels, the statute seems unbroken.
Frequently, it seems as if I’m in some kind of time capsule where things haven’t changed in years. But there is more than that: the world here is like no other. A life created in the middle of the great forest where the isms of a bygone era still linger and influence. Racism, alcoholism and religious fanaticism still dominate certain pockets of the badger state. This is a volatile mix.
In a state that’s known throughout the country for its persistent bigotry toward Native Americans, it’s not uncommon to go out with your buddies on Saturday night, get pig drunk and abuse some Indians, and then show up nice and pious for Sunday church. You can be guilt-free by the second after-service beer. Thankfully, there are many good people here, also. It is upon them that my survival depends.
And, oh yes, beer—the staff of life here. It is generally not considered boozing, I have learned, if you’re only drinking beer. Usually commencing around noon—earlier on weekends—beer consumption is just a part of everyday life. Real, certified drinking doesn’t begin until the cocktail ice tinkles and the “jugs” are opened. I’ve been fitting in quite well, considering that I’m from Minnesota.
Tales of satanic ritual under the towering Wisconsin pines, tales of bonfires and sacrifices and horror, tales of entire small towns involved in satanic conspiracies…. No one will discuss these things with me. If I bring them up in conversation, the natives only stare at me as if I’m a leper or a queer.
Does this kind of thing really exist here amongst the colby and the cheddar? Or is it just the stuff of kids’ fantasies and the 700 Club’s ravings? It’s my job to find out.
I’ve got a trick up my sleeve that none of those big city cops or federal agents ever used. An old north woods technique for finding predatory beasts—trolling.
I’ve set up two stout rods. One is baited with fresh roadkill, and the other sports a pentagram shaped Dare Devil. I think I’ll troll along until I find a place with one of those neon, martini glass signs and see if I can lure something up. You just never know. I feel something drawing me to it, and I must follow….
AUGUST: I have returned to Duluth exhausted and frustrated and feeling like I should give up. I have traveled from Rhinelander to Racine, Luck to Lucerne, Menominie to Montreal. I’ve spent hours in small towns and even longer in small town bars. Listening, learning and drinking cheap beer have been my disciplines. Trolling led to nothing. Questions got no answers. Many nights I screamed into the darkness, offering to trade my soul for twelve cold Heinekens or a nice-looking woman—but nothing happened.
My landlord just took all my money for back rent, and my unemployment runs out next week. My apartment is musty and full of mildew and there’s an awful smell in the fridge. Perhaps those old crappie fillets….
My discouragement runs so high and my energy runs so low. I can only sit around and mope and battle with the curious malaise that has overtaken me like a bad case of the clap. All I can do is watch television and listen to classic rock radio. My friends say to me: “What’s the matter with you, Elton? What’s with all this Satan shit? We’re going to come around at twelve with some Two Harbors girls who are just dying to meet you. We’re gonna bring a case of wine and let ‘em fool around—you know—like we used to.”
And I wearily answer, in a low rasp: “It’s been an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines, warm beer and string cheese, Brewer scores and pine paneling. But I must go back; that sly, slippery serpent Satan mocks my every step. I will not give up, despite the fruitless chase he’s led me on.”
At least not for awhile.
I can feel the influence of the beast growing around me, even as I rest and recuperate. The Great Prevaricator is casting his net ever closer. Here in Duluth, the school board has banned the wearing of baseball caps in school as an anti-gang measure. Only a demonic presence could be behind this. A child wearing a baseball cap is a symbol of America’s greatness and the glory of the “grand old game.” And I remember when the school board made sense. Seen but not heard, I think.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, women are holding hands and lying on the ground in groups and humming, in order to get back in touch with the earth. What kind of madness is this?
My throat constricts when I contemplate what’s going on across the bridge in Superior. It is there, on Wisconsin’s northernmost tier, that some loathsome creature has been trying to abduct kids in broad daylight. Fortunately, the kids have all watched enough violent movies in their lifetimes and seem skilled in the methods of escape and defense. Because no child was actually taken, you may think that Satan lost this battle—but you’re wrong. Now the parents in Superior are frightened and make their kids stay inside all day. If that isn’t hell, I don’t know what is.
A thought… an idea… a destination… something is climbing to the surface of my brain. It’s something I’ve felt for awhile, an ever growing awareness. Something you might get if you read a lot of newspapers and remember things, like I do. If you remembered a lot of little crime blurbs over the years… and after awhile you got to thinking it was kind of odd how such a small spot on the map could have so many weird and terrible things going on in and around it, over such a long period of time….
It wasn’t too long ago that they found that poor little girl down there, lying in the ditch, beaten half to death. No suspect, no motive, no clue. Right around that same time, the feds popped a big amphetamine distributor, right in the middle of the bucolic downtown. And strike three: a friend told me he bought tennis balls in a tin can there, in that same downtown—in the ‘90s.
The name burns on my brain. I can see it there when I close my eyes like I’ve been staring too long at the sun: Shell Lake. I’m beginning to get strong feelings about the place. You may scoff, but the industrious among you can check the public records of the last twenty years—then you’ll understand what I’m saying. Simply examine the name: Shell Lake. Take away the S—which could represent Satan—and your left with Hell Lake. Need I say more? August 28, 1993.
(To be continued)