's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Dumpley's Clayground

Submitted by PartlySmith

During free play, I saw one of my students reading by himself in the corner. I normally wouldn’t think anything of it. He was shy and usually preferred to be by himself, and I usually let him get his space when he needs it. But there was something… off about it this time. His furrowed, worried brow, and uneasy expression, his hands keeping a deathly vice grip on the book’s covers.

I asked if he was feeling alright, and he told me the book was making him uncomfortable. I wondered if it was a book written to help children cope with trauma, to help guide them through complex realities of life that they lack the experience to understand or the words to describe. That would’ve made things simpler. I asked if I could see the book, suggesting that he should play with the other or find something else to read. He handed me the book and wandered off to the crafts table. He still looked shaken, but I thought it best to give him time alone.

It was a thin, wide paperback, unassumingly plain in its appearance. The floppy, cheap covers were a flat, solid shade of blue. The title of the book was rendered in blocky clay letters of simple colors reading “Dumpley’s Clayground.” The clay letters were very crude; mashed and lumpy, as if made by unskilled hands. Strangely, there was no credited author or illustrator, and the back cover lacked any publishing information or even a barcode. I shrugged it off at the time. An act of ignorance.

I opened the book and skimmed through the first few pages. The book was illustrated entirely through clay dioramas depicting two children exploring various upbeat environments. For whatever reason, I could not tear my eyes away from the children’s faces. They were sculpted with simultaneously too much and too little detail. They each had just one too many wrinkles in their bulbous cheeks, creased with grins of meticulously carved lips. Heavy lids fell on their glass eyes that looked more suited for taxidermy animals. Their disproportionate bodies were splotched with noticeable fingerprints and scarred with wounds left by sculpting tools.

The environments were no better. The children trekked through forested areas, meeting trees, wildflowers, talking animals and the like, all featuring the same uncanny handiwork, with the colorful characters glossy eyes and seemingly predatory grins locked square on to the children in every single page. Any illusion of depth was instantly broken by the blue cardboard backdrop adorned with cotton balls haphazardly glued on to create an imitation of a bright, open sky. I could feel a strange pulling sensation in the back of my head as I stared into the cluttered, claustrophobic parody of open freedom.

Not even the text of book sat well with me. The story was simple enough; the children were using their imaginations to travel through the playful “clayground” to visit their imaginary friend, Dumpley. And yet the writing felt overly simple, even for the young audience of such a book. Each sentence felt as if it had been poorly translated from another language, and every page ending with the same line: “Imagine good! Imagine hard! If you imagine, you will never leave Dumpley!”

I eventually made my way to the final page, finally coming face to face with the eponymous Dumpley. He was little more than an enormous, egg shaped head, rendered in flesh tone clay, speckled with pin point pores and cut with wrinkled jowls and aged crows’ feet. His flushed lips spread wide from the edges of his face in a stupified grin, slightly parted to reveal a peek of his meticulously crafted teeth. Stubby wormlike tubes of green clay were fastened to the very tip of his head to create the image of a small, almost comical bowl-cut. His nose was fashioned from a bulbous, lumpy sphere of clay stuck to the center of his face, with two perfectly round and uncomfortably deep nostrils boring through his head into gaping black orifices. 

And his eyes… They were caked in purple, heavy lids, with several layers of fat, swollen dark circles running from the bottom of his eyelids to his cheeks. The eyes themselves were glassy, shimmering with a slick polish, and wide set, decidedly not focusing on the cheering protagonists by his sides -their grins wide, and brows creased- but seemingly focusing on nothing at all, peering infinitely in no direction as if in the throws of some orgasmic haze.

I read the text on the final page: “You are here! Dumpley is here! You imagined good! You imagined hard! You are HERE. Dumpley is HERE. You imagined right! Now Dumpley will never go! You will be with Dumpley always forever!”

I slowly closed the book. I could feel a churning pit in my stomach as I stared numbly at the foam cushioning of the floor. I can’t recall how long I was stuck like that, the feeling of a sinking nothingness pulling its way through my brain, but I was eventually snapped to reality as a student gently shook my shoulder. I tried to resume class as best I could.

I snuck the book home with me and burned it in my backyard. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but I didn’t want to risk another one of my students being subjected to it. I tried to go along with my day as best I could, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not escape the memory of the book. It violently clung to the back of my mind and hung over every mundane thought I had. In my sleep, I was bombarded by images of children made of squirming, writhing clay flesh, their sausage fingers violently gripping my wrists and forcefully pulling me along through their narrow dungeons of confined simulated wilderness. Dumpley was absent from my dream, but his presence could be felt in every inch of the clayground. Every glass eye staring at me with nefarious intent. Every finger tugging on my wrist. Every groove of clay perfectly shaped to push me forward, never back.

I found it nearly impossible to pull myself awake the next morning. I absentmindedly stumbled through my morning routine as I prepared for class, trying not to think of that goddamn book, which of course only brought it to the forefront of my attention.

I ignored the other faculty members that morning as I rushed to my classroom. I dropped into my desk chair and closed my eyes, trying to gain any drop of respite I could before the day began.

Class began, and I could immediately tell something was amiss. The student who had first found that goddamn book from yesterday was gone. There was no notice from his parents, and the other children were totally oblivious. But I knew this was much more than a simple absence. I don’t know how I missed it at first, perhaps it didn’t even exist until that exact moment, but the cause of his disappearance became clear to me in an instant.

The far wall across from my desk had been completely replaced with an enormous slab of beige clay. The students paid no mind to the anomaly. I wanted more than anything to avert my eyes, but I could feel the pulling sensation from the back of my head returning. I rose from my desk and slowly felt myself being drawn to the wall. As I got nearer, the pulling feeling worsened, as if my brain was magnetically drawn to the clay. I needed to know what was behind the wall. Needed to find my lost student. And worst of all… I wanted to embrace the clay. I pushed my hand against the wall and felt myself sink into its mass. My entire form consumed in soft, yielding beige, my vision fading to black. As my eyes focused, I knew I was there. The clayground.

I was instantly met with the images from the book. Cardboard walls of burning blue were merely a few feet away from my sides, with a cotton ball choked ceiling leaving me just barely enough room to jump. I was a giant in a land meant to ensnare bodies much smaller than my own.

Any little empty space available had been cluttered with clay characters of animated plants and animals, each of them with glass eyes and uncanny features. Flowers leered at me with their dopey, carved grins. A tree chuckled in its low, hollow voice, watching me through half lidded eyes, loudly and perversely licking its lips as I passed it. A raccoon with all too human eyes and all too human hands followed me with its gaze from cardboard shelf poorly disguised as a tree branch as it munched on something wet and soft. All the creatures’ flesh squirmed and writhed as they moved, giant fingerprints flashing across their surfaces, as if they were being sculpted by crude, invisible hands right before my eyes.

The clayground was mostly silent, save for the dull squish of clay under my foot, and the low, humid breathing of its residents, dotted with the occasional chuckle or giggle. I pushed myself forward, feeling a disturbing automatic movement in my legs. I screamed in my mind that I was doing this to save the child, desperate to convince myself that I was still moving under my own will. I was only half right. 

I couldn’t tell if I had been there for hours or weeks as I slogged through the gaudy, saccharine hellscape. But I noticed the clay creatures gradually thinning away as I pushed onward, a few less flowers here, a few less apples there. It wasn’t long before I found myself completely alone in a barren, cardboard corridor. There were no eyes watching me, no hungry mouths tasting me, no breathy voices haunting me. And yet, I could feel a presence. The pulling in my brain was stronger than ever, as if a strong sucking force was pressing it directly against the inside of my skull. Dumpley was near.

I eventually came upon a door. It was solid cardboard, painted white in thick, streaking brushstrokes. A single word was written on its surface in twitching, crude clay letters of saturated, simple colors: “DUMPLEY.” With a shaking hand, I slowly gripped the button knob, and pulled the door open on its masking tape hinges.

There he was. Dumpley. Dear god, he was massive. A towering, egg shaped mockery of a human face, stuck square in the middle of a gigantic cardboard cylinder that made his chamber. The invisible hands worked his flesh into a slow, bloated frenzy. Nauseating, greasy fingerprints rapidly appearing and disappearing on his form. Globs of clay rolled up and down his surface to create the animation of his heavy, labored breathing. He looked exactly as he did in the book, his presence now being much too clear and demanding. His lips slick and wet. His humid breath filling the room. His eyes glazed over in oblivious ecstasy. 

I had almost forgotten why I was there until I saw him. My student. He was slowly sinking into Dumpley’s mass. Layers of clay slowly building up around the edges of his form embedded in Dumpley’s body, as if they were being scraped on by the invisible hands. He seemed unconscious. Perhaps that was for the best.

I rushed for the child. I grabbed him by the sides and pulled with all my might, but he would barely budge. I began raking my hands through the clay flesh, desperately trying to dig him free. It seemed to be working, but I noticed the clay had begun building up around my arms as well. I continued in a blind fury, digging and digging until he eventually dropped from the gaping wound I had created. The child fell to the ground, and yet… I continued to dig. I wanted to sink my arms further into Dumpley. I could feel his clay flesh slowly building up around me. I wanted to step inside. I wanted to push my face into the embrace of the clay. I wanted to go deeper.

The child awoke with a screech, and I came to my senses. I pulled myself away from Dumpley’s form, a feat that took far more effort than it should have, and quickly scooped the child into my arms. I could hear Dumpley’s sharp intake of breath behind us. He was shuddering, as if awakening from a dream. His once heavy, slow breathing became fast and shallow. I ran to the door as quickly as I could and violently flung it open.

I sprinted through the clayground, clutching the child to me as tightly as I could. Escaping was much, much more challenging than my original journey. The once inviting clay would slip under my feet, causing me to trip and stumble. Branches and vines would snake their way across my path, forcing me to violently rip through them. Paws and thorns grasped at the edges of my clothes. But the creatures’ faces never changed to those of malice, their quiet laughter never turning to grunts of rage. It was absolute hell.

My muscles were burning and my lungs felt as if they would burst, but I finally saw it; the beige wall back to my classroom. We were almost free. But then I saw it. I hadn’t noticed at first, but it was all too obvious now. The cardboard walls that made the clayground were getting tighter and narrower. I ran with whatever burst of energy I could find. So close. So close.

And then. I. Tripped. I felt myself slam into the clay grass, what was once disturbingly soft and inviting had become hard and brittle. The wall was merely inches away. I helped push the child out from underneath me, he shakily rose to his feet. He tried to give me his hand as I crawled forward. That’s when I felt it. Thousands of tiny clay fingers grabbing on to any inch of me they could find. They pulled and tugged, drawing me backwards inch by inch. The child tried to grab my hand again, but I refused, instead pushing him with my remaining strength. He stumbled backwards, and sunk into the clay wall, falling through to the other side.

With the child safe, I tried to pull myself forward, sinking my hands into the ground, my arms straining to move my limp form. The clay hands were not especially strong, but there was something else keeping me from escaping. The pulling had only gotten stronger upon seeing Dumpley. I could feel a physical yanking in the back of my brain, as if some powerful tether was connecting me to Dumpley. I forced myself to move forward, screaming aloud in anguish as I felt the rest of my body slowly growing heavier and heavier, with only my right arm to claw my way to freedom.

I was there. My fingers grazed against the wall. With one last push, I forced my right hand through. And then, nothing. I was exhausted. Broken. The heaviness left my body. I was completely limp. The clay hands slowly, tenderly released their grip. My eyes glazed over as I felt my head become light and hazy. The clay grass became soft and inviting once again. It subtly writhed and caressed me, pushing me forward little by little. There was no rush.

I suddenly felt strong, tiny hands grip my own from the other side. My arm was being pulled through the clay wall. I didn’t have the strength or will to respond, and everything became a slow, numb blur as my students dragged me from the clayground.

When I came to, I noticed the clay wall was gone. I was surrounded by students and faculty. There was a constant buzz of questions. I could only stare blankly at the wall until I broke down sobbing.

I no longer teach at that school. I tried finding other teaching jobs, but I every one would simply drain and exhaust me. I work from home now, but I try to go out whenever I can. Every now and then, I see it. I feel it. A wall the doesn’t look quite right. A subtle, soft squirming object barely noticeable in the corner of my vision. A tugging in my head. I used to tell myself it’s my imagination, but that only made things worse. I was imaging right. Dumpley is here. Dumpley will never go. Dumpley will be with me always forever.