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.