Black Cat Variations: Nine Further Lives of Poe’s Frightful Feline

No one has done more than Poe to popularize the black cat as an animal of ill-omen (and perhaps active supernatural menace). In the years since its first publication in 1843, Poe’s “The Black Cat” has returned in an array of dark forms. Here are nine terrific instances:

1.”The Black Cat” by Gino Severini (1910-11)

Decades before ever being projected onto the big screen, Poe’s story was splashed across canvas by Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini. The image is at once dizzying and disturbing, with its depiction of dismemberment and a glassful of suspiciously crimson liquor. No doubt Poe’s “The Black Cat” (notice the doubling of the titular creature) is aptly adapted here; the Cubist-derived aesthetic of simultaneity also captures the Gothic sense of the past impinging upon the present.


2.The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Murderous schemes are unfortunately foiled in this classic roman noir (“And the cat came back! It stepped on the fuse box and got killed, but here it is back!” the femme fatale Cora exclaims toward’s novel’s end). The debt to Poe becomes more glaring in the final chapter, which shapes the narrative as the confession of a condemned man (charged with the death of the “hellcat” Cora, whose gruesome demise in a traffic accident might actually have been prompted by the narrator’s subconscious disgust).


3.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

A killer attempts to conceal the body of his female victim in the basement, but is tormented by an intrusive white cat (that embodies his overwhelming dread of the dominant culture). With its imagery of maiming and lynching, Poe’s story has been read as a veiled critique of Southern slavery, but Richard Wright brings racial matters to the unmistakable forefront. In the closing lines of his accompanying essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright boldly states: “[W]e have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”


4.”The Cat from Hell” by Stephen King (1977)

Anticipating Pet Sematary‘s Church (intriguingly, King’s short story also features a character surnamed Gage who dies in a horrific car accident), the eponymous demonic creature simultaneously hearkens back to Poe with its terrible resilience (its “half black, half white” face” recalls the streak of white ringing the neck of its counterpart in “The Black Cat”). King ultimately outdoes Poe for grotesquerie, as the latter’s suggestion of necrophagy at tale’s end here develops into something much more graphic and visceral.


5.”The White Cat” by Joyce Carol Oates (1987)

An upper-crust husband sinks to awful depths, as his repeated attempts to off his wife’s white Persian cat prove uncannily ineffective. Oates’s story, much longer than Poe’s and narrated in the third person, deftly probes the psyche of the antagonistic husband, whose unacknowledged hostility towards his (much younger and perhaps adulterous) wife is seemingly displaced onto a pet likewise indifferent to his attentions.


6.The Matrix (1999)

Poe occasionally authored what can be retroactively classified as science fiction, and has had his works memorably adapted as such (e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Mars-set homage “Usher II“). Still, one wouldn’t expect “The Black Cat” to pop up in the Wachowksi Brothers’ post-cyberpunk mindbender. But that’s exactly what happens when protagonist Neo twice sees the ebon animal cross his path. Such deja vu is explained as a computer glitch, but the echoes of Poe grow even stronger when Neo and friends (trying to evade the Matrix’s relentless Agents) subsequently secret themselves behind the walls of the Gothic building.


7.Masters of Horror: The Black Cat (2007)

The various screen adaptions of “The Black Cat” over the years have been merely nominal or hardly phenomenal, but not so this Stuart Gordon-directed episode of the Showtime anthology series. While it doubtless does a disservice to Poe by equating him with one of his own madman narrators, this purported origin story of the composition of “The Black Cat” cleverly blurs author biography and dark fantasy. It is also includes the most cringe-inducing (cat’s) eye-gouging scene ever filmed.


8.”Cats in the Catacombs” by Kristin Lawrence (2009)

The renowned Halloween Caroler Lawrence (who has also set Poe’s “The Raven” to music) likely proceeds more from a sense of wordplay, but the prominent image of a mouser inside a human tomb is nonetheless suggestive. The black cat that provides background yowls for the song’s recording adds another Poesque touch.


9.”Phoenix” by Chuck Palahniuk (2013)

The high notes from Poe (a despised sable pet, a spectacular house fire, the theme of retribution) echo throughout Palahniuk’s offbeat and wickedly witty rendering (involving a robotic vacuum cleaner, kitty litter, and toxoplasmosis). The key difference between the two compositions, though, is that here the obsessive, intemperate, and devious viewpoint character is the wife, not the husband.

Ulalume and Ulalume II

Time and again, Edgar Allan Poe showed us that his male narrators were not to be trusted, but are the speakers of his poems any less unreliable in their expression of grief? My sequel to Poe’s most October-centric work was written with this idea in mind. In “Ulalume II” (first published in Autumn Lauds), the deceased female figure finally gets a chance at poetic redress.

This particularly dreary night in the late October (a squall rages outside my window as I type these words) seems the perfect time to pair up the texts of Poe’s original ballad and my own poem.


He said:


By Edgar Allan Poe

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere,
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year.
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir–
It was down by the dark tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul–
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll–
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphorous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole–
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere–
Our memories were treacherous and sere–
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year–
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber–
(Though once we had journeyed down here)–
Remembered not the dark tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn–
As the star-dials hinted of morn–
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn–
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said–“She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs–
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears they are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies–
To the Lethean peace of the skies–
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes–
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said: “Sadly this star I mistrust–
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:
Oh, hasten! oh, let us not linger!
Oh, fly!–let us fly–for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in thew dust–
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust–
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied–“This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendour is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty tonight!–
See!–it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright–
We safely may trust to a gleaming,
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom–
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb;
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said: “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied: “Ulalume–Ulalume–
‘Tis the vault of the lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere–
As the leaves that were withering and sere;
And I cried: “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed–I journeyed down here!–
That I brought a dread burden down here–
On this night of all nights of the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber–
This misty mid region of Weir–
Well I know, now, this dark tarn of Auber,–
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”


She said:

Ulalume II

By Joe Nazare

You describe the skies as ashen and sober,
Establish the leaves as crisped and sere;
You mark the night in the lonesome October
And bemoan a most immemorial year.
Yet one key detail you gloss over–
Oh so conveniently you gloss over:
The smothering love that cost me dear.

In the dozen bloated moons since I died
You have looked out through a veil of gloom.
Copious the tears that you have cried
As you sunk into the role of forlorn groom.
But such utter self-delusion I cannot abide,
Knowing you were the blight on my natural bloom.

So dread not the dark tarn of Auber;
Disregard the ghoul-haunted woodlands of Weir.
Don’t stand atremble like some shocked rover,
Fretting that a demon has tempted you here.
On this ultimate night of October–
This final, eldritch night of October–
It’s only your aggrieved beloved you need fear.

The barrier between our worlds swings wide–
Hearken to the creaking door of this tomb,
And behold the shape of your ravishing bride
Waiting yearlong to escape her funereal room.
This triumphal evening grim truth won’t be denied;
Time at last for your deserved reunion with Ulalume.

Hammered Home (flash fiction)

This is the first publication of the following piece.


Hammered Home

by Joe Nazare


Neither one of them had a steady gait—Carlos because he was inebriated, Pat because he was in heels—when they stumbled upon the stranger.

It happened midway through the two-mile walk from the frat house back to campus. Pat had become Patty for the party, and Carlos was making a mock-lecherous grab for his Charmin-augmented bosom when he instead stopped and pointed.

Twenty feet ahead, dead center in the otherwise barren and woods-bracketed road, stood a figure in full clown regalia. Enormous sky-blue shoes that would have been a loose fit on Bigfoot. Baggy pantsuit that appeared to sport no pattern but rather a random spatter of red and brown. Greasepainted face, ball nose that looked like a plum tomato gone rotten. Two garish shocks of hair curving out from either side of the head, resembling nothing so much as devil’s horns.

“Creepy clown: cool,” Carlos pronounced.

To encounter someone in such outré attire wasn’t terribly unlikely on this last Saturday night in October, when a whole slew of pre-holiday celebrations no doubt raged. Still, instinctive wariness halted Pat’s steps. Carlos, meanwhile, continued on in fearless approach, his iPhone already in hand, raised and aimed.

“C’mon,” he called back to Pat, “we gotta put this up on YouTube.” Then, as he closed in on the clown: “Hey, man, wicked duds. Looks like you went shopping at Gacy’s.”

Pat swallowed, half-expecting the carnivalesque character to flash a shark’s grin and croak something like “They all float…”  But the clown kept silent, just posed motionless, with eyes downcast and hands thrust in pouch-like hip pockets.

“So, waiting for someone in particular, or will any body do?” Carlos asked, trying to get the clown to mug ghoulishly for the camera. He might as well have been prompting a mannequin. His static subject made one of those Buckingham Palace guards seem like a Tourette’s victim. Pat found the figure’s utter lack of animation deeply unsettling.

The inactive act only irked Carlos. His boozy grin flattened into a scowl as he lowered the phone and eyed the clown directly. “What, you got nothin’ to say for yourself?” Several seconds of mute affirmation led him to follow with: “Then you best use those floppy-ass shoes to step aside, Homey D., before you get busted upside the head.”

The stranger, though, wasn’t the one moved by the threat. Heels clacking against the macadam, Pat scampered to intercept Carlos. “Hey, take it easy,” he told him. But the second Pat stiffened his arm in attempted restraint, Carlos pressed even more aggressively towards his newfound foe. Carlos was costumed in a zoot suit tonight, but Pat couldn’t help but think that he was dealing here with a pair of clowns.

Sudden impatience flooded him. His buzz had worn off, he was tired, and his feet were killing him. The last thing he felt like doing right now was refereeing a bout between his hot-headed friend and some wannabe Pennywise.

“Can we just get the hell outta here?” he shot at Carlos, who, to his surprise, took an immediate step back. The drunken bravado drained from Carlos’s face, leaving him gaping. An instant later, Pat felt a hand clamp down onto his shoulder.

Cringing, Pat turned his head. The clown’s gaze was as intense, as invasive, as the muscle-cramping clench. Even worse was what the clown used to see with: the circus perversity had a pair of black balloons in lieu of irises and pupils. Any thought Pat might have entertained that these were merely special-FX contacts was obliterated when his leering assailant addressed him.

“Not Pennywise,” it corrected all-too-knowingly, while unpocketing and brandishing an outsized meat tenderizer: “Poundfoolish.”


In the Awesome October: A Review of Haunted Nights

In Haunted Nights, editors Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton hand out a wealth of holiday treats–sixteen assorted pieces, with not one stale Milk Dud in the mix.

Seanan McGuire leads off with “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds,” a tale as surprising as it is superbly atmospheric. Yes, it centers on a looming manse “that looked like it belonged in a gothic romance,” but this is no ordinary haunted house (for one, it hasn’t fallen into disrepair despite being abandoned for decades), and its ghost has a most unusual effect on those it encounters. There is also an intriguing American Gothic vibe, as the story reflects on the town’s ongoing relationship with the Holston house. Sounding themes of teenage angst, alienation and loneliness, and the desperate search for friendship, the narrative offers much more than standard fright fare; it’s arguably the best haunted-house story since Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter.”

Another autumn icon that’s strongly represented in Haunted Nights is the jack-o’-lantern. In fact, the anthology features two separate stories that focus on the folkloric character of Stingy Jack–Joanna Parypinski’s “Wick’s End” and Pat Cadigan’s “Jack” (co-editor Morton covered the same subject herself in 2012’s “The Legend of Halloween Jack“). While both pieces traverse similar ground, they follow distinctive paths, presenting markedly different tones and perspectives (Parypinski’s piece is narrated by Stingy Jack himself, Cadigan’s by a witchy equivalent of a beat cop determined to bust up the eponymous character’s con game). In their ultimate diversity, these two tales are emblematic of the overall anthology, which impresses with its variegated nature. Not just Halloween but a host of October holidays are highlighted here, from Devil’s Night to Dia de los Muertos, Seelenwoche to Nos Galan Gaeaf. The tales also range from the modern-day (such as S.P. Miskowski’s “We’re Never Iniviting Amber Again,” where an adult party gathering takes a ghoulish turn) to the historical (Elise Forier Edie’s “All Through the Night,” set in squalid old New York, whose Five Points appear to be the home of both bad sorts and Good Folk).

The anthology undoubtedly fulfills its titular promise with its inclusion of several nightmarish works that linger in the reader’s mind. Garth Nix’s incredibly creepy “The Seventeen-Year Itch” concerns a self-mutilated insane-asylum patient with a maddening urge to scratch at his own chest–a compulsion that also becomes unbearable to all those around him every seventeen years on Halloween night. In “Witch Hazel,” Jeffrey Ford lures readers into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, whose dark woods are perhaps plagued by an agent born of something much more malefic than Mother Nature. John Langan imports postmodernism into the October Country in “Lost in the Dark,” the title of a heralded film that disturbingly blurs the line between dark fantasy and documentary realism. With its gripping plot, unnerving setting (deep within an abandoned mine) and terrifying antagonist (“Bad Agatha”), Langan’s novella begs for its own filmic adaption. If not in the local multiplex, expect to find “Lost in the Dark” coming soon to various Best of the Year collections.

I have always been especially fond of Halloween science fiction, and the last story here, “The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little, earns a place alongside such esteemed predecessors such as Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve” and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still.” Little’s post-planetary-disaster tale casts a slanted light on earthly holiday traditions, while staging its own irrefutably spooky celebration (where Aliens form a dreadful presence without ever emerging front and center). The story closes on a downbeat note, with the protagonist’s disavowal of Halloween, but the reader of Haunted Nights will be left expressing a diametrically-opposed sentiment. This amazing anthology, stocked with names both familiar and fresh, proves that the autumnal tale is anything but played out at this point. Here’s hoping that the Horror Writers Association puts out a casting call once again, and the Morton and Datlow Pandemonium Show returns with a whole new set of attractions next Halloween season.

Anatomy of a Weird Tale–Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter”

The following is a re-posting of a piece that first appeared on the Macabre Republic blog back in 2010 (a forewarning: plot spoilers abound below, so do not continue reading if you have not already had the joy of experiencing this weird tale firsthand).

Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter” has been overshadowed by the author’s other Halloween novella, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” (both are collected in The Two Sams: Ghost Stories), but actually might be the stronger of the pair of marvelous tales. Hirshberg builds suspense from the opening lines, as the teenage narrator Andrew recounts: “This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew” (3). Immediately the reader wonders what Andrew’s precocious and mischievous friend has done, and why Andrew’s mother is now sitting “clutching her knees and crying in the television light.” Some terrible tragedy seems to have transpired.

Following this first, framing paragraph, Andrew flashes back to a few years earlier when he was twelve. He notes his after-school treks to the park with Peter Andersz that led them bustling past “the splintering, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor Restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn’t stalking Market Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane.” Coming at the end of a long sentence that lists several other landmarks on the route, this information about the restaurant and its diner might at first seem like merely incidental detail, yet ultimately Mr. Paars will prove integral to the story. Indeed, Hirshberg is quite adept at dropping hints while holding full revelation in abeyance. For instance, Andrew’s narrative focuses on a few Halloweens earlier, his “last night at the Andersz house” (6)–an admission that begs the question: did Andrew and Peter simply drift apart afterwards, or did something momentous happen on that Halloween night? Similarly, Andrew points out that his mother hadn’t even wanted him to go out that night: “Not with Peter. Not after last year” (6). The tantalized reader has to wait several pages before the detail about the prior  Halloween is filled in by Andrew, in defense of his clique’s misbehavior: “We hadn’t known anyone was hiding in those bushes when we toilet-papered them, and Peter meant to light his cigarette, not the roll of toilet paper” (13).

Hirshberg reels his readers in not just by crafting suspense but by creating a strong sense of setting. The dreary neighborhood of Ballard in Washington state is realized through skillful patches of description, such as Andrew’s explanation for why trick-or-treating isn’t that popular in his town: “Too wet and dismal, most years, and there were too many drunks lurking around places like the Black Anchor and sometimes stumbling down the duplexes, shouting curses at the dripping trees” (7). As Andrew, Peter, and their friends Jenny and Kelly Mack traverse the scene, black birds sit perched in the tree branches, “silent as gargoyles” (16); the canal’s water “swallow[s] the last streak of daylight like some monstrous whale gulping plankton”; and “seagulls dip[ ] and tumble[ ] on the wind like shreds of cloud that had been ripped loose” (17). At times the images and similes seem almost too masterful for a narrator supposedly in his mid-teens, but Hirshberg’s own mesmerizing prose makes such ostensible lapse from verisimilitude easy to ignore.

There’s also a discernibly oral quality to the narrative (as a schoolteacher, Hirshberg would entertain his students with recitations of his Halloween tales). When Andrew, with some editorializing from Peter, recounts “the night of the bell” (15) to the Mack sisters, he even admits to feeling “like a longshoreman, a lighthouse keeper, someone with stories who lived by the sea” (15). Andrew tells of a run-in he and Peter had with Mr. Paars on Halloween night two years earlier when they followed the cranky old man home from the Black Anchor. They discovered a strange gazebo on Paars’s property, containing “this giant white bell, like church bell, hanging from the ceiling on a chain.  And all the lights in the yard were aimed at it” (18). The lawn, meanwhile, had been scored with a weird, eye-like symbol, “a circle, with this upside-down triangle inside it” (19). Then, as Peter ventured towards the gazebo, “one of those dwarf trees [springing from Paars’s land] walked right off its roots into his path, and both of us started screaming” (22). It was no tree, of course, but Paars himself, who knocked Peter down with his cane and then smilingly informed the boys: “That bell raises the dead. Right up out of the ground” (23).

Andrew and Peter have seen little of Mr. Paars in the two years since that incident, but now Peter aims to lead his group of friends to the house for a belated return visit. When the quartet arrives, they spy an ominous domicile: “The house, like the [neighboring] sheds, seemed to have sunk sideways into the ground. With its filthy windows and rotting planks, it looked like the abandoned hull of a beached ship” (26). The front door is ajar, the furniture inside has been covered with ghostly white sheets, the windows have been thrown open and “[l]eaves chased each other across the dirt-crusted hardwood floor” (27). Hirshberg’s novella transcends a cliched premise (Halloween-night exploration of the town curmudgeon’s spooky home) through the inclusion of some genuinely eerie detail. Crossing into “what must have been Mr. Paars’s den,” Andrew and Jenny discover a huge desk topped with six framed pictures arranged in a semicircle:

Somehow, the fact that two of the frames turned out to be empty made the array even more unsettling. The other four held individual pictures of what had to be brothers and one sister–they all had flying white hair, icy blue eyes–standing, each in turn, on the top step of the gazebo outside, with the great bell looming behind them, bright white and all out of proportion, like the Mountain [Rainier] on a clear day. (28)

A second significant aspect of this exploration scene is Hirshberg’s crafty use of misdirection. Before stepping inside the house, Andrew spots a “flicker in the upstairs window. Maybe” (25). Then, once inside: “From under the half-closed door at the top of the staircase–the only door we could see from where we were–came a sudden slash of light that disappeared instantly like a snake’s tongue flashing in and out” (30). The flickering light proves to have come from an innocuous source (a nearby lighthouse that is illuminated each Halloween), but no sooner is this fact established than a soft tap of the bell in the yard is heard. Andrew and Peter figure the Mack sisters are just trying to scare them. Heading back downstairs, Andrew finds Kelly’s baseball cap lying in the middle of the foyer floor, and the front door swings inward to reveal a spray-painted rendition of the lawn hieroglyph. While gaping at it, Andrew suddenly feels a hand clamped across his mouth, but his seeming attacker turns out to be none other than Peter’s father. Mr. Andersz had followed the group of children out that night, and seeing where they headed, decided to seize an opportunity to scare his prankster son straight  (“To reach out. Reach him. Someone’s got to do something. He’s a good boy. He could be” [35]).

Mr. Andersz–sneaking up behind Peter, when he comes downstairs, and whispering “Boo”–succeeds in giving his son quite a scare. Peter bolts right out of the house and is fifteen feet away before he realizes he’s been had. His father explains that Mr. Paars had been very sick and had in fact died a week earlier, prompting Peter (eager to reassert his moxie) to declare, “Then he won’t mind […] if I go ahead and ring that bell” (38). Peter does just that, and in the climactic moment of the novella, Andrew (still standing on the front porch with his back to the house) sees his companions’ eyes goggle before everyone turns and flees. He hears a “single sharp thud from the porch behind me. Wood hitting wood. Cane-into-wood” (40). A second thump follows, spurring Andrew to tear off after his friends like the proverbial bat out of hell.

Back at the Andersz house later that night, the laughing group reminisces about the scare they received. Mr. Andersz explains that the figure who appeared on the porch was Mr. Paars’s brother (“He must have been inside when you all got there. He must have thought you were coming to rob the place, or vandalize it, and he went out back”). The brother had come to close down the house after Mr. Paars’s death; also, the reason the house’s windows had all been open was because Paars had been lying dead inside for days before being discovered and the place needed to be aired out.  It all seems like a nice, neat Scooby-Doo-type wrap-up, until Andrew relates: “I sat, and I sipped my cocoa, and I watched my friends chatter and eat and laugh and wave their arms around, and it dawned on me, slowly, that none of them had seen. None of them had heard. Not really” (41).  Andrew almost speaks up, but refrains, not wanting to spoil the fun on the Halloween evening. He also holds back, momentarily, from the reader what exactly he experienced in his final moments at the Paars place.

First, the narrative flashes back to the present, to Andrew and his mother seated before the TV. Peter has been arrested after going on a killing spree at school.  Watching the “live reports from the rubble of our school,” Andrew thinks back to Peter’s reaction to the prank played on him that night years earlier, and how Peter’s whole body “vibrat[ed] like an imploding building after the charge has gone off, right at the moment of collapse” (37). Andrew has always sensed a certain danger emanating from Peter, an emotional disturbance and potential volatility, and now that has manifested in an act of spectacular violence. Here, too, at novella’s end, one sees just how cleverly Hirshberg has riffed on the traditional story of Struwwelpeter. On the night back out at the Paars house, Jenny asks Andrew why Mr. Andersz called his son “Struwwelpeter” whenever Peter misbehaved, and Andrew explains that the name comes from “some kids’ book […] about a boy who got in trouble because he wouldn’t cut his hair or nails. […My mom] said Struwwelpeter looked like Freddy Krueger with a ‘fro” (29). Overhearing the conversation, Peter adds that Struwwelpeter was what his mom dubbed him when he was little: “When I kicked the shit out of barbers, because I hated having my haircut. Then when I was just being bad. She’d say that instead of screaming at me. It made me cry.” From such statement, one senses that the now-motherless Peter bears some serious emotional scars. The traditionally unpopular (because of his unkempt appearance) Struwwelpeter is thus updated as the maladjusted, alienated teen Peter. Also, in the various episodes of Struwwelpeter, the morally-conservative German book for children, wayward kids receive ironic comeuppance for their misdeeds, but here Hirshberg gives a wicked twist to such a plot dynamic. In the novella’s final turn of the screw, Andrew plans to sneak out of his house and go ring the bell in the gazebo: “And then we’ll know, once and for all, whether I really did see two old men with matching canes on the porch of the Paars house when I glanced back, right as I fled into the woods. Whether I really did hear rustling from all those sideways sheds as I flew past, as though, in each something was sliding out of the ground. I wonder if the bell only works on the Paars family, or if it affects any recently deceased in the vicinity” (42). Then, in one hell of a clincher, Andrew states: “And if [the dead] do come back–and if they’re angry, and they go looking for Peter, and they find him–well. Let the poor, brilliant, fucked-up bastard get what he deserves.”

“Struwwelpeter” is a wonderfully written, expertly paced ghost story that haunts not just with its supernatural aura but with its depiction of childhood angst. The novella should be required reading for any connoisseur of the weird tale–and every lover of Halloween scares.


Hirshberg, Glen.  “Struwwelpeter.”  2001.  The Two Sams.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.  3-42.

The Impotency of Positive Thinking

This poem was originally written for Autumn Laudsbut was ultimately barred from the Table of Contents (it riffs on a classic piece of science fiction, and I didn’t want to violate any copyright laws), but I have decided to post it here in celebration of the Halloween season.


The Impotency of Positive Thinking

Really, they’re too old to be dressing up,
Have no business begging for saccharine treats
On this thirty-first night of October.

But it can’t be helped, they’re compelled
To dare the doorstep of the uninviting edifice.
The House of Usher has nothing on this manse,
Looming, gloom-enshrouded, incredibly decrepit.

A trio sets off down the sinuous, tree-flanked path
While the rest remain nervously stationed at the sidewalk.
Tonight Bill is a straw-spilling scarecrow.
Thelma the image of a fairy princess, and
Pat impersonates monstrosity via a cheap plastic mask.

Carefully, they make their approach, knowing
He waits up ahead inside, hidden but vigilant.
They labor to banish negativity from their brains,
To deny thought of the potential punishment they might incur.
Arriving at last at the dark oaken door, they pause,
Then knock in unison, the raps resounding like gavel bangs.

The occupant’s response is sudden and stern:
Out of nowhere, a murder fells Scarecrow Bill,
The swooping birds hardly alarmed by the man’s costume.
Thelma meantime vaporizes, but the vanishing’s fathomable–
An instant internment, no doubt, in a deep cornfield grave.
And when Pat retreats streetside, fast as his arthritic hips allow,
His mask is absent, his face transformed into true grotesquerie.

Such capricious treatment is terrible to behold, but
No one ventures or even considers any complaint,
Certainly not when the perpetrator is within mindshot.
“The boy’s outdone himself this time,” Pat proclaims,
Forcing his distorted features into a semblance of a grin.
“What a fine trick he’s played,” a prostrate Bill enthuses
Amidst countless thumping wings and cacophonous caws.
“Oh, it’s a good Halloween,” Anthony’s prisoners all agree.


Still Great at XXVIII

Happily, the latest edition of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween episode, “Treehouse of Horror,” was no “Doh!”

The intro, “The Sweets Hereafter,” offered some wonderful CGI eye candy. Like a trick-or-treater’s tote bag, this quick scene brimmed with assorted delights: the visual (Maggie as a ring pop) and verbal puns (“Barterfinger,” “Kit-Kang,” “Peppermint Selma”) the show is so well-known for. I actually had to hit pause in order to take in all the clever jokes stuffing that candy bowl. Homer’s cannibalistic attack on a fellow chocolate–a world-weary Easter bunny–also hinted nicely at the carnage to come in the episode’s closing segment.

An iconic horror film received a long-overdue spoofing in the first segment, “The Exor-Sis.” There was some witty cultural satire (the Pazuzu statuette shipped as a baby gift from Amazon; Maggie’s growl of “Go Daddy!” upon being dispossessed), genuine silliness (Lenny’s lament of “Aw, she’s got red eye” after trying to capture the image of the demonized Maggie with his cell phone), as well as gleefully graphic violence (Maggie stabbing Dr. Hibbert in the throat with a baby thermometer). Perhaps the episode’s wickedest bit of humor came when the summoned exorcist insisted Maggie be unbound, reassuring the family, “If you can’t trust a Catholic priest with a child, who can you trust?”

“Coralisa” featured a terrific call back to the previous segment, as Maggie–still dealing with a “touch of Pazuzu”–spewed green goo all over the kitchen on two separate occasions. Although the content of the segment wasn’t the most riveting, it did boast some arresting, and creepy, animation (after passing through her bedroom wall to an alternate dimension, Lisa broke the fourth wall by knowingly proclaiming, “For a Halloween show middle segment, this is amazing!”). Coraline author Neil Gaiman also gave the segment a clever turn, as the droll voice of Snowball V.

“Mmm…Homer,” in which the Simpsons patriarch discovered the culinary splendor of auto-cannibalism, formed one of the grisliest bits in the history of “Treehouse” (no wonder that Lisa forewarned in a pre-segment p.s.a, “What you’re about to see is so disgusting, you’ll watch Game of Thrones to calm down”). The segment presented a smorgasbord of gore seasoned with black humor, starting with a barbecued finger as hors d’ouevre. I couldn’t control my laughter viewing the unabashed twistedness here, the sight gags (Homer’s brain being small enough to fit on a cracker like pink pate), the puns (fast food restaurants rechristened El Pollo Homo and Fatso Bell), the hilarious dialogue (when asked why he sported a pair of oven mitts on his hands, the self-maiming Homer claimed, “Well, I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and thought I could be more elegant”).

With its visually stunning Halloween-scene intro, its instant classic of a closing segment, and sharp humor and horror throughout, the latest entry in the “Treehouse” series proved that XXVIII is anything but enough already.

Five for Frightening, Part Three

Continuing the weekly review of Cemetery Dance’s ebook anthology series, Halloween Carnival

Kelley Armstrong’s “The Way Lost” leads off the third volume with some American Gothic-style weirdness: every Halloween, one child disappears in the nearby woods, but his/her loss appears to create little stir within the small town of Franklin. The story skillfully blurs the line between the natural and the supernatural, yet lingers too long after its climactic plot twist.

In “La Calavera,” Kate Maruyama shifts to a Hollywood locale and the holiday setting of Dia de los Muertos. Otherwise, though, this piece works very similarly to Armstrong’s in terms of narration and plot twist, and makes for a curious placement back-to-back with “The Way Lost.”

Reminiscent of Norman Partridge’s Halloween classic Dark Harvest, Michael McBride’s “The Devil’s Due” delves into deadly holiday ritual in an isolated (and oddly prosperous) town. The bogey here is not as front-and-center as Partridge’s October Boy, but haunts even in absence: the scene inside its unoccupied (yet hardly empty) mountain lair is chilling in more ways than one.

The frazzled protagonist of Taylor Grant’s “A Thousand Rooms of Darkness” is plagued by samhainophobia and believes she is hunted by a murderous demon that continuously and ominously intones “I’m coming for you.” There’s lots of Halloween creepiness to this narrative, which reads like the literary equivalent of an episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller series, and features a pair of huge twists worthy of Tales from the Crypt.

Greg Chapman’s 2013 novella “The Last Night of October” is reprinted as the volume’s  concluding shocker. An elderly curmudgeon who dreads trick-or-treaters experiences new depths of terror when a menacing, blood-gushing child in a Frankenstein mask invades his home. For all the suspense of its setup, though, the story takes a long time to unfold, and is occasionally marred but some awkward imagery (e.g. “like a light-bulb at death’s door”).

While this third volume of Halloween Carnival is a mixed bag, it does contain a few treats guaranteed to satisfy.

Sleepy Hollow Threesome

What better way to celebrate the Halloween season than with a trip to Sleepy Hollow, New York? Last weekend I did just that, seeing a trio of terrific attractions.

First up: an afternoon tour of the Lyndhurst Mansion, the Gothic Revival marvel that provided the exterior shots of Collinwood in the original Dark Shadows TV series. The mansion was dressed up for the season inside and out, creating a wonderful atmosphere even in daytime (at night, Lyndhurst stages “Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities”; this year’s event brings the murder-mystery game Clue to life). One of the surprising things I learned on the tour is just how faux the mansion is in its design (e.g. the dining room walls are painted to have the appearance of wallpaper), such fakery being en vogue at the time of its construction.

Nightfall brought a second excursion: the chiaroscuro splendor of a lantern-lit tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. This two-hour walk-through offered ultimate ambiance as well as vigorous exercise (along the cemetery’s sloping and mostly-unpaved pathways). Stops along the way included Washington Irving’s gravesite and the actual mausoleum used for Carolyn’s funeral scene in House of Dark Shadows (we found a special surprise waiting for us when we were allowed to venture inside). For me, one of the highlights of the night was visiting the burial place of lesser-known poet Francis Saltus Saltus and learning of his macabre poem “The Delights of Doom.” Our tour guide, Sandy, was simply amazing; she brimmed with enthusiasm and personality as she showed us the sights and regaled us with tales. I wholeheartedly recommend requesting her if you ever decide to take one of the cemetery’s tours.

The evening concluded with a crossing over to the Horseman’s Hollow haunted attraction on the grounds of Philipsburg Manor. The actors sported splendid make-up and were positively fiendish in their performances. Although lacking the grand scale of the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York (reviewed here), Horseman’s Hollow is an enjoyable haunt, presenting good sets (I particularly liked the ghoulish schoolhouse) and genuine scares. The attraction was a bit difficult to access, in terms of parking and finding the entrance, but the long walk to it down a barely-lit beaten path proved just as eerie as anything encountered inside.

These three attractions formed a perfect trifecta of fall entertainment, and don’t even cover everything there is to experience in Sleepy Hollow. If the opportunity to make a trip there ever presents itself, I encourage you to race over there quicker than Ichabod on a midnight dash.


The poetic equivalent of fanfic, focusing on my favorite character from The Nightmare Before Christmas:


This is Halloween, town of the premiere evening,
Where I oversee the grotesque festivities every year.
Yet my head spins nonstop of late, a centrifuge of discontent.
I might have the titular ribbon pinned to my vest,
But what real power here has been vested in me?
And forget about the respect of the constituency;
That is reserved for him, of the mantis limbs and skeletal grin.
He’s fawned over from autumn to autumn, adored even after
His misguided attempt to hybridize the holidays back in ’93.
Me, I play political second fiddle, serve as funnelform puppet.
Little wonder my running for town office always goes unopposed.
Maybe this October I’ll announce: “I’m mounting an insurrection!”
Let’s face it, Mayor’s a dead end in the realm of the Pumpkin King.