Five for Frightening, Part Two

In the second volume in Cemetery Dance’s October series of mini-anthologies, a pair of classic novellas bracket three original stories.

Simply put, Glen Hirshberg’s “Mr Dark’s Carnival” (originally published in 2000) is one of the top five Halloween tales ever written. In this Bradburian masterpiece, the scares are as plentiful and carefully plotted as those found in the legendary Montana attraction of the title. Hirshberg writes with such dark flair, and creates such a haunting atmosphere, the result is a narrative that proves no less rewarding upon rereading (with the killer climactic reveal already in mind).

Lee Thomas invokes Poe in “The Facts in the Case of My Sister,” a story of the unforeseen consequences of an adolescent magician’s attempt to hypnotize his younger sister. But this is no unoriginal rehash; just when the reader thinks s/he knows where this one is headed, the plot twists in unexpected directions (including a terrific scene at an October carnival) until reaching a gut-punch of a conclusion.

There’s a stock quality to Holly Newstein’s “Mischief Night”: characters such as a raging alcoholic and a juvenile delinquent who revels in the delivery of a flaming bag of dog-poop to a doorstep. Still, Newstein transcends the hackneyed, as a moment of epiphany precedes an ironic and tragic turn, and as the ending sounds a surprisingly redemptive note.

Halloween gets hard-boiled in Del James’s “The Ghost Maker,” a story told by a mobster’s button man. The narrator certainly has the tough-guy vernacular and attitude down pat (including one brilliantly off-color simile that I won’t repeat here), but strong voice can’t cover up for a somewhat pedestrian plot that feels contrived in its use of month’s-end masquerade.

“The Pumpkin Boy” (first published in 2005) forms part of Al Sarrantonio’s Orangefield Cycle, but holds up fine as a stand-alone tale. Orangefield, the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World, is often a place where “weird shit” happens (to borrow the phrase of grizzled detective Bill Grant)–in this case, an abduction of a child by a jack-o’-lantern-skulled robot. Sarrantonio scripts a compelling narrative filled with odd elements that ultimately tie together in convincing fashion.

Halloween Carnival–Volume Two offers an entertaining ride, and is worth owning for the Hirshberg and Sarrantonio reprints alone.

Not an Attractive Look

Jon Schnitzer’s documentary Haunters: The Art of the Scare attempts to delve deeper into the haunted attractions that draw myriad thrillseekers every Halloween season. Some interesting insight is offered–why creators are driven to build such haunts, what makes people want to act in them, how attendees are affected (for better or worse) by them. Ultimately, though, the film fails to do justice to its promising subject.

Primary among the disappointments is the disproportionate attention given to amateur and extreme haunts (more professional operations such as Haunted Overload in New Hampshire and Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights are barely covered). The stories of local nobodies staging attractions on their own property simply aren’t that captivating.  Making matters worse, the documentary seems to resort to the manufactured drama typical of reality television.  A resoundingly false note is struck when a haunter receives (and reads aloud) a text from his Halloween-denouncing wife while in the midst of being interviewed. Further cause for skepticism: the testimony of a neighbor who claims she was traumatized by the haunt next door, yet somehow managed to get tricked into attending it several more times. If the film had chapter titles, “The House on Haunted Shill” would be a perfect one here.

So much focus is given to notorious extremist Russ McKamey, the documentary plays like a covert commercial for McKamey Manor. Accordingly, a distorted impression of haunting is given, where sadism and degradation masquerades as entertainment. The “art” of the scare reduces to torture porn, a point underscored by McKamey’s obsessive, close-up recording of attendees’ anguish.

Even though I only spent $3.99 on an Amazon video rental, I still felt fleeced by Haunters. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this documentary is that it has left the door open for a much less misguided and more compelling exploration of the haunted attraction phenomenon.

Seasonal Dream

Norman Partridge’s Dark Harvest became an instant classic of Halloween fiction upon its 2006 publication, and since then has remained perennially popular (Bloody Disgusting recently featured it in a listing of “13 Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit“). What many fans might have failed to realize, though, is that this wasn’t Partridge’s first October-based short novel. That distinction belongs to 1998’s Wildest Dreams (a reworking/expansion of the author’s 1992 short story “Tombstone Moon”).

In Wildest Dreams, tough-guy narrator Clay Saunders is a contract killer whose tongue is no less sharp than his K-bar knife. He is hired to decapitate Diabolos Whistler, the notorious head of a satanic church with international reach. The hit goes off without a hitch; nevertheless, when Saunders attempts to collect payment, he faces a deadly double-cross and an attempted frame job that spurs him to do some “detective work.” Such synopsis makes the book sound like standard Gold Medal fare, but the genre-hybridizing Partridge also turns the screw towards horror. For starters, Saunders (who was born with a caul) can see ghosts–including those of the people he’s dispatched. Also, Whistler’s prophesy that his own ruined corpse will form the cradle for Satan’s earthly rebirth suggests that the bloody mayhem won’t be limited to the initial murder of the cult figure.

The novel offers some terrific images, such as a “hanging tree” ripe with fantastic fruit (the ghosts of six lynched witches). There’s also a variation on a “haunted house,” whose concrete-embedded bottles supposedly store the souls of the devil-pledged. While descending a hidden stairway stretching from a trapdoor in the floor of the bottle house, Saunders is tempted to make “a crack about forgetting his trick or treat bag.”  This isn’t the lone invocation of October ritual in the novel. After shooting a pair of henchmen, Saunders (sporting a “monster mask” that would make Hannibal Lecter proud) observes: “Two splashes in the pool. Two dead men bobbing like Halloween apples.”

One can detect echoes of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (a skinless, posthumous antagonist numbers among the cast), and the climactic twist is worthy of another identifiable precursor, William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel. But the book is a product of Partridge’s unique vision, rendered with trademark style. For the lover of supernatural noir (where some seasonal orange mixes in with the black), Wildest Dreams is an absolute dream come true.

Five for Frightening

A quick review of Halloween Carnival, a quintet of October tales released by Cemetery Dance this week:

In the volume’s lead-off piece (and lone reprint), “Strange Candy,” Robert R. McCammon concocts a treat with a much different flavor than his other autumnal–and more overtly horrific–narratives (“He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door”; They ThirstUsher’s Passing). An odd, unwrapped, hand-shaped confection found in a child’s trick-or-treat bag is not quite the sinister item it first seems in this short, bittersweet, and affecting story.

Kevin Lucia’s “The Rage of Achilles, or When Mockingbirds Sing” offers a unique take on traditional Halloween tale-telling in this twisty story that moves in and out of a church confessional on the night of the 31st. With its allusive title, small-town setting, and depiction of family anguish, this one reminds me of Gary Braunbeck’s work, alongside which Lucia’s here does not pale.

“Demon Air” by John Little unfortunately never quite gets off the ground. This slight story starts from a bizarre premise–an airline flight is supernaturally skyjacked by hellfiends bent on Halloween hijinks–and builds to a limp climax.

October-holiday authority Lisa Morton sojourns south of the border in “La Hacienda de Los Muertos.” While its conclusion is a fairly standard one, the tale establishes a creepy atmosphere throughout, and features some fearful scenes involving the ghostly legend La Llorona.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the volume is its concluding novella, “#MakeHalloweenScaryAgain” by Mark Allan Gunnells. A small-time horror writer is haunted by his grousing Facebook post when an apparent psychopath in his own hometown answers the cri de scare with a late-October terror campaign (that includes the publicized threat to invade an undecorated home and slaughter its unspirited inhabitants on Halloween night). Gunnells excels here in his depiction of the resultant panic that grips the community; a large cast of characters also heightens the mystery concerning the identity of the killer masked as a murderous scarecrow.

Cemetery Dance plans to publish a new volume in the series every Tuesday this month, and my goal is to follow along with reviews of each story collection. In the meantime, be sure to check out this first act of Halloween Carnival, which is well worth the price of admission.

Scareful Measures

This past week, I was able to cross off an item that has long been listed on my Halloween Season bucket list: a trip to the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York. After finally experiencing the vaunted attraction firsthand, I can happily report that its renown is well deserved.

The night journey began with the hayride, which delivered plenty of thrills. As the riders sat with legs dangling off the sides of the wagon bed, we were brought frightfully close to the woodsy scene and the various sets adorning the trail. Spooks cropped up from every angle, but what completed the immersive experience was the ongoing narration about the Headless Horseman (who shows up both in saddle and on foot). My only complaint was that the hayride guide on our particular wagon droned her lines in such monotone voice, she made Ferris Bueller’s teacher sound like a revivalist preacher.

Next patrons had to navigate a series of themed haunts, including the Lunar Motel, the Horseman’s Tomb, and Two Raven’s Manor. I was dazzled by the darkly gorgeous arrangements, the grandness of their scale and their attention to fine detail. The scenes are nirvana for avid home-haunters, and if not for the slew of harrying actors hurrying visitors along, I would have been content to just stop and admire the incredible decorating.

Probably my favorite portion of the whole attraction was the corn maze; this agricultural labyrinth proved ripe with creepy ambiance. Uncanniness abounded, as the travelers could never quite be sure if the figures lurking in the stalks were mere props or momentary mimes waiting to spring into startling action. Timely as it was terrifying, the maze also managed to scare the It into people via the simple placement of a singular red balloon.

When respite from the terrors became necessary, there was an entertaining outdoor stage show conducted by illusionist Ryan Dutcher. The gift shops teemed with stunning (if steeply priced) decorations. And the titular treats of the Deadly Donuts cafe were truly to die for.

All in all, the event made for a memorable autumn evening. For anyone residing within a few hours’ drive of the Historic Hudson Valley, I highly recommended heading out to the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses.

Countdown: Ray Bradbury’s Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories

In 2011, as part of the celebration of Ray Bradbury Month on my old blog Macabre Republic, I counted down his ten best works of carnivalesque and autumnal short fiction (not every story gathered in the collections Dark Carnival and The October Country qualified, and some selections came from other Bradbury volumes). As another October unfolds here in 2017, I thought it would be fitting to import that countdown to this new site.

#10.”The Dead Man” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of his Most Celebrated Tales)

Without a doubt, this is Bradbury’s most subtle piece of Halloween fiction. It unfolds as an offbeat bit of American Gothic, concerning a vagabond who walks around–when he’s not stretching himself out supine in the gutter–claiming that he died by drowning during the flood that destroyed his farm. The townspeople treat “Odd Martin” as a local kook more than a metaphysical marvel (one resident, though, suggests that the reason everyone jokes about Odd is because deep down they are scared to take him seriously). It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the story that the time of year becomes clear, when a group of teens try to recruit Odd as an animated prop for their Halloween party. The scene is brief yet pivotal, because the teens’ callous, condescending attitudes leave Odd in a “strange and bitter” mood; soon thereafter he decides to get himself cleaned up and to propose marriage to Miss Weldon, the lonely manicurist who has always been kind to him.  This decision in turn facilitates the story’s twist ending: the revelation of where the newlyweds have made their home (hint: Odd didn’t deal with the town’s sole real estate broker when purchasing the place).

With its seamless blend of the sentimental and the macabre, “The Dead Man” is vintage Bradbury. And if Halloween represents a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurs, then the October-ending holiday is perfectly suited to themes of this pleasantly haunting tale.

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