Appalachian ghost story of a traveler, grieving the death of his wife, who stumbles across a strange mountain town with a horrifying secret.
They say that death, like love, is careless in its choosing. Everyone will be visited by death eventually, from the most ruthless tyrant to the kindest soul on Earth. And that’s just what Sam Dylan was – a kindhearted and gentle young farmer who everyone agreed deserved nothing but the best in life.
Back in the olden days, Sam lived with his childhood sweetheart Marie on a hillside farm deep in the hollows of eastern Kentucky. Sam had loved no one but Marie since he was a boy, and when they finally got to marrying age, Sam immediately made her his bride. They could barely eke out a living on their rocky farmland, but they rarely complained. After all, the only thing they felt they really needed in life was each other.
But in those times, the coming of winter brought sickness and death to many folks deep in the hills. And the first winter after their marriage, Marie came down with a bad fever, which grew worse by the day. Sam watched with anguish as his longtime love slowly slipped away from him. And one sad morning, Marie never woke up from her sleep.
Sam’s neighbors buried Marie in a small, windswept cemetery high above the town. But Sam knew he could no longer live in that town without Marie. For it was filled with so many memories of their life together. So Sam sold his farm, stuffed the bare essentials into a tattered canvas bag, mounted his horse and rode far away from his home, never to return.
Sam rode over and through the high, treacherous mountains, his overwhelming grief driving him forward into strange lands he’d never seen. The dirt roads gave way to wild, untamed forests. Strange creatures chattered and shrieked from behind the dark trees. Gentle creeks gave way to raging, dangerous rivers. After a few weeks, Sam finally got tired of being alone, and wanted human companionship again.
One day, Sam fought his way through the thick brush and found himself standing on a ledge overlooking a beautiful valley. And nestled in that valley was a pretty mountain village, with its freshly painted houses, lush fields and gardens, and a clean, sparkling stream flowing through the center of town. A hand-painted sign beside the road read: “Town of Burning Creek. Welcome to All!”
Sam rode into the village and looked around. It had everything a mountain town in those times typically had: a church, a mercantile store, a restaurant and a small hotel. But Sam was surprised to find that Burning Creek was missing one key feature. So he rode up to one of the townspeople and asked out of curiosity: “Excuse me sir, can you tell me where the cemetery is?”
The man, who Sam noticed looked extremely tan, healthy and strong, let out a hearty laugh and answered, “There’s no cemetery here. Ain’t no need for one.”
“Why’s that?” Sam asked, surprised at his answer.
“‘Cause there ain’t no death here in Burning Creek, that’s why. We’re all too happy and healthy to die.”
The man then pointed at the stream. “You see that water there? It’s filled with special minerals that come outta old Indian caves.” He then pointed at the thick forest surrounding them. “You see them woods? They’re filled with wild game – the biggest and healthiest critters you’ve ever seen. No one goes hungry here, and no one gets sick. And no one dies.”
The jolly man then looked over Sam’s thin, malnourished frame and said, “Son, it looks like you could use a good meal. Why don’t you come down to the restaurant tonight for supper? They’ll be plenty for you to eat, I promise.”
Well needless to say, Sam had never heard such a crazy story in all his life. But his rumbling stomach convinced him to look over this minor quibble and accept the man’s offer.
Later that evening, Sam cleaned up and went down to the restaurant. Sure enough, it was just as the jolly man told him it would be. The tables were overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses and bread. And the sweet smell of glazed, cooked meat filled the air. Sam dug ravenously into a huge, steaming plate of cooked game, the juicy meat just falling off the bones and melting in his mouth. He had never tasted meat so delicious in his life. Sam ate so much that night he nearly passed out. So he decided to make Burning Creek his new home, at least for the time being.
The next day, he found a job as a farmhand on a large cattle farm at the edge of the forest. Each night after a hard days work, he’d go back to the restaurant and devour giant helpings of that steaming, delicious game. Then he’d stagger back to this employer’s farm, his belly hanging over his pants, and pass out in the barn loft.
And as time passed, Sam started to believe the story he was told – that there really was no death in Burning Creek. Everyone seemed healthy and fit. No one appeared to be old or sick. He thought maybe in his long travels, he had stumbled across Heaven itself.
But on some nights, a strange thing would happen that would awaken Sam from his deep slumber. He would hear strange sounds drifting from the dark woods surrounding the farm. At first, he only heard the sounds of the night crickets as they called out to one another. Sometimes he would hear the howl of a wolf, or the low hoot of a mountain owl. But then he would hear something else, something that sounded like – whispers. Numerous whispering voices drifting from the blackness, in a hushed conversation Sam could not understand. They would then drift away, and Sam would return to his slumber.
And so each day was just like the last. Sam worked hard on the farm, and then would head to the restaurant for another massive dinner. And as the weeks passed, Sam’s thin physique began to grow more and more plump. He simply couldn’t stop himself from eating that delicious food. But when he would return to the barn at night, he’d awaken to that same strange sound. Eerie, unintelligible whispers drifting from the darkness, growling louder as they surrounded him, then vanishing as quickly as they came. Sam figured something in that food was giving him crazy dreams, but it seemed a small price to pay.
Sam followed this same routine day after day until he turned into quite a chubby man. It took all his strength just to do the simple farm chores he had done so many times before. Rivers of sweat would pour down his shirt, and he constantly had to plop down under a shady tree and rest, his chest heaving with each pained breath.
One night, he was awoken again by whispering, but this time the voices weren’t coming from the woods. He looked out the window and saw a light on in the farmhouse kitchen. Through the curtain, he saw the shadows of three men sitting around the table. It was quite unusual for his boss to be up so late at night – and with company, no less. Curious, Sam crept out of the barn and over to the window, eavesdropping on the hushed conversation inside.
“That boy’s getting sicker every day,” he heard his boss say. “We wait much longer, he’ll be too sickly for us to eat.”
“He’s gotten plenty big by now,” said another. “You seen the size of him lately? We’ll get two, maybe three, good meals out of him.”
“Just lookin’ at him work them fields makes me hungry,” answered another.
Sam’s boss then replied, “Alright then, I’ll kill him tomorrow. But you boys gotta help me out this time. I ain’t stayin’ up all night cookin’ him like I did the last one.”
Sam’s stomach turned, his head spinning so hard he had to lean against the house. Now he knew why there wasn’t a graveyard in Burning Creek. He had been eating the bodies of the dead. And what’s worse, he was next!
Sam felt sickness building in his throat, but knew he had no choice but to run away into the night. He left his belongings behind and charged straight into the forest, staggering blindly in the darkness, the tree limbs scratching and clawing at his face. For what seemed like hours, he huffed and puffed through the woods until he could take no more. He collapsed under a tree, his heart pounding in his ears.
As the forest grew still around him, he began to hear the whispering again. The same voices he had heard each night in the barn. The whispers grew louder and louder, seemingly surrounding him. And as he listened close, he could finally make out what they were saying:
“Dig us a grave. Dig us a grave. Dig us a grave.”
It was then that the bright moon shone though the trees, and in that moonlight Sam saw a sight that chilled his blood. The woods were strewn with human bones, hundreds of them – skulls, rib cages, arms, legs, fingers and toes. Maybe they were wayward travelers like Sam, picked clean of their flesh by the human vultures of Burning Creek. And their whispers grew even louder:
“Dig us a grave. Dig us a grave. Dig us a grave.”
Well, like I said, Sam was a kindhearted man. He was terrified, exhausted and sick to his stomach, but he also knew he had a job to do. So he found a large rock and dug a crude grave. For hours he worked, his hands cut and bleeding. He then gingerly lowered every bone he could find into that pit, and shoveled the dirt back on top.
Sure enough, as he kicked the last bit of dirt over that grave, the loud whispering suddenly stopped, and the night was quiet again. Sam then continued running into the woods and vanished into the night.
A few days later, Sam stumbled across a small mining town. He immediately found the sheriff and told him the hideous story. At first the sheriff thought Sam was crazy, but he had heard stories in the past of travelers who had ridden in the direction of Burning Creek, never to return. So he agreed to lead a posse over to Burning Creek to check things out, with Sam leading the way.
When the sheriff’s posse finally arrived in Burning Creek, they found the streets eerily quiet and empty. “Hello!” they called out, but no one answered. They then walked over to the restaurant and opened the door with a loud creak.
What awaited them inside was a ghastly sight. It was a dinner party that had suddenly been frozen in time. The tables were filled with smelly, rotting food, with flies and rodents feasting on the remains. Sitting frozen in the chairs were the dead citizens of Burning Creek, their faces twisted in agonizing pain, the skin on their skeletal corpses marked with hideous purple blotches. The sheriff turned to Sam and said, “Them people got poisoned. Real bad poison.” He then picked up a piece of rotten meat and said, “Maybe it was somethin’ they ate.”
That story was good enough for the sheriff. To stop the spread of disease, they wheeled away the bodies and buried them in a mass grave, giving Burning Creek its first real cemetery.
But Sam knew something else had happened. By giving the poor souls scattered throughout the woods a proper burial, he had freed their spirits from eternal torment. And before those spirits traveled to their final resting place, they got their revenge on the citizens of Burning Creek.
Sam eventually found another town to live in – one with a prominent cemetery on a hillside overlooking the town. A constant reminder for Sam that there really was no escape from death, and that life must be lived to the fullest each day.
– THE END –
Where Did This Story Come From?
“The Town Without Death” is a combination of two types of folktales told throughout the world – “No Graves” stories featuring mysterious towns without cemeteries, and “Singing Bones” stories where victims’ remains are literally singing out for justice. But “The Town Without Death” is also a story about how foolish it is to think we can cheat death, and how life is about living each day as if it’s your last.
The Town Without Death – Story Credits
Written by Craig Dominey
Told by Lanny Gilbert
Sound Design by Henry Howard