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…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

Think you might fit in nicely? Here’s a quick citizenship test:

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Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.

 

Walker Bait and Switch

Sunday night’s Rick Grimes finale encapsulated everything that is great–and frustrating–about The Walking Dead.

(Spoilers below)

The episode, “What Comes After,” continues the strong bounce-back the series has demonstrated this season. There’s an emphasis on moral dilemma, as evidenced by vigilante Maggie’s face off with Michonne and ensuing confrontation with Negan. There are clever call backs, all the way back to the show’s very first episode in 2010 (the hospital scene; Rick and Shane conversing in the police cruiser). There is payoff on long-teased elements, as that mysterious helicopter finally touches down on the plot line. There’s sublime imagery: the Boschean vision of a field of infinite corpses in huddled sprawl. Most of all, there’s the grandeur of Rick Grimes, who heroically lures a pair of zombie herds away from the settlements and onto the still-under-construction bridge, which he then destroys in a fiery act of self-sacrifice.

If only the episode had stopped there.

Instead, it proceeded to stifle the audience’s catharsis. Turns out, Rick didn’t die in the explosion, but washed ashore somewhere downstream, where he’s discovered by Jadis and whisked away by the helicopter people. I am okay with the decision not to definitively kill off Rick, and could even live with some lingering open-endedness (might he return to the series at some future point?). But no sooner did the episode finish airing than the show’s brass released word that Andrew Lincoln would be reprising his Rick Grimes character in a trilogy of TWD movies on AMC. Surprise! the tricksy producers proclaim, Rick’s ballyhooed send-off is actually into a spin-off. This takes the infamous dumpster fake-out with Glenn to a whole other level. The timing of the breaking news felt both off and off-putting: I was left with a bitter sense of emotional manipulation, of deceptive hype (that this would be the last we’d see of Rick) used to spike ratings.

This latest swerve points to the fundamental problem:The Walking Dead has gotten too big for its own good, and is too concerned with expanding its brand (seemingly to the point of media saturation). Once again it has lost sight of its own basic appeal to viewers, who are eager to invest in a core cast of characters and their week-by-week struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

The Walking Dead botched the opportunity for an unforgettable TV moment by reducing Rick Grimes’s fate to a Gimple gimmick.

 

Hair of the Werewolf

It’s the darkest time of year, when the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder has nothing to do with the end of Daylight Savings Time. No, I’m talking about the inevitable letdown as the calendar turns to November. Another Halloween has come (all too quickly, despite all your anticipation and preparation) and gone. How to deal with this disheartening problem? Go ask Alice:

The best cure for a Halloween hangover is not to turn cold sober. Instead, keep enjoying spirits, stay lit with a warm inner glow. Carry October over into November, and carry on with your favorite activities. Start (or finish) bingeing on all those spooky shows you want to watch. Catch up with your reading, whether its the latest horror novels/anthologies or High-Holiday-related articles (two suggestions: scholar Lesley Bannatyne’s essay on the history of Halloween mischief, and this profile of pumpkin-carving savant Ray Villafane). Scour social media for images of the best costumes from this year–although none will be able to surpass the following get-up (highlighted on Bloody Disgusting), which had me barking out laughter:

Here in the Macabre Republic, Halloween is not just a day, or even a season, but a 52-weeks-a-year ethos. This blog aims to maintain the mood, to keep the Dispatches coming. And work continues on a special project that wasn’t quite ready for release this year, but will certainly be completed in time for the Halloween ’19 celebration.

In the meantime, let’s keep imbibing the frightful, and guzzling the Gothic. Such strange brew will be a heady remedy for the winter blues.

 

Liquor Treat (Halloween short story)

In honor of the High Holiday, here’s an original short story posted to this website.

Happy Halloween to all the celebrants in the Macabre Republic!

 

Liquor Treat

By Joe Nazare

 

“You’re never gonna believe this,” Tyrese forecasted as he stormed into the room.

Frankie sat cross-legged atop his bed, sifting through his afternoon haul. He’d already sorted out M&Ms and Milk Duds and Tootsie Roll Pops and Smarties. Reluctantly, he turned his attention from his sweets. “What?”

Tyrese, looking half-gruesome in his Harvey Dent costume, needed a moment to catch his breath before blurting: “There’s some lady over on Stevenson Ave. handing out alcohol to trick-or-treaters.”

What?” Frankie repeated. “Gimme a break.”

His friend stood there nodding insistently. “It’s true. She’s giving out bottles of stuff right there at her door.”

“Oh yeah? So then where’s yours?”

Tyrese grunted his frustration. “I didn’t say everyone: only the bigger kids are scoring liquor. For the rest, it’s standard candy. But Jeff Marion and Glenda Walinski and Peter Settembrino got a bottle each,” Tyrese said, naming the trio of sixteen year olds from Hallorann High.

Although Frankie could easily picture the teens (who he’d often seen hanging out in front of Shop Rite’s liquor annex) being supplied with alcohol, he still struggled with the scenario Tyrese painted. “But why would this lady just be giving the stuff away?”

“What do I know?” Tyrese shot back, in the key of “what does that matter!” He lowered his voice and theorized: “Maybe she’s goin’ on the wagon. Maybe she’s moving away and has to clean house. Maybe she’s one of those rare, cool adults who don’t mind kids partying. The point, nimrod, is that she’s handing out free booze. So why just sit here asking why?”

Finally Frankie understood where this was heading. “Hey, you really think I could get a bottle off of her?”

“If there’s an eighth grader who can pull this off,” Tyrese said, “it’s you.”

Frankie took the statement as fact rather than flattery. While he didn’t have much meat on his bones, he had plenty of height in his favor. Barely thirteen, he stood two inches shy of six feet. He played center on his CYO basketball team, towering over not just pipsqueak point guard Tyrese but the rosters of the entire league. A young man amongst boys, Frankie wore the signs of maturation plain on his face. When he used his mom’s makeup to rub fake beard growth onto his cheeks today, he didn’t have to bother with his upper lip, where puberty had already penciled in the dark strands of a mustache.

Sitting in his bedroom now, Frankie imagined how his schoolyard cred would skyrocket if he managed to snag a Halloween bottle of liquor. “And you know exactly where this lady lives?” he asked. When Tyrese bobbled his head “yes,” Frankie popped to his feet and quickly reassembled his costume. He slid back into the old flannel shirt that had belonged to his father. Then hefted the broomstick with the sock-stuffed bandana tied around its end. “Okay, let’s go.”

They barreled downstairs and toward the front door. “Going out to do s’more trick-or-treating with Tyrese!” Frankie announced as they hurried past the laundry room, where his mom stood pulling a tangle of clothes from the dryer.

“Be careful,” she called after him. “And make sure you’re back before supper, hear me?”

Tyrese, who liked to watch old shows on Nickelodeon from the dark ages of black-and-white, intervened with his best Eddie Haskell imitation. “G’night, Miz Baldwin. Don’t worry, Frankie and I’ll look out for each other.”

Then they were out the door. Following the sun’s lead, the temperature had dipped in the time since Frankie’s return home earlier. And the wind had picked up, raking orange-red leaves across the slabs of sidewalk, leaves that crunched underfoot like squashed beetles as the boys sped down the block.

They wove through the neighborhood, Tyrese in the lead. His pace doubled when they made the final turn onto Stevenson.“There,” he said, stopping short and pointing diagonally across the street.

Just an ordinary-looking house—brown brick front and dented beige siding. A wide perimeter of patchy grass separated the house from its nearest neighbors. Frankie had probably passed the place hundreds of times in his life, oblivious to it. But he studied it closely now, wariness gnawing away at his anticipation.

“Go ahead, big guy,” Tyrese prompted him.

“You’re not coming with me?”

“I can’t,” he said. “She might not give you the liquor if she sees me with you. I don’t wanna blow your cover.”

Frankie could understand the reasoning, even if he didn’t relish the thought of going solo. But then he considered how approaching the house alone would only enhance the story of his exploits.

“Alright. Wait here.” Prepping himself with a deep breath, Frankie hurried across the street and onto the flight of concrete steps. He wondered who waited on the other side of that front door. Some senile old bat who’d lost the distinction between a bottle of Scotch and a bag of Skittles? Or did she know exactly what she was doing?

Still scaling the steps, Frankie glanced back over his shoulder. Tyrese had squatted down behind the fender of a parked Jeep. His waving hand directed Frankie to keep going.

A sudden, horrid thought, though, stalled Frankie. What if Tyrese was even more two-faced than his costume suggested? What if he’d set him up for a Halloween prank? Were his goblin-masked accomplices huddling behind the front door right now, waiting to jump out once Frankie approached? The more he thought about it, the whole story about a woman treating kids to bottles of liquor sounded too good to be true.

But what if it was true? What if he blew a once-in-an-underage-lifetime opportunity by chickening out? One thing Frankie was certain of—he didn’t have time for indecision. All too soon, his mom would be expecting him home.

Chafing at the thought of his mom’s unwavering overprotection, Frankie made up his mind. In a burst of gangly movement, he finished the climb to the doorstep.

Masking tape covered the presumably dead doorbell; PLEASE KNOCK had been inked across it. Swallowing, Frankie followed the instruction.

Within a half minute that felt like a half hour, Frankie heard shuffling footsteps inside. The door swung inward, and the space filled with a solitary female figure.

This wasn’t some crazy hag, Frankie saw, just a middle-aged housewife dressed in a purple turtleneck and blue jeans. She was nowhere near as elderly as his imagination had cast her, but for some reason she also struck him as looking older than her actual age. Shadows rimmed the eyes sunken in her otherwise pale face. Her scraggly black hair had a skunk stripe streaking back from the temple, just like Johnny Depp in that Sweeney Todd movie Frankie and Tyrese had snuck in to see at the Cineplex.

The silence growing exponentially awkward as the lady eyeballed him, Frankie stammered, “Umm, t-trick-or-treat?” A Tyresian voice immediately sounded in his head: C’mon, nimrod, act like you’ve done this before.

But the imagined chastising only made Frankie realize what differed from his previous foray that afternoon: he’d forgotten to tote the old pillowcase that served as his candy bag! He felt practically naked in his present empty-handedness.

The woman’s gaze narrowed. “How old are you, kiddo?” she asked in rasped voice.

“Sixteen,” Frankie lied, not daring to stretch the truth any further.

“Sixteen,” she repeated, seeming to chew over the answer. She looked him up and down, and then past his shoulder, perhaps checking for adult supervisors or other potential witnesses curbside.

“Okay, hang on,” she told him at last, pulling back behind the partly-closed door.

Frankie was so keyed up by that point, he didn’t know what to expect. Would she come back holding a candy bar? A demonic barber’s straight razor? A phone with his mom on the other end of the line?

But a torturous moment later, she stepped back into view choking the neck of a long bottle of clear liquid. Amazingly, she held it out to him. “Here you g—”

Before she could finish the sentence, Frankie snatched the offering and bolted down the flight of stairs, his knees pistoning as if he were emulating a drill from basketball practice. Overwhelmed by a potent mix of anxiety and exhilaration, he forgot to even thank the woman for her special treat.

 

***

Lorna watched the lanky hobo race down her steps. After scanning the twilit street, she withdrew into the house.

She turned toward the long snack table lining the wall to the immediate right of the door. Atop it sat an orange plastic bowl filled with nugget-sized Snickers and Three Musketeers. The bowl was one of those motion-sensing pieces specially tricked out for Halloween: whenever a human hand reached into it, the scaly green one poking up from its center came slapping down. Lorna, though, had removed the decoration’s battery, having long since tired of such routine.

What seized her attention now wasn’t the still-brimming candy bowl but rather the stark emptiness of the tabletop alongside it. She’d just given away the very last bottle of liquor from the domestic cache.

The realization set off a tremor in her hands. She felt as if every last droplet of saliva in her mouth had evaporated. Oh c’mon, her conscience scolded her. Show some grit. Don’t stand here acting like you’re getting the DT’s.

She’d made her sober resolution after many hard nights and many days of soul-searching. Knowing she couldn’t just pour the liquor down the drain, she decided to get rid of the cursed bottles by handing them out to the older kids who knocked on her door today. She figured that such disposal constituted a crime, albeit a minor one in the grander scheme of things.

The layout of the house was such that the front door opened directly onto the living room. Lorna couldn’t help but sigh now as she turned and surveyed the surrounding space. Neglect appeared to be the room’s dominant motif. Grime tinted the vinyl slats of the window blinds. Dust bunnies roamed the long-since-swept hardwood floor. The crocheted blanket hung crooked as a parallelogram across the back of the sofa, and a slew of old magazines formed an artless mosaic atop the coffee table.

It saddened her to be so visibly reminded of how far she’d let things slip, of how long she’d carried on like she had. But now certainly wasn’t the time to dwell on past folly, not with the opportunity for liberation looming before her. If she could just somehow get through tonight, tomorrow’s outlook would be infinitely brighter.

A sudden rapping startled her from her thoughts. Lorna opened the door to find a husky, acne-masked teen waiting there. “Trick-or-treat,” he recited. Along with a knowing grin, he wore black denims and a red sweatshirt. A few rubber-banded Heralds protruded from the satchel slung on his shoulder. Lorna didn’t believe this paperboy was even in costume; she was sure she’d seen him making his neighborhood rounds in weeks past.

Either way, he looked crestfallen when she broke out the candy bowl. No doubt he’d had his heart set on schnapps, not Snickers.

Sorry, kiddo, she wanted to tell him. But you should’ve gotten here earlier. In this world, timing is everything.

 

***

Frankie thought he was home free, until he realized that he still had to smuggle the bottle into his own house.

He’d just parted ways with Tyrese, who’d been yipping at his heels like a toy poodle: Let me see it/Let me hold it/Let me smell it. Tyrese had such awe for the bottle, you woulda thought he expected a genie to come smoking out of it. Finally Frankie had to tell him to go on home. Not too harshly, though, since he knew he’d need his friend to back up the story of this escapade come Monday morning at school.

Without Tyrese here driving him nuts, Frankie could take the time to study what he held. BACARDI Puerto Rican Rum, the wording on the slender bottle labeled its colorless contents. Frankie didn’t know anything about rum, except that the Pirates of the Caribbean were crazy for it. He didn’t worry much about the fact that the seal was broken and the bottle only half full. Who knew if he’d ever get around to actually drinking the liquor; right now the possession of it was what mattered most.

Frankie unscrewed the cap and lifted the bottle to his nose for a curious sniff. Ewww—reminded him of lighter fluid.

He twisted the cap back on tight before turning onto his block and closing in on his house. His ears burned red and his heartbeat kicked into overdrive when he reached the front door. This was it.

Frankie dropped his broomstick prop alongside the entrance; he’d come retrieve it once he’d delivered the bottle to his bedroom. For now, he hid the contraband as best he could by draping his flannel shirt over it and cradling the bottle to his chest.

S…l…o…w…l…y he turned the brass knob and pushed the door open. As he crept into the foyer, he could hear the NBC anchorman relaying the evening news on the living room TV. Frankie didn’t hear any sound of his mom moving about, which was good. Most likely meant she was sprawled out on the couch.

With all the strained grace of a cat burglar, Frankie tiptoed down the hall and up onto the staircase. He took one gradual step at a time. He cringed when wood creaked beneath him, his nervousness exaggerating the sound into that of a splintering redwood. But the noise failed to alert his mom of his return, so Frankie continued his labored ascent.

Arriving at the second floor landing an eternity later, Frankie turned down a hallway that seemed to have stretched to nightmare length. He treaded as softly as possible, thankful for the muffling pad of teal blue carpet beneath his feet. When only a few feet from his bedroom doorway, he shucked his self-restraint. Sensing himself in the clear, he disentangled the bottle from his shirt and scurried the last few steps into the privacy of his room.

Only to find his mom standing there at his closet hanging up his laundry for him.

They serenaded each other with their startled gasps. The liquor bottle jumped right out of Frankie’s hand and dive-bombed to the floor, detonating upon impact.

His mom’s eyebrows bobbed on her forehead, then sloped sharply once the telltale smell drifted toward her. The simultaneous disappointment and displeasure molding her features proved scarier than any Halloween mask.

“Frankie!” she screeched at him, and he could tell from the tone that it wouldn’t be her last word on the subject.

 

***

Lorna stared unfocusedly at the sitcom flashing its banality across the TV screen. She sat slouched on the brown suede sofa, with her arms crossed and her hands cupping her elbows. For all the spirits she’d exorcised from the house today, she still felt haunted.

She realized that dispensing with the stock of liquor had been the easy part. The immediate aftermath was the crucial factor, and would determine whether her whole endeavor turned into a smashing failure. Lorna flicked a glance toward the dust-coated grandfather clock towering in the corner of the room, and shuddered.

Did she really think she was going to be able to hold out, to get through this night in one piece? Not even 6:30, and she was a nervous wreck already.

That old maxim sounded in her head, chiding her: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

Then Lorna heard the clacks on the steps outside, followed by the rattle of the doorknob and the creaking swing of the front door itself. She didn’t move from her seat, and barely shifted her gaze. She could have identified her husband’s nightly entrance blindfolded.

Alvin pushed the door shut behind him, sloughed off his jacket and slung it on the wooden rack affixed to the wall on the right. In concession to the holiday, he had dressed this morning in black slacks and a deep orange shirt and matching tie. “Hey baby,” he called, beelining toward her.

He leaned over and planted a long, open-mouthed kiss on her lips. The duration of the smooch enabled him to reach across and give her right breast a firm squeeze, like a shopper testing produce at the supermarket.

Lorna couldn’t keep her nostrils from sniffing. She detected the beer on his breath, believed she could even smell the alcohol wafting through the pores of his cheek and neck like some faint aftershave. Alvin worked as assistant manager at the downtown Barnes & Noble, and every Tuesday and Friday joined his staff for happy hour at the adjacent Houlihan’s. Had one or two—but never more—sociable drinks before heading home.

Oblivious to her reaction, Alvin straightened. He beamed a smile that promised further groping later on tonight. “OK, lemme go wash up and change,” he said, as if she were the one stopping him. Turning to exit the room, he added, “Give a holler when dinner’s ready.”

Dinner? The word alerted Lorna to her own absentmindedness. She’d been so preoccupied with this afternoon’s handouts, she hadn’t even thought to plan a meal for tonight. Oh well.

Rather than scurrying into the kitchen, she maintained her perch. Stationed at the front end of the house, she could still hear the cascade of the bathroom faucet.

Frowning, Lorna eyed the grandfather clock once more. Hardly any time had passed since last check.

Her fidgeting hand found the remote and used it to zap the TV. The ensuing silence amplified the sound of Alvin’s activities within. Lorna heard him flip the light switch in the bathroom and shuffle down the hall. She heard the rustle of his undressing in the bedroom, soon followed by the slide of the closet door. And then she heard Alvin scream.

“LORNA!” The cry seemed to reverberate off every wall in the house. Lorna swallowed, braced herself for this moment of truth. She was by no means clairvoyant, but clearly understood what her husband had discovered.

Alvin kept all of his liquor bottles stashed at the bottom of the bedroom closet. He wouldn’t display them openly elsewhere in the house, lest any visitor note the extensiveness of his collection and cast aspersions on his character. His in-home binges were his dirty little secret, which inevitably besmirched Lorna as well.

Her husband’s preoccupation with surface appearance concealed more than just alcohol abuse. When in his cups and out of sorts, he yanked her hair wantonly, knowing such rough gesture wouldn’t leave visible mark on her. And even if his stinging smacks of her backside caused any bruises—which they often did—the handiwork could always be excused as the byproduct of bedroom kinkiness. Oh, Alvin was a sly one when it came to avoiding incriminating evidence.

“LORNA!” he boomed again. His initial naming of her had been a yawp of dismay; this next address was voiced in stern accusation. It chased Lorna to her feet.

She stepped back automatically when Alvin stalked into the living room. Instant regret of her transgression today swamped her. She’d miscalculated terribly; how could she have possibly thought that her crazy plan would work out alright?

He was stripped down to his white A-shirt, which Alvin in his political and alphabetical incorrectness always referred to as a “Guinea T.” Under other circumstances, he might have looked comical, standing there in his boxers and with his dress socks stretching up his calves. But his wavy black hair was disheveled from the hands that must have ruffled it, hands presently clenched into vibrant fists.

What did you do?” he demanded in guttural voice. Although he knew she herself never touched the stuff, he had explicitly instructed Lorna long ago to never, ever touch his stuff.

Lorna stood static as a headlighted deer, watching Alvin snort temper through flared nostrils. His hooded glare bespoke a determination to help himself to a few belts tonight—one way or the other.

He didn’t wait for Lorna to mutter some explanation. Unmasked and monstrous, he charged straight at her.

 

***

Alvin synchronized his blows with his slurs. He knelt straddling Lorna in the middle of the living room floor, letting her know—and feel—just what he thought about her little prohibitionist ploy. Each fist fell heavy as an anvil, as if his fury had anagrammed his name and transmuted him into unforgiving steel. So engrossed was he in punishing the thieving, teetotaling bitch that he lost all track of his surroundings. It took him some time to realize that the staccato thunks he heard came not just from Lorna’s skull against polished hardwood, but from knocking on the front door.

Whipping his head over his shoulder, Alvin caught glimpse of the candy bowl on the snack table and immediately grasped the nature of the solicitation. “Getouttahere, you goddamn mooches!” he growled towards the envisioned grouping on his doorstep.

Even more persistent knocking answered the dismissal, fanning Alvin’s rage. Backhanding Lorna for good measure, he pounced to his feet and moved to give the kids outside an unsweet mouthful.

But Alvin froze as he was about to wrench the doorknob. Through the set of glass arches aligned high on the door, he spotted the figures outside. Some lanky teen dressed up as a hobo, bracketed by a pair of even taller companions. Their shiny silver badges glistened on the breasts of blue uniforms that were no mere costumes.

The realization sent Alvin reeling back from the threshold. He stared down at himself, suddenly conscious of his blood-gloved hands.

From their side of the doorway, the officers must have registered movement within. One promptly resumed knuckling the door, while the other vocalized the desire for admittance. “Mrs. Cahill,” the deep voice penetrated Alvin’s sanctum.

Alvin just stood there, his head slowly shaking. How could this be? How could they be out there hounding him right now? The timing was all wrong. The bordering houses sat far wide of this one, so no neighbor was likely to overhear him disciplining his wife. And even if someone had called in to report a disturbance, there was no way in hell a squad car could’ve been dispatched here this quick.

Flummoxed, he swiveled his gaze toward Lorna. She lay sprawled on her back, straining to tilt her head up off the floor. Though reduced to slits by the rapid swelling, her empurpled eyes blazed as they fixed him. A wicked, chipped-tooth grin carved itself across the bottom of her face. Drooling pink froth, the human jack’-o-lantern spoke at last. Alvin felt his sphincter seize up and an abrupt claustrophobia encage him as he translated the garbled phrase.

Timely yet uncanny, it sounded awful like “Trick-or-Treat.”

 

Triple Six Pack

Back in the day on my old Macabre Republic blog, I had a feature called Pick Six with ____. It was a variation on the traditional interview, as the subject got to choose whichever six questions he/she would like to answer from a list of nearly forty items (questions and prompts pertaining to the writer’s own work, as well as his/her thoughts on the world of horror). I am hoping to resurrect this feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic in the near future, but in the meantime here is a re-post of interviews with a trio of Halloween Lit luminaries:

 

Pick Six with Norman Partridge (originally posted 11/1/2012)

If there were a Halloween Hall of Fame, Norman Partridge no doubt would be a first-year inductee. He provided an instant classic for holiday readers in 2006 with his Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Dark Harvest (which was also chosen as one of the 100 Best Books of that year by Publishers Weekly). His various Halloween narratives (including a novelette-length prequel to Dark Harvest) are collected in Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season.

1.What is your favorite Halloween memory?

I’d have to open up my treat sack and toss in all the Halloweens I remember as a kid growing up in the Sixties. For me, that was the holiday’s golden age. Every kid in the neighborhood hit the streets, and the doorbells didn’t stop ringing all night long.

One year my truck-driver dad showed up on the big afternoon with cases of Crackerjack stacked in the back of his pickup. My mom took one look at all those boxes and thought he’d blown the mortgage for the month.  All he said was: “Don’t worry about it, Ev…they fell off a truck.” Anyway, the front hall was piled high with Crackerjack when I left the house that night to trick or treat.  We lived on a hill, but word got out. All the Crackerjack was gone by the time I got home, and my dad was handing out change from my piggy bank. I always have to laugh remembering that, though I didn’t think it was particularly funny at the time.

2.What, to you, is the scariest place in your hometown?

I grew up in Vallejo, California. The spot that really sticks out for me is Lake Herman Road, in particular the stretch of country two-lane that leads to the place where the Zodiac Killer murdered two teenagers. When I was a teenager myself, we’d cruise out there in the middle of the night, kill the headlights and the engine, kill the radio, and let the car drift in neutral until someone freaked out. Usually it didn’t take very long.  Something lingers there.

3.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

If we’re talking writers, probably Stephen King and Joe R. Lansdale. Other than that, I’d say my dad. He was a born storyteller, and the first yarns I remember are the ones he spun in the backyard on summer evenings–especially the weird stories about a house with bloody footprints and the Green Man, which came from his boyhood in Pennsylvania. I still remember the excitement I felt hearing those tales for the first time, and I try to recapture a little of that when writing my own stories. I want to get the reader’s blood pumping.

4.If you could change one thing about your writing career, what would it be?

I’d type “The End” more often.  Right now, that’s my goal.

5.Three episodes you always try to catch whenever a Twilight Zone marathon airs?

I could probably give you ten, but here are three that come to mind:

“The Passerby”: Serling’s meditation on the Civil War, with a faded Southern belle and a wounded Confederate passing a dark evening together. The ending always gets me. Line for line, one of Serling’s best episodes.

“The Grave”: A weird western with Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, James Best, and Lee Van Cleef. What’s not to like? Plus, it reminds me of those stories my dad told in the backyard when I was a kid.

“Nick of Time”: A husband and a wife encounter a fortune-telling machine in a diner just south of Nowhere, U.S.A. This episode is my favorite example of what made Twilight Zone special. There are no special effects–just a great story, smart dialogue, and a cast that delivers (i.e. William Shatner as the desperate male lead? I’m sold!).

6.What was your favorite horror movie monster when growing up (and today, if different)?

I’ll stick with the Universal gang, and probably always will. My favorite is the Wolfman (a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot). And Kharis. What can I say? The cursed guys speak to me.

 

 

Pick Six [plus a bonus question in honor of the author’s birthday] with David Herter (originally posted 10/31/12)

A graduate of the 1990 Clarion West Workshop, David Herter is the author of Ceres StormEvening’s EmpireOn the Overgrown PathThe Luminous Depthsand One Who Disappeared.  His 2010 novel October Dark (part of Earthling’s Halloween Series) has recently been revised (expanded with new scenes and tightened by some 20,000 words) for ebook release.

1.If you could collaborate with any living writer, who would you choose, and why?

Well, since it’s Halloween, how about a departed one–Catherine Lucille Moore? Which I guess makes me Henry Kuttner. Working in tandem as they did, it would be a giddy pleasure to sit down at the typewriter just after she’d finished her portion in the midst of a sentence, then carry forward a masterpiece like “Clash by Night” so that the heating bills could be paid.

2.What is the best book you have read in the past year?

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers. Best. Vampire. Book. Ever.

3.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

“If you can’t make it good, make it short.”–Gene Wolfe

4.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

Briony Travers, my mom. She grew up in wartime Britain and Australia, was a librarian after college in Illinois, then married and became a housewife. Throughout a life of painfully deteriorating health, books were her sustenance. She loved mysteries most of all (Ruth Rendall, P.D. James), and biographies, but also Stephen King and Thomas Harris. She had a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly to keep apprised of the forthcoming titles. She could quote freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson. She knew a little something about everything.

5.What did you enjoy most about writing your last book?

My latest is a revision of my 2010 novel October Dark for ebook release. I enjoyed finally achieving the book I set out to write–sharpening the plot, weeding out the excessive nostalgia, darkening the horror. I also enjoyed delving more into the “lost film,” Dark Carnival, that haunts the book. In our world it’s a movie that Ray Bradbury tried and failed to make, eventually becoming the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. In my book the film was made but quickly vanished from sight, holding in its frames an optical curse against an undying Phantasmagoria magician and his dead love, a witch. The movie is a chess-piece in a decades-long battle between the magician and special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. All hell breaks loose on Halloween, 1977.

6.What are you working on now?

The Cold Heavens. An epic space opera with an eschatological twist, inspired by Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore and the occult novels of the Austrian fantasist Gustav Meyrink. I’ve had a great time reading/rereading all of their works, as well as delving into German Romanticism, Fin de siecle Decadence and the Weimar era in Berlin. The resulting 275,000 words are set on Mars, Venus, and beyond, with a sequence in the heart of the book set in Meyrink’s haunted Prague. It’s the first of two books.

7.Your Mt. Rushmore of four all-time favorite writers?

Of horror writers? It would make for an eerie skyline at dusk. Robert Aickman, Gustav Meyrink, Shirley Jackson, and Manly Wade Wellman.

 

 

Pick Six with James Newman (originally posted 3/25/11)

James Newman is author of the novels Midnight Rain and The Wicked, novellas such as Holy Rollers and The Forum, and the short story collection People Are Strange.  His latest novel, Animosity, comes from Necessary Evil Press, and bears a subtitle that resonates throughout the Macabre Republic: “An American Horror Story.”

1.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

Less is more. It’s all about the flow. Why use 100 words to say what can be said in 10? I prefer crisp, clean, lean ‘n mean prose that doesn’t waste a word. It’s what I like to read, so naturally it’s how I enjoy writing.

2.What is your greatest phobia?

That one’s easy: spiders. It’s worse than you could ever imagine, dude. I see one in the house, I start yelling for my wife or 11-year-old son to come kill it. I firmly believe that spiders are pure Evil on eight legs. Just sitting here thinking about those friggin’ things gives me goosebumps.

3.What did you enjoy most about writing your latest book?

The fact that I was writing (what I hope is) a disturbing horror novel set in the real world, populated by real people affected by events that could really happen. Animosity is about a bestselling horror writer whose neighbors turn against him after he finds the body of a murdered child, as they believe there must be some connection between the subject matter of his novels and his tragic discovery (because who could make up such twisted stuff without being a little sick in the head to begin with, right?). While what happens to my protagonist might seem a little far-fetched when things are at their worst for him, I don’t think there’s anything in Animosity that’s impossible. Or improbable, for that matter. People scare me, and the things we humans are capable of is more terrifying to me than vampires or werewolves or zombies. It doesn’t take much at all for folks we thought were our friends to transform into monsters, when they allow themselves to be misled by prejudice, gossip, and/or a mob mentality.

Humans might be scarier than spiders, in fact. But just barely. 😉

4.What excites you about the project you are working on now?

That it’s sort of a departure from what I normally do. The novel I’m working on right now is called Ugly As Sin, and it’s not a horror novel at all. It is a very dark story, but if I had to categorize it I guess I’d call it “white trash noir.” It’s a book influenced by the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, my favorite writer. Very Southern, with characters who might be hideous on the outside but beautiful on the inside, and vice versa.

I’m very proud of this one. I’ve had more fun writing Ugly As Sin than anything I’ve written to date. I can’t wait for folks to read it.

5.What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?

That I’m a Christian. However, I say that with a loud disclaimer. I don’t consider myself to have anything in common with the kinds of people most folks think of when they hear the word “Christian.” I’m not a fan of organized religion, and can’t stand most of the bigoted, close-minded assholes associated with it. If that’s Christianity, then maybe I’m not a Christian at all…

Besides, I cuss too much.

6.Which one of your books would you most like to see developed into a movie, and who would be your dream cast for that film?

I think Midnight Rain would make a wonderful movie. Haven’t really thought about casting it in my mind, but it sounds fun.

For Kyle Mackey: how about Chandler Riggs (“Carl” from The Walking Dead)? He’s a little young at the moment, but he’d work. For his big brother Dan, who Kyle looks up to in more ways than one…gonna throw in an off-the-wall pick that only my fellow die-hard Tar Heels basketball fans will get: Jackson Simmons. Maybe Catherine Keener as their mom, Darlene? She never fails to impress. As poor  “Rooster,” the young man framed for a crime he did not commit: Al Shearer (Glory Road). And as the despicable villain of the piece, Sheriff Burt Baker, I’ve got to go with Michael Rooker. He’d be just about perfect.

 

Even Pulpier Fiction: Reconsidering the Recursive Structure of Trick ‘r Treat

While being interviewed for the documentary “Trick ‘r Treat: The Lore and Legends of Halloween,” producer Bryan Singer alliteratively high-concepts Mike Dougherty’s film as “Crash meets Creepshow.” As an anthology horror film–one that employs comic-book-style opening credits–Trick ‘r Treat certainly mimics George Romero’s 1982 film (the zombie look of the kids who drowned in the Halloween School Bus Massacre in Trick ‘r Treat also recalls the vengeful revenants in the “Something to Tide You Over” segment of Creepshow). With its ensemble cast of characters whose narratives intersect in life-changing ways, Trick ‘r Treat also pairs well with Crash. Director Paul Haggis’s Academy-Award-winning picture, though, only plays minimally with chronology. The better comparison might be with a film that pushes the envelope further in terms of nonlinear (fragmented and looping) narrative structure: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino and Dougherty similarly suffuse their respective films with macabre humor and lurid imagery. Both Pulp Fiction and Trick ‘r Treat are quite self-conscious in their referencing of other movies. For example, Trick ‘r Treat pays ongoing homage to Halloween, from the use of behind-the-mask subjective camera work to Brian Cox modeling the appearance of his Mr. Kreeg character on John Carpenter (Kreeg’s incredulous ejaculation [when encountering the resilient Halloween demon Sam], “You gotta be fucking kidding me” also echoes a line from another Carpenter effort, The Thing). Pulp Fiction (with its oddly philosophical and profanely witty hitmen, Jules and Vincent) and Trick ‘r Treat also compare in their featuring of anti-heroes as main characters. As a stern enforcer of the rules of Halloween, Sam can be likened to Tarantino’s gangsters punishing those who violate the code of the criminal underworld.

One of the quirks of a looping narrative structure that recurs to earlier moments in the timeline is that a character already killed off returns onscreen. Most notably, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is gunned down in the middle of Pulp Fiction but is still up and walking around in the closing scene. Likewise, the Halloween-hater Emma is dispatched by Sam in the opening of Trick ‘r Treat yet is later seen alive once again as the film circles back to the street parade earlier that evening. Such dynamic proves thematically appropriate to Trick ‘r Treat, since Halloween is a night known for blurring the lines between the living and the dead. As school principal/chocolate-poisoner Steven Wilkins (who resembles real-life murderer Ronald “The Candy Man” Clark O’Bryan) lectures to Charlie, “This is the one night when the dead and all sorts of things roam free and pay us a visit.” For sure, supernatural figures roam free in Trick ‘r Treat, penetrating other stories and proving alpha-predators (as seen when pseudo-vampire Steven attempts to pounce on the wrong victim and suffers comeuppance at the jaws of actual werewolf Danielle).

Guising is another familiar element of the October 31st holiday, and this, too, ties in to the narrative structure of Trick ‘r Treat. Masked tricksters run rampant in the Ohio town of Warren Valley, just as the film itself playfully jumps around between stories that ultimately are shown to overlap. Seeming trick-or-treater Sam (beneath his burlap mask lies an eldritch Halloween avatar) embodies this shiftiness as he pops up throughout in observance of various scenes of mayhem, and then in the climax performs acts of grim mischief himself against the beleaguered Mr. Kreeg. Dressed as a pajamaed child, Sam might look innocent, but he’s a violent menace to anyone lacking in holiday spirit. As Brian Cox narrates in the above-mentioned documentary, “Trick ‘r Treat‘s interconnected tales remind us that on Halloween, identity is as fluid as fog, and even the gentlest soul can shapeshift into a vicious killer.”

Trick ‘r Treat‘s chronological quirks succeed in drawing viewers back into the film. Throwaway lines and minor details (e.g., eating “bad Mexican,” “Sheep’s Meadow”) assume added significance in retrospect. The film encourages repeated viewings, which create new insights. I pop in the DVD every October, but it wasn’t until my most recent viewing that I noticed the man in the hot dog costume forming one of the werewolves’ victims (presumably this is Coach Taylor, last seen humping a pig-outfitted woman at Mrs. Henderson’s party; another adult guilty of hyper-sexualzing Halloween appears to have been fatally baited by the werewolf girls in risque costume).

At a swift 82 minutes, Trick ‘r Treat has half the run time of Pulp Fiction, but proves twice as committed to recursive techniques. Dougherty’s film makes its interweaving/backtracking intentions known earlier and more often. Tarantino’s revered vehicle has garnered plenty of attention for its permutation of cinematic narrative form, but the crafty complexity of Trick ‘r Treat no doubt deserves further appreciation.

 

Big, Black, and Orange: A Review of The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories

The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories: Terrifying Tales Set on the Scariest Night of the Year! Edited by Stephen Jones. Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.

Featuring twenty-six stories (and one poem), and weighing in at over 500 pages, Jones’s anthology certainly fulfills its titular claims of prodigiousness. Some of the High Holiday highlights within:

From its baroque title to its weird and unsettling imagery, James Ebersole’s “The Phenakisticope of Decay” (concerning trick-or-treaters’ encounter with a sinister low-tech cartoon-viewing device) reads like a product of Thomas Ligotti’s Nightmare Factory. The story’s ending perhaps falls a bit short of the mark, but that doesn’t detract from the macabre magnificence that precedes it.

Storm Constantine’s “Bone Fire” burns bright as the author rekindles Halloween’s Celtic roots. This tale of demons, fairies, and pagan celebrations is both beautifully written and suffused with sharp plot twists.

I love science-fictional variations on the Halloween tale (e.g., Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve”; Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still”), and Lisa Morton’s “The Ultimate Halloween Party App” can now be added to that short list. Morton’s story of rampant terrorism and neurotechnological misdeed downloads a rollicking monster mash into readers’ imaginations.

Set in Finland, Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Scariest Thing in the World” invokes Halloween in a more philosophical manner, and the referent of its title is not some facile frightener. The narrative simmers and simmers…until it reaches its explosive final line.

Thana Niveau’s “White Mare” presents Americans abroad and accosted by an angry mob of villagers on Halloween night. The strange customs maintained here in the English countryside are enough to make the festivities in The Wicker Man seem like a gathering around a cozy campfire.

These are all original pieces, but the strongest entries in the anthology (which opens with Neil Gaiman’s classic Bradbury homage, “October in the Chair”) are its reprints. Angela Slatter’s “The October Widow” combines an intimate tale of love and loss with hints of an autumnal apocalypse. Renowned for his darkly comedic voice, Joe R. Lansdale reminds us what a harrowing raconteur he also is in “The Folding Man”–a supernatural take on the “black car” legend. Ramsey Campbell establishes himself once again as the master of the creepy detail in “Her Face,” and Christopher Fowler’s narrator “Lantern Jack” regales listeners with the history of a haunted (especially on Halloween) London pub built on an ancient, ignis-fatuus-producing peat bog.

As is the case with most Jones anthologies, non-American authors dominate the table of contents here. So for those residing in our macabre republic, this collection might prove not quite what was expected (there’s rare display of U.S. settings/holiday observances). But while The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories ultimately does not stack up to last year’s Ellen-Datlow-and-Lisa-Morton-edited anthology Haunted Nights (reviewed here), it still warrants top-shelf slotting in the Halloween fiction lover’s library.

 

Trick or Treat (Book Review)

One more import from the Macabre Republic blog, this time of a review that I posted in 2012.

 

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton (Reaktion Books, 2012)

The latest nonfiction study of the October holiday by Morton (author of The Halloween Encyclopedia) can be summed up in two words: impressively comprehensive.

Trick or Treat takes a “look at both the history of the festival and its growth around the world in the twenty-first century.” The book traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, its evolution in the British Isles, its transportation to America and subsequent proliferation worldwide. Along the way, readers learn about every Halloween custom and ritual imaginable.

The book works more as a survey than a critical analysis (when Morton operates in the latter mode, she has a penchant for employing the waffling phrasing “It’s probably no coincidence that…”). Chapters focusing on Great Britain and the global variations of the holiday will probably be of less interest to the average American reader, but the long final chapter covering Halloween’s manifold manifestations in pop culture is worth the price of purchase alone. Overall, Trick or Treat brims with informational goodness; the volume promises to serve as a valuable reference tool for folklorists, fiction writers, and Halloween aficionados alike.

 

Halloween Nation (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a book review that appeared on the Macabre blog during the 2011 Halloween season.

 

Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (Pelican Publishing Company, 2011)

America’s leading black-and-orange journalist returns to investigate and celebrate the October holiday season. In Halloween Nation, Bannatyne poses the key questions (the most overarching one being: “What does Halloween mean right now and what purpose does it serve?”) and considers all the relevant elements (witches, ghosts, zombies, pumpkins, pranksters, etc.). Her study is at once fascinatingly informative (in particular the chapter tracing the origin of the jack-o’-lantern) and endlessly entertaining. Bannatyne writes with a sense of humor, a prose style reminiscent of Mary Roach (whose work she cites). For instance, when learning of the amazing growth rate of giant-sized pumpkins, the author observes: “Forty pounds a day? That’s like growing a six-year-old over the weekend.” Describing a weigh-off of such gargantuan gourds, Bannatyne offers: “When a 1,180-pounder knocks the rest out of the competition, the crowd roars, and the pumpkin glides through the arena on the forklift like a plus-sized beauty queen on a parade float.”

All this is not to suggest that the author has taken a flippant attitude toward her subject matter, or that she didn’t work hard to produce this book. Like a Charles Kuralt for our macabre republic, Bannatyne spent two years on the road interviewing haunters, performers, and other holiday celebrants across the country. Halloween Nation is an undeniably democratic tome: Bannatyne doesn’t just forward her own ideas but gives voice to the perspectives of countless others. The book seems as populous throughout as the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (which Bannatyne covers in Chapter Seven).

Brimming with brilliant color photos and illustrations, Halloween Nation is a perfect coffee table book to engross visitors to your home this October. The book’s written content (not to mention its extensive “Resources” appendix) is guaranteed to send you surfing the Internet to learn more about the people, places, and events Bannatyne discusses. Such extra-textual forays, though, will not keep you from delving eagerly back into Bannatyne’s pages again and again. I’m not waxing hyperbolic when I state that this insightful and delightful book is an absolute must-read for every unabashed Halloween-ophile.

 

Johnny Halloween (Book Review)

The review of this story collection first appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog in October 2010.

 

Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

This slim yet bountiful volume collects Partridge’s Halloween-based short fiction written over the past two decades. The stories, though, are unified by more than the holiday at month’s end, as signaled by the two nonfiction pieces included here. In his Introduction, Partridge recounts growing up in the sixties as a “card-carrying monsterkid.” The Universal Monsters served as formative influences, and naturally Halloween constituted the most beloved night of the year. But there was another, non-cherished experience that imprinted Partridge’s childhood: in October 1969, Partridge was an eleven-year-old boy living in Vallejo, California, a town that the serial killer known as the Zodiac had chosen as his personal hunting ground. Chillingly, Partridge was forced to realize “that the scariest monsters wore human skin.” The author-to-be received an early lesson in American Gothic, as hinted at in his reaction to the police artist’s sketch of the Zodiac printed in the local newspaper: “His face was like the faces of a half-dozen fathers who lived in my very own neighborhood, right down to the horn-rim glasses. He could have been sitting at a breakfast table down the block, eating Corn Flakes while I stared at his picture on the front page.”

Partridge, in the autobiographical essay “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” elaborates on the shadow cast over his hometown by the Zodiac, noting that the killings were “like an urban legend come to life.” As suggested by the essay’s title, the Zodiac’s reign of terror also marked a loss of American innocence—neither Vallejo nor Halloween ever seemed to be the same again. The essay can shed only so much light on the still-unsolved mystery regarding the Zodiac, but it does provide the reader a much better understanding of why the adult Partridge’s fiction features Halloween masks as recurrent props and duplicitous human monsters as central characters.

The title story (originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine) is vintage Partridge: a bit of Halloween noir involving liquor store hold-ups (past and present), small-town intrigue, and an anti-heroic sheriff (indeed, there’s enough story packed into the pages of “Johnny Halloween” to make for a rousing feature-length film). In keeping with the theme of human monstrosity, the eponymous robber disguises himself with a pumpkin face—a mask that eventually (and symbolically) is taken possession of by the narrating sheriff. But I’ll let you find out for yourself what ol’ Dutch decides to do with it…

“Satan’s Army,” meanwhile, is comprised of an itinerant evangelist (who’s not content to merely preach about the evils of Halloween) and his fervent minions. The tale is pure American Gothic, even including an elderly “Mother” and “Dad” couple who appear to be the perfect neighbors but are actually busy splicing razorblades into apples. And surprise, surprise, a Halloween mask (in this case, the burlap hood of a scarecrow) proves central to the story.

“Treats” has long been a personal favorite Partridge story of mine. The brief tale opens with a mother named Maddie shopping for Halloween candy in the supermarket, and then gets progressively creepier as we learn why she is so harried. Her tyrannical monster of a son “Jimmy was at home with them. He’d said that they were preparing for Operation Trojan Horse.” Fans of golden-age horror/sci-fi cinema will have no trouble identifying the inhuman “them” that Jimmy commands.

In his Introduction to the book, Partridge notes the prevalence of cemeteries (inhabited by “some pretty disturbing monsters,” human and otherwise) in his fiction. “Black Leather Kites” forms a perfect instance of this. The story, tracing the dark machinations of devil-cultist werebats on Halloween night, is enjoyable not just for its wonderfully weird plot but for the humorous banter between the deputy protagonist and his brother-in-law.

Like “Black Leather Kites,” “Three Doors” climaxes in a cemetery. The tale involves a physically- and psychologically-wounded veteran who paints his prosthetic hand black for Halloween in the hopes of gaining magical powers (that will in turn help effect his elopement with the girl he loves). Plot-wise, this is probably the least effective entry in the book; I suspect that some readers will be disappointed by the conclusion of this highly self-conscious story. Nonetheless, Partridge’s hard-boiled voice resounds like the brusque knocks of the protagonist’s fist.

The one piece original to the collection, “The Jack O’ Lantern,” makes Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season a must-have even if you are already familiar with the other selections. This volume-concluding novelette serves as a prequel to Partridge’s incredible Halloween novel Dark Harvest. The narrative is at once action-packed and contemplative, reflecting upon what it’s like to grow up living in a strictly dead-end town.

If you want to treat yourself to some fine reading this Halloween season, trek on over to Cemetery Dance and drop a copy of Johnny Halloween into your goody bag.