In the older, wilder days of the internet, pre-social media when blogs and message boards flourished, you could stumble across the strangest stories – insights into people that were very different from you. People like Kate, somewhere in rural America. “I run a private campground,” she explains. “My family has owned it for generations now.”
Kate, however, has only been telling her story for the last eight months. Her family business, Goat Valley Campgrounds, is based on a site deemed “Old Land”, a place that attracts mythical creatures. And there are Things in them there woods… Kate has grown up alongside the supernatural and deals with monsters in the same sighing, eye-rolling manner as she would drunk campers or litter.
She is, as you may have realised, fictional. Kate’s blog-style updates are part of a series posted on Reddit in a forum called “No Sleep”, devoted to horror stories written by users. How To Survive Camping, as Kate’s collected stories are known, is one of the longer running series currently being updated on the site. At the time of writing, there are 21 instalments, all written by someone I only know by the username “fainting–goat”. Fainting Goat has been my coronavirus salvation, posting stories that feel real, but have nothing to do with our current locked-down world. The campground, for all its terrors, has become a place I can escape to.
Kate speaks, or types, like a contemporary woman in her thirties. She’s practical: good with a spade and wire cutters, good with a gun. She has a tricky relationship with her brother. When the fairy-like creatures known as The Dancers take over her house for a party, she’s just as cross they ate all of her pre-Christmas groceries (“How do you go through four sticks of butter in one night?”) as she is about the disembowelled deer on her kitchen table. Her credibility is crucial – as with all magic realism, the mundane must work hard to make the magic plausible. We accept that whole romantic letters can be written on camellia petals in Love In The Time of Cholera because the agonies of obsession are familiar; the powers of John Updike’s witches seem real to us because we believe in the streets and the gossips of Eastwick. Kate is so well-drawn that the supernatural beings in her orbit – the Thing in the Dark, the Beast and the Little Girl, the Lady With The Extra Eyes – begin to seem conceivable, too.
“The creatures are a 50-50 blend of folklore and things I’ve made up,” says the real Fainting Goat, a 35-year-old software developer from Ohio who also writes under the name Bonnie Quinn. Although their anonymity was part of these stories’ charm for me, I was curious to contact Quinn. Her day job meant that, when he stories started to take off, she was able to quickly knock up a website for Goat Valley Campgrounds, adding an extra immersive element to her fiction.
“I’ve been getting more into Irish and Slavic folktales,” she says. The Man With the Skull Cup – a favourite character amongst her readership – is, she explains, based on The Hound of Culaan – a demigod in Irish mythology who bares similarities with the Greek myths of Hercules.
Quinn, who very much considers writing a hobby, says her decision to keep coronavirus out of the world of the campsite was quite deliberate. “Our state is under a stay at home order. I’m worried about my mom. My dad has health issues. A friend has lost their job. This isn’t the platform to bring in that level of real world trauma and suffering.”
In the end, the rules to survive camping aren’t so different to rules to survive lockdown. As the end of the first instalment, written back in August 2019, says: “I’m trying to keep you from doing small, simple things that could result in a horrific and most assuredly agonising demise.” So far, obeying the campground rules has protected Kate and her friends from catastrophe. With each new story, I can escape my flat, my country, my reality, and hope that by following the rules, we will make it through too.